Novak’s Mission

Read the first chapter of Novak’s Mission.

The Boyleston Police Station shouted neglect from its peeling paint to its fusty locker room odor. Karol Novak knew he’d need more than latex and Lysol to rid it of decay. As he readied himself for the challenge, he realized he’d forgotten the access code. Not a promising first act.

He set down the carton cradled in his left arm and rang the buzzer beneath the bulletproof glass panel. A young uniformed woman with a head of tight blonde curls glanced through the window and came around to unlock the door.

“Thanks,” he said, “I’m—”

“The new chief. I recognize you. Entré.” She performed an awkward curtsy and stood aside as he maneuvered the box through the small entrance area.

“I’m Officer Barnwell,” she said, “Lydia.”

Novak smiled and nodded as he braced his carton against the door and shoved four others into the bullpen with his foot. “My office is…?”

She led the way, throwing open the door to a windowless room containing a desk, two bookcases, two office chairs in faux leather, a three-drawer filing cabinet, and stained ceiling tiles. “Deputy Chief McMahon has been using this office. He hasn’t vacated yet.”

Reports and files covered the desk. They transferred Novak’s books and mementos from his cartons to the bookcases, refilling the empty ones with McMahon’s belongings. Barnwell loaded them onto a dolly and wheeled them down the hall, returning to stand in the doorway as Novak rearranged his collection. “We’re glad you’re here. Relieved, after all this—” She held up both hands to encompass something she chose not to describe.

“I’m sure you’ve had a lot of uncertainty.” He didn’t know what else to say.


“You’re alone on duty?” He tried not to make it sound like a criticism.

“No. We have two patrol cars out, but a delivery truck has just overturned at the entrance to Parkway West. Traffic is backed up all the way to Carnegie. We’ve rerouted traffic onto Noblestown Road. It’s all we can do until Greentree police clear the ramp.”

Boyleston was one of 130 municipalities in Allegheny County, ranging in population from Pittsburgh’s three hundred thousand to Haysville’s seventy. They were served by 109 police agencies, some employing only one officer, many distinguished by their levels of ineptitude. Coordination was spotty. An accident in one could cascade into its neighbors, creating mayhem.

Barnwell watched as Novak unpacked, making him feel as though he were under surveillance. “Who’s that?” she said as he hung a framed photo over a protruding nail.

“Petr Čech. He’s goalkeeper for Arsenal and for the Czech National team.” Seeing her frown of incomprehension, he added, “Soccer.” 

“What’s with the helmet?”

“Several years ago, he saved a goal by covering the ball with his body. An opposing player slid into his head with his cleats raised. He almost died.” Novak stared at Čech’s image for a moment. “He fought back and is still among the top keepers in the Premier League.”

“And that one?”

Novak followed her gaze to a faded photograph of a young man. “Henry Sutton. He was my best friend growing up.”

When he didn’t elaborate, she said, “Weren’t you with the Pittsburgh Bureau?”

“Thirty-three years.” Again, he offered nothing more.

Folding her arms, she continued to study him. “Why did you come here, of all places?”

Novak looked up, his perpetual half-smile disappearing. “I live in Boyleston, and they needed me.”

“Yes, but what I mean is—”

“I know what you mean,” he said. He immediately regretted his sharp tone. “I’m retired, and the council asked me to step in. I feel a duty to help out.”

“I’m glad you’re here.”

“So am I.” He smiled and tried to look her in the eye, but found her penetrating gaze intimidating.

She turned, ready to resume her duties, but wheeled again. “Will I be okay?”

He frowned, shaking his head in bewilderment.

“I was one of the officers Chief Russell used on outside assignments. All along, I thought we were working for the borough. Once I realized he was pocketing the money, I reported it to the mayor. I assume he told you.”

“No, he hasn’t mentioned it. Why would you be in trouble?”

She lowered her voice. “I didn’t speak out for a month. I worried he’d retaliate, feared losing my job. When he continued doing it, I worked up the courage.”

“This was last fall?”

“No, I spoke out around this time last year. When nothing came of it, I figured no one cared.”

Novak looked away to conceal his reaction. She’d reported last spring that Chief Russell was using officers in his private security business, and yet the borough hadn’t terminated him until January? As a law officer and taxpayer, Novak was outraged that Russell had been allowed to continue ripping the borough off for eight months or longer.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell the others I was the source,” she said. “No one knows where it came from.”

“Of course I won’t.” She exhaled and relaxed her shoulders. “And I don’t see how anyone could take issue with it. You did the right thing.”

Her face erupted into a smile that crinkled her cheeks, making her eyes even more pronounced. “We have a lot facing us,” she said. “What’s your top priority?”

He looked down as he considered a response. “Getting the department on track. Keeping everyone alive. These are dangerous times. I want to keep everyone safe.”

“And pursuing justice,” she said. “We have to pursue justice, don’t we?”

He chose not to argue the point.

Barbara Novak arrived home to find her husband kneeling in the bathroom, drawing a bead of caulk around the lip of the bathroom tub. Their home had just passed the century mark, and while it had good bones, Karol spent a few hours each week patching tears in its ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

She sat on the closed toilet lid and waited, a sign that she had something to discuss.

