The Year’s Midnight
Death’s Lady 1
by Rachel Neumeier
Neumeier gives us new worlds and new beginnings in a reverse portal contemporary fantasy.
A gifted psychiatrist, Daniel Dodson is perfectly aware that he’s in a tough place personally following the death of his wife. Then a mysterious new patient offers a welcome professional distraction.The world of swords and magic that Tenai so vividly remembers obviously can’t be real. The deadly enmity and long war that left such deep emotional scars plainly symbolize something else. But perhaps Daniel can use the signposts of those confabulated memories to aid Tenai in moving forward into a new life in the real world.
A portal fantasy from the other side: what would happen if someone from a swords & sorcery world ended up in 21st C America? Of course she would be sent to a psychiatric institute! (This isn’t a spoiler, by the way: the first sentence tells us she came from elsewhere.) I love the meeting of minds that ensues when a fierce, intelligent, competent, scarred warrior meets a gentle, intelligent, intuitive, scarred psychiatrist. I have no expertise in the field of psychiatry or therapy, but Daniel makes a really great advertisement for the profession! I love his insight, his compassion, his honesty, and the way Tenai slowly unfurls herself in response.
I think I like Neumeier’s self-published work even more than her traditionally published novels, because she has the freedom to experiment more with structure, theme, character. This is a truly unique novel with two fascinating characters–it could stand on its own, as an exploration of the disconnect between the worlds we imagine in our fantasy and the world we live in, and an illustration of how to move on from a past haunted by grief and pain. But knowing that there are two more books about Tenai’s world of dark sorcery makes this one even more fun.— Goodreads
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Tenai told Dr. Dodson, long after the event, that her first vision of her new world was of light. Light laid over darkness: she stepped out of a cold midwinter night, and found the starlit darkness she left behind was nothing like the shattering confusion of headlights and streetlamps and glaring reflections she entered. Half-blinded, surrounded by bewildering violence—the squeal of brakes, the shattering crash of one vehicle into another, shouts of alarm and anger—Tenai left her dangerous sword Gomantang buried in the hood of a gray Ford truck, there in the middle of the intersection into which she had stepped.
In time, Daniel Dodson got the sword back for her. The police found reasons to return it when the request made its way to them—after all, no major crime had been committed with it, and besides, somehow no one really wanted to keep this particular sword near at hand. Daniel did not give the sword back to Tenai right away. When he showed it to her, she smiled her narrow, secretive smile and agreed that it might be as well if he kept it for a time.
“Gomantang was forged in the dark country,” she told him. “He is not a kindly weapon, but his song can be sweet. I would not suggest you put him where your daughter can touch him, Doctor.”
“I’ll leave it in my office here. But you keep your hands off it too,” said Daniel, who by that time was comfortable with her, and Tenai smiled again and said, “I will not touch him until you give him to me, doctor; but you do not touch him, either. Yes?” And of course Daniel agreed.
That was how Tenai spoke, once she decided to speak: with a turn of phrase that struck the American ear as odd and foreign. She might actually have been foreign; no one could tell. She was a dark woman: dark of hair and eyes, skin of an ambiguous shade that made it hard to mark her race on the hospital forms. She was dark of mood as well, and capable of violence when she wished; tall enough to be intimidating—an inch or so taller than Daniel himself. She was not beautiful, but she compelled attention.
Tenai had come into Dr. Dodson’s care raging with a fury so tightly contained that a casual glance might have judged her calm. She was not calm. Daniel did not need to be told this. He knew it from the first moment he saw her.
He inherited her three months after her arrival at Lindenwood, from Dr. Margaret Wilson, who was moving to a research hospital with the intention of concentrating on theory for a while. Daniel could understand that. Clinical work with real patients carried real consequences. Even a place like Lindenwood was harder on the heart than research. So many patients here would never really be well. A doctor could burn out on this work.
He had never intended to return to clinical work himself. He had expected to remain in an administration position—or possibly accept that teaching position at Yale. Something that would give him time to write. But here he was.
“Jane can be violent,” Maggie warned him. At that time, they did not know her name. She was on the hospital records as Jane Doe IV. “Be careful of her, Daniel.”
“But you have her out on the low-security ward.” Daniel let a questioning note enter his voice.
“She’s easier to handle down here.” Maggie grinned, a warm, good-humored grin that showed in her eyes. “You’ll find out, Daniel. We tried her on Anafranil. Bad call: it kicked her into a more violent mode instead of settling her down. We damn near lost her right then, but fortunately we all got ourselves calmed down just in time.”
