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“They wouldn’t even start the funeral service. The church was full, ladies were crying. My uncle was a deacon and he was a righteous man, he’d been a member of that church for forty-seven years when he passed. My aunt was in a state of total collapse, as you can imagine. And for them to have the nerve to say the policy had already been cashed in. When! That’s what I want to know, Ms. Warshawski, when was it ever cashed in, with my uncle paying his five dollars a week for fifteen years like he did, and my aunt never hearing word one of him borrowing against the policy or converting it.”
Isaiah Sommers was a short, square man who spoke in slow cadences as if he were himself a deacon. It was an effort to keep from drowsing off during the pauses in his delivery. We were in the living room of his South Side bungalow, at a few minutes after six on a day that had stretched on far too long already.
I’d been in my office at 8:30, starting a round of the routine searches that make up the bulk of my business, when Lotty Herschel called with an SOS. “You know Max’s son brought Calia and Agnes with him from London, don’t you? Agnes suddenly has a chance to show her slides at a Huron Street gallery, but she needs a minder for Calia.”
“I’m not a baby-sitter, Lotty,” I’d said impatiently; Calia was Max Loewenthal’s five-year-old granddaughter.
Lotty swept imperiously past that protest. “Max called me when they couldn’t find anyone — it’s his housekeeper’s day off. He’s going to that conference at the Hotel Pleiades, although I’ve told him many times that all he’s doing is exposing — but that’s neither here nor there. At any rate, he’s on a panel at ten — otherwise he’d stay home himself. I tried Mrs. Coltrain at my clinic, but everyone’s tied up. Michael is rehearsing all afternoon with the symphony and this could be an important chance for Agnes. Vic — I realize it’s an imposition, but it would be only for a few hours.”
“Why not Carl Tisov?” I asked. “Isn’t he staying at Max’s, too?”
“Carl as a baby-sitter? Once he picks up his clarinet the roof of the house can blow off without his noticing. I saw it happen once, during the V-1 raids. Can you tell me yes or no? I’m in the middle of surgical rounds, and I have a full schedule at the clinic.” Lotty is the chief perinatologist at Beth Israel.
I tried a few of my own connections, including my part-time assistant who has three foster children, but no one could help out. I finally agreed with a surly lack of grace. “I have a client meeting at six on the far South Side, so someone had better be able to step in before five.”
When I drove up to Max’s Evanston home to collect Calia, Agnes Loewenthal was breathlessly grateful. “I can’t even find my slides. Calia was playing with them and stuck them in Michael’s cello, which got him terribly cross, and now the wretched beast can’t imagine where he’s flung them.”
Michael appeared in a T-shirt with his cello bow in one hand. “Darling, I’m sorry, but they have to be in the drawing room — that’s where I was practicing. Vic, I can’t thank you enough — can we take you and Morrell to dinner after our Sunday afternoon concert?”
“We can’t do that, Michael!” Agnes snapped. “That’s Max’s dinner party for Carl and you.”
Michael played cello with the Cellini Chamber Ensemble, the London group started back in the forties by Max and Lotty’s friend Carl Tisov. The Cellini was in Chicago to kick off their biannual international tour. Michael was also scheduled to play some concerts with the Chicago Symphony.
Agnes gave Calia a quick hug. “Victoria, thank you a million times. Please, though, no television. She only gets an hour a week and I don’t think American shows are suitable for her.” She darted back into the drawing room, where we could hear her furiously tossing cushions from the couch. Calia grimaced and clutched my hand.
It was Max who actually got Calia into her jacket and saw that her dog, her doll, and her “favoritest story” were in her day pack. “So much chaos,” he grunted. “You’d think they were trying to launch the space shuttle, wouldn’t you. Lotty tells me you have an evening appointment on the South Side. Perhaps you could meet me in the Pleiades lobby at four-thirty. I should be able to finish up by then so I can collect this whirling dervish from you. If you have a crisis, my secretary will be able to reach me. Victoria, we are grateful.” He walked outside with us, kissing Calia lightly on the head and me on the hand.
