As Lieutenant Tom O'Hara investigates several gruesome murders in a large teaching hospital a wave of terror about the escalating severity of the situation is sweeping through the nursing staff. Despite the obscene dissection of the victims' bodies there are still forensic clues which point to the killer. O'Hara has one suspect, a soldier brought back from Afghanistan in a coma, the victim of a torture he associates with the scent of roses worn by a sinister and unseen woman. The very same scent which is unfortunately worn by Dr Jean Hacker, who works at the hospital...
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Scent of Madness
By David Wiltshire
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 2012 David Wiltshire
All rights reserved.
He returned to earth at night descending at seven hundred feet per minute on a three degree glide slope, unaware in his coma-like state of the myriad sprawling lights of the city passing below.
As the Military Transport turned onto its final approach the pilot called to traffic control —
'Tower, Spectre four-seven. Finals with the gear.' The radio crackled —
'Roger Spectre four-seven. Clear land runway two-eight. Wind two seven zero at eight knots. "Follow me" awaits at first "high speed".'
He spoke over his shoulder to the loadmaster standing behind him next to the flight engineer.
'Right, get them settled down the back – especially the casovac people.'
The loadie descended the short metal steps to the cavernous hold, its dimly lit interior filled with the roar of the four jet engines.
Rows of troops were sitting together, some in the sand coloured camouflage fatigues of the desert, others in rough civilian dress, old suit jackets over dirty jeans, worn for the months they had been up-country in Afghanistan.
These were the men of the Special Forces coming home from the war on terror, back for an in-depth debrief, and keen to check for themselves that some bureaucratic foul-up had not listed them killed in action. Then, maybe a few Buds....
All except one had his mind set on getting back to the good old US of A.
He was in his own world.
A world of madness, of terrors unknown to his conscious being.
The loadmaster moved down the rows of men until he reached the medical team, glancing at the inert figure with the saline drip entering his arm. He shouted above the roar of the engines.
'We'll be touching down soon. Strap yourselves in.'
He moved on, then, satisfied everything was secure, he informed the flight deck via the intercom.
The pilot, in khaki-coloured flying suit with squadron patches, gently held one gloved hand on the throttles as he watched the boundary lights flash beneath him. Over the runway he pulled back on the stick and flared out the aircraft, setting it down with a gentle shudder on the mile-long well lit strip of concrete.
After the last few months of night landings on desert strips it was a piece of cake.
The smooth flight was interrupted by the thumping vibrations of contact with the runway as the over one hundred ton weight of the plane settled.
The aircraft easily made the first high speed turnoff.
From the shadows at the side of the well-lit runway a van appeared bearing an illuminated sign reading, 'Follow Me'.
The Transport turned off the main apron some three-quarters of a mile from the terminal and taxied to a collection of buildings.
The pilot responded to the ground-crew's baton, and braked to a halt. He set the parking brake, and signalled to the loadie to open the rear ramp and doors.
Hydraulics whined and in less than a minute the gurney with the patient attached to the drip and a monitor was brought down the ramp and wheeled towards a waiting ambulance.
An officer followed, he took the unconscious man's hand in both of his and looked down at the face, seeing again the vicious wound across one cheek that was now crudely stitched, and knowing the other injuries the man had sustained said softly 'God be with you, James.'
He straightened up, saluted the prone figure, then faced the civilian paramedics. His voice now had a decisive edge. 'Take good care of him.' With that he returned into the depths of the aircraft.
The reception crew took the brief medical notes and completed the handover.
'Why has he come to us and not to a military hospital?' asked a paramedic as he signed the formal acceptance sheet.
The airforce attendant shrugged.
'We've got another two hours flight – rough weather over the mountains. Seems your place agreed to take him. He needs to be in critical care as soon as possible.'
With the blue emergency sign flashing, but no siren, the vehicle moved off, heading towards the City's University Hospital.
Before the little convoy had reached the exit gate the plane was taxiing again, the ramp still closing whilst it was on the move.
With the loadmaster's crackled message that all was secure, the pilot requested the tower for immediate departure.
Permission was given and he acknowledged it with his call sign.
'Spectre four-seven – clear to go.'
Less than fifteen minutes after it had landed the Transport lifted off, its strobe light flashing amongst the stars until, receding, it was indistinguishable in the twinkling backdrop of the firmament.
And as it worked its way towards the hospital the repeating blue light of the ambulance was finally lost in the twinkling lights of the city.
The vehicle backed up to the ER entrance and, with a professional routine born of daily practice, they transferred the patient out of the back, pushing the trolley through the automatic doors and then quickly on down the corridor. They were met by a staff nurse, who walked alongside, frowning as she ran a practiced eye over the patient.
Puzzled, she looked down at the dreadfully scarred face with the inept suturing.
'What have we got here then?'
