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There was no answer, but the nurse continued to hold the phone to her ear, distracted by the commotion in front of the elevator. Ariana Lochalan's friends – her next of kin, if the notes in her file were correct – had come in for a visit seemingly unaware of the fact that Ariana had been discharged three days previous. Now they were locked in some sort of argument over whose fault it was that someone died.
They were loud and disruptive, and under different circumstances they would have been escorted outside and encouraged to vent their frustrations on someone who cared. On this occasion, however, the nurse was quite happy to let them carry on where they were, because at least they were preoccupied enough to not pester her anymore.
They'd been quite insistent when they asked for details on Mrs. Lochalan's disappearance, as they called it, almost rude, she thought. How dare they insinuate that a high-standard institution such as Livenbrook Mental Hospital would just allow a stranger to walk in off the street and kidnap one of their patients?
True, Ariana Lochalan had been completely unresponsive on the day of her admission. Not physically hurt, but just in some sort of shock-induced coma. Unable to talk or move a muscle, so her miraculous recovery was, indeed, a mystery. The nurse clicked her computer keys a couple more times, looking for more information. Ariana Lochalan had apparently lost her husband and went into shock at the news. It was him the youngsters by the elevator were arguing about, she was quite sure.
She turned her head to look at them, trying to ascertain the degree of further abuse she would have to suffer from the couple, and cursing the fact that the Head Nurse was not available at the exact moment she was needed most. It had to happen on her shift.
To her surprise, the young lady and the man accompanying her, who had been so close to a boxing match a minute before, were now glued together at the lips. The nurse pulled the phone away from her ear, distracted.
"I'm scared, too, and I'll never walk out on you again, Janie. I mean, what kind of boyfriend does that?" the young man said, and then gave the girl a nervous smile.
"Are you asking me out, Lance Harmon?" The girl's face opened up in a huge smile.
"Well, I like you. I like you a lot." He fidgeted with the buttons on his shirt. "I guess these last couple of weeks…"
"Yes," she said, smiling up at him.
"Yes?" Lance looked up at her in disbelief, but a slow grin spread across his face as her bright smile confirmed is question. "Yes!" He picked Janie up and twirled her around the small area between the elevator and the nurse's desk.
Classic. The nurse clicked emphatically on the 'x' at the top of the screen to close down the file and slapped the phone down on her desk.
The girl heard her and immediately rushed over, a blur of emotions on her pale face, now mottled with pink-flushed patches.
"I'm sorry," the nurse pre-empted a fresh influx of questions by speaking first. "I've done my best but I can't get hold of the nurses who were on duty Wednesday night. If anything else turns up I'll let you know."
The nurse could tell Janie was on the verge of screaming at her, but the girl checked herself at the last minute and started to cry instead. She put her hand over her mouth and sobbed, great dollops of tears streaming down her pretty face. Lance pulled her into his arms and let her fall apart.
"Come on, let's go to the police station and file a missing persons report, then we'll go to Mr. and Mrs. Lochalan's house and let them know what's going on. You're going to stay with me tonight. I don't want you at Ariana and Michael's all alone." Lance plucked a Kleenex from the box on the nurse's desk and pressed it into Janie's hand. "Here, wipe your eyes and blow your nose. We'll figure this out together."
Janie nodded and wiped her tears away. It was heartbreaking to see the kid so upset. The nurse looked up and spoke calmly, aiming to soothe.
"I will keep you informed, I promise. Janie?" she checked. Janie nodded. "I've got your number right here, dear," the nurse patted a worn organizer. "It's probably a simple misunderstanding that will be sorted out in no time at all. Don't distress yourself unnecessarily."
Janie nodded fervently and allowed Lance to tow her to the elevator doors. Her sobs had subsided to faint hiccups by the time they disappeared from view.
Three Days Earlier
Over a thousand miles away, Abe walked into Rainey's lair just like he had weekly for over seventeen years. Rainey was a very talented psychic and witch but, more importantly, she was his psychic witch who had evidently been sent to him by God. And he knew there must be a God because the big guy had a sense of humor, judging by the unbroken sequence of bad news he received on a regular basis.
It was Tuesday, so Abe figured Rainey's summons for him tonight had nothing to do with Code Red or any other lighthearted activity on the island, but was possibly just another look into his future, and he braced for the inevitable bad news. If vampires could get ill, his stomach would've turned every time he saw her number on his cell phone. Rainey had never given him any good news – a hell of a track record for any psychic.
