Chapter 10 — Chicago Soul
People talk about how cities have souls, a certain life and character all their own; problem is that Chicago sold its soul to the devil sometime back in the ‘20s.
— Michael Cooper, CRPF Commissioner
It was well after dark when I arrived at my destination. I had taken a taxi from the airport, but when we arrived the driver refused to stop the cab, insisting that the rims would be stripped from the axles the moment they stopped turning. I had to hand another fifty through the divider to get him to slow down enough for me to dive from the moving cab. I didn’t really blame the driver for his paranoia; if it weren’t for the fact that the world as I knew it, was about to end in a pandemic of apocalyptic proportions, I wouldn’t have been there either. The place looked much as I’d remembered it, tattered awnings, burned-out neon sign, and a blast of Italian seasonings wafting out into the alley.
I wasn’t exactly sure about protocol. The last time I’d been here, I’d been escorted, and my escort had opened the door. I decided there was no point in just standing out in the rain; so, I pushed the door open and stepped inside. There was a small vestibule or waiting room just inside the door. But my further progress was blocked by a towering gorilla of a man. I was pretty sure I recognized him but for the life of me I could not remember his name.
“Now whad’ya think you’re doing here?” he asked with a growl.
“I’m a friend of Fernando’s,” I said, feeling much shorter than my five foot-seven inches.
“Really? And what makes you assume that your knowledge of a man named Fernando means anything to me?”
“Well, I assumed that he was one of you… and I needed a job done that was… is rather, slightly… um outside the pale of… well, not quite entirely… perhaps a bit of a gray area? … And because he said… that…” the pauses in my speech grew longer as he fixed me with a piercing skeptical glare.
“Don’t stop now.” The gorilla said in a condescending voice. “Please continue to insinuate and slander the clientele of this fine establishment before…” And here his voice took on a menacing tone. “I throw you out on the street with the trash.”
This was going nowhere fast, so I decided to take a different approach. I pulled the last shreds of my courage into a cloak and spoke my next sentence as fast as I could. “You should remember me because the last time I walked in here I was packing two guns and carrying a briefcase with a quarter of a mil in gold.”
Unlike last time, he didn’t level a gun at my head, instead he spoke something into his lapel mike. A few seconds later, the red velvet curtains parted, and Fernando Dantini walked through. At least I thought it was Dantini, he seemed different. I put it down to the four-thousand dollar grey Armani suit that draped his tall frame.
I gulped. “Mr. Dantini, in case you don’t remember me, I…”
He interrupted before I had to go through it all again. “Of course, I remember you. Nick, right? What, in the name of all that is holy, are you doing back in Chicago?”
“There’s still a price on your head. It’s grown substantially since the last time you were here.”
“What? I paid old man Delany the twenty-five gees!”
“It’s not Delaney. Nobody knows exactly who it is, but there is still a price.”
I had a sneaking suspicion that this was probably due to a certain incident in Terrapin Creek; but I wasn’t about to venture any verbal opinions on the matter. “I didn’t know that.”
“Yep, the Reillys are still hunting you. They say it’s a matter of honor and has nothing to do with the money. Of course, I trust those Irish thugs about as far as I can throw them; which isn’t that far, even for me. Funny thing though, they were in Terrapin Creek the night of the accident.”
“Yeah, same night your pal from the insane asylum torched the place. Except, he wasn’t from the asylum, was he?” I sensed that this conversation was about to get even worse than the one with the bouncer.
“Um, I may have, in the interest of self-preservation, stretched the truth slightly.”
“Well yeah, you see at the time, he had just accused you of cheating your customers, and you looked like you may possibly have had anger management issues… So, I told you he was an asylum escapee, figuring that you wouldn’t kill a crazy man.”
He fixed me with a cold unblinking stare “And what makes you think that I would kill someone for a reason so trivial?”
“Well, I didn’t know you that well at the time, and frankly, you were a scary person.”
