Tell anyone you’re flying into Chicago and they advise you to avoid O’Hare. Too big, too busy, too far from town. One of the worst records in America for delays in and out. Fly into Midway, they say. What they don’t tell you is that it’s virtually impossible to go direct from Toronto to Midway on less than a day’s notice, and that’s all the time I had. O’Hare it was.
It was the last week of October, still pitch black when I left my place in the east end of the city at five-thirty in the morning. The cab driver made it to Pearson in under half an hour, perhaps mistaking the 401 for the Autobahn. I then spent an hour crawling through security and U.S. Customs at the airport and another hour at the gate. Nearly two hours in the air. A half-hour sitting on the tarmac in Chicago and another half-hour to make my way to the baggage claim area and find my suitcase. It was ten-fifteen Chicago time by the time I reached arrivals.
Anxious faces were looking my way. Families looking for family members. Friends looking for friends. Drivers holding cards with the names of business- class passengers. And one mountain of a man with thick dirty- blond hair and a neatly trimmed beard who bellowed my name and lifted me off my feet in a bear hug that left my ribs little room to do the breathing thing.
His name was Avi Sternberg and we hadn’t seen each other in over ten years. “Jonah Geller,” he grinned. “Jonah goddamn Geller. Look at you, man. You look fantastic.” He gripped my biceps in his big hands. “Buff too. Check out the arms.”
His teeth were whiter and straighter than they’d been when I’d last seen him and he wasn’t wearing thick glasses anymore. His eyes behind contact lenses were the pale blue of a winter sky.
“You look good too,” I said.
“Liar. I’ve put on like fifty pounds.”
He’d been a beanpole then, six-three and maybe 170 pounds. But his new-found bulk was nicely encased in an expensive grey wool suit, the kind a lawyer might wear in Chicago on an Indian summer day. And since he was a lawyer now, and there were a dozen reasons why I might need one, I didn’t hold the suit against him.
“Flight okay?” he asked.
“Pretty painless,” I said.
“The security as tight up there in Canada as it is here? Make you dump all your liquids and everything?”
“Even the bottled water.”
“All right. Let’s get you out of here. That all your stuff?”
“Yup.” I’d packed everything I thought I’d need into one big suitcase on wheels. The less you took on board with you, the easier it was to clear security. “I really appreciate you coming out to get me, Avi. You look like a busy man.”
“I’m paid to look this way. And don’t thank me. No one should have to make their way out of this hellhole alone.”
He looked around, got his bearings and told me to follow him. Like a fullback clearing the way for a runner, he aimed his bulk forward and made people clear a path. A man with too many suitcases on his cart had to stop short to avoid hitting Avi and the bags went tipping over. The man cursed but Avi just kept going; didn’t hear the man or didn’t care.
When we got out of the terminal, I moved past the knot of smokers you see outside every public building nowadays and stopped to take a few deep breaths. Unclouded by jet fuel, tobacco or body odour, the fall air was crisp and fresh. Warmer than it had been in Toronto. I wondered how many people come to Chicago from a colder place.
“Listen,” Avi said, “why don’t you wait here. I’ll get the car and come around.”
“You sure? My bag’s on wheels.”
“Trust me,” he said. “It’s a schlep. Anyway, I have to check in with the office and I might have to make a call that’s privileged. I’ll be back in ten minutes. Watch for a silver Navigator.”
I pretended to be shocked. “Avi Sternberg driving an SUV? You used to say they were invented by Arabs to keep us begging for oil.”
“I’m a big guy, Jonah. I need room to move.” He turned away, pulling a cellphone out of his pocket. Then he turned back and said, “By the way? It’s Stern now. I dropped the ‘berg’ when I came back to the States.”
He just looked at me. It took a little getting used to, seeing his eyes undistorted by glasses.
It took Avi twenty minutes to get back. Twenty minutes I spent thinking about our time together on a kibbutz in northern Israel, two outsiders trying hard to be accepted by the sabras–native-born Israelis– who tended to view us as softies who weren’t in it for the long haul. I thought about Dalia Schaeffer, my lover who had been killed by a rocket fired from southern Lebanon. Avi had been her close friend, and had been almost as devastated by her death as I was.
When he pulled up in his hulking silver beast, I heaved my bag in through the back hatch and climbed into the most comfortable car seat ever to favour my backside. He touched a button on the steering wheel and a song began playing, one I knew from the first riff: “Begin the Begin,” the first track on R.E.M.’s Life’s Rich Pageant.
“Remember this?” he said. “We wore this record out on kibbutz.”
“We didn’t have that many to choose from.”
“The days before iPods. Whatever did we do?”
