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Authors: Sara Paretsky

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Killing Orders

BOOK: Killing Orders
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Killing Orders

V.I. Warshawski – Book 3

By Sara Paretsky

Chapter 1 - Old Wounds

MY STOMACH MUSCLES contracted as I locked the car door. I hadn’t been to Melrose Park for ten years, but, as I walked up the narrow pavement to the house’s side entrance, I felt a decade of maturity slipping from me, felt the familiar sickening, my heart thudding.

The January wind scattered dead leaves around my feet. Little snow had fallen this winter, but the air blew cold. After ringing the bell I jammed my hands deep into the pockets of my navy car coat to keep them warm. I tried to argue my nervousness away. After all, they had called me . . . begged me for help . . . The words meant nothing. I had lost an important battle by responding to the plea.

I stamped my feet to loosen the toes frozen inside thin-soled loafers and heard, at last, a rattling behind the painted blue door. It swung inward into a dimly lit vestibule. Through the screen I could just make out my cousin Albert, much heavier than he’d been ten years ago. The screen and the dark behind him softened his pout.

“Come in, Victoria. Mother is waiting for you.”

I bit back an excuse for being a quarter hour late and turned it into a neutral comment on the weather. Albert was almost bald, I noted with pleasure. He took my coat ungraciously and draped it over the banister at the foot of the narrow, uncarpeted stairs.

A deep, harsh voice called to us. “Albert! Is that Victoria?”

“Yes, Mama,” Albert muttered.

The only light in the entryway came from a tiny round window facing the stairs. The dimness obscured the pattern in the wallpaper, but as I followed Albert down the close corridor I could see it hadn’t changed: gray paper with white loops, ugly, cold. As a child, I thought the paper oozed hate. Behind Albert’s wobbling thighs the old chill stuck out tendrils at me and I shivered.

I used to beg my mother, Gabriella, not to bring me to this house. Why should we go? Rosa hated her, hated me, and

Gabriella always cried after the long L ride home. But she would only set her lips in a tight smile and say, “I am obligated,
cara.
I must go.”

Albert led me into the formal parlor at the back of the house. The horsehair furniture was as familiar to me as my own apartment. In my nightmares I dreamed of being trapped in this room with its stiff furniture, the ice-blue drapes, the sad picture of Uncle Carl over the fake fireplace, and Rosa. thin, hawk-nosed, frowning, seated poker-backed in a spindle-legged chair.

Her black hair was iron-colored now, but the severe, disapproving stare was unaltered. I tried taking diaphragm breaths to calm the churning in my stomach. You’re here because
she
begged
you,
I reminded myself.

She didn’t stand up, didn’t smile—I couldn’t remember ever seeing her smile. “It was good of you to come, Victoria.” Her tone implied it would have been better if I’d come on time. “When one is old, one doesn’t travel easily. And the last few days have made me old indeed.”

I sat down in what I hoped was the least uncomfortable chair. “Yes,” I said noncommittally. Rosa was about seventy-five. When they performed her autopsy, they would find her bones were made of cast iron. She did not look old to me: She hadn’t begun to rust yet.

“Albert. Pour some coffee for Victoria.”

Rosa’s single virtue was her cooking. I took a cup of the rich Italian coffee gratefully, but ignored the tray of pastries Albert proffered—I’d get pastry cream on my black wool skirt and feel foolish as well as tense.

Albert sat uneasily on the narrow settee, eating a piece of
torta del re,
glancing surreptitiously at the floor when a crumb dropped, then at Rosa to see if she’d noticed.

“You are well, Victoria? You are happy?”

“Yes,” I said firmly. “Both well and happy.”

“But you have not remarried?”

The last time I’d been here was with my brief husband for a strained bridal visit. “It is possible to be happy and not married, as Albert doubtless can tell you, or as you know yourself.” The last was a cruel remark: Uncle Carl had killed himself shortly after Albert was born. I felt vindictively pleased, then guilty. Surely I was mature enough not to need that kind of satisfaction. Somehow Rosa always made me feel eight years old.

Rosa shrugged her thin shoulders disdainfully. “No doubt you are right. Yet for me—I am to die without the joy of grandchildren.”

Albert shifted uncomfortably on the settee. It was clearly not a new complaint.

“A pity,” I said. “I know grandchildren would be the crowning joy of a happy and virtuous life.”

Albert choked but recovered. Rosa narrowed her eyes angrily. “You, of all people, should know why my life has not been happy.”

Despite my efforts at control, anger spilled over. “Rosa, for some reason you think Gabriella destroyed your happiness. What mysterious grievance a girl of eighteen could have caused you I don’t know. But you threw her out into the city on her own. She didn’t speak English. She might have been killed. Whatever she did to you, it couldn’t have been as bad as what you did to her.

“You know the only reason I’m here: Gabriella made me promise that I would help you if you needed it. It stuck in my gut and it still does. But I promised her, and here I am. So let’s leave the past in peace: I won’t be sarcastic if you’ll stop throwing around insults about my mother. Why not just tell me what the problem is.”

