Authors: Sara Paretsky
He hesitated; I guessed he was looking for the pride to say no—good-looking guys aren’t used to being stood up. “Sure,” he said finally. “But if you’re not here by eight thirty, you can find your own way home.”
“Ralph,” I said, controlling my voice carefully, “this has been one absolute zero of a day. I’d like to have a pleasant evening, learn a little bit about insurance, and try to forget what’s gone before. Can we do that?”
He was embarrassed. “Sure, Vicki—I mean Vic. See you in the bar.”
We hung up and I looked through my wardrobe for something elegant enough for the Cartwheel, but loose and flowing, and found a string-colored Mexican dress that I’d forgotten about. It was two-piece, with a long full skirt and a woven, square-necked top that tied at the waist and bloused out below. The long sleeves covered my puffy arms and I didn’t have to wear pantyhose or a slip. Cork sandals completed the costume.
Surveying my face under the bathroom light made me want to reconsider going out in public, My lower lip was swollen where Earl’s pinky ring had sliced it, and a purple smudge was showing on my left jaw, extending veinous red lines like a cracked egg along my cheek to the eye.
I tried some makeup; my base wasn’t very heavy and didn’t conceal the worst of the purple but did cover the spidery red marks. Heavy shadow took the focus from an incipient black eye, and dark lipstick, applied more strongly than my usual style, made the swollen lip look pouty and sexy—or might if the lights were dim enough.
My legs were stiffening up, but my daily runs seemed to be paying off—I negotiated the stairs without more
than minor tremors. A taxi was going by on Halsted; it dropped me in front of the Hanover House Hotel on Oak Street at 8:25.
This was my first visit to the Cartwheel. To me it typified the sterile place where bright, empty North Siders with more money than sense liked to eat. The bar, to the left of the entrance, was dark, with a piano amplified too loudly, playing songs that bring tears to the eyes of Yale graduates. The place was crowded, Friday night in Chicago. Ralph sat at the end of the bar with a drink. He looked up as I came in, smiled, sketched a wave, but didn’t get up. I concentrated on walking smoothly, and made it to where he sat. He looked at his watch. “You just made it.”
In more ways than one, I thought. “Oh, you’d never have left without finishing your drink.” There weren’t any empty stools. “How about proving you’re a more generous soul than I and letting me have that seat and a Scotch?”
He grinned and grabbed me, intending to pull me onto his lap. A spasm of pain shot through my ribs. “Oh, Jesus, Ralph! don’t!”
He let go of me at once, got up stiffly and quietly, and offered me the barstool. I stood, feeling awkward. I don’t like scenes, and I didn’t feel like using the energy to calm Ralph down. He’d seemed like a guy made for sunshine; maybe his divorce had made him insecure with women. I saw I’d have to tell him the truth and put up with his sympathy. And I didn’t want to reveal how badly Smeissen had shown me up
that afternoon. It was no comfort that he would limp in pain for a day or two.
I dragged my attention back to Ralph. “Would you like me to take you home?” he was asking.
“Ralph, I’d like a chance to explain some things to you. I know it must look as though I don’t want to be here, showing up an hour late and all. Are you too upset for me to tell you about it?”
“Not at all,” he said politely.
“Well, could we go someplace and sit down? It’s a little confusing and hard to do standing up.”
“I’ll check on our table.” When he went off, I sank gratefully onto the barstool and ordered a Johnnie Walker Black. How many could I drink before they combined with my tired muscles and put me to sleep?
Ralph came back with the news that our table was a good ten-minute wait away. The ten stretched into twenty, while I sat with my uninjured cheek propped on my hand and he stood stiffly behind me. I sipped my Scotch. The bar was over-air-conditioned. Normally the heavy cotton of the dress would have kept me plenty warm, but now I started to shiver slightly.
“Cold?” Ralph asked.
“A little,” I admitted.
“I could put my arms around you,” he offered tentatively.
I looked up at him and smiled. “That would be very nice,” I said. “Just do it gently, please.”
He crossed his arms around my chest. I winced a little at first, but the warmth and the pressure felt
good. I leaned back against him. He looked down at my face, and his eyes narrowed.
“Vic, what wrong with your face?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“No, really,” he said, bending closer, “you’ve gotten cut—and that looks like a bruise and swelling on your cheek.”
