12

The traffic was so snarled it took her forty minutes to get home. As she inched her way south, she inventoried what she could remember about Slovo, trying to guess how his life might have intersected with Feliks Król’s. It didn’t take long to realize that, though they’d worked out of the same office for three years, she knew next to nothing about Slovo’s personal life.

Before she’d even met him, she heard he had a hot temper and a problem with authority. He also was known for taking on a lot of tough cases involving children, throwing himself into them without worrying about union rules or overtime caps. Legend had it he cleared every single one of them except the last, the most notorious, the murder of Sharla Peterson.

It was a brutal case. A baby had been suffocated and dismembered, her remains discovered in a city park early one morning by a man walking his dog. A new deputy chief of detectives who was an early fan of data-driven deployment had noticed Slovo’s high clear rate and put him in charge of the investigation based on his numbers, stubbornly refusing to admit he’d made a mistake as the investigation dragged on with non-stop news coverage but no breakthroughs. Detectives were frustrated by having to take orders from somebody so unused to obeying them. He could bust cases working solo but had no skills for case management at scale. It wasn’t until Slovo put his fist through a computer monitor and kicked an office chair to pieces that he was relieved, but that brief window when those kinds of cases got solved had closed. It was assigned to someone else and Slovo was ordered to take his accrued vacation. By the time he returned to work, three weeks later, it was made clear he would no longer work on anything high profile, or take on cases involving children.

The Sharla Peterson case remained unsolved for over for over a decade, when a man locked up for another serious crime found Jesus and confessed to a string of offences, including his involvement in the murder. Anni wondered whether Slovo had even heard the case had finally been solved, and that reminded her of the first time she asked him for advice.

 

A month into the investigation of Danny Truscott’s disappearance, she was desperate for a break in the case. One evening, she stayed late, spending several frustrating hours on the telephone with police in Spokane, following up a lead that didn’t pan out. She was alone when Slovo came in. His shirt was torn at the shoulder, and his lip was bleeding.

“You okay?” she asked him.

He dabbed his lip with his sleeve. “Dandy.” He made a beeline for the break room, came back pressing a can of cold pop to his lip. “What are you doing here?” He mumbled around the can.

“Spinning my wheels. Can I ask you something?”

“Shoot.”

“It’s Danny Truscott. I was—”

He turned and walked away.

“Just wondering if . . .” But she was speaking to his back. She heard him pop the tab on his can as he settled at a computer in a far corner of the room.

“Gee, thanks,” she muttered to herself, then pulled over a keyboard to document yet another dead end. She started to go through all the lead sheets again, looking for something else to focus on.

Three hours later, she pushed the file away and rubbed her eyes, trying to locate the headache that lurked just behind them. When she opened them, he was standing beside her desk.

“It’s two a.m.”

“I know.”

“Why’re you still here?” He said it as if she were trespassing.

“I don’t know. Wasting time. I just . . .” She straightened some papers and set them on top of a pile. “I keep thinking it’s in here. Something I missed, something I’ll finally see if I go through it one more time.”

He seemed poised to walk away again, but instead rested his hip on the corner of her desk. He ran a finger across the colored tabs that stuck out of the stack. “What’s this about?”

“Just trying to get organized.” She felt her cheeks grow hot. She’d brought in a package of book darts left over from college and spent too much time color-coding the files. It seemed silly, now, treating the case like a senior thesis, trying to tame the pile of information the way she had tackled term papers. Slovo had joined the police back when no college credits were required. He’d earned his education on the streets, a credential that carried a lot more clout at Area 4 than her college degree.

“My paperwork’s a shitpile.” He twitched a yellow tab with a fingertip. “Does it work?”

“Nothing works.”

“What you got on the parents?”

“The dad has an alibi. It’s solid. The mom’s a wreck.” He raised an eyebrow. “She’s practically catatonic. Seriously checked out.”

“Any chance she’s faking it?”

