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The Forever Man

Categories: Case Histories

By Jonathan Turner, (c) 1999

THE elevator door opened and Rydell stepped out, wrinkling his nose at the familiar hospital scent of antiseptic. He flashed his badge at the cop seated behind the desk at the entrance to the intensive care unit and walked past briskly, pushing through two sets of double doors leading to the observation wards. Walker was already there, leaning against the big smoked glass window on one side of the corridor, a plastic coffee cup in his hand.

He looked up as Rydell walked in, flashing him a half-smile. Rydell peered through the window at the man lying in the bed in the other room, wrapped almost entirely in bandages. He could make out little detail through the oxygen tent surrounding him.

“What have we got?” Rydell asked. Walker gestured with the coffee cup at the man in the next room.

“We got the king of the nut-jobs right here,” he said dryly. “About four hours ago a fire alarm gets tripped at a private chemical lab in Long Island. Cops and fire-fighters respond and meet this guy coming out.” Walker paused for emphasis. He was burning from head to foot, apparently. But get this. He’s still standing long enough to drop two cops with a revolver he took off one of the security guards at the lab.”

Rydell cocked his head to one side, still watching the motionless figure in the tent. “Okay. So what we have is a junkie who breaks into this lab to get a fix and flips out, torches the place. Why call us? Junkies do a lot of weird shit. Remember that guy on PCP who got hit by the bus and walked away?”

Walker sipped his coffee and shrugged. “You’re missing the best bit. He was rushed here and straight into surgery from the ER. They dug 37 bullets or pellet fragments out of him. 90 per cent burns, including inhalation injuries. Doctors say every major organ was perforated, fried or punctured. He should be dead – but 30 minutes ago he started breathing on his own again.”

“Jesus,” Rydell said, so softly he didn’t even know he’d spoken. “That explains why we’re here. Who put in the call to DG?”

“Picked it up off the police band,” Walker said. “Still no ID on John Doe, but his personal effects are here,” he said, handing over a sealed zip-lock bag. “It’s mostly burned clothing. There are multiple casualties at the lab.”

Rydell nodded. “Okay, Harry. You get down there and get on top of it. I’ll stay here. Has Gant been activated?”

Walker drained his coffee, pointed towards the elevators. “There he is. I’m outta here.” He brushed past Gant in the dimly lit corridor. Gant, tall, muscular, his dark hair cropped short, was carrying a heavy looking kitbag in one hand.

Walker gestured towards it. “Expecting trouble?” he asked with a smile. Gant grinned back.

“Always,” he replied lightly. He nodded a greeting to Rydell, set the kitbag down with a sigh of relief.

“Got a briefing on the police band,” he said. “Heard how much damage this guy took. Reckoned on being better safe than sorry.” Rydell chuckled.

He tugged open the zip-lock bag and emptied the contents on the table. They were mostly clothing, crispy and smelling vaguely of something familiar, but surprisingly not a chemical. Rydell sniffed it hesitantly. Olive oil, maybe. He shrugged.

The pockets were mostly gone, melted or burned away. He ran his fingers carefully over the fabric systematically, starting with the trousers, probing for anything melted into the fabric. Gant went to the coffee machine and returned.

He struck paydirt with the shirt. Something long and hard underneath the burned fold of a chest pocket. He produced his Leatherman from a pouch and snipped away the melted fabric carefully.

It was a glass vial, about two inches long. Inside there was a slightly luminescent greenish liquid.

“What have we here?” he muttered.

 

BLUE and red emergency lights flicked off the sign outside the laboratory where the John Doe had went crazy. Walker read the sign as he drove his car in: BALIUS TECHNOLOGIES. Sounded like an STD clinic, he thought.

He parked amid a variety of emergency vehicles outside the single storey building and got out. The structure was all smoked glass and steel, floodlights all around. Externally, there was no sign of damage.

As Walker approached the building, a slightly overweight man in a grey overcoat moved to intercept him, the lights catching the gold star hanging from his top pocket. Walker produced his ID and handed it over.

