Forensic psychologist Dr. Jack Carter wakes from a semi-catatonic state in a mental hospital, with no memory of the previous year. His wife Sarah has disappeared and as the last human being to see her alive, Jack is the prime suspect in her disappearance. Without a body and with no physical evidence to prove foul play, the lead investigator and Jack's friend, Bill West, must continue to search for the truth even if it means fingering Jack for the crime. When a serial killer in West Virginia's coal country claims to have killed Sarah Carter, Bill and Jack rush to the crime scene. What they find is a deeply disturbed man with no memory of his crimes or of taking credit for Sarah's death. As Jack tries to decipher the mysterious series of runic symbols the killer carved into his slaughter house, he unlocks a deeper cosmic mystery that goes beyond anything he could imagine.
The color beige filled the entirety of his vision, all beige, a bland colorlessness. No, not all, not everything. There. A tiny spot just out of reach. Mold? What is mold? Stain? Is that a stain? Tiny. Not even as big as his fingernail. Raise his hand to compare the size of his fingernail to the size of that dark spot on the… is that a wall? Fuzzy. He can’t seem to find the outer bounds of his perception only that ocean of inert beige and that tiny spot, that infinitesimal spot of darkness, that stain of moisture or age or imperfection of material. Is it a stain? Has it grown since he began looking at it? When did he begin to look at it? Why did he begin to look at it and why can’t he take his eyes off of it? Are these eyes through which he sees? Does he even see at all? A thin film seems to cover his eyes, seems to make it difficult to maintain focus on such an inconsequential detail. He cannot look away. These are his eyes. That is his hand out in front of him, comparing the size of his immaculately trimmed nail with that of the stain, that maddening stain on the sky of beige, this universe star scape of blandness corrupted by a speck of nauseating moisture.
Blink. That is a wall. There’s the corner, joining this wall with another wall to its… right? Is that the right? Yes, right. That’s the correct word. He remembers that word. He wants to see where that wall to the right leads but he cannot take his eyes or his mind off of that spot. Did that spot just grow? Surely whoever has put him here could have removed that spot by now for as long as he’s been here. How long has he been here? He does not know. All he knows is that spot. If his eyes were hands, he would have dug that spot out of the wall by now but his hands don’t seem to want to take up the challenge. He studies the hands. Not particularly strong looking hands, not too hairy, fingers bearing little evidence of physical labor. He can move his eyes but his head will not follow. Something bright reflects off of the wall to the right, a lamp or a window or something giving off a great deal of light just out of the edge of his vision. He wants to see that light, wants to turn his head to gather in as much of that light as he can, to drown out the darkness of that spot, the black void of the time before the spot, of whatever brought him here but he can’t.
Blink. His head turns to the right. There it is, there is that thing his mind calls light. A window, it’s a window not a lamp. It’s a window with a thin gauzy material covering it and a pattern of four crosses shading the frame of that delicious light. He does not like those crosses, they mean something to him but he cannot remember what. His hands reach down beside him to grip a cloth, sheets that he balls into his fists and brings to his face. A deep breath through his nose fills his senses with the stench of bleach and despair. He quickly drops the sheets at his side and begins to feel the skin beside his nose, to feel what must be his face. Just below the nose, a prickly growth of hair scratches his skin and he cups his chin in that hand, feeling the hair surround his face up to his ears. More hair on his head in tousled unkempt clumps, longer than it should be the hair reaches down his neck in wavy curls all the way to his shoulders. He’s wearing something on his shoulders that feels as uncomfortable as the sheets did to his touch, a dry, scaly itchiness. In the very back at the top of his spine, the garment opens underneath a knot of some kind of string. A gown, this is called a gown.
