Authors: G. H. Ephron
For Nora, Delia, and Amy
Nelson Butters and Ethan S. Rofman
every twenty feet or so did a feeble job lighting the gloomy underground passageway that connects the two dozen buildings of the Pearce Psychiatric Institute. My footsteps echoed on the concrete floor. Even well into spring, the powdery cement walls held winter's cold in their bones, and icy water dripped from the ceiling.
I opened a door and emerged into deepening twilight. For once I wasn't taking work home. I was meeting Annie Squires at eight at the Casablanca in Harvard Square. Mediterranean spices beckoned, plus a beautiful companion whose day hadn't been spent dealing with hospital bureaucracy and five new admissions. It wasn't a record for the Neuropsychiatric Unitâwe'd once had nine in a single memorable day, nearly a fifty percent turnover. But five was enough to frazzle Gloria Alspag, the nurse in charge, which meant the rest of us got thoroughly frazzled as well.
Dinner with Annie was just the antidote I needed. We'd share a good bottle of red wine, maybe a Ridge Zin. She'd tell me about her dayâI knew she'd been planning to spend it tracking down and interviewing the associates of some millionaire businessman whom attorney Chip Ferguson was defending against charges of fraud. Maybe we'd split a bread pudding for dessert. Linger over some espresso. Come back to my house for a glass of port with its rich, almost chocolatey taste. Nice, but not nearly as nice as the taste of Annie. I felt the tingle of anticipation.
I walked along the side of Rose Hall. The decommissionedâour euphemism for “derelict”âbuilding had a red-brick faÃ§ade and a handsome white-columned portico. Even though most of the buildings that graced the Olmsted-designed grounds had been built at the same time, each was unique. Rose Hall was Greek Revival, the building that housed the neuropsych unit was Victorian gingerbread with a mansard roof, the administration building resembled an Italian villa. Perhaps the founders of the Institute craved architectural diversityâor maybe it had been a board that couldn't agree on anything. I'd been on more than a few of those myself.
Patients and staff had long since moved out of Rose Hall as clinical units closed while cinderblock-and-glass research facilities opened. Now the first-floor windows were boarded. One of the sheets of plywood was painted white with a big black X across it, marking it for demolition.
A side door was slightly ajar. When I got closer I could see a lock dangling from a hasp that had been pried loose. As a kid, I'd have found an open door to an abandoned building irresistible. I'd have rounded up Danny Ellentuck and we'd have set out to explore what we fervently hoped would turn out to be a haunted house.
I'm not a kid anymore. I pulled the door open and peered inside. I tried not to inhale the mildew and rot. There was a rustling inside, as if something were scuttling about. Probably rodents.
The door squealed as I pushed it shut, and I made a mental note to call Security and let them know the building needed to be secured. Again. Vandalism was a constant problem at the Pearce. For years we'd talked about setting up a checkpoint at the entrance gate, but that would have been like spitting in the ocean. Anyone could walk onto the grounds just about anywhere along the ten-plus-mile perimeter.
I started down steps that were nothing more than timbers set into the side of the hill. That morning, I'd snagged one of the last spots near the lower end of the two-tiered parking lot. Now more spots were empty than taken and the place felt like a deserted stage set. Shadows from the surrounding trees stretched across the asphalt.
I heard a high-pitched screech,
, and thought I saw something swoop across the parking lot. Now a breeze rattled the trees and undergrowth. The Pearce had a staff of twenty whose job it was to keep the encroaching woodland in its place. I put on my jacket and turned up the collar. Spring in New England didn't mean warmth.
I walked toward my car, a brand new silver Subaru WRX, which I was growing to hate. I passed Emily Ryan's Miata. Emily was a post-doc I was supervising. She'd been working part-time with us for the last few months on a fellowship. Neat car, I thought as I took a detour to admire it. The red looked nearly black in the twilight. Not as sexy as a Corvette, or as classy as my deceased '67 Beemer. I felt a pang just thinking about that car. No point in bellyaching. It had been totaled and no amount of sweat, wishing, or money was going to get it back.
