The Barrens and Othersby F. Paul Wilson
The Barrens and Others is the first new collection of fiction in years by bestselling author F. Paul Wilson. From The Keep, nearly twenty years ago, to this year's Legacies, Wilson has been one of the most dependable names for fine storytelling in whatever genre he chooses.
In The Barren and Others, Wilson lets his fertile imagination run/i>/i>/i>… See more details below
The Barrens and Others is the first new collection of fiction in years by bestselling author F. Paul Wilson. From The Keep, nearly twenty years ago, to this year's Legacies, Wilson has been one of the most dependable names for fine storytelling in whatever genre he chooses.
In The Barren and Others, Wilson lets his fertile imagination run wild, traveling from the Old West of Doc Holliday to the Pine Barrens of present-day New jersey and encountering many strange, suspect, and supernatural happenings along the way. From urban mercenary Repairman Jack, hero of Wilson's recent novel, Legacies, to the obese and food-obsessed Topsy, Wilson's wild array of characters get caught up in adventures both fascinating and horrifying.
A first -rate collection of first-rate tales, ranging from Lovecraftian to Western supernatural, with many mysterious combination in between, The Barrens and Others will be a treasure for Wilson's established fans and to those discovering Wilson for the first time.
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- 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.85(d)
Read an Excerpt
"Five million dollars, Mr. Weinstein? Five million? Where did you come up with such an outrageous figure?"
Howard Weinstein studied his prey across the table in his office conference room. Until today, Dr. Walter Johnson had been little more than a name on a subpoena and interrogatories. His C. V. put his age at fifty-one but he looked a tired old sixty as he sat next to the natty attorney the insurance company had assigned him. His face was lined, haggard, and pale, his movements slow, his voice soft, weak, his shoulders slumped inside a gray suit that looked too big for him. Maybe the strain of the malpractice suit was getting to him. Good. That might spur him to push his insurance company for an early settlement.
"Five million?" Dr. Johnson repeated.
Howard hesitated. I'm the one who's supposed to be asking the questions, he thought. This is my show. But he had asked his last question and so the deposition was essentially over. He wanted to say, It's my favorite number, but this was a legal proceeding and Lydia's fingers were poised over her steno machine's keyboard, awaiting his reply. So he looked Dr. Walter Johnson straight in his watery blue eyes and said, "That's the compensation my client deserves for the permanent injuries he suffered at your hands due to your gross negligence. He will suffer lifelong impairment--"
"I saved his life!"
"That is hardly clear, Dr. Johnson. It's up to a jury to decide."
"When you sue me within my coverage," Dr. Johnson said, staring at his folded hands where they rested on the table before him, "I can say to myself, 'He's doing business.' But five million dollars? My malpractice coverage doesn't go that high. That will ruin me. That will take everything I own--my house, all the investments I've made over the years, all the money I've put away for my children and future grandchildren--and still leave me millions in debt. You're not just threatening me, you're threatening my family." He looked up at Howard. "Do you have a family, Mr. Weinstein?"
"Is that a threat, Dr. Johnson?" Howard knew the doctor was making no threat, but he reacted instinctively to keep the defendant off balance. He had no children and had divorced his wife three years ago. And anyway, he wouldn't have cared if the doc had been threatening her.
"Oh, no. I was simply wondering if you might have any conception of what this sort of threat does to someone and to his family. My home life is a shambles. I've had constant stomachaches for months, I'm losing weight, my daughters are worried about me, my wife is a wreck. Do you have any idea what kind of misery you cause?"
"I am more concerned with the misery you caused my client, Dr. Johnson."
The doctor looked him square in the eyes. Howard felt as if the older man's gaze were penetrating to the back of his skull.
"I don't think you feel anything for anyone, Mr. Weinstein. You need a real lesson in empathy. Do you even know what empathy is?"
"I have empathy for my clients, Dr. Johnson."
"I sincerely doubt that. I think the only empathy you know is for your bank account."
"Okay, that's it," Howard said, nodding to Lydia at the steno machine as he closed his case folder and rose from his seat. He had let this go on too long already. "The deposition's over. Thank you for your cooperation, Dr. Johnson. We'll see you in court."
He ushered out the defendant and his attorney, then stepped over to where Lydia was packing up her gear. "Let me see the end of that tape," he said.
Ignoring her mild protest, he opened the tape compartment and pulled out the long strip of steno paper. As he scanned through it, looking for where Dr. Johnson had begun running off at the mouth, Lydia said:
"You're really not going to ruin him, are you? You're really not going to take everything he owns?" She was thin, dark-haired, attractive in a brittle sort of way.
Howard laughed. "Nah! Too much trouble. It's S.O.P.: Ask for an exorbitant amount, then settle for somewhere near the limit of his coverage. Taking all his assets--which I could probably get if we go to court--and going through a long liquidation process would be a big hassle. Best thing to do is get that big check from the insurance company, take my forty percent, then move on to the next pigeon."
"Is that all he is? A pigeon?"
"Waiting to be plucked."
He knew there was something wrong with the metaphor there, but he didn't bother to figure out what. He had found the spot he had been searching for on the tape. He marked it with a pen.
"Stop the transcription here."
"It's where the doc made his closing sob story about threatening his family and--"
"--your empathy for your bank account?" She smiled up at him.
"Yeah. I don't want that part in the deposition."
Her smile took a mischievous twist. "I sort of liked that part."
"I can't do that."
"Sure you can, Sis."
Her smile was gone now. "I won't. It's illegal."
In a sudden surge of anger, Howard ripped the offending section from the tape and tore it into tiny pieces. He never would have dared this with any other licensed court stenographer, but Lydia was his sister, and big brothers could take certain liberties with little sisters. Which was the main reason he used her. Her name had been Chambers since her wedding four years ago, so no one was the wiser.
He tossed the remains in the air and they fluttered to the floor in a confetti flurry.
Lydia's lips trembled. "I hate you! You're just like Dad!"
"Don't say that!"
"It's true! You're just a 'Daddy Shoog' with a law degree!"
"Shut up!" Howard quickly closed the door to the outer office. "I told you never to mention him around here!"
