They Tell Me You Are Cunning
by David Hagerty
The cold forecast everything that was to come.
When Mark and Eleanor Mulvaney returned to their condo from an excursion downtown, they felt Chicago’s chill unchecked, the draft penetrating even their winter coats. The entry hall of their unit offered no more relief than the anteroom to the building downstairs, with its single-paned window and loosely-framed door.
“Wait here,” Mark said. “I’ll stoke the super.”
The boiler in their building had worked erratically of late, faltering as soon as the snow began. They’d complained to the manager several times already, but the maintenance man said it was just the pilot light blowing out. He kept odd hours, up all night and asleep during the day when they needed him, as reliable as the weather.
“It’s late. Let’s not disturb anyone,” said Eleanor.
“We’re customers. We deserve good service.” Mark turned to descend the two staircases they’d just climbed. As he reached for the door handle, a gust of cold air surprised him. “Did you leave a window open?”
She gave him a look implying that he was being snotty, then raised the collar of her thin coat. “Why would I do that?”
That night, she had insisted on wearing something frilly and fashionable that she’d just bought at Marshall Field’s instead of her warm but lumpy down jacket, like they were destined for the red carpet. To his mind, retirement meant never having to dress up again, and he didn’t plan to spend the evening bundled in his camel hair coat, the one vestige of his professional wardrobe, nor to sleep through his wife’s shivering.
Perhaps one of their children had come home to visit and left a window unlatched. Their son held keys in case his parents ever took sick. As a teen he’d been flaky and distracted, incapable of even taking out the trash prior to collection day, but since fathering children of his own he’d learned to attend to details. Their daughter, the chatterbox, could talk anyone into letting her in, except the coat rack sat empty, the boot tray still dry.
He opened the door to the powder room but saw all the casements shut and bolted.
Outside, the El screeched past, so loud it could have stopped on their back porch. Living a block from the tracks, he’d become deaf to the noise, but this overpowered all other sounds.
Only a few hours before, they had locked up the apartment and taken the train downtown to see Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet’s new play, which was getting such rabid reviews. Truth was, Eleanor had dragged Mark to it. She said as a former audio salesman he could relate. “Why pay to see what I lived for forty years?” he said. To his surprise, he loved the conniving, posturing, and back stabbing. She complained: it was too profane, too cynical, his coworkers didn’t speak like that. “You never heard how they talk to each other,” he said.
The thought spurred him to check the front room and his own sound system, which took up an entire wall. Thirty years out of date, with vacuum tubes and turntables, hardly high-end compared to the CD players and subwoofers his customers wanted. Still, he felt a sentimental attachment to his old unit, even if it rarely rattled the walls any longer. It reminded him of his early years at Pacific Stereo—before the arrival of the big box stores—when he spent hours talking to other audiophiles.
The equipment appeared as always, with the thousands of records that surrounded it still in order, the out-of-print jazz albums segregated from the mono symphonic LPs. The furniture also looked as usual, the old couch dating from their wedding and the recliner he’d received on his retirement. Hardly proof of their security now, since it would take a team to carry them down the switchbacks of the stairwell. Beyond the front window, a dog barked and a snow-plow beeped, but inside the apartment he heard nothing. It felt warmer up front, too, less drafty.
Until recently, Wrigleyville offered streets safe enough that Eleanor could walk through Graceland Cemetery unescorted. Even returning from the El after dark, he didn’t worry. Yuppies had infiltrated the neighborhood, fixing up the greystones and driving up the prices. Except in the past six months, some other tenants in his building had reported items missing from the basement—bikes and clothes they’d left in storage.
Some blamed the Bleached Bums, those Cubs faithful who’d spent forty years awaiting a pennant. Now and again one who’d adhered to the three-beer minimum would stumble onto their block having misplaced his parked car. With Wrigley Field only a short walk away, many locals suffered throughout the seasonal appearance of garbage and urine on their doorstoops.
Rather than complain to Chicago’s finest, who patrolled the streets only when called, and then belatedly, Mark had joined the crowd. After so many years of catching only a game or two, he’d splurged on season tickets. For a change, the fans felt some optimism with Larry Bowa, Bill Buckner, and Leon Durham anchoring the middle of the order, plus newcomer Ryne Sandberg at second. Only, Spring Training wouldn’t begin for two months.
He turned on the hall light and started a slow walk to the rear of the apartment, the wood floors creaking with each step. As he advanced, the temperature seemed to drop, like he was playing that game with his grandchildren, “you’re getting warmer,” except with the poles reversed. Odd. With all the electronics in the home, he made it a point to bolt all the windows before theyd left, even though it would take Spider-Man to access them along the third story. Lately, though, his memory had failed him, with objects going missing or turning up misplaced.
He checked his office where a saxophone leaned in the corner. After forty years of silence, he planned to take up jazz again in his retirement. Thus far, he’d only picked it up a few times, unable to recall more than the major scales, and reluctant to share his faltering first notes with the neighbors.
