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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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“When did you start working murder cases?”

“They have a way of working me. It started out as a runaway.”

Keys rattled. He turned the laptop my way and I watched a felony in progress.

 

DOS

Lake of Fire

 

NINE

It was as useful as those things ever are. When you mount a camera overhead, the top of the head is what you get. The infrared lens bleached out the shadows, but from the moment the arsonist showed up and rooted in the Dumpster for combustible materials until he touched them off with a cigarette lighter I had only the impression of dark hair, a slender build, and a flannel shirt over a dark T-shirt that may or may not have been the outfit I'd spotted on Nesto Pasada that day. I had to assume he changed clothes now and then. Whoever it was never looked up at the camera once, and when the blaze caught the wooden window frame he turned and strode away. The fire burned long enough to burst the panes, then died out for lack of fuel. I'd seen more successful arsons on doorsteps at Halloween.

“Hardly worth reporting,” I said, when Osterling paused the image.

“I've been after Nordenborg for months to add a second camera and mount it low, catch 'em in the crossfire. He says it would raise rates and drive away clients. He'd rather spend the budget on Viking relics at Pottery Barn. At least we know it's male.”

“Maybe. Girls come in every shape and size. Can you zoom in on details?”

“Name the detail.”

“Back up and stop when I holler.”

He tickled some keys. The fire rekindled itself, burning backward down from the window. The starter backed into the frame, turned around, watched the result of his work, took the lighter from his pocket, and knelt to start it all over again. I told Osterling to stop it. The image froze and stayed rock-steady. I pointed at the hand holding the lighter. He tapped the same key three times. The hand filled the screen. It wore a dark dime-store jersey glove; no tarantula in sight. I said as much.

Osterling knew a bit about gangs. “So that's your interest. I heard the Maldados are as bad as they come. This is just one step up from a T.P. job. Disappointing, if it's them.”

“I'm looking for a kid who just joined up. Ink's still wet on his tattoo.”

“There'd be plenty of red in it in that case, scabs and bleeding from scratching the itch. Couldn't tell any of that by infrared, even without the glove.”

“I expected a tattoo, and that it wouldn't tell us much. I wanted a closer look at the lighter.”

He hit some more keys, shifting the angle to include the object in the hand. It was an ordinary kerosene lighter, tombstone-shaped and shiny, with a symbol I'd seen before engraved on the bottom part: a stylized raptor with spread wings.

“Eagle?” Osterling said.

“Thunderbird. Zorborón had one tattooed between his fingers.”

“The little shit probably stole the lighter from him just so he could use it against him. He forgot to plant it at the scene.”

“This wasn't planned. If he really wanted to make him bleed he'd have brought a Molotov cocktail and tossed it through the window.”

“I can do an Internet search on the symbol. It must mean something. The Tiger wasn't the gaudy type.”

“The Net knows too much and makes the rest up. I'd never sort through it all. Can you print out this shot? I'll show it around, see who recognizes that lighter.”

His telephone rang. He looked at the lighted button. “That's the inside line.”

“Communication from Valhalla?”

“Walk in my shoes. My oldest has her heart set on Princeton.” He reached for the receiver. “I'll messenger the print to your office.”

I thanked him and left while he was talking to the Lord of Thunder.

*   *   *

I went to the office and spent ten minutes dumping all the files, current and obsolete, back into their drawers. A disordered mind in a disordered room was a double negative I was better off doing without. I looked at the duct tape stuck on the baseboard across from the desk. I missed Wally. He might have had a new angle on the job.

