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Breakdown: A V.I. Warshawski Novel


Rain had turned the streets a shiny black. It coated windshields with a film that cut visibility to inches, and turned potholes into lakes that trapped unwary drivers. All month long, Chicago had been hit by storms that put as much as three inches of water on the ground in an hour, but left the air as thick and heavy as a wet parka. Tonight’s storm was one of the worst of the summer.

I’d come up empty in all the likely spots: bus stops, coffee shops, even the sleazier nightclubs that might not have carded a bunch of tweens. I was about to give up when I saw lights flashing in the cemetery to my right. I pulled over and rolled down my window. Above the rumble of rain on my rooftop I could hear high-pitched chatter and bursts of nervous laughter.

I zipped up my rain jacket and walked down the street, looking for the cemetery gates. They were padlocked. A notice board read that Mount Moriah was permanently closed. Trespassers would be violated, but if you had a grave to tend, you could call the number on the board.

I went back up Leavitt until I found a gap in the fence big enough for me to slip through. By then, the girls had disappeared.

Grass and weeds had taken over the grounds, obliterating paths, covering up the grave markers. The remains of the paths had turned to a mud that sucked at my running shoes. Bits of old gravel wedged themselves inside my socks. Water seeped under the hood of my rain jacket. I tripped over a marble slab that had fallen on its back, and landed hard on my tailbone. The only good thing about the weather was that it masked the sound of my fall, as well as the curse I couldn’t hold back—I was in my favorite party dress, which was now smeared with mud underneath my jacket.

While I was on the ground I made out winking lights—cell phones, or flashlights—to my right. The rain stopped suddenly; I caught the girls’ nervous laughter again and worked my way toward it.

As I got closer, I heard a stifled shriek. “Did you see? The vampire— he was here; I saw him going into the woods.”

“Yeah, right, like we believe you, Tyler—you haven’t even been initiated.”

“I did too see him. Kira, didn’t you? You grabbed my arm.”

“That wasn’t Kira, dummy, that was Arielle. She screamed louder than you.”

“Did not. I’m not afraid of vampires, I’ve got an amulet from Carmilla!”

“But why do we have to do this in the middle of the rain, anyway? Why can’t we stay in Kira’s apartment?” a new speaker demanded.

An authoritative voice answered. “We have to be under the full moon for the power to work.”

“But it’s wet, you can’t even see the moon.” This was Tyler again, the one who’d seen the vampire.

“We tried to do it inside last time, but Kira’s little sister saw us and freaked out. You could hear her scream all the way to Wisconsin.”

“I think that was a sign from Carmilla,” the girl with the authoritative voice said. “We need to be as brave as the girls in the book, when they went outside the town gates. See—we’re outside the town gates, kind of—we went away from the city when we climbed over the cemetery gates, and that temple thingy, it’s like Carmilla’s cottage.”

Vampires. In a way, it was refreshing that a bunch of tweens had sneaked out to see a vampire—when my cousin Petra called me, desperate for help, I’d assumed the kids had gone clubbing.

Petra told me she’d gotten a frantic call from Kira Dudek’s little sister.

“Kira Dudek?” I’d repeated, bewildered.

“You know, Vic,” my cousin said impatiently. “Kira’s in one of my book groups, the ones I’m running for the Malina Foundation. Her and Lucy’s mom works a night shift as a hotel maid, and little Lucy says all the big girls come over to their place, only tonight, they all went out in the rain and left Lucy by herself. She’s only seven, Vic, she’s hysterical, and I can’t leave her here by herself. I know I said I wouldn’t keep calling you for help, but, gosh, Kira and her friends, they’re just twelve or thirteen, I can’t let them just run around the city on their own.”

In the two years my cousin has been in Chicago, she’s had fi ve jobs, if you count the three weeks she worked for me last winter. Most recently, she’d been taken on by the Malina Foundation, which serves immigrants and refugees. My old friend Lotty Herschel, who sits on Malina’s board, had recommended Petra for the position. My cousin’s boundless energy made her popular with the foundation’s youth programs. I’d been impressed with the job Petra was doing, but teen curfew breakers were more than she could handle on her own.