The senior paramedic gave her the documents. 'It's some sort of army casualty – in a coma. We were directed to the airport to meet a casovac. Control said you knew about it?'
The frown increased as she bent forward, taking a closer look at the face. 'Vital signs?'
The paramedic rattled them off.
'B.P. one thirty over eighty, breathing regular, deep, no external haemorrhages.'
The nurse shook her head – 'B.P. is too high for a normal coma.'
The paramedic nodded his agreement.
'I gather he has been in the hands of the Taliban – God knows what they did to him.'
Two more nurses joined the briskly moving group. The staff nurse pointed at a wide open door.
'In there, please.'
They entered an area that was equipped like a miniature operating room. With a combined effort the inert figure was transferred, fully supported and with the drip intact, onto the table.
'You two – remove his clothes. Cut them off. We don't know what we've got here.'
The young student nurses set about their task as Staff unpinned an army treatment card attached to the cotton shirt that had been revealed when the blanket was removed.
She gave it to the intern who had now arrived. He checked it against their notes while the paramedics waited.
The doctor turned the document over and found a name. 'Get a hospital tag on him. Apparently he's one James Larsson.' Working carefully, they cut his shirt free and began to remove it.
'Now then James – or is it Jim. What have you been up to?'
But the general air of work-a-day good humour was dispelled as the Resident in ER entered the room and stared down at the patient with the rest of them.
The man's body was lean, almost undernourished; the muscles well developed but not excessively so, more the ropey thongs of a well-trained athlete.
But it was not that which held their attention. It was what had been done to him.
The Staff nurse spoke first. 'He's been tortured.'
The Resident ordered a Catscan, and confirmed he was not presenting as a true coma. It then took several hours, with many medical disciplines involved before James Larsson, still in his unknown hell, was wheeled into Critical Care and plumbed into the paraphernalia that is modern survival medicine.
The nurses on duty regularly checked their charge and the equipment, listening with satisfaction to the electric ping of the cardiac monitor as it steadily rode through the long night hours.
Every now and again one of them would delicately raise one of his closed eyelids, and check the reaction of his pupil to a beam of light.
It twitched, but remained wide: a black shaft straight down into a skull to a brain that seemed devoid of life.
The large detached house, set in an acre of grounds was at the top of a private, gravelled road at the very edge of the city. Nearly all its rear windows looked out onto a forest that went on for nearly twenty miles.
In the upstairs master-bedroom a woman in her early thirties sat putting the finishing touches to her appearance.
She was of striking appearance, beautiful, and yet in no way stereotyped.
Her nose was well defined and she had a generous firm mouth. Her eyes were alive with the green fire of her Conomara grandmother's portrait in the living room, but her angular cheeks spoke of the blood of her New England father.
Above the finely arched eyebrows, her chestnut hair often fell in a chaotic tumble to her shoulders, but was now – as for every workday – firmly drawn into a chignon.
She needed little make-up, the warm hue of her skin complimenting the redness of her hair. She used some eye-shadow to accentuate the colour of her pupils, and red to lips that were acclaimed, behind her back, by male colleagues and students alike.
Just for a faltering second, Dr Jean Hacker paused, wondered, as she did everyday now, why her husband couldn't love her – if only in the biblical sense? Was she so unattractive to him? Why the hell had he married her in the first place?
Picking up a cardigan, Jean Hacker grabbed her bag and left the room, pulling the door firmly shut behind her.
Downstairs in the kitchen she found her husband was already up, sipping coffee and reading the paper propped before him on the breakfast bar.
He did not look up as she entered. Determinedly cheerful she said, 'Good morning, Steven.'
He mumbled something as she made for the kettle and placed it on the hob. It re-boiled quickly as she put a slice of bread in the toaster.
'Have you had something to eat?'
He looked up, rearranging the paper as he said.
'Yes – thank you. Waffles.'
It was all so mechanical, so devoid of affection.
In the beginning, in the first few months, he had been so kind, attentive and loving. Then it was as if he had just lost interest. But looking back, she realized it had begun after he'd been away for a convention.
She'd wondered if he'd had an affair. When she'd challenged him, he'd denied it, and things had improved for a while. Now, his behaviour was odd, rather than suspicious. There had never been a trace of another woman on his clothing.
Then a few weeks ago, he'd come home late one night and they had had a terrible row. He'd ended up sleeping in a guest bedroom.
Jean had spent the night crying her heart out, but had at last come to the conclusion there must be someone else.
In complete silence she buttered her toast, made her tea and sat down at the pine table.
Less than a minute later, Steven Hacker folded the paper, stood up, left the kitchen and went upstairs.
She'd finished when he came down and began to open the front door. She lowered her cup to the saucer, calling out —
He paused, back to her.
Her eyes suddenly welled up with moisture —
'I want a divorce.'
