Scapegoat by Douglas Leonard

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Chapter 5Morning After

The cell phone beeped on the night stand next to his bed, then vibrated. He was awake enough to be aware of it, but he did not want to answer it. Light seeped in through the curtain. It was morning. He lay there absorbing, collecting. He remembered the silence on the line the night before. Then the phone in the kitchen started ringing. He got up, but he didn’t answer it. He wasn’t ready for people yet.

He had showered and was brushing his teeth when the kitchen phone rang again.


“Hi, Andy. Did I wake you?” Donna’s laugh let him know she hoped she had.

“You did, but I needed to get up anyway.” He remembered something. “You called my cell phone this morning, didn’t you?” He realized that he’d have that information on his cell phone, and he pressed the button to locate missed calls.

“I called your cell phone and then your house phone right after that.” Steele confirmed it. Her number represented the only missed call on his phone. He deleted it.

“That’s what I thought,” he said. He hesitated and then went ahead with the question, nonchalant. “You called my cell last night at about midnight, didn’t you?”

“Midnight! No, not me. Some other admirer perhaps?”

He was pulling on his clothes while he talked. He was pretty sure he was reading way too much into that hang-up call last night. But he couldn’t even call it that, he realized, since he was the one who hung up. “Just a wrong number, probably”

“Hey, my roommate is out of town this weekend and I need a friend. Are you free tonight?”

“Am I free? Is anyone ever really free?” Steele could take it, but he could also dish it out. Donna was studying philosophy at Northwestern. He tied his shoes.

“Of course we’re free, you big dope. You will now say this: ‘Would you let me buy you dinner, Donna?’ At the count of three you will awaken, remembering nothing except your commitment. 1-2-3.”

“You win. I’m hungry anyway. I need a distraction. I’m worried about a patient.”

“You can tell me about it tonight. Can you pick me up?”

When he hung up, he was dressed and ready for work. A no-tie Friday. He grabbed an orange and dropped it into the pocket of his tweed jacket. He rode the elevator, thinking of Donna. She was mostly sunshine now, but he had met her when she was dark and weepy. She’d been raped by her brother’s friend. She was sixteen. That was ten years ago already. Steele was her brother’s friend too. He spent a lot of time with Donna after the rape. They became friends—nothing more, but nothing less either. She could talk to him. He had helped her put the rape behind her. She had helped him realize that he had a talent for understanding people. He’d changed his course from medicine to psychology.

Chapter 6– Schram’s File

When he got to work, he hung up his jacket and went straight to the filing cabinet, third drawer. He pulled the fat file called SCHRAM, R. and set it on the little table to one side of his desk. Next to it he placed a yellow pad of lined paper and a wooden cup holding ten or twelve dangerously sharp pencils. A small antique lamp with a blue glass shade sat on the desk. He pulled the chain, and it spread a warm pool of yellowy light all over the table. Then he grabbed his black ceramic coffee cup and headed for the break room.

Mrs. Simone glanced up from her desk. “Good morning, Dr. Steele. How are you?” She maintained careful boundaries, never crossing into familiarity with him—or, as far as he could tell, with anyone. He could hardly imagine her being familiar with a husband, much less intimate. (“How may I please you tonight, Mr. Simone?”) She herself would deny having rigid boundaries, he knew, because she saw everything in terms of manners. Her style was a strong argument for the value of good manners.

“Very well, thank you, Mrs. Simone. I hope you are well this morning,” said Steele. He had long ago lost any sense of embarrassment about being formal in his interaction with her.

“Yes, I am, thank you!” He figured triteness didn’t bother her because she was always completely sincere. He’d come to appreciate how well polite interaction wears in a professional relationship. No chitchat about what one did on the weekend. No distracting compliments on hair cuts, new clothes, lost weight. Did he even know her first name? Bella, Beulah?

He went into the break room and saw the coffee streaming into the carafe. Mrs. Simone knew how to make coffee. Every couple of weeks she bought a pound of premium coffee beans using $10 from petty cash in her desk drawer, ground only what she needed every day, and erred, if she erred at all, on the strong side. She was worth her weight in Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. It occurred to him that he had never actually seen her with a cup of coffee, just bottled water.

“Do I have any patients this morning?” he asked her on the way back to his office.

She looked over her bifocals at her computer screen. Your nine o’clock cancelled. Nothing until one, Doctor. Luis Ortiz.”

He settled himself at his table and started over. What did he really know about Schram?

He studied his medical, dental, and school records going as far back as they went. Schram’s first-grade teacher had the public health nurse look at him. The nurse described a moderate case of “lazy eye.” His left eye drooped, didn’t track with the right. Must have made him look spooky to the rest of the kids. The same nurse reported head lice. She noted she’d called the mother at home to inform her of both conditions. Apparently Schram’s mother couldn’t or wouldn’t follow directions, so the nurse herself ended up treating his scalp to kill the lice and their eggs. Whatever happened to the lazy eye? Steele had never noticed it, so Schram must have outgrown it.

There were reports from a midnight emergency room visit when he was about nine. The record said he’d gotten up to go to the bathroom and had fallen down the stairs. He had contusions on his legs, his back, and especially his face. The notes indicated that he had been brought to the emergency room by a Connie Francis Schram, his older sister, because the mother was at work at the time of the fall. It didn’t say what kind of work. A couple years later he was treated in an emergency room for second-degree burns to his hands and face.

Steele tried to find some mention of his father in the family medical history. Did he have the same father his sisters had? Probably. They were all Schrams.

Dental records showed teeth knocked out, broken on a couple of occasions. A dentist had treated him for pyorrhea, a gum disease. He urged him to brush and floss daily.

School records from the early 90’s mentioned Schram had injuries from accidental falls at home on two occasions, neither of which coincided with the midnight ER visit. They sent a social worker to his house, but he learned nothing. Besides injuries, Schram also had behavior problems, attributed to hyperactivity and ADD and ADHD at different times. He had filled prescriptions for Ritalin for several years, but there was no evidence it helped him. There was concern that he might not be getting the drug at home, though the prescription was always filled. He’d had disciplinary problems in every grade, threatening and pushing kids. He wasn’t a big kid. Steele was surprised that there was no report of Schram getting beat up by a bigger boy or gang of boys. Schoolyard justice was not always a bad thing. Even as a bony little twerp, Schram must have had an intimidating style.

Documents from juvenile court detailed his convictions on various charges. But he was a juvenile. He got many breaks—private counseling, medication, tutoring, part-time and summer jobs programs. Social workers tried, but they had never succeeded in getting him into foster care.

The rap sheet was long. The police reports were longer. He read about young Schram’s gopher farm in the 55-gallon drum in the summer of 2001. He read the statements of the kids who described him chasing their family cat into their yard and capturing it in a large fishing net. The kids, 10 and 8, called their cat Morris, after the TV celebrity. Schram, 13, had had the foresight to bring along a pair of black leather gloves. He put them on slowly while he described to those poor kids how he was going to kill their cat. Then he twisted the cat’s head 360 degrees and held him that way until he stopped convulsing. He threw the cat’s body on top of their garage, “to warn other cats who might get ideas.”

Remembering the incident a couple of years later, Schram described how Morris had “viciously” killed several of his “finest” gophers. He killed them out of “blood lust,” not hunger, because he never ate them or even tried. In Schram’s view, Morris had tortured the gophers before killing them by catching them and releasing them several times. He said the kids cried and begged him to let Morris go. He refused. They needed to see what happens to a killer.

Reading this reminded Steele of something Schram had written in his own words. In one of the assessment instruments, Schram was asked to write something about a pet. Schram took the opportunity to write about gophers. He found the passage in the file, a typed but verbatim transcription of what Schram had written with a pencil. The passage began: “Gophers are pests with no purpose or use.” Steele read and reread the passage, appalled by Schram’s iciness. He made a copy of the passage, folded it, and put it into his jacket.

Then Steele looked closely at the arson pattern. Fire for many is a satisfying way to express anger. Schram had chosen arson frequently. The garage fires were simple revenge. Why hadn’t Schram set fire to the houses? Because he was still a novice, he was setting the stage for the grand fires he would set in his prime. It was sexual at base. His violent arson would grow as he required more and more to satisfy him. Torching his teacher’s car in her driveway brought him a big step closer to house arson. According to the theory of criminal psychology, he would start fires farther and farther from home. His comfort zone for violence would expand. His need to inflict damage would also grow. He was a blossoming serial killer whose weapon happened to be fire.

Schram from ages 12 to 18 demonstrated many of the traits no one wants to see in a kid. Might as well stick the label sociopath on him. He had been, to put it succinctly, a boy on fire. Now, after 4 years prison, he was 22 and at large. Was he still on fire? How could he be otherwise?

Steele closed up the files and looked at his notes. He wanted to talk at length with Rebecca Johnson, parole officer, and Dr. Kyle Bridges, clinical psychologist. He wanted to find out about Schram’s treatment program, his job, his activities, his address. He wanted Johnson and Bridges to have a better understanding of Schram. But what was his business with Schram anymore? Did he have any privileged information or special insight? Schram had passed into others’ hands. He was theirs now. He could accept that if only he felt they knew what they were dealing with. They needed to do their homework. He could help them if they would let him.

He checked the clock. 12:30 already—almost time for Luis Ortiz. He dialed Dr. Kyle Bridges.

“Hello, Kyle. This is Andy again. I’d like to have that drink with you I couldn’t have last night. I could meet with you after work tonight if you are available.”

“What a pleasant surprise, Andrew. May we meet early at the Riptide, say 5 o’clock.”

“Thank you, Kyle. I’ll see you at 5.”

“Luis Ortiz is here to see you, Doctor,” said Mrs. Simone, after knocking lightly and opening his door just enough to stick her head in.

“Send him in, Mrs. Simone. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Doctor.”

The fat boy came in all smiles, kind of bouncing on his feet as if he were entering a boxing ring. Steele met him in the middle and they shook hands, each falling back into his own corner. That is, Steele sat at his desk; Luis flopped down into the arm chair facing him. His soft fat oozed and filled up the entire chair. Luis smiled again.

“What’s it like at home, Luis?” Steele asked, returning Luis’ smile. That was the only question he had to ask. Luis went on for 45 minutes describing the Ortiz extended family. He lived in the real world all right—not on Mount Olympus. Three of his cousins had died in an Arizona desert a couple of years ago. One of his uncles had two wives here, and probably a third in Vera Cruz. His aunts had kids with different fathers. There were tough guys with knives. He had girl cousins doing sexual favors to pay the rent. These people were trying to build a life on phony papers and made-up social security numbers. It was a confusing cast of characters, but Luis was invested in all of them.

Luis seemed to know everything about all of them too. Apparently they sought him out to entrust him with some horrific tale of necessity or betrayal or violence. Luis kept their secrets, he remembered all their stories, and he told them to Steele without varnishing or condemnation. Steele noticed he made excuses for their faults. Luis saw himself as some kind of buffer between the vulnerable ones and the rough world. Luis provided padding, if not protection. As if no one he loved ever had to get hurt. That’s what motivated him. Rapist? Fat chance.

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