A Call in the Night
The phone rang at two-thirty in the morning.
For all her life, my grandmother never answered the phone after ten at night. “Leave it alone, you’ll get nothing good if you answer,” she’d say even as the cawing ring went on and on until it eventually stopped. “No decent person calls this late unless it’s bad news. And what’s left, hmmm?”
When we were kids, we’d watch the ringing telephone in tense silence, trying not to imagine what kind of indecent caller was reaching through the dark for us. In all-wise adolescence, we’d smile at each other and indulge her because she was our Gran. Once we were grown and she had passed, it became Gran’s quirk, a subject of family tales of Remember When occasionally told around the kitchen table at holidays and birthday gatherings.
I should have listened to Gran.
My mumbled hello was missing a few letters, but the man on the other end didn’t notice or care.
“Dr. Jensen’s answering service gave me your number.”
Not for the first time I wanted to kick myself for volunteering to cover for Jensen when he didn’t show up for work three days in a row. Not that I’m altruistic. Frankly, I needed the extra hours. He was working on a “major” paper or book, and he tended to disappear for days at a time when he had a deadline. Management put up with it because his name on the wall brought prestige that benefitted us all. We all expected him to walk into the office in a few days with that sheepish smile that did nothing to hide the triumph in his eyes as he announced a new book or article in a major publication.
But Jensen never showed.
“Is this Dr. Sutherland?” The man sounded stressed out, not good. “I’m calling from Clover Field.”
That name blew the last fragments of sleep out of my head. Jensen only had one patient at the high security facility: Johnathan Drew Carter, the serial killer. Until a few days ago when I was given full access to Jensen’s files, all I’d known about his most infamous patient was what had been published in the newspapers after his capture and during the trial.
He earned the nickname Digger Drew on the job at Our Lady of Grace Cemetery. The owners either couldn’t afford or refused to pay for a backhoe, so all the graves were “lovingly prepared by hand” per their brochure. Carter did his job with admirable precision and dedication, and made no fuss about being paid minimum wage. In hindsight that should have been a warning sign.
It took years for the authorities to realize that most of the county’s missing persons were moldering several inches beneath the coffins of the town’s dead.
It was an ingenious system, really, if twisted. Carter kept a list of victims and when ordered to prepare a grave for a new burial, the next person on that list disappeared. When he dug the grave the night before the funeral, he simply went a little deeper and inserted a second occupant. He might have gone on like that for years more except for two chance occurrences: a client deciding last minute on cremation — leaving him with his latest victim all wrapped and ready for internment and no grave waiting — and his mother getting an unexpected craving for steak. The poor woman’s screams when she opened the freezer could be heard a block away. She had amazing lungs for a woman of ninety.
“This is Supervisor Nash and I can’t deal with this patient until I talk to you.”
I didn’t recognize the name. Either he was new or was never on shift when I visited the facility. Maybe it was the less than an hour of sleep I’d managed before the phone rang, but his tone clawed my nerves. I fought down the urge to snap at him. Don’t alienate a man whose cooperation you’re going to need in the future, I told myself. Be calm, be respectful, the bee-honey-vinegar thing.
”Hello, Mr. Nash.” I wanted to say ‘Do you know what time it is?’ but I behaved myself. “What’s happened?”
“Patient Carter got into a physical altercation with two other patients. We’ve got to put him in solitary confinement, and there’s a flag on his file to contact Dr. Jensen immediately if it ever came to that. That’s you now, I take it?”
When Jensen didn’t show up for work or contact anyone after a week, the police were called in. They did a welfare check of his home. No sign of violence, nothing out of place, not a clue to where he’d gone or why. His car was in the driveway, the keys on a hook by the front door, and his charge cards and bank accounts showed no recent activity.
Jensen became their newest missing person case and the investigators asked our bosses to prepare a report of any potential enemies connected to his work. And of course since I’d already offered to cover for Jensen and needed to go over his case files anyway, didn’t it make perfect sense for me to do that job too?
So that left me stuck sorting through a roomful of file boxes that contained his typed session transcripts, and interpreting his chicken scratch handwriting in the margins. Not to mention listening to hours of recorded patient sessions. Not that it was boring really. After all, some of them were the basis of the papers that made him a name in psychological circles. But Jensen was a good clinician and there were no complaints or issues with his treatment regimen. I found nothing of interest to the cops. Carter would have been a prime suspect but for two significant reasons: one, he has no family or friends on the outside to do the dirty work for him and two, he is under 24/7 surveillance, a condition of his commitment that made it impossible for him to have been involved in his doctor’s disappearance.