“No. I mean, come on. It’s her kid.” He rolled his eyes. “Look, I checked her movements, before and after, okay? I’ve talked to neighbors, acquaintances. Her only relatives live downstate, and they aren’t close. No immediate family, just cousins. They hadn’t laid eyes on her since she graduated high school and moved to the city, but they all said she was a straight arrow. The worst thing anyone had to say about her was that she wasn’t sociable, always had her nose in a book. There’s no reason to think she might have had a role in it.”

“Okay. So, the dad’s got an alibi. He could have hired it out.”

“But why?”

“What do their finances tell you?” He could see from her expression that she hadn’t checked, not closely. “Get those bank statements. Shake the family tree. Maybe something will fall out.”

“Okay.”

“It’s usually the parents, and if it isn’t, it’s something they did, someone they know. Somebody settling a score.”

“Or it could be some whack job, saw an opportunity.”

“Could be, but work on the parents. That’s where the odds are.”

She nodded. He drummed his fingers on the edge of her desk, beating out a tricky syncopated rhythm. “You still seeing that guy? What’s his name, O’Neill?”

She was surprised he knew. “Why?”

“Kind of boring, isn’t he?”

“Shut up. He’s great.”

“Coaches Little League. Helps little old ladies across the street.”

“You’re making that up. I’ll bet you’ve never even met him.”

“I know the type. You guys serious?”

“Why are you asking?”

“Just thinking, you know, end of a long day. How about we hit a bar?”

“No thanks.”

“Aw, come on. One little drink?”

“I don’t go out with guys I work with, like I told you the last time you asked.”

“Last time?”

“You don’t even remember.”

“Who’s keeping track?” He tapped out a final beat with his palms. “Fuck it. Stick with boring. Boring is always safe.” He shoved off and headed for the door. “Check those financials.”

Ten minutes later, she headed out herself. There was plenty going on downstairs in the squad room: a uniformed cop joking with a half-naked man in handcuffs, a teenager loudly complaining he wasn’t doing nothing, a jittery woman with tired children clinging to her legs talking a mile a minute to the watch commander who was barely pretending to pay attention, his head propped up with a fist, eyes half shut. Just outside, Slovo leaned against the wall, his phone pressed to his ear. “Come on, just a drink, okay? It’s not that late.”

He didn’t give Anni a glance as she headed for the parking lot. “Jeez, Maura, screw the job. You deserve a little fun.” He listened for a moment, then pumped his arm in triumph before saying “Your place? You got it. I’ll even pick up a bottle of that fancy-pants wine you like.” He pocketed his phone and caught up to Anni in the parking lot. “Have a good evening,” he said, heading for his rusty old muscle car as she unlocked hers.

“You too,” she said automatically.

“Oh, I will.” It was too dark to see it, but she could tell he was grinning.

 

The financials, it turned out, were interesting. She went over them with a detective who had some training in forensic accounting. They puzzled over them, then got more records and combed through those, too. Truscott had placed a lot of high bets on real estate. She looked at the contractors he was using, and subcontractors, then set up a meeting with an officer in the organized crime unit and showed him what she had. Truscott had stiffed some business associates, from what she could tell, and others were getting paid way too much. He’d been suspiciously lucky at snapping up properties in tax arrears and built his most ambitious project on land the city had seized through a controversial use of eminent domain. She connected the dots to show that he could be playing some kind of a role as an intermediary between criminally-connected business enterprises and crooked city officials, taking a nice cut for himself and making some dangerous enemies along the way.

The officer listened to her without expression, then leaned forward and explained where the holes were in her theory, why there was a perfectly legitimate explanation for everything she’d uncovered, how nobody built anything in Chicago without pulling a few strings. Getting a simple building permit depended on who you knew, and Truscott’s projects were massively complex. If everything looked clean and simple—now, that would be suspicious.

