After running down five flights of stairs, I exited Happenstance Hospital through a side door that opened onto a parking lot. If followed its perimeter, I would arrive at the front of the building. But I stopped where I was and viewed the hospital entrance from a distance, hoping to catch sight of Dr. Muscat.
I practically jumped out of my skin as something vibrated against my thigh. Jesus. It was the phone. The screen had lit up and was showing a number with an area code I’d never seen. I put the phone to my ear but heard nothing. I looked at the face of the phone again and thought, maybe I have to turn it on first? I stabbed some of the illuminated buttons, and after a moment, I heard a voice say hello from the phone’s small speaker.
“Yes?” I said hesitantly as I brought the phone back to my ear.
“It’s Aaron--Dr. Muscat. Where are you now? Are you safe?”
“Yes. I’m where all the cars are parked--kind of like the side of the building.”
“Okay, I can’t come down right now,” Muscat said, "because the detective doesn’t want me to leave. You’ll need a place to stay for tonight. There’s no point getting in touch with Percival now--it’s too late.”
“Where should I go?”
“Look to your left along the main road. You see the red, lit-up letters, ‘Motel’?
I turned to my left. “Yes, I do.”
“I’ve reserved a room there for you to stay tonight. In the morning, call Percival to set up an appointment with him as soon as possible. It’s important you use the exact words, ‘Muscat sent me,’ as soon as someone answers the phone. He might pick up the call, but more likely, it will be his wife.”
“By the way, I’ve pinned some cash into the left back pocket of your scrubs."
I checked. It was small, flat envelope. "I can’t tell you how much I appreciate what you’re doing for me, Doctor,” I said. Muscat could be in danger of being accused of aiding and abetting the escape of a suspect.
“Not a problem,” he said. "Good luck.”
Ferguson had joined Muscat in the TV lounge, and just as the psychiatrist began explaining his broad findings concerning Mr. Price when the hospital PA system went off, “CODE YELLOW--5B, CODE YELLOW 5-B.”
Ferguson frowned. “That means 'patient missing,' right?”
Muscat nodded and stood up. “And it’s from this ward.”
Ferguson on his heels, Muscat went to the nurses’ station. “Who’s missing?”
“Male patient,” the charge nurse said. “Name’s Marcus Price.”
“Marcus has disappeared?” Muscat asked in feigned astonishment. “But I saw him just a little while ago!"
“What?” Ferguson thundered at the charge nurse. “Disappeared where, how? How do you let something like that happen?”
The charge nurse knew Ferguson. “I’m sorry, Detective,” she said. “Unfortunately we’re a brand new shift and Mr. Price’s room was empty when we went in to give him his medication. So he had to have left sometime during the previous shift.”
“And no one saw anything?” Ferguson said in disbelief. “I need to speak to every nurse on that shift.”
“Yes, now, please."
“What’s going on?” the charge nurse asked.
“Marcus Price is now a suspect in a murder case,” Ferguson replied.
The nursing staff gasped in unison.
“He’s not in a bathroom somewhere?” Muscat said.
“We’ve looked everywhere,” the charge nurse replied.
Ferguson was on the phone asking Dispatch to send a couple of patrol units to case the area around the hospital. “Hopefully he hasn’t gotten far,” he muttered as he hung up. He turned to Muscat. “When I saw you as I was coming out of the elevator, had you just finished seeing Mr. Price in his room?”
Muscat nodded. “Yes. I thought he was doing well from the psychiatric perspective.”
Ferguson gave him a one-sided, crafty smile. “You didn’t happen to discharge him from the hospital or anything like that, did you, Doctor?”
Muscat regarded the detective with a neutral expression. “I couldn’t do that even if I’d wanted to. I’m a consultant physician on the case. Only the primary or the hospitalist physician is allowed to discharge a patient.”
“I see,” Ferguson said, but Muscat could detect the tiniest ember of doubt glowing in the detective's eyes.
