Subterranean Press

Skip to Main Content »

 
Shopping Cart (0 item)
My Cart

You have no items in your shopping cart.

You're currently on:

Fiction:Family Affair: A Smokey Dalton Story by Kris Nelscott

I knew the day had gone bad when the white woman in the parking lot started to scream. I turned in the seat of my mud-green Ford Fairlane, and watched as Marvella Walker and Valentina Wilson tried to soothe the white woman. But the closer Marvella got to her, the faster the woman backed away, screaming at the top of her lungs.

We were in a diner parking lot in South Beloit, Illinois, just off the interstate. Valentina had driven the woman and her daughter from Madison, Wisconsin, that morning.

The woman was a small thing, with dirty blond hair and a cast on her right arm. Her clothing was frayed. Her little blond daughter—no more than six—circled the women like a wounded puppy. She occasionally looked at my car as if I was at fault.

Maybe I was.

I’m tall, muscular, and dark. The scar that runs from my eye to almost to my chin makes me look dangerous to everyone—not just to white people.

Usually I can calm people I’ve just met with my manner or by using a soft tone. But in this instance, I hadn’t even gotten out of the car.

The plan was simple: We were supposed to meet Marvella’s cousin, Valentina Wilson, who ran a rape hot line in Madison. The hot line ran along the new Washington D.C. model—women didn’t just call; they got personal support and occasional legal advice if they asked for it.

This woman had been brutally raped and beaten by her husband. Even then, the woman didn’t want to leave the bastard. Then he had gone after their daughter and the woman finally asked for help.

At least, that was what Valentina said.

Marvella waved her hands in a gesture of disgust and walked toward me. She was tall and majestic. With the brown and gold caftan that she wore over thin brown pants, her tight black Afro, and the hoops on her ears, she looked like one of those statues of African princesses she kept all over her house.

She rapped on the car window. “Val says she can make this work.”

She said that with so much sarcasm that her own opinion was clear.

“If she doesn’t make it work soon,” I said, “we could have some kind of incident on our hands.”

People in the nearby diner were peering through the grimy windows. Black and white faces were staring at us, which gave me some comfort, but not a whole lot since there was a gathering of men near the diner’s silver door.

They were probably waiting for me to get out of the car and grab the woman. Then they’d come after me.

I could hold off maybe three of them, but I couldn’t handle the half dozen or so that I could see. They looked like farmers, beefy white men with sun-reddened faces and arms like steel beams.

My heart pounded. I hated being outside of the city—any city. In the city, I could escape pretty much anything, but out here, near the open highway, where the land rose and fell in gentle undulations caused by the nearby Rock River, I felt exposed.

Valentina was gesturing. The white woman had stopped screaming. The little girl had grabbed her mother’s right leg and hung on, not so much, it seemed, for comfort, but to hold her mother steady.

I watched Valentina. She looked nothing like the woman I had met three years ago, about to go to the Grand Nefertiti Ball, a big charity event in Chicago. She had worn a long white gown, just like Marvella and her sister Paulette had, but Valentina came from different stock.

Marvella had looked like I imagined Cleopatra had looked when Julius Caesar first saw her, and Paulette was just as stunning.

But Valentina, tiny and pretty with delicate features, had looked lost in that white dress. The snake bracelets curling up her arms made them look fat, even though they weren’t.

They didn’t look fat now. They were lean and muscular, like the rest of her. That delicate prettiness was gone. What replaced it was an athleticism that hollowed her cheeks and gave her small frame a wiry toughness that no one in his right mind would mess with.

I knew the reason for the change; she had been raped by a policeman who then continued to pursue her after his crime. Even after his murder by one of the city’s largest gangs, she felt she couldn’t stay in Chicago.

I understood that, just like I understood the toughness with which she armored herself. But I also missed the delicate woman in the oversized dress, the one who smiled easily and had a strong sense of the ridiculous.

“You know,” Marvella said, leaning against the driver’s side window, “as much of a fuss as that woman’s putting up, I don’t think we should take her out of here at all.”

I agreed. We were supposed to take her to a charity a group of us had started on the South Side of Chicago. Called Helping Hands, the charity assisted families—mostly women and children—who had no money, no job skills, and no place to go. I found a lot of them squatting in houses that I inspected for Sturdy Investments. Rather than turning them out, I went to Sturdy’s CEO and the daughter of its founder, Laura Hathaway—who, not by coincidence, had an on-again, off-again relationship with me.

Laura agreed that we couldn’t throw children onto the street, so she put up the initial money and got her rich white society friends to put up even more. Without Laura’s society connections, Helping Hands wouldn’t exist.

It wasn’t designed for people from Wisconsin. We had devised it only for Chicagoans, and mostly for those on the South Side. We had a few white families go through our doors over the years, but not many. We only had a few white volunteers. The white face that most of our clients saw—if they saw one at all—was Laura’s, and then only because she liked to periodically drop in on the business and check up on everything herself.

“I mean,” Marvella said, “what happens if she changes her mind again halfway between here and Chicago? If she starts screaming from the back seat of your car, the cops will pull us over in no time.”

I winced. If the woman claimed she was being taken to Chicago against her will, then there were all kinds of laws we could be accused of breaking, not the least of which was kidnapping.

“Tell Valentina this isn’t going to work,” I said.

I’m not going to tell her. She has her heart set on saving that little girl.”

That little girl kept looking at me from the safety of her mother’s thigh. I could see why Valentina wanted to save her. The little girl’s eyes shone with intelligence, not to mention the fact that she was the only calm one in the trio.

Her mother was crying and shaking her head. Valentina was still talking, but it didn’t look like she was going to get anywhere.

“You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved,” I said.

“You tell Val that,” Marvella said.

“Bring her over here and I will,” I said. “Because in no way am I getting near that woman with the diner crowd watching.”

Marvella glanced up at them and frowned. I couldn’t quite tell, but it seemed like more bodies were pressed against the glass around the door. One huge white man was now standing beside his pick-up truck, twirling his key ring on his right index finger.

