Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

It Occurs to Me that I am America

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

Lotty Herschel is in prison in my short story, “Safety First.” This story is one of many original stories and pieces of art created for the anthology It Occurs to Me that I am America. All royalties from the sale of this book will go to the ACLU as they fight for our Constitutional rights. Simon & Schuster, the publishers are making an additional donation of 10 % of the hardcover price on all copies sold before midnight, January 15. It’s a great anthology, with contributions from Mary Higgins Clark, Louise Erdrich, and Alice Walker, among many others.

Here’s an excerpt from my story. Will Lotty make it out of prison? Where’s VI Warshawski? Buy It Occurs to Me that I am America and learn the whole story. Or look at Art Spiegelman’s graphic short story, or Stephen Carter’s work, or any of the dozens of other fascinating contributions.

Safety First, by Sara Paretsky

She guessed that cameras, or at least microphones, were hidden in the cell. Possibly in the showers, the cafeteria, even the attorneys’ meeting rooms. From the moment of her arrest until the day of the trial, she said nothing inside the prison, except immediately after her arrest, and that was only to repeat a demand for a phone call. Finally on the fifth day, when she’d been kept sleepless and could no longer be sure of time, a guard handed her a cell phone and told her she had thirty seconds, and if she didn’t know the number, they weren’t a phone directory, so tough luck.

Once she’d made the call, she became mute. She didn’t speak to the assistant attorneys for the Northern District of Illinois sent to interrogate her, nor to the guards who summoned her for roll-call four times a day, or tried to chat with her during the exercise period. Because she was a high-risk prisoner, she was kept segregated from the general population. A guard was always with her, and always tried to get her to speak.

The other women yelled at her across the wire fence that separated her from them during recreation, not rude, just curious: “Why are you here, Grandma? You kill your old man? You hold up a bank?”

One day the guards brought a woman into her cell, a prisoner with an advanced pregnancy. “You’re a baby doctor, right? This woman is bleeding, she says she’s in pain, says she needs to go to the hospital. You can examine her, see if she’s telling the truth or casting shade.”

A pregnant woman, bleeding, that wasn’t so rare, could mean anything, but brought to her cell, not to the infirmary? That could mean an invitation to a charge of abuse, malpractice. She stared at the pregnant woman’s face, saw fear in her face and something less appetizing, something like greed, or maybe unwholesome anticipation. She sat cross-legged on her bunk, closed her eyes, hands clasped in her lap.

The guard smacked her face, hard enough to knock her backward. “You think you’re better than her, you’re too good to touch her? Didn’t you swear an oath to take care of sick people when they gave you your telescope?”

In the beginning, she had corrected such ludicrous mistakes in her head. Now, she carefully withdrew herself from even a mental engagement: arguing a point in your head meant you were tempted to argue you it out loud.

Chiara’s Third Anniversary

Tuesday, October 31st, 2017

It was three years ago today that Chiara came into our lives, courtesy of Christina Yohe in Missouri. In May, we had lost our beautiful girl, Callie, to a bone tumor that pressed into her brain, and I was not ready for another dog. However, my husband, who was 91 at the time, was  overwhelmed with grief for Callie. He would spend hours every day weeping over her photographs and finally, after months of this, with no amelioration, I realized the only cure was a new dog. I wanted a Golden, as all my dogs have been Goldens, and I wanted a house-trained adult. And so we got Chiara. I resisted her at first, and I wasn’t the best mom I could have been, but for all of that, we began to bond and became close friends. These days, my happiest times are walking the lakefront or through the woods with Chiara; I couldn’t live without her. Courtenay took to her instantly:

Courtenay and Chiara on the road home from Missouri

Chiara doesn’t play with toys or retrieve, but she does like to swim. Her first encounter with the Big Lake freaked her — it took about 9 months for her to realize that water and Goldens go together, kind of like Goldens and liver treats.

Chiara at Oak St Beach, March 2015

She’s a very mellow girl, very laid back, and isn’t afraid of anything. She’s nervous around the new, but she keeps approaching it until she’s mastered it. The Westy next door tries to tease her into playing but Chiara prefers to sleep.