He prayed none of the secretaries had heard. One of them might get to thinking and might make the connection. She might find out that Lenny Winter, the fifties d-j known as "Daddy Shoog," was really Leonard Weinstein, Howard's father. And then it wouldn't be long before it was all over Manhattan: Howard Weinstein was the son of that fat balding guy doing the twist and shilling his "One Mo' Once Golden Oldies" albums like Ginsu knives ("But wait! There's more!") on late night TV commercials.
God! He'd never be able to maintain credibility at another deposition, let alone conduct a court case.
He had made every effort to avoid even a faint resemblance to his father: He'd grown a thick, black mustache, he took care of his hair, combing in a style his father had never used when he had a full head of it, and he kept his body trim and hard. No one would ever guess he was the son of Daddy Shoog.
Had to hand it to the old jerk, though. He was really cleaning up on those doo-wop retreads, especially since he was forgoing the inconvenience of paying royalties to the original artists.
"Too bad you inherited Dad's ethics instead of his personality. The only reason I come around is because I'm family. You've got no friends. Your wife dumped you, you've--"
"Your marriage didn't last too long either, Miss Holier Than Thou."
"True, but I'm the one who ended it, not Hal. You got dumped."
"Elise didn't dump me! I dumped her!"
And did a damn fine job of it, too. Left her without a pot to pee in. God, had he been glad to be rid of her! Three endless years of her nagging, "You're never home! I feel like a widow!" Blah-blah-blah. He'd taught her the folly of suing a lawyer for divorce.
"So what have you got, Howie? You've got your big law practice and that's it!"
"And that's plenty!" She pulled this shit on him every time they argued. Really liked to twist the knife. "I'm just thirty-two and already I'm a legend in this town! A fucking legend!"
"And what are you doing after lunch, Mr. Legend? Going down to St. Vincent's to scrape up another client?"
"Hey! My clients are shitbums. You think I don't know that? I know it. Damn, do I know it! But they've been injured and they've got a legal right to maximum recovery under the law! It's my duty--"
"Save it for the jury or the newspapers, Howie," Lydia said. Her voice sounded tired, disgusted. She picked up her steno gear and headed for the door. "You and Dad--you make me ashamed."
And then she was gone.
Howard left the files on the desk and went into his private office. He ran a hand through his thick dark hair as he gazed out at Manhattan's midtown spires. What was wrong with Lydia? Didn't she understand? The malpractice field was a gold mine. There were million-dollar clients out there who hadn't the vaguest inkling what they were worth. And if he didn't find them, somebody else would.
He'd come a long way. Started out in general practice, then sniffed the possibilities in liability law. Advertising on TV had brought him a horde of new clients, but all of them combined hadn't equaled the take from his first medical malpractice settlement. He had known then that malpractice was the only way to go.
Especially when you had a method.
It was simple, really. All it took was a few well-compensated contacts in the city's hospitals to let him know when a certain type of patient was being discharged. One of Howard's assistants--Howard used to go himself but he was above that now--would arrange to be there when the potential client left the hospital. He'd take him to lunch and subtly make his pitch.
You couldn't be too subtle, though. The prospective client was usually a neurosurgical patient, preferably an indigent sleazo who had shown up in the hospital emergency room with his head bashed in from a mugging or a fight over a bottle or a fix, or who'd fallen down a stairway or stumbled in front of a car during a stupor. Didn't matter what the cause as long as he'd wound up in the ER in bad enough shape for the neurosurgeon on call to be dragged in to put his skull and its contents back in order again.
"But you're not right since the surgery, are you?"
That was the magic question. The answer was almost invariably negative. Of course, the prospect hadn't been "right" before the surgery, either, but that was hard to prove. Nigh on impossible to prove. And even if the potential said he felt pretty good, he usually could find some major complaint when pressed, especially after it was explained to him that a permanent postsurgical deficit could be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of seven figures to him if things went his way.
Yeah, they were druggies and winos and all-purpose sleazos and it was an ordeal to be in conference with one of them for more than just a few minutes, but they were Howard's ticket to the Good Life. They were the perfect malpractice clients. He loved to stick them in front of a jury. Their shambling gaits, vacant stares, and disordered thought patterns wrung the hearts of even the most objective jurors. And since they were transients with no steady jobs, friends, or acquaintances, the defense could never prove convincingly that they had been just as shambling, vacant, and disordered before the surgery.
In most cases, the malpractice insurer took one look at the client and reached for his checkbook: It was settlement time.
Yeah, life was sweet when you knew the bushes with the best berries.
Lydia was still fuming when she reached the garage downstairs. She handed in her ticket and found herself waiting next to Dr. Johnson. He nodded to her.
"Can't they find your car?" she said for lack of something better.
He shrugged. "Seems that way. Goes with the rest of the day, I guess." He looked tired, haggard, defeated. He smiled suddenly, obviously forcing it. "How'd I do up there?"
Lydia sensed his desperate need for some hope, some encouragement.
"You did very well, I thought. Especially at the end." She couldn't bring herself to tell him that his final remarks were shredded on the floor of the conference room.
"Do you think I have a snowball's chance in hell of coming out of this with the shirt on my back?"
Lydia couldn't help it. She had to say something to ease this poor man's mind. She put her hand on his arm.
"I see lots of these cases. I'm sure they'll settle within your coverage limits."
He turned to her. "Settle? I'm not going to settle anything!"
His intensity surprised her. "Why not?"
"Because if I agree to settle, it's as much as an admission that I've done something wrong! And I haven't!"
"But you never know what a jury will do, Dr. Johnson."
"So I've been told, over and over and over by the insurance company. 'Settle--settle--settle!' They're scared to death of juries. Better to pay off the bloodsucking lawyer and his client than risk the decision of a jury. Sure! Fine for them! They're only thinking about the bottom line. But I did everything right in this case! I released his subdural hematoma and tied off the leaking artery inside his skull. That man would have died without me! And now he's suing me!"
"I'm sorry," Lydia said. It sounded lame to her but it was all she could say. She felt somehow partly responsible for Dr. Johnson's misery. After all, Howie was her brother.
