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Look for us on starless nights when the moon is new. Look closely, because we're hard to see. We don't run in packs like wolves or feral dogs; we fear each other as much as we fear the light. The shadows are our home, and we know them as you know the staircase to your bedroom, the light switch on your bathroom wall. Look for us, but keep your distance. We're the Midnight Men, and the prey we're stalking could be you.
It was one of those gummy mornings we get all through July and August, when the warm wet towel on your face is the air you're breathing, and the headache you wake up with is the same one you took to bed the night before. Milk turns in the refrigerator. Doors swell. Flies clog the screens gasping for oxygen. Everything you touch sticks, including the receiver you pick up just to stop the bell from jangling loose your tender brain.
"Yeah?" If it's eloquence you seek, don't call me before breakfast.
The voice on the other end was female and very brisk. "Amos Walker? Please hold for Owen Mullett." After a muffled click, I was treated to the score of a hit musical I had managed to avoid when it played Detroit.
My eggs were making angry noises in the kitchen. Yawning bitterly, I carried the telephone in from the living room and propped the receiver under my chin while I diced part of a green pepper into pieces the size of pencil shavings and sprinkled them over the yolks and whites in the skillet. Next to cigarettes and whiskey, spices are my only serious addiction, courtesy of some gypsies on my mother's side. I let the eggs cook a while and then killed the gas. The music was still playing. I turned on the radio over the breakfast nook. It was tuned to the all-oldies station as usual. The telephone cord wouldn't let me sit down, so I placed the plate with the eggs on the edge of the table and ate standing up.
I was pouring a second cup of coffee when the telephone music stopped. I set down the pot and held the receiver out to the radio speaker Little Richard was screaming "Lucille." I gave it five bars and then flipped it off and returned the instrument to my ear.
Someone was diddling the plunger. "Hello? Hello?" It was a harsh, impatient voice, the kind that comes with the key to the executive washroom. "Damn it, is anyone on this line?"
"This is Walker," I said. "I heard yours. What do you think of mine?"
"What are you talking about? I don't have time for kid games. Oh, to hell with it. This is Owen Mullett. Do you remember me?"
"I should say I do, Mr. Mullett. And even if I didn't, I'd remember your money." There was no reason I shouldn't. So far it had settled two alimony payments, overhauled my Cutlass, put new wallpaper in my office, replaced the venerable magazines in my reception room, and installed fresh lettering on the door.
Owen Mullet agreed. "Five hundred dollars a week just for staying available is hard to forget. Don't think Transcontinental Transport takes sums like that lightly in today's economic climate. We have investors to whom the notion of retaining a private detective—"
"What can I do for you, Mr. Mullett?"
He cleared his throat. It sounded like heavy static on the line. "Do you have any objection to going to the University of Michigan?"
"Think they'll take me?"
"Be serious, Walker. There's a load of bound newspapers due at the Ann Arbor campus this afternoon for microfilming. They're all from the last century. Some collectors would pay a bundle to have them, and they wouldn't ask too many questions about where they came from."
"All collectors are nuts," I said. "I tend to have not a lot to do with them, ever since a cop I know arrested one for collecting dead women's shoes."
"It's the driver we're interested in, not the collector."
"Talk away, Mr. Mullett."
Again he cleared his larynx. You can measure a company man's importance by the amount of presidential shoe polish lodged in his throat.
"As you know, we've been plagued by hijackings lately," he began. "A lot of hijackings. Far more than any of our competitors."
I ate my eggs and listened. I wish I hadn't.
Like everything else, tailing a subject requires certain accessories: Water cooler. Dried foods. Portable electric razor. Binoculars. Paperbound books to help while away hours spent outside apartment buildings and motels. Complete change of clothing. Blankets. Gasoline credit cards. Change for parking meters and pay telephones. I had enough stuff jammed under the bucket seats of my little Cutlass to stock a bomb shelter. You never know how long you'll be out on one of these things. One time I picked up a salesman suspected of larceny from his employer Thursday afternoon and didn't get home until 3:00 A.M. Monday. Oh, and a large empty coffee can.
