18

When her phone rang in the dark, she immediately thought of Dugan and snatched it up, picturing flashing red and blue lights in the night, the sound of sirens before she remembered he was serving on a task force, not working on the street.

“Anni?”

“Hi, Josh.” She flopped back onto her pillow. “What’s up?”

“I’m in trouble. I think I may have killed somebody. But I don’t remember doing it.”

“Yeah? Where are you?”

“I don’t want to say. They may be listening.”

“What makes you think you killed someone?”

“The blood on my shoes, for one thing.”

She sat up on the edge of the bed and switched on a lamp. “Whose blood? Josh?”

“I don’t know. There were too many people, and they were all yelling at me. I might have killed a bunch of them.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No.”

“So, what’s the thing about blood?”

“You think I’m making it up.”

“Josh, listen. You probably didn’t kill anyone, okay? I’d like to come and get you, though. So let me know where you are and—”

“I can’t! They’ll hear. Don’t you get it?”

“Okay, let’s figure out a place to meet. Tell me in code, okay? A place we both know. Give me a hint, and get there as fast as I can.”

“They’ll be watching.”

“I’ll be careful. I’ll make sure nobody follows me.”

“Oh, god, the phone. Shit! They’ll have my location.”

“Wait. Don’t turn off—hey, Josh?”

He was gone. She checked the time: 3:24 a.m. She rubbed her face and reached for a pair of jeans.

 

As she headed toward the South Side, she hunted for Kyle’s contact. His phone rang twice before he answered. “Hi, Kyle. It’s Anni Koskinen, Josh’s friend. Look, I’m sorry to—”

“Anni? Oh, man. Is Josh with you?”

“No. What’s wrong?”

“The cops are looking for him.”

“What happened?”

“He stabbed Pete. This guy, Pete Foster. He’s dead. He died. He was laying right there in all this blood, and we called for an ambulance, but he fucking died.” His voice was rising as he spoke, ending on a scratchy note of outrage and disbelief.

“Are you at your apartment?”

“No. I’m at Devon’s place.”

“The police are there?”

“They just got here. I can’t believe Pete’s dead. I mean, I was just talking to him. This can’t be real.”

“Where’s Devon’s place?”

“I don’t know the address.” Kyle sounded angry, but he was sobbing, too, enraged by the unfairness of it all.

“No problem. Just give me the cross streets, okay? I’m on my way.”

 

As she headed for her car, she scrolled through her contacts on her phone until she found the number for the McLaren’s landline, took a deep breath, then pushed the button. After three rings she heard the receiver picked up clumsily, the clearing of a throat. “Yes?”

“Mr. McLaren, it’s Anni Koskinen. Sorry to wake you up, but you son’s been involved in an incident.” She started her car as she spoke and pulled out into the quiet street.

“What now?”

“It’s serious. A man has been stabbed. From what I can tell witnesses identified your son as the assailant. The police are looking for him.”

“Good god almighty.” He groaned the words, sounding weary. “Who got hurt?”

She could hear Donna in the background. “What is it? George?” Her muffled voice sounded jagged.

“I’m not sure. Sounds like another college student.”

“How bad is he?”

“He died.”

She heard him take a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “Great. Fucking great.”

Donna’s voice grew louder, hoarse with panic. “George, what is it?” He apparently muffled the receiver against his chest. Anni could only hear the low drone of his words and high-pitched sounds from Donna. His voice grew louder and Anni could make out some his words: “I’ve been telling you—” and finally, clearly, “Jesus, Donna, get a grip” as he lifted the receiver from his chest. “I’m calling our lawyer.” He disconnected. Anni dropped her phone into her lap and drove south.

 

The street was full of flashing lights. Anni made her way through a crowd gathered near the yellow tape blocking off the front lawn of a big Victorian house. “Who’s running the show?” she asked a uniformed officer, who ignored her. “I have something for him. I know the suspect.”

“Tell me what you got, I’ll see if somebody’s free.”

“Not out here.” A couple of reporters had already found their way to the front of crowd, leaning over the tape to film the scene with their phones while asking bystanders what they knew.

The cop turned away, keyed his shoulder mike and muttered something. After five-minute wait, his radio crackled and he lifted the tape a few inches and jerked his head. She ducked under and headed for the porch, where she was met by a detective she recognized, vaguely, though she couldn’t remember his name. He nodded his recognition but blocked the way with his bulk and authority, looking down at her from the top of the steps.

