Detroit Breakdown, by Johnson, D. E.
- ISBN: 9781250006622 | 1250006627
- Cover: Hardcover
- Copyright: 9/4/2012
D. E. Johnson, a graduate of Central Michigan University, is a history buff who has been writing fiction since childhood. He comes by his interest in automotive history through his grandfather, who was the vice president of Checker Motors. Johnson is also the author of The Detroit Electric Scheme and Motor City Shakedown and lives with his family near Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Praise for D. E. Johnson:
Motor City Shakedown
“The scenes of Motor City, riding high on the industrial wave, are extraordinarily vivid.”
---The New York Times Book Review
“Johnson’s vibrant follow-up to The Detroit Electric Scheme delivers razor-sharp depictions of the Motor City. Johnson brings the turbulence and rampant corruption of the era to life through his flawed yet tenacious lead in this worthy successor to his debut.”
---Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“If Dennis Lehane was from Detroit, this is the book he’d write. The Motor City was once the most important city in the world, and D. E. Johnson does a masterful job at making that time and place come alive on the page. Motor City Shakedown is as hard and tough and downright noir as anything I’ve read in recent memory, but it’s got a beating heart, too.”
---Steve Hamilton, Edgar Award–winning author of The Lock Artist
“Johnson’s . . . clever weaving of history with intriguing characters makes for an exciting read.”
The Detroit Electric Scheme
“The surprise ending leaves you gasping and shaking your head at Johnson’s masterful plotting and the menacing tension that forces otherwise good characters to behave despicably. Every bit as powerful as Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, this gem of a debut showcases an author to watch very closely.”
---Booklist (starred review)
“An empathetic hero and an abundance of interesting historical detail should keep readers engaged.”
“Full of nonstop action, plot twists and turns, and great insight into the early history of the U.S. car industry, this debut is part coming-of-age tale and part historical mystery. Essential for historical fans.”
---The Seattle Times
Tuesday, August 6, 1912
Elizabeth stepped through the little door in the bookcase and disappeared down the corridor. “You won’t believe this, Will. Come on.”
I stood at the side of her father’s old desk, staring after her into the narrow passageway behind the bookcase. The unfinished boards and timbers contrasted with the smooth walnut inside the den. “Just a minute.” I tried to drum up some courage, but it wasn’t coming.
“Will!” Elizabeth called. “Where are you?”
I took a deep breath, stepped through the door into the passageway, and took four sideways steps before I froze. Sawn timbers pressed against my back, the wall in front of me only inches from my face. There was just enough light to see the murky gray of the raw wood and the ends of nails protruding through the boards in front of me. Droplets of sweat slid down my forehead into my eyes. Beneath my suit coat, my shirt was already soaked. Beads of sweat smeared from my knees to my trousers. I couldn’t breathe. My heart pounded in my ears.
“I—I can’t…” I hurried back toward the light of the den.
“Will?” Elizabeth called again as I stepped through the door.
Safely back in what had been her father’s den, I bent over, gloved hands on knees, and panted, wrenching my thoughts into the present by focusing on the pain in my right hand and shoulder. The nerves in my hand still sent out messages to my brain that they were burning, even though it had been a year and a half since the acid scorched me. The shoulder was a newer pain, a bullet wound from the Gianolla gang. To be fair, I’d shot two of them first.
Elizabeth stuck her head into the room. “Will? What’s wrong?”
I straightened and shrugged. “I can’t. It’s too close in there.”
“But it’s right around the corner. You were nearly to the room.”
“There’s no other way to get there?”
“I can’t do it, Elizabeth.” I reached over and took her hand. “I want to, but I can’t. It’s the dreams.”
“Oh.” Her face fell. “The trunk?”
“Yes. I didn’t want to worry you.” I’d never been claustrophobic, never thought twice about plunging into tight spaces, but an incident earlier in the year had changed that. I’d been kidnapped and twice stuffed inside a steamer trunk. At the time, it was nothing more than uncomfortable, but the experience lived on in my nightmares. I wake inside the trunk. The air is stifling, and it’s blazing hot. I’m squeezed inside, unable to move at all. With a certainty I seldom feel, I know I will die. The air thins. I try to conserve my energy, but I can’t stop myself from gasping in as much air as I can. I hear nothing other than my ragged breathing. Just when my lungs can take no more, I wake myself with a scream of terror.
“I’m sorry.” She stepped close to me and cupped my cheek in her hand. “You’ve looked … I wondered if you’ve been sleeping. Are you having them every night?”
“Yes.” I fell into one of the club chairs opposite the desk.
Elizabeth sat beside me and took my hand again. “I’m sorry, my darling.”
“I’m doing all right,” I said. “Most of the time.”
“That’s fine. The hidden room isn’t going anywhere. I just thought you’d find it interesting.”
No one, not even her mother, had known about the room. Her father had had it secretly built when the house was constructed. A few days earlier, Helga, the Humes’ maid, had found the hidden door while cleaning and alerted Elizabeth. She searched the room and found piles of cash and documents incriminating some of her father’s co-conspirators, most of whom had died at roughly the same time he had. She’d already given the money to charity and burned the papers.
Finally calm again, I breathed more easily. “Lord,” I said, feeling my shirt stick to my back. “I need a bath.”
“Why don’t you take one?”
“I don’t want to leave already, Lizzie. I’ll never get back on your calendar.”
“Nonsense. Anyway, you can take one here.” Her tone became playful. “I won’t even make you use the servants’ bathroom.”
“I don’t have a change of clothes.”
