19

“I’m fine,” she said, pressing a cold pack to her left eye, fighting off fatigue. The chair in the interview room was hard, the fluorescent lights overhead too bright.

“Should have left it to us. You sure you don’t want medical attention?”

“He doesn’t know how to throw a punch.” She heard his howl again as they took him down, a scrum of men piling on top of him as he bucked and flailed. “You charging him for Pete whatever-his-name-is?”

“Foster. Pete Foster.” The detective she’d spoken to earlier scratched his head, sighed. “Got work to do first. A scene to process, witnesses to interview, statements from the neighbors. I’m up to my ass in high-priced attorneys. Right now, the kid’s in the hospital. A nice one, not the one at the jail. The ASA wasn’t too happy about it, but the parents raised a ruckus. He’s locked up safe and comfortable while we figure out our next steps.”

“Watch out for his mom. She’ll give you a lecture about mental illness and then ask you to buy tickets to some fundraiser.”

He chuckled. “Maybe later. Right now she’s pretty upset. Crying her eyes out, but angry, too. I thought she might give her husband a shiner to rival yours. She’s so certain her boy wouldn’t hurt anybody. The dad, he’s not so sure. As for me . . . look, let’s be frank, here. You deal with these situations enough, you got a feel for it. You’ve seen Josh McLaren in a state like this before. He told you he killed somebody. That he had to.”

“He said ‘I killed them all.’ That’s delusional thinking.”

“He’s delusional all right. But it happens that way sometimes, right? He told two gentlemen out there on that island he was sorry. You got an illness like that, sometimes a voice in your head says you gotta do some act of violence.”

“In the past, his voices told him he’s no good, he’s the one who doesn’t deserve to live.”

“Maybe this time they started telling him different.”

“He’s never been violent before.” As Anni heard herself say it yet again, the words sounded worn, polished smooth, as if she had rubbed them together too many times and they slipped out of her tired grasp to lie there between them, meaningless.

“Doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen,” the detective said gently after seconds had ticked by. He sounded tired too. “Apparently he thought somebody was stealing some new invention of his. A genius idea that was going to make him rich and famous. When your mind’s in a state like that, your thoughts out of control, you try to explain it to people, you start arguing, the guy maybe makes fun of you or something. I mean, let’s face it, these were college boys having a party. Wasn’t nobody in that room hadn’t had a few beers, some weed. Probably treated him like it was a big joke. That wouldn’t have helped any.”

“Where would he have he gotten the weapon?”

“It was just a knife from the kitchen.”

“He went into the kitchen to find it?”

“Naw, it was laying around. They cooked a frozen pizza, I guess, left the knife among all the empties and burnt-out Js. Weapon was right there.”

She could picture it. The taunts, Josh’s anxious fury, the voices in his head chattering away, an impulsive moment he couldn’t take back. “Nobody else was hurt?”

“One of them got a black eye. Another one cut himself on some glass. In the confusion, they were tripping over themselves, scared to death. But he just put the knife in the one guy and ran off. All of this is independently confirmed by multiple wits.”

“Foster was stabbed just the once?”

“All it took.” The detective gave her a look, waggled a finger. “I know what you’re thinking. Where’s the frenzy? Where’s the craziness? But my guess, this is how it happened.” He looked up at the ceiling and squinted, concentrating, as if someone had scrawled a message up there explaining it all. “He was in a situation that was stressing him out, getting scared, hearing these voices that were telling him you gotta do this, go on, do it.” He closed his eyes, feeling it, making Anni feel it. “But he didn’t really want to and when it happened, when he saw the reality of what he’d done, all the blood, he took off, wishing it never happened.”

He sat back in his chair, rubbed his eyes wearily. “I get what you’ve been saying. This is not a violent guy. And I know the stats, cause his momma told me like ten times: crazy people are way more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. But the fact is, it happens. You know it does. They don’t mean to, but things get all messed up in there and . . .” He waved his hands around his head, fingers like evil spirits fluttering around him. “They push somebody off a platform in front of a train. Hold their baby’s head under the water in the bath. Hit their grandma with an ax. Boom. It’s done. It’s a damned shame, cause they ain’t in their right mind, but it happens. You know it does.”

She shook her head, though she knew he was right.

“You want to try and convince me someone else did this?”

“No. I just don’t . . .” She finished her sentence with a shrug.

“We’re going to investigate all the possibilities. So many lawyers around, kind of hard to get a word in edgewise, but we’ll do it right. You got to trust me on this. I don’t cut corners, especially when everything we do could be put on 48 Hours or some such. But I gotta tell you, I was in that room. It’s pretty clear how things went down.”

She nodded dully.

“At least you made sure he didn’t hurt anybody else or get himself killed. And none of our officers had to resort to force. All these lawyers circling like buzzards, that’s a big relief, even if it came at the cost of a pop in the face.” He squinted at her. “How’s that eye?”

“It’s nothing.” She put the ice pack down, so tired she no longer knew what she was saying.

