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“I feared you wouldn’t know me.”
His ashen face did not remind me of the quaint grifter or winsome confidence trickster. Nor did I see an aging racketeer broken by prison. But I knew Bernie Landau—my father. He found me through “contacts” who specialized in making sure people were found. He wore dingy gray slacks with an argyle cardigan sweater that draped his eighty-year-old frame as though slung over a wire hanger. His pasty cheeks sagged like someone had disfigured a clay face. In his hand he gripped part of a rolled-up newspaper as if his sixteen-year absence had fostered an intense desire to smack me.
“It took you a week to find me?” I said. “Did your people try the phone book?”
Dad shrugged. “I only got sprung ten days ago. And I wasn’t sure finding you was such a good idea. I thought maybe you’re still mad at me.”
I didn’t buy his weak attempt at regret. Either way, I had more anger for the Fed bastards who took our house, our cars, my ten-speed Peugeot, and, for fun, tore down the basketball hoop and backboard from the garage roof. As a freshman in high school, I came home one day to find it mangled on the driveway where I’d spent many hours winning championships on last-second shots.
“Interesting line of work you’ve chosen, Jules,” Dad said and fell back into an old overstuffed leather recliner, failing to notice the black-and-white cat whose privilege it was to sleep there. He regarded Punim’s screech and subsequent catapult off his shoulder as one might notice a wandering gnat. He settled in and fingered the stuffing that bulged from a large tear on the armrest. Then he searched the bare white walls of my apartment while his face morphed into a familiar scowl. I watched his eyeballs follow my favorite scratch zig-zagging down from the crown molding and dead-ending at the baseboard. “Hound-dog business been good to you?”
“I’m thrifty. And don’t worry about the cat.”
Dad fidgeted in the chair and took a breath. Then he started tapping the rolled-up newspaper against his knee. “Is this what life looks like without the curse?”
The curse referred to our family history, starting with Great-Granddad, who made a fortune among his immigrant brethren of pushcart peddlers working the open-air market of Chicago’s Maxwell Street. From this miserable residue, Great-Granddad guaranteed a dependable stream of extorted money and earned the monikers of iron-fisted ward boss, political dictator, city hall chieftain—and scoundrel. In addition to committeeman, he also held offices with fancifully arcane titles such as City Collector and City Sealer of Weights and Measures. Some of my relatives called him the smartest man they ever knew and pointed to his chauffeur-driven limousine on a municipal salary as proof. Others pointed to the same thing and called him a gangster. Regardless, those who knew him or knew of him understood why the scandal of Great-Granddad’s remembrance inspired passion sixty or more years after the man died in my father’s childhood bed. Where better to assign the blame for a family’s perpetually bad attitude?
Dad leaned forward and stared into the hardwood floor. “That college you went to have a president?”
“Of course, why?”
“We got a college president here in the city, President Tate. You know he’s tearing up Maxwell Street?”
If it were possible to nod one’s head sarcastically, that’s what I did. “The poor getting screwed again. What a surprise. And wasn’t it our family who first made their money by shafting the poor down there?”
Dad gave me an angry glare. “Times were different. That’s where we got our start—but now it’s part of history. And we’re part of this history, whether you like it or not. You can’t run away from your family, you know. It’ll follow you wherever you go. And I’m not ashamed of it and neither should you be. Anyway, one of those preservation groups tried to get Maxwell Street designated as a historic site. But that son of a bitch Tate beat them down, and now he’s gonna crap all over it!”
Despite his cadaverous appearance, Dad was still full of piss and vinegar. “I never claimed to be ashamed,” I said. “And you can’t just blame Tate. There are trustees and legislators to hate, too.”
Dad tried and failed to look disappointed in me—which of us had just gotten out of prison? He said, “How can you live like this?” and then added, “What kind of work have you been getting?”
At age thirty-one, I had dozens of contacts and a neat apartment in a two-flat on North Halsted Street. Husbands and wives behaving badly paid my rent and kept raspberry sorbet in the freezer. An observer might conclude my frequent naps and lack of close friends signified unhappiness. But I didn’t give a damn what others thought and had long ago reconciled with my undiagnosed sleep disorder. Friends? They always disappointed you. Besides, I’d kept plenty busy since expanding into the realms of background investigations, surveillance, and skip traces. Living the dream.
Dad was really asking why my suburban nurturing had not begotten a career that included retirement accounts, paid vacations, and health care that didn’t rely on places called The People’s Clinic or the emergency room.
“You find out yet what a bullet can do to a man’s head?” he asked.
“Give me time.”
“You act reckless in your line of work, and it could be a short career. After you’ve felt the end of a muzzle pushing into your skull, then you can be a smart ass.”
I looked forward to that day just to say I knew what it felt like, assuming I survived. “So what do you want?”
Dad winced as he pushed himself up from the chair and walked to my Wall of Blame, a collection of psychotic-looking adulterous faces I had proudly captured. He seemed older than his eighty years. Then he walked to the window that overlooked the street. “Remind me: for this you went to college?”
“You went to college, too.”
I thought I got to him, but he countered with a smile and a nod. Then he took a folded piece of paper from his pocket. “You’re a sharp little prick,” he said and handed me a check for two thousand dollars.
I hadn’t seen a dime from the man since he went away. “What the hell is this?”
“When’s the last time you saw Snooky?”
“What’s the check for?”
“Just answer the question.”
Snook was a CPA and a close friend of the family. Snooky’s father, Henry, was my dad’s original business partner. As a manufacturer’s representative for ladies’ coats, Dad would go on the road selling the lines while Henry stayed in the showroom. Together they had built a profitable numbers racket among the shop owners of apparel stores in the little towns downstate. Dad called it an “untapped niche market.” Acute leukemia killed Henry when Snooky was a young teenager. Dad treated him like a second son and Snooky let me adopt him as my big brother. He jokingly called me “the little brother I always never wanted.”
Snooky introduced me to folk music when my parents didn’t know Bob Dylan from Bob Hope. He showed me how to roll my first joint and gave me a bong for my fifteenth birthday. For my sixteenth, he introduced me to Bunny, who took my virginity. Snooky later told me she owed him a favor for advice on hiding cash from the Feds. Dad could’ve cut his prison time in half had he given up Snooky and his pals.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think we had lunch a few weeks ago.”
“Do you know what he was up to? Like who he was working with?”
“The only legit client he talks about is Audrey, who owns a tattoo shop. I think he’s got a hard-on for her. All the hoods he calls Guido.”
How many upper-middle-class suburban boys hung out with gangsters’ bookkeepers while smoking pot and laughing their asses off at descriptions of Guido showing off his earlobe collection or Fat Mackerel shitting his pants after a phony no-knock raid? Snooky loved to laugh, and we did a whole lot of laughing.
“I guess you don’t read the paper much,” Dad said, then tossed the metro section at my feet. “This one is three days old.” Above the fold, a headline screamed about the alarming number of unidentified meth-heads full of bullet holes found on the streets. Below the fold, a smaller headline introduced a murder victim with a name.
“Snooky took two bullets in the head,” Dad said.
First the room swayed, then I saw flashing white spots. I closed my eyes for several seconds, then opened them to a wave of nausea washing over me. Somehow, I found the couch before my knees buckled.
A year after Dad got busted, Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died six months later. My father’s associates invited me to move in with them, since Dad already shared a much bigger house with hundreds of guys wearing orange jumpsuits. As a child I had spent many summer afternoons at one or another of these uncles’ houses, learning the art of opening the door without letting someone in unless they answered the right question. I also became proficient at stuffing piles of cash into shoeboxes and stacking them in the hollow space under the stairway. “You’ll grow up to be a good earner,” they liked to say. But I wanted to live with Snooky.
I’d probably be dead or in prison if not for Snooky. He talked me into going to college, even drove me down to Champaign every fall to make sure I got settled in. Snooky wasn’t thrilled I chose investigations as a career, but that didn’t stop him from setting me up with Sid Frownstein, a kind of legendary hard-boiled snoop from the old school who had deftly walked that equivocal line between investigation and manipulation until he retired to a lakefront condo and a hobby of restoring antique cars. It was Frownie who first told me stories of my family’s infamous past. When Frownie became my mentor, Dad wrote me his last letter, the one in which he threatened to break out of prison and beat my ass if I followed in Frownie’s footsteps. From that point on, I had no doubt what my career would be.
“They found his body on a pile of construction debris,” I said, reading from the article. I noticed a small photograph of the heap next to an advertisement for cosmetics. “Three hundred and fifty dollars in his wallet. Credit cards untouched. And what the hell was he doing on Maxwell Street? Snooky had no dealings on the South Side.”
Looking out the window, Dad said, “I thought you never talked business.”
I answered through a lump in my throat. “Payback for setting me up with Frownie? You want to buy my silence for two grand?” I didn’t know if I meant it.
Dad turned and stared at me as if reading the words off my forehead. “I don’t believe my ears. Is this really how you turned out?”
“Snooky liked how I turned out.”
“Snooky was like a son to me—you know that! You think I’d kill him? Your father’s a killer—that’s what you think?”
I didn’t answer. If Dad killed people, I wouldn’t have minded that much—although his killing Snook would’ve pissed me off.
“Sixteen years later you show up to tell me Snooky’s dead. What else you got?”
Dad sat back down in the recliner and started rubbing his forehead. “I want you to find out who killed him and why.”
Tears spilled out of my eyes. “Suddenly you trust me with this?”
“Snooky was family. You can only trust family with finding the truth. You may hate my guts, you may hate where you came from, but I think you’ll be honest.”
“I never said I hated where I came from—whatever that means.”
“Well, we’ll see. Once you start investigating murders, history has a habit of getting in the way.”
“We were a family of petty criminals. Who gives a shit?”
Dad gave me a savage look. He wanted to address my comment directly but instead said, “Christ, what you don’t know. What you don’t see. But like I said, I think you’ll be honest. And if I’m paying you, that’s the least I expect.”
I had always imagined my first murder case would arrive via bereaved widow or suspicious life insurance company. But in that moment, everything seemed appropriate, if not logical.