|Waking up with a splitting headache and a throbbing shoulder,
Elliott had no idea where he was. By clamping his eyes shut and
reopening them, he was able to discern that he was in a hospital room,
though he had no clue as to how he’d gotten there.
The one thing he did know was that someone was sitting in the chair beside his bed, watching him. Yet when he managed to turn his head to see who it was, the chair was empty. He was alone in the room. Except he wasn’t.
He drifted in and out of sleep interrupted with annoying frequency by nurses waking him up to do whatever nurses find it necessary to wake people up to do. Mostly they said nothing and achieved their objectives with expressionless faces. And whenever he awoke, he would glance over at the chair and feel whoever wasn’t there watching him.
He gradually became aware—he had no idea how—that John was the name of whoever was not in the chair, and got the distinct impression that John was, to say the least, confused, and apparently unable to grasp the concept that he was dead. Elliott also sensed that John not only hadn’t a clue as to how he died but had no idea of who he had been while he was alive.
Of course, on the subject of being confused, Elliott realized that he was hardly a poster boy for sharp thinking himself. He had no idea why he had ended up in the hospital, or for that matter, which hospital. It wasn’t until he saw Norm Shepard, an ER nurse who lived in his building, standing over him that he realized he was in St. Joseph’s. Norm smiled when he saw Elliott looking at him.
“Welcome back to the world of the living,” he said.
Elliott glanced quickly over to the chair. John, he sensed, was not amused.
“I had to come up to this floor for some charts,” Norm was saying, “and thought I’d check in to see how you’re doing.”
Elliott opened his mouth to talk, but somebody else’s voice came out, and Norm quickly raised his hand to silence him.
“No talk just yet,” he said.
* * *
Over the next couple of days, every time he looked at the chair, Elliott knew John was there, watching him. When visitors would stop by—his sister Cessy came by a lot, as did several of his friends, and Rick Morrison, a guy he had begun dating a few weeks before the accident—most would stand by the bedside or at the foot of the bed. When anyone sat down, Elliott would be aware that John wasn’t in the chair—apparently even though he was now non-corporeal, he didn’t like being sat on.
At such times, he would sense John by the window, looking out at the traffic on Lakeshore Drive. He never got the impression that John was particularly interested in whoever else was in the room.
How Elliott himself had ended up in St. Joe’s he learned in bits and pieces. He was told that he had been crossing Sheridan Road at Wellington, a few blocks from the hospital, around eleven o’clock at night, on his way home from dinner with friends, and been clipped by a car speeding around the corner. He’d hit his head on the curb, although fortunately his left shoulder had taken the brunt of the fall. He’d been unconscious or heavily sedated for several days, and was cautioned that he’d look a bit like a monk for a while after he got out, since they had to shave a part of his head to stitch up a rather nasty cut on his scalp.
He did his best to convince himself that the concussion from the head injury accounted for John, and that he’d just go away after a while.
But he didn’t, and Elliott didn’t dare mention him to anyone lest they decide to transfer him to the psychiatric ward for observation. He was nothing if not practical and logical, and John’s intrusion into his life was neither. So they kept their own counsel, John and he.
He still had the overwhelming sense that John was utterly confused over his current state and how it came about. He also felt that since he was the only one who was aware of John, John looked to him for help, though Elliott had no idea what he could do.
And then one night just before he was scheduled to be released, Norm Shepard stopped by again after his shift. Since his first visit, some vague memories of and after the accident were beginning to return.
“I think I remember seeing you in the ER when I was brought in,” Elliott said. “I guess I was in pretty bad shape.”
“We weren’t sure there for a while whether or not there was any bleeding into your brain, but there wasn’t. You’re a lucky guy.”
Elliott sighed. “Considering the alternative, I guess you’re right.” Again, he was aware that John did not appreciate his humor.
“But I vaguely recall they brought somebody in right after me, and you took off. I guess the other guy was in worse shape than I was.”
Norm shrugged. “Yeah, you could say that. He didn’t have a chance. Shot six times. It’s a wonder he even made it to the hospital.”
“Sorry about that,” Elliott said, and he was. “Who was he? Did I see a couple cops come in with him?”
“Yeah, they brought him in. Found him in an alley less than two blocks from here. No I.D. on him, and he died without fully regaining consciousness.”