“We got this, now. It’ll take us a while to sort it all out, but we will.” He chuckled to himself. “Got to give his mom points for effort. She’s demanding we find out which of the brothers did it. Must have been one of them gang members, not her sweet little boy.”

“Shit.”

“That’s okay. She’s his mother. She’s supposed to take his side. Girl, you go home, get some sleep. We can get something more official from you later. Appreciate you helping us out with this.” She felt a card pressed into her hand. “Let me find somebody to get you to your car. You okay to drive?”

 

She sat in her car, her phone in her hand, thumb poised on the familiar number, something she had done without thinking. She couldn’t call Dugan. She couldn’t invite herself over to his place for the night. She couldn’t lean into that familiar shoulder and feel the world settle slowly into a regular pattern as steady as his heartbeat, not for weeks and weeks.

Ever since the uniformed officer showed where to sit and wait, waves of fatigue had been breaking over her, their undertow dragging her into the same place again and again, a dark, despairing place where she questioned her decisions and imagined all the things she could have done differently to prevent that moment when Josh had grabbed up a knife and ended a life. At least the detective—Det. Elijah Morton, it said on the card she still had clutched in one hand—had been decent. She didn’t envy him, having to deal with all those entitled parents and their high-powered lawyers, not to mention the mayor’s office and the press. The story the evidence told might be clear and simple, but every step he took would be scrutinized, and she knew how that felt.

It didn’t help, having been in such a familiar setting, waiting her turn with the other civilians. She had felt that electric charge in the air, the one that comes when you knew this one would be on the front page tomorrow, would make neighbors ask about it. “Hey, that thing I saw on the news, you know anything about it?” The same energy she’d felt when organizing the futile search for Danny Truscott. But she was an outsider now, and she had crashed hard after the adrenaline high.

As she started to put her phone back in her bag, she saw the screen was crowded with alerts for texts that had arrived during the four hours she had been waiting or being questioned at Area South. Eight from Donna McLaren. Several from reporters. One that simply said “are you ok?”

“I’m ok” she texted back.

His emoji response came immediately, making her smile. She put her phone away hoping that brief exchange wouldn’t get Dugan in trouble for fraternizing with the enemy. She drove home, got out cheese and crackers and washed them down with half a bottle of cheap red wine. She set her glass in the sink and then fell into bed to sleep twelve hours straight.

 

In the morning she groggily went about making coffee, realizing as soon as it was filling the small flat with its tempting fragrance that she was out of milk. She went downstairs to get some from her absent-minded tenant, Adam. He might be too spacey to notice when melted snow was leaking through his ceiling, but being the single parent of an active three-year-old forced him to be organized enough to keep fresh milk in the fridge.

“Taking a trip?” she asked him, spotting an open suitcase in the middle of the living room. His young son was sitting in it, once-folded clothing strewn on the floor around him.

“We’re leaving tonight. A friend of mine’s getting married out in California. They’re planning a . . . Daniel, what are you doing?” Daniel chuckled, unfazed. “Guess when he goes down for a nap I’ll finish packing. I don’t know what to do about Grommet, though.”

Was that the name they’d given Daniel’s goldfish? The little boy had been so excited when he’d shown her the fish in a plastic bag of water as they returned from the pet shop a few weeks ago. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I can feed him for you.”

“That would be awesome. A woman I work with was going to take care of him, but turns out she has to go on a work trip.”

“Just leave the food and instructions. I don’t mind stopping in once a day or whatever.”

“Great. But maybe you could take him to your place? We’ll be away for a whole week. He might get lonely.”

“Whatever. You mind if I . . .”

Adam’s attention was caught by something on one of his computer screens. “Dang it, that’s not supposed to happen.” He went over to tap at a keyboard.

“I’m taking some of your milk.” He didn’t even hear her. She went to the kitchen and was pouring milk into the mason jar she’d brought with her when a scrabbling sound made her freeze. She turned, scanning the room. Beady eyes peered at her from the top of the curtain rail over the sink, whiskers twitching. A naked pink tail curling down like an exposed earthworm. The rest of him brown and furry and fat.

“Adam?” she said, trying to stay calm. “We have a rat. A big one.” She couldn’t help shrieking when it shifted its weight and lost its balance. It scrabbled with its claws, swinging on the curtain before it fell, twisting, into the sink. A leap took it to the floor, making Anni trip over herself as she backed away fast. It scurried into the living room, where it squirmed its way into a pile of toys. She followed and snatched Daniel out of his suitcase.

“Adam?” she called out again. Dammit, she thought. How many were there? How much was an exterminator going to cost?

Daniel kicked and bounced in her arms as he pointed at the pointy nose and glittering eyes peering at them from behind a stuffed toy. “Gommet!” he said happily.

 

She drank her coffee, half in a stupor, scrolling through the morning news on the laptop balanced on her knees, slowly overcoming the unpleasant feeling of early-morning grogginess spiked with a strong jolt of rat-fueled adrenaline. She should be happy to learn that there was only one rat in the house, and he was a pet, but picturing the brown furry beast scuttling along the baseboard made her shiver.

