Through the Cracks

Through the Cracks

by Barbara Fister


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When Chicago private investigator Anni Koskinen takes on a new client, she finds herself working on an impossible case. After spending twenty years in prison, a black man convicted in a notorious rape case has had his sentence overturned. The victim wants to know who was really responsible for the crime that scarred her life. But even if Anni can find out who committed the brutal crime decades ago, a conviction will be impossible—-unless the rapist has struck again.

The resourceful victim has uncovered evidence indicating that a serial rapist may still be at work, attacking women with ferocious anger. But as Anni digs deeper, the politically ambitious state's attorney who prosecuted the original rape case insists that the conviction was solid. He believes there was no miscarriage of justice—-other than that a violent felon has been released on a technicality.

As Anni's cold case heats up, her friend Dugan, a CPD detective, is involved in a heater case of his own. An undocumented Mexican gang member has been arrested for the murder of a missing woman, and his uncertain fate has gripped the city and fueled anti-immigrant sentiment.

As both investigations unfold, the impact of racial prejudice radiates cracks through the criminal justice system, and it is through those cracks that Anni must try to glimpse the truth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312374921
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/11/2010
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.86(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.37(d)

About the Author

Barbara Fister lives in rural Minnesota, where she works as a librarian at a small liberal arts college.

Read an Excerpt

Through the Cracks

By Barbara Fister

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Barbara Fister
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2640-9


I knew I couldn't run much farther. Blood pounded behind my ears. The sinews of my legs sang with a fine pain like high tension wires humming in the wind. I was past the point of rational thought when I noticed motion at the far edge of my peripheral vision. A car was approaching from behind. As it closed in, I checked my mental map of the area. There was a vacant lot ahead that I could cut through. But before I could reach it the car accelerated sharply, swinging around the corner to block my path. I could barely stop before careening into it, my palms smacking against the hood as I tried to keep my balance. Only then did I see who was inside, leaning over to throw open the passenger door of his Jeep. "Jesus, Dugan. Trying to run me over?"

"Get in." It was a sharp command.


He had his jacket pushed back to clear his holster as his eyes scanned the street, on full alert. "Who's chasing you?"

"Nobody." Breathing hard, I wiped sweat out of my eyes with the heel of my hand. "Just getting some exercise."

He stared at me. "Looked like the hounds of hell were after you."

I leaned on the open door, a little dizzy from the sudden stop, and massaged a calf muscle that had tightened painfully. "Not unless you're talking about that obnoxious dachshund down the street, but he's tied up."

"Sit down a minute, anyway, catch your breath." I hesitated, then climbed in. He turned to rummage in a duffel bag on the backseat and handed me a bottle of water. I cracked it open and drank half of it in thirsty gulps.

"When I see people running like that in this neighborhood, it's usually not for exercise," Dugan said.

"So I should drive over to the lakeshore and use the jogging path like normal people?" I said. "This is where I live."

"I know." His affable response felt like a rebuke. Of course he knew where I lived. He'd spent hours all summer helping me transform the neglected scrap of land behind my West Side two-flat into a real garden with a brick terrace and raised flower beds overflowing with color. "You look tired," he said. "Still having trouble sleeping?"

I drank the rest of the water and set the empty bottle on the floor. "I just ran three miles."

"As if the dachshunds of hell were after you. Haven't seen you in a while. How's it going?"

"The garden's a mess. Everything's dying."

"Guess I should have warned you. That happens in the fall."

"All that work, then you get one lousy frost and all that's left is a bunch of dead stalks. What's the point?"

"You get to do it all over again in the spring."

The sun had gone down and the October air was crisp. I rubbed my arms, feeling chilled. My fingers unconsciously found the places on my upper arm where a bullet had passed through, leaving a dimple on the front, a welt of scar tissue where it exited. It had been a minor injury, quickly healed. My closest friend hadn't been so lucky. Though over a year had passed since Jim Tilquist had died, it hadn't gotten any easier to deal with.

I realized Dugan was watching me. Like most cops, he was good at taking things in without giving anything away. Still, I felt exposed, so I untied the hooded jacket I had knotted around my waist and slipped it on. It hid the scars from view, but I could tell Dugan knew what made it hard for me to sleep, what made me run until my thoughts shut down.

Though our careers with the Chicago Police Department had overlapped, Dugan's path hadn't crossed mine until after I'd resigned and took out a private investigator's license. He had taken advantage of the opening at Harrison Area Violent Crimes to transfer from an administrative post at headquarters to a position where he could spend more time on the street. He was a good detective, and unusually free of cynicism given he'd been on the job for seventeen years. Though he was dedicated and hardworking, his true passion was growing things. The moment he first saw the neglected wasteland that was my excuse for a backyard he started imagining the possibilities.

Six months earlier, we had bumped into each other at a Division Street café. Though it was a wintery day, with snowflakes squalling out of a leaden sky, he pulled out an envelope and started sketching out what I could do with my small patch of weeds and dirt. A few days later, in the midst of a sloppy thaw, he showed up at my place with tools and a six-pack of Leinenkugel's, putting me to work until I had blisters on my hands, dirt wedged under my fingernails, and a close acquaintance with back muscles I hadn't even known were there. He came by most Saturdays, but once the growing season came to an end, our get-togethers grew less frequent. We hadn't seen each other for almost a month.

