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Authors: Stephen White

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BOOK: Dry Ice
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    When I didn't reply Sam looked around. The two dogs were feigning sleep on the kitchen floor, waiting for the imperceptible— to us humans, at least—sound of crumbs falling on hardwood. "Where's Grace? She close? You know, within earshot?" he asked.
    "She's probably in her room. Playing or reading. She tends to tune us out this time of day. Decompression. Why?"
    He said, "Remember Michael McClelland?"

NINE

IT TOOK me a second to make sense of Sam's question. Maybe even two seconds passed before the syllables registered in my brain and I matched the sounds with a name and the name with an identity. Only then did the fear—no, not just fear, but fear and guilt—burst up inside me like a just-ignited bottle rocket.
    
I don't need this.
    "What did you say?" I managed. It was partially a "What?" asking for repetition, a need to hear Sam say the blasphemous name one more time so I could be certain I hadn't been imagining it, and partially a "
What?
" demanding clarification, a need to hear why the hell he was using that profanity in my house.
    Sam spun 180 degrees on his stool and faced me. His beer was half gone. The sunset's pastel halo surrounded his head like he'd arranged for some personal aurora borealis. He inhaled before he said, "McClelland's on the loose."
    I dropped the knife I'd been using to cut the takeout pizza
margherita
into appetizer-sized pieces. The big blade ricocheted off the edge of the counter and clattered to the floor, scattering the semi-vigilant dogs. I was so stunned by Sam's revelation that I didn't even feel a reflexive instinct to dance out of the way of the bouncing weapon.
    "What do you mean, he's on the loose? They let him out?"
    "They didn't release him. He escaped. Actually he just walked away." He looked toward the floor. "You dropped your knife. Might want to take a second and count your toes. Five on each foot is the target."
    I had ten questions, one for each toe I'd had before I'd dropped the knife. Since I couldn't ask all ten questions at once I tried to prioritize. But I failed. The question that had the most energy rushed to the head of the line.
    "What the hell do you mean? He tried to kill my wife. He should never get out."
    Sam shrugged, the way he does. "He tried to kill you, too. And me, for that matter. But you don't see me throwing cutlery around the room."
    McClelland's violent intrusion into our lives—Lauren's first, then mine, and later Sam's—had taken place many years before. The last act had played out in Aspen, where McClelland's appetite for retribution exploded. All of us were there that night. McClelland ended up in the custody of the Aspen police with a bullet in his chest.
    None of us—Sam, Lauren, me—had forgotten what McClelland had done to us. None of us thought for a moment that McClelland had forgotten what we had done to him. Sam was reminding me of that.
    I said, "How, Sam? How?"
    It was not an important question to have answered at that stage of the discussion, but my prioritizing skills were impaired and the dumb questions were the first ones to escape the pen. I gave Sam credit for not even bothering to try to cajole me into calming down. He was a model of restraint, keeping his voice low and his tone matter-of-fact—probably a wiser course than trying to force me to rein in my indignation.
    "He's been part of some study at the state hospital. Some neuro-, psycho-, pharmo-ologist from the Health Sciences Center is—oh, hell—I don't know what she's doing. A 'study.' Anyway, some of the hospital staff were taking a group of . . . their freaks—excuse my French—to a clinic in Pueblo for some new brain scan to try to find out why crazy-shit-ass people do the crazy-shit-ass shit crazy-shit-ass people do, and somebody screwed up. They let him slip away. Somebody took off his metal restraints so he could get scanned. Somebody else was supposed to put on some plastic restraints, which apparently didn't happen. At some point one of the guards counts his nutsos and he realizes that he's short exactly one nutso. Michael McClelland was the missing one."
    "Just like that?"
    He kept a wary eye on me while he lifted the bottle to his lips and downed another quarter of the beer. "Security camera has him going out the door of the clinic and down the sidewalk in front of the building like he's heading to the corner to buy a Coke and some Twinkies at 7-Eleven. Then? Nothing. No sign of him."
    "Where's Lauren? Does she know about this?" Those should have been among my first questions.
    "The call was routed to me from Aspen. That's where the Pueblo cops called first. We lost some time because of that confusion. I told Lauren myself this afternoon. She took it better than you, if you're curious."
    I glared at him.
    Sam went on. "A sheriff's deputy is driving her home right now. Or, actually, following her home right now. Your wife refused to let him drive. Sheriff's already decided she's going to have security 24/7 until we find McClelland or at least until we know what the hell he's up to."
    "A deputy will be here round the clock? What about when she's at work?"
    He made an equivocal face. "That's where things get sticky. The sheriff decided that Lauren is probably at more risk than you, so the security will shadow her. It'll be here when she's here. At work when she's there."
    "The sheriff decided?"
    "He got elected, so he gets to decide shit like this. It's one of the perks."
    Sam liked to use the same argument when we disagreed— which we usually did—about whatever the president or the governor was up to.
    "What about Grace?" I asked.
    He raised his chin. "Yeah, Grace. You want the argument?"
    "Sure." I thought I was showing admirable restraint.
    "Good. The argument is that McClelland doesn't even know Grace, maybe doesn't even know she exists, so she's not a likely target. If she's not a target, she doesn't need protection."
    "What kind of idiotic f—"
    "
Who
doesn't know me, Daddy?" Grace was in her stockinged feet scooting down the hardwood hallway toward the kitchen from the direction of the bedrooms. Her fluid motion was more like a cross-country skier than an ice-skater.
    
