Novak’s Quest

Read the first chapter of Novak’s Quest.

Independence Day came early that year. On April 1, Boyleston Police Chief Karol Novak struggled into his blue uniform coat, late for a meeting. He shot his left arm out past the hem of his sleeve and checked his watch. When Novak had tendered his resignation the previous year, he’d promised to remain until the borough council hired his replacement. Six months later, he was still here, and the search dragged on with no end in sight. No more. In fifteen minutes, he’d deliver his ultimatum to the chairman of the public safety committee, giving him the eight weeks between now and Memorial Day to either hire someone or appoint an interim chief. 

Independence Day came early that year. On April 1, Boyleston Police Chief Karol Novak struggled into his blue uniform coat, late for a meeting. He shot his left arm out past the hem of his sleeve and checked his watch. When Novak had tendered his resignation the previous year, he’d promised to remain until the borough council hired his replacement. Six months later, he was still here, and the search dragged on with no end in sight. No more. In fifteen minutes, he’d deliver his ultimatum to the chairman of the public safety committee, giving him the eight weeks between now and Memorial Day to either hire someone or appoint an interim chief. 

Norma Marks, his administrative assistant, knocked and cracked the door open. “There’s a man here to see you. He says it’s urgent.” 

“I’m late for my meeting with Councilman Jackson,” he said. “Let Mayfield handle it.” 

“He’s at the academy today, remember?” His deputy chief was training recruits at the Criminal Justice Training Center. Marks cleared her throat and glanced over her shoulder. “He’s insistent.” 

Novak sighed. “I can give him a minute or two, nothing more.” 

Marks left, returning with a man who looked to be in his mid-thirties wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins jacket, a small backpack stuffed so tightly it looked poised to explode, and a Pirates baseball cap he removed as he entered. He was just over six feet by Novak’s estimate, but thin as a walking stick. He had a head of thick black hair he swept back with his right hand and a look of perpetual worry. What most struck Novak, however, was his sallow complexion—that and the yellow cast to his eyes. Jaundice, he thought. 

“Thank you for seeing me,” he said. “May I sit down?” 

Novak waved him into one of the two chairs facing his desk. “I’m Pete Catalano.” He paused as though the name ought to mean something. “I’ve come about my sister.” 

“What’s happened to her?” 

“She’s dead.” His tone suggested this was something Novak should know. “Murdered.” 

Catalano. Catalano. The bare outline of the cold case tugged at his memory. “About twenty years ago, was it?” 

“Nineteen,” he said. 

Novak had been a detective with the City of Pittsburgh at the time, so he’d not been involved in the case, but he remembered it. Everyone in the area did. The girl’s gruesome death had terrified citizens throughout Boyleston and the surrounding municipalities that peppered Pittsburgh’s south side. “Jenny, wasn’t that her name?” 

“Gianna.” Again an annoyed tone, as if to say, How could you not know?

“You’ll have to excuse me. I wasn’t here at the time. I’ve only been in this job for a year.” And won’t be here much longer. “I don’t have much time now.” 

“Neither do I,” Catalano said. His tone told Novak everything he needed to know. The man was dying. Cirrhosis? No, something else. Liver cancer, perhaps? Novak couldn’t turn the man away. He told Norma to postpone his meeting with Jackson for a half hour and sank into his chair to hear the man’s story. 

“Gianna was twenty-two when she was killed,” Catalano said. “She’d just graduated from Pitt and was starting a graduate program in the fall. She worked in the family restaurant. The entire family did back then.” 

Catalano’s had been the best Sicilian restaurant on East Carson Street, a few blocks from the Monongahela River. It had closed years before. A damned shame, Novak thought. Best veal parmigiana in town. 

“She’d just moved out of the house, rooming with a college friend, Maria Grasso,” Catalano continued. “I don’t know if she’s still in the area. Anyway, Gianna and her boyfriend had gone to a party at a friend’s house.” 

Novak began taking notes. The man’s face brightened, misinterpreting the chief’s action as a commitment rather than support for his frequent memory lapses. 

“And the boyfriend’s name?” 

