The phone rang as Steven Becker was finishing up the notes on his previous patient. He never took them during a session; it was a distraction to the therapy and, for some patients, intimidating. He had a sharp enough memory and could recall conversations verbatim when they were fresh in his mind, as they were during his ten minutes between patients.
It was nearing the end of a long day. In the past eight hours he’d been taunted by a sociopathic teenager, screamed at by a paranoid husband, questioned as to his humanity by a neo-Nazi, and almost vomited on by a female patient who showed up drunk. His final patient for the day, Adam Fiske, was waiting in the next room.
The phone rang again and he stared at it. He was tired enough to let it go to voice mail, but since he had a few minutes before Adam’s session, and he did take calls when he could, he reached over and picked it up.
“Hello, is this Doctor Becker?” It was a woman’s voice and it sounded nervous.
“Yes, it is. Can I help you?”
“My name is Cynthia Fiske. My husband is one of your patients. I believe he’s in your waiting room right now.”
“That’s right, I think he is. Do you need to speak with him?”
It was nearly a scream, and it startled him.
“Are you all right, Mrs. Fiske?”
“No. No, I’m not!” Her voice had grown more panicky. “He just called me on his cell phone. He…he told me…” Her next words were garbled, melting into sobs.
“Mrs. Fiske, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t hear you just now.”
She began to wail.
“He said he was going to kill you! And then he was coming home to kill me!”
Steven was struck speechless. Partly from shock and partly because, of all his patients, the least likely to do, or even say, something like that would be Adam Fiske.
“Were those his exact words?” It was all he could think of.
She didn’t seem to hear him. “Ohh, dear God,” she moaned.
“Mrs. Fiske, try to stay calm. Have you called the police?”
“What!? No, I haven’t called the police!” The question seemed to annoy her. “What would they do? Even if I convinced them to go to your office, it would be too late. You’re his shrink, so I called you! You’re supposed to be able to reach him!” She started to cry again. “He really means it. You’ve got to stop him.”
“I can’t stay here anymore; it’s too scary. I’m sorry to call you like this, Doctor Becker, but I needed to warn you. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. Please be careful; he’s very dangerous. I have to go now.”
The line went dead.
Steven sat at his desk, staring at the phone in his hand. He’d been seeing Adam Fiske for two years now, a diminutive, fifty-three-year-old man whose picture could’ve been in the dictionary next to the word “unimposing.”
He weighed 120 pounds at most, and what hair he possessed was thin and graying. His mild, brown eyes looked out benignly through rimless glasses, and his voice was so soft that, many times, Steven had to ask him to repeat himself.
It never bothered him. In fact, it was hard to get him to express any anger at all in therapy. His main mood was worry. And lately, some of that worry had been for his wife.
She became frightened, he said, for no apparent reason. It could be about anything and could happen anytime. She’d been seeing a therapist for six months, but the situation had not improved. Adam felt helpless.
Steven wondered if he’d, just now, heard an example of it. It was more likely that than Adam actually threatening to kill her, wasn’t it?
And me too, he remembered, with an involuntary chill.
Could she have fantasized it? If so, she’d have to go from an inexplicably fearful woman to someone so delusional she hears imaginary death threats. He only knew her as Adam described her, so he didn’t really know her at all. Anything was possible. Including the possibility she was telling the truth.
Three minutes remained until the session. He reached into his desk drawer, took out Adam’s file, and looked through it, trying to find any indication of hostility. Maybe Adam’s helplessness could be masking feelings of resentment, but homicidal rage?
And even if he was, somehow, harboring these violent thoughts, why was Steven included? Last session, they’d talked about Adam’s difficulties in his job as a high school guidance counselor. He and the principal were having a disagreement over a student. After one of Steven’s observations, Adam had said, “You sound just like Cynthia.”
He’d written it down because it was unusual. Was it more than that?
He remembered Greta Horowitz, an early patient of his. She was a forty-eight-year-old housewife who, like Adam, displayed nothing more than common, manageable neuroses. After a session that was otherwise unremarkable, she used his bathroom. An hour later, when his next patient found the bathroom door locked and called out to him, he broke in and discovered her lying on the floor unconscious, with an empty bottle of her daughter’s Valium beside her.
