Chapter 1: Power Failure
When the power went I was finishing a ten-page report. My office turned black; the computer groaned to a halt. Helpless, I watched my words fade to a ghostly outline that glowed on the screen before vanishing, like the mocking grin of a Cheshire cat.
I cursed myself and the building owners impartially. If I'd stuck with my mother's old Olivetti instead of going electronic I could have finished mywork by candlelight and left. But if the Culpepper brothers weren't scuttling the Pulteney Building the power wouldn't have gone off.
I'd had my office there for ten years, so long I'd come to overlook its litany of ills. Decades of grime obscured the bas-reliefs on the brass doors and filled in missing chips in the lobby's marble floor; great chunks of plaster were missing from the cornices in the upper floors; three ladies' rooms served the whole building, and the toilets backed up more often than they worked. For that matter, I'd just about memorized the design on the elevator panels during the hours I'd been stuck in it.
All these evils were made palatable by the Pulteney's low rents. I should have realized long since that the Culpepper boys were waiting for the wave of Loop redevelopment to wash this far south, waiting for the day when the building would be worth more dead than alive. The dickering we did every fall, in which I walked away triumphant without a rent hike and they left without agreeing to put in new plumbing or wiring, should have been a warning to a detective like me who specializes in fraud, arson, and commercial misbehavior. But as with many of my clients, cash flow was too insistent a problem for me to look beyond relief from my immediate woes.
The building had already been one-third empty when the Culpeppers handed out their notice at New Year's. They tried first to bribe, then to force, the rest of us into leaving. Some did, but tenants who could take the Pulteney couldn't easily afford new space. Hard times were pushing everyone who operates in the margins right off the page. As a private eye in a solo practice, I felt the pinch as much as anyone. Along with a hatmaker, a dealer in oriental health and beauty aids, someone who might have been a bookie, an addressing firm, and a few others, I was sticking it out to the bitter end.
I picked up my flashlight and moved with the speed of much practice through the dark hall to the stairwell. The report I'd been writing had to be in Darraugh Graham's hands by eight tomorrow. If I could find a faulty wire or blown fuse fast enough, I could pull in enough material from my data files to reconstruct the essentials. Otherwise I'd have to start from the beginning on the Olivetti.
I undid the locks on the stairwell door but left them open against my return. With Tom Czarnik gone I'd put padlocks on the doors that all worked to the same key. Czarnik, who'd been the super--alleged super--during my tenure in the building, had done nothing for the last two years but deliver angry tirades against the tenants, so it was no hardship to manage without him. In fact it had dawned on me lately that the Culpeppers probably paid him to speed the Pulteney's disintegration.
The brothers were certainly doing what they could to drive our feeble group out ahead of schedule. They'd halted any pretense of maintenance immediately. Next they tried turning off the utilities; a court order restored electricity and water. Now it was just their negligence and sabotage against our wits--mostly, it must be confessed, mine. While the other tenants had signed on to the emergency petition to restore power, none of them ever came below stairs with me to mess with the wiring and plumbing.
Today overconfidence did me in. I was so used to the basement stairs that I didn't shine a light on my feet. I tripped on a loose piece of plaster. As I flailed to regain my balance I dropped the flash. I could hear the glass shatter as it bounced off the steps.
I took a breath. Was Darraugh Graham's wrath worth worrying about at this point? Wouldn't it make sense to go home, get a new flash, and deal with the power in themorning? Besides, I wanted to get to a meeting of the board I sit on for a battered women's shelter.
Trouble was, Darraugh's fee was going toward my deposit for a new office. If I didn't deliver on time, there was nothing to keep him coming back to me--he worked with a number of investigative firms, most of them twenty times my size.
I moved crablike down the stairs. I had a work light and a toolbox stowed by the electrical box on the far wall. If I could get there without breaking my neck on the intervening rubble I'd be okay. My real fear was the rats: they knew the place belonged to them now. When I shone my flash on them they would saunter slowly from the circle of light, flipping their tails with oily insolence, but making no effort to silence their scrabbling while I worked.
I was fumbling in the dark for an outlet, trying not to feel whiskers in every piece of dangling wire, when I realized a sound I was hearing came from human, not rodent, lips. I froze. The hair stood up on my arms. Had the Culpeppers hired thugs to frighten me into leaving? Or were these thieves, thinking the building vacant, come to strip copper and other valuables from the walls?
I knelt slowly in the dark and shifted to my right, where a packing case filled with wood scraps would give me cover. I strained to listen. There was more than one person in the room. One of them sounded on the verge of an asthmatic attack. They were as scared as I was. That didn't cheer me: a frightened burglar may behave more violently than one who feels he's in charge of the situation.
