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Ring Of Knives

James Daniels

CHAPTER ONE

'Hell of a day, ain't it?'

'You said it.' Matt stared out the windshield, his fingers white-knuckling his rucksack. Fog choked the winding road so badly that the tow truck seemed to be plowing through a sea of milk. The glare from the truck's headlights revealed nothing ahead but the broken flash of yellow median lines, which slipped into view just a second before being eaten up by the truck. Occasionally the jagged shadows of black pines faded into view along the roadside, only to drown, seconds later, in the milk.

The driver shook his head, snorted. 'Only a fool'd be out on a day like this.'

Matt decided to let that one pass.

'How long you had that Ranger?'

Matt told him he'd had the old Ford for three weeks. That he'd got it off a part-time cop in Galesburg in exchange for building an addition onto his porch.

'Ford,' the driver snorted. 'Fix Or Repair Daily. Ain't that the truth?'

Matt said he guessed it was, wishing to God he'd been picked up by a mute. He stole a glance at the driver. The guy hadn't gotten any better looking since Matt first laid eyes on him: beer-bellied, as bald as Mr. Clean, wearing a black Harley T, black 'Don't Tread on Me' ball cap, and black Terminator wraparound shades.

And as chatty as fuck. Matt had been in the truck only twenty minutes, and already he'd had to listen to a detailed explanation of exactly how his breakdown had inconvenienced the driver socially ('had to cancel on my buds' night out'), culturally ('sure was lookin' forward to that UF match'), and reproductively ('no pussy tonight, either, I guess').

Not that Matt had had a choice: as he'd driven up the winding road, his mind occupied with making his noon interview, the fog had parted before him to reveal a huge white stag standing in the road, complete with a fifteen- point rack and black, startled eyes.

He'd slammed on the brakes, one-eightied on the wet asphalt, thumped backward into a ditch. When he stepped out, shaking, the stag was gone. He'd wondered if it'd even been there at all. Luckily, he was unhurt, his cell phone still had reception, and his backpack, tool kit, and grandfather's ax, his only remaining possessions from his old life, were safe in the trunk and undamaged.

That is, he thought he'd been lucky, until he'd had to wait two hours for a tow truck, only to learn that its cab had no heat ('cold as a witch's tit, ain't it?') and no radio ('Rush was gettin' too liberal for me'), and was filled with the sickly sweet smoke of raspberry-flavored cigarillos ('got a sweet tooth, and I'm tryin' to lose weight'). Matt had stared at the guy in amazement as the driver lit up his first. Now that he was on his fourth, Matt just kept his eyes on the road ahead, his hands in his lap, and his lips clamped tight, trying not to breathe. But with each passing minute the cab filled with a fruity funk that made him want to barf. He'd never been carsick before, but he had a feeling that his thirty-year lucky streak was about to end.

Still, the guy had one thing going for him: he didn't seem to recognize Matt, and that was a relief. Matt had no desire to explain how it was that he had survived being frozen for three months beneath an avalanche. It had been all over the papers for a while, both his miraculous recovery and his subsequent disappearance. Now no one knew where he was, or where he was headed. Matt wanted to keep it that way. He'd spent a season on ice and had lost a part of himself. But he'd gained something, too-the ability to detect hidden evil, hidden madness. It manifested in the form of rot, which only he could see. A supermodel might look like a leper to Matt. Not an easy thing to explain to the average tow-truck driver, and Matt wasn't eager to try.

He looked the driver over again. No festering sores, exactly (his wrists did look swollen and purple-but then again, he was a fatty). And no scent of decaying flesh (although who could tell beneath the gaggingly sweet fumigation of those cigarillos?). Anyway, it was hard to tell. Matt didn't understand the scope of his new powers, or if they even were powers, and not some brain-damaged delusion from sleeping with the mastodons. Matt had no clue. But someone would. And for the first time, Matt had an idea where he could find that someone.

'So where'd you say you was goin'?'

Matt glanced at the driver warily, but the black wraparound shades gave nothing away. 'I've got an appointment at the Carthage MHC in Westland County,' he said. 'If you don't mind dropping me off, I'd appreciate it. I'll call a cab later.'

'Well, we passed the Westland County line ten minutes ago. But-Carthage?' The driver let out a low whistle. 'Ain't that the nuthouse?'

'Mental Health Center, I think they call it.'

'Hell, they can call it the Ham Sandwich for all I care. But a nuthouse is a nuthouse-am I right?'

'Guess so.' Matt busied himself by opening his rucksack, pulling out a folder. Maybe if he looked like he had work to do, the guy would stop jabbering.

'That's just a mile or two away. But hell, you don't wanna go there. Lemme take you into town first. I'll take you all the way up to Tacoma, you want. I'm missin' the UF match, but I still got me a big night planned.'

'No, thanks. Like I said, I got this interview today. It was a lot of trouble setting it up.'

'Huh.' The swollen fingers drummed the steering wheel. 'Got some kinda business there, do ya?' The driver glanced over at Matt's reflection in the rearview mirror. 'Or are ya checkin' yourself in?' He chuckled at his own joke and slapped the dash.

'Neither. Just gotta talk to someone.'

'Who's the someone?'

Jesus, Matt thought, this guy just doesn't fucking quit. 'His name's Jesse Weston.'

'You and he kin or somethin'?'

'Or something.' Matt opened the folder. It contained three sheets of paper. Each had a page number in the bottom left or right-hand corner, going from 997 to 1002. Each had a header at the top that read Encyclopedia of Psychopathology. And each had a ragged edge where he'd ripped it out of a book after being reminded by a snotty librarian that reference materials couldn't be checked out.

Matt stared at the face on the first sheet of paper.

Profile: JW

37-Year-Old White Male

Diagnosis: dysomophobia; paranoia; delusion (persecutory and grandiose); dysthymia; narcissism; schizophrenia

Born of middle-class parents, JW was happily married and enjoyed an active lifestyle until experiencing an accident while spelunking. A companion of his was killed in a fall, and JW was trapped on a ledge for six days, living on bats and groundwater until rescued. Though having only superficial injuries, he subsequently suffered a breakdown, exhibiting paranoid-type schizophrenic disorder in accordance with the criteria of the DSM-III-R.

A bug landed on the page: a beetle with black, metallic wings. Matt flicked it away and kept reading.

Soon after his ordeal, JW began to claim that he could see lesions on individuals which were invisible to others, and that these lesions presaged violent incidents. He furthermore claimed that he was visited by a personage he called Rotting Jack, who taunted him, infected others with lesions, and was always accompanied by a distinct odor of decomposing flesh. Eventually, his symptoms regularly merited six points on the hallucination scale and thirteen on the psychosis index of the BPRS. JW showed early improvement with a combined regime of cognitive behavioral therapy, Flupenthixol, and Prolixin, but his condition began to deteriorate into hyperkinetic states after regular usage. He is currently residing at a facility in Washington State under the care of Dr. John Dindren.

'Got shifty eyes, don't he?'

Matt looked up. The driver's wraparounds had turned from the road, were focused on the page in his hand.

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