No Escape

Chapter 1
It was another beautiful day in San Diego. The type of spring day that makes even the locals consider skipping work and heading for the beach. Shania knew she couldn’t afford to miss work, but the thought still crossed her mind. She pulled into the parking garage next to the office building where she worked.

Shania rode the elevator to the sixth floor and entered Daly Medical Coding. After greeting her coworkers Maureen, Tim and Gary, she unlocked her desk and put her purse in the right-hand drawer. She booted up her computer, and the morning passed by much in the way that it usually did. Just before noon, however, she heard the boss, Rita Daly, call out to the main room from her office.

“Maureen! Maureen, could you come in here? And Shania too, please. Is she out there?”

Shania and Maureen made their way to Miss Daly’s office. Their boss raked a hand through her short, rapidly graying hair just as they entered the small, cramped office to stand side by side in front of her desk.

“You wanted to see us, Miss Daly?” asked Maureen.

Shania stood beside Maureen and tried not to fidget with anxiety over the prospect of what the boss may have to tell them. She stood up as straight and as confidently as she could.

“Oh, yes,” Rita replied, knocking over the stack of folders before her.

Shania smiled slightly. In the three years she’d worked for Miss Daly, she’d never known her to be any different than she was now; clumsy and always in a hurry. She was the no-nonsense type. She was simply a hard worker who liked to make and spend money. Shania assumed this much judging by her extensive wardrobe and jewelry collection.

Shania knew her boss had gone through a bitter divorce just before she had hired her. She was willing to bet, though she didn’t know for sure, that Miss Daly hadn’t dated since the divorce.

“How are you two doing today?” Rita asked.

“Fine,” the two answered in unison.

A look of seriousness overtook Rita’s features and she said, “Look, Maureen, I respect the fact that your dad’s a prominent physician in the community and that he was my very first customer, so I think you’ll both be pleased with my decision.”

Maureen eyed her boss quizzically. “What’s that, Miss Daly?”

“Well,” began Rita, “you know I’ve been wanting an office manager, and I feel a certain promotion is due.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Shania saw Maureen flash a quick smile. And why not? She’d been with the company from day one, while Tim, Gary and herself had only been with it between two and three years.

But then why did Miss Daly want to see her?

“I haven’t had a vacation since I started this company, and I need someone I can count on. First, I want you ladies to understand that I put a lot of thought into which one of you would be fit to move up to office manager.”

Shania and Maureen’s expressions suddenly turned to a mixture of confusion and curiosity.

How much thought could it possibly have required? wondered Shania.

“I’ll get right to the point since it’s just about lunchtime.” Rita had pushed enough stuff out of her way so she could lean her elbows on the desk. She clasped her hands together, showing her many glittering rings. At one point, Shania winced as the sunlight from the nearby window glinted off a huge stone that Shania couldn’t even begin to identify. “I’ve decided on Shania for that job, considering her wonderful job performance,” Rita said, directing her gaze towards Shania.

Shania could sense that Maureen was just as angry as she was shocked to learn of the decision.

“But Miss Daly…” Maureen began.

Rita silenced her with a raised hand. “It’s not that you’re a poor worker, Maureen. Not even close. However, your communication skills need work before I can move you up.”

“Really, Miss Daly, this is so unfair,” whined Maureen. “I’ve not only been here longer and know the ropes better than she does, but I just learned that I’m pregnant.”

“Oh, congratulations,” Rita smiled as if they’d been engaged in a long, pleasant chat. “Who’s the father?”

“Just some lame bastard who took off on me which means I could really, really use the extra money. Babies are expensive, and well, I’m sure you can understand my predicament.”

“Oh, I can, I can.” Rita rose from her chair. She had obviously made up her mind. “Still, Maureen, regardless of our personal circumstances, Shania’s the gal for the job.”

“Miss Daly, please reconsider,” Maureen pleaded as Rita headed towards the door.

“I have. Many times. Come along now, ladies. I want to run across the street for a sandwich before the lunch crowd gathers.”

Shania and Maureen followed their boss out of the office and watched her stride confidently through the reception area and out of the building. The door closed behind her with a thud.

“This is so unfair, so not right,” Maureen said with anger evident in her voice.

“I know how you feel,” Shania said empathetically.

Maureen continued on as if Shania hadn’t spoken at all. “Who the hell does she think she is? And who the hell do you think you are, coming in and stealing my promotion? You haven’t been here as long and you haven’t worked nearly as hard.”

Shania gasped slightly. “Hey now, I didn’t make the decision here, Maureen. I told you I agree it’s unfair, but all I can do is talk to her and hope…”

“Forget it! You’d never be able to reason with a bitch like her. All you’d do is make things worse. Besides, she’s been out to get me ever since she hired me.”

“But why?” asked Shania with confusion.

“The hell if I know!” wailed Maureen, face growing red as her anger grew. “All I know is that no matter how great she thinks your so-called communication skills are, you don’t deserve the job. I do.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to talk to her?”

“Positive. Once that stubborn bitch makes up her mind, there’s no changing it.”

“I’m sorry,” was all Shania could say.

Maureen’s gaze bore into hers. Shania watched as her green eyes turned to a dark and stormy gray and her face turned to a darker shade of crimson. “Yeah, you will be.”

Shania’s heartbeat quickened. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Just what I said,” said Maureen, heading for the door.

“Yeah? Well, let me remind you once again that I’m not the damn decision-maker here.”

But Maureen was gone, leaving Shania with no appetite for lunch.

Chapter 2

The next morning Shania entered the building feeling somewhat apprehensive, half-hoping that Miss Daly had reconsidered and changed her mind. She wanted the raise that went with the promotion, but not the hostile work environment she had a feeling she was in for. She knew she could quit, but she didn’t want to work elsewhere for the same reasons the others didn’t – the pay was good, the benefits were good, and the hours were flexible.

“Hi, Boss,” Tim greeted with a smile when she entered the building.

“I don’t know if Boss is a suitable title for me, but hi yourself,” Shania told him.

Tim was young and ambitious. His good looks and good sense of humor attracted all kinds of ladies. Perhaps this was why Shania was surprised he had once asked her to dinner. She knew she was no ugly duckling, though she never considered herself to be that attractive either with her dark blue eyes, sandy-brown hair and too-short body. At five-feet, a hundred and ten pounds, she wasn’t much to look at. At least she didn’t think she was.

Nonetheless, Tim was a true lady’s man. Good looking, smooth talking and full of confidence. He seemed to have enough social life for ten people. Normally, Shania would find that combination extremely annoying, but Tim possessed so much natural charm that she genuinely liked him. When he had asked to take her out to dinner, she’d almost accepted but knew she shouldn’t. Shania had always been attracted to women. Oddly enough she never really thought of herself as gay. She was just a woman that liked women. She would sometimes dwell on her perception of herself. Was she ashamed to be gay? No. Was she worried about how society would view her? No. Was she a man trapped in a woman’s body? Definitely not! She was a woman that liked women. Maybe someday she would find the right therapist to help her sort it all out. In the end, she had declined Tim’s invitation. Not just because of her no-mixing-business-with-pleasure rule, but because she liked women. She didn’t exactly expect to find Miss Right and live happily ever after with her, but she wouldn’t settle either. She’d met many who insisted that looks didn’t matter, but to her, while looks weren’t everything, they at least counted for something. She simply couldn’t imagine being with someone in which she felt no attraction for, and while Tim might be a nice guy, she’d never really been attracted to members of the opposite sex. Instead, she found the more feminine touch to be appealing. Not an overly feminine touch, nor an overly masculine touch, but a touch that was somewhere in between.

“Before you know it, you’ll be southern California’s top businesswoman,” Tim went on.

“Don’t count on it,” Shania said, noting Gary’s hostile expression as he sat at his desk observing them. She could see he felt bad for Maureen and so did she, but hey, it wasn’t her damn fault!

Shania shifted her gaze away from the stocky and not very good looking Gary. Given how small the place was with just the reception area, bathroom, tiny kitchenette and Miss Daly’s office, she could see that the woman-scorned had yet to arrive.

“Oh, don’t you look nice,” she suddenly heard from behind her. She turned and stepped into Miss Daly’s office, glancing down quickly at her silk plum-colored blouse, white skirt and plum-colored pumps.

“Thank you,” Shania replied. “Miss Daly, about the other day…”

“Oh, yes,” Rita said with a smile. “You’ll make a fine leader here. And don’t you worry about Maureen. She’s just spoiled is all. She’ll get over it. She needs to learn patience in the meantime anyway.”

Shania heard the front door open which she could see from her vantage point in the dusty, cluttered office.

Maureen had arrived. She wore a pearl-white blouse with a short black and white checked skirt and black pumps. Her bright red hair was pulled back in a French braid. She looked just as angry as she had yesterday.

“You’re late,” Rita called out.

Without a word, Maureen went straight to her desk, tossing her purse onto it and herself into her chair.

Gary eyed Maureen with sympathy while Tim eyed her with the same look.

For the remainder of the day, Maureen ignored her completely, refusing to even make eye contact, let alone conversation. Shania was just as silent. She’d already said anything that could possibly be said. Besides, the more Maureen gave her the cold shoulder, the more Shania thought she was childish and a sore loser. Perhaps Maureen was as spoiled as Miss Daly said she was.

Ignoring Maureen’s immature behavior, Shania set to work inputting medical codes and doing various other tasks. In between, she oversaw the others with their work. Maureen acted as if Shania weren’t even present, though she did as she was told. Perhaps this was only because Miss Daly observed her every move that day.

Despite Miss Daly’s constant praise, Shania was never more relieved when the clock finally struck 5:00 and she could head out for the bus stop.

Home in the two-bedroom apartment she shared with her friend Mindy, she headed straight for the bathroom where she began to draw herself a gardenia-scented bubble bath. There was nothing like a bubble bath followed by a good cup of chamomile when she was troubled.

She was grateful for the fact that Mindy, a swimming instructor, didn’t get home until an hour after she did.

She had met the tall blue-eyed, blond girl about a year ago at the apartment complex’s pool when Mindy was visiting a friend who lived at the complex. The two happened to be sitting on lounge chairs right next to each other when they introduced themselves to one another and struck up a conversation. They had hit it off from the get-go, each discovering that the other was gay, though not each other’s type as far as lovers were concerned. Mindy, who was as feminine as Shania was, wanted a more masculine type of woman while Shania wanted one not quite as feminine as she was, though definitely more feminine than masculine.

Still, the girls had liked each other well enough to become friends and to eventually share an apartment together. It saved them money to share a two-bedroom, versus having their own studio apartments.

The two friends had a lot in common. They both liked the same kinds of movies and music. They read the same kinds of books and even liked the same foods. The only real difference, besides their appearances, was that Mindy had a very close loving family. Shania had also come from a very close-knit, loving family, it’s just that they were all dead now.

She squeezed her eyes shut tight. Despite the number of people who had assured her over the years that their deaths weren’t her fault, she’d carried a weight of guilt upon her shoulders throughout the years just the same.

Blinking away images of her parent’s jovial faces and the faces of her little sister and brother, she began to undress and stuff her sweaty clothes in the hamper. She stopped to gaze at her naked body in her full-length mirror before returning to the bathroom. Although she knew she was a bit hard on herself, she couldn’t help but mentally critique what she saw. Her breasts were too small, her waist was too wide, and she needed to trim her ample patch of pubic hair. She could use a good six more inches of height, too. Then again, if she met a woman she thought may be relationship material, she wanted the woman to be taller than her. Weren’t her chances of meeting a taller woman rather high with her standing barely five feet tall?

After her bath, her body felt refreshed, though her mind still churned with worry. She pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt and began to contemplate her options. She could quit her job or stick it out longer in the hopes that Maureen would accept Miss Daly’s decision. She dreaded the thought of working in such a depressing atmosphere.

No, she decided. I will not quit. If Miss Daly decided I was fit to be a leader, then I am, and if Maureen can’t handle that, it’s not my problem. We can’t always have our way in life. Period. So she’ll just have to accept the decision as I have and live with it! If she can’t deal with it, then she should be the one to quit, not me. It wasn’t really the job itself that excited her, it was the feeling of being a success. Although Shania was only twenty-three years old, she had a growing sense of discouragement with life. She had tried the community college for a few semesters but couldn’t find a direction. Her social life wasn’t any better; it had been nonexistent for some time now. Now, however, she saw an opportunity for many new doors to possibly open.

Feeling better at having resolved the matter in her mind, Shania curled up on the sofa with a good book until Mindy came in.

“Hello,” said Shania, glancing up at Mindy. Her friend was wearing cut-off jeans and her favorite tie-dye shirt. She kept her hair short so she could gather it up into a bathing cap easier.

“Hi there. How’d it go today?” asked Mindy, heading into her bedroom that was just off the living room.

“So-so,” Shania called after her. “Either way, I’m feeling less and less bad for Maureen with the way she’s being such a spoiled little brat over the whole thing.”

“Just hang in there,” Mindy said with encouragement. “She’ll get over it.”

“Yes, I think she will. The question is when?”

“Soon. Eat dinner yet?”

“No, why?”

“Want to split a pizza?”

“Sure.”

With that, they ordered a medium pizza, half of it topped with pepperoni for Mindy, the other half topped with chicken and black olives for Shania.

Maureen was still furious. It just wasn’t right. She should be the one with the promotion. If anyone deserved Shania’s job, it was her. Alone in her townhouse, she paced the floor of her living room in distress. Finally, she reached for the phone and dialed her uncle. Her uncle, Jonas Hoffritz, was a shrink who was head of the local psychiatric clinic. He would help her.

“Hello?”

“Uncle Jonas?”

“Yes, Maureen. How are you?”

“Not so good. Remember that girl you were talking to at the birthday party we threw for my boss? The short one with long, light brown hair?”

“Yes, I believe I do.”

She filled her uncle in on the situation at work. “It is so, so unfair,” she concluded, “and if anyone deserves to be committed to the hospital, it’s her.”

The doctor tried to reassure his young niece. “Now, now, don’t you worry, sweetheart. Everything will work out. You’ll get your promotion sooner or later.”

“Will I? I don’t know about that. The boss is so focused on this smug little bitch that she can’t seem to see her other employees. Especially the ones who deserve to move up. Everything to her is Shania this, Shania that. I think she just feels bad for her because of what happened to her family and that’s not fair. We’ve all had our share of drama growing up, so one’s past shouldn’t matter.”

“You think that’s a factor in the decision your boss made?”

“Yes, I really do. And I’m worried about Shania because deep down underneath all that professionalism, I know she’s crazy. I’m not kidding when I say she should be in the hospital, Uncle Jonas.”

“I understand how you feel, dear, and while she may be a bit unstable, she’s not a threat to either herself or someone else. The kinds of people at the clinic are like that. For instance, just last night a man was committed for threatening his ex-wife if she didn’t take him back. When she refused, he went and burned her parent’s house down, promising that her house, the one they shared when they were married, would be next if she failed to comply with his wishes.”

Maureen twisted the phone cord in her hand in frustration. “So that’s what it would take, huh? Something as serious as a threat?”

“Or someone who at least perceives her as a potential threat.”

“Hmmm,” Maureen said, ideas churning in her mind.

Chapter 3

Shania settled into her new position at work and a general acceptance seemed to come over the agency. Even Maureen seemed to finally be accepting the promotion. Shania realized she may not like it, or think it was fair, but she at least tolerated the fact that her own promotion would just have to wait.

It was the middle of the morning when Miss Daly came out to the main office. “Shania, could you please do me a huge favor?”

Shania glanced up from her monitor where she had been about to check her email. “Sure thing. What do you need?”

“I need an early lunch real bad. I don’t know why, but I’m starving all of a sudden and I can’t wait another two hours until lunch. Could you run downtown and grab me a sandwich and a salad from that deli I like?”

“Sure,” said Shania, rising from her chair. “What kind?”

“A ham and cheese sandwich will do, along with ranch dressing on one of their delicious garden salads. I’ll go fetch my purse and give you some money.”

Shania took off and was just returning to her car with Miss Daly’s lunch when she saw the meter maid writing out the ticket. “What’s going on?” she asked.

The meter maid, a stocky older woman, looked up at Shania. “You’re double-parked. Can’t do that here.”

“But where else was I to park?”

The woman shrugged indifferently. “The parking situation here may need rearranging, but I don’t make the rules. I only ticket those parked illegally.”

“To hell with this shit!” Shania shouted, suddenly feeling her face turn hot. “I’m only doing the boss a favor, yet this is what I get for it?”

The meter maid studied her intently, then said, “Look, ma’am, I’m only doing my job. Please don’t make me have to call the police now, ok?”

Shania snatched the ticket from the woman. “Oh, just give me the damn ticket then and let me out of here. You and your own damn boss will be hearing from me about this one!”

The woman shook her head and walked away as Shania got in her car.

When Shania returned, her boss could see that she was clearly upset. “What happened?” she asked. “Did they accidentally squirt some dressing on that pretty little blouse of yours?”

“I wish they had,” Shania replied. “Instead I got a parking ticket.”

“A parking ticket?”

Shania nodded as Maureen tried to hide the smirk upon her face.

“There was absolutely no parking spots, so I had to double park.”

“Oh, don’t worry, hon. I’ll take care of the ticket for you.”

“Thanks,” Shania said, handing her boss the ticket. “Still, I’m going to send a little email to our wonderful mayor and let him know we need more parking spots!”

“I support you on that one,” said Tim, who had heard the exchange along with Gary and Maureen.

Shania noted that Gary was obviously annoyed by the distracting chatter. Mr. High and Mighty, just like Maureen, Shania thought to herself. Miss Daly retreated to her office and the foursome settled down to work once again with nothing but mellow music and traffic sounds softly droning in the background.

“Damn!” Maureen said an hour later. “God, I hate that!”

“Hush!” Gary said, trying to speak to a client on the phone.

Shania rose and went over to where Maureen sat staring at her monitor in frustration. “What’s wrong, Maureen?”

“These damn windows. All these damn windows keep popping up like crazy and it fouls things up.”

Seeing an opportunity to ease the tension between them, Shania said, “Why don’t you go use my computer now if you need to do any online research and I’ll see if I can straighten this mess out, ok?”

Maureen glanced up at her as if contemplating the offer, then she nodded in agreement.

Shania then took Maureen’s seat, figuring her coworker had been downloading screensavers again, even though she knew she wasn’t supposed to.

While Shania worked, Maureen took advantage of the fact that Shania had her email account open.

The following day, a couple of uniformed police officers entered the building just after lunch. At first, it didn’t surprise or alarm Shania. The police sometimes came to question them about any records they may have when investigating any shady practices that billed for services they never performed.

An African-American policewoman, accompanied by a policeman, approached the counter.

“Can I help you?” asked Gary.

“Yes, we’d like to speak with a Rita Daly. Is she the company’s owner?”

“Yes, she is. I’ll go get her.”

When Gary returned with their boss, the officers began to softly speak to her.

Shania was unable to hear what was being said from where she was, although Maureen could hear enough to take it as her cue to join the trio in their discussion.

“Excuse me,” she said in a hushed tone.

“Yes, Maureen?” asked Miss Daly.

Making sure to keep her voice down, she said, “I couldn’t help but overhear some of your conversation. Something about Shania sending the mayor a threatening email – well – she sent me one, too.”

“Did she?” asked the policewoman.

Maureen nodded. “I just didn’t want to say anything at first because I always felt bad for her what with the past being so rough on her. You see, my uncle’s a psychiatrist at Lakeview Hospital, and well, I’ve learned a lot about people like Shania from him. I hate to admit it, but she scares me at times. It’s like she’s – I don’t know – unstable. Like a ticking time bomb that could go off at any second.”

The male officer scribbled notes down on a pad of paper as she spoke. “Anything else?” he asked.

“No, sir. That would be all.”

“Did you save the email?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Ok, thank you, ma’am,” he said in a dismissive tone of voice.

“My goodness,” Rita Daly said breathlessly. “I never thought Shania would do such a thing. She always seemed so with it, but I guess it just goes to show that sometimes we don’t always know people as well as we think we do.”

“I’m afraid we’ll have to seize Miss McCarthy’s computer for a while,” said the policewoman.

Rita sighed. “Ok, then. Do what you have to do.”

Shania’s curiosity was growing by the minute what with the way the officers, her boss, and then Maureen, had made frequent glances in her direction. Eventually, the officers strode towards her.

“Shania McCarthy?” asked the tall, heavy policewoman.

“Yes.”

“Would you please stand up and step away from the desk?”

Shania rose. “What’s wrong, officer?”

“Please step aside.”

She did as she was told.

“Miss McCarthy, you’re under arrest for threats made by email…”

“What! What threats?”

“Please turn around and place your hands behind your back.”

“But I didn’t send anyone any threatening emails. You’ve obviously got me mixed up with someone else.”

The policewoman pulled her arms behind her and snapped on a pair of handcuffs.

“This is insane!” Shania shouted, glancing with pleading eyes at her boss. Miss Daly, however, turned away and headed towards her office.

Tim and Gary regarded her with surprise while Maureen held a look of smug satisfaction on her face. A frightening realization then began to sink in.

“Hey!” Shania screamed at Maureen. “Did you do this? Did you send threats from my computer while you were using it yesterday?”

Maureen turned and faced her monitor.

Despite her protests, the officers dragged her out of the building. Curious onlookers stopped to watch as Shania was led away. She never felt more embarrassed, scared, confused and angry in her life.

Shania was kept in the dark as to what “threatening messages” she was supposedly charged with sending until the next day when a public defender came to meet with her. Before he did, she was entitled to one phone call in which she placed to Mindy to let her know where she was.

“Hello, Shania. I’m Howard Trent. I’ll be representing you at tomorrow’s arraignment hearing since you haven’t sought out other means of counsel. How have you been?”

“Well, when you consider the fact that I’ve been made to sleep on a cold, hard cement floor with a bunch of druggies, thieves and child abusers, then fed breakfast not even fit for a cockroach, I guess you could say I’m doing rather lousy.”

Shania sat down in the cold, dismally gray room which was bare of anything other than a large table and a few chairs surrounding it, and studied the lawyer before her. He was sloppily dressed and had that nerdy look. His short plump body seemed as if it were about to pop the buttons off his shirt, and his bow tie seemed as if it would strangle him. His jowls and double chin shook as he moved. He nervously ran a hand through his rumpled crop of salt and pepper hair, then rummaged through a cheap attaché case of imitation leather. After a few coughs and sniffles, he found what he was looking for.

“I have copies here of the actual emails they say were sent to both the mayor and your coworker, Maureen Hoffritz, from your computer. The email to the mayor reads as follows. ‘Any mayor who can’t have enough parking spots to avoid people getting ticketed should be assassinated. In fact, that’s just what I think I’ll do, you fucking fat-faced moron!’” He tossed the copy to Shania.

“This is crazy! Totally, totally fabricated bullshit. For one, I know how to spell the word assassinate correctly. Nonetheless, I suppose I am partly to blame for this,” Shania said with a sigh.

“How’s that?”

“Because I was a fool to let her use my computer,” she said before explaining to him about the promotion and her coworker’s threats and hostility towards her afterward. “So you see, we’re dealing with a greedy, spoiled and very vindictive person here, Mr. Trent.”

Trent picked up another piece of paper. To this person, your coworker, you wrote, ‘hey, you fucking bitch from hell. I’m the one that got the promotion and so you better learn to live with it or I’ll kick your ass clear across the Pacific. I think I just may do that anyway because you’re such an asshole and you deserve it!’”

“Again, none of this came from me. It may have come from my computer, but it did not come from me.”

“Well,” began the public defender. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, but without any proof other than hearsay, I think your best bet would be to go along with the DA’s recommendation.”

“Which is?”

“A full psychiatric evaluation at Lakeview. The DA feels you’re no criminal, but that you could use a helping hand. Really, Miss McCarthy, an evaluation would be no big deal.”

A flash of anger crossed Shania’s face. “Sorry, but it is a big deal, and I can’t agree to it. There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not the one sending threatening messages here, Mr. Trent. Maureen Hoffritz is the one. Why don’t the police go talk to her?”

“I wish they could, and while I can’t force you to take the DA’s offer, I really think it’d be in your best interest, because guilty or not, things would almost certainly get a whole lot worse for you if you didn’t.”

“How so?”

“Well, you have a right to plead not guilty and go to trial. I can tell you right now that unless we come up with evidence to show that you yourself didn’t send the messages you’d more than likely be convicted, which in turn would mean a little jail time.”

“A little jail time – I just – I don’t believe this crap! I honestly don’t. She set me up out of spite and now I have to agree to be tossed into a nuthouse to avoid jail? This is incredible!”

“I understand how you feel, but I…”

“Do you?”

“Look, Miss McCarthy, I can’t make your decisions for you. I only know that if my only two choices were a few days in a psych ward versus a few months in jail, I’d take the few days in the psych ward. I can assure you that you’ll be out in just a few days. Once they see you’re no criminal and that you really are sound of mind, they’ll release you in a snap and all will be back to normal. Trust me. I promise you that all will work out if you’d simply agree to the evaluation and let them see for themselves that a mistake has been made. Then maybe they’ll focus more on your friend.”

“She’s not my friend.”

“I’m sorry, your coworker.”

Shania relented in frustration. “Fine. I’ll do whatever I have to do to clear up this mess.”

Trent gave her some papers to sign.

Chapter 4

The next morning, Shania was led to the courthouse where she went before a judge, a middle-aged man with crow-like features and a bald crown.

“I’m only agreeing to this to clear the matter up sooner, not because I’m guilty of sending the threatening messages,” she told the judge.

“Very well,” said the judge, seemingly in a hurry to get on with the next of many cases.

Shania was then taken to a holding cell where she waited and waited and waited. Finally, she was led to a waiting ambulance in back of the courthouse by two orderlies. It was now dark.

“Why the ambulance? I’m not sick or injured.”

“It’s just policy. I really think it would be in everyone’s best interest if you would try to relax, Miss McCarthy,” said the chubby female orderly with thick wavy blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her greasy face shone in the light which illuminated the parking lot. Her pimply face had that doughy look which seemed to swallow up her small beady eyes. Trish read her name tag.

“Oh, do you really?” Shania said, not attempting to hide her sarcasm.

“Here we go,” said her partner, a tall wiry male orderly as he swung open the rear doors to the ambulance. His name tag read Bob.

Although Shania tried to resist, it was no use. The orderlies hoisted her small body up into the ambulance as if she were made of air. Once inside, they strapped her down onto a stretcher. Bob then jumped down out of the ambulance, slamming the doors as he went, leaving her alone with Trish who sat opposite her on a vinyl bench. She sat hunched over, hands clasped together in her lap as she gazed towards the front.

After about ten minutes, the ambulance pulled up to a large tan brick building with immaculate grounds of thick green freshly mowed grass. Despite the darkness, the grounds were lit up enough so that Shania could see colorful flowers that were abloom throughout the sprawling grounds. The scene clashed horribly with her mood.

Her heart pounded as Bob got out to run around back and open the rear doors. He ran so fast that Shania wondered if he were in a race against time. Were orderlies expected to bring patients in at a precise time? Or could he be in competition with other orderlies as to who could snatch someone up and dump them off the fastest?

On trembling legs, Shania allowed the two orderlies to guide her down out of the ambulance and into the building. Sliding glass doors slid open to let them enter, then slid shut behind them, making Shania feel as if she’d been swallowed up.

They stood in a circular area where three different corridors branched off. Two had metal doors with square panes of glass in them.

The heaviness in her chest was smothering. She struggled to take in even breaths of air and then she saw him! Yes, it was really him. Doctor Jonas Hoffritz. In the tumultuous last ten minutes, she hadn’t stopped to wonder if he could possibly work here. She only knew of his occupation, not his place of work. Besides, she had only met him once.

He was just about to round the corner halfway down the corridor which had no door leading to it when she cried out to him. “Jonas!”

The two orderlies glanced with surprise in the direction Shania had shouted.

“Doctor Hoffritz!”

Too late. He was gone.

“Ah, so you know the top Doc, huh?” asked Bob, breath reeking of onions.

Shania nodded. “I met him at a surprise birthday party for my boss.”

“For your boss?” he asked inquisitively, eyebrows raised.

His homely partner eyed her doubtfully, as if she believed that no one who wasn’t part of the staff or on the visiting list could possibly tell the truth about anything.

“He’s the uncle of the coworker that set me up.” She quickly explained what happened as Trish continued to eye her with doubt. “We all threw a party for our boss one day and that’s where I met the doctor. Where are you taking me and what’s going to happen next?” asked a nervous Shania.

“We’re just going to wait here for the clinical evaluator,” Bob said, glancing around him impatiently as if the evaluator couldn’t arrive fast enough to relieve him and Trish of their latest catch.

Shania took in her surroundings. Instinct told her to pay attention to things and so she did. The walls and ceiling were as stark white as the orderlies’ uniforms. The flat, worn carpet was dull gray. The only wall décor was a large gold-framed picture of an older man that was perhaps in his fifties in which the place was dedicated to. Shania was close enough to read the inscription underneath the stern-appearing man’s picture.

IN HONOR AND MEMORY OF DR. LEO W. HOFFRITZ
1938 – 1999

“Is this man related to Doctor Hoffritz?” Shania asked.

Bob nodded. “He was his father. He founded the institution in the late sixties and died of a heart attack five years ago.”

Shania gazed at an unattended desk against the wall of the round admitting area in which she assumed was occupied during normal business hours.

She turned around to look behind her at the doors they had entered through. The urge to run was enormous. Then she turned back to find the orderlies watching her intently.

Through the closed doors, the sound of approaching footsteps coming from one of the uncarpeted corridors was now audible. A second or two later, a frail, gray-haired woman came into view through the door’s square window. Once at the door, she unlocked it and pushed it open.

“Hey, you still here?” asked Trish with a smile Shania didn’t know she was capable of mustering.

“Unfortunately, thanks to the crisis with the juvies,” the woman said with a loud sigh.

“Anyone in evaluations still here?” Trish asked.

“Don’t know. Why? Whatcha got here?” the birdlike woman asked, eyeing Shania as if she were a potential piece of new merchandise for sale.

“New admittance,” Bob told her. Another dose of pungent onion odors wafted from him as he spoke.

“As I’ve been trying to tell them,” Shania spoke up, doing her best to keep her voice steady, “my coworker set me up.”

“Oh yeah?” said the woman, tilting her head back to peer down at her through her bifocals, making her feel small and meaningless. “That’s what they all say. Either they’ve been set up or they’re victims of mistaken identity.”

Trish and Bob snickered, turning Shania’s anxiety and frustration to anger. “Hey, this isn’t funny. I’ve never harmed anyone or anything in my life. I didn’t do a damn thing wrong and…”

“Save it for evaluations or the doctor,” Trish said, cutting her off.

“Well, then why don’t you let me speak with Doctor Hoffritz?” Shania’s patience was wearing thin.

“They’ll let you talk to him soon,” said Bob.

“How soon is soon?” Shania asked.

Ignoring her, the stern woman said, “Let’s bring her to Observation first.”

“Observation?”

Trish nodded, reaching for Shania’s upper left arm as Bob reached for her right. “It’s where all the newcomers spend their first twenty-four hours.”

They began to lead her behind the frail woman whose steel-gray hair looked more like tiny wires than real hair. They hadn’t gone very far when she saw him again, moving through a maze of corridors that led to other parts of the building. He seemed to be in a rather chipper mood, nodding with a pleasant smile to a fellow colleague that passed by him.

“Doctor Hoffritz!” Shania called out.

This time the doctor glanced in Shania’s direction.

“It’s Shania McCarthy, remember? From the party where your niece works?”

Trish and Bob began pulling Shania away as the doctor eyed her as if he’d never seen her before.

“I need your help!” she pleaded. “Your niece used my computer to send some threatening messages because she’s upset that I got the promotion she wanted.”

Just when Shania thought the doctor wasn’t going to acknowledge her, he said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m sure you can find someone to help you just as soon as you get settled in.”

“But we have met,” Shania persisted. “At Rita Daly’s fortieth birthday party.”

The doctor was now out of sight.

“Let’s go, Miss McCarthy,” Trish said, her own patience dwindling as she and Bob continued to guide her through a lengthy corridor, each taking hold of an arm.

Shania tried to shrug free. “My legs work just fine. I can walk without assistance, thank you.”

“Hospital policy,” said Bob.

“Yeah? Well, I’m not a patient here,” Shania said, coming to a halt.

“You are until you’re discharged,” said Trish, greasy face shining under the fluorescent lighting.

“But I need someone to help me out here. I did not make these threats. Someone’s got to be able to help me!” Shania shouted, now drained of all patience and reason.

“We’re not obligated to help you get out,” the birdlike woman explained.

“Then get me someone who is!” Shania demanded.

“We’re taking you there,” she said, “but we need you to cooperate.”

“It’s the quickest way to settle this matter and get out of here,” Trish added.

To Shania, it sounded more like a bribe than anything else. She studied their faces in search of any deception but was unable to penetrate their firm, business-like expressions. Perhaps they were right and that the only way to set things straight and get to the bottom of the matter was to go along with them. At least for now. Therefore, although it wasn’t without much reluctance, she allowed herself to be led further down the corridor, opposite the direction in which Doctor Hoffritz had retreated.

They led her to an elevator that took them to an upper floor. Once there, they led her down a long corridor and to a large room that was very hospital-like with draw-curtains that surrounded the beds. There were eight beds in all, four on each side of the room. There were barred windows along the back wall. Just inside the doorway to the right was a sitting area and to the left was a large window where the nurses’ station was. From two different windows, the station overlooked both the observation room and the long corridor that stemmed off in front of it.

The coed ward formed a long I-shape. Along both sides of it were many two-patient rooms, each equipped with its own sink and private toilet. Those in the observation area were to use the bathroom that was located at the top left side of the I. The shower room was in this area as well, for everyone to use. There was also a lounge where patients could fix themselves tea or hot cocoa and snacks consisting of things like fruits and crackers. There was a solid metal door that led to the adolescent ward in this area. In the middle of the long corridor was a short walkway that led to an enclosed courtyard. Shania wasn’t sure what was at the top and bottom right sides of the I, but she would quickly learn that the bottom left side was where the therapists met with their patients. It was also where the door was located in which Shania had entered the ward through.

A young but hard-looking nurse bearing the name tag Cathy acknowledged them with a nod from beyond the Plexiglas window of the nurses’ station. A moment later, she opened its door and came to greet Shania and her captors. A smile radiated from the women’s plain face. Maybe she wasn’t as mean as she looked.

“Have a seat,” she said, motioning to Shania.

Shania began to plead once again as she sat down in a hard plastic chair with an armrest on one side. She tried to explain that she had no history of mental illness, that she was innocent of sending any threatening messages, and that she wanted to speak with Doctor Hoffritz, an acquaintance of hers.

“I can’t help you with that at the moment,” the nurse said, dropping her smile. “Besides, I think Doctor Hoffritz has gone home by now.”

The orderlies turned to leave the way they had come while the birdlike woman went through the solid metal door that led to the adolescent ward.

“Then who can I speak with to get this mess cleared up?” Shania demanded.

The nurse shrugged with indifference. Maybe she wasn’t so nice after all. “All I can do is leave a note for the day shift supervisor to let them know you’d like to speak with the doctor. For now, all I can do is take your vitals and get you into bed.”

“I don’t need to get into bed!” Shania shouted.

Two more staff members appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

“I need to go home.”

“Fine,” the nurse said sternly, losing her patience. “Just for tonight you’ll get into bed, then you can speak with the doctor about going home in the morning.” Expression turning serious once again, she began to take Shania’s vitals.

A sense of helplessness began to seep through Shania’s veins, though she knew that no amount of pleading and begging would help get her out of there anytime soon. Instead, all she could do was try to suppress the tears of frustration that threatened to spill forth.

“I want my mommy!”

Startled, Shania gave a slight jump. A woman of perhaps sixty was standing just a few feet away, steely gray hair in disarray, clutching an old worn and faded teddy bear. Her hair obviously hadn’t been combed or washed in days and the foul odor that emanated from the woman made Shania’s stomach turn.

“Martha,” said one of the older nurses who had been observing Shania for the last several minutes, “it’s way past your bedtime. Now come along with me.” She gently guided Martha down the hall and into a room that was perhaps five doors down.

After Nurse Cathy finished with Shania’s vitals, she was led into the observation room. As if she thought it would somehow make her feel better, she pointed out that only two of the eight beds were occupied.

“With just three of you in here,” she told her, “you should be able to get a good night’s sleep.”

“Fat chance,” Shania muttered.

Ignoring her, the nurse put on a pair of plastic gloves as Shania glanced at the two sleeping forms on the opposite side of the room.

“They’re not dangerous in any way, are they?” Shania asked.

“Larisa and Allen? No, not at all.”

“You’re putting me in here with a guy?” Shania asked with concern.

The nurse cracked a smile of amusement that only served to infuriate her even more. “They’re harmless,” she said. “Besides, someone’s always keeping watch from the station.”

Shania’s gaze swung to the station window. “There’s no one watching now.”

“That’s because I’m in here now and Becky’s on break.”

Shania thought about trying to outrun Cathy and bolt for the door, but she knew that even if she could get down to the door, it would be locked tight. Instead, she was led to a bed by the back wall, opposite one of the sleeping forms, though she couldn’t tell which one it was in the room’s dim lighting. The other form was closer to the door and nurses’ station.

That’s when Shania noticed the gloves. “What’re those for?”

“I need to search you.”

“Jesus! I feel like I’m some sort of criminal all of a sudden!”

“Hush!” said the nurse. “I don’t want you waking anyone up.”

Shania heard a moan coming from the bed opposite hers. At least she’d be closer to the woman and not the guy, judging by the sound of the moan. Shania didn’t hate guys just because she was gay, but even a straight woman would no doubt feel rather odd about sharing a room with a guy she’d never met before, wouldn’t she?

Cathy frisked Shania and then ordered her to remove her clothing for inspection.

“You want me to strip?” Shania asked incredulously. “Hey lady, I didn’t do anything wrong here so don’t expect me to obey any commands of yours unless you can convince me you’ll shoot me if I don’t.”

“Well, I won’t shoot you, but I’ll certainly be glad to toss you in seclusion for the night if I have to.”

Once again Shania felt both overpowered and powerless and realized that she had no choice but to do as she was told. She’d heard enough talk about secluded rooms in psych wards. Trying to hide her embarrassment, she stripped and allowed the nurse to inspect the pockets and seams of her clothing.

“For tonight I’ll issue you a hospital gown. It’ll be more comfortable to sleep in,” said Cathy.

“No thanks. I’ll stay in my own clothes.”

“Suit yourself. If for some reason, however, you don’t get out of here as fast as you’d like, you should have a friend or a family member bring you more clothes, plus whatever books you may like to read. We do have some in the lounge, but it’s not a very big selection.”

Shania remained quiet.

“You’re allowed to pull your privacy curtain around your bed, but only when you’re changing,” Cathy continued. “If you’re still here at this time tomorrow night and are found to be stable, you’ll move to a more private room with just one roommate. Those rooms have their own bathrooms. No showers, but they’re equipped with sinks and toilets. For now, if you need to use the bathroom, go to the one across from the station until you’re moved.”

Oh, I won’t be here for the move, believe me, Shania told herself with confidence. I’ll be long gone and no doubt talking to a lawyer about what sort of lawsuit I can file.

“Now, just get into bed and try to rest up, ok?”

Shania nodded slowly, feeling defeated in every way possible. She peeled down the brown blanket and asked, “Can I turn off the light behind the bed?”

“Yes, you may. Only the ones in the center stay lit.” Cathy motioned to the two long fluorescent bulbs in the center of the room before she turned to leave.

Shania was then left with her thoughts as she redressed herself, opened her curtain, turned off the light and slid into bed. The element of shock still filled every core of her body. How could this be happening?

She had to talk to Jonas. He would help her. Especially after the way he came off at Miss Daly’s party.

Tim, Gary, Maureen and herself had gotten together to discuss the surprise party they’d ultimately delight their boss with. Each of the coworkers agreed that the more people to attend, the merrier. So each person had secretly gotten whoever they could to attend. Shania had invited Mindy, Tim invited his girlfriend and her friend, Greg invited two male friends, and Maureen invited her uncle Jonas. They were to arrive and be snuck into the building while Miss Daly was in the bathroom, something she always used right before it was time for her employees to leave. It was while she was in the bathroom that they quickly smuggled in their party guests and the refreshments. After all, if they’d brought them in earlier, Miss Daly would surely see them and know that something was up.

It wasn’t long into the party and everyone was introduced, that small cliques began to form. Mindy had gabbed with Gary and one of his friends while Maureen chatted with his other friend. Miss Daly herself fell into pleasant conversation with Tim, his girlfriend, and her friend. Meanwhile, a slightly inebriated Jonas Hoffritz had sauntered up to where Shania stood cutting herself a piece of chocolate cake.

He appeared to be in his early forties, about six feet tall with an average build. He had red hair like his niece, though darker and with a slowly receding hairline and thinning crown. There were a few scattered strands of gray threaded throughout his beard. He wore a brown business suit and silver-rimmed glasses. Dull brown eyes the color of weak tea observed her movements. She could tell that the doctor liked her despite the gold wedding band he wore and the fact that he never actually said anything suggestive. Instead, he had asked her about the job itself before he turned the discussion to her personal life. What did she do in her free time? Was she currently dating anyone?

