After attending a charity fundraiser, private investigator Smokey Dalton and his powerful girlfriend discover a critically injured woman in his neighbor's apartment, and his neighbor missing. Smokey gets the woman to a nearby hospital which proves to be a mistake: the doctor won't treat the dying woman until she tells him what happened to her. Smokey works to save the woman and find his neighbor, but everything he does makes the situation worse.
Smokey has entered a secret part of America—the arcane rules of a hospital trying to follow the law as well as save lives. None of it makes sense, and all of it threatens everything Smokey believes in.
Kris Nelscott is one of my pen names. The Smokey Dalton series, which have garnered worldwide acclaim, is one of the series I write under this name. Stone Cribs is perhaps my favorite book from the series, because it explores so many issues. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"With Stone Cribs, her fourth Smokey Dalton mystery, Kris Nelscott can lay claim to the strongest series of detective novels now being written by an American author."– Salon.com
"Superb writing and wonderfully developed characters highlight these gripping novels of America's recent past."– Mystery Lovers News
"Another winner in a high-class crime series."– Booklist
WIND BLEW off Lake Michigan through the empty canyons of Chicago's Loop. The warmth of the afternoon was long gone, and the cold nights of early spring had returned.
As Laura Hathaway and I stepped out of the Sherman House Hotel, people surrounded us, talking and laughing. They were reviewing Ella Fitzgerald's concert, but not talking about the charity that had brought us all together.
The concert had benefited the Illinois Children's Home and Aid Society's new committee, the Committee for the Adoption of Black Babies. Events like this one overwhelmed me. Hearing about so many people in crisis—so many children in crisis—made me want to help all of them. Only to me, helping involved more than throwing money at a problem. Yet I couldn't see a real solution for orphaned and unwanted children, at least not a solution that I liked.
Apparently the benefit made the other four hundred and ninety-nine attendees uncomfortable as well. Even though the concert and dinner had raised more than fifteen thousand dollars, both in ticket sales and on-site donations, no one was mentioning the money or the children.
And neither were we. Laura and I were silent as we walked down the steps onto the pavement. I looked over my shoulder, an old habit, but I didn't feel as uneasy as I usually did in the Loop. All of the people around me, except Laura, were black. For the first time in this part of the city, I felt as if I belonged.
I slipped my arm around Laura, shielding her against the cold, and she stiffened, not leaning into me as she usually did when we were alone.
I wasn't sure if she was reacting that way because we were in a public place or because of the benefit. We tried not to touch when we were out in public—it simply invited too much trouble—but I didn't feel as if we were in public here.
Maybe Laura did. Or maybe she was still feeling stung from the reactions she had received inside the hotel. During the dinner, she had embarrassed me simply by being herself, and she had seen my reaction. However, I wasn't sure if she knew what she had done wrong.
She felt fragile against me, even though she wasn't. She wore her blond hair up, giving her an illusion of height. Her high heels and her elaborate hairdo made her seem almost as tall as I was, although flat-footed she was much shorter than my six feet.
The streetlights reflected off her pale skin. Her pretty features, accented by paler makeup, were set in a frown.
A dozen cabs, aware that there would be fares this late on Easter Sunday, lined up in front of the Sherman House's Clark Street entrance. Drunken patrons laughed as the valet whistled each cab forward.
The rest of us walked to our cars. Laura's was parked near the Chicago Loop Synagogue. From a distance, I could see the Hands of Peace sculpture hanging from the building's façade. They seemed appropriate somehow—helping hands—and I almost pointed that out to Laura. But one more glance at her expression reminded me to remain silent.
Her Mercedes 280SL was the only car on that block. It looked like the Hands of Peace were pointing at the vehicle.
This part of the street was empty. The other patrons had veered off, and Laura and I were alone.
The feeling of comfort left. The emptiness made me nervous, particularly since we were so well dressed. I was wearing a new suit, tailored to fit, and a topcoat of a type I'd only seen in movies. Laura wore a shimmering blue pantsuit that looked like a formal evening gown until she walked. Her shoes were open-toed. Her feet had to be cold now that we were outside.
In the distance, car doors slammed, a few taxis honked their horns, and people called good-byes and Happy Easters to each other. A man drunkenly sang the title line from "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," and a woman sang the next line, her voice not as drunk or as out of tune. Neither singer sounded like Ella Fitzgerald.
