After Hours (InterMix)

Chapter One

I heard the sign before I saw it, bent metal rattling in the breeze as my car rounded a curve.

DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS!

The directive was bisected by a ribbon of red rust, as though the sign were bleeding out from its bolt.

Duh-duh-dunnn . . . Cue the requisite horror-movie music.

But ominous sign notwithstanding, the road was quiet and pretty. Elms and oaks and firs rose up on either side, watery dawn sunshine winking between green leaves to the east. There were no pop bottles or old fast-food bags littering the roadside, those scraps of urban apathy I’d grown so used to, living in southeast Michigan my entire life.

Too quiet and pretty, my paranoid inner narrator whispered.

My eyes narrowed at an elderly man shuffling along the shoulder with a walking stick. Though he looked harmless, I knew better than to trust such a thought. But he didn’t acknowledge my approach let alone try to thumb a lift, so I decided he probably was just an old man, out for an early stroll on a June morning.

Then again, I was heading in the wrong direction. If he’d just escaped from a mental institution, hitching a ride from me would land him right back where he’d come from. My heart slowed when a bend in the road took him out of my rearview.

I spotted the gate first—a tall, stately gate, its wrought iron glossy with a fresh coat of black paint, and the name Larkhaven glowering from fifteen feet up, flanked by security cameras. I could feel them blinking at me, curious as crows. I edged my cranky sedan forward to a brick pedestal, and leaned out to press a button below a panel labeled Intercom. A vision of a hand grasping my wrist flashed across my brain and I yanked my arm back inside, bonking my elbow.

“Mother—”

A speaker crackled, followed by a bored female voice. “Good morning. What brings you to Larkhaven today?” This was the guest entrance, I knew, and employees, deliveries, drop-offs, and pick-ups usually came the back way. But I didn’t have security clearance yet.

“I’m Erin Coffey,” I told the panel, rubbing my elbow. “I’m starting today, with Dennis Frank?” Was I? It came out as a question, like I didn’t really believe it myself.

“Hang on.” Silence, then another crackle. “Okay, come on in. Employee lot is all the way around to the left. Follow the signs to the Starling building and the staff entrance, and hit zero on the intercom.”

The gates glided in, divorcing the Lark and haven. I cranked up my window on the sweet spring air and punched down the door lock.

I drove slowly, taking in the grounds as I passed a stand of pines. If it weren’t for the imposing black fence, it would’ve passed for a small private college—five or six three-story yellow brick buildings connected by paved walking paths, green lawns dotted with benches. Nicely maintained, if a bit worn around the edges. A bit eerie as well, with no one to be seen save for a tall woman in blue scrubs, speed-walking across the grass.

The main hospital that governed Larkhaven was a quarter mile away, this campus dedicated to outpatient programs serving those with developmental issues, mental illness, substance abuse problems and the like, along with several short-term residences, plus an eldercare facility with a focus on Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Skylark, one building’s prominent placard proclaimed. Warbler, said another, and Waxwing. The employee lot was just behind the building labeled Starling, Limited Access. My building. Made sense, that the locked ward would be closest to the drop-off zone.

I eyed the windows as