We drove all of a hundred yards before the traffic ahead forced us to a stop. “What’s the population of Chicago?” I asked.
“About four million.”
“They all out here today?”
“Once we get out of the airport, it won’t be too bad.”
And it wasn’t. After we cleared all the construction zones around the airport, Avi took the Dan Ryan Expressway south, driving his Navigator too fast, too close to other cars. A serial lane- changer, moving to the far right lane as if exiting the expressway, then bulling his way back into traffic at the last minute. I gripped the handle above the door as he squeezed in between two trucks, focusing on the city skyline that loomed in the far-off haze like Emerald City down the yellow brick road. A distant Oz where wisdom could be received, hearts restored, courage found.
“So you’re an investigator now,” he said.
“Hardly what I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“Geez, I don’t know. A social worker, maybe. An activist of some sort. Just not a PI. I mean, our firm uses PIs all the time and you just don’t fit the mould.”
“The ex- cop mould?”
“Truth is, I kind of backed into it. Mostly I met the right man at the right time. He thought I had what it took.”
“And what exactly are you investigating? You were very tight-lipped on the phone.” He checked his side mirror and gunned the Navigator into the passing lane, overtaking a delivery van that was trailing a cloud of burning oil.
“Three– Jesus H.” He glanced over at me, then back at the road ahead. “I thought it was some sort of fraud thing.”
“There’s a fraud at the heart of it. But it’s murder now.”
“This happened in Toronto?”
“So what brings you to Chicago?”
“The killings were ordered here.”
“I almost wish it were.”
“You’re being very cryptic.”
“Because the man who ordered them is going to be a lot harder to nail than a mobster.”
“Because he’s Simon Birk.”
Avi’s head whipped around. He gaped at me. “The
“Watch it!” I planted my right foot against the floor as if my side had a brake. He looked back at the road and slammed the brake hard, stopping inches from a beat- up old Mazda with three bodies crammed in the back seat. Nearly three more deaths to add to the tally.
“You’re telling me that Simon Birk– the
Simon Birk– had three people killed in Toronto?”
“Then why aren’t the police handling it? Or are they?”
“Not so far.”
“They’re not buying my theory.”
“You have proof?”
“Not enough. Not yet.”
“So you’re down here on your own.”
“Going after Simon Birk.”
“Jonah goddamn Geller,” he said. “You’re even crazier than I remembered.”
“That,” I said, “may be the only advantage I have.”
“Did you call me because I’m a lawyer?”
“I called because you’re a friend. The only person I know in Chicago. I didn’t even know you were a lawyer till your mother told me.”
“How long did it take her to tell you?”
“First or second sentence.”
“That’s my mom.”
“You might be able to help,” I said. “If that’s something that interests you.”
“Help you investigate Simon Birk.”
“Maybe shed a little light on his business practices.”
“That I could probably do. What else?”
“I don’t know. Get me out of jail if need be.”
“Jail– what would you end up in jail for?”
“How should I know?” I said. “I just got here.”
“But I don’t practise criminal law.”
“This could be your chance.”
Avi used his thumb to lower the volume and R.E.M. faded away. “I think you’d better tell me everything,” he said. “What the hell happened in Toronto and why you think Birk is involved.”
“I know he is, Avi. He ordered those people killed because they were in his way.”
“Then convince me,” he said. “Because if your only friend in Chicago doesn’t believe you, who else will?”CHAPTER 1
Of all the hard lessons I learned last June, fighting for my life in the Don River Valley, chief among them was this: the justice system can’t always protect those who need it most. I had taken a man’s life because I knew if I let him live, he would order my death, and others, from prison. It might have taken days, weeks or months– or more likely hours– and that would have been that. If the system couldn’t protect me, with the resources I had, I knew there were other, more vulnerable people out there who needed a different brand of justice, and someone to mete it out on their behalf.
And so I left Beacon Security, the only place I’d ever worked as an investigator. Left the employ of Graham McClintock, who had trained me, believed in me, mentored me like a seasoned horse breaker. I had
to leave after the lies I told him, the actions I took, the absences I couldn’t explain. I made the most graceful exit I could manage and my friend Jenn Raudsepp opted to join me. I never asked her to: she had a good thing going at Beacon and my departure might even have opened up new opportunities for her. I knew my new agency, as it was forming in my mind, might prove a low-income, high-risk enterprise. But she volunteered to come aboard and I welcomed her. When she told me her parents had offered her $20,000 against the eventual sale of their farm, and she was willing to invest it, I was all over her.
She put up twenty per cent of the start-up costs and I put up eighty from the sale of a house I had owned with my ex-girlfriend. Which meant I got to name the company.