“Paul Chapman.” Catalano wrinkled his nose as though he’d detected a foul odor. “When Maria woke up the next morning, Gianna wasn’t there. She figured she’d…”

“I get the picture,” Novak said when Catalano hesitated to put words to it. 

“She didn’t show up at the restaurant that afternoon, so Mom called Maria. That’s when we learned she hadn’t come home.” 

He twisted his cap in his hands as he recalled that afternoon and evening. “The police began a search and started questioning those who’d been at the party.” By “police,” he meant the Allegheny County Police Department, which handled crimes of violence for the many boroughs and townships ringing Pittsburgh. 

“They didn’t learn much. The guy who rented the house said Chapman had left early, leaving Gianna without a way home. Others at the party said she’d argued with the host over something and left on foot. Someone offered her a ride, but she said they were all so drunk, she felt safer hoofing it.” 

He let out a long, tortured sigh. “The next morning, a woman out walking her dog found a body along an abandoned rail line, the one that hauled coal to the rolled wheel plant before it closed. People used it as a pathway because it cut through the hills.” 

Novak knew the place. Locals took the shortcut from the northeast end of the borough to the bus line. His wife was part of a local group trying to develop the rail bed as a paved path, connecting it to the Montour Trail that surrounded Allegheny County. 

“Anyway, that’s where they found her. She’d been…” He broke down, unable to continue. 

As Novak remembered it, her killer had first strangled her, then mutilated her body. No one had ever been charged. 

“I don’t have long. I think you can tell that.” Novak nodded, his suspicions confirmed. “But this thing has dogged our family for nineteen years. It killed my mother and destroyed the family business. My brother and older sister moved to Cleveland. My father is a lonely, angry man. When I’m gone, I don’t know what will become of him.” 

Tears flooded his eyes and overflowed onto his cheeks. “No one talks about Gianna. It’s like she never existed. I can’t let that happen. I have to know who killed her if it’s the last—it will be the last thing I do on this earth.” 

Novak put down his pen and rested his forehead on his hands. Five seconds passed. He raised his head. “Mr. Catalano—“ 


“Pete, I’m not sure what I can do for you after all this time. The county handled that case, not Boyleston PD. They have more resources than we do.” 

“You reopened the Walsh case last year,” he said, referring to the murder of a woman whose husband had been wrongly accused and convicted. “That was three decades ago. I know this is a small department, but you took an interest in that case and solved it.” 

A personal appeal. That won’t get you far. I’m a short-timer.

“I’ve saved everything. Police reports, interviews, newspaper clippings.” Catalano hoisted the loaded backpack from the floor onto the desk. “I’ve lived here all my life, paid taxes, served as a volunteer firefighter, and never asked Boyleston for a thing. I’m doing so now.” 

Novak had no intention of reopening the case, but nearly thirty minutes had passed, and he needed to meet with Bernie Jackson. “I’ll take a look,” he said, “but I can’t promise anything.” 

“Thank you,” Catalano said, rising from his chair with obvious effort. “It’s all I ask.” 

Novak entered Prenza’s Italian Restaurant prepared to stick to his wife’s recently imposed diet and order the Caesar salad, but when he found Bernie Jackson presiding over a pizza the size of a manhole cover, slathered in pepperoni and sausage, his resolve faded. Jackson barely greeted him, sliding two slices onto a plate and waving him into the seat across from him. 

The councilman shoved a piece into his maw, grinning as he disassembled it in his mouth and consigned it to his stomach. “Best pizza in town,” he proclaimed. He ate in silence, chasing the pizza with a cola drink in a large plastic cup. Despite his appetite, Jackson was a muscular, compact man whose cocoa-colored skin and light gray hair framed a face without a trace of a wrinkle, despite his sixty-three years. 

Only after he’d consumed half the pie did he pause for breath. “How are you, Karol?” 

Novak knew his friend wasn’t inquiring into his state of mind, but of his health. “I’m fine, Bernie.” 

