It's been four years since he was last in this city, for the same person as he's here for now. The reason back then wasn't the happiest it could have been, but he could only wish to have it again.
"Sir?" The driver's word draws a bleary look. "We're here."
Don thanks the man and passes over a wad of notes before opening the door and standing out again into the haze of new town, displaced scene, unexplored culture. The cold blue sign looms before him as he walks up between the finely trimmed lawns, eyes cast downwards, and trying their best to keep away from anything besides the dull grey path.
St. Louis General Hospital
It's been four years.
* * *
The first phone call had come during dinner the day before. Not a real dinner, just half a cold roll left over from lunch and a bar out of the vending machine since he was still in the office trying to write up a proposal his boss had been yammering for. The woman on the other side of the line spoke in such a deliberate calm that can only come from practice.
"Is this Don Berger?"
"The brother of Adelaide Berger?"
"Yes. Who is this?"
"Mister Berger, this is Nurse Delbert calling from the St. Louis hospital. Your sister was taken in sixteen hours ago in critical condition."
It was the first time he'd heard anything from or about her for nearly half a decade, and yet that familiar stab of sibling protectiveness had spiked just as strong as it had when he'd been in the first grade telling the other boys not to splash mud on her pretty dresses or toss sand into her long brown hair, never mind that she was older. The nurse's goodbye was barely through the speaker before he was cancelling apartments and booking the first available flight, cursing when he was told it wouldn't be until noon the next day. More curses came several minutes later when he realised he hadn't gotten a return call number, finally getting back through after looking up the number online and wrestling with the receptionist until she conceded to update him on everything, no matter the time.
He'd leapt at his phone when it rang again later that night, only to end up yelling at his boss that he didn't care about the damn proposal right now and chucking it across the room without bothering to hang up. The real second call came from the nurse again, a little while later, after he'd finished throwing his clothes into his single small travel-case and before he'd managed to stop himself from pacing like the carpet was burning. Adelaide had come out of surgery, successful, and he felt the air gush out of his lungs too quickly to even be a sigh. She was on heavy life support in a medically induced coma, and her chances were improving.
The last call came at 4am that morning, only an hour after he'd managed to fall into an utterly unrestful doze. It was a man that time, who introduced himself as Doctor Henry Bryson. His voice was even flatter than the nurse's had been. His sister had flat-lined nine hours out of surgery, defibrillation was unsuccessful.
* * *
The receptionist gives him a token sad smile when Don presents his name and ID, dutifully telling him that she's sorry for his loss.
"You must hear this every time," he says softly, "but I just can't believe she's gone."
"She's not really," the girl replies, giving a little nip at her gum and tucking a strand of pink hair behind an ear. Her name tag reads Cherry. "She'll always be with you in your heart."
It's so hackneyed and rehearsed that he has to fight an eye-roll. Thankfully, he's saved from such tender sympathies when a tired-looking man in a lab coat walks up, brushing blond hair back from his face.
Don nods at the familiar voice. He's always been good with voices. "Doctor Bryson."
The doctor inclines his head at the recognition. "Thank you for coming, Mister Berger. I'm very sorry to have to ask this, especially so soon, but we're going to need you to identify your sister's body."
Don blinks, breathes, then blinks again. "Excuse me?"
"It is apparent, from the state of her injuries, that Miss Berger was the victim of a deliberate and violent physical assault. Murder may or may not have been the intent. We managed to identify her using her fingerprints, but you as her next of kin will need to verify."
"Assault. Murder." The words are repeated, sounded out without really being taken in. "Who?"
"The police are on the case. In fact—" Bryson reaches down into his coat pocket to pull out a card with a scribbled number, "—I've got a number for you to call about that. They'll probably want to question you too, once we get this done."
Don takes the card without looking, still not really hearing everything. "Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"
"We thought it would be something more appropriate to say face to face."
He turns his eyes away, down onto the white-tiled floor then up to the flaking ceiling, around the worn couches of the waiting room and over the crabby water dispensers that line the corners. His gaze darts with the whirling of his brain. Someone hurt Adelaide, killed her. And now he needs to review it all. "Alright," he says after several beats. "I can do it."
"Thank you," the doctor says with a soft, sympathetic smile, turning to lead the way.
