The Dead Caller from Chicago

A Mystery

Dek Elstrom Mysteries (Volume 4)

Jack Fredrickson

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books


By my adjusted new standard, I’d become almost rich, and I felt myself swelling with optimism as Lester Lance Leamington, astute television advertiser, allowed as to how he could make me even richer. All I had to do was follow his advice, conveniently presented in a five-disc DVD series enticingly entitled Making Millions from Molehills. Though his features were blurry on my elderly analog four-inch television, its reception now modified by a government-mandated digital converter that dangled from it like an anchor on a chain, there was nothing fuzzy about his latest achievement. Lester Lance Leamington had hit the big time. He’d moved from late-night commercials jammed between spots for fast juicers and miracle scratch removers up to midday infomercials. If that wasn’t testament to his financial acuity, I couldn’t imagine what was. No more would he be talking to stupored, drowsy people; Lester Lance Leamington had risen into the clarity of sunlight. Now, for only twenty-nine ninety-nine, including shipping, he was going to show folks how to ascend just like him.
“All it takes is attitude,” he was saying as I squinted in rapt attention, for on my tiny TV, he was only an inch tall. “Embrace your future. Call our toll-free line today. If you’re not completely satisfied, we’ll refund your money immediately; less, of course, the modest eighteen ninety-nine for processing, shipping, and handling.”
Miraculous though it sounded, I was not yet ready to embrace my financial destiny. My new money, almost three thousand dollars from a tiny insurance company that promised more work, was already budgeted for past-due utility bills, a paydown on the lone credit card that hadn’t canceled me, and wood, lots of the good oak I needed to continue trimming out my turret. There was the complication, too, that I had no DVD player, nor plans to buy one. My eyes were set on affording a furnace, ductwork, and a gas line to set it all to humming. It was early March, I lived in an unheated stone turret set beside a frozen river just west of Chicago, and the notion of warmth was constantly on my mind.
There was one final concern, I supposed. I watch television while semireclining in an electric blue La-Z-Boy that I acquired, well used, in an alley, perching the set on my breadbasket. Balancing a DVD player wired to a converter box wired to a television seemed like an awful lot of precariousness, just to get rich.
My cell phone rang, saving me from having to ponder the dilemma further.
“You doing anything worthwhile?” Leo Brumsky inquired.
“I’m being advised by Lester Lance Leamington.”
“That TV lunatic with the red hair and green suit?”
“I don’t know; my television is black-and-white. What matters is I am on the road to wealth.”
“That insurance job up north?”
“My new client is delighted with the photographs I took of their insured, he of the broken back, up on a ladder, cleaning his gutters. They’re talking about putting me on retainer.”
“How much?”
“The company saved two hundred grand, easy.”
“No, I meant you. What was your take?”
“Twenty-eight hundred and fifty-three dollars,” I said. Then, to maximize the impact, I added, “Plus change.”
“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t intrude on a man burdened by such weighty considerations, but I have need of your brawn. I’ll be right over.”
I did not protest. His car had a fine heater.
Ten minutes later, a white Ford Econoline van rattled up to the turret where, since evicting the pigeons, I’ve lived alone. I’d been expecting a Porsche cabriolet, but the flash of a too-large orange traffic officer’s jacket and purple pants, bright as beacons even at fifty feet, confirmed it was Leo.
He gave my own outerwear the fisheye as I got in. Hypocrisy, especially concerning clothing, was one of his most pronounced traits.
“A rented van?” I asked.
“Two coats?” he dodged, still round-eying my duds.
My blue blazer was longer than my peacoat, so it wasn’t like he’d experienced a moment of deductive brilliance.
“I’m wearing my blazer in case Lester Lance Leamington drops by to give me personalized investment advice. Word of my newfound wealth is sure to spread.” I aimed the heater vents to blast directly at my face.
A smile full of big white teeth split his narrow bald head, topped as it was, preposterously, by a chartreuse knit hat adorned with a purple pom. “You’re wearing two coats because your limestone monstrosity retains cold like the arctic,” he said, pulling us away from the curb.
I loosened the collar of my peacoat to more fully absorb the truck’s free heat and asked where we were going.
“Once again, I’m branching out beyond my usual realm of expertise,” he said.
