11

The next morning, Anni took a cup of coffee and her computer to the couch to scan the headlines and check her email. Included among her messages was a chipper note from Ben Sidlo that provided instructions for creating a password for the secure server where all the research material for the Feliks Król project was being stored. She set up an account, logged in, and poked around. The eight notebooks that had been scanned were accompanied by one-page descriptions that read like copy for an art exhibit catalog, full of words like “liminal” and “transgressive.” She opened one of them at random and clicked through a few pages before deciding it was too early in the morning for Król’s disturbing vision of the world, full of cruelty and religion. Instead, she called Az Abkerian. She got his voicemail, so simply told him she might have a story for him. She spent an hour checking public records databases, finding a few scant traces of her subject, including a phone number for Pat O’Hara, the elderly boarder who had moved out of the house on Wolcott Avenue into senior housing. He seemed not just willing but eager to share with her what he knew.

After inviting her into his tiny overheated studio apartment, the old man waved her to a chair before he bustled into a kitchen nook to fill mugs with coffee. A plate of Oreos had already been set out on a coffee table. “The police were already here,” he said proudly, easing himself into a well-worn recliner. “Two detectives. A woman and a colored guy, reminded me of that actor, what’s his name? You know the one, he was in that movie . . .” He squinted at her, then waved it away. “Aw, hell, can’t remember nothing these days. Getting old is for suckers. You’re a detective, you said?”

“A private investigator.”

She handed him one of her cards, and he took it curiously, setting his mug down and rummaging through the clutter on the table beside him for a pair of glasses. He held the card out at arm’s length to read it. “What do you know,” he muttered to himself, before setting it aside.

“As you probably heard, the police got interested in Feliks Król because he happened to have some clothing in his room that belonged to a child who went missing ten years ago. I’m working for an art professor who’s interest is in Król’s work. Paintings Feliks made.”

“You got to be kidding me. Feliks? Never would have guessed.”

“This professor wants to know more about Król’s life, but he’s busy teaching, so he hired me to interview anyone who knew him. I’m probably going to ask the same questions those detectives asked.”

“Okay by me.” He folded the glasses and tucked them into his shirt pocket. “Help yourself to them cookies.”

She took one to be polite, and took a cautious nibble. She had spent a lot of time interviewing elderly people. Often they were the only ones at home, the only ones paying attention when something went down on the street outside. More often than not, they provided refreshments, but thanks to poor eyesight and dulled taste buds, the food could be stale and sometimes the dishes weren’t clean. Fortunately, these cookies were fresh and the china was spotless.

“Feliks Król left a room jam-packed with stuff,” she said.

“He was such a packrat. I saw a television show about that. Hoarding, they call it. Made me wonder about Feliks.”

“He also left behind paintings and a lot of stories he wrote, stories he illustrated.”

“No kidding? He used to buy notebooks at the Walgreens, the kind kids use at school. Must have written thousands of pages. He’d sit for hours, scribbling away.”

“Did he show you his work?”

“Nope. Never. Not like my neighbor across the hall, here. That jackass wrote his memoirs and his grandson got them printed up. He keeps trying to sell those books of his to everybody. Like living across from a used car lot. Feliks wasn’t like that. I only knew about it ‘cause he’d sit on the back porch when it was hot, writing in them notebooks of his. I kidded him, called him Shakespeare. He didn’t mind. We got along fine.”

“When did you first meet Feliks?”

“Would have been, oh, let’s see. Around the time Ronald Reagan got elected. I had a nice apartment up in Andersonville, but the building got sold and I couldn’t afford to live there no more, so I got a room at Mrs. P’s instead. That’s what we called her, Mrs. P. Her actual name was . . . it was . . .” He picked at his shirt, frowning.

“Peterson,” she said.

“That was it. Peterson. Doris Peterson!” He slapped his knee, happy to have that hole in his memory plugged. “Mrs. P, she lost her husband in Korea, got a carpenter to throw up some walls so she could take in boarders. Feliks was already living there when I moved in. Everybody told me he was a dope. Simple-minded. Simple like a fox.”

“He was smart?”

“He knew what was going on. Just didn’t like to talk much, and he didn’t care what people thought of him. Stubborn, too, always liked to have his own way. What a character.”

“What do you know about his background?”