She had made the entire evening worthwhile. The dance floor in the old College Inn restaurant was lit with soft lights, the orchestra behind it. She used the space as if it were her own private stage until she got irritated that no one was dancing. Then she invited people forward.
And of course they came.
Laura's heels clicked on the concrete and my tight new dress shoes answered with solid taps. I wondered what Laura was thinking. Maybe Ella Fitzgerald's rich voice was reverberating in Laura's head the way it was reverberating in mine.
It wasn't the closing number that kept threading its way through my thoughts. Much as I liked "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," it wasn't my favorite Ella Fitzgerald tune. Instead, "Slumming on Park Avenue," with its sly lyrics about spying on the rich the way they slummed to spy on the poor, had captured my mood.
Ella Fitzgerald had segued into that song after an ill-advised set of rock 'n roll tunes. When she introduced "Slumming," she had done so with a wide smile, knowing she was in a crowd of like-minded people.
"It's Irving Berlin's way of letting all those rich white folks know how despicable their behavior can be," she said, her eyes twinkling, the orchestra playing a musical backdrop behind her.
At that moment, several people glanced at Laura. She was well known among people who followed the society pages, and apparently a lot of the upper-class blacks who shelled out fifteen dollars per person to come to this event read not only the Defender's society pages, but the Tribune's as well.
As Laura and I reached the Mercedes, I scanned the area, looking for people in the shadows. Not a lot of pickpockets turned up for a black benefit, but I knew better than to ignore the silent streets.
I saw no one. The synagogue's stained-glass walls and street-level glass reflected the lights, the car, and nothing else.
Laura slipped out of my grasp. She pulled her keys out of her purse, brushed an escaping strand of blond hair away from her face, and walked toward the driver's side.
She unlocked her door, and peered at me over the car's dark blue roof. Her makeup hollowed out her cheeks, giving her a patrician air.
"You're angry at me, aren't you?" she asked.
"No," I lied and jiggled the car handle. I wanted to go home.
She pulled her door open and got inside. She braced an arm on the gearshift between the seats and leaned over, reaching for the lock. In the passenger-side window glass, my own image was superimposed over hers, and I looked as out of place as I felt—a burly, six-foot-tall man stuffed into a suit. The new scar I had along the left side of my face made me seem tougher than I felt. If it weren't for the topcoat, people would think I was a bouncer at a trendy night club.
Laura's fingers pulled lightly on the lock, clicking it open. I grabbed the door handle and pulled as she sat up, sticking the keys in the ignition. I slid inside.
The car's interior was warmer than the street had been, even though the leather seats still creaked with the cold. The solid metal frame blocked the wind. We weren't even rocking from its force.
I settled back, my knees bent under the dash. It felt awkward to sit on the passenger side, even though the car was hers. I was used to driving.
But Laura had insisted, just like she had insisted on everything else about this night. She had bought the tickets, helped me find the suit, and even managed to check the official guest list to make sure that there would be no one in attendance that I would have to avoid.
She had known that Easter was going to be a difficult holiday for all of us, and she had planned this to cheer me up.
Last Easter, I had been driving back roads with Jimmy Bailey, trying to keep him away from the FBI and the Memphis police. Jimmy had witnessed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the shooter Jimmy had seen was not James Earl Ray. Jimmy, who had been only ten at the time, had reported the shooting to the large contingent of police officers nearby and they had tried to kidnap him on the spot.
If I hadn't arrived at just that moment, I have no doubt that Jimmy would be dead now.
We were hiding here in Chicago. No one except Laura, and Franklin and Althea Grimshaw, knew Jimmy's name was James Bailey or mine was Smokey Dalton. No one knew that Jimmy and I weren't blood kin. Everyone here thought we were related to Franklin, and I had identification in my wallet, claiming my name was William S. Grimshaw—a man with an eleven-year-old son named Jimmy.
I had focused most of my energies these past few weeks on Jimmy. The articles in the papers about King's assassination, the constant reminders on the television set, had made Jimmy's nightmares return. I had hoped the actual anniversary of King's death—which had been, ironically, Good Friday—would make the nightmares go away.
But they hadn't.
