As the penitentiary drew nearer, the high brick walls and guard towers became visible in the distance. They towered forty-feet high within the walls and fences that separated the road from the main, brick building. It was a wholly depressing sight, unkempt and dry with weathered brick barely visible over rusty razor-wire that topped the walls. The windows were visibly reinforced with thick steel bars, the patrolling guards miniatures atop the towers with scoped rifles. The usual, circular, deer crossing signs turned to hard-angled rectangles with the ominous warning; “HITCHHIKERS MAY BE ESCAPED INMATES.” The signs appeared miles before the prison, became a mainstay every few hundred yards.
Sherry steered left onto a dusty, dirt road. Ahead, the rehab center was tucked away behind thick foliage that buffered its grounds. It was hardly the picturesque image of the last; the building dilapidated, abandoned years ago. A car pulled from its gravel lot, passed them as they maneuvered into the lot with a crunch beneath the truck’s heavy tires.
The interior and receptionist were a perfect match to the center’s aged and worn grounds. Carol had only just begun to wonder at its state when Sherry started her spiel. The receptionist breathed an exhausted sigh, and began to type. Carol winced with pity; the poor woman had clearly been forced here, shaved down to a pathetic caricature from years of living with looming dread. Her sallow face was pale, her eyes dark, purple from years of emotional baggage and strife.
When the database search came back empty, they left without delay. They were as ready to be rid of the building as the woman would have liked to be. A desperate aura of depression permeated the air, stank with the demoralized scent of a place and people intentionally left in shambles. The place had been forgotten, abandoned by the higher-ups in the state. The patients were likely all recovering addicts, recidivists one a dose away from relapse or vagrancy. As close to the prison as it was, its funding was probably slashed, diverted for other ventures there.
Carol considered the world around her, wondered if the picture formed in her head from Evans’ possible identity change was really a growing pandemic. It clawed at her mind while she returned to the truck, shrugged off a remark from Sherry about the center’s shabbiness: They needed to stay focused, and it was no secret some things were bad, the two were simply forced to examine them through a microscope in the midst of their search. The very necessity of the search should have prepared them for anything, especially heart-wrenching reality.
The truck returned to the main-road, headed away from the prison to a distant, highway entrance, then North toward the final rehab center. It was an hour of tense silence, both of them too uncomfortable to speak. The silence was infected with a knowing thought between them. They were both certain of the damage that might be done to their reputations no matter what way things panned out. Moreover, if Chuck or Ed got wind of it their crusade, they’d likely lose their jobs, livelihoods, and any chances for new work. There was very little to be found in the private sector these days, especially for young attorneys with black marks against them. With such risks on their minds, the stress that infected the truck’s cab could only grow.
The truck cruised on through empty fields for near an hour before the scenery began to shift to pastured, grazing land. The still-dry and dead brown of early spring was infected with spores of green grass and freshly budded trees. The change of hues helped to keep their wits intact. Further north, then eastward, the farms trickled away. The land became spackled here and there with massive, mansion-homes. A dramatic shift in the landscape left them uneasy; it had happened too fast, and lasted too long, as if they were traversing through an immense golf course.
Carol looked around suspiciously, “We must be getting close.”
Sherry agreed, “Yeah. Don’t know about you, but this screams rich asshole to me.”
Carol squinted at a hill in the distance, pointed to it, “There. That’s gotta’ be it.”
The hill was roughly a hundred feet higher than the rest of the outlying areas. Atop it sat the center, as big as a hospital and with a Victorian-era architecture. Massive white columns rose at its entrance, blended with the expansive grounds of costly landscaping like a southern plantation. Even in the early spring, the place was unnaturally well-groomed.
Carol looked to Sherry, who shook her head in disgust, “More proof that enough money can get you anything.” Her next words repulsed her, “Even a god damned hospital.”
They merged right, onto freshly tarred asphalt that led up the hill to the entrance, curved back down to meet the main road again. The truck crept along it, sandwiched to the door by tall, freshly cut hedges strangely green against the dreary sky. The truck came to a stop outside the door, Sherry’s hands autonomous as she put it in gear, climbed out. Carol followed with a subtle unbutton of the holster at her side. She met Sherry at the steps, paused to survey the hospital-sized building in its entirety. The stone steps led upward between the large, Victorian columns, leveled off at a heavy wooden door.
Carol glanced at Sherry, “If he’s anywhere, my guess is here.”
“I can only imagine the ego-stroking that goes on in here– probably how Evans made it out.”
“How’d he leave’s the question,” Carol replied.
Sherry breathed to steady her nerves, “And with a new face at that.”
