Black List, Chapter One

A Walk on the Wild Side

The clouds across the face of the moon made it hard for me to find my way.  I’d been over the grounds yesterday morning, but in the dark everything is different.  I kept stumbling on tree roots and chunks of brick from the crumbling walks.

I was trying not to make any noise, on the chance that someone really was lurking about, but I was more concerned about my safety: I didn’t want to sprain an ankle and have to crawl all the way back to the road.  At one point I tripped on a loose brick and landed smack on my tailbone.  My eyes teared with pain; I sucked in air to keep from crying out.  As I rubbed the sore spot I wondered whether Geraldine Graham had seen me fall.  Her eyes weren’t that good, but her binoculars held both image-stabilizers and night-vision enablers.

Fatigue was making it hard for me to concentrate.  It was midnight, usually not late on my clock, but I was sleeping badly these days — anxiety, and feeling alone with it.

Right after the Trade Center, I’d been as numbed and fearful as everyone else in America.  After a while, when we’d driven the Taliban into hiding and the anthrax looked like the work of some home-grown maniac, most people seemed to wrap themselves in red-white-and-blue and return to normal.  I couldn’t, though, while Morrell remained in Afghanistan — even though he seemed ecstatic to be sleeping in caves as he trailed after warlords-turned-diplomats-turned-warlords.

When the medical group Humane Medicine went to Kabul in the summer of 2001, Morrell tagged along with a contract for a book about daily life under the Taliban.  I’ve survived so much worse, he would say when I worried that he might run afoul of the Taliban’s notorious Bureau for the Prevention of Vice.

That was before September 11.  Afterwards, Morrell disappeared for ten days.  I stopped sleeping then, although someone with Humane Medicine called me from Peshawar to say Morrell was simply in an area without access to phone hook-ups.  Most of the team had fled to Pakistan immediately after the Trade Center attack, but Morrell had wangled a ride with an old friend heading to Uzbekistan so he could cover the refugees fleeing north.  A chance of a lifetime, my caller told me Morrell had said — the same thing he’d said about Kosovo.  Perhaps that had been the chance of a different lifetime.

When we started bombing in October, Morrell first stayed on in Afghanistan to cover the war up close and personal, and then to follow the new coalition government.  Margent.Online, the Web version of the old Philadelphia monthly Margent, was paying him for field reports, which he was scrambling to turn into a book.  The Guardian newspaper also occasionally bought his stories.  I’d even watched him on CNN a few times.  Strange to see your lover’s face beamed from twelve thousand miles away, strange to know that a hundred million people are listening to the voice that whispers endearments into your hair.  That used to whisper endearments.

When he resurfaced in Kandahar, I first sobbed in relief, then shrieked at him across the satellites.  “But, darling,” he protested, “I’m in a war zone, I’m in a place without electricity or cell-phone towers.  Didn’t Rudy call you from Peshawar?”

In the following months, he kept on the move, so I never really knew where he was.  At least he stayed in better touch, mostly when he needed help: (V I, can you check on why Ahmed Hazziz was put in isolation out at Coolis prison?  V I, can you find out whether the FBI told Hazziz’s family where they’d sent him?  I’m running now — hot interview with local chief’s third wife’s oldest son.  Fill you in later.)

I was a little miffed at being treated like a free research station.  I’d never thought of Morrell as an adrenalin junkie — one of those journalists who lives on the high of being in the middle of disaster — but I sent him a snappish e-mail asking him what he was trying to prove.

“Over a dozen western journalists have been murdered since the war began,” I wrote at one point.  “Every time I turn on the television I brace myself for the worst.”

His e-response zipped back within minutes: “Victoria, my beloved detective, if I come home tomorrow, will you faithfully promise to withdraw from every investigation where I worry about your safety?”

A message which made me angrier because I knew he was right — I was being manipulative, not playing fair.  I needed to see him, though, touch him, hear him — live, not in cyberspace.

I took to wearing myself out running.  I certainly wore out the two dogs I share with my downstairs neighbor: they started retreating to Mr. Contreras’s bedroom when they saw me arrive in my sweats.

Despite my long runs — I’d go ten miles most days, instead of my usual five or six — I couldn’t wear myself out enough to sleep.  I lost ten pounds in the six months after the Trade Center, which worried my downstairs neighbor: Mr. Contreras took to frying up french toast and bacon when I came in from my runs, and finally bullied me into going to Lotty Herschel for a complete physical.  Lotty said I was fine physically, just suffering as so many were from exhaustion of the spirit.

Whatever name you gave it, I only had a half mind for my work these days.  I specialize in financial and industrial crime.  It used to be that I spent a lot of time on foot, going to government buildings to look at records, doing physical surveillance and so on.  But in the days of the Internet, you traipse from website to website.  You need to be able to concentrate in front of a computer for long hours, and concentration wasn’t something I was good at right now.

Which is why I was wandering around Larchmont Hall in the dark.  When my most important client asked me to look for intruders who might be breaking in there at night, I was so eager to do something physical that I would even have scrubbed the crumbling stone benches around the house’s ornamental pond.