“Was a scary person?” He raised an eyebrow.
“Maybe I should just stop talking while I’m ahead.” I said with a nervous chuckle.
Dantini laughed. “Sorry, there are days when I derive a simple satisfaction from intimidating people. Last week, I stopped by the Kramer Tower. It’s forty some floors, takes a while to get to the top, see? So, I get on the elevator, turn around, and say, ‘Guess what? This is the first day in six months, the doctors said I could stop taking my anti-psychosis medications.’ Then I gave the Dracula grin, you know, the one where your lips smile but your face doesn’t. Anyway, it was good for the people; most of them got off the elevator and walked to work.”
In my mind’s eye, I could see some poor overweight business man keeling over in the elevator with a heart attack, but I didn’t say anything. Dantini’s chummy largesse was a touch disconcerting, but it boded well for my forthcoming request. “Enough about me.” Dantini continued, smiling, “Why are you back in Chicago?”
“I need information. I need it fast. And there’s no legal recourse for obtaining it.”
“What makes you think that I can help?”
“Look, nobody likes to say it, so I will. I know you’re not a taxi driver.” Dantini just nodded. “You wear Armani suits. You have some sort of feud with the Irish mob. It’s obvious that you are not exactly Joe Citizen.”
“You think I’m Mafia, don’t you?”
“Yes.” I answered with a sheepish grin. There seemed to be a very long pause.
“Ok, what do you need? Maybe I can help you find it.” I noticed that he didn’t confirm or deny my speculations, but I wasn’t about to press the issue.
“I have two names.” I said, “I need every piece of information that I can get on them: Social Insurance Numbers, credit cards, cell phones, driver’s licenses, everything.”
“Social Insurance? You’re looking for Canadians.” That surprised me, most people stateside don’t have a clue what goes on north of the border, maybe his criminal empire was international in scope.
“Let’s just say, without violating client confidentiality, that unless I get this information, me, my client, and all of my friends will die.”
“That sounds a bit melodramatic.”
“I can assure you, I’m not exaggerating. You know I wouldn’t be back in Chicago unless I thought it was important.”
“Alright, give me the names. I’ll see what I can do. I know some people who can get some of the information.”
“The names are, Pierre Noire and Patrick Flannigan. Flannigan’s an Irish immigrant, so he might only have a green card. Any other useful background info you could come up with would be nice.”
“Those aren’t exactly uncommon names. I’m sure that I could come up with half a dozen matches…”
I interrupted him. “Both of them have lived in Quebec in the last six months. It’s probably safe to assume that they’ve never held any sort of managerial position. Both are in their forties, about. And this.” I dumped two photos on the table. “Is what they look like. How long do you think that it’ll take for you to get the info?”
“If you’re lucky, three hours.” He glanced at his watch. “The west coast offices probably haven’t closed yet.”
While Fernando was busy tracking down the information I needed, I decided to pay a visit to my old digs. Even if there was a price on my head, nobody knew I was in town. I discovered that it was impossible to get a taxi to come to Siciliano’s, something about insurance premiums. After stomping through several blocks of puddles, I was finally able to hail a cab. The driver was thrilled to leave his current station, even though the address I gave him was hardly safer.
I was completely soaked by the time I climbed into the cab. The rain stopped just as we pulled to a stop outside my office building. In its wake, pools of water dotted the uneven streets. In the red light of the neon signs, the puddles looked like pools of blood staining the pavement. That, I thought as I stepped from the cab, was a fitting metaphor for this blasted city.
My building was locked, after hours’ safety and all that jazz. Fortunately, I had maintained the rent, one twelve-month lump sum paid before I skipped the country, so they wouldn’t change the lock on me. I opened the door and stepped inside as the sound of my taxi’s screeching tires faded into the distance.
