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New York State Hospital for the Insane
New York, Catskill Mountains
Rain pounded Mount Tamathy, melting snow into white patches that dappled the sopping brown leaves. Men formed lines along the ridges, wearing winter coats and fedoras, carrying shotguns that poked the brush behind the misty fog of their breath.
An eerie siren wailed faintly in the distance, warning residents of nearby Stockton that an inmate was still at large and that they should lock their doors before they turned in for the night.
"Jack?" a voice crackled loudly over the radio. "Jack, you trying to raise me?"
Jack McCullough put the cold device to his ear and raised the yard-long antenna on his radio.
"Emmet." The big man removed his hat to shake off the water.
"I'm under Chimney Rock. I need you up here."
Static hissed over the radio waves, finally broken by the words "...copy...help...all right?"
"Yeah, I'm all right," McCullough growled. "It's the boy Emmet, he's going to need a backboard. You copy?"
McCullough listened, but there was nothing more to hear, nothing but the steady rain, and now and then a chunk of ice falling from the boughs of the evergreens. He let the radio fall carelessly on its sling and cursed.
McCullough didn't much care for the army's gift of surplus radios, thought them cumbersome and unreliable in the mountains. He cared even less for the army itself or at least for Alpha Company, which had taken up residence on the mountain last year.
It wasn't enough that he had to deal with an insane asylum and all the problems that came with it. Now he was chasing soldier boys around the mountains.
The radio crackled after a minute and he heard Emmet say, "Backboard, Jack, I got it."
McCullough leaned with his back to the trunk of a tall pine, the long needles shielding him from the rain as he looked down at the body lying at his feet.
He'd thought they'd been tracking a mental patient all day. They all had. You just didn't see people running around these parts of the mountain on foot. Not unless they'd gone over the wall of the asylum.
He slid to a squat and leaned over the boy. The kid's eyes might be looking at him, but with so much blood streaming out of the sockets it was impossible to tell.
"Can you hear me, son?" McCullough leaned over and put an ear to the boy's lips.
"Can't...on," the boy whispered. "Can't...on."
"You understand me, boy?"
"Can't...on," the boy said, "Can't...on."
McCullough tugged the canvas hunting jacket up to cove the boy's eyes. Then he stood.
Mount Tamathy parted clouds at forty-two hundred feet, visibility good enough to make out the jagged black line of the Delaware River Gorge to the east. Elsewhere the sky was growing dark and closing in around him. The kid wouldn't have made it a night on the mountain alone. The temperature would drop again tonight and rain would turn to sleet before snow. Then the coyotes and wolves would have come in for the smell of blood.
McCullough had never looked upon the Catskills without wonder. The mountains never looked the same way twice to him and few men had laid eyes upon them so often. He chopped wood here in the fall and tapped maples in the spring. He hunted for the family's meat and gathered roots and herbs for his grandmother's medicines. He was, as all generations of McCulloughs and Groesbecks, Ver Dooks, and Van Dycks before him, dependent upon the mountain's bounty.
But Jack was hardly a country bumpkin. He had experienced the sordid nightlife around military bases south of Washington, D.C., and had seen action in France and Belgium during the Second World War. Jack had met boys from every corner of the continent, and in 1946, when he was discharged from Fort McPherson in Atlanta, he was left with fifty dollars to make his way home. Instead he drove west to visit a buddy from the Twenty-eighth Infantry who lived in Arizona, and then north to Wyoming before he crossed the Badlands on his way back home to New York. In a mere twenty years, Jack had seen more of the world than all of his American ancestors put together.
The urban world held little fascination for McCullough. He was a country boy at heart, so he returned to the farm of his ancestors and married Carla Woodruff, the first girl in his high school ever to matriculate to a university. Two years later she joined the Stockton public school system and Jack applied as a security guard at the New York State Hospital for the Insane.
The locals still referred to it as "the asylum," originally named Van Buren for the first president to have been born a citizen of the newly formed United States. Van Buren's father had once been a popular tavern owner in the upstate village of Kinderhook, and memories in the Catskills ran long.
A mammoth institution, the asylum was built at the end of the Civil War and consisted of a half-million-square-foot main building with six annexes on 338 acres of land. Seventy of thoseacres had been cleared for farming so the asylum could supply its own beef, grain, and dairy products. Thirty were devoted to hospital wards, and the remaining stand of timber provided a buffer to the world beyond Mount Tamathy. It currently housed 4,300 inmates and employed a staff of 264.
