Read Warshawski 09 - Hard Time Online
Authors: Sara Paretsky
“She was a maid. I didn’t gossip with her about her associates.”
“Even if all you ever said to her was, “Change the baby’s diaper,’ or “Make sure you vacuum under the beds,’ you must have had some references before you hired her.” I tried to sound reasonable, not like an irritable old leftist.
“Oh, very well.” She sighed mightily but gave me detailed instructions: the Eisenhower all the way to the end of the expressway, out Roosevelt Road to the winding side streets of one of the area’s most exclusive small communities.
8 Poolside Chat
Half an hour later, as I turned onto Gateway Terrace, I thought that
was a strange word for a collection of houses that isolated people so thoroughly. Each house—if that’s what you call something with twenty rooms and four chimneys—was set so far back behind trees and fences that you saw only fragments of facades or gables. There weren’t any sidewalks, since no one could possibly walk to town—or rather, mall—from this distance. I passed a handful of kids on bikes and was passed in turn by a Jaguar XJ–8—top down to showcase a woman with blond hair whipping behind her—and a black Mercedes sedan. That was all the street life Gateway Terrace offered me before I reached number fifty–three. Quite a contrast to the crowded, littered streets of Uptown.
I stopped the battered Skylark at the gate and looked for a way in. A large sign told me the premises were protected by Total Security Systems (a division of Carnifice Security) and that the fence was electrified so not to try to climb over it. I wondered if one of those spikes at the top had caused the damage to Nicola Aguinaldo’s abdomen. She ran away from Coolis to this house, seeking help from her old boss, impaled herself, and they dumped her near her apartment, waiting for someone like me to come along who could take the fall for her injuries.
As I was scanning the property I became aware that someone on the other side was inspecting me. A round–faced boy of ten or so stepped forward when he realized I’d spotted him. He was wearing jeans and a T–shirt with the Space Berets—Global’s big action toy—on it.
“Hi,” I called through the fence. “I’m V. I. Warshawski, a detective from Chicago. Your mother is expecting me.”
“You’re supposed to phone the house,” he said, coming closer and pointing to a recessed case with a phone in it.
The steel case was so sleek I’d overlooked it. As my hand moved toward the cover it slid back with a whisper, but before I could reach for the phone inside the boy opened the gates for me himself.
“I’m not really supposed to do this, but if you’re with the Chicago police I guess it’s okay. Is there something wrong with Nicola?”
I was startled, and wondered if his mother had complained to him. “What makes you think that?”
“The only time the cops were here before was when Mom had them arrest Nicola. Or does she want you to take Rosario this time?”
I asked him to wait a second while I moved my car away from the middle of the entrance. He said he’d ride up to the house with me and hoisted himself into the passenger seat. He was a plump boy, rather short for his age—which was somewhat older than I’d first guessed—and he moved clumsily, as children do when they’ve been teased about their size.
“This doesn’t look like much of a cop car.” It was an observation, delivered in a flat voice.
He had a forlorn dignity that made me unwilling to lie to him. “I’m not a cop. I am a detective, but a private one, a PI. And I have come with some questions about Ms. Aguinaldo. It sounds as though you liked her?”
“She was okay.” He hunched a shoulder. “Has she done something else wrong?”
“No. Not that I know of, anyway, and even if she has it doesn’t matter, or not to me.”
We had reached the top of the drive. It forked so that you could go to the garage—big enough for four cars—or the house—big enough for forty residents. I pulled over to the edge, behind a Mercedes Gelaendewagen, the $135,000–dollar model. The vanity plate read
I wondered what
was attached to. Maybe a Lamborghini.
I wanted to ask the boy about Aguinaldo, but it didn’t seem right to question him without his mother’s knowledge. And without telling him that she was dead. Or maybe I was being chicken—who knew how a sensitive child would react to the news of his ex–nanny’s death.
“So why are you out here?” he demanded.
I made a face to myself. “Ms. Aguinaldo escaped from prison last week. Before she could—”
“She did?” His face brightened. “Cool! How did she do it? Or do you think I’m hiding her?”
On the last question he turned sullen. Before I could answer him, a girl came running from the garage side of the house, yelling “Robbie” at the top of her lungs. She was seven or eight, with water plastering her hair and bathing suit to her body. Where her brother was chunky and blond, she had dark hair and was slim as a greyhound.
My companion stiffened and stared straight ahead. The girl saw the car and ran over to us.
