The Secret Room


By Sandra Block

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“Be sure to add Sandra Block to your must-read list!” —

Her patients are dying. Some are apparent suicides and others possible accidents, but rumors are flying that Dr. Zoe Goldman is an angel of death- intentionally helping hopeless cases go to a “better place”- or, worse yet, a dangerously incompetent doctor.

As a new psychiatry fellow at the local correctional facility, Zoe is still learning the ropes while watching her back to avoid some dangerous prisoners. As the deaths mount up, Zoe is wracked with horror and guilt, feverishly trying to figure out what is going wrong and even questioning her own sanity.

What Zoe doesn’t realize is that someone is targeting her patients to get to her. Someone who has access to her deepest secrets and fears. Someone who will stop at nothing to take everything Zoe has, even her life.


Chapter One

Hey, baby.”

The prisoner is fondling himself. I quicken my pace, and a load of spit hits the wall, followed by a round of laughter. “Almost got her that time,” another inmate says with a throaty chuckle.

“When you gonna suck me off, baby?”

“You so tall, girl. Come on over here and talk to Big Daddy.”

Two more long strides, and I am finally through. I take a deep breath as I spy our office ahead, with Jason at a computer already. As I reach home base at last, my hunched-up shoulders relax.

“Ah,” Jason says, “another lovely day at the Buffalo Correctional Facility.”

“Jesus.” I sit down next to him. “Why don’t they ever bother you?”

He shrugs. “They just ignore me or call me faggot. Business as usual.” He takes a sip from his Tim Hortons coffee. “Doesn’t stop the spitting, though.”

“Yeah,” I say. “I heard they’re putting up plexiglass at some point.”

He clicks on his computer. “Anyway, it’s better than the neo-Nazis.”

“That’s true.” And he’s right about that. The white-pride folks routinely call me kikebitch (as if it’s a compound word) and Jason chink, gook, slanty-eyes, and some others he told me he “actually had to Urban Dictionary.” Sitting at the computer, I put in my password wrong twice before I remember that I had to change it from Arthur0 to Arthur1.

Jason straightens the cuffs of his tweedy zip-collar sweater. It’s a change from our psychiatry residency, when he favored matching pastel ties and button-downs in every conceivable shade. But on the first day of our forensic psychiatry fellowship, he astutely observed that “wearing a tie in this place is just asking for strangulation.”

“You feeling okay?” he asks. “You look a little pale or something.”

“I’m fine. Just up all night.”

“Larissa?” he inquires.

“You guessed it.” Larissa is our not-so-favorite nurse. The one who calls at three a.m. for an order placed at five p.m. the day before. “But I’m heading home after this. Anyone I need to see?”

Jason checks his computer. “Andre Green. I already saw Jimenez for you.”

“What’s up with Jimenez?”

“Stuck a paper clip in his penis.”

“Ooh. That doesn’t sound pleasant.”

“Not impressed,” Jason says, not batting an eye. “Your basic attention seeking.”

“Yeah, but I’d pick a different orifice, at least.”

“Now me, I would stay away from all my orifices.”

“Good point,” I say. “Okay, how about Andre Green?”

“Stabbed his father. Thought he was the devil.”

“Hmm…sounds like schizophrenia,” I muse, opening his chart on the computer. “Wonder what he’s doing here. I would have thought he’d be NGRI.” In other words, not guilty by reason of insanity.

“Bad lawyer, I guess,” Jason says. The overhead speaker interrupts our conversation.

Code 523. Northeast wing alert. Code 523.

My ears perk up. Code 523 means a prisoner’s been found. Dead.

But at least it isn’t a 327. Which means suicide.

Jason’s text message alert goes off. “It’s Dr. Nowhere,” he says. His real name is Dr. Novaire, but everyone calls him that, because he’s generally nowhere to be found. At seventy-five years old, Dr. Novaire is the head of the forensic psychiatry fellowship, and though he’s lost interest in training fellows, he maintains a strong interest in his coin collection, his bridge club, and swimming at the Y, all while still drawing in a nice university salary.

“What does he want?” I ask.

“Meeting with the warden about the 523. Three p.m. in his office.”

I check my watch. “That’s only ten minutes,” I say, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. I openly dread any and all meetings with the warden. He still blames me for what happened this summer and doesn’t even to try to hide his antipathy toward me. The man can barely even stand to look at me.

Jason stands up with a yawn. “I have to talk to one of the COs. Meet you there?”