“I hear you’re looking for Josh McLaren,” she said.

“Know where he’s at?”

“Not yet. He has a mental illness, schizophrenia. I just talked to him on the phone. He’s having a psychotic episode.”

“No kidding. You know where he’s at?”

“He hung up before I could find out. Check with the U of C cops. He’s a grad student there. I want to help look for him. What can you give me?”

“I need a few minutes here, and then we’ll talk.”

“I’ll be by my car.” She gestured down the block, past the growing crowd.

Twenty minutes later, he strolled up to where she leaned against her car, neatly evading the two  network crews that were setting up lights, getting ready to tape news segments. He was squinting at a pack of gum, trying to grasp the little red cellophane tab to open it. When he got it open, he tipped it her way politely.  She shook her head. “Sorry for the wait, but you know how it is.” He slipped a stick of gum out of the package and unwrapped it. “So, how do you know this kid?”

“I work for his parents.” She pulled out her wallet to show him her license. “Sometimes they need someone to go looking for him in places they wouldn’t think of.”

He looked at her license and his eyes flicked up at her before he handed it back. “Such as?”

“First time they called me in, I caught up with him in that railyard south of Midway. He was trying to get to South America. That was really important, for some reason. Last time, back in March, I found him on Promontory Point, down on the rocks. He told me he had killed six people, which he hadn’t. When he’s delusional, he says stuff like that. You think he actually killed somebody?”

“Does he have a history of violence?”

“No.”

“You spoke to him on the phone?”

“Got a call around three thirty. He was scared, wouldn’t tell me where he was. His phone’s turned off now. He was afraid someone might use the GPS to track him. He gets paranoid like that.”

“What exactly did he say?” She didn’t answer right away. “Look, if you’re trying to protect—”

“No. I’m just trying to remember.  Most of the time when he tells me he killed somebody, he sounds really sure of himself. This time he just seemed confused.”

“Did he say—”

“He said he had blood on his shoes and there were a lot of people around. He thought maybe he had killed somebody, maybe more than one, but he didn’t remember doing it. He’s never said that before.”

“Before? This happens a lot?”

“Look, he’s never been violent. Not once. He just gets these ideas.”

“Is he off his meds?”

“I checked in on him on Friday. Far as I could tell, he was taking them and checking in with his psychiatrist regularly, but I could see he  wasn’t doing well.”

“Who’s his psychiatrist?”

She gave him her name and the name of her practice. “Another person he might turn to is a math professor at the University, John Lammert. He lives in a townhouse not too far from here.” He wrote down his phone number. “I already alerted Josh’s parents. They were going to call their lawyer.” She gave him their phone number and address. He raised his eyebrows as he jotted it all down in a  small notebook. “They have a lot of money,” she said.

“That’s just fabulous,” he mumbled, shaking his head.

 

She dialed Kyle’s number and left a message asking him to call her. Then she checked Twitter. Messages about Pete Foster were flooding in. Word of his death was spreading, though Josh’s name wasn’t coming up. Most of the messages expressed shock and sorrow; a few seemed to assume a mugging or carjacking had happened and blamed the neighborhood surrounding the university, using the word “thug” for shorthand.

For the next two hours she drove the streets, walked the U of C campus, and jogged along the lake shore from Promontory Point to the far side of the neighboring beach. She had plenty of company. Police cars were prowling Lakeshore Drive and creeping along neighborhood streets, directing their alley spotlights to the sides. As she returned to her car, the beats of a helicopter drummed overhead with a searchlight probing the streets.

Great, she thought. He’ll be even more freaked out.

The McLaren’s lawyer called her to ask what she knew and what steps she was taking to locate their son. He sounded like the kind of attorney who was on a first-name basis with city officials and the brass. She hoped he could impress on them that Josh was confused and frightened and could be taken down without using force. Of course, the victim’s family probably had well-connected lawyers applying just as much pressure from the other side.

As she trekked to every place she could think of where Josh might have gone to ground, she knew it was an impossible task. There were two huge parks near the university, a rail yard and a good-sized cemetery within reach, not to mention derelict properties awaiting the bulldozer just blocks from the ritzy neighborhood where Kyle’s friend Pete was stabbed. The boundary between wealth and poverty was razor-thin in this part of town. She stopped at a McDonald’s to refuel with coffee and an egg sandwich and gather her thoughts.