Shania thought back to when she’d first been brought in to the clinic and how he hadn’t seemed to know who she was. Could a doctor be that forgetful?

It’s probably because of how your dressed, Shania told herself. He didn’t see you in such casual attire the last time, and it was over a year ago anyway. On top of that, doctors see so many people.

But still, wasn’t it a bit odd that he should fail to remember her?

Though she didn’t wish to fall asleep in such a strange place, it wasn’t long before the tendrils of sleep began reaching out for her, snaring her in its web, pulling her down under and into a restless sleep.

She dreamt she was running. She was running and running and running. Someone was chasing her down a dark, damp tunnel. The further she ran, the smaller the tunnel got, trapping her in and leaving her vulnerable to whatever was chasing her.

Chapter 5

Shania awoke to the murmur of voices. Remembering where she was, she quickly sat up and blinked her eyes into focus.

A curtain was yanked open close to the nurses’ station and out stepped a disheveled man in his forties that Shania assumed was Allen. The buttons of his dress shirt were misaligned, making one side of the shirt hang longer than the other.

Shania sat up and watched several people pass by the wide observation room doorway. Some stopped to stare in with curiosity. Then, a cart with trays covered with silver domes was wheeled in.

“Breakfast time, ladies and gentlemen,” announced a petite redhead with frizzy hair and lots of freckles.

Allen and a young Hispanic girl, who had entered the room along with the redhead, approached the cart and took a tray to the table by the door opposite the nurses’ station.

“Well, come on,” the redhead said to Shania with impatience thick in her voice. “It’s getting cold.”

“No thanks. I’m not hungry,” Shania told her.

“Oh, come on. Take a tray anyway.”

Not wanting to argue, Shania took a tray and brought it to where the others sat. Once seated herself, she lifted the dome to find scrambled eggs, a small sausage link, hash browns, a biscuit, and a small container of orange juice. She picked up the plastic fork and put a forkful of eggs into her mouth. They were incredibly bland. A bite of the hash browns proved to be no different.

She looked at her fellow diners. They each ate mechanically, staring at their food as if hypnotized by it.

“I’m Shania,” she said. “And you are?”

The girl looked up at her, but Allen kept his eyes on his food. If he had heard her, he wasn’t showing it in any way.

“Larisa,” said the girl. “And this retard here is Allen. He don’t say much.”

“Oh,” Shania said with a smile. “Listen, I really need to speak with Doctor Hoffritz. Know how I could get ahold of him?”

Larisa’s eyes widened for a split second before resuming her casual, even bored expression.

“Do you know the doctor I’m talking about?”

“Yeah, I know him.”

“How often does he come through here?”

Larisa shrugged. “It varies.”

“Know what I need to do to see him?”

“Just ask one of the staff,” Larisa answered in a tone that suggested Shania’s questions were getting annoying. “If that doesn’t work, get down on your knees and pray. Then hope there’s a good God up there willing to listen.”

Just then, a plump, middle-aged, motherly looking woman with short curly hair entered the room. “Is everything ok in here?”

“Well,” began Shania, “I really need to speak with Doctor Hoffritz.”

“Why do you need to speak with Doctor Hoffritz?” asked the woman, brows furrowing with curiosity.

“He’s an acquaintance of mine and I could really use his help as far as why I was brought here and what to do about it.”

“When were you admitted, last night?”

Shania nodded.

“And you don’t know why?”

Shania shook her head. “My only guess is that my coworker, the doctor’s niece, set me up. She’s been fuming ever since I got the job she’s been wanting. Really, I have no reason to be here. I’ve never harmed anyone or myself in my life.”

“Oh, I see,” the woman said with that now familiar doubt evident in her voice. “Well, for now just finish up with breakfast, then go into the lounge for Group and I’ll see about contacting the doctor for you.”

The woman was gone before Shania could say anything more.

“That’s Victoria,” Larisa explained. “No one’s too fond of her.”

“What is she, a nurse or just a regular staff member?” Shania asked.

“Just a regular mental health worker. Nurses wear white, but the staff just wear name tags pinned onto their regular clothes. You really don’t know why you’re here?”

“Nope. But I have some very good guesses about it. What’s Group?”

“The box is hiding in the chimney!” Allen suddenly blurted, making Shania jump.

“Just ignore him,” said Larisa. “He’s insane.”

Shania remained silent, though she studied Allen intently.

“Group’s where everyone meets with the group therapist. That’s the first hour of each weekday from eight to nine. The rest of the day is spent doing various activities, be it arts and crafts, exercising and shit like that. You can also request a private meeting with the therapist if you want.”

“Sounds like loads of fun,” Shania said rolling her eyes. “But who’s going to tell me exactly why I’m here and how to get out of here?”

“You’ll find out when you meet with the clinical evaluator if a doctor doesn’t fill you in first. I can’t believe no one told you.”

“Neither can I.”

Larisa stood up from the table and proceeded to braid her long thick dark hair. When she was finished, she slipped a pink cloth-covered elastic off her wrist to secure it with.

Allen then pushed back his tray and rose from the table. Shania’s eyes followed him as he plucked a comb off the small table by his bed and began running it through his greasy hair. He ran it through so fiercely that Shania was surprised he didn’t tear it all out.

Another staff member, this one younger, came in to tell them to report for Group in five minutes.

Shania stepped out into the hall and asked a pretty African-American girl where the bathroom was.

She pointed to a short corridor to the side of the observation room. “The first door on the left is the bathroom and the second door is the shower room. When you’re done, zip across the hall to the lounge for Group and don’t be late. Lauren wouldn’t like that.”

“Lauren?”

“Yeah, the therapist.”

“Ok. Thank you,” Shania said, quickly heading for the bathroom. Inside, a frumpy looking woman stood arguing with her reflection in the small aluminum mirror over the sinks. Trying not to stare at the strange sight as the woman debated over which dishwashing detergent was best, Shania made her way to a stall. When she was done, she left the woman to her heated debate and stepped back out into the hall. She glanced left at the door to the adolescent ward, then walked directly across the hall to the lounge.

About fifteen people of both genders milled about the room. A man was chatting with the woman Shania assumed to be the therapist, judging by the nature of the discussion.

“Only a doctor can prescribe that to you. I’m only a psychologist,” said the therapist.

The man nodded and walked off.

“Ok, everybody,” said the therapist, clapping her hands once loudly to get people’s attention. “Ladies and gentlemen, listen up.”

The chatter died down.

“I’d like you all to take your seats now, please.”

Chairs were set up in a long row in front of the where the therapist would sit, curving inward at the sides.

Shania sat in a chair on one end.

“My name’s Lauren, for those of you who don’t know me.” She glanced at Shania and gave a slight smile. When she looked away, Shania studied her intently as she waited for the others to settle into their seats.

Lauren was very attractive. Perhaps not a beauty queen, but in ways that Shania found appealing. She was tall and thin with straight dark hair to her shoulders. She had penetrating brown eyes and a demeanor that spoke of confidence and ease. She was dressed in jeans and a black sleeveless top. Shania could tell by the muscle tone in her arms that she worked out regularly.

She quickly averted her gaze when Lauren’s eyes shifted back towards hers.

“I see a newcomer here,” Lauren said.

Shania looked back up at Lauren.

“And who may you be?”

All eyes turned towards her. She tried to hide her discomfort as she cleared her throat and began to speak. “My name is Shania McCarthy, and truthfully, the only reason I’m here is because of a very vindictive coworker who set me up.”

“Join the club,” someone interrupted from a few seats away, causing a ripple of snickers to erupt within the room.

“It was my own mother that set me up,” another person added.

“Quiet down, folks,” Lauren demanded sternly, clearly annoyed by the outburst. “No more interruptions, ok gang?”

“Sorry, Lauren,” someone else said just as an athletic appearing young man poked his head in the doorway.

“Yes, Michael?” asked Lauren.

“The clinical evaluator is ready to see Shania McCarthy,” the guy said.

“Oh, ok.” Lauren’s head turned back to Shania, silky hair bouncing across her shoulders. “Maybe you can get things cleared up now.”

Shania stood up and followed Michael down the long corridor and to a small room at the other end of the ward where she had first entered it.

Michael motioned Shania into the room.

“Come in,” said an older lady much like the birdlike lady who had led her, along with the orderlies, to the ward. She smiled briefly at Michael before he left, then her expression became more serious, even a bit disdainful. Peering over her bifocals at Shania, she told her to have a seat by the desk.

Shania sat down in the chair.

“Shania McCarthy, correct?”

“Yes.”

The woman tapped away at the keyboard in front of her for a few minutes. Shania couldn’t see what it was she was typing because the monitor’s back was facing her.

“Ma’am, could you please tell Doctor Hoffritz that I really, really need to see him?”

The woman glanced at her as if she wasn’t sure that she had even spoken, then turned her attention back to the monitor.

Shania shifted uncomfortably in her chair as the woman’s fingers continued to tap away at the keyboard. “Ma’am, did you hear me?”

The woman flashed her another glance, this time laced with annoyance. “Yes, I heard you,” she finally said. “I’ll let you know what the report says in just a minute.”

After a few more minutes of typing, the woman picked up a tan file folder and sat back in her chair. She cleared her throat and pulled off her glasses, letting them dangle from a chain around her neck. “According to the report I have here, you’ve been committed for an unknown length of time for being highly suicidal, as well as for making threats against Doctor Hoffritz’s niece who is four months pregnant. It also says here that you threatened Mayor Owens. You were also a suspect in the death of your family, the report goes on to say, and so…”

“That’s insane! What happened to my family was a tragic accident and I was never a suspect in the matter. I was fifteen years old at the time, for God’s sake, and I loved my family!” Shania shouted, heart racing with fear, but mostly with anger. “My God, all this simply because I get the promotion the doctor’s niece wanted! Lovely. Just lovely.”

“I don’t know anything about that, but…”

“Well, I do! That’s exactly what’s happened here. Now, if I’m not released immediately, this institution, along with Jonas Hoffritz and his niece himself, is going to be in a lot of trouble.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman said without empathy in her voice, “but we won’t be able to do that.”

“Then let me speak to Hoffritz.”

The woman sighed.

“Let him try to look me straight in the eye and say he doesn’t remember me from the party. And I dare him to say anything about my family!”

Again with the sigh. “Look, I’m not in a position to either discharge you or get you to see the doctor this instant.”

“Then get in the position.”

“I can’t do that. I…”

Shania rose from her chair. “Forget it, lady. He and his niece will be hearing from my lawyer.”

Shania left the room and gazed longingly at the tightly locked solid metal door just across the hall. What were her chances of escaping either through a door or a barred window?

The phone! I have to get to a phone!

Shania quickened her pace as she rounded the corner to where the long stretch of hallway began. Last night as they hauled her down to the observation room, she had noted that the small bank of pay phone’s receivers were dangling off their hooks. Now they were hung up.

Grateful that the calls she needed to make were local, she snatched up the receiver of one of the three phones and called work.

“Daly Medical Coding,” Miss Daly answered.

Before Shania could get half a sentence out, her boss hung up on her.

Great, Shania thought. She believes I made these bogus threats.

Next, she dialed home. The machine came on, as expected, and she began relaying everything that had transpired so far to Mindy for when she got home from work. Despite the hysteria in her voice, she tried to talk softly to avoid drawing attention. She asked Mindy to try to find an appropriate lawyer who could help her, and when she was done, she hung up and began to investigate more of her surroundings. She did so in a hurried manner, assuming she’d be noticed any moment or that they’d come looking for her real soon.

She glanced both left and right into rooms that looked amazingly hospital-like. She could be on a cancer treatment ward from the looks of it.

But she knew she wasn’t. A sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach threatened to overwhelm her with panic as she thought of the predicament she was in. She desperately sought out ways in her mind to get out of the mess in which a very cold and calculating person had put her in. She had known Maureen was immature and selfish, but she hadn’t known that she was this cold-blooded.

Then there was Hoffritz. Just what kind of doctor was he to go along with his niece’s deranged ploy? Did he really believe she had threatened her and the mayor? Or had they both conspired against her, knowing full well that she hadn’t threatened anyone?

And how did they know about her family? Perhaps she had mentioned it to Tim and Maureen had overheard. It was the only way she could think of unless they’d had her investigated, and quickly, too.

“There she is,” Shania heard a woman say. She spun around quickly.

There before her stood two staff members and the not so good doctor himself.

“Well, well,” said Shania, stiffening with rage. “Just the guy I want to see.” She walked closer to the group. She was so enraged that had she had fur on her body, the hairs would be standing up straight.

“Miss McCarthy,” began Hoffritz.

“Don’t Miss McCarthy me, Jonas. You know damn well who I am. Why are you doing this? Did getting the promotion mean that much to your niece or is this because I refused your indirect, but plenty obvious enough advances at the party? And what kind of doctor are you anyway to let your niece talk you into using your authority to spite me like this?”

The staff members looked bewildered. They seemed unsure as to whether or not Shania knew what she was saying or if she was just plain crazy.

“Miss McCarthy, you’re here because you threatened to kill the mayor, my niece, and her unborn child, and I’m also aware of the fact that you were suspected of killing your family as well.”

“That’s a lie!” screamed Shania, enraged. “I not only didn’t threaten your greedy, cold-blooded, spoiled little niece, but I had nothing to do with my family’s death either!”

“But you’ve been known to have said you felt guilty…”

“Of course I felt guilty!” Shania said, screaming so loud that her voice echoed painfully off the cement walls and tiled floor. “I was the only one who survived that night. I was just a kid, and as a family friend once told me, who happened to be a therapist, by the way, I was suffering a normal case of survivor’s guilt.”

“I see,” Hoffritz said, though not with any real emotion.

“Oh, you’ll see, alright. Just as soon as you hear from my lawyer. You cannot and will not do this to me!” Shania shouted as he turned and began to head back up the corridor.

Meanwhile, the two staff members, a woman and a man, closed in on her.

“Just let me go!” Shania yelled after Hoffritz. “Maureen can have the damn job! I’ll be damned if I’ll ever go back there to work anyway!”

“Calm down, Miss McCarthy,” said one of the staff.

“Calm down, my ass!”

Strong arms suddenly grabbed hold of hers. She gasped at the suddenness in which the two staff members seized hold of her.

“This way now,” said the woman.

Shania continued to yell as she was led back to the observation room. “He can’t do this to me! He won’t get away with it. I’ll find a way to fight back somehow!”

Now in the observation room, the staff threatened to sedate her if she didn’t calm down.

“Please!” Shania begged, searching their eyes for the slightest bit of faith and understanding. “You must believe me and you must help me!”

“We’ll help you when you settle down,” said the guy.

Shania sat on her bed sobbing. A moment later the staff left her wondering how she was supposed to stay “calm” in such a situation. Yet she knew that presenting a calm, cool demeanor might be her only ticket to freedom.

Then she remembered something. Someone had been watching her from just outside the lounge area. That someone had been Lauren, the therapist.

Chapter 6

It wasn’t until the morning of her second day confined at Lakeview that she was moved out of the observation room, due to her “outburst” at Hoffritz.

Mindy wouldn’t be able to visit until the weekend, though the two had spoken by telephone. Mindy had spoken with a lawyer who seemed promising. Her name was Ashlyn Sharp. Since Shania could only make phone calls and not receive them, the lawyer had instructed Mindy to have Shania call her to set up a time for a free consultation in which she’d visit her at the hospital.

After a day of going through the usual routine of group therapy and other group activities that made Shania feel as if she were at a summer activities camp for children, she settled comfortably in her bed which was closest to the door. She pulled the tray that was on wheels across her bed so she could do some word search puzzles in a magazine she’d gotten from the lounge. She had just found the first word when Bianca, her roommate, entered the room.

“How’d the visit go?” Shania asked her.

“Not so good,” answered the cute, twenty-nine-year-old Chinese girl. “I think we’re going to end up divorced. We’re just not on the same wavelength in life. He wants what I don’t want and I want what he doesn’t want.” She sat on the edge of her bed facing Shania.

“Sometimes that happens,” said Shania.

“But this is the second man I’ve been with that won’t allow me to have children,” Bianca said with frustration.

“Did he say he wanted kids when you first got together?”

Bianca nodded. “Yes, he did.”

Shania was thoughtful a moment. “What with how many men out there that don’t seem to want kids, it’s a wonder there are so many people in the world.”

“That’s because a lot of men think from below the belt only. Mine just happens to be one of the few to insist on bringing the rubbers to bed with us. He won’t let me use anything like the pill because he doesn’t trust me to take it properly.”

“Would you?”

“Yeah, I would. I wouldn’t want to, but I would,” said Bianca. “There’d be no sense in trying to have a family with someone who didn’t want one.”

Shania nodded with understanding. “I agree that that’s something both people involved should agree on and not just one.”

“He tells me I’m spoiled and selfish.”

“Wanting a child with your boyfriend or husband isn’t spoiled or selfish.”

“That’s what I thought, but it’s ok. I’ll have kids someday. I just don’t think it will be with the man I married. Do you think you’ll ever want to have kids of your own?” Bianca asked.

Shania thought about it, then said, “I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I guess I’d only end up feeling overwhelmed by such a tremendous responsibility and expense. Kids are nice, but I was really cut out to be a career person. It just isn’t going to be at Miss Daly’s medical coding business.”

“Are you going to call that lawyer tomorrow?”

Shania nodded. “First chance I get.”

“What doctor were you assigned to?”

“Doctor Joganic.”

Bianca nodded.

“You didn’t think it’d be the good doc himself now, did you?”

Bianca chuckled, then turned serious again. “I’m just glad he’s not my doctor from what you’ve told me about him. He sounds like a real wacko, and I have no reason to doubt you about that. You seem so sane compared to most of these weirdoes in here.”

“So do you,” Shania smiled. “I’d never know you had a breakdown.”

Bianca shrugged. “Guess it all just got too much for me. Between my husband’s dictatorship, my mom dying, and then my best friend being diagnosed with terminal cancer, it just had a cumulative effect on me.”

Shania listened intently. If anything, it helped to take her mind off her own troubles, though she knew she couldn’t do anything to help Bianca other than just be her sounding board. Finally, she said, “A woman doesn’t need to be with a guy or married to one to raise kids, Bianca. Ever consider getting a guy that you know for sure will run from responsibility, and letting them impregnate you before they take off?”

Bianca laughed. “Maybe I should give that some thought. Meanwhile, I know I’m young and that I still have plenty of time left.”

“It’s time for Group, ladies,” said a staff member, poking her head in the doorway.

Shania looked at Bianca with confusion. “Group? At this time?”

Bianca nodded. “I hate to break it to you, but every Friday night, one of the shrinks heads a meeting and asks us if we feel we’re being treated well or if we have any gripes, and it’s usually spearheaded by guess who?”

Shania’s eyebrows raised. “Well, if it’s who I think it is, I bet I could come up with a few gripes of my own.”

“I’ll bet you could,” Bianca said with a knowing smile.

Group, like most events, was held in the lounge. Shania entered the room to find Hoffritz speaking with a patient. His eyes made contact with Shania’s, but only for a nanosecond. She and Bianca found seats in the back of the room.

The ward held approximately forty patients, and the crowded room was alive with the buzz of chatter.

A young staff member named Sue came in and ordered everyone to be seated and silent before taking a seat along with Hoffritz, facing the group.

Shania sat quietly as various concerns were addressed, mainly over visiting and smoking issues, with some complaining of too much group activity and not enough one on one attention. One man even complained about the food, the only thing Shania found to be satisfactory about the facility.

Another woman complain. “I’m sick of having to be woken up at 7 AM every morning just to discuss things with everyone else that should be discussed in private with either Lauren or my shrink. Then I have to do silly things all day like draw pictures and close my eyes so I can imagine I’m alone on some deserted island like the relaxation therapist has us do.”

Hoffritz smiled. “That it?” he asked, obviously not taking the woman too seriously.

After listening to a few more concerns and complaints, Shania felt it was time to voice a complaint of her own. “I’ve got a complaint,” she said standing up.

Hoffritz instantly took on a knowing and disapproving expression as Sue took on one of curiosity. The other patients turned in their chairs to face her.

“I have a serious problem when my greedy, evil co-worker… niece of the good doc here… uses him to have me committed under false pretenses because I got the promotion she wanted. And furthermore…”

“That’s enough, Miss McCarthy,” Hoffritz said sternly.

Sue continued to stare at Shania, unsure of what to make of what she’d just heard, while Bianca tried to cover a smile of amusement over the way Shania was putting Hoffritz on the spot, obviously embarrassing him.

“Oh, is it?” Shania boldly continued. “We’ll see about that when my lawyer contacts you.”

Hoffritz stood up fast. “Leave,” he demanded.

“No problem,” Shania said, heading for the door. “I couldn’t stand to see your face any longer anyway. Makes me sick!”

“Out!” Hoffritz shouted, face red as an apple.

Shania stormed down the long corridor to where her room was located in the middle of the long I. She threw herself on her bed and cried. All she had ever wanted in life was someone to love her and a job that paid the bills. Was that too much to ask for?

Chapter 7

The next morning, after returning from breakfast in the cafeteria, Shania headed for the phone.

“Oh, no you don’t,” said Victoria, walking up quickly towards Shania. “You’re on restriction.”

Shania’s hand froze on the receiver. “What for? Since when?”

“Since last night, from what the report stated that I read this morning when I came on duty.”

“Gee, let me guess,” Shania said sarcastically. “Certainly it can’t be for exposing good old Doc Hoffritz for what he’s really made of in group last night, could it?”

“Look, young lady. I have my orders and…”

“And I have to call my lawyer so they too, can expose the piece of shit for what he is!” snapped Shania, cutting Victoria off.

“Miss McCarthy, you’re just going to have to obey the rules here, ok?”

“No, it’s not ok. I didn’t do anything to deserve to be put on restriction any more than I did anything to be thrown in here in the first place!” Shania was becoming angrier by the minute. Maybe kissing ass wasn’t the way out of here after all. Without thinking, she turned and headed for the exit.

“Come back here this minute!” Victoria ordered.

Shania glanced back behind her just long enough to see that two more staff members who had heard the shouts, now stood beside Victoria.

“Come and get me,” she taunted, still moving down the corridor. “Because I’m not about to make this bullshit commitment easy on anybody involved!”

She took off further down the corridor and was almost to the end of it when Lauren rounded the corner in front of her as she turned to shout once more behind her. “Stay away from me! Just stay the fuck away from me!”

Lauren stepped out towards the center of the corridor to block her. “Hold on there now, girl. Just calm down, ok?” she said.

Shania was now in tears of utter frustration. She felt weak from her efforts of trying to run from a situation that seemed bleaker by the moment with seemingly no escape.

Victoria and the other staff were now at her side.

She tried to push past Lauren, but Lauren held her firmly in place. “Just relax,” she told her. “Everything’s going to be alright.” She looked at the others. “I’ll take her into my office from here.”

“There you go. Things aren’t so bad after all,” Victoria said with a fixed smile and a tone that suggested she was relieved to know she wouldn’t have to deal with her any longer.

Shania, seeing no other way out between the staff, locked doors and barred windows, gave Victoria one last glare and allowed herself to be gently led by Lauren to a room next to the one in which she’d met with the clinical evaluator.

Still sobbing, she observed the room before her once she stepped inside it. It didn’t have the cold, impersonal feel to it as the evaluator’s room did. Instead, it had a cozier, friendlier atmosphere, despite all the clutter about it.”

“Have a seat,” said Lauren.

Shania sat as did Lauren, but rather than sitting at her desk, she sat in a chair across from her that was just a few feet away. Their feet almost touched.

“What’s up, Shania?”

Shania studied Lauren’s intense and distinct yet soft features, trying to calm her sobs. Lauren’s dark eyes gazed back at her blue ones with both concern and curiosity. She had a calm, gentleness about her that put Shania at ease, to say nothing of the fact that she was quite attracted to her. She’d known this from the start when they’d first met in Group, but this meeting would only serve to confirm and intensify that fact.

“It’s ok,” coaxed Lauren. “I’m a good listener.”

Shania scrutinized Lauren a moment longer, shook her head and rose from her seat. “You may be a good listener, but you can’t help me,” she said, sauntering over to the window which overlooked the courtyard. She saw one patient sitting at one of the picnic tables reading a book while another patient and a staff member sat talking at another table as they puffed on cigarettes.

“Perhaps not, but I can at least listen, can’t I?”

Shania turned back to face Lauren. What a body! “But can you believe me?” She sat back down in her chair and faced the therapist, who now sat forward with her elbows on her knees.

“Depends on what you have to say.”

A staff member named Enrique stuck his head in the door.

“Yes?” Lauren asked.

“Everything ok in here?” he asked with a thick Hispanic accent.

“Fine,” Lauren replied with a nod. Enrique nodded as well and left, then Lauren turned her attention back to Shania. “Anyway, if you tell me you’re from planet Mars, then no, I’m not going to believe you.”

“If I told you Hoffritz’s niece used him to get me committed here out of spite, would you believe that?”

Lauren looked thoughtful a moment. “Doctor Hoffritz and his niece, huh?”

Shania nodded. “Forget it. I mean, what difference does it make if you believe me or not? You still can’t help me.”

Lauren sat back in her chair and folded her arms comfortably across her chest. “I’d like to hear about it anyway. All I know is that when I asked about you, they told me you threatened the mayor and then his niece or something like that.”

“Yeah, or something like that,” Shania said sarcastically. Then she caught herself. “I’m sorry. I know I shouldn’t take it out on you.”

Lauren’s full lips parted in a smile of understanding. “It’s ok,” she said softly, eyes glistening with emotion.

But what emotion? Concern? Humor? Hatred? She was hard to figure, though at the same time unless it was just pure wishful thinking, the therapist really did seem to be filled with genuine concern for her. Telling herself it was merely part of her job, Shania told Lauren about meeting Hoffritz at the party, about the promotion, then about Maureen using her computer. “The public defender urged me to go along with the DA, assuring me I’d be out of here in just a few days and that that would be better than jail, but somehow I doubt I’m going to get out of this mess anytime soon.”

When she was done, Lauren sat silently absorbing what she’d been told for a minute or two.

“Well?” prompted Shania. “Do you believe me?”

Lauren had been staring into space, deep in thought. She glanced back towards Shania. “I don’t know. You seem to be pretty sound of mind with no reason to lie about this, but I don’t know. I’ve got to admit that while my gut instinct says good things about you, I don’t know you very well and even the best of us psychologists get fooled on occasion. I once counseled a guy who was depressed and angry. After a while, he came to be a seemingly brilliant, enthusiastic and compassionate person.”

Shania listened intently.

“Then one day he held up a bank. Killed five people before a sniper could finally take him out.”

“Wow,” said Shania. “You know what, though?”

“What’s that?” asked Lauren with a slight smile.

“I wish I was joking.”

Lauren nodded with understanding.

“So tell me, have you ever heard anything shady said about Hoffritz?”

Lauren shook her head. “No, I haven’t. I haven’t heard anything bad about anyone here, to be honest with you.”

They sat in silence a moment, then Shania said, “I was trying to call a lawyer that my roommate found so we could get together for a consultation. That’s what all the fuss was about.” She then told Lauren about last night and how she came to learn that she was on restriction when she went to place the call.

“And they didn’t even tell you all the reasons you were supposedly brought in here until the next day?”

“That’s correct. I didn’t find out until Michael came to fetch me when I first met you at the group therapy meeting. The night I got here, I spotted Hoffritz a ways down a corridor. When I called out to him, he acted like he’d never seen me before in his life.”

“And this was at night?”

Shania nodded. “Just before ten PM.”

“Hmmm, that’s awfully late for him to be working,” Lauren said, brows furrowed.

“Bet I can make a damn good guess as to why he was here that late.”

“Perhaps you can,” Lauren said. Then, “Are you married?”

Shania shook her head.

“Any kids?”

Again she shook her head.

“Boyfriends? Family?”

“I’m gay,” Shania said matter of factly. “You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”

“Hardly,” Lauren said with a laugh.

“As for my family, they’re dead, which is another thing the sick bastard is using as ammunition against me.”

Lauren continued to listen and study Shania as she spoke.

“He’s saying I was a suspect in their deaths which is total bullshit, of course. I was fifteen years old when it happened.”

“Do you mind telling me about it?”

Shania hesitated, then took a deep breath. “An old family friend who was a therapist herself said I was suffering from survivor’s guilt. As a therapist yourself, you must know something about that.”

Lauren nodded.

Shania inhaled deeply again before recalling the night of terror in which her whole family had been wiped out. One she could never and would never forget no matter how long she lived. “My little sister Wendy was ten and my little brother Nathan was just seven at the time. I don’t know if my father forgot to put new batteries in the smoke detector or if it just malfunctioned. All I know is that I woke up one night choking on smoke. My parents managed to call the fire department, but it was too late. The entire first floor of the house was engulfed in flames. I was the first one the firefighters were able to rescue by way of sending a ladder up to my bedroom window. By the time they got to the others, they were gone. Smoke inhalation had killed them. Then I later learned that faulty wiring was the cause of the fire. It was a very old house, too.”

Lauren’s eyes were misty with empathy. She softly said, “That must’ve been hard. And to happen so young, too. Who did you live with afterward?”

“That family friend. Her name was Elizabeth. She died just last year of a stroke.”

“How awful.”

“Now I’m the only one left. It’s just me and my friend Mindy. I’ve had a few girlfriends along the way, but they didn’t amount to much. In between all this, I worked my way up at the medical coding company and this is what I get for it.” She leaned forward, put her face in her hands and began to cry in utter despair. A moment later she felt a reassuring hand on her shoulder. She gave a slight jump. Not because it made her uncomfortable in any way, but because she wasn’t expecting it. It surprised her just how much Lauren seemed to care.

“I’m sorry,” Lauren said quickly, sitting back in her chair.

“Oh, no. It’s ok,” said Shania.

“Did you get along with your family and with Elizabeth?”

Shania nodded. “They were wonderful people.”

Lauren smiled. “Well, that’s good.”

“Like I tried to tell them, I have no history of abuse or psychological problems.”

“You never felt suicidal?”

“No, but if I suddenly knew I was about to cease to exist, I doubt I’d put up much of a fight. Death just might be more of a blessing right now than anything. After all, I lost my freedom, and of course, there’s no way I could return to my job, so why not drop dead?” Shania again put her face in her hands.

“Shania. Oh, Shania?”

She looked up at Lauren.

“Be careful what you say around here.”

Shania considered Lauren’s advice.

“A psychologist is better trained to recognize just how serious one is about the things they say, but some of these staff members may take you quite seriously.”

“In other words, if I don’t literally mean it, keep my mouth shut?”

Lauren nodded with a smile, drawing a slight smile from Shania as well.

“Feel better?”

“A little.”

“Good.” Lauren leaned forward in her chair again for emphasis. “Now, just keep your cool and call that lawyer as soon as you can.”

Shania nodded, trying not to blush. Lauren’s face was just inches from her own. She suddenly felt like an open book. Like those dark, mysterious eyes could see right through her.

Lauren then stood up from her chair. “Alright, then. I have to see someone else now, but I’ll be seeing you again real soon, ok?”

Shania nodded. “I think I’d like that.”

Lauren, now jotting something down at her desk, grinned as if she found that statement to be amusing.

Shania was just about to step out into the hall when she turned back to face Lauren. “Call the lawyer?”

Lauren looked up at her and nodded.

“Does that mean you believe me?”

“I guess it means I can at least give you the benefit of the doubt.”

Shania smiled. “Thanks, Lauren. See you later.”

“Bye.”

Shania made her way down the short hallway and rounded the corner to the long one just as a scruffy blond woman approached her from that direction. “Is Lauren in her office?” she asked.

“Yes,” Shania told her, watching the woman walk past her and disappear around the corner.

“You can’t make me take those fucking drugs!” she suddenly heard a man scream.

She stopped dead in her tracks and looked straight ahead. Allen was yelling at a nurse who was accompanied by a handful of staff members.

“Allen,” lectured the nurse, “the courts have ordered…”

“I don’t care what the courts have ordered!” Allen screamed. “The shit makes me drowsy as hell and it dries my mouth up so bad it feels like someone shoved sand in it.”

With most of the staff preoccupied with Allen, Shania gingerly made her way to the phone. She snatched up the receiver with one hand and yanked out the piece of paper with the lawyer’s number from her pocket with the other. Then she quickly punched in the number. An answering machine picked up and a stern-sounding woman began to speak, telling her callers to leave their name, number and reason for calling.

“Hi, my name is Shania McCarthy. I’m having trouble getting to the phone here at Lakeview because of all the problems Doctor Hoffritz has been causing me, as I’m sure my roommate Mindy filled you in on. Please, I need your help. Visiting hours are from one to six PM. I really appreciate any help you could give me and I hope to see you soon.”

Shania hung up the phone and darted further up the corridor, then zipped across to where her room was.

Too late.

“Miss McCarthy?”

Shania spun around to find Victoria behind her. “Yes?”

“You need to report to the lounge.”

“The lounge?”

“Yes, for art therapy.”

“Oh,” Shania said, releasing a sigh of relief. “Right. Art therapy. I’m on my way.” She headed towards the lounge, glancing back once to find Victoria staring at her with suspicion.

Chapter 8

The weekend was long and tedious, filled with all kinds of worries and stress, not to mention her ever-growing rage at Maureen and Hoffritz. Especially Hoffritz, since he was the one with the power of authority.

Not surprisingly, she learned that another doctor was to take over the weekly “complaints” group.

She wanted to see Lauren, but she knew she didn’t work on weekends.

Weekends were the only time, from what she was told, that the patients got a lot of “free time.” There were no groups during this time. Shania spent most of it fretting in bed, though she managed to coax herself out into the courtyard and the fresh air a few times. She also tried to bring herself to pass the time absorbed in a good book but found she couldn’t concentrate.

It wasn’t until early Monday afternoon that she finally got to meet with the lawyer.

“Hi,” said the lawyer with a smile and an extended hand. “My name’s Ashlyn Sharp.”

“It’s nice to finally meet you, Miss Sharp,” said Shania, leading her to the courtyard. They took a seat at one of the tables. Shania studied the woman intently. The middle-aged lawyer looked as no-nonsense as she seemed to be with distinct, even harsh features. Her dismally gray business suit added to her rigid austere.

“I tried to get in late Friday afternoon to see you, but they told me you were to be on restriction all weekend,” Ashlyn told her.

“Yes, I’m sure they did,” Shania said with a sigh.

“Look, Miss McCarthy, I don’t want to take up too much of your time with false hope, so I’ll just get right to the point.”

Shania felt her heartbeat speed up at the sound of the lawyer’s less-than-enthusiastic voice.

“You see, I’m afraid there’s really not a whole lot I can do for you. With no proof as to the doctor committing you solely out of spite with the urging of his niece, there’s just nothing I can do.”

“Then what can I do to enable you to help me?” Shania asked, heart sinking to the pit of her stomach.

The lawyer shrugged. “Get me some proof. Until then, I don’t know what to tell you other than that somehow you’ve got to prove that he had you committed due to a personal vendetta against you.”

“But how am I going to do that?” Shania asked with desperation and hopelessness seeping into her voice.

The lawyer shrugged again. “Do you think there’s any way you could get him to admit what he’s done on tape?”

“Yeah, right. Like I could even get a tape recorder into this place?”

The lawyer simply gazed at Shania with pity, then she said, “I’m sorry. I wish I could help you…”

“But you can’t, so I’ll just have to get someone who can,” Shania finished with frustration as she rose from her seat. “Have a nice day, counselor.”

Shania left the lawyer in the courtyard and entered the ward. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the cool, gloomy interior.

Early that evening, Mindy came to visit. “I finally get to see you,” she said with concern. “I was wondering how long it’d take to get in here. I’ve been so worried about you.” Then, noticing Shania’s gloomy expression, she said, “Hey, girl. I thought you’d be glad to see me.”

“The lawyer came to see me earlier,” Shania said flatly.

“And?”

“And she can’t help me.”

“She can’t?” Mindy asked with surprise. “Why not?”

“Says I have no case without proof.”

Mindy digested this new information, expression turning somber as a pall came over them.

Shania looked at the four corridors that the square courtyard was enclosed in. She looked over the rooftops of the ground floor structure. “If only I could jump over that roof.”

“There’s got to be a way to prove your case,” said Mindy.

“Well, if you can find it, I’d certainly like to know about it.”

They sat in silence a moment longer, watching birds flutter amongst some hedges that ran alongside one wall of the near-empty courtyard.

“It’s a long shot, but I’m hoping my therapist can help me somehow,” Shania said. “You should see her. She’s really good looking and really nice, too. At least I have something to brighten up my stay here.”

“Does she know you’re gay?” Mindy asked.

Shania nodded.

“Do you know if she is, too?”

“No, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she was.”

“Why?”

“Just a feeling. Guess it takes one to know one.”

Mindy nodded. “Yeah, I suppose it does.”

“Gay or straight, she really seems to be the only one who cares. The others don’t even believe me, but I think she does. I’ve only spoken to her once, so I can’t say anything for sure about her. All I know is that where others seem to only hear me, Lauren seems to really listen.”

“Well, I’m glad you have someone in here who’s on your side.”

Shania’s face darkened again. “Look, Mindy, I’m obviously not going to be able to contribute my share of the expenses this month. If you need to go ahead and store my stuff somewhere and either get a new roommate or a smaller place, I’ll understand.”

“Oh, don’t talk like that! I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“But you may have to.”

Mindy looked thoughtful a moment.

“All I’m saying is that it’s ok to do whatever it is you need to do because I don’t know how long I’m going to be trapped here with no escape,” Shania said.

Mindy nodded, then changed the subject. She asked about the food, the people, how she spent her time.

“I spend my time trying to get out of here, but when I’m unable to do that, they keep me busy enough.”

After a moment of each girl being lost in her own thoughts, Mindy spoke up. “You know, I have an idea.”

“Yeah?”

Mindy nodded. “One you’re not going to like, but we may have no choice but to resort to it. It’s up to you, though. Totally.”

“What is it?”

“My brother knows some people.”

At first, Shania was confused. Then it hit her. “Oh, as in violent people?”

Mindy nodded again. “Keep your voice down. Violent, but not deadly.”

Shania considered the proposition. “I’ll let you know,” she said a moment later.

The two spoke a while longer and then a staff member came out to announce the end of visiting hours.

Now with her friend gone and the lawyer’s bad news, a deep depression began to overtake Shania as she realized that there truly may be no way out of the mess Maureen and her uncle had created for her. Certainly no quick and easy one.

The corridors seemed oddly deserted, though she knew that most of the patients were in groups or meetings of various kinds. Still, it wasn’t usually this quiet, so Shania figured it was as good a time as any to go snooping around. Perhaps she needed to take desperate measures after all. Especially if no one else could or would help her. Besides, it was true that there was no way to prove her case. Her perpetrators weren’t about to admit what they’d done. At least not to anyone who wouldn’t keep their evil deed a secret or who had enough power to use it against them.

She decided to head down towards Lauren’s office. She’d only taken a few steps when she heard voices coming from that direction. She turned and quickly headed the other way. She was approaching the nurses’ station. If she hung a left, she’d surely be seen. If she went right, she may not. It would depend on whatever the precise location was of the staff inside the station was at the moment. Either way, she was curious to know what was off of that corridor, as short as it was, so she was willing to chance it. There were only a few doors branching off its sides. However, if any of them had a chance of leading to freedom, she wanted to know about it.

Certain that she hadn’t been detected, she rounded the corner. Then, beginning on one side, she tried the knobs of the first two doors. They were locked tight.

Suddenly, the sound of whistling came to her and she realized it was coming from the last room on the opposite side. She couldn’t see into the room from where she was, though she could see that its door was open and the room was brightly lit.

She slowly approached the door, and when she was close enough, she took a deep breath and peered inside.

Hoffritz!

Rage seeped into her and absorbed her like a sponge. She thought of Mindy’s offer and then an idea came to her.

She stepped into the room. As she came up behind Hoffritz, she could see a few pictures on his desk, one of which was Maureen, the other of which she assumed were family photos, judging by the similar hair color and facial characteristics.

He was unaware of her at first. Shania watched him as he sat back in his swivel leather chair, thumbing through a file folder, occasionally glancing at his computer screen.

Shania crept even closer.

He seemed to be viewing a legal web page while browsing through the file he held.

“Looking for ways to con your way out of the serious legal jam you got your ass in?” Shania asked with unhidden sarcasm.

Hoffritz spun around fast. “What are you doing here?” he asked with both shock and anger.

“The question is, what are you doing here? You’re certainly no real doctor.”

Hoffritz stared hard at Shania with cold, steely eyes. Then calmly yet firmly he said, “Miss McCarthy, you need to leave now.”

Shania ignored him and said, “I agree. So why don’t you discharge me.”

“Leave.”

“Why are you doing this to me?”

He turned back towards his monitor.

“Huh? Answer me, Doc. Look me in the face and tell me why you’re doing this.”

He turned and looked up at Shania, patience wearing thin. “You’re only making things worse for yourself, you know.”

“Oh, am I really?”

He turned away again. This would be a mistake on his part.