“Oh, but you do. I haven’t made it to the mission yet.”
I’d given her a pile of clothing for the McGregor Mission, one of the many charitable organizations she supported. “Well, I suppose…”
“I’ll try to make it worth your while.” She leaned over and kissed me. With a giggle, she said, “Your mustache tickles.”
I don’t think I’d ever heard her giggle. I’d been working on a beard and mustache for about a week, and the results thus far were not promising. The mustache was coming in well enough, but the beard was thin, particularly on my cheeks. I thought I should probably shave it and just try for the mustache, but beards were fashionable. I didn’t want to give up so easily.
I stood and pulled Elizabeth to her feet, noticing for the millionth time how beautiful she was. Sometimes she took me by surprise; her eyes green as holly, her high cheekbones and full lips, her beautiful auburn hair, short now. Each feature—lovely, but they added together in some exponential equation that ended in perfection. “I love you so much,” I said. “I want you all to myself.”
She pecked me on the lips. “And you know I love you. But you also know I have my work. Once the election is past, my time will be free.”
“I doubt it. They won’t let you go.”
“There’ll be nothing left to do. We’ll have the vote.”
“Perhaps,” I replied.
“There’s no ‘perhaps.’ We’re leading everywhere.” She turned and headed for the door. “Now come and take a bath, smelly. Everyone’s asleep. We’ve got all night.”
I arched my eyebrows. “Would you care to join me?”
Her eyes bulged, and her mouth formed a perfect circle. “Of course not,” she whispered. “What if my mother—” She stopped when she saw my smile. “Oh, you are such a goop. Now go.”
The bell on the telephone jangled, startling us both. “Don’t answer it,” I said. I could feel our evening disappearing into smoke.
The phone rang again.
Elizabeth looked toward the doorway and back at me. “It’ll wake my mother.”
“It’s got to be a wrong number. Who would call this late?”
“Someone with bad news, that’s who,” she said.
The phone kept ringing.
“Then let it ring.”
She made up her mind and strode to the desk, picked up the candlestick of the telephone, and put the receiver to her ear. “Hume residence.” As she listened to the reply, little furrows appeared between her eyebrows and began to deepen. “Elizabeth.” She listened again. “No, I’m her daughter. Who is—” A pause. “Wait—Robert Clarke, you said?”
Robert Clarke was a cousin of Elizabeth’s who had spent his life at Eloise Hospital—the Wayne County insane asylum. I wouldn’t have known that had her mother not gone to Eloise fairly frequently to visit him. I’d occasionally asked Elizabeth about Robert, but she always changed the subject. I stopped asking a long time ago.
I heard a muffled voice on the other end of the line but couldn’t understand it.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
She started to hang up, but stopped and listened. “About … half an hour?” Pause. “I’m not sureexactlywhen. I’ll hurry.” She slammed the receiver onto the hook and turned to me. “Could I borrow your motorcar?”
“Of course, but why?”
“It’s just … a problem I have to deal with.”
She gave me a tight nod.
“Why don’t you let me drive? I can see you’re upset.”
“No. That’s all right.” Her words were short, clipped.
This was not like her at all. “What’s the matter?”
She glared at me. “Can I borrow the automobile or not?”
“Yes. But let me come.”
“Damn it, Will—” She stopped herself. Her eyes shifted from right to left, and then she looked at me again. “All right. Go start it. We have to leave now.”
While I’d never seen Elizabeth act this way, it was obvious the phone call had shaken her to the core, so I decided to hold my questions until we were under way. I ran out of the den, down the hall, and out the door to my Model T Torpedo parked at the curb. The sweat that covered me chilled in the cool of the early August night. I set the spark and throttle, ran around to the front, and cranked the starter. The front door burst open, and Elizabeth ran down the steps. When the engine caught, we climbed into the car. Across the street, the Detroit River burbled and surged.
“Hurry,” Elizabeth said. “Please.”
With a sense of foreboding, I made a U-turn and headed west on Jefferson. The wind blew through my wet clothing. “It’s on Michigan Avenue, isn’t it?”
I’d never been to Eloise, and the thought of the place gave me the willies. Worse, I was certain the telephone call had ended the magical time Elizabeth and I had had over the last four weeks. We had been drinking one another up, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and were even closer now than when we’d been engaged. I suppose nearly being killed half a dozen times gives one a little perspective. We certainly understood how quickly we could lose each other.
I glanced at Elizabeth. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Just drive faster.”
I gave the Torpedo more gas. At eleven thirty on a Tuesday night, there were few vehicles out, and I sped down the street at forty miles per hour, straddling the middle of the road in case someone pulled out from either side.
Eloise Hospital was a sore subject with Elizabeth. When she and her mother returned from Paris last year, Mrs. Hume had been committed to Eloise by her brother-in-law, who was after his dead brother’s money. It had taken Elizabeth a month to get her out. I couldn’t help at the time. I didn’t know they had returned, not that it really mattered since I was in jail.
The wind was bringing tears to my eyes. I fished around behind me for my goggles and handed one pair to Elizabeth before I slipped on the other. “Can you tell me what happened?” A truck pulled out in front of us, and I swerved around it, honking the horn as I did.
Elizabeth grabbed the dash in front of her. “The man on the phone said Robert was accused of killing another patient”—her voice broke—“and was threatening to kill himself.”
“Oh, Lord.” We roared down the street.
