When Alison's former lover is found murdered in a small lake town near Chicago, she and Harding shrug it off as an incidental tragedy. But the discovery of a suspect -- the runaway fiancé of Alison's best friend, Beth -- drunk and disoriented, in the very town where the body was found, seems more than coincidental. Harding can't shake the suspicion that Alison may know more than she's letting on. Harding's own brushes with the law have left him without a legitimate private investigator's license, but his fear that Alison may be in danger just as quickly ensures he's back in the game, implementing his unauthorized services -- a scenario that proves dangerous at best, impossible at worst.
As the body count rises and the cadavers get closer and closer to home, the noose around Alison's past draws tight, and the stakes grow intensely personal for Harding. Even as he unearths a past for Alison he'd rather not see unburied, he knows he must beat back his jealousy and suspicions about his longtime lover in order to find a ruthless killer -- before the killer finds Alison.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
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About the Author
John Wessel is the author of This Far, No Further and Pretty Ballerina. He lives with his wife in a suburb of Chicago.
Read an Excerpt
My friend Alison and I are sitting in a South Side bar discussing white holes and the big crunch, the existence of God, monogamous guilt-free sex -- all theoretical subjects at the University of Chicago. It's a slow-moving Saturday afternoon in early December, a perfectly lazy day. We've got an hour to kill before we're due at Bond Chapel for Beth Reinhardt's wedding.
Beth teaches Western Civ and she's had bad luck with men; by my count, this is marriage number four. There are restraining orders on two of the former husbands -- the third is still in Stateville -- and the bride herself has just declared bankruptcy so with Christmas just around the corner it should be a very festive occasion.
Alison's known Beth since childhood -- they grew up on the same block, went to the same schools -- but my own knowledge of Beth is much more fragmentary. I know her taste in martinis (very dry), religion (lapsed Catholic), and men (nondenominational). I know she returned to Hyde Park from Berkeley three years ago, swapping one assistant professorship for another, divorcing one man while swearing off all others, and that Alison helped her through this period, taking her to exercise classes, jogging with her along the lakefront, shooting pool in Wicker Park, baby-sitting her kids. (Beth did her dissertation on the medieval church, and her kids, who adore her, often show up on our doorstep on Halloween dressed as Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, or various generic Franciscans.) I know she smokes too much, has published too little, has a fondness for old MGM musicals and vintage clothing, and once tried to climb whatever mountain you climb before you climb Everest. I don't know if she made it to the top. All that really matters to me is that she's Alison's friend.
I've decided to prepare for the wedding by drinking single-malt scotch. Alison's preparing for an Ironman triathlon next spring; she's drinking water laced with creatine. She looks very hot today dressed in a tight black dress, with matching industrial jewelry and lineman's boots. Her fingernails are painted flat gunmetal-gray. The dress drops very low in the back. She's drawing lots of stares each time she leaves the table. I make a mental note for the wedding: Sit in the last row.
"Thanks for dressing up," she says, giving my tie a life-threatening tug. She's not crazy about anything I'm wearing today -- formal black Chucks, a corduroy jacket with faux faculty elbow patches, a tie with flying toasters and dive-bombing bread slices that came free with an old screen saver. There's some strawberry jam on it, too, saved from breakfast. I don't have many ties. But corduroy, I feel, never really goes out of fashion.
"What's the lucky bastard's name again?" I say, savoring the scotch. "This guy who's marrying Beth? Bachelor number four? Charlie something?"
"Charles, not Charlie, okay, Harding? He's not one of your wise-guy friends. This is a good, decent man, a poet, a scholar. He doesn't have a rap sheet. Maybe that's hard for you to relate to, but Beth finds it refreshing." She swirls the cloudy water in her glass. "He's a romantic; he proposed to her on her birthday. He remembers her birthday. He loves her kids. And his last name's Muller. Charles Muller. Why is that so hard to remember?"
"I'm not sure. It might have something to do with his personality. Or lack thereof. Let's face it -- middle-aged guys who drink tea and write rhymed couplets don't make the most forceful impression."
"Middle-aged guys who are still single can be hard to find, Harding. He's very stable."
"He's very dull."
"Maybe that's what Beth needs right now. Especially after her first three. Sometimes dull sounds damn good to me, too. There are nights when dull would be a real change of pace." She checks her watch. It's guaranteed waterproof, SEAL approved, but if you ever wore the damn thing in the water, you'd sink like a stone. "Besides, Charlie's not really dull, he's just quiet. Still waters, you know? His poetry's pretty far out there, makes Ashbery look simple, and he's gotten all sorts of awards -- and now you've got me doing it, calling him Charlie."
