5

As she was driving to the hospital Dugan called, wondering if he should pick something up for dinner. Anni told him she was on her way to check in with her schizophrenic client. She wasn’t sure when she’d be home.

“You okay?” he asked, picking up something in her voice.

“Oh, it’s just . . . I’ll tell you later.”

She remembered she had promised to bring Josh a magazine and wasted too much time looking for a store that carried The Economist. By the time she got to the hospital, visiting hours were over. She left the magazine at the nurse’s station and drove home, cursing the price of the parking ramp, Chicago traffic, and the stupidity of the bus driver who cut her off on Division. But as soon as she spotted Dugan’s jeep parked outside her house, she felt something coiled tight in her chest start to relax.

He was lying on the couch, reading something on his phone, resting a bottle of beer on his chest. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be hungry, but—”

She didn’t realize she was until she smelled the pizza he’d brought. “I’m famished.” She flipped open the grease-stained box on the kitchen table and took a slice. “I knew we were meant for each other when you told me you like anchovies, too.”

He sat up to make room for her on the couch as she grabbed a Leinie from the fridge. “Sorry if I was short on the phone,” she said, settling beside him. “I was in a crummy mood.”

“You had a long night. How’s the kid?”

“He’s fine. Well, he’s hearing voices and thinks he’s a mass murderer, but other than that he’s okay, so far as I know. I didn’t actually get there in time to see him. That wasn’t what put me in a bad mood. I got this other job this afternoon, but I quit already, so . . .” She stopped talking long enough to take a bite. “Mm, good,” she mumbled.

“Did you ever get any sleep?”

“A few hours. Where are your pants?” she asked, noticing for the first time that he was in his shorts.

“In the wash. I was helping my uncle with a leaky water heater. It’s in a part of his basement that is kind of an adventure theme park. Never know what you’ll run into down there. I put some of your stuff in to make up a load. Hey, don’t look at me like that. I know how to do laundry. I studied it in college.”

He let her finish the slice before he asked, “So, this job you quit . . . is it something you can talk about?”

She took a long swallow of beer and then told him. “I can’t believe Sidlo tried to pull that on me,” she finished. “And the way he’s going to exploit this thing, exploit the family, it makes me nuts.”

“I remember that case. That was Brian Truscott’s kid, right?”

“You know him?”

He reached for his beer, took a swallow. “Who doesn’t? He’s on TV all the time. Likes to be the world expert on missing kids. I mean, it’s awful that his child disappeared. That’s the worst. But every time there’s a case, anything to do with a kid, he’s in front of the cameras. Enjoying himself.”

“You got it. He’s such a dick, and he’ll be all over the news. What kills me is that Król was right under my nose.”

“You think he—”

“I don’t know what happened to Danny or if Feliks Król had anything to do with it. But there’s something really spooky about that room. That old man was seriously messed up.”

“Sounds like it. These notebooks and that altar thing, it’s, like, actual art? I mean, worth something?”

“Worth a lot, apparently. It just seemed twisted to me. There was something about it . . .”

Dugan waited, still and patient. Sometimes she thought sitting next to him was a kind of mindfulness meditation-by-osmosis. It could be dangerous, though. It was the kind of undemanding calm that coaxed confessions out of people.

“It . . . I can’t describe it. It was all about children getting hurt. Real children, but turned into illustrated stories, kind of like comic books or fairy tales. Really disturbing stuff, but it’s also . . .”

“What?”

The word, when it came to her, almost hurt to say out loud. “Kind of beautiful. Which creeps me out, because it’s violent and horrible and makes me wonder whether this guy was the worst kind of pedophile. So that can’t be beautiful, can it?”

Dugan shrugged. “We had this book at home, an illustrated version of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I used to look at the pictures from The Inferno. They were gruesome, but we loved that shit, all the devious ways people were being punished.”

“I can just see you and your brothers doing that.”

