7

For two weeks Anni kept her head down and managed to stay out of the unfolding story as Brian Truscott commanded as much media attention as he could. She filled her days handling routine tasks for a lawyer’s collective, doing locates, serving papers, and interviewing witnesses in parts of town where it was virtually guaranteed she wouldn’t run into reporters. Her schedule was full, but her bank account wasn’t. She ended up working more hours than she billed, just to keep busy.

Dugan wasn’t faring any better. He had been pulled away from homicides and assaults to work on something that involved endless meetings at headquarters where most of the time was spent (in his words) comparing dick sizes. He couldn’t tell Anni what it was about, other than that it was a bullshit assignment, the kind of politically sensitive tango with politicians and lawyers that had driven him to transfer from a high-level administrative position to fill the position Anni had left, joining a violent crimes detective squad on the West Side. His mother still held it against him. She was used to being a police family, used to her children wearing a gun to work, but he was her youngest, the one who wasn’t supposed to be in harm’s way. “At least the squad’s not shark-infested, like headquarters,” Dugan had told her, but she just swatted at him with a dish towel.

Anni understood his mom’s relief, but leaving colleagues to deal with violent crimes while he sat in conference rooms shuffling papers made Dugan grumpy. He dealt with it by getting out his tools and prepping his garden and Anni’s backyard for spring. It was too early to plant anything, but he spent his off hours digging holes and moving dirt, which always cheered him up.

 

One afternoon Anni dropped by the hospital to see Josh. As she exited the elevator that took her to the psych ward, she spotted his mother at the end of the hall, trudging toward the elevators head down, everything about her sagging. When she saw Anni, she straightened her shoulders and smiled broadly. “Anni! Have you come to visit Josh? That’s so sweet of you.”

“I was in the neighborhood. How’s he doing?”

“Much better. His doctor thinks he may ready to go home at the end of the week. The only question is which home. I want him to stay with us for a while, but he’s so determined to get back to his classes, and he doesn’t want to commute.” She laughed. “I suppose that means I’ll be the commuter, driving down to see him. Making a nuisance of myself. Isn’t that a mother’s job?” She reached out to give her wrist a friendly squeeze, and Anni forced herself not to recoil from the woman’s bony grip, her expensive bangles and chunky rings and polished nails. “I saw your name in the newspaper. That little boy. So awful for his mother. And poor you. That must have been such a shock.”

“The police are handling it. I don’t have anything to do with the case anymore.”

Donna tightened her grasp, her eyes squinched in sympathy, before finally letting go. “Oh,  we’re planning a fund-raiser next month. A wine tasting with local artisanal cheeses. I’ve lined up the best speaker, the woman who wrote that book about her daughter? You must know who I mean. She was on Ellen a few weeks ago. I’ll make sure you get an invitation.” Anni smiled politely, but she didn’t have the funds to attend a fancy fund raiser, even if she wanted to, which she didn’t.

Josh did seem better that afternoon, able to joke about the delusions that still haunted him, but prone to long moments of spaced-out distraction. He was determined to return to his apartment and his classes. He found comforting symmetry in higher mathematics, but Anni had a hard time imagining that he would be able to manage daily life anytime soon. She left the hospital certain she’d be hearing from the McLarens again before long.

Money was worryingly tight. In the previous three weeks, she’d had only one assignment from parents worried about a child. A girl she’d worked with several times during her high school years was now in her second semester at a posh college in Maine. Her parents had gotten nervous when she stopped answering her phone. The Dean of Students assured them there was no cause for concern, but the parents thought he was blowing them off. At their insistence, Anni flew out to check on the girl. As it turned out, she was fine, just tired of being hounded by her hovering parents. She’d lost her phone accidentally on purpose and was embarrassed and angry when Anni showed up. The trip had been expensive, and their check for time and expenses was late.

Even worse, she got home to find whatever she earned would have to go into home repairs. A storm had torn a limb from the walnut tree in her back yard, breaking a window, letting wet snow blow in. Adam Tate, her downstairs tenant, had a genius IQ, but a serious lack of common sense. He told her he had wondered why the light wasn’t working in his kitchen. He hadn’t noticed the big tree limb that was stuck like a fork into the back of the house until Anni pointed it out. When she climbed a ladder to see how much damage it had done to the roof and the gutter she realized it wasn’t just a few shingles that had come off in the spring storms. The whole thing needed reroofing. Great.

