“There’s no need to shout,” he said severely. “And even if you wasn’t expecting her, you could’a gone up to your apartment to talk.”

I opened and shut my mouth several times but couldn’t construct a coherent response. Anyway, I’d kept Elena in the hall in hopes she’d feel hurt enough to just pick up the duffel bag and go. But even as I’d done it I’d known in my heart of hearts that I couldn’t turn her away at that hour. So the old man was right. Agreeing with him didn’t make me any happier.

“Okay, okay,” I snapped. “It won’t happen again. Now get off my back-I’ve got a lot to do today.” I stomped up the stairs to my kitchen.

Muted snores still seeped through the closed door from the living room. I made a pot of coffee and took a cup into the bathroom with me while I showered. Bent on leaving the apartment as fast as possible, I pulled on jeans and a white shirt and stopped in the kitchen to scratch together a breakfast.

Elena was sitting at the breakfast table. She’d put a soiled quilted dressing gown over the violet nightie. Her hands shook slightly; she used both of them to lift a cup of coffee to her mouth.

She produced an eager smile. “Wonderful coffee you make, baby. Just as good as your ma’s.”

“Thank you, Elena.” I opened the refrigerator door and took stock of the meager contents. “I’m sorry I can’t stay to chat, but I want to try to find you someplace to sleep tonight.”

“Aw, Vicki-Victoria, I mean. Don’t rush around like that. It ain’t good for the heart. Let me stay here, just for a few days, anyway. Get over the shock of living through that inferno last night. I promise I won’t bother you any. And I could get the place cleaned up a little while you’re at work.”

I shook my head implacably. “No way, Elena. I will not have you living here. Not one night longer.”

Her face puckered. “Why do you hate me, baby? I’m your own daddy’s sister. Family has to stick by family.”

“I don’t hate you. I don’t want to live with anyone, but you and I lead especially incompatible lives. You know as well as I that Tony would say the same if he were still around.”

There’d been a painful episode when Elena announced her independence from my grandmother and moved into her own apartment. Finding solitude not to her liking, she’d shown up at our house in South Chicago one weekend. She’d stayed three days. It wasn’t my fierce mother who’d asked her to leave-Gabriella’s love of the underdog somehow could encompass even Elena. But my easygoing father came home from the graveyard shift on Monday to find Elena passed out at the kitchen table. He put her into a detox unit at County and refused to talk to her for six months after she got out.

Elena apparently also remembered this episode. The pouty puckering disappeared from her face. She looked stricken, and somehow more real.

I squeezed her shoulder gently and offered to make her some eggs. She shook her head without speaking, watching me silently while I spread anchovy paste on toast. I ate it quickly and left before pity could overcome my judgment.

It was well past nine now. The morning rush was ending and I had an easy run across Belmont to the expressway. When I neared the Loop, though, the traffic congealed as we moved through a construction maze. The four miles on the Ryan between the Eisenhower and Thirty-first, supposedly the busiest eight lanes of traffic anywhere in the known universe, had finally crumbled under the stress of the semi’s. The southbound lanes were closed while the feds performed reconstructive surgery.

My little Cavalier bounced between a couple of sixty-tonners as the slow lines of traffic snaked around the construction barricades. To my right the surface of the old roadbed had been completely removed; lattices of the reinforcing bars were exposed. They looked like tightly packed nests of vipers-here and there a rusty head stood up prepared to strike.

The turnoff to Lake Shore Drive had been so cleverly disguised that I was parallel with the barrel blocking one of the exit lanes before I realized it. With my sixty-ton pal close on my tail, I couldn’t stand on the brakes and swerve around the barrel. I gnashed my teeth and rode down to Thirty-fifth, then took side streets up to Cermak.

Elena’s SRO had stood a few doors north of the intersection with Indiana. A niggling doubt I’d had in her story vanished when I pulled up across the street from it. The Indiana Arms Hotel-transients welcome, rates by the day or by the month-had joined the other derelicts on the street in retirement. I parked and went over to look at the skeleton.

When I walked around to the north side of the building, I discovered a man in a sport jacket and hard hat poking around in the rubble. Every now and then he’d pick up some piece of debris with a pair of tongs and stick it into a plastic bag. He’d mark the bag and mutter into a pocket Dictaphone before continuing his exploration. He spotted me when he turned east to poke through a promising tell. He finished picking up an object and marking its container before coming over to me.

“You lose something here?” His tone was pleasant but his brown eyes were wary.

“Just sleep. Someone I know lived here until last night-she showed up at my place early this morning.”

He pursed his lips, weighing my story. “In that case, what are you doing here now?”

I hunched a shoulder. “I guess I wanted to see it for myself. See if the place was really gone before I put all my energy into finding her a new home. Come to that, what are you doing here? A suspicious person might think you were making off with valuables.”

He laughed and some of the wariness left his face. “They’d be right-in a way I am.”

“Are you with the fire department?”

He shook his head. “Insurance company.”

“Was it arson?” I’d been so bogged down in the sludge of family relations, I hadn’t even wondered how the fire started.

His caution returned. “I’m just collecting things. The lab will give me a diagnosis.”

I smiled. “You’re right to be careful-you don’t know who might come around in the aftermath of a blaze like this. My name’s V. I. Warshawski. I’m a private investigator when I’m not looking for emergency housing. And I do projects for Ajax Insurance from time to time.” I pulled a card from my bag and handed it to him.

He wiped a sooty hand on a Kleenex and shook mine. “Robin Bessinger. I’m with Ajax’s arson and fraud division. I’m surprised I haven’t heard your name.”

It didn’t surprise me. Ajax employed sixty thousand people around the world-no one could possibly keep track of all of them. I explained that my work for them had been in claims or reinsurance and gave him a few names he’d be likely to recognize. He thawed further and confided that the signs of arson were quite clear.

“I’d show you the places where they poured accelerant but I don’t want you in the building if you don’t have a hard hat. Chunks of plaster keep falling down.”

I showed suitable regret at being denied this treat. “The owner buy a lot of extra insurance lately?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know-I haven’t seen the policies. They just asked me to get on over before the vandals took too much of the evidence. I hope your friend got all her stuff out-not too much survived this blast.”

I’d forgotten to ask Elena if anyone had been badly hurt. Robin told me the police Violent Crimes Unit would have joined the Bomb and Arson Squad in force if anyone bad died.

“You wouldn’t have been allowed to park without showing good reason for being near the premises-it’s a fact of life that torchers like to come back to see if the job got done right. No one was killed, but a good half dozen were ferried to Michael Reese with burns and respiratory problems. Torchers usually like to make sure a building can be cleared-they know an investigation into an old dump like this won’t get too much attention if there aren’t any murder charges to excite the cops.” He looked at his wrist. “I’d like to get back to work. Hope your friend finds a new place okay.”

I agreed fervently and went off to start my hunt with an easy optimism bred of ignorance. I began at the Emergency Housing Bureau on south Michigan where I joined a long line. There were woman and children of all ages, old men muttering to themselves, rolling their eyes wildly, women anxiously clutching suitcases or small appliances- a seemingly endless sea of people left on the streets from some crisis or other yesterday.

The high counters and bare walls made us feel as though we were suppliants at the gates of a Soviet labor camp. There weren’t any chairs; I took a number and leaned against the wall to wait my turn.

Next to me a very pregnant woman of about twenty holding a large infant was struggling with a toddler. I

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