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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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“It used to be me; but one does not stand in the path of a train that has gone out of control. Domingo's a burning fuse. If Luís wasn't handy with a bucket of water when it's needed, the streets would be a river of blood. It was the same with Jesus; younger brothers are frequently of cooler temperament. I was one myself. I think
El Hermano
was down with the chicken pox when that fight took place with the Zaps.” He had difficulty calling them Zapatistas. “Luís can be reasoned with, if you show him the respect he thinks is proper. It is all respect with these
muchachos
; they profane its purpose with their insistence. A little humility benefits us all.”


Hermano
's new,” I said. “Keeping up with nicknames is a full-time job. I knew the rest. What about the others?”

“Punks. Pushers.
Cojones
big as artichokes, which diverts circulation from the brain. What is true about all the other gangs in this city is true of them.”

“With a salsa beat. Anything else?”

He thought. “You know a new tattoo when you see one?”

“All scabs. One look and the customer would bolt.”

He showed me his thunderbird. “A despicably filthy parlor in Saltillo, behind a whorehouse. I thought when the scab fell off there would be nothing but brown skin beneath. I had been cheated out of twenty-five pesos, so I thought. But it is merely part of the process. It is a scarring after all, underscored with ink. When you see that particular ugliness on the back of a young hand, beware.”

I waited. Impatience never got you far with a tiger.

“It means they are new: not yet men, and not quite beasts, but eager to prove themselves as both.
Hombre y lobo.
You know this?”

“Man and wolf. Wolfman. Werewolf.”


Sí.
Beware the werewolf. Tread lightly when you see that mark, red and raw. It is the mark of the beast.”

I grinned. He shrugged again.

“I am melodramatic to make my point.
Entiende?

“I understand, thanks.”

He laid the cigar in the copper tray to smoke itself out and drank from a cup of coffee brewed the way you seldom found it north of the border. Anyone can make it strong enough to float a Beretta. The trick is to keep it from being bitter. “Where to next, amigo?”

I blew on mine and parboiled my tongue anyway. “I thought I'd drop in on Sister Delia. She still around?”

“She must be. Someone tried to set fire to the garage last week.”

“It wasn't her. Arson isn't her style.”

“Rabble-rousing is; and destruction always was the way of rabble.”

“I thought you two might have kissed and made up after you got religion.”

“I never did not have it. Because a man misses Mass a few thousand times does not make him an infidel.”

“I meant went straight. Semi-straight, anyway.”

“With her it is all or nothing. The world in which she lives is
blanco y negro.
I fear we shall never see things eye to eye.”

“She's not wrong. It's the people who say the world isn't black and white who got us in this mess.”

“If such is your view I very much doubt you and I will see things
ojo a ojo
either.”

“I can live with that.
Usted?

“También.”
When he gestured with his hand, the thunderbird flapped its wings.

I thanked him for the meal and left. In the public area, the conversation was building to an ecstatic high. You can measure the popularity of a dining establishment by the decibel level at high tide. Nolo Suiz stood at attention by the passage leading to the back door, his liquid brown eyes prowling the room for diners who'd lost their waiters and employees who wiped their noses in view of the clientele. I was invisible. I hadn't added a
centavo
to the till. He was just a hash-slinger after all, not a tiger or a werewolf.

*   *   *

In the old days, when DelRay was still DelRay, you could cross the Mexican part of the city in a few minutes on foot—faster if you ran, which was the recommended gait for Anglos in the Murder City years—but that was before Little Detroit and the exchange program that followed. Now, to get from the business heart of the community to the place where it worshipped, I had to burn dinosaur bones the way the locals did when they attended Mass. I fired up the Cutlass and fumed behind a UPS truck until it turned off, then found a thirty-minute spot around the corner from my destination. The population fell below one million a long time ago, but there seemed to be five cars to the person.