“Yeah, you have no idea. These days, the staff knows how to manage her. Watch them with her. You’ll do all right with her too, I expect. In fact, that’s one reason I suggested Russell give you a call when I heard you were, um, at loose ends.”
Russell Martin was the director of the hospital. Daniel hadn’t yet met him; he was out this morning and wouldn’t be back until early in the afternoon. Maggie gave Daniel a thoughtful look at odds with her casual tone. She added, “Russell’s a good guy. He really is. You already know this place is one of a kind. Wallace might’ve had the money and the strings to pull, but Russell’s the guy who set Lindenwood up and keeps it going. Wallace knew what she was doing when she got him for the job. I’m telling you, you’ll get along fine.”
A very wealthy woman named Suzanne Wallace had founded Lindenwood, endowed it, lined up a board of trustees in line with her vision, persuaded Martin to take the directorship, and set the whole thing up with the director running the board, not the other way around. Daniel knew all that. He was skeptical that any institution, even a small, privately funded, one-of-a-kind institution, could live up to Maggie’s sales pitch. But … he’d needed a place to go. A place to start, if not over, at least forward. Whatever else it might be, Maggie had promised—and Daniel believed—that Lindenwood was nothing like Belfountaine.
“All right,” he said.
Maggie was going on. “This particular Jane won’t tolerate doctors who go off on power trips. She doesn’t gladly suffer fools. She doesn’t like anybody trying to control her.”
Daniel snorted, and Maggie rolled her eyes. “I know. Don’t say it. Not the best traits for an institutionalized patient, even here. She’ll do better with you than she has with me, I hope.”
Daniel clicked his tongue reprovingly. “Maggie, have you been bullying the patients again?”
She laughed and shook her head. “You’ve been working with mutism, I mean. If you can get her talking, she might be all right. If you can’t, she’ll likely be out at the end of June. Six months for a charity patient, that’s the rule, which is a damn sight more generous than most; you don’t have to tell me that. But put this one out on the street and she’ll probably assault somebody, kill somebody, who knows. If she goes to prison, she’ll kill somebody for sure. There’s no way this woman could take the pressure in a place like that. She’d sink like a stone.” She made an eloquent gesture, Down she’ll go.
Obviously she thought this Jane Doe was worth saving, if they could do it. “Elective, you think?”
Maggie shrugged. “Yeah, my guess is, there’s nothing organic wrong with her. I think it’s all history. And a good dose of pure cussedness. She talked for the first couple days, just not English. Not Spanish, either. Nobody could figure out what lingo she was slinging. Then she shut up like a clam. Not one word since. She’s a real mystery. You’re good with the weird ones. Wait till you read her admissions history. Serious nuttiness. You’ll love it.”
“Sounds exciting.” Daniel honestly was getting intrigued by this description.
“Oh, yeah. Her whole record makes exciting reading. The police tried to trace her, figure out who she is, but no dice. No fingerprints on file or hits from missing persons or DNA matches or whatever they do these days. If anybody anywhere is missing this woman, they haven’t said so loud enough for it to make waves.”
“How’d she wind up here?”
“Oh, you know how it goes, the state hospital was full up, and everyone knows we take half a dozen charity cases a year, whatever Russell can manage. But he does like to patch ’em up and move ’em out if he can. The board gets antsy if he tries to hang onto one for more than six months, and he likes to keep the board happy when that’s reasonable. Keeps everything purring along smoothly, he says, and he’s not wrong. Plus, this time we haven’t even come up with a good diagnosis. I’ve been juggling a handful of lame-ass guesses that don’t really fit. You can read all about it in her file, but I’d suggest you meet her first, get a feel for her, maybe you’ll figure her out better if you don’t get yourself tangled up by a bunch of bullshit theories.”
“Maggie, you’re a fine diagnostician.”
“Yeah, you can say that now. I hope you do reach her. Three months doesn’t give you much time, but if anybody can do it, I’m betting you can. I leave it all to you,” Maggie finished, with a dramatic wave of her hand that encompassed the small office she was bequeathing to Daniel, and all that went with it: names and histories and all the various miseries several dozen human beings could suffer, crammed into a pair of black filing cabinets. “Enjoy.”
“Right,” said Daniel.
“You’ll do great.” She hesitated, just enough of a pause and just awkward enough for Daniel to guess what was coming. “And … how are you?”
“I was sorry to hear about Kathy. More sorry than I can say.”
