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ISBN-10: 1-55404-511-8
Genre: Fantasy/SF/Mystery
eBook Length: 438 Pages
Published: November 2007

From inside the flap

Al washed up in a remote area of a relatively unknown beach which lay on the central coast of California. Early morning surfing aficionados revived the man, who instantly attacked them for their trouble. Defying his condition, he shook his rescuers off like fleas and babbled an insanely violent tale.

Wolves and dragons. Storms which descended like Ragnarok from heaven. Add in an overwhelming guilt complex, and intense feelings of persecution. Al claimed he had killed a million men, women and children; he ranted that someone had torn him apart limb from limb and sewn him back together like a rag-doll.

Taken to a psychiatric hospital, the attending doctor documented that first the patient only screamed and shouted at people, and not always in a language they understood or identified...

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Hard-Dull (Excerpt)

Chapter One

"You can call me Al."

Doctor Pendleton stared out from the Nurseís Station into the Day Room of Ward Five, and looked around for the voice, thinking of a Paul Simon song. A thin man with an overly tanned complexion sat at one of the many tables, virtually surrounded by other patients; he shuffled a deck of cards absently. Pendleton didnít see the manís face exactly, but the hands holding the cards manipulated them expertly with the skill of a prestidigitator.

The group of people around the table included other patients, some of their family who had come to visit for the day, and even one or two staff members. They crowded around the man holding the cards, and yet they also kept their distance at the same time, like a colony of ants all swarming around the same area, avoiding one small patch of poison put down by someone to deal with their intrusion.

Pendleton heard the same voice again asking the others at the table, " we have a game?"

Shuffle, shuffle.

A nice voice, pleasant. A voice with an edge as well, a voice which had the ability to say absolutely anything, at any moment. Doctor Pendleton got the impression that the man shuffling the cards had turned off all his "filters" long ago, if indeed heíd ever had any.

One of the reasons heís here, Pendleton figured.

Another voice interrupted his thoughts. "Charlie?"

He turned quickly to see Doctor Harrison Lambert standing behind him. Lambertís face sagged; the bags layered beneath his eyes indicated the age and duration of all his many cares and worries, if only one had the time to count them all. Lambert, a pudgy man with a naturally sallow look and a way of making any clothing he stepped into look like a blanket wrapped loosely around an armadillo, awaited the other doctorís attention.

Pendleton barely glanced at him. He didnít bother to mentally speculate on whether the manís rumpled look improved or worsened when the older man wore no clothing whatsoever. He couldnít care less what Lambert chose to do, so long as he performed that task elsewhere.

If only Lambert could stop calling him "Charlie".

Pendletonís intimates called him that-well, they might have if he had any. Always a loner, new to the area, he hadnít taken the time to bother about it yet. But if he did have any friends, he felt certain heíd encourage them to call him "Charlie".

But Doctor Charles Pendleton didnít count himself as one of Lambertís acquaintances, much less a friend. In truth, Pendleton didnít really like the other man; something strangely pent-up in the elderly psychiatrist disturbed his thoughts. Given that, the older manís familiarity continued to grate on his nerves.

To cover this, he replied "Iím sorry?", as if he hadnít heard. Then, pretending to have played it back he replied. "Hello, Doctor Lambert. When do you leave?"

"Iím on my way out now," Harrison said. "I just came in to take a last look around the place. Make sure I didnít leave anything important behind in my office...your office. The office."

"Like your marbles?" Pendleton hazarded.

" or two of those left I think. Getting out just in time, really. I stayed here too long. I let myself get too attached to this floor, to my office down the hall. I expect Iíll even miss the sound of the juice cart trundling by.

"All over now, of course. Time to go."

Lambert paused a moment and then added: "Donít stay too long yourself. This place has a way of changing people."

Pendleton chuckled softly. "No need to worry about me, Doctor Lambert."

Lambert looked unconvinced. "In any case, itís your mess now. The whole place. Three floors, five wards, over two hundred beds and rooms. Every nut and bolt..."

"Iím ready," Pendleton reminded the older man calmly.

"You think so. You only think so..." Lambert told his replacement as if he quoted someone of note.

He didnít explain further; after seventeen years in the same building, walking the same floors, Doctor Harrison Lambert put down his burdens of responsibility and rumpled his way out the door. He moved like a group of disconsolate chipmunks trying to free themselves from a sack as he made his way out of the building without another word or even a backward glance.

Doctor Charles Pendleton, now officially in charge of the Carlisle Sanitarium, surveyed his "domain". He felt able to relax for the first time since he arrived in Sacramento a month ago, bought a house, and started the lengthy interview process that ultimately granted him this new position.