Darraugh Graham has been with me almost since the day I opened my agency.  The New York office of his company, Continental United, had lost three people in the Trade Center disaster.  Darraugh had taken it hard, but he was flinty, chalk-like in grief, more moving than the bluster we were hearing from too many mouths these days.  He wouldn’t dwell on his loss or the aftermath but took me to his conference room where he unrolled a detail map of the western suburbs.

“I asked you here for personal reasons, not business.”  He snapped his middle finger onto a green splodge northwest of Naperville, in unincorporated New Solway.  “All this is private land.  Big mansions belonging to old families out here, you know, the Ebbersleys, Felittis, and so on.  They’ve been able to keep the land intact — like a private forest preserve.  This brown finger is where Taverner sold ten acres to a developer back in ‘seventy-two.  There was an uproar at the time, but he was within his rights.  He had to meet his legal fees, I think.”  I followed Darraugh’s long index finger as he traced a brown patch that cut into the green like a carrot.

“East is a golf course.  South, the complex where my mother lives.” At the best of times Darraugh is a wintry, distant man.  It was hard to picture him in normal situations, like being born.

“Mother’s ninety-one.  She manages on her own with help, and anyway, I don’t want —  she doesn’t want to live with me.  She lives in a development here — Anodyne Park.  Town houses, apartments, little shopping center, nursing home if she needs medical help.  She seems to like it.  She’s gregarious.  Like my son — sociability skips generations in my family.” His bleak smile appeared briefly.

“Ridiculous name for a development, Anodyne Park, offensive when you think about the Alzheimer’s wing at the nursing home — Mother tells me the word means something like soothing or healing.  Her condo overlooks the grounds of Larchmont Hall.  One of the grand mansions, big grounds.  It’s been empty for a year — the original owners were the Drummond family.  The heirs sold the place three years ago, but the new buyers went bankrupt.  Felitti was talking about buying, so he could keep more developers out of the area, but so far that’s fallen through.”

He stopped.  I waited for him to get to the point, which he is never shy about, but when a minute went by I said, “You want me to find a plutocrat to buy the place so it doesn’t get divided up for the merely affluent?”

He scowled.  “I didn’t call you in for ridicule.  Mother thinks she sees people coming in and out of the place at night.”

“She doesn’t want to call the police?”

“The police came out a couple of times, but found no one.  The agent that manages the place for the holding company has a security system in place.  It hasn’t been breached.”

“Any of the neighbors seen anything?”

“Point of the area, Vic: neighbors don’t see each other.  Here are the houses, and all this is hundred years worth of trees, gardens, so forth.  You could talk to the neighbors, of course.”  He snapped his finger on the map again, showing me the distances, but his tone was uncertain — most unlike him.

“What’s your interest in this, Darraugh?  Are you thinking of buying the place yourself?”

“Good God, no.”

He didn’t say anything else, but walked to the windows to look down at the construction on Wacker Drive.  I stared in bewilderment.  Even when he’d asked me to help his son beat a drug rap several years ago he hadn’t danced around the floor like this.

“Mother’s always been a law unto herself,” he muttered to the window.  “Of course people in her — in our — milieu always get better attention from the law than people like — well, than others.  But she’s affronted that the police aren’t taking her seriously.  Of course, it’s possible that — she might be imagining — she’s over ninety, after all — but she’s taken to calling me every day to complain about lack of police attention.”

“I’ll see if I can uncover something the police aren’t seeing,” I said gently.

His shoulders relaxed and he turned back to me.  “Your usual fee, Vic.  See Caroline about your contract.  She’ll give you Mother’s details as well.”  He took me out to his personal assistant, who told him his  conference call with Kuala Lumpur was waiting.

We’d talked on a Friday afternoon, the dreary first day of March.  On Saturday morning I made the first of what turned into many long treks to New Solway.  Before driving out, I stopped in my office for my ordnance maps of the western suburbs.  I looked at my computer and then resolutely turned my back to it: I’d already logged on three times since ten last night without word from Morrell.   I felt like an alcoholic with the bottle in reach, but I locked my office without checking my e-mail and began the forty-five-mile haul to the land of the rich and powerful.

That westward drive always makes me feel like I’m following the ascent into heaven, at least into capitalist heaven. It starts along Chicago’s smoky industrial corridor, passing old blue-collar neighborhoods that resemble the one where I grew up — tiny bungalows where women look old at forty and men work and eat themselves to early heart attacks.  You move past them to the hard-scrabble towns on the city’s edge — Cicero, Berwyn, places where you can still get pretty well beat up for a dollar.  Then the air begins to clear and the affluence rises.  By the time I reached New Solway, I was practically hydroplaning on waves of stock certificates.

I pulled off at the Tollway exit to examine my maps.  Coverdale Lane was the main road that meandered through New Solway.  It started at the northwest corner of the Township and made a giant kind of quarter circle, opening on Dirksen Road at the southeast end.  At Dirksen, you could go south to Powell Road, which divided New Solway from Anodyne Park, where Geraldine Graham was living.  I followed the route to the northwest entrance, since that looked like the main one on the map.

