By Garon Whited
Slade knocked on the door, rang the bell again, and shouted.
Something inside snicked and the door came open. Doctor Wagner pulled Slade inside quickly and slammed the door, bolting it.
“It’s almost midnight, Doc. What’s the all-fired emergency—”
“Hush!” Wagner commanded, peering through the peephole of the door. Apparently satisfied, he continued to shush his youthful companion and ushered him into the leather-upholstered study. Slade sat in the guest chair and declined when Wagner gestured with the brandy decanter. Wagner poured himself another one, tossed it off, and poured again. Once he seated himself behind the ancient desk, he rolled the glass between his palms and looked down into it as though to examine his own grey, stubbled face in the amber fluid.
“Doc?” Slade asked, puzzled by his mentor’s anxiousness. He eyed a revolver lying on Wagner’s desk next to a box of cartridges. It didn’t make him nervous, precisely, but it was unusual.
“How long have we known each other?” Wagner asked, finally, voice tired. He rubbed his eyes with his fingertips until the saw sparks, blinked madly as they vanished.
“Med school, intern, residency… close on to twelve years, I’d guess.”
“And would you say I’m given to flights of fancy? Strange thoughts? Overwork? Anything of that nature?”
“A little overwork, sometimes, but nothing serious, no. Why?”
“I want to tell you an incredible story, and I want you to believe it.”
“Two days ago,” he began, and eyed the grandfather clock as it chimed. “Three days, now,” he corrected. “Tuesday afternoon, I was on duty in the hospital emergency room. And I encountered the most extraordinary—no, the most inexplicable thing of my forty-odd years practicing medicine.”
Slade leaned forward, eyes bright.
“Oh, yes. We had a man come in from a three-car collision. He was the only survivor.”
“One of those.”
“Yes. The fire department didn’t think they would get him out his crushed pickup truck alive, but they did. The ambulance didn’t think they would get him to the hospital alive, but they did. And I didn’t think he’d last more than a few minutes…”
“But he did?” Slade guessed.
Wagner sipped at his drink and nodded. He wiped his brow with one finger and took a deep breath.
“When they got him in, they had tourniquets on three limbs, pressure on the fourth, and three IVs anywhere they could stick a needle. They were putting plasma into him as fast as it would go to partially offset the blood loss while we typed and cross-matched him for transfusion.”
“What about broken bones?”
“I was sure he had some, but we don’t bother with x-rays until we stop the bleeding. I shouted for help and there were three doctors stitching him up for the next half-hour.”
“He didn’t die of hypovolemic shock?”
“No. His heart wouldn’t quit. It just kept on, like some organic engine. Like it couldn’t stop. Even when his systolic barely hit forty, that pump…” he trailed off, shaking his head. “It just… kept… circulating.” Wagner shook his head again, this time to clear it. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“That’s pretty incredible, I grant you. But is this why you got me out here at midnight on a Thursday? Sorry, now a Friday?”
“I’m not finished. It gets harder to swallow.”
“Okay. Hit me.”
“We got his bleeding under control, but even before that, the blood report came back. His blood type was an exotic, one of those rare types that don’t fit in one of the usual categories. So they did the shake test with various sorts and there was no clumping, so we treated him like AB positive. I insisted on O negative, for safety, and we started transfusing him. He took eight units.”
“Four quarts. Enough for a damn oil change!”
“How could he possibly—”
“Don’t ask me! Don’t even try! I can’t tell you how he survived on about a quart of blood for so long. We were still stitching severed veins and arteries together. We didn’t lose more than one unit once we had him on the table, but you could see it was thinned with plasma. It was visibly diluted!”
“Don’t you think I know that?” Wagner asked, tiredly. “I’ve stitched up soldiers who died from blood loss and they had more in them than he lost! He simply wouldn’t die, and I don’t know why.
“We finished connecting blood vessels, sewed up his arms and legs, and I took a look at the scalp lacerations. The bone was visible, but not broken where I could see, so I packed the wound and started two more IVs to get blood into him. Then we wheeled in the portable x-ray.”
