2

When she returned Ben Sidlo’s call after a few hours of sleep he sounded delighted to hear from her. She couldn’t tell how genuine it was; he always had his charm turned up full blast. It made him a popular teacher, but there was something phoney about his enthusiasm. He proposed they meet at a coffee shop in Wicker Park after he wrapped up office hours.

She got there before him and claimed a table with a view of the front door, then ordered coffee and a bowl of soup, still feeling the chill of the icy lake water deep in her bones. She was on a second mug of coffee when he breezed in, wearing his usual skinny jeans and Elvis Costello glasses. He gave her a beaming smile and wave and headed to the counter to place his order and chat up the barista before he came to her table. For a moment she thought he was going to lean in for an air-kiss, but something in her face must have made him change his mind. Instead he rumpled his hair and took a chair across from hers, beaming her a smile. “Good to see you. You’re looking great. How’ve you been?”

“Fine. You?”

“Busy. I got a new arts management minor pushed through and it’s incredibly popular, so I have advisees coming out of my ears. I’m on three major committees and I’m giving a paper next week that I haven’t even started writing. It’s insane. Why do we do this to ourselves?”

Anni gave him a noncommittal smile. Academics treated being busy as a competitive sport, and Sidlo was nothing if not competitive.

“How’s Lucas, by the way?” he asked. “Haven’t seen him in ages.”

“He’s great. A bike shop up in Evanston just hired him to do a burner on their wall once the weather warms up.” In the past, Lucas risked arrest for covering a wall with spray paint, but since his job title changed from vandal to artist he got paid for it. A lot.

“People still talk about that show we did. Listen, I really appreciate your being willing to get together so late in the day.”

“I just got out of bed, actually.” He raised an eyebrow. “Up all night on a job. Didn’t get to sleep until noon.”

“Ooh, tell me more.”

“I would, but then I’d have to kill you.” He made a pouty face, so she added, “Confidentiality is part of the deal when I take on a job.”

“Ah, of course. Well, this job will be different than anything you’ve done before.”

“From your voicemail it sounds a lot like what I used to do for the city.” He gave his eyebrows another workout, making her wonder if he practiced in the mirror. “You need background on a dead guy. In a homicide investigation, that’s basically what you do. Get the background so you can figure out what happened.”

“See? You’ll be perfect for this. Actually, I was thinking of it more as a missing persons case. You handle those, right?”

“Sure. Among other things.”

“You look for runaway kids, I found Instagram stories about that from parents who you’d helped. There was also some big case when you worked for the police, a little boy who disappeared? Major headline news.” He paused. She sipped her coffee. “Besides, isn’t this how you got started? You went looking for your missing mom, right?”

Anni put her mug down. “Where’d you hear that?”

“Nancy mentioned it once. That you were, like, ten years old and in foster care, but decided you were going to find your mother and that’s what led you became a police officer. I don’t know the details.”

And I’m not about to give them to you, Anni thought. It wasn’t a story for gossipy twerps in this bougie café, the long-ago search that ended in a bleak corner of a cemetery where unclaimed bodies were interred by the county. “So, what you know about this artist?”

“His name was Feliks Król. Feliks spelled with a K instead of an X. He lived for as long as anyone can remember in what had been a dreary boarding house not far from here. You wouldn’t know it now, but Wicker Park was pretty down-at-heels, with a big influx of Polish émigrés after the war, then Latinos in the sixties, lots of gang activity. Some of the big houses built in the nineteenth century got subdivided into cheap lodgings. The current owner is rehabbing the building, but he let Feliks stay on. Didn’t have the heart to throw him out, given he was . . . well, he wouldn’t have been able to find another place to live without a lot of help.”

“Was he disabled?”

“Not physically. People thought he was, uh . . . what do we call it these days? Cognitively impaired? But he wasn’t, as it turns out. He was strange, a loner. He didn’t have any friends or family, but over the years he’d created a body of artwork that’s absolutely stunning. And nobody had seen any of it until after he died.”

“Huh. How’d you hear about it?”

