Brain scan

Naturally, the first solution that occurred to me was suicide. But that would have been too great a loss to the world. This is not a boast, but a simple truth. I am, after all, one of the world’s foremost neurologists, not just in my own judgment but in that of my peers worldwide – some of whom, according to rumor, had a pool going on me for the Nobel Prize nomination. To pretend otherwise out of false modesty would serve no one.

My next idea was to enter a monastery. But this plan had its share of problems too, chief among them being that I no longer believed in God. And while I didn’t think I could cause too much harm in a cloistered, all-male environment, you never knew; any monastery with me in it might become the setting for a real-life Name of the Rose.

Finally, I came up with a satisfactory solution. I called my friend from college, Jim Caduto, now a renowned architect, to tell him my plan.

*   *   *

The genesis of this plan occurred one January morning, with a thick blanket of snow covering the MIT campus. I had spent a dutiful Christmas and New Year with my wife and son, but as always, long before the confetti settled, I was itching to get back to work. I was back in Building 46 as soon as it reopened, and had already been there for several hours when my assistant came in.

“Morning, Yoshi,” I greeted him. “Happy New Year.”

“Good morning, Dr. Coney. Happy Year of the Rat.”

“Year of the Rat? That doesn’t sound like anything to be particularly happy about.”

“You wouldn’t think so, but it’s an auspicious year. It’s the beginning of a brand-new cycle. The Japanese zodiac starts with the rat.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t start with something cuter, like the Year of the Bunny Rabbit.”

“It’s an interesting story, actually.” Those words were usually my cue to tune out. I turned my attention back to my computer, but Yoshi went on: “All the animals had a race to decide their order in the calendar, and the night before it began, the rat climbed onto the shoulders of the ox. He rode on the ox’s back until they were almost at the finish line, and then jumped down and ran ahead. So the rat came in first, and the ox second.”

“The ox didn’t mind?”

“The ox is a gentle and patient animal, not troubled by great ambition.”

“If it had been me, he would have been one flat rat.” I gestured to a stack of envelopes on the table. “Anyway, out goes the old year and in comes the new, but work goes on forever. Those scans still need to be checked.”

“I’ll get right to work on them.”

We were studying the neural architecture of psychopaths. We had collected brain scans from the most incorrigible inmates at maximum-security prisons around the country, to compare with a control group of normal volunteers. Our goal was to gain some insight into the causes of psychopathy, and ultimately to develop a reliable early-warning system for it. A great many people were watching our progress with interest; the impact on forensic psychology and jurisprudence would be huge.

I had a personal stake in this project, as well. My mother had married a psychopath. Of course, their union had produced me, so the years they spent together hadn’t been a total loss. But for my mother and me, life with my father was a series of nightmares, separated by just enough pleasant intervals to make us start to wonder whether maybe he really was just the nice guy he always claimed to be, and if he occasionally flew into a demonic rage, it had to be because we had done something terribly wrong to provoke him.

In a way, it was thanks to all the years of living in that house of horror, knowing one of us was crazy but never being entirely sure which, that I became a neurologist. I believed that, if we could develop an accurate test to predict psychopathy, everyone could be made to take it when they applied for a driver’s license, right when the brain reached a mature level of cognition. Those who tested positive could be listed on a registry, accessible by the police, their neighbors, and most importantly, anyone thinking about marrying them. Then no one else would have to go through what my mother and I did.

If we could refine the technology enough, we could carry it even further. How early did the warning signs of psychopathy manifest? In youth? In childhood? At birth, or even before birth? Could we develop a way to test for it in utero? If so, we might live to see a world where no psychopaths would ever be born.

“Dr. Coney?”

“Yes, Yoshi?”

“You need to see this.”

He showed me the scan he was reviewing, and what I saw there chilled me. Ominous dark holes in the orbital cortex, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and anterior and posterior cingulates. Dangerously low gray matter density in the amygdala, hippocampus, parahippocampal cortex, and temporal pole. Either this subject was a raving serial killer, or else they had caught him before he could realize his full potential.

“Wow,” I said. “You sure picked a winner. Classic, absolutely classic. Which prison did this gem come from?”

Yoshi hesitated. “It’s not from a prison.”

“Seriously? This is one of our volunteers? We have someone with this neuroanatomy running loose on campus?” My ventrolateral frontal cortex shifted into high gear as I debated the ethical response in this situation. Should we inform the dean? Of course, we were required to keep the identity of our volunteers confidential – but we could argue that, in this case, keeping silent posed a clear and present danger to public safety.

Wordlessly, Yoshi showed me the list, and pointed to the name corresponding to the number on the readout. As soon as I read it, I went as numb as though someone had just injected a massive dose of bupivacaine into my spine.

CONEY, Richard J.F.

I shook my head. “That can’t be right. You must have gotten it mixed up with someone else’s.”

“That’s what I thought at first, too. I checked it three times. But there’s no mistake. This is yours.”

I refused to believe him. I had the technicians check the scanner, and when they found nothing wrong, I checked it myself. I contacted two other researchers at different institutions, and made appointments to undergo the same analysis. The results were the same.

I had an “ERPer”, a specialist in measuring event-related potential, run the “Oddball Test” on me. He told me what I most dreaded to hear: The amplitude, latency and topography of the third positive peak in my response curve were identical to those in patients with damage to the lateral and medial temporal lobes. Another textbook criterion for psychopathy.

Finally, I tried one more test. Every known psychopath shared common patterns not only in the brain structure, but also in the genetic code: all of them had the high-aggression allele of the monoamine oxidase gene, also known as the “hero-warrior gene”. I commissioned a genetic analysis for myself.

