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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

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BOOK: Burning Midnight
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The man at the rack was air-wrenching the wheels back on, but the one at the bench wouldn't give up on that shaft. His eardrums must have been as thick as the hammer. We entered the office and the big man shut the door on the noise. He didn't approach the dead man behind the desk. He crossed himself and said, “Holy shit.” A devout people.

I reached inside my coat. The revolver twitched upward. I showed him the cell. “
Nueve-uno-uno. Sabe policía?

A lower lip got chewed. It was as big as a slice of prime rib and took a while. Finally he nodded.

I jabbed at the keys and snapped my fingers at the mechanic while I was waiting. He gave me back my gun. I think he'd forgotten he was still holding it.

A woman came on the line. “Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?”


*   *   *

The garage was quiet at last. A couple of plainclothesmen I'd seen around l300 Beaubien, the cop house, were in one corner talking with the air-wrench jockey, one of the first uniforms on the scene was writing in a notebook while the twin brother with the hammer was talking, and John Alderdyce had the big man all to himself. Outside, the yellow tape and barricades were up and a mixed crowd of Hispanics, blacks, and whites had gathered on the other side. A helicopter shuddered overhead, first TV news scout on the scene. The police cruisers sat with their motors purring and their juke lights blinking on the roofs. I smoked a cigarette and read a fan belt display.

John came over, flipping shut his leather-bound memorandum book. He wore a chocolate-colored Palm Beach suit with a gay yellow necktie. It was like hanging a ribbon on a coffin. “You'll have to start the conversation,” he said. “Usually I get the ball rolling by asking who's your client.”

“Who am I talking to, you or the department?”

“Oh, hell. How do you work it? Ask permission, what?”

“For starters. Then I decide whether I do anything with it.”

“Okay. Client first. Report.”

“Not till you put away that damn notebook.”

“I changed my mind. Give me the official version.” But he returned it to his inside breast pocket.

I spoke as if I were talking to a different cop. “I'm working for the family of a kid who's in a Mexican gang. They want him out, but they don't know how to go about it. I came here yesterday and today to find out what I could about the gang.” I gave him what I'd learned about the Maldados, named my local sources. It was all pretty silly but it kept the interview professional.

Alderdyce was all cop on the job. He jumped on the arson attempt at the garage. “He blamed Sister Delia?”

“I think he was joking. With him it was hard to tell.”

“Her style's to set up a picket line, maybe spend a couple hours in jail for disorderly conduct. It sure isn't arson.”

“It has to be Maldados. They're making a power play.”

“You said Zorborón said he was semiretired.”

“He's still a symbol. It's a culture that likes broad strokes. I'd put a detail on Sister Delia.”

“She'll like that—not. But we have to make the offer. These guys don't know anything. Buy that?

“Could be. It's a busy place and the door's open all day. What about a bodyguard?”

“We'll check Unemployment.” He put a hand on my arm and led me away from the other interview groups. His voice dropped. “Give me the rest.”

“Ask your daughter-in-law. I've reported to her already.”

“Jesus. I'm your client!”

“Not when you're inside police tape.”

“I thought you were a pain in the ass before.” But he got his party on his cell and asked her what he'd asked me. He said nothing about Zorborón. The rest of the conversation he spent listening. He flipped the phone shut.

“Why'd he run when you called his name?”

I shook my head. “Could be the neighborhood. If they're gunning for you they make sure it's you first. On the other hand, I don't know why anyone would be gunning for him.”

“I can think of a reason.”

“Yeah, I thought about that, too. I don't like him for it.”

“The mission's what, a five-minute walk from here?”

“The body was still warm. I didn't say he couldn't have done it. Pretty big leap for a kid from the suburbs.”

“Not so big here. It's like on the moon.”

“He just got his tarantula.”

“He has to earn it.”

“You don't try for Eagle just out of Cub Scouts.”

“I'm a worst-case scenario kind of guy,” Alderdyce said. “Comes with the shield.”

“I'd start with that arson attempt.”

“You think?”

I let that slide off and shook out a cigarette.

He said, “I'll take one, since you didn't offer.”

“I thought you quit.”

“I thought you quit saying you thought I quit.”

I lit us both up. “Okay if I do some nosing around?”

“You asking me or a cop?”

“Doesn't matter. I'll nose around anyway. I was just being polite.”

“Try not to get dead. All the neighborhood needs to blow its top is an Anglo with a knife in his belly.” He took the last of three drags, threw the rest outside the bay doors, and went over to start in on the twins.

I walked around the outside of the building. It was an American original. There aren't many of those white glazed-brick shops from the fifties still doing the same kind of business. The gas pumps had been hauled away and the underground tanks filled with earth and fresh concrete poured on top of them, but it was one of the few places left where you could have a dent bumped out and a new drive train installed all on the same premises. Even the dealerships farm out body work. The low riders and aging muscle cars that thundered along West Vernor all came to roost there sooner or later.

The scene of the fire wasn't hard to spot: a black stain on the wall behind the building, fresh plywood nailed over an empty window frame, and a Dumpster that had provided the kindling. The burn pattern didn't look as if accelerants had been used. An amateur job, using the materials that happened to be at hand, probably on impulse. It lacked seriousness, smacked of malicious mischief or a halfhearted warning of some kind. There wasn't a thing promising about it; but until I found Nesto, it was all I had to work with.

An undamaged window at the other end of the wall wore a red-and-silver decal reading:




A slim video camera clung to the overhang of the roof near the corner with a red light glowing above the lens.

If the firebug was caught on tape or disc, the cops would have it. Zorborón's insurance carrier would have insisted the incident be reported. But Alderdyce couldn't risk giving me access. Records are kept in those situations, and inquiries made.