“Is it really bad?” I asked. “I thought the makeup covered it pretty well.”
“Well, they’re not going to put you on the cover of
this week, but it’s not too awful. It’s just that as an old claims man I’ve seen lots of accident victims. And you look like one.”
“I feel like one too,” I agreed, “but really, this wasn’t—”
“Have you been to a doctor about this?” he interrupted.
“You sound just like the cabbie who took me home this afternoon. He wanted to rush me to Passavant—I practically expected him to come in with me and start making me chicken soup.”
“Was your car badly damaged?” he asked.
“My car is not damaged at all.” I was beginning to lose my temper—irrationally, I knew—but the probing made me feel defensive.
“Not damaged,” he echoed, “then how—”
At that moment our table was announced in the bar. I got up and went over to the headwaiter, leaving Ralph to pay for drinks. The headwaiter led me off without waiting for Ralph, who caught up with us just as I was being seated. My spurt of temper had infected
him; he said, “I hate waiters who haul off ladies without waiting for their escorts.” He was just loud enough for the maitre d’ to hear. “ I’m sorry, sir—I didn’t realize you were with madame,” he said with great dignity before moving off.
“Hey, Ralph, take it easy,” I said gently. “A little too much ego-jockeying is going on—my fault as much as yours. Let’s stop and get some facts and start over again.”
A waiter materialized. “Would you care for a drink before dinner?”
Ralph looked up in irritation. “Do you know how many hours We’ve spent in the bar waiting for this table? No, we don’t want a drink—at least, I don’t.” He turned to me. “Do you?”
“No, thanks,” I agreed. “Any more and I’ll fall asleep—which will probably ruin forever any chance I have of making you believe that I’m not trying to get out of an evening with you.”
Were we ready to order? the waiter persisted. Ralph told him roundly to go away for five minutes. My last remark had started to restore his native good humor, however. “Okay, V. I. Warshawski—convince me that you really aren’t trying to make this evening so awful that I’ll never ask you out again.”
“Ralph,” I said, watching him carefully, “do you know Earl Smeissen?”
“Who?” he asked uncomprehendingly. “Is this some kind of detective guessing game?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I answered. “Between yesterday afternoon and this afternoon I’ve talked to a
whole lot of different people who either knew Peter Thayer or his girl friend—the gal who’s vanished. You and your boss, among others.
“Well, when I got home late this afternoon, two hired thugs were waiting for me. We fought. I was able to hold them off for a while, but one of them knocked me out. They took me to Earl Smeissen’s home. If you don’t know Earl, don’t try to meet him. He was just starting to muscle to the top of his racket—extortion, prostitution—when I was with the Public Defender ten years ago, and he seems to have kept right on trucking since then. He now has a stable of tough guys who all carry guns. He is not a nice person.”
I stopped to marshal my presentation. From the corner of my eye I saw the waiter shimmering up again, but Ralph waved him away. “Anyway, he ordered me off the Thayer case, and set one of his tame goons on me to back it up.” I stopped. What had happened next in Earl’s apartment was very raw in my mind. I had calculated it carefully at the time, decided that it was better to get everything over at once and convince Earl that I was scared than to sit there all evening while he took increasingly violent shots at me. Nonetheless, the thought of being so helpless, the memory of Tony beating me, like a disloyal whore or a welching loan customer—to be so vulnerable was close to unbearable. Unconsciously, my left hand had clenched, and I realized I was slicing it against the tabletop. Ralph was watching me, an uncertain look
on his face. His business and suburban life hadn’t prepared him for this kind of emotion.
I shook my head and tried for a lighter touch. “Anyway, my rib cage is a little sore—which is why I winced and yelled when you grabbed hold of me in the bar. The question that’s exercising me, though, is who told Earl that I’d been around asking questions. Or more precisely, who cared so much that I’d been around that he asked—or paid—Earl to frighten me off.”
Ralph was still looking a little horrified. “Have you been to the police about this? ”
“No,” I said impatiently. “I can’t go to the police about this kind of thing. They know I’m interested in the case—they’ve asked me to get off, too, although more politely. If Bobby Mallory—the lieutenant in charge of the case—knew I’d been beaten up by Earl, Smeissen would deny the whole thing, and if I could prove it in court, he could say it was a million things other than this that made him do it. And Mallory wouldn’t give me an earful of sympathy—he wants me out of there anyway.”
