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Puzzle Pieces

Prologue

            Presley DeGraff was curled on her side in the hospital bed, staring at the slightly blurred urban landscape visible through the safety glass, when Dr. Khan came in. Based on the circles of fatigue around his eyes and the wrinkled condition of his lab coat, Presley guessed that he had been on duty for too long, as usual. Dr. Khan took human suffering personally and refused to accept that he couldn’t relieve it all.

“You need rest,” she whispered as he approached her.

“I will rest when I am dead. Until then, I will work.” He adjusted and gauze bandage that covered her face. Then, lowering his voice he added, “All is ready. Moon will come for you soon.”

She nodded slightly. “I’ll be watching for him. Thank you for everything.”

Dr. Khan gave her a weary smile. “Good luck, Miss DeGraff.” Then he turned and left the room.

Presley was surprised by the sadness she felt as she watched him go. For months her mind had been consumed with plans to leave Dr. Khan and the hospital. But he had been good to her and she would miss him. Assuming she was able to escape. There was still much that could go wrong.

            A few minutes later the bell rang for shift change. Presley rolled onto her back and pulled the sheet up to her chin. Keeping her eyes closed, she waited for Moon. He wouldn’t come until the confusion caused by the transfer of responsibilities had reached its peak. They needed the distraction in order for their plan to work so the delay was necessary, but it was also excruciating.

Finally the door swung open and seconds later Moon’s large, round face loomed above her. “Here we go,” he whispered.

            He unhooked the various monitors and wheeled her hospital bed into the hallway. Presley concentrated on staying relaxed and keeping her eyes from reacting to the brighter light.

“Where are you going with Miss DeGraff?” a woman demanded.

Presley recognized the voice of the dayshift charge nurse, Ms. Renata, and wondered if their escape plan was over before it really began.

“Dr. Khan is having her moved to the student section,” Moon replied. His tone was the perfect mixture of professional and indifferent. “He’s gonna be responsible for her care from now on.”

“He’s always been responsible.” Presley heard a shuffle of papers as Ms. Renata checked Dr. Khan’s written orders. “But how can we monitor her vitals if she’s in the student section?”

“The kids will monitor her vitals but an alarm will go off here if they drop below normal levels,” Moon said. “Dr. Khan will administer meds. The students will do all the routine stuff – changing sheets and feeding tubes and diapers.”

This reminder that the transfer would mean less work for her nursing staff seemed to sell Ms. Renata on the idea. “It’s most unusual, but as you pointed out – Dr. Khan is responsible.”

“He said since the patient’s got to be sedated all the time now, she’ll be like a live simulation mannequin for the students to practice on,” Moon explained further.

“Is that legal?” Ms. Renata asked.

Presley resisted the urge to cringe. Ms. Renata had already accepted the transfer and was well on her way to forgetting that Presley even existed. Moon needed to stop talking and push the bed.

But he persisted. “Dr. Khan’s going to waive Miss DeGraff’s hospital charges so her lawyer agreed.”

“I’m sure he did,” the nurse murmured with obvious disapproval. Then Presley felt a hand rest gently on her shoulder. “It’s such a shame. Miss DeGraff seemed to be making good progress. And now look at her.”

“Yeah, it’s a real shame,” Moon agreed.

Presley felt a slight pressure on her midsection as Ms. Renata placed the medical chart there. “Okay, well, if that’s what the doctor has approved, take her on.”

And soon they were rolling again. Presley marked their progress by the various smells along the way. Just past the elevators they turned sharply to the left and the light filtering through her closed eyelids dimmed. Moon pulled the bed to a sudden stop and whispered, “We’re here and we’ve gotta hurry.”

Presley threw back the sheet and slid to the ground beside the door to a storage room. Moon was facing away from her eating a candy bar so that it looked like he was taking an unauthorized break. Actually he was using his considerable bulk to shield her from the security camera and any hospital personnel who might pass by while she opened the storage room door and slipped inside.

She walked straight to the back of the room where a female simulation mannequin was stretched out on a cot against the wall. Presley removed a roll of gauze from her pocket and wound it neatly around to mannequin’s head and face. Once she was satisfied that she had replicated the bandage on her own head, she grabbed the fake woman by the artificial arms and hauled it through the door.

