The St. Louis Insane Asylum, 9:10 a.m.
Alexis rode on, hoping Estelle would see the light and contact her with worthwhile information. Estelle informed her that the women were gone and the only person at the Colson house was most likely Theodore. She turned her horse around and trotted to her next stop.
Though it was early yet and a Sunday as well, Alexis decided to try and forge some good from the slag of the day. She approached the long, low brick wall of the St. Louis Insane Asylum and mused as to the ease even a person of addled facility or infirmity could simply climb right over at any point along the way.
She found the entrance at the midpoint and turned in. The trees lining the drive were full of greenery and spring flowers of pink and pale blue and white. The tranquil scene was gilded by finches and cowbirds weaving and dipping in graceful aerobatics from branch to branch all down the promenade.
She knew this was a contrived facade shielding the outside observer from the true despair and despondency swirling inside. The path split and circled around a once lovely fountain, but no water flowed and a green muck had taken over.
She had been to the asylum before to question a patient about a land fraud case. She hoped this trip was more enlightening and less draining. The poor man she visited on that occasion had his spirit crushed by his greedy offspring. He was so sedated that she could not even coax his own name from his lips, let alone gain details about the family estate.
Alexis dismounted and looped the reins around the horn of the saddle allowing her horse to graze freely on the pristine lawn.
The staircase held four wide steps leading to the tall, white-columned portico. An imposing Colonial Revival structure, it was a tall, five story brick building flanked by two long wings of four floors. The whole illusion was topped off with the austere cast iron dome, seen from most any avenue far and wide, a constant reminder to cherish one’s good fortune and sanity.
Inside the reception area, the stage magic was even more poignant with a long, low, black desk nestled in the curve of the light grey marble staircase rising on either side and above it. Exotic ferns, Greek nudes and urns were placed in every pocket and niche. Three fine chairs in black leather upholstery were situated just far enough from the desk to deter casual conversation between visitors and staff.
The woman in a white uniform seated behind the desk did not look up from her roost until Alexis had stood before her for a moment and then finally cleared her throat.
“Yes? May I help you?” Barely taking a glance, though showing poorly veiled irritation at being torn from her work. In this case, her work was reading the newspaper. The front page sported a drawing of a local celebrity that bore a striking resemblance to Alexis.
“I am here to speak to a patient. Mrs. Theodore Colson.”
“I’m afraid there are no visiting hours without a doctor’s appointment and especially on a Sunday, as no doctor is available.” Apparently, Alexis’ likeness in the paper was not good enough for the secretary, for she rolled her eyes from the woman before her and came to rest right on the image with no reaction.
“So no care is given on Sundays?” Alexis asked. She knew it was the wrong tack, yet this woman’s demeanor chaffed upon her highly.
“That is not what I said.” She placed both hands flat on the paper, fingers splayed and knuckles whitening. She stared at the paper, hoping Alexis would get the hint and disappear.
“By informing me no doctors are present on Sundays, I am left to wonder if the patients just run amok.”
“The patients are being well cared for. Not that it is any of your concern, but the full staff of nurses and orderlies are here to see to their every need. The doctors work extremely hard and are deserving of a day of rest.”
“Can a patient be admitted on a Sunday?”
“Yes, under special circumstances, with a doctor present, a patient in need of emergency care can be admitted on a Sunday,” she delivered slowly, in case Alexis might be a simpleton.
“Good. We have that established. Now, I am here to see Mrs. Theodore Colson, who was admitted just this morning. I am in the employ of her husband and am here under his orders to speak to her. You have already told me a physician must be present to have her admitted, so may I please speak with him?”
This being circled around in her own words must have tightened her throat, for the receptionist only blinked and worked her jaw silently.
“I apologize. We have gotten off poorly. My client, Mr. Colson directed me here to—”
“I am not deaf. I heard your words very clearly, but you must have a doctor present to speak to any patient.”
“You may not be deaf, but your brain function forces me to wonder as to whether you might actually be a patient suffering from idiocy.”
She was finally rattled sufficiently to loosen her gaze from the paper and up to Alexis. Her eyes flared and her nostrils turned white as she snipped, “Madam! There is no need to speak to me—”
“Understand me, Madam, the safety of Mr. And Mrs. Colson’s daughter is at stake and the longer you bully me with your bureaucracy and bluster, the more dangerous her situation becomes. Do you want to answer to the parents or the authorities when they discover your ineptitude led to the young woman’s harm?”