“The man you were with,” Ferguson continued. “That was who? Another doctor?”
“Oh, yes,” Muscat said. “He’s an extern from another institution rotating through our Psychiatry department.”
“Okay,” Ferguson said tentatively. “Just that he had the same kind of build and skin hue as Mr. Price.”
“Not really,” Muscat said lightly. “Side by side, the men appear quite unlike each other."
“Uh-huh,” Ferguson said dully. “And you and this, um, extern had both just been in to see Mr. Price?”
“How long was the visit?"
“We didn’t stay more than about fifteen minutes.”
“Did he say anything to you? Did he talk about any plans to run away?”
“Anything in particular you discussed?” Ferguson asked.
Muscat’s stony stare was the only response.
“Doctor-patient relationship,” Ferguson conceded. “Okay. Forget I asked.”
“Will you be needing anything else, Detective?”
“That should be it. If need you, I’ll give you a call.”
In the morning, I called Percival Sellers. A woman answered, and I presumed it was Mrs. Sellers, as Muscat had suggested.
“Mr. Sellers isn’t taking any new consultations,” she said in a flat, raspy voice. “Goodbye."
“Muscat sent me,” I said hurriedly.
Long pause. “All right, but you must come immediately before Mr. Sellers takes his mid-morning nap. Otherwise you’ll need to make another appointment.”
She hung up.
I hailed a taxi. As we drove through the town, I stared at cars I’d never seen before. We reached the outskirts of Happenstance where the landscape became progressively less populated the farther we went. After a while, the taxi slowed down to make a right onto a dirt road nearly swamped by vegetation. Before long, the road narrowed to a path.
The driver stopped. “Sorry, I don’t think I can go beyond this point,” he said. “The car’s gonna get snarled in all this bush.”
“Oh,” I said. “But is this the right place?”
The driver shrugged. “That’s what the GPS says.”
“Sir, you gonna get down here, or not?”
“I’m going,” I said hurriedly, scrambling out.
I walked along the path for about five minutes until a house appeared in a clearing. Is this the place? The olive-green house was oddly shaped such that if you stared at it for a little while, the perspective seemed to change, like one of those drawings where you can see two different alternative images. I walked up to the solid cherry-wood door and pressed the bell beside it.
After a moment, Mrs. Sellers’s voice of came out of nowhere. “Who is it?”
I looked around for a loudspeaker somewhere, but didn’t spot one. “Marcus,” I stammered. "Marcus Price. We spoke on--“
There was a loud buzz and I pushed the door open to find myself in a gloomy foyer. A gray-haired woman appeared.
“Mrs. Sellers?” I asked tentatively.
“Yes. Come this way,” she said, without ceremony.
I followed her through a hall full of odd, gargoyle-like statues. What the hell is this? I thought, with a shiver.
When we had passed out of the hall into a considerably nicer, sunlit living room, Mrs. Sellers said, “Wait here, please.”
She went into another room through a door in one corner, emerging a few moments later. “He can see you now,” she said, holding open the door.
“Thank you, Ma’am,” I said.
I entered, and the door shut behind me. My jaw dropped. The musty room was packed with chaotic piles of books, papers, folders, magazines, boxes, newspapers, and pieces of old furniture. The only living being I saw was an orange cat sitting on a stack of books. It eyed me with detached interest.
“Mr. Sellers?” I called out. “Are you here?”
There was no reply, but soon, I heard the shuffling of feet and a man materialized. “Are you Mr. Price?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, swallowing hard at his appearance. Percival Sellers was an old, unkempt man with black, piercing eyes and a shaggy, gray beard. His ragged hair spilled onto his deeply furrowed face like a tangled web of dry, desert brush. I shuddered. My impulse was to get the hell out of there.
“Come this way,” he said.
As I followed Sellers's bowed, craggy figure, I wondered what in the world I had gotten myself into. I didn’t have a good feeling about it.
**Image: Monkey Business, Shutterstock