May 1 2012 5:00pm
The Hollow City (Excerpt)
Read an excerpt from Dan Wells’ new book, The Hollow City, out on July 3:
Dan Wells won instant acclaim for his three-novel debut about the adventures of John Wayne Cleaver, a heroic young man who is a potential serial killer. All who read the trilogy were struck by the distinctive and believable voice Wells created for John.
Now he returns with another innovative thriller told in a very different, equally unique voice. A voice that comes to us from the realm of madness.
Michael Shipman is paranoid schizophrenic; he suffers from hallucinations, delusions, and complex fantasies of persecution and horror. That’s bad enough. But what can he do if some of the monsters he sees turn out to be real?
Who can you trust if you can’t even trust yourself? The Hollow City is a mesmerizing journey into madness, where the greatest enemy of all is your own mind.
AGENT LEONARD KNELT DOWN by the body, carefully lifting his coat up out of the blood.
“Do we know his name yet?”
Agent Chu shook his head. “Nametag says Woods, but ChemCom has a lot of janitors and the guy who found him didn’t recognize the name. Visual ID is, obviously, impossible.” He gestured at the police officer standing beside him. “Local guys are interviewing the night watchman, we’re hoping he knows.”
Leonard surveyed the body carefully: two bullet holes in the chest, trauma to the back of the head, and nothing but a shattered, bloody mess where the face should be. Just like all the others. He pulled on a rubber glove and touched the head carefully, rolling it upright for a better view of the wound. “This definitely looks like our guy,” said Leonard, releasing the head back into place. He probed the corpse’s bloodstained coveralls with a gloved finger, and cocked his head in surprise when he found a hole in the sleeve. “What’s this?”
Agent Chu crouched down to look over his shoulder, and Leonard opened the tear. There was more blood inside.
“He’s got a wound on his arm,” said Leonard. “Probably the same slash that opened the sleeve.”
Chu raised an eyebrow. “Cool.”
The officer behind them cleared his throat. “Excuse me?”
“Sorry,” said Chu, “I’m not trying to be insensitive, it’s just that . . . well, the Red Line Killer’s been virtually untrackable so far. He’s too careful. None of his victims have ever had the chance to fight back before, but these kinds of wounds—knife cuts on the forearms—are probably defensive, which means he saw the attacker coming. He shrugged. “Probably.”
“That’s an awful lot of probablies,” said the officer.
Agent Leonard stepped over the body to examine the other arm. “Yeah, similar thing over here. Victim almost lost a finger.” He looked up at Chu. “This guy definitely fought back.”
Chu looked down the hallway, taking stock of the angles. “This corner was probably the ambush point—victim comes around the edge, Red Line’s waiting with a gun, boom. Two in the chest, then go to work on the face, or at least we assume that was the plan. That’s how he’s done all the others. Why didn’t it work this time?”
Leonard peeled off his gloves. “The defensive wounds would come first, which means the knife hit before the gun. Maybe he couldn’t pull it out in time?”
“But if he was lying in wait he would have had it out already,” said Chu. He walked the few steps to the end of the hall, his shoes tapping lightly on the concrete floor. “See? My footsteps were audible, and it’s not even quiet in here. In the middle of the night, without a whole forensics team in the background, they would have been pretty loud.”
“So the victim comes this way,” said Leonard, walking toward Chu, “approaches the corner, and the Red Line killer lashes out with a knife; the victim fights him off, runs back the way he came. . . .” He paused, looking at the floor. “Except there’s no blood here, only back by the body.”
“And the shots are in the chest,” said Chu, “not the back. We’re going to need the whole team in here to figure out how this fight went down—kinetics, blood splatter, everybody.”
“Or you could just ask the rent-a-cop,” said the policeman, pointing down the hall. “Looks like ChemCom has security cameras.”
Chu and Leonard looked where he was pointing, following his eye-line to a small glass bubble on the far wall.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said Leonard. “He’s never been on camera before.”
“You think the camera works?” asked Chu. “The body was found by another janitor, not a security team watching on a monitor.”
“This hallway looks like it’s just storage,” said the policeman, glancing at the wide, evenly spaced doorways. “The cameras probably don’t even go to a live feed, just a hard drive somewhere to keep a record of who’s been in and out.”
