The mouse had been replaced by a penguin. An emperor penguin, to be exact. My jazz-themed coffee shop, Mocha Mouse, was now Penguin House. Since emperor penguins acquire tailcoats at an early age, the penguin needed only a bow tie and top hat to complete the outfit. And like his mouse predecessor, the penguin played an alto saxophone. His name was Parker, as in Charlie Parker. Penguins were birds, after all.
I sat in Penguin House, reading about the latest unarmed African American shot dead by the Chicago police, when an unknown number appeared on my cellphone. Usually, I ignored unidentified numbers, thinking it better for the caller to leave a message than for me to appear to be someone who jumped on the phone as soon as it rang. A sign of weakness, I thought. But today, I felt like talking.
“Landau Investigations, Jules Landau speaking.”
“This is Debbie Lopez from the Cook County Public Defender’s Office.”
It took a moment to register what I heard. “Why does your name sound familiar?”
“I don’t know—”
“Wait a minute! You got that guy out of prison. The one doing life without parole. You proved him innocent.”
“I’m glad you pay attention to what’s going on. But now I have a new client, Kate McCall—”
“Really? The one who murdered that auto-parts heiress in her apartment on East Lake Shore Drive?” I had not been following the story closely, but I did recall paparazzi photos of the victim, Jackie Whitney, stepping out of a limousine or laughing in a Michelin-rated restaurant. Late forties, fake blond, too much time under a sunlamp.
“Jules,” she said, a touch impatiently, “I really don’t have a lot of time to talk right now, but my client has asked me to hire a private investigator.”
“Doesn’t the public defender’s office have their own investigators?”
“We do, but she wants me to hire a non–state employee.”
“Apparently you’ve acquired a reputation.”
“She can’t even afford a lawyer. How’s she going to pay me?”
“I have no idea, but if you’re interested in the job, the three of us need to get together tomorrow, at the jail. You can discuss money with her then. So what do you think?”
Was it a trick question? “I’m interested, but if I start getting the feeling she’s going to flake out on me regarding money, I’m gone.”
“I’d expect nothing less from a PI. You and I need to meet tonight. I’ll call you back with a time.”
I didn’t argue. She had the kind of all-business demeanor that said it was best to just agree then shut up.
In a thriving North Side neighborhood of various skin tones, creeds, and ethnicities, delicious smells emanated from the domed brick oven of the Kutaisi Georgian Bakery. Tamar Gelashvili, a petite woman with jet-black hair framing a beautiful, slightly Asiatic face, owned and operated the bakery. The previous owner, Tamar’s “Uncle Gigi,” had been arrested along with two Russian gangsters for their roles in murder, human trafficking,
prostitution, and money laundering. Tamar’s cousin had been killed by this cabal. In the course of my investigation, Tamar and I had become more than friends, but the demands of running a bakery necessitated a cooling-off period. Now, with the addition of some competent help and newfound confidence, we’d decided it was time to talk.
The late morning rush was winding down. I stood at the edge of the counter watching Tamar flit through the kitchen in a white V-neck T-shirt. When I caught her eye, she smiled warmly, disappeared into the prep room, then returned with a plate of flaky pastries. I followed her to a table. A glaze of perspiration spread down her lovely neck to the cleavage of her beautiful breasts. Butterflies swarmed my abdomen. Tamar put the plate down and gave me a vigorous hug.
“It’s great to see you looking more relaxed,” I said.
Tamar grinned. “You learn a lot in the first few months of running a business. Anyway, I spoke to my accountant and he said I should ask how you want the return on your investment structured.”
After the arrests were made and the dust settled, seized assets and many years of unpaid taxes had put the bakery’s future in doubt. Tamar desperately tried to raise enough money to satisfy all the statutory and municipal vultures flying lethargic loops around the North Side neighborhood, but the debt seemed insurmountable. Since I had inherited a 1933 Cadillac V-16, for which I would incur significant storage expenses, I sold the car and parked the money in the bakery.
“All I want is the principal back,” I said. “Just pay at a pace that doesn’t put the bakery under pressure.”
“That doesn’t seem right. . . .”
As Tamar struggled with my un-capitalistic tendencies, I wondered if our meeting was purely intended for business. Then I remembered the hug and foolishly read volumes into it.
Tamar stopped talking and waited for my response. She looked very intense. “I might have an interesting client,” I said.
I sensed annoyance at my segue.
“Okay,” Tamar said.
“You heard about the Gold Coast murder? The suspect, Kate McCall, wants to hire me.”