"Maybe I should have done what a lot of my fellow neurosurgeons do: Refuse to take emergency room calls. That way you don't leave yourself open to the shyster sharks prowling around for a quick fortune. Maybe I should have gone into general practice with my brother back in our hometown. A foggy little place on the coast…"
He rubbed a hand across his eyes. "Looks pretty hopeless, doesn't it. If I go to court, I could lose everything I've worked for during my entire career, and jeopardize my family's whole way of life. If I settle, I'm admitting I'm wrong when I know I'm right." His jaw tightened. "It's that damned greedy bastard lawyer."
Although Lydia knew the doctor was right, the words still stung. Howard might be a lot of things, but he was still her brother.
"Things have got to change," Dr. Johnson said. "This kind of abuse is getting way out of hand. There's got to be a change in the laws to control these…these Hell's Angels in three-piece suits!"
"Don't hold your breath waiting for tort reform," Lydia said. "Ninety-nine percent of state legislators are lawyers, and they're all members of law firms that do a thriving business on liability claims. You don't really think they're going to take some of the bread and butter off their own tables, do you? Talk about conflict of interest!"
Dr. Johnson's expression became bleaker. "Then there's no hope of relief from the Howard Weinsteins of the world, is there? No way to give him a lesson in empathy, in knowing what kind of pain he causes in other people."
Dr. Johnson's car pulled up then, a maroon Jaguar XJ.
"I don't know how to teach him that lesson," he said. "My brother might, but I certainly don't." He sighed heavily. "I honestly don't know what I'm going to do."
"Keep fighting," Lydia told him as she watched him walk around the car and tip the attendant.
He looked at her over the hood of the Jaguar. There was a distant, resigned look in his eyes that made her afraid for him.
"Easy for you to say," he said, then got in and drove off.
Lydia stood there in the garage and watched him go, knowing in some intangible way that she would never see Dr. Walter Johnson again.
"He's dead! God, Howie, he's dead!"
Howard looked up at Lydia's pale, strained features as she leaned over his desk. He thought, Oh, no! It's Dad! It'll be in the papers! Everyone will know!
"Who?" he managed to say.
"Dr. Johnson! The guy you deposed last week in the malpractice case! He killed himself!"
Relief flooded through him. "He killed himself? Did he think that would let him off the hook! The jerk! We'll just take his estate to court!"
"Howard! He was depressed over this suit. You drove him over the edge!"
"I did nothing of the sort! What did he do? Shoot himself?"
Lydia's face got whiter. "No. He…he chopped his hand off. He bled to death."
Howard's mind suddenly went into high gear.
"Wait a minute. Wait. A. Minute! This is great! Great! It shows tremendous guilt over his negligence! He cut off the appendage that damaged his patient! No, wait! Wait! The act of suicide, especially in such a bizarre manner, points to a deranged mind. This means I can bring the hospital executive committee into the suit for allowing an obviously impaired physician to remain on the staff of their hospital. Maybe include the hospital's entire department of surgery, too! Oh, this is big! Big! Thank you, Lydia! You've just made my day! My year!"
She stood there with her mouth hanging open, looking stupid. "I don't believe you."
"What? What don't you believe? What?" What the hell was wrong with her, anyway?
"Isn't there a limit, Howard? Isn't there a place where you see a line and say to yourself, 'I can't cross over here. I'll cause too much pain on the other side.'"
He smiled at her. "Of course there is, Sis. And as soon as I find it, I'll let you know."
She didn't smile at the joke. Her face was hard, her eyes icy. "I think Dr. Johnson asked a good question last week. Do you have feelings, Howie? Do you ever feel anything for anybody but yourself?"
"Get off the soapbox, Sis."
"Gladly," she said. "Off the soapbox and out of your slimy presence." She turned toward the door, then back again. "Oh, by the way, I think you should know about Dr. Johnson's hand. You know, the one he cut off? They can't find it."
Howard fluttered his hands in the air. "Oooh! I'm scared! Maybe it will come crawling after me in my sleep tonight!"
She spun and slammed out the door. Howard immediately got on the intercom to his receptionist. "Chrissie? Get hold of Brian Jassie down at the coroner's office."
Missing hand? That sounded awful weird. He wanted the straight dope on it. And Brian Jassie could get it for him.
Brian had all the details by four P.M.
"This is what we got so far," he told Howard over the phone. "It's a strange one, I tell you."
"Just tell me what happened, Brian."
"Okay. Here's how they think it went down. About ten o'clock last night, at his Fifth Avenue office, this Dr. Johnson ties a tight tourniquet just above his right wrist with neat little pads to put extra pressure over the main arteries, and whacks off his hand. Records show he was a southpaw. There's evidence that he used local anesthesia. Well, he must have, right? I mean, sawing through your own wrist--"
"Okay, okay. After the hand is off, there seems to be an interval of about half an hour during which we have no idea what he does, maybe some ritual or something, then he sits down, lowers his stump into a bucket, and loosens the tourniquet. Exsanguinates in a couple of minutes. Very neat, very considerate. No mess for anybody to clean up."
A real nut case, Howard thought. "Why do you say he was involved in some ritual?"
"Just a guess. There were candles all around the room and the histology department says the hand was off for around thirty minutes before he died."
"Then you have the hand."
"Uh, no, we don't."
Howard felt a little knot form in his stomach. "You're kidding."
"'Fraid not. The forensic team looked everywhere in the office and around the building. No hand."
So Lydia hadn't been pulling his chain. The hand really was missing. Well, that would only reinforce his contention that Dr. Johnson was mentally unbalanced and shouldn't have been allowed to practice. Yes, he would definitely bring the hospital executive committee into the suit.
Still, he wondered about that missing hand. He sat there smoothing his mustache and wondering where it could be.
The package arrived the next day.
Chrissie brought it to his desk unopened. It had come by Federal Express and was marked "Personal And Confidential." Howard had her stand by as he opened it, figuring it would have to be shoved into somebody's file--most of the "Personal And Confidential" mail he received was anything but.
