The Hollow City

Dan Wells

Tor Books

I’m in a hospital bed; I can tell by the rails on the sides, and by the white coats on the people gathered around me. Their heads are haloed by bright fluorescent lights, still indistinct as I struggle to wake up. There’s a needle in my elbow, an IV tube reaching out behind me. I feel nauseous and slow, and the light burns my eyes. How did I get here? Where’s Lucy?
“You’re awake,” says one of the men, “good, good. You gave us quite a scare, Mr. Shipman.”
He knows my name. I stare at the man, forcing my eyes to focus. He’s older, sixties maybe, in a long, white hospital coat. Two other men and one woman stand by him, probably also doctors, pressed around my bed. There’s a guard by the door—a guard? Or just an orderly? I don’t know what’s going on.
My throat is dry and I struggle to talk. “Why don’t I remember coming here?”
“My name is Dr. Murray,” he says. “You had a fall—do you remember falling?”
Do I remember anything? I remember hiding out, and then … a chase? Someone found me. Yes, I’m sure of it; I remember running. And there was an empty city, full of empty houses, and a deep, dark hole, like a well or a mine shaft.
The people I was running from were bad—that much I know. Did they catch me? Are these doctors part of it? I slow down and try to think.
“Where’s Lucy?”
“Lucy, my girlfriend, she was with me in the … where was I?”
“What do you remember?”
“I remember a pit,” I say slowly, watching their faces. “I fell down a pit.”
Dr. Murray frowns; he thinks I’m wrong. Am I? But I remember a pit, and he said I had fallen, and … My head aches—not just my head, my mind aches. Dr. Murray leafs through a slim folder, holding up a page to read the one below it. “You fell, or jumped, out of a window. Do you remember that?”
I say nothing, trying to remember. Think, Michael, think!
“We were worried you’d hurt yourself,” says one of the other doctors, “but nothing’s broken.”
“If he’s lost his memory,” says the woman, “he might have hit his head harder than we thought.”
I scan my eyes around the room, trying to get a better sense of where I am—a regular hospital room, with cabinets and curtains and hand sanitizers lining the walls. No computers that I can see. Good.
“We would have seen more damage to his head,” says another doctor. “The abrasions were grouped on his legs and arms—he landed about as well as you could hope to.”
“Mr. Shipman,” says Dr. Murray, catching my eye and smiling. “Michael. Can you tell us where you’ve been for the past two weeks?”
I frown, my suspicions rising. I’d been trying to disappear, and I think I thought I had, but now I’m in here, surrounded by prying eyes and equipment. I shift my legs imperceptibly, testing for restraints under the covers. It doesn’t feel like they’ve tied me down. They might just be normal doctors—they might not be part of the Plan. Just helpful doctors who don’t know who I am or who’s after me. Maybe I can still get away.
Maybe I can, but not with five people between me and the door. I need to take my time.
“We’re only trying to help you, Michael.” The doctor smiles again. They always smile too much. “Once we knew who you were and we looked up your file, well, you can imagine that we started to wonder.”
I stare at him, my eyes cold. So they do know who I am, or at least part of it. I start to tense up, but I force myself to calm down. Just because they know who I am, that still doesn’t mean they know about the Plan. “No,” I say firmly, “I can’t imagine.” The men I was running from had been watching me for years—if they gave the doctors their file, they’ll know everything about me. I shift my legs again, bracing myself to bolt for the door if I have to make a move. “What does the file say?”
He raises the folder in his hands, an old manila folder with a curling green sticker on the tab. “Standard things,” he says. “Medical history, hospital stays, psychological evaluations—”
“Wait,” I say. “Is that it? It’s just a medical history?”
Dr. Murray nods. “What else would it be?”
“Nothing.” So they don’t have the real file, just the fake one from the state. That’s good, but it could cause problems of its own. “None of that stuff matters.”
The doctor glances at the man beside him. “We’re doctors, Michael, it matters a great deal to us.”
