On the day of his release from a mental institution Pace is taken "hostage" by Faust, Pia, and Hayden, three escapees from the hospital who disappeared after the presumed rape and beating of Cassandra Kaltzas, daughter of the Greek munitions tycoon Alexandra Kaltzas.
Each suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder, experiencing complex delusions and sometimes fantastical identities. Pace tries to piece together what happened when apparently one of their alternate personalities tried to kill Cassandra.
Pace himself is an alternate of William Pacella, a man whose wife died in a restaurant fire set by a local mobster for insurance money. William Pacella "dies" so that Nightjack can be born–a new personality who may or may not be Jack the Ripper.
For unknown reasons, Pace is able to see others' delusions–when alternates take over members of the group, Pace alone is able to interact with each persona. Included among them is Princess Eirrin, a ten thousand year old sorceress and heir to the Atlantean throne; Smoker, a half-breed gunman from 1880s Arizona; Thaddeus, friend and companion to St. Paul; and the ancient Greek architect Daedalus, who soared among the clouds with his home-made wax wings and watched his son perish in the sea.
Now the four find themselves under attack from assassins sent by Kaltzas to punish the person who attacked his daughter. Conflicting stories abound about Cassandra–whether she was raped, if she was perhaps murdered, or if she and Pace somehow crossed paths even before the hospital. In fact, she may not even exist.
As the attacks persist, the group is forced to face their own personal traumas and terrors, and go in search of Kaltzas in Greece. There, on an island where fantasy, myth, and truth are all entangled, Pace and his many alternates must sift through madness and deceit to unlock the mystery. And everyone may wind up dead unless Pace willingly unleashes the most brutal killer of all: Nightjack.
A poet of the macabre, a true giant of noir, and a hell of a guy. You've experienced nothing like Nightjack. It's every bit as gorgeous inside as it is out, and that makes it all the more powerful. You'll have nightmares. Only the very best books can get under your skin like that. – Steven Savile
For A Choir of Ill Children: "A gothic noir that mates Flannery O'Connor with Stephen King."– San Francisco Chronicle
"Perfect crime fiction . . . a convincing world, a cast of compelling characters, and above all a great story."– Lee Child, New York Times bestselling author of 61 Hours
"For the first time since The Godfather, a family of criminals has stolen my heart. This is a brilliant mix of love and violence, charm and corruption. I loved it."– Nancy Pickard, bestselling author of The Scent of Rain and Lightning
"You don't choose your family. And the Rand clan, a family of thieves, is bad to the bone. But it's a testimony to Tom Piccirilli's stellar writing that you still care about each and every one of them. The Last Kind Words is at once a dark and brooding page-turner and a heartfelt tale about the ties that bind."– Lisa Unger, New York Times bestselling author of Darkness, My Old Friend
"Piccirilli straddles genres with the boldness of the best writers today, blending suspense and crime fiction into tight, brutal masterpieces."– James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of The Devil Colony
"A stunning story that ranges far afield at times but never truly leaves home, a place where shadows grow in every corner . . . superbly told, with prose that doesn't mess about or flinch from evil."– Daniel Woodrell, PEN USA award-winning author of Winter's Bone
"There's more life in The Last Kind Words (and more heartache, action, and deliverance) than in any other novel I've read in the past couple of years."– Steve Hamilton, Edgar Award-winning author of The Lock Artist
Persona Non Grata
Are you cured?
They actually ask you that right before you step back into the world. While you're standing there in the corridor, twenty feet from the front door, holding tightly to your little bag of belongings. You've got a change of clothing, five or six prescriptions, the address and phone number of a halfway house. A few items they let you make in shop, what they called the Work Activities Center. Maybe a birdhouse. A pair of gloves that didn't fit.
Pace had an ashtray and a folded-up pair of pajamas that he'd stitched together himself on an old-fashioned sewing machine. It reminded him of the one William Pacella's grandmother had in her bedroom. She used to make clothes for the whole family, had this big sewing basket with two thousand miles of multi-colored threads and yarn. She'd crochet sweaters for him every year for Christmas. Always in the hairnet, wearing black, she'd say, Non strappi questi, mie mani sono vecchio. Don't rip these, my hands are old. Pacella would hug her and hear the click of her poorly-fitted dentures as she pressed her wrinkled lips to his cheek.
Are you cured?
