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.
“WHO ARE YOU?”
I’m in a hospital bed; I can tell by the rails on the sides, and by the white coats on the people gathered around me. Their heads are haloed by bright fluorescent lights, still indistinct as I struggle to wake up. There’s a needle in my elbow, an IV tube reaching out behind me. I feel nauseous and slow, and the light burns my eyes. How did I get here? Where’s Lucy?
“You’re awake,” says one of the men, “good, good. You gave us quite a scare, Mr. Shipman.”
He knows my name. I stare at the man, forcing my eyes to focus. He’s older, sixties maybe, in a long, white hospital coat. Two other men and one woman stand by him, probably also doctors, pressed around my bed. There’s a guard by the door—a guard? Or just an orderly? I don’t know what’s going on.
My throat is dry, and I struggle to talk. “Why don’t I remember coming here?”
“My name is Doctor Murray,” he says. “You had a fall—do you remember falling?”
Do I remember anything? I remember hiding out, and then . . . a chase? Someone found me. Yes, I’m sure of it; I remember running. And there was an empty city, full of empty houses, and a deep, dark hole, like a well or a mine shaft.
The people I was running from were bad—that much I know. Did they catch me? Are these doctors part of it? I slow down and try to think.
“Lucy, my girlfriend, she was with me in the . . . where was I?”
“What do you remember?”
“I remember a pit,” I say slowly, watching their faces. “I fell down a pit.”
Doctor Murray frowns; he thinks I’m wrong. Am I? But I remember a pit, and he said I had fallen, and . . . My head aches—not just my head, my mind aches. Doctor Murray leafs through a slim folder, holding up a page to read the one below it. “You fell, or jumped, out of a window. Do you remember that?”
I say nothing, trying to remember. Think, Michael, think!
“We were worried you’d hurt yourself,” says one of the other doctors, “but nothing’s broken.”
“If he’s lost his memory,” says the woman, “he might have hit his head harder than we thought.”
I scan my eyes around the room, trying to get a better sense of where I am—a regular hospital room, with cabinets and curtains and hand sanitizers lining the walls. No computers that I can see. Good.
“We would have seen more damage to his head,” says another doctor. “The abrasions were grouped on his legs and arms—he landed about as well as you could hope to.”
“Mr. Shipman,” says Doctor Murray, catching my eye and smiling. “Michael. Can you tell us where you’ve been for the past two weeks?”
I frown, my suspicions rising. I’d been trying to disappear, and I think I thought I had, but now I’m in here, surrounded by prying eyes and equipment. I shift my legs imperceptibly, testing for restraints under the covers. It doesn’t feel like they’ve tied me down. They might just be normal doctors—they might not be part of the Plan. Just helpful doctors who don’t know who I am or who’s after me. Maybe I can still get away.
Maybe I can, but not with five people between me and the door. I need to take my time.
“We’re only trying to help you, Michael.” The doctor smiles again. They always smile too much. “Once we knew who you were and we looked up your file, well, you can imagine that we started to wonder.”
I stare at him, my eyes cold. So they do know who I am, or at least part of it. I start to tense up, but I force myself to calm down. Just because they know who I am, that still doesn’t mean they know about the Plan. “No,” I say firmly, “I can’t imagine.” The men I was running from had been watching me for years—if they gave the doctors their file, they’ll know everything about me. I shift my legs again, bracing myself to bolt for the door if I have to make a move. “What does the file say?”
He raises the folder in his hands, an old manila folder with a curling green sticker on the tab. “Standard things,” he says. “Medical history, hospital stays, psychological evaluations—”
“Wait,” I say. “Is that it? It’s just a medical history?”
Doctor Murray nods. “What else would it be?”
“Nothing.” So they don’t have the real file, just the fake one from the state. That’s good, but it could cause problems of its own. “None of that stuff matters.”
The doctor glances at the man beside him. “We’re doctors, Michael, it matters a great deal to us.”
