Steele had been seeing patients all morning, skinny guys with dumb tattoos, tough girls with piercings. Bellies hanging out beneath short shirts, navels sporting golden curlicues. So much bare flesh for late April. But the worst to him were the tongues that went dah-dah-dah because of big studs in them. Who would want to purchase a speech defect? They could have his for free.
Were these bad kids? They were trying to be. But 7 out of 10 of them would settle into some kind of crime-avoiding stability by age 30. These kids were fighting school, but in 10 years, in the midst of jobs and pregnancies, some would go back for their GEDs and some would get religion. They would lament their lost youth but praise Jesus Christ that he caught them before they completely ruined their lives. Even when Jesus saves, it’s no cakewalk afterward. Like everyone else they would struggle to hold together their marriages, their families, their jobs. Like everyone else they would struggle to keep their addictions in check. Lives worth living? Yes, they had their dignity, their choices, their aspirations. Steele hoped they would see that before they let themselves be drawn passively into risk and destruction. That, in fact, was his job—to help people believe in their better selves and not give up.
Luis was something else. The kid had more character in his big toe than most people accumulate in a lifetime. Steele had already submitted his psychological assessment to the courts, concluding that Luis was an unlikely rapist because he was non-violent, involved in healthy relationships with family and friends, and disposed to true respect toward women and girls, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, his mother, his aunts, his sisters, and all the girls in his neighborhood.
“Hello, Dr. Steele.” Luis arrived in a good mood. His big smile pushed the fat around on his cheeks, thickening the jowls and puffing up around his eyes. It was a neat trick. Steele was glad to see him.
“How’s it going, Luis?”
“They told me I’m no longer a suspect for the rape of Carmina Gonzales.”
“Congratulations. Do they have another suspect?”
“I don’t know. They wouldn’t tell me. They asked me a lot of questions about my cousin Gordo, though. And they told me how they raped her.”
“What do you mean?”
“They told me how three guys held her while the other one did her. They switched around. They said Carmina was fighting them all along, kicking and scratching them. That’s Carmina, all right.”
“Why do you think they told you about the rape?”
“I think they wanted me to feel sorry for Carmina and tell them who raped her?” Steele thought Luis was probably right about that.
“Do you know who raped her?” Steele asked.
“No.” Luis glanced away, as if at a cue card for his next line. But he didn’t say anything else.
“So do you want to talk today? You’re entitled to come here until they tell me otherwise. They’ll terminate you soon if you are no longer a suspect.”
“I like coming here.”
“I think you are doing well, Luis, but almost anyone can benefit from counseling or therapy. You have a lot of choices to make about your life. You want to make those choices with a clear head and aware of your feelings. You’d be surprised how many people operate in a fog without control or awareness, driven by false ideas and phony expectations, eaten by emotional hungers and pent-up anger. People are hurting out there. And hurting people hurt other people. It takes work to break that cycle. You see the hurting in people, in families, and in our whole society. Do you understand what I’m saying, Luis?”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it for myself.” He was looking down.
“One day—maybe you have already—you’ll see it in yourself too. You’ll see places that hurt you forgot about or never knew existed. You’ll see how those old hurts block you from living a happy life. You have to work it out for yourself. But a good psychologist can help you in the process. Friends and family can help you too, and you’ve got plenty of those. People like you, Luis, because you care about them. You listen and understand them without judging them.”
“It’s just the way I am,” said Luis looking up quickly and then looking down again, touching his cheek to catch a tear. Steele handed him a designer box of Kleenex.
“Who’s your favorite Greek god?”
Luis didn’t hesitate. “Prometheus.” He looked up again.
“Of course, because he felt sorry for people. He stole fire from Olympus and gave it to primitive man. Zeus punished him really bad, you’ll recall. Chained him to a cliff. Eagle ripped out his liver every day. It grew back. Prometheus suffered because he cared. As long as you care about people, you will suffer too. If you don’t care about people, you will also suffer, but in a different way and much worse. Luis, I think you are a person who cares.”
“I like Odysseus too,” said Luis.
“Because he was clever. He outsmarted the Cyclops.”
“He heard the music of the Sirens too. I really like that story. All those stories.”
“Me too. Myths are a big key to understanding people.”
“I just like them,” said Luis.
“Okay, let’s hope we can meet again next week. We can talk about myths, we can talk about your family, we can talk about you. I’d like to do that if you would.”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Thanks for letting me lecture you today. I won’t do it again. Let’s check with Mrs. Simone to see if she has you on the schedule.” When he stood up, Steele suddenly became conscious of the handgun in the holster beneath his jacket. It pressed into his lower back, not uncomfortably—but strange. Sometimes, as now, it felt absurd, almost unimaginable. It seemed to have nothing to do with self-defense or managing his fears. It made him feel sneaky and dishonest, especially when he was with people like Luis or Mrs. Simone. It made him feel apart and lonely.