Wagner shook his head in wonder.
“I’ve never seen the insides of a man so bizarre. There are any number of obscure medical conditions—situs inversus and other forms of heterotaxia—but the portable unit didn’t give me a good look at the shadows of organs. They were wrong, but identifying them wasn’t my first concern. I was looking for broken bones and internal bleeding.
“That’s when we decided to go ahead and strip him. We didn’t have time before. Now we were looking for things that were going to kill him soon, rather than immediately.”
“And?” Slade prompted.
“He had rings. They wouldn’t come off.”
“That’s not unusual.”
“In a long-time husband, yes. These weren’t digging into the flesh of his fingers. They should have come off relatively easily. I can’t explain why they couldn’t be removed. It was like they were glued on, somehow. He also had a… a necklace, some sort of pendant. It hung down inside his clothes and pressed into his skin. We couldn’t get it off him, either. Showed up plainly on the x-ray, too. Some sort of gold flower with a lot of gems mounted in it. It didn’t want to come off him, and we did try to pry it up. We would have had to cut it from his skin.”
“Maybe he’s lived with it so long it’s… I don’t know, grafted itself onto him?”
“Maybe,” Wagner answered, doubtfully. “At any rate, even before we could get to the jewelry, we had to get through his underwear.”
“More like a jackhammer. The garment was a pair of grey pieces, high-waisted pants and extra-long shirt. They fit him closely and extended down to mid-femur and mid-brachium. We tried cutting it off him, but the scissors didn’t bother the material at all. I tried a scalpel, too, but all I did was dull a scalpel. We were starting to peel it off him when nurse Baker discovered a strange sort of closure along one side. They peeled apart easily enough. The area of overlap was lined with something fuzzy and stiff, and when you pressed them together, they held on to each other. It was like some sort of sticky tape that never wore out, but fuzzy, and inside the flap of stuff was the zipper.
“At any rate, we unstuck the sticky stuff, unzipped him, and checked him for other injuries. Nothing broken, but there were plenty of bruises under the garment.”
“Hold on. No broken bones?”
“None we could find on a general x-ray. Despite a horrible collision and plenty of soft tissue damage, he was largely unhurt under that… garment.”
Wagner rolled his drink between his palms again, took a big sip, and went back to nervously rolling the glass.
“I think it was armor.”
“The material may have saved his life. Judging by his shirt, he should have had some penetrating wounds and a couple of slashes. That underwear kept him from being punctured. Hit? Certainly. But the blunt-force trauma from a whipping piece of sheet metal is worlds better than being cut in half by it. Even so, the shirt portion of the underwear didn’t have the… the turtleneck, I guess… the turtleneck portion wasn’t turned up. If something had hit him in the neck, it could have taken his head off.”
“Well, then you wouldn’t have had an interesting story,” Slade joked. Wagner made no comment, but finished his drink and leaned back in his chair, pressing the cold glass to one temple. Slade waited for a beat and asked, “Don’t tell me you think he could have survived with a cut throat or a missing head?”
“I hope not. But let me finish. We bandaged him up, put him on oxygen, and kept transfusing him while we transferred him up to ICU. Lacking a medical history, I took a risk and put him on a penicillin drip, hoping he wasn’t allergic. I also ordered a whole slew of tests.”
“Blood tests wouldn’t be as useful,” Slade mused. “Not with that much blood going into him.”
“I know. Be a good lad and pour me another, would you?”
Slade did so, pouring one for himself. He handed over the crystal glass and seated himself again.
“So, what else? Because there’s more. You haven’t got to the part about where he died or was released.”
“True. You were always a bright one. While I waited for the lab results, I had the duty nurse keep me apprised of my patient’s condition. About an hour later, when they were checking his bandages, they sent for me. I got Rhodes to cover for me and went up to see.
“Damned if he wasn’t better by a week! All the stitches holding him closed were about a week along. I could have taken them out on the spot and he would’ve been none the worse for it. That’s when I found out he’d soaked up eight units of blood, as well—and on top of all the plasma the ambulance pumped into him. That’s when I went back to his x-rays and started looking them over in detail.”
