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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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“Now that you've thought it over,” he said when I didn't resume the conversation.

“I know my answer. I was just wondering how many schemes you drew up and threw out before you came up with this one.”

“You think I'd put my pension on the line if it weren't the last resort?”

“You love this kid that much?”

“I only saw him the one time. Gerald and I don't exactly take each other to lunch. I said he was a handful once. I took the wrong tack. After he moved out of the house he had his name legally changed so people wouldn't keep asking him if he was related to a police inspector who stands in front of a camera now and then. He doesn't know I'm in this. It was Chata who came to me.”

This was all news, including the fact that the two boys I'd seen in the family picture on the desk in his office had outgrown youth soccer. I'd known John since we were younger than that, but socially we were strangers. We'd spent too much time with that desk between us to pine over the purity of boyhood friendship.

“Let Guerrera go,” I said.

He nodded. Cops seldom ask a question they don't already know the answer to, but that doesn't stop them from going ahead and asking anyway. “Your credit downtown's a long way in the red,” he said. “You could fix that with one word.”

“If I gave it to you, every time I tried to cash in on it you'd hate me worse than you hated yourself. And, brother, that's hate.”

“I'm not your brother.”

“I wasn't trying to bridge the racial gap.”

“I don't use it in that sense either. It ought to be retired from the language, buried in effigy like the
N
word. I guess we're through here.”

“Don't get your Kevlar in a twist. I wasn't turning down the job, just the shot at a conspiracy rap and altering my good opinion of myself. I'll take a crack at what you should've tried at the beginning.”

“What's that? I lost track.”

“If talking ever hurt anyone, I'd be in traction. I'll start with the adults and work my way up to the child.”

“Gerald won't let you past the front door. His opinion is it's a problem he can handle himself. He thinks just because I bungled the job with him, the other way will work better. He's got a lot to learn, but he sure as hell won't learn it from me even if I had anything worthwhile to contribute.”

“Then I'll go over his head.”

What he put on his face would be a smile on any other. When he tugged the corners of his mouth that direction it was usually to let out bad air. “Waste of time and money; but it's my money.” He went back into the first pocket and gaffed a checkbook bound in brown pebbled leather. “Is it still fifteen hundred?”

“That covers three days, more than enough for most jobs. But I'd rather work on that credit problem you mentioned.”


I'd
rather you took the money.”

“No deal, John. Expenses only.”

He hesitated with the book open and gold pen in hand; it looked like a toothpick between that thumb and forefinger. Then he put them away.

I said, “Just for the record, we've been talking about the weather all this morning. People in Michigan get plenty of mileage out of that this time of year.”

“You didn't have to say it. I've learned from bitter experience you wouldn't open your mouth to yell help if you were on fire. Not if a client asked you not to.”

“Bitterer for me than you.”

“The same goes for what I said about Lou Pearman. He lost someone close that day, his mother or someone. One of those occasions they invented liquor for.”

“I read somewhere it was an accidental invention.”

“So was nitro.” He looked at his watch, a simple gold circle on a plain band. He'd gotten as far up in the department as he had through merit, but good taste in his personal furnishings hadn't held him back. “I could stand such an accident. Got another glass?”

I wiped the dust off a third glass with a fresh tissue from the dispenser on the desk and leveled off his and mine. That made two personal bests in one morning.

He took a healthy gulp and made his face less handsome. “Just where do you find this stuff?”

“Different places, just like the Ten Most Wanted. It stands to reason it doesn't want to be found. Another hit?”

“Better not. The chief we got after we bounced the last one wouldn't approve.” As he said it he pushed his glass my way. I took a hit off mine and bought another round. “How far were you prepared to go with that little passion play?”

“Not much farther. I'm a little worried I put it out there to begin with.”

“Luís isn't really in custody, is he?”

“Doesn't matter. We know where to find him. They've got a little Casbah going there in Mexicantown. One block east or west, he's just another immigrant with a green card just a little off the right shade. We snared him with the rest of the fish in a rooster roust a couple of months ago. Shook him back out. Who really cares if a chicken goes down with his spurs on or in a pot pie?”

