Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Locked Room - Diagnosis Cancer by P.J. Bergman

A hospital patient escapes from a locked room. Under armed guard. While sedated...

This exclusive short story is the second chapter of my upcoming novel, The Locked Room. The first chapter, "Private Eye" is available to read online for free here.

For more information and further chapters of the upcoming book The Locked Room, check out The Locked Room (Book).

The Locked Room - Chapter 2 - Diagnosis Cancer

The short story is available in its entirety below. If you want to read on your Kindle you can download it here (send to Kindle instructions here). The previous chapter, "Private Eye" is available here.

Author: P.J. Bergman
Date: 2014
Word Count: 7,500 (about 30 pages)

© 2014, P.J. Bergman. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. Extracts may be used, provided that full reference to the source is available to the reader.


Case Log #002 - January 2005

Diagnosis Cancer

Three months after Allsop’s death I was once again standing on the shining gloss tiles of the LAX arrivals lounge. Coming home was always a strange feeling. Locations were familiar yet enough time had passed for them to inherit a certain alien quality. My mind associated civilian airports with temporary solitude - mandatory downtime spent in a series of sterile apartments before an assignment came in and I was shipped off to my new station in another corner of the globe. The permanence of my arrival on this occasion was a little bewildering.

Either side of me people passed, reuniting with friends and family. Some were greeted with emotional bear hugs, others with professional handshakes. Many of them walked straight through the throngs of greeters towards the taxi rank. Beside the exit, right at the back of the hall, stood my brother. It had been over five years since I’d seen him. Anthony was well into his thirties and had apparently inherited our mother’s youthful complexion. The age gap between us seemed more like a generation than ever. His dark wavy hair was different in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on, though the rest of him remained unchanged. I would suspect that the average bystander may not even believe we were related. Athletic with milky white skin, Anthony stood my antithesis. Years in the Middle East had darkened and weathered my face and arms, but under my t-shirt was closer to our natural color. I couldn’t hope to say the physique hidden beneath was remotely similar to my brother’s.

Anthony was listed as my next of kin and had been notified of my dismissal. I hadn’t intended to fall back on his charity when I returned to LA, but was grateful when it was offered. I had been abroad for so long my list of civilian friends was running painfully scarce. Since our father’s death he was the only family I had left.

‘It isn’t much, but the spare room is yours for as long as you need,’ were his first words after we had exchanged some awkward pleasantries. ‘You’re welcome to stay until you find your feet. Any ideas about what you might want to do, you know, for work?’

I had to admit I hadn’t put much thought into it. Since the trial all I could concentrate on was the feeling of hopelessness. I belonged in the army. I belonged in the desert, or the snow, or wherever the cases needed me. What was I to do now? I was in a completely different world. I couldn’t see my skillset fitting well behind a desk. Put me in front of a body and I’d turn it into a plethora of evidence and leads. Put me in front of a computer and I’d struggle to turn it on.

‘I’m not sure yet,’ I replied.

Anthony shrugged. ‘Well, anything you need. I don’t have a lot, but family is family.’

We spent most of the drive from the airport in silence. I sensed he wanted to ask about my dismissal, but I was in no mood to talk about it. I had discussed my various misdemeanors at length during the hearing and couldn’t bring myself to go through them again. The innocuous bouts of small talk that did pepper the journey - work (he maintained himself running a small web design business from his flat), hobbies (tech and sport), relationships (none), only served to highlight how little I knew about my brother. We were strangers, tied only by genetics.

When we arrived at his apartment I realized that ‘I don’t have a lot,’ wasn’t just Anthony being humble. Located in a run-down neighborhood towards the East of the city, the apartment consisted of a dark living area which managed to squeeze a sofa, a small table, and a crumbling fireplace into a space not much larger than the patterned rug that concealed the floorboards.

The bedrooms sat either side of an exposed brick wall which divided the flat. Facing towards the street, the spare room benefited from what little light trickled in from above the adjacent building. The view came at the cost of noise, which flowed through the flimsy window without losing a decibel. The cacophony of sounds emanating from the street actually proved more comforting than disturbing - the occasional shouting, violence and sirens bringing back recollections of a more stable life in Baghdad.

- - -

I had been living with Anthony for just a few weeks before my cough began to worsen. Attacks became more frequent with pains shooting through my chest as I struggled to clear my throat. I wasn’t overly concerned at first, laying the blame on allergies or dust as I had in Iraq. Over time it became clear that it wasn’t going away. After a particularly grueling bout I pulled my hand away from my face to reveal drops of blood resting in my palm. There are not many people I know that wouldn’t find that frightening.