The long creaky stairwell stretched before me, filling my mind with memories like a bathroom flooded by a broken faucet. At the top of the stairs was a sort of dual-purpose waiting room. Half was mine, the other half belonged to Madame Beaumond; a psychic medium, astrologer, and all around nut job.
Maybe that is an overly harsh critique. After all, she had been my most consistent source of income. Apparently the voices from beyond the veil were incapable of providing basic background information on her clients. She relied on more mundane means which pretty much killed whatever faith I might have had in her abilities. After all, if the tea leaves can’t tell you if a person likes Coke or Pepsi, I’m not sure I would take their advice on whom to marry. But I digress.
I was climbing the stairs, which sounded like they belonged on the set of a Dracula film, i.e. creaky beyond all description. They put me in a highly tense and perhaps twitchy mood; so, when I reached the top of the stairs and heard a click followed by “Mr. Chase.” I flipped. In less time than it takes me to describe, I’d drawn my .45 and spun around, lining up the sights on the silhouette in the darkness.
I was already rehearsing my upcoming speech to the DA: justified self-defense, castle doctrine, south side Chicago murder rates, etc. when I realized that the voice belonged to a woman. Now while I understand that there are female hitmen, or hitwomen I guess; I’ve never met one; so, my innate gentlemanly courtesy took over. I kept the gun aimed at her head, but I refrained from pulling the trigger. “Listen, girl.” I said. “Rule number one of survival: don’t ever surprise a man on the Southside who’s carrying a gun!”
She didn’t appear to be listening to a word I was saying. “Are you Nick Chase?”
“Who wants to know?” I saw that the sound, which I had first assumed to be a pistol being cocked, was actually the record button on a tape recorder. I think that only made me more nervous. Tape recorders should have gone the way of the dodo. The only people who still use them are crusaders seeking Pulitzers. When someone points a gun at you, you know exactly where you both stand. When someone points a tape recorder at you, it generally comes back to haunt you years later, like when you’re running for public office.
“I’m Kayla Meijer from the Chicago Tribune.” She said confirming everything I feared.
“I make it appoint not to talk to reporters.” I said with what I hoped was finality. I didn’t mention that this antipathy dated to when the Tribune tried to frame me in a police corruption scandal.
“Well with your past, I wouldn’t either.” The tape recorder was still running.
“What the…” I stopped, the tape recorder was still running, “What exactly, is that supposed to mean?”
“Never mind, can we talk in your office?”
“What makes you think that I have anything to say to you?”
“I thought that you might like a chance to defend yourself, before I report that you are actually the person responsible for torching El Rey Industries.”
“What? Ok, shut off that recorder.” I needed to sit down, so I opened the door to my office. I looked back to see that she’d made no move to turn off the recorder. “If you want to come in.” I said. “You’re going to have to turn off the recorder.”
She held the recorder in front of her face. “This is Kayla Meijer I am stopping this recording at the insistence of my contact, to protect his Fifth Amendment rights.” She pressed the stop button and smiled.
“That is not what I said.”
“You want me to turn it back on?”
I groaned and ushered her through the door. I sat down in my swivel chair and propped my feet up on the desk. “So, what exactly are you accusing me of Miss Meijer?” In the light of the office, I could see that she was what, under any other circumstances, I would consider an attractive woman. She was about my height, dark haired and always smiling. However, when they are threatening you with libel and slander, women tend to appear less attractive than otherwise; and their smiles just seem sinister.
Kayla took off her tan trench-coat and draped it across the sofa. “Make yourself at home.” I muttered with what I hoped she took as biting irony.
“I know that you are responsible for the Terrapin Creek fire.” She said eliminating any chance for a peaceful discussion.
“What insanity possesses you, to think that I had anything to do with that?” I opened the desk drawer, removing a bottle of Jameson’s and a pair of chipped crystal tumblers. I poured myself two shots and waited for her answer.
