It starts, as always, in the crowded cooler of the old Cook County medical examiner’s office. A worker in coveralls and a mask loads the rough wooden boxes stacked against the wall onto a dolly and trundles them, three at a time, down the hallway to the loading dock, where a truck is waiting. He hums to himself, steadying the topmost box with one hand, and doesn’t notice the fluid that looks like antifreeze dripping from the corner of one of the boxes.
I follow the unmarked panel truck through South Side neighborhoods, into the suburbs, and to the cemetery, where a long trench is open near the back fence. The grass here is brown and sparse. Broken roots reach like bony fingers through the newly dug earth and a cracked drain pipe drips rusty water. Two men unload the boxes and lower them in, nudging them close together to save space. Each box has a round brass tag nailed to one end—no names, just numbers.
When the last one is in place, lying unevenly because it barely fits, an old black man in a suit clasps his hands and mumbles a prayer before scattering a handful of dirt, which patters down on the plywood with the sound of rain. There’s a moment of quiet, just the rustle of the wind and the hum of traffic on a distant highway. Then he turns away and the backhoe starts up, making a shrill, insistent racket.
Only it wasn’t a backhoe, it was the phone. I picked it up, feeling the familiar knot of sorrow in the center of my chest that always came with that dream. “Hello?”
“Anni? Is that you?”
“You sound funny.”
I recognized that low rumble: Father Sikora, the priest at St. Larry’s, the Catholic church and community center four blocks from my house.
“I was asleep.” I picked up my watch and squinted at it. Not quite 6:00 a.m. “What’s wrong? Is Sophie—”
“Not Sophie. It’s someone else. She needs help. You got a car now, right?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“What does that mean?”
“It runs most of the time.”
“Oh. Well, listen . . .” I heard him take a breath. “Take care of her, okay? I’m counting on you.” Click.
I stared at the phone for a moment before I put it down. Father Sikora wasn’t much for small talk, but this was cryptic even for him. I’d met him ten years ago, when I was a rookie police officer assigned to the Wood District, where his church was an anchor for the community. When I needed some insight into why there was a spike in vandalism or how residents would respond to a new policing initiative, he had the answers. He was in his late sixties now, a barrel-chested Pole with a bald head, a boxer’s mashed nose, a rolling gait from an arthritic hip, and gnarled hands that could wield a nail gun for hours of hard manual labor or cup the head of a newborn with immense gentleness. The sole priest in a busy parish, he offered three Masses on the weekends, one each in English, Polish, and Spanish. He’d never asked for my help before. Maybe another troubled teen had gotten lost in the big bad city. That seemed to be my specialty these days.
Between that dream and the strange conversation, I felt disoriented and in sore need of coffee. I pulled on a pair of cutoffs and ran water into the old stove-top percolator, scooping in some of the Puerto Rican coffee that I buy at the local corner grocery. I filled a bowl with Little Friskies, went out on the porch, and left it at the bottom of the steps for the three-legged stray cat who lived in the alley. He crouched by the trash cans, pretending indifference, but one ragged ear swiveled toward the sound. For reasons of feline pride, he preferred to think he stole the food when my back was turned. I knew he wouldn’t make his move until I went back upstairs and shut the door behind me.
The early-morning sun flooded the room with light from unexpected angles these days. I finally had time to work on the classic Chicago two-flat that I’d bought a year ago. I rented the downstairs flat to a young family and lived on the second floor, in an apartment that had been a poky, dark warren of small rooms until I’d knocked out walls, opened the ceiling to expose the rafters, and ripped up carpet and layers of old linoleum to uncover the hardwood underneath. My brother Martin helped me install some old windows with rippled glass that I’d found at a junk shop, rigging them with old-fashioned sash weights hidden behind the casings so they opened and shut with buttery smoothness. They were thrown wide open now, the streets playing their morning music: cars, city buses wheezing away from their stops, neighbors calling out to one another as they headed to work—something I didn’t do anymore, which meant I had plenty of time and more than enough energy to make some renovations.
From an early age, I had known exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I would join the police force and become a detective based at Area 4 headquarters, finding the bad guys, helping their victims. No one who died on the streets would be buried without a name or a story, not if I was working the case. Things had gone according to plan—until I saw a cop named Hank Cravic lose his temper with a cocky teenager, leaving the kid with permanent brain damage. The boy’s family filed a civil suit against the city and, when it finally made its way through the courts, I was called as a witness. The city settled with the family for an undisclosed sum without ever admitting responsibility, but after I testified against Cravic, everything changed.
It took a few months before I finally admitted to myself that I couldn’t do the job anymore, not without the support of my fellow officers. I turned in my shield, filled out the paperwork to get a PI’s license, then borrowed a sledgehammer and went to work remodeling my apartment. I have a gift for anger management.
The percolator started to burble, and just as I turned the flame down, I heard tapping at the door. Since no one was visible through the peephole, I assumed it was one of the kids who lived downstairs. They were always up at the crack of dawn, and in mid-June dawn cracked early. But it wasn’t a child; it was a short, fat woman in a blue jumper and orthopedic shoes, her face hidden under the bill of a baseball cap. When she took it off, I recognized her as one of the workers at St. Larry’s.
“Can I help you?”
“I’m Rosa.” She gave me an uncertain smile. “Father Sikora sent me?” she added, as if she wasn’t sure herself.
So it wasn’t a runaway in trouble; it was a middle-aged woman who dressed like a nun—a nun who was a Cubs fan. “Oh, right. Come on in.” I suddenly felt awkward about the skimpy tank top I’d worn to bed, the paint-spattered cutoffs, even conscious of the tattoo on my shoulder. It was a tasteful little diamond in a traditional Hmong design, but I doubted middle-aged church workers approved of women with tattoos.
“Sorry about the mess. Been doing some remodeling.” I wiped dust from a kitchen chair with a dish towel, then wiped the table for good measure. “Have a seat.” I ducked into the bathroom to brush my teeth, run a comb through my hair, and change into a T-shirt and a pair of jeans.
When I returned, Rosa was sitting at the kitchen table, dimpled and plump and so short her feet dangled above the floor. Her hair, once dark but now threaded with silver, fell in a thick braid down her back, and her eyes were bright and curious as she tilted her head to read the address off a pile of mail in a basket on the table. “Koskinen,” she said thoughtfully. “Isn’t that a Finnish name?”
“Right,” I said, taking two mugs out of a cupboard. I braced myself for the usual reaction, a variation on “Funny, you don’t look Jewish.” With my dark hair and brown skin, I wasn’t your typical Scandinavian. But she surprised me.
“You must have Saami ancestry.”
“Maybe. I don’t know anything about my ancestors, just that the name is common in Finland.” Not many people knew about the Saami, indigenous nomads who herd reindeer in northern Finland. She could be right. Or the genes that gave me my looks were Filipino, or Lebanese, or Puerto Rican, some multiethnic gumbo. It didn’t matter to me where they came from; I knew who I was.
But I didn’t know much about Rosa. I’d seen her working at the bustling community center next to the church. The old rectory housed a soup kitchen, a food shelf, and programs for families, teens, and the homeless, all of it run on ridiculous optimism and a loaves and fishes approach to budgeting. Rosa was usually somewhere in the background, holding a baby or talking softly in Spanish to a glowering teenager who was upset because of some slight or other.
“Is that your family?” she asked, nodding at a framed photo propped next to the basket of mail.
I brought over mugs of coffee and sat across from her, glancing at the photo taken the day I graduated from the Academy, me in a hat that looked too big, dwarfed by my brother and grandfather, who stood on either side. I realized I should have put it away somewhere until I’d finished taping and sanding the drywall; the glass was coated with fine white powder, like frost. “Yup. I’m the one in the uniform.”
“Father Sikora told me you’re a private investigator now, that you work for Sophie Tilquist’s parents.”
“They asked me to help find her when she ran away. I would have done it anyway. I’ve known the family for years.” Jim and Nancy Tilquist were my oldest and best friends. Their lives had been thrown into disarray when their daughter Sophie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age fourteen. In the three years since, during manic episodes, she would disappear from home, looking for excitement in the city. Most recently, I’d found her at St. Larry’s, communing with archangels among the flickering votive candles in the sanctuary.
With the first sip of coffee, my hand automatically started looking for a cigarette, and I gave it a mental smack. I’d quit that, too, but the urge was still there. It was time to get down to business. “So, I understand you need help.”
She nodded at me over her mug, her dark eyes solemn. “I have to go somewhere and I don’t have a car.”
I had to struggle to keep a straight face. The old priest knew I’d just gotten my PI’s license, but apparently that hadn’t impressed him as much as the news that I’d finally bought a battered car from one of his parishioners. He’d been ragging me about using my bike to get around town since the Cougar I’d driven for years died of old age. He thought it was dangerous, that the city was no place for bikes. I hadn’t paid any attention to him, enjoying a brief holiday from the daily hunt for street parking. But I finally realized I could get a phone call in the middle of the night and have to prowl the city in search of Sophie, and that meant I’d have to have a car.
“Sure, I can give you a lift. Where do you need to go?”
I wondered if I’d heard her right. “You mean, Bemidji, Minnesota?”
“Actually, it’s a little north of there. You’ve never heard of it.”
I drank some coffee. That would take, what, ten hours? Fifteen? A couple of days shot, going there and back again. I thought about offering her a ride to the bus station, and the bus fare if necessary, but Father Sikora would have done that, if that was all she needed. Something was going on, something neither one of them wanted to explain.
I liked the old priest. When I used to stop by St. Larry’s with questions and a badge, he would look me in the eye and answer without messing around. True, there were times I could tell he was holding something back, but I’d learned through experience he always had good reason. And he’d been kind to Sophie, who had mistaken the bright, clamoring excitement that filled her mind for a divinely inspired mystical experience. She’d been stable since the last episode, though. I could afford to be out of town for a few days.
Besides, for reasons I couldn’t guess, Father Sikora was counting on me.
I looked over at the woman, her eyes on me as she sipped from her mug. “So,” I said to her, “what’s the best way to get to Bemidji?”
I threw a change of clothes, my cell phone, and a couple of paperbacks into a knapsack, and checked my wallet, realizing I’d better hit up an ATM before we left town. At only 6:30, it was too early to call my brother Martin. He was planning to come over after work the next day to help me replace the bathroom sink. I’d give him a ring once we got on the road, explain the change of plans.
The feral tomcat, who was pretending someone else had cleaned out the bowl of Friskies, watched us suspiciously as we came down the back stairs, then darted off in his lopsided way when we got too close. Though it was early, the sky was already hazy and bright, the stagnant air as hot as if it were coming from an open oven. For the second week in a row, temperatures were predicted to reach the upper nineties by afternoon. As we came through the narrow gangway between my house and the next, I caught the pungent scent of stale tobacco and sweat, and stopped short, causing Rosa to step on my heels.
“Morning, ladies.” He was leaning back on his elbows, surveying the street as if he owned it. He took a slow toke on his cigarette to show how comfortable he was. “Gonna be another hot one.”
“Get off my porch, Tyler.”
“Just resting my feet.”
“Rest them somewhere else.”
He shrugged and gave Rosa a roguish wink as he stood. I was afraid he’d ask if she could spare a few bucks, so I gave him a “get lost” glare and pointed her toward my car. As I circled around to the driver’s side, I looked back. Tyler was ambling away down the sidewalk, flicking ash off his cigarette, a cell phone pressed to his ear, probably setting up his next score.
“Who was that?” Rosa asked.