The mannequin weighed almost eighty pounds and Presley was sweating by the time she had it settled on the hospital bed. She covered it up to the chin with the sheet and smoothed the plastic blonde hair below the gauze. The mannequin was very realistic and it was almost like looking at herself.

She heard the candy wrapper crinkle and Moon asked, “Is she ready to go?”

“Yes.” Presley stepped back into the storage room and closed the door. Pressing her ear against cool wood, she listened as her bed clattered away down the hall. Then she climbed on to the cot against the wall and pulled the mannequin’s sheet up until it touched her nose. It smelled damp and dank like the storage room. She took a deep, savoring breath. To her it was the smell of freedom.

            It was nearly an hour before Moon returned. But when he stepped into the storage room he was all smiles.

            “The mannequin is in place?” she asked.

            His grin broadened. “She’s breathing and has a heart rate and blood pressure and everything – just like a real patient. Your name is on the door to her room and Dr. Khan put up a sign up saying there’s danger of MSRA exposure. He figures that will keep any curiosity seekers away.”

Presley nodded. “That should do it.”

“He’s told the students their final grade depends on how long they can keep anyone from guessing that their patient is a simulation mannequin instead of a real person. So they are taking it seriously.”

Presley felt a wave of tenderness toward Dr. Khan. He was doing his best for her. “Realistically, though, how long do I have before someone figures it out?”

He shrugged. “It could be a few hours or it could be months. Plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

It had been a long time since she’d felt hopeful about anything, so planning for the worst was easy. “Yes with my luck someone has probably already guessed.”

“But don’t worry about that now,” Moon advised. “Worry about getting out of the hospital first.”

She stretched back out on the cot and pulled the sheet up so that it covered her face. Then she concentrated on keeping her breathing shallow as Moon wheeled the cot into the hall. One of Moon’s fellow orderlies rode down the elevator with them.

“You got a dead one?” he asked.

“Naw,” Moon replied. “This is Simu-Lady, a mannequin they use to train nurses. The hospital bought a new one so this old girl is being donated to a poor teaching hospital.”

The other orderly whooped in laughter. “There’s a teaching hospital poorer than ours?”

Moon chuckled, playing along. “I guess there is.”

The elevator door opened and the men exchanged goodbyes. Then Moon pushed her down a long hall. When the bed finally came to a stop, Presley pulled the sheet down a little and opened her eyes.

Moon pointed to the door of a family restroom. “There’s a Wal-Mart sack in the bottom of the garbage can. Lift out the plastic liner and you’ll see it. I got you a change of clothes and some shoes. There’s a little cash and your driver’s license in the bag too. But I wouldn’t show it to anyone unless you have to.”

Presley nodded. Moon thought it was dangerous to use her real name and had offered to provide her with a fake license. But there were risks associated with using a false name too, so she had decided to ignore his advice and stick with her own.

“Put the hospital gown in the garbage can. I’ll come back and get it later. When you’re ready to go, use the side exit.” He pointed to a sign down the hallway. “There’s a bus stop at the corner.”

“Thank you, Moon.”

He waved her gratitude aside. “Just hurry. I’ll meet you outside the Flying J at the Jeffersonville exit with the rest of the stuff you’ll need.”

“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

He looked anxious. “Or we could just skip the bus and I’ll drive you to wherever you’re going.”

Presley shook her head. “No one can see us together. You go on. I’ll be fine.”

After giving her one last doubtful look, he stood tall to shield her while she climbed off the bed and hurried into the bathroom. Once the door was closed she heard the bed rattle off down the hall.

There was no time to waste so Presley removed the Wal-Mart sack from the garbage can and yanked off her hospital gown. Then she unwound the gauze from her head. The incisions had been healed for weeks, but they had kept the bandages in place to facilitate her escaped plan. Turning to the mirror she looked at her new face for the first time. The transformation was so shocking that she gasped and pressed her fingers along her jaw line to be sure it was real.