“Crap,” Marvella said. “I’ll see what I can do.”

She walked back to the women. She put a hand on Valentina’s shoulder and led her, not gently, away from the woman.

Marvella and Valentina talked for a few minutes. Marvella nodded toward the diner.

Valentina looked up for the first time. Her lips thinned. Then she nodded, just once.

She walked back to the woman and her daughter.

Marvella walked back to me and got in the passenger side.

“Let’s go,” she said.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“Not really,” Marvella said. “We need to call Helping Hands and tell them to put a white volunteer at the front desk, not that I think that’s going to work.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because Val’s convinced she can drive the woman to Chicago all by herself,” Marvella said.

I looked at the three of them, still standing in the parking lot. The woman wiped her good hand over her eyes.

“Why would she go with Valentina and not with us?” I asked.

Marvella rolled her eyes. “Valentina has apparently reached honorary white person status. She nearly lost it when seen in the company of her black cousin and the mean-looking black driver. You should have heard the crap that woman spouted about niggers come to kidnap her daughter—”

“I don’t need to hear it,” I said, waving my hand.

“Me either,” Marvella said. “I nearly told the bitch to shove it up her bony little ass, but Val wouldn’t let me. She said she’s just scared and out of her depth and had we forgotten that Madison is 90% white? I’m thinking maybe she forgot or she should have at least told us so we could’ve brought your society girlfriend along to make little miss holier-than-thou over there a lot more comfortable.”

I let the dig at my society girlfriend go by. Marvella and Laura got along, now, after a lot of wrangling and harsh words over the years. This was just Marvella’s way of letting her anger out without aiming it at the woman we had driven an hour and a half to help.

“So let’s just go,” Marvella said. “We’ll pull over somewhere with a pay phone and call Helping Hands, and then our job here is done.”

I hesitated for just a moment. The little girl was still watching us. Valentina turned slightly, waved her hand in a shoo motion, and I nodded.

I started the car, turned the wheel, and pulled out of the parking lot, glancing into my rear view mirror to make sure no pick-up truck followed us.

None did.

After twenty minutes, I let out a breath.

After thirty, I knew we were in the clear.

After we had made the call to Helping Hands, I figured we were done with this job.

Of course, I was wrong.

#

Three months later, Marvella pounded on my apartment door. We lived just across the hall from each other.

“I have a phone call you need to take,” she said.

I yelled to my fourteen-year-old son Jim that I would be right back, then crossed the hall. Even though it was December and the landlord had forgotten to turn on the heat in the hallway, Marvella was barefoot. She wore a towel around her hair, and a brown caftan that she clearly used as a robe.

“Since when am I getting calls at your place?” I asked.

“Since I can’t talk sense into Val,” she said.

I peered at her. I hadn’t heard from Valentina since that day in September when she’d delivered the white woman to Helping Hands. Afterward she had completed her mission, she had taken me, Marvella, and Marvella’s sister Paulette to dinner. She told us about her life in Madison, which sounded a bit bleak to me, and then drove the three hours back so she wouldn’t miss the university extension class that she taught the following morning.

Marvella’s apartment had the same layout as mine, but was decorated much differently. Hers was filled with dark, contemporary furniture, and African art. The sculptures covered every surface, faces carved from mahogany and other dark woods. The sculptures were so life-like they seemed to be staring at me.

The phone hung on the wall in Marvella’s half kitchen. The receiver rested next to the toaster.

“There she is. You tell her our policy.” Marvella waved a hand at the phone. “I have to finish getting dressed.”

She vanished down the hallway and slammed her bedroom door, as if I was the one who had made her angry instead of Valentina.

I picked up the receiver. “Valentina?”

“Smokey?” She was one of the few people who called me by my real name. Most people in Chicago knew me as Bill Grimshaw, a cousin to Franklin Grimshaw, one of the co-founders of Helping Hands. My real name is Smokey Dalton, and I’m from Memphis. A case four years ago put me on the run and brought me here, forcing both me and Jimmy to live under assumed names.

On the night she almost died, Valentina overheard Laura call me Smokey, and she never forgot it. She once told me that Bill didn’t suit me and Smokey did. Since Jimmy, Laura, and Franklin all called me Smokey, I never felt the need to correct Valentina.

“Marvella said I’m supposed to talk sense into you,” I said, “only she won’t tell me what this is about.”

“Linda Krag disappeared,” Valentina said.

The name didn’t ring a bell with me. “Linda Krag?”

“The white woman I took to Helping Hands in September,” Valentina said. “I’m sure you remember.”

“I do now,” I said, and then realizing that sounded a little too harsh, added, “She had that pretty little daughter.”

“Yeah,” Valentina said. “They’ve both been gone a week now.”

“I thought they were in Chicago,” I said.

“They were,” she said.

“And you’re still in Madison?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s why I’m talking to you. No one told me she was missing until they sent my targeted donation back.”

Valentina sent money every month to Helping Hands earmarked only for Linda Krag and her daughter. If the money couldn’t be used for Linda Krag, then Helping Hands was duty-bound to return it. The policy was Laura’s. She believed that everyone who donated money had a right to say how it would be used.

“So you called to find out what was up,” I said.

“And discovered that she had left her apartment a week before. No one will tell me where she went.”

“Did she take her daughter with her?” I asked.

“Of course,” Valentina said. “She won’t go anywhere without Annie.”

I sighed. I knew the arguments Marvella had already made because they were the ones I had to make. Helping Hands followed its name exactly: It provided helping hands. If a client no longer wanted help, we couldn’t force it on her.

Besides, we had rules. The client received her living expenses for the first month. We paid her rent and utilities and gave her a food budget. In return, we asked that she either apply for work or go to school.

If the client refused to do either, we stopped the support. If she couldn’t hold a job, we got her more job training, but if she lost the job because of anger, discipline or drug problem—and the client wouldn’t get help curbing that problem—then we stopped providing assistance.

