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“I killed six people.”

“Yeah?” Anni strolled down the slope toward the lake, peering through the pre-dawn gloom. She could barely make out where Josh McLaren was standing, down among the chunks of ice and rocks jumbled along the shore. “When did this happen?

“Last night.”

As she got closer, she saw that he was standing on a slab of concrete that tilted into Lake Michigan. A weathered tree limb jammed among the rocks by a storm jutted up beside him, pointing at the sky, white as bone. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but the sky was growing light. The water was choppy and restless. To the north, the skyscrapers of the Loop were swathed in low clouds.

“That‘s why all those police are up there,” he said. “They’re here to arrest me.”

“No, they just thought you were acting kind of weird. I talked to them. They’re leaving.”

The CPD squad car that had drawn up on the park drive had already pulled away. Only a unit from the University of Chicago police remained. Anni hooked her thumbs into her jeans pockets casually, keeping her hands where Josh could see them. It wouldn’t take much for him to start imagining things, and his trust could turn to overwhelming fear in an instant.

“That island out there,” Josh said, staring a faint shape out across the water. Do you know what it is?”

She followed his gaze. “Don’t think it’s an island. Looks like a structure of some kind.”

“I‘ve asked about it, but nobody will tell me what it is.”

She climbed down the concrete steps toward the water cautiously. They were glazed with ice. “Maybe it’s some kind of navigation marker.”

“Or it’s a prison.” He studied her face, as if looking for signs of betrayal.

“I’d know if it was a prison.”

“A secret prison. They erased it from public satellite images. I’ve checked.” A plume broke against the rocks, soaking his already wet jeans. He didn’t seem to register the shock of icy water, though he was shivering. “They don’t want us to know.”

“Josh, I’m getting cold out here. Can we go up to my car and talk?”

“I don’t want to be arrested again.”

“You won’t be. I told the police I know you. They went away.”

“They lied to you, then. I mean, they have to arrest me. I killed six people.”

“No, you didn’t.”

“I did, too,” he insisted, but his certainty was wavering. “When I left my apartment, I killed everyone I met. That’s why they’re after me.”

“If we go to my car—”

“I’ve killed lots of people. I might kill you.”

“You wouldn’t do that.”

“How do you know?” Another wave rolled in, a big one. This time the spray rose so high it splashed his back and he gasped, then grinned, some kind of dare in his eyes. She stepped out onto a rock that put her at his level and only two steps away from him.

“People swim here,” he said, daring her, though his teeth were chattering and his lips were blue.

“Not in March, they don’t.”

“They drop down into the water right off these rocks and start swimming.“ He nodded down the curving shoreline, to a wooden bathhouse that was boarded up for the winter, dirty snow drifted against it. “I’ve seen them head for that beach. Sometimes I lose sight of them because of the waves. And every time I think ‘they’re not going to make it.’ But they do. They swim the whole way. Like they’re practicing.” His eyes darted toward the shape far out on the horizon, then back, as if sending Anni an urgent coded message.

“Come on, Josh.” She held out a hand, offering to help him off his slab of concrete, but he wrapped his arms around his chest.

“Practicing in case they get caught and sent out there, to that prison, but it’s too far. It’s never going to work.”

“Let’s go get warm in my car.”

He wiped his nose with his fist, then hugged his chest again. “I’m scared, Anni.”

“I know.”

“I’ve been scared all my life.” He closed his eyes and rocked on the balls of his feet. Anni measured the distance, weighed her options. He was nearly a foot taller than her, and his clothes would add to his weight. If he went in, it wouldn’t be easy to pull him out and hypothermia would set in fast. She stepped onto Josh’s concrete slab to put herself between him and the water, but her feet began to slide on an invisible slick of black ice. She teetered, trying to get her footing, having to drop to her hands and knees to avoid slipping backward into the lake.

“Dammit!” Her jeans had snagged on a sharp nub of rebar and had ripped open. So had her knee, she realized as the shredded denim seeped blood. A wave of icy water burst against the rocks, taking her breath away with the shock of it. “That’s it. We’re going, Josh,” she said between chattering teeth.

He nodded, suddenly resigned, and held out a hand to help her up.

She guided Josh toward her car, doing her best to keep him talking and focused on her, so he wouldn’t notice the U of C squad car. After nudging him into the passenger side she gave the officer a thumbs up, so he could let his dispatcher know that the grad student whose parents were major donors to the university was out of danger.

She turned her old Corolla’s heat to its highest setting and they headed to the hospital where Josh had been admitted several times before. After he was led away by a cheery nurse, she called his parents and waited for them to arrive.