When the results came back, they were positive for the MAOA gene.

It was all there. All three elements of the “Unholy Trinity” that I had become famous for discovering: neural architecture, genetic makeup, and history of childhood abuse.

If it had been anyone else, the irony would have been laughable. I had spent my career weaving a net to catch psychopaths, and now I was ensnared in it. If my research was wrong, I was a fraud. And if it was right, I was a monster. I was a vampire on whom the sun had not yet set, a werewolf still waiting for the full moon.

Like everything else, it was the fault of Eugene Coney – and if the name Eugene was supposed to mean “good genes”, it was a sick joke. I had never been able to fathom what he wanted with a child in the first place, other than that he was retired from the military and had been born in the wrong century to own slaves, so fatherhood was the only remaining way to exert total control over someone else’s life. And now his iron hand was reaching out from the grave to smack me down one last time. He had infected the next generation, and the question remained of how to ensure that he could do no more damage vicariously through me.

*   *   *

“Caduto and Associates.”

“Jim? It’s Richard Coney.”

“Rich! Great to hear from you! What’s up?”

“I’m thinking of making some renovations to my estate on the Cape.”

“Certainly. What kind of renovations do you have in mind?”

“I want you to make it impossible for me to leave it.”

There was a long silence on the other end. “What did you say?”

I hesitated, but then decided that the more informed he was, the better he could do his job. I told him the story. “So,” I concluded, “I want you to redesign the estate so that I can live there indefinitely, without leaving the grounds. No matter how hard I try.”

“You want me to make it into a one-man prison?”

“I prefer to think of it as a hermitage. A maximum-security one.”

“Rich, with all due respect, you’re crazy.”

“Jim, with equal respect, if I wanted a psychological diagnosis, I have a whole building full of PhDs right here. I called you because I wanted a house designed.”

“Rich, I don’t think…”

“I’ll deal with the legal issues. You just draft a plan. When would be a good time for us to meet?”

When he saw that I was not to be dissuaded, he reluctantly promised to get to work on it. I hung up the phone feeling as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

It would be a fitting finale to the first act of my life. For Richard Coney so loved the world that he gave up a stellar career and a loving family, and went voluntarily into seclusion rather than risk causing harm to his fellow human beings.

I took the plans for the Cape Cod house to Caduto’s office, and we sat down to hash out details. The small dining room just off the entrance foyer, we decided, would make a perfect meeting room. A transparent plastic partition would divide it in two. One side would be accessible from outside. It would have seats, a table, a slot in the partition through which small objects could be passed, and even a piano so I could hear Kent play when he and Lisa came to visit. The other side, and the rest of the house, would have no access except through the inner door of the foyer, which would be permanently locked from outside. That would be my three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom, state-of-the-art-kitchen-equipped, solitary confinement unit.

“What about deliveries?” Caduto asked. “You’ll get some that are too big to fit through this slot.”

“We can put in a revolving box, like they have in banks. One big enough for large boxes, but too small for me to fit into.”

“And have you thought about emergencies? What if there’s a fire, or you have a heart attack?”

It was an excellent question. Keeling over suddenly one day while chopping dinner vegetables, and decomposing on the kitchen floor because the EMTs couldn’t reach me, was not exactly how I would choose to go. We would have to build in a way for the inner door to be opened, but only from outside, and only by emergency personnel.

We came to a solution: Two break-glass switches, on opposite sides of the foyer, that would have to be actuated simultaneously, like the missile launch system on a nuclear submarine. A team of paramedics or firefighters would be able to open it if needed, but there would be no way for a lone visitor to let me out, no matter how persuasive I might be. As an added precaution, the system would send an automatic signal to the police if it was opened.

When I went back to Building 46, Yoshi greeted me in an ebullient mood. “Dr. Coney! Great news! I’ve just heard back from the MOJ. They’ve agreed to give us access to the Aum members!”

He and I had been discussing a project to analyze the brain patterns of members of destructive cults. The Japanese Ministry of Justice had been dragging its heels about letting us near the perpetrators of the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, but thanks to Yoshi’s patience and persistence, they had finally come around.

“That’s great,” I said. “Well done, Yoshi. So you can take it from here, then.”

His delighted expression changed to one of puzzlement. “What does it mean, Dr. Coney?”

It was only right that he should be the first to know. “I’m leaving MIT.”

He turned and stared. “What?”

“Our early-warning system caught me fair and square. I have to put my money where my mouth is. I’m taking early retirement and going someplace where I won’t be a menace to society.”

His jaw grew slack. “Dr. Coney, I came all the way to America just to study under you. What am I going to do without you?”

“Yoshi, you don’t give yourself enough credit. You’re a great researcher. One of the best I’ve ever known. You can carry on by yourself.”

He kept his face under proper Japanese restraint, but I could see that this news had hit him hard.

I laid a hand on his shoulder. “Do me proud, Yoshi. But what am I saying? You always do.”

*   *   *

Then came the hardest part: breaking the news to Lisa. Her reaction was just as I had expected.

“Have you completely lost your mind?”

“Not yet,” I replied. “But someday, I will. And when I do, it’s better for everyone if I’m in a place where I can’t do any harm.”

She made no reply, but just stood there gaping at me. I continued: “I’m bound to end my days in confinement, one way or another. It will either be in the Cape Cod house, with you alive, or in prison, with you probably dead. Which would you prefer?”

“Rich, you don’t have to do this.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you’re doing this.”