I didn't need him. I had an in at H&M. Finding out what the cops already know is a lousy place to start, but it was a lousy case.

*   *   *

On the way I called Chata.

“I had a call from John,” she said. “Do you know what that was about?”

I told her about Zorborón. She took in a sharp breath. “He doesn't think Ernesto is involved with

“He thinks like a cop.”

“Do you?”

“I don't know what I think. I haven't met your brother. But you're going to have to tell Jerry everything before he hears from the police.”

There was a short silence. “Could you tell him?”

“I have to run some things down. It has to be you.”

“God. Yes, of course you're right. He'll want you off the case. Are you still on it?”

“Yeah. He'll have to take that up with his father; he's the client.”

“He won't. John won't. I don't know him at all, but I know that much.” A second of silence passed. “They won't hurt Ernesto, will they?”

“That's up to him.”

“He's headstrong, but he's not violent. The fight we had over the tattoo wasn't really a fight.”

I didn't tell her that running away when he was approached was just as bad. It didn't serve any purpose anyway.

“Thank you, Mr. Walker. I know he had nothing to do with this—thing.”

I told her I'd let her know when I found out anything, and we were through talking to each other.

*   *   *

H&M stands for
ancient Norse for Thought and Memory. In mythology they were the names of the ravens that flew about the world gathering information on mortals and perched on Odin's shoulders at nightfall to report. Fredrik Nordenborg, the company founder, had served in a top security position with the state military archives in Stockholm before emigrating to America. He'd been sacked after several of Greta Garbo's letters disappeared from the files. No one bothered to explain what the scribbles of a dead movie star had been doing there among the battle plans and citations of valor, but someone had to be thrown to the sharks. Nordenborg was ripe because he'd joined a religious movement that wanted to restore the old gods to current belief; Lutheranism is the state religion of Sweden, and unconventional behavior carries the same official suspicion everywhere in the world.

I didn't know him from a plate of Swedish meatballs. Abel Osterling ran the uniformed security force that responded to alarms at the businesses and residences H&M served. He'd hired me once to gather evidence on a company dispatcher suspected of selling alarm codes and passwords to burglars, and I'd managed to do it without drawing fire from the press. The dispatcher was canned, the circumstances were wired to all Nordenborg's competitors to prevent him from finding employment anywhere else in the business, and Nordenborg himself was said to have been satisfied with the way things had turned out. My credit was good with Osterling.

H&M hung out high in the American Building in Southfield, a Mies van der Rohe knockoff poking dozens of stories above the horizontal community with enough glass to wipe out the migratory bird population in all of southeast Michigan. I hadn't been there since old Sam Lucy, who had kept an office there, had reported to the big slot machine in the sky. The Chamber of Commerce had celebrated his passing as the end of organized crime in Detroit. Anyone can say anything.

A wall of smoked glass separated the offices from the elevator bank, with the name of the firm etched on it in platinum along with the company logo: the stylized heads of two ravens looking east and west. In the waiting area, leather-and-chrome sling chairs invited you to sit down and read recent numbers of
Hour Detroit
Metropolitan Home
in clear plastic covers. An oil painting of Nordenborg hung on the wall behind the reception desk. He was holding a lance, with his bony shoulders covered by a red velvet cloak and a pair of tawny handlebars tickling his earlobes under a brass hat with horns on it. Swear to God.

The woman at the polished-granite desk wore her white-blond hair piled high and secured with braids like woven gold. Her complexion was rose gold and a gold pendant nestled in the hollow of her throat. She took my name, spoke to her headset, and asked me to have a seat. Her voice was like golden bells.

I paged through a photo layout in
Hour Detroit
of best-dressed local celebrities—I'd missed out again—then got up to shake Osterling's hand. He'd swept from a corridor behind the desk, five-foot-eight-inches of dusky Finlander with black hair in bangs and a suit cut short in the coat to call attention from his short legs. Nordenborg never recruited south of Greenland, but a Finnish employee was a mark of rare regard; they're Huns by heredity, hated by Swedes and Norwegians alike.

“Welcome to Ikea.” He winked at me and started back down the corridor. I followed.

His office was a neat rectangle with a gray pile carpet, sleek desk, and blue steel shelves holding up books loaded with umlauts. The back wall was glass with a view clear to Canada. Laptop on the desk.
was too long a word to describe it.

I mouthed a silent word: “Bugged?”

He shook his head. “Paranoia's the only delusion the old clown doesn't suffer from. Did you check out the picture in reception? The Western Order of the Sons of Asgard Lodge elected him Lord of Thunder for a third term last month.”

“What makes you stick?”

He waved a hand at family pictures taking turns in a digital frame on the desk.

We sat. “I'm here about one of your clients,” I said. “Emiliano Zorborón.”

He worked the laptop. His brow furrowed. “My, my. I thought we were more choosy.”

“Times are hard. He reported an arson recently. You should have something on video.”

“We shared it with the police, of course. Company policy says that's where it stops.”

“I suspected that, but I didn't think I'd hear it from you.”

“It was a statement of fact, not opinion. You'll have it, of course. I need a reason, just for my files. No one has to see it unless it becomes a serious criminal case. Right now it's just vandalism.”

“Not anymore. You'll hear about it at six o'clock, unless terrorists take out the Coleman Young Municipal Center before air time.”

“Heaven forbid; although they'd just put up another one under the same name.” He waited.

“You can strike Zorborón off your client list. Someone shot him in the face today. I don't know if it has anything to do with the fire, but I'm running it out.”


“I said it was in the face.”

“Not conclusive. This job's in my blood. My old man traced assassination threats for the government in Helsinki. His stories would surprise even a hardened character like you.”

“Trust me. He's strictly Accounts Uncollectable.”

BOOK: Burning Midnight
10.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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