The South Side wasn’t her home territory, and she had only a handful of contacts to tap. They weren’t too happy to be woken up so early, but she had to get the word out. She tripled the amount of money she’d offered in the past for tips. The McLarens could afford it. Like an emergency phone tree, her contacts would spread the word in a net across the neighborhoods, a competition to see who could collect the cash first.

But the first call she got was from a reporter.

“So, I hear one of your kids gutted a guy with a kitchen knife,” Az Abkerian greeted her.

“I’m pretty sure I know less about it than you do. Who’s the guy who got stabbed?”

“Peter Nicholas Foster, son of a finance heavyweight and member of the Commercial Club, same as your kid’s dad. Found deceased at the residence of Devon Oachs, whose parental units move in the same social circles. Both Foster and Oachs are enrolled at the U of C B-school, studying how to get richer. This is going to blow up big, you know. Rich people’s kids killing each other—this’ll go national. Got anything you can tell me?”

“Just that I won’t confirm that I work for the McLarens. And that if you drag me into this story I’ll never speak to you again.”

“But you did work for the McLaren’s in the past, right?” He waited. “Whatever. You can have what I got anyway, ‘cause I’m  a nice guy. Dispatcher took the call at 3:19 A.M. The victim was . . . did you say something?”

“No.” She jotted the time down and checked her recent call history. That was just minutes before Josh had called her.

After a weighty pause, hoping for her to drop a useful tidbit, Az went on. “The victim had been stabbed in the chest with a big old kitchen knife. It hit something important and he bled out before the ambo arrived.”

“Just one wound?”

“What I was told, though I gotta confirm it. Police have four witnesses independently saying your boy did it. Apparently he showed up at an informal gathering of friends without an invite, acting strange. Accused them of stealing some idea of his. They tried to calm him down but he grabbed the knife and boom.”

“Dammit.”

“Does this sound like something Joshua McLaren would do? What kind of previous relationship did he have with the dead guy? They have a history?”

“You know I’m not going to answer that.”

“Don’t you want to help people understand his state of mind before this story goes live?”

“Nice try. Does this mean you’re working again?”

“Freelancing in the gig economy. ‘Working’ pays better, but I’ll take what I can get. Look, you know Josh better than most. He’s coming off like a dangerous killer, right now. I could use a little something to balance perspectives. Not for attribution, of course.”

“Quit it.”

“On background, then.”

“Az—”

“Fine, fine. Some friend you are. I gotta go.”

He acted mad, but from his tone she could tell he was as happy as a dog that had just rolled on a smelly carcass, a nice change from the way he sounded when he was hungover from holding a wake for the end of his career. But it was also a reminder that the vast number of cops searching for Josh would be more than matched by a horde of journalists, hungry for a sensational story. She downed her coffee and headed for her car.

 

It was close to noon before she found him.

A few tips had come in, but none of them had paid off. She’d finally picked up the trail herself from an elderly woman out sweeping her sidewalk. A white boy had woken her up in the middle of the night. “These college kids don’t have no consideration, and they drink way too much. He was shouting things, clothes all messed up, causing a commotion. Took off running.” She pointed the way.

She got another sighting from a man sitting on his stoop. He’d seen him, too. Running and looking over his shoulder, like he was being chased by Mister Nobody. Ran right Into the park. Jackson Park. Five hundred acres of fields, woods, boat docks, and lagoons.

“Great,” Anni muttered to herself.

She drove the looping road that circled through the park, seeing nothing but the usual: families, runners, dog walkers, old folks enjoying the sun. Two men were putting lawn chairs and fishing gear into the trunk of a car in a parking lot behind the Museum of Science and Industry. She showed them a picture of Josh on her phone. “You see this guy come by here? I told his mama I’d try to find him.”

“Sure did. We were just getting set up when he come running by. That was ‘bout, what, two hours ago?”

“Something like that.” His friend nodded.

“We were fishing in the lagoon. He came crashing through the bushes. Looked kind of dazed.”

“Dazed and confused,” his friend said.

“Looked like he’d been in a fight.”

“We asked if he needed help,” his friend said, “but he looked at us like they do.”

“Like we dangerous.” They both laughed at the idea. Two old Black men trying to catch a few fish.

“Did he say anything?” Anni asked.

“Nothing that made any sense. He took off running that way.” He pointed.

“To the island?”

“I didn’t see. I got a bite just then.”

