The first sign of trouble is a Cedar Heights police cruiser blocking the intersection. A tangle of other emergency vehicles clogs the street halfway down the block. Red, blue, and yellow emergency lights explode like multi-colored flashbulbs, their reflections skittering across the windows of the stout brick bungalows that line Liberty Street. If the cops aren’t at our house, they’re damned close.
A uniformed cop looks over his shoulder and waves us away when I coast to a stop a few feet short of the cruiser. Like hell. I creep closer. The cop glances back and waves me away again. When I stay put, he whirls and advances on us with the blinding beam of his flashlight aimed at our windshield. Crisp autumn air floods in when I open the driver’s side window of my Porsche Panamera and turn on the interior lights.
“Street’s closed, sir,” the cop announces impatiently. “Move along.”
“What’s going on, Officer?”
There’s a newsflash. I point beyond him and make an announcement of my own. “I live down there.”
Interest flickers in his eyes before a hand shoots to my window. “Driver’s license.”
He gives the car a longer, appreciative look while I wrestle a lambskin wallet out of my back pocket, flip it open, and push it outside.
“Just the license,” he snaps without touching the wallet.
I jerk the license out of its plastic holder and hand it back.
He glances at it. “Georgia?”
“We moved back a few weeks ago.”
“I plan to.”
“You gotta go to the DMV and get an Illinois license,” he says. “Plates, too.”
“You got ninety days.”
Who the hell cares? Take it easy, Valenti, I caution myself. Bulletheads like this guy think bullshit rules are all that stand between law and order and chaos. I lock my eyes on the flashing lights dead ahead while he studies the official plastic in his hand.
His eyes narrow. “Your name’s Valenti?”
“That’s right. Tony Valenti.”
He aims the flashlight past me, blinding my fourteen-year-old daughter, Brittany. She shrinks lower into her seat.
“My daughter,” I tell him while easing forward to shield her. “She’s a freshman at Saint Aloysius. We’re on our way home from orientation.”
“What number do you live at?”
“Wait here,” he says tersely, then turns on his heel to march back to his car with my license in hand.
“What’s going on, Officer?” I shout at his retreating back. He doesn’t break stride until he leans into his cruiser and pulls out a radio microphone. He stares back at us while he talks. I look beyond him to the cluster of emergency vehicles. Jesus. The cops are definitely in our driveway and buzzing around the front porch.
I roll my shoulders to release tension, then give Brittany’s hand a reassuring squeeze. Her scarlet scrunchie is wound so tightly through her fingers that they’re turning white. My eyes drift to the stately old elm trees towering above the damp pavement. Each is rooted precisely five feet from the curb; one per narrow, Chicago-style lot. Their branches wave high overhead to link limbs with their neighbors—much as the mostly Italian immigrants here have done since the trees were saplings. The glow of streetlights shrouded in an early autumn haze struggles to reach the street below. But Liberty Street isn’t especially dark this evening. Porch lights are on as the neighbors drink in whatever drama is unfolding at our house. They’re mostly older now, retired, people of my parents’ generation—grizzled men who wear sleeveless white undershirts and fleshy women in voluminous floral dresses. The residents of Liberty Street are gathered on wooden porches, perched on lawn chairs in their tidy yards, or huddled together along the edges of the pavement.
“What’s going on, Dad?” Brittany asks. “Is Papa okay?”
How do I answer that? Cops. An ambulance. Hardly the makings of a Disney moment, especially knowing that my father—Papa in the vernacular of our fairly traditional Italian family—should be home. The cop tosses the radio into his cruiser and marches back toward us. “I think we’re about to find out,” I tell Brittany.
Bullethead jerks a thumb toward the curb. “Pull it around the corner and park.”
“What’s up?” I ask.
He waves us toward an open spot without answering. I jam the gearshift into reverse to back away from the cruiser, then slam the car into drive and zoom into the open spot, leaving the back end of the Porsche jutting into the intersection. I throw my door open and step into a puddle left behind by an early evening thunderstorm. Cursing under my breath as my shoe squishes every step of the way, I stride straight toward the cop waiting beside his car and say, “I want some answers.”
The cop yanks the rear door open without a word and motions us in. He’s in front of me in a heartbeat when I try to brush past him. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Why can’t I go to my own damned house?”
“It’s a crime scene. The detective will be here as soon as he can.”
Crime scene? Detective? I stand my ground with my nose within a foot of his. I’ve got maybe an inch on him. “Tell me what’s going on.”
Malice stirs in the wintry blue eyes glaring back into mine. “Get in the car.”
“My father was there when we left,” I retort while looking past him.
