St. Louis Insane Asylum, 11:56 p.m.
Kemper Bidwell lay in the Saint Louis Insane Asylum infirmary, clutching the letter. Though the spring night was chilly, he was drenched from head to toe with sweat. He was in no way physically ill—that was an elaborate ruse to gain entry to the weakest point of the Asylum, the sick room.
After discovering the thrilling news the correspondence contained, Kemper had gathered his stores of letters, and the list of contacts, tore them into small pieces and disposed of them down the privy. The only one he kept was the letter from Hercules Bennet’s sister.
Here, in the dark infirmary, amongst the bedridden and feeble detritus of America’s fringe, he once more contemplated the contents. It was too dark for him to read it, but it didn’t matter, for he had memorized it completely. He always returned again and again to the same sentence:
It should be emboldening to your quest to know Hercules and his companion, Silas, are actually in the same fair city where you presently recuperate.
The boys were here, in Saint Louis! What were the chances? His mind was too cramped with excitement to even think about chances and numbers. The letter even told where they were employed. After all those years and so many dead ends, his long quest was so near to completion. He’d never given up hope—no matter how bad it got. Hercules Bennet and Silas McDonough were finally within reach.
The short list of contacts the Army had given him was all played out, save Mrs. Abigail Crismon, Hercules Bennet’s sister. His hopes danced upon that last frayed whisper of a thread—yes, by God, danced a fine jig indeed!
As was often the case in the still and quiet of his nights, the memory stole upon him of his one other escape attempt from confinement at the altogether more sinister Andersonville. When life begins to look fine and right indeed, who in this world does not let doubt creep in to whisper evil things? Who does not dream on the myriad ways it may all crumble? He had long since ceased trying to control the thoughts and had learned to use them to sustain himself through his days of waiting.
I was left behind by those two bastards.
Those long smoldering embers were rekindled once again. The phantasms of the days following his recapture haunted him even more than the hellish days prior to his attempted escape with Silas and Hercules.
He remembered the confusion, the running, the pain and anguish he felt as he watched the two men on their fast, healthy legs as they disappeared first into the high grasses and then beyond into the thickening woods. He heard their calls for him to keep up. It was a cruelty he had not thought possible from the generally personable men. How could he keep up with weak, infirm legs made of soft, dying tissue? They knew his condition and yet selfishly kept running, without even a single attempt to help. Heartless, cold-blooded and mean, it was.
Andersonville had a way of stripping a man to show what lay beneath. It also had a way of changing a man too, from the bones up.
Then there was the truly awful shock of being shot. His leg, already with weakened bone and puss-filled flesh, could not withstand the glancing blow of the iron ball as it ricocheted from a nearby moss-covered tree trunk and slammed into his calf. He had heard the bone crack. Blood flowed so freely, it was a wonder it had not all leaked out as they dragged him back to the compound. He remembered the taunts and laughter from the Rebs as they took him not back to the inner circle of the stockade, but to the nearby hospital.
Why did his fellow inmates—his ‘friends’—leave him, and why on earth had the guards not pursued the others immediately? If they had recaptured them, too, this long road of revenge would never have been set out upon. Inefficiency. How he loathed it. In Kemper’s opinion it was why the South lost. They were too lazy to win.
The hospital at Andersonville was more a depot to the other side of the veil than it was a station for the healing arts. Any man who was lined up inside the prison walls for conveyance to the infirmary was all but dead anyway. He had seen dozens upon hundreds writhing and moaning in their own filth in the shadow of the big gate. Few men laying there in that bald patch of ground would ever walk through any gates again—other than the pearly ones high above. There he was lying on the other side, living the horrors of Andersonville Hospital for himself.
Medical care consisted of resetting his broken leg bone and cauterizing his leaky flesh. Maggots had been administered as the Confederate witch doctors reasoned the larvae only ate the rotten flesh. It was a truth of nature, but it did not bring him an ounce of comfort as he felt them wriggling around in and about his leg. He was bound to the cot with hemp roping, as he was considered probable to try another escape. If his hands were free, he surely would have flayed himself from the kneecap down.
Anesthesia consisted of the most minuscule dose of morphine possible and a stick to bite down upon. Pain and anger were his nursemaids. The other prisoners who had given up on this world dropped with clock-like regularity around him. To his doctor’s astonishment, he actually improved and was soon sent back into the ranks of the Union soldiers inside.
The fools thought their medical talents had saved him. They had no notion of the healing benefits of insanity and revenge. For the remainder of his days and nights in Andersonville, he had the focus and clarity of revenge to nourish him as others languished in despair and all but surrendered to death.
Kemper let the memories pass and returned his awareness to the infirmary in St. Louis. He wiped the tears from his eyes and looked about the room to find the simple-minded wretches surrounding him were all asleep. Despite their various illnesses, they were lulled into fitful slumber by the doctors and their pharmaceutical phalanxes. They had plied him with similar bounty, but Kemper was able to hoodwink the staff into thinking he had taken their medicines.