Rosa tightened her lips until they almost disappeared. “The most difficult thing I ever did in my life was to call you. And now I see I should not have done it.” She rose in one movement like a steel crane, and left the room. I could hear the angry clip of her shoes on the uncarpeted hail and up the bare stairs. In the distance a door slammed.

I put down my coffee and looked at Albert. He had turned red with discomfort, but he seemed less amorphous with Rosa out of the room.

“How bad is her trouble?”

He wiped his fingers on a napkin and folded it tidily. “Pretty bad,” he muttered. “Why’d you have to make her mad?”

“It makes her mad to see me here instead of at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Every time I’ve talked to her since Gabriella died she’s been hostile to me. If she needs help, all I want is the facts. She can save the rest for her psychiatrist. I don’t get paid enough to deal with it.” I picked up my shoulder bag and stood up. At the doorway I stopped and looked at him.

“I’m not coming back to Melrose Park for another round. Albert. If you want to tell me the story I’ll listen. But if I leave now, that’s it; I won’t respond to any more pleas for farm!, unity from Rosa. And by the way, if you do want to hire me. I’m not working out of love for your mother.”

He stared at the ceiling, listening perhaps for guidance from above. Not heaven—just the back bedroom. We couldn’t hear anything. Rosa was probably jabbing pins into a piece of clay with a lock of my hair stuck to it. I rubbed my arms involuntarily, searching for damage.

Albert shifted uneasily and stood up. “Uh, look, uh, maybe I’d better tell you.”

“Fine. Can we go to a more comfortable room?”

“Sure. Sure.” He gave a half smile, the first I’d seen that afternoon. I followed him back down the hail to a room on the left. It was tiny, but clearly his private spot. A giant set of stereo speakers loomed from one wall; below them were some built-in shelves holding an amplifier and a large collection of tapes and records. No books except a few accounting texts. His high-school trophies. A tiny cache of bottles.

He sat in the one chair, a large leather desk chair with a hassock next to it. He slid the hassock over to me and I perched on that.

In his own place, Albert relaxed and his face took on a more decisive look. He was a CPA with his own business. I remembered. When you saw him with Rosa, you couldn’t imagine him managing anything on his own, but in here it didn’t seem so improbable.

He took a pipe from the desk top next to him and began the pipe smoker’s interminable ritual with it. With luck I’d be gone before he actually lit it. All smoke makes me ill, and pipe smoke on top of an empty stomach—I’d been too tense for lunch—would be disastrous.

“How long have you been a detective, Victoria?”

“About ten years.” I swallowed my annoyance at being

called Victoria. Not that it isn’t my name. Just that I
liked using it I wouldn’t go by my initials.

“And you’re good at it?”

“Yes. Depending on your problem, I’m about the best you can get . . . I have a list of references if you want to call someone.”

“Yeah, I’d like a name or two before you go.” He had finished drilling out the pipe bowl. He knocked it methodically against the side of an ashtray and began packing it with tobacco. “Mother’s gotten herself involved with some counterfeit securities.”

Wild dreams of Rosa as the brains behind Chicago’s Mob ran through my head. I could see six-point screamer headlines in the
Herald-Star.

“Involved how?”

“They found some in the St. Albert Priory safe.”

I sighed to myself. Albert was deliberately going to drag this out. “She plant them there? What’s she got to do with this priory?”

The moment of truth had come: Albert struck a match and began sucking on the pipestem. Sweet blue smoke curled up around his head and wafted toward me. I felt my stomach turn over.

“Mother’s been their treasurer for the last twenty years. I thought you knew.” He paused a minute to let me feel guilty about not keeping up with the family. “Of course they had to ask her to leave when they found the securities.”

“Does she know anything about them?”

He shrugged. He was sure she didn’t. He didn’t know how many there were, what companies they were drawn on, how long since they’d last been examined, or who had access to them. The only thing he knew was the new prior wanted to sell them in order to make repairs on the building. Yes, they’d been in a safe.

“Her heart’s broken because of the suspicion.” He saw my derisive look and said defensively, “Just because you only see her when she’s upset or angry you can’t imagine she has real feelings. She’s seventy-five, you know, and that job meant a lot to her. She wants her name cleared so she can go back.”

“Surely the FBI is investigating, and the SEC.”

“Yes, but they’d be just as happy to hang it on her if it made things easier for them. After all, who wants to take a priest to court? And they know she’s old, she’d get off with a suspended sentence.”

I blinked a few times. “Albert. No. You’re out of touch. If she were some poor West Side black, they might railroad her. But not Rosa. She’d scare ‘em too much for one thing. And the FBI—they’ll want to get to the bottom of this. They’re never going to believe an old woman masterminded a counterfeiting scheme.”  Unless, of course, she had. I wished I could believe it, but Rosa was malicious, not dishonest.

“But that church is the only thing she really loves,” he blurted, turning crimson. “They might believe she got carried away. People do.”

We talked about it some more, but it ended as I suppose I’d known it had to, with me pulling out two copies of my standard contract for Albert to sign. I gave him a family rate on the fee—sixteen dollars an hour instead of twenty.