Leo’s usual realm of expertise was establishing provenance. The big auction houses in Chicago and on both coasts paid him in excess of half a million dollars a year to establish the lineage and authenticity of the pieces they offered to bidders.
“How far outside your realm?” I asked, as he swung northbound onto the Tollway.
The rented van shuddered its way up to sixty miles an hour. “Medical frontier,” he said, grinning. “I’ve come up with a cure for aging baby boomers who suffer reduced physical and mental dexterity. Soon all will rejoice at the sound of my name. The visage of me, Leo Brumsky, the man who saved them from decrepitude, will adorn parks everywhere. They’ll erect statues, bronze if not solid gold, of the Great Brumsky—”
“As targets for pigeons?” I myself had become an expert on pigeons, or at least their eviction.
“All will hail the name Brumsky, the genius who discovered the cure.”
I pressed him no further. Silence would be the only way to drive him crazy.
His eyes remained fixed on the road. “Nonsplits,” he offered up, after a moment.
I stared ahead, as silent as would be any bronzed Brumsky.
He lasted less than another hundred silent yards. “Aren’t you curious about nonsplits?”
“Sundaes without bananas,” I threw out, quite nonchalantly.
“Ah,” he said, squeezing the wheel with his chartreuse-mittened hands to keep from blurting out anything more. It was to be a standoff between us.
After fifteen minutes of absolute silence, he left the tollway, turned into an industrial park, and backed into a loading dock of the Great Prairie Nut Company.
“I’m sure they don’t need another nut,” I said.
“Stay here.” He got out.
Ten minutes later, two men bounced a tall barrel into the back. They secured it with the yellow web straps lying on the floor and slammed the tin doors.
“I thought you needed my brawn, heroic as it is,” I said, when Leo got back in.
He said nothing, easing the truck up the dock incline as though the barrel contained eggs. The game was still afoot.
It was too much. “OK. What are we hauling that must be so carefully secured?”
“Spent fuel rods. I’m converting your turret into a storage facility.”
“I do investigations, and have deduced you’ve bought a barrel of nuts.”
“Not mere nuts: nonsplits, the gateway to a more flexible life.”
“And Brumskys, bronzed, will adorn parks across the land?”
“The world will rejoice.” Once again we lapsed into silence, until we got to his street.
I turned my head to look out the side window, shocked. “What’s going on?” A backhoe and a bulldozer were demolishing two bungalows toward the end of his block.
“Amazing, huh?” He sounded not at all happy.
“New homes? Here?” It was stunning news. Rivertown, the greasiest of the empty factory wastelands stuck like barnacles to the edge of Chicago, hadn’t seen new construction in decades.
“Rumor has it there’s to be only one, a McMansion on three lots. The bungalow just to the west is also coming down.” He shook his head. “It’s going to ruin the neighborhood.”
His block, like almost all the residential blocks in town, was built solid of brick bungalows put up before the Great Depression for workingmen when manufacturing, instead of stripping women and stripping cars, was what pulsed in Rivertown.
“Who’s building it?” I asked.
“No doubt some fool egoist, anxious to set himself above respectable, working-class neighbors.”
“Be still, my lusting heart.” Unlike Leo, who held the past dear, I had mixed emotions. The grit of Rivertown was deep under my skin, too; I was comfortable with solid lower-middle-class. Yet, if there was interest in redeveloping the crooked old burg, then my five-story turret might attract someone with lots of money and a crazed need to live in a tube. I could move up, like Lester Lance Leamington, to a place with central heat.
“I suppose you should see a lawyer about your zoning again,” Leo said, turning up the alley.
There was the rub. The turret, built by my lunatic bootlegger grandfather as the beginning of a castle, had sat empty and ignored following his death at the start of the Great Depression. That changed at the end of World War II, when the town’s fathers—an especially shameless lot of lizards, even by Illinois standards—sought to build a new city hall. They seized most of my grandfather’s land along the Willahock River, and his mountain of unused limestone blocks, and erected a magnificent city hall of huge private offices and tiny public rooms. They’d had no need for the turret, though, and it continued to languish empty, racking up property taxes no one in my mother’s family thought to pay. Sixty more years passed, and then the children and grandchildren lizards now running things thought to invite development, with its prospect of big-time bribes for construction and operating permits. For that, they needed