Authors: Sara Paretsky
3 House Call
My father was lying in the road in the wasted final stage of his illness. He had left his oxygen tank on the curb and was gasping for breath. Before I could get into the street to pick him up, a squad car rounded the corner and ran over him. You killed him, you killed him, I tried to scream, but no sound came out. Bobby Mallory, my father’s oldest friend on the force, climbed out of the car. He looked at me without compassion and said, You’re under arrest for creating a public nuisance.
The phone pulled me mercifully out of sleep. I stretched out an arm and mumbled “Is it?” into the mouthpiece.
It was my downstairs neighbor, his voice rough with anxiety. “Sorry to wake you, cookie, but there’s some cops here saying you was involved in a hit–and–run last night. They was hanging on your bell and the dogs were going crazy so I went to see what was going on, and of course Mitch bounces out to see who it is, and the one guy, he starts carrying on about Mitch, don’t I know there’s a leash law in this town, and I says, last I heard you don’t need to keep a dog on a leash in your own home and who are you, anyway, disturbing the peace like this, and he whips out his badge—”
“Did he really say hit–and–run?” I demanded, pushing my sleep–sodden body upright.
“He holds out his badge and demands you by name, not that he could pronounce it right, of course. What happened, doll? You didn’t really hit someone and leave them lay, did you? Not that I haven’t told you a million times not to drive that sports car so fast around town, but you stand up to your mistakes, you wouldn’t leave no one in the street, and that’s what I told the one twerp, but he starts trying to act like Dirty Harry, like I’m scared of some tin–pot Hitler like him, when I beat up guys twice his size at—”
“Where are they?”
Mr. Contreras is capable of going on for a day or two once he’s in full throttle. He’s a retired machinist, and even though I know he worked some fancy lathe in his days at Diamondhead Motors, I can really only picture him with a hammer in his hand, out–driving John Henry, along with any mere mechanical device. “They’re downstairs in the lobby, but I think you better get out of bed and talk to them, doll, even if they’re pissers, pardon my French, not like the lieutenant or Conrad or other cops you know.”
It was heroic of him to include Conrad Rawlings in the same breath as Lieutenant Mallory. Mr. Contreras had been unhappy about Conrad’s and my affair, his usual jealousy of the men I know compounded by his racial attitude. He’d been relieved when Conrad decided things weren’t working between us, until he saw how deep the feelings had gone with me. It’s taken me a while to recover from the loss.
I hung up and shuffled to the bathroom. A long shower used to be enough to revive me after short nights, but that was when I was thirty. At forty–plus the only thing that revives me is enough sleep. I ran cold water over my head until my teeth were chattering. At least my blood was flowing, although not as much to my brain as I needed for an interview with the police.
While I was toweling myself I heard them leaning on the bell at my third–floor door. I looked through the spy–hole. There were two, a short one in a brown polyester suit that had been through the dryer a few too many times, and a tall one with an acne–scarred face.
I cracked the door the width of the chain and poked my head around so they couldn’t see my naked body. “I’ll be with you as soon as I get some clothes on.”
The short one lunged forward, trying to push the door open, but I shut it firmly, taking my jeans into the kitchen to dress while I put my stove–top espresso–maker on to boil. It’s one of those cheap metal ones that can’t foam milk, but it makes strong coffee. I scrambled into my clothes and went back to the door.
The short one in brown polyester bared tiny teeth in a circle like a pike’s. “V. I. Warshki? Police. We have some questions for you.”
“Warshawski, not Warshki,” I said. “My neighbor said you were with the police, which is why I opened the door, but I need to see some proof. Like your badges. And then you can tell me why you’ve come calling.”
The tall one pulled his badge out of his coat pocket and flashed it for a nanosecond. I held his wrist so that I could inspect the badge. “Detective Palgrave. And your companion is? Detective Lemour. Thank you. You can sit in the living room while I finish dressing.”
“Uh, ma’am.” Palgrave spoke. “Uh, we don’t mind talking to you in your bare feet. We have a couple of questions about the female you came on last night.”
A door thudded shut at the bottom of the stairwell. Mitch and Peppy began to race upstairs, followed by Mr. Contreras’s heavy tread. The dogs barreled past the detectives to get to me, squeaking as if it had been twelve months instead of twelve hours since we were last together. Lemour kicked at Mitch but only connected with his tail. I grabbed both dogs by the collars before anything worse happened.