“So did they find out who he was?”
“I have no idea,” Norm said. “We admitted him as a John Doe.”
* * *
John Doe! Was the presence in the chair the guy from the ER? He sensed no particular reaction from the direction of the chair, but if it was the same guy, had he somehow made some sort of link with Elliott in the few minutes they were both teetering on the threshold between life and death?
Or, more likely, was it Elliott who had made the link? Maybe this whole thing really was just some sort of psychotic episode Elliott’s mind created for reasons of its own. When he got home from the hospital, back in his own world with his own things around him, John would probably just fade away.
Although he prided himself on logical, linear thinking, Elliott found his thoughts in the hospital skipping over the surface of his mind like a flat stone thrown onto a calm pond. He’d start off pondering one thing, and suddenly find himself somewhere totally unrelated.
Contemplating his conviction that the presence in the chair was named John, he convinced himself he must have subconsciously heard someone in the ER referring to the other man as “John Doe.” From there, his thoughts inexplicably segued to the fact that names had always intrigued him, possibly because “Elliott” was not a name he would have chosen for himself. When he was a teenager, he liked to think of himself as more of a Tom or perhaps a Mike. He always suspected that his mother, whose maiden name had been Von Eck, had chosen a high-gloss first name like Elliott as a way of compensating for his primer-coat last name—Smith.
But, being a very adaptable sort, he grew used to it. He in fact prided himself on both his adaptability and his practicality, though he took a certain pleasure in his few minor idiosyncrasies. He collected trivia, for example, the way black pants collect cat hair. In addition to a penchant for remembering interesting but relatively useless information from everything he read, he enjoyed using his own observations to provide even more. He knew, for example, the height in stories of every building he passed regularly; he knew the number of steps between floors in any building in which he had occasion to use the stairs.
Now, bringing his thoughts back to the name John, he knew it is the second most common name for American men—more than four million—just as Smith is the most common American surname. He could think of at least half a dozen Johns he knew personally.
Although his last name may have been common, his resources were not. He had always been a little embarrassed that, by sheer chance, he was born into an extremely affluent family, not one member of which had done a real day’s work in his or her life. He was hardly foolish enough to turn his back on the family money, but had done his best to avoid its pitfalls.
Possibly as an offshoot of his fascination with trivia, he had always had the innate ability to look at something and intuitively see how a minimum of effort and investment could produce the maximum results. It subsequently came naturally to him to support himself by buying, renovating and reselling small apartment buildings around the north side of the city, though he made an occasional concession to his wealth by keeping a few he couldn’t bear to part with. It kept him busy, and he enjoyed it.
That night, and every night thereafter that he remained in the hospital, experiencing vivid technicolor dreams he could not remember later, there was one thing he could not forget, one thought accompanied by a sensation of sorrow and loss, repeating over and over: My name is John!
* * *
He convinced his doctors to release him on Friday so that he wouldn’t have to spend the weekend in the hospital. Rick offered to take time off from work to take him home, but Cessy insisted she pick him up and drive him home in her new SUV, a combination thirty-fourth birthday and birth-of-a-third-grandchild present from their parents (“Now that you have three children, Cecilia, you need a larger, more dependable vehicle.”).
Brad, Cessy’s police detective husband, wasn’t too happy about the gift, though he acknowledged that it was a practical one. But he had put his foot down when Cessy’s parents wanted to buy a new Steinway for their granddaughter Jenny, when she began taking piano lessons at age seven. Brad was an extremely proud guy, and while he never talked about it, Elliott knew that reminders that Cessy had more money than he’d make in several lifetimes really bothered him.
Their—Cessy’s and Elliott’s—mother had, perhaps not surprisingly, been far less than pleased with Cessy’s choice of a husband, but knew her daughter well enough not to make her displeasure too evident. Cessy was a lot like Elliott in her attitude toward the family fortune, though her practical side had no problem in using it if she needed it. But out of deference to Brad, she was pretty restrained.
Having gotten him safely home and making him promise about a dozen times to take his medication, rest and not do anything strenuous—he did manage to dissuade her from putting him to bed and tucking him in—Cessy left to attend a parent-teacher affair at Brad Jr.’s school. She said she would return later in the afternoon with some groceries. Elliott’s kitchen cabinets were full, but after being gone for almost a week, he admitted he did need a few perishables like milk.
