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This first world edition published 2009
in Great Britain and in the USA by
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright © 2009 by Graham Masterton.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
1. Stem cells – Research – Fiction 2. Basilisks (Mythical
animals) – Fiction 3. Coma – Patients – Fiction 4. Horror
ISBN-13: 978-1-7801-0058-6 (ePub)
ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-6767-4 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-84751-142-3 (trade paper)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
‘Be like the imperial basilisk,
Killing thy foe with unapparent wounds!’
Ode to Naples
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
Noises in the Night
hear noises,’ quavered Mrs Bellman. ‘Two or three in the morning, mostly, when it’s pitchy dark.’
Grace was standing by the window, holding Mrs Bellman’s X-ray up to the light. Not that there
much light. It had been raining heavily since the early hours of the morning, and the sky was overcast and gloomy. Not only that, there were two ivy plants, one on either side of the window sill, which were reaching out for each other across the intervening space, like two desperate lovers.
‘Noises?’ said Grace. She wasn’t really listening. ‘What kind of noises?’
‘It sounds like somebody’s dragging a
along the corridor, right past my door. And sometimes I hear screaming, but I don’t know where that’s coming from. Upstairs, maybe, or someplace way in back. Sometimes near, sometimes far off.’
‘You’re sure it’s not your hearing aid? If you turn the volume up too high, you’ll get feedback.’
Mrs Bellman emphatically shook her head, so that her jowls wobbled. ‘I know the difference between hearing-aid screaming and human screaming. I was a nurse once, myself.’
‘Oh, really? At which hospital?’
‘You don’t know the half of it. I was sent over to Europe with the Army Nurse Corps, in 1944, only two-and-a-half weeks after D-Day. The things I saw.’
‘My gosh. That must have been pretty traumatic.’
? I was in the Seventy-sixth Evacuation Hospital, during the Battle of the Bulge. I had to care for men with both of their arms blown off. Men run over by tank tracks, right across the middle. So I know the difference between hearing-aid screaming and human screaming, believe you me.’
Grace tucked her X-ray back in its envelope. ‘So far as I can see, your thigh bone has knitted really well. You should be back on your feet in a week or two.’
Mrs Bellman cocked her head to one side, like a querulous pullet. ‘You don’t believe me, do you? You think I’m hearing things.’
‘Of course I don’t think you’re hearing things. But everything sounds different at night, doesn’t it? It’s probably the janitor, dragging all the sheets down to the laundry.’
‘Sheets don’t scream.’
‘I know, Doris. But elderly ladies do, when they have nightmares, or if they’re in pain. This damp weather plays havoc with a lot of women’s arthritis.’
She plumped up Mrs Bellman’s pillows and straightened her blankets. It wasn’t her job, as a general practitioner, but for a split second she had seen in Mrs Bellman’s face the brave young nurse that she must have been in 1944, when her hair was blonde and wavy instead of white and wild, and her eyes were flawless blue.
, thought Grace,
I’m going to be old and crabby and argumentative like this. I just hope that the young women who take care of me will see
for who I really am
‘It’s that Doctor Zauber,’ said Mrs Bellman, in a confidential whisper. ‘I never trusted him, the first day I laid eyes on him. If you ask me, he’s come to some kind of arrangement with Satan.’
‘Doris – you can’t say things like that! Doctor Zauber is very well respected.’
‘Hmph! Satan’s well respected, too.’
‘Yes, well. Subversive opinions like that, I think you should keep them to yourself.’
Mrs Bellman pulled her gray, loose-weave shawl closer around her shoulders, and now she looked old again. The murky light from the window reflected on her glasses, so that she appeared to be blind, and her hands were like withered claws.
On the wall behind her bed hung a mirror, with a frame made of seashells. Photographs of her family were arranged all around it – her sons and her daughters and her grandchildren.
‘Lovely pictures,’ said Grace.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Mrs Bellman. ‘Pity I hardly ever get to see them in the flesh. You see that little one there, in the red-and-yellow romper suit? That’s Tyler, my daughter Sarah’s youngest boy. They haven’t brought him to visit me since he was two years old. He’s in the fourth grade now, would you believe it?’
‘Oh – you don’t have to be sorry. You grow old, you get forgotten. I’m used to it. It’s like you’re dead before you’re dead. Sometimes I think the only person who cares about me is Harpo, and Harpo isn’t even a person.’
