A blast of wind slammed against the old pickup and nearly wrenched the wheel from Rafe’s hands. He muttered under his breath and with an effort kept the vehicle bouncing hard down the road. Night was thick and black, and the keening wail of the wind kept his senses on high alert.
He glanced down at the crown of the blond angel snuggled up next to him. She was older than he was by six months, but she was so fragile that he felt manly and protective around her. He wanted to put an arm over her shoulders but needed both hands to wrangle this miserable old Chevy truck down the highway.
They were running away. Running away together. It scared him and thrilled him at the same time.
He saw her slide a hand over her protruding belly, and it made him feel warm inside. His baby. Their baby. He wanted to crow with delight.
They’d gotten away!
But there was still danger.
She was silent as they continued to rattle and shake down the road. He hoped to hell the rough ride didn’t hurt the baby. They were going for a new start, a new life.
Damn! It felt good!
Rafe gazed through the inky blackness and saw tree limbs bend toward the vehicle as he passed, as if they were trying to stop them. Nothing could stop them. He wouldn’t let it.
A dozen more miles passed beneath the tires and he mused into the silence, “You know they found that woman’s body. The whore that everyone kinda called a witch?
She’d been dead a while. Nothing but bones, really.”
Rafe was better at being a dope in love than a conversationalist; he just didn’t know it. The girl beside him listened quietly, neither encouraging nor discouraging him.
“I told you about the Blackburns, right?” he went on. “I do some work for them sometimes? That old couple who hide behind their curtains in their big house and spy on other houses? They saw the fire across their field a few years back and thought the witch died then. Maybe she did. But the cops and stuff dug all around and didn’t find her. Guess he hid her. But they found her now. Just a bag of bones.”
They drove on for a while. The crying wind rose to a shriek as they passed through the mountains. The Coast Range. Rafe was taking them away from the beach and toward Portland, though he didn’t have the foggiest idea what they would do when they reached the city. But Tasha had wanted to get far away, and so the biggest city in Oregon was where they were heading.
They passed a rest stop, one lonely light shining through the cold night air. Rafe had been feeling his bladder and, with a grimace, stepped on the brakes and swung the truck back around.
“What are you doing?” she demanded sharply.
“Gotta drain the lizard, hon. I’m quick. You know how quick I am.”
He dared to touch her silken hair, comforting her. But she was tense and her blue eyes were shadowed and haunted as they looked up at him.
Rafe drove into the rest stop and parked in the handicap spot closest to the restrooms. The men’s and women’s signs were visible under the yellow light by the doors.
He started to get out and Tasha scrambled after him. Lovingly looking down at her awkward form, he asked, “What are you doing outta the truck?”
“I have to go, too,” she said.
“You’re peeing for two.” He grinned in the darkness, his dark hair flying around his face. “Pretty soon that little bugger’s gonna be here.”
He helped her toward the door and made sure the women’s room was unlocked, then whistled as he strode toward the men’s room. He couldn’t believe his good fortune.
She loved him. Loved. Him. They’d only made love a half a dozen times or so, all under the cover of secrecy because she would be in deep, deep shit if anyone at the house found out. Once they’d gone out to the graveyard and made love right on top of one of her dead relatives. Cold as a witch’s tit, and he’d felt guilty and strange, but she’d been so beautiful. White skin, blond hair, a kind of smile that made him want to throw her down and screw the hell out of her. Brand her as his. And he had, too. God, it had been something. She’d had to clap her hand over his mouth ’cause he’d wanted to howl and scream that he’d claimed her.
Another time they’d made love standing up --- their usual way, ’cause of the weather --- under her bedroom window.
It had been a lot colder, and they’d had to be quicker. The danger was heightening. He’d come so fast he’d been a little embarrassed but she’d said it was okay. Had to be that way. Only way they could be together.
And then the people in the house had started to guess what was going on. They’d gotten stricter with her. He’d had trouble seeing her alone. But she loved him. She told him she loved him over and over again. And he loved her just as much.
They’d had a heck of a time seeing each other. Stolen moments here and there. And then they’d learned she was pregnant. She’d whispered it to him when they were outside, under a cold spring night. He’d been scared shitless at first. Then thrilled. He’d begged her to run away with him and she’d said yes.
So here they were, months later, fulfilling their dream.
Zipping up, Rafe strolled out of the bathroom. She wasn’t out yet. Women never were. He glanced at a small field surrounded by the waving firs and decided to walk over and have a smoke.
Tasha leaned against the side of the stall, feeling cumbersome and fat. Her eyes were closed and she was mumbling encouragement to herself. She had set them on this path and now it was just a matter of timing.
A curtain of darkness was descending inside her head.
Nothing new. She’d had the same trouble since she could remember. An affliction, she’d been told. Well, they were never going to tell her that again!
She heard the rumble of another vehicle pulling into the rest stop, the noise just barely discernible over the keening of the wind. Her heart clutched. She waited and then footsteps headed into the women’s room, carefully measured treads.
Tasha’s eyes flew open and her lips parted. The saliva dried in her mouth.
The footsteps slapped against the concrete floor, pausing a moment by Tasha’s door. She was glad for the dim illumination; the light bulbs barely worked at all. She dug her fingernails into her palms.
They didn’t even bother going into another stall. Just turned around and headed back outside without using the facilities.
Carefully, Tasha slipped her lock, peeked out, then tiptoed toward the outside door. She would be seen under the yellow light if she made a break for the pickup. Yet she had no choice.
Silently cursing her ungainly shape, she drew a long breath, then hurried as best she could into the night and to the passenger door. It was open and she clutched it like a lifeline.
But there was no Rafe inside. Where was he?
Sidestepping the door, she slipped around the rear of the pickup. The newly arrived vehicle was three spots over, a dark sedan. She gave it a long, hard look. The driver was nowhere to be seen.
Then she thought she heard voices. A snatch on the wind.
Tasha moved from the rear of the Chevy back to the side, keeping the pickup between her and the grassy area where the voices seemed to be coming from. She couldn’t discern who was talking. But they were talking about a baby. They were talking about her.
Clenching her fists, she waited, counting her breaths.
Minutes passed. Eternities, it seemed.
She finally dared to leave the security of the pickup, but when her feet hit the muddy field grass she slipped and went down on one knee. She glanced around anxiously but there was no one. Nothing but the shrieking wind and rattling limbs and wet slap of water that flew off the branches.
She opened her mouth. “Rafe?” she called softly, sliding one clenched hand inside her coat pocket. “Rafe?”
No sound. But then…something…near?
The knife came swiftly. Slicing down on her. Cutting through her coat and piercing the skin of her left shoulder.
Tasha screamed. Shocked. The blade was pulled back, then stabbed again. She jerked herself away and stumbled into the field.
“Rafe!” she screamed and she heard him crashing toward her.
But then her attacker was on her again and she went down, rolling with them in the mud, frantically trying to stop the blade. Rolling and rolling. Fighting.
Then Tasha was on her back, the knife blade held high above her, glinting in the yellow security light. She recognized the figure looming over her as the devil himself.
The devil herself.
Long-haul trucker Denny Ewell had to take a whiz really bad. Damn mother fuckin’ coffee. Went through you like you had no pipes. He pulled into the rest stop as the faintest sign of daylight, more like just a lifting of darkness, started moving over the hills.
He pulled his rig into a spot designed for RVs and big semis and leaped from the cab, racewalking to the men’s room. He was peeing by the time he got the damn zipper down and he let out a huge sigh of relief.
Finished, he looked at his reflection and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Fuckin’ A,” he said to his receding hairline. Making a face at his craggy mug, he headed back outside. A little lighter. Little better. He’d be in Astoria in an hour or so, depending on the snowpack in the Coast Range.
He was just about back to his rig when he heard something. Something like a groan. He glanced around. There was a beat-up Chevy pickup in the lot and he realized its passenger door was ajar.
“Hey,” he called.
Squinting at his watch, he went to the opened door and pulled it wider. No one there.
The groan was louder. Coming from beyond the pickup. Circling the vehicle, he checked the field opposite. Something there. Movement of sorts.
“Hey,” he called again as he walked cautiously toward it. Wouldn’t do to run into some kind of wild animal searching for food scraps. He could do without that encounter.
Something on the ground.
Something with clothes on…
And then it rose to its feet, a bloodied figure, towering over the prone body still lying on the wet grass.
Denny’s heart nearly exploded from his chest. “Holy shit!”
“The baby,” it said, clutching its chest.
Denny stepped back --- he couldn’t help himself --- as the figure before him staggered toward him, then fell to its knees. A man. Twisting to bend over the limp mound on the ground.
“Hey. Hey, man,” Denny said, reaching out a hand. The mound on the muddy grass turned out to be human.
A woman, pregnant, her belly exposed like a white mound with black marks across its crest. Bloody marks. From knife wounds scored across her taut skin.
“Oh, Jesus.” Denny pushed the bending man away, not sure what he intended. He fell over without resistance, his eyes staring at the sky, blood dampening his chest.
Horrified, Denny dragged his gaze back to the woman. She was breathing shallowly. Alive. Barely.