“He was born in Chicago, not far from the boarding house. He pointed it out to me, one of them little brick three-flats on Paulina, a few blocks south of Division. He lived with his mom on the bottom floor, down below the sidewalk, you know how they are? Little paved spot out front, steps going up to the sidewalk. That part of town was mostly Polish back then. By the time I got there, it was different. Lot of Hispanics. Lot of crime. Rougher than Andersonville, but I didn’t have a choice.”

“You think you could recognize the house Feliks was born in if you saw it again?”

“I might, but I don’t get out much these days.”

“How about I show you some pictures on my computer?”

He was dubious as she brought up Google Maps, found street level views of the block south of Division, and settled her computer in his lap, reaching over to nudge the cursor down the street.

“Tell me if you see the house.”

He fumbled for his glasses and shook his head. “What’ll they think of next?” He stared at the screen, frowning as the view proceeded south. “Where’d they get all those pictures?”

“They drove a car down the street with a camera on top.”

“On Paulina?”

“On streets all over.”

“What’d they do that for?” Before she could come up with an answer, he said “Wait, I think . . . can you back up?”

She did. “This side of the street?” She rotated the view.

“Quit that, you’re making me dizzy. If you could just . . . hold it. That’s the one.” He waved a finger over the screen. “What do you know, just like it used to be. Only it was run down back then. Look how they fancied it up. Fellow who took over Mrs. P’s place was full of big plans, too, though I don’t know. He looked like a hippie to me, not a hard worker.”

She took the laptop from him and saved a screenshot. “So that’s where he grew up, huh?”

“Until he was six or seven, anyways.” He took an Oreo and bit into it, then brushed crumbs off his chest. “His mom got sick, and since he didn’t have a dad or relatives to take care of him, he ended up in an orphanage.”

“Which one? Do you know?”

He frowned. “Wasn’t that big one up in Rogers Park. I had a friend who grew up there, so I asked Feliks if that was it, and it wasn’t. Must have been Catholic, though. The orphanages back then were all Catholic or Protestant, and Feliks was Catholic, for sure. Old fashioned about it, too. Never ate meat on Friday, went to church every day, rain or shine. Very devout.”

“So I’ve heard. He worked at a church, didn’t he?”

“For years. Never missed a day, not till Father Anthony got put out to pasture and the new guy pulled the plug on Feliks’s job. Why the parish couldn’t spare that little bit of money he made, I’ll never know.”

“That must have been upsetting for him, to lose his job.”

O’Hara chuckled. “Not so much. He never cared about money. He just quit going to that church. Struck it right off his list. Plenty of others to go to.”

“He didn’t get angry?”

“Feliks wasn’t the emotional type.”

“What type was he, would you say?”

He scratched his chin, thinking. “He wasn’t sociable like some of my neighbors here, jabbering about dumb stuff every chance they get. I never knew anybody like him. He lived life his own way. Loved going to church, and he loved finding pretty things, stuff he’d pick up here and there. Loved children.”

She kept her tone relaxed, though something in her chest tightened with his words. “I would have thought kids might have given him a hard time, considering people thought he was simple.”

“Oh, they could be cruel, all right, the teenagers, especially. They get that attitude, you know. But he felt bad for the little ones who didn’t have nobody looking after them, just like when he was a kid. Those orphanages weren’t a bed of roses. Cold dorms, lousy food, lots of rules. Feliks and rules didn’t get along. That’s why he felt sorry for ‘em. The neighborhood was a mess, back then. Lot of kids, even little ones, roaming around like stray cats. Feliks always kept an eye out for toys or whatnot when he went out trash picking. He’d leave ‘em by the playground or on their front steps. Gave him a kick, watching ‘em find his presents.”

“Were there kids in the neighborhood that he got particularly close to?”

She’d tried to keep her tone neutral, but he bristled. “Those cops asked that, too, like Feliks was some kind of creep. You people have your minds in the gutter.” He rapped the knuckles of both fists on his knees, angry and frustrated. “He was a decent Christian man who minded his own business. Didn’t ever hurt nobody.”

“I didn’t mean to imply anything, I’m just trying to get a sense of what he was like. In those notebooks of his, he wrote about children, children in trouble. Some of them were based on news stories. He saved clippings.”

For a minute she thought he was finished talking to her, looking away with his jaw tight, but he gave a low chuckle in spite of himself. “Clippings. I’d forgotten all about that. Kind of annoying. By the time you got down to breakfast he’d already been through the paper, cut big holes in it. Mrs. P told him not to, but he didn’t pay no attention. Like I said, he was stubborn. Did things his own way.”

“The stories he saved were all about children getting hurt.”

