A SMALL SACRIFICE
I wore my good suit, the one that fit when I didn’t carry a gun. Visiting an old woman with money didn’t require a weapon, even for me.
Shirley Mitchell hadn’t said much over the phone. It didn’t take Mycroft Holmes to know what she wanted. Her son ran Mitchell Construction, the best-known general contractor in the Chicagoland area. Doug’s notoriety didn’t come from the business, not that Chicago’s construction industry lacked for disrepute. Our conversation would likely focus on what made him unique.
I spent most of the drive north on the Edens and US-41 to Lake City thinking of reasons not to take the job. Shirley Mitchell would want me to right what she was sure was a wrong. I had a more mundane perception of a professional investigator’s job. The Thin Man can go on crusades. I had child support payments to make.
A single cloud marred the brilliant sunshine of the first truly warm day of spring. The cloud held steady on a line between the sun and the gray stone house, kept there by cross winds off Lake Michigan. Its shadow dripped like crepe from the corners of the roof. The gloom seemed to breathe as my car’s approach altered my angle of vision.
I had plenty of time to watch the cloud not move. What appeared as a pipe stem from the street became a driveway meandering two hundred yards before curling back onto itself. A fountain surrounded by an English garden filled the loop, its profusion of emerging colors failing to offset the house’s doldrums. No cars in the driveway. The garage to my left could handle at least four, keeping them from cluttering up the front of the house and annoying the homeowners’ association.
The place was flawless as a dollhouse under glass. Every grain of sand in its place between the flagstones on the path to the steps. Not a wilted leaf or limp petal on a flower. I wondered how they kept snow from landing where it wasn’t wanted. Even the birdsongs sounded well-rehearsed, except for the random cawing of a perverse crow.
I rang the bell and turned to let the spring air splash across my face. Trees dotted the landscape in front of the house, oaks and maples that had been there awhile and showed no inclination to leave. Two squirrels with perfect coats chased each other up and down one of the maples. The only thing missing was Snow White walking by with a woodland creature on her shoulder.
The door opened and I faced a slender middle-aged woman with facial features sharp enough to cut a roast. She wore a simple white blouse and a conservative skirt ending at the bottom of her knee. Her bearing said “servant” better than a nametag. She spoke formally without being friendly or unfriendly. “Yes, sir? May I help you?”
“You can let Mrs. Mitchell know Nick Forte’s here.”
“Yes, sir. Would you care to step inside?”
The house was well ventilated, too early in the year for air conditioning. The breeze eased its way through a window like a considerate guest wiping his feet before entering, bringing in the transitional smell that comes when windows are opened for the first time in the spring. Patterns sewn into the curtains created shadowy kaleidoscopes on the floor and opposite wall.
Shirley Mitchell didn’t keep me waiting. Average height for a woman, probably a little heavier than her doctor preferred. White hair piled into grandmother’s curls, matching pearls on each earlobe. The hand I shook had the fragile smoothness of age. Her pallor ran deeper than anything sun and fresh air could fix.
“Hello, Mister Forte. Thank you for coming on such short notice. I know you must be very busy.”
“Not a problem, Mrs. Mitchell. People who call me don’t usually care to be kept waiting.”
“I imagine not. I still appreciate the effort. George Lavelle spoke very highly of you.”
George Lavelle’s daughter once showed the bad judgment to allow a boyfriend to videotape them engaged in activities more Greek than French. She tried to break off the relationship and the boyfriend proved himself more enamored of Ms. Lavelle’s inheritance than of her enthusiastic sexual preferences. He threatened to give copies of the tapes to her father’s acquaintances and business associates unless they came to an understanding. Lavelle asked me to reason with the youth. The understanding we reached bore no resemblance to the young entrepreneur’s original design.
“George is a good guy. I was glad to be able to help.”
“He was pleased with your results, and with your discretion. Would you like coffee or tea? Something cold?”
“No, ma’am, I’m all set, thank you.”
“If you change your mind, let me know.” She dismissed the servant and I followed Shirley into the room from which she had entered.
An old-fashioned sitting room, more comfortable than stodgy. A sofa and love seat near the corner opposite the door with two wing chairs flanking what might be a Chippendale coffee table. The scent of furniture polish strong enough to be noticed without beating you over the head about it. Another smell, too, something familiar I couldn’t place. The sofa had the look of something you could sprawl on for several hours before finding a reason to move. Shirley sat in one of the wing chairs; I took the other.
