The Price of Belief
Nothing like a guy threatening to jump off a roof to get the public’s attention.
“‘Bout time you showed up, Rinaldi.” Shielding his eyes, Sergeant Harry Polk offered me his trademark scowl as he peered up at the tiny figure barely visible on top of the tall building, standing precariously at the roof’s edge. Behind us, uniformed officers struggled to keep a crowd of curious, chattering onlookers away from the scene. Though they were still close enough to record the event on their cells and mini-cams, blithely shooting up into a blinding summer sun.
“I left the office as soon as I got your call.” A quick glance up at the harrowing sight above. “Thankfully, the traffic out of Oakland wasn’t bad. I was afraid I might be too late.”
The veteran detective grunted. “Maybe you are.”
In this heat, and given his size, Polk’s wrinkled blue suit was blotchy with sweat. As was his florid, drinker’s face.
“You know about this crazy shit?” he asked wearily.
“That Andrew might be at risk? Of course. So did you, practically from the moment you charged him. He was immediately referred to me, remember? After his first suicide attempt.”
“Well, looks like he’s tryin’ again. ‘Cept I think the poor bastard’s gonna pull it off this time.”
I followed his gaze up at Andrew Morrison, who appeared to be swaying slightly, as though readying himself. Behind us, I heard a sudden, excited gasp from the people gathered on the street. Waiting. Perhaps hoping…
The collective silence lasted only a few seconds before morphing into another chorus of murmurs and nervous giggles. Because Andrew had abruptly stepped back from the lip of the roof. Disappearing from our view fourteen floors below.
“Hey, man, where’d ya go?” someone behind me shouted.
Another voice rang out. “C’mon, you pussy! Jump!”
I glanced back at the crowd milling behind the semi-circle of cops, but couldn’t tell who’d spoken.
Meanwhile, eyes still riveted on the roof’s edge, Polk asked me, “Think Morrison changed his mind?”
“Hell, Harry, I don’t know what to think. I gotta get up there and–”
“You gotta what?”
For a long moment, I didn’t reply, my mind racing. Then I gripped his arm.
“But I’m going to need something first.”
“Dammit, Rinaldi!” Polk called after me as I hurried across the pavement and approached one of the uniforms. Sweat gleaming in rivulets from his hatband down the chiseled planes of his smooth black skin.
“Listen, Officer, I’m Dr. Daniel Rinaldi. I consult with the Department and–”
“Sure, Doc, I know who you are. I’ve seen ya on the news.”
“Great. Can you do me a favor? I need to borrow these…”
As I reached for his belt and unclipped his handcuffs.
I’d first heard about Andrew Morrison a month before, in early June. Just before the
summer heat wave that would turn Pittsburgh’s cobblestone streets into a blanket of hot coals, its air as stifling as the inside of a steel mill’s blast furnace. Though the city had few remaining cobblestone streets and no steel mills at all, having in the past decades changed from an industrial powerhouse into a hub of state-of-the-art medicine and pioneering technology. With many of its old neighborhoods newly-gentrified as well, the Steel City now represented an amalgam of the past and the future.
As do I. The son of an Italian-American beat cop, I was the first in my extended family to attend college, pursue a profession, go from blue collar to white. Which left me standing with a foot in both worlds. And probably always will…
It was mid-afternoon, and I was just finishing a session with a young woman named Cheryl Rhodes. A junior at Pitt, she’d been viciously raped late one night on the edge of campus. Soon after she reported it to the police, she was referred to me.
Why me? Because I’m a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating people like Cheryl. Victims of violent crime. Those who’ve survived the assault, the kidnapping, the robbery–but who still lived with the resultant trauma. Crippling anxiety, the torture of self-blame, the ever-present dread of something like it happening again.
Or, perhaps even harder, lived with the guilt of having survived at all when a loved one didn’t.
Something I could relate to. Years ago, my wife and I were mugged by an armed thug outside of a restaurant. Barbara was killed and I seriously wounded. Since I’d done some amateur boxing as a youth, part of me believed I should have been able to stop the mugger. Save my wife. As a result, during my months of recovery, I struggled with a lacerating survival guilt that still visits me on occasion to this day.
