September 08, 2014
Aversion Therapy

Friendly old Microsoft, as I learned over the weekend, has made it not quite impossible but inexcusably difficult to open a 1995 Word document. While I was messing around with this I came across a short story which I will now rescue from oblivion because why not. I have no recollection at all of having written the piece or why, or what if anything became of it. Tom Bethany is the protagonist of the six mysteries I wrote back in the Not So Gay Nineties; Hope Edwards is his married lover. Anyway, here goes:


AVERSION THERAPY

They were rowing a double scull on the Potomac just after dawn, the water flat and smooth as paint in a can. Both women moving up the slide to the catch, then drive, finish, release, and then all over again, two bodies with one brain. So Hope Edwards in the stern knew something was wrong even before Julie Holcomb in the bow began to cry.

The water strider tracks they had been making on the river, two perfect lines of neat puddles disappearing behind them, weren’t so perfect anymore. The blades of Julie’s oars weren’t slipping up out of the water quite so quietly on the release. At the catch, Hope could hear the tiny back splashes Julie was making, and feel the barely perceptible they made in the boat’s forward passage. There was a change in the deep rhythm of Julie’s breathing, just a hitch at first and then a small sound forced out of her as she drove into the stroke. A sob? A sob.

Hope Edwards eased off, and so Julie eased off behind her, too, and the boat whispered along through the water on its own momentum. “Julie?” Hope said. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Julie said.

The racing shell ran along until its momentum gave out, and then drifted.

“Go ahead,” Hope said. “Tell me.”

When Julie was finished, Hope said, “A friend of mine named Tom Bethany happens to be coming down from Cambridge tomorrow. This is just the kind of problem he loves.”

“One of your friends from law school?”

“Actually no. Tom’s sort of the opposite of a lawyer.”

***

“The thing is we row so well together that normally we go along in kind of a trance.” Hope was telling me the next evening. “You and the oars and the boat and the river, it all comes together and there’s nothing else. So when there was something else breaking in, I knew it had to be serious. Did you ever hear of this Richard Pennington, Tom? Is he really one of the baseball players out on strike? Or a player at all?”

“I never heard of him, no,” I said. “But I don’t know anything about baseball. I’d rather watch miniature golf.”

“I guess it doesn’t make any difference what he really does,” Hope said. “The point is, can we do anything about him?”

“Maybe, if I can find the guy. At least Julie knows where he used to live.”

“Shall we go look?”

“Hey, I just got in. Wouldn’t tomorrow do?”

We were eating where I was staying, at the Tabard Inn. We hadn’t seen each other for too long, so after dinner Hope and I went upstairs to my room to say hello to each other properly. Later we were lying in bed watching the TV with the sound off. An elephant was swimming toward a raft in the ocean, trying to sell us some type of artificially sweetened water. It was too baffling even to think about.

“Among other things,” Hope said, looking at the apparently sexless elephant, “Julie told me this Richard Pennington person was a very impressive specimen.”

“Big guy, you mean? Tall? Strong? Like that?”

“No, not like that.”

“Oh, yeah? More impressive than me?”

“You? Tom Bethany, the big-shot champion wrestler? Didn’t you ever look around at the other guys in the showers and wonder about yourself?”

“How about pretty, then? I bet I’ve got him on pretty.”

“Pretty doesn’t really enter into it. The truth is you men all look like some internal organ got left outside of the body by mistake. At least other animals keep it decently tucked away inside.”

“I can take a hint, but you’ve got to give me a few more minutes. I’m not some sixteen-year-old kid.”

***

It was next morning, and I was pounding on a Richard Pennington’s door, and nobody was answering, but maybe I’d flush out somebody from one of the neighboring co-op apartments. Eventually I did.

“He moved out,” a woman’s voice said. I could see a section of her face in the crack of a partly-opened door down the hall.

“Oh, yeah? When was that?”

“Day before yesterday. He’s only been here a couple of months.”

“Know where I could find him?”

“He didn’t say.”

“Maybe the movers could tell me. Remember which company?”

“He rented furnished from the owners. They’re overseas, foreign service people. All he had was suitcases and some boxes full of trash which he very thoughtfully left in the hall so my husband had to take them down to the basement.”