She wore the expression of a person with something nasty in her mouth, too polite to spit it out. I played with the crease of my slacks to give her time to work up the gumption to tell me what she wanted.
“I don’t suppose it’s much of a mystery why I called you, is it?” she said.
“I could make an educated guess. I haven’t thought much about specifics.”
“Really?” She arched an eyebrow. “I assumed your imagination would have explored every angle by now.”
“It’s not usually a good idea to give your imagination too much freedom in my line of work,” I said. “Not without facts. Imagination wants to get cute. Answers are usually simple. I only let my imagination out to play when I’m stuck.” Passing on the sofa had been a mistake. The chair wasn’t as comfortable as it looked.
“It seems obvious, now that you say so. I suppose logic rules in your investigations.”
“Flexibility rules in my investigations. There’s a place for logic and a place for imagination, just like there’s a place for intuition and a place for hard work. Whatever it takes.” I smiled to take the sting out of what I said next. “You’re stalling me, Mrs. Mitchell.”
“Yes, I am,” she said, the words falling over each other like people fleeing a fire. She picked at the hem of her dress, straightened it, folded it over, put it back the way it was. “You know about my grandson.” She couldn’t quite bring herself to make eye contact.
“Just what I’ve read in the papers.”
“Please tell me what you know.”
“It’s usually better if you tell me what you want, then tell me what you know. It gives me a place to start.”
She stopped fooling with the dress and looked at her hands as if her attention alone could keep them still. “I want you to tell me what you’ve heard, Mr. Forte. I don’t have the heart for it. I’ll tell you if I disagree.”
I shifted in my chair and got almost comfortable. “A year or so ago your six year-old grandson Justin was strangled in his home. His father found the body and a ransom note in the basement. There were some signs of forced entry, but no evidence of anyone trying to take Justin out of the house.” What little color she had slipped away as I spoke. She could never have told it herself.
I hurried on to spare her as much as possible. “The local police botched the investigation. No good leads were ever developed. Your son and daughter-in-law deny everything, and haven’t been as cooperative as the police would like. That makes them the prime suspects.”
“My son is innocent.” It was a statement of fact. “He told the police all he knows.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Nothing to be gained by disagreeing with her. I’d covered the highlights of the case. She’d fill in the rest how she wanted.
Her voice was hollow, without overtones. “Justin didn’t come down to breakfast with the other kids. Michelle called up to him and he didn’t answer. She got the food on the table and went to look.
“She didn’t find him in his room, just the ransom note. Everyone thinks Doug found the note, but it was Michelle. She ran downstairs screaming for Doug. He tore the house apart and found Justin in the basement. Right away the police thought he did it.”
“It’s a logical place to start. The person who finds the body is often the killer.”
Shirley didn’t hear me. “Justin had Attention Deficit Disorder. He wasn’t a bad boy, but he seemed to lose interest in things right in the middle of them.” Each sentence required a breath, another act of will for her to continue. “It drove Doug crazy. The police want to think Justin did something and Doug lost his temper and killed him.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I don’t know. All I know is my son couldn’t have killed that little boy.”
“No,” Shirley said without hesitation. “Michelle is a good mother. I couldn’t love her more if she were my own.”
“What do you want me to do, Mrs. Mitchell?” Guessing what she wanted wouldn’t qualify anyone as a psychic. I still needed to hear it from her. She was letting herself in for an open-ended commitment and a bill the Pentagon would think twice about if she thought I could do something the local and state police couldn’t. Some PIs live for gigs like that. I manage to scrape by without bleeding old ladies.
“Doug and Michelle have suffered horribly. It’s not enough they had to bury a child. They haven’t even been allowed to mourn decently, for God’s sake. The reporters—” she cleared her throat, swallowed hard—“the reporters wait for them day and night. They’re gone now, but they’ll be back if something reminds them. Last Thursday was a year since it happened. I saw Michelle taking out the trash on the ten o’clock news.” She paused to be sure she had my attention. “It’s not right.”
“You have to understand I’m not likely to find the killer. The physical evidence is gone and the police have already been through the little bit they had. I’m one man. I’m not going to find anything new.”
“The police didn’t look for a killer. All they wanted was proof Doug did it, or Michelle. When they couldn’t prove anything, they said there was no evidence. I think they called it ‘a compromised crime scene.’”
I nodded. “That’s the phrase.”
“No one will find the killer now, I’m sure of it.”