Another sight stopped him: an original Edison gramophone, which he’d been restoring, the wood case stripped and stained, the brass horn polished. All it lacked to make it sing again were a new belt and stylus. Surely a burglar would have taken that first. Again he checked the windows behind the blinds but found everything sealed tight.
On the opposite side of the hall lay the kitchen, which sat dark and empty. A tray of cupcakes rested on the counter, redolent of poppy seeds and orange zest, awaiting distribution at the local library, where Eleanor volunteered. Certainly cooled by now.
However, the rear door leading to the fire escape sat ajar, with a spray of dead leaves across the floor. That explained the draft. He paused to study the room. Nothing else appeared out of place—the pots and pans resting on the stove, the macramé plant hangers above the sink, so he examined the door. Up close, the lock looked undamaged. Perhaps they had neglected to close it.
“You left the back door open,” he shouted to his wife.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
He walked toward the master bedroom to remove his shoes but paused on hearing a conversation, faint and crackly, in some language he didn’t know. It sounded more like a recording than live people. Possibly sounds from outside.
Then a slim light distracted him, reflecting off something on his dresser as the sun would off water. He thought he saw a silver-plated comb and brush set that his parents have given them on the birth of their first child. Only, Mark had retired it to their bottom drawer years ago, a forgotten memento. A second later, the ray shone directly into his eyes, blinding him, although in his memory, he pictured the outline of a tall, slim man standing by the bed frame.
“Stop,” said a thin voice. Something about the tone, a scratchy resonance, rang familiar.
“What are you doing here?” Mark said.
The man hesitated, then the light extinguished. In the near dark, Mark heard steps advance toward him, then saw the moonlight glint off something in the man’s hand as he raised it overhead.
By the second year of his early retirement from public life, Duncan Cochrane had established a protocol that insulated him from the body politic.
He awoke to sunlight streaming through his condo, the plate glass windows of the high-rise unobscured by blinds or curtains. Compared to the formality of the executive mansion, with its antiques and sitting rooms, his apartment felt comfortably spare. He’d furnished it with only a double bed, a dresser, and a nightstand—no artwork, little furniture, mainly clothes and books. The building’s round skeleton encouraged such minimalism, the whole looking much like a corn cob with rooms shaped like kernels, which required large blank spaces at the curves and corners.
When he’d rented the place two years before, he wanted to strip back his life to essentials, so he’d conceded most of his old furnishings to his estranged wife. As he left office, Duncan packed and stored the plaques, awards, and pictures from his tenure, displaying only a photo of his three children in their youth, gathered along the beach by their old home. Lindsay, his eldest, looked bronzed and glamorous in a linen top and Ray-Bans, while her sister, Glynis, covered up in a broad hat and long-sleeved dress. Their brother, Aden, barely into his teens, smiled slyly as though forecasting the misadventure that would fracture the family.
After standing through coffee and breakfast alone in his kitchen, Duncan descended to a gym on the lower level, where he walked on the treadmill for fifty minutes, ramping up the conveyor belt until it bounced beneath him. At that hour, most office workers had already departed while the underemployed had yet to arise, leaving Duncan to his own thoughts. This constituted a return to the purity of his undergraduate days, when baseball practice consumed every afternoon and games most weekends. However, after college he’d slipped out of shape, too focused on work and family. Only recently had he made time again for exercise, contracting his waist by two sizes and, if not equaling his former fitness, at least preserving it.
Following the workout, he returned to his apartment and began the business of the day, which mostly consisted of study. He favored history and economics, which taught lessons that he wished he’d known while in public service. His work had allowed no time for reading—other than legislation and government reports, neither very edifying—so he’d made a list of important texts and started at the top. Milton Friedman. Thorstein Veblen. Edward Gibbon. After four years focused on others, he craved self-improvement.
In truth, he preferred isolation to the hubbub of government. He’d purposely constricted his world to the community of his dwelling. Fortunately, the Marina Towers housed everything a man needed: groceries, restaurants, movies. A city within a city.
He considered himself one of its happiest inmates.
When he wanted escape, Duncan stepped onto his oval balcony and listened to the traffic below. From there he saw the Chicago River snaking around the erector set of downtown. The El rattled over the La Salle Street Bridge while autos inched across a dozen other spans connecting the Loop to its workforce.
The founders of Chicago got that right, leaving the waterfront open. Public parks and beaches stretched nearly the length of the city, without buildings or private property to obscure the coast. Unlike other big cities—New York or London—one had only to look east to escape the congestion and concrete of downtown.
Already the breeze off the lake felt warm and hazy, a sign of the humidity to come. Thankfully, he no longer dressed in suits and ties regardless of the weather, like some British gentleman governing colonial India. Instead, he embraced the casual comfort of anonymity.
For the first few months of his retreat, he’d tried to engage with the public. He’d dine at trendy restaurants, see old associates, talk of what came next, and people would treat him with the reverence of his old station, inviting him to their events, saving him a good table. Still, it felt put on, more nostalgic than genuine. Perhaps all men of importance eventually become obsolete.
