20

She pulled on some clothes, put on another pot of coffee, then tidied up before wandering to the front windows to watch for him. A neighbor was walking his dog. An elderly man shuffled up the sidewalk, a bag over his shoulder, leaning on a cane. A dark sedan backed into a parking space. Was that him? No, a woman got out and went around to the other side to get a child out of the backseat.

The old man paused in front of her house, one hand on the gatepost, as if he needed to catch his breath. The dog walker turned the corner. Anni looked up and down, wondering how long “a few” would really take when the old man took off his woolen cap and looked up, homing in on her window as if he knew exactly where she would be.

The memories flooded back. Area 4 headquarters, the sound of detectives catching up on paperwork, the smell of overcooked coffee. His cockeyed grin, that tripwire of a temper. The rumors after the shooting that took Robin Freeling’s life.

She went down the back stairs and through the gangway to let him through the gate, doing the math. How long had it been? Seven years? Eight? They must have been rough ones for him to have aged so much.

But that grin was familiar, and so was his curly hair, though it was trimmed short now, and the dirty blond was frosted with gray. “This your place?” he asked as she unlocked the gate.

“I live upstairs,” she said. “Is that going to be . . .” She looked at his cane.

“No problem. What’d you do to your face?” He tapped his own cheekbone.

“Accidentally bumped it into a fist.”

“Ouch.” As he walked in front of her down the gangway, she noticed he had a slight limp, but it wasn’t the pained shuffle of the man she had watched coming up the sidewalk. He even looked taller, now that he wasn’t hunched over, the full six feet she remembered.

“Who lives down here?” he asked, tipping his chin at Adam’s kitchen window as he started to climb the steps.

“I rent it to a guy with a kid and a rat named Grommet.”

“A rat, huh?” As he made small talk he was scanning the area with the same habitual vigilance she was used to from cops. “They make good pets?”

“Personally? I don’t think they’re good for anything. I made coffee. Want some?”

“Do I ever.” She pointed to the couch as she went to get mugs from the cupboard. He set his duffle on a chair, stuffed his cap into his coat pocket and hung it over the back of the chair, propped his cane against it, then sank into the couch, his legs stretched in front of him. His eyes looked sleepy, but they roamed the room, making a mental map, cataloging information.

“Milk? I make it strong.”

He nodded. “Man, that smells good,” he murmured, taking the cup, closing his eyes and breathing in the scent. “Bustelo?”

“Right. The corner store carries it. Still enough Puerto Ricans in the neighborhood.”

He had a strange look on his face, puzzled, a little sad. “We used to drink this.”

“They don’t have it in Boston?”

“Not in my neighborhood.” He drank deeply, then rested the mug in his lap, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes. “God, I’m tired.”

“Long trip, huh? What brings you here?”

“You wanted to know about Feliks.”

“I meant, to Chicago. You could have just called.”

“I lost my phone.”

“Yeah right.”

“For real.”

“Which is why you had to borrow some woman’s phone the other day, right before things got a little chaotic at that store.”

“You talked to Zoya? She’s great. Like a hundred years old, but tough as nails.”

“She says hello. Also, your Russian sucks, but I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.”

“Always ragging me about my accent. She was born in Petersburg. They’re snobs.”

She felt the sudden ping of a headache. “Look, can we stop messing around? What are you really doing here?”

He drank the rest of his coffee before he spoke. “It was time to move on. You caught me on the way out of town.”

“And?”

He shrugged. She kept looking at him until he added, “I pissed some people off.”

“How’d you do that?”

“Natural talent?” She frowned at him and waited. “What happened, okay, there’s this lawyer. I did some interpreting for him. He has a lot of East European clients. Some of them are mixed up in criminal stuff. This one, he’s kind of paranoid, and there was a misunderstanding. I thought I’d better get out of his way.”

“He came after you in that store you were in when you called?”

“Some of his friends showed up. But I was leaving anyway.”

“Your brother Steve will be happy to see you after all these years.”

“You talked to him, too, huh?” His drowsy expression didn’t change, but his fingers tightened around his cup. He carefully set it on the floor, as if he was afraid he’d break it.

“Talked to your brother out in San Francisco, too. Talked to your ex.” He closed his eyes and groaned. “I can’t believe you never mentioned you were married.”

“Not for long.”

“Ten years.”

