New Rourke Unmasked
The Rise and Fall of Conduit
In-duction | Pro-duction | Con-duction
I was sitting in a chair next to bed Lana’s hospital bed, idly watching news. Grey Vigil was talking to a news crew about how he had single-handedly taken down The Tangler. That lying asshole. I don’t remember that shelf falling on the monster, it had been dark, but I was damn sure this jerk hadn’t done it.
There was a sharp inrush of breath as Lana awoke. I went to her side and pressed the call button. She looked jaundiced. The tubes in her arm and the heart monitor pads didn’t look much better.
“We really need to stop meeting in places like this.” she croaked with a wry smile. “People will think something is up.”
”Very funny.” I said, helping her sit up. “What happened to you?”
”I got up, and went to the kitchen to make a sandwich. But I had to throw up. My chest got tight. I couldn’t move for a while, just curled up on the floor. It felt like I was having a heart attack. I called 911. The last thing I remember is the EMTs coming in the door.”
She looked at me with pained confusion. “Where did you go?”
I wasn’t about to tell her I’d been out joy riding, looking for a fight. I gripped her hand and said, “It doesn’t matter. I should have been there.”
She leaned he head on my shoulder. “You’re here now. That’s all I care about.”
What could I do after that besides drape an arm over her shoulder and listen as she made soft sounds? I knew she was trying her best to be strong. I’d known her twelve years and could count the number of times I’d seen her really cry on one hand. She’d never allow herself to completely fall apart. If something bad happened, she would look dilemma in the face and soldier on. But with my getting struck by lightening, developing weird powers, Rico’s murder, herself being attacked, and now this, I was afraid recent events might have been too much, too quick. Still, she did her best to keep it together. I’d never have that strength of will; I get caught up in the moment too easily, while she viewed everything as a transition.
Dr. Prater came in with a clipboard. His usual jovial manner had been replaced by seriousness, himself attempting to hold back. Lana immediately sat up straight, wiped her face, and asked “What’s up, doc?”
”I’m not going to sugarcoat this. You’re body isn’t processing toxins correctly, your blood pressure is way off…You’ve contracted hepatitis C.”
”What‽” Lana and I said in unison. She then followed with “How?”
”Most likely, when Vitae sliced your cheek. Something on the blade infected you.”
My pulse quickened. My head began to buzz. “What the hell? Didn’t you do blood work when she got her stitches?”
”Of course.” Dr. Prater said reproachfully. “But either someone in the lab dropped the ball, or it just didn’t show up. I’m sorry. These things have very subjective incubation periods. Sometimes you don’t see it until it’s too late.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. It was plain that he was covering his ass. “Sometimes.”
”Look, this is treatable. There are medications we can give you; there will need to be some dietary adjustments. Unfortunately, with the rate it has already progressed, we are probably looking at a bad case of cirrhosis.”
”What’s that?” Lana asked.
”Liver damage.” he answered. “Just keep in mind, that with the right treatment, we can get you through this.”
He turned to me. “Bradley, I’m going to need you to come with me. We’ll have to do a blood work up on you also.”
Out in the hall, Dr. Prater stopped me. “There’s something else I want to talk to you about. Just a heads up, but Lana doesn’t need more on her plate right now.”
“What is it?”
”On the off chance we can’t get this under control, at the rate she is going, we may have to do a liver transplant.”
My head started fritzing out on me. This wasn’t fair! This was wrong! The urge to lash out road up my spin and clenched my jaw.
”That is still a worst case scenario.” Dr. Prater’s voice was firm and steady, though that was probably more out of habit than surety. “However, you know this could all add up to being very expensive. Lana doesn’t have insurance.”
”But what about—“
”Bradley, you’re coverage through the hospital only applies to dependants and spouses. You two still aren’t married right?”
I shook my head. We’d occasionally talked about it, but had kept putting it off for what seemed like a whole slue of idiotic reasons now. Damnit, I’d never even proposed, and this was the second time in a month I’d been faced with the prospect of losing her.
Dr. Prater continued. “Even if you two got married right now, the HMO would have a fit. I don’t know what you’re economic standing is, but you are going to have to start making some hard choices. Again, I’m very sorry.”
I glared at what was an obvious, empty, platitude. The woman I loved was dying, and this bastard was hitting me up for money? I needed help, but my options were too few. “I…I need to make a phone call.”
”Alright, son, take your time. You know where the lab is.”
I stepped into an empty room shutting the door behind me. The previous occupant had either just checked out or recently died. The sheets were dirty and discolored. An empty IV still hung next to the bed. The common hospital odor of bulk disinfectant and wallowing filth assaulted my nostrils. The high pitched squeal of an alarm came from the next room. The noise crawled in my ears clawing at my headache. I was really starting to hate hospitals.
After sucking down some electricity to take the edge off, I dialed P.
”Yes?” he answered.
”Did you make it to the hospital?”
”Yes. Lana’s bad. It’s all bad.”
”I’m sorry.” he said.
