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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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“You know so much about them. That must be why John recommended you.”

“All I know is what I hear. As to why the referral, my name has a way of popping up like spam whenever a job looks dirty.”

“Ernesto won't be home for several hours—if he really went to school. I'm assuming you'll want to talk to him.”

“Before I play Dutch uncle, I think I'll drop by Mexicantown and see what I can see. It might not be quite as bad as you think. So far as I can tell, neither the Maldados nor the Zapatistas are officially affiliated with the originals. A youth gang is hard to start from scratch without a ballsy name to make them seem tougher than they are. If my language is too frank, I apologize.”

She smiled for the first time. No one wears one better than a pretty
señora
in her twenties. “John may have told you how far my family goes back in Spanish history. My father insisted that only English be spoken in our house, but that didn't stop him from slipping when he got upset. Anglos are rank amateurs when it comes to turning the air blue. In profanity at least, I'm bilingual.” The smile slid away. “I hope you can find out more there than I did reading the Mexicantown International Welcome Center Web site. I learned more than I needed to know about customs and traditional dress and nothing about criminal behavior among my people.”

“The Community Development Corporation set up the center to attract Chicanos, not scare the pants off them. I've got a contact on West Vernor, Emiliano Zorborón.
El Tigre del Norte,
they call him. I'm guessing it was just
El Tigre
when he was running guns to the Zapatistas rebels. If anyone can give me a rundown on the Maldados, it's him.”

“He sounds worse than the people you're investigating.”

“These days he's a semireformed character. When I met him he had a thumb in every dirty pie in the community, but now he's more of a general contractor. If you want to organize a local cockfight or arrange a job for your cousin who won't pass muster with Immigration, he's your
hombre.
The colors on a green card you get through him are guaranteed not to run.”

She shook her head. “‘A hardworking people,' that's what they call us.”

“Burros work hard, too, but they don't put much thought into it. You're all smarter than that, or at least no dumber than the rest of us. Zorborón would've been rat food years ago if he didn't have the best head on his shoulders of anyone in the underworld.”

“My God, if you do talk to Ernesto, I hope you'll keep that to yourself. The last thing he needs from that crowd is a role model.”

“If he's been spending as much time there as you say, he already knows it.” I drank coffee. It had gone tepid. She got up, smoothing her skirt, and reached for my cup—she claimed to be an assimilated American, but chromosomes don't always go along—but I shook my head and motioned for her to sit back down, setting it aside. “This will go easier if you tell your husband I'm in the picture.”

“I'd rather not. He says it's a family matter, and he doesn't consider his father family. A complete stranger would really set him off. Just from my brief meeting with John, I know where he got his mulish streak, but I'd never tell him that. As you said, we're not all as dumb as burros.”

“If that's what you think I said, I can see why Nesto is so hard to talk to.”

“Please call him Ernesto. None of the Pasadas who bore that name would thank you for vulgarizing it.”

“I'll try to remember that when you're listening. If he prefers it the other way, that's the foot I have to start out on when we talk.”

“And you won't say anything to Jerry?”

“The client's always right—until he's wrong. Do you have a picture of your brother I can show around?”

She popped up again with that same motion involving her skirt and took a stand-up photo frame from a forest of them on the mantel under Jesus. “Jerry won't notice it's missing. He married into a very large family.” She opened the back and handed me a color shot of a willowy youth with longish black hair all unbrushed the way they're wearing it now and the usual high opinion of himself in the expression. I stood and slid it into my inside breast pocket. “When can I call to report without going through your husband?”

“Not before eight, and not after six weekdays.” The smile ambushed her face. “‘If a man answers, hang up'; isn't that how it goes?”

“So they tell me. I never go woman-hunting without a license. I'll keep you posted.”

She went back to solemn. “Money's tight right now. How much is this going to cost?”

“More than you can handle. John Alderdyce's pride.”

*   *   *

When change comes to our city—I'm not talking about the slow rot that is always taking place—it comes fast. Thirty years ago, the old Hungarian neighborhood in the southwest section was called DelRay, but I doubt there are a dozen people living there who ever heard the name. All the Lazlos and Horoznys had vanished from the signs on the shops, replaced by Gonzaleses and Mendozas; where you put the
Z
's makes all the difference. It takes a trained detective to find a dish cooked with paprika, but cilantro and rice are available by the long ton.

It's not necessarily a bad thing, unless like me you're part gypsy and prefer strudel to fried ice cream. The Hungarians had been gone a long time before the Mexicans came, and in between, the area crossed by West Vernor Avenue (named after the ginger ale plant that used to stand there) had fallen into compost, with new strata of soot arriving daily by way of the old Great Lakes Steel and Allied Chemical plants on nearby Zug Island, and green sky reflected from the toxic waste flowing downriver from there. The plants are shuttered now, and a generation of anti-litter and clean air and water campaigns has scooped up what they left behind. The Mexicans sold or donated the vehicles abandoned at the curbs for scrap, replaced broken windows, lobbied to tear down the crack houses built with the good intentions of a dim former governor, painted the buildings in bright colors, and put their strong backs and manual skills on the market so that their children wouldn't have to. A Hunky wouldn't recognize the place now.

Still, it's not all margaritas and
caballeros
strumming guitars under balconies. A cosmopolitan population imports its own variety of violent crime, and you learned to stay out of certain blocks after dark.

I hadn't visited the place since Jackie Brill's head had rolled out of a Hefty Steel-Sak in an alley behind a restaurant a couple of years ago. He was a grifter from an old founding family who'd nosed into the cockfighting racket, which smart Anglos steer clear of, and gone around with Emiliano Zorborón's daughter Carmelita, just to add another spicy pepper to the mix.
Tigre
Zorborón had been arrested for his murder—Downtown had been eager to tag him for something for years—but it had turned out to be the work of an old
compadre
for motives of his own. Because I had had something to do with bringing that to light, I was welcome there any hour day or night, and I could leave the revolver at home.

Then again, the Maldados and Zapatistas had been too busy establishing themselves then to paint the place with their own colors. On the chance my visa had expired, I stopped by the office to trade out the stale cartridges in the Chief's Special for fresh ones and clipped it to my belt under my coat.

It was earmuff weather despite the thaw, with piles of gravel raked up by privately owned snowplows and the crusty brown remains of extinct snowmen turning even the best-kept lawns into slop buckets. Leprous gray ice clung in patches of shade and someone had done his best to crumple the brown-and-orange branches of a Christmas tree into a trash bin, but the sanitation crew wasn't having any of that, because the truck had passed it by to idle in front of a neighbor's house two doors down. The season for it had expired the first week of January. Then I crossed the border into Mexicantown, where the sky was still the color of filthy linen but the sidewalks were swept and last year's annuals uprooted from the flower boxes and replaced with fresh loam.

Emiliano Zorborón operated a garage where on occasion pairs of well-trained fowl challenged one another in a circle drawn with chalk. There were generally bags of feathers and the odd torn carcass in the Dumpster beside the building, and inside you couldn't tell whether the reddish stains on the floor were blood or transmission fluid. A mechanic there built like Pancho Villa with a round Basque face stood kneading a greasy rag in his black-nailed hands and didn't know a word of English until I showed him my card. He recognized the name and said, “You know Suiz's?”

“The restaurant?” Nolo Suiz, Zorborón's cousin, ran the best Mexican kitchen in town. A dismembered body could show up anywhere, and the place's reputation was too good to let a little thing like that put a hitch in business.


Sí. La Riata.
Go in the back, ask for Ronaldo.”

“Who's he?”

“He is nobody. But you don't ask for him, maybe you do not come out in so good shape as you go in. It is not for Anglos to go in the back.”

“Why don't I just go in the front?”

“In the front they do not know Ronaldo.”

I shook out a cigarette and tapped it on the pack. “Is there a secret handshake?”

“No. Just Ronaldo.” There was no irony in the round face. Getting a Mexican to appreciate your humor is like persuading a Parisian to understand your French.

