Two years ago (and gosh, how time flies when you’re having fun, am I right?) I published a small intro chapter to something that I had been poking at. At the beginning of this month, I picked it back up again, and have made it my solemn vow to at least put a sentence into it each and every day until the bloody thing is done, by the end of January at the very latest. (Honestly, I’m expecting there to be a very unpleasant cram session where I take a week off work to blitz through 20k words or so in short order, to make that deadline. I’m a terrible procrastinator.)
I’m posting the revamped initial portion now, just as a contrast-and-compare. I don’t think it’s significantly different, but I often despise my own work and don’t have the most objective eye when it comes to these things. Let me know what you think. (And if you’d like to see the original version for comparison or curiosity, it can be found here.)
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 up the road, it was practically a foregone conclusion that Clarkson Women’s Facility would be suffering. Still, he would have expected that they’d at least try to fumigate the place once in a while. Given that his last visit had been less than a year ago, the rate of decay was unsettling.
The walls around him were starting to crumble, leaving anthills of plaster and concrete dust along the edges. Every third or fourth florescent beams above had shorted out, with most of the rest flickering their death throes. One or two had even shattered, scattering the toxic dust inside to the floor amid shards of glass that whatever custodial staff remained apparently felt were too troublesome to sweep up. The hallway had the look of a horror movie morgue as a result. Rusted cell doors with rotted out locks dangling from them – no fancy keycards for the staff of Clarkson – hung askew on their hinges or were jammed into their frames. Of the twenty cells he passed, only three held occupants; none of them glanced up at the sound of his heavy footfalls as he passed. The malaise that held the building in thrall had long ago embraced and consumed most of its unwilling tenants.
He reached the end of the hall, sketching a brief salute at the slumped old timer lounging in an uncomfortable looking – but at least free of rust and corrosion – folding metal chair beside a flaking steel door and behind a small wooden desk that appeared to have been salvaged from a middle school distress sale. With his free hand, Michaels drew his badge and halfheartedly flipped it open. The guard, giving only the briefest of glances with eyes that had the glossy sheen of someone who had recently been crying or taken heavy medication, reached under the desk and pressed on something, 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 yet somehow smooth. “She’s full of shit, as ever.” A rusty chuckle worked its way through his scrawny chest.
Michaels raised a brow, twisting his lips upward in a slight smile that didn’t reach his eyes. Hanscomb’s grumbles were one thing he had grown used to when he had been a more frequent visitor of the woman in the room beyond, but it was not a welcome familiarity.
“Oh?” His tone was noncommittal, though inside there was a flicker of irritation. He wasn’t exactly on board with the bleeding hearts who seemed to feel that every prisoner in the world deserved five-star accommodations, but that didn’t mean he thought they should be treated as less than human, either.
The guard rolled his scant shoulders, and Michaels thought he could clearly see the skeletal structure beneath the faded gray shirt the man was wearing.
“Yep. Claims I got the cancer. Six months tops, she says.” He tried on a laugh, couldn’t seem to muster the air, and settled on another chuckle instead. It quickly turned into a hacking cough. When he was able to gain his breath again, he flapped a dismissive hand in the direction of the door. “Like she knows anything about anything.”
Michaels’ eyes, though trained to observe habit and tone, making sense of the mental tics rather than the physical, still found himself agreeing with her diagnosis. The last time he’d seen him, Hanscomb had looked to be around fifty pounds heavier, and that cough hadn’t been in evidence. The older man’s lips were raw, the corners too red, as though he’d been scrubbing at his mouth with a fair frequency, and there were maroon droplets on Hanscomb’s shirt and hands that suggested he was bringing up something a little more unpleasant than phlegm and spit with his coughing fits.
“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.” Michaels glanced over his shoulder, pointedly directing his eyes towards the mold along the walls as he shrugged. “Might have picked up an infection from the mold, after all.”
“Yeah, well. It can wait. I ain’t found the bug yet that can trump my constitution. Lasted through plenty. Goddamn docs just want to shove their fingers up my ass every time, anyway.”
Michaels shrugged a second time. If Hanscomb couldn’t be bothered with his health, it wasn’t Michaels’ problem. He was here for Lila, goose chase though it was likely to turn out to be.
“I suppose,” he said. “Is she ready?”
Hanscomb nodded, opening his mouth to speak but being seized by another coughing fit. He put a fist to his mouth to stifle it while gesturing towards the door with his other. Michaels was not entirely surprised to see fresh traces of blood on the other man’s fist as he pulled it back. When the cough had subsided, Hanscomb’s face had gone a disturbing shade of plum, but his voice was steady enough.
“Yup. Had her in there for forty minutes or so. Ever since the big bugs called and said you was coming. Gave her some crayons, kept her occupied.”
Hanscomb’s lips pulled back in a grin that suggested he had better ideas of how to keep Lila occupied. The effect was made even more gruesome by the flecks of blood, both fresh and dried, clinging to his yellowed and crooked teeth.
Michael’s own false smile dropped downwards an inch; it wasn’t yet the frown that it wanted to be, but it was close. Every time she’d been allowed to doodle before one of his visits, he’d had to spend time mulling over what she’d produced instead of getting down to business, since any of her so-called “art” might have proved useful in attempting to unlock the mysteries of her mind, or at least shed some light on what had really happened two years ago. So far it had been nothing of the sort. Just doodles, often seemingly designed specifically to provoke questioning that steered clear of what Michaels and a dozen other shrinks were actually coming to ask her about.