“The chicken, probably.”

“We got heat from PETA. Who said people who care so much about animals don't have anything left for their fellow human beings?”

“Hemingway. He was talking about bullfights.”

He looked around. “This isn't such a bad setup. At least the walls go all the way to the ceiling. Anything in it?”

“Just what you see. Looking for a change of scenery?”

“Not just yet. Maybe after the next election. Did you know no successful reform ticket has ever succeeded itself? Voters get a dose of integrity and it doesn't go down as well as they thought. Then the rats get back in and lock it up for eight years minimum. I almost lost my billet last time. If you're still around, the new crowd thinks you had to have played with the same dirty ball. That, or you're too competent and might show them up. You get so you can't take a drink on the house in case it'll find its way into your jacket. One little slip, that's all it takes.”

“You can put a buck on the desk if it makes you feel any better.”

He picked up his glass and swirled the contents. “That's one hell of a markup.”

“So sorry. Next time I'll break out the Johnny Walker Blue. I'm due for a bonus. Ten trips to Detroit Receiving and the next one's free.”

“You want to compare scars?”

“Extra points if they're in front?”

“Hell, no. A cop that never ran away from a fight is a cop I don't want in my division. They're always standing next to the guy who gets to be guest of honor at the next department funeral.” He emptied his glass, thunked it down like a tankard somewhere in France, and launched himself to his feet. “I'll send over a khaki with all the contact information you'll need. I'm guessing you don't have a fax machine.”

“They tell me they come in handy when you're expecting a communication from l993.”

“I don't see how you do it. My
grand
son has a laptop, and he still wears rubber drawers.”

“I like to be the smartest thing in a room I pay rent on.”

“You're still aiming for the moon.”

I let him keep that one. It wasn't so bad at that.

“Don't call me with what you
don't
know,” he said. “Understand?”

“Plan I'm on, I don't have that many minutes.”

After he went out I poured what was left in my glass back into the bottle. Any case that involved Mexicantown needed a clear head and good reflexes.

 

THREE

The house was a ranch style with fresh pale-yellow siding and probably a filled-in bomb shelter in the backyard. It had a two-car garage—if you knew how to get two twenty-five-pound turkeys into a toaster oven. Someone had planted a dense juniper hedge along one side to cut down on the glare of headlights coming around the corner and there was what promised to be a really spectacular floral display on either side of the concrete walk. I assigned the credit to the mistress of the house. Some women can grow flowers on sheet metal.

“Yes?” She was a plump, pretty brunette with hair to her shoulders and probably halfway down her back, in a yellow sundress and sandals on her bare feet. She wore no makeup except for vivid red lipstick that brought out the olive tone of her skin. Her eyes were a warm shade of hickory, rimmed with black lashes.

I gave her one of my cards and asked her if she was Chata Pasada.

“Conchata, actually. Chata is a family nickname. As a girl I couldn't pronounce the whole thing. Are you the man John told me about?” Her light accent softened the
J.

I hadn't heard anyone refer to Alderdyce by his first name in years. I did it myself just to get his goat. “Yes. Are you alone?”

When she hesitated I got out my leatherette folder and showed her the state license with my picture and the star that said I was an honorary deputy with the Wayne County Sheriff's Department. “The badge is a toy,” I said. “Cost me three hundred tickets at Chuck E. Cheese's.”

“Come in. Yes, it's just me here. Jerry's at work and Ernesto is in school. Shop class right now, so I know he's there.” Her smile was meant to be ironic, but eyes that color have difficulty hiding pain.

I stepped into a living room done in bright colors with a spray of cut flowers in a terra-cotta vase on the coffee table. It was too early in the season for them to belong to the display out front but they'd been arranged by someone who knew something about the art. A copper-sepia Christ in His crown of thorns looked pensive in a print about the size of a postcard in a white mat the size of a TV tray hung above a gas hearth. It was the first thing of its kind I'd seen in a private home that didn't make me want to turn away in embarrassment.