No more gazes and endless reminders and memos from the retiring Chief of Staff. The hospital now answered to Pendleton alone, and he answered only to the Board of Directors, when anyone managed to locate any of them long enough to call a meeting to order.

At the tender age of forty, Pendleton still had relatively unwrinkled skin and mainly brown hair, which he wore short. Most people discounted him as a titanic figure or an incredible intellect at first glance; the psychiatrist had a knack of fading unnoticed into the background.

The same lack of presence which had kept him personally isolated for much of his forty years helped him immeasurably throughout his career. Patients and others tended to open up for him without noticing the secrets they revealed. In his private practice it proved an invaluable gift, but when it came to handling a staff of often contentious nurses and doctors the talent developed into a positive boon.

People wanted to take Pendleton into their confidence, and turned to him for support and advice, often without knowing quite why they felt that way. His ability to get people to purge themselves allowed him to rise to such high position in his field at a comparatively young age. Lambert turned fifty before heíd landed such a plum assignment, and heíd lingered for seventeen years before retiring.

Lambertís history rendered Pendletonís brief career childish by comparison. Nothing childish about Pendletonís dedication to researching every nook of the mind though, or his desire to make the Carlisle the best run clinic of its kind in the nation. He had the skill and the wit and, most of all, the will to do it; Charles Pendleton had no intention of letting anything derail these efforts.

The morning after Harrison Lambertís retirement became official, his replacement scheduled patient interviews. In the weeks leading up to the transfer of power, he had, of course, spoken with some of those receiving treatment, and he had touched bases with all of the staff-first individually, and then in small groups according to their floor assignments. But the limits on his time had precluded meeting everyone, given the population of the facility, so some patients had escaped his attention.

Pendleton worked his way through the Wards methodically, doing his best to schedule a personal interview with every patient able to speak or express themselves, and at least paying a cursory visit to the ones unable to respond or recognize their surroundings. He assured himself the patients all received consistent and adequate care.

Some of the cases predated most of the staff in residence, and many of them seemed likely to remain under the care of the many doctors and therapists for years to come. As the new man at the helm, Pendleton felt it his duty to meet with each one of them at least once.

Starting at Ward One, it took him three weeks before he got to the patients on his own floor. The first two floors each had two wards; the ground floor contained those patients with the most profound psychotic disorders. The top level had only one ward, and the rest of the space largely taken up by offices and the occupational therapy suite.

Ward Five, third floor, contained the least violent and most communicative patients in the entire facility. Thirty-five rooms, each containing a single patient, with many of the normal amenities a person expected to find in a hotel.

True, the mirrors had no glass, only solid polished metal,the rooms contained no breakables or dangerous items such as shoelaces or dangling cords, but despite that, the atmosphere on the top floor felt more like a toned-down resort than a hospital. Since many of the doctors had their offices on third floor, it encouraged the patients there to feel they had an even footing with the staff.

Every floor had a Nurseís Station of course. Each floor had a Day Room for family visits; the uniform lounges contained many seats, some couches, and large tables for the games and puzzles or other therapeutic tools like clay and paints. Pendleton chose this location on each floor for his patient interviews, and, one at a time, the nurses escorted various patients in to see him for individual sessions.

He took over one of the tables the patients regularly used for card playing and placed some relevant files before him, as well as an ashtray and a cup of fresh coffee. He gathered up some scrap paper from a neighboring table in case he felt like making any notes or doodling during the sessions. Pendleton saw paranoids and obsessives, the deranged and the despondent. Weeks passed quickly in a blur of patients and case histories.

On Friday of his fourth week as Chief of Staff at Carlisle, Doctor Charles Pendleton had an encounter that forever altered the path of his future.

Nurse Richards, a thin and attentive woman, presented the next patient on his list-a short, ebon-faced white man. He had wild brown eyes and jagged brown locks of hair that the sun had bleached white in some places. The bangs which hung down over his forehead barely obscured a pointed nose which qualified him to play the lead in a certain Rostand play about a sometime-swordsman, sometime-poet.

Nurse Richards ushered her charge into the Day Room with the same consistently humane smile and attention to the manís dignity that stood as her hallmark among the staff.

Pendleton stared up from the file marked "Al" and saw the darkly-tanned man he had noticed a month before. Why hadnít he guessed?

The file spoke of a man turning up on a stretch of beach with few memories and near death. Initially the patient suffered from starvation, dehydration, severe exposure to the sun. He also displayed the violence of an escaped tiger startled in traffic, when anyone got too close. The patientís age remained unknown; one doctor had noted a possible range from twenty-five to double that.