Carol started up the steps, “What the hell’s the point to putting these guys away if they can just get out again?”
Sherry shrugged, followed Carol to the door and inside. A cool breeze followed them onto marble floors of a lobby. The heavy door shut with a loud echo of metal and wood like a castle’s entryway. A long desk was enclosed in tempered glass ahead, a blonde, middle-aged receptionist there wiling away her time at a keyboard with fake-tipped nails.
Her eyes rose, caked with make-up and surprised by their appearance, “Uh, hello. Can I help you?”
“We’d like to speak with whoever’s in charge,” Sherry said expertly. “We’re looking into a former client’s whereabouts, and were told the man in charge could answer some questions.”
She perked up, “Oh! You’re looking for Dr. Babcock. I’ll send for him.”
Sherry gave a crooked smile to Carol, led her to a bench across the room, and shielded her words in a lean, “I don’t know how long this ruse will last. Decide what you wanna know now.”
A door on the right side of the lobby opened on a man in his late-fifties with a comb-over and a lab coat. He had a dozen or so pens in a pocket protector at his left breast that set off the thick, black glasses over his eyes. They stood as he entered, stepped over to introduce themselves.
“So what can I do for you miss Hunter?” He asked with a plastic smile.
“Perhaps we could speak somewhere more private?” She responded.
The doctor’s face drew delight, “Of course. This way please.”
He beckoned them to the door he’d entered from, unlocked it with a golden key. He held it open, followed them in as it swung closed, latched with an electronic lock. The hallway beyond was excessively grand; highly polished granite floors were offset by gold fixtures and bright, red-oak paneled walls. Babcock made for the third door at the left, unlocked it with another key to usher them in. The door shut, locked behind them. The office matched the hallway with a large, mahogany desk that stole one third of its center between three chairs.
Babcock offered them a seat, took his behind the desk as he produced a cigarette, held it like a Frenchmen to puff deep. He exhaled, tamped ash into a tray, “Now, what can I do for you ladies?”
Carol looked to Sherry, steeled her courage and cleared her throat, “We’re here to inquire about a former patient. It seems he may not have fulfilled his full rehabilitation sentence.”
The Doctor’s brow formed scrutiny, “Miss Switzer, I assure you every one of my patients that enters our program here completes their full terms without exception. More to the point, I’m afraid I can’t relay any specific information as it violates our Medical non-disclosure agreements.”
Sherry interjected, “Unless the NDA’s interfere with the new Investigative Act. Then, the law takes precedent.”
“Are you policemen?” Babcock asked curiously.
“Do we need to be?” Carol asked, mildly irritated.
“Ah, so you aren’t then.”
Sherry countered, “No Doctor Babcock, we’re not. But we are from Mordin and Henderson, attorneys at law, here to ensure a patient and convicted criminal is still serving his sentence.”
Babcock grumbled, annoyed, “Lawyers.” He took a breath, stiffened one half of his face up, “Well ladies, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to present a warrant or leave until you return with one. Do you have a warrant?”
“We don’t need one,” Sherry assured him.
“As I thought,” He rose from his desk. “I’m afraid you’ll have to–”
“Doctor Babcock, I’m afraid you’re not understanding me,” Sherry said firmly as she rose, silenced him. “The nature of your work here may be of questionable ethics. We know something has happened to one of your patients, and that he is no longer serving his rehabilitation term. He has returned to society against court orders and I’m certain you know that makes you liable.”
Babcock’s face sank. Carol snarled, rose beside Sherry, “You’ve been caught. If you don’t comply, you’ll be charged with aiding and abetting a known felon and obstruction of justice. And I can personally assure you, you’ll see the full extent of the law in these matters.”
Babcock was silent for a moment, then swallowed hard. He matched eyes with Carol, a minor arrogance on his tongue, “Let me see if I understand you right; You barge in here, demand I illegally release personal information, then threaten me when I don’t?”
Sherry snapped back, “Under the new privacy act, you are obligated to remit any and all information on the patient in question– a convicted criminal, or else risk a twenty year sentence for the aforementioned charges.”
Babcock sighed, his shoulder’s slumped, “What is the patient’s name?”
Sherry was stunned at the lightning reversal. Carol wasn’t, instead on edge from his evasiveness, “Zachary Evans.”
His eyebrow rose knowingly, “Evans huh? Yeah, I remember the man. Movie producer with an itch for teenage girls.” Carol’s eye twitched, her stomach rolled. He stepped around the desk, “Very well, come with me.”