And the baby? Whoever had tried to cut the poor little thing out had not succeeded.
Sending a prayer to the man upstairs, he ran for his truck and cell phone.
“Get over here,” Leesha said. “You need to meet our new patient. Someone tried to cut her baby out!”
Dr. Claire Norris wheeled into Laurelton General’s parking lot and peremptorily nosed her car into another doctor’s designated spot. She wasn’t affiliated with Laurelton General. She was a psychiatrist at Halo Valley Security Hospital, a facility located some fifty miles south of Laurelton for patients with mental problems. But today, on her day off, she’d gotten the call from Leesha, a friend and associate, who believed this patient would be transferred to Halo Valley as soon as her physical ailments were addressed.
Damn near catatonic. Knifed across her shoulders and abdomen. Not deep enough to cut to the baby, but Jesus, Joseph, and Mary…
Claire drew a steadying breath. She’d seen the damage a knife could do to human flesh. In her office. Directly in front of her. A knife slashing through a woman’s throat, the last awful sounds as the victim lost her life and the murderer turned his attention on Claire…
As she had since the beginning, she pushed the memory aside with an almost physical effort as she switched off the ignition. But, like always, it nagged at her. Wouldn’t let her go. The killer had been one of her patients. Heyward Marsdon III. A paranoid schizophrenic who suffered from hallucinations and delusions. He hadn’t meant to kill his girlfriend, Melody Stone. He hadn’t known what he was doing. He’d dragged Melody to see Claire and then been overrun with visions of ghoulish zombielike creatures who he believed were trying to attack Claire. He’d grabbed Melody, no longer his girlfriend but an evil being out for blood, and threatened to kill her. Claire begged him to stop. Begged him. Cajoled and reasoned and expected results. Heyward hesitated briefly, just long enough for Melody to whisper “Do it!” to him, as if she were under the spell of some rapture, and then he slit her throat. Just like that.
Slaying the woman he believed to be a soulless monster in one stroke.
Claire screamed. Shock ran through her like an electric current. But then Heyward was on her, the knife to Claire’s throat, determined to kill her --- or, more accurately, the evil being Claire had become. He pressed the knife’s edge to her throat, his hand quivering. Claire told him over and over that she was his doctor, that she meant him no harm. She asked quietly if she could get help for Melody and somehow her words finally penetrated his brain and he allowed her to call in Wade, one of the hospital guards. But Melody Stone was long gone before help arrived. Only Claire survived.
Six months ago. As real a nightmare now as it had been then. Claire had been in her own kind of therapy ever since it had happened. A memory that wouldn’t go away. Ever. She could only hope she could put it aside a bit with time.
Now, glancing through the windshield and spotting rain, her gaze extended to the sprawling gray concrete and stone hospital that was Laurelton General. She probably shouldn’t be here. Was doubtlessly overstepping her limits. By all rights she should leave this to the higherups at Halo Valley who had so uncaringly thrown her to the wolves after the incident with Heyward Marsdon. That’s what they’d reduced Melody Stone’s death to: the incident. And though Claire’s life had been threatened, too, they let her take the fall alone.
In the time since the incident Claire had been seen by a barrage of other psychologists and psychiatrists and varying concerned hospital administrators and investors who’d rubbed their chins and offered antidepressants, which she’d refused, and then tentatively, finally pronounced her mentally good to go. Everyone professed great relief for her wellbeing, but all they really wanted was to dust their hands of her: the sole witness to a murder on hospital grounds.
Ironically, after Heyward Marsdon, delusional and hallucinating, was pulled away from Claire, wrestled to the ground, and taken away, he was eventually incarcerated at Halo Valley Security Hospital himself, on the side of the hospital reserved for the criminally insane.
Claire had dutifully followed through with her own therapy, but it had yet to make so much as a dent in her lingering feelings of horror and inadequacy. She had someone else for that. Another friend who understood human emotions and treated Claire with compassion. Dinah Smythe lived at the coast and was Claire’s closest neighbor. Dinah was the only person who seemed to truly understand the long road Claire was traveling for her own mental health.
Thank God for her, Claire thought passionately.
Now, climbing out of her black Passat, she hit the remote lock and listened for the beep. Fall guy or not, today she’d answered Leesha Franklin’s call and was going to meet the comatose, pregnant patient on her own time. Before the tragedy Claire had been considered top in her field. She still was in the larger world, but within the inner circles at Halo Valley there was a definite cover-your-ass mentality overriding common sense, and Claire had lost value because of it. No one wanted the taint of the consequences to stick to them. Let Claire Norris take the hit. She’s the one who witnessed the murder. She’s the one who couldn’t stop it. It was her fault. Yes, her fault! No one else’s.
Claire felt a simmering anger as she thought of it, followed by a sense of inadequacy that she couldn’t help Melody. She could recall every moment, every syllable, everything: the bright yellow tulips in a bouquet on her desk splashed with equally bright red blood; the soft cadence of Melody Stone’s voice as she goaded Heyward to do it; the rustle of clothing as he pulled her closer; the metallic scent of blood; the resonating terror of her own voice in her ears; the slam of the door as Wade burst into the room; the shriek of sirens as the ambulance screamed up the long lane to Halo Valley hospital and medical offices.
She shook the memory free, fighting its grip. No amount of dwelling and soulsearching was going to help now. She needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward, learning to forget.
A sharp wind whipped up as Claire headed for the hospital, yanking her hair from its restraining clip at her nape. Dark brown strands snapped in front of her eyes and she bent her head and trudged on, seeing the toes of her brown pumps march rapidly toward the sliding glass doors of the main entrance. She heard the sound of an approaching engine and glanced around to see a news van turn into the lot. “Vultures,” she muttered aloud, aware that soon this particular patient’s story would be blasted across the airwaves. Claire had had her fill of newspeople types. She’d been the object of their bristling mics and pointed questions enough times to become disillusioned with the lot of them.
The hospital’s main entrance doors slid open and she was inside, moving rapidly toward the elevators that led to the upper floors. Laurelton General was positioned on a sharp incline resulting in the two westside floors being on the lower hillside and therefore below the main entrance. This explained why the main floor sign declared in big block letters: FLOOR THREE.
Claire fingercombed her hair, smoothing it behind her ears. She chafed at the delay of the elevator and practically slammed into a doctor hurrying into the elevator as she tried to exit on floor five.
He made a disgruntled sound, which she ignored. Departing elevator riders had priority and she was clearly in the right. He could just bite it.
“Well, there you are!” Leesha called when she saw her. At five feet four and a hundred and sixtyfive pounds, Leesha was a solid wall of a woman, built like a square, by her own admission. Her skin was a warm coffee color and her black hair was lined in cornrows that looked tight enough to cause a migraine. Leesha was as cranky as she was empathetic --- cranky to imbeciles who got in her way and whined; empathetic toward her patients. She couldn’t bear indecision and fingerpointing and she knew enough about Melody Stone’s death and Claire’s recent problems to be thoroughly pissed off at all the people trying to scuttle away and leave Claire standing alone to take the heat.
But today there was underlying panic on Leesha’s face. The horror of the attack on the Jane Doe was inescapable.
“C’mon this way.” She motioned for Claire to follow her, then moved quickly to the end of the hall and into a room already occupied by at least one other doctor and a nurse.
“Been like that since she was brought in this morning, poor child,” Leesha said in an aside as Claire gazed down at the woman in the bed who was attached to an IV and a heart rate monitor for both her and the baby.
Her hair was a soft yellow shade, her skin smooth and unlined. She appeared to be sleeping but there was something deeper in her manner.
“No head injury,” Leesha added, reading Claire’s thoughts. “Coma, maybe emotionally induced? If she doesn’t come to, she’ll be heading your way for sure.”
“I’ll try to make her my patient,” Claire said.
“You better. My girl here needs the best.”
“Just know it might not happen.”
Claire’s success rate in treating patients with psychological disorders was the best at Halo Valley; Heyward Marsdon the notable exception, although she’d warned everyone from the hospital administrator on down that he was a danger to himself and to others. But Heyward Marsdon III’s family didn’t agree and threatened to cut off their hospital funding, and so she’d been ignored. When the incident happened, she was in the process of finalizing her recommendation letter concerning Heyward and suggesting he be held on a seventytwohour watch, but it became a moot point. She’d been removed as his psychiatrist, and though she did try to defend herself, explaining about her recommended course of treatment, no one cared. It was too late. The damage too severe. No one was about to throw Claire a life raft when they were all scrambling to keep from drowning.
“Excuse me, who are you?” The doctor who had tried to ignore them now gazed at Claire authoritatively. His bushy gray brows were all over the place, one side looking as if it were trying to crawl to the other. He wore the requisite white jacket and had a habit of dropping his chin and looking through the tops of his eyes, a disciplinarian’s unconscious body language. His name tag read Dr. Franco Blount.
“This is Dr. Claire Norris from Halo Valley,” Leesha answered. “I called her.”
“This woman is our patient,” he said frostily to the nurse.
Leesha pointed to the blond girl in the bed. “This woman was attacked by someone trying to take her baby. When she comes to, y’think she might need psych?”
