Andrew is posing as a patient at Park Slope Asylum. To complete his mission he needs keep hundreds of patients and staff out of his mind, get close to his target, and try not to get his game room privileges revoked.*
*This chapter contains a startlingly small amount of strong language, no violence, a game of rummy and a whole lot of nuts.
9. In The Nest
“So, Brad, why don’t you introduce yourself to the group?”
I was so far behind my block that it took me a minute to realize Dr. Collins was talking to me. I felt everyone's attention on me, but in a distant way. When I’d practiced with White, he said that it made it seem like I had a hard time concentrating, which fit with the depressed end of bipolar disorder. This far behind the block, it was hard to tell if the shrink was buying it.
“Uh, well my name is Brad Steadman and I got here last night,” I told her without really looking at the others.
She smiled, and seemed undisturbed that I didn’t elaborate. “Everyone, say hello to Brad.”
She met eyes all around the room and there was a grudging chorus of, “Hi Brad.”
I felt relieved when she moved on to someone else. My cover was holding. But if I stayed too far behind my block I was going to have a hard time doing anything except fooling the staff and the patients. I needed to get to Matthews. She was sitting a third of the way down the circle, legs primly crossed, hands laced on her knees, watching the doctor. I kept my surface thoughts dull and uninterested and chanced opening up a little.
Instant, invasive attention came, not from the shrink where I’d been expecting it, but from the patient on the left. I was too surprised to think out an appropriate reaction. I just reacted and pushed my block to the surface.
I felt the familiar shock as it hit him and saw him double over with the same satisfaction I felt whenever someone tried to read me without permission.
Big orderlies pulled me away from the group, who all stared at me or the shrink. She was kneeling in front of the fallen who was patient crying into his hands. There was fear and anger from the group, concern from the doctor, confusion but also determination from the orderlies who hauled me into another room. It had a table and two chairs and just needed a bright white light to be an interrogation room. Before I could think of anything to say they were gone, the door closing behind them with a sound of finality.
I didn’t have to try the lock. The orderlies were too satisfied that they’d neutralized the threat.
Maybe, I told myself, this was a really bad idea.
I didn’t turn when the door opened a short time later. There was no point in worrying over what I’d already done. Now was the time to be careful and careful meant I had to gauge how dangerous they thought I was. Getting confined to my room would seriously screw the op.
Dr. Collins was alone, though now that I was more open I could feel the guards waiting tensely outside. She was agitated and showed it in jerky pacing that put her on the side of the table closest to the door. Being agitated wasn’t making her stupid, she knew better than to put me between her and the exit. Very tactically sound. “What just happened in there?” she demanded, her fingertips resting on the edge of the table, her bright pink nails catching the lights. And no three word answers, Brad, she snapped.
I was still blocking and I had to concentrate to read her. I shrugged and decided to play it casual. “He was trying to read me, I guess he hit my block.” You said no digging in session. He was digging, I added defensively.
She sat down and seemed calmer though I could feel her push down her frustration. “You’re right Brad. No digging in session. But he was completely incapacitated for almost ten minutes.” Can you explain that? There was something between exasperation and admiration in her tone.
I felt pleased with myself but buried it. I looked down at the table deciding contrition would be more effective because I wouldn’t have to feign it, after all, I hadn’t meant to do it. “It’s just my block, that’s how it affects people.”
Her eyebrows went up and her fingers drummed against the desk, nails making sharp clicks, when I was stubbornly silent. Finally she sighed. “I’d be sure it doesn’t ‘affect’ anyone else like that in the future, Brad. At least it had better not if you want to continue group privileges. And I mean common room, outdoor time and meal times.” Do I make myself clear?
Part of me was still feeling stubborn and I thought I’d push it so I didn’t seem too reasonable. “What am I supposed to do if someone else digs? Just let them?” I didn’t have to say I wouldn’t, it was all in the tone.
She sat back and sighed again, relieved on some level. “I’m sure it’s gotten around that it’s a bad idea, but I’ll make sure they all know. This is something you’re going to have to work on though. And I’d like you to start with Dr. Whitnail when he gets back next week. Until then, no group.” I don’t think having you in session right now will help anyone feel open, she added with a hint of humor that didn’t cover her worry. She wasn’t sure how dangerous I was and it put her on edge.