“A woman who lives in the building contacted me. She knew about my book—you know, Fetish and Fantasy, my study of contemporary outsider artists that came out with Yale last year?” She caught herself before rolling her eyes. Academics reminding everyone about their books with fancy-pants publishers, standard bullshit, but self-employment had trained her to keep her feelings to herself. “As soon as they discovered his notebooks and paintings, she knew she had something important on her hands and wanted to call in an expert. It’s a good thing she did. I’m convinced Feliks Król is going to rank as one of our most important outsider artists. There will be an exhibit, of course, and my editor has already approached me about doing another book.”

“So this is a big deal?”

“This is a huge deal. I’m good at recognizing talent. Your young friend Lucas is a good example. He’s a brilliant artist, but nobody’d heard of him until I put that show together. But this . . .” He shook his head, unable to find words. “There’s something uncanny about Król’s work. Even though he was completely untrained and used dime store materials, he had an amazing sense of composition and color, and the subject matter is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It seems so innocent and childlike at first glance, but then you realize . . . it’s not innocent at all. The sheer weirdness of his vision reminds me of when I first saw Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as a child, fascinating but at the same time, so unsettling. Wait till you—” He turned as a girl came out of the kitchen carrying a tray full of food. “Oh, Linnea. This is Anni, the detective I told you about.”

“Hey.” She nodded a greeting. “My shift’s over in a few minutes, okay?”

“No problem. We’ll be here.” He leaned over confidentially as she hustled to a table and dealt out plates of food. “She’s the one who contacted me. She’s involved in the art scene, so she recognized what she had on her hands. Say, while we wait, can we talk about money? I was trying to figure out your fees, but I couldn’t find your website, or even a Facebook page.”

“Probably because I don’t have one.”

“How do you do business?”

“Referrals. I’m a one-person outfit; I can’t take on too many clients at once.”

He nodded. “Right, gives you a sense of exclusivity. But that old rape case you helped solve a while back, that was front page news for weeks.”

“The lawyer I worked with still gets letters every week from convicts who want us to prove their innocence.”

“I’ll bet. The video of Jill McKenzie’s speech—man, that was all over Twitter. With a web presence, you could have leveraged that.”

“They don’t let you use Twitter in prison. Besides, those guys are looking for pro bono help. Wouldn’t do anything for my bank account.”

He laughed. “Duh. You could have connected with potential clients, high-profile clients. It’s basic identity management.” He added defensively, “I know, it sounds all capitalist and horrible, but you already have a public persona. Everybody does. Why not engage with it to get the kind of visibility you want?”

“Invisibility works for me,” she said, not bothering to point out that anyone who had arrested people with serious anger management problems in the course of their work guarded their privacy as a matter of personal safety. “I brought a standard contract,” she added before he could start planning her social media strategy. “Why don’t we go over it while we wait.”

He asked a few questions but seemed satisfied with the terms and said his grant could cover her hourly rate. That was good news. Depending on how long the job lasted, she might be able to dig herself out of debt and have some left over. He was signing the papers as the girl took a chair at their table. Though she was probably in her mid-twenties, she looked like a child, with her short blond hair braided in Pippi Longstocking pigtails. She was skinny and wore a scrap of a skirt, torn leggings, and thick-soled boots that didn’t quite reach the floor. Her voice sounded young, too, high-pitched and childlike.

“You’re the first private eye I’ve ever met. Can I see your gun?”

“I don’t have one. I also don’t smoke or drink bourbon or own a trench coat or a fedora.”

“Aww, really?” She pushed out her lower lip, milking that child thing.

“The work I do is pretty dull, actually. It’s mostly talking to people, digging through records, looking for things that half the time aren’t there.”

“Boo, that’s no fun.”

“It pays the bills. What can you tell me about Feliks Król?”

“He was old and hardly ever talked because he was really, really shy. We were friends, kind of, but . . .” She gave a little shrug. “It’s hard to explain. I didn’t have any idea he was an artist, not until I went into his room after he died. It’s sad. He’s going to be famous now, and people will pay a shitload of money for his stuff. But when he was alive, he was just one of those people you avoid in case they ask you for money or act weird. Not that he ever did. He was . . . dignified? He didn’t give a shit what other people thought.”