Between that experience, and my highly-publicized work treating a victim who’d escaped the clutches of an infamous serial killer, I was hired as a consultant to the Pittsburgh Police. To help crime victims move on, to the extent possible, with the rest of their lives.
Victims like Cheryl, whose painstaking work with me during our many months together seemed, that late spring day, to be finally paying off. Sitting across from each other in my office, she even managed a pensive smile.
“Guess what, Dr. Rinaldi?” She was a slight woman of medium height, with intense, intelligent grey eyes. “I’m able to start watching Law and Order reruns again.”
Before the sexual assault, the old TV series had been one of her favorites. Cheryl was interested in a law career.
I smiled. “Sounds like progress to me.” And it did.
After we’d hugged good-bye–another breakthrough of recent weeks, given her previous unwillingness to be touched in any way since the rape–I went to my picture window and looked down at Forbes Avenue, which cut through the Pitt campus five floors below. Cheryl had been my last scheduled patient for the day and I was looking forward to beating the traffic home.
That wasn’t going to happen.
My desk phone rang suddenly and I picked up. It was Angela Villanova, Pittsburgh PD’s Community Liaison Officer. We were also distantly related. Older than me, smart and blunt, she’d once tutored me in high school. And rarely let me forget it.
“Is this an official call?” I asked.
“Ya mean, am I referrin’ someone to you? Yeah. But it’s not a crime victim.”
“Then who is it?”
“His name’s Andrew Morrison. But here’s the thing, Danny. Looks like he murdered his wife.”
Angie was wrong.
From the moment Andrew Morrison stepped into my office less than an hour later, it seemed clear that the thin, chalk-faced software engineer was indeed a victim. The hand that shook mine was moist and tentative, the eyes behind his rimless glasses pinched with anxiety. Even the guarded way he took in my office’s furnishings–the matched leather chairs, the old marble-topped desk, my battered Tumi briefcase propped against the wall–gave the impression of a man on the lookout for the next disaster to befall him.
As he took his seat opposite me, I couldn’t help but notice his difficulty moving. Though we were both in our early forties, he seemed markedly older. Shoulders slumped, cheeks hollow. Given what he’d just gone through, I wasn’t surprised.
We sat in silence for a full minute, his glance flitting nervously about the room, as I went over the details of his case in my mind. The details that Angie had shared with me.
A week before, in the bedroom of their split-level house in Wilkins Township, Morrison had had a fierce argument with his wife Debbie. One of many, according to the couple’s next door neighbors. It ended when Andrew stormed out of the house. Something I confess I had a hard time envisioning, judging by the demeanor of the man sitting across from me.
Some hours later, at nightfall, Morrison returned to find Debbie sprawled across the floor in their bedroom, covered in blood. Viciously stabbed to death. Panic-stricken, he called the police and soon found himself surrounded by uniforms, homicide detectives and CSU techs. After the Medical Examiner pronounced, the woman’s body was taken to the morgue.
Meanwhile, Morrison was in hysterics, so distraught that he had to be sedated on-scene. When the detectives questioned him downtown, he claimed that he’d just driven around for a couple hours after the couple argued, then came home to discover his murdered wife. Due to his continued agitation, the cops arranged for him to be taken to his sister’s place in Churchill.
The following day, with no forensics to indicate the presence of an intruder, nor any sign of forced entry to the home, Andrew Morrison was arrested and charged in his wife’s murder. His sister immediately hired a lawyer to get him released on bail following his arraignment the next morning. Till then, he’d just have to spend one night in the county jail.
He did, and late sometime after bed-check Morrison tried to hang himself in his cell. Which prompted Angie’s urgent call.
Now, having been freed on bail, he was back living with his sister. And beginning therapy with me.
“I guess you know about the botched hanging.” These were his first words to me since shaking hands. “Debbie would have a field day with that. I couldn’t even manage to kill myself.”
“Well, I for one am glad you turned out to be bad at it.”
His returning smile was bitter. “I don’t know, Doc. Like they say, practice makes perfect.”
I took a breath. “If you’re planning any practice sessions in the future, we’ll need to make a verbal contract that you have to call me first.”
He shook his head. “No promises.”