“Yes,” Daniel said distantly. “Thank you. I appreciated your card.” He had tensed despite himself, waiting for the pain. But that, too, seemed at the moment distant. Lindenwood, at least, held no memories. And it was the nights that were worst, anyway.
“And Jenna? How’s she holding up?”
“She’s stopped asking when Mommy’s coming home. This new start … I needed it, but I think Jen needed it more.” He didn’t mention the nightmares, the tantrums, the tears, all the volatile flotsam and jetsam thrown up by this particular storm. All that had been tapering off anyway over the past few months. This move had helped. He thought it had. He said instead, “She’s bouncing back faster than I am, I think.”
“Kids are resilient. They have to be.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” Both doctors were silent for a moment, thinking about that. Both of them saw proof every day that all resilience had limits.
After a moment, Maggie added, “And the aftermath must have been rough on you, too. Though Russell’s lucky to have you here. It’s an ill wind, they say, but yours was … kind of a hurricane.”
“That doesn’t matter, Maggie.”
“All right.” There was another slight pause, not quite so awkward this time because they were over the hard part. “Move in okay? Got yourself settled?”
“Yes, pretty well.” Daniel was more than happy to switch to small talk. “We’re renting right now, but I’ll buy a place as soon as I have a chance to look around a little. Someplace near a good school, I guess. I’ve got Jenna at St. Paul’s right now.”
“That’s good. All the Catholic schools around here are good—speaking as a mom myself. You Catholic?”
“Episcopalian. But Kathy was Catholic.” He got his wife’s name out with only a little difficulty. “Jenna’s always been in Catholic schools. I didn’t want to change that, on top of everything else.”
“St. Paul’s is a fine school. Its high school is good, too. My oldest is graduating from high school this year. How time flies, hey? Have me over for coffee sometime and we’ll catch up for real, okay? No shop talk—we’ll talk kids and schools and stuff, how about it?”
“That sounds wonderful. I’ll take you up on that.”
“Sure. And in the meantime, give me a call if anything comes up. Don’t hesitate.” Maggie Wilson gave him a brisk nod and was gone.
She left him with a … not a warm feeling, precisely, but a feeling that the emotional landscape might not be altogether bleak. She’d done it on purpose, Daniel thought: Maggie had always been quick and accurate with off-the-cuff therapies. Maybe he would take her up on that offer of coffee and informal family chat.
At the present moment, the patient files offered distraction and interest. As Maggie had intimated, the file for Jane Doe IV was short, but exciting. Also as she’d suggested, he left aside all of Maggie’s own comments, just glancing over the admissions notes. No English or Spanish, okay, lots of other languages in the world. Odd clothing too—that was a little more unexpected. Plus the sword. Quite a few peculiar details. This woman was interesting.
But no admissions notes could substitute for going to see the woman for himself, out in the ward, where he could get a look at her without the stiffness of an official appointment.
Daniel toured nearly the whole ward before he turned through a wide doorway, looked across the breadth of the TV room, and laid eyes on the woman herself. He did not need anyone to point her out to him, not only because her personal stats were laid out in her file.
Lindenwood’s current Jane Doe was not watching the television. She was leaning against the wall, looking out the corner window. The window was wide open, taking advantage of a cool but pleasant spring day. The bars outside the screen did nothing to block the crisp breeze. The woman had her arms folded over her chest and one knee drawn up, her foot resting on the wall behind her. Her head was bent a little, her expression abstracted. To Daniel, despite her quiet attitude, she looked in that first moment like a burning flame; like a stroke of lightning captured and frozen in human form. He had to fight an impulse to shield his eyes with his hand, as though she had literally been alight.
Daniel just watched the woman for a little while. The hospital routine made extra room for her, that was clear. When the other patients were rounded up for lunch, Jane Doe IV stayed exactly where she was. Daniel, watching her, mentally agreed that he would not have wanted to try to force her to do anything she didn’t want to do.
One of the orderlies went over to her finally and told her, “Jane, if you’re hungry, lunch is on the table. Soup and sandwiches. Applesauce. Anything sound good?”
The woman spared him some fraction of her attention. She shook her head, so at least she wasn’t non-responsive.
“All right,” the orderly said. “Don’t skip supper, all right? You’re thin enough already.”
This received a grave inclination of the head, and the man nodded to her and left the room.
Then the room was empty but for Daniel and Jane Doe IV, which seemed too good an opportunity to waste. Daniel went over to her. He didn’t get too close, suspecting that this woman valued her personal space and needed a lot of it.
