Albert Hastings’ offering could easily have been misunderstood as lacking reflection or thoughtfulness, however his belief in the spirit of “the purpose is to be heard, but never revealed” was absolute.
“Then how can you claim the credit? I get the impression that’s very important to you?”
“It’s much less important than you think. Sometimes it’s hardly worth noting,” Hastings answered, calmly rubbing his thumb across the surface of the nails of the opposite hand, bringing the keratin surface to a brisk, polished sheen.
“And getting away with it, is?” Doyle asked.
Hastings scanned the walls that enclosed him, searching for minor deflections and irregularities in light and warp and time, ignoring the obvious one-way mirror at the far end of the room. “Getting away with it, as you so ineptly describe, is all that’s left.”
Without looking at his watch Doyle was hoping that the hour was coming to an end. It had to be eleven o’clock already. That left him another hour to summarize the report on Albert Hastings, run through his emails, jump on one or two untraceable porno sites, and get to the staff cafeteria in time to watch the new blonde from Records & Analysis walk—as she had since her transfer to the Interrogation Unit 5—into the cafeteria with a few newly acquired friends, at exactly noon.
“You’re really hot for the bitch.”
The statement slammed against Doyle’s frontal lobe, assaulting his confidence and composure. He despised familiarity. “The bitch?”
“Got a great ass, and I’ll bet she’s so freaking high maintenance it’s not worth it, unless, you know…,” Hastings began, testing for flaws in his tormentor, “unless of course you have a shitty image of yourself or, more than likely, your dick is undetectable except by an electron microscope?”
Charles Doyle pretended to continue taking notes. How could this maggot, this viral, wholly inconsequential miscreant, know something so private? Being suspect of his patient’s intentions and proximity to the truth was natural, but a man like Hastings would put any professional into a higher level of clinical alert. Doyle knew it was a guess—a boastful, contemptible gesture.
“And how do you know her?”
“From you, dear doctor. From that tiny, inconsequential mass sitting virtually unused atop the spineless center between your narrow shoulders.”
“Your baiting me is not going to be helpful at the final inquiry, Mr. Hastings. My notes and recommendations represent an important part of the State’s case. I mentioned that at our session last week.”
“The State has no case, only a quota. I’m an inconsequential digit in that sum, which ascribes to no man’s innocence. You can portray me in your report as an angel or a drone from the depths of the twelfth circle and it wouldn’t change the outcome. Your hippy blonde with the falsies and piping hot, ripe, pink nipples—getting into her pants is all that counts.”
“Mr. Hastings, you murdered two people in the Happy Hope Home for the Aged. There were dozens of witnesses. I saw the security tapes.”
On a scale from one to ten, Hastings was trying to decide how much he despised the good doctor. Assigning a numerical value of ten was too simple and obvious, and lacked intellectual rigor. Less than an eight would be suspect and disingenuous. “Which I am forced by statute to make without the presence of counsel.”
Doyle sighed openly. This conversation took time. Needless, pointless, incredibly tedious, and unproductive time, when what he really wanted to do was imagine himself peeling back Laurie Trager’s blouse and unhooking her bra. “I don’t make the law.”
“No, right, of course not. It’s made by a band of brave trolls on the sacred mountain out of virgin olive oil and divine intervention.”
“It’s made to protect our citizenry.”
“From what?” Hastings railed. Spittle squeezed into the parched bitter confines between his lips. An eleven, he reflected, certainly a fucking, scumbag-ridden, eleven.
“From people like you Mr. Hastings. From pathological deviants like you.”
“And who is going to protect the blonde from you, dear doctor?”
Doyle brought up the records on Hastings in his mind. Sheets and notes flashed by like the cars in a train racing across a barren countryside. He could play the tape backwards as well as forwards in his head. Fast or slow. A skill of near-perfect manipulative recall he believed gifted from his ancestors that hadn’t as yet, at his advanced professional age, paid off as handsomely as he was convinced it should have. Yet, he felt intellectually inconsequential compared to the man across the battered wooden table.
The record of George Bernard Hastings’ early academic achievements and accomplishments was astonishing—winning recognition for developing frontier theories in quantum physics that advanced the understanding of the Higgs boson, the oft described “God Particle,” research in blood-brain barrier chemistry, molecular chemistry, and elegant game-theory algorithms that measured the cyclical ebb and flow of influence of political parties in embryonic democratic systems.