Next winter,
I thought,
we have to get her up on some cross
country skis.
    Sam, laconically, said, "Knife."
    
Shit!
A second before my daughter arrived in the knife's vicinity I reached down and retrieved the blade from the floor and put it on the counter.
    "Somebody your mom and dad knew before you were born, sweetheart, but that you've never met," I said.
    "Oh," she said. She reached up and grabbed a square of pizza off the counter and turned to scoot back out of the room. With an adorable wrinkled-up nose she asked, "Is
this
dinner?"
    "No. It's an appetizer. A snack."
    "Good. Is dinner
soon
?"
    "Soon. Take a napkin, Gracie."
    She made a cute face. I thought I saw some defiance com- ing, but she reached for a napkin. Without a word she'd made it clear that she had no intent to use the napkin. But she was carrying it. From a parenting point of view it was a victory. I waited until she was back out of earshot down the hall. "It's
Doctor
McClelland, Sam. Not 'Mister.' "
    He raised an eyebrow. "Your point? You better not be insinuating you want me to start calling you 'Doctor.' I think I've made it clear that I think Ph.D.s are way overrated."
    "McClelland may be disturbed, but he's not stupid."
    "Disturbed? That's what, your word of the day?" Sam finished his beer, stood up from the counter, and carried the empty over to the pantry. He knew from experience where we kept the Eco-Cycle bin. In the distance, I could hear the sounds of the Wiggles escaping from Grace's room. "You made him sound a lot more than 'disturbed' when that judge sent him away to mental-health camp instead of to the state pen."
    Sam hadn't replied to my reminder about Michael McClelland's intelligence, so I pushed on, determined to make him remember. "You know what he did for a living?"
    Sam said, "If I recall, he was a weatherman."
    "He worked at NOAA. He has a Ph.D. in meteorology and his specialty was severe storms. Severe storms. And you know as well as I do that he didn't just forecast them. He created them."
    Sam put both hands on the island counter and leaned toward me. "I'm working on this. For me, for Boulder, it's only a couple of hours old. I've been talking to my captain, I've been trying to open some lines of communication with the sheriff. Lauren's been talking to the DA. I know the guy's a bad actor. You know he's a bad actor. But most of the people in the department don't remember him. My captain doesn't know him. The new chief doesn't know him. The current sheriff wasn't around when everything came down with McClelland. That all happened . . . years ago. And keep in mind that it ended in Pitkin County. It never even went through the courts here."
    Pitkin County was Aspen. It was an Aspen judge who ulti
mately bought the argument that McClelland's mental illness was so pronounced that he couldn't stand trial. The judge had sent McClelland to the state hospital.
    I could tell Sam wanted me to acknowledge something. I said, "So?"
    "An open-ended 24/7 security detail to protect a prosecutor and her family for an old crime when there hasn't been a single threat? Even if the sheriff thought it was warranted—which he doesn't—in this budget environment he doesn't even know where to begin to find those kinds of resources."
    