I wheeled around a pair of cars waiting at the Woodward Avenue intersection and squeezed past, narrowly avoiding a horse-drawn wagon. The river steamers at the ferry docks sat dark and quiet, shadowy behemoths motionless in the water. I turned up Griswold and accelerated, now hitting fifty miles per hour. The engine roared, the tires whirred, and the wind howled in my ears.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have spoken to you that way.” I could barely hear her over the sounds of the car.
“That’s all right, honey,” I shouted. “I can only imagine how upset you are. Who called?”
“I don’t know.” She’d raised her voice now as well. “I think it was another patient.”
“He sounded similar to Robert. Mechanical, forced. Like he was trying to disguise his voice.”
I dodged a man on a horse and continued speeding down the road, hoping no members of the Detroit Police Department’s “Flying Squadron” were in the area tonight. Michigan Avenue was just ahead, and I slowed to thirty-five to take the turn. The back end of the car skidded, but I corrected for the turn and opened up the throttle. Soon we were again up to fifty miles per hour.
“Wait,” I shouted. “How would a patient make a telephone call this late at night? For that matter, I can’t imagine they let patients make calls at all.”
Elizabeth turned in her seat, leaned in closer to me, and put a hand up to keep her hair out of her face. “I don’t know.”
“Maybe it was just a prank.”
“A prank? Virtually no one even knows he’s related to us.”
“Robert hasn’t been violent before, has he?”
“No.” She paused. “Well, not that I know of.”
A streetcar was crossing the intersection ahead of us. I slammed on the brakes, sliding to a stop about twenty feet away from it. As soon as it was through, I jerked down on the throttle again, and we sped away.
“Tell me about him,” I said.
“I don’t really know that much about him.”
“But you know something.”
Her mouth tightened, and she looked away. “He got angry with us a lot. I think he’s intelligent, but something just doesn’t work right in his brain.”
“What sort of … debility does he have?”
“The doctors called it dementia praecox. I don’t know much about it.”
“How long has it been since you’ve seen him?”
“A long time. Oh, God.” Her voice caught. I glanced at her and saw tears running down her face. “I know I should have gone, Will. It’s just … that place. I hate it.”
* * *
The asylum’s black iron gate cast a long row of shadows that swallowed us as we ran up to the entryway. I glanced at Elizabeth. The dark parallel lines slipped across her face as she moved, alternating with light cast by the flood lamps of the grounds. A huge redbrick building loomed in front of us, its twin cupolas silhouetted against a black sky. An iron archway hung above the gate. The institution’s identity was revealed with a single word formed of simple block letters. One word was enough.
Truth is, I wasn’t any more enthusiastic about coming here than Elizabeth had been in years past. Eloise was a name that put fear into the hearts of every schoolchild—and most everyone else—in Wayne County. In fact, I couldn’t recall ever hearing of a child in the Detroit area being named Eloise.
I tightened my grip on Elizabeth’s hand, more for my comfort than hers, and strode toward the gate. Ahead of us, farther up Michigan Avenue, streetlamps lit a commercial area and, past it, a residential block. We turned up the short walk to the gate, where I released her hand and rang the bell. It made a loud, grating buzz. When I took my finger off the button, I heard men shouting in the distance. Their voices were indistinct, far enough away that I couldn’t identify what they were saying. They quieted. Across the street behind us, the waters of a small lake lapped against the shore. A rowboat bumped against a wooden dock. On the other side of the lake stood a large building, a gazebo between it and the water.
Elizabeth’s foot tapped against the pavement. We exchanged a glance, and I rang the bell again. Still nothing. She reached across me and pressed the button, holding it for a good thirty seconds.
A guard in a green wool uniform and cap walked out of the darkness between the building in front of us and another to its right. He was perhaps thirty years old, with a heavy beard and acne scars.
When he was close enough, Elizabeth took hold of one of the bars in the gate and said, “Robert Clarke is my cousin. I must see him.”
The man stopped in front of us. He frowned and glanced behind him.
“I was told he was threatening to kill himself,” she said. “If that’s true, you must let me see him. He’ll listen to me.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I got orders to—”
“Please.” Elizabeth reached through the gate and took hold of his sleeve. “You must help me.”
After looking at her a moment longer, he made up his mind. He unlocked the gate, grabbed hold of the bars, and leaned back, putting his weight into drawing the gate open a couple of feet. When we were through, he closed and locked it again. “This way.” He ran off, down the dark sidewalk from which he’d come. We followed closely behind, Elizabeth a fast runner in her flat-soled shoes, and me just able to keep up with her. We burst out of the shadows and onto a street. The size of the complex was suddenly apparent to me. A network of roads and buildings spread out before us, lit by the glowing orbs of streetlamps.
The guard veered left behind the main building and ran to the entryway near the far end. Three policemen huddled on the porch with another man. Inside, a few people walked past the windows. None of them looked alarmed. They were just going about their business.
The guard stopped at the base of the steps and turned to us, panting. “Wait here. I have to ask—”
“I’ll come,” Elizabeth said. I was panting as hard as the other man, but she was barely winded. “There’s no time to waste.” With that, she hurried around him and up the steps, holding up her dress with both hands so as not to trip.
The guard gawped at me. I shrugged and followed her. By the time I reached the top of the steps, she was already inside. Two of the policemen looked at me with raised eyebrows, but I continued to the door, trying to convey an air of confidence I didn’t feel. They let me pass.
I entered a reception area, a tall, unadorned room about thirty feet square that smelled sharply of bleach. The marble floor continued into long hallways to the left and right, with a shorter one leading to the front of the building. It was surprisingly quiet. A pair of orderlies ambled past me, talking idly.