The man of fifty-four, the specimen manacled to the metal chair, was not at all representative of the full-of-rage, frail genius detailed in his file.
“Your statement contains nothing that would support your innocence,” Doyle observed patiently.
“The police twisted my words, or didn’t bother to record what I actually said, or simply made up what they needed to get a promotion or a scrap of recognition from their section chief.”
Doyle smiled sympathetically, setting aside his interrogator’s detached impartiality. “It’s your statement. Who else would have the capacity for such falsehood?”
“Well, Dr. Doyle—Charlie—the first person that comes to mind is you.”
“Except I didn’t murder two people in a nursing home.”
Hastings flushed red, leaned forward, clenched his fists, and jerked his hands shoulder high. The manacles that had secured his arms to the chair were torn apart. Heavy metal links stretched and failed beyond tolerance, clattering across the green tile floor like the remains of an angry child’s toy.
Doyle’s clipboard slipped from his lap and landed on one of the broken chrome links. If anyone was watching from the two-way mirror at the end of the room or the monitor at the security station outside the suite of interrogation rooms, they would have already punched the “Emergency Intervention” button and an armed suppression team would be on their way.
Both men waited. Expecting.
“That’s pretty amazing,” Doyle said, picking up his clipboard and dropping it on the expanse of table that separated the patient from his tormentor.
“Takes a bit of practice, but as you can see, it’s not impossible.” The manacles dangled harmlessly from each wrist, losers in a battle of will that had breached their product warranty and all plausibility. “Do you think you can get your money back for these?” he asked and reached out for the clipboard.
Both wrists were unmarked, uncut, and partially tethered to a man whose strength, unlike his manipulative instincts, was never a known threat. What had just happened was out of proportion to all possibility. Doyle expected alarms to be shattering the silence, a team of heavily armed security guards bursting through the door.
“Very unflattering, and laced with the voice of a State-financed puppet. Puppet. Puppet. Puppet,” Hastings repeated in a mocking, singsong tone as he pored over the notes pinched together in Doyle’s clipboard. “Not nice, not nice, not nice at all, and obviously diagnostically inaccurate, which in itself is interesting in that you are a highly trained, somewhat skilled professional and supposedly represent an impartial branch of science. You are here to find the truth, you know, and give me a fair and unbiased clinical evaluation? Yes? Right, Dr. Puppet?”
“How did you know about the blonde?”
“The better question would be, why are there no alarms?”
“I would think a man capable of tearing a chrome link chain apart with his hands quite a bit more remarkable than a malfunctioning electronic security system. One makes sense, even in the most improbable way. The other breaks ground beyond reason.”
Hastings got up, arched his back, and shook out the tension in his legs, studiously flipped again through the thicket of notes and reports, then flung the clipboard on the desk.
“It was an accident. That’s what the tapes showed before they were altered.”
Doyle swung himself up and went through the exact stretching routine that Hastings had moments earlier. He hadn’t a plan but already suspected much was going wrong, and it was going to get considerably worse unless he got help. This meeting was a mere formality. Hastings knew he was looking at multiple “life” sentences at best, neutralization at worst. What did the old prick have to lose by murdering again?
“You grabbed a glass pitcher filled with ice water and bludgeoned an elderly couple to death in front of dozens of people. They were visiting friends at the nursing home. You’d never met them. They had no previous contact with you, nor did they present a threat to you. And that’s what you’re calling an accident?” Suddenly, unconcerned by his compromised position, Doyle continued, “Mr. Hastings, the State regards you an unrepentant, pathological threat.”
“Perhaps my definition of the word ‘threat’ is somewhat looser than the States’.”
“And, after giving you every opportunity, you have provided no explanation for the attack.”
Hastings turned toward the door, grabbed the knob, and twisted the door open. Hastings didn’t see the shock on Doyle’s face, the expression that transcended reality, since the doors could only be opened by security staff from the outside.
Doyle followed Hastings down the corridor to the deserted guard station. Other than the dull whirr of the air conditioning, what noise there was came from the pounding in his chest.