Blount glared darkly at her but Leesha held his gaze. She didn’t scare easily, if at all, and she knew what she knew. The other nurse in the room, however, must have decided it was high time to get out as she muttered some excuse and scurried from the room.
“When did the patient arrive?” Claire asked.
“A trucker found her around six A.M. She was brought in about seven thirty,” Leesha answered.
“Closer to eight,” Blount corrected her.
“Unconscious the whole time?” Claire asked.
Blount opened his mouth but Leesha beat him to a response. “ER said her eyes were open when she arrived but she never spoke. She didn’t respond to their questions.”
“And the baby?”
“So far, so good.” She raised crossed fingers.
“Considering this.” Blount pulled back the covers and lifted the hospital gown. The woman’s protruding abdomen was scored with knife wounds that crisscrossed both above and below her navel. Dried blood could be seen, and the yellowish orange swab of antiseptic. The cuts hadn’t been bandaged yet.
“Those wounds as superficial as they look?” Claire asked neutrally, but it took an effort. Her throat felt completely void of liquid.
“They are,” Leesha said, but before she could go on, Blount tried to wrest back control.
“The police have been here,” he said. “It appears someone sliced at her wildly. No method. They never got close to actually taking the baby.”
“There are some wounds on her shoulders,” Leesha said. “Like she was attacked there first and then overtaken.”
“That’s what the police said?” Claire asked.
“More or less.”
“Did they say anything else?”
“Are you planning to investigate, too?” Dr. Blount broke in scathingly. He twitched the hospital gown back into place, then lightly tossed the blankets back over the unconscious girl.
“There was a second victim. A man. DOA,” Leesha said.
“From knife wounds?”
“Uhhuh.” Leesha nodded.
“So they were both attacked by the same person.”
“Looks that way.”
“If you both plan to be amateur sleuths, perhaps you should seek different employment,” Blount stated flatly. “Dr. Norris, calling you was premature. When we’ve made a full examination of the patient, decisions will be made.”
He tried to hustle them out of the room but Leesha was a blockade. They had a brief standoff where Leesha tried to step aside and make way for the doctor to leave and he stood in lockjawed annoyance. Claire decided to alleviate the small drama by heading into the hall herself, but as she gave a last glance back at the patient she saw the pretty blond woman’s face contort with pain.
“The patient,” she declared, pushing back into the room past Blount, who still maintained his stance. Leesha was on her heels as Claire jerked back the covers as the Jane Doe moaned and thrashed. “Is she in labor?” Claire asked, seeing the contraction.
“Hope not.” Leesha pressed the call button, then hustled into the hall for additional help.
Claire looked to Blount, who hesitated, then swept after Leesha. As Claire leaned down to the patient, Jane Doe’s eyes slowly opened. Cornflower blue. Confused. Full of pain.
“You’re all right,” Claire told her. “You’re in a hospital.”
Her pupils seemed to dilate, then retract.
A team of medical personnel suddenly rushed into the room. “Excuse me,” one of the nurses said sharply and Claire was pushed aside. Reluctantly she moved to the door. There was nothing she could do but get in the way. They needed room to move. Drugs to inhibit the contractions. Prayers that they could keep the baby from coming too early.
Leesha was in the hall. They looked at each other and Leesha came over and gave Claire a pat on her arm. Too early. Claire knew what that was like as well. Life was full of unexpected pitfalls, and today Claire was revisiting all of hers.
The tight male voice was familiar. Claire’s stomach tightened as she turned and faced the frowning visage of the insufferable Dr. Freeson as he made his way toward them. One of the psychiatrists at Halo Valley. Her immediate superior, in some ways, though he thought he was in all ways.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I called her,” Leesha jumped in. “She was good enough to come on her day off.”
“Well, you’re not needed.” He gazed at Claire hard. “I was in a meeting with Avanti, or I would have been here earlier,” he said primly, his Vandyck beard bristling. Fortysomething with sandycolored hair and eyes and a blotchy complexion, he wasn’t exactly God’s gift but he sure thought he was. He’d made a casual pass at Claire when she’d first joined Halo Valley and when she didn’t jump for joy, he’d been irked and somewhat embarrassed. It hadn’t helped their working relationship.
“I’m already here.” Claire forced a faint smile. It was better to treat Freeson like she was impervious, but sometimes she just wanted to smack his smug, supercilious face.
“Tomorrow, when you’re back at work, Avanti wants to talk to you.”
So what else was new? Dr. Paolo Avanti, Freeson’s immediate superior, loved giving daily lectures about anything and everything. He was at least as much of a prick as Freeson, though he had better social skills in front of the public. But neither Freeson nor Avanti had come to Claire’s defense when she really needed them, and they would both prostrate themselves in front of the head hospital administrator, Dr. Emile Radke, if they thought it would help their positions at the hospital.
“Okay,” Claire said neutrally.
“Where is this patient?” Freeson demanded.
“The staff’s in with her now,” Leesha answered. “You’ll have to wait.”
He eyed her frostily from head to toe. He was a fairly slight man and Leesha’s stolid form seemed to nonplus him a bit. He wasn’t used to being thwarted, wasn’t used to anything but complete capitulation. “Then I’ll wait.”
Claire knew Freeson didn’t give a damn about the patient. This was all about jockeying for position within the hospital, and this patient provided media attention, something Freeson went after like a heatseeking missile. He seemed to also have made it his personal mission to keep Claire in line.
It was such utter bullshit. A means for everyone to believe that they were doing everything possible to rectify the fact that Melody Stone had been attacked on their hallowed grounds, in front of one of their own doctors, by another patient whose wealthy parents had coerced his release from those selfsame doctors and therefore helped set up the very events that led to Melody’s death.
Why was she the only one who saw it?
She answered her own question: hospital politics and money.
The nightmare scene of Melody’s death tried to play across Claire’s mind again, but this time she resolutely stuck it inside a box in her mind and tied it tightly. Not now. Not today. She knew grief and shock took their own sweet time in relinquishing their grip, and so she was trying to let nature take its course and heal her. She’d made good strides and was beginning to understand and process Melody’s death. She was also almost managing to forgive Heyward, knowing he was at the mercy of his own disease, though that was happening much slower.
The team of nurses and Dr. Blount came out of Jane Doe’s room and Leesha hurried over for a quick consult. Freeson breezed past them and entered the room. Claire felt compelled to follow him as he stood over the now peacefully resting patient.
“Not labor,” Leesha said near her ear. “Some other pain. Maybe mental.”
“She was attacked,” Claire reminded her.
They were all silent for a few moments, then all left together. Claire said to Leesha, “Keep me informed.”
“She’s not your patient,” Freeson told her, but Claire ignored him as she walked rapidly down the hall in the opposite direction that she’d arrived. By design she’d chosen a different exit. She had no interest in speaking to Freeson any more than she had to, and since he was likely to leave by the front, she would hit a side door. If he wanted her to wait for him, he could just go ahead and be pissed off that she’d avoided him.
“Hey!” He called after her before she could turn the corner.
Claire increased the length of her strides, pretending she didn’t know he was calling for her. She hit the stairs and hurried down the steps, pushing through a door to a small walkway that circled the building. Turning toward the front of the hospital and the parking lot, she bent her head to the chilly, drizzling rain. The Passat was still parked in a reserved spot. The hovering newspeople barely gave her a passing glance as she climbed into the car. She hadn’t left by the main entrance. She wasn’t wearing a lab coat.
They couldn’t connect her to the patient and didn’t know who she was.
She’d had enough of them six months earlier. Oh, brother, had she! As she backed out, she glanced through the window at their news van and the smattering of people milling around. She could see the dark, slickly combed head of Pauline Kirby.
Claire made a growling sound as she twisted the ignition. That woman had been particularly invasive. Between her insinuations, the accusations from Melody Stone’s family, and the abandonment of her colleagues, Claire had been under lethal assault.
And when she thought about it --- really thought about it without all the underlying sorrow and horror --- it really kind of pissed her off.
Turning the wipers on, she wheeled the Passat out of the lot. The interior was warm and she could smell her own body scent, dampened by rain. Lavender Mist. The body gel she’d washed with that morning in the shower. Today’s flavor, after lemon, apricot, and that horrible sea foam, was a fresh, almost minty scent that had been as ineffective as all the rest. Nothing could wash away the feeling of guilt, though she knew rationally she had nothing to feel guilty about.
In her rearview she saw Freeson step from the vaporlocked portico in front of the hospital. His gaze searched the parking lot, the impatience on his face a tight mask. But he didn’t focus on her car as the news horde bore down on him.
“Pretend you know something, Freeson,” she muttered, turning onto the main road. “Like you pretended to know what drove Heyward Marsdon to kill Melody Stone.”
“Heyward Marsdon killed my sister and nobody did a damn thing about it,” Langdon Stone stated flatly as he tipped up a longnecked beer. He swallowed a third of the bottle, wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, and added, “I’m not coming back to the department. I’m not doing a damn thing until that sick, privileged bastard is behind bars. Prison bars.”