‘You should see the doctor. There’s no way you can blame that on dust,’ said Anthony once I’d caught my breath. ‘Keep retching like that and you’re bound to injure yourself.’ He paused once he noticed my expression, and followed my gaze into my palm. ‘I... uh... you’ve probably torn something internally. Come on, I’ll take you now.’

‘They’ll take one look and prescribe me something that I could just get over the counter,’ I replied. ‘It’ll cost a fortune.’ It was the same response I had given him before, but this time I couldn’t take my eyes off the blood in my hand. It dotted my palm in a rough circle, the small maroon droplets pooling at the base of my fingers.

Anthony stood up and planted his feet. ‘If you have to pay then you pay. It’s not worth avoiding.’

He was right. My military medical insurance was invalidated by my dismissal but once I had a steady income I could take out private cover. I just needed something to tide me over until then. I decided I would visit the hospital, pick up some colorful goo that tasted like it would dissolve your teeth in seconds, and be on my way.

- - -

The waiting room reminded me why I disliked hospitals so much. Chairs lined the walls with a myriad of different people and ailments. It was no different to the medic’s tent in Banzai. I felt that even if I had come in healthy there was little chance of leaving that way. The feeble air conditioning unit in the corner above the door was failing miserably in its task to circulate the humid air. Its gentle buzzing was barely perceptible over the coughs, sputters and chatter of the crowd. Such environments always put my nerves on edge, and I was grateful for Anthony’s calming presence as he sat beside me quietly.

We spent an hour or two watching the slow trickle of patients pass through the room. It was just as I was starting to doze off that a hushed silence spread across the crowd. All eyes turned towards the entrance. An athletic looking man in a blue uniform had appeared in the doorway. He glanced around the room while his index finger rested on the trigger guard of an MP5 submachine gun. Motionless, the room stared at him and he stared back. A few moments later he was followed by a second guard pushing a hospital bed. I couldn’t see the face of the person in the bed from my vantage point, but the two pairs of handcuffs fixed to the rails either side were immediately apparent. The guards ignored the inquisitive eyes, wheeling the bed through the room without a word and disappearing into the same corridor as the multitude of patients before them. The hushed murmurs of the room returned to a squabble.

‘Mr Rhys?’ a nurse called out from across the room. She caught my eye as I stood up. ‘Room four - down the hall on the left.’

The armed guards were still pushing the bed down the corridor as I made my way to the doctor’s office. Now that I was standing I could see the figure chained to the bed. He was a pale man with a face that looked like too little skin stretched over an angular jaw and cheekbones. A thin triangle of jet black hair sat atop his head, which was currently bouncing off the pillow as he addressed a guard.

‘You don’t know what you’ve done. I have to get out of here.’ Despite being little more than a whisper, the prisoner’s voice shook with anger. ‘Treat me in the clink if you want. I’m getting out of this death trap.’

It sounded like he liked hospitals even less than I did.

‘No way I’m stayin’ here,’ he continued. ‘No way.’

The guard ignored him and gently pushed the bed into the corridor’s wall. A decidedly hurried doctor appeared from the nearest door and glanced down at the prisoner before turning his attention towards me. ‘Mr Rhys is it? Good to see you. Be with you in a sec’, just have to sign off the paperwork for our friend here. If you wouldn’t mind waiting here I’ll just be two ticks.’

Without another word the doctor motioned towards the guard pushing the bed and accompanied him into one of the rooms further down the corridor.

The prisoner propped himself up against the bars of his bed, his eyes meeting mine. ‘Who are you? Don’t come any closer.’

‘Oi! No talking to patients,’ interrupted the remaining guard.

‘It’s okay,’ I replied. My curiosity had been peaked by the strange man lying in the bed. ‘You’re the convict and you think I’m the dangerous one?’

‘I’m the one chained up, ain’t I?’ said the prisoner. He paused for a second before the tension in his face dissipated. ‘I ‘spose you’ve got this one to contend with if you did,’ he said motioning up towards the guard.

‘What’re you in for?’ I asked.

‘The hospital or the handcuffs?’

‘Both, I suppose.’

The prisoner gave a toothy smile. ‘Gallbladder and money laundering. Alleged money laundering I should say. The gallbladder’s real enough though.’

‘I didn’t realize they brought prisoners here.’

‘Sometimes. The bad cases go to the California Medical Facility most of the time, but for operations and stuff they can’t do in the clink we get sent here,’ he replied, adding ‘thank you taxpayers,’ with a sneer.

