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Authors: Sara Paretsky

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BOOK: Warshawski 09 - Hard Time
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10 Found in Translation

“My mom doesn’t speak much English,” Mina warned me as she took me inside.

“Neither did mine.” I followed her up the narrow stairs, where the smell of old grease and mold vividly brought back the tenements of my own childhood. “We spoke Italian together.”

“My mom only speaks Arabic. And a little English. So you’ll have to talk to me unless you know Arabic.” As we climbed the stairs she took a fringed scarf out of her jeans pocket and tied it around her curls.

Mina’s mother—Mrs. Attar to me—received me in a living room that I also knew from my childhood. I used to sit in places like this when my mother took me with her on social calls in the neighborhood: overstuffed furniture encased in plastic, a large television draped in a piece of weaving from the Old Country, a thicket of family photos on top.

Mrs. Attar was a plump, worried woman who kept her daughter planted firmly next to her. Even so, she insisted on offering me hospitality, in this case a cup of thick sweet tea. Hers might be a seat of poverty, but her manners sure beat those in Oak Brook.

I drank the tea gratefully: the heat outside became overwhelming in the overstuffed room. After thanking her for the tea, and admiring the weaving on the television, I broached my subject. I hoped Mina would do an accurate job with the translation.

“I have some bad news about Nicola Aguinaldo. She ran away from prison last week. Did you know that? She died yesterday. Someone hurt her very badly when she was on her way to this apartment building, and I would like to learn who did that.”

“What? What you are saying?” Mrs. Attar demanded.

Mina snapped off a string of Arabic. Mrs. Attar dropped her hold on the girl and demanded information. Mina turned back to me to translate. That role was familiar to me as well. My mother’s English became fluent with time, but I could still remember those humiliating meetings with teachers or shopkeepers where I had to act as interpreter.

“The girls say you looked after Sherree when the baby was in the hospital. Was that after Nicola was sent to jail? I know the baby was sick before.”

When Mina translated, first for me and then for her mother, she said, “My mother doesn’t remember Sherree staying here.”

“But you remember, don’t you?” I said. “You agreed with your playmates when they brought it up.”

She looked at me slyly, pleased to be in control. “There are so many kids in this building they probably got confused. Sherree wasn’t here.”

Mrs. Attar ripped off a question to her daughter, probably wanting to know what our side conversation was about. While they talked I sat back on the crinkling plastic and pondered how to get Mrs. Attar to talk to me. I didn’t care whether she’d ever looked after Sherree Aguinaldo. What I needed was the address where the grandmother had moved with Sherree, or the names of any men Mrs. Attar might have seen with Nicola Aguinaldo.

I looked Mrs. Attar in the eye, adult to adult, and spoke slowly. “I’m not with the government. I’m not with Children and Family Services. I’m not with INS.”

I opened my handbag and spread the contents on the cluttered coffee table. I laid out my credit cards and my private–eye license. Mrs. Attar looked puzzled for a moment, then seemed to understand what I was showing her. She scrutinized my driver’s license and the PI license, spelling out my name from card to card. She showed it to her daughter and demanded an explanation.

“You see?” I said. “There is no badge in here.”

When Mrs. Attar finally spoke to me, she said in halting English, “Today is?”

“Thursday,” I said.

“One ago, two ago, three ago is?”

“It’d be Monday, Ma,” Mina cut in in exasperation, adding something in Arabic.

Her mother put a light hand over her daughter’s mouth. “I tell. Men comes. Early early, first prayers. Is—is—”

She looked around the room for inspiration, then showed me her watch. She turned the dial back to five–thirty.

“I wake husband, I wake Mina, I wake sons. First wash. Look outside, see men. I afraid. Woman here, have green card, I find.”

“Derwa’s mom,” Mina put in, sulking because she wasn’t controlling the drama any longer. “She’s legal; Mama got her to ask the men what they wanted. They were looking for Abuelita Mercedes, so Mama went and woke her—they’re not Islam, they don’t have to get up at five–thirty like we do.”

“Yes, yes. Abuelita Mercedes, much good woman, much good for Mina, for Derwa, take with Sherree when I working, when Derwa mother working. All childrens call her “Abuelita,’ meaning “Grandmother,’ not only own childrens. I take him—”


Her,
Mama; if it’s a woman it’s her, not him.”

