On his lunch break, David, a mild-mannered therapist, takes a walk in Central Park. It’s a muggy June day, and the park is a respite from the parade of neurotics who keep him in business. A woman passes on a bicycle and tosses him a cheerful greeting. A few seconds later, David hears her scream. A mugger has knocked her to the ground, punched her in the face, and escaped with the bike. David helps the girl up. She’s beautiful, grateful . . . and far more dangerous than she looks.
A Broadway dancer, Kate stirs something within David that he hasn’t felt in years. When his wife goes to Martha’s Vineyard for the summer, he dives headlong into a passionate affair with the mysterious young woman, risking his marriage and reputation for the sake of someone he knows nothing about. And as he slips deeper into obsession, he will learn that Kate has a deadly secret that threatens everything he loves.
A gripping novel of erotic suspense, Privileged Conversation is written with the sure hand of a master storyteller. Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Ed McBain was one of the greatest thriller authors of the twentieth century, and this is one of his best.
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By Ed McBain
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1996 Ed McBain
All rights reserved.
Friday, June 30–Sunday, July 16
He has eight patients in all, evenly divided between those in analysis and those in therapy — the "Couches" and the "Chairs," as he often refers to them in private to Helen. All told, he puts in a thirty-hour week at the office. Well, they're only fifty-minute hours, of course, but still, he makes all his phone calls during the ten minutes between patients, so it really can be considered a full work hour. The rest of the week he teaches and supervises at Mount Sinai, just a few blocks up on Fifth Avenue.
On his lunch hour, he usually grabs a quick sandwich and coffee at the deli on Lex, and then goes for a walk in the park. The weather this June has been miserable thus far, the customary New York mix of heat and humidity broken by frequent thunderstorms; today is muggy and hot, as usual, the perfect finale to a perfectly ghastly month, not an ideal day for walking, but his little jaunts in the park are more for relaxation than for true exercise. Nor does he experience any feelings of guilt over these leisurely, peaceful strolls, his brief respites from the often tortured narratives unreeling all day long in his office.
The girl up ahead seems to appear out of a shimmering haze. Where a moment ago the path was empty, there is now a young girl on a bicycle, fifteen or sixteen years old, he guesses, sweaty and slender, wearing green nylon running shorts and an orange cotton tank top, tendrils of long reddish-gold hair drifting across her freckled face. Smiling as she pedals abreast of him, she calls, "Good morning, sir!" and is gone at once in a dazzle of sunlight — although it is already afternoon, and he will not be forty-six till the end of July, thank you.
A trifle perplexed, David wonders if his new glasses make him look older than he actually is (but Helen picked out the frames), wonders, too, if the girl who just whisked past on her bike was in fact much younger than he'd taken her for, not the fifteen or sixteen he'd originally supposed, but perhaps twelve or thirteen, in which case the "sir" is understandable, though barely.
He looks at his watch.
It is almost a quarter to one, time he started back. Arthur K is always on time. Never even a second late. Frowns scoldingly if David doesn't open the door to his office precisely on the hour. Listening to Arthur K, listening to all of his patients, David tries to visualize the enormous cast of characters they conjure for him, the boiling events, real or imagined, around which their lives are structured. Listening, he tries to understand. Understanding, he tries to —
The scream is molten.
It hangs hot and liquid and viscous on the still summer air — and then abruptly ends.
David whirls at once, his heart suddenly racing. Standing stock-still in the center of the path, he keeps listening, hears only an insect-laden silence, and then scuffling noises around the curve up ahead, the rasp of feet scraping gravel. The same voice that not moments ago brightly chirped, "Good morning, sir!" now shrilly shouts, "Let go of it, you ...!" and is cut off by the unmistakable sound of a slap, a smack, flesh against flesh, and then, immediately afterward, a duller, thicker sound — a punch? This is Central Park, David thinks, you can get killed here, he thinks. Strangers can kill you here. From around the bend in the path now, out of sight, he hears the sounds of earnest struggle, the scuffling, grunting, shouting noises of battle, and suddenly there is another scream as jangling as the sound of shattering glass, and just as suddenly he is in motion.
They are still locked in grim and sweaty confrontation on the gravel in the center of the empty path, the black boy repeatedly punching at her as he tries to wrest the bicycle from her grip, the slender girl with the reddish-gold hair clawing at him as she tries with all her might to stop the theft. "Hey!" David shouts, but neither of them seems to hear him, so intent are they on their fierce combat. The boy hits her again with his bunched right fist, his left hand still tugging at the handlebar as if in counterpoint. This time the blow sounds thuddingly sincere. The girl lets out a short sharp gasp of pain, releases the bicycle, and staggers backward, moaning, falling to the ground on her back. The boy yells "Yaaah!" in triumph, and instantly wheels the bike away, a sneakered foot already on one of the pedals, gathering speed, and then whipping his leg over the seat and sliding down onto it.
"Hey!" David yells again.
"Fuck you!" the boy yells back, and pedals away furiously, wheels tossing gravel, around the curve just ahead, out of sight.
The summer's day goes still again.
The girl lies motionless on the ground.
