Ramona Perez, the night nurse assigned to the fifth-floor wing that included room 518, stood beside the bed, watching her patient. She was worried about him, but she was not sure that she should go looking for Dr. Nyebern yet.
According to the heart monitor, Harrison's pulse was in a highly fluctuant state. Generally it ranged between a reassuring seventy to eighty beats per minute. Periodically, however, it raced as high as a hundred and forty. On the positive side, she observed no indications of serious arrhythmia.
His blood pressure was affected by his accelerated heartbeat, but he was in no apparent danger of stroke or cerebral hemorrhage related to spiking hypertension, because his systolic reading was never dangerously high.
He was sweating profusely, and the circles around his eyes were so dark, they appeared to have been applied with actors' greasepaint. He was shivering in spite of the blankets piled on him. The fingers of his left hand—exposed because of the intravenous feed—spasmed occasionally, though not forcefully enough to disturb the needle inserted just below the crook of his elbow.
In a whisper he repeated his wife's name, sometimes with considerable urgency: “Lindsey … Lindsey … Lindsey, no!”
Harrison was dreaming, obviously, and events in a nightmare could elicit physiological responses every bit as much as waking experiences.
Finally Ramona decided that the accelerated heartbeat was solely the result of the poor man's bad dreams, not an indication of genuine cardiovascular de-stabilization. He was in no danger. Nevertheless, she remained at his bedside, watching over him.
Vassago sat at a window table overlooking the harbor. He had been in the lounge only five minutes, and already he suspected it was not good hunting grounds. The atmosphere was all wrong. He wished he had not ordered a drink.
No dance music was provided on Monday nights, but a pianist was at work in one corner. He played neither gutless renditions of '30s and '40s songs nor the studiedly bland arrangements of easy-listening rock-'n'-roll that rotted the brains of regular lounge patrons. But he spun out the equally noxious repetitive melodies of New Age numbers composed for those who found elevator music too complex and intellectually taxing.
Vassago preferred music with a hard beat, fast and driving, something that put his teeth on edge. Since becoming a citizen of the borderland, he could not take pleasure in most music, for its orderly structures irritated him. He could tolerate only music that was atonal, harsh, unmelodious. He responded to jarring key changes, thunderously crashing chords, and squealing guitar riffs that abraded the nerves. He enjoyed discord and broken patterns of rhythm. He was excited by music that filled his mind with images of blood and violence.
To Vassago, the scene beyond the big windows, because of its beauty, was as displeasing as the lounge music. Sailboats and motor yachts crowded one another at the private docks along the harbor. They were tied up, sails furled, engines silent, wallowing only slightly because the harbor was well protected and the storm was not particularly ferocious. Few of the wealthy owners actually lived aboard, regardless of the size of the craft or amenities, so lights glowed at only a few of the portholes. Rain, here and there transmuted into quicksilver by the dock lights, hammered the boats, beaded on their brightwork, drizzled like molten metal down their masts and across their decks and out of their scuppers. He had no tolerance for prettiness, for postcard scenes of harmonious composition, because they seemed false, a lie about what the world was really like. He was drawn, instead, to visual discord, jagged shapes, malignant and festering forms.
With its plush chairs and low amber lighting, the lounge was too soft for a hunter like him. It dulled his killing instincts.
He surveyed the patrons, hoping to spot an object of the quality suitable for his collection. If he saw something truly superb that excited his acquisitional fever, even the stultifying atmosphere would not be able to sap his energy.
A few men sat at the bar, but they were of no interest to him. The three men in his collection had been his second, fourth, and fifth acquisitions, taken because they had been vulnerable and in lonely circumstances that allowed him to overpower them and take them away without being seen. He had no aversion to killing men, but preferred women. Young women. He liked to get them before they could breed more life.
The only really young people among the customers were four women in their twenties who were seated by the windows, three tables away from him. They were tipsy and a little giddy, hunched over as if sharing gossip, talking intently, periodically bursting into gales of laughter.
One of them was lovely enough to engage Vassago's hatred of beautiful things. She had enormous chocolate-brown eyes, and an animal grace that reminded him of a doe. He dubbed her “Bambi.” Her raven hair was cut into short wings, exposing the lower halves of her ears.
They were exceptional ears, large but delicately formed. He thought he might be able to do something interesting with them, and he continued to watch her, trying to decide if she was up to his standards.
