Madison, Wisconsin, 1972—When Detective Hank Kaplan calls Valentina Wilson to a crime scene, she wonders why. She soon finds more questions than answers in a secret room belonging to a wealthy female philanthropist, whose brutal murder the police hastily cover up. Val’s search for the truth will take her from the rape hotline she runs to the shocking realization that the woman’s murder anchors a long line of horrific events stretching back decades. Chosen as one of the best mystery short stories of 2013 by the readers of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, “Sob Sisters” continues the powerful story of Valentina Wilson, a character who first appeared in Nelscott’s award-winning Smokey Dalton series.
“Sob Sisters” by Edgar-nominee Kris Nelscott is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as a standalone ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and in other ebookstores.
TECHNICALLY, I WASN’T supposed to be at the crime scene. I wasn’t supposed to be at any crime scene. I’m not a cop; I’m not even a private detective. I’m just a woman who runs a rape hotline in a town that doesn’t think it needs one, even though it is 1972.
Still, what woman says no when she gets a phone call from the Madison Police Department, asking for her presence at the site of a murder?
A sensible one, that’s what my volunteers would have said. But I have never been sensible.
Besides, the call came from Detective Hank Kaplan who, a few months ago, had learned the hard way to take me seriously. Unlike a lot of cops who would’ve gotten angry when a woman out-thought him, Kaplan responded with respect. He’s one of the new breed of men who doesn’t mind strong women, even if he still has a derogatory tone when he uses the phrase “women’s libbers.”
The house was an old Victorian on a large parcel of land overlooking Lake Mendota. Someone had neatly shoveled the walk down to the bare concrete, and had closed the shutters on the sides of the wrap-around porch, leaving only the area up front to take the brunt of the winter storms.
And of the police.
Squads and a panel van with the official MPD logo on the side parked along the curb. I counted at least four officers milling about the open door while I could see a couple more moving near the large picture window.
I parked my ten-year-old Ford Falcon on the opposite side of the street and steeled myself. I was an anomaly no matter how you looked at it: I was tiny, female and black in lily-white Madison, Wisconsin. Most locals would’ve thought I was trying to rob the place rather than show up at the invitation of the lead detective.
I grabbed the hotline’s new Polaroid camera. Then I got out of the car, locked it, and walked as calmly as I could across the street. I wasn’t wearing a hat or gloves, so I stuck my hands in the pocket of my new winter coat. At least the coat looked respectable. My torn jeans, sneakers, and short-cropped Afro were too hippy for authorities in this town.
As I approached, a young officer on the porch turned toward me, then leaned toward an older officer, said something, and rolled his eyes. At that moment, Kaplan rounded the side of the house and caught my gaze.
He hurried down the sidewalk toward me. He was wearing a blue police coat over his black trousers and galoshes over his dress shoes. Unlike the street cops on the porch, he didn’t wear a cap, leaving his black hair to the vicissitudes of the wind. He was an uncommonly handsome man, with more than a passing resemblance to the Marlboro Man from the cigarette ads. I found his good looks annoying.
“Miss Wilson,” he said loud enough for the others to hear, “come with me.”
He sounded official. The cops outside started in surprise, then gave me a once-over.
A shiver ran down my back. I hated the scrutiny, even though I knew he had done it on purpose, so no one would second-guess my presence here.
“This way,” he said, and put a hand on my back to help me up the curb.
I couldn’t help it; I stiffened. He let his hand drop.
“Sorry,” he said. He knew I had been brutalized by a cop in Chicago. While that experience had made me stronger, I still had a rape survivor’s aversion to touch.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
“I’ll show you,” Kaplan said. “But we’re going in the back. Did you bring your camera?”
I held up the case. I had wrapped the strap around my right hand.
“Good,” he said. “Come on.”
He walked quickly on the narrow shoveled sidewalk leading around the building. I had to hurry to keep up with him.
“So,” I said, as soon as we were clear of the other cops, “you guys don’t have your own cameras?”
“We do,” he said. “You’ll just want a record of this.”
Now I was really intrigued. A record of something that he was willing to share; a record of something that they didn’t want to record themselves? Maybe he had finally decided that I should photograph a rape victim immediately after the crime had occurred.
Although Kaplan didn’t handle the rape cases. He was homicide.
The narrow sidewalk led to another small porch. Kaplan pulled on the screen door, and held it for me. Then he shoved the heavy interior door open.
A musty smell rose from there, tinged with the scent of fall apples. I had expected a crime-scene smell—blood and feces and other unpleasantness, not the somewhat homey smell.
To my right, half a dozen coats hung on the wall, with a variety of galoshes, boots, and old shoes on a plastic mat. This was clearly the entrance that the homeowner used the most.
“When should I start photographing?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you when,” Kaplan said, and led me up the stairs.
We stepped into a kitchen that smelled faintly of baked bread. I frowned as Kaplan led me through swinging doors into the dining area. A picture window overlooked the lake. The view, so beautiful that it caught my attention, distracted me from the coroner’s staff, who clustered in the archway between the dining room and living room.
Kaplan touched my arm, looking wary as he did so. I glanced down, saw an elderly woman sprawled on the shag carpet, arms above her head, face turned away as if her own death embarrassed her. This area did smell of blood and death. The stench got stronger the closer I got.
I couldn’t see her face. One hand was clenched in a fist, the other open. Her legs were open too, and looked like they had been pried that way. A pair of glasses had been knocked next to the console television, and a pot filled with artificial fall flowers had tumbled near the door.
The coroner had pulled up the woman’s shirt slightly to get liver temperature. The frown on his face seemed at once appropriate and extreme for the work he was doing.
I moved a step closer. He looked up, eyes fierce. His mouth opened slightly, and I thought he was going to yell at me. Instead, he turned that look on Kaplan.
“Who the hell is that? Control your crime scene, man. Get the civilians out of here.”
“Sorry,” Kaplan said, sounding contrite. “I turned in the wrong direction.”
He touched my arm to move me away from the crowd. I realized that he had play-acted to convince the coroner and the other police officers that my appearance in that room had been an accident.
But it hadn’t been. Kaplan had wanted me to see the body.
“This way,” he said in that formal voice, as if he thought someone was still listening.
He led me back into the kitchen, then opened a door into a large pantry. Canned goods lined the walls. A single 40-watt bulb illuminated the entire space.
My stomach clenched. I had no idea what he was doing, and I wasn’t the most flexible person around cops.
He pulled the pantry door closed, then moved past me and pushed on the far wall. It opened into a book-lined room with no windows at all. Mahogany shelves lined the walls. The room was wide, with several chairs for reading and a heavy library table in the middle, stacked with volumes. Those volumes were half open, or marked with pieces of paper.
Beyond that was another open door. Kaplan led me through it.