“Nice legs, lady.”

She laughed, leaned forward, and planted a kiss on his forehead. “Trying to make an old girl feel good?”

“No, I mean it. You’ve still got it.” Novak had always admired his wife’s legs. Barbara Fournier, a second-generation French-Canadian, had been a dancer during her college days. The first time he had spotted her on a warm September day in Schenley Park forty years before, she had been sprawled on a blanket reading a book, her modest shorts displaying the most beautiful set of “stems” he’d ever seen. Karol Novak had come to a full stop during his afternoon run and gawked.

“Hello to you, too,” she’d said. 

“I’m sorry,” he’d stammered, uncertain whether she was pleased or annoyed at his open admiration. “I don’t mean to stare.” Still fumbling, he’d choked out an introduction.

Accepting his apology, Barbara had patted the blanket alongside her, inviting him to sit and chat. From that moment on, there had been no one else for either of them.

They chased each other for three years while remaining chaste—they were good Catholic kids, after all. She sat in the front row of the stands, watching him tend goal for Pitt’s soccer team. He sat alongside her in the cheap seats at Heinz Hall, listening as André Previn led the Pittsburgh Symphony. After graduation, they married at St. Cecilia’s, her family’s parish church, settling into the three-story brick house, which, like Boyleston Borough itself, had seen better days. Over time, they restored it to its former prominence and built a family.

“How’s the police station?” she said, interrupting his reverie.

“Rundown. Depressing.” Boyleston’s Police Department occupied one-third of the borough office building, which also housed its library. It had been built during the late 1940s when Pittsburgh supplied the nation with all the steel it needed to feed its building boom. While Karol and Barbara had attended council meetings and spent many days at the library, neither had yet ventured into the public safety wing.

“It needs a coat of paint and new radios,” he said as he squared off the bead at the corner of the wall. “I don’t get it. The federal government has generous equipment grants, but none of it has landed in Boyleston. Someone hasn’t been paying attention.”

“Too busy running a side business,” Barbara said, “and fencing stolen items.”

“I met a young officer, a woman, who claims to have reported Russell’s scheme more than a year ago.”

“But they didn’t fire him until the first of the year.”

“Eight long months. It does not give me confidence in their judgement.”

“But they hired you.” He smiled, grateful as always for her unwavering encouragement. “This woman, is she pretty?” The two shared a laugh as Barbara posed the question her mother-in-law liked to ask whenever a young woman came up in conversation.

“No, I wouldn’t say that. She’s…interesting. She has frizzy blonde hair, a nose that’s a bit big for her face, and piercing blue eyes that bore into you. She’s one hell of an interrogator. She doesn’t let up until you answer her question.”

“I may have to keep an eye on the two of you.”

Karol chuckled. It was part of their game.

“Can you listen to something for a moment?” she said.

At last, he thought, she was ready to impart whatever was on her mind. “I’m married. Listening is what I do.”

“What do you know about a man named Thomas Walsh?”

Karol’s hand paused. “Just a minute while I finish.” Only after he had removed caulk from the gun, cleaned the tools, and placed them in his leather kit did he turn to face her, still crouching, his back to the wall. “Why do you ask about Walsh?”

“I sit here for ten minutes to hear you answer my question with a question.”

“It’s why I married you. You were the only woman with enough patience.”

“Something odd happened at the party.” Barbara had spent the day helping their daughter, Mariel, throw a party of some sort. “You know Bridey O’Connor.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Sure you do. She’s the single mom who lives a block down from Mariel. Her daughter, Amy, is Jennifer’s best friend.”

“Uh-huh.” It would do no good to dispute the issue. Jennifer, their granddaughter, had dozens of friends, all of whom had at least one parent. Barbara somehow kept track of them all.

“Anyway, it’s Amy’s birthday, and Mariel threw a party for her at the bowling alley.”

“That’s generous.”

“Bridey doesn’t have much money, and since Jennifer and Amy are so close…”

Novak nodded as though he understood.

“They bowled for an hour—Jen had the high score—and then we moved into the restaurant next door for pizza and sodas. Amy opened her presents—what is it about little girls and unicorns?”

“It’s the horn.”

She ignored him. “We brought out the birthday cake. Bridey lit the candles, told her to make a wish. And Amy sat there thinking about it, looking straight at me.”

“At you?”

“Yes. Just hold on a minute. After she blew out the candles, one girl asked what she’d wished for. Another said that she shouldn’t tell, or else it wouldn’t come true. Amy replied, ‘I have to tell. I need Mrs. Novak to hear.’”

Novak, who had only been half listening, now leaned toward her.

“She said, ‘I wish Chief Novak can get my pap out of prison.’ That was it. The whole place went quiet. No one knew what to say. Bridey gasped, grabbed the girl’s arm, and headed toward the exit, leaving her presents behind. The poor child was wailing. I ran after them. I feared what Bridey would do to her.”

Novak stroked his cheek as he considered her story. “And her grandfather is Tom Walsh?”