They put gowns on you in a hospital. A hospital is somewhere sick people go, he knows this, and he remembers that word. Is he hurt? Is that why he can’t remember what he should be called, what he should call himself? Something is wrong with his head. He cannot gather his thoughts and the memory of that stain keeps forcing his eyes back upwards. Even a glimpse of that stain is painful to him now, that tiny drop that his eyes refuse to linger on anymore but are nonetheless drawn back to repeatedly. There is something in that spot, something in that stain he will not face. Something before that stain came into his existence that makes his eyes dart back to that window and its delicious light. The bars on his window, those four dark crosses like an oil slick spreading on the still waters of light, they diminish the light in his eyes. They frighten him. Bars on the window of a hospital aren’t put there to keep things out; they are put there to keep him in.
His head snaps to a sound on his left. The latch on a door has just been turned and the door opens to reveal an overweight man, shorter than himself, carrying a tray into the room while whistling a tune that he vaguely recognizes. The sounds of the notes make the insides of his ears vibrate painfully but the pain is a good one, the pain of memory, of songs he’s heard before and danced to. What is dancing? Who did he dance with? He knows he danced with someone. The man with the tray puts the tray on a table he had not noticed before and begins to lay out instruments next to the tray one by one, silvery, shiny things that he cannot give name to. The man is not paying attention to him. His lips, his mouth begin to move as if given their own directions from somewhere outside of himself. Words begin to form, the first words he has ever spoken.
“Not… stepping… I… I… I… not… stone,” he mutters.
The orderly drops the fork on the table and it clatters nosily to the floor in one, two, three bounces before settling to a halt. The orderly’s eyes grow wide, a vaguely animalistic expression of fear and surprise that makes his face appear lizard like.
“That’s my song. You’re singing my song. You can talk.” He looks over his shoulder at someone outside the door. “Craig? You better call up Dr. Dyer. I think our patient is talking.”
“What is your name?”
“We’ve gone over this about a hundred times, Martin. Do we have to do it again?”
The look on Dr. Martin Dyer’s face was that of a disapproving school teacher, a scold lying just behind the disappointed scowl. “You know just as well as I do how these exercises work. We have to go over it until I’m satisfied that you are able to do for yourself well enough to be released.”
“Fine,” he said with a resigned sigh. “You’re right. I’m just itching to get out of here so I can find Sarah.” The disapproving glare over the edge of Dyer’s glasses again, his too bushy eyebrows wriggling caterpillars of stern discipline. “My name is Jack Carter. I’m 38 years old.”
“And what is your profession?”
“When I’m not a guest of this fine establishment, I am a forensic psychologist specializing in federal felony murder cases.”
Dyer nodded while jotting a few notes on the pad placed precariously on his knee as he sat cross-legged in an overstuffed leather chair the color of fertilized soil. A stray thought occurred to Jack that he’d always considered Dyer’s diagnostic posture a little effeminate. The full, skinny beard that covered Dyer’s chin from sideburns to moustache didn’t dispel the impression either.
“Do you remember your last case? Tell me about it.”
Images flooded Jack’s mind, images of a prisoner in an interrogation room screaming in joy at his descriptions of the brutal savagery he’d inflicted on thirteen women. Photographs of the carnage had been splayed out on the table in front of Jack like a corpse, turning his stomach while simultaneously fascinating the psychologist in him. The ritualistic adornments of the killings had been precise and particular, and the minute the perp had seen the images, he’d wound himself into a beatific fervor.
“His name was Howard Phillips. He was the usual quiet, loner type. All the neighbors barely noticed him, said he was the nicest guy if just a little shy. They didn’t think anything of it until the stench started to permeate the building. They found pieces of seven prostitutes in his apartment in various states of decay and preservation and another six laid out in ritual posture at various storage units he rented. He had the typical delusions of a religious megalomaniac along with signs of schizophrenic hallucinations. Really the only thing remarkable about it was the resolution.”