We stepped into one of the prettiest—and most hidden—offices I had ever seen. The walls were covered with expensive wood paneling. A gigantic partners desk sat in the middle of the room. The flooring matched the paneling—no shag carpet here. Instead, the desk stood on an expensive Turkish carpet, of a type I had only seen in magazines. The room smelled of old paper, books, and Emerude. I couldn’t hear the officers in the other part of the house. In fact, the only sound in this room was my breathing, and Kaplan’s clothes rustling as he moved.
An IBM Selectric sat on the credenza beside the desk. Behind it stood a graveyard of old typewriters, from an ancient Royal to one of the very first electrics. Above them, files in neat rows, with dividers. The desk itself had several open files on top, and a full coffee cup to one side. I wanted to touch it, to see if it was still warm.
“This is what you wanted to show me?” I asked.
“I think you’ll find some interesting things here,” he said, nodding toward the floor. Against the built-in bookshelves in a back corner, someone had placed dozens, maybe hundreds of picture frames.
I crouched. Someone had framed newspaper and magazine articles, all of them from different eras and with different bylines.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Her life’s work,” he said.
“Her,” I repeated. “I’m not even sure whose house this is.”
He looked at me in surprise. “I thought you knew everything about this town.”
“Not even close,” I said.
He sighed softly. “This house belongs to Dolly Langham.”
“The philanthropist?” I asked.
He gave me a tight smile. “See? You do know her.”
“I don’t,” I said. “Some of my volunteers kept trying to contact her for help with fundraising for the hotline, but she never returned our calls or our letters.”
A frown creased his forehead. “That’s odd. She was always doing for women.”
I frowned too. “I take it she’s the woman in the living room?”
“That’s the back parlor,” he said, as if he knew this house intimately. Maybe he did.
“All right,” I said slowly, not sure of his non-response. “The back parlor then. That’s her?”
He closed his eyes slightly and nodded.
“You’ve caught this case?” I asked. “It’s yours entirely?”
“Yeah,” he said, and he didn’t sound happy about it. “This is a big deal. Miss Langham is one of the richest people in the city, if not the richest. Her family goes back to the city’s founding, and she’s related to mayors, governors, and heads of the university. She’s important, Miss Wilson.”
“I’m getting that,” I said. “Why am I here?”
“Because,” he said, “cases like this, they’re always about something.”
“Yes, I know, but—”
“No,” he said. “You don’t know. There’s the official story. And then there’s the real story.”
I froze. Cops rarely spoke to civilians like this. I had learned that from my ex-husband, who had been a Chicago cop and who had died, in part, because of what had happened to me.
“You think the real story is going to get covered up,” I said.
“No,” Kaplan said. “I don’t think it. I know it.”
I glanced around the room. “The real story is here?”
He shrugged. “That I don’t know. I haven’t investigated yet.”
He was being deliberately elliptical, and I was no good with elliptical. I preferred blunt. Elliptical always got me in trouble.
“Why am I here?” I asked.
“I need a fresh pair of eyes,” he said.
“But the investigation is just starting,” I said.
He nodded. “So is the pressure.”
I let out a small breath of air. So, he had a script already, and he didn’t like it. “You want me to photograph things in here?”
“As much as you can,” he said. “Keep those pictures safe for me.”
“I will,” I said.
“And Miss Wilson, you know since you were once a cop’s wife, how things occasionally go missing from a crime scene?”
“Oh, I do,” I said. “You want to prevent that here.”
He shook his head, and gave me a look he hadn’t shown me since the first time I met him. The look accused me of being naïve.
“You know, Miss Wilson, I find it strange that you don’t carry a purse. Most women carry bags so big they can fit entire reams of paper inside them.”
My breath caught as I finally understood.
“I prefer pockets,” I said, and stuck my hands inside the deep pockets of my coat.
“You are quite the character, Miss Wilson,” he said approvingly. “I think you might have a couple of uninterrupted hours in here, if I keep the doors closed. Is that all right with you?”
Inside a room with no windows, only one door, a phalanx of cops outside, and a dead body a few yards away. Sure, that was Just Fine.
“You’ll be back for me?” I asked.
“Most assuredly,” he said, and put his hand on the door.
“One last thing, Detective,” I said. “Who found this room?”
A shadow passed over his face, so quickly that I almost missed it. “I did. No one else.”
So no one else knew I was here.
“All right,” I said. “See you in two hours.”
He nodded once, then let himself out, pulling the door closed behind him.
I felt claustrophobic. This room felt still, tense, almost as if it were waiting for something. Maybe that was the effect of the murdered woman in the back parlor. Maybe I was more tense than I thought.
That would be odd, though. I had training to keep me calm. I went to medical school until I couldn’t find a place to intern (honey, we don’t want you to take a position away from a real doctor), and then I went to the University of Chicago Law School. I got used to cadavers in medical school, and extreme pressure in law school, and somewhere along the way, I had accepted death as a part of life.
I let out a small sigh, squared my shoulders, and pulled off my coat. I opened it, so that the inner pockets were easily accessible, and draped it on one of the straight-backed chairs near the door. Then I grabbed the Polaroid and put it around my neck.
I didn’t know where to start because I didn’t know what I was looking for. But Kaplan had asked me here for a reason. He wanted me to find things, and to remove some of them, which meant that I shouldn’t start with the books or even the framed articles.
I started with the files.
I walked behind the desk. The perfume smell was strong here. Dolly Langham had clearly spent a lot of time at this desk. The papers on top were notes in shorthand, which I had never bothered to learn. I was certain one of my volunteers at the hotline knew it, however. I stacked those papers together and put them in a “Possible” pile. I figured I’d see what I found, and then stash what I could just before Kaplan came back for me.
I opened the drawers next. The top held the usual assortment of pens and paperclips, and stray keys. The drawer to my right had a large leather-bound ledger in it.
The ledger’s entries started in 1970, and covered most of the past two years. The most recent entry was from last week. There were names on the side, followed by a number (usually large) and a running total along the edge. That much I could follow. It was the last set of numbers, one column done in red ink and the other in blue, that I couldn’t understand.
Kaplan had to know this was here. He had to have looked through the desk; any good investigator would have.
I took the ledger and placed it on my coat.
Then I went back and searched for more ledgers. I figured if she had one for the 1970s, she had to have some from before that. I didn’t find any in the drawer—although I found a leather-bound journal, also written in shorthand, with the year 1972 emblazoned on the front.
I set that on the desktop along with the notes, and continued my search.
The desk, organized as it was, didn’t yield much, so I turned to the files behind me. They were in date order. The tab that stuck out had that date and a last name. I opened the oldest file, and inside found more handwritten notes, and a yellowed newspaper clipping. The byline—Agnes Olden—matched the name on the outside of the file.
Someone had scrawled 1925 on the clipping, which came from a newspaper I’d never heard of called The Chicago Telegram. The headline was Accuser Speaks!
Dressed in an expensive skirt and a shirtwaist blouse with mullion sleeves, Dorthea Lute looks like a woman of impeccable reputation instead of the fallen woman all assume her to be. For our interview, she sat primly on the edge of her chair, feet crossed demurely at the ankles, hands clasped in her lap, head down. She spoke softly, and when she described the circumstances of her accusation, she did not scream or shout or cry, but told the tale with a calm tone that belied its horror.
I scanned as quickly as I could, trying to get the gist of the piece. Apparently this Dorthea Lute accused one of Chicago’s most prominent citizens of “taking her forcibly and against her will” in the “quiet of his own home.” Friends and family said that she was bruised, and “indeed, witnesses saw her wearing her arm in a sling. She had two black eyes, and a purplish bruise that ran from her temple to her chin.”
I closed my eyes for a brief moment. This was an account of a rape, and the interview was conducted with the “accuser,” who—of course—had been accused herself of using her body and her “wiles” to “improve her standing in the world.” When that didn’t work, she accused this prominent businessman of “the most vile of crimes.”
I thumbed through the file and found no more clippings, just more notes. Then I grabbed the next file. It had the same byline, and featured an interview with the family of a young girl who died brutally at the hands of her boyfriend. File after file, interview after interview, all written in that now-dated manner.
I replaced those files and grabbed another from the next row. This came from the Des Moines Voice, another paper I had never heard of, and came from 1933. The content of the file was similar to the others, with the shorthand notes, the scrawls, but the byline was different. This one belonged to Ada Cornell. Cornell had the same kind of interest in crimes against women.
Only these files also contained carbons of the original news piece.
I was intrigued.
The next shelf down had stories from the 1940s, and many of them came from different communities. The bylines all differed but the files remained the same.
So I took the last file off the last shelf. It came from nearly twenty years before—1955 to be exact. I had expected it to be a 1972 file, considering there were notes on the desk. So either the files from 1955 onward were missing, or she hadn’t done anything for years and got back into the work.
I couldn’t believe that she had given up until recently, not with the typewriter graveyard behind me. I looked around the room for another place that held files. Then I walked to the center of the room, put my hands behind my back, and frowned at everything.
This was a room within a room within a room, so secret that it was in the very center of the house, hidden behind what most people would consider the pantry. Dolly Langham wrote under false names, so she hadn’t wanted anyone to know she was doing this work.
I frowned, then glanced at the panels. In the old mystery novels, paneling—especially from fifty years ago—hid secret passageways. This room itself was a secret, so I doubted I’d find a passageway. But I might find a hidden compartment.
I surveyed the area, looking for scuff marks, fingerprints, something that jutted out, but I saw nothing obvious. Then I looked at the paneling itself. It had a pattern along the right and left side, but the wall with the files and the typewriter graveyard was configured differently, as if that entire area was built especially for Langham. Wall panels weren’t mass produced forty years ago; they were crafted by someone, who—if the inside room had been built in the Depression—wouldn’t have questioned the design.
A decorative frame had been built around the shelves in the center. Then the waist-high shelf that housed the typewriter graveyard jutted out an extra foot, and so did the area below it.
I went behind the desk, crouched and felt along the edges. I found a small ridge that my fingertips just fit inside. They brushed against a tiny knob. I pressed it, and half of the lower cabinet swung open, silently. A tiny light clicked on, revealing more files.
The shelves ran across the length of the cabinet, and the files continued to the floor.
I left that open, then touched the frames on the right side of the entire unit, looking for a similar ridge. I found it, and that long door swung open, revealing a closet. Inside, wigs, make-up, clothing, and the faint scent of mothballs. I peered into the darkness beyond and realized I had been wrong: there was a hidden passageway behind the clothes.
I pushed the clothes aside, and coughed as dust rose. Cobwebs hung from the opening beyond. I stepped inside anyway and peered. It didn’t appear to be a passageway after all, but more of an extension of this room, like a gigantic walk-in closet.
But I couldn’t be certain unless I explored.
It was clear that Langham hadn’t used this closet in a long time. If I could assume that whatever happened to her in that living room happened because of something she had hidden, then I might be safe in assuming the “something” was a recent occurrence, not one housed in mothballs and cobwebs.
I knew I was making a hasty judgment, but that was all Kaplan had left me time for. Besides, I didn’t have a flashlight. I would have to haul whatever I found into the main room—or trust that there was an electrical switch somewhere back there that I could find easily.
I closed that panel door, and opened the one on the other side just in case it was something different. As I thought, it was the other end of this “closet,” with more wigs, and clothing, including a few very old furs. The musty smell made my eyes water.
I pulled out my Polaroid and took pictures of that back area. I also took pictures of the files. Then I took a few pictures of an open file on the desk.
And by then I was out of film. The Polaroids dried on the desktop as I closed the doors. Then I sat on the Turkish carpet, and looked through the files in the hidden case. The writing style that Langham cultivated had lost popularity, and so had the long yellow journalism stories. They vanished after the war. But she seemed to adapt. There were articles here from The Milwaukee Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Des Moines Register, and more. Many of the longer articles appeared in Saturday Review, Ladies Home Journal, and surprisingly, that new magazine for women, Ms.
The bottom shelf was empty except for two large manuscripts, in their entirety. As I was about to pull one out, I heard a sound from the outer room.
I cursed, then carefully closed the cupboard door. My heart was pounding. I had a hunch the person out there was Kaplan, but if it wasn’t, I didn’t want the other investigators to know about this—and neither did he.
Then I grabbed my pile from the desktop, hurried it over to that chair, and covered the entire pile with my coat. If I left with everything I’d hidden, I’d look like I gained fifty pounds, but that couldn’t be helped.
The door opened just as my coat settled on top of everything.
Fortunately, the person at the door was Kaplan, and he was alone.
He closed the door, then leaned on it. “You find anything?”
“You know I did,” I said. “How come she kept all this secret?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just looked at it today.”
“But it’s clearly relevant to your case. You’re going to need it.”
He gave me a bitter half-smile. “In a perfect world.”
I felt chilled. “Meaning?”
“Apparently, she interrupted burglars,” he said with such sarcasm that I didn’t have to ask him if he believed it. He clearly did not.
“Who made this decision?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said tiredly. “It’s coming from the chief. We’re to wrap up the investigation in a hurry.”
“What about this?” I waved my hands at the files in the back. “Who gets this?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” he said. “Dolly was the last of the Langhams. We haven’t even looked for a will or contacted her attorney. I have no idea who inherits. I suspect it’s a bunch of charities.”
“This is her life’s work,” I said.
That bitter smile creased his face again. “Apparently, she had a lot of different life’s work. Folks around here would say her life’s work was her philanthropy, spending Papa’s money.”
I thought of the ledgers. “I wasn’t able to go through anything. I just located things. I’d like to come back—”
“I doubt that’ll be possible.”
“But you have no idea how much is here, what she has. I certainly don’t. I can’t even decipher most of it. I don’t read shorthand.”
“Ah,” he said, “the benefits of a law school education.”
I understood what he meant. If I had been a typically educated woman, I would have known shorthand. But I never was typical.
