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Four eccentric squatters witness a murder in downtown Chicago in the late 1960s. When the killers come after them the four must depend on each other, because their past is a secret that can never be revealed.
Leo appears to be just another bum on the streets of downtown Chicago. Libby is cranky, Memnet is shy, and Roy is less than honest, but they have learned to work together to survive.
One night they witness a murder, and as a result, the killers come after them. They dare not go to the police for help. Instead they must fight to survive, depending only on their wits, their skills, and each other.
August 16, 1965
WRAPPED IN A BLANKET, the naked redhead sat on a sagging chair in the center of a dank, cluttered room. The man, who said his name was Norman Bohn, explained his plans for her with large gestures and wild eyes. She hid her shock and fear behind an expression of loathing.
“You are magnificent!” he crowed. She glanced around the dimly lit space, looking for a way to escape, but he didn’t seem to notice. “You’re the first, but there’ll be more. I’ll be famous!”
As Norman ranted on, the woman realized he wasn’t what she’d first thought. She was in no physical danger. Still, she was horrified as he ranted on, flecks of saliva crusting at the sides of his mouth. “You can’t imagine how long I’ve looked for you, what I lost in order to make you mine.”
Staring past him, she regarded the battered metal door as if the things she’d lost might be on the other side. As if life could go back to the way it had been.
Playing the bum at the Randolph Street Mission amused Leo less and less these days. Still, he sat patiently among a dozen or so derelicts, hiding his disgust at the sounds and smells around him. They listened, at least some did, to a long, clumsy lecture opposing strong drink and the love of God—evidently one precluded the other. Maintaining a blank expression, Leo waited as the amateur speaker propounded Christian principles to his captive audience, understanding little of either his audience or the principles themselves.
As men snored, burped, and muttered, the speaker, rapt with his own voice, went doggedly on. Leo resisted the urge to break into the “Te Deum,” imagining the surprised look it would bring to the man’s righteous, acne-scarred face. But that would defeat his purpose, which was the impending meal. Once everyone was busy either serving or eating, he’d steal as much food as possible and leave. He never spent the night in such places. They were bound to be infested.
With his face lowered, Leo didn’t look much different from the others. His longish, flowing hair was shot with gray, and his strong countenance had intriguing life experiences carved on it in the form of deep wrinkles. Hard physical work had roughened his hands, and his scruffy, baggy overcoat made him easily recognizable to the mission staff. When the meal was finally announced, he took a seat on a cockeyed folding chair at a battered table. Pretending to gobble like the others, he surreptitiously stuffed most of his food into large, hidden pockets Memnet had sewn inside the coat.
He was careless this day. A worker passing with a coffeepot saw two rolls disappear under the table. Though she had a kind face, she frowned. “Clients aren’t allowed to take food from the mission.”
Leo bent his head as if ashamed. “It’s for later,” he murmured. “It keeps the cravings down.” With a brief nod of understanding she retreated to the kitchen, the empty pot dangling from one hand. A true Christian, Leo concluded, but he resolved to be more careful in the future.
When the meal was over, Leo left the mission and started for home, the food in his pockets bumping against his thighs with reassuring solidity. Having done his part for the communal good, he slowed to enjoy the sights and sounds around him.
Since his arrival two years ago, the streets of Chicago had produced a succession of emotions. First had been fear and desperation. Later he’d found stimulation, and lately, he’d begun to think of the city as home. As he maneuvered through familiar places, Leo felt a bittersweet happiness.
The buildings of downtown dwarfed the individual man, yet the minds of men had created them. Machinery that rolled, growled, whirred, and whined around him stirred his inquiring mind. Though he didn’t understand everything about the city, Leo was interested in all aspects of it.
As the odor of fried chicken wafted up from his coat, he smiled in anticipation. Soon he’d be home, though his home was not what most people meant by the term. Working together, Leo and three friends had carved out a place for themselves, and lately they managed more than mere sustenance. Like hunter-gatherers of another age, their daylight hours were spent foraging. Each had discovered and developed talents that contributed to the group’s welfare. Leo and Roy put aside their morals, such as they were, and stole. Memnet, who had little talent for crime, earned a small store of cash by singing on the streets. Libby refused to steal, but she made the most of Memnet’s money, demanding value for every penny. Screaming like a fishwife at the poor Greek in the delicatessen down the block, she’d come away with a fragrant cheese or the crispest vegetables. After she learned she couldn’t slap people who irritated her, Libby used her wicked tongue instead, and it paid off.