George and Donna McLaren had hired Anni four years earlier, when Josh had walked out of his dorm room and vanished. He had told his professors he had solved a classic math problem. Though he was having trouble explaining his solution, his intuitive grasp of difficult concepts was advanced enough that it took a couple of days before they realized his ideas were delusional. By that time, the voices that had revealed the solution had started to say terrible things to him, terrifying things, and he went on the run, convinced he had to go to the southernmost tip of Argentina for reasons he couldn‘t explain. When Anni finally caught up with him he had been nabbed while trying to climb onto a freight train in a South Side rail yard. He was hungry and dirty and scared out of his wits.

Since she had started taking on cases like this, it seemed everyone she knew had a family member or friend with a mental illness, an uncontrolled addiction or both. Her clients were only unusual in that they had enough money to hire a licensed private investigator to locate their kids when their lives derailed. After briefing them, she listened to his mother’s gushing gratitude long enough to be polite, but about twenty minutes longer than she wanted, before finally heading home.

 

Back at her West Side flat, she took a hot shower, put a fresh bandage over the scratch on her knee, filled the kettle, and listened to accumulated phone messages. The first was from a reporter she’d known for years. Az Abkerian’s voice had the kludgy, thickened sound it got after he’d had too much to drink. After rambling about how sorry he was to be calling in the middle of the night, he abruptly broke off, swore and hung up. Strange. He never seemed to care what time it was when he was on a story, nor was he always sober, but he’d never apologized for calling before. The second was from Dugan, saying he hoped the kid had turned up. She played it again, just to hear his voice, then sent him a quick text that he could read when he had a free moment. The third message was a cheery, confident voice that sounded vaguely familiar.

“Anni? It’s Ben. Been ages since we’ve seen each other.” Ben who? she thought. She had a few Bens in her mental address book. Apparently this one thought he was so important she would instantly know who he was. “Listen, I just ran into Nancy and it gave me an awesome idea. I’ve been working on this project and I’m hitting a brick wall because tracing missing people wasn’t exactly part of my grad school training. Here’s the deal: I’m doing research on an artist who died last January. Nobody knows anything about his background, and we need to know his life story. Seeing Nancy reminded me this kind of research is in your skillset, and I have grant funding that could cover your fees. Anyway, give me a call when you get a chance.”

Ben Sidlo, she realized. He taught art history at Stony Cliff College, where her brother worked. He had once curated an art exhibit for a friend, a street artist Sidlo claimed to have “discovered,” though the police knew about him first, back when Lucas was just another homeless kid with an X-Acto knife, cans of spray paint, artistic talent and a juvenile record. She jotted “call Sidlo” on a sticky note and stuck it on her laptop as a reminder.

It would be good to have a simple, routine job to do. The bill for a new furnace had swallowed her savings whole and was hungry for more, but she could only take on so many cases like Josh’s, even though they could be lucrative. During the ten years she had worked as a cop, she’d dealt with parents who’d lost a child to stray gunfire or women who’d been brutalized by their partners. She’d comforted children while they waited for social services to come and take them away from a home where there was broken glass on the floor and blood on the walls. But back then there was plenty of paperwork and court prep to muffle the impact, and other officers to joke around with, make it all seem normal, part of a day’s work. Now that she was working solo, all she could do was balance her wealthy but desperate clients with routine investigations for a public interest law office. And get things off her chest with Dugan.

Though that wasn’t always an option. They had settled into unmarried bliss, keeping toothbrushes at each other’s places, but their unpredictable schedules meant they were often out of sync, and they couldn’t blow off steam about cases. Anni was not only a civilian, she often did investigative work for a criminal defense attorney. That made for gaps in their conversation as they ran into professional boundaries. That was happening a lot, lately. Dugan was working on something particularly sensitive that was frustrating him. All he could tell her was that he was having to spend most of his time in meetings at headquarters. He couldn’t wait to get back to real work, investigating murders and assaults instead of . . . whatever it was.

As Anni waited for the kettle to boil, she wondered how Josh was doing. He had been in that hospital often enough to know the routine, but he would still be in the grip of delusions, thinking that everyone around him was staring at him, accusing him of unspeakable horrors, even though in reality the other patients were too occupied by their own problems to even notice there was a new guy on the ward. His disease was always scary, but the worst of it was at times like this, when his hallucinations were in charge, telling him he had committed terrible crimes, that he deserved to die.

A buzzing hum insinuated itself into a spot just behind her ears, an insistent whine of anxiety that rose into a shriek of alarm. She came out of her doze just long enough to switch off the kettle and stumble into bed.

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.