“It’s not like he had to use his imagination. You read the papers lately?” He shook his head. “There was a story the other day, made me sick to my stomach. It’s a terrible world, sometimes.”

“I know. I was a police officer for ten years.”

“Well, there you go.”

“Also, my brother and I grew up in foster care. It wasn’t like the old orphanages, but it wasn’t always great.”

“At least you had a brother. Feliks didn’t have nobody.”

“He had friends like you. I’m sure that meant a lot to him.”

“Maybe.” He smiled to himself. “Hard to tell with Feliks. He never talked much, but talking ain’t everything.”

“Who else did he count as friends?”

He gave that some thought. “He got along good with Father Anthony, and there were some ladies at the food shelf who always made a fuss over him, not that he noticed. Also, there was an old woman on the corner. She used to invite him in for coffee, talked to him in Polish. I don’t think he understood a word she said, but she was a good baker. He’d listen to her jabber for hours just to get those pastries.”

“Do you recall her name?”

He squinted up at the ceiling. “Amelia? Agnes? Not sure. She’s been dead for years.”

“Do you know where the priest—Father Anthony, was it? Where he went after he left the parish?”

“Not to another parish. He was too old, close to eighty. Must have passed by now.”

“This food shelf Feliks went to, where was that?”

“It’s the one on Ashland in that community center. Least it used to be there.”

“What about other residents of the boarding house? How well did they know Feliks?”

“They weren’t all that friendly. Pretty shiftless bunch, tell you the truth. Apart from me and Feliks, they never stuck around for long. Probably why we got along. Neither one of us was a drinker, and I was past the age where I was looking for females to impress. We’d sit in the backyard when the weather was nice. He’d scribble in his notebooks and I’d read the paper. What was left of it.”

Anni glanced through her notes. “So if I want to talk to anyone who knew Feliks, it’s pretty much down to the ladies at the food shelf and Father Anthony, if he’s still around.”

He seemed anxious about disappointing her. “Well, there’s Mrs. P’s nephew, that hippie, you could ask him. And you might try other churches. Feliks was a regular at every Catholic church within three, four miles of the house.” He frowned as he scratched his neck, thinking. “Oh, there was the kid, too. Not really a kid, more like your age last time I saw him, though I remember when he was just a boy. Grew up into a skinny guy, showing off his new uniform, all proud. Later he’d come by wearing any old clothes, sweatshirts and jeans and whatnot. Used to bring Feliks pipe tobacco and food from Andy’s Deli when he was in the neighborhood. These little dumplings, like Polish ravioli. Can’t recall what it was called. Feliks loved that stuff. Shame when Andy’s closed. They had the best ham.”

“Do you remember this guy’s name?”

“Oh, let me see. It was . . .” He squinted and looked up at the ceiling, then shook his head. “He used to be a string bean, but he filled out. Got tall, six feet or more, and strong. Had to be for the job, but he had this curly hair and it was always too long, kind of wild. Didn’t shave too regular, either. I was surprised they let him go around looking like that. Thought they had regulations.”

“Regulations?”

“Rules about your appearance. You’d know about that.”

“I would . . . wait, this kid you’re talking about was a cop?”

“That’s what I said, didn’t I? Though he sure didn’t look like it. Looked like a bum. Must have been one of those what d’ye call it, one of them . . . they pretend they’re bad guys selling drugs and stuff?”

“Undercover?”

“Yeah. Otherwise they would have made him get a decent haircut and a shave.”

“When was this?”

“Oh, let me think. Andy’s closed long time ago.” He squinted up at the ceiling, working out the math. “Ten years or more since I last saw him.” He massaged his cheekbone. “He grew up in the neighborhood. I got the feeling Feliks might have known him from way back. When he was real small.”

“But you don’t remember his name.”

“It was something foreign. Greek.”

She started running through her internal directory of Chicago cops, hunting for Greek names. She knew a few, but none of them remotely fit his description.

“We didn’t have many too many Greeks in the neighborhood,” he went on. “Russian Orthodox, though. Got those crazy churches with the onion domes every other corner.”

“I know. I used to work in the neighborhood. Anything else you can tell me about Feliks?”

“Just that he was a good guy. Quiet, very religious. He would never hurt a kid. Never.”

She smiled politely, thinking of all the times she’d heard that line from family members or neighbors, people who had never seen the violent side, or simply kept their eyes averted. “Look, I really appreciate all the time you’ve given me,” she said, closing her laptop and slipping it into her bag.

