10

As Anni left the building, she pulled her phone out of her bag. She didn’t want to make the call, but she knew she had to, and putting it off would only make it harder.

She sat on a wall outside the social sciences center and looked up the number. It hadn’t changed, the sequence instantly familiar, and so was the Evanston address. She had expected the Truscotts to move up the shore and closer to the lake as Brian’s public profile and personal wealth grew, but they still lived in the house that she’d seen for the first time the day Danny disappeared. The phone rang four times, five. Given the amount of attention the case was getting in the media, they were no doubt screening calls. She was trying to decide how to word a message when someone finally picked up.

“Hello?” Joyce Truscott’s low voice was hesitant.

“Oh, hi. It’s Anni Koskinen. Shirley McGrath suggested that I get in touch.”

“Oh, Anni. Sorry, I thought it was another reporter calling.” A wave of relief seemed to flow through the words. “I was all set to hang up.” Her words had just a hint of a soft drawl, the remnant of her childhood home in the southern end of the state.

“I’m sorry about . . . I mean, I know this whole thing must be difficult.”

“It’s been such a long time. Would you like to come over?”

“Do you mean now?”

“You’re probably busy. I don’t know what I’m thinking.”

“No, this is perfect. As it happens, I’m at Stoney Cliff College, not that far away.”

“I’ll put the kettle on when you get here. We can have a nice cup of tea. Or coffee if you’d rather. I usually have tea in the afternoon, but—”

Anni wondered what made Joyce apologetic about nearly every word she uttered. Was it living with Brian Truscott, that relentless extrovert? “A cup of tea sounds great. See you soon.”

As reluctant as she had been to make that call, to confront the newly-awakened grief of a woman whose child had been missing all these years, she was surprised at how easy it was to talk to Joyce. It had always been easy. Though Joyce seemed profoundly shy and conversations tended to trickle away, it was an undemanding silence. In some ways it reminded Anni of hanging out with her brother Martin. He could become wildly distraught if his routine was disrupted or if he was confronted with people he didn’t know, but whenever it was just them, she always found his non-verbal companionship relaxing in comparison with people like Ben Sidlo, who loved his own voice and polished every social exchange like a mirror so he could enjoy his own reflection.

It was odd, driving along the quiet, tree-lined residential block where the houses were large but not ostentatious like the ones nearer the shore. They were four-square frame houses with big front porches, built in the late nineteenth century for people with aspirations, lots of children, and faith in the healing powers of fresh air away from the sooty city. It has been a long time since she’d made the trip, but the route felt strangely familiar, as if nothing had changed since Danny had vanished. A little boy who would be thirteen now. She still pictured him as the solemn three-year-old on the posters.

Joyce welcomed Anni in with a flicker of a smile, but her eyes looked tired, with dark circles smudged under them. Her once-dark hair was growing silver, but it was still long and thick, massed around a face that was still just shy of fifty but looked older. She was barefoot, in jeans and a shapeless sweater that didn’t flatter her, but when Anni reached down to add her boots to the collection of shoes on a mat near the door, Joyce shook her head. “No need.”

“But your floors.”

She brushed it away with a gesture. Somehow that dismissive wave seemed to include the whole house, the neighborhood, maybe the entire world. Unimportant.

She still had the same sturdy gait, Anni noticed as she followed her into the kitchen, a solid way of planting her bare feet on the polished hardwood floors that seemed so much more decisive than her awkwardly introverted conversational style. “How have you been?” she asked Anni, nodding toward a chair. “It’s been a while since you started your new career. Two years?”

“Just about.” Anni sat, wondering whether anyone had bothered to check in with the Truscotts since she had left the job. Probably not.

“How do you like it?”

“It’s not what I had planned to do with my life, but it’s working out. In fact, I just came from a meeting—”

“Would you like herb tea? Or I have some Assam that I get at an Indian grocery,” Joyce interrupted. “Brews up nice and strong.”

“That sounds good, thanks.”

She filled a kettle and readied a teapot. Anni took a chair, remembering the room, a pleasant old-fashioned kitchen with sunflower yellow walls, Delft tiles over the sink. The old pine table in the center of the room looked as if it had spent decades of  service, and there was a clutter of things on the counter – a crumpled dish towel, some groceries that hadn’t been put away, unopened mail. The living room they’d passed through had looked sterile, as if it was ready to be photographed for a magazine spread. The kitchen felt as if someone actually lived there.

“I wasn’t surprised when you told me you were leaving the police force,” she said, reaching for cups and saucers. “I  thought you might join a nonprofit or become a social justice lawyer, like that woman you work with, Thea Adelman.”

“We’re not that much alike, actually.”

