Gerald felt the concussive force of the explosion a split-second before the sounds associated with it reached his ears. Or was it only an errant gust of wind that had coincidentally nudged his back just enough to add an extra spring to his next step? Could a shock wave really travel faster than the speed of sound? Yes, he remembered now from some online research he'd done, it in fact could.
It sounded like a bomb, or rather a series of perhaps three bombs in rapid succession, had gone off behind him inside the hospital. Recognizing the sound of shattering glass that immediately followed, he instinctively allowed his increased momentum to carry him forward and sprawled face-down on the sandy grass at the edge of the parking lot. Then he covered his head with both hands.
He realized as soon as he did it that it was already too late, and thus a futile and unnecessary defense. Airborne shards of glass, as well as other bits of shrapnel, would have traveled with the propagating pressure wave rather than with the sound that trailed behind it. So if he'd been in the line of fire, he would have been sliced and diced before he heard what had hit him.
But there was no blood on his hands or arms, so he guessed his head must not be bleeding, and both hands came away still unsullied when he used them to quickly pat down his back and legs. And nothing hurt anywhere on his body as far as he could tell, no more than usual anyway. So he guessed he was unharmed, and all he needed to do now was think.
If this was an act of terrorism, more explosions, and perhaps gunfire, could soon follow. So he'd stay put for the time being, flattened on the cold but fortuitously dry sand. Although it was winter, there was currently no snow on the ground, so he at least had that to be thankful for. Could be worse, could be raining, he thought, recalling a famous line from one of his favorite movies.
Whatever the situation was, be it an attack or some kind of accident, he imagined there could be injured bystanders in need of medical attention and perhaps others needing to be rescued. But he'd just play possum here for a while, and wait and see what developed. He'd never fired a gun (not that he had one on him) or even engaged in fisticuffs with anyone in his entire life, much less been educated in any arts of combat, military or otherwise. And since he was also not a trained emergency responder, there wasn't really anything he could do to help, was there?
He believed this was simply a matter of pragmatism, rather than outright cowardice. If push came to shove, he'd do whatever he had to do. I would! But getting himself injured or killed for no good reason would be both illogical and pointless. So yes, laying low was the ticket for him. If something further happened in the next few minutes to threaten his well-being, about the only thing he was reasonably sure he could competently do was play dead.
He'd certainly been lucky so far. He'd only just walked out of the Emergency Room lobby and veered off toward where he'd parked his car when the blast occurred, and it appeared that both he and his car had been out of the path of any flying glass from exploding windows. He risked a quick look back at the Outer Banks Hospital, where he'd gone to have his ears checked because he'd feared he was losing his hearing.
Great, he'd thought, I'm barely forty, and that's all I need now on top of everything else. But it had just been earwax, and after flushing his ears they'd let him go – probably with some surreptitious smirking behind his back, he'd be willing to bet. At least he hadn't embarrassed himself with his primary care physician, who was back in Raleigh and already thought him somewhat of a hypochondriac. Well, excuse me for not wanting to die just yet.
It looked like there was a fire underway somewhere in the E.R., as black smoke was beginning to billow out through some of the shattered windows. Alarms were going off and a few people were starting to come out of the hospital via other exits. Soon there'd be more people outside, and police and fire fighters would arrive at the scene – and maybe ambulances, if patients had to be transported elsewhere until the crisis passed – and then it should be safe for him to rise and go on about his business.
"Hey, man – come on, get up! We gotta get outta here!" a voice implored him. He felt something kick at one of his feet, though not too hard. "Hey, you okay? Come on, man, let's go!"
Gerald looked up and saw what he assumed to be an orderly standing beside him. He doubted the man was a doctor. They'd stay inside and take care of people, wouldn't they, being bound by their Hippocratic Oath as they were? But orderlies weren't similarly bound, he knew.
This one was wearing an aqua-colored surgical gown with long sleeves and a matching scrub cap. A white surgical mask covered his nose and mouth, and there was some blood on his hands and the front of his gown. One of his hands also looked like it might have been burned. The poor guy must have been closer to the explosions. He squatted next to Gerald and pulled his mask down.
"You hurt, man? You need a hand up?" he asked Gerald.
"No, I'm fine." Gerald started to get up on his own, noticing as he did that the orderly seemed nervous and jittery. "What about you? Do you know what happened in there? Is your hand okay? Is that your blood?"
