by John M. Floyd
This story was originally published in Mouth Full of Bullets in Winter 2007. It has a bit of a creepy feel perfect for the Halloween season.
“No answer,” the guard said, one hand over the phone’s mouthpiece. “He’s not in his office.”
One of the students, Nancy Hines, nodded. “We’re a little early—”
“May I help you, ladies?” a voice said. They turned to see a blond man in a white lab coat approaching. The lettering stitched to his pocket said DR. G. ROBERTS.
“We’re nursing students, visiting from the university,” Nancy said. “Our instructor arranged—”
“Of course. Come on, I’ll show you around. I’m Gerald Roberts.” He nodded to the guard and led them down a corridor.
Their footsteps echoed off the bare walls.
“As you probably know,” he said as they walked, “we’re a state-operated mental health facility. We house approximately eighty patients, here.”
A tall student named Ellen Varner asked, “Why the security?”
Dr. Roberts gave her a sad smile. “Not all our patients are stable. One, a man named Ernest Leach, is actually rather dangerous.” They turned a corner into another hallway. “But all patients are given free access, within the confines of the building. Even Mr. Leach.”
“But if he’s dangerous…”
“Well, he’s no threat to the staff or patients. They’re like family to him. He’s a potential danger only to
visitors.” Roberts paused as if to let that sink in. “So the guard’s purpose is twofold: to control access in or out, and to protect people like you from people like Ernest Leach.” Another smile. “I don’t mean to alarm you. Only to caution you.”
“What has this Mr. Leach done?” Ellen said.
For the next ten minutes Dr. Roberts escorted them through the facility. Nancy Hines took detailed notes. The other four students, to Nancy’s annoyance, couldn’t seem to take their eyes off the doctor. Not that she could blame them; besides his looks and his title, the man exuded confidence like an aroma.
When they passed a restroom sign, all the ladies except Ellen Varner excused themselves to powder their noses. Ellen remained in the hallway with Dr. Roberts.
When they reconvened, Nancy leaned close to Ellen’s ear.
“What’s the deal?” Nancy whispered. “In the car your bladder’s the size of a golf ball. Here, you don’t need to go?”
Ellen grinned. “He isn’t wearing a wedding ring.”
“So I dazzled him with my charm.”
Nancy blinked. “Don’t tell me you got a date with him.”
“No—but he’s going to let me meet this Ernest Leach guy.”
Nancy stopped in her tracks. “What?”
“Tonight, around six. The doc wants to avoid him while the whole group’s here. He says Leach is too unpredictable.”
“After the rest of you are gone, he and I’ll talk to the patient. I’ll catch a cab home.”
Nancy gaped at her. “But Leach is dangerous, Varner. What did Roberts call him—an axe-murderer?”
Ellen turned to check on the rest of the group, which had gone on ahead. “Take it easy. Gerald will…”
“Dr. Roberts,” she said, “will be with me the whole time. A controlled interview.”
Nancy was still doubtful.
“It’s a great case,” Ellen said. She leaned forward and lowered her voice. “He told me Leach went berserk and killed five people—”
“—with an axe one night. They were all thugs and dopeheads, so it was kept fairly quiet, but he was later convicted. And listen to this: When the verdict was announced, Leach pulled out a hatchet he’d smuggled into the courtroom and chopped off his lawyer’s toes.”
Ellen nodded. “He swung and missed and whacked off three of the lawyer’s toes. Then Leach chased him out into the street, bleeding and screaming, until the cops tackled Leach and wrestled the hatchet away. The poor lawyer flipped out, never tried another case.” She stopped to take a breath, eyes sparkling. “After an appeal Leach was declared insane. He’s responded well here, Roberts said, except he sometimes insists he’d like to claim one more victim. Make it an even half-dozen.”
Nancy swallowed. “My God, Ellen.”
“All Leach does now, Roberts told me, is wander around and visit the other patients.” Ellen looked down the hall.
The blond doctor and students were waiting for them at the end of the corridor. As Nancy and Ellen scurried to catch up, Nancy happened to glance through an open doorway. A dark-haired man in jeans and sneakers was sitting there, at someone’s bedside. Nancy paused, then saw the man scowl at her.
She moved away fast as he rose and came to the door. “Young lady?” he said to her back.
Nancy turned again, her cheeks hot with embarrassment.
The dark man’s eyes were black and piercing. They made her skin crawl.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. He looked past her at Ellen and the other students, including them in the question. Apparently he hadn’t yet noticed the doctor, who was standing beyond the group.
But the doctor noticed him. Roberts hurried forward, a look of open concern on his face.
Nancy began to back away from the dark man.
And then he saw Dr. Roberts. “Well, well. What have we here?”
They all froze. Roberts didn’t reply.
Without looking away, the dark-haired man reached a hand out to the corridor wall and pressed a button.
Still the doctor said nothing. Nancy, her nerves on edge, blurted, “We’re students. We’re just visiting.”
The dark man shifted his gaze to her. Understanding dawned; his face softened.
“Ah. The student nurses.” He checked his watch. “You arrived early, I see.” To the doctor he said, “And you—I believe you have something that belongs to me?”
Dr. Roberts slowly took off the white coat and handed it to the dark man. Moments later two orderlies as big as linebackers emerged from a stairway. Each took hold of one of the blond doctor’s arms. Glaring, he allowed himself to be led away.
The five students stared after him, stunned. Then all of them turned to look at the dark-haired man, who was pulling the coat on and adjusting his cuffs.
“What’s going on?” Nancy asked, in a small voice.
He sighed. “Security lapse. Probably the new guard at the front desk—he hasn’t met all the patients yet. And two of my staff are at a conference.”
“Your staff? But who—”
Then the answer hit her, and she sucked in some air. Beside her, Ellen’s mouth fell open.
“My God,” Nancy whispered, nodding at the three retreating figures. “That man’s Ernest Leach, isn’t he.”
The real Dr. Roberts frowned. “Excuse me?”
“Well, isn’t he?”
“No. But sometimes he thinks he is.” Roberts shook his head sadly. “That’s a concern, actually. If he were ever alone with someone, an outsider…”
Nancy just stared. “I’m confused. If he isn’t Leach—”
“You have to understand,” Roberts said, “that Ernest Leach isn’t crazy. He’s just mean. That’s why he’s in prison, over in Petersburg.”
“But . . .” Nancy looked down the hall again. “Who—”
“That’s Morris Baker,” Roberts said. “Leach’s seven-toed lawyer.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode went up this week!