She eyed my drink with approbation; I think she was hoping it would loosen my tongue. Of course, the first rule of being a private eye is, knowing your limits. Two shots of whisky would barely produce a buzz. I offered her the second tumbler. “No thank you, I like to remain in full possession of my mental faculties when on the job.”
“So, what makes you think I had anything to do with your fire?” I asked raising the glass to stare into the pale liquor.
“The evidence is all there, you just have to look hard enough.” She said firmly. The last time someone had said that to me, he’d just finished explaining that the Roswell UFO was really a distress probe from the alien equivalent of the Donner Party, not a statement to fill me with enthusiasm.
“I don’t know what you think you’ve discovered…”
“Don’t bother lying to me.” She interrupted. “Telmar left a lot of tracks during his two days in Terrapin Creek. He paid for everything with cash, but he was the kind of person that people remember. Let’s see there was a uniform store, a motel, and a car rental agency. At each of those locations, they were able to positively identify him. Now here’s the funny thing, he didn’t buy anything at the uniform store. But someone matching your description, someone who was there with him, did. Someone named Jeff Sheridan.”
I was starting to get a little worried, but I hide emotion well. As long as she didn’t know about the engineering department, I was safe. The infiltration was the only thing on that trip of questionable legality. “Now, the afternoon of the fire you bought two LtL weapons.” I raised my eyebrows at this. “It’s a matter of public record.” She explained. I doubted that, but I let her continue. “The police didn’t notice because the purchase was made in Milwaukee; a two-hour drive from Terrapin Creek. I was clued in because there were three men, found on the premises, trapped in a shipping container. They claimed that they were attacked, outside the building, by a man with a tranq pistol. The toxicology report verified that claim, and they were acquitted of any responsibility in the matter. The police assumed that the attacker was Telmar, but Telmar didn’t have a tranq gun… you did. So, with all the other evidence, I think it is pretty obvious that Telmar, may God rest his soul, was the patsy and you were the perpetrator.”
I was about to point out that these hitmen were in the building, not outside, when they were attacked; and that they shot first, when I realized that such a comment would be self-incriminating. I decided that denial was the best route to take. “That’s nothing but speculative conjecture.”
“Conjecture has destroyed a lot of promising careers.” She replied, revealing a Machiavellian soul. “Besides, you and I both know that this is not conjecture.”
“Yeah, let’s not mince words, let’s call it what it is slander!”
“Only until I print it.” She said sweetly. “Then its libel.”
At this juncture my cell chirped announcing that I had a text message. I checked; it was from Fernando. The timing couldn’t have been better. I opened the drawer, removed the bottle of Jameson’s, and tucked it into the pocket of my jacket. “You know I would love to stay, and carry on this conversation, but there are places that I need to be.” “Yeah, like prison.” She said getting up from the couch.
That was the last straw. “Alright, listen to me!” I stepped around the desk and looked her straight in the eye. “The fate of our world hangs in the balance, so I don’t really care what you want, or what you think. I’ll be only too happy to answer your ridiculous accusations on another occasion.”
“Aren’t you curious how I got in the building?”
“I scheduled an appointment with the nut job across the hall.” I thought she was a nut job, but I wasn’t going to quibble with her description of Madame Beaumond.
“I’m sorry to hear that you wasted your money. You can get in through the front door with a decent pocketknife.”
“I heard the Reillys have a price on your head.” I muttered something impolite under my breath. “I wonder what they will do when they find out you are back in Chicago? Especially when they find out about your Jeff Sheridan passport.” This was really getting out of hand. “How many of your CIs are still alive?” I opened the door and ushered her out into the hall.
“All of the ones who’ve cooperated.”
I started down the stairs. “Tell you what, you keep quiet about my current location; and I will give you an exclusive scoop on the coming apocalypse.”
She was a reporter, and reporters always take that kind of bait. “What kind of scoop?” She asked, hurrying down behind me.
“One that I can’t discuss here, but I know this great Italian restaurant…” Next Chapter