"Nope. I'm all right for now. It's terrorists, man, dang A-rabs or some such. We gotta get away from here, man! You got a car? Okay, I'll walk with you. Stay low!"
So it was definitely a terrorist attack, then? Gerald's heart rate kicked up another notch or two and a sudden adrenalin rush convinced him to fully abandon his possum plan. The orderly was right, it might be dangerous to continue to hang around here.
The authorities would have to sort all this out, for sure, and he was now just as sure there was nothing useful he could do here – and thus no reason for him to feel inadequate or guilty about that as he'd been starting to, which was good because he was damned sick and tired of being made to feel that way. He emulated the orderly's semi-crouched stance and began scuttling as fast as possible toward where he'd left his car, occasionally touching the ground with one hand or the other for balance while hoping no terrorists would spot them and decide to start shooting along the way.
He reached his car without incident. After fumbling with his keys for a second or two, he remembered he was no longer bothering to lock the car. There was nothing in it worth stealing, and if any car thieves wanted an old clunker like his, they were welcome to it. He opened the driver's side door, and the front passenger door opened immediately after. He glanced over at the orderly in surprise.
"What are you doing?" he perplexedly asked the man.
"Hey, you mind? I don't have my car here today," the orderly replied, and then he climbed in and shut his door.
Gerald got behind the wheel and fastened his safety belt. No sense in me standing out there in the open any longer than necessary, that could be asking for trouble. "Well, okay, I guess – but where do you need to go?"
"Anywhere but here for now, man. We'll figure the rest out later. Come on, let's go!"
Gerald obediently turned on the ignition. "Better put your seat belt on," he said as he slowly backed out of the parking space.
"Never mind that. Come on, man. Hunker down some there, that's right. Now hit it!" the orderly demanded, fidgeting in his seat. He quickly pulled the surgical mask back up over his face as they rolled through the parking lot and onto Route 158, the main drag of Nags Head these days.
Wailing sirens accosted their ears as they began heading south. Engines from the fire station a little farther down the road were speeding toward them on the opposite side of the highway, along with a couple of police cruisers, probably from the Dare County Sheriff's Office in Manteo. There were also sirens coming up behind them now, perhaps the state police. Gerald knew there was a North Carolina Highway Patrol station up the road in Kill Devil Hills. All of the other vehicular traffic was pulling over in the northbound lanes, and many cars were starting to do the same in front of him here on this side as well. He slowed down and steered onto the shoulder.
"Hey man, how come we're stopping?" the orderly inquired.
"We're supposed to pull over for emergency vehicles."
"Oh, right. Okay. Hey, you mind cranking the heat a little more?" Gerald obliged. It was a sunny day out there, but on the chilly side, especially without a coat.
The man fidgeted some more and looked out his window, turning his face away from the road. His left knee had been bouncing up and down constantly throughout their short ride, and it continued to do so now. Gerald stifled an urge to tell him to stop with that leg and sit still!, as both his mother and his wife surely would if either of them was here.
Calmer now that he'd put a little distance between himself and Ground Zero, Gerald took a closer look at his unexpected passenger while he waited for the northbound convoy of emergency vehicles to pass by them. The southbound ones behind him were all turning into the hospital's entrance. The man looked to be in his mid-twenties, or maybe late twenties. He was about the same height and build as Gerald, but unlike Gerald he still had all of his hair. So much for that Rogaine. My hair doesn't look any thicker than it did before. And the face he'd seen under the mask earlier needed a shave.
Those were the normal things he noticed about the man, and they were of no more concern to him than the ubiquitous squalling of the seagulls in these parts. But there were certain other things he was now belatedly registering and beginning to find disturbing.
"Why are you wearing your mask again?" he asked. The orderly didn't answer, but Gerald saw his right hand move and then clench around something. His tension mounting, he screwed up what passed for his courage and soldiered on. "And how come you're so hyper, and what happened to your shoes? Why are you barefoot?" The man was indeed shoeless, which was certainly an odd condition for an orderly to be in. The right foot, and what little he could see of the man's leg below the hem of the gown, also appeared to be at least partially burned. "And what kind of bracelet is that on your arm, under your sleeve?"
The ersatz orderly finally turned back around then. The emergency vehicles were all past them now. He pulled the mask down again and looked straight at Gerald.