Chiara is enchanted by candles at her first Chanukah

She was awarded her Doctor of Furosophy degree in May 2015

Chiara gets her Doctor of Furosophy degree

After Sara’s final swim for 2017 – 49 degrees is too cold for me

Doug Shaeffer, who’s a dog whisperer, took this picture of his boy Copper with me and Chiara after we’d been swimming one hot August morning.

With our buddy Copper at Lake Michigan

With her two buddies, Giga, the Westy, and Dante, the giant Schnauz

We’re in my kitchen here, everyone trying to make sure she or he doesn’t get left out of snack-time

Chiara in bed with Courtenay

Chiara feels responsible for Courtenay and stays close to him when she’s in the house. The two are late risers. I’m up by six or seven but they sleep until 9 or 10, which makes it hard to get that first walk in and get to work and and and. After our walks, she races instantly to his side. On the rare occasions when he’s out (these days he doesn’t like to leave the house unless he has to), she lies by the front door until he comes home.

This next picture is my favorite: twice a week Rogan Birnie comes to help Courtenay exercise. I figure this is guy time and leave them alone, but one Monday I was in the basement and looked over to see this sight. Rogan told me Chiara so needs to be next to Courtenay, she even tries to get on the treadmill with him.

Chiara doing hamstring stretches with Courtenay

She and I are taking agility lessons together and one of these days I will figure out how to upload a video of her going through a tunnel and other amazing feats.

Watch VI in Action. See her with Sal. See — VI the Video!

Monday, March 13th, 2017

If you’ve read  the VI Warshawski books or stories, you know she travels the city up and down. She started when she was a child, performing hair-raising escapades with her cousin Boom-Boom, and she’s still racing around Chicago today. Now, with this video, created for Sara by three young cineastes at the University of Chicago, you can follow her from Wrigley Field to the Golden Glow. Catch a Hitchcock view of Sara in the last frame.

VI Warshawski Book Trailer from Sara Paretsky on Vimeo. Created by Alison Titus, Anna Gregg and Grace McLeod

Fallout – Chapter 1

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

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


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?


Sunday, January 29th, 2017

My grandmother was a young teenager  in 1911 when she sailed, alone, past the Statue of Liberty into New York harbor. She was fleeing her homeland at her mother’s insistence: her father had been murdered in his bed, in front of his family, by an angry mob — murdering Jews was a frequent public sport in eastern Europe, as lynching African-Americans was in the southern U.S. My grandmother’s mother feared for my grandmother’s safety: she was the oldest child, she was in the public eye because she was a Jew attending the local Christian girls school.

My granny made her long slow way from Vilna in Lithuania to Hamburg, where she found passage, steerage, in a ship bound for New York. And when she sailed past the Statue, she knew she was safe, that whatever trials lay ahead, no one would try to murder her for her religion.

The obscenity perpetrated on January 28 by the current U.S. regime puts the lie to my granny’s sense of security. This sense had already been challenged in the 1930’s, when the U.S. denied entry to her mother and sisters: they were murdered, down to the smallest infant. On January 28, her refuge was completely dismantled.

The current White House incumbent, having no sense either of law or history, has separated families of people whose lives were in danger in their home countries. He has made a travesty of American ideals of justice and liberty. I spent a good part of this morning weeping for the murder of my country’s ideals, but it is afternoon and I am trying to act.

It is a hard and lengthy process to get a green card – from 18 months to decades – and once obtained, it must be renewed on a regular basis. Throughout the process the applicant does not know the status of the application until completion. Although you need not have been here for any specific number of years to apply for a green card, the card is “conditional” for 2 years. (You must be here for at least 5 years before applying for citizenship.) To apply, you must:

  • Be in the U.S. legally, either on a student visa or a work visa;
  • Have a sponsor;
  • Be vetted by Immigration and Customs in a thorough security check;
  • Undergo blood and medical exams, interviews and language proficiency tests (even when English is the applicant’s first language);

If you are here illegally, either because you outstayed your tourist visa, or because you came in undocumented, obtaining a green card may prove difficult unless:

  • You are the immediate relative of a US citizen (parent, spouse or minor);
  • You married a US citizen, having come on a tourist visa or visa waiver and (although specifically intending to get married and stay on such a visa would be considered fraudulent and make you ineligible);
  • As an overstay, you may qualify if “grandfathered” under a provision of the law known as INA section 245(i), which allows individuals “out of status” to pay a penalty fee and proceed with the application.