A final test to see if you're really on your toes. Like you might suddenly drop, fling the pajamas aside, and thump your chest with your fists. Cry out, No, I'm still insane, you've found me out, seen through my thin charade, damn your eyes.
But then again, you could never tell, it had probably happened before.
So they escort you back to your room, unfold your pajamas, put the ashtray back on the nightstand, and get your slippers ready for your feet again. You step into the lounge area and all the other headcases look at you like the prize screw-up you are. Sort of laughing while they say, You botched the question, didn't you. We practiced and rehearsed but you went and told them the truth, that you were still nuts. The hell's the matter with you?
The other wrong answer was when you told them, Yes, I'm fine. Then they knew you were still fucked.
What they really wanted to hear you say was that you were sick and you'd always be sick, and you knew you'd always be sick but that you'd make an effort to stay stable by taking your medication regularly. That you'd attend the outpatient group therapy sessions, keep in touch, and if you had any serious troubles along the way, you'd check yourself right back in for a short-term observation period.
So Pace told them that.
He meant it, too, and thanked them for all they'd done. Humbly grinning at the nurses, the guards, the other staffers of Garden Falls Psychiatric Facility. All of them moving off down the hallways, giving him the stink eye that said, Whatever happens, just don't come back here. We have enough trouble.
All right, so he was almost back on the street. He looked left and right down the corridor once more, feeling a little lost. He was alone now. It was a condition he didn't like and couldn't seem to get used to.
He started for the front door and stopped. He was supposed to wait here for somebody. For a minute he couldn't remember who, and then—as she stepped from her office and came at him—he did. His shrink, the assistant Chief of Staff, Dr. Maureen Brandt, was at his side, moving in sync with him as they walked to the exit, shoulder to shoulder.
Dr. Maureen Brandt. The name didn't exactly slide off the tongue. He'd worked it around in his mouth for almost two years now. She often frowned when he said her name because he usually rested on it an extra second, as if he had to remember it all over again. She'd jot notes on her pad and look up at him without raising her chin, her dark gaze burrowing into his head. It wasn't exactly an unpleasant feeling.
"How are you doing, Will?" she asked.
All the nutjobs on the ward always said fine because they didn't have the wit to say anything else. The candor had been burned out of them with primal scream therapy. Three in the morning and these idiots are practicing their prehistoric shrieks, regressing back to cavemen. Hauling ass down the hallways trying to escape the mastodons and saber-toothed tigers. This was supposed to help them with the issues they had with their parents, the oily uncles who took them into the bathroom. Instead, it just started the whole zoo shrieking.
Pace opened his mouth and the word wasn't his word. The voice wasn't his voice either. It said, almost buoyantly, "Fine."
Dr. Brandt smiled at Pace, the condescension mixed with something else. Fear maybe, or disappointment. Like she missed the man he was before she got her hands on him.
Her face was one of those sculptures that looked too perfect to be real. So beautiful it had a kind of awful magnificence that had enthralled him from the beginning. It didn't have so much to do with her looks as it did with what lurked beneath. A kind of force he connected with even though he couldn't see it and didn't know what it was.
It made him ache. Her prim gait, the angle and curve of her thigh beneath the plaited skirt. The thrust of her breasts under the suit jacket. If her hair was in a bun he'd be living out a porn movie scenario—they hit the music and she pulls the ribbon. The hair comes loose and with a casual flinch the jacket and skirt fall to the floor. Except her hair was never in a bun.
The first time he'd seen her he was just waking up in the hyper-white hospital room, strapped into this funky straitjacket that was tied to stainless steel railings surrounding the bed.
It was supposed to induce calm, revert you to the pre-natal lull of the womb. Give you the feeling that you were weightless, hanging there in mid-air. Like you might wake up unable to move and actually feel good about it. Just turn your chin aside and smile at the three doctors and two burly attendants standing around waiting to pummel the shit out of you if you got out of line.
Dr. Maureen Brandt introducing herself by name while she flicked a fingernail against a syringe, making sure there were no air bubbles. Pace looked down and saw he was completely covered by the straitjacket, even his feet. The only place she could push the plunger was into his neck.
Unless your mother had a significantly fucked-up pregnancy, this was not the pre-natal lull of the womb.
The biggest irony here: He'd voluntarily committed himself.
"Are you sure you're all right, Will?" she asked as they hit the front door. He was back in the present. He had some trouble keeping himself focused on the here and now.