“Just a guy I arrested a couple times. For some reason, that makes him think we’re buddies.” Tyler was a country boy from the southernmost end of the state. He had a drug habit, a soft accent, cornflower blue eyes, and shoulder length wavy locks and a wispy beard that made him look like a picture of Jesus, except Jesus never had so many tattoos on his arms. He made a specialty of charming his way into old ladies’ homes and, while they made him some sandwiches, pocketing anything he thought he could sell. He was a master at talking his way out of trouble, becoming a confidential informant for more than one cop, as adept at playing them as his old ladies.
“He sometimes comes by for supper at St. Larry’s.” Her eyes were fixed on the rearview mirror. “Always complains about the food.”
“How long have you worked there?” I asked as I coaxed the Corolla’s engine to a rough start.
“A little over a year. So, you’re the one who bought Laronda’s car. I thought she’d never find a buyer.”
The Corolla chugged loudly as I pulled out into the street. It needed a new muffler, among other things. “Yeah, I was in the market and . . . I don’t know, I felt sorry for her.” Laronda, the previous owner, had launched a campaign of stopping me on the sidewalk or in the market, patting my arm, telling me what a good little car she had—a little dented up was all—how she needed the money so she could pay off some hospital bills, buy the medicine the doctors told her to take. She’d almost looked disappointed when I finally said yes, okay, I’d buy the car. Like it had been too easy. Rosa didn’t say anything, but I got the feeling she felt sorry for me, suckered into buying such a piece of junk.
“Father Sikora’s a good guy to have on your side,” I said.
“Yes, he is.” She looked placidly out the window, not taking the invitation to explain why she had to leave town suddenly.
“Don’t you think you should tell me what this is about?”
“It’s better if I don’t. You were at the Temple last month, weren’t you?” If she was trying to change the subject, it worked. I looked at her, surprised. “One of our regulars was on the list this year. I wanted to be there for him. What brought you to the service? Someone you knew?”
“I go every year,” I said, not really answering her question. It was an annual memorial service, held at the Chicago Temple, that strange neo-Gothic skyscraper in the Loop that combines Methodist ministry and fifteen floors of office space. A few dozen people would gather there at the end of May to remember those buried by the county at public expense. Not that much was expended—embalming performed by students of mortuary science who needed the practice, a forty-dollar pine box, and a few square feet of a trench in the Homewood cemetery, where they were interred, a dozen at a time, as soon as investigators in the morgue detail were certain no one else would foot the bill. Fifteen or twenty of the three hundred or so buried by the county each year didn’t even have a name. My mother was buried there, identified only by a number until Jim Tilquist had helped me track her down. I had only the vaguest memories of her, and never found out how she died, but I went to the service every spring, and sometimes took the trip with her to Homewood in my dreams.
I waited for traffic to clear and pulled onto Western, swerving around an old woman pushing a grocery cart filled with her belongings. She traveled up and down the street every day, always pushing the same load, always with that look of fierce purpose, never seeming to get to wherever the destination was.
There was an ATM in the front entrance of a pharmacy just up the block. I pulled into an open spot in front of an unmarked car where a plainclothes cop was drinking coffee in a go-cup, the Sun-Times spread out across his steering wheel. It wasn’t just the shoulder rig bulging under his jacket that told me he was a cop, but the look on his face, a tense kind of patience earned from hours of surveillance. If some lowlifes were giving Rosa trouble, finding a parking spot right in front of an armed police officer seemed a piece of luck. I put it in neutral and pulled the hand brake, leaving the engine running, thinking the fewer times I had to deal with that balky ignition, the better. “I need to get some cash. Why don’t you figure out our route.”
I reached across, opened up the glove compartment to pull out the pocket road atlas, and saw an ugly snub-nosed .38 with a taped grip that I had forgotten was in there. I glanced at Rosa, pulling the map book out from under it, but she didn’t seem to notice the gun, or politely ignored it at least.