“I have some volunteers who can read it. Give us a few days in here—”
“I can’t, Miss Wilson,” he said. “You shouldn’t be here now. In fact, I came to get you out. The mayor is on his way, and I’m sure the television cameras will follow. I don’t want anyone to know you were even on the premises.”
“Great,” I said. “There’s more than I can carry.”
He unzipped that heavy police department jacket of his. “Give me some of it,” he said. “Quickly.”
I picked up my coat, and handed him the ledgers. I kept the two journals and all of the recent shorthand notes, shoving them inside my coat. We zipped up together, like co-conspirators.
Which, I guess, we were.
“Let’s go,” he said. He waited for me near the door, and as we stepped out, he turned off the lights. The room disappeared into a blackness so profound it made my skin crawl.
The library was empty. Still, I hurried through it, not wanting to stop this time. I waited at that door for Kaplan.
I clutched my hands around my middle like a pregnant woman. The edges of the journals dug into my stomach, and I wanted to adjust them, but I couldn’t.
We went through the same routine—I stepped into the pantry, he shut off the lights, then closed the door. Once it was shut, he moved a few boxes in front of it.
I could hear voices not too far away. Kaplan paused at the pantry door, peering through it. Then he beckoned me, and we scurried across the kitchen. The voices were coming from the dining room beyond.
Kaplan led the way down the stairs and out the side door. He looked along the sidewalk, nodded when he wanted me to follow, and walked faster than I liked on the ice-covered concrete.
My papers and journals were slipping. I shifted my hands slightly, praying that nothing fell as I hurried after Kaplan.
He reached my car before I did, tried the door, and cursed loud enough for me to hear. He didn’t like that I had locked it. I wasn’t sure how I was going to unlock it without dropping anything. I pulled the keys out of my pocket, adjusted my papers again, and leaned a little on the cold metal to unlock my door.
I pulled it open. Kaplan reached around and unlocked the back door. He looked both ways, bent over, and opened his jacket. The ledgers fell out along the seat. Then he slammed the door closed and shoved his hands in his pockets.
I just got in the driver’s side, figuring it was easier than getting rid of my stuff.
“I’ll be in touch,” he said before I could ask any more questions. Then he slammed the driver’s door closed.
He had returned to the other side of the street before I could get the keys in the ignition. My breath fogged up the window, but I just used my fist to make a hole.
I didn’t have to be told to get the hell out of there. I pulled out just as a group of large black cars came around the corner behind me.
I followed the narrow street out of the neighborhood, then pulled over until the windshield cleared. While the defrost was doing its job, I reached around to the back seat. I locked the door, and grabbed a blanket I kept on the floor for emergencies. I used it to cover the ledgers that Kaplan had spilled.
If we had dropped anything outside the car, I hoped Kaplan had found it.
Because I wasn’t going anywhere near that place again.
I got back to the hotline in record time. The hotline was a few miles away, deeper in the city itself. We weren’t far off State Street, which connected the University of Wisconsin with the Capitol. This neighborhood used to be a nice enclave for the medium rich, leaving the very rich to Langham’s neighborhood. Now, the old Victorians here had been torn down or divided into apartments, usually crammed with students.
The church where we housed the hotline had been abandoned two decades before. I lived in the rectory and used the church proper for the hotline, and sometimes to house women in need.
On this day, I pulled into the rectory side of the parking lot. I didn’t want the volunteers to see what I had.
It took me two trips to bring in all of the material. I piled the stuff on my coffee table, then closed and locked my door. I pulled the curtains too, something I rarely did in the middle of a Midwestern winter.
I took off my coat, put some innocuous papers over the things on my coffee table, and picked up one sheet of the paper covered in shorthand. Then I headed into the hotline proper.
The passageway between the rectory and the church had no heat, and was cold this time of year. I opened the unlocked door into the church, and inhaled the scent of sawed wood.
My volunteers, as inept as they were, loved doing the repair work.
I went down the stairs into the basement and found five women in t-shirts and ragged jeans, discussing the finer points of electricity.
“Val would never say she’d hire an electrician,” Louise said. She was a tall, middle-aged blond and one of my best volunteers.
“And yet I will,” I said as I went by. Several women looked up in surprise. Apparently they hadn’t heard me come in. “We’re not going to remodel this place just to burn it down. If we’re at the electricity stage, let me know and I’ll hire someone.”
“Consider yourself on notice,” Louise said.
I nodded. Something else to take care of.
I went all the way back to the main office, where we had our phones. We’d initially had only one line for the hotline and one private line. But our hotline had expanded after some recent publicity, and now, we had three separate desks with phones on them. The calls rolled over to a different line if one was in use. It was an expensive system, but well worth it.
The afternoon’s volunteers were an undergrad named Midge who had just started a few weeks ago, and one of my old hands—Susan Dunlap, who worked for the phone company.
“Don’t tell me you’re here on your day off,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “I won’t.”
She was writing in the logbook. We kept a record of each call that came in, the time, date, and what was said. The volunteer signed in at the beginning of her shift, and then, if there were no calls, she read what had been written between her shifts. We sometimes got repeat callers, women who tested us before they confided in us, and the volunteers had to be prepared for that.
Susan was a middle-aged redhead who had never really lost her baby weight, even though her kids were in high school now. Like Louise, Susan was one of my most reliable volunteers, a main supporter, almost from the beginning.
Midge was studying at the other desk. She had the secondary phone, not that it mattered. Right now, the phones were silent.
I hovered until Susan finished writing. Then I asked, “Do you know shorthand?”
“Doesn’t every woman?” she asked so blandly that at first, I thought she was serious. Then I realized she was making a political statement.
I smiled. “If so, then I’m decidedly not female.”
“Me either,” Midge said.
Susan grinned. “I’m older. Back when I was a girl, they forced us to learn shorthand while they suffocated us in girdles.”
Midge looked alarmed. But I grinned back.
“Come with me,” I said to Susan. “Midge, can you watch the phones?”
“Sure,” she said, frowning at us.
Susan and I went into the kitchen. It was a marvel, built to serve dozens at church suppers. And unlike the rest of the church, this kitchen had been in good condition when I bought the place. Apparently it was one of the few places that the previous tenants had kept up.
Susan sat at the large table we had in the center of the room. I handed her the sheet of paper.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“I don’t honestly know,” I said. “Tell me if you can read it.”
I poured us some coffee from the pot we kept on the stove.
“It’s an idiosyncratic form of shorthand, and it uses some symbols that are pretty old,” Susan said. “But I think I can read it. Something about a—this can’t be right.”
“What?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Can you get me a legal pad?”
“Sure,” I said.
I went out to the front office, and grabbed a legal pad from the stack I kept in one of the desks. I brought it and a pad back to Susan. She translated the shorthand into English, pausing over a couple of words, shaking her head the entire time.
“This can’t be right,” she said again.
She didn’t say that as if something in the text bothered her, but as if something in her translation did.