For refugee status, the bar is even higher.

Yet the regime is turning away green cardholders and refugees, causing pain, chaos and great fear.

The upshot is likely to be an increase in terrorism, not a reduction, and this is quite likely what the regime wants — the more fear they can sow in the U.S., the more the citizens will acquiesce in their extreme actions.

In the meantime, while the Statue and I and millions like me weep, Canada is welcoming all U.S. green cardholders. I am grateful to the Canadians, but I am deeply ashamed.

Here at home, the ACLU and the American Immigration Lawyers Association stepped up to provide pro bono legal support to people who had been detained by Homeland Security at airports around the country. If  you have any money to give, please provide support to these organizations as they try to keep us a country of laws and justice.


(With thanks for their input and clarifications on the green card process to:  Judy Resnick, Erin Mitchell, Pamela Potter, Cajsa C. Baldini, Sylvia Titgemeyer, Aimee Hix, DavidLori Flemming and Karyn Rotker. )


Important note: The information contained on this post does not constitute legal advice or legal opinion. It is based on the best information I have but I am not a lawyer; please contact an attorney if you require legal advice on immigration, green card, refugee, asylum or any other immigration problem.

Grant Park, Chicago, January 21, 2017

Sunday, January 22nd, 2017

Grant Park, Looking West Jan 21 2017

21 January 2017
Sara Paretsky – Grant Park

I am almost 70. I have been an activist for Civil Rights and Reproductive Rights since I was 19, and there are days when I am weary with the struggle, but not today, not here, with 250,000 other Americans ready to work together to protect our rights.

I was twenty-five when the Supreme Court decided Roe v Wade. I can still remember the exhilaration of seeing that headline in the old Chicago Daily News.
For a brief, glorious moment, we had forced open a window, allowing us to breathe in freedom: we were no longer children, or chattel animals. Our sexuality was no longer controlled by husbands, fathers, churches, governments: we could decide whether and when to get pregnant. We could decide whether to carry a pregnancy to term.

Sara Paretsky speaking Jan 21 2017

Almost instantly furious hands began pushing that window shut. As had happened nine years earlier with the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, those who feared what free African-Americans looked like, those who feared free women, fought back.
The culmination of the war against human rights was celebrated yesterday in our nation’s capital.

I stand here today with wildly mixed feelings. It’s energizing to see so many people, especially so many young people, gathering to take up the fight for freedom.

One of 250000 strong January 21 2017

At the same time, I am filled with a rage so large that ordinary words don’t express it. Not because of the incoming groper-in-chief –although I fear and despise him, he doesn’t rouse my fury.
My rage comes from standing here as part of a minority. 58 percent of European-Americans – 53 percent of women, 62 percent of men — voted to put this new government in place. I am with the 42 percent who voted for human rights.
Yes, there was Comey, and Putin,and Pizzagate, but they didn’t fool African-American (92 percent of voters( or Hispanic (66) or Jewish (77) voters.
58 percent of European Americans voted to defund Planned Parenthood and to privatize Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. 58 percent want everyone to drink the water that has flowed from Flint, Michigan’s taps. 58 percent want to deport Mexicans and to bar Muslims from entering our country. 58 percent voted to destabilize the Atlantic alliance, and to re-accelerate the arms race.
58 percent want all women and African-American men to retreat from personhood, back to the status of children or chattel animals.

For over four decades, those of us passionate about our freedoms have been trying to waken our friends and neighbors to the way state, local and national politicians were threatening our rights. Our words and pleas went unheeded. And the result is a Congress, a president, and many state governments bent on destroying the planet and reversing voting rights, civil rights, reproductive rights.

