By Michael Palmer
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2012 Michael Palmer
All rights reserved.
Dr. Louis Francis Welcome could do a lot of things well, but doing nothing was not one of them. His desk at the Washington, D.C., Physician Wellness Office, one of four cubicle work areas jammed inside 850 square feet had never been so uncluttered. On a typical midafternoon, the voice mail light on Lou's Nortel telephone would be blinking red — a harbinger that one or more of his doctor clients needed advice and support in their recovery from mental illness, behavioral problems, or drug and alcohol abuse. At the moment, that light was dark, as it had been for much of the past several days.
Lou got paid to manage cases and monitor the progress of his assigned physicians, with the express goals of guiding them into recovery and eventually getting surrendered licenses reinstated. The holiday season inevitably brought an influx of new docs, often ordered to the PWO by the D.C. board of medicine.
But not recently.
He strongly suspected the lack of clients did not indicate a dwindling need for PWO services. On the contrary, as with the general population, the stress accompanying the last six weeks of the year unmasked plenty of physicians in trouble for a variety of reasons. So why in the hell, he mused, absently constructing a chain from the contents of his inlaid mother-of-pearl paper clip box, was he not getting any new cases?
There was, he knew, only one logical explanation for the paucity of referrals — Dr. Walter Filstrup, the director of the program.
Rhythmically compressing a rubber relaxation ball imprinted with PFIZER PHARMACEUTICALS, Lou sauntered over to the reception desk, where Babs Peterbee seemed to be quite busy.
"Hi, there, Dr. Welcome," she said, her round, matronly face radiating a typical mix of caring and concern. "I didn't see you come in."
"Ninja Doctor," Lou said, striking a pose. "Any calls?"
"A man who said he wanted to talk to you about the head of his department drinking too much. I referred him to Dr. Filstrup's voice mail."
"Did you get his name?"
Peterbee forced a smile. "Not my job."
The woman's favorite phrase. Lou said the words in unison with her. The woman definitely knew how to make it through her day unscathed. Not my job.
"BP, is Walter in?" Lou asked. "His door's been closed since I got here."
"He's having a telephone meeting right now," Peterbee said, cocking her head to the right, toward the only door in the suite except for the one to the small conference room across from her. The door was also the only one with a name placard, this one bronze and elegantly embossed with Filstrup's name and degree.
"Is this a real meeting, or a Filstrup meeting?"
Again, Peterbee strained to smile. "How's your daughter?" she asked.
"Emily's doing great, thank you," Lou said, shifting his six-foot frame from one foot to the other and switching the Pfizer ball to his left hand. "She's closing in on fourteen-going-on-thirty, and is far more skilled than even our esteemed boss at skirting issues she doesn't want to deal with. So I'll ask again, is Walter reallybusy?"
This time Peterbee glanced down at her phone bank and shook her head, as though she was no longer betraying whatever promise she had made to Filstrup. "Looks like he's off now."
"When the Employee of the Year awards come up, BP, I'm nominating you. Such loyalty."
"You mean poverty."
"That, too. His overall mood?"
"I would say, maybe Cat-Two."
The small staff at the PWO measured the volatile director's demeanor on the Saffir–Simpson scale used by meteorologists to rate the power of hurricanes.
"Cat Two isn't so bad," Lou said, mostly to himself. "Blustery but not life threatening."
"It won't stay that way if you go barging in there, Dr. Welcome," Peterbee admonished.
Lou blew her a kiss. "Never fear," he said. "I've got a Kevlar life preserver on under my shirt."
Lou knocked once on Filstrup's door and opened it. The director's office, filled with neatly arranged medical textbooks and bound psychiatric journals, was even less cluttered than Lou's cubicle, a reflection not of the man's thin calendar, but of his overriding need for order.
Fit and trim, wearing his invariable dark blue suit, wrinkle-free white dress shirt, and solid-colored tie — this day some shade of gray — Filstrup shot to his feet, his face reddening by the nanosecond. "Leave immediately, Welcome, then knock and wait."
"And you'll beckon me in?"
"No, I'll tell you I'm expecting an important call, and you should come back in an hour."
Lou pulled back the Aeron chair opposite Filstrup and sat. On the desk to his right was an orderly pile of dictations to review, alongside a stack of client charts. No one could accuse the man of not running a sphincter-tight ship.
"I haven't seen you for most of the week, boss, so I thought I'd stop by and find out how business was."
"Snideness was never one of your most endearing qualities, Welcome, although I'll have to admit that it's not one of your worst, either."
"Who's monitoring all these cases?" Lou asked, gesturing toward the stacks. "Certainly not me."
Filstrup looked down, favoring Lou with an unobstructed view of his bald spot, and theatrically signed a form that Lou suspected might be the equivalent in importance of a follow-up survey from the census bureau. "The board of trustees keeps renewing your contract," Filstrup said, "but they don't say how I'm supposed to use you."
