Patrick Quentin, best known for the Peter Duluth puzzle mysteries, also penned outstanding detective novels from the 1930s through the 1960s under other pseudonyms, including Q. Patrick and Jonathan Stagge. Anthony Boucher wrote: “Quentin is particularly noted for the enviable polish and grace which make him one of the leading American fabricants of the murderous comedy of manners; but this surface smoothness conceals intricate and meticulous plot construction as faultless as that of Agatha Christie.”
Peter Duluth was once an up-and-comer on the Great White Way. But after his wife died, he dove into a bottle and stayed there. It’s only when he’s about to hit rock bottom that he decides to dry out, admitting himself into rehab to save his life.
Unfortunately, Peter’s new home turns out to be even more dangerous than the outside world when a staff member is murdered, and a patient soon checks out in a similar manner. Peter thinks he may have an idea of what’s going on, but isn’t sure what he’s hearing and seeing is real, or if the DTs are still playing with his head.
When a beautiful fellow patient falls under suspicion, Peter realizes that the deadly mystery is offering him not only a new life, but also a new love. All he has to do now is find a crazed killer in a place where crazy is the norm . . .
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It always got worse at night. And that particular night was the first time they had left me without any kind of dope to help me sleep.
Moreno, the psychiatrist in charge, had given me one of those dark, impatient looks of his and said: "You've got to start standing on your own feet again, Mr. Duluth. We've coddled you long enough."
I told him he didn't make sense; that surely I paid enough per week to cover the expense of a triple bromide. I pleaded; I argued; finally I got fighting mad and vented on him that remarkable vocabulary which is vouchsafed only to alcoholics who have been shut up for a couple of weeks without liquor. But Moreno just shrugged, as much as to say:
"These drunks are more trouble than they're worth."
I had started to swear again and then I thought: "What's the use?" I couldn't tell him the real reason why I wanted dope. I wasn't going to admit that I was afraid; blindly, horribly afraid, like a kid that's going to be left alone in the dark.
On the outside I had been drinking to an eight-hour-a-day schedule for close on two years. That was how it got me after that fire in the theatre which had killed Magdalene. But a quart a day doesn't mix with a working man's life. In my few lucid moments I had begun to realize that my friends were getting tired of being sorry for me; that I was throwing down the hatch what reputation I had built up as New York's youngest theatrical producer, and that, if I went on, I should soon be ringing down the curtain on the tragi- farce of my own life.
I wasn't particularly reluctant to drink myself to death. In fact I was prepared to go merrily and deliberately to hell. But one of those things happened. On the day of its publication, thirteen friends presented me with thirteen copies of Bill Seabrook's Asylum. It was a gentle hint which even I couldn't overlook. I skimmed the book and discovered the comparative delights of a sanitarium cure. In a moment of impulsive determination, I made the great gesture. I disembarrassed Broadway of a tiresome drunk and threw myself on the tender mercies of the well-known and discreetly titled Sanitarium of Dr. Lenz.
It wasn't a sanitarium really. It was just an expensive nuthouse for people like me who had lost control.
Doctor Lenz was a modern psychiatrist with a capital PSY. After a brief period of tapering off, I had spent three liquorless weeks taking hell and giving it to the poor devils who looked after me. Hydrotherapy, physical jerks, and sun-ray treatments had been sandwiched between unsuccessful attempts to sock male attendants on the jaw and occasional maudlin passes at pretty nurses. I had been one of the least attractive types of soaks, but I was making progress.
At least, that was what Miss Brush, the beautiful day nurse, had told me that afternoon. I guess that was why they had taken me off sleeping powders.
All I needed now, she had said, was the will to pull through. Long after Doctor Moreno had gone, I lay in bed trembling and jittery, thinking it would be quite a while before I had any will at all.
I don't know whether all drunks get the same symptoms, but without stimulants or sedatives, I just felt scared. And it wasn't a question of pink rats or purple elephants. It was just this frightful fear of being left alone in the dark; the violent need of someone to hold my hand and say: "It's all right, Peter, I'm here. It's all right."
I might have told myself that there was nothing tangible to be afraid of. I knew all the nuts around me. They were perfectly harmless, less dangerous, perhaps, than I. My room or cell or whatever you call it, was comfortable, and the door was open. Mrs. Fogarty, the night nurse, was in her little alcove at the end of the passage. All I had to do was to summon her through the house telephone at my bedside, and she would come rustling in like a horse- faced Florence Nightingale.
And somehow I could not pick up the receiver. I was ashamed to tell her that I was so scared of the vague shadow of the wash basin spigots on the white wall, that I had to use every ounce of will power to keep my eyes from that side of the room. And I was not going to tell her that the corroding memory of Magdalene being burned to death almost before my eyes kept flashing blindingly through my mind like the recurrent theme of a nightmare.
I shifted in the narrow, antiseptic bed, turning my face toward the comforting blackness of the inner wall. I would have given anything for a cigarette, but we weren't allowed to smoke in bed, and they didn't trust us with matches anyway. It was very quiet. Some nights old Laribee in the room next door would mumble last year's stock prices in his sleep. But there was nothing like that now.
