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Authors: Stephen White

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BOOK: Dry Ice
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    She tried to smile and bluff away her health concerns but I saw a telltale sign of trouble the moment she blinked. Her eyes closed one at a time, their natural synchronicity a casualty to the stress of her day. The asymmetric eye blink told me that at a neurological level she had crossed the threshold that exists between "tired" and "exhausted." I hadn't yet seen her walk, but I surmised that she'd be limping, too, or fighting to disguise her limp. Whether the limp would be from spasticity, weakness, or from pain, I wouldn't know right away. But I knew she would try not to let Sam see it.
    She needed to rest. Not sit-in-a-chair-and-have-a-beer rest. She needed a bed. Nothing else would help.
    The dogs had raced down the hall to attack her and Grace was running from her room to join the fray. I turned to Sam and whispered, "She shouldn't be working tonight. She needs a bath and a bed."
    He whispered back, "How about you tell her, Kimosabe."

TEN

SAM AND Lauren worked in the basement on the absentwitness problem until nine. I let Grace stay up late so that she could spend a few minutes with her mom before they both went to bed.
    Sam found me on the narrow deck outside the living room. We stood at the railing above the lights of the Boulder Valley. Emily, the big Bouvier, followed Sam outside. She sniffed the air for a few moments to check for the presence of rascals before she plopped down on the redwood decking. Her inelegant landing shook the house like a moderate earthquake.
    "Carmen's good?" I asked. Carmen, a detective in Laguna Beach, California, was Sam's long-distance significant other.
    Sam had switched from Irish ale to Eldorado Springs water. I liked the fact that I could see the source of the water from my house. He took a sip. I didn't think it mattered to Sam that he could see the source of the water from my house.
    "Her being there, me being here, it gets hard to manage. I've never tried to do one of these things before. A long-distance relationship. I'm not an e-mail type of guy."
    "Either of you think about moving?"
    "Her daughter's in school out there. She has family. I have Simon here, and . . . Sherry. Orange County is a long way from Minnesota. Carmen doesn't like winter. I'm not that fond of . . ."
    He seemed unable to find the right word. "California?" I suggested.
    He laughed. "I was going to say 'summer,' but yeah, it's goofy out there. I'm a pretty flexible guy, but . . . Laguna Beach almost makes Boulder look normal."
    "Sam?"
    "What?"
    "You're not," I said. "A pretty flexible guy. Don't kid yourself."
    "Better than I used to be."
    "Amen," I said. I decided to press him a little more, sensing that something was unsaid. "But you and Carmen are cool?"
    "The back and forth is hard. You ever done one? A longdistance thing?"
    I thought about an old love. Felt my stomach flip just a little. "Yeah," I said. "It didn't work out."
    "See. There you go." The "go" had an extra o or two tucked on at the end. It was the Iron Ranger in him talking.
    "You have plans to get together soon?"
    He glared at me in a one-degree-less-than-friendly kind of way. It was a signal that he was done with this part of our conversation and would appreciate it if I played along. He said, "She wants us to meet up in Mexico before it gets too hot and before the monsoons come. Me and Simon. Someplace on the gulf in Baja. Her little brother runs a cantina and a scuba shop. She thinks we can take lessons, learn how to dive."
    He sounded skeptical. "Nice offer," I said.
    He sipped some more water. "My Spanish isn't too hot."
    
