23. Background

The hospital grounds were picturesque: rolling green lawns, yellow shrubs, flower-beds that looked cut from the turf with pinking shears. The drizzle and the mist made the landscape seem vast and lush. The buildings too were improved by the rain; the grey brick structures appeared, at least from a distance, almost stately.

He followed the signs to the Visitor Parking Lot, where there were tall trees and angular glass buildings. He had to get out of the car to put his raincoat on, by which time he was drenched. Nevertheless he rummaged in the glove box for an umbrella; he thought it would help identify him as a visitor.

He went inside the nearest building, taking care to clean his shoes and shake his umbrella before passing through the second set of doors, smiling.

"Hello there," said Drew Dunkel.

"Well, hell-o there," said the young man at the desk, as if correcting a foreigner's pronunciation.

Drew allowed himself to drop the smile. "I wonder if you can tell me where the reception desk is."

The young man folded his hands and nodded several times. "Who are you looking for?"

"The reception desk, or whatever you might call it, for visitors."

"Yes, but who precisely are you visiting? What is the name of the guest?"

"Miranda Christianson."

The young man attacked an HDR screen with his index fingers. Perhaps he was the receptionist after all.

The young man raised his eyebrows at the screen.

The air was dustless and medicinal, smelling of ammonia, floor wax, hand sanitizer, and air conditioning.

"How do you spell that?"

"C," Drew began.

"Hold on," said the young man. "Okay ... C?"

Drew spelled the name for him, confirming each letter.

"Are you a relative?"

He hesitated, for some reason. He noticed that the young man had been reading the Argonaut. "I'm a reporter."

The young man looked crestfallen. "You mean like for TV?"

"Like that," he said, smiling again. It was of course thanks to TV, and to tabloids like the Argonaut, that people feared reporters. But perhaps for once he could turn that to his advantage. What sort of thing would bring a reporter, like for TV, to a place like this? "I'm doing a piece on questionable admissions to psychiatric institutions," he said.

"Oh, no," said the young man, attacking the HDR. "She was voluntary. Look!" he cried, then prevented Drew from looking. "You know, actually, I'm afraid that if you're not a family member then that's actually confidential."

"Well, can I see her?"

"Will you excuse me for a moment?"

The young man half turned in his chair and bowed his head. He sat like that for a minute, his eyes darting, but otherwise immobile. Talking on sill. When he turned back to Drew, he was cheerful and bright again.

"Helen will be right here."

"Oh good," said Drew.

"She can help you better than I can."


"I'm sure we want to cooperate fully, of course."

"I'm glad to hear that."

"Some of this information is confidential, you see. Under the privacy act."

"And a good thing, too."

"You're not joking!"

Drew waited, his elbows on the desk, reading the newspaper's teaser headlines.




Helen was even younger than the young man. Like him, she wore nothing like a uniform or doctor's white coat, but was dressed casually in khakis whose pantlegs did not reach her ankles and a maroon shirt-thing that Drew supposed might have been called a blouse.

"Helen Racing," she said, in a slight accent; she had probably been something like Hélène Racine once upon a time.

"Drew Dunkel, Post-Times."

"Of course," she said. "I recognize the name."

This was always possible, but somehow he doubted it. He allowed himself a flattered smile, and Helen immediately became businesslike.

"What can I do for you?"

"I'm interested in one of your patients."

Helen lowered her eyelids minimally in reproof, perhaps at his use of the word "patients," then turned back the way she had come, inviting Drew to follow with a glance.

"David? Would you kindly tell Dr. Abram that we're in consultation room 7-AG? Thanks, David." To Drew she said in a soft voice, "Of course, there is only so much information that can be released to the public. But we'd very much like to be as helpful as possible."

"I appreciate that," he said.

"I admit that I know very little about the way newspapers and such work. But, correct me if I'm wrong, it is possible for sources to remain anonymous?"

"It happens quite regularly."

"In other words—just to make everything clear, because you understand that this is all foreign to me—in other words, I take it that you would not necessarily need to publish the source of whatever information we might be able to provide you, is that right?"

"I would not print your name, if that's what you mean."

She paused and, with a stoic glance, motioned for him to pass into a small office. "Please enter," she added unnecessarily.

She closed the door behind them. "Actually, that's not quite what I meant." With a gesture, she invited Drew to sit down at a table, the only piece of furniture in the room. "Have a seat, please."

She sat down across from him and gave him a cozy smile, with reservations.

"I'm glad that you said that—about my name. I'm glad, that is, to have the opportunity to make everything clear. What I was really trying to ask—but didn't quite manage!—was whether or not you would need or be required to print or publish the name of the hospital in your ... 'column.' You see, I really don't even know what kind of thing it is that you intend to write."

Drew sighed with simulated thoughtfulness. "Let me put it to you this way, Ms. Racing."

"Please—Miss. You can also call me Helen."

