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Authors: Michael Wallace

The Devil's Cauldron

 

 

 

The Devil’s Cauldron

by Michael Wallace

 

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The Devil’s Deep Series:

Book #1 –
The Devil’s Deep
 

Book #2 –
The Devil’s Peak
 

Book #3 – The Devil’s Cauldron

 

copyright 2013 by Michael Wallace

Cover design by Damonza

 

Chapter One

Nobody had moved Meggie Kerr’s wheelchair or the restraints on her head for more than twenty minutes, and so it was that she was staring at the path when the woman came looking for her.

Meggie had not moved her body in seven years. No sound had passed through her lips. Only her eyes and one twitching finger gave indication she was alive and not in a persistent vegetative state. And so it was easy for the staff to forget her. In this case, they’d wheeled her with the other patients onto the brick patio of the hummingbird garden, then placed her with her back to the mossy wall. From there, she could watch the flight path of the hummingbirds as they darted in and out to plunder the ring of feeders. All the other patients sat in the sun, either in their wheelchairs, or lifted to benches.

It was a chill morning, and water dripped from the stone wall onto the back of her neck, but Meggie had no way to tell the aides that she was uncomfortable. She could no more move her tongue than she could sprout hummingbird wings and flit away into the forest. Her jaw may as well have been the rock ledge, and her vocal cords lay still as the dead volcanoes that loomed over the trees, shrouded in mist and low-lying clouds.

The hiker wore jeans and shorts, with a scarf over her dark hair, and a water bottle in hand. Except for the visible swelling in her abdomen—maybe seven months along—she looked like a typical tourist exploring the Costa Rican cloud forest. Only there was something about the way her eyes darted around the clearing. She didn’t look up at the teak and mahogany buildings of Colina Nublosa that blended tastefully into the hillside of the abandoned coffee finca. Her eyes didn’t follow the blur of hummingbirds—ruby-throated, rufous-tailed, and the iridescent green hermits, with their shimmering plumage—as they zipped back and forth in a riot of movement and colors.

The woman looked at the patients. And not the ones who’d been lifted to the benches, either, those who could move their heads or speak in slow, slurring tones. There were at least fifteen residents on the patio, but the woman seemed to instinctively pick out the lowest functioning. She looked into the eyes of Danica Crumfeld, a woman in her sixties with MLS. She studied Felicia Biggs, a woman with profound mental disability who came from a family of wealthy investment bankers. She was looking at the people who couldn’t move on their own, studying them with a sharp, aggressive look. And not men, either. Women.

My God, she’s looking for me.
 

Meggie’s heartbeat accelerated, her stomach flopped, and her mouth felt dry. She swallowed reflexively. She couldn’t turn her head to follow as the woman moved out of view—if not for the restraints, her head would have flopped forward onto her chest—but she could move her right index finger. Other than her eyes, it was the only body part that her injury-ravaged brain could still control. Her hand rested on the metal armrest, and she brought down her well-manicured fingernail and tapped it twice.

A flurry of Spanish sounded to one side. Rodrigo had come back from smoking with his buddies on the grounds crew and discovered the woman.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said with an American accent. “
No hablo español.
Is this the way to the Devil’s Cauldron? The hot springs?

“No hot springs, no,” Rodrigo said in heavily accented English. He sounded angry.

He switched to Spanish. In spite of his penchant for taking endless smoke breaks, Rodrigo was one of the good ones, not one who treated the lower-functioning residents like potted plants to be carried outside every morning, then carefully wheeled in again. But like all the rest, he took Colina Nublosa’s privacy seriously, and he was letting the woman have it. She didn’t understand, or pretended not to.

“My husband and his brother came up this way. I stopped to rest because—” Here there was a sound like her patting her belly. “—and I lost them. I was following the signs. Isn’t this the way up?”

The woman backed into Meggie’s view again. Rodrigo had his arms outstretched and shooed her back toward the path leading down from the facility.

Meggie tapped her fingernail. The woman was darting her eyes back and forth at the patients, even as Rodrigo drove her back. But she hadn’t spotted Meggie yet, back in the shadows and out of the way.

Look at me! Look!

A man called in English from the direction of the main buildings. “Who are you? What is your name?”

Meggie’s stomach dropped.

It was Jerry Usher, facility director, and he sounded pissed.

“I don’t want any trouble,” the woman said. “I’m just looking for the Devil’s Cauldron.”

“I asked you a question. What’s your name?”

“None of your business. Look, is it here, or not?”

“There’s a sign at the gate,” Usher said. “In Spanish, English, German, and Dutch. No trespassing. This is not the path to the hot springs.”

“I didn’t see any sort of sign.” She still sounded defensive. “Anyway, the gate was open.”

“It was closed.”

“If you didn’t want anyone coming up, maybe you should have locked it.”

Usher came into view. He wore tan slacks, a white shirt, and a tie. With his iron-gray hair and bushy mustache he would have looked at home in a care center back in the United States. Here, in this supposed tropical paradise, the clothing and hair style made him look ridiculous.

Something turned over sourly in her gut when Meggie saw him, like the twisting, gurgling feeling you got after eating undercooked food. Usher wasn’t the one who had brought Meggie here, maybe didn’t even know all the horrors she’d suffered. But he knew enough, and could have helped her at any time. He couldn’t be bothered. After all, if he brought in help, that might get her out of here, stop the monthly checks for her care, and his business was to make money, not to help people.

Usher and Rodrigo tried to push the woman back, but she stood her ground. She rested a hand on her belly, as if daring them to touch a pregnant woman.

“The hell it was closed, it was wide open. Anyway, it was the quickest way up. Looked like a shortcut. Like I told this man, I got left behind by my husband and his brother and I was trying to catch up.”

