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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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“You tell me. You're the sister of mercy.”

She shook her head. There was a bitter snap to it. “I'm burning out. My worst fear. Some days I'd just as soon take a flamethrower to that mess of turrets and gimcrack and throw myself into a tank of Jack Daniel's.”

“My advice? Jack Daniel's first.”

She smiled; a real smile, not the inch and a half she measured out when the situation called for it. Then she got up and unlocked the file cabinet where she kept the records for the IRS. I couldn't think of a better place for a bottle.

*   *   *

Back on the street I called Chata and asked if Ernesto had come home from school.

“He didn't go.” She sounded tired. “His principal called. It's the third time this month. I'd hoped if you're in Mexicantown you might have seen him.”

“It's not that small a place and it's well-populated. I salted it with his picture. If he shows I'll hear about it.”

“Did you find out what you needed to know?”

“I found out what everyone here seems to know, which is next to
nada.
The Maldados in Detroit are connected with the Old Country Maldados, or they're not. They're into the dope trade up to their sombreros, or they're running a protection racket, or they're practicing for their knot-tying badge from the Guadalajara Boy Scouts. Tomorrow I'll talk to the source and strain out the rumors.”

“That sounds dangerous.”

“I'll start early and be out by nightfall.” The secret to hunting werewolves is to finish up before the moon rises.

 

SIX

Bright and early I walked around Rosecranz, the building troll, waxing the linoleum in the foyer and carried a Sausage McMuffin and l,000 degrees of caffeine upstairs. I had a visitor in the private office, but there wasn't a job in it. I'd set a trap for Wally the mouse and he'd tripped it and broken his neck. He was small enough to flush, so I did that in the little water closet, washed my hands, stuffed his hole with paper, and sealed it with duct tape from the professional detective's kit I keep in the desk. After that the Sausage McMuffin wasn't appetizing. I chucked it in the wastebasket and waited for my coffee to cool.

It was just about fit to drink when the mail slot in the outer office squeaked on its hinges and a small bundle hit the floor. I went out and got it, but my rich uncle hadn't died and there was nothing happening with my ten shares in whale oil futures, so I dragged over the telephone and went to work. John Alderdyce's son had just left for the office.

Ernesto hadn't come home last night. That had happened before, so I told his sister not to waste time on worry and said I'd shoo him along if I came across him.

Next I tried Barry Stackpole, my go-to guy for the latest on organized crime in America, but he wasn't answering and I remembered he'd said something about Alaska in the spring, something to do with a Justice Department scheme to smuggle in members of the Russian Mafia to consult with on matters of Homeland Security; how a solo journalist got the drift of things that the State Department didn't know about was a mystery no one was paying me to solve. I finished my coffee and left, listing a little toward my right hip where the gun rode.

*   *   *

A lumber baron had built the place, they said, using harder wood than the old-growth pine he'd made his killing cutting in the Upper Peninsula and shipping the logs down to the furniture factories in Grand Rapids. The virgin stands are long gone, and the coffee tables and bedroom sets they sell on the western side of the state are made in China for assembly in the home, but Lars Larson's frame castle still stood that day, needing shingles and paint and glass panes where the plywood blocked out the sun. The surviving original shingles were rounded like chain mail links atop the turrets, and a front porch hung on by its fingernails, just big enough for a resident to sit in a rocker and spit tobacco at the rats in the shaggy yard. The place looked like you could knock it down by blowing a kiss at it, but those old Swedes knew their mortises and tenons. It had survived a dozen Deco sky-scratchers put up during the boom days of Prohibition and just about everything from the l970s. A street gang and before them the Jesuits with their nonexistent maintenance fund hadn't done it any more damage than stone-chuckers and Michigan weather.

Just for fun I grasped a bronze oval knurled with embossed oak leaves and gave it a twist. The bell actually rang, a raspy falsetto tinkle, like an old lady laughing over a scrapbook. No one answered. I tried again. Halfway through, the old lady choked, something snapped and jangled with a falling-away sound, and after that I couldn't raise a thing. I was probably the first visitor to use the bell in ten years. It had been waiting all this time to let go.

