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Fallout – Chapter 1

(Fallout goes on sale April 18; you can pre-order it now)

1

Playing the Sap – Again

 

“The police say it was drug related, ma’am. They think August was stealing to deal.” Angela Creedy spoke so softly I had to lean forward to hear her.

“That is a bêtise—a—a lie, a stupidity.” Bernie Fouchard stomped her foot for emphasis.

“Bernie, my little volcano, you could be right, but I have no idea what, or even who, you’re talking about. Can you start at the beginning?”

Angela had been looking at her clasped hands, her face tight with worry, but that made her give a brief smile. “You are a little volcano, Bernie. Maybe that’s what we’ll start calling you at the training table. The thing is, August is missing, and when this break-in happened—“

“They had to pick on someone,” Bernie interrupted. “And because he is black—“

Angela put a hand over Bernie’s mouth. “August is my cousin, ma’am. I don’t really know him—I’m from Shreveport, and he grew up in Chicago. We don’t have the kind of family that stages big reunions; I haven’t seen him since he was about eight or nine and came down with his mama to visit. Anyway, when I connected with him, after I moved up here, it turned out he’s trying to be a filmmaker, but he works as a personal trainer to support himself and videos parties – weddings, kids’ birthdays, things like that. It just seemed like the perfect combo.”

The southern lilt in her soft voice made it hard for me to understand her. “Perfect for what?” I asked.

Bernie flung up her hands. “But to help us train and video us when we play, naturellement, so we can see where we must improve!”

Bernadine Fouchard was a rising hockey player. Her father had been my cousin Boom-Boom’s closest friend on the Blackhawks, and he’d asked Boom-Boom to be Bernie’s godfather. Now that she was a first year student and athletic star at Northwestern, I had sort of inherited her.

“Angela is also an athlete?” I asked.

“Can’t you tell? She is like a—a giraffe; she is a basketball star.”

Angela looked at her in annoyance, but went back to her narrative. “Anyway, Bernie and I, we’re both freshmen, we have a lot to prove before we can be starters, so we started going to the Six-Points Gym, because that’s where my cousin works, and it’s not far from campus.”

“When this gym was broken into two nights ago, the police, at first they thought it was a prank, because of Halloween, but then today they said it must have been August, which is a scandale,” Bernie cut in. “So I told Angela about you, and we agreed, you are the exact person for proving he never did this thing.”

Bernie favored me with a brilliant smile, as if she were the Queen bestowing an important medal on me. I felt more as though the Queen’s horse was kicking me in the stomach.

“What does August say about it?”

“He’s disappeared,” Bernie said. “I think he’s hiding—“

“Bernie, I’m going to call you a volcanic kangaroo, not a volcano, you jump around so much.” Angela’s voice finally rose in exasperation. “The gym manager says August told him he was going away for a week, but he didn’t say where, just that it was a confidential project. He’s a contract employee, so he doesn’t get vacation time—he takes unpaid leave if he wants to go.”

“He didn’t tell you?” I asked.

Angela shook her head. “We’re not that close, ma’am. I mean, I like him, but—you know how it is when you play college ball—Bernie told me you played basketball for the University of Chicago—you’re training, you’re practicing, you’re fitting in your classes. Girls ball isn’t like boys: we have to graduate, we have to take our courses seriously. Not that I don’t want to, I love everything I’m studying, but there isn’t time left over for family. And August is pretty private, anyway. He’s never even invited me to his home.”

“You have his phone number?” I said.

Angela nodded. “He’s not answering it, or texts, or anything. No updates on his Facebook page or Twitter feed.”

“The police must have something to go on,” I objected. “Other than saying that nobody knows where your cousin is.”

Angela picked at her cuticles. “It wasn’t really a break-in.” Her voice had become even lower. “Someone with a key opened all the doors, and August is the only person with a key who they can’t find.”

“How long has he been out of touch?” I asked, cutting short another harangue by Bernie.

Angela hunched a shoulder. “I can’t even tell you that, ma’am. It wasn’t until today that I knew he was missing, and that’s because the police came to talk to me, to see if I knew where he was.”

I got up to turn on more lights. The only windows in the warehouse where I lease office space are at the top of the fourteen-foot walls. I’ve filled the place with floor and ceiling lamps, and at five on a November day, I needed all of them to break the gloom.

Neither of my visitors seemed able to tell her story in a straight-forward way, but what it boiled down to was that Six-Points Gym’s medical supply closet had been ransacked some time last night.

The gym worked with a lot of athletes, from weekend warriors to some of the city’s pro teams, along with a number of university athletes. They had a doctor on call who could – and did – hand out drugs. Neither Angela nor Bernie knew what had been in the ransacked closet.

“We don’t take drugs,” Bernie snapped when I asked. “Why would we know?”

I sighed, loudly. “It’s the kind of question you might have asked the police when they talked to you. Or they might have asked you. Six-Points must have controlled substances, or the cops wouldn’t care.”

“They didn’t say.” Angela was talking to her hands again. “They asked me how well I know August, and did I know if he took drugs, sold drugs, all those things. I told them no, of course.”

“Even though you don’t know him well?” I prodded.

Angela looked up at that, her eyes hot. “I know when someone is on drugs. Ma’am. It’s true I don’t know him well—I was only two the one time he came to see us—but my mother told me he brought a toy farm with him that I kept messing with. She says August was so cute, how he put the animals to bed for the night, all the little lambs together, all the cows, the dog got to sleep on the farmer’s bed. A boy like that wouldn’t be stealing drugs.”

I didn’t suggest that every drug dealer had once been a little child who played with toys.

Bernie nodded vigorously. “Exactement! So we need you to find August. Find him before the police do, or they will just arrest him and never listen to the truth.”

“Which is?”

“That someone else did this break-in, this sabotage,” Bernie flung up her arms, exasperated with my thickness.

“This is potentially a huge inquiry, Bernie. You need to fingerprint the premises, talk to everyone on the gym’s staff, talk to customers. The police have the manpower and the technical resources for an investigation like this. I don’t have the equipment or the staff to work a crime scene, even if the Evanston cops would let me look at it.”

“But, Vic! You can at least talk to people. When you start asking questions, they will be squirming and saying things they thought they could keep secret. I know you can do this, because I have seen you making it happen. Maybe even the manager of the gym, maybe he is doing this crime and trying to blame August.”

I opened and shut my mouth a few times. Whether it was the flattery, or the supplication in both their faces, I wrote down the address of Six-Points, the name of the manager, August’s home address. When I asked Angela for August’s mother’s name, though, she said that “Auntie Jacquelyn” had died six years ago.

“I honestly don’t think he has any other family in Chicago. Not on my side, anyway. His daddy was killed in Iraq, years ago. If he has other relatives here, I don’t know about them.”

Of course she didn’t know his friends, either, or lovers, or whether he had debts he needed to pay off. At least she could provide his last name—Veriden. Even though I knew neither woman could afford my fees, I still found myself saying that I would call up to the gym tomorrow and ask some questions.

Bernie leapt up to hug me. “Vic, I knew you would say yes, I knew we could count on you.”

I thought of Sam Spade, telling Brigid O’Shaughnessy he wouldn’t play the sap for her. Why wasn’t I as tough as Sam?

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