3

The house was on a corner, a three-story building with gingerbread-festooned eaves and elaborate brickwork, built in the late nineteenth century by someone with a lot of money and plenty of servants to carry coal scuttles up and down the stairs. Though the neighborhood had been gentrified, with new condos sandwiched between restored Victorian-era homes, this one retained some of its boarding-house scruffiness. The trim around the roof and windows had been meticulously painted a jaunty rainbow of colors, but the porch had a ratty couch on it and the front yard held a jumble of boards, bricks, and loops of ancient electrical conduit. A faded plastic flamingo was stuck in a pile of dirty snow, tilting to one side.

Inside, the front hall was crowded with bicycles, boots, and coats hanging from hooks in the wall. It opened onto a high-ceilinged living room that had a couch and cluttered coffee table, a handsome fireplace, cans of paint and spackle, spattered drop cloths, a ladder, and what looked like the engine block of a V-8 muscle car.

“How many people live here?” Anni asked as a hairy dog bounded down the hallway from the rear of the house, jumping up to lick Linnea’s chin, then snuffling around, checking everyone’s feet for interesting smells.

“Oh, maybe ten?” Linnea said vaguely. “No, eleven. People come and go.”

A lean, rangy man with sandy hair worked into shoulder-length dreadlocks followed the dog, carrying a beer and trailing an aroma of coffee, cigarettes, and weed. “How’s it going?”

“This is Anni,” Linnea said. “She’s a detective. For real.”

“No shit?” He scratched his ear, his grin sheepish. Busted.

“A private investigator,” Anni said. “These two have asked me to help him find out what I can about Feliks Król. Mind if I take a look at his room?”

“Up to Linnea. It’s her stuff.”

“Feliks left me everything,” Linnea said, adding defensively, “in his will.”

Anni couldn’t hide her surprise, and Sidlo added, “He made it while at the nursing home. They’re probably used to helping their elderly patients settle their affairs.”

“He had a lifetime of creative work in his room,” Linnea said. “He needed to be sure someone would take care of it.”

Jake laughed. “Bet he figured he was taking care of you, leaving you all his worldly goods. Used to bring her donuts he rescued from behind a bakery on Milwaukee. Thought she was a starving orphan. Well hell, you could be. You’re skinny enough.” Linnea stuck her tongue out at him. “They had this thing going,” he told me.

“You make it sound nasty,” she said, swatting his arm.

“No, it was like . . . like you were a penniless orphan and he was this secret rich uncle who wanted to make sure you had enough to eat and warm clothes. Seriously, it wasn’t creepy or anything.”

“When did you first meet him?” Anni asked Jake.

“Years ago.” He frowned at the dog, who was nosing around the boots. “Feliks came with the place. Trotsky!” He took a rubber boot away from the dog. “Quit chewing on things. Dumb mutt, acts like a puppy, still. Yeah, Feliks was living here when my grandma died and left me this place. Had his room, had his routines. Didn’t pay much attention to me.”

“You never heard him talk about his past?”

“Never heard him talk, period. Not even hello. For the longest time I figured he was a deaf-mute. But I guess he just didn’t feel like talking.”

“And your grandmother didn’t tell you anything about him?”

“Nah. To be honest, I barely knew her. My dad brought me to visit a couple times when I was a kid. She started renting out rooms to boarders after her old man died make a little money for herself. Put up partitions to carve up the space, had a bunch of old geezers living here when we visited. I was so confused. Thought I had, like, twenty grandpas, and all of them had hairy ears and bad breath. When she had her stroke she was down to just a couple of guys, Pat and Feliks. I was living in New York when I heard she’d left this place to me. A bunch of us had just gotten kicked out of this cool warehouse space in Queens, some zoning bullshit. Anyway, I didn’t have anywhere to stay, so when I got the news, I came here thinking I’d fix up the place and sell it, but, uh . . .” he looked around and shrugged affably. “The Chicago scene is cool. Decided I’d stick around instead.”

“The other boarder, Pat—what happened him?”

“By the time I got here he’d set himself up in some old folk’s place. Sent me a card at Christmas, so I guess he’s still plugging away. Feliks . . . seriously, I don’t know if he even noticed my grandma was gone. He just kept going like nothing had changed, like when the church where he used to work at laid him off. I only knew he lost his job when he quit paying rent.”

“He just stopped?”

“Yep, without a word. Never paid much, anyway, five bucks a week, cash. My grandma must have forgot to raise the rent since about 1964.”

“But you let him stay.”

