Jack Lincoln leaned against the wall behind the nurse station, thumbs hooking the waist of his scrubs.
The head nurse’s nasal voice cut through his brooding. “Jack!”
She continued typing, and didn’t turn to look at him. “Wake up, Jack. 512 needs a blood draw.”
“Are you asleep now? It’s four o’clock.”
Jack pushed off the wall. “Hell! Has his doctor called?”
“Still in 511. Better hurry.”
“Come on, Linda, you could have given me more warning than that!” He strode to the supply machine and tapped in his code.
“You gotta sleep off the clock, Jack. Besides, you look good in a hurry.”
“Oh I try. I’ve never had nightmares this bad.”
“Not my monkeys, not my circus.”
The screen read ‘Jack Lincoln, RN’. He selected blood draw, and with a click the drawer below opened.
“Haven’t I scratched your back enough lately?”
“My back is fine. I’d take a foot massage, though.”
He took out a syringe and vial. “Now that would be a nightmare.”
“Everybody heard it: in your dreams you massage my feet.”
Jack smiled, shook his head, and walked down the hall.
His shoes squeaked on the tile floor: white floors, white walls, white ceilings. The wooden doors were the only color on this floor of the hospital, held in place by their white rectangular door-frames. Even his nurse scrubs were white.
Jack waved his hand under the dispenser beside the door, caught a handful of sanitizer, rubbed his hands together, then rubbed the excess on the vial and syringe. He stepped through the doorway to 512.
A short man with a reddened face and an ample belly sat up in the hospital bed. His wispy hair was gray and disheveled, but when he saw Jack his eyes brightened.
Jack smiled. “Mr. Alverson! How are you feeling this morning?”
“Tired. Still you and me today?”
“Always; until you’re feeling better and we can get you home.”
Mr. Alverson saw the needle, then looked away. “I’d feel better if you could get me some of that key lime pie for lunch.”
Jack shook his head. “Sorry, doctor’s orders.”
He pulled the cap off the syringe and gripped Mr. Alverson’s arm.
“It can’t hurt to ask.” He smiled weakly up at Jack.
Jack tried to smile, and poked the syringe into a vein.
Mr. Alverson grimaced, and sucked air through his teeth.
Jack slowly expanded the syringe, filling it with blood, then pressed a cotton swab to Mr. Alverson’s elbow and pulled the needle free.
“Keep pressure on that if you would please.” Jack wrapped some medical tape around the cotton swab. “There we are. All done.”
Jack stuck the needle into the vial and filled it with Mr. Alverson’s blood, then applied the label. He turned toward the door, then turned back. “Tell you what: I’ll talk to Hospitality and see if we can’t work something out.”
Mr. Alverson beamed. “I’m counting on you, big guy.”
Jack smiled and walked out, rubbing hand sanitizer on his hands and dropping the needle into the sharps bin.
Back at the nurse station he placed the blood vial into a large padded plastic capsule, tapped in the pharmacy code, and shoved it into the vacuum tube. He closed the small door, and with a hiss of air the capsule disappeared into the wall.
“Don’t we have any lo-cal pie we can get for Mr. Alverson?”
Linda squinted. “Dr. Alverson?”
Linda’s hands clattered over her keyboard.
“Hmmm. Nope. Strict dietary requirements.”
Jack hooked his thumbs into his scrub waist and leaned against the wall behind her.
“What kind of life is that? When a man can’t even choose his food?” Jack shook his head. “You think he even remembers what key lime pie tastes like?”
“I do.” The keys clattered under her direction.
“Maybe it’d be better if he didn’t remember, since he can’t ever have it again.”
“No chance. Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.”
“You say that now, but what if you end up in a place like this: not able to live your own life, slave to someone else’s orders. What’s the point in going on like that?”
She snorted. “It beats the alternative. 501’s trying to get out of bed again.”
Jack sighed. “On it.”
He jogged down the hall, shoes squeaking.
He burst through the wooden door.