“Sounds like Richard,” I said. Which it did, what little I knew of him.

I took the elevator to the basement, hoping pickup day hadn’t come yet. Four cardboard boxes were piled next to the lineup of green plastic trash cans. I carried the boxes outside and left them by the basement steps while I brought my car around.

There was a supermarket not far away, so I pulled into the lot to see whether Pennington’s trash had been worth stealing. Mostly not. Just routine, anonymous debris like old toothpaste tubes, newspapers and ad flyers, occupant mail, empty cans and TV dinner packages. He was a Ben & Jerry’s man, Cherry Garcia flavor. I never knew anybody actually ate Cherry Garcia. I always figured it was an old family recipe and they ran off a few token pints now and then just to keep Jerry’s granny happy.

Among all this junk, though, I found a crumpled ball of paper that turned out to be a Visa receipt for thirty-some bucks. The name on it was Richard Harrigan, not Richard Pennington. It was from a saloon called Eddie’s Irish Rose, which was in the Adams-Morgan area of D.C., not far from 16th and Columbia. Pennington/Harrigan’s abandoned apartment was all the way across the Potomac in Arlington. It was a long way to go for a drink.

***

Hope Edwards was director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union, which wasn’t a good credential to have when you went calling on the District of Columbia police. So she left out that part of her résumé when we took her rowing partner, Julie Holcomb, down to headquarters that afternoon. Hope was supposed to be Julie’s lawyer and Tom Bethany was supposed to be an investigator from Hope’s office.

“You’re an investigator, are you, Mr. Bethany?” Detective Weintraub of the Fraud Squad said when Hope introduced me. “Is your background in law enforcement, may I ask?”

“You could say so,” I said. “Government work overseas.”

“Where was that?”

“Laos, mostly. During the war.”

“Laos, huh? I see.”

That meant he figured I was CIA, which I wasn’t. I had been an enlisted man in the army attaché’s office, but I let Weintraub jump to his conclusion.

When Hope told the detective we were interested in a certain Richard Harrington, he said, “Did this individual claim by any chance to be a professional athlete?”

“You know him, then?” Hope said.

“We’ve had prior contacts with Slick Richie.”

“Slick Richie?” Julie said.

“This is the nickname we give to Richard Harrigan among ourselves in the squad. Because our experience with this individual dates from a long time.”

Weintraub walked Julie through her story with a series of leading questions that showed he already knew what the answers would be. At the end Julie Holcolmb said, “Then the only true thing he told me was his first name, wasn’t it? The rest of it was all lies.”

“I’m afraid so, Miss Holcomb,” Weintraub said. “He told you a baseball player out on strike. Sometimes he says hockey player, or tennis, or auto racing. Whatever is out of season and the victim doesn’t have any particular knowledge of the sport. Probably he determined at a given point that you were unfamiliar with baseball, am I right?”

“Well, now that you mention it.”

“That’s the way he does. The only thing unfamiliar in your story as regards to his mode of operation, what we call his M.O., is that he took you to his place of residence. In the previous cases he was evasive about where he lived. He always visited the victim at her own domicile.”

“I live with my parents.”

“Very wise,” Weintraub said. “This sort of thing wouldn’t happen so much if more young ladies lived at home.”

The young lady in this instance was a thirty-five-year-old cardiologist at George Washington University Hospital. I looked at Hope, who would normally have taken advantage of the occasion to give Weintraub a little lesson in applied feminism. But under the circumstances she limited herself to rolling her eyes for my benefit.

Julie was close to six feet tall, with a homely, friendly face. She had stroked the Radcliffe heavyweight eight, and gone back to rowing after her residency was over. She and Hope were practicing for the Nationals, in the masters division. “Living at home didn’t help me much,” she said. “It still happened.”

“Don’t feel too bad, because he’s an expert at this,” Weintraub said. “This guy isn’t just a swindler, he’s frankly a phenomenon from what previous victims have informed us. What they call one of those sexual athletes.”

Dr. Holcomb’s face flushed, and she looked down.

“How many other women has he swindled?” Hope asked.

Harrigan had pillaged the credit cards and bank accounts of nine women that they knew of, the detective said, always on the promise of marriage. In one case the invitations had actually gone out. When the time came to dump his fiancée he didn’t just walk out like a man. He told her face-to-face, and then he raped her at knife point. After he disappeared she would find out that her bank accounts and credit cards were empty.

