The question came from a small man in the scrubs-and-robe garb of an inmate. He looked a little like a garden gnome, or maybe one of the dwarfs from the Disney movies.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Rydell. Crazy fucker." The gnome giggled a bit at that. "Too many walnuts in his fishbowl." He tapped the side of his head.
Rydell. George Rydell, the man who had made headlines about a year ago, after a vicious killing spree where he tore apart a family of four, and ate parts of their brains. His story had been consistent from the beginning, that there was a creature that lived inside his head, and told him to kill this family, that they were evil, and their evil needed to be consumed. Crazy fucker seemed about as apt a description as any.
"Termites in the wheelhouse," the gnome giggled again. "Too many badgers on his rooftop!"
"Come along, Joseph." An orderly took the small man gently by the elbow. "Sorry about that, doctor..."
"New here, I take it?"
"Visiting, actually. I'm here to give the court evaluation on George Rydell."
The orderly shuddered. "Oh, man. I don't envy you one bit. Creepy son of a bitch if you ask me."
"Walrus in the cathouse!" The gnome was cackling merrily. The orderly rolled his eyes.
"Let me get Joseph here tucked away, and I'll let Doctor Branson know you're here."
Out of sight, out of mind, I thought.
"Invisible! Insane!" More merry cackling.
I looked around a bit. The Mayville State Mental Institution had something of a reputation, mostly from the last century. It had been a time when most of the patients were either destitute or forgotten by their families, put away where they would not have to deal with the strangeness and difficulty. One of the doctors had done experiments in treatment that today would be considered barbaric, possibly even torture. When he died from a massive brain hemorrhage, his work had been uncovered, and while he had maintained copious and detailed notes, the horrendous nature of his work had been seen as mad and evil, and much of what he had done was destroyed. His laboratory space was sealed off in a basement of one of the wings that was now unused due to budget cutbacks. These days it seemed quite normal, if a bit shabby. The place was clean, the patients that I could see in the waiting room looked physically healthy, and there was a mild tang of disinfectant in the air.
A large man in a business suit strode up to me, hand extended. Dark hair, slight gray at the temples, and a kind expression on his face.
"You must be Doctor Fitzgerald. I'm Carl Branson, the head of this facility."
I took his hand and shook it. Firm grip, but not crushing. Confident, but not egotistical. It seemed like we might get along.
"And call me Carl. Come back to my office and we'll get you settled in."
I had to stride a bit fast to keep up with his 6-foot four inch frame. Put him next to the garden gnome, and they'd make quite a picture. I grinned at the mental image.
Doctor Branson's office was about what you'd expect: dark wood paneling everywhere, old books lining the wall behind his desk on both sides, framing the old mahogany desk in a nearly presidential manner. A few nondescript paintings hung on the walls, along with a few sets of pictures of the old buildings that made up the campus of the institution. A small, low table and chairs made up the other end of the room, a few magazines, mostly medical journals stacked as if they'd been read over time. The only thing that looked really out of place was the flat screen monitor and keyboard on his desk.
"If you will give me a minute to clear my schedule," said Dr. Branson, and I nodded to him.
"Take your time."
I pored over the pictures. They showed a series of events taking place at Mayville, some holiday photos, one of a huge Christmas tree in an ornate visitor's lobby with curving staircases on either side, dated "Christmas 1926" in flowing ink on the border. A few photos of treatment facilities, taken when they were new, and probably at the finish of their construction.
"I'm afraid that as director, my duties are largely administrative anymore. A bit sad, really, but we do have a good staff here."
"From what I've seen, everything seems well-run."
"Thank you, Howard." The big man smiled. "Please, let's have a seat."
He gestured toward the low table, and I sat in one of the plush leather chairs. The smell of aged leather and wood surrounded me as I sank into the chair.
"Oh, this is comfortable.'
"Yes indeed," said Dr. Branson. "I managed to pull them out of Dr. West's wing a few years ago. It would have been a shame to let all of these go to waste, when a little cleaning and touch-up was all they needed."
"All of this came out of Dr. West's laboratory?"
"His private offices, but yes. Would you like some coffee? Tea?"
I looked around with renewed interest. "No, thanks, I'm fine. I'm surprised that there was anything left, I thought the old guard purged everything to do with him and his research."
He laughed. "Not really, they just took his files, and closed and locked the doors on everything else. Pity about the files, really."
"I'd have thought the Board would have some issue with dragging out those memories."
"They probably would, if they knew about it." He poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down in the chair facing me. "Silly sentimentality, really. Besides, this saved thousands of dollars on the budget that is better spent on caring for my patients."
"Can't argue with that." I looked back on the bookshelf. "Did the books come from Dr. West's office, too?"
Doctor Branson stiffened slightly. "Some of them. Some of the more interesting ones, anyway, maybe a third of what you see there. The rest are my own collection. "But," he said, the warm smile returning to his face. "You're not here to peruse my library, Howard."
"You are correct, Carl." I took the court papers from the folder I had in my briefcase. "The court order for an evaluation of mental competence to stand trial for one George Rydell, late of the Mayville State Mental Institution."