“They’re very intelligent animals,” Adam had tried to convince her. “Smart and affectionate.” It didn’t matter. Their naked tails gave her the creeps. Those little pink paws, like tiny grasping hands. The way they moved, rippling along the floor and shinnying up curtains. Ugh. She’d encountered too many rats in alleys and squats.

Adam had been disappointed when she told him a goldfish was one thing, she was not going to take care of a rat. She’d left him working his phone, trying to find a rat-sitter.

Pete Foster’s murder was at the top of the news, with film of reporters speaking from the scene, trying to look tragic, but mostly looking excited. A photo of the victim smiled out at the world he was all set to conquer as soon as he had his MBA in finance. Like most kids growing up on the North Shore he had a long pedigree of resume-ready accomplishments. There were quotes from fellow students and friends who were shocked and tearful. There was a boilerplate statement from the police that suggested they had apprehended a suspect who they weren’t ready to name just yet.

People on social media weren’t as circumspect. Josh McLaren wasn’t just named, his life was picked apart. People who remembered him from high school turned to Facebook to share anecdotes of his weird behavior, claiming they knew something like this would happen someday. Pete Foster’s Twitter feed was full of grief and shock and messages of mourning and love for the dead man whose avatar was a beer stein and whose profile description was “entrepreneur, grad student at @chicagobooth. Connoisseur of craft beer, rugby and disruptive innovation.”

Josh McLaren didn’t have a Twitter or Facebook account. He had always been wary of social media and warned Anni how much personal information was being collected, how volumes of data could be processed at rates of speed unimaginable only a few years ago, how nameless information brokers were building intimate profiles of hundreds of millions of people. It had sounded like a symptom of his paranoia, but she was wary enough herself to use caution. She idly scrolled through the memorials on Pete Foster’s Twitter account as she drank her coffee, realizing at one point that she was reading Foster’s own Tweets. The last photo he had posted was a selfie, a bouquet of male faces, toasting themselves and their invincibility with raised beer bottles and goofy grins. Josh’s neighbor Kyle was in the picture, the top of his head and one wide-open eye peering from the periphery, the rest of him obscured by the faces crowded around the man in the middle.

She scrolled back in time through Foster’s feed. Comments aimed at friends. Jokes. Retweets of memes and microbrewery news, links to Silicon Valley news, salted with selfies and videos of himself and friends enjoying their lives. His account was a self-portrait of a handsome, cocky young man who assumed vast wealth was the object of the game, and investing in technology startups was how smart guys played it.

Kyle, she noticed, wasn’t part of the Twitter stream except for that one photo. She remembered him telling her how Josh had introduced him to this crowd, people who he was tapping as investors in his startup. He’d offered to let her invest, too—as if she could afford it.

She vaguely remembered a program her downstairs tenant Adam had showed her to visualize Twitter connections. She found the link and plugged in Foster’s feed. Circles and spokes bloomed on her screen, like a field of dandelions going to seed. The program identified his primary social connections and their relationships, a tight bundle of overlapping circles bristling with links to other circles. She wasn’t sure what to make of the colorful graph, but noticed a familiar name, Devon Oachs. It took a moment to remember it was his residence where that happy group selfie had been taken shortly before one of them was murdered. Kyle’s name was on the graph, too, but it was a dot far from the central cluster, his connections a small spiky appendage distant from the tightly integrated network around Pete Foster.

She searched for Devon Oachs’ Twitter profile and found it was protected. He had accounts on all of the usual sites, but they had their privacy settings locked down. The only social account belonging to him that wasn’t private was on LinkedIn, and all it contained was a headshot of a young man in a suit who looked like a football player disguised as a stock broker, along with information about schools, jobs, and accomplishments found on a professional resume. A lawyer or parent had probably advised him to make his online life safe from prying eyes during the media storm. There was nothing suspicious about that. Even innocent posts could damage a person’s reputation taken out of context, and reporters would be searching for anything about this case that could be turned into clickbait.

She checked Kyle’s feed while she was at it. It seemed to be marketing for his startup mingled with the latest tech news. If he had posted anything last night—and chances are he would, good publicity for his business—he’d already deleted it.

She was filling her mug with the last of the coffee, trying to get fully charged, when her phone rang. She had to trace the tail of its power cord to find it hiding under the sheets in her unmade bed, but she got to it before it switched over to voice mail.

“Hey, sorry. Did I wake you up?” A man’s voice.

“No. Just couldn’t find my phone.” The voice was familiar. Who was it?

“You still live near the park?” She heard Spanish in the background. The excited patter of a radio advertisement.

“Who is this?”

“Slovo. You wanted to know about Feliks Król.”

“Right.” In spite of all that coffee, her gears were shifting too slowly this morning. “Um, yeah. Let me get a pen.”

“You still live near Humboldt Park? Give me the address. I can be there in a few.”

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

In the Dark by Barbara Fister, 2020, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.