The commitment papers also said Jensen — me since I took over his caseload — had to evaluate him on-site before he could be released back into the general population if isolation became necessary.
“That’s right. How familiar are you with the Carter case?”
“I know he’s a serial killer and dangerous.”
I hadn’t finished going through all of Jensen’s notes yet, but I knew enough to tell Nash, “True for the most part, but not to you or anyone in the hospital. He thinks you’re keeping him alive.”
“We’re … what?”
“Look, I’m on my way. I’ll explain what I can when I get there. As long as you have someone watching Mr. Carter at all times, he won’t give you any trouble.”
A couple of seconds of silence ticked by while he digested that unlikely advice.
“Alright,” he agreed reluctantly. “But he’s on the verge of a full-on panic. If he becomes violent, I will use whatever means necessary to subdue him and call the police.”
Great. “Put him on the phone, I’ll do what I can to help him stay calm until I can get there.”
Drew Carter and I had only met for the initial “get to know you” consultation so far, and it had gone smoothly. I agreed with Jensen’s analysis. His delusion that someone was after him made him very cooperative and kept him on his best behavior in exchange for safety. At least until tonight.
I heard muted voices and fumbling noises on the other end of the line, then an irritated voice in the earpiece said, “Dr. Sutherland, it’s me. They’re gonna put me in solitary. You tell them they can’t do that! Doc Jensen told me he put it on my chart that they couldn’t do that.”
I took a deep breath and sighed it out as I groped around for my glasses. “Try to calm down, Mr. Carter. Getting upset won’t help the situation.”
“I have reason and you know it,” he hissed back at me. At least he wasn’t shouting. “Or you should.”
I found my glasses, settled them on my nose, turned on the light — should have done that first — and proceeded to dress while we talked for a pre-dawn drive to the asylum. No way around that. Thanks, Jensen.
“It is on your chart, but it also says unless the situation becomes extreme. Dr. Jensen’s notes say they made that clear at your commitment hearing. What did you do, Drew?”
“Nothing! A couple of the nutters got into a fight, fell on me, and I had to defend myself. The damn orderlies weren’t doing a thing about it, just watching us roll around and break things. When the supervisor finally got there, they lied so they wouldn’t get in trouble for not doing their jobs. Who’s he going to believe?”
“Deliberate or not, involvement in a riot action rescinds the exclusion from isolation. Sorry, Mr. Carter, I can’t do anything about it over the phone. But I’m practically out the door, I can be there in,” I looked down at the red digits on my alarm clock, “ninety minutes tops. I’ll make sure someone’s with you until then.”
“Okay. Doc, hurry, please!”
Carter sounded really scared, more than the situation warranted. After all he was in the most secure mental asylum in the state. No one could get to him, so why?
I was fully dressed, in my coat, and reaching for my keys when a thought sent me back to my home office. He’d said I should know why. That might mean the answers were somewhere in the notes and tapes I hadn’t got to yet. The Jensen files were stacked on my desk.
Not for the first time, I found reason to appreciate Jensen’s obsessively organized records system. He had an accordion file for each session with his patients. Inside were the audio tape and his copious notes. Their tie-down flaps sported a large label with the session date and a short summary of how it had gone and his impressions. It was a matter of seconds to find the one for his last session before his disappearance. I read the label:
Tape #64 Summary:
Patient was unusually agitated today. Pacing more than usual, his gaze darted around the room, for all the world as if he feared we were being spied on. Odd since one of the conditions he insisted on when he was committed was constant live surveillance. [NOTE: Question the staff in case some change in his routine is the cause.] He hasn’t exhibited such stress since he was first interviewed for his trial. Whatever the reason, it allowed me to guide him into telling me more about the basis of his delusional world. I’ve never heard or read of a case quite like it. Now I know the roots, I will have a better chance of freeing him from it.
A smile spread on my face. This must have what I needed to know. Tucking the folder under my arm and grabbing the tape player, I went back to the front door, snagged my keys from their dish on the side board, and rushed out the door, locking it behind me.