I’d been at a particularly annoying event with Murray Ryerson and was just as happy for an excuse to leave—until, of course, I landed in the mud in my scarlet party frock. I’d changed from high heels into running shoes in my car, and I had my waterproof slicker, but I hadn’t packed a backup outfit. I hadn’t been expecting to go from black tie to black mud this evening.

The wind had picked up while I was listening to the girls. The full moon began to shine through the last thready shroud of clouds and I could make out the shapes of uncut shrubs and tombstones. My view of the girls was blocked by a big monument, the “temple thingy” one of them had mentioned. It had a bunch of columns supporting a dome, and a dark figure draped realistically on a slab in the middle. The whole structure was missing chunks of marble, as if a giant had chewed off slabs at random.

When I worked my way around to the front of the monument, I found the girls in a kind of clearing—at least, it was free of the tangling bushes that had overgrown most of the cemetery paths. The ground was marked with a concrete border that had crumbled, exposing pieces of rebar. Gravestones around the perimeter were tilted at drunken angles.

The girls had stopped arguing. They were passing around a bottle of something that made them laugh more raucously. I didn’t know if they were drunk or just thought they ought to act that way, but their wildness was disturbing.

There were seven in all. Several were videoing one another with their cell phones. Tomorrow their friends and relations would be able to admire their antics on Facebook.

“We’d better get started.” It was the girl with the authoritative voice. In the moonlight, she looked like a sprite, as if she herself had come out of elf land. She was shorter than the others, her silhouette topped by a mop of dark curls.

“Get your phones out and set and we’ll go on three.” She counted, and on “three,” the girls all pressed the music buttons on their devices so that a kind of tinny rap concert began.

“Tyler, stand in the middle.” This was the tallest girl in the group. “Everyone else get in a circle and hold hands. We’ll feel the power while the moon is full.”

“Yeah, before Kira’s mother gets off work and we’re all busted,” someone else chimed in.

I was going to bust them myself, but I was curious enough about the ritual to let it run for another few minutes.

“Close your eyes,” the tallest girl said. “Put the phones away and hold hands. Tyler, are you ready?”

“I guess so, Nia.” Tyler’s voice was a barely audible whisper.

The tallest and the shortest were running the show. They bowed to each other, then the tall one intoned, “Carmilla, bless Arielle so that her hand is guided right, and help me, so the ritual is chanted right. Amen.”

“Amen!” The other girls tried to sound solemn, as if in church, but two were so excited that they giggled instead.

The tall girl pulled something from her pocket, an object too small for me to make out, and gave it to Arielle with another bow. Arielle took Tyler’s hand and led her to the middle of the clearing, where the two knelt. The other five gathered around them in a tight circle, blocking my view.

The tall girl began a chant, which the rest of them joined. “Under the full moon, we call on Carmilla. Carmilla, give us power, and let us send your power into Tyler! Carmilla, give us wisdom, and let us send your wisdom into Tyler! Carmilla, give us immortality, and let us share it with Tyler!”

Tyler screamed. I broke through the circle of girls and pulled the sprite away from Tyler.

My abrupt arrival terrified all the girls. They shrieked and backed away from me, huddling in a frightened group at the edge of the clearing, clutching one another’s hands—except for Tyler, the sacrifice in the middle of the circle, who cried, “I hate you, I hate all of you and your stupid club, I don’t care if you don’t speak to me for the next fi ve years.” She ran away from them, up the shallow steps of the miniature temple.

“Just what’s going on here?” I demanded.

“Who are you?” the tall girl gasped. Her voice shook, but she was brave enough to step forward to look at me.

“I’m a detective, and, incidentally, Petra Warshawski’s cousin. She called me to find you. All of you are in violation of curfew. Time for this party to break up. I’m going to take you home.”

