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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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“That's a snap judgment too. Some of them spend it on cockfights.”

“Most don't. The ones that do get more than their share of attention.”

“Just their share. You're in the news business. You didn't get that Pulitzer nomination writing about honesty in high places.”

“The award went to an embedded war correspondent who spent all his time in bed with a hooker in a four-star hotel in Dubai. Can I tell my story?”

“Who stopped you? All I said was ‘uh-huh.'”

He grinned again. It wasn't a nice grin, but I doubt he had spares. “They told me you're an independent son of a bitch. I guess that would explain this office.”

“You're forgetting that lightbulb. Tell me about the brother.”

“Good enough kid—she says. He's got himself in a gang. My son came to me to get him out. I wouldn't know how to go about it. My work always starts when it's all over.”

“What did the social worker say?”

“What social worker?”

“You're making the same mistake your son did. My specialty's missing persons: It's spelled out right there in my listing. I just find them, and if they let me I bring them back.”

“If they
let
you?”

“I'm not a bounty hunter. The ones I know I wouldn't trust to lend a book on my library card. Come back when the brother goes missing. Until then you need to go to Family Services.”

He shook his head. That operation involved a hydraulic system buried deep in that neck. “Maybe if you put as much time into accepting a job as you do into turning one down, you'd have a suite in Grosse Pointe instead of a flea hatchery downtown.”

“I'd need a better car first. One I've got, I have to shoot a valet in the leg to get his attention. Then I'd need a suit to go with the car, and you can't ever get out of those places without a fight unless you buy a tie to match, and then a handkerchief to match that—shoes, too, you can't wear Hush Puppies with Italian worsted—and before you know it you're back in the flea hatchery wearing a suit that makes it look even worse.”

He sat still for this, so I finished my drink and lit a cigarette. It was against the law now despite my name on the lease, but it's a three-story walk-up and I can hear the butt cops coming. I don't even bother to blow the smoke out the window. Nine decades of nicotine is what's holding up the building.

“If you people are determined to come to me with a phony cover story,” I said, “you ought to stop giving interviews to your colleagues. You've had two wives and no kids, hence no daughter-in-law, Mexican or otherwise, and consequently no brother in a
cuadrilla.
Tell me who it is you're bearding for and maybe we can do business. Probably not, though. There's usually a lie at the start of every case, but working my way through one liar just to get the one who sent him is too much overtime. With your alimony you can't afford it.”

He turned as red as his hair, which concerned me a little. He was lugging around too much weight for a tall man, and he wasn't tall. If he had a blowout in a major artery, he'd be a corpse before the EMS crew got him to the ground floor. Then the color faded. The hydraulics in his neck turned his head halfway around on its axis, then back.

“I told him you probably wouldn't fall for it. I came in on the end of a couple of plays you had a toe in, and you didn't strike me as the kind to go around with your flap stuck inside your coat pocket. How's the reception here?” He dug a cell phone out of his blazer.

“Lousy, but my service is based in Saginaw.”

His wasn't. He got a signal right away and his party answered on the first ring. “Yeah. A bust. You want to call it a wash?” He listened. “Okay if I don't hang around?” He waited again, then swung shut the hatch, put it away, and got up without making any of the noises men in his condition usually made when they fought gravity. “No bad blood, I hope. Someday I might want to call on you on my own dime.”

“No fear. Don't let the front throw you. Business isn't that good.”

“Coat of paint shouldn't break you.”

“Too much red tape. It's a historic building.”

“Yeah?” This time he looked around, taking in the zinc radiator and the ceiling that screamed asbestos. “What happened here?”

“A water commissioner refused a bribe down in the foyer in l9l9.”

He made that laugh that sounded like an empty air mattress being rolled up and took himself out. I didn't ask him if the party on the other end had decided to call it a wash or not. I'm only curious when I'm on a retainer.

