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The sound began as a muffled gurgle, rising slowly to the surface of his sleep until it finally broke through, ringing shrilly, jarring him awake.
Dr. Martin Hunt sat upright on the bed, the covers of which he had not pulled back, opened his eyes wide, blinked a few times, then reached around and picked up the phone.
"Hunt," he said. He swung his legs over the side of the bed as he listened, scratching his reddish-brown beard with his free hand. "Okay, be right there." He hung up the phone, stood, grabbed his white coat, which he'd tossed onto the foot of the bed earlier, and slipped it on over the wrinkled, comfortable surgical greens he always wore while on duty. He grabbed his cigarettes from the nightstand, lit one, then slipped them into his coat pocket as he glanced at his reflection in the full-length mirror by the door. His eyes twinkled in the dark, the tiny lines around them seeming to smile even though he didn't. He smoothed his hair and beard with one hand, then went out the door of the little yellow house that served as quarters for the ER doctor working on call. Glancing at his watch, he saw by its luminous dial that it was just a few minutes past three in the morning.
A chilling fog had settled over the valley and a soft glow rose from the lampposts in the parking lot on the other side of the hospital building. Hunt hurried down the short walkway from the house, his shoulders hunched against the cold air, then clanked down the metal staircase that led to the side door of the emergency room. As he went inside, the sudden alertness that always overcame him when he was awakened by the ringing of the telephone began to wear off. Weariness began to ache in his knees and elbows.
Julie Calahan sat at the small, semicircular desk sipping a cup of coffee; she looked up and smiled warmly at Hunt as he walked in. Along with sunsets and nice views of the ocean, Julie's smile was one of Hunt's favorite sights. It was not conventionally attractive, perhaps; it was a bit crooked, and her teeth were not the straight, perfectly shaped teeth one might expect to see in toothpaste commercials. But it was so like a pair of open arms waiting for a hug, so filled with genuine warmth, that it always made him smile, too.
"Good morning," she said.
He stepped around behind her, bent down, and kissed her gently on the neck, taking in the fresh smell of her short, honey-colored hair. "Hi," he said quietly. "What's happening?"
Julie backed her chair away from the desk a bit, its little wheels squeaking, then turned to face Hunt. "Couple guys in an accident over by Pope Creek. One who got hit by a car, and the drunk who was driving it."
"How bad?" He took one more long drag on his cigarette, then put it out in a small ashtray on the edge of the desk.
"The driver has some minor lacerations, probably a broken leg, but the other guy is worse. Broken arm, lacerations, possible head injuries."
Hunt sighed and scrubbed his face with his palms. "Is there any more of that coffee?"
"Sure," Julie replied, standing. She walked over to a little table in the corner and poured some coffee into a Styrofoam cup, then handed it to Hunt. "You look tired."
"I feel like I'm a hundred years old."
"Don't be silly. You don't look a day over forty."
"I'm thirty-eight, for Christ's sake!" He sipped his coffee.
"Forty is a very distinguished age, though."
"Not if you're thirty-eight. Where's Carl?"
"He's in back getting ready for the patient. It's been a slow night."
Pushing himself away from the desk, Hunt leaned over, kissed her on the lips, and said, "Thanks, Julie." Then he left the office and walked into the dimly lighted emergency room, where he could hear Carl preparing for the incoming patient: metallic objects clanging together and a curtain partition hissing as it was pulled back.
As he ran his fingers through his thick, dark, rust-colored hair, Hunt realized that it had been a very slow night, a pleasant rest after the previous night's horrendous three-car accident on Howell Mountain Road, quickly followed by a coronary and a little boy who had swallowed some Drano. Hunt had gotten little sleep, which was why he'd so warmly welcomed the little bit he'd been able to sneak in tonight. He wondered if the patient being brought in by the ambulance was going to be the beginning of another rush. He hoped not. He hoped this one would be easily taken care of with no complications. He was stiff and tired and didn't want to have to deal with anything out of the ordinary.
Of course, Hunt thought, we don't always get what we want, do we?
Hunt looked up to see Officer Birney crossing the emergency room toward him from the direction of the entrance. He was holding a piece of creased paper in his right hand.
"Show you something?"
"Sure." Hunt sipped his coffee.
Hooking one thumb into his pants pocket and leaning to his right a little, Birney gestured with the piece of paper as he said, "You got a guy coming in from Pope Creek. Got hit by a car."
"Name is Jeffery Collinson."
Hunt nodded, wishing the balding policeman before him would not ignore the first word of each sentence as he so often did. Hunt had worked with him before and the man's habit annoyed him.
"Found this on him." He handed the letter to Hunt.
Hunt quickly read over it, the tip of his tongue running back and forth along the lower lip. "Holy God," he sighed.
"Cops all over California have been getting letters like that for the last two and half years or so. And there's always a murder to go with each one." He shifted his weight from right to left. "This guy may be the killer of twenty-two people. Maybe more."
