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Authors: Mike Carey

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Thicker Than Water

BOOK: Thicker Than Water
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Acknowledgements

I’d like to thank my brother, Dave, who went back to Liverpool with me so I could check my memories against what’s left of the reality. It was a strange time, and it would have been a lot harder without him. Thanks also to A, who wrote the original on which Mark’s poem is based, and taught me what little I know about how it feels to be in that place.

To Barbara and Eric, with love

1

This is kind of how it would have looked, if you were watching from the outside – and this is how the papers reported it when they finally got hold of the story.

Ten minutes shy of midnight on 3 July, a van pulled off Coppetts Road into the front drive of the Charles Stanger Care Facility in Muswell Hill, North London. It was just a plain white Bedford van, unmarked and with very high sides, but it parked right in front of the doors in the bay marked
AMBULANCES
ONLY
.

One woman and two men got out of the van – the woman in an immaf t„culate black two-piece, the men in pale blue medical scrubs. The woman was wearing large, severe spectacles which gave her a stern schoolteacherly appearance – although she was unsettlingly beautiful, too, and she carried herself in a way that made the sternness seem to be an ironic – almost a provocative – pose. She checked her reflection in the nearside mirror, tilting her head to the left and then to the right while staring at herself critically out of the corners of her eyes.

‘You look lovely,’ said one of the two men.

The woman shot him a look and he threw up his hands in ironic apology.
I was only saying.

The night was almost oppressively warm, and very quiet. The Stanger itself, normally the source of many unsettling sounds at night – screams, sobs, curses, prophetic rants – was unusually still. There were crickets, though, despite the paltriness of the Stanger’s grass verges, which seemed too meagre to support an ecosystem. But this was London, after all: maybe the crickets had to commute like everyone else.

The three went in through the swing doors, the woman leading the way.

The nurse on duty at the reception desk had seen them pull up and now watched them enter. She had to buzz them in through a second set of doors that had been installed very recently to enhance the Stanger’s security. She did so without waiting for them to announce themselves, because she was expecting them: strictly speaking, that was a breach of security right there.

She noticed that the two men didn’t look entirely convincing as hospital orderlies. One was a slender Asian man with a certain resemblance to Bruce Lee and an air that you could – if you wanted to be polite – call piratical. The other wore his scrubs as though they were pyjamas that he’d been sleeping in for three nights, and had a sardonic self-assured cast to his features that she instinctively mistrusted. His mid-brown hair was unkempt and his mouth subtly asymmetrical, hanging down slightly more on one side than on the other so that when his features were at rest they seemed to wear either a wry smile or a leer.

But these things she noted in passing, because most of her attention had immediately switched to the woman. It wasn’t just that she obviously outranked the two men: it was something magnetic about her face and figure that made it an unmixed and startling delight just to look at her.

The woman’s appearance, to be fair, was both striking and out of the ordinary. Her hair and eyes were black, her skin white – the undiluted white of snow or bone rather than the muddy pink-beige mix that passes for white according to normal labelling conventions. Since she was dressed in black, relieved only by the occasional hint of dark grey, she could have been a monochrome photograph.

The woman gave the nurse a civil nod as she walked up to the desk. ‘Doctor Powell,’ she said, in a voice that was as deep as a man’s but infinitely richer in tone and nuance. ‘From the Metamorphic Ontology Unit in Paddington. We’re here to collect your patient.’ She laid four sheets of A4 paper on the countertop: a transfer form from the local authority, a court document granting temporary power of attorney and two copies of a sigs spies ofned and notarised letter from Queen Mary’s Hospital in Paddington acknowledging the receipt of one Rafael Ditko into the Hospital’s care and jurisdiction. The letter was signed
Jenna-Jane Mulbridge
.

The nurse at the desk gave these documents the most cursory examination possible. She was secretly admiring Doctor Powell’s easy self-assurance, Doctor Powell’s very impressive outfit and, to be blunt, Doctor Powell’s magnificent body. The nurse herself was only five foot three, so she envied this other woman’s height and long legs. She noticed, too, how well the doctor’s black hair, shoulder-length but pulled back quite severely, framed her pale, exquisite face. And she noticed that the blouse was buttoned all the way up to the top, giving no hint of cleavage: perhaps this was because the doctor’s curves were ample, her nipples large and obviously erect, and there was no line or ridge in the blouse’s hang to indicate the presence of a brassiere. Any further display would tip over from arousing to indecent.