Chrissie began to scream when the hand fell out onto his desk. She kept on screaming all the way down the hall to the reception area. Howard stared at the hand. It lay palm up on his desk blotter, a deathly, bled-out white except at the ragged, beefy red wrist stump. The skin was moist, glistening in the fluorescent glare. He could see the creases that ran along the palm and across the finger joints, could even see fingerprint whorls. A faintly sour smell rose from it.
This had to be a joke, Lydia's way of trying to shake him up. Well, it wasn't going to work. This thing had to be a fake. He'd seen those amazingly lifelike platters of sushi and bowls of sukiyaki in the windows of Japanese restaurants. What was it they called the stuff? Mihon. That was it. This was the same thing: expertly sculpted and colored plastic. A gruesome piece of anatomical mihon.
Howard touched it with his index finger and felt a faint pins-and-needles sensation run up his arm and all over his skin. It lasted about the time between eye blinks and then it was gone. But by then he had realized from the texture of the skin and the give of the flesh underneath that this wasn't mihon. This was the real thing!
He leaped out of his chair and stood there trembling, repeatedly wiping his finger on his suit coat as he shouted to Chrissie to call the police.
Howard was late getting out of the office that day. The endless questions from the detectives and the forensic people had put him far behind schedule. Then, to top everything off, his last call of the day had been from Brian at the coroner's office. According to Brian, the forensic experts downtown said that the hand had definitely belonged to the late great Dr. Walter Johnson.
So now he was shook up, grossed out, and just plain tired. Irritable, too. He snapped at the Rican garage attendant--Jose or Gomez or whatever the hell his name was--to move his ass and get the car up front pronto.
His red Porsche 914 squealed down the ramp and screeched to a halt in front of him. As he passed the attendant and handed him a fifty-cent tip--half the usual--he could almost feel the man's animosity toward him.
No, wait…it was more than almost. It was as if he were actually experiencing the car jockey's anger and envy. It wormed into his system and for a moment Howard too was angry and envious. But at whom? Himself?
And just as suddenly as it came it was gone. He was once again just tired, irritable, and anxious to get himself out to the Island and home where he could have himself a stiff drink and relax.
Traffic wasn't bad. That was one advantage of leaving late. He cruised the LIE to Glen Cove Road, then headed south. He stopped at the Mac-Donald's drive-thru just this side of the sign that declared the southern limit of "The Incorporated Village of Monroe." He ordered up a Big Mac and fries. As he handed his money to the pimple-faced redheaded girl in the window, a wave of euphoria rolled over him. He felt slightly giddy. He looked up at the girl in her blue uniform and noticed her fixed grin and glazed eyes.
She's stoned! he thought. And damned if I don't feel stoned, too!
He took his bagged order from her and gunned away. The feeling faded almost immediately. But not his puzzlement. First the lot attendant and now the kid at Mickey D's. What was going on here?
He pulled into his spot in the Soundview Condominiums lot and entered his town house. It was a three-storied job with a good view of Monroe Harbor. He'd done some legal work on the land sale and so had been able to get in on a preconstruction purchase. The price: one hundred and sixty-nine large. They were going for twice that now.
Yeah, if you knew the right people and had the wherewithal to take advantage of situations when they presented themselves, your net worth could only go one way: Up.
Howard pulled a Bud from the fridge and opened up the Styrofoam Big Mac container. As he ate, he stared out over the still waters of the Long Island Sound at the lights along the Connecticut shore on the far side. Much as he tried not to, he couldn't help thinking about that severed hand in the mail today. Which led his thoughts around to Dr. Johnson. What was it he had said about empathy last week?
I don't think you feel anything for anyone, Mr. Weinstein. You need a real lesson in empathy.
Something like that. And then a week later he had sat down in his office and cut off his hand, and then had somehow got it into a Federal Express overnight envelope and sent it to Howard. Personal And Confidential. And then he had let himself die.
…a lesson in empathy…
Then the hand had arrived and Howard had touched it, felt that tingle, and now he seemed to be able to sense what others were feeling.
Yeah, right. And any moment now, he'd heard Rod Serling's voice fill the room.
He finished the beer and went for another.
But let's not be too quick to laugh everything off, he told himself as he nibbled on some fries. Law school had taught him how to organize his thoughts and present cogent arguments. So far, there was a good case for his being the victim of some sort of curse. That would have been laughable yesterday, but this morning there had been a real live--no, strike that, make that dead--a dead human hand lying on his desk. A hand that had once belonged to a defendant in a very juicy malpractice case. A man who had said that Howard Weinstein needed a lesson in how other people felt.
And now Howard Weinstein had encountered two instances in which he had experienced another person's feelings.
Or thought he had.
That was the question. Had Dr. Johnson done a number on Howard's head? Had he planted some sort of suggestion in his subconscious and then reinforced it by sending him a severed hand?
Or was this the real thing? A dead man's curse?
Howard decided to take a scientific approach. The only way to prove a hypothesis was to test it in the field. He tossed off the second beer. Time to hit the town.
As he gathered up the MacDonald's debris, he noticed a dull ache all along his right arm. He rubbed it but that didn't help. He wondered how he could have strained it. Maybe it was a result of jerking away after touching that hand this morning. No, he didn't remember any pain then. He shrugged it off, pulled on a sweater, and stepped out into the spring night.
The air was cool and tangy with salt from the Sound. Too beautiful a night to squeeze back into the Porsche, so he decided to walk the few blocks west down to the waterfront nightspots. He had only gone a few steps when he noticed that the ache in his arm was gone.
Canterbury's was the first place he came to along the newly renovated waterfront. He stopped in here occasionally with some of his local clients. Not a bad place for lunch, but after five it turned into a meat market. If AIDS had put a damper on the swinging singles scene, you couldn't tell it here. The space around Canterbury's oval bar was smoky, noisy, and packed with yuppie types.
Howard squeezed up to the bar and suddenly felt his knees get rubbery. He leaned against the mahogany edge and glanced at the fellow rubbing elbows with him to his right. He was downing a straight shot of something and chasing it with a few generous chugs of draft beer. There were four other shot glasses on the bar in front of him, all empty.
Howard lurched away toward the booths at the rear of the room and felt better immediately.
God, it's happening! It's true.