“We know,” was the longsuffering response. His ex-partner, Detective Trey Curtis, darkhaired, lean, gruff, and still at the Portland Police Department, waved for the bartender to send over two more longnecks. “I’m not trying to get you to come back. Everything’s been better since you left.”
“Celek’s been doing a helluva job. I couldn’t ask for a better partner. And he’s better looking than you are. Gets all the chicks. They swoon.”
Curtis almost made Lang smile. Almost. He knew Curtis’s new partner, Joshua Celek: a chubby, freckled thirty-year-old with a sunny disposition and a belief in human nature that couldn’t be hammered out of him no matter how much depravity he encountered on the job. He looked and acted like a kid out of a fifties sitcom. He’d been elevated from robbery to homicide after Lang unceremoniously walked away from the job he’d worked for nearly a decade.
“Swoon,” Lang repeated.
“Well, that’s good, then, ’cause I’m not coming back.”
“Who says there’s a job waiting for you? You’re out. The chief…the captain…Lieutenant Drano…they’re all glad your pain-in-the-butt attitude is gone.”
“Drano called me yesterday. Offered me more money and a new partner if I had problems with you.”
“Drano’s on vacation in Mallorca.”
“Yeah, he got back last night and phoned me as soon as he touched down at PDX.”
“You’re lying. Good one, though.”
Lang did smile now, and Curtis reached over and knocked Lang’s baseball cap off his head. They locked their arms around each other’s necks, alarming their waiter, who’d already seemed to want to comment on their choice of beer with breakfast. It was a longstanding rule with Lang and Curtis: whenever they met, whichever one saw the other first, that one would buy the first beer. Lang had spotted Curtis and had ordered two Budweisers and they’d been enjoying them with bacon and eggs.
Curtis shoved Lang away from him and said to the waiter, “You don’t have to call the cops. I got a badge. Just off duty and trying to knock some sense into my friend here.” The waiter nodded slowly but the consternation on his face didn’t quite leave. “Really,” Curtis said.
“Okay. Can I get you anything else?”
Lang said, “Scotch and water, hold the water.”
“No. Thanks.” Curtis waved the waiter off. “Not until after nine thirty.” As the waiter turned away, he admitted to Lang, “Okay, butthead, Drano does want you back. We all do.”
Lieutenant Draden was called Drano because his craggy, worldweary face and dispirited manner made him seem drained of life. He was, in fact, savvy, smart, and surprisingly full of ideas, but you had to get to know him a while to see the man behind the persona. So far Celek hadn’t clued in. Curtis had told Lang a story about the newbie homicide detective and his penchant for keeping the gory details from Draden, as if it might somehow spiral him over the edge, that almost made Lang chuckle. Almost.
“Celek thinks if he tells Drano anything but sunshine and lollipops that Drano will jump off a bridge.”
“Tough to keep details from your lieutenant.”
“Oh, he writes up these bangup reports --- way better than yours, except for spelling and punctuation, your specialty ---”
“ --- and then he tries to make me turn them in. Like Drano won’t see his name at the bottom. Celek’s got all kinds of weirdness. Nicetynice stuff that takes up so much time and energy that you want to knock him sideways.”
“You’ve controlled yourself so far?”
“No thanks to you. When are you coming back?”
“I told you: I’m not.” Lang shoved back his chair. “Let’s go somewhere with a pool table.”
“Too early. Besides, you got enough money off me last time we played.” Curtis threw some cash on the table and said, “My treat.” Lang threw the same amount down and walked away. Swearing, Curtis picked up Lang’s cash and followed him onto the street and into a pouring rain, surprisingly chilly for September. “I’m giving this to charity,” he said, waving Lang’s bills at him.
“To the Neglected Children of Strippers Named Taffy or Sugar or Cinnamon.”
“Only if they’re my kids,” Curtis agreed, playing along. Their relationship was long and deep. “When are you going to give up the vendetta? Marsdon’s behind bars.”
Lang frowned and shook his head, rainwater collecting on his black hair. “That facility is a hospital, not a prison.”
“Damn near a prison. And at the risk of getting my head bit off, the man’s sick.”
“Sure, he’s sick. But he killed my sister. And now he gets to stay at the very hospital where he slit her throat? Why not send him to a five-star hotel?”
“He’s in the lockdown section. With all the other super crazies who are incapable of standing trial.”
“He should be in prison,” Lang insisted, his jaw tightening.
“Not according to the courts and the doctors,” Curtis reminded him quietly. They were getting into dangerous territory, and even being the good friends that they were, Trey Curtis was completely aware of the depth of his friend’s anger, misery, and need for retribution. He didn’t want to get in the way.
“Doctors,” Lang sneered. “She’s dead because of them. Because of her.”
“I’m not going to argue with you.”
“You’re sure as hell doing a good job of it.”
“I’m just lobbing out little facts. Doesn’t mean I like any of it.” He lifted his hands in surrender.
“He could stand trial,” Lang insisted again. “Heyward Marsdon the Third is at Halo Valley because of his granddad’s money.”
“He’s a paranoid schizophrenic, Lang. He’s probably where he should be.” Lang looked ready to argue. He certainly wasn’t going to capitulate, so Curtis went on,
“You’re too good a man, too good a cop, to let this define your entire life. Do what you can in the matter, but do it on the job. Drano wants you back. I want you back. Hell, even Celek wants you back.” He paused, then added, “No matter what you think, Halo Valley ain’t no summer camp.”
“I want him dead,” Lang said then.
“So do I, man,” Curtis agreed. “For you. I wish he’d hang himself, or throw himself in front of freeway traffic, or put the barrel of a forty-four in his mouth. But it’s not gonna happen, and neither you nor I is going to make it happen. So, let’s move on.”
“Move on,” Lang repeated, his eyes taking on a faraway look as he gazed over Portland city center’s morning traffic. “I got a job offer from the Tillamook County Sheriff’s Department.”
“Which you haven’t taken yet, either.” They were standing under a narrow awning and had been speaking in fierce, if partially hushed, tones. “So, okay, I got a different job for you,” Curtis said. “Something I want you to look into.”
“What, am I your personal gofer now?”
“A body was found at a rest stop on the outskirts of Winslow County. The guy was stabbed to death, and someone tried to cut out the baby from his pregnant companion. Didn’t succeed, as far as I know. She’s at Laurelton General. He’s at the county morgue.”
“I saw it on the morning news,” Lang said, then, “Not your jurisdiction.”
“That’s why I want you to look into it.”
“And piss off a lot of people who might think I should mind my own business.”
“I hear the county’s swamped and would like some help,” Curtis said mildly.
“You’re full of it.”
“Call the sheriff and see if I am.”
With that Curtis gave him a light punch on the upper arm and bent his head to the falling rain. Lang watched him walk up the street. He wasn’t going to call Winslow County’s Sheriff Nunce, a man who’d been reelected the fall before though it was rumored he had been reluctant to run again, had been, in fact, expected to retire. Lang had met Nunce a few times over the years when their cases overlapped and had found the sheriff congenial and able to share investigative work, but that didn’t mean Nunce would be looking for Lang to stick his nose in where it didn’t really belong.
“Celek doesn’t want me back,” he said aloud, though Curtis was long out of earshot.
He bent his head to the rain as he headed toward his gray Dodge truck, yanking open the stubborn driver’s door, ducking inside. Slamming the door shut with an effort, he reminded himself he needed to take the truck in and have the door fixed. He just didn’t ever seem to have the energy or initiative. He’d been that way for months, ever since his sister’s death.
Now, running a hand through his wet hair, he stared through the windshield. He’d found parking only a block and a half away from Dooley’s, the breakfast/lunch pub where he’d met Curtis in downtown Portland, not far from the station. Curtis was walking back to work and Lang, though he refused to admit it, felt a faint twinge of regret or envy or a mixture of both. He didn’t want his old job back. He didn’t want a new one, either. He’d been unable to concentrate on it after Melody’s death. He wanted Heyward Marsdon’s neck in a noose, and that’s all he wanted. Not exactly the kind of attitude conducive to good police work.
And Marsdon’s damn family. Wealthy. Arrogant. Above the law. Unable to believe in their son’s culpability though it was understood all around that Heyward III had indeed committed the unthinkable crime. Of course the asshole had feigned remorse. Had actually shed tears. And there had been a lot of psycho mumbo jumbo about schizophrenia and illness and an inability to truly understand his own feelings and actions.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
The guy was sick, all right. Sick in the head. But someone to be pitied? Lang simply did not have it in his heart. Heyward Marsdon had killed his sister and he had to pay for it along with the rest of that supercilious hospital staff. Heyward’s doctor, Claire Norris, being at the top of Lang’s hit list.
Throwing the truck into gear, he rumbled into traffic and was cut off by a guy in a black Ferrari on his cell phone who nearly got his rear end crunched by Lang’s truck. Lang was half amused, half irked when the driver flipped him off. He pulled up on the left side of the asshole and rolled his right window down. The driver looked up and threw him a cold look.
