Read an Excerpt
The Pandora Box
By Lilly Maytree
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2013 Lilly Maytree
All rights reserved.
"How will you get me out," I asked my editor, "after I once get in?" ~ Nellie Bly
It was visiting day in the psychiatric hospital. Dee Parker sat at her usual table in the lounge, next to a foot-wide floor to ceiling window that allowed only a narrow view to the outside lawn. No need to attract any undue attention. It was not an opening window and there was no way of escape. There was that word again. Kept popping up every time she turned around. Honestly, if people could read each other's minds, they'd all be staring at her right now.
Better get a grip. This was the day. The real deal.
Today, she was going to help Nelson Peterson escape from Wyngate State Hospital. Of course, that was not part of her original assignment, and her editor would probably hit the roof when he found out. But she would deal with that after she got Peterson safely out of here. For weeks now, she only had to come as far as this visitor's lounge to talk with the old gentleman. Just the thought of having to live here was enough to give her nightmares. But it would soon be over.
Dee felt again for the sprig of miniature roses she had tucked into the band of her straw hat (the smell of roses was supposed to have a calming effect on people) and forced herself not to look around so much. There were too many people here who were getting used to her weekly visits and might engage in conversation if they caught her eye. Today, of all days, she did not want to stand out or be remembered. Except this afternoon, there was something troubling in the atmosphere. She could sense it. Then again, maybe it was just her own nerves.
She watched one of the orderlies escort a disheveled woman across the room in much the same way a person might take a dog out for a walk, then rather abruptly seat her at a crowded table of waiting visitors. It was Iris Kitner, with an inside-out pajama top on instead of something more suitable that went with her skirt. Hadn't anyone helped her dress today?
The hum of their voices was too far away to make out what anyone was saying, but Dee had heard enough past conversations to know things were progressing the same way they did every week. They would all have a lively visit among themselves, with little or no interaction with Iris. Then they would say their goodbyes. After which, Iris would have a few moments of free rein with the complimentary coffee and cookies set up on the long table against the farthest wall, before another white-coated somebody took her back upstairs.
Only, less than five minutes later, she popped up from her chair with an outburst of bizarre babbling and refused sit down again. Now, that wasn't like her, at all. The plump, forty-something woman (whose auburn bun was always crooked) was fairly complacent most Fridays. As if the thought of coffee and cookies was enough to keep her on best behavior.
Which made Dee wonder if these troubled souls might have more sensitivity to otherworldly things than most normal people. Something to look into as a possible follow-up story for the series she was writing for the Columbia Herald. The headline might read: Mental Patients: Is What They See Real? A thought that was interrupted when a self-conscious glance from a teenager in the group collided with hers. Grandson or nephew, maybe, who was embarrassed at the way Iris was acting. Dee realized she was watching people again and forced herself to look away.
Instead, she deliberately turned in her seat toward the green double doors on the other side of the room and waited. What was taking so long? Did Nelson forget what day this was?
"Come on, Nels," she murmured half-aloud. "You're not giving someone a hard time up there, are you? I don't have nerves of steel, like you do. Oh, dear Lord ... what if ..."
For heaven's sake, Iris had moved into her peripheral vision again, messing around with the refreshments, already. Dee tried not to watch that, either. Except when the unmistakable crash of a coffee cup onto the floor (probably full) caused a momentary lull in the hum of visitors.
She had to do something. Simply because that sour-faced kitchen worker who should never have been hired for this kind of job, was on duty today. In her late sixties, at least, she did not like to clean up messes. Instead, she would complain to housekeeping, which would cause an even bigger disturbance, and Iris would be returned to her room, early. Meanwhile, the family picnic was going on without her, and none of them seemed inclined to come get her.
So Dee slung the strap of her purse over a shoulder, picked up her package, and headed over there. But before she even got across the room, Iris stepped on an errant cookie that had also hit the floor, and the inevitable happened. Ms. Sour-face made an immediate exit through the green doors to tell somebody.
"Hey there, Iris, need some help?" Dee filled a fresh cup, piled an assortment of cookies around the saucer and steered her toward the nearest table. The corners of the woman's mouth turned up in a barely detectable smile, and she settled down with a contented sigh.
"Cream and sugar?" Dee set a few packets in front of her without waiting for an answer and then left her package on the table for a moment while she turned back to clean up the mess before housekeeping arrived.
"Miss Parker?" The tap on her shoulder a few moments later gave her a start.