After Cessy left, he took a pill to forestall the onset of a recurring headache, then spent a few minutes just looking around the apartment. He was glad to be home. Noticing that Ida, his cleaning woman, had obviously forgotten to water the plants on the balcony off the living room, he went into the kitchen to fill the watering can.
Doing everything with just one hand proved not to be as easy as he had thought. He opened the sliding glass doors, having to set the can down first. He had already learned through experience that any too-sudden or too-sharp a movement of his upper torso could hurt like hell. Stepping out onto the balcony, he watered the plants, then stood looking out at the city. He’d bought his 35th-floor condo for its unobstructed south view of the city and the Loop.
It was one of those perfect just-before-summer days, with cotton-puff clouds gliding slowly across an incredibly blue sky. The lake, immediately below to his left, reflected the blue of the sky, and was lightly flecked with whitecaps. He never got tired of looking at it.
Going back inside, he considered removing the sling the doctor had insisted he wear; he found it more cumbersome than helpful and was sure that as long as he was careful not to move his arm too swiftly, he could do just as well without it. But his practical side won out, and he decided he had better keep it on.
Sitting in his favorite chair near the window, he picked up a stack of mail Cessy had extricated from his full mailbox and left on the glass-topped coffee table. Opening it with one hand was even harder than filling the watering can had been, and when he did have it all opened, he determined that, other than a postcard from his parents, who were on a passenger freighter plying the islands of the Philippines, there was nothing that needed his immediate attention. Maybe it was all the medication, but as he sat in the sunlight with a nice breeze coming through the open balcony doors, he dozed off.
My name is John.
Yes, I know. Tell me something I don’t know.
And Elliott woke up, feeling, somehow, very sad.
He had hoped, or rather assumed, that he’d left John at the hospital—he’d always heard that ghosts hang around the place where they died. Obviously, that was just one of those old ghost tales. He had read somewhere that newly hatched ducks and geese imprint on the first thing they see when they’re born, and wondered if perhaps John, if he were not just a figment of Elliott’s imagination, had somehow done the same with him when he died. The question now was what was he going to do about it? What could he do about it?
In the back of his mind there was still the very strong likelihood that all this was, in fact, just a result of his head trauma, and that as he got better, John would just fade away. He had initially supported that theory because of John’s having no clue about who he was, which would be reasonable if Elliott had created him. Then it struck Elliott that, if he couldn’t remember the details of his own accident, the trauma of being murdered could certainly make one unable to remember things clearly. On the other hand, he’d have thought that the act of dying might have clarified things a bit. Obviously, it hadn’t.
He considered the thought that John might be experiencing some ectoplasmic form of total amnesia. Maybe just being dead produced it, which would account for the relatively few reports of ghosts. But whatever the reason for John’s lack of personal information, given the brief exchange of sleep-submerged conversation, he reluctantly came to accept that John might, in fact, be real, and simply not know who he was.
* * *
The afternoon passed with phone calls and the sisterly fussing of Cessy, who returned with the milk plus an entire bag full of things he didn’t really need but which she insisted would be good for him. He had never been overly fond of things he was told were good for him.
He was tempted to remind her that she was his sister, not his nurse, but resisted, knowing she was just trying to help. The door had no sooner closed behind her when the phone rang.
“Elliott Smith,” he said, reaching it just before the third ring.
“Elliott, I called the hospital and they said you’d been released today.” He recognized the voice as Larry Fingerhood, a real estate broker with whom he frequently worked.
“Yeah,” he replied. “I got back just after lunch.”
“Is it okay to talk business? I don’t want to bother you if you’re resting.”
“No, I’m fine, thanks. What’s up?”
“Just wanted to let you know I’m afraid we lost out on the bid for the Devon building. Evermore upped our offer by $10,000, and because the owner didn’t know how long you’d be in the hospital, he didn’t want to wait, and accepted it.”
“Damn! But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.” This was the second building he’d back-and-forthed with—and lost to—Evermore Properties in the past month, and it was getting old. Fast.
“I’m really sorry, but I didn’t have the authority to counter again.”
