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An Eye for Murder
By Libby Fischer Hellmann
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2002 Libby Fischer Hellmann
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI didn't get the mail until late. Rachel and I were in the car driving home from school. "Honky Tonk Woman" was blaring out of the speakers, and I was thumping my hand on the wheel, thinking I had just enough time to chop onions and celery for a casserole before her piano lesson, when my twelve-year-old asked me about sex.
"Mom, have you ever had oral sex?"
"What was that, sweetheart?"
"Have you ever had oral sex?"
I nearly slammed on the brakes praying for something—anything—to say. But then I stole a look at her, strapped in the front seat, her blue eyes wide and innocent. Was she testing me? Friends had been warning me sixth grade was a lot different these days.
I turned the radio down. "Who wants to know?"
"Oh, come on, Mom. Have you?"
I glanced over. Somehow her eyes didn't look as innocent. I might even have seen the hint of a smirk. "Ask me again in about twenty years."
Her face scrunched into that exasperated expression only pre-teen girls can produce. I remembered doing the same thing at her age. But I was behaving just like my mother did, so I guess we were even. I changed the subject.
"How was school?"
She wriggled deep into the front seat, stretched out her arm, and turned up the radio. She punched all six buttons in turn, ending up at the oldies station it had been tuned to originally. "Two guys got into a fight at lunch."
First sex. Now violence. This was a big day. "What happened?"
"You know Sammy Thornton, right?"
"Sure." Everyone knew Sammy Thornton. A few years ago his older brother, Daniel, had rampaged through a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the north side of Chicago and shot six Orthodox Jews. He shot two more people downstate before turning the gun on himself. Afterward, it was discovered he had ties to a neo-Nazi group in central Illinois. I remembered huddling in front of the TV that Friday night, watching the horror unfold with Rachel, who, at nine, was asking the one question I couldn't answer: Why? I remember feeling sorry for Sammy at the time, knowing that no matter how hard he struggled to rebuild his life, he would never escape being Dan Thornton's brother.
"Joel Merrick is a friend of his."
"I don't think I know Joel."
"He lives over on Summerfield. Has a sister in fourth grade."
"Well, Pete Nichols started calling Sammy a Nazi. Joel stuck up for him and told Pete to shut up. Then Pete called Joel a Nazi too, so Joel decked him."
I turned onto our block. "Was anyone hurt?"
"Pete got a bloody nose, but he didn't go to the nurse's office."
"What did the teachers do?"
Rachel was silent.
"Didn't anyone say anything?"
She shook her head.
"Maybe someone should."
"You can't!" She wailed in dismay. "Mom, if you say anything, I'll die."
I parked in the driveway. "Okay. But I want you to know that Pete's behavior was totally unacceptable. No has the right to lash out at people like that."
She looked over.
"Hate is hate, no matter who it's coming from."
Rachel gathered her backpack and climbed out of the car. "Pete's a jerk. Everyone knows that. And no one believes Sammy is a Nazi."
I relaxed. Maybe I worried too much. Rachel was a resilient, self-assured kid. Despite her messy upbringing. I unloaded a sack of groceries and took them into the house.
"So, Mom, have you had oral sex?"
Damn. That always happens when I get complacent. I set the groceries down on the kitchen table. Then I heard a giggle.
I turned around. "What's so funny?"
"Just kidding." She grabbed a can of pop from the refrigerator and dashed out.
Later that night after she went to bed, I called two friends to analyze how I'd handled the situation. Susan thought I'd done a great job, but Genna wasn't so sure. She wanted me to call the Parent Hot Line. Genna is always telling people to open up to strangers. She's a social worker.
By the time I settled down with a glass of wine, it was almost midnight. That's when I remembered the mail. We live in a bedroom community twenty miles north of Chicago. I'd intended to remain an urban pioneer forever—until the day Rachel and I walked to the park from our Lakeview condo. Strolling by a sidewalk Dumpster at the end of our block, my bright, curious three-year-old pointed to it and exclaimed, "Mommy, look, there's an arm!" Sure enough, a human arm hung motionless over the edge. We moved to the suburbs six months later.
I sometimes think about moving back to the city, but the school system, despite the occasional incident, is one of the best in the state. And while the village I live in has minimal charm and less personality, it is safe enough to go outside at night. Even to the park.
The problem is that I don't like getting the mail. There's never anything besides bills. But tomorrow was Friday, and if I got the mail tonight, I could rationalize avoiding it again until Monday. I threw on a jacket—it was late April, but spring is just a theoretical concept in Chicago—and sprinted to the mailbox.
In between statements from Com Ed and the gas company was a large white envelope from the Chicago Special Events Bureau, a client for whom I'd produced a videotape. When I opened it, a smaller pale yellow envelope tagged with a Post-It fell out.
Ellie: This came for you. Probably yet another piece of fan mail. The mayor says to quit it. You're stealing his thunder. Dana
I smiled. The mayor's office had commissioned an hour documentary for the city's Millennium Celebration, and I was amazed when I won the bid. Celebrate Chicago turned out to be the best show I've ever produced: a lyrical, descriptive piece that traced the history of several city neighborhoods with stock footage, photos, and interviews. The show debuted at a city gala and is still running on cable. Though the stream of complimentary notes has dwindled to a trickle, Dana Novak, the special events director, graciously forwards them to me.
I turned over the yellow envelope, noting the floral design embossed on the border. My name, Ellie Foreman, was hand-written in ink, in care of Celebrate Chicago. The return address said Lunt Street, Chicago. Lunt was in Rogers Park. I slit the envelope with a knife. Small, cramped writing filled the page.
Dear Ms. Foreman,
I hope this letter reaches you. I didn't have your address. My name is Ruth Fleishman. We've never met, but I didn't know where else to turn. For the past two years, I rented out a room to an elderly gentleman by the name of Ben Sinclair. Unfortunately, Mr. Sinclair passed away a few weeks ago. He doesn't have any family that I know about. That's why, when I found your name on a scrap of paper among his possessions, I thought you might be a relative or a friend. If you are, I would appreciate a call. I don't think Mr. Sinclair left a will; however, there may be some sentimental value to the few things he did leave behind. I hope to hear from you soon.
Under the signature was a phone number. I poured another glass of wine. Ben Sinclair's name wasn't familiar, but we'd spoken to hundreds of people in dozens of neighborhoods during Celebrate Chicago. I should probably check with Brenda Kuhns, my researcher. She keeps meticulous notes.
Still, I was curious why a dead man would have my name. Despite the show, I'm no VIP, and I couldn't imagine how my life intersected with that of a solitary old man who died alone in a boarding house.
The clock read four fifteen, and I couldn't sleep. Maybe it was the wine. When alcohol turns into sugar, I get all geeked up. Or maybe it was the handful of chocolate chips I ate just before turning in. Or possibly it was a lingering unease about the letter. I rolled out of bed, checked on Rachel, and took the letter up to my office.
My office used to be the guest room before the divorce. It's not big, but the view more than compensates for its size. Outside the window is a honey locust, and on breezy summer days, the sun shooting through the leaves creates sparkles and shimmers that humble any manmade pyrotechnics. If you peek through the leaves, you can see down the entire length of our block. Of course, nothing much happens on our block, but if it did, I'd be there to sound the alarm—my desk is right under the window. The only trade-off is a lack of space for overnight guests.
Works for me.
I booted up and ran through my show files, using the search command for "Ben Sinclair." Nothing popped up. I opened Eudora and did the same thing with my E-mail. Nothing. I E- mailed Brenda and asked if the name meant anything to her.
I went into the bathroom, debating whether to take a sleeping pill. A fortyish face with gray eyes and wavy black hair—the yin to my blond daughter's yang—stared back at me in the mirror. I still had a decent body, thanks to walking, an occasional aerobics class, and worrying about Rachel. But the lines around my eyes were more like duck's webbing than crow's feet, and gray strands filigreed my hair.
I decided against a sleeping pill. Back in my office, I re-read Ruth Fleishman's letter, then logged onto a white-pages site, which promised to give me the address and phone number of anyone in the country. I entered Ben Sinclair's name. A mouse-click later, fifteen Ben Sinclairs across the country surfaced, each with an address and phone number. When I tried Benjamin Sinclair, another six names appeared. None of the listings were in the Chicago area. I printed them out anyway.
A set of headlights winked through the window shade, and the newspaper hit the front lawn with a plop. I yawned and shut down the computer.
Chapter TwoAfter Rachel left for school the next morning, I checked my E-mail and found a reply from Brenda. She's either the most efficient person on earth or suffers from insomnia like me. She'd reviewed her files but had nothing on Ben Sinclair.
Sipping a cup of coffee, I checked my Day-Timer. I owed a script to Midwest Mutual, one of my bread-and-butter clients, but it wasn't due until the following week. I picked up the letter and dialed Ruth Fleishman's number.
"Hello?" The voice was somewhere between a bleat and a foghorn. I pictured a woman with too much makeup, dyed hair, and lots of jewelry.
"Mrs. Fleishman, this is Ellie Foreman. I got your letter yesterday."
"Oh, yes. Thank you for calling. This entire situation has been so upsetting. I've had boarders over twenty years, ever since Maury died, of course, but I've never had to bury one before. It's been a very stressful time."
Add extension nails. With bright orange nail polish. "I understand. But I'm afraid I don't know Mr. Sinclair. In fact, I have no idea who he is. Or was."
"Oh dear. I was hoping you knew him."
"Why is that?"
"Well, because of—well—we saw your show, of course."
"My show? Celebrate Chicago?"
I waited for her to say how much she loved it.
"I can't afford the really good networks like HBO or Showtime, see. Maury left me just enough to get by. So I make do with the basic cable." Her voice had an annoying nasal pitch to it. "It was good," she added. "Your show."
"Thanks." For everything. "Did Mr. Sinclair say how he knew me?"
"Well, see, you have to understand. Mr. Sinclair didn't spend much time outside his room. Except for going to the library, of course. He was old, over ninety, see, and he pretty much kept to himself. Not that he was a problem. He always paid his rent on time. Never made a fuss, either, even when we had that terrible storm and the power was out for two days. He didn't have his own television, of course, so sometimes I invited him down to watch a show with me. But he did like to take Bruno out for a walk."
"My dog. My guard dog. I need protection of course. Since the ... the problem a few summers ago." Rogers Park was the neighborhood through which Dan Thornton had run riot. "So you see, Miss Foreman ... uh ... it is Miss, isn't it?" Somehow her voice sounded too eager. Could there be an unmarried son or nephew hanging around somewhere?
"It's Mrs., and I have a twelve-year-old daughter."
"Oh," she said regretfully. It had to be a male relative. "Well, anyway. Where was I?"
"You were watching Celebrate Chicago with Mr. Sinclair."
"Yes. I made a coffee cake that morning, and I was just slicing it up. I could tell Mr. Sinclair liked it. The show, I mean. Especially the part about Lawndale." Lawndale, one of the neighborhoods we'd featured, is on Chicago's West Side. During the '30s and '40s it was center of Jewish life in Chicago. "At the end, you know, when they say who made it and everybody who was in it—"
"Of course, the credits. Well, when he saw your name, he got this look on his face."
"That's right. One of those—it was as if he knew you. And was surprised that he did. He said your name out loud."
"That's right. That's what he said. With a kind of question mark after it."
"That's all he said? Just my name?"
"He went upstairs right afterwards."
"He never said anything else, I mean, later on?"
"I asked myself the same thing after ... afterwards. But no, he didn't. In fact, I forgot all about it, until I found your name and the picture."
There was a beat of silence. "It's one of those old snapshots. You know, a black and white. The kind with the scalloped edges, of course."
"Of cour—What was the picture of?"
"Well, dear, that's what I was hoping you could tell me."
The area of Rogers Park that Ruth Fleishman lived in hasn't changed much in fifty years. Small bungalows and two-flats hug sidewalks veined with cracks. Closer to the lake, regentrification is flourishing, but over here even the canopies of leaves fail to mask the quiet air of neglect.
I parked and walked south to 4109, a narrow brick building fronted by a porch. Underneath the porch was lattice work, partially hidden by a scrawny forsythia bush. A few daffodils, braving the cold spring, studded the ground around it. I climbed three wobbly stairs and rang the bell. A large window covered by white curtains gave onto the porch. I was trying to peek through the gap between the panels when the door opened.
Ruth Fleishman's face was thick with powder, and her arms jangled with bracelets, but her hair wasn't dyed. A brown bouffant wig in a young Jackie Kennedy style covered a seventy- year-old head. She was either a cancer survivor or an Orthodox Jew who still wore a sheitel. Most likely an Orthodox Jew. This part of Rogers Park has replaced Lawndale as the center of Frum life in Chicago, and she looked too vigorous to have suffered a round of chemo.
As she led me through a cluttered living room, a mop of black and white fur on the couch lifted its head and sniffed. Then, as if deciding I was a new scent worth investigating, it jumped off the sofa.
"This must be Bruno," I said, as he ran up, his tail wagging so hard I thought it might fly off. "Your guard dog."
Mrs. Fleishman hiked her shoulders and eyebrows resignedly. I bent down to pet him. Part Beagle, part mutt, he ducked his head under my hand, forcing me to pet him. I ruffled his ears with my hands. When I stopped, he jumped up and pawed my pants leg, as if to say "I'll decide when you're finished."
"So. Come upstairs. I'll show you his room." Her voice made the thought of fingernails on a blackboard sound attractive.
We climbed the stairs, Bruno trotting behind us. "When did Mr. Sinclair die?"
"How?" I asked.
Her voice dropped. "They think he mixed up his Inderal and Lanoxin. I was out walking Bruno, and when I got back, Bruno ran upstairs and started barking to beat the band. That's how we found him. Such a sad thing. He was over ninety, of course, but you hate to see someone leave this world before their time."
She opened a door at the front of the house. The air inside had a sour, musty scent. A double bed, the mattress stripped, was wedged against one wall. A five-drawer captain's chest leaned against another. A small desk took up space under the window. The closet, aside from a few wire hangers, was empty, but several cardboard cartons were stacked on the floor.
Mrs. Fleishman crossed to the window and opened it. A wave of frigid air floated in. "Everything's in there." She pointed to the cartons. "The first two are his clothes—I was going to give them away. His personal things are in the other." Turning around, she saw me hovering at the door. "Come in, dear. They won't bite."
Reluctantly I stepped in and helped her move two cartons aside. She gestured for me to sit on the floor. I sat cross-legged and raised the flaps of the third carton. A plastic bag closed with a twist-tie sat on top. Inside were a razor, a package of blades, shaving cream, and two brown plastic prescription bottles. I checked the labels. Lanoxin and Inderal.
"Were these the ones—?"
"No. The people who picked him up took them. Those must have been from an old prescription."
I studied the bottles through the plastic. "An accidental overdose, you said?"
Excerpted from An Eye for Murder by Libby Fischer Hellmann Copyright © 2002 by Libby Fischer Hellmann. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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