The emergency room was silent as Hunt stared at the letter. Then they heard the ambulance arrive outside the entrance.
Tom Conrad, slumped on the sofa in the laboratory's lounge, a Ken Follet paperback laying open on his lap, started from his light sleep at the sound of his name. The book slid down his legs and dropped to the floor. "Huh?" he blurted, sitting up. He panicked for a moment and checked his watch; he was supposed to get a patient's blood sugar at four o'clock. Seeing it was only a little after three, he relaxed. Smacking his lips, he looked over at the short, stocky man who was sweeping the floor. "Hi, Sherman. How goes it?"
"Slow, Thomas. Same as always. How's your wife and kids?"
"Just fine," Tom answered mechanically, bending over to pick up his book, then standing and stretching his arms out before him. Tom was rather tall, anyway, but when his lanky frame stood next to Sherman, he looked even taller than usual. Darker, too. He walked over to the "kitchen" (a small sink, a counter, and a few cupboards in the corner of the lounge) and took a Coke from the small green fridge. Slipping his paperback into the fat pocket of his lab coat, he snapped the Coke open and drank some, then went back to the sofa and plopped down onto it again.
"You oughta get a normal job," Sherman muttered. He kept pushing the broom ahead of him, making his fleshy jowls jiggle, as he made his way back over to the door. "'Specially with a family at home like you got."
"Oh, it's not so bad," Tom said with a soft smirk. This was the same conversation—almost word for word—that they had twice a week when Sherman swept his way through the lab. "I get paid for reading and watching TV or sleeping, and most of the patients I draw are too sleepy to complain when I miss their veins, I don't mind."
"Whatever. Now, me ... If I had two fine boys and a wife—a pregnant wife, yet—at home, I wouldn't be working no crazy hours like this. Oh, well. Not my place to tell you." He swept his way out the door. "Have a good one, Tom."
"'Bye, Sherman." Tom took another drink of Coke, then looked around him for the television control. He picked it up off the end table and turned on the television that rested on a card table a few feet away.
"You can't come in," Shirley Jones was saying on the screen. "I've taken a tranquilizer."
Tom changed the channels until he came across a giant spider crawling down a desert highway. He chuckled. It was even a slow night for TV. Yawning, he thought to himself that at least there was Mrs. Plitkin's blood sugar at four. That was something to look forward to.
They heard him before they saw him.
"Giui cahisa lusada oreri od—Second Key, the Second Key—it's gonna come—lape noanu torafe—gonna come, gonna happen!"
The ragged, frantic cries grew louder as the paramedics pulled the patient from the ambulance.
"Sounds like the guests have arrived," Hunt muttered to himself as he crossed the emergency room with long, smooth strides, sniffing once.
The gurney was pushed in by a large man wearing a yellow jumpsuit with red and white ambulance patches on the shoulders. He tossed a glance at Hunt and said, "Gonna need some help moving him. Guy's wild."
They removed the restraints and Hunt helped move the patient from the gurney to the neatly prepared bed as a second paramedic brought in the other accident victim. As Hunt helped restrain the first patient on the bed, the young man kicked and thrashed, his shouts occasionally breaking into high-pitched cackling, then low, throaty sobs.
"C'mon, c'mon," Hunt urged firmly, "stop it, now, you're only hurting yourself, fella."
Carl stepped over and tried to help soothe the young man, but without success.
Julie, in the meantime, tried to settle the other patient—a short, potbellied Mexican man in his fifties who reeked of alcohol—who was much less violent, but almost just as loud.
"I didn't meana hit him!" the man shouted. "I didn't. Miss ... really, I swear! I was—"
"Just calm down now," Julie said softly, patting the man's hand gently as she glanced over at the paramedic on the other side of the bed. "You wanna cut his clothes off while I get his vitals?" Swiping a nearby IVAC thermometer up in her hand, she said to the patient, "Can you slip this under your tongue, please?"
"Is he gonna be awright?"
"Let's not worry about him right now, okay? We'll just—are you in pain? Where do you hurt?"
"I wanna know if he's okay! Am I gonna go t' jail?"
"He's gonna be fine. Let's just work on you now, okay?"
While Julie struggled to avert the older man's attention from the other patient, Hunt leaned over the young man, Jeffery Collinson. Carl was trying to cut off his clothes—a grimy plaid shirt with one sleeve already torn off for the splint that held his broken arm rigid, dirty blue jeans with a little blood splashed on them, and heavy old hiking boots—while the paramedic tried to hold Collinson still.
His face was puffy and his head was swollen, looking as though it didn't belong on his scrawny neck. His bulging eyes floated disjointedly in his sockets and a thick, clear substance seeped around the edges. His red hair was greasy and matted; it clung together in spikes that flared from his head and added to his crazed look. He reeked of sweat and a clinging, bloody odor. His clothes, moving stiffly as Carl tried to cut them away, had obviously not been washed, or even taken off, in weeks. Perhaps months. His thin lips, chapped and cracking, pulled back often, revealing yellow teeth that had gone unbrushed far too long.