As he moved through the crowd, he was assaulted with a complex mixture of lust, boredom, fatigue, and inebriation. It was a relief to reach the relative sanctuary of the last booth in the rear. The emotions and feelings of the room became background noise, a sensory Muzak.
But they were still there. On the way from the city it had seemed he needed physical contact--from the garage attendant, the girl at Mickey D's--to get the sensory input. Now the feeling seemed to waft through the air.
Howard shut his eyes and rubbed his hands over his temples. This couldn't be happening, couldn't be real. This was the stuff of Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and Tales from the Darkside. This sort of thing did not happen to Howard Weinstein in little old Monroe, Long Island.
But he could not deny his own experience. He had felt drunk before noticing that the guy next to him was doing boilermakers.
Or had he?
Maybe he had unconsciously noticed the guy with the ball and the beer as he stepped up to the bar and his mind had done the rest.
It was all so confusing. How could he know for sure?
"Can I get you something, Mr. Weinstein?"
Howard looked up. A well-stacked blonde stood over him with a tray under her arm and her order pad ready. She was thirtyish with too much make-up and too-blond hair, but on the whole not someone he'd kick out of bed. She was dressed in the standard Canterbury cocktail waitress uniform of short skirt, black stockings, and low cut Elizabethan barmaid blouse, and she was smiling.
"How do you know my name?"
"Why shouldn't I? You're one of the more important men in Monroe, aren't you?"
She was interested in him. Howard couldn't read her thoughts, but he sensed her excited response to his presence. She was probably attracted to money and power, and apparently he represented a modicum of both to her. There was a trace of sexual arousal and an undercurrent of anxiety as well.
Anxiety over what? That he'd give her the cold shoulder? He tried to see if he could affect that.
"Nice to be recognized," he said, "especially by such an attractive woman"…he craned his neck to see the name tag centered on her cleavage…"Molly."
The anxiety all but vanished and the sexual arousal rose two notches.
He ordered a Chivas and soda. He was ready for her when she returned with the drink.
"Looks like you'll be working late tonight, huh?"
He could feel her excitement swell. "Not necessarily. It's still the off-season so it's not really crazy yet. When the tables are kinda slow like tonight I can usually get off early if I ask."
"Why don't you ask. I've got no plans for the evening. Maybe we could think of something to do together."
Her sexual arousal zoomed.
"Sounds good to me," she said with a smile and a wink.
Howard leaned back and sipped his scotch as he watched the gentle sway of her retreating butt.
So easy! Like having all the answers to a test before you sat down to take it.
This was a curse?
What a night!
Howard walked along the waterfront through the morning mist. He was still a little weak-kneed. He'd had loads of women over the years, plenty of one-night stands, even an all-nighter with a couple of pros. But never, never anything like what he had experienced last night.
As soon as they got to Molly's apartment and begun the foreplay, he had found himself tapped into her feelings. He could sense her excitement, her pleasure--he was more than just aware of it, he was actually experiencing it himself. He could tell when he was going too fast or not fast enough. He found he could toy with her, tantalize her, bring her to peaks but keep her from going over the top. Finally he brought her to an Everest and leaped off with her. Her climax fused into his and the results were shattering. She was left gasping but he was utterly speechless.
And that had only been the first time.
Molly had finally fallen asleep telling him he was the greatest lover in the world, really meaning it. Howard had drifted off with her, thinking it wouldn't be bad if that message got around to all the attractive single women in town. Not bad at all.
He had awakened early and Molly had wanted him to stay but he had begged off. He was catching a new emotion from her: She was starting to get lovey-dovey feelings for him--or at least thought she was. And why not? Decent looks, money, power, and a great lover to boot.
What's not to love?
Those feelings tripped off sirens and red lights for Howard. Uh-uh. No love. Just good times and fun and stay loose. Love meant trouble. Women started thinking of marriage then.
He felt her hurt and disappointment as he left, trailing vague promises of getting together again real soon. But he couldn't go home just yet. He was too excited, too exhilarated. This was great! This was fantastic! The possibilities were endless. He walked on, exploring them in his mind.
A siren broke into his thoughts. He looked around and found he was in front of Monroe Community Hospital. An ambulance was racing up the road. As it neared, he felt a growing pressure in his chest. His breath clogged in his throat as the pain became a great lead weight, crushing his sternum. Then, as the ambulance passed and pulled into the approach to the emergency entrance, the pain receded.
Whoever was in that ambulance was having a heart attack. Howard was sure of it. He watched as the ambulance attendants carried someone into the emergency room on a stretcher. Heart attack. No doubt about it. Just one more bit of proof on the side of this so-called curse Dr. Johnson had laid on him. And it would be so easy to confirm. Just go up to the reception desk and ask: Did the ambulance get here with my uncle yet? The man with the chest pain?
He started across the lawn toward the four-story brick structure. As he neared it however, he began to feel nauseous and weak. His head pounded, his abdomen burned, ached, cramped, and just plain hurt. Every joint, every bone in his body hurt. He began to wheeze, his vision blurred. It all got worse with each step closer to the hospital but he forced himself on until he reached the emergency entrance and opened the door.
Like a physical assault from a Mongolian horde, like a massive torrent from a sundered dam, like ground zero at Hiroshima, the mental and physical agony flooded over Howard, sending him reeling and stumbling back across the driveway to the grass where he crumbled to his knees and crawled as fast as he could away from the hospital. Anyone watching him would have assumed he was drunk but he didn't care. He had to get away from that building.
He felt almost himself again by the time he reached the sidewalk. He sat on the curb, weak and nauseous, swearing he would never go near another hospital again.
It seemed there were drawbacks to this little power of his after all. But nothing he couldn't handle, nothing he couldn't overcome. The advantages were too enormous!
He had to talk this out with somebody. Brainstorm it. But with whom? Suddenly, he smiled.
Lydia lived in the garden apartments on the downtown fringe, a short walk from here.
Howard had looked like he was on drugs when Lydia opened the door to her apartment. She had been in the middle of a nice little dream of being married with two kids and no money problems when the pounding on the door had awakened her. Her brother's face had loomed large in the fish-eye peephole so she had opened up and let him in.