They followed him from the office, cautious but curious. He led them back to the lobby, across it to a door on the opposite side. He unlocked it as he explained, “You must see what we do here before you can understand what is that has happened. I would ask that you reserve judgment until afterward.”
He led them into a room with billiard and foosball tables. Computers and video game consoles lined walls among bookcases of DVDs, BluRays, and VHS tapes. Large screen televisions hung at shoulder height all around the room across from chairs, tables, and sofas. A few men and women partook in the various activities there, completely indifferent to the trio’s appearance. Each of them were clad in white, pajama-like clothing, and murmered quietly to one another as if in a library.
Babcock led the through the room as he spoke, “This is our recreation room, where our patients can enjoy any down time they might have between treatments and therapy sessions. At this facility we believe in equal parts cohabitation, treatment, and relaxation. We feel it is best to keep them integrated in a society while they recover in order to simulate the natural order of society.”
He led them into another hallway, passed a few rooms filled with groups of people in circles of chairs. Babcock directed their attention right, to a courtyard in the building’s center visible through floor to ceiling windows. French doors could be discerned around the courtyard, no doubt barred by the same electronic locks as the others.
He explained, “These are our group therapy rooms. The courtyard is mainly for relaxation or smoking. It’s important that our patients feel comfortable enough to relax during and after their treatments, as their stories tend to stir their emotions. In order to properly heal their various mental disorders, we require that they remain as complacent and content as possible given the circumstances.”
Carol sneered at the thought; if any of these people were like Evans, none of them deserved serenity or peace, they deserved death. Beside her, Sherry sensed an omen in the tour, as if the doctor was deliberately putting on an air so they might let their guard down. It wasn’t working. Sherry rubbernecked her way around, alert for an ambush. Carol kept her arms down, ready to draw her hidden pistol if Babcock breathed wrong.
They rounded a corner to the right, entered a narrower hallway with rooms every few feet. They made their way through, past patient rooms. Carol’s paranoia began to seep in; if the Babcock knew he’d been discovered, why the tour? What was he trying to prove? How could this possibly help him? Did he really believe this would keep him from the repercussions of letting an inmate go?
Something was wrong.
They made a right into another hallway. To their left was a large room that looked down on circular glass. “This is our medical wing. As you may have noticed, we are rather isolated so we require a fully-staffed medical team. This is the observation area for any emergency surgeries that may have to take place.”
Something sprinted through Carol’s mind, an epiphany that readied to blossom. It couldn’t yet, as though barred by the eerie tour yet to end. The thought lingered on the verge of realization, tickled her senses as they continued.
“These are our doctor’s offices, equipped much like an ICU though rarely used as such. It may also be used as a recovery room for any surgical patients.”
Recovery? Recovery from what? Why would anyone in a rehab center require surgery or recovery, let alone one so lush? Was there fighting like in prisons? No that couldn’t be it, there was no reason for it. These were society’s “elite,” the aristocracy. They prided themselves on sophistication, not barbarianism.
“And this is our rehabilitative therapy room,” Babcock said as he stopped at an open door.
It was bare save a metal table in its center. Atop it was a strange machine with a component to fit a human head. It looked like an optometrist’s ocular x-ray machine might, with viewfinders in the head component. Carol stared at the machine as Babcok droned on and the epiphany began to bubble, froth. It readied to spill from the depths of her mind with sweat that beaded on her forehead and temples.
Babock spoke formally, “This machine helps us identify which areas of the brain cause the patients’ addictions, neuroses, or negative behaviors, and allows us to focus chemical treatments on those affected areas.”
Carol’s head began to spin. It dizzied her, upturned her stomach. She swayed, fell forward, clutched at what she could. She slipped to her knees as something gave way beneath a palm. The episode honed into vertigo as her hand hand rose to meet her eyes, Babcock’s badge in it with black, printed letters that read, “Dr. Henry Babcock, M.D, Plastic Surgeon.”
Time ground to a crawl. She stared at the name as a fire ignited within her, and the epiphany spilled out. As if in slow motion, she saw Babcock kneel before her, felt Sherry’s hand on her shoulder. A penlight lifted from his breast pocket, clicked on. It rose. The images of DePaul and Evans played through her mind again, superimposed upon one another, then over the badge until only the words “Plastic Surgeon” were visible.
It hit her like a freight train; whatever Evans had done to become DePaul, Babcock knew about it. He’d helped him to change his appearance, created DePaul from Evans’ face. The words burned in her mind as her chin was lifted for the penlight. Her gaze swayed, forced sideways from a hand onto the device ahead. As the penlight’s beam entered from the right of her vision. Time resumed its normal speed. She lunged, tackled the doctor. He stumbled, smacked his head on the metal table.