“Her. I take her, I take Sherree. Men coming here”— she stabbed at her chair, to indicate this very room—”I say, she my mother, these my childs all.”

“And then?”

“Leave. No good stay here. Men go, more men come, no good.”

I assumed she meant Abuelita Mercedes had to move before more INS agents showed up looking for her. “Do you know where she went?”

A sigh and a shrug. “Better not know. Not want problem.”

I asked Mrs. Attar if she knew of any men Nicola had dated. Mrs. Attar only shrugged again—she couldn’t help. When I asked about Mr. Baladine—the boss who sometimes drove her home—Mrs. Attar lifted her palms in incomprehension. Nicola was a good mother—it was the only reason she went out to work among rich strangers, to make money for her two little girls. She came home every week to see them; she was never late, she never had time for men. Mina smirked a little at this, which made me wonder if the kids would tell a different story.

“America no good place. Baby sick, mother no money, mother go jail. Why? Why peoples no help?”

She turned to Mina to put her ideas more completely. In Egypt a mother could take her sick baby to a clinic where the government would care for it, then there was no need for the mother to steal to pay the bills.

“Now mother dead, and why? Only want help baby. America very no good.”

I couldn’t think of a convincing rebuttal. I thanked her for her time and tea and let Mina take me back outside. Her friends had vanished. I tried to ask her about Nicola Aguinaldo, whether Mina had ever noticed any men visiting her or knew of talk on the streets about her, but the child was hurt at her friends’ defection. She hunched her shoulder angrily and told me to mind my own business. There didn’t seem to be much else I could do, so I got into the rattling Skylark and drove off.

I stopped in the park at Foster to give Peppy a walk. The police were sweeping the area in their three–wheeled buggies, slowing when they passed anyone with a dog, so I kept her on her leash. She didn’t like it—especially since the squirrels weren’t similarly constrained—but unlike her son she doesn’t yank my arm off when she’s tied up.

Aguinaldo had run away from Coolis without knowing that her mother had fled their apartment. And then? Had she come home, found her mother gone, and called Baladine for help, only to be beaten up? Or met up with some old boyfriend in the neighborhood with the same disastrous results?
“Those women around the pool knew something, but what? About Aguinaldo’s escape, or her injuries, or her relations with Robert Baladine? We’re no closer to having anything on Aguinaldo’s private life than we did this morning,” I said, so severely that Peppy flattened her ears in worry.

“And that smirk Mina Attar gave, when her mother said Nicola had no time for men, it could have concealed anything—the other kids implied Mrs. Attar had plenty of time for men, so Mina might have been smirking at her mom. Or maybe Mina knew something about Nicola that she wasn’t saying. It was the look of someone who felt she knew someone else’s guilty secret, that’s for sure.”

And what about this guy Morrell whom the kids had mentioned, the one interviewing people who had escaped from prison? Could he have played some role in Aguinaldo’s escape, or in her death?

Who had claimed Aguinaldo’s body? Abuelita Mercedes, the neighborhood grandmother? If so, how had she learned that Nicola was dead? From Morrell? Who was he—a social worker? A journalist? I didn’t think he could be from INS. And I didn’t think he was a cop—he’d been coming around before Nicola’s death.

I jerked Peppy away from a dead gull. I wished Vishnikov had done the autopsy when Nicola’s body arrived on Wednesday. If she’d gone to the hospital in Coolis for an ovarian cyst, maybe that had caused her internal problems, although the Beth Israel surgeon thought she’d been hit or kicked. The external injuries had been fresh when I found her, and that broken arm looked as though it had just occurred, as if she’d been struck by a car. If so, was there a boyfriend who beat her up? My mind circled back to Robert and Eleanor Baladine.

I could imagine a lot of scenarios where a man might have sex with the live–in nanny, from unregulated desire through hostility toward his wife or rivalry with his son. But would he have prosecuted Nicola for theft as a way to protect himself? Would she have turned to him for help when she escaped from prison? And then—and then what?

He was clearly friends with Edmund Trant, the head of Global Entertainment’s media division, or at least the two wives were friends. Along with the wife of the Illinois House Speaker. That was cozy for a couple of important businessmen, to know their wives schmoozed with the wife of the state’s key power broker.