But there were worse places to run to ground. When a city dies the jungle takes over, and the only reason
jungle
has a bad rap is people keep projecting all the uncivilized tendencies of the race on something that was pure at the beginning. The street was quiet between the mad rush to get to work and the madder one to get away from it, but not so dead you didn't get a little buzz from the odd loose tappet or beep-beep-beep of a dump truck backing up to fill a pothole the size of Crater Lake with gravel and spit, and taking all week at it because the mayor was footing the bill and nobody had told him that paying by the hour was a bad idea on its face. No family photos on the desk to remind you of your obligations, no TV to distract you with stale sitcoms and sex-starved hospital dramas and paid programming that didn't necessarily reflect the views of the station that nevertheless cashed the checks. No Internet, with its tired jokes and urban legends and Photoshopped porn. A brain factory, that room, pure and simple. What you did with the brain was your own damn business.

I drew out the leaf from the desk and rested my foot on it. The leg had started to hurt. It was just a dull throb now—in earlier times it had taken the top off my head—but persistent. Breaking the Vicodin habit had been more expensive than physical therapy when my liquor bill went up. Not that I didn't miss the little white pills.

My cell rang. While I was groping for it the telephone on the desk rang. The LED on the cell showed the initials of the Detroit Police Department. I answered it and left the landline to voice mail.

“What's new?” Alderdyce asked.

I told him about the surveillance video. There was no reason not to, as the Arson Squad would have a copy. He hadn't had a chance to look at it yet.

“Could be anything,” he said. “He stole the lighter, or Zorborón dropped it and he found it. Kids are magpies, snap up anything shiny.”

“What do you know about the thunderbird?”

“It's just about the worst wine in a bottle. Offhand I can't think of a gang that uses it for an insignia. The Zapatistas lack imagination: Theirs is a
Z
with a line through it. I'll run it past the Youth Bureau.”

“Any news on a bodyguard?”

“We found Zorborón's driver shacked up with his girlfriend in her apartment, across from Holy Cross Cemetery. They said neither of them has been out of the place since day before yesterday. Building super backed them up; he had to go up there three times to tell them to pipe down. They like to bat each other around and sing all the standards in between, at the top of their lungs. Not
American Idol
material, according to the supe. Place smelled like they smoked it with pot and scrubbed it down with gin. Cheez-It dust two inches deep on the floor; the Eucharist of munchies. Warren Zevon playing over and over on the stereo.”

“‘Werewolves of London.' Subtle folk, Latins.”

“Say what?”

“Something Zorborón said. Not pertinent. Sweet alibi for the driver.”

“We tanked them both for D-and-D and domestic assault, and him for CCW. Needless to say neither of them will press on the assault, but when the
piñata
busts you scoop up what spills out. He lugged around the Tiger's gun for him, but with his record he couldn't get a permit in Tijuana if he showed up at the police station with a bushel of pesos. They might crack and they might not, but it wouldn't be the first time a human shield called in sick just when he was most needed.”

“That would let out Nesto. A sixteen-year-old from Lathrup Village doesn't have the attention span to rig a conspiracy.”

“The punk who pulls the trigger is almost never the one who wrote the playbook.”

I looked to Wally's ghost for advice, but my foot blocked my view of his hole. “Do you
want
it to be him?”

“I have to work extra hard to fit him to it so I can eliminate him. The tag's out. If he shows his face at home or anywhere in the area he's downtown meat. Faster if he shows it in Mexicantown.”

“Suspicion of homicide?”

“Right now it's just runaway; but I let the department know the relationship. That way it's high priority, but if he tries to run, the pieces will stay in the holsters.”

“You're all heart, Gramps.”

“Fuck you. I don't know the kid from Charlie Brown.”

“Then why am I even part of this?”

“We got to create jobs, the president says.”

I rubbed my eyes. They were cured in secondhand pot and strained from staring at videos. “We through here?”

“I guess so. How's expenses?”

“I'm still working on my last carton. I'll let you know when I need to tap the Swiss accounts.”

“You're going to milk this thing for all it's worth, aren't you?”

“He's just a kid, John. You used to be one, as I recall.”

He blew air. There was smoke in it as surely as if I smelled it. “I wish to hell
I
could.”

