The surgical ward was quiet but for the hum of the overhead lights and the occasional clink of a scalpel being laid on a metal tray. Zander Klein and Victoria Fletcher worked in silence, swabbing the surgical site with alcohol and administering injections. Klein glanced at the clock. Midnight. Plenty of time.
The homeless man's eye twitched. One finger quivered as his body tried without success to lift itself from the operating table.
Klein scowled and barked, "Nurse Fletcher! More paralytic."
With a brusque nod, the woman at his elbow stepped silently around him and slipped the needle into the patient's arm. As always, her stealth and economy of movement impressed him. She was a good woman, ran a tight ship. Behind her back, the other nurses called her Nurse Ninja and sometimes Nurse Ratched.
Klein suspected she liked it.
The nurses talked about him too. The sudden silence that descended on the nurses' station when he passed told him as much. They needn't have bothered; he'd heard it all before.
"...dead eyes, like a poisonous snake."
"...found one of his patience strapped to the bed with his eyelids taped open. He called it some new therapy."
"...creepy old bastard. I wouldn't turn a family member over to him for all the tea in China."
People did, though. He had a wall full of diplomas and an impressive collection of leather-bound books on his shelf, the titles carefully chosen to evoke trust. Besides, creepy or not, he said what families wanted to hear, and if anyone saw beneath his veneer of empathy, they chose not to acknowledge it.
He glanced down at the patient's hand and touched the tip of the scalpel to the finger that had wiggled. Blood beaded around the blade, but the finger didn't move. Klein smiled. The patient stared at the ceiling, eyes watering in the glare of the operating room lights, the eyeballs twitching so violently they all but vibrated in the sockets.
Klein cupped his gloved hand over the man's shaved skull and crooned, "Sssshh. I know you're frightened. But it will all be over soon."
He handed Fletcher the scalpel and picked up the saw, flicked the power button with his thumb. At the whine of the saw, the patient moaned. A metallic tang rolled off the man, a smell the doctor recognized as fear.
"Sshh. Almost done. Nurse. Sponge."
The saw bit through skin and into bone. Minutes, later, Klein turned off the saw, set it aside, and closed his hand over the man's head. The skull pulled away with a sucking sound, and the man's brain lay exposed, pink and pulsing like a bowl full of intestines.
Fletcher let out a breath and leaned in for a closer look. Fascinated, Klein slipped his index finger between two folds of frontal lobe, and—
The operating room door banged open. Fletcher jumped, and Klein's finger jerked, sending a fleck of gray matter flying. Jerry Pelton, Chief of Psychiatric Surgery, stood in the doorway wearing a pair of plaid pants and a red shirt beneath a white lab coat. As he took in the scene in the operating room, his face paled, then reddened until it matched his shirt. "What the . . .?" he sputtered. Then, "Klein, what the hell is going on here?"
"It was a crisis," Klein said. "There was no time to call you."
Pelton stalked to the operating table and looked down at the patient. "Where's your anesthesiologist? My God, man, did you just open up this man's brain without anesthesia?"
"Pain is the impetus for change in the organism," Klein said softly. "It's a new theory. The pain is the point."
"That's—" Pelton began, but whether he was about to say monstrous or brilliant, Klein would never know, because Fletcher had slipped behind the Chief Psychiatric Surgeon with her silent Nurse Ninja feet and plunged a syringe full of paralytic into his neck.
Pelton gave an indignant, startled squawk and crumpled like an empty coat.
Klein pinched the bridge of his nose. Pelton had known Klein was operating. Ergo, someone had tipped him off. Ergo, things were unraveling. No time to close up the patient's skull, and leaving him behind to talk was unthinkable.
"I'm truly sorry," he said to the man on the table, "but the operation was unsuccessful."
With one hand, he held the man's nose closed. With the other, he covered the man's mouth. The body quivered, and the eyeballs spasmed, then turned to glass.