Linda Krag had been difficult from the start. She almost refused to go into Helping Hands, even though we had found a white volunteer to take her application. Chicago’s South Side, filled with black faces, terrified her. Eventually, Valentina talked her into the building. Once there, she agreed to all Helping Hands’ terms and actually went to classes to get her GED.

But she hated the apartment that she was assigned. Not because it was bad or in a bad neighborhood, but because she and her daughter were the only whites on the block. She claimed to be terrified, and wanted an apartment in a “normal” neighborhood.

Since we knew of no programs to combat innate bigotry, we searched for—and found—her an apartment in a transitional neighborhood near the University of Chicago. She liked that. She had gotten her GED, applied for college, and found a part-time job, one that didn’t tax her still-healing hand. Her daughter went to Head Start half the day.

Last I heard, everyone was happy.

But clients who started as roughly as Linda Krag often didn’t make it through the program. They had too many other problems.

I said all of this, and more to Valentina, and as I spoke, she sighed heavily.

“Has anyone thought about her husband?” Valentina asked when I had finished.

I leaned against the wall. A wave of spicy perfume blew toward me from the bedroom. Marvella was not just getting dressed. She was getting dressed up.

“What about her husband?” I asked.

“Maybe he found her.”

“Or maybe,” I said gently, “she just left.”

“She wouldn’t,” Valentina said. “Her family is dead. She has no friends. That loser isolated her from everyone she knew when he took her to Madison. She wouldn’t know how to start a new life.”

“Actually,” I said, making sure I kept the same tone, “Helping Hands was teaching her how to make a life for herself and her daughter.”

“Exactly,” Valentina said. “I got a postcard from her daughter Annie two weeks ago. She sounded happy. Linda added a sentence thanking me. She wouldn’t just give up. Not now.”

“You spoke to her about this?” I asked.

“No,” Valentina said. “But leaving now just isn’t logical.”

Neither was staying with a man who nearly beat her to death, but I wasn’t going to argue that point with Valentina.

“Val,” I said, “a lot of women do things that aren’t logical.”

I winced as the words came out of my mouth. I should have said “people,” but it was too late to correct myself.

“Women are not illogical creatures,” Valentina snapped.

Marvella had come out of the bedroom. She was wearing an orange dress with a matching orange and red scarf tied around her hair. She had heard the last part of this conversation, and she was grinning now.

She knew the mistake I made.

“I didn’t mean it that way,” I said. “I just meant that people can be irrational.”

“Linda’s not irrational,” Valentina said.

I was already tired of this fight. “You mean the woman who wouldn’t get into the car with me and Marvella because she was afraid of black people? That Linda?”

Valentina made a sound halfway between a sigh and a growl. “Smokey, look. You have to trust me on this. I got a real sense of her. It took her a lot of guts to run away from Duane. It took even more to go to Chicago. But she knew it was right for Annie. Linda wasn’t going to go back to him. Not ever.”

“I didn’t say she would,” I said. “Maybe she thought she could do better on her own.”

“She knew she couldn’t,” Valentina said. “She was terrified of being on her own. That’s why she didn’t get into the car with you. She knew she couldn’t defend herself and Annie, and you—I’m sorry, Smokey—but you look like every white person’s nightmare. I don’t think she’d ever spoken to a black person until she spoke to me. Asking her to go with you and Marvella was one step too many for her. But she did go to Chicago, she did get her GED, she did start over.”

“Yeah.”

I must have sounded as skeptical as I felt because Valentina added, “You have no idea how hard all of that was for her. She wouldn’t be the kind of woman who would do it all over again all on her own. Especially not with Annie.”

I sighed. Marvella crossed her arms and raised her eyebrows, as if asking if I was going to finish soon.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s say I grant you that she wouldn’t run off. What then, in your mind, could have happened?”

Marvella rolled her eyes.

“I think the husband found her,” Valentina said. “I think she’s in trouble, Smokey. Both her and Annie.”

“And this is a gut sense,” I said.

“Stop patronizing me!”

I almost denied that I was, but then I realized that I would have been lying.

“I need to know if you have facts to back up this assumption,” I said.

Valentina didn’t answer for nearly a minute. Finally she said, “No.”

“So,” I said. “It begs the question. How could the husband have found her? Is he particularly bright?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Did you tell anyone where she went?”

“Not even the folks here at the hot line. Only one of the women knew what I was doing, and all she knew was that I was going to take Linda to some of my friends in Chicago.”

“So,” I said, then winced again. I was even sounding patronizing. “Would she have called this man for any reason?”

“I don’t think so,” Valentina said. “No.”

“Then how could he have found her?”

“I don’t know,” Valentina said. “I just want you to check on her. You and Marvella have made it really, really clear that Helping Hands doesn’t track people who vanish. So how about this? How about I hire you to find her, Smokey. Does that work for you? I have a lot of money. I’ll pay your standard rates plus expenses. I can put a check in the mail today.”

I almost told her that it wasn’t necessary, that I would do this one for free. But I was a little annoyed at her stubbornness, and besides, Jimmy was growing so fast that I couldn’t keep him in shoes. My regular work for local black insurance companies and for Sturdy paid the bills, but couldn’t cover the added expenses of a growing teenage boy.

“All right,” I said, and quoted her my rates. “I’m going to need a few things from you, too. I need some basic things. I need the husband’s full name. I need to know where he lives and, if possible, where he works. I need to know where he lived with Linda and Annie.”

“Okay,” Valentina said.

“But—and this is very important—I don’t want you investigating or talking to him. If you can’t do the work by phone, using a fake name, I don’t want you doing it. Is that clear?”

“I know how to investigate, Smokey,” she said with some amusement in her voice.

“Good,” I said. “Because the last thing I want is for this nutball to go after you.”

“He won’t,” she said.

But I got the sense, as I hung up the phone, that Valentina Wilson—the new version, the muscular woman I’d seen three months ago—would welcome his attack. She’d welcome it, and happily put him out of commission.

“Well?” Marvella asked.

“Well,” I said, “it looks like I have a missing persons case.”

She rolled her eyes again. “And I thought you were a tough guy.”