*  *  *

The hallway outside the warden’s office is freezing, and I blow on my hands, standing against the wall. Minutes later Jason joins me. “No one’s here yet?” he asks.

I shake my head. “Did you hear who the 523 was, by the way?”

“Oh yeah, Maloney told me,” Jason says. “OD. Carrie Cooke.”

I feel suddenly ill. “Oh no.”

He uncaps a tube of pale-green hand sanitizer and offers me a squirt, which I accept, the harsh smell of alcohol shooting through the room. “She yours?”

“Yeah.” I am picturing her hopeful, round, freckled face, her penciled-in eyebrows. I’m gonna do it this time, Dr. Goldman. I’m gonna get clean for Taylor. Her son. Who doesn’t have a mommy anymore. Ironically, getting clean isn’t always so easy in prison.

Jason chucks my shoulder. “Can’t save them all, Zoe.”

“Yeah,” I mutter. “I know.” It sounds heartless, but you have to develop elephant skin in this place. I’m learning that. “But she told me she wasn’t using anymore. She was on her second step, even.”

“What was her drug of choice?”


Jason shakes his head. “That shit’s deadly.” Neither of us comments further on the obvious, and now fully fulfilled, statement.

The warden walks by us then, and we hush. He is a tall African American man with a bit of a swagger. We rarely see Cam Gardner, though I pass by his smiling photo every day in the prison lobby. He is not, however, smiling right now.

Dr. Novaire trails right behind, his gait stooped. He is pale to the point of translucent, with light gray hair that blends in to render him almost indistinct. As we sit on the little couch, Cam Gardner takes a seat in his huge, imposing office chair and waits for Dr. Novaire to bumble into a seat beside us. It’s as if we’re practicing blocking for a scene without a director.

The warden fixes his gaze on all of us.

“We’ve got a problem here, folks.” Silence follows, as no one contests this. “Two deaths in the last six months. One suicide and now an OD.” He pushes his chair out, squeaking the wheels on the carpet. “And I want some answers.” There is more silence, as no one offers the requested answers. “Dr. Novaire,” he says, in a commanding voice.

“Yes, Warden,” Dr. Novaire answers with a faint trace of his residual German accent. His tone is as hesitant as Cam Gardner’s is brazen.

“What do you have to say?”

Dr. Novaire coughs. “I understand the concern. More than understand,” he says, his head nodding with a fine tremor. “But when you look at the trend in the last five years, this is likely an outlier.”

“You call it an outlier. I call it unacceptable. And it needs to be corrected. Who was caring for Mrs. Cooke?”

Jason side-eyes me nervously.

“I’m ultimately in charge of all the patients,” Dr. Novaire says.

“Me,” I say. “She was my patient.”

The warden turns to me. “And what was her status?”

I rub my hands, which are mottled purple now from the chill. “Improved. She was going to meetings, had an inmate sponsor…We had actually just changed her to every-six-month follow-ups because she was doing so well.”

“Or so you thought,” the warden says.

“Right,” I admit. “It’s always a judgment call, but—”

“Yes, and that’s exactly what’s lacking here. Judgment.” He raps his large fingers in a rhythm on his desk. “I would think after what happened this summer, you might try to use more of it.”

Heat pricks my face.

“These are totally different cases, though,” Dr. Novaire argues. “You can hardly blame Dr. Goldman for a patient overdosing on heroin.”

Warden Gardner stares at him for a moment, then replies with unnerving calm. “I’m only going to say this once, Dr. Novaire, so you might want to pay attention.” Gardner waits a beat to ensure that we are all doing so. “Get your house in order. Right now. Or I will do it for you.”

*  *  *

I stare at the walls, at the fresh coat of sage paint. The walls have always been a neutral shade of oatmeal, matching the carpet. I must admit the green is more soothing.

“Dr. Novaire is right,” Sam, my psychiatrist, says, pushing his glasses up on his nose. “The warden shouldn’t blame you for that.”

“I feel bad about it. Terrible, obviously. But, it’s not the same as…”

I don’t say his name, because I don’t need to. We both know what happened with Dennis Johnson this summer. But Sam said that could have happened to anyone. It was only my first week, and Dr. Novaire should have been around to help me. After the initial brouhaha, people finally stopped talking about it, at least. But obviously the warden hasn’t forgotten.

Sam shakes his head, looking befuddled. “The warden seems to lack a certain…subtlety…when it comes to these things.”

