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Faces from the past are best left there. If, two hundred odd pages from now, you agree with me, this will all be worthwhile.
My lesson began while I was setting fire, or rather trying to set fire, to a Winston in just about the only place where it's still legal to do so, a public street corner. Specifically, it was the corner of Watson and Woodward, and a November gale was whistling toward Lake St. Clair that was just a couple of knots shy of the one that washed Superior over the Edmund Fitzgerald four years ago. I tugged down my hat to keep it from bouncing clear to Grosse Pointe, where it had no business being, swung my back into the wind, and was coaxing a steady flame out of my third match when the man to whom the aforementioned face belonged stepped out through the doorway in which I was huddled, bumped into me, and knocked the match out of my hand into the slush at my feet.
Back some more. For three weeks now I had been an employee of the Midwest Confidential Life, Automobile & Casualty Company in the capacity of investigator, which is my life's calling. Off and on for that same period I had been watching the man who lived on the second floor of the establishment on the opposite corner. This was a homely, soot-darkened building erected about the time Detroit was beginning to make something out of an adolescent auto industry, a crumbling structure that had somehow managed to retain its dignity in spite of the deterioration of the surrounding neighborhood and the garish legend on the marquee of the five-year-old movie theater on its ground floor: 24-HOUR ALL-MALE SEX SHOW. UNDER 18 NOT ADMITTED. Before that it had been a massage parlor and before that a flophouse, the natural fate in this town for a hotel that had begun its existence catering to the millionaires of another era. The gentleman in the apartment above the theater had filed suit against a client of Midwest Confidential's for injuries sustained in a fall which, he claimed, left him unable to walk without the aid of canes and a pair of steel braces on his calves. Medical tests having proved inconclusive, and it being company policy to investigate all claims, it fell to me to get the goods on the plaintiff, assuming that there were goods to be got.
The brand name was patience. Sometimes on foot, sometimes parked across the street in my heap, I had shot most of November keeping an eye on George Gibson's comings and goings in the hopes of catching him without those canes. In my pocket was a Kodak Instamatic 20, the best thing modern technology has come up with since the telephone tap, to record the event when and if it occurred. The Nikon in my car was a more reliable piece of equipment, but it wasn't as easy to conceal on my person, and I'll sacrifice quality any time if reaching for it might cost my cover.
Dry, grainy snow—the kind that usually falls in the city—heaped the sills of unused doorways and lined the gutters in narrow ribbons, where the wind caught and swept it winding like white snakes across the pavement, picking up crumples of muddy newspaper and old election campaign leaflets and empty condom wrappers and broken Styrofoam cups as it went, rattling them against the pitted sides of abandoned cars shunted up to the curb; weathering the corners off ancient buildings with bright-colored signs advertising various hetero- and homosexual entertainments; banging loose boards nailed over the windows of gutted stores defiled with skulls and crossbones and spray-painted graffiti identifying them as street-gang hangouts, Keep Out; buckling a billboard atop a brownstone two blocks south upon which a gaggle of grinning citizens gathered at the base of the Renaissance Center, near where its first suicide landed, urged me in letters a foot high to Take Another Look at Detroit. The air was as bitter as a stiffed hooker and smelled of auto exhaust.
I was prepared, when the match was jostled from my grip, to defend myself against the usual cluster of lean young blacks policing their turf, but was surprised when I swung around to find myself facing a well-fed Nordic type with gray eyes and blond hair wisping out from beneath the fake fur rim of an astrakhan-style hat. I was doubly surprised when, half a beat later, I recognized him.
It wasn't mutual. Scarcely glancing at me, he muttered a terse apology and pushed past, heading south in stiff, hurried strides. I watched his retreating back for a long moment, then, decisively, snapped away my cigarette, which I had nearly bitten through upon collision, and began following him. It didn't look as if Gibson was coming out again today, and the coincidence of literally bumping into someone I had last seen seven years ago in another hemisphere set my curiosity ticking.
Wherever he was going, he was either already late or didn't want to be. Twice more he came close to running into pedestrians as he threaded his way through the sidewalk traffic, eyes skimming the street in search of a cab, and once he was forced to do a wild Charleston to keep from falling when he slipped on an icy patch. Not that the narrow escapes made him any more cautious. If anything, he stepped up his pace as if to make up for the lost time. I followed at what the spy novelists call a discreet distance, which means I almost broke my own neck trying to keep him in sight.
I'd be younger now if he'd caught that cab. Then I would have lost him and gone home and maybe read about him in the papers later and sat there reminiscing for a few minutes, and that would have been the end of it. I was to wish that he had, before much more time had passed. But there were no cabs in sight, and I'll always blame Checker for everything that happened afterward.
I tailed him to Adelaide—scene of crusading reporter Jerry Buckley's gangland-style execution in 1930—where he finally spotted one of the yellow cabs and was stepping out to flag it down when a blue Nova that I hadn't noticed pulled over from Woodward's outside lane to box him in between two parked cars. He hesitated a moment, then, cursing, reversed directions and started to hasten around one of the cars when a man on the passenger's side of the offending vehicle climbed out and called his name. The nasal voice was pure Rhett Butler.
At the sound of his name, my quarry stopped and turned. This gave the man who had been driving the Nova time to circle the parked car and approach him from behind. This one and his companion looked enough alike to be brothers. Beefy and nose-heavy, they both wore dark suits beneath gray topcoats with black ties and slicked their longish, dirty blond hair back greaser-style, the way a lot of them still do down south. The driver was larger and older, but aside from that they could have been twins.
A low conversation ensued, during which I stepped into a doorway—force of habit—and pretended to be using its shelter to fire up a fresh fag while I watched. As I did so, a young, well-dressed woman who happened to be passing turned to give me the evil eye. I got it going and grinned at her through the smoke.
"Don't get the wrong impression," I said brightly. "It's marijuana." That didn't set any better with her. She kept moving.
I wasn't able to hear what the three were saying, but it was pretty obvious by their tones and gestures that my old acquaintance was burned about something and the others were trying to mollify him. After a few seconds of this the younger of the two rednecks placed a hand on the third man's arm as if to escort him to the car. The latter appeared to go along willingly. That's how it appeared. I'd been an MP for three years and I knew better. I recognized a no-resistance hold when I saw one; with that grip on his elbow it was either move or learn to get along with a stiff arm the rest of his life. The driver had an identical grasp on its mate. Together they led him to the car like a whipped spaniel.
At the last moment, when the back door was open and they were putting him inside, the younger of the abductors let slide his grip and their prisoner started to struggle, but the former put a stop to that in a hurry with a short, well-aimed jab just below the ribcage. It was an immobilizing blow. The captive stiffened and the two folded him into the seat and the younger man climbed in beside him and pulled shut the door in less time than it takes to tell it. Then his companion walked back around to the driver's side, slid in behind the wheel, and drove off south without so much as a chirp of rubber on the windswept asphalt.
It was a honey of a snatch. If you weren't watching closely it was just another car pool picking up a passenger on the way home from work. I probably drew more attention standing there in the middle of the sidewalk scribbling down the license plate number in my dog-eared pocket notebook than did the incident itself, which may or may not be a commentary on the attitude Detroiters have toward crime, depending upon whether you're working for the newspapers or the mayor.
I looked around for a cab, but I needn't mention what came of that. Then I made my way to the nearest public telephone, which wasn't near enough, and punched the right sequence of buttons to connect me with police headquarters. That beat hell out of the physical labor involved in spinning an old-fashioned dial. I asked for Lieutenant John Alderdyce, and after I had repeated the request for the benefit of a pair of hollow-voiced female receptionists, the lieutenant's deep tones came onto the line.
"John, this is Amos Walker. I need a license plate number traced in a hurry."
"Call the Secretary of State's office."
"I don't know anyone there. That's why I called you."
"What's the beef?"
"Call the Feds."
"Quit screwing around, John. I'm talking about life or death." That sounded like the set-up line to an old joke. I tried again. No, there was only one way to say it. I sketched out what I had seen. There was a pause before he spoke. Talking to him on the telephone, you'd never guess he was black. He grew up on the middle-class West Side and was educated at the University of Michigan, where competition with white students left him with little of the relaxed drawl his parents' generation brought north during World War II.
"Can you describe the victim?" he asked.
"Better than that. I can give you his name."
"Damned thoughtful of him to introduce himself." There was an edge to his tone.
"The guy was my company commander in Nam. That's why I was following him. Captain Francis Kramer, age forty, give or take a year, five-ten, five-eleven, a hundred and ninety pounds, blond hair, gray eyes—you getting all this?"
"Wouldn't miss it."
I described the abductors and the car they were driving, finishing with the license plate number. "Look," I said, "if you won't trace it for me you can at least put it through regular channels. I'm not after any favors."
"How many saw this besides you?"
"Nobody?" Disbelief coupled with anger. "On Woodward at five-thirty in the afternoon? Who the hell are you trying to kid? The last time that happened was during the riots."
"I didn't say there was nobody else there. They just didn't see it."
"And you did."
"I was looking for it. I'm telling you, these guys were pros."
"I'll give it to the boys in General Service."
"Why can't you handle it?"
"I'm Homicide. I've got my hands full with the Freeman Shanks killing. Don't worry, I'll ask them to take special care with this one, seeing as how you and Kramer were friends. I wouldn't do it if our fathers hadn't been partners. I don't hate you yet, Walker, but give me time."
I let that slide. "We weren't friends. I just don't like to see people snatched on public streets in broad daylight. It makes me wonder who's next."
"Stay available. General Service will want to talk to you."
"I've an answering service and a beeper, if the batteries are still good," I assured him. "Any leads in the Shanks thing?"
"Several hundred. Which is why I'll be a member in good standing of the Detroit Yacht Club before it's solved. Unless you know something about that too?" It was sarcasm, but backed with desperation. The investigation into the August shooting of the popular black labor leader was in its third month and both the News and the Free Press were screaming for action or certain officials' scalps.
"Who killed Jimmy Hoffa?" I said.
"Go to hell, Walker." The line went dead.CHAPTER 2
Come and visit me sometime in my little shack just west of Hamtramck, but don't bring too many Poles with you; the neighborhood is predominantly Ukrainian and ancient antagonisms die hard. It's a one-story frame dwelling, built during the great European famine in the 1920s, when refugees came here in droves, and boasts a bath, a bedroom, a combined living room and dining area big enough for one or the other but not both, and a full kitchen, currently an endangered species. It's not the lobby of the Detroit Plaza, but it's still more space than one person needs. Maybe when we know each other better I'll tell you about the person who used to share it with me. In any case, it will suit me until the taxes eat me alive.
I got home just in time to catch the meat of the six o'clock news on Channel 4, the part that comes after the first commercial when the sweetness and light they like to lead off with these days is over. There was nothing about Francis Kramer. Channels 2 and 7 had just as much to say on the subject, but then unlike 4 they generally line up the hard stuff for their first pitch and I might have missed it. I'd bought the evening editions of the News and Free Press, but I didn't expect to find him there. They had hit the street about the time he was taking that jab in the liver.
Dinner was with Mrs. Paul, or maybe it was Birdseye; once the label's off they all defrost the same. Not that I can't cook, but every now and then it's nice to see that somewhere someone's following a set pattern. Peas in one place, meat in another, little round potatoes all lined up like lead soldiers in neat rows. I broke them up with one deft stab of my fork.
My digestive juices were massing for the kill when I returned to the television set. The Canadian station carried hockey and I watched a couple of minutes of that, but they staged one fight too many and I switched it off. If I wanted to see human nature at its worst I'd go back to the news. I'm talking about the fans, not the players.
I considered putting a 78 on the J. C. Penney stereo but veteoed it. My collection of jazz and early rock had been a source of some pride before the divorce settlement left me with just a bunch of records. I could do without the depression playing one would bring on.
Out of sheer boredom I consulted the listing and struck paydirt. Bogart was on Channel 50's Eight O'Clock Movie. The Barefoot Contessa, not one of his best. But what the hell, it was Bogart. I had an hour and a half to kill before it came on. I settled into my only easy chair for a systematic and intelligent reading of the Free Press, starting with "Beetle Bailey."
The telephone hollered just as Rossano Brazzi stepped out of the bushes with Ava Gardner's corpse in his arms. I gave it its head until the credits flashed on the screen, by which time it was winding up for its seventh ring.
"Amos Walker?" A nothing voice, not young, not old. But definitely male. I confirmed his suspicion.
"Ben Morningstar wishes to speak with you."
My grip didn't crack the receiver; that would be an exaggeration. But it came close. Ben Morningstar wasn't someone you spoke with on the telephone. He was a name in Newsweek, a photograph taken at a funeral by a G-man with a telephoto lens across the street, a pair of nervous hands fiddling with a package of Lucky Strikes in a Congressional hearing room on television in the early fifties. He was Anthony Quinn in a thinly veiled role that had never hit the theaters because the lawyers had it all tied up. He was the brass ring for every government prosecutor with his eye on the Attorney General's office. To Hymie "the Lip" Lipschitz, a smalltime bootlegger and numbers book forgotten except in an old Warner Brothers whitewash they keep bringing back on the late show, he was eighty pounds of cement and a lungful of Detroit River. After a couple of seconds, disguised as an hour, I found voice enough to say, "I'm listening."
"Mr. Morningstar doesn't use the telephone," explained the voice. "We'll send a car for you."
Excerpted from Motor City Blue by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1980 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted February 13, 2013
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