While I was digesting this morsel of philosophy, she continued: “You have enough empathy, enough of a conscience, to worry about what happens to Kent and me. If you were really in the danger zone, you wouldn’t care. The thought of doing something like this would never cross your mind.”

“I have just that much of a conscience left now. I have to act before it disappears.”

“It’s not going to disappear! You’re not going to wake up one morning and decide it’s a good day to become an ax murderer. You’ve never shown any of the warning signs. You never played with fire, or tortured animals, or did anything like that as a kid. If you were going to go off the rails, don’t you think you would have done it by now?”

“I’m at the age when I’m starting to be at risk of early-onset frontotemporal dementia. That would be the last little nudge needed to push me over the edge. And if it weren’t that, it would be some other trigger. I’m a ticking time bomb. Sooner or later, I’m going to lose my compass. Guaranteed.”

“It’s not guaranteed. You’re forgetting something.”

“What’s that?”

“Your will, Rich. Your own free will.”

I looked away and sighed. “I used to believe in free will. But where does what we call our will really come from? Genetic promoters and inhibitors driving neurotransmitters to their receptors in the frontal lobes. The process is so complex that it creates the illusion of freedom, but when you come down to it, everything comes from the neural architecture you were born with, your DNA, and your past experience. My research has proven this. If I don’t take myself out of circulation, I’ll commit some horrible crime and land in jail.”

“So you’re predestined to fall and it’ll be your own fault when you do? I thought that way of thinking was why you left the Church. At least they offered a way out.”

“Come on, Lisa, think of the advantages to you. You’ll still be able to live in this house and spend my money. You’ll always know where I am at every moment, you’ll no longer have to endure the sight of me with my nose in a book when the yard needs raking, and you’ll never again have to see a toilet seat left upright.”

She was not amused. “Have you given even a moment’s thought to Kent? He’s about to become a teenager. It’s a delicate time for him. He needs his father. And I need my husband.”

“He needs his father? You mean the absent one? The one who’s so wrapped up in his work that you sometimes wonder whether he’s even aware he has a child? That father?”

She winced at the sound of her own words. I pressed on: “And which husband is it that you need? The one who’s completely useless around the house? The one who’s no more there when making love than when plugging in a hair dryer? Or the one who never listens to a word you say?”

She looked down with a pained expression. “I guess I was wrong about that last one.”

There wasn’t much more to be said. I had presented her with her own laundry list of my shortcomings, and we both knew it was accurate. Whenever I was at home, I felt that I was in a never-ending audition for the role of Good Husband and Father. Some days I got the part, others I didn’t, but either way, it was clear to everyone that I was acting.

At dinner that night, under Lisa’s sorrowful eye, I told Kent about my plan. I broke it to him as gently as I could, emphasizing that I was only two hours’ drive away, that he would still be able to visit me often, and that I would have full Internet access, so we could communicate via email and Skype. He was silent for a few moments as he came to terms with it, and then turned to Lisa.

“Does this mean we won’t be spending our vacations in the Cape Cod house anymore?”

That showed where his priorities lay.

*   *   *

Caduto did an admirable job. If you were to pass by and glance at the estate, you would be unlikely to see anything other than a typical Cape Cod house. You might notice that the fieldstone wall encircling the backyard was higher than usual for the neighborhood, but unless you had a ladder, you wouldn’t be able to see that there was another wall behind it, with tripwires across the top of both, and coils of razor wire in between. You would have no way to know that all the windows facing the street were sealed shut and shatterproofed.

Finally, the renovations were complete, and my affairs were all in order. The three of us drove to the Cape in silence, broken only by Kent’s occasional repetition of “Dad, do you really have to do this?” I looked out the window at the passing New England autumn landscape, and reflected that I would miss days like this the most: the fire on the trees, the crackle in the air, the cinnamon stick in a mug of hot cider. Although that last, I would still be able to enjoy, sitting in my armchair by the fire with a good book.

When we reached the house, the reporters I had invited for the occasion had already begun to gather. I took the last of my luggage inside, then stood on the doorstep to address them.

“In what must be one of history’s greatest ironies,” I said, “the man who built a better mousetrap got caught in it. You might never guess, to look at me, that I had latent psychopathic tendencies, and believe me, no one was more surprised than I was. But this diagnosis came from methods I discovered myself, which have been widely validated by the medical community, so as a conscientious scientist, I have to accept the result. And so, I’ve made the decision to confine myself permanently to this house, in order not to pose a danger to society. I do this of my own volition, while I am still of sound and disposing mind. And I hereby release and absolve my architect, James Caduto, from any liability for any physical harm or mental distress I may suffer here.”

I turned to Kent and gave him one last hug. “Keep up your piano, judo, and swimming,” I told him. “And take good care of your mother. You’re the man of the house now.”

Next, it was Lisa’s turn. “Richard, please,” she whispered into my ear as I embraced her. “Come back to us. It’s not too late.”

I made no reply, but let her go and faced the cameras.

“It is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done.”

I went inside, walked across the foyer and through the inner door, and pulled it shut. The deadbolts clicked automatically into place.

My self-imposed life sentence had begun.

 II.

 I took to solitude better than I expected. I missed being in the laboratory, of course, but I still had plenty to keep me occupied – writing, consulting, giving video lectures – and I was enjoying the newfound freedom to read beyond the confines of my own field. I spent many an evening sitting by the fire with a novel, an indulgence I had seldom allowed myself while I was still at MIT.

I had my groceries delivered to me, and grew my own vegetables in the garden. I’ve always prided myself on my cooking skill, so I was never bored at mealtimes. In the early days, when Lisa and Kent came to see me regularly, I would cook for them and we would dine together in the meeting room, passing the platters through the slot in the partition.