Later that day she got a reminder that Brian Truscott had friends in city hall. Her boss’s boss called her into his office and in an avuncular way advised her to stop embarrassing herself, making crazy accusations about a crime victim, a pillar of the community. That only made her more determined to see if there was something there, but after getting unofficial advice from her friend Jim Tilquist, who was working on public corruption cases for the FBI, she had to admit that Brian Truscott had been reckless with his financial arrangements and canny about how to please his pals at Daley Plaza, but nothing clearly pointed to a solid motive for someone to harm his kid. She set that line of inquiry aside and went back through everything else, looking for loose ends, double-checking alibis and reinterviewing witnesses and possible suspects.

The week before the anniversary of Danny’s disappearance, she systematically reviewed the entire record, make sure there wasn’t anything she’d overlooked. She got up to stretch and noticed Slovo was in the office, tipped back with his feet on a desk, shooting rubber bands at the ceiling. There was a sport jacket hung over the back of his chair and he was wearing a rumpled dress shirt and a tie at half-mast, apparently preparing for a court appearance, the only thing that could coax him into the office during daylight hours. She knew he had an impressive web of informants. If you ever needed to know who was doing what to whom on the West Side, he could either tell you or make a quick phone call and find out. She strolled over and caught his eye.

“Got a minute?” she asked.

“Sure.” He dropped his feet to the floor and scooped the clutter on the desk with his arm to clear a space for her to sit.

“Working on that gang thing?” She nodded at the pile of papers and crumpled soda cans around his computer.

“Trial prep. I was supposed to testify today.” He picked up a sheet of paper, let it fall into his lap, rubbed his eyes. “How much do you want to bet they’re working out a plea? I feel a coma coming on. What’s up?”

“Next Tuesday it will be a year since Danny Truscott disappeared,” she said, bracing herself for his reaction. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t storm off, so she continued. “I went through all the registered sex offenders again, plus people who were suspects but never convicted. But that’s just the guys we know about. You know any rumors about guys who might be under the radar?”

“I would have said.” He picked up a sheet of paper as if he’d finally found something interesting to read.

“Yeah. I just thought . . . I keep feeling like I’m missing something. I did what you said, went through the family financials and the dad’s business records. Didn’t turn up anything that sticks, even though there’s something off about him.”

He glanced up.

“I can’t make any connection between his business dealings and Danny,” she explained, “but he’s slimy. He puts on this good-guy act, but it’s all calculated, part of his public image.”

“Saint Brian of Evanston.”

“But he’s such a phony. He’s crazy reckless with money, just to show off. And I hate the way he acts around his kids. He ignores the girl completely, and all he does with his older son is look tragic and talk about how he’s going to get him cured one day. Basically, saying right in front of him how great it would be if he wasn’t such a loser. I mean, jeez. Doesn’t he get how that must make the kid feel?”

Slovo picked up another rubber band, flexed it between his fingers. “So, he’s a crummy dad, like most of them. So what?”

“I know. It’s just—” She realized it was the way Brian treated Philip that really goaded her. She’d been through it so many times with her brother Martin, people saying in his hearing what a burden autism was, telling her about some crackpot cure they’d read about on the Internet. “When I see this guy with his son, I just want to punch him out.”

“That usually works.”

She laughed. Slovo had a reputation for letting his temper off the leash, and at least once had been disciplined for beating up a suspect. He squinted at a light fixture, took aim and swore when the rubber band fell short. She went over it in her head, the lists that kept forming when she lay awake at night. “What am I missing?”

“Nothing. For fuck’s sake, Koskinen.” He sat up suddenly. “What makes this case so special? You realize how many new homicides we got this month?”

“I know. I’ve been working on that double in Little Village.”

“Barely. You’re too busy triple-checking your work on a case that’s a year old. Is it because they’re rich, from up the shore? Your people?”

“That’s not—”

“That double of yours? Two young men, teenagers. Kids. They got mothers, they got families. Maybe you could give a shit for a change.”

He stood up and shoved his chair in so hard it made a sheaf of papers slide off the desk onto the floor. “I’m going for a smoke, okay?” he said loudly to a detective who had turned to look.

“What’d I say?” he asked as Slovo banged out of the room. “That guy’s an asshole,” he explained to Anni, as if she didn’t know.

