“Dr. Kelly.” The intercom on the corner of the desk
squawked. “Your ten o’clock is here.”
Robert Kelly closed the photo album and laid a hand softly on its closed cover. It contained proof of a happy family. A happy life. A happy man who no longer existed. Stephen Carter’s life was contained within those pages, but his was a past life, a used-to-be.
Stephen Carter had been dead more than five years and from the tragedy rose Dr. Robert Kelly. Stephen Carter was a man the Chicago Mob would love to find and Dr. Kelly knew his death had only delayed that inevitability. Witness protection saved your life and stole it from you at the same time. The Feds, every bit as menacing as the gangsters who hunted him, had advised against starting up a practice again, but psychiatry was all he knew. So he’d ignored the warnings and opened a small office in his home, seeing only a few patients. He’d kept his head down for more than five years and slowly began to feel safe. With a sigh, scratched his bald head, opened the bottom desk drawer and slipped his former life under some file folders. Was the mob even still actively looking for him? He had his doubts.
Still, he liked knowing his panic room lay just behind the bookcase. A small button hidden behind his copy of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ slid the entire shelf unit aside for 8 seconds, enough time to enter, and then slid shut again, locking out the world. The button deactivated itself after being pressed and the room could only be opened again from the inside. Once sequestered, a closed-circuit television showed the outer office and he could sit tight until help arrived.
Opening the folder on his desk, he glanced briefly at the next patient’s file, a disturbed young man who believed that he would spontaneously combust at any moment. Dr. Kelly had prescribed a placebo, sugar pills mixed with a bit of camphor to give them a slight medicinal taste, to hold the flames at bay until they could work through the delusion. Cases like these were why he couldn’t leave psychiatry. At the core of every delusion is the desire to be normal.
Pressing the intercom he said, “Send him In, Cheryl.”
A moment later the door opened and Daniel walked in. The young man had dark circles under his eyes and a three-day growth of beard clinging to his face. He carried a tattered backpack and his clothes were dirty and wrinkled. As he crossed the room, Dr. Kelly detected the odor of stale sweat.
When the young man had taken a seat, not on the traditional couch, but in a comfortable leather recliner, he set the backpack on the floor.
Dr. Kelly leaned forward and clicked on the recorder. “Hello, Daniel.”
“Hey, Doc.” Daniel offered a weak smile, which broke into a huge yawn.
“Trouble sleeping lately?”
Daniel nodded and glanced at his watch. “I almost burned.”
“I worked a double shift at the warehouse and was really dragging ass by the time I got home.” He rubbed his arms briskly, like a junkie anticipating his next high. “I forgot to set my alarm!”
“I see,” Dr. Kelly said. He’d prescribed a sugar pill every four hours. “And you went without?”
“I woke up dripping with sweat. The blankets were smoldering and my feet were hot. It had been six hours!” His voice rose with a quaver and he glanced down at his pack. “I swallowed a pill, ran into the shower and stood under the cold water for an hour.” He looked up. “I’ve been afraid to go to sleep since.”
“Is that the first dose you missed since we started treatment?”
Daniel nodded. “I keep the pills with me constantly. There’s a bottle near the bed, one in the kitchen, and one in my backpack.” He rubbed his arm harder.
“And when are you due for another?”
A quick glance at his watch. “Twenty minutes.”
Dr. Kelly held out a hand. “Give me the pills, Daniel.”
The young man recoiled as if Kelly had slapped him. “I...I don’t understand.”
“You’re focused on them too much. We’ll set them on the desk here near the clock. You watch the time and take one in twenty minutes. But until then, we are going to focus on other things. Deal?”
Moving slowly, like a man being forced at gunpoint, Daniel reached down and withdrew the prescription bottle from the backpack. He clutched it in a fist for a moment before holding them out to Dr. Kelly who took the pills, set them on the corner of the desk and then turned the digital clock around to face Daniel. “There. Alright?”
With wide eyes, Daniel gave a curt nod of the head.