As the months went by, the visits became less regular, but it didn’t bother me; I enjoyed being alone. Frankly, ninety percent of the conversations I used to have every day bored me senseless. I had mastered the art of appearing interested on the surface, while inside, I was performing agonized calculations about how much research I could be conducting in the time I was wasting on small talk. Here, I had all the time I could possibly want, to read and write without interruption. True, there were days when I would be washing dishes or working in the yard, and suddenly notice that I was talking to myself. But that was all right. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it was the only way to be sure I could have an intelligent conversation.

Physical intimacy, of course, I missed from time to time. But to tell the truth, sparks hadn’t exactly been flying between Lisa and me for years anyway. If I felt the urge, there were always electronic means to deal with it, but as it turned out, I seldom needed to resort to them. I was getting a constant stream of fan mail, some of it quite graphic, from women around the country.

On reflection, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, not all women who entered into relationships with psychopaths did so because they fell unwittingly into a trap, the way my mother did. Many are positively drawn to the excitement and danger of being with a psychopath, and corresponding with one who was safely under lock and key gave them the thrill they craved, without risk. And then there were the hybristophiliacs, for whom the idea of having a killer for a lover was an actual turn-on. I suspected that Rosalie, a graduate student at Boston University who kept sending me photos that gave new meaning to the phrase “distractingly sexy”, fell into this category.

I passed an enjoyable year this way, until that autumn morning, a year almost to the day since I entered my hermitage. I was looking forward to reading the issue of Abnormal Psychology that had just arrived, containing the results of Yoshi’s and my research on cult members. But before I could open the envelope, the doorbell rang. I set down the journal, went to the meeting room, and pressed the button to open the outer door. Lisa walked in, alone.

“Lisa! It’s been a while.” In fact, I had to search my memory to recall how long it had been since her last visit. “Where’s Kent?”

“It’s just me today.”

“How’s he doing in school?”

“All right.”

“I’ve missed hearing his piano performances. Has he been practicing?”

“From time to time.”

“How about swimming?”

“Not so much these days.”

“Judo?”

She looked down and fidgeted with the strap on her bag. “Richard, there’s something I need to ask you.”

Maybe it was the way she called me by my full name that made my amygdala sit up and bark a warning. In any case, when she took a sheaf of papers out of her bag and slid them through the slot, the heading of the top one confirmed my fears. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, The Trial Court, Probate and Family Court Department: JOINT PETITION FOR DIVORCE PURSUANT TO G.L. c. 208, §1A.

I looked from the paper back to her. “What the hell is this?”

“I’m sorry it had to come to this, Richard. Kent and I have spent a whole year doing our very best. But what we’ve learned is that we can’t go on forever arranging our lives around an absent husband and father. We need you to be either all the way in or all the way out.”

My hands trembled with rage, and my breath came hard.

“Did you or did you not,” I demanded, “make a vow to love, honor, and cherish me until death did us part?”

“That sort of assumed you would be there to do the same for me.”

I looked back at the paper. “A joint petition? Now which of us is the crazy one? You think you can just walk out on me, and then tell the world our marriage ended by mutual consent?”

“Richard, please, don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be. When you’re at your most honest, you yourself admit that work was always where your true passion lay, and your family was an afterthought. So why don’t you just sign the papers, and we can all get on with our lives?”

All? Maybe she just meant herself, me, and Kent, but…

“Is there someone else?”

She looked down. I hit the partition with both fists, a little harder than I intended, and she jumped.

“Richard, what did you expect?” she said when she had regained her composure. “That I would just spend the rest of my life helplessly pining away for you?”

I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment. But now that she said it, I realized that at some level, that was exactly what I had been expecting.

“What did you expect?” I fired back. “That I would meekly sign off on your riding into the sunset with some home-wrecking parasite? Well, here’s my answer.”

I tore the petition into pieces and shoved them back through the slot at her, scattering them across the table. She stared at them for a moment, and then began to gather them up.

“All right, Richard. If that’s the way you want it, I can get a lawyer and file for a fault divorce.”

“Then get your lawyer and we’ll see who’s at fault, you filthy whore!”

She kept her seat for a moment longer, then stood up without looking at me, and ran out the door so fast that her swinging bag slammed into the frame. I stormed back to the living room, threw myself into the easy chair, took several deep breaths, and opened Abnormal Psychology to distract myself.

And, in a sense, it worked. As soon as I opened the journal and saw the table of contents, I momentarily forgot all my troubles with Lisa. Anatomy of the Apocalypse: Patterns in the Neural Circuitry of Destructive Cult Members, by Yoshihito Akimoto and Richard J.F. Coney.

I could scarcely believe my eyes. I blinked several times, and when the letters on the page still refused to rearrange themselves, I hurled the offending journal across the room, scoring a direct hit on the mantelpiece.

When I was sure I could pick up the phone without smashing it, I called Yoshi.

“Hello, this is Akimoto speaking.”

“Yoshi.”

Just the way I said his name should have alerted him to the depth of the trouble he was in. But his voice sounded as enthusiastic as ever. “Dr. Coney! Have you seen our article?”

“You’re damn right I have. What the hell did you think you were doing?”

There was a pause. “What does it mean, Dr. Coney?”

He sounded genuinely bewildered. Either he was very good at playing innocent, or he really had no sense that he had done anything wrong. Maybe we should have taken a scan of his orbital cortex instead.