She picked up the papers that had fanned across the floor and set them on Slovo’s chair, then went back to her desk where she flipped through Danny’s file to make sure everything was in order, tapped the bundle straight, and set it aside, turning to the double shooting, feeling furious.  I’ll show you. Knowing he was right.

That was the day the case went cold, at least in her mind. She still kept an eye out for anything promising—another big real estate deal for Brian Truscott, the arrest of a child molester. Tips came in from time to time, and she ran them down. Once a month she made a systematic search for possibly related incidents. Then she would call Joyce Truscott to tell her that they had nothing new.

Over the years, it had grown routine. She’d fill Joyce in, and they would chat briefly. Joyce would ask her about the house she’d bought and tell her about Cassie’s progress in school, about something funny that Philip had done. After the elder boy was moved to an expensive boarding school in Arizona, Joyce stopped talking about him. She never mentioned Brian, not once. She always thanked Anni for calling.

The case would never be officially cold, not when his father was so frequently on television, a media expert on missing children. The department probably still got calls out of the blue, sightings based on the progressively-aged photos posted online. If Brian had anything to do with it, Danny would never be forgotten. But Anni was willing to bet Joyce had been.

 

When she finally got home, she made a sandwich as she called Shirley McGrath and left a voice mail. She took bites of her sandwich in between typing up notes from her conversation with Pat O’Hara. Then she turned her attention to finding Konstantin Slovo, which she thought would be easy. She was wrong.

There was no current information about him in any of the databases she typically used for background checks. He hadn’t registered to vote, purchased property, or been convicted of a crime in recent years so far as she could tell. He didn’t have a current driver’s license in any of the fifty states and he wasn’t using Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, at least not under his own identity. His name had been in the news around the time of the shooting that ended his career with the CPD, and cropped up again a few months later when he was peripherally involved in an investigation in Maine, but after that he seemed to step off the planet and disappear.

By mid-afternoon, she was no closer to figuring out where he was now, but she had learned, to her surprise, that he had an ex-wife and four brothers, two living in the Chicago area. She spoke with his ex and his oldest brother and left messages for two others. The fourth was two decades into a prison sentence and had long ago broken off contact with his family. Slovo had almost as thoroughly distanced himself. He phoned his oldest brother, Steve, a couple times a year, typically at times when he knew nobody would be home, leaving messages that did little other than confirm he was alive. The last voice mail had been left two days before Christmas.

She set that quest aside, frustrated, and returned to the project files stored on the Stony Cliff College server. She skimmed through the grant proposal and some supporting documentation. She browsed through the database of materials found in Król’s room, finding nothing of interest. That left the scanned notebooks. She decided to make more coffee before looking at them. She also watered the plants and checked her email and went into the bathroom to see if it needed cleaning. Finally, she quit stalling.

 

When Dugan called to say he was going to stop by, she was a little dazed. “What? Oh, yeah. Sure.”

“You sound like you’re in the middle of something.”

“No.” She closed her laptop and set it aside.

“What’s up?”

He always knew. She took a deep breath. “I’ve been looking through Król’s notebooks. I think I need a shower.”

“Oh boy.”

“Not like it’s, you know, explicit or anything. It’s just gruesome and weird.” She closed her eyes and rubbed them, trying to chase away the images of children being beaten, burned, hanged, choked, ensnared by monsters with fleshy, probing tentacles. “I need a break from this. When do you get off?”

“I’m on my way out the door. I can pick up some fish to grill. I’d like to see you. Can I come to your place?”

“Great. I’ll make a salad.”

“Right.” He paused. “See you.”

She checked the mostly-empty refrigerator, then pulled on a jacket, trotted down the porch steps and unlocked her bike, planning a route that would give her some much-needed exercise and take in a favorite bakery and a grocery that had edible produce and decent wine. It was a relief to be outdoors, feeling crisp wind against her face, putting distance between her and that twisted, unsettling, yet eerily beautiful world that Feliks Król’s imagination had created.

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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.