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