I moved farther to my right, where some discarded pipes might provide a weapon. One of the intruders whimpered and was instantly silenced. The noise startled me into banging into the stack of pipes; they clattered around me like a steel band. It didn't matter: that brief cry had come from a small child. I backtracked to my work light, found the plug, and switched on the bulb.
Even after my eyes had adjusted to the light it took some time to find the source of the cry. I poked cautiously among crates and old office furniture. I peered into the elevator shaft and looked underneath the stairwell. I was beginning to wonder if I'd imagined it when the muffled cry came again.
A woman was crouched behind the boiler. Three children huddled next to her. The youngest was shaking almost soundlessly, its face buried in her leg, an occasional squeak emerging when it shuddered too violently. The biggest, who couldn't have been more than nine or ten, was letting out asthmatic whoops, in earnest now that their terrors had come true: discovery by someone with power.
If it hadn't been for the asthma and the whimpering I could have passed them a dozen times in the dim light without noticing them. They were dressed in layers of sweaters and jackets that turned their emaciated bodies into heaps of rags.
"This damp air down here can't be too good for your son."It was so feeble a comment, I felt a fool as soon as the words were out.
The woman stared at me dumbly. In the dim light I couldn't tell what part of the soup of anger and fear was boiling closer to the surface.
"Ain't a boy."The middle child spoke, in such a soft gabble I could barely make out the words. "That Jessie. She a girl. I the only boy."
"Well, maybe we should get Jessie up where she can breathe some dry air. What's your name, honey?"
"Don't talk to her. Ain't I told you, don't talk to no one unless you hear me say "talk'?" The woman shook the boy hard and he subsided against her with a thin halfhearted wail.
The shadows cast by the boiler turned her face and hair gray. She couldn't have been very old, maybe not even thirty, but if I'd passed her on the street without her children I would have taken her for seventy.
"How long have you been living down here?"
She gave me a hard stare but said nothing. She could have watched me come and go a dozen times; she'd know I was on my own, that not too much could threaten her down here.
"They're tearing the place down in six weeks," I said.
"You know that?" She stared at me fiercely but didn't move her head.
"Look. It's not my business if you want to camp out down here. But you know it's bad for your kids. Bad for their eyes, their lungs, their morale. If you want to take Jessie to a doctor for her asthma, I know one who'll look at her for nothing."
I waited a long pause but still got no answer. "I've got to work on the wiring right now, and then I'm going back to my office. Four-oh-seven. If you change your mind about the doctor, come up there and I'll take you. Any time."
I moved back to the electrical panel. The Culpeppers sometimes deliberately sliced wires or drained the hot water system to hasten me on my way. I was learning a lot about electricity in my spare time, but today's job was pretty simple: a board had come loose from the ceiling, bringing a bunch of wires with it and breaking some of them. I took a hammer out of my belt loop, scrounged among the packing cases for some old nails, and got up on a wooden box to pound the board back in place. Repairing the wires took more patience than know-how--stripping the coat away from the frail copper threads, braiding the loose ends around each other, then taping them together.
It was unnerving to work with my dumb audience behind me. Jessie's wheezing had subsided when she realized I wasn't going to hurt the family, and the baby had stopped whimpering. Their silent observation made the hairs around the base of my skull prickle, but I tried to take my time, to do the job well enough that it would last six weeks.
As I stripped and taped and tacked I kept wondering what I should do about the kids. If I called anyone in the welfare system they'd come bounding in with cops and bureaucrats and put the children into foster care. But how could they survive down here with the rats?
When I finished my repairs I went back to the boiler. The four of them shrank inside their layers of rags.
"Look here. There are a ton of empty rooms upstairs, and a couple of toilets, even though they don't work too well. I can let you into a vacant office. Wouldn't that be better for all of you than hanging on down here?"
She didn't answer. How could she trust me? I tried proving it to her, but got so urgent in my words that she flinched as though battered. I shut up and thought for a hard while. Finally I took one of the duplicates for the padlocks off my key ring. If I didn't trust her, why should she trust me?
"This will open all the stairwell doors, including the one here to the basement. I keep the basement locked to protect my tools, so if you decide to go up, please lock the door behind you. Meanwhile I'll leave my work light on--that'll help with the rats. Okay?"
She still wouldn't speak, wouldn't even hold out a hand for the proffered key. Jessie whispered, "Do it, Mama." The boy nodded hopefully, but the woman still wouldn't take the key from me. I laid it on a ledge by the boiler and turned away.
I picked my way back across the room, retrieved my flashlight from where it had landed, and started up the basement stairs. Even though I knew the family were more frightened of me than I of them--and with far better reason--I couldn't stop the unreasoning part of my body from sweating clammily as I went. When the woman spoke below me, I jumped and bit back a cry.
"These children ain't starving, young lady. This may not seem like much to you, but I can look after them. I'm looking after them all right."