Read an Excerpt
By Loren D. Estleman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
Candy-apple red GTO.
Steel front, divided grille, stacked headlights, 389 V-8 engine under a Tempest hood. Bench seats, for chrissake, and a chicken-leg family-car steering wheel, in partnership with a mill and four-speed trans that cried out for bucket seats and padded leather.
Every time Rick took it out he wanted to pull into a garage somewhere, gut the interior, and do it over in black leather-grain Naugahyde, punch a hole in the hood and drop in real twin scoops in place of the factory dummy. Let the big 389 breathe.
Instead he drove it down to the corner and washed and rinsed it for fifty cents and parked it behind the bays and Turtle-Waxed it and brought it home.
He was pulling down the garage door when Mrs. Hertler came out of the house and stood in front of him, kneading her hands in her apron. She always did that when she had something unpleasant to pass along, a nasty job that needed doing or a visit from one of Rick's old associates.
Except when she went out, in her cloth coat and gray felt teardrop hat with a blue feather in the band, he had never seen her without an apron. She was a gravity-bound woman of Eastern European background with hair like copper wire pulled back and twisted into a knot behind her head. Her eyes were a startling blue in the faded face.
"Bob is coming home," she said.
He turned the door handle, locking it, and straightened. "When?"
"Next week, Tuesday or Wednesday. They're discharging him a month early. He thinks he can get a ride on a mail plane." She kneaded. "I'm sorry, Rick."
"You shouldn't be. It's always good news when a son comes home from the army."
"Do you think you can find a place?"
"Sure. The only reason I haven't looked before this is I got spoiled by the rent. I'd have been glad to pay more."
"No, I liked having someone in Bob's room. And I know he'll be grateful you took such good care of his car. He's so proud of it."
Then why didn't he pop for a four-barrel carburetor instead of air conditioning? Aloud Rick said, "I've enjoyed it. I like cars." He paused. "I'll miss your cooking."
"You don't have to. You'll always be welcome at our table." As she said it—"our table"—he knew the invitation would never come to anything. The presence at home of Specialist Robert C. Hertler would cut whatever cord bound Mrs. Hertler and Rick Amery. She let her apron fall. "Are you home for dinner tonight?"
"I thought I'd go to the movies. If it's all right. I know I just had the car out."
"Take it, you don't have to ask permission. Are you going with someone? Julie?"
"No, I thought I'd go alone."
"I liked Julie," she said. "I thought—well. I guess I have to be someone's mother, don't I? What are you going to see?"
"Grand Prix. It's playing at the Galaxy."
"Isn't that a long way to go to see a movie? I'm sure it's playing somewhere closer."
"Not at a drive-in. It's going to be too nice a night to stay indoors." He didn't tell her he preferred to watch racing pictures from behind the wheel. Putting it into words would have made it sound as stupid as it probably was. Anyway, he had just plucked the title and theater out of his memory when asked which picture he was going to; he'd seen it advertised in the Free Press but hadn't thought about going until that moment. He had planned on staying in before hearing the news about Bob.
"Well, if you change your mind." She shrugged in the continental fashion, without sarcasm, and went inside. The screen door wheezed against the pressure of the spring and clapped shut. He suspected she wasn't fooled.
He took the outside staircase to the room he'd been using on the second floor of the frame saltbox. Mrs. Hertler had explained that her late husband had built the steps and cut the outside door into Bob's room when their son, attending the University of Detroit then, complained about lack of privacy. That was the point where Rick had decided he wouldn't like Bob. Grown men who lived with their parents held no place on his private scale. Grown men who lived with someone else's mother rated scarcely higher.
The room was large and comfortable, with a west window and its own bath and a double bed under the slant of the roof. The dresser, massive in black walnut with a mirror framed in Baroque gilt cherubs, had come across the Atlantic with Mrs. Hertler and now belonged to Bob, whose other possessions had been moved to the basement when Rick took the room. Most of his own possessions were in storage at his sister's house and had been since he was forced to give up his apartment in Redford Township. Everything in the room that belonged to him he had carried there in two suitcases, one of them borrowed from his sister. She had offered to make room for him as well as his furniture, but the offer had not been as sincere as his hatred for his brother-in-law and so was easy to decline.
Answering Mrs. Hertler's Free Press classified last summer, Rick had seen the GTO parked in the garage with the door open, its tires soft and a skin of gritty dust on the finish, and had convinced her of the wisdom of getting someone to drive and maintain her son's car while he was away. She had offered to knock twenty dollars off the rent if he agreed to do this. The deal was set before he had even seen the room. But he would have agreed to it without the discount and stuck to the bargain even if his quarters had turned out to be a hovel. As he had said, he liked cars.
Which was the source of all his troubles.