"How about some work?" Lou asked, his tone not quite pleading, but close. "I'm champing at the bit."
"You have cases to monitor," Filstrup said.
"What I have is a handful of doctors who are in terrific, solid recovery," Lou said. "I'm here to be helpful. I like doing this job, and I've never gone this long without getting a new case to monitor. What gives, Walter?"
"What gives is we have a new hire who's working full-time, and I've got to get him up to speed on what we do around here and the way that we're supposed do it. You know yourself that the best way to indoctrinate somebody new is to get them huffing and puffing in the field."
"Huffing and puffing," Lou said. "I like the image. Colorful. Asthmatic even."
"Wiseass," Filstrup grumbled.
"So I'm being punished because I'm not full-time, even though I've done more than my share of huffing and puffing?"
Lou had been part-time with the PWO for five years. Five years before that, he was one of their clients, being monitored for amphetamine and alcohol dependence — the former used to cope with a killer moonlighting schedule, and the latter to come down from the speed. It was Lou's belief that having battled his own addiction benefited the docs assigned to him. Filstrup, who was hired by the board well after Lou, would not concur.
"That's not it at all," Filstrup said. "You're working almost fulltime in the Eisenhower Memorial emergency room, and twenty hours a week here."
"Can you spell 'alimony'? Listen, Walter, I enjoy both my jobs and I need the income, so I put in a little extra time. Have there been complaints?"
"Since you got moved from the hospital annex back to the big ER, you've seemed stressed."
"Only by my reduced caseload. There should be enough work for both Oliver and me."
"I told you," Filstrup said. "Oliver needs to get up to speed."
"This wouldn't have anything to do with him being a psychiatrist like yourself? Would it?"
"Of course not," Filstrup replied, dismissing the statement with a wave.
Lou knew better. He and Filstrup had been at odds since day one, in large measure over their disagreement as to whether addiction was an illness or a moral issue.
"Does Oliver think every monitoring client should go through extensive psychotherapy?"
"It doesn't always have to be extensive," Filstrup said.
Don't drink, go to meetings, and ask a higher power for help.
Lou knew that the terse, three-pronged instruction manual was all that the majority of addicts and alcoholics involved with AA ever needed. Psychotherapy had its place with some of them, but protracted, expensive treatment was often over the top.
He could sense their exchange was getting out of hand, and kept quiet by reminding himself, as he did from time to time for nearly every one of his docs, that whether the stone hit the vase, or the vase hit the stone, it was going to be bad for the vase.
Filstrup removed his glasses and cleaned the lenses with a cloth from his desk drawer. Lou thought the gray tie would have done just as well.
"Just because you were once a drug addict," Filstrup went on, "doesn't give your opinions greater authority here."
"I can't believe we're going at it like this because I came in here to ask for more work."
The phone rang before Filstrup could retort. He flashed an annoyed look and pushed the intercom button. "I thought I told you to hold all my calls, Mrs. Peterbee," Filstrup said.
I thought you were expecting one, Lou mused.
"I'm sorry, Dr. Filstrup," the receptionist said. "Actually, this is for Dr. Welcome. I have the caller on hold."
Lou gave Filstrup a bewildered look. "Who is it, Mrs. P?" Lou asked.
"Our client, Dr. Gary McHugh," Peterbee said. "He said it's urgent."
Filstrup reflexively straightened up. "McHugh, the society doc?" he said. "Put him through." Filstrup allowed the call to click over, then said in an cheery voice, "Gary, it's Walter Filstrup. How are you doing?"
The director's conciliatory tone churned Lou's stomach, but it was not an unexpected reaction, given who was on the other line. Gary McHugh tended to the D.C. carriage trade and probably numbered among his patients a significant portion of all three branches of the government. He was renowned for his acumen, loyalty, and discretion, as well as for making house calls. What he was not known for, at least within the confines of the D.C. Physician Wellness Office, was for being one of Lou Welcome's closest friends since their undergraduate days together at Georgetown.
Several years before, McHugh had lost his driver's license for operating under the influence and refusing to take a field sobriety test. The board of medicine's knee-jerk policy was to refer such physician offenders to the PWO, and in the absence of another associate director, Lou was placed in charge of his case.
Although McHugh adhered to the letter of his monitoring contract, he regarded the whole business as something of a joke. Lou could not help but enjoy the man's spirit, intelligence, and panache, even though he never had much trust in the strength of McHugh's recovery — too much ego and way too few AA meetings. Still, McHugh, a sportsman and pilot with his own pressurized Cessna, had always been irrepressible, and Lou looked forward to their required monthly progress meetings, as well as to any other chance they had to get together.
"Am I on speakerphone?" McHugh barked.
"I was just finishing a meeting with Lou Welcome," Filstrup said, as if the appointment had been on his calendar for weeks.
"Dr. Filstrup, I need to speak with him."
