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Authors: Sara Paretsky

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BOOK: Warshawski 09 - Hard Time
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Their comments faded as we rounded the corner to the L. Mr. Contreras filled me in on the Buick Skylark we were going to see. “He’s asking seventeen hundred, but it’s got ninety–eight thousand miles. You can probably bring him down a couple a hundred, but maybe you want your buddy Luke to go over a car before you buy it—all these computers and whatnot it ain’t so easy to tell what’s going on inside an engine these days.”

“Yeah, my buddy Luke.” I thought bitterly of our conversation this afternoon. “He’s likely to demand the mortgage on my apartment before he lifts a finger to help. After getting my estimates from Luke I’m beginning to think I should rent something for a few weeks. Even fifteen hundred seems way more than I can afford for temporary wheels, and if it’s that beat up I’ll have trouble reselling it.”

The old man deflated visibly: he’d spent all day on the project and politely deferred pushing it while he helped me on my silly Sherlock Holmes imitation. Guilt is not an adequate reason for bad business decisions, but I couldn’t bear to see him so woebegone. We picked up falafel sandwiches and Cokes at a storefront underneath the L tracks and trudged up the stairs for the first leg in our journey.

By the time we got to the seller’s apartment, I was so fed up with public transportation I was ready to pay almost any price to get rolling again. The Red Line to Howard. The old Skokie Swift—now the Yellow Line—and then the real time–eater, the wait for the suburban bus to take us five miles further west, to a stop close enough to the guy’s place that we could walk.

“You know, if we don’t buy the car and take possession tonight, we may end up camping in that forest preserve we passed,” I told Mr. Contreras as we started walking. “The sign says the last bus leaves the Gross Point depot at nine–thirty, and it’s a quarter of now.”

“Cab.” He was puffing a little from the heat and the walk. “I’ll treat you to a cab back to the L, cookie.”

When we finally reached the seller’s apartment, we saw the car wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. Rust over most of the driver’s door and around the trunk made it look depressing, the tires were worn, but a ten–mile drive to the airport and back didn’t reveal anything amiss in the engine. The seller was a kid who’d graduated from Champaign in engineering this spring. He bought the Skylark used when he started school, drove it hard for five years, and wanted to unload it now that he’d landed a real job with serious money. All the time we talked about his beater, he couldn’t stop looking at the Ford truck he’d bought to celebrate entering the job market at a hundred thousand a year. Without much real haggling we got the Skylark for twelve hundred.

Mr. Contreras overwhelmed me by pulling twenty carefully folded twenties from his inside pocket: “My contribution to the family car,” he insisted, when I tried to demur. I offered to let him drive home, but he refused.

“I don’t see so good at night anymore, cookie. Matter of fact, I been worrying about it some.”

“Then let’s get you to the doctor,” I said. “You can’t neglect your eyes. If you need new glasses or have cataracts or something, now’s the time to take care of them.”

“Don’t make me out to be an old man,” he snapped, locking the seat belt. “You’re as bad as Ruthie, wanting to push me into an old–age home. I can still see good enough to make out that gizmo you took from them girls on the street. What was it, anyway?”

I’d forgotten about it during our long ride and pulled it out of my shirt pocket for his inspection. He couldn’t place it any more than I could, but when we got home—in twenty minutes versus the eighty–seven we’d spent on the way out—I dug a copy of
out of the stack of papers in my recycling box. I went through it page by page studying the ads and on the inside of the back cover struck gold—or painted plastic. A pair of Ferragamo loafers were standing back to front against a rose silk scarf, and a pair of omegas like the one the girls had found were stitched into the strap across the instep.

Va bene,
Signor Ferragamo,” I said aloud. A horseshoe, not an omega. The Ferragamo logo. I’d recognized it because I tried on some Ferragamo pumps a few weeks ago: my beloved red Bruno Magli’s had finally become so worn that not even old Signor Delgado out on Harlem could patch the sides enough to attach new soles.

I’d decided I couldn’t afford shoes that cost almost three hundred dollars this summer—a wise decision, considering the expenses I was racking up right now. It was hard to imagine that the immigrants living along Balmoral and Glenwood could afford them either. I suppose someone might have gone into debt for an upscale logo, but I went to bed wondering where in the metropolitan area someone was looking in annoyance at a shoe or handbag with a damaged strap.

