Authors: Ava Mallory
I needed to talk this out and get some feedback on all that I'd learned. Glancing at the clock on the nightstand, I decided it was as good a time as any to call Ruby and get her up to speed.
“Hey, Sugar! Do you need bail money yet?” Ruby teased.
“I need the first snowplow out of here. Can you arrange that? I'm thinking these people will lock me up and throw away the key without any concern about evidence or motive or anything that most courts of law require to prosecute.” I answered, fully aware of how dramatic I sounded.
“I'll write to you,” Ruby joked.
I wanted to laugh, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. Not yet. First, I needed Ruby to hear me out and help me to get myself out of this mess I found myself embroiled in.
Ruby cleared her throat, recognizing that laughter wasn't going to be the best medicine in this particular situation. “Honey, tell me what you need me to do. How can I help?”
I explained all that I'd learned from the moment Rowdy died one foot away from me, only a few short days ago, yet it felt like I'd been trapped in this nightmare for a lifetime.
I could hear Ruby taking notes as I spoke. She loved a good riddle. From as far back as I could remember, she was always trying to find the underlying causes for anything and everything in life. It was in her nature to analyze every situation she approached.
Unlike me, she'd managed to keep a husband and he was a good one at that. He didn't mind her constant barrage of questions and psychoanalysis of everyone around her. He found it to be an endearing quality in her because that's how she came to find him.
Hank and Ruby met when they were in college. He was her roommate's brother and was smitten with her from the first moment he saw her. She was hard to ignore with long, flowing red hair and radiant green eyes the size of saucers. She lit up every room she walked into and kept audiences captivated with her infectious smile and quick wit.
Ruby would deny it, but she was head over heels in love with Henry 'Hank' Nickles or Dr. Hank, as most people called him, from the moment she first laid eyes on him. He was a doctoral candidate at the time and Ruby was more than interested in analyzing every word that came out of his mouth. The fact that he was to receive his doctorate in psychiatry was just icing on the cake of love for her.
After their marriage, he often found himself trying to talk Ruby and I down from whatever had us spinning our wheels in life. He almost never complained, even if the vein in the middle of his forehead popped out from the amount of stress he was under because of his hectic work schedule. He indulged us and our proclivities for tangled messes.
“Hank says to keep your cool and don't let them see you sweat.” Ruby said.
“How am I supposed to stay calm when people are accusing me of murder? Nothing about this is normal. I don't know how to explain all that's been done here. It's like I am a pariah and they are an angry mob, preparing to hang me by the stake.” I said.
“You sure that you're not being a bit over dramatic, Mercy? You know, sometimes you have a tendency to over think things. Remember the clerk at the grocery store? You swore he was up to something because of his shifty eyes and...”
I interrupted her, knowing what she was going to say next. “He had a lazy eye and came back the following week wearing glasses. I remember, but for the record, I wasn't wrong. His eyes had been dilated, just not dilated for the reason I thought, so I was only partially wrong on that one.”
Make one mistake and the whole world uses it against you.
“I'm just saying, don't jump to conclusions. They had a murder in their facility. You can't very well expect them to not point fingers. That's just what people do, but on another note, you had just gotten into town, so why you would be a suspect just doesn't make sense.” Ruby had the same doubts that I had.
I could hear Hank speaking in the background. Knowing him, he was trying to apply logic to an illogical situation.
Ruby's attention turned to him, while I waited on the other end of the line, trying to distinguish dust particles from the crumbling popcorn ceiling flakes that cascaded to the floor every time the wind blew.
“Sorry, hon, I was just listening to Hank and I have to agree with him...” she started, “you can't let these people get to you. Just keep doing your job and finish this assignment. If you opt to leave, you'll give them more reason to suspect you of wrongdoing.”
They were right. Leaving town with my tail between my legs would make me seem guilty. I couldn't do that. Who knows what people would say if I suddenly hightailed it back to California. They'd have me in a firing squad by the time I hit Colorado, I'm sure.
“You two are right. I can't leave.” My voice quivered as I said it. I was officially stuck in this town. Under different circumstances, I'm sure I would have liked this place. Small town life appealed to me. I'd always dreamed of meeting a handsome cowboy and living out in the country, but this experience may have soured that dream for good.
