“Code blue, three north. Code blue, three north.” The female operator’s voice sounded down the third floor of Black Water General Hospital. Bright white lights flashed on the ceiling and alarms pinged as staff ran down the corridor to where a scarlet red light pulsed above the door of a patient’s room.
Registered Nurse Mandy Malone was in the hallway charting on a mobile computer. She was not assigned to the code team that day so she quickly closed the chart, making herself available to assist them. Then a nurse in blue scrubs rushed up to her. “I need to help with the code, can you flush three-twelve’s IV for me? His pump keeps beeping.”
The nurse handed Mandy one of two normal saline flush syringes that she held in her hand. “Thanks.”
Mandy watched Cathy run down the hallway, then she looked at the transparent plastic syringe and the clear fluid inside. The only thing abnormal about the syringe was that Cathy had already removed the protective packaging. Typically Mandy kept a couple flushes in the pocket of her scrub jacket because they were used so often, but she had already gone through them. Not to worry, she would get more and use one of them in place of the one Cathy had given her. When Mandy looked at the medication room, she saw it crowded with nurses and a pharmacy technician who had been stocking the medication dispenser. The tech was trying to move his cart out of their way as a nurse pushed passed him, grabbed a crash cart and moments later whizzed down the hallway. Going against her better judgment Mandy decided not to add to the commotion, rather she would trust Cathy and the syringe she was handed.
Mandy pushed the computer-on-wheels down the hallway to room 312 and the beeping infusion pump. When she entered the room, she saw a man, probably in his thirties, lying in bed watching television.
He turned and looked at her. “This thing beeps every time I move my arm.”
Mandy gave an understanding smile and nod as she silenced the pump. “Your nurse was on her way to fix it, but she got called away. She asked me to help you. My name’s Mandy.”
After placing his drinking glass on the overbed table, he put his arm back on the pillow next to him. “My nurse said she could move the IV, but I go home tomorrow and don’t want to get poked again. I’d rather keep my arm straight.”
Mandy looked at the intravenous site in the bend of his arm. Other than its location, it was fine. “Okay, I’ll just flush it for you.”
She scanned his identification bracelet and then walked back to the computer she had pushed into the room. “What’s your name?”
“Eugene Rathbone,” he said, apparently tired of answering the same question over and over each time a nurse was about to give him medicine.
“When is your birthday?”
“January thirteenth, nineteen-eighty.”
Mandy looked at the electronic chart and then scanned the barcode on the side of the syringe. She had the right patient and the right medication, so she flushed Mr. Rathbone’s IV line.
She reset the pump, and the fluid began flowing normally. No sooner had she disposed of the syringe in the sharps container when Cathy ran into the room, panicked.
“Have you flushed the line yet?” Cathy said, breathing heavily.
“Yeah, I just did.”
Mandy was startled when Cathy darted to the IV pump, turned it off, and used a syringe to aspirate the fluid from the tubing. “What’s wrong?”
No sooner had the words left Mandy’s mouth when Mr. Rathbone began having difficulty breathing. The cardiac monitor on the wall next to his bed started alarming. Then to Mandy’s horror, the patient went into cardiac arrest. She ran up to the bed, pressed the emergency button, and began advanced life support measures.
When Cathy finished calling the code team, she said, “I gave you the wrong syringe. It had digoxin in it, and he’s allergic to it.”
“What?” Mandy could not believe what Cathy was telling her as the floor’s other crash cart rolled into the room.
By the time the code had run its course, it was all over; Mr. Rathbone was dead.
* * *
The crossword puzzle Mandy was working on now filled her vision. Her heart raced as she reached up to her chest, gripped the large crucifix underneath her sweater, and tried to slow her rapid breathing. “I’m never going to get it out of my mind, Sis.”
Tina Malone sat calmly in the charter bus seat next to Mandy. “The doctor said a vacation away from things would help you.”
Mandy scratched the itchy rash on her neck—whenever she was stressed it would flare up. “I’m not so sure a trip to a ski lodge is going to do the trick.”
Sis looked down at the crossword puzzle. “Stratagem.”
Sis pointed at the crossword. “Stratagem is the word you want.”
Mandy looked down at the puzzle, not surprised Sis had figured it out. Her sister was born with Asperger’s syndrome and was as smart as a whip. She had the ability to focus, even for hours, on things that seemed of little importance to others. However, the tradeoff was being socially awkward; Tina would avoid strangers whenever she could. The trip was as much for her as it was for Mandy. “How’s your extraterrestrial program coming along?”
