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Authors: Loren D. Estleman

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective

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BOOK: Every Brilliant Eye
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In August, after the defoliants have done their work, the trees around the harbor stand naked and it looks like November in Michigan. Only it’s August in Southeast Asia and with no shade to protect it the water gives forth crawling waves of heat like sun on concrete and those fish that are too large to loll in the shade of the sunken timbers lie on the surface with their sunburned fins turning white.

I peeled the title page away from the cover.

Cold Steel, Hot Lead

by

Barry Evan Stackpole

“Barry, you bastard,” I said.

I had suggested the title to him when we were in that hole in Cambodia, and at the time, with Charlie spraying orange tracers into the bushes all around us, it had seemed a pretty good joke, the way a chance reference in a certain context that wouldn’t make you smile on a straight sober morning blows the roof off a late-night party after everyone’s stopped counting his sloe gin fizzes. It had been our toast for a long time and had come to mean nothing more than throwing spilled salt over a shoulder. I’d thought. All the while he’d been writing the book and, no doubt, grinning every time he typed the title at the top of a fresh page.

I riffled the pages with a thumb, reading the numbers. They went up to 462. I’d be the best part of my retainer making copies, and dollars to bullets there was nothing in it that would lead me to where Barry was cooling leather. I cast a glance behind me to make sure the doorway was empty, popped open the steel rings, folded the block of pages inside the topcoat I’d been carrying all day, and replaced them with a like quantity of blank newsprint from one of the shelves in the office. Then I returned to the stack.

It gave up a number of scratch sheets with unidentified telephone numbers written on them, a fresh-looking manila file folder containing dated clippings from old copies of the
News
and
Free Press,
and a trio of Detroit Metropolitan telephone directories for the past three years. He’d once told me he never kept personal address or telephone books because they were always getting lost, and that when his mental Rolodex failed him, every other Leap Year Day, there was usually a directory handy. He never forgot an unlisted number. Half the time I had to look up mine. I took down some of the scribbled numbers into my pocket notebook and opened the most recent directory and copied some of the ones circled there in ink. I felt like a goat in the city dump.

There was nothing else for me. I rebuilt the heap, replaced the wire and warning sign so as not to disappoint the bomb detail, took a last quick look around for purloined letters, and left the office carrying the folder full of clippings and the package wrapped in my topcoat. The editor who didn’t like Democrats sat in his cubicle next to Barry’s, scowling at someone’s story on his VDT, and a woman reporter at one of the open desks was changing from high heels into brown loafers. She had slim feet and wore no stockings. Jed Dutt fell into step beside me from somewhere on the way to the copying machine. “Anything?”

“Couple of telephone numbers,” I said. “And this.” I handed him the folder.

He read the clippings as he walked. I adjusted the coat over my left arm, bunching it to conceal the square corners underneath. It was getting heavy.

He said, “Some of these stories are mine from back when I was on cophouse. They go back a few years. What’s the connection?”

“If I knew that I wouldn’t have to make copies. I think best on my keister.”

“It’s that pressure on the brain.” We stopped at the machine and he watched me lower my coat carefully to the floor before laying the clippings face down on the glass cover. “That knob controls the number of copies. Just push the button when you’re ready to print.”

“Thanks.

“And you better carry that stuff you’re hiding out in the open when you pass Lady Patton in the lobby. Otherwise she’ll call out the troops.”

I looked at him.

“I got off police beat just in time,” he said, with his shy grin. “When you start to think like a cop it’s time for a change.”

He left me. I stood there for a moment rubbing the back of my neck. Then I started twisting knobs and pressing buttons. There was something to be said for not being in show business while Jed Dutt was on the Entertainment desk.

The building wino was using the upholstered bench in my waiting room to kill a fifth of Annie Greensprings. He was a gray-stubbled black man who wore a blue knit cap and brown jersey gloves with the fingers out and an olive-drab army overcoat the year around, which was okay because I was pretty sure he didn’t wear anything underneath. I didn’t ask him how many customers he’d scared off while he was sitting there. He wouldn’t have remembered anyhow. “Out,” I said. “There’s an astrologer next door. You can gaze at the chart of Venus and plan your next vacation.”

