He had left Dr. Kyle Bridges alone at the table with his second pair of Pink Lady Slippers. Still feeling the wine—intensified by his recollection of his break-through session with Schram--he was making himself drive more carefully than usual toward Donna’s apartment at the edge of Northwestern University campus.
When he pushed the call button, Donna’s voice came back, “Who is it?”
“Andy,” he yelled at the speaker.
“Be right down.” She pushed through the double doors and joined him on the front steps. She was bright even in the dark. “Hi, Andy.” She hugged him quickly.
“I’m drunk, Donna,” he said. “I’ll tell you why.”
She laughed. “Let’s walk over to Donatello’s on Garland. I’ve always wanted to try it.” He fell into step alongside her.
By time they had eaten their antipasti, he was feeling much better. He drank his water, and then he drank her water, while she sipped her Chianti riserva, a smooth red.
“I believe a former patient of mine is going to hurt somebody, possibly even me. I have to stop him.”
He filled her in. She was leaning back in her chair, relaxed with her wine glass in her right hand. Her eyes on him were all admiration. He wouldn’t shade the truth to her. He’d even tell her how he had played along with Bridges’ seduction of him, so to speak. She frowned briefly, then compressed her lips as she listened to the whole story.
When the pasta arrived, he ordered her another glass of wine and refills on the water.
Steele said, “It’s not like I want to do this. I don’t see any other way to protect potential victims, including myself. Truly, in this case the end justifies the means.” He smiled because it sounded so lame.
“I refuse to be disarmed by your brilliant smile. You will not charm me into agreeing with you, Andy. The end definitely does not justify the means. Besides,” she said, “maybe you are wrong that your former patient is still dangerous.”
“Let me show you something he wrote for me when I first started seeing him, four, five years ago.” He fished the photocopied paper out of the inner pocket of his tweed jacket. He had torn away all but the quotation. He handed it to her and she read it.
Gophers are pests with no purpose or use. They destroy lawns from underneath. Their tunnels undermine our land. They prey on worms, the good kind, starving our robins. They feed dandelions with their shit. Gophers need to be eliminated. I flush them out of their holes with my hose and catch them in a mayo jar. I throw alive them into a stinking tank. I axecute them later. Killing gophers is one of my important jobs.
“Not exactly a Son of Sam note,” said Donna. She looked at it another minute and handed it back to him.
He read it over again for himself and felt himself blush. “I admit it loses something out of context. In context it sets up his rivalry with a homicidal cat, both of them bent on enforcing justice against the vermin of the earth. He sits in judgment over everything vulnerable and exercises severe punishment on a whim. His moral indignation makes him especially dangerous. He fits the profile of a serial killer bent on punishing unrighteousness.”
Donna laughed in his face, looking incredulous. “There you go, twisting and extending the plain meaning of the text,” she said. “That paragraph might have been written by a member of Future Farmers of America, if you take it literally. If you want to take it symbolically, it could be a kid who aspires to law enforcement. It might even be a future clinical psychologist, like you ten years ago. God knows, we all have our gophers. “Killing gophers is an important job.”
Steele’s embarrassment grew while Donna talked. She was good. She had always served as a reality check for him. Grounded him. But tonight he was not feeling either reassured or corrected. He was irritated. “You are just argumentative tonight. That’s what I think,” he said.
They walked back to her apartment, mostly silent. They hugged again at the bottom of the steps. There relationship had never included kissing. It was complicated. He drove home. Whoosh, into his underground parking garage. Whoosh, up the elevator. A turn of the key and he was safe in his apartment. He threw the bolt. Out the window and far below, city lights glowed. People were out having fun tonight. They were dining, dancing, working, playing, fighting, kissing, loving. They all assumed that they would not be interrupted by a sociopath. Everything they did assumed that, more or less, people are predictably sane, life predictably safe.
His house phone rang, the kitchen wall phone. It was exactly midnight. The caller ID said NO CALLER DATA. He picked up the phone and softly said “Hello?” Then he heard the banging chords of a honky-tonk piano, followed by the one-and-only voice of Jerry Lee Lewis singing: “Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.” It was recorded in a ten-second loop. It chilled him. Steele listened to it three times and then hung up. The phone did not ring again.
Richard Schram stood in front of one of a dozen phones in the subway station at State and Jackson. He had wedged himself as far as he could into the kiosk so that any people milling around would not be able to see or hear what he was doing. He squeezed the receiver between his shoulder and his ear, using his right hand to press the speaker of a miniature cassette player against the mouthpiece of the receiver. He held his left arm up in front of his eyes and studied his watch—12:00 AM plus 10 seconds, 20, 30, and 40. At 40 he pulled down the hook to end the call. He clicked off the small tape player and dropped it into his shirt pocket. He casually hung up the phone.
Stepping away from the phone kiosk, he glanced around him. People were standing by the tracks, sitting on benches, and walking past the kiosks, but no one was close enough to have seen or heard him. No one was looking at him or pretending not to look at him. No one had heard anything; no one had found him the least bit suspicious. He had been careful. He turned toward the exit and bounded up the stairs.
When he reached street level, Schram felt a fresh rush of power, as if he could just keep climbing the stairs into thin air. It was a warm Friday night in April on State Street. Drunks were out. Lovers were out. He wasn’t the only one walking on air. But Schram was elated beyond the weather, beyond love, and even beyond his new freedom. What made his prank so satisfying was imagining how it had affected Steele. He pictured Steele listening to the call. Was he alone in his pajamas watching TV or sitting with his girlfriend drinking wine?—it didn’t matter. The circumstances were irrelevant. What mattered was what was going on in Steele’s soft little brain—the brain he knew well. He imagined Steele’s thought process as Steele listened at least three times to “Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.”
First, Steele would recognize it instantly as an unmistakable threat meant for him alone from the one and only Richard Schram. A classic rock tune with a gleeful attitude toward fire by the wild pianist Jerry Lee Lewis, AKA The Killer—it all pointed right to him, Richard Schram. And the message did so much more than threaten. Steele would understand it: You believe I care about you because you helped me once. But I hate you. You pretended to be my friend, you tricked me into revealing myself to you, you made me want to be like you, but then you betrayed me. You wrote in your report that I was sick and dangerous. Thanks to what you taught me I am dangerous. I am more dangerous than ever because I am in control now. You broke the bond of friendship, Steele, and you will pay.
Shivers of pleasure played along his spine as he walked south on State Street. If someone on the crowded sidewalk jostled him, he was oblivious. He floated like a man on drugs. After about fifteen minutes, the euphoria subsided.
He found himself on the ragged end of State Street, among the seedy clubs and theatres. He saw a bar called Toddlin’ Town and pushed inside. A sweet, stale beery odor assailed him. It had been a long, long time since he’d had a beer. Now he had a reason to celebrate. The place was doing an active business, especially at the tables overlooking the stage. He stayed back, walking along the bar until he found an empty stool. The music rose as the exotic dancer reached her climax. He heard scattered clapping and a few cries for more from some who had watched the show close up. He ordered a tap, something called Red Dog Ale, and he found it far superior to any of the big brands. Many new brews had appeared on the scene since he’d gone away. He guzzled it and ordered a second.
He visualized how he’d punish Steele. After scaring him and making him wait for weeks, he would surprise him one night. He would punch him, cut him, and burn him. Steele would gasp to see how he did it—quickly and expertly, eyes wide open to the blood, ears wide open to the screams, casually, without a twinge of conscience. Conscience was for sinners and other people who made mistakes, not for the judge, the jury, or the executioner. He acted on behalf of justice, after all, and would give Steele only what he deserved. That would be glorious. His triumph over an archenemy. But in the mean time he had to be satisfied with anticipation of the kill. As long as he believed it would happen, he could wait. And waiting now was key to his control over Steele. Deferred gratification would also be key to Schram’s escape. The bartender refilled Schram’s glass, took another five dollar bill from the stack in front of him.
Escape would involve a darker strategy besides. He would invoke mystery. He hadn’t worked it all out yet, but the theory was in place. He just had to execute it. He would not be going back to prison—that was a given. He needed to plan it and play it out with ritual precision to make it all work. He wasn’t there yet, but he was getting there. It would be a religious experience, he knew that much.
“Excuse me.” He felt a tap on his right shoulder. He rotated his stool to see a pretty woman in heavy mascara. “Are you Tonya’s friend?” she said.
Schram’s gut tightened. A woman within arms’ length. This was not something he planned or expected. Who sent this woman to him? Was she a trap? A joke someone was pulling on him? He would find out. “Who’s Tonya?”
“Tonya is the star dancer here. You must know that.” The woman laughed. She was wearing a short black skirt and a green silk blouse with a sash or something tied around her slender middle. Other than that she was all spheres and cones, nicely muscled.
Schram could smell her perfume and her body odor beneath her perfume and her clean body beneath that. His head swam in it. He stared at her as if she were some frozen French desert served in flames. Her face was attentive. Her eyes searched his. She smiled. She waited for him while his heart pounded. He finally found some words: “Are you a friend of Tonya?”
“Yes. A new one. I’m hoping to set up an audition. She said she was meeting her boyfriend at the bar after her midnight show, and I am supposed to wait here too. Her boyfriend is her agent. She described someone like you. Drop-dead handsome. Lean, but not tall, with military short dark hair, and clean-shaven. You fit that description pretty well, but I guess you don’t know Tonya?” She didn’t leave.
“Are you a…a…dancer too?” He was buzzing, talking, not daring to think.
“I haven’t gone pro, but I can do what they do. I have the moves.”
“I am sure you do,” he said. “May I buy you a drink while you wait for Tonya and Mr. Wonderful?”
She laughed. “Sure. Just a beer like you’re having…um, what’s your name?”
An alarm sounded in his skull. Better be careful. He didn’t want to leave any traces of even minor parole violations, like sitting late in a bar. “Andy,” he said. “But you can call me Steele.”
“Nice to meet you, Steele. I’m Rosalyn.” She gave him her hand. He took it as if it were just one of the many lovely hands he’d touched tonight. He did not reveal in any way that her hand thrilled him. So small, so soft, so warm. He wanted to bring it to his mouth and kiss it gently all over on top and then flip it over and kiss it deeply on the inside.
“Sit here,” he said, settling her on the stool beside him. They both turned toward the bar. He ordered her a Red Dog tap and another for himself. He put another twenty on the bar. The bartender was less busy now. He served them right away.
“Are you here by yourself, Steele?” she asked.
“Yes. I just dropped in after work.”
“Really. What do you do?”
“I’m a psychologist for juvenile delinquents,” he said. “I work for Cook County Mental Health.” He had anticipated that she would ask.
“Wow. I’m sure that’s interesting. Can you help them? Can you turn those kids away from doing bad stuff?”
“Hell, no,” he said. “I write them up for the courts and get them sent to prison for a lot of years.” He tried to sound as if he were joking, but she didn’t hear it in his tone.
“It would be nice if you could help some of them.”
“If you could see them--these vermin come from low-life homes--no fathers, drunken mothers, slut sisters. Everybody beating on everybody else. What does it all come down to? People getting hurt. And hurting people hurt other people. I’ve learned that for sure.” Now he was even using Steele’s own words, for it was Steele many years ago who explained to him how hurting people tend to perpetuate abuse. It took Schram awhile to understand it and believe it.
“’Hurting people hurt people.’ That’s a pretty sad thing to learn.” She turned her eyes into his. She was all heart, he could see that, beautiful, a lover. Her eyes were running a little, mascara breaking down.
“Haven’t you seen that in your own life?” he asked her.
“I have,” she said. “I just never thought of it that way before. Is there any hope for the hurting people who hurt other people?”
“Sure,” he said. “Red Dog Ale.”
“Seriously,” she said, turning to look at him again.
“I’m sorry, Rosalyn. When a person hurts another person, the hurting person has to pay him back or he will die. Hurting people have a right and a duty to hurt the people who hurt them, don’t you think?”
“Yes, I’ve heard that abuse is always a two-way street.”
“Like the way the baby antelope enables the tiger?” He gave her a tiger’s smile.
She fell silent. He sat there with her, drinking, feeling no pain. Her face was flashing, alternating between bright and dark from the beer sign blinking over the bar.
“You look cool in these lights,” he said. “Have another beer.” He signaled the bartender who promptly refilled their glasses. Schram was thirsty. Rosalyn sipped. “You should dance under flashing lights,” he said, slurring his words a little.
She didn’t say anything. She contemplated her beer. She took another sip. Schram thought her hands folded and fluttered like the wings of a white dove around her tapered glass. Yet her face looked sad. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“I just don’t like talking about hurting people. I’ve known a lot of that, I mean, being hurt. I feel it.”
“If someone tried to hurt you right now, Rosalyn, I would kill the bastard.”
“Is that supposed to cheer me up?” She watched him down the rest of his beer and give her a glassy look. “You’re gallant in your way, Steele. But you are drunk.” She looked at him with pity and reached out to touch his arm.
“I’m not your fucking little boy,” he said, jerking his arm away as if from a snakebite.
“Hey, asshole,” she said.
He stared at her, watching her morph with the flashing lights. Now she was a beautiful woman loving him. Now she was an old hag hating him. She was ready to give herself to him. Now she was going to kill him.
He leaned closer to her and stared her in the face. She looked like everything a woman should look like, sweet, tempting, and indispensable. But, flash, now she was a hag, sour and repulsive. How would he handle this? He had a technique. He put his hands on her shoulders, looked her in the eyes, and smiled. He smiled at her beautiful face; he smiled at her hag face. His hands crept toward her neck.
Suddenly her face burst into flames. He looked down and her blouse and skirt were also on fire. She was a sexy bitch. He took her in naked: her burning thighs, her white hot crotch, her bright abdomen, her hot and heavy breasts, their blue-flame nipples. Now he saw her lips were also burning red. Oh, God, they were his mother’s lips. He closed his eyes. Then the flames shot higher and engulfed her. He couldn’t see her anymore. He opened his eyes, and she was gone.
She stayed gone, whoever she was. He needed to get out of there. He had to go home. Not to his old home. Not to his cell. He had to go home to his new apartment. He needed to go back and get control of himself.