And he really can, Don knows as he follows a step behind. It's been four years since he saw her last, but what's that compared to a whole childhood together. Family's family. It could have been ten years, twenty, but he'll always know her.
That, and there's also the fact that he needs to see his sister. One more time. Even if it's laid out cold and bare on a morgue slab, her laughing eyes forever lost away and her bright smile smoothed away into blankness. He wonders how bad it could be as they walk down the pristine white halls among the bustle of the only partly-there, what lines would criss-cross her body, what marks colouring her pale skin. But whatever it is, it can't mar her in his mind now. It will just be his big sister, despite anything and everything she's been though, after all these years.
"So h-how is she?" Don manages to get out as they step into the dull grey interior of the lift, clanking doors sliding closed to cocoon him and the doctor together in a little bubble of awkward grief and pity. His voice only catches the slightest bit. "What are her injuries? They wouldn't say that over the phone either."
Bryson doesn't answer, hesitating.
"Don't cushion it," Don continues a little too curtly in his attempt to sound calm. "I want to know."
The doctor takes a breath. "Six cracked ribs, seven broken. Dislocated left knee and right shoulder. Broken cheekbone and collarbone. Heavy internal bleeding, a number of ruptured organs."
Don's lungs clamp up too quick for him to even exhale. "I can't imagine why."
He says it because it's expected, but a little niggling doubt in the back of Don's mind reminds him that perhaps what he can imagine doesn't mean much right now, after the way he and Adelaide parted last time and the long silence that ensued. But no, she was his sister. The things she did, Don could always work out afterwards even if he couldn't at the time. Even when she was unpredictable, it was a type of unpredictability that could be trusted. "I just don't understand."
"When it comes to death, no one ever really does."
The St. Louis morgue is all industrial tile and stainless steel, bright lights a parody of the supposed promise that lurks at the end of the dark tunnel. Funny, because it doesn't look like a particularly gloomy or frightening place, but the smell hits them as soon as the doors open once more. If they wanted to break it down they could call it chemicals and organs and pumped air, but all it is to Don is the smell of death.
He makes his way forward, shadowing the clack of Bryson's shoes, tracing his way around empty gurneys that sit waiting for the next unlucky patient-no-more. The cold chambers line the opposite wall like a horridly large chest of drawers, and they two pick their way through the tags until they reach Berger, Adelaide.
Two words on a little piece on a metal door. That's what they all end up reduced to.
"You must be Don."
The man in question jumps, startled, spinning around.
"Indeed," Bryson says when he takes a little too long to reply. "Mister Berger, this is Doctor Ives Lentre from our pathology department. Ives, I didn't see you there."
The other doctor nods in greeting, and Don responds in kind. Lentre is dark-haired, the tint of his skin betraying his Creole heritage as well as the accent Don recognises in his voice. He isn't sure how he managed to miss the man in the white-washed room which he could have sworn was empty several moments ago. It's almost like he emerged out from among the rows of the dead.
"I take care of things down here, generally. The police are having her shipped out soon, but since you were called down earlier they thought you may as well do the identification here. Let me."
Don stands back as the cabinet is pulled open, the doctors' frames moving to obscure his view. He doesn't miss the fact that Lentre called Adelaide's body 'her'. The metal creaks and clicks as it slides on its bearings, then abruptly halts half-open as both men around it freeze.
Don takes a step forward. "What is it?"
Bryson turns to him jerkily. "I suppose you'd better see this."
Don moves hesitantly to the edge of the drawer, eyes tracing the gun-metal grey of the boxes that sit in the cold, holding the shells left behind when lives flicker out. He squeezes them shut just briefly before looking down.
It's empty. Except for a dotting of thin white powder that traces out a strange drawing on the matte bottom.
"What," Don says, and doesn't get any further.
* * *
Cherry is frowning when she pops her gum this time, eyes squinting at the computer screen.
"Here. Adelaide Berger. 2:42 this morning she's logged as deceased. 3:28 she's logged into the morgue. And 1:17 this afternoon," the well-plucked brows knit together even tighter, "she checked herself out."
Don simply looks at her. "My dead sister checked herself out."
The girl sighs. "I don't get it," she says. "I was here at one this afternoon, I know because I'd just come in from lunch and thought it was funny because the clock was exactly 1:11." She gave a sort of half-giggle. "And then the next hour was really boring because no one came to the desk!"
