Excerpt from Boystown 5: Murder Book – Lambda Literary Finalist
by Marshall Thornton
Former Chicago Police Detective Bertram Edgar Harker died sometime during the evening of September 28, 1982. It was a Tuesday. I wish I’d been with him when he died but that wasn’t possible. He didn’t die in a hospital or at home. My best guess is that he died in the back of a van parked in a dirty alley somewhere on the northwest side. He was the seventh victim of the Bughouse Slasher.
That night, I came home later than usual. I’d been working a case for Carolyn O’Hara, who ran a temp agency called Carolyn’s Crew. One of her clients, an advertising wunderkind who’d started his own company a year before but was now going through a vicious divorce, was trying to claim bankruptcy. Carolyn was sure the owner had the money he owed her and was just hiding assets from his wife, and by extension Carolyn.
After I followed the twenty-nine-year-old business prodigy around for a few days, I was pretty sure she was right. Irwin Meier drove a brand new Jaguar XJS—sticker price roughly thirty-two thousand—and lived in a pretty brick house in Evanston right across from Lake Michigan. On paper, the house belonged to his eighteen-year-old, live-in girlfriend, and, upon further investigation, I discovered the recent high school senior also leased the Jaguar.
Shifting through the reams of paper Carolyn’s lawyer provided, I attempted to find the path money had taken from Meier to his nubile girlfriend, where it had ended up, and exactly when the money had been moved. The closer the exchange to the bankruptcy, the more likely the creditors would be able to attach the funds. It was interesting work, something I hadn’t done before, so I’d been enjoying myself and lost track of time.
Walking into my apartment around seven, I called out for Harker and was met by silence. I hurried down the entry hallway and into the four-room garden apartment that wound around itself. Spare room, living room, bedroom, kitchen. The rooms were dark and empty. I turned on lights and saw dust in the air, making the place seem like it had been abandoned for a very long time. Where was Harker? Lately, he hadn’t been feeling well and had been sticking close to home. Well, lately as in the last nine months, but more so in the preceding weeks. He’d had an energetic spurt at the end of summer which had slowly faded.
That meant I had no idea where he might have gone. I thought about calling his mother, but she lived out in Edison Park and there was no way he’d have gone there unless… I considered the possibility that something had happened to her and he’d rushed to her side. But that didn’t make sense. I’d been in my office, sitting next to a telephone, only a few blocks away. If something had happened to his mother, Harker would have called me to drive him wherever he needed to go. Wouldn’t he?
I called her anyway. It took less than two seconds to find out Harker wasn’t there.
“Mrs. Harker, it’s Nick.”
“What happened? Is Bertram all right?”
“Yeah, he’s fine,” I said reflexively as I scrambled for another reason for the call. “So, did you come by today?”
“No. Bertram was tired. But he call me. We have very nice, long talk.”
“You’re coming tomorrow?”
“Would you like me to come and get you?”
“No, I take bus like always.”
I could hear suspicion growing in her voice. Neither of us relished the possibility of being in a car together. I covered by saying, “I was going to be out that way and Bert thought I could give you a ride.”
“No. I take bus,” she said and then hung up on me.
I was relieved she hadn’t figured out something was wrong. I didn’t want her at my doorstop dogging my every move. I sat down at my desk with the phone on my lap trying to think who else to call. Harker’s life wasn’t exactly a social whirlwind. Neither was mine for that matter.
There was the tiniest chance he was with his partner from the eighteenth, Frank Connors. But that didn’t make sense. They talked on the phone or Connors came by. He knew how sick Harker was; I didn’t think Connors would ask him to go anywhere. I could call him, but decided to hold out. Connors was the last call I should make. If I couldn’t find Bert, if he were missing, I’d need Connors to pull strings and get the CPD moving as quickly as possible. I told myself I was being paranoid and tried to think of other calls I could make.
I only came up with one call, a call I didn’t want to make. Over the summer, Harker had befriended a wannabe journalist named Christian Baylor who was interested in the Bughouse Slasher. Since the killings had originally been Bert’s cases, Christian was all over him for information in hopes of writing an article for Chicago magazine. In the process, they’d become close. Closer than I liked, actually. Biting the bullet, I dialed Christian’s number. It rang several times, and I wondered if he hadn’t gotten home from his new job out in Downer’s Grove, or if maybe he was actually with Harker. Finally, he snapped up the phone, out of breath. “Hello.”
“It’s Nick. Have you seen Bert?”
“What? No. He’s not at home?”
“No, he’s not.”
“Then where is he?” Panic already infected his voice.
“I don’t know,” I said. “All right, thanks–”
“Wait, should I come over?”
“But…will you have him call me when he gets home? I’m going to worry.”
I hung up and tried to think what to do next. The only constructive thing that came to mind was walking my neighborhood. It was possible he’d needed something and had gone out to the store to get it. Maybe he’d wanted aspirin or had a craving for ice cream.
I was out the door in less than a minute and heading down Roscoe. The street was quiet, my neighbors settling in for an evening of television. When I got to Broadway, I headed up to Addison to stick my head into the White Hen Pantry to see if he’d needed some…well some anything. He wasn’t there. I headed down Broadway, peeked into The Closet, knowing he wouldn’t be in there having a drink but needing to check anyway. I walked through the Melrose, Unabridged Books, and Walgreens. He wasn’t in any of those places. I walked down Belmont until I got to Halsted then did the same kind of search over there. Nothing. I walked the alleys in between, figuring there was only so far he could go. And if he’d had to vomit or had had a sudden bout of diarrhea…but again, nothing.