Lang signaled for the man to hang up and the bastard released the bird a second time, pointing at him with that same middle finger, making deep, stabbing motions. For half a second Lang thought about continuing the insanity. He felt an almost overpowering need to drag the guy out of the car and beat the hell out of him. Transference? The need to release pent-up aggression? You bet. With an effort he turned his eyes forward, set his jaw, thought about Dr. Claire Norris, and wondered if he could have just one meeting with her. He’d been advised against it by a passel of lawyers. He was too personally involved. It wouldn’t do any good. She wasn’t completely responsible. Marsdon had killed Melody, not anyone from the hospital. He wasn’t thinking clearly.
The Ferrari jumped ahead, then screeched to a halt at a light where a gaggle of teenage girls were trying to cross the street. They stared at him in collective horror, then broke into the filthiest language and gestures Lang had ever seen from a group their age. Lang pulled up on the driver’s left again and smiled over at him. He could practically see the steam pouring from the guy’s ears. The girls became truly obnoxious. Standing directly in front of his car and not moving, dangerously, until Lang worried for them as the light was about to turn green.
But they sauntered away, arms crossed behind their backs, middle fingers sticking up for the Ferrari asshole’s uninhibited view.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap.
Lang wasn’t much for religion, but a few key phrases sometimes popped into his head from time to time, a gift from his sister, who’d flitted from religion to religion like a butterfly to a flower.
His sister. Beautiful. Fresh. Intelligent. Deeply flawed.
Lang shook his head. Couldn’t think of her. Instead he concentrated on the other woman who haunted his thoughts: Dr. Claire Norris. The reason Heyward Marsdon III had been outside hospital walls looking for whatever his sick, twisted brain considered its next need. Dr. Claire Norris. She’d probably been the conduit for Melody and Heyward to meet. The good doctor, introducing one homicidal sicko to a sweet but slightly twisted woman with delusions and hallucinations of her own, probably putting them together in some kind of therapy class.
Claire Norris. Lang had seen her from afar, a slim, darkhaired, prettier-than-average woman with a strained look on her face. She had witnessed something horrific; he could give her that. His own mind shied away from what must have happened in that room. But Dr. Norris was the one who had okayed Marsdon’s release into society. It was her name on the form. She was the one with the ultimate responsibility for Melody’s death. She was the one who allowed Marsdon to cut his sister’s throat.
He’d said as much a number of times, to anyone who would listen. He’d been told his thinking was convoluted. He was just looking for someone to blame. He needed antidepressants and therapy. He needed help.
Drugs? That kind of help? From the psychiatric community? Like he was going to listen to anything those headshrinkers from Halo Valley had to say. Quacks, every one. Selfserving quacks.
He was driving out Sunset Highway through a misting rain, leaving the Portland skyline in his rearview mirror, passing through the tunnel and headed west into the sunset. Except today the horizon was all gray and dreary. No sun in sight. Two weeks ago it had been blazing hot. Early September. Not much change from August. Then bam. They’d been hit with an early storm and now this rain.
Well, the rain suited his mood.
He exited the freeway on the outskirts of Laurelton, still within the western edge of the Portland city limits. He’d bought the property as soon as he’d scratched up enough money for a down payment, and after their parents died in a fiery crash on I5, he had Melody move in with him. She’d been seventeen and he’d been twenty-three. Now he was thirty-seven and she would have been thirty-one this past May if not for Heyward Marsdon.
She’d been in and out of rehab more times than he liked to recall. She was crazy without medication. She hated taking medication. She took the wrong kind of medication. She crashed. She went to rehab. Got clean. Got crazy again.
But…she was such a sweet, funny person when everything was in line. Slightly ironic, slightly off-kilter, slightly acerbic. He loved her. And now she was gone.
He’d quit the force shortly after Melody’s death, though Drano had told him the job was open whenever he felt like stepping back in. Lang supposed he should have felt grateful, but all his energies were directed somewhere else and he didn’t honestly give a damn.
Now when he walked into his house, he had the peculiar notion that Melody was there. Something in the air. A leftover scent. But it was an illusion. He’d identified her body in the morgue. There was no question it was her. No question she was dead. No question where the responsibility lay. It was just sometimes --- rarely --- Lang wanted her back so badly that he almost made himself believe it could happen.
Nutty behavior. Grief taking over the sane part of his mind from time to time.
Walking onto the small back deck outside the kitchen, he was impervious to the shivering drizzle that seemed to have gripped the area in a firm hand. The deck was about three feet off the ground and he’d been building steps to it from the backyard, more for something to do than any serious interest in home improvement. Now he tested the wooden rail and wondered if he should change them out to wrought iron. He could do the work himself.
Trying to come up with something to fill your time?
Back inside, he poured cold coffee from the pot into a mug and heated it in the microwave. He thought about Claire Norris some more. He’d seen her on television, mostly; in person he’d had to keep his distance and he didn’t want to be too near her anyway. Self-preservation. He didn’t want to do anything rash.
So, he’d watched her on television with an intensity that was undoubtedly obsessive. He’d DVR’d her only interview with the press and kept it still. She was about five-eight with sexy legs and small feet encased in sensible black pumps. She wore a lab coat over a skirt or dress, mostly. Her hair was chin length, and she had a tendency to tuck it behind her ears when she was speaking, an unconscious focusing act. She was goodlooking, her teeth white, her waist slim, her chin slightly pointy. She appeared…honest, he could admit. But then, that was Halo Valley’s prime disguise.
Now Lang threw himself in a chair in front of the television. Clicking around, he found nothing but game shows, talk shows, and daytime dramas. He stared out the sliding glass door to the rainsoaked cedar boards of his deck. Then, like an addict, he accessed his DVR interview of Claire Norris. Dr. Claire Norris.
She only said a few words, and Lang knew them by heart.
Pauline Kirby: Would you have done things differently, knowing what you do now?
Claire: Heyward Marsdon the Third is under continuing psychiatric care.
Pauline: But shouldn’t he have been locked up? Shouldn’t you have known?
Claire seemed to struggle a bit when a man with a goatee jumped forward and practically shoved her aside.
Dr. Freeson: I’m Dr. James Freeson with Halo Valley Security Hospital. We always strive to give each of our patients individual care. Dr. Norris has been Mr.
Marsdon’s primary psychiatric physician for several years and is highly competent.
Blah, blah, blah.
Lang rewound and watched it again. Funny, how Freeson initially sounded like he was defending Claire Norris, but after hearing his tone a thousand times and seeing his face, Lang suspected the man was trying to distance himself from the woman who’d brought this destruction to the hospital.
He watched it again and then froze the picture on Claire Norris’s face.
“You’re obsessed,” he said a few minutes later, never taking his eyes from the screen. “It’s dangerous.”
I got a job for you. Something I want you to look into.
Curtis was worried about him. Maybe he was right. Maybe Lang was starting down that nutty lane his sister had traversed most of her adult life.
With a feeling of inevitability, he picked up the phone and asked for the Winslow County Sheriff’s Department.
Maybe it was time to talk to Sheriff Nunce and see if there was something he could do.
Summer tried to return with a burst of heat that steamed the tarmac and pushed through the gray clouds. It lasted about two days, the time it took Laurelton General to feel confident Jane Doe was fit to be discharged. Claire was eyeing the weather and snatching up her jacket on the way out of her house when she got the call from Leesha.
“I’m on my way to work,” Claire told her without waiting for Leesha to speak. “Don’t worry. I’ll meet the transport car. She won’t be alone.”
“No hurry. Your Dr. Freeson’s meeting her,” Leesha said.
“She’s his patient.”
Leesha humphed. “You look out for her, Claire. Don’t let this become some political bullshit.”
“I’ll do what I can.”
Claire’s bungalow sat on a knoll in a small neighborhood of homes that had been built on a sloping hillside above the town of Deception Bay. Through her pane windows she had a peekaboo view of the Pacific Ocean, and now she glanced out angrily, blind to the sunbursts arrowing through the silvery cloud cover, shimmering on the ruffling waves.
Damn Freeson and the whole Marsdon family. They all wanted to keep her under their thumbs. They wanted her capitulation. They wanted her to write a favorable report on Heyward III and get him moved to the less restricted side of Halo Valley. Their money was grease to the axle that ran the hospital, and therefore they had a certain amount of control on who was a patient and who wasn’t. The Marsdons wanted Heyward’s case reviewed and Claire’s testimony would go a long way to the good, and Freeson and Avanti were more than willing to help.
Locking the side door, she headed to her Passat, seeing huge drops of rain plop onto its shiny black hood. The staghorn sumac, whose green leaves had turned to orange and fiery red, began to shiver from an onslaught of water. Claire tucked herself into her car and backed down her drive. From along a side gravel lane, which connected her bungalow to the other homes that meandered down the hill, she caught sight of Dinah standing on her deck in a long caftan, her face turned up to the heavens. Dinah lifted her arms and smiled at the skies, her long blondish hair waving around her head like a golden aureole.
Claire thought about her as she drove the twentyplus miles inland to the hospital. Dinah had grown up in the area and she had a list of clients, much like Claire, whom she treated with homeopathic remedies and exercise in the form of yoga and her own kind of tai chi. She was also a sometime foster parent to a young boy named Toby, whenever Toby’s mother fell back into her pattern of choosing abusive partners, and she was far more grounded than Claire had originally thought. Claire used her as a sounding board, and Dinah was both a good listener and advisor. And, as she wasn’t totally against alcohol, she would occasionally share a glass of wine with Claire and some good conversation.
