Sara Paretsky

Burn Marks

The sixth book in the V.I. Warshawski series, 1990


Angelo Polvere of the Mayfair Construction Company in Chicago provided me an overview of how a general contractor builds a major project and how a contractor’s office works. Jay Meyer took me to the top of a sixty-story high rise going up in Chicago and walked me back down, explaining the different stages of construction. I experienced the terrors of an unenclosed concrete deck firsthand. Ed Keane made these connections for me. My ignorance of big projects greatly exceeds my knowledge- any errors of fact should be credited to my poor understanding rather than to these excellent teachers.

Ray Gibson shared different research tools for covering the kinds of things V.I. looks into in this book. Dr. Robert Kirschner, Chief Deputy Medical Examiner for Cook County, gave me a grand tour of the county morgue. It was not pleasant but it was enlightening.

As is always the case in V.I.’s adventures, no reference is made to any real public figures currently serving time or in office. Boots Meagher, Ralph MacDonald, Roz Fuentes, Alma Mejicana, and Wunsch and Grasso are products of my perfervid imagination. Nor is the construction at Rapelec Towers based on any building now standing or under construction in Chicago.

Courtenay, Cardhu, and other friends supported me through the various trials that beset me in writing this book.


Wake-up Call

My mother and I were trapped in her bedroom, the tiny upstairs room of our old house on Houston. Down below the dogs barked and snapped as they hunted us. Gabriella had fled the fascists of her native Italy but they tracked her all the way to South Chicago. The dog’s barking grew to an ear-splitting roar, drowning my mother’s screams.

I sat up. It was three in the morning and someone was leaning on the doorbell. I was sweaty and trembling from the dream’s insistent realism.

The urgent ringing recalled all the times in my childhood the phone or doorbell had roused my father to some police emergency. My mother and I would wait up for his return. She refused to admit her fear, although it stared at me through her fierce dark eyes, but would make sweet children’s coffee for me in the kitchen-a tablespoon of coffee mixed with milk and chocolate-and tell me wild Italian folktales that made my heart race.

I pulled on a sweatshirt and shorts and fumbled with the locks to my door. The ringing echoed through the stairwell behind me as I stumbled down the three flights to the front entryway.

My aunt Elena stood on the other side of the glass door, her finger pressed determinedly to the bell. A faded quilt made an ungainly cloak around her shoulders. She had propped a vinyl duffel bag against the wall; a violet nightgown trailed from its top. I don’t believe in prescience or ESP, but I couldn’t help feeling that my dream-a familiar childhood nightmare-had been caused by some murky vibrations emanating from Elena to my bedroom.

My father’s younger sister, Elena had always been the family Problem. “She drinks a little, you know,” my grandmother Warshawski would tell people in a worried whisper after Elena had passed out at Thanksgiving dinner. More than once an embarrassed patrolman roused my dad at two in the morning to tell him Elena had been busted for soliciting on Clark Street. On those nights there were no fairy tales in the kitchen. My mother would send me to my own bed with a tiny shake of the head, saying, “It’s her nature, cara, we mustn’t judge her.”

When my grandmother died seven years ago, my father’s surviving brother, Peter, gave his share of the Norwood Park bungalow to Elena on condition that she never ask him for anything else. She blithely signed the papers, but lost the bungalow four years later-without talking to me or Peter she had put it up as collateral in a wild development venture. When the fly-by-night company evaporated, she was the only partner the courts could find- they confiscated the house and sold it to meet the limited partnership’s bills.

Three thousand remained after paying the debts. With that and her social security, Elena had been living in an SRO at Cermak and Indiana, playing a little twenty-one and still turning the occasional trick on the day the pension checks arrived. Despite years of drinking that had carved narrow furrows in her chin and forehead, she had remarkably good legs.

She caught sight of me through the glass and took her finger from the bell. When I opened the door she put her arms around me and gave me an enthusiastic kiss.

“Victoria, sweetie, you look terrific!”

The sour yeasty smell of stale beer poured over me. “Elena-what the hell are you doing here?”

The generous mouth pouted. “Baby, I need a place to stay. I’m desperate. The cops were going to take me to a shelter but of course I remembered you and they brought me here instead. A very nice young man with an absolutely gorgeous smile. I told him all about your daddy but he was just a boy, of course he’d never met him.”

I ground my teeth together. “What happened to your hotel? They kick you out for screwing the old-age pensioners?”

“Vicki, baby-Victoria,” she amended hastily. “Don’t talk dirty-it doesn’t sound right coming from a sweet girl like you.”

“Elena, cut the crap.” As she started a second reproach I corrected myself hastily. “I mean stop talking nonsense and tell me why you’re out on the streets at three in the morning.”

She pouted some more. “I’m trying to tell you, baby, but you keep interrupting. There was a fire. Our lovely little home was burned to the ground. Burned to an absolute crisp.”

Tears welled in her faded blue eyes and coursed through deep furrows to her neck. “I hadn’t gone to sleep yet and I just had time to stuff my thing into a suitcase and get down the fire escape. Some people couldn’t even do that much. Poor Marty Holman had to leave his false teeth behind,” The tears stopped as abruptly as they began, to be replaced by a high-pitched giggle. “You should have seen him, Vicki, my God, you should have seen what the old geezer looked like with his cheeks all sunk in and his eyes popping out and him shouting in this mumbly kind of way, ‘My teeth, I’ve lost my teeth.’”

“It must have been hilarious,” I said dryly. “You cannot live with me, Elena. It would drive me to homicide within forty-eight hours. Maybe less.”

Her lower lip started to tremble again and she said in a terrible parody of baby talk, “Don’t be mean to me, Vicki, don’t be mean to poor old Elena, who got burned out of her house in the middle of the nights. You’re my own goddamn flesh and blood, my favorite brother’s little girl. You can’t toss poor old Elena out on the street like some worn-out mattress.”

A door slammed sharply behind us. The banker who had just moved into the first-floor-north apartment erupted into the stairwell, his hands on his hips, his jaw sticking out pugnaciously. He was wearing navy-striped cotton pajamas; despite the bleary sleep in his face, his hair was perfectly combed.

“What the hell is going on out here? You may not have to work for a living-God knows what you do all day long

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