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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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“I leave that kind of thing to the cops. They've got the manpower to do it all over again when someone takes your place.” I tilted my head toward the door behind him. “That's a heroin nap. It's not good business to raid your own stock.”

“Cut him some slack. Today's his eighteenth birthday. Not a small thing to know your life's almost over.”

“Doesn't have to be.”

“You don't know what you're talking about.” One of his caved-in cheeks poked out, bulged by his tongue. “Walker, right?”

“Sí, está correcto.”

He shook his head. “It makes me puke when Anglos try to speak Spanish.”

I moved a shoulder. “You can't be far from eighteen yourself.”

“I'm twenty. Just about used up. You're trespassing. Why?”

I doubted anyone but the Jesuits had clear title to the place, but I let that one ride. “In a minute. I saw Little Miss Mexico on the stairs. She ought to be playing jacks.”

“Jacks, Petes, she's not choosy. If you want a fix-up, talk to her. I'm not in that racket.”

“Every word, every little move, straight from the script. Don't you boys watch anything but
Scarface
?”


Carlito's Way.
Less clowning, more plot.”

“Listen to Rex Reed. I'm doing you a favor. Girl like her could put you both in the joint and save you the trouble of dying in the street.”

He smiled. He had good teeth. “I guess where you come from jail's a really bad thing.”

“I'm going to reach inside my coat. For a picture. Okay?”

“Describe it to me.”

“Sixteen, five-ten, but about your weight. His name's Ernesto Pasada.”

“I don't know him.”

“Too thin. The neighborhood isn't that big, and you don't really all look alike.”

“Maybe I've seen him. What's your end?”

“His sister wants him back.”

“Why tell me?”

“You're the man to see in Mexicantown.”

“Domingo's the man to see. I'm just a peon.”

“I can't wait around for him to sober up. I work by the day.”

“Talk to Nesto. He's old enough to wipe his own ass.”

“Tell me where he is and I'll give it a whirl.”

“I haven't seen him in months.”

“No good. His tarantula hasn't had time to heal.”

“Anyone can get a tattoo.”

“If he doesn't mind leaving that hand behind when he goes home. No ink artist in town would touch the job without gang endorsement. Come on, Luís. Your type never forgets a wrong or an insult. Last I knew there was a thousand bucks riding on the head of the cop who put down your brother.”

“That's a lie. I wouldn't pay anyone else to do my work.”

“Sure you would. You're as yellow as Siete. He's afraid he won't live long enough to buy a drink legally.”

That shot him right out of his expensive sneakers, that did. His smile didn't flicker. “Time to go, amigo. You get a free pass today, it being today.”

“Sure. Tell him happy birthday. I hear he celebrated early by setting fire to the Tiger's garage.”

“Did Zorborón tell you that? He's an old lady.”

“He can take care of himself. I'm more concerned about Sister Delia. A little automobile vandalism is nothing new, but the timing worries me. That last sweep by the cops was just practice. If anything happens to her they'll come back with the marines.”

“I'll give Domingo the message.” He took out my Chief's Special, swung the cylinder, shook loose the cartridges, swung it back, and held the revolver out to me butt-first, all one-handed. “Tell John Alderdyce
El Hermano
said hello.”

*   *   *

The little girl who should have been dressing Barbies was talking on the corner with a group of youths who looked like freshly opened jackknives, all lean lines and angles in Red Wings jackets and a porkpie hat or two. Her motor never stopped; shifting her weight from one foot to the other, shooting her hips, adjusting her halter strap when it looked like the negotiations weren't going so well. It was an admirable performance until you realized she'd only grown breasts since your last oil change.

Leaning on my car watching her I almost missed seeing Ernesto Pasada trotting up the front steps to the former mission.

 

SEVEN

“Nesto!”

That was a mistake. I should have put less than the width of a sidewalk between us before I called his name.

