Authors: Jennifer Estep
Now came the trickier part—getting out of the asylum. Because while all it had taken to get thrown in here was a faked psychotic episode and a few greased palms, several obstacles lay between me and the outside world, namely two dozen orderlies, a couple of security guards, a variety of locks, and twelve-foot-high walls topped with razor wire.
I crept to the end of the hall and peered down the next passageway. Deserted. It was after seven, and most of the patients had already been put back into their padded cells to scream away the night. With any luck, Evelyn and the orderly wouldn’t be discovered until morning. But I was going to be long gone before then. Never count on luck to get you through anything. A lesson I’d learned the hard way long ago.
Using the route I’d memorized and keeping in mind the orderlies’ timed circular sweeps, it was easy enough to make my way through the dim corridors to the right wing of the asylum. Thanks to the piece of tape I’d put over the lock, the door to one of the supply closets was already open. I slipped inside. Industrial supplies were crammed into the dark area. Mops. Brooms. Toilet paper. Cleaning solvents.
I walked to the back corner, where the builders had been too cheap to cover the granite wall with paint, and pressed my hand to the rough stone. Listening. As a Stone elemental, I had the power, the magic, the ability, to listen to the element wherever it was, in whatever form it took. Whether it was gravel under my feet, a rocky mountain outcropping soaring above my head, or just a simple wall, like the one I had my hand on now, I could hear the stone’s vibrations. Since people’s emotions and actions sink into their surroundings, especially stone, over time, tuning into those vibrations could tell me a number of things, from the temperament of a person living in a house to whether a murder had taken place on the premises.
But the stone wall underneath my hand only babbled its usual insanity. There were no sharp notes of alarm. No clashing and clanging vibrations of hurried activity. No sudden disturbances rippling through the rock. The bodies hadn’t been discovered yet, and my fellow crazies were probably still drooling on each other. Excellent.
I climbed up on a metal shelf set against the wall, pushed aside a loose ceiling tile, and grabbed the plastic-wrapped bundle of clothes I’d hidden there. I stripped off my blood-spattered, white inmate pajamas and shimmied into the new garments. One of the first things I’d done when I’d been committed had been to break into the patients’ repository and liberate the clothes I was wearing when the cops had brought me here. In addition to my blue jeans, long-sleeved navy T-shirt, boots, and navy hooded fleece jacket, I’d also had a couple of pocketknives on me, along with a silver watch that had a long spool of garrote wire coiled inside the back. Small, flimsy weapons, but I’d learned long ago to make do with what I had.
In addition to the repository, I’d also paid a visit to the records room, grabbed my fake Jane Doe files, and destroyed those, as well as erased any mention of my stay here from the computer system. Now, there was no trace I’d ever been in the asylum at all. Besides Evelyn Edwards’s cooling body, of course.
I snapped the watch around my wrist. A bit of moonlight streaming in the window hit my hand, highlighting a scar embedded deep in my palm. A small circle with eight thin lines radiating out of it. A matching scar decorated my other palm. Spider runes—the symbol for patience.
I uncurled my hands and stared at the lines. At the tender age of thirteen, I’d been beaten, blindfolded, and tortured—forced to hold onto a piece of silverstone metal, a medallion shaped like the spider rune. My hands had been duct-taped around the rune, which had then been superheated by a Fire elemental. The magical metal had melted and burned into my palms, hence the scars. Back then, seventeen years ago, the marks had been fresh, ugly, red—like my screams and the laughter of the bitch who’d tortured me. The scars had faded with time. Now, they were just silvery lines crisscrossing the swirls of my pale skin. I wished my memories of that night were as dull.
Moonlight highlighted the silverstone metal still in my flesh and made the marks more visible than they were during the day. Or maybe that was because I did most of my work at night, when the dark things, the dark emotions, came out to play. Sometimes I almost forgot the runes were there until moments like these, when they showed themselves.
And reminded me of the night my family had been murdered.
I ignored the painful tug of memories and continued with my work. The job was only half-done, and I had no intention of getting caught because I’d become misty-eyed and maudlin over things best forgotten. Emotions were for those too weak to turn them off.
And I hadn’t been weak in a very long time.