“This is huge,” said Leonard. “We’ve never even caught a glimpse of this guy before—he’s too careful. If we’ve got him on film . . . This is huge.”
Chu nodded and started off down the hallway. “Then let’s stop talking about it and find the tapes.”
The night watchman was in the main ChemCom lobby with the remaining janitors, giving statements to the local police. Chu and Leonard listened in—the man knew nothing, or claimed to—and then walked him into the security office to look at the tapes.
“When do you think it happened?” the watchman asked, pulling up the security footage.
“Around one o’clock, one-fifteen,” said Leonard.
“Just play the whole thing on fast forward,” said Chu, “and stop when you see people.”
The man nodded, loaded the file, and the long, empty hallway appeared on the screen in black and white. He clicked fast-forward and the time code in the corner started racing, but nothing else changed. The man accelerated the fast-forward, then again, until suddenly a dark shape shot across the screen in a blur and exploded in a flash of light. The three men swore in unison. The image collapsed into fuzzy snow, as if the signal had been completely lost.
“Back it up,” said Leonard, peering closely at the screen. The watchman reversed the video, found the janitor’s first entrance, and hit play. He pointed at the time code.
“One-thirteen. You guys are good.”
“Quiet,” said Chu.
There was a burst of static on the screen, as if the signal died and came back just for an instant, and then the janitor came into view beneath it, walking toward the far corner. He stopped at a door, fiddled with the lock, then continued on.
“That’s Brandon all right,” said the watchman.
“You know him?” asked Leonard.
“Not very well,” said the watchman, “he’s not exactly a talkative guy, but I’m the one that has to check him in every night. Name’s Brandon Woods, lives . . . outside the city somewhere.”
Leonard and Chu glanced at each other, then looked back at the screen.
Brandon Woods continued down the hall to the far corner, but just before he reached it he stopped abruptly and clutched his head, as if he’d come down with a sudden, unbearable migraine. His lips moved, but the recording had no sound, and the image was too small to make anything out. He retreated several steps toward the camera, still clutching his head and screaming.
“Has your company done any recent drug testing?” asked Agent Leonard.
“Once a year,” said the watchman, “but it’s different for every employee, on a randomized schedule. You think Brandon’s on drugs?”
“I don’t think anything yet,” said Leonard, “I’m just collecting information.”
Brandon Wood’s pain seemed to ease as he moved backward, and just then another figure stepped around the corner—a man all in black, a ski mask pulled over his face, and a gun in his hand. Agent Leonard’s breath caught in his throat: this is the man we’ve been hunting. He raised the gun to fire, the janitor saw him, and suddenly the image flickered— once, twice—and the space between Woods and the attacker seemed to ripple. The attacker staggered back, dropping the gun, as if the ripple had shoved him against the far wall.
“What on Earth?” whispered Chu.
The attacker staggered to his feet, reaching for his gun, but Woods was running toward him and he didn’t have time. The man planted his feet, bracing for impact, and right before Woods reached him a jagged bolt of light leapt out between them, bridging the gap between the two bodies like an electrical arc. The man in black shook as it struck him, but shoved the janitor away and pulled a long hunting knife from a sheath on his belt. The janitor regained his footing, squaring off against his attacker, and once again the screen flickered and a ripple of distortion flew across the hall— not directionally, like the first time, but everywhere, emanating out from the janitor like a wave. It struck the attacker almost instantly, and his body shook with the contact; a second later the wave reached the camera, the image exploded in light, and the feed collapsed once more into static and snow.
The three men stared at the screen in silence. After a long moment Agent Chu spoke.
“What was that?”
“Well,” said the watchman, hesitating, “obviously, it was a janitor shooting a serial killer with his mind. That . . . that seemed pretty clear to everyone else, right?”
Agent Leonard flipped open his badge and held it in front of the watchman’s face. “I’m showing you this to remind you how serious I am when I tell you that everything you’ve seen in this room tonight is a state secret. We’re confiscating the file, the camera, and any and all backups that may exist. You do not say anything to anybody at any time. Am I clear?”
The watchman swallowed nervously and nodded his head. Agent Chu leaned forward, grabbed the mouse, and rewound the video. He froze it on an image of the man in black, knife in hand, crouched at the end of the hall. He stared at the man intently.
On the screen, the man stared back.