Nonexistent,
I thought. Sam couldn't pronounce "
gracias
" to save his soul. "Carmen's fluent," I said.
    He grunted. "And I'm pale."
    Sam was pale. Whale-belly pale. Minnesota-in-January pale. He was the kind of guy who could get sunburned watching the sun rise. In a movie.
    "I assume Carmen has seen you naked, Sam. She knows to wear sunglasses."
"She hasn't seen me naked in the sunlight."
    It took a moment for that unsettling image to depart my consciousness. Night sounds took over. A breeze whined as it bent the new grasses. A dog barked in the valley. Emily growled. I said, "Think wetsuit."
    I'd hoped for a laugh but I didn't get one. "You think Adrienne's up?" he asked. "I should tell her what's going on."
    Sam knew Adrienne—our neighbor and friend across the lane. I said, "She and Jonas are visiting family in Israel. Just left. They'll be gone for a few weeks."
    "Just as well. We should have him back in custody by then."
    After an interlude of silence I said, "This is my fault, Sam."
    It would have been a good place for him to disagree with me, were he so inclined. But he didn't. Instead he did what a good conversationalist or a good interviewer would do. He changed directions right along with me and he waited for me to go on without giving a hint of his reaction.
    He said, "Yeah? You think it's your fault?"
    "After he was arrested? He seemed too . . . crazy. Too paranoid. I should have told the judge that."
    "He'd been your patient, Alan. You couldn't tell anybody anything."
    "If . . . I had figured out a way to challenge the testimony of those shrinks his defense attorneys found, he would be living the rest of his life in a small concrete room in Cañon City, not in the hospital in Pueblo."
    "Cañon City" was Colorado-speak for the maximum security state penitentiary, New Max. "Pueblo," in the same institutional vernacular, meant the indefinite sentencing limbo of the state mental hospital. A criminal who was sent to the penitentiary was shackled with a determinate sentence, usually a lengthy one. Criminals were sent to the forensics side of the state hospital primarily for two reasons. Those who are tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity stay at the hospital until the court approves their release. Those deemed incompetent to proceed are housed, and treated, in Pueblo until a judge determines they have become sufficiently mentally competent to confront the criminal justice system.
    "If McClelland had been sentenced to Cañon City—as he should have been and would have been—he wouldn't have been part of some study outside the walls. He wouldn't have had a chance to walk away down some street."
    "Yup," Sam said. He hadn't had to think about it at all.
    I stated the obvious: "There are hundreds of people in maximum security who are crazier than Michael McClelland."
    "Thousands," Sam offered.
    "Well, that could be hyperbole."
    Sam shifted his weight and scratched at the whiskers on his neck below his chin. I could tell the next words he spoke would be carefully measured. "I always thought you wanted to believe . . . he was crazy."
    
Was that a question?
I wasn't sure. At some level, I recognized that his words were considerate, almost kind. He was offering me some room to maneuver, a chance to rationalize what I'd done a decade before when I'd declined to offer a statement to the court about my patient, Michael McClelland. I could have launched into a self-serving, defensive lecture to Sam about ego-dystonia, character disorder, and psychotic transference, but Sam wasn't really interested. I also recognized the underlying critique inherent in his comment. I asked him, "You can say that now even though you thought what those shrinks testified was pure bullshit?"
    "Don't kid yourself. I still do. We looked at the world differently back then. The defense experts overwhelmed that idiot the prosecutors found. She was the one who sealed the deal—the prosecution shrink. Not those defense experts. Remember her? That hair?" Sam shook his head at his memory of the prosecu tion psychiatrist's unfortunate perm. "She was something else, I swear. She—that frigging psychiatrist—was even wackier than the defense experts were saying McClelland was. The state lost that one. The defense didn't win it. Me? I don't win them all. I move on. It's easier on my heart."
    "That works?"
    "I've learned a lot from you over the years, Alan, but your need to rationalize away stuff like what McClelland did? I don't get it. Not then, not now. You seemed intent on finding an explanation for him. Not only for what he did to his poor sister and those other women, but also for what he put Lauren through and what he did to that poor cop in Aspen. I'm not even talking about what he eventually tried to do to you and me that last night up there. That was combat. Just a cornered rat trying to survive.
    "But you needed to believe everything he did was really out of his control, maybe to find something you thought could be fixed with some of your smart talk. As though if that turned out to be true that it would excuse what he did. I admit how you handled him and how you chose not to even make a victim statement didn't make any sense to me then—and it doesn't make any sense to me now.
    "Even if you were right about him and you had some special insight into the guy, I never understood why it should make any frigging difference what happened in his past. But I believed you believed it. At least back then, that's what I believed."
    I waited a moment to be certain he was done.
    "What I thought was wrong. I should have found a way to make a statement. Staying silent was wrong. I was wrong."
    He raised his eyebrows. "Yeah, you were. But don't beat yourself up about it. That judge wasn't about to let you give a clinical opinion on the guy."
    "McClelland's evil, Sam. What I was thinking about him back then went way beyond the bounds of what I know about psychopathology. I'm not the same psychologist I was then. He should have been sent to the penitentiary, not the state hospital. I screwed up. I'm embarrassed by it."
    "Well," he said. "Bravo, Alan. I didn't think you had it in you, but I commend you for coming around to the sane way of thinking."
    "Your way is the sane way?"
    "You haven't noticed?" He smiled. "You ready to revisit the wisdom of the Reagan Revolution?"
    I laughed.
    "How long have you felt this way?" he asked.
    "A while. While he was locked up, I convinced myself that it didn't make any difference whether he was in the state pen or the state hospital. Now it does. He wouldn't have escaped the state pen."
    "So why did you cut him all that slack?"
    "What you said before about me believing that because of other things he'd been through in his life what he did was out of his control, and that he shouldn't be held responsible—that's not it. Some traumas leave marks, they stain people in, in . . . ways that leave them predisposed to certain behaviors. Most people overcome those predispositions . . . but some don't."
    "You're saying McClelland didn't?"
    "I'm saying McClelland didn't. I had—or I wanted to have—a belief that the predisposition he was fighting argued for a different judicial path, a different empathy . . . Now, I'm not so sure. I'm thinking that if other people with the same damage could overcome the predisposition, so should he."
    "Well, he's out now. One thing I do know? If he's heading this way, or worse, if he's already here, I don't think he's coming to thank you for all your efforts on his behalf."