I knew I was being challenged, I felt the rest of my group privileges hanging by a thread. “What do I have to do with Dr. Whitnail?” I still get to watch TV and go out, right?
“You’re not being restricted, yet. Don’t worry about it. As for Dr. Whitnail, he’s going to want to figure out your course of treatment,” she said, burying the rest of what she was thinking.
It was something I wasn’t going to like, but that left a lot of possibilities in a place like this. I didn’t dare dig for the answer and let down any of my own defenses. I had to hope everything went according to plan and I’d be gone before Whitnail got anywhere near me. For all I knew he did drug-assisted readings. There wasn’t a block that could stand up to psychotropics.
When I didn’t say anything she stood up. “You’re going to head back to your room for the rest of today. You’ll come out for dinner and that’s it.” Her voice was firm and she didn’t pause for objections. She turned and opened the door. “Get him to his room, I’ll post his revised schedule with Sophie,” she told the orderlies.
They nodded and held the door open, four of them filing in. “Get up, Steadman,” the shortest of the four said in a calm voice that was offset by the way his hand was resting against his nightstick.
I got up and let them grab my arms with no protest. Whatever he wanted to break with that thing I was pretty sure I didn’t need it broken when I was trying to escape.
He was the only one giving off faint disappointment as they shunted me into my room and shut the door behind me. I sat on the bed, kicked off my slippers and swung my legs up so I could sit with my back propped on the headboard and see anyone that wanted to peek in through the window in the door.
I lay in bed, awake half the night, in the safe calm behind my block, thinking. Craig had made things twice as hard when he shot down the dinner hour extraction. I’d have to get to her in the hall when we were all being evacuated from our beds. If it came down to it, I could always avoid contact with Matthews until it was time for the extraction and maybe she’d be surprised enough that she’d let me maneuver her, or she’d try to read me to figure things out and when she hit my block she’d be out of it long enough for me to walk her to Kepler.
There were only two more days. I either had to get friendly or seem completely indifferent in that time. When the lights came up, waking me from my doze, I had decided on avoidance. I tried not to think about what Craig would say when he saw my mission report.
Being exempt from group and having my private sessions postponed until the staff shrink came back meant I was left in the ‘game room’ for most of the morning. Just me, the bored orderly near the door reading his magazine, and two others who, by the looks of it, wouldn’t be benefiting from group either.
One of them was parked in front of the TV in a wheelchair and a bathrobe. His face was turned up toward the screen but he wasn’t seeing anything.
If it takes eleven hours to get to Philly from here then we’d better leave by 5am if we want to miss the traffic coming in. But we’re going to bed so late that no one will be awake enough to drive. We’ll just have to keep each other awake and switch off a lot. Mary can drive, and then Bill and then I’ll drive. I hope they remember how to drive stick. I hope they don’t sing the whole way again. Their throats have to be sore after today. Still it’s not that far tomorrow, if the traffic holds out, even if they do sing. If it’s only eleven hours to Philly from here then we should get up at five…
I pulled my attention away from him, disconcerted. I’d never read anyone looping before.
“He’s always like that, just ignore it.” Everyone does, he’s a little creepy.
I spun around to see the only other occupant of the room, a tall, stooped man with scraggly hair regarding me evenly while his hands furiously shuffled a deck of cards.
I blinked and took a step back. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
His head tilted to one side and for some reason with his long face and yellowed eyes he reminded me of a wolf at the zoo. The one in the corner watching all the people with wistful hunger. Then he smiled and just seemed goofy and tired. “Do you play rummy?” Yeah, Sammy over there doesn’t play cards much, he added with a sort of gleeful sarcasm that didn’t match his voice or his expression.
He wasn’t afraid of me. Something wasn’t right about him, something that I couldn’t quite place, but it was a mental institution. “Uh, sure, I think I remember how to play.”
He nodded. “Good, good.” He turned and went to one of the tables, never pausing his furious shuffling, even as he sat down. We can always play go fish if you forgot rummy.
He seemed pretty together and I didn’t get any of that underlying urgency that I’d come to expect from the ones that wanted to fight. “You want to deal?” I said, matching his sarcasm.
His eyebrows went up and his whole aspect was surprised. “Sure, I can deal,” he said soothingly while his hands flew, the cards going out in rapid but neat piles. They reached for his cards and arranged them, always in motion.
