Lacey Dowell clutched her crucifix, milky breasts thrust forward, as she backed away from her unseen assailant. Tendrils of red hair escaped from her cap; with her eyes shut and her forehead furrowed she seemed to have crossed the line from agony to ecstasy. It was too much emotion for me at close quarters.
I turned around, only to see her again, red hair artlessly tangled, breasts still thrust forward, as she accepted the Hasty Pudding award from a crowd of Harvard men. I resolutely refused to look at the wall on my right, where her head was flung back as she laughed at the witticisms of the man in the chair opposite. I knew the man and liked him, which made me squirm at his expression, a kind of fawning joviality. Murray Ryerson was too good a reporter to prostitute himself like this.
"What got into him? Or more to the point, what got into me, to let him turn my bar into this backslapping media circus?"
Sal Barthele, who owned the Golden Glow, had snaked through the Chicago glitterati packed into her tiny space to find me. Her height--she was over six feet tall--made it possible for her to spot me in the mob. For a moment, as she looked at the projection screens on her paneled walls, her relaxed hostess smile slipped and her nose curled in distaste.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe he wants to show Hollywood what a cool insider he is, knowing an intimate bar they never heard of."
Sal snorted but kept her eyes on the room, checking for trouble spots--patrons waiting too long for liquid, wait staff unable to move. The throng included local TV personalities anxiously positioning themselves so that their cameras could catch them with Lacey Dowell if she ever showed up. While they waited they draped themselves around executives from Global Studios. Murray himself was hard at it with a woman in a silver gauze outfit. Her hair was clipped close to her head, showing off prominent cheekbones and a wide mouth painted bright red. As if sensing my gaze she turned, looked at me for a moment, then interrupted Murray's patter to jerk her head in my direction.
"Who is Murray talking to?" I asked Sal, but she had turned away to deal with a fractious customer.
I edged myself through the crowd, tripping on Regine Mauger, the Herald-Star's wizened gossip columnist. She glared at me malevolently: she didn't know who I was, which meant I was no use to her.
"Will you watch where you're going, young woman?" Regine had been tucked and cut so many times that her skin looked like paper pulled over bone. "I'm trying to talk to Teddy Trant!"
She meant she was trying to push her bony shoulders close enough for Trant to notice her. He was the head of Global's midwest operations, sent in from Hollywood when Global acquired the Herald-Star and its string of regional papers a year ago. No one in town had paid much attention to him until last week, when Global unleashed its television network. They had bought Channel 13 in Chicago to serve as their flagship and brought in Lacey Dowell, star of Global's wildly successful romance-horror flicks, to appear on the first "Behind Scenes in Chicago" segment--with host Murray Ryerson, "the man who turns Chicago inside out."
Global was launching a "Behind Scenes" feature in each of their major markets. As a hometown girl made good and a Global star, Lacey was the perfect choice for the Chicago launch. Crowds of teenagers as excited as my generation had been by the Beatles lined up to greet her at O'Hare. Tonight they were waiting outside the Golden Glow to catch her arrival.
With the excitement of television and movies on hand, no one could get enough of Edmund Trant. Where he dined, how his mediagenic wife decorated their Oak Brook mansion, all were avidly covered by columnists like Regine Mauger. And when invitations were issued for tonight's party, everyone in Chicago's small media pond was anxious to find the silver-edged ticket in the mail.
Regine and the other gossip columnists weren't of much interest to Trant tonight: I recognized the Speaker of the Illinois House and a couple of other state pols in the group close to him and had a feeling that the man he was talking most to was another businessman. Regine, peevish at being stiffed, made a big show of inspecting the hem of her black satin trousers, to show me I'd torn them or scuffed them or something. As I pushed my way through the melee toward a corner of the bar I heard her say to her counterpart at the Sun-Times, "Who is that very clumsy woman?"
I edged my way to the wall behind Sal's horseshoe mahogany bar. Since my assistant, Mary Louise Neely, and her young protÃ©gÃ©e Emily Messenger had come with me, I knew I was in for a long evening. In her current manic state Emily would ignore any pleas to leave much before one in the morning. It wasn't often she did something that made her peers jealous and she was determined to milk the evening to the limit.
Like most of her generation Emily was caught up in Lacey-mania. When I said she and Mary Louise could come as the guests my ticket entitled me to, Emily turned pale with excitement. She was leaving for France next week to go to a summer language camp, but that was bore-rine compared to being in the same room with Lacey Dowell.
"The Mad Virgin," she breathed theatrically. "Vic, I'll never forget this until my dying day."
Lacey got the nickname from her lead in a series of horror flicks about a medieval woman who supposedly died in defense of her chastity. She periodically returned to life to wreak vengeance on the man who tormented her--since he kept reappearing through time to menace other young women. Despite the pseudofeminist gloss on the plot, Lacey always ended up dying again after defeating her agelong foe, while some brainless hero cuddled a vapid truelove who had screamed herself breathless for ninety minutes. The films had a cult status among Generation X-ers--their deadly seriousness turned them into a kind of campy self-satire--but their real audience was Emily and her teenage friends, who slavishly copied Lacey's hairstyle, her ankle boots with their crossed straps, and the high-necked black tank tops she wore off the set.
When I got to the end of the bar near the service entrance, I stood on tiptoe to try to spot Emily or Mary Louise, but the crowd was too dense. Sal had moved all the barstools to the basement. I leaned against the wall, making myself as flat as possible, as harassed wait staff rushed by with hors d'oeuvres and bottles.
Murray had moved to the far end of the bar from me, still with the woman in silver gauze. He seemed to be regaling her with the tale of how Sal acquired her mahogany horseshoe bar from the remains of a Gold Coast mansion. Years ago when she was starting out, she got me and her brothers to climb through the rubble to help her haul it off. Watching the woman tilt her head back in a theatrical laugh, I was betting that Murray was pretending he'd been part of the crew. Something about the shape of his partner's face or the full-lipped pout she gave when she was listening was familiar, but I couldn't place her.
Sal stopped briefly by me again, holding a plate of smoked salmon. "I have to stay here till the last dog dies, but you don't--go on home, Warshawski."
I took some salmon and explained morosely that I was waiting on Mary Louise and Emily. "Want me to tend bar? It would give me something to do."
"Be better if you went in the back and washed dishes. Since I don't usually serve food here at the Glow my little washer is blowing its brains out trying to keep up with this. Want me to bring you the Black Label?"
"I'm driving. San Pellegrino is my limit for the evening."
Murray maneuvered his way across the bar with his companion and put his arm around Sal. "Thanks for opening up the Glow to this mob scene. I thought we ought to celebrate at some place authentically Chicago."
He kept an arm around Sal in a protective hug and introduced her to his companion. "Sal Barthele, one of the truly great Chicago stories. Alexandra Fisher, one of the truly great Chicago escapees. And you know V. I. Warshawski."
"Yes, I know Vic." Sal extricated herself from Murray. "Stop showing off, Murray. Not all of us are swooning because you sat in front of a camera for fifteen minutes."
Murray threw back his head and laughed. "That's what makes this a great town. But I was talking to Alex. She and Vic were in law school together."
"We were?" The name didn't ring a bell.
"I've changed a little." Alex laughed, too, and squeezed my hand in a power shake.
I squeezed back, hard enough to make her open her eyes. She had the muscle definition of a woman who worked seriously with weights, and the protruding breastbone of one who survived on lettuce leaves between workouts. I have the muscles of a South Side street fighter, and probably matching manners.
Excerpted from Hard Time by Sara Paretsky. . Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.