“Yeah, he is kind of a blunt object,” I agree.

Sam smiles. “Anyway, how has everything else been going? How has your focus been?”

“Good. Surprisingly.” Last year we added Strattera to my drug mix for ADHD, depression, and anxiety with a hint of OCD. I’m a walking DSM-5.

“And the fellowship overall?” he asks.

“Overall, things were going well until today.”

Sam moves his mug to the top of a stack of papers. The mug has a faded picture of him and his wife in raincoats, holding an impressively long fish. I’ve decided you can tell a lot about people by their mugs. “How’s Mike?” Sam asks.

“Good. I think I’m finally getting used to the cohabitating thing.” Meaning Mike moved into my place and I’m still trying to remind myself it’s “our place” now. Arthur loves him unconditionally, however. They say dogs are supposed to be loyal, but Arthur quickly determined that Mike was the more competent parent. “And Scotty’s still driving me crazy with those rings.”

He smiles. “Did he ask her yet?”

“No, not yet.” My brother, the former Lothario, has been going on about asking Kristy to marry him for a solid six months now. He sends daily texts with different engagement ring options, and I finally told him that if I heard one more word about the five C’s of diamond rings, I would physically hurt him. “Mike wondered about my attitude, though. He said it was almost like I was against marriage.”

Sam looks up from his pad. “What did you say?”

“I said I wasn’t against marriage, just annoying little brothers.” I pick up Sam’s newest desk toy, some liquid motion thing. The pink oil blobs join the royal blue oil blobs to form a black-purple mess. “I’m not sure I’ll ever be really good wife material, though.”

When I admitted this to Mike, he barely hid an injured look. Barely hiding an injured look is big for Mike, who once told me he doesn’t like to “dwell on my emotions too much.” (And yes, we both got the irony of his dating a psychiatrist.) He glossed it over with some joke, but the damage was done. We haven’t discussed rings since.

“One thing at a time,” Sam says.

“I suppose.” I fight off a yawn, stealing a look at my watch with dry, heavy eyes. I need these visits with Sam to keep myself sane, literally. But I’ve been up since three in the morning, and right now what I really need is some sleep.

*  *  *

Kicking off my boots, I stumble into bed. As if I’m completely drunk or just ran a marathon, neither of which applies. In seconds my eyes are closing when I feel warm breath on my face.

“Arthur,” I moan. “Come on. That’s just gross.” I turn my body the opposite way and hear footsteps patter to the other side of the bed. “Ugh. Come on, Arthur.” My hand reaches out of the covers to pet his stiff, fluffy labradoodle head, and he sits back a moment, appreciating the caress. “Okay, Arthur. That’s all for now. Mommy’s really tired.” I am practically slurring my words. “I’ll walk you after my little nap.”

This elicits an unhappy whine.

“I promise.”

He whines again, then licks my chin, and I pull the covers up. With that he realizes the battle is lost, and I feel his familiar form bounce up on the bed and settle in beside me. Immediately he is snoring, and I’m considering the possibility of a patent on canine CPAP machines when sleep hits, hard.

Hours are lost in a dreamless, heavy sleep, and then I wake up to the heady smell of garlic. It is dark outside, the lit-up reindeer across the street mechanically lowering and lifting their heads, perpetually eating snow. They must have diabetes insipidus by now. “Hon?” I call out. Arthur is gone. I pad down the stairs, still bone-tired despite my nap. More tired, if possible. “What are you making?”

“Pasta alla carbonara.” He says it with a put-on Italian accent.

“Oh. Sounds complicated.”

“Or ‘Thanks for cooking dinner’—that’s the other thing people might say.”

I laugh, leaning on him. “Thanks for cooking dinner.”

He tosses Arthur a piece of cheese, which the dog gobbles up. Mike stirs the sizzling pan. “Had a slow shift anyway.” The ER is always slow in December. No one wants to get sick until right after Christmas. “How was work for you?”

“Crappy.” I crumple into a kitchen chair, and Arthur runs over to assess my likelihood of having food, then quickly returns to the more certain spot by the stove and is rewarded with more cheese. I tell him about Carrie Cooke, and how the warden was blaming me for her death.

“That’s bullshit,” Mike says. “You can’t be responsible for an overdose. That’s like every other code in the ER these days.”

“Yeah, well,” I grumble. “The warden’s acting like I shot her up myself.” My phone chimes with a text. It’s a picture—a selfie of my brother Scotty and his girlfriend with her holding out her hand, showing off a rather lovely diamond ring. Underneath it he has written, SHE SAID YES!

