Set against a Trump-era backdrop of official corruption, venality, and injustice, the satirical novel depicts a tumultuous year or so in the life of a physician named Robert Rosen, who dreams of acquiring fame as a television doctor. While publicly excoriating his fellow practitioners for over-prescribing opioids and thereby turning their patients into addicts, Dr. Rosen practices what he preaches against, selling oxycodone prescriptions for cash to his own patients and to a couple of Russian mobsters who run a bogus pain clinic. One of his patients becomes an informer, and he is arrested by the FBI. When he reinvents himself as a life coach and motivational speaker, his fortunes appear to be on the rise again, but he finds, to his dismay, that he cannot escape his criminal past. The Russians have not finished with him yet.
On Monday, at the end of his session with Boadecia, the doctor, leaning back in his chair with his hands crossed behind his head, inquired, with affected nonchalance, “So, you can bring me some business?”
Boadecia, springing from her chair, jumped six inches off the floor, clapped her hands three times, and grinned.
“I can bring more business than you’ll know what to do with.”
“You seem pretty excited about it. What’s in it for you?”
He stared into her wall eye, as though expecting to find the answer there.
“Nothing. I just like to help my friends.”
“I’m sure you do. I can imagine what those friends are like. Don’t bring them around here all at once, O.K.? We’ll start with one of them, or maybe two, and go from there.”
“I’ll bring my friend Carol next week.”
“Carol. I don’t think you’ve ever mentioned a Carol before. How long have you known this Carol?”
“Just a few weeks, but she’s become a real good friend. I’ve made a lot of new friends recently.”
“Not in law enforcement, I hope.”
“You’ll like Carol. She’ll buy a lot from you. Oxy is like Pez to her.”
Watching the livestream in his downtown office, Agent Hardin groaned.
As Boadecia pranced through the empty waiting room on her way out, Dr. Rosen lingered in the hallway watching her mistrustfully. He had never seen her so buoyant. Who were those new friends of hers whom she wanted so much to help? She did not even try to cajole from him a free script or two as a finder’s fee for bringing him a new customer. That was most unlike her. Might she be working for the police?
He quickly dismissed the idea. No police force would ever hire Boadecia. Besides, his recent misfortunes had left him in such straits that he could not afford to turn away any Carol that she might drag in. He needed her to bring him twenty Carols, and he needed them right away, rather than a week hence.
The lights would stay on for at least another month, but Dr. Rosen had to dispense with the office cleaning crew. He could do the job just as well himself, he decided, and he did for the first two days. Then the intervals between cleanings grew longer. He saw that the desk and shelves needed dusting; the carpet, vacuuming; and the waste basket, overflowing with sandwich wrappers and crushed soda cans, emptying. Every day he swore that he would get to those tasks, but even when he found the time, lassitude would overcome him and sap his resolve or yet another attack of heartburn would cause him to forget his good intentions altogether.
In Tamika’s absence, folders, papers, envelopes, and professional journals accumulated atop his office desk until they covered the surface several layers deep. He hired a temp to take Tamika’s place at the reception desk but dismissed her within a week for fear that she might find something compromising in his records.
Boadecia, who seemed to have a particular knack for detecting his vulnerabilities and poking at them, remarked one day, “What happened, doc? Did the maid die or something?”
The x-ray film he held in his hands showed the neck vertebrae of the occupant of the other wingback chair, a woman known to the doctor as Carol Burnett but designated as undercover officer (UC)-1 in the complaint Agent Hardin had already begun to draft. Pale, slender, and freckle-faced, she wore torn jeans and a black Metallica T-shirt with purple lettering. Her short, wavy hair was an anemic shade of red. She had the look and sound of a user: gray-green eyes that never quite met his; a vague smile, if a smile it was; a voice devoid of inflection. She might have been twenty-five or twice that age.
The first time Boadecia had brought her to the office, the doctor had prescribed thirty oxycodone pills, along with a muscle relaxant, rather than the requested 120.
“I can’t give you that many right off,” he told her. “It raises a red flag. Bring me an x-ray next time, and I’ll be able to give you more.”
Her too ready acquiescence made him uneasy. In a typical user, even one with a generally flat affect, the doctor’s caution would have evoked anger or pleading or whining—anything but “O.K.”
His inability to spot any abnormality on the x-ray film she had brought with her raised his antennae even more.
“So where does it hurt exactly?”
“In my neck.”
Dr. Rosen turned his eyes to the ceiling and took a breath. This one’s obtuseness tried his patience nearly as much as Boadecia’s whining.
“Yes, I know that. Didn’t the doctor tell you which disc it was?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he did and I forgot, or maybe he didn’t.”
“It would help me to know. Because I really can’t tell a whole lot from this x-ray. Let me have a look.”
He put the x-ray film down and came around from behind the desk.