“Sometimes,” I said, “it’s just easier to do what the client wants than it is to convince them they’re wrong.”

“Is she wrong?” Marvella asked.

“Probably,” I said with a sigh. “Probably.”

Linda Krag’s new apartment was in student housing near the University of Chicago. The neighborhood had once been filled with middle class professors’ homes, but now those homes were divided up into apartments, with bicycles parked on the porch and beer cans lying on the lawn.

Those lawns were brown. Winter hadn’t arrived yet, despite the chill.

In the early fall, when Linda Krag had seen this place, it had probably looked inviting. Now, with the naked trees stark against the gray skyline, the leaves piled in the street, the battered cars parked haphazardly against the curb, the block looked impoverished and just a little bit dangerous.

Or maybe I was projecting. Linda Krag, white and young, might have felt comfortable here, but I felt out of place, despite the University neighborhood’s known color-blindness and vaunted liberalism.

I had the skeleton keys from Helping Hands. Linda’s stuff had not been removed from the apartment—she had until the end of the month before her belongings would become part of the charity’s donation pile. I doubted anyone had visited this place once everyone realized she was gone.

The apartment was on the second floor. More bikes littered the hallway, and so did several more beer cans. The hall smelled of beer.

Linda’s door was closed tightly. There were scrapes near the lock and the wood had been splintered about fist-high. I had no idea of that damage predated Linda’s arrival. With student housing, it was almost impossible to tell.

I unlocked the deadbolt and had to shove hard to get the door to open. It had been stuck closed. As I stepped inside, I inspected the side of the door and noted that the wood was warped.

I pushed the door closed, but it bounced back open. The warped wood made it as hard to close as it was to open.

I had seen the apartment she had been given on the South Side. That had been a two bedroom with a full kitchen and stunning living room. I had put up another family there a year or so ago. They had worked their way through the Helping Hands program and had bought their own house last summer.

I couldn’t believe she would have left that place for this one.

But people’s prejudices made them do all kinds of crazy things.

The apartment smelled sour. A blanket was crumpled at the end of the couch, and a sweater hung off the back of a kitchen chair someone had moved near the window. The kitchen was to my right. The table, with two chairs pushed against it, was beneath a small window with a good view of the house next door.

A full ashtray sat on the tabletop, along with a coloring book and an open—and scattered—box of crayons. Dishes cluttered the sink, which gave off a rotted smell.

More cigarettes floated in the water filling the bowls at the bottom of the sink. A hand towel rested on one of the burners. It was the only thing I moved, using the skeleton keys so that I wouldn’t have to touch it.

Then I went through the kitchen into a narrow hallway. The second bedroom was back here. A bed was pushed against the wall. Clothing—pink and small—was scattered all over the floor. More clothes hung on the make-shift clothing rod by the door.

The clutter was everyday clutter, not slob-clutter. It looked like the kind of mess a person made when she left in a hurry, meaning to clean up later. It disturbed me that a woman who cared so much about her daughter—a poor woman—would leave most of her daughter’s wardrobe behind.

The hair rose on the back of my neck. I didn’t want Valentina to be right. If she were right, then we had lost more than a week in searching for this woman.

And a week, in a missing person’s case, was a long, long time.

I made myself walk back through the kitchen and down another narrow hallway to the full bedroom. It wasn’t much larger than the daughter’s room. The full-sized bed left barely enough space between the wall and the side of the bed for me to walk around it.

The bed was unmade. Pillows sideways, blankets thrown back. But the bottom of the blankets—along with the sheets—was tucked in. The tucks were perfect military tucks, something that wouldn’t last during weeks of restless sleep.

Linda Krag usually made her bed. She usually made it with great precision.

Her clothing hung in the small closet, separated by color. A pair of shoes was lined neatly against the wall.

The sour smell was stronger here. It didn’t smell like dirty dishes, but something else, something that I should have recognized, but couldn’t.

I pushed open the bathroom door, and the smell hit me, making my eyes water. Vomit. Old vomit. It lined the edge of the bathtub, the floor beneath the sink, and the toilet itself. It had crusted against the wall.

I made myself go into the room. Another cigarette butt floated in the sloppy toilet water. The bathroom mirror was cracked, and a small handprint—child-sized—marred a white towel still hanging on the rack.

I looked at the handprint, wondering if that delicate little girl had been the source of all this vomit.

But as I pushed against the towel, I realized the handprint was a different color.

The handprint was made of dried blood.

To Be Continued…

 

Part Two:

I couldn’t find any more answers in Linda Krag’s apartment, so I drove home.

I’m sure my neighbors wondered why I hurried out of my car that afternoon, and took the steps to my apartment two at a time.

Jimmy had a half an hour of school left before Franklin picked him and the Grimshaw children up and took them to an after-school program we had started three years ago. If I called Franklin now, I could probably arrange for Jimmy to stay the night.

I wasn’t sure I would need all that time, but I figured I had best plan for it.

Linda Krag and her little daughter Annie had been missing for several days. Some would have argued that a few more hours would make no difference, but to me, they would have.

If the woman was in trouble, then every second wasted would be a second closer to her death. Because, if Valentina was right, and Linda Krag had been taken by her husband, that man wouldn’t be interested in rebuilding their relationship.

He would punish her.

And he would do it one of several ways. If he was just a man filled with uncontrollable rage, he would beat her until he felt better. But if he was a sadist—and if what Valentina said was true, that Linda Krag’s daughter was the most important thing in her life—then he would hurt the daughter to punish the mother.

People who got punched in the stomach hard or repeatedly often vomited, sometimes uncontrollably. I hoped that the amount of vomit in that small bathroom had come from an adult, but there was no way to tell.

I clenched my fists. Then I released the fingers slowly, making myself breathe. I picked up the phone, called Franklin, explained the case—since he was part of Helping Hands too—and asked him to take care of my son for at least the next twenty-four hours.

Then I hung up and set about finding Linda Krag.