Budget environment?
That didn't sound like Sam. "I don't give a shit about the county's budget problems. He's a dangerous, vindictive . . ."
    Sam opened the refrigerator and grabbed two more beers. He handed me one. He either hadn't noticed, or didn't care, that I'd barely touched my first. I watched him unsuccessfully try to twist off the cap before I handed him a bottle opener.
    "Yeah," he said. "I remember him too." He sniffed the air. "He almost killed a cop in Aspen. I don't forget that kind of shit. So what are we having tonight besides that skinny pizza?"
    "Roast chicken. Red potatoes. Cole slaw."
    "At your house? Normal food? Never thought I'd see the day."
    I spotted headlights driving up the lane. One pair a hundred yards or so in front of another pair. The second pair would be the sheriff's deputy.
    I felt a chill. It had come to this. "When? What time did he get away?"
    "This afternoon. Just after lunch."
    "In Pueblo?" I asked.

Pueblo is a town about the size of Boulder on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains 110 or so miles south of Denver along Interstate 25. A legendary mill town, Pueblo had been hit hard by the collapse of the domestic steel industry and for as long as I'd been in Colorado it had had been trying to reinvent itself. Pueblo—many locals pronounced it "Pee-eblo" for some reason that has always escaped me—is also home to the antiquated, sprawling Colorado State Mental Hospital, which is where Michael McClelland had been living since he recovered from the wounds suffered during his arrest and after the judge declared him mentally incompetent to proceed to trial for his numerous felonies in Pitkin County.

    My opinion of Pueblo? If I-25 were an artery between major organs—like say Denver and Albuquerque—Pueblo would be an aneurysm, a little bulge. That's all. I knew people who might be less forgiving and describe it as a lesion, or a tumor. I also knew some people—fewer—who had family or business there and said nice things about the community and its residents and their determination to revitalize their town. But most people knew Pueblo as a place with a little highway congestion that they drove through, or past, on the way to somewhere else, Usually Denver to the north, Albuquerque or Sante Fe to the south.
    Drivers stopped briefly in Pueblo if they needed gasoline, good Mexican food, or a bathroom.
    They stopped for a long time if they needed an extended stay in a state psychiatric facility.
Sam nodded. "Yeah, in Pueblo." I was thrilled that he didn't pronounce it the way the locals did. "The hospital there has a new PET scanner. That's what the geniuses from the university were doing. PET scanning the nutsos. Whatever the hell that is."
   Sam knew what a PET scan was. He kept a fine file handy to manicure his I'm-a-dumb-cop facade. What was curious about his current act was that he didn't often do the finetuning with me.
"No sign of him since he walked?"
"Nothing since the security camera lost him."
"Did he have help? A car waiting?"
"Possibly."
"Witnesses?"
    He feigned surprise and hit himself in the forehead with an open palm. "Witnesses? Damn, we didn't think of
that
."
    I sighed. "Sorry."
    "We don't know where he is, Alan. The cops in Pueblo seem to have handled it fine. The way I would've done it? No. But they did okay. There's a BOLO here and in surrounding states. Usual stuff. He hasn't been a troublesome patient, apparently. The hospital says not to worry. No violence while he was there. No threats."
    "Well, that's reassuring." I wiped my hands on a towel and started toward the front of the house. Lauren would have parked her car in the garage by then and collected her things to come inside. "You may not know where he is, but you know he's coming back here," I said. "To Boulder."
    "I suspect he is. Either here or someplace as far from here as possible. But if I had to guess, I'd guess here. That's why I'm doing what I'm doing with the brass."
    Lauren walked in the door and dumped her overflowing briefcase on the floor and her swollen purse on the beat-up table where we tossed our keys and mobile phones.
BOOK: Dry Ice
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