The Seeker (Chapter 2)

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Chapter 2

The Seeker

The night was warm. A waning moon was shredding some light over the small park that surrounded the asylum. There was a continuous noise, a mix between the crickets' chant and the sound of the trees' branches waving in the light wind.

Dave had been standing, leaning against the front of his Focus, for almost forty minutes. He had already smoked five cigarettes. He was not a smoker, or rather he had given up smoking about two years ago; but he was nervous, as he had never been before. He was starting to question his choice of the institution. In the last half hour he had seen only one car speeding on the road that coasted the park; it was probably one of those guys who want to enjoy a nice sprint with their sporty car, well aware of the fact that the police rarely patrolled that straight. The story talked about "any" asylum. There was no reason to pick this one. They lied when they called it "Bellevue". He was now seriously wondering why he didn't pick some asylum in the middle of a busy downtown.

He lit another cigarette and promised to himself it was the last one.

"I'll go in when it finishes. I should savour it," he thought. He hadn't paid any attention to the previous ones. He just breathed them in, without even noticing that he was actually throwing semi-lit cigarette butts in a grass lawn. To think he was the one responsible for his company's safety measures! Luckily the dew had covered the grass in a copious layer of droplets, which choked the butts before they could ignite.

Dave was going over his entrée once again, as he smoked. He had the whole scene completely figured in his head, even though he knew that it wouldn't be as he anticipated it, which would screw up his plans. Nothing ever goes as you expect it. But he was too nervous to improvise...

The cigarette was almost over. As he prepared to take the last breathe of it, he repeated to himself his journalist's identity: Mike O'Connor, Washington Post. It doesn't get much simpler. He repeated to himself that there was nothing that could be screwed up. He read the story one last time, trying to visualize the various parts, the voice in an unknown language, the question to ask, the horrific answer to it, and don't ever look at the object in his hands. And then, of course, the chance that the echoing voice in the unknown language stops. The words to say. The run away, just in case...

He tried to recover, and prepare for the undertaking. He was about to drop the cigarette as he did before, when he noticed the butts in the grass.

"Wow, what've I done. I didn't even notice," he thought, as he threw the butt between his fingers into the concrete path. "This must be my lucky day."

He walked down the path towards the front door. He was trying to repeat his debut phrase to himself, but all he could hear inside his head was "I hope it is".

The Bellevue Mental Institution was a small Eighteenth Century two-story palace, with a front section and two parallel wings at the opposite ends of the main building, which gave it an H-shaped plant. Dave pushed the doorbell button, and the front door's lock zapped open.

As he entered the room, he was pleased to enter in a well lit environment. The hall was bathed in a white light, just strong enough to give you a detailed vision, but not so much that it would hurt your eyes. The overall feeling was one of calm and serenity. It was probably this way to soothe the patients' troubled minds. In fact, there were almost no signs nor pictures on the walls, and only a couple of grey benches were breaking the plain simplicity of the corridors that extended on both sides of the hall. In front of the door, a large staircase with marble steps surrounded a modern counter, with four windows in it. On top of the windows, a large sign read "Reception". Dave crossed the hall with calm steps, and headed for the only open window.

A white dressed young woman was waiting for him behind the glass. She put aside a sheet she was writing on and smiled at Dave.

-- Good evening, sir. May I help you?

-- Yes. Yes, you can. -- Dave's voice showed a bit of nervousism. He breathed in, and tried to make it look natural. -- My name is Jack O'Connor, and I work for the Washington Post. I'm here for a reportage.

Dave cursed himself for saying his alias wrong. He had gone over it since he left home, and now he said another name. What was it? John, maybe? It was J... J something. John, Jack, Josh, J... The voice of the young woman snapped him out of his reflection, but he hadn't listened to her. He tried to conceal his embarassment as he begged her pardon and asked her to repeat.

-- I said, "a reportage about what?" All of our records are regularly submitted to the State Healthcare System, so I'm sure you can get all the stats you need from them.

The voice of the clerk was kind, delicate, and she smiled after saying that sentence, but Dave felt like his facade was starting to wear.