He told me the new prior would be expecting my call. Boniface Carroll his name was. Albert wrote that on a piece of paper along with a rough map of how to find the priory. I frowned as I stuck it in my bag. They were taking an awful lot for granted. Then I laughed sourly at myself. Once I’d agreed to make the trek to Melrose Park they could take a lot for granted.

Back at my car I stood rubbing my head for a few minutes, hoping the cold clean air would blow the pipe fumes from my throbbing brain. I glanced back at the house. A curtain fell quickly at an upstairs window. I climbed into the car somewhat cheered. To see Rosa spy furtively on me—like a small child or a thief—made me feel somehow that more of the power lay in my hands.

Chapter 2 - Remembrance of Things Past

I WOKE UP sweating. The bedroom was dark and for a moment I couldn’t remember where I was. Gabriella had been staring at me, her eyes huge in her wasted face, the skin

translucent as it had been those last painful months of her life, pleading with me to help her. The dream had been in Italian. It took time to reorient myself to English, to adulthood, to my apartment.

The digital clock glowed faintly orange. Five-thirty. My sweat turned to a chill. I pulled the comforter up around my neck and clenched my teeth to keep them from chattering.

My mother died of cancer when I was fifteen. As the disease ate the vitality from her beautiful face, she made me promise to help Rosa if her aunt ever needed me. I had tried to argue with Gabriella: Rosa hated her, hated me—we had no obligation. But my mother insisted and I could not refuse.

My father had told me more than once how he met my mother. He was a policeman. Rosa had thrown Gabriella out on the street, an immigrant with minimal English. My mother, who always had more courage than common sense, was trying to earn a living doing the only thing she knew: singing. Unfortunately, none of the Milwaukee Avenue bars where she auditioned liked Puccini or Verdi and my father rescued her one day from a group of men who were trying to force her to strip. Neither he nor I could understand why she ever saw Rosa again. But I made her the promise she wanted.

My pulse had calmed down but I knew more sleep was out of the question. Shivering in the cold room, I padded naked to the window and pulled back the heavy curtain. The winter morning was black. Snow falling like a fine mist glowed in the streetlamp at the corner of the alley. I kept shivering, but the still morning held me entranced, the thick black air pressing at me comfortingly.

At last I let the curtain drop. I had a ten o’clock meeting in Melrose Park with the new prior of St Albert’s. I might as well get going.

Even in the winter I try to run five miles a day. Although financial crime, my specialty, doesn’t often lead to violence, I grew up in a rough South Side neighborhood where girls as well as boys had to be able to defend themselves. Old habits die hard, so I work out and run to stay in shape. Anyway, running is the best way I know to ward off the effects of pasta. I don’t enjoy exercise, but it beats dieting.

In the winter I wear a light sweatshirt, loose pants, and a down vest. Once warmed up I donned these and ran quickly down the hall and three flights of stairs to keep my muscles loose.

Outside, I wanted to abandon the project. The cold and damp were miserable. Even though the streets were already filling with early commuters, it was hours before my usual waking time, and the sky had barely begun to lighten by the time I got back to Halsted and Belmont. I walked carefully up the stairs to my apartment. The steps were shiny with age and very slippery when wet. I had a vision of myself sliding backward on wet running shoes, cracking my skull on old marble.

A long hallway divides my apartment in half and makes it seem bigger than its four rooms. The dining room and kitchen are to the left; bedroom and living room to the right. For some reason the kitchen connects to the bathroom. I turned on water for a shower and went next door to start coffee.

Armed with coffee, I took my running clothes off and sniffed them. Smelly, but not too bad for one more morning. I dropped them over a chair back and gave myself up to a long hot shower. The stream of water drumming on my skull soothed me. I relaxed, and without realizing it, I started to sing a bit under my breath. After a while the tune drifted into my consciousness, a sad Italian folksong Gabriella used to sing. Rosa was really lying heavy on my mind—the nightmare, visions of my skull breaking, now mournful songs. I was not going to let her control me this way—that would be the ultimate defeat. I shampooed my hair vigorously and forced myself to sing Brahms. I don’t like his
Lieder,
but some, like “Meine Liebe Ist Grun” are almost painfully cheerful.

Coming out of the shower I switched to the dwarfs’ song from
Snow White.
Off to work we go. My navy walking suit, I decided, to make me mature and dignified. It had a three-quarter-length double-breasted jacket and a skirt with two side pleats. A knit silk top of pale gold, almost the colour of my skin, and a long scarf bright with red and navy and brushed again with the same gold. Perfect. I edged the corners of my eyes with a faint trace of blue pencil to make their gray color bluer, added a little light rouge and lipstick to match the red in the scarf. Open-toed red-leather pumps, Italian. Gabriella brought me up to believe that my feet would fall off if I wore shoes made anyplace else. Even now that a pair of Magli pumps go for a hundred forty dollars, I can’t bring myself to wear Comfort-Stride.

I left the breakfast dishes in the sink with last night’s supper plates and those from a few other meals. And the bed unmade. And the clothes strewn around. Perhaps I should save the money I spend on clothes and shoes and invest in a housekeeper. Or even a hypnosis program to teach me to be neat and tidy. But what the hell. Who besides me was going to see it?

BOOK: Killing Orders
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