“Show me,” I said as I sat beside her.
“Okay.” She tapped her pen against the legal sheet. “It starts in the middle of a sentence. Usually when someone takes shorthand, she skips the articles—‘a’ ‘the’—and that’s happening here.”
She slid the paper to me. Her handwriting was clear.
…tortured family relationships. Rumors he had fathered his stepdaughter’s bastard child. Z denies. Paternity test would prove nothing since Z & stepdaughter share blood type. Other accusations…
“What is this?” she asked me.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I have reams of this stuff. Can you translate it for me?”
“I’m not sure I want to,” she said. “I’m not the only one who knows shorthand here.”
I nodded. “But I trust you.”
“You trust the others,” she said, still looking at that paper.
At that moment, Louise came into the kitchen. She was covered in grayish dust. When she wiped a hand over her forehead, she only managed to smear everything.
“You realize, Val, that there are no female electricians, right? Who the hell are we going to hire?”
“There’s got to be a female electrician somewhere,” I said.
She snorted. “Maybe on Mars.”
“You’re going to have to break the no-men rule,” she said.
“And here we have that trust thing again,” Susan said.
“Did I miss something?” Louise asked.
“Not really,” Susan said.
Louise went to the fridge and removed two Cokes and a Hires root beer. She set the bottles on the counter, then fumbled for the bottle opener.
“I’m interrupting something, aren’t I?” Louise asked.
“Just Val trying to rope me into a job I don’t want,” Susan said. “It’ll probably give me nightmares.”
I looked at her.
“You mean answering the phone doesn’t?” Louise asked.
Susan sighed. “Worse nightmares.”
“Ah hell,” Louise said. “Nothing can get worse than mine. I’ll do it.”
I glanced at her. She’d been around almost as long as Susan. Louise was my unofficial foreman on the remodeling.
“Do you read shorthand?” I asked.
“Is there a woman alive today who doesn’t?” she asked, and she was serious.
“You mean besides Val?” Susan asked.
“Oh, gee, sorry,” Louise said. “Yes, I read shorthand.”
“You’d have to keep all of this confidential,” I said.
“Not a problem,” Louise said, and I believed her. She had kept everything confidential so far.
“Good,” Susan said. “She can do it.”
I shook my head. “I have a lot of material. I need both of you to work on it.”
“Mysterious Val,” Louise said. “Let me take the drinks to my crew and I’ll be back.”
She slipped out of the kitchen, clutching the bottles between the fingers of her right hand.
“You’ll have to work in my place,” I said to Susan.
“Oh, God, Val, that’ll drive you nuts,” Susan said. “I’d offer to take this home, but I don’t want my kids near it.”
“I don’t blame you.” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that there was a chance that what was on these papers had gotten Langham killed. “That’s why I want you here.”
Susan frowned, thinking. “Then what about the vestry? It has a desk and good lighting. And no windows, so no one would know we were there. Besides, none of the girls go upstairs.”
“If you’re comfortable working up there,” I said.
She smiled. “I love that room. It’s as close to a secret hideaway as we have in this place.”
She was right. And I thought it appropriate for them to examine materials from Langham’s secret room in our most secret room.
“If Louise agrees,” I said.
Susan smiled. “She will,” she said.
They worked throughout the afternoon. I didn’t interrupt them. Instead, I sent the workers home, and stepped in for Susan at the phones. The evening shift arrived with pizza. I was about to go upstairs with some pieces for Susan and Louise when Susan surprised me in the kitchen.
“We found something,” she said quietly.
I knew that Kaplan would be in touch, so I told the two volunteers that if someone came or called for me, I was in the vestry. They seemed surprised. I wasn’t even sure these two new girls knew where the vestry was.
Then I followed Susan upstairs.
The smell of sawed wood was strong here as well. I was in the process of remodeling the former offices and choir room into a women-only gym. At the moment, I still taught my self-defense classes at Union South and my friend Nick’s gym, but I wanted a room of my own, as Virginia Wolff said.
The vestry was to the left of the construction zone, past the still closed-off sanctuary. Paneling hid the door on this side, apparently to prevent parishioners from walking in on the minister as he prepared.
Right now, though, the door was half open revealing a well-lit little room. It wasn’t as big or as fancy as Langham’s hidden office, but it was beautiful, with lovely paneling that I planned to save, and a ceiling that went almost two stories up, ending in a point that mimicked the church’s closed-off spire.
Louise had lit some homemade scented candles, so the little room smelled like vanilla. The desk was covered with hand-written legal papers. The garbage cans were overflowing with wadded up sheets. The nearby table had all of the journals opened to various pages. A blank legal pad sat on one of the reading chairs I had placed toward the back.
“Where did you get this stuff?” Louise asked.
“I can’t tell you,” I said.
“You need to tell us,” Louise said.
My heart sank. After that step-, only-, half-daughter thing, I braced for the worst. “How bad is it?”
Susan went over to the table. She touched an open journal.
“This,” she said, then touched another, “this,” and another, “this,” and yet another, “and this, all tell the same story. Different days, different years.”
“And the handwriting is a little looser in all of them,” Louise said, as if that would mean something to me.
“What story?” I said, knowing they wanted me to ask.
“You’d recognize it if you could read it,” Louise said. “It’s the sob sister.”
We’d been calling her the sob sister from the beginning of the hotline. She had called every Saturday night like clockwork, rarely missing, usually around eleven.
She always told the same story—a brutal, violent rape that nearly killed her, left her ruined and heartbroken, and made it impossible for her to have children. She would sob her story out. The first few times I took the call, her words were almost incomprehensible.
I tried to get her to come in, to talk to someone, to report the incident. I told her I would go with her, and she would always quietly, gently, hang up.
Other volunteers had a similar experience, and finally we stopped telling her to report the incident. We just listened. Every Saturday night. Sometimes there were more details. Sometimes there were fewer. She always sobbed. If we tried to console her, she would hang up.
I’m not sure exactly when we figured out she was drunk—maybe about the point someone gave her the nickname, about the point when we realized we were helpless in the face of her never-ending grief.
The sob sister taught me that not all victims could be healed, and that for some, grief and loss and terror became an everlasting abyss, one they would never come back from.
I had assumed the sob sister was some broken-down drunk who lived in a trailer, or as a modern-day Miss Haversham in a ramshackle house at the edge of town.
I never thought the sob sister was someone as powerful and competent as Dolly Langham.
“You’re sure?” I asked, sounding a bit breathless.
“Positive,” Susan said. She picked up one of the journals. “This is from 1954.”
Then she read the account out loud. It wasn’t word-for-word what I had heard on the phone—after all, Langham had written this in shorthand, with missing articles and poor transitions—but it was close enough to make the hair rise on the back of my neck.
“And this one,” Susan said, “is the day after Pearl Harbor. She speculates on who might enlist, and then—suddenly, as if she can’t control it—that damn story again.”