The corner of his lips lifted as he allowed himself to imagine her doing readings in a fair's canvas tent. Would she be able to scrounge any good news at all for her customers, enough to make a living? He chuckled. Nah. They'd all be fleeing in terror. Humans were not designed to cope with the amount of bad luck he endured on a day-to-day basis.
Abe would have preferred to just accept the bad stuff when it came instead of knowing about it beforehand. Except for his first reading from Rainey, there hadn't been one single time he could change or even guard against future events. He wondered fleetingly why he even bothered torturing himself like this – the world would keep on doing its own thing at its own pace regardless.
"Madam Rainey, Max said you requested to see me," Abe spoke with a nervous quiver of lips that failed to form a smile.
She grinned serenely back at him. They played this proper game often, the same exchange of words, the same smile, maybe a little shakier on his part lately. It was quite comical, really, coming from the two least proper people on the island.
"Yes, High Vampire, I did. I see things are about to change for you."
Goody, there's a surprise. Abe's eyebrows shot up and then returned to their rightful places while she got busy picking up stones and throwing them on a platter already laden with sticks and a dark red liquid that eerily resembled blood, but lacked the smell – he tasted the air with his tongue – and flavor.
He walked closer and sat down beside her. "It can't be good news, or we all would be having a party instead of just you and me hiding in your warren, looking at some rocks and sticks and stuff."
Rainey gave him a sly smile. "It's true I don't offer you good news often–"
"Often," she insisted. "But you should be grateful you still have your wits."
"Sometimes I wonder how I manage that."
Rainey let out a heavy breath and stared him down for a moment, like you would a misbehaving child. "Are you done moaning or would you like some more time? I simply assumed you would want to hear the news and decide which path to take before the island found out and chose a path for you."
"I answer to no one," Abe growled.
"Yes, and aren't we all aware of that, oh, honored Sire?" she said with a roll of her eyes. "This decision has to do with the whole vampire community, and I think they will feel a little different about it than you will." Rainey's expression changed from scathing to warm, loving even. She continued in a quiet voice. "You see, this fortune is about you finding your soulmate, and if you choose this path there will be no way you could stop it from happening. I see you falling madly in love with a human girl, and she is… well… she's beautiful, Abe."
"Human?" he asked, disgusted. "Don't you mean vampess? And besides, it's ridiculous to even think I would fall in love. I have walked the earth for nine hundred fifty four years and never once felt there was more use to a vampess than to satisfy a sexual craving. I find any relationship," the word twisted in his mouth, "annoying."
He stretched his long legs, crossed his ankles and leaned back in the chair. "I seldom enjoy even that. Love is not for me. You've got this all wrong, Rainey."
His black hair was longer than he normally wore it and Rainey could tell it had been a while since he had fed. Fatigue and stress radiated out of his aura. She stood and walked to the cabinet that held her herbs, potions and spell books. She rummaged for a bit and then emerged with a crystal ball in her hands.
An abrupt chuckle escaped Abe's lips at her choice of fortune-telling tools. So cliché, Rainey, he thought.
Rainey stopped, hand on hip." Are you questioning my wisdom, or my forecasts?" she asked, then returned to her station and began moving her hands over the ball.
He hesitated. "No, neither. I…"
Rainey stopped suddenly. "I am certain you will fall in love. It is a very powerful love, one that only first-sight attraction could engender. Now, just for once, I need you to shut up and trust me, and choose your path wisely."
She held silent, testing him. He was quiet, too, frowning at the fire in her words. She was one of few he allowed to speak their opinion. But that was because no matter how much he hated to admit it, Rainey was always right about her fortunes.
He didn't know what he wanted. He didn't get the love idea at all. Love happened to other people, normal people; it was the stuff of fairy tales and musicals. He was a damn vampire, for Christ's sake, with a lot of responsibility and a good, healthy attitude towards satisfying natural urges, be they of a sexual nature or not.
Rainey was watching the play of emotions on his face. She looked serious, all teasing gone from her features, maybe a little sad even. "If you do not ever want love, get up and leave now. Your life and everyone else's will remain the same. Nothing will change. But hear me, Abe, you will never in your existence have a chance to love again. If you choose the path to love, your life will change for the better, but that, too, is a very bumpy road. I sense there are people, some with very loud, strong voices, who will not be pleased to see your life warmed by love."
Abe started laughing, but stopped abruptly when Rainey didn't join in. Was she serious?
"You are mad, woman. Okay, for argument's sake, I will choose love. Let's see you pull this one out of your witch's ha–"
Before Abe could get the word hat out of his mouth, Rainey turned her crystal ball toward him. His eyes fixated on the most beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on.
