14

Even with the Boston lead, it wasn’t easy.

Shirley McGrath was politely unhelpful, like a big soft wall made out of pillows reinforced with steel. “We’ll check it out,” she said abstractedly, as if she had something more important on her mind. “I know somebody at the BPD I can ask. But honestly, if Slovo had any suspicions about the guy, he would have said something when Danny disappeared, right? Sounds like a dead end. I wouldn’t waste your time on it.” She was more interested in Anni’s conversation with Joyce and made her go over it more than once.

In spite of her dismissal, or maybe because of it, Anni wasn’t going to give up. She harvested names of detectives involved in recent investigations covered in the Boston Globe, then called the BPD and bluffed her way into speaking with a couple of them. When she asked if they knew the whereabouts of a former Chicago cop who had moved to Boston, she got a range of responses from wariness to outright hostility; still, she couldn’t shake the feeling they were familiar with his name. Her last call was to a civilian assistant working for the chief of detectives, who said she’d pass her query along. Right into a trash can, from the sound of it.

When she called the police department of the small town in Maine where Slovo had been peripherally involved in an investigation the chief told her straight up that he didn’t have a clue where he was and even if he did, he wouldn’t share that information with a P.I. It wasn’t the first time she’d run into that attitude.

After taking call-backs from two of Slovo’s brothers, neither of whom had spoken to him in years and had no idea where he was living, she set that search aside to tackle other leads. She didn’t get much more out of interviewing people at the local food shelf or speaking with priests at four churches where Feliks Król had attended services. Those who remembered Król knew little about him and seemed to take it as given that he was somehow responsible for Danny’s disappearance. Her final interview that day was with her friend, Father Sikora, the pastor at the Catholic church closest to her house and within range of Król’s daily pilgrimages.

The rectory was a large house that once was home to a handful of priests but which had had been converted into a community center. She had been lucky to snag an appointment with Sikora, the only priest serving a busy parish. Though he was in his late seventies, he had a seemingly inexhaustible well of energy for his routine of baptisms, weddings, funerals, spiritual counseling, and masses. She waited in the hall outside his office until it was her turn, smelling a familiar perfume of floor polish, candle wax, and a hint of moth balls that seemed to permeate the building.

“How are you?” he asked when she took the chair across from his cluttered desk. Coming from him, those words weren’t merely a greeting; they were diagnostic. Though she wasn’t religious, she had confided in him things that nobody else knew, not even Dugan.

“I’m fine, but I could use your help. I’m looking for information on Feliks Król.”

Sikora frowned, not placing the name until she showed him a photo. “Oh, him. He’s a regular here, though come to think of it I haven’t seen him for a long time.”

“He died last January.”

“Sorry to hear that. He used to attend mass like clockwork, no matter what the weather was like.”

“That may be what killed him. He caught pneumonia. Did you know he was an artist?”

“Huh. Must have been before I met him.”

She passed over a stack of printouts. “He was doing this kind of work right up to his death. Nobody knew about it until his landlord went to clear out his room.”

Sikora shuffled through the images, frowning and wincing. “Strange,” he said, setting the pages down. “Even though I saw him at least twice a week for more than twenty years, I never got to know him. He showed up for the daily mass on Tuesdays and the Saturday evening service, but he never talked to anybody.”

“Saturday evening. That’s the Polish mass, right? He knew Polish?”

He frowned, thinking. “I’m not sure. It’s the most traditional of our services. He may have chosen it for that reason, or because it fit his schedule. I knew he attended mass at several parishes. Always on foot. He must have walked miles to do it. Only a few people attend our daily mass, and they tend to be elderly folks who are lonely, who need the social connection. Not him. His only interest was in the liturgy.”

“You ever talk to him?”

“Yes, but he never responded. I figured he was on the spectrum. He liked the ritual practices, the sameness, the routine. We got new missals once, and he was annoyed for weeks. I thought he was odd, but harmless.”

“Me, too. Until I saw those pictures.”

He spread them out on the desk again. “You think they’re a sign of sexual deviance?”

“All that violence? That’s not normal.”