Elliott sighed. “That’s okay. You’re right, and I understand. It’s a nice building with a lot of potential, and I hate to lose it, but…”
Evermore Properties, which was primarily a land development firm, had recently been taken over by Al Collina, whom Elliott had known and disliked since childhood, and whose family had for a time lived next door to the Smiths in Lake Forest. The Collinas had come into their wealth during Prohibition by means everyone knew but no one openly talked about. By the time Elliott’s generation had come along, the source of the Collinas’ wealth was considered just an interesting bit of Chicago folklore.
Elliott’s passion was preservation of Chicago’s past. Evermore, especially with Al Collina at the helm, was interested only in bulldozing whatever was there and throwing up expensive high-rise condos—though the term “expensive condos” when used in Chicago was redundant.
“I know,” Larry said, calling Elliott’s attention back to the present. “But you can’t save every building with character in the city. When it comes down to altruism versus profit, profit nearly always wins. It’s the old bottom line, and that line says that throwing up a high rise is a lot more profitable than renovating a much smaller building.”
They’d had this conversation before, and Larry was right. One of the principle reasons Elliott had gotten into property renovation in the first place was out of a love for the feel, the flavor, the architecture of older buildings. Elliott Enterprises, his official business name, specialized, if it could be called that, mostly in four- to twelve-unit apartment buildings built in the twenties and thirties. He felt they had a charm many of the newer buildings lacked. They were part of Chicago’s history, and he wanted to preserve as much of it as he could.
It wasn’t that there was any particular shortage of potential properties, but every now and then a building came along that especially interested him, and the Devon building had been one of them. What disturbed him most was that losing the bid would disrupt his “flow,” as he thought of it. He only concentrated on one building at a time, and had established a pattern—whenever the building he was currently working on was nearly done, he’d start looking for another, timing it so that he could smoothly move from the end of one job to the beginning of another. He envisioned it rather like Tarzan swinging through the jungle from vine to vine, reaching out to one just before he let go of the other. He’d planned on the Devon building being his next vine.
While he had, to the consternation of his parents, taken out a contractor’s license, and often did much of the renovating work himself, he relied on a team of licensed independent subcontractors—primarily a plumber, a carpenter and an electrician—for any work that required the meeting of building codes. He also had contacts with other small, specialized subcontracting firms for things like roofing, carpeting, wood restoration, heating equipment and window replacement.
His most recent project, a classic ten-unit on Granville, had been nearly finished and almost ready to go on the market when he’d had the accident. He knew there would be another, but losing out on the Devon property broke his rhythm, and he resented it.
Shortly after hanging up with Larry, the phone rang again.
“Elliott, it’s Rick. You got home okay? How are you feeling?”
“I’m doing fine, Rick, thanks.” Actually, he was developing a headache and realized he’d forgotten to take his next dose of medication.
“Think you might be up for a little company later? I thought I could bring some dinner over so you wouldn’t have to worry about trying to cook. I won’t stay long.”
“Sure,” Elliott said, his spirits picking up just on hearing Rick’s voice. “That’d be fine. I was just going to have a TV dinner—that I can do with one hand.”
“Any preferences?” Rick asked. “Chinese? Pizza? Something from The Bagel? Stella’s?”
Elliott grinned—realizing as he did so that he hadn’t done much grinning in the past several days. “Ya think Stella’s might have meatloaf today? That or Salisbury steak? Something I don’t have to use both hands to cut?”
“I’ll find out,” Rick replied. “What time should I come over? Seven?”
“Seven’s fine,” Elliott said. “Thanks.”
“No problem. Anything else I can bring you?”
“Not that I can think of, thanks. I’ll see you at seven, then.”
When they’d hung up, he called the lobby to alert the doorman that Rick was expected, and to just let him come up without calling first.
* * *
Dinner went well. Rick brought a bottle of wine, and they sat at the dining room table for nearly two hours, talking and relaxing. Elliott skipped the wine since he was on medication.
Rick was a social worker with one of the city agencies, and though it was a grueling and often depressing job with a lot of pressure, he always managed to focus on the lighter side, and had an endless string of funny stories of life within a bureaucracy.
Realizing it would be both awkward and uncomfortable for Elliott’s shoulder for Rick to spend the night, neither of them mentioned it directly. Rick left around eleven, saying he’d call in the morning to see if Elliott needed anything.