“Does this hurt?” he asked, pressing a thumb against the back of the patient’s neck.
The first two probes elicited nothing; the third, a piercing scream the instant he made contact with her skin. Did she and Boadecia exchange conspiratorial glances, or did he imagine they did?
“On a one-to-ten scale, how much did that hurt?”
“Can you give me a number? If one is just a little tenderness, and ten…Oh, never mind.”
Returning to his chair, he wrote out a prescription.
“I’ll give you ninety this time. If you bring me an MRI next time, I’ll be able to give you more. That’s $1,350.”
She counted out several $100 bills, laying them on the desk. Looking confused, she paused, started over, and soon lost her way again.
“Look, I’ll give you a break this time. Just give me $1,000, O.K.? That’s ten bills. You can count to ten, right?”
The exchange finally executed, he began typing on his laptop.
Agent Hardin, still watching, pumped his fist.
“Carol Burnett. Is that your real name?”
“What’s so damn funny?”
The doctor shook his head.
“I have two comedians in here. Everyone’s a comedian. Occupation? I should have asked you last time, but I forgot.”
“I’m a secretary.”
“Not at the Twentieth Precinct, I hope.”
“I mean, you’re not a cop, are you? Because I don’t want to be in a segment on pill- pushing docs on 60 Minutes.”
“You’d be famous if you got on 60 Minutes.”
“Woo hoo!” cried Agent Hardin.
While Boadecia squealed with delight and kicked her feet up, UC-1, with her drifting eyes and spectral smile, remained a blank to the doctor.
Two days later, Dr. Rosen found himself poring over an even more enigmatic spinal x-ray. Taken from above, the image did reveal some early disc calcification, but other aspects of it—the tapering of the ribs toward the bottom of the spine, the narrowness of the pelvis—puzzled him. The x-ray looked more like that of a child, he thought, than of an adult.
It was neither, as Special Agent Hardin would later attest in United States of America v. Robert D. Rosen: “UC-2 told Rosen that UC-2’s x-ray was taken by the doctor who took UC-1’s x-ray. Based on my conversations with UC-2, I learned that the patient whose x-ray was presented to Rosen was in fact a black Labrador retriever named Elmore. The x-ray was obtained from Elmore’s veterinarian.”
The man who had brought the doctor Elmore’s x-ray gave his name as Chester Burnett and said he was Carol’s brother. He did not resemble his sister, with whom he had come, any more than she did her famous namesake. Dressed in a gray tank top, denim shorts, and a pair of Birkenstocks, he had a round face covered by several days’ growth of salt-and-pepper whiskers, and silver-streaked brown hair pulled back into a pony tail. A pair of blue-tinted glasses with circular lenses concealed his eyes.
To enliven the proceedings, he had brought with him an imaginary blues ensemble. Playing and vocalizing air guitar, air blues harp, and air bass and drumming on the edge of the desk, he jammed away while Dr. Rosen studied the film. The heretofore nearly comatose UC-1 startled Dr. Rosen by joining in with some blistering boogie-woogie air piano riffs.
“Hey, I’m trying to concentrate here, all right? Time for the band to take a break.”
UC-2 capped a final, short drum solo with a vocal representation of clashing cymbals and a sustained lupine howl.
The hijinks did not please Agent Hardin any more than they did the doctor. Over the course of his career, the strait-laced FBI man had learned to bend when necessary. Having worked undercover himself, he well understood the challenges and stresses his agents faced and tried to allow them as much leeway as possible, so long as they caught their prey. Still, a dog’s x-ray was a bit much, to say nothing of the aliases Carol and Chester Burnett. He would have to have a chat with these two later and remind them that they were FBI agents and not comedians.
“Look, I’ll be honest here,” the doctor said. “I can’t make heads or tails of this film.”
UC-1 stifled a laugh, while UC-2 made no such effort. Even Agent Hardin chuckled.
“I don’t know what you find so funny. For the amount you want, I need MRIs from both of you. I have to cover my ass. I don’t want to end up at Riker’s Island.”
“Nah, you won’t end up at Riker’s, doc,” replied UC-2. “That’s not the way the world works. Some of the dealers you’re supplying might, though. The ones who aren’t white.”
“How do you know that?”
“I just know. Everybody knows.”
“For now, I’ll give you ninety and you forty-five, said Dr. Rosen, pointing at UC-1 and UC-2, respectively. “That’s $900 for you, and $450 for you. I’m giving you both a break this time because I think we can do business together. You bring me more customers, and I’ll treat you right. People like Boadecia I charge twice as much. I keep hoping she won’t come back, but she always does. What a nut case. I know she’s an addict, and I’m almost sure she’s dealing. I used to worry that she might be some kind of informant, but can you imagine that airhead as an informant?”
“Boadecia as an informant?” said UC-2. “That’s too funny.”
“Too funny,” echoed UC-1.