But if Freeson or Avanti --- who’d both now been all over Claire about her trip to Laurelton General to see the patient without asking --- knew she was friends with an herbalist and even listened to her advice, they would probably try to have Claire’s license yanked. The irony of that made Claire perversely happy. Maybe some of her interest in Dinah was merely a way to thumb her nose at the Halo Valley politicos. Whatever the case, it worked for her. Her own “homeopathic” medicine.
By the time she drove up the winding twolane drive to the hospital, she’d gone from annoyed and angry to taut and determined. She wasn’t going to let Freeson have his way with Jane Doe. She wasn’t going to let the Marsdons work their influence on her. She wasn’t.
She parked in the lot and strode into the concrete-and-redwood side building that housed the medical offices of the hospital doctors, taking the elevator to the second floor. After hours she used a keycard and code, like the hospital, but before seven P.M. the medical offices were accessible and open and anyone could just walk in.
Inside the office building the hallway was carpeted in commercial grade brown-speckled carpet with halogen can lights offering pools of illumination along its length. Light oak doors with sturdy brushed chrome levers marched down both sides. Claire’s new office was now around a turn and toward the skyway that led to the hospital. She’d been located at the far end previously, but by mutual decision between her and hospital administration, she’d moved.
Healthier for everybody.
Today she hung her jacket and purse in the closet, shrugged into her lab coat, then locked the closet with a small key that she pinned into her coat pocket. She didn’t have an immediate appointment, so she headed for the hospital proper.
Halo Valley Security Hospital was an experimental model, designed more like assisted living quarters. The second floor of the office building led through a skyway and door to the hospital itself, and when Claire inserted her keycard and punched in the code, she could enter the second floor of the hospital itself. Side A. The less restrictive side. A separate, older, brick building stood behind the newer Side A and had been nicknamed Side B --- the place where the more disturbed patients, ones who were a danger to themselves and/or others, were housed.
As Claire pushed open the access door to the hospital, she could hear wailing as loud as a siren.
Gibby, she thought. In Side A’s morning room. She picked up her pace but didn’t run. There was no running in the hospital. Running panicked the patients. Besides, Gibby had a tendency to scream when nothing was wrong, and Claire knew Darlene, one of the day nurses, was more than capable.
She walked across the gallery above the morning room --- the central meeting area of Halo Valley hospital --- and saw, past the main foyer, Balfour Transport arrive, a van service for patients, which could be converted to carry a gurney or a wheelchair, or basic seats. She headed down the curving stairway to the first level and glass front doors as outside a wheelchair was hydraulically lowered to the ground with Jane Doe sitting quietly in its seat. Her hands were folded across her lap and she wore a robe over hospital garb. Wind snatched at her blond locks but she didn’t respond, just stared straight ahead.
Claire stepped outside to meet them, and the driver, a Hispanic man who couldn’t have been more than five-six but with a weightlifter’s muscles, thrust a clipboard at her. She signed and he looked at the name and asked, “Dr. Freeman?”
“Freeson. He’s here, somewhere.”
“I need his signature.”
Claire turned her attention to the patient. “Let me take you inside,” she said, ignoring the driver, who was looking past her, hoping for Freeson to appear.
“I can’t leave till I have his signature.”
“He’ll be here.” She pushed the wheelchair inside and was met by Fran from administration, who did all the paperwork for this side of the hospital. Claire signaled back toward the driver and Fran collected the papers Laurelton General had sent over on the patient.
Freeson appeared at that moment, race-walking toward them. “I’ll take her from here,” he told Claire brusquely.
Claire looked past him and saw that Dr. Paolo Avanti had chosen to join Freeson in this venture. His dark hair was smoothly combed to his head, and he wore it a little longish, not too much, just enough to appear more youthful. He was in his middle forties but wanted people to believe he was still in his thirties. He could almost pull it off with his swarthy good looks and quiet, commanding style, but Claire knew him too well. Behind a practiced smile lurked a man whose narcissism surpassed Freeson’s. Avanti liked conquests. In sports. In debate. In women. He wasn’t shy, but he was cagey. Like Freeson, he’d circled Claire early on, though she’d given him no indication she was interested in him at all. Avanti had stepped back, smarter than Freeson, parrying the rejection before it came. But he hadn’t given up entirely. He was biding his time, waiting for a more perfect opening, one that Claire steadfastly refused to give. How he expected this after the way he’d abandoned her in her hour of need, Claire couldn’t fathom. Male ego. Who knew?
“So, this is our new arrival,” he said, examining Jane Doe with a frown. “She’s young.”
“Old enough to have a baby,” Freeson observed.
Claire gave him a look, wondering if that comment had deeper meaning. “We don’t know anything about her.”
“Pauline Kirby wants to do a follow-up story,” Avanti said, not taking his eyes off the patient. “No one’s come forward since they aired her picture, so I think it’s a good idea.”
“The news crew’s coming here?” Freeson asked casually, as if he didn’t care.
Claire schooled her expression. They both wanted the publicity and notoriety. An attractive young woman who would garner empathy by her very looks was perfect for their purposes.
“You’re not letting them film her, are you?” Claire asked.
“No, no. Just the outside of the hospital. And a still frame of her face.” Avanti’s dark, liquid eyes bored into Claire. “You do want her to find her people, don’t you, Dr. Norris?”
Nurse Darlene, a tall woman with bluntcut brown bangs and hair and an attitude to match, fresh from taking care of Gibby, reached them at that moment. “Her room’s ready. Right down the hall.”
Freeson’s goatee quivered and he looked ready to wrestle Darlene for the patient, but when Claire pretended to lose interest and headed toward the morning room, he simply followed after Darlene, close enough to damn near give her a flat tire. Darlene threw him a look and he backed off while Avanti sauntered off in another direction.
Determined to check in on Jane Doe as soon as Freeson stopped circling the area and went back to his own office --- where he spent most of his time, as his people skills were practically nil and he was best forming speeches and pontificating at hospital fundraisers --- Claire looked for Bradford Gibson, Gibby, a twenty-eight-year-old mentally handicapped patient with the mind and intellect of a five-year-old. In the morning room she saw that he was working on an art project of some kind. His tongue was buried in his cheek as he concentrated. His hair was buzz cut as he had a tendency to rip it out by the roots. He was a little on the heavy side with eyes so round and unblinking that he looked eerily like an owl sometimes. But he was sweet and generally satisfied, unless thwarted in his routine.
One of the aides, Alison, slim, with a mop of unruly dark hair, said, “He thought Thomas wanted his picture,” as way of explanation for the outburst.
“Ah.” Claire headed back to her office. She had a ten o’clock appointment with a regular outpatient. She would check on Jane Doe later.
The morning room was a misnomer at Halo Valley Security Hospital, as it was used all day and it was a patient gathering area with tables, chairs, bookshelves, and a television. The walls were painted yellow and patient artwork was displayed in a haphazard fashion, placed there by the artists themselves. Gibby carefully taped his latest spaceship onto the wall and looked on in satisfaction. It was blue and red and silver flames shooted into the sky. He glanced around and surreptitiously took Maribel’s horse picture down to make room. Maribel was stupid, anyway. She never remembered nothing. Gibby was pretty sure she had that Zimer’s disease. At least she wasn’t really, really crazy like those guys in the other building.
Shivering, Gibby glanced out the window on the back side of the morning room. They tried to hide it with trees and stuff, but there was a really mean fence over there with curly wire on top, the kind he’d seen on that show about criminals that he wasn’t supposed to watch. Every time he turned on the TV without permission, one of those nurse people came. Greg was okay, but Darlene was a witch with a capital B. That’s what his mom always said. A witch with a capital B, and that meant she was really, really bad.
But the morning room was a great place. He was safe here. The halls were scary with creatures popping their heads out of rooms. Everyone told Gibby he was just imagining them, that the rooms held people, either patients or hospital personnel, but Gibby knew better. They just weren’t able to see. But here, they never bothered him. Once he got inside the morning room sliding doors, he was safe. He always wanted to close the doors, but it was against the rules. This bothered Gibby, but since the creatures couldn’t cross into this space without burning up from the inside out, he could live with it. And if he was in his special chair, he was really, really safe. If someone was sitting in his chair like Maribel, though, anything could happen, but today the chair was free so Gibby grabbed it and sat down hard. The nurse people had brought in another chair, not as good as Gibby’s but it was blue, which was his favorite color, and it looked not hard like those wood ones. Darlene was helping a lady with yellow hair into it.
Greg, one of the big nurse guys, looked at the lady and said, “She okay to be here?”
Darlene stood up and walked away and Greg followed. Gibby heard her say, “Dr. Freeson wants her to have lots of stimuli.”
Gibby thought that maybe Darlene didn’t think that was the thing to do, but then Darlene was mean. The yellow-haired lady was staring at the TV though the TV wasn’t on.