I may have been insulted if I was actually paying tax.

‘What’s your name?’ asked the prisoner.

‘Rhys. You?’

‘Erikson. Sean Erikson. It’s funny, I...’

He was cut short by the return of the blustering doctor and second guard.

‘Mr Erikson is good to go. Down to the end then take the elevator to the fourth floor as usual,’ said the doctor. He pushed open the door and held it as he turned towards me. ‘Sorry for the delay Mr Rhys, please come in.’

Erikson was wheeled away in silence. I would never get to find out what he was going to say.

- - -

The office was spacious yet cluttered. The dark wood desk and bookcase made it feel much more homely than the antiseptic cream walls of the corridor.

Slouching back behind the desk, the doctor typed a few notes on his keyboard. ‘Please, take a seat. I’m Doctor White. Sorry again about the delay. What can I do for you today?’ It was a few seconds after he had finished the question that his eyes parted from his computer screen.

I described my symptoms. He didn’t seem overly concerned, which I took as a good sign. After a few minutes of checking my throat and listening to my breathing through a stethoscope he returned to his computer. I wasn’t sure what he was typing, but he had definitely written a lot more than he had spoken.

‘I’m afraid we’ll have to get you in for more tests. It could just be a lung infection or bronchitis, but always best be on the safe side with these things.’ His attention was back to the computer before I had a chance to respond. ‘Let me see if we can fit you in. Aha! You’re in luck. We just had a last minute cancellation so can fit you in this afternoon! Fortuitous timing, one might say.’

‘I... uh...’ I hadn’t anticipated anything as intrusive as ‘tests’.

He didn’t wait for a response anyway. ‘We’ll get you prepped and ready, just speak to the nurse at the desk at the end of the hall. She’ll sort you out. Best of luck!’

White stood and thrust a hand towards mine to shake it, then sat back down behind his monitor with a thud.

Tests sounded more worrying. They also sounded expensive. I could just leave, tell Anthony that it was just a cough. Then again if it was something more serious it could worsen. Blood in the lungs was never a good sign. I caught myself thinking about the potential of additional trips to the hospital. I was being absurd - more afraid of a cure than a disease.

- - -

When I arrived the nurse took me through to the X-ray area on the third floor. I was instructed to wait on one of the faded green chairs that lined the corridor. From the wall behind me I could hear a continuous buzz, most likely the machine in operation for another patient.

‘Aha! They said you were up here.’ Anthony’s voice echoed through the empty corridor. He strode over and sat down in a chair opposite me. ‘What did the doctor say?’

‘Lung infection most likely. You know what they’re like, any excuse to make money. Sending me for tests I don’t even need.’

‘Like I said, don’t worry about the money,’ said Anthony. ‘May as well make sure that’s it’s nothing worse than an infection.’

‘Hmph,’ was all I managed in response.

We sat on either side of the hall in silence. Anthony had developed a calming tranquil nature that contradicted my memories of the enthusiastic adolescent that bounded around our parents’ house during my infrequent visits. The significance of the age gap was even more apparent then. My parents were very young when I was born, and never fully grasped the responsibilities of parenthood before I absconded for the army. I always thought Anthony was their version of a do-over - a second attempt to raise a child once they were more prepared and willing to commit. I harbored no ill-will towards them, however it did mean visits felt particularly trying. My mother, never one to allow an extended silence, insisted on maintaining a constant flow of inane small-talk until I judged my familial duties to be complete and made a hasty retreat. As I sat in the hospital I was glad Anthony hadn’t inherited the same habit. The ease at which we could simply occupy the same space without having to force conversation was refreshing.

After about an hour a male nurse appeared from the X-ray room and invited me inside. The room was larger than I had expected, though it was dominated by the formidable contraption in the center. The machine featured a padded table, over which hung a large mechanical arm housing a box covered in buttons. Cables drooped loosely from the box along the arm to beneath the table.

In the corner of the room what looked like an armored portacabin included a small square window, through which I could see a woman’s face. She looked up as I entered and gave a reassuring smile. Exiting her cubicle, she introduced herself as Doctor Thomas and led me to the table. After lying me down and explaining the procedure she disappeared again behind the screen with the male nurse, watching as the machine began whirring above me.

The arm moved slowly, hovering above my chest. Every few seconds it let out a click or a beep before sliding over a few centimeters. It was only a minute or so before the whirring slowed and eventually stopped, leaving me lying in an airy silence. Doctor Thomas returned, as did her smile.

‘All done! We should have the results in a few days. I’ll be in touch when they’re ready. Do you have any questions for me before you go?’