Wagner shivered and gulped half his drink.
“When I looked at them the first time,” he said, softly, “I was looking for life-threatening injuries. I was in a hurry. I had a patient dying in front of me, regardless of what miracle kept him alive. I had feared crushed ribs, a punctured lung, broken vertebrae, a cracked skull. I wasn’t so concerned with the rest.”
“I understand,” Slade nodded. “It was an emergency. ‘The worstest is the firstest’,” he quoted.
“Exactly. Then I found the… little things.”
“What little things?”
“His mouth. So many things about his mouth! His jaw structure was wrong. The temporomandibular joints were malformed. He could open his mouth wide enough to swallow a baseball, at least. Then there was the shadow of his tongue. It was… compacted. Retracted. It was longer than a normal tongue and not mounted to the base of his mouth like ours. And his teeth! It didn’t register, at first, what I was looking at. I only had one view, you know. But his teeth… they have a slight but definite point, making his teeth… I don’t know. Sharp. Slightly more canine, or shark-like. Predatory. They look as though they interlock with perfect occlusion when he closes his mouth.”
“I don’t envy his dentist.”
“Neither do I, because he also has fangs.”
“Fangs. Retractile fangs. His canine teeth are partly hollow and retract to near-normal length. There’s some sort of gland, I think, just above the hard palate.”
“You think he’s venomous?”
“I don’t know. It’s possible. Then there’s the structure of his sinuses. Some of them simply aren’t there. When he takes a breath through his nose, the air moves over and, I think, through some sort of multiple layers of tissue. It might be like a breeze through a venetian blind, but I only had one shot of a bone scan, not a detailed set. Regardless, given the size and complexity of the sinus structures, I think his sense of smell is profound.”
“All right, you’ve got me. I’ll go along with the whole thing if you say so. We’ve got patient who won’t die, heals fast, has fangs, and can smell your aftershave at a hundred paces. What’s your point?”
“He left the hospital that night.”
Slade waited a beat, processing the statement.
“What do you mean, ‘left’?”
“According to the night nurse, she checked on him around seven o’clock. He was up and getting his things from the bedside dresser. He already had his underwear on and was pulling on his damaged pants when she came in. She says she told him to get back into bed and he engaged her in conversation as a stalling tactic while putting on his shoes. When she decided to call security, he smiled at her and she fainted. She was found on his bed, unconscious. Nobody remembers seeing him leave.”
“So… hang on. You’re saying this mystery patient of yours had a nap for a few hours, felt better, and simply got up and walked out without anyone even noticing?”
“I agree. But insanity is, perhaps, more likely than I care to imagine.”
“There were others—many others—who worked on him, saw him. They no longer recall.”
“Hold it. Doc, I can accept, on your word, anything you say about a patient. Three ears, three eyes, and a horn from his forehead? No sweat. But this is a patient nobody remembers but you?”
“Exactly. I’ve spoken with nurse Baker, as well as doctors Rhodes, Hunnicutt, and Johns. They recall all the rest of their afternoon and evening, but they think it was quiet. They have no recollection of me calling them in for an emergency, much less a tall, thin man with many lacerations and a heart that couldn’t quit.”
“What about the ambulance driver? The firemen? The admitting nurse?”
“I’ve only checked with the people in the hospital. Nobody remembers him. Even the duty nurse has changed her story. When I first asked her about the missing man, she told me what happened. Now she barely remembers being found in the room. She says she fainted, but can’t imagine why.”
Slade swirled what was left of his drink and finished it.
“All right, you’re the victim of a conspiracy of silence. Everyone is taking pains to make sure your mystery patient is… what? Invisible? They deny his existence. Why? To make you seem unstable? Or because they’ve been bought off? Or what?”
“They haven’t been bought,” Wagner demurred. “Not all of them, at any rate. Maybe one or two are keeping their mouths shut, but all of them? I would have noticed something. Someone would have had a tell. You’ve played poker with me for years. You know I’d see it. There would be at least a hint someone was lying. I didn’t get that from anyone, not even once. They all seemed sincere.”