"Was this ever clumsy of me!" She scooped up the soppy napkins and deftly tossed them into the nearby trash bin before turning around. "Slipped right out of my ..." At which point she found herself looking into the magnified eyes of a large-boned, ruffle-haired orderly whom she didn't recognize, at all. Now, which department had he come from? He had thick glasses and was wearing a blue uniform instead of the typical white one.
"Mr. Peterson can't come down today," he informed her.
"Oh?" She'd been told her dark blue eyes were fringed with unusually long lashes, and he seemed mesmerized by them. So she said the first thing that popped into her mind to break the spell. "Shall I go up, then?"
He glanced furtively toward the green doors as if someone beyond might have heard her say that. "No, I don't think you better."
"Well, I would at least like to leave my package." Dee glanced back toward the brown-wrapped bundle she'd left on the table and inwardly cringed when she saw Iris begin to open it. The visitor's lounge was getting more crowded now, and the place was turning into a hub of confusion. "What room is he in?"
"6B. But Miss Parker, He really isn't up to —"
"Did you say six?" Dee felt a sudden hollow in the pit of her stomach. "Why — that's the violent ward. What on earth is he doing there?" She walked over to collect her package before the contents tumbled out in plain sight, with the orderly following close behind.
"It is often necessary for the safety of our staff, as well as other patients, to confine ..."
A textbook answer accompanied a complete shutdown of any previous communication between them.
"Oh, honestly." Dee added more cookies to Iris's plate and retrieved the package when her interest shifted then turned around again, expecting to catch him reading verbatim off some card he had snatched from his pocket. "There must be some mistake. He has his quirks, but he isn't violent. Putting him in with dangerous people could give him a heart attack! Now, who do I talk to about this?"
When she was met with nothing but a blank stare in reply, she closed her eyes for a moment, sighed heavily, and willed herself to calm down. But it didn't have much effect. The minute she opened them, her impatience popped right out her mouth. "Oh, I'll just take care of it, myself!" Then, she whisked past him, her flowery print dress set in motion with a determined stride. At that pace, her yellow heels clicked along the gray linoleum, drawing attention like some bright tropical bird moving through dark forest.
Nearly everyone in the room seemed to watch as she walked through those green doors.CHAPTER 2
Into the Madhouse
"I went inside with fear and trembling, for good reason." ~ Nellie Bly
Leaving the restrictions of the visitor's lounge would, no doubt, bring more than one member of the housekeeping staff out to handle things. Since no visitors were allowed past the green doors, it would definitely be a matter for the security people. Who Dee was convinced, without even having to look back, the blue coat had taken off to report to, because he didn't even try to stop her. Today, of all days! But none of that mattered now. She would probably be intercepted before she even got to the elevators, but she didn't care about that, either. Not any more, she didn't.
She was going to drag old Nelson Peterson out of this horrible place, today, one way or the other, even if she had to call the police. Things had gone way past just getting a good story. Now, here she was, personally tangled up in the mess. Something good reporters should beware of. But that poor old man in the violent ward!
Well, she was deep into it now and there was nothing left but to see it through. After all he had done for her, it was the least she could do for him. Besides that, she didn't for a minute believe he was crazy, or she wouldn't even be here. He wasn't violent, either. Troubled, was all it really was, over things that would send most normal people a lot farther over the edge than he was. Which was the very reason she had decided to help him in the first place.
They had worked the escape plan out together. But it was Peterson, himself, who had come up with the ingenious parts. The rest of it was the most farfetched idea she ever heard of. One that would take a miracle to pull off.
Thing was, she had twenty-three good reasons to believe in those kinds of miracles. Besides, just because somebody was old didn't mean they were incompetent. But if he was as sound in his mind as she thought he was ...
Why had they put him in the violent ward?
The corridor beyond the green doors was eerily deserted when she stepped inside.
No nurse's station visible or even an open office door to evade. Still, there were probably cameras somewhere, so she hurried to the last door in a row of elevators and pushed the number six button when she got in. The door rumbled closed with the sound of a freight elevator, and it seemed like forever before it opened again. It was that slow. When it finally did, she found the sixth floor was — like everywhere else — buzzing with activity.
An emergency cart passed by just as she stepped out. But it was in no hurry, as if whatever had gone on was finished now. Ahead and a few yards to the left she saw a busy station with charts and people and equipment, and farther down that same corridor she could see a dozen or more doors with windows for looking in. All were closed except one. Outside it, a small group of doctors and nurses were talking quietly as other workers moved in and out. She was halfway past the station before a nurse looked up with a start.