Walking quickly to avoid the appearance of vagrancy and a chat with Mayor Daley’s Finest, Leo made his way down the city’s gas-choked streets. A few blocks from the lakeshore, he reached his destination and stopped to reconnoiter before going inside.
Set squarely in the middle of the block, the building where he lived was a homely cousin to the more classic structures around it. It was squat and flat-looking, with two rococo balconies on the second story that seemed out of place against the plain gray brick. In an attempt to modernize, bright green awnings had been installed over them, adding to the structure’s oddness.
Most people used a lofty entrance where a brushed metal sign proclaimed, SCHMIDT MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY. For that privilege, they paid a fee.
Leo and his friends used an entry not meant to exist and therefore free of charge. A coal delivery chute, necessary in the 1920s when the building was new, had been boarded up when the heating system was updated. The narrow alley between the Schmidt and the building next to it had been blocked with a high wooden fence to prevent through traffic. The resulting cul-de-sac was dark, cold, and smelled of unpleasant things, which made it perfect for unseen entrances and exits. No one knew where they spent their nights, and no one was supposed to.
As he approached the alley, Leo noticed a child of undistinguishable gender near the entrance. It wore the uniform of the times: bell-bottomed trousers with hems dragged to a dirty gray and frayed; a tattered denim jacket which had signs and signatures drawn on it with an ink pen; and under it a long vest of something shaggy and thick like sheep’s wool. Beneath the vest was a paisley-print shirt in vibrant reds and yellows. Dark hair, heavy and in need of washing, was cut in the style of four young English singers he’d seen on the television. One could tell the child was female only because the bag she carried had a ballerina embroidered on it.
The girl’s liquid brown eyes gazed hopefully at people passing on the sidewalk, measuring them with a maturity her small frame couldn’t match. Leo worried she might see him slipping into the alley, but her glance passed over him disinterestedly. She was searching for someone, but an old man in a baggy overcoat wasn’t it. A runaway, he guessed. Since his own concerns precluded taking on the troubles of others, Leo entered the alley, ducked behind the trash bin, and headed for an entrance only four people in the world knew about.
A year before, working late at night, Leo and Roy had unsealed the old coal chute, carefully preserving its blank appearance. Its wood-and-wire covering now opened and closed like a door if one knew the trick of a clever mechanism. Once it was usable, Roy had moved the trash bin to block view from the street, helping to keep their secret.
When the work was finished Libby had crowed, “Leo, you’ve given us freedom!” at which he’d smiled and bowed graciously. Commendation from Libby was welcome, but he was used to being praised for his clever hands.
Once inside the building, Leo took a metal staircase down two levels. As he descended, the air grew stale, but he hardly noticed anymore. If dank meant other people stayed away, so be it. At the bottom of the fourth and final set of steps, he turned down a dark, low hall where dusty, wire-mesh-covered bulbs illuminated the way only slightly. At the far end was a rusted metal door marked STOREROOM C in stenciled letters that were badly cracked and fading. Leo closed the door behind him before calling out, “Anybody here?”
Storeroom C was remote from the daily workings of the museum, an ill-kept, clammy basement. Piles of miscellaneous junk rose above eye level, a crazed amalgam of detritus stacked with little concern for order since the staff didn’t expect anything there would be needed again. Leo maneuvered to the back, where a space had been cleared. Here was the place they called home.
Roy appeared, ducking out of an odd, raised doorway in the wall, his lank frame bending with the grace of one in the prime of manhood. “Libby and I started makin’ supper.” Dropped final g’s and elongated vowels betrayed his rural background.
He set a mismatched assortment of dishes on a threadbare rug. “We’re still waitin’ on Memnet, but I got a whole cake and six bottles of root beer.” Roy had a passion for the latter, which Leo found overly sweet but was too polite to mention. Emptying his pockets, he placed his contribution of bread, chicken, and cheese on a chipped plate. “Compliments of the Randolph Street Mission.”