I snapped my cigarette butt at a can lying on its side in the yard and tried the thumb latch. The door wasn't locked. I went on in with my gun still on my hip, which was dumb. But instead of a muzzle waiting on the other side I saw an empty entry hall with a scratched floor made of narrow strips of tongue-and-groove oak and patches of old varnish the color and finish of peanut brittle still visible outside the traffic area. A rug with no pattern left had snuggled itself into the cracks between the boards and there was one of those iron-spined hedgehogs to scrape your boots on with a dumb neglected look on its tiny rusted face.

I smelled dry rot and marijuana, neither of which was new to the building by a long shot. Apart from the scorched weed, the place contained none of the odors associated with a residence of any kind. It might have stood empty since the mission closed, but that couldn't be, because Detroit abhors a vacuum. Sooner or later any sort of shelter attracts a meth lab or a spot to score crack or just to practice the oldest profession, by some of the oldest professionals who can still wriggle their brittle bones into a miniskirt. There's a woman on Michigan Avenue named Ukrainian Audrey who claims her pelvis is on the National Register of Historic Places.

I waited, but the only sign of life was a muffled humming where the third-generation colony of bees continued building its hive between lath-and-plaster walls that provided shelter year-round.

“Hola?”
My voice rang back my way from the curving panels at the base of the ceiling, mocking my accent.

A foot scraped the staircase, a lazy
S
framed by a mahogany banister missing several spindles leading to an open second-floor hallway. I looked up at five and a half feet of clear brown skin in white shorts and a pink halter top that fell short of her navel and a longer way short of her collarbone, with piles of shimmering blue-black hair and toenails too pink for her natural coloring, in cork sandals. Her makeup was all wrong, too, her lips a candy-corn shade of orange. She'd used a spray gun to put on a perfume that probably came in a drum. She was all of fourteen years old.

She was chewing gum, and damn if she hadn't matched it to her pink nails; I had a good view of it all the way to where it lost its flavor and she took it out and stuck it on top of the newel post. There she rested a hand on the banister with the other splayed on her hip, a pose straight from the manual.

“Está policía, verdad?”
she said. “
O
DEA?”


No está uno o otro, señorita. Está materia privada. Dónde están los muchachos?

She giggled, a loopy sound. She didn't need the stairs. She could float from one level to the other all on her own. “Who taught you Spanish?”

“An old friend. Speedy Gonzales was the name.”

“I don' know him.”

“You'll never get the chance. He broke his neck in a trap at my office sometime between midnight and seven
A.M.
Boys around?”

Another giggle. It went straight up my spine. She turned her head an inch toward her left shoulder and yelled.
“Domingo! Tíenes un visitante. Un puerco.”

I had a cigarette in the corner of my mouth and both hands on the matchbook. “You shouldn't go around calling strangers pigs. Especially when they told you as politely as they could they're not cops.”

“You're lying.”

“If I were, you'd be halfway to juvie by now, and everyone in this dump over the age of eighteen in County.”

She spat something in border Spanish I just caught by the back handles. That culture is overconcerned with the mating habits of mothers.
“Domingo! Muy pronto!”

“Why don't I go up and give him a shake? If he doesn't get up soon he'll miss siesta.”

She rolled a bare shoulder. Her left halter strap slid down her arm. She left it there, switched her hips down the three steps remaining, and put plenty of Spanish on it on her way out the front door.

I put the cigarette back in the pack and climbed up, unbuttoning my coat and loosening the revolver in its holster. The humming grew louder as I climbed; when I touched the staircase wall to steady myself I could feel the heat generated by all that insect activity.

It didn't take a detective to find out which door was Domingo Siete's. He was snoring loud enough to drown out the bees and loosen the panels. It was unlocked. Resting my hand on the butt nudging my kidney I turned the knob and opened it. I got a faceful of locker-room air overlaid with more marijuana and a Homeric case of morning mouth that had spread to fill the room.