He seemed puzzled. “Where else would he go?”

“Right, rent’s gone up since your grandmother’s day. Was he on social security or Medicare?”

“Don’t think so. He never got anything in the mail addressed to him, except Christmas cards from Pat. Ol’ Feliks was pretty much off the grid.”

“What did he live on?”

“Not much. He had the run of the kitchen and helped himself to coffee, but he wouldn’t take food from any of us.”

“He didn’t like our cooking,” Linnea said. “Too many icky vegetables.”

“He had a stash of dented soup cans he kept in the pantry, probably out of a Dumpster. Got some stuff from a church food shelf. Bread and peanut butter, things like that. He was super religious. Mega-Catholic.”

“Which church did he go to?”

Jake laughed. “Which one didn’t he go to? He went to mass at least once a day, sometimes two or three times. He used to walk miles to get to them all. That’s probably how he caught pneumonia, walking to church in bad weather.”

“That’s how he died?”

“He got a stubborn cough and couldn’t shake it off,” Linnea said. “It got worse and worse until one night we called an ambulance. It was awful. He didn’t want to go.” Her eyes welled up with tears.

“Hey.” Jake reached out to scoop her to his chest. “You did it to save his life.”

“He died anyway.” Her voice was muffled against his shirt.

“They kicked him out of the hospital, put him in some charity home run by nuns up on the North Side. He didn’t like it, didn’t last there too long.”

“It was as if he went inside himself,” Linnea said. “Deeper and deeper until he went out. Like a candle.” She sniffed and rubbed her nose with her sleeve.

“Later, we went in to clean out his room,” Jake said. “I knew he had a lot of stuff up there. Wanted to figure out how big a dumpster I should rent. Turns out the place is full of art. Creepy art, too.”

“Shut up. It’s beautiful,” Linnea punched his arm.

“But weird. Makes me wonder. I mean, all these years he seemed so . . . simple, you know? Only he wasn’t.” He tapped his head. “All kinds of stuff going on in there.” He frowned, lost in thought for a moment before shaking himself. “Well, I should be getting stuff done. Make yourself at home.” Jake waved his beer bottle vaguely at the stairs and shambled into the living room, the dog at his heels.

Ben expelled a heavy breath of air, as if he’d been holding it in impatiently. “Why don’t we go up?” he suggested, and Linnea nodded.

Anni followed her up the wooden staircase to the second floor, an open, airy space domesticated with mismatched furniture, worn oriental rugs, and muslin curtains tied back from the tall arched windows overlooking the street. The sun had long since set, but a couple of lamps gave the big room a warm glow. Layers of wallpaper had been removed, but patches still clung to the mottled plaster, ragged strips of faded roses and blue-gray stripes. The floor had been stripped of coverings, leaving raw pine planks, gouged and stained. It looked improvised, like an abandoned house used as a squat, but a homey, welcoming one. “There used to be a hallway running along the staircase here,” Linnea said, pointing at the roughened stains that marked the old boundaries on the floor. “And a maze of little rooms. The only one left is that one. His room.”

It stood in a far corner of the floor like a giant packing box left behind, the walls still clad in tattered floral wallpaper. A brass number 7 was fixed on the wooden door. Below the number, in a knotty, elaborate script that for some reason made Anni think of the Cyrillic alphabet, Feliks Król was painted meticulously, the letters outlined in gold paint. Linnea unlocked the door, nudged it ajar, and reached in to switch on a light before he stepped back, inviting Anni to go first into the dim and crowded space.

It was like a lot of jam-packed rooms she’d visited when she was still on the job, called in when a landlord or neighbor realized something was wrong. Thankfully this time there was no smell of decomp, just the musk of old paper, dust, the funk of an unaired room, and a hint of something from the past, a pleasant smell that seemed out of place—school paste and tempera paint, she realized. She had to maneuver between stacks of bundled newspapers and magazines piled as high as her shoulders. Beyond the bundles, she glimpsed boxes stacked against the walls full of neatly sorted junk: rusty tools, old cans, glass jars, bits of hardware, wooden picture frames jumbled together, discarded toys. The top of a fireplace mantelpiece was filled with religious figurines and ceramic figures of children and animals. A sentimental painting of the Madonna and child hung over it in an ornate and chipped gilt frame. Shelves on either side of the fireplace were crammed with books stacked two and three deep and laid horizontally atop one another, wedged into every possible space. What she could see of the walls above the bundles and boxes of junk was crowded with framed religious prints, wreathed with dust-furry cobwebs.

