Jeb and his maintenance crew were actively clearing the snow from the walkways as we trudged through the snow toward the front doors.
My first instinct was to wave to them, but the immediate turn of their heads at the sight of me, told me my instincts were wrong.
Ruby and Hank walked in first. They were warmly greeted by the receptionist.
“Hello! How can I help you on this snowy day?” She asked, smiling at the two of them. Her expression changed the moment she caught a glimpse of me. “Oh, hold on. Did Carol get a hold of you?” I watched as the horror on her face turned into panic.
Although I wasn't expecting her to jump over the desk and hug me, I had to admit I was disappointed that she didn't at least pretend to be welcoming to me.
“No, she didn't. They confiscated my cell phone when they placed me in handcuffs, so I guess I didn't get the message.” I know I wasn't helping myself by being sarcastic with her, but I couldn't help myself.
I asked Hank and Ruby to follow me and wait in the lobby while I made my way to the employee's locker room to retrieve the few items I'd left in my locker. Before I got out of the line of sight, I heard someone yell my name.
Great! All I needed was Kathy gloating!
I hadn't realized that I'd been holding my breath, until I turned and immediately flew into a coughing fit from lack of oxygen.
Kathy stood dumbfounded, looking at me as if I'd grown another head. Exasperated by Kathy's lack of sympathy and her obvious lack of proper medical training, Ruby whisked passed her, with Hank hot on her heels.
“Mercy!” Ruby grabbed me and patted my back while giving Hank directions to have the receptionist get me a glass of water.
“Breathe, Mercy. Just breathe.” Ruby spoke to me in a low, calming voice. I knew the tactic. Remain calm, so your patient will follow suit.
It took me several minutes to regain my composure, but not before the receptionist summoned Carol and Stacy to witness my attack.
When I was finally able to breathe, Carol spoke first. “Are you okay now?”
I nodded in response, afraid to speak for fear of falling apart again.
She stepped closer to me, close enough for me to see the whites of her eyes.
“I'm going to need you to work tonight. I know its your night off, but we are short handed and Mr. Schmeckpepper has refused to eat or take his medications until you return to the unit. Do you think you can handle that?” She asked, her eyes boring into mine, ignoring the exhalations of disgust emanating from both Kathy and Stacy.
I opened my mouth to respond but nothing remotely intelligible would come out. I was dumbfounded. They wanted me to work. This couldn't be real, but the smile on Ruby's lips told me that it was true.
Carol clapped her hands together and said, “Okay, good. Be here at the normal time then.” She turned to Kathy, asking, “Didn't you say something about some work that was left behind?”
Kathy's sulking pout brought me out of my fog. I was glad to see that this new arrangement didn't sit well with her because I had no doubt that she would have rather seen me thrown out on my behind to never be seen again.
After finding my words, I asked, just to make sure, “So, you're not firing me?”
Carol gave her three cohorts a sideways glance and answered, “Of course not. Why? Have you done something wrong?”
Ruby interjected before I put my foot in my mouth by asking another question. “Hello. We haven't been introduced yet, but I'm Ruby Nickles, MSN and Mercy's immediate supervisor.”
Carol blinked wildly for a moment, taken aback by this surprise. I had to wonder what that was about. I glanced over at the others and the receptionist immediately retreated back to her desk, looking back and scowling at me over her shoulder. Kathy stood with her lips pursed and her fists clenched at her side. Stacy was the only one not showing any visible signs of distress. If I didn't know any better, I'd say she almost seemed pleasantly surprised to meet Ruby, but her eyes really lit up at the sight of Hank.
Because I'd known him for so long, I sometimes forgot how strikingly handsome he was in an alpha nerd kind of way. His once dark brown hair had turned into a sexy salt and pepper combo that only a man could pull off. Adding to his allure were his dreamy gray eyes. I always used to tease him that he walked the Earth looking like he'd just stepped off the pages of GQ Magazine. Ruby always said that he could give George Clooney a run for his money, but Hank was so resistant to being objectified that he intentionally did whatever he could to sabotage his assets, even going so far as to shave his head, leaving a cornucopia of scars acquired after years of playing football, rugby and competing in triathlons.
