In a Quiet Midwestern city...
A community is coming apart at the seams. He is a mild-mannered academic turned serial killer being hunted for crimes he doesn't recognize as his own. She is a TV anchorwoman losing the ratings game - and the only person who understands the evil that drives him. Between them, an innocent young girl's life hangs in the balance...
In an Empty Apartment somewhere in the city...
He has found a manila envelope that holds gruesome portraits of his deeds. Notes inside tell him of his next, unspeakable act. Despite himself, he will follow these instructions as if they were his own...
In the dark street shadows...
The police scramble furiously to understand him...to stop him. While a TV reporter is onto the story of a lifetime. She knows who he is...and who his next victim will be. What she doesn't know is how little time she has left-and how terrible is the power of The Serpent's Kiss...
Ed's one of my favourite authors, and Serpent's Kiss is one of his best books. Seamus Award Winner, this guy delivers time after time. Compulsively readable. – Steven Savile
"Ed Gorman has the same infallible readability as writers like Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, Donald E. Westlake, Ed McBain, and John D. MacDonald."– Jon Breen, Ellery Queen
"One of the most original crime writers around."– Kirkus Reviews
"The modern master of the lean and mean thriller."– The Rocky Mountain News
"…Gorman, as usual, rocks."– Publisher's Weekly
When he was dying there in the street, the ambulance still on its way, he started crying.
The cop who'd shot him, kneeling next to him now on the quiet back street, felt embarrassed for him. The cop hoped when his own time came, he didn't start blubbering. Pretty goddamned embarrassing with all these people around.
Anyway, what was this sonofabitch crying about? He was the one who'd escaped from a mental hospital named Hastings House and then brutally stabbed three teenage girls.
But the killer started to sob, and hold his stomach where the cop had shot him. Blood bubbled in the corner of the man's mouth.
And so the cop, cursing, said, "Hold on; you'll make it."
But the man knew different, of course. And so did the crowd of poor black people who'd gathered shoeless in the ninety-degree midnight of the ghetto. Some teenagers had bottles of wine stuffed inside greasy paper bags. Others toked openly on joints. One plump young woman breast-fed a tiny, shiny black infant.
The man looked up at the cop and said with great effort, "I didn't kill them."
The cop couldn't help it. He sneered. "Somebody saw you, man. You went right into the women's toilet and grabbed that teenage girl. And an old woman saw you."
"It was me physically. But spiritually it was somebody else."
It was me physically but it wasn't me spiritually. Right. These fuckers always had some crazy story.
And the stench; this foul, greasy odor the man gave off. What was the smell anyway?
"Feel my stomach," the dying man said.
"Feel my stomach."
"Please." And the man weakly took the cop's hand and guided it to a place just below his sternum. And goddamn. The cop felt it.
Something twisting inside the man's stomach. Something alive. Coiling and uncoiling.
The cop jerked his hand back as if he'd been burned. "He dead, ain't he?" a young boy said peering down into the man's face.
The cop looked up at the kid and scowled. "You go stand back on the curb, you hear me?"
But the kid kept leaning over and peering down at the man. Blood bubbled from the man's nostrils and mouth and dripped from his chin.
The cop just kept staring at the man's stomach, right above the wound.
Something was fucking in there. Moving.
"He dead," the kid said again, but he finally moved back to the curb.
By the time the ambulance came the man's stomach was still and the cop would be damned if he'd say anything about it to the ambulance attendants or the man from the Medical Examiner's.
He had felt something moving in there. No shit. Honest.
The cop didn't want to end up at Hastings House himself.
Today: Tuesday, April 25
A male nurse named Claiborne was the first person to notice that a patient named Dobyns was missing. Claiborne was on the third floor of Hastings House to deliver 100 mg of Thorazine to a delusional patient who had been somewhat violent earlier in the day.
The time was 9:02 P.M.
Claiborne's first assumption was that Dobyns had gone one of two places: the TV room (several of the patients had expressed an interest in HBO's presentation this evening of Chariots of Fire) or the library (before his somewhat lengthy stay here, Dobyns had been an English professor at a local college). While the library didn't offer a sophisticated reader much to choose from—the selection ran heavily to romances, mysteries that emphasized puzzles instead of character, science fiction that was mostly about an intergalactic lawman named Rick Starman, and westerns in which the horses were at least as smart as the people—even patients as cosmopolitan as Dobyns found the library a nice place to sit and relax. Only when you noticed the bars on the windows was the effect spoiled somewhat.
Dobyns proved to be neither place.
The time was 9:08 P.M.
Claiborne had one more place to check before he allowed himself the luxury of anything remotely resembling panic.
Claiborne had lately noticed Dobyns going into the chapel from time to time. A nondenominational nook where religious items from all the major faiths but Hindu could be found, the chapel afforded patients total silence and solace. There was even a small stained-glass window high on the west wall.
Dobyns was not in the chapel.
The time was 9:12 P.M.