She felt the familiar tightness in her chest that came whenever she was in a small space, and she had to fight back an urge to leave. Instead, she groped her way forward, stubbing her toe against something. After probing she realized it was a bed frame completely buried in tightly-packed stacks of books and papers. “Where did he sleep?” she murmured to herself.

“That chair, probably,” Linnea said, following Anni into the room and pointing to an open space in the center of the room, where a sagging armchair draped with blankets stood beside an oak table that was still set up for work, pans of children’s watercolors neatly arranged around a half-finished painting of a boy dressed in ragged trousers running from a group of uniformed men armed with truncheons and guns, a burning city behind them. Spidery writing filled the margins of the painting, but the single bulb hanging from the ceiling wasn’t bright enough for Anni to make out what it said.

A sheet of cardboard lying beside the painting had sketches on it, the same figure as in the picture drawn in a variety of poses as if for practice. There was a stack of five or six notebooks close by. She reached for one, then hesitated. It felt as if the whole room was a museum exhibit, but Linnea nodded her permission. Anni picked it up and opened the cover carefully. Inside there was a hand-painted portrait of a girl with curly dark hair, a doll nestled in her arms, billowing clouds under her chubby elbows, bright rays of light shooting out from behind her head. The Story of Inez was written in elaborate script over the portrait, and she felt something icy slide down her spine. The girl with her dimpled cheeks and doll was familiar and completely out of place.

The child’s portrait had been copied from a photo the police had given to the press after her murder, one of those cases that led to editorials in the paper and calls for reforming the child welfare system. Anni turned a page and saw meticulously detailed drawings in panels like a comic book with that crabbed writing spilling out into the margins. A yellowed newspaper slipped out from between the pages. Child Beaten, Starved Authorities Claim.

She set the book down carefully and opened another. It had several clippings in it, all from a horrible case. A drug-addled couple had kidnapped and smothered a toddler, then tried to conceal their crime by dismembering the body and scattering the parts in a public park. Król had illustrated the child’s short life and gruesome death at length. “Are they all like this?”  She nodded toward the stack.

“They’re all about children,” Linnea said.

“Ripped from the headlines.” Ben stood behind Linnea, his hands on her shoulders. “When he read those stories in the paper, they must have affected him in some deeply personal way.”

“They’re mostly made up, though,” Linnea added. “I mean, he starts with a story from the news, but things get mythical, with dragons and angels and stuff. Fantasy. But they’re definitely not for kids. They’re pretty . . .”

“Dark,” Ben said. “It’s that juxtaposition of innocence with violence that’s so striking about his work.”

“Great,” Anni muttered to herself. “I’m not sure how to approach this. There’s too much to go through. I could start with public records, check with the churches—” She turned, ready to leave, feeling hemmed in.

“Wait, you haven’t seen the altar yet.” Sidlo’s eagerness jarred with the unease she was feeling.

“Altar?”

“The best part.” He pointed past the boxes that hemmed the table in. Feeling as if the room was closing in around her, she reluctantly made her way through the clutter to an elaborate piece of furniture pushed against the far wall. She couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing at first, a jumble of junk climbing up the wall, defying gravity.

“Hang on, let me just . . .” Sidlo reached over some boxes and fiddled with something near the floor. Lights suddenly sprung on, strings of Christmas lights draped around an old-fashioned dressing table with the mirror missing. The drawers had been removed and narrow shelves had been affixed to the walls around it to support a towering conglomeration of found objects: toys, plastic flowers, strings of beads. There were dolls, statues of saints, peacock feathers, holy cards, baby dresses and tiny shoes, toy cars, stuffed animals peering at Anni with shiny glass eyes. It looked like the impromptu street shrines that sprout at sites of tragedy, but artfully constructed, like a baroque altarpiece made out of trash. It was sad and oddly beautiful—and disturbing. The dolls all seemed to be maimed: headless or missing arms or legs. The baby dresses and empty shoes were weirdly intimate and troubling.

“That’s really . . .” she started, but didn’t know what else to say. She sensed them watching her, waiting for her to say more. Buttons and beads and bits of broken glass were glued along the edge of the old dresser, she noticed, along with tiny white bones and fragile skulls of birds and rodents carefully arranged, like rococo trim on an antique chest. A teddy bear with loose stuffing dangling where its arm had been torn off slumped nonchalantly in the cavity where there had once been a drawer. Her eyes were drawn to a colorful pair of small sandals propped in its lap.