Bambi talked more than her friends, and she was the loudest of the group. Her laugh was the loudest, as well, a jackass braying. She was exceptionally attractive, but her incessant chatter and annoying laughter spoiled the package. Clearly, she loved the sound of her own voice.
She'd be vastly improved, he thought, if she were to be stricken deaf and mute.
Inspiration seized him, and he sat up straighter in his chair. By removing her ears, tucking them into her dead mouth, and sewing her lips shut, he would be neatly symbolizing the fatal flaw in her beauty. It was a vision of such simplicity, yet such power, that—
“One rum and Coke,” the waitress said, putting a glass and paper cocktail napkin on the table in front of Vassago. “You want to run a tab?”
He looked up at her, blinking in confusion. She was a stout middle-aged woman with auburn hair. He could see her quite clearly through his sunglasses, but in his fever of creative excitement, he had difficulty placing her.
Finally he said, “Tab? Uh, no. Cash, thank you, ma'am.”
When he took out his wallet, it didn't feel like a wallet at all but like one of Bambi's ears might feel. When he slid his thumb back and forth across the smooth leather, he felt not what was there but what might soon be available for his caress: delicately shaped ridges of cartilage forming the auricula and pinna, the graceful curves of the channels that focused sound waves inward toward the tympanic membrane.…
He realized the waitress had spoken to him again, stating the price of his drink, and then he realized that it was the second time she had done so. He had been fingering his wallet for long, delicious seconds, daydreaming of death and disfigurement.
He fished out a crisp bill without looking at it, and handed it to her.
“This is a hundred,” she said. “Don't you have anything smaller?”
“No, ma'am, sorry,” he said, impatient now to be rid of her, “that's it.”
“I'll have to go back to the bar to get this much change.”
“Okay, yeah, whatever. Thank you, ma'am.”
As she started away from his table, he returned his attention to the four young women—only to discover that they were leaving. They were nearing the door, pulling on their coats as they went.
He started to rise, intending to follow them, but he froze when he heard himself say, “Lindsey.”
He didn't call out the name. No one in the bar heard him say it. He was the only one who reacted, and his reaction was one of total surprise.
For a moment he hesitated with one hand on the table, one on the arm of his chair, halfway to his feet. While he was paralyzed in that posture of indecisiveness, the four young women left the lounge. Bambi became of less interest to him than the mysterious name—“Lindsey”—so he sat down.
He did not know anyone named Lindsey.
He had never known anyone named Lindsey.
It made no sense that he would suddenly speak the name aloud.
He looked out the window at the harbor. Hundreds of millions of dollars of ego-gratification rose and fell and wallowed side to side on the rolling water. The sunless sky was another sea above, as cold and merciless as the one below. The air was full of rain like millions of gray and silver threads, as if nature was trying to sew the ocean to the heavens and thereby obliterate the narrow space between, where life was possible. Having been one of the living, one of the dead, and now one of the living dead, he had seen himself as the ultimate sophisticate, as experienced as any man born of woman could ever hope to be. He had assumed that the world held nothing new for him, had nothing to teach him. Now this. First the seizure in the car: Something's out there! And now Lindsey. The two experiences were different, because he heard no voice in his head the second time, and when he spoke it was with his own familiar voice and not that of a stranger. But both events were so peculiar that he knew they were linked. As he gazed at the moored boats, the harbor, and the dark world beyond, it began to seem more mysterious to him than it had in ages.
He picked up his rum and Coke. He took a long swallow of it.
As he was putting the drink down, he said, “Lindsey.”
The glass rattled against the table, and he almost knocked it over, because the name surprised him again. He hadn't spoken it aloud to ponder the meaning of it. Rather, it had burst from him as before, a bit more breathlessly this time and somewhat louder.
The lounge seemed to be a magical place for him.
He decided to settle down for a while and wait to see what might happen next.
When the waitress arrived with his change, he said, “I'd like another drink, ma'am.” He handed her a twenty. “This'll take care of it, and please keep the change.”
Happy with the tip, she hurried back to the bar.
Vassago turned to the window again, but this time he looked at his own reflection in the glass instead of at the harbor beyond. The dim lights of the lounge threw insufficient glare on the pane to provide him with a detailed image. In that murky mirror, his sunglasses did not register well. His face appeared to have two gaping eye sockets like those of a fleshless skull. The illusion pleased him.
