Scapegoat by Douglas Leonard

Chapter 4– Rebecca Johnson


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Chapter 4Rebecca Johnson

The beauty of a downtown apartment is the short drive. Swoosh, from one underground parking ramp to another, whatever the weather. Swoosh, down one elevator, up the next. He let himself in through a metal door, threw the bolt, hooked the chain. He was completely safe. If he felt warm, he hit COOL the wall unit. If he felt cool, he hit WARM. Fan to HI or LO. His living room window faced north. The four-lane bright ribbon twenty stories below was called East Washington.

The bitch of a downtown apartment is bringing up the groceries. Elevator or not, it’s a long way to hike carrying a heavy paper bag in each arm. That’s why he rarely bought more than one bag of groceries at a time. But that’s also why he had to shop for groceries just about every other day. And he had to drive practically to the suburbs to find a grocery store that didn’t double its prices just for being conveniently located downtown. People don’t think about things like that. Tomorrow he’d pick up groceries on the way home. Tonight was a night to eat last night’s leftovers.

While the chicken wings were heating in the microwave, he set the table for himself, folding a napkin under his spoon. The spoon was for the applesauce. There were some pasty white dinner rolls he didn’t bother with. He heard the beep. He checked the microwave, still lit up, spinning his wings. The beep had come from his cell phone, set discreetly to ring once and be quiet. He flipped it open and said hello.

“Is this Dr. Steele?”


“This is Becca Johnson returning your call.”

“Thank you, Ms. Johnson. I was calling to ask you about my patient Richard Schram. I understand he is one of yours now. I’m trying to assess his potential for violence now that he’s back out.”

“You are?”

“Yes, there is some question about threats he made.” Immediately he regretted saying it.

“Are you kidding? Did we meet at the parole hearing, Dr. Steele?” She smelled something.

“No, I wasn’t present. Schram was my patient before his conviction. My colleague Dr. Bridges has begun to see him now that he’s out on parole. Dr. Bridges gave me your name and number.”

“Actually I do recall your progress with Richard Schram was discussed at the hearing. What can I do for you, Doctor?”

“Tell me how an explosive juvenile with a record of escalating violence sails through his first parole hearing.”

“I’m not sure why this is important to you, but I will tell you that Schram was a model prisoner, showed strong evidence of reform, and passed every psychological assessment. The argument for release on parole was compelling. The decision unanimous.”

“I think Schram is very smart—capable of fooling a parole board.”

“I am looking at the file. The prison shrink—um, psychologist—indicated clear demonstration of personal maturity--remorse about his past offenses, anger management skills, empathy toward others. He thinks Schram has turned the corner on his old ways.

“Great,” said Steele, betraying sarcasm, he realized. Then came the beep of the microwave, announcing that his chicken wings were hot. He ignored it.

“Do you know something about Richie the rest of us don’t?” she asked him.

Richie is it, now?”

“Sure, that’s what he says he wants to be called.”

“Look, Ms. Johnson,” he said. “I don’t want to be an alarmist. But I got to know Schram pretty well before he went to prison. I know he’s smart. When he gets angry—no matter how minor the provocation--somebody pays. He punishes with excessive force. I’m worried that the next person who looks at him cross-eyed will wake up soaked in gasoline and surrounded with flames.”

“I hear you, Doctor.” She paused a moment, then launched out in a different direction. “Richie must have learned a lot from you because I heard him describe himself the way you just did. He said that your sessions helped him to understand himself. You gave him threads to follow, he said. And he spent his prison term following those threads and getting control of his anti-social behavior. He worked with a psychologist in prison who said Richie had reformed not only his behavior, but the way he thinks about himself. The other person who spoke in favor of Richie’s parole was the chaplain, an older priest who worked closely with Richie every day. He said he saw Richie transformed by grace--a little more every day. The consensus of the parole board was that Richie is a positive and capable young man who can put his checkered past behind him. They believe he wants to put it all behind him.”

Steele felt his empty stomach gnawing at itself. He was woozy.

“If I had been there, I would have asked him to what extent he admits the crimes that put him in prison—and the ones before that. I would have asked him if he felt remorse for any of them. I would have asked him how he feels about Viola Whittaker, a neighbor lady he beat up because she paid him what he thought was too little for some yard work. I would have asked him about Vicky Falcona, his teacher, who had the nerve to give him an F for a plagiarized paper. When Schram went to prison, he was not giving the right answers to those questions….”

“And now he IS giving right answers to those questions, Doctor. These topics came up at the hearing. He has taken responsibility for himself and his actions. I wasn’t born yesterday when it comes to spotting recidivist tendencies. I’ll tell you that Richie showed a lot of maturity in the parole hearing. It’s too bad you couldn’t have been there.” She was jabbing at the fact that he wasn’t invited because his experience with Schram was ancient history.

Steele had said all he could think of, but he said one more thing. “Did he talk about how he threatened me the last time he saw me—at the trial?”

“No, he did not. He threatened you? Is that what this is all about?”

Steele caught himself. Maybe she was starting to think he was the unstable one, not Schram. Call it a becoming touch of paranoia in the young clinical psychologist. Did she think he was scared of his own patient? “You might not believe this, Ms. Johnson, but I actually liked Richie—Richard.”

“You liked him? Does that mean you like him now?”

“I saw his potential to reform. That’s all I mean.”

“Well, I think you’ll see from him what you were hoping.”

“Thanks for your time, Ms. Johnson.”

“You are welcome, Doctor.” She hung up.

After a few seconds, Steele got up and attended to his chicken wings. They didn’t look so hot. He got the jar of Mott’s apple sauce out of the refrigerator and spooned himself about half a plate of it, right up to the chicken but not touching it. He poured himself a big glass of 2 percent milk. Then he sat down to eat.

Soon he got up and turned on the radio, All Things Considered. The broadcast promptly cut away to the local station for the drone of a pledge drive. He hated the way they pressured him with their affability. If he had made his pledge the first day, he’d have a right to be really angry by now, four days later. He hadn’t made his pledge the first day, as a matter of fact, but he might have, and it made him angry to think of it. He got up and switched off the radio.

“I wasn’t born yesterday,” he mumbled, chewing fiercely on a chicken wing. That’s what Rebecca Johnson had said: “I wasn’t born yesterday.” A nice phrase. Could she be right about Schram? He should hope so, but his gut told him she was wrong, and he wanted to trust his own gut more than he wanted Schram’s rehabilitation. Whether he called it his gut or his professional judgment, he needed to trust himself absolutely.

He had to believe right now that Schram had gone to prison and learned how to beat the system. He had just proven that he could play a parole board like a violin. Okay. Now he was out. What would Schram do? What did he want?

Steele finished his dinner and cleaned up meticulously. He went into the bathroom and brushed his teeth for a long time. He went to the living room and opened his brief case. He switched on his laptop, set it on the coffee table, and stacked the manila folders the way he wanted them. Then he started reading he documents inside the folder. Every once in a while he’d type something into the computer. Then he’d read more until he got inspired to write something else. A picture of Luis Ortiz slid out of a manila folder onto the coffee table. Thirteen going on seventeen, he thought. A student of Greek myth. What kind of a rapist was he? He started scoring the responses to the psychological tests.

The cell phone beeped again. It was still on the kitchen table. Steele banged his shin on the coffee table as he hurried to grab the phone. When he got there, the phone was still vibrating. He flipped it open, pushed the green button, and said, “hello.” Nothing came back to him. The screen read, “No Caller Information.” “Hello,” he said again. The line was open and clear, no whooshing and no crackle. “This is Andy Steele. Hello. Hello.” He thought he sounded as if he were begging the person on the other end of the line to speak. He listened. He heard absolutely nothing, not even breathing. But it sounded like held breath or a rag muffling the mouthpiece. Then he pressed the red button on his phone and heard a different silence, the kind of absolute silence mechanical devices make when they are turned off. He regretted pressing the red button.

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