Still shaken, but conscious of the danger posed by each moment of delay, she slipped on the stiff blue jeans and the oversized T-shirt from the Wal-Mart sack. There was a baseball hat that she put on her head, tucking her pale blonde hair under it carefully. Socks and a pair of tennis shoes completed her ensemble. Once she was dressed in normal clothes for the first time in months, she studied herself critically.

She was average height – and she knew average was good when you didn’t want to be noticed. Her weight was a little below average – through strict avoidance of carbohydrates. Hopefully the oversized shirt would hide that fact. Her pale blue eyes were unique and hard to disguise. In fact her entire face worked against her like a traitor. The plastic surgeon had it called his ‘masterpiece’. But right now she would much prefer to be plain, since plain, like average, was unmemorable.

Turning away from the mirror she reached back into the Wal-Mart sack and removed her driver’s license and two twenty-dollar bills. She put both into the pocket of her new jeans and tossed the hospital gown in the garbage can as Moon had instructed. Then she cracked open the restroom door and peeked out into the hall. The coast appeared to be clear so she slipped out of the restroom and walked to the side exit.

When she reached the door she put her hands on the push-bar and pressed against it. The door swung open and no alarms sounded. Presley took a deep breath of fresh air and stepped out into the balmy spring evening.  As she walked to the bus stop she tried not to worry that her future was in the hands of an exhausted and overworked doctor, an orderly with a criminal record, and a handful of nursing students.


Chapter One

Eugenia Atkins adjusted the temperature on the stove where she had eggs boiling in a large pot. The Iverson children were coming over the next morning to dye them for Easter and she wanted to make sure there were no cracks in the shells.

Her sister, Annabelle, was watching this process from Eugenia’s kitchen table.

“Nobody dyes real eggs anymore,” she said. “Why can’t you just buy some cute plastic ones like everyone else?”

Eugenia waved the steam away from the top of the pot. “I have wonderful memories of dying eggs as a child and I want Emily and Charles to experience the same. Besides, if you buy plastic eggs you don’t have an excuse to make deviled eggs on Easter afternoon.”

Annabelle wrinkled her nose. “I couldn’t make myself eat deviled Easter eggs because some of the dye always seeped through and stained the whites.”

Eugenia shook her head. “You always were too finicky. Mother’s deviled eggs were one of the best things about Easter. That and chocolate bunnies.”

“You make pretty good deviled eggs too,” Annabelle bestowed a rare compliment. “Not quite as good as Mother’s, but close.”

This remark pleased Eugenia and she decided to hold back some eggs from the dyeing process so that she could make Annabelle a few color-free deviled eggs.

Then there was a knock on the back door. Eugenia’s little dog, Lady, sat up and barked in surprise.

“You expecting anyone?” Annabelle asked. “Besides me?”

“I wasn’t expecting you and I’m certainly not expecting anyone else.” Eugenia glanced at the clock. It was almost nine. That was too late to drop in on someone if you wanted to stay within bounds of Southern etiquette. Which meant her visitor was either manner-less or the bearer of bad news. Her eyes met Annabelle’s and they shared a moment of silent dread.

There was another knock, more insistent this time.

“You’re just delaying the inevitable,” Annabelle said.

With a nod of resignation, Eugenia dried her hands on the threadbare apron that had belonged to her mother. “I hope nobody died. I’m not dressed for the funeral home.”

She walked reluctantly toward the door with Lady at her heels. After taking a deep breath, she pulled open the door to find Winston Jones and George Ann Simmons on her back porch. Eugenia blinked twice to be sure she wasn’t hallucinating. But both times when she opened her eyes they were still there.

“Hey Miss Eugenia,” Winston said.

George Ann just stood there silently.

“What a surprise to see the two of you here . . . together . . . at this hour.”

Winston was Haggerty’s police chief – not brilliant but kind at heart. George Ann was an elderly snob with no heart who thought she was better than everyone else. Their joint appearance made no sense.

“We’re here on official business,” Winston informed her.

That sounded fishy. “Official business at this time of night?”

“May we come inside, please?” He gave Eugenia a pleading look so she stepped aside – not exactly welcoming them in, but allowing them to pass.

Winston led George Ann into the kitchen and waited while Eugenia and Annabelle cleared off chairs so they could sit. Winston seems distracted. George Ann seemed lost.