Like many U.S. cities, Chicago has a curfew for kids under seventeen. A group of shrieking twelve-year-olds would get police attention, maybe not a bad thing for this group’s ringleaders, but not so good for any of the immigrant girls whose families might be here illegally.

Petra’s name reassured them; they let go of one another’s hands, their shoulders relaxing.

Arielle said, “This isn’t a party, this is serious.”

“I know it’s serious: your friend Tyler didn’t like it one bit.”

“We told her it would hurt, but she wanted to do it anyway,” Arielle said. “Everyone else did it, including me and Nia; we did it first to each other, so it’s not like we were attacking her!”

The tall girl, Nia, apparently, nodded agreement. “She begged us to let—”

Tyler screamed again before Nia could finish her explanation, a cry of terror so horrible that everyone, even Arielle and Nia, shrank into silence and clustered near me. I ran back to the temple and joined Tyler at the top of the shallow set of steps. Her mouth was opening and shutting in a mime of horror. She didn’t move, just pointed at the figure on the slab.

It wasn’t a statue, as I’d idly thought when I’d glanced inside earlier, but a man. He was laid on the slab in a parody of a crucifixion, arms wide at his sides, feet together. In the dim light from my cell phone I saw something sticking out of his chest.

I stepped between Tyler and the figure and knelt to feel his neck. His skin was cool and the carotid pulses were still, but when I stuck a gingerly hand underneath his windbreaker, I could feel the wet fl ood of fresh blood. We must have arrived on the scene right after he died.

While I was kneeling I squinted at the stick in his chest. I couldn’t tell much, but it looked like a metal rod, perhaps a foot long. Behind me I could hear Tyler starting to give way to sobs. I got up and guided her down the stairs. She was trembling and she clung to me convulsively.

The man had died a terrible death, but I had learned from years of experience with violence to suction off my feelings, to keep the outer shell of my self smooth and dry. A twelve-year-old didn’t need this experience, and shouldn’t have to acquire my patina.

The other girls were huddled at the foot of the steps. “What happened?” “What’s up there?”

I started to say, “There’s a dead man in that tomb,” but that sounded ludicrous. “A man has been murdered up there. And not very long ago. I have to call the police. I’d like to protect you ladies from a police investigation, at least until you’ve gone home and talked to your parents about what you were doing here tonight. However, before I can let you go, you need to answer a few questions. You claimed that you saw someone right before you began your ritual. I believe it was Tyler who said there was a vampire nearby?”

The girls sucked in a collective breath and looked furtively into the thick shrubbery beyond the clearing.

“So she really did see one, even though she wasn’t initiated?” one of the girls who hadn’t spoken before said.

“No, she didn’t see a vampire, she saw a person.” I pushed Tyler shoulder distance from me so I could look into her eyes. “Was it the man on the tomb up there?”

“I don’t know why I said what I did, about seeing a vampire, I mean. I didn’t see anyone,” Tyler whispered.

“What about the rest of you? Did any of you see someone in the shrubbery when you got here?”

They all stared at me dumbly. Finally, Nia said, “Tyler was really excited about the ceremony, so maybe she thought she saw something.”

Lightning flashed in the eastern sky and clouds began to thicken across the moon again, a warning that Mother Nature hadn’t finished with us for the night. I didn’t want to stand arguing with these kids in a rainstorm, and I needed to call the cops to report the murder. I told the girls I would take them to the apartment where they’d met up, and leave them in my cousin Petra’s charge while I talked to the police.

“You can call your folks from there, but none of you is to go home unless Petra sees who’s escorting you.”

Arielle started to object, but I overrode her. “You are not in charge of this expedition; I am. If you try to leave the Dudek apartment with anyone besides your parents or guardian, Petra will sit on you until I get back.”

“They can’t sleep there.” A girl with long, pale hair spoke for the fi rst time. “We only have three beds.”