"What brings you up here on a Wednesday evening?" I asked. "One of my neighbors misbehaving?"

"No doubt, but nobody's reported it yet. I had an errand to run. Stopped by your place to see if you had time to grab some dinner. You weren't home, so I figured you must be busy with one of your kids."

"My kids? What a horrible thought."

"Figure of speech. The wayward youth you specialize in."

"I was never convinced I was cut out to be a parent. Now I know for sure I'm not."

"That bad?"

"Not really. They're good kids, just messed up. We only had two crises this month. One of them is in the hospital. The other one's in rehab. Again."

"The one in the hospital — it's not Jim's kid, is it?"

"No. Sophie's been doing fine lately."

By chance, I had found a strange niche in my new profession. After helping the Tilquists find their daughter, who had bipolar disorder and tended to disappear from home during manic episodes, word of mouth led to my working for a handful of North Shore families with troubled teenagers. Whenever they lost track of their off-spring they'd give me a call. I wasn't always able to find the kids before they did something stupid or got themselves hurt, but it gave their desperate parents the sense they were doing something. There was no shortage of potential clients. It wouldn't be hard to make it a full-time specialty, but it was emotionally taxing work, so I balanced it with more routine investigative jobs, most of them for Thea Adelman, a lawyer who specialized in civil rights cases. We didn't get along very well, but her dry irascibility was a refreshing contrast to parental anguish.

"I might have a new client," I told Dugan. "This woman e-mailed me out of the blue a couple of days ago asking if I was free to work on something."

"Another wayward youth?"

"I don't think so. But she didn't tell me what it was about and hasn't responded since. Maybe the rates scared her off." Which was disappointing. I wasn't sure my aging furnace would last through another Chicago winter, and replacing it wouldn't be cheap.

"What about dinner? There's a new Puerto Rican place not far from here that —" His cell phone rang as he spoke and he grimaced. "Shit." He had a cryptic conversation, mostly grunts, before punching it off. "Great timing. Sorry, I —"

"No problem. I know how it goes."

"A guy who's given me decent information before just got picked up on a drug beef. Says he used to run with Diggy Salazar, wants to deal. He probably doesn't know anything, but ..." He shrugged.

"You're working on the Miller case?"

"Everyone is. Highest priority, according to the chief of detectives."

It wasn't surprising, given that the controversial case was getting national attention. Kathy Miller, a young woman living on the North Side, had disappeared six months ago. Though her body had never been found, the police were treating the case as a homicide; the blood, bone fragments, and brain matter found in an alleyway near the bar where she'd last been seen made it unlikely that she had survived the attack. That didn't stop her family and friends from holding out hope. Her face had become an icon of innocence: blond hair ruffled by a breeze, a wide smile, eyes squinting against the sun in a family video that ran over and over on the television news. The search for Kathy Miller gripped the city. In September, an undocumented Mexican immigrant was arrested and charged with her murder.

Digoberto Salazar had been caught on a surveillance camera as he left the scene of a liquor store holdup only blocks from where Miller had been attacked. Police believed he'd jacked Miller's car and bludgeoned her to death when she resisted. He'd hidden her body, then abandoned her car in a vacant lot in Cicero, where it was stripped almost to the chassis before the police spotted it.

That was the theory, anyway, but it wouldn't be easy to prove without the body. Still, the arrest of an illegal immigrant for the murder, after months of speculation and agonized appeals from the girl's family, had caused a furious outcry. The Cook County state's attorney, Peter Vogel, was prosecuting the case himself and making the most of the media attention, assuring the public the case against Salazar was solid and that justice would be served. He had plenty to gain from the publicity, given he was rumored to be a hot pick for the next gubernatorial race.

"Area Three detectives are running the show," Dugan added, "but Salazar's from our turf, so we're working all his connections. The SA's going to need every piece of evidence we can find to make this case stick. Not that we don't have other things going on. I got four unsolved homicides on my desk, but they're just kids shooting each other; business as usual. No overtime for that." There was a hint of jaded sarcasm in his tone, unusual for him.

"I warned you what it was like to work at Harrison."

"It's good to get back to the streets, but sometimes ... like, I got this call just before I left work. This woman's son was killed in a drive-by eight months ago. No leads, no wits, nothing. She checks in every week. I never have any news for her."

"She just needs to know you haven't forgotten."

"I suppose. I better get going. Can I drop you off at home?"

"No, I need to finish my run. Thanks for the water."

"Anni —" He looked at me, searching for the right words. The ones he came up with were like him, straightforward and direct. "You doing okay?"

I missed Jim. His loss was a wound that wouldn't heal, and I ached with a feeling of guilt I could never explain. "I'll be all right," I said, answering as honestly as I could. Dugan nodded, understanding what I meant. It would never be okay again, not really, but I would find a way to get by.

