8

Shirley had arrived first and had snagged a corner table, marking her place with a tote bag set on a chair and a plate with two pastries on it in the center of the table. She was leaning on her elbows on the front counter, having a chummy talk with one of the owners, totally at home. Anni ordered a coffee at the counter and they took their seats.

“Cute place. The street’s looking up.”

“Don’t say that too loudly. Gentrification’s a sore point.”

“We were just talking about that. The alderman is always trying to play down the gang violence, but then has to backtrack to get an increased police presence so new homebuyers feel safe. Speaking of trendy, did you catch Ben Sidlo on the radio last week? He took a public radio reporter into that room. They posted photos of it on their website. Some of those paintings, too. We’ve been getting a lot of calls.”

“Jeez. I can imagine.”

“All these people who suddenly realize they knew there was something funny about that old man. Now they’re upset, knowing he’d gone through their trash, attended mass at their church. Not that they actually can tell us anything useful.” She shrugged, then pulled files out of her tote bag, along with a pad of yellow paper and a pen. She reached for one of the pastries, frowning, and broke it in two, examining the filling and taking a nibble. “What is this stuff?”

“Guava,” Anni said.

“Never heard of it. Some kind of fruit?” She took a bigger bite, wiped crumbs from the corner of her mouth. “You’re going to have to eat the other one. I’m trying to lose weight.”

Anni took it, suddenly craving the familiar combination of flaky pastry and sweet, jammy filling.

“That Ben Sidlo’s a stitch,” Shirley said, before popping the last of her pastry into her mouth. “Franklin calls him ‘the Little Professor.’ Not to his face, of course, but I might just slip up one of these days. He’s like those nerdy boys in middle school who want attention and can’t stop talking. He still doesn’t get why you were mad at him.”

“I know. He keeps sending me emails.”

“Probably figures you’ll be won over by his charm. Apparently a producer from 48 Hours called the other day.”

Anni groaned.

“I doubt anything will come of it,” Shirley said. “There’s no story there, not yet, anyway. It’s just that those pictures are really . . .” Her words dwindled away.

“I know. They creep me out.”

She nodded. “Did you ever deal with child molesters?”

“Sure. Hated those cases.”

“I had this guy, once. We got him for messing with his neighbor’s kid. He wasn’t all there, brain damage or something. I remember going home and telling my husband I wasn’t sure I could do this job anymore. It’s not like I hadn’t seen the worst that people can do to each other. I’d seen plenty. But when I went to that house and arrested him, he gave me this look, and it was like a door opened up and all this cold, dank air came out. Like suddenly I could see there was another world right next to mine, some nightmare place, where this pudgy, pale guy with his thick glasses and weirdo smile lived. A place he thought was normal.” She shivered. “Being in the same room with him made my skin crawl.”

“How I felt in Król’s room.”

She nodded, then took a breath and laid her hand flat on the files. “Records from your investigation. I thought you could take me through it, make sure I’m not overlooking anything.” She picked up her mug and looked down into it. “You ready for another cup?” Anni shook her head. Just looking at the files made her feel jittery.

Shirley headed to the counter for a refill and Anni reached for the file on top. It was strange to see her own paperwork. She winced at the wording in the first report she’d written about Danny, so carefully composed, so wordy and stiff. It took her back to that day ten years ago, to the uncertain, inexperienced detective she was.

 

That afternoon it had felt good to get back to Area 4 Headquarters after spending two hours taking witness statements in Garfield park where a family picnic had been crashed, literally, by a drunken relative in a stolen car. She had been overdressed for the hot, muggy day and her blouse had gotten soaked with sweat under a jacket that now hung over the back of her chair, rumpled and limp. She had only recently been promoted and had maxed out her credit card buying clothes that were supposed to give her the authority that she had yet to earn. The new clothes fit better than the uniform ever had, and it was a relief that people didn’t give her the side-eye constantly, assuming she was out to hassle them. But the street clothes couldn’t hide the fact that she was the youngest detective in the unit and by far the least experienced. Most of her colleagues were in their forties and fifties and had spent years in uniform or plainclothes tactical squads before moving upstairs. She was in her mid-twenties and had spent only two years in uniform before getting the assignment she’d always wanted. She worked hard and tried to be both deferential and a go-getter, but never stopped feeling that she was an imposter who could be exposed at any minute.

She had just taken a break from typing up statements and was carrying a cup of coffee back to the computer when she saw the sergeant at the front desk set the phone down, frowning at two pieces of paper in his hand. “Got something?” she asked.

“Must be the heat. What is it out there, ninety-five? Gets hot like this, all hell breaks loose.”

“Want me to take one of those?”

“You’re working that thing in the park.”

“Just reports; they can wait.”

He studied her. She kept her chin up and tried to look taller, not easy given he had a foot on her. After a moment of thought he started to extend one of the sheets of paper when the door to the squad room opened, and his face darkened. “Where the fuck you been?”