“What’s normal?” He picked one up and studied it. “These images fit within a certain Catholic tradition. Martyrdom, mortification of the flesh, spiritual awakening through suffering. Nobody wants to suffer, these days. Thinking about pain is out of fashion, except for Dr. Phil and celebrity gossip. We don’t like to think about our own mortality.” He gestured toward the crucifix on the wall, a simple geometric shape made of polished metal, abstract and modernist except for the twisted, tortured human figure hanging from it.

“When I was in Guatemala,” he went on. “I thought the gospel was all about making things better for the people. Liberation theology. Some of the older parishioners weren’t interested in that social justice crap. This one woman who lived in a shack that most people in this country wouldn’t use as a doghouse come to mass every Sunday crawling on her bare knees. Right across the plaza.”

“Jeez. That’s kind of warped, isn’t it?”

“Oh no, embarrassing behavior in a public place!” He waved his hands in mock distress. “Okay, it hurt to watch, but it’s how she worshiped, and it’s a kind of spirituality that has a long history in the Christian tradition.”

“Basically, suffering is good for you? Works out great for rich people.”

He laughed. “You’ve heard the phrase, ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable?’ That was more my style. You can bet I tried to set her straight, because liberal white guys from el Norte know best, right? Guess how that went? She couldn’t laugh in my face, because you don’t do that to priests, but she nodded politely and then did it again next week.”

“Damn. That’s messed up.”

“Look, that woman was going to take her own spiritual path no matter what I said. Defying her priest? She was powerful in a way that we don’t see so much anymore.”

“These pictures Feliks Król painted . . . you think they’re religious like that?”

“Could be an element, anyway.”

“Every victim in his pictures is a child. Half the time they’re naked. He watched kids in the neighborhood. He gave them presents. Then he painted pictures of them being hurt.”

Sikora sighed. “Did he have a record?”

“Not for molestation, just little stuff. Trespassing, a run-in with a shop owner.”

“But you’re here for a reason.”

“A child went missing ten years ago. Some of his clothing was found among Feliks Król’s things.”

The old priest closed his eyes. He didn’t say anything for a moment. “I heard something about it on the radio,” he murmured, then cleared his throat. “You think he was responsible?”

“That’s for the police to find out. I’m just trying to learn what I can about the man’s life.”

Sikora nodded, lost in thought. “All these years, I thought he was a simple man who only came to mass for the ritual,” he said finally, picking up one of the pictures and staring at it for a minute before adding softly, “He was tormented, and I had no idea.”

 

They talked about other things until his next appointment arrived and Anni headed home to write up her notes. Somehow they’d pivoted from discussing the fact Król had spent at least part of his childhood in a Catholic orphanage to her memories of being put into foster care with her brother, constantly worried that that Martin would be sent to an institution and she would be left all alone. A dread of abandonment that, Sikora pointed out in his understated way, began with their mother vanished from their lives, leaving a void that was only years later filled with the knowledge her mom had done something hard because she had to, because she knew she couldn’t take care of them. Was that why she searched for missing kids who ran away when their illness pursued them? Was that why Król watched kids, not out of twisted affection but because he felt they needed someone to watch over them? Their conversation set up a strange cross-current in her emotions. Sikora’s skillful listening had awakened a sense of empathy with Król that rubbed up uncomfortably against the disgust and disquiet that his art brought out in her.

The next day she deposited a summary of her notes on the Stony Cliff server among the other project files and sent a more detailed copy to Shirley McGrath. Then she dialed Joyce Truscott’s number.

Yell-oh. Brian here.”

Joyce’s husband, the relentlessly positive media star. Anni barely resisted an urge to hang up. “Could I speak to Joyce, please?”

“And you are?”

“Tell her it’s Anni.”

“Anni . . .” he rolled the syllables around as if he were tasting them. “Anni Koskinen! I thought your voice was familiar. How you doing? Things have been crazy around here, I can tell you. Film crews on the lawn, constant requests for interviews. I’m expecting a call from the BBC this afternoon, would you believe it?”

“Then maybe I’d better—”

“It’s not until the top of the hour. How are you? Joyce told me you set up your own business. How’s it going? This economy, we’ve had our challenges, you can imagine, and Springfield politics, oh man. What a mess. But you know something?”

