Trish pushed past Susan and trotted down the hall. Julie and the pair of practicals scurried after the thin nurse. Unable to move or think, Susan leaned against the counter.
A piercing scream pulled the unit secretary from her chair at the desk. The scream thawed Susan's frozen thoughts. If someone didn't take charge, the unit would dissolve into chaos.
"Kit, you can't go yet. Call Security and the house doctor. We need them stat. Then call the Nursing Office. I'll speak to any supervisor who answers."
"What's wrong with Barbara?" Kit asked.
"She's dead." Susan glanced up. Above nearly every door, a call light shone. A patient on crutches swung down the hall. Immediately behind him, a woman walked with crab-like movements. Susan left the desk to intercept the pair.
"What happened?" the man asked.
"Who screamed?" The woman stumbled and put her hand on the wall.
Susan paused and considered how to make them return to their rooms without frightening them. She couldn't tell them about Barbara's death, but she had to say something. "One of the nurses had an accident."
"Is there anything I can do?" the woman asked.
"Go back to your room and let your roommate know everything is being taken care of. A nurse will be in soon."
After the patients left, Susan strode to where her coworkers clustered around the storage room. Trish blocked the doorway. A thin smile appeared on her face. The practicals jostled each other and peered into the room. Julie huddled against the wall with her hand pressed against her mouth.
"Close the door and start answering lights," Susan said. "It looks like Christmas at the desk."
"What should we tell the patients?" Julie asked.
"That one of the nurses had an accident," Susan said.
"What if one of them wants to know who she is?" one of the practicals asked. "Shouldn't we tell them she's...well...you know?"
"Use your common sense. Say that one of the nurses had an accident and is being seen by the house doctor."
From the corner of her eye, Susan saw the stocky house doctor stride past the end of the hall. She hurried to catch up with him. "Dr. Mendoza, one of the nurses had an accident. She's in the storage room. You need to check her."
His dark eyes flashed irritation. "Why do you not take her to the Emergency Room? I am here to care for the patients, not the nurses."
"We can't move her until Security comes." Susan lowered her voice. "She's dead."
Susan inhaled. Why was Dr. Mendoza the doctor in the house tonight? He always behaved as though unexpected incidents had been staged to annoy him. "She's--"
"Susan, Ms. Vernon's on the line," Kit said.
arm. "Come on. I'll go with you." Mendoza
Glad she didn't have to face the scene in the storage room again, Susan hurried away. She sat on the edge of the desk and took the receiver from Kit. "Leila, it's Susan. There's a problem here."
"What has Barbara done? I heard Kit was tracking her."
"She's dead. I found her in the storage room and I don't think it was an accident."
"I'll be right there," Leila said. "What kind of injuries?"
"She...her head..." A picture of Barbara's battered head and face flashed in Susan's thoughts. Acid burned her throat. She dropped the receiver and bolted for the utility room. There, she leaned over the sink. Even after her stomach was empty, she continued to heave.
Footsteps sounded on the tile floor. Susan looked up. Leila looked as though she had run the entire distance from the Nursing Office.
"Are you all right?" Leila asked.
Susan gulped deep breaths of air. "I don't know. She felt ghastly." She blotted her tearing eyes with a paper towel and rinsed her mouth.
Leila took Susan's arm and they walked to the nurses' station. "Come and sit down."
Susan shook her head. If she sat, she would fall apart. She had to remain calm and strong. Who would see to her patients if she gave into the hysteria that threatened to erupt? Once again, flashes of the gruesome still life in the storage room surfaced. She shivered and rubbed her upper arms. Activity would keep the memories at bay.
"Are you sure she's dead?" Leila asked.
The sharp toned question acted like a splash of cold water. "Yes." The word exploded from Susan's mouth. "I checked her. So did
Talk to him. I have to answer lights." Mendoza
"Are you sure you're up to facing patients?"
"If I don't, who will?"
Kit turned in her chair at the desk. "I sure wish I could have seen her instead of being stuck at the desk. Wonder who got her. Was she gross?"
"I don't want to talk about her," Susan said.
"You're going to have to." Kit pursed her lips. "Security called the police. I think you're in big trouble. The guard was upset because you and Mendoza messed with the body. He's afraid you tampered with the evidence."
"I had to see if I could help her."
"You did the right thing." Leila reached for the phone. "I'd better call Murry Johnson before someone else does. This could be a real problem for the hospital."
"I bet they'll be major upset," Kit said. "You know, the guard took my key for the storage room and he wants the one from the narcotic ring. He's checking the rooms for an intruder. A bit late, I'd say. The killer's probably long gone."
Or here among us. Susan's hand flew to her mouth. Had she said the words aloud?
"I wonder what we were doing when she died?" Kit asked. "She wasn't exactly the most popular person on the unit."
Susan walked away. Kit sounded like Barbara. Was the unit secretary planning to take the practical's place as gossip queen?
"Aren't you glad this didn't happen during visiting hours? Just think of the mess that would have been." Kit's comments followed Susan from the station.
She made a face and ducked into the first room of her district. Why was Kit making Barbara's death sound like an adventure? Finding the body had been a nightmare. Susan forced her lips into a smile and approached the first bed. "You rang?"
"Fifteen minutes ago. When I heard that scream." The gray-haired man shifted his leg. The canvas-supporting sling shifted. Weights attached to pins embedded in his tibia clanged against the frame of the bed. "Is everything all right? I rang six times."
"One of the nurses had an accident."
"Where's your buddy?" the second patient asked.
"She's the one who had the accident. What can I do for you?"
The older man winked. "A lot, but my leg aches. When you have time, I'd like an injection."
"And I'm due for my sleeping pill," the second patient said.
"Give me fifteen minutes."
Susan left the room and repeated the scene with slight variations in the other rooms of the district. She hated to lie, but there was no reason for the patients to know one of the nurses had been murdered. What could they do but worry?
When she returned to the nurses' station, she had a list of requests for pain medication and sleepers for eleven patients. She and Julie reached the desk at the same time.
"Will we ever get done?" Julie asked.
Susan looked at Trish and the two practicals who were seated at the desk charting. "You will. I'll be here for hours. I have all the charts to write." She remembered the expected admission and groaned. "Kit, what's happening with the new patient?"
"The ER thinks we're having a silent code. Ms. Vernon backed me up. They weren't pleased, but they agreed to hold the patient until nights arrive. The police are here. No one can leave until they've been questioned."
"You're kidding," Julie said. "I have a date."
"He'll have to wait." Kit smiled slyly. "We're all suspects."
Once again, Susan heard echoes of Barbara in Kit's voice. "The police will have to wait until my patients are settled. After all, this is a hospital." She nodded to Trish and opened the med room door.