She offered me coffee and I said yes. With the social contract out of the way we sat down in facing chairs with our cups. “You speak very good English,” I said.

“Thank you. So do you.” She smiled again, this time without pain. “I was born in Arizona. I have a bachelor's degree from the state university in Tempe.”

“Blew it right off the bat, didn't I?”

“Don't be embarrassed. Almost everyone makes the mistake. How do you know my father-in-law? He didn't say much about you, only that you might be able to help us.”

“I can't remember a time when I didn't know him. Our fathers were business partners. We were in the same training class at the police department.”

“He didn't say you'd been a police officer.”

“I wasn't one long enough to put it on my resume. I quit and joined the army. When I got out he was already a sergeant with the detective division.”

“I can't imagine him as a young man. What was he like?”

“Less wrinkled.”

She laughed, a low chuckle with bells in it. Over her coffee she said, “Jerry never talks about his father. I thought he was an orphan until our wedding. That's where I met his brother and asked him why he had a different last name. Jerry walked away while I was getting the answer.”

“John's a good cop. I don't know what kind of father he was. We don't hang out.”

“Such a lonely man.”

I didn't know which one of us she was talking about, so I said, “Tell me about Ernesto.”

“I raised him after our parents died. I thought I was doing a good job, but last year he became sullen. Jerry said I shouldn't worry, it was all part of being a teenager; the important thing was to let him work it out for himself. He was so serious about it that I have to think it had something to do with the rift between him and John.”

“John said something like that.”

“Well, that wasn't the answer either, apparently. Ernesto's grades fell off and I found out he wasn't going to school some days. If it weren't for shop I think he'd drop out entirely. He's a wonderful carpenter.”

“Is that when he started hanging around Mexicantown?”

“Yes. He's saving up to buy a used car out of what he earns fixing houses and doing other projects for people, but for now he hitches rides with friends into town on weekends. I didn't think there was anything wrong in that at first; most of his fellow students are Anglos, and a boy becomes curious about his heritage. His new friends were teaching him Spanish. I'm ashamed to admit I don't speak it so well myself anymore. Maybe if I'd concentrated less on being American I wouldn't be so naïve. I assumed a Mexican would be safe in a Hispanic neighborhood. I knew nothing about gangs until Ernesto came home with that horrible tattoo.” She shuddered and drank coffee. It didn't seem to warm her up.

“How much do you know about the Maldados?”

“I never heard of them until he admitted—boasted—that he was a member. Now I'm an authority. According to the Internet they're connected with the animals responsible for most of the bloodshed on both sides of the Mexican border over the past several years. They smuggle Colombian cocaine, Mexican heroin, and illegal aliens into the U.S. and have murdered more Mexican and American police officers, including at least four Border Patrol agents, than any of their competitors. They chose the tarantula for their emblem because it's believed to have been the personal totem of Montezuma. He's supposed to have had it carved into the foreheads of rebellious Aztecs and captured Conquistadors. Most historians have been unable to find evidence to confirm it, but spreading myths is the least of their crimes.

“A lot of other stuff on various sites,” she went on, “including hideous photographs of corpses. But I couldn't find anything about them in Detroit.”

I'd seen some of those pictures: men missing heads and limbs and assorted other appendages, others dragged to jelly behind Jeeps and Hummers.

I said, “They're fairly new here. Most Mexicantown residents came from the same area a couple of hundred miles below the border. Little Detroit, it's called. The Big Three built some auto factories down there back in the eighties. Then some of the assembly workers got the Yankee bug and transferred here. The Maldados came with the third wave, like tarantulas stowing away in crates of bananas. Maybe that's where they got the idea for their emblem and made up the rest. Even instant tradition's important when you don't have anything else going for you but
pistolas
. The Zapatistas were already here. That bunch took the name from Mexican rebels. If we don't nail them for anything more serious, the originals can sue them for infringement of copyright.”

BOOK: Burning Midnight
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