Sis refocused her attention to the computer sitting on her lap. “My planetary habitability program is showing promise. Based on energy sources as well as geophysical, geochemical, and astrophysical criteria I have found several candidate planets that are class four habitats. I am still working on the probabilistic argument and the average rate of star formation, and those that have planets that can support life. However, I think there is a flaw in the length of time over which civilizations release detectable signals. Do you want me to show you?”
Mandy reached into the side pocket of her carry-on bag and took out a tube of extra strength anti-itch cream. “No, that’s alright. You can show me later.”
“I’ll show you when we get to Timber Ridge.”
Mandy jumped when she felt a cold hand on her shoulder next to her neck.
“Didn’t scare ya did I?” Gramps said, leaning forward in the seat behind them. His voice was a loud irritating rasp, like pieces of wet sandpaper rubbing together. The three of them had come on the trip together. Gramps’s reason was simply that he wanted to get out of the house they shared. “Have you two taken your noses out of your books long enough to take a gander outside yet?”
Mandy looked up at the bus driver, whose shoulders were hunched forward, and then out the window toward the road. She could not see the pavement. All she saw was swirling white snowflakes blowing at the window. “Wow, it’s getting bad out there. I bet the winter storm watch has turned into a warning.”
Gramps flipped his wrist and pointed toward the front of the bus. He smacked his lips. “Those two in the front seat can’t keep their hands off each other. Let me rephrase that. The guy can’t keep his hands off that poor girl. When she doesn't kiss him, he pulls the ratty fur hat she has on, down over her eyes or off her pretty little head and makes her fight to get it back. If I were a little younger, I’d go up there and punch that schmuck square in the nose. That sweet little thing can find someone better than him.”
“Keep your voice down, Gramps, they might hear you. You’re talking way too loud again. Do you have your hearing aids in?”
“Yep, but the batteries are going dead.”
Mandy sighed and then looked at the woman Gramps was talking about. She was probably in her late twenties and looked so innocent, so sweet. Her long blonde hair was a tangled mess from the tattered fake fur hat having been moved around so much. Gramps was right, the guy was a jerk.
“I don’t care if anyone hears me.” Gramps leaned closer, letting his elbow drop over the seat between Mandy and Tina. He pointed. “That woman sitting alone in the seat behind the bus driver keeps looking at them. I wonder what she’s thinking. And take a look at those two preppy-type guys sitting over there; I’ll bet they’re gay.”
“Gramps, what does it matter?”
“And that family behind us, well, those parents aren’t doing a very good job at keeping their kids under control. The boy keeps running around like a wild animal and the girl whines constantly. Mommy, Kevin’s calling me a brat. Daddy, Kevin’s bothering me. The mom and dad keep telling them to cut it out, but they never actually do anything about it, other than yell at the hooligans. I think we’re the only normal ones on this bus.”
“I can debate that one with you, Gramps,” Mandy said.
“What about the bus driver?” Sis asked. “Is he normal?”
“Definitely not normal.”
“How is he not normal?” Mandy asked. “He’s driving the bus minding his own business.”
“I see his beady little eyes in the rearview mirror above the window. He keeps looking back at everyone’s business.”
“Does he look at us, Gramps?” Sis asked.
“Yep. When he looks at me, I make a funny face like this.” Gramps contorted his lips as he stuck out his tongue.
Sis laughed while Mandy tried to ignore Gramps’s behavior. It was not easy, but she was getting better at not letting her grandfather’s antics bother her like they used to when both he and Tina first moved in with her two years ago after a plane crash took the lives of her parents. Yes, Gramps was a little eccentric—and he knew how to push her buttons—but it was best that he stayed with her, rather than go into a nursing home; a place he did not want to go. “That’s where ya go to die,” he would say. “I still have a lot of life to live. Besides, your dear grandmother, God rest her soul, said that when the good Lord came and took her away, that I could remarry. God forbid, I don’t want to get married again, I’m not a fool. I much prefer the life of a bachelor.” He would then smooth back the few strands of gray hair he still had on his head.
Most of the time, Gramps was all talk. He never once dated a woman after Grandma died, but he sure talked about it a lot. As annoying as he could be at times, he loved his departed wife and would always be faithful to her, even though until death do they part.
