Authors: Jonathan Kellerman
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Over the Edge – Alex 03
Many thanks to Michael Tolwin, M.D., tour guide
IT WAS my first middle-of-the-night crisis call in three years.
A thousand days out of practice, and there I was, bolted, upright in the darkness, clutching the receiver with sleep-slowed fingers, queasy and drowsy but ready for action -my voice soothingly professional even as my brain struggled for a toehold in its climb toward consciousness.
Slipping into the old role with autonomic ease.
There was a stirring from the other side of the bed. The phone had wrenched Robin from sleep, too. A blade of lace-filtered starlight striped her face, the perfect features restfully blank.
'Who is it, Alex?'
'What's the matter?'
'I'm not sure. Go back to sleep, hon, I'll take it in the library.'
She looked at me questioningly, then rolled away in a swaddle of covers. I threw on a robe and left the bedroom.
After switching on the lights and wincing at the glare, I found paper and pencil and picked up the receiver.
'This one sounds like a real emergency, Doctor. He's breathing real hard and not making much sense. I had to ask him several times for his name before he caught on, and then he screamed it at me. I'm not sure, but it sounded like Jimmy Catmus or Cadmus.'
'Jamey Cadmus.' Uttering the name brought me completely awake, as if by incantation. Memories that had been buried for half a decade surged forth with the clarity of yesterday. Jamey was someone you didn't forget.
'Put him on,' I said.
The phone line crackled.
'Jamey? This is Dr.
I wondered if the connection had gone through.
Nothing, then a low moan and laboured, shallow breathing.
'Jamey, where are you?'
The reply was a strangled whisper: 'Help me!'
'Of course, Jamey. I'm here to help. What's the matter?'
'Help me hold it together. Together. Together. It's all . . . coming apart. The stink of it. Stink flesh of all seasons ... stinking lesions... ripped apart by the reeking blade - '
Until then I'd conjured an image of him as I'd seen him last: solemnly prepubescent, blue-eyed, milky-skinned, hair black and shiny as a helmet. A twelve-year-old boy. But the voice on the telephone was a tortured baritone, undeniably masculine. The juxtaposition of visual and aural was bizarre, unsettling - the boy lip-synching the words of an adult ventriloquist.
'Easy, Jamey. It's all right.' Taking special care to be gentle: 'Where are you?'
More silence, then jumbled spurts of words, as erratic and staccato as automatic-weapons fire: 'Stop telling me
that! Always telling me that stink. I hear you lying telling me the sudden burst of valve arterial . . . plumes of the nightbird ... I am so ... - Shut up! I've heard enough stink! The dark has gone stink - masturbating master . . . '
A gasp and his voice trailed off.
'I'm here, Jamey. I'm staying right with you.' When there was no reply, I went on: 'Have you taken something?'
'Yes. Where are you - '
'It's been a long time, Dr. D.,' he said mournfully.
'Yes, it has, Jamey. It's good to hear from you.'
'Jamey, I want to help you, but I need to know what's going on. Please tell me where you are.'
The silence stretched to an uncomfortable length.
'Have you taken anything? Done anything to hurt yourself?'
'I'm in hell stink, Dr. D. Hell's bells. A glass canyon.'
'Tell me about it. Where is this canyon?'
'You know!' he snarled. 'They told you! They tell me all the time! An abyss - a piss! - glass and steel stink.'
'Where, Jamey?' I said softly. 'Tell me exactly.'
His breathing quickened and grew louder.
'Jamey - '
The cry was sudden, wounded, a pain-filled whisper.
'Oh! The earth stinking, soaked scarlet . . . opening lips . . The plumes are rankstink . . . They told me so, the stinking liars!'
I tried to break through, but he'd retreated absolutely into a private nightmare. Maintaining the eerie whisper, he held a rambling dialogue with the voices in his head, debating, cajoling, cursing the demons that threatened to engulf him until the curses gave way to abject terror and impotent sobbing. Powerless to stem the hallucinatory flow, I waited it out, my own heartbeat hastened now, shivering despite the warmth of the room.