Once, when she worried out loud about keeping the house, Dugan raised the possibility of her moving in with him. She rejected the idea flatly, then worried that she’d hurt his feelings with her snap response. It actually made a lot of sense; they’d save money and she was already spending half her time at his place, but she was too attached to the wooden floors she’d stripped and sanded, to the antique windows her brother had helped her install, too aware of the need to have her own space. It turned out he felt the same. Neither of them wanted to give up the life they’d fallen into so easily, close but not crowded.

Whenever work dried up she worried she’d lose the house. Leaving the job had been hard for a lot reasons, but now she was becoming seriously anxious. It made her toy with the idea of signing on with one of the big firms, but when she went to police headquarters to request some records, she found herself in line next to a man who bragged about working for a company that had offices in six cities. By the time she got to the counter, she’d heard enough to know that she would only go that route if she got desperate. Things weren’t that bad yet, but there was no question she was going to have to pick up some work, and soon.

 

One afternoon Donna McLaren called to tell her Josh had been discharged. She had just dropped him off at his apartment near the University of Chicago. “I don’t think he’s ready for this,” she told Anni. “But he’s absolutely insistent. I want you to keep an eye on him for me.”

“Check in with him every couple of days?”

“No, really keep an eye on him. See what he’s doing, where he’s going, if he’s okay—at least for this first week. He doesn’t have to know. You do that sort of thing, right?”

Anni suppressed a sigh. “I don’t think surveillance is the way to go. It would take a team to do it right. Besides, it’s not how I do things. I need Josh to trust me.”

“Well, I know, but—”

“I can visit him every day, if you want. At least until things settle down.”

“The thing is, he might not—” She broke off and sighed impatiently. “He has anger issues.”

“That’s common after a hospitalization.”

“It seems worse than usual. He was completely unreasonable about staying at home, even for a little while. He just got out of the hospital, for heaven’s sake. I’m just asking you to keep an eye on him. Isn’t that what we’re paying you for?”

“You’re paying me to provide a certain level of safety for your son when he’s in crisis. Surveillance would be counterproductive, in my opinion. I could give you the names of some other firms that—”

“No, that’s not what I want.” She sighed. “It’s just so frustrating. He’s not in a fit state to be on his own. Anything could happen.”

“Will he be seeing his doctor regularly?”

“They have appointments set up, and he seems to like her.” She made the admission grudgingly.

“That will help. I know it’s difficult, but you can’t  lead his life for him.”

“You sound like George. He told me this morning it’s time to cut our losses. Cut our losses?” Her words grew taut, squeezed out and trembling, on the verge of tears. “How can you speak about your own child that way?”

“He didn’t mean it like that,” Anni murmured automatically. It wasn’t the first time Donna had broken down on the phone. “He’s just . . . I know this is hard for both of you.”

She hiccupped and blew her nose. “He doesn’t know what it’s like to be a mother. No idea at all. You’ll check on Josh for me? Every day?”

“I’ll go right now if you want.”

“Please do. Oh, and would you send your invoices to me by email?” The Hotmail address she read out—SailorDonna61—was clearly a personal one.

“You don’t want them to go to your office manager anymore?” Anni asked.

“After what George said? I’ll be writing the checks on my own bank account from now on. Let me know how he’s doing. I expect regular reports.” Anni heard her give a final, fastidious sniff.

As Anni headed out to her car, she thought about the implications. George had always let Donna take the lead in child-rearing and its discontents, but it sounded as if he was getting fed up with the drama, or maybe the expense. Anni had been caught in the middle in these parental disagreements before. It wasn’t pleasant, and it often meant she didn’t get paid on time, or at all.

 

She prowled the streets until she caught a parking space two blocks away from Josh’s apartment building, then called him as she strolled to the building’s front door. “It’s Anni. I’m right outside. Can I come up?”

He didn’t respond for a moment. “Okay.”