“Really? You seem to care about the same things. I always wondered how you got along with police culture, what attracted you to it.”

“I had a close friend who was a cop. I wanted to be like him.”

She winced. “Sorry. I didn’t mean . . . That sounded . . .”

“No, it’s fine. Honestly, I never did get along with it. It just took a while to figure it out.”

“You were always honest with me. And you kept in touch. That meant a lot. Are you hungry? I have some of those Danish butter cookies somewhere.”

“No. I’m fine.”

She spread her hands out and studied them. “How’s your brother?”

“Doing well.”

“Still working at the college?”

“Yes, same job, same apartment. Good thing he doesn’t like change; there isn’t much of it in his life.”

“You must have been visiting him.”

“Actually, I had a meeting there. Listen, this is why I need to talk to you. I’m not sure how you’ll feel about it, but I’m going to do some background research for Ben Sildo, the art historian who found Danny’s things.” Joyce turned and glanced at the stove, as if she had just thought of something she needed to do, but Anni carried on. “He got a grant to do a project about this artist. The one who . . .”

“Had Danny’s things in that room,” Joyce said.

“They don’t know much about this guy, this weird artist, so . . . I’m not sure how you feel about me being involved in this. I’m going to be working for a man who’s probably going to gain a lot of publicity because of what he found. That strange art he’s so excited about.”

Joyce took a breath and sat straighter. “Tell me about him.”

“He’s young, ambitious. Kind of into himself.”

“I meant the artist.” Joyce smiled bleakly. “The strange artist.”

“Oh. Feliks Król.” Anni summarized what she little she knew about him as Joyce listened intently.

“I saw his paintings on the WBEZ website,” she said. “They’re sad and scary, like the dream world of a disturbed child. What do you think happened?”

“No idea. That’s something the police will be—”

“They don’t know anything.” She frowned and traced the wood grain in the table with a fingertip. “You’ve seen that room.”

“I was in it once, briefly.”

“You saw Danny’s . . .” She groped for a moment.

“The shirt that Cassie helped him decorate on his birthday, and the sandals.”

“His dinosaur sandals.” Her smile flickered again, and she pressed her eyes shut for a moment, then took a deep breath. “Why do children like dinosaurs so much? And trucks. Things that are big and dangerous. He couldn’t get enough of them. You know, I’d gotten used the fact that we might never know what happened.” She frowned at a spot in front of her, reached out to brush away an invisible crumb. “It took years, but I came to terms with it. The open-endedness of it.” They sat in silence for a minute. Shadows washed across the room as trees outside stirred in a breeze.

“He’s dead,” she finally said. “I’m sure of it.”

“We don’t know—”

“I do. I’ve known for years. It sounds silly, but it came to me a week after the park, after he disappeared. I woke up that morning and I knew.”

“There’s no evidence to suggest one thing or the other.”

“I don’t need evidence. I just know. Brian won’t accept it, he won’t even let me say it, but it’s true. You would have found him if he were still alive. Someone would have found him.”

“Not necessarily,” Anni said, thinking she’s right. He’s gone. Bones in a shallow grave. Remains buried in silt at the bottom of a pond. Bits of charred rubble long ago absorbed by the earth.

“I realize it sounds ridiculous. As if mothers have psychic powers. But one day I was terrified for what might be happening to him, and the next, soon’s I woke up, I knew it was over. That I didn’t have to worry anymore. It was strange to feel relieved. Wrong, especially when everyone told us to be strong, to have faith, my husband most of all. He thinks anything less is betrayal, but that’s more about him than anything else. A test of his strength. I still miss Danny, of course.” She smiled to herself. “Those dinosaur sandals. He would have worn them to bed if I’d let him.”

Anni didn’t have anything to say. Somewhere a clock ticked faintly, a patient, steady rhythm. Joyce sat in a trance until the kettle began to sing. She filled the pot, set it on the table, got cups and saucers, spoons and a sugar bowl. “So, you’re going to help this art historian. What’s his name again?”

“Ben Sidlo.”

“You’ll tell me if you find anything out. If it turns out this artist had anything to do with it.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Even if you just think something might be . . . if you get a hunch. An idea. It’s not that I’m . . .” She frowned, her mouth tight. “I’m at peace,” she said as if to persuade herself. “I just don’t want to see things in the news or hear people talk about it and not know what happened to him. How it happened. The police aren’t any use, and my husband—” she shook her head. “You used to call me. I just want . . . that again. To know where things stand.”

“I’m sorry you have to go through this again.”

She nodded, then smiled to herself. “Brian’s loving it, being in the spotlight. He’s like a little boy, sometimes, so eager for attention.” She spoke without bitterness.

