FORTY-FIVE

ALAN

Maybe I didn’t handle things well with Sam.

When I heard the yeah-whaddya-want tone in his voice on the phone, I immediately figured I’d tracked him down in one of his infamous constipated moods. The way I was feeling I just didn’t have the patience for it. In retrospect, I immediately topped that miscalculation with another serious mistake: When he returned my call, I wasn’t allowing for the possibility that Sam was not the person responsible for planting the bug in my office.

The truth is that I actually didn’t get around to seriously entertaining that likelihood until long after I’d talked to him. In fact, I was halfway through my one-thirty appointment, later that afternoon.

My one-thirty was an elderly woman with severe posttraumatic stress syndrome from the unlikeliest of causes. She was perhaps the sweetest, kindest, most genteel person who had ever come to see me for treatment. Ironically, both she and I were currently obsessed with bugs. Hers were the microscopic kind that make people sick. By her account, she had barely lived to be able to tell me the tale of her atrocious treatment on board a bug-infested Caribbean cruise the previous fall.

Her story, which she insisted on recounting in excruciating detail, was now in its fifth weekly installment. The ship she was on the previous November had aborted its scheduled island-hopping itinerary and rushed back to Miami after suffering its second sailing in a row plagued with an epidemic of Norwalk virus, a severe gastrointestinal malady not uncommon in North America. According to my patient, the cruise line had known about the epidemic-which had also infected a huge percentage of passengers and crew on the previous sailing of the same ship-for over a week and had made a corporate decision, despite the severity of the outbreak, to disinfect the ship and immediately sail again. That decision had put a whole new group of twelve hundred passengers, including my patient, at risk of exposure. She maintained that none of the passengers on board the second doomed sailing had been forewarned about the ongoing epidemic until moments before boarding. Certainly my patient hadn’t been forewarned before she’d made the thousand-mile-plus trip to the dock in Miami.

“Why?” she kept asking me. “Why? What did I do to them that they would risk putting an eighty-year-old woman in the toilet for most of a week? Why? Don’t they know what they did to me? Why?”

She answered her own question. “Greed,” she said. “They made me sick as a rabid dog and they almost killed me because they’re greedy bastards. They care about money, not about people. That’s what I think.”

If I had to guess, I would have guessed that she hadn’t actually used the word “bastards” before in her eighty-two years.

My poor patient was at the part of her story where a fellow passenger threw up on her in the elevator-“and I was at least five feet away from him.”

Her seagoing tales of explosive emesis, institutional rudeness, and Olympic-size lack of compassion by cruise line employees had just begun, I knew. The excruciating story had thus far only progressed to cover day three of her voyage; she and I had three additional long, long days at sea ahead of us. Covering them at our current pace would take us a month of weekly appointments.

“I don’t blame them for the virus,” she said. “I blame them for just about everything else they did.” She’d said that before. I was certain she would say it again. And again.

“Greedy bastards,” she repeated. “Do you know what they offered me for compensation? Do you?”

I did. But I also knew she’d tell me again anyway.

“They’d let me do the same darn death cruise a second time, and then they’d let me do another one at twenty-five percent off. That’s it. That’s the going rate for almost killing an old woman.”

It was at that interlude in her session that I had the wisdom to cut Sam some slack. The thought I was allowing to ferment was:Maybe he didn’t do it. Maybe he was telling the truth about the bug.

But if Sam didn’t plant the damn device in my office in order to find out what Gibbs knew about her husband’s murderous tendencies, who did? And why?

My dear patient, I knew, would have gladly blamed the whole fiasco on the greedy bastards from the cruise line.

The truth, I guessed, was not going to be so simple. Who had planted the device in my couch pillow? I didn’t know and probably wouldn’t know until I figured out why it had been placed. Knowing why meant discerning exactly what one of my patients might have had to say in the confines of therapy that was worth committing a felony to overhear.

I spent some time mentally reviewing my roster of patients, imagining which of their secrets, mostly mundane to me, was so prized by someone else. Although Jim Zebid’s accusation about Judge Heller’s husband selling cocaine was intriguing, and Sharon Lewis’s identity would have certainly caused a tabloidish stir, Gibbs’s story was the one that definitely had the most universal allure.

That’s what led me to thinking that the culprit was the cops, and to Sam. The police would certainly have some interest in what Gibbs said to me.

So, I imagined, would Sterling. Had he somehow gained access to my office and planted the device before he left for Florida to cover the football game in Tallahassee? If he had-considering the likelihood that his corpse was caught on some debris beneath the surface of the Ochlockonee River-I’d probably never know. But at least everyone’s secrets would be safe.

But I was overlooking something important: a possibility that I had to rule out. I phoned home. Lauren answered. I checked in on her battle with Solumedrol and commiserated as she reluctantly shared the details of her travails.

Then I asked, “Do you have time for a work question?”

“Sure, sure,” she said.

Her voice was pressured, as though her vocal cords were too taut. I asked, “Is there any way the police could get a warrant to put a listening device in my office?”

“What?”

“Is there any way-”

“I heard you. You’re serious?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“No? No way?”

“No, no way.”

“I just had one removed. A listening device was hidden inside a pillow on my sofa.”

“If this isn’t your idea of a joke, I can assure you that it wasn’t the Boulder police who put it there.”

“Thanks, I needed to hear that. I have to go.”

“You’ll fill me in on all this later?”

“Yeah. Love you.”

If I could have answered the who and why questions, I might have been able to predict the complications that were to develop over the next few hours.

But I couldn’t, and I didn’t.

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