“So what are you doing out here? I mean, I thought everyone else was in group.” I kept my eyes on my cards, I didn’t want to look like I was challenging him.
Ha, that didn’t take long. There was a pause and he scratched his chin with his free hand. “You go first,” he said slowly.
I glanced up, again his expression was as placid as his hands were restless. “Sure.” You don’t have to tell me, I just figured you knew why I was here, so I’d ask about you. I picked a card and discarded another.
“Oh, I heard all about that. Gave Neil quite a scare,” he said, his fingers almost twitching as he picked a card and laid down three others, all fives. Same reason I’m here, scaring people, he added snidely with no change in his face.
My eyebrows went up. “I can’t see you scaring anyone,” I told him, picking a card and putting my five on his set.
He laughed and even his hands paused on the cards. Out loud his laugh was low and pleasant; in his head it was shriller. You don’t think CED is scary? I got banned from group because the rest of them couldn’t deal with it. “Bothers people.” In his head the tone was acid and out of his mouth calm.
“You’ve got Coexisting Echo Disorder? So wait, which one is your real personality?” Even before the placid face bent itself into a serious frown I knew it was the wrong thing to say.
“Don’t really think that’s any concern of yours,” he said with building anger. Under that the tone of his mind wasn’t angry, it was almost pleased. I am. Doesn’t that just figure, my body and I can’t make the damn thing talk. He got all the major body functions. Except the hands.
I could sense a wink that would never reach the angry face. I wanted to ask more but I realized that I knew this story. I had read up on every patient in Matthews’ ward. This was Francis Castillo, the honors student from Nebraska. When he went off to college his parents adopted another kid, a teenager himself, Randy Fordham. No one knew if Francis tried to kill Randy before or after Randy echoed him, but however it happened, Randy was dead. Or at least most of him was, apparently he was puppeting Francis’s face and most of his body around. Randy had confessed with Francis’s mouth and got them sent to state prison with no psychiatric evaluation. With control of the hands Francis had tried to kill his brother a second time in jail. That finally got them in front of a shrink and sent to Park Slope. I noticed the long curved scars along the insides of his arms and wished I hadn’t looked.
Told you it was scary, Francis sneered while Randy nodded, satisfied. “It’s your turn.”
I stared at him, them, feeling dazed. “Sure. Right.”
We played several hands in relative silence. Group must’ve run over because people didn’t start trickling in until after 11am. There was a lot of attention on us when the room started filling up. I was sure it was about me and went down behind my block. Concentration could turn to reading even if they were afraid. If I hadn't retreated it only would have taken a second to realize what was going on.
He can't play with Francis all day, it's our turn. I picked up from behind me after several tense minutes. Most of them were thinking it but no one wanted to approach me directly. "You're a popular dealer. I think I'll bow out this hand," I said, setting my cards down.
Randy blinked and looked around. "I think you might win here." At least they'll come near me. Wish I’d been in group to see you in action, Francis added in a tone that bordered on awe.
I left the table and went over to a thick, bullet-proof window. I felt like I was slipping. I had never been on an assignment where I was less sure of the end result. If the explosives failed as badly as I was, then we might have to abort. We. I thought that like it was anyone else's ass on the line this time. It was only going to be me standing in front of Craig explaining that I’d underestimated the situation. That I thought I was smarter than the nuts in here and it turned out I was wrong. There wasn’t going to be a nice weeklong furlough after that. No new missions, no interesting pick-ups because I’d be lucky if I was reassigned to babysitting some wiretap in Alaska. I'd be lucky if they thought the standard disclosure agreement was going to be enough. There were rumors that you didn't transfer out of Craig’s operation. Or you put in for the transfer and then you disappeared.
Maybe that was the real reason for this assignment. Craig knew it was impossible and jumped on the chance when White told him he wanted a nut for his next experiment. Then he could get rid of me without ever having to admit it was for anything other than failure. Certainly nothing so petty as personal dislike. No, not Stuart Craig.
"You're creating quite a stir around here."
I hadn't expected anyone to talk to me and I jumped at the quiet voice, torn from paranoid thoughts about my boss. I whipped my head around, straining my neck to look into the calm, lined face of Carol Matthews. I recovered fast. "Seems that way." It’s not nice to sneak up on a guy, I added, rubbing my neck.