Quiet, lonely, not a sound ...
I was lying there, straining my ears at the silence, when I heard the voice. It was faint, but very clear.
"You've got to get away, Peter Duluth," it said. "You've got to get away now."
I lay absolutely motionless, caught up in a stillness of panic far worse than mere physical fear. The voice seemed to have come from the window. But I couldn't think of things like that at the moment. All I knew — and it dawned on me with sickening clarity — was that the voice I had heard so distinctly was my own voice. I listened and it came again, my own voice whispering:
"You've got to get away, Peter Duluth. You've got to get away now."
For a moment I knew that I really had gone mad. I was talking to myself and yet I couldn't feel my lips move. I had no sense of speaking. With a sudden, desperate motion, I lifted a quivering hand to my mouth and held it tightly across my lips. At least I could stop myself; stop that quiet, dreadful sound.
And then the voice — my voice — came again.
"You've got to get away, Peter Duluth."
There was silence — an infinitesimal silence — before it added, softly, intimately:
"There will be murder."
I hardly remember what happened next. But I have a vague recollection of jumping out of bed and rushing wildly down the long, lighted corridor. It was a marvel that I didn't come across Mrs. Fogarty, the night nurse. But I didn't.
At last I found the unbreakable glass door which led from the men's quarters into some of the outer quarters. I swung it open and, barefooted, in pajamas, ran on with only one thought in my mind, to get away from my room, to shake the echo of that voice from my ears.
I was in some place I had never seen before when I heard footsteps behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw Warren, our night attendant, sprinting after me. The very sight of him seemed to clear my head, to give me a sort of desperate cunning. Before he could catch me, I turned and dashed up a flight of stairs.
I reached the top and, after an instant's hesitation, ran toward a door, opened it and slammed it behind me. I had no idea where I was, but I felt a crazy sense of triumph. Bending, I started to fumble for the key. I could lock the door, keep Warren out. No one would ever be able to take me back to my room.
But while my fingers were still moving futilely along the woodwork, the door was thrown open and I felt myself caught in a steel headlock. It was dark and I couldn't see Warren. But I fought, scratched, and yelled curses at him. I might as well have tried to argue with a steam shovel. Warren was thin and slight, but as tough as an electric cable. He merely held my head under one arm and warded off my erratic blows with the other.
We were still in this loving clinch when the room was suddenly flooded with light, and I heard a cool, female voice saying:
"It's all right, Warren. Don't be rough with him."
"But he's gone haywire, Miss Brush." Warren's arm had tightened around my neck, hurting my ears.
"He'll be all right. Let me deal with him."
Slowly I felt myself released. I blinked and gazed across the room. It was a bedroom. A shaded light burned by the bedside, and Isabel Brush, our day nurse, was walking calmly toward me in white silk pajamas.
Most of my fears drained away when I saw her. They always did. In those pajamas, with her blond hair loose around her face, she looked like an extremely healthy angel; a sort of celestial hockey captain.
"So you came to visit me, Mr. Duluth," she was saying with a bright smile. "You shouldn't, you know. It's against regulations."
I knew she was humoring me because I was a nut, but I didn't care. I wanted to be humored. I wanted to be mothered.
I hung my head and said: "I had to get away, Miss Brush. I couldn't stay in that room — not with my own voice talking about murder."
Miss Brush's deep blue eyes looked at me steadily. "Why not tell me what happened?"
Warren was standing at the door, still suspicious. But Miss Brush gave him a reassuring nod and sat down at her dressing table. Before I knew what I was doing, I had slipped to the floor at her side and was laying my head in her lap like a five-year-old instead of a grown man past thirty. I babbled everything out to her and she made soothing, matter-of-fact comments, stroking my hair with fingers which could probably have jujutsued me into helplessness if I had started to act up.
Gradually I felt myself giving way to a delightful sense of warmth and comfort. I wasn't aware of Doctor Moreno's presence in the room until his voice rang out curtly:
"Well, Miss Brush!"
The fingers paused on my hair. I looked up to see Moreno in pajamas and dressing gown. He had been on the stage for a while, and he always looked like a handsome young stage doctor, the type who gives the heroine a third act turn-down in the interests of Humanity. But at that moment he seemed more like a stage villain. His black, Spanish eyes flared with some emotion which, in my confused state of mind, I couldn't interpret.
"Really, Miss Brush, this is quite unnecessary, and very poor psychiatry."
Miss Brush smiled serenely. "Mr. Duluth has been frightened."
"Frightened!" Moreno crossed the room and pulled me to my feet. "Mr. Duluth ought to have more sense. There's nothing wrong with him. Heaven knows, we have enough trouble looking after the really sick patients without these theatrical scenes."
I could tell what was going on in his mind. He thought I was just acting up in the hopes of being given something to help me sleep. He didn't approve of Doctor Lenz taking alcoholics, I knew. He thought we were a waste of good psychiatry and a damn nuisance. I suddenly felt ashamed of myself. Most likely I had wakened him from a much-needed sleep.