“Is this type of armed sexual assault similar to what occurred to yourself, Miss Holcomb, pardon me for asking?” Weintraub said. He didn’t call her doctor because she hadn’t told him she was one. Nor had she mentioned rape. But she answered his question by flushing again, avoiding our eyes, and nodding her head.

“A knife?” the detective said.

She nodded again. “He didn’t use it,” she said. “He just took it out and put it on the table.”

“As far as the law is concerned,” Weintraub said, “threatening with a weapon for the purpose of rape is as much of a felony as actually employing the weapon. Are you willing to bring charges and testify against him in court?”

Again Julie Holcomb avoided our eyes, but this time she shook her head.

“That’s the whole trouble we’re facing here,” the detective said. “Ten women by now, and nobody willing to help us get the guy off the streets. I know it’s rough, but if you want to stop him, somebody’s got to put themselves through it.”

Julie just sat there, looking down at her lap in dumb, guilty anguish.

***

Eddie’s Irish Rose was what you’d expect. Shillelaghs and shamrocks all over, ale and bitters in pint mugs. “Over there by the dart board,” the bartender had said when I asked after Richard Harrigan. He fitted Julie Holcomb’s description of Richard Pennington—a man in his late thirties or early forties, about my height and weight. This made him around 180 and an inch or so under six feet. She had called him handsome and maybe he was. Women think some of the damnedest people are handsome. Steven Seagal, for instance, and in fact this specimen looked a little like Seagal.

Harrigan was too far away for me to hear what he was saying, but he was making the other darts players laugh and seemed to be popular. I watched him for a few minutes and then slipped out of the place, leaving most of my pint of bitters behind. Harrigan might be settling in for a long evening, and I didn’t want too much fluid aboard while I waited for him in my ’89 Subaru wagon.

The Subaru was closing in on 150,000 miles, and was about as inconspicuous as a car could get. But I might as well have used James Bond’s 4.5-liter Bentley. Harrigan never even looked around when he left the saloon just after one o’clock. He headed off down the street in the kind of self-consciously casual walk that I remembered from my own drinking days. You try for loose and easy, and you’re sloshed enough to think you’re pulling it off.

I had no way of knowing whether Harrigan had come on foot or whether he was heading for his car, so I gave him a little lead and pulled out from the curb to follow. I kept a block or so behind him till 16th Street, where he veered off onto a side street called Argonne Terrace. On the right was a huge apartment building that took up most of the block. As he came up on the entrance he started to fish something out of his pocket, presumably his keys, so I drove by him and pulled over. I caught up to Harrigan as he was swiping his key past some sort of electronic recognition device. When the door clicked and he went in I was right behind him.

“Thanks,” I said, pretending to put my own key back in my pocket. He smiled absently. The elevator was way down the hall, and I followed him to it. He was cool. Real men don’t panic when somebody their own size gets into the elevator with them. He punched four and I punched six. He looked straight ahead, pretending I wasn’t there till I grabbed his right arm in a come-along hold that put him up on his tip-toes. The keys were in his other hand.

“First sound and I break your elbow,” I said. The doors slid open when we got to four, and he started to say something. Not shouting, but just trying to say something. I jacked him up just short of popping the joint, and he gasped from the pain. “I told you shut up,” I said. This time he paid attention. “We’re going to your apartment.” Once he had let us in, I turned his arm loose and attached the door chain to slow him down if he decided to run off.

“You’re welcome to anything I have,” he said. “Really, I mean it. I’ve been tapped out, too, and I know what you’re up against. Hey, what the hell, it’s all insured anyway.”

“Okay, let’s see what you’ve got,” I said. He kept talking away about what pals we could be, and how he totally understood where I was coming from, and how he admired guys like me that had the balls to live on the edge, and this bullshit and that. Meanwhile I went around collecting every piece of paper in the place. It wasn’t much. Checkbooks, bills, an address book, the kitchen calendar, notes stuck to the refrigerator with little magnets. It all went into a grocery bag from the kitchen.