So I had agreed to let him spend Easter weekend with the Grimshaws', hoping that the celebratory church services, the Black Easter parade, and Althea's delightful Easter dinner would help Jimmy focus on the present, rather than the darkness in his past.
It also gave me time with Laura, time we badly needed. In January of this year, we had resumed the relationship we began in Memphis, and it was proving as difficult as I had thought it would be. I was working with Laura now on a per-job basis, inspecting the buildings owned by the company she now ran. Laura had an amazing streak of somewhat naïve color-blindness, but no one else in Sturdy Investments did. The fact that she and I had an equal partnership disturbed almost everyone we came into contact with.
Then there was the personal relationship, which we were having trouble finding time for. I had Jimmy to care for, and Laura worked long hours. Sometimes we went a week without seeing each other, especially since I rarely went into Sturdy's offices.
Tomorrow morning I was supposed to pick up Jimmy, along with all of the Grimshaw children, and take them to school, so Laura and I were staying at my place to make the drive easier. I had wanted to spend the entire evening at home, but by the time I realized Laura was making plans, it had been too late.
Laura knew I longed for the music that had been part of the air in Memphis. My offices there had been on Beale Street, home of the blues, and every bar, every restaurant, had some form of music in the evenings. Even though Chicago was also a big blues town, it had its own style—a darker, moodier, more urban style that wasn't as accessible to me. The westside clubs were far away from my home and office, and I wasn't as free to go out at night as I had been in Memphis.
But I didn't want to go to a benefit. I had never liked the pretentiousness of the events, always wondering why people needed a special reward to give to charity.
I hadn't told Laura that, but she had sensed my mood on the way over. We pretended we were enjoying the evening, until we got up to dance. Then I felt the tension in Laura's body. She hadn't put her head on my shoulder like she had in the past. Instead, she had watched everyone around us, probably feeling the hostility they were directing at her.
She hadn't realized when she bought the tickets that she would be crashing an affair designed for blacks only. And I hadn't prepared her for the cattiness she would be suffering because she was a white woman who was clearly involved with a black man.
"It seems like you're mad at me," Laura said, obviously not willing to let the topic go. She checked the car's mirrors and turned on her lights before pulling into Clark.
I was annoyed at the entire evening; I didn't like small talk and I had been subjected to hours of it. I had also been on alert for the first hour, making certain that no one who might have known me from Memphis, someone who hadn't been on the initial guest list, was in the room.
"I would have thought after my donation that people would have understood how serious I am." She kept her gaze on the road ahead, her hands in a perfect driver's V on the wheel.
In the middle of the evening, the organizers called for donations. People verbally pledged an amount, and most wrote checks to cover it right away. Laura had done so, and the hostility had grown worse.
I had no idea if she had noticed, however. I wasn't going to tell her. But I didn't know how to respond to her statement without patronizing her or starting a real fight.
Laura and I came from completely different worlds. She had been raised the wealthy daughter of a small-time crook who became a self-made businessman. She had been pampered and protected her entire life, stepping out of that world only after her mother had died, when a strange clause in her mother's will had led her to me.
My parents had been lynched when I was ten, and after that, I was sent away from everything I knew. My adoptive parents were good people, and they raised me well, but they could never erase the memories I held of my first ten years or of that time I spent hiding in an upstairs closet while my real parents were being dragged out of the house to their deaths.
"I understand that some people there found my question offensive," Laura said. "But I didn't mean it that way. I mean, if we're going to be a truly integrated society—"
"It was offensive, Laura," I said.
She looked at me. The dim light of the dash revealed the shock on her face. She hadn't expected me to side against her.
But she hadn't understood the situation. Even after listening to the speeches, the points apparently hadn't struck home. I had no idea how she had missed the evening's subtext, since the first speaker had outlined it with one sentence:
If we are really serious about black pride, if we really believe that black is beautiful, if we really believe that we are somebody, we black adults will do something about the adoption of black babies in Chicago.
Apparently Laura hadn't heard the phrase "black adults," or if she had, she had misunderstood it. I had a good view of her as I watched the speakers, and her eyes teared up more than once at the thought of over a thousand children who were unclaimed because of the color of their skin.
She had stood, hand up, during the question-and-answer section of the presentation, and waited a long time to be called on. I tried to get her to sit, but she shook me off. When the speaker finally turned his attention to her, Laura asked why no one had thought of finding white families to adopt black children.
