Home > BZRK (BZRK #1)

Michael Grant


A girl sat just three chairs down from Noah talking to her hand. To the back of her hand, actually, as she spread her fingers wide. Her fingertips were painted alternately red and gold, but not with fingernail polish, and not strictly on the fingernails. Rather, it looked as if she had used a can of spray paint.

She explained to the back of her hand that she was “Perfectly all right. Perfectly all right.”

Noah thought she might have been pretty, but it was hard to really assess her face or body when his glance was drawn so irresistibly to the rope burn around her neck.

She started screaming when the orderlies came for her. They had to lift her up bodily, one on each rigid arm. Her mother, or perhaps older sister, stood with her hand over her mouth, wept and echoed the girl’s own speech.

“It’ll be all right,” said the sane one.

“I’m perfectly all right!” cried the crazy one.

The girl kicked her chair across the floor and shot Noah a savage look from eyes edged red.

Noah Cotton. Sixteen years old. He had brown hair that defaulted to bed head without any effort on his part. His lips were full and downturned just a little, as if prepared for sadness. The nose was strong and sharp, a damned-near-perfect nose. But of course it was those blue eyes that drew you in. Where had he gotten eyes that blue? They looked unnatural. Like someone wearing tinted contact lenses. And Noah would turn those bright, unnatural blue eyes on you, and you wouldn’t know whether you were looking into profound depths or maybe just into a very crazy place.

Well, if the answer was, “a very crazy place,” then he would fit in perfectly with his location, which was the waiting room in the central hall of The Brick.

This place weighed down on him. Maybe it was the history. In the eighteenth century it had been called the Lord Japheth LeMay Asylum for the Incurably Mad. By the mid-nineteenth century that had been softened a bit to become the East London Asylum for the Insane.

Today it was officially called the East London Hospital for the Treatment of Serious Mental Illness.

But no one called it that, at least not outside the facility itself. Out in the world it was called The Brick.

It was a redbrick architectural monstrosity that had grown—metastasized, maybe—over the course of more than two hundred years. It wasn’t all brick. Some of the towers and wings were stone. Some outbuildings were flaking, painted plaster over ancient half-timbered walls. But the massive hall, with its fraternal twin towers, the Bishop and the Rook—one tall and pointed, the other squat and intimidating—were all in soot-encrusted red brick.

Noah was doing his best not to feel the echoes of the mad girl’s cries, but the waiting room was about as schizophrenic as many of the patients: ancient oil paintings, a vaguely off-kilter black-and-white tile floor, yellow walls that were probably someone’s idea of cheerful, and furniture from a rummage sale. Then, to top it all off, there was the chandelier, which had to have been plundered from some gaudy palace during a long-ago colonial war. It cast a light that was excellent at creating shadows, so that even the space under the chairs looked as if it might be the dark lair of tiny monsters.

Noah was here to visit his brother, Alex. His much older brother, Alex. Age twenty-five, ex-army veteran of Afghanistan, Royal Highland Fusiliers. (Motto: Nemo Me Impugn Lacessit—No One Assails Me with Impunity. Or the alternative version—Do Not Fuck with Us or We Will Hurt You.) Shoulders you could break a cinder block on, disciplined, up every morning to run ten kilometers in whatever weather London had on offer.

Alex Cotton, who had earned the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for basically having balls so big he had taken out three hajis in a machine-gun nest while literally carrying a wounded comrade on his back.

And now …

Noah’s name was called. An attendant, a swaggering thug with fat legs, a Taser in one pocket and a leather-covered sap sticking out of the other, led the way. Past office doorways. Through a reinforced glass-and-steel security doorway.

Through a second security door.

Past the control center where bored guards watched flickering screens and discussed sports with their feet up.

Through a third door. This one had to be buzzed open by an attendant on the other side.

And here the screams and wails and sudden shrill, rising cries and gut-wrenching sobs began. The sounds leaked through steel doors of individual rooms: cells, in reality.

Noah didn’t want to feel those screams inside himself, but he wasn’t armored, he wasn’t impervious. Each wild trill of mad laughter made him flinch as if he was being whipped.

A nurse and two scruffy attendants were making their way from door to door. One of the attendants pushed a squeaky cart loaded with little plastic cups, each designated with a code number and containing no fewer than half a dozen and sometimes a baker’s dozen brightly colored pills.

The pill crew came to a door, knocked, warned the inmate to stand back, waited, then unlocked and opened the door. One attendant— no, let’s cut the bull, they were guards, turnkeys, screws, but not attendants—went inside with the nurse while the remaining guard stood ready with a Taser.

Noah reached Alex’s cell. Number ninety-one.

“Don’t worry, he’s shackled,” the guard said. “Just don’t try to touch him. He don’t like people touching him.” The guard grinned ruefully and shook his head in a way that suggested Noah knew what he meant.

The door opened on a room five feet wide, eight feet deep. The only furnishing was a steel bunk. Fat steel bolts fixed the cot to the cracked tile floor. There was a radio on a high shelf, too high for a person to reach. The BBC was on, soft, some politician being grilled.

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