#

Unlike the stuff you see on Mannix or Hawaii 5-0, detective work is seldom fisticuffs and confessions. Usually it’s long and repetitive legwork. I was going to try to cram a week’s worth of legwork into a single day.

So I went into my office and made calls.

My office was in the bedroom between mine and Jim’s. I decorated it with used office furniture (bought at a bargain when I first moved here), filing cabinets that were nearly full, and a new-fangled answering machine that Laura had bought me. I hadn’t taken the thing out of the box yet.

I pushed the box aside, picked up the phone, and called Valentina. She wasn’t there, so I left a message, asking if she had found that information for me. I hoped she would call me back while I was still at home.

Then I started a series of calls to area hospitals and doctors’ offices. I had found, over the years, that if I put on a slight East Coast accent and spoke a little quicker than I usually did, people gave me information without many questions.

Hospitals, trained to keep some information confidential, were a tougher nut to crack. But my years as an insurance company investigator helped there. If I called Billing and told them I had an unpaid bill from the hospital itself, I usually got full cooperation.

I did this now, saying that I had a bill for my client Linda Krag, without dates of her hospital stay or any listing of her procedure. I couldn’t pay the bill unless I had that information.

Billing departments all over the city scrambled to help me. They hand-searched their records. I told them that we had received the bill today, which made us (or more accurately, them) believe that the procedure happened within the past month.

Each call took about fifteen minutes, because the billing person I spoke to did a thorough search. Each call also ended with the same discouraging phrase: We don’t seem to have treated your client. Are you sure it was our hospital?

It seemed that Linda Krag had not shown up at any doctor’s office or hospital in the Greater Chicago area in the past month. At least, not under that name.

The next thing I did was check the morgues and funeral homes. That was a little easier—with funeral homes, I asked when the Linda Krag funeral was scheduled, and with morgues, I just asked my question in a straightforward manner.

No one had heard of her.

When I finished, I realized I should have asked after her daughter as well—Annie Krag. But the very idea of searching for death records for a child made my stomach twist.

I thumbed through the phone book, wondering if I could run the same hospital scam for the daughter on the same day, when my phone rang.

It was Valentina.

She gave me an address on the east side of Madison, the husband’s full name—Duane G. Krag, age 35, and the make and model of his car, a white 1968 Olds with Missouri plates. Up until three weeks ago, he had worked at the Oscar Mayer plant not far from his home.

I didn’t like that last detail at all. “Did he give notice or did he just disappear?”

“He finished his shift on Friday and failed to show up on Monday,” she said.

“You got this information how?” I asked.

“A few well-placed phone calls,” she said. “I know some people here now.”

I didn’t quite trust her tone. “You didn’t go there, right?”

“No,” she said. “I have no reason to. Do I?”

“None,” I said.

“Besides,” she said. “He’s been using his phone.”

I leaned back in my chair. “How do you know that?”

“One of my volunteers at the hot line also works for the phone company. It’s amazing what they can find out about you.”

I bet it was.

“Do you have information for me?” she asked.

“I’ve been to the apartment,” I said. “So if she did leave on her own, she left a lot behind.”

I wasn’t going to tell her about the vomit or the blood. I had no idea what had happened, so I wasn’t going to scare Valentina unnecessarily.

“She wouldn’t do that, Smokey.” That edge of worry had returned to Valentina’s voice.

“I tend to agree with you. I’m about to go back to see if her neighbors saw anything unusual.”

She was silent on the other end. I wondered if she could tell that I was withholding information from her.

“I hope you find her,” she finally said.

“Me, too,” I said. “Me, too.”

#

I hadn’t lied to Valentina about one thing: My next step was to return to the neighborhood and ask if anyone saw anything unusual. I didn’t relish going back to this neighborhood, but I saw no other choice.

It was already dark when I drove back into the neighborhood, which made me even more uncomfortable. As I approached Linda’s block, I debated whether or not I wanted to park there or on a nearby street.

I ended up with no choice. Every parking spot for blocks was taken. I finally found a parking place near a bookstore on 57th, and I walked to the apartment building.

I didn’t have a date or an exact incident, but I did my best. I stopped student after student, asking if they had seen the woman with the little blond girl who lived just down the block. Most remembered her—there weren’t a lot of children on this street—but none had talked to her.

And no one had seen her for at least a week.

By the time I got to her apartment building, I was feeling discouraged. I took the steps up the porch just as a young man came out of the front door wheeling his bicycle.

His red hair brushed the collar of his coat. He smelled faintly of incense and marijuana. His eyes were clear, however.

He started when he saw me.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I’m here to see Linda,” I said. “I’m a friend of hers from Madison.”

He studied me for a minute, then he said, “Linda didn’t have any friends in Madison.”

Finally, someone who knew her.

“Who told you that?” I asked.

“She did,” he said.

“Well, that’s a little awkward,” I said, trying to seem humble. “She lived next door to me and my wife and we talked all the time. We’re in Chicago to see family and I was wondering if she and Annie could join everyone for lunch tomorrow. I guess I thought we were better friends than we were.”

The boy shrugged. “Maybe I misunderstood her. We only talked a few times. My roommate knew her better.”

“Knew her?” I asked, then realized the question sounded sharp, so I did my best to cover. “Did your roommate move?”

“No,” the boy said. “Linda and her husband reconciled. He said he was taking them back to Madison. I would’ve thought you knew that, since you lived next door.”

I shook my head. “They haven’t been back all month,” I lied. “He moved out. I thought they were getting a divorce.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” the boy said. “But my roommate—he’s Duane’s brother—he said it was a love match and all it would take was some persuading.”

I shivered, and it wasn’t from the growing chill. Someone had clearly been persuaded, and not in a good way.

“I never thought it was a love match,” I said, looking at the door, but deliberately not looking at the upstairs window, as if I didn’t know which apartment she had lived in.

“I think the whole thing’s kinda weird, myself,” the boy said. “I was studying for my econ exam when he came to get her. It didn’t sound like a love match to me.”

“What do you mean?”

The boy shrugged again. “It’s none of my business, really.”

