With Christopher Farnsworth
Read by Kevin T. Collins
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Dr. Randall Beck sat in his office and looked across the coffee table at his patient.
Todd Graham was a big man who looked small. He hunched on the overstuffed couch, arms curled in tightly to himself. He looked cold. He looked scared.
You’d never know that a few months earlier, Graham had been one of the top men on the Metro PD’s Emergency Response Team—the Washington, DC, police SWAT team. He had broken down countless doors, been shot in the line of duty, and had seen some of the worst humanity had to offer in hostage situations, drug raids, and murder scenes.
But then he’d been called to a small apartment building in the Southeast, the quadrant of DC known as the worst area in the city. He and his squad thought they were going to take down a crack house.
Instead, they found bodies. Nine of them. Someone had killed all the members of an extended family for a grudge or some deal gone wrong. Graham was the first one into the room. He saw a child curled into the arms of her mother, the same gunshot wound through both of their chests.
Graham could handle danger to himself. What he couldn’t handle was the thought of being helpless to stop it from happening to someone else.
Since then, Graham had been on administrative leave. He’d lost weight. He didn’t sleep. He drank too much.
After medication and regular therapy failed, he’d been sent to see Beck.
Everything in Beck’s office was soft and beige, designed to soothe and calm, the visual equivalent of white noise. Beck’s patients were people who’d had enough chaos in their lives already.
Beck was considered the counselor of last resort for people suffering from severe post-traumatic stress and burnout. His patients included paramedics who’d pulled charred corpses out of plane crashes; doctors who’d volunteered in war zones, patching up children dismembered by bombs; hospice workers who faced a 100 percent mortality rate in their patients; and Special Forces soldiers who spent months in combat, ruthlessly killing to keep the rest of the world safe.
Beck noticed that the one thing all these people had in common was they were used to saving the world, but they had a much harder time saving themselves.
Graham had spent most of their sessions just sitting on Beck’s couch. Quiet. Staring. Today was no different.
“Do you want to talk?” Beck asked, after a long silence.
Graham shrugged. “What’s the point?” he asked Beck. “What’s the point of any of it?”
“You don’t think there’s any point to living?”
Graham shrugged again. He sat back, as he had in their other sessions, finished talking for the day. He seemed to think he could just wait Beck out.
Beck decided he was done waiting. He reached into a bag at the side of his chair and pulled out a Glock 9mm.
Graham was instantly alert.
Beck placed the pistol on the table between them.
“Okay,” he said. “You really want to die? Pick up the gun. Get it over with.”
Graham stared at him, wide-eyed. “You’re crazy.”
Beck shrugged. “I’m a licensed psychiatrist.”
“You’re still crazy.”
Beck sighed deeply. “You don’t want to do it yourself? Well. I’m here to help.” Beck picked up the Glock and racked the slide back, jacking a shell into the chamber. He pointed it at Graham, his hand steady.
“Now. Do you want to die?” Beck asked, looking down the barrel at his patient.
Graham was out of his chair in a split second. He knocked the gun aside and landed on Beck with his full weight, toppling the chair over. He and Beck struggled for a moment as Graham tried to get his hands on the gun.
They rolled across the floor together. Graham came up on top, the Glock in one hand. He pointed it at Beck, kneeling on top of him.
For a second, they were frozen like that.
Then Beck looked up at Graham, bleeding from the corner of his mouth where a stray elbow had hit him.
And he smiled.
“You fought,” he said, grinning.
Graham looked confused. Then angry. “Are you crazy?” he shouted. “Of course I fought you! You pointed a gun at me!”
He got off Beck and let him up, but didn’t take the gun off him. Beck didn’t seem at all worried.
“Dummy bullets,” Beck said. “Wouldn’t fire even if I pulled the trigger.”
Graham eyed Beck suspiciously, then checked the Glock’s clip. If anything, it made him even more angry. “I didn’t know that!” he shouted.
Beck didn’t stop smiling. “That’s right. You didn’t. And you fought me. For the first time since you walked into this office, you did something. You woke up,” he said. “Looks like you’re not quite ready to die after all.”
Graham stared at him, shocked.
Beck stood up and straightened his clothes. He wiped the blood from his mouth with a tissue, and then took his chair again. He gestured to the couch. Slowly, Graham set the gun and the clip back on the table. Then he sat down, too.
“Excellent,” Beck said. “Shall we get started, then?”
“You pulled a gun on him?”