“What in the iciest depth of hell gave you the idea that you were entitled to put your name on it ahead of mine?”

Another pause. “I don’t understand, Dr. Coney. Our names are in alphabetical order.”

“Alphabetical bullshit! How dare you imply that you and I are anywhere close to being equals in this field?”

When Yoshi spoke again, there was an edge to his voice. “Dr. Coney. If you recall, this study was my idea. I was the one who got us access to the Aum cult. And since you left MIT, I had to do all the fieldwork and write the article myself. I think it’s only right that my name be listed first.”

“Your idea!” I gripped the receiver with both hands, shouting into the mouthpiece. “Your inspiration came from me! Everything you know about methodology, I taught you! This study would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for me!”

“Dr. Coney,” he replied, his voice strained but still calm, “everything you say is true. You taught me all I know, and I owe you a debt that I can never repay. But that doesn’t change the fact that on this project, I did nearly all the work.”

“You spun it off my idea, that’s all you did. That’s all you people are good for: copying ideas from the world’s real innovators. I should have known you’d be no different!”

I slammed down the receiver, and sat there, fuming.

Yoshi would have to be taught a lesson. If he presumed to list himself as the first author on this project, what was to stop him from passing himself off as the only author on the next one? From claiming my methods and discoveries as his own?

I remembered the legend he had told me about the Japanese calendar. Now I saw why he liked that story so much: He was a rat himself, and he had been planning all along to use me as his ox.

An even more disturbing thought crossed my mind. Could I be sure Yoshi hadn’t tampered with my brain scan? What if I wasn’t a psychopath at all, but he had contrived to make me believe I was? Knowing my strong sense of civic duty, he could have predicted exactly what happened: that I would sideline myself and leave the way clear for him to claim credit for all my ideas. True, I had had different technicians at different facilities run the tests independently, but someone as conniving as Yoshi could surely have found a way around that. What if, because of him, I had sequestered myself in this house for no reason?

The phone rang. If it was Yoshi, I was going to bifurcate his lower digestive tract.

I picked it up. “What?” I demanded.

The voice on the other end was male, with a slight accent, but a different one from Yoshi’s. “Hello, am I speaking to Dr. Richard Coney?”

“Who is this?”

“This is the Swedish Academy. We’re calling to inform you that you have been selected to receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.”

My anger was still burning so hot that this news failed to dampen it at first, like an ice cube tossed into a blazing fire. The best response I could offer was, “Is this some kind of a joke?”

The voice chuckled. “You’re not the first laureate to think that, Dr. Coney. But I assure you, this is real. If you need proof, the announcement will be posted on our website in a few minutes.”

Now the ice cube started to melt, dousing the flames as the cool liquid spread. A Nobel Prize! The culmination of my life’s ambition, and still well below the age of the average laureate. In my mind’s eye, the golden medal rose and shone like the sun, burning away the day’s calamities like morning mist.

“So,” the voice continued, “can we look forward to seeing you in Stockholm in December, for the awards ceremony?”

“Yes,” I said after a pause. “Yes, of course.”

As soon as I hung up the phone, I wondered how I would manage that. In hindsight, I demanded of myself why I hadn’t considered this very real possibility when I designed my hermitage. But I had gone ahead and designed it to be impossible to leave without outside help, and now I had effectively burned my bridges with the few people on the outside who could help me.

Lisa had often said that I could never swallow my pride; it was so big that I would choke to death on it. I had to admit she had a point, but maybe it was time to see if I could convince her otherwise.

I waited until I was sure she would be home, and called her.

“Hello?”

“Lisa.” I packed those two syllables with as much contrition as I possibly could. “It’s Rich.”

The silence at the other end went on so long that I wondered whether she had hung up on me.

“Well?” came her voice at last.

“Listen, Lisa, I’m sorry for what I said earlier. As you can imagine, it came as a bit of a shock. But when I think about it, it really shouldn’t have, and in any case, that’s no excuse for the way I spoke to you.”

“Right.”

Her guard was still up. I served myself another helping of crow, glad that she couldn’t see my face as I did. “Everything you said was true. I was so focused on myself that I never gave a thought to you or Kent. But believe it or not, I do want you to be happy.” I took a deep breath and concluded, with all the sincerity I could muster: “And if I can’t give you what you need, then you should be with someone who can.”

“I’m glad to see you can be reasonable.”

Her voice still hadn’t thawed, but her words led me to hope I could consider the crow course finished. I allowed a moment to clear the table, then brought out the main dish. “By the way, have you heard the news? About this year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine?”

“Yes, I just heard it on NPR. Congratulations.”

I had often heard that word in that tone of voice, from colleagues who had been passed over for whatever award I had just won.

“What would you and Kent say to one last trip as a family? To Stockholm?”

There was a long pause. “I’m not sure that would be such a good idea.”

“Why not? How many people get the chance to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony? And didn’t you say you’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights?” See, Lisa, I do listen to you.

“Richard, when you first told me that you were destined to lose your mind someday, I had too much faith in you to believe it. But this morning, you showed me very convincing evidence that the day has finally come.”

“Come on, Lisa. I said I was sorry. I’ll make it up to you with an amazing…”

“No, Richard,” she interrupted. “I’ll feel safer with you right where you are.”

She hung up, leaving me to sit and reflect on how even a great genius could sometimes do something utterly stupid.