He was a trained physician, and in his day, had commanded an entire psychiatric department, even if it had been in a rural hospital. And he knew right from wrong, day from night, and fact from the fiction in which he found himself.
Hastings paused at the entrance to an open office and stared absently beyond the darkness through a window. Snow was falling against a backdrop of what he guessed, wrongly, as late afternoon. Cars huddled in the parking lot below. Traffic and blinking red and yellow lights trickled across the wooded landscape.
Hastings pivoted away and disappeared, moments later emerging from a supposedly secured supply room with a handful of small boxes and pill vials. “You want to pick up a present, something yummy for the little lady or your girlfriend, maybe a tasty treat for Ms. Honeyhips, that blonde bimbo you’re lusting after,” Hastings offered, then dropped the drugs into his pocket.
Doyle listened and looked for signs of life. There were none. No movement, no sounds, and no evidence that Unit 5, the State’s most secure and secretive interrogation station in the Northeast, was now or had ever been occupied.
Then there was the coincidence.
The man with a record of clinical deviation and dysfunction dating as far back as his childhood had not merely murdered two visitors in a senior-care home. The investigation revealed that the couple were the parents of one of the most ruthless Soviet double agents in the last quarter century, a killer who was put to death by a U.S. military tribunal exactly a year ago, almost to the minute, before Hastings walked into the Happy Hope Home for the Aged in Baltimore.
This discovery was communicated to Doyle as he was leaving his home this morning and had implications, as Doyle put it to his supervisor, “well beyond my pay grade.” He proceeded to get what he needed to complete his final interrogation and let those with other, more political, motives and skills look for spooks in the night.
There might be a reason or just an unfortunate coincidence. And, while Charles Doyle was a man who eschewed coincidences, this day he simply had more compelling, interests on his mind.
Hastings flipped two green pills into his mouth, moved along the corridor and past empty guard stations and offices. “How about we go see the love of your life? Maybe we can get you a proper introduction, then you can tell her all the things you want to do to her and maybe we’ll find out about all the nasty things she wants to do to you?”
“You would introduce her to me? You would do that for me?”
Hastings’ pupils dilated, his vision and hearing became fuzzy and clouded and, for the first time since they had dragged him into custody—since those two old Russian bastards made fun of his accent and ridiculed his ancestry, after he had volunteered to help the understaffed cafeteria manager set up the tables for lunch in return for allowing him to use the home’s bathroom.
What happened after the third and fourth insults wasn’t clear in Hastings’ mind. He remembered the water pitcher was nearly empty and how easy it was to hold and how it had so quickly become a part of his hand, a part of his creativity and character like a paintbrush transforming a hostile canvass into submission, a tool to still the biting insults—and the others at the table who were laughing at him.
What had become of the manager, and Hastings’ reason for being at the right place at the wrong time, was no longer an issue, as the State was never going to take a path that might expose its own paranoia.
All he had wanted to do was take a leak and escape the chill of the day. And to be accused of murder after volunteering his time and services to help those less fortunate in the Happy Hope Home for the Aged? Regrettably, a fine example of the old adage that, “no good deed goes unpunished.”
“We’ll find her, and maybe she will tell us what color panties she’s wearing. That would be cool.” Hastings couldn’t remember the last time he had used “cool” in a sentence, or in his imagination. It was a word with little redeeming value and had been so diluted and corrupted by the last two generations that, like shame, character, decency, morality, manners, respect, and kindness, it was a sign of spiraling social degeneration.
“Let’s do it,” Doyle agreed enthusiastically and followed Hastings through a maze of supposedly secured passageways and up two flights of stairs to the staff cafeteria. It was empty, as Doyle suspected it would be. If you’re experiencing moments of collective unreality, as any psych intro text will tell you, parts of that unreality will generally not be populated by flashes, however fleeting, of reality. And, as he expected, food was prepared and plentiful; radiant lights kept it warm.
“Over there. Let’s sit over there.”
Doyle feigned interest. “I can’t wait for her to get here.”
“Keep your pants buttoned, doctor, and remember the purpose is to be heard, never revealed.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Doyle shot back impatiently. “You gave me that same crap when we started talking.”