“Except that it’s all false,” I say. I know I can trust them now, but how can I explain what’s going on? “The state file was created . . .” It was created by Them, by the people who’ve been following me. Except I’m too smart to tell the doctors a truth they’ll never believe. I shake my head. “It was created as a joke,” I say. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Doctor Murray nods again. “I see.” He flips to a page in the file. “Ongoing treatment for depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” He turns the page. “Two weeks in Powell Psychiatric Hospital, fourteen months ago.” He turns the page. “Multiple prescriptions for Klonopin, paid for by state welfare.” He looks up. “You say this is all part of a joke?”
How am I supposed to explain this to him without looking crazy? I close my eyes, feeling the early flutters of a nervous panic. I roll my hands into fists and take a deep breath: it’s okay. They’re not part of the Plan. They don’t even have me tied down. I can probably walk right out of here if I can just find a way to defuse their suspicions. I glance around again; no computers, and the TV’s off. I might be okay.
“It’s just the . . . state doctors,” I say. “You need to talk to my personal doctor, my family practitioner. Doctor Ambrose Vanek. He can straighten this out.”
“We’ll contact him right away,” says Murray. He nods to one of the other doctors, who makes a note on his pad and steps out of the room. “I’m afraid his information wasn’t included in your report, or we would have called him already. We’ve called the only number on here, someone named L. Briggs, but we haven’t been able to reach her. Is that your friend Lucy?”
“She’s my girlfriend,” I say again, trying to look helpful. Have They gotten to her yet? Do I even dare drag her into this? “I’m afraid I don’t know her number.”
Doctor Murray raises an eyebrow. “You don’t know your girlfriend’s phone number?”
“I don’t use phones.”
“Ah.” He nods and makes a note. “Is there anyone else we can contact?”
He waves the folder slightly. “This says you live with your father.”
“Yeah, but don’t call him.”
“His son is in the hospital; I’m sure he’d appreciate a call.”
I clench my fist tighter, trying to breathe evenly. “Just . . . please.”
Doctor Murray pauses, then nods. “If that’s what you want.” He looks at another sheet in his folder. “It says here that your Klonopin was prescribed by Doctor Little, after your stay at Powell last year. Have you been taking your pills, Michael?”
I nod. “Of course, doctor.” It’s a lie—I fill my prescription every few weeks, just so no one asks questions, but I haven’t taken it in months. I’m not convinced the pills are part of the Plan, but I’m not taking any chances.
“Excellent,” says Murray again, but I can see his smile falter. He doesn’t believe me. I scramble to find something else to soothe him—what’s in that file? It probably mentions my job at Mueller’s; the state got me that job. Maybe I can convince him I’m nothing to worry about.
“You said I wasn’t injured in the fall, right?” I smile, trying to look normal. “Because I really need to get back to work soon—Mr. Mueller really relies on me.” There’s no response, so I keep going. “You know Mueller’s Bakery, on Lawrence? Best doughnuts in the city, you know. I’d be happy to send you a box once I get back there.” I liked working at Mueller’s: no punch card machine, and no computers.
“Yes,” says Doctor Murray, flipping to another page of the file, “it was Mr. Mueller who reported you missing.” He looks up. “It seems you didn’t show up for work for nearly two weeks, and he got worried. Tell me, Michael, can you tell us where you’ve been during the last two weeks?”
They got to Mueller. I’m nervous now, and I glance around again. No machines; the room might be clean.
“I need to go, please.”
“Do you remember where you’ve been?”
I don’t. I rack my brain, trying to remember anything I can. Empty houses. A dark hole. I can’t remember. I still feel nauseous, like I’m thinking through syrup. Did they drug me? I look around again, trying to see what’s behind the bed.
“Is everything okay, Michael?”
I raise up on my arms, craning my neck around the edge of the bed, and recoil almost instantly, like I’ve been struck. An IV stand looms over my shoulder, with a small black box just inches behind my head. Red digital lines turn in circles as clear liquid drips slowly into my arm.
I try to jump off the other side of the bed, but the doctors move in, holding me in place.
“Easy, Michael. What’s wrong?”
