Milt struggled to contain the desperation that clawed at his heart and gut. He couldn’t bear the idea that Mark and that poor girl were being tortured to death somewhere nearby, and yet there was nothing he could do to stop it from happening. For all he knew, Mark could already be … but he slammed the door shut on that thought, utterly refusing to think it.
Every house for two blocks on either side of the abandoned car had been searched. Nothing. No residents, at least not legal ones. The squatters they found claimed they hadn’t seen or heard anything. Most were so strung out that Milt had no trouble believing them. The police had just started on the next block over when one officer shouted, drawing everyone’s attention. Milt, Frank and Teddy pelted out of the house they’d been searching to see the patrolman holding Jimmy’s arm – he was already cuffed.
In mere heartbeats, Milt was there, in front of him. In the glare of the cops’ flashlights, he could see a lot of fresh blood spattered on Jimmy’s shirt, and his heart clenched. “What have you done to McCormick? Where is he?” he demanded, struggling not to shout.
Belatedly, he remembered the girl. “And Lindy – what about her?”
Sobbing in terror, Jimmy was incapable of coherent answers. “In … in the dungeon,” he blurted. “They’re both in the dungeon. I couldn’t … I don’t know what’s happening. Joey … Joey got them. I think … Mark – he might be dead.”
“Where are they?” Hardcastle growled, forcing himself to be calm, to not shake the man in frustration. Scaring Jimmy more than he already was wouldn’t help; wouldn’t get the information they needed.
“In the dungeon!” Jimmy shouted – and then, in the blink of an eye, the tears stopped and a sneer curled his lips. “You’ll never find them,” he taunted. “They’ll pay for hurting Jimmy. For betraying him.” He laughed, a harsh, cruel sound. “I left a special present for you, Hardcastle.”
Milt drew back a step and looked the man up and down. “Joey, I presume,” he muttered and shook his head. Turning to Frank, he explained, “From what I remember from the court case and my files, Jimmy is the original personality and is harmless, almost childlike. But Joey here is a full-blown psychopath and a killer. I don’t think we’ll get anything out of him.”
Frank eyed Jimmy Joe and reluctantly nodded in agreement. He, too, felt more inclined to tear the man apart, to force him to tell them where Mark was. Maybe there was still time to get to him. Maybe he wasn’t already … swallowing his fear and his fury, Frank turned to one of the uniforms, directing with cold deliberation, “Take him in and book him. And then get a court order for a psychiatrist to evaluate him.”
Milt raked a hand over his head, his gaze scanning all the buildings he could see. “They can’t be far away,” he said. “We just have to keep looking.”
“From the amount of blood on his shirt, we might not have much time,” Frank muttered, his mouth setting into a grim line.
Words clogging his throat, Milt could only tightly nod in agreement.
“He came from that direction,” a uniformed sergeant offered, pointing across the street and between two buildings. “I’ve redirected the search to funnel out from there.”
Mark felt as if he was floating in an ocean of darkness, or maybe in empty space. He was cold, so very cold. In the distance, he could hear someone calling him. A woman. She sounded so scared. Hard as it was, as much as it hurt, he had to go back, find her, help her. He dragged in a deep breath, heard someone whimper in pain. Wondered who. Her voice seemed louder, closer … and he could feel her hand on his head, the warmth of her breath on his cheek.
“C’mon, Mark, don’t you leave me here. Don’t you leave me alone! Hold on. Do you hear me? Hold on.”
He wanted to tell her that he was doing his best, but it was hard. He felt himself slipping away. The cold was sapping all his strength. All he wanted to do was sleep.
“I wonder why he said we’d never find them,” Hardcastle mused as they finished searching yet another house. The whole neighborhood had once been desirable, even glamorous property but was now a slum, occupied by drifters and drug addicts, the lost and the homeless, the hopeless, the destitute, and the desperate.
Beside him, Teddy had fallen uncharacteristically silent and was staring at a house further along the block. He had a lost, bewildered look on his face, as if he should know where he was but didn’t. “I think I might know,” he said softly. “I’ve heard about it – the dungeon. When I was a kid.”
