Read A Safe Place for Dying Online

Authors: Jack Fredrickson

A Safe Place for Dying

I have been blessed with the prodding, well-tempered criticism, and encouragement by the finest of individuals. To those who critiqued the whole blooming manuscript, to Mary Anne Bigane, Joe Bigane III, Susan Taylor Chehak, Kelly Fitzpatrick, Lori Fredrickson, Eric Frisch, Missy Lyda, and Beth Smith, I say again … and again: Thanks.
To Patrick Riley, who also waded through the words, and then sweated the marketing and applied the Taser at critical junctures, I can say only that you're the best of pals.
To my new friends at Thomas Dunne, to Marcia Markland and Diana Szu, and to India Cooper, who did the copyediting, you made what I did much better.
And to my daughter, Lori, my son, Jack, and to my wife, Susan … you make what I am much better.
It was a spectacle even on the four-inch screen of my fifty-nine-dollar television.
Edna Rectenberry, the white-curled fusspot of Chicago P.B.S.'s
Our Prairie, Our Heritage,
was on her knees outside the wall of the gated community, Crystal Waters, barking questions at six preschoolers about the purple wildflowers they'd planted there. She'd just poked her microphone at one fidgeting towhead, in short pants and a better necktie than I'd ever own, when the roof of one of the mansions behind the wall rumbled up like a flaming orange spaceship and vaporized into black smoke. The explosion pounded the ground as glowing cinders of charred wood and shattered roof tile began raining down like hell's own charcoal.
Her cameraman stumbled back from the searing heat, into the suddenly blaring horns and squealing brakes of the cars on the highway, but he kept his videocam rolling as the screaming children and poor, arthritic Edna, her knees bleeding, her white hair clumped with black ash, staggered through the hailstorm of flaming debris into the street.
Nobody died. The people who lived in the mansion were away,
and the wall had protected the children and Edna from all but small burns and minor cuts. And there the story would have expired, as a minor news item on page three of the metro section of the
Chicago Tribune,
along with the worst of the day's other house fires, save for the tape. The videotape of Edna and the screaming kids running from a flaming roof made it perfect Big
All four local news shows hustled coiffures to Crystal Waters, to pose in front of the brick wall and to intone, live at five, six, and ten, that they didn't have much to intone about at all. Voicing over endless replays of the P.B.S. video, they mouthed the obvious: It must have been a gas leak, and there was concern it might happen again.
After enjoying the footage for the sixth time, I blew the sawdust off my gallon of Gallo and poured a celebratory half inch into my coffee mug. I knew Crystal Waters. People from where I'm from drive by it sometimes for a peek at the good life through the iron gates. They call it Gateville.
I call it that, too. But I'd lived there, for the months of my marriage.
And so long as nobody got hurt, I was rooting for another gas leak.
The exploding house disappeared from the news, and already I'd half forgotten it when Stanley Novak called the following week, asking if he could come right over. I hadn't seen Stanley since he'd carted me out of Gateville the previous Halloween, and I knew better than to think it was a social call, especially at 9:00 A.M. I had just enough time to wipe a dry varnishing rag over my two white plastic chairs before the doorbell rang. He must have called from a block away.
I opened the door. It was a cool morning for late June, but Stanley Novak's pale blue uniform shirt was sweat-soaked under the arms like it was high noon in August. Even on his best days, Stanley Novak looked lumpy, like a failed attempt to jam toothpaste back in a tube, but this morning he looked worse than usual. His doughy face was shiny with perspiration, several long black strands of his comb-over had come unglued and dangled limp over his left ear, and he'd missed a couple of spots shaving. He rocked back and forth on his heels, his fingers working nervously at the lip of the tan envelope he was holding.
Stanley was chief of security at Crystal Waters. He was in charge
of the guards who manned the gatehouse and patrolled the grounds and was utterly dependable, anxious, and ever at the ready to protect his charges and their micromansions. I'd admired his sense of purpose when I'd lived there. He always seemed sure of what he was doing.
But this morning, Stanley Novak was sweating.
“Stanley Novak, as I live and breathe.”
“Mr. Elstrom.”
“Call me Dek, Stanley,” I said, holding the door open for him. “I no longer dwell among the chosen.” I motioned toward the two plastic chairs, the only furniture in what I hoped would one day be a living room I could unload on some urban professional with lots of money and a taste for the unusual.
Stanley stepped inside but ignored the chairs, going instead to the curved stone wall. I was used to that; first-time visitors always need a few minutes to check out the architecture before they want to sit down. The way Stanley was sweating, though, there was more. He was buying time. I sat in one of the chairs and waited.