Elliott turned out the lights, and more tired than he’d thought, did not, as he usually did, stand at the window and look out over the jeweled galaxy of the city spread out before him. Instead, he managed to get himself undressed and eased into bed.
The thought jerked Elliott back to near-consciousness. Was that John’s assessment of Rick, or merely his own?
My name is John. The sensation of frustration was overpowering. He thought of a stroke victim, struggling to communicate but unable to find the words.
I know. And with that he sank into a deep and dreamless sleep.
* * *
Cessy called at 9:30 Saturday morning, asking about his health, if he’d slept well, had he had breakfast, did he need any help around the apartment, to which he replied “fine,” “yes,” “yes,” and “no.”
“Well,” she said in her don’t-even-think-about-refusing voice, “you’re coming to dinner this evening. Brad will pick you up around six. Be waiting in the lobby.”
Though Cessy was four years younger than he, she often treated him as though he were the younger—by far. And though he would never tell her so, she at times reminded him strongly of their mother. He also knew that if he pled not feeling up to it for whatever reason, she would assume he was having a relapse and insist on coming over and playing Florence Nightingale. Their mother would have sent a nurse, and Elliott was glad she and his father were for all intents and purposes incommunicado, and as far as he knew, weren’t even aware of his accident.
“I can catch a cab,” he said. He knew far better than to suggest he could drive himself over.
“Nonsense!” Cessy said. “It would cost a fortune.”
“I have a fortune,” he teased. “Remember? So do you.”
“Well just because you have it doesn’t mean you have to spend it,” she said flatly. “Brad Junior has swim practice this afternoon from three to five thirty, and they’ll come by and pick you up right after.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a heavy sigh.
“Well, I can tell you’re feeling better,” she said. “Your sarcasm’s coming back.”
* * *
Rick, true to his word, called shortly after Elliott got off the phone from Cessy. They talked for a while and tentatively agreed to get together for Sunday breakfast. Rick said he’d come pick him up, but Elliott insisted he could just take the bus, and that’s how they left it.
He spent the day puttering, and in a rather grudging acknowledgment of the fact that he still wasn’t quite back to normal, napping. Around four, he began to get ready to go to Cessy and Brad’s.
Although he wasn’t particularly fond of hats, he decided he’d feel a little less self-conscious about his partially shaved head if he wore one going out. His selection was limited mainly to winter caps, but he did have a baseball cap with a small rainbow logo he’d picked up in Boys’ Town at the last Pridefest, so he pulled it out of the closet as he was leaving the apartment. It wasn’t until he casually slipped it on his head that he remembered his stitches, and was reminded of just how sore that part of his head still was to the touch.
He quickly took the hat off and went to the bathroom to check to see if any of the stitches might have been pulled out. Reassured that they hadn’t, he very carefully put the hat back on and left the apartment.
He was standing in front of the building’s main entrance when the SUV pulled up the ramp, made a U-turn in front of the garage entrance, and stopped in front of him. Twelve-year-old Brad Jr. hopped out of the front passenger’s side door and got in the back, pausing only long enough to say, “Hi, Uncle Elliott.” Since it was one of those no-elaborate-response-expected type of greetings, Elliott gave none other than a short “Hi, Beej”—his nickname for his nephew—as he climbed into the front seat.
“You doin’ okay?” Brad, Sr., asked as Elliott fumbled on his seatbelt one-handed.
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Sorry I didn’t get by the hospital more often while you were there,” Brad said, moving the car forward down the ramp and stopping at the street to wait for a break in the traffic.
“No problem,” Elliott said. “I wasn’t in much of a visitor mood for most of it, anyway.”
He really liked his brother-in-law, and they’d gotten along well since the first time they’d met. Brad wasn’t much of a talker, and Brad, Jr., pretty much took after his dad in everything—interests, build, skin coloring, hair. But his facial features more closely resembled Cessy, including the Smith blue eyes.
Jenny, BJ’s eight-year-old sister, was a carbon copy of Cessy when she was Jenny’s age. Jenny’s principle joy seemed to derive from bedeviling her brother, who took it with far more patience and maturity than Elliott remembered he had exhibited with Cessy.
The baby, Sandy, was too young at eight months for Elliott to be able to tell who she would more resemble as she got older.