Familiar green and yellow plastic sandals with dinosaurs on the straps, one a triceratops, the other a stegosaurus. If she picked them up, she knew she would see molded shapes on the soles designed to leave an imprint of dinosaur tracks in wet sand. They were bright against the faded bear, so dusty its furry ears looked frosted. Beside the bear, tucked further back there was a folded shirt, a lime green shirt with puffy blue letters. She found herself reaching down toward the D with a fingertip, a jaunty capital letter next to a blob that was meant to be an A. Because it was folded, she couldn’t see the rest of the letters, the ones that spelled out Danny. She held her fingertip poised there, imagining how the lettering would feel, crusty and rubbery, though she didn’t touch it. She had never held the shirt, though it was instantly familiar from the photo they had distributed everywhere, that she still encountered occasionally on grocery store bulletin boards, one face among many. Have you seen this child?

“Unplug those lights. They’re a fire hazard,” she heard herself say, her voice weirdly calm. “Then leave the room. I’ll follow you.” Sidlo and Linnea exchanged glances, then Ben started to speak, his face scrunched up in puzzlement. “Out,” she said. “Now.” He reached down to pull the cord out of its plug. The shrine went dark. They filed out of the room.

Outside, Anni took the key from Linnea, switched off the overhead light, locked the door, and stuck the key in her pocket.

“Hey, what’s this about?” Sidlo protested.

“You moved them.”

“I don’t know what—”

“Everything else was dusty, not the sandals, not the shirt. You put them there. Where did you find them?”

Sidlo shook his head as if to clear it. “Look, I’m not sure what you—”

Don’t.” She took a breath, tried to swallow, but it felt as if there was a lump blocking her throat. “Don’t lie to me.”

“They were in one of the boxes,” Linnea said, and Sidlo winced with irritation. “Ben just wanted to make sure you’d notice them, that’s all. He didn’t mean to—”

“You moved them because you know who they belonged to. You know I was involved in that case.” She felt her hands clench, felt a shiver of fury. “You have no idea how much this pisses me off.” She took out her phone and punched in a familiar number from another time.

 

They went downstairs and into in the messy front room. Jake looked up from the book he was reading. “You guys, listen to—hey, what’s up?”

“Are you part of this?”

“Me? No.” He closed the book, pressed it to his chest and looked between them. “Part of what?”

“He doesn’t know anything about it,” Linnea said.

Jake unfolded himself from the couch, picked up his empty beer bottle. “I think I’ll, um . . .”

“Don’t leave the house. The police may want to talk to you.”

He looked at Linnea, mouthed “police?” She gave an apologetic shrug. “Then I’ll just . . . yeah, guess I’ll be in the kitchen.” He loped out.

Sidlo tried to launch a defense. “Look, I understand you’re upset, but—”

“You knew those were Danny Truscott’s shirt and shoes when you found them.”

“Well, not at first, but there was a newspaper clipping that . . . yeah, we figured they might be his.”

“You knew, too?”

Linnea nodded, looking smaller and more orphaned than ever.

“You found what might be evidence of a crime and the first thing you thought of was how you could use it for a stupid publicity stunt?”

“That’s not . . .” Sidlo stuttered, then changed tack. “Well, sure, it would get people’s attention. Is that so wrong?”

“You set me up.”

“No, look, I hired you because I need help with a kind of research I’m not trained in. That’s the bottom line, but given this connection—I figured you’d want to find out what happened to that little boy. You’d have a stake in it.”

“It’s a police matter now. It’s nothing to do with me.”

“But you were the one—”

“Look, I’m too angry to talk to you right now, so how about you just shut up until they get here, okay?”

Anni went to stand by the front windows, staring out at the street. Her hands were jammed into her jacket pockets, one of them wrapped tightly around the key to Feliks Król’s door, the saw-toothed edge digging into her palm. Linnea watched her, nibbling her thumbnail. Sidlo paced restlessly.

“Will they want to search Feliks’s room?” Linnea ventured to ask.

Anni laughed. It came out like a cough, and made her throat hurt.

“That’s going to be a problem,” Sidlo said. “I mean, they can’t just tear the place apart. The room itself, the arrangement of all the elements, it’s an important artifact. We need to document everything, make sure his work isn’t damaged or lost.”

“They’ll need a warrant, right?” Linnea asked.

“They’ll get one.”

Sidlo sighed. “We’d better talk to a lawyer,” he said to Linnea. They withdrew to a far corner of the room. Anni could hear them murmuring indistinctly. She leaned her forehead against the front window, feeling the cold glass. Remembering.

 

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.