The bus slowed and slid momentarily as the driver braked and then turned into a rest area along the highway. He stopped next to the welcome center. While the windshield wipers swung back and forth, moving icy wet snow from the glass, he checked his cell phone before standing up.
“As I’m sure most of you have already figured out,” he said, adjusting his driver's cap, “the snowstorm has gotten worse. I just checked the weather, and they’ve now issued a blizzard warning.”
Groans and a couple rude comments from the family at the back of the bus caused the driver to rub his clean-shaven face anxiously. “I’m sorry about all this, folks, but we’re not going to make it to Timber Ridge Ski Lodge today.”
The woman at the rear of the bus stood up. “So what are you saying? That we’re spending our vacation trapped on this bus? My husband is Dominic Connor, CFO of Black Water Bank and Trust and this is totally unacceptable. Shouldn’t you have been paying better attention to the weather forecast?”
“Sit down, dear,” the husband said, quietly. “There’s no sense getting riled up about this. It’s not going to change things.”
The woman continued standing. “What’s your name? I’m going to report your incompetence to the manager of this crazy outfit. Do you really expect us to spend days living in this . . . sardine can, using a Porta-Potty?”
“Sir, ma’am,” the bus driver said as he picked up his clipboard and scanned the sheet of paper clipped to it. “Mr. and Mrs. Connor, I’m sorry, but when we left there was no indication the snowstorm would grow into a blizzard. It’s a rogue blizzard.”
The man sitting in the front next to the lovely young woman laughed. “You got to be kidding. A rogue blizzard. I’m reporting you, too.”
The bus driver gave him a dirty look before looking away. “My name’s Benny Bocholt if anyone wants to report me. But before the storm gets any worse, we need to decide what we’re doing. We can stay on the bus and use the rest area’s modern facility,” he shot a glance at the Connor’s, “which has restrooms, vending machines, telephones, and drinking water or we can continue up the road until we get to a hotel. I think there’s one a few miles up the road.”
“There is,” the woman said, sitting behind the driver’s seat. She looked at her phone. “According to this, there’s a bed-and-breakfast called Cedar Lake Mansion not far away. I vote for that.”
“Thanks, Alison,” Benny said. “What does everyone else think. Do you want me to keep driving?” He pointed toward the bus windows and the blowing snow outside. “It is a little dangerous out there. We could get stuck or end up in the ditch.”
“Whatever you decide, Benny,” the charming woman to his left said. “I trust your judgment.”
Benny smiled at her, a little too long.
For once Gramps spoke quietly. “What do you girls think? Should we stay or should we go?”
Mandy looked at Sis who was tapping a finger nervously on her thigh. Then she looked at Benny. “Is there enough fuel to keep us warm on the bus?”
“Not if we’re snowed in for a few days,” he said. “But we could go inside the welcome center.”
“For god’s sake man,” Mrs. Connor said. “If there’s a hotel a few miles up, why did we stop here?”
Benny was getting annoyed. “Because the roads are getting bad.”
“We’ll take our chances driving to the bed-and-breakfast,” Mrs. Connor said, sitting down with a thump.
A rubber ball hit the back of Gramps’s head. He turned around and sneered at the plump boy who was struggling to hold back a laugh. “The three of us vote for the bed & breakfast. I need some peace and quiet,” Gramps said, turning back to the front of the bus.
Mandy cringed at his sudden outburst. “Whatever Gramps wants.”
Benny looked up from the clipboard. “Thank you, the Malone family. How about you two, Dennis and Walter, what is your vote?”
“Looks like the B and B is winning,” Walter said, giving a shrug to Dennis. “We’ll go along with that.”
Benny looked to his right. “Alison?”
“The B and B, too.”
When he looked left, the smile reformed on his face. “Violet? What is your preference?”
With a honeyed voice, she said, “The bed-and-breakfast.”
Benny’s smile dropped away when he looked at her companion. “Johnathon?”
Johnathon looked like he was about to stand up and shove Benny but instead pushed Violet’s arm, causing her to fall slightly to the side. “Damn you, Benny. Are you flirting with my girl?” Then he looked at Violet who now had her head down.
Mandy was getting angry. If Johnathon dared do one more thing to sweet Violet, she herself was going to get up and punch him in the nose, let alone Gramps doing it.
“Looks like someone’s jealous,” Gramps said, louder than a whisper. “All the more reason to get off this bus.”
