Pay Dirt Excerpt

Pay Dirt Excerpt


Beware of the Phog

Pay Heed, All Who Enter, Beware of the Phog.

The banner hung from the rafters at the fieldhouse, above the jerseys of Kansas basketball greats. According to the program, a famous men’s coach had been named Phog Allen; legend had it that his ghost made visiting teams keel over in fright. Tonight he was haunting half-heartedly. The Kansas women led at halftime, but the game seesawed, with Northwestern pulling away in the final minutes.

When Angela Creedy broke the 3000-point barrier, I was on my feet with the rest of the visiting fans, shouting loudly enough to clear any phog out of the building.

Angela had joined an elite group of some dozen women who’d passed that marker in the past fifty years. ESPN understood the importance. They’d sent a crew to cover the game, which was great, except the arena was only about a third full. However, those seats held dozens of young girls who were yelling their lungs out for their home team. There were even a number of boys in the crowd.

The kids’ ardor was one of the few balms my spirit was feeling these days.

When the game ended, I joined Bernie Fouchard outside the visitors’ locker room, waiting to congratulate Angela. The livestream from inside the locker room was projected onto a big TV monitor overhead. We watched reporters pepper Angela with the usual inane questions – What did it feel like when you sank that rebound? It looked like Corrie Lipkin was feeding you the ball to help you score. Had the team planned that, to get you to 3000? Angela was poised, insisting her success was a group success, and handing off questions to her teammates to make it clear she was a team player.

The ten-year-olds were hovering around the locker room with us, their shrieks and laughter drowning much of the sound on the TV. The girls were wearing Kansas hoodies, but they wanted Angela’s autograph. When the team finally came out, one of the coaches saw the kids and made an opening for them around Angela. She squatted to bring bring her head to their level. She signed their programs and chatted to them about their own sports play. When their parents took them away, she found me and gave me a hug.

“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. So will all us roomies.”

Bernie and Angela shared a ricketty Victorian house in suburban Evanston with three other women, all student athletes at Northwestern University.

“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 and sulk all night. Come with us. You need to be with other people.”

“Sulk all night? Bernie, you’re crossing a few lines here. I never enjoyed noisy bars and drunken adolescents, even when I was your age. They have even less appeal now.”

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 admit I’m glad I came, glad I got to see Angela in triumph. Now 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 scowled, but didn’t say anything else, just turned on her heel to rejoin the group around Angela. I had an impulse to cross over to her to apologize, but Bernie and Angela and their friends poured out of the fieldhouse before I acted.

Too often these days I was reverting to the angry state I’d inhabited after my mother’s death, when I’d pushed my father’s patience to the limit and even risked my own basketball scholarship at the University of Chicago.

It was a different death that had triggered my current mood. At the request of my lover, an archeologist at the University of Chicago’s fabled Oriental Institute, I’d searched for one of his students who’d gone missing last fall. The parents were frantic and vocal, threatening to sue the University for dereliction of fiduciary responsibility.

I’d found the student, a trans femme named Taylor, sheltering with other runaways in an Uptown dump. Taylor was nineteen, scared of their parents who’d reacted violently when they came out over the summer break. Taylor begged me not to reveal their location.

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 a different detective. This second investigator ignored Taylor’s plea for safety.

The next day I got a terrified text from Taylor – their father had shown up, with a gun. Peter and I arrived while smoke from the first shot hung thick in the room. Taylor lay bleeding on the floor. I ran to them, ignoring the father’s screams of abuse. He shot Peter and turned the gun on himself. By the time an ambulance arrived, Taylor was dead.

Afterward, Peter suffered in every way. The father’s bullet had winged him and he was in horrible pain. He needed multiple surgeries to recover from damage to his shoulder. He was 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. The sheer horror of the violence, the blood, the stench shattered him.

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. They would have turned to a stranger, or better still, the police. 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. She was creating a narrative where the University and Peter had pushed her son into thinking he was a woman. My own nerves were sheered to the root. I’d hung up on her, which made her think she should sue the University.

Peter and I wore each other out. We fought, made up, fought again. Our misery was compounded by his sister Shari. She was ten years older than Peter, and she’d essentially raised him when their mother descended into mental illness. Shari thought I was a destructive force in his life. She arrived from Philadelphia, determined to nurse him back to health without my assistance.

Finally, weary of both Shari and me, he decamped to Malaga, Spain, where he was excavating 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 Thanksgiving.

It was after he left that the nightmares began. I would wake in the night from dreams where angry mobs surrounded me, mocking me and jabbing me with broken bottles. I was trying to reach my mother, but she was always either already dead, lying in a ditch, or gasping for air in a hospital bed where my father and I couldn’treach her.

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. After retiring, Pierre Fouchard had become a Canadiens talent scout.

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.  The language was terrifying in its ferocity.

“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.

In February, Bernie told me of Angela’s impending milestone. “Vic, I know I must not badger you, but you love Angela, and it would be good for her to have you cheering.”

I hadn’t seen Angela since before the massacre, and Bernie was right. I did love her. I agreed to go, but on my own, not in the car Bernie and her friends were driving. Angela was traveling with the team, but the three other women she and Bernie lived with were all riding down together.

I drove down by myself, finding a kind of calm in the monotony of the flat farmland, the thrum of tires on the roadway. I met Bernie and her friends for a meal before the game; Angela was eating with the team. Her roommates rode with me to the fieldhouse. Now, game over, the young women’s exuberation spinning into giddiness, I was glad to leave them to their celebration. It was eight in Kansas, three in the morning in Spain. Not a time to try Peter. A time to go to an adult bar for a whisky and then to bed.