As Shania’s anger boiled over, she whipped out a fist and boxed Hoffritz in the temple with a strength she didn’t even know she possessed. He slid off his chair as if he’d melted to liquid and hit the floor hard.

Experiencing a rage like never before, Shania kicked him in the mouth. Blood oozed down his chin. She would never forget the stunned look on his face as she let her anger consume her and continued to kick at Hoffritz. “Not what you expected, huh Doc?”

He said nothing, just continued to sit there in a daze, wiping blood from his lips and chin with his hand.

“Ain’t it funny how some people victimize others assuming they’ll just sit back and take it, never expecting a reaction, then boom, they fight back! And when they do, it’s like – surprise, surprise, right Doc? It didn’t occur to you that sometimes the people you pick on just might get even, did it? And I know there’s got to be others. Certainly, I can’t be the only one.”

Hoffritz remained silent. Perhaps this was because he didn’t feel obligated to explain or defend himself to a mental patient of all people. Perhaps pleading with one would’ve been the ultimate humiliation for the so-called doctor, so instead, he merely struggled to pull himself to his feet.

Shania was quick to kick him back down, this time in the ribs, causing a quick whoosh of air to escape his lungs. She watched him struggle to breathe a moment, then said, “Here’s the ultimatum, Doc. It’s simple. Very simple. Either you release me or your family gets it, understand?”

Hoffritz still said nothing, though she could see his own anger was beginning to grow as much as he tried to hide it and maintain his cool air of professionalism. He continued to sit leaning on one arm, panting.

“We’ll find out who means more to you; me or your precious little niece and wife.” Shania knelt down so that she was at eye level with the bleeding doctor. Although he wouldn’t look her in the eye due to his obvious fear and embarrassment, she spoke anyway. “Am I worth the lives of your family, Doc? Do I mean that much to you that you would sacrifice your own family for me?”

For a split second, Hoffritz’s eyes met hers. He was pissed. Good, thought Shania. But hopefully, he’s even more scared.

“Let’s hope you love your family more than you hate me,” she said, rising to her full height and administering one last kick to the rib cage before leaving the room.

The corridors were still fairly deserted, so she took the opportunity to call Mindy once she left Hoffritz’s office.

“Hello?” she answered in a sleepy voice.

“Mindy? I’m sorry to have to wake you up,” said Shania.

“It’s ok. What’s up?”

“I may need to take you up on your offer about your brother’s friend going after every Hoffritz he can find, Maureen and Jonas in particular.”

“Ok, but what’s going on?”

Shania quickly filled her friend in.

“Oh, my God! Do you think he’ll keep his mouth shut and discharge you?”

“Depends on how seriously he takes me as well as the safety of his family,” Shania answered. “I’ll let you know if I need your brother’s friend to take action. If he does open his mouth and they restrict me from visits and phone calls, I’ll write to you.”

“Ok, honey. Just hang tough. We’ll figure out a way to get you out of there if this doesn’t work.”

“Let’s hope so.”

“We will. Just don’t lose hope.”

Just as Shania hung up the phone, she heard a series of shouts coming from the direction of Hoffritz’s office. A few seconds later, a handful of staff rounded the corner.

Obviously, the good doc had chosen her over his beloved family. Bad choice, she thought, amazed that one’s hate could cause them to risk the lives of their loved ones so easily.

“There she is!” one of the staff members shouted.

Shania’s eyes widened as they charged forth. Her gut instinct told her it’d be best to play dumb. “What’s going on?” she asked with feigned surprise.

“Why did you assault Doctor Hoffritz?” demanded a stocky staff member named Derek. “Huh?”

“I didn’t assault anyone!” Shania insisted.

“Then why would he say you did?” asked a heavyset woman named Stella.

“I told you people why. It’s all a spite trip he’s on for my getting the promotion his niece wanted. Can’t you people see that yet?”

“This is awfully extreme for a lost promotion, Miss McCarthy,” said Stella.

“Then maybe it’s also because I refused his drunken advances at the party we all attended for the boss.”

They studied her as if they weren’t sure she was even real, then Derek said, “Let’s go.”

“Let’s go where?” asked Shania.

“You’re going to be placed in isolation,” he said.

“But I never laid a hand on the guy! Look at me and look at him. Think I’m physically capable of taking on someone more than twice my size?”

“It’s been done before,” said Stella.

Shania was made to gather up what little she had from her room.

“Where is she going?” asked a concerned Bianca who had been propped up in bed with a book.

“They’re throwing me in isolation, saying I assaulted Hoffritz.”

“Oh, that’s bullshit,” said Bianca. “When’s that bastard going to leave her alone? She’s never going back to work where his demented niece is anyway.”

“Well, right now we just want to get her into isolation so we can get to the bottom of the matter,” said Stacey, a young, tall, slender blond girl who had been silent up till now.

“You are at the bottom of the matter!” snapped Shania. “Only you don’t want to face it.”

“Yeah,” Bianca added, “it’s like it’s patients against staff and staff against patients. Aren’t we all supposed to be on the same side here?”

“We are on the same side,” said Stella, “but when one of us is discovered bruised and bleeding, we need to take appropriate action.”

“How appropriate,” Shania said sarcastically. “That sicko has no proof whatsoever that I laid a hand on him.”

They began leading Shania away.

“Just be cool,” Bianca called out after her. “You’ll expose him yet and get your freedom back. You’ll see.”

Yet as Shania was being led away, she had a distinct feeling that freedom wasn’t very close.

She was taken down towards Lauren’s office, only instead of turning right, they hung a left. Six rooms branched off this short hallway, three on each side. They were small rooms with just one bed, along with a sink and toilet in the corner. Shania gasped at the toilet that was in plain view of anyone who happened to pass by. “What is this you’re throwing me in, a jail cell?”

“It’s where you need to be for now,” Derek said sternly.

Shania had had more than she could take. It was said that everyone had their breaking point, a point they reached in which they snapped, and Shania had reached hers.

She dropped her stuff and spun around fast, clipping Derek on the jaw with a fist she shot forward with lightning speed. Caught off guard, he staggered backward.

Shania then turned towards Stella, whose eyes were wide with shock. She kicked her in the solar plexus, then rammed past Stacey, knocking her to the ground.

By now, Derek was recovering from the blow to his jaw and moved forward to lunge for Shania. She was ready for him, however, and kicked him in the balls. He cried out as he doubled up in agony, then he hit the floor.

“My God!” Stella screamed, glancing down at Derek. “You ok, man?”

“I think she cracked my jaw,” he sputtered.

Shania bolted towards the exit with Stella and Stacey hot on her heels.

“Get back here!” Stella shouted. “Now, you crazy loon!”

The timing was perfect. Just as Shania reached the locked steel door, it opened. Doctor Joganic was entering the ward. Shania took him by surprise as well. This wasn’t too difficult, since the man was in his early sixties and not very fit.

Shania whipped past him, knocking him back against the door. She ran full speed down a flight of stairs and through a door at the bottom. Then she came to a fork where two long corridors branched off.

Which way?

Think!

Unable to remember the way she had first been brought in, Shania veered left. She could see a door with an ‘exit’ sign above it at the end of the long corridor.

Faster!

Shania pumped her legs as fast as she could, the setting sun just beyond the door never looking so good as it did now. She had just placed a hand on the metal bar that would push the door to freedom open when they grabbed her. They had been waiting for her just around the corner in another corridor Shania hadn’t seen, being solely focused on the door straight ahead of her.

Hoffritz pulled into the garage and hit the remote to close the garage door behind him. He dreaded the thought of going into the house and facing his wife of too many years, Erin. Nor did he wish to face his nag of a daughter. Already he felt his bruised face blush with embarrassment at the thought of having to explain himself to his wife. He gently touched the tender swelling under his eye, then exited his Mercedes.

He had barely taken two steps inside the house, when sure enough, Erin was right there to question him. “Oh, my God!” she exclaimed. “What in the world happened to you? Oh, I told you this would happen sooner or later and that one of those nuts you work with would attack you.”

“Erin, please,” Hoffritz pleaded, holding a hand to his head. “All I need right now is a good dose of aspirin, not lectures.”

“I’m only concerned for you, Jonas. Who did this? Why did they do it?”

“The aspirin, Erin, the aspirin. Then I’ll tell you.”

Hoffritz went right to the living room and settled into his favorite recliner. He closed his eyes and waited for the aspirin.

“Hi, daddy.”

He opened his eyes to find his teenage daughter looking down at him. The girl was cute but scrawny and appeared closer to twelve years of age than fifteen. He was beginning to wonder if she’d ever grow. “Hi, honey. I’m sorry I didn’t get in sooner, but I have a splitting headache right now, so you can tell me all about the dance later.”

Jasmine eyed her father with obvious displeasure as well as curiosity as to his injuries. An auburn lock of hair which fell free of her ponytail cascaded down one side of her face. “It wasn’t a dance, dad. That was last week.”

Hoffritz mouthed a silent O, scanning his brain in search of what magical event he was supposed to have missed attending this time around.

“I was auditioning for a part in a play,” Jasmine reminded him. Impatience and disappointment were thick in her voice.

“Oh, the play. Yes, that’s right. What was I thinking when I mentioned the dance,” he quickly said, trying to cover his embarrassment and discomfort. “Guess that goes to show how bad my headache is.”

“What happened?”

“Oh, just a patient that got a little out of control,” he said, trying to smile and make like it was no big deal. He decided to change the subject. “Again, I’m sorry about the play. ”

“You wouldn’t have cared to go anyway,” Jasmine muttered, turning to leave.

“It’s not that I don’t care, honey. I’m sorry I missed the audition. Did you get the part?”

but Jasmine was gone, having headed upstairs to her room.

“She won’t know that for a few days,” Erin said, entering the room with a glass of water flavored with white grape and a couple of aspirin. “Here. Take these.”

Hoffritz took the aspirin.

“Now tell me what happened,” Erin said, sitting on the loveseat nearby.

“There’s nothing to tell. It was just a wacky patient that got out of hand. She came into my office and attacked me while I was seated at my desk. Sometimes this is what happens when you work with a bunch of people who aren’t wired right. It’s no big deal, though. It’s just a few scrapes and bruises.

“A woman did this to you?”

Hoffritz felt his face flood with heat.

“My goodness. I guess men aren’t necessarily the tougher sex, are they?”

“It’s not my job to be tough, Erin,” Hoffritz said with annoyance. “It’s only my job to keep people like Shania McCarthy subdued and locked up for as long as possible.”

“Shania McCarthy? Isn’t this the one that threatened Maureen and the mayor?”

Hoffritz nodded. “Yes, it is.”

“Why did she attack you?” asked Erin.

“She threatened to have us all harmed if I didn’t release her.”

Erin stood up fast. “Damn it, Jonas! You should have discharged her for our sake. What if something happens to us, especially Jasmine, all because you had to be the so-called powerful one, the one with the last word and say in the matter?” She paced the room in a frenzy.

“Relax, Erin, will you? It’s going to be just fine. She’s all talk and no action.”

“That’s what people said about that horrible woman up in Sacramento who threatened to kill her six kids for years, then guess what? She decided to one day put her actions where her mouth was, that’s what! And how about that guy in San Francisco that openly threatened his girlfriend for a good five years or so before he too, finally made good on his word.”

“I know how you feel, dear, but look at the odds. What are the odds of someone making good on their threats? Come on, honey, you know she was just bluffing.”

“No, I don’t know that,” Erin said, sitting down on the love seat once again. “My God, Jonas, couldn’t you have been some other kind of a doctor? One that dealt with mending the body and not the mind, which quite often can’t be mended anyway?”

“Please, Erin. Not tonight. Tonight I just want to relax, ok?”

“Well, what do you intend to do about this woman?”

“She’s being dealt with accordingly.”

“How accordingly is that?”

“Just have a little faith in me,” Hoffritz said with an exasperated sigh. “She’s been taken care of. She’s under constant supervision. Nothing she does will go undetected, so if she has any sinister plans up her sleeve, not that she’ll be discharged any time soon to act on them, we’ll know about it.”

Jasmine stepped back away from the top of the stairs just as her mother said, “Let’s hope so.” Then she quietly entered her room, flicked on the light, and closed the door behind her. Laying on the bed and looking up at the ceiling, she silently cursed the girl who had taken her father’s time and attention away from her earlier in the evening. She hated her for it, even though she knew she had messed up her lines terribly and didn’t stand a chance of becoming Romeo’s Juliet.

Chapter 9

Shania’s eyes fluttered open. Her eyelids felt heavy and her eyes felt grainy. A steel door with a small square window came into focus, though the edges were fuzzy. She tried to raise her head, but it felt like invisible bricks were weighing it down. The next thing she was aware of was how thirsty she was. She tried to call out, but her scratchy voice wouldn’t carry. She struggled to blink her eyes into focus, and although her vision was still blurred, she could see that she was in an isolation room.

Realizing that she’d been doped up, she tried to sit up and begin clearing the cobwebs from her head. However, something quickly tugged her back down.

Leather restraints!

Voices were now audible just outside the door.

“No, I’d like to see Shania alone if that’s ok,” said a familiar voice.

Her heartbeat jumped in anticipation at the recognition of Lauren’s voice.

Keys were inserted into the lock and the heavy door swung open.

A woman she’d never seen before came into view. “You’re awake. That’s good because you’ve got company.” The woman then turned to Lauren, who came into view behind her. “Are you sure you want to be left alone with this little tiger? She tried to tell the staff last night that she couldn’t beat anyone bigger than her, but obviously she can.”

Lauren chuckled. “I’ve got a brown belt in karate and a few years of kickboxing. Ole Shania here won’t hurt me, right? I think she respects me enough not to anyway.” She winked down at her. “Besides, she seems rather foggy still.”

“Yeah, it’ll be a while before she’s up to par again, so you’ve at least got that much in your favor,” said the woman.

“I’m not worried about it,” said Lauren. Then turning to Shania she asked, “How are you feeling?”

“Thirsty,” Shania said in a raspy voice.

“Could you please fetch a drink for her before you go?” Lauren asked the woman.

“Sure.”

A moment later she returned with a Styrofoam cup.

“What drugs are in it?” Shania asked the woman.

“There are no drugs in it,” she said, handing the cup to Lauren. “It’s just plain old water.”

“Thanks,” said Lauren, taking the cup.

The woman turned to leave, leaving the door open as she went. “Just holler if you need anything.”

Lauren set the cup down beside the bed and undid Shania’s restraints. “Think you’ve got enough strength to sit up and drink your water?”

Shania nodded.

Once she was freed, she pulled herself upright. Heavy-headed, she began to sway towards the floor. Lauren caught her before she could fall. “Just sit still a minute and let yourself get used to sitting upright,” she told her.

Shania rubbed her eyes. “My God, what the hell did they give me?”

When she was stable enough to sit on her own, she drank greedily from the cup Lauren handed her. Shania gazed at her. It was obvious that she was just as upset with her as she was concerned.

“Why, Shania?” she asked.

“You know why,” came the answer.

“But beating on people is no way to help yourself. Keeping your cool is.”

“Hasn’t worked yet.”

Lauren gazed at Shania a moment, apparently thinking. Then she said, “You’ve been denying you attacked the doctor to everyone else, but you didn’t exactly do that with me.”

“Maybe I should,” said Shania. “I mean, maybe I shouldn’t be so quick to trust you and be so open with you. After all, you could be just as fucked in the head as he is.”

“Yeah, I could be,” Lauren agreed with a nod, “or maybe I’m not. Maybe I really do care and maybe what you see is really what you get.”

Shania studied Lauren’s attractive face. “Is it?”

“Yeah, it is,” Lauren answered matter of factly. “I understand your reluctance when it comes to trust. Especially with authority figures and those connected to the hospital, but you’re never going to help yourself by attacking people.”

“Lauren, get real and put yourself in my shoes. You’ve been thrown in a funny farm out of pure childish spite. You’re roaming the halls looking for a way out. Suddenly you’re alone, face to face with your enemy, the one who put you in the mess you’re in. You see a golden opportunity in front of you to vent your rage since nothing else has worked. So when cooperation and reason don’t work, what do you do? What if it was you, Lauren? What would you have done? Simply stood there? Turned and walk away?”

Understanding and sympathy took over Lauren’s features. “Touché,” she said, “but that doesn’t make it right. From here on out I want you to promise me you’ll keep it together, ok?”

Shania gazed at Lauren a moment, then nodded.

“In the meantime, I’ll try to see you as often as I can.”

Shania nodded again, eyes welling with tears. “You’re the only good thing I have to look forward to in this damn place.” The dam burst and Shania could no longer control the tears that spilled forth.

Lauren moved closer, her own eyes watering over, and took hold of her hand. She squeezed it reassuringly, periodically looking towards the door to be sure no one was watching. A therapist holding the hand of a patient was obviously against proper ethics.

“It’s going to be ok, sweetie,” Lauren cooed, brushing a tear off of Shania’s face with her other hand. At least she certainly hoped it would be. Shania’s attack on the doctor had sparked a few tendrils of doubt within her. Should a sane, rational person really have reacted that way? Or would anyone under the kind of pressure she’d been under react the same way, just as she had pointed out?

Footsteps sounded in the hall and Lauren stepped back. It was the same woman. “Everything ok?”

“Yes, fine. I’ll be on my way in just a minute or two.”

Seeing that the woman wasn’t going to leave, Lauren was reluctant to say much more. “Promise you’ll behave?”

“I promise,” said Shania.

“Then I’ll see you tomorrow night at 8:00.”

“That late?”

Lauren nodded. “They switched me to second shift.”

“Ok, I’ll see you then.”

Lauren winked, gave her a thumbs up, then left, assuring the woman that she would behave.

The woman looked doubtful.

Lauren headed towards her office. But instead of going to it, she turned and walked up the long part of the corridor. She knew the doctor would be in his office at this time. She also knew she wasn’t a mind reader, but maybe, just maybe, she could get a sense of whether or not he really did have a grudge against Shania and have it in for her in any serious way. Not that she doubted Shania’s story. If anything, the little cutie had seemed quite credible. Yet despite her friend’s reminder as to the kinds of people she worked with, she wanted to see Hoffritz face to face and hear what he had to say about the matter. Especially after Shania had attacked him so viciously.

She approached his door and knocked.

It opened up right away. “Yes, Miss Cohen?”

Trying not to focus on the doctor’s swollen, bruised lip, Lauren said, “Sorry to disturb you, Doctor. Do you have a minute you could spare me?”

“Why, sure I do. Come on in and have a seat.”

Lauren stepped into the neatly organized office. She noticed a picture of a young redheaded girl atop his desk with one of the most conceited expressions she’d ever seen. There was also a picture of an auburn-haired child sitting next to a woman with the same hair color. The woman looked elegant and sophisticated in a stunning black gown with silver accents, pearl-drop earrings, and a diamond pendant around her slender neck.

Hoffritz motioned her to a chair by his desk before he took a seat behind it, then took hold of his computer mouse, activating a screen saver.

To cover something he didn’t want her to see?

“What can I do for you?” he asked, trying to sound jovial despite his recent ordeal.

“Well,” Lauren began, “to put it bluntly, I’m rather curious about the McCarthy girl.”

“Ah, Miss McCarthy,” said Hoffritz, momentarily turning away as if he was disappointed to learn she’d come to ask him about her of all people. “What about her?”

“Is she really a threat to you and your niece?”

Hoffritz laughed as if he found Lauren’s question to be absurdly amusing. “Well, when you consider how she attacked me, I’d say that yes, she clearly is a threat.”

Maintaining eye contact and trying to read Hoffritz as best she could, she said, “Shania – Miss McCarthy – has told me you’ve had her committed out of spite due to a promotion she received that your niece desperately wanted.”

“Yes, I know. That’s the story she’s been telling everyone.”

He was unreadable, yet Lauren continued to gaze intently at him. She decided to try a different tactic, though she didn’t expect to trick the chief of psychiatrists of all people. “Are you saying she’s making it up and that she never really did work with your niece?”

Hoffritz hesitated, then said, “Well…”

“Why would she threaten a family she doesn’t even know?”

A flicker of annoyance and caution crossed Hoffritz’s features. “Miss Cohen, why are you asking these questions?”

Lauren shrugged. “Just curious. She is a patient of mine after all, yet I’ve only heard her side of the story. I guess I just wanted to hear your side too, so I could get a better idea of what I’m dealing with here.”

Hoffritz stared hard at Lauren, then said, “What you’re dealing with is a very disturbed individual. Does that clarify things for you?”

Lauren said nothing.

“If it were up to me, I’d keep her confined here for a very long time. She’s extremely lucky that myself and the other staff members she’s attacked aren’t going to press charges against her since she’s in enough trouble as it is, though that will certainly be the case if she attacks anyone else.”

Lauren rose from her chair. She’d heard enough. “Ok, Doctor. Thanks for seeing me.”

“You’re quite welcome, Miss Cohen.”

Lauren turned and left the office. She now knew without a doubt that Shania had been telling the truth. She was a hundred percent sure of it.

Behind her, Hoffritz watched her turn the corner and wondered why she had seemed to gaze so defiantly at him. Especially when he talked about keeping the McCarthy girl here at length if he could. And he most certainly could. At least for a while, anyway.

Still, he wondered about the mysterious Miss Cohen. Had she simply been concerned about her patient? Or did her concern run deeper than that of a professional one?

Still holed up in isolation, Shania was glad when Lauren came to see her the following evening. She brought her to her office where they spoke of a variety of things for over the usual hour a therapist spends with her patient.

It had been a long day for Shania as she waited in delightful anticipation of Lauren’s shift to begin, mixed in with the usual depression and feelings of helplessness. Anytime the doctor and Maureen would pop into her mind to send her heart racing with anger and anxiety, she would force herself to focus on Lauren. She knew she could never have her, considering the circumstances, but she could at least dream, couldn’t she?

Shania admired the way Lauren looked as she followed her across the bottom of the I – face done up beautifully, body looking great in a pair of snug jeans and a purple short-sleeved shirt.

“Don’t you look cute today,” Lauren told her, eyeing her in her pink tank top and blue denim skirt which fell to a few inches above her knees.

“Thanks,” said Shania, trying not to blush. “My friend brought some of my clothes in yesterday.”

Lauren smiled as she motioned for her to sit. Shania sat in the same chair she had sat in the last time as did Lauren. She noted that Lauren seemed happy to see her. It’s her job, Shania told herself. She’s supposed to be friendly to all her patients. Yet she still hoped it was something that was directed especially towards her.

“How ya feeling today?” Lauren asked.

“I guess I’m ok, considering the circumstances. It took a while for whatever the shit was they gave me to wear off completely.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better. No more violent outbursts towards the staff,” Lauren warned, although it was with a smile that drew another one from Shania. “After all, they’re just doing their jobs.”

“Yes, I know. I apologized to them.”

“Did you?” Lauren asked, seemingly pleased to hear this.

Shania nodded. “I know I shouldn’t have taken it out on them, but if you expect me to have even a tiny shred of guilt over decking Hoffritz, you’re going to be very disappointed.”

“It’s ok, Shania. I understand.”

Shania’s eyes focused in on Lauren’s. Did she know something she didn’t?

“Let me ask you something, Shania.”

“Ok.”

“It’s been said that you threatened the doctor and his family if he didn’t discharge you. Is this true?”

Shania hesitated, then said, “Yes, that one I’m guilty of. My friend offered to have her brother sic some people on them if I wanted them to. Not to kill them, of course, but I guess they’d rough them up a bit or at least scare the shit out of them.”

Lauren leaned forward and said, “Don’t do it, Shania, don’t do it. It won’t get you out of here. As it is, you just narrowly escaped being prosecuted for assault.”

Shania gazed at Lauren, then said, “Ok, if only for you, I won’t let them do it.”

“For you, Shania, for you.”

“Ok.”

“Promise me?”

Shania nodded.

“Opportunity, Shania, opportunity.”

Shania’s brows furrowed. “Huh?”

“You’ve got your golden opportunities, as you put it, mixed up.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Opportunity lies within escape, not assault.”

Shania took a moment to absorb Lauren’s words. “But how?”

“Time,” Lauren said softly yet seriously, still leaning forward, face just inches from hers.

“Time?”

Lauren nodded. “If you keep your cool and don’t give the staff any shit, no matter what they make you do, you will earn their trust. With that trust will come opportunity.”

“But everything’s always locked up around here.”

“They have outings.”

“Outings?”

Lauren nodded again. “Most long-term facilities do.”

“What kinds of outings?”

“Patients are sometimes taken to movies, roller-skating, clothes shopping, things like that. But the only way to get invited to go on one of these little outings is to keep yourself together. Meanwhile, you can do all your venting with me.”

Shania smiled warmly and said, “You know, I think I’d have completely cracked up if it weren’t for you.”

Lauren chuckled. “Well, I don’t know about that, but I do know this.” Her expression became serious again. “Whatever we discuss here pertaining to you escaping must be kept confidential, ok?”

“Absolutely,” Shania agreed.

“Not even your friend can know we had this discussion. If anyone here finds out, you’ll never get the opportunity.”

A new fear rose in Shania’s mind.

“What is it?” asked Lauren, sensing the change in her.

“What if he makes sure I never attend one of these outings no matter what?”

Lauren looked thoughtful, then said, “Then we’ll think of something else, but no violence, ok? You mustn’t resort to that.”

Shania shook her head. “No violence.”

“Good. Now that we got that out of the way, there’s one more thing I’m going to tell you, and again, I’m trusting you to keep this strictly between us.”

“Ok, what is it?”

“My last name is Cohen. C-O-H-E-N. When you finally do manage to get out, I’d like you to look me up.”

Shania smiled broadly.

“Just keep in mind that life as you once knew it will probably never be the same again. Meaning, he’s probably going to drag this on for as long as he can. So when you get out, you can’t go to old places you’ve been to and old people you know like your friend. They’ll find you in a heartbeat and drag you right back in here, and believe me, if this happens, you’ll never get a second chance, and you could be locked up for years.”

“I can believe that one,” said Shania with understanding. “What made you decide to tell me all this?”

“Well,” said Lauren, sitting back in her chair and crossing her legs, “I spoke with him.”

Shania’s eyes widened. “You spoke with Hoffritz?”

Lauren nodded. “At first he seemed unreadable when I went to question him. After a while, though, it became rather obvious that he was hiding something that wasn’t good.”

Shania nodded.

“Let’s just say that despite the many tall tales one hears in my profession, I have every reason to believe your story, and my gut instinct has always been pretty reliable.”

Shania smiled. “Why can’t they let me go home with you tonight? I’d be more than good. I’d do the dishes, I’d dust, I’d vacuum – anything.”

Lauren chuckled merrily. “I’d never say this to any other patient, but if I could take you, I would.”

Shania’s eyes misted with gratitude.

“Just keep telling yourself you’re not going to be here forever and that one day soon enough, you will break free.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Shania.

“I’m right. It just may not be as soon as you’d like it to be.”

“What about contacting other lawyers?”

“Well, you can certainly try that if you’d like,” Lauren said, “but you’re probably going to be faced with the same response you got from the last one you saw.”

“True,” Shania agreed with a sigh. “No proof, no case, as they say. I guess from here on out it’s just a waiting game.”

Lauren nodded. “Meanwhile, I’ll try to discretely learn all I can about Hoffritz, though I doubt it’ll do us much good.”

“How’s it feel to go from therapist to detective?” Shania asked with a smile.

Lauren grinned and jotted down some notes.

“How old are you, Lauren?”

“Twenty-seven.”

“What kind of music do you like?”

“Oh, a variety of kinds, but mainly soft rock. And you?”

“Seventies.”

“Seventies?” Lauren asked with surprise. “Really? You’re not much younger than me.”

“It reminds me of my parents. It’s what they used to play at home when they were alive. Do you have any family?”

Lauren nodded. “There’s my parents and my sister Christie. She’s a few years younger than me. Then there’s Courtney. She and I have been friends since high school.”

“That’s good,” said Shania, getting up to stretch her legs. She strode over to the window. The courtyard’s lights penetrated the darkness and she could see that the yard was empty. “You know,” she began, “my head tells me not to trust you, but my heart says it’s ok to do so.”

Lauren smiled. “I’m glad that at least a part of you feels you can trust me.”

The two chatted a little while longer, mostly about the hospital itself, then Cathy came to fetch Shania and lock her up. Entombed in what felt like a prison cell, all she could do was wait. Wait until opportunity came knocking. And when it did, hope to pull off a successful escape.

Chapter 10

After three days in isolation, Shania was moved out, though not back to the room she had shared with Bianca. Bianca had gotten a new roommate during her stay in isolation yet they still saw each other at Group, meals, and in the courtyard.

This time around she would be roommates with a thirty-year-old woman named Barbie. With her blue eyes and pale blond hair, Shania could see how she’d gotten her name. All she needed to complete the image was a giant pair of boobs and legs a mile long.

The room they were in was towards the middle of the long corridor, about four doors down from the room she’d shared with Bianca, and closer to Lauren’s office.

She and Barbie were in bed one evening reading when a strange vibration rippled throughout the room.

Shania glanced up from her book. “Did you feel that tremor?” she asked.

“Yeah, it was just a little mini earthquake. No big deal.”

“Think this place could stand up to a major earthquake?”

“Unfortunately,” answered Barbie, who had been committed after two botched suicide attempts in which Shania could not understand. The girl seemed so happy and perky that she couldn’t even begin to guess as to why she would want to die. Also, since she hadn’t come out and told her why she had attempted suicide, Shania wasn’t about to ask. “This place is pretty much built to withstand an earthquake as places in Florida are built to hurricane standards.”

Shania almost wished an earthquake or a big gust of wind would take the place apart. Her heart began to race at the prospect of never escaping, so to ease her anxiety she brought images of Lauren to mind instead and tried to hide the smile that formed on her face. As much as she longed to share her growing fondness for the tall dark beauty, she knew it wouldn’t be in her best interest to do so. She also felt more sure that Lauren liked her as well and that her interest in her was more of a personal one than of a professional one.

Now that she was on second shift, Lauren no longer headed the morning group therapy sessions. Shania was glad she’d switched shifts. She’d always been more of a late afternoon/night person anyway.

She lay awake that night long after Barbie and most of the other patients had fallen asleep. As was always the case, the staff made their hourly checks, shining flashlights into the rooms. After one such check, Shania rose and shuffled over to the window, careful not to wake Barbie, whose bed was closest to the window.

She reached through the bars and raised the Plexiglas window a few inches to let the cool breeze wash over her. The pleasant night air caressed her face as she gazed out towards the parking lot. Sodium vapor lights illuminated the rows of parked cars.

If she could only squeeze herself through the bars and find an unlocked car with its keys in the ignition…

Stop dreaming! she chided herself. Find a more realistic solution to the problem.

But what could that possibly be?

She threw a robe over her nightgown and yawned. Next, she stepped out into the corridor. Looking both ways, she saw no one in sight. The large clock on the wall at the end of the corridor by the nurses’ station said it was well past midnight.

She headed left, away from the station. Wearing only socks on her feet, she stole silently down the polished tiled corridor. Once she got to the bottom of the I where the isolation rooms were located, she glanced towards Lauren and the clinical evaluator’s office.

All was clear.

Then she looked longingly at the door across from the offices. Lauren had warned her against any foolhardy escape attempts that were doomed to fail from the get-go and jeopardize her chances of future attempts. Therefore, she would not lie in wait for the door to open. Instead, she tried the knob to Lauren’s office. It was locked.

She moved over to the evaluator’s door and placed her hand on the knob.

It opened!

She stepped into the darkened room and shut the door behind her. She hated to turn on a light, knowing it could be seen from the courtyard, but there was no other way to see through the darkness that enveloped her, not that she really expected to find anything of much interest or value to her. Anything like that would be much more securely hidden.

She fumbled alongside the wall just inside the door until her hand hit the light switch. The room came awash in fluorescent light. In her present state of anxiety, the light seemed almost as bright as the sun itself.

Not finding anything of interest on the cluttered desk, she stood up straight and eyed a metal filing cabinet. If there was any information on her in this room, it was probably in the cabinet as well as on the computer. Not wanting to take the time to start the computer, which she feared may make noise and draw attention, she headed over to the cabinet. To her dismay, it was locked.

She studied the room some more, then, realizing she truly wasn’t going to find anything that might be useful towards her escape, she turned out the light. That’s when she heard the woman’s cries.

“No! Please don’t make me do this. Not tonight!”

Shania was confused at first. Then she realized the voice had come from the courtyard, not from inside the building. She scurried over to the window, knocking a pile of papers off the corner of the desk along the way. Gently parting the slats in the blinds, she peered out into the courtyard.

A woman was being shoved up against a wall by a young tall, wiry man Shania recognized to be Bruce, one of the night staff. She couldn’t see the woman at first because Bruce was blocking her from view.

Bruce had always given Shania at least a mild case of the creeps, undressing her with his eyes, asking her personal questions. She’d only seen him twice when returning from the lounge with a late-night cup of blueberry tea, though she didn’t like him or Malcolm, the mean-looking African-American guy he usually worked with.

Bruce now stepped aside so that Shania could see the woman’s identity in which he was trying to have his way with. It was Larisa.

“Why not?” Bruce asked her. “You’re an admitted whore, you can’t sleep, you want a cigarette, so why not a little trade-off here? Sometimes you gotta give a little to get a little, girl.”

“It’s after smoking hours,” Larisa said shakily.

“Oh, and you’re a real stickler for rules now, aren’t you?” Bruce said sarcastically.

“Just let me go to bed, Bruce. I’m tired and I’m tired of you. So much so that in another minute I’m going to punch you so hard, you’ll be unconscious for weeks.”

“Oh, I’m so scared,” Bruce said in a high-pitched, shrilly voice.

“You should be.”

Shania turned and left the room. Relieved to find the hall empty, she ran down towards the door to the courtyard and burst through it.

Bruce jumped back away from Larisa, both startled and annoyed.

“There you are,” Shania said out of breath.

“What do you want?” he snapped.

“Some guy’s running up and down the hallway threatening to kill himself.”

Bruce eyed her skeptically, then flashed Larisa a look of warning before entering the building.

Larisa looked shook up, yet relieved. Unseen by Bruce, Shania gave her a wink.

“Where is he and who the hell is it anyway?” asked Bruce.

Shania turned to face him and said, “Don’t know. I’ve never seen him before. He’s big and mean-looking is all I know,” she added, making up the false description on the spot.

Bruce stood gazing down the long corridor just as Malcolm came up behind him. “Everything alright here?” he asked.

“Shania here said a big, mean-looking dude was running up and down the hall threatening to kill himself, but I don’t see anyone.”

“He was here a minute ago,” Shania insisted, hoping she sounded convincing.

Bruce looked down the long corridor again and said, “Ok, both of you are to go to bed now and we’ll check it out.”

Shania was never more than glad to head for her room as was Larisa.

Chapter 11

After filling Mindy in as discreetly as she could without others overhearing, she hung up the phone just as Lauren came into view for their evening session. She had kept her word about keeping her talk with Lauren a secret. She didn’t mention their discussion about escaping, or about how Lauren asked her to look her up if she ever did make it out of there.

“Ready?” Lauren asked with a smile.

Shania nodded, walking alongside the dark sexy therapist.

“How’ve you been?” Lauren asked, unlocking the door to her office.

Shania shrugged as she walked past Lauren and into the room.

“Tell me what’s going on,” Lauren said as they both took their seats.

Shania let out a sigh and then filled Lauren in on the events of the previous night.

“My, my,” said Lauren when she had finished. “What is the world of psychiatry and psychology coming to?”

“Nothing good,” Shania said dubiously.

“Did you tell anyone else what you saw?”

“No, I didn’t. I was afraid of what may happen if I did, not that I’d expect to be believed.”

“I can understand that much. Hopefully, Larisa herself spoke up.”

“So what if she did? Think anyone would believe her any more than they would me?”

“Maybe not, but one has to start somewhere. The more people speak up, the more suspicious attention is drawn to the person in question.”

“Guess you have a point there,” Shania agreed. “And I don’t have to be a genius to know that Larisa’s probably not the only one.”

“Has he ever come on to you?”

“No, but he practically rapes me with his eyes. That’s creepy enough.”

Lauren nodded with understanding.

“I try not to show my fears if I can help it. I believe mean people are like vicious dogs; show them your fear and they’re more likely to pounce. However, I’m a little too pissed off these days to be very fearful.”

“I’m sure you are,” said Lauren, “but can I give you a word of advice?”

Shania nodded. “Of course.”

“Don’t let yourself get caught snooping around here,” Lauren warned. “It’ll only cause more trouble for you.”

“I’ll be careful.”

“I’d be very careful. Concentrate on earning the staff’s trust so you can get the hell out of here, not meddling around in offices, ok?”

Shania nodded again.

“And remember to keep as low of a profile as you can when you do get out because there’s going to be a warrant out for your arrest.”

Shania stiffened. “I hadn’t thought about that one, but it makes sense that there would be a warrant issued.”

Lauren nodded. “If you signed yourself in here voluntarily and escape, then no, there’s no warrant. It’s those who’ve been committed against their will that they put warrants out on.”

Shania gazed into Lauren’s blazing dark eyes and asked, “Do you still think I’ll get out of here?”

“I do,” Lauren assured her. “It just won’t be one of those things you can predict beforehand. It’ll be a spur of the moment thing that you can’t know how or when it’ll happen.”

The two gazed at each other, aware of the deepening feelings they were developing for one another. Then Shania asked, “What are we going to do once I get out and contact you?”

“We’ll worry about that when the time comes. It’s best to cross one bridge at a time. The first bridge to cross is the one that gets you out of here.”

After some trivial chatter, Shania left Lauren’s office feeling as if she’d been given yet another dose of strength and encouragement, and headed for her room. As much as she treasured every moment she spent with Lauren in her office and hated to leave, she knew Lauren would see her before she left, just as she said she would. For now, she would either chat with Larisa or Bianca in the lounge or do some reading in her room if they were occupied with other things.

Hoffritz watched as Shania left the therapist’s office with a joyous smile plastered on her face. Just what had they talked about to create such a smile and seemingly happy mood? He had entered the ward just as she rounded the corner to the long part of the I and had walked behind her. All she’d had to do was look over her shoulder and she’d spot him in an instant. He was glad she hadn’t, though. Instead, she turned into her room almost halfway down the corridor.

He strode briskly past her room, down the rest of the corridor, and to his office. He unlocked the door and stepped inside, closing the door behind him.

Once seated at his desk, he checked for messages and found one waiting for him from Maureen, asking him to call her right away. He sighed heavily. She was getting to be a real pest these days. Nonetheless, he dialed her number in which was becoming all too familiar to him.

She answered on the first ring. “Uncle Jonas?”

“Yes, Maureen. How’d you know?”

“Caller ID.”

“Oh, ok. So what’s up, kiddo?”

“Works been great,” she boasted.

“That’s good to hear considering all I’ve had to do to get the McCarthy girl out of your way just so you could have the damn position,” he responded.

Maureen giggled like a silly schoolgirl. “Just how is the lunatic doing anyway?”

“Stable, so to speak.”

“Oh, really?”

Hoffritz nodded as if his niece could see him. “I think she’s realized that there’s simply no escape. Not by her means, anyway.”

“Good,” Maureen said firmly.

“I’m glad you’re happy, but listen, dear.”

“Yes?”

“I can’t keep things going forever.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I can’t keep her here forever unless she keeps acting up.”

Maureen silently absorbed her uncle’s words, then said, “Maybe we can provoke her into acting up somehow.”

“Maybe, but Maureen honey, she’s not going to return to work where you work anyway once she’s let go.”

“No, she won’t. She’ll just go to our houses instead and kill us there. Think about it, uncle Jonas. If someone got you locked up for practically no reason at all, wouldn’t you want to hunt them down and kill them the first chance you got?”

Hoffritz chose his words carefully. “Not if I didn’t want to be thrown right back in here, or worse, in prison.”

“I’d take my chances if it were me,” Maureen countered.

“Well, anything’s possible, though I highly doubt she’d go after us. Either way, I can’t keep her here forever. Think about what you’re asking of me, honey. You’re asking me to steal a woman’s freedom over a job promotion. Is that really fair? Having your ex confined was one thing after he got you pregnant and ran off refusing to do his part, but having a coworker confined over a job promotion is a whole different story.”

“But it was just so unfair!” Maureen insisted like a spoiled brat.

“Life’s not fair, Maureen. You just have to accept that. You don’t have to like it, but you have to accept it.”

“Then why did you agree to do it in the first place if you don’t think she should be there?” Maureen asked, frustration and disappointment beginning to sound in her voice. “If she gets out…”

“When I agreed to do it, I made it clear that I couldn’t keep her in here forever. She’d literally have to attack someone on a regular basis in order to be kept here for a significant amount of time, or better yet, kill someone. Meanwhile, if she stays rational and doesn’t harm herself or anyone else, she’ll have to be discharged in six months to a year from now. Maybe even less.”

“Oh, great. Just great,” moaned Maureen. “And just what do I do then?”

“You moved last week. She doesn’t know where you live now.”

“No, but she could always follow me home from work and find out. She said it herself; that she was going to have us harmed.”

“Maureen, she was only bluffing, trying to do whatever she could think of to get out of here.”

Maureen was quiet a moment, then she said, “Well, I hope you’re right.”