And he said it in a way that also meant it was none of mine.

“They fought?”

“Nothing like that. But that little girl sure cried hard. I’d never heard a peep from her before that.”

“Was she all right?” I couldn’t help the question.

The boy looked at me. He was frowning. “You know, I wondered. So I looked out the window. They all got into his car. He put suitcases into the back and Linda, she was holding her daughter. She saw me looking, and she waved at me. So I knew everything was all right.”

I started in surprise. I hadn’t expected Linda Krag to think of anyone except herself and her daughter. But she had protected her neighbor. By pretending everything was okay, she made sure he didn’t intervene.

“When was this?” I asked.

“A week ago Wednesday. I know because the exam was on Thursday.” He grinned. “And of course, I aced it.”

“Good for you,” I said, and hoped it didn’t sound patronizing. Then I thanked him, and went back down the stairs.

There was no point in asking anyone else questions.

Duane’s brother had clearly alerted him to Linda’s presence, probably on the weekend between the time Duane last punched in for work and the Monday when he hadn’t shown up. Duane had come here, tried to talk to her, hit her so hard she threw up or hurt the little girl somehow.

Then, when he realized Linda actually knew people here, he took her and Annie out of the apartment. He drove them somewhere.

But the question was where.

I didn’t have the capability to track someone like him, even with his white car and Missouri license plates. Ten days was a long time.

And he could have taken her anywhere.

Except, Valentina told me that he had been using his telephone.

He was in Madison, in his old stomping grounds, and if we were lucky, Linda and Annie were still alive.

#

I didn’t break any speed limits heading to Madison, but I wanted to. I wanted to get there as quickly as I could.

Had he kept her in Chicago, I would have had options. I knew people in the police department, I had friends who worked alongside me and could act as back-up. I even knew people who could have discretely checked on the apartment and let me know he was inside.

The only person I knew in Madison was Valentina. And I didn’t want to involve her. But I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to have a choice.

Because I couldn’t see any good way for this to play out.

Madison was a white town. I couldn’t just barge into a white man’s apartment and demand that he hand over his wife. I couldn’t call the police with my suspicions—and they couldn’t do anything anyway. A man was entitled to treat his family anyway he liked. Only when things got “out of hand” and the definition of that phrase varied from police department to police department, could the police step in at all.

So as I drove, I tried to formulate a plan, but I couldn’t come up with a good one.

I only hoped that Valentina’s friends included someone other than the lady who worked for the phone company.

Because otherwise, I was about to make a difficult situation worse.

#

Valentina’s hot line was housed in an old church near Lake Mendota, not far from either the state capitol building or the University of Wisconsin.

I knew better than to show up unannounced at a hot line run primarily by women who dealt daily with rape. The last thing they needed to see was a muscular, scarred black man pounding on the church door. So I called ahead, leaving Valentina worried, but willing to open the hot line’s doors for me.

Three cars were in the parking lot when I showed up around ten. The church looked like it had once been a monstrosity of the Protestant type—some stained windows, but not a lot of iconography. A tasteful cross carved into the brick chimney, but little else besides the building’s shape to even suggest it had once been a church.

Valentina was waiting outside, wrapped in a parka that looked two sizes too big for her. She waved as I pulled up, then shifted from foot to foot while I got out of the car.

The minute I stepped outside, I knew why she was dressed so heavily. It was a lot colder here than it was in Chicago. There was also a dusting of snow on the ground, visible under the church’s dome light.

Valentina didn’t say hello.

“The fact that you’re here means something bad is going on, doesn’t it, Smokey?”

“Yeah,” I said, since there was no reason to lie. “Where can we go to talk about this?”

She led me inside and up a flight of stairs into the former sanctuary. It smelled of freshly cut wood. She flicked a light switch and a dozen overhead lights came on.

Instead of revealing church pews, a choir loft, and an altar, the lights revealed piles of wood, several saws, and some half built walls.

She waved a hand at it. “We need room for women to stay overnight, and after what most of them have been through, we can’t ask them to share a room like some kind of church shelter.”

“Overnight?” I asked as I stepped over a pile of 2x4s.

“So many won’t go home after they’ve been raped. They won’t go to the hospital, and they won’t see a friend, particularly if they’ve been battered. Most don’t have money for a hotel room either.” She ran a hand through her short hair. “Actually, it was Linda who gave me this idea. She was so afraid of Duane.”

She let the words hang. We stopped near stairs that had clearly once led to the altar. Someone had pulled the carpet off them, and one of the stairs to my left had already been dismantled. But we sat on the top step, surveying the work in progress.

“I take it the hot line itself is somewhere else,” I said.

“In the basement,” she said. “I figured it was best if my volunteers didn’t know what was going on.”

I nodded. As carefully as I could, I told her what I had learned. I also told her that I had come to find Linda.

“You can’t go to that neighborhood at night,” Valentina said.

“I can’t go period,” I said. “No one can walk up to the door of that apartment and ask Duane Krag what he did with his wife and daughter.”

Valentina rested her elbows on her knees. To her credit, she didn’t say I told you so nor did she reprimand Helping Hands for not searching for Linda sooner.

“What can we do?” she asked.

“We can’t do anything,” I said. “But I need some information from you. Tell me about those apartments.”

She frowned for a moment. Then she said, “They’re single story, low income housing.”

“Government built?”

“Yes, with Model Cities money,” she said, citing one of the many Johnson era programs that Nixon had dismantled in his first term. “They were built to look like row houses, so that each family could feel like they had privacy.”

“But they’re attached?”

“Yes,” she said.

“They’re government buildings. They should have fire alarms. Do they?”

She frowned. “It’s not something I normally notice, and I was there three months ago, not really paying attention. But the city is pretty anal about making sure every building follows code. This place isn’t like Chicago at all. No one can buy off a building inspector.”

I nodded, hoping that was the case. “Then the buildings have to have fire alarms. The trick is where.”

“I have an idea,” she said. “I’ll tell you mine, if you tell me yours.”