He had the reflexes of a cat on coke. Without even glancing my way he vaulted over the side railing of the porch and swung around the corner of the house through the strip of dead grass that separated it from the apartment house next door and vanished. I'd gotten a glimpse of plaid flannel shirttail and narrow hips in faded Wranglers and then it was as if he'd never been there at all.

I ran that way, across the grass and halfway up a six-foot board fence where the yard ended. That got me a palmful of splinters and a bruise on my left hip when I hit the ground.

I got up, plucked out the splinters, repeating the lesson I'd learned with each one: You can't argue with two seconds' head start and an old bullet wound in the leg.

When I had it committed to memory I stood there for half a minute, deciding whether I should go back in and pump Luis Guerrera some more, but my time was worth something even if I wasn't charging for it. Anyone can climb a porch, and Nesto wasn't officially a runaway, so there wasn't any leverage. I went back to the car, stirred up the motor, and drove around a few blocks, but he'd gone to ground.

Waiting for a light change on the way back to the office I called Nesto's sister, just to tell her he hadn't fallen down any rabbit holes.

“Why did he run?” she asked. “I'm sure he doesn't know you're looking for him.”

“I startled him. I shouldn't have called his name. I try to make all my mistakes the first day, but some days just aren't long enough.”

“It just isn't like him. He's not timid.”

“Not at home, maybe, or school. Mexicantown can make a jumping bean out of anyone. His picture's made all the rounds by now. Zorborón can't use the trouble and Sister Delia hasn't given up hope yet on his generation. When I get a call I'll play it smarter next time. So far, you have to admit you're getting every penny's worth.”

“But you're not—Oh.” Air moved in and out on her end of the line. “I don't blame you, Mr. Walker. I'm really very grateful to you. Jerry will be, too, when he has all the information.”

“Not if he's as much like his old man as you say.”

“What now?”

“Now I wait for the phone to ring.”

“That's all?”

“The work doesn't get any harder.”

“I didn't mean that the way it sounded,” she said. “I just keep thinking of myself at sixteen, if I were lost in a strange place.”

“Not so strange to him.” Which could make things worse, but that was more information than she needed. I said good-bye and punched off.

I had nothing waiting for me back at the office but a bunch of elderly files, not even a mouse to outsmart. When the light changed I made a broad U-turn in the middle of the intersection and drove back to Zorborón's garage. If I told him Nesto had been seen in the neighborhood he might know where he would be likely to land.

*   *   *

The same Basque mechanic was sitting on a cement block in front of the open bay with a tire iron in his hand, prying a blowout away from the rim. The sleeves of his greasy coveralls were cut off at the shoulders and his biceps were as big as tether balls. When I asked for the boss he took a hand away from his chore long enough to jerk a thumb back over his shoulder in the direction of the office.

On the way to the room in back I passed a Mexican with an air wrench spinning lugs off the wheels of a VW beetle on a rack and another who looked like his identical twin at a bench pounding the bend out of a driveshaft with a ballpeen hammer. I could make more noise driving a truckload of cymbals through the wall of a steel foundry, but I wouldn't be able to keep it up. The air was thick with grease and blue with the haze of scorched metal.

Glass partitions enclosed a corner, plastered with posters advertising discounts on brake inspections and tune-ups. The dates had expired on all of them, but they were mostly there for privacy. The office was inside the partitions.

The doors to offices in commercial garages are rarely closed; some don't even have doors. Zorborón's was an exception. The business he conducted, in personal meetings and over the telephone, seldom involved transmissions and repair estimates, and everyone else was too busy to pay much attention to who might be wandering about with his ears open. I knocked, but if he heard it and answered, the whine of the wrench and the ringing of steel on steel drowned him out. The knob turned freely. I let myself in.

