I was on the second floor of a three-story walk-up on Chicago’s North Side. Outside the Hawk blew hard off the lake and flattened itself against the bay windows. I didn’t care. I had my feet up, a cup of Earl Grey, and my own list of the ten greatest moments in Cubs history.
For the first half hour I was stuck on number one. Then I realized the greatest moments at Clark and Addison are always about to be. With that I settled in and mapped out the starting rotation for next year’s world champions. That’s when I saw him.
Actually, I sensed John Gibbons before I saw him. But that’s just how it was with Gibbons. From waist to shoulders he was of one dimension, that being massive. His head sat on a bulldog neck, with short ears and gray hair clipped close. His nose showed the back rooms of Chicago’s alleys. His eyes were still clear, cool, and blue. He cornered me with a look and smiled.
Gibbons had been retired from the force five years now. I hadn’t seen him in four, but it didn’t matter. We had some history. He shook off the rain and threw a chair toward my desk. He sat down as if he belonged there and always had. I put the Cubs away, pulled open the bottom drawer, and found a bottle of Powers Irish. John took it straight. Just to be sociable, I gave Sir Earl a jolt.
“What’s up, John?”
He hesitated. For the first time I noticed his suit, uncomfortably cheap, and his tie, a clip-on. In his hands he twisted a soft felt hat.
“Got a case for you, Michael.”
He always called me Michael, which was okay since that was my name. I didn’t want to derail him, but my curiosity held sway.
“Jesus, John, who’s dressing you these days?”
The big man reddened a bit and looked down at the outfit.
“Pretty bad, huh? The wife. Did you know the wife, Michael?”
I shook my head. I didn’t know anything about John that wasn’t three years old. His personal file at that time read widower. His first wife, an Irishwoman from Donegal, got a message from her doctor one day about an X-ray. Two weeks later, she was gone. I had sent a card and given John a call.
“The wife, the second wife that is, she left about a year ago,” Gibbons said. “She was a younger type, you know.”
John always had a weakness for them. Women, that is. It’s been my experience if you have that sort of weakness, the younger ones tend only to aggravate the situation.
“So you been dressing yourself?” I said.
“For some time.”
“And you get all dressed up to come here?”
“To see me?”
“I got a case, Michael.”
“So I gather.”
I freshened his drink and poured a bit more hot water into my mug.
“You remember 1997.”
“Before my time,” I said.
“Not by much. Anyway, it was Christmas Eve. I had the windows rolled down. You remember I used to keep the windows down. Even when it was cold. Well, I’m driving the squad by myself. Down in South Chicago.”
I knew South Chicago. A collection of warehouses and whorehouses. Dry docks and rough trade. A nasty bit of Chicago, crumbling at the edges and blending into Indiana gray.
“I hear a shot,” John said. “Roll around a corner and see this girl running down the middle of the street. Head-to-toe blood. The guy is right behind her. He’s got a .38 in one hand and a knife in the other. Sticking her as they run.”
John closed his eyes for a moment and left the room. When he opened them, he was back. I didn’t feel so comfortable anymore.
“Couple decades on the job, Michael. Never saw anything close to it. I get out of the car, she’s coming right at me. I just catch the both of them. He’s on top and I can still hear that knife. Made like a suction noise. I reach around with my piece and put it to his head. For the first time he registers me and stops.”
“None of this is ringing a bell, John.”
“It should ring a bell, huh?”
“Well, let me finish. So we are all three on the ground. Me with the gun to his head and the girl in between us. Her face was about six inches from mine. I could smell the death on her, you know?”
“So we untangle. I put the guy on the ground and cuff him. He says nothing. I slap him around a bit. Still nothing. I look at the girl. She’s cut up pretty good, stabbed more than once in the chest. I get a pulse and call for the medics.”
John got up and walked across to the window.
“Hot in here, isn’t it?”
John cracked the window.
“It’s thirty-five outside with freezing rain and gusts,” I said.
“Gusts?” His shoulders turned my way and the rest followed.
“That’s what they called them,” I said. “Gusts. Gusts ain’t good.”
John left the window open and walked back to the chair.
“So we get this girl into an ambulance. She was a looker, Michael. Did I tell you that?”
I was waiting for that part. “Let me guess. You fell for her.”
“Jesus, Michael. She was covered in blood and half-dead. Besides, she was just a kid.”
“Anyway, I find out she was running from his car. It’s a shitbox Chevy idling in the middle of the street. I pop the trunk and what do I find?”
“Sheets of plastic. Rolls of the stuff. And rope. Lots of rope. I open the driver’s door. There’s plenty of blood. Under both seats, I find custom-made carriers. In one, he’s got a bulldog shotgun. In the other, he’s got a machete strapped up there. Over both visors, two more leather fittings. One for the gun he had. The other for the knife.”
“Not the guy’s first dance?”
“No sir,” John said. “So I take him downtown and throw him in the slam. It’s past midnight, I figure I can sort him out tomorrow.”
“I come in the next day. He’s gone.”
“The chief then. You didn’t know him. Dave Belmont.”
“Heard the name,” I said.
“Nice guy, career cop. Dead now. Didn’t ever want any beefs. Just keep your mouth shut and put your time in. That kind of guy. Anyway, he takes me into the office. Says forget about it. Says the guy is gone and it’s over. Never happened. Then he gives me this.”
From his pocket John Gibbons took out a piece of green velvet. Clipped inside was a silver Police Medal. The highest award a Chicago cop can get. Score one and your career is made.
“Those are hard to come by, John.”
“Part of the deal. I get the medal, a pay raise, and promotion. In return . . . ”
“You forget about it.”
“That’s right. So I did.”
“And nine years later you want to do what?”
“Well, I really don’t want to do anything. But then I got this.”
From his other pocket John Gibbons pulled a letter.
“And what is that?”
“It’s a letter.”
“I can see that.”
“From the girl. The girl from that night.”
“From nine years ago?”
“She didn’t die, I take it.”
“We need to help her, Michael.”
“We . . . ”
“I poked around a bit.“ Gibbons shrugged. “Didn’t really get anywhere.”
As a detective, my old partner was a good piece of muscle. Someone to break down doors, even if he had no idea what might be on the other side.
“You’re the best I ever worked with,” Gibbons continued. “You know it. I know it. Everyone on the force knew it. If you can help out, I’d be grateful.”
The Irishman threw an envelope across the table. I opened it up and enjoyed the warm feeling money can sometimes give a person. Then I looked up and across the desk.
”Tell me about the girl,” I said.
Gibbons began to talk. I picked up the letter and, reluctantly, began to read.
From the Hardcover edition.