I held up a hand. I had to think this through. It violated a lot of my assumptions about everything, about the sob sister, about the nature of victimhood, about Dolly Langham.
Who, come to think of it, was a single unmarried woman who lived alone in the family manse after her father died, who had no family, and who seemingly had only her charities to keep her warm.
But she had had a secret life.
As a sob sister. Not the sobbing woman who called my hotline, but as a front-page girl, one of those women writers of the press, the kind who specialized in an emotional sort of journalism nearly forgotten and completely discredited. Nellie Bly, who got herself tossed into an insane asylum so she could write passionately about the awful conditions; Ida Tarbell, whose work on Standard Oil nearly got discredited because of her gender; or even the great Ida B. Wells, whose anti-lynching campaign almost got her killed, all got dismissed as sob sisters.
Women who wrote tears.
Dolly Langham wrote tears. Accuser Speaks! It was a piece of sympathy, not a piece of hack journalism. So were other stories, all under the guise of a straight news story, told in a way that would appeal to the woman of the house, the emotional one, the one who actually might change the mind of her man.
“Do you guys remember who gave the sob sister her nickname?” I asked.
“It was before my time. You guys had already labeled her before I got here,” Louise said. “So, you know who she is now. You want to share?”
“I can’t yet.” I said, even though I wanted to.
Susan was tapping her thumbnail against her teeth.
“June seems like so long ago,” she said after a moment. She was frowning. “Maybe Helene nicknamed her. Or Mabel.”
Our oldest volunteers. I adored Mabel. She had campaigned for women’s rights in the teens, and had done her best to change the world then. That she was helping us now seemed a miracle to me.
Helene, on the other hand, drove me nuts. She was conservative, religious, yet determined to make this hotline work. I still struggled to get along with her, but as time progressed, I had learned to appreciate her.
“I think it was Helene,” Susan said. “I have this vivid memory of her passing the call to me one Saturday night just as the phone rang. She said she couldn’t help the sob sister any. Some others were there and the name stuck.”
She couldn’t help the sob sister. Because they knew each other?
“Are there names in any of these accounts?” I asked. “Does she give us a clue as to who this guy is who hurt her so badly?”
“It wasn’t one guy,” Louise said softly.
I glanced at her. Her eyes were red.
“It was a gang,” she said. “A few of the early accounts were really graphic.”
Susan nodded. “And there are no names, at least not that we’ve found.”
“What about in the other papers I gave you?” I asked. “Are there any names in those?”
“Initials,” Louise said. “And I have to tell you, this stuff is gruesome.”
“Yeah,” Susan said. “What was this woman into?”
I shook my head again. “I’ll tell you when I can. The most recent papers, what are they about?”
Susan bowed her head. “You don’t want to know.”
But Louise squared her shoulders. “It’s another group.”
“A group of what?” I asked, feeling cold.
“A group of perverts,” Louise said.
Susan had put a hand over her mouth. Her head was still bowed.
“What kind of perverts?” I asked.
“The kind who like little boys,” Louise said. “They take them from the home, to work. And the boys work, all right.”
Her words were clipped, bitter, angry.
“The home?” I asked, my mind a bit frozen. I’d become so used to dealing with women that the phrase “little boys” threw me off. “Their homes?”
“The boys’ home near Janesville,” Susan said, sounding ill. “My church gives that place money.”
“Please tell me she uses names,” I said.
Louise shook her head. “Initials, though. That and the home might be enough information to figure it out.”
If we were cops. If someone was going to investigate this. I didn’t know if Kaplan could do it. Groups, gangs, rings of organized anything were often the hardest thing to defeat.
“Did they know she was investigating them?” I asked.
“Someone—a E.N.—thought she was asking a lot of questions. She was scared,” Susan said. Then she added, “I got that from the journal, not from her notes.”
“Can you give me what you translated?” I asked. “Not the journals, but the notes themselves?”
“I wish we had one of those expensive copiers,” Louise said. “I really don’t want to write this stuff out again.”
“Just set the papers in a pile right here.” I moved a metal outbox onto the table. “I’ll pick them up if I need them. Don’t copy right now. Keep translating, if you can. If you can’t, I understand. But I sure would like names.”
Susan picked up her pen. Then her gaze met mine. “How do people stay sane in the face of all this crap?”
I thought of the cops I’d known, good and bad, as well as the people I knew who were trying to make things right in the world.
“I’m not sure they stay sane,” I said. “Hell, I’m not even sure they were ever sane.”
I wasn’t sure I was either. But I didn’t say that. I figured both women knew that already.
I was halfway down the stairs when I met one of the volunteers coming up. Her eyes were bloodshot, and her nose was red.
“Call for you,” she said in a thick voice.
“You okay?” I asked.
She nodded. “Just taking a break.”
She was trying for jaunty, but she failed miserably. A lot of the volunteers took breaks after a particularly tough phone call. Often those breaks took place in the ladies room, and involved lots of Kleenex.
I hurried down the stairs to my desk. Kaplan was on the line.
“I’m coming over there,” he said. “But I figured, given the nature of your business, that you’d want me to let you know first.”
I did appreciate it, but knew better than to thank him. In the past when I noticed him being sensitive, he got offended.
“Do you know where the old rectory used to be?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Go to that door.”
I hung up and hurried back through the walkway into my tiny living room. I had just switched on the lights when I heard a car pull up. I didn’t look through the curtains. I waited, tense, listening to the car engine shut off, the door slam, and footsteps on the gravel. I anticipated the knock on the door, but it still made me jump.
“It’s me.” Kaplan’s voice. I appreciated that he didn’t identify himself. He probably had no idea that I was alone.
I checked the peephole, then unlocked all of the dead bolts. I pulled the door open.
Kaplan was still wearing his heavy police jacket, and his galoshes. His black pants were stained with snow and salt along the hems.
“C’mon in,” I said, standing back.
He nodded, stamped his feet, and entered. He stopped as I closed the door, a look of surprise on his face. “This is your place?”
“Yes,” I said.
“The hotline, I know,” I said. “We don’t let strangers in there.”
“I remember,” he said grimly. He took off his jacket, put his gloves in the pocket, then ran a hand through his hair. He slipped out of the galoshes as well.
He was wearing a rumpled suit coat under the jacket. “You see the 10 o’clock news?”
“Open and shut. Burglars surprised her, knowing what was in the house. Now we’re having an all-out manhunt which will, of course, fail.”
I opened my hand and gestured toward the sofa. His gaze passed over the materials that I had left on the table. “Coffee?” I asked. “Water? Soda?”
“Coffee,” he said. “Black. Thank you.”
I went into the kitchen and started the percolator. Then I hovered in the archway between the kitchen and the living room.
“How do you know it wasn’t burglars?” I asked.
“You mean besides the fact nothing was stolen? Oh, that’s right. I forgot. She surprised those burglars, so they viciously attacked her. The odd thing was there was more than one of them, and still they didn’t have time to take her purse or the diamond earrings she wore or the gold bracelet around her wrist.” He leaned his head back. “There’s so much not right here, and I can’t tell anyone.”