Dr. Kelly stood and came around to the front of the desk and sat on one corner. “Now...”
From the front office Cheryl let out a loud, piercing scream. There was terror behind it as it grew in pitch and intensity for a few seconds before gunfire erupted in a burst and cut the scream off. Angry male voices rose in the silence, muffled by the closed door of the office.
Dr. Kelly lunged for the bookcase and slammed the Bradbury book back into the hidden button. The bookcase slid aside silently and he leapt at Daniel, pulling him from the chair with so much force that the young man’s sleeve nearly tore off in his hand.
“What?” Daniel sputtered.
Dr. Kelly shoved him toward the opening in the wall. “No time. Get in there or we’re both dead!” He threw Daniel into the panic room as the door began to close and had just enough time to slip in sideways as the steel-enforced door closed them off from the gunmen.
On the other side of the room, the lock on the office door exploded in a shotgun blast.
And then the panic room sealed them in total darkness.
Seven locks, both mechanical and electronic, engaged in a series of clicks and beeps, triggering the battery-powered emergency lighting. Soft fluorescence filled the room even as the dull thud of bullets hit the other side of the door. There were muffled shouts and the unmistakable sound of furniture being destroyed. The television showed two heavily armed men firing madly at the bookcase.
Dr. Kelly looked at his watch. They had six hours.
When the room was activated, a silent beacon transmitted out across a wireless network and notified the local police. Sergeant Cooper received the emergency signal and picked up the phone to call the FBI. After a brief but heated conversation, Cooper dispatched several officers to the residence of one Robert Kelly. Less than a minute later, another report came in for the same address.
Dr. Kelly turned away from the sounds of destruction coming from his office and looked at Daniel who sat curled in a ball in the far corner of the sparse room. He rocked slightly and mumbled to himself. “It’ll be alright,” Dr. Kelly said. “They can’t get in. The police have been notified and will be here in no time.” He walked over to the young man and squatted down. “We’ll just sit tight until the cavalry shows up.” He offered a nervous smile. “I suppose I owe you a bit of an explanation.”
Daniel whispered something.
Dr. Kelly leaned against the wall near the young man. He stared at the door listening to the raging behind it. A barrage of gunfire punched the other side and the gunmen screamed something unintelligible. “They killed my wife and kids,” he said, his voice far off in memory. “They loaded a semi with explosives and drove it into the parking garage of her office building.” He swiped at his eyes. “It was take-your-kids-to-work day but my wife had to be there early for a meeting, so I dropped the kids off a little later.” A sob escaped him. “Jesus, I drove my own kids to their death.”
An angry shout from the gunmen and the screen showed them trashing the office, sending the bookcase crashing to the ground.
“The explosion tore off three floors on her side of the building.” He looked at Daniel without truly seeing him. “I saw the truck. They pulled in as I was saying goodbye to my children. I remember thinking it was too tall for the underground parking, and they barely cleared the ceiling. They parked near the elevators.” From the other side of the door there was silence, but the men were still there. “I watched my kids get in those elevators, and while the doors closed, the drivers of the truck got out and climbed into a black Lincoln Town Car with the plates covered with rags.” He shook his head. “Why do those cars always have to be black? They just got into that car and drove away. I was behind them on the way out of the structure and the rag fell off the license plate. RAMSEY1. I’ll never forget it. The bomb went off three hours later. I told the Feds what I saw and helped take down a major crime family. Yay for me,” he said dryly. “Now they’ve found me.” He turned to Daniel, whose face was white with fear. “I’m sorry you got caught up in this.”
Daniel looked up at him. Sweat poured from his forehead and tears streaked down his cheeks. “My pills.” He wheezed and looked frantically at the door.
Realization struck Dr Kelly. The young man hadn’t heard a word of his story. He’d been focused on those damn sugar pills. How long had it been? How long since he’d taken the boy’s pills away and set them on the desk like a carrot before the horse. He looked at his watch. Nearly 30 minutes had passed. He locked eyes with Daniel.
