Nick Forte #1: Chapters 1 - 5 (Nominated for a Shamus Award as Best Indie PI Novel, 2013) A Small Sacrifice
© Dana King 2015
CHAPTER ONE   I wore my good suit, the one that fit when I didn’t carry a gun. Visiting an old woman with money didn’t require a weapon, even for me. Shirley Mitchell hadn’t said much over the phone. It didn’t take Mycroft Holmes to know what she wanted. Her son ran Mitchell Construction, the best-known general contractor in the Chicagoland area. Doug’s notoriety didn’t come from the business, not that Chicago’s construction industry lacked for disrepute. Our conversation would likely focus on what made him unique. I spent most of the drive north on the Edens and US-41 to Lake City thinking of reasons not to take the job. Shirley Mitchell would want me to right what she was sure was a wrong. I had a more mundane perception of a professional investigator’s job. The Thin Man can go on crusades. I had child support payments to make. A single cloud marred the brilliant sunshine of the first truly warm day of spring. The cloud held steady on a line between the sun and the gray stone house, kept there by cross winds off Lake Michigan. Its shadow dripped like crepe from the corners of the roof. The gloom seemed to breathe as my car’s approach altered my angle of vision. I had plenty of time to watch the cloud not move. What appeared as a pipe stem from the street became a driveway meandering two hundred yards before curling back onto itself. A fountain surrounded by an English garden filled the loop, its profusion of emerging colors failing to offset the house’s doldrums. No cars in the driveway. The garage to my left could handle at least four, keeping them from cluttering up the front of the house and annoying the homeowners’ association. The place was flawless as a dollhouse under glass. Every grain of sand in its place between the flagstones on the path to the steps. Not a wilted leaf or limp petal on a flower. I wondered how they kept snow from landing where it wasn’t wanted. Even the birdsongs sounded well-rehearsed, except for the random cawing of a perverse crow. I rang the bell and turned to let the spring air splash across my face. Trees dotted the landscape in front of the house, oaks and maples that had been there awhile and showed no inclination to leave. Two squirrels with perfect coats chased each other up and down one of the maples. The only thing missing was Snow White walking by with a woodland creature on her shoulder. The door opened and I faced a slender middle-aged woman with facial features sharp enough to cut a roast. She wore a simple white blouse and a conservative skirt ending at the bottom of her knee. Her bearing said “servant” better than a nametag. She spoke formally without being friendly or unfriendly. “Yes, sir? May I help you?” “You can let Mrs. Mitchell know Nick Forte’s here.” “Yes, sir. Would you care to step inside?” The house was well ventilated, too early in the year for air conditioning. The breeze eased its way through a window like a considerate guest wiping his feet before entering, bringing in the transitional smell that comes when windows are opened for the first time in the spring. Patterns sewn into the curtains created shadowy kaleidoscopes on the floor and opposite wall. Shirley Mitchell didn’t keep me waiting. Average height for a woman, probably a little heavier than her doctor preferred. White hair piled into grandmother’s curls, matching pearls on each earlobe. The hand I shook had the fragile smoothness of age. Her pallor ran deeper than anything sun and fresh air could fix.  “Hello, Mister Forte. Thank you for coming on such short notice. I know you must be very busy.” “Not a problem, Mrs. Mitchell. People who call me don’t usually care to be kept waiting.” “I imagine not. I still appreciate the effort. George Lavelle spoke very highly of you.” George Lavelle’s daughter once showed the bad judgment to allow a boyfriend to videotape them engaged in activities more Greek than French. She tried to break off the relationship and the boyfriend proved himself more enamored of Ms. Lavelle’s inheritance than of her enthusiastic sexual preferences. He threatened to give copies of the tapes to her father’s acquaintances and business associates unless they came to an understanding. Lavelle asked me to reason with the youth. The understanding we reached bore no resemblance to the young entrepreneur’s original design. “George is a good guy. I was glad to be able to help.” “He was pleased with your results, and with your discretion. Would you like coffee or tea? Something cold?” “No, ma’am, I’m all set, thank you.” “If you change your mind, let me know.” She dismissed the servant and I followed Shirley into the room from which she had entered. An old-fashioned sitting room, more comfortable than stodgy. A sofa and love seat near the corner opposite the door with two wing chairs flanking what might be a Chippendale coffee table. The scent of furniture polish strong enough to be noticed without beating you over the head about it. Another smell, too, something familiar I couldn’t place. The sofa had the look of something you could sprawl on for several hours before finding a reason to move. Shirley sat in one of the wing chairs; I took the other. She wore the expression of a person with something nasty in her mouth, too polite to spit it out. I played with the crease of my slacks to give her time to work up the gumption to tell me what she wanted. “I don’t suppose it’s much of a mystery why I called you, is it?” she said. “I could make an educated guess. I haven’t thought much about specifics.” “Really?” She arched an eyebrow. “I assumed your imagination would have explored every angle by now.” “It’s not usually a good idea to give your imagination too much freedom in my line of work,” I said. “Not without facts. Imagination wants to get cute. Answers are usually simple. I only let my imagination out to play when I’m stuck.” Passing on the sofa had been a mistake. The chair wasn’t as comfortable as it looked. “It seems obvious, now that you say so. I suppose logic rules in your investigations.” “Flexibility rules in my investigations. There’s a place for logic and a place for imagination, just like there’s a place for intuition and a place