Sherry rushed in, “Carrie! What the hell?”
Carol didn’t listen. The three were now alone in the room, isolated. She bounded backward, locked the door. Babcock lay on the floor, dazed. She pounced atop him, knee in his chest, and smacked his face to bring him ’round.
“What’d you do to him? Where is he!” She screamed with a grip on his lapels.
“Carrie, what the hell’re–”
“He knows Sherry!” She shouted with a sidelong snap. She refocused on Babcock, her face beet-red and knuckles white, “I know you know! What happened to Evans? I know you did it. You’re a plastic surgeon– the only one that could’ve changed his appearance. Tell me! How could you let that monster back into the world!”
Babcock denied it with weak breaths, “Stupid… bitch, you have no idea… what you’re talking about. And you’ll never getting out of here–”
Carol’s pistol slipped form her side, pressed against his temple. Sherry was frozen as Carol shouted with sideways jabs, “I should pull the trigger right now! I should avenge those girls myself– everyone who’s suffered from the ones you’ve let go! You fucking monster!” Babcock shuddered from the cold steel, silent, terrified. Carol screamed, “Tell me what you did!”
Petrified, horrified, and disgusted all at once, Sherry took in the scene took in the scene. Carol seemed crazed, but she made sense. His guilt was obvious, but the bastard had a gun against his head and still refused to admit it.
“What’s it do Babcock?” She motioned to the machine with her head, “What’s it really do!” He glanced between Carol and Sherry. The gun jabbed his temple again, “Tell me!”
He struggled to speak against Carol’s weight, “It’s…It’s a memory device.”
“What kind of memory device Babcock?” She barked.
“Tell me, now!”
“Carrie, he can’t breathe. Ease off.” Carol’s eyes were throwing knives that aimed for Sherry. She barked logic at her, “He’s not going anywhere, but security’ll be here soon.”
Carol stood, the gun leveled on Babcock’s forehead. He sat up, gasped and coughed for air, “You… You don’t understand. These aren’t… the same people anymore.”
“What the hell’re you talking about?” She barked, her arms locked outward, grip firm.
“Wh-when they come here, we’re given directives. If some of them are… especially valuable, we rehabilitate them, return them to society.”
Sherry’s eyes were wild, “What the hell d’you mean valuablet?”
“I just do as I’m told. S-Some of these people… they’re considered valuable by certain… interested parties.Their the smartest, the brightest– the ones most inclined to harbor extraordinary qualities. Evans was one of them. Evans was one.”
“What the hell are you babbling about?” Carol barked with a thrust of the gun.
The pistol followed him up as he inched back to his feet, “The device… it erases a subject’s mind– implants a new personality, new memories. It makes them a different person! It brings out the… extraordinary qualities in them.” Carol’s arms slacked a little as she listened, dumbfounded. Babcock explained, braced himself against the table to breathe, “Evans… had a unique genetic configuration. It… made his mind excessively mathematical, organized. It was this quality that made him so successful. It’s why he became DePaul.” He swallowed the last of his pants, regained his breath. He became enamored with his own work, passionate even, “It was anticipated Evans would be successful at anything mathematical. We were right. Anthony DePaul is a natural mathematician. He uses that skill to run and grow a business that contributes to the economy, to Humanity. ”
Sherry was once more speechless, but Carol’s arms re-locked, “Who’s doing this?” He shook his head, “I don’t know.” Carol thrust the gun forward. He stamped a foot, “I don’t know damn it! All I know’s that they send us packages for each new patient– evaluations that tell us what to implant, files to do it, via a courier. I suspect they make money off it somehow, but I don’t know how. I don’t really care. I just do what they tell me to!”
Carol sneered with a flare of her nostrils, lowered the gun, “It needs to stop.”
He swallowed hard, shook his head, “You don’t understand. It can’t be stopped. Ours is only one of hundreds of facilities across the world. In most cases the subjects are the most heinous criminals– but they go on to do good. You can’t just stop that. You shouldn’t. It’s… unethical.”
Carol fumed, “Don’t you lecture me on ethics you sonuvabitch!”
Sherry was calmer, but confused, “Do they know?”
“What?” Babcock asked.
Carol shot her a look, she reiterated, “Do they know what’s happened to them?”
