Robert R. McCammon's "Best Friends"

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"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?"


"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.

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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