Author’s Note: THE TIME RIDER CHRONICLES: Book 1 ~ On Blackwell’s Island features the adventures of forensic genealogist Robert Holbrook whose secret gift—and sometimes curse—of time travel has facilitated an impressive track record for success in solving family mysteries. In Book 1, Robert’s former student Alexandra has solicited his help in figuring out what happened to her great-great-grandmother during the late 1800s. The wife of a wealthy business owner, the woman departed for a vacation to Saratoga Springs in 1897 and never returned. He ultimately finds the woman, not at a lodge in the Adirondacks with another man as predicted by family lore, but in a wretched place called Blackwell’s Island. Robert begins unraveling secrets, but in the process makes himself the target of a powerful man with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The following scene takes place after the man has Robert committed to Blackwell’s for “mental tests,” which ten days in, have yet to be administered.
“Baby gonna cry?? Huh? Baby gonna cry??” Attendant Gilmore’s mocking falsetto echoed off the cinderblock walls.
Robert felt a familiar knot of dread form in the pit of his stomach. He would not look. Leaning forward with head in hands, he tried to tune out the latest chapter of cruelty unfolding at the far end of the dayroom. He cast about for a soothing memory and came upon the summer he and Marge had rented a beach house on Sanibel. Closing his eyes, he took himself to the water’s edge, his bare toes sinking into soft sand.
“What do you say? What’s the magic word?” Attendant Murray’s jeering voice joined Gilmore’s, snatching Robert back from the beach.
A loud slap was followed by a piteous wail. “I’m talking to you, moron. Look at me when I talk to you!” It was Gilmore again, somewhere over by the window.
Robert couldn’t help himself. He turned his head in his hands just enough to catch a glimpse of Murray and Gilmore’s latest target. James. A wave of fresh misery hit Robert, and he closed his eyes again. Why James? Why did they always pick on James? He was the youngest patient on the unit, a slight sandy-haired boy who was utterly harmless. His unwillingness or inability to make eye contact drove Gilmore crazy. Robert had noticed James’ lack of eye contact and his tendency to repeat movements and phrases, and guessed that the boy was autistic. He wondered if autism was recognized or understood in this time period. For the most part, James spent his days pacing the floor and waiting for care packages, one of which was now being dangled just out of reach over his head. Someone, somewhere, loved this kid. In the ten endless days Robert had spent locked on this ward, brown paper parcels had arrived for James on three different occasions. Remarkable, considering that the rest of the patient-inmates appeared to have been long abandoned and forgotten by the outside world.
“Sit down.” Gilmore enunciated the words slowly and clearly, leaving no room for dissent.
Over the course of the past week, Robert had learned that Gilmore thrived on power and instant unquestioned obedience, like a plant thrives on sunlight. Robert had disliked the man from his first day as a patient at Blackwell’s Island Asylum. During the admission process, he’d been listening to Gilmore rattle off the new patient instructions when he’d become distracted by the faded teardrop tattoo beneath the man’s left eye. Robert was trying to recall the significance—something to do with prison, he was fairly sure, when he realized Gilmore was waiting for him to do something. The attendant had cursed at him, grabbed his hand and slammed a pen into it. “I don’t have all day! Sign your fucking name!” Since that first encounter, Robert had gone out of his way to avoid Gilmore.
James, oblivious to the danger, continued to reach for the package, repeating, “It’s mine! Mine!!” He stood on tiptoe, his outstretched fingertips just brushing the package. “It’s mine!” Unable to grasp his prize, James whined louder.
“SIT. DOWN.” Even from a dozen yards away, Robert could see the veins bulging on the side of Gilmore’s neck as the sadistic attendant brought his face down to within an inch of the young boy’s.
Robert mentally willed James to sit down. Sit down sit down sit down sit down sit down sit down…
“Go get the broom,” Gilmore barked at Murray without turning. “James here needs a lesson in following directions.”
Robert ground his teeth together, his entire body tensed, dread and rage competing for space within him as the metal door opened and clanged shut with Murray’s quick departure. He was going for “THE BROOM,” a several foot length of wooden pole, wrapped heavily on one end with white tape to form a handle. Robert presumed it had once been part of a broom, or that the name was a euphemism intended to deflect suspicion should one of the patients happen to mention it. In any case, Robert had seen it used twice in ten days, never for sweeping. The previous weekend, Gilmore had tied James’ hands to a bench and beaten him mercilessly, simply because the boy had refused to look at him when ordered to do so. Robert doubted the bruises from that beating had even healed yet.
The patients with the capacity to understand what was going on began moving away. One completely naked man huddled next to a wall began to rock and moan loudly. James, innocent and clueless, resumed his efforts to reach the package, now being held behind Gilmore’s back.
“You stupid fucker. Even dogs can learn and you will too.” Gilmore punctuated the last word by throwing James’ parcel with impressive force against the wall, where it burst like a piñata, showering a patient at a nearby table with colorful wrapped candies. “A gift for you, Smith!” Gilmore yelled to the patient closest to where it had landed.
James wailed and bolted after the shattered parcel, but Gilmore grabbed his shirt and swung him back toward the wall. A loud ripping sound accompanied the thud of James’ body hitting the wall. “Where do you think you’re going, moron? Oh, too bad, we tore your shirt. Let’s just pull that off.” James, now weeping, didn’t protest as the dingy cotton T-shirt was pulled over his head.
Robert heard the click click of boots coming down the hallway and felt sick. Sitting hunched and miserable on the bench, he moved his hands from his forehead to his ears, blocking out the screams in advance. He couldn’t bear this again. James was little more than a child, late teens or early twenties Robert guessed. But developmentally more like seven or eight years of age. There were few things worse than witnessing the beating of a helpless person, especially an innocent one. It was worse than being beaten yourself. The thought gave Robert a sudden jolt.
The metallic jangle of keys in the lock confirmed that Murray was back. Robert raised his head and straightened, suddenly filled with a detached calm. He watched as Attendant Murray came through the door, now with the wooden pole held tightly in his fist. Robert’s gaze went to Gilmore’s hard face and then to the yellowish-green bruises on James’ back.
Robert stood. “You bastards think you’re so tough. You should pick on someone your own size.” Robert heard the words leaving his mouth but felt disconnected from them. He took a few steps toward the attendants, but then stopped. He needed to draw the men to his side of the dayroom.
Gilmore and Murray turned in unison to look at him.
“What did you say?” Gilmore’s voice was incredulous as he took the pole from Murray, his gaze fixed on Robert.
“You heard me.” Robert spat on the floor in front of the men as they approached, hoping to convey an unmistakable—and for Gilmore, irresistible—message of contempt and defiance.
It worked. Gilmore stared, mouth slightly agape in disbelief, at the spot on the floor where Robert’s challenge had landed. Then he looked up, a venomous smile spreading slowly across pale, thin lips. “You’re going to clean that up.” The attendant’s voice oozed with calm menace—and a chilling promise.