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Ispotted Merlin Gilly standing against the empty space where the Hotel LaSalle had stood two minutes earlier. It was a bum trade.
The hotel had been a going concern in July 1930, when Jerry Buckley signed off his radio broadcast at midnight, went down to the lobby to meet a woman, and was met instead by three men in silk suits who shot him eleven times. They never identified the woman and they never found the shooters, but the memorial service on Belle Isle lit up the sky on both sides of the Canadian border. That was when Detroit was run by the Irish, who thought a wake was better than a trial any day.
In the decades since, the LaSalle had hit all the landings on the slippery back stairs of modern history: residential hotel, home for the aged, crack house, and blackened shell in the biggest ghost town this side of Sarajevo. Pigeons sailed in through the missing windowpanes and cartwheeled back out on a contact high from the angel dust blowing about inside. The time had come to end its suffering.
The new mayor, dapper in a borsalino hat, tan Chesterfield with gray suede patches on the lapels, and gray kid gloves, said a few words on the order of Detroit rising from its ashes, then squashed down the red button on a remote control the size of a pocket Webster's. Following a shuddery pause, the joints of the scabby old girders blew out, starting at the cigar stand and walking up toward the presidential suite. Beneath the concussions there was a long, silvery tinkle of several tons of rose-tinted mirrors collapsing inside, but for a moment after the final charge went off everything was silent. It appeared as if the construction methods of the turn of the last century were more than a match for the high-tech demolitions of the millennium. But it was just mortal shock. All eighteen stories slid into the foundation in a single sheet, like a magician's velvet cloth. Dust--marble and mahogany, gold leaf and leaded glass, horsehair plaster and cut crystal, and worm-eaten Florentine tessellate--rolled out from the bottom and settled over the galoshes of the TV reporters, car-crash buffs, police officers, and pickpockets watching from outside the yellow tape.
When it was over, they applauded, whistled, and cheered as if the relic were making way for a school or a free clinic. A casino was going in next year, or the year after that if the Japanese held out. Until then it would be just another vacant lot in a city with more empty spaces in its skyline than a goal-tender's grin.
Snow covered the ground. The old mayor was in Intensive Care once again, corrupted finally to his vital organs; the spot in front of Henry Ford Hospital where the local news crews shot their stand-ups was beginning to look like a buzzard aviary. His legacy was everywhere. New York and Orlando had placed campaign contributions as carefully as the dynamite men had laid their charges, clearing space in the moral landscape for legalized gambling. The police were beefing up the Domestic Violence Unit for the statistical upsurge once the rent money started disappearing into slot machines. Two new stadiums we didn't need were going in downtown, J. L. Hudson's department store was next in line for destruction, and a couple of dozen long-established businesses were packing their inventories to make room for the chains.
They called it Renaissance. I called it opportunity; but then no one comes to me with work when he's happy.
"Walker! Amos Walker!"
Merlin was shouting and waving, in case I missed the overcoat. I'd have been nobody's idea of a detective if I had. It was a shaggy gray-brown tent that reached to his ankles, heavy enough for a Siberian sleigh ride. The species it belonged to wouldn't have any use for it in the Smithsonian. What it was doing wrapped around somebody like Merlin Gilly went with some story I was probably going to hear.
Pretending I hadn't noticed him wasn't an option. The mayor's white stretch limousine was sliding away through the slush and the crowd was breaking up, off in search of something else to watch fall down. Merlin was heading my way across the flow, dipping in and out among the Carhartts and London Fogs like furry flotsam. Very soon he was standing in front of me, adjusting the big coat and patting down the hairs that had managed to work their way loose from the mousse, as black and shiny as fresh asphalt. He was black Irish, swarthy and small-boned, and taller than he appeared from a distance, although he had the jerky nervous mannerisms and bantam bounce of a born runt.
"Best show in town, am I right?" he said by way of greeting. "Boom! Whoosh! The city's missing a bet. They ought to sell tickets."
"I was just waiting to cross the street."
"You can do that anytime. Motor City, phooey. The Wings ought to practice on Woodward at rush hour."
"Hello, Merlin. What'd you do, skin every rat in your building?"