-- I'm sure you do, miss! But I'm not here for that kind of reportage. I'm here to give the readers a more in-depth view of the mental institutions. I'd like to provide them with a new point of view on the patients you take care of and their status. And I'm also here for something more... spicy, may I say. Something that I'm sure will get the attention of our readers.

Dave paused as he got closer to the glass. He hated to improvise, unless there was nothing at stake. But he had to recover, and he thought he had succeeded: the woman's look showed a good share of curiosity for the work of this reporter. After a few moments she timidly said under her breath:

-- May I ask you... what is it?

Dave leaned even closer, as to whisper into her ear, as if he was to share some secret.

-- You see, I'd really love to meet one of your patients. I've heard a lot about him. He calls himself... the Holder of the End, if I'm not wrong.

As the woman heard those words, her face changed immediately. The seduced look left her eyes, and a disilluded expression replaced it. The clerk, who had almost held her breath as Dave had been speaking, let her shoulders fall down, in a motion that showed she had identified another crazy guy.

-- Please wait for a minute, sir, -- she said as she smiled to Dave. -- I'll let the director handle this himself.

-- Wait, please, -- Dave rushed to block her before she left. He knew that the story specified that the worker at the front desk was to accompany him to the Holder's cell.

-- I'm sorry, sir. It is the director himself who deals with this kind of requests. He'll be here in a minute.

The woman was still smiling, though Dave could tell it was not the same kind smile she gave him at the beginning. He couldn't but accept.

Dave found himself alone in the white hall. He listened hard to catch any noise, but the only thing he could hear was the attenuated chant of the crickets and the branches waving in the soft wind outside. The atmosphere in the hall was as neutral as possible -- there was no vivid colour, no sound, and the whole environment was made as insignificant as possible. Even the temperature in the room was set so that you felt neither hot nor cold. Everything was studied to give as little input as possible. It was probably to prevent the patients from getting mad at anything, which could be very dangerous at times. But the absence of anything made Dave nervous. His waiting seemed to him much longer than it was. He would have really appreciated a painting to look at, or a sign to read, or some music to listen to. Even that boring, repetitive music they play in supermarkets would have done the job. Anything to distract him from thinking of what the director would do when they met.

After a while, the young woman and the director entered the room together. Dave was relieved in seeing that the director was alone, which meant he wasn't intentioned to drag him into a room for treatment. The director was wearing a white gown, and had a few keys that ringed in his pocket as he walked. When Dave saw them, he approached them slowly. He protunded his hand, and the director shaked hands with him.

-- Nice to meet you, mister... O'Connor. I have a brother who is a long-time reader of the Post. I myself have too little time for non-medical readings these days.

-- Then I guess that's why I don't get a raise. If only medical pros could relax a bit with our news... -- Dave smiled as he said this. He tried to avoid laughing.

-- I'm sure that must be it, -- the director replied with a smile. Then he dismissed the woman, who left the room in the direction they came from.

The director nodded at a couple of armchairs, and invited Dave to sit there with him. As soon as they were seated, the doctor started to talk quietly:

-- I've heard you have a special interest in a patient of mine.

Dave gulped.

-- Then you confirm that man is in your institution?

-- Don't make fun of me, mister O'Connor. You knew you'd find him, otherwise you wouldn't be here now.

Dave gulped again. He was trying to appear as calm as possible, while giving at the same time the important look of the fearless reporter. He recognized this was what Justin had done the day before, and he had to admit to himself that that strategy was the one that had put him into this situation.

-- Let me tell you that I have no idea of who those people are, -- the doctor went on. -- Neither I intend to find out. They were here when I was hired, and I want to keep my soul as distant from them as possible.

"Why is he using the plural? Won't he mean that..."

-- I'm actually not sure where they are exactly, if I have to be completely honest, -- the director stated. -- I guess we'll have to find out now. If you still wish to.

Dave decided he'd ask. After all he was being a genuinely curious reporter.

-- What do you mean, "they"?

-- Nevermind. I have to ask you two questions. Who have you come for, and are you still intentioned to meet him?

