4

Danny Truscott. He was three years old when he went missing. Her first major case. Her first experience with the press. Her first complete and total failure.

He’d be, what? Thirteen now. She tried to picture him, but all she could see was the photo they’d given to the media. A pointed chin, a shock of dark hair over brown eyes that looked serious and watchful.

The day he went missing, Danny was with his mother and sister at the Taste of Chicago, an annual event held downtown in Grant Park. They had come into town on the train, an adventure just for the three of them, but it was hot and muggy and they were all exhausted by the crowds and the noise. Cassie had nagged her mother into using the last of their tickets to buy ice cream, even though Joyce knew it would make the children thirsty and they’d be even crabbier. But a migraine that had started soon after they had arrived was blurring her vision and putting shimmering rainbows around everything, so she gave Cassie the tickets and sat on a stone ledge in a scrap of shade while they went off to a stand not far away. Danny had to trot to keep up with his nine-year-old sister, who pushed through the crowds, clinging tightly to his wrist.

“It’s not my fault. I only let go for a minute,” Cassie said later, sullen and impatient. “Not even a minute, just long enough to give the man my tickets.”

“Sweetie, nobody blames you.” Joyce reached for her, but Cassie shrugged away, unwilling to be forgiven. She didn’t need forgiveness. It wasn’t her fault.

 

The second floor of Harrison had emptied out as it did on hot summer days, detectives tending to shootings, stabbings, domestic assaults and one case of a drunken man driving his car into a family picnic. Miraculously, nobody had been seriously hurt when the car mowed through lawn chairs and barbeques, coming to rest in a smashed picnic table, but the victims had pulled the driver out of the car and had beaten him senseless before the cops arrived to break it up. The fact that the car was stolen had complicated things. Anni was typing up witness statements when the call came. The sergeant who gave her the assignment told her it would probably be all over by the time she got there.

But it wasn’t over. It was never over.

Brown hair, brown eyes, 32 pounds, 28 inches tall, wearing blue shorts, a lime green T-shirt with his name in blue letters, and yellow plastic sandals decorated with dinosaurs. They questioned thousands of people, circulated fliers, hauled in sex offenders who had a thing for little kids, manned a tip line. Leads came in from as far away as Washington State and Philadelphia, but none of them panned out.

She spent hours at the parents’ house in Evanston. Brian, the father, was rarely still, pacing and running his hands through his hair, talking a mile a minute; Joyce was mostly silent, staring into space, focusing on Anni’s questions with difficulty, answering in monosyllables. Whenever the phone rang, she gasped, as if someone had touched her skin with an electric current. Cassie veered between being irritable and needy, acting much younger than her age. She was suffering, but nobody seemed to notice or care. And then there was Philip, their oldest son.

“That poor family.” It seemed as if everyone who mentioned the case would slip that phrase in, with a shake of the head, a sympathetic wince. Philip was twelve years old, an angular bundle of ticks and grunts, prone to seizures, on special diets and supplements and receiving expensive behavioral therapy. But his father made it clear he would spare no expense to give his older son the best life possible. And he would never stop looking for Danny. Not ever.

Ten years later, and Anni had her first lead.

No, not hers. It wasn’t her case anymore. She pressed a palm against the cold window until it went numb, then lifted it and watched her blurry handprint fade.

 

The unmarked car pulled up at last. Two people climbed out, casting the kind of comprehensive look around the street that marked them as cops. One was a lean Black man with grizzled hair shorn close to his skull wearing a natty Burberry and checkered scarf. The other was a heavy-set white woman in a puffer jacket and wool cap. Linnea let them in, and they introduced themselves: detectives Harold Franklin and Shirley McGrath of the Chicago police department. Anni had met Shirley before, but didn’t know her partner.

“Used to work with Jim Tilquist,” he said when he shook her hand, his expression unreadable. Anni knew she was unpopular with many CPD officers after testifying against a fellow officer. Since she had been with Jim when he was killed, and survived when he didn’t, she wondered if Franklin held her responsible for that, too. But whatever he thought of her, he kept it to himself, adding only, “He was a good man.”

“The best,” she said, her own voice sounding strange.

“How you doing, Anni?” Shirley pulled her cap off and shook out her hair, frizzy mouse-brown hair frosted with strands of white. “Must have been a shock, turning up those clothes after all these years.”

“How exactly did that happen?” Franklin asked, looking at Sidlo.

He started to respond, but Anni cut him off, anger reigniting and making her voice shake with rage, though she kept her volume under tight control. “Feliks Król was a tenant here, rented a room upstairs for decades. He died a couple of months ago. These two found the clothing in his room, along with some twisted drawings that they think are valuable. They called me in on the pretext of researching background on this guy. In reality, they knew they had evidence related to Danny Truscott’s disappearance and they placed it where I’d see it. They thought having me ‘discover’ it would get them in the news.”