I spent the rest of the session getting a brief history, then asked him about his mood swings, his sleep patterns, his level of anxiety. Most of these I could guess, of course, but I’ve found that listing certain symptoms can have a palliative effect on a distressed patient. Give them the sense that they at least have some measure of control over their inner states.
I saw Andrew each day after that, fitting him in during lunch-time when necessary, so that we could work on behavioral approaches to managing his anxiety. It wasn’t until our fourth session that he could bring himself to talk about that night.
“I’d been driving around for hours, and all of a sudden felt like an idiot. It wasn’t that we hadn’t fought before, dozens of times. I mean, it started pretty soon after we got married. Debbie found me…I don’t know, unexciting, I guess. Not aggressive enough at my job, or in our bed. As for me, I thought she was too demanding. Her expectations of me too… unrealistic. You know what I mean?”
I nodded. Letting him tell things in his own way, in his own time.
“Anyway, when I got home I found the front door unlocked. I thought this was strange, since Debbie was always so paranoid about crime. Break-ins, that kind of thing. Then when I called out and she didn’t answer, I knew something was wrong. Then…”
His voice caught. Tears edged his eyes.
“When I saw her lying there…blood everywhere…I’ve never seen so much blood. Her body was all slashed up. Cuts all over. Horrible…just horrible. Like a nightmare. Like it couldn’t be happening. Couldn’t be real.”
He dropped his head in his hands.
“And it’s all my fault…my fault…”
I leaned forward in my chair.
“How is it your fault, Andrew?”
“If we hadn’t fought…if I hadn’t stormed out of the house like that…like some coward. But I just couldn’t deal with her contempt anymore, you know? I just couldn’t stand it…”
There it was. What I’d been waiting for. Andrew’s survivor guilt, holding him accountable for the sin of still being alive. Moreover, of the possibility that he might have prevented what happened. If only he hadn’t argued with his wife, if only he hadn’t left her alone and vulnerable in the house.
If only, if only…
Unless, I thought. Unless it wasn’t guilt at all.
I waited another thirty seconds. Then I asked the question.
“Did you do it, Andrew? Did you kill Debbie?”
He looked up at me, his face streaked with tears, his eyes tinged with anguish.
“Me?…Kill Debbie?…I loved her. Despite everything. I couldn’t kill her. I couldn’t kill anyone…Not in a million years.” His gaze found mine. “You have to believe me, Doctor. You have to…”
But did I?
As a licensed clinician, I’m of course obligated to maintain my patients’ confidentiality. What they say in session never leaves the confines of my office, except for those rare times when a judge revokes the patient’s privilege. Usually in the course of a criminal trial.
This confidentiality even extends to a patient’s name, and the very fact that he or she is in treatment with me. However, in my peculiar position as a police consultant–to whom a patient is referred by the Department itself–the person’s name and current legal circumstances are known by the authorities.
Which is why, the next time I happened to be talking with Angie on the phone, Andrew Morrison’s name came up. By now, it was mid-July and the temperature was nearing 100 almost daily. Which pushed my venerable office building’s air-conditioning unit to its limits.
“How’s he doin’, Danny?”
“You know I can’t discuss that, Angie.”
“Yeah, yeah. Name, rank and serial number. I’m only askin’ ‘cause his case ain’t goin’ so great. For him, I mean.”
“Homicide dicks canvassed the guy’s neighborhood, talked to his colleagues at work, the pastor at his church. They all say he’s an odd duck. Hell, even the padre said Morrison gave him the creeps. Like he’s always about to jump out of his skin. Scared of his own shadow. But in a weird way.”
Despite the A-C, I was slick with sweat. Having already shed my jacket and tie, now I rolled up my shirtsleeves. And reached in my desk’s bottom drawer for a bottled water.
“You know none of what you’re saying proves anything.”
“Maybe not. But the guy’s got no alibi for the time of the murder. Nobody who can confirm his whereabouts. I mean, shit, Danny. ‘Drivin’ around for a couple hours?’ My six-year-old niece can come up with somethin’ better than that.”
“Unless it’s the truth.”
“Don’t matter. With no forensics to say otherwise, and no alternative suspect, the DA’s gettin’ ready to present to the grand jury. To indict Morrison for murder.”