Except me. The tension had left me, and I actually felt flattered, although I knew better than to say so.
“You knew her, didn’t you?” I asked quietly.
He raised his head, and looked at me. “She called me her disappointment.”
I raised my eyebrows. At that moment, I heard the percolator and silently cursed it. “Coffee’s done.”
I filled two large mugs, grabbed the plate of five raisin cookies that I had stolen from the volunteers two days ago, and put it all on a tray that had come with the kitchen. I brought the tray into the living room and put it on the end table near him.
I sat across from him on the matching chair that faced the window. “You were a disappointment?”
“Yeah.” He grabbed two cookies, but he didn’t eat them. “Among the other things she did, Dolly Langham gave out two full-ride scholarships every year to the University of Wisconsin. She gave them to the best students from Madison area high schools, no matter the gender.”
“Wow,” I said. “You got one?”
He nodded. “Four years at our greatest state institution.”
“And then you became a cop,” I said.
He shrugged one shoulder. “Like father, like son.”
“And she got angry at you.”
“Said I was wasting my talents.”
His gaze met mine. “Are you wasting yours?”
I smiled. “Touché.”
We both picked up our coffee mugs. He didn’t add anything, so I said, “You never lost touch with her.”
“I checked up on her,” he said. “She wasn’t young and she lived alone.”
“I’ll bet she appreciated that.” I blew on my coffee, wishing I hadn’t tinged that sentence with sarcasm.
“You got it. She hated it. Not that it made any difference. She still died horribly. Worse that I would have expected.” He sighed. His sadness and regret were palpable.
Yet the thought of him just discovering that hidden room today didn’t ring true. He had known all along that it was there.
“So she took you into her private office before,” I said.
He shook his head. “I’d seen her go in it once, but I’d never gone in myself. I just thought she had some paperwork stored in the back of the pantry, until today.”
“What made you get me?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, not meeting my gaze. “I guess I always figured you and her as kindred spirits.”
I started. Had he known what she was doing? “Why?”
“The stubborn independent streak, maybe,” he said. “The willingness to go against female norms. The way that you both believe men are unnecessary.”
“I never said that.” I sounded defensive. I liked men. Or, at least, I used to.
“She never said it either. It was just the attitude—don’t help me, don’t do for me, there’s nothing you can do that I can’t do.” He shook his head. “She was a cussed old broad.”
His voice broke on the last word.
He loved her. He really should not have been in charge of this investigation, and yet he was. I doubted he would have been able to relinquish it to anyone.
And yet, because he loved her, he couldn’t go along with the fake investigation. He had to know why, and it might cost him his career.
I almost said something to him, warned him, but it wasn’t my place. It angered me when he told me what to do; I was certain my warning him would make him just as angry as it would have made me.
So I decided to approach the entire idea sideways. “Do you know what she was working on?”
He took a deep breath, ran a hand over his face, and sighed, clearly gathering himself. “You mean besides the charities.”
“No,” he said. “But you do.”
I got up and took the Polaroids out of my pile. Then I held them before showing them to him. Showing them to anyone almost felt like a betrayal of her trust—this woman I hadn’t known, and hadn’t met, who was, as Kaplan had so astutely seen, a kindred spirit.
I even knew why she had avoided the hotline. She didn’t want—she couldn’t, really—draw attention to her secret life. Besides, she had called us before we approached her. She was afraid we would figure out who she was.
“Here’s the problem,” I said before I put the Polaroids in front of him. “She’d been doing a mountain of investigative work, and she’d done it for decades—longer than you and I have been alive. Any one thing from her past could have killed her.”
I carefully laid each Polaroid in front of him, explaining them all, the secret closet, the hidden shelves, the pen names, the meticulous notes that we hadn’t even really begun to explore.
“Jesus,” he said when I was finished, and the word was a half-prayer, half-reaction. “Jesus.”
I hadn’t even told him what she had been working on. I only touched the old cases, because I wasn’t familiar with most of them, not yet.
“Why would she do this?” He picked up one of the pictures, the one that showed the wig, the different clothing. “Her father was still alive through much of this. He never knew?”
“I doubt it,” I said.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Kaplan said more to himself than to me. He looked up, his gaze open and vulnerable. “It doesn’t—”
Then his mouth dropped open. He closed it, and shook his head slowly.
“I should listen to myself,” he said. “I said she was like you. She was, wasn’t she? She had the same background and there was no way in hell she was ever going to be someone’s victim.”
“Not the same background,” I said softly. “It’s never the same.”
“You know what I mean,” he said with more heat than I expected. He thought I was belittling his realization. “You know what happened. Is it important? Did it get her killed?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not even sure when it happened. In the teens, I think. I can’t tell you much more. She used to call here, so it falls in my confidentiality rules.”
“Which won’t hold up in court,” he said fiercely.
“I know,” I said. “I’d give you names and dates if I had them. She’s gone, after all, and I’d love to find out who killed her. But she never gave names, and she didn’t give a lot of details that would ever help us find who hurt her.”
Damaged her, damn near destroyed her. “Hurt” was such a minor word in the context of what happened to Dolly Langham and the power of her reaction to it.
His eyes narrowed. “So give me what you do have. The recent stuff. Logically, that would be what got her killed. If nothing else, it’ll give me a place to start.”
I was shaking my head before he even finished speaking. “You’re not going to like it.”
“I don’t like any of this,” he said. “Just tell me.”
So I did.
Somewhere in the middle of the discussion, partly because I couldn’t stand his expression, and partly because I didn’t want to answer questions I knew nothing about, I went up to the vestry for the translated papers.
Louise was still there, looking ragged.
“A man called you earlier,” she said, as if I had done something wrong.
“Your cop friend?”
I picked up the papers from the out basket. “Thank you,” I said.
Then I went down the stairs again. My cop friend. Were we friends? I wasn’t sure.
I let myself back into the rectory. It smelled of toast, bacon, and coffee. Kaplan wasn’t sitting on my couch any longer. He was in my kitchen, scrambling eggs in my best cast iron pan.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he said. “I haven’t eaten anything except cookies all day.”
“I don’t mind when someone else cooks.” I looked at the clock on the stove—it was the middle of the night. I should have sent Louise home.
Kaplan divided the eggs between two plates, then added bacon and toast. He handed me a plate which I gladly took. I was hungry, and that surprised me.
I set the papers on the table as I sat down.
He sat across from me, but didn’t read. Not yet.
“She did this for almost fifty years,” he said, “and never got caught before.”
“We don’t know that,” I said.
“If she did, she got out of it.”
I nodded slightly, a small concession.
“How could she get caught this time?”
“Maybe the disguise didn’t work for an elderly woman,” I said. “Or maybe someone recognized her voice. We probably won’t know.”
He had already cleaned his plate. I had barely touched mine.