Dr. Susan Carpenter was, like Beck, a psychiatrist. She was highly trained, widely respected, and thoroughly professional. She’d seen a wide range of patients with deeply disturbing problems, ranging from trauma to schizophrenia to complete psychotic breaks with reality. There were people who came to her convinced that space lizards were about to take over the planet, and others who were certain that the contestants on Survivor were plotting against them.
In other words, she’d heard a lot of crazy stuff without blinking. And still, she looked like she was on the verge of having Beck taken to a padded cell.
“Dummy bullets,” Beck said. “I couldn’t have hurt him if I wanted to.”
“He didn’t know that,” Susan snapped at him.
“Of course not. It would have defeated the purpose. He had to find a reason to live. I gave him one.”
Susan took a deep breath and got herself under control. “Or you could have broken his trust completely. Or triggered a violent episode. Or convinced him that he really ought to commit suicide. Did you ever think of that?”
“Of course,” Beck replied. “I decided to take the chance.”
“You risked your patient’s life.”
“No. I judged him capable of pulling himself out of his depression, given the right motivation. I looked at his history. This is a cop who once charged a man armed with an AK-47 and took him down barehanded. He has been through the door on multiple drug raids. He needed a threat to bring him back to life.”
“You could have done the same thing by talking to him. You could have reminded him of his experiences—”
“I don’t have that kind of time.”
Susan’s expression softened. There it was. Sooner or later, their sessions always came back to this. It was inevitable.
Beck was dying.
“Do you think your condition is affecting your judgment?” she asked.
Beck made a rude noise. “Condition. Call it what it is. I’ve got a brain tumor. And yes, it’s still killing me. No, it’s not affecting my judgment. I haven’t started drooling or playing with myself in public.”
A month earlier, Beck had been walking to his car when the sidewalk suddenly came up out of nowhere and hit him in the face. He was knocked senseless, and someone passing by on the street called 911. The paramedics took him to the emergency room at Georgetown, where the attending physician knew Beck from several cases he’d consulted on. Beck said he felt fine, he was just a little dizzy, but the doctor insisted on an MRI and a PET scan.
And that’s when they found the tumor. It was a very rare type of glioblastoma that had clearly been growing for some time, undetected. It was nestled deep in Beck’s brainstem, near the parts that regulated his heartbeat and breathing.
Beck saw several specialists. They all said the same thing. Chemo wouldn’t work, because the drugs couldn’t cross the blood–brain barrier. Radiation was too dangerous because the tumor was so close to the critical structures nearby. Which is also why there was no way to reach the tumor with surgery.
The tumor would go on growing, slowly but surely. He’d remain relatively healthy until he wasn’t anymore. He might fall down, and he might have seizures. He might have severe personality changes, memory loss, or delusions. He might lose the ability to walk. Or he might not.
But eventually, the tumor would overwhelm his brain, crushing the parts of it that kept him alive, and he would die.
They had given him anywhere from three months to a year.
Friends suggested that he take a trip around the world, see lions on safari, or just drink margaritas on the beach until it was his time. Beck went back to work. He hated vacations. He didn’t know what he’d do with himself if he wasn’t in his office.
But the doctors were required to tell the medical board about his condition. The board said he had to get another psychiatrist to monitor him, just in case the tumor affected his mental state. It wouldn’t be good to have a psychiatrist with access to patients and a prescription pad if he was losing his own marbles.
Susan seemed like the best person possible to keep tabs on him. They’d both been at the top of their class at Johns Hopkins and had been paired together for their residencies at Georgetown. Like Beck, she specialized in crisis psychiatry—taking the most severe cases she could find.
And she was more likely to put up with him than anyone else. Beck had a reputation as a loose cannon even before he discovered the tumor. He was impatient with theories and studies. He wanted to use whatever worked. It was one reason he was popular with his patients and unpopular with other doctors.
“How are you feeling?” Susan asked with genuine concern.
“Looks like he tagged you pretty hard.”
Beck touched his lip. It was still swollen. “I’m a doctor, not a boxer.”
She didn’t smile. Beck suspected he was in for another version of the Talk.
“That’s my point. You deliberately antagonized a man who gets into life-and-death situations all the time. It could have been much worse for you.”
Yes, it was the Talk again. It usually went like this. She’d tell him he was being reckless. He would nod his head and listen. And then he’d go on doing what he’d always done before.
Today, however, Susan seemed to be out of patience.
“Maybe I should just tell the board to pull your license now,” she said. “You don’t listen. You don’t want to change. And because of your condition—”
“—your tumor, you’ve got no reason to change. Do you see that you’re using it as an excuse?”
But Beck didn’t have much patience today, either.