“Whoa.” I show Mike the picture.

“Good for him,” he says.

I text back congratulations, promising to call him later. “I can’t believe he actually did it.” I turn the phone sideways. “I gotta say, he did a good job with that ring. It’s beautiful.”

Mike doesn’t answer, the sound of stirring and sizzling filling the room. In the ensuing quiet, I can’t help but think back to that injured look and walk my heavy body over to the stove and lean into him, kissing his cheek right by his ear. The way that drives him crazy, good crazy. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” he says. “Now go make the salad. I’m hungry.”

Scrunching up some iceberg, I hear a text alert go off again, but when I look over, it’s Mike’s phone.

FYI, you were so right! Total tibial fracture! Smarty pants. See you tomorrow, Adonis (hahaha) XO Serena

We both see the message, and I grab the phone. “Who the fuck is Serena?”

“Just a doctor I work with,” he says, flustered. “It’s nothing.”

“‘XO’? ‘Adonis’? Doesn’t sound like nothing to me.” He doesn’t answer. “And who the hell follows up on a tibial fracture?” I stare at him, but he still doesn’t respond. The noise of the pot of water bubbling beside us sounds suddenly explosive.

“Okay,” he says, finally. “There’s nothing going on between us, I promise. But…” He scratches his stubbly chin.


Mike sighs. “She might have a little crush on me.”

Chapter Two

This was my life before I met you.

Wake up.

Eat breakfast. Kill time. Eat lunch. Kill time. Eat dinner. Kill time.

Lights out. And repeat.

An existence, I can’t even call it a life.

I don’t know how these girls do it. Day after day after day. I met some lifers in here, and they’re like a different breed. Most of them are older and pretty much stick to themselves, acting like no one else understands them. And you know what? They’re right. No one understands them. Their eyes are blank, dull, the lights gone out. Like they’ve already died. I was like that, too. Just biding my time, getting through the minutes, the hours, the days.

Until I met you.

I still remember the very first day. We called you the Professor. It was kind of a joke at first, but the nickname fit, so it stuck. You sat at the scratched-up circular table in the library and announced that you were here to teach us to write. We were all going to start keeping a diary. An outlet, you said, for the real you.

I don’t even know who the real me is, I said. And I wasn’t lying.

That’s why you’re writing a journal, you said.

With a sly smile. A smile that said you knew everything about me. So I took a closer look at you, the Professor. Your plump lips, curly hair, and green-brown eyes. The color of a forest. And tattoos poking out of your buttoned-up sleeves.

I decided right then that I wanted you.

This is different than loving you. That came later. This was just a pure, animalistic desire. I wanted to unbutton your shirt and catalog every tattoo, trace my fingers over every edge and kiss every color.

I wasn’t original, though—all the girls wanted you. It was painfully obvious.

Fawning over you, giggling when you walked by, tossing their hair back, batting their eyelashes, and sticking out their tits. Like bitches in heat.

But I’m not like them, and even then, you knew that.

Scary to think, I almost didn’t even take the class. But one of my friends said it would help me get time off. And I figured it would be a welcome distraction, at least. Turns out I was right, more than right.

I didn’t realize what would happen.

I didn’t know this class would become everything to me. This hour would be the only thing keeping me whole, would become my life. The only time I am truly me. The real me, like you said, who’s been gone for so long.

Wake up. Eat breakfast. Kill time. Eat lunch. Kill time. Eat dinner. Kill time. Lights out. Repeat. That was my life. That would be my life, for years, too many years to come. Until I met you, Professor, and everything changed.

And I knew that I could never go back to my life before you, that half a life, that living death. Never.

And I would do anything it took to keep you. Anything.

Even kill for you.

Chapter Three

The first thing I notice is his bright-red gloves.

Andre Green sits on an unmade bed. The room is tiny and claustrophobic and smells of urine. He is the first patient of the day, the one I didn’t get to see yesterday after the warden’s meeting.

I just finished reading through his chart, which tells me Andre is a sixteen-year-old African American male in prison for the attempted murder of his father. Andre is saddled with the unfortunate delusion that his father, Abraham Green, a soft-spoken, widowed accountant, is the devil.

At first blush it looks like your typical schizophrenia. Andre was a straight-A student, first clarinet, and chess team champion when something happened. Something always happens. Usually it’s voices, whispering evil secrets or a malicious running commentary on the day. Or sometimes patients get delusions, like our Andre, and the devil one isn’t uncommon.