I stuffed the bloody pajamas and the empty plastic wrap into the bottom of one of the buckets the janitors used to mop the floors. Then I grabbed a can of bleach off the metal shelf, opened it, and dumped the liquid into the bucket. Using my jacket sleeve to hold one of the mop handles, I gave the whole thing a good stir. There’d be no DNA to be had from these clothes. Assuming the police even bothered to check for any. Murders, especially stabbings, weren’t exactly uncommon in the asylum, which is why I’d decided to take out the shrink here instead of at her home.
When that was done, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a pair of silver glasses with oval frames. The bluish lenses went on my face, obscuring my gray eyes. The other pocket held a baseball hat, to hide my dyed blond hair and cast my features in shadow. Simple tools really did work best, especially when it came to changing your appearance. A bit of glass here, some baggy clothes there, and most people couldn’t tell what color your skin was, much less what you actually looked like.
My disguise complete, I palmed one of the pocketknives, opened the door, and stepped out into the hallway.
Wearing my regular clothes and a big ole, friendly, southern smile, I left. Nobody gave me a second look, not even the so-called security guards who were paid for their stellar vigilance and exceptional attention to detail. Five minutes later, I scrawled a fake name across the visitors’ sign-out sheet at the front desk. Another orderly, female this time, scowled at me from behind the glass partition.
“Visiting hours were over thirty minutes ago,” she sniped, her face drawn tight with disapproval. I’d interrupted her nightly appointment with her romance novel and chocolate bar.
“Oh, I know, sugar,” I cooed in my best Scarlett O’Hara voice. “But I had a delivery to make to one of the kitchen folks, and Big Bertha told me to take my sweet time.”
Lies, of course. But I put a concerned look on my face to keep up the act.
“I hope that was all right with y’all? Big Bertha said it was fine.”
The orderly blanched. Big Bertha was the wizened woman who ran the kitchen—and just about everything else in the asylum—with an iron fist. Nobody wanted to mess with Big Bertha and risk getting whacked with the cast-iron skillet she always carried. Especially not for twelve bucks an hour.
“Whatever,” the orderly snapped. “Just don’t let it happen again.”
It wouldn’t happen again because I had no intention of ever coming back to this horrid place. I turned up the wattage on my fake smile. “Don’t worry, sugar, I sure won’t.”
The orderly buzzed open the door, and I stepped outside. After the asylum’s overpowering stench of drool, urine, and bleach, the night air smelled as clean, crisp, and fresh as line-dried sheets. If I hadn’t just killed two people, I might have dawdled, enjoying the sound of the frogs croaking in the trees and the soft, answering hoots of the owls in the distance.
Instead, I walked toward the front gate with sure, purposeful steps. The metal rattled back at my approach, and I gave the guard in his bulletproof booth a cheerful wave. He nodded sleepily and went back to the sports section of the newspaper.
I stepped back into the real world. My feet crunched on the gravel scattered outside the gate, and the stone whispered in my ears. Low and steady, like the cars that rumbled over it day in and day out. A far happier sound than the constant, insane shriek of the granite of the asylum.
A large parking lot flanked by a row of dense pine trees greeted me. The far end of the smooth pavement led out to a four-lane road. No headlights could be seen coming or going in either direction. Not surprising.
Ashland Asylum was situated on the edge of Ashland, the southern metropolis that bordered Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia. The metropolitan city wasn’t as big as Atlanta, but it was close, and one of the jewels of the South. Ashland sprawled over the Appalachian Mountains like a dog splayed out on a cool cement floor in the summertime. The surrounding forests, rolling hills, and lazy rivers gave the city the illusion of being a peaceful, tranquil, pristine place—
A siren blared out, cutting through the still night, overpowering everything else. Illusion shattered once again.
“Lockdown! Lockdown!” someone squawked over the intercom.
So the bodies had been discovered. I picked up my pace, slipped past several cars, and checked my watch. Twenty minutes. Quicker than I’d expected. Luck hadn’t smiled on me tonight. Capricious bitch.
“Hey, you there! Stop!”
Ah, the usual cry of dismay after the fox had already raided the henhouse. Or in this case, killed the rabid dog that lurked inside. The gate hadn’t slid shut yet, and I heard it creak to a stop. Footsteps scuffled on the gravel behind me.