"Let me put it to you this way, Helen. At this stage, even I don't know what kind of thing it is that I intend to write. It depends a lot on what I find. All I've been told is that there have been a few alleged irregularities in the admissions of patients to mental hospitals—throughout the state. That's where it stands. That's why we're looking into it: to see if there's any substance to any of it."

"I'm sure there can't be."

"To be honest, I'm inclined to agree. But who am I to argue with an assignment? I go where they tell me. In any case, at this stage, this is only what we call 'background.' Whatever you tell me, whatever you can show me, it's off the record. If I ever want to put it on the record, I'll ask. But, as I said, my guess is that that day will probably never come."

Helen Racing nodded seriously and said, "Just to be clear: you're not with anyone's lawyer or anything?"

He pulled out his wallet, then remembered he didn't have his press ID. They'd never given it back to him at the police station. He showed her his driver's license. "There's my name. Do you have a Post-Times around?"

"That's quite alright. As I said, I recognize the name. Speaking of names—what was the guest's?"

"Miranda Christianson."

The woman gave a connoisseur's nod.

"Do you know her?"

"No," she said with regret. "I'll get her file," she said, standing and waving at him to stay put. "You just stay put."

It was a thin file, held together with a single paper clip. Most of the pages appeared to be official forms. Most of the fields had been filled by HDR, but a few facts had been entered by hand, in neat blue block capitals. To one of the forms a photograph had been affixed. It looked like a mugshot. Behind a disheveled mop of greasy hair, a girl hardly recognizable as Miranda peered out malevolently. The form to which it was attached was called "C771-A8," or, as the fine print at the foot of the page identified it, "Admission Form Template." The code struck Drew as typical self-important bureaucracy.

He flipped forward, not sure what he was looking for. He felt that the file might be taken away from him at any moment. But he could not concentrate properly with the woman sitting across from him. She was not actually watching him read but she was not apparently doing anything else, either.

Drew cleared his throat and said, "Naturally, I don't want to take up any more of your time than necessary. Would it perhaps be possible for me to get copies of these pages?"

"Ah." Helen Racing smiled wistfully. "Alas, no. I'm afraid this material can only be released to the guest, the guest's psychiatrist or social worker, and the guest's family members or caregivers—and then only with the written permission of the guest herself. You understand. It's a privacy issue."

"Of course. Do you mind if I make notes?"

"I think," said Helen Racing, as if articulating the first clause of Descartes's theorem, "that that would probably not be a problem. As long as it's for your own ... personal use. You know what I mean: as long as anything that might be, you know, identifying, is kept out of print."

"Of course," he said, and pretended to search his pockets for a notepad. If he could only get her out of the room, he could take pictures. "I'm sorry, but would you ... You see, I usually take most of my notes with this," he said, placing his PDR on the table.

She left the door open, but was gone long enough for him to get snapshots of most of the pages. When she returned with pen and paper, he pretended to be on the phone.

"Donald," he said, "listen to me, Donald. That's not going to work. That's nonsense. Well, you can just tell Telerude that even if he is right, it's not going to make any difference. Why? You're asking me why? I'll tell you why, Donald. Because I ... don't ... care. That's why. Donald ..." He held the PDR away from his ear and rolled his eyes for Helen Riding's benefit, but she had lost interest. As if idly, he picked up the next page of the file. He brought the PDR back near his ear, aimed the lens in the direction of the form in his hand, and held down the shutter button. "Oh, Donald," he sighed, and did the same for the next page, and the next. The last few pages appeared to be nothing but gobbledygook, the outpouring of a monkey at a typewriter:

grr;omh yjsy og o vsm kidy lrr[ ,pbomh. kidy lrr[ yu[omh. lrr[ hpomh eoyjpiy ;pplomh nsvl o vsm dysu sjrsf pg yjr,/ o lmpe yjru idy jsbr ,r [om[pomyrf om d[svr smf dp,ryo,rd o yslr dp;svr om yjr ofrs yjsy yjr rstyj od ,pbomh niy pg vpitdr yjrot dsyr;;oyrd pt ytsmd,oyyrtd str ,pbomh s;pmh eoyj yjr rstyj dp yjsy\d mp jr;[ sgyrt s;; niy o ;olr yjr ofrs/

But he photographed these too. At the top of each page some doctor or orderly had written "M. Christianson," an alphanumeric string that must have been a patient ID, and the date. October 2 (two days after Sheila had brought her here), October 5, 8 ... Nothing later than that. A week ago? The day she'd called him.

He leaned back in his chair with a groan, gave the fictitious Donald a piece of his mind, threatened to give Telerude another piece, and then, sure that Helen Racing must be suspicious by now, he pretended to hang up, and put the PDR back in his pocket.

"Sometimes I hate this job," he said through a grimace.

He had resumed his perusal of the file when there came a polite knock at the door.

"Oh, good," said Helen Racing, standing up and sweeping her arms in introduction, "here's Doctor Abram."

"Hello, Mr. Dunkel. I understand you've come about your daughter."