Rainey smiled. "See, Sire, I am never wrong about my readings. You are in love, are you not? And she is a girl, a human girl, not a vampess."
Abe jumped to his feet so fast he almost fell over a low table. All the confusion in his mind had scrambled his ability to think and his motor function, too, it seemed.
Eyes glued to the woman in Rainey's ball, he felt as if there was no air to breathe, his body was consumed by flames and his head was about to burst. There was a strong ache in his chest where his heart had once beat, and nothing else in the world could make him tear his gaze away from the angel in the glass ball. The world could have come to an end right there and then – it wouldn't have mattered. The swirl of thought and passion in his mind was impossible to settle. Only one thing was certain: he had to have her, he had to touch her face, he had to make love to this, this… human angel.
Love? Was he really, after all this time… was he allowed to feel love?
"Get her here! I don't care what you have to do to make it happen, just get her here!"
God, what is happening to me? He grabbed his head and then rubbed his aching chest, trying to catch a jagged breath despite not needing air to live. He felt like he was drowning – he was drowning and he was caged.
He needed her to live, to breathe. So vulnerable… he'd never felt so weak, and yet so deliriously happy.
"Tell no one of us speaking tonight," he said to Rainey. "No one is to know, do you understand?"
"Yes, Abe. It's why I wanted you to do this in private. I understand what you are going through and I won't increase your suffering one minute longer. I will personally go and get Ariana myself. I'll leave tonight for the mainland. It will take a day or two, but I'll get her here for you."
Rainey laughed. "Yes, Abe, that is your love's name. From now on your life will be about her, really. Ariana."
"Ariana," he repeated. "I haven't had a heart beating in my chest in over nine hundred years, but the moment I laid eyes on her I felt as if I had one again."
Rainey stood and walked to her king. "Listen, if anyone asks where I've gone, just tell them I had personal family affairs to attend to in the States."
"Yes. Of course. Thanks, Rainey. Keep me informed while you're away, or you'll be bringing Ariana back to a mental wreck," he said as he walked out of the lair, wobbly but with a smile on his face.
Rainey smiled to herself. It was always difficult to give him his fortunes, for they were never good; not always bad, but never really anything to be happy about. It had been months since she had seen Abe smile, and she had never seen him smile like that before. The crystal ball never lies.
It was a long way from Eternal Island to Livenbrook Mental Hospital, but Rainey was determined to do it in one night. She hated wasting time on travel, so she'd learned to fly the island's private jet years ago. Her idea was to fly to the airport closest to the hospital, get a room for the day and start fresh after dark. Hopefully, that way she could discharge Ariana and fly back, all in one go. There should be fewer nurses and humans to screw up her carefully-laid plans.
Abe would be anxious, having to wait a few extra hours, but Rainey would need her rest so she could fly Ariana safely back to the island. She was certain Abe would be much more upset if the plane crashed with the love of his life and his favorite psychic on board. Well, he might change his mind about the psychic if the psychic crashed, but that wouldn't matter a whole lot to a dead psychic.
Rainey made it to a small-craft airfield about twenty miles from the hospital. She put the plane in storage and then located the office to call a cab. The man at the counter was eating what looked like a very unhealthy cheeseburger and greasy French fries. He was watching some daytime show on a little TV screen.
"Excuse me, can you tell me the phone number for a taxi cab, please?" She eyed the round face of the clock on the wall behind him. Not quite noon yet.
"Ha, lady, you think you in New York or something? We ain't got cabs 'round here. I'll let you rent a car if you want. This here's an airport and auto rental place all in one."
"Okay, I'll rent a car. What are my options?"
"We got a real nice minivan, a Grand Am, or a Ford Focus."
Rainey weighed her options and, if not for her specific mission, would have taken the Grand Am. As it was, she figured the minivan would be her best bet, just in case Ariana would prove a little hard to convince and she would need to travel gagged and tied up. Most humans were quite cooperative, but just occasionally she'd tripped over a particularly feisty one.
"The minivan will be fine. Any motels between here and Livenbrook, do you know?"
"$64.58 for 24 hours, ma'am, and here's your keys. Now, motels... There's this one right outside Livenbrook, about eighteen miles down the road from here and it's called... now what was the name of that motel? I drive by it every damn…"
"Thanks a lot for your help. I'll find it. Here's sixty-five, just keep the change."
"Hey, you want your receipt?"
"No, thanks," Rainey said as she ran out the door.
On the highway, Rainey was really wishing she had chosen the Grand Am. Too late now. There was no way she was going back in there. Well, at least the air conditioner worked. It was so humid. She just needed a hot shower and a comfortable bed and she would be fit to carry out the second part of the plan as soon as the sun set.