She looked at him, a swift summing look so penetrating that Daniel was taken a little aback: he had thought she might ignore him. This intense examination was not what he’d expected.
Tall, built long and lean. Unusual, angular features. Somehow, despite having been institutionalized for several months, she looked fit. Like an athlete. Just looking at her made Daniel feel thoroughly out of shape. He felt himself flush, physically self-conscious in a way that he seldom was—and never just because a patient looked at him.
The expression in her dark eyes was not quite neutral. More … assessing. Judging.
Daniel took a breath, refocused, and said, “My name’s Daniel Dodson. I’ll be your doctor for a while, if that’s all right with you. You’re on the hospital books as a Jane Doe. That’s such a bland name. I thought I’d ask, what is your right name?”
The woman did not, of course, answer. Daniel waited, letting the silence stretch out. And out. Finally he said, not speaking any more loudly, but with a little more intensity, “I’d appreciate it if you’d tell me your name, please.”
And a little later, more intensely still, “What’s your right name, please?” And then, “What is your name? Perhaps you would tell me your name?”—each time with greater intensity and a longer pause, waiting for a response.
The woman’s expression did not change. Her face, her eyes, had become as blank and closed as though she had been carved out of wood. On the other hand, she didn’t hit him, either. She didn’t even walk away. There was a tension in the set of her body that suggested either might be a possibility. Her self-control seemed formidable. Both a strength and, Daniel feared, a serious weakness.
He gave up. “Well,” he said, “you’d be surprised how often that works, but I suppose you’re no child, to be bullied or surprised into speaking against your will. I hope I haven’t offended you. The problem with mutism is, the habit of silence can get to be so strong it’s almost impossible to break. A brand-new doctor has the best chance of helping a person out of that habit, and I’ll never be brand-new for you again. I’m sorry—sorry if I’ve offended you, and sorry it didn’t work. I hope you’re willing to have me as your doctor.”
For a long moment, the woman continued to regard him, face blank and still, and his heart sank. It seemed all too possible that he would be looking to reassign Jane Doe IV pretty soon, and that would not be a way to impress his new boss.
Then expression, seeping visibly into the woman’s face. One narrow eyebrow lifted, giving her a sardonic look. “Yes,” she said. “Doctor.” Her voice was surprisingly deep for a woman’s voice, but not rough with disuse as might have been expected. No. Her voice was rich, smooth, even velvety, as though she’d spent her spare time for the past year singing opera rather than silent. Even with only two words, it was plain she spoke with a strong accent, nothing Daniel could identify.
Daniel refused even to blink in surprise. “Well, good. I don’t suppose you’d tell me your name? It does make conversation easier.”
The woman tilted her head to one side, studying him. “Tenai,” she said.
He did blink at that. “Tenai? Is that your name?”
The woman seemed to consider this. “Yes,” she said finally. “Tenai. That is my name.”
“Do you have a last name?”
Both eyebrows went up this time: sardonic, yes, and amused. “A last name. At the last … at the last I was being called Nolas-Kuomon. That was my last name.”
Daniel could make little sense of this. “Tenai Nolas-Kuomon?” he suggested. Did this sound like any language he knew? It rang no bells.
“No. You do not call me Nolas-Kuomon.” The woman said it emphatically, with a direct stare. Even in that smooth voice, it was an order, unmistakably. Daniel filed that tone away with everything else he knew or guessed about this woman: little enough, so far.
“So Nolas-Kuomon … that isn’t your family name, then?”
“Ah. The name of my family.” Her dark eyes measured him. “My family was Ponanon. Or later, Chaisa. Chaisa was … my land-name. But Tenai is all my name, now.”
Her stare was a little uncomfortable in its intensity. A normal person never looked so closely at a stranger, reserving that kind of gaze for a lover, or a child. Daniel made no judgments, not yet. He only answered mildly, “All right. Tenai, then. Will you tell me where you’re from, Tenai?”
It took time for the woman to answer. At last she said, “Somewhere else.”
“Ah.” Daniel sat down in one of the many chairs and lifted a hand toward another chair. “May I ask you a question, Tenai?”
She did not move. She stayed exactly where she was, studying him. “Yes,” she said. “Ask.”
“Are you crazy?” Daniel asked this question seriously. Patients in a mental hospital had little tolerance for euphemisms, and quite often a pretty fair grasp of their own conditions. And this one, he guessed, might particularly dislike any attempt to weasel around the truth.
