John Franklin, Ph.D., who hunted vampires and revenants, climbed mountains, and gave lectures on the symbiotic effects of place upon the human psyche as evidenced in behavioral aberrations such as serial killers, met his match in a patch of black ice in northwestern South Dakota. The car was totaled; he nearly was. He spent a painful, drugged time in a hospital whose name he never quite caught, and then was sent for residential rehabilitation and therapy to the Salem Meadows Center, whose location he didn’t know. He hoped that the disorientation he felt—in his body, in space, in time—would come to an end now that the morphine was finally out of his system.
The first night he opened his eyes to a skeletal man with a nightmare face, bent over his bureau.
“Who are you? What do you want?” Franklin cried.
The ruined mouth rumbled, but by the time Franklin could hoist himself up, the man had vanished like another morphine-fueled dream. Except that the top bureau drawer was slightly open, which it hadn’t been before.
He managed himself into his wheelchair, and wheeled over to the door. The long hallway was empty. The only sounds were his own labored breathing and an occasional pinging sound. And music? He listened. It was chanting, seeping down the hallway, and as it got louder, he felt that any moment a group of people would appear, bearing a coffin. He wheeled himself back into his room, and shut the lockless door. Fear fueled his energy, and he drug the guest chair in front of the door and fought his way back into bed. He lay a long time in the dark, gasping like a little boy trying to sleep knowing that something lurked in the closet.
The next morning the sun was shining, and his nurse’s aide, Pam, was plump and cheerful and eminently sane. He felt better as she helped him get bathed and dressed.
“A man came into my room last night. He looked … disturbing.”
“Oh, that would be Abe Utrecht,” Pam said, settling him in his wheelchair. “I’ll have to tell Ms. Cameron, the manager. She’ll have a talk with him.”
“Is he dangerous?”
“Oh, no. No, not really.” She started stripping the bed. “No. He doesn’t sleep well. Pain, probably. Or sundowning. I’m not sure. But he’s harmless.”
“Mm. I also thought I heard someone chanting. Later.”
She laughed. “Oh, that was probably the three queens.”
“Who are they?”
“Grania Ahern, Heidi Thorson and Mary Bream. They moved here a few months back, and act like they run the place. Three queens, three witches. They’re called both.” She tossed the dirty linen on the floor.
“Why three witches?”
“Well, the chanting. They tell fortunes. Cast spells, or so they say. They’re worse when they’re together. Mrs. Ahern’s a sweetheart on her own. Mrs. Bream is real quiet.” She looked at his messy bedside table. “You really need to put this stuff in the drawers where you can lock them up.”
“What I need is a lock on my door,” Franklin replied.
“Right. In a place where patients are paralyzed, wheelchair bound, have Alzheimer’s—”
“I know, I know.” He watched as she made the bed. “Why haven’t any of my friends called me?”
“HIPAA laws,” she said. “People have to have permission to contact you, visit you, even to know what happened to you.”
“So I’ll have to call them.”
“Yep. But use your cell phone. No long distance calls out on the land lines. For obvious reasons. Though I guess you could call collect.” She looked at her watch and said, “Breakfast is ready. If you’ll go to your right, and then the next right, you’ll be in the dining room. One of the servers will get you settled.”
As Franklin wheeled down the long hallway, he wondered where his cell phone was. When was the last time he saw it? Here? In the hospital? In Mr. Utrecht’s pocket? To the right again, and he was at the dining hall.
His server, Ashley, introduced him to his tablemates, Audrey Foster and John Nilsson, and served food immediately.
“Breakfast,” Mr. Nilsson said, pouring an ocean of syrup on his pancakes. “Best meal of the day.”
“It’s not bad,” Mrs. Foster said. “But you won’t be staying too long, will you, Mister, er—what was the name again?”
“John Franklin.” He looked down at his sausage patty and cut it bravely. “I hope to get back to Laskin soon.”