CHAPTER 34

I called Great Midwestern Life from my hotel room and asked the claims adjuster, Gary Herman, if he could spare a few minutes to talk about the Birks’ claim.

“There’s nothing I can tell you,” he said.

“Because there’s nothing to tell or because you aren’t allowed to tell it?”

“Either way. We signed a confidentiality agreement.”

“You did.”

“An airtight one.”

“Exists on paper somewhere.”

“In this very office.”

“So even if you had misgivings about the claim…”

“Even if I had whoppers,” he said. “I still couldn’t tell you that. I also couldn’t tell you that Simon Birk is one litigious sonofabitch and that it could never on any level be worth the grief to try to deny the claim. Wouldn’t matter the case you had. He would take it to the next level and the next. He’d nuke you if all you had was a baseball bat. That I definitely couldn’t tell you.”

“As one investigator to another,” I said, “could you tell me if the police had misgivings?”

“Would have made my job easier if they had.”

“Would have given you traction.”

“If they had done so.”

“Was it Tom Barnett you spoke to?”

“Finally,” he chuckled. “A question I can answer.” I called Jenn at home and told her about my visit to Simon Birk’s office.

“If he knows you’re there, and he knows your every move, I hope you’re being careful,” she said.

“His bodyguard is a guy named Francis, for God’s sake. And he looks like a mannequin. A Madame Tussaud version of himself.”

“Doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous.”

Jenn had put together a complete list of the pieces stolen from the Birk house. “I spoke to my friend Patrick,” she said. “He owns a gallery called Arles and he drooled over this stuff. At a legal auction, the stuff would have fetched at least twenty-five million. The Modigliani nude alone would have gone for five or six million, the Monet about the same, even though Patrick said it was a minor variation on the water lily theme. At least a million for Picasso’s sketch of his mistress. And that’s just three items out of dozens taken. If Birk netted even half of what they were worth and collected on the insurance, it was quite the payday.”

I asked her if anyone had called for me.

“Anyone as in a certain homicide detective?”

“For instance.”

“Sorry, chief.”

“What about Cantor? He write up those notes of his?”

“Haven’t received them yet.”

“All right. Turn up the heat if you don’t get anything by end of business.”

“Will do.”

“Anything else on the go?”

“No.”

“I’m thinking it might be better if you were down here.” “Chicago!” she said. “I thought you’d never ask.” “Sierra won’t mind?”

“Are you kidding? The Magnificent Mile?” “I’m not asking you down here to shop.” “You also can’t work me around the clock,” she said. “There are labour laws, you know.”

“In the States?” I said. “Get out.” Nailing Simon Birk for murder was looking more and more like an impossible quest. Unless I found something solid I could feed to Hollinger, the best I could do was blow smoke. I wanted to call her, see if she had turned up anything useful in Martin Glenn’s financial records, or in the forensics on Will Sterling’s apartment. Maybe she was grilling Rob Cantor as we spoke, nodding grimly, taking furious notes, making the connections, saying to herself, “Jonah was right all along.”

Or maybe she was eating her lunch.

The home invasion was my best bet now-if I could find something, anything, to persuade this Tom Barnett to reopen his investigation. It wouldn’t carry the same weight as a murder charge but the sentence for fraud-especially one that had led to near-fatal injuries to his wife-might put him away for the rest of his natural life.

Who else had been in the van? Assuming the driver was Curry, the passenger was about six feet tall, Konerko had said, way too tall for Birk himself. Therefore, a third man: a thread worth trying to follow, either with Tom Barnett or Jericho Hale.

Hale was less likely to eat me alive so I decided to see him first. When in doubt, I walk. It clears my head, works my lungs and feeds my blood. So instead of getting a cab to the Tribune, I walked up Michigan to Congress and turned right. I took the bridge there across the Metra tracks to Grant Park, its entrance guarded by statues of fierce-looking Natives on horseback.

There were few other people in the park. The apple and cherry trees were bare, the roses already deadheaded. Park workers were raking leaves and blowing debris into bags. The closer I got to the lake, the harder was the bite of the wind blowing in off its waters. Some of the younger runners jogging past me were wearing shorts, their legs bright red from the cold. I was glad I had on jeans and a leather jacket.

Straight ahead was the Buckingham Fountain. Postcards in the hotel gift shop showed its great spume of water rising fifty feet or more into the air but by late October it had been turned off for the season. A city park worker was hosing dead leaf matter off the fanciful marine sculptures that ring the main fountain. A tourist, overweight and overburdened with cameras and other gear, was videotaping his wife as she sat astride a verdigris sculpture of a cavorting sea beast.

At the far end of the fountain are steps leading down to a path that runs parallel to the lakeshore, where waves were crashing against stone jetties. Dead leaves scuttled on the asphalt like crabs. I had just turned north onto the path when I heard footsteps coming up fast behind me, a heavy tread crunching through the leaves. I turned just in time to see him closing on me, a big man in a three-quarter-length peacoat, his right arm close to his body, something held down along there. Something long and black. A lovely pistol-and-suppressor set.

Advantage him.

But to use a suppressor effectively, he needed a smaller-calibre weapon, which meant he had to get close enough for head shots.

Advantage me.

As soon as he raised his arm to shoot, I charged him, my left hand driving his gun arm off to the side. He was a beefy man in his forties, with a wide Slavic face, thick hair and moustache, like a Stalin double waiting for his cue. I grabbed his shirtfront, pulled, and launched a head-butt from my core. Delivering it with neck muscles alone will hurt you more than the other guy. Driving it from your abs gives it shattering force. I broke his nose with the crown of my head. The stunning blow left him dazed enough for me to thumb his wrist into numbness until the gun fell. Then I elbowed the side of his head, felt his knees go wobbly and let him slump to the ground. I threw the gun into a thick bramble of shrubs. Threw him in after it.

I looked north up the path. Saw no one but two young women joggers, both wearing iPods and blissfully unaware of their surroundings. Looked south: an older man who was picking up after his dog.

I set a quick pace north toward the stately Tribune Tower, walking, not running, trying to put some distance between me and my assailant in case he had backup somewhere.

He had worse.

I had taken maybe ten strides when a black Ford Interceptor drove off Lake Shore Drive onto the sidewalk, blocking my path. The driver’s door swung open and a burly towheaded man charged out of his car with a gun in hand. But he opened the car door with such force that it swung back at him, knocking him down into his seat, and I had the choice of trying to disarm my second gunman of the day or listen to Eidan Feingold for once and run.

I turned tail and ran for my life.

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