Peter Zak Mysteries (Volume 1)

G. H. Ephron

Minotaur Books

ANYONE WHO saw me that morning as I sprinted up the hill, hair longish and wet, coat frayed and flapping like the wings of a great bat, would have thought I was a patient. They would have been surprised when I hopped onto the porch, reached into my trousers, pulled out a key, and opened the back door of the Neuropsychiatric Unit.
I was late. That morning I’d pushed myself, slicing and pulling the oars through the quicksilver of the Charles, until there was only the physical pain — pain and peaceful oblivion. My racing shell was a sliver of white carbon fiber, the last gift from my wife, Kate.
The river had been exquisitely beautiful in the crisp fall stillness, free at last of the whining gnats and mosquitoes that torment rowers in the dead of summer. I knew it was getting late but I told myself just five minutes more, five more minutes of blessed mindlessness. Now I was paying. My muscles burned and I hoped no one would notice I wasn’t wearing socks. In my rush to shower at the boathouse, get dressed, and get to morning meeting, I’d managed to misplace one of them.
My staff was waiting for me, packed in around a table in the narrow conference room.
“Don’t ask.” I raised my hand as if to ward off the onslaught and, in the process, to wave away their anxious concern that hung like ozone in the air.
Dr. Kwan Liu watched me with a bemused expression. We’ve been friends and colleagues since Kwan was chief resident and I was an intern at the Pearce. Now that he was approaching the big 4—0, he’d stopped reminding me that he’s two years older and presumably wiser. He never tires of disparaging my psychologist’s shingle, junk metal compared to his fourteen-karat M.D. As always, he was impeccably turned out in a dark suit that looked custom made. He finds my clothing an acute source of embarrassment while I find his indifference to the nuance of wine incomprehensible. Also, as always, he was going to be a pain in the ass.
“My dear sir,” he intoned, “if we don’t ask, then how will we unlock the secrets of the mind?”
I dropped my briefcase on the table. From the defunct hearth of an immense, ornately carved fireplace I hauled over a black Windsor chair whose chipped paint and missing spindles testified to years of abuse. The chair and the fireplace were remnants of bygone grandeur when this building and the others like it that stud the Olmsted-designed landscape of the Pearce Psychiatric Institute were a refuge for the very rich. Bloodied but not bowed before the steamroller of managed care, the place now had the air of an elegant hotel gone to seed.
“I’m late … again … sorry, everyone. I just lost track of time on the river this morning and now every muscle in my body feels like it’s been mangled … .” I stopped when I caught Gloria Alspag, the nurse in charge of the ward, playing a phantom violin, her eyes sardonic behind the wire-rimmed glasses. She gave an imitation of Heifetz coaxing an appassionata from a Stradivarius. “Oh, give me a break,” I said, sighing. It was almost like old times.
I rummaged in my briefcase until I found a pen and my notebook. Then I sat down, pushed my glasses to their proper place on the bridge of my nose, and cleared my throat. Suddenly, everyone was all business. All eyes were on the white board that listed our eighteen patients and gave us an at-a-glance feel for what we were up against. Despite the easygoing good humor of the group, none of us took this job lightly. We were camped out together on the borderlands of psychiatry, at the boundary between brain damage and emotional illness.
We had a new admission. “Jack O’Flanagan,” Gloria said. “Seventy years old. The police found him wandering in the Forest Hills train yard. Told them he was an MBTA motorman. Couldn’t produce an ID, so they arrested him. Turns out he was a motorman. Retired more than ten years ago.”
“They brought him to the Carney,” Kwan picked up the story. “They checked him out. There’s nothing wrong with him, physically. But there are clear psychiatric problems. They called his family. Turns out his wife died suddenly a few weeks ago. His daughter was relieved that we’d Section-Twelved him. He’s here for evaluation.”
“He doesn’t seem a bit bothered about being committed,” Gloria commented.
A beeper went off. Like a synchronized swim team, all of us reached for our belts to see whose it was. It was mine. An unfamiliar number blinked on the readout. I let it wait because I knew our meeting wouldn’t last long. The room’s antiquated heating system had only two settings: hot and stifling. Soon the room would become unbearable and we’d break for walk rounds.
When we did, Kwan and I collided heading for the phone in the corner of the conference room. He pursed his lips and said sympathetically, “You’ve been having such a difficult day, Doctor. You go first.”
“Thank you so much, Dr. Liu,” I answered with a little bow.
I dialed. After one ring, someone picked up: “Massachusetts Public Defender’s Office.” I froze and turned to face the wall. I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. I could barely hear the voice on the other end of the line. “Massachusetts Public Defender’s office … Hello? Is anyone there?”
“This is Dr. Peter Zak. Someone there just beeped me.” The calm, professional voice turned out to be mine.
“Can you hold a minute?”
I stood there, paralyzed. In my head, I was banging down the receiver, slamming the door on the past. But a moment later, I was still holding when a familiar voice came on the line. “Peter? This is Chip.”