Yep, he was a true Renaissance man and women ogled him on a daily basis. I just didn't happen to be one of them anymore, not since the day Diana was born and poor Hank was forced to use MacGyver techniques to help me deliver her after James fainted.
Yes, fun times were had by all on the night I had to metaphorically separate the nether regions of my body from the upper half in order to deliver my daughter at Hank and Ruby's lake house, when Diana decided to arrive four weeks ahead of schedule during an earthquake. I suffered the most excruciating pain of my life, while Ruby tried to remember everything about labor, we learned in nursing school just a year earlier and tend to James at the same time. I believe that night was where the term 'hot mess' truly originated. Collectively, we were a hot mess.
Carol shook her head slightly before offering her hand and responding, “Oh, from the agency? Wow, you drove out during this snowstorm? That's dedication. Nice to meet you.”
I watched their exchange. Ruby was quite skilled at assessing people and their nuances without looking like she was. Her eyes floated from the top of Carol's perfectly coiffed hair to her thin lips that were covered in the fire engine red lipstick that seemed to be her signature shade.
“Well, when a member of my team and best friend of almost thirty years is falsely accused of murder, I will barrel through every obstacle in the universe to come to her aid.” Ruby looked at the three women with daggers in her eyes.
Hank grabbed my hand and squeezed it gently before he chimed in. “I grew up in upstate New York. I'm not afraid of a little snow.”
I stifled a laugh at his attempt to show his alpha side. Carol and Kathy blushed, while Stacy watched with amusement in her eyes.
I cleared my throat to remind everyone that I was still there. “I don't understand what's going on here. I arrive and everyone treats me like a pariah. A man dies and all of your fingers start pointing at me. I did everything I was supposed to do, but you wouldn't cut me some slack. Then, you fake a man's death and have me arrested. Now, you want me to work another shift? Really?”
Carol blinked back tears as she spoke. “I had no idea you'd been treated badly when you arrived. I'm sure the staff was just feeling stressed. It probably had nothing to do with you, but the fact remains, a man did die in your presence. As far as faking anything, that's not quite how it happened. Harry Lemons is an emergency code that we use here to indicate that we have a situation. I'm sure it didn't look like we tricked you.”
“Enlighten me. Tell me what you think happened. Because from where I stood, it sure looked like you tricked me to leave the unit.” I wanted to scream, but just didn't have the energy to do it. After everything, this whole ordeal had worn me out.
Hank stepped forward, standing in between me and my supposed coworkers. “Surely, you must understand how traumatic all of this has been for Mercedes. She's a wonderful nurse and a beautiful person. I guess she doesn't... None of us do... Understand how it is that she was accused of anything, much less murder. It's my understanding that there's video footage and that was turned over to the police. What's on this footage and why has she not been allowed to see it for herself?”
Kathy gasped, looking at Carol. “There's footage? Rowdy's murder is on tape?”
Carol stood with her mouth gaping open. Everyone stood silently, watching as she composed herself. “I don't know anything about video footage.”
I sighed heavily.
Ruby nudged me, telling me to keep quiet, but this was my life on the line. I had to speak. “There are cameras all over the place here and you know it. Heck, there was even a camera under the nurse's desk.”
Stacy stepped forward and spoke directly to Carol. “We don't have a camera under the desk in our unit. Why would you have one installed there? What were you watching?”
Carol shook her head. “I had no idea there was a camera under the desk on the dementia unit. As far as the footage, no one ever showed it to me either. I don't know what's on it.”
I wanted to believe her, but I was still so angry, I couldn't.
“Okay. Okay. Let's not let ourselves get caught up in the details. Obviously the Sheriff has information we're not privy to. Whatever he thinks he has meant something to him. This isn't the place to debate that issue. For now, all of you need to stop the finger pointing and return to what it is you do best.”
I scoffed. He gave me a warning look in response.