You could say we argued about my choice a little.
“No one will know what we do,” Jenn protested.
“That could prove useful. Help us stay under the radar.”
“Why would we want to?”
“Because of the kinds of cases we’ll be taking.”
“We’ll get all kinds of bogus calls.”
“We won’t answer them.”
“How will we know they’re bogus?”
“We’re investigators, Jenn. Trained by the best. We’ll separate the clients from the chaff.”
“What do you know about chaff, city boy? And why should we make it hard for clients to find a new business no one knows about?”
“If they need our kind of help, they’ll find us.”
I held fast and World Repairs is the name of our agency. Clients– especially well- paying ones– have proved somewhat elusive so far, so maybe Jenn had a point. She had suggested T.O. Investigations, T.O. being shorthand for both Toronto and tikkun olam,
the Jewish concept of repairing the world, making it a better place wherever you can.
I’m a cultural Jew, not a religious one, even though I was raised in an Orthodox home. As much as I love the comfort and rituals of the Jewish community, I haven’t felt God’s presence since I was fourteen. Might have been the onset of reason, might have been my father’s sudden death at forty-four that same year, but to this day I believe in God like I believe the Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup before my gums cave in.
But I do cling to the notion of tikkun olam
and that’s more or less what Jenn and I practise, though she is descended from by-the-book Lutherans.
World Repairs: We do what we can do and fix what we can fix. Sometimes we’re messengers, sometimes mediators, and sometimes we forget to mind our manners.
Our office was on the third floor of a renovated factory on Broadview Avenue: the same street I lived on, though at the extreme southern end, close to both Lake Ontario and the foul mouth of the Don River. Our neighbours included two ad shops, a photographer’s studio and a web design firm and, next to us, the PR phenomenon known as Eddie Solomon. I knocked on his door around nine- thirty that morning and he called out “Entuh!” doing his best Walter Matthau, circa The Sunshine Boys.
Eddie could have been fifty, could have been seventy. I pegged him as early sixties, but if even half his stories about celebrities he’s represented, befriended, bedded and brought to the brink of stardom were true, he’d have to be a hundred and six. He is taller than five feet, but not much, and weighs about two hundred pounds. His head is shaved and his face surprisingly smooth for someone who has spent so many late nights paving the way for the stars. With his ready smile and his twinkling eyes, he emits light like a candle: warm, bright, steady.
“Hail the conquering hero,” he cried when I entered his office. “My Jason! My Argonaut! Come here, you lumbering hunk, let me shake your hand for a job well done.”
“I haven’t even told you what happened.”
“You’re here, you’re smiling – that is a smile, right? It’s not gas or something?”
“It’s a smile, Eddie.”
“So tell me, bubeleh. Can I call Chelsea? Tell her it’s over?”
Chelsea Madison was an American TV star filming a movie-of-the-week in Toronto. Best known for playing the squeaky-clean mom of a group of wisecracking teenagers on the sitcom Den Mother,
she had complained to Eddie that a photographer named Stan Lester had been stalking her sixteen-year-old daughter, Desiree, trying to get photos of her going in and out of a rehab centre that had accepted her into a day program while she accompanied her mother to Toronto.
“It’s done,” I told Eddie. “Lester won’t bother Desi again.”
“You sure? Some of these guys, they just won’t stop. Forget Desi, you should see them follow Chelsea around. She’s got another seven, eight weeks to film in Toronto and she’s got the mongrel hordes all over her.”
“I think it’s Mongol hordes,” I said.
“Not when you speak of paparazzi.”
“Well, Stan Lester is sidelined indefinitely,” I said. “Out for the season.”
“Do I want to know how?”
“Come on,” he said. “Spill. Vicarious thrills are the only kind I get at my age.”
“That’s not how we work, Eddie. You only get to know the results.”
In truth, there wasn’t that much to tell. Lester had been in his car this morning outside the rehab centre, waiting for Desi. I was parked three spaces behind watching him. As soon as she exited the building, he levelled a camera with a long lens at her. I stepped between him and his target and all he got was shots of my jacket. A frank and candid discussion then ensued about his right to take her picture versus her right not to have her picture taken by him. In the end, he saw things my way. But not right away. Not before I grabbed his lens and drove the camera body into his face, opening a cut on the bridge of his nose, then banged the heel of my hand against his head behind the ear, hard enough to set his bells ringing. Then I told him if he came within a mile of Desiree Madison again, I’d give him a colonoscopy with the widest fish-eye lens I could find in his bag.
“Well,” Eddie said. “As long as I can tell Chelsea it’s over, and she can get back to blowing lines.”
