Scapegoat by Douglas Leonard

Chapter 24– Steele and Schram on the Lakefront

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Chapter 24– Steele and Schram on the Lakefront

Steele was wearing his full running gear as he pounded across the packed sand of the lakeshore trail. He preferred to stay off the asphalt because of the ubiquitous skateboarders there, always performing some jump or flip just beyond the range of their present ability. What drove these kids? He wondered about them as any adult might, but then he realized with a jolt of embarrassment that he knew exactly what drove kids to master dangerous skills. To be cool. That is, to achieve respect and status and the social rewards that invariably accompany them.

Had Schram ever sought to be cool? As a teenager was Schram trying to impress anyone with a 55-gallon drum full of live gophers? Had Schram at that age already given up trying to impress peers—if you could call them that? Had Schram ready learned that other kids didn’t like his bony, creepy looks no matter what he said or did? He had never spoken of a friend. He must have abandoned any palsy-walsy stuff early on. He claimed he had more important things to do, especially making money. That’s why he mowed lawns, pulled weeds, raked leaves, and caught gophers. He was saving his money to buy a van. Then he could expand his yard care business. A van would also give him a closed, lockable room he could use to arm himself, prepare, attack, hide, and escape. How conscious had the young Schram been of that motive?

Steele was running effortlessly today, a Sunday afternoon in mid-May. He was wearing his gun under a light flannel jacket. He was also wearing a Cubs cap against the sun. Most of the runners on this path were serious. They usually nodded as they passed one another, acknowledging in the other the drive to run, the need to stay in peak shape, training 25 or more miles per week. Those training for marathons sometimes did 18 or even 20 miles in a day, but no more than that and not every day.

Steele himself had run some local marathons for fun, but he was not drawn to competition. He ran by himself, for himself, and against himself. Everything he valued and feared was inside of him. At least that’s what he used to think, but now he was confronted with fear from the outside, and not just for himself but for others. He knew that it could come down to a physical battle between him and Schram. Steele was sure he could beat Schram in a footrace. Steele’s muscles were trained to take him far fast—or not so far very fast. He considered his aerobic conditioning superior to Schram’s, as well, which would give him an advantage in any protracted struggle. Steele felt he was most vulnerable to a surprise attack, particularly with a weapon. He couldn’t afford to let Schram get the drop on him.

What about a gun attack? Steele tried but couldn’t picture Schram with a gun. Schram liked to hold his victims, like gophers, awaiting execution. If he couldn’t cage them, he could hold his victims in suspense. He could threaten and watch fear do its damage. Steele resolved never to show Schram any fear. He must never let Schram feel he had he upper hand. He must not draw Schram into a fight until he was prepared to win. He must run away from any situation that was stacked against him.

What about Lisa? She was in good shape, but more like a swimmer, not a black belt. She was not a weapons person. What about Fr. Eglar? He had only a rope cinching his Franciscan robe.

This was absurd thinking, he told himself, because for the present at least Schram was attacking only symbolic offenders. Is Schram planning to come after Lisa, Fr. Franz, and me? Why had Fr. Franz even made the refrigerator list? Did Schram know that Fr. Franz’s letter to the parole board was not an unconditional endorsement? Schram must have known simply from talking to Fr. Franz that he retained considerable reserve about the moral transformation of this inquisitive inmate. Richie Schram.

Steele was running fast and easy now. He could feel his heart had settled into about 150 beats per minute, a pace he could sustain indefinitely. Funny, in the small of his back, a little on the right, he felt the beating of another heart, his gun slung in its holster, beating softly against his spine in the rhythm of his running.

Far off toward the south Steele saw a person approaching on a bicycle. He noticed it because most bikes stayed on the asphalt, except for the mountain bikers who moved from the wooded hill trails to the wet part of the beach. This person was not an all-terrain biker, nor a serious trainer or racer. He was sitting upright on an undersize youth bike with nubbly tires, the kind you see kids doing wheelies on. A fair distance ahead the big kid stood up, hit the brakes, and skidded sideways in Steele’s direction, keeping the bike directly across his path. He was too muscular to be a boy. He wore pants and a T-shirt and, like Steele, a Cubs hat. He stood on the path, blocking it, like Little John to Steele’s Robin Hood, meeting, then jousting, on the one-log bridge. Steele slowed his pace. He could see well enough now. It really was Schram.

Steele analyzed the situation. Schram had chosen the place and time. Should he run? Could he outrun Schram on a bike? Only if he had a winding hill path or steps. He saw neither. Was Schram armed? He didn’t appear to be. But Steele was, and he didn’t appear to be either. He quickly reached his right hand behind himself and under his jacket skillfully unsnapped the gun and flicked off the safety. He would be able to pull it and fire it in just a couple of seconds. How had Schram found him? Was it possible he just wanted to talk? He was probably here to threaten him. Maybe he could gain an advantage over Schram by talking to him.

He slowed progressively until he was walking toward Schram, twenty paces away now. Schram was smiling without friendliness. Grimacing like a punk, thought Steele, the look he wore at his trial—a thin smug mask over fear and anger. Steele would not allow Schram to intimidate him.

“Gee,” said Schram, “I was just out and about getting some exercise, and who do I run into but Dr. Judas Steele, the one who betrayed me?”

“I heard you got out of prison, Richard.”

“I bet you were glad.” Schram was straddling the bike.

“You know I always wanted you in treatment, not prison. I wanted you to get better.”

“That’s why you said I was dangerous, right?”

“I believed you were still dangerous, even though you were making progress. I had nothing to do with the timing of the trial.”

“Four years in Robinson and I’m all better now, Steel. I am in control. You’d be proud. Just like you taught me.”

“I hope it’s true.”

“Any reason you have to doubt it?” Schram’s head was turned away, but his eyes were fixed on Steele’s face.

“Great Balls of Fire,” said Steele.

“Shit, man, that’s just tweaking you.” Schram was chuckling. “I thought you’d appreciate that.”

“I took it as a threat, Richard. You have a reputation for arson, you know.”

“Hell, no. I’d never hurt you, man. You are my inspiration. I loved your raid on my refrigerator. I was sorry I hadn’t stocked it with a Dortmunder style beer. If you’d called first, I could have been more hospitable.

Steele felt a burning low down in his stomach--that damn valve, that damn acid. All he needed now was to start stuttering. What happened? Schram had gotten the drop on him, that’s all. He had to pull it together. “If you’re making threatening phone calls to me, I think I have a right to make sure it’s you. I want to give credit where credit’s due. Kind of strange to use your refrigerator as a phone book, though.”

“Big white surface, big black marker—like I say, you inspire me, Steele.”

“What about the other phone numbers?”

“Don’t act like you don’t know who they are. I’m way ahead of all my adversaries.”

“You hurt anybody and you’ll go back to prison for a long time. What good is revenge then?”

“You’d be surprised, Steele,” he snapped. “but I’m not going to hurt my friends.”

“Are we your friends, now? You just called us your adversaries. You are not thinking right, Richard.”

“Yeah, Steele, I need a good shrink! But I gotta love a guy who’s dating my mother. Maybe you’ll be my step-daddy some day.” Schram gave him a long look. Steele had nothing to say. Perhaps he should just pull out his gun and shoot Schram in the face. That would get rid of his smirk for good. Too bad there were people passing through the area.

“I was respectful toward your mother, Richard.”

“First date. No kiss?”

“Be serious, Schram.”

“What? She’s good enough for me, but not for you?” Schram’s voice had taken on a growl Steele had never heard. Steele knew Schram’s joke had brought him a little closer to the truth than he intended. It cost him something. Steele felt the pain stabbing his stomach again. The sun was beating down on them. The water was sloshing down below on the beach. “What do you want from me, Richard? I would like to feel safe. Will you leave me alone?”

“You and all your friends, too? Let’s see. There’s Lisa, Donna, and now Fr. Franz. Not to mention your fat little friend, Luis. I know everything about you, Steele. You don’t know anything about me.”

“Please don’t hurt any of them. Your quarrel is with me.”

“Are you begging me, Dr. Steele? Are you going to start crying?”

“Say what you want.”

“Okay, you got your wish, Doc. I won’t hurt you--any of you.”

Steele thought immediately of Sheila Child, R.N. “What do you mean ‘any of you’?” asked Steele.

“I mean there are those who will serve even better than you will.”

“What do you mean by that?” Steele wondered if Schram had said more than he meant to.

“You wouldn’t understand. If you want to hurt someone, sometimes the best way is just not to. And that’s what I intend to do.”

Th-th-th-that’s your plan?” Steele was thinking he might as well fall on his knees, right there in the afternoon sun on the shore of Lake Michigan, and start begging his old patient, ex-con Richard Schram to drop his plans to kill strangers. But he knew it would just feed Schram’s arrogance. Besides, if it were possible Schram thought Steele did not understand his plans to kill substitutes, that would give Steele an advantage, at least temporarily.

“Th-th-th-that’s all, doc,” said Schram.

“Think again, Schram,” said Steele with anger. “We have not hurt you. No one ever intended to hurt you. We want to help you. We are all innocent.”

“Don’t you know it, yet? Anybody can be innocent. Anybody can be guilty. And you know what I like best?”


“I get to decide.”

“You won’t get away with it.”

“Watch me.” Schram flashed a smile and shoved off with his leg. Soon he was pedaling away in the direction he had come.

Steele watched Schram ride out of sight.

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