A Gentle Knock at the Door
A sequel to Priority's Exigencies, which is a sequel to DIYSheep's The Contract.
After being tortured and falsely imprisoned for Cameron's murder, House attempts to reclaim his life and career. Just as his life is getting back on track, he receives disturbing news that threatens to disrupt his recovery.
Chapter 1: A Gentle Knock at the Door
As he leaned back in his chair, his feet propped up on the ottoman and his crutches tossed carelessly on the floor, Greg House heard the gentle knock on the door, followed by the familiar "Hi, it's me." He looked up from the medical journal he was reading. Peering over his reading glasses, he saw James Wilson's head, followed by the rest of him, entering House's office, ambling across the floor and sliding into the chair across from the desk.
Something wasn't right. The words were the same, the mannerisms the same, but something was troubling Wilson. His "Hi, it's me," was not the usual breezy greeting, or even the more hesitant approach he used when he thought House might be asleep or in pain. This was different. His body was braced, tension in his neck, his jaw slightly clenched.
Wilson stared intently at the top of House's desk, not saying a word. His brow dark, his hands fidgeting, he seemed lost in his own thoughts, and he telegraphed bad news. House felt his chest constrict and his breath stop.
They sat silently for a minute. House pretended to go back to reading, but his mind was wandering. What was it? What was worrying Wilson this much? He couldn't put his finger on it, but somehow he knew this wasn't a difficult patient or interoffice politics. It had to do with him, with House, and with what he was just now barely beginning to put behind him. He was pretty sure he didn't want to know what it was. And yet… well, Gregory House never could resist a mystery.
He waited. Wilson just stared. Sighing with annoyance, and trying to cover up his own growing anxiety, House finally slapped the journal onto the desk, took off his glasses and leaned forward.
"Spit it out. Whatever it is, get it over with."
Wilson looked up, his eyes troubled. He took a breath and shook his head. This wasn't going to be easy. But then, what was ever easy where House was concerned?
"There's a patient…" he started, slowly. For a fraction of a second, House's spirits lifted. Maybe he'd misinterpreted Wilson's body language. Maybe it really was just work-related. But then, quietly, Wilson continued: "…you need to know about." He paused and drew a breath.
A patient? Still vaguely hopeful, House tried to convince himself that this was Wilson's way of bringing him an unusual case. But he didn't believe it. What if it was something to do with Thompson?… House's heart seemed to pause again… What? A patient? One of the prison guards perhaps? Boot Boy? He couldn't seem to catch his breath. Get to the point, Wilson. I can't take this. Say something. House inspected Wilson's face, searching for the clues he didn't want to find.
Finally, the words began to tumble out. "I don't know how to tell you this. Bear with me. Cuddy just told me we had a patient sent over this morning from the women's prison. She is… uh… was… she was a journalist. New York Times. She was investigating your case—didn't believe you'd killed Cameron—and I guess she got too close."
House heard the words, but so far nothing made any sense. What the hell was going on?
"I'm not explaining this very well. Sorry. Even after you were released from prison, the FBI kept digging into Thompson's life. They searched his home, his offices, his car. Just last week, hidden away, they found… another contract… and hundreds more DVDs. The name on the contract was Maureen Adler."
Wilson didn't look up. He didn't want to see the expression on House's face.
"From what they could tell, Thompson did to her pretty much what he did to you. Except this time, he did it because she was supporting you and trying to win your release. He… he had her husband killed, and, like you, she went to prison for the murder. We may never know everything that was done to her in the last three years."
"Of course," he added quietly, glancing at House's stricken face, "I'm sure you have a better idea than anyone else could what she's been through. Apparently, what kept her going was fear for her little girl. After Thompson was killed and you were released, the goons must have had orders to keep after her—all this time she's still been suffering. When the FBI finally tracked her down last week, and began working to release her… they… Thompson's people… they murdered her child. A little girl—five years old. I guess to try to keep Adler from talking. I don't know. It's horrendous."
Wilson slumped in the chair, head down.
