Readers can revel in the highly anticipated third novel from Wessel - a story of secrets and suspense featuring hard-luck ex-PI Harding and his stunning and fearless girlfriend, Alison, who are about to confront their past. When Alison's former lover is found murdered in a small lake town near Chicago, she and Harding shrug it off as an incidental tragedy. But the discovery of a suspect - the runaway fiance of Alison's best friend, Beth - drunk and disoriented, in the very town where the body was found, seems more than coincidental. Harding can't shake the suspicion that Alison may know more than she's letting on. Harding's own brushes with the law have left him without a legitimate private investigator's license, but his fear that Alison may be in danger just as quickly ensures he's back in the game, implementing his unauthorized services - a scenario that proves dangerous at best, impossible at worst. As the body count rises and the cadavers get closer and closer to home, the noose around Alison's past draws tight, and the stakes grow intensely personal for Harding. Even as he unearths a past for Alison he'd rather not see unburied, he knows he must beat back his jealousy and suspicions about his longtime lover in order to find a ruthless killer before the killer finds Alison.
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John Wessel is the author of This Far, No Further and Pretty Ballerina. He lives with his wife in a suburb of Chicago.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My friend Alison and I are sitting in a South Side bar discussing white holes and the big crunch, the existence of God, monogamous guilt-free sex -- all theoretical subjects at the University of Chicago. It's a slow-moving Saturday afternoon in early December, a perfectly lazy day. We've got an hour to kill before we're due at Bond Chapel for Beth Reinhardt's wedding.
Beth teaches Western Civ and she's had bad luck with men; by my count, this is marriage number four. There are restraining orders on two of the former husbands -- the third is still in Stateville -- and the bride herself has just declared bankruptcy so with Christmas just around the corner it should be a very festive occasion.
Alison's known Beth since childhood -- they grew up on the same block, went to the same schools -- but my own knowledge of Beth is much more fragmentary. I know her taste in martinis (very dry), religion (lapsed Catholic), and men (nondenominational). I know she returned to Hyde Park from Berkeley three years ago, swapping one assistant professorship for another, divorcing one man while swearing off all others, and that Alison helped her through this period, taking her to exercise classes, jogging with her along the lakefront, shooting pool in Wicker Park, baby-sitting her kids. (Beth did her dissertation on the medieval church, and her kids, who adore her, often show up on our doorstep on Halloween dressed as Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, or various generic Franciscans.) I know she smokes too much, has published too little, has a fondness for old MGM musicals and vintage clothing, and once tried to climb whatever mountain you climb before you climb Everest. I don't know if she made it to the top. All that really matters to me is that she's Alison's friend.
I've decided to prepare for the wedding by drinking single-malt scotch. Alison's preparing for an Ironman triathlon next spring; she's drinking water laced with creatine. She looks very hot today dressed in a tight black dress, with matching industrial jewelry and lineman's boots. Her fingernails are painted flat gunmetal-gray. The dress drops very low in the back. She's drawing lots of stares each time she leaves the table. I make a mental note for the wedding: Sit in the last row.
"Thanks for dressing up," she says, giving my tie a life-threatening tug. She's not crazy about anything I'm wearing today -- formal black Chucks, a corduroy jacket with faux faculty elbow patches, a tie with flying toasters and dive-bombing bread slices that came free with an old screen saver. There's some strawberry jam on it, too, saved from breakfast. I don't have many ties. But corduroy, I feel, never really goes out of fashion.
"What's the lucky bastard's name again?" I say, savoring the scotch. "This guy who's marrying Beth? Bachelor number four? Charlie something?"
"Charles, not Charlie, okay, Harding? He's not one of your wise-guy friends. This is a good, decent man, a poet, a scholar. He doesn't have a rap sheet. Maybe that's hard for you to relate to, but Beth finds it refreshing." She swirls the cloudy water in her glass. "He's a romantic; he proposed to her on her birthday. He remembers her birthday. He loves her kids. And his last name's Muller. Charles Muller. Why is that so hard to remember?"
"I'm not sure. It might have something to do with his personality. Or lack thereof. Let's face it -- middle-aged guys who drink tea and write rhymed couplets don't make the most forceful impression."
"Middle-aged guys who are still single can be hard to find, Harding. He's very stable."
"He's very dull."
"Maybe that's what Beth needs right now. Especially after her first three. Sometimes dull sounds damn good to me, too. There are nights when dull would be a real change of pace." She checks her watch. It's guaranteed waterproof, SEAL approved, but if you ever wore the damn thing in the water, you'd sink like a stone. "Besides, Charlie's not really dull, he's just quiet. Still waters, you know? His poetry's pretty far out there, makes Ashbery look simple, and he's gotten all sorts of awards -- and now you've got me doing it, calling him Charlie."
I reach out and push her hair behind her ears. She has her contacts in, a sure sign that it's a formal occasion. "Let's hear that résumé again."
