Michaels took a deep breath, flinching at the stench of mold. It wasn’t all that surprising; with the budget cuts and the fancy new facility only twenty minutes away, it was practically a foregone conclusion that Clarkson Women’s would be suffering. Still, he would have expected they’d at least try to fumigate the place once in a while, and given that his last visit had only been a year ago the rate of decay was unsettling.
The walls were starting to crumble, leaving anthills of plaster and concrete dust along the edges. One out of every three or four of the fluorescent beams above had shorted out, and half of what was left were flickering in their death throes, giving the hallway the look of a horror movie morgue. Rusted cell doors – no fancy keycards, here – hung askew on their hinges or jammed hopelessly in their frames. Of the twenty doors he passed, only three held occupants. None of them looked up at his heavy footfalls as he passed. The malaise that held the building had long ago embraced most of its unwilling tenants.
He reached the end of the hall, sketching a small salute at the slumped over old timer lounging in the metal chair beside a flaking steel door. With his other hand, he withdrew his badge, flashing it briefly. The guard, giving no more than a cursory glance with eyes that appeared half-glazed, reached to his right and pressed a button, prompting a loud buzz followed by a solid clunk from the door.
“Don’t know why you’re botherin’, Doc.” The guard’s voice was the product of decades of Kools and Jack Daniels, raspy and yet somehow smooth at the same time. “She’s as full of shit as ever.” A rusty chuckle worked its way through his scrawny chest.
Michaels arched a brow, a thin smile that didn’t reach his eyes breaking on his lips. “Oh?”
“Yep. Claims I got the cancer, have six months, tops.” Another chuckle that tapered into a cough. “Like she knows anything ’bout anything.”
Michaels’s eyes, though trained to observe habit and make sense of the mental tics of patients rather than the physical, found himself at least provisionally agreeing with her diagnosis. Last time he’d been here, Officer Hanscomb had been at least fifty pounds stouter, and hadn’t shown evidence of that cough. The older man’s lips were also raw, the corners too red, as though he’d been wiping away too much fluid, and Michaels could see maroon droplets on the guard’s shirt and fingernails.
“Well, she lacks any formal higher education, Officer. But it couldn’t hurt to have a physical just the same. Sounds like a nasty cough you’ve got going.” Glancing back at the hallway walls, he rolled his shoulders. “Might have gotten an infection from all the mold, after all.”
“Yeah, well. It can wait. I ain’t found the bug yet that can beat this constitution. Goddamn docs just want to shove their fingers in my ass every time, anyway.”
Michaels shrugged a second time. If Hanscomb didn’t want to concern himself with health issues, it wasn’t his problem. He was here for Lila, goose chase though it likely would be.
“I suppose. Is she ready?”
Hanscomb coughed into his fist – leaving a few fresh traces of blood – nodding his way through the fit and gesturing at the door with his free hand. When the coughing had passed and he could get his breath again, his face had gone an alarming shade of plum, but his voice was steady enough.
“Yup. Had her in there that last forty minutes or so, ever since the big bugs called to say you was coming. Gave her some crayons, kept her occupied.”
Michaels’s smile inched downwards, not yet becoming a frown but wanting to. Every time she’d been doodling before one of his visits, he’d had to waste time mulling over whatever she’d produced instead of getting down to business, time he didn’t care to spend in her presence. She disgusted him, both on a personal and a professional level, and since her “art” was rarely – if ever – useful for deciphering her psychology or sorting out the tangled mess of her criminal career, it was time he could find a hundred better uses for.
“In the future, Officer, I’d appreciate it if you don’t provide her writing implements unless I approve them first. You are aware, I’m sure, that this prisoner is the FBI’s baby, and by extension, my baby.”
Looking properly chastised, Hanscomb nodded. “Right. Sorry.”
Michaels kept Hanscomb pinned with his grey glare for a moment longer before nodding, satisfied. He pulled open the creaking door and stepped into the interview room.
Apparently the victim of the budget cuts that were slowly destroying the rest of the building, the interview room had been retooled since his last visit. Gone were the number of at least somewhat comfortable chairs, the water cooler and the old but well-maintained central table. In their place was a pair of folding metal chairs on opposite ends of a Wal-Mart special folding card table. One had its back to him, giving Michaels twinges in his spine just looking at it. The other was across from it, with the woman he’d come to see hunched in it like a medieval grotesque.
Like Hanscomb, the intervening years had stripped much of the excess flesh from her bones. She had been an inch or two above five feet and hovering around a hundred and thirty pounds, wearing the excess in a pleasant enough way, but if he had to guess, he figured she was barely over a hundred now. Her hair, once long, thick, and coated in all manner of products that Michaels probably couldn’t have pronounced, had been lopped into an unflattering pixie cut that barely concealed the scalp beneath. Her eyes were the same, though; still a brilliant shade of blue, still tracking him with the sort of interest a cat shows in a fast moving rodent. He thought the glimmer was more likely to be incipient madness rather than flirtatious manipulation, however.
He strode towards the empty chair, noting the buzz and thud as the lock of the door reengaged as his eyes scoured the table. He allowed himself an internal sigh of relief as he saw the blank paper and crayons still at the edge, unused. Perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad, after all. He slid into his seat, cocked his head and offered what he hoped was a pleasant smile.
“Hello, Lila. You wanted to see me?”
She fidgeted, her movements slow at first, as though waking from a stupor. Her eyes twitched over his face, down to his hands as he folded them in front of him, then back to the door behind him. She seemed full of a nervous energy as her fingers twisted into one another, bending into seemingly impossible knots with a series of cracking knuckles, then straightened out again.
“Yes. Um. Yes. You…” She paused, gnawing her lip. Michaels noticed that such had apparently become a habit; her lips were cracked and peeled in several places, beginning to bleed almost immediately. “You came. I didn’t think you would, even though they said you would.” She tried a smile, but with the blood dripping down her chin and disheveled general appearance, it looked much more ghastly than friendly.
Crossing his legs and taking a moment to flounce out the crease in his slacks, Michaels raised one eyebrow.
“Who’s that, Lila? Who said?”
She twisted her fingers back into a ball, digging the nails into the backs of her hands. She lifted her arms, squirming in her seat for a moment, before locking them behind her head as she lowered her gaze, mumbling something under her breath.
“Beg pardon? I didn’t quite catch that.” This behavior was new; Lila had always been calm and confident, both before her arrest and after. This twitchiness and apparent regression was completely out of character for her. He wondered how long it had been going on, and why no one had bothered to notify him or the Bureau before now.
She pulled her arms down, forcing them to remain still on the tabletop. He could see the effort it was costing her in the thrumming of her scrawny biceps. Her eyes ceased their wanderings and locked onto his own while her tongue blotted the fresh blood.
“The ghosts,” she said, and this time Michaels had no problem hearing her.