Beneath the Book Tower: An Alex McKnight Short Story (2 page)

BOOK: Beneath the Book Tower: An Alex McKnight Short Story
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“Where is she now?” I asked.

He shook his head and made a quick dismissing wave with his hand. Meaning he didn’t know, or it didn’t matter anymore, or that she was long gone and there was no use even talking about it. Surprising from a man who could find at least a few hundred words to say about any topic at all.

We got a call on the radio then. There was real police work for us to do that night, apart from doing favors and keeping promises. That’s how the night shift worked. Two, three hours of nothing and then all of a sudden you would find yourself in the middle of a calamity.

There was a fight going on outside a bar, back on Woodward. I flipped on the lights and we ran silent. Back east on Michigan Avenue, past the stadium again, all the way to the center of downtown. There was another car already parked in front of the bar when we pulled up. Two other Detroit cops were already talking to two different participants in whatever kind of altercation had taken place. One of the men had a thin trail of blood coming down one side of his face. The other was in handcuffs. Both men were clearly still agitated and talking a few thousand words a minute.

Franklin and I helped calm everybody down, and we made sure nobody else got any ideas about starting their own little secondary skirmishes. Too often these things end up like a hockey game, with one fight quickly turning into five fights.

When everything was settled and one man was sent on his way to find bandages and the other packed into the back of a squad car, Franklin spotted two kids standing nearby. He went over to ask them if either of them had seen Antoine Treille lately, but they put their hands up and walked away.

“Everybody knows everybody in this town,” he said to me when we were back in our car. “We just need to find the right kid to talk to us.”

“Good luck on that one.”

As he drove, Franklin kept scanning the streets, asking me to slow down every time he saw another group of kids standing around on a corner. He’d roll down his window and shout at the kids, and more often than not they’d just turn their backs on him.

It was going to be one hell of a long night.

About an hour later, we were over on the east side, in a forgotten part of town where the buildings thinned out almost completely and there were actual fields of scrubby grass and weeds, and here in the middle of the nothingness rose St. Cyril’s, this great Catholic church, grand and ornate in its day but now just a boarded-up shell with faded paint and broken stained-glass windows. Just one more of the many ruins of Detroit.

“Looks like somebody’s having some fun over there,” Franklin said. As I took the right on Van Dyke I saw who he was talking about. A white man in a dress shirt, standing behind his BMW, struggling with something in the trunk. The left rear end was hoisted up on a jack and the tire was off.

I pulled up behind him. As we got out of the car, he spun around with a look of sheer terror on his face. Like this is it, I’m about to be mugged, raped, then killed, in that order. He dialed it back about halfway when he saw our uniforms, but his hands were still shaking, and he gave the spare tire a great yank until it just about bowled him over.

Franklin went up to the tire he had taken off and gave it a kick. “Need some help, sir?”

“Hell of a place to get a flat, huh? But thanks, I think I’m good.”

Franklin flashed me a quick look. If a man with a flat tire refuses your help, there’s usually a good reason.

“How’d you end up here, anyway?” Franklin said. “Were you on your way somewhere?”

“Just on my way home,” the man said, not looking up. He had the spare tire mounted now, and he was fumbling with the lug nuts. “I guess I kinda got lost.”

“What, were you on the expressway?”

“On Ninety-four, yeah. Just going home.”

“How’d you end up all the way up here if you were on the expressway?”

The man was turning the first lug nut, and I could tell he was wishing he had one of those superfast power tools they have at the racetracks. Ten-second pit stop and then you’re on your way, no time to answer any questions, thank you, officer, have a nice night.

“No,” the man said, “I mean yes. I had to get off because I had to find a bathroom. Real bad. You know how it is. Then I guess I just took a wrong turn getting back.”

“Reason I ask is, we’ve got people who come in from the suburbs and they cruise up and down some of our streets, looking to buy drugs. It’s a bad situation for everyone involved, I’m sure you’d agree.”

The man turned one shade whiter. “That’s not what I’m doing, Officer. I swear to God.”

“You mind if I take a quick look in your car to make sure?”

“What? I mean—”

“If you haven’t done anything, then we’re cool, right?”

This is where any man with an ounce of sense or any understanding of the law would refuse the search, but it never failed to amaze me. Ten minutes later, he was sitting on the curb while Franklin pulled a small plastic bag of powder cocaine out of the center console. I went ahead and finished changing his tire, even if it was just to make it easier for somebody to tow the car to the impound lot.

Franklin called another car to come pick up the man and take him downtown. I knew Franklin didn’t want to be tied up for the next hour processing him. Not on this night. Even as the man was being taken away, I could see him looking up the street at two more kids crossing at the stoplight. It was almost 2:00 A.M. now.

We got in the car, and as we rolled up to the two kids he opened his window and flagged them down. Two more black kids, fourteen, maybe fifteen. No older than that. They both had jeans shorts on, oversized white shirts with gold crowns. Brand-new Nikes.

“Hold up, guys,” Franklin said. I stopped the car and he got out. “Either you guys seen Antoine Treille?”

“Don’t know who you mean,” the one kid said.

“T-Bird, they call him, right?”

“You mean T-Bill.”

“So you
do
know him.”

“I might,” the kid said. “Depends on what you want him for.”

“Just looking for him,” Franklin said. “His grandmother is worried about him.”

The second kid smirked at that one, but the first kid kept a straight face. “I understand he was meeting somebody tonight, to administer a certain amount of ass-whupping. That’s what I heard, anyway.”

“Do you happen to know where this amount of ass-whupping was going to happen?”

“Nuh-uh,” the kid said. “Sorry I can’t be more helpful to you.”