Hastings smiled that beatific gaze he had perfected as a young man when his brilliance brought him into conflict with ignorance, doubt, or authority and was, finally, distracted by the slow, slender visage of Laurie Trager pushing open the doors at the far end of the cafeteria.
The fact that they were suddenly three people and not two in what Doyle surmised was an elaborate shared fantasy only made it more interesting and, by the shape and purposeful stride of the woman, infinitely more exciting. “How did you know about her?” Doyle asked again.
“How could I not? Your drool takes up space. I can hear it. The movement of that slime down your cheek makes an obscene, slithering noise. It’s a distortion of the fundamental laws of space-time and entropy.”
“Then perhaps you have a better answer. Why don’t you think one up while I go over and hit on the love of your life?”
Doyle could feel himself coming apart, bit-by-bit, cell-by-cell, clenching both hands into coiled knots as Hastings approached the woman. He watched Hastings pick up her food-laden tray and return to the table. “Ms. Trager, this is the good Dr. Charles Doyle, a man of great intelligence, wit, charm, and compassion, who would very much like to meet you.”
“Dr. Doyle, we finally meet,” she said, sitting directly across from him.
Hastings sat next to her. “Seems she’s a fan of yours.”
“I’m glad to finally meet you.”
Hasting slumped back into his chair, a look of anguish and disgust smeared across his face. “Jesus, Doc, you’re such an asshole. You can’t be for-fucking-real man. I told her all about you, and you greet her like a stranger you just met and don’t know if you want to fuck?”
Doyle knew the more complex the sequence of events, the greater likelihood that it was a dream and not some random subset of reality where his life was in genuine jeopardy.
Laurie Trager’s complexion was smooth and flawless, and when she spoke, there was the air of authority that was almost arousing. “Did you ever hear the phrase, ‘the purpose is to be heard, but never revealed’?”
Doyle couldn’t bring himself to respond. He had come so far in this charade that arguing grew wearisome, almost tedious. That stirred a thought, an idea, something so unlike who he was that he almost openly delighted in the possibility that he was more than he supposed.
“I told you she was a piece of work, Doc.”
It was something Hastings might suggest or demand, something he knew he could only get away within the dream sequence he was experiencing. “Would you mind unbuttoning your blouse, Ms. Trager? Nothing dramatic. A single button will do just fine. I assure you that I mean no harm.”
“A single button? One fucking button? If you had a pair of balls, you’d rip off her blouse.”
“It’s my request, so why don’t you sit back in your chair and just shut-the-fuck-up, little man?”
Laurie Jean Trager separated the lapels of her suit jacket, centered her fingers on the mother-of-pearl button and, with a quick tweak of thumb and index finger, unhinged the top button, then opened the next, and the next, until the fifth button, once lodged right above her belt, was freed.
“There,” Trager said, sitting erect and emboldened, “is that what you wanted?” The silk blouse was open in the front from neck to navel. “Is there anything else you would like to know before you decide if I’m fuckable?”
“Make her take it off man, make her take it off.”
Doyle reached out and caressed the edge of her blouse. The tips of his unsteady fingers parting the silk until her bra and flesh were more revealed than imagined. He pushed forward, his fingers pressing past invisible constraints until he made contact. The sensation was electric, and pressing forward, his fingers disappeared beneath the coolness of her blouse as if he had plunged them into a pool of spring water.
The point of contact with Laurie Trager’s flesh rolled up Doyle’s hand to his wrist. The deeper he probed, the greater the ripples on the surface of what he once supposed was her skin, until her flesh turned to a cool, fluid ripple radiating out across her torso, neck, and head until finally it consumed her, blotting out the frame of disinformation that surrounded her, including the nervous, pungent visage of Albert Hastings.
The vertical surface before Doyle had become a lake with no shoreline or boundaries as it coiled back and enveloped him it its completeness. He tried to pull away, but the cold tug around each of his arms was unmoving, and righteously unforgiving. Constraints tightened around his wrists. A sharp point punched through the skin in his right biceps.
It was a familiar sensation.
It meant another day had passed.
Another visit was at hand.
The swarm of sensation, or lack of it, rushed through Doyle’s body until his senses nearly collapsed and he was cocooned in a thick blanket of deadening dullness.
