By Ronald H. Balson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Ronald H. Balson
All rights reserved.
The stenciled writing on the frosted glass door simply read investigations. On the second floor of a vintage walk-up on Chicago's near north side, a broad-shouldered man in a Derry rugby shirt unwrapped a sandwich and opened the Chicago Tribune to the sports page. His hair, just a little thinner this year with tinges of gray sneaking in, was cut short. His ruddy face evidenced the wear of twenty years in his business.
Just as he took a healthy bite of his sandwich, the phone rang. "Damn," he mumbled.
"Liam Taggart," he said, as he swallowed.
"My name is Lena Woodward." Her voice was thin and sounded elderly. "Is this the private detective?"
"Yes, ma'am, it is. How can I help you?"
"I'd like to schedule an appointment."
"Can I ask what you have in mind, Miss Woodward?"
"It's Mrs. Woodward. I'd like you to help me find someone. Actually, two people."
"Are these people related to you?"
There was a pause on the line. "No. May I have an appointment, please? I'll tell you all about it when I see you."
"Well, I have time this afternoon. Do you want to come in today?"
"Tomorrow morning would be better," she said, "but I need to meet with you and Ms. Lockhart. Both of you."
"Catherine's a lawyer, she doesn't find people. Does this involve a court case?"
"Well, let me make a suggestion: we'll meet tomorrow and if you have legal needs, we can always talk to Catherine later."
"Respectfully, I must insist upon her presence, Mr. Taggart. Would you see if she's available, as well?"
"Mrs. Woodward, she's a busy lawyer and she has a busy morning court call. Her time is very expensive ..."
"Then three o'clock tomorrow afternoon, and please don't patronize me, Mr. Taggart, I know what legal costs are. I have the money to cover each of your fees if I choose to engage you."
"Could you give me just a little more information, just a hint? Why are you trying to find these people? Who are they to you? Are they in the Chicago area?" There was another pause. "Mrs. Woodward?"
"I'll tell you all about it tomorrow. Three o'clock?"
Liam sighed. "I don't have Catherine's calendar, but I'll see if she's available. May I have a number where I can reach you?" After jotting down the information, he ended the call and sat for a
moment contemplating why this woman thought it was necessary to involve Catherine in a simple skiptrace. He shrugged and made the call.
"Law offices of Catherine Lockhart."
"Gladys, what's Cat doing tomorrow afternoon at three?"
"Preparing for a hearing on Monday morning."
"Okay, would you pencil me in the book for three o'clock? We'll be meeting with a woman named Lena Woodward."
"What's it about?"
"I don't know."
* * *
In a three-story brownstone on West Belden Ave., two blocks west of Chicago's Lincoln Park, Liam sat at the kitchen table, drinking a Guinness, staring at his computer and waiting for his wife. Two subjects occupied his thoughts: the mysterious call from Lena Woodward earlier that afternoon and his lack of a strong running back in advance of his weekly fantasy showdown with his cousin. The door opened and Catherine Lockhart-Taggart entered carrying a box of documents.
"Working tonight?" Liam said.
"I have a TRO set for Monday morning, for which I'm unprepared, and then somebody I know told Gladys to schedule an appointment for tomorrow at three, taking away my entire afternoon."
Liam took the box from Catherine and placed it on the dining room table. "She was very insistent. She bullied me."
Catherine slipped her heels off, hung her raincoat on the hook, walked to the refrigerator, and poured herself a glass of cold milk. "What does this woman want? Why are you two coming to my office?"
Liam shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. "Because she wants to see us."
"I think she wants us to find two people."
"What two people?"
"Liam, honestly, sometimes you do the goofiest things. Why didn't you ask her?"
"I did. She wouldn't tell me. She's very bossy."
"Oh hell, Liam, she's probably a kook. She won't even show up."
He shook his head. "Nope. Not a kook. She'll show."
"And you know this because ..."
"It's me Irish intuition."
Catherine started to spread her papers out on the table. "Then your intuition should tell you that you're in charge of dinner tonight."
* * *
Liam loved chatting with Catherine's secretary, a fiery Latin from Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, who ran Cat's office tighter than Patton ran the Third. "How many paper clips did Cat use this week?" Liam teased.
"You think I don't know?" Gladys said with her hands on her hips.
Just then the door opened and a tall woman in a camel coat, knitted scarf and soft brown pillbox hat entered the office. Her gait was a bit unsteady and she needed the assistance of a shiny black cane. She smiled at Liam. "I presume you are Mr. Taggart?" She extended her hand. "I'm Lena."
"It's very nice to meet you, Lena. This is Gladys, Catherine's security force. I think Catherine is waiting for us."
Gladys took Lena's coat and escorted them back to Catherine's office. Lena appeared to be well into her eighties. She stood straight and poised, smartly dressed in a gray two-piece suit, a silk designer scarf and a pearl lattice barrette, which was clipped neatly to the right side of her styled silver hair. After the introductions, Lena came straight to the point. "I'd like to hire you both. I need to find out what happened to two children."
"Like I told you on the phone," Liam said. "Catherine doesn't find children. That's my stock-in-trade."
Lena nodded with a knowing smile. "I didn't come here by accident. I was a very close friend to Ben Solomon. Eight years ago you guided him through the final pursuit of his life — the quest to bring Hauptscharführer Otto Piatek to justice. Adele Silver and I sat with him almost every night during those trying times. I'm aware of what the two of you can do when you put your minds to it. I've seen it and I want to hire the team. I can pay for it."
"It's not a matter of money, Mrs. Woodward," Catherine said. "Ben needed a trial lawyer and I met that requirement. Ben also needed an investigator and that's where Liam came in. Ben's situation was unique. I'm sure it was quite different from yours."
Lena was unfazed. She continued to smile. "Different in some respects, but there are probably more similarities than disparities. Nevertheless, the project will require tireless efforts and a creative approach. According to Ben, it's the magical combination of your two minds that distinguishes you. He said he'd never seen anything like the way you two work together." She punctuated her declaration with her index finger. "I want the package."
"What do you want us to do, Lena?" Catherine said in a more resigned tone.
"I told you. I want you to find two children."
"Are they your children?"
Lena shook her head. "They aren't mine. But I made a promise to a very special person and I intend to keep it."
Catherine swiveled to her credenza and pushed the button on her phone. "Gladys, would you please put on a pot of coffee and hold my calls."
"I suppose i should start out at the beginning and tell you how I came to know these children. I was born Lena Scheinman in the town of Chrzanów, Poland, southwest of Kraków, in the province of Silesia, in 1924. When I entered my teenage years —"
Catherine held up her hand. "Chrzanów. Is that anywhere near Zamosc?"
"No, that was Ben's town. Although spelled Chrzanów, the town is pronounced Shah-nov. It's on the other side of Poland, near the Czech border."
Catherine looked at Liam. "I think we've been down this road before. Will this assignment involve us in something that happened during the Holocaust? Is that why you sought us out? Because of Ben Solomon? I mean, his case was certainly about the Holocaust, but it didn't make us experts in the field of wartime Poland."
Lena raised her eyebrows. "I came to you because of your talents and, I admit, also because of Ben. He was your greatest fan. And I was his. Maybe because we were both survivors, maybe because we both went through hell in wartime Poland — as I told you, there are similarities — Ben and I had a special bond. I sought you out because I must find out what happened to two children and I think you are the ones to help me."
"I apologize for the way my question was framed. I just wanted you to know that if you need an expert on Poland or World War II, you could do a lot better than Liam and me. We were able to help Ben find and prosecute Otto Piatek, but Ben was the source of all wartime information."
"I understand, but I know I've come to the right people and I beg you to hear me out."
"Of course." Catherine turned and picked up a yellow pad. "First, let's get a little background. Are these two children related to you in some way?" Lena shook her head. "No. They were Karolina's. They're twins."
Liam leaned forward, his elbows on the table "What are their names, Lena?"
She shook her head again. "Today? I wouldn't know. Many years ago they were Rachel and Leah."
Catherine glanced at Liam and then back to Lena. "Who is Karolina?"
"She was my dear, dear friend. She saved my life, but in the end I could not save hers." The memory made Lena pause. She blinked away a tear and brushed it aside with the back of her fingers. Finally, in a whispered tone she said, "I beg you to help me fulfill my promise. Please find Karolina's two little girls."
Catherine reached for a box of tissues and set it on the desk. "Where did Karolina live?"
Lena lowered her eyes. "In Chrzanów, near me. Many times with me."
Catherine again glanced at Liam, but he only shrugged.
"I suppose these twins were born during World War II? In Poland?"
"Lena, that's seventy years ago."
"I know. That's how long I've carried this burden. And soon, like my husband used to say, my membership card in the human race is due to expire. Two years ago, a month or two before Adele died, cancer took my husband from me. I lost my two dearest friends within sixty days. After their deaths, life had one purpose for me: my promise to Karolina.
"Over the years, my husband was very good with his business and his investments. Just before he died, he said, 'Lena, we have the money, keep your promise to Karolina. Put your soul to rest.' So, after a while I dove into it, made some inquiries, even flew back to Poland. But Chrzanów has changed. My inquiries went nowhere. I failed to generate any momentum. I really didn't know where to start. I finally came to the conclusion that if I were going to succeed in finding these girls, I would need professional help."
"And you came to us because of Ben?"
"As I said, Ben, Adele and I were very close. Ben told me that if I was ever going to seek out these children, I should come to you and Liam. He said you were a good listener, and if anybody could do it, you could do it. He constantly raved about you, Catherine. How patient and understanding you were."
"I'm honored, thank you. Ben was also very special to me."
"Where was the last place these children were seen?" Liam said.
"I wish I could give you the precise location or even the name of a town, but I can't. I know the general region, at least the way it was in 1943, but it's probably too imprecise."
Liam shook his head. "I have to be honest with you, Lena. I don't know if it's possible to help you. I'm pretty good at locating people, but I need a starting point." He counted on his fingers, "One, we don't know their names. Two, we don't know where they live. Three, we don't know where they were last seen. Four, we don't know what they presently look like and we don't even know if they're still alive. I'm afraid you'd be throwing your savings away on a wild-goose chase."
Lena remained unfazed. Her countenance was resolute and she pointed her chin. "We'll find them, I know we will. With your expert help." She gave a sharp, definitive nod. "We'll find them."
"Maybe it would help if you tell us a little bit about Karolina and why you're so invested in finding her children. Maybe after all these years they're doing just fine and don't need your assistance."
"That's not the point. There's information they need to know and I need to tell them."
Catherine picked up her pen. "Well, there's information I need to know as well before I can agree to get involved. I'm not going to accept your money if I don't have confidence that Liam and I can do something for you."
"Understood and agreed."
"All right, let's get started. Tell me about Karolina. Everything you remember."
"You'll listen? Keep an open mind?"
Catherine smiled. "Yes, I will."
"Thank you. Thank you so much." She took a sip of coffee, crossed her legs, smoothed her skirt and began. "I first met Karolina on the day she pushed my brother home from school."
Catherine furrowed her brow. "Pushed him?"
"My brother was seven and needed a wheelchair. When Milosz was four, he was stricken with childhood polio. My father took him to a doctor in Kraków who attended to him night and day. Back in the thirties, Milosz was a miracle child — he beat the disease. But it left him with severely withered legs and an inability to walk. A disability, to be sure, but not one that ever minimized Milosz. He couldn't play outside with the other boys, so the Muses compensated him with gifts of music, art and poetry."
"At age seven?"
"Absolutely. He could delight you with his talents — he played the violin. I'm sorry you never got the chance to hear him play. Or see his drawings. Or hear him recite his poetry. Even at seven years old."
Lena smiled at the memory. "Milosz could infect you with his joie de vivre. Though physically hampered, he never considered himself unlucky and a smile never left his face. He had nothing but kind words to say. Everyone adored him. Simply said, he loved life.
"Anyway, because of Milosz's disability, someone had to take him to and from school every day. Usually that person was Magda — she was our live-in nanny and housekeeper. Really, she was much more. She was part of our family and a great influence in my young life. She would take Milosz to and from the elementary school in his wheelchair — which Milosz referred to as his 'Maserati.'"
"Was the school far?" Catherine said. "I'm trying to get a sense of your town."
"Maybe seven, eight blocks. Nothing was too far in Chrzanów. There was a central market square and the town blossomed out from there. Cars were rare in Chrzanów. My family didn't own a car, even though we were quite comfortable. Everybody walked. If you needed to go farther than a good walk, you took a horse and buggy. We had a carriage. It was a fancy buggy.
"In those days, Chrzanów had about twenty-five thousand residents. Forty percent of the town was Jewish and the remainder was Catholic. The immediate area around Chrzanów was hilly and thick with forests. Beyond the perimeter, the countryside was a patchwork of farms, lumber mills and mining operations, especially coal. Kraków, Poland's second largest city, was forty-five kilometers to the east.
"My mother's family owned a store on the edge of the main square that sold building materials and farm provisions. It had been in her family for years. My mother, Hannah Scheinman, worked in the store several days a week. My father, Jacob Scheinman, worked there as well. With both my parents working, Magda not only took care of the house, she took care of Milosz and me.
"The day I met Karolina, it was raining. Magda had gone out of town to visit her mother. My father was supposed to pick up Milosz, but he got tied up at the store and couldn't break away. He asked the school's headmistress to have someone help me bring Milosz home. Karolina was chosen.
"Our home was three blocks off the market square — a two-story, stone house with a gabled roof and a small attic. I mention the attic because it would soon become the centerpiece of my existence. When Karolina brought Milosz home, she hung around for a while. As young girls will do, we had a snack and gossiped away the afternoon. Soon my mother arrived and insisted that Karolina stay for dinner. I was twelve at the time. Milosz was seven. Karolina was thirteen.
"I had seen Karolina at school, but she was a year ahead of me. She was also very popular. Even then, as a young teen, she was exquisite and she grew more beautiful with each passing year. She was strong, athletic and vivacious. She had dark, curly hair and big expressive eyes. Coy, flirtatious, smart, bold and very sure of herself, the boys flocked to her. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Karolina's Twins by Ronald H. Balson. Copyright © 2016 Ronald H. Balson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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