After spending another ten minutes reassuring his niece that she had nothing to fear, he hung up. He then pulled off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. He was exhausted both physically and mentally.

Sitting back in his chair, which creaked and groaned noisily as he did so, he pondered the situation at hand. Maybe his niece was right. Spoiled, but right. Maybe the McCarthy girl was dangerous enough to retaliate and just maybe she would. As it was, he knew he didn’t need to ask himself if McCarthy was capable of violence. Perhaps anybody was. Especially after they’d been tossed into a funny farm without just cause.

Hoffritz called his wife next to let her know he’d be late, getting just the reaction he expected he’d get.

“Jonas, you’ve been doing this an awful lot lately,” his wife whined. “Just what in the world is going on?”

“I told you, Erin. It’s really important that I attend these meetings. Believe me, I don’t like it any more than you do.”

“Why must the meetings always extend into the early evenings, and why can’t I call you?”

“You can call, honey. I just can’t answer the phone during the meetings, so you’ll have to leave a message.”

“Why are these meetings so important?” Erin persisted.

“Like I told you, the hospital is undergoing many changes and hiring many new mental health workers, and well, somebody’s got to break them in on the policies here, the patients, etcetera.”

A thick silence penetrated the earpiece of Hoffritz’s phone.

“Ok,” Erin finally relented, “but this better not go on much longer, Jonas. You’re married to me, not that damn hospital.”

“Yes, dear, I know that,” Hoffritz said, trying to keep his waning patience hidden. “I’ll be home as soon as I can. Say hi to Jasmine for me.”

“Jasmine’s going to be awfully disappointed in you,” Erin rattled on. “She was counting on you to help her study for her history test tonight, remember?”

“Yes, I remember,” Hoffritz said lamely, not understanding why one must know what happened two hundred years ago in order to advance in grades and eventually graduate. “I’ll make it up to her somehow. I promise.”

“Don’t promise, Jonas. It’s those who make promises that are less likely to keep them. Do you really want to make false promises to a teenager?”

Hoffritz’s frustration hit its peak. “Erin, there’s nothing I can do about it tonight as much as I wish otherwise. Now I have to get to this meeting. It wouldn’t look very good if the guy who’s the head of his own clinic were late, would it?”

“I suppose not,” said Erin, though not with much conviction. “I’ll see you whenever it is you happen to get home.”

“Ok, sweetheart,” he said, mustering up the most loving, appreciative voice he could. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”

He hung up, relieved to be rid of his wife, and looked at the clock. Second shift was approaching. Time to go do what he really had to do.

Lauren stared in frustration out the window of the spacious two-bedroom condo she shared with her best friend Courtney. She took no solace in the gentle sway of the palm fronds, or in the bright array of colors from the bed of petunias and geraniums abloom in the yard.

“Lauren,” Courtney said, “look at it this way. If she gets out and comes to you, and then you both get caught, you end up going down with her.”

“Yeah, I know,” Lauren said turning back to face her friend, “but love does strange things to you.”

“Love? But you’ve only known her a matter of days.”

“Coming up on two weeks.”

“Then how could you love her? Are you sure you’re not mistaking lust for love?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Lauren said confidently.

“I still don’t see how you could love someone you barely know.”

Lauren shrugged. “But I do. All I know is that my heart fell the first time she came to my office, and well, the rest is history.”

“I think your sanity fell, girl, not your heart.”

“No, I know how I felt, and I know how I feel now. There’s no doubt about it. It’s one of those things you just have to experience to understand.”

Courtney rolled her eyes. “I’ll never understand you, Lauren. But as long as you’re sure of yourself and are happy, then I guess that’s all that really matters.”

Lauren smiled. “What really matters right now is her getting out of there.”

Nineteen-year-old Quinn Rainy brushed her pale blond hair from her face as she waited in the Chinese restaurant, well on the other side of town and away from the hospital. She ignored the rude stares from two preppy looking men as they passed her booth. Actually, she was as amused as she was offended. The spoiled daddy’s girl from Louisiana knew she was good looking with her long lean legs and ample bosom. Her eyes were cornflower blue and her white teeth shone brilliantly against her tanned skin, the result of regular trips to the tanning salon since she had no time for trips to the beach with her hectic and unpredictable schedule.

At least some things are predictable, she thought with a wry grin. Jonas Hoffritz was predictable. It wasn’t that he was all that attractive, but he was rich. Very, very rich. That’s what mattered most to Quinn.

She’d known since their affair began four months ago that he wasn’t happy with his wife who was fast gaining years, wrinkles and inches. She felt confident that it was just a matter of time before he left his wife for her. Men were like dogs; easy to train. For now, she would keep her patience in check and do whatever he asked of her, even if it wasn’t something she wanted to do, like play pool for instance. The game bored her to tears. Yet she knew it was best to appear obedient and as ready, willing and able to satisfy his every whim so that she could win him over. She always wanted to be a doctor’s wife. A rich doctor’s wife. Then she could quit her job which she hated. For now, the job was better than nothing and she would simply have to wait until he was ready to dump his wife for her in order to give up doing what she hated most… caregiving.

“Good evening, princess.”

Quinn gave a slight jolt, startled. She hadn’t realized just how deep in thought she’d been, staring out at the waning sun.

“Jonas, hi! How good to see you. I was hoping we’d get together soon,” she said beaming. Then her smile melted like butter on a hotplate as she noted his downcast expression. “What’s wrong, honey?”

Hoffritz took a seat, hesitated, then took a deep breath. “Well, something’s come up.”

Quinn felt a surge of anxiety. “We haven’t been discovered, have we?”

“Oh no, not at all. It’s nothing like that.”

Relief flooded through Quinn and she put her smile back in place.

“It’s about that girl I told you about.”

“Shania McCarthy?”

“Shhh,” Hoffritz said in a loud whisper. “You’re the only one that knows about her. Not even my niece knows you know, for God’s sake, and I…”

“Ok, ok, calm down, honey. I’ll lower my voice. No need to panic.”

“I’m not panicking,” Hoffritz said defensively. Then, pulling his taut nerves together, he allowed himself to relax and smiled. “It’s just that – well – Maureen’s worried about her.”

“Worried?” Quinn asked as though she was unfamiliar with the word.

Hoffritz nodded.

“Why?”

“She’s afraid she’ll come after us when she’s released.”

Quinn appeared thoughtful as she weighed the possibilities in her mind. “Will she?”

Hoffritz shrugged. “She attacked me.”

“Yes, but that was while she was trapped in there by you. Once free, I’d think you and your niece would be the last people she’d want to even think about, let alone have to face.”

“Can’t say for sure.”

“But Jonas, sweetheart, you said it yourself that you can’t keep her locked up in there forever.”

“No, but I can stall for time. That’s where you come in.”

“Me?”

He nodded again.

Quinn eyed Hoffritz curiously as she listened carefully to his plan.

“Anything you say, Doc, anything you say,” she said a few minutes later, grinning, leaning forward seductively and exposing generous amounts of cleavage.

Hoffritz couldn’t help but notice.

Neither could the two young men who sat nearby.

“Well,” Quinn said sitting back, “time for a trip to the ladies’ room. You can order my usual favorite while I’m gone. You know, egg foo young with pork fried rice?”

Hoffritz nodded.

“I won’t be long, babe.”

He forced a smile as she rose from her seat and sauntered off towards the restroom, hips swaying suggestively. He felt his anger grow as he noted all the stares she drew from the male customers in the diner. Those accompanied by females received looks of reprimand.

Phony bitch, he thought. He only put up with her childish games because she satiated his neglected sexual needs. What else did he have to look forward to? Just a daughter with a million demands and a wife as cold and as frigid as the Arctic itself. Most importantly, he could use the dumb broad’s help with the McCarthy girl whom he was beginning to think was ruining his life.

Chapter 12

Shania sat hunched over, weeping hard as Lauren gently massaged her shoulder, wishing she could gather the girl into her arms and hold her tight. Better yet, she wished she could scoop her up and bust out of the place with her, then do a lot more after that.

Shania finally lifted her head. It pained Lauren to see the tears that reddened her lovely eyes.

“Elizabeth once told me, ignore the little problems and they’ll usually go away, but if you ignore the big ones, they just get bigger. Well, since I’m not ignoring this very big problem of mine, why is it getting bigger and bigger by the day?” Shania asked desperately.

“Just hang in there,” Lauren cooed with encouragement.

Shania shook her head. “I don’t think I can make it much longer, Lauren. I’m either going to crack up completely or kill myself.” Her voice shook with emotional hysteria and turmoil.

Lauren’s eyes widened in alarm. “No, Shania, you won’t. And don’t let anyone else hear you talk like that.”

“But Lauren,” Shania protested, “I’m waiting for an opportunity that never comes.”

“It will, sweetie, it will.”

Shania studied Lauren, whose dark eyes blazed with a mixture of tenderness, empathy – and – love? Could it be? Could it really be?

“I just don’t feel like I have a damn bit of reason to live.”

Lauren, still hunched over as well, elbows on knees said, “At the risk of sounding selfish, if you can’t live for yourself, then how about living as a favor to me?”

Shania, who had turned to gaze blindly out the window, glanced back at Lauren. An expression of desperateness seemed to take over the therapist’s features.

Reluctantly, Shania nodded. Then a flood of new emotion came over her in which she sensed that Lauren could sense as well. Trying to keep her voice steady and her shyness in check, she said, “You know, I’ve never really met anyone quite like you. You’re pretty special.”

A warm smile parted Lauren’s lips. “Why thank you, ma’am. I can say the same about you.”

Shania smiled too, ever so slightly. “Really?”

Lauren nodded, still full of emotion, yet determined to remain professional. She was still Shania’s therapist, and any unprofessional acts, she knew, could jeopardize the future greatly.

Shania met with Lauren again the next day, only this time they sat at a table in the courtyard. They had both agreed that it would be best to do this periodically so it would not appear that Lauren was favoring Shania over the other patients.

“This way,” Lauren had told Shania, “you can stay with me when you get out without casting suspicion upon me in any way that could end up drawing the authorities to my place.”

“That makes sense,” Shania agreed.

Again Lauren sat gazing at Shania with the same overly concerned and affectionate expression she hoped no one else noticed. “Did you know that your hair changes colors in the sunlight?” Lauren asked.

“No.”

“It does. It’s light brown indoors and dark blond outdoors.”

“Interesting,” Shania said, then glanced around the courtyard as if suddenly aware of their surroundings. That was when she spotted her again. “Don’t look behind you just yet,” Shania said in a hushed tone.

Lauren’s brows furrowed with curiosity as she watched Shania observe someone’s movements.

“See the blond coming around behind me that looks like she could star in some cheap porno flick?” Shania asked.

Lauren’s ebony eyes shifted. “Quinn?”

Shania nodded.

“What about her?”

“She’s been acting rather strange.”

“How?”

Shania shrugged. “It’s like she’s following me around and keeping a close eye on me. Any reason you can think of as to why she’d do that?”

Lauren shook her head. “No. Why? Has she done this before?”

“No. I’ve only seen her a couple of times so far. I think she’s new here.”

“She’s not that new. She actually started four or five months ago. She just transferred from the adolescent ward is all.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Two years.”

Shania digested Lauren’s words, then anxiety began to sweep across her soft features.

“What is it?”

“What if they transfer you out of here? Could they do that?”

“They could, but I don’t see why they would because I’m in other areas so much of the time as it is. That’s why I’m not always here. If I’m not here, I’m usually somewhere else within the place.”

“I thought each ward had its own therapist.”

Lauren shrugged. “I guess it’s a matter of funding. You can cut your budget with just one therapist per shift. Besides, not every patient wants to or will at least agree to be seen in a private session. They’d rather blend into groups, so to speak, and just do group therapy. That way they don’t have to face their problems like they would have to with the attention being focused solely on them. Know what I mean?”

Shania nodded. “Yes, I get it.”

Quinn continued to scrutinize the two women.

Later on, at dinnertime in the cafeteria, Shania saw that the young blond was still glancing nervously at her from time to time, though she pretended not to notice.

After dinner, she and Barbie settled in bed to read and write letters.

The blond gazed in at her more often than the staff usually did.

“What is it with her?” Shania finally asked with growing curiosity.

“With who?” asked Barbie, looking up from her book.

“Quinn. You know, the young blond chick who started working over here?”

“Oh. Yeah, I know who she is. What about her?”

“She’s been watching me all night.”

Barbie shrugged, then turned away, too engrossed in her book to care.

Ten minutes later, Quinn reappeared to remind Barbie that Lauren was waiting to see her in her office for their session.

Barbie reluctantly put down her book. “Aw, shucks! Now? I was just getting to the good part. The one where Harry proposes to Harriet.”

Shania and Quinn chuckled as Barbie stepped into her slippers. “After you,” she said to Quinn.

“It’s ok,” Quinn told her. “You can head on down yourself.”

“You sure?”

Quinn nodded and Barbie was gone.

Shania wasted no time in settling her curiosity. “So why the close eye, Quinn?” she asked.

When Quinn turned back to face her, chills ran up and down her spine at what she saw. The young woman’s expression had changed so dramatically in just a few short seconds that she wasn’t even sure it was the same person.

Quinn, now brimming with red-hot hatred, slowly came towards Shania.

“What’s going on?” Shania asked shakily.

“Shut up,” Quinn hissed through bared teeth, “just shut up!”

“What? Why in the world are you…”

Quinn’s hand abruptly cut her off as it snaked out with lightning speed to slap her across the face.

At first, Shania was too stunned to react, then she said, “What the fuck did you do that for?”

“You’re making his life hell,” Quinn growled, glancing warily towards the door. It was obvious that she didn’t want to be seen assaulting her. “And hers, too.” Again she lashed out, slapping her other cheek.

Now over the initial shock, Shania was ready to fight back. She lunged at the wild-eyed Quinn with as much force as she could muster, nearly toppling the busty blond backward. The two began to shriek madly at each other.

“How dare you put your hands on me!” Shania screamed as Quinn began to scream for help. She fisted Quinn in the face as hard as she could, though oddly enough, Quinn did nothing to defend herself despite the fact that she was considerably bigger. She was around Lauren’s height of five-seven, though not as slender. Perhaps size didn’t always matter when one was as angry and determined as she was.

Seconds later, a handful of staff members appeared. Two of them dove at Shania and pulled the screaming girl away from Quinn, whose face was now swelling with puffy red and bluish bruises.

“How dare you hit me!” Shania continued to shriek over and over as they led her down to an isolation room. Once they got the struggling girl into the room, they slammed and locked the door just as Lauren and Barbie came down the hall, hurrying towards the commotion.

“Yes you did,” Lauren saw Larisa insist further up the corridor by Shania’s room. “I’m tired of looking the other way and pretending all is fine here. You did smack her, Quinn. I saw you do it!”

“Ok, let’s settle down now,” a male staff member told her.

“Settle down my ass! I’m sick of all the shit that goes on around here and I’m not going to be afraid to say so anymore. Quinn really did hit Shania!”

“Oh, my God,” Lauren said in a barely audible moan.

“How odd,” said Barbie.

“What do you mean?” Lauren asked, head snapping towards her.

“Shania said that Quinn was watching her like a hawk and following her around the place.”

Larisa continued her verbal attack on Quinn, despite the growing number of staff members surrounding her. “I heard you tell her she was making someone’s life hell. Then you said ‘and hers, too.’ That’s when you slapped her. You did it twice. I saw it all! Shania was only defending herself by hitting you back and now she’s going down for it while it’s all your fault. They should fire your sorry ass!”

“Enough!” said the same staff member in a more commanding tone of voice before he threatened her with an isolation room of her own.

“Go ahead,” Larisa challenged. “I’m isolated no matter where I go in this hell hole anyway so what difference would it make!” Knowing it was pointless to argue the matter any further, the small girl spun on her heel and stormed down the corridor.

Lauren approached the group of staff members as Quinn turned and fled towards the staff’s break room. She hated to draw attention that connected her and Shania, but she was tired of simply standing by in silence herself. It was time to speak up no matter how much she was considered an outcast for doing so since it was a common rule that staff members protected and stood up for their own just as members of a police force tended to do with one another. If anyone needed someone on her side at the moment, it was Shania. “Hey, listen, guys,” she said as several heads turned her way. “I hate to break it to you, but Shania did inform me earlier that Quinn was indeed behaving rather strangely.”

“How?” asked Cathy.

“By following her around and watching her intently.”

The staff members gazed curiously at one another. Then, true to defensive nature and despite how much of a rookie Quinn was, a mousy-looking staff member spoke up with certainty in her voice. “I’m sure she must’ve had a reason to do so.”

“But what could that be?” Cathy chimed in. “Shania hasn’t been a problem lately, and if she was suspicious or concerned about her, why didn’t she tell other staff?”

“I don’t know, but it makes you wonder what her relationship is to the good Doctor Hoffritz, doesn’t it?” Lauren questioned aloud. “It also makes you wonder if perhaps Shania and Larisa really might be telling the truth.” With that, she left the group to stand in silent contemplation as she turned and headed back to her office.

Once she entered the office, she sat down in her chair and pondered the situation. Should she confront Hoffritz and Quinn? Or would that only jeopardize Shania’s chance of escape as well as her job? She wasn’t sure about her job, though Hoffritz certainly had enough power over her. He could fire her at will if he chose to and make other employment nearly impossible.

As for Shania, if her suspicions were correct, Hoffritz had somehow gotten to the young and impressionable Quinn and convinced her to provoke the attack so that he would have a legit excuse to confine Shania for a longer period of time. This meant that Shania just might not get the chance to escape after all, just as she had been fearing.

Chapter 13

“She’s still out cold,” the nurse told Lauren as she opened the isolation room door.

“Still? How long are you guys going to keep her so out of it? Why drag things on like this? I mean, isn’t it safe to say that the longer she’s out of it, the more we prolong her from making any progress and moving on?”

“Yes, I suppose it is. I’m just doing what Doctor Joganic ordered of me. She should be coming to any moment now, though, so it shouldn’t be long before she’s back in the land of the living.”

They stepped into the room, Lauren right behind the nurse. Shania was strapped down by leather straps, sound asleep.

“If she’s been unconscious, why the restraints?” asked Lauren.

“Just for everyone’s safety.”

“It’s hard to believe someone that out of it could be of any danger to anyone.”

“Well, it’s like I said,” the nurse explained, “she could come to any time now.”

“Could you give me a few minutes alone with her? Perhaps I could rouse her.”

“Sure.”

When the nurse was gone, she turned her attention to the sleeping form on the bed before her. She studied Shania’s lovely features a moment, listening to the rhythmic sound of her breathing, then she slowly began to undo the straps, thinking how awful it’d be for one to awake to such restraints. To wake up with their movements totally restricted, unable to even scratch an itch, wouldn’t be the least bit therapeutic. All Shania could do while she was strapped down was move her head.

Shania began to moan a low, raspy moan.

“Shania?” Lauren shook the girl’s shoulder. “It’s ok to wake up now. You’re safe with me. I’m the only one here right now.”

The girl’s lustrous lashes began to flutter.

“That’s it,” Lauren coaxed. “No one’s going to hurt you.”

Her eyes blinked open. Lauren’s face slowly swam into focus. “L-Lauren?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

Shania mumbled something inaudible as Lauren reached for a plastic pitcher of water that sat by the bed. She poured it into a paper cup and urged Shania into a sitting position so she could quench her dry throat. “Come on, sweetie, drink,” she urged.

Despite her extreme dizziness, Shania’s thirst drove her to find strength enough to sit up and drink from the cup Lauren held out to her. After she drank, she struggled to say, “I sw-swear I d-didn’t hit first. She…”

“I know, sweetie, I know. Shhh. Just relax and let’s not worry about that right now. First, let’s just get you up on your feet again.”

“Y-you don’t understand. I’ve got to get out of here. They’ll kill me if I stay here much longer and…”

“We’ll get you out of here. Just get on your feet first and out of isolation so we can work on a plan together,” Lauren said, voice hushed so no one lurking in the corridor could hear.

But someone had heard.

Quinn ran a hand through her long silky tresses. “Now what, Jonas? I can’t keep provoking attacks without people getting suspicious. They’re already suspicious enough as it is. Especially that damn psychologist. I heard her talking as I was heading to the break room.”

“And?” asked Hoffritz, gazing up into the blonde’s swollen, bruised face.

“And she apparently believes Shania over you.”

Hoffritz looked thoughtful a moment, then said, “I’m not surprised.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I heard her tell the McCarthy girl as she was coming to in isolation that they’d ‘work on a plan together’ once she was back on her feet.”

Quinn stood up and massaged the doctor’s shoulders as he sat in his leather chair. “Don’t worry, darling. The therapist can’t get her out of here, nor can she bring us down in any way, so what she knows can’t hurt us.”

“I hope not,” Hoffritz said, wishing he could feel as confident as his mistress.

Quinn’s hands moved lower. “Bet I could take your mind off the little bitch for a while.”

Hoffritz stiffened. “I’m sure you could. But now wouldn’t be a good time, babe.”

Quinn stood up abruptly. “Oh, that’s right. Women are only good for pleasing a man when the man’s in the mood, right? When there’s no stress or anything going on to worry about when he’s not so busy. We’re only good for the good times, huh?”

Hoffritz sighed. “No, Quinn, that’s not true. It’s just not the time nor the place.”

“It usually isn’t these days.”

“Look, Quinn, I’m doing my best. I do want you, I just…”

“Then make the time for me. I don’t want to be yours throughout the good times only, Jonas. I want to be yours throughout the bad times, the neutral times. Show me you want me, don’t just tell me.”

“Ok, ok. Meet me in the parking lot when you get off work tonight. Meanwhile, I’ll take care of making sure Miss Cohen isn’t a threat to us in any way and that she doesn’t interfere with our plans, and you can take care of the McCarthy girl.”

“But how?” she asked desperately. She wanted to please him. She had to please him. It was her only chance of winning him over and getting him away from his wife. “What can I do?”

Again Hoffritz sat with a thoughtful expression on his face. “I don’t know. Maybe you can plant something on her or amongst her possessions.”

“Plant what?”

“I’m not sure. Some form of contraband like drugs might be good. Can you get access to any pot, coke or pills?”

“Yeah, I can. I know someone who pops barbiturates like they’re going out of style. She and I used to smoke pot together during high school. I’ll probably be going over to her place and getting high with her this weekend while you’re stuck having to cater to Erin and Jasmine, so I’ll grab some pills from her then.”

“See if you can get ahold of any wrappers or anything that the McCarthy girl may’ve handled and use those to wrap them in.”

“Why wrappers she’s handled?”

“So that the pills will be wrapped in something that’s got her fingerprints on it,” Hoffritz explained. “What are you anyway? Your classic dumb blond?”

The comment stung Quinn. Her eyes narrowed with hurt and anger. “Hey, look. I’m trying to help you and…”

“I’m sorry. Really I am. I know that was mean of me,” he relented, knowing he better be nice to her since he needed her just as much as she needed him, even if it was for different reasons.

“Yes, it was mean of you. Mean and hurtful!” she yelled.

Her raised voice caused him alarm. Her feelings certainly weren’t worth his reputation. “Keep your voice down, will you?” Didn’t the fool know he could fire her on the spot, refuse to ever see her again? “The last thing we need is for this hospital to find out that the ever so loyal Dr. Hoffritz is having an affair with someone he’s old enough to have fathered. My wife and daughter don’t need to know about it either. Besides, it would make you look bad. Hurt your career.”

“I’m sorry, Jonas,” Quinn said lowering her voice, “but what about my needs?”

“What about them?”

“What about them?” Quinn said, mocking Hoffritz. “Come on, Jonas, smarten up. If you think about it long and hard, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

“I told you to meet me in the parking lot.”

“That’s not it. Sure I’ll meet you tonight, but what about the future?”

There is no future, he wanted to say. Instead, he said, “Quinn, honey, let’s just worry about the present. The future will take care of itself.”

“Will it?”

Hoffritz sighed. “I already explained to you that I can’t leave Erin.”

Quinn spun around to look out the window, arms folded stubbornly across her chest.

To her back, Hoffritz said, “Honey, I explained it to you. She’ll take me for everything I’ve got if I ever left her. She really will. She’s as stubborn as a mule.”

“So you’d just start over somewhere else with me, who’s also as stubborn as a mule,” Quinn said, turning back to face him. “Only I’m about twenty years younger and forty pounds lighter.”

“It wouldn’t be that easy.”

“Or what you really mean is that it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“No, I meant what I said,” Hoffritz insisted. He was getting really annoyed by Quinn’s increasing nagging to leave his wife, though as long as he needed her help with McCarthy, he was willing to tell her what she wanted to hear to tide her over. Then he’d worry about how to get her out of his life without her spitefully going to his wife to spill out every dirty little detail of their rather sordid affair. And she would, too. He might not even be able to buy her off, in the end, that’s how spiteful he knew she was capable of being. This was a girl who was used to getting what she wanted, and God help anyone who stood in her way!

Damn him! Why’d he have to go getting tangled up in such an affair? He could’ve gotten dirty magazines to entertain himself with when his wife was too tired, too sick, or just too damn cold to satisfy his needs. Instead, he got himself caught up with a young, dumb bimbo who thought he had shit for brains. Ah, but he knew better. He knew she was trying to weasel him away from the wife just so she could marry a rich man, kick back, and have nothing to worry about other than how her manicure turned out or getting stains on her fur coat. Well, it wasn’t going to happen. He already had one wife who had married him for the comfort, convenience and luxury he could provide, and he didn’t need a second one. Especially one who would cater to his needs at first, then consider him nothing more than a roommate once the initial excitement wore off. And Quinn was the kind to fill in those ever-changing desires and voids with all kinds of young men. Erin wasn’t. Erin was too caught up in the kid to think of much else. It made him wonder just what she’d do when their daughter was off in college somewhere, or perhaps knocked up by a boyfriend who would falsely promise her the world.

They both jumped at the sound of the knock on the door, not realizing just how uptight they’d been until now.

“Come in,” Hoffritz called out.

The door opened and there stood a sickly thin woman with stringy hair. She appeared to be in her thirties, eyes milky gray like a dying person’s. She extended a forearm towards Hoffritz and excitedly exclaimed, “Look! If I scratch hard enough, this red stuff comes out of me!”

Quinn’s stomach churned at the sight of the woman viciously scratching her arm until it bled. The sight of blood had always sickened her. She suddenly began to feel faint, light-headed. Her knees began to buckle before her just as Hoffritz rose from his chair to lead the woman out of the room.

She fell into his chair, still warm from his body heat, and waited for his return. She knew she should get back on the floor. It was well past the end of her break and the mean prude in charge was no doubt wondering where the hell she was, but she was in no hurry to return to the twisted, deranged characters she had to work with. No wonder she was finding herself more and more depressed lately.

A few minutes later, Hoffritz returned. “You ok?”

She nodded. “Just a little disgusted.”

“Well, you better get used to it if you’re going to work with the disturbed. The disturbed do disturbing things.”

“Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all if my career were ruined and I had to look for a new occupation altogether. Maybe I should become an exotic dancer.”

“Yeah, maybe. For now, you really should get back on the job. If they see you coming here too often…”

“Yes, I know,” Quinn finished for him, “they’ll get suspicious.”

“Exactly. And while you could perhaps take this job or leave it, I have to take it and keep it. It’s the price I pay for being top dog here, you know?”

Quinn nodded again as she stood up to leave.

Not wanting to sound too harsh or risk pissing her off into spiting him, he said, “Don’t worry babe. I’ll make it all up to you tonight. I’ll put up with the wife bitching about how late I am just to be with a hot sexy thing like yourself, if only part-time.”

Quinn smiled slightly. “But hopefully you’ll want that to become full-time. You know I’d be a good wife.”

He made himself smile. “Of course I do. Now, run along, hot stuff, and the end of your shift will come faster than you think. I’ll urge Doc Joganic to put the McCarthy girl in her own room due to her violent outbursts. That’ll make it easier for you to plant the drugs without a roommate being in the way.”

“Too bad you couldn’t be her doctor. Then you’d really have leverage over the bitch.” Quinn laughed heartily.

Hoffritz blinked. Damn, this bimbo was an idiot! “Me? I couldn’t possibly. Besides, it’d look awfully funny for a doctor taking on a patient who attacked him, don’t you think? It’s ok, though. I have enough leverage as it is.”

“That’s true. See ya,” Quinn said with a wink, exiting Hoffritz’s office and closing the door behind her. She headed toward the nurses’ station.

It wasn’t until the busty blond was inside the station that Lauren stepped out of the break room directly across from Hoffritz’s office.

Chapter 14

The following evening, Shania had regained enough of her sense of awareness and strength to attend her session with Lauren in her office.

“They say,” Shania began, “that there’s a reason for everything. That God has a plan for all of us.”

Lauren nodded gently.

“But how can this be part of His plan for me, unless He actually wants me to suffer?” Shania finished desperately.

Lauren sighed. As much as she wished she had some answers, all she could do was shrug, for life was just as much of a mystery to her as it was for most others. “I think that someday we’ll have all the answers. It just might not be in this life.”

“Do you believe that? Or do you think that’s a big case of pure wishful thinking?”

Again all Lauren could do was shrug. She felt helpless to Shania like never before. She was well aware of the fact that the girl’s sorrow was turning more and more to rage and she worried about that. If pushed over the edge too many more times by some of the sickos she was realizing she worked with, Shania just may kill one of them. She was worried for her. If she was provoked into killing someone, she may end up in prison for the rest of her life without the slightest hope of escape.

But what was one to do when they were viciously slapped across the face? When others had so much power over you while you had nothing whatsoever?

Shania rose suddenly, surprising Lauren. Then she stepped over to where she sat and threw her arms around her.

Lauren wrapped her own arms around her as well.

“I know we’re not supposed to do this,” said Shania, “but with so many things that aren’t supposed to happen around here as it is, what’s one more?”

Lauren held Shania tighter, gently nuzzling the side of her cheek with hers, softly caressing her back.

Shania pulled away almost as abruptly as she’d embraced her. “I suppose we better not get carried away.”

Lauren smiled and gently nodded with understanding.

“The last thing we need is for you to get fired.”

Shania sat back down in her own chair as Lauren said, “We all need a hug every now and then.”

Shania nodded. “Have you learned anything?”

“Not a whole lot, but it does appear that the good doctor is having an affair with Quinn.”

Shania took a moment to absorb this revelation, then said, “I suppose I shouldn’t be too shocked. I’ve known long before I came here that the bastard had it in him to stray. As for her? She’s totally the type to fall for a guy like Hoffritz. I mean, doesn’t she strike you as the type to want to be pampered by a rich man like a doctor?”

Lauren nodded again. “Yes, I suppose she does.”

“She seems to have so much of Maureen in her. She’s just a spoiled, selfish little brat. The kind who will spite herself to spite others to get what she wants in the end, regardless of who gets burned along the way.”

“Some people are like that, unfortunately.”

The two sat in silence a moment, then Lauren said, “They moved you into a regular room this afternoon, correct?”

Shania nodded.

“Do you have a roommate?”

“No.”

“That must be nice.”

“Yes, I like my solitude. Especially in this godforsaken place.”

Lauren smiled. “I hear you on that one.”

They talked about their pasts. Sometimes it was good for Shania to take a break from focusing on the crisis she was in any way. Everyone needed to come up for air every now and then during a time of madness.

Shania learned that Lauren was originally from Oklahoma and had come to southern California for the same reasons many others had – the pleasant climate. She didn’t like the crowds, the congested freeways or the smog, though she was willing to put up with it, understanding that that was simply the price you paid when you wanted to live where so many others did as well.

Lauren had had her share of dates and short romances, though they never turned serious. She did not wish to have any children, though perhaps she may one day like to adopt an older child, or maybe even provide temporary care and housing to foster kids in need of a place to stay until their futures looked more certain as to whether or not they’d be placed for adoption, or return to their biological families.

They discussed things they liked, as well as things that annoyed them.

“Snoring drives me crazy,” said Lauren. “How ‘bout you? What do you find really annoying?”

Shania thought about it a moment, then said, “Noisy eaters.”

“Noisy eaters?”

She nodded. “The kind that makes these sickening slurping sounds when they eat. They disgust me.”

Lauren chuckled.

“Is your friend Courtney gay or does she just not like men?” asked Shania.

Lauren chuckled again. “Well, I can assure you she isn’t always happy with men, though she is quite straight.”

“Oh, I see. I’m just trying to keep your friends straight in my mind, pardon the pun,” Shania said before the two roared with laughter. It was hard to contain themselves, though Lauren gestured with her hand for them to lower their voices. Finally, they had to clamp a hand over their mouths until they’d gained control once again.

“So you’ve never fallen for a patient before?” Shania asked, still somewhat giggly.

“Nope. Courtney thinks I’m crazy as it is.”

“You told her about me?”

Lauren nodded. “I can understand her concern. If I were in her shoes I’d worry myself, never having met you, and I just may think I was losing it, too.”

“Are you sure she won’t cause problems if I can ever escape and get to you?”

“Courtney? No, she’s a very trustworthy person.”

“I guess it doesn’t matter anyway since it’s looking more and more unlikely that I’ll ever make it out of here.”

The jovial mood that had been in the air dissipated, allowing a pall to settle in the room once more.

“Shania, you mustn’t think like that. I know it’s hard, really I do, but you can’t give up hope. Not now.”

“How long have I been in this place anyway?”

“Coming up on three weeks.”

Shania looked stunned. “Three weeks?”

Lauren nodded.

“It feels like three months,” Shania said dubiously. “No, three years.”

“Yes, they say that not only does time fly when you’re having fun, but it slows down to a crawl when you’re not.”

“Tell me about it!” Shania said emphatically. “Each minute in here is like an hour, each day is like a week.”

“How is Mindy doing?” Lauren asked, trying to get Shania to talk about positive things, even if she may never see her friend again.

Instead, Shania looked even more downcast at the mention of Mindy’s name and said, “She’s ok. I told her that since it may be a while before I can break free of this hell hole, to go ahead and do whatever it is she needs to do.”

“Like what?”

“Like getting a new roommate to help share the expenses.” Shania sighed heavily.

Lauren eyed Shania with empathy. For a moment, Shania looked as if she were about to cry all over again. Instead, she turned angry.

“I know I shouldn’t be saying this to anyone, not even you, but oh how I’d like to kill Hoffritz and that shit niece of his! If I don’t find a way to break out, I could be here for years!”

Lauren put a finger across her lips. “Shhh. These sessions aren’t always as private as you might think. Especially if someone happens to be just outside in the hall.”

“Ok, I’ll be quieter,” Shania said, glancing at the closed door as if she expected it to open up and for someone to report that they had heard her talking about escaping and killing Hoffritz and Maureen.

“You’ve got to keep your chin up, Shania,” Lauren urged her. “I told you that yes, it could take months before you can get out of here, but you will get out.”

Shania sank even deeper into her depression once her session with Lauren ended. Nonetheless, she rose to return to her room.

She had just rounded the corner to the long part of the I when she spotted Quinn exiting her room and heading away from her, towards the station. Shania quickened her pace and soon broke into a slight trot.

Once inside the room, she visually scanned it from left to right. Everything appeared to be untouched at just a quick glance. The empty bed hadn’t been made up and prepped for a new roommate to come. Instead, the green plastic mattress was still bare.

Had Quinn simply been in the room just out of curiosity? She didn’t think so. She knew deep down that Quinn could only be up to no good.

She moved to open the drawer in her nightstand. Nothing was out of the ordinary. Her kiwi-strawberry lip gloss and cocoa butter lotion were still there, along with the mystery novel she was reading when her nerves would ease up enough to let her focus on it.

She then turned to the small three-drawer dresser that stood against the wall just inside the doorway, a few feet from her bed.

Bingo!

Inside the top drawer next to her underwear, was a crinkled piece of plastic wrapped around a few odd looking pills which Shania couldn’t even begin to identify.

Then it hit her. Whatever they were, they were meant to be used against her in another set-up. This no doubt meant that Quinn would probably tell other staff members that someone whose identity she promised to protect, had informed her that she had drugs.

Quick! Hurry!

Shania snatched the wrapped pills and sped into the bathroom with them. She flushed them down the toilet. Not even ten seconds later, they stormed into the room.

“Ok, Miss McCarthy,” said Victoria, pulling on a pair of plastic gloves. “Step out into the hall, please.” She let the second glove snap back loudly against her wrist once it was on.

“What’s up?” Shania asked dumbly, noting both Quinn and Shelvin, a young pleasant guy who appeared to be at least part Middle Eastern.

“Just step on out,” Victoria ordered.

Shania did as she was told, though she remained in the doorway where she could see what was happening. Quinn remained silent as she helped Victoria perform their search. Shelvin merely watched, making light of the event for Shania’s sake. “It’s just the usual crap we have to go through around here,” he said with a smile. “Believe me, I’d rather be somewhere else than doing this.”

Shania smiled. She noted Quinn’s eyes darting anxiously towards the top dresser drawer as she sifted through the nightstand drawer.

Finally, Victoria came out of the bathroom. “Nothing there,” she said. “You check the dresser yet?”

Quinn shook her head.

Victoria yanked open the top drawer so hard, Shania was surprised it didn’t fall out.

Although it was obvious to no one else other than herself, Shania could see that while Quinn tried her damnedest to hide it, it was evident that she was both shocked and dismayed when the search turned up empty.

“Well, I guess we wasted our time here after all,” Victoria said, glancing around the room as she peeled off her gloves. Then she turned to the doorway. “Ok, Miss McCarthy, you can come back in now.”

“See, that wasn’t so bad,” Shelvin said with a smile as he passed Shania, followed by Victoria and then by Quinn, who eyed Shania with red-hot animosity.

Shania gave Quinn a slight yet obvious smile of triumph.

In the dream, his breath stunk. It reeked of alcohol. He was touching her, making her stomach churn with disgust.

“Come on, girl, wake up. It’s time for a little fun, and God knows we need a whole lot more of that going on around here.”

Wait a minute. This was no dream. The familiar voice was real!

Shania’s eyes snapped open to find Bruce hovering above her.

“No madmen in the hallway threatening to commit suicide tonight. No, all’s nice and quiet if I do say so myself. The whole ward’s sound asleep. It’s just you and me, babe.”

Shania quickly sat upright. “No way! Get the hell out of here, Bruce!” she screamed.

He clamped a hand over her mouth. She pried it away and began to cuss him out. Again he clamped a hand over her mouth. “Shut up, you bitch!” he hissed.

She wrenched his hand away a second time. “Get the fuck out of here now!”

“Who the fuck do you think you’re bossing around, you split chick! I give the orders around here, not you.” He smacked her across the mouth.

She smacked him back, drawing blood. This fueled his fury. He began tearing at her nightgown while she continued to fight him. “What, do you want to go to jail?” she said. “How in the world do you expect to get away with this? You know they can do DNA tests from your semen.”

“I’m not going to be dumb enough to let myself get off,” Bruce said.

“Then what’s the point? Why build yourself up for nothing? Wouldn’t that be as dumb as making yourself thirsty when there’s no water around to drink?” she asked as he continued to struggle with her gown and she with him.

“I said shut up, bitch.”

Ignoring him she said, “Your fingerprints are still going to be traceable. They’re all over me now. No doubt some hairs, too. Maybe even bits of skin under my nails from clawing at you.”

Bruce froze. A moment later he slowly pulled himself back. Shania could sense he was beginning to worry about the possible consequences of what he’d done.

Shania grinned, grabbed hold of her gown in her fists and tore it some more. Bruce’s eyes widened in horror as she leaped from her bed and ran out of the room. At first, Bruce gave chase as she raced up the corridor towards the nurses’ station.

“Help! Help me! He tried to rape me!” she screamed.

She pumped her legs as fast as she could, dreading the possibility that the other staff member on duty might be on break and unable to help her. No, there had to be at least two staff members present. Even she knew that. If the other guy was on break, someone would be filling in for him. Even if they didn’t believe Bruce had attempted to rape her, he’d at least be off her ass for the night, since she couldn’t imagine there being any way he’d be dumb enough to risk another attempt after tonight. At least not on her.

She was hoping a female staff member was available, but to her dismay, Malcolm rounded the corner at the sound of her shouts. Still, he was better than nobody.

“What’s going on?” he demanded, brows set in that permanent mean-looking scowl.

Shania stopped short in front of him, panting. When she could catch her breath she said, “He-he tried to rape me.”

“Huh?” Malcolm said incredulously, frowning even more, making his ugly face uglier.

“Look at me,” Shania said, motioning to the torn gown. “He tried to rape me a few minutes ago.”

“She’s lying!” Bruce screamed so loud that she and Malcolm both jumped. His voice roared thunderously as he continued to defend himself. “That is a hundred percent total bull fucking shit!”

“The hell it is!” Shania screamed.

By now there were patients peering out of their doorways, including Larisa.

“I didn’t do shit to you! I simply went in to do a routine check when you started coming on to me.”

“And tore my gown while I was at it? Oh, go kill yourself, you crazy fool!” Shania spat.

“I believe her,” Larisa chimed in. “After all, you put the moves on me too, in the courtyard, Bruce, and you know damn well that’s true. You’re nothing but a slut. A desperate whore wanting me to give it to you so bad that you were willing to let me have a late-night cigarette just for doing so until Shania interfered.”

