Nadine Malcolm finished inputting the data sheets she’d been assigned, then shoved her cheap black-framed glasses up her nose. With a surreptitious sideways glance, she verified that the guard was busy poisoning his health with sugar and coffee. Swiftly, she hit a series of keys.
The guard turned around before she could do more. The repetitive message she’d stored would automatically go out to the phone numbers she’d recorded. She didn’t hold out much hope that any of the recipients would follow up, but she could annoy the tar out of them if they didn’t. She’d left politeness behind in a faraway time and place.
She innocently fiddled with her too-long Orphan Annie curls and flipped a page, pretending she was checking her work.
Once she handed in the data sheets, she focused on the code numbers she was mentally sending into the universe. She needed to hold them in her head until she snagged an opportunity to type them into her cloud cache for physical sending.
“Thirty-four, twenty-two,” she told the guard in genial tones as they traversed the cold tile corridors to the cafeteria. “Eleven-eighty.”
“Yeah, and H-E-double hockey sticks back atcha,” the guard grumped, following her to the cafeteria where she could get a plate of cardboard eggs.
The amusement of playing this role had worn thin since learning Vera was no longer safely in the college boarding house where she belonged. Buttering her toast, Nadine debated cutting herself with a plastic knife. Would they take her to a real hospital in a real town? She’d have a better chance of escaping closer to civilization than this remote outpost.
As an experiment, she tried breaking the plastic knife while she forked her dry eggs, but she couldn’t produce an edge sharp enough to even poke out an eye. If she poked any eyes, it would be the evil eye of her own personal Nurse Ratchet.
The vibrations in the universe seemed exceptionally intense today. Or maybe she was just on edge because of Vera and picking up more disturbances than usual. With no means of finding out, she blocked out the distraction by repeating the code numbers in her head, just in case anyone was listening. She knew there were others out there who could receive her psychic transmissions, but she didn’t know if they paid attention.
Usually, rumbling in her universe meant the general was coming. She might want to escape this asylum—but not into his dangerous spider trap.
Tucking the broken plastic knife into the aluminum foil that had wrapped her tray, Nadine amused her audience by wrapping the foil around her orange curls. She stuck a plastic fork like a feather into the foil turban.
“Eight hundred,” she told the guard, rising from the heavy bench. They didn’t allow patients near chairs that could be used as weapons or shields. She was average-sized chubby, not a weightlifter. A physical fight for escape wasn’t happening.
The skinny scarecrow of a guard scratched his crotch and led her down the fluorescent-lit tile corridor to the reception desk in the lobby. “Bingo,” she told the nurse waiting with her meds and a paper cup of juice.
“We’re all winners, dear,” Nurse Ratchet said with that gleam in her eye that Nadine wanted to punch out.
She figured the witch was sleeping with the General and getting paid well to do so.
“Burp.” Nadine took the pills and dropped them into her orange juice, then dumped the concoction on Wretched Ratchet’s pristine white SAS walking shoes.
“You bitch, you did that on purpose!” Wretched grabbed a towel to wipe the leather.
“Ta-ta,” Nadine agreed. She’d used similar diversionary tactics when she’d first been brought here, with every intention of escaping.
Her prior attempts had merely taught her the location of every guard post in the building—and exhausted her chances. They made her sleep during the day now so that her waking hours were in the dark, when she was their sole focus. She wasn’t a nature lover. They probably thought she’d be afraid of the mountain at night.
She had run out of waiting time if they’d taken Vera. She’d finally reached the point where she’d risk bears, cougars, and rabid squirrels to escape this loony bin.
She shouldn’t let distant vibrations raise her hopes, but she was in a mood to fight for her freedom.
If she stabbed Wretched in the eye, would they take her to jail?
Wait a minute…
Whoever was driving up the road boiled like a thunderstorm. Power like that was worthy of a diversion.
In the cool October morning, Magnus studied Woodstar Villas Assisted Living on Dollar Lane. Psychic messages weren’t all they cracked up to be if he was in the right place. Lake—Lane. Starwood—Woodstar.
The “villas” were in the middle of an evergreen forest in the mountains beyond San Bernardino, up a creek so narrow that no one in their right mind would find it— appropriate, if the Librarian was psycho. At least he didn’t have to hike to it.
He was almost disappointed. The place looked normal—a sprawling stucco building half-hidden behind a stucco wall—hence the Villa name. It was, however, well off the beaten path. They weren’t advertising their presence.
It was a little after eight in the morning. Magnus didn’t know if his brothers were out of bed to receive his texts. He was too far into the mountains for them to reach him quickly, even if they were awake. He just liked to keep back-up alerted.
He glanced down at his jeans and the rumpled flannel shirt he’d pulled over his t-shirt. He probably should have suited up. Maybe not. That would have just put people on their toes.
A metal security gate was his first obstacle. He could unlock the code with his experimental system, but he didn’t want to start a fight at this stage of the game. Leaning out of the Camaro’s window, he flashed a fake ID at the guardhouse. If this was the right place, and he had to do something obnoxious, he’d rather not leave a trail. He announced the name of the CEO he’d looked up online.
“Do you have an appointment?” the bored guard asked.