The man had gray and wrinkled skin covered with liver spots. His legs swung over the side of the bed. He looked at Jack with wild eyes.
“Freddie, give me a hand. I have a meeting in ten minutes and my reports aren’t done.”
Jack quickly rubbed on hand sanitizer as he approached. “There’s no meeting, Mr. Wenton: you’re retired remember?”
“Of course there’s a meeting! Jefferson will want the Monday numbers, and he goes straight to the boss if with every little thing, the little suckup!”
“You can’t get out of bed, Mr. Wenton. You get too dizzy remember? After the surgery?”
“Let go of me! I have to get my reports ready! You’ll cost me my job, you ass!”
Jack shielded his face. “Ow! Mr. Wenton, there’s no meeting. Stop it! I’m just trying to help. Careful! Your IV!”
Jack grabbed the man’s wrist.
A beep emanated from the ceiling. Linda’s voice called out of the intercom. “Everything OK Jack?”
The old man flailed and shouted. “Alice! Call security!”
“I got it, Linda. Mr. Wenton, the meeting was canceled!”
Mr. Wenton stopped fighting. “Canceled? It’s never canceled! This place won’t run without Monday numbers.”
“The police declared a state of emergency after they flew those planes into the towers, remember? Everyone’s gone home early today.”
“The towers… all those people. I saw it on TV. The second tower, I saw it!”
Jack eased him back onto his bed. “Yes, it’s a terrible thing. Get some rest. Everybody needs to take some time to figure things out. You can worry about the reports after lunch.”
“What’s lunch today, Jack? Can I eat today? I have my surgery soon.”
“Your surgery was two days-” Jack sighed. “You can have whatever you want for lunch, Mr. Wenton. Would you like grilled cheese and tomato soup again?”
“God no! I haven’t eaten tomato soup since I was a kid!”
“Well, here’s the menu. Just press your call button when you know what you want.”
“Do they have apple pie?”
“As much as you want, Mr. Wenton.”
Jack scrubbed sanitizer on his hands and walked slowly back toward the Nurse Station.
Linda didn’t look up from the computer, keys clattering away. “Kill me if I ever get that way, Jack.”
“Won’t he get better after he’s off the pain meds?”
“Nope. He’s been this way since well before the surgery.”
“Maybe he’ll snap out of it, some day. You don’t know.”
The head nurse kept typing.
Jack leaned against the back wall. “What’s he got?”
She shook her head. “Dementia. Alzheimer’s. Syphilis. Take your pick.”
He walked over to the counter and picked up the phone
Linda frowned. “Did he hurt you? He didn’t pull out his IV, did he?”
“No, I’m calling the cafeteria.”
“What for? He’ll think he’s a kid again and want grilled cheese and tomato soup, just like always.”
“Hospitality? Yes, this is 5. Do you have any low-calorie pie? Key lime, maybe?”
Jack Lincoln walked slowly, one sweaty hand inside his trenchcoat, pressing the crossbow flat against his chest. He stayed in the shadow of the trees lining the sidewalk, but kept his speed constant. Not being seen was good, but not being noticed was better: face forward; slow, steady gait; just out for a walk.
He moved only his eyes to scan a passing car. He squinted through the headlights. The windows were fogged with humidity after the summer rain, the driver obscured. Jack did not step away from the curb, and a few drops spattered his coat. Predictable movements, concerned only with his own problems, nothing interesting, nothing to worry about. The car rolled through a yellow stoplight, then passed into the night. Jack took a slow breath.
He quickened his pace, turned the corner, and came to the front door of the apartment tower. A woman stood leaning against the outside of the glass doors, smirking at him. Her black hair was buzzed short, her muscled arms crossed over a tight white sleeveless T-shirt. A small purse hung from the crook of one elbow, swaying by the knees of her tight jeans.
Jack slumped, as much as he could with a crossbow pressed to his chest anyway. He whispered “Liz, what the hell? You couldn’t wear something less noticeable?”