“Please, you’re all crazy!” Bruce yelled though Shania could see his defense was weakening by the minute. Especially with Larisa’s accusations to go along with her own.

Clearly, Malcolm wasn’t sure who to believe, though it was obvious enough that he wasn’t about to write off the possibility that what the patients were saying about his coworker just might be true. “Ok, buddy,” he said, putting a hand on Bruce’s shoulder. “Let’s go chill out with a smoke or something. Get away from this shit for a while. Connie and Dwight can take over.”

Bruce seemed to be a mixed concoction of emotions. He was embarrassed, frustrated, keyed up and angry. Nonetheless, he allowed himself to be led towards the nurses’ station where Malcolm, who ordered everyone back inside their rooms, could call for relief.

Chapter 15

“Are you sure you planted the pills?”
“Yes, Jonas, I’m positive,” said Quinn with exasperation, running a nervous hand through her platinum mane. She had been pacing the office and now she took a seat on the loveseat a few feet from where Hoffritz sat in his leather chair.

“But you said it was only minutes between when you made the plant and when her room was searched, so how could they have disappeared so quickly?” Hoffritz asked, sitting back in his chair. It creaked in protest.

“I have no idea. All I know is that I planted them in the top drawer of her dresser when she was with that damn therapist – Lauren – or whatever her name is, then I went to Victoria because she was the supervisor in charge that night.”

“And told her someone snitched to you about McCarthy having drugs?”

Quinn nodded.

Hoffritz sighed.

“It couldn’t have been more than five minutes later that Victoria, myself, and some other staff member did the search. I was the last one to leave the room after the search failed to turn up anything, and when I passed by the little bitch as she stood just outside the doorway, I swear she gave me one of those ha-ha-you-lose smiles. I know she did.”

Hoffritz tried to keep his voice steady. “Then somebody had to have seen you and they removed the drugs before she could get caught with them.”

Alarm sparked within Quinn’s glassy blue eyes. “God, I hope no one saw me! I was very careful about that. Really, babe, I was.”

“When did McCarthy get out of her therapy session?” asked Hoffritz.

Quinn appeared thoughtful, then said, “Well, it couldn’t have been too long after making the plant, since she was there during the entire search.”

“Did you look both ways up and down the corridor when you went to leave her room?”

Again Quinn appeared to think about it. “I don’t remember. I just wanted to get out of there, so I left the room as fast as I could and went to find Victoria.”

Hoffritz threw his head back with obvious displeasure. “Quinn, honey, you should’ve been more careful.”

“Yes, perhaps. But if I had looked in either direction and seen anybody, they probably would’ve seen me, too.”

“Not necessarily,” Hoffritz said with a trace of hope in his voice. “Not if their backs were facing you. What probably happened was that the McCarthy girl rounded the corner just as you exited her room, which means she’d have only seen you from behind and you wouldn’t have seen her at all if you didn’t look in that direction.”

Quinn was beginning to feel very inadequate. How stupid of her! Couldn’t she do anything right? As it was, she couldn’t afford to screw up. Not now. Not if she were to win Hoffritz over, and she needed to do so quite desperately. A life spent working in a funny farm, or anywhere else for that matter, just wouldn’t cut it for her. If she couldn’t get a rich man to take care of her essentials as well as her desires for clothes, jewelry, and other things, which were almost just as essential to her as the air that she breathed, she’d rather be dead.

“Let’s just lay off McCarthy for a while,” Hoffritz suddenly said.

“Huh?”

“Forget about her for a while. I have someone else that needs investigating.”

“Who, Lauren?”

Hoffritz nodded. “I’d like to see if I can find out just how much Miss Cohen knows and what she may be up to.”

“But how?”

“That’s where I’ll need your help. Think you can get this one right?”

Quinn smiled broadly, pleased to be given another chance to prove herself. “Oh, yes. Absolutely.”

Hoffritz took a key from the pocket of the white coat he had on over his gray business suit and inserted it into the keyhole of an upper desk drawer. He turned the lock and placed the key back in his pocket and opened the drawer. From it, he pulled a very small dark box.

“What’s that?” asked Quinn, brows furrowed.

The round object was perhaps two inches in diameter and maybe an inch tall. A small wire protruded from the side of it.

“It’s a bug,” Hoffritz said in a matter of fact tone of voice.

“A bug?”

Hoffritz nodded. “You have two jobs. Job number one is to get the bug planted somewhere in Miss Cohen’s office where it won’t be seen by her or anyone else. Job number two will be to retrieve the bug once she’s had a session or two with our star patient.”

“With her star patient,” Quinn corrected. “But how am I going to get in there to do this, babe? She’s not going to leave her office and leave the door wide open.”

“No, but she doesn’t always lock it,” Hoffritz said. “I’ve seen her announce to the staff that she was going on break, to lunch, to dinner, whatever, then simply close her door and walk away. She has all her important files locked up anyway, so there’s no real need to lock up for just a short time. She only locks up when she leaves to go home at the end of her shift.”

“I don’t know what time she goes on break, though. She never breaks at the same time. None of us do. We have to wait for moments of calm when these damn animals aren’t acting up, doing whatever it is they feel they need to do to get the attention they so desperately crave before we get a chance to even breathe around here.”

“That’s ok. She eats dinner the same time everyone else does, doesn’t she?”

“Most of the time she does, but she usually brings a tray into her office.”

Hoffritz let out a long sigh of frustration. “Just do your best, ok?”

“Sure, babe. Anything you say.”

Hoffritz held the bug out to her. His mistress took it and examined it curiously. “Think you can handle it?”

“Easily,” Quinn said with more confidence in her voice than she really felt.

“Whatever you do, do not peel off the adhesive strip on that bug until you’re ready to stick it somewhere. I recommend the underside of her desk or the lower part of a cabinet, back close to the wall.”

“Not underneath a chair?”

Hoffritz shook his head. “Nah. Picks up too much movement when someone shifts or squirms. Go for the most secluded spot you can find that’s closest to where Miss Cohen and her patients sit.”

“So just how does this little thing pick up conversations anyway? There’s no tape or any kind of recording device in it.”

“Doesn’t need to be. All that’s going to be right here in this office. It’s voice-activated, so whenever someone’s speaking, it will record right to my hard drive.”

“All the way to here?” Quinn asked with surprise.

“Sure. It’ll transmit up to a thousand feet and Miss Cohen’s office is probably around, oh, I’d say a few hundred feet or so from here. Do you happen to know what day she’s planning to meet with Miss McCarthy?”

Quinn shook her head. “Haven’t got a clue. It seems to be pretty often, though. I think she’s meeting with her like two or three times a week, and of course, they talk elsewhere at times as well. I’ve seen Lauren go into the lounge where the bitch would be fixing herself a cup of tea, and strike up a conversation with her.”

Hoffritz chewed on a fingernail as his mistress spoke.

“She really does seem to be quite fond of her,” Quinn went on. “It’s like they’ve got something going on, though I’ve never actually seen anything out of the ordinary transpire between them. But why bother spying on her when you can just fire her if you’re that worried about her, and hire someone else?”

“It’s not that simple, I’m afraid,” said Hoffritz. “Therapists aren’t as easy to replace as housekeepers and cashiers. Also, if I fire her without just cause, maybe even with just cause, she could really make things rough for us.”

“You think she could become a problem?”

Hoffritz nodded. “I’m afraid she may do that whether she works here or not. Especially if she really is fond of the girl. That’s why I want to see if I can find out just what she knows and what she has in mind. She’s got to have meant something when she told McCarthy that they’d work on a plan together. ‘We’ll get you out of here, is what she said.’”

“But sweetie, couldn’t she have simply meant something as innocent as just urging the bitch to keep her cool, do as she’s told, attend her therapy sessions and whatever else she needs to do to get out of here?”

Hoffritz let out a quick snort. “Somehow I doubt that, my dear. My gut instinct says there’s more going on and that both of them could pose a serious threat to our careers, our reputations, and our whole lives for that matter if given the upper hand. That’s why I need your help. If I find out there is, in fact, something fishy in the air, I can simply move her somewhere else within the clinic, perhaps to the geriatric section or the infirmary, and come up with a reason she’d be likely to believe as to why she’s being transferred. I simply can’t just go to her and say, look, I think you’ve got a thing for Miss McCarthy, and I think you just might get in the way of my plans and help her break out of here, so you’re fired.”

Quinn thought a moment, then said, “Yes, I guess I can see where you’re coming from.”

It’s about time! Hoffritz thought to himself. Instead, he was willing to butter her up in any way she wanted, not just for some decent sex, but to get her to do what he wanted her to do, what he needed her to do. If he was going to save his skin and that of Maureen’s as well, he had to act fast as far as the McCarthy girl was concerned and get her out of their lives for good. The worse he made her look, the better it would be for him and Maureen if she really did go after them once she was discharged.

Deciding he’d solved his problems, he rose and went over to join Quinn on the loveseat.

Now it’s my turn to be oddly stared at and studied, thought Lauren, wondering just what in the world Quinn was up to this time around. Whatever it was, she knew it couldn’t be anything good. Between Hoffritz, Bruce, and now Quinn, what was once a quiet sanctuary for the troubled had become a jungle in which only the fittest survived.

Lauren pretended not to notice that Quinn was watching her as she let Cathy know she’d be heading to the cafeteria for dinner. The less Quinn and the doctor knew as far as her being aware of what they had in mind for Shania, the better her chances of helping her escape. She still hadn’t figured out a sure plan, but she knew she would sooner or later if no other opportunities presented themselves beforehand. Yes, whatever Quinn was up to, Lauren wanted to catch her at it and catch her off guard, too.

She turned from the nurses’ station and headed down the long part of the I. She didn’t have to look behind her to know that Quinn was staring at her, for she could feel the heat of her stare on her back. She wanted to stop off at Shania’s room to warn her that Quinn may have trouble in mind, though she didn’t because she knew that would look suspicious. Instead, she breezed past Shania’s room, getting just a quick image of the girl sitting propped up in bed with a book in hand.

Once the steel door to the ward locked tightly behind her, she hurried towards the cafeteria. She didn’t want to take any more time than was necessary getting her tray. She didn’t even want to do that much, but she had to. She was starving. She hadn’t eaten since early in the morning. It was no wonder her mother was getting on her about being too thin. She could use an extra ten pounds on her otherwise fit and muscular body.

Not wanting to waste time waiting for the elevator, Lauren took the stairs, passing Steve Lamont along the way, the therapist and helping hand at the unit’s infirmary.

“Well, hello there, Lauren,” he said in a cheery voice. “And how are you doing this evening?”

“Great, Steve. How are you?” she said, politely trying to hurry him along. She had a distinct feeling that wasting any time would be a very bad idea.

“Oh, I’m just swell. Would you be interested in getting together with me sometime? Perhaps we could do dinner and a movie.”

“No, thank you, Steve. I really don’t like to mix business with pleasure, though I appreciate you’re asking.” She nearly laughed at herself when she thought of just how much she had been breaking that rule of hers lately.

“Ah, but it wouldn’t be. You see, I’m going to transfer to Natchaug, a hospital much like this one about thirty miles from here real soon.”

“Why’s that?” Lauren asked. She didn’t dislike guys in general despite her attraction for women, though being alone in a stairwell with this one wasn’t exactly her idea of a good time. Especially since it was getting more and more obvious these days that the staff couldn’t be trusted any more than the patients could be.

“I’m moving.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. It’s time for a change.”

“Oh, well good luck to you. Meanwhile, I hate to cut you off, but I’m in a serious hurry.”

Steve laughed as if what she had said was funny.

Lauren rolled her eyes and continued down the stairs.

“I’ll be seeing you,” Steve called down to her a few seconds later.

Balancing her tray on one arm, Lauren unlocked the door to the adult ward with the other.

Because her office was right across from the door, she could see that its door was wide open as soon as she entered the ward. Hurrying across to the open doorway, she stepped across the threshold to find Quinn visually scanning the room as if in search of something.

“What the hell are you doing in here?” Lauren asked, startling Quinn.

Quinn’s head snapped towards Lauren. “I-uh-I just thought I heard some strange sounds in here, that’s all. So I thought I should check it out.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you did,” Lauren said with unhidden sarcasm as she set her tray of food down on her desk. That’s when she saw that Quinn was holding something in one hand. “What’s that?”

Quinn looked down towards her hand as if she’d forgotten all about whatever it was she was holding. “Oh, just something I had in my hand when I heard the sounds.”

“I’d like to see it, please,” Lauren said, extending her hand.

“It’s nothing, really.” She was getting nervous.

“I’d still like to see it anyway.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t do that,” Quinn said, moving towards the door.

Lauren blocked her and they came face to face with one another. They were about the same height. She grabbed Quinn’s hand and squeezed it hard enough to get the blond to drop the object. Lauren quickly snatched it up from the floor.

“Owe! How dare you, you bitch! Give that back to me!” screamed Quinn, trying to wrestle the object, which Lauren could now clearly see was a bug, back into her possession.

“I wouldn’t go yelling like that,” Lauren warned her. “After all, silence is golden in your case. Of that, I can assure you.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Quinn demanded breathlessly. “Please! You have to give that back to me.”

“And why must I do that? So Hoffritz won’t throw you out on your ass?”

Quinn’s eyes bulged with surprise as she struggled to catch her breath.

“Don’t look so surprised,” Lauren said, dark eyes blazing. “You didn’t think I was born yesterday, did you? I know damn well you’re carrying on some kind of sordid affair with the bastard and that he’s trying to get you to do things to ensure Shania McCarthy a long stay here at Lakeview.

Suddenly, Quinn broke down sobbing like a little girl, collapsing in the chair Lauren’s patients usually sat in during their sessions. “P-please, don’t say anything to anyone. Please! I won’t do a damn thing to the girl ever again, I swear. Just please don’t say anything, Lauren.”

Lauren was speechless, unsure of what to make of Quinn’s sudden transition to a scared and babbling child. “Give me a reason I shouldn’t,” she finally said.

“B-because I really need this job. If he finds out you caught me trying to plant the bug, he’ll not only fire my ass for sure, but he’ll also make the rest of my life hell because I won’t be able to get anything else in the mental health field.”

“Well, Quinn, did you ever think that maybe the mental health field isn’t for you? Why did he put you up to this anyway? What the hell is his fixation on Shania all about and when is it going to end?”

“I don’t know,” Quinn said, shaking her head miserably. “All I know is that his niece has got him wrapped around her finger real tight. He’s also got a frigid wife at home and the burdens of a daughter to deal with, and so he turned to me.”

“I don’t think he turned to you just for sex, Quinn. I think he’s using you to get at Shania. Notice how you were transferred here right around the time she was admitted?” Lauren took her usual seat and faced Quinn.

“I know, I know. But this is the only good-paying job I can get right now, and if I have to go back to a minimum wage job it’ll take me years to get back on my feet. Don’t you see? It’s just not that easy. It only takes a second to get torn down and hit rock bottom, but it almost always takes years to climb back up and get reestablished, you know?”

“Yes, I do, but I can’t just stand by and let you two ruin a perfectly innocent girl’s life either. Can you understand that?”

Quinn nodded. “I just don’t know what to do. Oh, what do we do, Lauren?”

Lauren looked thoughtful, then said, “I don’t know yet. Let me think about it. For now, just tell Hoffritz you were unable to get a chance to plant the bug. Is that thing activated right now? Can he hear us?”

Quinn shook her head. “I don’t think so. He said something about starting to record tomorrow’s sessions because that’s when you’ll probably be seeing her.”

Lauren nodded dubiously. “Well, like I said, you just couldn’t make the plant, ok?”

“But he’s only going to insist I keep trying.”

After a moment of silence, Lauren spoke up. “Ok, we’ll plant it.”

“Huh?” asked Quinn with confusion.

“We’ll plant the damn thing and then I’ll cover it with tape or something to muffle sounds so that he’ll hear voices, but not what’s being said. Hopefully this way he’ll just think there’s something wrong with the transmitter or something like that.”

Quinn’s expression brightened. “Oh, hey, that’s a great idea! Ok, we’ll do it that way, and thank you so much for not giving me away, Lauren.”

“Yeah, well, if one more thing happens to that girl, and I find out you’re behind it, I’m going to do a lot more than just give you away.”

“It’s a deal.” Quinn rose to her feet. “Plant it on your filing cabinet close to the wall or under your desk.”

“I mean it, Quinn,” Lauren said as she placed a small strip of masking tape on the microphone of the bug, “not a word about this to Hoffritz. Was he planning on having you leave the bug in here forever, or what?”

“He was going to tell me when to retrieve it.”

Lauren chewed on her lip thoughtfully, then a moment later said, “I’ll give it to you when he wants it. Now get out of here and remember our deal.”

Quinn left, grateful to be out of there at last, and headed straight for Hoffritz’s office as Lauren stuck the bug under her desk and began to eat her cold chicken nuggets.

After eating her dinner, Lauren went to fetch Shania for their session. The one Hoffritz thought was on for tomorrow instead of today. Actually, it was on whenever they had time to chat without drawing attention to themselves.

She spotted Shania heading towards her just as she rounded the corner. “Hey there, what’s up?”

“Same old, same old,” Shania replied. “Is now still a good time?”

“Oh, yes. Now’s a great time.”

As soon as they stepped into the office, Lauren swung the door shut and put a finger to her lips.

Shania regarded her with a curious expression.

In a hushed whisper, Lauren alerted Shania as to the bug that was planted under her desk.

Shania’s confused expression turned into that of a worrisome one.

“He still may pick up some words, so no talk of escaping,” Lauren warned, still whispering.

Shania nodded, and the two took their seats just as a slight yet obvious tremor shook the room. “Are we in for a big one soon or what?” Shania asked.

“You never know, though I doubt it.”

“So is there anything new going on in the world that I’ve missed since being in here?” Shania asked with a wink.

Catching on, Lauren stood up long enough to snatch a pad and a pen from her desk. She wrote briefly about her encounter with Quinn.

When she finished reading, Shania’s head snapped back up towards Lauren with shock and worry written all over her delicate features.

Quinn knocked on Hoffritz’s door.

“Come in,” she heard him say curtly.

She turned the knob and opened the door. She knew in an instant that he knew she had botched up yet another attempt to free them of the evil cast upon them by the McCarthy bitch.

“Damn you!” he hissed, trying to keep his voice down. “Can’t you do anything right?”

“I’m sorry, babe. I’m so, so sorry. It’s like I told you, she’s unpredictable and I…”

“Yes, I know,” Hoffritz interrupted. “I heard the whole damn thing. Just get out of here, will you?”

Quinn froze.

“Go on, go!”

Her fearful expression turned to that of anger. “Hey, now wait a minute, buddy. I’m the one putting my ass on the line just so you can…”

“I said get out of here, Quinn.”

Fireworks darted from Quinn’s eyes. “You fire me and so help me God I’ll go to your wife and tell her everything, and I mean everything. I’ll expose you and your spoiled, conceited niece for every single evil deed you’ve ever committed!”

Hoffritz tried to hide the icy tendrils of fear that her words caused him to feel. Instead, he softened and said, “Hey look, babe, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gone off on you like that.”

“No, you shouldn’t have.”

“I know it’s not your fault that Miss Cohen came in when she did. Again, I’m sorry I let you have it like that.” He went to her and gathered her into his arms. She was stiff at first, but he felt her relax a moment later. “What do you say we get together after work?”

Quinn looked hesitant.

“Maybe it really is high time we discussed the possibility of me leaving Erin. She and I simply have no future together.”

Quinn’s eyes suddenly brightened as if a light bulb were behind them that had been snapped on. “Are you serious?”

He smiled and nodded.

A broad, white smile spread across Quinn’s face and she said, “Let’s meet at my place.”

“Actually, I had a better idea in mind.”

“What’s that?”

“How about we go to our favorite, secret little hideaway in the woods?”

Quinn nodded. “Ok, but what are you going to tell her?”

“Oh, don’t you worry your pretty little head about her. I’ll call and tell her I’m so swamped in paperwork that I’ll be a couple hours late. She’s used to it. Besides, if I’m going to be trading her in for you, she’s going to have to get used to my absence.”

“You got that right,” Quinn said grinning. “See you after work, hot hunk.” She kissed him on the lips and left his office.

The “secret hideaway” was actually a cabin in the woods in which his best buddy owned. His buddy, who was aware of his philandering ways, didn’t use it year-round. He spent most of the time up in Idaho and had told him he could use it anytime he wanted to. They had kept it a secret from his wife.

He waited nervously in the parking lot. Calm down, he told himself. You can’t afford to screw up now, and if she sees you sweating like a pig, she’s going to know something’s up. Yes, sometimes even a stupid idiot like Quinn could be rather perceptive.

He stared through the gloomy darkness at the door in which Quinn would emerge from any minute. Hopefully, no one else would come along, so others wouldn’t wonder why the good doctor was whisking one of his youngest and sexiest employees into his shiny gold Cadillac. That would spread around the clinic in no time.

The instant she finally did appear, he jumped out of his car and quickly strode towards her. “Come on,” he called to her.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” she said, quickening her pace and reaching to pull her car keys from her purse.

“No. With me.”

“With you?”

“Yeah, it’ll be quicker and easier if we went in one car. Afterward, I’ll drop you off back here. It’s on the way to your place anyway.”

“Ok.”

“Hurry up and hop in.”

“I’m hurrying.”

On the road, Hoffritz watched as Quinn began her tritely corny and immature flirting tactics. Sometimes she’d expose a long, lean leg, other times she’d place a hand either inside her shirt or down her pants. Did she really think she needed to do this in order to get some?

Trying to act like he was enjoying the show, he made sure to smile suggestively at her from time to time, but not often enough to lose concentration on the road ahead.

“So when are you going to break the news to her?” she suddenly asked him.

“Hmmm?”

“Erin. When are you going to tell her goodbye?”

“Oh. Soon. Real soon.”

“I think I may’ve heard that before, Jonas.”

“But you never heard me say that I’m going to have a heart to heart with her as soon as I get home.”

“And tell her what?”

“The obvious.”

“The obvious?”

He nodded. “I’ll tell her I met someone new that I love more than I’ve ever loved her and that I’m going to move out.”

“And in with me!” Quinn finished with glee. “That is until we can get a bigger, better place than my little studio apartment.”

Hoffritz looked over at the busty blond. What a naïve little idiot! He pressed down on the accelerator.

Chapter 16

Shania hung up the phone after talking with Mindy two days later. Her hand shook so bad she could barely get the phone back on its hook. The news Mindy had shared with her had stunned her so intensely. Wait till I tell Lauren! she thought to herself, though she may have already heard the news as well.

“Did you hear?” asked Larisa, who had come up to where she stood by the pay phones.

Shania nodded. “Quinn’s missing.”

“Serves the bitch right, if you ask me,” said Larisa. “Now if only Bruce could disappear right along with her.”

“I hear you on that one,” said Shania, and although it may’ve been easy to say it at times, she didn’t really wish any serious harm done to Quinn. She was just glad she wasn’t around. Even so, she couldn’t help but wonder about what may’ve happened to her. Was Hoffritz connected to her disappearance? Somehow she felt that he was. She also wondered if she should contact the police, though she wasn’t too sure that the police would take someone in a loony bin all that seriously.

“Maybe not, though they’d probably take a licensed therapist somewhat seriously,” Lauren later told her during one of their sessions, the only thing Shania now had to live for.

“But what would you tell them? That you suspect the doctor that runs the clinic you work at killed a co-worker? One he was probably dating?”

“Well, I don’t know if I’d word it quite like that, but first I’d tell them how you ended up here, then I’d go on to explain why I think he may have something to do with her disappearance. The worse they can do is ignore me and not check into it.”

“Which would leave me with the same problem I’ve had since day one – Hoffritz. What if he goes after me next?”

Lauren thought about this possibility a moment, not bothering to hide the concern she felt. “Just make sure you don’t let him know you suspect him of being involved in Quinn’s disappearance, ok?”

Shania nodded. “So her car’s still here, but she’s nowhere to be found?”

“The police took her car not too long ago. They’ll go through it to see if they can find any evidence as to what may’ve happened to her.”

“If her car was found here, then that must mean that she left with someone else, probably him.”

“Yeah, probably.”

“What do you suppose he did to her?”

Lauren shrugged. “Haven’t got a clue.”

Shania slowly began to shake her head, despair taking over her features. “We’re never going to bring that sick, deranged asshole down. Never.”

“Come on, Shania, remember what I said about positive thinking.”

“But it’s been just over a month now.”

“It’s hard, I know, but we mustn’t give up hope. I hate to say it, but Quinn’s murder, if that’s what really happened, may be your lucky break as far as you getting out of here.”

“But how? If you can’t convince the police, and if he gets away with whatever it is he’s done to her, I’m screwed. Totally screwed.”

“No, you’re not.”

“What if they never find her?”

Lauren shrugged. “Well, there are no guarantees. He may’ve covered his tracks really well, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never get out of here. He can’t keep you here forever and neither can anyone else. At least not as far as I know they can’t.”

At the end of their session, Shania asked for a hug, though not without timidity evident in her voice.

“Of course you can have a hug, honey,” Lauren said with a smile, rising along with Shania for a firm embrace.”

When they pulled back from one another, Shania smiled weakly, then turned to head back to her room which had become more or less a virtual prison cell to her. She gazed through the bars on the window and wondered two things. What had happened to Quinn, and what would happen to her? Was a similar fate awaiting her just around the corner? One where she would simply vanish without a trace, leaving others to speculate and suspect, but never to know for sure what happened to her?

Lauren sat down at the table in the breakroom with her hot chocolate and flipped open the fashion magazine that lay before her.

Cathy and Sue entered the room a moment later, speculating on Quinn’s disappearance.

“I swear that girl had something going on with Doctor Hoffritz. Even Victoria thinks so,” said Cathy.

Lauren’s head snapped upwards to face the two women.

“You know something we don’t?” asked Sue, noticing her reaction.

“I think so,” said Lauren.

“What do you think?” Sue prodded.

“That they were having an affair.”

Cathy and Sue exchanged glances.

“For real?” Cathy asked with surprise.

Lauren nodded. “And you didn’t hear it from me.”

“No, not at all,” Cathy went on. “Hey, listen. Do you think the McCarthy girl’s allegations about Quinn and the doctor conspiring against her could be true? Something about his niece losing a job promotion to her.”

“I think it could be true,” said Lauren, not wanting to let on all that she really believed.

The two women exchanged another round of glances.

“Damn,” said Sue. “All this over a lousy job?”

“I’m afraid some people are rather poor losers,” said Lauren.

“But what does this have to do with Quinn disappearing?” asked Cathy.

The women sat in silence a moment, then Sue said, “Maybe she was planning to give him away.”

Exactly, thought Lauren, for it had become rather obvious to her as soon as she learned of her disappearance, that Hoffritz had no doubt been aware of the fact that Quinn was unable to plant the bug successfully. In fact, he had probably heard every word they had said to each other that day when she caught her in her office in search of the best place to plant it.

She found it hard to believe that Hoffritz wouldn’t believe that she would suspect him of having something to do with Quinn’s disappearance and wondered if that meant he may try to do something to her out of paranoia. Or perhaps it was the other way around. Perhaps the smug bastard felt that he was invincible and that she could suspect him all she wanted to and even express her suspicions to the police, yet never could she bring him down. Some people were like that; they believed they were God, above the law, forever untouchable.

“Maybe we should think of going to the police,” said Cathy.

“But we have no proof,” countered Sue.

“I would think that suspicions would be enough to start with in cases where people go missing,” said Lauren.

“Are you going to go to them with what you know?” Sue asked.

Lauren shrugged. “I might. Just remember, though, we never had this conversation.”

“Nope, never had it,” Cathy assured her with a firm shake of her golden curls.

The ringing of the telephone nearly sent Hoffritz through the roof of his living room.

Damn it, get a hold of yourself! he silently chastised. Even his wife was beginning to sense that something was up.

His wife picked up the phone and announced that it was Maureen calling.

Great. Just what he needed.

Her brows furrowed with confusion as she covered the mouthpiece. “She wants to talk to you. She says it’s urgent.”

“I’ll take it in the study.”

“Why is she calling so much lately? Is something going on that I don’t know about?”

Hoffritz had to think fast. “She’s seeing someone with psychiatric problems. She’s just calling for advice is all.”

Erin rolled her eyes. “Good God. When’s that girl ever going to learn when it comes to men? Can’t she find someone sane and devoted for once? Someone who will want to have a family with her instead of just playing around and running once she ends up pregnant?”

Hoffritz rose from his recliner. “I’ll grab it in the study.”

Once he was in the study, he picked up the phone and told Erin to hang up the living room extension. When he heard the click of the receiver, he began to speak. “What’s up, Maureen?”

“Hi, Uncle Jonas. I’m sorry to bother you, but I just heard on the news that a lady who works at your clinic has gone missing. Is this true?”

“I suppose it is, though this person was said to be rather flighty, so she’ll probably turn up soon enough. She probably decided to run off somewhere on a whim, but she’ll return.”

“Oh, I see. Uncle Jonas, were you having an affair with this woman?”

Hoffritz inhaled a sharp breath of air. He hadn’t expected this. “That’s none of your – no, I wasn’t, Maureen!”

“What’s up with crazy Shania?”

“Nothing, but listen, Maureen, you can’t keep calling so much, ok? It’s starting to make aunt Erin wonder what the hell’s going on. Having that damn therapist know we spited the McCarthy girl into the clinic is bad enough.”

“What! She really does know?” asked Maureen, panic rising in her voice.

“Relax, will you?” he said, trying to keep his voice down. “She can’t prove anything, but still, she suspects, and that’s not a good thing.”

A thick silence penetrated the phone line. “What do we do now?” Maureen asked a moment later.

“I told you. We stop talking so much and just lay low. If anyone asks you anything, you don’t know a thing, ok?”

“Ok.”

“No matter what they may bribe or threaten you with, you know nothing.

“Ok,” Maureen said again, though not without worry present in her voice.

He exhaled a deep breath of air once they hung up, at which time his wife hung up as well.

Chapter 17

“You really should go to the police,” Courtney said, picking up a slice of anchovy pizza.

“I know I should,” Lauren replied, glancing around the crowded pizza parlor. “It’s just that if I go to the police, he’ll fire my ass for sure. Then how can I ever be of any help to Shania?”

Courtney shrugged. “I hate to say it, but maybe Shania can help herself. Or worse, maybe no one can help her. Maybe she’s just stuck there for however long they’re going to keep her in there, and there’s simply nothing anyone can do about it.”

Lauren shook her head. “No, I can’t accept that. I won’t accept it. There’s got to be a way out for her. There’s got to be.”

“But how?”

“I don’t know. I always figured we wouldn’t know it till it was right upon us. And I don’t know if it’s going to be because of something I do to break her out, or if she’s going to escape on her own.”

“Well, if you do break her out, you better run and keep on running, if you’re as sure of this girl as you say you are.”

Lauren nodded knowingly. “We’ll have to run for sure because I know our place is one of the first places they’ll check. I’m her therapist, after all.”

“I just hope she’s worth it. I mean, come on Lauren, you’d be throwing your career away and basically your whole damn life. What would you two do for money while on the run?”

“I’ve got a good amount saved up. Besides, it’s not like we’d have to run forever. This would be someone escaping from a psychiatric hospital, not a convicted murder escaping from a maximum security prison. The statute of limitations on the warrant would eventually expire.”

“That’s true, but won’t it take some time before it did and they quit looking for her?”

“According to the research I did, a warrant for her arrest would probably be out on her for a year since she was committed against her will.”

“But what about Hoffritz? If he really does have something to do with Quinn’s death, then what?” asked Courtney.

“Getting Shania out of there is more important than bringing Hoffritz down. He’ll bring his own self down in time, I’m sure.”

“You think so?”

Lauren nodded. “People like that usually do.”

“Where will you go if she does get out?”

“I don’t know yet, but hey, Courtney?”

“Yeah?”

“You know I trust you with my life, so would you be willing to be our one and only contact until enough time passes and I can return home with her?”

“Of course. Anything you say.”

“It’s very important that no matter how much people pressure you, like my folks for instance, that you never tell them or anyone else where we end up when we’re on the run.”

“My lips will be sealed.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” Lauren said with gratitude. “My parents would just die if they didn’t hear from me, or at least about me, during the time we’ll need to hide out. This way, you can fill me in on what’s going on with friends and family while you update them on Shania and I.”

Courtney nodded. “I’d just get packing if I were you, so you can be ready to go if she does bust out of there, and remember not to take your car.”

“I already have a small suitcase packed and ready to go with the bare essentials we’ll both need, so I can run home and grab it the instant she gets out. Then we’ll probably take off somewhere by bus.”

“Withdraw all your money, too,” Courtney suggested. “They could trace your whereabouts through withdrawals and whatever other transactions.”

“I know they could. That’s why I intend to deal solely in cash when the time comes.”

“If it comes. Remember Lauren, not everything in this world is possible no matter how hard we try or how positive we think.”

“Yes, I understand that,” Lauren said glumly. “I still think she’s got a damn good chance despite any odds that may be against her.”

“For her sake as well as yours, I hope you’re right.”

After having the last two days off, Lauren was barely fifteen minutes into her shift when she was summoned to Hoffritz’s office.

This ought to be good, she thought, wondering if he was going to boldly come out and deny having anything to do with Quinn’s disappearance, or even ask her if she planned to go to the police about it. Maybe threaten her into silence?

She stepped out of her office and locked the door behind her. She passed Cathy on her way up the long corridor.

“So the good doctor wants to see you, huh?”

Lauren nodded. “Exciting, isn’t it?”

“What do you suppose he wants?”

“Haven’t got a clue,” said Lauren. “Guess I better go find out.”

“Good luck,” Cathy said with a wink, then continued on her way.

Yeah, I’ll probably need it, too, Lauren thought. A lot of it.

She approached Hoffritz’s door and knocked.

“Come in,” he called.

She opened the door and stepped inside. “You wanted to see me?”

“Yes,” he said curtly as he scribbled something down on his desk. “Have a seat, please, Miss Cohen.”

Lauren sat and tried not to fidget with the discomfort she felt by being so close to someone she loathed as much as she had come to loathe this doctor, a man whom she once felt much respect for. Funny how things could change so drastically and so fast too, she mused as she waited for him to finish whatever it was he was writing. Lauren studied his profile and wondered if she were looking at a murderer.

When he finished writing, he put his gold pen in his shirt pocket, cleared his throat and turned to face Lauren. “Remember Steve Lamont over in the infirmary?”

Lauren, caught off guard, nodded. This wasn’t what she expected.

“He left that department, which means I’ll need someone to fill in over there.”

“But then who will work here?”

“Edith can cover both the juvies and the adults by herself.”

“Wow. That’s a lot of people to cover,” Lauren said, picturing the older therapist in her mind, who was perhaps in her late fifties.

Hoffritz studied Lauren. There was no mistaking the challenging glint in his eyes. “Any problems with me transferring you?”

“No, not at all,” Lauren said, putting on her best act, determined not to let Hoffritz see that she had a huge problem with it. On the other hand, should she really be all that surprised?

“Very well,” Hoffritz said with a forced smile. “You’ll start in that department immediately. The sick always needs all the chatter they can get to help cheer them up and into a speedy recovery.”

“Yes, they do, but can I first say goodbye to my patients here and let them know I’ll be transferring? It seems like it’d only be fair. That way, if they know what to expect they won’t be so caught off guard when Edith takes over.”

Hoffritz appeared to consider this, then nodded. “Ok, you can do that. Then I’d like you to head on over there as soon as you can. They’re expecting you.”

“Ok,” said Lauren as she rose from her seat, putting on her best of phony smiles. “I’ll get right to it.”

Lauren left the office before anything more could be said, and went to find Shania. She did a search of the lounge first since she was closest to it. When she saw that Shania wasn’t there, she headed for the courtyard next. She wasn’t present there either. Next, she headed to her room and found her brushing her long, lustrous locks. She was standing by the sink, looking into the mirror above it.

Shania turned to face her as soon as she entered the room. She knew something was wrong just by the expression on her face.

“My second worst fear has come true, I’m afraid,” Lauren began.

“What do you mean?” asked Shania, heartbeat suddenly jump-starting.

“My first fear was him firing me. My second was a transfer, and that’s just what I got a few minutes ago.”

Shania’s eyes widened. “No! You’re going to another clinic?”

“No, I’ll still be here. Just in the infirmary.”

Tears welled up in Shania’s eyes as the two stood gazing longingly into one another’s eyes.

“I’ll just have to get sick some time then,” said Shania.

Lauren nodded. “Just give it a week or so if you’re still here. Wouldn’t want to make it look too obvious.”

The two threw their arms around each other in a fierce embrace, not caring if anyone saw them, though no one did.

When they finally let go of each other, Shania could see tears evident in Lauren’s eyes as well, and she whispered, “I love you, Shania.”

“I love you, too,” Shania said back in a shaky voice before Lauren turned and left her alone to sob in bed. She was grateful that she still didn’t have a roommate so she could cry alone. Misery was something she never preferred to share if she could help it.

Lauren hadn’t been gone from his office more than five minutes when Maureen called. Hoffritz had to wait for his niece to stop crying hysterically before he could find out what was wrong. When she finally settled down, she told him she’d suffered a miscarriage.

“It’s all her fault, that bitch! That asshole, that…”

“Maureen, calm down. You can always get pregnant again sometime in the future, can’t you?”

“That sick bitch better hope so, because as far as I’m concerned, she’s the one who caused this with the stress she’s put on me. And on you too, uncle Jonas.”

When Hoffritz was able to hang up from Maureen, he decided that he’d had enough of Miss McCarthy and that it was time to take appropriate action. Since they hadn’t yet questioned him regarding Quinn, they weren’t likely to question him about her either. He rose from his chair just as the quaking began.

He watched objects dance around on his desk and books jump off of his shelves, assuming it’d settle down in a few seconds and that all would go on peacefully.

But he assumed wrong, for he would never get the chance to deal with Miss McCarthy one last time any more than his wife would get the chance to tell him that she planned to leave him as she was going to do that night.

Shania wasn’t all that alarmed when the tremors first began, but it wasn’t long afterward that her sorrow quickly turned to that of sheer terror as the tremors began to gain more force. In the past, she’d experienced nothing more than a slight tremor, as if the earth were suddenly stricken with a chill that vibrated through it. However, this was no slight tremor. This was turning into an actual earthquake.

She rose from the bed, arms stretched out to her sides for balance and headed towards the doorway. This was when the screams began, along with the sound of things falling.

She stepped into the doorway of her room, having been taught that doorways were reinforced, making them stronger. She glanced into the corridor and looked to the right just as the ceiling crumbled about twenty feet away. Sparks were flying everywhere as the lights blinked out.

It took only seconds for the emergency lights to come on, though it seemed like an eternity.

Heart pounding like a jackhammer, she turned left. Nothing had caved in down in that direction as of yet.

She ran towards the door, hoping the quaking had jarred it open. She’d gotten about sixty feet down the corridor when she turned to look behind her. More of the ceiling had collapsed and the tumbling debris was creeping closer and closer to her. Now it seemed the entire building itself was screaming in pain as the earth tore it to pieces.

Shania’s fear was intense, though it didn’t keep her from propelling herself forward towards the door.

She rounded the corner to find Sue and Larisa exiting the ward and shouted, “Hey, wait for me!”

Sue turned to face her. “Hurry up!” she shrieked.

Shania ran, fighting to keep her balance, and shot through the door behind Sue and Larisa.

“I can’t believe this is happening!” Larisa yelled above the echoing chaos.

“You and me both,” Shania agreed.

The trio headed down the stairs as fast as they could without falling.

Sue was the first to reach the ground-level door. She pushed on it frantically. “It won’t open!” she cried.

By now Shania’s heart was beating thunderously. Larisa looked as if she were about to faint.

“Go back up!” Sue shouted. “I can’t get the damn door open.”

The three ran back up, past the ward.

“What’s up here?” Shania asked.

“Geriatrics,” Sue answered.

“Aren’t there elevators around here?” Larisa asked.

“Yeah, there’s one leading up to the geriatrics ward, but we can’t get to it from here,” Sue told her.

Shania reached the door first and tugged at it. “It won’t open.”

“Well, of course it’s not going to be unlocked,” said Sue, pulling a ring of keys from her pocket. She went to insert a key into the lock, but before she got the chance to open the door, the building was rocked with a tremendous force, leaving Shania to wonder if she’d live to ever see Lauren again as all went blissfully black.

When the quaking started, all Lauren could think about was Shania. Fortunate enough to be near an exit, she ran out the door with other staff members.

“Boy, you sure were transferred just in time, Lauren,” said Nurse Sarah, who had worked in the infirmary for many years.

“Yeah, just in time,” Lauren muttered as she watched the building shake itself apart in shocked astonishment from outside on the beautifully manicured grounds.

A tremor nearly knocked her off her feet as she headed towards the center of a nearby field, along with the others, to lessen the chances of being hit by falling debris.

Lauren stood quivering as she stared at the clinic. Although not all of the building had collapsed, she couldn’t believe that Shania could possibly have survived the disaster. Especially since the adult ward appeared to have crumbled to pieces from what she could see.

