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Authors: Stephen White

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BOOK: Dry Ice
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    When I was feeling especially drained my secrets were not just a looming cloud, but they chased me like a pack of wolves that smelled fatiguing prey.
    I was feeling weary a lot. I often smelled the stink of wolf.

Lauren knew none of it. And she wouldn't. Nor would she know that my patient's death had upset my equilibrium so much that the echoes of the shot that killed him continued to infiltrate my thoughts and distill into my dreams. I was convinced that Lauren wouldn't understand my secrecy about the man. Wouldn't understand that I couldn't even hint to her that he, briefly infamous, had been my patient.

    She had no way to understand that if I was too vulnerable, that if I opened that first door, it might allow her to peek through the other door, the one that I absolutely couldn't permit her inside.
    It wasn't fair of me. I wouldn't give her the chance to understand because I had convinced myself that even her understanding would change everything. Over time the presence of my secret had become as imposing an obstacle as any fact that I was hiding.
    And I was hiding a whale.
There had been a day—I mean that literally,
a day
—when I could have told her and she might have understood. The solitary window of opportunity had come years before I'd ever met the patient whose death had been chronicled on the evening news. I still don't believe that Lauren would have understood my secret had I shared it that day, but at dispassionate moments I believed it was possible that she
could
have. But . . . even had she understood, nothing would have been the same between us from that moment on. My confidence in that was unwavering.
Sometime after Cabo San Lucas ceased being a sleepy fishing village but before it became a resort, Lauren and I had traveled from Boulder to the tip of Baja for a weekend away. It was early in our dating relationship, and all the fuel that makes fresh love so combustible was present in abundance. Passion and reticence were colliding like the masses of warm and cool air that spawn the most enormous of thunderstorms.
    It was a time between us that was dangerous and alluring. Dangerous because of the allure. Alluring because of the danger.
    We were sitting in a restaurant overlooking the bay, thirty yards of sand separating us from the Sea of Cortés. The sky was post-dusk without a moon. Reflections of white stars danced on black water. For young lovers it was a perfect time for romance and for risk.
    Our waiter, a weathered, middle-aged man in a sweat-and food-stained
guayabera,
cleared away an unfinished plate of grilled shrimp and the skeletal remains of a
huachinango
. He left glasses with the dregs of our margaritas sweating tropical rings onto the tablecloth.
    I remember details of that meal and of that night that I should have forgotten. I remember little things—the shrimp were overcooked, the snapper was prepared with too much garlic—the way that a bride remembers minutiae from her wedding. I remember so much because it had been a night of so much possibility.
    It was Lauren, not I, who took the risk. Before the waiter returned with our crappy Nescafé she said, "I have MS."
    Until that instant her illness had been secret from me. I recognized at some level that her words were not a simple moment of revelation. They were also a warning. She was cautioning me not to love her. More, she was pleading with me not to invite her to fall in love with me before I ran away.
    She was, I think, prepared for me to leave even as she was challenging me not to. Perhaps right then, before I finished my shitty coffee. I complained that she was demonstrating little faith.
    "You want faith," she'd replied, "earn it."
    I could have chosen that instant to tell her about the darkness that was chasing me. Telling her about the cloud would have been a monumental act of faith. I didn't. I'd decided long before that disclosure wasn't an option. And I had vowed never to decide again. No one would see me—no one could ever see me—against the backdrop of that cloud.
    I was the one demonstrating little faith on the edge of that beach in Cabo. I was young and convinced I could forever outmaneuver the cloud. I could run faster, pedal harder, love better. I could earn her faith in other ways.
    History isn't destiny, I had told myself. But running from history is. That was the part I didn't fully grasp until I watched my patient die on the evening news.
    The irony is that Lauren might have understood the part about history and destiny. But I had no way to know that then.
    My history remained secret.
    My destiny? The cloud was closing. On weary days, the wolves salivated.