Sara with women’s bookstore creators Ann Christophersen and Barb Wieser

Now it is up to us, those of us gathered here in Chicago, those gathered in cities all over the planet, to go once more into battle for our freedoms.
We here are passionate about our Constitution. Our Constitution exists “to promote the general welfare.” Not the welfare of the one percent, but every person’s welfare. Our Constitution exists “to secure the blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
So let us go forth from this park, and from parks all across the nation, to fight again for this country and Constitution that we love. Let us secure the blessings of Liberty for ourselves and our posterity. In the words of the two people who will always be my presidents: We are Stronger Together, and YES, WE CAN!!

This Constitution Stays Alive

Monday, November 28th, 2016

Trump “is going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews,” reads the handwritten letters delivered to California mosques. “You Muslims would be wise to pack your bags and get out of Dodge.”

I grew up under the weight of the Holocaust. I was born in 1947 and given the names of the two great-grandmothers who had been murdered, one in Vilna, the other in Slonim, in today’s Belarus. While a handful of relatives had left Eastern Europe before the war, my entire family, down to the smallest infant, was slaughtered by the efficient killing machines of the Germans and their eager supporters in the conquered lands. I grew up in fear, knowing that my small life was a glass bauble that could be whimsically shattered by a government or a thug while the surrounding population shrugged and went about their business.

Today’s anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant threats, and the barbaric rhetoric of the incoming president’s campaign, make me physically ill. I have stopped sleeping since the election as I watch our most sacred institutions under assault. Once the inauguration is complete, the bigger hounds of hatred will be unloosed.

In Germany in the 1920’s, roving bands of thugs — veterans of WWI, other men dispossessed from land and jobs — assaulted people in their homes, without much reprisal, since many systems of justice had broken down. These roving bands became Hitler’s original Brown Shirts.

When I see the murder of black musician Will Sims by a roving band of white supremacists, or the white man in Charleston, W. Virginia, who murdered a black teen and said, “I took another piece of trash off the streets,” I see the seeds of Brown Shirts. The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 701 acts of hate against people of color, women, Muslims and LGBTQ’s in the first week after the election. (In contrast they found about 24 acts of hatred against supporters of the incoming regime.)

I will not shrug my shoulders and look the other way while our Constitution and our values are undermined by mobs and hatred.  I’ve written my senators and the director of the FBI, demanding that white supremacists be treated as terrorists and tracked and arrested before they terrorize the entire country. I am upping my support for the ACLU and for Planned Parenthood, whose work in caring for the poorest women in our country is under direct threat. With a number of friends, I’ve started a Facebook page, Sara Paretsky and Friends Act for Justice. It will serve as one of the growing number of resources that detail suggested acts for justice, along with resources for how to combat the rising tide of hate and violence.

Planned Parenthood’s slogan is, “These doors stay open.” Mine is, “This Constitution stays alive.”bill_of_rights_pg1of1_ac


Friday, July 22nd, 2016

I’m a member of subgroup, one that has been vilified by the standard bearers of western civilization for almost 2000 years. Growing up under the shadow of World War II and the destruction of almost half of my subgroup I was hyper-sensitive to the stereotypes with which the larger community wanted to define us: we controlled the world’s finances, we destroyed world economies on a whim, our women had  unusual and hypnotic sexual powers, we had murdered Christ and deserved calumny if not murder in return. In our Sunday School class, we learned about the many contributions to medicine, science, philosophy and the the arts which members of our subgroup had made; we cheered Sandy Koufax, for refusing to pitch in the World Series on one of our important holidays.

On July 19, I was out with an African-American friend when Rep. Steve King of Iowa made his vile and ill-judged remarks claiming that only caucasian Christians had made significant contributions to civilization. I was ashamed, to be in my white skin while she heard yet one more insult directed at her subgroup. My first impulse was to go back to my Sunday school practice, and detail the many contributions that African-Americans and Arabs, and Asians had made (I even wanted to sneer at Mr. King: without Arab contributions to civilization he wouldn’t know he’s a zero) but that is not only crude and childish, it’s irrelevant.

No adding up of contributions by others will ever persuade people like Mr. King that we all have played a role in keeping our great planet rolling on its axis. And it’s beside the point. The point is, we need to treat each other with respect. There are 7 billion of us living cheek by jowl, with access to weapons of mass destruction, with the ability to enrich each other’s lives or destroy them.

Dr. King said,

Instead of diminishing evil, [violence] multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar,
but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater,
but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence,
adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness:
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

These aren’t platitudes, hugs, or prayers. These are world-changing ideas. I want to live in that world, not the one of hatred and sneers. So I retract my sneer about the zero. I will try to treat Rep. King with the respect that I expect him to use toward every American, indeed, toward every person on this planet. Not an easy task. Working on it.

Life and Death and Crime Novels

Friday, February 19th, 2016

Like all crime writers, I explore death daily, in what I read and what I write. It’s a game, of course. Some of my brother/sister writers love every graphic detail of dismemberment. I’m too squeamish for that, but still, VI Warshawski has just encountered a dead body in a rural kitchen, where there’s plenty of scope for gruesome description.

In real life, I’ve been with two people as they died, my father and my closest friend in college; she died of a difficult auto-immune disease when we were 25. The difference between the country of the living and the country of the dead is so complete that when you’ve been spending time in the country of the dead you don’t easily return to the living.

I almost lost my husband last week. He had pneumonia, he’s 92, and his trajectory downhill was steep and swift. Drugs brought him back. He’s still weak but definitely on the mend. The 48 hours where I thought I was losing him still are tearing me apart; I knew what I was witnessing, I’d been in its presence twice before.

I think the game we writers play, toying with death, is a shield. I don’t feel guilt or shame or a sense that I should choose a different subject.  But my recent reminder of the end that awaits us all reaffirms my decision not to harrow my readers. Novels like mine should offer a place of refuge, not a place of devastation. This is why no one important in my books will ever die. Loss in real life is too painful; I’m not going to add to my woes or those of my readers by killing Lotty Herschel or Mr. Contreras, Peppy or Mitch. Certainly not the girl detective herself.

Dirty Deeds in the Cornfield

Tuesday, December 15th, 2015

Dead End


The sun was setting when Peppy and I drove east of town, looking for Doris McKinnon’s farm. I’d spent a tense two hours at the hospital, but had finally received a reassuring report on Ms. Albritten—Nell, I’d learned when I went through her wallet looking for her Medicare card.

I’d seen Albritten into the emergency room, and made sure she was getting priority attention, before checking in at the front desk. The ambulance driver was standing there; t turned out he was the same person who’d come for Sonia Kiel twelve hours earlier—he was working double shifts this week.

“Are you with some kind of Guardian Angel organization?” he demanded with heavy humor. “You go through the streets of Lawrence looking for ladies who’ve keeled over?”

“Hard to know what you would do without me,” I said, trying to get into the spirit of the exchange.

Actually, I was tense. Say a little scared. I was in a strange town with a woman who had a bitter history with the place. If something I’d said or done pushed her over the brink, I would be in a lonely spot.

Albritten had never lost consciousness. She’d thrust her pocketbook and phone at me as she was wheeled past, making the crew stop to watch me lock the door before she let them put her in the ambulance.

“Better you than them. At least I’ll know who stole my money if it disappears,” she said to me..

I followed the ambulance to the hospital. While I was filling out forms for them, I went into Albritten’s phone. Her son’s number was fortunately one of seven numbers in her favorites screen. It unnerved me when he answered the call with, “Yes, Mama?” but of course her name had shown up on his own phone.

He lived in Atlanta, he said, when we’d sorted out who I was and why I was calling. He demanded to speak with the doctors. I explained who he was to the people at the intake desk. After some back-and-forthing with the emergency room team, the intake head told Todd the doctor would call him soon, but right now was taking care of his mother and couldn’t be interrupted.

“Just who are you, though, and what were you doing with Mother?” he said, when they’d given me back the phone.

