SUBSTANCE Q • by Michael Madden

Virginia Porter drifted up from a cavernous sleep and blinked her eyes at the cracked plaster ceiling. Lifting her head with painful slowness, she took in her surroundings. Her feet were bound, her arms manacled to a metal bed somewhere deep in the grimy innards of the John Howard Pavilion — the lock-down ward at St. Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital.

“And how are we feeling today?” Dr. Lamont inquired in his sing-song fashion as he burst into the room. “Think we’re okay to let loose those manacles?”

Virginia composed herself and smiled at his young, handsome features. It was the cowlick at the back of his head that reminded her of her grandson, Jacob. “Oh yes, Doctor. I’m feeling better now.”

“Gave us quite a scare, Virginia. You simply must remember to take your meds. We were forced to sedate you. Do you remember anything at all?”

“No.” She jingled her manacles at Lamont and beamed at him hopefully. “But I’m feeling much better now.”

“Um huh,” Lamont said, skeptically. “Tell me. Who is Captain Pistachio?”

“I… I dunno.” She looked away, embarrassed. “Should I?”

Lamont consulted his file. “Says here, the police found you on the staircase of an abandoned Church at Euclid Street and Columbia Road with a… hmmmm… butter knife in your hand, muttering something about killing someone named Captain Pistachio. Remember that?”


“And when they brought you in last night you were ranting about the captain of an alien spaceship who was giving mind control substances to humans as part of a plot to take over the Earth.” Lamont placed a finger on the file. “Substance Q, you called it. Ring a bell?”

Virginia shook her head apologetically. “I don’t know what I was saying. I must have forgotten to take my meds. It won’t happen again.”

“Come on, Virginia,” Lamont miffed, as he closed the file. “Euclid and Columbia? That’s the nightclub district. Homeless people all around… alcohol… drugs… those people are a bad influence. We went to great trouble to get you a bed at the Union Mission. We expect you to go there.”

Virginia nodded enthusiastic agreement.

Lamont’s stern gaze melted into a plastic smile as he unlocked the manacles. “Take your meds, Ginny,” he admonished playfully.

“I promise. When am I getting — ”

“You’ll spend the rest of the afternoon in the lockdown ward, for observation. Afterward, you’ll be placed back on out-patient status, free to come and go as you please. So long as,” he said, raising a finger, “there are no further incidents.”

“Yes Doctor, of course.”


Virginia slung the duffel bag over her shoulder and braced herself for the long climb up the wide stone steps of the church. With all the pandemonium of the nightclub district, no one took notice of a frail old woman ascending the stairs of the Church of Christ Science and disappearing into the shadows behind its granite colonnade. She dug a blanket out of the duffle bag and spread it out on the smooth stone floor of the landing, and then fished her favorite photograph out of the bag, propped it up against a column, and sat there staring at the faces of her daughter Jill and grandchild, Jacob.

Dr. Lamont would be angry if he found out she hadn’t gone to the Union Mission. Virginia knew that Lamont meant well, but that he had never been to a shelter, let alone spent a night in one. She had done a stretch or two at shelters over the years and felt much safer on the street.

Down below, the lunacy of the nightclub district was getting into full swing. To her left was the Strip on Eighteenth Street, with its half-drunken crowd spilling out onto Columbia Road. Before her was what the city had dubbed “Unity Park,” a triangular shaped concrete slab whose only park-like feature was a few scattered benches. A circle of trees all around the “park” blocked the street lights and turned it into a dark haven at night.

Virginia searched through her duffle and pulled out a stainless steel butter knife, one of several she had lifted from St. Elizabeth’s cafeteria. With her back against the brass doors of the church, she began scraping its dull blade against a stone column as she stared lovingly at the picture of Jacob.

Kshhhhht . . .

Eleven years had passed since that photograph was taken, on Christmas Eve, the last time they had all been together, before Jill had picked up her fifth conviction for possession of cocaine and Jacob had been sent away to that foster home in Baltimore.

Kshhhhht . . .

Virginia sat upright and peeked from behind the column at a shadowy figure that had skulked into the park. The figure leaned against a lamp post with long greasy hair hiding its face and the straps of its leather jacket dangling down like a double tail. She grimaced as a poor street urchin walked over and handed the shadowy figure some money in exchange for a small plastic packet. Her old eyes squinted in anger.

Kshhhhht . . .

Her anger dissolved into a sly smile. Peering down from her dark perch, Virginia Porter whispered a vow.

Kshhhhht . . .

“I’ll get you yet, Captain Pistachio.”

Michael Madden is a writer of crime fiction which is set mostly in the Washington, D.C. area and is the producer/director for Washington Audio Theater.

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