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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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The halfway house, on West Tecumseh, was a venerable building with no charm built into it, and age hadn't corrected the oversight. It had “transient hotel” scribbled all over it. It was four stories built Lego fashion, block on cement block, sided with tiles that had been white once but now looked like neglected teeth. The city would have scooped it up for back taxes, hoping to sell it to a casino chain or for the detective squad to interview prisoners it didn't want to be photographed entering the police station on account of what they looked like in photographs coming back out. But casino owners shop around for sweetheart deals, not graft, and a reform movement had put the police department on its good behavior until the movement lost steam and the same old city officials were shuffled around into different positions like a repertory company. But bad actors are just as bad in fresh roles.

After that the place would have stood empty for a few years, attracting the homeless and traffic in controlled substances and contributing to sexually transmitted disease, until the governor decided to cut costs by emptying out the prisons. That meant shuttling the more serious felons into cooling towers, and state funds directed to communities willing to board them during the transition to responsible citizenship; in other times a place like the Heights would have distributed the money among its various pockets, then piled the wards of the state into the wagon on release and dumped them out on some rural road across the county line. But for the moment at least the world was watching.

The front door wasn't locked, but I passed through a metal detector on the way through, without tripping it; I'd had the foresight to lock the Chief's Special in the car. The old institutional smell of must and disinfectant greeted me on the other side, also an alert-looking woman sitting on a tall stool behind the former registration desk. She had red hair harvested close to the scalp and the build of Rosy the Riveter. Her blouse was plain, but a prison matron doesn't need the uniform to tell you who she is. She frowned as if I'd put something past the detector and asked what I wanted.

“Miguel Ortiz.” I showed her my ID, folding back the half of the wallet with the star pinned to it so it was out of sight. It wouldn't have impressed her other than unfavorably.

As a matter of fact it didn't impress her at all. “I've got one of those, too,” she said. “Can't swing the country club on what I make here. Who's the bankroll?”

“Actually, I'm the client. Rafael Buho, Attorney-at-Law. He represents Ortiz, too. That makes us brothers.”

“I doubt it.” Nuance was lost on this woman with freckled muscular forearms and no jewelry of any kind. “What's the interest?”

“I want to ask him a couple of questions about an arson.”

“When?”

“Right now, if it's convenient.”

“I meant when was the arson.”

“Yesterday afternoon.”

The desk was in a cubicle partitioned off from the rest of the old lobby by heavy pine, with only a door at the side and the opening through which we were communicating providing access to the rest of the building. She took a clipboard off a nail on the wall at one end of the desk and paged back through it, drew a spatulated finger down a column until she found what she wanted. “Uh-uh.”

“‘Uh-uh' means what?” I thought she was turning me away.

“He checked out two hours yesterday morning to attend Mass—we have to let them do that—but was back here by noon. No one checked him out after that.”

“Anybody go with him?”

“An attendant. They're to stay with them the whole time they're out.”

“Must've been crowded in the confession booth.”

“Can't do that, but last time I looked, St. Ambrose hadn't installed any trap doors.”

“All the same I want to talk to him.”

“Buho, you said?” When I confirmed it she consulted another sheet, and with her finger planted on it she lifted a gray telephone receiver and dialed a number. She spoke with Buho briefly, then hung up and paged Ortiz over a prewar PA mike. “Have a seat.”

“Had one already, thanks.”

She didn't care for that, but then she picked up a puzzle book folded to a page near the middle, retrieved a sharpened pencil from behind her right ear, and after that I didn't exist. I'd barely been there to begin with.

I'm an expert on waiting rooms. At the high end there is the showy front, with tufted leather chairs like in a cigar bar, swanky magazines on smoked-glass tables, black-and-white blowup photos of watchworks and steel girders in sleek frames on the walls, and a carpet you wade across to a curvy desk with a curvy receptionist behind it who is as expensive to maintain as an Italian convertible. There might be a lot of gaudy fish swimming inside a glass tank the size of an elevator car. A decorating team was involved in the creation, and odds were the room where the clients' assistants originally waited to meet the team was the model. In the broad middle is the charmless chamber with airport seating, coffee rendering in a maker next to a stack of Styrofoam cups, thumb-smeared copies of
People
and
Time
long past their expiration dates, and a talking head on a flat-screen TV for company. At the low end lurks a grubby way station with nothing to read because most of the clientele doesn't know
Moby Dick
from Moby, metal folding chairs that put your fanny to sleep after ten minutes, and a smell of boiling cabbage solid enough to bark a shin against. In the old days it came equipped with tarnished spittoons and smoking stands rounded over with White Owl stubs and unfiltered Camels and smelled like a building that had burned to the ground. This one still smelled a little like that.

The first example stands outside places where bankers do business with bankers, cosmetic surgeons sit behind black volcanic glass talking about staples and rhinoplasty, and architects plan shopping malls. The second is where every automobile owner in America waits to hear if his problem is a faulty
CHECK ENGINE
light or a two-thousand-dollar overhaul, where visitors talk in low voices and hope Mom's trip to the ER came with a return ticket, and where customers sit with accounting books and boxes of crumpled receipts on their laps wishing they hadn't claimed their French poodle as a dependent, because unless the examiner is flexible, the next waiting room they use will be the third one, at the bottom: a desperate place populated with parolees, patients claiming slipped disks and sciatica but who are really there for the muscle relaxants, and people who have worn out their credit with every loan officer who doesn't double all his negatives and use a blackjack for a paperweight. That one is hell's waiting room and the time there is measured by the passage of the constellations.

The room I walked around, looking at the necessary licenses framed on the painted-partition walls, hovered somewhere between the middle and the low end. The folding chairs were metal, but there were some
Reader's Digest
s curling at the corners in a heap on a low round yellow table that might have been where kids played with toys in a dentist's office and the smell was mostly secondhand instant coffee and old cigarettes. I tapped on the glass of an ant farm—some former penal director's idea of entertainment for the visitors—trying to raise the ants from the dead, and added the room to my collection.

“Here he is.” The gargoyle behind the desk was looking up at something mounted inside the frame that enclosed her station; a monitor, probably. “Do not pass anything to the resident. Do not shake hands with the resident or make any other physical contact. Make sure both you and the resident remain in my field of vision at all times. Do not at any time block my view of the resident. Understand all that?”

“I've been to halfway houses before.”

“Lovely. Do you understand?”

“Yeah.”

She reached under the desk. Something buzzed and the inside door opened.

I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't what I got. Miguel Ortiz looked like a Spaniard on both sides of his family, with black eyes straddling a strong, straight nose, a long upper lip, and a face that seemed even longer than it was with his hair receding toward the crown. He reminded me of a picture I'd seen of Picasso in middle age, fierce and aware and better than the place he was in. He was a solid six feet and two hundred pounds in a Polynesian print shirt exposing powerful forearms with the square tail hanging outside beige flannel slacks; no County jumpsuits on the way back into the general population, only on the way out. His shoes were Hush Puppies, easy on the feet after the stiff institutional jobs they made in the prison shop.

I told him my name and invited him to sit.

He didn't stir, standing there with his hands crossed at his waist. “All I do all day is sit.”

His accent was Castilian. That together with what I'd seen of him so far sent my plan of approach out the window. You can browbeat a
mestizo,
but a purebred Iberian will just stare you down. For sure his wasn't the faceless figure in the video behind Zorborón's garage.

But a man's work inevitably leaves its mark. In his case, it was literal: an angry puckered red patch shaped like a salamander branding the left side of his face from just below the ear to the corner of his jaw, tightening the flesh and pulling at the corner of his lips on that side. It might have been a strawberry mark, but it wasn't. A man who can make a mistake with the tools of his profession is a man you can get ahead of.

“I'm investigating an arson at Sister Delia's office yesterday,” I said.

“You're with the police?”

“Private.”

“So I don't have to tell you anything.”