How, I wondered, could it look like this when a man had just been murdered?
I heard my first evidence of patients—a long howl that cut off abruptly. My heart quickened as the voice echoed through the room.
Elizabeth had already collared a young woman wearing a black dress who was carrying a stack of bedpans. “Where is Robert Clarke?” she asked, in a tone that made it clear she would brook no hesitation or argument.
The woman pointed toward the hallway on the right, and we ran past dozens of closed doors. Ahead, a policeman leaned against a doorjamb, conversing with other men inside. Elizabeth stopped and looked—and drew in a quick breath. I peered over her shoulder.
Two men in suits knelt next to a man in a white nightshirt who lay crumpled on the floor at the side of a desk. His hair was cropped short and uneven, his face was bony, and the legs poking out from the bottom of the gown were as thin as sticks. I stepped around Elizabeth and walked into the room. The man’s mouth was slack, teeth broken and irregular, tongue swollen, purple. He was clearly dead. Now I saw what the men were looking at: a deep burgundy welt, about an inch thick, circling the man’s neck. He’d been hanged.
“What do you want?” the policeman asked.
“Robert Clarke,” Elizabeth said. “Where is he?”
The policeman focused on her. “Why?”
“He’s my cousin. I must speak with him.”
He gave her a sly smile. “Don’t know that you’ll be able to without a séance. Said he was gonna kill himself.”
She grabbed the front of his uniform in her fists. “Where is he?”
He looked startled, and for a second I thought he was going to hit her. I took a step forward, but all he did was meekly say, “End of the hall. Turn right.”
She let him go and ran out of the room. I followed again. It was another hundred feet to the end of the hallway, and fifty to the end of the next one, where half a dozen men stood outside a room, trying to peer inside. A hysterical voice shouted, “Go away! I’ll do it!”
“Robbie!” Elizabeth cried and pushed through the men jamming the doorway.
“Leave me alone!” the man screamed.
I shouldered my way into the room behind her. A man in a white nightshirt stood in the back corner, a serrated knife with a blade perhaps eight inches long in his hand. He was tall, dark-haired, thin. He looked exhausted, and sweat dripped down the sides of his face. His head turned back and forth, his wide eyes on the pair of policemen standing ten feet away from him on either side. One of them was fat, maybe twenty years old, the other thin and at least sixty. Both held revolvers.
“Here now, boy,” the thin one said. “Hand it over.”
Elizabeth slid in front of him. “Robbie, it’s me, Elizabeth.”
“Hey.” The cop grabbed her shoulder. “Who the—”
“Lizzie!” Robert broke into a cry at the end of her name. “I didn’t do it. It was the Phantom. I told them.” His voice was mechanical, forced, like she said the caller had sounded.
“It’s all right. I’ll help you.” Out of the side of her mouth, she said to the cop behind her, “Let go of me. I’m Robert’s cousin. He’ll give me the knife.” After a second, he released her. She took a step toward Robert—nearly close enough for him to reach her with a swipe of the knife.
“Miss, you’ve got to get back.” The thin policeman grabbed her arm, but she pulled it away from him and held her position. “Listen now,” he said, a warning in his voice.
She glanced back at him and whispered, “Let me try.”
He didn’t respond. I moved to Elizabeth’s side, just in front of her position. Robert looked crazy to me. I wasn’t going to let him stab her.
“Will.” Elizabeth’s voice was dead calm. “Get back. We’re fine.”
I glanced at her and then back at Robert. His eyes were fixed on Elizabeth, his face contorted with fear or rage. “Okay.” I took half a step back, still ready to pounce if he made a move toward her.
“I’m not going to the Hole,” Robert said. “I’m not. I’m not. I didn’t do it. Lizzie, help me. It was the Phantom. He did it.”
“All right, Robbie,” Elizabeth said. “You’re going to be all right.” She took another step toward him.
“Get back, missy,” the fat policeman warned.
“No,” she said. “He’s my cousin. It’s all right.” She sounded like she was trying to calm down the cop as much as she was Robert.
“Lizzie, they’re going to put me in the Hole. I’ll never get out. I didn’t do it. I didn’t—”
“It’s okay, Robbie,” she said. “I’ll help you.” She took another step toward him. He could easily stab her now before anyone could react.
“Get me out,” he pleaded. “Get me out of here.”
“Just give me the knife.” She spoke in a matter-of-fact tone, as if this were the most natural thing in the world.
“Step back!” the fat policeman shouted. Both cops now had their guns pointed at Robert’s head.
“Elizabeth,” I said. “Be careful.” I edged to my right, working myself between Elizabeth and the fat cop, who sounded like he was on the verge of panic. The hammer on his revolver was cocked. He reached out and grabbed the shoulder in which I’d been shot, trying to pull me away. Wincing, I twisted out of his grip.
“Move!” His right arm snaked around me, gun extended, trying to find a target.
Elizabeth took another step closer to Robert, who raised his arms.
The fat policeman pulled the trigger, and his gun went off in a smoky explosion.
* * *
Robert fell to the floor, screaming, his hands up to the sides of his head. The knife clattered to the floor. I couldn’t tell if he’d been hit. The policemen rushed him, shoving Elizabeth and me out of the way. The older one jumped on top of Robert and pinned his arms to the floor. Still screaming, Robert tried to wriggle out from under him.
“Stop!” Elizabeth shouted.
I leaned in to try to help the cop get Robert under control, but the other one cracked me over the head with his nightstick. Stunned, I fell to my knees. As Robert continued to struggle, the younger policeman reared back again with his nightstick and clubbed him over the head. He collapsed in a heap on the floor.
