Pay Dirt Excerpt

Pay Dirt Excerpt



Gunshot. When you hear it, you know it’s not a backfire, not an M-80. Sprint up the stairs. Peter shoves past me into the room. I grab his arm. “You can’t go in there blind. You don’t know who’s shooting, who they’re shooting at.”

He shoves me aside and plunges into the room.

A second shot, a third, screams, I follow him in.

Blood, brain, bone, I slip in them. The air, acrid, thick with smoke, I can’t see who’s alive, who’s injured, who has weapons, stumble on Peter lying across Taylor’s body, bellowing, “No! No!”

The cry woke me. I was weeping. I reached for the lamp switch, hand finding empty air. I was in a strange place, alone. Panic hit me. Taylor’s mother had kidnapped me, I’d been jumped in a Chicago alley,  I was in a KGB prison. I tried leaping out of bed, but the sheets were knotted around me like a mummy’s tapes and I landed on the floor.

And finally remembered I was in Kansas. Lawrence. Not in a dump in Chicago’s Uptown where Taylor Constanza had been murdered by their father. Taylor had been killed five months ago, but the nightmares wouldn’t release their grip on me.

It was my own thrashing that had knotted up the sheets. I extricated myself, remade the bed. My sleepshirt was soaked through with my sweat. I took it off, washed myself off in the B & B’s small bathroom, put on a t-shirt. It was only three in the morning. I tried to go back to sleep.

I’d driven down to Lawrence to see Angela Creedy join an elite group of basketball players who’d broken the three-thousand point lifetime scoring marker. She was a star on Northwestern University’s team, a star attracting international attention. She was also a housemate of Bernardine Fouchard, Bernie to me, who was a hockey player and my sort of goddaughter.

Angela and her Northwestern Wildcats had beaten the home town Jayhawks in last night’s game, but it had been close, exciting to watch. Dozens of girls in Kansas regalia had crowded around Angela when she left the visitors’ dressing room, thrusting their programs at her.

She’d squatted with easy grace to their head-level, and signed their programs, chatting in a way that left the girls star-struck. When the crowd thinned, she joined me and Bernie in the hall, along with their other roommates. Angela and Bernie were close, so I’d grown close to her as well. The three other women I knew only in passing.

Angela embraced me. “Vic, I know it wasn’t easy for you to come, but thank you! It means so much to have you here, especially since my mom couldn’t make it. We’re going downtown to celebrate. Come along, won’t you, please?”

Angela’s mother was a nurse in Shreveport. Her rare days off were spent caring for her own aging mother, and soaking her swollen feet in a eucalyptus bath.

“Yes, Vic, you should come,” Bernie said. “We are going to a place called the Lion’s Heart. Everyone on the team will be there.”

“Thanks, babe, but the night belongs to Angela and your friends. I’ll find some tamer form of entertainment.”

Bernie Fouchard grabbed my arm as I moved away from the group. “Vic, you cannot go back to your room alone. When you are alone, you – “ She flung her hands up, trying to think in English, but gave it up. “Broies du noir! You must be with other people.”

I could guess the meaning. My smile tightened. “Bernie, don’t pretend to know what I need or not. I’ll be happier alone than in a noisy bar with drunk students.”

She put both hands on my arm. “Vic, I only want you to be well, not to insult you!”

I pulled away, roughly. “You persuaded me to join you in Kansas. I’m glad I came, glad I got to see Angela in triumph, but that’s my limit. Join your friends, have a good time, but not so riotous you can’t be safe on the road tomorrow. Text me when you get back to Evanston.”

She looked at me for a long moment, her expression disconsolate, but she finally joined group the around Angela. I had an impulse to cross over to her to apologize, but they left before I acted.

I’d driven to Lawrence by myself, needing privacy from the high-octane energy of five NCAA athletes, needing privacy most of all from Bernie’s insistent hammering at me: when you fall, when you’re injured, you get back on the ice immédiatement! She’d pressured me into coming down to watch Angela, which was probably a good thing, but she couldn’t stop at one good thing. She relied on me as an example of women’s strength; she needed me to be who I was last September, not who I’d become since Peter’s and my Incident.

Peter Sanson was an archeologist and director of a famed institute at the University of Chicago. He was my lover, and I was in love with him, which had not happened to me in many years. This made the Incident a harder to overcome.

Taylor Constance had been one of his second-year students. They disappeared the week the fall term began. Taylor’s parents were frantic and vocal; they were threatening to sue the university for dereliction of fiduciary responsibility. They were threatening Peter in more ominous language. Taylor was a trans femme. They’d had been on a month-long dig with Peter and five other students in August. The parents were claiming Peter had coerced their son into a sex change to fulfill his sexual fantasies.

It was a sickening scenario. When the police came up empty, I agreed to look. Sadly enough, Taylor had been easy to find. They were sheltering with other runaways in an Uptown firetrap. Taylor pleaded with me to keep the location secret; they were frightened of their parents, who’d reacted violently when they came out after the August dig.

I’d promised, but Peter felt he needed to let the school and the parents know that Taylor was safe but needed time away from both. The parents were furious with me and with the University, which in turn pressured both Peter and me to reveal the address. When we wouldn’t, the parents hired another detective who easily followed the same trail as me. This second investigator ignored Taylor’s plea for safety.

The next day I got a terrified text from the student. Their father had shown up, with a gun. By the time an ambulance arrived, father and child were both dead.

Afterward, Peter suffered in every way. One of the bullets had winged him. He needed multiple surgeries to recover from damage to his shoulder, and the pain was unrelenting.

