15

The next morning, Anni brewed coffee and took a mugful out onto the back porch. It was damp and chilly and the canvas sling chairs she and Dugan had sat in the previous evening were puddled with dew. She leaned on the balcony, looking down on her untended garden, random thoughts chasing each other in her head. She wondered what Dugan was thinking, whether Josh was having another imaginary infestation of bugs, what kind of religious fervor would drive Feliks Król to paint such obsessive scenes of violence.

She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and realized the cat who lived in the back yard had ventured halfway up the steps, where he crouched, glaring at her. As soon as her head turned in his direction he darted lopsidedly down the steps and paused, his tail thrashing. She went inside to get the cat food. He made himself invisible behind the trash can while she filled his bowl. She left him to sneak out and scarf it down in secret as she left for a morning run.

After her usual circuit through the park, she turned east into Ukrainian Village. The tree limbs arching overhead were greening up with fat buds and the birds were making a racket as she jogged through the quiet residential streets. She turned on Paulina and slowed to a walk, looking for the house where Feliks Król has lived in early childhood. It was restored, now, and whoever lived in the basement flat had filled the paved area below the sidewalk with potted plants and expensive-looking wrought-iron lawn furniture bolted to the concrete. She rang the bell, but there was  no answer.

She talked to a neighbor easing a designer stroller through a gate who pointed Anni to the home of the oldest resident on the block who in turn gave her the number of a former resident who might known Król. After getting voicemail and fruitlessly knocking on more doors, Anni headed toward the former boarding house where he’d irritated his housemates by cutting news stories about dead children out of the morning paper. As she approached, she saw a pigeon-toed child sitting on the front steps. She realized it was Linnea, Król’s unlikely heir, cradling a mug between her hands, watching the big hairy dog snuffle around the clutter in the front yard. He squatted to pee beside the tipsy pink flamingo, then hopped up with a cheerful bark to greet Anni like an old friend, pushing his inquisitive nose through the gate. She let him sniff her fingers, then reached over to scratch behind his ears.

“How you doing?” Linnea asked.

“Fine. Just out for a run. Did you know that Feliks Król lived around the corner from here when he was little?”

“News to me. Hey, I just made coffee. You want some?”

“Sure.”

Linnea unlatched the gate and led Anni into the house, down the front hall into the kitchen. The sink was full of dirty dishes. Glass jugs full of dark liquid crowded the counter, and bundles of dried plants hung from the ceiling. “Those are Melanie’s,” Linnea said. “She’s an herbalist.”

“And these?” Anni patted a jar full of cloudy liquid.

“I’m making kombucha. Well, I’m trying. Something went wrong with the last batch.” She filled mugs with coffee. “Ben told me you’re working on the project. He’s really happy about it.”

“Yeah, well. We’ll see how it goes. Given how he’s inventorying everything in Król’s room, piece by piece, it’s going to take forever to find out what’s in there.”

“He’s pretty anal about it. How’d you find out where Feliks grew up?”

“I talked to Pat O’Hara, the other tenant who lived here. He liked Feliks. Thought he was a little eccentric, a little headstrong, but a good guy. He doesn’t think there was anything funny about the feelings he had for kids.”

“I could have told you that.”

“He said Feliks left children presents. Didn’t he do that for you, too?”

“Yup. I didn’t know where they were coming from at first. I’d find things on my table, next to my shoes. Buttons and little china figurines, plastic flowers. Holy cards.”

“You didn’t think it was a little weird, having this stuff turn up like that?”

“Not really. When it started, there was a traveling kid staying here who was flirting a lot. I thought it was him. But he left and the little presents kept coming, so I realized it was Feliks.”

“And that didn’t seem strange? This old guy . . .”

“No, because he wasn’t a creepy pedophile murderer. Those pictures? They’re not about hurting kids. They’re about being hurt. About being small and powerless.”

“I wish it were that simple.”

“Why shouldn’t it be?” Linnea spoke with such certitude it made Anni feel old and jaded.