-- I've come for the one who calls himself "the Holder of the End". And as to your second question... -- Dave hesitated for a second, then continued. -- Yes, I want to meet him.

The director smiled and nodded his head. He then stood up and took the keys out of his pocket; he picked one of them. It was completely black, without any hole in it, as if it wasn't supposed to be put in a key ring. He put the other keys back in his pocket and invited Dave to follow him. The director opened a completely white door, that melted in the white wall so well that Dave hadn't even noticed it before.

As they went down a ladder, Dave was trying to sort the confusion in his mind. The director didn't seem shivering with a "child-like fear", and the story didn't tell anything about the conversation he just had. Who were "they"? Was he referring to the 538? Did that mean that they were all in the same place? "That" place? Well, the story hinted at "any" institution. It was also possible that it could mean "always the same". Or maybe the 538 were not really...

His reasoning had to stop suddendly. A voice was starting to be heard. It was just a humming chant of sort, a monotonous sequence of incomprehensible words. Dave felt a sudden shiver penetrating into the middle of his bones. He tried to look around for a distraction, and he noticed the ambience was not the neutral one he saw in the hall. His mental wanderings made him lose track of the rooms they had went through; he didn't recall a level floor though, all he could remember was going down the staircase they were in now. It had been a while since they left the white hall, but he couldn't put the finger on how long it had been. The walls were now black, with wooden pillars running vertically and offering the only diversity in an otherwise empty room. At roughly two meters from the stairsteps there were some wooden decorations, the sort of frieze that you often see in an Eighteenth Century building.

Dave was trying to be as rational as possible. The staircase looked old, though pretty solid. The steps were intact, and there were webs under the steps, but the upper side of them, the one you walk on, was free from dust and any dirt. It was both as though the staircase had been unused for decades and yet as though it was walked on frequently. But the director said that he had never gone to a Holder's cell since he had been at this place...

Was the director to be trusted? How could he be so calm if it was the first time he was doing this? But, on a second thought, the story didn't talk about any danger for the asylum worker. Maybe there was some kind of magical seal that prevented the worker from being harmed.

The staircase ended in a small room, with a single door. The director reached the door and put the key in the lock, but didn't turn it. Instead, he waited for Dave to come next to him.

-- There is no turning back from here on. Are you aware of that?

Dave took a moment for himself before replying. He tried to look up, above his head, to see how deep underground he was. He couldn't understand it: there was a feeble light coming from a couple of rounds above the floor they were on, as if it came from the white hall, but it was evident that there were more than two rounds of stairs. He was pretty sure he had walked down at least four levels, but above the line of light there was only darkness.

-- I am aware. Turn that key, -- Dave said with the strongest voice he could make.

-- You know, I've never been in front of a Holder. But I've read the notes I've been given. One thing I know about the Holders, they can read into the depths of your soul. They will abide to all the rules that have been set, but they demand this of who goes in front of them, too. They can't stand lies.

-- I understand, -- said Dave.

-- Before entering, tell me your name. The REAL one, "reporter".

Dave was shocked to hear that, but he couldn't say a word. Maybe he was just bluffing. But why would he? He had no interest in that. Now that he thought about it, Dave remembered that the director hadn't introduced himself. Well, the fake identity was only a way to protect himself from being committed... and now that was beyond the field of possible.

-- I am Dave. Dave Sebring.

The director smiled.

-- Sebring? Like the racing circuit, Sebring?

-- Yeah. That's what people say every time.

-- Well... at least... should you run...

-- Stop it. And turn that key.

-- Okay, okay. Now beware, we're going in. Do you remember what to say?

-- I'm ready. Turn that key.

-- It's open already.

The director pushed the door, which opened lightly. The monotonous chant got louder; Dave felt the shivers again. As the director was moving towards the threshold, Dave remembered his curiosity about the director's name. The director noticed Dave was going to speak; he turned to him and only said:

-- From now on, there has to be silence. Speak only when requested, and only the words you've been taught. This is no joke. We're going in, Seeker.

Dave nodded. The director invited him to lead; he went on to the threshold. As the shivers got colder, he took a last breath, and finally stepped in.

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