I rummaged through his bureau drawers and turned out the pockets of the clothes in his closet, but didn’t come up with anything more than what I had already shoved into the bag. All the while I was working out a plan, based on the fact that I had a spare key to Hope’s country place down in Virginia’s hunt country. I didn’t want Harrigan to know where he was, so I shoved his bathrobe into the bag, too. My idea was to tie his bathrobe over his head with its belt while I drove him to Hope’s isolated house in Rappahannock County. That was as far as my plan went.

Once I was done with the apartment, I set the bag to one side and unhitched the chain on the front door. “Let’s get it over with,” I said. “Take your best shot at getting past me, so we don’t have to go through the whole thing later.”

He was built well enough to pass for a professional athlete, but he just stood there. So I slapped him hard enough to bring tears to his eyes, and even then he didn’t do anything. I stuck out my own face, hands at my side. “Go ahead and take a shot,” I said, “you fucking pussy.”

I wanted an excuse to hurt him because of something Detective Weintraub had told me in private, after showing Hope and Julie out. I didn’t want Julie to hear me, but I wanted to know why Harrigan used the knife. Why wouldn’t Julie and the other victims welcome a chance to go to bed with him again? Wouldn’t it mean he still loved them? That he might come back?

“The purpose of the knife,” Weintraub said, “was to force the individual to participate in some type of activity that Richie knew this particular individual considered highly unpleasant or disgusting.”

So now I wanted to force this particular Harrigan individual to participate in a type of activity he would consider highly unpleasant. Getting, for instance, his ass whipped.

“You’re a lover, not a fighter?” I said to Harrigan as he stood there, confused and scared and drunk. “Is that it?”

I shot suddenly for his legs, dumped him on the floor, and wrapped him up with one of the dozens of holds that any trained wrestler can use to make any non-wrestler feel—and be—totally helpless. In this case it was a keylock on his right arm. A moment or two with the pressure on isn’t just agonizing. It leaves an individual’s arm temporarily paralyzed.

“Okay,” I said once our little lesson was over and his arm was dangling uselessly. “Let’s move out.”

In ten minutes his arm would be working again, but it would never occur to him to use it against me during our trip to Castleton. Tying up a person’s mind works better than tying up his hands.

***

Hope’s country house was two miles by washboard dirt road from the nearest blacktop. “You can’t just leave me here like some animal,” Harrigan said, once I had settled him into his new quarters in the attic.

“Hey, Richie,” I said. “You are an animal.”

Hope’s huge old Newfoundland had finally died a few years before, but his heavy chain had still been out in the garage. Now it was padlocked around Harrigan’s neck. The other end was padlocked to an eight-by-four oak beam under the roof. The chain was long enough to let him lie down, but not much longer. I had moved all the attic junk outside his reach, leaving him with an old plastic bucket as his only toy.

“You can’t just leave me here with no food or water, for God’s sake,” Harrigan said.

“I doubt if God gives a shit. I know I don’t.”

I went downstairs and got some sleep until Harrigan woke me up just before noon, shouting for somebody to come help him, he was dying of thirst. Probably he was, since the sun on the tin roof would have turned the attic into a sweat box by now. I ran a glass of hot water and climbed the attic stairs.

“It’s hot,” he said when I handed him the plastic glass.

“I thought it might be. That’s what it said on the tap.”

“What do you want, for God’s sake?”

“God doesn’t come into it, I told you already. This is between you and all the women you fucked over.”

“What women?”

“You tell me. I want the name of every woman you raped and stole from.”

“You’ve got me mixed up with somebody else. Do I look like somebody that would have to rape women?”

“That’s exactly what you look like.”

“Who are you, anyway.”

“Maybe an older brother or a real fiancé. Maybe an uncle or a father. Doesn’t matter. The point is you’re going to sit here and melt till you give up the names.”

“Listen, has some woman been telling you crazy things about me? We can straighten this out. What’s her name?”

“You tell me. Just give up all the names, loverboy, and one of them’s bound to be hers.”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“Grow up. Didn’t you know this was bound to happen sooner or later?”

“What? Honestly, you must have the wrong person.”

“Think it over for the next couple of days, shithead. And keep the noise down. You see this? This is a rag I found behind one of the toilets. It gets taped into your mouth if I hear another sound out of you.”