Daniel only nodded slowly, rocking himself in the corner. “My pills,” he said again.
On the screen, the men brought in a struggling Cheryl. She was bleeding from her shoulder. One of the men held a gun to her head, screaming something. Cheryl sobbed soundlessly, shaking her head.
“Oh dear God” Dr. Kelly whispered.
“I’m burning!” Daniel screamed.
“No,” Dr. Kelly whirled on him. “You made it six hours before, Daniel. You can hold on until help arrives.” He turned back to the screen. The man with the gun hit Cheryl across the nose and she dropped. He stood over her for a moment longer and then shot her in the head.
Dr. Kelly dropped to his knees.
Feeling as if he’d been punched in the stomach, Dr. Kelly knew he had to try and help this young man. “Stand up, Daniel,” he said softly.
Forcing himself up the wall, Daniel stood slumped over and hugged himself tight. “I missed my dose.”
Sweat broke out on Dr. Kelly’s forehead. Was it warmer in here? The panic room was temperature controlled, but he swore the room was hotter. “Daniel, those pills, they’re sugar pills. They don’t control anything but your sweet tooth. Do you know what a placebo is? The power of the mind is a wondrous thing. You do not have this affliction; you only believed you would burn. Don’t you see? It was all in your mind. You created your illness.”
“Placebo?” Daniel asked, confused.
Daniel looked up, a coldness had enveloped his features. “Then why are you sweating?”
“Daniel.” Dr Kelly grabbed his patient by the wrists. They were as hot as the coals in a campfire. He looked down at them in disbelief and saw a soft tendril of smoke rising between them. In the distance he thought he heard sirens approaching. As they stood there facing each other, the air between them jumped ten degrees and Dr. Kelly stumbled backward.
Daniel’s head snapped up and his arms shot straight out. His breathing became erratic and intermixed with sobs. The hair on his head and arms stood on end and began to smolder. His whole body trembled in the grips of an uncontrollable seizure. His pupils dilated and turned crimson and with a guttural scream of pain his entire body burst into intense flame. His clothes rippled with the heat, and then his skin began to melt. The unmistakable smell of burning flesh filled the room. Daniel dropped to the floor and rolled like they taught kids in elementary school but the flames, almost supernaturally bright would not be quashed.
Dr. Kelly shielded his eyes and watched in fascination as the young man burned. Amazingly, the carpet was unscathed. The polyester blend should have gone up like a grass fire, but as Daniel rolled he left behind no scorched fibers. Nothing else seemed to burn at all. His garbled screams rose in intensity, rebounding off the solid walls of the small room and flames poured from his open mouth. He tried to stand, this man engulfed, pitched forward and then lay still.
Outside the sirens wailed and the closed-circuit monitor showed the thugs running from the room. Several minutes later, police officers stormed the house, pouring into the outer office. Dr. Kelly looked back toward the young man who’d been afraid to burn, but there was nothing left. The flames were gone and on the floor was a pile of ash.
Dr. Kelly slid down the wall and sat hard on the floor. That pile, it was smaller than he imagined it would be. It was too small to mark the life it represented. He hung his head and began to cry. He’d driven his own children to their doom, and as a result of that day, he’d locked this young man in a room to face his.
In a daze he reached over and typed the code to open the door. Rough hands grabbed him and pulled him from the panic room. Voices shouted. The room was a whirl of confusion. In the center of the room, Cheryl lay beneath a white sheet. Dr. Kelly allowed himself to be led to the easy chair, which had been righted and set amidst the ruined office. Police buzzed everywhere, like a swarm of angry wasps and Dr. Kelly’s eyes fell on the book lying at his feet. A sad, horrible smile crossed his face while fresh tears blurred his vision.
But not before he’d read the tag line on the back cover.
It was then that he felt his mind begin to slip. Those six words tugged at the fragile thread of sanity at the back of his mind. Over the next few months that tightly wound thread would unravel completely. Six words on the back of ‘Fahrenheit 451’
‘It was a pleasure to burn.’