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Authors: Kate Wilhelm

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Desperate Measures

BOOK: Desperate Measures
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ISBN-13: 978-1-62205-034-5

DESPERATE MEASURES

Kate Wilhelm

Copyright ©2015 InfinityBox Press LLC

First published in 2001 by St. Martin's Press.

All rights reserved. Except for the use of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews, no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means in any manner without the written permission of the publisher.

All characters, groups, places, and events portrayed in this novel are fictitious.

Cover: Richard Wilhelm

InfinityBox Press LLC

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Portland, OR 97217

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DESPERATE MEASURES

A BARBARA HOLLOWAY MYSTERY

kate wilhelm

1

The Milton Frei
Hospital in Manhattan specialized in plastic surgery and cosmetic reconstruction. Middle Eastern royal families sent their daughters there to get new noses; Broadway stars changed the shape of their faces; politicians went for liposuction before an upcoming campaign. Accident victims went there to get rebuilt. Small, discreet, and correspondingly expensive, it could have been a four-star European hotel, with plush-carpeted corridors, tasteful oil paintings on the walls, statuary in the lobby, marble urns filled with plants, and air freshened to smell like a pine forest after a rainstorm.

Today two men stood outside one of the private rooms, the bigger man, Dr. Graham Minick, with his face close to the glass panel, peering inside. He was still wearing his greatcoat, on which a smattering of snow had melted to make the coat look polkadotted. It was a magnificent coat, long enough to come to his galoshes, with deep shoulder flaps, voluminous in all dimensions. Since he was a large man, thick through the chest, with heavy bones, he needed such a garment. He was shaking water drops from a crushed wool hat with a broad brim. It looked like hell, he knew, but it kept the rain and snow off; it was warm, and he liked it. He was sixty years old, too old to sacrifice comfort for style. Now he stood hunched over, gazing into the room.

The object of his prolonged scrutiny was an adolescent boy sitting at a barred window across the room with his back to the door. The boy appeared to be tall and gangly, wearing a baseball cap, blue jeans, and a sweater, and he seemed to be writing or doodling, looking up and out the window, then down again frequently.

“Fill me in,” Dr. Minick said. “Why is he here, not Bellevue?” The other man was Jack Waverly, the resident physician of the hospital and its finest surgeon. Slender, slightly built, he looked like an adolescent himself next to Graham Minick. They had been friends for most of their lives, had gone to medical school together. Almost peevishly he said, “I was hoping you'd get here early enough to go over his records, have a talk about him, before you meet his parents. They're waiting, by the way.”

“Let them wait. You have any idea what those streets are like?

It's a fucking miracle I got here at all. Tell me what I should know about this.”

“Right. Right. Alexander—” he motioned toward the room “—has been my patient most of his life. He was born with a gross deformity, half his face practically undeveloped, brain partly exposed, no external ear on the right side of his head, a misplaced eye—just a real mess. We've done what we can, and he's due back for more surgery in a few years after he's fully grown. Anyway, about two weeks ago while he was walking in Central Park a bunch of hooligans jumped him and were in the process of beating him to death when a cop stopped the action. The officers took Alexander to the ER and called his parents. They hustled him over here in an ambulance. He wasn't hurt seriously, nothing broken, but he was damaged.”

He took a breath and repeated it. “He was damaged. And no one saw it or realized how badly damaged. Two days ago he overdosed on God alone knows what all. He had saved his own pain medication, added whatever he found in his mother's room, took it all with a good dollop of whiskey and tried to die. They found him on the floor and rushed him to me. We pumped him out. He's weak and shaky, but he'll be okay physically.”

Dr. Minick turned away from the window to face Jack Waverly, and for a moment they were both silent. Graham Minick's son had killed himself with a mixture of prescription drugs and alcohol when he was fourteen. Minick had left his practice, gone back to school, and become a psychologist who specialized in juvenile crisis management. Two years ago his wife of thirty-three years had died of breast cancer.

In a low voice he said, “I'm tired, Jack. In April my resignation takes effect, and I'm going home. That boy needs someone who will be around for him, not me.” He started to walk away.

Jack Waverly put his hand on his friend's arm, stopping him. “I know,” he said. “And God knows you've earned a rest. But, Graham, that boy needs someone now, right now. He'll try again, and he'll succeed next time. He's brilliant; he'll figure out a way that won't fail. Later, after you get him through the next few weeks, we'll find someone else. But right now he needs the best there is. You, Graham. He needs you.”