***
“He’s still denying he ever conned a woman in his life, let alone had to rape one, big stud like him,” I said to Hope and Julie the next day. “But there’s not much to him. He’d turn in his own mother if I jacked him around some.”

“Why don’t you, then?” Julie said. “My God, did I just say that? I work for the ACLU.”

“I’ve already got him tied up under a hot tin roof with nothing but a loaf of Wonder bread and a plastic jug of warm Kool-Aid,” I said. “I don’t feel comfortable going any further than that.”

We were having lunch in the cafeteria of George Washington University Hospital, where Julie Holcomb worked. I had come up to the city so I could make the rounds of various ATM machines without leaving a paper trail pointing to Rappahannock County, or even so much as to Virginia. I had already maxed out Harrigan’s cards, using the PIN number in had found among the papers from his apartment. But he evidently didn’t have too much of a credit line, since I had only scored a total of $1100 on three cards.

“He must have put his real money somewhere,” I said. “But so far he keeps insisting he hasn’t got any bank accounts.”

“Repayment isn’t really the point, you know,” Julie had said when I told my plans to split Harrington’s assets among his victims.

“I know, but at least it’s something. Which is more than the police can do.”

Without a complainant, as I could have added but didn’t. Doctors live on dignity, and she wouldn’t have much left after Harrigan’s lawyers got through with her.

“I just wish there were some way to make he never does it to anybody else,” Julie said.

“Well, maybe he won’t,” I said.

“What’s going to stop him?”

“I found him once without even knowing his name, and he’s got to figure I could do it again. Which I probably could, now that I’ve gone through his papers. I know his parents’ name and address, his Social Security number, his date and place of birth, his driver’s license number, everything. Well, everything but his bank account numbers. I couldn’t find any bank records, so maybe he’s telling the truth about not having any accounts.”

“He probably ran through it all,” said Julie, whose morale seemed marginally better now that I had caught her tormentor. “Why not? He can always get more from some other idiot.”

She fell silent, while Hope and I tried out various ideas on each other, none of which seemed likely to keep Richard Harrigan out of the boudoir business for very long.

“Where are you keeping him?” Julie asked at last.

“Hope’s place in Rappahannock,” I said.

“Can’t he charge you with kidnapping?”

“Sure, but he’ll have a tough time proving it once I turn him loose. He doesn’t know where he is, and he doesn’t know who I am.”

A couple of frighteningly young interns in white coats came by, one of them a blond tall enough to play pro basketball. He had huge hands and shoulders wider than a lot of doors.

“Hey, Big Sis,” he said to Julie. She nodded as he passed.

“He’s supposed to call you doctor,” I said. “That’s what they do on ER.”

“It’s a special case,” Julie said. “I’m his big sister.”

“He row, too? He’s built for it.”

“He was on the first boat at Brown.”

***
Next morning I walked Hope to her office on Capitol Hill. “What happens now, Bethany?” she asked on the way. “With my house guest, I mean.”

“I’ll have to turn the son of a bitch loose. Unless you’ve got a better idea.”

“I don’t.”

From the ACLU office I walked over to Capitol Hill, where they put on the best free shows in town. There I reinforced my faith in human nature by watching Republican serial violators of the campaign finance law as they beat up on Democrats for violating the campaign finance laws.

It was still well before sunset when I arrived at Hope’s house in Castleton house to bundle up Harrington and dump him somewhere far away. It was a simple, old-fashioned lock. My key wouldn’t turn in the door. Either the mechanism was jammed or the bolt had already been opened. I stood still and listened hard. Nothing. I turned the knob and pushed against the door, and it gave slightly. So somebody had unlocked it. I backed down the steps and walked carefully around the house, keeping in close to stay out of sight as much I could.

A pane was broken in one of the kitchen windows.

Back at the front door, I let myself in silently and went from room to room on the ground floor and the second floor. I didn’t find anyone and I didn’t expect to. There wasn’t any car around, and whoever had broken in the back of the house had apparently let himself out the front door. Still, I was careful going up the stairs to the attic.

Richard Harrigan was right where I left him, with his plastic bucket and his Kool-Aid jug and his Wonder Bread beside him. But he had no line of bullshit for me this time. He was pulled as far away from me as the chain would let him, like a dog afraid of being whipped.