“You’re Kira Dudek, right? Lucy’s big sister? I don’t care if your friends stand on their heads all night, as long as they don’t leave without an adult. Let’s get going.”

“But my mother—” Kira started to say. “This is known as education,” I said. “You are learning, all seven of you, that actions have consequences.”

I corralled them into an ungainly bundle and started pushing them toward Leavitt Street. As we got closer, blue lights flashed beyond the fence. Someone must have heard Tyler’s screams and called the police.

“Cops on Leavitt,” I said. “I want you girls to be with your parents before you have to deal with the police. We’re going to turn around and try to fi nd a way out on the street at the back of the cemetery. It’s going to be rough going because I don’t want to show a light, so stay close together, and close behind me.”

I turned around, made sure my team—if that’s what they were—was with me, and started picking my way back toward the clearing, the temple, the thicket of briars.

Tyler insisted on holding my hand. This made it harder for me to stay on a path, but I didn’t have the heart to detach her. Behind us we heard the bullhorns: This is the Chicago police; stay where you are; we know you’re in there. We could see the glow from their searchlights as the cops began to work their way into the cemetery. Tyler grabbed me more tightly and one of the girls whimpered in fear. The lightning intensified and thunder began to rumble among the clouds like a moody drummer.

“It’s okay,” I said softly, under the cover of the thunder. “They’re just guessing; they don’t really know we’re here. The important thing is to keep as quiet as possible.”

More than once the girls or I stumbled against a piece of broken marble as we threaded our way east. Rain began to fall again, fat, greasy drops that slipped through the tree branches and down our necks. The storm broke in earnest as we reached a wall that marked the cemetery’s eastern edge.

As the rain swept down, I turned to Arielle, the sprite. “I’m going to give you a leg up to the top. Look over, and if there’re no cops or prowlers on the street, you climb over and jump down. And all of you: go to Kira Dudek’s apartment and stay there. I will join you as fast as I can, but I have to talk to the cops. And please don’t imagine you can just run away: Petra will be able to give me all your names, and I will talk to all of your parents tomorrow.”

Nia started to protest, but Arielle cut her short. “My mom will handle it; don’t try arguing with her.”

I decided to pretend I hadn’t heard that and made a cup of my hands for Arielle. She sprang up lightly to grab the top of the wall, where she bent over and looked around before giving me an “all clear.” I hoisted the others over as fast as I could, even Tyler, who said she’d rather stay with me.

“Right now, it doesn’t matter what happened to you in the middle of that circle back there,” I said. “Being with Arielle and the others is going to be way better than a police interrogation. Why were you out after curfew? Did you know the dead man? Did you and your friends put a spike through his chest?”

She gasped. “We didn’t kill him; we didn’t know he was there!”

“Those are the kinds of questions the police will ask, and they won’t believe your answers. They’ll keep talking to you all night long, until you say something they want to hear. So get over that wall.”

She nodded bleakly and let me push her to the top. I waited a minute but didn’t hear any sounds of pursuit from the other side.

As I stood there, rain pouring under the hood of my jacket, I wondered about the girls. Tyler and her friends were twelve and thirteen, but it didn’t take much imagination to figure out how a girl that young could persuade a man to lie on his back, arms outstretched, waiting passively for a blow to the heart.

I didn’t really believe these girls had killed the man in the temple. It was far more likely that they hadn’t been aware of the violence taking place just steps from where they were dancing and preening. But why was Tyler unwilling to admit she’d seen someone earlier? She’d cried out that she’d seen a vampire—but perhaps, on reflection, she’d recognized the fi gure, and didn’t want to identify him. Or her.

I’d have to talk to all the girls in depth, which sounded exhausting. Or turn them over to the police, which seemed callous. In the meantime, I needed to talk to the police myself. There were risks inherent in presenting myself to them, but there were bigger risks in staying away. I turned around and started working my way west again.