He moved silently along the wall like he was in a rock museum, reaching out to lightly touch the rough yellow and white limestone blocks. Every few feet he stopped and looked up at the dark, timbered ceiling twelve feet above his head. Dust sparkled in the narrow beams of sunlight filtering through the open slit windows like bits of crystal. Outside, trucks downshifted on Thompson Avenue, lumbering up the railroad overpass.
“I've passed this place a million times, wondering if this was a silo,” he said from across the round room. “Then last year I heard it was supposed to be a castle, or something.”
“The first turret of one. My grandfather built it in 1929, but he died before he could get much done. It's been vacant since then, except for some mice, a few rats, and a couple dozen pigeons. And me, since last November.” I pointed at the two orange buckets of roof patch on the floor next to the table saw. “I'm fixing it up to sell.”
He nodded and looked at the curved black wrought-iron staircase that hugged the far wall. “How many floors?”
“Five. Bathroom and kitchen and maybe an office will be on two, master bedroom on three. I haven't figured yet what four and five will be.”
He'd stopped at the small, silver-framed snapshot I'd set on one of the protruding blocks. “Nice picture of you and Ms. Phelps.”
I hadn't thought to put it out of sight when he called. “Crown Point, Indiana. Home of the quickie marriage,” I said, trying for casual.
He moved along the wall.
“How is she, Stanley?” The words came out too quickly.
“You're not going to drywall this over, are you?” He touched one of the limestone blocks, dodging the question. He didn't like to give things away about the residents of Gateville.
“Everything stays natural.”
“This place will really be something when you get it fixed up.” He gave the wall a last tap and came to sit in the other plastic chair, the sweat on his forehead gone now in the cool of the turret. He set his envelope on the floor.
“Coffee?” I pointed at the black Mr. Coffee balanced on the cardboard nail box by the table saw, thinking I should have dusted the carafe. It looked furry, like the beginnings of one of those grass-sprouting Chia creatures they sell on television in the middle of the night to people who can't sleep.
“No coffee, thanks.” The wide eyes he'd had during his inspection tour were gone; he was all business now. He straightened up on the chair. “Mr. Elstrom, you probably saw it on T.V., last week the house at Sixteen Chanticleer Circle exploded.”
“A couple hundred feet from where my ex-wife still lives. Gas leak or something?”
He shook his head. “It was an explosive, most likely set deliberately. D.X.12.”
The world had penetrated Gateville. No wonder Stanley was sweating.
“I don't know explosives, Stanley. I'm not that kind of investigator.”
“Nobody knows much about D.X.12 anymore,” he said. “The Maple Hills police said the Army used it for a time during Vietnam.”
“Who uses it now?”
Stanley shrugged. “That's the thing: They think it's long gone. They're checking to see if it's even being manufactured anymore.”
“I see,” I said, but I didn't. At least not why he was coming to me.
Stanley's eyes took another tour of the room. I waited. Finally he looked back at me. “Mr. Chernek thinks you may be able to assist in the investigation.”
Anton Chernek. The Bohemian. I wasn't surprised that he was involved; Gateville was full of his clients, including the one I'd been married to for a time. Anything that would threaten their security would bring the Bohemian. What I didn't get was why he'd send Stanley to me. There were plenty of better private choices, ex-F. B.I., ex-A.T.F., criminal specialists, and none of them the exhusband of one of his clients.
“Stanley, I'm not the man for this. Even when my business was running and I had a staff, we traced real estate transfers, found current addresses, photographed accident scenes. Document stuff, paper trails, research, for law firms and insurance companies. Explosives are off my turf.”
It was true enough, but there was another reason I didn't want to get involved. I wasn't just rebuilding a turret; I was rebuilding my life. And it was going slow. Getting involved with Gateville could knock things back down.
He picked up the tan envelope, reached inside, and pulled out a clear plastic freezer bag containing a white envelope and a sheet of buff-colored paper. “This came two weeks before the explosion.” He handed it to me.
I took the freezer bag by its edges. The white envelope inside was ordinary, business-sized, and typewriter- or computer-addressed to the Board of Homeowners of Crystal Waters. The sheet of paper was smaller than letter size, double-lined, and looked to be off the kind of tablet first graders use when learning to write. The words were perfectly hand-printed in block letters, as if drawn by someone using a ruler, and read like a telegram: AVOID PROBLEM. HAVE FIFTY THOUSAND USED TENS AND TWENTIES READY.
I read the note again through the plastic. “I'm surprised the police let you keep this.”
“No police. The Board told Mr. Chernek no police.”
I looked over at him. His face was impassive. He wasn't joking. I handed back the freezer bag like it was full of anthrax. “Take this to the police immediately. It's key evidence.”
He slipped the freezer bag back in the tan envelope and propped it against the leg of his chair. “No police.”