We made vague promises to get together soon. He drove off to interview his potential source and I jogged the eight blocks back to my house, unlocked the side gate, and went through the gangway to the back garden, where I found not everything was dying. Three pots were grouped near my Adirondack chair, bronze and gold chrysanthemums hardy enough to take a little frost. That must have been the errand Dugan was running before he rescued me from imaginary pursuers.

There was a folded piece of paper tucked in among some of the flowers. I reached for the note, feeling apprehensive. I liked Dugan. I liked the easy way things were between us, but there was just enough attraction there that things might get complicated. It was a relief to see it was just a few words scrawled on a sheet of notebook paper: "I opened your gate with a paper clip. Get yourself a decent lock, Koskinen."

I smiled to myself, picturing Dugan with his crooked nose and cockeyed smile, carrying the pots from his car and arranging them around my chair. I stuffed the note in my pocket, then sat for a moment under the walnut tree, looking up at the sky, a pure, deep blue through the lattice of the nearly leafless branches, a few stars showing like pinpricks in the darkness overhead. The three-legged stray cat, who lived in the alley and liked to pretend he belonged to nobody but himself, yet expected his food bowl to be filled on a regular basis, peered through a tangle of dried vines, annoyed that he had to share his night garden with an interloper.

The chill finally drove me inside. I switched on my phone and found a message waiting. I returned the call. The conversation was brief, but promising. A woman named Jill McKenzie had something confidential she wanted to discuss with me. She was willing to pay me for my time and travel, even though she lived some four hours from Chicago, just across the Iowa border. I agreed to drive over to see her the next day; I figured I could be there around noon. As soon as she finished giving me directions to her house, she hung up so abruptly it was almost rude.

I had no idea what she wanted me to do, but it would cost her a lot to bring me to Iowa to talk about it. Maybe if our meeting went well I would be able to afford a new furnace after all.

Toward midnight, I set my alarm clock and went to bed. Of late, I had grown used to jerking into an alert state just as I started to drift off, or being roused within a few hours by dreams that made me reluctant to go back to sleep.

But this time it was screaming that woke me up.


In my befuddled state it took a moment to realize it wasn't part of a nightmare. That high-pitched wail had to come from Daniel, the toddler who lived in the apartment downstairs, but I'd never heard him sound so terrified, so frantic. Sirens in the distance were howling along with him. I blinked at the bedside clock: 4:23. As I disentangled myself from the sheets, I heard feet pounding up my back steps. "Federal agents! Open the door!" A fist hammered on it. "Abre la puerta!"

I was wearing nothing but a faded Chicago marathon T-shirt from five years ago, so I groped in the dark for a pair of sweats. As I slipped them on, my door shuddered under blows from a fist. "Hang on, I'm coming!" I called out. I sidled to the window. There was enough light from a streetlamp to see three shapes in bulletproof vests and blue windbreakers clustered on my porch. One man had turned to guard their rear; there were large white letters on his jacket spelling out POLICE, and under that, ICE. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"I'm opening the door, okay?" I called out. I switched on a light and worked the bolts, my hands clumsy with tension. As soon as the last bolt was unfastened, the door flew open, banging hard against the wall, and a man pushed past me into the room, his eyes scanning from side to side. I reached for his arm. "Hey, what're you —"

It was a mistake to touch him. He reacted automatically, knotting the back of my shirt in his fist and shoving me hard against the wall, twisting my arm up behind me in a practiced move. The other two men who followed him in had their weapons drawn. "What the hell's going on?"

"José Guerrero. Where is he?"

"I don't know. I don't know who you're talking about."

"He's on our list. He lives here."

"Nobody named ... wait, are you talking about Joey? He used to live downstairs. He moved out over a year ago."

I didn't like the pleading tone that I heard in my voice. With the man's weight braced against me I felt trapped and had to draw on everything I had to resist an impulse to struggle. There was a trembling eagerness traveling like a current through the hand that gripped my wrist; he was just waiting for an excuse to hurt someone.

One of the men checked the closet, another kicked my bathroom door open, his gun held up in both hands beside his cheek like a character in an action movie.

"Where'd he go?" The breath of the man holding me was hot on my neck.

"I want to see your warrant."

"We don't need a warrant. Just answer the fucking question."

"You damned well need a warrant to enter my house." The angle of my arm was notched up, pain shooting across my shoulders, making sparks go off behind my eyes. "I was a cop for ten years," I said between my teeth. "I know what I'm talking about. You're breaking the law."

"Just calm down and answer the question. Where'd Guerrero go?"

"I don't know. He didn't tell me." My skin crawled from his touch, my muscles spasming with an almost overwhelming urge to fight free.

"Check her for weapons," the man who held me said over his shoulder. I saw a blue latex glove move toward my ribs. I closed my eyes as hands felt around my hips, down my legs to the ankles, then up toward my crotch. I clamped my teeth down on my lower lip. Don't struggle. Don't resist....


Excerpted from Through the Cracks by Barbara Fister. Copyright © 2010 Barbara Fister. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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