"I'm here," Lou said.
"Dr. Welcome, get me off speaker, please."
Lou stifled a grin at Filstrup's discomfort, and with a what can you do? expression, took the receiver. "Hey, Gary," he said, pressing the phone to his ear to seal off as much sound as possible, "what gives?"
"Welcome, thank God you're there. I'm in trouble — really, really big trouble. I need to see you right away."
"Talk to me."
"I can't. Not from where I am."
"My house. You have the address?"
"Of course," Lou said.
"When can you get there?"
Filstrup kept quiet and still. Lou forced any urgency from his voice, and pressed the receiver even tighter against his ear. He checked his Mickey Mouse watch, a Father's Day gift from Emily. Nearly four — eight hours before he was due at the ER for the graveyard shift. McHugh lived in a tony neighborhood, midway between the Capitol and Annapolis.
"I can be there in about forty-five minutes," Lou said.
"Get here in thirty," McHugh urged. "Before too much longer, the police are going to show up here to arrest me."
"For murder." He hung up without saying good-bye.
The word reverberated through Lou's mind as he left the city and headed east.
Gary McHugh, suave, adventurous, almost painfully popular, believed he was about to be arrested for killing someone — not killing, but murdering.
Who? How? For the moment, the questions far outstripped their answers. One thing that did make sense was that McHugh's first move would be to call Lou. Their history together was a colorful and at times wildly adventurous one that included parachuting with two magnums of champagne onto a remote field, where two bewildered women were waiting with their picnic baskets for their double blind dates to arrive. If Lou were in mortal trouble, there were few people he would turn to before calling McHugh.
The December afternoon was already dark, and the wipers on Lou's ten-year-old Camry were working to keep up with a fine, windblown snow. He pulled off of Route 50 and onto a secondary road lined with McMansions, many of which were already decorated for Christmas. White bulb country, Lou had once heard someone describe upscale neighborhoods such as this one — understated holiday decor featuring small white lights on the front shrubs and electric candles in every window. Nice enough, but he was still partial to the tangled strings of blinking colored bulbs outlining Dimitri's Pizza shop, just below his apartment in D.C.
It was one of Walter Filstrup's few sensible rules that clients be identified only by their assigned numbers, and that no doctor's name could be removed from the office. In a totally out-of-character concession to the man, Lou kept his client numbers next to their initials on a card in his wallet, and their contact information locked in his smartphone, which, at that moment, was resting on the worn passenger seat of the Toyota. McHugh's cell phone number was in it, but if he had wanted Lou to call, he would have said so.
What in the hell is the man talking about?
The two of them had met once or twice a month since McHugh's monitoring contract became active, sometimes at the PWO, sometimes at McHugh's home or D.C. office, and less frequently at a restaurant. Filstrup insisted that Lou include a credit card validation that he paid for his own meal. Lou never reacted maturely to being told what to do, and he resented the implication that he or the other associate director could be bought — certainly not for the price of a dinner. So, even though Filstrup's policy made some sense, Lou had taken trips in McHugh's plane, and gone to a couple of Redskins games thanks to his friend's season tickets.
As things evolved between them, McHugh did test Lou once by claiming he never had the time to see a doctor, and had ordered some Percocets from an Internet pharmacy in Canada to deal with a chronically balky back. His reasoning was that alcohol was the substance that had gotten him a PWO contract, not painkillers. Lou made little attempt to point out the foolishness of that belief, or the quickness with which a positive random urine test for Percocet or any such drug would get his license pulled. McHugh's denial was as thick as a glacier, but he still knew what was at stake, so Lou extracted a promise that, when the Percocet bottles arrived in the promised plain brown wrapper, they would be opened in his presence and the pills dumped in the toilet.
After the pills had been disposed of, Lou sat beside the phone as McHugh made an appointment with his orthopedist. The final steps would be the assurance that the orthopedist had been informed of McHugh's status with the PWO, and would provide the program a copy of any prescription he wrote.
"No thanks necessary," Lou had said as the last of the Percocets swirled down the toilet.
"None given," McHugh had replied testily.
Not long after that exchange, when Lou mentioned in passing that Emily was assigned to do a school report on a new piece of environmental legislation, McHugh arranged for the congressman sponsoring the actual bill to speak at Emily's school. Case closed. Friendship preserved.
Lou cruised through the gated entrance of McHugh's elegant Tudor-style home. The electric candles in each window looked as if they had been included in the design when the house was built, but there were no bulbs on the shrubs. Lou observed only one car parked in the circular driveway — a Lexus, which he assumed belonged to Missy, McHugh's wife. McHugh prided himself on his high-end black Jaguar. Lou wondered if the car had somehow been involved in the man's current plight — a fatal accident of some sort, perhaps. Then he reminded himself that McHugh had very specifically said murder. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Political Suicide by Michael Palmer. Copyright © 2012 Michael Palmer. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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