Alexis knew she was using a sledgehammer when a gentle nudge would suffice, yet she could not endure this woman’s facile nature.
“Please, be seated there,” the woman said after a pause, pointing to the distant chairs. She rose stiffly under the burden Alexis placed upon her. “I will see if the doctor is still on the premises. It was, after all, quite some time ago when Mrs. Colson was admitted.”
Despite Alexis’ bluff about Theodore sending her, the nurse conceded the hand and went to a door in a recess around the grand staircase. She heard the woman talking to someone in the other room and soon a lumbering man in orderly whites emerged. He glared at Alexis and ascended the staircase to the second floor.
As he climbed the steps, Alexis noticed an area on the back and top of his head had been shaved. In the center of what looked to be a nice contusion indeed, she saw a network of black sutures. A minor puzzlement, she wondered if he may not be an employee, but actually a patient who had received some barbaric surgical treatment.
The receptionist and Alexis waited in tepid silence. According to her calculations, she sat for a full quarter hour until a young doctor descended the stairs led by the goonish orderly.
The doctor was impeccably groomed with light brown hair parted down the middle of his skull and sported a perfect mustache, so sharply trimmed Alexis imagined it could serve as a straight edge rule. His calf-length smock was pristinely white and had the look of being tailored to provide the illusion the man had broad shoulders. When he extended his hand to shake hers, she noticed no wedding band and a manicure that put her own nails to shame.
“Good morning,” he greeted with a smile, his lips slyly parting, revealing a breathtaking display of pearled beads, hypnotic in their symmetry. “I am Doctor Cuttrow. I’m sorry, but my associates didn’t get your name . . .”
“So nice to meet you, doctor. My name is Alexis Free. I work for Theodore Colson and I would like to speak with his wife, Elizabeth.”
Still holding her hand firmly, he motioned toward the front doors, “Please, perhaps we should discuss this out in the glorious sunshine? It would truly be a shame to waste such a day.”
She knew she was being herded, but hoped to break from his cattle chute before being branded by this suave man. “I suppose that is acceptable, but I must tell you Mr. Colson is quite adamant that I speak to his wife.”
He released his grip, but placed his hand upon her elbow, guiding her outward, “That is actually very interesting for two reasons, Mrs.—”
“That’s Miss, doctor,” she said, pulling her elbow from his touch.
“So sorry. Miss Free. As I was saying, he did not mention you or anyone else wanting to see his wife—if anything, he gave the impression he wished her to be completely undisturbed. That is the nature of the word, ‘asylum,’ after all. Rest and sanctuary from all outside oppressions. Another item which raises my interest is Mr. Colson was most definitely aware of how heavily sedated his wife was—in fact, he insisted on being present for the first injection treatments.”
He walked each step right beside and behind her, occasionally brushing against her. It rankled her, but she endured.
Sensing the direction of his comments, Alexis tried to angle to her destination instead of his. “I spoke to him after the admitting and treatment. He hoped the effects of the medication had ebbed enough for me to speak with her.”
They stepped off the final stair and he spun on her, gripping both of her arms at the biceps, squeezing roughly. His smooth demeanor crumbled around her feet, leaving no more illusion as to his true nature. His perfect teeth and mouth formed a macabre grimace, his face and eyes puckered to a knot. Lines that were invisible before deepened to gouges framing his wild eyes. His transformation was so rapid and total, Alexis merely gaped in astonishment.
“See here, Miss Free—if that’s really your name—I know why you’re here and you’ll find no story about the person you’re looking for. Go back to your newspaper or wherever they would hire a little tramp such as yourself and tell them to desist their investigations at once. We may be a charitable institution, but where do you think much of that ‘charity’ comes from? I’ll tell you: from the industrious fathers of this fine city. And those fathers are lawyers and legislators that will not take kindly to intrusions of such a prying nature. I will say, I think it quite unseemly that you would use the misfortune of a good woman such as Mrs. Colson as your entree into our secrets. I have no idea how you learned she was admitted or her identity, but I will find out.”
Her natural urge was to protest or fight his grip, but she forced herself to endure the verbal and physical assault a moment longer. She felt something was transpiring. To discover it, she knew she must not shatter his illusion of control. He swiveled his head around for any unwanted attentions, but saw only the orderly standing in the doorway gingerly testing his stitches with his fingers.