Elizabeth rushed in and pulled at the policeman on top of Robert. “Get off! Get off!”
He shoved her away, scooped up Robert’s knife, and stood. My mind was still trying to catch up. The room seemed a blur of activity. Police, orderlies, and guards hurried in. Some shouted commands; others followed them. Elizabeth knelt next to Robert and felt his pulse, then looked him over. “I think he missed,” she said. “I don’t see a bullet wound.”
I sat hard on the floor, wincing with pain, my good hand over the lump growing on the crown of my head.
Elizabeth touched my arm. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll be fine,” I gasped.
She stared at the cops. I could see she wanted to shout at them but was conflicted. Perhaps what they did saved Robert’s life. I wanted to yell at them, too, but my head hurt enough already.
The older policeman put his hands on his hips and squared off on his partner. “You goddamned idiot. You could have killed somebody.”
Elizabeth was looking at the hole in the wall where the bullet hit. It seemed awfully close to where Robert had been standing.
“He was going to…” The young policeman’s voice trailed off.
“He was going to nothing,” the other man said. “He was giving up. You’re lucky you can’t shoot any better’n a little girl.”
Robert began to rouse, and the older policeman snapped a set of handcuffs on him. A pair of orderlies took his arms and began dragging him out of the room.
“Wait.” Elizabeth stood and hurried over to them. “Robert? Are you all right?”
“I … I’m … okay.” He was dazed, but he seemed to be coming to his senses.
The orderlies again began to drag him off.
She took hold of Robert’s arm. “I’ll help you. Don’t be afraid.” To the orderlies, she said, “Where are you taking him?”
“He’s going to solitary until we hear different,” the older policeman said. “Now, you.” He pointed at me. “You’re lucky he didn’t shoot you. Hell, you’re lucky I didn’t shoot you, you dumb son of a bitch. Interfering with an officer of the law. Ought to shoot you now.” He turned away and began ordering around the hospital employees.
Elizabeth bent down next to me. “Let me see your head.”
“No. I’m fine.” I levered myself to my feet. “Let’s see what they’re doing with Robert.” I took a wobbly step.
“Whoa,” the older policeman said. “We’re going to need a statement.”
“Can’t we do that after—” Elizabeth started.
She looked toward the door and then back at him. “All right. But then can we see Robert?”
“Ain’t my decision.”
We spent the next fifteen minutes explaining to him how we happened to be at the hospital and then giving our perspective on what had happened in the room. Elizabeth kept trying to sneak glances at what he was writing, but he tilted the pad away from her every time. Me, I just wanted to sit down with a block of ice on my head.
Finally Elizabeth folded her arms over her chest and said, “Shouldn’t someone who wasn’t involved in the shooting be taking witness statements?”
The cop scowled at her. “I don’t answer to you, missy.”
“Hey,” I said. “There’s no reason to—”
“Will.” Elizabeth took my hand. “It’s all right. Let’s just get this over with.”
When the cop finished with us, a nurse led Elizabeth and me away. Ahead of us were three men in suits, huddled together. Elizabeth nudged me. “The one on the right is the administrator—Dr. Stephen Beckwith.”
He was a large, rumpled man of perhaps fifty years, wearing brown tweed trousers with suspenders and a wrinkled white shirt. His silver hair was long, his strong jaw stubbled with whiskers, though I’d have guessed he had shaved that morning. He was an impressive-looking man, the kind you wouldn’t be surprised to learn was a Nobel Prize winner in science or something equally astounding.
The nurse turned up a hallway perhaps thirty feet in front of them. Elizabeth paused, and I thought she was going to continue forward and confront Dr. Beckwith. Instead, she followed the nurse who led us up the hall and ushered us into a large office with a pair of upholstered chairs opposite an antique walnut desk. A sitting area, with a leather sofa and another upholstered chair, was backed by a wall filled with books, at first glance all medical and psychiatric tomes. “Wait here,” she said. “Someone will be with you soon.” She left the room and closed the door behind her.
Elizabeth touched my left shoulder. “Let me look at your head.”
I knew arguing wouldn’t change how this ended, so I sat in one of the chairs and let her look at the lump on my skull.
“Ooh,” she said. I heard a wince in her voice. “The knob’s about an inch across, and it’s pretty ugly, but it’s scabbing over already. Maybe we can get some ice from someone, try to keep the swelling down.”
“No. Let’s just get to the bottom of what’s going on here.”
She stepped back and looked down into my eyes. “Do you feel disoriented or anything?”
“No. My heads hurts, but I think I’m okay. My mental processes seem normal.”
I could tell she felt sorry for me, because she bypassed the opportunity to remark about my mental processes—or my lack thereof. She fell into the chair opposite me and met my eyes, her tired face blank and bleary-eyed. Finally she said, “How could Robert have gotten hold of a knife?”
“How could someone have gotten hanged in the middle of a busy ward? There’s something seriously wrong here.”
She nodded. “And what about the Phantom, whatever that is?”
I looked out the window at the grounds again. In the dark, the scene was very nearly idyllic, with paved streets, new redbrick buildings, bright streetlamps. It was the picture of a modern hospital. How did something like this happen? The window acted as a prism, creating red, blue, and green arcs around the streetlights. When I glanced back at Elizabeth, I could see she had followed my eyes and was looking at the same thing.
Sighing, she said, “This place scares the hell out of me.”