"Rat? Oh, this?" He shrugged the coat up and down across his shoulders, as if that would improve the fit. He could have turned around inside it and brought a friend. "Pine marten, the genuine article. Go ahead, feel it." He held up a sleeve with manicured fingers sticking out of it. His hands were pink and shiny, like a doll's. He never bent them except to grab a glass or a buck.
I kept mine in my pockets. "I better not. I might startle it."
He felt it himself with his other hand. "It's warm, all right. I wish I could pull it up over my ears." They were as red as banker's dye.
"You should have had them kill the cub too. Then you'd have a hat."
"Aw. You ain't one of them. I seen you eat steak blood rare. You ever see a picture of one of these in the woods? They're better off on my back."
"I bet you're going to tell me how it got there."
"Over drinks, boy, over drinks. A little premium's what I need to cuddle up with. You know a pump near here? I'm kind of off my lot." He almost never got above Corktown.
"If you mean a bar, there's one around the corner."
"There always is." He beamed. "And this town's got more corners than the country's got Kennedys. Let's go bob for olives."
We went around the corner. I didn't have an appointment with anything but the magazines in my office, and they'd been waiting since Desert Storm. Anyway, Merlin was a man with a mission. This was an accidental meeting the way the Hotel LaSalle had fallen down without help.
The bar was a cigar lounge now. Before that it had been a brew pub, and before that just a bar. They'd torn up six strata of linoleum to find the original oak planks-- oiled golden yellow and no more than an inch and a half wide--replaced the slippery red vinyl with brown imitation leather, installed a backbar, paneled the walls, and hung them with rusty advertising signs. Then they'd gone over everything with steel wool and paint remover to make it look old. A cloud of blue Havana smoke hung just under the pressed tin ceiling, but it was last night's exhaust. That time of the morning was reserved for veteran drinkers. Later the young legal sharks from downtown would glide in wearing their Armanis and Donna Karans, firing up Montecristos with gold lighters, talking too loud and slurping Arctic gin from glass funnels, like William Powell and Myrna Loy. By then the reinforcements would be out. Just now the bar was under the sole command of a heavily made-up blonde in tuxedo pants and a man's white dress shirt with a red bow tie, who came over to our booth and took my order for a screwdriver. I was fighting the flu and thought the vitamin C would help. The vodka was just there to help me forget I was drinking orange juice. She turned to Merlin, and the glitter in his eye told me to sit back and shake a smoke out of the pack. He was experimenting again.
"I got something new," he told her. "How's your game?"
She glanced back at the clock, ringed in green neon with a picture of the Rat Pack on the face, and let out some air. "Good enough, I guess. It's early yet."
"You might want to write it down."
"Just jump right in. I'll holler if I get lost."
"Start out with a rocks glass. Mix two ounces Gordon's gin, two ounces creme de cacao"--he pronounced it cocoa--"two ounces black coffee. Everything's two ounces, got that?"
She nodded. "Hot coffee?"
"Cold if you got it. Throw in ice if you ain't, but don't do a Titanic on the son of a bitch. One thing more. A teaspoon of blackstrap molasses."
"Most important part. Well, except for the gin." He sat back, beaming. "I call it the Bubonic Plague."
She rolled her eyes and left.
"Still searching for the perfect drink?" I lit a Winston.
"Not no more. I come up with it ten days ago at the Erin, fifteen minutes before closing. That's how I got this coat. Tommy McCarty bet me I couldn't invent a drink before the lights come up that wouldn't send everyone in the joint running to the crapper. He went home wearing that moldy old Harris tweed I bought in Ecorse."
"Congratulations. You shafted your best friend and made the Bartender's Guide all in one shot."
"Tommy stopped being my best friend when he voted for Bush."
The barmaid returned and set down my screwdriver and a rocks glass containing a dead black liquid. "Can I interest either of you in a cigar?"
I shook my head. Merlin produced a slim box from an inside breast pocket and stripped off the cellophane. "I got my own, angel cake. Why send thirty bucks to Castro when I can burn ten boxes of Grenadiers for the same price?" He speared a slim green cigar between his lips and leaned over while she lit it with a wooden match as long as a swizzle stick. The stench reminded me I needed to get my brakes relined. When we were alone, he blew a ring at the ceiling and slid his glass my way. "Go ahead, take a hit."