“Except that it’s all false,” I say. I know I can trust them now, but how can I explain what’s going on? “The state file was created…” It was created by Them, by the people who’ve been following me. Except I’m too smart to tell the doctors a truth they’ll never believe. I shake my head. “It was created as a joke,” I say. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Dr. Murray nods again. “I see.” He flips to a page in the file. “Ongoing treatment for depression and generalized anxiety disorder.” He turns the page. “Two weeks in Powell Psychiatric Hospital, fourteen months ago.” He turns the page. “Multiple prescriptions for Klonopin, paid for by state welfare.” He looks up. “You say this is all part of a joke?”
How am I supposed to explain this to him without looking crazy? I close my eyes, feeling the early flutters of a nervous panic. I roll my hands into fists and take a deep breath: it’s okay. They’re not part of the Plan. They don’t even have me tied down. I can probably walk right out of here if I can just find a way to defuse their suspicions. I glance around again; no computers, and the TV’s off. I might be okay.
“It’s just the … state doctors,” I say. “You need to talk to my personal doctor, my family practitioner. Dr. Ambrose Vanek. He can straighten this out.”
“We’ll contact him right away,” says Murray. He nods to one of the other doctors, who makes a note on his pad and steps out of the room. “I’m afraid his information wasn’t included in your report or we would have called him already. We’ve called the only number on here, someone named L. Briggs, but we haven’t been able to reach her. Is that your friend Lucy?”
“She’s my girlfriend,” I say again, trying to look helpful. Have They gotten to her yet? Do I even dare drag her into this? “I’m afraid I don’t know her number.”
Dr. Murray raises an eyebrow. “You don’t know your girlfriend’s phone number?”
“I don’t use phones.”
“Ah.” He nods and makes a note. “Is there anyone else we can contact?”
He waves the folder slightly. “This says you live with your father.”
“Yeah, but don’t call him.”
“His son is in the hospital; I’m sure he’d appreciate a call.”
I clench my fist tighter, trying to breathe evenly. “Just … please.”
Dr. Murray pauses, then nods. “If that’s what you want.” He looks at another sheet in his folder. “It says here that your Klonopin was prescribed by Dr. Little, after your stay at Powell last year. Have you been taking your pills, Michael?”
I nod. “Of course, Doctor.” It’s a lie—I fill my prescription every few weeks, just so no one asks questions, but I haven’t taken it in months. I’m not convinced the pills are part of the Plan, but I’m not taking any chances.
“Excellent,” says Murray again, but I can see his smile falter. He doesn’t believe me. I scramble to find something else to soothe him—what’s in that file? It probably mentions my job at Mueller’s; the state got me that job. Maybe I can convince him I’m nothing to worry about.
“You said I wasn’t injured in the fall, right?” I smile, trying to look normal. “Because I really need to get back to work soon—Mr. Mueller really relies on me.” There’s no response, so I keep going. “You know Mueller’s Bakery, on Lawrence? Best doughnuts in the city, you know. I’d be happy to send you a box once I get back there.” I liked working at Mueller’s: no punch-card machine, and no computers.
“Yes,” says Dr. Murray, flipping to another page of the file, “it was Mr. Mueller who reported you missing.” He looks up. “It seems you didn’t show up for work for nearly two weeks and he got worried. Tell me, Michael, can you tell us where you’ve been during the last two weeks?”
They got to Mueller. I’m nervous now, and I glance around again. No machines; the room might be clean.
“I need to go, please.”
“Do you remember where you’ve been?”
I don’t. I rack my brain, trying to remember anything I can. Empty houses. A dark hole. I can’t remember. I still feel nauseous, like I’m thinking through syrup. Did they drug me? I look around again, trying to see what’s behind the bed.
“Is everything okay, Michael?”
I raise up on my arms, craning my neck around the edge of the bed, and recoil almost instantly, like I’ve been struck. An IV stand looms over my shoulder, with a small black box just inches behind my head. Red digital lines turn in circles as clear liquid drips slowly into my arm.
I try to jump off the other side of the bed, but the doctors move in, holding me in place.
“Easy, Michael. What’s wrong?”
