FIFTEEN

Gibbs’s revelation that she feared her husband was a serial killer, and not merely a killer, had changed things for me. The shocking news that he’d left a string of victims across the country not only cemented my decision to make the call to the detectives in California but also subtly altered my resolve. As I drove across town to visit Sam after Jim Zebid’s session, I turned down the radio and pondered the philosophical underpinnings of it all, ultimately concluding that John Donne wouldn’t be pleased by the metamorphosis of my attitude. One death should have been as consequential as many. One death should have been sufficient.

Sam had one additional “should” for me: “You should’ve talked to me as soon as you knew” was how Sam admonished me after I gave him the headline about the California murder.

He was feeling better. Although he was still in the telemetry unit when I was with him during my late lunch break, he and his cardiologist had radically different opinions on how long he should remain tethered to heart-monitoring equipment.

“You’ve had a few other things to deal with,” I said.

The automated blood pressure cuff encircling Sam’s biceps chose that moment to inflate. Sam jumped. “Damn thing scares me so much that it probably sends my blood pressure right through the roof. Hey, maybe you can convince my cardiologist that my mental health requires that I return home immediately.”

“Good one, Sam. But I don’t think you really want me to go on record commenting on your mental health.”

“Point.”

After I’d heard the multiple murder accusation, I negotiated one final rider to my bargain with Gibbs Storey. I would go ahead and make the call to the homicide detectives in California only if she would permit me to consult with a friend of mine who was a local detective regarding the Louise/Sterling situation, and with an attorney, if I chose. I told her I wouldn’t need to use any names, just the facts of her accusation. Gibbs had agreed to my request without protest.

Actually, what she said was “The whole world is going to know my family’s dirty secrets in a few days, Dr. Gregory. What’s to be lost by giving this detective friend of yours a head start? If it will help you better understand the legal process that’s about to happen, please go right ahead. Talk to a lawyer, too. I don’t care. But just about Louise. And no names until it’s in the press.”

I’d had her sign a release.

Once I’d explained the broad outlines of the Louise/Sterling situation to Sam, he asked me to clarify some facts about Gibbs’s accusation before he said, “So when you called the detective in this other state, this mystery state? Did he hang up on you, or what?”

“She came close. It actually didn’t come down the way I thought it would. When I called, there was nobody there who could talk to me. I left a message. Eventually a Detective Reynoso called back. We didn’t stop playing phone tag until about an hour ago.”

“Well? Is your lady’s story for real?”

“Reynoso seemed interested enough in what I had to tell her, but she didn’t reveal much to me. It was kind of like trying to get information out of you.”

“Be nice. I just had a heart attack.”

“What’s going to happen next, Sam?”

“Hard to say without knowing how closely your client’s story meshes with what the cops already know. That’s the gold standard.”

“If it meshes, then what?”

“If it were my case and I got the call? I’d go to my superiors and make a case that I should fly to wherever the woman is and interview her. Maybe talk with her husband, too.”

“Would you make an appointment with her or just show up?”

“I’m a big proponent of just showing up.”

“Why?”

“In my business, when you make appointments, you almost always end up talking with lawyers. As much as I adore your wife, she’s a rare exception to the breed, you know? I’m trying to arrange my life so that I interact with as few lawyers as possible. It’s a good stressreduction strategy-you know, for my heart.”

“So you show up. When you get to town, do you have to call the local cops?”

“Absolutely. My guess is that one of my colleagues has already spoken with your detective-what’s her name?”

“Reynoso. Carmen Reynoso. Can you find out who?”

“Can I find out, or will I tell you? What’s the question here?”

“Will you tell me?”

“No.”

“Didn’t think so. So this Detective Reynoso talks to one of you guys at the police department, and you do what?”

“We listen to her story, weigh what she wants to do, and decide whether we want to cooperate. Odds are that her requests are somewhere close to reasonable. We consent, maybe we tag along on the interviews, whatever.”

“How long could all this take?”

“Depends how hot it all seems. Reynoso could get on a plane today if she wanted to. Politics might be tough on her end and that might slow her down, or she could spend a couple of weeks, maybe even longer, getting her ducks in a row before she comes out.”

“And the whole time a murderer is just wandering around doing his thing.”

Sam made a dismissive face. “Perps are like snakes, Alan. They’re always out there, living in holes. They’re always close by, doing their snake thing, whether you see them or not. The ones that end up scaring the shit out of us are the ones that slither across our backyard during a barbecue. Well, this one-this lady’s husband-just slithered right across your yard. But the truth is he was out there for years before you knew about him. And he may be out there for years longer before anybody does anything about him. Fact is, he’s just another sick snake.”

Over my first cup of coffee early that morning, I would probably have been placated by Sam’s assertion that Sterling was just another sick snake. But no longer. If Gibbs was right about Sterling, I knew he wasn’t just another sick snake. He was a cobra with blood from some undetermined number of women dripping from his needlelike fangs.

I reminded myself that Gibbs hadn’t given me permission to talk with Sam about the other women she believed her husband had killed, only about Louise. “Some guys are… more dangerous than others, Sam. Right?” was all I could think of to say.

“You mean this guy? I don’t know. From what little you’ve told me, I’m thinking the murder was a heat-of-passion thing. What are the odds of a repeat? Higher than you and me-or at least me, anyway-but statistically not that high. Contrary to public opinion, most people don’t develop a taste for it. For murder, I mean. What does he do, anyway? For a living?”

I wondered whether I could reveal that information based on the limited release I had from Gibbs. I decided I could. “He’s involved in the production of sporting events for a national cable TV channel.”

“ESPN? Does he do hockey?”

“I’m not going to tell you any more than I’ve told you.”

“Have I heard of him?”

“I doubt it. Maybe if you read credits.” If Sam read credits, I’d eat a hockey puck.

“It’s not like… Barry Melrose or Don Cherry, is it?”

I didn’t know who Barry Melrose was. Don Cherry? I knew I’d heard of him, but I couldn’t have guessed who he was, either. Given that Sam was asking, I assumed that both of them had something to do with hockey, and neither was in the production end of the game.

I said, “Production, not talent.”

“Cherry has a temper. Impulse problems, you know?”

“And that’s unusual among hockey players?” I asked innocently.

“It’s all relative.”

“Don’t worry; it’s not Don Cherry, Sam.”

He sipped water out of a cup with a straw. “She’s going to stop by to see you, too, you know.”

“Who is?”

He burped and lifted his hand to the center of his chest.

I almost screamed for a nurse.

“Reynoso. She won’t make an appointment, or ask you to Starbucks for a latte. But she’s going to show up to talk to you, too.”

“That’s okay. I’ll tell her exactly what I told you. That’s all I have permission to tell her.”

He stuck the tip of his finger so far into his ear canal that I wondered whether he was missing some essential part of his aural anatomy. “That might not satisfy her. Some cops aren’t as easygoing as I am.”

“Now there’s a scary thought.”

“You know more, don’t you? Your client didn’t give you permission to tell me everything, did she?”

“I can’t answer that, Sam. Confidentiality. I’m sorry.”

He nodded. “I may get out of here today. Doc’s coming by later. Says he may let me go home and get into an outpatient rehab program. You know: exercise, diet, stress reduction.”

“That’s great,” I said. “Maybe Adrienne can get you doing some yoga. It’d be great for your stress.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Hockey players do yoga.”

“Now you’re giving me chest pain.”

“Don’t joke about that, Sam. What about work?”

“My captain came by, made reassuring noises about me going back. He says they want to make sure I’m in the best possible shape before I’m back on the job. A million docs will have to clear me. He said I shouldn’t even think about working until after New Year’s.”

“A six-week vacation will do you good. Give you a chance to break in your new healthy lifestyle.”

“Six weeks at home right now is not exactly my idea of a stress-reduction prescription. Sherry’s already making noises about having to roast tofu instead of turkey next week. She’s not going to be happy having me moping around the house until after New Year’s.”

I knew I didn’t want to ask Sam what was going on in his marriage. I sensed he didn’t want me to ask, either. I played along with his denial. I didn’t feel good about it, but that’s what I did.

“You’ll have a great time with Simon, Sam.”

“He’s in school during the week, takes the bus up to the mountains to snowboard with his friends every weekend. Copper Choppers, you know about it? When Grace gets older, you will. Anyway, I don’t think my cardiologist is going to endorse me doing a whole lot of snowboarding this winter.” Sam asked, “Why did she stay with him so long? Your client? She’s known he was a murderer for a while. Why did she stay with him for so long?”

“Fear. Loyalty. Denial. That’s a tough question, Sam. Why do women stay in unhealthy marriages? We both see it all the time.”

He turned away from me and from my question. He moved a tissue box on his bedside tray. “Why is she turning him in now?”

“Another tough question.”

Sam picked that moment to adjust his bed. Once he had it right he said, “If it happens-if I get released from this place-would you maybe be around later to give me a ride home?”

I almost asked, “What about Sherry?” But I didn’t. I said, “Of course.”

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