“No more vertigo?” Novak shook his head, not being entirely truthful. While tending goal during a soccer match four years earlier, an opposing player had slid cleats-first into his head. The resulting concussion not only forced his retirement from the Pittsburgh Police Department, but also left him with occasional dizziness and memory lapses. “You keeping up with your therapy?” Bernie continued. Maintaining his treatment had been a condition of Novak’s employment. 

Novak assured him he was fine. “How about you?” 

Jackson lowered his eyes, staring at his brown hands as though in prayer. “Truth is, I’m wondering how long I can keep going.” 

Novak raised his eyebrows in an inquiry. “It was tough enough when families started taking all these selfies,” the council member said. “They stopped coming in for family portraits. I get a few now and then, but most people get someone to take a snapshot in the backyard with the family dog and send them to Walgreen’s. If they bother to make prints at all.” 

He tugged at a fold of skin on his cheek and looked off to the side. “Even the yearbook photo business is drying up. Kids submit their own. Grade-school teachers take class photos, many of which look like garbage, but it’s cheap.” 

Bernie had taken high school yearbook portraits for so long, he was now photographing the grandchildren of some of his earliest subjects. He didn’t charge students whose parents couldn’t afford it. He’d served as advisor to the high school camera club, had provided dozens of youths with summer employment, and had devoted years to service on the borough council at no pay. When the school board cut discretionary classroom funding in the most recent budget, it was easy for teachers to jettison Bernie’s class pictures, inexpensive though they were. It angered Novak that a lifetime of public service was so easily cast aside. 

“Is there anything I can do?” he said. 

“What could you do? You can’t stop progress.” Jackson batted the issue aside as though it were a fly. “Enough about my problems. You called this meeting. What’s on your mind?” 

Novak opened by picking at a boil that had festered for months, one Bernie had tried and failed to lance. “We had a dangerous situation last night. We dispatched Officer Foreman on a domestic call while Officer Kimrey was handling a hit-and-run on Main Street. Foreman called for back-up, and we had no one to send. I went myself, but I was available only because I was working late.”

Novak had fired his deputy chief, Daryl McMahon, the previous summer for violating department policy and misrepresenting his background. He promoted Detective Sergeant Calvin Mayfield to replace him, elevating patrol officer Lydia Barnwell to detective. That left a vacancy in the patrol unit, but the council, to whom Novak reported, had frozen all hiring. “We need to fill that vacancy, Bernie. I need your help.” 

He waited for the council member’s reaction but got none. “Are you going to eat that last piece?” 

“Help yourself,” Novak said, thinking if he and Barbara had ordered this, they wouldn’t have finished half of it, leaving enough for a second meal that could include their daughter and granddaughter. 

“Lentz,” Bernie said, referring to the council president, “has staked his reelection campaign on his reputation as a budget hawk. He’s dug in on this issue.” 

“It’s false economy. We’re spending more in overtime than we would if we filled the position.” 

Jackson drummed his fingers on the table while he thought. “Send me a memo documenting that. Forget about the public safety aspect. Just pitch it as a way to save money.” 

“Thank you.” 

“But you run a risk, Karol. Lentz is just as likely to restrict your use of overtime.” Another pause as Jackson reconsidered. “Lead with what the vacancy costs in overtime and support it with the public safety angle. Emphasize that any further reduction in personnel, such as an illness, will put the lives of your officers in jeopardy.” 

Novak muttered another thanks as he scribbled notes. “One more thing, Bernie: What’s the status of the search process?” 

“There’s no movement,” Jackson said. 

“What’s the holdup?” 

“The same as last month. We have qualified candidates who won’t work for the salary we pay, and unqualified candidates who will.” 

Novak had taken the job out of a sense of duty. He lived in Boyleston and considered it his obligation to get the department headed in the right direction. He could afford to work at the sub-par salary thanks to his pension from Pittsburgh. He had seen the job as a mission and now considered that mission accomplished. 

“Hold on a bit longer,” Jackson said. “After the election, we can loosen the purse strings and attract someone who can continue what you’ve started.” 

Novak saw his planned deadline slipping away. “All right, Bernie, but I need to get on with my life. Please do what you can.” 

“I’m working on it, Karol. It’s a budgetary issue, and until the election…” He held up both hands to show he was powerless. The truth, Novak knew, was that Jackson trusted him more than any chief he’d worked with and was not looking forward to losing him. The confidence was mutual. Bernie was, in his view, the only council member on whom he could rely. But he couldn’t tell Jackson the additional reason for his sense of urgency. Novak had a private investigation to pursue, one he couldn’t conduct while in uniform, and longed to be free of the constraints of his office. 

As Novak bent over his legal pad, scratching out the first draft of his argument to the council, Officer David Kimrey tapped on his open door. “Can I grab a moment, Chief?” 

Novak motioned him in, and Kimrey lowered himself into a guest chair. Sensing Kimrey’s “moment” was expanding to something more, Novak covered his notes with a file from his out-basket and pushed his chair back from the desk, waiting for the young officer to speak. Kimrey knotted his hands and looked at them without speaking. His cherubic face—Novak suspected he would keep his boyish looks until he was seventy—was twisted in concern. “What’s on your mind, David?” 

He looked up and bit his lip. “I’d like to know where I stand.” 

“In terms of what?” 

“How am I doing?” 

Novak struggled to hide his confusion. “Deputy Mayfield completed your performance review in February, didn’t he?” 

“Yes. I did okay in most areas. That’s not the point.” 

Mayfield had determined Kimrey’s quality of work tended to decline as the day went on, as though something else was on his mind. His reports were sloppy and often left out critical details. Kimrey had chafed at the appraisal, sulking for days. He was not alone. Novak had changed the passive attaboys that were standard under his predecessor to a serious review of every officer’s performance. Most resented the change, but no one had taken it harder than the young officer who now sat before him. “What is the point?” 

Kimrey grasped an empty coffee cup on Novak’s desk and slid it back and forth. “Other people are getting promotions, people who arrived after I did.” 

So that was it. He suppressed the urge to ask which people, because it was not only unprofessional, but, in this case, cruel. “David, seniority plays no role in our personnel decisions. Field experience, sure, but an officer can skate through ten years here without gathering the practical knowledge that qualifies him for consideration. I look at education, performance, judgment, ability to work well with fellow officers and the public, and a host of other things. Simply punching the clock year after year does nothing for me.” 

“Is that what you think I’m doing?” 

“I’m suggesting you’re using the wrong standard.” 

Kimrey shrugged, and Novak wondered if his words had bounced off the man. 

“What do I need to do, then?” the young officer said. 

“Deputy Mayfield gave you a roadmap. He wrote over a page of recommendations. Take some time to read through it. Look over written reports. Study the ones Detective Ewer writes—tight, well-organized, logical, just the facts. Copy his outline—when he received the call, when he reported on the scene, what he found on arriving, and so on. There’s a formula to an effective report. Figure it out and use it.” 

“And then what?” 

Novak closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Speak with Deputy Mayfield for that. He’s your superior officer.” 

“So you don’t want to discuss it with me.” 

Novak sighed, conveying his frustration. Kimrey was spending too much time in traffic court as motorists challenged his citations, and he was losing most cases. Was this due to sloppiness, or was Kimrey citing minor violations to fulfill some imagined quota? Novak wasn’t certain, but he would not undercut Calvin Mayfield’s authority by investigating it himself. “Officer, we both want you to succeed,” he said. “Follow the chain of command, do your job well, and you’ll be fine.” 

Kimrey shrugged again, making a show of his dissatisfaction. 

“If that’s all,” Novak said, “I have work to do.” 

Although the weather was still nippy, Novak, having stopped by the market on his way home, fired up the grill. He oiled a griddle and placed it over the grate, letting the temperature climb while he marinated three tuna steaks in olive oil, lemon juice, and spices. His mother, Izabela, was not fond of fish, but the deprivations of her pre-war years had instilled in her a responsibility to eat whatever was put before her.

Inside, Barbara prepared a fruit salad, drizzling balsamico over it. Novak slathered slices of ciabatta with a garlic and oil mixture and placed them on the hanging basket at the top of the grill, then placed the fish on the sizzling grate. Ninety seconds later, he flipped the fish, rescued the garlic toast, and, after another minute, transferred everything to a platter and carried it inside. 