“What? You know where he stashed them?” Milt demanded, whirling on the kid.
Teddy lifted trembling hands and shuffled a step back. “I don’t know for sure. It was a long time ago,” he replied, clearly uncertain and afraid of failing them. “But … Jimmy grew up around here. Or at least until he was around five or so. He used to tell stories about the house – like it was a house of horrors. To scare me, I thought. You know, in juvie, on stormy nights or when we couldn’t sleep,” he went on, talking faster and faster. “He told me the house had a hidden room in the basement. He called it ‘the dungeon’. There were chains and all these knives and …. That’s where … well, where his father ….”
“I get the picture,” Milt cut in, laying a soothing hand on Teddy’s arm, causing Ted to raise wide, fear-filled eyes to meet his gaze. “Slow down, Teddy. Getting all worked up won’t help. Just take a breath and close your eyes. See if you remember anything he told you about the place.”
Teddy gave a jerky nod and obediently closed his eyes. Gradually, Milt felt the tremors ease, and the younger man’s breathing slowed and deepened. One moment. Another. Teddy opened his eyes and looked down the block. “That one, I think,” he said, sounding less than confident as he pointed at a boarded-up building halfway down the block. “He said the place was white, as if it was pure or clean, but that the truth was in the red tiles on the roof, the bright red door; red, like the fires of hell.”
Milt frowned as he studied the house. The exterior was more gray with age and filth. The paint on the door was half-obscured by the boards nailed across it, and had faded over time to a grungy rust. But the roof tiles? Those that were left, were red. “You could be right. Good work,” Milt praised, praying Teddy was right. With a rising sense of hope, he slapped Teddy on the back. “Let’s go check it out. Do you remember how to find the hidden room?”
“Yeah, that I remember,” Teddy assured him as they jogged down the block, Frank right behind them. “Who would forget? When I was a kid, I thought it was so neat to have a hidden room – and really scary, too, I guess. Jimmy said there was a lever hidden on a high shelf, just beside the basement wall, near the foot of the stairs.”
The front entrance and windows were solidly boarded shut, but Teddy led them around to the back, the beams of their flashlights creating dancing shafts of light as they hurried along the side. They found the back door hanging open, giving Milt hope that Teddy’s guess was on the money. Inside, Teddy hesitated, and then led the way to the dark doorway in a corner. “This is where he said the basement was; just off the kitchen,” he shouted back over his shoulder as he clattered down the steps.
Milt and Frank were right behind him. By then, they could hear a woman’s muffled shouting for help.
The flashlight beams cut through the darkness. Teddy looked around and spotted an overhead shelf at the foot of the stairs. “Jimmy said it was too high for him to reach. Too high for a kid to open,” he muttered, as he felt around in the corner by the wall. Milt heard a distinct ‘click’ and a portion of the wall grated sideways, opening an entrance into a darker cavern.
The dungeon of Jimmy’s childhood.
And of Joey’s deadly rituals.
“McCormick!” Milt called as he shouldered his way inside, using the light in his hand to illuminate the woman sitting on the floor, the man sprawled on his back beside her … and the bright pool of blood. Appalled by Mark’s pallor and the livid bruise on one side of his face, sorely afraid they were too late, Milt clenched his jaw, steeling himself as he dropped to a knee beside his friend. Reaching out, he cupped Mark’s cheek and shuddered to find the skin so cold. “McCormick?” he called again, but there was no response, not even a twitch. Taking a steadying breath, he checked the pulse point in Mark’s throat. “He’s still alive,” he exclaimed with gusty relief as he pressed his hands down on the still seeping wound.
Behind him, Frank yelled for an ambulance and lights. Then he hurried into the ugly chamber, the beam of his flashlight dancing around the room, glinting off the knives arrayed on the wall. He hunkered down beside Lindy. “You alright, ma’am?” Frank asked.