7 Habeas Corpus?

Mary Louise called me early in the morning. “Vic, I’m running to get Nate to day camp, so this’ll be quick: there isn’t much, anyway. Aguinaldo was working as a mother’s helper for someone named Baladine out in Oak Brook. She’d been there two years when she stole a gold necklace worth forty or fifty thousand dollars—it had gems in it too, bitty diamonds or rubies. They pressed charges—”

“The Baladines?” I interrupted. “As in the Robert Baladines?”

“Robert, Eleanor, and their three children. Do you know them?”

“No, darlin’, he’s so big I don’t even think of him as competition. He runs Carnifice—you know, the billion–dollar PI firm, only when they get that big they’re called “Security Providers,’ or something.”

“Well, be that as it may, Mrs. Baladine loved that necklace—Robert gave it to her when little Robbie was born, blah, blah, so she pressed charges in a serious way. The defense tried to plead Aguinaldo’s blameless previous life and the fact that she was the sole support of a mother and two kids of her own, but we were being tough on immigrants that month and Aguinaldo got five years. She’d been a model prisoner for fifteen months, had worked her way into the clothes shop, which is a premium gig at Coolis, when she escaped. Last known address on Wayne, about two hundred yards from where we found her.” She read out addresses and phone numbers both for Aguinaldo’s home and the Baladines.

“Now I’ve got to scoot—Natie’s frantic he’ll miss the opening ceremony, and he’s gotten real into raising the flag and playing reveille. Who knows—maybe he’ll want to join the army or be a cop when he grows up.”

“Or maybe play the bugle. I’ll get him one for his birthday.”

“You dare, Vic, and he’ll practice under your window every morning at six!”

It wasn’t quite eight when she hung up. Too early to expect a report from Freeman. I thought I’d give Vishnikov a chance to take off his jacket and finish his coffee, or whatever his morning office ritual was. I did a full workout in my living room, including a session with my weights. I even took the trouble to put the weights back in the closet before trying the morgue. Vishnikov was in the dissecting room and didn’t want to be interrupted. I left a message and took the dogs out.

The air was still thick with humidity, but it was early enough that the heat wasn’t unbearable. I ran the dogs to Lake Michigan and back, a nice three–mile stint. The cops have started a major roundup of leash–law violators, even ticketing people whose dogs are swimming from the rocks along the lake, but I managed to get Mitch and Peppy in and out of the water without a citation.

“Lemour may be on me like my underwear, but he’s apparently not an early riser,” I told the dogs on the way back.

I tried Vishnikov as soon as I got in, but he still wasn’t taking calls. I wanted to go out to Oak Brook and talk to Eleanor Baladine about Nicola Aguinaldo, and I wanted to get up to Aguinaldo’s home in Uptown, so the faster I got to my own office and did some work that would generate income, the faster I could get to an investigation that might help save my hide. The only thing more important than doing my real work was getting hold of the dress Aguinaldo had been wearing. As soon as I got to my office I called Lotty.

“You were in luck, Vic: the administrator in charge of the ER in the mornings is so meticulous a follower of regulations that he’s wasted on Beth Israel’s small protocols. He bagged and labeled the clothes. Do you want to pick them up?”

“No. I don’t want anyone claiming I could have tampered with them. I want him to messenger them over to Cheviot Labs. With a note on where they’ve been since coming off poor little Ms. Aguinaldo’s body yesterday. Shall I call Max and ask for that? Or can you?”

She said it would be quicker if she handled it. “And on the other matter, the report the paramedics filed, Max is asking Cynthia to fax you a copy.” She hung up on my thanks: she was in the middle of a ferocious patient schedule.

One of the things I invested in when I moved to my new building was a set of detailed maps of most of the states and an art–supply cabinet for storing them. I pulled out the counties of rural Georgia where one of Continental United’s trouble spots lay, hoping that I wouldn’t have to go there in person to see why so many tire punctures occurred on County Road G. As I drew a line on the map from Hancock’s Crossing, where Continental’s warehouse sat, to the intersection of County G and Ludgate Road, Freeman Carter’s secretary called.

“Freeman wants to talk you, Vic. He has an opening at twelve–fifteen if you can stop by his office.”

