Authors: Sara Paretsky
“I don’t think anyone had these injuries coming. She was murdered. In an extremely foul way. Someone kicked or punched her hard enough to perforate her small intestine, then left her in the road. She died when fecal matter filled her abdomen. It was an unbelievably painful death. If you knew about this before I got here, well, it makes me want to know a lot more about relations between you and your husband and Ms. Aguinaldo.”
The children had climbed out of the pool. The girls were huddling within range of their mothers, but the twin boys were pelting each other with the Space Berets. The dark woman reappeared to drape Madison in a towel. The child grabbed her hand.
Mrs. Trant put her arms around Rhiannon. “The injuries sound dreadful, Detective, but maybe we could discuss them some other time.”
Eleanor was made of sterner stuff. “I want the name of your captain, and your name, too, Officer Whoosis. Just because we live in the suburbs doesn’t mean my husband doesn’t have powerful connections in Chicago.”
“I’m sure he does, Ms. Baladine, head of Carnifice and all. As I’ve said a number of times, my name is V. I. Warshawski.” I pulled a card from my handbag. “And I’m a detective. But private, not with the Chicago police.”
Eleanor’s eyes blazed and her chest expanded enough that she could have crossed the pool without stopping for air.
“Private detective? How dare you? How dare you insinuate your way onto my property to ask impertinent questions? Leave at once or the police will be here. Real police, who will have your behind in jail for trespassing so fast your head will spin.”
“I’m not trespassing: you invited me onto your property.”
“And now I’m uninviting you. Get out of here. And don’t give my son a ride anywhere or I’ll have you charged with kidnapping. You are undermining my efforts to get him to lose weight.”
I couldn’t keep back a laugh. “You are a mighty strange woman, Mrs. Baladine. Your former nanny is murdered and what you care about is your son’s waistline. So he’s not as addicted to lettuce and workout machines as you and your pals—but he seems like an attractive boy. Don’t keep running him down in front of strangers. And do keep my card. Whether I’m public or private, Ms. Aguinaldo is dead and I’m investigating. If you change your mind about letting me in on what you know about her personal life—give me a call.”
Eleanor dropped my card on the pavement, started to grind it with her bare heel, then thought better of it. She clapped her hands and turned to the girls. “Madison, Rhiannon, back in the pool. I want to see a two–lap race. Winner gets a bowl of frozen yogurt.”
As I passed the corner of the garage I heard Mrs. Trant say, “I think Rhiannon’s had enough for one day, haven’t you, darling?”
9 Out of the Mouths of Babes
As I was fumbling with the release mechanism to the gate, Robbie emerged from the shrubbery. His mother might inveigh against his lack of athletic ability, but he knew how to snake through the undergrowth like Natty Bumpo.
I stopped the car and got out. We faced each other in silence. All I could hear was the birds telling each other about choice worms or approaching cats. The house was so remote I couldn’t make out even a faint echo of Eleanor Baladine’s coaching, or the shrieks from the boys in the pool.
The longer the silence lasted, the harder it would be for him to break, so I spoke first. “I’m sorry I didn’t have a chance to tell you about Nicola’s death before your sister showed up.”
He flushed a painful red. “How did you—you didn’t tell Mom I was listening, did you?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t know you were there—you’re much too skilled in the undergrowth for a city slicker like me to hear.”
“Then how did you know I heard you talking to her?”
I smiled. “Deduction. They teach us that in detective school. It must be hard to live with three such determined athletes as your mother and sisters. Is your father a mad swimmer, too?”
“Tennis. Not that he was ever a champion like Mom—she has a gazillion trophies, just never anything from the Olympics, so we’re supposed to do it for her. I tried, I really did, but—but when they keep calling you butter—butt—”
“Nicola didn’t do that, did she?” I cut in before he embarrassed himself by bursting into tears.
He gave a grateful half smile. “Nicola, she didn’t speak much English. Some Spanish, but her real language was Tagalog. That’s what they speak in the Philippines, you know; that’s where she came from. She always said it was better to read and know many things from books than be able to swim. Without an education she could only be a nanny or clean houses. She taught me how to know the stars so I could track at night. I got a book of constellations in Spanish and English, which made Mom crazy; she thought Nicola should learn English instead of me Spanish. Maybe Nicola called me butterball in Tagalog.”
That seemed to be an attempt at a joke, so I laughed a little with him. “Who were the women who were there today?”
“Oh, they’re friends of Mom’s. Mrs. Trant, her daughter and Madison are in the same grade. And Mrs. Poilevy. Parnell and Jason Poilevy. I’m supposed to play with them because their father is important to my father, but I can’t stand them.”
Poilevy. The Speaker of the Illinois House. He’d been standing next to Edmund Trant at the party Tuesday night.
“Tell me about the necklace,” I suggested to Robbie.
“What about it?”
“Do you know if it was really valuable? Do you think it was really missing?”
“You mean, did Mom only pretend it was gone so she could make a scene about Nicola?”