The bloody resolution had weighed heavily on his mind. The man had stabbed himself in a ritual fashion right in front of Jack’s eyes with the pen Jack had carelessly left on the table between them. The inquest had found that Jack couldn’t be blamed for the man’s death but he remembered that it had shaken him. Now, almost two years later, Jack’s memories of the event were vivid but detached from all emotional impact. He watched pictures of the man’s death in his mind with all the empathy of a man watching an assembly line produce widgets.
“Did this resolution affect you?”
“At the time, I remember being extremely upset about it.”
Jack shrugged. “Nothing. It was a terrible thing but I feel nothing for Howard Phillips’ death.”
More notes were jotted with a curious grunt. “What happened after that?”
“My wife and I went on vacation.”
“What was your wife’s name?”
“Sarah. Sarah Carter.” Again, images flooded his mind, a slideshow of events from wedding to first house purchase to trips like the one they’d taken after the Phillips case. Again the images triggered no emotion in him, no sadness, no regret and worst of all no happiness. They were images of things that could have happened to anyone else but him. Logically, that worried him.
“Where did you vacation?”
“We drove up the New England coast, starting in Marblehead, Mass. We were doing the whole yuppie bed and breakfast scenic coast drive. Kind of hokey but I remember it being relaxing once we got past New York.”
“How long were you on vacation?”
“It was supposed to be a month, kind of a recharging sabbatical. I remember… I remember crossing over into Maine the fourth day. It was sunny… then it started to rain…” The cascading rays of sunlight were swallowed by sheets of rain. The road grew slick but not dangerously so. The leaves glowed with green moisture. That gorgeous earthy smell of pine permeated the car.
Dyer’s voice startled Jack. “Where is Sarah, Jack?”
Jack sat silently staring a burning hole into the table between doctor and patient. He looked up, feeling like he should be weeping but his eyes were dry, their expression a dank cold cavern full of empty darkness. “I don’t know.”
“How did you get to this hospital, Jack?”
“I don’t know.”
“You were found standing on the side of the road by a gas station in Connecticut at five in the morning when they opened. You stood in the same spot staring for twelve hours before the gas station attendant called the police. You were unresponsive, uncommunicative and completely passive. You were dressed well but had no ID. At first they booked you on suspicion of public intoxication or some form of drug reaction, but your tox screens came back clean. Luckily, your fingerprints were in the national databases as a consultant with the FBI or they might never have identified you.”
“And they brought you in to see if I was crazy.” Jack’s bemused smile couldn’t disguise his worry.
“Once I determined you were in a dissociative fugue state I had you brought here. Do you know where here is?”
Jack smiled again. “Unless I’m in the Matrix, I’m at the Meridian Mental Health Institute in Meridian, Connecticut. Or at least that’s what you’ve told me. I can see the sign out there but maybe it’s all an elaborate hoax.”
Dyer had worn out the disapproving teacher glare and went on to an exasperated sigh. “Jack, being a smartass won’t help matters.”
Dyer shrugged. “I realize this is all overwhelming. You’re lucky you and I are friends and colleagues. A hard ass shrink might actually take some of your joking seriously.”
“It’s a coping mechanism,” Jack replied irritably. “You know that as well as me. Just like we both know why I’m still here. The cops want me to confess to killing my wife and when I do, they want to make sure you tell the court I’m sane so I get jail time instead of an insanity plea.”
“Yes. That brings us to the most important question then.”
Jack had been dreading the question he knew was coming all along but now that it was here, all the anxiety had drained away through his fingers and toes.
“Did you kill your wife?”
“Of course not.”
“Then where is she? No corpse has been found, nor has there been any evidence confirming her death. Yet she disappeared from the face of the earth and you were the last one to see her. We both know from experience that temporary amnesia is one of the most common dodges a guilty perp tries to make.”
Jack nodded. “I know. I’m not making this up. From the minute we crossed the Maine border until I heard that orderly start singing is one big black void. Nothing but nothing.”
“How have you been sleeping?”