An incongruous image rose into the nurse’s mind, making her blush. She imagined herself unbuttoning that blouse, pulling it open on one side or the other and planting a kiss on one of the doctor’s breasts. She wasn’t gay – had never even had a passing crush on another woman – but the black, bottomless eyes behind the big spectacles seemed to invite such intimacies and promise reciprocal explorations. Or perhaps it was the doctor’s perfume, which was even more striking than her appearance. At first it had seemed almost harsh, with sweat and earth mixed up in it, but now it had an aching sweetness.

‘You need to stamp the bottom copy of the letter,’ the doctor said in that same thrilling voice. The nurse, flustered, pulled herself together and did what she’d been asked, although the outline of the doctor’s face and upper body remained on her eyes like an after-image as she fumbled for the stamp and applied it with trembling fingers.

‘And sign,’ said the doctor.

The nurse obeyed.

‘I believe Mister Ditko has already been prepared for transfer,’ the doctor said, folding and pocketing the letter. ‘I’m sorry to rush you, but we have another call to make tonight and we’re already late.’

In point of fact they were fifteen minutes earlier than their scheduled arrival time, but the nurse wasn’t going to spoil the moment by arguing. She was fond of the music of Nick Cave, and a line from one of his songs went through her head right then.
A beauty impossible to endure.

She paged the duty manager, since she wasn’t allowed to leave her station, but she only paged once and she hoped he’d take his time in coming. In the meantime she engaged the doctor in conversation, ignoring the two men as if they didn’t even exist. Later she was unable to describe a single thing about them: she wasn’t even sure whether they were black or white. They could have been fluorescent green for all she cared.

The duty officer arrived all too soon, introduced himself unctuously to the distinguished visitors and took them away along the main corridor, out of sight. Forlornly, the nurse watched them go. She should have asked for a phone number, at least. But then, what would she have dohand she hne with it? She was straight. Straight and married. A momentary madness had overtaken her, and now she struggled to fit the memory of it into her definition of herself. What did a woman’s breasts taste of? Why had it never occurred to her to find out?

The duty manager had much the same experience, complicated in his case by the painful erection he got when he had been walking alongside the doctor for only a few paces.

‘Mister Ditko is in the annexe,’ he explained, adjusting his walk a little to de-emphasise the bulge. ‘In a purpose-built room. The engineering was quite complicated – and very expensive – but your Professor Mulbridge seemed confident that she could duplicate it.’

‘We have very extensive resources at the
MOU
,’ said the doctor, sounding cool and detached and giving no sign at all of noticing the duty manager’s crisis of etiquette. ‘Our annual budget is eighty million, and that’s supplemented by donations from various sources. Mister Ditko’s cell is already built and waiting for him.’

The duty manager winced. ‘We don’t like to use the word “cell” . . .’ he began. But they’d reached their destination by this time, and the massive steel door, like the door of a bank vault, made the mouthful of euphemisms that he was about to utter taste a little sour, so he let the remark tail off.

A burly male nurse was waiting for them at the door, and on the duty manager’s nod he now unbolted it. Three large bolts, at top, midpoint and bottom, and a formidable-looking mortice lock – another recent addition – at which one of the two orderlies (not the pirate, but his colleague) stared with undisguised fascination.

‘I would have expected Professor Mulbridge to supervise this transfer herself,’ the duty manager remarked conversationally. ‘She’s been trying for so long to make it happen.’

‘She’s got a lot on her plate right now,’ said the man who’d been ogling the mortice lock. ‘Saving the world, one ghost at a time.’

The remark struck the manager as surprisingly irreverent, and so it stuck in his mind. Like the nurse on reception, though, he was finding that the unfeasibly gorgeous doctor was acting like a kind of lodestone to his mind, pulling his attention inwards towards her whenever he tried to think of anything else. God, she smelled like – what? What was it? Whatever it was, you wanted to eat the smell, in shovelled handfuls.