I said that I didn’t.

‘Okay then. Have a great day Mr Rhys! I’ll speak to you soon.’ Everyone in the building spoke with the same cheery tone.

The male nurse led me out into the corridor, clipboard in hand. ‘There. That wasn’t so bad, was it? There is a bit of a queue at the moment so I’ll just take you back to the reception room while you wait for your blood tests. I’ll come and pick you up around 2pm.’

The noise and contagions of the waiting room didn’t sound too appealing and I was in no rush to go back. ‘It’s okay, we can find our own way.’

He seemed pleased that he wouldn’t have to walk the short trip back with me, and offered a chirpy, ‘no problem,’ before marching quickly in the opposite direction.

I had over an hour before I had to be back in the reception room. No need to sit among a horde of the infirm in the meantime. Anthony suggested we find a cafe or canteen for some lunch, so we set off down the labyrinth of hallways in search of food.

- - -

We heard him before we saw him. The rapid ‘thud, thud thud,’ of boots on vinyl floors. The noise started off distant then got louder until the man barreled round the corner towards us.

‘Out of the way! Move!’ he shouted as he sprinted past. It was one of the prison guards from earlier. He rushed down the corridor, one hand on his radio and the other still clutching his MP5.

‘Turner here. East Wing clear. Moving to Northern quarter. ETA three minutes,’ he panted into the transmitter.

We didn’t have a chance to ask what had happened before he disappeared from view and the sound of his footsteps faded into the distance.

‘That was odd,’ said Anthony.

It was intriguing. ‘You reckon the guy from earlier has escaped? Erikson?’ I asked.

‘You know him?’

‘I spoke to him a little while ago,’ I replied. ‘He did say he wasn’t going to stay here. To be honest I didn’t think he was the type for an escape attempt. We should check it out, see what happened.’

‘Are you crazy? He could be dangerous.’

‘He’s only in for money laundering. About as dangerous as half the guys on Wall Street,’ I said, heading for the stairs before Anthony could talk me down. ‘Come on, let’s take a look.’

- - -

The fourth floor was a world away from the calm hallways of the third. Security guards were pacing the corridors, opening doors and searching rooms. They paid us little notice as we wandered towards the commotion. As we got closer we saw a few men in black FBI jackets talking to doctors and nurses along the edges of the passage. At the end of the hall a police line had already been erected, with a balding FBI agent in Kevlar holding an M4 assault rifle behind a strand of caution tape.

‘I’m afraid you can’t go in there sir,’ he said as we approached.

I peered over his shoulder, trying to get a glimpse of the room through the frosted glass window in the door. It was no use.

‘What’s happened? Is Erikson out?’ I asked.

‘None of your concern.’ The agent lifted his rifle slightly, as if to remind me of its presence.

His radio buzzed into life. ‘Echo Foxtrot, we have a suspected sighting on the Western perimeter. Teams en route. Approach with caution. Suspect is an unarmed white male. Use of deadly force is not authorized. Repeat: not authorized.’

‘Sir, if you’re not with the State Department or FBI please move along.’ The man was steadfast.

‘Major Kenneth Rhys, U.S. Military CID.’ I was sure I had my old army pass in my wallet if he asked for identification, though it had most likely expired. ‘The prisoner was restrained and chaperoned, how the hell did he get out?’

The guard’s eyes scanned mine, unsure of how to proceed. ‘I don’t know. The prisoner was supposed to be sedated. I... uh... I don’t know.’

Maybe Erikson was smarter than he looked. ‘I have some experience with this kind of situation. Give me fifteen minutes in the room and I’ll give you your answer.’ In truth I had no idea how he got out, but if Erikson really had managed to release himself from chemical sedation, two pairs of handcuffs and a guarded room then I at least wanted a chance to find out how.

The guard paused for a few seconds, perhaps searching back through his training for the correct protocol. He reached for his radio. ‘We have a Major Rhys here, he says he can assist with prisoner capture. Requesting permission to enter scene.’

I withheld a smile. Apparently the FBI worked just like the army. If you encounter a problem, pass it up the chain of command. No longer your problem. Squaddie protocol 101.

A female voice buzzed through the speaker. ‘Send him in.’

- - -

The sun streamed in from the large window on the back wall of the room. I hadn’t even noticed the lack of natural light in the hospital corridors until I was almost blinded by its radiance. Squinting, I could see that the room was a fairly amiable private suite with two single beds facing each other either side of a small table. An empty vase and the few replica paintings that dotted the walls made it seem a little less barren than the other hospital areas I had visited.

