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Someone had disinterred “Big John” from the back of the vintage Rock-Ola. Jimmy Dean’s bass struck bedrock on the big, bad refrain, buzzing the speakers and rippling the surface of my Carling Black Label, the muscatel of bottled beer. The neon tubing behind the bar cast rose-petal light over everything.
Spike’s Keg o’ Nails smelled of beer and cedar and mothballs, the last from the blaze-orange and red-and-black-check coats that had hung in upstairs closets from January to November. Two hunters with sooty eleven o’clock shadows taught body English to the shuffleboard table and some smoke-cured campers from outside town trumped one another at euchre with loud oaths every time a card smacked their table. A graying couple danced, dressed identically in jeans and flannel, and a waitress built like Johnny Bravo fox-trotted between crowded tables hoisting a cityscape of longnecks on a round tray. It was opening day of firearms deer season in Grayling, Michigan, where they close the schools as if it’s the Fourth of July, and I was the only relatively sober customer on the premises. Even the ninety-year-old moose head on the wall was listing slightly to the left.
Spike’s hadn’t changed a tick since I was fourteen and hunting with my father and his friends, and he’d said then it hadn’t changed in twenty years. He’d pointed out the corner where he’d once seen Cesar Romero, grinning dazzlingly in his three-day whiskers and ordering rounds for his rumpled party. What might have been the same rickety table and captain’s chairs were now occupied by a heavyset blonde with a map of every motel in the northern Lower Peninsula on her face and three National Guardsmen in fatigues from Camp Grayling, plying her with beers. She was older than any two of them combined and looked as if she could drink off a case with one hand and arm-wrestle all three of them with the other. She’d practiced on Cesar and his friends.
I wasn’t hunting deer, although I’d dressed for the part in a woolen shirt and lace-up boots and let my beard grow for two days to fit in. A lawyer in Royal Oak had hired my agency of one to find a man named Hegelund and keep him in sight until an officer could arrest him on a warrant for nonpayment of child support. He’d quit his job, canceled his credit cards, and left town, and his ex-wife was at the top of the list of people who hadn’t heard from him since June. But he hadn’t missed an opening day in Grayling in seven years. Going after deadbeats is a lot like deer hunting: You pick your spot, sit tight, and wait for your trophy to come along. Sooner or later everyone passed through Spike’s on his way to the woods.
My heart wasn’t in it. The lawyer’s client had gotten the house, the car, and the dog, and the sixteen-year-old daughter had moved in with her thirty-seven-year-old boyfriend in Clarkston. Hegelund had walked away from the marriage after years of stagnant counseling, giving up grounds, and hadn’t contested a single claim. The picture in my pocket showed a tired face with white flags all over it. Hunting him was like cutting the weak and aged from the herd. But I had winter taxes to pay and deadbeat dads are 15 percent of my income.
An hour before closing, the hardcore sportsmen who got up at 5:00 a.m. started evaporating, the juke ran out of dead country singers and sausage tycoons, and the clinking bottles and loud card tournament became the only ambient noises in the room. Then the piano began to tinkle.
I hadn’t even known the place had one, but there it was, a basic upright no one had tuned since the moose had reached the age of consent. The party seated on the bench was built close to the ground and wide across the back, like the concrete stop at the end of a railroad. He had a full head of chestnut-colored hair, razored carefully at the nape, and wore a brown leather Windbreaker too thin for the North Country and tan cords rubbed shiny in patches, scuffed white high-tops on his feet. He wasn’t my man, but I recognized him from behind. I got up and carried my beer over.
“I wouldn’t wear that outfit into the woods.” I parked the bottle next to his glass on top of the piano. “You could wind up on the buck pole downtown.”
Jeff Starzek didn’t look up. His glass wasn’t for drinking. It was filled with clear liquid, probably water, and reflected most of the room like a convex mirror. That wasn’t any more an accident than his fingering. He was playing Rachmaninoff. I could tell, because there were too many notes and they were batting away at one another like hockey players. “They better shoot fast. I can do eighty on those sand trails.”
“Still driving that Charger?”
“Challenger.” His stubby fingers scampered across the bridge. “Not anymore. I cracked the block in Kentucky. It’s hard to read a ‘Water Over the Road’ sign when you’re topping a hill at a hundred and five.”
“You must’ve been running hot for some time.”
“Still am. How about you, Amos? Still climbing trellises?”
“I’m climbing one now.”
“Not mine. I wouldn’t have seen you coming.”
“You’re federal game,” I said. “I can’t meet their dress code.”
“I can outrun the feds okay. These days they’re spread pretty thin. It’s the troopers I have to watch out for. That new tax hike’s got them all angling for commander.”
I asked him what he was driving. He smiled at the keys. He had a moon face and a delicately curved mouth with hard muscles at the corners. A lock of hair broke over his left eyebrow. No face or body looked less like Ben Affleck’s, yet women responded to him. It wasn’t the danger, because he didn’t tell them what he did for a living. He didn’t talk much at all, in fact, which may have been the secret. People who don’t have a lot to say get the reputation of being good listeners. In his case it was true. But he could always talk about cars.
“Hurst Olds,” he said. “Sixty-nine.”
“Four fifty-five. I’ve got that in my Cutlass.”