It was several hours before I was able to join the girls at the Dudek apartment. I hadn’t been foolish enough to think the cops would let me show them the crime scene and take off, but they put me through a longer process than I’d expected.

By the time I’d retraced a path through the undergrowth to the Leavitt Street side of the cemetery, rain had pounded through my jacket and I was soaked to the skin. My scarlet frock was cut from silk faille; I sincerely hoped it would survive tonight’s abuse.

I slithered through the hole in the fence I’d used to enter and walked down Leavitt to the cops. Four squad cars were parked there, their lights flashing so brightly that I could see the people in the apartments across the street peering at us through the cracks in their curtains. Most of the officers were already in the cemetery. I told the man left to watch the street that there was a dead body in one of the tombs.

“That doesn’t seem too shocking, miss,” he said and smirked. “It’s a graveyard.”

“Right.” I grinned sourly. “A murdered body. Can you call your team and tell them? If they come back for me, I can show them the location.”

He asked me—a thinly veiled order—to get into the back of his squad car and wait to talk to Sergeant Anstey. The sergeant arrived within a couple of minutes and moved me to his own car to hear my story.

“You want to phone your team, tell them to wait for me? It would make their lives easier if I went with them,” I said. “I know where the victim is.”

“They’re big boys and girls; they can find that tomb thing on their own. Tell me again what you were doing in an abandoned graveyard in a thunderstorm.”

I repeated my story. “I was on my way home when I thought I heard someone screaming inside the cemetery. I followed the sound, but then I tripped on a chunk of marble and landed in the mud. By the time I got back on my feet, the screams had stopped; I poked around and found the dead man, but whoever killed him managed to take off without my spotting him.”

Anstey snorted. “You really expect me to believe a woman goes alone into an abandoned cemetery in the middle of a thunderstorm? Why didn’t you call 911?”

“I know what kind of backlog this district has on Saturday nights— my dad used to work out of the Twelfth.”

“This is about a lover who dissed you, isn’t it. Or was it a drug deal gone bad?”

“Just a South Side street fighter who forgot for a minute that she was fifty, not fifteen.” I rubbed my arms, hoping to get some blood moving in them. “If I’d known you were going to give me a hard time, I would have made an anonymous call about the vic to 911, but I thought you would appreciate help in locating the body.”

Anstey phoned in to the station and got a report back on me. The CPD file said I was a private eye with a track record, both for results and for a chip on the shoulder. I couldn’t argue with either claim. The file apparently also included a note that a senior officer, namely Captain Bobby Mallory, was a personal friend. And that my dad really had been a cop.

Anstey revealed that news with disgust—it meant he had to treat me like a person, not a criminal. Although the hostility of his questions lessened, his voice still sounded like he wished he could use his baton on my skull.

The person who lingers around a crime scene is a perpetrator more often than not. I’d known that was what the cops would think. But if I’d left a print at the crime scene, they’d have found me fast enough, and they’d have grounds for getting the state to suspend my license if I didn’t report the crime.

I decided it was time to shift the ground. “What brought you here, Sergeant, on a night like this? Is Mount Moriah a regular part of your unit’s beat?”

“That’s right. We like driving around among the dead, cheers us up to think that we have peace and quiet to look forward to even if we’ll never be able to afford to retire.”

“Someone called you. I wonder why? Was it someone who wanted that body found, or had they heard me running through the grounds?”

Anstey paused, measuring me in the dark squad car. “Give Captain Mallory a call, see if he’ll tell you, because I certainly won’t.”

After that, Anstey turned to his computer and began clearing incident reports. When I started to make bright conversation, he ignored me, so I tried to leave, but he’d locked the back doors. He kept me in the car until his troops phoned that they’d found the body.

“Okay. Your turn to shine, Warshawski. Lead me to my team.”

Anstey unlocked the back door and pulled me out. His squad had used bolt cutters on the chain across the front gate, so at least we didn’t have to sidle through a hole in the fence.