He picked up the papers, then went into the living room to read them. I finished eating and cleaned up the kitchen.
It felt both strange and natural to have a man in my house again. To have a cop in my house. A benevolent cop. I need to stop thinking of every cop like the man who hurt me and remember how much my husband Truman had cared about the people around him. Truman was like most of the cops I had known. I needed to keep that in mind.
When I finished the dishes, I went into the living room. Kaplan had rolled up the legal sheets and was holding them in his left hand. His right elbow was braced on the arm of the couch, and he was lost in thought.
“What am I going to do?” he asked as I sat down across from him. “I’m a detective in a small city. I have orders from the chief of police to close this quickly. I don’t think he’s involved, but I’ll wager whoever is has money and clout and the ability to close the cases that he believes need closing.”
“I know,” I said softly.
“Sometimes,” he said, not looking at me, “you learn to close your eyes. But this….”
He let the words trail off. Then he raised his head. His eyes were red-rimmed.
“They killed her. They killed her to keep her quiet, and she worked her whole life to make sure the full story got told on cases like this. They silenced her, and she didn’t believe in silence. Hell, Miss Wilson, she’s going to haunt me if I let them get away with it. Even if she’s not a real ghost, she’ll haunt me. Just her memory will haunt me.”
“Val,” I said.
He blinked, and focused on me for the first time.
“Call me Val,” I said. I didn’t need to explain why.
“Val,” he said softly. Then he sighed. “I won’t have a career if I go after this. I might not live through the week.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. I’d seen worse over the years.
“But I can’t let it drop,” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” I said. “You might not have to.”
His breath caught—just a moment of hope, a small one, and then I watched that hope dissipate. “It won’t work. Anything I do—”
“I’ve had a few hours longer to think about this than you have,” I said. “And there’s something pretty glaring in the evidence that Miss Langham gathered.”
“Glaring. Something that’ll convince the chief?” he asked. Then before I could get a word in edgewise, he added, “Even if the evidence is rock-solid, I can’t do anything. Hell, for all I know, there are judges involved and city officials and—”
“Hank,” I said quietly. “This gang, this ring, they operate across state lines.”
His mouth opened slightly. Then he rubbed a hand over his chin.
“Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, you’re right. Hell, I won’t have to even tie this to Dolly’s murder. I just have to quietly hand it to the right person.” Then he smiled. “And I just happen to know some good men who work for the FBI.”
I wish I could say it was easy. I wish I could say it all got resolved in the next few days. But I can’t, because it didn’t. It took nearly a year on the orphanage case, and most of the time, Kaplan was out of the loop.
Which meant I was too.
And that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t trust the FBI on the best of days. But I had to continually remind myself that this wasn’t my case or really, my business. Although if they didn’t stop it, I promised myself I would find a way.
Eventually, the Feds arrested a lot of people and more quietly resigned, and the regional papers had a lot of articles that were vague and unsatisfying, because someone deemed the details too graphic for publication.
Langham’s case got closed quickly. Kaplan and I decided that it was better to assume her death was caused by the most recent case, and to get the ringleaders for that. However, I know that Kaplan is still quietly investigating. He’ll never be satisfied until he knows what really happened.
But for now, the official story stands: Langham’s death inside her own home was caused by burglars she interrupted. What got taken? No one knows exactly, but it turned out that the house had two secret rooms that probably dated from Prohibition—or so the papers speculated, without proof, of course. The rooms had books and desks, but there were empty cupboards, except for clothing that apparently belonged to Langham’s father’s various mistresses.
Whatever had been in the drawers of the desk and the cabinet behind one of the desks, well, the burglars had clearly made off with all of that.
In the middle of the night. With police escort.
If you could call Kaplan a police escort.
That part wasn’t in the papers, of course. And the neighbors never seemed to notice the two police officers—one tiny and dark, and the other who looked like he was from central casting. They arrived at one a.m. on two consecutive nights, parked in the driveway, and carried boxes of documents out to a squad car.
No one questioned it, no one remembered it, and no one even knew about those rooms for nearly two months after the investigation closed, when the heirs—the administrators of seven local charities—got their first tours of the place they now held in trust.
Then the story broke open again.
By then, no one even mentioned the cops dealing with that late-night crime scene. No one mentioned the boxes.
Boxes that moved from one secret room to another—although my room wasn’t exactly secret: just forgotten. It was the closet off what had been the choir room. There were even a few musty robes balled up in the corner. I didn’t move them. I just locked the closet door, then locked the choir room door, and wondered what I would do with my treasure, what I would do with another woman’s life work.
Kaplan asked me not to worry about it, not yet.
I didn’t worry about it, but I decided it was time to join the female half of the human race. I signed up for a shorthand course at Madison Area Technical College, starting in January.
And that would have been the end of it, except for one rather strange conversation, late on a Saturday night, two weeks after Langham’s death.
I found myself alone with Helene, our second-oldest volunteer, the one who irritated me, the one who had given Dolly Langham her nickname.
That night, Helene wore a blue dress over a girdle that had to hurt like hell, her perfect stockings attached at the thigh with clips that she would have been appalled to know I had seen as she sat down. She had played the organ at Langham’s funeral, and stood graveside like a supplicant.
I had pretended I hadn’t seen her.
But that night, in the silence of the phone room, about eleven p.m. when Langham’s drunken calls usually came in, I said, “You knew who it was from that first call, didn’t you?”
I watched Helene weigh her response. An old secret versus a new one, the sadness at the loss of a friend, the weight we both felt in the silence.
After a long moment, she nodded.
“You knew what she had been doing all these years too, didn’t you?” I asked.
“The charities? Of course,” Helene said.
“The writing,” I said.”
Helene peered at me. Then sighed. “I thought she had quit decades ago. I would have told her to quit if I had known.”
So Helene suspected the truth: that Langham’s death was caused by her work, not by burglars.
“Who hurt her so badly?” I asked.
Helene shook her head. “Does it matter? They’re all dead now.”
The words were so flat, so cold. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure,” she said. “A couple of them committed suicide. After their disgrace.”
I frowned. She shrugged, then slid the log book of all the calls toward her, to do her night’s reading.
“Their disgrace?” I asked.
“Different for all of them, of course,” she said as if she were discussing the weather. “You know how it is. They come to Madison for graduate school or to work in government, and then they go home to Chicago or Des Moines. And then the press finds some story—true or not—and hounds them. Just hounds them.”
She smiled just a little, her hand toying with the edge of the log.
“Those tearful interviews with the female accusers. Readers used to love those.”
Then she stood up, nodded at me, and asked me if I wanted coffee. As if we were in the basement of a still functioning church. As if we weren’t discussing the unsolved murder of a woman who had been Helene’s friend for decades.
A shiver ran through me, and I looked at my half-finished room, that still smelled of sawed wood.
The things we did to live with our pasts. The things we did to cope with the violence.
The things some of us did for revenge.
Copyright © 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, November, 2013
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2014 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Curaphotography/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.