But this case is more complex.

Andre’s mother died just a year ago. Soon after, Abraham was teaching his son how to change a tire when Andre grabbed the wrench out of his hands and swung it at his face. His father managed to back off quickly enough to end up with just a broken nose. Andre admitted that he thought his father was the devil and was trying to kill him, and was soon after admitted to the children’s psych floor with a working diagnosis of psychotic depression. After release he was doing reasonably well until, one day, Andre took a kitchen knife from the butcher’s block and stabbed his father in the chest. Abraham recovered, but he pressed charges.

And Andre wasn’t fifteen anymore. He was sixteen now. So he went to prison.

Which brings me back to the teeny room, the unmade bed, and the red gloves. I sit down in a chair next to him, while a guard watches right outside the bars.

“I’m not taking them off,” Andre threatens, by way of hello.

“No problem.” I lean back in the chair, doing my best to look relaxed. “Why are you wearing the gloves anyway?” I try for a curious, rather than confrontational, tone.

“The devil. He’s trying to plant seeds in my fingers,” he says, quite matter-of-factly. Andre lifts his wrinkled comic book up to his face. “And I’m keeping them on.”

“Yeah, I got that. I’m not here for that.”

“Okay.” He shrugs. “Why are you here, then?”

“Just to talk.”

“To find out if I’m crazy, you mean.”

I smile at his deft assessment. “And are you?”

“No,” he shoots back with disdain. But as he peers over his comic, his expression is less certain.

“Let’s talk about your father,” I say.

He pulls the comic book farther up, covering his face. “What about him?”

“Can you explain why you stabbed him?”

He rubs his elbow, which is dry and scaly. “I don’t know. Not exactly. I was confused, I guess.”

“Something about the devil?” I ask. Andre glances up at me, then back at his comic. It’s a look I recognize. The microsecond debate. Do I trust her?

“I don’t know if you’re crazy, Andre.” I lean my elbows against the cold, white-painted wall. “But I can at least try to help you figure that out. And I can help you get better.”

He flips a page. “How?”

“By treating you.”

“Crazy meds?” Andre shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Okay, then.” I decide to change tack. “Let’s talk about the devil planting those seeds.”

“Why?” He runs his hands through his hair, a modified cone Afro. Some coils sprinkle onto his white T-shirt. “You won’t believe me. Nobody does.”

“Try me.”

He exhales with impatience, putting his comic on his lap. “Sometimes I see them, sometimes I don’t.”

“Okay. How about this, can you tell me what the devils look like?”

He glances down at the splayed-open page. “Like us, sort of. But with fur. And that devil tongue, you know…” He grasps for the word.


  • "A gripping, compelling psychological thriller, this page-turner will leave you breathless as you get closer and closer to discovering the truth. Be sure to add Sandra Block to your must-read list this summer!"—
  • "It's absolutely impossible to put down."—
  • "A wild compelling adventure."—
  • "The mystery works due to the unusual setting and the strong, empathetic lead character."—
  • "Block's latest is an intriguing mystery with a well-crafted plot and storytelling that is honest, with a little grit. Add steady pacing and a calculating, manipulative villain and readers will not be able to stop turning the pages."—RT Book Reviews
  • "Sandra Block's heroine is smart, heartbreakingly vulnerable, and laugh-out-loud funny. I am a forever-fan of the Zoe Goldman series and will read anything Block writes. You should too."—Lisa Scottoline, New York Times bestselling author
  • "What author Sandra Block does the incorporation of real psychiatry and therapy into the story...Between Zoe's own treatment and her work at the hospital, the book sometimes feels like a cross between TV's CSI and House; a compelling, realistic read."— on The Girl Without a Name
  • "A psychological suspense story smartly narrated... Zoe has a quick wit that emerges in wickedly unexpected ways."—New York Times Book Review on Little Black Lies
  • "The suspense keeps building throughout until the shocking ending. This is a riveting debut from a promising new author."—Booklist on Little Black Lies

On Sale
Apr 18, 2017
Page Count
368 pages

Sandra Block

About the Author

Sandra Block graduated from college at Harvard, then returned to her native land of Buffalo, New York, for medical training and never left. She is a practicing neurologist and proud Sabres fan and lives at home with her family and Delilah, her impetuous yellow lab. She has been published in both medical and poetry journals.

Learn more about this author