I wondered what Murray knew about relations between Edmund Trant and Robert Baladine. Or Trant and Speaker Poilevy, for that matter. I bundled Peppy into the backseat of the Buick and went home.

11 Clean—On the Outside

I caught Murray at home. “Murray, hi, V. I. here. Quite a job you did Tuesday night—I saw even
The New York Times
condescended to notice Chicago and give you a couple of lines.”

“Thanks, Vic.” His tone was cautious.

“Even I got a little mention,” I persisted. “Was it you who talked to Regine Mauger about me? Crumbs from the Global table would sure be tasty. Maybe it would only take one Global crumb to replace my car.”

“Christ, Vic! Give me a break. Do you think I suggested something like that to Regine? Someone gets under her skin and she goes after them like a horsefly. I don’t know what you did to annoy her—maybe you called up and persecuted her in her own home. She huffed up to me at the Glow, demanding to know who you were and who got you an invitation.”

“I wonder who told her about that eons–old fling you and I had.” I sounded earnest and puzzled; when he stammered over a response, I added, “Sorry, I didn’t call to tease you. I’m glad you got a good response to your gig. I really called because of something odd I stumbled on—just about literally—on my way home from the party.”

I gave him a brief summary of my accident. “I haven’t seen a mention in the papers, even though she broke out of Coolis on Sunday. But I learned something curious today. She was an illegal Filipina immigrant. Who used to be Robert Baladine’s nanny—his kids’ nanny, anyway—before she went to jail. Don’t you think that’s worth a line or two of type, Baladine being head of Carnifice Security and all?”

“Illegal immigrants who escape from prison and die aren’t the kind of story I cover, Vic. I can mention it to the City Desk, but if it happened Sunday—well, today’s Thursday, after all.”

I ignored the coldness in his voice. “You know Eleanor Baladine is a mad swimmer? She missed a chance to swim in the Olympics and is determined her children will do it for her. I went out there this afternoon and watched her lashing kids around the pool. Besides her own they included Edmund Trant’s daughter and Jean–Claude Poilevy’s sons. By the way, if you heard the names Utah and Madison, would you imagine you were being given street directions or hearing about two little girls?”

“If you’re trying to imply that Edmund Trant and Jean–Claude Poilevy got together with Robert Baladine to kill Baladine’s ex–nanny, you’re so far over the edge that no one can pull you back, Warshawski. I have to run—I’m going to be late for dinner.”

“Sandy Fishbein or Alexandra Fisher or whoever it is can wait five minutes without hurting your television prospects. The Rogers Park police lost the incident report and now they’re saying I was driving drunk and refused a blood test. They want me to take a fall on a hit–and–run in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Don’t you think that’s queer?”

He was silent for a long moment. “It’s unusual. But it doesn’t make me think Baladine is in a conspiracy with Trant and Poilevy to get you.”

I fidgeted with the phone cord. “I don’t think anyone’s out to get me—I mean, not because I’m me. But I do think someone with a heavy hand is leaning on Rogers Park and the State’s Attorney to make a tidy end to the case. Because I happened along and called an ambulance I was nominated for the tidy ending—they couldn’t know housekeeping has always been my weakest point. Poilevy could be leaning on the State’s Attorney as a favor to Baladine, you know, to keep anyone from asking questions about his relations with his kids’ ex–nanny. Stranger things have happened in this town. They might have rushed in to charge me, except I’m a detective, my passenger was an ex–cop, and I sent my car to a private lab for forensic work. Along with the clothes Aguinaldo was wearing when she died.”

“Vic, it’s not that I don’t love you, but I’m late, and I don’t have a clue why you’re telling me all this.”

I suppressed a sigh of impatience. “What do you know about Trant and Poilevy’s working together, or Poilevy and Baladine, that would tell me whether it’s Poilevy pulling this particular lever?”

“Nothing. And I’m not stirring up water around Edmund Trant. For any consideration you can think of. Not even the chance to watch Eleanor Baladine chase him around the pool with a whip.”

“Because you know he’s Mr. Clean? Or because you’re squeamish about taking on your great–grandboss?”