He got up, looking at me with glistening spaniel eyes, and shuffled toward the door I held open. He smelled of dago red and a stopped-up toilet. When he was almost in the hall I said oh hell, clawed out my wallet, and jammed a five-spot into his slash pocket. The look it bought wasn’t worth it. It never is.

Inside the cloister I picked up my mail and went over to the desk and boomed down my armload of papers and skinned through the envelopes. I was very popular with Publishers Clearing House and the
Readers Digest,
and the quick-print place I had do my business cards and letterheads had sent me a 5 x 7 greeting card with a cartoon of a chicken being held upside-down by a hairy fist clamped around its legs and the message inside: “
Now
will you pay?” I peered at the fine print on the back. It wasn’t a Hallmark so I filed it under the blotter with the others.

I hung up my coat, which was showing wear from all the carrying around, and took my seat behind the desk, dialing my answering service as I shuffled through the newspaper clippings I’d copied at the
News.
Two of the pieces, dated several months apart, were about bodies found in the trunks of cars parked at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. They could have been connected. They could just as easily not have been. One good way to relieve traffic congestion at the airport would be to direct the cars with stiffs in them to their own part of the lot: Visitors, Passengers, Corpses. There was an article about a Detroit police inspector taking early retirement after eighteen years with the department, dated last January, a long Sunday magazine profile of a local labor union chief, dead two years, and a scattering of three-inch fillers on various assaults, shootings, and hits-and-runs in the metropolitan area. A five-year record of random violence with nothing but a manila folder in common. On the face of it.

“Just one message, Mr. Walker,” said the girl at the service. “From a Lieutenant Fitzroy at police headquarters.”

“What did he say?”

“Something about an old lady and a marijuana plant. It’s rather involved.”

I grinned. “Thanks. I can figure it out.”

After hanging up I puzzled over the clippings a little longer, arranging the white copy sheets side by side on the desk. Then I tried shuffling them, but that didn’t light any bulbs either. Finally I restacked them and slipped a paper clip over one corner and put the sheaf in the drawer with the brass knuckles and my diploma from the Willie Sutton School of Dance. I lit a cigarette and pulled over Barry’s typescript. Paged through it, stopping here and there to read.

I am sitting in a hollow bunker with an ARVN who has spent two tours here. We are not talking, conserving ourselves in the heat, when one of the new Cobras clatters overhead at treetop level, thorny with machine guns and rocket launchers, raising dust and dead leaves. Particles fly into our eyes and tears join the sweat on our chins.

“I always did hate choppers,” says the ARVN, thumbing off the safety on his M-16.

The M-16’s muzzle velocity is not great. In the echo of the sloppy action’s rattle we hear distinctly the clanking of the bullets striking the Cobra’s armor plate.

The helicopter hovers, seeming to shudder, more from surprise than from pain. The blades change pitch, the tail rotates, and the machine’s squat nose, splotched brown and green, swings around, its cannon and Gatlings trained on our little bunker.

For a time the earth ceases to turn. The great steel dragonfly floats on air as thick as bath water, swaying a little, not enough to hinder its aim. We remain unmoving.

After a minute—it seems much longer—the Cobra turns and resumes its flight. The beating of the blades recedes into a steady thrum, and long seconds pass before we know we are hearing it no longer.

We breathe.

My fingers were making the sheet crackle. I laid it down gently and moved my cigarette over to the tray on the desk and broke off a column of ash reaching clear back to the filter tip. Then I got up and cracked the window. September air trailed cool fingers into the office. I burned some fresh tobacco and watched the traffic flashing past down West River through the little gap between the comer of my building and the gravel-strewn roof of the lower one next door. I watched the cars until they looked like cars and not like armed helicopters. Then I sat down again and drew out the copied newspaper clippings and dialed Barry’s number at the
News.
The telephone rang seven times before Dutt speared it.

“Still think the place is going to blow up without music?” I asked.

“No, I just can’t work around a mess I didn’t make personally. Anyway, the Detroit bomb squad swung through and chased the goblins out from under the bed and Spengler took away the stack.”