I reach out and push her hair behind her ears. She has her contacts in, a sure sign that it's a formal occasion. "Let's hear that résumé again."
"Visiting professor, English," she says, "tenure-track potential, currently at Colorado. Doesn't drink. Doesn't smoke. Doesn't talk a whole lot. Robert Lowell expert. Tall, stoop-shouldered -- he's got sort of a Lowell thing going himself, minus the lithium. Beard thing under control. Published. Genius grant. First marriage, no kids, minimal baggage. Beth's crazy about him."
"Beth goes crazy like this every two or three years, Alison. The registry at Field's should give out frequent fliers." It occurs to me that I myself am a middle-aged guy. I'm still getting used to forty. "And he comes with just a tad of baggage, doesn't he?"
"Like does your good friend Beth know that you roomed with Charlie back in college in that commune on Hyde Park Boulevard -- "
"Here we go," she says, amused. "Now we get to the heart of the matter." She likes to play at being upset, but it takes more than this to get under her skin. "This is why you don't like him? We didn't room together, Harding -- I shared a house with him and nine or ten others. That's all. And you know about the house. I've told you about the house. It was just a dorm -- Grand Terrace wasn't a commune. Don't be so Neanderthal."
It was a strange sort of dorm, though, a tall, ramshackle house jammed between apartment buildings, far away from the main quadrangle. It wasn't listed with student housing, not officially, though advisers sometimes guided second- or third-years there. It attracted artists, writers, other social outcasts. The residents called it Grand Terrace because of the missing second-floor porch, which fell off during a three-keg party one summer. The four-by-six supports still hung in midair like a skeleton.
"You didn't answer my question," I say. "Does Beth know about you and Charlie?"
"Of course she knows. But there's nothing to know. Charles was postgrad, I was a sophomore. He was older than me, much older -- "
"He's nearly my age, Alison -- "
" -- I meant to say much, much older -- and people were always moving in, transferring out -- he lived in the penthouse, I lived on the first floor. We had different classes, different friends, I had that part-time job waiting tables at the Blue Gargoyle, he was teaching freshmen at Circle and reading manuscripts at the Chicago Review -- "
"You remembered him well enough to recognize him at that stupid Mensa convention last spring."
"He remembered me, Harding. I'm apparently hard to forget. Can I help it? Is that my fault?" She shakes her head. "Come on, let's not fight, we're gonna have a good time tonight. Weddings are just big parties. Lots to eat and drink. If you're good, I'll introduce you to some of my clients, faculty wives with good muscle tone, you'll love them." She owns PowerFemmes, a women's fitness center on South Woodlawn. I'm a silent partner. It's a serious gym, hard-iron, no-frills, no-nonsense, a lot like Alison. There are free weights, squat racks, benches, mats. No sauna, no pool, no health café. No Jazzercise. "Just do me a favor, okay? Look, don't touch. There's a lot of repressed sexuality in that bunch, I wanna keep it that way. It helps with the workouts. Just be civil. You're not marrying Charles, you don't have to like him."
"I don't like him now."
She sighs. "I put up with your friends, Harding. Like Boone. And Donnie Wilson. And your lowlife clients, none of whom has good muscle tone." She mixes some protein powder with her water, turning it mossy green. It reminds me of a science-fair experiment I did in ninth grade. "Speaking of which...you're not still driving out to see Donnie tonight, are you? I want you with me at the reception."
"I won't miss the reception. I'm not meeting Donnie till much later." Donnie Wilson runs a corporate security firm; he often hires me for jobs too sensitive for his own firm to handle. In this case "sensitive" usually means illegal. Donnie himself, according to his ex-wives, is not a particularly sensitive guy.
Alison takes a large vitamin pill from a very small purse, washes it down with what's left of her water. It must be one of the high-fiber kind. It smells like mulch. I tell her that I should be the one taking vitamins and protein powder.
"What in God's name was that move you tried on me last night?"
She grins. "You liked that?"
"I loved it, baby. I can hardly walk."
"It was nothing, just a variation on the scissors. I teach it in self-defense class."
"That wasn't self-defense," I say, draining the scotch.
"You couldn't move, could you?"
"I wasn't trying to move, Alison. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was move."
"That's the point, lover," she says. "It's called death ecstasy, I think, in sociobiology -- the wounded prey surrendering to a far superior force...."
"Wonderful. How civilized."