“What, like that ridiculous coat?”
“Where else should I keep my tools? A purse?”
Liz rolled her eyes. “God! Don’t remind me. I look like a damned prostitute.”
“A dominatrix maybe.”
She stood up straight and punched him in the shoulder. He staggered back a step, laughing.
She drew two pistols out of the purse, then threw it into the bushes.
“Whatever. Let’s do this.”
Jack opened his coat and fished his hand into a pocket.
“Hold on! You’ll trip the wards!”
“What does it matter, the cameras are right on us.” She gestured above them to the camera mounted over the door and its blinking red light.
Jack drew out a large stick of purple chalk. “Those are just for show. Nobody’s watching the electronics; not his style.”
“What about guards?”
He shook his head and began to draw runes onto the glass. “Not his style either. He’ll have a lot of thralls, but no allies. The book says he hasn’t allied with anyone since the fifth century.”
“Well if the book says it…”
“That thing has saved our lives more than once.”
There was a puff of air and a shower of green sparks.
Jack grinned. “There!”
He pocketed the chalk and pushed the glass door slowly inward.
They crept into the atrium. Liz aimed her pistols into the shadows, first one, then spinning to the next. Fluorescent light flickered from a single overhead light, but the rest were dark. Jack followed behind, tip of his crossbow pointed down, his eyes flicking back and forth.
The metal cage was down, preventing access to the cafeteria. In front there were several tables with chairs pushed not quite evenly around them. On the other side of the Atrium the information desk was dark: abandoned. The room smelled of cleaning fluid, and the white tiles reflected a thin sheen.
Jack flinched at every squeak of their shoes, shushing Liz more than once. After ignoring him several times she finally stopped, twisted her head around and silently scowled at him.
He held a finger up in front of his lips.
She aimed a pistol at the ceiling and made a rude gesture with her fingers.
At the click of a latch across the room they both dropped into a crouch. Beyond the tables the Employees Only door opened and an old man in a blue jumpsuit emerged, pulling a mop and wheeled bucket behind him.
He barely moved his legs, shuffling across the laminate tiles. Once out in the middle he dipped his mop in the bucket, then dragged it across the floor. Jack and Liz stayed low, sneaking around to keep the tables between them and the man.
Liz stopped, nearly causing Jack to bump into her. She turned her head to face him, eyes squinted, and pointed at the old man. She moved her arms around together, as if holding a mop. Jack craned his neck over the tables, and saw the the man was rubbing the mop on the floor completely dry: no water on the floor, mop, or in the bucket.
Jack frowned, tapped his finger on his temple, then shook his head.
He pointed toward the Employees Only door.
Liz nodded, then headed that way. As they passed a table Jack’s long coat snagged on one of the chairs, causing it to loudly squeak across the floor. They both flinched and tried to crouch lower.
The old man stopped, dropped his mop on the floor, and stood up straight. He turned in a full circle until he was facing them. He pointed a gnarled finger in their direction, then began to scream.
It wasn’t like any normal scream of surprise or pain, but a single, long, high-pitched wail. Movement caught Jack’s eye: up on the wall the camera’s round lens split in half and opened, revealing a black pupil. The eye blinked, then looked around the room. It scanned over the man, then followed his pointing finger and looked at them. It blinked again, then closed and returned to only a dark camera lens.
After a few moments there was a commotion on the other side of the Employees Only door, then it burst open. A dozen people poured through: men, women, some were only teenagers, and others were middle-aged. They had no uniform clothing: most of them wore jeans and T-shirts, though one couple wore a dress and three-piece suit. All of them held large kitchen knives, and in once case a butcher’s cleaver.
As on they turned and looked at Jack and Liz, then ran full-pelt toward them. The did not scream, snarl, bare their teeth, or show any emotion whatsoever. All of their faces were completely impassive. They did not speak or give any warning, but only ran, arms pumping and blades glinting in the flickering light.