I hadn’t traveled fifty feet down Coverdale Lane before getting Darraugh’s point: neighbors couldn’t spy on each other here.  Horses grazed in paddocks; orchards held a few desiccated apples from last fall.   With the trees bare, a few mansions were visible from the road, but most were set far behind imposing carriageways.  Poorer folk might actually see each other’s driveways from their side windows, but most of the houses sat on substantial property, perhaps ten or twelve acres.  And most were old.  No new money here.  No MacMansions, flashing their thirty thousand square feet on tiny lots.

After going south about a mile-and-a-half, Coverdale Lane bent into a hook that pointed east.  I followed the hook almost to its end before a discreet sign on a stone pillar announced Larchmont Hall. I drove on past the gates to Dirksen Road at the east end of Coverdale and made a loop south and west so I could look at the complex where Darraugh’s mother was living.  I wanted to know if she really could see into the Larchmont estate.  A hedge blocked any view into the New Solway mansions from street level, but Ms. Graham was on the fourth floor of a small apartment building.  From that vantage, she might be able to see into the property.

I returned to Coverdale Lane and drove up a winding carriageway to Larchmont Hall.  Leaving the car where anyone could see it if they came onto the land, I armed myself with that most perfect disguise: a hardhat and a clipboard.  A hardhat makes people assume you’re doing something with the air-conditioning or the foundations.  They’re used to service in places like this; they don’t ask for credentials.  I hoped.

As I got my bearings, I whistled under my breath: the original owners had done things on a grand scale.  Besides the mansion itself, the property held a garage, stables, greenhouse, even a cottage which I assumed was for the staff who tended the grounds — or would tend the grounds if someone could afford to have the work done.  The estate agent wasn’t putting much into maintenance — an ornamental pond, which lay between the mansion and the outbuildings, was clogged with leaves and dead lilies.   I even saw a carp floating belly-up in the middle.  A series of formal gardens was overgrown with weeds, while no one had mowed the meadows for some time.

The neglect, and the number of buildings, was oppressive.  If you were grandiose enough to buy such a place, how could you possibly take care of it?  Circling each building, trying to see if there were holes in foundations or windows, looked overwhelming.  I squared my shoulders.  Whining doubles the job, my mother used to say when I balked at washing dishes.   I decided to work from smallest to largest, which meant inspecting the cottage first.

By the time I’d finished prying at windows, balancing on fence posts to see if any of the roof glass of the greenhouse was broken, and making sure that the doors to the stables and garage were not just secure, but showed no recent signs of tampering, it was past noon.  I was hungry and thirsty, but dark still comes early the first week in March.  I didn’t want to waste daylight searching for food, so I grimly set about circling the house.

It was an enormous building.  From a distance it looked graceful, vaguely Federal in design, with its slender columns and square facades, but all I cared about was four floors worth of windows, doors at ground level on all four sides, doors leading off upper-level balconies — a burglar’s paradise.

Still, all the windows on the two lower floors held the tell-tale markers of a security system.  I checked some on the ground floor with a meter, but didn’t see any place where the current was interrupted.

People did come onto the land: beer bottles, the silver foil from potato chip bags, crumpled cigarette packs, the inevitable condom told their tales.  Maybe Ms. Graham was only seeing local kids looking for privacy.

I was debating whether to shinny up the pillars to check the balcony doors when a squad car pulled up.  A middle-aged cop came over to me at an unhurried gait.

“You got some reason to be out here?”

“Probably the same one you do.”  I waved my meter toward the house.  “I’m with Florey & Kapper, the mechanical engineers. We heard some woman thinks little green men are hovering around here in the night.  I’m just checking the circuits.”

“You set something off in the garage,” the cop said.

I smiled.  “Oh, dear: I was trying brute force.  They warned us against that at IIT, but I wanted to see if someone could actually lift those doors.  Sorry to bring you out here for nothing.”

“Not to worry: you saved me from our eighty-third call to look at suspicious mail.”

“It’s a hassle, isn’t it,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t ask for my ID.  “I’ve got friends in the Chicago PD who feel stretched to the limit these days.”

“Same out here.  We’ve got the reservoir and a bunch of power stations we have to keep an eye on.  It’s about time the FBI nailed this anthrax bastard — we waste an unbelievable amount of manpower, responding to hysterical calls about letters from old Aunt Madge who forgot to put her return address on the envelope.”

We hashed over the current situation the way everyone did these days.  Police forces were badly affected, because they had to gear up for incalculable terror attacks and couldn’t keep up with their local crime loads.  Drive-by shootings, which had dropped to their lowest level in decades, had jumped in the last six months.

The cop’s cellphone rang.  He grunted into it.  “I’d better be going.  You okay out here?”          “Yeah.  I’m taking off, too.  Place looks clean to me, except for the usual garbage –” I pointed a toe at an empty cigarette wrapper near the foundation.  “I don’t see how anyone could be using the place.”

“You find Osama bin Laden in the attic, give me a call: I could use the extra credit.”  He waved goodbye and got back into his squad car.

I couldn’t think of anything else to look for, and anyway, it was getting too dark to see clearly.  I walked to the edge of the gardens, where they faded into a substantial woods, and looked up at the house.  From here I could see the attic windows, but they presented a blank face to the sky.