“Mr. Nickles is right. I'm sure there is plenty we don't yet know and no one - none of us – should jump to conclusions or add more stress to anyone, especially Mercy.” She looked at me and for the first time I saw sympathy in her eyes. I think she believed that I was innocent.
Ruby interjected. “Okay, so it's settled for now then. Mercy can return to work, but tonight is not going to work. I'm sure you can understand.” She turned to Carol, intentionally leaving the other two out of the conversation. “Considering what she's been through, I think it'd be better for her to return to work on her scheduled date. How does that sound?” Ruby flashed her signature bright smile and took my hand, leading me out behind her.
Behind us, I could hear Hank say his goodbyes before jogging down the hallway to catch up with us. “You should have been an attorney, Ruby.”
“She is, just not licensed. She's been debating anything and everything for years.” I teased, squeezing her hand gently.
“Open up! We brought lunch.” Ruby knocked on my motel room door.
I slept the whole morning away. When I opened the door, Ruby shoved an aluminum container in my hands. “Eat. We brought extras so you can take it to work with you tonight too.”
I cringed as she mentioned returning to work. “Do I have to?”
“Eat?” Ruby asked. “Of course you have to eat. How do you expect to function, if you don't eat?”
“Yeah, I have to function. I know.” I answered.
Hank took the food out of our arms and set it on the small table by the window. “Mercy, do you want to go back?” Looking at Ruby, he asked, “Can't she be reassigned somewhere else or take some time off?”
I protested, wishing I didn't have to say any of it. “If I leave, I'll look guilty. I can't survive if I don't work. I'm stuck.”
Ruby and Hank looked at each other. I could tell they were struggling to understand how things could have gone so wrong so quickly.
We ate in silence for a few minutes as we each tried to come up with a better solution to my very big problem.
Ruby broke the silence. “Hey, what did you mean about faking a man's death?”
I lifted my eyes to meet hers. “Hold on. I just realized something. I have to make a call right now.”
I'd been at work almost an hour before I finally had time to start my rounds.
“Well, it's about time, Rolls Royce? Just where in the pickles have you been?” Nubbin scolded me as soon as I knocked on his door.
I peeked in. “Aw, you missed me.”
“Now, don't start that nonsense. I never said no such thing. All I'm saying is that if you keep letting them pull the wool over your eyes, you'll never be able to catch the serial killer.” Nubbin looked at me so seriously, I almost had half a mind to believe him, but as far as I knew, there was only one murder here.
“Serial killer? There's no serial killer.” I said.
Nubbin stood up out of his seat, yelling, “Yes, there is. Why do think there's so much death here? There's a serial killer living right under our noses!”
There was a knock on the door. Tina called out, “Everything okay in there, Mr. Schmeckpepper?”
I answered, “Hey, Tina. How's it going?”
She stepped in. “Oh, hi! I didn't know you were in here. Do you need any help?” She avoided eye contact with me. I'd noticed that earlier when she arrived for her shift. She seemed distracted and wasn't her usual friendly self.
“No, thank you. I'm just starting rounds. Are you okay?” I asked, moving my head to get into her line of vision.
She focused on Nubbin. “I'm good. I'll come back to get you in a little, Mr. Schmeckpepper. I'm getting the tub room ready for you now.” She turned to walk out of the room without saying anything else to me.
“What's gotten into her? See, the murders are even turning the good ones against us.” Nubbin was never at a loss for words. He was right though. This whole mess had taken its toll on everyone here.
After taking Nubbin's vitals, I started down the hallway to the tub room to talk to Tina and find out why she wasn't behaving like her usual friendly self, but not before Betty stopped me in my tracks.
“Welcome back, Mercy,” she said as she stepped out of her room.
“Hi, Betty!” I offered, deciding to let her take the lead because who knew what she'd been told about me.
“Did you find it?” She asked.
“Um,” I tried to hide my confusion, but I had no idea what she was referring to. “Not yet.” I added, hoping she'd elaborate.
She sighed in annoyance. “My Rowdy's watch? Did you find his watch?”
In light of all that had happened, I'd completely forgotten that I was going to see if I could find out anything about her husband's missing watch.
