Earthquake Weather – Snippet 05


Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.

–William Shakespeare, Richard II

THE CAGED CLOCK high on the green-painted wall indicated exactly eleven, and most of the patients were already filing out the door to the yard for their fifteen-minute smoking break, following the nurse who carried the Bic lighter, and Dr. Armentrout was glad to leave the television lounge in the care of the weekend charge nurse. The big, sunny room, with its institutional couches and wall-mounted TV sets, looked as though it should smell of floor wax and furniture polish, but in fact the air was always redolent with low-rent cooking smells; today he could still detect the garlic-and-oil reek of last night’s lasagna.

The common telephone was ringing behind him as he puffed down the hallway to his office; each of the patients apparently assumed that any call must be for someone else, and so no one ever seemed to answer the damned thing. Armentrout certainly wasn’t going to answer it; he was cautiously elated that he hadn’t got his usual terrible dawn wake-up call at home today–the phone had rung at his bedside as always, but for once there had been, blessedly, only vacuous silence at the other end–and for damn sure he wasn’t going to pick up any ringing telephones that he didn’t have to answer. Resolutely ignoring the diminishing noise, Armentrout peeked through the wire-reinforced glass of the narrow window in his office door before turning the key in the first of the two locks, though it was nearly impossible that a patient could have sneaked inside; and he saw no one, and of course when he had turned the key in the second lock and the red light in the lockplate came on and he pulled the door open, the little room was empty. On the weekends the intern with whom he shared the office didn’t come in, and Armentrout saw patients alone.

He preferred that.

He lowered his substantial bulk into his desk chair and picked up the file of admission notes on the newest patient, with whom he had an appointment in less than a quarter of an hour. She was an obese teenager with a dismal Global Assessment Score of 20, diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder, Manic. Today he would give her a glass of water with four milligrams of yellow benzodiazepine powder dissolved into it; instantly soluble and completely tasteless, the drug would not only calm her down and make her suggestible but also block the neurotransmissions that permitted memorization–she would remember nothing of today’s session.

A teenager, he thought as he absently kneaded the crotch of his baggy slacks. Obese! Manic! Well, she’ll be going home in a few days, totally cured and with no manic episodes in her future; and I will have had a good time and added some depth-of-field and at least a few minutes to my lifespan. Everybody will be better off.

With his free hand he brushed some patient’s frightful crayon drawings away from the rank of instant-dial buttons alongside the telephone. When the girl arrived he would lift the receiver and punch the button to ring the telephone in the conference room, where he had left good old reliable Long John Beach jiggling and mumbling in a chair by the phone–though it was possible that Armentrout wouldn’t need Long John Beach’s help anymore, if this morning’s reprieve from the hideous wake-up call was a sign of the times, a magical gift of this new year.

The ringing of this telephone, the one on his desk, snapped him out of his optimistic reverie, and under his spray-stiffened white hair, his forehead was suddenly chilly with a dew of sweat. Slowly, his lips silently forming the words, words no, please, no, he reached out and lifted the receiver.

“Dr. Armentrout,” he said slowly, hardly expelling any breath.

“Doc,” came a tinny voice out of the earpiece, “this is Taylor Hamilton? Desk sergeant at the San Marcos County Sheriff’s branch? I’m calling from a pay phone in the back hall.”

Armentrout’s chin sagged into his jowls with relief, and then he was smiling with fresh excitement as he picked up a pen. For the past several years he had been alerting police officers and paramedics and psych techs all over southern California to watch for certain kinds of 51-50, which was police code for involuntary-seventy-two-hour-hold psychiatric cases.

“Taylor Hamilton,” noted Armentrout, consciously keeping the eagerness out of his voice as he wrote down the man’s name on a Post-It slip. “Got it. You’ve got a good one?”

“This lady seems like just what the doctor ordered,” said Hamilton with a nervous laugh. “I bet you anything that she turns out to have gone AWOL from your place yesterday.”

Armentrout had already pulled down an escape-report form from the shelf over the desk, and he now wrote 12/31/94 in the date box.

“I’ll bet you,” Hamilton went on, “one thousand dollars that she’s a runaway of yours.”

Armentrout lifted the pen from the paper. “That’s a lot of money,” he said dubiously. A thousand dollars! And he hated it when his informants made the arrangement sound so nakedly mercenary. “What makes you think she’s . . . one of mine?”

“Well, she called nine-one-one saying that she’d just half an hour earlier killed a guy in a field above the beach in Leucadia this morning, like right at dawn, stabbed him with a speargun spear, if you can believe that–but when the officers had her take them to where it supposedly happened and show them, there was no body or blood at all, and no spear; in fact they reported that the field was full of blooming flowers and grapevines and it was obvious nobody had walked across it for at least the last twenty-four hours. She told them it was a king that she killed there, a king called the Flying Nun–that’s solid ding talk, isn’t it? The officers are convinced that her story is pure hallucination. She hasn’t stopped crying since she called nine-one-one, and her nose won’t stop bleeding, and she says some guy rearranged her teeth, though she doesn’t show any bruises or cuts. And listen, when they first tried to drive her back here, for questioning?–the black-and-white wouldn’t start, they needed a jump; and when we’ve been talking to her in here the lights keep dimming and my hearing aid doesn’t work.”

Armentrout was frowning thoughtfully. The electromagnetic disturbances indicated one of the dissociative disorders–psychogenic amnesia, fugue states, depersonalization. These were the tastiest maladies he could cure . . . short of curing somebody of their very life, of course, which was ethically problematic and in any case contributed too heavily to the–

He shied away from the memory of the morning telephone calls.

But a thousand dollars! This Hamilton fellow was a greedy pig. This wasn’t really supposed to be about money.

“I don’t,” Armentrout began–

But she did go crazy on this morning, he thought. She might very well have been reacting to the same thing, whatever it might be, that saved me from my intolerable wake-up call. These poor suffering psychos are often psychic, and a dissociative, having distanced herself from the ground state of her core personality, might be able to sense a wider spectrum of magical effects. By examining her I might be able to figure out what the hell has happened. I should call around, in fact, and tell all my sentries to watch especially for a psychosis that was triggered this morning.

“–see any reason not to pay you a thousand dollars for her,” he finished, nevertheless still frowning at the price. “Can I safely fax you the AWOL report?”

“Do it in . . . exactly ten minutes, okay? I can make sure nobody else is near the machine, and then as soon as your fax has cooled off, I’ll smudge the date and pretend to find it on yesterday’s spike.”

Armentrout glanced at his watch and then bent over the police-report form again. “Name and description?”