"It ain't a bracelet, man," he said. "It's a handcuff." Chuckling, he added, "I left the other half of the set hanging on the rail of the gurney the pigs shackled me to. See, I learned this trick online one time, how to twist them around a certain way and break the chain. Course, I'm stronger these days, too, on account of my special diet…"
Gerald's eyes widened as the man spoke, and then they began to dart wildly around the interior of the car and beyond.
"Uh-oh, I know that look. Now before you go and try something stupid, there's one more thing you ought to see," the man continued, holding up the bloody scalpel he'd previously been concealing in his sleeve.
Gerald suddenly felt like he'd been punched in the gut. He found he could neither breathe nor speak, nor even think clearly. He mindlessly groped for the door handle and then froze when he realized the flat of the blade was pressing against the side of his neck.
"Settle down, man. Don't make me hurt you, okay? Don't fuck things up." Gerald desisted and slumped a little farther down in his seat. "That's better. I'm gonna back off of you now. Don't try to open that door again and you'll be just fine. All right?"
"Yes. Okay," Gerald said, discovering that he could at least speak now – and breathe again, he realized. He gulped down a big breath of air and whooped it back out. It was saltier here than where he was staying, being closer to the ocean. The water in the sound that his house abutted was only brackish. But he didn't mind. He was still alive, so the air tasted just fine to him, thank you.
He remembered thinking a short time ago about how lucky he'd been to avoid being injured by the explosions at the hospital. And now, again luckily, his right foot was on the brake instead of the gas pedal, or he could have caused an accident. He would have stomped that sucker flat when he'd panicked if his foot had been on it. But he guessed that was probably all the good luck he should count on for today.
"Don't worry, man. If I wanted to kill you, I would've done it already and just taken your car. We're cool, man. Relax."
So he wasn't about to be killed? He supposed he should feel relieved. Though maybe it would be better for everyone, himself included, if he just bought the farm and left all his sorry mess behind. But no, he'd be damned if he'd give up and let himself think like that. Still… Maybe he was already damned anyway and just didn't know it yet.
Breathing more normally now and capable of rational thought again, Gerald made a rational decision. The cops were all long gone now, and trying to abandon the car and flee onto the highway would probably get him stabbed, and might get him run over to boot if he somehow made it out of the car. And panicking further wouldn't help, either. He knew that from the pulpy novels he wrote, in which his heroes were mostly able to triumph in the end because they didn't panic in the face of adversity. But that was also true in real life, which he knew because he'd done his research – so he resolved to go with the flow for now and try not to panic again.
He took another deep breath and said, "So, I suppose there weren't really any terrorists back there at the hospital?"
"Nope – but I had you going pretty good, didn't I? Ha-ha," the man said with a tight grin. "No, it was just little ole me. It was an escape attempt, man, that's all."
"I see. And you're, what, an escaped prisoner?" Gerald said, trying to remain calm. But it wasn't easy. "Who are you?"
"Hey man, let's get moving. We can't sit here all day chit-chatting on the side of the road. We can talk more on the way. Come on, drive. I got things to do."
"On the way to where?" Gerald asked as he checked his mirrors and prepared to pull back onto the road.
"Your place, man, for now. Where are you at?"
"Manns Harbor," Gerald replied when they were underway again. Great. So he wouldn't be getting out of this mess right away. And maybe not anytime soon, either.
"Huh… Not that far away, but off the beaten path. It'll be cool. But hey – who's waiting on you back at the ranch? Wife, family, girlfriend? Dogs, maybe?"
"There's no one else there, it's just me."
"Oh. Well good, that makes things simpler."
"Why did the police bring you to the hospital?" Gerald hazarded asking.
"I got injured when they arrested me. But hey, I'm okay if anybody's concerned, ha-ha! At least until the morphine wears off, but then my Number One babe will fix me up all nice and neat."
"Was it police brutality?"
"Police brutality – ha! That's a good one. Yeah, my lawyer might be able to use that, if I ever need one. Anyhow, they called for an ambulance and took me to the hospital instead of straight to jail – lucky for me! If the staties or the feds had gotten hold of me, that probly woulda been curtains for me, man. See, it was just a county guy that nailed me."