The family lived in a typical, well-kept-up single family home in Rogers Park, complete with a small front porch with a carved-wood sign saying “The Priebes” beside the door. The minute he walked in, Jenny came running to him, wrapping her arms around his waist in a big hug.
“Uncle Elliott! I’ve missed you! They wouldn’t let me come see you in the hospital.”
Returning her hug, conscious of his shoulder as he did so, he said, “I missed you too, Ladybug.” He used the nicknames only when directly addressing the children, never when referring to them with anyone else. It was something special just between him and them.
The removal of his hat prompted immediate and rapt attention from both Jenny and Brad, Jr., though Brad, Jr., tried not to make his fascination obvious.
“Does it hurt?” Jenny asked.
“Only when I laugh,” he replied, eliciting no response from the girl, but getting a grin from her brother.
While Cessy was fixing dinner and BJ and Jenny were in their rooms doing homework—Elliott was surprised to learn that Jenny, only in third grade, had homework—he sat with Brad in the living room having a beer and watching the news.
As a homicide detective and career cop with the Chicago Police Department, Brad wasn’t fazed by very much and had accepted Elliott’s being gay as a matter of course. While it wasn’t a subject they talked much about, neither did Elliott feel he had to avoid it.
His sexual orientation had always been a nonissue with Cessy who, in typical sisterly fashion, was continually questioning him about his social life and encouraging him to find someone and settle down.
He was rather surprised to hear himself asking, during a commercial break in the news, “Brad, can you do me a rather odd favor?”
Brad looked over at him. “What do you need?”
“The day I was taken to the hospital, they brought another guy into the E.R. at almost exactly the same time...a gunshot victim with no I.D. He didn’t make it, and I understand they just listed him as a John Doe.”
Elliott was rather puzzled, both as he asked the question, and on reflection, that he had never sensed a reaction from John when Norm had mentioned the John Doe. Perhaps the possibility that he might have been the other man in the ER just hadn’t registered.
Brad tilted his head up once to acknowledge he understood the reference. “Yeah, Ken and I got that one, as a matter of fact. I wasn’t aware you were in the ER at the same time. We weren’t called in until a little later and I didn’t even know that you were in the hospital at that point. Anyway, what about him?”
“Have they identified him yet?”
Brad took another sip of his beer. “I’m afraid not.”
“Do they know exactly what happened to him?”
“Other than that he was shot six times? Only that a 9-1-1 call came in reporting gunshots in an alley between Surf and Diversey, just a couple blocks from St. Joe’s. Responding officers found the guy on his back beside a Dumpster, barely alive. They called for an ambulance, but they didn’t think he’d even make it to the hospital. He did, but just barely.”
“Do they think it was a robbery?” Elliott asked.
“Possible, but I doubt it. Robbers don’t usually bother taking stuff they don’t want. This guy was left with nothing—they even tore the labels off his shirt and pants and took his shoes. That’s pretty extreme. It was obvious they didn’t want to leave anything at all that might help identify him. That all adds up to a premeditated hit.”
“How come there was only one 9-1-1 call, do you suppose? There are apartments all around.”
“Well, there was a small fire about that same time on Pine Grove. The sound of the fire trucks may have covered the noise. It doesn’t take long to pull off six shots.”
“Jeezus,” Elliott said. “The poor guy. So you think it was gang related? Or mob? Or a drug deal gone bad?”
Brad shook his head. “No way to know for sure. The guy was clean, not a trace of drugs of any kind. Given his age, the fact that he was a white male, and the area he was killed, gang activity isn’t likely. This guy was shot six times, and none of them to the head. We’re willing to bet that it was a premeditated hit, though pros don’t usually waste bullets. One shot to the back of the head would be more their style. But we’re checking into every possible angle.”
“So, could you tell anything at all about him?”
Brad finished his beer and set it on the floor beside his chair.
“Mid-to-late thirties, five-eleven, hundred-seventy-five pounds, brown hair, brown eyes. The only thing we’re pretty sure of is that he wasn’t from around here since no one’s reported him missing. That, of course, makes identifying a body even tougher.”
“Do you get a lot of John Does?”
“Quite a few—this is a big city,” Brad said. “But there are more Janes than Johns. Most Does are identified within a week through missing persons reports, dental records, scars, birthmarks, tattoos, fingerprints or DNA, but since a lot of the Jane Does are prostitutes and a lot of the John Does are drifters, it isn’t easy.