"Welcome to the animal kingdom," she says, and heads for the bar, drawing more stares. She's very tall, has long black hair, a boyish figure. Whenever she helps me on a case -- her photography skills come in handy and she works cheap -- her surveillance reports are written in black ink on cream-colored paper. They are models of calligraphy, filled with detail. "Subject wore a yellow raincoat with matching galoshes," she'll write. "Umbrella didn't match."
She brings me another drink. I think she's freshened up her water. It's hard to tell. The scotch I'm drinking is usually for after dinner. It tastes just fine after lunch.
"Isn't that Detective Crowley?" she says, sitting down, crossing her long legs. "The guy in the trench, looking lost by the front door?"
"You're right." I hold my glass aloft until Terry Crowley sees us. He's a CPD detective in Violent Crimes. Our paths have crossed a few times, but we're not exactly friends. He's aging rapidly. I think cop years are like dog years. He has liver spots on his hands. He has spots of mud on his topcoat, which he throws over a chair at our table. And he has a new scar on his left cheek, a perfect circle, as if a tentacle from some underwater beast had grabbed him and held on tight.
His sport coat's even older than mine, with frayed lapels, torn pockets, and at least two bullet-size holes, more likely from late-night cigarettes than a 9mm. His scruffy brown wingtips have slightly mismatched laces and are dotted with salt. He fits right in here at the Cove Lounge, one of the darker, seedier Hyde Park bars known mostly for a good jazz jukebox. He says hello to Alison, eyeing her dress and her legs. He doesn't seem surprised to see us.
"What are you doing in Hyde Park, Terry?" I say. "Hassling students? Rousting the homeless?"
"I'm working out of the Twenty-first," Crowley says. "You didn't know?"
"I don't read CopNews," I say. "I lose track of your promotions."
"It's just temporary. The watch commander's on leave." He's looking around as though there might be a waitress. It's not that kind of place. "Plus I'm sort of easing back into things. Working part-time."
"You were sick?" He does look like he's lost a lot of weight. And his face has a chalky color that I'd attributed to the Cove's mood lighting.
"They cut something out," he says with a shrug. "I had a little work done." He might be talking about putting in a new patio. "So I've been at a desk, cleaning up some odds and ends. Dead-end shit. Nothing real exciting. Sort of like your job, Harding."
A girl at the next table smiles at Crowley. She's young, blond, dressed to kill or at least turn a profit -- sheer blue blouse, short vinyl skirt, ankle-strap heels. Either she's a student or a hooker or a student dressed like a hooker. Maybe she's a hooker going back to school.
"Can you drink? Let me buy you a drink, Crowley."
"I'm on duty."
"Just a beer," he says. "Maybe a shot."
I fight my way through the crowd and get Crowley's drinks. When I return, he's wearing bifocals the same color as the liver spots. There's a stack of pictures on the table. Alison is looking at me, eyebrows raised. It's never a good sign when cops take out pictures.
"You two going somewheres later?" Crowley says, peering over his glasses. "Or do you dress up like this for the crowd here at the Cove?"
"We've got a wedding. Faculty members, friends of ours."
He nods. "Thought we might have dinner. Catch up on old times." He doesn't really sound like he means it. And I'm not sure what old times he's referring to. Crowley was the first Chicago cop I ran into after prison. He wasn't real friendly. He didn't take me to dinner. He lights a cigarette, spins an ashtray painted like a roulette wheel -- LIGHT UP YOUR LIFE AT HOLLYWOOD CASINO -- and rolls the match onto twelve black. It's not one of my lucky numbers.
"Maybe I should show you this first," he says, unfolding a piece of paper. It's a fax of business cards, arranged like a collage. The Xeroxing turned bent corners and folds into wrinkles. There's a card from a dry cleaner, one from a faith healer, one from an insurance agent -- another kind of faith healer, I guess. There's one from an herbalist. And one from a doctor.
Michael Reese Hospital
Practice Limited to Ear, Nose, and Throat
"I'm running them down for a friend of mine. Two of them were dead ends," Crowley says. "The faith healer has so far eluded my grasp. I'm not planning on going door-to-door. The herb guy I'm checking out next. The card says Hyde Park Boulevard, but that's just 51st Street, isn't it?"
I nod. I'm noticing the typeface on the Wokowski card -- Helvetica Bold? Geneva? -- and remembering the dizzying array of choices that the River North printer offered me when I ordered them nine or ten years ago. I felt I was letting him down, buying the cheapest design. He had endless fonts, colors, styles. Endless pen-and-ink drawings of endless ears, noses, and throats.