“I have to get out of here,” I say, grunting through clenched teeth. My chest feels painfully tight. I scrabble at my elbow, rip up the tape, and pull out the IV needle before they can stop me; pain lances through my arm.
“Frank!” says Doctor Murray, and the big man by the door rushes over and grabs me by the shoulders.
“No!” I shout, “No, it’s not like that, I just need to get out of here!”
“Hold him down!”
“What’s wrong, Michael?” asks Murray, leaning in over my face. “What happened?”
“You don’t understand!” I plead. “Get it out, please, get it out of the room.”
“Get what out?”
“The IV stand, the monitor, whatever it is—get it out!”
“Calm down, Michael, you’ve got to tell us what’s wrong!”
“I told you what’s wrong, get it out of here!”
“Doctor Pine,” says Doctor Murray, nodding at the IV stand, and the female doctor lets go of my leg and wheels the IV stand to the door, gathering up the trailing plastic tube as she moves it into the hall. It helps, but I can still feel it watching me. Do the doctors know? They can’t know—they can’t know or they wouldn’t be in here. That means they’re friends, but only if I act fast. My freakout over the IV monitor was too much, and I’ve tipped Them my hand. The woman comes back. We don’t have long.
“What else is in here?” I ask, falling back against the pillow and allowing the orderly to hold me still. Don’t fight; they have to trust you. “Any other monitors? Computers? Cell phones?”
“Michael, we all have cell phones, we’re doctors—”
“Get them out.”
“Please, Michael, calm down—”
“This is important!” I close my eyes, struggling to estimate the time: how long have I been here? Three minutes since I woke up, give or a take a few seconds, and who knows how long I was unconscious before that. How long do we have before They get here?
I don’t have time for games, and there are too many of them to fight. I need to lay out the truth and hope for the best. I take a deep breath. “I’ll tell you everything, but not until the room is clean. No electronic devices of any kind.”
Doctor Murray nods, but smugly, as if he’s heard it all before: I’m just another crazy guy. “Why do electronics frighten you, Michael?”
It’s the same as last year—the same arrogant assumptions that landed me in a psych ward. Once the system decides you’re crazy, there’s not much you can do to fight it. I shake my head. “Cell phones outside.”
Murray looks at me a moment, glances at the others, then shrugs. “Okay, Michael, whatever makes you comfortable, but you have to talk to us.”
“Hurry.” I try not to sound desperate. Murray gathers their cell phones, takes them to the hall, and a moment later he comes back. He opens his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “Listen very carefully, all of you, because I don’t know how much time we have. I’m very sorry you got dragged into this, but I’m being followed by some very dangerous men, and I need to get out of here as fast as I possibly can. They can track me—They can track all of us—through electronics: computers, cell phones, TVs, radios, everything. I know this is hard to believe, but you’ve got to trust me. Now, does that window open?”
Murray is nodding again. “Easy, Michael, just take it easy—”
“You don’t understand,” I say. “They will be here any minute. Look, if the window doesn’t open we can get out through the halls, but only if we stay far away from anything dangerous. Back stairs usually have cameras, so we can’t risk—”
“Please, Michael, no one is chasing you.”
“Yes they are,” I say, “They’re men, Faceless Men, and they can track us through your cell phones, through computers, through anything that sends or receives a signal. They’re not looking for you, so you don’t have to come with me, just let me slip out the door—”
“The Red Line,” says the woman, and I glance up to see that all four doctors and the orderly have backed away.
I try to look behind me. “What red line?”
“When you say ‘faceless,’” asks the woman, “do you mean, like, the face has been . . . destroyed?”
“No.” I turn back to them, watching their faces. What are they thinking? “No, it’s nothing like that at all. They’re faceless, literally faceless, no eyes, no nose, no mouth, nothing, just . . . blank.” I pass my hand over my face, willing them to understand. They stare at me a moment, and I dare to hope.
“This is more than just anxiety disorder,” says one of the men, and the others nod.
“I’m not crazy,” I say.
“Brain damage?” asks another doctor. They’re not even acknowledging me anymore.