The police spots sent a bright glow through the cemetery, which made it easy to pick out the remnants of the gravel paths. The rain had stopped again, and Anstey and I didn’t have any trouble getting to the crime scene.

Under the lights, the little temple looked like part of a movie set, maybe for something like In the Garden of Bad and Worse. It was an elaborate tomb, resembling an Italian cathedral. A carved frieze swung from the dome that had been planted on top of the columns. Like the columns and the shallow steps leading to the tomb, the dome and frieze were badly cracked and covered with lichen. The Saloman family, whose name was on the mausoleum, had put a lot of money into interring their dead, but now there was no one to care for the dead or the tomb, or even the graveyard.

The lights made it easy to see the space where the girls had performed their ritual. It wasn’t actually a clearing, just an area where tombstones had been placed flat into the ground rather than set at right angles to it. At one side, I saw a bottle of alcopop and hoped that wasn’t what the girls had been passing around. I didn’t call attention to it—plenty of drunks hang out in cemeteries, after all. People without a lot of options make love in them, too. Empties are a cemetery commonplace.

Sergeant Anstey dragged me up the shallow steps to look at the dead man. “This the guy you want me to believe was screaming in here? You put a spike through his chest as payback for dragging you through the mud?”

I didn’t respond to the gibe, just stared down at the man. He’d been around forty, a white man with thick, dark hair that was just beginning to turn gray at the sides.

What startled me was his peaceful expression. It seemed as though such a terrible murder should have left a trace on his face—shock, fury, some emotion. In the Middle Ages, people believed a dead person’s eyes would hold the image of his killer, and maybe I’d been expecting something like that. This man looked as though he’d lain down for a nap.

I put my hand on his neck again, wondering if I’d been mistaken before. His damp skin was already colder, stiffer than it had been when I’d found him an hour earlier.

“We know he’s dead,” one of the patrol officers said.

Blood loss had turned his skin a waxy yellow, so that he seemed more like a mannequin than a dead person. Even the blood that had leaked from under his windbreaker and pooled onto the floor didn’t look real.

“He couldn’t just have lain down there for someone to murder,” I said. “But that’s what it looks like. He must have been alive when the spike went into him for so much blood to have spilled, but—was he drugged? Did someone carry him here?”

“Yeah, when we need your guidance on how to run the investigation or the autopsy, we’ll get back to you,” Sergeant Anstey said. “Meanwhile, I think it’s time you answered a few questions about what you were really doing in here. Don’t tell me you knew nothing about this poor twerp.”

I was silent.

“Well?” he demanded.

“I can’t speak,” I said. “You don’t want to hear that I knew nothing about this poor twerp, but that’s all I can tell you about him.”

The sergeant told his team to secure the crime scene for the evidence techs. He took me back to the station for a heart-to-heart. While I huddled, shivering and sneezing—and eyeing my mud-stained evening dress in dismay—someone phoned with the victim’s identity. Miles Wuchnik, he’d been when he was alive. And, like me, an investigator. Anstey couldn’t believe I didn’t know him.

“Sergeant, there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of investigators in Illinois. Most are not detectives—they just do research for law firms or work in security.”

Anstey ignored that answer and started to imagine a scenario where Wuchnik had been muscling in on one of my clients and I’d murdered him to get him out of the way.

I rolled my eyes. “First you wanted us to be drug dealers who’d fallen out, or lovers having a quarrel. Now, at least, you’re respecting my professional status, but your theory is still a million miles from reality.”

I sneezed again. “You’ve got your air-conditioning turned on too high. Save the city a dime, save the planet, turn it down. I’m freezing. If that’s the best you can do, I’m out of here.”

He didn’t try to stop me; he probably didn’t even really suspect me. He just was hoping the murder would solve itself for him, and I was handy.

No one offered me a ride back to my car, but they didn’t tail me, either, so I walked straight to the Dudek apartment.

Breakdown: A V.I. Warshawski Novel
by by Sara Paretsky

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0399157832
  • ISBN-13: 9780399157837