for hard work. Whatever it takes.” I smiled to take the sting out of what I said next. “You’re stalling me, Mrs. Mitchell.” “Yes, I am,” she said, the words falling over each other like people fleeing a fire. She picked at the hem of her dress, straightened it, folded it over, put it back the way it was. “You know about my grandson.” She couldn’t quite bring herself to make eye contact. “Just what I’ve read in the papers.” “Please tell me what you know.” “It’s usually better if you tell me what you want, then tell me what you know. It gives me a place to start.” She stopped fooling with the dress and looked at her hands as if her attention alone could keep them still. “I want you to tell me what you’ve heard, Mr. Forte. I don’t have the heart for it. I’ll tell you if I disagree.” I shifted in my chair and got almost comfortable. “A year or so ago your six year-old grandson Justin was strangled in his home. His father found the body and a ransom note in the basement. There were some signs of forced entry, but no evidence of anyone trying to take Justin out of the house.” What little color she had slipped away as I spoke. She could never have told it herself. I hurried on to spare her as much as possible. “The local police botched the investigation. No good leads were ever developed. Your son and daughter-in-law deny everything, and haven’t been as cooperative as the police would like. That makes them the prime suspects.” “My son is innocent.” It was a statement of fact. “He told the police all he knows.” “Yes, ma’am.” Nothing to be gained by disagreeing with her. I’d covered the highlights of the case. She’d fill in the rest how she wanted. Her voice was hollow, without overtones. “Justin didn’t come down to breakfast with the other kids. Michelle called up to him and he didn’t answer. She got the food on the table and went to look. “She didn’t find him in his room, just the ransom note. Everyone thinks Doug found the note, but it was Michelle. She ran downstairs screaming for Doug. He tore the house apart and found Justin in the basement. Right away the police thought he did it.” “It’s a logical place to start. The person who finds the body is often the killer.” Shirley didn’t hear me. “Justin had Attention Deficit Disorder. He wasn’t a bad boy, but he seemed to lose interest in things right in the middle of them.” Each sentence required a breath, another act of will for her to continue. “It drove Doug crazy. The police want to think Justin did something and Doug lost his temper and killed him.” “What do you think happened?” “I don’t know. All I know is my son couldn’t have killed that little boy.” “Could Michelle?” “No,” Shirley said without hesitation. “Michelle is a good mother. I couldn’t love her more if she were my own.” “What do you want me to do, Mrs. Mitchell?” Guessing what she wanted wouldn’t qualify anyone as a psychic. I still needed to hear it from her. She was letting herself in for an open-ended commitment and a bill the Pentagon would think twice about if she thought I could do something the local and state police couldn’t. Some PIs live for gigs like that. I manage to scrape by without bleeding old ladies. “Doug and Michelle have suffered horribly. It’s not enough they had to bury a child. They haven’t even been allowed to mourn decently, for God’s sake. The reporters—” she cleared her throat, swallowed hard—“the reporters wait for them day and night. They’re gone now, but they’ll be back if something reminds them. Last Thursday was a year since it happened. I saw Michelle taking out the trash on the ten o’clock news.” She paused to be sure she had my attention. “It’s not right.” “You have to understand I’m not likely to find the killer. The physical evidence is gone and the police have already been through the little bit they had. I’m one man. I’m not going to find anything new.” “The police didn’t look for a killer. All they wanted was proof Doug did it, or Michelle. When they couldn’t prove anything, they said there was no evidence. I think they called it ‘a compromised crime scene.’” I nodded. “That’s the phrase.”  “No one will find the killer now, I’m sure of it.” “Then I’m not sure what you want me to do.” Nothing came out when she tried to speak. She pressed one hand to her breast and took a deep breath, her color almost gone. “I want my son’s good name back. I want him and Michelle to be able to show their faces in town again and have the sympathy they deserve. God can have the real killer.” Not quite the crusade I worried about on my way here; close enough. “About the only way to prove someone didn’t do something is to prove it was physically impossible, or someone else did it. That’s why the burden of proof is always on the prosecutor.” I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, focused my attention on her eyes.  “The police look for three things: means, opportunity, and motive.” I held up a finger for each one as I ticked it off. “Doug had the means. He’s a big man, more than strong enough to strangle a small child. Opportunity’s easy. He was in the house, no one disputes that. Motive? They’re saying Justin’s attention wandered once too often. They have no credible evidence to suspect anyone else.” “They didn’t look for any. Doug didn’t kill Justin.” She wiped away two tears slaloming down her left cheek. “My husband left me more money than I’ll ever need. I’d spend it all to give my son some peace.” “I appreciate your feelings. Throwing your money away isn’t going to help.” “Are you saying you won’t help me?” “No, ma’am. I’m saying I don’t think I can. I don’t know that anyone can, but I’m sure someone will tell you different if they smell a big enough fee. I don’t want to get your hopes up.” Young women cry and get anything they want. Shirley Mitchell had been around. She knew better ways. “Do you have any children, Mr. Forte?” “A little girl.” “How old is she?” “Seven.” “Justin would be seven next month. Think of that.” The tears she’d wiped from her cheeks lingered in her voice. “Now think of your daughter all grown up, with children of her own. Can you tell me you’d allow her to endure what my son has lived through and not do everything in your power to help her?” “No. I’d do whatever I could. I think all you can do now is support your son and