"This last one -- I guess they checked with Reese," Crowley says. "Nobody ever heard of the good Dr. Wokowski. Which is surprising; it's usually easy tracking down a doc. They called the state board, the AMA. Nothing. But the name's real enough. And so are the phone numbers -- or they were, years ago. So I'm thinking somebody borrowed the name. Which is a pretty stupid thing to do." He grabs a handful of peanuts. "Funny thing, when I saw this, right away I thought of this guy played lineman beside you in high school, Harding. Big, red-haired guy, built like Butkus. Missing a couple of teeth. Wasn't his name Wokowski?"
"You remembered that?" I'd forgotten that Crowley played high school ball in the Catholic League a year or so ahead of me. It seems like a long time ago. It seems even longer when I look at the lines on Crowley's face. Are we really the same age?
"He ran over me enough times. He was all-city, his picture was in the goddamn paper every year when I looked for mine -- and he got a scholarship, he played college ball at Kansas. Did you know that?" I shake my head. "Well, it wasn't much of a career. A vein popped somewheres. An artery. An aneurysm. I guess you didn't send him no flowers." He takes a long drink of beer, fingers the fax.
I'm trying to remember when I last used that business card. I often carry half a dozen of them in my wallet. It's a cheap way to fake an ID; the M.D. impresses people, and most of the time nobody stops to wonder why a physician would bother to carry business cards around.
But it's been years since I used this one. I don't even remember why I used that particular name. Maybe I thought it was cute. It was definitely lazy. And in my profession things done in haste -- or carelessness -- have a way of coming back to haunt you.
"Where did you find them?" I say.
"The cards? With the girl," he says, tossing me a photo like a banco dealer in a Bond flick. "Take a look."
I turn the picture over.
"Her name's Tracy Lawrence; she washed up on a rock last month in East Dubuque. The case is going nowhere. A buddy of mine retired from Area One Burglary runs the department out there; I'm helping him out."
"Jesus," Alison says, staring at the photo. She doesn't turn away. The girl was in the water a long time, but that's not what's so awful. Her neck doesn't quite reach her shoulders. Her hands are placed near her wrists. The cops put her back together for the picture. I'm not sure why they bothered.
"One of the locals found her in a trash bag. It got hung up on a rock or who knows, it might've ended up in New Orleans, made somebody's Mardi Gras." He shakes his head. "They should really have the feds involved, you want to know the God's honest, especially on something this nasty, and this was real, real nasty" -- Crowley spreads out a row of pictures worse than the first -- "but nobody wants to share the glory. And nobody wants the FBI or the state police stomping on their cozy little bed-and-breakfasts. You ever been out there, Harding? For a weekend maybe?" He looks at me. I think he's forgotten Alison's even here. "They say it's very scenic."
"I thought you said she washed up in East -- "
"She did, she did, but she was staying in Galena." The blonde bumps Crowley's chair; she giggles, gets to her feet a little unsteadily, and takes the long way to the bathrooms. I can't tell if it's the beer or the platforms that make her walk such an adventure. Crowley's watching her like a crossing guard. She's awfully young for this place, but I don't think Crowley's gonna check her ID. "They're not making a whole lot of progress out there. She was Jane Doe until last week. Then they got lucky with a couple of things. I guess she's from Missouri, but she lived in Hyde Park, went to school here eight or nine years ago. You sure you never been out there, Harding?"
"No." Galena is a tourist trap in western Illinois, the kind of idyllic small town I do my best to avoid. It's possible I passed through it -- my memory of my drinking years is filled with more holes than Crowley's jacket -- but right now all I can think about is the pictures and the way the different angles expose the wounds. They are jagged in a way I've never really seen before. Unless something got to her in the water. Her flesh looked like it'd been pulled apart.
"You should go sometime," he says. "They say it's scenic as hell."
The fax sits on the table like a used napkin.
"I'm sorry, what did you say about the business cards?" Alison says. "They found the cards on her?"
"Not on her, no, Alison," he says with a slow smile. "They're slow out there in East Dubuque, they're not quite that fucking slow. They found her wallet. I can't tell you where."
"How did she die? I mean...was she alive..."
"You mean was it the knives, was she alive when it -- no, she was strangled."
"Was that all?"
He shrugs. "It seems like enough to me."
"Was she raped, Detective?" she says, a different timbre in her voice.
"She was assaulted, yeah."
Alison nods, sits back in her seat. She avoids my eyes.
"East Dubuque is upriver from Galena," I say. "Do they know where she was killed?"
"I think they know which way the river runs, Harding. But no, they don't have a crime scene, just reservations at the DeSoto House that nobody claimed last weekend of October. Happy fucking Halloween. The rest of it...who the hell knows. It's not even my case."
"You're just helping your buddy," I say. "Running a few names."