“I have to get out of here,” I say, grunting through clenched teeth. My chest feels painfully tight. I scrabble at my elbow, rip up the tape, and pull out the IV needle before they can stop me; pain lances through my arm.
“Frank!” says Dr. Murray, and the big man by the door rushes over and grabs me by the shoulders.
“No!” I shout, “No, it’s not like that, I just need to get out of here!”
“Hold him down!”
“What’s wrong, Michael?” asks Murray, leaning in over my face. “What happened?”
“You don’t understand!” I plead. “Get it out, please, get it out of the room.”
“Get what out?”
“The IV stand, the monitor, whatever it is—get it out!”
“Calm down, Michael, you’ve got to tell us what’s wrong!”
“I told you what’s wrong, get it out of here!”
“Dr. Pine,” says Dr. Murray, nodding at the IV stand, and the female doctor lets go of my leg and wheels the IV stand to the door, gathering up the trailing plastic tube as she moves it into the hall. It helps, but I can still feel it watching me. Do the doctors know? They can’t know—they can’t know or they wouldn’t be in here. That means they’re friends, but only if I act fast. My freakout over the IV monitor was too much, and I’ve tipped Them my hand. The woman comes back. We don’t have long.
“What else is in here?” I ask, falling back against the pillow and allowing the orderly to hold me still. Don’t fight; they have to trust you. “Any other monitors? Computers? Cell phones?”
“Michael, we all have cell phones, we’re doctors—”
“Get them out.”
“Please, Michael, calm down—”
“This is important!” I close my eyes, struggling to estimate the time: how long have I been here? Three minutes since I woke up, give or take a few seconds, and who knows how long I was unconscious before that. How long do we have before They get here?
I don’t have time for games, and there are too many of them to fight. I need to lay out the truth and hope for the best. I take a deep breath. “I’ll tell you everything, but not until the room is clean. No electronic devices of any kind.”
Dr. Murray nods, but smugly, as if he’s heard it all before: I’m just another crazy guy. “Why do electronics frighten you, Michael?”
It’s the same as last year—the same arrogant assumptions that landed me in a psych ward. Once the system decides you’re crazy, there’s not much you can do to fight it. I shake my head. “Cell phones outside.”
Murray looks at me for a moment, glances at the others, then shrugs. “Okay, Michael, whatever makes you comfortable, but you have to talk to us.”
“Hurry.” I try not to sound desperate. Murray gathers their cell phones, takes them to the hall, and a moment later he comes back. He opens his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “Listen very carefully, all of you, because I don’t know how much time we have. I’m very sorry you got dragged into this, but I’m being followed by some very dangerous men, and I need to get out of here as fast as I possibly can. They can track me—They can track all of us—through electronics: computers, cell phones, TVs, radios, everything. I know this is hard to believe, but you’ve got to trust me. Now, does that window open?”
Murray is nodding again. “Easy, Michael, just take it easy—”
“You don’t understand,” I say. “They will be here any minute. Look, if the window doesn’t open we can get out through the halls, but only if we stay far away from anything dangerous. Back stairs usually have cameras, so we can’t risk—”
“Please, Michael, no one is chasing you.”
“Yes they are,” I say, “They’re men, Faceless Men, and they can track us through your cell phones, through computers, through anything that sends or receives a signal. They’re not looking for you, so you don’t have to come with me, just let me slip out the door—”
“The Red Line,” says the woman, and I glance up to see that all four doctors and the orderly have backed away.
I try to look behind me. “What red line?”
“When you say ‘faceless,’” asks the woman, “do you mean, like, the face has been … destroyed?”
“No.” I turn back to them, watching their faces. What are they thinking? “No, it’s nothing like that at all. They’re faceless, literally faceless, no eyes, no nose, no mouth, nothing, just … blank.” I pass my hand over my face, willing them to understand. They stare at me a moment, and I dare to hope.
“This is more than just anxiety disorder,” says one of the men, and the others nod.
“I’m not crazy,” I say.
“Brain damage?” asks another doctor. They’re not even acknowledging me anymore.