“Fine.” Seeing that Dyer wanted Jack to elaborate, he shrugged. “Other than the sheets being a little low thread count for my tastes, I sleep like a baby.”
“And your dreams?”
Jack’s eyes focused on a spot on the floor between his feet. “I don’t have dreams.”
“Everyone dreams, Jack.”
“Of course. I’m sure I’m having dreams, but I don’t remember any of them since I got here. I can remember dreaming before the amnesia, but not since.”
“Do you wake feeling frightened? Startled? Content?”
Jack thought it over for a moment. “Calm. Just… calm. Not happy or sad, not scared, just unemotionally calm. Whatever my subconscious might be mulling over in my dreams, it isn’t disturbing my conscious mind, nor is it interrupting my sleep. I’m sure you’ve observed my sleep at least once.”
The doctor nodded. “It is as you say. You have the most clockwork-like regularity of sleep that I’ve seen in well, ever. Whatever memories are locked inside your head, they aren’t troubling your unconscious mind.”
Dyer concentrated on his notebook intently, scribbling furious notes again until finishing with an abrupt tap of pen against pad. “Are you ready to go home?”
The surprise exploded across Jack’s face. “Home? You mean you’re clearing me?”
“Well, I can’t clear you of the murder but I know that’s not what you meant. Yes, I’m clearing you to go home. I’m going to recommend you take a week or two off once you’ve settled in but I think you can probably go back to work as well.”
“Do I even have a home to go back to?”
Dyer closed the notebook and placed it gently on the table between them. Jack itched to grab the notebook and start reading but his professionalism prevented it. “It’s been a close thing, but your lawyer has earned his fee. He kept the bank from foreclosing until we could determine if you would even be able to understand the proceedings. You’re going to owe some serious back payments, though he thinks we can probably convince a court to force the bank to refinance based on extenuating circumstance. The blood suckers don’t want to seem unsympathetic with all the bad press banks have gotten over the last few years.”
Jack was unsure if he felt happy, relieved or frightened of going home. Everywhere in the house would be a reminder of Sarah’s absence. He knew, however, that Dyer would want that sort of reminder hoping that something would jar loose a memory of the missing time. The thought of remembering scared Jack as much as the mystery.
“Also, when you get settled back in, I’d suggest calling Bill West. Somehow, he got himself assigned to Sarah’s case. I’m sure he’s going to want to interview you formally as well as informally.”
“They gave it to Bill?” Bill West had over Jack’s years of working with the FBI become what he termed a ‘professional friend.’ Bill was the kind of guy Jack might not hang out with on a regular basis but in the course of their respective jobs got along well enough to consider each other friends. Jack’s jaw set hard. “That’s good. I don’t know how he managed to convince them he could be impartial but he won’t give up on it. If anybody can find out what happened, he can.”
Jack stood up to go, anxious to gather his things and get out of the place which reeked of industrial floor cleaner and despair. “One more thing, Jack,” Dyer said hesitantly.
“What’s your gut feeling about Sarah? Do you believe in your gut that she’s still alive?”
Jack stopped and thought about it for a second. “Logically, I know it’s almost impossible to think she could be. And as much as I want it to, my gut can’t overrule that logic.”
“Well, let’s hope your logic is wrong.”
Bee Love from the blog Writerbee’s Book Reviews has posted her review of the first novella in the Stepping Stone Cycle, First Stone. She gives the first episode in my Cthulhu Mythos series 5-stars! From the review: This story quickly draws the reader into the plight of the characters, main and supporting, and builds a …
The blog Truth About Books posted a review the other day for the debut novella in the Stepping Stone Cycle, First Stone, my modern-day take on the Cthluhu Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. The review was very positive overall and you can find it posted here. Some of the highlights are: In the end, the book did …
The New Podler Review of Books recently read First Stone and have just posted their review. The review was glowingly positive! You can read the full review here, but here’s just a sample: Ballard invests a good deal of time developing his characters, and it pays off. You really get to know Carter and root …