Fallout Excerpt

Fallout Excerpt


Rabid Fans

It was starting to mizzle again when I got back to the car. I put on my poncho and walked with Peppy toward the river. It wasn’t as close as I’d thought, sitting on Gertrude Perec’s porch, and it turned out there was a ravine between the river and the road. On the far side a train’s whistle hooted, a mournful wail in the wet dark.

I drove to the parks that bordered the center of town and let Peppy root around in the lamplight. She was annoyed at having been left in the car for too much of the afternoon and showed it by breaking away to greet other dogs and refusing to come when I called her.

I grabbed her leash and brought her to heel. I’d been sitting too long, too. We ran the length of the park five or six times, until Peppy was panting loudly. The rain was still falling, not hard, but we were both damp by the time I bundled Peppy back into the Mustang.

Maybe it had been selfish of me to bring her along on this trip, but in the dark on a rainy night in a strange city, with my lover four thousand miles away, I was glad of her company.

Although I saw some interesting restaurants, I didn’t feel like changing into dry clothes, nor like leaving the dog in the car again. I went to a co-op grocer on the town’s west side which had organic carry-out meals and took a salmon dinner back to the bNb with me.

“Who do you think the doctor is that Gertrude Perec was protecting from my scar-picking?” I asked Peppy when we were in our room and dry again.

Peppy didn’t bother to look up from the peanut-butter bone I’d bought her, not for a question which could only be answered by consulting a medium. I tried texting Cady, to ask if she’d tell me the doctor’s name, but she said her grandmother would know I’d gotten it from her and she didn’t want to cause any more domestic friction.

Was Cady afraid of her grandmother? Probably a little, but maybe protecting her, too. I didn’t really need to know—I was grasping at straws, after all, looking for clues about Emerald Ferring at a protest camp that had disappeared almost thirty-five years ago. Anyway, it’s pretty much impossible to persuade someone via text to tell you something they want to keep to themselves.

Time I dealt with my inbox. Predictably, I had several urgent messages from Bernie Fouchard, wanting to know why I hadn’t been in touch and where was August??? Since she’d already texted me four times today, I wrote a snarky reply, then deleted it: no reason to take out my frustrations over my lack of progress on the young hockey player. I wrote jointly to her and Angela, her basketball playing friend: It’s a slow business, and I’m having trouble picking up a thread in a strange town, so hang tight for a few more days, okay?

One thing I’d like someone on the ground in Chicago to do was canvas August’s neighbors in the evening, when people would be home from work, but that was a job for the Streeter brothers, not two impetuous young athletes. I sent Tim Streeter a long email, with the details of what I wanted, and then turned to the hardest message, the no-progress report to the client, Troy Hempel.

For help with that, I poured myself a generous shot of Johnnie Walker while I explained to Troy what I’d done and who I would talk to in the morning.

If the churches and her childhood home prove dead ends, I could retrace the road back to Ft. Riley, to see if anything happened to Emerald Ferring and August Veriden on the way. It’s eighty miles with a number of small towns and might take several days to cover. My opinion—it’s a needle in a haystack, but if you want me to do it, I’m game. Let me know.

When I’d finished that, I started working through my in-box—seventy-three new emails since this morning, including, of course, the piercing bleats from politicians and Nigerian princes, desperate for two hundred or even just five dollars, whatever I could spare, the situation is dire.

Mr. Contreras had written a chatty message from St. Croix, filled with good will and the endearing typos of a hunt-and-pecker. I wrote back, mostly highlights from my visit to Ft. Riley, which a veteran of Anzio would care about, and included a photo that Dr. Dan had sent from Wisconsin of our dog Mitch stalking a chipmunk.

I’d written Jake Thibaut this morning before my visit to the Lawrence Police Department, when it had been 3 p.m. in Basel. It was 3 a.m. there now and he hadn’t had time to fit in a response.

No estes lejos de mi un sola dia. The Neruda sonnet Paul Lieberson had set to music for his wife came into my mind. Do not be far from me for a single day. Jake used to play the melody for me on Skype when he was on tour, and I had worked hard on the song so I could sing it to him when he’d been in Australia for six weeks last year. Now—not even an email.

I got up and frowned at my reflection in a small mirror over the desk. More wiry threads of white in my dark hair, deeper crows feet around the eyes. Silvered is the raven hair, mottled the complexion fair. Maybe Gilbert & Sullivan’s Lady Jane was more suitable for me than Neruda’s love sonnets.

Fortunately I had my dog and my career: what more does a woman need? I settled down to the client queries and after a time, deep in spreadsheets and a trail of strangely oscillating share prices, I forgot my bruised heart and my futile efforts to find August Veriden and Emerald Ferring.

Completing a couple of projects was a relief—my futile quest in Kansas had been demoralizing me. What kind of investigator was I, who spent four days without finding a whiff of my quarry?

I stretched out my hamstrings, did a half-backbend in the doorway, took Peppy out to the small patio outside my room.

The rain had passed, bringing colder air behind it, cold air from the north, from home. We stood for a moment, looking at the night sky, at the north star. I felt a longing for home deeper than my longing for Jake.

“Sniff the air, girl,” I told Peppy. “Maybe you’ll smell Mitch. I’ll smell the Golden Glow and Lotty. Any luck and we’ll be back there soon.”

The bells on the university campanile were tolling midnight in the distance. I climbed into bed, the dog curled at my side, and fell deeply asleep. When my phone rang only two hours later, I woke disoriented, thinking I was in my Chicago bedroom, and floundered in the unfamiliar space, bumping into the couch where my phone was flashing its LED’s.

“Yes?” I grumbled, rubbing my sore shin.