He stretched out on top of the bedspread in his clothes and read Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels until the light through the window faded, when he didn't bother to switch on the bedside lamp to read further. The book was a disappointment: not enough bike stuff. He lay there for a while with the book open facedown on his chest and his eyes closed, not sleeping nor trying to, then put on the lamp and showered and pulled on black chinos and a red sport shirt and his P. F. Flyers and picked up the keys to the Pontiac on his way out.
At thirty-seven, Rick Amery looked twenty and was routinely carded when he ordered a drink in a bar. He was less than six feet tall but seemed taller because of his spare, hipless build. He cut his sandy hair aggressively short to stand out from the proliferation of long-haired teenagers and wore aviator's glasses with graphite rims when he drove; these had a maturing effect on his features. In the car he slid them from their visor clip, checked them for dust, and put them on. The amber lenses gave the gathering shadows a coffee tint.
He didn't go to the movies. Instead he took a succession of side streets to Woodward, emptying now of rush-hour traffic, and started down toward Jefferson, teasing and bullying the big engine by turns to avoid stoplights. At that hour, as the light shed by the gooseneck streetlamps whetted its edges on the granite dusk, the pavement turned rich black, like the clean surface of a long-playing record. He felt as if his tires were rolling across virgin asphalt, leaving a clear intaglio behind.
At Warren he missed the yellow by two seconds and stopped with a squelch of rubber. While he was waiting, listening clinically to the dub-dub-dub of the GTO at idle, a black '66 Mustang cruised up next to him in the outside lane. He could see the streaks of glue on the little backseat window where the price sticker had been peeled off. The car's long hood and spoiler rear made its profile a shallow wedge, like a shark's.
A sudden gunning of the Mustang's engine drew his attention to the driver, for him the least important component of any car. He saw a man in his early twenties wearing mirrored glasses and a lot of black hair pushed back behind his ears, grinning at him. The engine roared again.
It wasn't the first time Rick had been invited to drag on Woodward. The avenue's broad expanse was like a strip, as straight and flat as an airplane runway and divided into blocks of equal size. The V-8 Pontiac—even the early model Rick drove, wider and boxier than later GTOs and loaded down with chrome—just naturally attracted challengers. Maybe it was the scarlet paint job. He returned his gaze to the windshield. He never raced.
The window on the driver's side of the Mustang squeaked down. The kid with the hair was shouting something. Rick looked at him again.
"Ford's town, asshole! Crap or get off the can!"
Rick turned his head just as the light changed.
He popped the clutch and squashed the footpedal to the firewall.
The swell of the 389 boxed his ears. The tires shrieked, bit, and hurled the car forward; Rick felt the sickening lift and jar as the front wheels left the earth and slammed down. The steering wheel yanked his arms straight, his neck whipped, and the gray Detroit scenery became a white wipe.
He didn't look to see if the Mustang was keeping pace. This kind of driving required two hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. He shifted without being aware that he was shifting. The changes in pitch were like gulps of oxygen.
They tore across Hancock, nicked a red light at Forest, and closed in on Garfield seconds too late for the yellow. Rick clutched and braked, baring his teeth at the cry of tires. To his right the Mustang, a beat behind, barely slowed and took the corner on two wheels and a fingernail. The phrase sore loser came to Rick just before he saw the red throbbing in his mirror. The wail of the siren reached him then like a crucial piece of information remembered too late.
He had the registration out of the glove compartment and his driver's license in his hand when the officer approached, a big man in the loose blue uniform with brown leather patches whose design hadn't changed in Rick's memory. The officer hovered just behind the window post with his fingers on the black rubber butt of the Smith & Wesson in his holster. His head was somewhere above the Pontiac's roof.
"Who's your friend, punk?"
"We weren't introduced."
The silence was long enough to tell him that that was the wrong answer.
Finally the officer accepted the items Rick had been holding through the open window. A flashlight snapped on.
"Your name's Richard Amery?"
"Who's this Robert Hertler on the registration?"
"My landlady's son. I'm taking care of the car while he's away."
"He know how you're taking care of it?"
Rick said nothing to that.
"Hold on. Are you Rick Amery?"
He caught the officer's change in tone.
"Most of the time," he said.
"Hell, I didn't know you. I guess you don't remember me either." Abandoning the safety zone behind the window post, the officer stepped forward and bent down, framing his face in the window. Rick turned on the domelight. A broad face, not young but not yet middle-aged, with a thick brown moustache rounded off at the ends. Rick didn't know him.
"Roger Kornacki," the officer said. "I was the officer on the scene on that nun killing at St. Benedict's."
Three years ago. "Oh, hello."
They shook hands. Kornacki's was twice the size of Rick's, a big red palm built for wrapping around the handle of a welding torch at Dodge Main.
"That was some kill, that was. I lit a candle every Sunday for a month, but we never got the son of a bitch." The big face flickered. "I'm sure sorry about that punk crack. I thought you were one of these dumb kids."
"No, just dumb."
Kornacki handed back the license and registration. "Saves me a lecture. So what are you doing these days?"
"Piecework. Mechanics mostly."
After a short pause a throat cleared. "Well. Lay off the foot-feed, okay? We got to set an example, Christ knows why."
"I didn't even hear you coming. When's the department going to install those new yelpers?"
"Commissioner says we're getting all-new Pontiacs next spring."
"Just as soon as Rock Hudson gets into Doris Day's pants."
Kornacki brayed. "You nailed that one. Well, remember what I said. It was good seeing you, Sarge."
The light had changed several times while they were talking. When it turned green again Rick went ahead without looking back at the blue-and-white.
It had been ten months and two days since he had been forced to throw in his shield.CHAPTER 2
Barry McGuire singing. Singing very low in that broken-gravel Dylan voice, saying someone was telling him he didn't believe we're on the eve of destruction. But the lyrics weren't audible at that volume, only the buzz of the bass and the thump of the drums, making the tiny illuminated legend FM STEREO on the dial flicker with each note that fell below the staff.
The department band radio was also turned very low. The bored, one-sided conversations that lisped intermittently from the speaker weren't intelligible to civilian ears. Lew Canada, who had not been a civilian since Corregidor, monitored the calls while watching the fire door in the alley across from the weedy lot where his Plymouth Fury was parked. The car was unmarked, black, with minimal chrome, only the concave grille gleaming softly in the reflected light, like the meshed teeth of one of those undersea predators that swim aimlessly with their mouths gaping, scooping up plankton and small creatures as they go.
The two radio frequencies belched and crackled like the digestive tract of that same animal. It made Canada, who knew nothing of the sea, think of evenings on his Uncle Herman's beet farm in Mecosta County, lying with his head on the chest of Dolf, Herman's bull mastiff, and listening to the double crash of the dog's great heart pumping blood through arteries as thick as packing cord. Dead thirty years now, Dolf, the farm whose boundaries he marked with one leg in the air gone to the developers. But Uncle Herman lived, a hostage to his decomposing body, in a nursing home in Stockbridge, listening to the sounds of his own heart and waiting. When had Canada visited him last? Long enough ago to have forgotten its occasion. Canada had shot Dolf himself when the dog grew too old to walk without whimpering. That was the major advantage animals had over humans.
"You buy that, Inspector?"
He looked quickly at the man sitting behind the wheel. He wondered for a moment if he'd spoken his thoughts aloud. In the shadows, Sergeant Esther was a dark pile of inertia in a coat too heavy for late spring and a hat with a brim too broad for 1966, who always smelled of Ben-Gay. "Buy what?"
The sergeant gestured toward the radio. "What the pukes say. The end of the world and like that. Think there's anything to it?"
"Kid stuff. They always think the fun's going to be over before they can get in on it."
"I don't know. That thing in Cuba had me scared shitless for days."
"It came out okay."
"Then some puke goes and shoots Kennedy."
"What do you care? You voted for Nixon."
"Doesn't mean I wanted some asshole to scatter his brains all over his wife's dress. Talk about your hard-to-get-out stains." Esther shifted his weight on the seat. The car leaned over on its springs. "The other day my daughter came home and called me a pig."
"Did you hit her?"
"Not hard enough. If I ever called my old man a name like that I'd still be walking funny. That cocksucking Spock book Beth brought home when she was pregnant screwed us for life. The scroat raises his own army of spoiled little sons of bitches, then marches them on Washington to protest the fucking war. It'd do the little bastards good to ship out and worry about getting their balls shot off."
"I wouldn't wish combat on Khrushchev."
Esther cleared his throat. "Sorry, Inspector. I was just talking."
"They're just kids. They like to listen to that monkey music and light up reefers and get their little carrots dipped. They'll grow out of it."
"You got kids, Inspector?"
"Not in my worst nightmare."
"I got three, and the only time they grow out of anything is when they grow into something worse."
Canada made no response and the pair settled into a mulch of silence. They had been watching the alley for an hour and a half. Two stray dogs had entered it an hour apart, sniffed around the base of the two painted trash cans standing by the fire door, then moved on. In between them an emaciated Negro in a streaked World War II army coat whom Esther vaguely recognized from some time or other in the squad room at 1300 had stumbled in, taken something from one of the cans the dogs had snubbed, and stumbled out after a minute wiping his hands on his coat. There had been no other activity. The alley ran behind an auto parts store on Gratiot.
Excerpted from Motown by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1991 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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