Lindy was weeping quietly. She sniffed and nodded. “I was so sc-scared,” she sobbed. “I thought he was going to die.” Looking around, Frank spotted a patrolman and tilted his head toward her, the signal to help her outside. Only then did they spot the shackles chaining both Mark and the girl to the floor.
“Get some heavy duty bolt cutters,” Frank ordered, “and get these cuffs off them.” The officer ran to do his bidding.
Milt was pressing down hard on Mark’s blood-soaked jacket and shirt, as if he could keep Mark anchored to life if he could only stop the blood that was draining his life away. “Hang on, kiddo,” he whispered hoarsely, scared to death by all the blood pooling on the filthy floor beside them. Seconds felt like minutes, minutes like hours. The uniform returned with the bolt cutters and blankets, draping one over Lindy’s shoulders and the other over McCormick still form. He then freed Lindy and snapped the cuff holding Mark captive. She was able to stand and be led away, but Mark remained unresponsive, his cooling skin waxy white, his lips bloodless.
Milt was nearly frantic by the time he heard the siren, followed shortly by the clatter of the EMTs down the wooden steps. Unceremoniously, they moved him away from Mark’s side to give them room to work. After that, everything became a blur. An intravenous was started after three tries. An oxygen mask was placed over Mark’s pallid face. The deep, ugly gash was exposed and then covered by a sterile pressure bandage. He was lifted onto a gurney and, with the help of two patrolmen, the EMTs manoeuvred the mobile stretcher up the narrow staircase and into the night.
Frank stood beside Milt, both of them pale in the glare of the temporary spots hastily rigged by the uniforms to light the scene. Lindy was already on her way downtown, to give her statement. In the garish light, the men could all too clearly see old blood stains on the floor and walls, rusty brown and flaking with age. Horrors had happened here. Horrors they couldn’t begin – and really didn’t want – to imagine.
When Milt shook himself and came back to the world around him, he spotted Teddy standing hunched and alone in the corner across from the doorway, arms tightly crossed. Tears glazed his eyes as he stared down at the spreading puddle of blood where Mark had been lying. Milt felt a pang in his chest at the torment, the guilt, he could read on Teddy’s face.
“Hey, now,” he said quietly as he approached warily, like he’d close in on a skittish, terrified animal. “This wasn’t your fault. You know that, right?”
Teddy’s gaze lifted to meet his, blue eyes awash with uncontained, overwhelming emotion. “I brought him to Mark. I … Mark wouldn’t’ve even known him if I hadn’t …” His voice caught and he covered his face with his hands. “I didn’t know,” he rasped. “I didn’t know Jimmy was dangerous.” Shuddering, he whispered, “I’m sorry, Judge. I’m just so sorry.”
Milt drew the young man into his arms, holding him while the tears spilled over onto his cheeks. “Shh, now, stop this, Teddy. You’d do anything for Mark, I know that. He knows that. What happened here wasn’t your fault. If you need to blame someone, blame the bastard who built this hellhole years ago.”
“If … if he dies, I’ll never –”
“Don’t, Teddy. Don’t you even think it. You said it yourself, remember? McCormick’s tough. He’s a fighter,” Milt scolded, and wondered who he was trying so hard to convince, Teddy or himself. “C’mon, kid, let’s get out of here. Frank’ll take us to the hospital. We’ll see how he’s doing. What do you say? Huh?”
Teddy nodded and pulled away. His hands swiped over his face, wiping the tears away. “Yeah, okay,” he said, subdued. “Let’s go.”
“Now you’re cookin’,” Milt said in muted approval as he guided Teddy out of the torture chamber, wishing he, too, wasn’t so damned scared that Mark might not make it.
The next more than an hour dragged by as Milt paced the waiting room floor, while Frank popped in and out as his duties allowed. Every time someone came out of the inner treatment areas, he looked up hopefully, only to be disappointed. Marshalling his patience, Milt told himself that no news was good news. If Mark had died, they would have been told.