“Your old man’s okay.”
I cross my arms and meet his gaze. “Good to know, but I still want to see him.”
Pin a badge on these clowns…. I inch close enough to smell mint on the cop’s breath. “Why not?”
His nightstick materializes under my chin. “Because I said not yet.”
My manufactured machismo melts away when the weapon brushes the underside of my jaw. I take Brittany’s arm and steer her back to the police cruiser, where we slide onto the cold, brittle vinyl of the rear seat. The door slams shut. My anger gives way to a moment of frank curiosity; it’s my first time inside a police car. Beyond a battleship-gray grated metal partition that separates us from the front seat, a shotgun stands menacingly at attention against the dashboard. The sour stench of the drunks and whores and other deadwood of Cedar Heights clings to the battered upholstery. This is no place for a corporate attorney and his teenage daughter.
Brittany inches closer. “Can’t you do something?”
Nothing that won’t get me arrested. “Patience, Britts. We’ll know what’s going on soon enough.”
Join the club. A morsel of my recently deceased mother’s matter-of-fact wisdom bubbles forth. “Mama used to say that people take years off their lives worrying about bad things that might happen. Know what?”
“Most of it never does.”
“Yeah,” Brittany mutters sullenly. “But sometimes bad shit just happens, right?”
We’ve learned the truth of that over the past few months, haven’t we? I’m debating whether or not to let her profanity slide when I notice a smallish man hustling toward us in a beige suit straight off the rack at Sears or J.C. Penney. With the aid of a sharply receding hairline and a frost-tinged mustache, I peg him for around fifty.
He pauses to speak with the uniformed cop, steps over to open the back door of the cruiser, and waves us out. “Jake Plummer,” he says while extending his hand for a crisp handshake. “I’m the lead detective assigned to the case.”
What case? I wonder.
Plummer turns to Brittany and shakes her hand. She’s as tall as he is, though considerably more slender and graceful—not to mention infinitely better coiffed with her head of thick, shoulder-length auburn hair. “I hear you’re on your way home from school,” the detective says.
She leans a hip on the cruiser’s rear fender and nods.
“Pretty late for school, isn’t it?”
“We had orientation for the freshman class. You know, parents getting to know who the teachers are. Like that.”
Plummer smiles. “That’s ninth grade, right?”
“New school for you?”
Her eyes drop to study the pavement. “Yeah.” The move hasn’t been easy on her.
“Starting the year in a strange school is tough,” Plummer says sympathetically. “I’m an Air Force brat, so I know what you’re going through. Sometimes it seemed like I went to a different school every year. Somehow or other, things always worked out.”
Brittany shrugs but says nothing, so he turns back to me. “I need to ask a few questions. Is it just the two of you, or is there a missus or significant other we should be speaking with, as well?”
“She’s in Europe,” I reply stiffly.
The detective cocks an eyebrow. “Whereabouts?”
“She lives in Brussels. Divorce.” That’s new, too.
We both glance at Brittany, who now looks thoroughly miserable. When Plummer’s eyes meet mine again, they carry a silent apology.
“Let’s get on with it,” I suggest.
The uniformed cop, who’s been hovering nearby, takes a step closer. “Want me to take the girl somewhere?”
“That’s up to Mr. Valenti,” Plummer replies.
I wrap an arm around Brittany’s shoulders, draw her close, and wave Bullethead away. “She stays.”
The detective nods. “Just as well. She’ll hear about this soon enough anyway.”
“First off,” I begin, “I understand my father’s okay. Is that true?”
I look past him toward our house. “I’d like to see him.”
“He’s not here.”
My patience with this cat-and-mouse bullshit is wearing thin. “Where is he?”
Plummer studies me for a long moment. “Mr. Valenti, your father shot a police officer.”
“He did what?”
“A Cook County Sheriff’s Deputy was sent to serve papers. Your father shot him.”
“Legal papers?” I ask. Inanely, I realize immediately.
He nods again.
“There’s got to be some confusion, Detective. Papa’s never had a legal issue worth mentioning. I doubt he’s even had a parking ticket.”
Plummer calmly stares back at me. “Yet here we are.”
We continue our stare-down while I grapple with what he just told me. If it’s true, only one person can explain it. “I’m a lawyer. When can I see my father?”
The lawyer comment gets the detective’s attention. He glances at his watch. “I’ll be wrapping up here in twenty or thirty minutes but the crime scene folks will be here awhile yet. Go have a coffee or something and come by the station in an hour. No promises about seeing your father, but maybe we can clear up a few things.”
“How’s the deputy?” I finally think to ask.