his family as well as you can.” She took a speaking breath and I pre-empted the interruption. “Clearing your son’s name is out of my control. I can provide evidence. I can’t force anyone to pay attention to it.” “I understand. Do what you can and I’ll hope for the best.” “But I can’t do that. I don’t want to sound mercenary, but I earn my living doing this. I need something concrete to accomplish, or I can’t come back here and ask you to pay me.” My hands got involved in the conversation as I felt my argument getting slippery. “When is his name clear enough? The public doesn’t like to change its mind once it decides someone’s guilty. We’re never going to get a Tribune headline that says ‘Doug Mitchell is innocent. We were wrong and we’re sorry.’” Her face told me I’d gone too far. Shirley Mitchell was a good woman only trying to do the right thing for her family. I placed the unidentified smell while she made up her mind what to say. It was her. She smelled like my grandmother. She spoke with an underlying firmness I hadn’t heard before. “You’re right. What I asked for was too vague.” I started to relax. Another mistake. “Here’s what I want. I’ll pay for your time and expenses while you look for evidence showing my son’s innocence. I don’t care what form it’s in, or even if you find any. Would you like that in writing?” I looked away from her and around the room, collecting my thoughts. Pictures of the family covered the walls and most level surfaces. Two stuck out. Doug and Michelle with the two surviving children, the parents wearing the smiles of people trying to remember what happy meant. The other looked like Justin’s school picture. It sat on a mantel with a small band of black wrapped diagonally on its upper left corner. Shirley had me outnumbered. “Yes, ma’am. I’ll need it in writing. I have paperwork we can use. I’ll fill in the blanks and you can sign it tomorrow.” “What are your rates?” I told her. “Draw up the papers to show I guarantee two weeks at your standard rate, plus any expenses you have. I’ll make sure you’re paid.” “It’s not a matter of money. You understand what it means if I don’t find the evidence you want, don’t you?” “Yes. It means there’s no evidence. Doug is innocent. Whether you can prove it or not doesn’t change anything. I’ll write you a check for what I’ve agreed to pay you.” She took a checkbook and pen from a pocket of her skirt. I didn’t think she ever doubted she’d need them. “I appreciate what you’re doing, trying to prepare me for the worst while protecting your interests. Do the best you can. I’ll live with the results.” She held up her hand to stop me from answering. “I need you to help my son. I can’t do it myself.” She tore off the check and handed it to me. “I did more than just ask George Lavelle for a name, you know. He assured me you were a man of conscience and integrity. If you won’t help me I’ll have to go somewhere else, maybe to one of those other men you warned me about. Is that what you’d want for your daughter?” The check rode in my pocket like a brick. CHAPTER TWO   Lake City’s government lived in a multi-purpose building designed to take care of every civic responsibility. Set off from the town square by a park, it had a deliberate quaintness inversely proportional to your proximity. The flag above the clock tower stirred indifferently in the breeze now carrying the fresh scent of Lake Michigan inland. Built in the last five years and designed to look much older, Town Hall was the governmental equivalent of retro ballparks. They’re nice, but they ain’t Wrigley. The whole complex resembled something Norman Rockwell might have painted if he knew computer graphics. The building seemed bigger from the inside, buffed floors and processed air, footfalls managing to echo and sound muffled at the same time. Signs directed visitors to offices with impressive names where important people sat. Important people lived in Lake City, they needed an impressive government. Or maybe they were impressive and needed an important government. Their Town Hall informed anyone passing through Lake City its five thousand residents couldn’t think more of themselves if they were descended from Jesus Christ Himself, a possibility several hadn’t yet ruled out. The “No Smoking” signs every ten feet had everything but verboten written on them. Ten seconds in Elliott Garvey’s office told me the personal habits of the Chief of Police were no one else’s business. The office was proportionate to the rest of the building, probably larger than his counterpart’s in Chicago, smaller than a basketball court. The décor dampened the effect. Expensive, but expensive government. Garvey decorated the walls with a pictorial history of his career as a Chicago cop. His academy graduation picture, some of him in uniform, a couple in plainclothes, one front page of the Sun-Times escorting a suit on a perp walk. A softball game at a picnic. Everyone happy and smiling. Anyone who saw that wall knew Elliott must be a hell of a guy, unless they remembered men who really are as impressive as he tried to be don’t have to draw your attention to it. He sat behind his desk, eating peanuts and drinking Diet Coke, not the first time he’d done either. He had the build of a well put-together man going to seed at an increasing pace. High cheeks halfway along the path from ruddy to clay, the buttons of his uniform shirt losing a valiant last stand against his belly. He stood and made a conscious effort to impress me with his handshake. Not the hand of a fat man. Yet. Two years, maybe.  “Sit down, Forte. Shirley Mitchell called a few days ago, said you might be by. The Mitchells are great people. They made this town. I’ll be glad to help Doug and Michelle any way I can.” “Thanks, Chief.” I wiggled my fingers out of his sight to jump-start the circulation. “I’m not actually working for Doug and Michelle. Shirley’s signing the checks.” “Seems she doesn’t think I did much of a job.” “I don’t think she means anything personal by it. The media took over pretty quickly and they don’t care much what a small town cop thinks. You got outnumbered, Chief.” He liked it when I called him “Chief.” His belly almost sucked itself in with pride. I’d have to do a lot better than “Chief” for him to look thin. “I know. Shirley’s a nice lady. I think she forgets I don’t have the resources a big city has. This was a tough one.” “No argument from me.” Garvey was right, Lake City didn’t have the resources. That’s why the state police were only a phone call away. Garvey chose to play the yokel for his own reasons. “It must be tough working with what you have here after having the entire CPD behind you for twenty years.” “Not usually. I come up here five—no, six—years ago to get away from all that. This is a nice quiet town. Everyone gets along, everybody minds his own business. We never have any trouble in Lake City.” “Except for the occasional spectacular homicide.” “Yeah. Except maybe for that.” His voice gave me the distinct impression we weren’t friends anymore. “Chief, I’m not here to bust your chops,” I said, ignoring what a good job I’d done so far. “It’s not your fault last year’s crime of the century fell into your lap. I just want to find out a few things to help put Shirley’s mind at ease. I know the Mitchells weren’t the most cooperative witnesses in the world. Maybe I can shake that tree for you a little.” Garvey broke open a shell and chewed a nut so I’d know he was thinking. He had too much time in the city for the rube act to be any good. Maybe it fooled the yuppies. I had too much rube in me to be impressed. “Whatever I tell you stays here, right?” He had a pronounced South Side accent. “The Mitchells are great. Michelle Mitchell does more community work than any two people in town. Everyone knows her loves her. Her and Doug were the toughest witnesses I ever had.” “In what way?” “Every way. They started by refusing to talk until their lawyer got there. He spent four days negotiating conditions for the interviews. Both together, they could stop when they wanted, we had to give them the questions in advance, all kinds of shit.” “Why did you go along with it?” “What was I supposed to do, put a hot iron to their feet? You ever been a cop?” I nodded. “You know the drill. You can’t compel anyone to talk to you. All you can do is make it in their best interest.” He brushed some shell crumbs from his shirt. “I didn’t have a hell of a lot of leverage with the Mitchells. Their lawyer was on TV every goddam night saying whatever he wanted. Alls I could say was whatever wouldn’t get me fired.” “And that’s why the media has convicted Doug Mitchell.” “Me more than him. They think Mitchell’s the obvious killer and I’m the clown can’t put him away.” “Tell me about the crime scene.” “About what you’d expect. He found the kid in the basement. Mitchell moved the body and removed the ligature. That didn’t help any, but you can’t expect him not to do it.” “How about forensics?” Garvey passed a hand over his forehead, pushed the hairline back even with his ears. “You got me there. We didn’t cover ourselves in glory at the crime scene. Understand something. There are twenty cops in this town. I’m the only one who’d ever seen a dead body except in a funeral home, or some old guy had a stroke in his house.” “They’d never seen a stiff?” “Never.” He shook his head for emphasis. “This was the first homicide in Lake City since it got incorporated.” “That’s a big load to carry alone. Couldn’t you get some help?” “From who? The state? I called them when I ran into a brick wall. They didn’t find anything, either. I saw that Bradshaw broad on the news stabbing me in the back, but I didn’t see her make any arrests.” “I remember you took a lot of heat for not calling them sooner.” “From the media, sure. The mayor was happy until he started reading the papers and watching the news. I would have called them in another day or so even if he hadn’t told me.” “Who ran the investigation at the scene?” “I did.” He paused to give me a chance to make something of it. I let enough surprise show to keep him talking. “You’re thinking I should have put a tighter lid on the scene.” I eased the comment in as well as I could. “You had the experience, Chief. You must have seen a hundred homicides in Chicago.” “Right. That’s what everyone says. I got more fucking Monday morning quarterbacks here than I got cops.” Our relationship was deteriorating faster than an ice cube in a microwave. “Let me tell you something, critic. This ain’t Chicago. That’s why I came here, to get away from that shit. This is a nice quiet town and my job is to keep it that way. I don’t give a rat’s ass if the Tribune likes how I run my department. The people I answer to live right here.” He jammed an index finger on his blotter. “And they’re happy?” “Fucking-A. The people here can afford to live anyplace they want. They could live in Lake Point Tower and watch that big goddam Ferris wheel at Navy Pier from their window if they wanted to. But they don’t. You know why?” No comment from me. No way he wasn’t telling. “Because they like things the way they are here. They like the peace and quiet, and they like that they get a little respect. They pay me to see they get those things, and I damn well intend to see they get what they pay for.” I had nothing to say, which had never stopped me before. “Don’t they expect major crimes to get solved?” His belt buckle hanging up on the edge kept him from coming out from behind the desk. “Here’s the deal, smart guy. I will guaran-goddam-tee you no one in Lake City killed Justin Mitchell. I also know anyone from out of town who might’ve killed him has left my jurisdiction, and there ain’t a hell of a lot I can do about that.” His accent grew with his temper. “Why don’t you go bother that Bradshaw bitch in Elgin? She hasn’t caught any more killers in this case than I have. See what she has for you.” He settled himself in his chair and picked up a handful of papers. “I have work to do. You know the way out.” I kicked myself all the way to the State Police office in Elgin, which allowed for a considerable amount of kicking. Elliott Garvey might have been a lot of help to me. I antagonized him with a speed usually reserved for my ex-father-in-law, violating my Golden Rule: Never forget the toes you step on today might be connected to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow. I’d have to slip him some tongue to get any help now.   