“How’s Cassie handling it?”

“She’s not happy, but that’s nothing new.”

“She’s what, nineteen now? Finished with high school?”

“So you would think.” She smiled wryly. “She dropped out in her junior year. She’s been working as a seamstress, repairing vintage clothing. Plus she’s apprenticed to a tattoo artist, learning the trade. I think that’s mainly to impress her father. He hates needles. We don’t see much of her these days. She shares a house with some people in the city.”

“How’s Philip doing?”

“He still lives in Arizona.” Joyce filled their cups before getting up to prowl through the cupboards. “I have some of those Danish cookies somewhere. It’s a blue tin.” She opened and closed a few more cupboards before she sat down again and picked up her cup. “They’re not that good, anyway. Brian found a school for Philip down there.”

“I remember.”

“It wasn’t a good fit for him. His seizures got worse. He got pneumonia twice. Then there was an accident. We still don’t know exactly what happened, but he had a traumatic brain injury that wasn’t diagnosed for quite a while.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay now. He’s in a residential program outside of Tucson. Well, that’s what they call it. It’s a nursing home, really. They do a good job caring for him. They ought to; it costs more than Harvard.” She laughed ruefully. “I visit every few months, but he doesn’t seem to recognize me anymore. I don’t think he’s unhappy, though.”

Anni’s eyes were burning suddenly, her nose stopped up and aching. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Oh, Anni. I didn’t mean—” She reached over and touched Anni’s arm lightly with her fingertips, so gently she barely felt it. “Don’t feel bad. I appreciate you asking about him. Hardly anyone does.”

She drank her tea and refilled her cup, while Anni rubbed her nose with a paper napkin, feeling like a fool.

“I wish I could tell the police something useful,” Joyce said, “but I’d never heard of Feliks Król. They showed me a picture of him. Such strange eyes. I don’t recall seeing anyone like that in the park, and he would have stood out.” She stared straight ahead, thinking, a crease denting her forehead. “Old, peculiar, in raggedy clothes. I just remember families and tourists. People in town for conventions wearing name tags. If I’d seen someone like him I would have noticed, don’t you think? I would have told you. Someone would have.”

“We talked to him. An officer did, didn’t note anything unusual. There’s a good chance Król simply found the clothing somewhere and took it home with him. Did you know anyone who lived on the West Side back then? Or maybe worked there?”

She stirred her tea and watched the swirls settle down. “No. Nobody.”

“The place where he lived, it’s near Wicker Park.”

“That’s a trendy area, isn’t it? Cassie has friends who live there.”

“What about anyone who might have worked in that area, or driven on Division or Milwaukee to get to their home or work?” Joyce shrugged. “Maybe someone your husband worked with?”

“We never talk about his work. Well, he talks, but I don’t really listen anymore. I wish I could be more helpful.”

“Don’t worry about it. Chances are there is no connection between Król and whoever took Danny.”

“You’ll be checking into it, though.”

“Not exactly. Ben Sidlo has hired me to do learn what I can about Król. The police are the ones who will be investigating any connection he might have had with Danny.”

Joyce frowned slightly, disappointed but too polite to say so.

“Look, I’ve known Shirley McGrath for a long time,” Anni said. “She’s a good cop. I don’t know Harold Franklin personally, but he seems solid, and from what I’ve heard the pair of them clear a lot of cases. I’ll be sharing anything I learn about Król with them.”

“And you’ll let me know?”

“Of course.”

“Brian wants to boost the reward up to half a million dollars.”

“Shit.” It slipped out before Anni could stop it. “Sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No, I know. The police are trying to talk him out of it. I guess when there’s that much money, all kinds of scammers come out of the woodwork, but he says it will make it easier to spread the word.”

“It won’t help at all. It will waste police time, and the word’s spreading just fine without it.”

“We don’t have that kind of money, anyway. He just wants to feel like he’s doing something, the bigger the better. It’s hard on him. He’s so used to being in charge, making things happen. You’ll let me know about anything that turns up, won’t you? Even random ideas, theories. Things that would waste police time.” She gave Anni a crooked smile. “I have plenty of time. I just want to know what you’re thinking. What you learn about that man. What made him draw those pictures.”

“Sure.” Anni took out a card. “Any time you want to talk, feel free to contact me.”

Joyce looked at the card intently, as if committing it to memory, then set it on the table in front of her, straightening it fastidiously before picking up her teacup. “So, how’ve you’re been? Do you still live in Humboldt Park? You’d bought a house there, I seem to remember.”

They chatted for another fifteen minutes, an oddly comfortable conversation, and then Anni took her leave.

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.