"I see," Gerald said, falling silent after. "How many people did you kill back there?" he then suddenly asked, cringing a little afterward. That might not have been the wisest thing for him to say, but he thought it would be prudent to keep the conversation going in order to distract his abductor from the fact that he was nervously checking the mirrors every other second for any sign of a police car. But of course, they're never around when you need them.
"Beats me, man," the miscreant nonchalantly answered, seemingly unoffended. "I had to swipe at a couple guys with this," he said, again displaying the bloody scalpel. "No, wait now, maybe three, yeah – but I wasn't trying to kill them. I don't know what happened with the rest of all that mess. I didn't do that on purpose, you know. I just spun some valves on a couple tanks and slashed a hose here and there to cause confusion. Like, what do you call it? A diversion, yeah. And then something must have sparked somewhere. Anyhow, it all went down pretty dang quick. So maybe a bunch of people, maybe nobody, who knows?"
"Don't you care?" Gerald blurted before he could think better of it. Whoa there, Hoss. He really needed to start being more careful and not risk pissing this guy off.
"Well, it won't make much difference either way, because they're saying I already killed a bunch of people before they caught me – oh, and ate 'em, too." Gerald's latest tormentor laughed aloud at that. "But I ain't no cannibal, not really! Though I guess I coulda been now and then, come to think, since I taught the girls to do some cooking. I don't pay much attention to that kinda shit anymore. So who knows what they been feeding me in my stew, if you want to get technical," he admitted.
"Who are you?" Gerald asked again, a bit more shakily this time. A killer – a serial killer? – is sitting right here in the car with me. Right next to me! Holy Shit…
"You still don't know? Don't you watch the news, man?"
"Uh, I've been busy." Busy working diligently – obsessively, some might say – on the new book that was supposed to, had to, salvage his rapidly sinking, almost-but-never-quite-there writing career, and was actually to his chagrin turning out to be yet another stinking pile of moldering cheese like the previous ones. And unfortunately for him, that wasn't just hyperbole. Maybe I'll simply have to accept that this is all I'm capable of – if I'm still alive later to accept anything.
"Well, I guess it's too soon for it to be on TV that they picked me up. But I been in the papers lately, too. I'll give you a hint. They thought up a real catchy moniker for me, on account of they think I'm a cannibal, and probably because they think I'm clever, too, since they couldn't catch me. But then they did catch me, huh? They didn't have me for very long, though, so maybe it won't count against me. Anyhow – pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name, ha-ha! Hey, what's your name, by the way?"
"Gerald." And yes, though he'd never once turned on the TV that came with the rental house, he had seen the occasional newspaper at the gas station and the convenience store. He recalled one particular front-page headline that had caught his eye not long ago – and then the dots finally connected. Hold the phone, feed the mayonnaise to the tuna fish! "You're, um, 'Canny Danny'?"
"Bingo! You win the prize! That's me, man. But I prefer just 'Danny'. Danny Jackson," the man said, sticking out a bloodstained but scalpel-free hand. "Gerald what?"
Gerald reluctantly took his right hand off the wheel and briefly shook with the guy without taking his eyes off the road. He heard the 'bracelet' jingle when he did it. This is crazy! I'm shaking hands with a serial killer! But pay attention and answer him, don't piss him off… "Grimes," he said. "Gerald Grimes."
"Grimes… That name rings a bell. What do you do, man? Like, for a living, I mean."
"I'm a writer," Gerald replied, omitting adjectives since the only ones he could honestly use wouldn't be very complimentary. Ones like struggling, wannabe, crappy, talentless, failed…
"No shit? Really? Hey, wait a minute – now I know why your name sounds familiar. I think I read one of your books one time."
The man named a title and Gerald nodded in assent. My first novel. Well, at least he'd read arguably the best one of the lot.
"How about that! It really is a small world like they say, ain't it? I remember I liked it, too. Cool!" A genuine smile crossed Canny Danny's face as he then said, "Well, I'm pleased to meet you, Gerald Grimes, damn pleased! It's a dang honor!"
Gerald spared his unwanted traveling companion a quick glance. It looked to him like the scoundrel was being sincere. But whether that would turn out to be good or bad remained to be seen.
He turned onto 64 West at Whalebone Junction and got on the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge. Under normal circumstances, he'd find this scenic transit to the mainland, over the calm waters of Roanoke Sound and across Roanoke Island and then over Croatan Sound to the mainland, pleasant and sometimes even inspiring. But he was too preoccupied to appreciate it this time.