After we were done I lit a cigarette, but the exhaust made my eyes sting even worse and I screwed it out in the tray. I remembered to check voice mail on the desk phone. The message was from Chata. Nesto had called.

*   *   *

“What'd he say?”

“‘Hello.'”

“That was polite of him. What else?”

“Nothing. I should've been more clear. I didn't actually speak to him. Jerry called from work, and when I hung up I found out Nesto had left a message because the line was busy.”

I let out a plume of smoke in a weary sigh. It was getting to be possible to hear from everyone in the civilized world without ever establishing direct contact. I'd had to call twice before she answered; she'd been on the line with Gerald, her husband. “Are you sure it was Nesto?”

“I know my brother's voice. He started to leave a message, then changed his mind.”

“Maybe he was interrupted.”

“I don't think so. I heard background noises for a couple of seconds, then he hung up. He must've been trying to make up his mind whether to say anything more.”

“What kind of noises?”

“I'm not sure. A train, I think; I heard that horn that sounds like a train whistle. Some other things.”

“What other things?”

“Noises. Nothing human. I'm sorry I can't be of more help.”

“You didn't erase it?”

“I'm not a fool.”

“I didn't say you were. Don't take everything as an insult. Did you tell Jerry what's going on?”

“I didn't get the chance. He said he'd be working late; some kind of emergency at the bus office. He was in a hurry, so I didn't think it was the—”

“Can you hang around until I get there?”

“Of course. I haven't budged from the house since I found out he'd skipped school. I have a cell, but—”

“I don't trust them either. I'll see you in twenty minutes.”

It was a little longer than that. I slid over to make room for an EMS unit with all its equipment going and got hung up on I-96 behind a procession of gawkers crawling past an overturned semi. After that, more construction. At the end of the ramp I ignored the
NO TURN ON RIGHT
sign. Right away I passed two squad cars stopped in a Park-and-Ride, but the drivers were too busy talking to each other to notice. I took advantage of the situation to pour on the coal. In the driveway I was out of the car in time to eat my own dust drifting from my rear wheels.

I don't know what the hurry was, except there was a tag out on Nesto; cops are people and I don't entirely trust every gun to stay in its holster when a citizen fails to heed the voice of authority.

She led me into the living room with Jesus wearing His thorn hat. Today she had on a thin pale blue sweater and a pair of pleated slacks, loafers on her feet. I hoped, with no agenda connected, that she wouldn't fall for the fitness craze and lose those extra pounds. There is a narrow line between thin and haggard. The message was on voice mail. I stood in the center of the carpet and held a slim cordless receiver to my ear while she worked the buttons.

There was a little hissing silence before he said, “Hello,” then the receiver on his end made fumbling noises. It was an adolescent voice, shallow and uncertain. I heard the asthmatic whistle of the Amtrak and a growling that sounded like the lion house at the Detroit Zoo when the keepers were twenty minutes behind feeding time. It wasn't the zoo; the trains don't pass that close.

I had her play it again, then once more while I separated all the ambient noises. They have computers to do that at l300, but you can become too dependent on technology if you have constant access to it. That made me the most independent detective in the 3l3 area code.

“The Michigan Central Depot.” I replaced the receiver in its cradle.

“What makes you so certain?”

“They don't stop there anymore, but the tracks are still there and the trains have to use them. They blow the horn out of respect. It could be a crossing, but that roaring sound cinches it. There's a parking garage across the street; that's the noise, cars going up and down the ramp. What came up on caller ID?”

“‘Out of Area,' I'm afraid.”

“Don't be. Most pay phones come up that way. I know where he called from.”

“Are you sure?”

“I've only had the cell a little while. Before that I memorized all the places in the area where you could make a call from a public phone. The Wayne County Historical Commission ought to put this one on its list before AT&T shuts it down.”

“Surely you won't find him still there.”

“Every missing-persons case needs a place to start.” Actually I had a specific idea, but nothing's to be gained by scaring a client out of her wits.

BOOK: Burning Midnight
11.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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