The silence in the large restaurant had been deafening. For a moment, I had thought the speaker wasn't going to answer her. Then he had said, "It simply isn't feasible," and had moved onto the next question, leaving Laura red-faced.
She had sat back down and, to her credit, hadn't brought up the issue again the entire night. Until now.
"What did I say that was so wrong?" she asked.
I didn't want to have this discussion. I had imagined leaving Sherman House, driving to my apartment, and taking her in my arms. The last thing I wanted was tension between us.
I sighed. Laura wasn't going to let me brush her off the way the speaker had.
I said, "Let's leave out the fact that a hundred years ago, white people controlled the destinies of blacks and their children, often separating them and selling the children like cattle. Let's also forget that the social services available to whites, like maternity homes and other such places, are not usually available to blacks. And let's not even discuss the way the legal system treats black families who somehow find themselves in court. Let's just talk about what you suggested."
"Okay." Her tone was cautious, like Jimmy's often was when he knew he was about to get a lecture for something he didn't completely understand.
She turned the car onto Lake Shore Drive. Lake Michigan looked black against the night sky. Only the headlights, rippling in the water, gave any indication that the lake was there.
"If we allow white families to take black children, then we must assume that black families will take white children," I said.
"They won't?" she asked.
"They won't be allowed to," I said. "But that's not even the point. The point is that our children will leave our culture and our nest, and once again, white people will be determining our future."
"But the black children aren't being adopted," Laura said. "No one's taking them. I listened, just like you did."
"And there were some things we all knew but which weren't spelled out for people outside of the community," I said.
"Like what?" She kept her gaze trained on the road, but her jaw was set. She was angry too.
Cars passed us. The street was busier than I would have expected at 10:30 on Easter Sunday.
"Black families do adopt black children, but have a tougher road of it," I said. "The model for a stable family is white. The woman is a homemaker and the man is the breadwinner, which is not the norm in black families. In black families, both parents work, and right there that makes the court assume that the household is unfit. If by chance the woman does stay home, then the white inspectors come and judge everything by their standards. They assume the neighborhood is bad because of the preponderance of blacks—"
"That's ridiculous," Laura said.
"I don't care if it's ridiculous, Laura," I said. "It happens. When I lived in Memphis, I used to do investigative work for attorneys who sometimes handled adoption petitions. More than once I had to prove that a black neighborhood, which looked dangerous to a white inspector, was actually safer than its economic counterpart in the white community."
Laura sighed. "So my donation made it seem like I was patronizing everyone there, then."
She finally understood. But I didn't want to upset her further, so all I said was, "I'm sure they knew you were sincerely trying to help."
"One thousand children without a place to go." Her voice was quiet. "That's a crime all by itself."
We were heading into Hyde Park now, getting close to my street.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I wanted this to be a pleasant evening, Smokey."
I placed my hand on top of the one she had resting on the gearshift. Her skin was warm and soft.
"It was pleasant," I said, and it wasn't a complete lie. "It was fun to hear Ella again, and dancing with you—"
"Again?" Laura looked at me. She had chewed the lipstick off her lower lip, and more strands of hair had fallen around her face.
"I saw Ella a few times in Memphis."
Laura's carefully plucked eyebrows rose. I recognized the look. It was a combination of fear and panic.
"Does she know you?" Laura asked. "Could she have recognized you?"
I smiled. "Only as a familiar face in the crowd. We never spoke. I was just another nameless fan bebopping to the music."
"Bebopping." Laura smiled, too, and returned her gaze to the road. "I can't quite imagine you doing that."
Maybe not any more. I hadn't had the lightness and relaxation I had enjoyed on those nights in Memphis for more than a year.
Laura had never seen me comfortable or lighthearted. From the moment I met her, I had been on guard, and then events conspired to make me serious, protective, and justifiably paranoid.
She turned the car onto my street, saving me from having to comment on my past. She expertly eased the Mercedes into an empty parking space a few yards from my apartment's main sidewalk.
Half of the streetlights were broken, sending uneven pools of light throughout the neighborhood. Most of the buildings were former houses turned into apartments or pre-World War II six-flats which had been allowed to run down.