”Thanks. I…shit. I don’t know what I’m doing. I—I need to do something, but I don’t know what.”
”I’m sorry.” he said again. I sincerity in his voice was reassuring. “If there is anyway I could help…”
”Lana needs treatment. I have no idea how we are going to pay for it.”
”Do you have any property you can sell?”
”We…we could unload the tv. Computer. A few instruments. Maybe the car. We’ve still got this mortgage on the house...It wont be enough. Look…I hate to ask but—“
”Give me an hour.” he interrupted. “I’ll have something for you.”
* * *
I hate the waiting.
Waiting for a call. Waiting for test results. Waiting for death. Waiting till I could get out of this damn hospital room.
”You’ve been quiet.” Lana said.
Sitting in a chair, staring out the window, the only reply I could come up with was, “I don’t know what to say.”
”One good thing came out of this. When was the last time we stayed up to watch the sunrise together?”
”It shouldn’t be like this.” I answered flatly. It was just as well she couldn’t see my face.
”It should be a lot of things; music, dancing, picnics…”
”Instead we get bills, monsters, death—“
”God damn it, Brad!”
I turned to look at her. Her face was a mask of anger and fear.
Her voice cracked. “Don’t make me be the strong one. Not now! I can’t do that.”
Again, I was at a loss for words. My instinct was to just say, “I’m sorry.”, but it sounded condescending in my head. I knew that wouldn’t be enough. I said it anyway.
She lay back on the bed staring at the ceiling, while I still sat waiting. Every passing second the tension grew. I almost jumped when my cell phone rang, so I stepped into the bathroom to answer it.
”I may have something that could help.” P said.
”Three months ago, The Tangler attacked an armored car transferring money between banks. Roughly one-hundred-thirty thousand dollars were never recovered.”
”How does that help me?”
”The Tanglers has a tendency to use objects in the environment as projectiles. Whenever it leaves an area, it is often seen still carrying these things or absorbing them into its central mass. The few abandoned nests that have been found held a wide array of items The Tangler had collected. You know where The Tangler came up; therefore you could use that as a starting point to look for a nest. With luck, the bank bags will still be there.”
It was a good idea, but there was a problem. “Wait, shouldn’t the money be returned to the bank?”
”Conduit,” he said patiently, “banks are federally insured against this sort of loss. They have already been reimbursed the money. The only victims are several million tax payers covering a relatively minuscule loss.”
”I don’t know. If I just take the money, how would that make me any different than The Tangler or Vitae?”
”I agree it is a moral grey area, however, the difference is that The Tangler and Vitae are mindless monsters who wreck havoc for no reason beyond that of fulfilling base impulses. Whatever they were, it is unlikely that they now comprehend the eccentricities of right and wrong. You, on the other hand, are a rational man. You act with purpose.”
”I…guess that makes sense.”
”Good. I am glad we see eye to eye on this.”
”As I told you, I am here to help you get to where you need to be.”
I hung up, then started on my way out of the hospital room.
Lana called out to me. “Where are you going?”
Without stopping I said, “I’m going to make things better.”
* * *
Twice in twenty-four hours, I found myself trudging through the sewers. Even though I knew The Tangler had been captured, the thought that something else might still be lurking in those tunnels made me more than a little queasy. The stench didn’t help. Three hours later, after getting turned around a few times, and stopping once to throw up, I found a large hole in a wall.
There wasn’t much to it. It looked like The Tangler had ripped the brick and cement from the wall, then dug itself a Hummer-sized cubby hole. It was filled with detritus and bits of dead animals; mostly rats and fish, but some birds and what looked like a cat or two. There was also half a bicycle, a mangled mailbox, and under a crushed shopping cart was a heavy-duty, canvas and leather, tote bag with a locked zipper. After using a brick to break the lock off, I found ninety-five thousand dollars in bound stacks of crisp twenties and fifties inside.
Could you blame me for taking a moment to ponder what I held in my hands? Financial burdens lifted, luxury, travel, if I didn’t have to bother with Lana’s medical bills I could--No. I had to keep my priorities straight. Lana came first before everything. She was the reason I was doing this; why I drove myself forward. Every time I was lost, she was there to kick me in the right direction. She gave me purpose. I’d fought for her. I won her attention from other men. She was mine! No sickness or disease, or anyone else would take her away from me!
”She’s mine!” I shouted at the darkness. Sparks came from my mouth as I spat out the words. A wave of unease washed over me, and I almost threw up again. For an instant the tunnel grew more alien. Shadows flickered like dark fire. My hands clinched and unclinched own their own. Every thick breath brought in more vile air. My heightened vision granted from the electricity coursing through me illuminated shapes of jagged stone and pools of filth. The hum in my head thrummed to the beat of my quickened pulse. I felt the need to strike out, but I couldn't find a target. Slowly, I remembered that I was alone. My breathing and heartbeat slowed.
Light-headed. I gathered up the money and left. Ninety-thousand dollars would be a big drop in a huge bucket. All I had to do now was figure out how to hide how I got the money and where I would get more.