I didn't pay any particular attention to the smell at first. I still had traces of Domingo Siete's charred beard in my nostrils, and the odors aren't dissimilar. Whoever decorates those places doesn't tamper with the convention. Miss March Muffler posed in a bikini and high heels holding an exhaust system on a calendar on the block wall at the back and there was the usual message board shingled over with yellow Post-its. Zorborón's desk was made of sheet metal and black Formica. On it stood a flat-screen computer monitor surrounded by stacks of papers: insurance reports, work orders, and bills of lading. The Tiger sat at an angle to it in a hydraulic office swivel, wearing what looked like the same black T-shirt and gray slacks he'd had on the day before. He was in a slouch. The back of his head rested on the back of the chair, with his eyes closed and his lips parted. He wasn't the siesta type. He had a black mole two inches under his left eye. It hadn't been there before, and it wasn't a mole.

 

EIGHT

I noticed the smell then. In a room that small, smokeless powder is as smokeless as silencers silent, and although the smoke had cleared, the stench was strong enough to be fresh. I confirmed it when I searched Zorborón's neck for a pulse. There wasn't any, but the flesh was still warm.

I went back and locked the door, but there wasn't much to see. He carried his cash in a gold-and-black-enamel clip with a tiger on it; nothing else in his pockets, not even keys. He had a driver, so no driver's license, and that party or a bodyguard would open all his locks for him and likely carry his weapons. Eighteen hundred twenty-six dollars in crisp folded bills: walking-around money, if you cared to walk around that neighborhood with a roll that size. Zorborón's reputation would have demanded no less. It eliminated robbery as a motive.

I went through the desk drawers, but there was no time to be thorough. Anyone could come to the door any time and jump to a conclusion that could only add to the body count. The papers on the desk might have included forged Compuware stock or a suicide note elegantly worded in Old Castilian, but there wasn't time to go through them. Anyway I eliminated suicide, too, unless he'd held the gun far enough away to prevent powder burns and hid the gun when he was finished. It was a smallish hole, no larger than a .22 or a .25 would make, but even if the shooter had fired from the doorway the range would still be lethal.

That was the extent of my knowledge of forensics. I unlocked the door and went out past the mechanic who had the wheels off the VW now and his twin still banging away on the driveshaft and stood in front of the Basque working on the tire out front, watching him with my hands in my pockets. When after ten seconds he didn't look up, I said, “I thought you had a machine for that.”


Está roto.
Busted.” He went on moving his chisel around the inside of the rim, tapping the handle with a clawhammer to get a purchase.

I said, “Man could work all day on that.”

“Sí.”
Tap, tap, tap.

“What's it, ten-buck job?”


Veinte.
Twenty dollars, this job.”

“Even so. Garage must be doing good.”


Por favor,
no? Is Detroit.”

I was running out of small talk.

“Your boss isn't available,” I said.

“Sí?”
He had a star-shaped bald spot on his crown.

“Permanent condition, looks like.”

“Sí?”

Either I was being too clever or his English was as bad as my Spanish. I dusted it off anyway.

“Está muerto.”

The hand holding the hammer went still. His face came up like a chunk of submerged driftwood floating to the surface. The pouches under his eyes were like wallets. A bead of sweat had slid down his nose, but the shift in angle had prevented it from falling off the end. It quivered there, the only thing about him that was in motion.

“Asesinato.”
I took my right hand out of my pocket, pointed the index finger at him, and worked the thumb; tapped my left cheek with the same finger.

Deep beneath the fat that cushioned skin from bone, a nerve twitched in his own cheek. The skin fluttered once and was still.

Before he could move, I whipped the Chief's Special out of its holster and did a border spin, twirling it by its trigger guard around my finger so that the butt was pointed toward him. He jumped, made a quick motion toward the hip pocket of his filthy coveralls, but stopped when I'd finished spinning. He hesitated, then took hold of the butt when I removed my finger from the trigger.

I shook my head when he pointed the revolver at me, touched my nose, pointed at the muzzle, touched my nose again. He got the message and sniffed the barrel. All he would smell was oil. He grunted and lowered it to his lap. His other hand rested on the tire and wheel leaning against his shins. He shoved at it and stood while it struck the asphalt and wobbled to a stop. He made a motion with the gun—not a threatening one; it was just a gesture that happened to include the object he was holding. I nodded and went ahead of him into the garage.

BOOK: Burning Midnight
5.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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