In a husky whisper not loud enough to draw the attention of anyone else in the lounge, but with more urgency than before, he said, “Lindsey, no!”
He had not anticipated that outburst any more than the previous two, but it did not rattle him. He had quickly adapted to the fact of these mysterious events, and had begun to try to understand them. Nothing could surprise him for long. After all, he had been to Hell and back, both to the real Hell and the one beneath the funhouse, so the intrusion of the fantastic into real life did not frighten or awe him.
He drank a third rum and Coke. When more than an hour passed without further developments, and when the bartender announced the last round of the night, Vassago left.
The need was still with him, the need to murder and create. It was a fierce heat in his gut that had nothing to do with the rum, such a steely tension in his chest that his heart might have been a clockwork mechanism with its spring wound to the breaking point. He wished that he had gone after the doe-eyed woman whom he had named Bambi.
Would he have removed her ears when she was dead at last—or while she was still alive?
Would she have been capable of understanding the artistic statement he was making as he sewed her lips shut over her full mouth? Probably not. None of the others had the wit or insight to appreciate his singular talent.
In the nearly deserted parking lot, he stood in the rain for a while, letting it soak him and extinguish some of the fire of his obsession. It was nearly two in the morning. Not enough time remained, before dawn, to do any hunting. He would have to return to his hideaway without an addition to his collection. If he were to get any sleep during the coming day and be prepared to hunt with the next nightfall, he had to dampen his blazing creative drive.
Eventually he began to shiver. The heat within him gave way to a relentless chill. He raised one hand, touched his cheek. His face felt cold, but his fingers were colder, like the marble hand of a statue of David that he'd admired in a memorial garden at Forest Lawn Cemetery when he had still been one of the living.
That was better.
As he opened the car door, he looked around once more at the rain-riven night. This time of his own volition, he said, “Lindsey?”
Whoever she might be, she was not yet destined to cross his path.
He would have to be patient. He was mystified, therefore fascinated and curious. But whatever was happening would happen at its own pace. One of the virtues of the dead was patience, and though he was still half-alive, he knew he could find within himself the strength to match the forbearance of the deceased.
Early Tuesday morning, an hour after dawn, Lindsey could sleep no more. She ached in every muscle and joint, and what sleep she'd gotten had not lessened her exhaustion by any noticeable degree. She did not want sedatives. Unable to bear any further delay, she insisted they take her to Hatch's room. The charge nurse cleared it with Jonas Nyebern, who was still in the hospital, then wheeled Lindsey down the hall to 518.
Nyebern was there, red-eyed and rumpled. The sheets on the bed nearest the door were not turned back, but they were wrinkled, as if the doctor had stretched out to rest at least once during the night.
By now Lindsey had learned enough about Nyebern—some of it from him, much of it from the nurses—to know that he was a local legend. He had been a busy cardiovascular surgeon, but over the past two years, after losing his wife and two children in some kind of horrible accident, he had devoted steadily less time to surgery and more to resuscitation medicine. His commitment to his work was too strong to be called mere dedication. It was more of an obsession. In a society that was struggling to emerge from three decades of self-indulgence and me-firstism, it was easy to admire a man as selflessly committed as Nyebern, and everyone did seem to admire him.
Lindsey, for one, admired the hell out of him. After all, he had saved Hatch's life.
His weariness betrayed only by his bloodshot eyes and the rumpled condition of his clothes, Nyebern moved swiftly to pull back the privacy curtain that surrounded the bed nearest the window. He took the handles of Lindsey's wheelchair and rolled her to her husband's bedside.
The storm had passed during the night. Morning sun slanted through the slats of the Levolor blinds, striping the sheets and blankets with shadow and golden light.
Hatch lay beneath that faux tiger skin, only one arm and his face exposed. Although his skin was painted with the same jungle-cat camouflage as the bedding, his extreme pallor was evident. Seated in the wheelchair, regarding Hatch at an odd angle through the bed railing, Lindsey grew queasy at the sight of an ugly bruise that spread from the stitched gash on his forehead. But for the proof of the cardiac monitor and the barely perceptible rise-and-fall of Hatch's chest as he breathed, she would have assumed he was dead.