"Visiting professor, English," she says, "tenure-track potential, currently at Colorado. Doesn't drink. Doesn't smoke. Doesn't talk a whole lot. Robert Lowell expert. Tall, stoop-shouldered -- he's got sort of a Lowell thing going himself, minus the lithium. Beard thing under control. Published. Genius grant. First marriage, no kids, minimal baggage. Beth's crazy about him."
"Beth goes crazy like this every two or three years, Alison. The registry at Field's should give out frequent fliers." It occurs to me that I myself am a middle-aged guy. I'm still getting used to forty. "And he comes with just a tad of baggage, doesn't he?"
"Like does your good friend Beth know that you roomed with Charlie back in college in that commune on Hyde Park Boulevard -- "
"Here we go," she says, amused. "Now we get to the heart of the matter." She likes to play at being upset, but it takes more than this to get under her skin. "This is why you don't like him? We didn't room together, Harding -- I shared a house with him and nine or ten others. That's all. And you know about the house. I've told you about the house. It was just a dorm -- Grand Terrace wasn't a commune. Don't be so Neanderthal."
It was a strange sort of dorm, though, a tall, ramshackle house jammed between apartment buildings, far away from the main quadrangle. It wasn't listed with student housing, not officially, though advisers sometimes guided second- or third-years there. It attracted artists, writers, other social outcasts. The residents called it Grand Terrace because of the missing second-floor porch, which fell off during a three-keg party one summer. The four-by-six supports still hung in midair like a skeleton.
"You didn't answer my question," I say. "Does Beth know about you and Charlie?"
"Of course she knows. But there's nothing to know. Charles was postgrad, I was a sophomore. He was older than me, much older -- "
"He's nearly my age, Alison -- "
" -- I meant to say much, much older -- and people were always moving in, transferring out -- he lived in the penthouse, I lived on the first floor. We had different classes, different friends, I had that part-time job waiting tables at the Blue Gargoyle, he was teaching freshmen at Circle and reading manuscripts at the Chicago Review -- "
"You remembered him well enough to recognize him at that stupid Mensa convention last spring."
"He remembered me, Harding. I'm apparently hard to forget. Can I help it? Is that my fault?" She shakes her head. "Come on, let's not fight, we're gonna have a good time tonight. Weddings are just big parties. Lots to eat and drink. If you're good, I'll introduce you to some of my clients, faculty wives with good muscle tone, you'll love them." She owns PowerFemmes, a women's fitness center on South Woodlawn. I'm a silent partner. It's a serious gym, hard-iron, no-frills, no-nonsense, a lot like Alison. There are free weights, squat racks, benches, mats. No sauna, no pool, no health café. No Jazzercise. "Just do me a favor, okay? Look, don't touch. There's a lot of repressed sexuality in that bunch, I wanna keep it that way. It helps with the workouts. Just be civil. You're not marrying Charles, you don't have to like him."
"I don't like him now."
She sighs. "I put up with your friends, Harding. Like Boone. And Donnie Wilson. And your lowlife clients, none of whom has good muscle tone." She mixes some protein powder with her water, turning it mossy green. It reminds me of a science-fair experiment I did in ninth grade. "Speaking of which...you're not still driving out to see Donnie tonight, are you? I want you with me at the reception."
"I won't miss the reception. I'm not meeting Donnie till much later." Donnie Wilson runs a corporate security firm; he often hires me for jobs too sensitive for his own firm to handle. In this case "sensitive" usually means illegal. Donnie himself, according to his ex-wives, is not a particularly sensitive guy.
Alison takes a large vitamin pill from a very small purse, washes it down with what's left of her water. It must be one of the high-fiber kind. It smells like mulch. I tell her that I should be the one taking vitamins and protein powder.
"What in God's name was that move you tried on me last night?"
She grins. "You liked that?"
"I loved it, baby. I can hardly walk."
"It was nothing, just a variation on the scissors. I teach it in self-defense class."
"That wasn't self-defense," I say, draining the scotch.
"You couldn't move, could you?"
"I wasn't trying to move, Alison. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was move."
"That's the point, lover," she says. "It's called death ecstasy, I think, in sociobiology -- the wounded prey surrendering to a far superior force...."
"Wonderful. How civilized."
"Welcome to the animal kingdom," she says, and heads for the bar, drawing more stares. She's very tall, has long black hair, a boyish figure. Whenever she helps me on a case -- her photography skills come in handy and she works cheap -- her surveillance reports are written in black ink on cream-colored paper. They are models of calligraphy, filled with detail. "Subject wore a yellow raincoat with matching galoshes," she'll write. "Umbrella didn't match."
She brings me another drink. I think she's freshened up her water. It's hard to tell. The scotch I'm drinking is usually for after dinner. It tastes just fine after lunch.