When they finished jumping up and kissing me, the dogs, especially Mitch, were eager to greet Lemour. Peppy’s a golden; Mitch, her son, is half black Lab and enormous. Like all retrievers, they are incurably friendly, but when they’re pawing the air and grinning they look ferocious to strangers; our visitor wasn’t going to try to muscle his way past them.
Mr. Contreras had reached the doorway in time to see Lemour kick at Mitch. “Listen here, young man, I don’t care if you’re a detective or a meter maid, but these dogs live here and you don’t. You got no call to be kicking them. I could have you up before the anticruelty society, policeman kicking man’s best friend, how’d your ma and your kids like to read that in the paper?”
The detective wasn’t the first person to be rattled by Mr. Contreras. “We’re here to talk to the lady about a hit–and–run she was involved in last night. Take your animals downstairs and leave us alone.”
“It so happens, young man, that the lady owns the golden. We share looking after them—not that it’s any of your business—so if she wants them up here it’s fine with me. And as for whatever questions you got, you’re way off base if you think she was involved in some hit–and–run. I’ve known her twelve years, and she would no more run over someone and leave ’em lay in the street than she’d prop up a ladder to climb to the moon. So you got some accident victim claiming otherwise, you been totally misinformed. Be a good idea if you called your boss and made sure you got the right address or license plate or whatever, otherwise I guarantee you’ll feel foolish wasting your time and everyone else’s on this—”
“Uh, sir.” Palgrave had been trying to cut the flow short for some minutes. “Uh, sir, we’re not accusing her of hitting someone. We only want to ask her some questions about the incident.”
“Then why didn’t you say that?” Mr. Contreras demanded in exasperation. “Your buddy here was carrying on like she ran over the pope and left him to bleed in the street.”
“We need to ascertain whether the Warshki woman hit the woman or not,” Lemour said.
“Warshawski,” I said. “Have a seat. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
I went back to the kitchen to turn the fire off under my pot; fortunately it had just reached the point where it sucked water up through the filter into the top, not the point where it started filling the house with the stench of scorched metal. Lemour, apparently fearing I might be going to hide or shred evidence, perhaps my car, followed me to the kitchen.
“It makes two cups,” I said. “Want one?”
“Listen, Princess Diana, don’t get smart with me. I want you to answer some questions.”
I poured out coffee and looked in the refrigerator. I’d been in Springfield testifying at Illinois House hearings into contracting scams the last few days. The only thing close to food was a dried heel of rye. I looked at it dubiously while Lemour foamed at the mouth behind me. I ignored him and took my coffee into the living room. Detective Palgrave was standing stiffly at attention while Mr. Contreras sat in my good armchair, holding Mitch’s collar.
“Detective, is there any word on the woman I stopped to help last night?” I said to Palgrave.
“She was taken to Beth Israel, but—”
His partner cut him off. “We ask the questions, Warshki; you give the answers. I want a complete description of the encounter you had in the road last night.”
It may be a sign of dyslexia when you can’t pronounce all the syllables in a long word, but you can get over it with speech therapy, even as an adult.”
“Uh, ma’am,” Palgrave said, “could I just ask you to describe what happened last night? We’re trying to investigate the incident, and we need to find someone who can tell us what happened.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know anything about the woman—she was lying in the road. The streetlights are out on that stretch of Balmoral, so I didn’t see her until I was about ten feet from her. I stood on the brakes, swerved, hit a fireplug, but did not hit the woman. My passenger, who’s a ten–year veteran with the Chicago police, summoned an ambulance. We could see that the woman had a broken arm, and her breathing was labored; the front of her dress seemed bloody. I don’t know anything else about her. I don’t know her name, how she came to be there, or whether she’s still alive.”
“How much did you drink last night?” Lemour demanded.
“Three bottles of mineral water.”
“You’re sure you didn’t hit her and are trying to dress it up as a Good Samaritan act?”
“Uh, Doug, why don’t we talk to the passenger. Get some confirmation of Ms. Warshki’s—sorry, ma’am, what is it? Warshouski?—anyway, of her story.”