Doctor Branson took the papers, put on a pair of reading glasses, and looked them over. "Fairly standard in these circumstances I suppose, and not entirely unexpected."
"Can you tell me about him?"
He signed the last sheet of the document, handed it back to me, and took off his glasses thoughtfully.
"Fairly quiet, most of the time. We did keep him sedated when he first got here as is standard procedure with violent patients, but he really did not seem to continue with any violent episodes after his initial capture."
"So he's not currently sedated?"
"A low dose of Diazepam. Five milligrams, twice a day."
"And he's asymptomatic?"
"Quiet as a dormouse, really. He primarily just sits on his bed, staring out the window."
"Does he talk?
"Only when spoken to. Really, he seems quite rational, relatively intelligent. He knows where he is, what year it is, and why he's here."
"Have you asked him about his crime?"
"Only to the extent that he admits to it entirely," the Doctor shrugged. "With the direction of his 'inner demon'."
"It's really better if you get the details from him yourself," said Dr. Branson, standing. "I'll take you to him now."
Quiet and lucid. Things did not bode well for Mister Rydell. I stood up to follow the doctor.
"Oh, one thing Howard. Are you a religious man?"
"Not really," I said.
Dr. Branson led the way down a corridor of rooms that reminded me of a dormitory wing. I supposed these were the low-risk patients, ones who had little required care and small incidence of trouble. The hallway ended in a set of double doors with an electronic card lock on the door, which the doctor opened with a small tag that was attached to a lanyard on his belt.
"This is the secure wing. I do have to ask that you leave your briefcase and any objects that may be used as weapons here at the guard desk."
I pulled a small digital audio recorder out of my briefcase. "I would like to keep my recorder with me."
He looked at it and said "That should be fine. Jacob, if you will?"
Jacob was evidently the guard behind the small window, a severe-looking black man who did not smile. And when I say black, I mean black, the darkest pigment I have ever seen on a human being in my life. His features were sharp looking, and he did not speak a word as he took my briefcase and handed me a clipboard to sign.
"Jacob will make sure that your items are well-cared for."
The doctor strode off down the hallway. I turned to look at Jacob again, his face like a stone statue, staring at me.
We came to another set of double doors, these very obviously heavy steel with wire-laced glass embedded in them. A small video camera was hung on the wall above the doors, and Doctor Branson looked into it with expectation. A heavy buzzing noise and the doors opened with a creak, showing a set of wide stairs leading down. The dank, musty smell of basement wafted up the stairwell, along with something else that I couldn't quite identify, something sharp. He stepped into the stairwell, leading the way down.
"Because of his notoriety, Mister Rydell is a special guest. This is the maximum-security facility. He's the only one that has been here for quite some time. It took our maintenance crew a few days to get his cell ready."
The basement was much more reminiscent of a prison wing. Large, heavy steel doors lined both sides of the hallway, some exposed pipes running along the ceiling marking hot water, cold water, and steam, along with a few other pipes I couldn't identify. All of the windows in the cells were dark, save one.
"Number thirteen. Seemed fitting." The Doctor smiled and took out a massive key that looked a bit like a key from a wind-up toy. "Chubb," he said when he caught me looking. "Virtually impossible to pick, and inaccessible from the inside. Quite advanced for the time."
The door opened, and I saw a man sitting on the lone bed in the cell.
He wasn't at all what I expected. The man I saw sitting on the bed was thin, almost frail, and looked like he would have been at home behind a library desk or antique book store. The cell itself was actually fairly clean; a new coat of paint on the walls covering what had obviously been bare areas where the paint had peeled away. A single light bulb glared overhead, a new fluorescent spiral type having replaced the old incandescent that my mind wanted to place there. A one-piece toilet-and-sink combination stood in the corner, obviously ancient, but with new plumbing attached. There was a small steel table with a single steel chair beside it, but other than that there was nothing. No books, no pictures. A small reinforced glass window hugged the ceiling, letting in a dim filtered light through a patina of dirt and aged plant material.
I cleared my throat. "Mister Rydell? My name is Howard Fitzgerald."
"I know who you are," came a clear, steady voice from the man. Again, not quite what I had expected.
"You know my name?"
"I said I know who you are," Rydell said, eyes still closed. "You are the lawyer from the court. Your name is unimportant."
Doctor Branson stepped back outside. "Is there anything further that you need from me, Howard? I really should get back to work."
I shook my head. "No, I think that we are fine here." I looked warily at the frail man. "We should be okay."
"If you need anything, just wave to the camera," he said, pointing up at the newly-installed camera mounted in the corner of the ceiling. "Jacob will be keeping an eye on you, though by law we are not allowed to record any audio without your permission. If you wave, he will turn it on and you can speak with him."
"Thank you Doctor Branson."
He closed the door with a massive thud. The air pressure in the room changed slightly, enough to be noticeable. I suspected that in the high of summer, this cell would become a sweltering mess, but in the mid-autumn, it was cool and comfortable enough.
"Mister Rydell, do you mind if I sit down?"