In a little someone started walking a stove up the stairs and then the buzzer went off a second time, a personal best. Inspector John Alderdyce of the Detroit Police Homicide Division came in and dropped two hundred pounds of muscle and polished granite into the chair Louis Pearman had quit.

“My son married a Mexican,” he said. “Or can I start where he left off?”

 

TWO

“They're a hardworking people,” I said. “devoted to their families.”

“Family: warm, fuzzy word. It's why we always leave the guns behind when dispatch calls us to the scene of a domestic disturbance. What's so hot about having a family, anyway? Bitches eat their pups.”

I looked at my watch. “Ten-twenty. I knew it couldn't last.”

“What, your liver?” He glanced at the bottle on the desk.

“My cheerful mood. Why slam my head into the masonry when all I have to do is call a cop?”

“Pearman showed up drunk at a press conference downtown a couple of months ago,” Alderdyce said. “He jerked at my sleeve in the hall later, and based on the questions he asked, if he'd reported what he had the way he had it, he'd be covering openings of bowling alleys for the
Macomb Weekly Shopper
until his Social Security kicked in. I let him sleep it off in holding down at the First, wrote it up as interfering, and made a public apology to him and his station for overreacting to a question I considered impertinent. I got a reprimand in my jacket. Today was the payoff for what he owed me.”

“It doesn't sound like you.”

“What? You think I wouldn't be kicking in the doors of meth labs right now if I didn't swap solids with the gentlepeople of the press from time to time?”

“I meant the show of stealth. I never knew you to come in from the side.”

“It was just until I got you onto neutral ground. Homicide's worse than a Tupperware party for spreading gossip, and I didn't want to pay a call on you and answer questions from anyone who spotted me going in or coming out. It's like one of the Fords being seen going into a Kia dealership.”

“Couldn't you at least make it Chrysler? A man has feelings.”

He didn't bother to react to that. Lately he'd taken to cropping his hair close to the skull—he never let Mother Nature have an idea he hadn't had first—and now there was nothing about him that appeared remotely organic. His skin had lightened with middle age from a deep eggplant to indigo, but the way it was stretched over bony outcrop made him look like a project three sculptors had given up on. The suits he wore, made by a retired Greek tailor who'd brought his bolts of cashmere and silk home when he'd closed up shop, toned down the effect in his body while calling attention to the brutal head and his hands, large and squared off at the fingertips with veins as thick as baling twine on the backs.

“Gerald turned out fine. We worried about him for a long time; everything you hear about a cop's son starts with real life. He's an accountant with a bus company, which is about as far from police work as you can get, and his wife, Chata, belongs to a family with ties to Spanish aristocracy. Her great-great-something grandfather got Sonora in a grant from Philip the Second for killing a lot of Indians in his mines. That might not be what it said on the parchment, but those old royals didn't reward you for charity work. Anyway the only real estate anyone in the family owns now is a corner lot in Lathrup Village, and Gerald and Chata were generous enough to let Comerica Bank in on that little piece of heaven.”

“Is this a long story?”

His face made a scowl. It didn't have far to go to finish it. “Late for brunch?”

“No, but I charge by the day. Tell me about the brother.”

“His name's Ernesto Pasada. It's an old family name, with a string of others in the middle. Ten or twelve Pasadas had it before, going back to Cortez. His friends call him Nesto. These friends run with the Maldados in Mexicantown. I see you've heard of them.”

I reminded myself not to sit down with him at a poker table without a set of false whiskers. “I've done business in the neighborhood. I had to get their permission to do it. They've got a branch office in every city between here and Juarez, where they swap bullets with the Border Patrol every day but Sunday. God's the only authority they recognize, and that's on approval. I'm sorry Nesto didn't fall in with the Mafia instead. The mob won't touch a cop.”

“Downtown policy is never to go into Mexicantown without backup. Unofficial policy is when in doubt, start shooting. Let the brass sort it out with the public when the smoke clears. So of course we don't go in. Their idea of sorting it out involves throwing the uniforms to the hyenas.”