Graham Minick had been a good medical doctor, an excellent diagnostician, and he was a better psychologist. He knew when to prod and when to wait. Studying Jack Waverly's lean face, he prodded. “What else?”

“When they brought him in this time,” Jack said, “my first thought was, Why hadn't they let him go? A few more hours and it would have been over for him. And it would have been a blessing.” He turned away and thrust his hands into his pockets, started to move toward the office. “That's when I knew we needed you. Come on. They're waiting.”

Dolly Feldman was tall and thin—painfully thin, Dr. Minick thought—and she was very beautiful in a sleek, stylish way. She had been a model and now, in her mid-thirties, she had arrived at the peak of her beauty, with pale shiny hair, almond-shaped green eyes, exquisite bones, and the experience and knowledge to emphasize each perfect feature. Dolly owned and operated a modeling agency.

Her husband, Arnold, was also one of the beautiful people, like a male model on the cover of a paperback romance. He was climbing the corporate ladder of finance and looked as if he would reach the highest rung very soon. He was six feet tall and well muscled, his hair a carefully arranged unruly mop of brown curls, good square chin, candid brown eyes….

“You can't imagine what it's been like,” Dolly was saying in the lounge. Most of the time her voice was low and throaty, until she forgot. Then she became shrill. She was shrill now. “Having to hide him away. I mean, people can be so cruel, stare, make comments. You just can't imagine!”

Dr. Minick could well imagine what it would be like to be hideously ugly in the house of such beautiful people.

“It wasn't our choice,” Arnold said soberly. “Alexander is quite self-conscious, of course, and he won't come out of his room if we have guests, or go anywhere with us. He chooses to be a hermit.”

“Jack reported him to the police!” Dolly exclaimed. “I didn't think Jack would betray us like that.”

They were seated in fine brocade-covered chairs around an octagonal table that held a coffee service: silver carafe, bone china cups and saucers, pretty linen napkins-all unused. Now Jack leaned forward and poured himself coffee. Everyone else had refused earlier. “I told you, juvenile suicide attempts are always reported,” he commented. It's the law. The state will make certain he gets help.”

“Social workers!” Dolly cried. “We can't have social workers prying into our lives!”

“What do you want me to do?” Dr. Minick asked then, tired of Dolly, tired of her sober and thoughtful husband, tired of this beautiful lounge. He had seen pictures of Alexander Feldman; he knew the boy would never look any better than he did now, and now he looked like a monster, with a metal plate in his head and hair on that side, one eye more than an inch lower than the other and too far to one side, a fake ear on one side, a poorly formed mouth with thin lips that Jack had created for him, a nose that Jack had built, a chin that started out normal, then faded to nothing…. This was the face that Jack built. It was much worse than the pictures indicated, Jack had said. The boy had no muscles on that side of his face; one half could smile, frown, move with speech; the other side was forever frozen in a grimace. But the boy had the intelligence of a genius.

“We thought,” Arnold said in a measured way, “that perhaps you could recommend a school that caters to people like Alexander, where he wouldn't feel so out of place. Perhaps teach him a trade, or even let him work there later.”

Warehouse him
, Dr. Minick thought. He nodded and stood up.

“I'll have a talk with him,” he said.

“He won't talk to you!” Dolly cried. “You don't understand.

He won't talk to anyone. We tried counseling, and he refused to say a word. Not a word. He won't even talk to us, his mother and father.”

“If not me, then the court will appoint someone else,” Dr. Minick said.

At Alexander's door, he paused a moment thinking, then knocked. After a few seconds he opened the door and went inside, took a couple of steps, and flung his greatcoat down on the bed. “My name is Graham Minick and I'm a doctor and a psychologist, and I'm here to help you because you're in a real jam, kid, and I'll do my damnedest to get you out of it. You see, the authorities put attempted suicide in the violent column of their tally sheets. Self-directed violence or outer-directed, it's all under the same heading. And you're right there with the baseball-bat crowd.”

He had not yet moved from the side of the bed, and Alexander had not moved a muscle. Gazing at the boy's back, then past him through the bars of the window, Dr. Minick could see that the snow was falling harder, a serious snowfall now.

“Shit,” he muttered under his breath, “I'll have to walk home.” It was only a dozen blocks or so, and he generally walked that far or farther every day, but he didn't like snow underfoot.