Crickets. Then, “The Jackie Whitney killer? You don’t think she did it?”
“I don’t know—”
“You’ll take an accused murderer’s money but not mine? Is she special for some reason?”
I searched her face. “What’s this about?”
Tamar took her turn searching my face. “I’m not sure.” She thought about it a bit longer. “Maybe it’s the glee in your voice.”
She was right. My speech did have an airy quality. “I suppose I’m feeling a little excitement at the prospect of a high-profile client.”
“And you don’t care if she’s guilty?”
“Of course I care. But plenty of innocent people have been given life sentences, or been released from death row, or have died on death row. I want to believe the chances of that happening with Kate McCall are less if I’m involved.”
Tamar’s face softened. “I see your point—but wait a second. The Partisan did a profile on Kate McCall. They made her out to be this dirt-poor twenty-year-old Appalachian who has no choice but to use a public defender. How could she afford a private investigator?”
“Good question. After I meet her at the jail tomorrow, I’ll report back with an answer.”
I waited. Tamar said, “The article didn’t include a picture. What does she look like?”
I cleared my throat. “After I meet her at the jail tomorrow, I’ll report back with an answer.”
“The Partisan kind of implied a hillbilly sex kitten—”
“What the hell is wrong with—”
“I’m working fourteen to fifteen hours a day. Down from seventeen to eighteen, although I’ve been training a manager who shows promise.”
I gave her my raised-brow, wide-eyed look. “You need a better reason for me to get lost. How about telling me that only Georgian Orthodox boys stand a chance?”
“I’m just being realistic! This bakery’s gonna dominate my life.”
“Tamar, either you want to give something a chance or you don’t. The demands of the bakery are just an excuse.”
From Tamar’s expression I anticipated disappointment. Then she said, “Maybe you’re right.”
“Using the bakery as an excuse.” She reached over, grabbed my shirt collar, and pulled me into an extended kiss. After releasing me, she stood and said, “Let me know what happens at the jail. I’m really curious. And we’re not done talking about my repayment schedule.”
She walked back to the kitchen. I stayed put and called Debbie.
“Yes, Jules,” Debbie said, still sounding testy.
“I know we just talked, but I was wondering if I could see Kate on my own, today?”
Dead air. “Why?”
“I thought meeting alone might give me better insight into her. There could be a different dynamic with you around.”
Loud exhale. “Well, you can try if you want. You’re supposed to fill out an application first, then wait three days for them to do a background check. I guess I could call and say it’s an emergency. They probably won’t buy that, though. Either way, if you go, don’t be in a hurry. You ever been to the maximum-security visiting area?”
“Your tone tells me it’s joyful.”
I thought, maybe, I heard the slightest mirthful snort. Before hanging up, Debbie emphasized that anything Kate talked about should be considered confidential. I assured her I understood, then drove home.
Once upon a time, a mostly black cat with a black dot of a nose inside a white mask climbed a dozen stairs, strolled through my open porch door, looked around, and adopted me. A few hours later, all my assumptions regarding cats as aloof creatures had been replaced with the knowledge that cats possessed human character traits making up distinct personalities. Not only did cats communicate with humans, they were happy to do so with an attitude. Within six months from the day she put down roots in my home, Punim’s sarcasm had reached epic proportions.
Now, two years later, as I climbed a flight of steps to my apartment, Punim’s paws touched down with an audible thump. Once inside, I noticed a morning spent in comatose digestion of chicken hearts had yielded to wild pouncing on imperceptible prey. Although she was not technically feral, Punim’s domesticity was dubious at best. Weather permitting, the porch door was always open, yet she remained voluntarily homebound, venturing no farther than the landing, where she gazed into the alley of her untamed youth. Sitting on the couch, I ate a hummus sandwich and watched the beast claw her way up the red cedar cat tree, not stopping until she reached the top perch, where she began meticulously grooming.
I opened my laptop and checked the newspaper archives to review what had been reported on Jackie Whitney’s murder. There were few details, only the basic facts that Kate McCall found Jackie Whitney dead in the bedroom closet of her Gold Coast apartment on May 19, three days after the victim returned from Palm Springs. An unidentified man had been renting the apartment during Jackie Whitney’s absence, but had moved out several days earlier. The cause of death had not yet been revealed. Next, I found the Cook County Sheriff’s Office website, filled out a visitor’s application, then thought of those who endured the rigors and expense of law school only to take a job defending people too poor to afford a lawyer.