“Done,” I said, and then told her what I was planning.

#

Of course, she wouldn’t let me go alone. I should have known that when I arrived outside the hot line building. I had forgotten how stubborn Valentina could be.

“You have to do exactly what I tell you,” I said as we drove to the apartment complex.

Madison at night was pretty deserted. On the wide swatch of East Washington Avenue, I had only seen two other cars. I drove underneath well tended street light after well tended street light, past warehouses and buildings from the turn of the century.

No one could break into one of those buildings without drawing some kind of attention, even though the streets were empty.

“I will do exactly what you say, Smokey,” Valentina said with some bemusement. “You don’t have to keep repeating that.”

“I just don’t want you hurt,” I said. “If the cops show up, you have to get out. Is that clear?”

“I know a cop to call,” she said. “We’ll be all right.”

I glanced at her. She was staring straight ahead, the light playing across her face. The occasional shadows hid the hollows in her cheeks and she looked a lot more like the woman I had met four years ago.

“Is he one of your contacts?” I asked.

“I have to know everyone from police officers to the best criminal attorneys,” she said. “I’m getting quite a list.”

I nodded. “Well, they’re not going to like what we’re about to do.”

I don’t like it,” she said. “I just don’t see any other choice.”

Neither did I.

She gave me good directions to the apartment complex. I drove past it once, to see it for myself.

It was already starting to look worn. The hope that the city had placed in its low income housing had faded with the Johnson Administration. But there were still things that made this place unusual.

It had functioning lights over every front door. Each apartment number was clearly marked. The sidewalks in front of each apartment had been shoveled. None of the windows were boarded up, and none had security bars either.

The lights were on in the Krags’ living room. Someone had pulled the curtains against the outside, but I could see the flickering shadows of a television set.

Someone was inside.

Which made me sigh with relief.

Just like driving past the building’s side, and seeing a giant fire alarm built onto the outside wall.

“Looks like you were right,” I said to Valentina.

“It was the only logical place,” she said. “I’m going to have to run to pull two alarms.”

“It’s necessary,” I said. “I don’t want him to think that we’ve targeted his building.”

“Okay,” she said. “Drop me off here. The parking lot is—”

“I’m going to park in front of his apartment,” I said.

“He’ll see you.”

“It’s all right,” I said. “I know what I’m doing.”

Unfortunately, I had snuck into neighborhoods before. I knew how to do it, and do it well.

I dropped Valentina on the corner, then went around the block. She was supposed to wait five minutes before she went anywhere near that first alarm.

I hoped she listened.

As I got ready to turn back onto the Krag’s street, I turned off the car’s lights and took my foot off the gas. I coasted to a stop in front of his sidewalk, and shut off the ignition.

Then I unscrewed the dome light. I opened the driver’s door as quietly as I could, and slipped out, careful not to close the door too tightly.

Staying on the street, I walked around the corner. There was no alarm on this side, but I didn’t expect one. The alarm was on the other end of the building, hidden in that alcove between two buildings.

I waited at the front corner of the building, in the shadows so that I could see the street but no one could see me.

Then an alarm clanged. It sounded very far away.

Another followed. The second one was deafening.

Valentina had been right; Madison’s low income housing was up to code.

Now we’d see how long it took the fire department to respond to a major fire.

I hoped it was a long time.

People started shouting and screaming. Families came out the front doors, wearing bathrobes and pajamas, barefoot against the cold.

I silently apologized to them.

No one came out of Duane’s apartment.

Families, carrying children, holding blankets, turned and looked at their homes. Voices rose in confusion at the lack of smoke and flames.

Valentina ran to my side. No one seemed to notice her in all the chaos.

“Where are they?” she asked.

“No one came out,” I said.

“What are we going to do?”

I was about to tell her that I would break in the back, when the door banged open. The little girl came out wearing footie pajamas. Her hair was a rat’s nest and she was sobbing.

“Help me! Help me!” she yelled. “My mommy won’t come. My mommy won’t come.”

“Get her to the car,” I said as I sprinted for the main door. I didn’t want anyone else to answer her summons.

So far, no one had noticed her. They were still talking and yelling and looking in the opposite direction.

Valentina ran at my side. We reached the little girl at the same time.

“Annie,” Valentina said, crouching in front of her and putting her hands on the girl’s shoulders. “We’re going to get your mom out.”

Get her to the car,” I repeated, then pushed the door open.

The apartment was a jumbled mess—overturned chairs, a ripped couch. The television was on, but no one was watching it.

That sour smell was here too, and it turned my stomach.

I hurried down the corridors, checking the kitchen, then the bathroom, and finally one of the bedrooms. The interior smelled of old blood.

I flicked on the light.

A body was leaning against the wall, a spray of blood behind it, and a pool of blood below. It took me a second to realize that the body did not belong to Linda Krag.

It was a man’s body. It had to be Duane.

Sirens started in the distance, very faint, but growing.

I cursed.

A gun was on the bed.

I left it there and checked the other bedroom.

Linda Krag was huddled in her daughter’s bed, eyes wide. “Leave me,” she said, but I didn’t know if she was talking to me or just repeating what she had been saying to her daughter.

I wasn’t even sure she had seen me.

I scooped her in my arms. She moaned when I picked her up. I carried her down that hallway. I could feel dried blood against her skin, but I didn’t know if it was hers or his. She hadn’t showered in days. The stench of her made my eyes water.

The sirens were getting closer.

I hurried out of the building. People were wandering around, searching for the fire. In the distance, I could see flashing red lights.

Valentina was standing beside my car, leaning on the passenger door. Annie was inside the car, in the back seat.

“Open up,” I said.

She didn’t have to be told twice. She opened the door to the back seat. Annie leaned forward and Valentina shooed her away.

I put Linda inside. She toppled toward her daughter, but I didn’t care.

We had to get out of there.

“Get inside,” I said to Valentina as I pushed the door closed.

She did. I got in the driver’s side, and started the car all in the same move. Then I backed around the corner, so that no one could see my plates. I backed the entire block, then turned right, away from the apartment buildings, heading toward East Washington Avenue.