“More like ten months. Not even. We were kids. We were stupid. Took a while for the divorce to come through, is all. Any of that coffee left?”

She took his mug and refilled it, sneaking another look at him. He had been fit and muscular. Now he just looked weathered, hardened, and the skin under his eyes was bruised with fatigue.  She handed him the full mug, then put the skillet on the stove and pulled bacon and eggs out of the fridge.

“So, tell me about Feliks,” she said as she laid strips of bacon in the pan. There was more to his leaving Boston than that bullshit story he’d fed her, but she could get it out of him later.

“He lived in a big old Victorian east of Ukie Village, this run-down boarding house that had an iron fence in front that looked like a row of spears, all sharp and pointy. Every morning he went to church and then he walked the alleys, rescuing things from the trash. That’s where I first met him, in an alley a couple of blocks from where we lived.”

“How old were you?”

“Four or five. It was like running into Santa Claus. He reached into this canvas bag he always had over his shoulder and gave me a toy tractor. It had a little trailer thing you could hook on. If you dragged it through the dirt, it left marks, like you were plowing a field. Man, I loved that tractor. It was so small and perfect. I could put it in my pocket, but when I drove it around, I felt big.” He smiled to himself. “I didn’t have it for long. One of my brothers took it, but every time I saw Feliks, he had something in that bag for me. They said he was crazy, but I knew he wasn’t. He was always watching. Taking things in. He knew everything that was going on.”

“Like what?”

“Like who was getting evicted. Who was drinking too much and treating his family bad. Who was running short at the end of the month and didn’t have grocery money.”

“I heard from another one of the boarders that he liked kids a lot.”

“He loved kids. Adults, not so much. He was always trying to make . . . not sure what to call it. Like, a magic space in this shitty neighborhood where children couldn’t be hurt. Where they could be happy, like kids are supposed to be.”

“His art isn’t like that.”

“I wouldn’t know. Never knew he did any of that.”

She turned down the heat as the bacon started to sizzle and got her laptop. She brought up one of the notebooks she had saved and set the computer in his lap. “Take a look. There’s more in a file folder on the desktop.”

He browsed the notebook, then clicked on another one, as she fried potatoes and made an omelet. From time to time, she glanced over at him, his face lit with the glow of the screen as he studied pages and clicked.

He set the computer aside when she brought plates to the table, but didn’t say another word until they had finished eating. “Thanks. That was good.” He wiped his plate with the last fragment of toast.

“You can see why people look at those drawings and think he was warped. Dangerous.”

“They’re looking at it wrong. I mean, I know it’s weird stuff, but—it’s like that tractor.” He frowned, trying to work it out. “Just something you’d buy at the five and dime. But when I played with it . . .” He sighed with frustration. “It’s hard to explain. He wasn’t like other people. He saw the world from my angle, where that toy meant I could have my own little farm, all neat and tidy, though other people just saw a stupid kid messing around in a patch of dirt by the curb. He wasn’t like the grownups who figured everything was fine if every Sunday you were in church and your clothes were ironed and your shoes were shined.”

“But those notebooks. They always start with something real, something he read in the paper or heard on the radio, and he takes something awful and makes it worse.”

“Not worse. Just filling in the blanks. The newspaper has the bare facts. He turns it into an adventure, a story where you know who the monsters are because they’re big and have claws and flames coming out of their mouths. A made-up world where things make sense. Where God’s paying attention.”

“I don’t know. They’re so focused on pain and depravity.”

He gave her a bleak smile. “He read the papers. He saw it when he was going down those alleys, poking through the trash. Running into kids who might have stories just as bad that nobody else knew about. Doesn’t mean he liked it. Look, Feliks is the last person in the world who would harm Danny. He would have done whatever he could to save him if he was in trouble.”

“By giving him toys he found in the trash?”

“Toys or food or just by paying attention to something nobody else noticed.”

“You first met Król when you were around four years old. You kept up the acquaintance when you were adult. A cop in uniform, then plain clothes.”

“Who told you this?” She hesitated. “C’mon, I’m just curious.”

“One of the boarders.”

“O’Hara?” She didn’t nod, but he did, as if he’d read her mind. “I remember him. He was okay. Treated Feliks like a human being, anyway.”

“In all that time, you never saw anything that would lead you to suspect that there was something off about the way Feliks interacted with kids?”

“No! Jesus. He never touched me, literally. No pats on the head, no hugs. I learned pretty quick that he didn’t like being touched, either. Otherwise, I don’t know. He had every opportunity to abuse kids. I would have done anything for him.”

“When did you last see him?”

“I’m not sure. I was working weird hours. I wasn’t good about stopping by.”

“Did you talk to him after Danny disappeared?”

He thought about it. Shrugged. “I might have.”

“After Sharla Peterson?”

“Whoa, wait. You’re not trying to pin that on him?”

“No. We know who did that.”

“I heard something. Didn’t get any details.” He frowned at his empty plate, straightened his fork.

“It turned out it was just a couple of drifters passing through town. One died, the other one confessed after he found religion in the joint. They were going to ask for a ransom, but got scared and . . . anyway. That was a big case for you. I thought you might remember if you saw him after that.”

“I probably did. Mind if we sit somewhere else? This stupid hip of mine.”

He limped back to the couch and shifted until he was comfortable. She took the other end, one leg folded under her, facing him.

“My grandmother lived a few blocks from his place,” he said. “I used to swing by to see Feliks after visiting her. I don’t think I saw him after she had her stroke. Shit. I should have been keeping an eye. He didn’t have much money, just what he earned from cleaning a church. He didn’t have many friends. He shouldn’t have died alone.”

“He didn’t. There was a girl, well, a young woman. She got him into the hospital when he got sick, then to some nursing home. He left all his stuff to her in his will. She and an art historian are the ones who found Danny’s clothes.”

“Huh. How’d you get involved?”

“I’m helping the art historian build up some background on Feliks. He’s going write a book.”

“About Feliks?” He laughed, confused. “This is so nuts.”

“He’s pretty excited about the art. And the publicity it’s getting now that it’s associated with a major crime, he’s jazzed about that, too.”

“You don’t like this guy.”

“He’s a total jerk, but it gives me access to those notebooks and a chance to talk to the family again.”

“And maybe find out what happened to Danny.” She didn’t respond. “Whatever it was, Feliks didn’t harm him. I’m positive.”

“How did those clothes get there, then?”

“I can think of a dozen ways. Someone fleeing the scene heard the description, so ditched the clothes on the way out of town, and Feliks picked them up, not knowing. Or someone living in the neighborhood took Danny and . . . whatever. Years later, the clothes got tossed and Feliks put them in that bag of his because that’s what he did. You’re working with the police on this?”

“I’m telling them what I find. Not sure it goes both ways.”

“Never does. You tell them about me? That I knew Feliks?”

“Sure. They didn’t seem that interested. At least they weren’t interested in helping me track you down. They could be looking for you for all I know.”

He picked at the raveled edge of his sleeve, frowning. “Look, can you do me a favor?”

“Depends.”

“When I left . . .” He didn’t speak for a moment. “I didn’t think . . .” He stopped and searched for words. “It’s hard, coming home. When I left town, everything was so fucked up. I thought I’d put all that behind me. But it’s coming back. Everything.” He stared across the room for a moment, then shook his head slightly. “When I heard you say they were looking at Feliks for Danny Trustcott, I was about to hit the road anyway, and it seemed like I should come here, explain what he was really like. Make whoever’s working it understand. It’s all I was thinking about on the way. Explaining what he was like. How he looked out for me when nobody else gave a shit. But I didn’t realize, I didn’t expect . . . I can’t talk to them. Not yet. Not until I get my head straight.”

“But the cops who are investigating this—”

“I just need a day or two. Time to adjust. Thing is, when I left . . . You knew Robin Freeling.”

“Your partner.”

“My partner.” His jaw tightened, and he swallowed hard. “Weirdest thing. I always worked alone until Robin. Coming into town, I kept thinking I was seeing her out of the corner of my eye. A reflection in a window, or somebody a block away who looked like her from the back, but then it wasn’t. I don’t remember much about that night when we were shot, but it feels like it just happened. Like meeting Feliks that first time just happened. It’s all . . .” He made a gesture with one hand, like turning a dial next to his temple. “All happening at once. I’m not ready to talk to anybody. The police. My family, Christ. Not yet.” His words had a stuttering, crackling sound, like a radio slipping out of tune. “Once Steve finds out, he’s going to want, he’ll be all . . . He’s a good guy, but I just can’t face all that right now.”

