Robert R. McCammon's "Best Friends"

NV4 HC art
Best Friends

by Robert R. McCammon

Originally published in
Night Visions IV
NV4 PB art


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.


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.
© 2020 Robert McCammon Last updated 2020-07-17 00:17 Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha