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Much like author Loren D. Estleman, private detective Amos Walker has long been reluctant to embrace technology; it was not until recently that Walker got his first cell phone. Now, in Infernal Angels, Walker is hired to do a twenty-first–century job—recovering stolen HDTV converter boxes. Before long, the case turns old-school: All the suspects and the man who lost the boxes are murdered, and Walker ends up working with both the local police and the feds of Detroit. The converter boxes were being used ...
Much like author Loren D. Estleman, private detective Amos Walker has long been reluctant to embrace technology; it was not until recently that Walker got his first cell phone. Now, in Infernal Angels, Walker is hired to do a twenty-first–century job—recovering stolen HDTV converter boxes. Before long, the case turns old-school: All the suspects and the man who lost the boxes are murdered, and Walker ends up working with both the local police and the feds of Detroit. The converter boxes were being used to smuggle high-grade heroin that’s been killing off junkies left and right, and it’s up to Walker to track down the missing dope and the person behind the trail of dead bodies. Old friends and even older enemies will resurface before this story is done, and Walker will have to take a few beatings if he wants to bring the drug smugglers to justice. This old dog still has a few new tricks, and there hasn’t been a case yet that Walker couldn’t crack.
Estleman composes still another hymn to Detroit, with Amos Walker soloing for the 21st time (The Left-handed Dollar,2010, etc.).
Detroit PD Sergeant Mansanard is that rarest of rare birds, a cop who likes Amos Walker. Likes him well enough to recommend him to a certain R. Crossgrain, whose retro-looking business card promises: "Everything you require for the Modern Regressive Lifestyle." Even someone as astute as Walker, arguably Detroit's most literate P.I., has trouble translating that from gnomic to English, but he gets the gist. Crossgrain markets to the technologically challenged. Driven by the obligatory cash-flow problems, Walker pockets the card and calls on Crossgrain, who explains that a recent break-in has left him suddenly short 50 television converter boxes. What matters most about these boxes, it turns out, is they're hollow, a design feature eminently useful to career smugglers. In due time, it becomes clear to Walker that along with the converter boxes, a substantial amount of high-grade heroin is also missing. The bad guys who once owned it want it back, and they propose to fill body bags with obstructionists. Though Walker would prefer not to be numbered among these, he puts his own attitude succinctly: "Whenever I'm faced with a problem, I identify it, analyze it, and make it bigger."
Formulaic, to be sure, but steadfast marchers in Walker's army are not likely to complain.
Nothing ever wakes you up from a nightmare, have you noticed?
If you’re dreaming of eating strawberries or cutting a ceremonial ribbon or dining with Julia Roberts, you can depend on the alarm or the telephone or a hand on your shoulder to bust in before the payoff, but if your teeth are falling out or a grizzly is charging you, you’re in for the duration.
For a week I’d been chasing a car with a car chasing me, and then someone miscued and we all smashed up with me in the middle. I heard rubber howl and metal scream and the squishy crunch of bones breaking and when I woke up I tasted blood.
The latest collision was the same as all the rest. I came out of it with my leg hurting, a low-grade ache that would turn into hours of teeth-grinding agony if I didn’t catch it early. I took two Vicodin, chewing them to streamline their way into my circulatory system. The leg always lets me know when a solstice is coming. If you’d rather get that from a calendar, duck the next time someone shoots at you.
There was no sleep until the pills kicked in, and then only the same nightmare. I went into the kitchen, but there wasn’t enough coffee left in the can to open one eye.
It was a little short of four A.M. I pulled on a sweatshirt, mildewing jeans from the hamper, and a pair of sneakers, fired up the four-barrel, and drove between canals of dead leaves, crossing intersections where the signals blinked yellow. Away out in space the aircraft warning light on top of the Penobscot Building pulsed on and off, as distant as the Big Dipper. On one corner a man dressed exactly as I was sat on the curb among his duffels and tattered trash bags, eating something from a greasy paper cupped in both hands. He appeared to own more things than I did. These are the thoughts you think at that hour. They can’t be healthy.
A few corners down from there a Walgreen’s sat in a fluorescent blaze with a handful of cars drifted up against the building. I slid in beside a handicap space, passed through the sliding door, and heard my first Christmas carol of the year on the PA. It was late October and the center aisles were crowded with Halloween costumes and talking skulls.
An orange electric cord snaked between displays of candied peanuts and Trojans, at the end of which a man in blue coveralls was pushing a floor buffer as slowly as if he were sifting for land mines. I walked around him and turned the corner toward the pantry section. The midnight blue uniform of a Detroit patrol officer caught my eye by the tail. He was standing near the pharmacy counter with his back to the rest of the room, staring up at the convex mirror mounted in the corner near the ceiling. The attenuated reflections of the scattered customers slid across the surface, but he didn’t appear to be interested in the ones that were moving. He was focused on a skinny figure with his hands buried in the pockets of a hooded gray sweatshirt standing behind a woman being waited on at the counter near the door.
The cop was very big, very black, and I’d had business with him in the past, mostly of the friendly kind. His name was Sergeant Mansanard, but he’d been a detective lieutenant when we’d first met, which was too close to get to the chief when the administration changed. Now he pushed a cruiser through some of the city’s worst neighborhoods, frequently without a partner because the mayor had had to cough up a nine-million-dollar settlement for unlawfully terminating a number of Mansanard’s fellow officers for taking their oath too literally, and that had led to layoffs.
“You look like you was shit by a pigeon.” He didn’t glance away from the mirror. He’d probably seen me coming all the way from the parking lot.
“That’s good,” I said. “Can I use it?”
“Ask my watch captain. I got it from him.”
I joined him in the stakeout. We didn’t talk police business because voices carried among all those reflective surfaces.
The scrawny kid, if that’s what he was, put in a workout just standing there, twitching his shoulders and rolling his head on his neck and flexing his fists in his pockets. They opened onto a pouch that went across the front of his sweatshirt. It wasn’t long enough for a sawed-off shotgun, but pistols and revolvers come in all sizes. The woman in front of him, twice as broad in a red coat with a monkey collar, had heaped a stack of men’s shirts on plastic hangers on the counter and the clerk went through them one by one, scanning the tags and removing the hangers. I’d have fidgeted, too, but the weather was too mild to pull your hood up over your ears; that’s like a cloak of invisibility where surveillance cameras are concerned.
I was starting to feel sorry I’d left the .38 at home. Coffee prices weren’t so high I’d figured I’d need it.
At length the woman in the coat wrote out a check and the clerk processed it through his machine and stuffed the shirts in a plastic bag and Gray Hood stepped up and asked for a box of Marlboros. His tone fell somewhere between a mumble and silence. When the clerk asked for ID he took both hands out of his pockets. Mansanard’s thumb slid over the blunt hammer of the Beretta in his holster.
The pouch collapsed without support. The clerk peered at the driver’s license in the customer’s wallet and took a box off a shelf behind him.
Mansanard relaxed, but I stayed tense until money changed hands and the kid left.
“He might’ve implied he had a weapon,” I said.
“That only works in banks. I wish I had more banks on my beat. Clerk’s Korean. If he don’t have a mag at least under that counter his people would cast him out. We’ll just wait a bit. He might’ve been casing the place.”
“After showing ID?”
“If it wasn’t fake, maybe he don’t plan to leave the clerk in shape to remember it.”
Three minutes went by, and one transaction. They seemed longer. The sergeant turned my way with a grin. “That’s like a half hour in perp time,” he said. “They don’t have the attention span to follow a pie fight. Looks like the republic’s safe for a little longer. How are you, Amos, still reading room registers?”
“There’s no money in that in a no-fault divorce state.” I shook his hand. It could have wrapped twice around mine, a white pig in a black blanket, but the grip was barely there. The really big dogs hardly ever feel the need to show their teeth. “They got you on drugstore detail now?”
“Oh, hell, no. I just come in for a juice box. Funny, I thought about calling you tonight.”
“No boxes, sorry. I drink straight from the bottle.”
“This is work, maybe the paying kind.” He looked around. “Care to sit in the cruiser? These places give me the willies, especially at night. All the bad guys are out there in the dark and here you and me sit like a couple of Big Macs under a heat bulb.”
“I didn’t see a cruiser out front.”
“I parked out front, the scroats would just go to the next place down the road and stick it up. Might as well make myself useful.”
“A little, now they’re moving out of that dump downtown. I still got mold in my lungs.” He coughed into his fist by way of demonstration; something rattled deep in his chest. “I don’t miss timing my trips to the can so’s I don’t run into the chief. Now when nature calls I just radio it in and stop at a party store. Let’s go out and sit in the bucket.”
“As long as my friends don’t see me.”
“What friends you got, what’re the odds?”
We made our purchases and walked around the building to where he’d left his black-and-gold unit next to a Dumpster. Inside, the equipment jammed between the front seats crowded us against the doors: onboard computer, two-way radio, fax machine, piano bar. The winking green and red and amber lights cast his face in opalescent glow, piling shadows under the stony ridge of his forehead and in the hollow of his chin. When he pierced his box of grapefruit juice with a plastic straw and drew on it, the sides caved in and the corners of his police-issue moustache nearly touched. “What you taking for the leg, Demerol?”
“Vicodin. I didn’t think I’d limped.”
“You was trying too hard not to. I take Demerol for the back. They never will learn how to design these seats for no eight-hour tour.” He slurp-slurped. “I’d hate to have to bust you some night for possession.”
“So far it’s legal. I’ve got an understanding doctor.”
“That’s what the suburbs are for. Working late?”
“Not working lately. Business picks up around Devil’s Night.”
“Teenage runaways, mine. All you’ve got to worry about’s vandalism and arson.”
“Scraphounds now, too. Strip the copper plumbing out of empty houses, pry up manhole covers, snatch bronze angels from cemeteries and sell ’em to salvage yards. Dig the fillings out of your teeth if you pass out at a bus stop. Whole city’s got a bad case of metal-eating termites. If they could get to the suspension cables on the Ambassador Bridge we’d have to swim to Canada.”
“There’s always the tunnel.”
“I’ll take my chances in the water, not under it.”
I drummed my fingers on the top of the coffee can in the plastic bag in my lap. “Scavengers, is that the job?”
“That’s my job. Man can gripe, can’t he?” He took a business card out of a pocket of his leather tunic and held it out between his first and second fingers.
I took it. It was glossy red with gold letters. I had to turn it this way and that in the reading light to cut the glare. Mansanard siphoned grapefruit juice as I read.
“Everything you require for the Modern Regressive Lifestyle”
R. Crossgrain, Prop.
I turned it over. The back was blank. It was as spare as mine: no fax, cell, Web site, e-mail; just the street address and a landline. It was a collector’s item. “What’s the modern regressive lifestyle?”
“I ain’t just sure, but I think you’re living it.”
I got the rest of what I needed and then his straw gurgled and he crumpled the box in one fist and drove around to my car to save wear and tear on the leg, dropping the box in a curbside container on the way. I thanked him and we separated. Driving away I couldn’t shake the feeling I was still dreaming and heading toward that same triple smashup I’d been dreaming about for a week.
I never got the chance to tell Sergeant Mansanard what came of his tip. Four months later, on a mission to buy something flimsy for his wife for Valentine’s Day, he walked in on an armed robbery in the Victoria’s Secret store in the Fairlane Mall in Dearborn and took a slug through the heart before he could get to his holster.
Copyright © 2011 by Loren D. Estleman
Posted February 8, 2012
Estleman is at the top of his game here, riffing about Detroit the way Chandler did about LA in his Marlowe novels. Only a writer with imagination would use digital TV signal converter boxes as the basis for a smuggling operation. The story doesn't let up and has no fat in it. Only the end let me down a bit.I suspect there is a sequel somewhere down the road. Amos Walker may be the last of the great hard-boiled PIs, May he live long and prosper (but not enough to retire).
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Posted October 28, 2011
Posted July 11, 2011
In Detroit Reuben Crossgrain owns Past Presence where "Everything you require for the Modern Regressive Lifestyle" is for sale. He hires private investigator Amos Walker to recover 25 stolen TV converter boxes that allow the owner to watch HDTV on an analog set. Amos who is technological delinquent is a bit shocked with the job because the loss barely covers his retainer.
Walker works the mean streets of the Motor City seeking clues to the identities of the owners of these hot gizmos. However, the relatively easy inquiry turns nasty when his efforts reach his "friend" former Detroit police detective and current Homeland Security Operative Mary Ann Thaler. The case turns ugly when a key suspect and the person who lost the shipment are murdered; however that twist feels more at home to Walker than seeking gadgets he never heard of doing things to TV sets that should have rabbit ears. He begins to learn of a deadly heroin trafficking using Crossgrain's converter boxes.
The twenty-first Amos Walker private investigative thriller (see The Left-Handed Dollar) is a great tale that provides the usual deep look at the shrinking city that some believe has died; the state has not announced the wake. The story line is vintage Walker as he gets beat up and beats up others while corpses provide plenty of business for undertakers and body bag manufacturers. Fans will enjoy this modern day noir as the anti techie hero works plans to charge his client for his medical bills.