“Yes, but I had to drag it out of her mother as she dragged Amy to her car. I felt sorry for her.”

“The mother or the daughter?”

Barbara tilted her head from one side to the other. “Both.”

“C’mon, let’s get out of this ridiculous position and find something to drink.”

Staggering to his feet and steadying himself against the wall for a moment, Novak descended the stairway. His hand brushed against a portrait of his paternal grandfather, one of a dozen framed photos of three generations of family members that lined the staircase. After straightening it, he took another flight to the basement, fished a bottle of Yuengling and a can of soda water from the garage refrigerator, and joined his wife in the living room.

They sat opposite each other on a long brown sofa that backed to a picture window. Barbara sprawled lengthwise, her feet in his lap as she sipped the beer while Karol faced the gas fireplace, above which hung a Patriarchal cross with its double crossbars.

“Thomas Walsh…” he began.

“Barbara!” came a frail voice from a nearby room.

“I’ll go,” Novak said.

“Sit still. I’ll get her.”

With his wife gone to help his mother up after her nap, Novak flipped open his laptop and searched for the name, hoping to recharge his memory of the three-decade-old homicide. He hadn’t played any role in the case, but since the murder had taken place less than a half-mile from their home, he had followed it from arrest and conviction to sentencing. A decade-old article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, when last Walsh had appealed for clemency, helped fill in the details.

“Hi, Ma, how was the nap?” 

His mother muttered an acknowledgment as Barbara eased her into the reclining chair opposite the fireplace. Novak turned on the gas log. Even in summer, any room Izabela Novak entered was too cold for her. He fetched her a glass of wine and placed a blanket over her lap.

Na zdravie,” his mother said, raising her glass.

“And cheers to you, Mom.” He hoisted the can of soda water.

Barbara was not to be deterred. “Thomas Walsh,” she said.

“Walsh, yes. Over the Memorial Day weekend in ’89, he went fishing upstate with friends. His wife, Rebecca, was alone with their four-year-old daughter. Someone entered their home and suffocated the mother while she slept. The little girl discovered her body in the morning and ran across the street to neighbors. At first, county detectives suspected an intruder, but Walsh’s alibi didn’t hold up, and they recovered evidence from his car. They charged him with her murder.”

“Bridey was the little girl?”

“A terrible thing. No child should have to face that. Anyway, Walsh denied it at first but then confessed. He was sentenced to life without parole but immediately recanted and started filing appeals. They all failed. A decade ago, he appealed for clemency, but the governor turned him down.”

“Do you think he’s guilty?”

Novak shrugged. “He confessed. A jury convicted him. Why should I doubt it?”

“He was a bad man,” his mother said. She’d been following the conversation, offering no opinion until now.

“Still, will you look into it?” Barbara said.

“I can’t.” When she turned a rare frown his way, he said, “Although it took place in Boyleston, the county handled it, as they do every crime of violence. I haven’t yet assumed command, but I’m sure the department has a full plate. Plus, we have nothing to go on—no new information, no sign that there was anything wrong with the conviction.”

“All you have is a nine-year-old girl’s birthday wish.”

“Nice try.”

Barbara smiled as though giving up, though Novak doubted he’d heard the end of it.

Won’t you come in with me?” Izabela remained in the passenger seat as the car idled, willing her son to join her at early Mass.

“I can’t, Mom.” Novak stared straight ahead, unwilling to meet his mother’s gaze.

She did not move. “Why don’t I walk you in?” he said, attempting to break the spell.

“No. I can take care of myself.” She opened the passenger door, then leaned over to peer back in. “You can’t hold this anger inside you. It’s not right, not healthy.”

“It’s perfectly healthy,” he said, still refusing to meet her eye.

“Your father—”

“—would have felt the same.” Which was untrue.

“You should return,” she said in a softer tone. When he didn’t answer, she said, “I’m worried about you, Karol.”

“I assure you, my soul is in good hands.”

“No, I’m worried about you. You look tired. You’re under too much stress.”

“I’m fine, Mamička,” he said, hoping the childhood endearment would placate her.

“Are you sure you should take this on? You don’t need to.”

“I’m fine,” he repeated, and immediately regretted his sharp tone.

She sighed and, gathering up all the strength in her 84-year-old body, slammed the door before stalking toward the entrance. Despite the line of cars gathered behind him in the circular driveway, Novak waited until the heavy wooden doors of the ancient church had closed behind her before driving away.

St. Cyril and Methodius Church, one of Pittsburgh’s Slovakian parishes, had been her home and refuge since her arrival in the United States at the end of the war. Here, Slovak-speaking nuns had taught her to read, write, and speak English. Here, her younger brother and sister, both born in the US, had been baptized. Here, both she and her sister had married beneath its arched wooden timbers.

The diocese was studying parish consolidation, and Karol Novak suspected that St. Cyril would not survive the process. Not wanting to alarm her, he had not told his mother that she might soon lose her church home.It was one of several things he kept from her, some of which were known only to police officers. And to the church.

© 202O, James H Lewis

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