“Nobody’s reported this guy missing. He had perfect teeth—not so much as one cavity—no tattoos, no scars, not a blemish on his body other than the bullet holes and some facial bruising. We figure he hit the ground face first, and then whoever shot him turned him over to clean out his pockets. There were no fingerprint or DNA matches. And the more time that passes, the less likely we are to be able to give the guy a name.”
Elliott shook his head, reacting to an odd wave of sadness. “So where do you go from here?”
“Follow up on any leads that might come along. We’ve already canvassed most of the residents of the buildings siding the alley and within sight of it, but nobody claims to have seen or heard anything other than the fire trucks. We took some post-mortem photos, which is standard when the body is recognizable, and have shown them around the area, but again, nothing. Unless someone comes along looking for him, we’re pretty much stymied at the moment. But it’s an ongoing investigation, and we’ll keep looking.”
“Isn’t there some sort of national clearing house for helping to identify unidentified bodies?” Elliott asked.
Brad shook his head. “Well, there’s the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. But its database has a list of more than 5,200 people who’ve never been identified. That’s one hell of a lot of dead bodies to sort through when you’re looking for one specific person, and it’s been estimated that number is only about fifteen percent of the actual total, largely because there aren’t any laws requiring police to enter the information. We entered your John Doe, of course. Nothing’s come up, but at least he’s there.
“Some local agencies and jurisdictions have their own limited databases, but most agencies shy away from posting photos on the internet because there are too many pervs out there who would be swarming over the site just for kicks. And those jurisdictions that do post photos usually go to the trouble of opening the bodies’ eyes or touching up the photos in some way to make it look like they’re alive.”
“Now that’s downright gross!” Elliott said.
Brad shrugged. “Maybe so, but that’s the way it is,” he said. “And then there’s The Doe Network, which isn’t affiliated with any governmental agency, but they don’t post photographs, just sketches. They’re on the Internet, and it’s their policy not to display post-mortem photos publicly, out of respect for the victims and their families. I personally don’t believe any sketch is as accurate as a photo, but it’s their call, and we’re stuck with it.”
Elliott shook his head in disbelief. “Incredible,” he said.
Brad merely repeated his shrug.
Cessy interrupted the conversation with a “Dinner’s ready” call from the kitchen.
Reluctantly, Elliott got up, quickly stepping out of the way of the kids, who came pounding down the stairs and through the living room, then followed Brad into the kitchen.
“Can we talk about this a little more sometime?” he asked Brad as they approached the door to the kitchen.
“Sure,” Brad agreed.
* * *
“Dinner with the Priebes,” as Elliott liked to call his frequent visits, went well, as always, and it was as usual a comfortable evening despite the subject matter of his interrupted conversation with Brad. As always, Jenny insisted that he sit beside her.
Unlike her brother, who seldom volunteered any information on anything, Jenny kept up a running commentary on everything going on in her life.
“I have a new teacher,” she said, turning her head to direct her comments to Elliott.
“Oh?” he replied. “Is she nice?”
“Very nice,” Jenny verified. “I really like her. Her name is Sister Marie. Mommy used to know her.”
He looked questioningly at Cessy, who nodded, waiting until she had swallowed a forkful of salad before saying, “You know her, too, Elliott. She used to be Marie Collina. I haven’t seen her since we were kids, but I recognized her immediately from that wine-stain birthmark on her forehead.”
The Collinas again! Marie Collina was Al Collina’s adopted sister. He hoped for Jenny’s sake that she had turned out nothing at all like her brother. He remembered Marie as being very self-conscious about her birthmark, and almost painfully shy.
Much of the rest of dinner was spent discussing the family’s plans for a long-anticipated Florida vacation, and Elliott volunteered to come by every day while they were gone to look after Bozo, though it would require two trips a day to feed him and let him into the fenced-in backyard in the morning, and bring him in at night.
At around nine thirty Cessy, despite his protests that he could easily call a cab, drove him home. He watched a little TV, then, exhausted, went to bed.
He dreamt, not in visual images, but in emotions, the primary one being confusion. Did he have a sister? Did he have any family at all? Did anyone love him? And it wasn’t until morning that he realized with an odd mixture of fascination and mild horror that the dreams had not been his.