He liked it even less under the wheels of a crazy taxi driver. His words, soft as they had been, evidently had been heard. Alexander raised his head briefly to look out, then lowered it again. From the rear he looked like any other teenage boy wearing a baseball cap.

“You don't have to decide today,” Dr. Minick said. “But the court will order counseling for you. The problem is that I'll have to make a report, and if you won't talk to me, the report will be pretty damn empty and they'll send in someone else. And that's how it is, Alex. I'll drop in again tomorrow; you can mull it over and decide.” He picked up his coat and put it on, uncrushed his hat and reshaped it.

Alexander moved then. With a quick motion he ripped a page out of the notebook and flung it over his shoulder to the bed. Dr. Minick walked around the bed and picked it up. He gazed at it and then began to laugh, a great bellowing laugh that sounded even louder than usual in the small, confined space. The boy had drawn a caricature of him walking to the hospital entrance. The drawing was of a tent with scaly elephant feet and a curious top, a round ball with a bulbous nose and an object that had to be his hat. The feet were his galoshes with Velcro flaps. It might have been a Hieronymus Bosch sketch in its distortion and its truth.

“May I keep it?” he asked when he could speak again. Alexander shrugged and, taking that for assent, Dr. Minick carefully folded the sheet of paper and put it in his pocket.

Two days later, the first day of February, he sat in Alexander's room in a comfortable chair with his back toward his newest patient, who was sitting in a chair by the window, facing out. The view out that window was Central Park, gray and desolate with filthy slush, and filthier water running in rivulets from it. It was Alexander's first day back home.

His mother had escorted Dr. Minick to the boy's room and then watched uncertainly as he rearranged the furniture. “You can see that he has everything a boy his age could possibly want,” she said.

That was true—television, VCR, shelves of books and movie cassettes, a fancy tape player…. There were posters—action heroes and fantasy figures, spaceships, bug-eyed aliens and monsters…. But Alexander chose to gaze out the window at the desolate winter landscape.

Dolly kept talking: there was nothing he wanted that they hadn't provided almost instantly, all he had to do was mention it and they got it, sometimes at great expense, and usually with a great deal of trouble finding exactly the right thing.

Dr. Minick had taken her by the arm and steered her to the door. “We'll be fine,” he said, not quite shoving her out. He shut the door and took his seat with a sigh.

“Where do you go when she starts?” he asked.

There was a slight delay, then Alexander said, “Anywhere. Out there.”

They had come to an agreement. Dr. Minick said he didn't give a damn if Alex looked at him or not, just as long as he talked some, answered some questions, asked his own questions, whatever. And Alexander was trying to cooperate, to a certain extent anyway. His first question had been “Why do you call me Alex?”

“Because they both call you Alexander. And that turns you off like a switch. Pure Pavlovian response. I want you to hang out with me when I'm here, not go wandering off into the park. What do you call yourself when you go flying out the window?”

The silence was longer this time. Dr. Minick broke it himself.

“You can keep your secret name. They'll always call you Alexander, and I'll call you Alex. Three names. Three lives. What do you want to talk about today?”

“Nothing,” Alex said vehemently. “You're the one who wants me to talk. Ask questions.”

“Let's talk about art. You're pretty good, you know.”

Late that night in his study, Dr. Minick finished his notes about Alex and leaned back in his chair. He had no business taking on a new patient; he was trying to wrap things up, finish the cases he already had, too many, far too many to add anything else.

“It's a mess, Sal,” he murmured, and heard the words in the air. For almost a year he had caught himself now and then speaking out loud to his dead wife, telling her the kinds of things he always had confided. She never had blamed him for their son's death, but he knew better. Too busy with his practice, too unobservant, too remote, just not there when he was needed. He knew. And now Alex.

“He'll do it, Sal,” he said. “He doesn't want to live. And his parents don't want him to live, either. They'll put him away and take him pretty presents, but he'll be dead for them.”

For the next hour he brooded about Alex, talked to Sal, and brooded again. There had been violent episodes when Alex had trashed his room; once he had trashed Dolly's room. The violence was still there, as visible to Dr. Minick as if a green patina covered the boy. He didn't believe in auras, but Alex emanated shock waves of edginess, hostility, self-hatred. He had been blessed with a good brain, and cursed with a demonic face. He was smart enough to know what he was up against. When he had been beaten by the gang of thugs, he had not fought back but had protected his head as best he could. That was the only hopeful sign that Dr. Minick had seen.

BOOK: Desperate Measures
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