Slowly he turned around, found her gaze with his. Weirdly, for a second, some emotion passed over his face – love, anger, hatred – it was too fleeting for her to be sure what it was. But any emotion was a rarity. For a second she hoped, then,
'If that's what you want, I shan't stand in your way.'
Disappointed she said defiantly —
'We shall have to sell the house.'
He nodded – 'So be it.'
'That's that, then.' She was on the verge of bursting into tears when he said something that left her with no hope – for the future, or the past. It came out of the blue.
'Just one thing, who is it you are having an affair with? It's somebody at the hospital, isn't it?'
Stunned, she shook her head. 'There is no one else, Steven, never has been.'
Nodding, he smiled, knowingly.
'You make all the arrangements. I'll just sign.' The door clicked behind him.
Jean felt the tears welling up in her eyes, but there was no time to wallow in her misery. She worked at the same hospital as her husband as a lowly clinical assistant in the ER and also as an anesthesiologist on a sessional basis, the sort of appointments she had managed to secure when Steven had been given his residency in the Department of Oral Medicine.
The University Hospital was a vast collection of buildings, in fact a small town in which well over two and half thousand people worked: teaching, healing, nursing in its many departments; where patients occupied the nine hundred beds, while others cooked, cleaned, typed, lived, loved, and even died around them.
The Medical School and the Department of Anatomy were redbrick Victorian buildings with ornate stone embellishments and Latin inscriptions.
They were connected by a tunnel, the wall of which was lined with green and white glazed tiles. Half-way along its length another turned off and made for the main hospital. It became wide, better lit, and displayed mosaics depicting scenes of medical history. At its end, other tunnels wandered off like the spokes of a wheel – conveying the hurrying throng of medical students, in short white coats, and nurses and technicians from the two tower blocks above to the operating rooms, laboratories, other departments and kitchens.
Above one tunnel, the morning rush-hour was in full swing, the road gridlocked with traffic, the sidewalks full of hurrying preoccupied pedestrians, unaware of the shroud-covered corpses being wheeled on gurneys beneath their feet to the autopsy rooms.
In one, fourth-year clinical students were gathered in the small viewing galleries. They had a clear view of the stainless steel benches equipped with drainage gullies and grilles set in the floor below.
The room smelt of disinfectant and formaldehyde but this scarcely covered the odour of blood and faeces.
At 8.30 a.m. the first of six cases that would take place before mid-day had already commenced, the pathologist intoning mechanically into the microphone hanging from the ceiling: he had opened the forty-six year old woman's abdomen and chest with the classic 'Y'shaped incision holding the scalpel in heavy rubber gloved hands.
Dr Charles Seigle was a big, thickset man, dressed in surgical green scrubs, plus gown, and hat but no mask; his feet were encased in white rubber boots.
But any operating-room atmosphere was destroyed by the dark-brown shiny apron he wore, the lack of anesthesiologist or nurse, and the steady flow of red-clouded water from the gaping wound as the assistant gently played a hosepipe over the white flesh.
There was a constant gurgling from the drain beneath the doctor's feet. He had already lifted the heart and lungs from the wide-open chest cavity. Now, deftly, Seigle lifted out the woman's liver, played around with it in one hand, seeming to be judging its weight as he selected a fine cleaver, and then proceeded to cut it down the middle. He set aside the instrument, opened the bisected organ and offered it for display to the gallery and the closed-circuit television camera.
'Cirrhosis – classical. The female liver is very much more vulnerable.'
His dark eyes swept the rows of students, finally alighting on two females in the first row. Seigle's voice was heavy with sarcasm – 'Ah, career women. You are the ones, or rather your sisters in big business, who are at the greatest risk in modern times.'
He looked around again at his audience.
'How many units a week can the ladies safely imbibe?'
A tired chorus told him, 'Fourteen'.
'The desire for equality and the stress of proving you've got bigger balls than the men in your chosen career are responsible for several million women in this country drinking far more than that.'
His dark eyes settled again on the two girls with their open notebooks on their laps.
'There is a temptation to match men drink for drink, a dangerous pursuit for women whose physical tolerance to alcohol is far lower.'
The girls exchanged knowing looks. Dr Charles Seigle, Senior Pathologist was well known for his womanizing; this, combined with a rather arrogant, thinly disguised contempt for the opposite sex, was one of the reasons why – they guessed – he was still a bachelor at 42. Seigle was a domineering, vaguely menacing creature to some of the younger students.
'Here we go again,' groaned one.
She wasn't to be disappointed. Seigle's voice took on its characteristic edge.
'Women are not just men with hooters as you people should well know by now. They are a totally different animal – it's the biochemistry.'
Excerpted from Scent of Madness by David Wiltshire. Copyright © 2012 David Wiltshire. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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