Finally his voice dissipated in a funnel of sucking breaths. Taking advantage of the silence, I tried to reel him back.
'Where's the glass canyon? Tell me exactly, Jamey.'
'Glass and steel and miles of tubing. Serpentine . . . Rubber snakes and rubber walls . . . ' More shallow breathing. 'Goddamn white zombies bouncing bodies off the walls .. . needle games
It took me a moment to process that.
'Are you in a hospital?'
He laughed hollowly. The sound was frightful. 'They call it that.'
I knew the place by reputation: small, private, and very expensive. I felt momentary relief. At least he hadn't overdosed in some dark alley,
'How long have you been there?'
He ignored the question and started crying again.
'They're killing me with lies, Dr. D.! Programming painlasers through the tender flesh! Sectioning the cortex -draining the juices raping the tender gender flesh - stink-piece by stink piece!'
'Them! . . . flesh eaters . . .white zombies . . . dead-climb all up out of the towerful torrent-shit. . . shit plumes . . . shit birds . . . out of the wetflesh . . . Help me, Dr. D. -fly here help me hold it together . . . beam down! Suction me into another sphere into clean . . . '
'Jamey, I want to help you - '
Before I could finish, he was at it again, his whispers as agonised as if he were being boiled alive. I drew my robe tighter and tried to think of the right thing to say when he landed back on earth. Suppressing feelings of helplessness, I concentrated on what little I could do: Go with the hallucinations, accept them, and try to work from within to calm him down. The important thing was to keep him on the line, not to lose his trust. To ride it out for as long as it took.
It was a good plan, the only sensible one under the circumstances, but I never got a chance to use it.
The whispering rose in pitch as if responding to the twist of an unseen dial, spiraling higher as relentlessly as an air raid siren. At the top of the spiral was a plaintive bleat, then a scream amputated by a dull click as the line went dead.
THE NIGHT operator at Canyon Oaks Hospital informed me that incoming calls wouldn't be accepted until 8 AM -almost five hours away. I used my title, told her it was an emergency, and was connected to a flat contralto who identified herself as the night shift nursing supervisor She listened to what I had to say, and when she answered, some of the flatness was seasoned by scepticism.
"What did you say your name was, sir?'
'Dr Alex Delaware. And You're Ms. - '
'Mrs. Vann. Are you a member of our staff, Doctor?' No I treated him several years ago '
"I see. And you say he called you?' Yes. Just a few minutes ago.'
That's highly unlikely. Doctor,' she said with some satisfaction 'Mr Cadmus is on a locked - he has no phone access.
'It was him, Mrs. Vann. and he was in real distress. Have you checked his room recently?'
No, I'm on the opposite wing of the hospital A pause. 'I suppose I could call over there.'
' I think you should.'
'Very well. Thank you for the information, Doctor. And goodnight.'
'One more thing - how long has be been hospitalised?'
'I'm afraid I'm not allowed to give out confidential patient information.'
'I understand. Who's his attending doctor?'
'Our director, Dr. Mainwaring. But,' she added, protectively, 'he's not available at this hour.'
Muffled noises came on in the background. She put me on hold for a long time, then returned to the line, sounding stressed, and told me she had to go. It was the second time in ten minutes I'd been cut off.
I switched off the lights and went back to the bedroom. Robin turned toward me and propped herself on her elbows. The darkness had transformed the copper in her hair to a strangely beautiful lavender. Her almond eyes were half closed.
'Alex, what was that all about?'
I sat on the edge of the bed and told her about the call from Jamey and my conversation with the night nurse.
'It is weird.' I rubbed my eyes. 'I don't hear from a kid in five years, and out of the blue he calls, talking gibberish.'
I stood up and paced.
'He had problems in those days, but he wasn't crazy. Nowhere near crazy. His mind was a work of art. Tonight he was a mess - paranoid, hearing voices, talking nonsense. Hard to believe it's the same person.'
But intellectually I knew it was possible. What I'd heard over the phone had been psychosis or some kind of bum trip. Jamey was a young man by now - seventeen or eighteen - and statistically ripe both for the onset of schizophrenia and for drug abuse.