ELEVEN

I DIDN'T spot the purse that had been discarded in the yard the next morning, but my nine-thirty patient did.

The building that Diane and I owned in downtown Boulder— the one with the newly serene waiting room—was an old house remarkable not for its understated Victorian architecture, but rather for its terrific location two blocks from the Pearl Street Mall. Land within walking distance of the heart of downtown Boulder at Pearl and Broadway was apparently plentiful back in the 1890s when the house was constructed because our lot was big and our backyard, especially, was spacious.
    Raoul, Diane's entrepreneur husband, had been encouraging us to sell the land to a developer who was eager to combine our place with a couple of adjacent lots. The developer wanted to construct some building that would have the maximum footprint and fill out the maximum bulk-plane that the city planning board would permit. I imagined something designed more by an engineer than an architect.
    After the effort she'd invested in the recent waiting-room makeover, Diane wasn't receptive to Raoul's suggestion to scrape our offices, so I wasn't worrying about the developer's hot breath on my neck. I figured in downtown Boulder there would always be a developer, or six, who coveted our land, and I was in no hurry to sell.
    I really didn't want any drastic changes in my life. The thought of selling, packing, and moving gave me a headache. Or made the headache I had worse.
The handbag in the yard was resting on a clump of patchy bluegrass near the six-foot-deep planting bed that hugged the rickety thirty-inch-high wood slat–and-wire barricade that had at one time probably been consistently vertical enough to have been called the back fence. Or at least the backside of the rabbit pen.
    The purse wasn't concealed in any way and it wasn't difficult to spot. If I had taken the time to stand at the back window of my office that morning to enjoy the southern view toward Chautauqua, or if had I taken even a single step out the french door that led to the yard from my office, I would have seen the purse on the grass. But I hadn't. I'd walked into work without even a glance at our superfluous yard.
    My nine-thirty patient eyed the bag as she glanced out the window on the way to her chair.
    "There's a purse out back," she'd said, pausing and pointing. "In your yard. By the fence. See it? I think it's a Coach."
    My nine-thirty was one of those patients who had secrets. Hers had a few parts. She was the wife of a cross-dressing man—that was one secret—who owned a wildly successful student bar in town. Together they had two children. The second child, a seven-year-old boy, wasn't her husband's biological son. Her husband didn't know that.
BOOK: Dry Ice
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