Catch up with Parts 1 – 5 here.
Ric felt the artificial lighting before he could see it. It burned his eyelids, penetrating towards his retinas; forcing his to scrunch his eyes tighter shut. It took him less than five seconds to remember being whacked and to realise he was strapped to a chair. The aged wood rough against his skin, as if it had been weathered by years of damp and rain. The fabric restraints were softer, a torn cloth of some kind.
The room was cold but had the warm and familiar scent of old books. He suspected they were probably in the library that had been broken into earlier that day. He kept his eyes shut. Ric knew the longer he kept his eyes closed, the longer he could feign unconsciousness. A metallic thud finally forced his eyes open.
And there she was. Looking at her was like staring out at a shimmering mirage. His brain knew she couldn’t exist – the shadow of a long-dead murderer – but his senses were screaming out to touch her white skin to prove she was real. Even as she paced the room – her stilettos clicking on the damaged oak floorboards – he couldn’t believe his eyes.
‘Ric, Ric, Ric. Oh – you have been a naughty boy.’ She tutted his name as she spoke. Her eyes glinting in the shadows. The bright lamp was not designed for the room they were in. The corners of the room were shrouded in shadows – which she did her best to keep to. The woman was waving an i-dent scanner in her right hand. Taunting him with it. He glanced down to his left arm and saw his bullet-torn shirt pulled up to reveal his i-dent patch.
Whenever someone moved to a new city, they were required to update their i-dent. The older i-dents were cards – evolved from the original donor cards. Professor Irving had lived in their city for ten years, so he never bothered updating his card. But Ric was new in town, so a new city meant an upgrade. To stop human traffickers from stealing legal i-dent cards – the city switched to chips, embedded into the skin of the wrist. It took the pulse, had in-built GPS to assist medics, his entire medical, professional and environmental history. In Ric’s case, it also had explicit details of the events leading up to and time spent in the GenSix Correctional Facility. The chips had almost every detail about a person’s life – why is why the i-dent scanner that she was flippantly tossing in the air was Government Issue Only.
Ric was wondering how she had managed to get hold of one when she cut through his thoughts with a question.
‘Did you get to see them?’
‘Did you get to see them when you broke into the hospital?’ she asked again.
‘No.’ Ric’s whole body deflated. She had gone through his i-dent alright, every gory and miserable detail of his life.
‘Did she ever find out you were there?’
‘No. she… they… were both dead before I got there. I was too late.’
Ric could see the walls of the hospital in his mind. It was like he was back in that ward all over again. The military grey walls splattered with blood; corpses lined every corridor. By the time he had reached their room, it was too late. The whole hospital had been quarantined – and those who had been healthy when the doors sealed were now scattered throughout the hospital; joining the sick loved ones they had come to visit.
The only sounds were his footsteps, and those of the police tracking him through the hospital. He had thought through an escape – he knew of a rooftop exit – if only he could get there in time. As he found their room, he knew it had all been in vain. Ric stared at his once vivacious, charismatic wife – now awash with deathly pallor, her last act was devastatingly obvious. The crisp white hospital-issue pillow was still covering the newborn’s face. Their brand-new baby girl, stiller than the ground itself. Less than a week old, and already gone. A mother’s final act to protect her child – even if it meant killing her.
Ric had known it would be too late for his wife, but he had hoped the baby had escaped it somehow. He had heard rumours of babies being immune if the mother was infected during pregnancy. But even from across the room – for he dared not go any closer – he could see the buboes purple welts on the baby’s upper arm, matching her mother. The smell of rotting flesh hung in the air. Ric stepped forward into the room, just to see his daughter’s face. The first time he had seen her, she had just been pulled from her mother – a rosy, screaming bundle of life. Now, the second time Ric laid eyes on his baby, she was blue with death and forever silenced. Just five days old. And his beautiful, strong wife – Genevieve – slumped over in her death bed, black blood oozed from her mouth.
Ric had known it was a bad idea bringing her to the hospital – had the doctors known she had the sickness; they would never have admitted her to the labour ward. She would have been segregated, observed, tested on, and eventually executed before the disease could spread. Now, because of Ric, over two hundred people had been infected and died. All for nothing. His last hope of rescuing his baby girl had been extinguished as painfully as her life.
‘Such a shame.’ The Red Woman interrupted his painful memories once more; bringing him back to his fresh new hell. Three years had passed since their deaths, but he could never shake the nightmares.
Breaking into a quarantined hospital was a federal crime – and one that ultimately ended in solitude. They could not risk him serving his sentence with the general population prisoners – he could have caught the infection in the hospital. Instead, he spent one year’s quarantine time alone in a glass box, being watched and tested every day. After the year was up, he was deemed physically healthy, but mentally unprepared to socialise with the other prisoners. His isolation had given him time to replay those horrific moments over and over again in his mind. It was enough to drive a grown man insane. He was allowed to serve the remainder of his eighteen-month sentence in solitary confinement; his only company was the once-a-day food tray delivery and a photo of Genevieve.
‘How did she get sick?’ The woman asked, a disgustingly sympathetic look on her face. ‘It wasn’t in your file.’ She explained.
‘Her sister got it first. My wife used to be a nurse, so she tried to help her get better – before we realised it was the infection. By the time we did, it was too late. Gen’s sister died in her arms. She was covered in her blood. Gen started to panic about the baby and the stress triggered her labour. I didn’t think she was sick – she wasn’t showing any of the symptoms. But when we got to the hospital, I could see the welts starting to show. Gen had just given birth when one of the midwives noticed the welts and pulled the quarantine alarm. I just managed to see my daughter be born before I was dragged from the room and sent through decontamination and evacuated with everyone else. I never saw them alive again.’
‘I’m sorry, I truly am.’ The Red Woman sounded sincere. It had surprised Ric, but not enough to let his guard down.
‘Why am I here?’
‘I thought it would be obvious. Especially considering you have just told the very story that brought you here.’ She placed the scanner on a nearby table and folded her arms, propping herself up against the wall.
‘It’s not obvious to me.’
‘You’ve been snooping around in my business. Do you know who I am yet?’
‘A weirdo pretending to be a centuries-old serial killer who looked like an old cartoon?’
‘I’m not pretending to be anyone. But I’ll give you a clue – I’m not a ghost either. And funnily enough, that’s nothing to do with why you are here.’
‘Where did you get the i-dent scanner? Who did you steal it from?’ Ric tried to change the subject and learn as much as he could about his captor.
‘Who says I stole it?’
‘You’re not a government agent. They are the only ones with scanners – so you must have stolen it.’
‘That’s one theory.’ The woman looked offended for a moment, then she smiled it away. ‘For your information, I didn’t steal it. I invented it.’ A smirk danced across her painted mouth.
The more Ric looked at her, the more it was obvious that she was not and had never been a Ward – despite the daring outfit. She had no grace, and she certainly wasn’t demure or comely. She didn’t glide across the floor, rather prowl. She was a woman on a mission, and right now – he seemed to be in her way. Ric could tell that was a bad place to be.
‘He’s okay, by the way. The medics got there just in time. Irving is lucky you were there to help. Although, it’s your fault he was shot at in the first place… so maybe not so lucky.’
Ric’s depressional melancholy dissipated at the mention of Irving, returning him to his usual stubborn state. They had been shot at in Irving’s apartment. Ric hadn’t told anyone that he was going there; he had no one to tell.
‘You were following me.’ He didn’t have to ask her; it was obvious now. ‘Since I first saw you on the train?’
‘No, Before. I’ve been watching you for a while now. We had to keep an eye on you.’ The woman finally approached him and undid his restraints. Ric rubbed his wrists gratefully but remained seated. He pleaded with himself to stay calm long enough to come up with an exit strategy. He couldn’t be sure she was alone – a woman like this would probably have back up within earshot.
‘Why are you so interested in me?’ Ric seethed.
‘Oh Ric. I thought you were smarter than that.’ Her eyes glinted in the shadows. ‘Your sister-in-law, wife and new-born child died from the sickness. You spent days stuck in the house with your wife and her sister as she died. And yet you still breathe? Oh yes, Ric. I’m very interested in you.’