Jack stood and staggered backward, swore, then loosed a crossbow bolt at them. The air rippled at the bolt’s passing, and one of them burst into blue flames, but did not stop running. Liz gasped.
Jack back-pedaled, trying to reload another bolt into the crossbow.
“Shoot, damn you!”
Liz stood. “They… they’re people.”
“Not any more! Look at their eyes, their faces. Now they’re his bullets.”
Liz snarled and raised both pistols. They were right up next to her, arms outstretched, knives raised and hands grasping for her. She fired, emptying both clips into the crowd.
They tripped, staggered and collapsed, mouths open in what looked like shock or pain, but still they made no sound, other than the thrashing of their clothes on the floor, and the crackling and sizzling of the one that still burned.
The old janitor shuffled quickly for the door. Just as he grasped the handle Jack turned and loosed a crossbow bolt, striking the man in the back. His jumpsuit burst into flames. The man flailed his arms, collapsed to his knees, then slumped to the floor in a smoldering heap.
“You… you didn’t have to-”
“Suck it up! I’m not about to have one of his mind-slaves stab me in the back, just because he used to be an old man, or because you wanted to show mercy to a monster.”
Jack began loading another bolt into his crossbow.
“Damnit Jack…” She rubbed a forearm across her face, then sighed and loaded new clips into her pistols. “We kill the Wizard, and this ends tonight.”
Jack locked the bolt in place. “Tonight.”
Liz strode to the Employees Only door and turned the handle. “Damn right.”
Suddenly the door exploded into her, flying off its hinges, shattering into splinters, and knocking her back several feet. She skidded across the tiles and collapsed into a heap.
Jack threw up his hands, catching several sharp wooden slivers in his arm. He staggered back and blinked. “Liz! What?”
The shape of an enormous man blocked the entire doorway. He was bare-chested, with blue skin and a ragged beard. His growl rumbled like a car engine, seeming to vibrate the entire room. He had to turn sideways to slip through the doorway, scraping large gouges in the metal frame with a pair of blood-red horns sticking out of this forehead.
“Liz, are you ok?”
The creature bared its teeth and let out a torrent of booming laughter.
“Bastard!” Jack loosed a crossbow bolt at it.
It snatched up a large chunk of the door from the floor and held it up as a shield. The bolt thudded into the wood, which immediately caught fire. The creature howled and threw it aside, shaking its hand, but unburned.
Jack backed away, desperately trying to load another bolt. His belt was empty. He fished into his coat pocket for more.
The creature snarled and quickly advanced, slapping a table out of its way, where it flew against the wall and shattered in a spray of splinters and wrecked metal.
“Come on, Liz! Get up! Shoot it!”
Jack backed against the wall. He pulled out a small case of bolts, but his sweater fingers fumbled and nearly dropped it. Finally he had to drop the case, but snapped the bolt into place and took aim.
The creature halted its advance ten strides away. It narrowed its eyes, and grabbed a large piece of the door, holding it over its chest.
They slowly circled each other: Jack with his head cocked, looking down the crossbow sights, the creature peering over the mangled door.
“Come on Liz. You can make it. I need you!”
“Liz!” Jacked looked over at her.
Her muscled arms were criss-crossed with scratches. One of her pistols was gone, but the other was still clutched in her hand. Her face was a bloody mass of swelling bruises. A jagged shard of wood stuck out of one of her eye sockets.
The monster strode closer. Jacked hopped backward and looked down the crossbow sights. The monster slowed again, crouching behind the half door, slowly edging forward.
“Jack! Jack, my face! I can’t see! God, Jack, where are you! My eyes!”
“Don’t touch it! Your… can you see out of your right eye? Blink, Liz!”
“God, what the hell is that!”
“Shoot it Liz, shoot it!”
The creature bellowed and charged him.
Liz sat up, blinking, lifted her gun and emptied it into the monster, but he had spun the door to face her.
Fragments of wood tore away as the bullets dug into the door, but none struck the monster. It bellowed and charged Liz, raising the door high to smash it down on her.