Say what you will about today’s children—all those crime shows they watch make them understand the double–cross young. “Something like that.”
“You don’t know how tough Mom is. If she wanted Nicola gone,
out the door she’d go. No, Nicola took it all right.” He frowned. “She sold it at a place near where she lived. When Mom raised the roof and called the cops and everything, the Chicago police found it at this—some kind of jewelry resale shop.”
“Pawnshop,” I suggested.
“Yeah, that’s what it was. Pawnshop. And the man from the pawnshop picked out Nicola from a photograph. And I remember Dad saying”—here he flushed painfully again—”’Stupid spick only got twelve hundred dollars for a fifty–thousand–dollar necklace.’“
“Do you know why she stole the necklace to begin with?”
“Her little girl had asthma and it got real bad, she had to go to the hospital, only Nicola couldn’t pay the bill, I guess. I heard her asking Mom for a loan, and, well, it was thousands of dollars, I guess Mom couldn’t possibly loan her that much money, it would be years before Nicola could pay it off. I gave her five hundred dollars—the money I’ve saved from my grandparents’ birthday checks—only then somehow Dad found out, he stopped the checks, that was when he and Mom made me—”
He pulled at his T–shirt, so that the Space Berets stern faces distorted into sneers; when he spoke again it was in such a rapid monotone I could barely make out the words. “They made me go to this camp for fat kids where you had to run all day and only eat carrots for dinner, and by the time that was over, Nicola was arrested and on trial and everything. I never saw her again. I thought if she ran away from jai . . . only now she’s dead. Who killed her? Did you tell Mom she got kicked to death?”
If I’d known this sensitive boy was listening I wouldn’t have been so graphic with Eleanor. “The doctor who tried to save her life at the hospital said he thought she’d been punched or kicked, but no one knows who did it. I’m hoping I can find that out. Did she ever talk to you about any of the people in her life, anyone she was afraid of, or owed money to?”
“It’s only that she was—she wasn’t very big and she was afraid of people hitting her; once she thought Mom was mad enough to throw something at her, she—it was horrible, she was begging her not to hurt her. I wish—” His face crumpled and he began to cry. “Oh, shit, oh, shit, only crybabies cry, oh, stop.”
Before I could offer any words of comfort he vanished into the shrubbery. I got back in my car, then, wondering if he might be lurking within earshot, got out again.
“I’m going to leave one of my business cards behind this post,” I said loudly. “If anyone finds it who wants to call me, my number’s on it.”
The grounds were so carefully groomed there were no pebbles or branches to weight the card. I finally tore a twig from the shrubbery and placed it behind the gate–release post with my card. As I released the gate I heard a motor revving behind me. The Mercedes Gelaendewagen appeared, going fast. It overtook me before I finished turning onto Gateway Terrace. Mrs. Trant was at the wheel. She and Mrs. Poilevy still had on their heavy glasses, which made them look like the menacing action toys at the pool’s edge.
The Skylark huffed after them but couldn’t keep pace. Before I reached the first intersection the Mercedes had disappeared.
In a few minutes I was back on the main roads, where strip malls and office towers made the Baladine home seem a remote Eden. Buildings of unrelated size and design are plunked haphazardly on the prairie out here, as if their haste to fill the vast space makes developers dig it up at random. It reminded me of a giant box of chocolates, where someone had eaten bits off dozens of pieces in a greedy desire to consume the whole thing at once.
In the distance the orderly Chicago skyline appeared. I swung onto the expressway–Arthur seeing Avalon through the mists and eagerly returning. Not that the pockmarked apartments and burned–out lots lining the inbound Eisenhower were any more delightful than the western suburbs.
A roar in the Skylark’s exhaust made it hard for me to think about the Baladines. I hadn’t gotten what I’d gone out there for: the name of anyone who might have hurt Nicola Aguinaldo. And what had I learned? That the very rich are different from you and me?
Certainly they’re different from me. The neighborhood where I grew up was a lot more like Uptown than Oak Brook. Every kid on my block knew what a pawnshop was: we were often the ones our parents sent with the radio or coat or whatever was going up the spout to pay the rent.
By the same token I didn’t know what life with a full–time nanny was like. Did they talk about their private lives to their young charges? You couldn’t live intimately with people for two years without sharing many intimacies, I suppose, if you found a language in common.
Had Nicola preyed on young Robbie’s sympathies? A sensitive overweight boy would be an easy mark in this house of obsessed athletes. Maybe Nicola got tired of Mom—I certainly had after twenty minutes—and decided to steal both her son’s affections and her jewelry. Not that I was investigating this long–gone burglary, but I wondered if Nicola Aguinaldo really had an asthmatic daughter.
And what about Dad? Robbie had been awfully quick to get the implication of Eleanor Baladine making an excuse to fire Nicola. And those friends of the Baladines knew something—there was a whiff of concealed knowledge in the stiffening, the glances. Had Robert started playing with the help on those days off when he drove her to Chicago? When she ran away from prison did she think he would come to her rescue—leave Eleanor for a Filipina immigrant? Could he perhaps have killed her to keep her from messing with his happy home?