It's the stupid laugh that makes Don snap. He's already riding on so little sleep and so many peaks of ohgodwhatwhy in the last twenty-four hours, and afterwards he can't quite remember exactly what happened. He's a quiet person, everyone in his office will say that, but now he's sure he yells. He can recall a look of shock framed by silly pink hair, hands—his own—grasping the edge of the reception counter so hard they bleach white but not hard enough to stop them from shaking, falling onto a couch with nothing in his mind but "sister" and "Adelaide" and "gone." Now in more ways than one.
It's Lentre who places a hand on his shoulder and gently guides him to his feet, soft words promising that the hospital and the police are on it. He offers Don a lift back to his hotel as he leads out the door and into the car-park, and Don jerks himself a little mentally and physically.
"I, uh, haven't got one, actually. Didn't really think that far ahead," he admits.
Lentre smiles in reply. "Got one I can recommend for you, then, near my place."
And then they're in the car and off, road rolling beneath again.
* * *
The Lafitte hotel isn't tall enough to be particularly impressive, but Don on the top level still feels that little swoop of his stomach when he gazes out through the floor-to-ceiling window. The sky's beginning to glow orange now, casting the scene into shimmering twilight. He feels a stab of something—perhaps unease but it's not really sinister—when his eyes fall on the jagged blocks across the road that make up the mausoleums of the St. Louis Cemetery. He's heard about it, the only entirely above-ground cemetery in the world. He's not sure if burying people in a house instead of a grave is more or less unsettling.
Lentre insists on helping him bring his luggage up, never mind that's it's single and tiny. He waits until they're standing in the room, before that large window, to flash a smile and say, "It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"It's certainly something," Don replies. He's not really in much of a mood to talk, much less about the city that took his sister, and Lentre seems to know well enough that he places the case on the floor and bids a quiet goodbye.
It's barely dinnertime, but he's had an hour's sleep in the past two days and standing in his little bubble above New Orleans it's like a plug has been pulled. He barely manages to take his shoes off before he's out, brain shut off to the rest of the world, if still spinning on.
* * *
He has a strange dream that night, cocooned in aeroplane-wrinkled clothes above crisply-made and still turned up sheets. Everything's fuzzy and there are gaps in the tapestry that the jagged colours weave, like a memory. A memory that isn't his own.
He's in an alley-way, and immediately he thinks, Adelaide. He isn't sure how he knows, he just does because that's how dreams work, right? He can feel the creeping of a phantom fear, the itching on the back of his neck that compels him to whip his gaze behind him. But there's no one there, nothing but darkness. Because it's not really him that has to be wary.
It's not really an alley either. He can see brick on either side beside him, a filthy ground beneath him, but everything fades to black only a few paces from where he stands. And out of that black he can hear the horrible sound of flesh hitting flesh, the broken sounds of a woman and the cruel laughter of men. Three, at least. Maybe four? Five? He can't tell, because they're all as bad as each other.
"So," one leers, "this is the little girl who's been messing with us all this time? Does she look familiar to you?"
There's a particularly loud thump, and a sharp cry which cuts off in a rasp. It's Adelaide, and it isn't the dream this time that makes him know. He's good with voices. And he wishes he would recognise the men too, just so he could have a target for that white-hot spike of horror and rage that's flowing through him.
"Maybe. Awfully pretty, ain't she? But not anymore," another voice growls. There's a snap this time, a crack of bone that makes Don double over in nausea. Nothing comes up, of course, because he hasn't had anything in his stomach since last night. But he doesn't even need that reason because it's all a dream anyway, after all, not real. Nothing real.
He can hear it right by him, right there in the alley, but no matter which way or how far he runs through the endless walls of brick and dust it never gets louder or softer. He can never reach them, or run away from the sounds. There's no screams or begging, only the forced cries of pain that can't be held back. She's tough, but that won't help her now.
He falls finally, huddled down, hands over his ears, and he's the one begging for it to stop. But it doesn't. Instead, the low groans and sharp shouts begin to punctuate more frequently, until they're almost continuous ringing on and on in agony. It's not really getting louder but it seems to, drilling into his skull, and he sobs and thinks that they're the worst sounds he'll ever hear.
He's wrong. The worst sound is when they stop.