If Kelda James hadn't been wearing inch-and-a-half heels and the
toilet paper roll hadn't been empty, Rosa Alija would probably be
At about ten-twenty that morning Kelda had excused herself from her
fellow FBI agents and followed directions to the
restroom—down the long hall, go left, last door on the right.
The bathroom was a step up from what she expected to find, given
the tacky condition of the rest of the building. She was relieved
to see that the sink was reasonably clean and the toilet seat
wasn't stained with yellow coins of urine. The only problem was
that there was no toilet paper on the cardboard roll.
Kelda stepped back out into the hall to retrace her route and
retrieve her shoulder bag and its stash of tissues, but noticed a
closet marked "Utility" adjacent to the bathroom. The knob on the
door wasn't locked and she found herself staring into a space about
six feet square. A window was mounted high on the wall, dividing
the small room in half. A jumble of brooms and mops leaned against
a cracked porcelain sink on one side; the opposite side was stacked
with particleboard shelves piled high with what appeared to be a
lifetime supply of paper towels, soap, disinfectants, and toilet
paper. Kelda reached onto an upper shelf for a fresh roll of toilet
tissue and reflexively glanced over the sill and out the window as
she rotated back toward the door.
The window overlooked the alley behind the building. Across the
alley was the back of a single-story light-industrial building not
noticeably different from the one that Kelda and her FBI colleagues
had just raided.
Except for the hand.
Kelda was sure that for a split second she had glimpsed a hand in a
window of the building across the alley. In her mind she was
already considering it to have been a tiny hand, a child's
She approached the utility closet window; stood on her toes, and
peered again at the building across the alley. No hand. She raised
her fingers to the sill to hold herself up and examined the distant
window in detail. The bottom edge of the cloudy pane was streaked
with parallel vertical lines that could have been made by
Tiny fingers. Child's fingers.
"Oh my God," she said.
Fresh out of the FBI Academy, Special Agent Kelda James had been in
the Denver, Colorado field office for all of five weeks. Her
initial assignment was to a squad that investigated white-collar
crime, and that morning she had been ordered to accompany three
other agents—all male, all senior to her, all somewhere
between significantly and maximally apprehensive of her
skills—to serve a federal warrant and raid a company called
Account Assistants, Inc., on Delaware Street in Denver's Golden
Triangle neighborhood. The company did contract billing for medical
practices, and the raid was intended to collect evidence of
suspected Medicare fraud.
For an FBI white-collar crime squad, this was routine stuff.
Prior to entering the FBI Academy, Kelda had earned her credentials
as a certified public accountant and had spent a few years
investigating fraud for an international insurance company. Her
role in the raid of Account Assistants, Inc., was to cover the back
door as the raid started and, later, to use her forensic accounting
background to help make certain that the agents didn't fail to
retrieve any records that they might ultimately need to press their
case against the firm.
Most importantly, though, she knew that her primary responsibility
was to remember at all times that she was the new guy, or in FBI
parlance, "the fucking new guy" Her primary responsibility was not
to screw up.
Later in the day, after she and the other agents had finished
collecting the evidence and had transported it back to the Denver
Field Office, Kelda figured that she—the fucking new
guy—would be the one who would be assigned to spend the next
few weeks sitting at her Bureau desk examining the mind-numbing
details of the service and billing records, trying to use Account
Assistants, Inc.'s own numbers to prove the fraud case that had
spawned the warrant and the raid.
It's what she did. And she knew she did it well.
That was what she was contemplating when she saw the hand flash
across the window a second time. But as swiftly as it appeared in
the window, the little hand disappeared again.
A more experienced agent might have gone back to her squad,
reported what she'd seen, and asked one of her colleagues to
accompany her across the alley to investigate the fleeting hand. A
more experienced agent—one who wasn't a bookish young woman
with an accounting degree whose colleagues called her Clarice
behind her back—would have been less concerned about the
scorn she would suffer if she pulled a fellow agent—or two,
or three—away from important work to search the back of an
adjacent building because she thought that maybe she
had seen a child's hand in the bottom of a window.
Kelda could only imagine the relentless ridicule she would endure
from her fellow agents after word spread in the field office that
she had begged for assistance in checking out what would probably
turn out to be nothing more nefarious than an unlicensed day-care
Kelda moved out of the utility closet, closed the door, and took
three steps farther down the hall to a door that was marked "Exit."
An hour and a half earlier she'd stood in the alley on the other
side of this very door in case any of the principals of Account
Assistants, Inc., tried to flee out the back as the FBI team
announced the raid and the warrant was served by the agents who
entered the building through the door at the front.
She checked the inside of the exit door for an alarm: she couldn't
spot any electronic devices attached to the heavy door that would
announce that she had opened it. She stepped outside, propped the
door open with a softball-sized piece of concrete, and then jogged
across the alley to the window with the streaky glass and the
disappearing tiny hand.
Two days before, six-year-old Rosa Alija had vanished from the
playground of her elementary school near Thirty-second and Federal
on Denver's near west side. The other children on the playground
told police conflicting tales of a van or truck that was gray or
brown and one man who was white or two men who were black or two
men and a woman who were all kinds of different combinations of
races and colors who had waited for a child to chase a ball into
the field adjacent to the school and then, when Rosa Alija had been
that child, had scooped her up, covered her mouth, and carried her
away in the van or truck.
Some of the child witnesses reported that Rosa had kicked her legs
and cried. Others maintained she was already dead by the time she
got to the van.
No adult reported seeing a thing.
And no one had seen Rosa since. The girl's frantic parents, an
independent landscaper named Jose Alija and his receptionist wife,
Maria, waited in vain for a ransom demand. But neither the police
nor the local FBI office expected to hear from Rosa's abductors.
The Alijas weren't the type of family who were chosen for a
kidnapping for ransom.
Rosa Alija had been taken for some other purpose.
Denver mobilized in an unprecedented fashion to find the girl.
Hundreds of citizens—Hispanic, white, black, Native American,
Asian—searched the city for little Rosa. Posses of private
citizens scoured the banks of the South Platte River and Cherry
Creek. The huge expanse of rail yard between her school and Lower
Downtown was searched, and the interior of every last boxcar in the
yard was examined. Her picture was featured on the front page of
both daily papers, and the quest to find her dominated the local TV
and radio news.
Bloodhounds tracked her route away from the school. The dogs seemed
confident that her abductor had taken her down Speer Boulevard
after the kidnapping, but the hounds lost the scent near the spot
where Speer intersected with Interstate 25. The cops knew that once
Rosa's abductors had her on Denver's main freeway, they could have
taken her anywhere.
Anywhere. The Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, the Great Basin.
North to Wyoming, south to New Mexico. Anywhere.
Even into the back room of a light-industrial building in one of
Denver's transitional urban neighborhoods.
The bottom of the window in the building across the alley was level
with the top of Kelda's head. She listened for the sounds of
children playing, but all she heard was the sound of distant
traffic on Speer Boulevard; she heard nothing to convince her that
she'd stumbled onto a day-care facility. A moment's contemplation
failed to suggest any other good reason that a small child would be
scratching at the glass in a back room in a building in this
Kelda grabbed a discarded plastic milk crate from the alley and
carried it back toward the window to check and see what was inside
Before she had a chance to step onto the crate, she saw the hand
again. It was reaching, groping, the fingers extended against the
bottom edge of the pane, but they could only stay there for a
second or two. Kelda imagined that every time the girl lifted her
hand someone else was yanking it right back down.
Most of the doubt about what she had discovered evaporated from
Kelda's mind. Rosa Alija, she was hoping. It's Rosa
Alija. But even in her head, the thought was only a whisper. If
hope was the balloon, reality was the ballast.
What if it's not?
For the first time since Kelda had graduated from the
Academy, she withdrew her handgun from its holster with the clear
understanding that she might be about to fire it. The Sig Saur felt
almost weightless in her hand as she stepped up onto the crate. Her
confidence grew; Kelda's best days in training at Quantico were the
days that her Sig weighed about as much as a glove. She knew
instantly that this was going to be one of those days.
The filth on the glass and the dark interior of the room kept Kelda
from peering inside. For a split second she considered returning to
Account Assistants to collect her colleagues, but she was already
fearing what would happen if she left the little girl alone for
another minute. She decided that she would use her radio to summon
the other agents the moment she was absolutely certain that she had
indeed found the abducted child.
The building had a small loading dock that faced the alley. She
pulled herself onto the narrow cement shelf of the dock and tried
the big door. It was locked tight. She hopped back down and moved
to the side of the building. The long cinder-block wall was
interrupted by a solitary steel door that was secured by a hasp and
padlock. Around the front, two old newspapers still in their
delivery bags littered the sidewalk at the main entrance. A big
"For Lease" sign hung in the window and three or four flyers were
stuffed in the mail slot. Kelda put pressure on the handle of the
glass entrance door. It didn't give.
Whatever this place once was, it wasn't in business
She returned to the side door. The bolt on the lock was in place,
but the hasp seemed to be beginning to break free of whatever was
holding it to the cinder block. She searched the weeds behind her
and found a rusty length of angle iron, jammed it behind the hasp,
and began to pry the steel hasp from the wall.
After two minutes of constant pressure, the fasteners securing the
hasp gave way and the door creaked inward half an inch.
Kelda had made a hundred armed entries into buildings during her
training at Quantico. Maybe two hundred. She knew the drill. She
knew where to look, what to say, how to hold her weapon.
She also knew not to do it alone.
In one minute, she promised herself, she'd call for help. Right
after she was sure that Rosa Alija was safe and that her kidnapper
couldn't spirit her away to some new location before the cavalry
Once inside the door, Kelda turned left toward the back of the
building and stopped. Her gun was in her hand. It was not pointed
at the ceiling; it was pointed in front of her. Why? Because that's
what the FBI had taught her. Why? Because, as one instructor had
shouted at a classmate during a drill, "very few fucking UNSUBs are
going to be waiting on the ceiling."
She listened for any indication that the building was occupied. She
heard nothing, and the stale air she was breathing confirmed her
impression that the building was probably not being used.
She paced silently across the empty loading dock until she
confronted a closed door. The door, she figured, should lead to the
room with the window. With the same gentle squeeze she would use to
compress a trigger, she put pressure on the knob. It was
She thought she heard a whimper.
Kelda's heart was cleaving. She thinks he's coming back, that
why she's crying. Kelda swallowed, checked her breathing.
He could come back any second.
Her breathing grew faster, shallower. She realized there
was a possibility she hadn't considered: Maybe he's already in
there with her.
Kelda retreated across the loading area and backed into
the hallway. She keyed her handheld radio. She'd already decided
not to communicate any doubt about her discovery: she'd wasted too
much time—she couldn't afford to give the other agents a
reason to delay.
"Gary?" Gary Cross was the supervising agent of her squad. He was a
fifty-year-old black man who seemed sincerely interested in helping
her adjust to the curious culture of the FBI. He also seemed
sincerely interested in making certain that no one else recognized
how helpful he was being to her.
"Gary?'' she repeated.
"Yeah? Where the hell are you? Get back here. We need you to look
In a throaty whisper she said. "I've just stumbled on Rosa Alija.
You know, the little girl who was kidnapped? I'm in the building
directly across the back alley from you. The door on the west side
is open. The girl's in a room that faces the alley. I need backup.
"What? You found Rosa Alija?''
His reply had been too loud. Cursing silently, Kelda fumbled with
the volume on the radio. "Gary, please confirm. I have a feeling
I'm not alone here."
She actually heard a clatter of footsteps before she heard him say
"We're on our way."
The door that led from the loading area to the adjacent room opened
slowly. Kelda could hear it squeak. She couldn't see the doorway
though, from where she was standing; she had melded herself against
the cheap walnut paneling that lined the hallway.
A male voice called out, "Who is it? Who's there?" He was breathing
loudly through his mouth. She listened to his footfalls and knew
that the man had taken two steps before he repeated, "Who is it? Is
She tried to analyze the accent. What is it? A little bit of
East Texas? Or is that more Louisiana?
The man took another step. One more, she figured, and
he'd be able to see her where she was standing in the hall.
Kelda turned to face where he'd be after his next step, slid her
left foot forward into an ideal shooting stance, and said, crisply,
"Federal agent! Get down! Drop your weapon!" Before the last words
had passed her lips, a gunshot pierced the seam of the paneling
across the hall from her. The hole in the wood was at chest height.
After a half-a-heartbeat delay, two more shots followed. One was
higher, the other was lower, inches from her waist. The shooter was
covering his bases, bracketing his shots like a photographer unsure
of the light.
She heard a shuffled step; she interpreted the noise to mean that
he'd moved away from her, not toward her.
Intuitively, she was sure that he was retreating now; intent on
barricading himself in the room with little Rosa. Kelda knew she
couldn't permit that. The situation she'd walked into would be
exponentially more difficult if the UNSUB could use the little girl
as a hostage.
Staying low she sprang forward, dove, and rolled across the loading
dock, finally coming to rest in a prone position eight feet away
from where she'd been hiding in the hall. As she moved she heard
more shots—two, three, four. She wasn't sure exactly how
many. She did feel confident that none of them had entered her
Rolling to a stop, Kelda jammed her elbows against the floor, the
9mm poised and ready. Within a fraction of a second she fixed the
man's torso in her sight and in rapid succession fired three times
into the black and white target that she imagined was pinned to the
center of his chest.
Each impact caused him to jerk a little, as though he'd hiccupped.
He didn't drop his gun right away. She released a fourth round and
kept light pressure on the trigger until he fell. It took every bit
of discipline she'd acquired in her training to refrain from
emptying her clip into him.
The room, she thought, smelled like the range at Quantico.
It was as comforting as the aroma of a lover's sweat.
Two or three seconds passed. Through the haze of what she had just
done she saw the silhouettes of two of her colleagues as they
entered the building through the side door. She held up her left
hand to them to tell them to wait where they were. "I'm okay,
Gary," she called. "The UNSUB is down. Let me go in and get the
girl." The reverberation of the gunshots still echoed in her head,
so she couldn't hear her own words as she spoke, and wondered if
she'd said them loudly enough for Gary to hear her.
Kelda stood and stepped over to the man she'd shot, keeping the Sig
pointed at his head until she was able to kick his weapon farther
away from his hand. The handgun the man had shot at her was a
monstrous .45; she shuddered at the thought of being hit by one of
the gun's slugs.
The UNSUB on the floor was slight. He wore new Adidas, a clean pair
of jeans, and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his
elbows. His shirt was untucked and his belt was undone.
The man had fallen on his side, facing away from her, and she
couldn't detect any sign that he was still breathing. His rimless
eyeglasses sat cockeyed on his head. She didn't see much blood,
just three dark circles on the back of his shirt. She wondered if
she'd somehow lost the fourth round that she'd fired, though she
couldn't imagine how that could have happened.
Her Sig at ready, she crouched beside him and checked his
Standing erect over him, she said, "Damn you. Don't die, asshole.
Don't you dare die."
In order to control an impulse to kick him in the face,
she stepped back away from the man. Then she inhaled twice to quiet
the echo of the exact same impulse. In her peripheral vision she
saw Gary move into the room like a bishop striking from the corner
of a chessboard.
"Get the girl,'' he said. His voice competed unsuccessfully with
the echoes of the gunshot; he sounded as though he was trying to
get her attention across a crowded bar. But she knew what he had
Three quick steps forward took her into the room with the window
that faced the alley.
Rosa was kneeling sideways on a mattress, wearing only a pink
T-shirt with a filthy picture of Big Bird on it. The little girl's
face was wound with duct tape. One of her skinny arms was manacled
to a chain that was bolted to a D-ring that was anchored to the
She was weeping.
"Hi, baby," Kelda said. "I'm here to take you home."
Kelda was weeping, too.
I can just walk out that door? That's what you're saying?"
The warden held back a smile and said, "You can stay here if you'd
like. But if you do, I'll have to start charging you room and
board. I can pretty much guarantee you won't like the rates."
The two men were standing in the sterile public lobby of the
Colorado State Penitentiary. The spacious front room of the modern
prison was all concrete and light. Some tile. It only hinted at
what was inside—"inside" meaning the other side of the
A dozen steps away, near the guards who acted as the
gatekeepers/receptionists for the public, one of the warden's
assistants leaned against the wall.
From where the warden stood near the front doors, the tall,
electrified chain-link fences were visible through the glass, and
above them coiled rows of concertina sparkled with the earliest
indication of a summer dawn. Beyond the fences, miles of high
prairie loomed. Beyond that, the Rocky Mountains hovered ominously.
Tom Clone's mind wasn't on the far horizon yet. He found himself
examining the details of the room. He was uncomfortable with its
unfamiliarity, and with its spaciousness. He said, "How do I get
somewhere? I mean somewhere else besides here
"Your lawyer's sending someone to get you. I would guess they
should be here anytime now."
"So that's it?" Clone asked the warden. He fingered the collar of
his new knit shirt with his left hand and touched the money in his
pants pocket with the fingers of his right. "After thirteen years
here, I sign some papers, get a hundred bucks and some clothes from
Kmart, and then I'm . . . gone? That's it?"
"You want a brass band maybe? Some dancing girls? With a little
more notice, maybe . . ."
"That's not what I mean."
"Most guys don't get the ride from their lawyer, Tom. All they get
is a cold seat in a big bus to Pueblo or Denver." Usually get
themselves a round-trip ticket, too, the warden thought, but he
didn't say it. He was pondering the question of whether—no,
when—he'd be welcoming Tom Clone back again.
"Most guys who leave here aren't innocent, Warden."
The warden shrugged. "You ask them, they'll tell you they are.
Don't ask them, most of them will tell you they are anyway."
"But most guys who walk out that door don't have DNA tests on the
murder weapon to back up their contention."
The warden considered his reply before he said, "I suppose they
don't, Tom. I suppose they don't."
The inmate's sharp eyes read the time on the warden's Timex.
"Why is this happening at five o'clock in the morning? Why not
during the day?"
Completely deadpan, the warden said, "What? You wanted to sleep in?
Damn, I hate it when the guests don't make their requests clear. We
try so hard to please." He made a compassionate face. "Other than
this one early wake-up call, you weren't disappointed with anything
else during your stay, were you?"
"It's a serious question, Warden. I've never been released from
prison before, but I'd be surprised to learn that it usually
involves a personal visit with the warden and an opportunity to
watch the sun rise."
"Well, if it's a serious question, then here's a serious answer.
Once I actually received the order from the judge in Park County
last night, I knew you were going elsewhere. Getting you out of
here at dawn was my idea. Why? Because I don't want to give the
press a chance to get themselves organized for your release, which
they still think is scheduled for sometime this afternoon. As far
as I'm concerned you can have your dog-and-pony show with the ACLU
and the Innocence Project someplace else besides in my
Tom didn't expect the honesty. He lifted his eyebrows
"As a general rule," the warden continued, "I'm not a big fan of
commotion. You may have noticed over the years that we don't hold
too many unnecessary group functions around here."
Tom Clone's eyes swept the big room again before they settled back
on the warden. There was a time when Clone might have appreciated
the sardonic nature of the man. But thirteen years living alone in
a concrete room on death row had dulled his sense of irony. Anyway,
the warden was a stranger to him, and Tom wasn't sure what to make
of him. He'd noticed that the entire time they'd been talking the
big man's tongue was busy in his mouth, as though maybe he had a
poppy seed stuck someplace he'd rather not have one, and he'd
really like to have a toothpick.
The warden looked away for a second or two before he returned his
gaze to Clone. "Tom? You don't mind that I call you Tom, do you?
Good. Listen, if you're waiting for an apology from me—and
I'm beginning to suspect that you are—don't waste your
energy. You won't get one. The courts told me to lock you up, and I
did that. And now the courts have told me to let you go, so I'm
doing that. I make it a practice not to apologize for doing my
Tom said, "How'd you know that's what I was thinking?"
"It's what I'd be thinking if I was standing in your boots." Both
men looked down. "Or your cheap sneakers, as the case may
Tom Clone laughed. He heard the noise as though it had come from
someone else. He thought, That was my first laughter as a free man,
and said, "So what else might I be thinking?"
"Scared thoughts. Unless you're a fool, if you're not scared
already, you'll be scared soon. Something tells me you're not a
fool. You'll be scared soon. You can bet on it."
"I've been watching my back for thirteen years, Warden. Fear is
nothing new for me."
"Not that kind of scared. Though that kind won't go away for a
while, either. I'm talking scared that life's passed you by.
Thirteen years is a long time to be institutionalized. Back then,
you still had a life ahead of you; you were a hotshot kid who was
about to become a doctor. Now you're an old-timer. You're used to
this place. To us, to our ways. To being a small man in a small
The warden pointed out the door. "You don't know shit about what's
outside that door anymore, and people on the outside are going to
hear where you've been all this time and they're going to treat you
like a con. That's scary to you already, or it damn well should
The words made him nervous, but Tom shook his head stubbornly. "I'm
leaving here an innocent man. It's going to be different for me out
there than it is for other people who walk out that door."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Some people may believe you're innocent, but
most won't. Sorry, but that's just the way it is. Look, that
there's your ride, I bet." He pointed at a green Buick sedan that
was pulling into the otherwise empty visitors' lot half a football
field away. "Good luck, son. You'll need it more than you know." He
pushed the door open. "Now grab your duffel and get out of here
before somebody up in Park County comes to their senses."
Tom hesitated as though he didn't trust what the man had said.
Finally, he leaned down, picked up the blue canvas bag that was
filled with his few personal belongings, and began to walk away. As
Tom Clone cleared the front door and took his first steps outside
as a free man, the warden's assistant sauntered forward and stood
beside his boss. "How about twenty bucks?"
The warden replied, "I said I'll do up to fifty. But it's your
call, Hank. If I were you, I'd save my money."
"Twenty's fine, Warden."
The concrete path that led through the gate in the fence ran about
fifty yards to the parking lot. Almost exactly halfway down the
path, Tom Clone tossed his duffel far ahead of him and immediately
sprang forward. He took a little hop, picked up some speed, and
launched himself into a cartwheel. When he completed the
cartwheel—which he accomplished with some skill—he
leaned backward and then, with an additional little push of his
strong legs and a fluid thrust of his arms, he finished with a
nicely executed back flip.
He planted the landing well. Only one little extraneous hop.
The warden held out his hand; the assistant warden carpeted his
boss's palm with a twenty-dollar bill. "How did you know he'd do
"For the last month, since the rumors started about him getting
out, that's how he's been spending his hour a week in the yard.
Cartwheels and back flips. Cartwheels and back flips. Over and over
again. I figured we were going to have a little recital as he
The assistant shook his head and said, "Damn. I think these guys
can't surprise me anymore and then . . ." He let the morning breeze
carry the thought across the high prairie.
Eyes still on Tom Clone, the warden said, "I can't tell you how
glad I am that there weren't any news cameras here to see him do
that. I would have had to watch his gymnastics twenty more times on
the news. There would have been a thousand emails and everybody
including the governor would have been calling wondering how we
could have allowed him to do that."
"That's why we were up at four o'clock in the morning? So the press
wouldn't see him play Olga Korbut?"
"Nadia Comaneci. But yeah, that's the only damn reason."
Tom Clone finished his back flip and pumped both fists into the
air. Before he could shriek in exaltation, he heard a woman's voice
"Tom Clone? Mr. Clone?"
Even before he turned toward the sound, he was drinking in the
novelty of the melody of a female voice that didn't belong to a
guard. He reflexively inhaled, hoping the woman was wearing
perfume. The morning breeze carried her scent. He wasn't
The woman he faced was lovely. She was silhouetted against the
mountains but he could tell that her dark hair was tied back behind
her head and that her face was adorned with little makeup. She wore
white jeans and had on a claret-colored leather jacket that was
zipped up to her throat.
He inhaled her perfume again.
"Mr. Clone?" she said once more.
He nodded and thrust out his hand. She didn't touch it. She kept
her free hand by her side, while the other stayed atop the leather
bag that hung from her shoulder.
Finally, he spoke. He said, "Yes, I'm Tom Clone."
"Hello," the woman said. "I'm Special Agent Kelda James of the FBI.
Your attorney asked me to come to get you this morning. I'm your
ride out of here. Welcome back to freedom."
Upon hearing her name, his impulse was to rush in and hug her, but
he sensed her reticence and held himself back. He'd had a lot of
recent practice with restraint. "Kelda James. My God, you're the
one who . . . who—"
"Yes," she said. "I am that one."
He stepped forward and hugged her. Despite her stiffness at the
embrace, the contour of a female body against his was almost
overwhelming to him.
"Thank you," he said into her hair. "Thank you, thank you."
"Please let go of me, Mr. Clone. Please."
He did, and took a step back from her as well. Her voice carried
that kind of authority.
"Those are all your things?" she asked.
"Yes," he said. "I donated everything else to Goodwill."
The lines of her mouth softened into the slightest grin. "Let's go,
then," she said.
Martha Reese was red-eyed and her lime green apron was stained with
cherry juice and almost perfectly parallel drools of hei own vomit.
She was shaking so badly that water was sloshing out of the cup she
tried to hold in her hands. The cup was decorated with pictures of
the Car Guys from NPR. The guys were laughing.
"I came over here for a cup of sugar, I swear, I know it sounds
like a cliché but it's true. I bought a bucket of sour
cherries this morning from a roadside stand out on the highway--you
know the one by the turnoff to town?--and I was busy making pies
and I totally misjudged how much sugar I'd need, and I just flat
ran out. It happens, it does even to experienced bakers.
"I knew the Greens were visiting their kids in California, but the
lights were on at their place and the house sitter's car was out
front so I walked down the road to try to borrow some sugar. Nancy
doesn't bake, but I'm sure she has sugar. I mean everybody has
sugar. Mayb not diabetics, I suppose, but that's not the Greens.
They're not diabetics. I'm telling the truth. I promise."
A young sheriff's deputy sat across from her on a hard teak chai on
the front porch of the Greens' house. It didn't even cross the
young cop's mind that Mrs. Reese wasn't telling the truth about the
cup of sugar and the Greens not being diabetics.
Only a couple of hundred yards or so separated the cabin that
Martha Reese shared with her husband--"It's really a house. I don't
know why everybody calls them cabins"--and the Greens' home. The
evergreen forest was sparse on the county road between the homes,
and a dry spring had left the lane especially dusty. Summer hadn't
even officially arrived, yet Park County was already a tinderbox.
The neighbors were talking about what they could do to make sure
that illegal campers or kids with fireworks didn't set the whole
mountainside ablaze by the Fourth of July.
Martha was a few pounds overweight--"Okay, maybe twenty" and
regretted not driving up the hill for the sugar. As she climbed up
to the Greens' place she was struggling to keep her breathing even
and was more than a little embarrassed about the sweat that was
dotting her upper lip and dripping in a rivulet down her spine. The
sun had sunk behind the Divide but the early evening temperature
was still in the seventies. "Some people might not consider that
warm, but I do. For us up here, that's a little warm for the
She and Nancy Green weren't close--"They're more modern people than
us. But we get along, you know?" The Greens and the Reeses were
good mountain neighbors. They shared plowing expenses in the winter
and pooled their resources to get deadwood cleared from the land
around their homes in the summer. Nancy Green was comfortable
stopping by to borrow Italian parsley--"I probably shouldn't admit
this, but I didn't even know what it was. Why can't the Italians
just use regular parsley?"--and Martha was comfortable going up the
hill for sugar when she ran out while baking sour cherry
Martha dreaded the final steep climb from the road up the driveway
to the Greens' house. At the base of the driveway she actually
considered going all the way back to her house and getting her car.
But she didn't.
The Greens didn't have a regular doorbell; they had one of those
speakerphone systems attached to their telephone. The apparatus
made Martha uncomfortable. She was never quite sure what to do--"Am
I supposed to lean over and speak into the little box or can they
hear me if I speak regular?" She just didn't know. Nor did she
understand why someone would want something like that living up in
the mountains. It wasn't as though anybody but neighbors ever
knocked on anybody's doors up in Park County. "You know as well as
I do that we don't get too many Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses
walking around up here trying to get you to read their funny books.
It just doesn't happen. I suppose we aren't worth the effort, or
Martha hit the button on the speakerphone but no one answered. She
hit it one more time, but again, no reply She wondered, of course,
if maybe she was operating the thing incorrectly, so she went ahead
and knocked, using the heavy brass knocker that said "The Greens"
in raised letters that looked a little Gothic. After waiting a few
minutes for a reply, she decided to check out behind the house. The
Greens had a spa--"We call them hot tubs around here. But Nancy
calls theirs a 'spa.' Who can figure, right?"--on the big deck
behind their house, and Martha wondered if the house sitter might
be using it, though lolling around in a swirling pool of hot water
was about the last thing that Martha could have imagined doing
right then. Martha had met the house sitter, a nice enough girl
named Iv a couple of times but didn't know whether she was a
hot-tub-on-a-blistering-summer-evening type of person.
Martha followed the path on the south side of the house--"I've been
here before and that's the best way to get to the back"--and
climbed the cedar stairs to the big deck. She paused at the top of
the stairs and admired the view to the east--"It's a much nicer
view than ours. You wouldn't think a couple of hundred yards would
make such a difference, but it does. We see mostly treetops from
our cabin, but the Greens have a view with a capital V."
The spa wasn't being used, though. Without a breeze to mask the
sound, Martha could tell that the water wasn't even gurgling
beneath the fancy gazebo-type thing on the far corner of the deck.
She peered through the wall of windows that led outside from the
back of the house.
"I knew right away something was wrong. Why? Simple. The water was
running in the kitchen sink. I could see it from the window. It was
just running right down the drain. Nobody was standing there using
it; it was just running. The sliding glass door was open, so
Martha kicked her favorite Merrell clogs off her feet--"Nancy has a
thing about shoes in her house, like she is part Japanese or
something. Not that I have anything against the Japanese, believe
me, I don't"--and hustled over to the sink to shut off the
"I didn't see Ivy at first; my eyes were on the sink. Yours would
have been, too. They would have.The water was just running and
running. It gets your attention, something like that does."
What happened on the way from the back door to the sink was that
Martha stepped in Ivy's blood.
"It was still just the slightest bit warm and it just squished
right up through my toes. I didn't know it was blood, of course. If
I'd known that. . ." She didn't finish the thought. "I thought
something warm was spilled on the floor, like hot chocolate or soup
or something like that. I did think soup for some reason, I don't
know why, but I kept going for the sink. I really wanted to turn
off that running water. None of us have enough faith in our wells
that we'll waste water like that, especially when it's been so dry
out like it has been this spring. Every time one of us has to drill
a new well, we have to drill deeper than the last one did. The well
we dug summer before last had to be drilled 262 feet deep. I don't
have to tell you how much that cost us, do I? I didn't think
The Greens' sink was on the other side of their kitchen island--"We
don't have an island in our house. Just a sink built into the
counter below the kitchen window. The regular way, you know."
Martha shut off the water and grabbed a big handful of paper towels
to wipe up the hot chocolate or soup or whatever it was that Ivy
had spilled on the floor. She was guessing that Ivy must have been
taking a shower or something. "That's when I saw the
footprints-turned out they were my own footprints-across the
kitchen tile. I realized right then and there that I'd stepped in
blood. I don't know of one single kind of soup that would leave
footprints that color. Maybe beet soup. But beets and I don't get
along, if you know what I mean. Who makes beet soup, anyway?
Russians do, right?"
Martha reported that when she recognized exactly what it was that
she had stepped in, she tried to scream but couldn't get the sound
to escape her throat. She thought about going for the phone to call
911. She thought about running back out the door. Then she looked
up and saw Ivy and she fell backward against the island. "That's
when I knocked that big bowl on the floor. It's where Nancy kept
her fresh fruit. In that bowl. That's why there are plums all over
the floor. I did that. The plums, I mean. I'm so sorry."
She had to make herself look at Ivy again. "She was sitting in the
corner behind the kitchen table on one of those big chrome chairs
that Nancy has in her breakfast nook. Her head was hanging off to
the side because somebody had cut right through her neck all the
way to the bone. I could see the bone."
Martha was surprised that she didn't faint. "I should have fainted,
don't you think? Seeing something like that? I'll probably have
nightmares for the rest of my life. The whole rest of my
The young deputy who had been first to arrive at the Greens' house
in response to Martha's frantic call to 911 just let her talk and
talk. He didn't know when the detectives would arrive to take over,
but he wasn't at all eager to go back inside the house anyway. He'd
already seen all he wanted to see. He held his hat in his hand and
he nodded almost the whole time that the woman spoke.
Martha sipped from the water she held in her hands and asked, "Is
it all right if I clean between my toes, Officer? Or is that
A girlfriend of Ivy Campbell's who was in nursing school at the
medical center had told her about the deal: twenty dollars to sit
through an interview with a medical student who was practicing
basic interviewing skills during his senior psychiatry rotation.
She'd spend sixty to ninety minutes answering questions about her
life-that was it. Math wasn't her strong suit, but Ivy figured she
would be making at least thirteen or fourteen dollars an hour, way
more than the seven-thirty she was making at the new mall in Cherry
Creek. The medical school interview would be videotaped, but the
tape would be destroyed at the end of the semester. Her
confidentiality, she was promised, was assured.
For Ivy, twenty bucks meant a night out drinking with her
girlfriends or a concert ticket at Red Rocks or, if she went early
enough in the season, a lift ticket at Copper or Winter Park. She
could spare a couple of hours for that.
She arrived at the Health Sciences Center at Ninth and Colorado in
Denver a few minutes early for her two o'clock appointment and
found her way to a sterile classroom on the third floor of a brick
building that didn't seem anywhere near as close to the library as
she'd been told.
A woman greeted her in the classroom, checked her in, and explained
that her interviewer hadn't arrived quite yet.
Ivy smiled, pointed to the clock on the wall above the blackboard,
and said, "In two minutes the meter starts running, right?"
The woman who had checked her in was a skinny black woman in a
horizontally striped dress and black-framed glasses. She shook her
head disdainfully. "These med students, let me tell you, I think
one of the first things they learn in medical school is how to keep
people waiting for them. They go through life like everybody's
sitting reading an old People magazine with nothing better to do
than wait for them to show up."
Ivy liked the woman immediately. She smiled again. "I don't mind
the waiting as long as I'm being paid. You're on the clock, too, I
bet. Hi, I'm Ivy" she said.
"Bertha." She bowed about thirty degrees from the waist. "I'm a
department secretary. Trust me, this isn't my normal gig. I'm
filling in for a
friend who talked an ob-gyn resident into a free ultrasound of her
"Cool. What department do you work in?"
Ivy lifted her eyebrows.
Bertha said, "Yeah. Exactly. Oooh, I hear footsteps. It may be our
young doctor, only a few minutes late."
The young "doctor"--white lab coat and all--walked right past the
open door of the classroom before he doubled back, poked his head
inside the door, and said, "Is this where I'm supposed to
Ivy replied. "Cosmically speaking, the answer to that question, I
think, is always yes."
Bertha almost choked as she swallowed her laughter. She covered
herself by looking down at her list. She asked, "You Clone?"
One hand went to the stethoscope that was hanging around his neck.
He didn't seem to know how to respond. Ivy feared for a moment that
he was going to need to check his white plastic nametag before he
answered Bertha's question. Instead, he nodded.
Bertha said, "Good. This is Ivy Campbell. She's your interview. Ivy
Campbell, this is Thomas Clone. He's your senior medical student."
Ivy noted that Bertha emphasized the word "senior."
Bertha faced Thomas Clone. "A/V promises me the camera's all ready
to go. Just hit 'record' when you're ready to start the interview.
I'll be back in about an hour to get the tape. Any
Ivy said, "You promise you'll send me a check?"
Bertha shook the paperwork in her hand. "We will, Ivy, you have my
word. You call me yourself if there are any problems. Anything
else? Dr. Clone? No? Fine then. You two be good, now. You
Ivy said, "Later, Bertha."
"You too, girl."
Clone's hand flew to his hip. "That's my pager. I have to get
that." His eyes flitted around the room. "There's no phone in
Ivy walked over to the video camera, hit the "record" button, and
held her watch up to the lens for about five seconds. She said, "Do
whatever you would like, Dr. Clone. As of now, we're on the clock."
She sat on the chair that she guessed was intended for her and
pulled a copy of Entertainment Weekly from her backpack. "I'll be
here whenever you're ready for me."
Three or four minutes later Tom Clone rushed back into the
classroom. He stopped just inside the door, composed himself, which
included stuffing his stethoscope into a pocket of the lab coat,
and walked over to Ivy "Hello," he said. "I'm Dr. Clone. How do you
do?" He offered her his hand.
"Hi, I'm Ivy Campbell." She didn't release his hand. After about
ten seconds he realized that he was going to have to yank it away
from her. He did and sat down on a chair five feet away.
"We're, uh, just going to talk a little bit about your life here,
uh, today, Ms. Campbell."
Tom Clone was handsome enough, Ivy thought, in a
my-God-he's-too-young-to-be-a-doctor kind of way. Nice shoulders.
Good hair. Really, really nice eyes. "You can call me
"Thank you, Ivy" He still hadn't actually looked at her for more
than a few seconds.
"This is an unusual situation, isn't it?" she asked.
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"Usually when I go to the doctor-when anyone goes to the doctor,
probably--I'm kind of nervous, certainly more nervous than the
doctor. But today, you're more nervous. Way more nervous. That's
"Um, yes, well. That may, um, be true." He flicked a glance her
way. "Today, anyway. Now, would you like to tell me something about
"Do you think I'm pretty?" She knew she wasn't giving him a chance.
Nor did she intend to.
The trouble was, Tom didn't just think Ivy was pretty; Tom Clone
thought she was gorgeous. Her fine hair was such a glistening
mahogany color that it seemed to be radiating. Her eyes were so
bright and deep, he felt as though he were looking into them the
way he'd examine tropical fish in an aquarium. Her legs were so
long-he didn't finish the thought. "Yes, urn, well-why don't you
tell me about yourself?"
"Do you like hamburgers and beer?" Ivy asked.
"Ever been to the Cherry Cricket? It's in Cherry Creek, behind
Sears? They have great
burgers. Awesome, actually. Almost perfect burgers."
"Urn. I, uh…”
"Are you allowed to ask me out to dinner? Like on a date? Even
though we've done this interview thing?"
"I suppose. I'm--"
"Good. I was hoping you could. How about the Cherry Cricket this
weekend? Saturday? Is nine okay?"
"Urn, yes. Yes, nine's okay. I'm not . . . I'm not really sure it's
something I should do but, yes, nine's okay."
"And then maybe we'll do a movie? But I pick, okay? I have a thing
about movies. I get nervous."
"Sure. A movie. Yes."
"Great. My address is on the sheet that Bertha has. Pick me up. And
don't be late, Doctor."
He looked puzzled.
"Bertha's the secretary who was here. You know, the black woman?"
Ivy stood up and walked over to the video camera. She rewound the
tape. "We're going to start all over, now, Dr. Clone, If you want
to go back out the door and pretend you're just walking in again to
start the interview, that would probably look best to your
teachers. Don't you think?"
After he'd gone out the door and walked back into the room and
repeated his introduction for the camera, she replied, "Hello, Dr.
Clone, it's very nice to meet you."
Tom Clone continued, "We're going to spend a little while talking
about your life here today, Ms. Campbell. Why don't you tell me
So she did, figuring that it would save them both some time on
their first date.
The sign on the bricks beside the front door of our offices in the
old Victorian on Walnut Street in downtown Boulder is simple. On
top it reads "Alan Gregory, Ph.D." On the bottom it reads "Diane
Estevez, Ph.D." Diane and I had toyed with the idea of putting
"Clinical Psychology" on a third line below our names, but had
gotten so caught up in an alpha dog argument about whose name
should be on top that we neglected to resolve the question of
whether we should list our profession on the sign.
The sign maker had resolved it for us. The result was that to
someone strolling by on the street, our offices could easily be
mistaken for the habitat of a couple of petroleum geologists.
A coin toss—actually, since this was Diane I was dealing
with, it was best two out of three—had placed my name on top
of the sign. It was a contest she'd made sure I'd wished I'd lost
My four o'clock patient that summer afternoon was a woman whom I'd
been treating for much too long who thought that there was actually
a correct way to load a dishwasher. Not a preferred way to load a
dishwasher, but a correct way. My private name for her was "the
Kitchen Aid Lady." The details of her argument, I admit, had numbed
me right from the moment she'd first revealed them many, many
sessions before, but one of her more passionate protests had to do
with an arcane concept she called silverware nesting.
We revisited the concept at regular intervals. I can't tell you how
much I looked forward to it each time.
My patient adamantly believed that anyone who didn't load the
dishwasher the correct way was ill informed or, more likely an
idiot. The idiot in question during our session that day was, of
course, the Kitchen Aid Lady's husband. But she did not consider
her spouse to be mentally challenged; in fact she considered his
intellectual acumen one of his more attractive features. His
failure to load the dishwasher correctly was therefore—no
surprise here—an unmistakable sign that he didn't really love
His position, I gleaned from her newly refined comments that
afternoon, was that there were many ways to load a dishwasher and
that reasonable people could disagree on which method was best. He
also seemed intent on not compromising on the issue, refusing to
allow the measure of his love to be determined by what he
considered to be a spurious dishwasher-loading assay.
My patient wrapped her soliloquy that hot summer afternoon by
asking me to cast my lot on the dishwasher-loading question. She
didn't exactly ask; what she did was insist that I validate her
position. Was I proponent of her method—the correct one that
took into account such issues as silverware nesting? Or was I a
proponent of some radical or haphazard alternative
method—like her idiot spouse?
Dodging the question adroitly—I admit that I hadn't paid
enough attention during any of her previous recitations of the
specifics of dishwasher-loading etiquette to make a rational choice
between the various methodologies—I suggested that it
appeared that she was, right then and there, doing the same thing
with me that she was doing with her husband.
"What?" she asked. "What on earth are you talking about?" She was
stupefied. She couldn't see the point I was making.
I repeated my gentle confrontation. That worked sometimes.
Not this time. She still didn't get it.
I spelled it out for her. "It seems to me that you've decided to
equate your husband's love for you with his willingness to load the
dishwasher according to your desires. Now, apparently, you've
decided to equate my capacity to be a helpful psychotherapist with
my position on the same question."
When I finished my interpretation I sat back and awaited the reward
of her Aha, you are so brilliant.
It didn't come. Instead, she made a short guttural sound
deep in her throat and appraised me as though I just peed on the
carpet. Finally she asked, ''Are you saying that if you load the
dishwasher right that I'll think you love me?"
Despite my commitment to helping my patient with her problems, at
that moment I couldn't help but empathize with her idiot
I made a few notes, returned a couple of phone
calls—including one to schedule an initial appointment the
next day for a new patient, and packed up to leave. My quasi
partner in my clinical psychology practice, Diane Estevez, walked
out to her car a few moments after I walked out to mine. Diane and
I had been friends and colleagues for enough years that I no longer
remembered precisely how many years it had been. That was a very
Although our clinical practices were separate entities, she and I
co-owned the little Victorian house on Walnut Street in downtown
Boulder that housed both of our offices and that of our tenant, a
gnomic man of Pakistani ancestry who for the past fifteen months or
so had used the upstairs attic/alcove for a business that had
something to do with security on the Internet. For the first
fortnight or so of his tenancy, Diane and I had both tried to
understand his business strategy, but his broken English and our
intact technological ignorance combined to make it clear we weren't
ever going to get it.
The early summer heat was stifling. A big tacky thermometer
advertising a defunct brand of cigarettes—"Lucky Strike Means
Fine Tobacco"—was nailed up on the ramshackle garage at the
rear of the property, a structure that by all rights should have
already been blown over by any number of recent winter Chinook
windstorms. I walked halfway over to the garage—it was as
close as I liked to get to the thing and eyed the temperature. The
gauge maintained that the air that was currently enveloping me was
ninety-six degrees. And that was in the shade.
Diane opened the door to her Saab and stood outside to allow the
thermal waves to escape from her leather seats. I did the same with
my car, although my seats were cloth. "Hey," she said. "Haven't
seen you much lately."
"Yeah, I've missed you," I replied. "My hours have been weird.
Lauren and I have been juggling our schedules to try to spend more
time with the baby. You and Raoul doing okay?"
"Yeah, yeah. He's traveling a lot for his new business. But we're
fine. Grace is good?"
"Terrific. She's getting big. She's walking, talking—"
"Peeing, pooping." Diane's vision of parenthood had never been
quite the same as mine. The bottom line was that she focused more
on diapers than I did.
"That, too," I said. I threw my canvas briefcase into the car.
"Diane, does the work get to you sometimes?"
"Therapy?" That work?"
She flicked a glance at her watch, then spent a moment examining my
face. She ordered, "Take off your sunglasses." I raised them
obediently to my forehead and held them there. She said, "Just what
I thought. You have time for a drink?"
I looked at my watch and considered her offer for a second or two
while I wondered what she had seen in my eyes. "Yeah, that would be
great. Let me call Viv and tell her I'll be a while."
"She's your nanny, right? I don't want to be interfering with a
tryst with some mistress."
"Lauren and I consider Viv our goddess. But to outsiders, 'nanny'
seems to be less controversial."
"You want to get something to eat? I've been fantasizing all day
about eating my entire next meal at Emiliana and you can save me
from myself. What do you say we walk over to Triana? Although it's
not going to be as satisfying as the six-course dessert indulgence
at Emiliana, I think I could go for some tapas and sherry as a
consolation prize." She fanned herself. "Anyway, it's too hot for a
The full name of Emiliana was Emilana Dessert House and Restaurant.
My wife, Lauren, liked to say that they put last things first,
right where they belong. To Diane, I said, "You like sherry?"
"No. I like beer. But it sounds better to say tapas and sherry.
Don't you think it sounds better?"
"Is that what Raoul says?" Diane's husband's family was from
somewhere close to Barcelona.
"No, he says snacks and beer. But I know he does it just to annoy
Triana was a couple of doors west of the Downtown Boulder Mall.
Only a few years old, the restaurant consumed the century-old space
of what for years had been Boulder's iconic used-book store, Stage
The bar was almost full when Diana and I arrived. She found a
couple of seats at a tiny table that was in the precise location
where in the building's Stage House days I'd once discovered a
treasure trove of nineteenth-century political cartoons. Diane
waved across the room at a waitress who couldn't have been old
enough to serve us. She couldn't have been. To me, Diane said, "I
think it's too hot for sherry, so I'm going to get a beer."
She said it with a straight face. I was impressed. "Make it
She'd grabbed the little bar menu from the table. "Do you mind if I
order the tapas?"
"'Would it make any difference if I minded? Go ahead and
order enough for both of us. And remember I don't like
'"I forgot. With you it's olive oil, si, olives, no.
I don't get it. What do you have against olives?"
"Do you really want to go there?"
"Probably not. So, what, are you burned out, Alan? Or are you just
a precocious marcher in the midlife crisis parade?"
I'd had enough practice conversing with Diane over the years that I
could usually follow the uneven terrain of the progression of her
thinking without tripping over my feet. "Maybe. I don't know I
hadn't been thinking about it that way, but, shoot, it's a
possibility." I'd never considered myself one of those people who
was vulnerable to professional burnout, but I spent a few minutes
recounting the story of my four o'clock appointment and the
dishwasher-loading dilemma as a way of trying to elucidate for
Diane whatever it was that I was vulnerable to.
"Raoul would agree with your patient. Sometimes I catch him
rearranging the dirty dishes after I load the dishwasher."
"No, no, no," I protested. "The difference is that Raoul doesn't
consider you flawed because of it and he doesn't consider your
failure to learn different dishwasher-loading techniques to be a
measure of your love for him."
"Wrong," Diane replied. "Raoul definitely considers me flawed, but
he would consider me flawed no matter how the hell I loaded the
damn dishwasher. He loves me anyway. Why does he love me anyway?
Because I am much more lovable than I am flawed. That's what Freud
said mental health was, by the way—the ability to feel
worthwhile despite your flaws."
"No, Diane, Freud didn't say that. Freud said mental health was the
capacity to love and to work. But otherwise, my point exactly. Good
She frowned at me. Diane didn't like being corrected, especially
when she'd been caught fabricating quotes from dead people.
The waitress had arrived tableside in time to listen politely to
the last few back-and-forths between Diane and me. She pretended to
be unfazed by our interchange, however, took our order from Diane,
and strolled away into what I still thought of as the nonfiction
section of the restaurant.
"We both know it's not the dishwasher princess that's bothering
you," Diane told me. "So what is it?"
"I prefer to think of her as the Kitchen Aid Lady. But the answer
to your question is 'I don't know,'" I replied.
She laughed at me. "Boy, you sure gave that a lot of thought. Are
you always this contemplative these days?"
I smiled at her. "I don't know what it is. Diane. I just don't."
From experience, I knew that even if I didn't know Diane probably
had an opinion or two that she could spare.
"The diagnosis you blew last year maybe?"
"What?" I said.
The waitress returned with our beer. I drank a third of mine in one
long draw. There is nothing like the first drink of cold beer on a
hot day. Nothing. Unfortunately, that includes the second drink of
cold beer on a hot day, so I made the first drink last as long as I
Diane drank half of her beer before she clarified her accusation.
"The woman who got blown up on the street outside our
office—remember her? Your, um, shall we say
'miscalculations'—is that too strong a word?—in that
case allowed a few people to die, as I recall."
I sat back on my chair. "Well," I said, removing the knife from my
chest and preparing to defend myself with it.
She reached across and rested one hand on my wrist and sipped at
her beer with her free hand. "Do I have your attention, now?"
"You bet, Diane."
"You've had some tough cases, dearest. That whole situation last
year with the kids and the bombs, the whole witness protection
thing you got mixed up with before that. Your practice has not
exactly been something to envy. I sometimes think that there should
be some kind of government- mandated caution sign on your office
door. All of it has to have taken its toll on you."
I shook my head. Her argument didn't taste right. "I don't regret
those cases. They're not what I think about when I have doubts
about what I'm doing every day in my office. I end up thinking
about cases like this woman and her dishwasher.''
"The one-step-forward, two-steps-back cases. You know, the
depression that won't crack. The abused woman who keeps going back
to her husband. The therapy that should last six months that isn't
any better after a year. Those are the cases that make me nuts. The
people who come into the office and dare you to help them change.
They're the ones. It seems most days go by and I don't think I've
done anything to help anyone get better"
"So? Me neither."
"And it doesn't bother you?"
"No, it doesn't. Okay, maybe a little, but I get over it." She
wiped her lips with her cocktail napkin. "You know, I used to think
it was my job to help people get better. Now I know I was wrong. My
job is to help them get better equipped. The whole
give-a-man-a-fish-and-he-eats-for-a-day routine, you know? And I
bet you do that every day whether you give yourself credit for it
"I don't know if sitting in that room listening to people is the
best way to help them do that."
"But that's what we do, sweetheart." She had softened her tone in a
way that was disarming. "Those are the bricks we lay. If you've
started hating the bricks, maybe it's time to reconsider being a
"What?" I laughed.
She laughed, too. "I thought that was pretty good. I didn't even
know it was coming, it just rolled right out of my brain."
"It was cute, I'll give you that. But seriously? I wonder if I'm
making a difference, if what I do is truly important. I worry that
I'm beginning to lack compassion. This woman, today, I had no
empathy for what she's struggling with. I just wanted to take her
by the shoulders, and…and..."
We laughed together and finished our beers just in time for the
arrival of the tapas. Diane had ordered so much food that it didn't
all fit on the table. She yanked a free chair from an adjoining
table and moved a platter of something onto it. She did it so
quickly that I didn't get a clear look at what was on the platter.
Before the waitress disappeared, Diane ordered another beer. I
shook my head, declining.
Diane lurched first for the trout, which had made a not-so-seamless
transition from swimming in a river with its head attached to
swimming in a pool of olive oil, herbs, and white wine without its
head attached. She swallowed a big mouthful before she said, "I
could send you some custody work and court referrals. That would
break the tedium for you."
"Ugh. Please, don't do me any favors. And leave some of that trout,
if you don't mind.''
She reluctantly shifted her attention from the trout to the
eggplant and baby leeks. "You and Lauren have any vacations
scheduled? Maybe getting out of town would help. Raoul and I found
this great place where we stay sometimes outside of Sedona." She
paused. "That's in Arizona."
I shook my head. "Diane, I know where Sedona is. But no, that's not
a solution. We got away last month.''
"And look at you now,'' she said, making a dubious face.
"Yeah, and look at me now."
"Well," she said as she sat back on her chair with a cute little
drool of olive oil on her chin. "Then I think you'll just have to
suck it up, Alan. I don't have a clue what you should do."
I eyed her for a moment before I said, "I really have missed you.
We should do this more often. We really should."
She'd already returned her attention to the food. "I know. This
problem-solving stuff! It's my forte. If we come back here and do
this come autumn, I'll really truly order sherry and make it even
We attacked the food with gusto for a couple of silent minutes.
Diane broke the spell by saying, "Alan, you know I'll do anything
to help you. Anything. A few years ago—after that patient was
killed by her husband in my office—I had a rough time. I'm
sure you remember what a disaster I was. Nothing really seemed to
matter to me for a while after the shooting. Nothing. But I muddled
through it. I kept working at it. Raoul helped, you helped, my
other friends helped, and things, well, they just got better.
That'll happen for you, too. Things will get
Excerpted from THE BEST REVENGE © Copyright 2003 by
Stephen White. Reprinted with permission by Dell Publishing. All