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"Just what am I supposed to be looking at?" Matt Wilson asked, massaging his temples with both hands as he walked. Fairview Hospital was one of his least favorite spots on earth, even if this was just a courtesy visit. Psychiatrics wasn't his job anymore, and he was certainly glad he'd veered from that into regular police detective work, in spite of the similarities.
Hell, the silence in this one corridor alone could drive a person nuts. Although the soundproofing was necessary for the sanity of the staff, who had to contend with these security wards on a daily basis, he was pretty sure that a complete lack of sound could eventually tweak their sanity, as well.
"New case," Jenna James, the supervising doctor of the hospital, said over her shoulder. A shoulder Matt knew intimately well and wished he could be alone with for a few minutes now on her office desk, as a precursor to having the rest of her. Dr. Jenna James was not only a damn good psychiatrist, but a great lover. So good, in fact, that Matt felt aroused just looking at her.
He knew exactly how long it had been since the last time he and Jenna were together. Three months. Too long. A necessary hiatus, but odds were good she'd be upset over the fact that he hadn't called her since then. She'd be angry. Furious.
Maybe he should confide in her about his current case, the one taking up all his time. Maybe he should have called her, anyway, just to let her know how strange his caseload had become lately, and that it had been demanding his time 24/7. He might explain to her that if he wasn't personally involved in this case, he'd have been with her in a heartbeat. Daily.
Sort of the truth, if withholding pertinent information wasn't considered lying.
He closed his eyes for a second. Hell, if he couldn't get himself together for sex, he was working too damned hard.
"I think you'll like this one." Jenna, her five-foot-six frame drop-dead gorgeous and alive with energy, swung her hips provocatively as she moved off in front of him, sexy even in her white lab coat. Her long, shapely legs caught his attention from beneath the hem of the coat, silky legs he'd had his hands all over twelve weeks ago. Legs that seemed to go on for an eternity, and which now ended in a pair of black suede pumps.
He almost smiled. If he had, it would have been the first light moment in a long time, and there was no doubt in his mind that this sexy psychiatrist knew exactly what effect she had on him. No doubt whatsoever. And he probably shouldn't be thinking about these things right now, or of what he might do with that body if given another opportunity.
No, most definitely he shouldn't be thinking about that. Finding time for this visit, agreeing to come to Fairview, had been hard enough. Besides wondering what Jenna might think of him, he had some pretty strange garbage to swim through these days, and problems that boggled his mind.
Jenna hadn't looked him in the eye once since he had arrived.
"We've kept this patient isolated, as much for her own good as anything else," Jenna said in her usual low-toned register that was a toss-up for the sexiest-part-of-her contest.
"Suicidal?" Only mildly interested, Matt tried to make a showing for Jenna's sake. Maybe she would take him up on a long lunch afterward? Engage in some afternoon get-reacquainted time? As much as he hated to admit it, what he really needed was someone to talk to. Someone with a similar background and an open mind.
Maybe Jenna would forgive him.
"She might be suicidal when she realizes what's going on. If she realizes it," Jenna said, fishing out a ring of keys, choosing a particularly draconian-looking one and inserting it into the lock of an iron-banded door.
Monster ward. That's what the staff called this area of the hospital. The worst mental cases were housed behind that door, now and then, making what lay back there the modern-day medical equivalent of a medieval dungeon.
The hair on the nape of Matt's neck prickled. He wanted to rub his forehead again, but refrained. With the word monster, in conjunction with the place they were about to see, one would have expected the door to creak. It didn't. A guard on the far side stood to attention when it opened soundlessly. This guard, more casually known around the hospital as an "attendant," had been sitting on a wooden, straight-backed chair. No padding. Nothing remotely comfortable. Not even a magazine to kill the time. The guy nodded to Jenna.
Matt reluctantly slid his gaze from Jenna to the long corridor beyond. Polished white floors, white walls, white ceiling. Sanitary-looking. Antiseptic. Fluorescent lights were inset, and high up. Cameras in white casings had been placed every few feet along the ceiling line, flashing tiny red beams indicating recording in process.