A slender woman was standing in the center of the room chatting to a young blonde nurse and the other man who had been guarding Erikson in the hallway earlier. She turned to face me as I entered, her piercing eyes focusing into mine.

‘Special Agent Estelle McKenzie, FBI. You said that you had something for us Mr...?’

‘Rhys. U.S. Army CID.’ It was nice to have an acronym to throw back at her. ‘This is my associate, Anthony.’

Anthony looked daggers at me, but remained silent.

‘I have experience with prisoner escapes, and I knew the convict personally.’ Both statements were stretching the truth, but there was no reason for her to know that. ‘Your colleague mentioned that you haven’t confirmed how he left the room. I may be able to assist.’

‘I appreciate the offer Mr Rhys.’ McKenzie’s dark hair was tied back in a tight bun that bobbed slightly as she spoke. ‘But we are in the middle of a manhunt here.’

‘Figuring out how he got out of the room may help you track him down. There’s no reason why it would interfere with your investigation,’ I replied.

‘Forensics will be here within the hour. I don’t want unauthorized personnel getting in their way.’

‘Within the hour Erikson could be long gone. I’m here now, and I’m telling you I can help. I’ll be finished by the time your forensics team arrive.’

McKenzie paused to think about it for a few seconds, her eyes scanning my entire frame. ‘Okay. I guess you’re right. Baker, you stay here with Mr Rhys.’

‘Yes Ma’am,’ answered the guard.

‘I’m going to check in with Bravo team. You find anything, radio it in immediately.’

‘Yes Ma’am,’ he repeated.

‘And one more thing,’ said McKenzie as she headed for the door. ‘Keep your eyes open.’

‘Yes Ma...’

The door had already closed behind her.

- - -

‘We were just outside the entire time. No rotations, no breaks. The entire time.’ Baker was at least more forthcoming than his colleague stationed at the door. ‘There’s the window, but I checked and it’s still locked. Plus he’d have to climb down a four story brick wall. We bring prisoners here all the time, never had anything like this before.’

‘What about other people coming to the room? Deliveries, visitors, anything like that?’ I asked.

‘Nope, nothing. I just can’t see how,’ said Baker as he massaged his forehead with his hand.

‘It’s true,’ added the nurse standing beside him. ‘I came in and administered the general anesthetic, then when I came back to check on him he was gone.’

Baker nodded in unison. ‘Like Ms Owen here says. Those were the only times the door was opened.’

How fascinating. ‘Ms Owen is it?...’

‘...Call me Hope,’ she interrupted.

‘Ms Hope. You were treating Erikson?’

‘I just came in to administer the sedative. He was scheduled for surgery, but the doctors handle all that.’ She flicked her hair back to expose her neck, a gesture that wasn’t lost on Baker.

Anthony’s misgivings about the situation seemed to have withered as he listened attentively. ‘How is it possible for him to have woken up and escaped while drugged?’ he asked.

‘I’m not sure,’ replied Hope. ‘I suppose with a strong enough dose of Ritalin he could have mitigated the effects. Or...’


Hope’s eyes lit up. ‘The anesthetic was kept in his side cabinet, ready for his IV infusion. If he somehow switched the bottle...’

‘Then it may not have been anesthetic at all,’ said Baker.

‘Exactly,’ replied Hope with a smile. Baker’s face flushed with pride as he responded in kind.

Who knew Erikson had it in him. I was beginning to like the guy. ‘So let’s say for argument’s sake that Erikson is awake.’ I approached his bed and shook the rails that ran either side of the mattress. They seemed solid. The handcuffs were still attached, and showed no sign of damage. The ratchets holding them around the rail didn’t budge, though the ones that would have housed his wrists were left open. ‘The guy has some talent, I’ll give him that. Not easy to pick the first set of cuffs single handed.’

The three of them stared at me blankly.

I searched through the crumpled blanket that had been thrown to the side of the bed before dropping to my knees, searching the floor for a safety pin or something else that he could have used. No luck. Baker offered his torch as I began inspecting beneath the side cabinet.

‘Here, let me get that for you,’ said Hope. She effortlessly turned the cabinet and wheeled it across to the other side of the room. Still nothing.

‘Must have taken it with him,’ I shrugged to my audience. ‘So he’s awake and free, but he still has to get past Baker here on the door.’

‘And Turner,’ added Baker.

‘And Turner,’ repeated Hope.

