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Authors: Stephen White

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BOOK: Dry Ice
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    That was the second secret.
    Small-town secrets. Let them loose and all the usual consequences were possible: shame, guilt, loss of control, recrimination.
    More germane to the discovery in the yard, however, was the fact that my patient was a fashion maven who could reliably recognize a handbag's pedigree from twenty paces. I didn't doubt her assessment of its heritage. After she pointed it out— and after I accepted that it had more of her attention than I did—I excused myself, stepped outside, retrieved the purse, returned to my office, and set it on my desk.
    "Aren't you curious?" she asked. "Don't you want to know whose it is?"
    "That can wait. This is your time," I said. It was a therapeutic thing to say. This patient's favorite form of resistance was diversion. Since she knew most of the town's movers and shakers, she always had some compelling gossip to use as bait with me. It was my job not to be seduced by the tangents. The purse was definitely tangent bait.
    "It's last season's, or the one before that," she said, casting her fly into the stream one more time. She'd been unable to resist adding a final editorial assessment to sweeten the lure. I could tell she was hoping to feel a tug on the line. I noted that despite some effort to keep the dismissiveness from her voice she had ultimately failed. I gave her points for trying and allowed myself a moment's conceit that her restraint was an indication of some nascent therapeutic progress. She'd been working on her critical tendencies.
    "No one is wearing that shade of green anymore," she added, under her breath.
    I mentally removed the gold star from her chart. One of my patient's other issues was the way she used condescension and sarcasm as relationship foils.
    I didn't respond to the "shade of green" comment. She and I had many more important things to discuss, although I didn't have much confidence that we would get around to them anytime soon. Instead we would spend the next forty minutes swatting at the impediments that she erected in the path of anything that resembled change.

After my client left my office at the end of the session—her mental health in no better repair than it had been when she arrived— I took a closer look at the purse. The bag was fashionable, but worn; its owner was not a woman who changed purses regularly or treated her handbags gently. And yes, a postage-stamp-size leather tag hanging from a brass chain on the strap identified it as a Coach. I didn't see any indication that the bag had spent much time out in the elements. I guessed that it had been tossed or dropped on the lawn sometime the night before.

    Inside the zippered top was a wallet that was much older than the purse, a cheap spiral notebook with most of its pages ripped out, an opened package of tissues, an almost-full tin of cinnamon Altoids, a spare battery for some electronic device, the non-business end of a USB thumb drive, some Apple earbuds, two well-chewed pencils, a deck of playing cards wrapped in a rubber band, a tennis ball, and a few golden foil wrappers that had been spun and pressed into tiny round balls. I guessed the foils were from candies. In an inside pocket of the purse, also zippered, was a cheap pen and a prescription bottle with about a dozen remaining caplets of Valtrex.
    I made two safe assumptions: The purse was owned by a woman, and she suffered from genital herpes.
    The condition of the tennis ball—the ball was hairless and covered in what appeared to be dried slime—suggested to me that the owner of the purse used it not to play tennis, but rather to play fetch with a dog. As the owner of a dog that was addicted to the chasing and mouthing of tennis balls—but one that had never mastered the retrieving part of the "fetch" activity—I recognized a canine tennis ball when I saw one.
    The wallet was missing anything that might be considered valuable. It contained no cash and no credit cards. And no keys. The only pieces of paper that provided any clue to the owner's identity, other than the prescription label on the Valtrex, were an expired health-insurance card from a big managed-care provider and a library card from Jefferson County, Boulder County's neighbor to the south.
    After directory assistance failed to help me find an address or phone number, I wasted a few of the precious minutes I had between sessions trying to weasel a contact number from representatives at both the health-insurance provider and from the library, but I made no progress getting anyone to bend any rules for me. With the current HIPAA regulations I didn't even consider the possibility that the pharmacy at Target was going to tell me anything about the identity of the woman taking medicine to control genital herpes.
    Secrets.
    With only a few minutes remaining before my ten-thirty appointment, I took the easy way out and called the nonemergency number at the Boulder police department. After an interlude on hold I explained the situation to the man who had answered the phone and asked for instructions on what I should do with the purse. He asked for my name and phone number and the name of the purse's apparent owner. He repeated everything, mixing up my first name and my last name. Straightening it out took much longer than it should have.
    "Hold, please." A minute later he came back on the line. He said, "Somebody will call you."
    I volunteered to drop it by the department on my way home from work.
    "Somebody will call you," the man said again.
    "I'm not that easy to reach during the day. I don't usually answer my phone."
    "Somebody will call you," the man said yet again.
    "They'll get my voice-mail. We'll end up playing phone tag."
    "Somebody will call you," the man said for the fourth time, his tone unaltered. I got the impression that he would repeat the line with the same inflection all morning long if I really wanted him to.
    "That's it? Somebody will call me?"
    "Somebody will call you."
    I hung up, stuffed my hands into my pockets, and strolled down the hall to get my ten-thirty patient. I figured somebody would call me.
    Forty-five minutes later I repeated the steps down the hall to get my eleven-fifteen from the waiting room.
    At twelve-oh-five I was trying to decide where to hustle for a quick lunch when I noticed a shadow darken the window in the door that led to the backyard.
    My first thought?
Michael McClelland.
    My pulse soared. But it wasn't McClelland. It was Sam Purdy. For some reason, I was confronted with an unwelcome image of him lying naked and pink on a beach in Baja.
    
Damn.
I opened the door. "Sam," I said. I was happy to see him but I was instantly wary for two reasons. The first was general: Sam didn't often visit me at work, and on those rare occasions when he did, he usually camped out in the waiting room and either napped or read magazines until I made my next scheduled appearance. It was possible that he'd already tried the new waiting room and decided that all the serenity was too much for him.
    The second reason I was wary was more worrisome. Once I'd gotten over my fear that it was Michael McClelland at my back door, I'd immediately started dealing with my fear that Sam was at my door to tell me that McClelland had somehow managed to get to Lauren or to Grace. Sam wouldn't bother to come over to my office to tell me that McClelland had been caught—for that an e-mail or voice-mail message would have sufficed. But if the news were bad enough, Sam would come over to my office to deliver it in person. That's what I feared he was doing at my door.
    "Alan," he said.
    I weighed his greeting for nuance. I didn't sense anything. I said, "Is Lauren okay, Sam? Grace?"
    He held up both hands, fingers spread, and shook his head. He said, "Yeah, yeah. Fine. Nothing like that. That's not why I'm here. Nothing new on McClelland at all. The trail's still cold. We're looking—don't get me wrong—but nothing yet."
    I felt my body struggle with what to do with all the useless adrenaline that was surging through my veins.
    Sam raised himself on his toes and looked over my shoulder in the general direction of my desk and said, "Is that it?"
    
What?
"Is what 'it,' Sam?"
    "Is that the purse you found?"
    "They sent
you
?" I asked. My tone conveyed my incredulousness. Sam was a senior detective. He didn't do minor errands for the police department. And anyway, he was currently working for the DA on Lauren's grand jury.
    I should have connected the dots right away. I didn't. Because I didn't, his next question ambushed me.
    "What did you touch?" he asked me. The swap was subtle, but I realized that Sam had changed over to his cop voice.
    I'd never been especially fond of his cop voice.

TWELVE

WITH THAT question, in that tone, I realized what was going on. And among the things that I knew was going on was that by examining the purse earlier that morning I had inadvertently learned the name of the grand jury witness who had gone missing.
    I said, "So that's why you're here. It's her purse, isn't it? Your witness? The one who went missing yesterday? I hope this helps."
    "What did you touch, Alan? Be specific."
    Sam's inflection hardened with repetition. He would not have made a good substitute for the monotonous guy who answered the phones at the department.
    I tried to shrug off the attitude attached to his question, but I didn't quite manage to hide my defensiveness. "Lighten up. It never crossed my mind that the purse was important. I figured it had been stolen and that someone had tossed it over the fence. What did I touch? I went through everything; I touched everything. Inside, outside, the zipper, the wallet. The cards with her name on them. I was looking for her ID so I could call her and tell her I had her purse."
    Deep inhale. Loud exhale. "Shit."
    I added, "Even the tennis ball. She has a dog."
    "Where did you find it? Exactly."
    I gestured over his shoulder. "Back there, by the fence. I'll show you the spot if you want."
    "Not right now," he said as he craned his neck to look to ward the rear of the lot. At what? I couldn't tell. Then he turned and faced me. "Hey, can I come in?" he asked.
    His tone was friendly again.
    It was an odd moment for me. After many years married to a prosecutor and after many years as a friend to a cop, I knew that his question was not as uncomplicated as he was trying to make it appear. I knew there was an outside chance that he wasn't asking to come inside as a friend wanting to get out of the spring midday sun, but instead that he was asking as a cop seeking permission to enter a citizen's private property.
    His friendly tone might also have served as a warning to me that he didn't want me to recognize—and certainly not to ponder—the legal implications of his request.
    What were the legal consequences of acquiescing and inviting him in? I'm no lawyer and probably didn't know all the ramifications, but I thought I knew one: once I had voluntarily invited Sam inside my office, anything within plain view was vulnerable to his examination as a peace officer.
    I had alternatives to inviting Sam inside. I could go over and get the purse and hand it to him, but considering the question he'd just asked me—"What did you touch?"—I assumed that doing so would render him apoplectic. I also had the option of simply saying no—I could be a jerk about the whole thing and tell Sam to leave the property. What would that mean for Sam? If I did deny him entry and he really wanted to come into my office and look around, he would be forced to go to a judge and ask for a search warrant.
    Sam didn't like stopping his life to get warrants. He wouldn't be forgiving if I insisted.
    Were my attorney wife standing beside me, she would have admonished me to make Sam apply for a warrant. She would have said, "Don't invite a cop inside your property. I don't care if the cop is your friend. Don't invite one in. Ever. Don't do it. If a cop wants inside your property you need to call a lawyer."
    But Sam was my friend, probably my best friend. He'd earned my trust a dozen different times over the years. Odds were that he was at my door simply to retrieve his missing witness's purse. I quickly thought through what would happen next and came up with an uncomplicated scenario: I would invite him in, Sam would step into my office, he'd pull on some gloves, collect the purse, and that would be that.
    I did what a friend would do; I gave him the benefit of the doubt. "Sure," I said to Sam. "Come in."
    With that invitation he literally crossed the oak threshold and figuratively crossed the legal threshold that granted him a valid law enforcement reason to be in my office, and with it, the freedom to look around. As his foot touched down on the fir floor my constitutional protections against illegal search vaporized like a ladle of water on the hot stones in a sauna.
    I was so trusting of him that I didn't even hear the sizzle of the water on the rocks.
    "You can have it," I said. "It's right there. Everything that was inside is back inside. I can't stay and chat, though—I barely have time to run to Amante and grab a panini before my next appointment. Give me a call later if you want to talk about it."
    "When's your next appointment?" I was perplexed that Sam hadn't moved into the room; he was still only half a step inside the door, a dozen feet from the purse.
    "Twelve forty-five," I said.
    "We won't be done by then. You'll have to cancel."
    "I'm not canceling anything. Take the purse. Go. Get out of here. I really need to get something to eat before my next patient."
    I did not comprehend the nature of my dilemma.
    Sam recognized my ignorance before I did. He waited until I was looking at him before he spoke. "I'll go if you want me to, Alan. If you insist. But if I do leave you will have to come with me. The purse stays where it is. Your office and your yard are now part of a crime scene. The forensics team is going to go over this room and your yard with all of their best toys. I'm sorry. Your day is, well, fucked."
BOOK: Dry Ice
6.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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