“My pleasure. I don’t get many visitors.” He struggled to push himself to his feet. “Take some cookies with you.”

“Thanks, I will.” She took an Oreo and he beamed with pleasure. “You have my card, right?” she asked.

He fussed around the table beside his chair. “It’s somewhere here. Where’d I . . . oh, here it is.”

“If you think of that police officer’s name, or anything else about Feliks that might help me out, I’d love to hear it. You can call me anytime.”

He nodded, but frowned at the card, holding it at arm’s length, obviously having difficulty reading it.

“I goofed up when I had them made,” she said. “The print is way too small, but I ordered so many, I’ll never use them all up.” She took the card from him and wrote the phone number on the back in larger digits. “That’s better. If you think of anything . . .”

“Got your number right here.” He waved the card at her as she left.

 

Az had left a message, so she called him back. “What’s this tip?” he growled.

“I’ve got something for you, but this is on background. I need your assurance that my name stays out of this.”

“Please. You know I protect my sources. What you got?”

“Ben Sidlo, the art historian who’s handling that outsider artist’s stuff? He’s looking for someone to help him get press.”

“That’s your hot tip? I’m a reporter, not a PR flack.”

“The college has one, but Sidlo thinks he’s incompetent. He’s looking for someone who can write and understands the media.”

“That definitely leaves me out, then. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on in the business these days, other than that it’s being run by money guys who don’t know a goddamn thing about news. Look, thanks for thinking of me, but I’d rather starve than write rosy press releases.”

“I know, but he’ll give you an exclusive you could pitch to a magazine or something. He gets his publicity and you get a story.”

He didn’t respond for a moment. “Those pictures, they give me the willies.”

“Me too.”

“Gotta wonder what was going on with that guy. You must have investigated kiddy sex cases. Does this guy fit the profile of a pedophile?

“I don’t know enough about him yet. Violence is a dominant feature of his art, if that’s what you call it. Whether it’s sexually motivated sadism is a question for a shrink.”

“What’s your angle? You told me you weren’t involved.”

“I’m not, at least not so far as Danny Truscott is concerned. That’s in the hands of the police.”

“But . . .”

“Sidlo worked with a friend of mine on an art exhibit, once. I happened to be at the college not long ago and heard him complaining about the college media relations guy, and it occurred to me that you could get some business out of it.”

“And?”

“And what? I thought you were looking for work.”

“Come on. What’s really going on?”

His pit-bull curiosity had clamped on. She knew from experience it couldn’t be shaken loose. “I’m doing some research for Sidlo, okay? Finding out what I can about Król’s childhood. I need the money, but it’s strictly basic background. I don’t want Sidlo to put out the idea that the detective who didn’t find Danny is back on the case, because I’m not.”

“This case still bothers you, doesn’t it?”

“Of course it does. Jesus. He was three years old.”

“And you were pretty new to the job, back then. Young to be handling a case like that.”

“Too young. There were a lot of guys working there with plenty of experience. I don’t know why they had me working on it.”

“You’ve seen those pictures. What do you think—”

“Quit it, Az. I’m not the story, okay? I thought I made that clear.”

“Yeah, yeah. Only if I work on this, I’m going to have to go into what happened back then. I can talk to you about that, right?”

“No comment.”

She ended the call and tossed her phone on the passenger seat, wondering how much she would regret giving Az the tip. She was stuck in a long line of cars backed up at a traffic light, thinking back to those days when she was feeling like a phony, surrounded by more experienced detectives who thought she didn’t have what it took to manage a high profile case, when a stray thought popped into her head. She grabbed her phone and found Pat O’Hara’s number. It rang four times before he picked up. “Hi, it’s Anni Koskinen again. That cop who used to visit, the one with curly hair. Was his name Slovo? Konstantin Slovo?”

“Well, there you go. Told you it was a Greek name. How’d you figure it out?”

“You won’t believe this. I used to work with him. I just remembered what a sloppy dresser he was.” She didn’t add that Slovo was Ukrainian, not Greek. The old man sounded so pleased that he’d helped, she didn’t want to put a damper on his glory.

“Small world, huh? Now you got somebody else you can talk to. Like I said, I think him and Feliks went way back, long before I moved to that neighborhood. He might be able to tell you all kinds of stories.”

He might, she thought as she nudged her way forward in the traffic. It was a hell of a lead. But he had left Chicago years ago, after a career-ending injury and a messy murder investigation. She had no idea where he was now, or if he would be willing to talk to her.

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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.