“My great–grand—oh.” When he spoke again, it was without the irritation he’d shown before. “Look, Vic. Maybe I’m being chicken. Okay, I am chicken. But you know how hard I tried to peddle my ass after Global bought the
Star.
In nine months I got three offers, and they weren’t for serious journalism: hardly anyone’s doing that now. I’m forty–six. If I start bird–dogging Trant or his friends I could find myself on the street—with no one wanting to hire a guy who guns for his own boss. So you think I’m a sellout for going on the tube. You want to lord it over me, oh queen of the incorruptibles, be my guest, but—there’s plenty to investigate in this town without my taking on Trant.”

“I don’t want to lord it over you. But—here’s one thing I’ve been worrying about. What if Baladine was sleeping with the help and set her up—initially, I mean. Maybe he gave her the necklace, then pretended she stole it.”

The more I said, the stupider it sounded, so the faster I talked. “Then she runs away, she needs money, she calls the one person with money she knows—Baladine—”

“Do you have one shred of evidence for this?”

Embarrassment made me hug my knees to my chest, but I bluffed past it. “Well, the three women in Oak Brook sure knew something about Aguinaldo—they knew she’d been assaulted before I mentioned it, and you guys hadn’t printed a line of type about her. Not only that, her body disappeared from the morgue before Vishnikov could do the autopsy.”

“Vic, this isn’t like you. You haven’t done your homework,” Murray said dryly. “Carnifice runs Coolis for the State of Illinois. So Baladine knew Aguinaldo had escaped, because he heads the company that runs the prison. And he probably got an ID on her from the morgue same as you, only faster. So it’s not surprising the ladies already knew. Sorry, Vic. This is a nonstarter. Although I could talk to Trant—I hear the Hollywood operation can use a boost, and that story has Keanu Reeves and Drew Barrymore written all over it. Unless someone’s paying you a big fee for fishing in this pond, I’d pull my line in.”

He hung up before I could respond. My cheeks were stained crimson. Anger or embarrassment? Or both. Running opposite the how–dare–he track in my mind was his uncomfortable final remark. Why the hell was I taking time to ask questions when I had no fee, no client, and a wrecked car to add to my overhead?

I’m only a few years younger than Murray. I couldn’t blame him for not wanting to take on his boss—especially on the insubstantial grounds I’d suggested. It’s true Murray has a condo in Lincoln Park and a new Mercedes convertible, compared to my spartan four rooms and beat–up Buick, but you feel fifty coming toward you and start getting nervous about how you’re going to afford old age. At least, I do at times.

Murray’s scoffing nettled me, but it embarrassed me, too. In the morning I went soberly about the business I was being paid to conduct, taking time only to call Cheviot Labs for a report on the Trans Am. They were giving my car a clean bill of health. I was nervous enough about the pressure from the State’s Attorney to ask them to messenger over a copy of the report before they gave the car to the cops, and I found an empty folder for the paramedics’ report Max had faxed to me. It was labeled
Alumni Fund,
from when I’d agreed to help raise money for my law school class. I’d done it mostly to help build connections among firms that might need a professional investigator, although when I automated, I’d discovered that most of the information was out of date. I’d type a proper label later, but for now I would attend to my own business. I would not pursue any other ideas, including a thought I’d had about going down to the Ferragamo boutique to see if they knew what garment that little logo had come from.

I printed the LifeStory report on the job candidate I was investigating for Darraugh Graham. I called banks and previous employers and put together a nice little dossier. I went back to my maps of rural Georgia.

At two a messenger arrived from Cheviot with their forensic report on my car. A man named Rieff had signed it. After a thorough inspection of the Trans Am’s front end, he said he found no traces of organic matter in the paint, wheels, or grille except for insect carcasses. Rieff was willing to stand up in court and pronounce the Trans Am clean outside, if not in. For this work the lab asked the modest fee of $1,878.

I wrote out a check, then faxed the report to my lawyer’s office with a crisp note telling him to get the State’s Attorney off my back. Freeman called a little later to tell me that privately the state was persuaded by the Cheviot report, but they weren’t going to admit that publicly because, as Freeman said, “You were such a pain in the ass about turning the Trans Am over to begin with. The cops are going to make you pay by holding on to your car.”