The door swung open, revealing a room that was basically a featureless cube, without furniture or ornament. A sourceless white radiance, harsh and even, filled it. The walls, ceiling and floor were also white.

In the centre of the room – the only thing it held – was a steel frame, about seven feet high by four wide. It was just a rectangle of steel: two uprights joined by two horizontal struts, to the bottom of which three sets of rubber-rimmed wheels had been fitted on cross-axles which had been set very wide to give the whole structure some much-needed stability.

Around the inside edges of the frame there were twenty or more steel loops to whisel loophich thick elasticated cables had been attached. A man hung in the centre of the frame, dressed in an all-over-body straitjacket to which the free ends of the cables had been fitted. The overall impression was of a fly in a spiderweb. The man in the frame thrashed and squirmed, but his movements were absorbed by the cables so that he never moved more than an inch or so in any direction.

And his movements were sluggish and uncoordinated in any case. He seemed to have been drugged. His eyes were unnaturally wide, the over-enlarged pupils filling them to the point where no whites showed. His mouth was slack, and a little gluey liquid had collected at its corners.


OPG
,’ said the duty manager, as if any confirmation of that was needed. ‘Thirty micrograms, intramuscular. If you need any to take with you, we’ve got some doses made up already – and it’s not likely we’ll need them any more once Ditko is—’

‘We’re good,’ said the man who’d spoken before. ‘Thanks. We’ve got our own ways of calming Mister Ditko down.’

The duty manager shrugged. ‘Fair enough. Now, this thing is heavy.’

‘We’ve got it,’ said the doctor, stepping into the cell. She turned the frame around one-handed – a feat which made the manager’s eyes widen, because he knew exactly how much it weighed.

The man hanging in the frame twisted his head around to look at her. He said something that the duty manager couldn’t make out. It sounded like a single word – possibly a name – but it had a great many syllables and it certainly wasn’t Powell.

‘Asmodeus,’ the woman answered, dipping her head in acknowledgement. ‘It’s been a long time.’

The man’s head sagged. He was fighting a big enough dose of the drug to kill a small herd of elephants.
OPG
was a neurotoxin, cleared for clinical use only in a very narrow range of situations. This patient, Rafael Ditko, was explicitly one of them. ‘Bitch,’ he muttered thickly, sounding like a wet-brained alcoholic. ‘Hell-bitch.’

‘Does he know you?’ the duty manager asked, curious.

‘We met,’ said the doctor. ‘A long time ago.’

‘You diagnosed him? He was your patient?’

‘No.’ The doctor gestured to her two attendants, who came and took the two ends of the frame. ‘It was before he was confined.’

She didn’t offer any further explanation, and since the context wasn’t a clinical one the duty manager didn’t feel as though he had any right to press the matter. He stood aside as the two men wheeled the frame out of the cell. It was noticeable that they had to lean into it and apply their weight with some determination to make the heavy structure move: the woman hadn’t done any of those things. She must be scarily, thrillingly strong, the duty manager thought.

Although he wasn’t needed, and his job watifnd his s done, he walked in procession with the little group as they made their way back down the main corridor. He offered the opinion that this transfer ought to have been carried out years before. ‘Ditko has always been a problem for us,’ he said. ‘We’re not a specialised facility, in the way that you are. We can’t afford to watch him as closely as he needs to be watched. And we’re under different kinds of scrutiny.’ He lowered his voice. ‘It’s fair to say,’ he murmured, with a quick smile at the doctor, ‘that you can put him to some good use, yes? I mean, that you’ll be doing more than just keeping him sedated? Professor Mulbridge has some research in mind, I’m sure. Into Ditko’s condition. And it really needs to be done. He’s an incredible specimen. I don’t mean to be cold-blooded, but seriously – incredible. With the right equipment, and the right person directing things, you could find out a lot. And if you needed some input from us here; observations and conclusions, based on . . .’

BOOK: Thicker Than Water
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