Lost Souls Page 12

Until Renata died eighteen months earlier, Bryce hadn’t known a cantankerous moment in his seventy-two years. His temperament was so mellow that Rennie called him “my Mr. Rogers,” referring to the children’s TV-show host with a soft voice and a sweet manner that endeared him to generations of children.

If he and Rennie could have had children, maybe Bryce wouldn’t be slowly but surely morphing from benign geezer to grouch. A child would have been a small part of Rennie still alive. More than anything, loneliness rubbed him raw, scarred and coarsened him.

Eight o’clock the previous evening, complaining of severe chest pains, he had arrived by ambulance. An emergency MRI supposedly showed no signs of heart disease, and other tests indicated that he hadn’t suffered a heart attack. Within an hour, the pain entirely relented.

Joel Rathburn, his doctor for more than sixteen years, wanted him to stay for further evaluation the following day, Tuesday. A sedative gave Bryce the best sleep he’d enjoyed in a year.

When he awakened, he felt engaged with life for the first time in months, perhaps because he so recently thought he was dying. In spite of the stale sheets, Bryce began the day with good cheer.

In fact, for the first time in ages, he felt like writing. For forty years, he’d earned a decent living as a Western novelist. Six of his yarns had been made into movies, all before he was forty years old, none since.

Cattle barons tormenting sheep ranchers, sheep ranchers against homesteading farmers. Good men with hard codes of honor and hard men with dishonorable intentions. Train robbers, bank busters, posses in pursuit. Vast plains, high mesas, box canyons, purple sage, burning sands, the bones of bad men picked clean by vultures. Gunfights at dawn, showdowns at high noon, fast horses and faster guns.

God, he loved that stuff. He loved it as a kid, and he wrote it all his life with never a day of writer’s block, never a moment of disenchantment.

During the last fifteen years, fewer and fewer Westerns were published, and publishers offered ever less for them. The golden age of the genre was long gone.

Readers didn’t have affection for the past anymore because they didn’t believe in it. They’d been told for too long that everything they knew about the past was a lie, that the good men with hard codes were actually the bad men and that the outlaws were either victims of injustice or rebels against conformity—which were the real lies.

People didn’t believe in the past, and they didn’t believe in the present or the future because they were told constantly that they were headed toward one cataclysm or another, that before them lay a smorgasbord of dooms. They believed only in the far future where adventures took place on distant planets nothing like Earth and involved characters little or nothing like contemporary human beings, or they wanted parallel worlds with wizards and warlocks, where all problems were solved with wands, spells, and the summoning of demons.

Bryce Walker disliked those kinds of stories partly because he could see nothing real in them, but mostly because they were full of thrills without meaning, color without passion, and a pantheism that devalued human life. They were people-hating stories.

Oh, yes, he was a curmudgeon in the making. If he lived long enough, he would be a grouch of such legendary proportions that he would be remembered in Rainbow Falls for his crankiness long after he was bones and his books were dust.

Although he had awakened in good cheer, the inattentiveness of the hospital staff brought him farther down by the hour. If only he could have purchased a paperback novel to pass the time, he would have been content enough, but he was told the candy stripers were off for the day and wouldn’t be making the rounds with their cart of reading matter and snacks.

Midmorning, when at last Dr. Rathburn stopped by to check on him, Bryce rattled off a list of complaints about the hospital. He expected Doc Rathburn to poke fun at him for his grumpiness, because that was the physician’s style. But Bryce also anticipated that Doc would have the sheets changed, ice in the carafe, medications provided, dirty dishes removed, and a good paperback delivered in mere minutes, because he was efficient and he got things done.

Instead, Doc listened to the complaints with what seemed to be impatience, and he said only that a number of the staff were out sick with an early flu, everyone was overworked, and that he would do what he could to make things right. To Bryce Walker, the physician sounded indifferent, and his promise of action seemed not only weak but also … insincere.

When Doc Rathburn referred again to the further evaluation he had mentioned the previous evening, he said the tests would have to be rescheduled to late afternoon because of the toll flu had taken on the staff. When asked what tests were needed, Doc spoke of “standard diagnostic procedures,” checked his watch, pleaded a tight schedule, asked for patience, and left the room.