I suppose I could have hung up then. But that would have taken action, and at the moment, anything resembling energy had been sucked out of me. I’d last seen Chip at my wife’s funeral. I squeezed my eyes shut to blot out the memory, but it wouldn’t go away. I could feel my clenched fist connect with Chip’s jaw. I could see his shocked, hurt expression as he staggered backwards against the next person in the receiving line. Someone must have helped him up. All I remember is the silence that followed, the kind of big echoey silence you get when a throng of people suddenly turns still. And how after that, everyone acted as if nothing had happened.
“Hey, Chip. Long time no see,” I managed to say. But it came out sounding like an accusation. And that wouldn’t have been fair. After the funeral he’d called many times, tried to keep in touch. But I was avoiding all contact with humanity. I didn’t return anyone’s phone calls. I wanted to forget. After a few months, he must have stopped calling.
“I was thinking the same thing,” he said. “Too long, in fact. How’ve you been?”
“Keeping busy, I guess. And you?”
“Same old same old,” he said. There was an awkward pause. Once it had been easy to fill silences with empty words. “Actually, I’ve got a case I wanted to get your opinion about.”
Was this how I’d gotten involved in the murder trial of Ralston Bridges? A beep? A phone call? I’d probably been intrigued, eager to help in the defense of an accused man whom I naively stereotyped as a poor schnook who deserved the same expert defense as the Von Bülows of the world. But all that had changed. Murder was no longer something that happened to strangers.
“You know I don’t do that kind of work anymore,” I told Chip.
“I know. But I was hoping —”
“Not a chance …”
“This one’s right up your alley.”
“That alley’s been shut down.”
“Just hear me out. All I’m asking for is a consult.”
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea. You’ve been getting along without me … .”
“And it hasn’t been easy. Usually we can find someone who can give us what we need. But this case — it needs your expertise. Tell you what, just give me an hour to get your take on this and then I’ll leave you alone. An hour, that’s all.” When I didn’t cut him off, he rushed on. “You see, this case turns on the memory of the surviving victim. She was shot in the head. Suffered severe brain trauma. Unresponsive for weeks in a coma. Now, she claims she remembers who did it.” I couldn’t stop myself. Already I was wondering, how many weeks in a coma? How did the bullet track? It would all depend on the extent of the damage the bullet left in its wake. Head wounds are quirky. Slight deviations, fractions of an inch one way or another can make a huge difference in their aftereffects. “We’re defending the woman’s ex-husband. He tried to commit suicide after he was arrested. They’re holding him at Bridgewater for observation.”
“Chip —” I protested. But even to me it sounded feeble.
“You’re the expert in this area, Peter. There’s no one better.” Pause. “What do you say? Just an hour’s meeting? It’ll be painless, I promise. You won’t even have to leave your office. Annie and I come by, we pick your brain. That’s it. No muss, no fuss. No strings attached. Believe me, nothing like old times.”
We’d been a team, defenders of the downtrodden — Chip Ferguson attorney, Annie Squires chief investigator, and Peter Zak expert witness. Was the funeral the last time I’d seen Annie Squires, too? I couldn’t remember. “You and Annie still working together?”
“Annie’s my right arm. When she packs it in, I’ll have to pack it in, too. Annie’s the one who urged me to call you.”
“Just a consult.”
“An hour. Nothing more. How’s five o’clock?”
I mumbled something incoherent.
“Great! And Peter, thanks.”
As I hung up the phone, I was already having second thoughts. How could I still be interested when I knew where this could lead? My shirt felt damp and sticky under my jacket. I caught my reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. I barely recognized the person who stared back, tired dark eyes beneath a tumult of black eyebrow hair flecked here and there with white. Lines etched my forehead. I straightened my tie. How long had that spot of grease just below the knot been there? It didn’t occur to me to wonder when I’d last looked at myself in the mirror and noticed.
Kwan was watching from the doorway. His nonchalant pose, arms folded in front of him, didn’t fool me a bit. “You okay?” he asked. I shrugged. Then he grinned, held his hand alongside his mouth, and stage-whispered, “Forget something?”
“Pray, enlighten me.”
“You seem to have neglected to indulge in socks.”
I looked down at my naked feet, very preppy, shoved in oxblood penny loafers. I told him, “You couldn’t just pretend not to notice, could you?” To everyone else I said, “How about we start walk rounds with Mr. O’Flanagan?”
I led the way down the hall, with its pink walls, tall windows, and gray industrial carpeting, past the brightly lit dining room where the patients took their meals.
From a doorway came a screechy voice, “Hello there!”
I turned to see a small, gray-haired woman in a blue nightgown and kneesocks, heaped into a large wheelchair. “Cataldo!” she sang out in a shrill soprano, waving an index finger in the air.
“Hello, Mrs. Blum,” I called, resisting the impulse to bellow back something equally bizarre like “Geronimo!” We all waved and nodded.