I put out my cigarette in a glass ashtray with a picture of General Grant in the base and sipped. "Not bad." I pushed the drink back across the table. "A little sweet."
"That's the molasses." He looked at the cigar in profile. It was an excuse to admire the half-carat diamond on his pinky. You never knew when Merlin was eating catfood or hauling his wallet around on a hand truck; his suits always fit, even if the coat didn't, and the shine on his cordovans would attract low-flying aircraft. I'd inherited him from Dale Leopold, my late partner. A long time ago, when the Irish were in charge, he had run interference between Mayor Cavanagh and the local building trade. These days he hung around the Erin Go Bar in Corktown, peddling dirt in election years, swapping war stories, and living off a succession of women who thought he could do with a little reforming.
I drank some of my screwdriver and put it down. It tasted like a Bubonic Plague. "Whatever it is, Merlin, it better not cost too much. I haven't had a client in a week."
He stuck a hurt look on his face. It was all skull, bad skin plastered over the cheekstraps and eyesockets. "Dale should of taught you respect. The two of us was like that." The pair of fingers he held up were exactly the same length.
"His dying words? 'Don't give Merlin Gilly the time of day if you expect to get it back.'"
"Dying words my ass. He was dead on arrival at the pavement."
I shrugged out of my belted coat. The sight of him in all that fur overheated me, but he hadn't broken a sweat. If he ever did it would come out pure Gordon's gin. "Paper says snow," I said. "I've got a throbbing rib says the same thing. A bullet splintered it eighteen years ago last November."
"Who cares? I got something will cost you an easy fifty."
"I don't have any easy fifties. What can I get for a sweaty sawbuck?"
He filled his mouth with smoke and let it roll out. A complacent Merlin Gilly is harder to look at than a C-section. I folded two twenties and a ten into a tight rectangle and walked it across the back of my hand. That fascinated and irritated him. Parlor tricks weren't in his repertoire.
"Guy downtown needs a good detective. They're all busy so I thought of you."
"Jail or Holding?"
I walked the bills back the other way. "DIA to me stands for the Detroit Institute of Arts. What's it stand for to you?"
"Same thing. You think I ain't got no culture? I gaped at a Van Gogh there once." He pronounced both g's.
"Forget it, Merl. Where would you fence it?"
He thought about getting mad, then let it blow. "This is about missing property. There's a ten percent finder's fee, might run ten grand."
"A book, if you can believe it. I mean, with the liberry right across the street, where you can borrow one free gratis and nobody chases you. Crime's gone to hell in this town."
"When did you ever borrow a book?"
He pushed back his chair. "I come up here to do you a turn, you insult me. I guess I'm leaving."
"You're still sitting." But I stood the fifty on its end within his reach. He scooted up his chair and stuck the rectangle in the pocket with the cigars.
"His name's Harold Boyette. He's got him a private line." He gave me a number from memory. I pulled out my notebook and scribbled. "Some kind of old book expert," he said. "I guess there's a living in it. I'm a people person myself."
"Uh-huh. All dead presidents." I put away the notebook.
"Hey, if I started paying taxes now, Uncle Sam would have a stroke."
"Who's your source?"
"Cost you another fifty."
I moved a shoulder and drank orange juice and vodka. "I never knew you to take the short money when there was more than a hundred to be made."
"Aw, you know my contacts. All they know about books is the point spread in Cincinnati." He glanced at the clock, pressed out his Grenadier, and picked up his drink. "I'm due at the Erin. Get this?" He cocked an elbow toward the check the barmaid had left.
"Why should today be any different? Got a date?"
He grinned. His teeth were his only good feature and he took care of them. "Auto money. She thinks I look like Johnny Depp."
I played with my glass.
"I never figured you for screwdrivers," he said.
"I'm fighting a bug."
"That ain't the way to do it. You need hot Vernor's and Smirnoff's, half and half."
"What do you call it?"
He finished his Bubonic Plague and set it down, gently and with pity. "You only get to name one drink. Everybody knows that."
Copyright (c) 1999 by Loren D. Estleman"