Holy Redeemer is best known outside the Hispanic community for its Pewabic pottery tiles crafted by Mary Chase Perry Stratton, one of a pair of local institutions, whose workshop is still operating after more than a century. I doubt the tiles, fashioned from the same clay that fed the rich copper deposits in the Upper Peninsula, get much attention from the regulars. The same old sins get confessed in the booths, but in Spanish, not Hungarian, and the aesthetics can wait.

If your head was full of the pitch you planned to make to the Lord, you might not have noticed the iron-front building across from the church and a little down the street. It was a hardware store once, and before that a tailor's where the Tammany crowd bought its full-dress suits for the mayor's inauguration. Before that it was an auto dealership, with chromework gleaming in rows behind plate glass and Chief Pontiac's head in profile mounted above the door. Back further my history is weak: a stove foundry or Studebaker works—the covered wagon, not the automobile. The squat structure had the out-of-proportion look of a place that had been originally built to support more stories.

It looked empty, like a place waiting its turn at vandalization or arson, but if you looked closer you saw the steel awning rigged to roll down over the entire front and lock with sliding bolts to the base, and here and there the glowing red eye of a surveillance camera. In just about any other town you'd think it was a pawnshop or an electronics store, maybe a cut-rate jewelry outlet, some place containing items that could readily be turned to cash if you knew a fence; and who didn't, in that neighborhood? But if you jumped to that conclusion, and you were a certain type of person and decided to pull on a ski mask and take a crowbar to the fire door in back, inside you would find a pit bull waiting. Her name is Sister Delia.

If you went by reputation alone, you'd expect a caricature of a parochial school nun with dewlaps and a weapons-grade ruler grafted to her fist. What you got was tall and stately, with red hair cut boyishly short and the general look of a woman who would not be out of place wearing a riding habit. She wore an unstructured jacket over a mannish white shirt and a pleated skirt that showed her muscular calves. I rescued my paw from her hickory grip and took a seat opposite her in a reclaimed armchair in a patch of sunlight coming through the plate glass behind. The overcast was breaking up for the first time in weeks.

“The Tiger thinks you tried to burn down his garage,” I said by way of opening the conversation.

Her smile was as tight. “Someone keyed my car a few days ago. Now I know who.”

“Not his style.”

“His kind has no style.”

“I wish I knew the story of you two.”

“It's no mystery. I've devoted half my life to the people of this community, first with the Church, then on my own dime. He's devoted half of his to tearing down what I've tried to do. Everything he does, everything he stands for, reinforces every stereotype that's been applied to these people.”

“Except sloth.”

“Our definitions differ. If he had an ounce of industry he wouldn't have taken the lazy way.”

She'd left the order after the Vatican had instructed her to lower her profile. She'd been arrested once for trespassing—an organized demonstration to turn spectators away from a cockfight in Zorborón's garage—and used the death of the old pope as an excuse to enter the laity, which was a neat way to obey the order and tell Rome to go shinny up a candle at the same time. Her expenses were paid through charitable donations. In her time she'd twisted more arms than Strangler Lewis.

“He's gone straight, sort of.”

“A line that's sort of straight is still crooked. Is he the reason for this visit? I helped you spring him from a bad rap once. That's one more good turn than he rates.”

I got out another print of the boy's picture and gave it to her. “Name's Ernesto Pasada. He's been bitten by a tarantula and his family wants him back.”

“The last thing this neighborhood needs is a litter of Tigers. I went down to their hangout once to give them the motherly talk. I was lucky not to get raped.”

“From what I hear, luck's no defense.”

“Neither is faith.” She swung open one side of her jacket and let it fall shut. I glimpsed a checked walnut grip curving out of a chamois underarm holster. “Parting gift from the bishop. The papers are in order. I don't know the boy.” She held out the photo.

“Keep it and let me know if he shows up. He's not missing—yet. The job's to keep him from winding up that way, or worse.”

“What's worse?”

“Earning his tattoo. What's the story on the Maldados? All I could get out of Zorborón was a history lesson.”

