Robert R. McCammon's "Best Friends"

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Best Friends

by Robert R. McCammon

Originally published in
Night Visions IV
1987
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One

He hurried across the parking lot, through a nasty stinging rain, and into the entrance of the Marbury Memorial Hospital. Under his right arm, in a dark brown satchel, was the life history of a monster.

He shrugged droplets of water from his raincoat and left wet tracks on the jade-green linoleum floor as he approached the nurse at the central information desk. He recognized Mrs. Curtis, and she said good morning and opened a drawer to get a nametag for him.

"Wet day," she commented, her glasses resting on the edge of her nose as she watched him sign in. "Lot of doctors going to make some money off this weather.''

"I imagine so." He dripped a few water spots on the page and tried to brush them away before they sank through. In firm, spiky penmanship, he wrote Dr. Jack Shannon, followed by the date and time, 10/16 and 10:57 a.m., and his destination, 8th floor. He looked up the list of other names and noted that the public defender, Mr. Foster, was not yet here. Should he wait in the lobby or go up alone? He decided to wait. No sense rushing things.

"Full caseload today?" Mrs. Curtis asked him. It was in her voice. She knew. Of course she knows. Jack thought. Probably the entire hospital staff knew, and certainly Mrs. Curtis, who'd been a fixture behind the information desk for the six years that Jack had been coming here, would know. The newspapers had screamed the case, and so had the T.V. stations. "No," he said. "Just seeing one."

"Uh huh." She waited for him to say more, and pretended to watch the rain falling past the picture window. The sky was gray, the rain was gray, and all the color of the forest that surrounded Marbury Memorial seemed to be shades of gray as well. The city of Birmingham lay about four miles to the west, hidden by clouds that had skulked into the valley and settled there, brooding. It was Alabama autumn at its worst, humid and heavy enough to make bones moan. Just three days ago, the air had been cool enough for Marbury Memorial's custodial staff to shut down the air-conditioners; they remained off, and the old hospital—built out of red bricks and gray stone in 1947—held heat and dampness in its walls, exuding them in stale breaths that moved ghostlike through the corridors.

"Well," Mrs. Curtis said at last, and pushed her glasses off her nose with a wiry finger, "I expect you've seen worse."

Jack didn't answer. He wasn't sure he had seen worse; and, in fact, he was quite sure he had not. He wished Mrs. Curtis a good day and walked to the lobby's seating area, facing the picture window and the grayness beyond. He found a discarded newspaper, took off his wet raincoat and sat down to kill some time, because he didn't care to go up to the eighth floor without the public defender along.

And there it was, on page one: a picture of the Clausen house, and a story with the headline Juvenile Held in Bizarre Triple Slaying. Jack looked at the picture as rain tapped on the window nearby. It was just a white-painted suburban house with front porch and three stone steps, a neatly-trimmed yard and a carport. Nothing special about it, really; just one of many hundreds in that area of town. It looked like a house where Tupperware parties might be hosted, where cakes would be baked in a small but adequate kitchen and folks would hunker down in front of the den's T.V. to watch football games on Saturday afternoons, in a neighborhood where everybody knew each other and life was pleasant. It looked all-American and ordinary, except for one clue: the bars on the windows.

Of course a lot of people bought those wrought-iron burglar bars and placed them over the windows and doors. Unfortunately, that was part of modern civilization—but these burglar bars were different. These were set inside the windows, not on the outside. These appeared to have the purpose of keeping something in, rather than keeping intruders out. Other than the strange placement of the burglar bars, the Clausen house was neither especially attractive nor displeasing. It just was.

On page two the story continued, and there were pictures of the victims. A grainy wedding photograph of Mr. and Mrs. Clausen, a fourth-grade school shot of the little girl. Thank God there were no pictures of the house's interior after the slayings, Jack thought; he was already having a tough enough time maintaining his professional composure.

He put the newspaper aside. There was nothing new in the story, and Jack could've recited the facts from memory. Everything was contained in the satchel, and the rest of what Jack sought to know lay in the mind of a boy on the eighth floor.

He listened to the rhythm of the hospital—the polite bing-bonging of signal bells through the intercom system, followed by requests for various doctors; the quiet, intense conversations of other people, friends and relatives of patients, in the seating area; the squeak of a nurse's shoes on the linoleum; the constant opening and closing of elevator doors. An ambulance's siren wailed from the emergency entrance on the west side of the hospital. A wheelchair creaked past, a black nurse pushing a pregnant dark-haired woman to the elevators en route to the maternity ward on the second floor. Two austere doctors in white coats stood talking to an elderly man, his face gray and stricken; they all entered an elevator together, and the numbers marched upward. The daily patterns of life and death were in full motion here. Jack mused. A hospital seemed to be a universe in itself, teeming with small comedies and tragedies, an abode of miracles and secrets from the morgue in its chill basement to the eighth-floor's wide corridors where mental patients paced like caged tigers.

He checked his wristwatch. Eleven-thirteen. Foster was running late, and that wasn't his usual—

"Dr. Shannon?"

Jack looked up. Standing next to his chair was a tall red-haired woman, raindrops clinging to her coat and rolling off her closed-up umbrella. "Yes," he said.

"I'm Kay Douglas, from the public defender's office." She offered a hand, and he stood up and shook it. Her grip was sturdy, all-business, and did not linger. "Mr. Foster can't make it today."

"Oh. I thought the appointment was set."

"It was, but Mr. Foster has other business. I'm to take his place."

Jack nodded. "I see." And he did: Bob Foster had political ambitions. Being directly associated with a case like this, with all the attendant publicity, was not expedient for Foster's career. Naturally, he'd send an aide. "Fine with me," Jack said. "Are you signed in?"

"Yes. Shall we go?" She didn't wait for him to agree; she turned and walked with a purposeful stride to the elevators, and he followed a few steps behind.

They shared an elevator with a young, fresh-faced couple and a slim black nurse; the couple got off on two, and when the nurse departed on the fourth floor. Jack said, "Have you met him yet?"

"No, not yet. Have you?"

He shook his head. The elevator continued its ascent, old gears creaking. The woman's pale green eyes watched the numbers advance above the door. "So Mr. Foster thought this was a little too hot to handle, huh?" Jack said. She didn't respond. "I don't blame him. The prosecutor gets all the good publicity in cases like this."

"Dr. Shannon," she said, and gave him a quick, piercing glance, "I don't think there's ever been a case like this before. I hope to God there isn't another."

The elevator jarred slightly, slowing down as it reached the uppermost floor. The doors rumbled open, and they had reached Marbury Memorial's psychiatric ward.

Two

"Hiya, docky!" a silver-haired woman in a bright blue shift, Adidas sneakers and a headband called out, marching along the corridor toward him. Her face was a mass of wrinkles, her lips rubbery and daubed with crimson lipstick. "You come to see me today?"

"Not today, Margie. Sorry."

"Shit! Docky, I need a bridge partner! Everybody's crazy up here!" Margie looked long and hard at Kay Douglas. "Who's this? Your girlfriend?"

"No. Just ... a friend," he said, to simplify things.

"Red hair on the head don't exactly mean red hair on the pussy," Margie warned, and Kay's face flushed to a similar hue. A gaunt, elderly man dressed immaculately in a pinstriped suit, white shirt and tie strode up, making a low grunting noise in his throat. "Stop that shit, Ritter!" Margie demanded. "Nobody wants to hear your 'gator imitations!"

Other people were approaching from up and down the corridor. Kay retreated a pace, and heard the elevator doors hiss shut at her back. She looked over her shoulder, noting that the elevator on this floor had no button, but was summoned by a key.

"Now you're caught!" Margie said to her, with a crooked smile. "Just like us!"

"Ain't nobody said we was gonna have us a parade this mornin'!" a mighty voice boomed. "Give Doc Shannon room to breathe, now!" A husky black nurse with white hair, massive girth and legs like dark logs moved toward Jack and Kay. Ritter gave her one more throaty grunt, like an alligator's love song, and then obeyed the nurse.

"Docky's come up to see me today, Rosalee!" Margie protested. "Don't be rude!"

"He ain't come up to see nobody on our ward," Rosalee told her. The black woman had gray eyes, set in a square and rugged face. "He's got other business."

"What other business?"

"Rosalee means Dr. Shannon's on his way to see the new arrival," said a younger man. He sat in a chair across the corridor, turned to face the elevator. "You know. The crazy fucker."

"Watch your mouth, Mr. Chambers," Rosalee said curtly. "There are ladies present."

"Women, yeah. Ladies, I'm not so sure." He was in his mid-thirties, wore faded jeans and a blue-checked shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and he took a draw on a cigarette and plumed smoke into the air. "You a lady, miss?" he asked Kay, staring at her with dark brown, deep-socketed eyes.

She met his gaze. The man had a brown crewcut and the grizzle of a beard, and he might have been handsome but for the boniness of his face and those haunted eyes. "I've been told so." she answered, and her voice only quavered a little bit.

"Yeah?" he grinned wolfishly. "Well. . . somebody lied."

"Show some respect now, Mr. Chambers." Rosalee cautioned. "We want to be courteous to our visitors, and all those who don't care to be courteous might have their smokin' privileges yanked. Got it?" She stood, hands on huge hips, waiting for a response.

He regarded the cigarette's burning end for a few seconds in silence. Then, grudgingly: "Got it."

"How're you feeling today, Dave?" Jack asked, glad the little drama had been resolved. "You still have headaches?"

"Uh huh. One big fat black bitch of a headache."

"Out." Rosalee's voice was low this time, and Jack knew she meant business. "Put your cigarette out, Mr. Chambers."

He puffed on it, still grinning.

"I said put the cigarette out, please sir." She stepped toward him. "I won't ask you again."

One last long draw, and Dave Chambers let the smoke leak through his nostrils. Then he opened his mouth and popped the burning butt inside. Kay gasped as the man's throat worked.