The rush hour was building. The drive home took almost twice as long as the one out, and the exhaust got louder in the long backup off the Eisenhower to the northbound Kennedy. By the time I pulled up in front of my apartment, my bones were vibrating from it. Definitely not a car I wanted to spend the rest of my life in.
Mr. Contreras was out back with the dogs, working over his tomatoes. I called from my back porch and Peppy came up to see me. Mitch was gnawing on a tree branch and barely lifted his head.
As I changed into jeans Peppy followed me around the apartment, making it clear she expected to come with me. “I’m going to Uptown, girl. What if someone assaults me and you’re left in the car for days? Not that a car on that block gets left for long. And I’d have to leave the windows open—anyone could come by and steal you or hurt you.” I couldn’t withstand the longing in her amber eyes. After taking my gun from the safe and checking the clip and the safety, I leashed her up and called down to my neighbor that I was taking her with me on an errand.
As I parked between a rusted Chevy and an empty pickle jar, I wondered what went through Nicola Aguinaldo’s mind when she made that long trip home on Sundays. Suburban bus to train, train to Union Station, walk to State Street, L to Bryn Mawr, the six blocks over to her apartment on Wayne. Over two hours, even if all connections went smoothly. And when she got home, instead of a pool and manicured grounds for her children, she’d find a tiny glass–strewn square of hard–packed dirt in front of her building. If she had fallen in with some scheme of Baladine’s, maybe it was in the hopes of buying her children’s way out of Wayne Street.
The girls who’d helped me canvass the street last night were jumping double–dutch when I pulled up. I picked the pickle jar out of the gutter before someone could run over or throw it. I didn’t see a garbage can so I tossed it into the open rear window of the Skylark. Peppy stuck her head out, hoping that meant I wanted her. The girls caught sight of her and stopped jumping.
“Is that your police dog, miss?” “Does he bite, miss?” “Can I pet him?” “Will he stay in the car?”
“It’s a girl dog who is very gentle; she’d love to say hi to you. Shall I let her out?”
They giggled nervously but approached the car. Peppy has perfect manners. When I let her out of the back, after dancing for a minute to show her pleasure at being released, she sat and extended a paw to the girls. They were enchanted. I showed them how she would take a dog biscuit from my mouth, our noses brushing gently.
“Can I do that, miss?” “Did you raise her from a baby?” “Ooh, Derwa, she likes you, she licked your hand!” “Mina, that police dog going to bite you!”
“Do any of you remember Nicola Aguinaldo?” I asked as casually as I could. “I’d like to talk to her mother.”
“Did she steal that gold thing we found?”
“Don’t be stupid,” another girl with thick braids and a head scarf snorted. “How could she steal something when she was already in jail?”
“That’s right, the missus didn’t like the way the mister looked at Sherree’s mother, that’s right, so she pretended Sherree’s mom stole something,” a third put in.
Someone objected that Sherree’s mom really had stolen a necklace and she was a thief, but one girl said, “That’s dirty talk, about Sherree’s mom and the mister; you shouldn’t be saying stuff like that.”
“Well, it’s only the truth! It’s not saying that Sherree’s mom did something dirty, not like Mina’s mom, you know—”
A hand reached across and slapped the speaker. Before the fight could escalate, I snapped at them to be quiet.
“I’m not interested in what anyone’s mother thinks, says, or does—that’s her private business. I need to talk to Sherree’s grandmother. Will one of you show me where to find her?”
“They moved,” Sarina, the oldest, said.
“Where?” I asked.
They looked at each other, suddenly wary. In the world of illegal immigrants, detectives who ask questions about the family are never benign. Not even Peppy or the beat–up Skylark could make me seem less than an educated Anglo—and hence attached to authority.
After some dickering they agreed that I could talk to one of their mothers. Mina was nominated: she’d lived across the hall, and her mom had looked after Sherree when the baby died.
“Sherree’s little sister,” a small girl who’d been silent before spoke up. “She coughed and coughed, and Señora Mercedes took her to the hospital; that was when—”
“Shut up!” The big girl with the long braid smacked her. “I told you you could play with us if you kept quiet—well, here you are blabbing your big mouth off, same as always.”
“I am not!” The little one howled. “And Mommy says you have to look after me anyway.”
“Mina!” I cut in, not sure which one I was addressing. “Let’s go talk to your mother and leave these two to sort out their problem.”
A girl with short curly hair looked at me. During the discussion she had hovered on the edge of the group, an outsider with the in crowd.
“I guess you can come up.” She wasn’t enthusiastic. “But my mom’s afraid of dogs; you can’t bring your dog inside.”
Half a dozen shrill voices promised to look after Peppy, but I thought it would be more prudent to return her to the car. Even a beautifully mannered dog can turn fractious with strangers, and childish strangers also couldn’t control her if she decided to follow me—or chase a cat across the street.