“Your Italian heritage is showing through,” his wife said, knowing every drop of his blood came from Slovakia. 

Izabela did not correct her; perhaps she hadn’t heard the exchange. “A woman traded in a trip to Spain to go for the Big Deal,” she said. “She ended up with a hot tub. Who needs a hot tub?” 

“At the moment…,” Novak muttered. 

Barbara cleared the table while Novak cleaned the grill, his mother retreating to the living room to watch Wheel of Fortune at peak volume. After finishing, he brought the griddle to the kitchen and began drying dishes. “How was your lunch with Bernie?” she said. 

“Unproductive, I’m afraid.” 

“At least you had your fill of pizza.” 

“How do you—“? He broke off before he could finish the question. She would have made a good detective, but perhaps thirty years in the classroom, nine of them as a principal, had provided better training. “I was late for our meeting, and by the time I arrived, Bernie had preempted my noble intentions.” 

Barbara gave no sign she had heard him. She probably knew he’d enjoyed every moment of his backsliding. He slowed his drying while he considered how much to tell her. “Do you remember when a woman named Gianna Catalano was murdered?” 

It was Barbara’s turn to pause with dish in hand. “Remember? How could I forget? That’s when we started locking our doors.” Novak grunted an acknowledgement. “What about it?” 

He recounted the visit of the victim’s brother and his appeal to Novak to reopen the case. “He’s gravely ill and wants to see justice done before he’s gone.” 

“What does he expect you to do after all these years?” 

He recounted how Catalano had drawn a parallel between his sister’s case and the Walsh murder. 

“So now you’re the cold case expert?” she said with a teasing smile and a toss of her dark hair. 

“There’s a difference. In the Walsh case, the county claimed they’d solved it, and the victim’s husband had been convicted and sentenced. The case was closed. Here, no one was ever charged, let alone brought to trial.” 

Leaving the cutlery in the sink, she dried her hands and wrapped her arms around him. He embraced her, and they stood for a moment, dancing without musical accompaniment. Of late, she had fretted about the gray intruding into her dark hair, but to him, she was still the willowy girl whose presence had interrupted his run at Schenley Park years before. She still glided across the floor like the dancer she had once been. Sometimes he stopped whatever he was doing to watch her as she moved. 

“After all these years, is there anything new?” she said. 

That was the question. Catalano had brought no additional facts with him, just weathered papers documenting what county investigators had compiled. But there was one element. “The county police department wasn’t what it is today.” 

“So they may have overlooked something. Gianna still needs justice. Will you take it on?” 

Novak thought for a moment. “No. We don’t have the resources to go chasing after another cold case. And I’m trying to unwind my responsibilities, not add to them.” 

They ended their embrace and returned to the dishes, but Barbara hung on to the subject. “Perhaps Lydia could look into it.” 

Barbara considered herself the female detective’s greatest advocate. “She has three active cases right now,” he said. “I don’t want to distract her. Speaking of which, I had another unannounced visitor this afternoon.”

He waited for her to prod him, but Barbara was not into guessing games. 

“David Kimrey. He says he’s seeking advancement, uncertain of his position within the department, but what’s really eating him—” 

“He feels threatened.” 

“Right. Lydia’s made detective, while he’s still a patrolman. He can’t stand it, and his performance is suffering. Calvin and I have been wondering why. Now we know.” 

“You might have guessed that when you promoted her.” 

“I thought he was more mature than that. Besides, she applied for the position when it became open and flew through the exam. He didn’t even try.” 

It was unusual for a police chief to share personnel information with a spouse, but Novak viewed Barbara almost as a management consultant. Her experience dealing with school boards helped him navigate the treacherous political waters of the borough council. Even on active cases, she had an ability to see through the veil of extraneous detail. And she, likewise, shared frustrations of her job with him. 

“The male ego is a fragile vessel,” she said, “except in your case.” 

“I have an ego.” 

“When you were forced into retirement, you didn’t resent me for carrying the load for a while. You pitched in, kept the place clean, cooked.” 