Tenai did not seem offended by the question. She hesitated, and he had the sense that she was choosing her words carefully. “Sometimes, I think, yes,” she said at last.
“You mean, sometimes you think you might be crazy? Or you think you might be crazy some of the time?”
Tenai turned away from him, and for a moment Daniel held his breath, but she only paced away a little and then spun, neat as a cat, and came back, and he understood that she only moved because moving helped her think. Or helped her deal with her thoughts. She came back and sank down on the floor by his chair, sitting back on her heels, arms resting on her knees. She was as bonelessly graceful as a dancer.
“I think, some of the time I am being crazy,” she said, that strange accent stronger than ever.
“What makes you think so?”
She looked up at him, a swift, unveiled stare, intense as before. Fury flickered in her suddenly opaque eyes, a rage so dangerous and so out of proportion to any offense Daniel might have given that he froze where he sat, breath catching, waiting for the explosion.
It did not come. Static suddenly buzzed from the television, startling, and they both glanced that way. Tenai blinked, and blinked again, masking the rage behind a wall of self-control so strong … so strong it was frightening. Daniel let his breath out. His palms prickled with sweat. He slid them into his pockets.
Tenai, watching him, said harshly, “I will not … let go, Doctor.”
“Where—why—” Daniel collected himself, and asked more steadily, “Why are you so angry, Tenai?”
The orderly came back in; his eyebrows lifted when he saw the silent Jane Doe speaking to Lindenwood’s newest doctor. Daniel flicked a glance at him, and the man vanished at once. Daniel hoped he would have the sense to keep everyone else clear.
Tenai had turned her head at the orderly’s brief intrusion. She glanced back at Daniel, and this time her eyes were veiled. It was possible she’d closed herself off again, refusing the intrusion, refusing her doctor, repudiating them all. But she did not get up, or walk away.
Daniel asked again, “Tenai, why are you so angry?”
For a long, long moment—it probably seemed longer than it was—he thought she would not answer. But she said at last, her deep voice concealing a wealth of expression beneath a veil of dispassion, “It is not to you I am angry.” A slight pause, and she corrected herself. “Not with you.”
Daniel leaned back in his chair, giving her as much room as he could. He said nothing, simply waiting, to see whether she would continue if given a chance. And she did, standing up and moving away and then back, as before, although she did not drop down to the floor again. This time, she rested her hip on the arm of a heavy chair and stared at him from that distance; a safer distance, perhaps. She said, her accent seeming if anything a little stronger, “I do not want to be in this place. I do not like the people here. I want to go somewhere else.”
“You want to leave the hospital,” Daniel murmured, reflecting this statement to see where it might go.
“Yes. But it would be a bad idea. So I stay. I am going to be stay,” she said, and then frowned. “I will stay. I will stay, to learn.”
“You want to leave, but you will stay. I think that would be best, Tenai. You seem to learn very fast. English isn’t your first language, is it?”
Her dismissive gesture expressed such intense rage Daniel could hardly believe it didn’t crash into open violence. The television buzzed again, sudden and loud, and Daniel told himself that was why he flinched. But he knew it was actually the impact of that harshly contained fury.
“I see you’re angry,” he murmured, trying to show that he respected her anger, her right to be angry, trying to recognize and legitimize her emotion. “But I don’t know why. I’d like to help you, but I don’t know how. Why are you so angry, Tenai?”
This time, the pause stretched. And stretched. But he had opened up lines of communication. Maybe that was enough for this first unofficial session. Maybe he should let her go, let her relax … Daniel thought of that heart-deep rage he’d seen in her and wanted to suggest a halt, a little pause. They could pick up this conversation later, when she was in the mood. But he sat still. It took an effort.
And, damn, the woman saw that effort. He could tell from the way she looked at him, that half-derisive tilt of her eyebrow. That savage rage was still very much in evidence, if you looked for it behind the derision. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at him, not with that devastating vivid intensity, but decently reserved, like a normal person. She said, drawing out the word as if exploring the concept behind it, “What are you, man, that you are sitting there asking me questions like that?”
“I want to help you,” he said, and knew it sounded banal.
Why? Daniel paused, taken aback. He asked at last, “Don’t you need help, Tenai?”
It was her turn to pause.
Daniel did not press her. He waited. He wasn’t holding his breath, but it felt like that, in a way. People went by, in the hallway. Voices were audible, muffled and indistinct. No one came into the room, thank God and orderlies with good sense.
Tenai was no longer looking at him. She stared at the floor, seeing … Daniel had no notion what she might be seeing. Linoleum wasn’t high on the list of possibilities, if he were any judge. He continued to wait.