“I... I... Thank you for reminding me about that. I'll go check into that right now.” I glanced over at the tub room door and decided I'd speak to Tina after I'd looked into whether or not Betty ever had the watch in her possession. I was beginning to think I was delusional. First, I saw a ring on Betty's finger, then, it was gone. Now, Betty claimed a watch had been stolen and I had no memory of ever seeing a watch. I didn't know what I had or hadn't seen.
Betty called out a warning after me. “Well, you better find it before he gets home. You know how he feels about people touching his things.”
She's confused. Rowdy must have always worn a watch.
I walked into the office and pushed the door shut with my foot. Being alone in the office again made me nervous. This was the spot where everything I thought I knew changed.
It didn't make any sense to me that I'd been asked to return to work, especially on the same unit where my supposed victim's wife lived. Was this some kind of game? Were they trying to break me until I confessed? Why would they want me here?
Nubbin didn't appear to be acting out of character to me. Maybe they used him as a ploy to get me back in here, just so they could keep me nearby. Whatever the reason, I didn't like being used as a pawn in their demented game. I was innocent and no one seemed to care.
My paranoia was further fueled by the silence that followed. Tina continued to do her work as assigned, staying clear of me or the office, while I searched for Betty's chart. I knew it had to be in the facility. Someone had to have charted over the last several days. They'd be violating protocol if they weren't. While it wouldn't surprise me to find that they were openly neglecting another important matter, it did strike me as odd that I could never seem to find the chart.
How was I suppose to chart the events of her day, if I hadn't seen the chart in days?
After several moments of searching everywhere I had access to, I gave up. Maybe it was better that I didn't see her chart. Who knows what kind of incriminating information I would find in there? I'm sure Kathy would have charted how I'd been the only reliable witness to Rowdy's death.
Wait! I'm the only reliable witness? If one set out to murder someone, wouldn't it make sense to do so in a place where it would be difficult to distinguish truth from fiction? Yes! Whoever did this, intended for his demise to take place here, but why? What would they have to gain, other than the opportunity to not have reliable witnesses? Perhaps, I'd thwarted their seemingly well thought out plans and, now, they were plotting against me?
I shuddered at the thought of it.
Had I inadvertently bore witness to a murder? None of this would have happened if I hadn't been sent to the office to retrieve forms. I would have been in another room, assisting Kathy and the aides with another resident and, chances are, Kathy or one of the aides would have discovered Rowdy's body instead of me. It was my dumb luck that landed me in this precarious position. Now, I just had to figure a way out of it.
I was transported out of my thoughts by a knock on the door. Tina stood peering in, a long look on her face. I opened the door, anxious to find out why she'd had the sudden attitude change. I wondered if she'd been instructed to stay away from me or if she'd taken it upon herself to distance herself from me and our budding friendship.
“Hi,” she started, not looking me in the eye, “I'm going to take a quick break, okay? Do you think you could answer call lights for me for a few minutes? I have to call home.”
“Sure, absolutely. Is everything okay at home?” I asked.
She nodded, tears brimming in her eyes. “Yes. I just have a lot going on right now. Thanks. I'll be right back.”
She left before I had an opportunity to probe further. Although she said things were fine, the look on her face said otherwise. I'd been so absorbed in myself and my own problems, I hadn't noticed that Tina was going through problems of her own. Some friend I turned out to be.
While Tina was away, I returned to my rounds, stopping once again to check in on Nubbin. He was fast asleep with his television blaring and both his nightstand light on and the overhead light shining directly on his face.
In that moment, I couldn't tear my eyes from him. He and Tina had grown on me. I especially loved Nubbin's curmudgeon tendencies. His bark was bigger than his bite. He may have been naughty at times and definitely gave the nursing staff a run for their money from time to time, but deep down, he was loving and relatively harmless.
I'd read a little bit about his background and, by all accounts, he was a fine, upstanding farmer with a loving family and a stellar reputation. It saddened me to see someone like him, who had worked hard their whole lives, to have ended up with a terrible disease that robbed him of what I was sure were precious memories and eventually normal everyday functionality.