Rydell gestured to the chair, and I sat, pulling out my recorder and turning it on. "I am here at the order of the court to provide an evaluation of your mental state, and whether you are mentally competent to stand trial. Do you understand that?"
"Mister Rydell, I need to record our interaction for the record, and you have to answer yes or no."
"Yes, then." He sat, unmoving, eyes still closed.
"And you understand why you are on trial?"
"Because I slaughtered that family and ate their brains," he said matter-of-factly.
"And you understand that it was wrong of you to do that?"
His eyes opened then, clear and watery-blue. He looked at me. "Wrong? Yes, of course I know it was wrong. I know it with every fiber of my being." His hands started to shake. "If I could have stopped it, I would have."
"What kept you from stopping it?"
His hands stopped shaking, and he closed his eyes again. "No. You won't believe me. No one believes me. Leave me to die," he said, "then maybe I can get some sleep."
"Mister Rydell... can I call you George?"
"George, I'm not here to judge whether or not what I think you say is true. What I need to know is whether or not you believe what you are saying. If I think that you are lying to me or trying to deceive me, then I will report back to the court that you are competent to stand trial. Do you understand?
He nodded slowly. "They'll kill me."
"It's very likely, George."
"Doesn't matter anyway. I'm already a dead man."
"If you were dead, I wouldn't be here asking you these questions."
He opened his eyes again, looked at me, then looked down, and nodded.
"So what kept you from stopping?"
He paused for a moment, thinking, and then said one word: "Be'lial".
"And who is Be'lial?"
He stopped to think again, sort of like he was having a silent conversation with himself. "Not as much who, as what. Sort of both, I think."
"Ah, I see. And does Be'lial talk to you?"
Voices in the head are a classic Hollywood bit of misdirection for people claiming insanity pleas. The actual voice-in-the-head phenomenon-- a monosymptomatic auditory hallucination-- is extremely rare, and is almost always caused by physical damage to the brain.
That look of inner conversation again. "Yes, and no. He-- it-- doesn't speak so much in words. It's more images and feelings." He stiffened then, as if he had been shocked. "And pain," he finished weakly.
Selective delusion. Self-punishment. If it were schizophrenia, he would be much more unfocused. A true psychosis is possible.
"George, did Be'lial tell you to hurt those people?"
More of the internal conversation, a few more body spasms. Definitely signs of a severe disorder.
"Not them. What was inside them."
"I don't understand, what was inside them?"
"They had... riders."
"That's the closest word that I have."
Possession? Is that why Doctor Branson asked me about religion?
"George, are you by chance Catholic?"
"No," he said, and closed his eyes, seeming to relax. "And no, I'm not possessed."
"So is a rider like a passenger in a car?"
He thought again, head moving up and to the right. "More like... a horse."
Locomotive hallucination? Reminder to look into Haitian Voudon rituals.
"Does Be'lial ride you then?"
"Not... the same. He... it... stays in back sometimes. Kinda likes to sleep when he's full."
"When he's full?"
Head moving up and to the right.
"Not eats. More absorbs."
"So Be'lial absorbed those people's... souls? When you ate their brains?"
"Not their souls. Their riders. He hunts them. Eats them." Head thrown back, eyes wide. "He says you would consider them evil."
I admit it took me a couple of seconds to compose myself; if this was an act, it was an extremely good one. Internally consistent, not working off of my leading. And a completely fascinating bit of mythology; if I worked this right, my publishing rights were in the bag.
"George, is Be'lial with us now?"
"Can he hear me?"
"Can I talk to him?"
Rydell started to tremble, his eyes wide open, fixed on mine. He started to whisper a hoarse "no", but was cut off by a series of sharp spasms, interspersed with screams of agony. I looked at the camera, and was about to signal for help, when his body went limp on the bed, trembling. Then he spoke.
"He says that you can only talk with him if you invite him in."
A breakthrough! I saw the dollar signs dancing before me.
"Very well then. Be'lial, I invite you in."
Rydell sat up with a sigh, looked at me with a small smile on his face and said "Thank you". A trickle of blood came from his nose, and right before his eyes rolled back into his head, I thought I heard a soft "pop".
What happened next, I don't really remember well. There was a flash of light that seemed to come toward my face, though that may just have been the power surge that took out both the overhead light and the camera mounted on the wall. It also seems to have completely destroyed my audio recorder, so I have no actual record of the conversation that took place.
When the camera went out, Jacob had immediately come down to take over and called Doctor Branson in. They found me unconscious on the floor, figuring that I had fallen and hit my head. Rydell was dead. He had an aneurism in his brain that burst. The pressure was causing him to have severe hallucinations, blinding pain, and delusions galore. At least that will be my finding, as corroborated with Doctor Branson. An autopsy is scheduled for tomorrow.
As I left, I once again ran into Joseph, pointing at me and spouting his nonsense. "Termites in the wheelhouse! Badger in the woodpile!"
The orderly rolled his eyes again, and led him away. I smiled. Joseph was harmless. Nobody would listen to him.
As for Be'lial, well, he likes to sleep after he's fed. And he's starting to get hungry again.