“Screw in the dome light,” I said to Valentina.

She gave me a funny look, visible in the street lights, then did as she was told.

“What are we doing?” she asked.

“I’m dropping you off, then we’re going to Chicago.”

She leaned over the back seat. “Linda needs medical attention.”

“She’s not getting it here,” I said.

“Smokey,” Valentina said.

“You didn’t ask me where Duane was,” I said.

She looked at me. “Where’s Duane?”

“Daddy’s dead,” Annie said in a very small voice.

“Jesus,” Valentina said, looking at me. “What happened?”

“Don’t know,” I said. “Don’t want to know. And this is the last we’re going to say about it. Right, Annie?”

“Smokey,” Valentina said, reprimanding me for my tone.

“Right, Annie?” I repeated.

“Okay,” Annie said.

The capitol dome loomed in the distance. We were only a few miles from the hot line.

“Where are you taking them?” Valentina asked.

“Back to Helping Hands. We’ll find them a new apartment,” I said. “Can you get into the back seat, and see if Linda will make it all the way to Chicago?”

“I’ll make it.” Linda whispered the words. “I’m just fine. Thank you.”

I was relieved to hear her respond directly to me. But I knew she wasn’t just fine. She wasn’t protesting my presence like she had the first time I tried to take her to Chicago.

“I’m going with you,” Valentina said to me.

“No,” I said.

“You need me,” she said.

I turned toward her, trying to keep at least part of my gaze on the road. “Maybe you don’t understand. I am about to commit a felony. I don’t want you involved.”

“Don’t,” Linda said from the back. “We’ll be all right.”

“If I take you to a Madison hospital,” I said to Linda, “they’ll arrest you and take Annie. Do you want that?”

“Nooo.” The reply was soft, and I wasn’t sure if it came from Linda or Annie herself.

“Jesus,” Valentina said.

“So,” I said to Valentina, “I’m taking you home.”

“No,” Valentina said. “You need me. They need me. We’ll work this out. I’ll take a bus home tomorrow.”

The truth was, I did need her. I needed her to monitor Linda’s condition. I needed her to keep Annie calm.

I needed her to keep an eye out, to make sure we weren’t being followed.

“All right,” I said. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

#

Three hours and one furtive gas stop later put us in Chicago at four in the morning. I drove immediately to the hospital nearest my house.

Valentina blanched as we pulled into the parking lot. I had driven her there once, saving her life and changing it forever.

Linda had passed out sometime along the drive, but she was breathing evenly. I had Valentina bring Annie inside. I carried Linda.

The emergency staff took her from me, placing her on a cart. In the florescent hospital lights, it became clear that she was bruised everywhere. The cast on her arm from her previous injury was cracked and ruined. And there was dried blood around her mouth and nose.

“What happened?” The emergency room nurse asked me. She was glaring.

“Her husband happened,” I said, deciding not to lie about that at least. I lied about the rest, though. “She lives next door to us. I couldn’t just leave her there.”

“Good thing you didn’t,” the nurse said, and wheeled her away.

I stayed and filled out the paperwork, using my own apartment building as Linda’s address, and making up a last name for her. I figured the hospital would never check, and Helping Hands would cover the bills.

Valentina took Annie to the waiting room while I worked. When I finished, I followed them there.

They were alone in the room. Newspapers were scattered around them. Valentina had used one to cover Annie. Valentina had fallen asleep in the chair by the door, Annie on the couch near her.

I sat down, my heart pounding.

Now I would have to deal with my split second decision. Obviously Linda couldn’t take the beatings any longer, and she had shot Duane in the face. Then she collapsed. Annie hadn’t known what to do or maybe was too frightened to move, until the fire alarm forced her out of the building.

They might have been alone with that corpse for a week or more, until the neighbors reported something. Then the police would have come, charged Linda with murder, put Annie in foster care, and no one would have heard of them again.

No one would have cared that Linda had been repeatedly beaten within an inch of her life. Her only hope would have been an insanity plea, which probably would not have worked—especially since the prosecutor would have said that she had run away from Duane before, and she clearly did not want to be with him.

I was giving Helping Hands a hell of a burden—the damaged mother, the terrified child—but I figured we could deal with it. And if someone determined that Linda was no longer fit to care for her child, we would find Annie a good home, a sympathetic home, one that would help her grow and overcome these last few years.

I’d seen that work. It had worked with my son Jimmy.

Annie sighed and twitched in her sleep. The newspaper fell off her, and I picked it up, gently putting it back over her.

Then I looked at her, really looked at her, for the first time since we picked her up.

She had an ugly bruise on her forehead. It was black and purple and it had seeped down to her nose. Something had hit her hard there.

I felt a quick anger at Duane, and then I froze. I looked at her hand, dangling down toward the floor.

Her thumb was bruised too. And there was a pinch mark on her index finger—the kind you got when you didn’t know how to properly hold a gun.

My breath caught. The bruises lined up. If she had held the gun on her father, and the gun had gone off, the recoil would have sent her hands backwards, hitting her forehead with enough force to make that bruise.

Daddy’s dead, she had said.

And her mother was in Annie’s room, not the adults’ bedroom.

Hiding?

Letting her daughter defend her?

I shivered just a little. I didn’t want to know, and I wasn’t going to ask. I had already broken enough laws for these two. I would let the experts from Helping Hands work with them—and I would never mention my suspicions.

I had brought them here—risked at least two felony charges—so that they could stay together.

I wasn’t going to be the one to get in the way of that.

Valentina stirred. “How’s Linda?” she asked sleepily.

“Badly beaten,” I said. “But they think she’ll be all right.”

“Good.” Valentina looked at Annie. “Bastard beat her too. I had someone look at the bruise. She doesn’t have a concussion.”

“That’s a relief,” I said.

Valentina was still looking at the sleeping child. “Think they’ll be all right?”

“At least now they have a chance,” I said.

And no one could ask for more than that.

Location

Address:

P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

Fax: