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World of Hurt
A Harvey Blissberg Mystery
By R. D. Rosen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Richard Dean Rosen
All rights reserved.
Tall roadside signs advertising everything from formal wear to Vienna Red Hots couldn't contradict the great flatness of what the local disc jockey on the radio in the Lincoln Town Car rental referred to as "the Chicagoland area."
It had been farmland forty years before, but now the litter of American culture lined the old county road parallel to the expressway that took Harvey Blissberg toward Garden Hills: German car dealerships, windowless surf 'n' turf restaurants, spanking new strip malls, low glassy corporate headquarters. Here and there among the new structures, like destitute relatives lurking at a family picnic, was a seedy bowling alley with defunct neon or a Soft-Serve drive-in with tattered photographs of huge sundaes taped in the canted windows.
Harvey stifled a yawn—with unnecessary politeness, since he was alone in the car—and tried to imagine the hotel room that lay ahead in the midwestern dusk. It was after eight and still not dark enough for headlights. He glanced at the directions he had scrawled on a Post-it stuck to his dash—"11/2 mi past Scrub-A-Dub car wash on right"—and rubbed his temples.
The pain in his brain was due mostly to this plain. He had come here, he was convinced, against his better judgment. It was now only three days since he had picked up the phone in Cambridge to hear a voice say: "There are four Golden State Warrior jerseys hanging in the Oakland Coliseum. Whose are they?"
"Hello, Norm," he had said wearily, "how are you?" When Harvey was still in the majors, his brother, Norman, professor of English at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, tormented him with late-night calls relating one obscure baseball statistic or another he had computed in his spare moments. Norm knew more about Harvey's numbers than Harvey did. Now that Harvey had retired to become an investigator—no jersey hanging in the rafters, just the pension—Norm liked to punish him with sports trivia.
"C'mon. You'll never get all four."
"Rick Barry," Harvey said.
"That one's obvious." Norm sniffed.
"Two," Norm said. "But that's all you're going to get."
"I was wrong. I'm impressed. But you'll never get the fourth. Even Harold Nash over in sociology couldn't cough up the fourth."
His brother was silent for a moment. "I'm stunned."
"Norm, you forget you're dealing with a professional."
"Yeah, well, anyway, listen, speaking of professional status, I've got a problem here that could use your, uh, attention. Is there any chance you can drop what you're doing and come out here?"
"Something happened about six weeks ago. A friend of mine"—he cleared his throat—"was, uh, murdered. Up in Garden Hills. You know, that's a suburb north of here."
The abrupt transition from sports trivia to homicide left Harvey disoriented. "A friend of yours? Murdered? My God, Norm. Why didn't you tell me about this before?"
"I guess we haven't talked in that long."
"Can't be." But it was. They had never gone this long without a phone call. Harvey felt a stab of abandonment. For the past year he had felt himself drifting quietly away from the world he once knew. One college friend of his was dead at thirty-eight from a virus that ate his heart; another was gone with cancer. The elements were dispersing. "I'm sorry, Norm," he said. "Who was it?"
"A fellow who was part of my regular basketball game at the Y in Winnetka for the last three years. His name was Larry Peplow. A real estate agent."
"He was shot once in the head near some luxury housing development in Garden Hills. But look—I think the local cops are in way over their heads. It's the first homicide there in something like a decade. These North Shore cops—you know, they do a lot better when it comes to parade routes."
"You know something the cops don't?"
"Not really. Larry and I were buddies on the court. I rarely saw him outside the Y. But, listen, he was this charming, bright guy." As if murder victims who were charming and bright deserved a higher-quality investigation. "You know what it's like, Harv, these locker-room relationships."
"There was a bond. Besides, Larry was the only guy who'd look for me on the fast break."
"He must've been a good friend, Norm, to pass you the ball on the fast break." Harvey couldn't pass up the cheap joke at his older brother's expense, but Norm wasn't listening.
"It's weird, Harv, that you can see a guy two, three times a week for years and, you know, not even know if he was married. Which it turns out he wasn't."
"I assume you've talked to the cops—"
"Women have to know every damn thing about you, but all guys have to do is share a few dirty jokes in the locker room and we're blood brothers."
"Norm, did you talk to the cops?"
"Yeah, sure, a few of us went up there for questioning. But they told us stuff. Not much, though. He was pretty reclusive. He was forty-four, lived alone in a rented house in Coleridge, one of those fat suburbs up on Lake Michigan, just east of Garden Hills. Where he was killed. He's got a mother living in upstate New York somewhere. Let's see, he came to the Midwest from Maine four years ago and worked at a real estate agency in Coleridge."
"That's it. I called the detective a few days ago to see how the investigation was going. Fellow named Walter Dombrowski. He said not to get our hopes up."
"Meaning what? That it was a senseless, random murder?"
"I don't think so. Anyway, robbery wasn't the motive. His wallet wasn't touched. Apparently, the only thing missing was the back of his head."
"He was shot from the front?"
"In the face. Can you imagine? What a fucking way to go."
"No sign of struggle."
"I don't think so, but I don't know for a fact."
"So it was someone he knew?"
"I don't know. You'd have to ask Dombrowski about it."
"Ask Dombrowski? Wait a second. I didn't say yes to this."
"Well, you're asking all these questions, Harv."
"You want me to drop everything and fly out there and look into this? Some guy, it turns out, you didn't know all that well?"
"For chrissakes, Harv, I played ball with him for three years! You can't just let a guy take a bullet between the eyes in a wheat field somewhere and say, 'Okay, that's done, got to get on with my life.' Besides, we took up a collection for you."
"Some of the guys who played with Larry."
"I can't take money from my own brother."
"Don't worry, I didn't kick in any dough. I'm offering you free room and board for as long as you're out here. Linda redid the attic into a guest room. Of course, I don't know how you feel about tartan bedspreads."
"Look, Norm, I'm not saying yes, but if I did this, I couldn't stay with you and Linda. I'd need a place of my own. Some crummy motel in the area."
"You and your nostalgie de la boue. There are no crummy motels up there. You're talking about a string of suburbs where a BMW's an impulse purchase. Look, Harv, as to the actual numbers we're talking about—I don't know what your rates are—"
"Don't worry about that."
There was a pause during which Harvey knew that the deed had been done.
"Thanks, Harv. It means a lot. Maybe you could bring Mickey."
"Can't. She's busy producing a documentary for public television about gender and competition."
"She does like to tackle the big projects, doesn't she?"
"None bigger than me."
"'I,' Harv. It's 'I,' not 'me.'"
"Thank you, Norm."
"Don't mention it. Are you guys ever going to get married or what?"
"And let matrimony ruin a good relationship? When the passion's gone, Norm, that's when we'll make it official by getting hitched."
"It's still that good, huh?"
"That good? Are you kidding? At night sometimes we just sit around looking deeply into each other's adoring eyes and wondering if two people ever felt this kind of love before." It was a relief to be joking.
"You're a lying sack of shit."
"Well, at least the part about sitting around at night is true." In the last year he and Mickey had landed somehow in adulthood. And all they had to show for it, he thought at times, was a couple of aging Siamese cats.
"Anyway," Norm said, "you know what Kierkegaard said. He said that marriage marks the passage from the aesthetic stage to the ethical. Of course, that's not an exact quote."
"No problem, it's close enough," Harvey said. At moments like this, Harvey liked to recall that he had once been able to hit ninety-five-mile-per-hour fastballs over four hundred feet.
Now, in the fading June light, he passed another mall and resisted the urge to pull in. His dazed, aimless, compulsive wandering in discount stores had been one of the symptoms that drove him three months before to Dr. Ellyn Walker in Lexington, Massachusetts. It was as if he would suddenly wake up and find himself going through the men's clearance racks at T.J. Maxx with the distinct impression that he was avoiding his life. He rarely bought anything. Once Dr. Walker had asked him what he was looking for; when he conceded that Caldor or Kmart probably didn't stock it, she had said, "But whatever it is, you'd like to get it at a discount." He drove on, grimly; the mere thought of him, an ex-jock, in therapy still shamed him a little.
The empty lobby of the North Shore Suites Hotel was covered with new periwinkle carpeting and sprinkled with scalloped tub chairs in pale peach. It was not crummy at all, yet its very newness was pleasantly tawdry. The desk clerk, a young blond woman in a French braid and identified as Shari by a plastic plate pinned to her breast, called up his reservation on the screen and spoke without raising her eyes from the humming terminal. Harvey took advantage of this to study her soft, wide Scandinavian features.
"I see you have an open-ended reservation. Do you know yet how long you'll be with us?" "Long" came out "lawng."
"I'll put you in room four-thirty-four for four nights, but I'll have to move you if you're staying longer."
She looked up with a smile. "Whom are you with?"
Harvey recited the address of the stucco house in Cambridge that he and Mickey shared and where he lived, he sometimes felt, like an undereducated interloper among all the glib professors, management consultants, and public television producers.
"Sign here." She slid the registration card under his nose, adding, "Nice shirt."
Harvey glanced down at his Hawaiian shirt covered with palm fronds and repetitious purple sunsets. "Thank you." In the time it took him to scrawl his name, he experienced a detailed sexual fantasy involving himself, Shari, and a complimentary bottle of shampoo. Lately he had been suffering not just the usual reflexive urges but desires as specific as the taste for a delicacy.
Without the slightest indication of having participated in Harvey's reverie, she held up a coded white card and explained to him how it worked. "Welcome to the North Shore," she said.
"North Shore?" he said, returning the desk pen to its plastic base. "This implies water."
"Lake Michigan's about two miles east of here."
"Let me ask you a question."