“Who’s Cataldo?” Suzanne Waters, our intern, asked. “Her doctor?”
“Not quite, but good guess. Cataldo is the name of an ambulance company,” I said.
Gloria elaborated, “For Mrs. Blum, it’s like standing on a street corner and yelling, ‘Taxi!’”
A few patients sat in the common area, a big living room with more pink walls, some plastic and metal chairs, and a pair of brown sofas. In a walkout bay surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows stood a grand piano. An ugly fluorescent light fixture hung from the center of an elaborate plaster ceiling medallion. Jack O’Flanagan, thin and insubstantial, bald except for the puffs of gray down flanking his ears, sat hunched in a chair near the hall, his face a few inches from a dark television.
I walked over and put my hand on his shoulder. He didn’t budge. I squatted so our faces were level. “Good morning,” I said. He swam over to me through watery eyes. “What are you doing?”
“Doing?” he asked. He looked around and his attention snagged on the television. “Oh, I’m waiting for the damned TV to warm up.”
“I’m Dr. Peter Zak,” I offered my hand. Reluctantly he looked at the hand, and then shook it. “Do you mind if I sit with you and ask you a few questions?”
“Questions?” He shrugged. “Be my guest.”
“What’s your name?”
“John Patrick O’Flanagan. Same as my dad’s.”
I could feel myself relaxing as this familiar routine kicked in. Work had become my salvation. “Do you know where you are right now?”
“Well, I’m … I’m …” he stammered, looking around as if seeing the place for the first time, “I’m in the Forest Hills ready room waiting for my train to be called.”
“Do you know what day this is?”
“It’s Tuesday,” he said, sure of himself. Actually, it was Monday. He glanced outside. “April …” It wasn’t a bad guess. April looks a lot like September in New England.
“And the year?”
“And who’s the president?”
He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “John Fitzgerald Kennedy, of course. I shouldn’t have to tell you that, young man.”
I nodded. “Mr. O’Flanagan, have you been having any problems with your memory lately?”
“Problems? None at all. My mind’s right as rain,” he said, rapping the top of his head with a knuckle.
“Do you mind if I give you a little test?”
“Suit yourself. But I may have to leave if they call me.”
“I want you to remember three things. A bat, like a baseball bat. A table, like a dining-room table.”
Mr. O’Flanagan nodded and repeated the words, “Bat, table …”
“And a bridge, like the Golden Gate Bridge.”
“ … bridge.”
“That’s right. Have you got that? Bat, table, bridge.”
He rolled his eyes at Kwan and Gloria and humored me with a response. “Bat, table, bridge.”
“Okay. Now, remember those words because I’m going to ask you for them in just a few moments. I wonder if you’ve ever heard the expression, ‘People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’?”
“Sure, I’ve heard it.”
“Can you explain to me what it means?”
“People who live in …” He thought for a few moments and started again. “It means …” He frowned. Then a lightbulb seemed to go off in his head. He formed a little tent out of his hands and intoned, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” He paused. “Matthew Seven.” He winked at me.
“Right you are,” I said. “You read the Bible often, Mr. O’Flanagan?”
“Me? Nah. The wife’s the one. She’s always quoting bits of it. That’s one of her favorites.”
“And how is your wife?”
“Right as rain,” he said.
“Now, can you remember those three words we talked about?”
“What words?” he said.
“Baseball —” I prompted.
Reddening, he sputtered. “What are you talking about?”
“Golden Gate —”
“What kind of ridiculous nonsense? Why are you wasting my time when I have work to do?” He struggled to his feet. He looked around the room, baffled. “My train …” he said.
“You’re absolutely right. Just a lot of nonsense. You can relax. We’ll let you know when it’s called.”
The old man sank back down into his chair and dismissed me with a backhanded wave. Then he noticed the television, settled back, and stared placidly into it.
I stood and we left the room.
“Alzheimer’s?” our intern, Suzanne, asked.
I shook my head. “Mr. O’Flanagan is your typical Korsakoff patient.”
“I should have guessed from those spidery hemorrhages in his face. An alcoholic.”
“Or what’s left of one,” I said. “Mr. O’Flanagan remembers how televisions worked forty years ago, when they took a few moments to warm up. But he doesn’t remember that he hasn’t turned it on. And he doesn’t have any idea whether he’s been waiting for a few minutes or a few hours.”
As we continued down the hall, Gloria looked back and commented, “But he’s a pretty contented guy. Nothing in this world worries him.”
The mind can go bad in a lot of ways, and Mr. O’Flanagan’s wasn’t a bad way to go. His world was a benign twilight zone in which each moment that passed disappeared from his memory like a snowflake melting on a hot plate. There had been times when I gladly would have switched places. But I’d thought I was past that — until Chip called.
Copyright © 2000 by G. H. Ephron. Excerpt from Addiction copyright © 2001 by G. H. Ephron.