“Well, don’t you think he’s right? Murder really is a police matter. And this group seems pretty wild for you to be mixed up with.”
I felt a quick surge of anger, the anger I get when I feel someone is pushing me. I smiled with an effort. “Ralph, I’m tired and I ache. I can’t try explaining to you tonight why this is my job—but please believe that it is my job and that I can’t give it to the police
and run away. It’s true I don’t know specifically what’s going on here, but I do know the temperament and reactions of a guy like Smeissen. I usually only deal with white-collar criminals—but when they’re cornered, they’re not much different from an extortion artist like Smeissen.”
“I see.” Ralph paused, thinking, then his attractive grin came. “I have to admit that I don’t know much about crooks of any kind—except the occasional swindlers who try to rip off insurance companies. But we fight them in the courts, not with hand-to-hand combat. I’ll try to believe you know what you’re up to, though.”
I laughed a little embarrassedly. “Thanks. I’ll try not to act too much like Joan of Arc—getting on a horse and charging around in all directions.”
The waiter was back, looking a little intimidated. Ralph ordered baked oysters and quail, but I opted for Senegalese soup and spinach salad. I was too exhausted to want a lot of food.
We talked about indifferent things for a while. I asked Ralph if he followed the Cubs. “For my sins, I’m an ardent fan,” I explained. Ralph said he caught a game with his son every now and then. “But I don’t see how anyone can be an ardent Cub fan. They’re doing pretty well right now—cleaned out the Reds—but they’ll fade the way they always do. No, give me the Yankees.”
“Yankees!” I expostulated. “I don’t see how anyone can root for them—it’s like rooting for the Cosa Nostra. You know they’ve got the money to buy
the muscle to win—but that
make you cheer them on.”
“I like to see sports played well,” Ralph insisted. “I can’t stand the clowning around that Chicago teams do. Look at the mess Veeck’s made of the White Sox this year.”
We were still arguing about it when the waiter brought the first course. The soup was excellent—light, creamy, with a hint of curry. I started feeling better and ate some bread and butter, too. When Ralph’s quail arrived, I ordered another bowl of soup and some coffee.
“Now explain to me why a union wouldn’t buy insurance from Ajax.”
“Oh, they could,” Ralph said, his mouth full. He chewed and swallowed. “But it would only be for their headquarters—maybe fire coverage on the building, Workers Compensation for the secretaries, things like that. There wouldn’t be a whole lot of people to cover. And a union like the Knifegrinders—see, they get their insurance where they work. The big thing is Workers Comp, and that’s paid for by the company, not the union.”
“That covers disability payments, doesn’t it?” I asked.
“Yes, or death if it’s job-related. Medical bills even if there isn’t lost time. I guess it’s a funny kind of setup. Your rates depend on the kind of business you conduct—a factory pays more than an office, for instance. But the insurance company can be stuck with weekly payments for years if a guy is disabled on the
job. We have some cases—not many, fortunately—that go back to 1927. But see, the insured doesn’t pay more, or not that much more, if we get stuck with a whole lot of disability payments. Of course, we can cancel the insurance, but we’re still required to cover any disabled workers who are already collecting.
“Well, this is getting off the subject. The thing is, there are lots of people who go on disability who shouldn’t—it’s pretty cushy and there are plenty of corrupt doctors—but it’s hard to imagine a full-scale fraud connected with it that would do anyone else much good.” He ate some more quail. “No, your real money is in pensions, as you suggested, or maybe life insurance. But it’s easier for an insurance company to commit fraud with life insurance than for anyone else. Look at the Equity Funding case.”
“Well, could your boss be involved in something like that? Rigging phony policies with the Knifegrinders providing dummy policyholders?” I asked.
“Vic, why are you working so hard to prove that Yardley’s a crook? He’s really not a bad guy—I’ve worked for him for three years, and I’ve never had anything against him.”
I laughed at that. “It bugs me that he agreed to see me so easily. I don’t know a lot about insurance, but I’ve been around big corporations before. He’s a department head, and they’re like gynecologists—their schedules are always booked for about twice as many appointments as they can realistically handle.”