Kneeling beside her, David asks, "Are you all right, miss?" and then, for no reason he can properly understand — the last time he'd treated anyone for a physical disorder must have been twenty years ago or more, when he was still an intern at Mass General — he adds, "I'm a doctor."
She says nothing.
Looking down at her, studying her closely now, he realizes she isn't a girl at all, although these days he's likely to consider anyone under thirty a girl, but is instead a woman of ... what, twenty-five, twenty-six? ... the lightly freckled face, the fine wispy red hair, gold hair, the long coltish legs in the loose green running shorts, the small high breasts in the damp orange tank top, all conspiring to lend her a much younger appearance.
She is very pretty.
Sunlight filters down through the leaves, dappling her face, the high pronounced cheekbones dusted with tiny freckles — he does not at first notice that one of her cheeks is bleeding — the slender elegant nose and full mouth, its upper lip tented to reveal even white teeth, except where one is chipped. He wonders if the black boy's insistent blows to her face broke the tooth. Or anything else. That is when he notices the abrasion on her cheek, oozing a thin line of blood, bright red against her pale white face. Her eyes are still closed — is she unconscious?
"Miss," he asks again, "are you all right?"
"I think so," she says tentatively, and opens her eyes.
The eyes are as green as new leaves. Delicately flecked with yellow. A cat's eyes. He and Helen once owned a cat with eyes like that. Before the children were born. Sheba. Killed by a neighborhood Doberman. Sheba the cat. Eyes like this girl has. This woman.
"Did he get my bike?" she asks.
"The son of a bitch," she says, and sits up. Green shorts hiking up a bit. Long long legs, freckled thighs. White socks and white athletic shoes. Green cat's eyes.
"Your cheek is bleeding," he says.
"What?" she says, and reaches immediately for her right cheek, and touches it, and looks at her hand, the palms up, the fingers together, and frowns, puzzled. She touches the other cheek at once and feels the oozing wetness there, and mutters, "Oh shit," and looks at her fingertips and sees the blood now, and says again, "The son of a bitch."
"Here," David says, and offers her his handkerchief.
She hesitates, considering the pristine, meticulously ironed square of white cloth in his hand, her own hand covered with blood. "Are you sure?" she asks.
"Yes, go ahead."
She takes the handkerchief, gingerly presses it to her cheek.
"Where else did he hit you?"
"Anything feel broken?"
"How does something feel when it's broken?"
"It hurts like hell."
"I do hurt like hell, but I don't think anything's broken. That bike cost four hundred dollars."
"A shop on Third and ..."
"I meant where do you hurt?"
"Oh. My face mostly. He hit me a lot in the face. I'll look just great tonight, won't I?"
She takes the handkerchief from her cheek, glances at the bloodstains on it, shakes her head, rolls her eyes in apology, and then asks, "Is it still bleeding?"
"Just a little."
She puts the handkerchief to her cheek again. With her free hand she begins probing her chest, gently pressing her fingertips here and there, searching for pain.
"Hurts here," she says.
"The sternum," he says.
He notices the sharp outline of her nipples against the thin sweaty fabric of the orange top. He turns away.
"Maybe we ought to get you to a hospital," he says.
"No, I'll go see my own doctor. God, I hope this doesn't keep me out. How's it look now?" she asks, taking the handkerchief from her cheek again.
He turns back to her.
"I think it's stopped."
"Look what I did to your hankie."
"That's fine, don't worry about it."
"I'll wash it and send it back to you."
"No, no, don't be ..."
"I want to," she says, and tucks the bloodstained handkerchief into the elastic waistband of the green shorts. Still sitting on the ground, ankles crossed, she bends over from the waist, clasps her ankle in both hands, and carefully studies her left leg. She is wearing Nike running shoes with white cotton Peds, a little cotton ball at the back of each sock. "I hit the ground kind of funny," she says, "I hope I didn't hurt my leg."
He is still kneeling beside her. Dappled sunlight turns her eyes to glinting emeralds. Strands of golden-red hair drift across her face like fine threads in a silken curtain. The side-slit in the very short green nylon running shorts exposes a hint of white cotton panties beneath.
"It's beginning to swell," she says, probing the leg. "That's just what I need."
"We ought to report this, you know," he says.
"I will. Soon as I get home."
"You'd do better at a police station."
"I want to see my doctor first."
"You should go to the police."
"Why? They won't get it back, anyway," she says, and shrugs. Narrow shoulders in the orange tank top shirt, delicate wings of her collarbone sheened with perspiration. "Four hundred bucks. I hope he enjoys it."
"He'll probably pawn it."
"A junkie, right?"
"I prefer thinking he really wanted the damn bike. To ride, I mean. Could you help me up? I want to make sure I don't fall right back down on my face."
He gets to his feet and extends his hand to her. She takes it. Her palm is moist. Gently, he eases her off the ground, toward him. She lets go of his hand. Balances herself tentatively, testing.
"Everything feel all right?" he asks. "Nothing broken?"
"Are you an orthopedist?" she asks.
"I'm a psychiatrist."
"Really? Do you know Dr. Hicks?"
"I love her. Jacqueline Hicks."
"She's supposed to be very good."