He exhibited none of his trademark sense of humor. Usually he explained the reasons a test was needed and gave specific details of the procedure, but this time he was vague and almost … evasive. His singular bedside manner, which so comforted his patients, was nothing like it had been before. If the physician had not been brusque, he had been at least uncharacteristically abrupt. Although it made Bryce Walker uneasy to think such a thing of Joel Rathburn, the man had almost seemed to regard his patient with barely concealed contempt.

Waiting for the ice that he knew would not come soon, waiting for the clean sheets that he suspected he would not receive until he complained another half dozen times, Bryce stared at the window opposite the foot of his bed, watching gray-cat clouds creep across the sky, stalking the sun. His mood darkened as the day did, in part because he began to feel that his complaints had been answered with humbug.

Early October was not flu season. Maybe there might be a case or two, but he couldn’t remember a full-fledged epidemic striking any earlier than mid-November. And as recently as yesterday, before his chest pains, he hadn’t heard anything about the town being laid low by influenza.

In more than sixteen years, Bryce had not previously known Dr. Joel Rathburn to speak one word of hooey, but now the man seemed to be a fountain of it.

As his curmudgeonly mood thickened like a curdling stew, he wished he had something to distract him from such uncharitable thoughts, which he recognized might be unfair even as he indulged in them. But no distraction was available.

Recovering from surgery, the patient in the second bed slept most of the time. When he was awake, he spoke only Spanish and was truculent besides.

The room came with a TV on a shelf near the ceiling, and on Bryce’s nightstand lay a remote control, but he was reluctant to disturb his roommate. Besides, he disliked television fully as much as he disliked loud meaningless movies set on other planets. If he even glimpsed one of those “reality” shows, about which nothing whatsoever was real, he might throw the remote at the screen.

Hooey, humbug, piffle, and fiddle-faddle were all he received in response to his complaints. One might wonder if Joel Rathburn had a twin, an identical who never graduated either from medical school or charm school, and if the twin had locked his good brother in a closet and was playing doctor.

As slowly the sky plated with clouds, no one arrived with ice water, no one came to change the sheets, surely dangerous colonies of bacteria began to establish themselves in the food residue on his neglected breakfast dishes, and sooner rather than later he needed to pee. He took medication for an enlarged prostate, which reduced his bathroom visits from what had seemed to be two hundred a day to a more reasonable number, but when the need came, the need was usually urgent.

Getting out of bed and stepping into his slippers, Bryce was glad that he had been brought to the hospital in his own pajamas. For the initial examination and the MRI, they had put him in one of those backless hospital gowns that could possibly appeal only to exhibitionistic masochists. But when they transferred him to this room and before they put him to bed for the night, he insisted that his pajamas be returned to him.

At seventy-two, he still had most of his hair, good hearing, distance vision that didn’t require glasses, and a younger man’s waistline, but something tragic had happened to his backside. Until not long ago, everything back there was round and solid, but then suddenly, seemingly overnight, his nether cheeks sagged like two half-filled sacks of large-curd cottage cheese. A man of his age found it difficult enough to maintain his dignity in a society that worshipped youth and regarded senior citizens as little more than fart machines with amusing opinions and grotesque clothes; he refused to parade around with his collapsed ass in plain view, giving every ignorant and callow young fool a laugh.

In the lavatory that served his two-bed room, he sat to urinate, which he had always done in respect of the fact that Renata cleaned their bathroom. He continued to be a setter rather than a pointer because an infrequent but unpredictable tremor in his hands could play havoc with his aim.

After an initial sigh of relief, as Bryce sat in silence, he heard an odd sound, which at first he took to be the cry of alarm that a bird might make, a call to flight that would send the flock skyward. He was on the second of the hospital’s two floors, with nothing above but the roof.

When the cry came again, the quality of it seemed less birdlike, both more disturbing and more mysterious than before. The lavatory had no windows by which the sound could have reached him. And come to think of it, there would be some kind of attic for ductwork and plumbing, which would have greatly muffled the shriek if it had arisen from the roof.

By the time he finished his business, he heard other sounds, not as piercing as the first, low and disquieting groans conveyed somehow from a distance.

In one wall, just below the ceiling, warm air vented through the vanes of a duct cover. He could feel the pleasant heat against his upturned face. The groaning did not seem to be carried on that draft.