 

FOUR

La Riata
is where we get lariat, so the low-key neon in the restaurant's front window made a blue-green lasso, with no name spelled out. The subliminal message was if you didn't know at least a little Spanish, your business wasn't wanted. Mexicans rarely insult you to your face outside their own country.

The lunch crush was under way. Groups and couples loitered on the sidewalk, listening for their names on the PA. It was one of the liveliest sections in the city at that hour. After dark the throngs reassembled for baklava and blackjack in Greektown, in the shadow of police headquarters. People also think that a bunch of eighteen-wheelers in the parking lot means a good place to eat. But sometimes you can get decent ham and eggs in a roadside joint, and crowds provided their own protection. The food and service in
La Riata
lived up to the hype. A good band was playing, interrupted from time to time by a seating announcement; something about true love and murder, with a merry marimba beat.

I went around back into an alley that was as tidy as the main drag now that there were no coroner's cases in the Dumpster and pushed the buzzer beside a plain brown steel door without a knob or a handle on the outside. In a little while it opened, letting out a haze of caramelized onion and fried peppers that would bring tears to the eye on the back of the dollar bill. A tall burly
mestizo
in a white wife-beater undershirt and his hair in a net stared at me through the eight-inch gap with a cleaver in his hand. The undershirt was stained with what looked like blood but was probably salsa. His face was brick-colored, with little triangles of moustache clinging to the corners of his mouth and a straggle of three-day beard hanging three inches below his chin. He was more than half American Indian, but he wouldn't have looked out of place in sheepskins riding behind Genghis Khan.

“Ronaldo,” I said.

“No sé.”

I'd never met a secret code that survived its first encounter with the enemy.

The door started to close. I leaned my shoulder against it, and when the cleaver moved back an inch for the downswing I stuck the card I had ready through the gap. While that was distracting him I took my shoulder out of his business. A thumb and forefinger equally thick and stubby closed on the card and the door snapped shut.

I finished the cigarette I'd started in the garage, and then the
mestizo
swung the door wide.

I squeezed in past him and he followed me down a narrow hallway that went past a stainless-steel eight-burner range and all the rest of the usual kitchen stuff, where two more brick-colored men were stirring hissing skillets while a third slid something steaming out of a chest-high oven on a wooden paddle. Everything shimmered behind a stinging mist of peppers and onions. At the end of the passage I stopped to wipe my eyes and blow my nose into my handkerchief.


Señor
Walker.” A light baritone voice, accustomed to the lower registers where you had to lean in to hear the words.
“Hace tiempo que no te veo.”

“Sí. Tengo un lapiz rojo.”
I shook the hand offered me by the compact man in the black T-shirt.

Puzzlement stirred his polished features. “‘I have a red pencil'; this is an expression, yes?”

“It is an expression, no. It's the extent of my conversational Spanish.”

In casual dress, he looked more like the owner of a successful auto-repair shop than a member in good standing of the Mexican Mafia. He was small for a tiger, fine-boned, but built like a bantamweight, with little flesh between muscle and bone. He didn't smile;
bandidos
are serious men and leer only in movies. There were steel splinters at his temples now, but apart from them he could pass for thirty. Since he had a grown daughter I put him closer to fifty. I asked about the daughter.

“Carmelita is an old married lady now:
Dos niños.
” He held up two slim brown fingers with a thunderbird tattooed between. It was a tribal symbol, not associated with a gang. “They live in Royal Oak.”

I liked the way he rolled the
R
when it fell at the beginning of a proper noun. I supposed it was a grammatical rule of some kind. His family was nowhere near as old as the Pasadas—a hundred years ago it had traded its picks and shovels for bandoleers and robbed Spanish aristocrats first of their gold, then of their governorship—but he was as careful in both languages as he was in his habits, at least in the presence of outsiders. I'd heard stories of amputations and ritual scorings when someone from his own culture had displeased him, but that was all in the past. So the theory went.

BOOK: Burning Midnight
7.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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