The place was as dim as a tropical jungle. Newspapers had been taped over the windows, and as I groped my way toward the lump on the bed my toe struck something that rolled across the floor and came to rest against another object with a clink. Empty tequila bottles make a handy alarm system, but it was lost on the lump. The snoring stopped abruptly at the end of an intake, but the pause was only a second before the air came back out with a little whistle. After that it got louder.

I circled the end of the bed and tore the sports section off the nearest window. Sunlight poured in.

Domingo lay on his back in cruciform, wearing a green army undershirt and boxer briefs, nothing else. He hadn't much body hair for a Hispanic male. I remembered him as small for his age though sinewy, but his muscles had gone flabby and his face looked bloated and middle-aged. He had thick black hair growing far down on his forehead, mowed close to the scalp, a burr cut, and coarse features blurred by the first beard of youth, cobwebby patches of fine down. His mouth was a black hole in its center, rimmed with meaty red lips. A thread of spittle led from the right corner to a puddle on the mattress. No sheet covered it. It was marbled all over with stains, some of which had probably already been present when it was dragged in from someone's curb. Standing over him I found myself breathing through my mouth. Not eating that Sausage McMuffin had been my wisest decision of the day so far.

I shook him by the shoulder. All that got me was a rattling snort and more snoring in a different key. You didn't get that depth of sleep from just a bottle and a joint.

I had a brainstorm. I got out the book of matches, struck one, and held the flame to a curl of beard. It went up on that side of his face like wildfire up a dead pine. The room was filled with the stench before he came awake with a lurch, swatted at that side of his face—and came up off the bed all in one piece, roaring and swinging with both fists. But by then I had a grip on the hollow metal frame and flipped it up and over to the side, dumping him to the floor.

That made him surly. He scrambled onto his hands and knees and bit me on the leg. I kicked out of instinct, caught him under the chin with the toe of my shoe, clapping his mouth shut with his tongue caught between his teeth. Blood trickled out both sides of his mouth, but he wasn't through yet. His arms went around my legs in a kneeling bear hug. I jumped out of that noose, a fancy rope trick I didn't know I had in my repertory, came down with my feet spread, and laced my fingers in a double fist to bring it down square on top of his head.

“I think you're done, amigo.”

This was a new voice. I stopped short of my target, almost losing my balance in the follow-through, and turned my head toward the door to the hall. Luís Guerrera stood on the threshold holding a nine-millimeter Sig-Sauer pointed at my midsection.

I straightened and pulled apart my fists. “I'm done,” I said. “Question is, is he?”

He was. When I'd jumped his trap, Domingo's momentum had carried him forward onto his face. He was kneeling on the floor with his rump in the air, snoring as energetically as ever.

“We'll let him be. He's an angel when he sleeps. Where do you keep it?”

“Behind my right hip.”

Guerrera closed the distance in cat's stride and relieved me of the gun's weight. He reversed himself just as quickly, stuck it under his belt, and gestured with the semiautomatic. I went out into the hall ahead of him.

He drew the door shut, took the Sig off cock, and parked it under his belt on the other side. Wild Bill Hickok wore his brace of Navies the same way, with the butts twisted forward. We were facing each other. His long hair curled around his ears and fell down on his forehead, a broad intelligent brow that seemed too much for the rest of his undernourished features to support. His skin was bad, sallow and pockmarked, and the forceps scar on his left cheek and more recent slash on his right underscored the
V
made by his cheeks and chin. He wore a denim Cesar Chavez jacket over a gray T-shirt with a stylized sunrise screen-printed on it, khaki cargo pants two sizes too large but cinched tightly with a broad leather belt, and two-hundred-dollar Nikes that looked freshly swiped from the store. No tarantula tattoo: But I think I'd heard somewhere that that was for members who had to prove they were worthy of belonging. The founders were exempt.

I said, “I thought someone else was carrying your gun these days.”

“You here to arrest me?” He had almost no accent.

BOOK: Burning Midnight
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