I lived in an older building on the second floor, in the apartment first rented by the Grimshaws. Laura had found them a home more suited to their needs, and now Jimmy and I lived in three-bedroom comfort, at least compared with last summer's crowded conditions.
Still, the apartment was small and meager, especially when I thought of Laura's penthouse suite on Lake Shore Drive. Even though Laura claimed the difference didn't bother her, it bothered me. Every time I brought her here, I kept seeing how mean my circumstances were—and it made me wonder if each of us wasn't slumming in our own separate ways.
As she parked, worry must have shown on my face. Laura shoved the gearshift into Park, shut off the ignition, and then smiled at me.
"It's all right, Smokey." There was amusement in her voice. "I'm insured."
I never doubted that she was, but insurance wasn't really the point to me. I was used to taking precautions, and leaving a valuable car on a street filled with poor people didn't count as one to me. Sure, my rusted Impala wasn't pretty, but it belonged here.
I opened the door and got out. She did the same, and I waited for her to come around to my side. As she approached, I held out my hand, and wondered if she would take it.
She did. Her fingers were surprisingly warm. We walked up the sidewalk, hand in hand.
The six-flat regained some of its elegance in the darkness. The unkempt lawn was harder to see and the chipped paint covering the brick looked almost clean.
Still, this building was clearly a multi-family dwelling, with different curtains in each window, and the air of public property outside.
The door to the building was propped open, something I wished the other tenants wouldn't do. But as the weather got nicer, people liked to have a breeze fill the hallways, which got stuffy in the afternoons. Once the door was open, no one bothered to close it.
Laura and I stepped onto the porch. Last summer, I had discovered a body here, and each time I walked up the porch steps I thought of it.
Tonight was no different. Little ghosts haunted me everywhere.
We stepped inside. The hallway was wide at the entrance, with a staircase to our right—a wooden staircase with an elegant banister that once had been polished and lovely. Now it was dingy with years of dirt.
The main floor had two apartments, the first near the metal mailboxes that had been built into the wall. Both apartment doors were closed, and each had extra deadbolts, just like mine did, even though the neighborhood was considered safe by Chicago standards.
The hall smelled faintly of baked ham and melted chocolate. The remains of a chocolate bunny was mashed against the doorknob of the nearest apartment. Foil Easter egg wrappers glittered on the floor, proving that someone had had a sweet holiday.
Laura smiled when she saw the mess. Her hair was losing its height, and the change made her seem more like my Laura, instead of the glittery society woman I had taken to the benefit.
She headed toward the staircase, careful to avoid the foil wrappers.
"Don't touch the railing," I said. "Who knows if sticky little hands were there first."
"The chocolate should be hardening by now," she said, and reached for the banister.
Above us, something thudded. Something heavy had fallen. I didn't like the sound. Laura looked at me, a slight frown making a line between her eyebrows.
I shrugged. This apartment building had its share of odd noises. I had owned my own house in Memphis, and even though I'd been here nearly a year, I still wasn't used to all the sounds that neighbors could make.
I turned, closed the front door, and latched it, like all of the tenants had agreed to do after dark. Then I joined Laura on the stairs.
She slipped her arm through mine. The tension from earlier had fled, and we were heading into that perfect moment I had initially imagined when we had left for the benefit. We took our time climbing up, as if we were heading toward a glorious suite in a fancy hotel instead of my dingy apartment.
Halfway up, she let go of my arm, and reached into the pocket of my topcoat for my keys.
Even though she and I had grown closer these last four months, I had not given her keys to my place, nor had I asked for keys to hers. Since I did most of my work out of my apartment, I wanted to be cautious about who came into my apartment and why. Keys to her place wouldn't have mattered, since I never would have used them. Even though the current building security was used to me, I was worried that some new overzealous employee would see a black man trying to open Miss Hathaway's door and act before thinking.
She managed to grab the keys, laughed, and with surprising agility for a woman in high heels, ran up the remaining steps. She thumbed the keys, looking for the square one that unlocked the top deadbolt.
The thud came again, closer, this time followed by a cry of pain. A door banged softly, as if it had been partially opened and had suddenly slammed closed.
Laura turned. She had obviously heard the sound, too. "Isn't that where your neighbor lives?"