“Chill, Johnathon,” Benny said, smoothing the front of his uniform. He looked up. “We’re going to Cedar Lake Mansion Bed and Breakfast.”
The kids cheered. Then the fat boy began jumping as if purposely trying to make the bus bounce.
“Is it open?” Dennis said. “Maybe we should call first. Can anyone get reception on their phone? I can’t pick up a signal anymore.”
Moments later, everyone voiced a negative.
“Well we can’t just keep sitting here,” Mrs. Connor said. “The longer we just set here the worse the roads are going to get. We better get moving.”
Benny got back in the driver’s seat. He put the bus in gear and drove through the parking lot until he was back on the snow-covered highway.
“I’m scared,” Sis said.
“Me, too,” Mandy said, watching the snow blow horizontally across the road. “But buses get around better in the snow than cars do. At least I think so.”
The bus trip was unusually quiet as Benny drove slowly down the road behind a tractor trailer with its flashers on.
“As long as that big rig keeps moving,” Gramps said. “We’ll keep moving.”
It seemed to take forever getting to the bed-and-breakfast. Mandy was in a state of painful suspense as she watched every move Benny made. He tailgated the tractor-trailer and occasionally veered onto the shoulder of the road. The sun had set, and the bus’s headlights were barely penetrating the darkness as the snow acted like a blinder. If Benny did not rear-end the semi or drive into the ditch, it would be a miracle. She was going to need a nap by the time they reached the bed-and-breakfast.
“Right there!” Alison shouted. She pointed toward a lit snow-covered sign. Only the words Cedar Lake Mansion were visible.
Benny hit the brakes and the bus slid, slamming into something hard as it turned into the snow drifted driveway of the old Italian villa-style mansion.
Items slid across the floor as Benny yanked the steering wheel, correcting the bus’s sideways momentum. He drove to the open area in front of the mansion; it was both a welcome and an impressive sight. The earthy-colored brownstone and the four-story square tower gave the asymmetric mansion a rather eerie persona as it loomed in the darkness.
Mandy and Sis smiled as they breathed a sigh of relief.
“Let’s get inside,” Gramps said, zipping up his coat.
Benny stood up as everyone began leaving their seats. “I’ll get your things from the baggage compartment if you need it tonight. But first, Johnathon, if you don’t mind. Can you help me check the bus? I think I ran over something.”
Johnathon nodded, agreeably.
The Connor’s were the first ones off the bus, followed by Dennis and Walter, and then the Malones. They fought their way through the whipping wind and snow as they approached the porch. When they reached the—somewhat—shelter it provided, they saw the sign on the door.
Mr. Connor read the sign aloud. “Closed for maintenance.” He tried to open the door, but it was locked. He began banging on a glazed pane of glass.
“The lights are on inside. Hopefully, someone can let us in,” Mandy said, turning her back to the wind.
Moments later a brittle old man came to the door. “I’m sorry, but we’re not open.”
“Have you seen the weather?” Mr. Connor said, sounding like the banker he was. “There’s a blizzard happening, and we’re stranded here with no place else to go. Can you make room for us until the storm clears?”
The man thought a moment before opening the door and welcoming them inside. “I am the innkeeper. My name is Harold Thomas, and that’s my wife, Helen.” He pointed to an elderly round woman, tightening the belt of her housecoat, as she walked up to them.
“Please come in,” she said, walking to a tall window that faced the road. “Just don’t bring old man winter in with you.”
Mandy looked back at the bus. She saw Benny open an outside compartment. He reached inside, took out a tire iron, and handed it to Johnathon before grabbing a shovel. Obedient Violet was standing at the front of the bus apparently waiting on her boyfriend. Her long strands of hair whipped in the wind as she stood in the glow of the bus’s headlights, so sweetly. Violet tightened the collar of her cheap fur coat as Alison walked away from them and approached Mandy who held the door open for her.
“I can’t believe this weather,” Alison said to Mandy. “I’m glad we won’t be spending the night on the bus.”
“Yeah, I guess we made the right decision coming here,” Mandy said, closing the door behind them, stopping the wind and snow from entering the grand foyer. She looked up at the soaring ceiling and at the elaborate wall paintings and the stained glass. There was no way she would be able to afford the guest rooms for the three of them.