At last, she looked up again. Rage, yes: in the set of her shoulders and the tension of her neck, and in that opaque dangerous stare … yes. Daniel put down a surge of fear; he let his breath out and sat still, hands open on his knees, leaning back in his chair, open and relaxed. She had done nothing threatening, nothing at all, and he found himself more afraid of physical violence from this woman than from any violent male patient with whom he had ever worked.
But Tenai did not move, except to look into his face. She said, in that smooth, accented voice, “Perhaps. Yes. Perhaps that is so.”
It took Daniel an hour of puttering around in his new office, getting everything squared away, before it occurred to him that he had, for that length of time, managed to get absorbed in other peoples’ problems. Forgetting his own for that whole time. Guilt and relief mingled as he continued with the automatic tasks of getting himself sorted out in this office and this hospital. Guilt because he had briefly forgotten Kathy, relief because he understood the psychological pattern of recovery he was going through, and understood that the pain would lessen in time; that it was already less than it had been. More guilt, that he should hope for an end of pain, when pain and memory were so entwined.
On top of that, apprehension about starting over in a new place. Anxiety about whether he’d made the right choice, about whether he still had the ability, the necessary emotional steadiness, to handle clinical work. Worry that he might be using Lindenwood’s patients to escape from his own grief, when every one of them deserved his full professional attention for her own sake.
Every bit of that was perfectly normal. None of it was more enjoyable for that understanding.
Nine people dropped by in that hour, to offer greetings and congratulations to the new doctor who had got Jane Doe IV talking in fifteen minutes after three months of silence. Daniel nodded and smiled and chatted about trivial things, and did not say, That was the easy part. Everything else is the hard part, and I don’t have the foggiest idea if I can find a way forward for either Tenai or myself.
At five minutes before three o’clock, he made his way over to the administrative wing. Dr. Martin’s secretary glanced up with a smile when he pushed the door of the outer office open and said in a cheerful tone, “You must be Dr. Dodson. Dr. Martin’s expecting you. Go right in, and welcome to Lindenwood.”
“Thank you,” Daniel said automatically, and followed the wave of the woman’s hand to the first door on the left. Russell Martin, Director, it said on the door, in small unostentatious letters.
Dr. Martin, in a perfect contrast to the lettering, was a big man, built like a football player. He reminded Daniel of a slow and sleepy bull. Although Daniel did not know him well, he had read some of his papers. In another life that now seemed very long ago, he had even run into him from time to time at conferences. Appearances aside, he knew the man had a first-rate brain.
Dr. Martin obviously recalled that glancing acquaintance as well. Standing, he offered Daniel a friendly nod and a hand across the cluttered expanse of his broad desk. “Doctor Dodson. Good to see you again.”
Daniel returned the handclasp, meeting the other man’s eyes and trying to look relaxed. “Sir.”
Dr. Martin released his hand and gestured toward the chairs set up for visitors. “Have a seat.” He sat back down himself, his chair creaking as it took his weight, and studied his newest doctor. “Maggie recommended you highly.”
Daniel nodded. “I’m glad to hear it. She’s a fine doctor.”
“She is that. You went to school together, I understand.”
“Yes. That was a while ago.”
“Right. Right.” The other man paused, his look at Daniel both assessing and sympathetic. “I was sorry to hear about your wife. Tragic. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you,” Daniel said, aware he sounded stiff.
“You all right?”
“It’s been almost a year.”
“Sometimes it takes more than a year, Doctor. I would completely understand if you needed to talk about it with someone. Let me just mention that we’re well supplied with shrinks here. Doctors who treat themselves, fools for patients, you know.”
“I’m fine,” Daniel said, aware his tone was too sharp.
The director only nodded, unoffended. “You also fine with what happened at Belfountaine?”
“What about it?” Far too sharp, and Daniel made himself breathe deeply, trying to relax.
Dr. Martin leaned back in his chair. He looked calm enough for both of them. “I figure it’s best to get the air cleared as quick as possible, Dr. Dodson. A whistleblower’s never popular. Especially if the guy he blew the whistle on was right at the top. Even more especially if the whole business winds up putting Belfountaine, of all places, on the wrong end of half a dozen lawsuits. I have to say, that’s one hell of a way to make waves in the field, Doctor.”
The director was evidently a fan of the extremely direct approach. Daniel had no idea what to say—no idea what he even could say. It wasn’t as though Dr. Martin were wrong. Every single word of that was the gospel truth.
