When my phone rang, the voice on the other end was that of a friend and colleague, Dr. John Garcia. John is a fine man and a fine psychiatrist with whom I went to school long ago and who takes me out for lunch now and then at the restaurant of his choice, seldom allowing me to pay. He does emergency intake and inpatient care in one of Washington's biggest hospitals and, like me, also sees private patients.
John was telling me now that he wanted to transfer a patient to me, to put him in my care, and I could hear the eagerness in his voice. "This guy could be a difficult case. I don't know what you'll make of him, but I'd prefer for him to be under your care at Goldengrove. Apparently he's an artist, a successful one he got himself arrested last week, then brought to us. He doesn't talk much and doesn't like us much, here. His name is Robert Oliver."
I've heard of him, but I don't really know his work," I admitted. "Landscapes and portraits I think he was on the cover of ARTnews a couple of years ago. What did he do to get arrested?" I turned to the window and stood, watching hail fall like expensive white gravel over the walled back lawn and a battered magnolia. The grass was already very green, and for a second there was watery sunlight over everything, then a fresh burst of hail.
"He tried to attack a painting in the National Gallery. With a knife."
"A painting? Not a person?"
"Well, apparently there was no one else in the room at that moment, but a guard came in and saw him lunging for a painting."
"Did he put up a fight?" I watched hail sowing itself in the bright grass.
"Yes. He eventually dropped the knife on the floor, but then he grabbed the guard and shook him up pretty badly. He's a big man. Then he stopped and let himself just be led away, for some reason. The museum is trying to decide whether or not to press assault charges. I think theyre going to drop, but he took a big risk."
I studied the backyard again. "National Gallery paintings are federal property, right?"
"What kind of knife was it?"
"Just a pocketknife. Nothing dramatic, but he could have done a lot of damage. He was very excited, thought he was on a heroic mission, and then broke down at the station, said he hadn't slept in days, even cried a little. They brought him over to the psych ER, and I admitted him." I could hear John waiting for my answer.
"How old is this guy?"
"He's young well, forty-three, but that sounds young to me these days, you know?" I knew, and laughed. Turning fifty just two years before had shocked us both, and we'd covered it by celebrating with several friends who were in the same situation.
"He had a couple of other things on him, too a sketchbook and a packet of old letters. He won't let anyone else touch them."
"So what do you want me to do for him?" I found myself leaning against the desk to rest; I'd come to the end of a long morning, and I was hungry.
"Just take him," John said.
But the habits of caution run deep in our profession. "Why? Are you trying to give me additional headaches?"
"Oh, come on." I could hear John smiling. "I've never known you to turn a patient away, Dr. Dedication, and this one should be worth your while."
"Because I'm a painter?"
He hesitated only a beat. "Frankly, yes. I dont pretend to understand artists, but I think you'll get this guy. I told you he doesn't talk much, and when I say he doesnt talk much, I mean I've gotten maybe three sentences out of him. I think he's switching into depression, in spite of the meds we started him on. He also shows anger and has periods of agitation. I'm worried about him."
I considered the tree, the emerald lawn, the scattered melting hailstones, again the tree. It stood a little to the left of center, in the window, and the darkness of the day had given its mauve and white buds a brightness they didnt have when the sun shone. "What do you have him on?"
Excerpted from The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. Copyright © 2010 by Elizabeth Kostova. Excerpted by permission of Little Brown & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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