“I hope your panel isn’t too painful an outing,” I said.
He smiled. “Lotty’s fears? She’s allergic to the past. I don’t like wallowing in it, but I think it can be healthy for people to understand it.”
I strapped Calia into the backseat of the Mustang. The Birnbaum Foundation, which often underwrites communications issues, had decided to hold a conference on “Christians and Jews: a New Millennium, a New Dialogue.” They came up with the program after Southern Baptists announced plans to send a hundred thousand missionaries to Chicago this past summer to convert the Jews. The Baptist drive fizzled out; only about a thousand stalwart evangelizers showed up. It cost the Baptists something in cancellation fees at the hotels, too, but by then the planning for the Birnbaum conference was well under way.
Max was taking part in the bank-account panel, which infuriated Lotty: he was going to describe his postwar experiences in trying to track down his relatives and their assets. Lotty said he was going to expose his misery for the world at large to stare at. She said it only reinforced a stereotype of Jews as victims. Besides, she would add, dwelling on missing assets only gave people fuel for the second popular stereotype, that all Jews cared about was money. To which Max invariably replied, who cares about money here, really? The Jews? Or the Swiss who refuse to return it to the people who earned it and deposited it? And the fight went on from there. It had been an exhausting summer, being around them.
In the seat behind me, Calia was chattering happily. The private eye as baby-sitter: it wasn’t the first image you got from pulp fiction. I don’t think Race Williams or Philip Marlowe ever did baby-sitting, but by the end of the morning I decided that was because they were too weak to take on a five-year-old.
I started at the zoo, thinking trudging around for an hour would make Calia eager to rest while I did some work in my office, but that proved to be an optimism born of ignorance. She colored for ten minutes, needed to go to the bathroom, wanted to call Grandpapa, thought we should play tag in the hall that runs the length of the warehouse where I lease space, was “terrifically” hungry despite the sandwiches we’d eaten at the zoo, and finally jammed one of my picklocks into the back of the photocopier.
At that point I gave up and took her to my apartment, where the dogs and my downstairs neighbor gave me a merciful respite. Mr. Contreras, a retired machinist, was delighted to let her ride horseback on him in the garden. The dogs joined in. I left them to it while I went up to the third floor to make some calls. I sat at the kitchen table with the back door open so I could keep an ear cocked for when Mr. Contreras’s patience waned, but I did manage to get an hour of work in. After that Calia consented to sit in my living room with Peppy and Mitch while I read her “favoritest” story, The Faithful Dog and the Princess.
“I have a dog, too, Aunt Vicory,” she announced, pulling a blue stuffed one from her day pack. “His name is Ninshubur, like in the book. See, it says, Ninshubur means ‘faithful friend’ in the language of the princess’s people.”
“Vicory” was the closest Calia could get to Victoria when we met almost three years ago. We’d both been stuck with it ever since.
Calia couldn’t read yet, but she knew the story by heart, chanting “For far rather would I die than lose my liberty” when the princess flung herself into a waterfall to escape an evil enchantress. “Then Ninshubur, the faithful hound, leapt from rock to rock, heedless of any danger.” He jumped into the river and carried the princess to safety.
Calia pushed her blue plush dog deep into the book, then threw him on the floor to demonstrate his leap into the waterfall. Peppy, well-bred golden retriever that she was, sat on the alert, waiting for a command to fetch, but her son immediately bounded after the toy. Calia screamed, running after Mitch. Both dogs began to bark. By the time I rescued Ninshubur, all of us were on the brink of tears. “I hate Mitch, he is a bad dog, I am most annoyed at his behavior,” Calia announced.
I was thankful to see that it was three-thirty. Despite Agnes’s prohibition, I plunked Calia in front of the television while I went down the hall to shower and change. Even in the era of casual dress, new clients respond better to professionalism: I put on a sage rayon suit with a rose silk sweater.
When I got back to the living room, Calia was lying with her head on Mitch’s back, blue Ninshubur between his paws. She bitterly resisted restoring Mitch and Peppy to Mr. Contreras.