CHAPTER THREE   I stopped at Lowe’s in Northbrook for small halogen bulbs I needed for the under-shelf lights in my kitchen. Two had burned out. I wanted three to stay ahead of the game for a change. Ten minutes in and out—tops—if Lowe’s hadn’t moved them. Spent fifteen minutes wandering around where they used to be before I put the pieces together: The bulbs aren’t here. It’s not likely Lowe’s stopped selling them. They must have been moved. Where might they have been moved to? Where all the other light bulbs are kept, perhaps? Master detective. One traditional checkout lane open, four self-service. I chose the line, my way of keeping some MBA from outsourcing retail checkers to Kuala Lumpur or Bangalore. The woman in front had four gallons of paint in her cart she didn’t want to lift. The clerk couldn’t get the scanner to read the bar codes at the angle she had to use. I would have stepped up and lifted the cans if I could’ve got past the guy in front of me in line. He had his hands full with a boy maybe four years old. Kid was running around taking items off the impulse racks, asking for a cold drink, reaching for things on the counter, demanding candy, and generally auditioning to be the poster child for birth control. The kid’s normal speaking voice was a whine; now he actually was whining. Raised the irritation level from Yellow to something measurable on the Richter Scale. Dad was a stringy type. Rawboned with sinewy arms, thinning hair that fell over one eye in front and his collar in back. Long-sleeve shirt worn outside his jeans, sleeves rolled past the elbows. Place him a hundred miles south and he’d fit right in. Here in Northbrook he stuck out like a catfish in a school of salmon. Junior fixated on a light stick. Dad told him several times it wasn’t a glow stick for kids to bend around their necks like Junior thought it was. Junior didn’t like the answer and raised the discussion a notch. I tried to go to my happy place and wondered when the hell someone would help the cashier scan the paint or give it to Mrs. Trophy Wife for free or anything to get the goddamn line moving. Dad gave Junior a love tap on the ass. Nothing abusive, enough to get the kid’s attention. It looked pretty clear from how it was delivered a well-known signal had been given: Dad’s had about enough. Junior was just getting warmed up. He screamed “Noooooooooooooo!!” loud enough to peel the enamel off my teeth. Before I had time to decide who I must have killed in a previous life to deserve this when all I wanted were a few light bulbs, Dad grabbed an arm, turned the kid around, and slapped his face. That got a response. Junior’s mouth hung open. His lower lip quivered. He breathed like he was really going to let loose this time. Dad shook him, cocked his free hand for another slap. Junior’s eyes got big and noise came out of his mouth and Dad’s arm tensed for the swing, but nothing happened. I had his wrist. He half turned as I bent it back. I stepped in to keep his torso from rotating, pulled the wrist out and down until it had to hurt and he acknowledged me by twisting his head as far as he could. “Not as much fun when someone’s bigger than you, is it?” Our faces no more than six inches apart. His breath smelled of coffee and cigarettes. “You slap his face again and we’ll go right here.” Pain fought with disbelief in his eyes. “What are you doing? Who the hell are you?” “I don’t know what you do at home. You pull that in public and you’re accountable.” “Fuck you. That’s my kid and my problem. This is assault. I’ll get a cop.” I shifted my hands into a come-along hold. I could force him to his knees, or all the way to the floor. Break his arm if I wanted. “Fine. You swear out a complaint on me, and I’ll tell how you assaulted the kid in front of witnesses. How I reacted to stop you from doing it again. They’ll make the two of us shake hands and call it a wash for the record, but they’ll have to inform Child and Family Services. Then you’ll have a file.” The situation had no equilibrium. I couldn’t hold him like this indefinitely before someone else did something, if they hadn’t already. I didn’t have time to fool with the police today. “Say you’re sorry.” “What?” I pressed the hold and his knees buckled. “Say you’re sorry and that it won’t happen again.” I leaned on his arm. He winced and produced an incoherent sound. “What’s that?” “I said I’m sorry.” “Not to me, dumbass. Tell the kid.” Confusion crowded into his expression. “You remember him. The one you hit.” “I’m sorry, David. I shouldn’t of hit you in the face. I won’t do it again.” My intercession worked better than anything Dad had tried. The kid was speechless. I released the hold in phases, helped him keep his balance as I let go. No telling how long we’d had the undivided attention of everyone in the vicinity; we sure had it now. A forty- ish man with glasses and a paunch and a store manager’s air about him asked if everything was all right. “Yeah.” The three blister packs of bulbs seemed as foolish in my hand as I suddenly felt, now out of the moment with a chance to evaluate my actions. I handed the packages to the manager. “I think I have the wrong bulbs. Can you make sure they get put back for me?” He took the bulbs and I walked past the self-check lines and through the exit. Stood on the sidewalk and pondered whether it would have been better to let it go or say something quietly. Decided, fuck him, why do the assholes always get a free one, then we’re in the wrong for calling them on it? It’s what bullies depend on. This one would have to re-evaluate. They came out a few minutes later, David seated in the buggy where he should have been all along. I stayed fifteen feet behind them to their car. Dad pretended to ignore me while he put their packages in the trunk and strapped David into his car seat. When he finally faced me he was sweating like a road crew in July. “What do you want now?” “Jotting down your license number.” He gave confused again. “I thought your apology lacked sincerity, so I’m going to call Child Services to open a file on you anyway, just in case. Want to talk me out of it?” I waited while he stared at a spot midway between my feet and his. “I didn’t think so.” CHAPTER FOUR   Marian Bradshaw had one foot on a chair when I knocked on the open door of her office and identified myself. She reversed direction in mid-step. “Perfect timing. And you’re tall, too. Can you reach that plant for me?” I took the plant from a ceiling hook and held it for her to water. No more than five-foot- two in flats, she didn’t weigh much more than my left leg. I put the over and under on her age at fifty, dark brown hair arguing for the under. She hummed (Ravel Pavane?) while she watered the soil at the plant’s base, working the spout down to avoid splashing the leaves. Marian worked as a Special Agent in the Northern Illinois Support Center of the Illinois State Police. Support Centers assist small towns like Lake City when an investigation requires expertise or hardware beyond the locals’ capabilities. She drew the Mitchell case when Elliott Garvey roused himself to call for help. I replaced the plant and she offered me a seat. I passed on coffee and watched her adjust a photograph on her desk before she sat. Her family pictures were turned so she could see them.  “I hate to say this, but I’m a little sorry you’re here,” she said, stirring creamer into her coffee. “You think a woman never told me that before? What’s your excuse?” Her smile took five years off her age. “It’s nothing personal. I think I’ve spent more time talking about this case than investigating it.” “Who else is pestering you?” “The media, of course. That died down when they found out I wouldn’t be an—” finger quotes—“‘unnamed source within the ISP.’ I think Lake City officials set up a rotation so it wouldn’t look like any one of them was picking on me. Of course, Chief Garvey called every day to complain about how I kept stabbing him in the back.” “Were you?” The question didn’t faze her. “No. He was upset because I told some people we didn’t have all the evidence we’d like. If they asked, I’d admit the reason we didn’t have some of that evidence was because we didn’t get at the crime scene right away. I made sure I never said the Lake City cops ruined it.” “But you do think they did?” “Oh, absolutely.” She took a second to secure eye contact. “This is private, right? I’m not going to read everything I say in some tabloid three weeks from now?” I raised my right hand in the Scout pledge and she went on. “This has been the most frustrating investigation I’ve worked in twenty-six years on the job. When I saw it on the news I couldn’t wait to get at it. I wanted to use everything we had to catch this guy, but we didn’t get the chance until it was too late.” “Can’t you just go in?” She shook her head. “Not if there’s a police force with jurisdiction. Sometimes we ask if we can help, but we have to be invited in.” “Did you ask Lake City?” “I didn’t. Carl—Carl Busch, he’s my boss—called and said Garvey acted put out that we thought he couldn’t handle it. Now Carl wonders if maybe they would’ve called us in sooner if he hadn’t asked.” “What finally brought you in?” She stifled most of a smile. “The mayor and the media made such a stink Garvey didn’t have any choice. I can’t prove it, but I heard the mayor told Garvey if he didn’t call us, the mayor would do it himself.” “Meaning you probably didn’t get much cooperation from Garvey.” “Much? Is there anything less than none?” The animation in her voice didn’t show in her body. Someone looking in would think we were discussing the weather. “He let us walk around in the house, but by then it was a waste of time. We conducted interviews, but he couldn’t stop us from doing that even if he wanted to.” “Did you talk to the Mitchells?” “They refused. Their lawyer said they would not be harassed by every law enforcement agency in the state. I noticed they weren’t too harassed to talk to reporters. It wasn’t us camped out on the lawn every morning looking for a quote.” “How bad was the crime scene?” “As bad as I’ve ever worked.” She looked through the folder on her desk, then sighed and tossed a dozen photos my way. “This is what we inherited. A basement window broken from the outside. At least twenty sets of fresh footprints, inside and out. We dusted for latents, quit running them after we wised up and started checking them against the Lake City police prints.” “Not even to find the one print that didn’t belong?” She didn’t answer right away, spun a small anniversary band on her finger. That and a watch were the only jewelry I saw. “No. Maybe we should have, but we gave up. So many things had been touched by so many people the chances of finding a good print were non- existent. You know how long it takes to crosscheck prints, even with computers. It wasn’t worth the effort.” “I thought Garvey ran the investigation. He has homicide experience.” “Supposedly. One of the locals said Garvey spent most of the first two days telling everyone to be thorough, then screamed about the mess they’d made.” “Maybe he assumed more knowledge than his people had.” “It still sets me off. I was taught never to assume anything at a crime scene, not even if you know the people you’re working with. You ever work in Chicago?” I nodded. “Then you know they rotate crime scene partners all the time, so nothing gets taken for granted. Garvey had to be aware his people didn’t have any practical experience. He ran a sloppy investigation.” “We can’t fix any of that now. Mitchell’s mother wants her boy’s name cleared. Can you answer a few questions for me?” “Whatever you need. I have one first, though. You said the mother wants Mitchell cleared. Does that mean find a different killer?” “She doesn’t care if I find the killer. She just wants her family to be able to walk through Toys ’R’ Us without people pointing and hiding their kids.” “Kind of hard to prove a negative, isn’t it?” “I tried to tell her. Let’s say she appealed to me as a parent.” Marian cast a quick look at the pictures on her desk and nodded. “What do you want to know?” “Did the house have an alarm system?” “A good one. That’s one of the first things we checked. Our people put the system through the wringer and everything came out fine.” “So no one broke in.” “Not unless he had the code.” “That doesn’t leave too many people. How do you think it went down? “Did you know Justin was hyperactive?” “ADD, I thought.” “I guess that’s what they call it now. I hear he could be a handful. You probably already know Doug has a hot temper and a short fuse. He’s never hurt anyone we know of, but he’s made some