Ruby said in her mock formal voice, “Mercy, the good doctor wants to have a word with you.”
“Okay.” I answered, wishing that they'd advised that I weather the storm and get home as soon as possible. “There may be a way out of this. I just have to figure out a way to get it done though. It's not like anyone around here is really keen on lending me a helping hand.”
“Good. Good.” Hank said. “What is it? If there's anything we can do, let us know.”
I took a much needed deep breath. I could feel myself teetering on the edge of hysteria and the last thing I needed was to go there while simultaneously speaking to a psychiatrist. “This place is full of cameras. I'm telling you that they have cameras absolutely everywhere. The Sheriff took the footage from the office, but there's a camera right outside the unit doors that was just installed that morning. He may not have noticed the camera there. I asked the maintenance guy about footage from that day.”
“Oh, good!” Hank exclaimed. “Well, there's your proof that you didn't do anything. It will show that you had just arrived.”
I shook my head, saying, “No, I'm hoping it will show more than that. I'm hoping it will have footage proving that Mr. Knott arrived under the influence of something that morning. That, I hope, will prove that it couldn't have been me.”
I don't remember falling asleep, but I sure remember waking up to the sound of Kathy's voice screaming in my ear. Startled, I lunged off the bed and plopped onto the floor, sending my cell phone slamming into the wall.
“What in the world?” I grabbed the back of my head, checking for any signs of swelling. I glanced up at the alarm clock on the nightstand next to me. It was five o'clock. I had to report to work in an hour.
I could still hear the sound of Kathy's voice coming from my cell phone. Hoisting myself up, I reached for the phone and clumsily put it to my ear.
“Hello! Hello!” She shouted. “Answer me!”
I cleared the sleep from my throat and said, “I'm right here. I was asleep. Why are you screaming at me?”
She didn't apologize. Instead, she yelled, “Do you have it?”
“Have what?” I asked, trying my best to use my inside voice with her.
“Betty's ring. Her diamond solitaire ring is gone. She said that you took it off her finger when you were in her room last night.” Kathy's words were laced with seething anger.
“I did no such thing. Why would she say that?” My brain was still in a fog. I had no memory of answering the phone. Who knows what I could have said to incriminate myself before realizing that I was on the phone?
“You need to get down here now. Her son has called the Sheriff and I'm sure he's going to want to talk to you. Make sure you bring her ring back. You know, since you'll be here anyway.” Kathy hissed.
Sarcasm was my forte and I didn't appreciate her using it at my expense. I hung up, not bothering to close the call properly. It didn't matter. Anything I would have said, wouldn't have been nice.
I went in prepared for battle, but was instead met with a friendly smile from Tina.
“Hi! Looks like it's me and you again tonight. Marie can't make it in. The roads by her house haven't been plowed yet. Stacy has to stay to cover one of the other units and, I believe, the day nurse had to stay on her unit too.” Tina explained, looking refreshed from her night off.
“They're going to let me stay? I thought for sure they'd fire me by now.” I said, looking around for the cavalry to come in and whisk me off to jail.
Tina's eyebrows furrowed. “Why? What happened?”
“No one told you?” I asked, surprised.
She shook her head. “No? Why are you getting fired?”
Kathy interrupted our conversation. “Mercedes! Hurry up! I want to go home.” She stood with her hand on her hip, tapping her foot.
“She says jump, I should jump.” I muttered under my breath, turning to follow her into the office. I didn't see the Sheriff anywhere around. “I didn't punch in.”
Rolling her eyes, she spoke through clenched teeth. “Why not? I told you that I wanted to leave at exactly six o'clock. Was that so hard to understand?”
I feigned a smile, figuring that the cameras were aimed at me and, if this impossible woman should ever come up missing, I was going to need proof that I tolerated her without any issues. “No, Kathleen.” I started, just to irritate her. “I understood, but weren't you the one who told me that Sheriff Wagner was going to want to talk to me? Why would I punch in if I was going to be escorted out the door right away?”
She grabbed her bags and draped them over her shoulder, holding her coat in her hand. “I don't have time for this. I don't know what you're talking about and I don't really care right now. I'm back in the morning. Try to get all of your work done for a change.” She turned on her heels and walked off the unit, not bothering to say a word to any of the residents that were milling about in the day room.