Usher turned to Rodrigo and said something to him in Spanish that sounded like an accusation about the gate. Rodrigo hotly denied it.

Tap, tap, tap, tap.

Meggie’s fingernail clicked furiously against the metal armrest of her chair, each tap a gunshot in her ears. But none of the others looked her direction. How could they not hear it?

But their attention was on each other. And the forest was alive with calling birds, the whirr of the hummingbirds, the click and buzz of insects.

“I’m telling you,” the woman said over the continued argument in Spanish, “I thought this was the way up. Can’t I pass through? I’ll be off the property in two minutes.”

Usher gave her a withering look. “No. This is not the way to the hot springs.”

“Are you sure? I can see the path from here. It looks like you have your own way up. Why can’t I—?”

“If you don’t turn around, I’ll have you arrested for trespassing.”

He said something to Rodrigo, who put a hand on the woman’s shoulder.

“Don’t touch me!”

Tap, tap, tap, tap.

Look at me! For God’s sake, I’m over here!
 

“If this bitch doesn’t move in two seconds,” Usher said, “drag her out by her hair.” He switched to Spanish, to repeat the instructions. Rodrigo’s response sounded reluctant.

But it wasn’t going to be necessary. The woman had shrugged off Rodrigo’s touch, then backed away, her eyes flashing, her jaw clenching angrily. Meggie kept tapping away, but it was with pure desperation now, as her opportunity slipped away. This stupid, worthless body, stiff as a corpse, immobile, except for one useless fingernail tapping. Why couldn’t her voice work, just this once, to scream for help?

Get me out of here!
 

As the woman moved backward, she bumped into the wheelchair of Ellen Campanero, a middle-aged woman with early Alzheimer’s, shipped down by her family in California. Ellen shrieked and sprang from her chair. Rodrigo tried to ease her back into her seat, but Ellen flailed at him, then, when Usher hurried over to help, clawed at the man’s face. The interloper now leaving of her own volition, all their attention turned to settling Ellen back to the near-catatonic state that was her default.

It was one more thing to keep anyone from looking at Meggie, or hearing her desperate taps for attention. Exhausted from the effort of moving that single finger up and down, up and down, she gave up. Her finger turned rigid and stiff. A black mood swept over her, and tears welled. She forced them down; nobody would come to wipe her eyes.

And then the pregnant woman looked at her.

All this time, Meggie assumed that she had not been spotted at all, sitting motionless in the shade, with water dripping from the mossy wall down her back. But when the young woman glanced in her direction, Meggie saw at once that she was wrong.

It was a sharp gaze, like the way the caged macaws by the swimming pool stared at a child walking by with a nut or a piece of fruit, every bit of attention focused on that bit of food. The woman gave Meggie that same look.

I see you.

A flood of hope and joy ripped through Meggie’s paralyzed body, such a surge that for an instant, she forgot she was paralyzed, and hadn’t stood on her own feet for seven tortuous years. She opened her mouth to cry out for help. But of course, her mouth didn’t move. She could only stare back.

Then Rodrigo and Usher had Ellen calmed, and looked up at the woman, who turned without further comment and trudged down the hill. Meggie didn’t know if she was going to look for her husband, and the supposed trail to the Devil’s Cauldron, or if that had been a lie.

But right now she didn’t care. All she could think about was that sharp, penetrating gaze in the woman’s eyes.

I see you,
that look said.
And I know you’re trapped in there.
 

The two staff members watched the woman go, then Usher turned to the aide. “Get Graciela and Jimena. I want these residents back inside. They’ve had enough sun.”

“Yes, Mr. Usher,” Rodrigo said in heavily accented English.

“Here, take Ellen with you.”

When Rodrigo had pushed Ellen up the path toward the main halls of Colina Nublosa, Usher paced the brick patio. Through all of this, the hummingbirds had kept up their continued, frenzied movement, hovering for moments above the feeders with their long tongues dipping into the nectar, before whirring away. Usher paid them no attention. He crossed the patio twice before he turned to look at Meggie, then came up to her side.

“Well, now,” Usher said. “What are we going to do with you? Once, now that’s a coincidence, but
twice?

 

What was he talking about? Twice? She’d never seen that woman before in her life.

“I don’t want to raise the alarm unnecessarily,” Usher continued. “But it would be stupid to sit here, crossing my fingers and hoping nothing happens.”

He studied her, and a frown crossed his face. “Which one of those aides pushed you up there? The fools—there’s water running down your neck, did you know that?”

Of course I do, you idiot.

After fifteen minutes in this position, the water had soaked the back of her shirt and was trickling down her pants and into her underwear. High in the mountains of Costa Rica, it was rather cool even in the sun. In the shade, with cold water collected from the fog and dripping from the moss, her automatic reflexes had her shivering. That wasn’t the awful part. No, the awful part was that she had to sit there, taking it, unable to so much as grit her teeth, let alone get out of the way or ask for help.

Usher didn’t move her. “I’ll bet it was Graciela. She’s the careless one, isn’t she? Well, maybe she’ll notice and get you changed out of those clothes.”

Rodrigo returned with the two other aides. He loaded residents into their chairs and strapped them in while the two women wheeled them back up to the main buildings. A few residents squawked, or muttered complaints at being taken away so soon, but most went along without complaint. There were more than a few mood-altering drugs in the cocktail of pills mixed up in applesauce and spooned into their mouths every morning and evening.

They rarely bothered to dope Meggie. Maybe the odd muscle relaxant when her body stiffened like a gnarled branch, making it hard for the aides to bathe her or get her in and out of her chair. But her behavior? What was she going to do, tap furiously with her finger?

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