Jonas only wished his actions had always been so correct.
He turned away from the bed and took two steps to the window. Five stories below, the nearly deserted parking lot lay under hooded pole lamps. The falling rain churned the puddles, so they appeared to be boiling, as if a subterranean fire consumed the blacktop from underneath.
He could pick out the spot where Kari Dovell's car had been parked, and he stared at it for a long time. He admired Kari enormously. He also found her attractive. Sometimes he dreamed of being with her, and it was a surprisingly comforting dream. He could admit to wanting her at times, as well, and to being pleased by the thought that she might also want him. But he did not need her. He needed nothing but his work, the satisfaction of occasionally beating Death, and the—
“Something's … out … there …”
The first word interrupted Jonas's thoughts, but the voice was so thin and soft that he didn't immediately perceive the source of it. He turned around, looking toward the open door, assuming the voice had come from the corridor, and only by the third word did he realize that the speaker was Harrison.
The patient's head was turned toward Jonas, but his eyes were focused on the window.
Moving quickly to the side of the bed, Jonas glanced at the electrocardiograph and saw that Harrison's heart was beating fast but, thank God, rhythmically.
“Something's … out there,” Harrison repeated.
His eyes were not, after all, focused on the window itself, on nothing so close as that, but on some distant point in the stormy night.
“Just rain,” Jonas assured him.
“Just a little winter rain.”
“Something bad,” Harrison whispered.
Hurried footsteps echoed in the corridor, and a young nurse burst through the open door, into the nearly dark room. Her name was Ramona Perez, and Jonas knew her to be competent and concerned.
“Oh, Doctor Nyebern, good, you're here. The telemetry unit, his heartbeat—”
“Accelerated, yes, I know. He just woke up.”
Ramona came to the bed and switched on the lamp above it, revealing the patient more clearly.
Harrison was still staring beyond the rain-spotted window, as if oblivious of Jonas and the nurse. In a voice even softer than before, heavy with weariness, he repeated: “Something's out there.” Then his eyes fluttered sleepily, and fell shut.
“Mr. Harrison, can you hear me?” Jonas asked.
The patient did not answer.
The EKG showed a quickly de-accelerating heartbeat: from one-forty to one-twenty to one hundred beats a minute.
Ninety per minute. Eighty.
“He's asleep again,” Ramona said.
“Appears to be.”
“Just sleeping, though,” she said. “No question of it being a coma now.”
“Not a coma,” Jonas agreed.
“And he was speaking. Did he make sense?”
“Sort of. But hard to tell.” Jonas said, leaning over the bed railing to study the man's eyelids, which fluttered with the rapid movement of the eyes under them. REM sleep. Harrison was dreaming again.
Outside, the rain suddenly began to fall harder than before. The wind picked up, too, and keened at the window.
Ramona said, “The words I heard were clear, not slurred.”
“No. Not slurred. And he spoke some complete sentences.”
“Then he's not aphasic,” she said, “That's terrific.”
Aphasia, the complete inability to speak or understand spoken or written language, was one of the most devastating forms of brain damage resulting from disease or injury. Thus affected, a patient was reduced to using gestures to communicate, and the inadequacy of pantomime soon cast him into deep depression, from which there was sometimes no coming back.
Harrison was evidently free of that curse. If he was also free of paralysis, and if there were not too many holes in his memory, he had a good chance of eventually getting out of bed and leading a normal life.
“Let's not jump to conclusions,” Jonas said. “Let's not build up any false hopes. He still has a long way to go. But you can enter on his record that he regained consciousness for the first time at eleven-thirty, two hours after resuscitation.”
Harrison was murmuring in his sleep.
Jonas leaned over the bed and put his ear close to the patient's lips, which were barely moving. The words were faint, carried on his shallow exhalations. It was like a spectral voice heard on an open radio channel, broadcast from a station halfway around the world, bounced off a freak inversion layer high in the atmosphere and filtered through so much space and bad weather that it sounded mysterious and prophetic in spite of being less than half-intelligible.
“What's he saying?” Ramona asked.
With the howl of the storm rising outside, Jonas was unable to catch enough of Harrison's words to be sure, but he thought the man was repeating what he'd said before: “Something's … out there. …”
Abruptly the wind shrieked, and rain drummed against the window so hard that it seemed certain to shatter the glass.