“How ’bout you?” Franklin said to the second kid. “You know anything more?”

“I knew about your mama earlier tonight, that’s about it.”

Franklin probably outweighed both of these kids put together, these fourteen- or fifteen-year-old children out on the streets in the middle of the night when they should have been home in bed, getting some sleep so they could get up early for school. Instead they were out there hustling, and I knew there wasn’t much we could do about it. I knew it and they knew it, because that was the whole point of having kids do the legwork. We could bring them in, but because of their age they’d be back out on the streets within a few hours. Meanwhile, the handful of men running the drug trade in this town would be safe at home, completely untouchable. We’d hear rumors of federal cases being put together, built slowly from the ground up, brick by brick. But meanwhile the whole operation kept grinding away, one long useless night after another.

Now, if Batman was really in that Book Tower, he’d have a different approach to the problem, right? He wouldn’t have to play by the same rules. He’d find the real criminals behind everything and he’d exact his own vengeance, Batman style. On a night like this, I had to admit, the whole idea was appealing.

“We just ran some guy in a BMW,” Franklin said to that second kid, instead of folding him up and stuffing him down a sewer grate. “Any chance you were the hotshots who sold him the powder?”

“You got nothing,” the kid said. He was right. “Go find T-Bill and take him home to his grandmama.”

The kids turned their backs on him and started walking away. For a moment I thought Franklin might do something rash, but sanity prevailed and he came back to the car.

“Punk-ass little bitches,” he said under his breath. “Talking to me that way.”

“It sounds like Antoine’s out looking for trouble tonight,” I said. “Do you have any idea where he might be?”

“Lord knows. If you really want trouble, you can find it pretty much anywhere.”

“Well, you’re right about that.”

“Except maybe that town you were talking about,” he said. “Paradise? That’s really in the same state as Detroit?”

“It is. But I bet you can still find trouble up there if you really want to.”

He shook his head as I put the car in gear and pulled away. We weren’t more than five minutes down the road when the call came in. Shots fired. Grand Boulevard, in the old Packard plant. We were already on the east side of town, not more than a mile or two away, so I flipped on the lights and siren and we tore through the night.

Franklin picked up the radio and told them we were responding. When we got down there, I parked the car in the middle of the plant, where the old walkway passes over the street. Out of all the ruins in Detroit, this was the king. Thirty-five sprawling acres of it, this plant where they once made the most beautiful automobiles the world has ever seen. Now it’s just empty buildings with graffiti on the outside and collapsing floors on the inside. Sumac trees growing up through the holes in the roof. Garbage, rats, broken glass. I chased my share of young vandals and thrill-seekers out of that old wreck, believe me. We all did. But tonight there were shots fired, and that meant a whole different level of police work. Hell, maybe it was just a couple of kids taking target practice, but the way this night was going, I didn’t think we’d get that lucky.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Franklin said. “This place is a city in itself.”

“More cars are on the way.”

“Why can’t they do this shit in the daylight, anyway?”

We both got out and stood by the car for a moment. Our lights were still flashing, and we could see the blues and reds reflected in what was left of the glass. We weren’t hearing any shots now, but just then a lone figure crossed the street in front of us, maybe two blocks away.

I started after him, with Franklin close behind. After all our arguments about which sport had the superior athletes, this was my chance to show that a former catcher can outrun a former offensive lineman. The prize being getting to the end of the street first and having a much better chance of being shot in the head.

As I got closer, I saw the kid jump the fence and head into the plant. Another squad car was coming up the street now, but it was still a few blocks away. With Franklin fading behind me, I was still very much the lead man. I jumped the fence in the same spot and felt the top edge catch on my pants for one terrible moment. I could feel myself falling straight down on my face, but then the fabric tore and I was free. I landed on my feet.

“Police!” I yelled. “Stop right there!”

But the kid had already pushed through the door and was inside the building. As I shouldered open the same door, I saw the broken padlock. Now I was in darkness, a completely stupid move on my part. I felt a wall on my left and I put my back up against it, catching my breath and waiting for my eyes to adjust. When they did I could see that part of the ceiling had caved in, and it made a sort of courtyard, with the light from the moon coming down and making everything glow. There was an old refrigerator and a baby carriage and a million other pieces of trash from God knows where.

“I know you’re in here,” I said. “Just come out now so nobody gets hurt, okay?”

There was no answer, but then soon after that I heard the clang of metal on metal and I knew he was close.

“If you have a gun, put it down,” I said. “Step out and keep your hands where I can see them.”

I waited to see movement. From somewhere behind me, I could hear Franklin laboring to get over the fence. I was thinking I should wait for him to show up so we could have this kid outnumbered, but then I saw the gun barrel. He was hiding behind a concrete column, maybe twenty feet away, and he was about to turn the corner and fire on me.

“Drop the gun now!”

I went into a crouch and held the gun with both hands, taking dead aim at the exact spot where his chest would be in another half second. But then I saw the gun falling to the ground. The kid stepped out with both hands up. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt despite the heat. A suitable place to hide a gun, no doubt. He was wearing a Tiger baseball cap. He couldn’t have been older than fourteen, I swear to God.

“Okay, turn around and keep your hands in the air,” I said. “Then walk backwards to the sound of my voice.”

He tried to comply, but there was too much garbage on the floor to walk backwards without killing yourself. I told him to stop. That’s when Franklin came into the room.

“Is this your man?” I said to him.

“Turn around,” Franklin said.

The kid turned around.

“That’s not him. That’s not Antoine.”

BOOK: Beneath the Book Tower: An Alex McKnight Short Story
9.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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