The Lies We Tell by Theresa Schwegel is a compelling crime novel about imperfect people struggling against all odds―and this time, against the very people who are supposed to help (available July 3, 2017).
Raising her young niece on her own, Gina hides her disease; she can’t afford to lose her job. Anyway, she is healthier than most of the cops she knows, and greatly appreciates the responsibility of caring for a child.
But Gina's secret is threatened when a colleague calls her in to help trace a suspect: Johnny Marble has added to his rap sheet with an assault charge—this time against his mother. When Gina pays a visit to the mom in the hospital and winds up running into—and after—Marble, she finds herself in a physical confrontation she can’t possibly win. He gets away, and Gina is faced with an impossible situation. She has to find him, but knows doing so means turning in the one person who knows the true story of what happened. After all, now that he's seen her fight, Johnny Marble can reveal her deepest secret to the police department.
Though alone in her struggle, Gina isn’t alone in her search: in addition to a loyal partner, there is a curious detective and an entire force of coworkers on the hunt. And she’s sympathetic to Marble’s mother, a woman who is losing her mind to Alzheimer’s. Still, Gina fears the fallout: she has no idea how will she keep her own world intact once Marble is found and the truth is out.
“Ready or not, here I come.” I see Isabel’s bare toes peeking out from the cracked-open closet door in the hall. Hide and seek is her favorite game. She’s terrible at it. She’s not quite two.
Since I already know where she is, I stay in bed and finish reading an unsettling article in the Trib about proposed healthcare reform that sounds great for perfectly healthy people.
“Where did she go?” I ask. The question provokes a giggle, a would-be giveaway if she ever chose a different hiding spot. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve counted to ten this morning and still, being discovered delights her.
I decide affordable health care is an act, fold up the paper, and try to “find” her.
“Spa-ghe-tti,” I sing-song her nickname as I get out of bed and collect the half-dozen board books she left between getting lost and getting found. If I’m not pretending to look for her, I’m pretending it doesn’t bother me at all to pick up and put away what I already picked up and put away.
I guess it doesn’t bother me, usually. I’m a little off today.
“Could she be in the … bathroom?” I ask, because that’s where I’m going.
“No,” I say, finding the Tylenol and swallowing two, “she’s not in here.” I’m hungover: during yesterday’s trip to the beach I got too much sun and too much heat and so this morning my lower back is killing me, my left leg, too.
In the mirror I can see Isabel standing in the closet, though I pretend I can’t. Silent, she watches me from under her sheepdog bangs; she refuses to wear a barrette.
“Is she in the—” I stop short when my phone rings in the kitchen.
Isabel explodes from the closet and says, “Bodies?” her attempt to say “pictures,” because she thinks, pretty accurately, that the phone’s primary function is to view photos. Maybe because the camera is the only app I let her play with besides Peek-a-Zoo. Or maybe it’s because the pictures are the only way she sees her dad. My brother. George: who they mean when they say, Oh, brother.
The phone is on the kitchen counter; someone’s calling from the office. I say, “No pictures. Work.”
Isabel nods, repeats “work” without much of an r.
“Who’s in charge over there this morning?” It’s Steve Duppstadt, one of the detectives who assigns cases and the one who always gives me flak about Isabel. He’s got three teen girls, though, so I know he gets a lot more than he gives.
“Dupe,” I say, “you have something for me?” I hoist Isabel up, my good arm, and carry her back to the bedroom.
“I’m hoping you have something for me,” he says. “You get anywhere on that battery handout Thursday? Victim, Rosalind Sanchez?”
“Close to nowhere. Sanchez changed her mind. She won’t press charges.” I put Isabel on the bed and join her under the covers, my hiding spot all morning. “Didn’t you see my report?”
“I did. But the suspect’s name popped up again today. Johnny Marble. Same charge, same MO. I thought you might be able to help.”
“On my last day off.” I pull the covers over our heads, a pretty good fort. “What about Kanellis?”
“Andy!” Isabel says. She loves my partner no matter how I feel about him.
I give her the shh finger and say, “It’s his case, too.”
Dupe says, “He’s looking for Marble.”
“Isn’t that what you’re asking me to do?”
“I want you to talk to the victim. It’s Marble’s mother. Her home-care worker called it in, and when the responding officer arrived, Mom refused to cooperate. She won’t press charges, either—same as your case. But I’m thinking, if you give her the grit on Sanchez, maybe she’ll change her mind.”
“Maybe,” I say. “Where’s mom?”
“Transported. Sacred Heart Hospital.”
“So it’s you asking me to do this, or Kanellis?”
There’s a telling pause. “Both of us.”
“That miserable prick—” I catch myself saying it; I hope Isabel didn’t. “You know what this is: Kanellis doesn’t do hospitals.”
“I also know you’re the best person for this job.”
“Pwi…” Isabel tries to work her mouth around the r, “pwi—”
“No,” I say to Isabel.
“Come on,” Duppstadt says, “it’s your case, too.”
I should say no, the way I’m feeling. But I don’t want him or anybody else getting the idea I can’t do it.
“Okay, Dupe, give me the details.”
I get my book from my purse and take quick notes—the who, the where, the how bad. Apparently Marble, an old guy, beat the crap out of his mother, an older—and impaired—woman. The caregiver said Marble showed up asking for money and when the vic refused, Marble decided to show her what it’s like to “be broke.” Did enough damage to get her an ambulance ride. I wish I could say I found the details shocking. I wish I didn’t know shit like this happens all the time.
That’s part of the reason I take notes: this many years in to the Job, it’s hard to keep atrocities straight. The other part is that I used to keep an accurate mental file about things like this, and also things like my keys. Then Isabel came along.
Also, yes, I’ve got mild cognitive impairment. But come on: name me someone between the ages of zero and dead who doesn’t have occasional trouble concentrating.
When I hang up I realize Isabel has, in record time, completely dismantled my purse. What was expertly packed is now all over the floor. Every Kleenex out of the pocket pack, all cards and cash out of my wallet. Change is stacked in neat piles, goldfish swims in the carpet. She’s hand-sanitized, and she’s got my lipstick. It’s open. It’s pink.
“Isabel. Give me that.”
“No,” she says, in two syllables.
Since taking it away will only cause tears, I find Meatball—her favorite plush bear—and offer a trade. I squeeze his foot and he says, “Hello, Isabel!”
Isabel isn’t interested. She clutches the tube and twists.
There is a brief struggle that ends when I swipe the tube. “Sorry, Isabel: not for babies.” Tears blur her sharp gray eyes. Like her mother’s, strangers often tell me.
“I’m sorry,” I say again. I repeat myself a lot.
Isabel, she cries a lot, but at this age she’s trying on the tears more often than not, so I pretend to ignore her while I repack my purse, pull on a pair of black straightlegs, and button a sheer fitted shirt over the white tank I’m already wearing. Then I pick her up and hug her while she hugs Meatball and cries some more and I get that this is about more than the lipstick: she’s getting pretty attached to me, and she knows I didn’t put on this monkey suit for a trip to the zoo.
“I love you, Spaghet.” I also love that she’s still little enough to cling to me, a precious reflex.
I hate that my reflex is to get on with it, but time’s a-wasting, so, “You know who else loves you? Almost as much as I do?”
She leans back and wipes her nose. “Mabicabi?”
“Yes, honey. I bet Maricarmen would love to play with you while I go to work.” Of course, Maricarmen doesn’t know this yet, but if she’s home, she’s game.
“Okay,” she says, with just a little reluctance.
I carry her and she carries Meatball and when we get to the kitchen I offer her an apple, a real project for a kid who only has a few front teeth. She has at it while I pack the diaper bag and also the other bag with stuff I forget, like diapers.
When I’m ready to go I find the apple abandoned on the kitchen floor and Isabel under the table. She’s eating Cheerios that fell from her tray the last time we had a box of Cheerios, and trying to feed them to the bear. I shouldn’t scold her for finding something I forgot about, so I tell myself it’s good she’s sharing.
“Isabel,” I say, “let’s get your shoes on.”
“No,” she says, one syllable this time. She scoots back, away from me, Meatball her shield.
“Can you guess what I am?” Meatball says. She pushed his button. “Oink!”
I am certain he’s programmed to push mine.
“Shoes,” I tell her.
“No,” Isabel says, this time because she thinks I’m answering the bear.
We go around like this a lot.
Meatball giggles. “I’m pretending to be a pig!”
I leave them there and go get my own shoes.
I’m by the front door forcing my own feet into my tac boots, my left foot really cramping, when I hear the postman drop mail in the box at the front door. I wonder if it’s mostly addressed to Tom.
I tell myself it’s a legitimate reason to wonder about him, and then I wonder a bunch of other things about him, and then I wonder when I’ll finally start to wonder about someone else.
Then, from knee height, Meatball asks, “Will you give me a hug?”
I look down and Isabel is standing there, holding the bear by his paw.
“Your timing is impeccable.” I gather them up in my arms.
* * *
Though it’s just down the street, we drive to Maricarmen’s, a bungalow painted mint green with holiday decals in the windows and gnomes on the steps and wind chimes and lawn ornaments and all sorts of other shit that’s meant to be decorative. To me it looks tacky. To Isabel it’s a wonderland.
We met Maricarmen one evening last October when we strollered by and Isabel was interested in the huge inflated Snoopy situated among a bunch of haunted house–grade Halloween decorations. I was interested because I’d seen Maricarmen chase some gangbangers off the block earlier that day. We got to talking, and Maricarmen kept talking. And talking. I learned her life story right there: her migration from Sinaloa, her promising career as an operations manager at El Milagro Tortillas, her husband’s unexpected death, and then—surprise—the unbelievable debt from an undisclosed gambling problem. On her own she repaid his debts, raised four children, and welcomed eighteen of her children’s children. She was obviously a strong woman, but not a hard one.
I didn’t feel the immediate connection Isabel did—what can I say, I’m more hard than strong. But when Izz nuzzled in Maricarmen’s lap, I felt relieved. I’d been doing it all myself. I’d been so lonely.
Then, I talked and talked—about almost everything. I didn’t tell her about my disease; I don’t tell anyone about it because there’s no cure and there’s nothing to tell except what a ruthless bitch it is. I did tell her I was a cop, which is something else I don’t advertise except that it’s pretty easy to figure out. I said so because I wanted her to know I could help her with any trouble on the block. I was referring to the gangbangers.
Turned out Maricarmen already knew I was a cop, and one of the gangbangers was her grandkid, and she was actually trying to chase him away from me.
So our story goes that I wound up helping the grandkid when he was facing time, and Maricarmen wound up Isabel’s go-to babysitter. We became fast friends, fierce maternal instinct our bond.
“Mabicabi!” Isabel says, recognizing the house.
“Yes,” I tell her, happy that she’s happy. “When I get back, we’ll go for a swim, okay?” I always promise her something before I go, if only to make myself feel better about going.
“Swim! Swim!” She repeats herself a lot, too.
I leave her in the car seat singing her abc’s, most of the letters b, while I unpack the trunk. I take a case of Mountain Dew—Maricarmen accepts most Pepsi products as payment—and Isabel’s things. It always feels weird to know my service weapon is in there, underneath the little-person stuff.
I put down the bags etcetera to get Isabel out of the car seat and then I pick up the bags etcetera and we head for the crosswalk. At the curb I say, “Hold my hand,” and Isabel looks up at me, curious, because she is holding my hand. I squeeze hers and try not to think about what I can’t feel.
On the sidewalk she says, “Mama,” and reaches for me, because she wants me to carry her, so I do, along with everything else, despite myself. Her hair smells so sweet.
When we get to the gate, Maricarmen appears in the front doorway, and Isabel gets down and then literally jumps up and down.
I open the gate and Isabel runs up the steps ahead of me to wrap herself around Maricarmen’s leg.
“Girls, no zapatos?”
“It’s summertime,” I say. I got about two steps in those block-heeled boots and took them off, making myself incapable of arguing with a toddler who doesn’t understand the point of wearing shoes in the first place.
I put the bags etcetera inside the door. “I just need an hour or so. A work thing.”
“I wish, just once, you had some other excuse.”
Isabel runs around her legs and cheers, “Cicles! Cicles!” to be redundant as well as repetitive.
“I’m making tamales,” Maricarmen says, so I don’t have to ask about lunch. She always plays down a last-minute favor by playing up a meal.
“See you in a—” I start to say to Isabel, but she’s already off and running toward the kitchen. Sometimes I wish goodbyes were harder for her.
“Hasta pronto,” Maricarmen says.
* * *
I beat it over to Sacred Heart hospital. I get into my boots and get out of the car. I pop the trunk and immediately decide to ditch the duty belt; it’s heavy. Hot. I tuck my .40 S&W in the back of my waistband. My star goes on a lanyard around my neck and my bag over one shoulder, cross body, so my hands are free, though I may as well tie my left hand behind my back—the way it’s buzzing, tactility blunted, it’s like I’m wearing an oven mitt. Never aspired to be ambidextrous, though; I’ve always attempted more of a balancing act.
Inside, I show my star at the desk and they tell me where to find Kay St. Claire.
I walk down a corridor and wonder what’s up at the other end where somebody is yelling her guts out and it turns out that somebody is in Kay St. Claire’s room and the only two people in Kay St. Claire’s room are a nurse and presumably Kay St. Claire, the one doing the yelling.
“I need to leave!” is what she yells at me. One eye is swollen shut, one arm is in a sling.
“She is welcome to refuse treatment,” the nurse tells me, “but if she wants to leave, she needs to put on her shoes.”
“Kay St. Claire?” I ask.
She looks at me with her good eye. “CeCe?”
“No. My name is Detective Gina Simonetti. I’m here to talk to you about your son, Johnny Marble.”
“I want to talk about why they brought me here. There’s nothing wrong with me. They know that. I want to go home.”
“You’ve been hurt,” I say, “that’s why you’re here.”
“You don’t know hurt.” She throws her shoes across the room. Her good arm is pretty good.
“Mrs. St. Claire, your son is a suspect in a similar crime involving a young woman. Two days ago, she was treated for broken ribs and a black eye that looks a lot like yours.”
“Is that so? Well, did they bring her all the goddamned way down here to talk to her like she’s a noodle?”
“Excuse me,” a young guy says from the doorway and I turn back to find a young kid in a lab coat. His badge reads DODD.
“Did you call Robin?” St. Claire asks him.
“We’re still trying to reach her.”
“She’ll get me the hell out of here.”
“Um, yes,” he says, like it’s never going to happen. Then he looks up at me—literally—though I bet we’d be the same height if not for my heels. He looks away so he can say, “May I, sort of, speak to you in the hall?”
“Sure,” I say. I wonder, once out there, what sort of bullshit he’s scripted to say.
“I just,” Dodd says, his gaze drawn to the ceiling like there’s something up there besides fluorescents, “the attending physician wants to, I don’t know, maybe speak with you, and he told me to page him when you arrived.”
“Did you page him?”
“Then you’ve done an excellent job.”
I wonder why he’s acting like all his fingers are thumbs. Then I bet he’s probably wondering why I’m acting like such a bitch.
“Listen,” I say, “I’m happy to talk to the doctor—really. It doesn’t sound like Mrs. St. Claire is interested in cooperating with anybody. But right now, I need to know if she wants to press charges. May I do that?”
“I think you would need to talk to Dr. Kitasaki first.”
“Where would I find him?”
* * *
Dodd takes me to the lunchroom and angles toward a table where a striking man in scrubs—presumably a doctor—sits across from a dude in a suit. The doctor unwraps a Saran-wrapped turkey wrap, the skin between each of his fingers raised and rough, a red, scaly rash that looks like contact dermatitis. The suit toys with thin wire-rimmed glasses, his trouble more internalized. The only hair he’s got grows thin and blond in a bad spot at the top of his head, which I can see because I’m standing over him.
The doctor looks up at me as he takes a huge bite of his unwrapped wrap. I feel bad interrupting because I know how it goes: on the Job and with a toddler, I eat when I can get food and a minute in front of me, and it ain’t dainty.
Dodd looks like he’s lost, so I step in front of him and say, “Gentlemen. I’m Detective Gina Simonetti. I’m here about Kay St. Claire.”
The suit puts on a smile, and then his glasses, the overhead lights reflecting white squares in his eyes. He stands up. “I’m James Novak.”
“Are you the doctor?”
“He is the CEO,” Dodd says, looking at the floor tiles.
“Please,” Novak says, “M.D. is a more important title around here. I am proud to say, though, that I am responsible for bribing some brilliant minds, like Dr. Kitasaki, here, to work with us.” He opens up his stance to the doctor. “I believe he’s the man you’re here to see.”
Kitasaki nods, swallows, pulls out the chair in front of me. “Call me Kuro.”
Dodd says, “Dr. Adkins is waiting, sir,” and whisks Novak off. Or probably he just follows him off. I don’t know; I’m just glad Dodd is off.
When I sit, Kitasaki says, “I told Dodd to keep you guys—you—away from St. Claire. She’s in no shape to answer questions.”
His objection isn’t unexpected, but his dead-on south-side accent totally throws me. An attractive Asian doctor who sounds like an intelligent version of my cousin Vito? I’m in love.
“She’s the victim of a crime,” I argue, though I don’t think I sound argumentative.
He takes another bite of his lunch, chews awhile and says, “St. Claire is having an episode brought on by trauma. Patients in her condition are very easily aggravated. She is confused—this is catastrophic for her—to be attacked, and then taken out of her familiar environment, and then interrogated—”
“I haven’t asked her a single question yet.”
He swallows. “I just think you should know it’s common for patients like her to blame the people who mean to help.”
“I’m told her son is to blame.”
Kitasaki looks at me. “The woman’s got dementia. I could be her son.” His pager buzzes; after giving the device a cursory glance he says, “My job is to help St. Claire get better. Please, give her some time to do that.” He shoves the rest of the wrap in his face, tears open a wet wipe, and cleans his hands while he gets up.
“I’ll take what you said into consideration,” I say, “but we aren’t working at cross purposes, here. My job is to help her, too.”
“I think your job is to find the bad guy,” he says. “I’m not him.”
“I didn’t—” I start, but he walks away. So much for love.
I wait about four minutes and then I go back to St. Claire’s room to do my job.
St. Claire is alone, staring out the window, eyes dull. She must be doped. Her hair is wavy and much longer than most women her age wear it but it’s beautiful, really, a soft, rippled gray. Her face is mapped by wrinkles.
“Mrs. St. Claire?”
“CeCe,” she says, the emotion that was caught up with the name before now tucked under a fast-thickening blanket of medication.
“Is CeCe your daughter?”
St. Claire lolls her head toward me. She doesn’t look pleased. “Who are you?”
“I’m Gina.” I step forward and show her Isabel’s photo, the screen saver on my phone. “I have a daughter, too. Her name is Isabel. Would you like to see?”
St. Claire squints at the photo. “She looks like you.”
“She’s my everything. I guess all parents feel that way about their children, even in the worst circumstances—”
St. Claire starts trying to get away from me, off the bed, like I’m coming at her with a six-gauge needle. “Who are you?” Her good eye is wide now, and fixed on me.
I back off, tuck my phone away. “I am Gina Simonetti. I’m—” about to show her my lanyard but—
“Where is Robin?”
“Robin?” Suddenly I feel like I’m talking to Isabel—translating non-sequiturs—but by now, I’m pretty good at deciphering nonsense. I get it: “Robin is your caregiver.”
“She doesn’t know where I am. She could be waiting at the house. She’ll be so worried about me.”
“Well, she’s the one who called the police. She knows where you are.”
“No, she doesn’t. Or else she’d be here.”
“Okay,” I say, deciding to U-turn, come at it from the other direction: “I am here, now, because you were hurt. Do you know how you got hurt?”
She looks at me, then, and things seem to come into focus for her. “Oh yes.” Her eyes sharpen, and she breaks a smile. “My boy.”
“Johnny Marble,” I say, and I think we’re getting somewhere, but then I feel someone behind me, and I realize St. Claire isn’t looking at me, but over my shoulder.
I turn to see a man twice my age on his way out the door. Her boy.
“Johnny Marble!” I call out, like it’ll stop him.
I chase him down the corridor past an elderly patient with a tracheotomy tube who’s rolling an IV cart. “Call security!” I yell at her, though I don’t have time to tell her what to say and I don’t know if she can say anything anyway.
The man turns the corner and lopes down a long corridor; it doesn’t seem like he’s running as fast as I’m trying to, but his legs are long so he puts distance between us pretty quickly. I try to get a good visual to make sure it is Johnny Marble. I put him over six feet and at two hundred pounds. He’s wearing loose cargo pants and a purple warm-up jacket. His hair is a tamped-down Afro. I can’t say for sure it’s him—I only saw his booking photo—but there’s a reason he’s running.
And I saw Kay St. Claire’s face. He’s got to be Marble.
At the end of the hall he ducks into a stairwell marked FLOOR 4 WEST and by the time I get there, thanks to the fire code, the door’s closed itself. I draw my gun.
I turn the handle and kick open the door and clear the landing and then I step in and check the stairs going up to five, and he isn’t there, which I anticipated since he’s probably trying to get the hell out of here. I get my back against the wall next to the door just as it swings shut and then I wait for my eyes to adjust. A dim rectangle of light projects from the door’s small window, and there’s faint ambient light from the EXIT sign; neither is a guide. A droning hum from the hospital’s power systems rushes from the vents. I feel my way down a few steps, into the dark. It’s like I’ve stepped inside the guts of a machine; I worry that he knows how it works.
“Johnny Marble!” I call out again, the sound of my voice swallowed by the noise.
I can’t see, and I can’t hear, but he can’t be far. Somewhere below. I can smell him. Sour. A stress-sweat.
I move to the opposite wall and find the landing below, another pair of faint lights from the EXIT sign and the door a dozen steps down. The landing is empty. From there, the steps to the third floor double back, disappear to black.
I wait. I shouldn’t wait. He may have already exited the third floor.
Then I think I hear him breathing. Out of breath. Or fucking panicked, adrenaline forcing him to breathe. Or is that me?
I keep my back to the wall and feel my way down a half-dozen steps, my left foot cramping like the sole has pulled apart and I’m walking on bones.
That’s probably why I miss a step. I catch the rail—I catch myself—but my gun clatters to the landing.
That’s probably because I let go of the gun to catch the rail.
“Johnny Marble!” I shout because I want to act like I’m coming at him, strong, even though I shouldn’t have come this far. I feel around for the gun and find it and hold it in both hands and wait. That’s what I should do: just wait.
Then I hear him—
How does he know my name?
I aim my gun to clear the next landing. As I start down the steps, I hear the ground-floor door blow open. “Security!” a male voice shouts.
And Marble is trapped, now.
He comes up the steps, back toward the third-floor exit, and I’m on my way down to meet him, but I misstep again—my brain unable to get the right messages out—and this time, since I’m not about to lose my gun, I wind up losing my feet out from under me. I lurch forward. From eight steps up it’s like I’m diving, and I dive right into Marble. I knock him down and we hit the landing and my head hits him in the face and his head hits the steel and then neither one of us makes a sound. He tries to push me away but I’m afraid if there’s space between us he’ll take the gun so I slip my free hand, my left hand, around his torso. I pull myself to him and I try to hold him there. Right there.
It doesn’t work.
He rolls on top of me and pushes my face against the landing. I try to grab for his jacket and I can’t do it. I try curling up, to protect myself, my gun, when he stands and jerks me up by my bag. I’m dangling, splayed, head and arms off the floor, and I’ve got my gun but can’t find my aim; in the two rectangle spots of light, though, I can see him. His mouth is bleeding. He doesn’t seem to care. He begins to laugh.
And then he drops me.
My head hits the steel this time, and when I look up again I see three of him standing over me. I think he’s got my gun and I bet he’s going to kill me and I know it’s my fucking fault.
But what I wonder as this man—this fucking beast—laughs at me, is if the very last thing that’ll cross my mind is that Isabel’s first word was mama, and when she said it, she meant me.
“Security!” the male voice shouts again, closer. Not close enough.
I close my eyes and wish I’d prayed long before now.
Copyright © 2017 Theresa Schwegel.
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Theresa Schwegel was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. A Loyola University graduate, she received an MFA in screenwriting at Chapman University. Her debut novel, Officer Down, won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and was shortlisted for the Anthony Award.