“He has a selective memory, like the people who know all the wrong Bible passages. As it stands, they're just insurance salesmen. You know: a grease fire in the kitchen, half the staff calls in sick, a dead skunk wanders in through a dryer vent and spoils the customers' laundry. No threats of physical violence yet, but that's the logical next step. So far no one's opted out of their payment plan. I assume they're peddling dope; that's a given.”

“Any connection with the home office in Mexico?”

“Not that I know of, but the Maldados down there wouldn't mind opening a branch this far north. They killed a reporter a month or so back. Lopped off his head with a machete and sent it to his widow. Considering the quality of the Mexican postal system, it must have been plenty ripe when she took delivery.” Very little of life's uglier side shocked Sister Delia. Nuns don't hear confessions, but the seal of the priesthood didn't prevent anonymous gossip. Some of what they heard would raise blisters on the ears of a veteran cop.

“Not a U.S. reporter, I'm guessing.”

“If he was, you'd have seen it on page one of
USA Today.
But it wouldn't have slowed them down. The gangs down there are at war with each other and authority. Anyone with dry ink on his law degree has a shot at being a judge in Mexico. There are plenty of vacancies due to death and very few takers. Roman emperors had a better shot at life insurance.”

“If a Detroit Maldado wanted to tie up with the border variety, would that person be named Domingo Siete?”

“That little beast would butcher his mother just to get the cops to vacuum his rug for free. But he's too stupid to be dangerous for long. He thinks he's indestructible, which is as destructible as it gets. He takes too many chances, and I hear he's his own best customer in the narcotics trade. If we're still talking about him this time next year except in the past tense, I'll re-up and wash the feet of the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

That wasn't likely to happen, so I moved Seventh Sunday down a notch on my list of Things to Fear Today. Not all the way to the bottom; I didn't want to be his one chance too many. “What about Luís Guerrera? Another indestructible?”

“No, and that's what makes him dangerous. Being the power behind the throne suits him. He got pinched just once for possession of a concealed weapon, did six months for that in the Boys Training School in Whitmore Lake; he was a juvenile offender then. Nothing since. These days he lets another Maldado do his carrying. His goal is to be invisible. If he makes it,
El Tigre del Norte
will be a kitten by comparison.”

What she'd said about mysterious grease fires had put an idea in my head. “Any chance that key job on your car and Zorborón's fire are connected?”

“I can't answer for him, but no one's tried to sell me protection. Kind of a wienie way for a bunch of
hombres malos
to do business, wouldn't you think?”

“They're just getting established. Trouble is, kids are fast learners. If they wanted to make a push, taking out the two biggest influences in the community would be a place to start.”

“I'll let you know when they graduate to water balloons.”

I gave it up as a waste of time. If anyone knew the dangers, she would. “Maldados still hanging out at the mission?”

Her well-bred face grew furrows. “Please don't call it that. I gave up the oath, not the Church. It's just another crack house in waiting since the brothers abandoned it.”

The Jesuits had set up a soup kitchen and salvation parlor in an Edwardian showplace a couple of blocks north of West Vernor. It hadn't been a showplace since McKinley was shot, but it was too pretty to condemn in spite of paint deprivation and a beehive behind the lath-and-plaster walls that was solid enough to pass zoning regulations regarding construction. The brothers had moved out to save souls in Grosse Pointe; sold out, some said, for central air and a roof that didn't leak, but if souls ever needed saving, the carriage trade in the Pointes would have no trouble electing a poster child.

I looked at my watch. It was siesta time—if not for transplanted Mexicans, then certainly for an aging PI with a bum leg due to lead poisoning. “I'll drop in on them bright and early tomorrow. What kind of ordnance are they packing these days?”

“The usual. Sig-Sauers, some war surplus forty-fives—they never wear out, damn Sam Colt—a MAC-10 or two. The box cutters scare me the most. I'd rather take a nice clean round in the chest than show up at Receiving with my lower intestines in a bucket. This kid worth it?” She tapped the photo in her lap.

BOOK: Burning Midnight
10.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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