to perfume the city’s corrupt, tank-town image. They announced a new era, terming it the Rivertown Renaissance, and decided to use the turret on the Willahock River as an icon to plaster on their trucks, stationery, and the porta-potty in the town’s one park. The lizards offered up a greasy deal: My aunt, the churlish bull-headed woman who’d inherited sole ownership of the turret after her sisters died, would get decades of unpaid property taxes wiped away. In exchange, the turret would remain in my family’s hands, but it would be rezoned as a municipal structure, making it unsalable and thereby ensuring the city could use it forever as its new symbol. My aunt was elated … and cunning. To make sure her children would never suffer responsibility for the turrets upkeep, she willed the place to me on her deathbed, as a sort of grand last flush as she exited the planet.
Being of reasonable mind, I ignored her munificence at first. Then, disgraced by a scandal not of my making, and emotionally trashed by behavior that was, I got tossed out of my ex-wife’s gated community. Drunk and utterly broke, I needed a roof. The turret had that, though it leaked. It also had pigeons, and no heat. Still, it was indoor living, of a fashion, and offered the faint hope that I might convert it into a residence to sell.
Right after moving in, I began petitioning to get the turret’s zoning changed back to residential. Elvis Derbil, nephew of the mayor and the town’s building and zoning commissioner, always refused. The turret was the city’s icon; they’d invested too much in splattering its image all over town.
I had no money for a long-term legal battle, so I retreated. Even after Elvis resigned because of a scandal of his own—he’d altered freshness and fat-content labels on truckloads of stale salad oil—I hung back. My income from researching insurance claims and photographing accident scenes was little more than what I needed for materials to rehab the turret; I’d fight the zoning battle after the turret had been fixed up. However, if upscale yups were now about to charge Rivertown, bent on pushing over bungalows to build McMansions, times were changing faster than I’d dared hope. My future needed to be embraced, pronto. That meant reigniting my zoning battle.
Leo turned into the alley and stopped at his garage. Though the bungalows in Rivertown were built of the same dark brown brick, the colors of their frame garages varied within a subdued palette of whites, beiges, and grays. Not Leo’s. His was a particularly vibrant shade of yellow, trimmed in neon green. Ma Brumsky loved her only child.
He got out, opened the big door, and disappeared behind his late father’s ancient brown Ford LTD. Pa Brumsky had been dead for years, and his mother didn’t drive, but Leo still kept the old beast in its usual spot and in prime running order. He respected the totems of his past.
He came out wheeling a dolly, and together we muscled the barrel out of the van, along the narrow walk, and up into the screened rear porch. Like all the neighborhood women who had enclosed back porches, Ma Brumsky used hers as a walk-in pantry. Leo had created a space for the barrel between cases of Diet Mountain Dew, bagged prunes, and All-Bran.
“This is going to improve flexibility how?” I asked.
“It might even cure the ’Zheimers,” he said. He undid the clips on the barrel and lifted the lid so I could see inside.
“Pistachio nuts,” I said.
He jabbed a hand into the nuts and withdrew a few as if he were cradling tiny torpedoes of gold. “Look closer; behold the miracle.”
I took one from his palm. “A most ordinary pistachio,” I said, having keen observational skills.
“How would you open it?”
It had not burst open. There was no seam.“Nonsplits,” I said, at last understanding his earlier use of the term—and not.
A Home Depot plastic bag lay on the case of All-Bran. He smiled, reached inside, and pulled out a pair of needle-nose pliers. “Comprende?” Sometimes he switches to Spanish, though never for very long, because he does not know the language.
“Oui,” I answered in flawless high school French. “Ma and her lady friends will have to use pliers to open the pistachios, thereby strengthening their motor and mental skills. Thus the world will be saved, bronze Brumskys will be erected, and pigeons everywhere will have something appropriate to aim at.”
“Genius, huh?”
“Drive me home.” I had no time to dawdle. Yups were coming.
Five minutes later, he pulled up to the turret. “Come over tomorrow, and behold the beginnings of the new age.”
As I climbed out of his rental van, I told him I would bet every one of my newfound twenty-eight hundred and fifty-three dollars that nothing but good was on the horizon for us both.
I will remember that moment for as long as I live.

Copyright © 2013 by Jack Fredrickson