She tore her eyes away from the hospital and surveyed her surroundings. Most buildings in the area had some damage done to them by the quake’s fury. Traffic was at a standstill in the street with people too afraid to attempt to drive over the trembling earth.

At the coming of dusk, Lauren learned that approximately two-hundred of the estimated five-hundred people in the clinic had been killed and another hundred or so injured. Although the death toll was a high number in itself, it also gave her hope that Shania was amongst the survivors.

This news sparked another hope as well. Perhaps… just perhaps… the good doctor himself was amongst the casualties. She never thought she’d hope for a person to die, but in light of the circumstances, it may not be such a bad thing if this one, in particular, had done just that.

Chapter 18

When Shania’s eyelids fluttered open, confusion flooded her mind.

Where was she? Locked in isolation? Had she been set up again by Quinn?

Then she remembered. Quinn was missing. Not only did that come back to her, but so did the earthquake, the failed attempt to exit the building, and then… nothing.

Lauren!

She took in her surroundings and found that she was in a bed which was partially curtained off. There was no way to tell how big the room was.

“Well, well, look who’s waking up,” said an unfamiliar voice.

She struggled to focus her eyes and clear her head.

A freckly-faced redhead came into view. “Hi, I’m Angie,” she said with a smile. “How are you feeling?”

“Thirsty,” Shania said, aware of her parched throat. Her tongue felt like a slab of sandpaper.

“Ok. We’ll take care of that with some nice cold water.” Angie poured water in a cup from a carafe on a wheeling tray that was beside the bed.

After she sipped some water, she asked about Lauren.

“Lauren Cohen, the therapist?”

She nodded. “Is she alive?”

“Oh, yes, she’s alive.”

Relief flooded through Shania faster than the speed of light.

“She your therapist?” Angie asked.

Shania nodded.

“Oh, well then I’m sure she’ll be around to see you as soon as she can. Meanwhile, we’ve got to get you on the mend.”

Shania tried to move, but a sharp pain in her right arm stilled her.

“You’ve got a broken arm,” Angie explained as Shania eyed the IV in one arm and the cast on the other. “Just be glad things didn’t turn out worse which they certainly could have done. It was a clean break that’s highly mendable and it’s within the ulna. That’s the outer, longer and skinnier bone in your lower arm. It’s a good thing you didn’t break the humerus bone in your upper arm. You’ll be in the infirmary for about a week, then you can return to your room. If the part of the hospital where your room is has been demolished in the earthquake in any way, they’ll relocate you elsewhere. You’ll still be in a cast, but not for long. Could’ve sent you back to your room a lot sooner if you hadn’t cut any blood vessels like you did. Doc Avery wants to make sure you don’t go getting any clots, so you’re going to be here more under observation than anything to do with the break itself.”

The nurse’s bantering was beginning to make Shania’s head swim. “How-how long have I been out of it?” she struggled to ask in a raspy voice.

“A few days now. The good thing about it was that you were too out of it to know it when they set that break of yours.”

“Is this the clinic’s infirmary?”

Angie nodded.

“Do I have a roommate?”

“Yes, but she’s in a coma and probably will be for another week or two. Meanwhile,” she said, throwing open the right side of the curtain, “you’ve got the bed by the window and it’s a beautiful day out there today. See?”

Shania nodded, though she had to squint until her eyes adjusted to the light. “How many people from the adult ward made it through ok?”

“Can’t say for sure, hon,” answered Angie. “This is the only department I work in, so I couldn’t say what’s up with who on each of the wards. I only know you’re very lucky to be alive.”

Am I? Shania wondered as she drifted back to sleep to a land of dark comfort.

When she came to a while later, an African-American nurse was taking her vitals and checking the IV tube that ran into her arm.

“Hi there. I’m Sarah,” said the nurse once she saw that Shania was awake, white smile contrasting against dark skin. “Feeling alright?”

Shania tried to move again. “My arm hurts and I’m so groggy. I feel like I’ll never be fully awake again in my life.”

The nurse chuckled. “Sure you will. It’ll just take some time, is all. What can I get you? A glass of water perhaps?”

Shania nodded. “Yes, please.”

She was given a drink and some codeine to help with the pain. Later on, she again inquired about Lauren.

“We’re really busy here in the infirmary what with the recent tragedy,” Sarah told her. “She’s no doubt very busy seeing folks that are laid up here and I’m sure she’ll work her way around to you soon enough.”

It wasn’t until the following evening that Lauren was able to see her. “Hey, hon,” she said with concern evident in her eyes. There was also joy evident in her expression at seeing her alive.

Shania clutched at Lauren’s hand who squeezed it reassuringly in return. “I was so scared and so worried about you until I was told you made it.”

“Me too,” said Lauren. “How did you manage to get out? What exactly happened?”

“I was in my room when the tremors began. Sue, Larisa and I ran down the stairs, but the door was jammed. Then we ran up to Geriatrics and that’s when I got hit with something that knocked me out. What about you?”

“Fortunately for me, I was right by a door, so I was able to dash outside before I could get hurt or worse.”

Shania smiled, overjoyed to see that Lauren was unharmed.

Lauren smiled back and said, “It’s ok, sweetie. Everything’s going to be ok from here on out. You’ll see.”

“Did he make it?”

Lauren shook her head.

Shania took a moment to digest the news, then said, “Gosh, I never thought I’d be so glad to hear of someone’s death.”

“But under the circumstances, one can surely understand how you feel.” Lauren’s expression turned solemn. “The bad news is that most of the people on the adult ward were killed, and they were mostly good people.”

“That’s too bad. What about Cathy, Sue and Larisa?”

Lauren shook her head dubiously.

Tears began to well up in Shania’s eyes. Especially when she thought of Larisa. Lauren put a comforting hand on her arm. “So how do you feel?” she asked, obviously trying to take her mind off of the deaths of those that didn’t deserve to die.

“I hurt like hell at times and I get these pounding headaches, but they keep me well-supplied with codeine and that seems to help somewhat.”

“You’ll be as good as new before you know it,” Lauren said encouragingly. “You’re a little toughie.”

“And then what?”

“Well,” Lauren began, looking towards the doorway to make sure no one was hanging just outside in the corridor, “there’s no saying how long you could be here with Hoffritz gone. His death could mean they’ll either let you go real soon, or it could mean you’ll be here for about a year.”

“Great,” Shania said with a sigh, “just great.”

“Now, now, don’t go getting all down.” She leaned closer to Shania and softly said in her ear. “You’re on the ground floor not too far from an exit that’s only locked from the outside. Just hang in there for now by concentrating on getting your arm better.”

“But they’re going to ship me out of here before I’m out of the cast and able to walk, let alone go running through any doors.”

“Shhh,” Lauren said, putting a finger to her lips. “I’ll be the one to get you out of here. You’re just going to have to trust me. It’s all a matter of timing. Right now I want you here until the bulk of the pain lets up and your injuries aren’t so critical. Besides, if I were to even think of attempting to bust you out of here tonight, we’d never make it. This place is swarming with too much activity. Today’s Monday, but by the end of the week, we shouldn’t be buzzing with so many patients. Most will be discharged from this area by then and those with injuries like yours will at least be as placated as possible. For now, just stay cool, do as they tell you, and keep your lips sealed, ok?”

Shania nodded. “But how do we know they won’t come looking for us?”

“I’m almost sure they will, so that’s why I have a plan in mind.”

“A plan?”

Lauren nodded. “Courtney will help us. We had a long, long talk last night. Meanwhile, the less you know, the better. Now take care until I can get back to see you again. I can’t spend much more time with you than the others, as much as I wish I could, or else it’ll raise red flags and we certainly don’t want that. We’ve come much too far for any dumb moves.”

“Gotcha,” Shania said, trying to muster up a hopeful smile.

Glancing towards the door one last time, Lauren gave her a quick peck on the cheek and was gone.

Shania laid back against the pillow. She was exhausted. Did broken bones really sap the energy out of you like this? She closed her eyes and let her mind wander freely. It was hard to believe that after nearly two months in captivity, she may soon be free. With that, she let the week drag on in slow motion as it did. Although she was taken off the IV after a few days, the doctor assured her that her arm would be fully functional in six weeks, though it would be weak and require additional weeks of physical therapy to regain its strength.

Mindy came to visit and brought her books to help pass the time, and Lauren came to see her once or twice in the evenings. They spoke mainly of trivial things that they both enjoyed, each not wanting to discuss Hoffritz or the events surrounding his death. He was someone they wanted to put out of their minds forever.

However, there was someone else that didn’t. Someone that had him weighing on her mind quite heavily.


She was slowly floating upwards, ready to break through the surface between sleep and wakefulness when she heard shuffling sounds within the room.

Her eyes snapped open, alert. Though she could not see through the drawn curtain, she first assumed that the comatose patient next to her was waking up.

She heard more stirring sounds as well as the sound of footsteps. Then the dividing curtain began to rustle.

Anxiety began to press down on Shania. There was something creepy about it. “Who’s there,” she asked.

The curtain continued to rustle. The person seemed to be looking for the area in which the curtain parted, and Shania could now see the feet of a woman. They were about her size, maybe slightly bigger. Whoever it was wore black pumps.

At last, the curtain parted and the woman came into view. She had long black curly hair and was clad in a maroon turtleneck and a black wool skirt.

Who in the world was she? Some kind of fancy nurse’s aide? An overdressed candy striper?

Once the woman was inside the area her bed was in, she shut the parted curtains behind her and then turned to face her. “Hello, Shania. Fancy meeting you here.”

Shania froze, now chilled to the bone. She knew that menacing voice. Knew it really well.

Anger began to dispel her shock and fear as she studied the familiar, snobbish features. “The disguise won’t work, Maureen. I know damn well it’s you.”

“You better know it’s me, bitch!” she hissed. “You’re going to pay for what you’ve done and that’s a personal promise from me to you. One that will never be broken.”

“All I’ve done was get a promotion which you yourself just had to have, and I’ve already paid for it, you sicko, now get your twisted ass out of here!” Shania screamed, hoping a nurse would come running to her rescue.

“No, that’s not all you’ve done. You killed my baby and my uncle!” Maureen screamed back, voice now trembling with emotion. A lock of red hair was visible at her left temple, peeking out from under the black wig she wore.

Shania stared at her incredulously. “You’re insane! Get out of here!” she finally managed to shout.

“Because of you and the stress you put on me by making me always worry if you’re going to break out and kill me, I lost my child. Because of you, my uncle had to work late the day the earthquake struck to help ensure you a year’s stay in this place.”

Shania struggled to pull herself upwards.

“You see, you now have a guaranteed ten more months to go in this joint and that’s at the very least. More time will be added on if I can help it, and then when you finally do get back out there, your ass is mine. Mine, Shania, mine!”

“Get your sick, delusional mind out of here now or I will kill you first chance I get!”

“Next time we meet, you’re dead!” Maureen spat, spinning on her heel to leave the room.

Shaking violently from her encounter with someone Shania could now see was just as crazy as she was mean, she summoned a nurse by using the pull-string near her bed. When Angie appeared a moment later, she told her of her visit from the highly unstable woman. As it would turn out, however, Maureen had been very sneaky in putting in her appearance, for no one else had seen her come or go.

When she told Lauren about the incident later on, she was clearly upset by it, appearing to be both angry and worried.

“Do you think she’ll come back with me lying here all defenseless and actually do something to me?” Shania asked, still shook up four hours later.

“No, honey, she won’t. Everyone knows to watch for her now. Also, if you remember to pull the string the instant you see her if the nut does have the guts and the stupidity to return, someone will be here in plenty of time to stop her from doing you any harm, ok?”

Although reluctantly, Shania nodded.

“Don’t let that crazy loon worry you,” Lauren said, soothing her hair back from her face which Shania found comforting.

“I wish you could stay here with me.”

“Me too, sweetie, but we’ll be together soon enough.”

Chapter 19

The next day, four days after the earthquake, Shania was up and about a few times. She was pushed around in a wheelchair at first, and later when she stood up on her feet for the first time since the quake, she was surprised at just how sore and weak she felt when a nurse took her for a short walk down the corridor after breakfast. She was walked again after lunch and found she was able to go a little longer, and longer still, after dinner.

After eating dinner, she assured Nurse Angie that she was able to walk around unassisted. Nurse Angie was reluctant at first, though she finally relented as long as Shania would agree to stay close to the wall and not go very far.

“I promise, Angie. I’ll only go to the lounge and back, and only once,” Shania told her. “I just can’t stand to keep laying in this bed hour after hour, and as the doctor said, I have to start somewhere as far as getting my strength back.”

“Ok, ok, you’ve convinced me. Just take it slow and easy and give a yell if you need help.”

“I will,” Shania said, slowly pulling herself upright and out of bed. She steadied herself by leaning against the edge of the bed. When she was sure she would not be hit with a dizzy spell, she walked past her comatose roommate, who lay there with all kinds of tubes and monitors stemming from her.

She stepped into the corridor and glanced both ways. Towards the right, a nurse was heading away from her as she pushed a patient in a wheelchair down to their room. Towards her left, a man in a business suit was speaking with another nurse at the nurses’ station.

She headed towards the station, hoping to spot Lauren and surprise her with being somewhat functional, despite her slow pace and the cast her arm was in.

The man that was talking to the nurse had red hair. She couldn’t see his face at first because his back was towards her.

Shania took a few steps closer.

The unfamiliar and very young brunette nurse laughed heartily at something the man said.

Shania strained to hear the man’s voice.

The nurse laughed again.

She was now standing just a few yards behind the man, whose voice was growing more and more familiar by the minute.

The station was on the opposite side of the corridor from which she’d been walking along, using the wall for support. She shakily crossed the corridor to get a better look at the man. Once she could see his profile, her heart began to beat faster. Still, she needed a closer look at the man’s face to be sure she was really seeing what she was seeing, to be sure she wasn’t dreaming or that her imagination hadn’t run wild. After all, she’d been hit on the head and knocked unconscious, so couldn’t that mean that her mind may very well be playing tricks on her?

The man glanced briefly at Shania once she was no more than ten feet away from him. Although he didn’t appear to recognize her, she certainly recognized him!

She turned around as quickly as she could without stumbling and ambled back towards her room. Her breathing was labored and her heart beat fiercely inside her rib cage. Waves of dizziness and nausea came over her, though she was determined to fight it.

Calm down, she told herself, leaning against the wall just inside the doorway. You’re seeing things, only seeing things. Dead men don’t return to life. Hoffritz is dead and Lauren’s not the only one who says so. The dead stay dead. They don’t come back to work, they don’t…

No, I know what I saw! she screamed inside her mind.

Her eyes scanned the room. Did she really want to be all alone in a room with nothing but a comatose patient for defense? Feeling vulnerable, she turned to leave the room. She’d rather face Hoffritz, dead or alive, where others were around to protect her, than face dealing with him alone while she was still weak and feeble.

The instant she stepped into the doorway, however, someone appeared before her, almost toppling her over. She gave a yelp of surprise and fear.

“Whoa, it’s just me, sweetie,” Lauren said.

“Oh, oh, thank God!” stuttered Shania, trying to regain control of herself.

“Sorry I scared you like that. You alright?”

Shania shook her head, struggling to slow her breathing.

It was then that Lauren realized that she wasn’t the only one to spook Shania. “What’s wrong?”

“He-he’s alive!” she stammered.

“Shhh, calm down. Who’s alive? Come on, let’s get you back into bed.” She guided her back to her bed.

“Hoffritz. I saw him just now talking to a nurse at the station.”

“No, sweetie, that’s not him. It was his twin brother you saw, though I can’t deny the spitting image is rather spooky.”

Shania gazed at Lauren incredulously. “Twin brother?”

Lauren nodded. “You didn’t know about him?”

“No.”

“If I’d have known you didn’t know, I’d have made sure to tell you to keep you from freaking out like this. Now just relax.” Lauren glanced quickly towards the door, then back at her. Then she whispered, “Tonight’s the night.”

“Huh?”

“It’s time,” Lauren whispered. “Just do everything I tell you when I tell you to. Got it?”

Shania nodded, smiling, mood quickly changing to that of a hopeful one, though the thought of escaping made her nerves twang at the same time.

“I know you can’t run fast, so at some point, I’m going to grab you and make for the door with you.”

“When?”

“When the coast is clear. The best exit is at the end of the west wing, so I’ll just have to use my best judgment as to the best timing. They do their rounds at the top of every hour. During the rest of the time, we just have to hope there’s no more activity than usual in that area. It’s basically going to be hit or miss, but if we storm on out of here at around a quarter after, it’s more likely to be a hit.”

“At a quarter after what hour?”

“Well, I don’t want to wait till it gets too close to the end of my shift and lose our chance. I’m off the next two days and by the time I get back, you could very well be out of here and over at Elmwood.”

“Elmwood?”

Lauren nodded. “It’s another psych hospital. They’re making accommodations there for those put out by the earthquake.”

“How kind of them,” Shania said sarcastically.

“Yes, and you’d be quite likely to end up over there because most of the adult ward was destroyed. That means we have to go tonight, or else God only knows how long it’ll be before you could get a chance to break out over there. They’re pretty tight over there as far as security goes. More so than they are here. Anyway, I wanted to make a run for it last night, but things were so busy around here, so we’ve got to go tonight.”

“Ok,” said Shania, eyes twinkling with hope and with love for this woman who had come to care about her so much that she’d put her own self out just to save her.

Lauren smiled lovingly at Shania, then said, “See you later, honey.”

“See you,” She closed her eyes and settled back against her pillow to wait for the moment of escape. God, if you can hear me, she thought to herself, and if you care about me at all, please, please let us get out of here tonight!

She opened her eyes. It was coming up on 9:00. Every minute that ticked by seemed to equal a dozen. She braced herself once it got close to a quarter after, and almost felt like crying when Lauren didn’t come for her.

She snatched up the paperback she was reading that stood beside the bed. Despite her efforts to lose herself in the story, she was unable to concentrate. Perhaps that was a good thing, though, since it would probably be best if she remained alert and ready for when the time came to make the escape.

During her break, Lauren was puzzled as to why her pocketbook was not in her locker in the lounge until she remembered that she hadn’t brought it in that night. The less she had to carry out of this place in the end, the better.

“Oh, no. Not again!” Lauren heard one of the nurses moan shortly afterward. Setting her cup of coffee down on the table, she headed towards the doorway of the lounge and peered out into the hall. Several nurses, along with one of the doctors, was heading towards the west wing.

“It’s the Everly woman again, isn’t it?” asked a nurse.

“Yes, she keeps pulling out her IV,” another nurse replied.

“Some of these nutcases are hopeless,” someone else said.

Great, thought Lauren. This is just what we need tonight. She sighed and followed the others towards the middle left side of the west wing.

“Miss Everly,” she heard the doctor saying, “you cannot continue to carry on like this.”

At first, Lauren was unable to see past the nurses, but they soon moved, exposing a trembling girl who sat in bed with her arms wrapped tightly around her knees, slowly rocking back and forth. Her dirty blond hair was disheveled and her hazel eyes were somewhere far, far away.

Just as the doctor went to place her stethoscope on the woman’s chest, her eyes suddenly snapped into focus and settled upon Lauren. “You!” she screamed, pointing directly at her. “You! I know what evil you have in mind! You’re the devil! Nothing but the devil!”

Lauren was used to this kind of behavior. Tonight, however, in light of what she hoped to accomplish, it chilled her to the bone. She tried not to let it show as the doctor and nurses worked to calm the anorexic and schizophrenic woman down and to secure her arms to the guardrails of her bed so that she wouldn’t be able to pull out the IV that fed her.

Lauren turned, hoping they’d get the woman settled soon enough in a manner that wouldn’t call for them needing to place a nurse in the room all night.

Shania looked at the clock. Twenty after 10:00. She felt her body sag as if it had been full of air and then suddenly deflated. In less than an hour, Lauren’s shift would end. If she couldn’t break out of the infirmary tonight, there was no saying how many months she could be trapped in Elmwood, away from Lauren, with Hoffritz still haunting her even from the grave. She wondered how much Hoffritz’s brother knew of the situation and what power he may have over her. Could he and Maureen both make life just as miserable for her as Hoffritz himself had? Could they influence her stay at either psych ward? Probably so, she realized dubiously. With Hoffritz gone, some other family member would likely take over the clinic. If there were no other shrinks in the family, certainly they’d hire one, though they’d still be the head honcho. This no doubt meant that no matter what stories Maureen decided to make up about her to try to keep her locked up as long as the law would allow, she would be believed, even without proof.

At five of 11:00, Shania tried to fight the sinking feeling that was settling at the pit of her stomach as she stared out into the corridor from where she lay. With the curtain pushed back against the wall, she had a clear view of it.

A sudden blur of movement caught her eye. Lauren had glanced in on her for a second, then disappeared from view!

Her heart took off on a run.

A half a minute later, she appeared again. She entered the room and came over to her. “Let’s take a little walk and get you some exercise before bedtime,” she said with a wink.

Shania hurriedly got out of bed and stepped into her hospital slippers.

“Don’t forget your robe,” Lauren said, snatching it up off the back of a nearby chair and handing it to Shania. Although she had to drape it over the shoulder of the broken arm, it helped keep her warmer.

With Shania clad in a standard-issue hospital gown and the robe, the two slowly made their way out into the corridor. Lauren guided her towards the west wing. They approached the nurses’ station when Sarah looked up at them. “What are you doing up so late, Shania?” she asked.

“I-I’ve been a little depressed and I needed to talk to Lauren before she went home,” Shania said, hoping she sounded believable.

“We’ll only be a few minutes. Just down the length of the west wing and back,” Lauren added.

“Ok,” Sarah said with a nod, then returned her concentration to whatever papers were before her, blocked from view by the long, narrow countertop.

The two carried on, heading further down the hall.

“I can understand your depression,” Lauren said for show as they passed an orderly who gave them a quick nod along the way. “Shit,” she softly muttered a moment later as they entered the west wing.

“What?” asked Shania in a whisper just as she spotted a nurse sitting midway down the hall.

“It’s good to see you’re getting your exercise,” said Lauren, loud enough for the nurse to hear.

The nurse looked up from the book she was reading. It was an older nurse that Shania didn’t see much of. Especially since she worked third shift.

“Yes, it’s been hard, though,” Shania played along. “I’m so homesick, you know?”

“I can understand that,” said Lauren, hand grazing the keys that were clipped to her belt loop.

They were almost upon the nurse, who was eyeing them with curiosity.

“I miss Mindy and having a normal life,” Shania went on. “And of course, the earthquake was terrifying and it’s no fun being laid up with a broken arm.”

“What are you two doing out and about this late?” asked the nurse now that they were just a few feet away. “Didn’t your shift end a few minutes ago?”

“Yes, but Shania here is having a very hard time tonight. We’re just going to take a walk down to the end of the wing and back before I take off for the night.”

The nurse studied them with steely gray eyes that matched her head of tightly curled hair. Shania could see that this was a mean, controlling kind of woman. She hoped the woman had no children. “Well, alright,” she said in a grudging sort of way.

Shania and Lauren continued on. Shania’s heart now pounded so hard that she was afraid she was visibly trembling. Once they passed the nurse, Shania dared a glance behind her. The nurse was still eyeing them curiously. Nonetheless, they traveled on, slowly, not wanting to arouse suspicion until they absolutely had to. Shania knew, however, that even if the nurse returned to her book, she’d hear them exiting the building and probably see them too, from the corner of her eye.

Her heart beat faster with each step that brought them closer to the door. When they reached it, Lauren whispered, “Step out as soon as I push it open.”

She did, and then Lauren followed and scooped her up into her arms just as the door closed behind them. With Shania clinging tightly to Lauren, Lauren ran as fast as she could.

Chapter 20

Shania was surprised at just how strong Lauren was for her size. She effortlessly ran across the lawn towards the parking lot with her as if she were as light as a feather.

Shania could see a dark van which stood parked to the side of the lot with its sliding door wide open.

Shouts could now be heard behind them. Footsteps other than Lauren’s pounded on the ground.

When they reached the van, Lauren practically threw her into it, then hurled herself inside as well. She slid the door shut just as the van lurched forth.

“You guys ok?” asked the driver.

“Fine, Courtney. Remember where to go?” asked Lauren.

“Sure do.”

“Ashford Avenue would be a good place to pull over,” Lauren added.

“Yes, I think it would be.”

“Ashford Avenue?” Shania questioned. “That’s not too far from here.”

“I know, but Courtney will need to screw the light bulb back in place that lights up the license plate as soon as possible so we don’t get pulled over. We just didn’t want anyone to be able to see it as we were pulling away. Damn! If only that nurse hadn’t been in the corridor. We could’ve had at least a five-minute head start before they were on to us, and maybe then they wouldn’t have tied me in with you, but oh well. I can’t say you’re not worth it.”

With both guilt and gratefulness, Shania threw her arms around Lauren, who eagerly returned the embrace. Her heart was still pounding when Courtney pulled the van over and jumped out to replace the light bulb.

“Think we made it?” Shania asked.

“I hope so.”

“Now what?”

“Now we get out of here.”

“And go where?”

“Up to Oregon.”

“Oregon? Why Oregon?”

“There’s a woman just past the California border in a small town called Klamath Falls who’s going to help us. She’s part of an underground organization that helps abused women escape their husbands.”

“But we’re not abused women running from abusive husbands. We’d fight back if we were, don’t you think?”

“Fighting back isn’t always so easy, Shania. Could you just fight back against Hoffritz and his niece?”

“I see your point.”

Courtney got back in the driver’s seat and the van moved on.

“Anyway, we certainly can’t tell them you’re an escaped mental patient and that I, as your therapist, helped you break out. Instead, I’m escaping my abusive husband John, and you’re my cousin who was living with us. Got it?”

“Yes, but what about our pictures? Aren’t they going to be seen on TV and in the papers?” Shania asked.

“Probably. That’s why we’re going to change our looks a bit. You got the wig and dye?” Lauren asked Courtney.

“Sure do. Got the bus tickets too, and the money from your account, as well as cash your folks wanted you to have.”

“Oh, thanks, Courtney. You’re a real lifesaver. Don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“Just don’t get caught,” she replied.

“We’ll certainly do our best not to.”

“You two ought to be alright for the next year in a small town rather than a big city. The fewer people, the better.”

“But if it’s such a small town where everyone knows everyone else, wouldn’t they be curious as to any newcomers that they may see as outsiders?” Shania asked.

“Nah, I don’t think so,” Courtney answered. “We studied the towns and cities real well before settling on Klamath Falls, and it looks like it’s big enough to blend into but small enough to avoid tons and tons of people. Cities like San Diego and Los Angeles are simply too crowded, and that saying about getting lost in the crowd doesn’t always hold up so well.”

Once they pulled up at the bus station, they studied their surroundings. “Don’t see a bunch of cop cars,” Courtney said.

“But what if there are tons of undercover cars?” Shania asked.

“I doubt there is,” Lauren told her. “Besides, you escaped a funny farm, not a prison.”

“And you’re in California, not Texas or Arizona,” Courtney added.

Lauren chuckled. “Yeah, they’ll hunt you down for decades for not paying a measly speeding ticket in those states.” She then turned to face Courtney in front.

Under the bright lights and with Courtney now turned facing them, Shania could see that she was plain yet pleasant looking with long dark blond hair and hazel eyes.

Lauren leaned over and hugged her friend. “Goodbye, buddy. We’ll keep in touch using the mail at first and then various pay phones.”

“Ok,” Courtney said with a sigh. “It’s going to be a long year. I’ll miss you, pal.”

“Me too,” said Lauren.

“It was nice meeting you, Courtney, and thanks for helping us out,” Shania told her.

“You, too. Take care of each other now.”

Lauren hopped out of the van and picked up two suitcases that had been placed between the front and back benches.

“Can you manage on your own?” Courtney asked.

“I think so,” Lauren said. To Shania, she asked, “Think you can handle slinging the carryall over your shoulder?”

“Sure.” Shania placed it over the shoulder of her good arm.

They watched Courtney drive away and turned to head into the terminal.

“Instead of one long trip, we’re going to make a few smaller ones,” Lauren said.

They hurried to the desk and were told that the next bus headed for San Bernardino was to depart in ten minutes. Not wanting to stand around and wait where there were more people milling about, Lauren guided Shania into the ladies’ room. “This way there won’t be so many people around,” she explained.

Fortunately, they found the ladies’ room empty.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, I suppose,” said Shania.

“Not quite. If we can make it through to tomorrow and get out of San Bernardino without incident, we should be home free as long as we use common sense from there on out. In this place, we really have to be careful because this is one of the first places the authorities may check. It depends on if they decide to actively peruse us or just hope to nab us if we happen to have any contact with the police before the warrants expire.”

“Better not have any contact with the police then,” Shania said.

Lauren pulled a long, dark-haired wig out of the carryall bag Shania still had slung over her shoulder. As she placed it on her head she said, “My hair’s so dark that I really can’t darken it anymore, and I’d look ridiculous as a blond or a redhead. I can’t magically grow it out overnight either, so I thought this would be my best bet.”

Shania laughed as she studied Lauren with her new waist-length hair. “What am I going to do?”

“You, my sweet princess,” Lauren said, playfully patting the tip of her nose, “are going to become a little blondie once we get to the motel.”

“Should I cut my hair, too?”

“Oh, no. I’d hate to see you cut off all that beautiful hair. Must’ve taken years to grow it that long, didn’t it?”

Shania nodded. “Yes, but I’m willing to cut it if you think it’ll better our chances of escaping detection. It’s only hair. It’ll grow back.”

“No, I don’t think it’s necessary unless you’re sure you want to. The dye job alone should do the trick. I’ve got two boxes to make sure we cover it all.”

“But what about my arm?”

“The woman will provide us with a doctor who can take care of it. One that’s part of the underground organization.” Lauren inspected herself in the mirror. She then turned to face Shania and said, “Ok, it’s about time now. Try not to look nervous when we go out there to board the bus. Just act natural, ok?”

Shania nodded, the two kissed, then headed for the bus.

“We’re only going a little ways tonight,” said Lauren. “Just up to San Bernardino.”

“How far is that from San Diego?” asked Shania. “About a hundred miles?”

“Ninety-seven to be exact. I researched it on the web. Let’s just get on the bus and then I’ll go over the travel plans with you.”

“Ok.”

They boarded the bus without incident. Due to the late hour, hardly anyone else was traveling. They took seats in the back and Lauren filled Shania in on the route she had mapped out with Courtney’s help, as well as the reluctant help of her parents.

“Your folks must be pretty upset with you,” Shania said with a sigh.

“Yeah, but it’s ok. They’ll come around in time. So as I was saying, tomorrow we’ll travel to Sacramento, then the next day we should arrive in Klamath Falls. These will be all-day trips, so be prepared to be riding for many hours.”

“It’s better than riding in wheelchairs at Lakeview Funny Farm.”

Lauren chuckled as did Shania.

They didn’t talk much during the ride up to San Bernardino. Perhaps this was because they were so exhausted both physically and mentally. By now they’d normally be fast asleep. The bus hummed on as they tried to relax, each lost in her own thoughts as to the events at hand.

Although Shania didn’t feel alone since she had Lauren, she missed her family more than ever and wished they were alive at the moment to give her their input. Her mother had been a judge in the San Diego circuit court and her father had been a bailiff. Perhaps there was something they could’ve done to help her if they were still alive, so that she wouldn’t have to run like this and so that Lauren could still have a secure job, even if it was amongst a bunch of corrupt misfits. Now, however, Lauren would never be able to get another job in the mental health field.

Two hours later, they got off the bus and took a taxi to a cheap motel called the Townhouse Motel.

“Wow,” Shania said when they entered the second-floor room. “This isn’t what I think of when I think of motels.”

“Me neither,” Lauren agreed as they surveyed the room. It appeared to be an old apartment that had been converted into a motel. The room seemed more like a living room than anything else or perhaps a large bedroom. There were two closets off of either end. Even the bathroom was more like one you’d find in a residence of some kind.

They agreed to get some sleep right away so that they’d have time in the morning to dye Shania’s hair before check-out at 11:00.

After the two washed up and climbed into bed, Shania commented on how hard the mattress was.

“It is a little firm,” Lauren agreed. “Ready for lights out?”

Shania nodded.

Lauren clicked off the bedside lamp. The brightly lit parking lot outside wouldn’t allow the room to get too dark. She could clearly see Lauren’s form outlined against the glowing light at the sides of the curtains.

“You going to be ok, babe?” Lauren asked.

“As long as I’m with you,” Shania answered.

“Aw, how sweet.” Lauren reached for Shania.

Tightly wrapped in each other’s arms, they fell into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter 21

Shania was waiting in the parking lot for Lauren while she turned in their room key when a man began to head her way. She studied the tall, lanky man with distaste. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. His filthy, wrinkled clothes hung loosely from his bony body. He smiled a semi-toothless grin as he got closer to Shania. Her nose wrinkled, disgusted by the foul odor that emanated from the man.

“I do believe I know you,” he said to her once he was just a few feet away.

“That’s not possible. I’m not from here.” That was brilliant, Shania thought, realizing she shouldn’t have said that she wasn’t from the area.

“Oh, but I know all about you,” the man insisted, letting out a chilling, evil laugh that sent tendrils of ice up and down her spine.

It often pissed her off when something or someone scared her, and pissed off was just what she was becoming. She was about to tell the man where to go when he pulled a small pistol from the pocket of the soiled brown tweed jacket he wore and aimed it at her head.

Her mouth opened wide, but no screams came out of it. She was too stunned, too terrified to utter a sound as the man began to fire the gun. Loud pops activated her voice. She began to scream. “No, no, no!”

Someone was shaking her. Confusion overtook her senses as the sounds continued.

“Wake up, Shania. You’re having a nightmare.”

Her eyes snapped open. “Who the hell – what’s going on? He was shooting at me!”

“No, hon, you were dreaming,” Lauren said gently as she sat beside her on the bed.

“But I heard loud pops and bangs.”

“That was doors slamming downstairs that you heard. It’s a very noisy place here, but that’s ok, we’ll be on the road in just a few hours.”

“What time is it?” Shania asked.

“Coming up on eight.”

She sat up and rubbed the remaining sleep from her eyes as Lauren donned her wig.

“Going out?”

Lauren nodded. “I’m going to go to the nearby convenience store and grab us some breakfast. Got any preferences?”

Shania shook her head. “No, you can just surprise me.”

“Ok. Lock the deadbolt behind me and don’t let anyone in while I’m gone.”

“Ok,” said Shania, getting out of bed.

Lauren kissed her and was off to the store.

Shania used the bathroom and watched a little TV while she was gone, then enjoyed a breakfast bar and a large cappuccino once Lauren returned. “This is so good,” she told her.

“Sure beats hospital food, doesn’t it?”

She nodded.

After they ate, they bleached and dyed Shania’s hair which they rinsed in the tub while she knelt, leaning on her good arm. Then Lauren took a shower and Shania took a bath to help keep her cast dry. She could only fill the tub half way. When they were done, they took a taxi to the nearest bus station and got tickets bound for Sacramento.

Once in Sacramento, they checked into the High Chaparral Motel.

“Boy, it sure is quieter in this place,” said Shania.

“Yeah, too bad it’s such an old dump,” said Lauren, plopping herself down on the bed. “At least the bed’s softer.”

Shania set the carry-on down on a nearby chair and threw herself down next to Lauren.

“It’s good to be able to stretch out like this after being cramped in on a bus all day, isn’t it?”

Shania nodded her agreement.

“You look a bit down, hon. What is it?”

“I just hate to see you put out like this.”

“Oh, but you’re worth it,” Lauren said, gathering Shania in her arms. “Remember, I chose to do this. You didn’t make me do it. It’s something I wanted to do.”

Shania smiled before the two engaged in a lovemaking that was both passionate and sensual. The only awkward moments were due to the cast Shania wore. Afterward, they laid side by side breathing heavily. Slowly, their breathing returned to normal and they fell asleep.

When Shania awoke, she was confused at first because it was dark. Then she remembered that they had fallen asleep early. The digital clock said it was just before five in the morning.

Careful not to rouse Lauren, she went to take a shower.

Lauren was awake, however, when she stepped out of the bathroom twenty minutes later. “How was it?” she asked her.

“Plenty of hot water, but the shower itself sucks. It comes out more as a steady stream than a spray.”

“That ought to have made it easier to keep your cast dry since there’s no tub in this place.”

“That it did.”

Because it would be hours before they were to hit the road, the two spent a leisurely morning watching TV and reading the paper. Sure enough, their pictures were plastered all over the news.

When the sun came up, Lauren put her wig on and went to get them some breakfast at the nearest convenience store. “One caramel cappuccino and one blueberry muffin coming right up,” she announced when she returned.

“Oh, thank you. I’m famished!”

Since the room had no table, they sat on the bed and ate their food.

“Is it good?” Lauren asked.

Shania nodded eagerly. “What did you get for yourself?”

“Hazelnut coffee and a chocolate chip muffin.”

“That sounds good, too. Anyone look at you funny?”

“No. I wouldn’t expect them to either. Fortunately, it’s easier for a woman to disguise her appearance than it is for a man.”

“I suppose that’s true. Even if they dyed their hair and stuck colored contact lenses in their eyes, that’s about all they can do.”

“We, on the other hand, can start getting in the habit of not only wigs and dyes, but wearing makeup we don’t normally wear. Our news photos show us without makeup. So, what do you say we start wearing makeup regularly once we get to Oregon?”

“Fine with me. I could use the help anyway.”

“Oh, no you couldn’t,” Lauren said in a shame-on-you tone of voice.

Shania studied Lauren’s dark, distinct features. “Dark,” she said.

“Dark?”

She nodded, swallowing a bite of her muffin. “You’d look good in dark lipstick colors like red, plum or bronze. I’d look better with a light shade of pink.”

“Yeah, you definitely don’t want to overdo it with your fair complexion,” Lauren agreed.

A knock on the door sent a jolt throughout Shania, causing her to spill some hot coffee on herself. She squeezed back the urge to yell out in pain.

Lauren simply froze for a second, then looked from the door to Shania, then back again at the door.

“Would they do housekeeping this early?” Shania asked in a hushed whisper. “It’s barely 8:00.”

Putting a finger to her lips, Lauren rose and approached the door. “Yes?”

“Maintenance,” came the response.

Lauren glanced back at Shania who shook her head warily.

“Maintenance? So early?” Lauren asked through the door.

“Aren’t you the one who called about a clogged toilet?”

“No, not me.”

“Oh, ok. Sorry to have disturbed you, ma’am.”

Lauren stepped over to the window and parted the drapes ever so slightly. She saw no one. “Let’s go,” she said, turning back to Shania.

“What’s wrong?” Shania asked, trembling with nerves.

“I don’t know, but this just doesn’t seem right. It could be just some nut out to rob anyone who will open their door this early, but I’d rather not stick around and take any chances. Pack up and let’s get out of here.”

Quickly, they gathered up what little they had. When they were done, Lauren eyed Shania with sympathy. “Don’t worry,” she told her reassuringly. “It’s only for about a year. Not forever.”

Shania nodded and tried to smile, though it was still evident that she was filled with anxiety.

She remained close behind Lauren as she opened the door and peered out. A glance both ways showed that no one was in sight. “It’s all clear,” she said.

They called a cab from a pay phone at a gas station and made their way to the bus station where they remained for the next few hours until their bus was scheduled to take off for Oregon. They sat in a corner of a large sitting area reading the paperbacks Courtney had packed for them. Yet Shania just couldn’t seem to get into the plot. Her mind wandered instead and she wondered just what was in store for her and Lauren. She watched the many people around her of all different ages and races. They seemed so normal, so ordinary. I used to be like them, she thought to herself. I used to have a secure, steady life. One I could trust and that was oh so comfortably familiar. Then she chided herself for feeling the way she did. After all, she was free of Lakeview, and she now had someone by her side who genuinely loved her and cared for her well-being. It wasn’t every day that people threw their lives away to save the lives of others.

Chapter 22

They arrived in Klamath Falls just after four that afternoon. The weather was cooler and dryer compared to San Diego.

They were checked in at the A-1 Budget motel by a friendly, petite Indian woman named Serena. Her thick Indian accent was hard to understand at times yet Shania and Lauren liked how she put them at ease, along with her husband and his parents, all of whom owned the place.

The entered the room and found it to be small, yet in nicer condition than the others had been.

“The best thing about this place is that they’ve got internet access,” Lauren said.

“But what good would that do us?” asked Shania.

“A lot. I’ve got a laptop so I can contact Courtney without having to go to the library.”

“Are you sure that would be a wise thing to do?”

“Tracing e-mail is much harder to do than phone-tracing. Also, if your e-mail address doesn’t have your name in it, you could be anyone. You just have to watch what you say. I’ll send a quick message saying that shopping has been loads of fun and sign it with a bogus name. She’ll know it’s me. If the authorities check on who the e-mail address belongs to, they’ll also get a bogus name because I didn’t use my real name when I signed up for it.”

“But if they find it belongs to a fictitious person, wouldn’t that raise red flags?”

Lauren nodded. “It may, but suspicion on the part of the cops is one thing, finding and proving guilt is another.”

“I see your point,” Shania said with a slight nod.

“The one thing we can’t do just yet is let anyone know where we end up settling. If we mailed that information, the cops could intercept it at the post office. They could also read it in an e-mail or hear it over the phone if they decided to tape Courtney’s phone calls, then they could come to wherever we’re at and see that it really is us.”