The smell of fresh paint and the sight of white drop cloths in a nearby room—probably a parlor—made it clear the innkeepers were in the midst of remodeling. When she looked closer, she noticed dolls in glass cabinets, dozens of them. It was hard to see without going into the room, but they were of all sizes. Dolls taller than a child, to ones the size of Barbie dolls. The innkeeper’s wife must be a collector.
Harold walked behind the front desk. “As I said, we are not open for business, but I will make the guest rooms on the second floor available to you . . . due to the inclement weather. We will not be serving breakfast, but you are welcome to make yourselves simple meals in the kitchen. Other than the kitchen and the foyer, the rest of Cedar Lake Mansion is off limits.” He looked over the rim of his glasses. “Safety concerns due to the remodeling. I’m sure you understand.” He slid the register across the counter. “There is wireless internet—it’s not very fast out here in the wilderness—and all the guest rooms have a television.” He picked up a pen and held it out for Mr. Connor, who was first in line. “Oh, and don’t go near the lake, the ice is not safe. People have died when they fell through the ice, thinking it was okay to walk on. Something about the springs and a current, I’m not sure of the surrounding science.”
Mr. Connor took the pen. “I don’t think anyone’s going out in this weather.”
When the Connor family moved out of their way, Gramps stepped up to the desk. “I want a room next to these two,” he pointed, “my lovely granddaughters.”
“We’ll share a room,” Mandy said, giving a nod toward Sis. “But how much are they?”
Harold gave her a pleasingly discounted price. Then he handed them keys he took from a wall rack. “The gentleman will be in room two-o-six and the ladies will be across the hall in two-o-seven.”
Gramps took the key and laid an elbow on the counter. “Do you have hot tea here? I love hot tea.”
“Yes we do, in the kitchen over there. You will need to help yourself though.”
“Don’t worry, I like to help myself.” Gramps picked up his satchel and walked ahead of Mandy and Sis, making his way up the floating staircase to the second floor. He craned his neck left and right deciding which way to go.
“This way, Gramps,” Mandy said, walking to the right. “Looks like we’re going to be at the end of the hall.”
When they reached another flight of steps—barricaded with a thick red velvet rope—they put their keys into the locks of the guest room doors.
“I’m glad your room is right across from ours,” Sis said.
“And I’m glad those Connor people are way down at the other end,” Gramps said, winking at Sis before walking into his room.
Mandy looked down the hall. Alison waved at her before walking into her room at the head of the stairs. Dennis and Walter were near the Connors.
Sis walked into the room. “This is nice, Mandy. I feel like a princess. And look, there’s even a desk where I can work on my project.”
The room was like a fairy tale. Two four-poster beds, lace curtains, and a chandelier looked antique. Even the gas fireplace and the claw-foot tub in the bathroom fit the rich atmosphere.
Mandy walked to a window hoping to see the lake, but it was too dark to see outside. She closed the silky fine fabric and went to the other window, the one that faced the driveway. The bus’s lights were a blur through the sheets of blinding snow.
“I’d rather stay here than go to the ski lodge,” Sis said, opening her laptop.
“Me, too.” Mandy sat on the bed closest to the door and opened her handheld luggage. There was a long T-shirt for sleeping and a change of clothes, enough things to get her through the night. She did not want to go back outside in the storm and get the big suitcase.
After walking around the room, pretending she was part of the elite class and lived in the mansion, she lay down on the bed and watched Sis work. If anyone would make it to the upper echelon of society, it would be her sister.
Sis turned and looked at Mandy. “I want to get my suitcase from the bus.”
“Can’t it wait until morning?”
“No, my clothes are in it. My backpack only has things for my project.”
“Okay, let’s go before Benny comes inside.”
They put on their coats and walked down to the entrance. The innkeeper and his wife were nowhere to be seen. They must live on the other side of the mansion. Noticing that the bus lights were still on, they pulled up their hoods and walked outside toward the bus. Then Sis stopped.
“What’s wrong?” Mandy said.
“The bus hit an animal. Look.”
Mandy looked to where Sis was pointing and walked toward where snow was drifting over a mound of fur. Then breath left her when she realized that it was Violet’s fur coat. She ran up to it and saw Violet’s still body in a snowdrift. Mandy shook her shoulder. “Violet are you all right?”
Violet did not move. Then she noticed the blood on the side of Violet’s face and a deep gash to her head. There was no pulse or respirations as she began chest compressions and yelled for help. But it was too late, sweet Violet was dead.
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