House just stared at Wilson. And stared. He couldn't begin to imagine anyone else going through what he'd endured. Flashes of his own torment flitted through his mind. Wincing, he blinked them away, only to have other images take their place.
Wilson saw the struggle on House's face. He hated having to tell House this news. And there was no telling what House would do with the information. He had to be told—he'd hear about it anyway—but Wilson just dreaded the idea that this was going to bring back all the pain and misery, just as House was beginning to try to gain some kind of peace.
The two friends remained silent as Wilson allowed House time to process what he'd been told.
Even though there was no point in getting angry—what good would his anger do, anyway?—it certainly wouldn't change the circumstances—House felt himself flushing with rage. Rage at Thompson for the madness, the money, the power. For killing Cameron, for destroying his own body, for the unceasing pain, for the anguish caused. And now this. Someone else's suffering. Great. Just what he needed to make his life complete—guilt. When it was just him living through days and nights of agony, he could deal with it on some level. His choice. His decision. And at least people he cared about—most of them, anyway—had survived.
But this new jolt—how the hell should he react? After an eternity, House composed his battered face and tried to take control of his breathing.
"And what am I supposed to do about it?" he asked tersely, as he felt his body tensing again, the mangled fingers of his right hand clenching into an approximation of a fist. Ever since he'd emerged from the catatonia, he'd feared that Thompson would come back, would get him again, that he'd slip back into that hell. While his head told him it couldn't happen—could it?—his fragile emotions were constantly on alert that it was all starting over again. Was this the beginning of the next stage? Someone else's blood on his conscience? Someone else's pain and anguish?
Wilson paused. "I don't know, House. I don't know." Wilson looked away from his friend's tormented face. "Of all the gin joints in all the world…" he muttered. If there'd just been a way to keep him from knowing about Maureen Adler. Not fair, he thought. Just not fair. But when had life been fair to Greg House?
Long after they thought they'd found all of Robert Thompson's horrifying little secrets, this came up. Special Agent Roberts couldn't believe they'd missed it. Nearly three years after Thompson's death, more than two after rescuing Dr. Gregory House from that hellhole of a prison, there was more to discover. Buried in the tons of paper—the evil bastard kept remarkable records, thank God—was the lease to a storage space, paid in advance for five years. It took some doing to get Storage Inn to let them impound the contents. Funny how persnickety people can be when they've been paid enough.
And so it started all over again. Sorting through the newly discovered documents, finding another cache of DVDs, discovering more horror, more corruption and more despair. At first, Roberts thought the DVDs would be more of the same—hours and hours of Dr. House being tortured, sexually abused, humiliated. The thought of having to see any more of what one deranged man could do to another human being made him physically ill. But he knew it was part of his job.
Unlike the previous DVDs, these were unmarked. He randomly selected one and slid it into the player in his office. Sure enough, there was a prison cell, dark, dank, with a small figure huddled into the corner. But wait. That wasn't House. That was… who was it? It was a woman, a small woman, her back to the camera, her hands clasping her head, just as House's so often had. Roberts felt his stomach turn.
It took a few days, but Roberts and his partner, Agent Matthews, eventually found a name. And a contract, like House's, with clauses of pain and suffering, signed in blood.
"We've got a situation here," he heard himself saying to his boss, Jared Eaton. "You remember the House case...? Yeah, well. Didn't think you'd forget it… Well, apparently, Thompson had another victim, a Maureen Adler—Rainie Adler…" He listened to his cell phone as Eaton erupted on the other end. "No, sir, we don't know. In prison somewhere. Same kind of thing… yes, hours and hours of recordings… maybe we'll be lucky and find the abuse has stopped since Thompson died."
But they weren't lucky. Locked up in solitary at the West Jersey State Correctional Institution For Women, Adler was eventually discovered cowering—just as they'd found House—in a dark, filthy, smelly cell, her body shattered, her mind no longer able to function. But this time, there was no friend like James Wilson to help her make the transition back to reality. She refused to believe it was all over. And in her case, sadly, it wasn't.
Moving quickly, the FBI agents arrested everyone whose name they found in the storage unit—guards, trustees, doctors. Once they had cleaned out the drek, they got Adler to the new staff at the prison hospital. Throughout, Roberts had a horrible feeling of déjà vu.