“My alarm didn’t go off.” The man who slouched in looked as if he’d just climbed out of bed, with uncombed hair, a scruffy beard, and sleepy eyes. He always looked that way, except when he had to clean up for a court appearance. Anni hadn’t worked on any cases yet with Konstantin Slovo, and didn’t expect to. He preferred to work alone, keeping his massive network of informants to himself. He breezed through the office at odd hours, often heading home just as the rest of the detectives were arriving at work. He didn’t go out to the bar with the guys or get invited to weddings or baptisms, but he knew almost everyone brought into the station in cuffs on a first name basis.

“Is that coffee fresh?” he asked. Anni nodded, and found herself handing the cup she’d just poured to him.

“You forget about that meeting this morning?” the sergeant asked.

“What meeting?” Slovo slurped from the cup.

“Jesus. You trying to get yourself fired?”

“Oh, that meeting. Don’t worry, I talked to a union rep. It’s under control. Those for me?” He plucked the pages from the sergeant’s hand and scanned them.

“Listen, Slovo—”

“I’ll take this one.” He snagged one of the slips with his teeth, handed the other one back, then stuffed the slip he’d selected into his pocket, already heading for the door.

“Hang on. Where’re you at with that ag assault?”

“Working on it.”

“That ASA called again. What am I supposed to tell him, your alarm didn’t go off?”

“Tell him I got a fresh body over on . . .” He pulled the crumpled paper out of his pocket and squinted at it. “Ayers Avenue.” He shouldered his way out, raising the cup to Anni in a toast.

“Asshole,” the sergeant muttered as he handed her the other piece of paper. “Okay, this one’s yours: a missing kid at the Taste. Don’t give me that look.”

“Why does he get to pick his assignments?”

“Seniority. Also, he doesn’t work on anything with kids.”

“I didn’t know we had a choice.”

“He already did his share. Besides, if you mislaid your kid at the park, would you want a guy like that to respond? They already got enough trauma. Talk to this family, okay? They’re nice people from the North Shore, you speak their language. Hell, by the time you get there it’ll probably be over.”

But it wasn’t. All these years later, it still wasn’t.

 

As Shirley went through the file with her, page by page, things came back to Anni that she hadn’t thought about in years—the pervasive smell of popcorn and fried food, overlaid by the rotten-fish scent of Lake Michigan, the over-cheery voice of some official who kept scanning the crowd anxiously, on the watch for nosy reporters, the fact that Danny’s mother stumbled and nearly fell soon after Anni had arrived. Joyce Truscott looked drawn and pale, her forehead beaded with sweat. A migraine, she said as Anni took her arms and helped her sit down on the grass. Joyce said she had them often, but she’d left her pills at home. She didn’t look much better after they got her home, hunched on the couch, her hands clenched together as if in prayer, pressed against her mouth.

There’s a quantum quality to time when a child goes missing, Anni thought, turning the pages of the file. In a crowd as large as the one in Grant Park that day, kids disappear—then reappear seconds later. Lines of sight are constantly interrupted by the movement of the crowds, and parents feel a series of small jolts as they look around; oh there you are. That’s one state, a fizzy, bubbling undercurrent of anxiety roused and resolved minute by minute. Police get a report of a missing child, and before they know it, a parent is scolding and hugging their kid.

Then there’s the other state, the one when it becomes clear: no, this is serious. There’s nothing in between. It’s not a gradual realization, it’s an abrupt leap from normal, everyday reality to something entirely different.

She could still feel the moment when it all shifted. The two uniformed officers who called it in kept telling Anni the kid was bound to turn up. They had dozens of these, hundreds, every summer. You put two, three million people in the park over the course of a week, it’s gotta happen, right? Trying to decide what to do, she tuned them out, shut out the noise and heat for a moment to think. And something—was it when his mother’s eyes met hers for just a second before she closed them, wincing in pain? Maybe it was just the answer to some calculation going on subconsciously, adding up the facts they had. He was too young, it had been too long. They had to assume the worst and get a comprehensive search underway, right now.

She’d had challenging moments in her short career, but she’d never had to organize the big-picture response this situation required. After that moment of stillness when everything seemed muffled and far away and her task suddenly loomed huge and urgent, she took a deep breath and stepped into the new role. First, she confirmed with Joyce Truscott the accuracy of the description the officers had already put out in a BOLO, told a park official that she needed a place they could use as a command center, with access to a computer, printer, and photocopier, and called her superior officer. Within the first fifteen minutes, she had drawn up and distributed a standard questionnaire officers could use to screen potential witnesses and had dispatched officers to collect any recordings they could get from surveillance cameras at businesses on Michigan Avenue. Within a half hour, the district commander had ordered additional officers to assist, the head of patrol had begun evaluating staffing requirements for a wider search, and four more detectives arrived to conduct interviews with potential witnesses. A media relations staffer was appointed to liaise with the press and a community relations team geared up to handle volunteers and communicate with child advocacy organizations. An experienced detective nearing retirement was appointed support coordinator, tracking and organizing everything that came in. They would need to capture and process information as quickly as possible so that they could cross-check and filter out anything significant.