“Look,” Beck said. “I help people. It’s what I do. I don’t have a lot of time left. And by the time these patients get to me, neither do they. They are at the end of their ropes, and they’re thinking of tying a noose. I will do whatever it takes to help them.”
“Because only you can save them? We’ve talked about your Superman complex before.”
“That’s Doctor Superman to you.”
Still no smile. “Answer the question.”
Beck shrugged. “Well. I don’t see anyone else pulling on a cape to save the day.”
Susan looked like she was going to keep arguing with him, but Beck’s phone beeped with a reminder. He checked the screen. APPOINTMENT WITH KEVIN SCOTT—10 A.M.
“I’ve got to go,” he said. “Seeing a new patient.”
She frowned, but gestured for him to leave. “We’re not done with this yet,” she said. “Call me tomorrow to check in.”
He saluted. “Sir, yes, sir, General, sir!”
She finally cracked a smile. “That’s Doctor General to you.”
Beck went to the door, but Susan had one parting shot.
“So what happens when you’re gone?” she asked. “Who’s going to save your patients if you’re not around, Doctor Superman?”
Beck shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll be dead.”
Then he walked out.
Kevin Scott scowled like Beck owed him money.
Like a lot of Special Forces soldiers, he was compact and muscular. All gristle and sharp edges. He looked at the office with contempt. Too quiet, too beige, too soft.
Beck wasn’t particularly surprised. Scott had been an Army Ranger for seven years. He’d endured grueling training just to have the chance to sleep on rocks in the desert while people shot at him. Guys like Scott were not usually into the touchy-feely crap. It was always the first hurdle he had to overcome.
Because as tough as he was, Scott was also coming apart, according to the reports in front of Beck. The local VA office had referred Scott for psychiatric treatment after he had been arrested in a bar fight. He’d nearly crippled three men after an argument about the Redskins devolved into a full-on brawl. Only the fact that they attacked him kept him out of jail.
So it was pretty clear Scott needed help. But Scott wasn’t an ordinary soldier. He was part of a unit that carried out top-secret missions for the Defense Intelligence Agency in Iraq, Afghanistan, and a few places that US soldiers weren’t supposed to be. As a result, only a psychiatrist with a security clearance was allowed to talk to him. Beck was one of the few people on that list because of his experience in dealing with Special Forces veterans.
But it meant that Scott had been forced to wait for almost a month while the paperwork and red tape cleared.
Even though they’d never met, Beck had read Scott’s file and it was obvious that he was getting worse. He was shifting in his seat, agitated, and kept checking over his shoulder, like he expected someone to come through the door.
Beck figured there was no time to waste—for either of them. “So,” he said, “who do you want to kill?”
Scott nearly jumped in the couch. He looked at Beck like he was crazy. “What? Why would you say that?”
“Well, you put three guys in the hospital. You seem pretty pissed off at someone. Who do you want to kill?”
Scott made a face. “It was just a fight that got out of hand. I’m only here because the court said I had to get counseling. I’m fine.”
“Right,” Beck said. “You’re fine. So breaking a guy’s collarbone and another guy’s arm in three places is just a fun night out for you? Maybe we should go to Vegas together. I can’t wait to see what you do there.”
Scott rolled his eyes at Beck. Nobody got his jokes. “I told you. It was a fight. They started it.”
“And you finished it.”
“That’s what guys like me do,” Scott said, looking him in the eyes for the first time. “We handle things other people can’t. I know you get a lot of wackjobs in here. But I’m not one of them. Trust me. I’m fine.”
He really sold it. It was almost convincing. Beck could see why people would follow him into combat. But Beck knew better.
“The thing is, Kevin, you don’t seem fine. The VA’s counselor talked to your wife.”
“Jennifer?” Scott looked worried. “Why did they bother her?”
“She’s concerned about you. She says you came home fine from your last tour. You were handling everything. You got a job, you were dealing with civilian life—and then, about three months ago now, you began to act differently. You began sleeping with a gun on the bedside table. You started drinking. You’d disappear at night and on weekends. And when she called your job, they wouldn’t tell her where you were.”
Scott was growing more anxious, picking at the fabric on the chair, shifting around. Beck thought he wanted to jump up and run out of the room.
“She called my work?”
“She cares about you. Maybe she thinks you’re having an affair.”
Whoops. That was the wrong thing to say. Scott stood up and pointed a finger in Beck’s face. “Hey! I love my wife! You watch your damned mouth!”
- On Sale
- Sep 5, 2017
- Hachette Audio