Near the floor, a larger opening in the wall was covered by a grille. He assumed this must be a stale-air return.

Although the sounds had faded, Bryce knelt and lowered his head to the grille. At first he heard nothing, nothing, but then the eerie groaning returned, and almost at once another voice arose. The first was clearly the groaning of a man, the second more like that of a woman. Both seemed to be in misery, their pain unendurable.

He thought he must be hearing people in the surgical-recovery room or in the intensive-care unit, a place where patients lay in extreme conditions of one kind or another. But when he listened more closely, he heard in the distance another woman sobbing, and although her sobs were miserable, they conveyed something more than physical suffering. For a moment, he couldn’t interpret the character of the sobbing—and then suddenly he knew that it was an expression of abject terror, as were the groans of the others.

The more that he understood what he was hearing, the more he heard. A fourth voice entered the weave, that of another woman: “Oh, God … oh, God … oh, God … God, please … oh, God … please … ” Her prayer was a desperate plea made in a state of fright so intense that Bryce Walker shuddered and felt a cold sweat prickle the nape of his neck.

Fear might be a part of any patient’s hospital experience, but seldom fear as heightened as this. And Bryce couldn’t imagine any circumstance in which a group of patients would be gripped by a shared terror.

On his hands and knees, heeding the distant voices that rose against the faint downdraft, he told himself that they were actors in a drama to which a TV was tuned in a room on a lower floor, but that explanation held only for a moment. No horror-movie director in the history of film had ever been satisfied to have his actors screaming a cappella, but had hyped their screams with music. No music accompanied these wretched cries.

As his focused attention sharpened his hearing, he caught traces of more voices, not as loud as the first four but fraught with dread. Then the praying woman’s plea for divine intervention was silenced, not neatly or quickly, but over several seconds, as though someone seized her neck, began to strangle her, then decided instead to rip out her throat. Her tortured voice—stifled, then twisting into a shriek of animal anguish, then mangled and raw—seemed at last to drown as if in a rush of blood. Instantly, the voices of the others became more urgent and despairing, as though they had been witnesses to an unspeakable horror that would next come for them.

An almost hypnotic fascination kept Bryce on his knees, his right ear pressed to the grille. Perhaps if the screams had been loud, they would not have so entirely mesmerized him. The faintness of them gave him a sense of eavesdropping on some homicidal event, a demonic frenzy of faraway violence, which the perpetrator had taken great pains to stage in some deep redoubt where these crimes could be kept forever secret. His paralysis resulted not only from this fascination but also from a fear of his own, a conviction that what had happened to these unknown people would happen soon to him, a dread supernatural in quality and intensity.

Soon no voices rose against the down-drawn air. Nothing but a hollow silence fell upon his ear, which ached, pressed so hard against the grille.

Chapter 25

Dr. Henry Lightner’s replicant was present in the basement room to observe the destruction and processing of the hospital’s night-shift personnel, who had been imprisoned there since four o’clock this morning.

Seventeen of them sat on the floor. The silvery caps of brain taps shone brightly on their temples.

The eighteenth, the deceased nurse with eyes full of now-congealed blood, lay on her back on the floor. Dead or alive, she had the same value to the Community.

The Builder was a young man with curly blond hair and hazel eyes. For some reason known only to the Creator, all the Builders were young men and women, and all were uncommonly beautiful by human standards, though beauty mattered not at all to members of the Community.

Having been replaced by replicants, the eighteen members of the former night shift would now be terminated—though they would not merely be killed. Their bodies were evidence of the secret revolution now under way, and they must never be found.

Mass graves were difficult to excavate and conceal. They would sooner or later be discovered.

Cremation pyres produced smoke with a telltale scent that might alarm even placid sheep oblivious of the threat to their existence.

The Builders were the answer to the problem of human debris, exquisitely efficient.

The curly-headed blond young man began to murder and create.

Initially, the cries of the condemned annoyed Henry Lightner, but in less than a minute, he began to enjoy them. Like all others in the Community, he had no interest in music or in any kind of art, for those things promoted leisure, and leisure diminished efficiency. But he felt that these stifled screams and throttled sobs might be a kind of music.

Such swift, clean executions.

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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