“Do they even know she’s your friend?”

“Not off the bat they don’t, but I’m sure there are ways they could find that out. If anything, they’ve got traces set up on my parent’s phone and mail right now. Same with Mindy’s.”

“Poor Mindy. She must’ve been grilled like hell by the police.”

“It’s possible.”

Shania lay on the soft king size bed looking thoughtful.

“You ok, babe?” Lauren asked her a minute later.

She nodded. “Yeah, I’m fine. I just feel like an escaped convict who was locked up for some violent crime or something. Don’t you feel like a fugitive yourself?”

Lauren mulled the idea over in her mind, then said, “No, not really. I can see how some people may feel that way, but instead, I just feel like we’re simply escaping and hiding out from people who want to see you wrongly locked up. You hungry?”

Shania nodded. In fact, she hadn’t realized just how hungry she was until now.

“Come on.”

She rose to follow Lauren. Cautiously, Lauren opened the door and peered outside. She held her arm out behind her to keep her inside until she was certain that no one stood outside waiting for them. “Ok, come on,” she said.

They stepped outside and found the air was now getting heavy with moisture.

“Think it’ll rain?” asked Shania.

“Don’t know.”

“Where are we going?”

“I thought we’d go to that nearby Denny’s I saw on our way in.”

“You don’t think it’s too crowded there?”

“No,” said Lauren. “With your hair dyed and my wig, we should be fine. Your face may stand out a bit, but I have a rather plain, ordinary face that blends in quite well.”

“Insulting my tastes, are you?” Shania said, playfully punching Lauren’s arm. “I don’t go for the plain, ordinary types. I go for the special beauties.”

Lauren smiled as they approached the highway and crossed it, coming to walk against traffic until they reached the restaurant. The two stiffened as a police car slowly came towards them. The fact that the officer behind the wheel was eyeing them intently didn’t help to ease Shania’s sudden tension.

She waited in the parked sports car that her father helped her to get, despite her mother’s objections.

“Maureen, you’re going to end up spoiled for life!” her mother had insisted. “You just have to work for and get some things on your own.”

She lit up a cigarette and relaxed in her seat. Getting the address had been easy. She simply looked it up in the phonebook. Then she jotted down the address and drove over to the residence where she parked her car and staked out the area. The condominium was on the end of a row of perhaps five units, each with their own garage and driveway in between.

She’d only been there a half hour when a young woman with long limp blond hair exited the unit she’d been studying and got into a minivan. Was this a relative? A roommate? As soon as the woman started up the van, she crushed out her cigarette and turned the ignition. She let the van back out and get a bit of a head start so she wouldn’t give herself away, then headed off after the van. They wound through some pleasant residential streets and onto a busy street where the houses became businesses.

A moment later, the van turned into a drive-thru of a fast food joint. Before Maureen could follow, a car jumped in front of her.

“Asshole,” she muttered.

It was ok, though, since the woman would probably take her food back to the condo.

Due to the way the drive curved around the building, she was unable to see all but a corner of the van’s back bumper from where she was. It seemed to take forever between the time the woman was served and she was served.

“Finally,” she said with impatience when she was asked to order through the microphone. She ordered a drink and some fries.

Another bout of “forever” had passed by the time she reached the window. The sun was setting fast as she paid for her order and headed for the condo. Once there, she saw that the woman had indeed returned. She parked her car as far away from the condo as she could while still being able to see anyone who may come or go. She cut the engine and opened her window. Then she began to eat her fries.

Although there was light visible in the windows of the condo, she couldn’t see inside because the blinds were shut. There was no way to tell if anyone else was inside.

She waited until 9:00. When no one appeared, she decided she’d go home and call Gary. They’d made plans at the office today to get together that night for a good romp in the sack.

She would return tomorrow, she told herself as she pulled away from the curb and headed for her posh townhouse.

Later that evening, Lauren phoned the woman who was to aid them in finding jobs and it was agreed upon that she, Melanie, would come to their motel room the following morning.

She arrived at 8:00 sharp. “Welcome to Oregon,” she said in a singsong sort of voice as she entered the room.

“Oh, thank you,” Lauren said with a smile.

“I’m Melanie,” said the woman, extending a hand to Lauren.

“I’m Lauren.” She turned to face Shania. “And this here is my cousin Shania.”

“Hi, Shania.”

“Hello,” said Shania with a slight smile.

Shania liked Melanie right away and sensed that the fifty-something-year-old woman was a mellow, homebody type with kids. It wasn’t just her well-rounded body that suggested this, but her overall being. She pictured her spending a lot of time in her kitchen baking treats for the family, knitting and sewing afghans and booties for possible grandchildren, curling up by the fireplace with a good book on cold, snowy days.

The three chatted pleasantly and Shania soon learned that the divorced woman did, in fact, have a few grown kids, but no grandkids. “Their jobs leave them little free time for much else,” she explained.

“Yes, I understand that with the cost of living today, one can’t afford kids as easily as they used to,” said Lauren.

“You got that right, honey!” Melanie answered with a chuckle. “The dollar just doesn’t go very far these days. Had I waited twenty years to have my kids, I doubt I’d have had the time for them, let alone enough money to keep everyone clothed and fed.” She pulled two large manila envelopes from a briefcase. “Now, down to business.”

“Ok,” said Lauren.

Melanie handed them each an envelope. “I have new identities here for you both. Birth certificates, driver’s licenses, social security numbers.”

“Wow!” Shania exclaimed. “How did you get that?”

Lauren and Melanie chuckled.

“Sorry, can’t reveal my sources,” Melanie said. “I also have the name and address of a doctor who will take care of Shania’s arm.”

“Oh, good,” said Lauren. “I know she’d love to get that cast off as soon as possible.”

“Your husband did this to her?”

“Uh, yes,” Lauren replied, thinking quickly. “She went to intervene during one of his attacks on me, and well, the rest should be obvious.”

Melanie shook her head sadly. “Some sick puppies in this world. Anyway, with your new identities, I recommend you head over to a place called The Job Factory. I’ve got it marked on the town map I’m also going to leave with you. They’ll have a list of all the local job openings that are available. I also recommend you stick with minimum wage jobs and not try for anything fancy. And try to avoid jobs that put you around a lot of people, such as a waitress would find.”

“Ok,” Lauren agreed, nodding her head. “We’ll get started right away.”

“Not before you two have thoroughly memorized your new names and social security numbers, as well as the phony backgrounds that have been provided for you. If one of you tells someone you’re cousins one day, then sisters the next, you could raise suspicion. It’s very important to remember the members of the family that have been provided for you, as well as where you’ve lived, where you’ve worked. You want to blend into society as much as you can without standing out or drawing any unnecessary attention to yourselves.”

“I understand,” said Lauren.

“Lastly, I think it’d be best to avoid looking for places to rent.”

“Where would we live then?” asked Shania.

“Instead of a house or an apartment, you’d live here.”

“Here?”

Melanie nodded. “Most motels have monthly rates. This place charges six-hundred and fifty dollars a month, and this includes all utilities, of course. The organization will pay for the first month, figuring that by the time the second month rolls around, you’ll be employed. Minimum wage here is just over seven dollars an hour, so you should easily be able to afford the rates here, even if one of you chose to work part-time.”

“Six-fifty isn’t a bad deal at all,” Lauren said.

“Maybe the owners of this motel or the ones across the street from you could use a housekeeper,” Melanie said.

“It sure would be convenient to work here since we have no car yet,” said Shania.

“Until then you can always hop a bus to work. Just try to get jobs that are on bus routes. The map also points out these routes, so familiarize yourself with the town as well as with your new backgrounds, ok ladies?”

“Yes, ma’am, and thank you very much,” said Lauren.

“You should even get in the habit of addressing each other by your aliases,” Melanie continued as she counted out the cash that would pay for a room with a kitchenette for a month.

Lauren took the money and Melanie turned to leave, telling them to call if they needed anything.

“Well then,” said Shania once Melanie was gone. “Guess it’s time to get down to business.”

“It can wait another half hour,” said Lauren, reaching to pull Shania towards her.

Embraced in Lauren’s strong, loving arms, she tilted her head back for a sensual kiss. A moment later, Lauren peeled her shirt off and then Shania’s. Shania felt her need suddenly surge as she began to tug at Lauren’s pants. Once the two were fully undressed, they made love quickly and passionately, unable to hold back for long.

Chapter 23

They were to be cousins Angela and Denise Cromwell from Carson City, Nevada. Shania, “Angela,” would be an only child who spent her life doing odd jobs. Lauren, “Denise,” would have a brother whose photography studio she would work at for years until he decided to close shop and move to Florida.

“Do I look like a Denise?” Lauren asked with a chuckle.

Shania studied her, then said, “I don’t know. I guess so. I’m not very good at putting names to faces. How about me? Do I look like an Angela to you?”

“I’d say so. It’s a lovely name and you’re a lovely girl, so yes, I’d say you do, but I also like Shania. Perhaps we should take Melanie’s advice and use our aliases so it becomes a habit with us.”

“Yeah, we should. And no talking about our real lives when others are around unless we talk too soft for them to hear.”

Upon paying for a full month’s stay, they were moved to a room that had a king-size bed, a desk by the internet hookup, and a kitchenette complete with refrigerator, stove and microwave.

Shania was glad to find that the bathroom, which was situated between the main room and the kitchen, had a tub. “Good. Now I can take those bubble baths I miss so much once the cast is off,” she said excitedly. “Oh, the things you miss when you’re locked up.”

“I’ll bet it must really make those little everyday things seem all the more special,” Lauren said with a smile, pleased to see Shania happy after the months of depression, anger, frustration and utter helplessness she had so endured.

Shania’s cast was removed a few days later. The arm was weak and discolored, though she was assured that the discoloration would soon clear up and that it would get stronger the more she used it.

They bought some groceries, a cheap pan and pot set, plates, bowls, glasses, mugs, silverware and other utensils, and began avoiding dining out altogether. They only allowed themselves weekly treats from the nearby convenience store.

They also got some clothes they knew they would need. They playfully debated over the color of one shirt in particular which Lauren had gotten.

“It’s blue,” Shania insisted.

“No, it’s not,” countered Lauren. “It’s green.”

With that, Lauren had found an online site that tested for color blindness and had Shania take the test.

“You passed,” Lauren said with a degree of shock a few minutes later.

“Yeah, with flying colors!”

The two erupted in laughter that lasted for hours that night.

Lauren got a job at a company that made computer cables about six miles from the motel which would mean she would take the bus to and from work. However, it wouldn’t be long before they saved up a few hundred dollars and could buy an old car. It was a used, beat up piece of junk, but it got them where they needed to go once they bought a few parts for it. Shania was glad that Lauren’s dad had taught her a lot about fixing cars.

Shania got a part-time job at the convenience store within walking distance of the motel. None of the surrounding motels were in need of a housekeeper.

“I could use you in a couple of weeks,” Serena had told her. “The woman I’ve got cleaning for me right now is going to be moving, so perhaps you could take over for her when she does.”

Shania agreed to return then if things didn’t work out at the store. But the store did work out well enough, so she decided to stick with it, even if it meant a little more contact with others than she’d like. The store also had a gas station, so she wasn’t exactly working alone. An eighteen-year-old boy named Darren worked the pumps while she worked inside. She liked Darren and often had pleasant chats with him during their breaks. He was saving up to move to southern California and had many questions for her regarding it when she accidentally slipped and told him she was from there. She had never been a good liar, so this new life as an only child from Nevada didn’t come that easily and naturally to her.

Soon enough, she and Lauren fell into a comfortable routine. They worked during the day, returned to the motel room to cook their dinner, then enjoyed a leisurely evening of reading, watching TV, and sometimes just browsing on the internet. They usually reserved the last hour of their day as well as the weekends for their intimacy.

Shania’s days off were the hardest. Especially when Lauren had to work. During these times she would want to be outdoors doing something, even if it was just taking a leisurely stroll.

All was running smoothly until a rather mysterious knock on the door occurred one evening just as the two were finishing up their dinner.

Shania looked warily at Lauren. “Who do you suppose that could be?”

“Don’t know, but I better go check.”

“No!” Shania exclaimed in a hushed whisper as she grabbed hold of Lauren’s arm. “What if it’s the cops? What if they’ve found us?”

“Then they’ll make the owners open the door. There’s simply no way out if it is them, Shania. The worst that can happen is they haul us in tonight, we get out on bail tomorrow, and then we relocate. Now just try to stay calm.” Lauren walked over to the door and asked who it was.

No answer.

“Who is it?” she asked again.

Still no answer.

Shania felt her heart skip a beat.

Lauren peered through the peephole in the door.

“If no one’s there or willing to answer, don’t open the door,” Shania told her.

“I won’t.”

They waited a few moments in silence, each breathing nervously. But the knocking didn’t reoccur.

“What in the world do you suppose that was all about?” asked Shania.

“I have no idea.”

“It’s almost as if something’s teasing us with our freedom. Next year seems so far away from now. Do you think we can make it?”

“I hope so,” said Lauren. “I certainly hope so.”

Maureen entered the building in a hurry. Again she was late. Damn the power failures they’d been having lately! She would have to invest in a battery-operated alarm clock as a backup. Miss Daly was sore enough at her these days as it was.

As she flung open the door, her shoe caught in a wad of gum just outside of it, causing her to step out of the shoe. “Shit,” she muttered as her coworkers giggled.

She pushed the door back open and grabbed her shoe just as Miss Daily stepped out of her office. “Well, well,” she said, hands on her hips. “Look who finally decided to drop by.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Daly,” Maureen said, feebly attempting to defend herself. “The power went off during the night and…”

“Maureen, I’ve heard it enough. In my office. Right now.”

“Oooh,” taunted Tim and the new bitch Miss Daly had hired to replace Shania.

She threw them a nasty look, fumbled to get her shoe back on, and followed Miss Daly to her office. As soon as they were in it, Maureen tried again to reason with her no-nonsense boss. “Miss Daly, I…”

“Save it, Maureen. Just save it because you’re fired.”

Maureen stilled and blinked in surprise. She was stunned, totally caught off guard. She expected a reprimand, yes, or even a write-up, but to be fired?

“You’re firing me?”

“That’s what I said,” Miss Daly said curtly. “I don’t know what to think anymore as to whether or not you were really threatened by Shania or if you were behind her being confined at Lakeview, but I do know this – your job performance sucks. It totally sucks. If you’re not late, I catch you slacking off, gabbing on the phone, filing your nails, snacking on munchies, doing anything and everything on company time. I’ve given you plenty of warnings and plenty of chances, yet I’m now left with no choice but to let you go. I only put up with you this long because I felt you needed a break after losing your baby and then your uncle.”

Maureen’s shock turned to simmering rage. Her beady eyes narrowed, glinted dangerously. “Oh, how kind of you, you twisted bitch from hell,” she hissed in a soft yet menacing voice.

Miss Daly froze, wide-eyed, staring Maureen straight on. Fireworks darted from her eyes as she said, “Get out. Get out now!”

“No problem, you mean old witch! I don’t need your damn job anyway. The only reason I stood here this long was because I had nothing better to do, but now I have much, much more important and better things to do. I’m going to find Shania. She escaped, you know, and I’m going to find that little sicko and make her pay for what she’s done, because if it wasn’t for that sick sack of shit, my uncle would still be alive and so would my unborn child, even if I never did want to assume the kind of responsibility a child would bring and give up my freedom anyway.”

Miss Daly continued to stare at her.

“As for you, you little dominatrix…”

Miss Daly sprung to her feet. “Get out right this instant or I’ll call the police.”

“Fine, call them,” Maureen challenged nonchalantly as she turned to leave. “Call them all you want. They can’t touch me. I assure you I’m quite invincible when it comes to Miss Shania McCarthy.”

Chapter 24

Although she promised Lauren she wouldn’t, she couldn’t go back to the motel room after work. Not this beautiful, warm, sunny day. The motel room had become too much like a prison cell to her. It may not be the prison the hospital was, but it was prison enough. Therefore, it was time to break free of the same old routine they’d been following for the last two weeks. If she returned to the room now, she’d only feel as if she were suffocating.

Lauren didn’t usually get in until a half hour after she did, which meant that if she went on a little walk now she could be back before she returned. She’d never even have to know about it.

She punched out and took the strawberry soda she bought earlier and headed out into the bright sunshine. It was such a beautiful day. Not too warm, not too cool. A faint, gentle breeze caressed her as she headed for a residential side street canopied by large oak trees.

As she slowly walked down the street, she was surprised by the lack of activity on such a pleasant day. She had expected to see old folks out reading books, young women tanning on lounge chairs, young men listening to portable radios, children at play on their swings, throwing balls for their dogs to fetch. Instead, the neatly landscaped yards were deserted. The only sign that someone had been out and about was a sprinkler swaying back and forth in one of the yards.

At the end of the road was a gradual slope that turned into a steep incline which led down towards the train tracks. She turned to look behind her. The street was now barely visible. Hesitantly, she went further down the incline towards the tracks. She loved trains, though they didn’t seem to pass through as much during the daytime as they did at night. When she’d have trouble sleeping, she’d lay in Lauren’s arms as she listened to the train’s whistle blow, wondering where each train was headed and what they were carrying.

Suddenly she was all alone with not a soul in sight. A small area across the tracks where tall grasses grew gave way to a densely wooded area. She couldn’t tell how deep the woods went. The surroundings gave her a feeling of peaceful isolation.

But that would suddenly change. In an instant, she felt as if she were being watched. She glanced in various directions. A black crow hawked ominously overhead. Instead of feeling at peace, she now felt vulnerable, threatened. She tried to shake the feeling of eyes boring into her, but couldn’t, so she turned and headed back up the incline.

The feeling intensified. She spun around quickly.

No one was in sight.

She turned and trudged forward once again, quickening her pace. Once she reached the top of the incline, she still couldn’t see anyone in sight, though the feeling of being watched hadn’t lessened. She wished someone – anyone – would come out into their yard, but if anyone truly was watching her and she wasn’t just being paranoid, it was more than likely the police. If that was the case there’d be nothing anyone who happened to be out and about could do for her.

Then again, if the police were watching her, why didn’t they just come out and confront her? What were they waiting for? For her to lead them to Lauren so they could nab them both at once? But that didn’t make sense either. If they knew where she was, then they most likely knew where Lauren was as well.

Nonetheless, she couldn’t shake the feeling of an evil presence that was focused solely on herself, be it the police or something else.

She broke into a trot. The short, peaceful dead-end street now seemed long and ominous, stretching miles ahead of her. She was running now, literally running scared. She dared not look back. Instead, she just kept running until she reached the main street where the convenience stores, restaurants and motels were. Only then did her heartbeat slowly begin to return to normal as she tossed her soda can into a wastebasket. She was still somewhat shaken up when she reached their motel room a few minutes later.

Panting, she inserted the key card, stepped inside the dim room, then turned to push the door shut.

“Where in the world have you been?”

Shania yelled out fearfully as she spun around fast to face Lauren. “Jesus, you scared the hell out of me!”

“And you scared the hell out of me. Where have you been? Did you have to stay late or something?”

Shania considered nodding and not bothering to mention going down by the railroad tracks, but that would be lying and lying was the last thing she wanted to do with someone she loved as much as she loved Lauren. Especially when there was no benefit in it that would help Lauren in any way.

“Shania?”

“Well,” she began hesitantly, “I don’t want to lie to you, so I’ll just come out and tell you that I went for a walk down by the tracks.”

“You what? Shania, you promised me! I thought I could trust you.”

“I know, I know. It’s just that I couldn’t come back here. Lauren, we’ve been so cooped up in here that I thought I would go crazy for sure if I didn’t take a break and get some fresh air. It’s such a lovely day out there, you know?”

“Yes, I do know, and I wish I could be out there too, but it’s just not a wise thing to do for now. Keep in mind that we’re talking about just one year and not a lifetime. The more we slack off and take chances, the less likely we are to make it through the year. Besides, where would you rather be cooped up, here or in the funny farm?”

“Of course I’d rather be stuck here with you,” Shania answered, running to throw her arms around Lauren.

Lauren held her tightly and a moment later she said, “Look, babe, I’ll compromise with you. We’ll wait until dusk when the sun is setting. That way it won’t be so light, yet there’ll be enough light left to see our way clearly. Then we’ll go for a little walk. How’s that sound?”

“Wonderful.”

Lauren cupped the sides of Shania’s face and pulled her towards her for a sweet kiss. When she pulled back, she asked, “You seemed pretty rattled when you came storming in here. Anything happen out there?”

“No, but I sure had this uncanny feeling of being watched.”

Getting the information she needed had been easy. Almost too easy. Yet she had gotten it, she thought with a smile as her mind flashed back to the night before she left California.

“You sexually dysfunctional weirdo!” she had screamed as she chased Gary down the stairs and to the front door with nothing but a sheet wrapped around her. “Couldn’t you have at least told me up front that you couldn’t keep your damn balloon inflated?”

“Jesus, Maureen!” Gary sputtered. “You’re such a heartless, insensitive bitch. Maybe it would have been better if whats-her-name had stayed on the job and you’d been fired back then. I didn’t believe it at first when Tim suggested you were behind her commitment, but now that I see you for the spiteful bitch you are, I know you had something to do with it.”

“So what if I did? Now get out of here! Just get the hell out of here!” Maureen screamed, pointing towards the door.

“No problem. I never want to step foot in here again,” Gary spat as he left the townhouse, slamming the door behind him.

Maureen stomped back up the stairs both frustrated and horny. “Why me, huh?” she asked her Siamese cat who waited for her at the top of the stairs, blue eyes wide with curiosity. “Why is it always me that has to get these types?”

The cat meowed.

“I really have an uncanny knack for getting such misfits, don’t I? Well, I’m not going to sit around feeling sorry for myself all night. I’m out of here. I’ve got better things to do, and believe me, this is going to be far more interesting than working for that bitch at the medical coding place. In a way, I’m glad she fired me. Gives me time to focus on the important things. Meanwhile, we’ll keep it a secret from mom and dad. I can’t deal with their damn lectures right now anyway.”

She dropped the sheet and pulled on a black turtleneck and a black pair of pants. It was definitely time to get on with business.

She made sure the cat’s water and food bowls were full, then she headed out to her blood red Porsche that she now wished were black. Oh, well, she thought to herself as she revved up its engine. At least I’m dressed dark enough to blend into the night.

She pulled out onto the street. Because it was Friday night, many people were still out and about. When she stopped at a red light, she observed a young girl through an ice cream shop window laughing between bites of ice cream, with what might have been her mother. She smiled almost sadly, remembering how her life had once been so simple and filled with joyous moments such as going out for ice cream. Now it seemed that all she did was struggle at love, struggle at jobs, struggle at everything. She was so angry lately too, but she knew whose fault that was.

A horn honked behind her. The light had turned green. “Yeah, yeah, I’m going,” she muttered under her breath.

As soon as she reached the therapist’s street, she parked the car at the end of it. She inhaled the fresh scent of bananas emanating from the new air freshener dangling from her rearview mirror. Then she closed her eyes a moment to get her plan set in her mind. However, instead of getting a sense of plans, a vision came to her of her mother slapping her around while her father sat drunk and dead to the world in his favorite easy chair. Perhaps life hadn’t always been so easy after all. She hadn’t seen her parents in months.

“What am I going to do with my life?” she muttered to herself. “I go through jobs faster than I change clothes. Oh, stop talking to yourself like a lunatic and stop worrying! Stick to the task at hand and find the bitch that got you in this mess.”

She placed her left hand on the door handle and looked around. The street was deserted. She stepped out of the car and shut the door as quietly as she could, then scurried off towards the condo which was brightly lit. The closer she got to it, the more she realized she could hear someone talking. Knowing she couldn’t simply knock and ask to know the bitch’s whereabouts, she scooted off to the side of the condominium. Concealed in darkness and shrubs, she listened for sounds through an open window, glad that this particular unit was on an end.

“No, I don’t think so,” she heard someone say. The blond woman?

A slight rustling sound behind her. She turned her head quickly but saw nothing through the hedges at the neighboring house. Just leaves stirring in the breeze, she told herself, willing herself to calm down. She strained to hear over the thunderous clunking of her heartbeat.

“Lauren couldn’t tell me that much, Mrs. Cohen, just that they’re in Klamath Falls.”

Klamath Falls?

“Sure, I can do that, but not over the phone.”

Do what?

“I’ll let her know the next time we swap e-mail.”

Maureen felt a sneeze welling up in her nose. Hurriedly, she pinched her nose as hard as she could stand to.

“Ok, I will. Bye for now.”

That was it? She waited a few more minutes, but all she heard was the sound of a TV. Once her legs started cramping due to the crouched position she was in, she decided that perhaps she’d heard enough as it was.

She slowly stood up, careful not to make any noise, then rushed back down the street to her car.

Once home, she ran and fired up her computer. It didn’t take her long to learn that Klamath Falls was a small town in Oregon just above the California border. Yet despite how small the town was, how was she going to find two people out of an estimated twenty thousand?

They slowly headed off behind the motel across the street. They were at the base of a mountain in an area that was somewhat remote, though still close enough to civilization if anyone of evil intent should think of popping out and confronting them.

“Gosh, it gets chilly fast up here,” Shania commented, pulling her sweater more tightly around her.

“That’s because we’re further from the coast,” said Lauren.

The two walked in silence a while, sipping their cappuccinos.

“I’m going to be up all night,” said Shania, “but that’s ok, I love this caramel coffee.”

“It is good, and who cares if we’re up late?” Lauren said. “We don’t have to work tomorrow, so it won’t matter if we’re up late having all kinds of fun hour after hour.”

Shania giggled as did Lauren. It felt good. It was the first time they’d really laughed in a while and so they enjoyed it all the more.

“Do you miss your mom, dad and Courtney?” Shania asked after a while.

“Sure I do, but I know I’ll see them again soon enough.”

“Well, I sure don’t miss Lakeview, but I miss Mindy and doing simple ordinary things like going out to eat every now and then, browsing in bookstores, walking through malls.”

“What do you like to read?” Lauren asked.

“Mysteries mostly. Do you read?”

“Sometimes. I like historical romance.”

Shania wrinkled her nose, getting a chuckle from Lauren.

“What’s your favorite cuisine?” Lauren asked.

“Seafood and Chinese. How about you?”

“I like just about everything, but I’d say Italian cuisine tops my list.”

“Does it?”

“Yes, Italian and French. Maybe we should make a point of eating out once a week. I think we can do that much without putting ourselves at any more risk than we already have. Besides, we’ve already fallen out of the main spotlight, so it seems, judging by the newspapers and news broadcasts.”

“You think they’re still looking for us?”

“Probably, although not actively. We aren’t escaped murderers, as we’ve said before. They’ve got more important things to focus on. When it comes to people like us, they just pretty much hope to nab us during a routine traffic stop or something like that. They’re not pounding on every door on the west coast looking for us when they’ve got so many murderers, child molesters, rapists, arsonists and drug dealers to look for.”

“I hope not. It’d make me wonder what the world was coming to if they made us a top priority.”

Lauren sighed and said, “It’s getting dark, babe. We ought to turn around and head back.”

“I’m with you,” Shania replied, taking one last sip of her coffee and disposing of the cup in a nearby trash bin.

When she first arrived in Klamath Falls, after selling her Porsche and putting her stuff in storage, she had booked a room at the La Vista motel across from the A-1 Budget Motel. Using her money from her savings, she paid six-hundred and fifty dollars to rent the spacious room for a month and then turned in the rental car in which she used to make the trip up to the mountainous area with plans to save up for a car as soon as she could. Shania knew her sports car all too well, so she felt that using a rental car would obscure her presence even more.

The room was nice. It was on the end of the U-shaped building, providing a good view of the A-1 Budget.

She dyed her red hair dark brown the night she arrived.

“Please don’t tell my folks if you talk to them,” she had begged her aunt Erin the night before she left.

An audible sigh on the other end of the line. Then, “Maureen, are you sure you want to do this by yourself?”

“Yes, Aunt Erin. They’ve got to be brought to justice, don’t they?”

“For escaping, yes, but Maureen, honey, I don’t see how they’re to blame for your miscarriage and for what happened to uncle Jonas. Miscarriages happen all the time, and the earthquake is what killed your uncle. That much I can assure you of.”

“Well, they certainly had a part in it, and besides, they’re escaped fugitives and I know where they are.”

“Yes, and you’re obligated to give that information to the police and to let them handle things while you go and look for a new job right here where you belong.”

“I’ll find work up in Oregon while I’m hunting them down, then when we all return, they’ll go to jail and Miss Daly will rehire me,” Maureen said with confidence.

“How can you be so sure of that?”

“Because she’ll see me as a heroine, that’s why. And she’ll realize what a good worker she lost once things start falling apart as they’ve no doubt been doing since she canned me.”

“Oh, Maureen. I wish you’d forget that place and look for work elsewhere,” said Erin. “There are so many other things you could do with your life.”

“Yes, I know, aunt Erin, and I will. But this is what I want to do right now. If I simply tell the police what town they’re in and what state, they still wouldn’t really do anything to seek them out. I’ve got to be able to give them an address. Trust me, I learned the hard way of how the law works.”

After a moment’s hesitation, her aunt said, “Well, you’re an adult. No one can stop you from going to Oregon if that’s what you have in mind to do.”

And that was exactly what she had in mind to do. What she didn’t have in mind was to drag the police into it. Oh no, she was going to deal with Shania McCarthy all by herself. This wasn’t between the police and Shania, it was between her and Shania, and so they would meet and face each other one to one. If the police got involved later on, it wouldn’t matter. Just as long as she got to her first. On the other hand, she may not let Shania live long enough to deal with the police one way or another. Maybe not even her precious girlfriend.

And then things had gone from easy to even easier. So much so that it seemed as if she were under the influence of some sort of divine guidance!

Chapter 25

Shania was at the register with her back facing the store’s large front windows. Again she felt the sensation of being watched. Unseen eyes bore into her back as she rang up a half a dozen or so things for an old lady that had become sort of a regular.

“Nice day out there, isn’t it,” the lady said.

Shania glanced at the woman’s semi-toothless, banana-yellow smile and said, “Yes, it sure is. Wish I could be out there more to enjoy it.”

“Such a shame to have to be cooped up indoors on a day like today, and as young as you are.”

And even worse to be cooped up indoors for a year, she thought to herself. If only the lady knew, though she was certainly glad she didn’t!

“Then again, you young folks need to make a living just as much as anyone else, right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Shania answered politely.

The lady took her bag of purchases and slowly shuffled out of the store. This was the first chance Shania had in several minutes to glance out the window. A slender young woman of average height with long dark hair blowing in the breeze stood gazing at her, hands clasped together in front of her. The woman stood back just past the gas pumps. Once she saw that Shania had noticed her, she turned and walked off across the street towards the La Vista.

Odd, Shania thought.

By the end of her shift, she had forgotten all about the strange woman who had stood outside staring at her. All she could think of was escaping the store and picking up a few books at a local used bookstore as she and Lauren had agreed to do the night before.

Shania jogged back to the motel room and changed into a pair of pink shorts with a daisy pattern, and a bright white tank top. Then she ran a brush through her long blond hair and even added a touch of makeup. When she was done, she parted the window’s dark drapes to watch for Lauren, who would be getting in any minute. Her heart would go aflutter every time she’d see her enter the motel’s parking lot. She was so good looking and so wonderful a person that Shania sometimes wondered just what in the world she ever did to get such a fine person as Lauren. She still felt guilty at times for the way Lauren had put herself out on account of her, even if it was by her own choice. Did she really even deserve such a wonderful person?

From her vantage point, the end room on the right side of the La Vista, just across the busy highway, was in plain view. Shania saw the door to that room open and out stepped the woman who had been watching her at the convenience store. There was something familiar about the woman’s gait as she headed away from her towards Mollie’s restaurant. Before she could think about it and study the woman any longer, she spotted Lauren approaching the parking lot out of the corner of her eye.

A wide smile formed on her lips.

After Lauren washed up, they walked to the closest bookstore they could find. It was a long walk, but the exercise felt great and the weather was perfect for it. By the time they returned with a couple of romance novels for Lauren and a couple of mysteries for herself, they were more than ready for dinner.

“I’m famished!” Lauren exclaimed.

“Me too,” Shania agreed. “Want to prepare the chicken while I tend to the potatoes and veggies?”

“Sure.”

“Anything exciting happen on the job?” Shania asked.

“No, I pretty much keep to myself as much as I can. How about you?”

“Well, some weirdo was spying on me, from the looks of it.”

Lauren glanced over at Shania and frowned as she lay the chicken wings she coated with breading onto a cookie sheet lined with tin foil. “Spying on you?”

Shania nodded and filled her in on the strange woman’s behavior.

“That is weird. You mean you had this feeling of being watched?”

“Yes. It was just like the other day down by the tracks, though I never saw anyone that day. This time, I got the feeling, turned around, and there she was. I know right where she’s staying, too. I saw her come out of the end room across the street on the right when I was looking out the window watching for you to drive in. There was something familiar about her walk too, but I can’t put a finger on it.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. A lot of people have similar body movements and mannerisms. Just be careful and stay alert, ok?”

Shania nodded, unsure if being careful and staying alert would be enough to save them. She had a nagging feeling that she and the woman were somehow connected. The question was, did she insist that they move to be safe? Or did she hope she was just being paranoid? After all, when one was running from the law, didn’t they tend to be suspicious of just about everyone?

No, she decided. She wasn’t suspicious of any of the motel owners. Nor was she suspicious of any of its guests or anyone who worked at the store.

Then why was she suspicious of this one woman in particular? Just because she was watching her? But maybe she hadn’t been watching her, she tried to reason with herself. Maybe she had been watching for someone else. But who? No one else had been in the store once the old lady left, and the old lady had headed in the opposite direction.

It continued to gnaw at her mind, even after they’d eaten and Shania had gone to luxuriate in a raspberry-scented bubble bath while Lauren offered to wash and dry the dishes.

She’d been soaking in the tub for about ten minutes when Lauren came in and knelt down at the side of the tub. “How ya doing, babe?” she asked with concern.

“Ok,” Shania said, smiling softly.

Lauren picked up her washcloth and began to gently caress her chest with it. When she lowered the washcloth to her stomach, Shania felt a faint stirring begin between her legs. Her arousal grew as Lauren dropped the washcloth even lower. She moved the cloth suggestively, finding her most sensitive spots as Shania spread her legs invitingly.

Suddenly, Shania felt herself growing very hot. She sat upright and said, “You’re making me awfully hot in what’s already a very hot situation.”

Lauren chuckled. “Guess you’ll have to come on out then so I can cool you off.”

Shania rose and pulled the tub’s drain to let the hot water escape. Then she stepped out and into the towel which Lauren held open for her. Lauren dried her every peak and valley with the utmost of pleasure and care, deepening both their desires.

By now their hearts were racing and their breathing was becoming somewhat ragged. Lauren led her to the bed and quickly took off her clothes.

Shania watched as she lay in a suggestive position on the bed.

Lauren laid her body gently atop Shania’s and began to move up and down against her in soft, sensual movements. Her movements quickened and became more fluent as their need escalated.

Their nipples rubbed together, sending waves of delight throughout Shania’s body. Warm moisture grew between her legs, intensifying her need for release.

Sensing how close to climaxing she was, Lauren slid down further on the bed and began to lap hungrily at Shania’s pussy, tongue darting up and down her clitoris and occasionally inside her wet, slick opening.

When it was over, the two lay entwined in each other’s arms until their heart’s beat normally once again.

She watched with determined patience from her hideaway across the bustling highway of semis, RVs, and other vehicles.

She couldn’t believe her luck when she had first spotted her with that damn bitch who was a party to her escape. The one rumored to be her lover, not surprisingly. She figured Shania was gay by the way she seemed to lack interest in guys.

She had been sitting in Mollie’s towards the back of the restaurant when they entered the front of the place and were seated in that area.

She saw through their disguises right away. She had never seen the therapist in person before, but she recognized her from her news photo, even with her hair a good ten inches longer, which she knew was a wig, since no one could grow their hair that fast.

Shania didn’t look half bad as a blond, and the many stares she received from the men in the restaurant seemed to confirm this. Despite her change of hair color, there was no mistaking that face. That innocent looking face hadn’t changed a bit.

She had hurriedly finished her cherry pie and gulped down her coffee before they could see through her own disguise, and exited by way of the back door. Then she put on her sunglasses and sat on a nearby bench until they came out of the restaurant, and watched them cross the street to the motel directly across from hers. Because she couldn’t see the numbers on the door from across the street, she counted how many doors from the left they entered, since they were closer to that end of the row than the right.

She reached to turn up the heat. Oregon was a chilly place and already she missed San Diego. So many people from California wanted to venture out to places like Boston, New York City, Chicago or Miami, but not her. No, she was just fine in southern California. She’d even go to northern California before she would head east or further north.

Lighting a cigarette, she realized that it was important for her to somehow learn their routines. She wanted to get Shania alone. She couldn’t risk that other bitch getting in the way and fouling up her plans, so she would learn as much as possible before she took action. Thus far she’d learned that Shania only worked on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while her partner in crime worked Monday through Friday. She also learned that she got in a half hour ahead of the therapist when she did work.

But how would she get to the bitch? She couldn’t just knock on the door and expect to be let in. She pondered the situation well into the wee hours of the night. Finally, she came to the conclusion that there was only one way to get into the room without making a scene.

Chapter 26

Jasmine flopped down on her bed, reached for her portable MP3 player on the nearby nightstand, and put her headphones on. She escaped to the pounding rhythm of her favorite rock music. She didn’t have many other means of escape these days.

Her mother was such a nag. Always had been, always would be, no doubt. It’s just that since dad’s death, she’d been so much worse, always nagging her to do this or not to do that. Her father hadn’t been much better. He just ignored her instead of getting on her case all the time. He seemed to be home less and less in the last few years of his life. She assumed that was because he was getting sick of being around her mother.

Jasmine loved to eavesdrop on her mother’s phone conversations. Two nights ago she’d heard her tell her best friend Heidi that she suspected her father of seeing someone at the hospital before he died. She also heard her tell Heidi that she suspected he’d gotten someone committed to the hospital that had pissed her aunt Maureen off pretty bad and that she’d recently escaped with the help of one of the therapists.

Last night she’d overheard her talking to her aunt, telling her that the escaped patient wasn’t to blame for her miscarriage or for her father’s death, but Jasmine silently wondered about that. Perhaps it was true that her father wouldn’t have been there when the earthquake struck if it hadn’t have been for that crazy patient he had to deal with to keep her aunt happy.

Jasmine had wished so many times that her father’s occupation could be anything other than a shrink. The kids at school constantly teased her about it, saying that the crazy nuts he worked with would not only make him crazy too, but one day they’d all break out and butcher them in their sleep. She hadn’t believed it, of course, but hearing these kinds of things year after year grew old.

She wished she could go out to a movie or perhaps to the roller-skating rink, but ever since that night a few months ago, the night that had brought both shame and embarrassment to her as well as to her parents, she’d been grounded. A very close eye had been kept on her ever since.

She rose from the bed and walked over to her full-length mirror, MP3 player in hand. Almost sixteen years old, yet still no signs of any boobs forming. Other kids dubbed them “mosquito bites.” She brushed back her long auburn hair. She was awfully scrawny, she noted. It was amazing that she had been able to kick the crap out of her classmate like she did a few months ago when that stuck-up Beverly Heinz had teased her in the bathroom about ending up just as insane as her father’s patients. She’d been suspended for a few days and then she had to do a week’s worth of detention, but it was worth it. It was even worth her mother’s lectures, which in turn, had caused her parents to argue for hours. Her father had urged her mother to ease up on her. Especially since she had only been defending herself against being bullied. Her mother, on the other hand, said violence never made sense unless you were hit first.

“The girl didn’t go to attack her!” her mother had screamed.

Jasmine couldn’t help but overhear this one.

“But Erin, if she’d done nothing to fight back, she’d have to keep on being ridiculed by this girl, year after year. Now, however, she’s not going to even think of flapping her trap,” her father had shouted back.

“Still, Jonas, she should’ve ignored her.”

“Ignoring others doesn’t always solve the problem. In fact, it can have just the opposite effect. It can make them all the more determined to get at you, and not fighting back sends a message saying that it’s ok to do so. Well, look at how things are now, Erin. Yes, she gave the girl a black eye and a bloody lip, and yes she got suspended, but has anyone hassled her in any way since? I say she should’ve knocked the sense into one of these troublemakers a long time ago.”

“She has no friends, Jonas.”

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have no friends at all, than friends who are stuck-up little bullies with nothing better to do than torment others.”

“Not all the kids are that way,” said Erin.

“She’ll make friends when she’s ready to,” Hoffritz insisted.

“Like you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Made any so-called friends at the clinic lately, Jonas?”

“Oh, please. Give me a break! I bust my ass so you and Jasmine can have all that you have, and this is what I get for it?”

“Why is it that you don’t always answer my pages?”

“I told you. I have a lot of meetings to attend to these days. Too many changes going on. People quitting, people being fired, people being hired.”

“But sometimes when I call your answering service, they tell me you’ve already left the building and aren’t even in any meetings.”