A little whorl of smoke escaped from between his lips. "That suit you?" he asked the nurse.

"Yes, thank you." She glanced at Kay. "Don't fret, ma'am. He does that trick all the time. Puts it out with his spit before he swallers it."

"Better than some of the pigshit they give you to eat around this joint," Dave said, drawing his legs up to his chest. He wore scuffed brown loafers and white socks.

"I think I'd like some water." Kay walked past Rosalee to a water fountain. A small woman with a bird's-nest of orange. hair followed beside her like a shadow, and Kay tried very hard not to pay any attention. Foster had told her Marbury Memorial's mental ward was a rough place, full of county cases and understaffed as well, but he'd voiced his confidence that she could handle the task. She was twenty-eight years old, fresh from a legal practice in south Alabama, and it was important to her that she fit in at Foster's office. She'd only been on the job for two months, and she presumed this was another one of the public defender's tests; the first test, not three weeks ago, had involved counting the bullet holes in a bloated, gassy corpse dredged up from the bottom of Logan Martin lake.

"Good water. Yum yum," the woman with orange hair said, right in her ear, and Kay gurgled water up her nose and dug frantically in her purse for a tissue.

"Dr. Cawthorn's already in there." Rosalee nodded toward the white door, way down at the end of the hallway. At this distance the doorway seemed to float in the air, framed between white walls and white ceiling. "Been there for maybe fifteen minutes."

"Has he pulled the boy out of containment yet?" Jack asked.

"Doubt it. Wouldn't do that without you and the lawyer there. She is a lawyer, ain't she?"

"Yes."

"Thought so. Got the lawyer's look about her. Anyways, you know how Dr. Cawthorn is. Probably just sittin' in there, thinkin'."

"We're late. We'd better go in."

Margie grasped at his sleeve. "Docky, you watch out for that fella. Saw his face when they brung him in. He'll shoot rays out of his eyes and kill you dead, I swear to God he will."

"I'll remember that, thanks." He pulled gently free, and gave Margie a composed smile that was totally false. His guts had begun to chum, and his hands were icy. "Who's on security?" he asked Rosalee.

"Gil Moon's on the door. Bobby Crisp's on desk duty."

"Good enough." He glanced back to make sure Kay was ready to go. She was wiping her nose with a tissue and trying to get away from the small orange-haired woman everyone knew as 'Kitten'. He started for the door, with Rosalee at his side and Kay lagging behind.

"Better not go in there. Dr. Shannon!" Dave Chambers warned. "Better stay away from that crazy fucker!"

"Sorry. It's my job," he answered.

"Fuck the job, man. You've only got one life."

Jack didn't reply. He passed the nurse's desk, where Mrs. Marion and Mrs. Stewart were on duty, and continued on toward the door. It seemed to be coming up much too fast. The documents and photographs in his satchel emerged from memory with startling clarity, and almost hobbled him. But he was a psychiatrist—a very good one, according to his credentials—and had worked with the criminally insane many times before. This ought not to bother him. Ought not to. Determining whether a person was fit to stand trial or not was part of his job, and in that capacity he'd seen many things that were distasteful. But this . . . this was different. The photographs, the circumstances, the plain white house with burglar bars inside the windows . . . very different, and deeply disturbing.

The white door was there before he was ready for it. He pressed a button on the wall and heard the buzzer go off inside. Through the square of glass inset in the door. Jack watched Gil Moon approach and take the proper key from the ring at his belt. Gil, a barrel-chested man with close-cropped gray hair and eyes as droopy as a hound's, nodded recognition and slid the key into the lock. At the same time, Rosalee Partain put her own key into the second lock. They disengaged with gunshot cracks, so loud they made Kay jump. Steady! she told herself. You're supposed to be a professional, so by God you'd better act like one!

The door, made of wood over metal, was pulled open. Gil said, "Mornin', Dr. Shannon. Been expectin' you."

"Have fun," Rosalee said to Kay, and the nurse relocked the door on her side after Gil had pushed it shut again.

He locked his side. "Dr. Cawthorn's down in the conference room. Howdy do, miss."

"Hello," she said uneasily, and she followed Jack Shannon and the attendant along a green tile-floored corridor with locked doors on each side. The light was fluorescent and harsh, and at the corridor's end was a single barred window that faced gray woods. A slender young black man, wearing the same white uniform as Gil Moon, sat behind a desk at the corridor's midpoint; he'd been reading a Rolling Stone magazine and listening to music over headphones, but he stood up as Shannon approached. Bobby Crisp had large, slightly protuberant dark brown eyes and wore a gold pin in his right nostril. "Hi, Dr. Shannon," he said, glanced quickly at the red-haired woman and gave her a nod of greeting.

"Morning, Bobby. How goes it?"

"It goes," he answered, with a shrug. "Just floating between the worms and the angels, I guess."

"Guess so. Are we all set up?"

"Yes sir. Dr. Cawthorn's waiting in there." He motioned toward the closed door marked Conference. "Do you want Clausen out of containment now?"

"Yes, that'd be fine. Shall we?" Jack moved to the conference room, opened it and held it for Kay.

Inside, there was gray carpet on the floor and pine paneling on the walls. Barred windows with frosted glass admitted murky light, and recessed squares of fluorescents glowed at the ceiling. There was a single long table with three chairs at one end and a single chair down at the other. At one of the three sat a bald and brown-bearded man wearing horn-rimmed glasses and reading from a file folder. He stood up when he saw Kay. "Uh . . . hello. I thought Mr. Foster was coming."

"This is Kay Douglas, from Foster's office," Jack explained. "Miss Douglas, this is Dr. Eric Cawthorn, head of psychiatric services."

"Good to meet you." They shook hands, and Kay propped her umbrella up in a comer, took off her damp raincoat and hung it on a wall hook. Underneath, she was wearing a plain dark pinstriped jacket and skirt.

"Well, I guess we're ready to proceed." Jack sat down at the head of the table and put his satchel beside him, popping it open. "I've asked that Clausen be brought out of containment. Has he been difficult?"

"No, not at all." Cawthorn took his seat. "He's been quiet since they brought him in, but for security reasons we've kept him suppressed."

"Suppressed?" Kay sat down opposite Cawthorn. "What's that mean?"

"Straitjacketed," he answered. His pale blue eyes cut quickly to Jack and then returned to the woman. "It's standard procedure when we have a case of vio—''

"But you said Mr. Clausen's been quiet since he was given over to your custody. How do you justify a straitjacket for a quiet patient?"

"Miss Douglas?" Jack brought a folder up from his satchel and put it before him. "How much do you know about this case? I know Foster must've briefed you, you've seen the newspaper stories. But have you seen the police photographs?"

"No. Mr. Foster said he wanted a fresh and unbiased opinion."

Jack smiled grimly. "Bullshit," he said. "Foster knew you'd see the pictures here. He probably knew I'd show them to you. Well, I won't disappoint him ... or you." He opened the folder and pushed a half-dozen photographs across the table to her.

Kay reached out for them. Jack saw her hand freeze in midair. The picture on top showed a room with furniture shattered into pieces, and on the walls were brown patterns that could only be sprays of blood flung by violent motion. The words HAIL SATAN had been drawn in gore, the letters oozing down to the baseboard. Near those words, stuck to the wall, were yellow clots of ... yes, she knew what they must be. Human tissue.

With one finger, she moved the top picture aside. The second photograph drove a cold nail through her throat; it showed a pile of broken limbs that had been flung like garbage into a room's comer. A severed leg was propped up not unlike the umbrella she'd just put aside. A smashed head lay in a gray puddle of brains. Fingers clawed upward on disembodied hands. A torso had been ripped open, spilling all its secrets.

"Oh," she whispered, and tasted hot bile.

And then the conference room's door opened again, and the boy who had torn his mother, father and ten-year-old sister to pieces walked through.

Three

With no hesitation. Tim Clausen went to the chair at the far end of the table. Gil Moon and Bobby Crisp walked on either side, though the boy did indeed wear a tightly-cinched straitjacket. He sat down, the fluorescents blooming in the round lenses of his glasses, and smiled at his visitors. It was a friendly smile, with not a hint of menace. "Hi," he said.

"Hello, Tim," Dr. Cawthorn replied. "I'd like you to meet Dr. Jack Shannon and Miss Kay Douglas. They're here to talk to you."

"Of course they are. Nice to meet you."

Kay was still stunned by the pictures. She couldn't bear to look at the third one, and she found it hard to look into the boy's face, as well. She had read the case file, knew his description and that he'd just turned seventeen, but the combination of the photographs and Timothy Clausen's smiling, beatific face was almost more than she could take. She pushed the pictures away and sat with her hands tightly clenched in her lap, damning Foster for not preparing her more thoroughly. This is the second test, she realized. He wants to find out if I'm made of ice or crap. Damn him!

"I like your hair," Tim Clausen said to her. "The color's pretty."

"Thank you," she managed, and shifted in her chair. The boy's eyes were black and steady, two bits of coal in a pale face marked here and there with the eruptions of acne. His hair was light brown and had been cropped almost to the scalp. Beneath his eyes were the violet hollows of either fatigue or madness.

Jack had been examining the boy as well. Tim Clausen was a small boy for his age, and his head was oddly shaped, the cranium bulging slightly; he seemed to hold his neck rigid, as if he feared he couldn't balance the weight of his head. The boy looked at each of them in turn—long, cool appraisals. He did not blink.

"You can leave him with us," Cawthorn said to the two attendants, and they moved out of the conference room and closed the door. "Tim, how're you feeling today?"

His smile broadened. "Almost free."

"I mean physically. Any aches or pains, any complaints?"

"No sir. I'm feeling just fine."

"Good." He took a minute to look through the notes he'd written. "Do you know why you're here?"

"Sure." A pause.

"Would you like to tell us?"

"No," he replied. "I'm tired of answering questions. Dr. Cawthorn. I'd like to ask some. Can I?"

"What kind of questions?"

Tim's attention drifted to Kay. "I want to know things about these people. The lady first. Who are you?"

She glanced at Cawthorn, and he nodded that she should comply. Jack had gathered the photographs back and was studying them, but listening intently. "As Dr. Cawthorn said, my name is Kay Douglas. I'm representing you with the public defender's off—"

"No, no!" Tim interrupted, with an expression of impatience. "Who are you? Like: are you married? Divorced? Have any kids? What religion are you? What's your favorite color?"

"Uh . . . well ... no, I'm not married." Divorced, yes, but she wasn't about to tell him that. "No children. I'm—" This is ridiculous! she thought. Why should she be telling private things to this boy? He was waiting for her to continue, his eyes impassive. "I'm Catholic," she went on. "I guess my favorite color's green."

"Any boyfriends? You live alone?"

"I'm afraid I don't see what this has to do with—"

"It's not fun to answer questions, is it?" Tim asked. "Not fun at all. Well, if you want me to answer your questions you'll have to answer mine first. You live alone, I think. Probably dating a couple of guys. Maybe sleeping with them, too." Kay couldn't control her blush, and Tim laughed. "I'm right, huh? Knew I was! Are you a good Catholic or a bad Catholic?"

"Tim?" Cawthorn's voice was gentle but firm. "I think you're overstepping a little bit now. We all want to get this over as soon as possible, don't we?"

"Now you." Tim ignored Cawthorn, his eyes aimed at Jack. "What's your story?"

Jack put aside a photograph that showed gory fingerpaintings on the kitchen wall of the Clausen house. "I've been married for fourteen years, my wife and I have two sons, I'm a Methodist and my favorite color is dark blue. I have no extramarital lovers, I'm a basketball fan and I like Chinese food. Anything else?"

Tim hesitated. "Yes. Do you believe in God?'

"I believe . . . there's a supreme being, yes. How about you?"

"Oh, I believe in a supreme being. Sure thing. Do you like the taste of blood?"

Jack made sure he kept his face emotionless. "Not especially."

"My supreme being does," Tim said. "He likes it a lot." He rocked back and forth a few times, and the straitjacket fabric rustled. His heavy head wobbled on his stalky neck. "Okay. Just wanted to find out who my interrogators were. Shoot."

"May I?" Jack inquired, and Cawthorn motioned for him to go ahead. "Tim, what I'm trying to determine, with the help of Miss Douglas and the public defender's office, is your mental state on the night of October 12th, between the hours of ten and eleven. Do you know what incident I'm referring to?"

Tim was silent, staring at one of the frosted-glass windows. Then: "Sure. That's when they came. They trashed the place and split."

"In your statement to Lieutenant Markus of the Birmingham police department, you indicated 'they' came to your parent's house, and that 'they'—" He found a photocopy of the statement in his satchel and read the part he sought: "Quoting, 'they did the damage. I couldn't do anything to stop them, not even if I'd wanted to. I didn't. They came and did the damage and after they were through they went home and I called the cops because I knew somebody had heard the screaming.' End quote. Is that correct, Tim?"

"Guess so." He kept staring at a fixed spot on the window, just past Jack's shoulder. His voice sounded thick.

"Would you tell me who you meant by 'they'?"

Tim shifted again, and the straitjacket rubbed on his backrest. A scatter of rain pelted the windows. Kay could feel her heart pounding, and she had her hands folded tightly on the table before her.

"My friends," Tim said quietly, "My best friends."

"I see." He didn't really, but at least this was one step forward. "Can you tell me their names?"

"Their names," Tim repeated. "You probably couldn't pronounce them."

"You pronounce them for me, then."

"My friends don't like for just anybody to know their names. Not their real names, at least. I've made up names for them: Adolf, Frog and Mother. My best friends."

There was a moment of silence. Cawthorn shuffled his notes and Jack studied the ceiling and formulated his next question. Kay beat him to it: "Who are they? I mean . . . where do they come from?"

Tim smiled again, as if he welcomed the query. "Hell," he said. "That's where they live."

"By Adolf," Jack said, measuring his words, "I presume you mean Hitler? Is that right?"

"I call him that, but that's not who he is. He's a lot older. But he took me to a place once, where there were walls and barbed wire and bodies were getting thrown into furnaces. You could smell the skin cook, like barbecue on the Fourth of July." He closed his eyes behind the round-lensed glasses. "I got a guided tour, see. There were Nazi soldiers all over the place, just like in the old pictures, and there were chimneys spouting brown smoke that smelled like hair on fire. A sweet smell. And there were people playing violins, and other people digging graves. Adolf speaks German. That's why I call him Adolf."

Jack looked at one of the photographs. It showed bloody swastikas on the wall over the disemboweled torso of a little girl. He felt as if he were sweating on the inside of his skin, the outer surface cold and clammy. Somehow—without any weapons or implements that the police could identify—the boy sitting at the far end of the table had ripped his parents and sister to pieces. Just torn them apart and thrown the pieces against the walls in an orgy of violence, then marked the walls with HAIL SATAN, swastikas, weirdly animalistic faces and obscenities in a dozen languages, all in fresh blood and inner matter. But what had he used to pull them apart? Surely human hands weren't capable of such strength, and on the corpses were deep bite marks and evidence of claws at work. Eyes had been gouged out, teeth had been knocked from gaping mouths, ears and noses had been chewed away.

It was the worst case of pure savagery he'd ever seen. But what kept knocking against the walls of his mind were those scrawled obscenities—in German, Danish, Italian, French, Greek, Spanish and six more languages including Arabic. According to the boy's school records, he'd made a low 'C' in Latin. That was it. So where had those languages come from? "Who taught you Greek, Tim?" Jack asked.

The boy's eyes opened. "I don't know Greek. Frog does."

"Frog. Okay. Tell me about Frog."

"He's . . . ugly. Like a frog. He likes to jump, too." Tim leaned forward slightly, as if confiding a secret, and though he sat more than six feet away, Kay found herself recoiling three or four inches. "Frog's very smart. Probably the smartest one. And Frog's been everywhere. All around the world.

He knows every language you can think of, and probably some you don't even know." He sat back, smiling proudly. "Frog's neato."

Jack eased a Flair pen from his shirt pocket and wrote ADOLF and FROG at the top of the police statement, connecting them to the word 'they' with an arrow. He could feel the boy watching him. "How'd you meet your friends, Tim?"

"I called them. They came."

"Called them? How?"

"From the books. The spell books."

Jack nodded thoughtfully. The 'spell books' were a collection of paperback volumes on demonology the police had found on a shelf in Tim's room. They were tattered old things the boy said he'd bought at flea markets and garage sales, the newest one copyrighted in the '70s. They were by no means 'forbidden' literature, just probably the kind of books that had sat in drugstore racks and been spun round a thousand times. "So Adolf and Frog are demons, is that right?"

"That's one name for them, I guess. There are others."

"Can you tell us exactly when you first called them?"

"Sure. Maybe two years ago. More or less. I wasn't very good at it at first. They won't come unless you really want them, and you've got to follow the directions right to the letter. If you're a hair off, nothing happens. I guess I went through it a hundred times before Mother came. She was the first one."

"She?" Jack asked. "Adolf and Frog are male, but Mother is female?"

"Yeah. She's got jugs." Tim's eyes darted to Kay, back to Jack again. "Mother knows everything. She taught me all about sex." Another furtive glance at Kay. "Like how a girl dresses when she wants to get raped. Mother says they all want it. She took me places, and showed me things. Like one place where this fat guy brought boys home, and after he was through with them he set them free because they were all used up, and then he put them in garbage bags and buried them in his basement like pirate treasure."

"Set them free?" Jack repeated; his mouth had gotten very dry. "You mean . . ."

"Set them free from their bodies. With a butcher knife. So their souls could go to Hell." He looked at Kay, who could not restrain an inner shudder. She cursed Bob Foster right down to his shoelaces.

Hallucinations, Jack jotted down. Then: Fixation on Demonology and Hell. Why? "You said a little while ago, when Dr. Cawthorn asked you how you were feeling, you felt 'almost free'. Could you explain that to me?"

"Yeah. Almost free. Part of my soul's already in Hell. I gave it up on the night when . . . you know. It was a test. Everybody gets tested. I passed that one. I've got one more— kind of like an entrance exam, I guess."

"Then all your soul will be in Hell?"

"Right. See, people have the wrong idea about Hell. It's not what people think. It's ... a homey kind of place. Not a whole lot different from here. Except it's safer, and you get protected. I've visited there, and I've met Satan. He was wearing a letter jacket, and he said he wanted to help me learn how to play football, and he said he'd always pick me first when it came to choosing up teams. He said he'd be . . . like a big brother, and all I had to do was love him." He blinked behind his glasses. "Love is too hard here. It's easier to love in Hell, because nobody yells at you and you don't have to be perfect. Hell is a place without walls." He began to rock himself again, and the straitjacket's fabric made a shrieking sound. "It kills me, all this stuff about rock and roll being Satan's music. He likes Beethoven, listens to it over and over on a big ghetto blaster. And he's got the kindest eyes you ever saw, and the sweetest voice. Know what he says? That he feels so sorry for new life born into this world, because life is suffering and it's the babies who have to pay for their parents' sins." His rocking was getting more violent. "It's the babies who need to be freed most of all. Who need love and protection, and he'll wrap them in swaddling letter jackets and hum Beethoven to them and they won't have to cry any more."

"Tim?" Cawthorn was getting alarmed at the boy's motion. "Settle down, now. There's no need to—"

"YOU WON'T CAGE ME!" Tim shouted, and his pale face with its encrustment of acne flooded crimson. Veins were beating at both temples. Kay had almost leaped from her skin, and now she grasped the edge of the table with white fingers. "Won't cage me, no sir! Dad tried to cage me! He was scared shitless! Said he was going to bum my books and get me thinking right again! Won't cage me! Won't cage me, no sir!" He thrashed against the straitjacket, a sheen of sweat gleaming on his face. Cawthorn stood up, started for the door to call in Gil and Bobby.

"Wait!" the boy shouted: a command, full-voiced and powerful.

Cawthorn stopped with his hand on the tarnished knob. "Wait. Please. Okay?" Tim had ceased struggling. His glasses were hanging from one ear, and with a quick jerk of his head he flung them off. They skidded along the table and almost into Kay's lap. "Wait. I'm all right now. Just got a little crazy. See, I won't be caged. I can't be. Not when part of my soul's already in Hell." He smiled slickly and wet his lips with his tongue. "It's time for my entrance exam. That's why they let you bring me here ... so they could come too."

"Who, Tim?" Jack felt the hairs creeping at the back of his neck. "Who let us bring you here?"

"My best friends. Frog, Adolf, and Mother. They're here too. Right here."

"Right where?" Kay asked.

"I'll show you. Frog says he likes your hair, too. Says he'd like to feel it." The boy's head wobbled, the veins sticking out in his neck and throbbing to a savage rhythm. "I'll show you my best friends. Okay?"

Kay didn't answer. At the door, Cawthorn stood motionless. Jack sat still, the pen clamped in his hand.

A drop of blood coursed slowly from the comer of Tim's left eye. It was bright red, and streaked scarlet down his cheek, past his lip to his chin.

Tim's left eyeball had begun to bulge from its socket.

"Here they come," he whispered, in a strangled voice. "Ready or not."

Four

"He's hemorrhaging!" Jack stood up so fast his chair crashed over. "Eric, call the emergency room!"

Cawthorn ran out to get to the telephone at Bobby Crisp's desk. Jack crossed the room to the boy's side, saw Tim hitching as if he couldn't draw a breath. Two more lines of blood oozed from around the left eye, which was being forced out of its socket by a tremendous inner pressure. The boy gasped, made a hoarse moaning sound, and Jack struggled to loosen the straitjacket's straps but the body began to writhe and jerk with such force that he couldn't find the buckles.

Kay was on her feet, and Jack said, "Help me get this off him!" but she hesitated; the images of the mangled corpses in those photographs were still too fresh. At that moment Gil Moon came in, saw what was happening and tried to hold the boy from thrashing. Jack got one of the heavy straps undone, and now blood was dripping from around the boy's eye and running out his nostrils, his mouth strained open in a soundless cry of agony.

Tim's tongue protruded from his mouth. It rotated around, and Tim's body shuddered so fiercely even Gil's burly hands couldn't keep him still. Jack's fingers pulled at the second buckle—and suddenly the boy's left eye shot from its socket in a spray of gore and flew across the room. It hit the wall and drooled down like a broken egg, and Kay's knees almost folded.

"Hold him! Hold him!" Jack shouted. The boy's face rippled, and there came the sound of facial bones popping and cracking like the timbers of an old house giving way. His cranium bulged, his forehead swelling as if threatening explosion.

Cawthorn and Bobby returned to the room. The doctor's face was bleached white, and Bobby pushed Jack aside to get at the last buckle.

"Emergency's on the way up!" Cawthorn croaked. "My God ... my God . . . what's happening to him?"

Jack shook his head. He realized he had some of Tim Clausen's blood on his shirt, and the dark socket of the boy's ruined eye looked as if it went right down into the wet depths of the brain. The other eye seemed to be fixed on him—a cold, knowing stare. Jack stepped back to give Gil and Bobby room to work.

The boy's tongue emerged another inch, seemed to be questing in the air. And then, as the tongue continued to strain from the mouth, there was a sound of flesh tearing loose. The tongue emerged two more inches—and its color was a mottled greenish-gray, covered with sharp glass-like spikes.

The attendants recoiled. Tim's body shuddered, the single eye staring. The head and face were changing shape, as if being hammered from within.

"Oh . . . Jesus," Bobby whispered, retreating.

Something writhed behind Tim Clausen's swollen forehead. The spiky tongue continued to slide out, inch after awful inch, and twined itself around the boy's neck. His face was gray, smeared with blood at nostrils and lips and empty eyehole. His temples pulsed and bulged, and the left side of his face shifted with a firecracker noise of popping bones. A thread of scarlet zigzagged across his pressured skull; the fissure widened, wetly, and part of his cranium began to lift up like a trap door being forced open.

Kay made a choking sound. Cawthorn's back thumped against the wall.

Dazed and horrified. Jack saw a scuttling in the dark hole where the left eye had been. The hole stretched wider, with a splitting of tissues, and from it reached a gnarled gray hand about the size of an infant's, except it had three fingers and three sharp silver talons and was attached to a leathery arm that rippled with hard piano-wire muscles.

The boy's mouth had been forced open so far the jaws were about to break. From the mouth emerged spike-covered buttocks, following its attached tail that had once been—or had appeared to be—a human tongue. A little mottled gray-green thing with spiky skin and short piston-like legs was backing out of Tim Clausen's mouth, fighting free from the bloody lips as surely as new birth. And now the creature on the end of that muscular little arm was pushing itself out too, through the grotesque cavity that used to be Tim Clausen's eyesocket, and Jack was face-to-face with a scaly bald head the size of a man's fist and the color of spoiled meat. Its other arm appeared, and now a thorny pair of shoulders, the body pushing with fierce energy and its flat bulldog nostrils flared and spouting spray. Its slanted Chinese eyes were topaz, beautiful and deadly.

Gil was jabbering, making noise but no sense. The bald head racheted toward him, and as its mouth grinned with eager anticipation—like a kid presented with a roomful of pizzas, Jack thought crazily—the close-packed teeth glinted like broken razors.

And something began to crawl from the top of the boy's skull that almost stopped Jack's laboring heart. Kay felt a scream pressing at her throat, but it would not come out. A spidery thing, gleaming and iridescent, its six-legged form all sinews and angles, pushed its way from the skull's gaping trapdoor. Mounted on a four-inch stalk of tough tissue was a head framed with a metallic mass of what might have been hair, except it was made of tangled concertina wire, honed to skin-slicing sharpness. The face was ivory—a woman's face, the visage of a blood-drained beauty. Beneath silver brows her eyes were white, and as they gazed upon Jack and the body struggled out the creature's pale lips stretched into a smile and showed fangs of saw-edged diamonds.

Cawthorn broke, began laughing and wailing as he slid down to the floor. Out in the corridor, the buzzer shrilled; the emergency staff had arrived, but there was no one to unlock the door on this side.

The squatty spike-covered beast was almost out of the boy's mouth. It pulled free, its webbed feet clenching to Tim's face, and swiveled its acorn-shaped head around. The eyes were black and owlish, its face cracked and wrinkled and covered with suppurating sores that might have been Hell's version of acne. Its mouth was a red-rimmed cup, like the suctioning mouth of a leech. The eyes blinked rapidly, a transparent film dropping across them and then lifting as it regarded the humans in the room.

Tim Clausen's head had begun to collapse like a punctured balloon. The bald-headed, muscular thing—Adolf, Jack realized—wrenched its hips loose from the eyesocket; its chest was plated with overlapping scales, and at its groin was a straining red penis and a knotty sac of testicles that pulsed like a bag of hearts. As the creature's leg came free, Tim's mouth released a hiss of air that smelled of blood and brains and decayed matter—an odor of fungus and mold—and in the scabrous sound there might have been a barely-human whisper: "Free."

The boy's face imploded, features running together like wet wax. The spidery metal-haired demon—Mother, Jack knew it could only be—scrabbled onto the boy's shoulder and perched there as Tim's head turned dark as a wart and caved in. What remained of the head—flaccid and rubbery—fell back over the shoulder and hung there like a cape's hood, and whatever Tim Clausen had been was gone.

But the three demons remained.

They were holding him together, Jack thought as he staggered back. He bumped into Kay, and she grasped his arm with panicked strength. After they killed the boy's parents and sister, Jack realized, they were hiding inside him and holding him together like plaster and wire in a mannequin. Shock settled over him, freighting him down. His mind seized like rusted cogs. He heard the insistent call of the buzzer, the emergency crew wanting to get in, and he feared his legs had gone dead. My best friends, the boy had said. I called them. They came.

And here they were. Ready or not.

They were neither hallucinations nor the result of psychotic trance. There was no time to debate the powers of God or the Devil, or whether Hell was a territory or a termite in the house of reason: the demon Tim had named Adolf leaped nimbly through the air at Gil Moon and gripped the man's face with those three-fingered silver claws. Gil bellowed in terror and fell to his knees; the demon's claws were a blur of motion, like a happy machine at work, and as Gil shuddered and screamed and tried to fight the thing off the demon ripped his face away from the skeletal muscles like a flimsy mask. Blood spattered through the air, marking the walls with the same patterns as at the Clausen house. Adolf locked his sinewy legs around Gil Moon's throat, the three toes of the demon's bare feet curling and uncurling with merry passion, and Adolf began to eat the man's shredded face. Gil's bony jaws chattered and moaned, and the demon made greedy grunting noises like a pig burrowing in slop.

Bobby Crisp ran, releasing a shriek that shook the windows. He did not stop to open the door, but almost knocked it off its hinges as he fled into the hallway. Jack gripped Kay's hand, pulling her with him toward the door. Mother's ashen, lustful face followed him; he saw her tongue flicker from the pale-lipped mouth—a black, spear-tipped piece of pseudo-flesh that quivered in the air with a low humming sound. He could feel the tone vibrate in his testicles, and the tingling sensation slowed him a half-step. Kay's scream let go, with a force that rattled her bones; once uncapped, the scream would not stop and kept spilling from her throat. A form leaped at her head. She ducked, lifting an arm to ward it off. The creature Tim had called Frog hopped over her shoulder, its spiky tail tearing cloth from her jacket just above the elbow. A whiplash of pain jarred her scream to a halt and cleared her head, and then Frog had landed on Dr. Cawthorn's scalp. "Don't leave me ... don't leave me," he was babbling, and Jack stopped before he reached the doorway—but in the next instant it was obvious that help was much too late.