Her smile was shockingly pleasant, lighting up her round face. She continued to smile, leaning her hand against the windowsill, the other one on her hip. It was hard to imagine her bending over sleeping children, injecting them with lethal doses of morphine. "You were hiding, it was hard not to sneak." I understand you've been looking for me.
I didn't let my mouth fall open but it was harder to mask the surprise in my mind. How? I mean, who told you that? I asked. Had I slipped? None of the staff could know the mission, I wouldn't be allowed in here if they knew.
She quirked one eyebrow at me, making more lines in her happy face. "Neil told me. That was all he got before you trashed him." Said you were interested in me. There was an edge of curiosity to her thoughts.
There were a couple of ways I could go with this and if I chose wrong I was going to screw this perfect opportunity that had been handed to me. It was baffling that she felt so normal. Rational, collected. I hadn't been prepared for that. No one at the labs was this together. The small talk I’d been planning was out. I could already tell that wasn't the way to go. All that was left was admiration or the truth. I wasn’t sure I could feign admiration for what she’d done. I was always better at the truth. "I am. I was worried I scared you off after what happened with Neil." Of course I’ve been worried since I got here.
She shrugged and looked out the window. "I won't be trying to read you anytime soon." So what do you want with me? she asked, fighting the urge to try and dig for my intentions.
She was either going to believe me or think I was crazy. Either way, as long as I didn't scare her, it would be fine.
I glanced away, making a quick sweep of the room. No one was looking our way. Most of them were either at the TV or gathered around the card table. I looked back at Matthews; she watched me with her eyebrows raised. As seriously as I could, I told her. Actually, I’m part of a secret government agency and I’ve been sent here to retrieve you.
She stared at me, her mouth open just enough to see her teeth.
For those three seconds I was able to run through every way this could go wrong. I shouldn’t have hammed it up. Was this a movie? I had to add ‘secret’ to government agency? She’d call a guard. She’d call a doctor. She’d find out what I was retrieving her for and call everybody.
Then she laughed so loud that everyone stopped to look. Luckily, or not, I wasn’t sure, she also laughed so long that they turned back to what they were doing and ignored us.
She sniffed and wiped her eyes and surprised me again by clapping me on the shoulder. “You’re going to be fun to have around, I can tell,” she said, grinning at me. I haven’t laughed that hard since Greg thought he was Cleopatra.
Indignant and relieved I decided to go with it. “You’re going to blow my cover if you make a scene.” You have to be ready for the signal. When it happens we’ll have to get out of here fast, I warned her with my most earnest expression.
She nodded, a slight smile on her face. “Sure, Brad. I’ll be ready. Why don’t you come sit with me? I think I know where another deck of cards is stashed.” She was using that gentle consoling voice that I’d heard White and Forrest use on their patients. She really thought I was nuts.
Of course that meant I spent the following day and a half playing it up, made her promise not to tell anyone, made the reasons we wanted her extracted as vague as possible without, and let her introduce me to other, more wary patients. I even managed to cajole a promise from her to find me if anything weird happened at night.
I played seven hands of hearts before we were sent to our rooms on the last night. I wished we could have had the common room longer so I had something to keep me from counting the minutes. I thought about wiping the room for prints but I wasn’t in any database anymore and my DNA would still be all over the room.
At ten after one I put my sneakers on and double knotted the laces. I tucked the loose ends into the shoes, they felt weird against the sides of my feet but I wasn't about to get tripped up by my shoelaces. I had on the thicker sweats they gave us to wear outside, but not my jacket. I didn’t want to look too prepared. I pulled a sweater on over my t-shirt instead and hoped we wouldn’t be outside very long. I hoped Carol would have time to get shoes.
I tried not to watch the clock anymore. The explosion was supposed to happen at ten till two, but there we no way to know how far off this clock was from the one the guys were using. I tried to get myself into a waiting mode. Alert but not too tense. It was a lost cause. I’d been on edge since before the op had started and I couldn’t force myself to calm down. The only thing I could think of that didn’t make me feel like I’d jump out of my skin was going home after the debriefing. Then I could sleep in my own bed in my own quiet house with no one, crazy or otherwise, trying to get in my head.
I pictured the perfect sandwich I was going to have before going to bed. Corned beef on marble rye. Little caraway seeds in the bread. A thick slice of white cheddar, tomatoes, a touch of relish, just a smear of Dijon mustard and a heavy dollop of miracle whip. Then the romaine lettuce and-
The blast was muted but loud enough to make my eyes snap open. The room shook subtly, right before the fire alarms started. I stood up, my heart pounding. I glanced at the clock. We were right on time.