“I didn't know the gangs recruited in the suburbs.”

“Nesto sleeps at his sister's. He
lives
on West Vernor. He's sixteen. That's when the cultural issues set in, right after the hormones. You can't get up a decent
piñata
party in Lathrup.”

“How does his sister know he's ganged up?”

“The Maldados had a dustup with the Zapatistas last summer. The Zaps came out on the short end, but they inflicted a casualty. This is a detail from a crime-scene photo.” He slid a four-by-six manila envelope from an inside breast pocket and flipped it across the desk.

I undid the clasp and slid out the grainy shot, printed on ordinary copy paper from a laser scanner. It showed the back of a hand in tight close-up with a tarantula tattoo nearly as big as the hand. Nothing looks deader than a body part in a police photo. I put it back in the envelope and flipped it back his way. “That's the gang insignia,” I said. “I saw it wrapped around a Beretta Nine once. I take it Nesto came home with it on his hand one day.”

“He tried to hide it with a gauze patch, said he'd cut himself building a table in the garage; he's good with wood. His grandfather was a master cabinetmaker, so he's the hope for the family in
Los Estados Unidos.
Women don't count down there. After a couple of days Chata became suspicious and braced him on it. He tore off the bandage and got snotty. Stayed away overnight. She was about to set the juvies on him when he came in the door. They haven't done a lot of talking since. I got sent for. I tried that tough-love deal, but the spiders brainwashed him pretty good. Cops don't scare him.”

“I'm supposed to?”

“You're not ugly enough. Stop interrupting. I went against conventional wisdom and had the Early Response boys send a squad into Maldado territory to shake them up, tell 'em Nesto's off-limits, but these characters have seen cops crucified in Durango: I'm talking literally, nails and crosses. Some of them may even have spelled those
mestizos
on the hammer. They know we can only go so far. Jail time for them is a rite of passage, like First Communion, and since none of them expects to reach thirty, they just laugh when you offer to bust a cap in their ass. The job needs somebody who isn't trussed up by the system.”

“The job needs Bruce Willis. I can't help you, John.”

“I'm not suggesting you bring down the gang. Just make hanging onto Nesto not worth the trouble.”

“They've got the DEA and RICO on their necks. They eat and drink trouble. They don't scare; you said it yourself. A day without a death threat for them is a day lost.”

Another breast pocket delivered another envelope. I looked at a face I'd seen before, on that occasion without numbers underneath it. The long crease on his left cheek had been inflicted at birth, by forceps in the hands of a careless OB-GYN. The scar on his right was more recent and came from a box cutter, the twenty-first century's answer to the straight razor. It was a young face despite the rough handling, handsome if you liked the undernourished type, with black hair tousling down on the forehead and an arrogant Elvis twist in the upper lip.

“Luís Guerrera,” I said. “The quiet half of the Guerrera brothers. Or he was until Jesus got shot out from under his baseball cap by a police round. We've had some words. He doesn't run the gang, but the one who does listens to him when he's got something to say. He the one you want me to drop the hammer on?”

“He's your excuse for being in the neighborhood. Luís dropped out of sight last week. He didn't really, but who's to know? The Maldados think the Zapatistas took him, so they're polishing up their box cutters for a fresh round. You've been hired by his family in Mexico to find him before blood gets shed and maybe some of it Guerrera's. While you're at it you can spot a mess of grass lying around and maybe some crack, give us probable cause to come in and tear the street apart and tie them in with the smugglers on the border. That's federal. They might come out the other end clean and they might not, but it'll take months, long enough for Nesto to lose interest and concentrate on his carpentry.”

“And just in case I don't spot any dope, I carry it in on my back?”

“The evidence room can use some clearing out.”

“Suppose Guerrera shows up before I start asking questions?”

“He won't.”

“Where are you holding him?”

“You don't need to know any more than what I've told you.”

I poured myself a drink. He watched me finish it in four swallows.

BOOK: Burning Midnight
2.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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