Frog leaned forward and attached that gaping leech-mouth to Cawthorn's forehead. The creature's cheeks swelled to twice their size, its tail snaking around and around Cawthorn's throat. Cawthorn gave a gutteral cry of pain, and his head exploded like a tire pumped beyond its limits, brains streaking the walls. Frog squatted on the broken skull, its cheeks becoming concave as it sucked at flowing juices.

Jack pulled Kay out of the room. Up ahead, Bobby Crisp was racing toward the locked security door, shouting for help. He tripped over his own gangly legs and fell heavily to the floor, scrambled up again and limped frantically onward. Now there was a pounding on the other side of the door, and Jack could see faces through the glass inset. Bobby was searching wildly through his ring of keys as Jack and Kay reached him. He tried to force one into the lock, but it wouldn't go. The second key he chose slid in but balked at turning. "Hurry!" Jack urged, and he dared to look over his shoulder.

Mother was scuttling along the hallway toward them, moving about as fast as a prowling cat. Her mouth opened, and she made a piercing shriek like claws scraped across a blackboard. As if in response to her alarm, Frog bounded out of the conference room, its ancient and wrinkled face smeared with Cawthorn's brains.

"Open it!" Jack shouted, and Bobby tried a third key but his hand was shaking so badly he couldn't get it into the lock. It was too large, and would not fit. It dawned on Jack with terrifying force that if Gil had been on door duty, the proper key would still be on the dead man's ring, and Bobby might not have one. He glanced back again, saw Mother about twenty feet away and Frog leaping past her. Adolf strode from the conference room like a two-foot-tall commingling of gnarled man and dragon.

"Lord Jesus!" Bobby Crisp said as the fourth key engaged the tumblers and turned in the lock. He wrenched the door open—and Frog landed on his shoulder, sharp little talons in the webbed feet digging through his shirt.

He screamed, thrashing at the demon. Jack could smell the reek of Frog's flesh: a musty, cooked-meat odor. Through the open door, two white-uniformed men from the emergency room stood wide-eyed and astonished, a gurney table between them. Rosalee had seen, and so had Mrs. Stewart, and both of them were too stunned to move.

Jack grasped Frog with both hands. It was like touching a live coal, and the spiky tail whipped at him as he tore Frog off Bobby's back. Most of the attendant's shirt and hunks of skin ripped away. Jack's hands were pierced by the spikes on the thing's body, and he threw the demon with all his strength against the opposite wall. It folded into a ball an instant before it hit, its head retracting into its body; it made a wet splatting sound, fell to the floor and immediately reformed itself, poising for another leap.

But Bobby was out the door and so was Kay, and Jack lunged through and slammed the door shut behind him, leaving bloody handprints against the white. There was the wham! of impact as Frog hit the door on the other side. "Lock it! Lock it!" Jack shouted, and Rosalee got her key in and twisted it. The lock shot home, and the door was secured.

Bobby kept running, almost colliding with Mrs. Marion and Dave Chambers. "What's your hurry?" Dave called. Bobby reached the elevator, which the emergency staffers had left open, got in and punched a button. The doors closed and took him down.

"Doris!" Rosalee hollered to Mrs. Marion. "Bring some bandages! Quick!" She grasped Jack's wrists and looked at his palms. There were four or five puncture wounds on each hand, and much of the skin had been scorched raw. The worst of the pain was just now hitting him, and he squeezed his eyes shut and shuddered. "They got Cawthorn and Gil Moon. Tore them up. Three of them. They came out of the boy. Out of the boy's head. Tore them to pieces, just like the boy's family . . ."A wave of dizziness almost overcame him, and Rosalee clamped her husky arms around him as his knees crumpled.

"What . . . what was it?" Mrs. Stewart had seen the beast with the eyes of an owl and the body of a frog, but her mind had sheared away from the sight. She blinked, found herself watching drops of blood fall from the fingers of the red-haired woman's right hand and spatter to the floor. "Oh," she said, dazed. "Oh dear . . . you're hurt . . ."

Kay looked at her hand, realizing only then that Frog's tail had cleaved a furrow across her arm. The pain was bad, but not unbearable. Not considering what might have happened. The image of Cawthorn's exploding head came to her, and she allowed the fretting nurse to guide her along the corridor to a chair without really knowing where she was going or why. One of the emergency staffers broke open a medical kit and started examining Kay's wound, asking her questions about what had happened; she didn't even hear them. The other man swabbed disinfectant on Jack's hands—which sent new pain through him that almost curled his hair—and then helped Rosalee bind them in the bandages Mrs. Marion had brought.

Something crashed against the door. It shivered from the blow.

"Docky?" Margie was standing next to him, her face pallid and her eyes darting with fear. "Docky . . . what's in there?"

Another blow against the door. The floor trembled.

"God Almighty!" the man who'd helped bandage Jack's hands said. "That felt like a sledge hammer!"

"Stay away from the door!" Jack warned. "Everybody! Stay away from it! Rosalee . . . listen . . . we've got to get the patients off the ward! Get them downstairs!"

There was a third impact against the door. The glass inset cracked.

"I told you, didn't I?" Dave Chambers stood in the center of the corridor, calmly smoking a cigarette, his eyes narrowed. "Told you not to go in there. Now look what you've stirred up."

"Hush!" Rosalee snapped at him—and then Mrs. Marion screamed, because the rest of the door's glass inset was smashed out and a small gray claw with three silver talons stretched through, swiping savagely at the air. "Oh . . . Lordy," Rosalee breathed.

Jack watched, helplessly, while Adolf's arm, shoulder and head squeezed through the opening. Margie made a croaking noise. The cigarette dropped from Dave's fingers. The demon struggled to get its hips free, then leaped to the floor and stood there grinning, its baleful topaz eyes full of greedy expectation.

And now Mother was pulling herself through the opening, inch by awful inch, her barbed-wire hair gleaming under the fluorescents.

They're going to kill us all, Jack thought; it was a surprisingly calm realization, as if his mind had been pushed to its limit and would accept no more panic. Everyone on the floor was going to die—and then, most probably, the things would start with the patients on the next floor down as well.

It dawned on him that if a hospital was indeed a universe all its own, then this one had just been claimed for destruction.

Mother got her head through, and the spider's body plopped to the floor beside Adolf.

Five

Kay moved: not running wildly along the corridor, as was her first impulse, because with the elevator gone and the stairwell door surely locked the corridor was just one long dead end. She leaped out of her chair, past the nurse and two emergency staffers to the gurney table; she simply did it because she saw it had to be done, and she'd come to the same recognition of doom as Jack had. "No!" she said, and shoved the gurney forward. Its wheels squeaked as it hurtled toward Mother and Adolf.

But they were much too fast to be caught by those wheels. Mother scuttled to one side and Adolf sprang to the other, and now Frog was squeezing through the inset like a blob of jelly from a tube. The gurney slammed into the door and bounced off.

Adolf made a grating-glass noise that might have been a cackle.

There were no screams, just a long swelling of breath that caught and hung. "Move everyone back," Jack said to Rosalee. She didn't budge. "Get them down the stairs!" he demanded, and finally she made a choked sound of agreement, grasped Margie's arm and began to retreat along the corridor. The others followed, not daring to turn their backs on the creatures. Dave Chambers just stood gaping for a moment, then he too began a stiff-legged retreat.

Frog thrashed in the door's inset, its front legs clawing. The bastard's stuck! Jack realized, but it was little consolation. Mother took a slithery step forward, and Adolf clambered up onto the gurney and squatted there as if in contemplation.

Jack knew there were no weapons on the eighth floor: no knives, no bludgeons, certainly no guns. The most dangerous item up here was probably a toilet plunger, and he doubted that would do much harm to Tim Clausen's best friends. Frog was still trying to get its bulbous buttocks through the opening, Mother was advancing steadily but with caution, and Adolf's eyes ticked back and forth with murderous intent.

"Help us! Please help us!" someone shouted. Jack saw Mrs. Stewart at the nurse's station, the telephone in her hand. "We're on eight! For God's sake, send somebody to help—"

Adolf's muscular legs uncoiled, and the demon jumped over Jack and Kay, hit the floor running and had scampered up onto the nurse's desk before Mrs. Stewart could finish her plea. With one swipe of a claw, Adolf opened the woman's throat. Her vocal chords rattled, and the phone fell from her twitching fingers. Adolf clung to the front of her uniform as Mrs. Stewart writhed in agony, and his razorblade teeth went to work on the ravaged throat.

"GET OFF HER, YOU SHIT!" Rosalee hollered, and whacked Adolf with a broom she'd plucked from a corner. The broom did no damage even though it was swung with a mighty vengeance, but Adolf ceased his chewing and regarded her as if admiring a new steak. Mrs. Stewart crumpled, strangling, and Adolf leaped to the desktop.

"Jack! Look out!" Kay cried; he whirled around as Mother scuttled toward his legs, and without thinking about it he kicked the thing as if going for a field goal. The demon gave a moist grunt and rolled like a tumbleweed against the wall, then immediately righted herself and came at him again. Jack retreated, but the demon was coming on too fast and he saw the wicked glitter of her diamond teeth. She was almost upon him, about to scurry up his left leg.

A chair flew past him, nearly clipping his shoulder, and crashed into Mother. She shrieked, a noise like air escaping a hole in a balloon. Some of her legs were already struggling to shove the chair off and the others pulling her out of Jack's range before he could deliver another kick. Two legs quivered and slid uselessly along the floor, leaving a smear of brown fluid.

"I busted it!" Dave Chambers shouted. "Knocked the shit out of it, didn't I? Doc, move your ass!"