Escapes weren't uncommon; the thousand doors or windows were sure to be left unlocked at one time or another, and inmates sometimes came into possession of tools left behind by maintenance workers.
Not that there was anywhere to run. Dogs patrolled the only road in and out. Which left only the mountains to hide in, and while many went in, fewer were known to return. The Catskills were as inclined to swallow a man as spit him back out, the oldtimers said.
This of course must have been the reason the asylum had been built in this remote region of the state following the Civil War. Tens of thousands of soldiers had lost eyes and limbs on the battlefields, suffered ball and shrapnel wounds to the brain; endured disfiguring burns from black powder explosions. Thousands more had been pinned down in no-man's-lands between enemy lines, covered by body parts and the dying who cried out for water or their mothers. And then there were witnesses to the carnage, all the nurses and sawbones and civilians who had to pick up all those body parts and put them into graves.
The psychological toll was overwhelming.
The government needed some place where the hopeless could live out their lives in peace and segregation. And the Catskills were no less secluded a century later when the United States Army came looking for a place to conduct secret activities.
McCullough shook a Chesterfield from a pack, caught it on his lower lip, and lit it with a silver Zippo.
He looked at his watch. The search had entered its seventh hour.
He blew smoke through a heavy beard that matched terracotta freckles on his wrists and big hands. He looked down at the boy's body again: the polished black boots that had been badly scarred by the fall to the rocks; the army shirt punctured by bones where a compound fracture splintered his elbow.
McCullough kept wondering what in the hell would have possessed the kid to go out on the edge of Chimney Rock. The formation was little more than a sixty-foot spire and there was hardly doubt in daylight up above that you were stepping out into space.
McCullough had a feeling it had something to do with Area 17. The locals never doubted that there were strange things going on in that place. They'd seen the heavy trucks passing through Stockton on their way to Mount Tamathy. They knew the military was putting sophisticated equipment on the base and they knew that three-star generals and barbwire outer perimeters around heavy-gauge security fencing meant but one thing. That whatever was inside was important enough to kill for. Not even the usually cocky teens demonstrated bravado by sneaking around the perimeter of the base.
Some thought Continental Air Command chose Mount Tamathy as one of the four strategic radar installations that would make up the new North American defense initiative. Some thought the government was concerned about things far scarier than Soviet aircraft. Just two years earlier, a farmer in Roswell, New Mexico, found the remains of an unidentified flying object in his field and there had been speculation ever since that the government had an alien body inside Area 51.
Whatever was going on inside the compound on Mount Tamathy, the cows were the first to disapprove. Within a year of the facility's construction, the large dairy herd at the mental asylum stopped giving milk. Then one of the Luxors' prized steers was found dead in a pasture six miles away off Fox Ridge Road. Two different vets who came to look at it could not explain its demise, although one later told a preacher that its eyes had been burned from their sockets.
Rumors of diseased cattle, however, were bad for business; even a hint of healthy animals collapsing in fields affected market profits for hundreds of miles. So a grave was dug and the steer and story were quickly laid to rest.
One night in June there was an inexplicable earth tremor shattering windows on two fire towers on Kawahita Ridge. The town's elders proclaimed they had never even heard of a quake in the history of the Catskills and the only agency that documented such things in those days, the New York State Police, concluded it was an act of vandalism, most likely teens playing with dynamite.
Then night lights started appearing over Mount Tamathy, yellow and green bands that shimmered like the Aurora Borealis. A small group of Native Americans said it was the Algonquin Indians' Manitou, whose spirit had been awakened by the earth tremors in June. Others were convinced that UFOs were conducting surveillance of Area 17. Everyone agreed it was the last time in twenty years they had been able to get AM radio reception near Mount Tamathy.
Then there were suicides. An orderly leaped from the water tower on a sunny afternoon. A patient was found hanging by a light cord in a storage closet.
No one could say definitively that the army was to blame, but then no one could say that it wasn't, either. No one really knew what went on behind the gates of Area 17.
The boy at his feet continued to mumble incoherently, the result of a concussion, perhaps, but that wouldn't explain the fiery red color of his skin or the heat rising from his face. There had been no time for infection to set in and he sure as hell hadn't gotten a sunburn in the November Catskills.