“Well done, Prince Valiant. Well done.” He gripped my hand in a firm handshake and looked up at me with a grin. “To be your age, Jonah,” he sighed. “To be tall and strong like you. Christ, to have your hair! I’d have girls falling over me.”
“That’s nice of you to say, Eddie. But I’d rather have my fee.”
“Don’t worry, kid. I’m seeing Chelsea tonight at her hotel.
I’ll bring it by tomorrow.”
“In cash, right?”
“Not a problem. You want a coffee, mighty one?”
“Can’t,” I said. “We have a ten o’clock client.”
“So go meet your client and send Jenn.”
“Don’t start, Eddie.”
“What? Start what? What did I say?”
“I can read it on your forehead like it’s a drive-in screen.”
“Can I help it if she’s gorgeous?”
“Not to mention gay.”
“The blonde hair, the blue eyes, the sweet face. And the body, my God, the body. The gayness just fades away.”
“Just don’t give yourself a heart attack before you get my money,” I said.
“And those legs.” He was panting, hamming it up now, dabbing his forehead with his tie. “She’s so tall, I’d have to go up on her!”
“Eddie,” I said. “What am I going to do with you?”
“Nothing,” he said, and laughed. “I’m too old to change and I’m too young to stuff and mount. Anyway, you know I’m kidding. Even if she was straight, I wouldn’t stand a chance. I’ve got daughters her age. I’m like a dog chasing a car, Jonah. What would I do if I caught one?”
“Just don’t let her catching you talk like that,” I said.
“Come on. She’d know I was kidding. Wouldn’t she?”
“She’d stuff and mount you,” I said. “Unfortunately for you, in that order.”
Eddie was right. Jenn Raudsepp exudes a wholesome sexiness that’s hard to ignore, whatever her sexual orientation. Men and women alike take note when she dashes across a street or emerges legs first from her car or smiles or tosses back her blonde silk hair. Men stammer when they approach her. They mumble into their drinks. They become stupider than they were before the drinks.
I’ll never know her sexual side. That belongs to her longtime lover, Sierra Lyons, who’s a terrific match for Jenn and a good friend to me. Not to mention an ace nurse practitioner who can stitch wounds without commenting on how you look in your underwear. As an investigator, though, Jenn brings it all. She’s smart, she’s fun, she’s good with clients and she works as hard as I do. And as placid as she can seem when she wants, a whole other side emerges when she gets riled.
One night, we were leaving the office late and came across a guy beating a Native woman in the laneway where Jenn had parked her Golf. He was stocky and built but clearly drunk, and when I told him to get away from the woman, he sneered at me, “You wanna do something about it?”
“No,” Jenn said, stepping forward. “I do.”
And she did. Unfolded those lovely long legs of hers and dropped him with a spin kick, then broke most of his ribs with a roundhouse. From there, she did everything but make him eat his car keys. I could have done it quicker but no better, and it seemed important to her that this particular world repair be done by a woman.
The Estonian wonder girl did indeed have a pot of coffee brewing, a continental dark, and once I had a cup in hand I told her how things had gone with Stan Lester, giving her the details I had spared Eddie Solomon.
“Eddie pay you?”
“Tomorrow,” I said. “A thousand in cash.”
“Today would have been better. Scary Mary called from the bank.”
I shuddered. Scary Mary is the assistant manager at our branch and a devout Christian with a phone manner so artificially nice, so honeyed with false promise that each of us usually tries to pawn her off on the other. I said, “So sorry I wasn’t here to take the call.”
“You should be. She likes you better, you know.” Then Jenn, a gifted mimic who’d once been a member of a comedy troupe, nailed Scary Mary’s breathless menace: “‘This is Mary McMurphy from Toronto-Do-min
-ion calling. Is that Jonah? What a nice name. Isn’t that a Bib-
“Brrr. You do her better than she does.”
“If she calls back, tell her to relax,” I said. “We’ll have Chelsea’s thousand and a retainer from Marilyn Cantor.”
“How retentive a retainer?”
“My brother referred her,” I said. “If she knows him, she’s bound to have money.”
“She called, by the way.”
“Ten minutes ago.”
“Please say she didn’t cancel.”
“Just confirming her appointment.”
“You have two other messages,” she said, a wicked grin starting to form as she slid two scraps of paper across her desk.
I looked at the two slips she’d filled out. The first was from my mother. The second was from the Homicide Squad of the Toronto Police Service.
I looked at Jenn, at the sunbeam of a smile lighting her face.
“What?” I asked.
“Oh, you know. Homicide. Your mother,” she said. “Just wondering who you call first.”
Excerpted from High Chicago by Howard Shrier. Copyright © 2009 by Howard Shrier. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, 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.