Authors: Maggie Shayne
iver sat on the floor in the room's deepest corner, his back to the wall, his arms wrapped around his waist. He couldn't move them. The straitjacket held them too tightly for that. The room was white, its walls padded like the ones in the old Blackberry High School gymnasium. It didn't smell like the gym, though. No mingling of hardwood floor polish and B.O. Here, the smell was a sickening combination of urine and bleach. Aside from that minor distraction, though, his mind was clouded in an almost pleasant fog, and yet turbulence kept surfacing from its depths. Specific analysis was impossible at this point. He only knew he was in trouble. Terrible trouble. And that he had to do something or he was going to die. So he sat there, rocking and struggling to capture coherence, because he couldn't do anything unless he could remember what it was he had to do.
Sounds brought his head up; the locks on his door were turning. He strained his eyes as the door swung open, and slowly managed to bring the man who entered into focus. Ethan. Thank God.
Ethan crossed the room, a gentle smile on his face. He hun
kered down in front of River, his white coat spotless and almost too bright, his name tag pinned neatly to a pocket. Dr. E. Melrose, M.D. Chief of Psychiatry. He put a hand on River's shoulder.
“How you doing, pal? Better?”
River shook his head slowly. “Worse,” he said. “Getting worse, Ethan.”
Ethan frowned, studying River's face, stared into his eyes. It made River think of when they were kids and they would stare at each other until one of them blinked. And then Ethan blinked and River laughed. “I win.”
“I'll order more medication,” Ethan said.
Ethan's reactionâthe way he jerked away from Riverâmade its way through the fog in River's mind enough to hurt. Enough to tell him that even his best friend was afraid of him. He licked his dry lips and tried again, though forming sentences was a challenge at best.
“No more drugs.”
“I know you don't like taking the meds, Riv, but right now they're the only thing keeping youâ”
“You saidâ¦I'd getâ¦better.” He knew his speech was slurred; he lisped his
s and dulled his
s. He couldn't help it. “I'm getting worse.”
“I know. I'm doing all I can for you.” Ethan moved to one side, reaching behind River to unfasten the straitjacket. When the sleeves came loose, River lowered his arms, sighing in relief at finally being able to change their position. Then he sat forward and let his friend pull the jacket off him. “Do you feel like talking?”
River nodded. “Try.”
“I know. I know it's hard to talk. That's due to the drugs, butâ¦I'm sorry, Riv.”
River nodded. “Before Steph diedâ¦” His tongue felt thick
and clumsy, and the words he formed in his mind didn't make it all the way to his lips. He felt much like he had on prom night a hundred years ago when he and the jocks from the team had spiked the punch and he'd drunk way more than his share. Ethan had saved his ass that night. Practically carried him home, poured him into bed and then covered for him.
“Wasn't this badâjus' the blackouts. And not remememememâ¦”
“Remembering,” Ethan finished. “I know.”
“Function,” Ethan said.
Nodding, River lifted a hand to his lips, wiped and felt moisture. “Jesus. Ethanâ¦I'm drooling.”
“I know. I know. I didn't expect this, either.”
“It's meds. Gotta be. Meds.”
Ethan nodded. “It's possible. But River, you've got to stop getting violent with the staff here. It's only making things worse. They're here to help you. The way you've been acting the past few days, I'm afraid that without the medication, you might hurt someone.”
River narrowed his eyes on his friend. “Someoneâ¦triedâ¦kill me.”
“Pillowâ¦on my face. Couldn't see who. Came up singâsingâ”
“Andâ¦and they came in. I kep' fighting. I din't knowâ¦whoâ”
“All right, all right. Calm down. Don't get agitated again.”
River took a few breaths, wiped the sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. “Not a violentâ¦man. Din'tâ¦kill Steph. You know that.”
“I know,” Ethan said, lowering his eyes.
“S'posed to get betterâ¦here.”
Ethan sighed. “River, I'm going to review your meds, see where we can start lightening up the doses, and gradually bring you off them. Then we can get an idea where you are without chemical help. And I'll speak to the staff, make sure you're safe. I'll have them keep your room locked while you sleep, have them keep a closer eye on you. All right?”
“Can't jus' stopâ¦meds? Jus' stop them?”
Ethan shook his head slowly. “Not all at once, no. You'd be a mess if we did that. I'll start lowering the doses today. I promise.”
River sighed. “Okay. Okay.”
“Okay.” Ethan clasped his shoulders one last time, then got up and went through the door.
River struggled to his feet, though he had to press his palms to the wall to do it. Then he clung to that wall, pushing himself along it, around a corner and to the door. Exhausted, he leaned against it, his head resting on its smooth, cool surface, his ear pressed tight, because he thought someone might be out there waiting to come in when Ethan left. He had to be careful. Be aware.
“â¦must be so hard for you, seeing him like this,” a woman was saying. “He's not the same man he was when he came here. But I suppose it's eating away at him. He killed his pregnant wife, for heaven's sake.”
“Doctor, he's drooling a bit,” a second female voice said. “Did you notice it?”
“Yes. I'm afraid he's getting worse,” Ethan said. “Showing signs of increased paranoia. Brand-new set of delusions. We're going to need to increase his meds.”
“But, Doctor, he's exhibiting extrapyramidal side effects,” the second voice said. “Doesn't that indicate he should be taken off the Haldol altogether?”
“Excuse me, who are you exactly?” Ethan asked.
The first woman spoke. “She's new here, Doctor. Forgive
her. Nurse Jensen, Dr. Melrose is an excellent psychiatrist. He knows his job.”
“I know mine, too,” the nurse said, but softly.
