Fiona woke to her ears ringing. The light from the late morning sun stung her eyes, and the faint flicker of the television only served to sharpen the pain. Reaching toward the table, she grabbed a bottle of Paracetynol and swallowed a large capsule without so much as a drop of water.

     As the aching slowly subsided, she could hear the wet swish of a mop on tile floor, accompanied by footsteps in the next room. Another busy morning, I guess, she thought. She took a moment to run her forehead and forced herself off the couch and into the kitchen. She nearly slipped on the remaining sludge left behind by the creature, but managed to catch herself before she fell.

     To no surprise, her father was sitting at the breakfast bar, munching on a slice of toast while reading a copy of the Times. The room stunk of old decaf coffee, and looking around she could see Carlton, Roderigo, Steven and even Pepper drinking the swill, while her father helped himself to a tall glass of iced tea.

     “Morning sunshine,” Steven said, taking a swift bite out of a slice of wheat toast. Fiona smiled faintly, but even to her it seemed more like a sarcastic sneer. “Aren’t we in a lovely mood this morning?” he said.

     “Sorry, not trying to be bitchy.”

     “How’s your head?” Roderigo’s question reminded her of how bad it ached, and she closed her eyes. “That bad huh?”

     “Yeah,” she said, pulling up a chair.

     “Just take it easy on the acetaminophen. That stuff will nuke your liver.”

     “Thanks, Dr. Somers.” Looking up, she saw a plate piled with toast, most of it apparently wheat, none of it buttered. There was no jam, jelly or peanut butter laid out, and it appeared everyone else was eating it plain as well; to her surprise, the sugar bowl was empty, something she knew Roderigo wouldn’t tolerate. Reluctantly, she grabbed a piece, and while chewing the dry, almost flavorless chunk of bread, she asked for a cup of coffee.

     “Steven used the last,” Carter said. “We have tea in the fridge, but we’re out of sugar. Rod didn’t even get to sweeten his swill.”

     “I always thought you guys bought the good stuff,” Steven said, gulping his cup. His face twisted into a sour expression, a clear response to the extreme bitterness of what he’d just drank.”

     “The coffee’s old, Steven,” Roderigo said, staring bleakly into his mug. “They got it on sale months ago. I don’t know why we never threw it out, though, it wasn’t that great when it was fresh. Not even the Syncrony can save it.”

     “It’s decaf,” Fiona said. “Of course it’s bad. The hope was that it might help me sleep.” She took another bite of her toast, forcing the stale crumbs down. “I don’t think I’ve ever been reduced to eating cardboard, either.”

     “It was fresh when I made it an hour ago,” Steven said with a smile.

     “Well do we have anything else? Bacon? Sausage? Oatmeal?”

     “Unfortunately no,” Carter said. “I really haven’t had time lately to go to the store.”

     Carlton set his coffee down on the counter. “I can go,” he said. “We don’t really have anything trying to kill us at the moment, so it’s not like we don’t have the time.”

     “Yeah, well whatever tried to kill me last night probably has friends,” Fiona said. She gazed over at the window, which was now tightly boarded up. “Although I doubt it can get through that door now.” And we need food, Fiona thought. Hiding won’t save us if we end up starving to death.

     “It’s a good idea though,” Carter said. “Don’t worry about buying the best, just get as much canned and non-perishable foods as possible. Take Roderigo and Steven with you, in case you run into trouble,” Carter said. “Just leave us that Medicine Gun and a few pistols, in case one of those things gets inside again.”

     “No problem.”

     As Carlton headed toward the door, Carter took a sip from his glass and frowned. “And get some more tea. English Breakfast has its strengths, but iced tea isn’t one of them.”

* * *

Louie’s was one of those cheesy 50’s style diners, stationed inside an old metal trailer and parked on the side of the road. It was a bit larger than most, but still small and simple, serving nothing more sophisticated than sandwiches, eggs, and bad coffee. It wasn’t Elisabeth Hassan’s style at all; she preferred something more modern, something that served food that took time and effort to prepare.