Two hours previous, Security Chief Andy Todd had been readying himself for the short drive home and his first non-dietary meal in three months (he had been taking medication for high blood pressure) when his office phone rang and one of his men had informed him that today's violent and ongoing rainstorm had played hell with some of the security lights that sat on metal poles above the electrified fencing. (Todd had spent his first ten years in security working upstate at the prison; he was right at home at Hastings.)
"The goddamn sonofabitchin' job" as he had called it to himself had taken till now to finish (three electricians at God-only-knew how much per hour had clung to the metal poles like drowning men to life rafts getting the lights to work again) and had left him damp and rumpled in the process. Andy Todd was a man who liked to look sharp in the khaki, army-style uniform he had chosen for himself (his men had similar uniforms but theirs lacked bold brass buttons and the absolutely meaningless but quite impressive insignia Todd wore on his right arm).
He was just leaving when the phone rang. "Todd here."
"Andy, it's Claiborne."
"Hi, Jeff. 'Fraid I'm in kind of a hurry. I'm two hours late for dinner and you know how the missus gets." Actually, Todd noted, Jeff Claiborne couldn't tell you diddly squat about anybody's missus. He was manly enough but gay, and while that didn't bother Todd all that much (he had a brother he suspected was the same way), it didn't exactly make Claiborne an expert on women. "How can I help you?"
"I think we may have a problem."
"What kind of problem?"
Claiborne paused. "We've got a patient missing."
Oh, dear sweet suffering Jesus, Todd thought, the image of roast beef (nice fatty roast beef) and mashed potatoes with lots of gravy and a big helping of pumpkin pie fading sadly from his mind. "What floor?"
"Right," Claiborne said. "That's what I was thinking."
Dobyns was a genuine crazy. He had managed to spook the entire staff.
Now he was missing.
At this rate, Andy Todd was going to get off his medicine for high blood pressure around the year 2347.
"I'll be right up," Todd said.
"Sorry about your dinner."
"Thanks," Todd said, thinking once more about guys like Claiborne and his brother. How could they do it to each other in the butt, anyway? Todd had hemorrhoids and it was painful enough just applying Preparation H let alone screwing around back there.
Snapping off his office light, he moved his 220 pounds down the hall to the elevator. This one felt bad. He wasn't sure why. He just had an instinct was all. It felt very bad.
The time was 9:18 P.M.
"If he took anything, I don't know what it would have been," Jeff Claiborne said. Piece by piece he threw the contents of Dobyns's bureau drawers on the tightly made single bed pushed against the wall.
Comb, toothbrush, half-used tube of Colgate, Gillette Foamy shaving cream, Santa Fe aftershave, dental floss, Ban roll-on, and a single Trojan condom in a sleek red pack.
"What the hell you think he had that thing for?" Todd said.
"Told me he thought he might get lucky with one of the nurses."
Todd shook his head.
"Well, that's what he said, Andy. Hope is what people live by, even in nuthouses."
Todd glanced around the room. "Don't use that goddamn word anywhere around Bellamy. You know what he did to Dolan for calling it a loony bin."
Dolan had been fired summarily, his perks, including health insurance, canceled at once.
"Sorry," Claiborne said. A stocky, thirtyish man with a rugged head and shaggy blond hair, Claiborne usually wore a smock that got him mistaken for a doctor. The black horn-rimmed glasses didn't hurt, either.
"Let me try the other two floors," Todd said, "see if Unger or Lumley know anything about this."
Each floor had its own security guard around the clock.
"Shouldn't you call Bellamy?" Claiborne said as Todd started out the door.
Todd paused in the doorway and grinned. "You really want to see me get my ass whipped, don't you, Jeff?"
"But I thought—"
"I'll call Bellamy as a last resort. After I've exhausted every other possibility." He shook his head again. "You know what that sonofabitch would say if I told him we couldn't find Dobyns?"
"Pissed? Are you crazy? Pissed isn't the half of it." He swept a beefy arm out to the corridor. "You keep looking around up here, all right?"
With that, Andy Todd left Dobyns's room. Nothing useful had been found.
The time was 9:29 P.M.
As he sat in the guardhouse at the front gate, sipping decaf coffee and listening to a night call-in show about alien abductions, Frank Dvorak kept thinking about what he'd seen in the back window of the laundry truck.
He'd been sure of it.
Then why the hell hadn't he done anything about it?
The question could be answered in two words: Heather Moore. Ever since Frank had been transferred to the night shift here at Hastings, Heather had shown definite signs of becoming restless. By now, it was pretty obvious she wanted to start dating other guys and drop Frank who, she had lately been hinting, was too old for her anyway. Frank was thirty-two.
They had been in the middle of one of their marathon phone arguments three hours ago, just at dusk, when the laundry truck pulled up to the gate from the inside and beeped. The laundry service usually did its pickup around this time and Frank hadn't thought much about it. How the hell could he think about anything with the battle raging over the phone, anyway?
The white panel truck had just pulled between the angled-open gates when Frank had glimpsed the man's face. Instantly Frank had flashed on what most likely happened. A patient had climbed into one of the laundry carts the driver loaded up and somehow managed to get into the truck without being detected.