At our next session, Andrew seemed more agitated than he’d been lately. Fidgeting in his seat. Making a big show of taking out a handkerchief and mopping the sweat from his brow.
“Hot as hell out there today.” His voice tinny, tremulous. “Not much better in here, either.”
“That’s for sure.” I regarded him evenly. “So you want to tell me what’s going on?”
He drew a long breath. “My lawyer thinks the DA’s about to take my case to the Grand Jury. Second-degree murder.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Andrew. Really.”
He looked down at his bony, manicured fingers, nervously twisting in his lap. His unkempt hair blocking his eyes.
“I can’t go to trial, Doctor. I won’t be able to…”
“Listen, Andrew. No one can predict the outcome of a trial. Any trial. And if you know you’re not guilty…”
I couldn’t believe how foolish, how inadequate my words sounded. As though justice always triumphed. As though the innocent always escaped the workings of a determined, seemingly implacable law enforcement system.
I tried another tack. “Perhaps your lawyer–”
He gave me a fierce, exasperated look. Voice choked.
“No! Don’t you understand? I didn’t kill Debbie because I couldn’t kill her. It isn’t in me. I swear, I couldn’t kill anybody!”
Then his eyes narrowed, and a strange calm seemed to come over him. Even his fingers stopped moving.
“That is, I couldn’t kill anybody else…”
My heart stopped. “Are you talking about yourself, Andrew?”
He shrugged. “Maybe I am. At least I’d spare the city the cost of a trial.”
“I thought we had an understanding. A contract.”
“I don’t remember signing anything. Do you?”
We sat in silence, staring at each other. It was his calm, measured demeanor that worried me. That led me to fear he’d made up his mind.
Then, to my surprise, he broke into a grin. And climbed slowly to his feet.
“Don’t worry, Doc. Everything’s fine. If Debbie were here, she’d tell you. I’m all talk, no action.”
“Trust me, I don’t think I have the guts to do myself in.”
“You tried it before,” I said carefully. “In your cell.”
“Well, as Voltaire said, ‘Once, a philosopher; twice, a pervert.’”
“Meaning I made a mess of hanging myself. Just ended up feeling more lame and inadequate than I normally do.”
“Dammit, Andrew, you’re not–”
“Besides, my lawyer says there’s a chance we can make a deal. Give the DA something he can live with. That I can, too.”
I said nothing, though the image of a man as wounded, as broken, as Andrew Morrison spending years in prison was hard to countenance. I seriously wondered if he’d survive.
At session’s end, we confirmed the date and time of his next appointment. Then I saw him out the door.
The call came mid-afternoon of the following day. I was in session at the time, so my VoiceMail took the message. I didn’t have a chance to hear it until the patient left.
It was from Harry Polk. I called him right back.
“Doc, I got bad news. About Andrew Morrison.”
“What about him?”
“Grand Jury indicted him a couple hours ago. When his lawyer told him, Morrison just took off. Ran right outta the guy’s office.”
“Jesus, Harry. Do you have him? Is he okay?”
“Not exactly. Morrison’s up on the roof of the lawyer’s building. Down near Point State Park. That office complex there. He’s been standing on the ledge for ten minutes. Looks like he’s plannin’ to jump.”
I felt the blood freeze in my veins. Then, rousing myself, I hung up and started calling the rest of the day’s patients, cancelling their appointments.
Minutes later, I was barreling down Forbes, heading for the Point. Luckily the downtown commute hadn’t yet started, so I made pretty good time.
Soon I was standing with Sergeant Polk on the sidewalk, in the blistering sun, squinting up at Andrew Morrison fourteen stories above.
And then I was speaking with one of the uniformed officers, asking him for a favor.
After which I entered the building lobby, stepped into the elevator and headed for the top floor.
There was an unlocked fire door on the fourteenth floor that opened on concrete steps leading up to a second door. Pausing for a moment to collect myself, I turned the handle and went out onto the flat, tar-papered roof.
Cinders that had baked in the sun crunched under my feet as I approached Andrew. Standing just back from the roof edge, he turned at the sound.
He and I merely stared at each other across the ten-foot space between us. A hand in my pocket, I tried to seem as casual, as unthreatening as possible.