“You want warped, check out Dante. He came up with some nasty ways to suffer torment for eternity. Made paradise look awful boring in comparison. Listen, McGrath and Franklin are good. Those two have cleared up cases that seemed impossible.”

“Hope they have better luck than I did.”

“Luck’s the word for it. You know how it goes. Sometimes you just get a break. Enough time passes, someone decides it’s time to get something off their chest. Like with Sharla Peterson. Remember that one?”

“God, yes. That was horrible.” The abduction and murder of a baby was even more of a media circus than Danny’s case. “One of Król’s stories was about Sharla. He had clippings.”

“Would never have been solved if one of her killers hadn’t come to Jesus years too late.”

“That whole thing was so random. So pointless. I wonder what Slovo thought of that? The guy who led the investigation.”

“You were working at Harrison then?”

“No, it was before my time, but we overlapped for a while. He specialized in crimes against kids, but that case wrecked his head. From what I heard, he had an epic meltdown, broke some furniture, got put on leave. After that, he was done; he wouldn’t touch anything involving children. I tried to pick his brain about Danny, but he wouldn’t even talk to me about it.” Then he had quit, abruptly, and left Chicago under a cloud. She wondered if he ever heard his big case was finally solved and how he would feel, learning it was just the desperately stupid act of a couple of drug addicts who got in over their heads. That the biggest case of his career, that one he worked so hard, only got closed years later because one of the killers decided to get it off his chest.

“A confession can come out of the blue like that. Or somebody gets careless and lets something slip that opens new avenues.”

“Or the case is finally being handled by cops who know what they’re doing, unlike the green idiot who caught the case.”

“Anni, come on.”

“I shouldn’t have been in charge. I was new. I didn’t know anything.”

He was shaking his head. “Listen, I know how the brass thinks. As high profile as that case was, your boss would have taken it away from you in an instant if they didn’t think you were doing it right. I’m sure you did everything you could, that anybody could do.”

“I didn’t find Danny.” She got up to get another slice of pizza, even though she no longer felt hungry.

 

The next morning, even before Dugan left for work, her phone began ringing and wouldn’t stop. As she had expected, Brian Truscott didn’t waste time contacting the press, and reporters wanted her take on it. A local news channel ran film of him telling the public he had never lost faith that his son would be found alive. With the new evidence that had turned up, he was more optimistic than ever. He was being coy about exactly what new evidence had turned up, and Feliks Król’s name hadn’t been mentioned, but that wouldn’t last long. Truscott wasn’t the only one who liked being the center of attention. Anni figured Ben Sidlo was probably gearing up his own publicity campaign.

She kept her phone on vibrate, looked at the incoming calls to see if any were from clients or friends, and busied herself with some background work for Thea Adelman, who had picked a case out of a pool of possible wrongful convictions. The lawyer asked her to spend no more than a couple of hours to gather the basics, but Anni kept fiddling with it, organizing news accounts, reading through court documents for ideas, tracking down current contact information for witnesses.

Around eleven a.m., she snatched her vibrating phone as it threatened to jitter right off her desk. She recognized the number and impulsively answered it.

“Az, I’ll just say this once, okay? I know you have this crazy idea we’re friends, but I’m not in a mood to talk, all right?”

“Ow, jeez. You don’t have to yell.”

“I’m not . . .” she started to say, then lowered the volume, realizing she was. “Hey, fine, I’ll just hang up, then.”

“No, look, it’s just—man, I got the world’s worst headache. My entire body has a headache. Uh, listen, I think I must have called you recently. At least, it looks like I tried your number.”

“Yeah, you called.”

He groaned. “In the middle of the night?”

“Around three a.m., I think. You sounded pretty hammered.”

“Christ. Looks like I called nearly every one of my contacts, including the mayor’s assistant. On her personal cell. What did I say, anyway?”

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t remember anything. Went on a two-day bender after I finally took the deal. Went out with some of the guys and kept going. Woke up at Belmont Headquarters an hour ago, sore as shit. I got bruises in the weirdest places.”