It was that or his mother’s kapustnica, night after night. “Besides, I was happy to have someone support me in my golden years.” 

Barbara would have none of it. “You’re unique, Karol. My prince.” She embraced him again. “As for David and Lydia, that relationship won’t last.” 

“Whatever they do, they need to keep it out of the office. David is sulking, functioning at half capacity. Meanwhile, I’m down an officer, which is why I need a favor.” 

She stepped back. “Uh-oh.” 

“Bernie Jackson is coaching me on how to thaw that frozen position. It requires some careful wordsmithing, and since I married an English major who’s adept at wheedling what she needs from an intractable school board….” 

“All right, Buster. I’ll do this for you if you’ll do something for Mariel.” 

“Name it.” 

“She wants you to stop by tomorrow and use her iPhone to take the class picture.” 

“I won’t do that,” he said, with Bernie Jackson’s dilemma fresh in his mind, “but I will do something better.” He reached for his wallet and told her what he had in mind. 

Eight blocks away, Detective Lydia Barnwell finished straightening up her second-floor apartment by arranging magazines on the coffee table. She couldn’t stand a mess and returned each evening to pick up the clothes David had left strewn across the floor of their bedroom, align the towels on the bathroom rack, and return their living room to its pristine condition. 

In the kitchen, she sautéed two cups of mushrooms in olive oil while heating a quart of chicken broth. She minced garlic and shallot, softening them in a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot, then stirred in a cup of carnaroli rice and, after a few minutes, added a bit of white wine. As she began stirring in the chicken broth, she took two chicken breasts from the refrigerator and flattened them with a mallet, poured a small amount of flour onto a plate, juiced a lemon, chopped fresh parsley, and measured sherry, chicken stock, and capers. 

When she heard the front door open, she called out a cheery hello, which was not returned. David Kimrey slid a box across the bar separating the living room from the kitchen. 

“You picked up pizza?” she said. “I told you I was making chicken piccata and mushroom risotto tonight. Your favorites.” 

“I feel more like pizza.” 

“I’ve gone to all this work.” 

“Make it some other night. I just want to veg out.” 

Without a word, Lydia gave the risotto another stir, covered the chicken breasts in plastic wrap and returned them to the refrigerator, and dumped the rest of the ingredients in the trash. She finished the risotto, stirring in butter and parmesan cheese, poured herself a bowl and a glass of white wine, and set herself a place at their small table at the end of the living room. David sat on the sofa, watching a Netflix movie. Neither spoke. 

This can’t go on much longer, she told herself. Why do I put up with his childish behavior?

After cleaning up the meal, she laid a map of the borough on the dining room table and placed her notebook alongside it. As his movie drew to a close, she said, “I could use your help with this.” 

“What is it?” 

She smiled, flashing her bright blue eyes in his direction. “Three young men, probably teenagers, are tagging cars with spray paint on weekend nights. I want to see if there’s a pattern. If you call out the addresses, I’ll mark the locations on this map.” 

Without moving from the sofa, Kimrey used the remote to scroll through other movies. “You’re the detective,” he said. 

She looked up so abruptly, her blond curls trembled. “Yes,” she said, “I am.” 

Without turning off the TV, Kimrey donned his jacket and left. 

Novak’s cell phone gave the cascading tone reserved for calls from Deputy Chief Calvin Mayfield. Shaking off his sleep, Novak fumbled for the instrument on his nightstand. “What’s up?” 

“Sorry to wake you, Chief, but there’s been an incident in Byers Township. You’d better come in.” 

Novak whispered at him to hold on, but Barbara said, “I’m awake.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed, waited until he brought his dizziness under control, and padded out to the hallway, telling Mayfield to continue. 

“Officer-involved shooting,” came the terse reply. “White officer and a Black teenager who was 10-84 at Presby. Citizens are pouring onto the streets over there in protest. Their anger could spread to us.” Both men knew what turmoil the slaying of a Black youth by a White officer could produce. Novak’s voice echoed the tension in his deputy’s as he said, “I’m on my way.” 

© 2022, James H Lewis

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