Shooting a look at Darlene and Greg, Gibby said in a whisper to the woman, “You have to ast. They won’t turn it on unless you ast.”
She didn’t respond. Didn’t even move. Gibby saw her belly and wondered why she was hiding a ball under her clothes. “They’ll do it for free if you ast,” he told her conspiratorially. “You just have to ast.”
Maribel cruised by, then turned around and sat down right on Gibby’s lap. He started yelling at the top of his lungs and Darlene came over and helped Maribel off. Gibby watched as Maribel wandered away, touching everything as she went.
“You have pretty hair,” Gibby told the woman in the chair. “What’s your name?”
“She doesn’t have a name,” Darlene said crushingly, making Gibby jump the way she creeped up on him. She was mean, oh, she was mean! He stared at the lady in horrified wonder. No name? “She hast to have a name!”
But Darlene was heading out of the room. Good. Gibby didn’t like her. She smelled like an ashtray. That’s what his mom always said. She smelled like an ashtray.
“You have yellow hair like the morning room,” Gibby said, pleased with himself. The lady’s lips moved. He looked closer but wasn’t quite sure if they did. Was she trying to talk to him? “I hope you don’t have Zimer’s disease,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”
“I want to talk to you, too,” she said.
Gibby was even more pleased. But her lips didn’t move, did they? He wasn’t sure. He was pretty sure she’d talked, though. Pretty sure…He wished she would turn her head and look at him but she stared straight ahead. He finally got up from his chair and stood in front of her. He had to squeeze down and squat to see into her eyes. They were blue. His favorite color! She didn’t look like she saw him, though. She kinda looked empty. A little like Maribel.
And just like that Maribel sat down in his chair and started laughing.
Gibby threw back his head and screamed and lunged for her.
Claire missed Gibby’s second bout of screaming as she was listening to Jamie Lou Breene’s account of her latest escapades. An outpatient, she suffered from narcissism in a severe form, complicated by a bipolar disorder. When she was “up,” she went on crazy sprees that had landed her a number of stints at the hospital. When she was down, she was almost suicidal. The only thing saving her was, ironically, her own narcissism. She couldn’t take her own life.
She was also incapable of accepting blame or consequence and had run through a number of psychiatrists before being placed with Claire.
“I woke up in Salem at some place. Don’t remember how I got there,” Jamie was saying with a hint of pride, lifting her chin. She’d been pretty; she still was. But at thirty-three, with years of wild behavior and hard living behind her, she was showing signs of wear. Sometimes, on her meds, she could keep herself under control. Most times she just let herself ricochet from one disaster to the other.
Claire tried hard to keep her from hurting herself and others, but the woman was a ticking time bomb. She wouldn’t stay on her meds. She hated the dulled feeling that robbed her of herself.
“What kind of place?” Claire asked.
“Some guy’s apartment,” she said with a shrug. “He was nice enough, I guess. I mighta had sex with him. Pretty sure I did.”
“Did you use precautions?”
“I doubt it.”
“Dangerous behavior, Jamie.”
Her family, an ex-husband, a seven-year-old son, and a sometime alcoholic father, had all tried to help but they were falling away from a problem that wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t, be corrected.
“I’ll get the tests again,” she said. “I’ll…get on my meds.”
“You have to mean it. You have to follow through.”
“I know, I know. I’m going to change.”
There was no conviction in her voice. Or maybe there was, but Claire couldn’t hear it any longer. “It’s not easy to completely change your life, Jamie. Changes are incremental. This isn’t a dress rehearsal. We’ve talked about this.”
“I said I was going to change.”
Claire wrote a number down on a piece of paper. “If you get in a situation like this last one again and you need help, call me.”
Jamie took the paper and stared down at it. “You don’t believe me.”
“I want you to be safe. Everyone should have someone they can call.” And Jamie had just about run out of those kind of friends.
She left about twenty minutes later, promising to change, promising that she was definitely better this time, promising she wouldn’t need to call, promising, promising, promising.
Incremental changes…Claire just hoped those changes were in the positive direction.
She glanced at the clock. She dealt with outpatients like Jamie, mostly, but she was also familiar with the live-ins who resided on this side of Halo Valley, like Bradford Gibson. Side B was a different story and out of Claire’s field of work. She’d only crossed to it twice in the three years she’d been at the facility; once as an initial introduction, and once when Heyward Marsdon III had been taken there kicking and screaming and demanding she be with him, much to his family’s disgust.
Claire had wanted nothing to do with Heyward, either. But she had been his therapist and she had been part of the incident. One moment he was saying how much he loved Melody, then he was threatening to kill her and Claire was trying to talk him down, then he pulled a knife from his pocket and slit Melody’s throat in one smooth movement. So fast. So horrifyingly fast.
Do it, Melody had said, and Heyward had complied.
Later, Heyward had screamed for both Melody and Claire. He couldn’t quite fathom that Melody was gone, let alone at his own hand. He’d begged for Claire, too, though his family did their best to keep her away from him. Not that she was anxious to be with him, either. She stayed away until the day he was moved from the jail cell where they’d first thrown him to his more permanent home at Side B. Crossing from Side A to Side B had been like being forced down a gangplank. Her steps were slow as she headed down one of the two skyways that led to the back building, through the guard’s station with its security cameras and deadlocks. When she reached the room where Heyward was detained, he stared at her beseechingly and begged to see Melody. Claire had quietly told him Melody was gone. He shook his head in denial. He didn’t remember any of it. His family all eyed her with suspicion, and his grandfather, Heyward Marsdon Sr., glared down at her from icy eyes beneath white, bushy eyebrows. Heyward Marsdon Jr., fiftyish, whose distaste of the hospital showed on his face though he tried very hard to be neutral, was less interested in Claire and more in his son, the way it should be. He wanted Heyward III out of Side B. Period. There was no real interest in helping his son cope; he only cared how Heyward III’s incarceration would affect the family name.
Claire hadn’t felt really secure until she was back past the guard’s station. She knew the histories of some of Side B’s inmates and she knew very well that she would never be equipped to treat them in any way. They were seen by professionals who thrived with those kind of patients: the irredeemable, in Claire’s opinion. Monsters that they were, they were treated humanely. Sometimes it even helped a little, most times it didn’t.
Did Heyward Marsdon III fit in there? Claire wasn’t really quite sure. He was a danger, definitely. A schizophrenic, plagued by visions, acting on the crazed counsel of the demons within his own mind. In his lucid moments, he understood right and wrong, life and death. In the throes of his disease he was a maniac. But everyone save Claire had believed he was on his meds and in control enough for outpatient treatment. Claire had worried about that; she’d wanted him admitted into Side A where she and the rest of the staff could monitor him. But, as ever, the Marsdon family had pressured the administration and they, in turn, had pressured Claire. When she’d waffled about whether he should be admitted, a momentary indecision that she’d rescinded almost immediately, she’d been brushed aside and Heyward had been released. No, she hadn’t sanctioned it, but nobody wanted to remember that now.
And for a while Heyward had stayed on his meds and managed a fairly productive life, going the charity rounds with his well-connected family, who swept his “little problem” under the rug, as if it had been cured, or more likely, never existed. But then Heyward met Melody Stone, who was young, beautiful, and completely screwed up. Claire had continued to see Heyward professionally, a condition of his release from Side A, and Heyward had brought her Melody, who viewed Claire as an interference between her and her boyfriend. Melody was not Claire’s patient, merely another piece of the Heyward Marsdon family/friend picture. But Claire saw that Melody needed help. She had a complete disaffect: she was unable to relate to anyone, even Heyward.
Claire told Freeson, Avanti, and others about Melody, but since she wasn’t a Halo Valley patient, she wasn’t their concern, and the powers that be advised Claire to treat Heyward III and forget about his messedup girlfriend.
It was a recipe for disaster. That last night that Heyward brought Melody to Claire’s office he swore his love for Melody, but his eyes were deep hollows, staring somewhere past Claire’s ear to a distance beyond what Claire could see. Melody was passive at first. But she was uncomfortable, scratching her arms, moaning a little. Claire suspected she was high on something.
Suddenly Heyward said, “I hear them! They found us!”
“It’s just us, Heyward,” Claire said, aware he was fighting a delusion.
His voice was hushed. He was holding Melody tightly. She wriggled a little in his arms, but her eyes were stretched wide, as if she were also looking for the evil beings pursuing them.
Claire said calmly, “I’m going to call a friend to join us.”
“Would you like to speak to someone from your family?” She let her hand move toward the phone.
“Are you sure?”
“They want me to die. I embarrass them.”
“They don’t want you to die, Heyward.”
“Shhh!” A harsh whisper. “They’re coming!”
Melody leaned into him, singing a little tune, her eyes closing. A lullaby, Claire realized much later.
Claire’s fingers touched the receiver. “Heyward, it’s late. I was just on my way home. I’m calling a good friend of mine.”
“You’re calling the police!”
Melody’s lashes fluttered and she opened her eyes. She fixed her gaze on Heyward, looking at his profile.
Heyward trembled violently. A look of intense fear crossed his face. “You!” he shrieked. “You!” He was looking at Melody in horror.
“Don’t,” Claire said, holding out a hand, sensing true danger.