He buzzed her in. It was one of those well-preserved brick apartment buildings interspersed with modern townhouses and condos in a leafy enclave of privilege on the South Side. The last time she’d been there, blue police lights flashed outside and the foyer had been jammed with residents upset by the ruckus Josh had made before disappearing into the night, shouting scary things. Now it was quiet, a few fliers littering the tiled floor of the foyer advertising pizza specials. She started up the three flights of stairs to Josh’s apartment, one of three that shared a landing.

“Whoa,” Anni said as he let her in. Books and papers were strewn everywhere and the furniture was pulled away from the wall and upended. When his psychosis was quiet, Josh was obsessively neat, creating the kind of right-angled order around him that her brother Martin imposed to assure himself that things were safe and under control, but this morning Josh looked defeated by the wreckage left in the whirlpool of his latest episode. “Some mess you got here.”

“I suppose my mom sent you.”

“Yep. You know how she gets. I told her I’d be stopping by every day for a week or so. It’ll make her feel better and it’ll keep her off your back. Want some help straightening this up?”

“No. I have to figure out where everything goes.” He picked a book up off the floor, looked around, and set it on the windowsill. “I thought there were bugs in here. Not the kind spies use, real bugs. Insects. I kept seeing things moving out the corner of my eye, so I was trying to figure out where they were coming from. I have to buy a new mattress. I threw my old one away.”

“Seriously?”

“Whenever I tried to sleep on it, it felt like it was moving. Like they were swarming inside.”

“Eww.”

“I pushed it off the back porch and dragged it over to the dumpster. It’s not there now. Somebody probably took it. It was a nice mattress.”

“Where will you sleep?”

“On the couch, I guess. Glad I didn’t throw that out. I tried, but was too heavy.”

She laughed. He smiled tentatively. For a moment there, looking into Josh’s uncertain eyes, she felt a wave of tenderness for this kid who was so smart, so lost. So frightened.

“I don’t have time for this.” He nudged at a pile of toppled books with his toe. “I need to get in touch with Dr. Lammert.”

“What’s the rush? You just got out of the hospital today.” She had met Lammert, his research director, a soft-spoken man with a full beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and a wardrobe full of jeans and denim shirts that were usually decorated with chalk dust. He seemed unusually patient and understanding, willing to help Josh work through the university bureaucracy when things were out of whack.

“I’m way behind on everything.” Josh worried at the ragged skin on the side of his thumb with his teeth.

“One thing at a time. Let me help you move the couch, anyway.”

She got him focused long enough to get the largest pieces of furniture in place and papers and books gathered into piles for sorting. He sat on the couch when they were finished, relieved but still looking anxious, jiggling one knee.

“That’s a start, anyway,” she said. “Happy to be out of the hospital?”

“Yeah. I hate it there, though home would have been worse.”

“What’s so bad about home?”

“It’s like being back in high school.”

“God. I hated high school.”

“It was awful. The other kids always knew what was going on. I used to think there were messages going out on a frequency I couldn’t hear. Telling them everything.”

“You were a good student, though. Your mom says you had some crazy-high grade point average. Above 4.0. How does that even work?”

“You get extra points for taking AP classes, which is stupid. I didn’t have trouble with classes. Just the rest of it. It was . . .” He drifted, gnawing at the skin around his thumb.

After a minute she said, “Josh? You seem kind of checked out.”

“They’re taking my thoughts,” he said, then glanced at her, embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to say that. Stupid brain.” He tapped his knuckles against his forehead.  “What I meant to say . . .” He closed his eyes to concentrate. “Right. High school. My parents always wanted me to be part of the scene, make the right connections. It’s all about connections. I couldn’t figure out how to do it, though. Everybody thought I was weird.”

“What about your grad program? You have friends there.”

“They think I’m weird, too. They just don’t mind as much. I have to contact Dr. Lammert. Should I call him on the phone? What if he’s busy? Or in class?”

“You could send him an email and ask him if there’s a good time to meet.”

Josh nodded and exhaled, as if he’d just done something exhausting. “That could work. But I’m going to take a nap first. The drugs make me tired.”

“Okay. I’ll see you tomorrow. I’ll come by around six if that’s okay?”

He stood as she opened the door. A man was leaving the adjoining flat, wheeling a bike out onto the landing. “Hey, Josh! How you doing, man?”