He lowered his voice like the narrator of an infomercial with a really special offer if you called right now. “You think your world is crashing down around you? Soon as one door closes, another one opens. This construction project of ours that’s been held up by red tape forever? It’s on its way, now, thanks to a few things finally coming together. And man, the outpouring of support we’ve had for Danny in the past few weeks, it’s just tremendous.”

“That’s good. Could I talk to Joyce for a minute?”

“Yeah, I’ll get her. This has been tough on her, you know. She’s so sensitive. You wouldn’t know it from the outside, but I know her better than anybody and I can see how much it’s tearing her up. Hope is hard, but we need it, right Anni?”

“Well, I—”

“Because I truly believe that we’re going to find Danny.” He sounded stern, now. “If I didn’t have faith, if I just gave up, what kind of father would I be? If I didn’t do everything in my power to bring him back, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.” She wondered if he was using her as a proxy for Joyce, trying to bully her into optimism. “Let me ask you this: what did you think when you found that little shirt of his, those sandals?”

Anni realized this time he was actually waiting for an answer. “I was shocked. I was surprised.”

“And you thought to yourself, ‘here they are in this squalid little room, in the hands of man who had sick obsessions. This doesn’t look good.’ Come on, isn’t that what you thought?”

“I  thought ‘The police need to know about this. It could be a lead.’”

He laughed, a hearty, wholesome, full-chested chortle. “Excellent! So you’re an optimist, too.”

She was speechless, stumped how he got there from what she said, but he plowed ahead. “Good for you. There’s too much negativity in the world. Okay, so . . .”

“Joyce?”

“Oh right, she’s in the garden.”

She heard a clunk as he set the receiver down, his voice calling out. A couple of minutes later, she heard Joyce’s hesitant greeting.

“Hi, it’s Anni. I’m sorry, I don’t have any news. I just wanted to check in.”

“I appreciate it.”

“I’ve learned a few things about Król  I found the house he lived in when he was born. He spent some time in an orphanage after his mother died or got sick or something. I’m trying to reach a cop I used to work with who grew up in the neighborhood and apparently knew him pretty well. This guy retired and moved out east a while ago. I’m having trouble tracing him, but I’ll keep trying. None of this helps us find out what happened to Danny, of course.”

“It could. You never know.”

“I’m sharing what I’ve found with the police, of course.”

“They don’t seem to be getting anywhere. You don’t have any theories? Any idea what might have happened?”

Anni thought about Brian’s insistence that bind optimism would produce his son, somehow, about another kind of faith that led people to crawl to church on their knees. “No, sorry. I don’t know enough about this guy yet to speculate.”

“I don’t mean to be pushy. I just thought maybe . . . well, never mind.” She took a breath and caught it, like a sigh being pulled back inside.

“I’ll keep you filled in if I learn more.”

“Thank you. I appreciate it, really. Let me give you my cell number, just in case.” Anni jotted it down as she read it off. “That art historian of yours had a meeting with Brian this week,” Joyce added. “He’s making a documentary or something. Oh, and a reporter who’s doing a magazine article came by earlier today. He said he knew you. He had an Armenian name, but I can’t quite . . .”

“Az Abkerian.”

“That’s it. He had a lot of questions.”

“I’m sorry. This must be awful.”

“He wasn’t as pushy as some of them, and if he’s your friend, I feel better.”

“He’s a good journalist, but he’s after a story. You don’t owe him anything.”

“Brian did all the talking, anyway.”

Anni had trouble stifling a snort. “How’s Cassie handling all this?”

“She’s being Cassie. She almost got arrested for pushing a television cameraman into a busy street.”

“Good for her.”

“I’m just happy she didn’t get charged with anything. She doesn’t need more trouble. Brian’s making faces at me. Need to keep the landline open for the BBC.” She sounded dryly amused as she said goodbye.

 

Anni had one last task to take care of, her weekly visit to check on Josh McLaren. They’d talked on the phone twice in the past week. Though he didn’t say anything obviously delusional, she sensed he was humming with the kind of disjointed and anxious energy that preceded psychotic episodes.

After following a resident into the lobby, she climbed the flights to Josh’s apartment, and knocked. “It’s me, Anni.” He opened the door a crack and stared at her. His gaze was flat, as if he was staring at a two-way mirror, with her on the hidden side. She let him look, then gently pushed at the door. He let her in.