The question wasn't as inane as it sounded. The only neighbor of mine that Laura had met was Marvella Walker, a stunning woman who had set her sights on me the moment I had moved into the building. Last winter, Marvella did her best to make Laura's visits hellacious, until I let Marvella know I wouldn't tolerate her behavior.
Laura was looking at the thick wooden door across the hall from mine. I took the last few steps two at a time, and reached the top. There I could hear a woman's voice, making short sharp cries.
"I think she's calling for help," Laura said.
I didn't wait. I hurried to the door. The sounds were louder here. In between the cries were moans.
"Marvella?" I asked, reaching for the knob. "Marvella, it's me, Bill. Is everything okay?"
"Help…me…please…" This cry was louder than the rest, but I still wouldn't have been able to hear it if I hadn't been nearby.
I turned the knob and to my surprise, it opened. Marvella was usually as meticulous about using her deadbolts as I was. But the door jammed, as if something were pushed against it.
Through the crack in the door, I could see a woman's bare foot on the hardwood floor, a bit of satin robe, and a blood stain that appeared to be growing.
"Marvella?" I tried not to let the panic I suddenly felt into my voice. "Can you move away from the door? I can't get in."
She grunted. The foot moved, braced itself, revealing some leg. Blood coated the inner thigh, and had run down to the ankle. As she moved, the blood smeared against the hardwood floor, and I realized the stain was really a puddle.
"What's going on, Smokey?" Laura had come up behind me.
I held up a hand to silence her, and pushed on the door. It finally opened far enough for me to slip inside.
When she saw me, the woman on the floor moaned in relief. But she wasn't Marvella. She was small, her features delicate and elfin. Her skin had gone gray, and the area around her eyes was almost bluish, indicating a great deal of blood loss.
"Thank God," she whispered when she saw me. "I need some help."
"Where's Marvella?" I asked, uncertain what had happened. Most of Marvella's tidy living room was intact. The wooden sculptures, all of faces in an African style, remained on the surfaces, and the plants still covered the window seat in front of the large bay window. But the add-on kitchen was a mess of glasses and dirty dishes, and Marvella's normally pristine brown couch was covered with blankets, towels, and even more blood.
The woman shook her head, then closed her eyes, and lay back down, as if all that movement had been too much for her. Next to her, a half-melted bag of ice added to water to the blood puddle.
Laura pushed her way in behind me.
"Oh, my God." She crouched beside the woman, and put a hand on her forehead. "She's burning up. Smokey, we have to get her help. Now."
The blood was coming from between the woman's legs. She wore Marvella's white satin robe, and it was partially open, revealing a slightly distended stomach.
"Get towels from the kitchen," I said. "See if you can stop the bleeding. I have to make sure Marvella's all right."
I had visions of her dead or dying in the bedroom. I hurried toward the narrow hallway, wishing I had my gun. My topcoat flowed behind me, catching on the small table Marvella used to accent the space between the bathroom and bedroom, and knocking it over. The sculptures on top of it scattered.
Laura moved behind me, making soothing noises to the poor woman as she gathered towels.
The bathroom light was on. Drops of blood covered the white tile around the toilet, and more blood stained the orange rug in front of the bathtub. The brown and orange shower curtain was open, revealing a mound of wet towels in the tub. No towels hung on the racks, and a bloody handprint stained the white porcelain of the sink.
But Marvella was not inside.
I moved quickly to the bedroom, and flicked on the light. I had never seen this room, but it continued the browns and oranges Marvella used to decorate the rest of the place. Instead of sculptures, though, big oil paintings of tribal figures covered the walls.
One painting was so large and narrow that the figure on it was life-sized. I caught it out of the corner of my eye, and had to do a double-take to make sure it wasn't a real person.
My heart was pounding. I made myself take a breath and slow down so that I could scan the room.
The batik bedspread had been pulled back and someone had removed one of the matching pillows. Women's clothing pooled near the closet, unusually sloppy in a very tidy room.
The bedroom smelled of Marvella's sandalwood perfume, and I realized that it was the only place in the entire apartment that didn't smell of fresh blood.
I checked the closet just in case, and saw nothing except rows of brightly colored clothing. Then I lifted the bedspread. Boxes of shoes, neatly labeled, were stored beneath the bed.
No one was in there either.
Marvella was missing and a woman was bleeding to death in her living room.
Something awful had happened here, and I had no real idea what that something was.