"How did you get in here?" she said.
"Service elevator," Dee replied. "Other ones don't come up this high."
"There's a reason for that, young lady. Come back here, right now!"
The medical people, down the hall, looked toward the commotion.
Then a middle-aged woman in an old-style white uniform broke away from them to intercept her. The nurse's blonde hair was pulled back from beautiful features and there was something oddly familiar about her. Even though Dee had always tried her best to avoid any of the actual medical staff.
They met head on, and Dee mustered her most authoritative tone. "I want to see Nelson Peterson."
The thought of the old man in some sort of trouble for feeding her so much information, all these weeks, was suddenly extremely unnerving. But from the looks of things, she was going to need some serious help.
"I'm sorry," said the nurse. "Mr. Peterson died twenty minutes ago."
The quiet, non-emotional statement hit Dee like a splash of cold water. "What? But ..." Her insides suddenly began to churn. How could that happen? "Last week he was fine. He was perfectly fine! And — and — why is he up here in the violent ward?"
The gazes of the two women locked.
"Can I at least see him?" Dee peered over the starched white shoulder toward the open doorway down the hall. Contrary to typical hospital behavior, the remaining staff members around 6B seemed to have their attention centered more on her now, instead of the matter at hand.
"Are you next of kin?" The nurse's tone was cool.
Dee thought about lying, but evidence gotten by such means never held up in court. Not to mention any personal morals she believed in. "No ... just a friend."
"It's against policy to let anyone but the next of kin inside." The woman looked toward the busy station and raised her voice. "Jennifer? Could you escort Miss Parker back to the lounge, please?"
"How do you know my —"
"You're the only person on his visitor's list, so I just assumed. If you'd like, I can request that you be notified after arrangements have been made."
Dee didn't object. What could she object to? She allowed herself to be led back into the elevator. The dark-haired aide named Jennifer stepped quietly in beside her and pushed the button to the main floor. Probably to make sure she actually left the building. But — like everything else, today — there was something odd about her, too. The proverbial stethoscope was not draped over her shoulders or protruding out of a pocket. What's more, she had jewelry on and smelled faintly of some expensive perfume. It smelled like ... like night blooming jasmine. After the doors closed, the girl reached into the pocket of her blue smock and handed Dee an envelope.
"This is from Mr. Peterson."
"Thanks." She shuffled the package that held the clothes Nels was to have changed into, over to her other arm, slipped the envelope into her purse with hardly a glance, and sighed.
Dead — poor Nels! She just couldn't believe it! Maybe this was all too much for him. The stress of what they had been planning. In which case she would feel utterly and totally responsible for bringing it all on. Then again, maybe he had simply suffered a reaction to some medication and gone temporarily berserk. Had to be restrained, so they brought him up here. Worse yet, what if they somehow found out what he had been telling her and —
"Aren't you going to open it?"
"What? Oh. Probably just another list. He likes to — did like, I mean — to make up lists of things he wanted me to bring for him next time. Last week it was a magnifying glass and a world atlas. But I guess he won't need whatever it is, now. When did he give you this one?"
"This morning, after I brought him the newspaper. Sort of cryptic, if you ask me. He told me "Give it to Dee Parker when she comes by to see me this afternoon." And just when I'm wondering why he doesn't do it himself, he slipped me twenty bucks."
"He paid money for you to give it to me?"
"He paid me to keep quiet about all his lists. Twenty dollars each so I wouldn't hand them over to the psychiatric department for screening. Not much in this economy, but I did it mostly as a favor because of his phobia."
"Always worrying they won't let him have what's on them. Which they wouldn't. Cigars and good whiskey are definitely not OK around here. But in my opinion? A man that old ought to be able to smoke or drink anything he wants, if it makes him feel better. He isn't going to live long enough for it to kill him anyway."
"So it was a favor, but you still took the money."
"Hey, this job only pays minimum wage. But where he got all that money we'll never know, because they don't let the patients keep any. Especially on this floor. He was a crafty one, though. This was the first time he ever asked me to deliver one of those lists to somebody. That's probably why he gave me the extra. Then — not two hours later — his heart stopped. Spooky. It was almost like he knew it was going to happen."
Slow apprehension crept over Dee at the words, accentuated by the vibration beneath their feet as the elevator lumbered its way back down. As long as the aide was giving up information, she'd better continue to press. "What exactly went on back there — do you know?"
Excerpted from The Pandora Box by Lilly Maytree. Copyright © 2013 Lilly Maytree. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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