That proved to be a mistake. Howie was absolutely manic. While she made coffee he stalked around her tiny kitchen waving his arms and talking a mile a minute. Watching him, she thought he might be on speed; listening to him, she thought he might be on acid.
But Howie didn't do drugs.
Which meant he had gone crazy.
"Do you see what this means, Sis? Do you see! The possibilities are end-less! Can you imagine what this will let me do at a deposition? If my questions are getting into a sensitive area, I'll know! I'll sense the defendant's fear, his anxiety, and I'll keep hitting those sore spots, pushing those secret buttons until he comes across with what I want. And even if he doesn't, I'll know where to look for the dirt. Same's true with cross-examinations in the courtroom. I'll know when I've hit a nerve. And speaking of courtrooms, I thought of something that's even better--even better!" He stopped and pointed a finger at her. "Juries! Jury selection!"
Lydia stirred the boiling water into the instant coffee--decaf, for sure. She didn't want to hype him up even the tiniest bit more. "Right, Howie," she said softly. "That's a good point."
"Can you imagine how I'll be able to stack the jury box? I mean, I'll know how each juror feels about the case because I'll ask them point blank. I'll say, 'Mrs. So-and-so, how do you feel about the medical profession in general?' If I get some sort of warm glow from her, she's out, no matter what she says. But if I get anger or envy or plain old spitefulness, she's in. I can pack a jury with doctor-haters on all my malpractice cases!" He giggled. "The settlements will be astronomical!"
"Whatever makes you happy, Howie," Lydia said. "Now why don't you sit down and drink your coffee and take it easy." She had heard about Dr. Johnson's hand winding up on his desk yesterday. The shock must have got to him. "You can lie down on my bed if you want to."
He was staring at her.
"You think I'm nuts, don't you?"
"No, Howie. I just think you're feeling the strain of--"
"Right now I'm feeling what you're feeling. Which is a lot of disbelief, a little anxiety, a little fatigue, and a little compassion. Very little compassion."
"You don't need a crystal ball or a voodoo-hoodoo curse to figure that one out."
"And you've got a low backache, too. Right?"
Lydia felt a chill. Her low back did hurt. Her period was due tomorrow and her back always ached the day before.
"Half the world's got backaches, Howie."
"You've got to believe me, Lydia. There's got to be a way I can--" His eyes lit. "Wait a minute. I've got an idea." He began yanking the kitchen drawers open until he got to the utensils. He pulled out a paring knife and handed it to her.
"What's this for?" she said.
"I want you to poke yourself here and there on your body with the point--"
"Howie, are you nuts?"
"Not hard enough to break the skin; just enough to cause a little pain." He took the pen from the message pad by the phone and pointed to the kitchen door. "I'll be on the other side of the door there and I'll mark the spots and number them on myself with this pen."
"This is crazy!"
"I've got to convince you, Lydia. You're the only one in this world I trust."
Damn him! It had been like this all their lives. He always knew what to say to get her to go along.
He got on the other side of the swinging door. Lydia put her back to it and poked the knife point at the center of her left palm. It hurt, but certainly nothing she couldn't bear.
"That's one," said Howie from the other side of the door.
Lydia turned her hand over and jabbed the back of her hand.
"That's two," Howie said.
Lucky guesses, Lydia told herself uneasily. For variety, she poked the point gently against her cheek.
"Very funny," Howie said, "but I'm not writing on my face."
The words so startled her that the knife slipped from her grasp. As she grabbed for it, the blade sliced into her index finger.
"Hey!" Howie said, pushing through the door. "You weren't supposed to cut yourself!"
"It was an acc--" And then she realized. "My God, you knew!" She sucked her bleeding finger. He knew!
"Of course I knew. As a matter of fact, for an instant in there I actually saw the cut on my finger. Look here. Even drew it for you. See?"
Lydia did see: A half-inch crescent was drawn in ink across the pad of Howie's right index finger, perfectly matching the bloody one on her own.
Suddenly Lydia was weak. She lowered herself into a chair. "My God, Howie, it's really true, isn't it?"
"Sure is." He stood over her, beaming. "And I'm going to milk it dry." He turned and started toward the door.
"Where are you going?"
"Back to the condo. I need some sleep, and I've got a lot of thinking to do. Don't make any plans for dinner tonight. I'm treating. Lobster and champagne at Memison's."
"Aren't we generous?"
"Make reservations for two."
And then he was gone. Lydia sat there trying to accept the fact that something that simply didn't happen in real life was happening in hers.
On the way home, Howard kept well away from the hospital. As he walked he realized that the courtroom was small potatoes, just a springboard into politics. United States Senator Howard Weinstein. He liked the sound of that. He'd know who to trust and who to boot. And after he'd built up his power base, maybe he'd go for the White House.
Hey, why the hell not?
He was tempted to stop by his father's place out on Shore Drive and see what he was up to. He hadn't heard from the old man in a couple of weeks. Might be interesting to see how Dad really felt about him. And then again, it might not.
He went straight home.
His right arm started bothering him at the front door. The ache was worse than he remembered from last night. Just to test a theory, he walked back outside again. The pain disappeared by the time he got to the parking lot. It reoccurred when he returned to the condo.
Which meant that someone nearby had a bad case of bursitis or something. So why the hell didn't the jerk do something about it?
Howard was too tired to worry about that now. He downed a couple of shots of scotch to calm his nerves and crawled under the covers. As he closed his eyes and tried to ignore the throb in his arm, he realized that he felt a little sad. Why? Or did the emotion even originate with him? Maybe somebody else nearby was unhappy or depressed about something. Was he getting more sensitive or what? This could get confusing.
He pushed it all away and wrapped himself in dreams of dazzling courtroom prowess and political glory.
The pain awoke him at four in the afternoon. The aching throb in his right arm was worse than ever. He wondered if it had anything to do with touching the hand. Maybe Dr. Johnson was getting even with him after all.
That was not a pleasant thought.
But then why would the pain stop as soon as he left the condo? He couldn't figure this out.
He phoned Lydia. "How about an early dinner, Sis?"
"As early as possible."
"I made reservations for seven-thirty."
"We'll change them."
"Is something wrong, Howie?" There was a hint of real concern in her voice.