A soft knock sounded against the door, and one of the men who’d been with Dr. Beckwith walked into the room. He wore a gray suit that looked to have been thrown on, not surprising given that it was well after midnight. He was a slight, balding man of no more than thirty, with a rounded nose and bright blue eyes. “We need to clear up a few things. My name is Dr. Davis. I’m one of the psychiatrists here. And you are?” He had the patrician tone of East Coast old money.
“I’m Robert’s cousin, Elizabeth Hume,” she said, “and this is my friend Will.”
I was surprised she didn’t introduce me with my full name, though I thought perhaps it was because I was an infamous “murderer”—even though I had been cleared both times I was brought to trial. My name would probably dredge up suspicion and slow us down.
Dr. Davis hesitated, then reached out to shake my hand. He looked curiously, as most people did, at my right hand when I offered him my left, though all he could see was my glove.
Appraising Elizabeth with his intense blue eyes, Dr. Davis asked, “Are you Mr. Clarke’s legal guardian?”
“No. My mother is.”
I could see that she wanted to take those words back, but I didn’t think it would matter anyway. Surely they had records. Mrs. Hume had been acting strangely, though, and I wondered if she would be up to the task of dealing with this situation. While Elizabeth hadn’t said anything to me about her mother’s lapses, I was sure she felt the same way.
“All right.” He drew a small notebook from his inside coat pocket. “Could you give me her address and telephone number?”
“Don’t you have them?” she asked. “Surely you have records of your patients’ next of kin.”
“I’m sure we do.” Dr. Davis folded his arms across his chest. “I just thought we might expedite things a bit.”
I stood up. “This is nonsense. We want to talk to the warden.”
“This is a hospital,” Dr. Davis said. “We don’t have a warden.”
“I don’t care what you call him. We want to see him. Now.”
“I’m not sure that will be possible.”
Elizabeth shot up out of the chair. “Perhaps you’d prefer we go to the newspapers. I’m sure they’d be interested in how a patient here got hanged and another had a knife.”
The doctor glared at her. “Give me a few minutes.” He left the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
“This is ridiculous,” I muttered. “Dead men lying about, patients with weapons. How do they run this place?”
She shrugged and sat down, and I looked over the contents of the doctor’s library. Freud’sThe Interpretation of Dreamscaught my eye. I picked it up and began paging through it, and soon came across this remarkable passage:
“The dream is not meaningless, not absurd, does not presuppose that one part of our store of ideas is dormant while another part begins to awake. It is a perfectly valid psychic phenomenon, actually a wish fulfillment…”
I read farther down the page. According to Freud, dreams—all dreams—were a form of wish fulfillment. I didn’t want to think of the implications right now.
The office door opened. I turned around and saw a young man slip into the room. He closed the door and stood staring at us from behind wire-rimmed eyeglasses.
“Can we help you?” I asked.
He hurried over toward us, his legs gliding rapidly, with none of the normal accompanying motion in his upper body. His arms were tight to his sides, one holding a book, the other with fist clenched. He appeared to have no physical handicap, but his movements were completely unnatural, as if he were trying to walk without touching the ground while bracing for an impact. He wore a shirt and trousers, rather than a nightshirt, but I still thought he might be a patient. He scurried around behind the chair on the other side of the desk, putting the furniture and ten feet between us and him. He was a good-sized boy, perhaps five ten and 170 pounds, and around twenty years old, with fine features and dark hair. His face looked normal enough.
“I’m Will,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Francis. Francis Beckwith.”
Elizabeth sat up straight. Something had put her on alert. “Hello, Francis,” she said. “I’m Elizabeth.”
“Robert Clarke did not kill Patrick Cook,” he said. His voice struck me as that of an automaton. Now I understood Elizabeth’s reaction. He sounded like he could be the caller she had described.
She stood but didn’t move any closer to him. “Do you know that for a fact?”
“How do you know, Francis?” she asked.
“The Opera Ghost killed Patrick.”
“Pardon?” was all Elizabeth could muster.
“The Opera Ghost,” he repeated, “who is also known as the Phantom.”
“Oh. I see.” She tried to keep her voice even, but I could hear the disappointment.
Francis’s mouth tightened. He also saw that she didn’t believe him. “The Phantom killed Patrick with the Punjab lasso. That is how he kills everyone.” He held up the book. “See. Here’s proof.” The corners of his mouth turned up in what looked like an attempt at a smile, as if he thought one would be appropriate at the moment, but there was no humor behind it.
I squinted at the title.The Phantom of the Opera. He thought some ghost story was real. Still, I thought I’d humor him, to see if anything might come of it. “What is the Punjab lasso?”
“It is a length of rope used as a garrote. Its use was popularized by the PunjabiHashashinsin the Middle Ages. The Opera Ghost uses a Punjab lasso made of catgut.” He rattled off these details like Gatling-gun fire.
“So you’re saying the man wasn’t hanged,” I said. “He was strangled.”
“That is correct,” Francis said.
Elizabeth took a step toward him but stopped when he flinched. “Did you see the murder take place?”
“No. But I saw the body. It was the same.”
“The same?” I said.
“As the others.”
“Oh.” I thought I understood. “The murders in the book.”
“Yes,” he said. “But I was not talking about them.”
“No. I was talking about the three othersherewho have been killed.”
* * *
I stared at the young man across the desk from me for a moment. “You’re saying four men here have been murdered?”