“Mitch will miss me, he will cry,” she wailed, so tired herself that nothing made sense to her.
“Tell you what, baby: we’ll get Mitch to give Ninshubur one of his dog tags. That way Ninshubur will remember Mitch when he can’t see him.” I went into my storage closet, where I found one of the small collars we’d used when Mitch had been a puppy. Calia stopped crying long enough to help buckle it in place around Ninshubur. I attached a set of Peppy’s old tags, which looked absurdly big on the small blue neck but brought Calia enormous satisfaction.
I stuffed her day pack and Ninshubur into my own briefcase and scooped her up to carry her to my car. “I’m not a baby, I don’t get carried,” she sobbed, clinging to me. In the car she fell asleep almost at once.
My plan had been to leave my car with the Pleiades Hotel valet for fifteen minutes while I took Calia in to find Max, but when I pulled off Lake Shore Drive at Wacker, I saw this wasn’t going to be possible. A major crowd was blocking the entrance to the Pleiades driveway. I craned my head, trying to see. A demonstration, apparently, with pickets and bullhorns. Television crews added to the chaos. Cops were furiously whistling cars away, but the traffic was so snarled I had to sit for some minutes in mounting frustration, wondering where I would find Max and what to do with Calia, heavily asleep behind me.
I pulled my cell phone out of my briefcase, but the battery was dead. And I couldn’t find the in-car charger. Of course not: I’d left it in Morrell’s car when he and I went to the country for a day last week. I pounded the steering wheel in useless frustration.
As I sat fuming, I watched the picketers, who belonged to conflicting causes. One group, all white, was carrying signs demanding passage of the Illinois Holocaust Asset Recovery Act. “No deals with thieves,” they were chanting, and “Banks, insurers, where is our money?”
The man with the bullhorn was Joseph Posner. He’d been on the news so many times lately I could have picked him out in a bigger crowd than this. He was dressed in the long coat and bowler hat of the ultra-Orthodox. The son of a Holocaust survivor, he had become ostentatiously religious in a way that made Lotty grind her teeth. He could be seen picketing everything from X-rated movies, with the support of Christian fundamentalists, to Jewish-owned stores like Neiman Marcus that were open on Saturday. His followers, who seemed to be a cross between a yeshiva and the Jewish Defense League, accompanied him everywhere. They called themselves the Maccabees and seemed to think their protests should be modeled on the original Maccabees’ military prowess. Like a growing number of fanatics in America, they were proud of their arrest records.
Posner’s most recent cause was an effort to get Illinois to pass the Illinois Holocaust Asset Recovery Act. The IHARA, suggested by legislation in Florida and California, would bar insurance companies from doing business in the state unless they proved that they weren’t sitting on any life or property claims from Holocaust victims. It also had clauses dealing with banks and with firms that benefited from use of forced labor during the Second World War. Posner had been able to generate enough publicity that the bill was being debated in committee.
The second group outside the Pleiades, mostly black, was carrying signs with a large red slash through Pass the IHARA. NO DEALS WITH SLAVE OWNERS AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE FOR ALL, their signs proclaimed. The guy leading this group was also easy to recognize: Alderman Louis “Bull” Durham. Durham had been looking for a long time for a cause that would turn him into a high-profile opponent to the mayor, but opposition to the IHARA didn’t strike me as a city-wide issue.
If Posner had his Maccabees, Durham had his own militant followers. He’d set up Empower Youth Energy teams, first in his own ward and then around town, as a way of getting young men off the streets and into job-training programs. But some of the EYE teams, as they were called, had a shadier side. There were whispers on the street of extortion and beatings for store owners who didn’t contribute to the alderman’s political campaigns. And Durham himself always had his own group of EYE-team bodyguards, who surrounded him in their signature navy blazers whenever he appeared in public. If the Maccabees and the EYE team were going head to head, I was glad I was a private detective trying to make my way through traffic, not one of the policemen hoping to keep them apart.
From the Hardcover edition.