Finally, I spoke. “Is this the part where you tell me not to come any closer?”
“I don’t know, Doc.” He gave a weak smile. “Is that the same part where you tell me I still have something to live for?”
“Well, don’t you?” I took a step closer.
“You’re kidding, right? If I live, I go to prison for years for something I didn’t do. If I die, I’m spared that. Frankly, I don’t think you have a case.”
“Can you at least back away from the edge, Andrew? You’re making me nervous.”
“Sorry, no can do. Except for the damned heat, I kinda like it up here. It’s quiet. A man can think.”
A pause. “Okay, stay where you are. But then can I come over to you?”
He shrugged. “Mi casa su casa. Or whatever the Spanish for ‘roof’ is.”
Steeling myself, I walked slowly across the crinkling tar-paper until I was standing by Andrew’s side.
“Actually, Doc,” he said, “I’m glad you came up here. Gives me a chance to say thanks in person. You’ve been a big help.”
“Not from the look of things, Andrew. You’re a patient of mine who’s threatening to jump off a roof.”
“Well, there’s that. But otherwise, you’ve done as well as anyone could. In the circumstances.”
I nodded. Took another pause.
“Just for the record, okay? Even if the DA had agreed to a deal, a reduced sentence, you wouldn’t have taken it. Right?”
“Right.” He sighed heavily. “A man like me wouldn’t be able to tolerate prison. Not for one single day. Besides, accepting a deal would mean admitting guilt.”
He held up a hand. “Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty to feel guilty about. But not for killing Debbie. It’s my fault she’s dead, no question. I left her alone. Defenseless. But I didn’t kill her.”
Andrew gave me a sad, almost forlorn look. “Because, as I told you, as I kept telling the police, I couldn’t kill anyone.”
“Exactly. See, you do understand me, Doc. It’s a real comfort at a time like this.”
His relaxed, almost disinterested manner caught me off guard. For suddenly he turned, took two steps toward the lip of the roof, and sat down. Feet dangling over the side.
Hesitating only a moment, I joined him on the roof edge. Sat right beside him, shoulder to shoulder. Hand still in my pocket. My own feet hanging over the edge.
I risked glancing over the side. The crowd below was like a living thing, undulating, people moving about in clusters. Pointing up at Andrew and me. Or aiming their cells and mini- cams. Hoping for something, anything, to happen.
I also noted a number of TV news vans parked just beyond the growing throng. By now, too, an ambulance had arrived on the scene.
“We’re building quite an audience,” Andrew said, peering over the edge as well. “I suspect I’ll end up on YouTube.”
I said nothing, leaning back a bit. Trying to keep my own anxiety under control. To stay focused.
Andrew turned then, his face as open as a child’s.
“Like I said, I appreciate your coming up here, Doc. But I’m going to do it. I’m going to jump. I hope you believe me.”
“I do. But I was an idiot to believe what you said at the end of our session yesterday. About hoping for a plea deal. About how you’d never try to commit suicide again because of how you’d botched it the first time.”
“Tell you the truth, I was kind of surprised you bought that myself. But other than that, I’ve never lied to you during our sessions. About myself, my marriage, anything. I’m guilty of many things, Dr. Rinaldi, but lying isn’t one of them.”
“I know that, Andrew. That’s why I believe you when you say you’re willing to commit suicide.”
“But you also said something else in session. Something you said you wouldn’t do. Couldn’t do.”
“And what’s that?”
And, with that, I took my hand out of my pocket. My wrist encircled by one half of a pair of handcuffs, the other half dangling. Before Andrew could register what was happening, I snapped the free cuff around his own wrist.
His eyes widened in shock. “What the–?”
“We’re handcuffed together now, Andrew. So where you go, I go. Including over the edge of this roof. To splatter together on the pavement below. If that doesn’t get us on YouTube, nothing will.”
He couldn’t stop staring. “You…you’re crazy…”
“That may be. But I’m not the one with a decision to make. See, if you really want to kill yourself, go ahead and jump. But you’ll be killing me, too.”
I met his incredulous gaze.
“Now personally, I’d like to live. But it’s up to you.”
He could barely form words. “But…but why? Why in God’s name would you do this?”