Franklin nodded thoughtfully and turned to Ben. “This man, Król—he was an artist?”

“A very gifted artist,” Sidlo said. “In my expert opinion, he ranks among the most important outsider artists who ever lived.”

“You don’t say.” Franklin took a step toward the stairs and looked up into the darkness. “Want to show us the way?”

“My lawyer has advised me that we shouldn’t do anything until she arrives.”

“Your lawyer.” Franklin raised an eyebrow. He was as good as Sidlo at eyebrow semaphore, Anni thought.

“The room itself, the arrangement of artifacts, is a part of Król’s work. I realize you’ll want to search it, but we’re going to have to set some ground rules.”

Franklin rubbed his jaw. “Ground rules.” He had a way of repeating words slowly and thoughtfully, as if turning them over to see what might crawl out from under them.

“This guy who died. Who owns his stuff?” Shirley asked. “He leave any heirs?”

“He didn’t have any family,” Linnea said. “He left everything to me.”

“This was some verbal agreement, or—”

“A will. Feliks was worried about his stuff. He knew I would take good care of it.”

“Sounds like it’s might be worth something.”

“The estate isn’t settled yet,” Sidlo said. “There are medical bills to pay. Funeral expenses. Any proceeds from the sale of his work will pay for all that. If you’re insinuating—”

Shirley held up a palm. Easy, bud.

Sidlo rubbed the back of his neck. Took a deep breath. “Look, if it wasn’t for us, his entire body of work would have been thrown in the trash, and so would everything else he had in his room, including that boy’s clothing. We were able to find some evidence you missed all those years ago. Why are you acting as if we did something wrong?”

Anni could feel the anger buzzing in her head again, making everything in the room darken. She turned to Shirley. “Look, I’m done here. You have any questions, let me know.” She gave her a card.

“Can you stick around a few minutes? Got one or two things.”

“Fine. I’ll be on the front porch. I need some air.”

Shirley nodded, and turned back to Linnea. “You want to tell us more about your relationship with this man?” Anni heard her ask as she slipped out the door.

Outside, she sucked in a lungful of chilly air and gathered her hair, pulling it tight into a knot and then letting it go. She felt like taking a run. She felt like lighting up a cigarette, and she hadn’t smoked in years.

She didn’t like being used. She didn’t like Danny Truscott being used. And she felt sick, thinking of the publicity that would inevitably come. Cassie would be, what, now? Nineteen. A young adult trying to figure out her identity. It was a confusing age, one filled with desperation to fit in, to belong, to pass as normal while feeling anything but. Hard enough without being dogged by the knowledge that you were the last person to see your little brother before he disappeared, the person who let his arm go, just for a minute.

Anni hadn’t talked to the Truscotts since she’d left the job. Before her resignation, she’d made a point of checking in with Joyce once a month to see how she was doing, to reassure her they were still looking, even though no new leads had surfaced. She didn’t want to keep opening a wound, but Joyce seemed grateful for the contact, though resigned to the idea her son was probably gone for good in a way that Brian refused to be.

It was hard to imagine personalities more different. Brian had gone from being a small-time contractor to being a major property developer, deeply involved in the city’s effort to replace massive failed public housing projects with mixed-income apartments. He had become a high-profile city booster and friend of everyone important at City Hall. He was also an outspoken and publicity-hungry advocate for children’s welfare, appearing at gala benefits and charity auctions, frequently interviewed on television as an expert when another child was on the evening news, missing or murdered or abused.

In contrast, his wife shunned publicity. On the rare occasions when she was caught on film, she appeared haughty and cold, when in reality Anni suspected her grief was simply too deep to share. Cameras loved Brian Truscott, with his firm chin and blue eyes; Joyce hated cameras and did everything she could to stay away from them. Anni wondered if whatever bonds held them together might finally unravel for good once the fact that there were new clues in Danny’s case hit the news.

She realized the phone in her bag was ringing. She pulled it out, didn’t recognize the number, and debated answering it. Had Sidlo tipped off the press already? After a moment’s hesitation, she answered. She might as well find out if a journalist was already on it.

It turned out to be Josh, calling from the public phone in the hallway at the hospital. He spoke in a tense whisper. “Anni? Can you come get me?”

“I can’t do that, Josh. I can stop by later during visiting hours, but—”

“No, listen. There’s something weird going on. Are you sure  you took me to the right place?”

“It’s the hospital you’ve been to before.”