Babcock hesitated, then shook his head slowly, “No, their whole lives are implanted through the machine, parts are backed up by falsified files, documents. When Anthony DePaul was born in this room, Zachary Evans died. Evans was a pompous, arrogant, child molesting prick.” Babcock snarled at the thought, then inexplicably softened, “ But Anthony DePaul… he’s a kind-hearted man, donates millions to various charities, and helps to make the world a better place. They’re two entirely different people. It’s part of the reason for the reconstructive surgery; we make their fiercer features more gentle.”
“So… they don’t know what’s going to happen to them, then?” Sherry asked.
“Should they?” He asked earnestly. They eyed him. He countered, confounded, “They’re terrible criminals– a festering sore on Humanity and society. Why would it matter? Why should they know? Did their victim’s know what was about to happen to them?”
There was a long silence. Neither of the women seemed willing to admit Babcock’s point. In truth, they both knew it, agreed in part.
Babcock sensed this, “We’re on the same side. My methods merely differ, and in some cases, are the next link in the chain after yours.”
Carol sighed, lowered the gun. She was lost. She could walk away now, be done with it. Evans was gone from the world, her job was finished, but something more kept her in place. She flipped the safety back on the pistol, slipped it into the holster.
She watched Babcock visibly relax, “Can they revert? Become who they were again?”
“Never. It’s impossible. Everything of who and what they were is erased, rewritten.”
Sherry tasted bile from the thought, “It’s still not right.”
“Right and wrong is white and black, Miss Hunter,” Babcock replied. “Morality… reality, is gray. And there are many shades of it.”
Carol sighed, shook her head, her eyes on the floor, “He’s right. There’s nothing we can do about this… not this. But I still can’t let DePaul go without knowing who– and what– he is.”
Babcock eyed her as fists began to pound on the door. The security team had arrived.
“Wave them off,” she instructed. “Wave them off, and you stay anonymous. Your name never comes up when this blows open.”
He eyed her for deception, found none. He stepped to the door with a nod, opened it as he rubbed the back of his head, “It’s alright boys, really. A few missteps, and one conked noggin, but everything’s fine.”
One of the men at the forefront of the group eyed Carol, “You sure you’re okay, Doc?”
“Yes, yes, everything’s fine here,” he said dismissively.
He waved off the confused security team, ushered the women out. The group turned for the main lobby, as Carol steered the doctor after them. The team exited the lobby ahead. Sherry stopped at a door marked, “Archives” between Babcock’s office and the lobby-door. She opened it, let Carol and Babcock pass through first. The door shut. Babcock turned to Carol.
She motioned to a computer between two sets of file cabinets, “I want copies of every patient record you have– and I want them now.”
The doctor sighed, moved to the computer. He produced a USB stick from a box beside it, jammed it into a port, and began a file-transfer, “I don’t know what you’re expecting, Miss Switzer.”
“You don’t need to,” Carol countered. “All you need to know’s that you’re off the hook.”
The transfer prompt morphed into a progress bar that galloped forward. Babcock watched it, “I assume you intend to inform each of theses patients of their status. I have to ask though; what good will that do?”
She wasn’t sure yet; “Just give me what I want, and keep doing what you do. You do serve a purpose. So do what you do, but with one, minor adjustment– for your own sake.” He handed over the USB drive. She slipped it into her pocket, met his eyes, “You tell them first. Tell them what the price is. That it’s their penance. Tell them. Watch their horror and realization emerge. Then be their executioner. Switch on your machine and be done with it. They deserve to know, and you deserve the curse.”
“How do you know I’ll comply?”
“Because we both know it’s the right thing to do. And regardless of your actions, I know you believe in doing what’s right.”
Babcock was silent, thoughtful for a moment, then “What will you do?”
“I’m going to keep an eye on your patients, and ensure they never revert.”
Sherry caught Carol’s steely determination, for moment thought she’d lost her mind. Then, she turned away, left Babcock to consider all that had occurred. She followed Carol out to the lobby, climbed into the truck, and began the long drive home. It was silent, Sherry still in shock. There was a lot to be done, and very few alternatives. Carol figured she’d be hunted by Babcock’s handlers, but with Buddy at home and her pistol nearby, she feared nothing.
As they pulled up to Carol’s house in the darkness, Sherry shut the truck off, looked sideways, “What’s our next move?” Carol eyed her curiously. Sherry was determined, “I’ve already said it; I’m here, so what’s our next move?”
Carol considered it for a moment, then sighed, “A drink.”
They headed inside to tend to Buddy. Beneath the stars on the back porch, the consumed copious amounts of liquor to keep their minds from the day. A few hours of drunken banter saw them pass out in the living room. Carol was kicked back in her recliner, Buddy’s over-sized body in her lap. Sherry slumped over on the couch, and like Carol, slept the sleep of the righteous.