The door opened inwards rather than out into the corridor. Anyone standing nearby would have a full view down the hall. There was no way he was getting by them unnoticed. I reasoned that maybe one guard could be bought, but two? Unlikely. Assuming Turner could corroborate Baker’s information, it just wasn’t possible. If he didn’t go through the door then there must be another way out.

I went back to the window, trying the handle as forcefully as I could. It didn’t budge. The frame was sealed all the way around, no loose panels or removable sections. Even if he did try to get out this way, Baker was right. Pressing my forehead into the glass I could see the sheer drop all the way to the concrete path four stories down. There didn’t seem to be any ledges, drainpipes or climbable objects in the vicinity of the window.

‘Did the prisoner have a history of escape attempts?’ I asked Baker.

‘Not that I know of,’ he replied. ‘The guy was laundering money for the mob. Hardly maximum security material. We never had any problem with him at LAC.’

‘Maybe he had help,’ suggested Anthony. ‘Friends in the criminal underworld, that kind of thing?’

Baker chuckled. ‘I doubt it. From what I heard he was siphoning off wide chunks of cash into some overseas accounts. The guy practically begged us to take him in after his boss discovered what he was up to. I would be surprised if he has any friends willing to help out an enemy of the mob.’

Help or not, it didn’t look like he went through the window or the door. The walls looked solid, but I did a quick check round to be sure. Nurse Hope and Baker followed me inquisitively as I made my way around, offering the odd comment or question as I continued my tapping.

‘What about behind the headboard?’ asked Nurse Hope. She had a point. Each bed was affixed to a metallic plate on the wall that secured them in place. The plates were easily wide enough to hide decent sized hole in the wall, though showed no sign of tampering.

‘I can’t see how he could have removed them then screwed them back into the wall, though no harm in being sure I suppose,’ I replied.

Nurse Hope seemed pleased to have contributed. ‘I’ll get the beds out of your way.’ She unclipped Erikson’s bed and pulled it into the center of the room.

‘Let me get that for you,’ offered Baker as he took hold of the frame. ‘Doesn’t seem right letting a lady do the hard work.’

Nurse Hope blushed slightly. ‘It’s fine, we do this all the time.’

‘I insist,’ said Baker with a smile. It wasn’t the most subtle attempt at chivalry, but judging by Hope’s repeated glances towards him it seemed to be doing the trick.

Once the beds were wheeled into the corridor I set to work unscrewing the plates from the wall. The screw heads were large and broad, and were easily dislodged with a coin. Unfortunately it did nothing to help resolve the mystery of the disappearing prisoner, as behind the plates slightly dirtier but equally solid sections of wall stood lacking an escape tunnel.

The four of us stood in the center of the room silently. Perhaps I had been a little presumptuous with my promise of an answer.

- - -

‘Would you mind terribly if I continued my shift?’ asked Nurse Hope after a few minutes. ‘I have other patients to see. They may need me.’

‘Of course,’ I replied. I wasn’t too far off giving up myself.

‘Don’t go far, the FBI may have some more questions,’ added Baker.

Nurse Hope flashed him a gleaming smile. ‘Okay, maybe see you in a bit then.’

Baker’s gaze clung to the Nurse as she made her way out. It seemed she had made quite an impression. Once he noticed Anthony and I looking at him, Baker offered a simple shrug. ‘What? No rules against it.’

Baker’s love life was his own business. I returned my attentions to the case. The two of them watched me closely as I stared at the grimy wall. I’d been overly confident, expecting the authorities to have missed something obvious. If they had then I was just as guilty.

‘You never know, maybe they’ve caught up with him outside.’ Anthony’s tone was more resigned than optimistic.

‘I’m afraid not,’ answered a female voice. McKenzie strode in through the open doorway. Her dark trousers and jacket were scuffed and dirty, the result of climbing through bushes or woodland by the looks of it.

Baker sprang up to attention. ‘Did you find anything?’

‘No sign of Erikson. Sighting turned out to be a false alarm. I did find something interesting though, and it’s regarding Mr Rhys here.’

I could feel my palms start to moisten.

‘You mentioned that you were military police. I ran a background check. As it turns out that is no longer a status you can claim to own.’

Anthony glanced at the door. The thought of bolting is a natural reaction, but would be entirely stupid. With my constitution I probably wouldn’t make it out of the room. Even if I did make it down the hallway I wouldn’t trust the authorities not to gun me down, especially with a convict on the loose. I’d seen too many wayward bullets by supposedly trained officials. Thankfully Anthony arrived at the same conclusion, and returned his gaze to McKenzie.