“Do you remember Emerald Ferring?” I didn’t say I was a detective, just that I had come from Chicago looking for her, and a neighbor had directed me to Ms. Albritten.

“She was in the middle of telling me about the farm where the Ferrings moved back in 1951 when she suddenly collapsed.”

“She’s never had heart trouble,” he said. “Nothing wrong with her health. What else went on? Was she agitated? Did you try to get her to do something she didn’t want, like sign over the title to the house? It’s in my name, so you’d be out of luck.”

“No, Mr. Albritten.” My lips were stiff: this was the kind of accusation I’d been afraid of. And it’s a sadly common scam these days, vermin preying on the elderly. “When you talk to the doctors, see if they’ll let you speak to her.”

When he’d finished worrying and accusing and decided he needed to book his flight to Kansas City, I called Lotty Herschel in Chicago. It was mid-afternoon, when she’s usually at her busiest, but she let her clinic nurse put me through to her. I’d texted her a few times from the road, but we hadn’t actually spoken since I left Chicago on Tuesday.

“You did the right thing, Victoria,” she said. “Get the doctor’s name; I’ll call him later this afternoon. Try not to worry; you couldn’t do more than what you’ve done.”

I sat in the waiting area, trying not to worry. I tried to occupy my mind with reports for clients in Chicago, but the city, and my life there, seemed as though they belonged to some movie I’d watched years ago. I couldn’t remember the details or why they should matter to me.

I had several urgent texts from Troy Hempel. Did you find Ms. Emerald? What did the woman you were speaking to tell you?

She’s in the hospital; I’ll let you know if she’s able to tell me anything. I leaned back in the uncomfortable chair and tried to concentrate on my breathing and not on the yammer of the television. It seems as though one of the torments of modern medicine, besides incomprehensible bills, endless waits on phones and waiting rooms designed to serve as better, and outrageous drug prices, is the constant blare of a television in every room.

“Have her parents been to see her?” I asked.

There had been no visitors, although a man had called around noon to check on her; one of her brothers, the nurse thought he’d said.

At length one of the interns came out to give me good news about Ms. Albritten: all her cardiac signs were stable. They would keep her for twenty-four hours to monitor her, but she should be fine. Yes, I could go back for five minutes to give her her phone and handbag in person.

She was dozing: even the strongest-hearted old woman gets worn out by an ambulance ride and an hour of poking and x-raying. They’d given her some kind of sedative, so that when I gently touched her arm she stared at me with puzzled eyes.

I reminded her that we’d been speaking about Emerald Ferring, that I was in from Chicago looking for Ferring.

Albritten tried to struggle upright. I pressed the buttons on the side, but a nurse who’d been hovering outside the cubicle came in.

“No disturbance for you, Ms. Albritten.”

“One thing,” Albritten said through narcotic-thickened lips. “What I say ‘bout Emral’?”

“That she and Lucinda had moved out to Doris McKinnon’s farm east of town.”

“I say ‘bout McKi—Kin?”

“No more,” the nurse said, taking me by the arm.

“Need know,” Albritten insisted.

“You said she was a white woman who rented to black students. You said you hadn’t seen her for years. And then you collapsed.”

Albritten relaxed into the bed and shut her eyes. “S’right. Not see. Long time.”

The nurse nodded significantly toward the exit. I bent to assure Albritten that her son would be arriving the next day, and a corner of her mouth twitched into a smile.

Before leaving the hospital, I made my way to the intensive care unit. I identified myself to the charge nurse as the detective responsible for getting Sonia Kiel and Naomi Wissenhurst to the ER last night.

“Oh, yes, Detective. We were able to release Naomi: she needs medical attention but can get that at home: she’s taking a leave of absence from the university for the rest of the term. Sonia is still unresponsive, but of course she was in worse shape before she took the drugs and at least she is able to breathe on her own. The next twenty-four hours will be important.”

“Have Sonia’s parents been here?” I asked, curious. “Or anyone from St. Rafe’s?”

“A man phoned this morning; I think he said he was one of her brothers, but you’re the first person who’s actually come here. Would you like to see her?”