"Well, it isn't the Ritz, Rainey, but you're too tired to care," she said out loud, but to no one in particular, as she checked into the town's finest motel. She took a quick shower and headed for the bed that in no way could be comfortable. It had restless written all over it. Sleep arrived swiftly, regardless.
Rainey sat straight up in bed when her cell phone rang, nine hours later.
"Hello, Abe," she said without even checking the number on the screen.
"Have you found her yet?"
"Finding her isn't the problem. I know exactly where she is, and she's not about to go anywhere without me. I just had to get some rest, or did you want me to crash the plane on the way back with your sweetheart on board? I'm not a vampire; I can't stay up for days at a time, like some people can."
"Oh. Right. Didn't think of that. I was worried because I hadn't heard from you since you left."
"Worried? About me, or Ariana?"
"Damn it, I was worried about you both! Am I not allowed to be?" his voice rang loud and clear as Rainey held the cell phone a foot away from her ear.
She giggled and then clapped her free hand over her mouth. Too late; he'd heard her.
"Just get the job done and get your ass back, and try to get her to come willingly. I don't want anyone, including her, to know the real reason she is coming here."
"I'll call you as soon as we're on our way back."
"You make sure you do that."
She ended the call and stuck her tongue out at the phone. She knew it was childish, but she was the only one in the room, and it made her happy.
Twenty minutes later Rainey parked in Livenbrook Mental Hospital's parking lot. The man behind the reception desk looked half asleep. Good, she thought. That should make it easier.
"Hello," Rainey said, startling the man.
"Huh? C-Can I help you, miss?"
"Actually, you can." Rainey focused on the man's eyes. "I need to see the girl in room 303, and you are going to let me in, tell the other nurses I am Ariana's sister and that I just found out about her condition. I will be taking her with me tonight."
Rainey was strong in compulsion. All people could do it, but humans were too weak to figure it out. It was just a quick hypnosis trick that she happened to be a master at.
"Yes, miss..." He handed her a visitor's pass, then buzzed her in.
"Thank you and have a nice night," she said, almost skipping to the elevator.
Rainey made her way up to Ariana's room without seeing a single nurse. There was a light above Ariana's bed and someone had turned the television on. She guessed they thought the noise would wake her up.
"Good luck, people. You aren't going to get her awake without my help."
She moved what looked to be Ariana's only bag of belongings to the door, so she could grab it quickly on their way out. No time to check for travel clothes in there, and no need, either; she'd brought some clothes for Ariana with her, just in case. As she walked up to the bed, she pulled a small velvet bag out of her pocket. Rainey poured a small amount of the dust in her palm and sprinkled it above Ariana's face.
She spoke in a low voice. "Ariana, I am your friend and I am here to help you. When you wake, you will not be frightened. I will count to… Oh, and you will concentrate your thoughts on what I’ve got to tell you. I need you to focus; we don’t have time to dilly-dally. Right. I will count to three and you will slowly open your eyes. One, two… three."
Ariana's eyelids began to flutter. She opened her eyes and looked directly at Rainey.
"Good morning, sunshine!"
"Who are you?" Ariana managed to get out.
"My name is Rainey, and I have been sent here to wake you and escort you to the place where you will spend the rest of your life. You are in a mental hospital and you have been in a coma for a long time. Now, you have a choice to make. You can come to Eternal Island with me and you can live and eat for free. I'll find you a job – as a maid, I think – and that is how you'll be able to pay for room and board. Any extra money from your wages you can spend as you wish. You will have three days off one week and four, the next. You will be free to do whatever you wish with your free time, but if you leave the island you cannot ever return. You see, it is a very private island, off the map, as they say – at least to you, humans – and we would like to keep it that way."
Ariana closed her gaping mouth and asked, "Excuse me, are you a patient in this hospital?"
"How did I not see that one coming?" Rainey chided herself and rolled her eyes.
"You've got to admit it – none of what you just said makes sense. And since you said this is a mental hospital…" she left the sentence hanging.
"I should have included 'and you will believe me' right after 'you will not be frightened' in my spell," Rainey mumbled under her breath.
"And you're talking to yourself," Ariana pointed out. "I rest my case."
"Ariana, we don't have time to sit and chat forever, you know?"
"Summarize. And speak fast; I can follow. If you want me to come with you to your special island, I would say you owe me at least that much."
Rainey sighed in defeat. "Okay. Please don't go into shock again; my wake-up dust is really hard to make. You had some bad news, you fainted and never woke up. Now, hurry, hurry, hurry. Get up, get these clothes on and let's go."