“Robbie! You know Mom will have a fit if she sees you in there.” To me she added, “He’s supposed to walk instead of riding. You can see he has a weight problem. Are you the Chicago cop? You’re supposed to go around back; Mom’s waiting for you there. She sent me to tell Rosario to open the gate when you got here, but I suppose Robbie already let you in.”
Robbie left the car while she was piping out her report. The girl was young enough to parrot adult comments without editing; the Baladines must have reported Robbie’s weight problem to strangers so often that it seemed natural to her to tell me about it. I wanted to say something reassuring to him, but he had slipped around the other side of the house.
“You know, there are worse things in life than being overweight,” I pointed out as I followed the girl past the garage.
“Yes, like stealing and getting sent to jail. That’s what Nicola did, so we had to get Rosario instead. I was only six when they arrested Nicola, so it was still all right for me to cry. I cried when Fluffy got hit by a car, too.”
“You are sensitive, aren’t you,” I said in admiration.
“No, that’s for crybabies. I don’t do it anymore, but Robbie cried over Nicola and he was almost eleven. He even cried when Fluffy killed a bird. That’s only nature. Mom! She’s here! She gave Robbie a ride from the gate to the house!”
We had arrived on the far side of the garage, where a four–lane twenty–five–meter pool and a tennis court offered the Baladines a chance to unwind after whatever rigors a day might hold for them. The pool and court were fringed with trees that created pleasing shade against the heat.
Two women were leaning back on padded chaises, eyes shielded by outsize sunglasses. Their swimsuits showed off bodies made perfect by total devotion to their care. They looked up when the girl and I appeared, but continued a desultory conversation with each other.
A third woman, also showing the kind of body that wealth and leisure afford, stood in the shallow end of the pool. She was coaching two little girls who were splashing along the lane next to her. Twin boys were jumping into the water at the deep end, chasing each other with plastic weapons. Several had been dropped at the edge of the pool. Space Berets action figures. I’d seen them at Mary Louise’s—both her boys collected them.
“Not so much motion with your kicks, Utah,” the woman in the pool commanded. “Rhiannon, don’t lift your arms so high coming out of the water. One more length, both of you, with less wave action. Jason and Parnell”— here she raised her voice to a shout, “if you don’t stop making so much commotion you’re getting out until we’re done here.”
She stood with her back to me while Utah and Rhiannon did another twenty–five meters, working hard to keep their splashing to a minimum. My guide watched critically.
“Utah’s my sister. She can do better than me when I was her age, but my form is improving. I’m definitely better than Rhiannon. Want to see?”
“Not today,” I said. “If Utah’s your sister, are you Wyoming or Nevada?”
The girl ignored me and dived into the pool, so smoothly that she barely caused a ripple. She surfaced a third of the way down her lane. Her form was definitely better than mine.
The woman boosted Utah out of the pool, then hoisted herself out with one smooth push from her upper arm. A fourth woman, dark and round as a Gauguin portrait, came out of the shadows and wrapped a towel around the smaller girl. She silently handed another towel to the mother, then walked off with Utah.
“I’m Eleanor Baladine. I hope this is important, because you’re interrupting my training program.”
“The Sydney Olympics?” I asked.
“I know you think you’re being funny,” she said coldly. “Robert and I don’t know how good our girls may get, but they could have a shot at a team in ten years. Especially Utah—although Madison is looking better all the time. And Rhiannon Trant is shaping up fast, even though she only started last summer.”
Rhiannon Trant? Daughter of Edmund, Murray’s new owner? That explained the Global plate out front—I’d thought it stood for Baladine’s plans for world domination. “That’s good. It would be a shame if they only swam for fun.”
“No one swims for fun. You either compete or you aren’t motivated enough to get in the water. I missed an Olympic spot by six–tenths of a second. I don’t want my girls to lose out like that.”
She broke off to call out an instruction to Madison. One of the women in the chaise longues, feeling Rhiannon was being neglected, sat up to call encouragement to her. If she was Edmund Trant’s wife, no wonder gossip columnists like Regine Mauger were slobbering over her. It wasn’t just her gold hair and tan, but the way she moved, even in a beach chair, and the little twitch of humor at her mouth, as if laughing at herself for caring about her daughter’s ability to compete in a neighborhood pool. She made me feel as wide and clumsy as young Robbie.
