Chapter no 39

The Silent Patient

“THIS IS RIDICULOUS. I’ve been coming here for years and nobody ever told me to call ahead before. I can’t stand around waiting all day. I’m an extremely busy person.”

An American woman was standing by the reception desk, complaining loudly to Stephanie Clarke. I recognized Barbie Hellmann from the newspapers and TV coverage of the murder. She was Alicia’s neighbor in Hampstead, who heard the gunshots the night of Gabriel’s murder and phoned the police.

Barbie was a Californian blonde in her mid-sixties, possibly older. She was drenched in Chanel No. 5, and she’d had considerable plastic surgery. Her name suited her—she looked a like a startled Barbie doll. She was obviously used to getting what she wanted—hence her loud protestations at the reception desk when she discovered she needed to make an appointment to visit a patient.

“Let me talk to the manager,” she said with a grand gesture, as if this were a restaurant, instead of a psychiatric unit. “This is absurd. Where is he?”

“I am the manager, Mrs. Hellmann,” said Stephanie. “We’ve met before.”

This was the first time I’d felt even vaguely sympathetic to Stephanie; it was hard not to pity her for being on the receiving end of Barbie’s onslaught. Barbie talked a lot and talked fast, leaving no pauses, giving her opponent no time to respond.

“Well, you never mentioned anything about making appointments before.” Barbie laughed loudly. “For Christ’s sake, it’s easier to get a table at the Ivy.”

I joined them and smiled at Stephanie innocently. “Can I help?” Stephanie shot me an irritated look. “No, thanks. I can manage.” Barbie looked me up and down with some interest. “Who are you?” “I’m Theo Faber. Alicia’s therapist.”

“Oh, really?” Barbie said. “How interesting.” Therapists were obviously something she could relate to, unlike ward managers. From then on, she deferred solely to me, treating Stephanie as if she were nothing more than a receptionist, which I must admit rather wickedly amused me.

“You must be new, if we’ve not met?” I opened my mouth to reply, but Barbie got there first. “I usually come every couple of months or so. I left it a bit longer this time, as I’ve been in the States seeing my family, but as soon as I got back, I thought I must visit my Alicia—I miss her so much. Alicia was my best friend, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know.”

“Oh, yeah. When they moved in next door, I was a great help in getting Alicia and Gabriel settled into the neighborhood. Alicia and I became extremely close. We’d confide in each other about everything.”

“I see.”

Yuri appeared in the reception, and I beckoned him over. “Mrs. Hellmann is here to see Alicia,” I said.

“Call me Barbie, honey. Yuri and I are old friends.” She winked at Yuri. “We go way back. He’s not the problem. It’s this lady here—”

Barbie gestured dismissively at Stephanie, who finally found an opportunity to speak. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Hellmann, but hospital policy has changed since you were here last year. We’ve tightened our security. From now on you’ll have to call before—”

“Oh God, do we have to go through this again? I’ll scream if I have to hear it one more time. As if life weren’t complicated enough.”

Stephanie gave up, and Yuri led off Barbie. I followed.

We entered the visitors’ room and waited for Alicia. The bare room had a table and two chairs, no windows, and a sickly yellow fluorescent light. I stood at the back and watched Alicia appear at the other door, accompanied by two nurses. Alicia didn’t betray any obvious reaction to seeing Barbie. She walked over to the table and sat down without looking up.

Barbie seemed much more emotional. “Alicia, darling, I’ve missed you. You’re so thin, there’s nothing left of you. I’m so jealous. How are you? That awful woman nearly didn’t let me see you. It’s been a nightmare—”

So it went, an endless stream of inane chatter from Barbie, details of her trip to San Diego to visit her mother and brother. Alicia just sat there, silent, her face a mask, betraying nothing, showing nothing. After about twenty minutes, the monologue mercifully ended. Alicia was led away by Yuri, as uninterested as she was when she had entered.

I approached Barbie as she was leaving the Grove. “Can I have a word?”

Barbie nodded, as if she had been expecting this. “You want to talk to me about Alicia? It’s about time somebody asked me some goddamn questions. The police didn’t want to hear anything—which was crazy, because Alicia confided in me all the time, you know? About everything. She told me things you wouldn’t believe.” Barbie said this with a definite emphasis and gave me a coy smile. She knew she had piqued my interest.

“Such as?”

Barbie smiled cryptically and pulled on her fur coat. “Well, I can’t go into it here. I’m late enough as it is. Come over this evening—say six p.m.?”

I didn’t relish the prospect of visiting Barbie at her house—I sincerely hoped Diomedes wouldn’t find out. But I had no choice—I wanted to find out what she knew. I forced a smile. “What’s your address?”

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