I walked to the window and leaned on the sill. The glen was silent. A faint breeze ruffled the pinetops. I stood there for a while and stared out at velvety layers of darkness.
Finally she spoke:
'Why don't you come back to bed, honey?'
I crawled back between the sheets. We held each other until she yawned and I felt her body go slack with fatigue. I kissed her, rolled away, and tried to fall asleep, but it didn't work. I was too wound up, and both of us knew it.
'Talk,' she said, slipping her hand into mine.
'There's really nothing to talk about. It was just so strange to hear from him like that. And then getting the cold shoulder from the hospital. The hag I spoke to didn't seem to give a damn. She was a real ice cube, acted as if I were the nut case. Then, while I was on hold, something happened that upset her.'
'You think it had something to do with him?'
'Who the hell knows? The whole thing is so bizarre.'
We lay side by side. The silence began to feel oppressive. I looked at the clock: 3:23. Raising her hand to my lips, I kissed the knuckles, then lowered and released it. I pushed myself out of the bed, walked around to her side, leaned over, and covered her bare shoulders.
'I won't be able to sleep tonight. No reason to keep you up.'
'Gonna read?' she asked, knowing my usual way of coping with occasional insomnia.
'No.' I went to the closet and began selecting clothing in the dark. 'I think I'll take a drive.'
She rolled over and stared, eyes open wide.
I fumbled a bit before finding flannel slacks, cordovans, a turtle-neck, and a medium weight Harris tweed sportcoat. Sufficiently professional. Quietly I got dressed.
'You're going out there - aren't you? - to that hospital.'
'The kid's call was a cry for help. We once had a good relationship. I liked him a lot. Now he's falling apart, and there's probably nothing I can do, but it'll make me feel better to get some closure.'
She looked at me, started to say something, and sighed.
'Where is this place?'
'Out in the West Valley. Twenty-five minutes at this hour. I'll be back soon.'
'Be careful, Alex, okay?'
'Don't worry, I'll be fine.'
I kissed her again and said, 'Go back to sleep.'
But she was wide-awake as I crossed the threshold.
Winter had come late to Southern California and had hung on tenaciously before dying. It was cold for early spring, and I buttoned my coat as I stepped onto the terrace and walked down the front steps. Someone had planted night-blooming jasmine several years ago; it had flourished and spread, and now the glen was heavy with perfume from March through September. I breathed deeply and, for one brief moment, thought of Hawaii.
The Seville was in the carport, next to Robin's Toyota longbed. It was coated with dust and in need of a tune-up, but started up faithfully. The house sits atop a twisted old bridle path, and it takes a bit of manoeuvring to get a Cadillac through the tree-shaded curves without a scratch. But after all these years I can do it in my sleep, and after backing out with a lurch, I wheeled around quickly and began the winding descent.
I turned right on Beverly Glen Drive and barreled downhill toward Sunset. Our part of the glen is rural chic - small clapboard houses on stilts gussied up with insets of stained glass, SAVE THE WHALE bumper stickers on old Volvos, a market specialising in organic produce - but just before Sunset it turned into gated estates. At the boulevard I hooked right and headed toward the San Diego Freeway. The Seville sped past the northern border of the UCLA campus, the south gate of Bel Air, hypertrophied haciendas on million-dollar lots. A few minutes later the 405 overpass came into view. I pointed the Seville at the on-ramp and flew onto the freeway.
A couple of tankers groaned in the slow lane, but otherwise all five lanes were mine. The blacktop rose before me, vacant and glistening, an arrowhead aimed infinitely at the horizon. The 405 is a section' of the artery that traverses California vertically, running parallel with the ocean from Baja to the Oregon border. At this part of the state it tunnels through the Santa Monica mountain range,
and tonight the highlands that had been spared hovered darkly, their towering, dusty haunches breaded with the season's first vegetative stubble.
The asphalt humped at Mulholland, then dipped toward the San Fernando Valley. A breathtaking view - the pulsating rainbow of distant lights - appeared suddenly, but at seventy miles per, it dissolved in an instant. I swung to the right, got onto the Ventura Freeway West, and increased my speed.