Teams of agents pored over the documents, looking for information about Adler and why she'd been subjected to Thompson's insanity. Finally, in a file marked "Adler Research," they found it. She'd been a newspaper reporter—a good one, too—at The New York Times. Something about the House case had troubled her, so she began digging. But whether through good journalism, bad luck, fate or fluke, she'd stumbled on the Thompson connection. And he, with his tentacles everywhere, had reached out and dealt her life the same kind of blow she was investigating.
Now she lay, as House had, gravely ill in the prison hospital, her body and mind broken, an infection raging. And someone would eventually have to deal her another blow. Almost as soon as the FBI began arresting Thompson's remaining people, someone broke into the foster home where Rainie Adler's little daughter was living and choked the life out of her.
Now what? Foreman, Chase and Devi Rajghatta sat around the conference table, glancing every so often at the closed door that led to House's office. Dr. Wilson had been in there since 9:15, more than an hour; it was clear something was up. Foreman drummed his fingers impatiently on the table; Chase looked absently through the patient files; Devi tried making some notes on a legal pad, aware that she was having trouble concentrating.
"I say we go in there. We've got a patient, and House needs to do his job," said Foreman abruptly.
Chase looked up, suddenly annoyed. "You've never been the most tactful person, have you, Foreman? Don't you think it's pretty obvious something's going on? If we're going to disturb them, let's at least be considerate about it."
"Why don't we call over there?" suggested Devi. "That way, it's clear we need his attention, but we're not barging in."
"Works for me," said Chase before Foreman had a chance to protest, and reached for the phone. He pressed House's extension and the speaker button, and waited. After three rings, House picked up. "Yeah. What is it?" His voice, quiet since… well, since… was now barely audible.
"Hey, House. Sorry to bother you, but we've got a new patient and need your input to get going."
There was a long pause on the other end. "Coming. I'll be there in a minute," said House, disconnecting.
"Are you sure you're up to this?" asked Wilson. For nearly an hour, House had sat, almost without moving, as he contemplated this new development.
"Doesn't matter, does it?" sighed House. "Whether or not I'm up to it, I have a job to do. It's not fair to this patient if I'm lost in my past or pondering my future." With a grunt, House hoisted himself up on his crutches, standing for a moment to get his balance and pull himself together before walking to the connecting door and flinging it open.
"`Morning, people!" he said as heartily as he could manage. "What have we got?"
"How'd he take it?" Cuddy searched Wilson's face. From the moment Rainie Adler was brought to the ER by a couple of FBI agents this morning, Cuddy had known life was about to get complicated. Again.
She remembered Maureen Adler clearly from four years before, the earnest newspaper reporter digging into the House case, interviewing everyone who was willing to be interviewed—from hospital personnel to former patients—and reading every case file that House had been connected with during his tenure at PPTH. Cuddy could picture her face as she sat on the opposite side of the desk, asking shrewd and probing questions. She remembered a petite woman with dark, curly hair and large hazel eyes, and a few freckles that dotted her cheekbones.
There had been a determination to her that Cuddy found intriguing. Rainie Adler struck Cuddy as the type of person who didn't suffer fools gladly, and although Rainie never actually said it, Cuddy suspected that she was attempting to exonerate Greg House. If that was indeed her agenda, Cuddy was equally determined to do anything she could to help. Adler had been visiting PPTH off and on for several months when, suddenly, she was in the news herself, accused of murdering her husband, cinematographer Jeff Adler. According to the news reports, she was presumed to be the victim of spousal abuse.
A few times before the story blew, Cuddy had noticed fresh bruises on Rainie's face or an odd bandage on her hand; she'd even commented on it to Rainie, who brushed off the concern brusquely, saying she was just clumsy. As a result, Cuddy wasn't terribly surprised to hear that Rainie had apparently been beaten by her husband, but she was desperately dismayed to learn that Rainie Adler's investigation of House's case was over.