“In any case, I’m sure he left behind some trace of his past. It’ll take years to uncover it, though, at the rate they’re working.”

“You want to look for yourself?”

“In Feliks’s room?”

“Why not?”

“Well, Ben—”

“It’s not his stuff. Feliks left it to me. You want to go look around?”

Anni took a sip of coffee. Her client, the man who was paying her wages, would be horrified. If she actually found something and took it to him, he’d probably fire her, whereas if she did it his way, she’d be pulling a nice part time salary for months. She swallowed the last of her coffee.

“Sure. Let’s go.”

 

Hours later, Anni’s head was aching, her sinuses clogged with dust. Working her way through piles of stacked newspapers and magazines, she uncovered over a dozen notebooks filled with illustrated stories, six large paintings, and dozens of folded sheets of paper covered with Król’s crabbed script, religious meditations that made no sense to her. She snapped photos with her phone until her battery ran low. She needed to keep it juiced enough to take calls in case Josh went off the rails. She stuck it in her pocket and asked Linnea for some paper and a pen to take notes.

Linnea took the top two feet of a stack and made herself comfortable in the old man’s chair to sort through it, occasionally reading aloud from things she found—an advertisement for a patent medicine in an old magazine, a passage from a religious tract. Then, bored, she started going through boxes, trying on a woman’s hat that had seductive black netting, finding another one that seemed to be made of bird wings—“eww, did people actually wear these?”—making little squeaks of pleasure as she burrowed around.

Ben Sidlo would be frantic if he knew Linnea was handling the precious records of his artist’s life, but Anni was happy to have her company. Though the pictures and notebooks were as strange and disturbing as anything she’d seen and the crowded room triggered her claustrophobia, Linnea’s delight reminded her of a child rummaging in an attic. When the girl read aloud from one of Król’s notebooks, it seemed as if they had a ghostly child in the room with them, one who liked to tell scary stories in the dark. When Anni pulled out a painting from the middle of a pile of papers, a gruesome scene in Król’s weirdly whimsical style, Linnea laughed delightedly. “It’s like one of those awful baroque paintings, piles of naked bodies and blood. I swear I’ve seen one like it in one of Feliks’s books.”

To Anni, it looked like an illustration from a quaint children’s book that just happened to be about uniformed men butchering babies with swords and axes, watched by scandalized angels. She put it back carefully where she’d found it, under an old Life magazine from 1964 with a photo of G.I.s in a burning jungle on the cover.

“See? Here it is,” Linnea said half an hour later. She had been sitting on the floor in a narrow space in front of the bookshelves, poring over books. She stood and propped an oversized volume open on top of a box. “Peter Paul Rubens, The Massacre of the Innocents, painted in sixteen something-something.”

“You’re right.” It was uncannily like Król’s painting.

“That’s a story from the bible, right?”

“Yeah. If I remember right, King Herod had his soldiers massacre all the babies in Bethlehem because there was a prophecy or something.”

“Oh, I remember that. Always seemed like bullshit that an angel would warn Mary and Joseph, but not the other kids’ parents. I mean, seriously? Hey, I’m hungry, want something?”

“No.” The thought of food made her stomach churn.

Linnea left. Anni kept working, mechanically searching through a seemingly unending mountain of material, each untouched pile beckoning as if Feliks’s secrets were somewhere in there, always hiding in the next stack over.

When the girl returned she carried a tray with a teapot and mugs on it. For a moment Anni saw the scene as if illustrated as if by Król, a child in pigtails crouching down to have a tea party, sunlight streaming through a window tinting her hair with gold as ghouls and monsters gathered in the shadows, clinging to the cobwebs that laced the ceiling.

Anni stepped out of the dark room, blinking. She stretched and sneezed. “Whoa, I’m filthy.”

“You’ve got . . .” Linnea reached up to Anni’s hair. She held it up, a yellowed corner of newsprint. “It’s a lot to go through, isn’t it?

“Too much.”

Linnea filled two cups and they sat on the top of the stairs. “Are you looking for anything in particular?” she asked Anni.