The doctor’s voice lowered to a whispering rage. “I have shaped my career painstakingly. This . . . this cesspool is but a short step away from my own practice and tenure at one of the better hospitals. I have worked too hard to let it be destroyed by the likes of you or that damned escapee. Do you understand me? He will be found and brought back and this whole matter will be but a trifling misunderstanding. If you are not careful, you may find yourself in a much better situation to ask all the questions you care to—from the inside!” He nodded to the asylum.
“Ow!” she exclaimed, though the pain was minimal. She wished to lure him in with his sense of dominance. “You do realize you are hurting me?”
“Good. I have found sometimes the only way in which to get through to some people is negative physical stimulation. I will release you only if you swear you will leave this be, do you understand me?” The last word was punctuated with the violent shaking of her arm.
She had hoped to learn more, but concern for some type of permanent injury took over as she quickly stomped on the doctor’s foot. He released his grip and raised his leg, clasping his hands around his knee.
Alexis calmly reached out and lay her left hand over the top of his right. She enclosed her fingers around his thumb.
With blinding speed she spun herself to the right while using the hold on his thumb to twist the man’s wrist down, palm facing inward. He gasped as she lifted his arm and tucked hers underneath his, giving the outward appearance of a man casually leading a woman by the arm, when in truth, the man in question was experiencing excruciating pain.
“Walk with me,” she whispered as she led him slowly away from the building. The orderly had a puzzled countenance, but stood fast as the doctor walked with her, haltingly.
Whimpers of pain leaked out of the doctor’s piteous face.
“Now, you claim to be a physician, though by evidence of your bedside manner, I am left to wonder. However . . . seeing as you must be in some capacity a learned physician, I’m sure you are aware of your current position. With a small amount of pressure, I could dislocate your wrist from your arm and probably tear several tendons in the process. Taking this into consideration, I would weigh my responses carefully but quickly if I were you.”
She took his peep and anemic nod as understanding.
“I am here to speak to Mrs. Colson. Is she here?”
A yelp and a nod.
“Wonderful. Is she able to speak to anyone?”
A peep and a “No.”
“Very well. When will she be able to hold a coherent conversation?”
They had arrived at the boggy fountain where she stopped their stroll.
“Three days, maybe four,” he croaked. “Even then, she may, she may not be lucid—she was truly in a delirium.” His voice rose several octaves with the increased levels of pain.
“If and when I decide to return, I will not be getting your standard greeting, will I?”
He glared at her through his pain. He tried to manage an escape by swinging at her with his untethered arm. With her free hand, she blocked his blow, pushed it away, slapped his face with an open hand and then reached down his restrained arm, gripping his elbow in two specific spots with thumb and forefinger. She applied a small degree of controlled pressure and Dr. Cuttrow crumpled at the knees.
Felix, unsure of the situation, took one step down and paused for further developments. He was more curious than worried.
Still holding his elbow and wrist, she slowly guided him to sit on the ledge of the fountain. “That’s right, Doctor. Just sit for a moment and think this out thoroughly. I, too, have found sometimes the only way to get through to some people is negative physical stimulation. Now are we agreed as to the rules of my future visit?”
Tears trailed down his cheeks and beaded on his overly-waxed mustache, “Yes.”
“You’re so accommodating, doctor. Now, on the other matter. The one where you accuse me of being a busy-body? I have no idea what that is about, but it sounds like a fascinating story. Perhaps you would care to give me the succinct version?”
The Doctor screamed in pain and yelled, “Felix! For God’s sake! Help me!”
Felix was startled then got one leg moving, then the other, and like a train leaving the station, his large frame gained speed over distance.
She tightened her grip on the wrist and elbow. The doctor howled and teetered on the edge of consciousness. She lessened her hold in the event she needed to turn her attention to the orderly bounding forth.
“Rein it in, big man,” she said with an even tone and a warning glare.
He slowed his trot, placed his hands calmly on his hips and looked down on the scene with confusion and awe. “What did you do to him?”
“Just providing a lesson in manners. You would assume there was a course of some kind covering that topic in Medical School, would you not? ‘How to treat a woman, lesson one’.”
“He sure looks like he done learned it good.”
“One can only hope,” she said as she released the doctor and stepped away quickly. She raised her hands to the orderly in a placating fashion. “No harm done—not to his wrist, at least.”
Cuttrow slumped to his knees and cradled his wrist tenderly. He looked up to Felix. “Get her off of this property now, you idiot!”
“I was leaving anyway, Felix, but you’re more than welcome to walk me out to the gate.” Her horse had wandered nearby where she retrieved it and mounted. She did not press the matter with Dr. Cuttrow, but motioned to Felix, “Walk with me.”