The doors in the walls were also white, making them difficult to see from this angle, although Matt knew there were twenty in all, and that so much whiteness could be deceiving when it came to what might lie behind the doors. His hands were already closing into fists.
He tossed the white-uniformed guard a brief nod of acknowledgment.
Back to Jenna. "Straitjacket?" Matt asked.
"Can't get one on her." Jenna replaced the key ring in her pocket. "Can't get close enough."
She walked off again, making it impossible for Matt to see her face. Checking out the sizable stature and build of the guard as they passed him, Matt said, "He's not big enough?"
"Two of him wouldn't be big enough."
"You said 'her.' Can't get one on her. Whoever is in here is a very big girl?"
"Well, not really a girl at all, maybe."
Not really a girl?
Futilely, Matt counted the doors they were passing. They were headed toward the far end of the hallway. Pesky hairs at his nape bristled again as Jenna stopped in front of the most ominous-looking door of all, the one set a little apart from the others, ruining the symmetry of ten on each side. Matt knew what this meant. Something conceivably worse than the other worse things.
Jenna turned to face him, her hands hanging helplessly at her sides. She carried no clipboard or file folder, nothing but a dangling pair of light blue cat's-eye-shaped glasses she used for reading and had probably forgotten to leave on her desk. The blue frames matched her eyes—eyes that were trained on him seriously, studiously, at last, as if waiting for him to play catch-up.
After contemplating the door, he said tentatively, "She's really a he?"
"You want me to keep guessing out loud, or shall we move into charades?"
"She's a she, all right," Jenna said. "Or was."
"She is something else altogether at the moment."
Okay. Now Jenna had his attention. "Split personality?"
"If so, this would set a precedent."
"There are… physical changes."
"What kind of changes?"
"Everything. Everything of what she once might have been is going, if not gone already."
Frowning, not quite sure if Jenna was yanking his chain for those weeks of silence, Matt ventured, "Dare I use the word 'insane'?"
Jenna shook her auburn-haired head. Her hair was tied back into a sleek knot at the nape of her neck, usual protocol in this hospital. Long hair was dangerous in the fingers of some of the patients. Jenna had glorious hair that could cascade past her shoulders in heaven-scented waves, waves he'd let slide through his fingers quite frequently, once upon a time. Burnished strands of loose curls that had brushed over his face.
He zeroed in on Jenna's expression, found it set and somber. Her lush mouth, full-lipped and, after hours, frequently painted red, was at the moment as pale as the rest of her, and didn't offer up so much as a hint of a smile.
"When I said 'something else altogether,' I meant just that. Literally," she said.
Considering her reply, Matt decided that if Jenna wasn't joking, she might be exaggerating. He had never seen this particular room, in this particular ward, occupied. Before bailing on the job as director of this facility, he'd worked at Fairview for three straight years and could count the patients housed in the monster ward on one hand, with two fingers. Though criminally insane patients were housed here occasionally before being transferred to a more permanent facility, even a brief stay was rare. No one under his watch had been hidden away here.
Lowering his voice, deciding to test Jenna one more time, he said, "We're talking…alien? Because I've seen The X Files, and—"
Jenna's facial expression cut him off. Frustration. Slight creasing of her brow. Reevaluating quickly, Matt frowned, said, "You're not joking."
"Never been more serious in my life. I called you because your specialty was once anomalies of the psyche, and I've never seen anything like this before. Your take on it would be truly appreciated before we bring in the big guns."
"You've called the FBI?"
Jenna nodded. "I was about to, and would have, if you didn't come."
"I come whenever you call. You know that."
Jenna looked him over, probably searching for evidence of a double entendre, and sighed. "Do you want to see her?"
"Yes. Absolutely." How could he not, after the vague and intriguing hints she'd dropped so far? Jenna had no doubt seen a lot since she'd taken over his position, and yet she'd seen nothing like this before?
Again, he took stock. Jenna's mouth, a mouth he had kissed, tasted, reveled in, taken full possession of in all sorts of wicked ways, was drawn up in a tight line. Her sky-blue eyes were huge, with traces of red weaving through the whites. She'd had little sleep lately herself. Because of this?