The laudanum, being an old friend, was a different tale altogether. He gulped it down as soon as it was in his hands. He had even managed a steady influx of the poppy juice beyond his prescription by bartering with the other patients using the surplus of medication he did not want and did not take.
Alone amongst the flock of sheep, it was time for him to shepherd himself on out of there. He folded the letter and slid it into a fold of his hospital “fatigues.” He swung his legs over the side of the cot and winced at the godawful squeak the urine-rusted coils made.
The sheep did not stir.
He used the slight starlight cast throughout the ward to navigate down between the beds. His sweat-soaked garb chilled him as he rushed in a right jolly crippled dash to the nurse’s station door. A thick plate of glass was centered in the heavy iron barrier. There being a disturbing amount of heat emanating from the sick, sleeping bodies, a mist had formed on the infirmary side. Kemper wiped it away slowly. The glass was so thick it was impossible to peer more than a few feet into the office.
There, however, next to the door, he saw the night orderly, Felix, head lolling back as he reclined in a chair. His feet were crossed and resting upon Nurse Elber’s desk. How she would rail upon Felix if she were to witness his nonchalant laxity and disrespect!
Being locked inside, Kemper contemplated how he could find himself on the opposite side of the door and past Felix with the least amount of hubbub. Using the only weapons at his disposal—his wits and his pants, he shed his trousers and twisted them into a long, crude rope.
He knocked lightly against the glass so as to awaken the semi-conscious Felix, but not the others in the room. No response, except the tall, doughy man shifted his girth, causing a barely audible groan from the chair as he wedged his fat in even deeper between the arm rests. In his orderly whites, Felix resembled a three hundred pound sack of wet flour stuck in a chair.
Kemper was irritated with this impediment to his escape, but also with his lifelong intolerance for ineptitude in others.
This man should be on guard at all times for the needs of the sick!
Kemper gave a healthier knocking upon the iron door itself, which yielded a very satisfactory, low, booming echo. He spied as Felix came to with a start. He ducked back behind the door and awaited the man’s entry. Nothing happened for a moment and Kemper assumed the lummox must be peering through the window. Kemper had a lifetime of waiting. He reckoned a second more would not crush him, so he waited. Finally a faint jingle of keys, the rough tumble and click of the lock and the door was opening toward Kemper.
Kemper waited for Felix to enter. When he had cleared the door, Kemper rushed toward him, holding the ends of his trousers; he looped the middle section over Felix’s head and around his neck. He put his weight into it and yanked back hard.
Felix struggled with the cloth around his neck and shuffled his feet but did not pitch backward as Kemper had hoped, so Kemper planted his one good leg into the orderly’s back. This had the desired result as Felix came crashing backward. Kemper swung out from underneath him but lost his grip on one end of the trousers. He managed to stay on his feet as Felix spun and landed face down on the rough plank floor.
Felix squirmed to get his feet and hands under him, the shock giving way to anger. A low growl was heard from deep within his throat, rising as he did.
Kemper laid his foot in the center of Felix’s back and pushed down, pinning the big man. Kemper reached out and gripped the edge of the open door and swung it hard into the top of Felix’s skull.
Felix howled and tried to protect his pate against the next blow but he was too late and Kemper rammed the door into him again and again.
It lasted an excruciatingly long time, in Kemper’s opinion, but Felix eventually stopped struggling and lay still, his legs and arms sprawled out as a small puddle of blood pooled under his face.
After the commotion, a few of the patients stirred. Curiosity was one thing, but Kemper didn’t need them interfering.
Kemper removed the attendant’s large shoes, dropped the orderly’s legs with a thud and padded barefoot into the nurse’s station.
He closed the door behind, locked it and removed the keys.
Kemper stood there shivering with excitement, staring down the corridors of the administrative wing as the gas-lamps cast their light and laid their shadows. He was thinking about the few steps until he was on the road to Hercules and Silas. He entertained the delightful notion of ransacking the offices and setting the whole place on fire, thereby destroying his records by result. He knew the records did not reveal his intentions or give away his plans, and setting the hellish dungeon ablaze, killing hundreds in the process, was not conducive to the stealth he required in future. Kemper hunted men and he was aware the infamy such an act would shoulder upon him. It would make him a glaring target instead of the odd footnote he intended to be. Still, it would have been a glorious explosion of destruction and one hell of a farewell party.
Knowing his limited time, Kemper stuck to the plan and focused his electrified attentions on the important next step. He crossed the expanse of the nurse’s station, his feet slapping on the cold black and white tiles. He approached the dispensary and dropped Felix’s shoes by the door. The clatter echoed up and down the corridor.
With trembling hands, he found what he imagined was the right key and worked it into the lock. He used too much force and the blade of the key snapped away from the bow. His panic consumed him. He raced about the small office, searching with abandon for some tool to open the room or get the sliver of the key from the lock.
He knew he could not continue this journey without his old friend.