His few excursions involved family: visiting his son downstate, talking to his daughter in Wisconsin, and seeing his ex-wife, all of which he anticipated that week.
By lunchtime he craved some diversion from his sanctuary, so he rolled the newspaper and descended to the coffee shop at street level. There the regular patrons ignored him, accustomed to a celebrity in their midst. Still, he sat at the counter, with his back to the tables, so he could watch people enter in the mirrored bar. He spoke only to the waitress, Florence, a cute brunette with dimples and a ponytail. She was almost too young to recall his term in office, though no doubt she’d heard about it. Showing a restraint uncommon for her age, she never mentioned it, and he obliged with few demands and generous tips.
He ignored the sizzle of hamburgers in the kitchen and ordered a BLT—a compromise for his new diet, the lettuce and tomato making up for the bacon.
While he waited, he studied the news. Mondale was leading in the primaries, with Jesse Jackson and others heckling from far behind, all vying to challenge Reagan. L.A. was building up for an Olympics without the Soviets. Famine struck Ethiopia. All felt equally distant to him.
The business pages noted that the S&P had doubled in three years, financing Duncan’s idleness and his lawyers, but skeptics claimed it couldn’t last, fretting about a trend toward hostile takeovers. After stripping TWA of all its assets, corporate raider Carl Icahn was targeting US Steel. Hard to see how that could threaten a bull market, but the precaution resonated with Duncan.
In frustration, he turned to the Metro section, which mentioned two prisons approved during his administration. Construction had nearly finished, with opening projected by fall. His legacy. He’d promised voters a state safer than the one he’d inherited. No parent should lose a child as he had.
A partisan battle had erupted within the legislature about which aging public figure to honor with their name. Perhaps they’d memorialize him, the Cochrane Penal Institute, the house that Governor Rambo built. Not likely.
At least weekly, he read coverage of himself. Invariably wrong. Reporters would write that he’d resigned from office. In fact, he’d chosen not to run for reelection. They’d claim that he’d lied about his son. In truth, he’d never spoken about him publicly. They’d allege that he’d misled voters about his crime bills. Ironically, those measures represented the truest words he’d spoken.
For a time he’d tried to respond, to clarify misstatements, but he found the interaction fruitless. Instead of transcribing what he said, the scriveners would counter it with accusations from people who barely knew him, attorneys both public and private who claimed to be investigating him but really fed off the state. Politics infected everything. Some days read like an autopsy, a search for the contagion after the parasites had dispatched him.
Once the food arrived, he set aside the scandal sheet to focus on his sandwich, the bacon crunchy, the lettuce crisp, the toast firm but not too dry. If only he found such pleasure in his other public dealings. As he enjoyed the last bites and eyed the potato chips on the side of his plate, a word startled him.
An address he’d not heard in some time, yet reflexively he turned to see a woman standing uncomfortably close. Instead of replying, he studied her and tried to guess her agenda. She wore a conservative gray blouse and her hair in a bob, more matronly than threatening, but her expression worried him: an anxious expectancy. Somehow he’d missed her arrival in the looking glass, no doubt distracted by the savory meal.
“I’m Catherine Fontanelle from the Innocence Inquiry.”
He nodded, though the names meant nothing to him, and plotted an escape route via a back exit.
“Could I have moment of your time?”
Before he could respond, she sat on the empty stool beside him and laid a freckled hand on the countertop close to his own. Her features included a sharp chin and nose along with pale blue eyes and blonde hair streaked with gray. In her youth, she must have possessed great beauty, with a classic Nordic cool.
“I’m representing a man named Harry Flores.” She paused to gauge his reaction, but he maintained a neutral face, the name unfamiliar. “He’s incarcerated for killing a retired couple in Chicago.”
The way she spoke, as though expecting all this to be familiar, perplexed Duncan. Why would he know such a person, or care?
“We believe he was wrongly convicted.”
Duncan reached for the pickle but stopped himself when he realized that she anticipated a reply. From the kitchen he heard the rattle of a milkshake machine over a boom box playing some pop song about the sound of crying doves, a reminder that others might be listening. “And what is it you want from me?” he said.
“Support. To win his release.”
Duncan signaled to the waitress for his check and lay his napkin funereally atop his plate, forgetting the pickle and chips. “I don’t see how I could help,” he said.
“He was tried during your administration and sentenced under your laws. If you were to publicly declare his innocence, it would—”
Duncan stood to extract his wallet. “I doubt that my word would sway anyone.”
“As a former head of state? How could it not?”
“Miss, since my retirement, my influence has diminished greatly.”
“You created the architecture of his incarceration. Don’t you want to ensure that it’s sound?”
Florence was preoccupied with other customers, so Duncan lay a $5 bill on the counter next to his plate. “I’m afraid the public perception about me,” he nodded toward the newspaper, “is tainted.”
“Which is precisely why we need your involvement. You’re both a victim of violent crime and a prosecutor of it. Who better to campaign against the excesses of a penal state than someone who understands it from both perspectives?”
“I’m sorry, but I cannot help you,” he said and strode to the elevator that would carry him back up to the security of his apartment.