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Authors: Michael Palmer

Critical Judgment (1996)

BOOK: Critical Judgment (1996)
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When Dr. Harry Corbett’s wife dies suddenly the night before her scheduled surgery, the police suspect homicide—and Harry is their sole suspect. It’s only the beginning of his nightmare. His wife, he learns, was leading a double life. But before he can uncover what her secrets were, the murderer strikes again. And this time it becomes clear to Harry that the killer stalking this busy urban hospital can only be a doctor

“Guaranteed to terrify anyone who … has reason to step inside the doors of a hospital.”

—The Washington Post

“Palmer owes this reviewer about three hours of sleep spent reading this can’t-put-it-downer. You are cautioned: … Don’t start this one at 10 at night.”

—The Washington Times


A young doctor’s prescription for prenatal vitamins is the only factor linking three emergencies in childbirth, two of them fatal. As Dr. Sarah Baldwin races to clear her name and find the real cause of death, it becomes horrifyingly clear that someone will do anything—even murder—to hide the devastating secret

“Reinvents the medical thriller.”

—Library Journal


Eight-year-old Toby Nelms is losing his will to live. Months after surgery, Toby wakes up screaming, reliving every moment of his operation—all the trauma, all the pain. Dr. Zack Iverson is determined to find out why—because the next victim may be wheeling into surgery right now

“The most gripping medical thriller I’ve read in many years.”

—David Morell


Talented and ambitious, Dr. Eric Najarian has been chosen to join a clandestine elite of medical professionals who think he has what it takes—if he will play by their rules. Should he refuse to take part in their sinister plan, he will be their next victim

“Spellbinding … a chillingly sinister novel made all the more frightening by [Palmer’s] medical authority.”

—The Denver Post

“Packs a substantial wallop.”

—Publishers Weekly

“Fast-paced … a bedrock of authentic medical detail.”

—Kirkus Reviews


Dr. Kate Bennett has it all: A loving husband, a great hospital to work in, a rosy future. Then her best friend falls ill, victim to an unknown disease that has already killed two women. Racing desperately to save her friend, Kate uncovers a terrifying medical secret that threatens her sanity and even her life—and whose roots lie in one of the greatest evils in the history of mankind

“Has everything—a terrifying plot … breakneck pace … vividly drawn characters.”

—John Saul


Inside Boston Doctors Hospital, patients are dying: surviving surgery only to perish inexplicably, horribly, in the dark, hollow silence of the night. A tough, bright doctor and a dedicated nurse will risk their careers—and their very lives—to unmask the terrifying mystery that no one is safe from

“Terrific … A compelling suspense tale.”

—Clive Cussler

“A suspenseful page-turner … jolts and entertains the reader.”

—Mary Higgins Clark

Michael Palmer has been a practicing physician for more than twenty years, most recently as an emergency room doctor and a specialist in the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency.


From Bantam Books

The Sisterhood
Side Effects
Extreme Measures
Natural Causes
Silent Treatment
Miracle Cure

And coming soon
The Patient


A Bantam Book

Bantam hardcover edition published July 1996

All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1996 by Michael Palmer.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 96-11154.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information address: Bantam Books.

eISBN: 978-0-307-78451-3

Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.


To My Sisters
Donna Palmer Prince and Susan Palmer Terry
For always being there for me

And in loving memory of our mother


In the process of getting a novel written, there is no substitute for long hours alone and in doubt. For helping me keep the isolation and uncertainty in perspective, my deepest thanks go to my agents, Jane Rotrosen Berkey, Stephanie Tade, and Don Cleary; my editor, Beverly Lewis; associate editor Katie Hall; my publisher, Irwyn Applebaum; my publicist, Stuart Applebaum; many friends of Bill W; and, of course, my family.

In addition, I have imposed on a number of friends to help me as critical readers or technical consultants. Steve Shapiro and Ellen Rosenthal, Dr. Steve Defossez, Dr. Donna Harkness, Kim Kelly, Dolly Fenton, Bunny Webb, Kelly Corbet, Ethan, Daniel, Matt, and Dad have each had an imprint on this book.







t was just after noon when the flickering lights began again—countless slivers of rainbow bathing the inside of his eyes. Taken by themselves, the lights might have been fascinating, even beautiful. But as things were, they brought him only terror.

Noon. The last blast had been just six hours ago, waking him from a pleasant dream and dropping him into the midst of a nightmare. When the attacks first began, they came once every few weeks.… Then every few days.… And now.… The intensity, too, seemed to be increasing with each episode. It was living hell.

His palms began to sweat as he thought of what the next hour or so held in store. First the flickering lights, next the queasiness and a slight tic at the corners of his eyes. For fifteen minutes, twenty, even thirty, it would be like that. Then, with volcanic suddenness, his temples would seem to explode. He would writhe on the bed and fall to the floor, screaming. He would clutch pillows over his ears, futilely hoping to muffle the shellbursts inside his head. Then he would get violently ill, retching until it felt as if his stomach would tear apart. Sometimes he would even soil himself.

“Please, no,” he whispered. “God, please, no more.”

But he knew all the pleading, all the prayers in the world would not touch the pain. He was going mad. And nothing would stop the insanity. Nothing except the total and absolute destruction of the demons who had started it all—the vermin who had sent his life spinning out of control.

Bricker … Golden … Gentry … Forrester

Only when justice was done, only when the four of them were dead, would he find peace again. Only when he had heeded God’s mandate would the flickering lights and the violent headaches end.

But right now there was little he could do except take the pain pills and get ready. He shook three Demerol tablets from a plastic vial and washed them down with some bourbon. His best hope was that they would stay down long enough to do him some good.

The muscles beside his eyes began to tighten and twitch. The lights intensified. Within his skull the crescendo began.

Desperately, he snatched up the phone and dialed a long-distance number.

“Hello,” said the voice he knew so well. “We are unable to take your call right now, but it is important to us. Please wait for the tone and leave a message. We’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”

“Please,” he whimpered, his voice a small boy’s. “Please help me. Make the pain go away. Please make me stop what I’m going to do.”

Then he realized that the words had only been in his head.

He set the receiver down and sank back onto the bed, resigned. No one was ever going to help him but himself.

Let this be the last time
, he begged as the inevitable began. He tightened his hands on the headboard of the motel bed.
Let it end today

When consciousness returned, he was on the floor, his face pressed against the threadbare carpet, his cheek soaked with saliva. Pale sunlight brightened what was at best a dingy, pathetic little room. But the motel was close to
, and that was what mattered. He dried his face on the polyester bedspread and struggled to his knees.

He pulled the olive rucksack from beneath the bed and set it on the mattress. The two MAK-90 semiautomatic rifles were in mint condition, but he ritually began polishing them nonetheless.

Bricker … Golden … Gentry … Forrester …

One by one the faces flashed through his mind—faces of the people who had once been his friends. Faces he had once trusted. Now he knew they had been placed in his life to test him. He cradled one of the weapons in his lap and stared up, unblinking, at the ceiling light, testing his will and his strength. Two days before, he had bought the machine guns, gone to a landfill, and fired them for the first time. He hadn’t held a gun since riflery class years ago in summer camp and was surprised at how comfortable he felt—all-powerful. But he had only been shooting rats in a dump. Next time would be for real. Next time the eyes glowing back at him would be eyes he knew well. Was he ready?

The last bit of pounding in his brain receded, then vanished. Some of the tension left his body. How long did he have before the next attack? He replaced the weapons and slid the canvas bag back under the bed. Then, totally drained, he allowed his eyes to close. He had never even struck a person in violence. Now, to regain his sanity, to send the demons back to hell, he was preparing to kill and kill again.

There had to be another way.

When he opened his eyes again, muted sunlight still filtered through the fake lace curtains. The clock radio
on the bedside stand showed just two o’clock. The nap and the pills had blunted his rage some, but he knew that soon it would be as sharp as ever. He felt stifled, smothered. The room seemed postage-stamp small, the air stagnant and hard to breathe. He reached down for the rucksack, but before he touched it, he grabbed his key and bolted from the room. Even now, it seemed, he wasn’t completely committed.