He could see her tense a little. "Sure," she said. It sounded like "Shar."
"Are you familiar with a housing development around here called Rimwood Estates?"
"No, I haven't heard of it."
"It's right here in Garden Hills."
"There've got to be a thousand new developments around here. I live in one myself. Lakeview Acres."
"You can see Lake Michigan from it?"
"No, but there's a small man-made lake on the property."
"That's the lake that inspired the name Lakeview Acres?"
"Are you making fun of where I live?" she asked.
"I wouldn't dream of it. I was just curious."
"You're very inquisitive."
Was this a rebuke or a come-on? "Well, you seem like a friendly person."
"I hope you're not confusing my midwestern openness with something more."
Rebuke, he thought, and backpedaled. "You misunderstand my intentions."
"Anyway"—she held up her left hand—"I'm wearing a wedding band."
In truth, he was relieved. A few months of psychotherapy had shortened his leash, not that he had strayed in years. "I have," he said, leaning down for his bags, "a high regard for the sanctity of marriage."
"So you don't need, like, an ulterior motive to ask this many questions?"
"It's part of my job."
"What are you, a market researcher?"
"In a manner of speaking. I'm researching who might've murdered a man a few weeks ago at Rimwood Estates."
Her green eyes widened. "Oh, I read about that. What does that make you, a detective?"
"Yeah, but that's our little secret, Shari. Anonymity is essential to my work."
"In that case, I hope you've brought another shirt to wear. Room four-thirty-four. Enjoy your stay."
In his room he pulled the heavy curtains aside and looked out over Edens Expressway. It was almost dark now, but the identical rooftops of a residential development were visible through breaks in the lush trees. He unpacked, marked his new territory by taking a leak in the faux marble bathroom, and admired the complimentary bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and hand lotion arranged on the glass shelf. Then he went to the bed to call Lieutenant Walter Dombrowski, chief of homicide for the Garden Hills Police Department.
"Lieutenant, this is Harvey Blissberg."
"I spoke to you from Cambridge yesterday."
"I'm in Garden Hills right now."
"Any breakthroughs in the Peplow case since we talked?" Maybe they'd collared someone and he could turn right around and fly back to Boston.
"Well, as I said to you yesterday, Lieutenant, I'll do my best not to get in your way."
"That would be appreciated."
"Are we still on for tomorrow morning?"
"I've had to rearrange my schedule a little. I can't see you till noon."
"I see. All right. And I can take a peek at the case file?"
"It can be arranged."
Harvey reached for the hotel notepad and cocked his pen. "Lieutenant, maybe you can give me the name of Peplow's former employer. Now that I've got some free time in the morning, I thought I might start with him."
"Her. Virginia Schmauss. Schmauss and Weevens Realty in Coleridge."
"And that's where Peplow worked the last four years?"
"Thank you. I have one more question."
"I'm over here at the North Shore Suites Hotel."
"And I was wondering if you could recommend a good place for a late dinner."
"What do you like to eat?"
"I'm partial to seafood."
"Then here's what you want to do, son. Get on Edens Expressway going north, get off at Sky View Road and go west about four miles—you got that?—and just past the light at Sawyer you'll see a restaurant on the left. Clarence's, it's called. Go in there and order yourself a piece of Lake Superior whitefish."
Harvey wondered why he had been demoted from "sir" to "son." It made the cop's earlier deference suspect. "What if I ordered something else?"
"You're not going to order something else, son. You're going to order the whitefish. Lake Superior whitefish. With a nice baked potato. You tell Clarence that Walter sent you."
"And the bread pudding is excellent. I'll call Clarence and make a reservation for you. And another thing, son."
Harvey was sure he was going to recommend an appetizer.
"When you're on Sky View going west, you're going to pass Behnke's Nursery on the left. Just a few hundred feet past it, on the right, you'll see a brick gate. That's the entrance to Rimwood Estates. In the field west of the houses, that's where Laurence Peplow was killed."
"But I don't want you to stop in there tonight, son."
"Why's that? Because Clarence's closes its doors at nine. It's now eight-thirty-five. If you don't drag butt you've got just about enough time to make it."CHAPTER 2
The next morning, Harvey could see the money in Coleridge's business district. It was parked in the diagonal spaces in front of the two-story Tudor-style storefronts: Mercedes, BMWs, Jaguars, Porsches, Olds Cutlasses, Buick Regals, Saabs, Infinitis. Harvey wondered if they impounded lesser vehicles at the town line. Schmauss & Weevens Realty occupied its own prime one-story brick building two blocks off the main thoroughfare. Harvey had to wait in the fern-cluttered vestibule only a moment before Virginia Schmauss appeared before him, moving silently in a shirtwaist silk dress, shaking a dozen bracelets down her wrist to announce her presence. It was obvious she had made a profession out of being formidable.
Excerpted from World of Hurt by R. D. Rosen. Copyright © 1994 Richard Dean Rosen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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