“Not really. Well, sort of. I keep thinking I might find newspaper clippings about Danny. The police didn’t find anything like that when they were here?”

“They looked kind of bummed, so I’m guessing they didn’t.”

Anni sneezed again.

They went back to work. Anni was absorbed in yet another illustrated notebook, this one about a street urchin who was put through an unending series of trials, always rescued in the nick of time by his guardian angel, when Linnea called out, “Hey, I think I found something.”

She held a wooden orange crate over her head as she snaked her way out of the maze made of boxes and stacks. Anni followed her out into the open space at the top of the stairs, where daylight spilled in through a window.

“There’s a bunch of personal stuff in here,” Linnea said. “Look. A report card from 1949. Feliks was in the fourth grade. He had U in everything. Unacceptable. Except in religion, and even that one says ‘needs improvement.’ Man, that sucks. They didn’t even spell his name right.”

Anni took the institutional card. Someone had charted the boy’s failings in perfect Palmer method script, adding in a note below, “Felix must pay better attention and stop fighting with the other boys.” Anni copied down the name and address of the school, printed in ornate scrollwork over its namesake—illustrated with a bloody heart ringed with thorns, a religious image that seemed to fit right in with Król’s grotesque world. “This might have been his orphanage.”

“He was in an orphanage?”

“After his mom got sick.”

Linnea held up a yellowed studio portrait of a woman with wavy hair massed around her shoulders and gaunt cheeks, “Beatrycze Król, 1938” scrawled across the back. “Could that be her?”

“Maybe. I have a phone number for a woman who might know.”

“Ooh! Call her.”

“My phone’s out of juice.”

“Use mine.”

Anni found the scrap of paper with the number on it and punched it in. After a few rings a woman answered in a scratchy, croaking voice. “Yeah?”

“Hi. My name’s Anni Koskinen, calling from Chicago. I was talking to an old neighbor of yours from Paulina Street, Damien? He told me you were the local historian.”

“Meaning I’m the old broad who lived there before all the yuppies moved in with their yoga mats and tofu. Best thing I ever did was sell that house. There’s loads to do here. We got riverboat gambling.”

“I was wondering if you knew some people who lived on that block in the 1940s.”

“Oh, probably. I’m older than dirt, and I spent my whole life on that block. Couldn’t believe how much people were willing to pay for it. Place was impossible to heat.”

“These people lived across the street from Damien in a basement flat. A woman with a child named Feliks.”

“When was this?”

“I don’t know exactly, but the early 1940s, I think. She got sick and the boy ended up in an orphanage when he was still small, possibly Sacred Heart on Pulaski. Her name might have been Beatrycze Król.”

“Oh.” The syllable faded out. “I do remember her. She didn’t have a husband. There was a lot of gossip. Word was, she had never been married. I remember saying to my mother once that I thought she was pretty. Well! You’d have thought I said the devil had a handsome pair of horns on him. It wasn’t easy for women back then.”

“Did you know the boy?”

“I knew there was a boy. Hardly ever saw him, though. Those two kept to themselves. Unwed mothers faced a lot of shame.”

“Do you know how old he was when his mother got sick?”

“Five or six, maybe? Sorry, that’s all I know. Have fun tracing your family tree, honey. I have to get ready. The shuttle to the casino leaves in ten minutes.”

Anni handed the phone back to Linnea. “That’s his mom, all right.”

“Wow.” Linnea picked up the photo and studied it. “She looks tragic, doesn’t she? I love her hair.”

Anni sifted through the rest of the box’s contents. If the materials had personal significance it was hard to tell. She straightened out rumpled piece of folded paper: a memorial pamphlet for a funeral of someone named Laurence Abbott held in the chapel at Elgin State Hospital in 1962.

“Mind if I use your phone to send myself some photos?” Anni asked.

“Go ahead. Then I’ll put all this stuff back in its crate so Ben can discover it sometime next year and be all excited.”

“How are you two getting along?”

“When I remind him this is all my stuff? We get along just fine.”

License

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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.