"Well, she really fixed my head."
"What's your name? In case I see her."
"David Chapman," he says.
"Dr. Chapman, huh?"
"Dr. David Chapman," she says. "I'll tell her you saved my life. If I see her."
"Well, I think all he wanted was the bike, actually."
"Thank God," she says. "You have to give me your card. So I can mail you the handkerchief."
"You really don't have to ..."
"Oh, but I do," she says. "Your wife would kill me, otherwise."
"She probably would," he says, and reaches into his pocket for his wallet, and wonders how she knew ... well, the wedding band, of course. "I always run out of them," he says, "I hope I ... yes, here we are." He slips a card from its slot in his wallet and hands it to her.
"Right here on Ninety-sixth," she says, studying the card, head bent, mottled sunlight setting her hair aglow again. "Your office."
"I live on Ninety-first," she says.
"We're neighbors," he says.
"Let me give you my home address, too," he says, and retrieves the card and finds a pen in his jacket pocket and scribbles the Seventy-fourth Street address on the back of the card. He hands the card to her again. Caps the pen. Puts it back in his pocket. Looks at his watch. "Will you be all right?" he asks. "I'm sorry, but I have a ..."
"Oh, yes, fine."
"... patient coming in at one."
"I'm okay, go ahead, really."
"Let me know if you need me to testify or anything."
"Oh, they'll never catch him," she says airily.
"Well, if they do."
"Sure. Meanwhile, I'll send you the handkerchief."
"Thank you," she says, and extends her hand.
They shake hands awkwardly.
"I really have to go," he says.
"So go," she says, and shrugs, smiling.
As he walks off, he hears her call behind him, "Hey! My name is Kate."
The conversation in this office is privileged; that is to say, disclosure of anything said in this room cannot be forced on the witness stand. State statutes, case law, and federal rules of evidence label it "privileged communication," this private and exclusive conversation between patient and doctor. But the privilege extends beyond legalities.
David has been granted the privilege of trust.
He does not accept this privilege lightly. He understands the gravity of it, knows that what his patients confide in him goes to the very core of their beings. They may be "Chairs" and "Couches" when he is separating them anonymously for Helen, but here in this deliberately neutral office they are the incontestable stars of the wrenching memories and dreams they relate, episodes past and present, revelations, admissions, confessions, which David sorts and re-sorts in an attempt at comprehension.
He is no longer shocked by anything a patient tells him. His notes — which he makes during each session in a spiral notebook with lined yellow pages — are linked to informal storyboards he himself sketches, the way a director would before filming, except that David's illustrations are made during the act of creation; he is hearing the dialogue — a monologue in most instances — and visualizing the scene, while at the same time recording it on paper. His little drawings frequently resemble sketches for an Edvard Munch painting. A small boxed rectangle showing a cartoonlike figure of a screaming woman running from a racing locomotive will immediately recall for David the key episode or scene in a dream or a memory. Coupled with his scrawled interpretive note beneath it, the picture will instantly bring back the session and its essential matter. His sketches are quite good, actually. For a psychiatrist, anyway.
Today Arthur K is telling him again about the time he taught his younger sister to kiss. He has got over his pique at David's five-minute tardiness, has poutingly forgiven him, and is lying on the sofa perpendicular to David's desk. Arthur K is one of David's Couches, a neurotic who suffers from extreme bouts of anxiety bordering on panic disorder. Eyes owlish behind thicklensed glasses whose frames are almost as big and as bold as David's own — but Helen chose them — Arthur K relates casually and with seeming indifference an episode David suspects is at the very heart of his problems. It is as if David is seeing the same movie for the fourth or fifth time.
In the movie, Arthur K is seventeen years old, a high school senior still living with his mother, his father, and his sister Veronica, who is two years younger than he is. Veronica is blond. Arthur K may have been blond at the time; his thinning hair can look somewhat blondish even now, when the light hits it a certain way, but this may simply be graying hair that is turning an unsightly yellow. Back then ...
This was fifty years ago.
Arthur K is now sixty-seven years old, a white American neurotic male whose beloved sister Veronica died in a car crash twelve years back, exactly when all of Arthur K's problems seem to have started. It did not take a Freud or a Jung to make an almost immediate diagnosis when the man first began relating his woes in David's office this past January.
Now the movie is unreeling again.
Listening, David merely consults his previous sketches and notes. Arthur K's movie is identical each time; there is no need for fresh illustration. Even the words are the same, Arthur K's subdued monologue, the privileged conversation he shares with his analyst in this office he considers safe. David knows the man hates him, and is pleased by the knowledge; it means that transference has already taken place.
The opening shot is of Arthur K unlocking the door to an apartment and stepping directly into a kitchen. The family lives on the second floor of a two-story walk-up in the Wakefield section of the Bronx, not yet Puerto Rican or black at the time, a neighborhood largely composed of Jewish and Italian families. Arthur K is Jewish. There is a smell in the kitchen that he will always associate with Jewish cuisine, such as it is, a heavy aroma David can well imagine, his own mother not being among the world's greatest chefs.
Excerpted from Privileged Conversation by Ed McBain. Copyright © 1996 Ed McBain. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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