“Agent Harry Walker, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms,” he said smoothly. “What’s the story here?” The cop regarded Walker’s ID for three long seconds and handed it back.

“I’m Pietroni, Homicide. Thought you or the Feds might be coming nosing around.” They began walking towards the building.

“Well, it looks like we have nine dead total, all burned. Most of them are in a laboratory complex about a storey underground. Two security guards in the lobby.” The double doors at the front of the lobby had been smashed open, jagged shards of glass littering the plush lobby carpet. Pietroni and Walker stepped inside through the empty door frames.

The lobby was a hive of activity. Forensics hovered around the security desk which dominated the room, standing before a double set of elevators. The photographer’s flash-gun popped over and over. Another detective directed her.

Walker ran his eye over the room quickly. No sign of any smoke damage, not even so much as soot on the ceiling. Everything looked reasonably normal, but there was a smell lingering in the room. Like singed hair, he thought. Then he looked over the desk, and saw that everything was far from normal.

The corpses of the two rentacops were on the other side, one half-way to the elevators, lying on his face. Both were blackened and twisted, charred almost beyond recognition. Walker knelt by the nearest corpse.

Despite the tremendous heat which had devastated the body, the surrounding carpet was untouched. His .357 revolver lay nearby, bagged and tagged. Another clear plastic bag contained the six rounds – four of them had been fired.

The heat which killed the man seemed to have centred on the torso and head, with the hands and feet relatively untouched. The nearest guard was on his back, his badge glinting out from under the blackened flesh of his torso. His nylon shirt was burned and melted into the skin.

Walker looked at the other body without moving. Lying face-down, the heat had obliterated his left leg as well as his trunk and head. He tried to run, Walker thought. Didn’t get far.

They rode the elevator down into the lab, where the damage was more extensive. Computers and racks of equipment were melted and warped by the heat, though again the walls had little sign of scorch damage.

The bodies were strewn among several rooms, separated by glass walls. Walker saw no sign that they had been working with biohazard materials.

Again, their corpses told a silent story – they had been running, panicking. One had also fired a gun, a 9mm Sig-Sauer, emptying the clip. Walker counted four strike marks in the wall. Had the rest hit their John Doe?

Walker came out of his reverie to find Pietroni staring at him.

“What do you make of it?” the detective said.

Walker shrugged.

“Well, I assume there’s been no trace of an accelerant found.” Pietroni shook his head. “Okay, then,” Walker continued. He gestured towards the elevator.

“Perp comes in through the door and attacks the security guards. The first one starts shooting, the other one just runs. Neither of them do much good.

“No sign of accelerant, no contraction of the upper extremities typical with a flash fire. Instead the bodies show signs of the wick effect – the clothing provides fuel for a fire which melts the body’s fat reserves. But that usually takes hours to have an effect.” Pietroni nodded.

“Yeah. And the other bodies are the same. No sign of a struggle either. So?” Walker laughed and pulled out his phone.

“Bring them in. I’ll have someone take a look at them.”

Doc Carver was waiting at the entrance to the morgue, wearing a new set of blue scrubs. Tall, thin, greying, pushing sixty, he looked like a man who spent a lot of time with the dead.

He watched the cops wheeling in the grim procession of body bags, his arms folded carefully across his chest. He smiled when he saw Walker.

“What’s the matter, Harry? Don’t like me having the weekend off?”

Walker grinned back. “You’ve probably heard….” Carver cut him off with a raised hand.

“Leave them in my capable hands, Harry. Let me work my magic.” He turned and followed the bodies into the morgue. Walker shrugged and rode the elevator back up to the ICU.

 

HOURS passed, and they tried to sleep. Except for Gant, who stood by the window looking into John Doe’s ward like a sentinel. Nurses and a doctor came and went. The ward was silent apart from an occasional cough and the muffled beep of life-support machinery.

It was Gant who saw it first. He tapped the cot where Rydell was curled up, his jacket wrapped around him.

“Hey,” he said softly. “He’s moving.” They looked in to see the John Doe moving his arms experimentally, rotating his hands at the wrists. The one eye that wasn’t covered with bandages was open.

The doctor was into the room just ahead of them, and was so stunned by what he saw that he made no protest when they followed. Walker and Rydell watched from the edge of the room as the medical team flustered around their patient for nearly 20 minutes. He stayed silent, glaring with one red eye out of his blistered and charred face.

The medics left, armed with samples and clipboards filled with notes. The doctor warned them not to exhaust the patient – knowing how dumb it sounded – and closed the door gently behind him. Rydell approached the bed, trying not to look as unnerved as he felt when he stared into the man’s one good eye.

“My name is Clark Rydell, Federal Bureau of Investigation,” he said, flipping open his identification. The eye stayed on his face, unwavering. “We’d like to ask you a few questions about what happened,” Rydell continued. The eye never blinked.

He began speaking then, but not in a language Rydell recognised. He looked behind him to see Walker stepping forward and placing a tape recorder on the bedside cabinet. He caught a glimpse of Gant, watching through the glass – something big and heavy in his hands, just out of sight.

“N’fthaghan. Fthaghan n’geurro,” the John Doe said, his voice raspy but powerful, fighting its way up past the fluid in his roasted airways. “Ne te fhan Balius. Balius ne guerro.” Balius, Rydell thought. The name of the lab.

“What happened to the people in the lab?” he asked, but the voice continued on like a stream of words, a torrent of unknown pronunciation and gibberish syllables. But somewhere in there, there was a pattern. Communication, like a confession.

The words carried on, the man oblivious to the presence of the others in the room. Rydell waited for a full minute, then held the glass vial up in front of him. The man in the bed fell silent, but his right hand twitched and made a complex movement with his fingers.

“What is it?” Rydell asked. The eye flicked from his gaze to the vial and back again.

“It is Ours,” the voice rasped. An accent – heavy – Mediterranean? John Doe smiled, his lips tearing blackened skin in places, revealing pink flesh underneath. Blood ran over his mouth from his upper lip.

“They think they can steal, rob, pilfer what is Ours. The Gift. They cannot. I am Our retribution, chastisement, justice. Others have given them the key, but I am here to take it back, return it, restore it.” Rydell shrugged.

“You’re talking in riddles. Explain yourself.” Inside the man’s mouth, a pink tongue moved slowly over the teeth like a fat slug.

“Rydelllll,” he said, drawing the word out. “We are not your enemy. They are. They take what has been made flesh and twist it, turn it to their own. We have witnessed you at every turn of your race.

“I stood and watched the library of Alexandria burning. I have seen armies and empires rise and fall. Rome was Our work, Napoleon one of the Few. We have crafted and turned you like sheep. Like clay under the potter’s hands.

“But now the dark time is coming. The end of days. The final turn of the screw of time. No man can stand against it, save us. We are the ones who are, who have been, and who will be again. We are the Watchers. Keep the Gift safe, Rydell. I will take it for Ourselves soon enough.” The eye winked out and the man’s breath fell into the regular pattern of someone in a deep sleep. He heard him muttering the same gibberish as before.

Rydell sighed and shook his head, slipping the vial into his pocket. He looked down at the man’s body on the bed, his eye running down to his hands as he thought over what he had heard. His eyes froze, feeling a tiny icy ball form in the pit of his stomach. Little boy fear, scared of the big dark outside.

The flames had seared off John Doe’s fingernails, leaving the ends of his fingers little more than red raw flesh. His movements had thrown off the moist gauze pad over his hand, and Rydell saw the fingers clearly.

As he muttered, his fingers fluttered and twitched. Rydell watched as new, waxy nails broke through the raw skin, creeping slowly over the finger like a green shoot breaking the surface of blasted, blackened soil.

“WHY don’t you just send this thing to the lab in Washington and have it analysed?” Gant asked. They stood in one of the empty observation rooms, discussing the man down the hall. The vial of liquid lay on a table between them.

“Because it could be toxic, a virus, or just food colouring,” Rydell said, “but it’s clearly valuable. I’d rather bring it myself, but right now I think we should be here.

“Our friend is obviously preparing for something, and I’d rather be here to see it.”

“Or try to stop it,” Walker added gloomily. The image of the charred corpses was too fresh in his mind for him to relax. Carver had completed three of the autopsies, discovering they had all died from massive heat injuries – as if they had been burning. But the black and whites had been at the scene within minutes of the alarm being tripped. The security camera footage was being analysed, but it seemed to have been corrupted. Balius Laboratories did not exist in any commercial register or even the phone book, and the rent was paid through a bogus front company. All attempts at identifying the corpses had failed. They were too badly damaged for fingerprinting or even DNA work.

“Well, if this sucker is so dangerous, I think we should take steps,” Gant said softly. Walker snorted.

“Once a SEAL…”

Gant smiled, threw open his kitbag. The others looked inside.
There were guns, explosives, and some other stuff that Rydell didn’t even recognise. Gant drew out a Benelli shotgun in a tactical rig and a spare bandolier of ammunition, a mix of solid slug and double ought buckshot. Rydell dipped in next, lifting out a H&K MP5, one of the new 10mm models. He checked it over smoothly.

Walker sighed, because really, he didn’t like guns. Working in ATF, he saw too many of them pointed in his direction. He went for another MP5 – this one the kurz model – a stubby little cut down submachinegun for covert work. He slid it on underneath his jacket in a quick draw tactical rig, checking the laser sight was working first.

Gant reached into the bag and removed several long, thin items that looked a lot like flares.

“HAFLAS,” he said. There were blank looks around the table. “Handflampatronen. One shot phosphorous weapon. Fire stopped him before…” They took two each.

Walker stood up and headed for the door, the MP5K invisible under his jacket.

“Well, I’m going to the cafeteria to get some decent coffee. That machine stuff will give you cancer. Or at the very least, diahorrea.”
“Get some doughnuts,” Rydell said. “We can at least pretend to be real cops.” He started laughing, but then stopped as a wave of dizziness passed over him.

In his mind, he saw John Doe’s one good eye opening, staring into space. He saw the three of them from above, watched as they handed out the weapons, heard their conversation. My God, he was watching us, he thought. But then the vision changed, faded, and he saw sand, black sand, stretching into the distance. Coming towards him was a wave of figures that walked like men but were not. They wore polished gold armour and were brandishing wickedly curved scimitars.

They were lizards, with yowling, snapping jaws and glittering green eyes. All around him, Rydell felt other men like him, realising he was standing up in a chariot. It sped forward, scything into the lizard things, and he watched as he struck down one of them with a spear, saw the gout of blood – stinking like brackish water – spray over his armour.

His vision changed again, and he saw a ship in a harbour at night, a city behind it – oil lamps on poles, a stinking and almost deserted wharf. The only sound was the waves, the murmur of talk from a nearby inn. But there was something else, in the water – rising up like a black shadow to engulf the ship. Someone stepped forward and spoke in a rasping tongue that was without beginning or end. The shape, eyes and mouths opening and closing along its length, suddenly screamed with a thousand voices of agony as a sun opened in its centre.
And again the vision shifted, and he saw Balius Laboratories, saw the men and women in lab coats working as the elevator doors opened. He saw them turn, the panic in their eyes. They realised he was Not One of Them, that he was the Watcher. They ran, sealing the doors behind them, but he blew them out with a single word. One fired at him with a small black gun, the bullets entering his body and meaning nothing. With another word in that black, rasping voice, suns opened in their bodies and engulfed them in licking flames. Computers melted with a thought, the data inside warped and lost. Samples exploded as he passed in a wall of blue fire. This laboratory was hidden here by others, he saw. They never knew how close they were to the key. He stopped at one workstation, reached down to retrieve the vial of green liquid – the Gift of eternity, of endless life. The key was a number, he saw. The exact location of the strand in human DNA which controls longevity.

Then for a last time his vision swam and this time he saw the hospital. Saw vehicles outside, black vans and a tractor-trailer rig. Saw men entering the hospital. Coming for him.

HE opened his eyes to find Gant leaning over him, checking his airway. Rydell coughed and pushed himself up on his elbows. He was lying in the recovery position, he realised dimly. His head was fuzzy, the left temple painful.

“You okay, Clark?” Gant said. “You just pitched over. Hit your head a smack.” Rydell shook his head to clear the cobwebs, but Gant pushed him down gently. “Rest up a second, cowboy.”
“Psychic,” Rydell mumbled. “Psychic… watching us.”

“Who?” Gant asked. “The John Doe?” Rydell nodded, this time brushing Gant aside as he stood up.

“No, that’s not his name. Watcher. He says he’s a Watcher. Got a head full of visions from him.” He grabbed the MP5 and racked a round into the breech. “Someone’s coming up. Maybe Majestic. Warn Walker.”
Gant turned and picked up his tactical radio, jammed the send button.
“Darren, this is Darius, copy, over.” As he sent the message when there was a squawk of static. Both men looked over into the corner of the room. Walker’s tactical radio lay on the table.

“Shit,” Gant said, opening the kitbag and pulling out a level-two threat vest. He shrugged into it quickly. Rydell took off his jacket and pulled on one himself, FBI across the chest and back in bold yellow letters.

“How long and how many?” Gant asked, throwing him a tactical helmet and goggles. Rydell Velcroed the vest tight and looked grim.

“Not long. And too many.”

THE elevator opened with a chime and Walker stepped out carrying a tray of coffee and doughnuts. He had been enjoying the journey up, breathing in the fumes of a truly decent cup of Joe. He’d picked out a dozen doughnuts, all freshly arrived from a bakery somewhere near the hospital. Some plain, which he knew Gant preferred, some jelly ones and a couple with the chocolate sprinkles that he loved himself. The best kind of cop breakfast.

The other elevator stood open, with a man in the doorway. Something wrong, a little voice warned. It took him less than a second. The cop at the end of the ICU corridor. Gone. He met the eye of the man in the elevator doorway. Black shirt and pants, combat boots, white doctor’s coat. Hard eyes, gun face. No doctor – a triggerman. The tray tumbled towards the ground as Walker went for the MP5K under his jacket.

The doctor’ flipped something short and stubby up from under his white coat – an MP5SD – but Walker had him by a whisker. He fired a long burst into the man’s chest as the silenced submachinegun fired, the bullets ripping into the opposite wall. The man stumbled back into the elevator car as Walker’s second burst hit him in the forehead above the right eye.

The tray hit the ground, hot coffee and doughnuts spraying everywhere.
Walker kept moving, running, picking up another bad guy by the end of the corridor. This one took the time to aim, firing as Walker ducked into an alcove on the opposite side of the corridor. Bullets chewed up the plaster, spraying dust everywhere.

Walker’s hand went to his belt – no radio! He cursed his stupidity, knowing that at least the others would have heard his shots. He crouched and took a quick glance out – just one eye – but the bad guy had him cold. Another burst sent him back into the alcove. He eyed the gooey mess on the floor beside the abandoned tray.

“There go the fucking doughnuts,” he said to no one in particular.

Back up the corridor Gant froze as he heard the gunfire from the lobby. He made a fist, motioning Rydell back. Then he ducked down below the window, pulling out a mirror on an extendible arm and poking it above the level of the sill. Rydell watched, taking cover behind the empty bed and aiming his MP5 at the window. Not good. They were trapped here now, John Doe four doors away down the hall.

Gant held out his free hand as he lay on the floor, spreading four fingers. He made two fingers, motioned to the right, then the left. Four of them, two each side of the corridor. He collapsed the mirror and nodded at Rydell, cradling the shotgun. He held up five fingers, counting down slowly to one.

Gant leapt up, firing the shotgun point-blank through the glass. The gunman on the other side was covering the window, but Gant was too fast for him. The blast from the Benelli caught him full in the chest, knocking him backwards into the window opposite. Gant kept pumping the trigger on the semi-auto, hitting him another three times. His last shot took the man’s left arm off below the elbow, bloodily spraying muscle and bone. Gant ducked back down and rolled away from the window as it exploded with return fire. Rydell walked short, controlled bursts back down the wall, the bullets punching holes straight through.

Above them, the sprinkler system erupted into life, drenching the room and corridors.

But the fire from the other side showed no sign of stopping. Gant slid down beside Rydell in the pitiful cover of the bed. He started loading solid slugs into the Benelli as Rydell continued firing.

“We have to break out of here or we’re fucked,” Gant yelled. Rydell nodded. He reloaded as Gant took up position, firing. He heard him yell a warning as three objects span into the room through the window, bouncing as they hit the ground.

Rydell closed his eyes tight and ducked, holding his mouth open to save his ears. Gant flipped the bed up and over and it landed on two of the flash-bangs as they exploded, setting the linen ablaze. It sizzled in the spray from the sprinklers.

But the third grenade detonated in the clear, sending Gant over onto his side, groaning. Rydell span around as soon as he heard it, firing at the figures moving across the window.

He twisted and jerked back as a three-round burst caught him in the chest–like being kicked by a horse –and he slammed into the wall. Rydell tried to bring the MP5 up as the doorway filled with figures, but his fingers wouldn’t work.

He watched – slow-motion – as the lead triggerman brought his MP5SD up, aiming carefully for his exposed face this time. He looked into the man’s eyes through the sprinkler spray, saw them tighten as he prepared to fire – then open wide as he looked down at a blue flame erupting from his chest. The flames raced up to his head as he screamed, tumbling back into the corridor. Ammunition exploded on his belt and he flailed down the corridor, the sprinkler system having no effect.

Rydell struggled to get up–too weak–but he managed to get onto an elbow, watching as the gunmen exploded one after another into walking, screaming infernos. And then, past the doorway, a man dressed almost totally in bandages–the mummy–striding past the figures, calmly, unconcerned. Rydell rolled onto his belly and pushed himself up. Gant lay unmoving, but he could see his chest rise and fall.

In the lobby, Walker peered out to see the gunman by the other wall flailing at his chest, trying to put out the flames. His face peeled and erupted as the fire shot higher. Walker stepped out as the John Doe strode past, but he didn’t raise his gun. The man – if he was – ignored him. A window at the end of the hallway exploded and he stepped casually through it, falling eighteen stories.

Walker ran to the window, looked down through the smoke-filled corridor to see Rydell stumbling out. He looked out the window, expecting to see John Doe lying in a bloody, exploded mess. Instead, the man was walking across the parking lot, bandages strewn behind him. From their vantage point, Rydell and Walker watched as black vans circled in like scorpions. One, two exploded, but men spilled out of the others. Too many men, firing as the Watcher tried to escape, running now.

Out of one vehicle came a flame-thrower team, pouring down a solid stream of liquid napalm. The Watcher struggled on, ablaze, slower and slower. Eventually he fell on his knees, crouching in a sheet of angry orange flames. Around him, men in Racal suits closed in, ready to collect the remains.

The still-living remains, Rydell knew. Walker spat out the window, his phlegm spiralling down 18 stories.

“Fucking Bronsons,” he muttered. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” They did, dragging Gant with them.

 

BACK at the ranch, too many questions in an ugly debrief. The brass took the vial of greenish fluid and spirited it away for further examination, though Rydell knew it was no use. The Watcher–or something like him–would be along to take it back sooner or later. He was sure of that. He mulled it over in his mind during his most private moments, picturing what it must mean to have lived for a thousand centuries, to have witnessed and forgotten more than he could ever learn. He had considered keeping the vial, of course. It was the key to an endless existence, his visions from the Watcher had left him in no doubt about that. The secret number of the longevity gene. Find it, alter it, extend it and Man would walk the earth for a million years. But Rydell knew that wasn’t going to happen, so he surrendered it gladly.

Because there was one final vision, one he had shared with no one. It recurred, returning again to haunt him in his sleep and in waking moments of terror. It was simple, but its significance was absolute.

It was the world, spinning on into darkness that was without shape, form or end. And the only life that moved on its surface were the crawling, writhing shapes of formless chaos.

The Stars Were Right. The circle was complete. The blighted planet – and everything on it – was Theirs.

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