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A DIFFICULT CASE

I got the call about Robert Oliver in April 1999, less than a week after he’d pulled a knife in the nineteenth-century collection at the National Gallery. When my phone rang, the voice on the other end was that of a friend and colleague, Dr. John Garcia. John is a fine man - and a fine psychiatrist - with whom I went to school long ago and who takes me out for lunch now and then at the restaurant of his choice, seldom allowing me to pay. He works in one of Washington’s biggest hospitals and, like me, also sees private patients.

“This guy could be a difficult case. I don’t know what you’ll make of him, but I’d prefer for him to be under your care at Goldengrove. Apparently he’s an artist, a successful one - he got himself arrested last week, then brought to us. His name is Robert Oliver.”

“What did he do to get arrested?”

“He tried to attack a 19th century painting in the National Gallery. With a knife. We don’t know why. The police questioned him but he refused to answer any questions.”

“He attacked a painting? Not a person?”

“Well, apparently there was no one else in the room at that moment, but a guard came in, saw him taking a swing at the painting and stopped him at the very last moment.”

“Did he put up a fight?”

“Yes. He eventually dropped the knife on the floor, but then he grabbed the guard and shook him up pretty badly. He’s a big man. Then he stopped for some reason and let himself just be led away. The museum is trying to decide whether or not to press assault charges. I think they’re going to drop them, but he took a big risk.” The habits of caution run deep in our profession so I asked, “Why do you want me to take him? Are you trying to give me additional headaches?”

“Oh, come on.” I could hear John smiling. “I’ve never known you to turn a patient away, Dr. Dedication, and this one should be worth your while.”

“Because I’m a painter?”

He hesitated only a beat. “Frankly, yes. I don’t pretend to understand artists, but I think you’ll get through to this guy. I think he’s sinking into depression. I’m worried about him.”

“So you think I can get him to talk?” I asked.

“You could get a stone to talk.”

“Thanks for the compliment. All right — have him brought over to Goldengrove. Tomorrow at two, with the files. I’ll check him in,” I replied with a groan.

Suddenly a memory flashed through my mind. I thought of something I had forgotten about for a long time. When I was twenty-one, freshly graduated from Columbia (which had filled me with history and English as well as science) and heading already for medical school at the University of Virginia, my parents volunteered enough money to help me go with my roommate to Italy and Greece for a month. It was my first time out of the United States. I was electrified by the paintings in Italian churches and by the architecture of Florence and Siena. On the Greek island of Paros, which produces the most perfect, translucent marble in the world, I found myself alone in a local archaeological museum. This museum had only one statue of value, which stood in a room by itself. Herself: she was a Nike, about five feet tall, in battered pieces, with no head or arms, and with scars on her back where she’d once sprouted wings, red stains on the marble, a reminder of the centuries the statue had been lying deep in the island earth. I was alone in the room, sketching her, when the guard came in for a moment to shout, “Closing soon!” After he left, I packed up my drawing kit, and then - without any thought of the consequences - I approached the Nike one last time and bent to kiss her foot. The guard was on me in a second. I’ve never been thrown out of a bar, but that day I was thrown out of a one-guard museum.

I picked up the phone and called John back. I caught him still in his office.

“What was the painting Mr. Oliver attacked?”

John laughed. “You know, I wouldn't have thought of asking that, but it was included in the police report. It’s called Leda. A Greek myth, I guess.”

adapted from The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova