Picture of Her Tombstoneby Thomas Lipinski
When you're hot, you're hotand these days, Carroll Dorsey is definitely not. His Pittsburgh p.i. business is beyond recession, his love life is in intensive care, and the only action he can find is an elderly woman who needs somebody to track down her missing granddaughter. But what seems like a fairly routine sniff quickly turns far darkerpulling Dorsey into the muck of Pittsburgh's booze-and-dope-fueled underground, down with the dirty doctors and bust-hungry cops, and finally into a confrontation with some nasty skeletons in his own family's closet. But he's got to keep slogging. Because to get paid, you either have to find the target or else bring your client. . .
Even darker than Dorsey's grim debut, The Fall-Down Artist (1994): perfect reading material for one of those rainy days you wish would go on forever.
Read an Excerpt
For most of the crosstown trip from South Side, Dorsey was preoccupied with searching for a comfortable position in the van's passenger seat. His trick knee was aching, and it wasn't until they had passed through the Downtown area and into the Strip District, a valley floor along the Allegheny River populated with threadbare warehouses and wholesale distributors, that he secured his leg firmly between the seat and dashboard. Al Rosek was at the steering wheel, grinding away at the van's standard transmission at each stop sign. Pulling onto Penn Avenue, heading east into the working-class neighborhood of Lawrenceville, they were brought to a stop by the traffic light at the merger of Penn Avenue and Butler Street.
"Can't say that I recall you ever mentioning it," Al said. The light went green; he worked the transmission, then veered left onto Butler. "But seriously, your mother's people, they're from around here, from Lawrenceville?"
"Don't sound so surprised." Dorsey watched the light early evening traffic through the windshield. "What's surprising to me is that Al Rosek of Rosek's Bar and Information Exchange wouldn't have a full dossier on my entire lineage."
Al slowed the van to a crawl, negotiating his way around some crater-sized potholes. "Every spring," Al said, gesturing with his chin toward the road surface. "Every spring, these things come up as regular as dandelions. The van's scheduled for a wheel realignment next week."
The white van rattled along Butler, and Dorsey studied the sidewalk through the passenger window, looking at the small huddles of men, both young and old, who seemed to gather at alternate street corners. The sidewalks were crackedand grainy, and the spring evening's lingering light highlighted the grime of empty store windows. Once past Thirty-seventh Street, the groups of men turned from black to white; Dorsey could see little difference in them beside race. But the number of active storefronts increased: mostly discount stores, pizza shops, and bars. Dorsey thought of it as South Side's slightly poorer relative."
"Anyway," Dorsey said, shifting his weight in the passenger seat, facing Al, "your previously unknown limitations not with standing, my mum's family is from around here. They're a little farther out Butler, around Fifty-second Street. It was mostly Irish out there."
"I've got a feeling that it ain't mostly Irish where we're headed." Al took a hard right up Forty-forth Street, again playing with the transmission as the van tried to cope with a sudden and steep in cline. They crossed an alley, and Dorsey was taken aback by the neighborhood's abrupt transition. Going away from the rundown business district, one side of Forty-forth was lined with well-tended rowhouses fronted by black wrought-iron fencing. On the far side walk was an enormous reddish-brown brick church. Some people can live pretty well here, Dorsey thought, then remembered the scene on Butler. Yeah, they live here; they just don 't shop here.
"Polish church over there." Al pulled the van to the opposite curb and considered several row houses. "That one, I think; third one up."
Dorsey watched Al put the van in park and flick off the ignition. "Still sounds strange to me," he said. "Ziggy has to be, what? Maybe in his early sixties? And this is his aunt were supposed to be seeing? Can this be right?"
"All I know is what Ziggy told me." Al slipped out onto the side walk, and Dorsey came around from the passenger side, meeting him as he undid the gate latch. "Like I said, Ziggy comes to me because he knows I'm friends with you. Said his aunt wants to hire a detective, and you're the only one he's ever heard of. Not a great recommendation, but just remember, you were kind of famous for a while. And you've been hungry because of it."
Don t remind me, Dorsey thought. Bust the wrong guy and then have it turned around into a public lawsuit; that's not so good for a supposedly private detective. At the door he reached over Al's shoulder and pressed the doorbell. From his height of six four he gave Al the once-over and laughed to himself, recalling that Al was wearing what Dorsey referred to as the bartender's summer uniform. The black synthetic fiber pants were good year-round, but at the first sign of warm weather Al broke out the short-sleeved white shirts. The long-sleeved ones went to the cleaner and on vacation until October.
The door opened just a crack, and against the background of a dimly lit interior Dorsey could discern half of an aged face, the eye of which was level to his belt buckle. "You the men my Ziggy send?" The woman's voice was weak, but the Slavic tones of Eastern Europe came through to Dorsey. My God, Ziggy does have an aunt. And a live one, too.
Al introduced them both, and the old woman undid the security chain and opened the door the rest of the way, reminding them to close and lock it once they were in. Dorsey trailed Al and the old woman through a small vestibule and inner door into a living room, where the old lady motioned them around a coffee table and onto a sofa beneath the front windows. As she left through a small passageway for what he took to be the kitchen, Dorsey took in the room. Opposite the sofa were two easy chairs, both with doilies on the arms, similar to the ones protecting the sofa's armrests. Two of the walls were adorned with golden crucifixes, and the third held a large portrait of the Virgin Mary done in a variety of golds and with a black face. Dorsey elbowed Al in the ribs and gestured to ward the icon.
"Czestahowa," Al said, "Our Lady of Czestahowa. The black face is because some invaders burned it. Swedes, I think. Like I said, that's a Polish church across the street. Holy Family."
The old woman returned carrying a tray with three cups of coffee, a creamer, and a sugar bowl. She was so short that Dorsey could barely discern any bending of her waist as she lowered the tray to the coffee table. With the window light, her hair was the metallic gray of unfinished steel, pulled back in a bun and thinning. Her worn, sleeveless house dress accentuated the flaps of skin hanging from her upper arms. Late eighties, Dorsey thought, but don 't rule out ninety.
"You are Mrs. Leneski, right?" Dorsey took one of the cups and sipped at the rim. The coffee was hot and very strong. "You're Ziggy's aunt?"
"My brother's boy." Mrs. Leneski handed a cup to Al, who added cream and sugar.
Listening to her, Dorsey decided that her English wasn't broken, like an immigrant's. The woman doesn't have a Polish accent, he figured, she's got a Polish tone. The flavoring one heard in the voices of first born Americans, the echoes of parents from the Old Country.
"He's gone now." Mrs. Leneski sat in one of the easy chairs, taking the last cup of coffee. "Ziggy's father, I mean. Thirty years in Heppenstall's mill and raised Ziggy and four sisters. And he helped out my mother, too. Ziggy is good, too. Like his father. Always worked real hard."
"He said you might want to hire my friend," Al said. "Said you had some trouble. Didn't say what, but Ziggy said you needed a detective."
"You a good one?" Mrs. Leneski turned her attention to Dorsey. "Good detective? If I pay good money, I expect something to get done. So, you good detective?"
Dorsey rested the coffee cup on the knee of his khaki slacks and wondered if Ziggy had told her anything and hoped that he hadn't. It had been eighteen months since his own trouble, and he hoped that the woman's eyes had weakened to the point where she no longer bothered with the papers or TV news. There's still the radio, though. "My workload has been light lately," he said. "Referrals have been down, you might say. But I've done some good work in the past. Over all, I think I can promise you my best."
Mrs. Leneski set down her coffee cup and cut her eyes at Dorsey. "You was the one had the run-in with that priest and his people. Roughed you up a little? Year before last, wasn't that when?"
Well, Dorsey thought, at least the radio got the message through. "Didn't care much for the publicity," he said. "Your trouble is most likely different. Yours I can probably keep out of the newspapers."
"Big shot priest, he was," Mrs. Leneski said. "Led those people and got them in all kinds of troubleand for what? Not like a good parish priest, the kind you got to respect. That trouble is long over. I need your help. I pay you good."
It had been a long time since he had been hired without reservation, without a kind word from a well-placed friend, and Dorsey felt as though he had just been taken off the blacklist. "Tell me how I can help."
Mrs. Leneski rose and fished around in the pocket of her house dress. First she produced a chain of rattling rosary beads, quickly transferred to her other hand, then found a folded sheet of paper that she gave to Dorsey. Straightening it out, he saw it was a hand bill with a reprinted black-and-white photo of a very attractive girl, about seventeen or eighteen, by Dorsey's judgment. Below the photo a caption asked for help in locating the girl, who had been missing for two months. An unspecified reward was offered.
"My granddaughter, Maritsa. These are all over the neighbor hood." Mrs. Leneski retook her seat. "The junkies, they got her."
Copyright ) 1996 by Thomas Lipinski
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