Yes indeedy, that Miata was pretty cool. I wondered if it had the leg room I needed. What the hell was I doing with a Subaru anyway? Contrary to what the nobs at the car magazines were saying, the WRX was
the hottest ride of the new century. For my money, it felt like plastic and drove like a windup toy. Only consolation was that finding replacement parts was a cinch.
As I ran my hand over the Miata's sleek front fender, something felt odd. It wasn't smooth like I'd expected. I crouched to get a closer look. The entire length of the passenger side had been keyed. To some people, I suppose, a brand-new, shiny red car is as irresistible as an unbitten candy apple.
Uneasiness seeped into my chest. The damage was recentâlittle curls of paint still adhered to the groove.
I hung there, crouched. When it was your car, this was the kind of thing that made you sick to your stomach, then angry as hell. Then it frightened you as you wondered if it was random, the luck of the drawâor personal, and you were handpicked. I checked out the rest of the body, the headlights. One of the rear tires was nearly flat. Damn.
I started across the parking lot and back up the steps, already refiguring my timeframe. Emily was probably still in her office. I'd find her, we'd call AAA, then I'd wait until the tire got fixed and she got off safely. I should still make it to the Casablanca in time to meet Annie.
I hurried back through the tunnel and let myself into the building. I took the stairs two at a time up three flights and knocked on the door of the oversized closet where we parked post-docs. Office space was a scarce commodity. No answer.
“Emily,” I called, knocking harder. I tried the knob. The door was locked.
Maybe she was on the main floor. I took the elevator down. Gloria looked up from the nurse's stationâthe broad counter surrounded by chart racks, file cabinets, and an assortment of mismatched chairs that serve as our hub and nerve center. Gloria's day should have ended at five, but being her superconscientious self, she was still there slogging through unfinished paperwork and orienting the night shift to our new patients.
“You seen Emily Ryan?” I asked.
“What's wrong?” Gloria stands small but mighty at about five-three, with close-cropped light brown hair and glasses. Very little gets past her.
“When I went out to get in my car I noticed she's got a flat tire.”
Like I said, very little gets past Gloria.
“Yeah. And someone keyed it all along one side.”
Gloria looked outraged. “That's awful. Security”âshe said the word with a snort of contemptâ“bet they were off somewhere busily handing out parking tickets.” It was a sore spot with Gloria that five perfectly good parking spots alongside our building were marked
. “Emily left about forty-five minutes ago. She was wearing her running clothes. Carrying her briefcase and her work clothes.”
Forty-five minutes. She'd probably dropped her things in her car, stretched, and then gone for a run on one of the trails that snaked through the woods and across the lawns of the Pearce. She could be getting back to her car right now. She could easily miss the flat tire and start home, then end up broken down on the side of the road, might even ruin the wheel.
I thanked Gloria and raced downstairs and out through the tunnel. I'd just reached the top of the stairs when I heard what sounded like a single clap, then a woman's scream cut through the twilight, sending chills down my back.
“Goddamn you, you miserable sonofabitch,” Emily screamed, backing away from her car. She stumbled over her own feet.
The parking lot was now deep in shadow. I couldn't make out another figure. Who was she talking to?
“You bastard. Oh, God, get away from me.”
“Emily!” I yelled, starting down the stairs.
“Stay away,” she shrieked. She ran across the parking lot, heading for a stand of birch at the far end.
“Emily, it's me, Peter,” I shouted, flapping my arms.
She froze for a moment. Then she ran straight at me and hurled herself into my arms, nearly knocking me over.
“Oh my God, he's out there,” she said, sobbing and shaking. “Someone'sâ” She gave a startled leap. “There, did you hear that? Over there. In the bushes?”
She held on to me tighter. I smelled sweat, and something else, like the inside of a tin canâfear.
“Whoever you are,” I thundered in that general direction, “the party's over. Go away. Stop bothering her.”
Emily clung to me tenaciously. Tendrils of dark hair had come loose from her ponytail and were now stuck to the perspiration at the back of her neck. Though she was small and slight, Emily was anything but weak. She could move fast, and shoulder and back muscles rippled through her thin Lycra top as she pressed against me.