In that first hour, there were flickering moments when Anni was certain she’d made a mistake, that Danny was just out of sight somewhere in the crowd and everyone would think she was an idiot for making such a big production out of it. But those sparks of doubt never lasted long and grew less and less frequent. By the time she left the park with another detective, taking Joyce and her daughter home to Evanston where they would try to learn everything they could about the family and its inner dynamics as quickly as possible, she knew in the pit of her stomach that Danny had been abducted. Whether it was the impulsive move of a nutcase or something more organized and sinister they wouldn’t know until they picked up some leads or got a ransom demand. But there was no longer any question that he hadn’t simply wandered off.

Though the investigation involved hundreds of officers and coordination with law enforcement in surrounding counties, state troopers, and a team from the local field office of the FBI, Anni remained officially the officer in charge of the investigation. She sensed some grumbling about it, questions about her competence, skepticism that she’d been advanced too quickly to a detective assignment because cute young women with brown skin and connections had an advantage over experienced cops, though nobody said it to her face. When she raised it with Jim Tilquist, a close friend who had spent years as an Area 4 detective before joining the FBI, he told her not to worry, that if anyone doubted her capability, her performance was proving them wrong. It was all about teamwork and organization, and she was doing a fine job keeping all the pieces together.

But as weeks passed without any leads that held up, the task force was gradually dismantled. Multi-agency meetings grew less and less frequent until they stopped altogether, and eventually the paperwork from active cases took the place of the log and lead sheets for the Danny Truscott investigation. Every month she ran checks for similar incidents in other jurisdictions, but nothing ever led anywhere.

 

By the time they reached the end of the files, Anni felt oddly reassured. There were signs throughout the record that she was new to the work. Her paperwork was obsessively correct and much too detailed, but she couldn’t see any obvious angle she had failed to pursue. It turned out that Feliks Król had been questioned. Officers from every beat in four districts and parts of two more had conducted a thorough door-to-door and of them had recorded a short conversation with “Felix Crow,” church custodian.

“We talked to the officer,” Shirley said, tapping on his name. “He didn’t remember screening Król. Not surprising when you talk to that many people over the course of a few days.”

“I’m amazed he got anything out of him. From what I’ve heard, the guy was barely verbal. Did you turn up any other police contact?”

“Cited for trespassing twice, both times for looking through trash bins on private property. Charges dismissed when the officer didn’t show up at court.”

“Any other charges?”

“Nothing that stuck. He got in a dispute once with a shop owner, agreed to stay off the premises. Got questioned a few times about burglaries in the neighborhood, but nobody seriously suspected him of anything worse than being mentally defective and odd.”

“I always thought he was harmless.”

“Everyone did. Maybe he was. He could have just found Danny’s clothes in a trash can, like all that other junk he carried home.”

“But those pictures—“

“Yeah. The pictures.” They fell silent for a moment.

“Was Sidlo able to tell you where exactly the clothes had been in that room?” Anni asked.

“We have a pretty good idea.” Shirley smiled blandly, a door being closed, gently but firmly.

Anni took the hint. Not your business. “You said Joyce, the mother—she’s not cooperating?”

“She’s answering our questions, barely, but she’s not going out of her way to volunteer anything. She might if you talked to her.”

“You want me to?”

“I want to find out what happened to Danny.”

The boisterous arrival of a trio of customers gave Anni a moment to think. As the noisy crew focused on choosing their options from the glass pastry case she said, “Okay, look: Sidlo still wants me to work for him, and I need the money.”

“So we might have some alignment of interests on this.”

“Maybe. I’m still pissed off about the way he moved those clothes, just to hook me into this. But I could tell him I’ll take the job on the condition that everything we find out goes straight to you. That I won’t participate in anything that gets in your way. That you and Franklin are calling the shots on this investigation, not him.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.”

It sounded all wrong to Anni. She took client confidentiality seriously. She’d never taken a job with strings like these attached, but then she’d never imagined she’d agree to work for Sidlo after what he did. “Not sure he’ll go for it.”

“Can’t hurt. That woman’s tight-lipped. If you could get her to open up, it might help.”

“You think Franklin will be okay with this?”

She waved her hand dismissively. “You know how guys are. He can be a little territorial, but he’ll come around, don’t worry. We all want the same thing, right?” She looked at Anni until she nodded.

Anni helped her put the files back in order and slipped them into Shirley’s tote bag as she held it open. “So, guess I’ll be in touch.”

Shirley was hunting for car keys in her purse. “Okie doke,” she said, abstractedly, then looked up, giving Anni a wide smile. “Let me know how it goes with the Little Professor.”

 

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

In the Dark by Barbara Fister, 2020, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.