I thanked her and turned back to my maps. I was betting either a driver or a dispatcher owned a service station on that corner: it had to be someone who could make sure trucks used a particular route which they probably strewed with nails. The drivers then had no choice but to hike up the road to the station for their tires. I called the director of human resources whom I’d met with yesterday, and asked him to fax me copies of the repair bills. It would be annoying to have to go down and confront these people in person; I hoped I could figure it all out from the paper trail.

Vishnikov returned my call as I was getting ready to leave for my appointment with my lawyer. “Vic! What’s up? Need help hiding a body?”

“It may come to that, if a police ape named Lemour harasses me any further. But this is about a body you already have—Nicola Aguinaldo. She died yesterday at Beth Israel in the OR and came in too late for you to work on.”

There was a pause on the other end. “That’s funny: I remember now, she came in at the end of the morning. I took a quick look at her—there was something unusual about her, so I wanted to do the autopsy myself, but she wasn’t—hold on while I check.”

He put the phone down. I heard chairs scraping, a murmur of voices, and then a door shutting. I waited a good five minutes before Vishnikov came back.

“Vic, this is one of the more infuriating moments in my tenure here. Some jag–off released the body last night. I can’t even find out who—a form was filed but not signed.”

“Released to the family?” I was puzzled. “When I called last night, they didn’t have a next of kin listed.”

“The form says the girl’s mother claimed it. How the hell they released it—well, that’s neither here nor there. I’ve got to go. I need to—”

I spoke quickly, before he could hang up. “What was it about her body that made you want to look at it yourself?”

“I don’t remember now. I’m too goddamned angry to think about anything except getting hold of the bastard who let this body out of here without authorization.” He slammed the receiver in my ear.

This was the first time I’d heard Vishnikov blow up in the four or five years I’ve worked with him. I wondered if Lemour had somehow engineered removal of the body, before an autopsy proved I hadn’t hit her, or maybe proved she hadn’t been hit by a car at all. I began to wonder if Lemour had killed her himself and was trying to find someone else to blame. When he couldn’t pin it on me he got a buddy in the morgue to quietly let the body go.

The Beth Israel fax had come in while I was talking to Vishnikov. I stuffed it into my briefcase and dashed out to the L to ride down to Freeman Carter’s office in the Loop.

Freeman rented a suite that held the requisite mahoganies and objets d’art of lawyers in the financial district. He rose to greet me when his secretary sent me into his inner office. His summer suit had been tailored to fit his tall body and even to make him look a little broader through the chest, and his white–blond hair had been cut as carefully as the suit. He makes a good impression in court, which I like, and has the brains to back it up, which I like even more.

“Vic, I talked to Drummond at the State’s Attorney and he made some calls.” He perched on the corner of his desk. “Rogers Park has lost the incident report but they asked the officers who came to the scene to reconstruct it. They say you refused to take a sobriety test—”

“That is an outright lie.” I felt my cheeks flush. “They didn’t ask for blood, but they breathalyzed me and I walked a line and did all that stuff for them. Freeman, I don’t drink and drive, and all I had all night long was three Pellegrinos.”

“They got to the scene too late to witness the accident, so they’re not accusing you of hitting the Aguinaldo woman. But the State’s Attorney is saying if you’ll own up to the hit–and–run they won’t jeopardize your PI license or standing with the bar by a criminal prosecution.”

I was so furious the blood drummed in my ears. “This is so outrageous I can’t even comment on it. I will not perjure myself because a couple of cops are too lazy to conduct a proper investigation.”

“Whoa, there, Vic. I don’t blame you for being angry, but let me finish. I told Drummond that was unacceptable—but if they’re claiming you refused a blood test, I need to be one hundred percent sure of the ground I’m on.”

“When I’m stupid, careless, or criminal I don’t walk away from it, but in this day and age where presidents and senators lie as a matter of course, I don’t expect anyone’s word of honor means much.” I tried to regain my composure. “However, I am telling you the unvarnished truth about Nicola Aguinaldo. Not a courtroom truth. Talk to Mary Louise. She’s not under my thumb, and she was at the scene.”

He reached behind him to push the intercom button. “Callie, Vic’s going to give you some phone numbers when she leaves. Mary Louise—what is it?—Neely. I need her to come in ASAP to give me something like a deposition. Go over my schedule with her and find what fits.”

