The shadow preceded the person—a faint darkening across the floor in the vicinity of the nurses’ station—and then Nurse Pam strolled into view.
She stopped at the intersection of the four corridors and stood absolutely still, holding something in her right hand that Ethan couldn’t identify from this distance, although one end of it cast off shimmers of reflected light.
Thirty seconds elapsed, and then she turned and started down Ethan’s corridor, walking carefully, purposefully, in short, controlled strides and with a smile that seemed too wide to fit across her face.
After several steps, she stopped, brought her knees together, and knelt down to inspect something on the linoleum. With her free hand, she wiped a finger across the floor and held it up, Ethan realizing with a jolt of anxiety what it was, how the nurse had known which corridor to take.
Water from Beverly’s raincoat.
And it was going to lead her straight to the door across the hall. To Beverly.
Nurse Pam stood up.
Slowly, she began to walk, studying the linoleum as she crossed the tiles.
Ethan saw that the object in her hand was a syringe and needle.
He hadn’t expected her to speak, and the sound of her bright, malignant voice echoing down the empty corridors of the hospital put a sliver of ice in the small of his back.
“I know you’re near. I know you can hear me.”
She was getting too close for comfort, Ethan fearing that any second now, she’d spot the mirror in his hand.
Ethan drew the shard of glass back into the room and eased the door closed with even greater care and precision.
“Since you’re my new favorite patient,” the nurse continued, “I’m going to make you a special deal.”
Ethan noted something at the base of his skull—a warmth beginning to stretch down the length of his spine, through the bones of his arms and legs, points of heat radiating into the tips of his fingers and toes.
He could also feel it behind his eyes.
The drug was starting to take effect.
“Be a good sport, come out right now, and I’ll give you a present.”
He couldn’t hear her footsteps, but her voice was getting progressively louder as she moved deeper into the corridor.
“The present, Mr. Burke, is anesthesia for your surgery. I hope you understand that if it hasn’t hit you already, the drug I gave you ten minutes ago will be rendering you unconscious any moment now. And if I have to spend an hour searching every room to find you, that’s going to make me very, very angry. And you don’t want to see me very, very angry, because do you know what will happen? When we finally find you, we won’t roll you into surgery right away. We’ll let the current drug that’s in your system wear off. You’ll wake up on the operating table. No straps, no handcuffs, but you won’t be able to move. This is because I’ll have injected you with a monster dose of Suxamethonium, which is a paralytic drug. Have you ever wondered what surgery feels like? Well, Mr. Burke, you’ll get your own private show.”
The way her voice carried, Ethan knew she was standing in the middle of the corridor now, less than four feet away from him on the other side of the door.
“The only movement you’ll be capable of performing is blinking. You won’t even be able to scream as you feel the cutting and sawing and drilling. Our fingers inside you. The surgery will take hours, and you will be alive, awake, and fully alert for every agonizing second of it. It’s the stuff of horror fiction.”
Ethan put his hand on the doorknob, the flush of the drug lifting now, enveloping his brain, flooding into the tips of his ears. He wondered how much more of this he could stand before his legs gave out.
Turn it slowly, Ethan. Turn it so, so slowly.
Tightening his grip on the doorknob, he waited for Nurse Pam to speak again, and when she finally did, he began to turn.
“I know you can hear my voice, Mr. Burke. I’m standing just outside the room where you’re hiding. Are you in the shower? Under the bed? Perhaps standing behind the door, hoping I’ll walk blindly past?”
The latch cleared.
He fully believed she was standing with her back to him, facing Beverly’s room, but if she wasn’t?
“You have ten seconds to come out, and then my generous offer of anesthesia will expire. Ten...”
He edged the door back.
He could see into the corridor again, and the first thing he spotted was the splash of auburn hair down Nurse Pam’s back.
She stood straight ahead of him.
Facing Beverly’s door.
The needle gripped like a knife in her right hand.
He kept tugging the door back, letting it glide silently on the hinges.
Stopped it before it banged into the wall, now standing in the threshold.
He studied the floor to make sure he wasn’t throwing a shadow, but even if he had been, that flickering fluorescent bulb would have masked it.
“Two, and one, and now I’m angry. Very, very angry.” The nurse lifted something out of her pocket, said, “I’m down in the basement, west wing, pretty sure he’s here. I’ll wait until you arrive, over.”
A walkie-talkie belched static and a male voice answered, “Copy that, on our way.”
The drug was hitting Ethan hard now, his knees softening, his sight beginning to come off the rails in bursts of blurriness and double vision.
More people would be here momentarily.
He needed to do this now.
Telling himself go, go, go, but he wasn’t sure if he even had the strength or presence of mind.
He backed several steps into the room to lengthen his runway, took a long, deep breath, and went for it.
Seven paces covered in two seconds.
Collided into the nurse’s back at full speed, driving her across the corridor and slamming her face-first into the concrete wall.
It was a hard, devastating hit that had taken her completely off guard, and so the speed and accuracy of her reaction surprised him, her right arm swinging back, the needle stabbing him through the side.
Deep, penetrating, blinding pain.
He stumbled back, listing, unsteady on his feet.