Libby emerged from a second, equally odd doorway, a bowl balanced between hip and forearm and two small tomatoes in hand. Red hair shot with gray pulled back in a tight bun gave her a severe look. Leo kissed her pale cheek, picking up the scent of Ivory soap, and remarked, “Tomatoes! Aren’t they poisonous, Libby?” His ancient joke brought a smile that sweetened her haughty expression.
“Leo, you must overcome your old-fashioned thinking. I suppose you won’t sleep with the window open for fear of the night air.”
“I might if I had a window,” he answered. “Maybe Roy will dig me one.”
“Too much concrete for diggin’,” Roy observed wryly. “You might could draw you a pretty one. You’re good at that.” His tone conveyed disrespect for effort wasted in the expression of beauty.
It was meant as a joke, but Libby stiffened and her mood turned snappish. “If Leo’s drawings distract us from the fact that we live like moles, it’s a benefit.”
Leo surmised she’d been thinking about the past, dwelling on it, as she often did. He put a hand on her shoulder, and she shivered, adding, “I have always hated damp.”
“There’s no remedy for it, Libby.”
Her nose went thinner. “I don’t have to like it. Moles, scuttling about in the dark. If they found us...” Resentment crept into her voice. “I used to dance until dawn. Now it’s only Roy who celebrates the night.”
Roy’s expression turned sullen, and Leo searched for a way to deflect the impending argument. “Our life here requires sacrifice—” he began.
“Exactly!” she interrupted. “Secrecy is crucial, but he comes and goes as he pleases, at all hours, never revealing where he goes or what he does.”
Unaffected by her tendency to talk about him as if he weren’t there, Roy said, “I do as I please.”
“We know what you please. You return smelling of cigarettes and perfume.”
Roy took a piece of green pepper from the bowl she held, tacitly daring her to stop him. “I’ve done my share of layin’ low,” he said. “A man can only stay in nights for so long.”
“But it causes concern for the rest of us,” Leo said. “You must see that.”
Libby’s voice rose. “What if you’re caught on one of your outings, half-drunk and loose-tongued?”
Roy waved a casual hand. “I can take care of myself.”
“With theft and lies,” Libby sneered.
“That’s Roy’s strength, Libby. People see him as a friendly eccentric with no secrets.”
Roy grinned. “You’re not so bad yourself. It’s Libby who acts like she’s got the right to order folks around.” He spoke to Leo, neatly turning the third-person gambit around. “It’s lucky people think she’s crazy.”
Libby tossed her head. “I’m driven halfway to madness by the chances you take. It is we who will pay when your skills fail you.”
Leo tried again. “We each do as we please, Libby. We agreed to that from the start.” They moved about Chicago almost naturally these days, blending into the crowds of odd people any large city attracts. At times Leo almost forgot they were, and must remain, shadows in the city of big shoulders.
Libby’s anger faded. “It’s no life; that’s all I’m saying. No life at all.”
“Perhaps soon we’ll be ready to leave here.”
She managed a weak smile, but they all knew it was unlikely. There was too much they didn’t know, too much danger. The Schmidt offered safety and anonymity.
Roy changed the subject. “What shall we play tonight, gin rummy or poker?”
Libby sighed philosophically. “Leo’s choice. I can guess what it will be.”
“Poker.” Roy had taught them the game. Leo was a quick learner, so the women always lost to one man or the other. Libby enjoyed chess, but from her first few moves Leo knew what she had in mind. Memnet had long since ceased trying to teach them her favorite game, something with hounds that the others could make no sense of. Still, evening games were anticipated with pleasure. Balance restored, Libby went back to meal preparation. Roy turned to cleaning his nails with a pocket knife.
Taking a chair padded with an old blanket to cushion a slightly protruding spring, Leo watched as Libby chopped the tomatoes with brisk movements. She made many people uneasy, but Leo was not afraid of her, and Roy seemed to enjoy provoking her anger.
“Where did you go today?” Authoritative chops accompanied her words.
“Before the Mission? The library.”
Libby smiled as if she’d known the answer before asking. Most days, they left the museum in the morning and roamed the streets separately. Leo spent his leisure hours poring over books, grappling with their complexities and his own inadequacies. He yearned to know more about Norman’s secrets, though the others said he should accept what had happened and forget it.