McCullough heard the sound of brush snapping below him. His men making their way up the side of the mountain. He winced as smoke from his cigarette curled into his eye, and he ground the knuckles of his hand against the tears, muttering, "Damn." Then he spat and tossed the cigarette into the rain.
It was Thanksgiving, and he wondered if the boy's parents had any idea where their son was today. Could they have guessed he was lying broken at the foot of an obscure mountain in New York State? McCullough thought not. In fact, he doubted any of the enlisted men in Area 17 had mail privileges. Doubted that any of the families knew where their sons were.
The trees were nearly leafless now, forests colorless but for sprigs of wild grapes. The blood on his hands stood out in stark contrast to it all. He lifted the slicker and watched for the rise and fall of the boy's chest. The name stenciled clearly in black on the green army shirt read MONAHAN, T. He was no more than twenty.
It had started just after 9 a.m. this morning. An electrician repairing the spotlights on the main gates saw a man running toward the trees outside the asylum wall. That was how the call came in to security and how McCullough's men ended up spending Thanksgiving Day on the side of Mount Tamathy. He knew the staff back at the asylum was conducting a head count, trying to figure out who was missing from the asylum, but with four thousand inmates it was a job that took hours. McCullough saw no need to stop them just yet. His main concern now was getting the boy to the emergency room.
If the army was aware that one of their men went over the wall, they were keeping it quiet. No one from the base had alerted the asylum about such an incident and if they had, McCullough and his men would have been spared a day on the mountain. The army could have sent a search party off in the direction their soldier was last seen. Now he wasn't inclined to return the favor. The army would find out about their soldier when he was good and ready to tell them.
There was a long low rumble off in the west. Whether or not Private Monahan, T., knew it, he had picked a good day to escape. The storm had stalled over the mountain in the early-morning hours, drenching the Catskills with two inches of rain. There was too little snow left to track a man and too much water to wash away his scent. He might have gone on for days if he hadn't chosen to terminate his escape on the summit.
The boy kept repeating the monosyllabic words. McCullough could feel body heat rising from the jacket. He was tempted to lift the jacket again, but had no desire to look into those bloody eyes.
McCullough was not a man you would call squeamish. He'd seen plenty in his short time at the asylum. During his deployment in France and Belgium, he had the misfortune of watching a buddy die a horrible death in the sky over Bastogne. Medics had just airlifted them outside of the village when a mortar hit the tail of their helicopter, literally turning the craft on its side. His friend, thoroughly lashed to a stretcher but not yet to the cargo bay of the helicopter slid out the open door. Their eyes locked at that moment and he watched the stretcher fall until the helicopter righted itself and someone leaped to slam the door closed.
These were sights he would never forget, recurring nightmares that woke him in his sleep, and yet he was sure that there was nothing to compare with this boy's bloody eyes.
"Jack?" a voice called. "Jack?"
"Up here," he yelled.
A moment later Emmet arrived with three other officers, two of them carrying a backboard.
"Jesus," Emmet said. He looked up at the rock ledge and shielded his eyes from the rain. "He fell?"
McCullough nodded, grabbing the slicker and pulling it away from the boy's face.
Emmet stood frozen for a moment, then knelt and reached to touch a red cheek. "Shit, Jack, he's not one of ours. He's a soldier."
McCullough nodded. "Must have gone AWOL."
"What's he saying?"
"Sounds like can-teen," McCullough said. "He's been repeating it since I found him. He won't take water, though."
"His head's on fire. Maybe he's delirious with the fever?"
"Took a hell of a hit on the head," McCullough acknowledged.
Emmet leaned low and put his ear to the boy's lips. "He must have been laying here all day. Wouldn't have taken more than forty minutes to climb from the army base to the top of the rocks."
McCullough grunted, shivering himself, for the cold was getting to him.
The boy's voice was soft, the words monosyllabic: "Can't on, can't on, can't on..."
"You want me to send Billy down to tell his commanding officer?"
McCullough shook his head. "Let em keep looking. He needs an emergency room more than the army right now. Let's get some hands under him, boys," he said. "Put the board right there, Jimmy. Billy, help him push it up snug."
The men got their hands under the boy's knees, back, and neck and lifted him on a three count to the wooden stretcher. McCullough saw a green leather notebook lying where the boy had been and discreetly picked it up while the others were strapping him down.
"Lions slaughtered the Yanks in Detroit," Emmet offered.