“Just take the Kennedy outbound,” she said, settling the atlas in her lap. “I’ll get some change together for the tolls.” She started to burrow in her purse.
As I headed toward the pharmacy, I glanced back. The cop was focused on his newspaper, not interested in me or the illegal handgun in my glove compartment. There were a couple of newspaper boxes on the sidewalk. I put in two quarters and pulled out the morning Trib. The usual: a headline about the latest crisis in Iraq, concern that the power grid might fail again as temperatures rose. Protests held at police headquarters over the second shooting of an unarmed black youth by police in a matter of weeks. I wondered, not for the first time, why they bothered to call it news.
It was too early for the pharmacy to be open, but the door to the lobby with the ATM was unlocked, monitored by a pair of security cameras. I slipped in my card, punched in the numbers, and tucked the bills into my wallet. That gun was bothering me. Chicago has some of the strictest handgun laws in the country. It’s not a good place to be caught with an unregistered weapon. I’d found it during Sophie’s most recent manic escapade, in a squat where she had been staying. It hadn’t been fired recently, but just in case, I had wiped it down thoroughly and stuck it in my glove compartment, not mentioning it to her parents, who were already frantic enough. When I’d finally found Sophie, she was in no state to explain where it had come from, and in the turmoil of getting her hospitalized, I forgot all about it. I knew I should turn it in at one of the districts, but it would lead to hours of paperwork and questions. It would have to wait until I returned from Minnesota.
As I pushed out to the sidewalk, two men approached. My first thought was that they had been watching the ATM and had picked an easy target—a woman, yet, all of five foot three, slight of build. The sensible thing would be to play it safe and hand over my wallet. But they weren’t muggers; they were wearing suits and ties. And when I glanced over at Rosa, I saw her face was stiff with dread.
Operating on pure instinct, I tossed my newspaper at the bigger of the two men to distract him and then turned to the one approaching close behind me and kneed him hard in the groin, causing enough of a jolt that he dropped the SIG Sauer he was holding out of sight behind his right leg. It clattered to the sidewalk, and we both dived for it. The big man, batting at the paper that fanned around him, tripped over our legs and crashed down hard. I head-butted the other one and got my palm on the grip of his pistol. By this time, the assault on his cojones had got the better of him; he was hunched over, gasping, face screwed up in pain.
The plainclothes cop was out of his car now, identifying himself in a bellow loud enough to be heard three blocks away, his service weapon extended. I rose to my knees and sent the SIG spinning toward him across the sidewalk, showing him my palms. He stopped it with his foot and pointed his gun at its owner, whose hand was moving into his jacket.
“Fiske, FBI.” The man took out a badge case and let it fall open. He dabbed his split lip with the back of his other hand and frowned at the stain. The bigger man lumbered to his feet, breathing hard. He held his right arm tenderly to his chest, wincing as he scanned the street. “Goddamn it!”
Fiske got up to retrieve his weapon, then ordered me to lie facedown on the sidewalk. He cuffed my wrists behind me and gave them an extra tug to show who was boss. The early rush-hour traffic had slowed to a crawl as people gawked. The homeless woman pushing the grocery cart had made it this far in her daily trek and was doggedly trying to steer through it all, her eyes wide with panic, a driver hanging out his window, yelling angrily after she clipped his car with her cart.
Fiske patted me down thoroughly, then bent close enough that I could feel the heat of his breath, smell the coppery tang of the blood that stained his teeth. “Verna Basswood,” he said intimately, his voice vibrating with tension. “Where’d she go?”
He spat, a red glob landing near my face on the sidewalk. “You’re going to regret wasting my time.”
Cruisers were drawing up, sirens whooping as he grabbed my arms and hauled me to my feet. I couldn’t make out the questions people were asking me over all the racket, but I could guess what they were about. The spot where I’d left my Corolla idling was now vacant.
Copyright © 2008 by Barbara Fister. All rights reserved.