He told her about the pain in his arm. "I've got to get out of here. That's the only time it stops."
"Okay. Meet you there at five-thirty."
That was when the peasants ate, but the pain wouldn't allow Howard to be snooty. He took a quick shower and hurried outside before his hair had dried. Blessed relief from the pain came at the far end of the parking lot.
"I'll take that one," Howard said, pointing out a big-tailed two-pounder in Memison's live lobster tank.
"Excellent choice, sir," the waiter said, then turned to Lydia. "And you, Miss?"
"I'll have the fish dinner, please."
Howard was surprised. He sensed a skittish reluctance in her. "No lobster? I thought you loved lobster!"
She was staring at the tank. "I do. But standing her and pointing out the one I'm going to eat…somehow it's not the same. Makes me feel like some sort of executioner."
Howard couldn't help laughing. "I swear to God you're from Mars, Sis. From Mars!"
When they returned to the table, Howard refilled their tall, slim champagne glasses from the bottle in the bucket. He watched a fly buzz angrily against the window that ran alongside their table. Outside at the marina, the boats rocked gently at their moorings. He savored the peace.
"You're awful quiet, Howie," Lydia said after a moment.
"Compared to this morning, you're a sphinx."
Howard didn't know what to tell her, how to say it. Maybe the best thing to do was to lay it all out. Maybe she could help him sort it out.
"I think I'm having second thoughts about this special 'empathy' I've developed," he said finally. "Maybe it really is a curse. I seem to be getting increasingly sensitive. I mean, as I walked over here I got rushes of feelings from everyone I passed. There was this little kid crying on the corner. He had lost his mom and I found myself--me--utterly terrified. I couldn't move, I was so scared. Thank God his mother found him just then or I don't know what I'd have done. And when she whacked him on the backside for running off, I felt it. It hurt! The kid was the worst, but I was picking up all sorts of conflicting emotions. It was almost a relief to get in here. Good thing we're so early and it's almost deserted."
"Why'd you have our table moved? To get away from that fat guy?"
Howard nodded. "Yeah. He must have stuffed himself from the buffet. I thought my stomach was going to burst. I couldn't enjoy my dinner feeling like that. And if he's going to have a gallbladder attack, I don't want to be near him."
The fly's buzzing continued. It was beginning to annoy him.
"Howard," Lydia said, looking at him intently. She only called him Howard when she was mad or really serious about something. "Can this really be happening?"
"Don't you think I've asked myself that a thousand times since last night? But yes, it's real, and it's happening to me."
He signaled their waiter as he passed. "Could you do something about that fly?"
The waiter returned in a moment with a fly swatter. He swung it as Howard was pouring more champagne.
Pain like Howard had never known in his life flashed through his entire body as his ears roared and his vision went stark white. It was gone in an instant, over as soon as it had begun.
"My God, Howard, what's the matter?"
Lydia was staring at him, wide-eyed and ashen-faced. He glanced around. So were the other people in the place. He felt their disapproval, their annoyance. The waiter began sopping up the champagne he had spilled when he had dropped the bottle.
"You screamed and spasmed like you were having a seizure! Howard, what's wrong with you?"
"When he swatted that fly," he said, nodding his head in the direction of the retreating waiter, "I…I think I felt it."
Her disbelief stung him. "Oh, Howard--"
"It's true, Sis. It hurt so much for that one tiny second there I thought I was going to die."
"But a fly, Howard? A fly?" She stared at him. "What's wrong?"
Suddenly he was very hot. Terribly hot. His skin felt like it was on fire. He looked down at his bare arms and watched the skin turn red, rise up in blisters, burst open. He felt as if he were being boiled alive.
His lobster! The kitchen was only a few feet away. They'd be cooking it now--dropping it live into a pot of boiling water!
Screaming with the pain, he leaped up from the table and ran for the door.
Outside…coolness. He leaned against the outer wall of Memison's, gasping and sweating, oblivious to the stares of the passers-by but too well aware of their curiosity.
"Howard, are you going crazy?" It was Lydia. She had followed him out.
"Didn't you see me? I was burning up in there!" He looked down at his arms. The skin was perfect, unblemished.
"All I saw was my brother acting like a crazy man!"
He felt her concern, her fear for him, and her embarrassment because of him.
"When they started boiling my lobster, they started boiling me! I could feel myself being boiled alive!"
"Howard, this has got to stop!"
"Damn right it does." He pushed himself off the wall and began walking down the street, back to his condo. "I've got some thinking to do. See you."
Lydia was having her first cup of coffee when Howard called the next morning.
"Can I come over, Sis?" His voice was hoarse, strained. "I've got to get out of here."
"Sure, Howie. Is it the arm again?"
"Yeah! Feels like it's being crushed!"
Crushed. That rang a bell somewhere in the back of her mind. "Come right over. I'll leave the door unlocked. If I'm not here, make yourself at home. I'll be back soon. I've got an errand to run."
She hung up, pulled on jeans and a blouse, and hurried down to the Monroe Public Library. A crushed arm…she remembered something about that, something to do with the Soundview Condos.
It took her awhile, but she finally tracked it down in a microfilm spool of the Monroe Express from two years ago last summer…
Howard looked like hell. He looked distracted. He wasn't paying attention.
"Listen to me, Howard! It happened two years ago! They were pouring the basement slab in your section of condos. As the cement truck was backing up, a construction worker slipped in some mud and the truck's rear wheels rolled right over his arm. Crushed it so bad even Columbia Presbyterian couldn't save it."
He looked at her dully. "So?"
"So don't you see? You're not just tuned in to the feelings and sensations of people and even lobsters and bugs around you. You're picking up the residuals of old pains and hurts."
"Is that why it's so noisy in here?"
"Yeah. Emotional noise. This place is crowded, I mean jammed with emotions, some faint, some strong, some up, some down, some really mean ones. So confusing."
Lydia remembered that these garden apartments had been put up shortly after the war--World War II. If Howard could actually feel forty-plus years of emotion--
"I wish they'd go away and let me sleep. I'd give anything for just a moment's peace."
Lydia went to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and found the bottle of Valium her doctor had prescribed for her when she was divorcing Harry. She shook two of the yellow tablets into her palm and gave them to Howard with a cup of water.