“You got arrested?”

“No, I was in the locker room. You know Izzie Schultz, been patrolling the nineteenth forever? He saw me staggering around like an asshole in the middle of Lincoln Avenue and put me in his cruiser, took me in to sleep it off, even though I puked all over the backseat.”

“Puke happens. He’s used to it. What do you mean, you took the deal? What deal?”

“The deal. The buyout. I’m officially unemployed.”

“What?” It took her a minute to process what he’d said. Az Abkerian was a local institution, an old-school newshound. His heavy-set figure in a rumpled suit had been a fixture at crime scenes for as long as she could remember. “That’s crazy. How could they let you go?”

“Easy. Been around too long. My number was up.”

“But . . . . seriously, you’re the best they’ve got. You’ve been nominated for a Pulitzer twice.”

“Nice to know someone’s keeping score. Unfortunately, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when bean counters are in charge. These layoffs, they just kept coming. I knew it was going to happen sooner or later.”

“Man, I’m really sorry to hear this. But you’ll line something else up. You’re a legend.”

He laughed bleakly. “You’re kidding, right? Haven’t you noticed what’s been going on in newsrooms lately? There are no jobs. Besides, I turn sixty next month. Who’s going to hire an anachronism like me?”

“This stinks, Az.”

“Yeah, well. It’s not like I didn’t see it coming. Only it would have been smart to avoid nuking all my contacts. Drunk dialing in the middle of the night, jeez.”

“I was up anyway, working on something.”

“Anything I should know about?”

“Nah, just one of my kids. I got him admitted to the hospital.”

“The son of somebody famous?”

“You know I don’t talk about my clients.”

“Yeah, yeah. Only I’m going to have to hustle some freelance stories, so you hear anything juicy, give me a call, will you?”

“Sure.”

“Wait,” he pounced. “What are you holding back?”

“What makes you think—”

“You hesitated, just a for a second there. You got something.”

She sighed. “You haven’t seen the news this morning?”

“I’ve been too busy trying to figure out how to handle all the bridges I burned.” She heard the faint tapping of keys punctuating his words. “Which is probably a complete waste of time, given—holy shit!” The phone barked in her ear as it hit something—the floor, probably. She heard him cursing in the distance before he picked it up again. “Fuck. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“Are you kidding? I reported that case. Your case. You should have let me know.”

“I don’t have anything to do with it. Shirley McGrath and Harold Franklin are the ones to talk to.”

“And they’ll tell me to talk to media relations, like working from canned press releases is my style.”

“Why do you even want to chase a story that’s already being covered? It’s yesterday’s news.”

He started to speak, but it turned into a gusty sigh. “Thanks a lot. Rub it in.”

“Az, I didn’t—”

“No, you’re right. Shit. I have to build up some fresh contacts before I can pitch any stories, let alone report them.”

“I’m sorry. I only meant . . . ”

“Yeah, yeah. I gotta . . .” He stalled out for a minute. It was the way he usually ended phone calls: “I gotta go.” But this time, he had nothing to go to.  He cleared his throat. “You got my number, right? Keep me in mind, okay? Even if it’s some crappy human interest garbage. Or those liberal causes Thea Adelman’s always yammering about. Kind of sob-story everybody posts to Twitter. Jesus.”

“Why don’t you write a book? You know everything there is to know about crime in Chicago.”

“Oh, please.”

“Seriously. All those stories you could tell? You could totally write a book.”

“Koskinen, thanks for the advice, but I’m trying to pay the bills, here. Screw it. I gotta go make more apologies. Anything interesting happens, be a pal and keep me in the loop.”

 

Ben Sidlo left messages on her phone. He was apologetic, charming, hopeful. He had been an idiot. He wanted to make it up to her. He still hoped they could work together.  She almost sprained her finger, jabbing “delete” so hard.

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.