Fletcher said, "Do you think the treatment would have helped him?"
Klein shook his head. "We'll never know."
There were a few tense moments as they bundled the two men, one dead and one paralyzed, onto gurneys and trundled them past a few sleepless patients in the commons area and the night nurse, who was dozing—or pretending to doze—in the glass-enclosed observation room. Whoever had tipped off Pelton was keeping a low profile.
In the parking garage, they loaded Pelton and the dead man into Klein's van. Fletcher drove Pelton's Caddy. As they pulled out, Klein could hear the Partridge Family singing, "I Think I Love You" through the Caddy's open window.
Pelton, recently divorced, lived conveniently alone. They left his car in the long-term lot at the airport, then drove to his house, where they cleared out his wall safe and spent more time than Klein would have liked planting clues to Pelton's disappearance. When the police arrived, they would learn that Pelton had been experimenting on patients. When his colleague, Zander Klein, had threatened to expose him, Pelton had murdered Klein and fled under a false name to South America, along with his head nurse. It was the best Klein could come up with on short notice.
They pumped more paralytic into Pelton, stopped at Fletcher's apartment long enough for her to pack a suitcase, then drove on to Klein's house.
"Wait here," he said to Fletcher and went upstairs for Timmy.
His older brother gave him a cockeyed grin that both infuriated him and melted his heart. The drugs that kept Tim's demons at bay had dulled his mind and left him all but an imbecile.
"Time to move, Buddy," Klein said.
"Police coming again?"
"You gonna make me better today, Zan?"
He thought of the homeless man's brain, lost to him now. Another lost opportunity. "I'm working on it, Buddy."
Just as he'd been working on it as a boy, when he'd dissected the brains of living animals, just as he'd been working on it all these years, in hospital after hospital, fleeing each one before he was caught. The cost in pain and human lives had been prodigious, but it would all be worth it when he finally found a cure for mental illness.
With Timmy strapped into the back seat and Pelton stretched across the floor at his feet, Klein and Fletcher packed as many of his notes and as much of his equipment as they could fit into the van. Then they hauled the homeless man into the house, tucked him into Klein's bed, and doused the room with gasoline. Klein felt a pang of regret as the house went up in flames. It had been a good house, isolated and practically soundproof, and Klein had liked it.
For a moment, he and Fletcher watched the house burn. Then she said, "You need a place of your own. Somewhere you can do your work and not be disturbed."
"Places like that are hard to come by."
"I know a place. It belonged to my mother's family, so now I guess it's mine. It's like the land that time forgot."
"This place. Where is it?"
She tossed him the keys to the van. "First we empty Pelton's bank account. Then just drive south. Don't stop until we get to Tennessee."
Fletcher's place was an abandoned shirt factory in Auburntown, a town so rural you couldn't even find it on a map. It was perfect. They didn't even have a police department. Stocked with to-go baskets of chicken sandwiches and ice-cold Coca-Colas from the nearby Smitty's diner, they unchained the gate and pulled to the rear of the factory. Pelton, still pumped full of paralytic drugs, gave a frightened huff as they hauled him inside. Timmy watched while Fletcher strapped Pelton to an abandoned table.
Klein prowled the place, planning. His office, near the front. The cafeteria, here. There, the patient rooms. Here, the operating rooms. There, the showers. And at the entrance, the long, pastel-colored hallway lined with inspirational posters: If you can dream it, you can be it; If you think you can't or if you think you can, you're right; Live the life you've imagined. He could even see the sign out front, a wrought-iron archway reading "Welcome to Auburntown Asylum."
He returned to find Pelton beginning to squirm and Fletcher preparing a syringe.
"Nurse Fletcher," Klein said, "Could you please bring me my scalpels?"
"You know," Fletcher said, "It's common practice for people who've committed murder together to call each other by their first names."
Klein smiled, as Pelton's eyes twitched in silent screams. "Victoria, would you mind bringing me my scalpels?"