“Did you put up those posters?” It was a woman’s voice, hoarse from alcohol or cigarettes or maybe from screaming into phones in the middle of the night—the background noise sounded like a full-scale riot was in progress.

“What pos—oh, looking for August Veriden and Emerald Ferring? Yes.” I sucked in a breath.

“I saw them. I saw them out where my truelove is buried, they were walking on his grave.”

Great. Another homeless drunk looking for a handout. “What did you see?” I demanded.

“A kid, photographing the grave, and this black lady, egging him on! That ground is sacred and they were taking pictures as if it was a football game.”

“Where?” I shouted.

“I told you. At his burial place.”

“But where is his burial place?”

“I told him to stop, but he said he had permission.”

I was pulling on my jeans as she talked. “Where are you right now? I’ll bring the reward down to you.”

“The Lion’s Heart.”

I asked her name, but she’d hung up. I pulled boots on over my bare feet, hustled Peppy into the car, asked my phone to find the Lion’s Heart. Eighth Street on Rhode Island, two blocks east of Massachusetts, the main downtown street. I didn’t remember putting a flyer in there.

Two-thirty in the morning; most places had closed but the handful of bars still open had crowds of kids spilling over the sidewalk into the road, music blaring, roars of laughter, cars honking up and down Massachusetts Street, the heart of town. I found a parking space two blocks over, on a street of rickety bungalows and crooked brick sidewalks.

I thought living near Wrigley Field was a misery on game nights, but for the poor people near Lawrence’s bars, it looked as though every night downtown might be game night.

The Lion’s Heart was in the cellar of a building on the corner. I hadn’t gone this far east when I was out this morning. When I got there, a young woman was being sick over the railing; two youths with her were laughing, one of them pulling on her cami straps.

I put an arm around the woman but looked at the young men. “You boys need to go home. Kindergarten starts early tomorrow, and you don’t look adult enough for anything else.”

One of the guys started to call me names, but when I demanded their ID’s they backed away—I might be a university cop. The woman stared at me with glassy unseeing eyes. I didn’t know what to do with her, so I kept an arm around her as I muscled my way down the stairs to the entrance.

As soon as I got there, I realized what a hopeless job it would be to find one person in this mob scene. I backed out again, set the young woman on the stairs, and called the number that had rung mine.

It rang about ten times before anyone answered: it was a bartender at the Lion’s Heart. Great. My anonymous caller had used the bar’s phone.

The young woman had passed out. I propped her at the top of the cellar stairs, against the edge of an iron staircase leading to the upper floors of the building. The woman had a purse on a spaghetti strap dangling from her shoulder. I took it with me, just to keep it from being stolen while I went inside.

“I hope you’re going to be okay out here, honey. I don’t know how long this will take.”

The elbows I’d developed growing up on Chicago’s South Side got me past the thicket at the entrance and up to the bar, but the noise was so ferocious it was harder to take than the crowd. A balding man with a sizable paunch was filling beer steins without looking at them, putting them on the end where waitstaff picked them up and distributed them through the mob.

I waved, trying to get his attention, shouted, and finally worked my way around to his side of the bar.

“Five Moscow Mules,” one of the waitstaff screamed.

The balding man nodded, filled three more steins, and turned to plunk five copper mugs on the bar. I put my arm over them.

“Before you serve another underage drinker, I need to know who was using your phone half an hour ago.”

He looked at me sourly. “Get your arm off the mugs. They have to be washed again if you get them dirty.”

“Your phone. A woman phoned me from here. I’m a detective, she has information I need, and I want to know who she was.”

He glared at me. “Some stupid homeless woman who I threw out because she hassles the customers begging for booze. She helped herself to the phone just like you’re helping yourself to my mule mugs. Now get out of my bar before I throw you out after her.”

“Don’t make threats you can’t back up,” I said. “If she’s a regular, you must know her name or where she lives—“

“I just told you she’s homeless, which means she doesn’t live anywhere.”

The noise and my lack of sleep was making me lightheaded. I saw a row of light switches on the wall behind him. I shut down the three closest to me and the bar went dark. People gasped and shrieked, but the noise went down a few decibels. I counted five and turned the lights on again. Before the roar could build again I shouted,

“Free Moscow Mule to the person who knows the homeless woman who was using the phone in here a little bit ago.”

The bartender shouted to one of the waitstaff to get Fred, time to throw me out, and then call the cops.

“I’m a detective,” I said loudly. “I need to find the woman who used your phone. If I do, when the cops arrive, I won’t report you for serving alcohol to kids who are drunk and very likely had roofies fed to them at your bar, while you were watching. Deal?”

He slapped an empty stein onto the counter so hard it broke. “Sonia. She comes around when she’s scored enough change to buy a drink. She’s a pain in the ass, but not as big a pain as you. Now get out.”

A muscly man in the ubiquitous Jayhawk t-shirt was waiting at the end of the bar for me. He grabbed my arm harder than was truly necessary and hustled me to the door, where I somehow tripped on the stoop and kicked his shin while I righted myself. Childish but satisfying.

The young woman was still slumped over at the top of the stairs. The youths who’d been with her before had disappeared, replaced by a larger group, carrying mugs, speaking in disjointed sentences, interspersed with loud laughter, when they pounded each other’s shoulders.

I shone my phone flash inside the young woman’s purse. I found a student ID, which told me she was Naomi Wissenhurst but didn’t reveal her address. I slapped her lightly, trying to wake her up.

“Naomi! Where do you live!”

The male trio moved out to the sidewalk, not wanting to be part of Naomi’s drama. It was then that I saw the bundle of clothes under the iron staircase. I shone my flash on it, but my gut twisted: the bundle had a shape of sorts, and in the light I could see a foot sticking out at an awkward angle.