Tina watched her storm out, then, looked at me and started laughing. “She's a piece of work, isn't she?”
I heard Betty respond, but hadn't yet seen her face yet. “She's always been an impossible spawn of the you-know-who.”
Tina laughed a heartier laugh. I poked my head out of the office, looking for Betty. She sat with a book in her hand and Barney on her lap. She must have seen me in her peripheral and said, “I'm not kidding. That woman has always been a pain in the patoot. I can't tell you how many times my Rowdy wanted to give her a piece of his mind, but I always held him back. She wasn't worth it.”
I was hesitant to say anything because I worried that anything I said or did would be misconstrued and I'd be accused of something else, but Betty had other ideas.
“Mercy, I'd like to speak to you.” Betty said, still not looking in my direction.
I looked at Tina, but she didn't flinch. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to her.
“Sure, Betty. What can I do for you?” I asked, feeling my palms get sweaty.
“He's gone, you know?” Betty said, a distant look in her eyes.
My heart skipped a beat. She wanted to speak to me about Rowdy. I didn't think that sounded like a good idea, so I deflected by talking about the book she was reading, but Betty was determined to be heard.
She tried again. “I need to talk to you about my Rowdy.”
I loved how she referred to Rowdy as hers. That was sweet. I imagined that they must have been together for quite a long time. Her pain must have been excruciating.
“His funeral will be tomorrow.” She said, tears brimming in her eyes.
“Yes, I know. I'm so sorry for your loss.” I'd said it before, but wanted to make sure she truly knew how I felt about it.
“You're probably the only one who is. No one. I mean, no one, liked Rowdy. He was a difficult, ornery old man.” She sighed, adding, “ But, I loved him.”
I looked at her ring finger. There was no ring there. I wracked my brain trying to recall if I'd noticed a ring on her finger any of the other times I'd been with her.
Most medical facilities requested that valuables not be brought in and, if they were, they were cataloged or kept in a secure space. What I needed to do was get a hold of her chart and see if there was an itemized list of her belongings. The only problem was that I hadn't seen her chart since the day after Rowdy died and I kept forgetting to ask Kathy about it, since she was the last one I'd seen with the chart.
Betty's eyes welled with tears as she turned her head to look me in the eyes. “Why,” she asked.
I swallowed hard, saddened by her devastating loss. “I don't know. I'm so sorry,” I answered.
She put her head down and cried quietly. I placed my hand over hers, but she pulled her hand away. I had to take a couple of deep breaths to keep myself from sobbing. I understood not wanting human contact just yet. I'd experienced that before when I lost my parents.
We sat side by side in silence for a few minutes more until the familiar sound of movement approaching us, broke our silence. The humming of the wheels on Nubbin's wheelchair caused us both to look up.
Nubbin cleared his throat, asking, “Which one of us are they killing today?”
I cringed at his words.
Leave it to Nubbin to say something crude in the middle of a tense moment.
“Nubbin, how are you doing?” I asked, hoping to provide a distraction.
“Not dead yet, so as good as it gets, I guess.” He answered, eyeing Betty as she tried to discreetly wipe the tears from her face.
“How was dinner?” I asked, standing up.
“Not much worse than lunch,” he answered, still watching Betty. To her, he said, “Crying won't bring him back. What you need to do now is fight and get the evil fool who did this.”
I panicked at the sound of his words and grabbed the handles to his wheelchair and started carting him away from Betty as fast as I could.
“Nubbin, you sure are a sweet talker, aren't you?” I was scolding him, but Nubbin took it as a compliment and chuckled. “I'm serious. Betty is going through a rough time right now and we have to be mindful of what we say to her. Words can easily be misconstrued and we don't want to upset her anymore than she already is.”
Nubbin's eyes were fixed on a spot just beyond my face. I didn't want to make him feel like he was a child, but I did need him to understand that there are boundaries not to be crossed and one of those was making mention of murder and suspects repeatedly. It wasn't good for Betty or anyone else around the facility.
“I know it!” Nubbin said finally. “I'll keep my trap shut, but only if you get this scumbag. We don't need no more deaths around here. We do fine all by ourselves, thank you very much.”