He looked at the doctor, back at Alexis, shrugged and strode over to her.
Alexis threw one last glance over her shoulder to the doctor, who was gaining his feet like a newborn foal. “Doctor? I would put a cold compress on that for the next few hours—ice if you have it. Keep it elevated.”
An acceptable distance away, Alexis turned to Felix and asked, “What happened to your head? It looks painful.”
The big man reached up and probed carefully. “Oh, some nut took it in his mind to bonk me with a door but good. It don’t hurt so much, but I wished the doctor hadn’t gone and shaved a patch on my head. I’m afraid hair may not want to return to that acreage. I’m already losing a bit much yearly as is.”
She smiled at him., “I think you have a fine head of hair and it will grow back even thicker.”
He blushed. “You think?”
“I am positive. So, the man who did that? Was this the escaped patient the doctor was speaking of?”
“Yes ma’am. I ain’t never had no problems with him afore, but he gets this letter and the next thing you know, he’s beating my head in and scurryin’ off. ‘Course, the doc there was so worried about the scandal I near bled to death before he saw to my wound. That was nothin’ compared to finding out that the scoundrel stole my clothes—why, he had to be four sizes smaller than me. It was a new pair of trousers he done stole! Well, new to me, that is. Doc there, while he’s stitchin’ my scalp, he hears me complain about the pants and I ask if I might be reimbursed and he goes and yanks that thread so hard I started bleedin’ again.”
“He is not much of a care-giver. This patient, what was his name?”
“Kemper. Kemper Bidwell. He was a soldier down on his luck. We take ’em in if they’s having mental problems.”
“Is he dangerous?”
“No, ma’am, well…some, I guess, but on the whole, I don’t rightly think so. He was always sort of lost unto his own and never got mean like last night. He’s a complicated fellow.” He lifted his hand toward his skull again, but forced himself to break off from that. “He ain’t never said ‘boo’ to nobody, but whatever that letter done said, it turned him all nutty. I think the only people who’s got to be worried is them that the letter concerns.”
“Please, call me Alexis. Judging from the knot on your noggin, I reason that may not be completely true.”
He absently touched the gash again, “Yeah, you may be correct there . . . Alexis.” he blushed deeper.
“He could prove more dangerous if cornered. What did the letter say?”
“I don’t rightly know. It came on a special Saturday delivery. We usually been opening the patient’s mail—for their own safety, ’cause some of them get real worked up with news from the outside—well, he kind of asked me if I would do him the favor of getting his letters to him in unopened order. He used to get ’em lots, but in the last months, I think this was the only one. I just gave it to him and he thanked me and that was that—until this here happened,” he said, pointing to the wound. Alexis was glad he did not touch it again.
“How much what, ma’am—Alexis?”
“How much did it cost him to get the unopened letter?”
He did not even try to pretend confusion and merely collapsed into despair. “Oh, no! You ain’t gonna tell the doc, are you?”
“Of course not.” She nodded toward the recovering doctor. “You’ve seen the nature of our relationship and I don’t particularly care for the way he treats his patients or employees. How much?”
“A quarter. He would hold back on his drugs and trade them with other patients, so a quarter weren’t gonna hurt his bank none.”
They arrived the front entrance. Alexis reached down from her horse and gave the man her card and a dollar folded beneath it. “Consider this a donation to the under-appreciated orderly fund. If you can contact me when Mrs. Colson is able to speak, or with anything you think would be of note to me.”
“Yes, Alexis, I surely will. I won’t tell the doctor, neither!”
“I never assumed it for a minute, Felix. Take care of that top knot now!”
“Hold a moment. What was that move you used on him back there? It sure looked slick. I could use a move like that. Some of them patients get a little hard to handle.”
“When I visit Mrs. Colson I will give you a private lesson,” she shouted as she rode off down Arsenal, toward the city.
When Felix finally found the doctor, he was upstairs behind his desk in his office. He had found a large chunk of ice he was moving about his wrist. “Why didn’t you come to my aid out there? Couldn’t you tell she was hurting me?”
“Why, no, doctor, the way you was walking, I had just assumed you were wooing her, as usual.”
The manly compliment, though not meant sincerely, softened the doctor’s tone. “I noticed you had a pow-wow with her, what was that about?”
“Oh, nothin’—I was just warning her not to come back around here no more or she’d be awful sorry.”
Dr. Cuttrow stared at the orderly and finally said, “Yes, she had better not. She will not surprise me again.”
“I reckon not.”