Twilight was settling.
Val Haverford exhumed an ancient cardboard tube from his writing studio closet and smoothed the roll of floor plans onto his sketch table. They still smelled faintly of pencil lead and wood shavings and dime-store aftershave. But the sharp, precise lines were now fuzzy, paper tinged the color of weak tea. He couldn’t fathom how his brother had found the time to draft them, much less hide such vast sheets right under his nose.
He immediately recognized the one he was searching for, a sketch based on incessant dreaming: twin houses angled northeast on the bank of the Gulf of Mexico. Years after Michael’s death, imagining what might have been gnawed a hollowness straight to his bones, unearthing guilt once buried deep. As long as their neighbors could deliver vengeance, they could go back to living in their perfect world.
Now those old scandals felt like déjà vu, the source of inspiration he’d blown half a century avoiding.
Careful to handle the paper with a soft touch, he affixed it to a mat board, measuring once, twice, confirming it was perfect. He set it into an ebony frame and hung it where it was visible from his writing desk, to remind him why he sat there every dawn, every night, typing until his fingers were raw.
Crimson spilled across Lake Michigan where the water met the horizon, its shimmer telling the time. Grabbing his partial manuscript off the desk, Val considered another quick read-through. After so many years of block, the bravado that led to calling his agent now felt rash. He should have stuck to his forte, a classic sci-fi adventure, and avoided last-minute doubt.
Ten minutes. He could skim in ten minutes.
He stopped short halfway through the first page. One letter—always one letter—flickered like a figment of imagination, an apparition from a nightmare that lingers after you wake. His fist curled around the pages until his knuckles threatened to pop at the joints. He squeezed his eyes tight, counted to ten. When he opened them again, everything was still.
That should grant some reprieve. At least for a while.
Stuffing the pages in a manila envelope, he chucked it into his portfolio along with a copy of the Tribune and headed into the city, gray clouds distorting the sunset.
Submerged in dusky light and the revenant spice of cigarettes, Calvyn’s was the last unpretentious dive on Chicago’s Gold Coast: no menu, no frills, and no name. Calvyn himself brought the usual double Macallan on the rocks to Val’s permanently reserved table. Val slipped a roll of quarters in the wall-mounted jukebox and cobbled together a playlist of sultry R&B. He sank into a chair, enveloping himself with the smooth sound of Sarah Vaughn while the scotch melted down his throat. His favorite form of meditation.
Detecting an excited chitter in the booth along the opposite wall, he opened one eye just enough to see two women, both having seen the bottoms of too many rocks glasses, giggling and throwing sidelong looks in his direction. He whipped out the Trib and fanned it open, busying himself with finding an article. At the sound of “I’m going to talk to him,” he ducked low and sped up the search, crumpling the pages as though that would deliver some great air of urgency and importance.
“You really need to get out more.”
Val jolted at the disembodied male voice and rubbed a floater from his eye.
Graham Van Ellis, gray overcoat bulleted with rain, leaned his umbrella against the jukebox. “I will never get used to that,” Val said. He raised his glass to Calvyn—ice rattling without his permission—and stuck out two fingers: another scotch, and a beer for my friend.
Calvyn nodded. He’d already popped the cap on a Bud.
Graham hung his coat on a wall hook and willowed into a chair. Smoothing down his tie, he regarded the pair of women. “They were just being friendly! And two of ’em, not bad.”
“No thanks. I don’t think my life can handle that sort of thing.”
Graham’s laugh was hoarse and strident after years of supporting the tobacco industry. “Your life, please. How busy are you?”
Val slid the fat manila envelope across the table. “Don’t give up on me yet.”
Graham slapped the tabletop. “I hoped that’s why you called me out here on such a shitty night! You writing again?”
“Started Monday, yes.”
“I’m done with that series. Time to go in a new direction.”
“Again?” Graham scooted his chair forward. “All right. What’s this one about?”
“That,” Val said, pointing up at the muted TV screen flashing a photo of a redheaded teen boy, another victim of violence on the Southwest Side. “And this.” He closed the newspaper and spun it to show Graham the front page, a photo of an old man in tattered clothes. Neighboring district, same grisly end.
“I don’t follow.”
“Every day more people are killed for no good reason. Look at this,” he said, opening the paper to an inner spread where the front page story continued. “Seventy years old, harassing tourists for money. He was unarmed, yet half a dozen people jumped in to subdue him. And that guy.” Val scowled at the TV. “What is he, fifteen? Looks like he weighed a hundred pounds soaking wet. Can you imagine, coming home and hearing that your son…”
All the moisture vacuumed out of his mouth along with the rest of the sentence. Val tugged at his temple, cleared his throat. More than fifty years and bitter reminders still brought the same reaction.
Graham tipped up his bottle. They emptied their drinks in silence. Val signaled for another round.
“How do these guys figure into your story?” Graham asked.
“All the perps have gotten off easy. How does that keep happening? That gave me an idea.” Val held a measure of scotch in his mouth, welcoming the burn. “A tangential universe with covert invaders quietly cleaning things up. Only they’re specific about who they target. Drug pushers. Gangbangers. Vagrants. Troublemakers not likely to be missed. With a rigged judicial system, each member of the syndicate gets a minor sentence and is free to kill again. When the undesirables of one territory are eliminated, they move on to the next, until the planet is gentrified. But where the line is drawn, and where it ends—what happens when you reach the goalposts?”