* * *
I went home for a much needed shower and sleep.
I dreamed I was riding a row boat on an ocean of silver. Writhing clouds of black slid across the sky. Blue lighting struck the ocean over and over followed by thunder that sounded like someone strumming the strings of an enormous instrument. On a desert island of gold, the sun threw a pillar of white light into a pit I couldn't see the bottom of. Whispers came from below. I couldn't tell who was speaking or what they were saying but the voice pulled at me with a siren’s song.
I woke up fourteen hours later.
After a quick recharge and sandwich, my head stopped screaming at me. I must have been completely out of it, because I missed four calls from work. It didn’t matter; I could use a day off.
I cleaned myself up then put my rank clothes from last night in the wash and sprayed my jacket down with air freshener. Just before walking out the door I remembered to packed a few of Lana’s things in a bag for her.
When I got to Lana’s hospital room it was empty. I went to the nurse station and asked a Latino woman with horrendous make-up where Lana was.
The nurse cocked a permanently-arched penciled-in eyebrow at me. “And you are?”
I told her who I damn well was.
”There’s no call to be rude, sir.”
I grimaced "Where is she?”
”Sir, you best calm yourself down.”
I jumped over the counter and shoved my way in front of the nurse’s computer.
”You can’t do that, sir!”
She grabbed me, so I gave her a jolt, and she jumped back with a screech. She tried to grab me again, but I held up my hand showing her the electricity arcing through my fingers. I fried the phone as she reached for it. As she ran down the hall yelling for security, I was glad to be rid of the nuisance.
The last update in the computer on Lana’s file was that she had gone into anaphylactic shock. She'd been moved down to the MICU.
Once again, I found the bed Lana was supposed to be in empty.
I grabbed the nurse manager by the collar. He was a skinny man with coke bottle glasses; tiny and weak.
”Where is Lana‽”
He trembled as I dragged him to the bed.
”The woman. From this bed. Where is she?”
Panic buttons from the other patients in the room started alarms at the nurse station. The buzzing snaked into my head and made me twinge.
”I’m not telling you anything.” he croaked unconvincing defiance.
I held up my free hand to his face. His already sweating brow began to pour and tried to inch away from the energy in my palm. The scent of urine wafted up.
”Where?” I growled.
”She was sent to surgery about an hour ago.”
He screamed for security, so I jolted him. He jerked then went limp.
”Room nine.” an elderly woman with a shaking voice said from her bed. “I heard them say ‘surgery room nine’.”
”Was that so hard?” I said to the nurse manager lying on the floor.
Two security guards tried to intercept me as I passed through the hall. They fell to the floor clutching their heads when the lights above them burst, showering them in slivers of glass. The electricity flowed into me. I tingled as I stepped over them.
Surgery room nine was dark. Equipment lay around the room, like props on a stage after the play had ended. Too many odors circled my nose, sneaking in again and again. I didn't see Lana, but in the middle of the room, under a sheet, was a body. Some woman I didn't recognize. Why would doctors be operating on someone else at the same time they worked on Lana?
"Lana?" I called out. "Where are you?"
I pushed aside equipment and trays of bloodied instruments trying to find her. But she wasn't in the room.
"That bitch lied to me. She's not here."
I was about to head back to the MICU when Dr. Prater and an orderly came.
"Bradley, I need you to stay where you are."
"What's going on?" I asked. He was talking weirdly, distorted.
"Just put down the weapon and come with us, son."
"What weapon? What are you talking about?"
"Just come with us. We'll sort this all out."
Dr. Prater looked from me, to the orderly, then back. He was trying to act confused, but I knew he was lying. He called the shots here. He was probably trying to hide her from me.
"Where is she?"
Dr. Prater motioned to the orderly. "Mikeal."
The man started walking toward me slowly.
I held up my hands. "Don't!"
He hesitated a step but continued forward. When he hit the far wall, he slid down, crumpling in a heap on the floor.
"Sweet Jesus!" Dr. Prater exclaimed and stumbled backward till he fell on his fat ass.
I grabbed him by his lapels and hauled him up. "WHERE IS SHE‽" I screamed in his face.
"We operated, but she died on the table."
I walked over to the table and looked at the body again. It was stranger. Some pail gray mass of meat I'd never seen before.
"That's her, Bradley. That's Lana."
"This is...No. What did you do?"
"We tried everything we could. Please, Bradley. What's happened to you?"
I looked around the room trying to find answers. My eyes fell on the crash cart and I suddenly knew what I had to do. The lights flickered violently and wires melted, as I pulled every last bit of electricity I could out of the room and channeled it into my hands. I felt like a god. Nothing was beyond my grasp.
The hum in my head was so blanketing, I barely heard Dr. Prater yell out, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING‽"
"I'm making everything right."
I lowered my hands to Lana's chest. Color bled out of the room. Everything turned white.
Conduit opened his eyes.
Coughing out charnel fumes, he steadied himself on the edge of an operating table.
"What happened?" he said. "Where am I?"