I managed to pull out my cell phone and called Security. They picked up on the second ring. I asked them to send someone over right away.
With my arm around her, I walked Emily back to her car. She put out a trembling hand and rested it on the open door on the passenger side. Her face had gone pale as chalk.
“The door was open when I came back,” she said. She leaned into the car and felt around on the floor, on the seat. “He tookâoh, God, I don't even know what he took. Some underwear. And I thought I left an earring on the seat.”
A helpless fury was building in my chest. The underbrush surrounding the parking lots was now in deep shadow. Was he waiting for her there? Lurking in Rose Hall? Or had he been there earlier, watching me, too?
“Oh no,” Emily said groaning, touching the place where a key had been scraped along the car's body.
“Your right rear tire's flat, too,” I said.
One of the white Pearce security vans pulled into the lot. An officer climbed out, keys jingling from a ring attached to his pants. He hooked his fingers over his belt and did a 360 after Emily told him what had happened. Then he got out a flashlight and walked the perimeter of the parking lot, shining the light into the trees and bushes.
“I think he was over there,” I said, indicating where Emily said she'd heard a noise.
The officer waded into the underbrush. He crashed around, strafing the area with his flashlight beam. Anyone or anything hiding out there would have had plenty of warning and time to relocate by now.
When the guard reemerged, he took off his cap and scratched his head. “I don't see anyone now. We've had a couple of coyote sightings the last few weeks.”
Sounded more like the Wild West than suburban Boston. “Coyotes don't key cars and let the air out of tires,” I said. I told him he ought to check Rose Hall. The side door had been jimmied open.
He got out a notebook and wrote. Then he unhooked his walkie-talkie from his belt. “I think we'd better have the police check this out.”
“Please don't,” Emily said. She'd gone a shade paler as she touched her fingers to her throat.
The guard and I looked at her in disbelief.
“It's probably just kids,” she said. “Really, I don't want to bother the police. They'll make such a to-do about it.”
“Butâ” the guard started to protest.
She put her hand on his sleeve. “You do understand, don't you?”
He looked at her uncertainly.
“Emily, are you sure you know what you're doing?” I asked. Why was she suddenly minimizing her obvious terror?
“I'll be more careful,” she assured us both. “Get an alarm installed. Change the locks.”
The guard put his walkie-talkie back on his belt.
“You'll file a report internally at least?” I asked him.
He nodded. “As for you, little lady, I'd suggest you do your running when it's still light. And you might get yourself a whistle.”
“Little lady?” Emily grumbled as we watched him drive off. “What a jerk.” She pulled a zippered sweatshirt off the floor of her car and put it on. She overlapped the front and crossed her arms. “Why is this happening to me?”
I called AAA and asked them to send someone over to change the flat.
“Why didn't you want to call the police?” I asked while we waited.
“I just didn't want to make a fuss. Stir things up.”
Stir what things up? I was about to ask when my cell phone beeped. I had a message waiting. Uh-oh, I thought with a jolt. I'd completely lost track of time. Annie had already been waiting for me at the restaurant for twenty minutes. I had no good explanation for why I hadn't remembered to call her. I hadn't been thinking.
I dialed voice mail. The message was from Annie all rightâbut not what I'd expected to hear.
“Peter, sorry I'm late. I got tied up and lost track of time,” Annie said. “You should go ahead and eat. I'm not going to be able to make it. I'll call you later at home.”
At first I was relieved. At least she hadn't been sitting in the restaurant wondering where the hell I was. Then I felt irritationâthough I knew I had no right. When I got past that, worry set in. It wasn't like Annie to be late, never mind stand me up.
I called her back. I tried her at home, at the office, and on her cell phone. In three places I left the same message: “Don't worry about it. Call me.”
“You want me to follow you home?” I asked Emily after the tire had been changed.
“No. Really, I'll be okay.” She rose on tiptoe and gave me a light kiss on the cheek. “Thanks.”
“Don't mention it,” I said.