"Bad news? What news could have been bad enough to make me pass out?"
"Ariana, listen. Look at me. Focus! Snap out of it. Hey, no fainting. You know you can't handle that one. And we don’t really have the time, right now. I’ll tell you more on the plane."
Ariana had started to tremble. Rainey could see her blankets quivering.
"Oh, no, you're not going into shock on me. We haven't got time for that, either."
Rainey grabbed hold of Ariana's arm and shook her, then grabbed her face and forced her to look straight into her eyes.
"Listen, I'm really sorry, but we gotta get going."
"I'm not going with you anywhere! How do you know so much about me? I thought you were just some crazy person from another room."
"I told you, but you wouldn't believe me."
"I believe you. I mean, I don't believe you."
"Can you make up your mind on the go? Here, put this on," Rainey held out a shirt. "I haven't even begun to tell you the unbelievable things yet. That could take weeks, the way you're reacting."
"Like what? Humor me," Ariana demanded, momentarily sidetracked, but she took the shirt and slid her arms through the sleeves.
So this is a trade, Rainey thought. She gets dressed, I speak. "Like the fact that I am a witch."
"Ha, this just keeps getting better."
Rainey held out some pants. "There are many witches on the island. We put a spell on it so that humans can't see it unless they know the magic word; which, of course, is secret."
"The doctors here really need to up your medication."
"Look, let's just go and I'll show you what I mean. I realize this is a lot for you to take in, but it's imperative you return with me." Rainey shook her head in frustration. "Please Ariana, just… please."
"Even if I agreed to this crazy plan of yours and went with you to the land of the witches, how would we just walk out of here? I'm sure they don't let the patients come and go as they please."
"Oh, that's simple. I'll just put a spell on them. And it isn't the land of the witches. I said there are a lot of witches; actually, it is the land of… something else entirely different. And it's an island, Eternal Island, and it's a long way from here, so could we please get going already, before I get in trouble?"
"And if I don't want to go with you?"
"I will put you back to sleep and you will never wake up."
"You can't do that!" Ariana exclaimed.
"I woke you up, I can knock you back out. You'll never know I was ever here. Believe me, Ariana, you will be happy you came."
"And if I want to leave, I can?"
"After I bring you back and erase the memory of the island and everyone on it, yes. Here are your flip flops."
"And who is everyone, exactly?"
"I'll tell you on the way."
Rainey took Ariana's hand and pulled her resolutely out of the room before she could change her mind, snagging the bag in the doorway as well, as she passed through. They got all the way to the elevator before they were noticed.
"Excuse me, but it is after lights out, so you will have to return to your rooms immediately," a nurse said as she walked toward them.
Rainey turned around and smiled at the nurse. "Oh, I'm sorry, you must not have been informed. This is my sister and I am checking her out. I'm not a patient here, see? Here is my visitor's badge."
"No, I wasn't aware of this and I am the Head Nurse on this floor. No one leaves without a supervisor's approval. Please come with me."
Rainey stepped in the nurse's path and looked her in her eyes. "Clearly, you don't understand me. I am taking my sister out of here tonight. Are we agreed?"
"Yes," the nurse nodded. "I agree, your sister leaves with you tonight."
"Thank you. Have a nice night," Rainey said as she bundled Ariana into the elevator."
"How'd you do that?"
"What do you mean, do what? You did something to that nurse to make her agree with you!"
"I told you I would."
Rainey rolled her eyes. Were they going to play twenty questions all the way home? "Oh, good grief, put a spell on her – that's what."
"You're a witch?"
"Finally! You should play Jeopardy; someone's got to lose."
"I am crazy."
Rainey didn't comment. She wasn't in the mood for any more twisted conversation, at least until they were airborne. Once outside, she put a spell on the whole hospital, to be sure, and then rushed Ariana to the van.
After dropping their beautiful transportation outside the airport/auto rental office, now in darkness, Rainey led Ariana to the plane.
"We're flying?" Ariana asked, her face a mask of terror.
"Ooohh, I hate flying."
Rainey took Ariana's hand and pulled her up the steps. "Just buckle up and quit whining. You'll be fine. I'm a pro. Or do you want me to knock you out for the duration?"
"I've had enough of being out, thank you very much," Ariana mumbled, fastening her seat belt with shaky fingers. She leaned back in her seat and looked out the window, her complexion a little green.
The plane took off and they were on their way. Rainey watched Ariana rub her stiff neck and shoulders, obviously trying to relax, and then her eyes drifted closed.