"It's gonna come, now," he hissed at Hunt. "It's gonna come and dying won't matter, won't make a difference." A laugh like sandpaper tore from his throat.
Placing his fingers on Collinson's restrained wrist for a pulse, Hunt said, "Can you move your toes, Mr. Collinson?"
"It's gonna come, now," he rasped again.
"Carl, get his vitals when you're done there."
"Julie?" Hunt called.
As if he hadn't heard her, he went on. "I want someone from respiratory therapy down here yesterday, and someone from X ray for a C-spine. I want a CBC, a chem panel with blood sugar and electrolytes run and reported stat—"
"Am I gonna go t' jail?" the other patient whined, craning his head around to look over at Collinson. "I ain't had much to drink, really, and I got a wife—"
Hunt reached up, wrapped his fingers around the hem of the beige curtain between the two beds, and pulled it across so the older man wouldn't be quite so distracted. "Quiet him down if you can. I want PSCE, comprehensive drug screen, BAL, ABG, U/A, type and cross, four units. And osmo. Stat. And Carl, two peripheral lines running lactated Ringer's, hundred and fifty cc's per hour."
"Whatta you want me to do with him?" Julie snapped, sticking her head around the edge of the curtain, sticking a stiff thumb over her shoulder.
Hunt was at the older man's side in two quick steps.
"What's your name, friend?"
Hunt took the chart from Julie and scanned her assessment of the patient's condition. "Okay, let's get a lactated Ringer's going, hundred cc's per hour, C-spine, BAL, ABG, CBC, BL, and an X ray of the affected leg."
Julie turned immediately to go to the phone in the office.
Hunt looked over at the paramedic. "Keep an eye on him. I'm gonna be busy with this guy over here." He returned to Collinson, removing his stethoscope from his coat pocket.
"It's all starting," Collinson croaked. "This ... this is just the beginning." His breath made Hunt think of something dead and bloated.
"You wanna hold still so I can take a look at you, here?" Hunt asked. "What were you doing in the road, anyway?"
Carl came over and hung the IV bottle above the bed, then prepared to inject the needle.
Hanging the scope around his neck, Hunt picked up the chart on Collinson and glanced over it. "Huh?" he asked again. "What were you doing in the road, fella?"
"I am the Dark Christ! Holder of the Second Key!" He began to jerk and writhe on the bed, pulling against the straps again, clenching his teeth and jutting his chin, making the muscles in his neck stand out like steel cables. "'O you, the great spawn of the worms of the Earth, whom the Hell fire frames in the depths of my jaw, whom I have prepared as cups for a wedding—'"
Hunt gently probed Collinson's ribs, then placed the end of the stethoscope over his heart and listened.
"'—for you are become as a building such as is not, save in the mind of all the All-Powerful manifestation of Satan! Arise! saith the first. Move, therefore—'"
Hunt jerked the stethoscope away and winced when Collinson's string of words disappeared in a sudden spasm of wracking coughs. He lifted his oversized head and his whole body convulsed with each cough. Red-black blood sprayed from his mouth, speckling his lips and stubbly chin. He suddenly dropped his head back and seemed to relax a little, his chest rising and falling with each wheezy breath. He moaned quietly and the tip of his tongue slipped out to lick his lips; it was red with blood. He turned his head and looked up into Hunt's eyes, his own bulbous brown eyes cloudy and unsteady. And he smiled. Chuckled slowly. He said, "I. Am. The Dark. Christ."
Tom wrapped his long fingers around the empty Coke can and crunched it together in his hand. In his other hand he held his book open, reading it leisurely, checking the time now and then.
The phone in the office bleeped and Tom stood, tossed his crushed can into a wastebasket, and went out to the phone, putting his book down on the desk. It was always a temptation, at such a deserted hour of the morning, to answer the phone with something like, "Ajax Umbrella Factory and Opium Den, may I help you?" But he never did.
"Laboratory, Tom speaking."
"This is Julie, Tom." Her words came through the phone rapidly, frantically.
"Hi, there." He smiled and sat back in the chair, happy to hear his friend's voice, however harried it sounded. "So how are things in ER?" He had a pretty good idea what the answer would be, judging from the voices in the background.
"Well, it was fine, five minutes ago. Now all hell's breaking loose. We've got a car accident. A couple—"
Julie stopped talking and Tom could hear Dr. Hunt's voice in the background, shouting at her, mixed with loud shrieks and coughs.
"Okay, okay," Julie said. Then she repeated the list of tests Hunt had ordered and Tom jotted them down on the pad by the phone as he listened.
"Sounds like you're having fun," Tom muttered as he wrote.
"This one guy's a wild man."
"Okay, I'll be there in just a sec, Julie. Chin up." He replaced the receiver and rubbed his palms together rapidly as he stood. He went to the back of the lab with a little spring in his step. "Whatta you know? Something to do."
Excerpted from Darklings by Ray Garton. Copyright © 1985 Ray Garton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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