It also meant more time with her, time he didn’t want to spend in her presence. Despite his professional callings, Lila disgusted him, both personally and professionally. She was his job, his responsibility, and the mystery of what she’d done and why intrigued him, but it didn’t mean he had to like her.
“In the future, Officer Hanscomb, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t provide her writing implements unless I approve them first. You are aware, I’m sure, that his prisoner is the FBI’s baby, and by extension, my baby.”
Glancing downward, face dropping in a properly chastised manner, Hanscomb nodded.
Michaels kept Hanscomb pinned with his grey glare for a moment long before nodding, satisfied. He stepped past him and pulled open the creaking door, stepping through into the interview room.
Another victim of the budget cuts that were slowly destroying the rest of the building, the room had been retooled since his last visit. Gone were the number of semi-comfortable chairs, the water cooler, and the old but well-maintained central table. In their place were a pair of torture devices disguised as folding metal chairs, set on opposite sides of a Wal-Mart fire sale collapsable card table. One of the chairs had its back to him, causing twinges of pain in his spine just looking at it and anticipating spending any time in it. The other was facing him, the woman Michaels had come to see perched in it like a medieval grotesque.
Like Hanscomb, the intervening year had stripped much of the excess flesh from her bones. She had been an inch or two above five feet, hovering around a hundred and thirty pounds, wearing the extra in a pleasant enough way; now, if he had to guess, she was barely over a hundred. Her hair, once thick, long and coated in all manner of products he probably couldn’t have pronounced, had been lopped into an unflattering pixie cut that barely concealed the scalp beneath.
Her eyes hadn’t changed, though. Still a brilliant shade of blue and tracking him with the sort of interest a cast shows in a fast moving rodent. He thought the glimmer in them was more likely to be madness than the potential of flirtatious manipulation, though with Lila he was never entirely sure.
He strode towards the empty chair, restraining the urge to jump as a grinding buzz and a heavy mechanical thud came from behind him, the sounds of the door locking shut and trapping him in the room with her. He wasn’t afraid of her – at least that’s what he told himself these days – but it didn’t make his skin crawl any less when he was locked in with her, just the two of them.
After all, the last time that happened, she’d shot him.
Pushing the thought back, Michaels took a seat, breaking eye contact with her long enough to scan the table. There was a brief burst of relief when he saw that there was a small stack of paper, still blank, and except for the blue crayon being broken in half, the scatter of half a dozen or so colored wax tubes appeared untouched. Perhaps this session wouldn’t turn into an impromptu art class after all.
Michaels cocked his head to one side and folded his hands on the tabletop, squirming inside as he felt the sticky, pitted surface. Who knew what kind of germs were crawling across the fake leather? He reminded himself to use a liberal amount of the hand sanitizer in his glove box as soon as he got back to his car. He tried on a smile, hoping it looked more pleasant than he felt.
No response. He thought her eyes flickered, or he thought they did. He raised the volume of his voice a notch, trying again.
“Hello? You wanted to see me?”
That seemed to have gotten through; she fidgeted, hands twitching before coming up to the tabletop and starting to pick at the edges of the covering. She was moving slowly at first, like a lizard pulling itself up from a stuporous basking session. Her eyes twitched over his face, then down to his folded hands, then to something over his shoulder. Probably the door, he thought.
She seemed to fill with a nervous energy, almost thrumming with it, as her fingers twisted into each other, bending into impossible-looking knots with a series of cracking knuckles before straightening out again.
“Yes. Um. Yes. You…”
She paused, gnawing her lip. Michaels noted that it was apparently something of a habit for her these days; her lips were cracked and peeling in several places. Those spots gave way at the fresh chewing almost immediately, blood seeping to the surface and being ground into those twitching teeth.
“You came,” she said between those bloodstained ivories. “I didn’t think you would. They said you would, but I told them you wouldn’t. I’m glad I was wrong this time.”
She tried to smile, but with the blood leaking down her chin and her disheveled appearance, it looked far more ghastly than she probably thought.
Michaels crossed his legs, taking a moment to flounce out the crease in his slacks. He took a moment to study his leg before raising his eyes back to her face and arching his brow.
“Who’s that, Lila? Who said?”
Her hands twisted back into a ball, her nails digging into the back. She lifted her arms, squirming in her seat before locking them behind her head and forcing her gaze downward, mumbling something under her breath.
“Beg pardon? I didn’t quite catch that.”
His voice hadn’t come out quite as steady and calm as he would have liked. Lila’s behavior was disturbing, and entirely new. The timidity, the childlike fidgeting, would have struck him as entirely out of character for her. She had always been calm and confident, both before her arrest and after.
The more analytical part of his mind wondered how long this had been going on, and why Hanscomb or someone similar hadn’t bothered to notify him or the Bureau about it before now. There were supposed to be reports on any sudden changes in her.
She pulled her arms down, forcing them to the surface of the table and holding them still with great effort, judging from the twitching he saw in her scrawny biceps. Her eyes stopped rolling about the room and locked onto his with a fierce determination that was both much more like the Lila he had known and terrifying. Her tongue slipped out of the corner of her mouth, sliding across her bloodstained lower lip and disappearing into the other corner in a manner that would have been sensual had it not been so disturbing.
“The ghosts,” she whispered.
This time Michaels had no problem hearing her.