“Why the hell not?”
He fidgeted in the chair. “Where in the note does it say a house is going to be blown up? The Board gets crank letters—”
“Crank letter? It says you can avoid problems by paying fifty thousand dollars, and it arrived two weeks before the house was blown up. It's an extortion letter.”
“Why blow up the house without first trying to collect?”
“Take it to the cops, Stanley. Let them figure it.”
“And look at the amount,” he went on. “A piddling fifty thousand. The cheapest house in Crystal Waters is worth three million. Fifty thousand is what the people there pay for a second Mercedes. No, it's got to be from some harmless nut cake.”
“If it's harmless, why not give it to the police?”
“The Board knows the police will do what you just did: try to link the note to the explosion at Sixteen Chanticleer. And if that becomes public, it will kill the prices of homes in Crystal Waters.
Mr. Chernek said the houses would lose their borrowing value. The way the stock market's been bouncing around, that could be a disaster for the Members.”
Members. I'd forgotten how the residents of Gateville referred to themselves. Members, like in a special club. It was true enough.
“If that note is real, and there's another explosion, they won't be able to give those homes away,” I said.
His expression didn't change. And I understood.
“You don't think there will be another note. You think that even if the note is from the bomber, it was targeted only at the—” I stopped. I didn't know their names. For over six months, I'd lived around the curve from the people whose house had blown up, and I never had known their names. Crystal Waters was not a share-the-Tupperware kind of neighborhood.
“The Farradays.”
“The Farradays,” I said. “The Board believes that if there is a link, it's between the bomber and the Farradays. They were the targets. That's why you're thinking there was never a follow-up letter, because your bomber wasn't really looking for money. You've convinced yourselves the letter was just a ruse.”
Stanley shifted in the chair. “You've got to admit the theory makes sense.”
“So now that the house has been destroyed, the matter is over?”
“The Farradays aren't going to rebuild,” he said. “The Board is purchasing the property. It's already been bulldozed and landscaped with sod and mature pines. You wouldn't know there was a house there last week.”
“The police let them obliterate the crime scene so soon?”
Stanley Novak smiled for the first time since he'd arrived. “Actually, the Maple Hills police weren't informed beforehand.”
“The Board just went ahead and did it?”
“The village understands how upsetting the ruins were to the
Members. Crystal Waters is very generous in its support of the village.”
The speed of big money always astounds me. It defies physics. With big money, the greater the mass, the quicker it moves.
“The Board paid the Farradays to go away, just in case they were the problem?”
He shrugged, but it was a yes.
“Even though this note does not mention the Farradays?”
“Mr. Farraday works at his father's securities trading firm, no other partners. Mrs. Farraday plays tennis and golf and is active in the usual charities. Their kids are popular enough at the Country Day School. The family seemed like typical Members, but you can never know for sure. There are twenty-six other families at Crystal Waters to worry about, and the Board felt that everybody—the Farradays as well as the other Members—would benefit if the matter was put to rest quickly.” Stanley spoke like he was reciting scripture, which to him I supposed it was. They were the words of the Board of Homeowners.
“If you think you've got everything under control, then why bring me in?”
“Mr. Chernek would like the note and the envelope analyzed, to be safe.”
“You mean to cover the Board's liability for negligence in case another bomb goes off. If you hire me to check out the note, it shows you didn't just sit on your hands.” Sometimes I think at the speed glaciers move, especially when I'm being handled, but this one was too obvious.
Stanley didn't answer. He reached into his shirt pocket, came out with a check, and held it out so I could see. It was for three thousand dollars.
I like to think I hesitated. I had big doubts about keeping the note from the police. But as I paused to be righteous, my eyes fixed
on the two orange cans of roof patch next to the table saw. It had been a wet spring, my roof dripped like a spaghetti strainer, and I hadn't worked in weeks. Three thousand would buy a roof repair good enough to stem the floods that came for Noah.
“You would report to Mr. Chernek,” Stanley said, still holding out the check. “No need to actually go back to Crystal Waters.” He was remembering the night he drove me away.
It was just an insurance job, I told myself, the kind I would take any time. An ordinary, five-hundred-dollar paper trace. This one just had an extra twenty-five hundred tacked on for keeping my mouth shut.

Other books

Curtains For Three by Stout, Rex
Sisters in Sanity by Gayle Forman
Casca 3: The Warlord by Barry Sadler
Alaskan Heat by Pam Champagne
Hotel World by Ali Smith
The Reluctant Earl by Joan Wolf
Never Say Spy by Henders, Diane
The Hazards of Mistletoe by Alyssa Rose Ivy