She remembered his brother’s voice on the phone, talking about the violence in their house. “I don’t have any reason to talk to your family,” she said. “I only contacted them to see if they could put me in touch with you. The police, well, they’ll probably want to talk to you, but they don’t seem to be in any rush.”

“Sorry. I know this sound pretty nuts.  I just haven’t slept in a while, and coming home, it’s . . .” He couldn’t finish the sentence. He just gave a tense embarrassed shrug.

When her phone vibrated in her pocket, it felt like a moment of reprieve, but she saw the number and her heart sank. “I’d better take this.” He flicked a couple of fingers up to say sure, no problem, but kept his mouth tightly closed, two deep grooves around it.

She walked over to the front windows. “Hi, Donna.”

“Why haven’t you been answering your phone?” Her voice was hoarse, as if she’d been shouting for hours to get her attention.

“Sorry. I was really tired last night. I went to bed early and slept late.”

“I’ve been leaving you messages. Do you realize what’s going on? They say they’re going to arrest Josh for stabbing that boy.”

“It looks that way.”

“Well, he didn’t do it.” She stated it as if was obvious.

“I spoke with the lead detective. I don’t know him personally, but my sense is that he’ll conduct a fair and thorough investigation.”

“That man? He’s already made up his mind. It’s not right. You need to find out who did this. You need to do your job.”

“I did my job.” She stopped herself, took a deep breath. “I found Josh and I didn’t let him get hurt. That’s what I do. The police are the ones who investigate homicides, and I’m not going to get in their way.”

“You still think they’re always right, even after all those awful videos? The payouts? They’re corrupt. They stick together, they cover things up. If they think they’ll get away with this—oh, shut up, George! Stay out of this.”

She turned to find Slovo watching her with a sympathetic grin. She rolled her eyes. A client. What can you do?

“Do you think this is easy for me?” Donna ranted on. “Do you think I’m not tired? I haven’t slept a wink since that phone call of yours. If you won’t do the work, I’ll find someone who will.”

“Donna, it’s too soon to say what happened, but Josh hasn’t been doing well lately. I’m sure he would never intentionally—“

“He did not kill that boy. I know my son. It’s impossible. It has to be someone else.”

“They have several witnesses.”

“Those witnesses lied, then. They’re covering something up. Listen, Pete Foster was no angel. He was a bully at school, always getting in trouble, serious trouble, but his parents bailed him out every time. I’m not a bit surprised that something like this would happen.”

“He’s the victim, here. Donna. His parents are suffering, too.”

She heard a series of choked gasps, a thin wail. “I know, I know. I just . . . my boy. My Josh.”

Anni closed her eyes, rubbed them. “Donna, you need to get some rest. We can talk about this later.”

“But it wasn’t him,” she pleaded. “He didn’t do it, he couldn’t.

“He has a serious illness. He would never hurt someone when he’s well, but when he’s not, he gets confused and frightened. He may have felt threatened.”

“Just because he has a mental illness doesn’t mean he’s dangerous. It could have been someone else, but they won’t even check.”

“They will. Believe me, they’ll be very careful about how they handle this case.”

“I don’t understand why you’re still so loyal to the police when we know they put innocent people on death row. Why do you trust them to get this one right?”

“Because you’re rich,” Anni blurted out. “Because you can afford good lawyers. Because it’s in the news and nobody is going to look at Josh and see a dangerous thug.” She heard Donna whimper. “I’m sorry. That was unfair. It’s just that I’m sure with all the media, they’ll be extra cautious with this case.”

“We may have advantages some people don’t,” Donna choked out. “But there’s a lot of prejudice against the mentally ill, too.”

“I don’t think it’s a factor here.”

“Of course it is. It makes it so easy for them to blame Josh. I want an independent investigation. I want you to find out what really happened.”

Anni gathered her wits and her patience so she could switch tactics, giving Donna what she needed instead of trying to reason with her. “Let’s talk about it after you’ve had some rest, okay? You need to take care of yourself if you’re going to be there for your son. Didn’t you host a workshop about that once, self-care for caregivers? Right now you need to get some sleep. Then call me and we’ll get together and figure something out, okay?” It took a few more minutes of soothing chit-chat before she could get Donna off the phone.

“Sorry about that,” she said, turning. Slovo was sound asleep.

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.