Rosalee swung the broom at Adolf again. The demon caught it, and for a few seconds they pulled it back and forth between them, until Rosalee yanked at it and Adolf let go. She squalled and staggered, falling with a jolt that shook the floor. Adolf tensed to leap upon her.

But the elevator suddenly opened, and a stout middle-aged man in the brown uniform of a security guard stepped off. He wore a badge and holster with a .38 revolver in it, and he stopped dead in his tracks as the demon's head swiveled toward him.

The guard gasped, "What in the name of everlovin' Jesus is—"

Adolf jumped. Cleared Rosalee, who screamed and scurried away on her hands and knees, and plunged his claws into the man's chest. The talons ripped through the shirt, and the demon flailed at the man like a living chainsaw. Most of his chest was a wet, gaping cavity within the seven or eight seconds it took for Adolf to finish with him, and the guard toppled forward onto his face. His legs remained inside the elevator, and the doors kept thumping against them, opening and trying to close again.

Adolf perched on the dead man's back, licking his talons. His gaze found Rosalee, who had crawled about ten feet away, and she knew she was next.

"Hey, freak!" Dave bellowed. He had another chair, was thrusting it at Adolf like a lion tamer. The demon's eyes fixed on him, and a terrible grin flickered across its mouth. "Come on, prick!" He stepped between Adolf and Rosalee, a sheen of sweat shining on his face; his own smile was maniacal. "Rosalee, you'd best get off your butt now. Best get those people down the stairs." His voice was calm: the voice of someone who has chosen suicide. "Doc, you and the lady haul your asses and get off the ward!"

Rosalee stood up. Adolf hissed at her, and Dave feinted with the chair to get the thing's attention again. Jack and Kay moved past him, as Mother slowly advanced along the corridor, dragging her broken legs. "I know you, don't I?" Dave asked the male demon. "Sure I do. I've seen you at night, when I try to sleep. Oh,.you're a sly little bastard, aren't you? You get in my head when I'm dreamin', and you make me crazy. That's why I'm here—because of you."

Adolf swiped at the chair, left three furrows across one of the wooden legs.

"You want to jump, huh? Want to get those hands on ol' Dave's neck? Except you know I won't go lightly. I'll knock your eyeballs out, friend." Dave glanced quickly to his right; about twenty feet away, Rosalee had slipped her key into the stairwell's door and was unlocking it. "Hurry!" he said, then cut his gaze down the other direction. The spider with the marble-white face of a woman and barbed-wire hair was creeping inexorably up on him. The third demon was still struggling to get free of the door, and was just about to pop its butt loose.

Adolf sprang forward. Dave planted his legs and swung the chair. But Adolf drew back at the last second, and the chair's legs hit empty air.

"Maybe I can't kill you," Dave said, "but I'll break your bones—or whatever's holdin' you together. Maybe that makes you think a little bit, huh?"

Rosalee was getting the patients, the two emergency staffers and Mrs. Marion through the door into the stairwell. Jack hesitated, watching Dave as Mother slowly advanced on him. "Dave!" he shouted. "We'll keep the door open for you! Come on!"

Dave laughed harshly. "You're nuttier'n a Christmas fruitcake, Doc," he answered. "You want these things runnin' all through the hospital? Man, I'm not even that crazy! You get through that door and make sure it's locked."

Kay gripped Jack's arm. Everyone had gone down the stairwell except her and Rosalee. She pulled at him. "We've got to get downstairs ... got to call the police ..." Her eyelids were fluttering, and Jack recognized that deep shock was finally settling in. He wanted to go, because in all his life no one had ever accused him of being a hero—but the sight of a mental patient wielding a chair against two demons from Hell would not let him descend the stairs. It would be easy to give up Dave Chambers; what was the measure of the man's life, anyway? But Jack could not leave him alone up here, though his brain screamed for escape and he knew Dave was a heartbeat away from being torn to shreds. After they finished with Dave, they would find a way down to the next floor where they could go from room to room. If they were going to be stopped, it had to be here and now.

"Take her," Jack said to Rosalee. "Lock the door behind you."

"No! Dr. Shannon, you can't—"

"Do what I said." His voice cracked, and he felt his courage leaking out. "If they get off this floor ..." He let the thought remain unspoken.

Rosalee hesitated—but only for a few seconds, because she saw his mind was made up. She said, "Come on, miss. Lean on me, now." She helped Kay down the stairs, and then the door swung shut in Jack's face. Rosalee turned her key on the other side, and the lock engaged with a small click of finality.

Six

"Doc, you're crazy!" Dave yelled. "You should've been up here in a rubber room with us nuts a long time a—''

Adolf jumped at Dave's legs. The man backpedalled and swung the chair; it struck the demon's shoulder and knocked the thing sprawling against the wall. Mother was almost at Dave's feet, and Jack saw Frog suddenly heave loose from the door's inset and fall to the floor. Frog started bounding toward Dave, covering three or four feet at a leap. Dave saw it coming too, and he wheeled toward Frog to ward the beast off.

"Look out!" Jack warned, but he knew he was too late. Adolf had already leapt at the man, was scrabbling up Dave's leg. Mother pounced like a cat upon Dave's ankle, and the diamond fangs ripped through his white sock. It turned crimson. Dave whacked at Mother with the chair, missed, was off-balance and falling as Adolf plunged his claws into the man's chest and opened him up from breastbone to navel. Dave's stricken face turned toward Jack, and Jack heard him gasp: "The gun."

Then Dave hit the floor, with Adolf pinned and struggling beneath him, and a tide of blood streamed across the linoleum.

The gun, Jack realized. The gun in the security guard's holster.

He didn't remember taking the first step. But he was running toward the elevator, where the guard lay dead, and it occurred to him that his ravaged hands might not be able to hold the gun, or that it might be unloaded, or that he might not be able to pull it from the holster in time. All those things whirled through his mind, but he knew that without the gun he was meat to be devoured by Tim Clausen's best friends.

Tail lashing, Frog bounded from the floor at him before he could reach the elevator. He ducked, slipped in Dave Chambers's blood and fell as Frog leaped over his head. The end of the beast's tail slashed his left ear, and then he was skidding across the floor on his chest and bumped against the guard's corpse. He saw Adolf pulling his legs from underneath Dave, saw the demon's eyes widen with realization. Jack got one hand around the revolver's butt, popped the holster open with the other and drew the gun loose. The safety! he thought, and spent precious seconds fumbling to release the catch.

And then Mother was right in his face, the mouth opening with a hiss and the fangs straining. Her legs clutched at his shoulder, a breath of corruption washing at his nostrils. The fangs glittered, about to strike.

He pressed the revolver's barrel against her forehead and forced his index finger to squeeze the trigger.

Nothing happened.

Just an empty click.

Adolf cackled, wrenching his legs free and standing up.

Frog was bounding back along the corridor.

Mother grinned.

And Jack pulled the trigger again.

This time it fell on a loaded cylinder. The gun went off, almost jumping out of Jack's grip.

A hole in Mother's forehead sprayed brown fluid. Her grin turned to a rictus of what might have been agony, and she scurried backward. Adolf's cackle stopped cold.

Jack fired again. A piece of Mother's head flew off, and she was shrieking and dragging herself around in a mad circle. Frog leaped, landed on the side of Jack's neck with a wet grunt. He pressed the gun into its gelatinous, meaty-smelling body and shot—once, twice. Frog split open, oozing nastiness, and slithered away from him.

Jack tried to take aim at Mother again, but she was running like a wind-up toy gone berserk. A scrape of metal drew his attention. He looked at the opposite wall: Adolf was frantically pulling at a small metal grill. The vent! Jack thought, and his heart stuttered. If that bastard got into the vent . . . !

He fired at Adolf's back. At the same instant the .38 went off, Adolf wrenched the grill open. His left arm disappeared at the elbow in a mangle of tissue and fluid, and Adolf's body was slammed against the wall. The demon's head turned toward Jack, eyes ablaze with hatred. Jack pulled the trigger once more—and hit the empty cylinder again. The bullets were gone.

Adolf flung himself headfirst into the vent. Jack shouted "NO!" and scrambled across the dead guard, over the bloody floor to the vent; he shoved his arm in, his hand seeking. In the tube there was a scuttling, drawing away and down. Then silence but for the rattle of Jack's lungs.

He lay on his stomach, not far from the corpse of Dave Chambers. The ward smelled like a slaughterhouse. He wanted to rest, just curl his body up and let his mind coast down a long road into darkness—but Adolf was still in the hospital, probably following the vent's pipe to the lower floors, and he could decide to come out anywhere. Jack lay shivering, trying to think. Something Tim Clausen had said . . . something about ...

He feels so sorry for new life born into this world, the boy had said. It's the babies who need to be freed most of all.

And Jack knew why Tim's best friends had allowed him to be brought to the hospital.

All hospitals have a maternity ward.

There was a soft hiss beside his left ear.

Mother crouched there on trembling legs, part of her head blasted away and her face dripping brown ichor. Her tongue flicked out, quivering toward Jack, her eyes lazy and heavy-lidded. They were sated, hideous, knowing eyes; they understood things that, once set free, would gnaw through the meat and bone of this world and spit out the remains like gristle on barbarian platters. They were things that might rave between the walls of Jack's mind for the rest of his life, but right now he must shove away the madness before it engulfed him; he knew—and was sure Mother did, too—that Adolf was scrambling down through the vent toward the second floor, where the babies were. Mother leered at him, her duty done.

Jack got his hand around the .38's barrel and smashed the butt into her face. The wet, obscene skin split with a noise like rotten cloth. Barbed wire cut through Jack's bandaged fingers, and he lifted the gun and struck again. Mother retreated only a few paces before her legs gave out. Her eyes collapsed inward like cigarette bums. The mouth made a mewling noise, the diamond fangs snapping together. Jack lifted the gun and brought it down, heedless of the barbed-wire hair. Mother's head broke like a blister, and out of that cavity rose an oily mist that swirled up toward the ceiling and clung there, seething like a concentration of wasps. It bled through the ceiling tiles, leaving a stain as dark as nicotine and then it—whatever it had been—had escaped.