After a moment, Dr. Martin went on. “I would not want some damned hothead with an axe to grind and a liking for the limelight anywhere near Lindenwood. Maggie swears that’s not you. She says you’re conscientious as hell, you discovered bad stuff going on, and you didn’t give a crap about bureaucratic bullshit or institutional reputation. But what I figure is, right at that moment, you were probably spoiling for a fight. Just wound up tight as hell. Probably a real sizeable dollop of self-destructiveness to top it all off. That’s why you didn’t have one shred of hesitation about blowing the whole thing wide, wide, wide open. How about it? That in the right ballpark?”
Daniel had to take a moment to recover. That had gone way beyond direct and straight to brutal. But the director was not wrong. That assessment was actually extremely perceptive. Daniel drew a slow breath, let it out, and admitted, “Probably that’s not far off. It wasn’t just Hinkley’s abuse of his patients. It was admin’s response. Any bureaucracy’s first, last, and only instinct is to cover up problems. Solving the problem is never a priority. That’s even more true when there’s real reputation at stake.” He met the director’s steady gaze. “I knew that. But, yes, it made me angry to see it happen. You’re probably right that I was ready to get angry. But if I was reckless, it was with my own career, not with my patients’ well-being. If I was careless, it was with Belfountaine’s reputation, not with the truth.” Daniel managed, barely, not to add that any institution, no matter how prestigious, that covered for a man like Hinkley richly deserved to have its reputation stomped into the mud.
“Uh huh.” Dr. Martin studied Daniel without the slightest break in his massive calm. “Okay, so, you over that now? Got it out of your system? I’m asking because I think I run a pretty good hospital here, Dr. Dodson. I try to make our patients my first priority. But I don’t fool myself Lindenwood’s perfect. That crap at Belfountaine turned my stomach and if you dropped a mountain of hurt on ’em, as far as I’m concerned they had it coming in spades. But it’d bother me a hell of a lot if any member of Lindenwood’s staff spotted a problem here and ran to the press or the hospital commission or the board right off. I’d want that doctor to come to me first. That seem reasonable to you?”
Daniel nodded. “Absolutely, sir.” He hesitated. He didn’t want to sound like he was making excuses. But it seemed important to be clear. Dr. Martin obviously put a serious premium on clarity. He said, “I did go to Belfountaine’s director first. It didn’t … she didn’t … I ran into a wall.”
Martin nodded. “You ran into a wall and decided to blow a great big hole right through it.” He leaned forward, resting his powerful arms on his desk. Met Daniel’s gaze with steady, deliberate sincerity. “Dr. Dodson, if you bring a problem to me, I will not drop it in the deep freeze. That’s a promise. If you run into any kind of trouble with this hospital, or our staff, or with me, come to me about it, and I will take your concern seriously. You will give me a real good chance to deal with any problem before you even think of going someplace else. That seem fair?”
Daniel nodded. “Yes, sir. More than fair.”
“All right.” The director leaned back again. “And if I have a problem with you, I will let you know before anyone else figures that out. That work for you?”
“Yes, sir,” Daniel said again.
“Then I bet we’ll get along fine.” The director deliberately took a brisker tone. “I’m looking forward to having you here, Doctor. You have a sterling clinical reputation. We’re lucky to get you, and I know that. So. Your case load okay? Your office okay?”
Daniel exhaled, deeply relieved the director was willing to move on to easier topics. “Fine.” Busier than he’d been accustomed to, and smaller than he’d been accustomed to. But Lindenwood was a small place. Prestigious, but small. And a clinical psychiatrist was not an administrator. Regardless of Dr. Martin’s polite comments to the contrary Daniel knew the truth: he had been lucky to get a place at Lindenwood. Lucky that Dr. Martin liked to do things his own way and had the authority to run the hospital exactly as he liked. Very lucky that Maggie had put in a good word for him. Oh, he could have tried to go into private practice. But he was terrible with the bookkeeping and other paperwork starting a private practice would have entailed.
And then, the months after Kathy’s death would have been the worst possible time to try to strike out so boldly. He’d been holding himself together with … he didn’t know quite what. But he knew he’d been … breakable. Fragile. Was still fragile. Lindenwood was the sort of place that could help him get back on his own feet.
Not since he was six had he depended on someone else to help him get up after a fall. It was not a comfortable feeling.
“Then welcome aboard,” said Dr. Martin, his tone warm now. “And good job with our Jane Doe. I hear you got her talking right off. I am impressed.”