What surprised her now in retrospect was the realization that Rainie had been injured the same way House had a couple of years earlier, and that neither she nor anyone else at the hospital had figured it out.
"How do you think he took it?" Wilson spat back. "He's upset. He's remembering things… well, things he'd just as soon try to forget." The most he could hope for at this point were enough distractions to keep him from spending every waking hour living with the memories. The sleeping hours were a different matter. Nightmares still plagued House more nights than not, wrenching nightmares in which he relived the terrors he wouldn't share even with Wilson. Often, even now, he woke up panting and sweating, wedged into a corner on the floor, where Wilson would find him shivering.
They shared a duplex, with House and his part-time caregiver, Linda McAllister, in one unit and Wilson in the other. On the really bad days, which had been getting fewer and fewer, thank goodness, Wilson stayed over on House's side, watching over his friend and trying to make life as easy as possible for a man who had lived through hell.
"Did he say anything?"
"Not much. But then he never does." As much as Wilson really didn't want to hear the details—his imagination was plenty good, thank you very much—he wished House would open up more about what happened.
But no. He held it all inside, where it came out in his fitful sleep. Or in those moments when someone moved too quickly or spoke too loudly or expressed anger.
Then Dr. Gregory House, diagnostician extraordinaire, the man who came back from the brink, who once again was the head of Diagnostic Medicine at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital, became a frightened child, covering his head or protecting his distorted hands under his armpits, girding himself for the blow that was sure to come. And he hated himself for it.
Wilson had tried to get House into therapy—not that any therapist alive could be prepared to deal with what House had gone through. But of course House refused. "What difference does it make?" he'd say, shrugging his uneven shoulders. "Doesn't change what happened, and forcing me to relive it doesn't seem all that constructive. Just painful. Besides, I'm doing it in my sleep, anyway." Wilson knew there was a flaw somewhere in that argument, but didn't have the heart to contradict his friend.
"So what happens next?" asked Cuddy.
"Beats me," said Wilson. "I'm sure he'll avoid seeing her. It's got to be incredibly painful just knowing there's someone else who's been through what he went through. And that it's because of him she went through it. You should have seen the look on his face when I told him—it was excruciating. No, I don't see him wanting to be anywhere near her." Wilson paused.
Cuddy looked at Wilson closely. "What about the FBI agents?" Wilson looked away. "You did tell him, didn't you? That the FBI needs to talk to him about this?"
Wilson shook his head. "Didn't have the stomach for it. I'll tell him after lunch." Changing the subject, he asked, "Who's handling her case?"
Cuddy shrugged. "At the moment, she's still in ER. How she survived… how he survived… it amazes me what the human body can take." She sighed. "She's septic, which isn't surprising, I suppose, given all those injuries, and they're tracing the source of the infection. If she makes it through the day, I'm putting Naveen Ajunta on the team. He's gentle, sympathetic and she's going to need gentleness and sympathy. For lead physician, I'm not so sure. Any suggestions?"
"You need someone highly skilled who can also deal with the emotional end of things. I don't even know where to start. I could get you a list of the people House has seen. We want the very best people for her injuries. She'll need orthopedic work, internal, reconstructive, plastic surgery…"
His voice drifted off, realizing he was starting to catalog the medical procedures House had undergone—and continued to undergo. Snapping himself back to the present, he added, "If this is anything like House's case, money will be no object. The settlement will be huge and medical will be covered. House could actually be a great resource in helping us find the right people, if he'd, well, you know, be willing…" He looked up, at Cuddy, helplessly.
Cuddy sighed. If House would be willing… Fat chance.
When Wilson rapped softly on House's office door at 12:30, he got no answer. Knocking a little harder, he said, "It's me," and rattled the door handle. Locked.
Walking through the Diagnostics conference room, he tried the connecting door, but still got no response. Also locked. This wasn't good. Had the news this morning been that upsetting, that House had locked himself in his office? After pacing a few worried laps around the conference room, he tried again. Nothing. He looked out into the courtyard, gazing vacantly at the trees, and tried to figure out what to do. In all this time, House had never shut him out, at least not out of a room.