Mother's body lay like a rag. Jack pushed it aside and crawled to the elevator. The doors were still thumping impatiently against the guard's legs. Jack struggled to slide the corpse out, aware that each passing second took Adolf closer to the maternity ward. He got the legs out of the elevator, caught the doors before they closed and heaved himself inside, reaching up to hit the 2 button.

The doors slid shut, and the elevator descended.

Jack stood up. His legs immediately gave way again, and he fell to his knees. The front of his shirt was reddened by gore, the bandages hanging from his bloody hands. Black motes spun before his eyes, and he knew he didn't have much time before his body surrendered. The old gears and cables creaked, and the elevator jarred to a halt. Jack looked up at the illuminated numbers over the door; the number 5 was lit up. The doors opened, and a gray-haired doctor in a white lab coat took one step in before he saw Jack on the floor and froze.

"Get out," Jack rasped.

The doctor hesitated perhaps three seconds, then retreated so abruptly he hit an orderly in the hallway and knocked over a cart of medicines and sterilized instruments. Jack pressed the 2 button once more, and the doors closed. He watched the numbers change. As the elevator passed the third floor, Jack thought how sensible it would be to stay here all the way down to the lobby and scream for help once he got there. That was the thing to do, because he had no gun, no weapon, nothing to stop Adolf with. He was bloody and balanced on the edge of shock, and he knew he must've scared the doctor half to death. A grim smile lifted the corners of his mouth, because he knew there was no time to get to the lobby; by then, Adolf might have reached the maternity ward, and the thing's remaining claw would be at work amid the new flesh. Already there might be a pile of infant limbs scattered on the floor, and each second ended another life. No time . . . no time ...

Jack struggled to his feet. Watched the number 2 light up. The elevator halted, and the doors opened with a sigh.

There were no screams, no frantic activity on the second floor. As Jack emerged from the elevator, the two nurses on duty at the central station gaped up at him. One of them spilled a cup of coffee, brown liquid surging across the desk. Jack had never been to the maternity ward before, and corridors seemed to cut off in every direction. "The babies," he said to one of the nurses. "Where do you keep the babies?"

"Call security!" she told the other one, and the woman picked up the telephone, pressed a button and said in a quavering voice, "This is second floor. We need security up here, fast!"

"Listen to me." Jack knew Rosalee and the others must be still trying to explain what had happened, and they wouldn't understand where Adolf was headed. "Please listen. I'm Dr. Jack Shannon. I've just come from the eighth floor. You've got to get the babies out of here. I can't tell you why, but—"

"Luther!" one of the nurses shouted. "Luther!" The other woman had backed away, and Jack saw they both thought he was out of his mind. "I'm not crazy," he said, instantly regretting it; such a statement only made things worse. The nurse who'd called for Luther said, "Settle down, now. We're going to get somebody up here to help you, okay?"

Jack looked around, trying to get his bearings. A waiting room was on the left, people staring at him like frightened deer ready to bolt. On the right a sign affixed to the wall read MATERNITY and aimed an arrow down the corridor. Jack started along the hallway, one of the nurses yelling at him to stop and the other too scared to speak. He passed between rooms, leaving drops of blood on the floor and startling nurses and patients who saw him coming; they scattered out of his way, but one nurse grabbed his shoulder and he shoved her aside and kept going. A signal bell was going off, alerting security. He hoped these guards were quicker on their feet than the one upstairs had been.

He rounded a comer, and there was the large floor-to-ceiling plate-glass window where babies were displayed in their perambulators, the boys bundled up in pale blue and the girls in pink. Several friends and relatives of new parents were peering in through the glass at the infants as the maternity nurse continued her duties within. One of the visitors looked up at Jack, and the woman's expression changed from delight to horror. It took two more seconds for all of them to be aware of the bloodied man who'd just lurched around the comer. Another of the women screamed, and one of the men bulled forward to protect her.

Jack slammed his hand against the window. The nurse inside jumped, her eyes stunned above her surgical mask. "Get them out!" Jack shouted—but he knew she couldn't hear, because some of the babies were obviously crying and he couldn't hear those sounds, either. He tried again, louder:

"Get them out of—"

A pair of arms tightened around his chest from behind like a living straitjacket. "Hold it, buddy. Just hang loose. Guards are gonna be here right soon."

Luther, Jack thought. An orderly, and the size of a football linebacker from the thickness of those arms. The man had lifted him almost off the floor. "You and me gonna take a walk back to the elevators. Excuse us, folks."

"No! Listen . . ." The pressure was about to squeeze the breath out of him. Luther started dragging him along the corridor, and thrashing was useless. Jack's heels scraped the floor.

And there came another, higher scraping sound as well. Then the double crack of screws being forced loose. Jack's spine crawled; at the baseboard of the wall directly opposite the infant's nursery was a vent grill, and it was being pushed open from the other side.

Jack fought to get loose, but Luther hadn't seen and he clamped his grip tighter. The blood roared in Jack's head.

The grill came open with a squeal of bending metal, and from the vent leaped a small one-armed figure with burning topaz eyes. Adolf's head turned toward the horrified knot of ward visitors, then toward Jack and the orderly; the demon gave a grunt of satisfaction, as if expecting that Jack would be there. Luther's legs went rigid, but his grip didn't loosen from around Jack's chest.

Adolf sprang at the plate glass.

It hit with a force that shook the window, and the glass starred at the point of impact but did not shatter. Adolf fell back to the floor, landing nimbly on his feet. The woman was still screaming—a thin, piercing scream—but her protector's nerve had failed. Behind the glass the maternity nurse had come to the front of the room in an effort to shield the babies. Jack knew she wouldn't last more than a few seconds when Adolf broke through the window.

"Let me go, damn it!" he shouted, still struggling; Luther's arms loosened, and Jack slid out of them to the floor.

Adolf shot a disdainful glance at him, like a human might look at dogshit on the sole of a shoe. He jumped at the window again, hitting it with his mangled shoulder. The glass cracked diagonally, and at the center of the window a piece about the size of a man's hand fell away. Adolf clawed at the hole, talons scraping across the glass, but couldn't find a grip. The demon rebounded to the floor again but was leaping almost as soon as he'd landed. This time his claw caught the hole, and he kicked at the glass to finish the job.

The corridor was full of screaming and the crying of babies. Jack lunged forward and grabbed the demon's legs, and as he wrenched Adolf out of the widening hole a large section of the window crashed down, glass showering the nurse as she threw her body across the first row of perambulators.

The demon twisted and writhed in Jack's grip with the agility of a monkey. Jack slung Adolf against the wall, heard the crunch of its skull against the plaster; it got one leg free, contorted its body at the waist and the smashed head—half of it pulped and leaking—came up at Jack's hand. The razorblade teeth flashed before they snapped shut on Jack's index finger. Pain shot up his forearm and into his shoulder, but he kept his hand closed on the trapped leg. Adolf's teeth were at work, and suddenly they met through the flesh; the demon's head jerked backward, taking most of Jack's finger between the teeth.

Jack's hand spasmed with agony. The remaining four fingers opened and Adolf leaped to the floor,

The demon staggered, and Jack fell against the wall with his bitten and throbbing hand clutched to his chest. He hit an object just behind him, as Adolf swiped at his legs with the remaining claw and shredded the cuff of his trousers.

Then Adolf whirled toward the broken window once more, tried to jump for the frame but the muscular legs had gone rubbery. The demon reached up, grasped an edge of glass and began to clamber over it into the nursery.

Jack looked at Luther. The man—crewcut and husky, his face sallow and gutless—had backed almost to the corridor's comer. The nurse with the surgical mask was still lying across the first few infants, one arm outthrust to ward off Adolf's next leap. Adolf was almost over the glass, would be in the nursery within the following few seconds, and the thing was hurt but he would not give up before he'd slaughtered his fill. His head ticked toward Jack, and the oozing mouth stretched wide in a grin of triumph.

There was something metal pressed into Jack's spine. Something cylindrical. He turned, saw it was a fire extinguisher.

Adolf jumped from his perch on the edge of glass. Landed on the nurse, and began to slash at her back with long strokes that cut away her uniform and flayed off ribbons of flesh.

The fire extinguisher was in Jack's hands. His good index finger yanked the primer ring. There was a hiss as the chemicals combined, and the cylinder went cold. The nurse was screaming, trying to fight Adolf off. She slipped to the floor, and Adolf clung to the side of a perambulator, started drawing himself up and into it with his claw, the razor teeth bared. He reached for the pink-clad baby's skull.

"Here I am!" Jack yelled. "Ready or not!"

Adolf's misshapen head cocked toward Jack, teeth three inches away from infant flesh.

Jack pulled the cylinder's trigger. Cold white foam erupted from the nozzle, sprayed through the window in a narrow jet and struck Adolf on the shoulder and in the face. The baby squalled, but Adolf's caterwaul was an aural dagger. Blinded by the freezing chemicals, the demon toppled to the floor on his back, claw slashing at the air. Jack kept the spray going as Adolf tried to rise, fell again and started crawling across the floor, a little foam-covered kicking thing.

"Put it down!" someone shouted, to Jack's left. Two security guards stood there, and one of them had his hand on the butt of his pistol. "Put it down!" he repeated, and half-drew the gun from its holster.

Jack ignored the command. He knocked out the rest of the window's glass with the cylinder and stepped into the nursery, aimed the nozzle at Adolf and kept spraying as the creature writhed at his feet. Jack felt his mouth twist into a horrible grin, heard himself shout, "Die, you bastard! Die! Die!" He lifted the cylinder and smashed it down on the body; then again, striking at the skull. Bones—or what served as bones—cracked with brittle little popping sounds. Adolf's claw struck upward, blindly flailing. Someone had Jack's arm, someone else was trying to pull him away, the nurse was still screaming and the place was a bedlam of noise. Jack shook off one of the guards, lifted the cylinder to smash it down again, but it was snatched away from him. An arm went around his throat from behind.