“Could be,” says another, “or it could be all mental. Schizophrenia?”
The woman eyes me warily. “There was another one just last week, you know. We can’t take the chance.”
I feel myself start to tremble, the nervous vibration on my chest making it hard to breath. “Please—what are you talking about?”
Doctor Murray stops, looks at me carefully, then whispers in another doctor’s ear. The other doctor goes into the hall, and Murray steps forward. “Michael, I need to ask you a question, and I need you to answer me as carefully and as honestly as you can.” He pauses. I look at the door—where did the other doctor go? What, or who, was he sent for?
Doctor Murray stares at me, eyes intense. “Have you seen any bodies, anywhere, with the face destroyed?”
“Why do you keep asking that? Where would I have seen something like that?”
“Can you remember where you’ve been for the last two weeks?”
“No,” I say, “I can’t remember anything! Tell me what’s going on!”
Doctor Murray glances at the other doctors, then back at me. “Have you ever heard of the Red Line Killer?”
I freeze. “Some.” I’ve heard the name, but I don’t know much. Some kind of serial killer. I get a deep, sinking feeling in my gut—not just from the name, but from the faces of the doctors as they watch me. They’re nervous and scared.
They’re scared of me.
“Over the past eight months,” says Doctor Murray, “the Red Line has killed nearly ten people in and around Chicago. Nobody has any idea who he is, but his story has been all over the news. Are you sure you’ve never heard of him?”
“I don’t watch TV,” I say, glancing at the darkened set on the wall. Can it see me while it’s turned off? “Why are you asking me about this? What does it have to do with me?” And why are you are so scared?
“If you’d seen the news, Michael, you’d know: when the Red Line Killer kills someone, he . . . mutilates the bodies.” He frowns and continues. “He kills them and then he destroys their faces—skin, muscle, bones, everything.”
And there it is. A killer on the loose, a tenuous link, and the floodgates of suspicion break open in a torrent. I’m still the same person, but in their eyes I’ve changed—no longer just a man brought in for a fall, but an unbalanced psycho who might be a murderer.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” I say carefully.
“We’re not saying you have.”
“You wouldn’t have brought this up if you didn’t think it was me.” I have to get out now. I have to run before this goes any further.
“We don’t think anything, Michael, no one’s accusing you of any—”
I leap up suddenly, catching them by surprise, but I only get halfway out of the bed before the orderly grabs me; the doctors are only a few steps behind. I fight like a caged animal, kicking wildly with my legs, and feel a horrifying crunch in my foot as one of the doctors grunts and falls backwards. They’re screaming now, calling desperately for nurses and sedatives, and all I can think to do is bite the arm wrapped tightly across my chest.
“Where’s the Geodon!”
“Frank, dammit, hold him down!”
Someone lets go and I struggle to my feet, almost clear of the doctors, and then suddenly my arm’s getting twisted around and my shoulder’s nearly popping and I howl at the pain. My legs go limp and I whimper, all of my attention focused desperately on my arm.
The room has more people in it now, and I feel hands picking me up and positioning me back on the bed; there’s a sharp prick in my arm, and I know they’ve given me a shot. A sedative. I don’t have long.
“Please,” I say, “you’ve got to get me out of here. I’m not who you think I am, and They’ll be here any . . . any minute.” Images swirl in and out of each other, and I squint to catch them before they fade.
“Find Doctor Vanek,” says one of them; Murray, I think. There’s something on my arms, and I try to lift them up to see, but they won’t move. My head weighs a ton, ten tons, but I steel myself for the effort and raise it up, just enough to look down at my body.
“The drugs are hitting quickly—how much did you give him?”
“It’s just the standard dose—it shouldn’t work this fast.”
“He can barely move.”
I squint again, my head as empty as a balloon, my body slipping away down a tunnel. I can feel it drawing out, stretching like putty, but there’s something I have to see, someone standing in the back of the room. I fight my way out of the tunnel, struggling for just one glimpse, and—there it is.
A man with no face.
They’ve found me.
The Hollow City © Dan Wells 2012