"Come on, Mr. Duluth," he was saying sharply. "Warren will take you back to your room. I can't imagine how you got out."
When he mentioned going back, all my panic returned. I started to struggle and was summarily handed over to Warren. As the attendant's lean fingers clamped onto my wrists, Miss Brush drew Moreno aside and said something which I couldn't hear. Immediately the expression in his eyes changed. He crossed to me and said quietly:
"I shall have to take you to Doctor Lenz at once, Mr. Duluth."
I looked at Miss Brush doubtfully, but she said with bright persuasiveness:
"Of course you'd like to see Doctor Lenz, wouldn't you?"
She took a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around my shoulders. Then she found woolly bedroom slippers which somehow were large enough.
Before I had time to register an opinion, I was bundled unceremoniously out into the passage.CHAPTER 2
I saw by the large clock on the mantel that it was one-thirty when Moreno and Warren brought me to the director's study.
In his own sanitarium, Doctor Lenz was like God. You saw him very rarely and then only in a cloud of pomp and circumstance. This was my first informal visit, but I was still impressed. There was something indestructibly divine about that large man with his arrogant beard and calm gray eyes.
As a quasi-celebrated producer, I had met most of the contemporary personalities. Doctor Lenz was one of the few who bore up under close inspection. He was aloof but vital. He had enough electricity in him to run the New York subway.
He listened gravely while Moreno outlined my recent misdemeanors, and then dismissed him with a slight inclination of the head. When we were alone together, he watched me closely for a moment.
"Well, Mr. Duluth," he said with his almost imperceptible foreign accent, "do you feel you are making progress with us?"
He treated me like a human being, and I began to feel fairly normal again. I told him that my spells of depression were not so frequent and that physically, at least, I was improving.
"But I still get scared in the dark. Tonight, for example, I acted like Caspar Milquetoast. And I can't do anything about it."
"You have had a difficult time, Mr. Duluth. But there is no real cause for worry."
"But I swear I heard my own voice — heard it as plainly as I hear you. That's pretty screwy, isn't it?"
"If you thought you heard something," said Doctor Lenz with a sudden change of tone, "there was probably something to hear. You must take my word for it that you would not imagine things of that sort."
Instantly I was on my guard. I felt he was trying to humor me, just like the rest of them. And yet I wasn't sure.
"You mean there might have been something?" I asked doubtfully.
"But I tell you I was alone. And it was my voice — my own voice."
Doctor Lenz didn't speak for a moment. A faint smile lurked in his beard as the large fingers tapped reflectively on the desk. "I am not concerned about your case, Mr. Duluth. Chronic alcoholics are like poets. They are born and not made. And usually they are psychopaths. You are definitely not a psychopath. You started drinking merely because the whole focal point of your life was suddenly taken from you. Your wife and your theatrical career were bound up together in your mind. With the tragic death of Mrs. Duluth, your interest in the theatre died, too. But it will come back. It is merely a question of time, possibly even of days."
I didn't see what he was driving at, but suddenly he added:
"In the seriousness of your own problem, you have forgotten that other people have problems, too. You have lost contact with life." He paused. "At the moment I myself happen to have a problem and I would like you to help me. Perhaps in helping me you will also be able to help yourself."
It was strangely comforting not to be treated like a case history in a book on morbid psychology. I pulled Miss Brush's blanket more closely around me and nodded for him to continue.
"You tell me you heard your own voice this evening," he said quietly. "It is possible that your condition was responsible for your believing that voice to be your own. But I do not doubt that there was something definite and actual behind your experience. You see, this is not the first disturbing thing which has been reported to me recently."
"You mean —?"
Doctor Lenz' gray eyes were grave. "As you know, Mr. Duluth, this sanitarium is not run for the incurably insane. Everyone who comes here has been suffering from some nervous condition. Many of them are just on the fringe; in real danger of losing their reason permanently. But I do not accept the responsibility of hopelessly demented patients. If such cases develop here, we advise the relatives to have them committed to a State institution. From several unexplainable little incidents, I feel that there may be at this moment someone in the sanitarium who ought not to be here."
He pushed a cigarette box toward me and I took one eagerly.
"You would be surprised to know how difficult it is to put a finger upon the cause of unrest, Mr. Duluth. We cannot really tell from charts, from physical examinations, or even from the closest supervision just how mentally sick a person is."
"And yet you think one of the patients is deliberately causing this trouble for some crazy reason of his own?"
"It is possible, yes. And the damage which such a person could do is incalculable. With the type of patients we have here, even a slight shock might be sufficient to retard their progress for months, might possibly prevent their ever getting well. As a theatrical producer you must have been thrown in contact with highly strung, temperamental people, and you know how little things can upset them."
He had stirred my interest all right. Forgetting that I was a semi-mental case wrapped up in a blanket, I asked questions curiously. Doctor Lenz was surprisingly lacking in reticence. He told me frankly that he had no means of localizing the disturbance to any particular place or person. All he could say was that there was a subversive influence, and that he was worried about his institution.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Puzzle for Fools"
Copyright © 1936 Patrick Quentin.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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