Kepler and I had estimated at least ten and no more than fifteen minutes before they’d begin a full-scale evacuation of the facility. The staff was more efficient than we gave them credit for. It had only been six minutes when my door burst open.
It was the short guard with a hand always on his nightstick who sang Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds in his head while he made his rounds. “Get over here, Steadman,” he barked. I’ve gotta get these idiots cuffed and out fast or Whitnail will have my ass.
He looked back over his shoulder as if the staff shrink was right behind him and gave me the opening I needed. I brought my desk chair down against the back of his head and my luck held, he fell into the room, not out into the hall. I dragged him into the center of the room and took his keys. I eyed the nightstick but there was no inconspicuous way to carry it. I stood up, breathing faster, resisting the urge to kick him in the side on the off chance I would bruise my foot. I opened the door a crack and saw a disorganized mill of cuffed patients, tense looking orderlies and the flashing strobe-like lights that topped the fire alarms. I slipped through the door and followed another orderly with my hands held in front of me. They could be mistaken for cuffed if no one looked too close. No one was worried about my cuffs. The orderlies and guards had their work cut out for them keeping the patients from running.
Further out of my block than I had been since I arrived, I was close to wanting to run myself. The first sign of smoke in the hall had tripled the patients’ panic and I couldn’t help but feel it. Part of me wanted to be back in my room. I forced myself to open up and feel for Carol.
The familiar buzz of her thoughts was ahead of me and I had to weave ahead without looking like I was running. Carol. No reaction, but then there were lots of other people in the hall thinking loud and fast. I tried a couple of times but didn’t get her attention until I came up behind her and put one hand on her elbow. “You ready to get out of here, Carol?” I said, close to her ear.
She took her eyes off the orderly she was following. “Oh, this is your diversion, Brad?” she asked in her mild tone, her mind brittle with fear.
“You got it.” I showed her my freed hands and the keys I had. Once we get outside I’ll un-cuff you and we can meet my friends.
“This isn’t a great time for the super-spy game,” she was annoyed and sharp and pulled away from me.
I dug my fingers into her arm. And if we get out there and six armed men are waiting for us? I asked in the commanding tone I could only summon for pick-ups.
She shot me a strange look but stopped trying to pull away. I think I’d have to re-think things, she replied with uncommon clarity for a civilian in an emergency.
“Good answer,” I muttered keeping one hand on her arm and the other wrapped around the keys in my pocket as they shunted us out the door. We were pushed out into a group farther back than the fifty yards Kepler had anticipated. Further from the main building and closer to the woods that hid the security fences.
The orderlies, usually unnaturally diligent, were distracted by the flames that licked out of the main building.
I unlocked Carol’s cuffs. She was torn between watching the fire and watching me. Where are they? she asked with something between disbelief and nervous anticipation.
I dropped her cuffs on the grass and squinted into the darkness between the trees. There was a brief flash of blue light and then two more. “All clear.”
“Over there,” I told her. In the trees, you can feel them out there. You start running when I say.
She hesitated, reaching out, feeling them tense and waiting. Her eyes were wide when she looked back at me. Everything was so loud and confused that I couldn’t immediately place her expression.
Joy, pure exhilarated joy, and gratitude. I’m getting out.
I nodded, she was getting out of everything, soon she was going to be completely free. Follow my lead. We’re going to start wandering that way. If I, or anyone on the team, says run, you run, ok?
She nodded back, her expression not less happy for being serious. Lead on, Slick.
We made slow but steady progress, aided by a second explosion that brought everyone’s attention to what was left of the OT wing.
Halfway across the grass I felt it coming. Right before the shouting started, before the first orderly that saw me called anyone else, I pushed Carol toward the trees. Run. I gave her a brief head start, feeling sharp attention on me before I started running too. There was enough time to make it to the team, to where they were waiting in the bushes near the hole they’d cut in the fence.
Carol must have been a track star in her youth because she covered the distance to the trees in seconds and disappeared into them ahead of me.
I thought I was going to make it too. I thought it until the moment the cop tackled my legs. Then all of the air was pushed out of me by a dog-pile of orderlies and guards and cops. All of them with one thought between them.
I got him!