“What, then? Hypnosis?”
“Hypnosis is a psychotherapeutic tool, regardless of what the cinema says about mesmerism and the like. It can’t bury a memory and everything related to it like this. Or, if it can, not in a matter of hours. I don’t know what’s happened to everyone. I don’t know what’s happened to their memories. But I’m afraid it’s going to happen to me. Which brings me to why you’re here.”
“I was wondering when we’d get to that.”
“I want you to remember.”
“I wasn’t there,” Slade pointed out.
“I know. I’m hoping that will insulate you somewhat from whatever this is. Here.” Wagner opened a desk drawer and drew out several things. On top, a sharpened length of wood and a crucifix came out first. Then a thick accordion folder and a large envelope. “These are the files and the x-rays. As far as I know, these are the only remaining copies—if I hadn’t taken them to my office to examine them, they’d be gone. All the records I didn’t take with me have vanished. You take them, and remember what I told you. Then, if something happens to me… if I, too, forget this man ever existed… then someone will remember. And have these as proof.”
“Doc, I’m not sure what you expect of me,” Slade replied, eyeing the wooden stake and the cross. “Do I remind you, if you forget? Or do you have something else in mind?”
“Nothing but remembering,” Wagner assured him, leaning back in his chair, exhausted. “If I forget, you can try to convince me if you think it wise. Otherwise, just make sure someone always knows this… person exists. Don’t ask me why, but I think it’s important he isn’t forgotten.”
“You talk as though you expect to forget at any second.”
“I don’t know if it’s an instantaneous thing, or if it’s gradual, or if it goes away after I sleep, like a dream. It may be he has some power to erase thoughts and memories, but only if I sleep. I don’t know how it works, how any of it works. All I know is I’ve been running on black coffee and pep pills. I haven’t slept, yet, and I can’t keep this up. Tonight, I’m going to sleep since the first time I saw this thing. If I wake up in the morning and don’t call you…”
“I’m sure it’ll be nothing, Doc. There’s got to be some reasonable explanation for all this.”
“But you will look over the case,” Wagner insisted. “You’ll look at the x-rays? You’ll remember?”
“I promise. First chance I get. Until then, I’ll put these either under the mattress or in my safe. And if you don’t call me tomorrow to tell me you remember, I’ll take the day off and study them until I know them as well as you do.”
Wagner sighed heavily, his face grey and tired.
“It’s the best I can hope for, I suppose. It’s the reasonable response, and you’ve always been reasonable, Slade. It’s why I trust you. All right. You go on. I’ll go to bed.”
“And you’ll call me in the morning,” Slade insisted. “If I don’t hear from you by noon, I’ll call you.”
“If you think it prudent. Very well.” Wagner rose from his seat, a tired old man, hands heavy on the desk. Slade rose with him and they went to the front door together.
“Now stop worrying,” Slade ordered. “You get yourself into bed and sleep. You need it. You’ve pushed yourself too far. I’ll call in to the hospital and tell them you’re taking a personal day. I’ll take one, too, and we can go fish and talk about this tomorrow.”
“I hope so, Slade. I do hope so…”
Slade was true to his word. For half the night, he examined the partial records of an emergency room visit and, gradually, started to wonder if what he saw was human in any way but general shape. He went to bed after midnight, but lay awake a long time before finally finding sleep.
The next day, he called Dr. Wagner, as promised. Receiving no answer, he called again. And again. He gave up on the fourth call and drove over. He knocked. He rang the bell. He pounded. Eventually, he went around back, found the key under the ornamental gnome, and let himself in.
WAGNER, DR. REGINALD R.
Doctor Reginald Wagner, a surgeon and beloved member of the community, died in his home last night. No information is yet available on the cause of death. He was sixty-four years old. Dr. Wagner was a familiar sight at Saint Mary’s Hospital, bringing a cheerful smile to every patient. His surgical skill was honed during his Army years, where he operated on hundreds, if not thousands of wounded men…