Just as the truck had been leaving the grounds, the patient had sat up and peeked through the window. Right at Frank.
Frank had wanted to do the right thing, of course, but just as he'd seen the guy, Heather had gone into her sly story about the cute new guy at the insurance office where she worked. This was obviously the guy Heather planned to start dating anytime now. If she wasn't already.
So there you had it. Frank should have hung up right away and called Andy Todd pronto.
But he'd been so pissed at Heather, so intent on finding out this cute guy's name that—
So now he sat in the guardhouse sipping decaf and listening to tales of alien abductions.
If only he could be so lucky to have an alien ship swoop down and pick him up and take him somewhere out among the stars. No more worries about Heather or cute new guys at the office. Or the kind of mistake he'd made by not calling Andy Todd at once.
The time was 9:31 P.M.
Andy Todd had guards on the respective floors walk him around. They searched everything, including toilet stalls, closets, stairwells, and nursing offices. Nothing.
It was at this point that Ames, one of the guards whom Todd had taken into his confidence, said the unthinkable. "You checked the floor below, right, Andy?"
"And the floor above?"
"Where the hell could he be?"
They were having Diet Pepsis in the staff lounge. Andy was also gnawing on a Clark bar from one of the lounge's seven vending machines.
"He couldn't have gotten out of this building," Andy Todd said. "It's locked up tight. That leaves me no place else to look." He frowned. "That leaves me picking up the phone and calling Bellamy and telling him Dobyns is missing."
"Uh-uh? If Dobyns isn't on the first floor and isn't on the second and isn't on the third, then just where the hell could he be?"
"The tower?" Andy Todd looked at the other man as if he'd just suggested that George Bush owned a complete collection of Liberace records. "The tower? Nobody goes into the tower. Not you; not me. Hell, I've never even seen Bellamy himself go into the tower."
"It's a thought. It's the only likely place left."
The tower. Jesus God. Hastings had been built in Victorian times, when the architecture ran to sprawling estate houses with turrets and spires and widow's walks. Off the east end of the building rose a four-story tower that, so far as Andy Todd knew, had been shut down. The windows were boarded up, the elevator that led to it had long ago been closed, and the door to the interior stairs was bolted closed and padlocked with a Yale the size of a catcher's mitt. Among the staff there was, of course, great speculation about what had once been in the tower—there was even the kind of urban campfire talk that passed for ghost stories, tales of lights shining in the windows and horrifying screams being heard on the wind.
"No way he's in the tower," Andy Todd said, polishing off his Clark bar.
"Then where the hell is he?" Ames said.
"By now he could be back in his room. Lemme check."
Just as Todd got up to grab the receiver from the wall phone, the thing surprised him by ringing. "Todd here."
"Andy, this is Frank at the front gate."
"Right, Frank. I know where you are. I assigned you there, remember?" Dvorak had an irritating way of belaboring the obvious and with one of Bellamy's prize fruitcakes strolling around somewhere, Andy Todd was in no mood. "So what can I do for you?"
"Wondered if we could talk a little."
Todd sighed. "You still want May off for vacation?"
"This time it ain't about vacation."
"I'm real busy, Frank. Could it wait till tomorrow?"
There was a pained pause. "One of the patients got free, didn't he, Andy?"
"How'd you know about that?"
Another pained pause. "Something kind of happened earlier tonight, Andy."
"Oh, yeah?" Andy Todd was preparing himself to get violently, explosively angry, high blood pressure or no high blood pressure. "Like what?"
"Well, maybe I saw something."
"Yeah, Andy. I can tell you're gettin' pissed. I can feel it over the phone." Right now Frank Dvorak sounded as if he were about six years old.
"You screwed up, didn't you, Frank?"
"I'm real sorry, Andy. I was arguin' with Heather and—"
"What happened, Frank? About this face you mentioned?"
Pause. "I know you're gonna get even more pissed off when I tell you, Andy. I mean, I know how you are."
Andy had to hold in the rage or Dvorak would take all night getting it out. "Tell me, Frank. Tell me fast. That way maybe I won't get so pissed."
"I saw somebody in the back of the laundry truck. You know what I'm saying, Andy? Like the patient hid in the laundry cart and stowed away inside the truck and rode right out to freedom. You know?"
"The laundry truck left here about six o'clock."
"Yeah, 'bout six."
"You waited three hours to call me?"
"I'm afraid I did, Andy."
Andy Todd then gave himself permission to slip into warp drive. He called Frank Dvorak so many names so fast and so loud that neither man could be sure of what was being shouted. All both of them knew was that it was awful, awful stuff. And Andy knew it was not exactly what the doctor had in mind when he said Andy should take things easier and not get so excited.
Andy Todd hung up by slamming the receiver back onto the cradle three or four times and so hard the whole phone started to tear from the wall.
"He got out in the fucking laundry truck," Todd said to Ames who was sitting there watching the show his boss was putting on. "The fucking goddamn laundry truck."
The time was 9:46 P.M.