“What’s wrong, loverboy?” I said.

“For God’s sake, you never even gave me a chance to tell you before you let him do it.”

I took it slow, till I could figure out what was going on.

“Let who do what?” I asked.

“Huh? Don’t you know?”

“I didn’t say I didn’t know. I said tell me who exactly who did what. Unless you want him to come back.”

“I don’t know what he did. Not exactly. I don’t dare take the dressing off and look. Jesus, it hurts enough without pulling the bandage off of it.”

“What bandage?”

He made a little motion with one hand toward his groin.

“You’re telling me your equipment is bandaged and you don’t know what happened to it?”

“I don’t remember anything. He gave me a shot of something.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. All I could see was the flashlight. The one that gave me the shot stayed out of the light and went around behind me. Big, huge guy. You could tell from his hands. I figured the other guy was you, the one holding the light.”

“Why? The guy sound like me?”

“The only one who said anything was the big guy. All he said was shut up and keep still. Why couldn’t he have asked me before he did it? I would have told him whatever he wanted to know.”

“Well, you can tell me now, unless you want him to come back and work on you some more. Unzip and let’s see what kind of a job he did.”

I was expecting the worst, but it wasn’t so bad. Just a neat dressing around Harrigan’s penis, about halfway up. Whatever had been done to him, there wasn’t any blood visible on the bandage or on his underpants.

When Harrigan had zipped up I started in asking him questions again, the same questions as before. But this time he erupted with answers. Words spilling over each other in his haste to tell me anything I wanted to know, anything at all. At the end I had the names of not ten but twenty-four women, in cities from Washington to Seattle. He gave me names and places of employment and addresses. He gave me exact amounts of money swindled from each one, and he told me how much of it he had spent, and on what.

“There’s still almost thirty thousand in the apartment in cash,” he said. “Take it, it’s yours. It’s hidden inside the kitchen ceiling. You know that kind of ceiling where the tiles just sit loose on this like grid? In the corner by the stove. Look, I’ll just give the money to you and disappear. You’ll never see me again.”

“You’ll give me shit, loverboy. I’ll go get it for myself, and if it’s not there, I won’t come back for you. My two friends will.”

***
I got to Harrigan’s apartment around dinnertime and let myself in with his key. The money was where he said it was, so I filled my pockets. I helped myself to an armload of his fancy clothes, too. He liked the kind of clothes you can get for half the price if you’re willing to pass up the thrill of walking around with Ralph Lauren’s name on you. What the hell, though. Harrigan had already paid the surcharge and the stuff still had a lot of wear in it. What I didn’t want I slashed with one of his kitchen knives. Expensive clothes were his work uniform, and I wanted to make it as hard as possible for him to get back to work.

I was back to the country house by midnight. I took a flashlight up to the attic instead of just switching the light on, which was no doubt a rotten thing to do. But I have to say I enjoyed seeing the gigolo/rapist cowering and whimpering until I spoke up and he figured out it was just me behind the light and not his two mysterious friends. I unlocked the chain around his neck and gave him his bathrobe back. “Tie this around your head, loverboy,” I said. “We’re out of here.”

On the way out to the paved county road, an annoying stream of talk kept coming out of the bathrobe. “You have to realize you’ve only heard one side of it,” he was saying at one point. “These are women who haven’t had much love in their lives. They were grateful for it. I don’t know what kind of lies your friend told you, but most of these women would take me back in a New York minute. They needed good loving and I gave it to them when nobody else would, and where’s the harm in that? I gave them memories they’ll cherish forever, and they wouldn’t have them without me. I was doing those poor dogs a favor.”

I pulled the car over, braking so hard he had to throw up his arms to keep from hitting the windshield. As he lowered them, I grabbed one and put it in a wristlock.

“Ow,” he said. “That hurts, for Christ’s sake.”

“Not yet it doesn’t. You’ll learn what hurt is if you don’t shut the fuck up right now. What you are, Harrigan, is the lowest form of human life. You’re a whore that pimps himself out. You’re a coward and a bully and a rapist and a pathetic little dick-peddler and I’m sorry those guys didn’t rip your dick off. Let me hear the first goddamned word out of you for the rest of this trip, just one single word, and I’m going to grab this wrist again and I’m going to break it slow, and then I’m going to break it the other way, and you’ll have nothing but a useless fucking piece of meat hanging off the end of your arm for the rest of your life. Nod if you want your hand back, loverboy.”