He’d gotten her to the emergency room in time for them to pump her stomach and save her, but that was when he realized, if a patient wanted to hide something badly enough, he was powerless. Was Adam Fiske hiding something? Something lethal?
For an irrational moment, he felt the urge to rush to his office door, lock it, and call the police. But every professional instinct said not to.
Just go on with the session, he told himself, but be careful. But be careful of what? He could feel his heart beating as he crossed the room and opened the door.
Adam, wearing a light-blue turtleneck, was sitting where he usually sat, on the far side of the waiting room, reading one of the New Yorker magazines Steven kept out for his patients. What was different about the scene was the heavy, woolen topcoat in his lap, which would ordinarily be hanging on the coat rack.
Adam looked up at him.
“Hi there,” he said placidly, as he got up from the chair.
“Hi, Adam, come on in.”
Steven stood in the doorway as Adam, coat in hand, preceded him into the office.
He sat down on the couch and carefully placed the coat next to him. Steven sat in his chair and tried to keep his voice light.
“You expect it to get cold in here?” he asked, glancing at the coat.
“No,” Adam said, quite seriously, “I just didn’t want to leave it out there.”
“Why is that?”
He shrugged. “I guess, for the first time, it occurred to me that you don’t keep the front door locked. So anyone could come in and take it.”
Steven was bigger and stronger than Adam, and he knew he could subdue him if it came to it, but not if there was a gun in that coat pocket, inches away from his right hand.
“Has anything ever been stolen from here, that you know of?”
“Hey, I hope you don’t think it’s ’cause I don’t trust your office security,” Adam said with a sheepish grin. “It’s just that I’d feel more comfortable with my coat in here, that’s all.”
Steven maintained an expression of composure as he frantically tried to figure out where to take this. Should he tell him about the phone call? He didn’t think so. Whether it was from instinct or trepidation, he knew he didn’t want to go there, not yet. Better to stay in the here and now.
“I’m wondering,” he said, “why it occurred to you just today that your coat might not be secure in my waiting room.”
For an instant, Adam’s right hand moved toward the coat. Steven’s stomach lurched, but then Adam brought his hand back, joining the other one in his lap.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Steven’s stomach relaxed slightly. This had to be the strangest session he’d ever experienced with a patient. Talk about subtext…
“Did anything unusual happen to get you thinking that way?”
“I don’t know,” Adam repeated, shrugging. “Does it bother you that I brought it inside?”
“Not at all. But you seem to feel less safe here today, and I wondered why.”
Adam mumbled something Steven couldn’t make out. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t hear you.”
“I said,” Adam replied in a tight voice that wasn’t any louder, just clearer, “that I think I’m going to be fired.”
He pulled the coat closer, as Steven inwardly tensed. Then he let go of it and began to crack his knuckles.
“Phil Grayson has been sending reports about me to the Board of Ed. I found that out today.”
“Phil Grayson is your principal.”
He was looking, not at Steven, but into the space between them.
“What kind of reports?”
“You know what really gets me?” There was a bitter, bemused smile on his face. “Cynthia, with all her irrational fears, was right about this one. I guess even crazy people can get lucky.”
This was the opportunity, if Steven wanted to take it. Should he? He decided, yes.
“How is Cynthia doing?” he asked.
Adam’s eyes narrowed and he pursed his lips, as he often did when he was upset. “Not good, not good at all. I just had a very disturbing phone conversation with her.”
Easy now, easy, Steven told himself. “What was disturbing about it?”
He noticed how Adam’s hands were clenched so tightly in his lap, they were turning white.
“The cell phone reception in your waiting room is lousy, did you know that?” He looked at Steven accusingly. “It kept cutting in and out.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, but what was disturbing about your conversation with Cynthia?”
Adam’s face had become even more pinched, and the sides of his mouth were turned down sharply, something Steven had never seen before. “I don’t want to talk about that,” he said. “I want to talk about what’s going on in here. This isn’t working.”