I wondered how long he'd been spinning stories of residents being murdered one by one in the facility. If I didn't know any better, I'd be inclined to believe him, but I'd not seen or heard any evidence of any other murders taking place.
“Take a picture. It will last longer.” The sound of Nubbin's voice made me jump right out of my skin. He laughed at my reaction. “I always knew you were a chicken, Malibu.”
I took a couple of deep breaths to slow down my rapidly beating heart.
“I thought you were asleep,” I said, still clutching my heaving chest.
“I was.” He snapped back, adding, “But some people don't know how to quit all their yammering when the rest of us are trying to sleep.”
“Yammering? I didn't say anything.” I protested.
“Not you, Caprice. The serial killers.” He answered.
I started to laugh at the new name he called me. A few years back, I'd taken care of a young woman named Caprice. Her chosen profession was questionable at best, but I absolutely adored her. Hearing myself called Caprice, made me giggle until my brain computed that he'd also said something about serial killers yammering.
“What did you say?” I asked, hoping his short term memory was still intact.
“Stop your yammering,” he answered, pushing himself into a sitting position.
“Right, but who did you say was yammering?” I asked, every hair on my body suddenly standing on end in anticipation of his revelation.
To my disappointment, his whole facial expression changed. The moment of lucidity became one of confusion. He blinked wildly, acting surprised to see me standing only a few inches from his bedside.
He rubbed his eyes with his meaty, callous covered hands and asked, “Hey, what are you doing in here, Renault?”
The moment was gone and so was yet another chance for me to find out what he kept trying to tell me. I answered as if I'd just walked into his room. “Just checking on you, Nubbin. Sorry to wake you.”
“Ah, well, shut the lights off, will you?” He laid back down, pulling his comforter up to his chin.
“Will do.” I answered, feeling defeated, then, an idea came to mind.
How did he remember that I was the one with the same name as a luxury vehicle? Why was he able to retain that information?
I decided to ask him. “Nubbin, do you remember my name?”
He scowled at me, visibly annoyed by my question. “Why?” His eyebrows furrowed. “Is this some kind of test?”
I shook my head, answering, “No. No, it's not a test. I'm just curious.”
He considered for a moment, as if I'd asked him to explain evolution to me. While he rubbed the scruff on his chin, I waited with bated breath, hoping he was completely coherent and possibly capable of spilling his ever-present theory of mass murders in the facility.
When he finally cleared his throat to speak, he said, “If you are having trouble remembering your name, I could speak to my doctor about that and probably get some of those funny pills to help you. My wife used to take them all the time. I can't say that they actually worked, but they are worth a shot, don't you think?”
I don't think my jaw had ever dropped so much before in my life. I swear I could practically lick the floor.
Did he just allude to the fact that I might possibly be suffering from dementia? Well, isn't that the pot calling the kettle black?
I tread lightly with the next words out of my mouth. The last thing I needed was to be accused of appearing condescending to any of the residents, but in my not-so-humble opinion, Nubbin had a lot of nerve insinuating that there was something wrong with my faculties. Did no one else realize how much trouble I was in or was that too a figment of my wildly unreliable imagination?
“I don't know what you're getting all worked up about, Mercy. I'm just trying to help you out. Now, if you don't want help, then, that's your problem. I can't help you.” He waved me off and tried to make himself comfortable.
Stifling a laugh had never been so difficult in all of my life. It was either laugh or cry and, quite frankly, I'd done more crying over the last several days than I could remember ever doing in all my life.
“I'm sorry, but that's the second time that you called me by my name. I'm touched.” I smiled at him.
“You're touched alright.” Nubbin soon started laughing. Apparently, we'd found common ground. We both believed that the other was out of their gourd with little hope for redemption. There wasn't anything necessarily wrong with that, but it would mean that any hope of Nubbin helping me solve this conundrum had vanished right before my eyes. Again, I was back to unreliable witnesses. Someone had clearly done their homework. No matter what angle I attempted, I hit a big, fat brick wall.