“Then I’m not sure what you want me to do.”
Nothing came out when she tried to speak. She pressed one hand to her breast and took a deep breath, her color almost gone. “I want my son’s good name back. I want him and Michelle to be able to show their faces in town again and have the sympathy they deserve. God can have the real killer.”
Not quite the crusade I worried about on my way here; close enough. “About the only way to prove someone didn’t do something is to prove it was physically impossible, or someone else did it. That’s why the burden of proof is always on the prosecutor.”
I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, focused my attention on her eyes. “The police look for three things: means, opportunity, and motive.” I held up a finger for each one as I ticked it off. “Doug had the means. He’s a big man, more than strong enough to strangle a small child. Opportunity’s easy. He was in the house, no one disputes that. Motive? They’re saying Justin’s attention wandered once too often. They have no credible evidence to suspect anyone else.”
“They didn’t look for any. Doug didn’t kill Justin.” She wiped away two tears slaloming down her left cheek. “My husband left me more money than I’ll ever need. I’d spend it all to give my son some peace.”
“I appreciate your feelings. Throwing your money away isn’t going to help.”
“Are you saying you won’t help me?”
“No, ma’am. I’m saying I don’t think I can. I don’t know that anyone can, but I’m sure someone will tell you different if they smell a big enough fee. I don’t want to get your hopes up.”
Young women cry and get anything they want. Shirley Mitchell had been around. She knew better ways.
“Do you have any children, Mr. Forte?”
“A little girl.”
“How old is she?”
“Justin would be seven next month. Think of that.” The tears she’d wiped from her cheeks lingered in her voice. “Now think of your daughter all grown up, with children of her own. Can you tell me you’d allow her to endure what my son has lived through and not do everything in your power to help her?”
“No. I’d do whatever I could. I think all you can do now is support your son and his family as well as you can.” She took a speaking breath and I pre-empted the interruption. “Clearing your son’s name is out of my control. I can provide evidence. I can’t force anyone to pay attention to it.”
“I understand. Do what you can and I’ll hope for the best.”
“But I can’t do that. I don’t want to sound mercenary, but I earn my living doing this. I need something concrete to accomplish, or I can’t come back here and ask you to pay me.” My hands got involved in the conversation as I felt my argument getting slippery. “When is his name clear enough? The public doesn’t like to change its mind once it decides someone’s guilty. We’re never going to get a Tribune headline that says ‘Doug Mitchell is innocent. We were wrong and we’re sorry.’”
Her face told me I’d gone too far. Shirley Mitchell was a good woman only trying to do the right thing for her family. I placed the unidentified smell while she made up her mind what to say. It was her. She smelled like my grandmother.
She spoke with an underlying firmness I hadn’t heard before. “You’re right. What I asked for was too vague.” I started to relax. Another mistake. “Here’s what I want. I’ll pay for your time and expenses while you look for evidence showing my son’s innocence. I don’t care what form it’s in, or even if you find any. Would you like that in writing?”
I looked away from her and around the room, collecting my thoughts. Pictures of the family covered the walls and most level surfaces. Two stuck out. Doug and Michelle with the two surviving children, the parents wearing the smiles of people trying to remember what happy meant. The other looked like Justin’s school picture. It sat on a mantel with a small band of black wrapped diagonally on its upper left corner. Shirley had me outnumbered.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll need it in writing. I have paperwork we can use. I’ll fill in the blanks and you can sign it tomorrow.”
“What are your rates?” I told her. “Draw up the papers to show I guarantee two weeks at your standard rate, plus any expenses you have. I’ll make sure you’re paid.”
“It’s not a matter of money. You understand what it means if I don’t find the evidence you want, don’t you?”
“Yes. It means there’s no evidence. Doug is innocent. Whether you can prove it or not doesn’t change anything. I’ll write you a check for what I’ve agreed to pay you.” She took a checkbook and pen from a pocket of her skirt. I didn’t think she ever doubted she’d need them. “I appreciate what you’re doing, trying to prepare me for the worst while protecting your interests. Do the best you can. I’ll live with the results.”
She held up her hand to stop me from answering. “I need you to help my son. I can’t do it myself.” She tore off the check and handed it to me. “I did more than just ask George Lavelle for a name, you know. He assured me you were a man of conscience and integrity. If you won’t help me I’ll have to go somewhere else, maybe to one of those other men you warned me about. Is that what you’d want for your daughter?”
The check rode in my pocket like a brick.