Rogers Park still hadn’t found the incident report, but Freeman thought he’d persuaded them to back away from harassing me about Nicola Aguinaldo’s death. Mary Louise had helped, by having Finchley call over to the station and letting them know I essentially had a police witness on my team.

“Thanks, Freeman. Out of curiosity, are the cops doing anything else to find who killed Nicola Aguinaldo, now that they’ve decided I’m not an easy arrest? And are they doing anything to find her body? No one at her old address knows where her mother is living these days.”

“Vic, that’s none of your business. I told the State’s Attorney that we had no compelling interest in her death and that if they let you alone you’d leave her alone. I don’t know what got that bee buzzing in their brains to begin with, but I don’t think you have anything else to worry about on this. So leave Aguinaldo’s death to the cops. You know the story on hit–and–runs as well as I do: with seven hundred murders a year in this town, manslaughter has to take a backseat. You don’t need to stand there like Aimee Semple McPherson haranguing sinners if they don’t put round–the–clock teams on finding who hit her.”

He paused, as if inviting my response; when I didn’t say anything he added, “I’m going to Montana for the weekend to do some fly–fishing with a client, so try not to get arrested until Tuesday, okay?”

“I guess that’s funny, so I’ll laugh, but next time you make a promise in my name to the SA, talk to me first.” I hung up with a snap.

So all that excitement with Detective Lemour and my car had been a tempest in a teapot? But someone had killed Nicola Aguinaldo. And those women in Oak Brook knew she was dead before I told them. Okay, Murray was right: one of them was married to the head of the company that ran Coolis for the state, and the woman had been his kids’ nanny. So probably he had been notified ahead of the rest of the world. But in the absence of an autopsy, and with no news reports on Aguinaldo, how had those women known she’d been assaulted?

“Don’t touch it, Vic. Leave it alone or it will come back and bite you,” I admonished myself.

I went back to the Georgia problem with a dogged intensity. I was deep in a reverse directory on the computer, looking for people who lived near the garage that was outfitting Continental United’s trucks with new tires, when the phone rang.

It was a woman, with a low smooth voice like cream. “I’m calling from Mr. Baladine for I. V. Warshawski.”

So Aguinaldo’s death was going to bite me without my touching it. My stomach tightened. I shouldn’t have discounted the mad swimmer’s threat to tell on me to her powerful husband.

“I. V. Warshawski was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s pen name when he wrote for the
Daily Forward
in the thirties. I’m V. I., the detective. Which of us do you want?” Even at forty–plus, nervousness still makes me mouth off.

The cream didn’t lose any of its smoothness. “Is this Ms. Warshawski? Mr. Baladine wants to see you this afternoon. Do you know where our offices are?”

That sounded like a command; if nervousness makes me flippant, commands make me ornery. “I know where your offices are, but I don’t have time to drive to Oak Brook this afternoon.”

“Can you hold, please.”

I put the speakerphone on so I could hear her when she returned and obstinately went back to my reverse directory. Dance music wafted to me from Carnifice’s on–hold program, followed by a description of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “When you’re not home, is your children’s nanny Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? Carnifice Security’s Home Security Division can show you how to monitor your nanny on the job. We can trace her references before you hire her, too. Call us for an estimate.” They added an 800 number.

The dance music returned, followed almost immediately by the cream. “Mr. Baladine can see you at five today.”

“I could be free at
my
office at five if he wants to sit on the Eisenhower all afternoon. Unfortunately I don’t have time to do that. How about tomorrow?”

“Mr. Baladine has to be in Washington tomorrow. Can you tell me a time that you could get to Oak Brook today?”

I didn’t want to make that long drive just to be chewed out, but I’d love to meet the guy, as long as I didn’t have to face rush–hour traffic to do so. “How about seven?”

She put me on hold again, this time only long enough for the start of a spiel on Carnifice’s bodyguarding service. If I could make six–thirty, Mr. Baladine would appreciate it.

I said I’d do my best to earn the big man’s appreciation and turned thoughtfully back to my computer. Before going on with this dull problem in Georgia, I logged on to LifeStory and asked what they had on file about Robert Baladine. Yes, I told the machine, I was willing to pay a premium for short turnaround.

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