She turned towards Baker. ‘Mr Rhys was dishonorably discharged. He holds no standing within the military CID, or any other law enforcement for that matter. He was involved in that Iraq gambling scandal a few months back, one of the degenerates extracting money from our own men.’

‘Degenerate’ was a bit far. ‘That’s not quite what...’ I started.

‘I’m not sure what your game was here Rhys,’ interrupted McKenzie, ‘but we’re no closer to catching Erikson and you’ve pretty much devastated the crime scene for forensic purposes.’

Baker stared down at his feet.

McKenzie reached for her radio. ‘Before I arrest you, at least tell me you have something.’

This wasn’t exactly how I’d envisioned the investigation ending. ‘I would be impressed if this was the work of a master escape artist, let alone that of convict with no record of breaking out,’ I responded ruefully. As I thought about it the concept struck me as strange. ‘It makes me wonder why he wanted out so much. Why go to all this effort? Erikson said something earlier - ‘I’m not staying in this death trap.’ At the time I assumed he just disliked hospitals, but maybe it was something more.’ My mind began to race, the dusty cogs whirring back into action following the afternoon of frustration. ‘What if it wasn’t the hospital that scared him, but something more tangible. Inside he felt safe, but bring him out from behind the prison walls and he feared for his life. What if...?’

It hit me like a rifle butt to the face. Erikson had left the room in the simplest possible manner - the same way he came in. If we didn’t act fast he may be gone forever.

‘Quick! Seal the building. I know where he is!’

Baker and McKenzie stood stunned for a second before McKenzie barked the order into her radio.

- - -

I led them down the winding corridors towards the entrance, walking at a pace I don’t think I’d reached since my youth. The monotone cream walls sped by in a blur as I scoured the halls. We had almost reached the waiting room at the front of the building when I saw what I was looking for: Nurse Hope.

She was calmly walking behind a bed as she wheeled it along the corridor, oblivious to the ruckus behind her.

‘Stop her!’ I shouted to no-one in particular as we approached.

Nurse Hope span to face me when she heard the sound, then darted for the door. She only made it a few paces before McKenzie tackled her to the ground. The FBI agent was surprisingly athletic, springing across the corridor and pouncing on the Nurse with some ferocity. Once she had been restrained McKenzie dragged her back up and stood her against the wall.

‘Mr Rhys, you better have a good reason for this. Why the hell did I just jump her like Joe Montana?’

‘Indeed I do. How long did we spend in that room? The answer was right in front of us, quite literally. Erikson escaped directly under our noses. I’m just not sure he wanted to.’

- - -

‘There was no way Erikson could escape without help, and I think Baker was right - it was unlikely he had any friends on the outside,’ I said. ‘It took me long enough to realize, but there is another reason someone wanted to get him out of that room. Erikson wasn’t afraid of the hospital, he was afraid of what the mob might do to him if they caught up to him. He was a much easier target here than he was in prison. At first I thought they simply wanted to kill him, but some prison lackey could have done that. Whoever Erikson owed wasn’t after simple revenge. They wanted their money.

‘One of their contacts in LAC must have tipped them off to Erikson’s surgery, so they engineered a plan to get him out. Once free Erikson could lead them to the cash or withdraw the funds from his offshore accounts. After that god knows what they would have done to him.

‘In the end it was quite simple. They planted a fake nurse who would administer the anesthetic to knock Erikson out for the duration. After that she picked his handcuffs and hid his unconscious body inside the hollowed out mattress of the bed.’

‘We were all over that bed, don’t you think we would have noticed?’ questioned Baker.

‘Not if it was the other bed,’ replied Anthony, his eyes widening as the solution exposed itself to him.

‘Exactly!’ I smiled. ‘With beds on wheels it’s very easy just to move it across to the other side of the room, then make the bed over Erikson’s sleeping body. To complete the illusion all you need to do is mess up the sheets on the replacement bed and attach the handcuffs.’

‘You mean to say...’ interrupted McKenzie, her head turning towards the abandoned bed at the side of the corridor, ‘he was lying there the whole time?’


I turned to Nurse Hope. Her face had lost the warm smile which had been replaced by a blank stare. ‘Wheeling the bed out straight away would have been too obvious. Baker here would have been on you as soon as they saw it was gone. I have to admire your composure. You left Erikson asleep in the mattress and waited for the guards to discover that he was missing. They had no reason to suspect you, you weren’t even in the room at the time of his ‘escape’. I presume the intention was then to get the bed out as soon as possible - I didn’t even think twice about you removing it from the room. If not for Private Baker’s insistence on being the gentleman and wheeling it out for you I fear you would have been long gone before I realized my error.’