“Yes.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a folded piece of paper and carefully opened it. It was a hand-drawn map, perhaps two feet square. It looked incredibly detailed. “Victor was killed here,” he pointed to a spot, “and Albert was—”
The office door opened, and Dr. Davis walked back in. “Francis.” He put his hands on his hips and cocked his head. “What are you doing here?”
Francis quickly folded the map and returned it to his pocket. His eyes dropped to the floor. “Nothing.”
“Nothing?” Davis asked.
“No.” Now the young man’s voice was sullen.
“You’re supposed to be home. In bed.”
“You are not my father.”
“No, I’m not. And it’s a good thing for you he’s not in this room. Now go.”
“You are not my father,” Francis repeated, louder.
“If you don’t go home now, I’m going to talk to him about it.”
Francis stared at him defiantly for a moment before scurrying around the desk and out into the hall.
“Thank you, Francis.” Davis looked at me and rolled his eyes before closing the door.
“Who is he?” Elizabeth asked.
“Francis is Dr. Beckwith’s son,” Davis replied.
Elizabeth glanced at me. “He reminds me of Robert.”
“Yes, well, that would make sense,” Davis said, “since they are both schizophrenic.”
“I thought Robert was diagnosed as having dementia praecox.”
Davis nodded. “Yes, but a few years ago the diagnoses were fine-tuned a bit. He’s now classified schizophrenic with autistic symptoms.”
“Whatever that means,” I muttered.
Davis cleared his throat. “It’s a complicated syndrome, really more a classification than a particular disease.” He sat behind the desk and gestured for Elizabeth to take a seat. When she did, he said, “Dr. Beckwith is unable to join us. He is understandably busy dealing with the events of the evening. He wished me to relay to you his concern, and said he would resolve this matter.”
“That is not satisfactory,” Elizabeth said.
“Miss Hume, really,” Dr. Davis said. “A man just died. Don’t you think the administrator of the hospital may have a few responsibilities beyond you?”
“Then he had better be prepared to speak with me tomorrow.”
Dr. Davis nodded. “I’m sure he will as soon as he is able.” He picked up a piece of paper on his desk—the statement the policeman had taken from us—and perused it for a moment before rubbing his chin and looking at Elizabeth. “How did you happen to come here this evening?” He asked the question casually, as if the thought had just occurred to him and was of no import.
“I received a telephone call,” she said.
“I … don’t know.”
“What did the caller say?”
“That Robert had been accused of killing a man and was threatening to kill himself.”
“Was it a man or woman?”
“He didn’t tell you his name?”
“You didn’t recognize his voice?”
I leaned forward. “Why are you so interested in the caller?”
Dr. Davis turned his attention to me. “He may have information about the murder, of course.”
From the way he was asking, I thought his concern might well be something else. Perhaps plugging a leak at the hospital?
“I don’t know who phoned me,” Elizabeth said. “Now you can answer a few questions for me. How would a patient be able to strangle a man? How would one get hold of a knife?”
“Miss Hume.” Dr. Davis tried to smile, but it looked like he had a touch of dyspepsia. “We are just beginning to investigate, but you need to understand that unless this matter remains confidential, your cousin will likely spend the rest of his life in the state prison at Jackson. I don’t think I need to tell you that that would destroy him. Our concern is for the good of the patient. Unless we are forced to do otherwise, Dr. Beckwith and the Eloise Hospital police will conduct the investigation and deal with the matter privately.”
“Why are you so certain Robert is the killer?”
He squinted at her. “Are you jesting?”
She simply stared at him.
He shook his head, incredulous. “He was found holding the rope, standing over the dead man.”
“Perhaps Robert was just the first to find him.”
“He should have been sleeping in his ward. Why else would he have been there?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why don’t we ask him?”
He sat back in his chair and scowled at her. “It sounds like you’d prefer us to report this to the authorities. I’m sure that can be arranged.”
“No. That’s not what I’m—”
“No? Then perhaps you could listen to what I’m saying. If Robert remains here, we can help him. If he is tried, he will go to prison and then we won’t be able to help him.If he remains here,we can take the proper precautions to ensure he doesn’t kill again and that no one hurts him. Do you understand now?”
Elizabeth glowered at him. Her face was turning red. I thought I’d better jump in before she said something she’d regret. “Dr. Davis, how can you deal with this privately? Not that I expect anything like honesty from the police, but they’ll just forget about a murdered man?”
“Of course not, but you have to understand. In an enlightened society, the insane are not subject to the same rules as the rest of us. The policemen here are specially trained in the … peculiarities of enforcing the law in a place such as this.”
“What about the dead man?” I asked. “What about his family?”
“He had no family. He will receive a funeral and be buried here, just as many other people who died of natural causes have been.”
Elizabeth jumped in. “I’m sure you could get into a lot of trouble—legal trouble—for not reporting a murder on your premises. Why would you be willing to do that? And I’m afraid,” she added, “that ‘the good of the patient’ is not a reason I find sufficient.”
“You would prefer that your cousin goes to prison.”
“No.” After thinking for a moment, she said, “Robert will be treated well?”
“Of course.” He flashed a smile, in the way one does when concluding a discussion, and began to stand.
We did not. “You are the alienist in Robert’s ward,” Elizabeth said. “Is that correct?”
“We prefer the more modern term of ‘psychiatrist.’ But yes. One of them.”
“Did you work with him?”
“Yes,” Davis said. “I’ve known Mr. Clarke for some years.”
“Do you think he would murder someone?”
He gave her a cold smile. “You’d be surprised at what people will do.”
“What can you tell us about the man who was killed?”
“I don’t suppose I should tell you anything. He was a patient here. Would you like me telling everyone about your cousin?”