She led me into the back, where Sonia seemed like an appendage to the computers surrounding her. Her breathing was slow and shuddery: at the end of each exhalation there was a dreadful pause as if she weren’t sure she should start up again.

They’d bathed her, of course, and put her into a clean gown. Her face was slack, so it wasn’t easy to imagine what she would look like if she were awake and animated, but in repose she seemed to have her father’s square face and dark coloring. Lenore Kiel’s hair was thin and dirty blond, Nathan’s thin and white, but perhaps when he’d been young he’d had the same wiry black curls as his daughter.

Drugs and street life had coarsened Sonia’s skin. She had some old bruises on her arms, but I didn’t think they were track marks, more as if someone had hit her. Someone at St. Rafe’s or someone on the street?

I picked up one of her flaccid hands between my own and knelt to talk to her. “It’s V I Warshawski, Sonia. You called me this morning, to say you’d seen Emerald Ferring. You saw her on Matt Chaleff’s grave, you said. Matt Chaleff.”

I thought she might have twitched when I repeated his name, but it was probably wishful thinking.

“If you wake up, when you wake up, you call and tell me where he’s buried. I want to see Matt’s grave, okay?”

I held her hand a bit longer, massaging it lightly. Her fingers were rough, the nails cracked. An obscure impulse made me brush the curls away from forehead. When had her mother last touched her like that?

The nurse gave me an approving nod as I left. “The LPD should send you over when they need to question a patient; you have a good touch.”

I smiled in embarrassment. “I’ll talk to Sergeant Everard about it.”

I was glad to have Peppy with me as I rode out of town. The people I was meeting, the histories I was learning, were dragging me down. My friends were six hundred miles away. My lover—ex-lover? I still hadn’t heard from Jake—was even further. The countryside was desolate in the November twilight. Whatever farmers do in the fall must take place indoors. If I’d been by myself the desolation might have made me drive straight into the Kansas River.

My iPad showed the McKinnon farm about half a mile south of the highway between Lawrence and Kansas City. Once I left the highway, I was on gravel roads that didn’t have streetlamps. I drove slowly, keeping to the center of the road, headlights up.

At one point, showed up on my tail, a dark SUV, maybe a Buick Enclave. I thought I’d seen it as I got on the highway, but the traffic was heavy enough that I couldn’t be sure. Here on the county roads, we were alone. The hair on the back of neck prickled. Peppy, sensing my unease, stood , growling lightly.

At the crossroads between East Nineteen Hundred and North 2800 roads, the SUV turned south, where a sign pointed to the Kanawaka Missile Silo. I went north, my shoulder muscles relaxing, breathing easing back to normal.

After following North 2800 Road for a quarter of a mile, I came to a turnoff with a mailbox labeled McKinnon. Excellent.

The drive ended in a turning circle about a hundred miles from the road. I pulled up behind an elderly Honda and looked at the house. It was a square building, two stories and an attic, and it wasn’t just dark, but gave off that aura of emptiness you get from an abandoned building. I hadn’t taken the time to search McKinnon before I drove out; maybe she’d died and Nell Albritten hadn’t heard about it.

I got out, releasing Peppy from her leash. The dog tore off into the twilight, after who knows what Kansas animal: I hoped not a skunk. I shone my flash over the ground and the out-buildings—two barns, some sheds.

If Emerald Ferring and August Veriden had come out to see Doris McKinnon, they must have turned back and driven on. This was a complete dead end.

Peppy had raced back from her hunting adventure but had started nosing around the house, snuffling at the foundation. She disappeared again, this time at the back of the house. I called to her, but she started barking and whining.

“Come!” I said in my sharpest voice.

She came partway toward me, a darker shape in the dark night, but barked and whined again and turned back to the house. I followed her, my legs stiff, the tingling on my neck moving down my spine.

The back door was shut but not locked. Peppy can smell ten thousand, or maybe it’s ten million times better than I do, but when I pushed the door open, even my inferior nose picked up what she had noticed from across the field—the sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh, the metallic odor of blood.


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January 2022