“Yeah, I know it looks the same, but the people here—they aren’t the same ones.”

“They probably had some staff turnover since last time.”

No. You’re not getting it. They look the same, but they’re not. Like, my doctor? Somebody else took her place. I’m not sure how they’re doing it, because she looks exactly like she used to, she even sounds the same. But I can tell it’s not her. I’m really scared. I need to get out of here. It’s not safe.”

“Josh, you’ll be fine. Right now things don’t feel right, but you have to stay there for a while.  Look, if you’re scared of your doctor, just ask if you can talk to someone else for now.”

“But it’s not my doctor; that’s the point.”

“Okay. Look, I know this is rough. Just take it easy, okay? And give it some time. It’ll get easier in a day or two.”

“I feel like I’m coming down with a cold.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Behind her the door opened; Shirley McGrath came out onto the porch. She nodded and kept her distance so Anni could finish the call in privacy.

“That lake water’s not very clean,” he fretted. “It could be something worse.”

“If it is, you’re in the right place.”

“That’s a joke, right? I can’t always tell. If you come, could you bring me something to read?”

“Sure. Anything in particular?”

“There’s this new paper on Jones polynomials that I’ve been meaning to read. Or a copy of the Economist.”

“Not sure about the paper, but I can probably manage the magazine. Look, I have to go, okay? I’ll try to swing by tonight.”

She dropped her phone back into her bag and turned to Shirley. “So. How’s it going in there?”

“Franklin’s waiting on the lawyer. I’m going to get a warrant started, make sure all our bases are covered.” She rotated her shoulders, linked her hands and stretched. “One good thing about working in the cold case unit, you don’t have to worry about the clock ticking.”

“That may change once the press gets hold of it.”

“No kidding. They love stories like this. You’re positive they’re Danny’s clothes?”

“No question. The shirt had his name on it, written in this goop kids use at birthday parties. He’d tried to write his name, but it was kind of a mess. It’s his shirt. And the sandals, they were just like the ones he was wearing when he disappeared.”

“What else did you see in there?”

Anni described the room, the altar. The fact Król wrote and illustrated gruesome stories about real children, children whose deaths were reported in the newspaper stories that he clipped out and collected. As she spoke, she was fingering the key in her pocket, rubbing the serrated edge with her thumb. When she realized what she was doing, she handed it over and Shirley chuckled.

“You don’t trust them, do you?”

“Not for a minute. I’m not sure what’s up with the girl, but Ben Sidlo knows how to get attention, and he’s going to milk this for everything he can.”

“You don’t like him.”

“That’s not the point. He wants to drive up the price of this . . . this creepy stuff he thinks is art. And what’s weird is it turns out I knew him. The guy. Feliks Król.”

“How?”

“I was assigned to Wood, patrolled this beat. He was a neighborhood fixture. Everyone said he was harmless.”

“You think he did something to the kid?”

“I don’t know, but after seeing that room? Those pictures of his? There was definitely something wrong with him.”

“Did you talk to him when Danny went missing?”

“No. Maybe. I thought we talked to everybody, but I don’t recall Król’s name coming up.”

“People like that are easy to miss. Anything you can tell me about Danny’s parents? We need to talk to them before this gets out.”

“His father will probably call the news stations as soon as he hears. He’s a media hound. It’ll be harder on the mom. She may seem standoffish, but she’s just reserved, the opposite of a drama queen. Danny’s sister was kind of messed up about it. She’s a teenager now. I don’t know how she’ll respond.”

“Wasn’t there a brother, too?”

“Older brother. He had some kind of developmental disorder; he was pretty severely disabled. Last I heard, he was in an institution.”

“Jeez. That poor family.”

“Look, I have to go.”

“Sure. We’ll be in touch. Sidlo says you agreed to do some research on—”

“Bullshit. I’m not doing anything for him.”

“He showed us a contract.”

“Does he seriously think I’ll work for him after what he did?” Anni rubbed her face hard with both palms. “Listen, he set me up. I don’t trust him, and I’m not working for him, so don’t worry. I won’t get in your way.”

“I know it’s tough.”

What’s tough?” She took a breath. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to . . . I really have to go.” She glanced at her wrist, where she didn’t wear a watch.

“We walk in, me and Franklin, and pick up a case that someone else sweated over. Something that didn’t get settled. It’s hard to watch someone else start over with fresh evidence. Sometimes people feel like they’re getting second-guessed.”

“I hope you find out what happened to Danny, okay? But it’s yours, now, and I’m fine with that. More than fine. Look, I need to see somebody in the hospital before visiting hours are over. You have my number.”

Shirley nodded and held up the key. “We’ll be in touch.”

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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.