He left the motel and hurried down the street to a familiar bar—the Ghost Ranch Saloon. Once upon a time they had all gathered there after work. He almost laughed at the thought of Steve Bricker, drinking like a fish there and still beating all comers at darts. Then, almost immediately, the notion was preempted by another image of the man, grinning obscenely at him from behind his massive desk as he brought the hammer down on his life.

“I’m sorry. There’s nothing I can do.…”


He recalled the horrible, legless feeling of standing there before the man. The memory did much to dispel his uncertainty. He was going to go through with it … soon.

The Ghost Ranch was a windowless honky-tonk, lit almost exclusively with black light. It was decorated with Day-Glo cartoon ghosts of cowboys and Indians, horses and steer. From a dozen huge speakers some country warbler was begging someone for a second chance.

He smiled grimly. It was not the last time he would be hearing someone beg for one more chance. He ordered a bourbon, then another. The first one took care of his shakes. The second one he nursed. The place was nearly empty, but at the far end of the bowling-alley bar a cluster of hookers were plying their trade with three men in business suits. One of the women, the blond with Dolly Parton hair and cleavage, kept glancing over at him. Finally she decided he was worth a try. She took her time making it past the row of empty bar stools,
giving him a good look. Then she introduced herself as Gloria. He nodded and made up a name on the spot. He wanted her company but had no intention of doing business with her. He had been monogamous for several years and had never done it with a pro even when he wasn’t.

“Haven’t I seen you in here before?” Gloria asked.

He shook his head, even though the whore was right. Bricker had done it with her on any number of occasions and once went so far as to bring her over and introduce her to the rest of them. Goddamn Bricker.

“So whaddaya doing in town?”

He wanted small talk, not the third degree.
Talk to me about the weather, for chrissakes. Or the Giants.…

He realized that he was feeling irritable again and wondered if that was a sign. It had been only four hours or so since the last attack. He cursed himself for rushing out and leaving the pain pills in his room.
Pain pills, grimy motel rooms, hookers
. His life had once held such promise. How the hell had it been reduced to this? He felt his jaws begin to clench. The uncontrollable anger was back and building. Payback time was getting closer.

“So are you interested in a little fun?” Gloria was saying. “I can give you a hell of a good deal.”

He shook his head.

“Not today,” he growled.

He wondered briefly what she’d look like without makeup. For all he could tell, underneath it all she might not even have a face.

Pouting, she stood. Then she began staring at him queerly.

“Hey, what’s that in your eyes?” she asked. “Some weird kind of contact lenses or somethin’?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Those yellow rings around the colored part of your eyes. Ooo
, is that weird.”

weird, do you know that? Now, get the hell away from—”

“Hey, Cindi, come on over here and get a load of this.”

The woman was turned partly away from him when he leaped up, grabbed her breasts, and dug his fingers into them so tightly that she cried out in pain. Then he shoved her backward. Her spiked heel snapped off and she fell heavily to the sawdust-covered floor. Before anyone could make a move in her defense, he whirled and stormed out of the place.

Yellow rings
. He had examined his face in the bathroom mirror a dozen times over the last day alone. Granted, he looked like hell. But if there was anything wrong with his eyes, he’d damn well have seen it.

His fury growing with every step, he stalked across the busy road without checking for cars. Horns blasted at him, but he didn’t notice.

The sparkling lights had begun again.

He raced back to the motel. There was still time, he was thinking. Time to do what God had been telling him to do. Time to end the pain once and for all. The shimmering diamonds of multicolored light snapped against the inside of his eyes like hailstones. He fumbled with the lock, then threw the door open and snatched the rucksack out from beneath the bed.

“Not this time,” he said out loud.

This time there would be no headaches. There would be no begging God to take him. This time there would be only vengeance. And then the headaches would be gone forever.

BOOK: Critical Judgment (1996)
9.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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