Teddy’s natural ebullience had disappeared completely. He sat in the corner, his back to the wall, his hands clenched. Nothing Milt or Frank said seemed to have any effect in relieving his grief or anxiety.
Finally, seventy-eight minutes after McCormick had been wheeled into the treatment room, the doctor came out to tell them what was happening. He was tall and wiry, with thinning hair and a competent demeanor. Flecks of blood speckled his green scrub shirt. “I understand you’re waiting for news about Mark McCormick,” he began. “I’m Dr. Steven Warner. Come into the office and I’ll bring you up to date.”
Milt plodded along behind the physician, Teddy in his wake. “How is he?” Milt asked, before he sat down in the narrow, cluttered office that was barely wide enough for the paper-laden desk, one chair behind it and one in front. Arms crossed, Teddy slouched against the wall beside him.
“Alive,” the doctor replied. “In addition to the nearly catastrophic blood loss, Mr. McCormick suffered a modest concussion from being hit by a hard, narrow object. He was also either beaten or took a bad fall, resulting in three cracked ribs but, fortunately, none perforated a lung. His left wrist is fractured and he has severe bruising all over his body. All in all, though, aside from the blood loss, Mr. McCormick’s a lucky man. The other injuries are not particularly serious and should mend with no complications. I’ve stitched up the wound in his side, bound his chest. The bone fracture has been corrected and his wrist is immobilized in a cast. We’ve given him four units of blood.” He paused and frowned a little, then shook his head. “I don’t want to alarm you, but I must advise you that that loss of that much blood can lead to organ failure. If that’s going to happen, we’ll know better in a few hours.” He gave them a tired smile. “So far, I’m glad to tell you he looks like he’s holding his own. We’ve moved him to intensive care for the next twenty-four hours. Any questions?”
Milt had been listening closely and, so far as he understood, the news seemed to be more good than bad. But it also sounded as if McCormick wasn’t yet fully out of the woods. Cautious optimism seemed to be the doctor’s message. “Can we see him?”
“Of course, for a few minutes,” Dr. Warner replied. “But he’ll probably be asleep. That’s what he needs most right now, so try not to disturb him. If all goes well, you might be able to take him home tomorrow. He’s going to hurt for a while, and he’ll be on a course of antibiotics for the next ten days, but he should be fine providing he drinks plenty of fluids and eats lots of steak.”
Hardcastle nodded gravely, even had to grin a little at how much Mark would enjoy hearing the order for ‘lots of steak’. He was more than willing to give hope a chance. “Thanks, for all you’ve done to help him,” Milt said as he stood and reached across the desk to shake the physician’s hand. Then he turned to Teddy. “C’mon, kiddo, let’s go see how he’s doing.”
Milt and Teddy approached the bed in the tiny glass cubicle as if they were walking on egg shells. Machines beeped and Mark seemed to be tied down by a maze of tubes and wires. But the deathly pallor was gone, replaced by more natural color in his cheeks, and he was breathing easily under the oxygen mask. So far as Milt was concerned, that was all that really mattered. He seemed to be asleep but, as they stopped on either side of the bed, Mark blinked and looked dazedly around until he saw Hardcastle. “Hey,” he rasped, his voice little more than a breath of air. “What …?” he began, confused, and then his eyes cleared. “Lindy! Is she alright?”
“Yeah, yeah, kiddo, she’s just fine,” Milt assured him. “And you’re gonna be fine, too.”
“Jimmy … he’s pretty messed up,” Mark murmured. “You need to warn Teddy.”
Smiling, the Judge gestured to the other side of the bed. “Teddy’s right here. He’s the one who found you. And just in time, too. Probably saved your life.”
Mark stared at him, as if he couldn’t quite take it all in. Slowly, his gaze tracked over to Teddy, who blurted, “I’m sorry, Skid. I didn’t know how crazy he was. I thought he really had a brother, y’know? I never meant for this to happen.”
“S’okay, Ted,” Mark told him, his lids growing heavy. “S’okay,” he whispered again, slurring a little as he drifted back to sleep.