The more time I spent with the residents of this unit, the more I questioned everything I'd ever learned about dementia and the typical symptoms. It seemed to me that this particular group was far more lucid than any of the other folks with dementia I'd had the pleasure to get to know over the years.
Just as that thought crossed my mind, Nubbin started screaming at the top of his lungs, “Murderers! They are killing us and no one will help us!”
Tina ran in the room, expecting to find him alone and in hysterics. When she saw me, she came to a screeching halt, grabbing the top of Nubbin's dresser to steady herself and catch her breath.
She addressed Nubbin. “Mr. Schmeckpepper, why are you yelling?”
“I'm not!” Nubbin snapped back. “I'm just talking to Monte Carlo here. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?”
I left Tina to calm Nubbin down while I began tending to my work. I couldn't let another night go by without making sure that I checked every item off my list, including finding out where Betty's chart was and confirming that she had a ring in her possession to begin with.
As I walked through the day room, I noticed that Betty was no longer sitting in there. Barney lie asleep by the patio doors. All was quiet. There were no residents milling about and no fires to put out.
I shouldn't have been surprised to find the office in total disarray, but I was. The room looked like it had been ransacked.
“Don't worry, I'll clean it up,” I mumbled, suspecting that Kathy left the room like this on purpose. She was determined to make me look bad at every turn.
No matter how much work I did manage to get done during a shift, the more work I still had left to do by the time my shift ended. I just couldn't catch a break in this place.
At one time, right before I arrived here in the middle of nowhere, I'd prided myself on how proficient and efficient of a nurse I was. Now, after having been exposed to the infectious virus that was the seed of doubt in a small town, I didn't know who or what I was anymore.
Ruby would tell me to suck it up and move forward. I could practically hear her saying it all day long, but I couldn't yet bring myself to follow that advice. It was like I was losing more and more of myself with each passing minute and I had no idea how to get myself back. Inside, I felt like shattered shards of glass with no hope of ever getting pieced back together.
As I began the daunting task of searching for the desk under the massive piles of paperwork and discarded trash, I thought back to everything that made me who I was. I missed my life. I missed that part of me that made me feel whole and worthwhile. I wasn't perfect. I could admit that, but I also wasn't as completely and utterly flawed as some of the people I'd encountered in life, but I was beginning to think I was wrong.
While my my wondered, I'd somehow miraculously managed to clear off a good portion of the desk and chair. Most of what was strewn about were the chart inserts for the new month and more remnants of a plant that must have met its death in this cramped office.
I believe it was Kathy's way of telling me to get the charts together before the holidays. Technically, it wasn't my job, but I did welcome the distraction. My frayed nerves needed busy work. Doing something with my hands would give my brain some time to process all that had gone horribly wrong. While I hadn't actually been accused of a crime, I sure felt like I was a suspect. I guess I didn't really need to hear anyone, aside from Betty, say it to know that there wasn't a soul for thousands of miles who was on my side in this very mixed up case of whodunit.
With the new month's paperwork stacked neatly in one corner for me to tend to later, I directed my attention to the huge collection of debris that was piled under the desk.
The oddly placed camera was gone. Truth be told, I was glad to see that it had been removed. I had visions of some creepy man sitting behind closed doors, staring at unsuspecting laps all day long. It gave me chills to think about. What could someone possibly be watching for under the desk?
I slid my chair back to get a better view of where the camera once hung and noticed that there were no unsightly holes in the wall from the screws that held the tiny camera in place. Someone, probably the maintenance man, had taken the time to patch up the wall.
Now, crawling on the floor wasn't something I ever really cared to do again, but I had no other choice in this situation. I had to get the heap of garbage out of the office or I'd be blamed for it.
Remembering that the last time I crawled under the desk, someone ended up dead, I stood up to check the locks on the door.
Yep, no way was anyone getting in here without a key.
I took a peek outside into the day room and dining room just to make sure that there was no one waiting to off someone and frame me for it and lowered myself as fast as my protesting knees and back would let me to the floor.
From my new angle, I could see layers of who-knows-what just waiting to sully my crisp white scrubs. Since I'd been here, I'd not had a chance to find a Laundromat and, with the storm in full swing, I doubted one would be open anyway.