Steven let it hang there for a moment. “You feel our therapy isn’t accomplishing what you’d like it to?”
“I feel like I’m wasting my time.”
Steven nodded. At some point, every patient said something like this. It usually meant they were on the verge of a breakthrough and were resisting. Steven had always felt quietly thrilled at such moments, but not now.
“I want it to end,” Adam said firmly. “And I’m going to end it one way or another.”
It felt like an icicle had formed in Steven’s gut. “What do you mean, ‘one way or another’?” he asked.
Adam seemed to be fighting an inward battle. He started to speak, then checked himself. His eyes darted wildly about the room.
“I can’t explain it,” he muttered. Then he plunged his hand into the coat pocket.
Before he could think, Steven sprang out of his chair and was on him, grabbing Adam’s wrist. He pulled at it, trying to yank his hand out, as the pocket tore.
“What are you…?” Adam started to say, as Steven, with one final tug, pulled it free, tearing the pocket further. The hand was empty.
Steven pulled the coat away and threw Adam to the side, his head coming up against the end of the couch as his outstretched arm hit the lamp next to it. It fell over with an explosive sound, its bulb shattering in a bright flash on the parquet floor.
Steven ignored it, just as he ignored the stunned expression on Adam’s face. He reached deep into the pocket, his fingers finding only a folded sheet of paper. He took it out and looked.
It was a list, under the heading, “Why I’m Quitting Therapy.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Adam cried out, finally finding his voice.
Steven quickly checked the other pockets, but he knew how ridiculous it was. He felt a hot flush come over him, and his face burned with shame. He’d just assaulted his patient. Assaulted his patient!
“I’m sorry, Adam. Please forgive me,” he said in mortification. “I thought you had a gun.”
“A gun?!” Adam sputtered.
“Are you okay?” He went over to the couch and sat beside him, as Adam recoiled slightly. “I tore your coat pocket,” Steven said, holding the flap. “I’ll pay for it; I’ll even buy you a new coat. I’m so sorry.”
“Are you crazy?” said Adam.
Steven took a deep breath. “Just before the session, your wife called me. She said you’d just told her you were going to kill me, and then you were coming home to kill her.”
Adam’s mouth fell open. “What?! Why would she say a thing like that?”
“Here, let me get you some water.” Steven got up and poured a glass from the pitcher on the side table. He gave it to Adam, then returned to his chair, still shaken. “What did you say to her?”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t know. I was kind of annoyed, and maybe I sounded a little brusque, but I had a lot on my mind ’cause of what I was going to tell you. I didn’t know if I could. That’s why I’d typed it all out. If I lost my nerve, I was just going to let you read it.” He shook his head again. “She said she’d been feeling sick all day, and she thought she was coming down with the flu. I made a little joke. I said I was going to waste some time with you, then I told her I’d be home to help her out, or something to that effect. That’s when I heard her gasp. She shouted, ‘You’re a monster!’ at me and hung up. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Steven sighed. “No, it doesn’t,” he said. His eyes took in the broken lamp, the torn coat, and his disheveled, traumatized patient. “Fear has its own logic.”
* * *
Cynthia Fiske trembled as she huddled under the blankets. She’d told Dr. Becker she was leaving, but she knew she could never do that. The world was a terrifying place, and the prospect of her out there in it, on the run from Adam, was impossible to conceive.
No, she’d done all she could. She’d warned him, and either he’d stop Adam or he wouldn’t. All she could do was wait here, either for the phone call from the police or the sound of the key in the lock, which would mean the end.
During the last few weeks, she’d finally divined Adam’s intentions. He hated her, and he wanted her dead. The phone connection had been poor, cutting in and out, and he had such a soft voice, but there was no doubt in her mind what he’d told her. She could recite it word for word, and she would, if the police asked her to. “In a few minutes,” he’d said, “I’m going to waste Steven Becker. Then I’m coming home to take care of you.”
She huddled deep inside the blankets and waited for what fate would deliver.