Out of the corner of his eye, Wilson saw something move in the courtyard. It was House, sitting at the small patio table, his damaged legs propped up on another chair. Thank goodness, Wilson thought, as he opened the conference room door and stepped outside into the cool spring air.
Simulating good cheer, he called out, "Hey, whatcha doing out here? Trying to get pneumonia or something?"
House looked up and smiled wanly. "Too hot inside. Just cooling off."
"Ready for lunch? I can bring it out here…" His sentence drifted off.
"Sure. What fattening goody did you bring me today?" House knew Wilson was still concerned about his weight, or rather his lack of weight. After being systematically starved, House was released from prison dangerously underweight. Now, nearly a year after coming out of his semi-catatonic state, he was still gaunt. Although he tried to eat, House had very little appetite—too many bad memories connected with food, Wilson guessed. So Wilson was constantly trying to tempt House with tasty and fattening treats. Ironic to be feeding all this fattening food to one man, considering the obesity problem in the U.S., Wilson thought.
"Chocolate-dipped french-fried peanut butter sandwiches." Wilson's mouth twitched as he tried to keep a straight face.
"That sounds disgusting," grimaced House, more like himself. "If you keep this up, you old witch, I'm going to start calling myself Hansel. No, really, what's the treat du jour?"
"How about one of those small bundt cakes from Johannsen's?"
House and Wilson ate their sandwiches in contented silence, watching the effect the breeze had on the light-green new tree leaves. About halfway through the little bundt cake, House turned to Wilson. "So… drop the other shoe."
"I beg your pardon?" said Wilson, feigning innocence.
"Come on. You're biding your time. Treading carefully. You already dropped the big one this morning. As you can see, I'm okay now. I hate suspense, unless I'm the one causing it. So hit me with your best shot."
Not the best choice of words, Wilson thought. Okay, here goes.
"If you insist. I'm sure it's already crossed your mind that you're connected to Rainie Adler whether you like it or not."
House bobbed his head once in agreement, his mouth a grim line, as he kept his eyes on Wilson's face.
"Well, as soon as you're up for it, the FBI needs to talk to you. Because her case is so closely connected to yours, they're going to have to interview you. It's the same FBI guys—Roberts and Matthews—so at least it's people you've met them before."
"I figured as much. Is that it?" Despite everything that had happened, not a whole lot got past Greg House. Damned disconcerting it was, too, that insight and perception of his. It didn't even seem human sometimes.
Wilson nodded. "That's it."
House popped the last bite of bundt cake in his mouth, grabbed his crutches and hauled himself upright. "Okay, let's go," he mumbled as he wiped the crumbs from his mouth off on the shoulder of his jacket.
"Dr. House," said agent George Matthews, putting out his hand. "I'm glad to see you again. You're looking much better than you were the last time." That's an understatement, thought Matthews. It's not possible to look worse than he'd looked then. Starved, bloodied, terrified, barely able to stand. And now we're going to go through this all over again.
House cautiously shook his hand, and eased himself into a comfortable chair. Cuddy had given them the board of directors' conference room for the interview, out of consideration for House's assaulted body—it was the room with the overstuffed armchairs.
House did look dramatically better than he had, thought Joe Roberts. He was still painfully thin—but not like before—and his hands still trembled. His face and hands were a latticework of scars, some fine, some deep. But he was back at work, a miracle in itself, and appeared to have shaken at least some of the demons that hounded him. Where before he was fragile and looked like he might crumble at any moment, now he just appeared tired and weak. Which might not seem like an improvement, but it was. And there was the pain, of course, ever present in his face, in the cautious way he moved. That was never going to change.
Roberts understood from Dr. Cuddy that House's mind was as sharp as it ever had been, which had to be a relief to the man considered to be one of the leading diagnosticians in the world. After all the beatings, he should by rights be brain-damaged. Somehow, House had managed not only to survive, but to survive with his brain intact. There might not be a lot to be grateful for in this situation, but at least there was that.
House stretched his neck back and around, took a deep breath, and pressed his fingertips together, which effectively stopped the shaking in his hands. "Shoot. As it were," he said.