"The ones connected to Chicago," he says, nodding. "My primary concern is I'm hoping the guy who borrowed Wokowski's name has gotten smarter since then. And learned to make up the fucking names before he goes around putting them on cards and handing them out to every dame he meets in a bar."
"He might have been on the job, working a case, missing persons, Terry. Just trying to make a buck."
"That's one scenario," he agrees. "One I've been thinking of. Purely as a matter of coincidence. You were working the South Side eight or nine years ago yourself, weren't you, Harding? Right after you got out of the pen?"
"You know I couldn't work then, Terry. I didn't have a license."
"You don't have a license now, Harding. That doesn't seem to stop you from working." He refolds the fax and puts it neatly in his pocket. His fingers are covered with wrinkles, or maybe they're scars from fine cuts, the wear and tear of homicide paperwork. "East Hyde Park Boulevard -- that's close to heres, right?"
"Four or five blocks," Alison says. "You could walk it. I used to, twice a day when I lived down there."
Crowley gives Alison a blank look, which turns into another small smile. I'm not sure which part intrigues him more -- her familiarity with the street or the suggestion that he should walk for no reason.
"Alison used to live on Hyde Park Boulevard," I say. "When she was in college."
"Yeah? You know this building?"
"Not by the number. And that area's changed, it was nicer when I lived there. But it's not a bad walk, if the storm doesn't hit. They're not very good at clearing the snow in Hyde Park."
"Me, I don't mind the snow," Crowley says. "Never did, even when I was walking a beat. If you ask me, this city's meant to be under a foot of snow. Like a postcard. Spring is the fucking problem -- spring hits, the fucking snow melts, you've got nothing but dog shit. The ice thaws...you've got bodies." He tugs on his thinning hair, a nervous habit I don't remember him having. "God only knows what a herbalist is. A cook? A gardener? And East Hyde Park Boulevard -- that's just a fancy name for 51st Street, isn't it?"
"Then why the hell don't they just call it 51st Street?"
"I don't know, Terry," I say. "I guess they think it's more scenic."
Crowley smiles. "It's a scenic fucking world, isn't it? That's my impression, anyway. I'm beginning to think the whole fucking world is nothing but flowers and candy."
He smiles at me and then leans forward on his elbows. I'm supposed to listen closely.
"What I'm hoping here, Harding, is that if there did happen to be any more of these cards lying around, it would be nice if the guy would have the good sense to get rid of them. Before they cause him or anyone else that might know the guy any more needless aggravation. On a nice Saturday. That's what I'm thinking."
"I can understand that."
"You don't think any more are gonna surface?"
"I don't see how they could," I say, "if the guy took care of that personally."
"He'd have to have gotten smarter by now, wouldn't he?"
"He couldn't get much dumber."
He nods. "That's what I'm thinking."
He finishes his beer and stands to leave. He pushes his chair back in neatly, like a child leaving the dinner table. The blonde scoots her chair in, turns to smile at Terry. He smiles back. It reminds me of Gene Hackman in French Connection when he picks up the little girl on a bicycle. Roy Scheider has to uncuff Gene from the bed the next morning. Love is a many-splendored thing.
It's getting late. The jukebox is getting mellow: Della Reese with lots of strings.
So love me as I love you in my reverie...
"Detective?" Alison stands to face him. She's an inch or two taller. "Where was she living when she died? Galena? Hyde Park?"
"They don't know. They don't have a current address. They're working on it." Crowley picks up the shot of Daniel's, which he must have been saving for dessert. There's a tremor in his fingers I've never noticed before. His face looks like rolled-out pastry dough. "Go to your wedding," he says. "Enjoy the beautiful weather. Give my regards to the sanctity of marriage."
Alison watches him leave. She waits until he's all the way out the door and on the street before she sits down and looks me in the eye. There's something sad on her face.
I can tell she's upset. Because she's doing what she often does when she's distracted or worried -- exercising, pushing against something. Testing herself. Her boots are pressing hard against the oak table legs. Leg extensions. I can see her thighs extending through her stockings. The wood's creaking like my knees did last night.
"It's nothing," I say. "I don't know her."
She must have known me though. She might as well have had that Wokowski card pinned to her like a dry-cleaning ticket.
"We've got time for one more drink," she says, handing me her empty glass. The light's gone from her eyes. It could just be the storm clouds throwing shadows in the room. "Get me something stronger this time. Vodka. Hold the water."
"He shouldn't have brought those damn pictures."
"I'm okay. Just get the drinks."
"I don't know her, Alison. Really."
"I know, Harding," she says. "But I do."
Copyright © 2002 by John Wessel