He turned back to me. “It would be very helpful if you produced your car for forensic inspection. Where is it, Vic?”

I gave a tight smile. “It’s over at the Cheviot Labs. When they’ve done all their tests and taken pictures, the police can have it. You know, yesterday morning when Lemour and his partner came over, at first it seemed pretty much like a routine inquiry, following up to a manslaughter. For which the cops usually just go through the motions if there isn’t a witness to ID the car. I had my car towed because Lemour seemed so aggressive it got me worried. Half an hour later he threatened me on the street, which told me I was right to be concerned.”

Freeman gave a twisted smile. “Vic, this is so like you, to take matters into your own hands. The police are claiming your car as evidence in a manslaughter investigation. Can you do me, your long–suffering counsel, a huge favor and produce it by the end of the day? I would be most grateful. Tell Callie—she’ll arrange with Drummond for police technicians to pick it up from Cheviot Labs. And for God’s sake, don’t start a vendetta against Lemour. You can make better use of your time. I’ve got to run now: I have a conference at the federal building and I want to grab a sandwich.”

As he headed for the door I said, “Before you go, Freeman, did you know the dead woman was a nanny out at the Baladines’ in Oak Brook before her arrest? I presume it’s the same Baladine who heads Carnifice Security. Is he pushing on the State’s Attorney in some way?”

“Can you tell Callie that, too? She’ll add it to your file.”

“Also, which is really interesting, the dead woman’s body was released from the morgue in the middle of the night last night. Before Vishnikov could do the autopsy. Who better than a police detective to arrange something like that?”

“Vic, don’t go on a witch hunt after Lemour. Whoever this woman was, and whatever Lemour or even Baladine is doing with her, she is not worth your career. And not to be crude, you haven’t got the resources, either financial or in muscle, to take on someone Baladine’s size, let alone the Chicago cops. Got it?”

I tightened my lips but followed him to his outer office, where he stopped to rattle off a string of instructions to Callie—most of them about other clients. He finished with my affairs.

“Vic has a few things for you—and she’s going to tell you where her car is so you can call Gerhardt Drummond over at the State’s Attorney and let him in on the secret—isn’t that right, Vic?” He gave me a malicious grin and trotted out to the elevator.

When I finished telling Callie Mary Louise’s phone number and the rest of the stuff, I headed out. Down in the building lobby I stopped to call Mary Louise myself, to explain what Freeman wanted, but only got her machine. She was on the go a lot, between the kids, her work for me, and her classes. I gave as concise an explanation as I could and told her to call me on my cell phone if she had any questions.

I frowned at the fast–food stalls in the lobby. You used to be able to get a bowl of homemade soup or a deli sandwich in the mom–and–pop diners that dotted the Loop. The new buildings had moved all their shops inside, to so–called plazas, where they control the take, then brought in chains that drove the coffee shops out of business. I picked up something called a Greek salad—I guess because it had two olives and a teaspoon of feta on it—and went back to my car.

Mary Louise had given me the Baladines’ home number this morning. I sat in my car, trying not to spill oily lettuce on my lapel, and phoned Oak Brook. If Robert Baladine broke my legs or bombed my office I’d let Freeman chant “I told you so” over my hospital bed a few hundred times.

A woman with a heavy accent answered. After some prodding she put me through to Eleanor Baladine. “Ms. Baladine? This is V. I. Warshawski. I’m a Chicago detective. Did you know that Nicola Aguinaldo had escaped from prison?”

The silence at the other end was so complete, I thought for a moment the connection had gone. “Escaped? How did she do that?”

It was such a strange answer that I would have paid good money to know what went through her mind in the seconds before she spoke. “I’ll tell you what I know when I see you. We need to talk as soon as possible. Can you give me directions to your house? I have your address, but the suburbs are a mystery to me.”

“Uh, Detective—uh, does it have to be this afternoon?”

Bridge club? No, not for the contemporary rich woman. Tennis, or something more recherché. Her Artist’s Way group, I bet.

“Yes, it does. The faster I get information, the sooner I can figure out where she was headed when she left Coolis. I understand she was with you for two years. I’d like to find out what you knew about her . . . associates.”

BOOK: Warshawski 09 - Hard Time
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