“Then stop calling the answering service if you don’t like what they’re telling you.”

“Oh, so that’s your solution, Jonas? Don’t bother to ask in the first place? Just play deaf, dumb and blind and hope for the best?”

“I’m not seeing anyone, Erin.”

“Then why are you becoming more and more of a stranger in this house? And why are you…”

Jasmine had heard enough. That night she climbed out her bedroom window and ran off to the local pizza joint, a popular hangout for the high school kids in that area. It was still early, so she assumed that there would be bound to be some kids in the eatery. At least the ones whose parents weren’t strict as far as them being out on school nights like hers were. However, once she walked the three blocks to the pizza place, she was surprised to find it deserted. She sat in a booth by the window, hoping someone would come in. Someone who would cheer her up. Someone she could pour her troubles out to.

Ten minutes later, two boys she recognized from school entered the place. They were both her age. One was blond and the other had sandy brown hair. She didn’t know their names because they didn’t share any of the same classes. She only knew that they were popular. Especially the blond one. Jasmine was somewhat surprised that they weren’t accompanied by some of the popular girls.

The sandy-haired boy went to the counter while the blond one glanced her way and smiled. “Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” Jasmine responded shyly.

Over a large mushroom pizza in which the boys shared with her, they got into a discussion about school, music, sports, and then finally drugs.

“Ever been high before?” the blond one asked. She still didn’t know their names, though they knew hers. When she asked for names, the blond boy, who did most of the talking, simply told her to call one of them Frumpy and the other Grumpy.

“No, I’ve never smoked cigarettes, used drugs, or gotten drunk before,” Jasmine told them.

“Too bad,” said Blondie. “You don’t know what you’re missing. Want to try a joint with us?”

Jasmine hesitated, then asked where they had in mind to smoke it.

“I know this place we could go to. It’s just right up the street.”

“What place?”

“There’s an empty house for sale on the corner just up the street. Because it’s on the corner, we can easily get into the backyard. As long as we’re quiet enough so that the people in the house next door don’t hear us, we’ll be ok there.”

Jasmine was nervous about it, but she knew that if she refused, she’d have to hear all about it at school for God knew how long, so she reluctantly agreed to go.

Although it was a lovely evening with cool yet comfortable temperatures and not much humidity, it was dark. So dark. One of the street lights was out, making it seem even darker. Jasmine shook with nervousness as she wondered if she would live to regret this night.

It’s too late now, she told herself as she followed Frumpy and Grumpy down the street to the vacant house on the corner lot. She wasn’t about to make a fool of herself by turning around and running like a little chicken.

“The way into the backyard is around the corner in the back alley,” Blondie whispered as they approached the old rambling house. “Stay by the wall so no one sees us.”

They crept along a dark red stockade fence. A few yards down the alley was a gate that led into the backyard. Blondie reached over and clicked the latch. The gate creaked open.

“Shhh,” whispered the sandy-haired boy. “Open it slowly.”

“I’m trying,” his friend told him.

With the gate now open, Jasmine followed the sandy-haired boy into the yard. She looked up at the second-floor windows next door. Although they were bathed in light, the shades were drawn.

Blondie slowly closed the gate behind him, then turned to face the others. “You got anything?” he asked his friend.

“Just a half a pack of smokes I swiped from my dad’s desk in his study,” came the reply in the darkness.

Jasmine strained to make out the outlines of the two boys. Their silhouettes were barely visible with what little light streamed out from the house next door.

A dog started barking. The trio froze.

“Is that in the next yard?” asked Jasmine.

“No, the damn beast is a couple yards down. It’s barked like this before. Dogs are supposed to have really keen hearing,” Blondie said.

“I wish it would shut the fuck up,” his friend muttered through bared teeth.

“Chill out, dude, will you?” Blondie said. “Don’t stir it up even more.”

“Maybe we should forget about this,” Jasmine suggested.

“Nah. Just stay close to the wall where it’s more shadowy,” said Blondie, who then pulled a sandwich bag from his coat pocket.

“What’s that?” asked Jasmine.

“It’s a joint, just like I told you.” Blondie lit the joint and took a long hit off of it, sucking it in deep and holding his breath a moment or two before handing it to his friend.

His friend did the same thing Blondie had done, then he handed it to Jasmine.

Jasmine took hold of the joint and brought it to her lips.

“Just suck on it sort of as if it were a straw,” Blondie instructed.

Jasmine did as she was told, then burst into a coughing fit. This set the dog off even more.

“Shit!” his nervous friend hissed, glancing towards the neighboring house.

Another dog from another yard began to bark as well.

“Cover your mouth,” Blondie told her.

Jasmine thought she would never stop coughing, but after a few minutes, the coughing subsided. Despite the racket, it hadn’t seemed to draw anyone’s attention.

“I think we’re still ok,” Blondie’s friend said.

“Yeah, we’re ok.”

Jasmine allowed the two to finish the joint by themselves, insisting that she should head for home.

“So soon?” asked Blondie. “But the fun’s just starting.”

“I know, but I’m getting dizzy. If I get any dizzier, I’ll never be able to get home.”

“We’ll carry you.”

“No thanks,” said Jasmine, reaching for the gate.

“Hey, not so fast,” Blondie said, causing his friend to giggle as he pulled Jasmine’s hand away from the gate’s latch.

“Come on, guys, I really appreciate the pizza and the hit off the joint, but I really should be going.” Again she reached for the gate and again Blondie jerked her hand away.

“I don’t think so,” Blondie said. “Seems to me you owe us a little something in return.”

“But I have no money or anything to give you,” Jasmine told them.

“Maybe you have no money, but you’ve got something else you could give us.”

The two friends laughed, sending waves of fear throughout Jasmine. One of them she could handle. But two?

Blondie gave the remaining stub of a joint to his friend and grabbed Jasmine by the shoulders. He then pulled her against him and mashed his lips against hers, bruising them. Jasmine gasped for air when he finally let her go. She went to kick him in the crotch but missed. Instead, his friend went around behind her and held her by the arms while Blondie undressed her down to nothing but her panties.

Now wild with a desperate, wild fury, Jasmine kicked again at Blondie’s crotch. This time her aim was dead-on. Blondie doubled over in pain and howled like a wolf.

Jasmine spun around to grab her clothes, but Blondie’s friend had pitched them over the wall of the neighboring house. Mad with both rage and embarrassment, she punched him in the nose. She heard a crack and could faintly make out the blood that spurted from it through the darkness. They began to cuss her out, no longer caring who may hear them.

While both boys were incapacitated, she managed to fling open the gate. She ran screaming around the corner and to the front door of the brightly lit neighboring house, arms across her chest.

Chapter 27

It was Wednesday morning. Maureen knew both bitches would be at work. She dressed in a pair of jeans and a blue T-shirt and headed across the street.

She entered the office. It was filled with a spicy aroma she couldn’t put a name to. She rang the bell on the counter and out came a dark, petite woman. “Can I help you?” she asked in a heavy Indian accent.

“Yes, I’m new to town and was wondering if you were in need of a housekeeper,” Maureen said, putting on her best smile.

“Actually, we are looking for one. I just hired a lady to replace the one that moved out of the area, but she hasn’t really proven to be a very good worker. She keeps calling out sick. Have you done housekeeping before?”

“Yes,” she lied.

“Well, we don’t have formal job applications or anything like that, so as long as you’re ok with being paid under the table, you can work today and see how you like it.”

She liked the idea of being paid under the table very much. That way she wouldn’t have to pay any taxes. And why should she? It was her money that she would earn herself so why should she pay for schools in which she had no children to attend, to repair roads she may never travel on, or to upkeep hospitals she’d never stay in?

“That would be wonderful, although I can only work a few days a week.”

“Just a few days a week?” asked the woman.

Maureen nodded. “I’m afraid so. I have to watch my niece on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends.” The truth, of course, was that she didn’t want to work when they would be here to possibly recognize her. She could change her hair color, but she couldn’t change her face. Then again, if she could get into the room before Shania would return to it, today would be all she’d need.

The woman hesitated, apparently unsure of what to do.

“I’ll talk to my sister,” Maureen quickly assured her. “I’m sure she can make other arrangements so I can work full-time. She has a lot of friends here.”

“Ok, why don’t we just take it one day at a time then,” the woman agreed. “My husband and father-n-law are out cleaning rooms right now. We’ll go talk to them and they can show you what needs to be done. Every Friday you’ll come here for your pay. That will be minimum wage. Is that ok?”

“Sounds good,” Maureen said.

The woman had her write down her name, address and phone number on a piece of paper. The “address,” of course, was a made up one, and the phone number was that of her cell phone. When this was done, she took her to where her husband and his father were working on a room that was somewhat close to the office. In rapid Indian, she filled them in.

The two men gave Maureen a polite nod.

Maureen smiled.

In English, the woman’s husband said, “I’ll let dad finish up on this row and I’ll get you started over there.” He pointed to the other row that ran more vertical to the highway.

Perfect. It was where Shania’s room was.

The lanky man took her to the supply room and stocked a cart with sheets, towels, soap, trash bags, toilet paper and other items they’d need. Then he took her to the first room on the left side of the strip. It was about six doors away from Shania’s, who was towards the middle of the strip. Room thirteen, she noted with amusement.

“Pardon me?”

“What… oh… nothing, sir.” She hadn’t realized she’d giggled aloud.

They worked for hours. When they reached Shania’s room, Maureen had to do all she could to hide her curiosity. “Get a lot of strange guests?” she asked. “Or are they usually nice?”

“Mostly nice people,” the guy answered. “Every now and then we get some drunk or disorderly person, but mostly nice folks. The ladies in this room are cousins. Just moved here from Nevada.”

Nevada, huh? she thought to herself. If the poor man only knew!

Suddenly, she was becoming concerned that they wouldn’t finish the row of rooms before Shania got in just before 5:00. It was already 3:45. “How much longer do you suppose it’ll take to finish up?”

“Oh, perhaps an hour. Most of the remaining rooms aren’t even occupied.”

Maureen nearly let out a highly audible sigh of relief but caught herself in time.

“Are you enjoying the job?” the man asked her.

“Oh, yes, very much so.” But of course, she hated it. Cleaning was not something she liked to do. She’d rather live in layers and layers of dirt and dust before she picked up a dust rag or touched a vacuum. If her apartment back down in San Diego didn’t have a dishwasher, she’d use nothing but paper plates and cups and plastic silverware.

“You can finish up in here while I get started on the next room,” the man said. “Just remember to close the door before you come over.”

“No problem,” she said with a smile. She didn’t want to risk snooping around the room just yet, so she scurried to finish scrubbing the tub, then went to leave. Before she did, she stuck her head out the door to make sure no one was watching. When she failed to spot anyone, she stuck a piece of paper in the door to keep it from locking on her way out.

They finished at 4:45, much to her relief. The only problem now was getting back into Shania’s room without being seen. The woman was in the office which was in plain view of Shania’s door, and the two men were chatting just outside the supply room, also in plain view.

Suddenly, the woman came out and yelled something to them in Indian. The men then followed her to their living quarters located behind the office.

Thank you, God, she thought, scrambling for Shania’s door. It pushed open with ease. She was in!

Knowing Shania would be in any minute, she tossed the paper she used to keep the door from locking into a wastebasket, then ran and hid in the bathroom. She could do her snooping later, though she couldn’t imagine what she would find that would be of any use to her. All they appeared to have were normal, everyday items. Just clothes, toiletries and a handful of books, although there was a laptop on the desk which may later prove interesting.

She stood in the bathroom, heart pounding in anticipation of the showdown to come, and thought of her lost job, her hopeless romances, her uncle, and the child she never had.

Shania glanced over at the guy who was to relieve her at the end of her shift. “All set?” she asked him.

“Yes, I’m ready to hit the job, so you can leave anytime you want.”

“Ok, then. See you Friday.”

“So long, Angela.”

Shania headed out into the warm sunshine. It was now August, nearly four months since the horror-filled night she was yanked from the jail and committed to the hospital. She wondered how their lives would be once it was safe to return to San Diego. Would Maureen always be a threat to them? If anyone was unstable and in need of being institutionalized, it was her. Maureen really seemed to truly believe that it was she who had caused her miscarriage and her uncle’s death, and as long as she continued to believe this, she may always feel vengeful towards her. All she could do was hope that by the time they did return, Maureen would have moved on, no longer harboring any hatred towards her.

Enjoying the too-short walk back to their motel room, she deliberately walked slowly to make it last, although she knew she should walk briskly to the room and forget this lovely world outside.

She watched a few bluebirds flitter about overhead, then noted the beauty of the wildflowers around her in shades of purples, whites, yellows and oranges. They lined the sides of the dirt path she walked on until she reached the edge of the motel’s parking lot. A tiger swallowtail butterfly fluttered past as she glanced through the office window. Serena waved to her from behind the desk. She waved back.

Inserting her key card in the door to her room, she stepped inside and let the door close behind her. Then she threw the deadbolt in place and turned around. As was always the case when she returned from work, the room was clean and tidy. The bed was made up nicely, the floor was vacuumed, the bathroom was scrubbed, and the kitchen trash was emptied, so she saw when she went back there.

Except for one small piece of paper.

Shania frowned, thinking it odd that they’d empty the trash yet miss the piece of paper in which she reached for.

It was a receipt for a bottle of hair dye at a local drugstore. But they hadn’t gotten anything at that particular store. Besides, she had dyed her hair before reaching Oregon and hadn’t even used the brand listed on the receipt.

“Well, hello there, you murdering bitch.”

Shania spun around with lightning speed, dropping the receipt. It fluttered silently to the tiled floor.

No! This couldn’t be happening. She must be seeing things, she had to be. It was just her paranoid imagination. If she took a few deep breaths and blinked her eyes a few times, the apparition of the hateful and vicious Maureen Hoffritz that stood before her would vanish into thin air.

But it didn’t.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Maureen said with a menacing snarl as she slowly approached Shania. She came forth at a casual pace, hands tucked in the pockets of her pants. A slow smile spread across the snobby face as she joyfully took in the shock and fear that registered across Shania’s soft features. “What’s the matter?” Maureen laughed. “Cat got your tongue?”

“H-how did you find us? How did you get in h-here?” Shania stammered.

“Wasn’t that hard. I just eavesdropped outside your little lover’s place that she shared with that blond chick doing God knows what. Heard her mention this town one night on the phone through an open window and so I found the place on a map, drove up here, and was led by some guiding force right to your door. I ended up just across the street at the La Vista.”

Shania suddenly remembered the woman staring at her at the store and the woman who had seemed familiar leaving the room on the end of the motel across the street. Of course, the woman had seemed familiar. It had been Maureen all along! Only now it was a brunette version of the unstable woman.

“So you see, Shania dear, something up there must want me to get you as bad as I do.”

“Get out of here!” Shania yelled, fear turning to anger.

“Shhh. Not so loud. If they catch you, you’ll go to jail and so will she. Certainly, you don’t want that now, do you?” She let out a chilling laugh.

“If anyone’s due to go to jail, it’s you, Maureen. You framed me as a dangerous nut and then you broke in here and…”

“I didn’t break in here. I work here. I was hired this morning to clean rooms here on a day to day basis, under the table.” She took a step closer. “You made my life a living hell. You killed my unborn child and my uncle,” she hissed, jabbing a finger painfully into Shania’s bony chest.

“I killed no one!”

“I could turn you in to the authorities right now, and that’s just what I plan on doing, but first, me and you are going to have a little heart to heart. Then before I feed you to the wolves, I’m going to kick your little ass and claim self-defense to the cops. I’ll tell them that you tried to kill me when you realized I found you and that I had no choice but to hurt you to keep you from killing me.”

Although Maureen was bigger than her, Shania was in no mood for any heart to heart with this lunatic, and she certainly was in no mood to return to the hospital or to go to jail either. Survival instinct kicked in, giving her a strength she didn’t normally have.

Just as Maureen went to strangle her, Shania’s fist shot straight out in front of her like a rattlesnake going to strike its victim, and she punched her as hard as she could on the bridge of the nose. A fine mist of blood sprayed her pale pink sundress.

Maureen howled in pain. She obviously didn’t expect to get what she just got.

Not wanting to risk anyone hearing them, Shania reached for a large can of ravioli that sat nearby on the counter and slammed it into the back of Maureen’s head with all her strength.

The girl slumped to the floor and remained silent and motionless.

Shania began to tremble uncontrollably as she watched the blood slowly trickle from the head wound she’d inflicted. Apparently, it was a very deep gash.

She dropped the can. It hit the floor with a dull thud and so did she a second later. She sat against the wall, slowly rocking back and forth, staring at Maureen’s now lifeless body in utter disbelief.

How could this happen to her? Wasn’t this the sort of thing that only happened on TV, in books, or to other people? And why her, for God’s sake? What had she done to deserve this?

Maureen’s partially open eyes stared accusingly at her as she continued to rock back and forth, numb with shock.

She hadn’t even heard Lauren enter the room until she came in back and began murmuring, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God,” over and over again.

On shaky legs, Shania stood up and threw herself into Lauren’s arms. Lauren held her so tight that it hurt, but she didn’t care.

“It’s M-Maureen. She-she’s the one I saw. She’s been f-following me,” she stuttered. “She darkened her red hair.”

“Ok, ok. Shhh, calm down. Just take it nice and easy and tell me everything, but please, we must keep our voices down and not lose our composure. Come on, let’s move up front.”

They sat on the bed where Shania, through shaky tears, told her everything Maureen had told her and what had transpired in the room afterward. “What are we going to do?” she asked in a panic. “What if we end up in prison for life?”

“We won’t if we keep our cool and use our heads. The first thing we have to do is get rid of her,” Lauren said.

“Get rid of her where?”

“Shhh, let me think.” Lauren put a hand to her forehead in deep concentration.

Shania wrapped her arms around herself and gently rocked back and forth.

“The mountain,” Lauren finally said a moment later.

“The mountain?”

Lauren nodded. “There’s hardly anyone up there on Bly Mountain, from what I hear.”

“Where is this mountain?”

“About a half hour away, maybe a little more. You say she’s been staying in the room on the end across the way?”

Shania nodded.

“We just better hope she didn’t tell anyone where she was staying.”

“But certainly she told someone of her plans to come after us.”

Lauren nodded in agreement. “That’s why we’ve got to get her out of here.”

“But how are we going to do that?”

“We’ll take care of it tonight.”

“But these parking lots are lit up as bright as day.”

“Well, we can’t just leave her here, Shania, and we can’t call the cops and claim self-defense. Even if they believed you were only defending yourself, they’d still get us on the escape warrants. Getting rid of her may be riskier than turning our selves in, but I don’t think so.”

“Then what do we do?”

“We start with getting those bloody clothes off of you. Get changed and I’ll go out before the stores close and get a blanket and a shovel.”

“I can’t stay here alone with her. I’m going with you,” Shania insisted.

“Ok, come on then. Hurry up and get changed.”

When the two returned from the store, they wrapped Maureen’s body in the blanket they got, along with Shania’s bloody clothes.

“Careful not to get any blood on your own clothes,” Shania warned Lauren.

“I’ll be careful.”

“How are we going to see what the hell we’re doing up on the mountain tonight?”

“We’re not. We’re just going to get her up there tonight. Tomorrow after work, we’ll go back and bury her.”

“You sure no one will spot her before then?”

“Pretty sure,” said Lauren. “From what they tell me, the woods up there are both remote and thick. What other choice do we have anyway?”

Shania could think of none other.

“I backed the car up to the room’s door. We’ll put her in the trunk around midnight and then we’ll head up there.”

“Do you know where to go?”

Lauren nodded. “I’ve got a map. It looks pretty straightforward from what I could tell. You practically follow the same road from here to the mountain. Then once we get onto the mountain, we’ll pick a spot from there. We just have to make sure we remember the way back to the spot tomorrow afternoon.”

“How long do you think it’ll be before she’s discovered?”

Lauren looked thoughtful as she bundled Maureen up as tightly as she could and secured the blanket around her with ropes. “If all goes well, never. If it doesn’t, then perhaps it’ll be years from now. People aren’t in a hurry to build on that mountain. Because of the elevation, it gets awfully cold and snowy up there in the wintertime. A lot of people would be worried about mountain lions and bears being up there, too.”

“As if we wouldn’t be,” Shania muttered. “What if the wildlife gets to her?”

“Then there may not be much evidence leftover if they destroyed enough of it, but hopefully she’ll stay put for as long as we live.”

The two sat back down on the edge of the bed and held each other tightly. A deep sense of fatigue overwhelmed them both. After a while, Shania softly said, “I once heard someone talk about how they wondered what it would be like to kill someone.”

“And?”

“And how come I don’t feel anything?”

“Perhaps because you know she would have killed you if you hadn’t have killed her first.”

“Perhaps.”

When midnight rolled around, Lauren went out to open the trunk of the car. “I don’t need your help carrying her,” she told Shania when she returned.

Shania watched without emotion as Lauren loaded Maureen’s bundled body into the trunk. She was more worried about the old junker breaking down on the way to the mountain than she was of getting caught.

Once they were on the road, Lauren said, “I got the key card to her room from her pants pocket, plus a hundred bucks in cash.”

“What would she be doing with that much cash on her?” Shania wondered aloud.

“Who knows and who cares. What’s important is that we get all her stuff out of her room when we get back. That way she’ll appear to be missing and not missing with foul play added to the picture. Get it?”

Shania nodded. “But what if she told anyone else where we are? Even if we move, they’ll get us at work unless we change jobs, too.”

“I don’t think she told anyone else where we are. I think she may have told people we’re in Oregon, but not which motel we’re at or where we work.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“I can’t, but I’m willing to bet that it’s a reasonable assumption. That’s information you’d give the police. What good would it do her to tell her friends or family of our exact location? I say that if she told anyone where we are, it would have been the cops, and they’d have nabbed us by now. If things go well, all the police will learn is that she found out where we are and came up to see us, obviously wanting to deal with us on her own terms, before she went missing. Remember what I said about cops suspecting a person of something as opposed to suspecting them and having the evidence to prove their guilt.”

“But we’re not guilty of anything here,” Shania said.

“We weren’t at first, but we are now. You may’ve had the right to defend yourself, but neither of us has the right to bury a dead body without reporting it any more than we had the right to run from Lakeview. We’re in this together until the end, however it ends.”

Shania looked over at Lauren’s darkened profile, eyes aglow with love and admiration. “Words cannot possibly describe the love I feel for you right now for sticking by me through all this shit. Oh, Lauren, I love you so, so very much.”

Shania could see Lauren’s eyes begin to shine with tears.

“I love you too, babe,” said Lauren. “With all my heart and soul.”

They drove through the darkness and up to the summit of the mountain. They finally settled on a place in an area off the gravel roads where the vegetation was extremely dense. So dense that they themselves could barely navigate through the towering pines and junipers.

“Change of plans,” Lauren said.

“What’s that?”

“I’ve got a heavy duty flashlight here. Let’s just get her buried tonight. Less chance of being seen this way if we come here only once, and when it’s dark. I’m sure we’ll both feel better if we get it out of the way tonight anyhow. Then all we’ll have to do is get rid of her stuff.”

“Are we going to bring it up here?”

“No, we’ll dump it in a dumpster somewhere. For now, shine the light in front of us while I carry her.”

They chose an area about a hundred feet from the road.

“Don’t dig too close to the trees,” Shania told her. “You’ll get hung up on roots.”

“I know.”

They quickly scanned the area with the flashlight. They agreed on a spot a moment later and Lauren began to dig while Shania held the light steady.

Such a lovely resting place, Shania thought bitterly. She looked down at Maureen’s blanketed body with disdain. All this hell she’d gone through and all because of this one hateful person who couldn’t simply leave others alone to live in peace. Everything had to be her way or no way. Shania knew she could never feel pity or remorse for Maureen. As far as she was concerned, the girl had lived by the sword and she had died by it. If she could’ve accepted that old saying about how you win some, you lose some, back when Miss Daly gave her the promotion, fair or not, Maureen would still be alive and her own life wouldn’t have been turned upside down and inside out. Yet because of Maureen’s greed, jealousy and hate, she was dead and her own life was in shambles. Her mother had once told her to simply walk away and ignore those she disliked and who was a bad influence on her. Little did she know she’d one day have to kill someone to do just that since some people refused to be ignored. How many other venomous people like Maureen would she have the misfortune of encountering in her lifetime? she wondered.

Because the ground was so hard and rocky, it took hours to dig a sufficient grave. It wasn’t as deep as they’d like, but it wasn’t shallow enough for the next rain to pack the dirt down enough to expose pieces of their secret.

“Why not just let the wildlife have her?” Shania had asked.

“Because they may not destroy enough of her. They could leave enough for someone to spot and for a murder investigation to begin. One that we’d be right smack in the middle of because somebody’s got to know she came here looking for us, just as you said.”

Shania tried not to think of the lions and bears that could be in the area as Lauren finally, after what seemed like forever, dropped Maureen’s body into the makeshift grave and began to pile dirt on it.

The sun was just coming up when they finally finished and drove back down the mountain.

Chapter 28

Lauren caught a couple hours of sleep before she had to get up for work, and Shania slept throughout most of the day.

It wasn’t until noon that she was jarred out of a sound, surprisingly dreamless sleep by someone knocking on the door. She had expected to have nightmares of Maureen coming to life and coming after her with a bloody knife or something, sporting fangs that were dripping with blood, reeking of death as her partly decomposed body lunged towards her, hell-bent on killing her.

Shania sprang upright, heart pounding wildly in her chest.

Again the knock came. “Housekeeper,” she heard the older man call out in his heavy accent.

“No-no thanks,” Shania called back, stumbling to the door. “I’m not feeling too well today. Could you come back tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow? Ok.”

She breathed a sigh of relief. Then, once her heartbeat slowed to normal and she stopped shaking so much, she went and fixed herself a cup of coffee. She noted the few telltale blood stains that still dotted the kitchen floor and set out to give the entire kitchen a thorough cleaning once she finished her coffee.

When Lauren got in from work that afternoon, she was beat. She slept until late in the night when they were to go to Maureen’s room and clean it out.

Shania fell asleep for a while too, but most of the time, she read or watched TV until Lauren arose at 10:30.

After they had a late dinner, they showered and drove across the street. They parked by the side of the building and cautiously approached the door to the room Maureen had been in. The motel was as brightly lit as theirs was, and even closer to the highway. This meant that if they were going to be seen, there was nothing they could do to prevent it. Still, it was worth the risk to make it look as if Maureen had simply checked out and left.

“Hope she didn’t bring anyone with her, though I doubt that she did,” said Lauren.

“Doesn’t look like she had a vehicle of any kind,” Shania said, pointing out the empty parking space that was assigned to that room. “She must’ve rented a car for the trip so I wouldn’t recognize her car if she needed to follow us around.”

“It’d sure make things easier if she didn’t have a car. That way the cops will only be looking for her and not a vehicle, too,” replied Lauren, slipping the card into the slot and pushing the door open. “You got the trash bags?”

“Yes.”

Lauren flicked on the light.

“Wow, these rooms sure are bigger than ours,” Shania said.

“Yes, but they don’t have internet access.”

They began to comb through the items Maureen had, one by one, but nothing stood out in any way.

“It’s all just regular everyday stuff,” Lauren finally concluded. “Let’s bag up what won’t fit in the suitcases.”

Yet they managed to get everything in the one suitcase Maureen had taken with her, including a small duffel bag and her purse, which contained nearly a grand in cash.

Pocketing the cash, Lauren said, “Now I feel like we’re criminals, but it’s ok. We’re doing the right thing. I know we are.”

“Don’t you think a big old suitcase like this would look suspicious sitting in a dumpster somewhere?” Shania asked.

Lauren nodded. “Let’s take it up to the mountain tomorrow and burn it.”

“Burn it? Are you kidding? You don’t light fires in a forest in August, Lauren. The forest rangers will come running in no time. It’s just too dangerous. Keep it in the trunk till we can find a dump. There’s got to be one around here, and it’d be better than burying it on the mountain or anywhere else.”

“That’s true. God knows I don’t want to have to return there as it is, so we’ll take your advice and stash it for now, then we’ll find a dump to take it to tomorrow after work.”

Bailey hated this part of the job. Dealing with possible missing person(s) cases was almost as bad as dealing with domestic calls. Especially when it involved a seemingly unstable, promiscuous woman who had just lost her job. Still, the young blue-eyed blond had been encouraged to follow in her father’s footsteps, and so she had. This meant taking the good cases with the bad, the interesting with the boring, the challenging with the easy.

The policewoman sat beside Erin on the sofa in the expensively decorated living room. The kind you were afraid to so much as breathe in for fear of tearing something.

She glanced up at the man who had been her partner for many years. He gazed at her expectantly. She then turned back to Erin. “So, you’re saying that your niece went to Oregon to look for these two wanted women?”

“Yes,” said Erin, trying not to sound hysterical. As it was, the woman didn’t seem to believe her. Neither did the man, an older, graying, distinguished looking gentleman who had no doubt dealt with calls like these time and time again. “She left her cat here and took off, but this was weeks ago.”

“Is it not like her to run off like this? You said she lost her job before she left. Is it possible she may’ve found work up in Oregon?”

“No way,” answered Erin, shaking her head adamantly. “She’d have called and told me so if she had.”

“If these women were wanted, why was she going up to deal with them herself? Why not call the police and let them handle it?”

“I urged her to call them, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She just wanted to see them for herself, I guess. She was the confrontational type, you could say. She believed in her mind that they had done her wrong. Particularly the McCarthy girl.” Erin filled the officers in on why Maureen was so upset with her.

The policeman remained quiet while his partner did the talking.

“If she used your late husband to get the McCarthy girl committed as you say she did, and then she felt she was responsible for her miscarriage and your husband’s death, just what do you suppose she had in mind to do once she reached Oregon?”

Erin sighed with exasperation. “Maureen was never very stable. I got the distinct feeling that she was out for revenge. She said she would call the police once she got there and found them, but I don’t think deep down that she had any intentions of doing so. At least not before she had it out with them herself. I just didn’t want to jump the gun and make any false assumptions, but now I know in my heart that she did reach Oregon and that something went very wrong because it’s just not like her to stay away this long without contacting someone.”

“Why didn’t you call the police yourself when she first told you where the women were?”

“I don’t know. I know I should have, but I just don’t know anything anymore. I guess maybe I didn’t want to believe she’d do anything stupid. I should have known better, though. I should have.” She placed her head in her hands.

“Mrs. Hoffritz,” the male officer said, startling Erin. He had been so quiet that she’d forgotten he was even there. “Do you know exactly where in Klamath Falls she planned to stay?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Did she say where McCarthy and Cohen were?”

“No, she didn’t. All she told me was that she was going to Klamath Falls, Oregon. I’ve been there once myself. This was before Jonas and I were married. I started off liking it up there, but then I decided it wasn’t for me. Too cold in the winter, and of course, I don’t like snow. It’s a small town. Can’t be much more than fifteen or twenty thousand people there.”

“We’ll do our best to locate your niece as well as the other two women. We’ll broadcast their photos and get the public’s attention up there. The only problem is that these women aren’t likely to look like they normally do,” said the policewoman.

“Yes,” her partner agreed, “they’re bound to have altered their appearance by now, but haircuts, wigs and dye jobs don’t save them all. We’ll do our best. Of that, you can be sure of.”

Could she be? Somehow she doubted that any kind of a happy ending lay waiting at the end of this one.

Jasmine turned and headed back to her room. She’d heard enough standing at the top of the stairs, listening to her mother talk with the police officers. Damn, those bitches! she thought to herself. First, they caused so much trouble for her father before he died, and now her favorite aunt was missing. Maybe what her mother claimed her aunt had said about the one they referred to as Shania McCarthy was true. Maybe her father would be alive if he didn’t have to stay late that day at the clinic to deal with her, leaving her to be the one to have to deal with her mother all by herself. After all, their house hadn’t been affected by the earthquake. Just a few tremors, though nothing serious.

She felt a sense of panic begin to well up in her chest. What if they never found her aunt? First her dad, and now her aunt. And all because of this sick, twisted lunatic, along with an equally twisted therapist. Damn them! she thought again.

Chapter 29

They held their breath and laid low for the remaining week they had left at the motel, though fortunately for them, their time at the motel ended without further incident. Instead of paying for another month, they used the money they’d found in Maureen’s room, along with the money they’d earned, and decided it’d be best to leave town altogether.

They dropped down to Redding, California which was just over a hundred miles from Klamath Falls. Redding was bigger than Klamath Falls, though not as big as San Diego. There they paid a month’s rent for a room with a kitchenette at another small, privately owned motel.

Thanks to an aggressive search on both their parts, they landed jobs within ten days, long before their money could get the chance to run out. Shania would work at a small Native-American specialty store with the owner, a middle-aged woman, while Lauren worked at a Laundromat washing, drying and dry-cleaning clothes. Her only coworker was a young man who took care of maintaining the self-service machines on the other side of the large Laundromat. The perky African-American was hoping to make it big as a rap star someday, and often “rapped” to his work. Lauren found it rather amusing, while some customers found it a bit annoying. Even strange.

“Guess folks just aren’t used to rappers in a nothing town in northern California as opposed to the big bad cities, huh, Denise?”

“Yeah, I think that’s got something to do with it. They’ll get used to it, though. At least the customers of this old place will.”

“Maybe sometime you can bring your cousin over and hear me and the band play.”

“Maybe,” said Lauren, though she knew she wouldn’t. It simply wouldn’t be a wise thing to do since they still had nearly a year to go of having to keep a low profile. Besides, other than when it came to Shania, she still didn’t like mixing business with pleasure. She went to work to make money, not to socialize and make friends.

After work, she drove to pick up Shania, who got off work at the same time she did. “How was work?” she asked her.

“Boring. How was your day?” asked Shania, snapping on her seatbelt.

“Same old, same old.”

“That dude still rapping your ear off?”

“Of course,” Lauren answered with a chuckle.

Back at the motel, Lauren was pleased as well as a bit surprised to receive an email from Courtney saying that no one had been by to question her about her whereabouts since her initial disappearance.

They showered together. Not bothering to dress afterward, they had chocolate-covered strawberries for a snack.

Shania lit a stick of magnolia-scented incense they’d gotten at the grocery store, while Lauren set some romantic music to play from the laptop.

They began to slow dance together, naked bodies rubbing deliciously against one another. Not long afterward, they found themselves in bed.

Shania scooted back on the bed and leaned back on her arms. She spread her legs eagerly.

“Oh, you look so good,” said Lauren, voice filled with desire. She followed Shania onto the bed and hovered teasingly above her for a moment. Her dark eyes shone with lust as she rubbed her body alongside Shania’s.

Shania longingly wrapped her legs around Lauren’s middle, pulling her closer.

As their desire mounted, they shifted positions so that each one could taste the other’s most sensitive spots. Five minutes later, they were just about to climax when the knock on the door came, startling them both and spoiling the moment.

Shania wondered if knocking on doors would send her into a panic for as long as she lived.

“Who is it?” Lauren called out.

“Police,” came the answer.

Lauren flashed Shania a fearful look as Shania’s heart took off at such a frantic pace that she thought she’d faint. Without thinking, she reflexively jumped off the bed and quickly headed into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. She just didn’t want to deal with facing the police and possibly giving herself away, if by some chance they weren’t here to arrest them.

Oh, please, please be here for something else! she silently begged.

Lauren threw on a robe and opened the door. “Yes?”

“Hello there,” replied a deep, no-nonsense voice. “Has anyone here seen a white male in his early twenties passing through? He would be about six feet tall, blond, light eyes, slender.”

“No, can’t say that I have. We’ve been in the room for hours.”

“We?”

“Yes,” said Lauren. “My cousin’s in the bathroom right now getting ready to shower. What’s this about anyway, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“There’s been an escape from the local jail.”

“An escape?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“What did this person do?”

“Oh, just a little breaking and entering mixed in with some narcotics sales.”

“I see.”

The officer looked over Lauren’s shoulder and scanned the room before he said, “Ok, thank you, ma’am, and don’t hesitate to phone us if you see anyone suspicious lurking about. Especially anyone fitting the description I just gave you.”

“Ok.”

“Have a good night.”

“Thank you.”

Shania didn’t come out of the bathroom until she heard the door close.

Lauren quietly crept over to her. “Did you hear?”

“I heard. How’d you manage that without passing out completely? Do you think he was for real, or do you think he was making up some story just to check us out?”

“I don’t know, but I sure as hell hope he was for real.”

Shania’s brows were creased with worry. “Maybe we should split.”

“We can’t keep running every time we see a cop, Shania.”

“We can’t go to jail either.”

“We’d lose an awful lot of money if we left now.”

“Better that than an awful lot of freedom.”

“Why don’t we do this,” Lauren said. “We’ll just keep our eyes wide open. If there’s any trouble ahead, I’m sure we’ll see it coming in advance if we keep a sharp watch. The slightest sign of trouble and we’re out of here, ok?”

Shania nodded and said, “And then when our month here is up, I think we ought to go where no one expects us to go.”

“And where would that be?”

“Home.”

“Home?”

Again Shania nodded. “Yes, home. Right smack in the middle of sunny San Diego.”

Chapter 30

And so home they went a few weeks later. Courtney was delighted to see them, as was Lauren’s parents, whom Shania found to be very easygoing people.

They knew they were taking a risk, but they felt it best to get on with their lives, even though they would continue to use their aliases. To keep running would be allowing Hoffritz to control them even from the grave and that was the last thing they wanted to do.

Shania got in touch with Mindy, who was delightfully surprised to learn that she was back in the area. They got together, though not too often.

“How do you like living with Lauren and Courtney?” Mindy asked her when Shania went to visit her and her new roommate, Sally.

“It sure beats motels,” Shania answered. “We get along well. Lauren and I share one bedroom and Courtney’s got the other. The living room is basically used on a first come, first serve basis. If we come in to find Courtney in the living room watching a movie we don’t care to see, we go watch what we want to watch in our room. Courtney spends a lot of time at her boyfriend’s place, though, so Lauren and I get a lot of time alone. It works out quite well. Lauren and Courtney work and I take care of the place.”

“Didn’t you say Lauren’s now a manager?”

Shania nodded. “She landed a job helping to manage an apartment complex. They pay surprisingly well, too.”

“Wow, that’s good. I’m really happy for you, girl. For a time there I wasn’t so sure I’d ever see you again.” She put a hand on Shania’s shoulder.

Shania smiled with understanding. “Neither was I.”

“But you survived and made it through.”

“Yes, I guess you could say that I did.”

Mindy’s look turned serious. “Listen, Shania. About my roommate…”

“Hey, don’t feel guilty,” Shania assured her friend, knowing what she was going to say. “I told you to go ahead and do what you had to do. Thanks for storing my stuff at your mom’s place in the meantime.”

“Oh, no problem.”

“I’m just glad the cops didn’t badger you too much.”

“Me too, though I would have played dumb all the way.”

“I know you would have, but fortunately you didn’t have to.”

“Did they harass anyone else?”

“No, I’m surprised to say. They only went to Lauren’s place and questioned Courtney once. Same with Lauren’s folks.”

“That’s good.”

“So,” Shania said with a sly smile, “are you and Sally really just roommates, or perhaps a little more than that?”

Mindy giggled. “Perhaps a little more. We’re taking it slow, you know?”

Shania nodded.

The two friends chatted a while longer, then Shania began the short walk back to the condominiums. “Courtney and her boyfriend are going to be in Vegas all weekend, so Lauren and I will have the place all to ourselves over the next few days.”

“Ooh!” Mindy drooled teasingly. “Have fun.”

“Oh, we will,” Shania assured her as she walked off. “Take care and good luck with Sally.”

“Don’t need any, but thanks anyway,” Mindy called after her before she turned to head inside.

Shania picked up her pace. Life was good, she thought, realizing how well things were turning out, and it was even better to know that she didn’t have to worry about Maureen. She enjoyed the ten-minute walk through a maze of side streets. It had recently rained, leaving a fresh smell in the air. Flowers were abloom everywhere with blazing color and the lawns were a vivid shade of green.

She headed up the path to the condo’s front door and went to insert her key in the lock. Before she could, however, she saw that the door was slightly ajar. She pushed it open and called out to Lauren. She would certainly be home from work by now.

But why would she not shut and lock the door behind her? she wondered, stepping into the living room.

“Lauren,” Shania called out.

Someone came out of the kitchen, but it wasn’t Lauren. It was a young teenage girl with disheveled auburn hair. She came to within a few yards of where Shania stood and grinned. It was a slow, malicious grin that sent icy waves of fear rippling throughout her. She was too confused to see it at first, but recognition was now setting in. This was the girl from one of the photos in Hoffritz’s office. Perhaps it was his daughter. The girl’s yellow shirt was spattered with red streaks.

“How the hell did you get in here?” she asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

The girl said nothing.

“Where’s Lauren?”

Still nothing.

“What do you want?” Shania demanded, panic beginning to rise within her. Finally, she ran past the girl and into the kitchen.

Lauren was slumped over the kitchen table, bloody and dead. Her eyes were open and they stared up at her helplessly, as if to say she was sorry things had to end this way, and that there was nothing she could do to change the horrible fate that awaited her, though she had tried.

Aware of the girl approaching her from behind, Shania opened her mouth and screamed, and screamed, and screamed…

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