people wonder.” “Wonder about—?” “He breaks things sometimes. The usual: mirrors, glasses, chairs.” “Any domestic violence?” Her tone became officious. “There are no police reports of physical violence in the Mitchell home, if that’s what you mean.” “That’s not much of a denial.” “We have no evidence of abuse. That’s all I’m going to say.” Marian Bradshaw was a pro. I wouldn’t make the same mistake with her I made with Garvey. I could always come back later and re-negotiate if I dug up something to trade. “So Doug’s a good suspect, in your eyes?” “Yes, but Mom’s got potential, too.” “Really? How so?” “Michelle’s very high strung and doesn’t deal well with frustration. Her family had money and she grew up in a fifties sitcom. Prettiest girl in school, cheerleader, homecoming queen, honor roll. Went to college for an MRS degree, big wedding, perfect wife and mother. Sometimes there were fireworks when she didn’t get what she wanted.” “What do you think of the ransom note?” “The ransom note’s a joke. No kidnapper smart enough to get in there and grab the kid is going to leave something like that behind. Besides, there’s something about that note we haven’t let out to anyone, not even the Lake City police.” “Care to share? I’m good for it.” She thought a few seconds, or at least pretended to. “Do you want to see the note?” “Are baseballs round?” She opened a folder lying on her desk, slid a photocopy of a handwritten note across to me. “Do you see anything interesting?” I didn’t answer right away. She wouldn’t have asked if there wasn’t something. We have your boy. If you ever want to see him again, get $140,000 in twenties and fifties in two days. No police. It looked like a blindfolded six-year old had written it while pressed for time. “Whoever wrote it flunked penmanship.” I tapped a finger where the note mentioned money. “Who asks for a hundred and forty thousand?” I looked up and caught Marian watching me. She didn’t look away or show the slightest embarrassment. Her hazel eyes took in everything without seeming to scrutinize anything. “We had some handwriting experts look at it. They couldn’t identify the writer, but they all agreed on one thing.” “Which was?” “The writer was probably a left-handed male.” I took another look. “It looks right-handed to me. A right-handed monkey, maybe.” “It was written with the right hand of a left-handed person. It’s a cheap trick to make the handwriting harder to identify. Do you know of any left-handed males who could have written it?” “No, but I’ll bet you do.” “Doug Mitchell.” “So you think it’s him.” “It’s one of them. Try this theory out. Either Doug or Michelle had enough of Justin for the day. Justin pushes one of them too far and he gets choked. To cover it up, one or both of them concocts this kidnapping story, wraps a ligature around his throat to make it hard to identify the finger marks, and writes the phony ransom note.” “That’s a lot of assumptions.” “I know. That’s why we never took it to a grand jury. I can’t prove any of it, but it’s consistent with the facts.” “You know I’m working for the Mitchell family. Why are you telling me?” She smiled more on the left side of her face than the right, like not all of her was sure she wanted to. “Do you think I talk to everyone who calls and wants to waste my time? I checked around. You won’t take any of this to the papers. You’re not working for the suspects’ lawyer, so there’s no privilege. No matter what you find, I don’t think you’re going to let a child killer walk around loose.” “I have obligations to my client.” “The grandmother? Fine. Tell her. But if you find anything incriminating on either of the Mitchells, I expect to know about it. If you tamper with anything, I’ll have you put away.” “So I’m really working for you.” “The Mitchells are as guilty as O.J. Anything new you find will be good news for us.” Her voice stayed friendly. She knew private cops keep things from the police all the time. She also knew Shirley Mitchell pushed my parental guilt button to involve me in the first place. Marian Bradshaw didn’t become a good detective by not knowing things about people. The look on her face, the smile still hanging there, told me she knew I wouldn’t cover up anything that might let Justin’s killer walk. I thanked her and we shook hands. Halfway to the door she called me back. “Before you go, I have a question for you. Why did you ask about the one fingerprint that didn’t fit?” “Routine question. Looking for anything that can’t be accounted for legitimately. Why do you ask?” She looked down at the folder in her hand and chewed her lower lip. Shuffled some of the papers without spending enough time on any of them to do more than look busy. I gave her all the time she wanted. “We did find a print that didn’t belong.” “Do tell.” “Does the name Pete Diehl mean anything to you?” “Uh-uh.” She gestured with two fingers for me to come back. “Diehl’s a thief, a high-class burglar who makes a lot of money off rich people in the northern suburbs. We got his thumbprint and part of another finger off the outside of the door jamb.” “That’s not generally known, is it?” “No, it isn’t, and it’s going to stay that way. I’m telling you because I trust you and because I think you might be more willing to share if I go first.” “What did Diehl say when you talked to him?” “He said he was in Springfield at a CPA meeting.” “He’s a crook and a CPA? Might not be such a stretch, come to think of it.” “His wife’s the CPA, and a good one. She makes enough money by herself to afford the house in Barrington. Diehl was with her all night and has a hundred witnesses.” “How did he account for the print?” “He said he got lost in Lake City a week or so earlier. He stopped to ask for directions at a house, but he wasn’t sure which one.” “Anyone there remember him?” “Not definitely, but no one didn’t remember him, either. Something’s funny there, but Diehl’s in the clear for the night of the murder, so we let it go.” “Maybe he was casing the joint for a job and got careless.” “It’s possible. You want to talk to him?” “What the hell. I don’t think he’ll tell me anything he didn’t tell you, but if he lied he might not remember exactly what he said. Barrington’s sorta kinda on my way. I can see him and still be back for a late lunch.” She gave me the address and a phone number. I got as far as the door again before something struck me. “Does Garvey know about this?” “No. And he’s not going to.” We held each other’s gaze for a few seconds. “Thanks for this, Marian.” “You’re welcome. Remember where you got it. Garvey didn’t share with us, we don’t share with him. I shared with you.” I didn’t run to the car. I wanted to visit Diehl today more because I didn’t want to drive all the way to Barrington another time than because of any revelations he might have. A beautiful day, spring at last, and Barrington traffic shouldn’t be any worse than Lake City. These rich guys have things figured out. I should hang out with them more.   