“You can’t stay long. I’m in the middle of something.” He gestured at his desk, cluttered with a pile of books and papers. He hadn’t shaved and the room smelled like old socks and sweat. The trash can beside the desk was full of energy bar wrappers and pop cans. “The one-third two-thirds conjecture. I’ve solved it. I just have to get the proof down.”

“This is a paper for one of your classes?”

He sighed. “I’m not taking classes, remember? They kicked me out. They’ll be embarrassed when this gets published. This is one of the major unsolved problems in the field. It could make me rich, and I wouldn’t have to rely on my parents anymore.”

He paused to listen intently as someone walked across the floor in the apartment upstairs. Then he reached over to the closed blinds to hook a finger into them to peer outside. “I have to get it published right away. I mean, people want to get the credit for themselves.”

“Josh, I know you don’t want to hear this, but I think you’re too revved up. I’m concerned.”

“That’s what you always say. You don’t think I can do this.”

“I think you’re incredibly smart. But what I’m seeing is what happened before. When did you last take a shower?”

“Oh, that ‘self-care’ bullshit. They put a label on you, it’s over. Nobody takes you seriously. This is real. I’ve solved a problem that nobody else could, but you think I’m insane.”

“I don’t know enough about math to make that call. I just know how you’re acting, and it worries me.”

“I just made a breakthrough, so yeah, I’m a little excited.”

“Have you talked to your shrink about this?”

“Why? She’s not a mathematician.”

“Yeah, but this is a big deal for you and it’s affecting your moods.”

He sighed impatiently and tugged at his hair, as if his scalp felt too tight. “It’s a big deal for everyone. The implications are massive. Didn’t you get what I was saying? I could make a lot of money with this. They might give me the Field Medal.”

“When’s your next appointment?”

“I saw her just yesterday. Look, I have to get this down and uploaded to a preprint server. But I’m not putting my affiliation on it, because the university doesn’t deserve it. Not the way they’ve treated me.”

“Okay. I’ll let you be. Can I use your bathroom before I go, though?”

He waved a hand. Fine, whatever.  She headed down the hallway and slipped into his bedroom. There was a pill box on the floor beside his bed, one with a compartment for each day of the week. The empty sections matched the calendar, so at least it seemed he was taking his meds. Still, it was obvious he was heading for a crisis. She nipped into the bathroom to flush the toilet, then went back to the living room.

“One last thing, and then I’ll go,” she said. “If you get worried about stuff, if you feel threatened or weird? Call me, okay? I won’t bug you. I just want you to be safe.”

He closed his eyes and was still for a moment, then took a deep breath. “I’m not crazy. This is real. This is important.”

“I know it’s important, but you still have to take care of yourself. I think it would be a good idea to check in with your doctor again, actually, before the weekend starts.”

“And I think it would be a good idea for you to leave. I need to get this done.”

“Okay, but call me if you want to. At night, whenever.”

He leaned forward and stared into his computer screen, elbows on the desk, propping his head up at the temples with his splayed fingers, blocking her out.

As she left the building, she found Kyle steering his bike up the sidewalk, digging in his pocket for his keys. “Checking on Josh?” he asked.

“Yeah. He’s not doing well.”

“I know. I almost called you, but it hasn’t been, like, an emergency. It’s just . . . I’ve been trying to get him to hang out and stuff, but he says he doesn’t have time. He hasn’t been out of that apartment for days, and it’s getting rank in there.”

“He tells me he’s working on a math paper.”

“Some theory thing. He’s all paranoid that somebody might steal his ideas. Last couple days, he’s been looking at me funny. Like I’m the one he’s worried about—which is crazy, because the stuff he’s talking about is way over my head.”

“That’s part of his illness. It’s hard for him to trust people when things get out of whack. Would you let me know if things get any worse? You can call me anytime.”

He scrolled through his contacts. “Yep, got your number right here. Thing is . . . he gets pissed off so easy. Last time he was talking about killing people.”

“He’s never actually hurt anybody. He gets scared, though, and that might make him do something stupid. If anything he does concerns you, don’t try to deal with it on your own. Call me.”

He blew air out of his cheeks, relieved. “Gotcha.”

“Will you be around this weekend?”

“Yeah. Well, except for a thing I was planning to go to Saturday night.”