“Because I believe in you, Andrew. I believe you didn’t kill Debbie, just like I believe you can’t kill me. A belief whose price I’m willing to pay.”
He squinted down at the handcuffs binding us. “Come on, Doc. I know you have the key for these things…”
“Actually, I don’t. It’s probably still in the pocket of the cop I borrowed them from.”
A long, agonizing minute of silence followed. As a dozen conflicting emotions seemed to flicker across his face.
At the same time, my own resolve began to weaken. The mad, searing reality of what I’d done flooding over me. All because I knew in my gut that Andrew Morrison wasn’t a killer. Or thought I knew. Believed it.
Sweat beaded my brow, but not from the heat. My mouth gone dry, heart banging in my chest. As I felt my panic rising…Then suddenly, as though from far way, I heard Andrew’s deep, heavy exhalation. His voice a whisper.
“I…I can’t do it, Doc. You’re right. I can’t kill you. Not just because of something I want. Something that would take my pain away. I can’t let you die because of that…”
I gave out a long, relieved sigh of my own.
“Then would it be okay if we went down now?” I met his gaze. “Or do you want to sit up here a little longer?”
He considered this carefully.
“Would you mind if we stayed up here just a bit longer? As you know, there’s nothing down there I’m looking forward to.”
“I understand. But you won’t be alone. I’ll be with you as much as I can. Every step of the way.”
He nodded slowly. “Guess it’s my turn to believe you.”
We stayed that way, handcuffed together, side by side, on the edge of the roof. Until it got too hot, and Andrew said he was ready to come down.
“Jesus, Rinaldi, I knew you had a screw loose, but that was off-the-charts crazy.”
Harry Polk was walking with me toward his unmarked, after having arrested Andrew Morrison and sent him off with some uniforms. Meanwhile, a disappointed crowd of onlookers noisily dispersed, as a pair of equally disgruntled news crews packed up their gear and drove off. Their hopes for something exciting on a slow news day dashed.
“I’m just glad the cop I borrowed the cuffs from hadn’t gone off duty.” I rubbed my wrist. “I never got his name, and he was the guy with the key.”
Polk grunted. “Yeah, well, it woulda served ya right to be handcuffed to that nut-job for the rest o’ the night. Sharin’ a cell with him mighta put some sense in your thick skull.”
I stopped him at his car door. “Just make sure you keep an eye on him at the jail, okay? He’s still a suicide risk.”
The sergeant gave me a baleful look. “Listen, Doc. After what you just did, so are you.”
I got similar criticism from Angie on the phone that night.
“Jesus, Danny, everybody knows you have a hero complex. Who the hell knew you had a death wish, too?”
“What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
It was a flippant, facetious remark and she wasn’t buying it. She grumbled something unintelligible and hung up.
Less than a week later, a woman in Monroeville was attacked by a home invader with a serrated blade. He’d been dressed as a gas company employee, and had knocked at her door to let her know he’d be in her back yard, checking her meter. As soon as she’d opened the door, he pushed his way in.
To his surprise, the woman raised German shepherds, and her current four-legged live-in companion tore the hell out of the guy. Thinking fast, the woman locked her assailant in a closet and called the police. Under interrogation that night, he admitted to killing Debbie Morrison as well. Using the same ruse, he’d entered the house and savagely butchered her. He gave no explanation for his actions, and showed little remorse.
The next day, Andrew Morrison was released from jail, with all charges dropped. After which he returned to therapy with me. Still traumatized by the brutal murder of his wife, as well as tormented by feelings of guilt and self-recrimination, he had a long therapeutic journey ahead of him.
And, as I’d promised, I was willing to accompany him all the way. His would be a difficult path, but I believed I could help guide him through it. I guess I had to. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t.
Still, for some months afterwards, I had a recurring dream about Andrew and me, handcuffed together on the edge of the roof. The heat of the day pouring down on us. The crowd below waiting expectantly.
We exchange the same words. I make the same argument.
And in my dream, he always jumps.
“The Price of Belief” is from the short story anthology BOUND BY MYSTERY, available from Poisoned Pen Press.
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is a licensed psychotherapist and author. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His acclaimed series of crime novels (Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors and the latest, Phantom Limb) featuring psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, are all from Poisoned Pen Press.