     But this was where her meetings with the Chief Gibson took place. It was out of the way enough to ensure privacy, and yet it was still crowded enough to provide protection in numbers if things went south. But the food was horrid, and the place reeked of grease. Still, she couldn’t think better place to hold the meetings, so she suffered through the bitter coffee and scorched eggs, flavoring them with a bit of sugar and hot sauce respectively, while she waited for him to appear.

     She had taken her first bite when Gibson appeared. He entered the doorway in plain clothes, his .45 hidden in a holster under his jacket. Without even looking, he made his way to her table, slid in across from her and nonchalantly ordered a corned beef on rye. As the waitress shouted the order to the cook, he turned to Elisabeth and asked how her day was.

     Fine,” she said. “I got up early though, ended up doing a house call for the Carters.”

     “Must have been pretty serious for a surgeon,” Gibson said.

     “Dr. Carter and I go back. He trusts me.” She wondered if she should tell him about what that she had seen on their floor, but decided against it. “Fiona slipped in the kitchen,” she said. “She has a mild concussion, but otherwise nothing serious.”

     “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. He leaned in closer. “I’m assuming that’s not why you called me though.”

     Reaching under the table, Elisabeth pulled a thick folder from her bag and slid it across to Gibson. He quickly picked it up and began reading, but quickly set it aside as his face twisted in a grimace of disgust. “I’ve identified eight more patients,” Elisabeth said, watching as he flipped through the file. “All of them are homeless, mostly drug addicts and alcoholics with no family ties inside the community. Each has extensive facial injuries, with the most severe being around the eyes, lips, throats and tongues. None of these wounds are infected, but they aren’t being cared for either. Judging by the dried blood on the patients’ hands, whoever is taking care of them isn’t even cleaning them. And of course, they’re being tied down.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket, and showed him a picture. “This patient has had multiple liver and intestinal biopsies. Medical records indicate that no anesthesia was used.” She swiped to the next image, and Gibson’s face went ashen. “This patient has had several brain biopsies, including one of the brain stem itself. Tissue samples have been removed from the edges of his other injuries, but I don’t know what the purpose is.” She placed the phone on the table. Her body relaxed, and her demeanor became more somber. “The thing is, even if these tests were allowed, the patients can’t consent. Most of them appear to have preexisting brain damage and dementia, so it’s not like they can consent. Some of them are so bad they can’t even report the abuse themselves. They’ve got them in isolation, Arnold. They’re perfect targets.”

     “Jesus,” Gibson said. He picked the folder back up, quickly flipping through it. “And you said they didn’t consent?”

     “I can’t even find admissions paperwork,” Elisabeth replied.

     “It doesn’t look like many of them have any doctors in common, either,” Gibson said.

     “That’s right. Different doctors, different nurses, different staff. Some of them either don’t exist, or don’t have hospital privileges. The insurance information is fake too.” She paused, and reached back under the table. “There’s one more thing,” she said, lifting a small stack of photographs. “Each patient has that same tattoo, just like the others.”

     Gibson grabbed the photographs, scanning each one thoroughly. “These looks fresh,” he said.

     “They are. Given how long some of these patients have been in that ward, I doubt they had them when they came in.”

     Gibson shuddered. It was clear the same thought that was running through Elisabeth’s head was also in his. Although the design of the tattoo was unusual, the concept was sickeningly familiar. The victims were being branded, like cattle, and left to rot inside the hospital. He rubbed his eyes and leaned back. “I think this will be enough to get a warrant,” he said. He closed the folder and placed it and the photographs in his bag.

     As the waitress slid his sandwich in front of him, he gazed down at it with disdain. His face was pale, and it was clear he had lost his appetite. After taking a moment to run his options through his mind, he thanked Elisabeth, laid a twenty on the table and left.