“Do it,” Melody whispered into his ear.
And Heyward Marsdon III ripped a knife from his pocket, slit Melody Stone’s throat, and came for Claire.
Tragedy. Disaster. Horror.
The news hit the airwaves and the hospital scrambled to cover its ass. All the right words were uttered. All the careful platitudes of sorrow and regret mouthed over and over again. Heyward was a killer, but a victim of his disease, too. The Marsdons didn’t like that angle, but that’s how Pauline Kirby and her news crew played it, along with a healthy dose of all the personal tragedy that had plagued the Marsdon family for generations. It made good television. It placed the hospital in the background and the unlucky Marsdons in front. It worked.
And Melody Stone?
Apart from Langdon Stone, Melody’s hotheaded brother, no one seemed to care too much about Melody herself. She was just the woman Heyward Marsdon III killed. Almost nameless.
In the first few moments after her rescue, in a stream of nearly incoherent words, Claire related to Wade from security what had transpired in her office. She told him what Melody said. She told him everything. But much later, when she was asked for her account of the incident, she couldn’t make herself reveal Melody’s last words to Freeson and Avanti. It seemed…unfair and unnecessary at the time. Still, that reckoning was yet to come, because Melody’s illness was part of the whole unfortunate series of events that led to her death.
“Claire?” a voice called from the hallway, breaking into her thoughts. She glanced up to see Alison duck her head inside the room. “Jane Doe is in the middle of a fracas in the morning room. Gibby’s mad at Maribel for taking his chair, and Jane’s chair got pushed out of the way with her in it.”
“What’s she doing in the morning room?” Claire jumped to her feet. “Is she all right?”
“Dr. Freeson told Darlene to take her there. She didn’t fall out of the chair. She just hung on to the sides, so she’s okay. Just thought you should know.”
“Thank you.” Claire was already on her way out the door. She glanced at her watch. Another appointment in thirty minutes.
She hung on to the sides.
Even though Freeson had put the patient in a situation she might not have been ready for, Jane Doe had sensed danger and had recognized what to do to save herself. A great sign that maybe she was coming out of her catatonia. Encouraging, even if it galled Claire to admit that Freeson might not have been completely wrong.
The morning room looked deceptively serene when she reached it. Lester, an octogenarian with dementia, was rocking on his feet in the corner and looking out the window toward Side B, mumbling softly. Maribel, an Alzheimer’s patient who was wily and intuitive, was sitting at a table, clutching a doll, but her eyes were sliding back and forth, as if she were looking for some kind of opening to make mischief. Two older women were seated in wheelchairs and talking quietly. They were Mrs. Merle and Mrs. Tanaway, and they enjoyed taking imaginary tea together. Thomas McAvoy, a borderline personality, glared at the two of them as if they were plotting against him, but he always looked that way. Gibby was seated in his favorite chair, and beside him, in the chair she apparently had grabbed onto, Jane Doe was staring silently toward the television.
Greg Fanning, one of the orderlies, asked Claire, “You here to see Cat?”
He shot a look toward Jane Doe. “Cat Atonic,” he deadpanned. “Better name than Jane Doe.”
Claire was noncommital, as she didn’t want to encourage Greg, who took things to the nth degree sometimes. But he was good with the patients, and that was the most important thing.
“Hello,” Claire greeted the new patient. “My name’s Claire.”
“I’m Bradford,” Gibby interrupted.“Don’t you has a name?”
“Call her Cat,” Greg said.
“Cat,” Gibby repeated.
The woman in question stared straight ahead. Her hair was blond, straight, and hung down to lie just past her shoulders. Her eyes were a crystal blue. Brilliant. Icelandic. Claire wondered who her people were, her family, her friends. It had been over a week since she’d been found, so where were they?
“You’re safe here. Your room is down the hall,” Claire reminded her. “Would you like to watch television?”
“She don’t talk,” Gibby said. He was gripped onto the sides of his special chair as if expecting someone to steal it from him, which happened at least once or twice every day.
Claire looked up at the familiar voice. “Hi, Donald,” she said to the approaching man in khakis and a pressed shirt. He smiled effortlessly through blindingly white teeth. If he’d had a sweater he would have hooked it with one thumb and thrown it over his shoulder.
“Who’s our new friend, here?” he asked.
“We don’t know her name yet,” she said, shooting a quelling glance at Greg, who ignored her and said, “Cat.”
“She looks like a Marlene,” Donald responded.
He walked away. Claire’s eyes followed him for a moment, then she glanced back at the blond woman. There was a glimmer in her eyes, as if she’d reacted to some stimulus. Donald? Claire yanked her attention to Donald’s retreating back and thought of calling him over again, but he was chatting with Big Jenny, who was staring at him as if she’d like to eat him alive. Claire knew Don Inman well enough to know he wouldn’t be any help to her in the way she hoped. He wasn’t interested. Neither was he part of the staff, but he acted like it sometimes.
Turning back to the blond woman, who seemed to have tensed up, Claire said, “Your baby’s doing fine. So are you. If you’d like to talk sometime, I’d like to listen.”
There was no response.
Claire waited for a few moments, then smiled encouragingly and told her that she’d be back to see her later.
Gibby twisted to watch Claire leave, then turned back to his new friend. “She’s nice,” he said conspiratorially. “Some of ’em aren’t as nice.”
The blond woman gazed blankly at the television. Gibby reached over and patted her hand.
Tasha faded in and out of a strange reality. She could sense the danger. It was chasing her. Breathing down her neck. She was trapped…trapped…and they were coming for her. Always coming for her. There were bindings at her wrists. Leather straps that cruelly bit into her flesh. They tied her up rather than leave her alone. They were evil. Evil! They never let her be.
She had to get out! Had to find a way.
They were coming for her. They were just outside the door. She had to tell someone. Warn them!
Help me! Help me! Please! PLEASE!
Gibby gazed at the blond woman with concern. She was squeezing the arms of her chair and softly moaning. Gibby fretted. His friend was having a problem. She was staring at the TV. Eyes wide.
“Could we get the TV on!” he yelled, looking around, flailing his arms. “The TV. Damn it! ”
Darlene cruised over, her eyes hard. “Hold your horses,” she muttered, breathing smoke onto him.
“You smell like an ashtray,” he declared.
Darlene walked to the television and pressed the button for the power switch. She changed the channel until she found a game show and Gibby, who felt pressure building, beat at his own head. “There,” Darlene said.
“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” Gibby screamed.
Darlene came back in a flash, leaning into his right ear. “If you want the TV on, you have to be quiet.”
“I don’t want the TV. I don’t care about the damn TV.” He threw a hand in his companion’s direction. “She wants the TV. I don’t give a damn.”
“She doesn’t care about the TV,” Darlene said. “She doesn’t know whether it’s on or not.”
“She does! She said so.”
“She doesn’t speak.”
“She does! She does!”
“Gibby, if you don’t calm down, you’re going back to your room.”
He grabbed onto his chair and started rocking. “No!”
“It’s up to you. TV time. Or back to your room.”
“She wants the TV. She does. She said so.”
Darlene motioned to Greg, and Gibby knew he was going to be hauled away from his new friend. He gazed at his blond friend wildly. She gazed back at him. Her eyes were blue, blue, blue.
“Go ahead,” she said. “I’ll be right here waiting for you.”
“I’ll be back! I’ll be back!” Greg and one of the other big guys who yanked Gibby around whenever he got upset walked toward him, but Gibby shot out of his chair. “Okay. I’ll go. Okay. I’ll go.”
Darlene folded her arms and gazed at him in that mean way. Gibby shuffled off toward his room but glanced back just before he turned the corner. The blond woman’s eyes were sending out blue laser beams. She was saying something, wasn’t she?
“I’ll miss you,” Gibby yelled at her. “You’re my friend!”
She didn’t respond, but then Darlene got in the way and he couldn’t see the laser beams any longer. Darlene was looking down at her hard, like she thought she was lying or something. She always thought Gibby was lying to her but he never was.
Help me…Tasha thought again, but the words floated away slowly. She could see the words. They were black. Right in the air in front of her. But they were leaving, and after a while she couldn’t see them anymore. Couldn’t remember what they’d said. She wanted to reach out a hand and grab them, but her hands were tied with leather thongs.
Time passed…it grew darker. They moved her to her room, fed her, left her alone.
But they always kept her tied. She had to get away. She had to escape.
They were coming. She could hear the death knell of their footsteps.
Coming for her.
Coming for her.
She tried to scream. The scream was in her throat but it was caught there. As caught as she was by them. She heard their steps on the floorboards and smelled the scent of seawater.
The ocean…so near and yet so far.
She had to get away. Get away. Get away…
Somewhere outside her world, a woman’s voice: “Look at her. Get Dr. Norris.”
“You mean Dr. Freeson?” a man’s voice questioned. “Norris! I don’t give a damn about Freeson!”
A younger woman. “Hurry,” the first woman urged. “I think she’s coming out of it.”
Excerpted from BLIND SPOT © Copyright 2011 by Nancy Bush. Reprinted with permission by Zebra. All rights reserved.