She carried her briefcase with a sort of haughty air, swinging it a little. Five pounds of notes, files, charts, digital video, and transcribed interviews. Two years of his life distilled into the most boring reading anybody would ever have to suffer through. Every third word something you'd have to run to the Psychiatrist's Dictionary to look up. His life, all his many lives, all the many hims, laid out like tacked luna moths.
"Yes," Pace answered. "I'm fine."
It was drizzling. They headed down the cement walkway to the guard station. The guy in the tiny booth perked up when he saw Pace coming. He stood with a hand on his taser, hoping he'd get to yank it and fire some current into an escapee's ass.
Pace wondered if it would affect him, the way he felt. Maybe it would wake him up some.
They entered the booth. Dr. Brandt still had to sign reams of release forms. Every piece of paper saying that Pace was sane, or if he wasn't, she'd take responsibility for it.
Talk about ego.
Smiling like she was thinking, Sure, if this guy goes Ginsu crazy, I'm responsible, you come slap me around for it when someone else winds up dead.
"You want an escort to the train station, Doctor Brandt?" the guard asked.
"That won't be necessary, Ernie."
Thunder murmured. The rain began to pelt down a little harder, in spurts. Ernie glared at Pace because the secret was out. There really was somebody named Ernie who hadn't climbed Kilimanjaro or lived with a banana-head in a basement apartment on Sesame Street.
This was the Ernie you got. The guy glowering like he wanted to beat you to death with a ball-peen hammer. That was all right, it was easy to understand why. Pace's room on the ward was three times bigger than this little booth Ernie practically lived in all year round. Made you wonder who was the lunatic.
While Dr. Brandt went through the paperwork, Ernie pressed a hand to Pace's chest and shoved him out of the booth and into the rain. Pace dropped his bag of belongings at his feet. He heard the ashtray he made in Work Activities break against the cement.
Ernie leaned in close and said, "So, they really messed up this time letting a prick like you go." Then he slapped Pace twice, very hard and fast.
Pace's ears rang. He took another step back and Ernie grabbed him by the collar, pulled him closer, and hissed in his ear, "Listen to this, killer."
"If I ever see you again, I'm going to hurt you so badly you'll never walk again. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Ernie," Pace said.
"Do you?" Ernie slapped him again. "Do you got it good?"
"Right, because there's nothing else I'd like better than to—"
Pace blinked and saw Ernie's eyes roll up into his head and blood begin to rim his nostrils. Ernie's sharply angled features fell in on themselves like wet clay drooping. Pace watched as a hand came up and thumbed two small wads of cloth up Ernie's nose.
Pace cocked his head, puzzled. The hand pressed against Ernie's sternum and kept him propped against the side of the booth.
It took another second before he realized he'd just broken Ernie's nose without actually seeing it happen.
Sometimes you were idle even when you were moving—like falling inside a dream. Sometimes you were in motion when you thought yourself immobile, like now. It got confusing.
Pace stuck his hands in his jacket pockets and felt that the lining had been torn out. That's what he'd crumpled and jammed up Ernie's nose.
Ernie started to slump but the hand came back and braced him again.
Dr. Brandt exited the security booth and said, "Thanks, Ernie," without looking too closely at him. She had her head down against the rain. Pace picked up his bag with his pajamas and broken ashtray and stepped in line beside her as they proceeded down the block in the direction of the train station. Ernie slid down the wall.
She said, "Will, is anything wrong?"
The sound of Ernie hitting the ground and falling over into the mud was muffled by the rising wind. Pace thought, I should be laughing. Why aren't I laughing?
"Okay then. I don't want to push."
"You're not pushing."
"You have parameters. You have your safety zone. If I'm encroaching, simply inform me."
"You're not encroaching on my safety zones," he said. The fuck are safety zones?
Maybe he wasn't laughing because the rain reminded Pace of Jane, William Pacella's murdered wife. He held his palm out and watched it fill up and spill over. Pacella and his wife had spent a lot of time together in the rain, out east on Long Island, down at the south shore sailing and walking on the beach. He caught a glimpse of the wife's face wreathed in flame, her lips melting off. She was trying to say his name, but the flesh ran into her mouth and she had to spit it free.
Another moment passed before Pace noticed he'd stopped and Dr. Brandt had continued walking and was way ahead of him standing at the corner, staring back.
There were always eyes on you, and then they went and wrote on your chart that you were paranoid.
He caught up and said, "Sorry, shoelace was untied."
They continued on and the subtle tension between them grew thicker. Maybe it was sexual in nature. Perhaps he hated her for what she'd done to him, the things he couldn't fully remember. Worse things than the needle in the neck. His mind seemed to be made of flitting images, clips of a history that warned him not to delve too deep. Funny how your head tried to protect you, to keep you outside your own skull.
Three blocks away, the train station loomed through the gray afternoon. It was so close to the hospital because back in the early forties they used to route thousands of shell-shocked vets to Garden Falls from all across the country. There were plaques and photos all over the hospital showing guys fighting in the Pacific Theater, holding up American flags, getting decorated by Eisenhower.
She was going to hit him with a trick question soon.
She carried an umbrella but hadn't opened it yet. What the hell did that tell you about her? What symbol did you take away from it? That she thought she was dirty and needed to wash herself clean? Water is a birth sign—did she want children? He could imagine what the psych books would say. If it was Pace standing there with the folded umbrella in a downpour, you could bet your disability check the doctors would have something to say about it, happy as hell to see such a display. Like spotting the pervert who keeps forgetting to zip his fly.
She kept talking and he answered by nodding and uhm hmming. She explained to him what would be necessary for him to stay healthy. How often he needed to take his pills, how the halfway house would be run. He would have to be in by seven p.m. every night, before dark. He couldn't drink. The job they'd found him was some kind of factory work in a fish cannery.
She talked non-stop the whole way to the station. She kept looking back over her shoulder, checking all around, and he started doing the same thing. Now what was the matter? The streets were empty. Nothing but a couple of colorless motels and closed shops lining the road. Just enough of a burg for the families of the patients to buy the necessities for their ill children, schizophrenic wives, bipolar husbands, over-tranqed parents. You had to wonder about a town whose main source of income was the import of psychotics.
Dr. Brandt made a joke about the factory where he'd can the fish. It wasn't funny. He heard himself responding to her animatedly, and even with some sardonic humor. It struck him as funny and he hacked out a guffaw. A low, flat sound almost evil in its implication. She turned her head and looked at him, and he smiled pleasantly.
The trick question, here it was.
"Will, what's the first thing you're going to do when you get to the halfway house?"
This one you had to be careful with.
You couldn't say get laid, get drunk, get high, take a shit, call some friends from the time before you were sick. You couldn't tell her you wanted to lie in bed and stare at the ceiling until the roof peeled back and you saw a hundred faces peering down at you. You couldn't admit to your rage. You couldn't go chat with the other lunatics and plan the revolution. Couldn't mention Jane, say how he wanted to see her grave, wail and rip out chunks of weeds from around her headstone. Come back and teach Ernie a few manners. Kill anybody in the Ganooch syndicate he'd missed before.
"Tell me what you're going to do."
Her voice had a shrill, anxious quality to it, but he sensed it had nothing to do with him. She was nervous all right, but about what? A flicker of fear filled her eyes and then dispersed. Her smile was rigid and sexless. He got the feeling she was asking questions that didn't matter to her.
He said, "Introduce myself to the administrator of the house, have an early dinner, read the newspaper and catch up on the sports scores"—sports were okay, current events weren't—"and get a good night's sleep before work in the fish cannery tomorrow. I've got to be there nine a.m. sharp."
It was a good answer. You couldn't say you were going to sit on the bed and read the Bible all night, even if you really were. There was too much of a chance that they'd think you might start hearing the voice of God coming out of the paperboy's ass, run around shooting people in their naughty bits.
Again, the flash of disappointment in Dr. Brandt's expression even though he knew he'd given her what she wanted. She nodded sadly, her wet hair flapping around her shoulders.
Christ, if they didn't beat you with the meds then they went and did it with this vague look of shame. He was obviously doing something wrong here, but he couldn't figure out what it was.
"Do you miss teaching?" she asked.
"You remember. We've talked about this. You used to be a high school teacher. You taught twelfth-grade English literature."
"Yes, I know. And no, I don't miss it. Not much."
When they got to the train station, the place was empty. Water puddled around them on the tile floor as she visibly relaxed and even allowed herself a relieved smile.
He grinned back at her feeling very stupid. What the hell, let's stand around and be happy, tomorrow I start canning fish for the rest of my life. The joy can't be contained.
She took his hand and squeezed. He tightened his fingers around hers and thought about how weak he'd become, even if he had broken Ernie's nose and hadn't quite seen it. Once his hands had been strong, he thought. Almost unbelievably so.
Perhaps it was true. These fists weren't entirely his anymore. Maybe they never had been.
Dr. Brandt led him over to the automatic ticket booth and she started punching numbers and feeding bills into the machine. He wondered if he should pay, but he didn't know if he had a wallet or any money on him. He stuck a hand in his pants pocket and pulled free a folded piece of paper.
The note, written in an ornate cursive handwriting, read:
Don't take any more of your medication, no matter what they tell you. Protect Doctor Brandt, she's in danger. They all are. Remember Cassandra and Kaltzas and Pythos. The dead will follow.
Dr. Brandt couldn't get one of the bills to work in the machine. It kept spitting the dollar back out at her. Her fingers trembled. "Oh, damn."
"Uncurl the edges," he said.
Pace shrugged. That was about it so far as his ability to help went. He wasn't sure where they were going, which button she intended to push for the tickets.
Where did they can fish? He'd never seen a fish cannery before.
The things you had to worry about, one second to the next. Didn't they have robot slaves to do that sort of shit yet?
A scraping sound drew his attention to the left.
He turned and, shoving his hair from his eyes, watched as three figures rose from the corners of the waiting area. A girl scuttling out from beneath a distant bench, two men unfolding from behind the ATM across the station. Even muggers would never lower themselves to hide in such spots. Nobody in their right minds would.
He tapped Dr. Brandt on the shoulder and she said, "The edges are uncurled!"
"Don't worry about that now."
"I hate these stupid things."
For a moment the station seemed filled with people. A cacophony of voices and noise erupted around him. Pace bit back a yelp and steadied himself against the side of the ticket machine.
The benches and aisles suddenly overflowed with people and animals. Wings flapped past, brushing his neck. A dog howled forlornly. A woman with blue skin and obsidian eyes began writing flaming runes in the air. A nun was running around with a yardstick screaming, "Don't eat paste!" Kids laughed. An Indian with lengthy braids twirled a pair of six-shooters and aimed here and there, practicing taking the tops of skulls off. There were others Pace couldn't focus on, who moved in and out of his vision, shifting and fluctuating. Blurred colors and activity swept across the station, through his head, and appeared to reach some kind of a peak as he went to one knee, then stopped altogether.
Dr. Brandt couldn't handle wrestling with her dollar bills anymore and started checking the bottom of her purse for coins. "Maybe I have enough change."
"Really, that doesn't matter anymore."
The three figures that had climbed from their hidden corners continued forward, faces unclear as they approached. His eyes were focused, everything else was distinct, except for their faces. They came at him sort of frolicking, what they used to call gamboling when people would do that sort of thing. Silently easing nearer. Features dim and clouded, but their names somehow known to him.
The closer they got, the more obscured their features became. Pace stepped out in front of Dr. Brandt. Change fell to the floor and she said, "Will?"
"I think we should leave."
"The fish cannery is going to have to do without me."
She turned and the three figures slid past him and were on her. Pace thought, This is why she was afraid, she must've been expecting this. He shook his head. But if that were true, then why didn't she let Ernie escort her? Why didn't she just give me a train ticket to the halfway house and drop me off at the curb?
Dr. Brandt let out a shout—a strangely feminine sound that was part annoyance, part indignation. He threw a wild punch and missed all three of the intruders, no easy achievement considering how close they were to him. Somebody took one of his wrists and somebody else took the other.
"My God," Pia said. "He's so slow."
"He's not going to be any good to us in this state," Faust said. "Our father who art inhibited."
"He can hear you just fine though," Pace told them.
Hayden twisted Pace's arm. "There was a time when nobody could put a hand on you, if you didn't want it there."
"When was that?" Pace asked, genuinely curious.
"You were stupid to let them do this to you."
"I think I might have to agree."
He looked at where the guy's nose would probably be, waiting for his hands to snap out and break it, but they didn't. He expected Dr. Brandt to scream or start speaking in that cold, indifferent way, but she didn't. He couldn't figure out what was going on and kept hoping something else would happen that he wouldn't be responsible for. Something that might reveal a truer nature.
Faust almost came into view for a moment before fading again. The faceless figure approached, inch by inch. Without features it managed to peer into Pace's eyes and say, "Ah, our father who art indifferent. I think they may have cured him."