"What was the score?" McCullough turned his back to his men as he opened the book and thumbed through the pages. There were dates and paragraph entries, neatly handwritten in ink toward the beginning of the book, but turning to scribble toward the middle where the writing ended. It was a log or journal of some kind, he thought, folding it closed and tucking it into his back pocket.
"Forty-nine to fourteen. The Lions had five hundred and eighty yards of offense."
"Jiminy Christmas." McCullough shook his head, looking up once more at the towering rock pinnacle above him. There was no way the boy could have missed recognizing the danger of walking out on it. He would have to have believed the fall would kill him if he jumped. So was this suicide?
"Hoernschemeyer ran ninety-six yards for a touchdown. I would have loved to have seen that one."
"Yeah, and I'd love to see New York put up ten thousand dollars for a decent running back." McCullough spat out a grain of tobacco caught on his tongue.
"What about Pittsburgh and Chicago?"
"Steelers twenty-eight, Cardinals seventeen." Emmet peeled off his outer jacket and tossed it to McCullough. "Here, Jack. You must be freezing. I've been walking all the time you was waiting here."
McCullough nodded gratefully and put it on. When they started down the muddy hillside planting boots sideways to keep from slipping in the mud McCullough patted his back pocket to reassure himself the book was secure there.
McCullough remembered the day the army first arrived to look over the adjacent property on Mount Tamathy. The asylum's administrator had asked him to meet an entourage of officers and guide them through a service road to the wooded property west of the asylum. He'd said they were looking at it as a possible site to place an air command monitoring station. He had also make it clear that the army wanted to bring as little attention as possible to their visit.
It was early on a Sunday and McCullough had met the large black sedan at the main gate and escorted it to the edge of the asylum property before he left the army men to wander in the woods.
He could still remember the glitter of medals and gold epaulettes on the uniformed passengers front and back, but it was the man with the white homburg hat and white meerschaum pipe who startled him most. Dr. Edward "Buzz" Case, easily recognizable from newspaper stories and television appearances, might have been the last person he expected to see in the remote Catskill Mountains.
Case had been headline news around the country since the end of World War II, renowned for his work on the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb. Case's connection to the army was well established prior to 1950, but publicly he was parting ways from the military, devoting himself full-time to the new field of nuclear medicine. Some said he was atoning for the millions of lives lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Case himself suggested he was close to developing a "radioactive" magic bullet that would cure cancer, and there was much ado about his moving to California to be near radiological research at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley.
Then, without a whisper or a warning, he disappeared off the face of the planet. Reporters who had been following him and the esteemed biologist and physician Jonas Salk the man who would conquer polio across the country were left bewildered as to what happened to their photogenic genius.
When he didn't reappear at the five-year anniversary celebration of the surrender of Japan in Washington, D.C., the press began to ask questions. When they realized that Case's own family was stonewalling them, they began to speculate on everything from a Soviet kidnapping to alien abduction.
Jack McCullough had never mentioned seeing Dr. Case that day to anyone else, but was sure that he knew what the rest of the world did not. That Dr. Edward Case was living in Area 17 and that his work had nothing at all to do with cancer research or even the new strategic air command initiative. Case could only have been recruited to develop a secret weapon to combat the new superpower, the Soviet Union.
The Cold War was a time like no other. People in neighborhoods in the 1950s lived under the prospect of imminent annihilation. All across America the mournful sirens wailed to test their systems and evacuations to fallout shelters. Children were taught to crawl under their desks and avoid the flying glass from windows. Shelters were constructed in every basement and backyard. TV and radio broadcasts were regularly interrupted by earsplitting warning signals.
And rumors abounded: The Russians had a machine that could affect the thoughts of entire populations. The Russians were testing a death ray in the city of Novosibirsk. The Russians were using high-voltage electricity to control the world's weather.
Whatever was really going on behind the Iron Curtain, no one could say, but it was clear the United States was in an arms race with the Soviet Reds and the world had already seen proof in Hiroshima and Nagasaki that mankind was becoming capable of anything.
McCullough didn't know what happened to the boy, but he was sure it had something to do with what went on behind the gates of Area 17. He was equally certain that the army would not have wanted civilians finding their soldier alive and talking.
He thought about the journal in his pocket. None of his men had seen it, he was certain. It was probably personal and should be returned to the boy's family. But something else told him that whether harmless or not, it would be a mistake to mention it to the military. That to mention it would only bring trouble to the finder.
Copyright © 2009 by George D. Shuman