I might have been concerned, if I hadn’t already melted into the surrounding forest.
Although I would have liked to have gone straight home and washed the stench of insanity out of my hair, I had a dinner date to keep. And Fletcher hated to be kept waiting, especially when there was money to collect and wire transfers to check on.
I jogged about a mile, keeping inside the row of pines that lined the highway, before stepping out onto the main road. A half mile farther down, I reached a small café called the End of the Line, the sort of dingy, stagnate place that stays open all night and serves three-day-old pie and coffee. After the asylum’s moldy peas and pureed carrots, the stale, crumbly strawberry shortcake tasted like heaven. I wolfed down a piece while I waited for a cab to come pick me up.
The driver dropped me off in one of Ashland’s seedier downtown neighborhoods, ten blocks from my actual destination. Storefronts advertising cheap liquor and cheaper peep shows lined the cracked sidewalk. Groups of young black, white, and Hispanic men wearing baggy clothes eyed each other from opposite sides and ends of the block, forming a triangle of potential trouble.
An Air elemental begged on the corner and promised to make it rain for whoever would give him enough money to buy a bottle of whiskey. Another sad example of the fact that elementals weren’t immune to social problems like homelessness, alcoholism, and addiction. We all had our weaknesses and caught bad breaks in life, even the magic users. It was what folks did afterward that determined whether or not they ended up on the street like this poor bum. I gave him a twenty and walked on by.
Hookers also ambled down the street like worn-out soldiers forced into another tour of duty by their general pimps. Most of the prostitutes were vampires, and their yellow teeth gleamed like dull bits of topaz underneath the flickering streetlights. Sex was just as stimulating to some vamps as drinking blood. It gave them a great high and let them fuel their bodies just as well as a nice, cold glass of A-positive, which is why so many of them were hookers. Besides, it was the world’s oldest profession. Barring your normal traumatic, life-threatening injuries, vamps could live a long time—several hundred years. It was always good to have a skill that would never go out of style.
A few of the vampire whores called out to me, but one look at the hard set of my mouth sent them scurrying on in search of easier, more profitable prospects.
I walked two blocks before ditching the glasses in a Dumpster next to a Chinese restaurant. The metal container reeked of soy sauce and week-old fried rice. The baseball hat and fleece jacket got left on top of a homeless woman’s shopping cart. From the threadbare condition of her own green army jacket, she could use it. If she came out of her rambling, drunken binge long enough to notice they were even there.
The neighborhood got a little better the more blocks I walked, going from drug-using, gang-banging, white trash to blue-collar redneck and working poor. Tattoo parlors and check-cashing joints replaced the liquor stores and peep shows. The few prostitutes who trolled these streets looked cleaner and better fed than their tired, gaunt brothers and sisters to the south. More of them were human, too.
With the pieces of my disguise disposed of, I slowed my pace and strolled the rest of the way, enjoying the crisp fall air. I couldn’t get enough of it, even if it was tinged with burned tobacco. Several good ole boys chain-smoked and knocked back beers on their front stoops, while inside, their wives hurried to put dinner on the table in time to avoid getting a fresh shiner.
Thirty minutes later I reached my destination—the Pork Pit.
The Pit, as locals called it, was nothing more than a hole-in-the-wall, but it had the best barbecue in Ashland. Hell, the whole South. The outline of a multicolored, neon pig holding a full platter of food burned over the faded blue awning. I trailed my fingers over the battered brick that outlined the front door. The stone vibrated with muted, clogged contentment, like the stomachs and arteries of so many after eating here.
The sign in the front window read Closed, but I pushed the door open and stepped inside. Old-fashioned, pink and blue vinyl booths crouched in front of the windows. A counter with matching stools ran along the back wall, where patrons could sit and watch cooks on the far side dish up plates of barbecue beef and pork. Even though the grill had been closed for at least an hour, the smell of charred meat, smoke, and spices hung heavy in the air, a cloud of aroma almost thick enough to eat. Pink and blue pig tracks done in peeling paint covered the floor, leading, respectively, to the women’s and men’s restrooms.