Chapter 21-- Rainey Visits Steele
Steele was glad to see his calendar was clear of appointments for the rest of the day. Sometimes if a week got very busy he had to fit a patient or two into Wednesday afternoon. But not today. This afternoon he could devote entirely to charting. Steele was conscientious about staying current with his charting. His colleagues marveled at him for his discipline in doing a task most of them hated. For Steele it was not a matter of discipline or even choice. If he wasn’t up to date in his charting, he felt intense nausea. It was the way he was built.
He set all the files he would need on the left side of his desk, square with the top corner. He found two black fine-point pens and set them within easy reach of his right hand. Then he took his thermal coffee mug out for refilling in the break room. When he passed her desk, Mrs. Simone glanced up and gave him a gentle smile of approval. She’d even told him once how much she appreciated his punctuality. If it was 1:30 PM on Wednesday, Steele would be preparing for an afternoon of charting.
In the break room he washed his cup with soap and rinsed it thoroughly. Then he filled it with the ice cold water from the water cooler and took a small white napkin from the dispenser. On his way back to his office, he received the same beneficent smile from Mrs. Simone. He couldn’t help but smile back, sincerely grateful. This was the kind of woman who wore well. The upper classes were surely onto something with their emphasis on good manners. Although Mrs. Simone was not of the upper class, she had their self-possession, their understated elegance of bearing. What chance did your all-American lout have against these well-mannered ones? The former was always frustrated; the latter experienced an embarrassment of riches. All because of manners? Maybe.
“If I can finish, I plan to head home early, Mrs. Simone.”
“I love the smell of the blossoming crabapple trees too,” he said over his shoulder. He really did enjoy spring in Chicago, much more than he had in Spokane. Whoops, just by mentioning the name of the city, he saw the three of them again, the bizarre women in Spokane who pretended to be his mother and his sisters. How many times each day did he fantasize that he would never see them again? He hoped that soon those involuntary fantasies would stop. Then he’d be free. They never hurt him directly, he reminded himself. They just never loved him.
When he got back to his office, he placed the napkin on the middle of his desk toward the back and set on it his thermal mug full of water. He hesitated just a moment before he sat down in his office chair. Normally he would take off his jacket so he could write more comfortably. But while at work he had to preserve the concealed carry of his weapon even when he was alone in his office. Schram might try to surprise him here. Here where they had had so many brotherly conversations. He told himself that he would take no unnecessary chances.
As for unnecessary chances, he could hardly believe he had engaged in several acts of espionage against a paroled criminal, even entering his apartment. That was risky. Not to mention buying a gun without a license and carrying it concealed against the law everywhere he went. He reminded himself that he’d done all those things out of necessity. His spying, in fact, was less risky than ignoring the danger. He had responded rationally to real danger. Just because he was the only one to perceive it did not make it false. Just because he’d never done undercover operations before did not mean he couldn’t. His character was to do what was best for himself and for others. And what he’d done was absolutely logical in that light.
Why did he even bother defending himself, he wondered. Was he losing his nerve? This was all new and temporary. The equilibrium would eventually return. Now he better get to work.
He sat down at his desk wearing his sport coat, soft camel hair. He picked up the first file, opened it, wrote his treatment notes in it rapidly, but neatly. He placed the finished file on the upper right corner of his desk. If he died, his successor would have everything he or she needed to resume his practice.
Seventy-five minutes later, he had moved the entire pile from left corner to right corner, finishing a week’s charting in record time. He told Mrs. Simone he was going home, wishing her an early goodnight.
He dressed for an afternoon run. He put on a loose zippered sweatshirt over his holster rig. It would be warmer than he preferred, but he felt he had to have the protection. That was the whole point of getting the gun.
The intercom buzzed, startling him. A visitor? His anxiety gauge jumped into the red zone. Schram was here, come to settle up? Would he be able to do what he needed to do to defend himself? He reached behind himself, underneath his sweatshirt, unsnapped the leather strap over the top of the gun, and clicked off the safety. The intercom buzzed again.
“Who is it?”
“Rainey. Buzz me in.” He was deeply relieved. It occurred to him that maybe Schram was with her, holding her hostage, planning a two-fer.
“What did we eat last time?” he asked.
“Hot dogs, you fool!” she boomed.
He guessed that meant she was really alone. He pressed the button to release the lock on the door in the lobby. He slid the bolt open so he would not have to make a big production about unlocking the door when she knocked. A minute later she knocked, and he let her in. Rainey looked around, apparently curious.
“Neat as a pin, Steele. Where are your vices?” Today she wore soft black pants, a pink top with two buttons open at the throat, and a light gray cardigan sweater, probably lamb’s wool. Her squarish black shoes had a little lift in the heel.
“Y-y-you’re looking at them,” he said. “I can’t stand disorder in any form. Besides I stutter like a…like a…I don’t know what.”
“Plus you can’t finish your metaphors,” she laughed.
“I was going to take a run,” he said to explain his outfit.
“I can see that. Where can we sit down?” He gestured and followed her into the living room. She chose the couch, immediately pulling some papers from her brief case. He sat in the armchair nearest to the couch and watched her spread the papers on the coffee table. She looked even prettier than last time, but she also looked a little different. He couldn’t put a finger on it.
“Make yourself at home,” he said.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“I live here. If anyone is going to ask that, it should be me.”
“I thought you had a full-time job….” She was interrupted by the beep of his cell phone.
He checked the number. “It’s the office.”
“Dr. Steele? This is Mrs. Simone. Forgive me for disturbing you at home. I should have called you earlier--before I gave your home address to Ms. Rainey.”
“She’s here,” said Steele.
“I had no right to assume you would want me to give her your address. She already had your phone numbers.”
“She’s hard to refuse, isn’t she?” Rainey was looking at him steadily.
“I do find her likeable. I trusted she wouldn’t impose herself on you.”
“It’s no imposition, Mrs. Simone. I’m glad you did it. There is an urgent matter between us.”
“I’m so relieved, Doctor. Thank you. Again, I’m sorry for this interruption.”
“Don’t mention it. Goodbye, Mrs. Simone.” He pushed the END button on his phone.
Rainey was smiling broadly. “’An urgent matter between us,’ is it? Who talks like that anymore?”
“Polite people, I guess,” said Steele, self-conscious, coloring.
“If I were your shrink, I’d want to find out why you are blushing.”
“If you were my shrink, you’d already know.”
“Oh, yeah? Why?”
“Mrs. Simone and I have an old-fashioned relationship based on scrupulous politeness.”
“What makes you so special?”
“I was raised among old-fashioned, polite older women, the decedents of English Protestants with a cold whiff of German. Unfortunately they were not good people, but they were polite.”
“Were they cruel? Are they dead?”
“No, but they were always far away. Now the farther the better.”
“How about me? Do you mind if I’m here?”
“No. You are fine--except when you tease me.”
“I’ll be good.”
“You must be because you have already charmed Mrs. Simone. She has superb instincts about people. You made her do something she’s never done—give out my home address.”
“She must know my intentions are honorable.”
“And she knows I’ve been calling and seeing you.”
“Is she jealous?”
“Of course not.”
“So let’s turn to the urgent matters between us, shall we?”
“By all means.”
“I’ve done some research on the four phone numbers on Schram’s fridge. The second one, you know, is your cell phone. The third one is my cell phone. You were threatened in a very clear way. We are both at risk. The fourth one is the home phone of a Franciscan friar, a retired teacher of theology at Loyola University. He also retired recently from service as a chaplain in the Robinson pen. He and Schram had a close relationship, according to the parole board documents. Nothing kinky. He vouched for Schram’s peaceful character in a letter to the parole board.”
“Maybe this list is not all hit list. It sounds like the priest was just Schram’s friend.”
“Don’t be naïve, Steele. I’m worried about all of us on that list. You think Schram’s the kind of guy who has a list of friends?”
“I hear you. I’d like to talk to this priest.”
“Good. I was hoping you would. It’s Fr. Franz Eglar. I’ll leave you a copy of his contact information.” Her hand slid a page out of a folder and moved it to one side. She opened another folder.
“Did you find out anything about the first number on Schram’s list?”
“It was the home phone number of a woman who lived alone in a house in Berwyn.”
“She moved? Do you know where she went?”
“No. She’s dead. The house is gone. A few days ago it burned to the ground. It started in the kitchen. Her body was found on what used to be the kitchen floor. She had a gas stove. No reason to think it was anything but an accident.” She looked at Steele, her eyes wide and sad.
“How old was she?”
“About the same age as Schram’s mother.”
“This has to be a coincidence, doesn’t it?”
“Of course it would be,” he said, “if it weren’t for her phone number on Schram’s refrigerator. If it weren’t for the cause of death. If it weren’t for the age and gender of the victim.”
“Who was she to Schram?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“I have a file full of information on her. Her name is Sheila Child. She was an OB nurse in a south side hospital, Caucasian, long divorced, childless. Sang madrigals and such in an a capella choir. Well liked. She was thinking about early retirement. She wanted to travel.”
“Sad. I wonder how she links to Schram,” said Steele. “I wonder if there’s any way we can get the police on this. Can we give them something that will cause them to investigate Schram? What about the phone number on the fridge?”
“I don’t know. It depends who we talk to. I’ll look into it right away. You need to talk to Fr. Eglar as soon as possible.” She straightened her paperwork and made a pile of the folders. She stood up. He stood up with her, facing her across the room in silence. No smiles. Her eyes were hazel, steady on his. His were dark.
“Let’s have a glass of wine and figure out what we’re going to eat,” said Steele.
“That sounds wonderful,” she said and sat back down.
“I’m worried about a police investigation,” said Steele. “What will Schram think if a detective asks him about this fire, Sheila Child, his mother, the numbers on his refrigerator, and ‘Great Balls of Fire’”?
“He’s going to know we’re onto him.”
“Right. We have to handle this ourselves.”
“That’ll be easy,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
“I like your attitude, Rainey.” He left her there on the couch while he went to the kitchen to find his best bottle of cabernet sauvignon.