He nodded and I let him loose. We drove in silence for the rest of the way. I shoved him out of the car around the corner from his apartment building and drove off before he could get the bathrobe off his head. I kept his wallet and his keys. Let him figure out how to get in.

Next morning I got up obscenely early and drove to the Potomac Boat Club to fill Hope in on developments when she came back from her morning row. It was a pleasant wait, checking out the techniques of the occasional scullers who passed on the river. I had been learning to row myself, back home in Cambridge. I wasn’t much good yet, but I had got to where I believed I could tell a good oarsman from a poor one. Everybody’s a critic.

When Hope came in sight, she turned out to be in a double with Julie Holcomb. I excused myself to Julie and took Hope over to the other end of the dock. “So I guess the big question is,” I said when I had told her about Richard’s midnight visitors, “does Julie know where your summer house is?”

“Yes, and her brother is six-six, with huge hands. He was captain of crew at Brown.”

“And he’s a medical student.”

“And she’s a doctor,” Hope said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s all circumstantial. I don’t believe they did it any more than I believe O.J. killed his wife.”

“Yeah. I wonder exactly what they didn’t do, though.”

“Let’s find out.”

So we went over to Julie, who looked guilty as hell. But she didn’t fool me.

“Julie,” I said, “we’ve been going over the evidence and we’ve decided you and your brother weren’t anywhere near Rappanannock County night before last.”

“Look—” she began.

“Nope, it looks like we’ll never get to the bottom of it, Julie.”

“Look, we didn’t mean—”

“It’s like Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance, Julie. Nobody’s ever going to crack this one. Harrigan’s loose again, running around with this really professional-looking bandage on, but he doesn’t have the slightest idea where he was or who did whatever happened to him. In fact I don’t know what happened to him, either.”

“Nothing that—”

“Hold it, Julie. Hold it right there. Let’s keep this thing theoretical, shall we?”

At last she smiled a little. She could see where I was going, and the fright was starting to go away.

“Let’s just suppose you’re working in the emergency room and some guy comes in all taped up like a leaky hose, okay? Speaking as a professional physician, Dr. Holcomb, what would your diagnosis be in a theoretical case like that?”

“In a theoretical case like that—” she was definitely smiling now— “my diagnosis would be an acquired chordee.”

“Which is what?”

“A chordee is a pronounced bend in the penis, usually upward. Normally it’s congenital and poses no particular problem. But sometimes we run across a case where trauma has produced an acquired chordee that causes the erect penis to bend at right angles to one side or the other, depending.”

“Depending on what?”

“The location of the permanent and irreversible scarring that might be produced in the tunica of the corporal body by, for instance, a battery-powered cautery.”

“Burns, you mean?”

“Deep burns, yes.”

“Jesus, it hurts even thinking about it.”

“Well, of course you’d want to administer an anesthetic if you were doing a procedure like that. Possibly a mixture of Midazolam and morphine.”

“There wouldn’t be any real danger, though? Blood poisoning or something?”

“Not with wounds that were already cauterized, no. Not if they were dressed with Bacitracin ointment and properly bandaged.”

“And when the bandages came off the guy’d look ridiculous the rest of his life?”

“Not the entire rest of his life, no. When the organ was flaccid it would look relatively normal except for the scars. But in a state of sexual arousal, erection would produce a right-angle bend in the organ. I suppose you could call that ridiculous. Along with everything else.”

“What else?”

“Well, erection would result in a certain amount of discomfort for the patient. Quite a bit of discomfort, actually. Agony, actually.”

“Gee, that would really be tough luck. Could it be corrected surgically?”

“Generally not. The patient would just have to learn to avoid stimulating situations. You might call it a form of aversion therapy.”

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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at September 08, 2014 05:26 PM
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Thanks! The first new Tom Bethany in a long, long time.

Posted by: Joyful A on September 8, 2014 7:23 PM

Yay, for new Tom Bethany! I miss him.

Posted by: on September 15, 2014 11:13 AM
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