Anni pulled a notebook from her bag. “Okay, let me get the basics. Feliks Król. That’s a Polish name, isn’t it? Was he from Poland?”

“I don’t think so. He sounded American.”

“How could you tell?” Sidlo asked. “He never talked.”

“He talked to me,” she said defensively. “A little bit. When he was feeling extra happy.”

“Any idea of his date of birth?” Anni asked.

She shrugged. “No clue. He looked ancient, but people who lead a hard life like him, you can’t really tell how old they are.”

“You say you were ‘friends, kind of’. What do you mean?”

“Well, we lived in the same building. It used to be divided up into tiny little rooms that were rented out to people, like—what was that called?”

“A boarding house,” Sidlo said.

“Yeah. But now it’s just a house a bunch of us share. I mean, it belongs to Jake, but he’s cool. We all pay into utilities and taxes and it works out. My personal space is on the second floor, which is where Feliks’s room is, so we saw each other almost every day. He didn’t interact with anybody else, but with me, I don’t know, he seemed to like me for some reason, and after a while it was as if I was accepted into his world, but on his terms. If I was too friendly, he would have freaked out.”

“Sounds like the cat who lives in my backyard. He would bite my hand off if I tried to pet him, but we’re used to each other. I give him food, and he leaves dead things outside my door. I could do without the dead animals, but it’s how we bond.”

“Exactly,” Linnea said with a grin. “Feliks would leave me presents, too. Nothing dead, except sometimes bones. Little animal skulls. And flowers, little ceramic figurines, pretty buttons. He dumpster dived a lot, and if he saw something he thought I’d like, he’d give it to me, but only if I wasn’t looking. It took me a while to figure out where he got all this stuff. Then I saw him in an alley with a canvas bag he always took with him, picking through trash.”

Anni was struck by a sudden memory. “Wait. What did he look like?”

“I have a photo.” Sidlo pulled out his phone and scrolled with a thumb. “Jake sent me a . . . yeah, here we go.”

He passed his phone over. Anni studied the picture of an elderly man whose leathery face was caught in slanting late-afternoon sunlight. His cheeks were seamed with wrinkles and his tangled beard looked as if mice could be nesting in it. Wild eyebrows rose over eyes that stared to one side with fixed intensity from their sunken shadows. His red flannel shirt had a frayed collar and his pants were held up with suspenders. He’d been caught in a contemplative moment, a pipe in his hand, looking like a man who’d woken up in the wrong century and was wondering how to get back home.

“Good picture,” Anni said, handing the phone back. “I always thought his name was ‘Mr. Growl’.”

“Wow, you knew him?” Linnea asked.

“Only casually. I used to be a police officer. My first two years, I was assigned to a station on Wood Street. My field training officer pointed him out, a local character, crazy but harmless. Used to see him going down alleys, scavenging. Sometimes we’d get complaints, especially from people new to the neighborhood.”

He wouldn’t look her in the eye when she spoke to him, she remembered. He would just stare at his shoes, waiting it out, unimpressed by loud voices or threats of arrest, tuning it all out until it was over. “When you talked to him, it didn’t seem like he was taking it in. I thought maybe he was hard of hearing, but he always avoided those houses afterward, so he was paying attention. I would never have thought he was an artist.”

“Nobody knew,” Linnea said. “All those years, it was his secret world.”

“A beautiful, terrible world,” Ben said softly.

“Did he leave any personal papers?” Anni asked.

They both laughed. “About six tons of paper,” Ben explained. “Mostly old newspapers and magazines, but also boxes full of cuttings and photographs and God knows what all. Not to mention his sketchbooks and stories and paintings. We haven’t stared processing the material. His room is exactly as it was when he left it.”

“I’d like to see it some time.”

Sidlo and Linnea exchanged looks. He said, “It’s not far from here. How about now?”

 

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.