Reaching up to shoulder height, she used her long fingers to press open a panel, fingers that just weeks ago had been wrapped around his lustful body parts, fingers that had made him writhe in delight. Matt felt a buzz of recall as she hit a small black button in the door of the cell they were facing.
Yes, cell was the better term. These were no cushy prison holes, no normal spaces.
"New thing?" he said, ignoring the sudden, inexplicable roil in his stomach as he alluded to the glass revealed in the opening.
"One-way glass," Jenna explained. "We can see in, but whoever is inside can't see out. If you want her to see us, we press another button. If you want her to hear us, there's an intercom. I suggest, though, that we keep the noise to a minimum. I'd like you to observe her first, if that's okay?"
He stepped in front of the door, in front of the nonbreak-able, nonpenetrable glass, and swallowed hard. Looking in, he blinked a few times in rapid succession, then actually felt his face drain of color. His hands went up and against the door with an audible thud.
Jenna James watched Matt's face closely, not bothering to peer over his shoulder at the thing in the room beyond. She had observed this room's activity until her heart just couldn't stand any more pain.
It had been a full twenty-four hours since the patient had been brought in by anonymous drop-off. Six hours since she'd called Matt, knowing he would come, and that what resided in this room was, in a way, bait. The dangling carrot necessary to see Matt again, face-to-face.
Now, she felt a pang of guilt. His face had lost expression.
He seemed to have stopped breathing. Was it because he hated this place, or because of what he was seeing inside that room?
Since Matt had left Fairview, she had never spoken to him of her work. Besides, when they'd been together, talking had always been kept to a minimum. More physical activities had precluded chitchat. Activities that usually included a king-size mattress. It was a fact that they were never able to keep their hands off each other, that their attraction was almost surreal in intensity. It was also a fact, she had realized lately, that anything other than small talk could have made for a charged situation, producing fear on both sides.
For me, the fear that Matt might close up tight and that I'd lose him in the end.
For him, fear of what? Commitment? Confiding? Being too close to the job he'd despised?
Losing him altogether was not an option she cared to contemplate. She had been in love with Matt Wilson since their first meeting, on her first day on the job at Fairview. She had instantly been drawn to everything about him: his rugged looks, dark, shaggy hair and perpetual five-o'clock shadow; his rangy, six-foot-two body; the way his green eyes, so light in his tanned face, seemed to see everything, take in everything.
The way those eyes of his had searched her up and down, as though they found nothing about her lacking.
For a long time, Matt had been absorbed in his work at Fairview. These days he was absorbed elsewhere, mainly with the Miami Police Department, where his medical accolades had been tossed in a drawer. She had been supportive of their time apart for a while, even made excuses for him. But lately her gut instinct told her that he was hiding something important from her, hence the distance, the quiet.
Matt had gone from an immeasurably hot pursuer to unreachable, overnight. From lover to…nothing, without so much as a glimpse of the old Matt's soul, something so necessary in a true connection.
Was it clichéd to believe that talking would serve the major purpose of setting things to rights?
Had it been wrong of her to invite him here? She could hardly breathe around him.
Had it been wrong to keep what was in this cell?
Matt's hands kept him supported now. His knuckles, on either side of the glass, had gone white. She should say something, but couldn't. Touch him? Every nerve in her body warned her not to.
Hating the awkwardness, Jenna waited a few moments more before looking into the cell.
Damn! Matt stared at the thing pinging around in there, and felt his own body react with a ripple of pure terror.
The thing inside of this padded cell was a woman, all right.
It was hard to get a good look. She was thrashing uncontrollably. Hitting the walls. Ramming herself right and left, on her feet and then on her knees when she'd fall. She rolled, lunged, tore at herself with her hands—hands that weren't really hands anymore, that were more like an animal's paws that had been bound tight with surgical tape.
Her body was grotesquely out of proportion, as though she'd been stretched by some evil demon. She was naked, sort of. In actuality, her body appeared to be producing its own furry covering, though the process hadn't been completed…yet. The thing in the cell was raw, and nearly completely mad. She was half bare skin, half fur. Half human, half animal.