"Al" washed up in a remote area of a relatively unknown beach which lay on the central coast of California. Early morning surfing aficionados revived the man, who instantly attacked them for their trouble. Defying his condition, he shook his rescuers off like fleas and babbled an insanely violent tale.

Pendleton noted the details.

Wolves and dragons. Storms which descended like Ragnarok from heaven. Add in an overwhelming guilt complex, and intense feelings of persecution. The patient claimed he had killed a million men, women and children; he ranted that someone had torn him apart limb from limb and sewn him back together like a rag-doll.

When the ambulance arrived to take him to the closest hospital, the man assaulted three of the emergency medical technicians who tried to move him to a stretcher. It had taken all of them, and eventually the police, to subdue him.

The man fought with an incredible strength that defied his weakened condition. He didnít look like he weighed more than 120 pounds. Even months later, he retained his gaunt look of near starvation and remained so burnished by the sun it looked like the flesh might simply slide off his bones if anyone rubbed against him. But woe betide the man who tried to lay hands on him, because he reacted with instant violence.

After the police took him into custody, his disturbance proved so profound that they soon transferred him to a hospital the state maintained for the violently disturbed-Atascadero.

Pendleton had already browsed the reports Doctor Lambert received from that hospital when the patient arrived at Carlisle. The attending doctor documented that first the patient only screamed and shouted at people, and not always in a language they understood or identified. He threw fits. He didnít recall his own name. The patient refused to allow the touch of other people, even for examinations or necessary treatment.

Gradually the violence subsided, and the patient showed signs of increased approachability. After a few months, he told the nurses his first name. He spoke English well, though with an unusual hesitation at times.

Provided no one put their hands upon him, the patient demonstrated co-operation and a desire to talk. Eventually even the most skittish nurses managed to draw his blood in need without fear of attack.

The state hospital didnít have any way to treat this patient, and it violated ethical concerns to release him into society in such a state. If someone put their hand on his shoulder, they might unexpectedly draw back a stump. "Al" demonstrated no restraint, little connection to his surroundings, and the doctors had no expectation of him fitting into a crowded world without more subtle and intensive therapy.

A news channel took up the story at one point-Pendleton dimly recalled seeing something about it. A plea went out from a local station to help locate any living relatives or friends. They also made a request for contributions to cover the cost of his care and treatment.

After about six months in the state-run institution, the patient had been transferred to the Carlisle. The file indicated initial placement in Ward Two, on the first floor. The date read May fifth, 2001. That meant "Al" had received care at the Carlisle for close to three months.

Pendleton found little mention in the file of progress made. The only notation which leaped off the page stated that the patient had eventually moved up to the third floor when the staff decided he posed a minimal risk of violence. That, at least, had some significance. The rest of the file contained only sketchy references-a few dull and useless lines about various medications the patient had refused and a comment penned by Harrison Lambert that the patient had adopted a strict vegetarian diet. Nothing helpful.

Pendleton gestured smoothly for the thin man to sit down.

"Youíre in my seat." the man told him. The lips parted in a rictus a little too wide. The patientís teeth gleamed with impossible whiteness, contrasting his features sharply.

"Your seat?" Pendleton asked calmly.

"Iím very territorial," the patient replied in a lower voice. And that smirking display of teeth again. Intended as frightening? Disarming? Difficult to decide.

"Extremely territorial" showed up in the patientís file; the man must have deduced it. Perhaps he had simply told it to one of the doctors in a session, knowing someone dutifully transcribed it all at some future point.

It is not wise to allow a patient to take over the process; the psychiatrist usually had pretty strict rules about how he conducted such interviews. But the dark man continued to send out very disquieting signals, so Pendleton strove desperately to find a way to put the man at his ease.

"I see. Well, for the sake of amity..." Pendleton moved to the seat across the table and invited the thin man to sit down.

"Do you play?"

"Iím sorry?" Pendleton said, taken aback momentarily.

"Donít apologize. You didnít cause that whole mess, did you?"

Pendleton thought about this for a moment before replying. This patient liked to challenge, to test the boundaries.

Aloud he told the man calmly, "Well, I am glad to hear that."

"Hmm...didnít take the bait," the other man remarked with a growing respect. "Perhaps Iíll take that seat after all."

He flopped unceremoniously into the chair he insisted belonged to him alone, "And you can call me Al."

Pendleton nodded.

"Do you have a cigarette?"

Pendleton reached into his pocket and offered up the pack.

"I donít smoke," the patient replied, waving the pack away.