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Breakdown

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

Breakdown is the title of the new V I novel, which will be published early next year. In this excerpt, an old law school friend of V I’s has called on the detective for help, and V I is trying to find her. V I describes Leydon like this:

Leydon Ashford was the first person I ever encountered who had two last names.  We’d both grown up along the shores of Lake Michigan.  The difference was, her family owned an eighteen-room mansion backing onto three hundred yards of private beach, whereas the Warshawskis’ five-room bungalow was separated from the lake by a century of cyanide-laced landfill.

When I first met Leydon, in our Civil Procedures study group, I’d been prepared to despise her, along with her family, and the Austin-Healy Sprite her father gave her when she graduated from Wellesley.  Leydon looked like a fairy-tale princess—she had hair like spun gold, and she seemed to float when she walked, like a feathery ballerina. I wasn’t a ballerina, I was a street fighter, product of the mills and ethnic wars of Chicago’s steel city.

12

Murder in the Cathedral

 

“Leydon?  Leydon, if you’re here, come out!  It’s me, Vic.”

I was standing in the doorway to the old library at the Divinity School.  The narrow mullioned windows were so clogged with ivy that even on a light summer evening, the room was too dark for me to see anything.  I ran my hand along the walls, fumbling for a light-switch, but finally had to dig a small flashlight from my briefcase.

I shone it around the room, looking for the switches, or for some sign of Leydon.  I kept calling her name, but when I finally managed to turn on the lights I didn’t see any sign of her.

The old library had vanished, as well.  The angels still soared overhead, which meant I was in the right room, but the library tables had disappeared along with the old biblical studies journals.  I’d thought—hoped—I might find Leydon hiding in the stacks, but those were gone.  The walls had been replastered and painted a bright white.  It was like one of those movies where the villains drug the heroine and try to pretend that the strange house in the country where she wakes up is really her home.

In a corner of my mind, one I didn’t like to visit, I could see Leydon as I’d found her twenty-five years ago: under her kitchen table, hugging herself, as she rocked back on her heels, weeping soundlessly.  She’d been up for three days and I’d been looking for her—we were presenting a case together in Moot Court and I had tried to condense the hundreds of pages she’d spewed out into a document acceptable to the judges.  I’d finally let myself into her apartment and found her.

I tried to think where she might have gone today.  If she’d been calm enough to think, perhaps she would have gone to the coffee shop in the basement—our study sessions often started there.  She might feel safe in the basement.

I stopped at the third-floor landing to call Leydon’s name.  I ducked down to look underneath the stairs, but didn’t check the seminar rooms.   At the second-floor, I shouted her name again.  I was startled when a woman opened a door at the end of the hall and stuck her head out.

“You looking for someone?”

It couldn’t be Leydon, my flickering first thought, unless she’d been transformed from a slender red-gold sylph to a heavy-set grey-haired earth goddess.

I apologized for disturbing her.  “I thought the building was empty.  I used to be a student here and I’m trying to hook up with an old friend.”

The woman looked me up and down, deciding whether to trust me.  “Is your friend on the nervous side?”

“The far side of nervous.  Have you seen her? Slim, fair, a bit shorter than me.  I’m V I Warshawski, by the way, if she asked for me by name.”

“She was sitting on the stairs, sobbing.  I thought maybe someone had died, but when I asked her it turned out she was crying over the reading room, the old library—she was horribly upset because we’d turned it into a conference room. You’re not her case worker, are you?”

“Just an old friend,” I repeated, depressed.  “I’m going to see if she went to the coffee shop.”

“It closes at four in the summer.  You might check the chapels, Bond, or Rockefeller.  She wanted to know where else on campus angels soared and I suggested those two places to her.” She hesitated. “I did wonder if I should call campus security.  I can still do it if you think—well, do you think she might be a danger to herself?”

I scrunched up my mouth—I didn’t know what Leydon might do. “I haven’t seen her for awhile, so I don’t know how shaky she is these days.  If I don’t find her at either of the chapels, I’ll call the cops myself.”

I moved as fast as I could on my sore feet to Rockefeller Chapel, whose carillon tower dominates the neighborhood.  The tower is almost twenty stories high and I wasn’t sure they locked the stairwell.

I pulled open one of the heavy doors and entered into silence and twilight. I stood at the entrance to the nave, involuntarily hugging my arms across my chest: the stones seemed so cold, so ominous that I felt chilled, despite the heat outside.

The building is the size of a cathedral.  The mullioned windows didn’t let in much of the late-day sun, and the lamps hanging from the vaulted ceiling were so remote they might as well not have been switched on.

I strained my ears for any sound, a sob, a laugh, but heard nothing.  “Leydon!  Leydon?”

My voice bounced around the walls and gave me back a mocking echo.  I started up the central aisle toward the chancel, my shoes setting up what sounded like a drumroll.  Too big, too loud.  If Leydon were in here she’d surely hear me, but if she  were feeling abandoned, depressed, she might not be able to respond. I pulled the pencil flash from my bag, shining it under the pews as I searched.

I found her lying face-down near the chancel steps.  Her red-gold hair glinted under my flashlight.  I knelt next to her, smoothing it back from her forehead.

“Leydon, I’m sorry I was late.  Was that too much for you to bear? Did you decide a nip or two of Jim Beam would carry you while you waited for me?”

I kept my voice soft, a loving croon despite the words.  I’d learned long ago how cruel it was to add my criticism to the demons already attacking her.

 

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