Vassago liked the rain. The storm clouds had plated over the sky, leaving no holes through which the too-bright moon could gaze. The downpour also veiled the glow of streetlamps and the headlights of oncoming cars, moderated the dazzle of neon signs, and in general softened the Orange County night, making it possible for him to drive with more comfort than could be provided by his sunglasses alone.
He had traveled west from his hideaway, then north along the coast, in search of a bar where the lights might be low and a woman or two available for consideration. A lot of places were closed Mondays, and others didn't appear too active that late at night, between the half-hour and the witching hour.
At last he found a lounge in Newport Beach, along the Pacific Coast Highway. It was a tony joint with a canopy to the street, rows of miniature white lights defining the roof line, and a sign advertising DANCING WED THRU SAT/JOHNNY WILTON'S BIG BAND. Newport was the most affluent city in the county, with the world's largest private yacht harbor, so almost any establishment that pretended to a monied clientele most likely had one. Beginning mid-week, valet parking was probably provided, which would not have been good for his purposes, since a valet was a potential witness, but on a rainy Monday no valet was in sight.
He parked in the lot beside the club, and as he switched off the engine, the seizure hit him. He felt as if he'd received a mild but sustained electrical shock. His eyes rolled back in his head, and for a moment he thought he was having convulsions, because he was unable breathe or swallow. An involuntary moan escaped him. The attack lasted only ten or fifteen seconds, and ended with three words that seemed to have been spoken inside his head: Something's … out … there … It was not just a random thought sparked by some short-circuiting synapse in his brain, for it came to him in a distinct voice, with the timbre and inflection of spoken words as distinguished from thoughts. Not his own voice, either, but that of a stranger. He had an overpowering sense of another presence in the car, as well, as if a spirit had passed through some curtain between worlds to visit with him, an alien presence that was real in spite of being invisible. Then the episode ended as abruptly as it had begun.
He sat for a while, waiting for a reoccurrence.
Rain hammered on the roof.
The car ticked and pinged as the engine cooled down.
Whatever had happened, it was over now.
He tried to understand the experience. Had those words—Something's out there—been a warning, a psychic premonition? A threat? To what did it refer?
Beyond the car, there seemed to be nothing special about the night. Just rain. Blessed darkness. The distorted reflections of electric lights and signs shimmered on the wet pavement, in puddles, and in the torrents pouring along the overflowing gutters. Sparse traffic passed on Pacific Coast Highway, but as far as he could see, no one was on foot—and he could see as well as any cat.
After a while he decided that he would understand the episode when he was meant to understand it. Nothing was to be gained by brooding over it. If it was a threat, from whatever source, it did not trouble him. He was incapable of fear. That was the best thing about having left the world of the living, even if he was temporarily stuck in the borderland this side of death: nothing in existence held any terror for him.
Nevertheless, that inner voice had been one of the strangest things he had ever experienced. And he was not exactly without a store of strange experiences with which to compare it.
He got out of his silver Camaro, slammed the door, and walked to the club entrance. The rain was cold. In the blustering wind, the fronds of the palm trees rattled like old bones.
Lindsey Harrison was also on the fifth floor, at the far end of the main corridor from her husband. Little of the room was revealed when Jonas entered and approached the side of the bed, for there was not even the green light from a cardiac monitor. The woman was barely visible.
He wondered if he should try to wake her, and was surprised when she spoke:
He said, “I thought you were asleep.”
“Didn't they give you something?”
“It didn't help.”
As in her husband's room, the rain drove against the window with sullen fury. Jonas could hear torrents cascading through the confines of a nearby aluminum downspout.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“How the hell do you think I feel?” She tried to infuse the words with anger, but she was too exhausted and too depressed to manage it.
He put down the bed railing, sat on the edge of the mattress, and held out one hand, assuming that her eyes were better adapted to the gloom than his were. “Give me your hand.”
“I'm Jonas Nyebern. I'm a doctor. I want to tell you about your husband, and somehow I think it'll be better if you'll just let me hold your hand.”
She was silent.
“Humor me,” he said.
Although the woman believed her husband to be dead, Jonas did not mean to torment her by withholding his report of the resuscitation. From experience, he knew that good news of this sort could be as shocking to the recipient as bad news; it had to be delivered with care and sensitivity. She had been mildly delirious upon admission to the hospital, largely as a result of exposure and shock, but that condition had been swiftly remedied with the administration of heat and medication. She had been in possession of all her faculties for a few hours now, long enough to absorb her husband's death and to begin to find her way toward a tentative accommodation of her loss. Though deep in grief and far from adjusted to her widowhood, she had by now found a ledge on the emotional cliff down which she had plunged, a narrow perch, a precarious stability—from which he was about to knock her loose.
Still, he might have been more direct with her if he'd been able to bring her unalloyed good news. Unfortunately, he could not promise that her husband was going to be entirely his former self, unmarked by his experience, able to reenter his old life without a hitch. They would need hours, perhaps days, in which to examine and evaluate Harrison before they could hazard a prediction as to the likelihood of a full recovery. Thereafter, weeks or months of physical and occupational therapy might lie ahead for him, with no guarantee of effectiveness.
Jonas was still waiting for her hand. At last she offered it diffidently.
In his best bedside manner, he quickly outlined the basics of resuscitation medicine. When she began to realize why he thought she needed to know about such an esoteric subject, her grip on his hand suddenly grew tight.
In room 518, Hatch foundered in a sea of bad dreams that were nothing but disassociated images melding into one another without even the illogical narrative flow that usually shaped nightmares. Wind-whipped snow. A huge Ferris wheel sometimes bedecked with festive lights, sometimes dark and broken and ominous in a night seething with rain. Groves of scarecrow trees, gnarled and coaly, stripped leafless by winter. A beer truck angled across a snowswept highway. A tunnel with a concrete floor that sloped down into perfect blackness, into something unknown that filled him with heart-bursting dread. His lost son, Jimmy, lying sallow-skinned against hospital sheets, dying of cancer. Water, cold and deep, impenetrable as ink, stretching to all horizons, with no possible escape. A na*ed woman, her head on backwards, hands clasping a crucifix …
Frequently he was aware of a faceless and mysterious figure at the perimeter of the dreamscapes, dressed in black like some grim reaper, moving in such fluid harmony with the shadows that he might have been only a shadow himself. At other times, the reaper was not part of the scene but seemed to be the viewpoint through which it was observed, as if Hatch was looking out through the eyes of another—eyes that beheld the world with all the compassionless, hungry, calculating practicality of a graveyard rat.
For a time, the dream took on more of a narrative quality, wherein Hatch found himself running along a train-station platform, trying to catch up with a passenger car that was slowly pulling away on the outbound track. Through one of the train windows, he saw Jimmy, gaunt and hollow-eyed in the grip of his disease, dressed only in a hospital gown, peering sadly at Hatch, one small hand raised as he waved goodbye, goodbye, goodbye. Hatch reached desperately for the vertical railing beside the boarding steps at the end of Jimmy's car, but the train picked up speed; Hatch lost ground; the steps slipped away. Jimmy's pale, small face lost definition and finally vanished as the speeding passenger car dwindled into the terrible nothingness beyond the station platform, a lightless void of which Hatch only now became aware. Then another passenger car began to glide past him (clackety-clack, clackety-clack), and he was startled to see Lindsey seated at one of the windows, looking out at the platform, a lost expression on her face. Hatch called to her—“Lindsey!”—but she did not hear or see him, she seemed to be in a trance, so he began to run again, trying to board her car (clackety-clack, clackety-clack), which drew away from him as Jimmy's had done. “Lindsey!” His hand was inches from the railing beside the boarding stairs.… Suddenly the railing and stairs vanished, and the train was not a train any more. With the eerie fluidity of all changes in all dreams, it became a roller coaster in an amusement park, heading out on the start of a thrill ride. (Clackety-clack.) Hatch came to the end of the platform without being able to board Lindsey's car, and she rocketed away from him, up the first steep hill of the long and undulant track. Then the last car in the caravan passed him, close behind Lindsey's. It held a single passenger. The figure in black—around whom shadows clustered like ravens on a cemetery fence—sat in front of the car, head bowed, his face concealed by thick hair that fell forward in the fashion of a monk's hood. (Clackety-clack!) Hatch shouted at Lindsey, warning her to look back and be aware of what rode in the car behind her, pleading with her to be careful and hold on tight, for God's sake, hold on tight! The caterpillar procession of linked cars reached the crest of the hill, hung there for a moment as if time had been suspended, then disappeared in a scream-filled plummet down the far side.