“I just cleared you at the desk. I'm here to consult you, not grill you. The cops think a super accelerant was used, faster and hotter than anything on the open market. Any suggestion as to what it was?”

“What's my end?”

“Civic responsibility.”

He seemed to smile, but that was just the dead nerves freezing his mouth at one corner.

“You're set to make a fresh start,” I said. “Your parole officer would approve. Maybe even enough not to put the screws on you if you miss a bus and wind up on the street after ten o'clock.”

“You'd tell him I cooperated?”

“I will, if he doesn't,” put in the woman behind the desk. To me: “Ortiz gives me the least trouble of anyone we've got, and the place is full.”

That explained the cold shoulder. She'd thought I'd come to harass her favorite resident. I kept telling myself you never knew about people from outside their skins but it never took somehow.

Mike the Match uncrossed his hands and put them in his pockets. “Plain gasoline should be good enough for anyone. What you're talking about is traceable; the customer list is so short the Arson Squad's waiting for you when you get home. Also the first rule is don't set yourself on fire. Even gas is unpredictable.” He touched the burned side of his face, an involuntary movement. “That high-test stuff goes up so fast you better be on wheels.”

“No one reported any tires squealing.”

“How did they make delivery?”

“Molotov cocktail through a window.”

He shook his head. “Either they were lucky or they did it another way.”

“What other ways are there?”

“Just one. Bottle bomb.”

“Sounds like just another name for a Molotov.”

“That's just half of it. You fill one bottle with your incendiary material, another with drain cleaner and a wad of aluminum foil. Duct-tape them together and plant them where you want. That gives you time to walk away before the foil and drain cleaner get busy and set off the accelerant.”

“Just ordinary foil and drain cleaner?'

“It's a chemical reaction, like Mentos and Coca-Cola. Only much more volatile.”

“How long?”

“Depends on how far you fill the second bottle. The more air, the more time the stuff has to expand before it bursts the glass. You can time it like a fuse if you know what you're doing.”

“Then it sets off the other?”

“Like a blasting cap.”

I turned that around and looked at it from all sides. “Wearing a tether?”

He reached down and tugged up enough of his left pants leg to show the electronic bracelet wrapped around his ankle.

“Okay.”

A smooth brown brow got wrinkled. “Okay?”


Sí, gracias.
When do you get out?”

“Six weeks, less a day.”

“Who's your p.o.?”

He gave me a name I didn't recognize. I said, “I'll see if we can't knock a piece off that. You don't plan to set fire to anything, do you?”

He smiled for the first time, the scar pulling it slightly out of skew. His teeth were slightly crooked but as white as polished porcelain. “Just a good Havana.”

 

TWENTY

Petey Kresge called while I was driving away from there. Since I was still in the Iroquois Heights city limits I checked all the windows and mirrors for prowl cars and scanned the skies for copters. The ink wasn't dry on the governor's no-texting-while-driving ban when the city council doubled the fine locally and tacked on cell use at the wheel. Within six weeks the mayor had a more expensive mistress and every official in town had a backyard hot tub. In that zip code, reform meant a more even distribution of grease.

“How close are you to a landline?” Petey asked.

I said I'd call him from the first public phone I came to.

“Club me a dodo while you're at it.” He chuckled and rang off.

I wasn't sure what he meant, but the march of time had continued since I went wireless. There followed a comic ten minutes during which a checkout clerk in a Kroger's in a strip mall thought I was asking for directions to the mother ship, two phones mounted outside gas stations gave back silence for my quarters but not the quarters themselves, and even a drugstore, which is where every snitch in every old movie went to his death while on the wire with the cops, had replaced its vintage oaken booth with a video kiosk. Finally I found a bar where a handful of rumpled figures in rumpled clothes sat on stools in perpetual twilight, and gonged two coins into a black-enamel-and-chrome box in the hallway leading to the john. The narrow passage smelled of kitty litter and bleach and all the time I was on the line a toilet ran and a frantic Brit described the action in a televised soccer game to an audience more interested in seeing the clown face at the bottom of the glass.

BOOK: Burning Midnight
4.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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