“I’m okay.”

“That’s great.” He smiled at Anni. “I think I saw you that time—” he started to say, then broke off awkwardly. That time Josh was flipping out.

“Anni.” She held out a hand.

“She’s, um . . .” Josh stared at his feet.

“Friend of the family,” she said as they shook.

“I’m Kyle. Josh saved my butt in Calc Three. Thought I was good at math until I got to college. Hoo boy, I had catching up to do. Great to see you back, man!” Kyle gave Josh a friendly punch on the arm. Josh rubbed it, smiled vacantly before closing his door on them.

“Are you a grad student, too?” she asked Josh’s neighbor as she headed down the stairs with him, his bike hoisted to his shoulder.

“I’m working on an MBA, but it’s hard to fit all the homework in. I’m part of a startup, and it’s, like, crazy hours I’m putting in. We’re about to roll out MiMi, this great cloud-based platform that integrates all your social media into an agile mobile platform.” He had the energy and total self-absorption that Anni remembered from guys she’d known in college who had no doubt that everyone would be fascinated by anything they had to say. “You might have heard of us. TechCrunch did a piece last month.”

She tried to look politely interested, but he went on without noticing her effort.

“MiMi has great analytics. A dashboard for tracking all your interactions, plus an ambient awareness tool that uses machine learning to notify you about where your brand should be at any given moment.” They made it down the three flights of stair as he babbled happily. “Big data on a human scale that gives you control. It’s going to be seriously disruptive. If you’re looking for investment opportunities, you could get in on the ground floor.”

“Yeah, well, my house is looking for a new roof, so that’s not going to happen.”

“Too bad. Could make a killing when we go public.” He wheeled his bike outside, glancing at his phone.

“You’ll probably be seeing me around. I told Josh’s mom I’d check on him.”

“I met her. She’s pretty intense. Told me to give her a call if Josh starts acting weird again.”

“Call me instead. I could get here quicker in an emergency.” She gave him her number, which he conscientiously thumbed into his contacts. “Sounds like you’ve known Josh for a while.”

“We were both math majors. He was a lot smarter than me, though. Still is, even with code, which is supposed to be my thing. Few months ago, I was busting my butt trying to figure out this visualization program I pulled from Github? Kept crapping out on me. He figured out what was wrong in, like, five seconds.” She started walking toward her car. Kyle walked alongside, wheeling his bike. “Guy’s a genius, and he’s been incredibly helpful with making connections for our latest round of funding. Half our investors are people he grew up with.”

“That’s handy.”

“My dad’s a dentist downstate. I thought we were rich until I got here. Josh’s family? It’s a whole different level. Weird how things go. He’s rich and smart and connected, but . . . you know.” He shrugged. “Thanks for your contact info. I’ll send you our site, in case you change your mind about investing.” She felt her phone vibrate in her hand. “There’s some cool demos, check it out.” He spoke absently, already distracted by his screen. She left him busy thumbing a message while standing astride his bike, catching up on business before heading to wherever he was going.

 

Having a job to do on the South Side meant she could use Dugan’s flat as a temporary home base for the week. His garden apartment in a Victorian house belonging to his aunt was only a few blocks from Josh’s apartment building. It turned out to be a good idea to stay close; Josh was taking more of her time than she had expected.

“How’s he doing?” Dugan asked one evening, reaching for a beer and loosening his tie in a familiar routine.

“Lousy. He was too far behind and had to withdraw from his courses. He’s angry. Thinks his professor and the other grad students are plotting against him. He’ll be back in the hospital before long.”

“Do you think he might act out?”

“He’s just frustrated. He’s never been violent.”

“Maybe. Don’t take it for granted, though.”

He was looking for a way to say “be careful” without actually saying it, knowing she tended to bristle if he was too protective. She nodded. “How’s your stuff going?”

“Same old bullshit. Wish I could . . .” He rubbed his head. “This isn’t what I want to do with my life, you know? But it won’t last forever. Hey, it’s a nice evening. You want to help me turn over the compost?”

She laughed. “How romantic. Sure.” There was always something outside that needed attention. The physical work did them both good and Dugan’s garden was an oasis of order and peace in a world short of both.