He was also awash in guilt. Even though I’d told him the student was afraid of their parents, he’d felt he had to let them know I’d found their child. He had a high sense of responsibility to his students; he’d let Taylor down badly. The University didn’t make his life easier. Their lawyers deposed him along with everyone else on the August dig to try to prove Peter had never touched Taylor.

He knew he shouldn’t blame me, but he did. If I hadn’t been a detective, skilled at finding the hidden, he would have left matters to the University. He could have kept himself three removes from the carnage.

I knew I needed to cut him slack, but I’d been the one who stayed to comfort the other runaways in the apartment. I was the one who answered hours of cop questions at Area 2, while I still had bits of bone and brain on my clothes. I was also the one who spent hours on the phone with the dead student’s mother. My own nerves were sheered to the root. I’d hung up on her, and ignored the University’s demands that I make myself endlessly available to her and their own lawyers.

Peter and I wore each other out. We fought, made up, fought again. Peter had always been a steady person, not prone to furies. If we argued, he could almost maddeningly see my side as well as his own. Now it horrified him to see how easily he gave way to anger.

Finally, exhausted by his demons, he decamped to Malaga, Spain, where he was helping excavate a three-thousand-year-old Phoenician settlement on the shores of the Mediterranean. It was a relief for both of us when I dropped him off at O’Hare shortly before Christmas.

It was after he left that the nightmares began. Sometimes, like tonight, I’d re-enact the moment of Taylor’s murder. Other times I’d have dreams about my mother. Gabriella had died of ovarian cancer when I was in my teens. I was an only child, born after numerous miscarriages. She was fierce in her love for me, but she pushed me also to be independent, to stand up for myself, not to settle for second best. Her loss left a hole which no other love every completely filled.

Gabriella had been an immigrant in a neighborhood with many immigrants, but she’d also been a Jew in a neighborhood without them. The physical battles I’d fought on South Chicago’s playgrounds, to defend her from the insults the local kids liked to chant, distressed both her and my father. Now, in my current nightmares, she was under attack and I was helpless to protect her.

After Taylor’s murder, I started second-guessing my work decisions, forgot important meetings, left invoices unsent. I began retreating from my friends, taking long runs up the lakefront with the dogs, even avoiding my elderly downstairs neighbor. He was a thousand percent in my court, but his constant fulminations against Peter wore on me. (I thought he was better than those losers you usually bring around, but he’s just as bad as that Murray Ryerson, only thinking of hisself.)

It was Bernie Fouchard who forced open a crack in my shell, or rather, Bernie’s mother Arlette. Bernie herself had driven me to fury, with her badgering me on “getting back on the ice after a bad fall”.

“People depend on you. Everyone is hurting in their lives, not only you, but only you can help people who are in trouble.”

“I’m not a superhero and I’m not a robot. Trauma shatters me the way it does everyone. So take your platitudes and your naivetée back to the hockey arena.”

She looked shocked and hurt, but she mercifully shut up and disappeared. In January, though, her mother flew to Chicago with the Canadiens. Her husband had been my cousin Boom Boom’s closest friend when the two of them played for the Blackhawks. Boom Boom was Bernie’s godfather, and when he died, he more or less left the godparenting to me.

Arlette Fouchard pushed past me into my apartment. “Bernardine has been telling me your troubles.”

“Bernie thinks I’m made out titanium, not flesh and bone. She wants me to be something non-human. She and everyone else.” Clients, friends, strangers who contacted me online, either wanting to know how to protect their trans children, or vilifying me for brain-washing a boy into thinking he was a girl, using language whose ferocity and obscenities was terrifying.

“Bernardine is not subtle or tactful,” Arlette said, “but she understands you better than you are able to believe.”

She moved into my kitchen and began washing the dishes I’d let stack up on the table and in the sink. I watched in irritation, but finally dug a clean towel from a drawer and dried the plates and put them away.

“Victoria, it’s true that people depend on you, and that is a burden for you right now,” she said when the last pot was scrubbed shiny. “I’m not here to persuade you otherwise. You witnessed something beyond bearing, a man murdering his own child. It is – is – accablant – something that can make the strongest person deranged.

“I’m here to speak to you. Not for your clients or your friends, but concerning what you need for your own nurture. If you don’t have money, you need to work, ne c’est pas? But if detecting work no longer nourishes you, then find new work. You need to stay in motion, though, unless you wish to become an opera heroine, some Juliette or Aida, locked in a tomb and dying out of martyrdom.”

With the dishes done, she made tea, which I normally drink only when I’m sick. But I was sick, sick of myself, of the vileness and violence that surrounded me.

We took tea into my living room and sat on the couch, not speaking much. At length, she said, “Victoria, I only ask this of you: to be less harsh. With yourself, bien sûr, but with others as well. Most of us have been spared the horrors you saw, but these times are hard for everyone. The insults against you on Twitter, they are dreadful, but most people mean well, including my daughter. If she is maladroite, it is not out of malice. We all have seen too much of death, too much of anger from the strain of this Covid, from the strain of war and other violences, from the hastening of the death we all must face. Try not to be so severe.”

She waited a moment for my response, but I couldn’t give her one. She went into the kitchen again and put together an omelet which she brought out to me in the living room. She left when I started eating. I took the dirty dishes back to the kitchen. It seemed wrong to put them in the scrubbed and shining sink, so I washed them.

The next day I began picking up the pieces of my practice. I still felt fragile, as if I were an uncooked egg whose shell might shatter at any moment, but Arlette was right: staying in motion created a rhythm that was in itself healing. I put to one side the question of whether I wished to continue to be an investigator and returned to work.

In February, when Bernie urged me to witness Angela’s moment of glory, I was still feeling rocky, but I’d regained enough balance that I’d felt able to join her in Kansas.