Grace turned toward the far corner of the room, where a dome-shaped wicker cage stood on a table. Inside the cage perched a puffy white cockatoo, swinging on its swing and warbling softly in the back of its throat. She tapped gently on the bars and said, ‘Come on, Harpo. Say something. Say, “good afternoon, Grace”.’
The cockatoo kept on warbling to itself, regardless. Grace said, ‘Come on! Even a wolf whistle would do.’
Mrs Bellman grunted. ‘They don’t say much, Goffin’s cockatoos, even if they
speak. But Harpo hasn’t said a word ever since I got him. I wish I could train him to say “this meat loaf tastes like an old man’s rear end”.’
‘I’m sorry. But they seem to think that just because you’re old, you don’t have a discriminating palate no more.’
She leaned forward, and then she whispered, ‘If you ask me, that’s what they keep dragging along the corridor, in that sack. They give another old geezer an overdose of xylocaine, and then they drag his body down to the kitchens, to make meat loaf.’
‘You have a very macabre imagination,’ said Grace. ‘Are you taking those kava kava pills I gave you? They should settle you down. I’ll come see you again the week after next, and maybe we can think about taking off your plaster cast.’
‘That’s if I’m still here. That’s if Doctor Zauber hasn’t done for me, too, and dragged
off in a sack.’
Mrs Bellman flapped her hand. ‘I know. I know. Keep my suspicions to myself. Sit here and eat my cream of wheat and watch
Days Of Our Lives
, and wait for Satan to come knocking.’
‘See you, Doris. You take good care now, you hear?’
As she walked back along the corridor toward the reception area, Doctor Zauber came out of his office, immediately in front of her.
‘Doctor Underhill!’ he greeted her, in his cultured German accent. ‘This is a very pleasant surprise.’
‘I was on my way back to Chestnut Hill, so I thought I’d call by to see how Doris Bellman was doing.’
‘She’s mending very well. She’s a tough old turkey, isn’t she?’
Doctor Zauber gave her a sloping smile. ‘She is not the easiest of our residents, I am sorry to say. But – yes – it will take much more than a fractured femur to dispose of
Doctor Zauber was short, but he had a disproportionately large head. His nose was curved and predatory and his eyes were so pale green that they were almost colorless. His shiny gray hair was combed sharply back from his forehead to curl over his collar. Today, as always, he was dressed in a black coat and a gray vest and striped black-and-gray pants. He looked like a mortician, rather than the director of an old people’s home. Denver had said that he sounded like Jack Nicholson’s evil triplet (the other evil triplet being Denver’s principal at West Airy High School).
‘Is Doris still on diazepam?’ asked Grace, as she and Doctor Zauber walked along the corridor together.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘She seems to be a little anxious, that’s all.’
‘Oh, yes? Anxious about what?’
‘She says she hears noises in the middle of the night. Screaming, and a noise like somebody dragging a sack along the corridor outside of her room.’
‘Really? Maybe it’s her medication, giving her delusions. I’ll have a word with Sister Bennett about her.’
‘I wish you would. Although I think she’s lonely, more than anything else.’
‘You may be right. I’ll see if we can arrange a visitor for her.’
They reached the reception area and Doctor Zauber laid his hand on Grace’s shoulder. ‘Well, Grace,’ he told her, ‘I have to go in this direction. Another
budget meeting, to decide if we can afford to give our residents anything to eat! When will we be seeing you again?’
‘Not for a couple of weeks. I’m trying to persuade my husband to take time off.’
‘Oh, yes! Your husband, the lion tamer.’
‘Such a fascinating profession! I have always thought that animals are much more interesting than humans. What secrets they could tell us, if they could speak!’
‘Nathan says that they would probably talk about nothing but food and sex. But mostly food.’
‘Oh, no! Animals are much closer to God than we are. Much closer to Satan, too.’
if only you knew what Doris Bellman says about you
. But she simply smiled, and said, ‘See you in a couple of weeks, Doctor.’
‘I look forward to it.’
Grace left the building and hurried across the parking lot. The rain was lashing across the asphalt and the trees were wildly waving their branches in the air, as if they were panicking. She pulled up the hood of her scarlet raincoat and turned her face away from the wind.
As she did so, she saw another resident staring out of a ground-floor window at her, a wan-faced woman in a plain oatmeal-colored dress. Grace gave her a spontaneous wave, but the woman didn’t wave back. Maybe she hadn’t seen her, or maybe she simply wasn’t interested in other people any more.