 

She called Josh’s mother every morning to report in. Donna’s tendency to make the best of things led to her sunny opinion that Josh was doing fine, even though Anni did her best to explain that he wasn’t, not really.

After Anni had sent her first invoice, Donna called to say daily visits were no longer necessary; Anni would only have to check in once a week for the next month, just in case. Though Donna made it sound as if she was convinced her son was on the mend, Anni couldn’t help thinking she’d simply realized for the first time just how much a private investigator cost. As Anni gathered up her things scattered around Dugan’s apartment to return to her West Side home, it was reassuring to know that Josh’s neighbor Kyle had her phone number. She had a feeling he’d be using it before long.

 

She threw a load of laundry in the wash, dealt with the mail that her downstairs neighbor had collected for her, and then took a run around her neighborhood. She’d grown lazy over the winter, and though it was a perfect spring day, her three-mile route seemed twice as long as it used to be. She couldn’t help thinking about the most recent email from Ben Sidlo. He had sent several messages over the past three weeks, brimming with the expectation that she would eventually get over her fit of pique and take him up on his job offer. His latest email told her he was thrilled to report that he’d secured additional funding for their project. She could become a salaried member of the research team for the duration of the two-year grant. Even though he called it a part-time work, the weekly stipend he proposed was substantial. She would be able to pay for a new roof and start to fill the hole in in her savings.

Or get nailed for ag assault. She wasn’t sure she could spend ten minutes with Sidlo without punching him.

After her run, she was drinking a glass of water at the sink when her phone rang. She checked the ID and reluctantly answered.

“Hi, Anni, it’s Shirley. Shirley McGrath? Working on the Truscott case?”

As if she could forget. “How’ s it going?” Anni said automatically, though she didn’t really want to know.

“Slower than I’d like. It’s taking too much time to get through Król’s stuff. You’d think those piles of junk were the Dead Sea Scrolls, the way that professor acts. Also, the family’s being difficult. One of them’s too helpful, and the other one isn’t any help at all.”

“I’m not surprised.”

“Between you and me, Brian Truscott is a horse’s behind. Unfortunately, he’s also well-connected. Makes a point of referring to the superintendent by his first name, like they’re best buddies. Who knows, maybe they are. Truscott’s got all kinds of juice with the city, major contributor to this and that.”

“You must be getting a lot of pressure to close this one.” Anni had avoided news about the case, but it was impossible to miss it completely. Brian had enough of a media presence to score some national television interviews and get the story rehashing Danny’s disappearance picked up on newswires. Sidlo had done his part, acting like some kind of artist profiler, describing Król as a tormented genius, implying there was a lurid story yet to be uncovered. Az Abkerian had called, trying to get a quote for a story he was pitching to a website that mingled news stories with listicle clickbait. He sounded embarrassed about it and took her “no comment” without putting up a fight.

“Yeah, we don’t usually get this much media attention. Not surprising the brass is getting a little antsy. Say, reason I called, I’d like to get together, go over some things.”

“I doubt there’s anything I can add now that will help.”

“Still, I need to run through the previous investigation with you. Maybe while we’re at it, you can give me some pointers on working with the mother. I’m having a hard time getting a handle on her. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she didn’t want to help.”

“She’s just reserved.”

“Hmm. With her husband being Mr. Positive Thinking, I can see why she might want to keep from getting her hopes up, but it’s like pulling teeth to get a word out of her. Apparently you kept in touch, though.”

“Well, just—you know. I would check in now and then. I never had anything to tell her. Just wanted her to know we were still trying.”

“It made a good impression. I definitely get the feeling she’d rather talk to you than to us.”

“I doubt she wants to talk to anybody. Not about this.”

“Got to be the worst, not knowing what happened to your child. Anyway, any chance we could get together this morning?”

“Uh, well . . .” Anni wanted to say she was too busy, but though Shirley sounded relaxed and friendly, Anni was sure she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

“Is there a coffee place near you?” Shirley coaxed. “I’ll buy.”

Anni suppressed a sigh. She’d been expecting this call for the past three weeks; it was time to get it over with. “Do you know Café Colao? It’s on Division, a couple of blocks east of the park.”

“I’m sure I can find it. Does half an hour from now work for you?”

 

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.