McKenzie strode over to the bed and pulled back the bed sheets. Even looking at it now there were no signs indicating that it wasn’t a standard hospital mattress, save a very slight rise in the center. McKenzie worked round the edge of the mattress with a finger before locating the head of the zip. With one flowing motion she opened the side and lifted the cover to reveal Erikson’s slumbering body. He seemed almost peaceful, the sedative saving him from the afternoon’s trauma. He would have quite a story to tell when he returned to prison.

‘Wow,’ said Baker. ‘So close to picking him up from right under our noses.’ He looked at Nurse Hope, his face dropping. ‘I thought...’

She let out a slight snicker, but refrained from saying anything. By the looks of it she was a professional, I doubted McKenzie would get a word out of her. Either way, that was the FBI’s problem now.

‘It seems you weren’t a complete waste after all,’ said McKenzie as she turned to face me.

‘Does this mean you’re not going to arrest us?’ asked Anthony.

She thought about it for a moment. ‘How about this for a deal - you keep your mouths shut. Not a word to the press, or anyone else. No need for this to become any more of PR nightmare than it already is. You keep quiet, don’t mention how close we were to losing Erikson, and maybe I won’t press charges.’

‘Deal,’ he replied.

McKenzie proceeded to read Nurse Hope her rights, then cuffed her and passed her on to a couple of FBI suits standing by the entrance. She even cuffed Erikson’s slumbering body and had Baker move him to another bed before escorting him back upstairs. I almost felt sorry for the guy.

‘This is where we part ways,’ she said as we stood by the door in the waiting room. ‘I’ve still got to clean up this mess.’ She paused and looked me over one final time. ‘You better hope we don’t cross paths again.’ McKenzie offered a hand to shake, yet her eyes still maintained their disapproving stare.

‘Here’s hoping,’ I responded.

‘And thank you,’ added Anthony, looking at me with a similarly scolding glare.

McKenzie nodded silently and headed off to join her colleagues.

- - -

‘You like to push your luck, don’t you?’ said Anthony once the FBI agent was out of earshot.

‘She wasn’t going to arrest us - if she did she’d have to explain why she let us onto the scene in the first place,’ I replied.

Anthony gave a short, ‘hmm,’ accompanied by a wry smile. He seemed to be enjoying the experience despite himself. ‘This is what you did in the army then? You’ll have to tell me about some of your other cases some time.’

I said that I would.

A voice sounded from the corridor before he had a chance to reply. ‘Mr Rhys? I’ve been looking for you.’ It was the male nurse from earlier.

His approach had come as a bit of a surprise. In truth the reason why I was in the hospital in the first place had completely slipped my mind. I had missed my blood test appointment.

The nurse managed to schedule me in later in the week, which meant I could collect my X-ray results at the same time. There was no way I could know at the time, but it would just be the first of many trips back to the hospital.

- - -

As it transpired the scan wasn’t the unnecessary extortion I had hoped for. The scariest part was entering Doctor White’s office for the second time and having his full attention. He didn’t so much as glance at his computer screen. He spoke slowly this time, in full sentences. He used words like ‘inflammation’, ‘neoplasm’, and mentioned various tests ending in ‘oscopy’.

Navigating through the multitude of appointments and specialist consults felt similar to the medical checks and aptitude tests I had undergone when first recruited by the Military Police. Decades ago I had sat on a long metal bench outside an army infirmary in Missouri trying not to let my hypochondria establish itself within my consciousness. Like then, I tried to suppress the growing concern as I was passed from person to person, each with a different analysis and hollowly optimistic reassurance.

‘Large cell carcinoma’ was the final diagnosis. Apparently we had caught it relatively early and it was treatable, yet I had depleted what little savings I had on the tests. Without insurance there was no way I could afford the multi-stage chemotherapy and surgery that White and his colleagues were recommending.

They couldn’t give me an exact figure, but estimated that treatment would set me back in the region of $70,000. I had absolutely no clue how I could get hold of that kind of money. I needed a job, and quickly. Without a referral from the career that had dominated my adult life I knew I would struggle to find anything that could provide a reasonable paycheck. I had limited knowledge of civilian life, of business or technology. I was virtually unhirable. Anthony offered to help, but could barely support himself on the proceeds of his internet business. It was during these conversations that he did, however, provide the idea that would become the next year of my life: why start a new career when I could just adapt my existing one?

...The story of Kenneth Rhys continues with Chapter 3 - Window of Opportunity. You can find more information about The Locked Room here.

No comments:

Post a Comment