“Of course. I should be on your list. I’m running late, but he’s expecting me,” he lied glibly, with skills learned at his TV-producer brother’s right hand.
“He ain’t here yet,” the guard confirmed. “I’ll call up to the house and see what they want me to do.”
Crap. Magnus waved in agreement and studied the situation. If he knew the Librarian was actually here, he could return with storm troopers.
He knew no such thing.
He climbed out and leaned against the pillar next to the gate while checking his phone for messages. He sent a couple of photos to Conan, just in case. Electronic lock with manual backup on the gate. His car could open it.
“They said to come up and wait in the lobby,” the guard yelled at him.
Well, hell, that took all the fun out of it. He’d rather blow up gates than figure out how to get past whoever was in charge to look for someone he didn’t know. What had he been thinking?
Oh, right, he hadn’t. As Diane had once told him, he acted instead of thinking. In his past life, that had often made a difference between life and death.
In this case, it was likely to be more complicated. Magnus drove the power car to the parking lot and contemplated his next move, but he was no strategist. He needed a way of communicating with the Librarian to see if he was at least in the right place.
Maybe if she were truly psychic, she’d know he was here. He mentally laughed all the way to the entrance.
The double front doors were barred. He announced his arrival into an intercom and waited for a guard to slide back the bolt. He needed Oz here to feed him lines.
The doors opened. Before Magnus could cross the threshold, a whirlwind in an aluminum foil hat, enormous black-framed glasses, and springy orange hair grabbed the Taser from a security guard. Shooting the guard with her one cartridge, she rapidly switched to stun and rammed the gun against a mean-looking nurse in her way. The nurse screamed in shock and toppled.
Startled, Magnus stepped aside rather than risk being hit. Little Orphan Annie shoved past and flew down the sidewalk.
He swung around to observe her progress, wondering if she planned to run right past the security gate and into the forest.
“Nadine, get your ass back here!” thundered the buxom nurse in orange-stained shoes trying to scramble from the floor. The guard was still twitching. “Catch her, you idiots!” She gestured at a uniformed guard racing up and…
Magnus looked around. Him? He and the bumpkin were the only protection for a mentally disabled patient against a mountain forest?
The Oswin Zorro instinct kicked in. He was off and running without giving it a second thought. He was closer and more in shape than the stumbling guard. He dashed down the walk and caught up with the aluminum-foil lunatic just as she reached his car. His car. There was a parking lot full of cars. Why his?
She barely came past his shoulder and was half his width, but she snatched the key from his hand as if he were a marshmallow. She opened the door with the key’s electronic switch, hopped in the driver’s seat, and had the car running before he could reach inside and yank her out.
“No time,” she shouted. “Get in or I’ll run over you.”
The stout guard tripped over his shoelaces and stumbled into Magnus’s back. “She’s a nutter,” the guy muttered. “Let me at her.”
“I’m the Librarian and you found me,” she retorted, revving the engine.
“You’re a librarian nutter,” Magnus concluded, thoughts racing along with his car engine.
It would be just his luck that his key to the general would be insane. He didn’t like coincidence, but he wasn’t taking any chances of losing his only clue. He shoved her from under the steering wheel and across the bucket seat.
With one hand, Magnus propelled the slow guard out of his way, He slammed the door and spun gravel backing out. “I’ll bring you right back if you’re lying.”
“Not lying. Saw you with the Asian guy. Thirty-four, twenty-two, eleven, eighty, eight-hundred, right?”
The code, the freaking code that had kept him up all night. “Not quite in that order,” he griped. “How did you see me with Bo?” Magnus asked warily, ramming the gas pedal before the gates could close. The Camaro hit warp speed in sixty seconds. Did they have cops on mountains?
“Don’t know,” she said. “I see things. Your friend—Bo?—sends out powerful vibrations. You were here to get me, weren’t you? Which Oswin are you?”
She saw things. He and Bo had been buried in an underground tunnel. No one had seen them except their captors. Magnus rolled his eyes. “I so do not need another psycho in my life. Please tell me you’re actually sane and you’re just a little rattled right now.”
“I’m sane and just a little rattled right now, and you didn’t answer my questions. Maybe if I ask them one at a time—you did come for me, didn’t you?”
Of average height and sturdy bone structure, she looked about sixteen wearing those ridiculously huge glasses to hide long-lashed green eyes. The foil hat over Orphan Annie orange curls wasn’t helping her case any. Dark shadows left her eyes haunted, and beneath the mop of hair, her almost elfin features seemed gray—like Tinkerbell fading away because no one believed in her. Her lips were pale, bitten, and unadorned by cosmetics. Very definitely an inmate.
“If you’re really the Librarian, we got your messages.” He was the one a little rattled. How could an inmate in an asylum possibly have known who he was? “We’ve been looking for you. You didn’t exactly make it easy.”
“Good.” She took off her glasses, tucked them in a pocket beneath her Tweety-bird sweat shirt, and nodded her foil-wrapped head. “You have smart people working for you. I need your help. Could we please go to UC Irvine? You can drop me off at the park and be on your way. Better hide the Camaro later, though. They’ll have film of the plate.”