River heard footsteps, then the first nurse again. “I apologize, Doctor. I'll see to it she learns her place.”
“Oh, don't be too hard on her. You know how overzealous new nurses can be. Uh, maybe it would be a good idea to keep her away from this particular patient, though. All right? I don't want anything interfering with his treatment.”
“You're a good friend. He's lucky to have you,” she said. “I'll see to it immediately.”
“Thanks, Judy.” River heard scraping sounds, knew Ethan was taking his chart from the plastic holder there, probably writing in it. “Meanwhile, let's increase the Haldol. See if it doesn't help.”
River groaned softly and gave up his hold on the door, letting himself sink to the floor. Ethan didn't believe him. His best friend didn't believe him. His head spun and he fought, fought hard to latch onto a thought. A single thought, anything, to save himself from the madness that was trying so hard to swallow him up.
He wasn't insane. It was the meds. The meds were killing him. Good. Good. What then? What could help him? He struggled; fog closed in but he pushed it back.
Nurse Jensenâ¦she knew. But no, she couldn't help him. No one could help him. He was on his own. Okay. So he was on his own. And on his own, he had to get out of this place. There. That was it, that was the answer he'd been seeking through the fog. He had to get out of this place.
* * *
Cassandra JacksonâJax to her friendsâsat in the front seat of Chief Frankie Parker's SUV as the countryside of Blackberry, Vermont, unwound before her. She'd been here before, but she would never get over the beauty of a Vermont
winter. The entire place looked like a Christmas cardâsugar-coated pine trees, leafless maples and poplars glittering with icicles, blankets of snow covering every gentle slope and level field. Frankie drove, smiling and talking nonstop about the benefits of being police chief of a small town. Jax's parents, Ben and Mariah, rode in the back, agreeing with every word Frankie said.
“You were so right about this place, honey,” Mariah said. “When you told us a year ago that we'd love it here, I thought you were crazy, but it's wonderful. Truly.”
Jax shrugged. “Perfect for you doesn't necessarily mean perfect for me.” Which was a lie and she knew it. She'd hit a glass ceiling in the Syracuse Police Department. Maybe because she was a woman, but more likely because her father was a convicted murderer who'd only been out of prison for two years. Either way, she'd gone as far as she could go there.
So when Frankie Parker phoned her with the job offer, she'd been quick to take some vacation time and come up here to check things out. It made a nice excuse to visit her parents.
She'd fallen in love with the town of Blackberry when she'd been up here a year ago, helping a friend and hunting a killer. Her friends were still hereâthe killer long dead. And now her parents had settled in nearby to boot, adding to the little town's attraction.
“It would be so nice to have you close by, right in the next town,” her father said, speaking slow and softly. “After all, we've got a lot of lost time to make up for.”
be nice,” Jax agreed. God knew she hadn't had enough time with her fatherâa lifetime wouldn't be enough. He'd served twelve hard years in prison, and lost his brilliant medical career because of it. He would never be able to practice medicine againâat least not on human beings. But he hadn't become despondent. He'd written every day, as had she. And he'd begun studying veterinary medicine while still
in prison, and completed his work during the two years since his release. Only six months ago, the AVMA board had voted to grant him a license to practice. He had joined an aging veterinarian at the Blackberry-Pinedale Animal Hospital, and he seemed fulfilled and content.
He'd aged thirty years in prison. He was skinny as a rail, his hair pure white and thinning, and he was quietâfar more quiet than he'd ever been before. Almost as if he was always far too deep in thought to be bothered with conversation.
“It would be nice for me, too,” Frankie said. “I've been wanting to retire for months, but reluctant to leave the department in less than capable hands. When I thought of you, Jax, it was like a load off my shoulders. I'm convinced you're the one for the job.”
“Yeah, yeah, flattery will probably work. Keep it coming,” Jax told her.
Frankie grinned at her, adding wrinkles to her wrinkles. Jax still wasn't used to thinking of a sixty-plus-year-old with kinky silver curls as chief of police, but she knew from experience Frankie Parker was a good cop. Her looks just tended to lull you into thinking she was harmless. That probably worked to her advantage.
“The town board will approve you on my say-so,” she said. “No problem there. It's really up to you.”
Again Jax nodded. “Why aren't you promoting one of the officers from your department, Frankie?”
“Neither Matthews nor Campanelli are interested,” she said. “Too much paperwork, too much pressure. Though, compared to a big department like Syracuse has, you'll find it a piece of cake,” she added quickly. “I've got one other, Kurt Parker, but frankly, he hasn't got the temperament for it. Hell, he probably wouldn't be working for me at all if he wasn't my nephew.”
Jax nodded, mulling that over. She hadn't met Officer Par
ker. He'd been away on vacation when she'd been here last. Then she thought of someone else who could fill the position. “What about Josh Kendall? He was DEA. Surely he could fill the spot.”
“Kendall?” Frankie shook her head. “I like that we think alike, Jax. Josh was on top of my list. Fact is, I offered him the job and he turned me down flat. I think he and Beth have had enough excitement to last them several lifetimes. They're both content to make their way as the humble keepers of the Blackberry Inn. Can't say as I blame them.” She slowed the car, glanced at Jax with a smile. “Here's the house that comes with the job.”
Jax looked, then looked again. “You're shitting me.”
She'd expected the house, a perk that came along with the job as police chief, to be a functional cracker box at the edge of the village. Instead, Frankie was pulling into the driveway of a flat-roofed, white Victorian that took her breath away. Tall narrow windows were flanked by forest-green shutters, with elaborate scrollwork trim in that same green, as well as mauve. The paint was new. The place looked perfect.