Adolf's head—one eye as black as a lump of coal and the face mashed inward—surfaced from the chemical foam. The single topaz eye found Jack, and the razor teeth gleamed behind mangled lips. Adolf's claw locked around Jack's left ankle, began to winnow through the flesh.

Jack pressed his right foot against the grinning face and stomped all his weight down with the force of fury behind it.

The demon's skull cracked open, and what came out resembled a lump of intertwined maggots. Jack stomped that too, and kept stomping it until all the wriggling had ceased.

Only then did Jack let himself fall. Darkness lapped at his brain, and he was dragged under.

Seven

He awakened in a private room, found his hands stitched up, freshly bandaged and immobilized. Minus one index finger, which he figured was a cheap price. His left ankle was also bandaged, and he had no sensation in his foot. Dead nerves, he thought. He'd always believed a cane made a man look distinguished.

He didn't know how much time had passed, because his wristwatch had been taken away with his bloody clothes. The sun had gone down, though, and the reading light above his bed was on. The taste of medicine was in his mouth, and his tongue felt furry. Tranquilizers, he thought. He could still hear rain tapping at the window, behind the blinds.

The door opened, and a young fresh-faced nurse came in. Before it closed. Jack caught a glimpse of a policeman standing out in the corridor. The nurse stopped, seeing he was awake.

"Hi." Jack was hoarse, probably from the pressure of that arm around his throat. "Mind telling me what time it is?"

"About seven-thirty. How are you feeling?"

"Alive," he answered. "Barely." The nurse looked out through the door and said, "He's awake," to the policeman, then she came to Jack's bedside and checked his temperature and pulse. She peered into his pupils with a little penlight. Jack had noted there was no telephone in the room, and he said, "Think I could get somebody to call my wife? I imagine she'd like to know what's happened to me."

"You'll have to ask the lieutenant about that. Follow the light, please."

Jack obeyed. "The babies," he said. "They're all right, aren't they?"

She didn't answer.

"I knew he'd go for the babies. I knew it. I remember what the boy said, that Satan—" He stopped speaking, because the nurse was looking at him as if he were a raving lunatic and had taken a pace away from the bed. She doesn't know, he thought. Of course not. The security would have clamped down by now, and the shifts had changed. All the blood had been cleaned up, the bodies zippered into bags and spirited to the morgue, the witnesses cautioned and counseled, the relatives of the dead consoled by hospital administrators, the physical damage already under repair by workmen. Jack was glad he wasn't director of public relations at Marbury Memorial, because there was going to be hell to pay.

"Sorry," he amended. "I'm babbling."

She gave him the choices for dinner—chopped steak or ham—and when he'd told her what he wanted, she left him. He lay musing that seven hours ago he'd been fighting a trio of demons from the inner sanctum of a young boy's insanity, and now he was choosing chopped steak over ham. Such was life, he thought; there was an absurdity in reality, and he felt like the victim of a car crash who stands amid blood and wreckage and frets about what television shows he's going to miss tonight. Demons or not, the world kept turning, and chopped steaks were being cooked down in the kitchen. He laughed, and realized then that the tranquilizers in his system were either very potent or else the shock had really knocked his train off the tracks.

It wasn't long before the door opened again. This time Jack's visitor was a man in his mid-forties, with curly gray hair and a somber, hard-lined face. The man was wearing a dark blue suit, and he looked official and stiff-backed. A policeman, Jack guessed. "Dr. Shannon," the man said, with a slight nod. "I'm Lieutenant Boyette, Birmingham Police." He pulled out his wallet and displayed the badge. "Mind if I sit?"

"Go ahead."

Boyette positioned a chair closer to the bed and sat down. He had dark brown eyes, and they did not waver as he stared at Jack Shannon. "I hope you're up to some questions."

"I suppose now's as good a time as any." He tried to prop himself up on his pillows, but his head spun. "I'd like to call my wife. Let her know I'm all right."

"She knows. We called her this afternoon. I guess you'll understand we couldn't tell her the whole story. Not until we figure it out ourselves." He took a little notebook from the inside pocket of his coat and flipped it open. "We've taken statements from Miss Douglas, Mrs. Partain, Mr. Crisp, and the maternity ward staff. I expect you'll agree that what happened here today was ... a mite bizarre."

"A mite," Jack said, and laughed again. Now he knew he must be doped with something very strong. Everything was dreamlike around the edges.

"From what we can tell, you saved the lives of a lot of infants down on two. I'm not going to pretend I know what those things were, or where they came from. It's all in Miss Douglas's statement about what happened to Dr. Cawthorn, Mr. Moon and the others. Even the psychiatric patients gave statements that corroborated Mrs. Partain's. Hell, I kind of think some of them were so shaken up they got their wits back, if that makes any sense to you."

"I wouldn't doubt it. Probably the same effect as a shock treatment. Is Miss Douglas all right?"

"She will be. Right now she's in a room a few doors down."

"What about Rosalee?"

"Mrs. Partain's a mighty strong woman. Some of the others—like Mr. Crisp—might wind up on mental wards themselves. He can't stop crying, and he thinks he feels something on his back. I guess it could've been worse, though."

"Yes," Jack agreed. "Much worse." He tried to move his fingers, but his hands had been deadened. He figured the nurse would have to hand-feed him the forthcoming chopped steak. A weariness throbbed deep in his bones: the call of the tranquilizer for sleep.

It must have shown in his face, because Boyette said, "Well, I won't keep you long. I'd like to know what happened after Mrs. Partain locked you and Mr. Chambers on the eighth floor." He brought out a pen, poised to jot notes.

Jack told him. The telling was hard and got more difficult as his bruised throat rasped and his body and brain yearned for rest. He trailed off a couple of times, had to gather his strength and keep going, and Boyette leaned closer to hear. "I knew where Adolf was headed," Jack said. "The babies. I knew, because I remembered what the boy said. That's why I went down there." He blinked, felt the darkness closing in again. Thank God it was all over. Thank God he was alive, and so were the babies. "What . . . what floor am I on?"

"Three." Boyette's brow was furrowed. He had leaned very close to the bed. "Dr. Shannon . ; . about the bodies. The demons, or things, or whatever the hell they were."

"Demons, yes. That's right. They were holding the boy together." Hard to stay awake, he thought. The sound of rain was soothing, and he wanted to let his eyes close and drift away and in the morning maybe the sun would be out again.

"Dr. Shannon," Boyette said, "we only found two bodies."

"What?" Jack asked—or thought he'd asked. His voice was almost gone.

"We found the body of the one in the nursery. And the one that looks like a spider. We wrapped them up and got them out of here. I don't know where they were taken, and I don't want to know. But what happened to the third one? The one you called 'Frog'?"

"Shot it. Shot it twice. It split open." His heart had kicked, and he tried to lift himself up but could not move. "Killed it." Oh God, he thought. "Didn't I?"

"There was only the one that looks like a spider up on eight." Boyette's voice sounded very far away, as if at the end of an impossibly long tunnel. "We searched the entire floor. Took the place to pieces. But there's no third body."

"There is ... there is," Jack whispered, because whispering was all he could do. He could no longer hold his head upright, and it slid to one side. His body felt boneless, but a cold panic had flooded him. He caught sight of something across the room near the door: a vent grill. What if Frog had recombined itself? he thought through the brain-numbing frost. What if Frog had crawled into the vent on the eighth floor? But that was over seven hours ago! If Frog was going to the maternity ward, why hadn't it struck there already? "The ducts," he managed to rasp. "In the ducts."

"We thought of that. We've got people taking the ducts apart right now, but it's going to be a long job. There are two possibilities, the way I see it: either that thing got out of the hospital, or it died in the ducts somewhere. I want to believe it died, but we'll keep looking until we find the body or we take the whole system apart—that could be days."

Jack tried to speak, but his voice was gone. There's a third possibility, he'd realized. Oh, yes. A third possibility. That Frog, the smartest of Tim Clausen's best friends, is searching from floor to floor, room to room, peering through the grills and scuttling away until it finds who it wants.

The one who killed its own best friends.

Me.

But maybe it died. Jack thought. I shot it twice, and it split open. Yes. Maybe it died, and it's lying jammed in the duct, and very soon someone will remove the screws and a gelatinous thing with staring eyes and a mouth like a leech will slide out.

Maybe it died.

Maybe.

"Well, I can tell you're tired. God knows you've had one hell of a day." Jack heard the chair scrape back as Boyette stood up. "We'll talk again, first thing in the morning. Okay?"

Jack trembled, could not answer. Could only stare at the grill.

"You try to sleep. Dr. Shannon. Good night." There was the sound of the door opening and closing, and Lieutenant Boyette had gone.

Jack struggled against sleep. How long would it take Frog to reach his room in a methodical, slow search? How long before it would come to that grill, see him lying here in a straitjacket of bandages and tranquilizers, and begin to push itself through the vent?

But Frog was dead. Frog had to be dead.

The sun would be out in the morning, and by then the third of Tim Clausen's best friends would be lying in a garbage bag, just limp wet flesh conjured up by infernal madness.

Jack's struggling weakened. His eyelids fluttered, and his view of the vent went dark.

But just before he drifted off to a dreamless sleep he thought the young nurse must have come in again, because he was sure he smelled the meaty odor of chopped steak.


Copyright © 1987 by Robert R. McCammon. All rights reserved. This story originally appeared in the anthology Night Visions IV, first published in 1987 by Dark Harvest. Reprinted with permission of the author.
© 2017 Robert McCammon Last updated 16-AUG-2017 04:37:29.43 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha