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The Best Revenge Excerpt 



     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 dead.

     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 hand.
     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 fingers.
     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 facility.
     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 neighborhood.
     Kelda grabbed a discarded plastic milk crate from the alley and carried it back toward the window to check and see what was inside the building.
     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 cinderblock 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 anymore.
     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 arrived.
     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 locked.
     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.
     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 at something."
     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. Hot."
     "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 somebody there?"
     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 body.
     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 hiccuped. 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 pulse.
     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 said.
     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 wall.
     She was weeping.
     "Hi, baby," Kelda said. "I'm here to take you home."
     Kelda was weeping, too.

Chapter 10

     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 ever since.
     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 her.
     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 husband.

     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 nice feeling.
     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 full meal."
     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 me."

     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 House Books.
     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 two."
     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 olives."
     '"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 mid-life 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 try.''
     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 could.
     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 or not."
     "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 bricklayer."
     "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..."
     "Throttle her?"
     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 more authentic."
     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 better."


TheBestRevenge (USA)

Dell Paperback  2003, ISBN: 0440237424 

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