FIVE

LAUREN HAD a more contemporary secret.
    She was a deputy DA with the Boulder County District Attorney's office. Her recent assignment involved a case she was either preparing to take, or was actively taking, before a grand jury. Lauren didn't say what the grand jury was considering. Under Colorado law grand jury investigations are, well, secret. Who or what was the focus of the present inquiry? I didn't know. I would not know unless Lauren's boss, the DA, decided there was some advantage to be gained by public disclosure of the fact of the probe, or if there was a leak and details hit the local paper.
    Was the investigation my wife was stewarding a big deal or a little deal?
    I could only guess. Grand juries aren't an everyday part of Colorado jurisprudence; they are more common in some other jurisdictions than they are here. In Colorado, decisions about most criminal indictments are made by the locally elected District Attorney after consultation with law enforcement. Grand juries of citizens empowered to hand down indictments are typically reserved for cumbersome investigations into controversial or unusual cases.
    Why are they used? Grand juries have investigatory powers that cops don't possess. Grand juries can compel testimony that detectives can only cajole through cleverness, persistence, badgering, or quasi-legal—or extralegal—threats. Sometimes grand jury subpoena powers are necessary to advance an investigation that's bogged down, sometimes they're essential to leverage the cooperation of one player in a criminal enterprise against another. The secrecy of grand juries is sometimes utilized in investigations of public corruption to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest by the investigators or to shield innocent parties from public scrutiny as they provide testimony.
    What was the reason for this grand jury? That was Lauren's secret. The only thing I knew about the grand jury was that my friend Sam Purdy, a Boulder police detective, was somehow involved in its work. I knew that tidbit because Sam had recently started calling our house and asking to speak with Lauren and not with me. "It's a cop thing," he'd say to me in explanation before I asked. "We have some work to discuss."
    Although suggestive, that small clue alone wasn't enough to convince me that the work had anything to do with a grand jury. Reaching that conclusion required one more piece of information.
    On a recent Saturday while I was on an errand in town buying Grace some soccer shoes—Lauren and I never discovered what happened to her old pair, they were just gone—Sam and Lauren were meeting at our kitchen table. Halfway to town I realized that I had forgotten my wallet and I backtracked home to retrieve it.
    Later, during Grace's first game in her new pink shoes, I asked Lauren about the meeting. "Is Sam investigating something for you?"
    She was quiet for almost half a minute before she said, "Yes."
    I opened my mouth to press for a more information. She held out a hand to stop me. "That's all I can say," she said. She kissed me lightly on the lips to let me know that her parsimony was nothing personal.
    That's when I knew about the grand jury. By acknowledg ing the need for discretion, she had handed me the confirmation. She knew what she had disclosed by telling me she could disclose nothing more, and she knew that I knew what she had disclosed by telling me that she could disclose nothing more. If Sam was investigating something for her but she could reveal no other detail, Lauren was telling me that she was involved with a grand jury case that the powers had stamped "Top Secret" and that Sam was temporarily on leave from his regular duties as a Boulder cop and was functioning as a special grand jury investigator for Lauren and the DA's office.
    I had no way to know then that the latest layer on the
torta
of secrets wasn't the second. The torta had been under construction for a while.
Lauren found sleep shortly after she told me that music hurt.
I didn't.
    Before climbing into bed the first time that night I'd had enough to drink that I wasn't quite sober but I wasn't quite drunk either. I knew only one way to remedy inebriation limbo. I got back out of bed, walked to the kitchen, and poured four fingers of chilled vodka into a glass.
    I had expected a dog or two to follow me from the bedroom, but neither of them did. Ten minutes later I was wrapped in a blanket on the deck outside the great room, the mountains looming black-purple to the west, the lights of Boulder at my knees. I had accomplished what I'd hoped to accomplish with the vodka: I was no longer in sober's zip code.
    The digital clock on the microwave read 3:11 when I woke up shivering on the deck. I stopped in the bathroom before I climbed back into our bed.
    Lauren hadn't moved.

SIX

BY MORNING she had reached a decision. She wasn't going to tell her neurologist about her acute aversion to music. "For things like this all he has is a hammer. If he wants to treat this at all, he's going to want to treat it like it's a nail."
    Translation? If her neurologist took the new symptoms seriously he would want to start her on a course of IV steroids. My wife wasn't willing to go down that, for her, highly inhospitable road. Instead she was choosing a riskier course that promised fewer side effects—she was planning to let the dice continue to roll and hope that the number that came up wouldn't sing craps.
    Left unsaid? In my heart, I knew that Lauren wasn't going to imperil whatever prosecuting she was doing with the current grand jury for a fortnight or more of Solumedrol-induced hell that she knew offered no assurance of any salutary effect on her musical antipathy. She reserved the Solumedrol lottery for assaults on symptoms that she judged significant enough to impact her mobility or her vision.
    I knew there was another reason that she wasn't eager to endanger her position with the grand jury. Her current assignment was as close to a full-time job as Lauren had tried to manage in a long time. In the many years since her diagnosis, the growing fatigue precipitated by, and the chronic pain of, her illness—not to mention the occasional acute symptoms—had caused her to cut back her office and courtroom time until she was working only half as many hours as she had when she'd been healthy. Whether she could do all the work necessary to command the grand jury investigation—and do it without getting sicker—was a big test for her. Temporarily at least, work would be a priority.
    Selfishly I believed that if she were convinced she could endure the demands of the grand jury she might also be convinced she could endure the demands of a second pregnancy.
Over breakfast our compact family—Lauren, me, Grace, and our two dogs—listened to
Morning Edition
instead of Coldplay. Lauren's speaker-dock was empty; the little iPod was nowhere in sight.
    Grace noticed that the music was gone but she was notoriously hard to knock off balance. The anti-emotional-vertigo trait wasn't on a gene she had inherited from me. To no one in particular, she said, "This is Daddy's
car
music. Now
that's
a change."
    She was in a phase where she was big on selecting a solitary word for emphasis in her sentences. The affectation made me smile. I knew I would miss it when it passed. And I knew it would pass.
    If Lauren's symptoms persisted I would soon need to try to explain to Grace about her mother's fresh aversion to song. I wasn't looking forward to that talk.
During late April in Colorado, weather is a crapshoot. Seventyfive and gorgeous? Reasonable odds. Forty-five and rainy? There's a good chance. Twenty-five and snowing? If enough cold air is backing up against the Front Range from the north, and enough moisture is traveling our way from the Pacific or one of the southern gulfs, well, yes, that will happen, too. Two or three of the above in the same day? Coloradans see those combinations every year.
I drove down from Spanish Hills to my office that late-April
morning to a day breaking with the clarity of my daughter's laugh. Bright, welcoming, warm, even a little brash. I could tell that the good weather wasn't going to hold. Though the Divide to the west was clear along the Peak to Peak, from my vantage on South Boulder Road I could see a distant wall of gray much higher than the foothills blunting the view to the north toward Wyoming. If winds started huffing our way from the north-northeast, whatever Canadian chill was hidden beyond that gray slate would soon become an important part of Boulder's spring day.
    The first gusts, wimpy as they were, confirmed that a system was moving our way. The front arrived during the middle of my third therapy session. The old lilac hedge on the east side of the yard leaned over to placate the wind but held tenaciously to its freshly opened blossoms. After ten minutes of insistent gusts a thin squall blew through with an interlude of aromatic rain. A second round of buffeting winds sent twigs and leaves flying and carried in another squall that caused intermittent raindrops to begin to fall, each one announcing its arrival with an audible plop. Soon the rain was replaced by a steady wet snow that persisted for the rest of the afternoon.
BOOK: Dry Ice
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