CHAPTER FIVE   Barrington traffic was backed up like Port-A-Johns at a prune festival. A lot of people wanted—and presumed to be able to afford—Barrington addresses, enough to overwhelm a road system designed for a town half the size. I wondered if this would happen to the swells in Lake City in about twenty years. One could only hope. Pete Diehl’s house sat between two others on a cul-de-sac in a new development halfway between the Quaker Oats research lab and Route 59. At least an acre of ground, back windows looking out on a retention pond with a fountain. Genuine stone pillars supported the portico over the front door. I couldn’t afford to live over the garage if I volunteered to wash the cars and sweep up. The middle door on the three-car garage was open. My keen detective mind took this as a sign someone was home. Mrs. Diehl figured to be at work, the kids in school, which left Pete. Maybe he’d adopt me if I asked nice. Pushing the button set off chimes somewhere deep in the house. I spent my wait checking out the neighborhood. Not as many birds as at Shirley Mitchell’s, the development too new for the planned forestry to mature. I wondered how many hundred year-old trees had been mulched so the Diehls could pay a million dollars to look at replacements. Or if the Diehls ever thought about how they’d be mulch themselves before their sapling farm compared to what had been cut down. The fountain in the pond behind the house added white noise to the breeze. The day had grown unseasonably warm and a hammock would be all I needed for a nap. I walked around back after three rings. A deck on stilts overhung the walkout basement and wrapped around most of the back of the house, with entries into the kitchen and family room. I knocked on the sliding glass door to the basement and peeked into a finished room with a pool table and wet bar. No one there. I went back into the sunlight and climbed the stairs attached to the deck. I’d seen smaller putting greens. The outdoor furniture cost more than my car, with a grill big enough to roast an ox. The boards didn’t make a sound when I walked on them. I knocked on the kitchen slider. No answer. I came off the deck and completed my circuit of the house. The garage had a Lexus parked between an open space and one of those SUVs so long you needed an extra person to steer the back wheels. Warmer in here, heat building up behind the doors without the breeze to flush out stale air. From inside you couldn’t hear the fountain. The garage had the dry, musty smell that comes from being closed through an Illinois winter. This one had another familiar smell I couldn’t place. Maybe that kept me from calling for Diehl. Whatever the reason, I had my mouth open to holler for him before I thought better of it. I walked in with my head on a swivel, making a conscious effort to be quiet. The door into the house was closed. I walked through the empty parking space toward it, stopped on the first wooden step with the distinct impression someone was behind me. I let my hands drift out from my sides in plain view before I said “Pete Diehl?” to an empty room. I gave the garage a good look to satisfy myself it was empty and stepped down to floor level. Diehl could be taking a shower, or taking a nap after a late night. Maybe he jogged. Any information I hoped to get wasn’t worth risking a Breaking and Entering charge. I could call and make an appointment. I walked back the way I came, squinting a little in the bright sunlight after the few minutes in the darker garage. I turned back for a last look and saw a smudge on the left rear bumper of the Lexus I missed coming in because my eyes weren’t accustomed to the relative darkness. I knew as I reached out it would be smooth and a little sticky and I recognized the smell I couldn’t place. Gunpowder. Someone smart would leave. Someone smart wouldn’t have been there in the first place. I took a handkerchief from my pocket and gave a tug on the trunk. When it didn’t open I went to the driver’s door and found the release. The trunk swung open smooth and quiet as a Lexus commercial. I assumed the man inside was Pete Diehl. He had plenty of room in the trunk to be comfortable, if it still mattered to him. His eyes were open, rolled up slightly as if he were looking at the two extra holes in his forehead. The holes were small and neat, the kind a .22 would make going in. There wasn’t much blood on him and I reflexively looked for it, to see where he might have been shot before being thrown in the trunk. A .22 might not go through and through on a head shot, but some blood should be visible if it had smudged onto the bumper. My pupils expanded a little and I saw the spatter pattern on the inside lid of the trunk. Whoever killed him made him get in first. I reached for my cell phone and saw something between his teeth other than his tongue. I took a deep breath and pulled it out for no reason except curiosity about what a dead man might have in his mouth. A picture of George Washington. A one-dollar bill. I tried to put it back but his teeth had shut and I had no desire to pry his mouth open. Barrington police would give me six kinds of hell for messing with the crime scene when I showed them the dollar. I’d get over it. Why bother being a big-time professional investigator if you can’t jack off a small town cop once in a while? I made the 911 call and sat in my car to wait for the wagon. Whatever Pete Diehl might have told me seemed a lot more important now that he couldn’t.
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A Small Sacrifice