Eradicating psychopathy? What the hell had I been thinking? What had ever gotten into me to believe that such a thing was possible, or even desirable? Where would civilization be without the alphas, the fearlessly dominant, the ones who truly believed they were destined for greatness and never let danger to themselves or others stand in the way of fulfilling that destiny? The inventors, discoverers, and conquerors whose names made up our history books – could they have achieved all they did without the traits that would be considered red flags in our risk-averse, safety-obsessed society? Maybe the whole reason why psychopaths continued to exist was that nature implanted these qualities in certain people, at optimal intervals, so that the evolution of the species could take a quantum leap. And I was one of the select few. By denying it, I had been betraying nature. My true calling was to embrace it.

My frontal lobes shifted into planning mode. I had designed this house to defeat my own best efforts to escape it. But when you play chess against yourself, controlling both white and black, which side will win? The answer is obvious: Whichever one you want to win.

I went to the master bedroom and opened a locked drawer. I really had intended for my seclusion to be permanent, but there were certain things I had kept, because you never knew. My driver’s license, my passport, and a duplicate set of keys for the Cambridge house were among them. I had also prepared a syringe and a bottle of succinylcholine chloride, thinking that if life ever became completely intolerable, they might come in handy. And so they would, although not exactly in the way I had envisioned.

I sent an email to the distractingly sexy Rosalie, inviting her for lunch on Saturday. As soon as I received her delighted reply, I called Yoshi.

“Hello, this is Akimoto speaking.”

“Hey, Yoshi.” I tried for a balance of casual and contrite; I was getting much more practice at that than I would have liked in one day. “It’s Richard Coney.”

He responded just as Lisa had: with a long silence. “Dr. Coney,” he said at last, his manner as cool and polite as ever, but with enough tension in his voice to snap a steel cable. “Congratulations on your Nobel Prize.” The same word as Lisa, in the same tone.

“Thanks. Listen, Yoshi, that was something I wanted to talk to you about. But first, I need to tell you how sorry I am for the way I spoke to you earlier. What I said was unforgivable. This is no excuse, but I’d been having a terrible day. The fact is…” I swallowed my saliva for a little extra dry-mouth effect, “…just before I saw the article, my wife came by to tell me she was leaving me for another man.”

There was a pause. When he spoke again, the tension in his voice had slackened somewhat. “I’m sorry to hear that, Dr. Coney. You and Lisa always seemed like such a happy couple.”

“Yeah, well, I thought so too. So you can understand that I wasn’t really in my right mind when I called you. But it’s funny how a Nobel Prize makes everything seem small, eh?” A slight chuckle. “Anyway, I want to say now what I should have said then: Congratulations to you. You’re right, you did the lion’s share of the work, and you deserve the lion’s share of the glory.”

“Thank you, Dr. Coney.”

“And I’d like to do something special to celebrate with you.” I put in a dramatic pause. “How would you like to go with me to Stockholm? To be my guest at the Nobel Prize awards ceremony?”

He hesitated. “I don’t understand, Dr. Coney. How do you mean to go to Stockholm? You said you were planning never to leave your house again.”

“Well, first let’s answer the question. Would you like to go, if you had the chance?”

“Of course, but…”

“There is a way. But I need your help. Can you come to the Cape this Saturday, at one o’clock?”

There was a pause, presumably as he checked his calendar. “Yes, I believe I can.”

*   *   *

At noon on Saturday, Rosalie appeared for our lunch date. She hesitated for a moment on the threshold, with a sheepish smile on her lips and stars in her eyes – the expression I had often seen on the faces of female students at their first one-to-one meeting with the great Richard Coney. She wore a short skirt, a blazer that flattered her curves, and a top that offered a generous view of her equally generous cleavage. An outfit that maintained a properly professional facade, but left open (so to speak) the possibility of more.

“Dr. Coney? It’s such an honor to meet you in person!”

“Oh, please. I’m not your professor; you can call me Richard.” I stood as she came in, and gestured to the chair. “Thank you for coming. Actually, you’re the first visitor I’ve had since the Nobel announcement – aside from all the reporters, that is. It’s been kind of lonely with no one to celebrate with.”

“I don’t know how you managed, cooped up in here all this time. I would have gone crazy. But I admire you so much for doing this. My professor often talked about you, too. He would say, ‘That’s what we mean by research integrity!’ ”

I smiled. “That’s good to know. To tell the truth, I think I might have gone crazy too, if it hadn’t been for your letters. Being able to share my thoughts with someone who understood me so well was a lifeline for me. Sometimes I wondered how things might have been different if you had chosen MIT instead. If I had met you there, I might not have had to lock myself in here.”

From her expression, I could tell that I had hit a double. First, I had flattered her intellect by implying that MIT would have been just as viable an option for her as BU. More to the point, the kind of woman drawn to psychopaths takes the basic desire of every woman – to tame her man and reshape him in her own image – to a higher order of magnitude. She sets herself the ultimate challenge: to make the wolf into her lapdog. By hinting that she could have done that for me, I had struck just the right chord.

“You must be hungry,” I said, reeling her in closer. Feeding her – having the work of my hands become part of her body – was an intimate act in its way. I had prepared penne all’arrabiata: red, hot, and spicy, to stimulate her appetite for excitement. And her thirst for white wine, to loosen her inhibitions.

I passed her plate through the slot, and she took a bite. “This is delicious. You could have been a three-star chef, if you weren’t already a five-star scientist.”

I chuckled. “I’m glad you like it. The tomatoes came from my own garden.”

We ate and chatted happily until the clock on the wall behind her showed 12:50. It was time to cut to the chase.

“Rosalie,” I said, “I have something to ask you.”

“Yes, Dr…I mean, yes, Richard?”

I looked into her eyes through the plastic, and reached through the slot to take her hand.