“I’m V. I. Warshawski.” I approached the pair in the chaise longues. “I’m a detective who has some questions for Ms. Baladine about Nicola Aguinaldo.”
Eleanor Baladine rushed over. “My children’s old nanny, you know, the one we had to send to Coolis for robbery—”
“Burglary, wasn’t it?” I interrupted. “Or did she break in and use a weapon?”
“Excuse me, Detective.” Baladine poured rich sarcasm over her words. “Not being used to the criminal element, I don’t understand these distinctions.”
“How did you hire Ms. Aguinaldo to begin with?” I asked.
“Through an agency. We all use it—Help Across Borders—they’re usually utterly reliable. They assured me Nicola’s immigration status was in order and vouched for her references. She was very good with the children, which I suppose wasn’t surprising since she had one of her own—”
“I thought it was two,” I interrupted.
“Maybe you’re right. This was several years ago; the details are vague to me now. Madison! Work with the kickboard and concentrate on your hips! You’re using way too much leg motion. You’re a seal with little flippers: let’s see them move.”
“She lived here? With her children?”
“Certainly not. I’m not running a day–care center, and the person who works here has to concentrate on that: work.”
“So how often did she see her own family? And how did she get to them?”
“I always gave her Sundays off, even though it was often inconvenient for us. Except when we traveled, when I had to have her along. Do you have children, Detective? Then you don’t know how hard it is to travel with three little ones. The girls are always getting into something, and my son tends to be secretive and wander off where no one can find him. In an effort to avoid anything approaching exercise.” Her eyes stayed on the pool; she was moving her hands up and down like little seal flippers, as if trying to get Madison to move properly.
The other two women threw in their own murmured complaints about how hard it is to manage children on the road. “They need their own little routines and friends,” one explained.
And pools and ski slopes and who knows what else. “And to see her children every Sunday, someone drove her to the train?”
Mrs. Baladine took her eyes from her daughter long enough to stare at me in some hauteur. “Since the robbery for which Nicola was arrested was over two years ago I can’t imagine what bearing her transport has on the situation.”
“I’d like to know who could have picked her up when she fled Coolis. She can’t have walked all the way to Chicago from there. Did some man fetch her on her days off? Or a woman friend? Or did you or Mr. Baladine drive her to the train?”
“We couldn’t take that kind of time. Sometimes Robert gave her a lift if he was going into Oak Brook for a meeting, but she usually picked up the Metra bus at the bottom of Gateway Terrace. Once or twice he drove her all the way home, when he had to be in the city. I knew it was a long trip for her, so I let her spend the night in town and took on getting the kids ready for school myself Monday mornings.”
“That was quite a sacrifice on your part.” I tried to conceal my contempt, since I wanted information from her, but she wasn’t stupid, and she bristled at my words.
I continued hastily. “She’d never stolen anything before she took that necklace, is that right? Did you ever get any sense of what drove her to do that?”
“She was poor and we were rich. What other reason would there be?” She was watching the pool again, but a stiffness in her posture made me think she knew more than that.
“I’m trying to find out who was in her background. If some man who badly needed money was controlling her, or if she had started to use drugs . . .” I let my words trail away suggestively.
“Yes, that’s it, Eleanor,” the third woman put in eagerly. “She must have known a lot of guys who could have attacked her. Didn’t one of them come out here one weekend?”
“Attack her?” I asked. “Who said anything about that?”
The woman looked toward Eleanor Baladine, or at least moved her dark glasses toward her, and mouthed, “Boo–boo,” then jumped to her feet, squeaking, “Jason and Parnell are getting much too rambunctious. It’s time I got them out of the pool and home. You’re a
Eleanor, to let them come over here when you’re trying to coach.”
“What was a boo–boo, ma’am?” I asked. “Letting me know you’d already heard about the attack on Ms. Aguinaldo, even though it hasn’t been made public?”
She laughed. “Oh, me and my big mouth. My husband says he can’t ask me the time of day because I’ll give him a dinner menu instead. I have no idea why that came floating out.”
“And what do you say?” I asked Eleanor Baladine. “Did she tell you about the attack on Ms. Aguinaldo? Or did you tell her?”
“Listen here, Officer Whoosis, I’ve had about all the snooping into my private affairs I’m going to tolerate. Nicola turned out to be the worst kind of immigrant, lying, stealing, filling my son’s head with superstitions. I was frankly glad to see her go to jail. If she escaped and got hurt, well, I hate to say it, but she probably had it coming.”