“Could be,” says another, “or it could be all mental. Schizophrenia?”
The woman eyes me warily. “There was another one just last week, you know. We can’t take the chance.”
I feel myself start to tremble, the nervous vibration on my chest making it hard to breathe. “Please—what are you talking about?”
Dr. Murray stops, looks at me carefully, then whispers in another doctor’s ear. The other doctor goes into the hall, and Murray steps forward. “Michael, I need to ask you a question, and I need you to answer me as carefully and as honestly as you can.” He pauses. I look at the door—where did the other doctor go? What, or who, was he sent for?
Dr. Murray stares at me, eyes intense. “Have you seen any bodies, anywhere, with the faces destroyed?”
“Why do you keep asking that? Where would I have seen something like that?”
“Can you remember where you’ve been for the last two weeks?”
“No,” I say, “I can’t remember anything! Tell me what’s going on!”
Dr. Murray glances at the other doctors, then back at me. “Have you ever heard of the Red Line Killer?”
I freeze. “Some.” I’ve heard the name, but I don’t know much. Some kind of serial killer. I get a deep, sinking feeling in my gut—not just from the name, but from the faces of the doctors as they watch me. They’re nervous and scared.
They’re scared of me.
“Over the past eight months,” says Dr. Murray, “the Red Line has killed nearly ten people in and around Chicago. Nobody has any idea who he is, but his story has been all over the news. Are you sure you’ve never heard of him?”
“I don’t watch TV,” I say, glancing at the darkened set on the wall. Can it see me while it’s turned off? “Why are you asking me about this? What does it have to do with me?” And why are you so scared?
“If you’d seen the news, Michael, you’d know: when the Red Line Killer kills someone, he … mutilates the bodies.” He frowns and continues. “He kills them and then he destroys their faces—skin, muscle, bones, everything.”
And there it is. A killer on the loose, a tenuous link, and the floodgates of suspicion break open in a torrent. I’m still the same person, but in their eyes I’ve changed—no longer just a man brought in for a fall, but an unbalanced psycho who might be a murderer.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” I say carefully.
“We’re not saying you have.”
“You wouldn’t have brought this up if you didn’t think it was me.” I have to get out now. I have to run before this goes any further.
“We don’t think anything, Michael, no one’s accusing you of any—”
I leap up suddenly, catching them by surprise, but I only get halfway out of the bed before the orderly grabs me; the doctors are only a few steps behind. I fight like a caged animal, kicking wildly with my legs, and feel a horrifying crunch in my foot as one of the doctors grunts and falls backward. They’re screaming now, calling desperately for nurses and sedatives, and all I can think to do is bite the arm wrapped tightly across my chest.
“Where’s the Geodon!”
“Frank, dammit, hold him down!”
Someone lets go and I struggle to my feet, almost clear of the doctors, and then suddenly my arm’s getting twisted around and my shoulder’s nearly popping and I howl at the pain. My legs go limp and I whimper, all of my attention focused desperately on my arm.
The room has more people in it now, and I feel hands picking me up and positioning me back on the bed; there’s a sharp prick in my arm, and I know they’ve given me a shot. A sedative. I don’t have long.
“Please,” I say, “you’ve got to get me out of here. I’m not who you think I am, and They’ll be here any … any minute.” Images swirl in and out of each other, and I squint to catch them before they fade.
“Find Dr. Vanek,” says one of them; Murray, I think. There’s something on my arms, and I try to lift them up to see, but they won’t move. My head weighs a ton, ten tons, but I steel myself for the effort and raise it up, just enough to look down at my body.
“The drugs are hitting quickly—how much did you give him?”
“It’s just the standard dose—it shouldn’t work this fast.”
“He can barely move.”
I squint again, my head as empty as a balloon, my body slipping away down a tunnel. I can feel it drawing out, stretching like putty, but there’s something I have to see, someone standing in the back of the room. I fight my way out of the tunnel, struggling for just one glimpse, and—there it is.
A man with no face.
They’ve found me.

Copyright © 2012 by Dan Wells