“Would you do me the honor of being my guest at the Nobel Prize awards ceremony?”

She gaped. “In Stockholm?”

“That’s the one I had in mind.”

The delight in her face mingled with confusion about whether I was serious, and I hastened to assure her I was. “Setting aside practical questions for the moment, if you had a chance, would you like to go?”

“Of course, I’d love to…but…”

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

As if to prove my point, the doorbell rang at precisely 12:55. Just as I expected: Yoshi could always be depended on to arrive five minutes early for any appointment, no more, no less.

“Come in,” I said through the intercom, and pressed the button to open the outer door. Rosalie looked over her shoulder as Yoshi walked in.

“Rosalie, this is Yoshi Akimoto. He was my assistant at MIT, but he’s such a great researcher now that he doesn’t need me anymore. Yoshi, this is Rosalie, who’s studying psychology at BU and has been reading our papers with keen interest. I’m sure you’ll have a lot to talk about. But before that, I need to ask both of you to help me with something. If you step back into the foyer, at either end you’ll see one of those red panels that say ‘In case of emergency break glass’. I think we can say a Nobel Prize qualifies as an emergency, or at least an extraordinary situation, don’t you?”

I got up and walked around to the inner door before either of them could ask any questions. As they made their docile way back into the foyer, I unlocked the one deadbolt that I could control from inside.

Through the door, I could hear Yoshi’s muffled voice saying, “One, two, three.” Then came the sound of glass shattering, followed by bolts clicking back into their casings.

I turned the handle, pushed open the door, and stepped into the foyer for the first time in a year.

I spread my arms wide with a bright smile. “Free at last! Free at last! Thank Rosalie and Yoshi, I am free at last!”

I enfolded Yoshi in a bear hug. He endured it, as always; after so long in the States, he was still not fully comfortable with dramatic physical displays of emotion, but he had gotten used to them.

Except they didn’t usually involve hypodermic needles.

“Yoshi,” I whispered into his ear as I drove the needle home, “you’re one flat rat.”

When I released him, he gave me one last look with uncomprehending eyes, playing the innocent right to the end – What does it mean, Dr. Coney? – before slumping to the floor.

I turned to Rosalie with a smile. For a hybristophiliac, the more heinous her lover’s crime, the greater the attraction. I had just fulfilled her ultimate fantasy, letting her see a murder committed before her very eyes.

Those eyes were now wide with shock, staring at Yoshi’s body. Her face was stark white, and she was shaking and hyperventilating.

The possibility occurred to me that I might have misdiagnosed her.

“Rosalie…”

She stared at me in horror, shook her head, and turned to make a break for the outer door. But I caught up with her before she reached it.

It was fortunate – or, more accurately, good planning – that I had held an extra dose of sux in reserve. I was sorry to have to use it; Rosalie was still very young and I would have liked to become better acquainted with her, but this unforeseen turn of events had left me no alternative.

As soon as she had joined Yoshi on the floor, I called the police. “Did you just get an alarm signal from my house?”

“Yes, sir, we did.”

“I was afraid of that. You can ignore it. I was tinkering with the wiring and I think I tripped it by accident, but I’m OK; everything’s fine. Sorry for the false alarm.”

I took Rosalie’s keys from her purse; Yoshi, who didn’t own a car, had come by bus. The house was far enough back from a quiet enough street, with enough tree cover, that I could load the bodies into the trunk without having to worry too much about anyone seeing me.

As I drove to Cambridge, careful to go no more than five miles an hour over the speed limit, I considered what to do with them. Once I was finished with the car, maybe I could put them in the front seats and push it off some bridge or cliff somewhere, making it look as though they had been out together and had a horrible accident. An autopsy, assuming they even decided to perform one, would show nothing to suggest otherwise; the sux would break down into naturally occurring compounds. But at the moment, there was more urgent business to attend to.

I arrived at the house. Kent’s bicycle wasn’t in its place; he was probably out visiting his friends. It was just as well; if there was to be any unpleasantness, I didn’t want him there to witness it.

I let myself in, walked through the living and dining room, and passed through the swinging door into the kitchen, where a man was preparing something at the counter. I sized him up with a single glance: thin frame, round glasses, unkempt hair, and beard. A sensitive, soulful, poetic type. A romantic, who would listen to her, make her feel loved, appreciated, valued for the things she valued in herself, all the things that I was supposed to make her feel and hadn’t. He was so absorbed in slicing vegetables and tofu – he would have to be a vegetarian, on top of everything else – that he didn’t notice me come in.

“Need help finding anything?” I asked.

He looked up and jumped, in alarm and – if he had any shred of human decency – guilt.

“Dr. Coney! What are you doing here?”

“I could very well ask you the same thing, couldn’t I?” I walked slowly but purposefully toward the kitchen. “After all, this house is mine. The name on the deed is mine. And the name on Lisa’s marriage certificate is mine.”

He paled and tightened his grip on the knife. “You need to leave.”

“You need to check the script again; you’re reading my lines. I strongly suggest you walk away while you still can.”

He did his best to put on a brave face, but I could tell that inwardly he was terrified, and rightly so. “Dr. Coney, leave now or I’ll call the police.”

“And tell them what?” I continued my advance. “Who’s the trespasser here? If the police came, you’re the one I’d be more worried about.”

I reached the kitchen, and came behind the counter to where he stood. He took a step back and brandished the knife at me. “Don’t come any closer.”