"Isn't that Detective Crowley?" she says, sitting down, crossing her long legs. "The guy in the trench, looking lost by the front door?"
"You're right." I hold my glass aloft until Terry Crowley sees us. He's a CPD detective in Violent Crimes. Our paths have crossed a few times, but we're not exactly friends. He's aging rapidly. I think cop years are like dog years. He has liver spots on his hands. He has spots of mud on his topcoat, which he throws over a chair at our table. And he has a new scar on his left cheek, a perfect circle, as if a tentacle from some underwater beast had grabbed him and held on tight.
His sport coat's even older than mine, with frayed lapels, torn pockets, and at least two bullet-size holes, more likely from late-night cigarettes than a 9mm. His scruffy brown wingtips have slightly mismatched laces and are dotted with salt. He fits right in here at the Cove Lounge, one of the darker, seedier Hyde Park bars known mostly for a good jazz jukebox. He says hello to Alison, eyeing her dress and her legs. He doesn't seem surprised to see us.
"What are you doing in Hyde Park, Terry?" I say. "Hassling students? Rousting the homeless?"
"I'm working out of the Twenty-first," Crowley says. "You didn't know?"
"I don't read CopNews," I say. "I lose track of your promotions."
"It's just temporary. The watch commander's on leave." He's looking around as though there might be a waitress. It's not that kind of place. "Plus I'm sort of easing back into things. Working part-time."
"You were sick?" He does look like he's lost a lot of weight. And his face has a chalky color that I'd attributed to the Cove's mood lighting.
"They cut something out," he says with a shrug. "I had a little work done." He might be talking about putting in a new patio. "So I've been at a desk, cleaning up some odds and ends. Dead-end shit. Nothing real exciting. Sort of like your job, Harding."
A girl at the next table smiles at Crowley. She's young, blond, dressed to kill or at least turn a profit -- sheer blue blouse, short vinyl skirt, ankle-strap heels. Either she's a student or a hooker or a student dressed like a hooker. Maybe she's a hooker going back to school.
"Can you drink? Let me buy you a drink, Crowley."
"I'm on duty."
"Just a beer," he says. "Maybe a shot."
I fight my way through the crowd and get Crowley's drinks. When I return, he's wearing bifocals the same color as the liver spots. There's a stack of pictures on the table. Alison is looking at me, eyebrows raised. It's never a good sign when cops take out pictures.
"You two going somewheres later?" Crowley says, peering over his glasses. "Or do you dress up like this for the crowd here at the Cove?"
"We've got a wedding. Faculty members, friends of ours."
He nods. "Thought we might have dinner. Catch up on old times." He doesn't really sound like he means it. And I'm not sure what old times he's referring to. Crowley was the first Chicago cop I ran into after prison. He wasn't real friendly. He didn't take me to dinner. He lights a cigarette, spins an ashtray painted like a roulette wheel -- LIGHT UP YOUR LIFE AT HOLLYWOOD CASINO -- and rolls the match onto twelve black. It's not one of my lucky numbers.
"Maybe I should show you this first," he says, unfolding a piece of paper. It's a fax of business cards, arranged like a collage. The Xeroxing turned bent corners and folds into wrinkles. There's a card from a dry cleaner, one from a faith healer, one from an insurance agent -- another kind of faith healer, I guess. There's one from an herbalist. And one from a doctor.
Dr. William Wokowski
Michael Reese Hospital
Practice Limited to Ear, Nose, and Throat
"I'm running them down for a friend of mine. Two of them were dead ends," Crowley says. "The faith healer has so far eluded my grasp. I'm not planning on going door-to-door. The herb guy I'm checking out next. The card says Hyde Park Boulevard, but that's just 51st Street, isn't it?"
I nod. I'm noticing the typeface on the Wokowski card -- Helvetica Bold? Geneva? -- and remembering the dizzying array of choices that the River North printer offered me when I ordered them nine or ten years ago. I felt I was letting him down, buying the cheapest design. He had endless fonts, colors, styles. Endless pen-and-ink drawings of endless ears, noses, and throats.
"This last one -- I guess they checked with Reese," Crowley says. "Nobody ever heard of the good Dr. Wokowski. Which is surprising; it's usually easy tracking down a doc. They called the state board, the AMA. Nothing. But the name's real enough. And so are the phone numbers -- or they were, years ago. So I'm thinking somebody borrowed the name. Which is a pretty stupid thing to do." He grabs a handful of peanuts. "Funny thing, when I saw this, right away I thought of this guy played lineman beside you in high school, Harding. Big, red-haired guy, built like Butkus. Missing a couple of teeth. Wasn't his name Wokowski?"
"You remembered that?" I'd forgotten that Crowley played high school ball in the Catholic League a year or so ahead of me. It seems like a long time ago. It seems even longer when I look at the lines on Crowley's face. Are we really the same age?<...
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