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The Other Lady Vanishes
Author:Amanda Quick

The Other Lady Vanishes

Amanda Quick

For Frank, with love

Chapter 1

The screams of the patients on ward five told Adelaide Blake that time had run out.

She stopped searching for the key to the file cabinet and went to stand at the door of the small office. She had not dared to turn on any lights in the laboratory. There was enough moonlight spilling through the high, arched windows to illuminate the long workbenches and create ominous silhouettes of the equipment and instruments.

The wails and shrieks and howls from the floor below were escalating rapidly. Something or, more likely, someone was agitating the patients. The ward on the fifth floor was reserved for the most hopelessly mad and insane. The locked rooms housed those who were forever lost in their own private hells. Some of the patients were afflicted with violent, paranoid visions and hallucinations. Others battled fearsome monsters that only they could see.

Soon after she had been locked in one of the cell-like rooms on ward five, she had learned that the patients provided an excellent alarm system, especially at night. Nights were always the worst.

The nerve-shattering chorus of the damned echoed up the stone staircase. There was no one around to calm the inmates. The orderlies on the locked ward had been given the night off.

She could not delay any longer. If she did not escape now, she might not make it at all. She would have to leave the file behind.

She left the doorway of the office and started to make her way cautiously through the maze of workbenches. She had plotted her exit strategy down to the smallest detail, but the last-minute decision to look for the file had put the plan in jeopardy. She had to get out of the laboratory immediately or she might not escape.

Originally, the Rushbrook Sanitarium was the private mansion of a wealthy, eccentric industrialist who had intended to entertain on a grand scale. The result was a Gothic nightmare of a house with five floors, endless hallways, and the tower room that now served as a laboratory. The single redeeming architectural virtue as far as Adelaide was concerned was that there were a number of discreetly concealed staircases intended for the use of a large staff.

Most of the servants’ stairs had been permanently closed and sealed long ago. Others had disappeared under various waves of renovations and remodeling projects. But a few were still accessible. She had the key to one of the little-used staircases.

She was halfway across the lab when she heard panicky footsteps on the tower stairs. Someone was coming up to the laboratory. Whoever it was would see her as soon as he turned on the lights.

There was nowhere to hide except behind Ormsby’s desk. Discovery spelled doom. Dr. Gill would order increased security for her. She might never have another chance to escape.

A cold sense of certainty sliced through the fear. If necessary, she would try to fight her way out of the sanitarium. She could not—would not—go back to the cell on the fifth floor. She would rather die.

She turned quickly, searching the shadows for something that could function as a weapon. She knew the lab all too well because it was where they had brought her when Gill and Dr. Ormsby decided to give her another dose of the drug. In her desperate attempt to hold on to her sanity by focusing on an escape plan, she had memorized every inch of the tower room.

She went to the nearest cabinet, yanked open the door, and pulled a couple of glass jars off the shelf. She had no idea what she grabbed—it was too dark to read the labels—but she had seen Ormsby take a variety of chemicals out of the cabinet. Many were flammable. Some were highly acidic.

With the two jars in hand she hurried back into the office. Ormsby’s desk was neat and tidy. He was a fussy little man who was obsessed with his research, but orderliness was high on his list of priorities.

Aside from the usual desk accessories—telephone, blotter, and inkwells—there was one other object on the desk. The black velvet box looked as if it had been made to hold a woman’s collection of jewelry. But Adelaide knew there were no necklaces, rings, or bracelets inside. The velvet box contained a dozen elegantly cut crystal perfume bottles.

She made it behind the desk with the jars of chemicals just as Dr. Harold Ormsby staggered into the darkened laboratory. It sounded as if he was gasping for air. He did not turn on any lights.

“Get away from me,” he shrieked. “Don’t touch me.”

Adelaide heard other footsteps on the stone staircase, the slow, steady, determined tread of a predator stalking prey.

Ormsby wasn’t trying to catch his breath, Adelaide realized. The doctor was in the grip of raw panic.

His pursuer did not respond, at least not verbally. Crouched behind the desk, Adelaide removed the tops of the jars. The acrid odors that wafted out made her gasp and turn her head away. She hoped the screams of the patients covered the small sounds she made.

She tried to keep her breathing as light and shallow as possible, but it wasn’t easy. Ice-cold perspiration dampened her skin. She shivered and her pulse skittered wildly.

Ormsby screamed again, louder this time. The high, unnatural screech affected Adelaide like a bolt of lightning. For a few seconds she wondered if it had stopped her heart.

And then she wondered if lightning actually had struck the laboratory. A narrow beam of fire blazed in the darkness. Peering around the corner of Ormsby’s desk, she watched the glow move past the office doorway.

Ormsby’s piercing screams rose above the cacophony from the fifth-floor patients, the cries of a man being sent into hell.

Running footsteps reverberated in the tower room. Heavy glass shattered. Night air flowed into the laboratory.

Ormsby’s hopeless cries echoed in the night for another second or two. The suddenness with which they were cut off told its own story.

Adelaide froze as she realized what had just happened. Dr. Harold Ormsby had leaped straight through one of the high, arched windows. No one could survive such a fall.

In the shadows of the lab the fiery light winked out. It dawned on Adelaide that someone had lit a Bunsen burner and used the flame to drive Ormsby out the window. That didn’t make sense. He had obviously been terrified, but she knew something of the man. It was easy to imagine him pleading for his life or cowering in a corner, but jumping to his death seemed oddly out of character. Then again, she was not the best judge of character. She had learned that lesson the hard way.

The screaming from the fifth-floor ward got louder. The patients sensed that something terrible had happened.

Adelaide heard rapid, purposeful footsteps crossing the tile floor, coming toward the office. She gripped the containers of chemicals and waited, aware that the only thing protecting her now was the noise from the inmates down below. The shrieks and cries would make it difficult if not impossible for the killer to hear the sound of her breathing.

The intruder stopped directly in front of the desk. A flashlight came on briefly. Adelaide prepared to fight for her life.

But the intruder turned and hurried quickly out of the office. A few seconds later, footsteps sounded on the stairs.

The keening of the agitated patients rose and fell, but there were more shouts now. They came from the courtyard below the broken window. Someone had found Ormsby’s body and was sounding the alarm.

Adelaide waited a few heartbeats and then got to her feet. She was shaking so badly she had a hard time keeping her balance. She thought briefly of trying once again to find the key to the file cabinet, but common sense prevailed. Escape from the sanitarium was the first priority.