Elizabeth ignored his question. “Were he and Robert acquainted, or was this a random act?”
“I don’t know,” Davis said. “I seldom see patients except for treatment.”
I could see Elizabeth was getting irritated with his obfuscation, so I cut in. “If you can’t discuss the patients, perhaps you can discuss the Opera Ghost, otherwise known as the Phantom.”
He rolled his eyes again. “Ravings,” he muttered. “It’s all I hear now. The Phantom this and the Opera Ghost that.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“The Phantom is a character in some ridiculous book the advanced patients read,” Davis said. “Where Morgan gets his ideas for books from, I don’t know. Stirring up the patients like this…”
“Our English teacher. Now, if you will excuse me.” He stood. “I still have a great deal to do tonight.”
I pushed myself to my feet and was reminded of the lump on my head. Elizabeth stayed where she was. Davis walked around the desk to the door. Opening it, he turned back to us. “Please, follow me.”
Still seated, Elizabeth said, “I’d like to see Robert.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
“Please, Dr. Davis.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Hume. He is in no condition to accept visitors.”
I looked down at Elizabeth and nodded toward the door. There was nothing else to be gained by our remaining here. She sighed and stood, and we followed Dr. Davis out of the room and into the hallway. A Negro man in crisp white trousers and shirt carried a stack of bedding past us. The place was very subdued now, with only a few staff members visible.
Davis led us down the hallway in silence, guiding us through the building to the main entry, where he unlocked and opened one of the heavy wooden doors. We descended the stairs and headed up the sidewalk toward the gate. My head throbbed, which held my attention, but not so much that I couldn’t see Elizabeth shivering. I wrapped my good arm around her, and she snuggled in closer. The night seemed very different than when we came here—colder and more frightening.
“Tell me, Dr. Davis,” I said. “What will happen to Robert?”
“He will receive treatment,” Davis said over his shoulder, “humane treatment—and will be isolated until he is able to commune with the other patients.” Picking up his pace, he added, “Should that day come.”
“You’re saying he may have to spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement?” I asked.
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary. Mr. Clarke should respond to treatment.”
“I’m coming back tomorrow to see him,” Elizabeth said.
Davis made no comment, just continued on toward the gate. He clearly wanted to be rid of us.
“Tell me this, Dr. Davis,” I said. “Why would people here say this was the fourth man killed? That number didn’t come out of thin air.”
“Over time, men are released. The paranoids, who are numerous, are always certain they’ve been murdered.”
“You’recertain they were released?”
He stopped and turned back to me. “Are you one of the paranoids?”
I laughed at him. “I don’t think it takes a paranoid to find this entire situation disturbing.”
* * *
Dr. Davis continued on to the gate in silence. The guard who’d let us in unlocked and opened it, and we walked out.
“Good night,” Davis said. Out of courtesy we wished him the same before continuing to my car, which was parked at the curb across the road, in front of the little lake.
I got the car started, and we climbed in. After negotiating a U-turn, I headed east on Michigan Avenue. “So.” I glanced over at Elizabeth. “What do you think?”
She was looking at the lake, glowing in the moonlight. “Dr. Davis was very interested in discovering who had phoned me,” she said. “I think they’re more interested in their security breach than really investigating the murder.”
“I don’t understand how the administration can overlook a murder, no matter how Davis defended it.”
She shrugged and shook her head. “They seem to have no doubt that Robert is the killer. Yet they want to keep him from a life sentence in the state prison…” Looking down at her hands folded in her lap, she said, “I just can’t see how they could keep this from going to court.”
“Have you ever heard of that book?”
“The Phantom of the Opera?” Elizabeth asked. “No.”
“Neither had I. We’ll have to look into it.” I glanced over at her. “Do you think Robert could have killed four people?”
“I can’t believe he would kill anyone. But I’ve never really known him. He’s been stuck in that place for more than twenty-five years. That could drive anyone to murder.”
I nodded, remembering what I’d wanted to ask her. “Was Francis the one who phoned you?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “I meant to tell you. I’m nearly positive.”
“He must be a friend of Robert’s.”
“And being Beckwith’s son, he would likely have had access to a telephone,” she said.
“So you’re going back tomorrow?”
“Yes.” She looked away, pursing her lips, then met my eyes again. “Would you come with me?”
“Of course I will.”
“Your father won’t mind if you miss work?”
“I doubt it,” I said. “I don’t think he’s used to me being back at the factory yet. He still wants me to spend a couple of months in New York taking the rest cure for my supposed neurasthenia.”
“Glen Springs does sound lovely,” Elizabeth said. “Perhaps one of these days…”
I reached over and took her hand. “It would be nice to get away together sometime. Far away.”
“In many ways,” I said, “this has been the worst year of my life. I began it in jail, and since then, I’ve been threatened by gangsters, tricked by a con man, seen men murdered, and, Lord, even killed two more people. Even with all that horror, it’s been a good year. I got you back.” I raised her hand to my lips and kissed the back of it.
She was quiet for a long while. I looked over at her and saw she was crying.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“We can’t escape,” she said in a miserable voice.
“One day we will, honey. We’ll be able to get away for a nice—”
“That’s not what I mean, Will. It’s the goddamned tragedy. Every day. Everywhere we go. Everything that has happened to us since I can remember. It’s all been tragedy.” She looked at me, tears trickling down her cheeks. “What did I do to deserve this?”
That’s easy,I thought.You loved me.
Copyright © 2012 by D. E. Johnson