“Got a boot, you mean. Hooked some trash,” his friend said.

She gave them her cards, asked them to call if they saw him again. Then she headed for the island.

It would appeal to Josh as a hiding place, wooded and overgrown, full of dense thickets even in the early spring. She jogged across the bridge and down a potholed path, scanning side to side. A family cycled past, the youngest tilting on training wheels. A man walking his dog looked at the photo she showed him but shook his head. She reached the far end of the island and stopped to talk to two old men on a bench.

“What he do?”

“The police think he might have stabbed somebody,” Anni said.

“Is that right? Heard a lot of sirens last night. Up there.” He pointed his chin north, toward the enclave where the rich folks lived.

“He has a mental illness. He’s probably scared right now and acting weird, though he never hurt anyone before.”

They looked at each other, then one of them pointed. “That tree over there? The big one? He’s back in there.”

Anni saw nothing but greenery and tangled branches. “You saw him?”

“’Bout an hour ago, maybe two, he come running up the path. Saw us sitting here and stopped. Looked like he was crying.”

“Said ‘I’m sorry’ like ten times,” his companion added.

“Wasn’t carrying no knife, though.” He glanced at the other man who nodded in confirmation. “Ran off, hunkered down by that tree. Hasn’t moved since.”

“Thanks. I’m going to see if I can talk to him. You might want to clear out, just in case.”

“No ma’am. This here’s our bench.” They both chuckled. “Come here most days when it’s fine, but it ain’t usually exciting.”

“Fine,” she muttered and pushed into the thicket. She saw Josh huddled against the tree trunk, arms locked around his knees, head tucked down. His hair was laced with twigs and dead leaves, bare feet scratched and muddy.

“Josh, it’s me,” she said softly. He made a low moan and clenched himself tighter. “My car’s not far from here.”

“They’re going to shoot me.” His words were muffled and hoarse. “I killed them all. I had to.”

She felt a wave of weariness. “Let’s go to the hospital. I know you don’t like it there, but you’ll be safe and—”

She wasn’t ready for him when he sprang up and shoved her, sending her sprawling. He stumbled deeper into the woods, thrashing through the thicket like a blind, lame animal. She scrabbled for her phone and the detective’s card, trying to keep a visual on Josh as she made the call.

“I found Josh McLaren. He’s on the island in Jackson Park. Unarmed, barefoot. Headed east through the woods. Oh, shit.” A vine had caught her ankle. She went sprawling and lost her phone. She scrabbled through the undergrowth to find it.

“Where’s he at now?” The detective’s voice was as calm and steady as a dispatcher’s, though she sensed the electric hum of the search in the background, orders being relayed, cars redirected to converge on the park.

“He just made it to the footpath. Running north, now, toward the museum.” She was panting, one eye watering after getting slapped by a twig. “He’s unarmed and he’s scared. Try not to hurt him.”

She was on the path now, just yards behind him. He stopped short as a cruiser rumbled across the pedestrian bridge onto the island and squealed to a stop, blocking the way. Another car came up from behind. In minutes he was ringed by police. Josh’s head swiveled from side to side, his eyes fixed on the drawn guns. A brawny uniformed officer spoke slowly and calmly. “It’s all right son. Nobody’s going to harm you if you do what we say.”

Josh stared at him, hunched and visibly trembling, his eyes wide with terror. There were scratches on his cheek like claw marks. The twigs and leaves tangled in his hair made him look like a feral child. For a moment Anni saw him as Feliks Król might have drawn him, an innocent child circled by armed men bent on violence.

Anni caught the officer’s eye, signaling that she wanted to approach him. “Josh, it’s going to be all right,” Anni said gently. She stepped forward, her palms open, moving slowly. “It’s okay.” Another step.

“Anni?” It sounded as if he were pleading. The same voice as her brother when he was so lost and terrified he spoke her name aloud, squeezing the syllables out as if it hurt.

“They won’t hurt you, I promise.” She had to believe it so that she could make him believe, too, in spite of the guns, in spite of the tight ring of tension surrounding them.

“You’re not Anni. You’re one of them.”

“No, I’m the same old Anni. We’re going to be fine, Josh, okay? We’ll go together.”

He stared at her as she took a step closer. She had a weird thought that if she took hold of the trailing bramble caught in his hair, dangling down over his shoulder, she could lead him to safety.

That’s when he punched her in the face.

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