Whatever their chosen path, they returned between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m., after the staff upstairs had gone home, to share the evening meal. By tacit consent, dinner was served in the best style they could manage, and they waited until everyone was present to begin.
Picking up the thread of the former conversation, Libby said, “At least we’re safe down here.”
“Yes,” Leo agreed. “We’re safe.” They knew it couldn’t last and feared the day in some uncertain future when their secret was revealed. Still, it was good Libby tried to be optimistic. Tried to behave.
After two years, they were used to each other’s ways, but it wasn’t always easy. They were completely different, yet survival required they function as a group. Circumstances forced them to recognize each other’s strengths and weaknesses, which most of the time complimented each other.
Libby was the easiest for Leo to deal with, having known her type all his life, but she also had the hardest time accepting their poverty. They were homeless, jobless, family-less, and friendless, except for each other. Disaster threatened if anyone discovered they were still alive. For someone with Libby’s background of wealth, power, and prestige, banishment from the world was a harsh sentence.
As she set out a shoebox with packets of sugar, salt, and pepper lifted from various restaurants, her unsettled mind caused an abrupt return to petulance. “Can that girl never be on time for supper?” Patient with Leo, Libby disapproved of Roy, though she was often susceptible to his charm and masculinity. With Memnet she was condescending and demanding.
“She perhaps got confused about the streets again.” Roy’s tone implied it was to be expected. His back to Libby, he caught Leo’s eye and mouthed, “Women!”
Roy’s assumption of male superiority and his low opinion of Memnet’s abilities irked Leo, though he noticed the younger man was careful not to let Libby hear his chauvinistic comments. After several fiery diatribes, he was apparently unwilling to hear more from her on that subject.
“She was to fetch fresh water.” In theory, they took turns hauling bucketsful from a sink at the opposite end of the hall, but Memnet always took Libby’s turn as well as her own. Libby never argued, assuming everyone should wait on her.
Leo had chided Memnet more than once about it. “My dear, this is the age of women’s rights. You are as good as any of us.”
“I don’ mind,” she would reply in her soft, heavily accented voice. “And if I don’ mind and it make Libby happy to us, it is a good thing, yes?”
Possessed of a beauty Leo appreciated intrinsically and goodness that shone from her like an interior candle, Memnet was what Leo imagined the lesser angels to be. Soft and yielding, she lacked the will to combat Libby’s pettiness. She seemed unable to contemplate evil, having lived a sheltered life before coming to Chicago. Leo tried to encourage her confidence, but Memnet was Memnet. Who is Man to alter an angelic soul?
Leo had faults of his own, beginning with a decidedly un-angelic outlook. He tried to be modern and learn everything he could about the world around him. That was his good side. Opposing that was a stubborn streak many people had pointed out from time to time. Often he chose to ignore reality, pondering impractical “what-ifs?” that made Roy shake his head in disgust.
“Why do you care?” Roy would ask as he pored over books from the museum’s reading room each night. “It’s over, and there’s no changin’ it. What happens next is what we need to think on.”
Leo always nodded in agreement, but his stubborn mind wouldn’t let him leave it alone. A life—his life—had been left behind, and he wanted an explanation. So far, there was none.
A haggard face hung over him when he woke, sore and woozy, to new surroundings. “Jet lag,” Norman said with a wheezy chuckle. He had a large nose with veins like chicken tracks running all over it, rheumy blue eyes, and a small, thin-lipped mouth surrounded by several days’ growth of gray beard. His breath smelled of onions and what Leo later learned was Scotch.
“How are you?” he shouted, as if Leo were deaf.
Dazed and lost, Leo was at first unable to communicate. Light too bright to comprehend shone everywhere in the room. It hurt, but gradually his eyes focused. Behind the homely man, a red-haired woman watched with something like pity on her face. When her gaze moved to the man, however, her expression turned bitter. She knew what was happening, and she opposed it.
Norman leaned in even closer, eyes narrowed, inspecting Leo as if he were an unfamiliar bug. “Are you all right?”
Leo pulled his wits together enough to give an intelligent answer. “Je ne parle pas l’anglais.”