“I bought it for the trunk. I can squeeze in a dozen more cartons than I could in the Dodge.” He screwed up his face. “You think you could blow that somewhere else?”
I’d lit a cigarette. I laid it in a tray on an empty table. “What are you hauling?”
“Kiddie cigs. Marlboros.”
“You smuggle ’em, but you don’t smoke ’em?”
“Ever hear of Larry Fay?”
“Old-time song-and-dance man.”
“That’s Eddie Foy. Fay was a big-time bootlegger in New York during Prohibition. Never touched a drop.”
“Rumrunners are a lot more popular now than Big Tobacco.”
“Better PR. And I’m not big.”
I’d met Jeff Starzek when he was running interference for truckloads of cargo hijacked from Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He’d painted his 1970 Dodge Challenger a shade of orange you could see from outer space and averaged thirty miles over the speed limit all the way to Chicago, drawing cops, like Buster Keaton, toward him and away from the big rigs and their contraband. He had more license suspensions than a drunken congressman and no convictions for anything more serious than reckless driving. At the time I’d been tracing a teenage runaway who’d mixed himself up with the operation. If Starzek hadn’t broken precedent and told me what I’d needed to know, the kid might have gone on jumping from one felony to another until he wound up behind chain-link and razor wire. He might have anyway, for all I knew, but I returned him to his parents for however long he stayed.
The next time I’d seen Starzek, he’d gone into business for himself, hauling much smaller shipments of cigarettes bought in lower-tax states and on Indian reservations where no taxes were paid and selling them to wholesalers and party stores at a profit. The merchants sold the cigarettes over the counter and pocketed the amount that would have gone to Lansing. That time, the smuggler was a client; someone had sold a store in Eastpointe a case of menthols laced with pesticide, Starzek had been arrested on a tip, and although charges were dropped for lack of evidence, the family of a customer who’d died of poisoning had brought civil suit against Starzek, who claimed he’d never done business in Eastpointe. Everything I turned pointed to the store manager’s son-in-law, who’d stolen the case from a shipment targeted for destruction after a crop-dusting blunder in Virginia.
By then, of course, Starzek was known to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and just repainting his Challenger an unassuming brown wasn’t enough to keep agents from hauling him over and running him through the system.
“I thought you’d retired,” I said.
“Diversified is the word.” He trilled a finger down the keyboard Jerry Lee Lewis style. “I’m carrying something else back down the coast.”
“I won’t ask what.”
“Honestly, who cares?”
I gave him the point. It wasn’t anything to me whether he smuggled Lucky Strikes or fake Beanie Babies. The tax just went into the bail fund for state senators.
I swigged beer. It was warm already. The bar was overheated, like every other place up there in late fall. “Well, good luck. That lake effect from Chicago’s a bitch when it snows.”
“Wrong coast. I like the little towns on Huron. Everybody minds his own business and the feds stick out like ears on a frog.”
“In nineteen-fifty, maybe. They’re as suspicious as in the city.”
The square-shouldered waitress box-stepped our way to announce last call. Starzek, who hadn’t touched his water, shook his head. I was looking at my watch and wondering if waiting twenty more minutes would make any difference when Hegelund came in.
His face looked sadder and more tired under an orange cap with a buck silhouetted on the front. He wore a camouflage coat with splashes of orange on it and insulated boots that flapped about his ankles. I ordered another beer and started back to my table, not making eye contact.
Maybe I was too conscientious about it. You try to make your mind blank, just in case there’s something to telepathy, but prey always has the advantage. Hegelund didn’t know me from J.D. Salinger, but he stopped when he saw me, turned around, and trotted back out. I gave him fifteen seconds, then left cash for the beers including the one I had coming and followed, casual as a picnic.
I’d parked in the dirt lot next to the building, pale under the phantom glow of a mercury bulb with a light dusting of snow. My breath curled. There among the campers, pickups, and RVs was Starzek’s Hurst/Olsmobile, painted light blue—that year’s version of plain brown—and built along the lines of my Cutlass, but with twin scoops punched into the hood. He’d have reinforced the springs to keep the rear end from sagging under its load and bolted the bumpers with angle irons to the frame, in order to run roadblocks and sustain ramming from behind. I didn’t get down to look. It would have a new transmission and a rebuilt engine. Everything else that might have slowed him down—radio, heater, rear seat, spare tire—would have been stripped away. It was a power plant on wheels, with space for cargo and an operator.
Hegelund was driving an eight-year-old Jeep Cherokee, parked on the edge of the lot near the street. The lawyers hadn’t left him enough to buy anything younger. Rust had nibbled at the wheel wells and someone had taped thick plastic over a missing window in back. He’d had luck; a shaggy spikehorn buck lay on the roof, lashed in place with clothesline around its hooves fore and aft. Shaking loose my keys, I watched Hegelund out of the corner of my eye as he bent to reach into the backseat. I was walking down a rutted aisle between rows of cars.
I heard the crash and felt the jolt when my shoulder hit the ground. My leg never felt the impact and for an instant I thought I’d slipped on a patch of ice. Then I felt the numbness below my waist and knew I’d taken a lead slug big enough to change my life. I began to float away from the light. The second crash belonged to something that had no connection with me.
Copyright © 2006 by Loren D. Estleman