That was his first mistake: threatening me with a knife in my own kitchen. His second was threatening a doctor with a knife anywhere. Did he think I wouldn’t know exactly where to locate his carotid artery? In fact, ever since my first anatomy class, I had harbored a certain curiosity about what it would look like if that were cut.

As it turned out, the answer was “extremely messy”.

Watching with clinical interest as his life ebbed away, I took off my bloodstained jacket and washed my hands and instrument, out of habit. Then the door swung open. I looked up to see Lisa standing there, too petrified even to scream. Her thoughts were written on her ashen face: It’s true. Everything I had wanted so desperately not to believe is true. I married a psychotic killer.

She turned, and ran for the front door, but I caught up with her before she reached it; after all, I had been a running back for the Engineers once upon a time, and I had kept myself in shape, even during my year of confinement. She changed direction and fled up the stairs, with me just a few steps below her. She ran into the bedroom and tried to shut herself in, but I was right behind her and blocked the door before it closed.

She vaulted over the bed and picked something up from the nightstand. I hesitated a moment: was it a gun? Had she taken to keeping a gun by her bedside? I had always thought she detested guns as much as I did. Was this her boyfriend’s doing? Had she let some NRA wingnut into my enlightened home?

But then I saw that it was her cell phone.

This was unfortunate. I had hoped I would simply be able to talk to her until she saw reason, although it was true that the incident in the kitchen might already have ruined the chances of that. But in any case, now I would have to get to her before she called 911.

She held the phone out. I realized two things: first, that she was pointing the lens at me; and second, that I still had the knife in my hand. I quickly hid it behind my back.

“Be careful what you do next,” she said. “The world will be watching.”

I had to hand it to her, she knew me well. And she knew the petty minds of common people, for whom a sensational story trumped all else. If the video she was taking now were to go viral, it would overshadow all the accomplishments of my illustrious career, even the Nobel Prize. It would be the last, the strongest, possibly the only image of me in the world’s memory. Yes, she had found my pressure point.

As she said, I needed to choose my next words and actions carefully. What were the lines of the wronged husband, the virtuous martyr, in such a situation?

“Lisa,” I said, “even though you walked away from me when I needed you, even though you brought another man into my house, I can forgive you. I know I wasn’t always there for you, because I never realized what I had until it was…”

She cut me off. “What did you just do with that knife you’ve got behind your back?”

I dropped the knife, careful to keep it concealed behind my body, and extended both of my hands, palms upraised. “Lisa, we’ve been through this before,” I said, in the tone I would use when speaking to a patient with paranoid delusions. “You see? No knives, no guns. No one is trying to hurt you…”

She jumped up onto the bed for a higher vantage point. I moved to hide the knife, but I couldn’t be sure she hadn’t already captured it in the frame.

She touched the screen and spoke into the phone. “I, Lisa Kieler Coney, testify that my husband, Richard Coney, murdered Gavin Hutton. And if no one sees me alive after this, it will mean that he murdered me too.”

She touched the screen again and looked back at me. “Upload in progress.” She threw the cell phone to the far corner of the room.

Oh, clever Lisa. I could run and pick up the phone in time to cancel the upload, but that would clear the doorway and leave her an opening to escape. Or I could go after her, but then there would be nothing to stop the video from going viral. Yes, as I had often told her, I could never have married a stupid woman.

I decided to go for the phone first, and then take care of her. As I predicted, as soon as I moved away from the doorway, she crossed the bed in a bound, picked up the fallen knife, and ran out. I picked up the phone just long enough to press “Cancel”, and started after her.

She ran down the stairs. I caught up with her at the bottom, and seized a fistful of her hair from behind. She jerked backward, turned around awkwardly, and took a wild stab at me with the knife, but she had never used a kitchen knife as a weapon before, whereas I had had a very recent opportunity to hone my skills. It was easy to grab her wrist, let go of her hair, and pry the knife out of her hand.

“I’m sorry it had to come to this, Lisa.” It seemed fitting that the last words she heard should be her own.

A strong hand grabbed my knife arm from behind, twisting it a way that human joints were never meant to be twisted. A powerful kick swept my legs out from under me, and I fell to the floor face down. A hundred and twenty pounds knelt on my pinioned arm.

Kent was back. And he might have slacked off on his piano and swimming practice, but clearly, he had kept up his judo.

I struggled to free myself, but with his entire weight on my arm, it was impossible. I heard Lisa’s footsteps as she ran to the house phone, and her voice as she called the police. As soon as she hung up, she rushed over to me and brought her own weight to bear on the other arm.

I remembered thinking more than once that a wife and child would pin me down, but I never imagined it would happen so literally. The thought seemed so funny that I started laughing and couldn’t stop.

“You win, Eugene Coney,” I said to the ether when I could speak again. “You win.”

As the sound of approaching sirens began to grow louder, I felt strangely detached. I was watching the scene as if it were happening to someone else. It occurred to me that maybe, when my case went to trial, I could testify as an expert witness on my own behalf. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution casually throws around the phrase “knowingly and willfully”. But where do knowledge and will come from, if not the brain? And the brain I was born with, as you will see when you compare these scans, is defective merchandise. It predestined me to do all this. I am a victim of my own orbital cortex.

There was nothing left to do but wait for the police to arrive. I relaxed, made myself as comfortable as I could on the carpet, and started a mental draft of my Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Surely I could get a furlough for something as momentous as that. Or, failing everything else, there must be some way to set up a video link between the prison and Stockholm.


©2015 by Charles Kowalski. Photo by becarra, courtesy of Shutterstock.
This story is partially based on true events. I am indebted to the works of James Fallon, Kent Kiehl, and Sam Harris for inspiration.