The Pandora Box
While investigating mysterious happenings at a state mental hospital, journalist D.J. Parker learns the location of a famous cache of diamonds stolen during World War II. What she doesn't know is that the federal government has secretly been following the case for years. With an old journal to lead the way, she sets out aboard a yacht that once carried the infamous Herman Goering and embarks on a thrilling treasure hunt that could prove to be the adventure of a lifetime... if the captain and his partner don't turn out to be crooks. And the FBI officers following D.J. are really working for the FBI, and if the horrendous secret Dee uncovers during the investigation has absolutely no connection to the famous jewels. But just how long can a secret remain a secret? And more importantly how can a person know whom to trust?
“How will you get me out,” I asked my editor, “after I once get in?” ~ Nellie Bly
It was visiting day in the psychiatric hospital. Dee Parker sat at her usual table in the lounge, next to a foot-wide floor to ceiling window that allowed only a narrow view to the outside lawn. No need to attract any undue attention. It was not an opening window and there was no way of escape. There was that word again. Kept popping up every time she turned around. Honestly, if people could read each other’s minds, they’d all be staring at her right now.
Better get a grip. This was the day. The real deal.
Today, she was going to help Nelson Peterson escape from Wyngate State Hospital. Of course, that was not part of her original assignment, and her editor would probably hit the roof when he found out. But she would deal with that after she got Peterson safely out of here. For weeks now, she only had to come as far as this visitor’s lounge to talk with the old gentleman. Just the thought of having to live here was enough to give her nightmares. But it would soon be over.
Dee felt again for the sprig of miniature roses she had tucked into the band of her straw hat (the smell of roses was supposed to have a calming effect on people) and forced herself not to look around so much. There were too many people here who were getting used to her weekly visits and might engage in conversation if they caught her eye. Today, of all days, she did not want to stand out or be remembered. Except this afternoon, there was something troubling in the atmosphere. She could sense it. Then again, maybe it was just her own nerves.
She watched one of the orderlies escort a disheveled woman across the room in much the same way a person might take a dog out for a walk, then rather abruptly seat her at a crowded table of waiting visitors. It was Iris Kitner, with an inside-out pajama top on instead of something more suitable that went with her skirt. Hadn’t anyone helped her dress today?
The hum of their voices was too far away to make out what anyone was saying, but Dee had heard enough past conversations to know things were progressing the same way they did every week. They would all have a lively visit among themselves, with little or no interaction with Iris. Then they would say their goodbyes. After which, Iris would have a few moments of free rein with the complimentary coffee and cookies set up on the long table against the farthest wall, before another white-coated somebody took her back upstairs.
Only, less than five minutes later, she popped up from her chair with an outburst of bizarre babbling and refused sit down again. Now, that wasn’t like her, at all. The plump, forty-something woman (whose auburn bun was always crooked) was fairly complacent most Fridays. As if the thought of coffee and cookies was enough to keep her on best behavior.
Which made Dee wonder if these troubled souls might have more sensitivity to otherworldly things than most normal people. Something to look into as a possible follow-up story for the series she was writing for the Columbia Herald. The headline might read: Mental Patients: Is What They See Real? A thought that was interrupted when a self-conscious glance from a teenager in the group collided with hers. Grandson or nephew, maybe, who was embarrassed at the way Iris was acting. Dee realized she was watching people again and forced herself to look away.
Instead, she deliberately turned in her seat toward the green double doors on the other side of the room and waited. What was taking so long? Did Nelson forget what day this was?
“Come on, Nels,” she murmured half-aloud. “You’re not giving someone a hard time up there, are you? I don’t have nerves of steel, like you do. Oh, dear Lord...what if...”
For heaven’s sake, Iris had moved into her peripheral vision again, messing around with the refreshments, already. Dee tried not to watch that, either. Except when the unmistakable crash of a coffee cup onto the floor (probably full) caused a momentary lull in the hum of visitors.
She had to do something. Simply because that sour-faced kitchen worker who should never have been hired for this kind of job, was on duty today. In her late sixties, at least, she did not like to clean up messes. Instead, she would complain to housekeeping, which would cause an even bigger disturbance, and Iris would be returned to her room, early. Meanwhile, the family picnic was going on without her, and none of them seemed inclined to come get her.
So Dee slung the strap of her purse over a shoulder, picked up her package, and headed over there. But before she even got across the room, Iris stepped on an errant cookie that had also hit the floor, and the inevitable happened. Ms. Sour-face made an immediate exit through the green doors to tell somebody.
“Hey there, Iris, need some help?” Dee filled a fresh cup, piled an assortment of cookies around the saucer and steered her toward the nearest table. The corners of the woman’s mouth turned up in a barely detectable smile, and she settled down with a contended sigh.
“Cream and sugar?” Dee set a few packets in front of her without waiting for an answer and then left her package on the table for a moment while she turned back to clean up the mess before housekeeping arrived.
“Miss Parker?” The tap on her shoulder a few moments later gave her a start.
“Was this ever clumsy of me!” She scooped up the soppy napkins and deftly tossed them into the nearby trash bin before turning around. “Slipped right out of my...” At which point she found herself looking into the magnified eyes of a large-boned, ruffle-haired orderly whom she didn’t recognize, at all. Now, which department had he come from? He had thick glasses and was wearing a blue uniform instead of the typical white one.
“Mr. Peterson can’t come down today,” he informed her.
“Oh?” She’d been told her dark blue eyes were fringed with unusually long lashes, and he seemed mesmerized by them. So she said the first thing that popped into her mind to break the spell. “Shall I go up, then?”
He glanced furtively toward the green doors as if someone beyond might have heard her say that. “No, I don’t think you better.”
“Well, I would at least like to leave my package.” Dee glanced back toward the brown-wrapped bundle she’d left on the table and inwardly cringed when she saw Iris begin to open it. The visitor’s lounge was getting more crowded now, and the place was turning into a hub of confusion. “What room is he in?”
“6B. But Miss Parker, He really isn’t up to—”
“Did you say six?” Dee felt a sudden hollow in the pit of her stomach. “Why—that’s the violent ward. What on earth is he doing there?” She walked over to collect her package before the contents tumbled out in plain sight, with the orderly following close behind.
“It is often necessary for the safety of our staff, as well as other patients, to confine...”
A textbook answer accompanied a complete shutdown of any previous communication between them.
“Oh, honestly.” Dee added more cookies to Iris’s plate and retrieved the package when her interest shifted then turned around again, expecting to catch him reading verbatim off some card he had snatched from his pocket. “There must be some mistake. He has his quirks, but he isn’t violent. Putting him in with dangerous people could give him a heart attack! Now, who do I talk to about this?”
When she was met with nothing but a blank stare in reply, she closed her eyes for a moment, sighed heavily, and willed herself to calm down. But it didn’t have much effect. The minute she opened them, her impatience popped right out her mouth. “Oh, I’ll just take care of it, myself!” Then, she whisked past him, her flowery print dress set in motion with a determined stride. At that pace, her yellow heels clicked along the gray linoleum, drawing attention like some bright tropical bird moving through dark forest.
Nearly everyone in the room seemed to watch as she walked through those green doors.