He woke up with all his blankets piled on top of him. He had been sweating but he felt cold in his bones. He tasted something in his mouth. He’d heard that fear has a taste. Rancid? Bitter? Alkali? Fetid? Or was it just too much red wine?
As he lay there, he noticed he felt stronger than he had for days. Last night Donna actually had him feeling guilty for manipulating Bridges for information about Schram. Donna had deplored his professional ethics. Worse, she had him questioning his own judgment of people. She was wrong to accuse him of reading too much into Schram’s description of his relationship with gophers. Now there was not a shade of guilt nor shadow of a doubt. Schram himself had confirmed his intentions with the lyric from Jerry Lee Lewis: “Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.”
Nothing random about any of it. He remembered the tipsy woman in her powder blue bathrobe, Schram’s mother, asking him to “fix” her “Little Richard,” another rocker from the same period. Right now it looked like Little Richard was planning to fix him. He could only imagine what “great balls of fire” conjured in Schram’s mind.
Too bad he had been home to answer the phone. If he had the musical threat on his answering machine, he’d have something to play for the police. He had to plan his moves carefully. There was still a lot he didn’t know. What was Schram thinking? Why had he bothered to threaten him with the song? Why had he threatened him in the first place that day in the courtroom? Did Schram want something from him? Would Schram risk a long return to prison just to hurt someone like Steele? How much anger was driving the kid now? What move would he make? When would he make it?
The police? The police were not going to help him, but he had to make the complaint. He had to get it on the record. What was it? A nuisance call? He called the police department and was routed at last to a woman who was prepared to write down his complaint. He described the midnight call and the musical loop. She didn’t ask why he had waited until morning to report it. He didn’t have a good answer to that himself. He did have to explain two or three times why he considered the call a serious threat from a specific person. Former patient, convicted arsonist, known to have been called by his mother Little Richard. “Okay, okay” she said, giving up. “I’ll give it to Investigation. You’ll hear from somebody.”
I won’t hold my breath. “Thanks,” he said, already on to his next move.
He looked in the phone book for Lisa Rainey, Esq. Unlisted. He opened his laptop on the kitchen table and booted up. While waiting, he put one slice of dark rye bread in the toaster and a dab of butter on the frying pan, low heat. Then he typed her name into White Pages Online. There were two Lisa Raineys in the metropolitan area. Both were dead ends.
He searched the general number of the Office of State Public Defender and dialed it on a long shot. He listened to a long message that gave him instructions how to search for an extension. He entered Rainey’s extension and was surprised it picked up immediately. A woman’s voice, just “hello?”
“I’m Andy Steele. Is this Lisa Rainey?”
“Do you remember your client, Richard Schram, sentenced about four years ago to seven years in the state penitentiary?”
“Arsonist,” she said.
“Yes, Schram was 18 at the time. As of last week, he’s free on parole.”
“Why are you calling me about this, Mr. Steele? This is a police matter.”
“I have called the police. They may remember my call when they’re sifting my ashes.”
She chuckled. “But why me? I’m buried in work.”
“Because I believe he probably threatened you too before he went to prison. It fits his pattern. If he’s trying to make good on his old threats, maybe we can anticipate him and cut him off at the pass. Did he threaten you back then?”
She was silent.
“I remember him whispering to you after the judge sentenced him. What did he whisper to you?”
“You think he threatened me?” Rainey was softening.
“I’m sure he did.”
“He did. He said, and I quote, ‘You are toast, lady.’” An embarrassed laugh.
Steele suddenly remembered his rye toast. The toaster had jammed. Smoke was curling up from one of the slots. He forced it up with his free hand. Then, suddenly aware of the pan on the stove, he twisted off the flame under the blackening pool of butter in the frying pan.
“I’m sure he likes it burnt,” said Steele.
She said, “I never thought of it a threat, and I never told anyone about it. Still, I was aware that the prior public defender had been removed because he threatened her. He got off on threatening, I guess.”
“I don’t think it’s all in the past. Let me tell you what he did to me.” Steele told her about the court room threat, the hang-up call of a couple of nights ago, and the musical threat of last night. “Ms. Rainey, do you know the song, ‘Great Balls of Fire’?”
“I don’t think I do. Lisa’s fine, by the way.”
“Okay, Lisa. No reason you should remember. Schram knows old songs because his mother used to mope around the house spinning soft rock classics. She probably still does if she hasn’t died in detox.”
“Do you know them?”
“I visited the Schram shack a few years ago with a social worker.”
“No, I mean do you know those old songs?”
Steele hesitated. It never occurred to him that he had any special knowledge of old rock music. He’d just absorbed it. “I had sisters much older than I,” he said. He hoped she hadn’t switched her lie detector on. He was sure he couldn’t say “sisters” without setting off the liar alarm.
He needed to let her go. “I just called to warn you. Be alert. If you happen to find out anything that might shed light, will you call me?”
She said, “Sure,” and took his numbers. All in all, she didn’t sound grateful for the warning.
So after she’d hung up, he spoke for her: “Oh, and thanks a lot for probably saving my life, Steele.” He guessed he was feeling a little short on affirmation these days.