“She took so long answering the door, she was probably calling to feed the other woman her lines,” Lemour grumbled.
“You can talk to Ms. Neely,” I said, “but the officers on the scene took a complete report last night. They even breathalyzed me. Why don’t you look at that?”
Palgrave’s face became more wooden. “Uh, ma’am, did your passenger witness the breathalyzing? Because we were told it didn’t take place, that you refused.”
I stared at him. “I signed that report, and it included a statement that I had not been drinking. Let me see it.”
Palgrave shifted uncomfortably and said they didn’t have the report with them. Lemour was all in favor of arresting me for manslaughter on the spot; I was trying to weasel out of a DUI charge, he said. Palgrave told him to tone it down and asked if it was really true that Mary Louise was a ten–year veteran with the force.
“Yes, indeed. You can talk to Bobby Mallory—Lieutenant Mallory—at the Central District. She was under his command for quite a few years,” I said. “I’ll get him on the phone for you now. Or Terry Finchley. He was her immediate superior.”
“That won’t be necessary, ma’am,” Palgrave said. “We’ll talk to this Neely woman, but if she witnessed your—uh—breathalyzing that’s probably good enough. To be on the safe side, we’ll take a look at your car, make sure it wasn’t involved in the accident.”
“Who is the woman I stopped for, anyway?” I demanded. “Why does it matter so much to find someone to take the fall for her injuries?”
“We’re not trying to make you take a fall,” Palgrave said. “She’s an accident victim and you were on the scene.”
“Come on, Detective,” I said. “I happened on the scene after someone left her lying in the road. I didn’t put her there, didn’t hit her, didn’t do anything but wreck my car swerving to miss her.”
“In that case a look at your car will get us out of your hair,” Palgrave said. “We’ll tow it to the police lab and get back to you about when you can pick it up. Where is it now?”
“It wasn’t drivable. It’s where the accident took place—you can look up the address on the report when you get back to the station.”
That made Lemour start to boil over, but Palgrave calmed him down once more. When they finally left I felt limp. Who could the woman be to merit this much aggravation? But I couldn’t worry about that until I dealt with my car. If the cops were determined to find a perpetrator, I wanted the Trans Am to have a clean bill of health before it got into police hands.
I called the mechanic I go to when I have no other choice. Luke Edwards is one of the few guys out there who still knows what a carburetor does, but he’s so depressing I try to avoid him. He came to the phone now with his usual drooping tones. He identifies so totally with machines that it’s hard for him to talk to people, but our relations have been particularly strained since a car of his I borrowed got totaled by a semi. Before I could finish explaining what I needed, Luke cut me off, saying he didn’t want to hear my tale of woe, he’d known since I trashed the Impala that I couldn’t be trusted behind the wheel.
“I spent three months getting every bearing on that engine purring in unison. I’m not surprised you wrecked your Trans Am. You don’t know how to look after a car.”
“Luke, forget that for a minute. I want a private lab to inspect my car and certify that it didn’t hit a person. I’m not asking you to work on it today, just to tell me the name of a good private lab.”
“Everyone thinks they come first, Warshawski. You gotta wait in line along with all the working stiffs.”
I tried not to scream. “Luke, I need a civilian lab before the police get to my car. I ran into a fire hydrant swerving to miss an accident victim, and some cop is taking the lazy way out instead of running an investigation. I want to have a lab report to wave in his face in case he doesn’t do the rest of his homework.”
“Police after you, huh? About time someone called you on your reckless driving. Just kidding you. Calm down and I’ll help you out. Cheviot is the lab you want, out in Hoffman Estates. They’re pricey but they got a rock–solid rap in court. I and my friends have used ’em a couple of times—I can call for you and set it up if you want. Tell me where your baby is and I’ll send Freddie out with the truck, get him to take the Trans Am out to Cheviot. He sees a cop, should he run over him?”
Luke being funny is harder to take than his depression. I pretended to laugh and hung up. Mr. Contreras, watching with bright anxious eyes, told me I’d done the right thing but wanted me to do more.
I didn’t think there was much else I could do except call Mary Louise. She was trying to dress one of Emily’s young brothers, who was protesting loudly. When she realized what I was saying she let the kid go and gave me her full attention.