Once they were seated Eugenia addressed the police chief. “What’s going on here?”

He cleared his throat. “Well, Miss George Ann was at the Piggly Wiggly tonight,” he began.

“And,” Annabelle prompted.

“And she started opening cartons of large eggs and removing ones that she thought were too small to qualify as ‘large’,” Winston told them.

            Eugenia glanced at George Ann who was staring at the dark window. Then she looked back at Winston. “Why?”

            George Ann took an interest in the conversation for the first time. “I felt certain that the manager, that unpleasant young man . . .” she turned to Winston. “What is his name?”

“Brewster,” Winston provided. “Brewster Hoage.”

George Ann nodded. “Yes, well, I was standing in the dairy section at the Piggly Wiggly and all of the sudden I was quite sure that Mr. Hoage had switched medium eggs into large egg cartons so he could sell them for more money.”

            “I wouldn’t put that past Brewster,” Eugenia murmured.

            “No that’s certainly possible,” Annabelle agreed.

Winston cleared his throat again. “It doesn’t matter whether Brewster switched the eggs or not. What matters is that Miss George Ann was taking the eggs out of the large cartons and piling them on the floor in the dairy section of the Piggly Wiggly. She had over a hundred eggs in the floor before the produce manager stopped her and most of them were broken. It was a huge mess and Brewster was furious.”

“I was sure the eggs were in the wrong cartons,” George Ann said in defense of her actions.

Eugenia was starting to be truly alarmed. “But why did you think you should fix it?”

            George Ann shook her head in obvious confusion. “I don’t know. It seemed very important at the time – vital even. Did I ever work at the Piggy Wiggly?”
            Eugenia and Annabelle shared a look of panic with Winston. George Ann considered it beneath her to walk into a grocery store. The idea of her actually working at the Piggly Wiggly, or anywhere, was laughable. But no one laughed. George Ann was completely sincere. She really didn’t know.

            “Uh, no,” Eugenia said as calmly as she could. “You never worked at the Piggly Wiggly.”

            George Ann shrugged. “Then I don’t know why I did it. I’m sorry and I’ll pay for the eggs that got broken.” The confused look was replaced by fear. “If I have any money.” She reached across the table to clasp one of Eugenia’s hands in hers. “Do I?”

            Eugenia nodded slowly. George Ann was a millionaire several times over. “I’m sure you have enough money to cover the eggs.”

            Now Annabelle looked like she was about to cry.

            Winston leaned his elbows on the table and lowered his voice. “Brewster wanted to press charges.”

            “Against George Ann!” Eugenia whispered back in dismay. “The very idea! He knows she’ll pay for the damage.”

            “Apparently there have been other incidents recently,” Winston replied with a quick glance at George Ann. “He says he’s caught her shoplifting several times.”

Eugenia waved this aside. “She just forgot to pay.”

Winston rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah well the only way I talked him out of an outright arrest was to promise that I’d take her away and that I’d make sure she never sets foot in there again.”

Eugenia frowned. “And how do you plan to make sure of that?”

Winston shrugged. “I’m not worried about Brewster. I can handle him. But I am worried about her.” He gestured toward George Ann. “Something is wrong. I thought about taking her to the emergency room, but she’s not in pain or a danger to herself. She’s just confused and I was afraid all the commotion at the hospital would make her worse.”

“But why did you bring her here?”

“I thought she could stay with you,” he said. “Just for the night, until we can get her to the doctor tomorrow.”

Eugenia was not pleased by the prospect of babysitting George Ann but Winston was right. The emergency room was not the place for her and she certainly couldn’t stay alone in this confused state. “Okay but just until she can see her doctor in the morning.”

“Thank you!” Winston looked immensely relieved. He stood and hurried toward the backdoor – as if he were afraid she might change her mind.

“I’ll call the police station as soon as I can set up an appointment for George Ann,” Eugenia reiterated.

“Yes ma’am.” He put his hat on and stepped outside.

As Eugenia closed the door behind him she heard thunder in the distance. Lady looked up at the sky and whimpered. Eugenia sighed. “Yes, girl, it looks like there’s a storm coming our way.”

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