“I hope you wished him luck with it.”

“He should rupture himself lugging the stuff over to the City-County Building. What’s keeping me from another column about yet another black playwright whose titles won’t fit on any marquee in the city?”

“Your byline is on one of those pieces about body drops at Metro and on that feature thing about the labor leader, whatsizname, Kindnagel,” I said. “Any of the others yours?”

“No, those were strictly blotter. Kids come in fresh from journalism school and a viewing of
All the President’s Men
and the editor hands them a rape in a student parking lot at Wayne State. I’ve got my notes on those two I wrote right here. What do you need?”

I paused. “That cop thing again?”

“Reporter’s instinct. They pass it out at the graduation ceremony in the obituary department, or they used to. I figured you’d call after you had a chance to look at the stuff.”

“What’s the tariff?”

“Same as before. An exclusive if anything comes of it, or I collect another time.”

“Eminently fair. They ever identify that John Doe at the airport?”

“About a week later. It was a hot news day, my follow-up got bumped. Woman named Pearl Cochran from Lathrup Village positived him at the county cold room.” Paper rustled on his end. “Philip Anthony Niles. Her brother. Ran a body shop in Royal Oak, along with a tab with one of the friendly finance boys downtown, a Cuban named—I like this—Amigo Fuentes. Police took him down and cut him loose after forty-eight hours. He was out of town that week.”

“He still in business?”

“You’re asking me, Entertainment? All I know is he was managing a junkyard at Fourteenth and Myrtle that year.”

I wrote it all down. “What about Kindnagel?”

More rustling. “No connection I can see. He was in on the ground floor of the Labor Zionist Movement locally, helped organize most of the Jewish laborers in the city while everyone was watching Bennett’s bullies kicking Reuther and Frankensteen down the steps of the Miller Road Overpass. Maybe the most nonviolent union takeover in this town’s history.”

“I forget what he died of.”

“Just plain living, as I hope to. Went in his sleep about the time the article ran. One time when those jerks on the Sunday side were right to sit on a piece for six weeks. Sold every copy but the ones on file. He was ninety-two. Everything else is in the story.”

I thanked him and broke the connection with my thumb. Holding down the button, I thought for a beat, then let it pop back up and tried John Alderdyce’s extension at Detroit Police Headquarters. I got him on the first ring.

“Hornet?” he barked.

“Housefly, I think,” I said. “But it’s not bothering anybody up there on the ceiling. How’s the homicide rate?”

“It’s doing fine, same as my flu. We’re the ones losing ground. What is it, Walker? I’m expecting Sergeant Hornet with a bullet from a picket fence on St. Antoine.”

“What’s a picket fence doing on that street, collecting limericks?”

“That bang you hear is me ending this conversation.”

“Second, John. I need a line on a side of beef you boys pried out of a trunk at Metro two years ago. His name was Philip Niles.”

He sneezed, blew his nose loudly, and said, “That it? Sure you don’t want the ballistics on the Abe Lincoln burn? Call Records, goddamnit.”

“Second, John.”

“That’s just what you’ve got, friend.”

“Does it happen you know an Inspector Ray Blankenship, who took his papers early from Homicide eight months ago?”

A little time passed. Voices droned a mile away. He never closed the door to his office when he was alone in it. “What about him?”

When it came, it came hard and fast. I said, “I don’t know what about him yet. That’s why I’m asking. I never heard of the guy, and I thought I knew all the inspectors in the department.”

“They kicked him up on retirement, to goose the pension. They do that when they like you upstairs. I hear. He was lieutenant in charge of the detective squad at the Fourteenth Precinct. As of three this morning, though, he’s nothing. He ate his service revolver. They’re still scrubbing up.”

10

“I
HAVE TO ASK
the question,” Alderdyce said.

But he didn’t ask it. I parked the receiver in the hollow of my shoulder and set fire to a Winston. Waving out the match: “I’m on the bottom step of a missing person. He had a newspaper squib about Blankenship’s retirement in his possession. Right now I’m just scratching at pebbles.”

“Would I know this missing person?”

BOOK: Every Brilliant Eye
5.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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