He placed his weight behind the heavy desk in the center of the room, and after much maneuvering, managed to slide it across the smooth floor to the dispensary door. He climbed the desk and stood on the top to reach and open the transom window. He heaved himself up and slipped through the opening, crashing to the floor inside.
Ignoring the throbbing of his gimpy leg, he opened cabinets, searching in the faint light until he found the stores of laudanum. Opening one immediately, he swallowed a good, satisfying dose. The world soon felt tolerable around the edges. He hummed a light tune from his younger days and meticulously picked through the small, labeled bottles only taking the one favorite opiate. The others were sad, sloshy imitators.
He cradled the bottles and realized he had nowhere to put them, for his shirt barely covered his buttocks and had no pockets. He had left his pants in the infirmary wrapped around Felix’s neck. Despite his predicament, he giggled uncontrollably as he puzzled things out.
He placed the bottles near the door in a careful group and returned to the cabinets. As he tried to read the labels of the various chemicals—Nitric Acid, Carbolic Acid, Chlorine, Alcohol—he imagined the effects of mixing them to create some sort of explosion to blow open the door. He thought at the least it would burn away the inner workings of the lock, but ultimately this was abandoned as he realized any noxious gasses or smoke may kill him.
“We cannot have that…”
He stepped to the door and inspected the hinges and clawed at the pins until his fingertips nearly bled. He took another sip and finally the solution was simple in his mind. He rushed over and found a stack of linens in a closet in the corner. He sat on the floor near the door, his bare bottom chilled by the cold tiles, and he meticulously wrapped the laudanum in pillowcases and then the whole bunch in a sheet. He pushed one of the medicine cabinets against the door, placed the bundle on top and climbed.
He held the parcel over the desk in the hallway and lowered it as far as the loose ends of the sheet would reach and let go. He winced in anticipation of the sound of the shattering bottles, but the sound never came. Filled with joy at his success, he threw himself through the transom, bouncing off the desk and onto the hallway floor.
The anguished, pudgy face of Felix filled the thick window of the infirmary door. He was quite livid as he mouthed some obscenities while pounding on the iron barrier. Kemper could not make out what the orderly was trying to communicate, but then again, he didn’t care. He knew it would be hours yet until the fat man was let out of the wrong side of the door.
He collected his drugs and hugged them close, turning toward the door leading out back. As he walked quickly down the hall the wind rushing against his legs and around his privates shocked him into realizing he was not attired for mingling with the world beyond the confines of the asylum.
Inside these walls there was nothing remarkable or shocking about seeing a man or woman wandering aimlessly in nothing but a dirty nightshirt, but outside he would cause quite a stir and surely be transported right back.
Kemper knew there was a changing room where employees kept their belongings while they worked. He shuffled down the hall and tried every room. Some doors were locked and others were storage or offices. He went from side to side until he had but one room left. At the final door, just beside the exit, Kemper wrapped his fingers around the cold brass knob, closed his eyes and made a wish.
The room was filled with tall lockers on either side. He laid the bundle on a low bench in the center of the room. He quickly padded to the locker nearest the door and clawed at the latch. Inside he found a coat and trousers. As he unfurled them, he realized they must belong to an exceptionally large person. He held the trousers to his waist and the hems flopped over his feet. He inspected the jacket and found a strip of white cloth sewn into the collar with Felix’s name stitched in.
Not wanting to waste a precious moment, he slipped on the trousers, rolled up the hem, tucked in his nightshirt and donned the jacket. He rummaged around for a pair of shoes and remembered he had left Felix’s footwear outside the dispensary.
He was scornful of the enormity of Felix’s clothes, but realizing the extra storage they provided, he smiled with deep contentment at the serendipity as he unwrapped the laudanum and shoved them in the various pockets.
He hobbled back to the desk, his pockets tinkling. As he slipped into the huge shoes, he looked up to see the infirmary window was completely fogged over and Felix was wiping it clean with the ball of his hand. He poked his blood-streaked face once more into the glass and mouthed a few very clear, quite obscene words.
Kemper gathered himself, stopped, saluted the corpulent caretaker and let himself through the service entrance out onto the rear grounds.
Awareness of time and sense of direction had long been unnecessary since he had been inside the poisoned womb. His knowledge was limited to daytime, nighttime, left or right. His rebirth found him racing across the lush grass under a spectacular canopy of stars to guide him. He would soon find out where and when he was by the manner and mass of traffic beyond the confines of the St. Louis Insane Asylum acreage.
Kemper made the wide trek around the south side of the asylum. He reached the low wall and sat upon it. It was not designed for anything other than creating a facade of austerity and beauty. No one was intended to be kept in by it. Each patient’s own mental and pharmaceutical walls kept them safely inside. He swung his legs out and over and carefully hopped down. He strolled with purpose out to Arsenal Avenue. He surmised it was late in the evening by the light traffic and unlit windows. Still, the front desk of a hotel such as the Crawford was no doubt manned at all hours for the arriving guests who recognized no civilized timetables.
He sipped a small dose for the long walk. He must be careful not to run dry. This would be a long trip, one to savor.