“I was lucky.”
“Lucky. Sure you were. That’s the kind of luck a doctor makes for himself. Keep me in the loop, okay? Let me know how it goes with her. She’s three months in. You know it’s usually six months for an indigent patient, right? We try to keep to that if we can. I’d like to hear she’s ready to move out on schedule. Following the rules keeps the board happy, and when I don’t have to spend half my time soothing ruffled feathers, I’m happy. But the patients are the priority, so if that’s not gonna happen, let me know asap. If you lay out a persuasive argument she needs more time and can profit from more time, I’ll bend a rule or two to make that happen. Okay?”
“Yes, sir,” Daniel agreed, relaxing a little more. “Thank you.” He didn’t specify for what. He certainly didn’t say, For getting everything out in the open, and thank God we don’t have that whole mess sitting there with everyone thinking about it and no one talking about it.
He didn’t say it. But he bet Russell Martin knew it. He bet the man was a damn good psychiatrist when he tossed his director hat on his desk and had a chat with a patient instead. Or with staff. Or, yes, no doubt with the board of trustees. He didn’t doubt, now, that Martin had set a solid personal stamp on Lindenwood.
It had all gone a good deal better than Daniel had had any right to expect. It was just one more piece of evidence, as he realized later, that the things we worry about are not the things that are most likely to trip us up. No. That would be something else. Something unanticipated.
There was the usual round of department meetings to get through after that: meetings in which Daniel was brought up to speed regarding hospital procedures and policies; meetings in which he could begin getting acquainted with the doctors and the staff; and far more interesting meetings in which truly baffling cases were discussed—another round of congratulations for getting Jane Doe IV talking—and through the praise, Daniel flashed repeatedly on that furious blank stare. Yes, all right, the silence was just the tip of the iceberg, that was obvious. What might be lying in the depths out of sight, was far less clear. He scheduled Tenai into an hour block for the next day, and knew that whatever detailed and sensible plans he might make tonight, this was one patient he was going to have to play by ear.
He left the hospital at four thirty on the dot and drove through the city in such a state of preoccupation that afterwards he recalled nothing at all of that drive. He arrived a little late at his daughter’s school and parked in the first space he found, then ran up the stairs and walked, puffing, down the hall to the after-school area, glancing distractedly at the bright artwork decorating the walls. His daughter met him at the door of the room with her usual run-and-jump, and he whirled her around and said, a little more heartily than he should have, “How’s Daddy’s best girl?”
“Look at my hair!”
“I couldn’t possibly avoid it,” Daniel assured her. “Very, um, unusual.” Lots of slender, uneven braids of all different lengths, the ends done off with bright blue and red and yellow rubber bands. Though it was a very good effort … for a second grader.
“Yeah!” said Jenna, and dashed off to get her things.
Daniel nodded to the after-school coordinator as she came up to meet him, and was relieved when she nodded back.
“She was fine,” the woman murmured as Jenna dashed off. She was young, one of the nuns who chose to wear blue and white street clothes rather than the blue habit many of the older nuns preferred. Her name was Sister Mary Catherine. Aware of Jenna’s recent loss, aware of the trouble the child had had all through first grade, aware of the move across the country and all the dislocation, she said now, “Her teacher tells me she handled your leaving better this morning. She’s making friends—nice girls who ought to be able to help her come the rest of the way out of her shell. She and Nicole braided each other’s hair.”
“I noticed,” Daniel said drily.
“They both agreed she looks cute that way. Which she does, of course! You say she used to be a happy, extroverted child?”
“Yes. She was.”
“Then she will be again, and I think I’m seeing signs of it now.” Sister Mary Catherine nodded reassuringly.
He had hoped this would prove to be the case, and ignored Jenna’s storms of protest about the move. Or pretended to ignore them, while they tore his heart. He had been sure that his daughter could not actually miss the first-grade classmates she had never shown any signs of accepting. He had been positive that it was the very idea of change that frightened Jenna—more change, after everything that had already happened. But he had not been completely confident of his own judgment—in that matter or in any other—not then. But it looked as though he had been right. “Thank you,” he said warmly.
“I’ll keep you informed,” Sister Mary Catherine assured him, patted his arm, and turned back into the room with a brisk wave.
So that was one part of his life that seemed to be falling back into order. And Lindenwood looked as though it would be all right. Daniel still felt as though he had to brace for disaster. But for the first time in over a year, it was becoming possible for him to believe that maybe disaster might not actually come crashing down.