When I got back to the apartment it was just after nine. I walked by my front door and let myself into the main building. I climbed the carpeted stairs to the second floor and knocked on the apartment right above mine. A young lesbian named Sue lived there and I hoped against hope that she’d seen something. She worked during the day, something to do with the big computers FirstChicago needed to keep track of their money. She probably hadn’t even been home when Harker left.
I knocked again and waited. I could smell the polish used on the wooden banister, mildew in the carpet, and a touch of charred meat from someone’s dinner. I heard a television playing on the floor above me. Sue didn’t come to the door. I gave up.
On the floor above, I discovered the television was playing in the back apartment that faced the courtyard on one side and the pass-through on the other. They were unlikely to have seen Bert coming or going so I didn’t bother knocking. In the apartment above Sue’s there didn’t seem to be anyone home. I tried to put a face on the tenant but couldn’t. In fact, I wasn’t even sure anyone lived there at the moment.
When I went back downstairs, I called three nearby hospitals and asked if Harker had been admitted. They’d never heard of him. So, finally, at nearly ten o’clock I called Connors at home, having found his number in the address book Harker kept in the top drawer of our bedroom dresser.
Connors was annoyed to be hearing from me.
“Harker’s missing,” I told him before he could cuss me out too badly. I quickly went over everything I’d done to find him.
“Stay there in case he comes home,” he said. “I’ll do some nosing around and call if I find anything.”
He hung up and I began to wait in earnest. Helpless. Alone. Time crawled like it had just been slammed in the knees with a baseball bat. I found myself glancing at the VCR every few minutes. 11:01; 11:05; 11:07; 11:08. God, it was excruciating. I knew, I just knew, something bad had happened and, sitting there, smoking cigarette after cigarette in my living room, I waited to find out exactly what it was. It was like the moment before the nurse stuck you with a needle, or the one before the dentist pulled out the decayed tooth, except it went on hour after hour.
I couldn’t even wonder if he was dead. I didn’t have the nerve. I did wonder if, someday, when Harker died, would I know it? Even if I wasn’t with him? Was our bond that strong? Would he reach out across time and space and touch me, just to let me know he was no longer in this world? Probably not, I decided.
The call came at eight twenty-three the next morning. I hadn’t slept all night except for a few fuzzy minutes here and there. I snatched up the phone before the first ring finished.
“It’s bad, Nick,” I heard him say. “He’s gone.”
“What hospital?” I asked.
“He wasn’t at a hospital.”
“Where was he?”
“We found his body beside the Chicago River, near Hooker Street. His throat was slashed.”
“No,” I said. “That can’t be.”
Connors was wrong; he’d made a mistake. I knew how Harker would die. He would die in a hospital of this new disease, AIDS. That was how things were going to play out. We knew it wasn’t going to be pleasant, but the sheets would be clean, the nurses would be friendly but concerned, and I would be there next to him.
“The Bughouse Slasher got him,” Connors said.
I felt like I might puke so I walked into the bathroom, and as soon as I got in there I felt an uncontrollable desire to lie on the floor, quickly. I managed to do it without hitting my head on any of the porcelain fixtures. My eyes shut of their own accord and maybe fifteen, twenty seconds later, I came to staring at the phone receiver I’d dragged into the bathroom with me and which now lay a few feet from my face. The cord straggled back to the base, sitting by the bathroom door, beyond that the phone line wiggled through the apartment.
The receiver squawked, “Nick? Nick, are you all right?”
I grabbed it. “Yeah, I’m here,” I said. “I needed a moment.”
“Yeah. I know.”
“I guess I should call his mother.”
“I already called her,” Connors said. “Legally, I had to call her first. Hell, legally I’m probably not even supposed to call you.”
He was probably right, so I kept my mouth shut. There were surprisingly few things going on in my head at that particular moment. It was as though someone had poured in a bucket of tar. Things had slowed down to a near stop.
“Well, thank you for calling me,” I said, because that’s what you say.
“We’re going to need to search your place, Nick. You know, because Bert lived there.”
“Do you have a warrant?”
“I could get one,” Connors said, his voice instantly stiff and professional. “I’d rather not.”
I left a long pause. “Give me two hours.”
“What do you need two hours for?”
I’d like to put my pants on. Or do you want me sitting around buck naked when you search the place?” I wasn’t buck naked, I was still wearing the clothes I’d worn the day before. I waited for him to say that it wouldn’t take two hours to put my pants on, since of course it wouldn’t. But he didn’t. He knew it would take at least twenty-four hours to get a warrant; he was getting a break.
“Two hours,” he said and hung up.
As much as I wanted to lie back down on the bathroom floor, I knew there was something more important I had to do. Sitting on the old desk shoved into a corner of my living room was the murder book Harker had been working on since he got sick. I assumed there was one like it at the eighteenth, probably sitting on Connors desk. A three-hole binder, five inches thick, blue; it was filled with six inches of paper: autopsies, arrest reports, tip sheets, computer runs. It had been there, growing, for months and months, and I’d never looked inside.
Now I did, and was surprised by what I found. I’d thought Harker had been playing at the book. I’d thought it was barely real. But there was so much more in it than I’d expected. He’d given me the impression he was reconstructing the book from his memory of the original murder book, but there were copies of…well, pretty much everything. It looked like he had every piece of paper the police had. Piece by piece, Connors had brought him copies of everything on the Bughouse Slasher cases. Things Harker never should have had as a disabled police officer.
This was what Connors was coming to get. I wasn’t entirely sure how, but the book was important. Had Harker followed the clues in the book until he got too close to the Slasher? Had it gotten him killed? At that moment, it barely made sense. I hoped it would soon.