"Take these and go lie down on my bed. They'll help you sleep."
He did as he was told and shuffled off to the next room, moving like a zombie. Lydia's heart went out to him. She called a friend and begged her to take the steno job she had lined up for this afternoon, then settled down to watch over her big brother.
He slept fitfully through the day. Around dark she took a shower to ease her tension-knotted muscles. It helped some. Wrapped in her terrycloth robe, she returned to the kitchen and found him standing there looking worse than ever.
"I can't stand it!" he said in a voice that sounded as if it were going to break into a million jagged pieces. "It's making me crazy. It's even in my dreams! All those feelings! I'm going nuts!"
His wild eyes frightened her. "Just calm down, Howie. I'll make you something to eat and then we can--"
"I've gotta get outta here! I can't take it any longer!"
He started for the door. Lydia tried to stop him.
He pushed her aside. "Got to get out!"
By the time she threw on enough clothing to follow him, he was nowhere to be seen.
The night was alive with fear and joy and lust and pain and pleasure and love, emotionally and physically strobing Howard with heat and light. He needed relief, he needed quiet, he needed peace.
And there, up ahead, he saw it…a cool and dark place…almost empty of emotions, of feeling of any sort.
He headed for it.
She got the call the next morning.
"Are you Lydia Chambers, sister of Howard Weinstein?" said an official sounding voice.
"Would you come down to the Crosby Marina, please, ma'ma?"
"Oh, no! He's not--"
"He's okay," the voice said quickly. "Physically, at least."
Lt. Donaldson drove her out to the buoy in a Marine Police outboard. Howard sat in a rowboat tied to the bobbing red channel marker in the center of Monroe Harbor.
"Seems he stole the boat last night," said the lieutenant, who had curly blond hair and looked to be in his midthirties. "But he seems to have gone off the deep end. He won't untie from the buoy and he starts screaming and swinging an oar at anyone who comes near. He asked for you."
He cut the engine and let the outboard drift toward Howard and the rowboat.
"Tell them to leave me alone, Sis!" Howard said when they got to within a couple of dozen feet of him.
He looked wild--unshaven, his clothes smudged and wrinkled, his hair standing up at crazy angles. And in his eyes, a dangerous, cornered look.
He looks insane, she thought.
"Come ashore, Howard," she said, trying to exude friendliness and calm confidence. "Come home now."
"I can't, Sis! You can explain it to them. Make them understand. This is the only place where it's quiet, where I can find peace. Oh, I know the fish are eating and being eaten below, but it's sporadic and it's far away and I can handle that. I just can't be in town anymore!"
Lt. Donaldson whispered out of the side of his mouth. "He's been talking crazy like that since we found him out here this morning."
Lydia wondered what she could tell the lieutenant: That her brother wasn't crazy, that he was suffering from a curse? Start talking like that and they'd be measuring her for a straightjacket, too.
"You can't stay out here, Howard."
"I have to. There's a gull's nest in the buoy and the little birds were hungry this morning and it made me hungry, too. But then the mother came and fed them and now their bellies are full and they're content"…he began to sob…"and so am I and I just want to stay here near them where it's quiet and peaceful."
She heard the lieutenant growl. "All right. That does it!"
He stood up and signaled to shore. Another larger boat roared out from the marina. There were men in white jackets aboard, and they were carrying something that looked like a net.
"He'll be asleep for awhile yet, Mrs. Chambers," said Dr. Gold. "We had to inject him with a pretty stiff dose of Thorazine to quiet him down."
It had been horrifying to watch them throw a net over her own brother and haul him into the bigger boat like a giant fish, but there had been no other way. Howard would have died out on the water if they had left him there.
She had spent most of the morning signing papers and answering countless questions on Howard's medical and emotional history, family history, current stresses and strains. She had told Dr. Gold everything, including Howard's receiving the hand in the mail two days ago. God, was it only two days ago? Everything…except the part about feeling the pain and emotion of other people…and animals and even insects. She couldn't bring herself to risk trying to explain that to Dr. Gold. He might think she was sharing her brother's psychosis.
"When can he leave?" she asked.
"Not for twenty-eight days at least. That's how long he's committed. Don't worry too much. This appears to be an acute psychosis precipitated by that grisly incident with the severed hand. We'll start his psychotherapy immediately, find an appropriate medication, and do what we can to get him on his psychological feet again as soon as possible. I think he'll do just fine."
Lydia wasn't too sure of that, but all she could do was hope. At least the Monroe Neuropsychiatric Institute was brand new. It had opened only last winter. She had heard about it, but since she never came to this part of town, she hadn't seen it until now. It seemed pleasant enough. And since most of the patients here were probably sedated to some degree, their emotions wouldn't be too strong. Maybe Howard had a chance here.
Dr. Gold walked her to the door.
"In a way it's sort of ironic that your brother should wind up here."
"Why is that?"
"Well, he's one of the limited partners that developed this little hospital. All of the limited partners got a certified historic rehabilitation tax credit for investing, one of the few goodies remaining after tax overhaul."
"Rehabilitation?" A warning bell sounded in a far corner of her mind. "You mean it isn't a new building?"
"Oh, my goodness, no. We've cleaned it up to look spanking new, but in reality it's a hundred and fifty years old."
"A hundred and fifty--"
"Yes. It was abandoned for such a long time. I understand it was being used for dogfights before we took it over. Even used it as a place to train young fighting pit bulls. Trained them with kittens. A sick, sick--" He stared at her. "Are you all right?"
"Dogfights?" Oh, God, what would that do to Howard? Wouldn't the residual from something like that send him right up the wall?
"I'm sorry if I upset you."
"I'm okay," she said, steeling herself to ask the next question. "What was the building originally?"
"Originally? Why I thought everybody knew that, but I guess you're too young to remember. Up until the late 1960s it was the Monroe Slaughterhouse. One of the busiest in the--"
He stopped as the sound came down the hall--a long, hoarse, agonized scream that echoed off the freshly painted walls and tore into Lydia's soul.
Howard was awake.
Copyright © 1998 by F. Paul Wilson
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