“No need to change your plans. I’ll come back Monday morning to see if I can talk him into seeing his doctor, but meanwhile, let me know if you see him start acting like he did last time. Or anything that makes you nervous, just call.”

“Absolutely.”

She sat in her car and looked at her phone. She knew she’d have to call Donna, but she would freak out and demand that Anni take steps she couldn’t. Josh wasn’t yet in a state where he presented a danger to himself or others, the only conditions that triggered a non-voluntary hospitalization. She decided to stop by the university’s math department first, and dropped her phone back in her bag, relieved to have an excuse to put off the phone call.

 

It looked as if the entire campus had started the weekend early, but a poster taped to the door of Eckhart Hall advertising a Friday afternoon seminar series gave her hope that Dr. Lammert might be in the building. As she climbed to the second  floor she heard a babble of voices echoing at the end of the darkened hall. Lammert was standing in a doorway, chatting with someone. He caught sight of her, wrapped up his conversation, then led her to his office. “Is Josh okay?”

“I think he’s in crisis, actually. I was wondering if you’ve talked to him lately.”

“Not in the past week.”

“I just stopped by his apartment. He’s working on a problem he seems pretty excited about. One-third, two-thirds?”

“The one-third two-third conjecture? Huh.”

“Is that a real thing?”

“It’s real, just a little surprising. I didn’t know he was interested in order theory.”

“He thinks it’s a breakthrough.”

“Oh, lord.”

“Yeah. Like before. And he’s showing signs of paranoia.”

Lammert winced. “Not good. We set up regular meeting times so he could work on his incompletes, but he canceled this week.”

“Did he say why?”

“Just sent an email saying he wasn’t coming. No explanation. I was hoping he’d be at the seminar this afternoon.” He rubbed his forehead. “I guess it’s not surprising that he didn’t show. There was a bit of a scene last week. One of the other grad students said something that he took the wrong way. It got worse when one of the students made a phone call. For some reason, Josh thought he was calling the campus police and got agitated.”

“Agitated how?”

“Tried to grab the guy’s phone. He seemed okay once I got him into my office to talk about it, but if something like it happens again, if somebody calls security, he could get kicked out of the program for good.”

“That would be hard on him.”

“Devastating. He told me last week this is the only place he ever felt safe. This whole thing is tragic. He’s very bright. But the way things are going—well, the other students need to feel safe, too.”

 

She made the call to Donna, and she reacted with typical melodrama. Anni talked her through it until her demands turned to tears and the tears to Donna’s brand of positive thinking. Anni was surprised when it was over that the call had only lasted fifteen minutes. It felt like at least an hour.

Driving home, her phone rang, and Anni snatched at it. “Dinner, tomorrow,” Nancy Tilquist said threateningly. “With your man, this time. ”

“Oh, shit.”

“What?”

“He can’t. It’s complicated.”

“How bad is it?” Nancy asked quietly.

“He’s on some task force that’s sensitive and people think being with me might jeopardize an investigation. He’s talking about resigning. I’m not going to let him do that, but for now, we have to keep our distance.”

Nancy gave a short, sharp sigh in sympathy. “I still want you to come to dinner. How’s your case coming along?”

“Which one?” Anni slowed for a group of students on Fraternity Row, spilling off the sidewalk, blocking the street with careless arrogance.

“How many do you have going?”

“Two, at the moment, not counting jobs I do for Thea Adelman. One of my kids is getting ready for another trip to the hospital.”

“Oh, dear.” Nancy had been through it with her eldest daughter, Sophie.

“He’s not doing well. If things go south I may have to skip dinner, but let’s hope not. The other one, Feliks Król—I’m making some progress. One thing that’s weird, it turns out a guy I used to work with knew Król. I’m trying to get in contact, but I can’t find any trace of him.”

“Working undercover?”

“He’s not on the job anymore. He was in Boston three years ago.”

“Give me this fellow’s name. I have a friend in the criminology program at Northeastern who has done a lot of work with the Boston PD. He can tap his network.”

“That would be great.” Anni spelled it out for her. In reality, she doubted it would help. If information was so sensitive that Shirley wouldn’t share it with her, a nosy university professor wouldn’t get anywhere.

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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.