Dr. Laurie Trager was staring down at him. A nurse was at his bedside, an empty syringe clutched in her thick, ungloved hand. There were times when Doyle was afraid of her, when his fabricated companions couldn’t provide adequate distraction or sanctuary.
“Dr. Doyle, how are we doing today?” Trager’s tone was as dismissive as it was indifferent.
Didn’t she feel anything? Was there no emotion they shared? And where was the blouse she was wearing, the string of insufficient mother-of-pearl buttons that could be unleashed by his very will? The rush of memory that had escaped Doyle for so long now became his only tactile sensation, except for the loss of his imaginary companion, Albert Hastings, his most recent link to his own very private reality.
He was moving, and yet everything in his cell remained the same, as it had for the weeks of isolation and interrogation he had endured. They suspected him of something, of being an agent. National secrets were mentioned. Many names were offered as contacts he may have had in the old Soviet Union. Something was mentioned about reprisals.
He shut his eyes and searched for Albert, who had been his most recent, trusted companion since Anna Thurman left him, and Alicia Longwood before her. That was as far back as Charles Doyle could recall, or cared to, years before the State had started to track him as a “person of interest.”
With Trager and the nurse at his side, Doyle was wheeled to an unfamiliar setting. The room was smaller, and the far end was made up of what looked like glass. He gave the arm and chest restraints a faint twist, enough to measure their give but not enough to alert anyone who might be watching from the security cameras recessed in the ceiling above the door.
He knew he had killed the old couple. He wanted to believe there was a purpose, some semblance of logic, and the elixir of his once celebrated youth, to warrant such an unpredictable act.
He shook his head without moving his skull. Three times. The voices had returned, instructing him that, “the purpose is to be heard, but never revealed,” as they had so many times over the years.
Charles believed that at some point in his life he knew what the sentence—the idea—meant and why it had taken up such a prominent and unrelenting place in his subconscious.
But recall and memory were the handmaidens of a much more youthful, less abused, spirit. Now, he was surrounded by shades of gray and often by complete, unrelenting darkness.
Looking up at Laurie Trager, he thought that she might be older than he first reasoned. Her complexion—there was something coarse and unnatural about her cheeks, the shape of her jawbone and chin, that he suddenly found questionable and unappealing.
“What month is it?” he asked.
Trager weighed her response. “November. It’s November.”
“Is it snowing?”
“Why would you want to know that?”
Laurie Trager was an absolute ten. There was no doubt or need for further reflection. Doyle had all the information he needed to come to that reasoned conclusion. “Is snow a State secret too?”
After Trager and the nurse left the room, Dr. Charles Doyle, patient #1453C, affirmed to himself that confinement in this new space was in itself the outcome of the final judgment by a State that more than likely no longer had any interest as to why he murdered.
He had heard rumors about this particular cell; his presence here was the last stop before neutralization, which, in some sense, comforted Doyle if only in the absoluteness of its finality.
Regardless, he would have ample time, what with the State being morbidly slow in processing papers and complete the final sentencing from which there was no appeal, to find another understanding and equally impoverished and needful companion such as Albert Hastings in the midst of such a fertile and maddening mind.
Arthur Davis is a management consultant and has been quoted in The New York Times, Crain’s New York Business, interviewed on New York TV News Channel 1, and taught at The New School University. He has advised The New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, the Department of Homeland Security, National Protection and Programs Directorate, Senator John McCain’s investigating committee on boxing reform, appeared as an expert witness on best practices before State Senator Roy Goodman’s New York State Commission on Corruption in Boxing, and lectures on leadership skills to CEOs and entrepreneurs.
Since 2012, over seventy tales have been published in fifty online and print journals. More as reprints. Eight stories were included in Storylandia, a quarterly single-author anthology, that came out in February 2016. “Conversation in Black” was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. Mystery Weekly Magazine published “In Innocence And Guilt” as the featured story in their July 1, 2016 issue, and nominated it for Otto Penzler’s Best American Mystery Stories 2017. More at www.talesofourtime.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Madman’s Dilemma”
We’re wondering how many readers figured this one out. We certainly didn’t. This type of story is a difficult one to pull off without giving away the real story. It reminds us of a similar ploy used by Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club. Arthur Davis has indeed crafted an ingenious piece.