Jack aimed his crossbow and let loose, striking the creature directly in the center of its bare back.
It howled, stopping its charge and dropping the door, desperately reaching for the middle of its back, but unable to grasp the bolt, sunken halfway into its muscle. The skin bubbled and blackened, and the monster twisted and spun, still trying to pull the bolt free.
Then it erupted in blue flames, crawling over its back, up its arms, then engulfing its face, chest and legs. It screamed and thrashed, crashing into walls, rolling on the floor, and slapping at its own skin.
It howled and flailed, and finally collapsed onto the tiles, still burning. The room filled with a horrible smoke, and the smell of rotten, burning meat.
Jack staggered to Liz and collapsed onto his knees, breathing hard.
She smiled up at him.
“Did I get him?”
Jacked started to laugh, but then coughed on the smoke. In the distance he heard police sirens.
“Liz, can you get up? We have to go.”
Jack grasped her wrist, and pulled her up.
“Ah! My knee!”
“Does your other leg work?”
“Ow! Yeah, I think so. God, my eyes, Jack. My eyes!”
He lifted her up and put her arm around his neck. She hopped beside him.
“It’s ok, Liz. We’ll make it. Just keep moving.”
They stumbled toward the glass door. Red and blue lights flickered through the smoke.
Jack sat back a soft recliner. The room was illuminated only by a computer screen out of his view. For a long moment the only sound was the soft clicking of the mouse.
“It was the worst one yet, doctor Cummings.”
“Mm-hmm.” She clicked again, then started typing.
“I’m serious. It’s never been like this. I can’t sleep. Hell, I don’t want to.”
“Just nightmares though? No hallucinations?”
“No, I’m not hallucinating.” Jack sighed. “Not yet, anyway. It’s never during the day, just at night, at home. What do you think it is?”
“Are you taking any anti-smoking medications?”
“I’ve never smoked.”
“Maybe you should be.”
Jack sat up. “I don’t really like pills. I’ve always been able to manage everything with sleep and food.”
“Do you meditate?”
“I’m not superstitious.”
“That’s not the point. It’s about calm.”
“Do you really think that will help?”
She shrugged without looking away from the screen. “It’s worth a shot.”
“But you don’t think it means anything?”
“You said you weren’t superstitious.”
“You know what I mean.”
“The brain’s all chemicals and electricity. Watch your diet. Get bloodwork done. Have your water tested.”
“There was this woman, too.”
“Not your significant other?”
“Are you unhappy with Karen?”
“No, we’re happy. I couldn’t ask for better.”
Dr. Cummings typed for a few minutes.
“Are you attracted to her? Could you have seen her somewhere, and subconsciously wished for more? An exciting fantasy?”
“I’ve only ever seen her in the dreams.”
“More than once?”
“Well, yes, now that you mention it. But always doing something crazy.”
“Yeah, like some kind of show, always talking about them, hunting them, fighting… all kinds of things.”
“Hmm. Sounds like you might be bored at work.”
“This place is plenty stressful!”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Too mundane, maybe?”
“I don’t like excitement.”
“Maybe you only think you don’t.”
“No I’m pretty sure. I’m having panic attacks, doc. This is a nightmare!”
“Like the others?”
“No, damn it! I just mean it sucks! Things are falling apart.”
“You have a good job. You own your own house. You have a good girlfriend, so you say.”
“I said so, didn’t I?”
“Okay, Well things don’t sound that bad. You’re not a teenager any more: maybe you’re getting older. Maybe you need to start taking sleep aids.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Jack stood. “I have to go back to work.”
She looked at Jack. “Jack! Make sure you don’t let it affect your patients.”
“I’ll be fine. I’d take time off before I let it get that far.”
She went back to typing. “No more than 36 hours awake.”
“I know, I know.”
He turned his head on his way out the door. “Hey, Thanks for listening. Seriously.”
She kept typing. “Mm-hmm.”