I had a full tank of gas and was parked in a loading zone across from a garage on Van Dyke, pretending to read the Free Press through a pair of sunglasses. The garage was a 1950s construction, white gloss enamel over cement block, with old-fashioned pumps out front, soon to be replaced by the kind that registers your purchase in liters, which was the Bureau of Weights and Measures' way of allowing merchants to charge more for less—as if they needed help. Enough die-cast letters had dropped out of the legend NORM'S SUPER SERVICE over the big doors to make it unintelligible.
A cabover Kenworth with trailer was parked next to the building facing the street, big as Judgment Day and bearing the company's red double-T logo on the front of the box. Its diesel was idling, belching round black smoke signals out of its chromed stack. The rig was waiting for a party named Dooley Bass, half owner of Norm's Super Service and sometime driver for Transcontinental Transport. He had been hijacked twice in three months and his employers were beginning to wonder.
I knew he was going to be sobering news when he emerged from the cool, dark interior of the garage, squinting into the sun and dragging a beefy brown forearm across his brow. He was all muscle and thick hard belly under a green work shirt stained dark under the armpits and down the front, and he wore his dirty blond hair in bangs the way Chuck Connors used to in Branded. He had a big, clean-shaven jaw and very pale blue eyes against the bronze of his face. He was younger than I. I hoped we could keep our relationship on a vehicle-to-vehicle basis.
He walked clear around the rig, kicking each of the outside tires with a square- toed cowboy boot that for a change looked as if it might have seen use west of Kalamazoo. His muscles bulged as he gripped the handbar and swung his six-feet- something up into the driver's seat. The door whammed shut, there was the plaintive awharr of a great transmission grinding reluctantly into grandpappy low, the engine throbbed louder, and when the traffic let up, sixteen tons of steel and rubber trundled, groaning and hissing, onto Van Dyke heading north. I let two cars go by and then pulled out behind. The corrugated steel trailer was easy to overlook, like a brontosaurus on a whole wheat roll.
I followed him up the ramp onto the westbound Edsel Ford Freeway and made myself comfortable, unsnapping the .38 in its police holster from my belt and laying it on the seat next to my hip. The air conditioner worked for two minutes and then quit, but with the vents open and my window down, the cool air coming in from outside felt good against my overheated skin. I got the radio going. Sarah Vaughan sang "It Ain't No Use." It was one I liked. If there was an omen in the refrain, it was wasted on me. I fired up a Winston and let the slipstream suck the smoke out the window.
Feeling a responsibility to my client now that I was on retainer, I had purchased fresh batteries for the paging device in my shirt pocket and was wearing it everywhere these days. It hadn't beeped once since. I hadn't really expected it to. Aside from the trucking firm, the only customer I'd had in a month was a kid who'd paid me a buck and a half to find his dog. I'm still looking for it, by the way.
There were worse assignments than this one, most of which I'd had. I'd heard rumors that trees and grass grew between here and Ann Arbor, and on a day like this coeds there were not known to wear very much while walking across campus. In Detroit they wore chain mail and carried mace in their handbags.
We hovered around the speed limit until we cleared the city, where Dooley shook the law out of his hair and opened the throttle. The trailer pulled away from me like the roadrunner ditching the coyote. The Italians can brag all they want, but nothing without wings can catch a fully loaded semi when the driver chooses to slip the surly bonds of earth. I tried for a while, then fell back when the born-again Cadillac mill under my hood started shimmying.
I wondered if he'd made me. Just in case, I waited until he got hung up in traffic near Metropolitan Airport and passed him in the fast lane. After half a mile with the truck in my rearview mirror, I allowed myself to get bogged down behind a slow-moving van loaded with kids. By that time he was in the open, and the thunder of his engine drowned out the radio as he swept past on the right. I waited for a hole and crept out into his wake.
The brake lights of the cars that separated us flashed on in ragged order. He had slowed down suddenly. I had to pump my own brakes to avoid a pileup. The other vehicles started pulling around him, and when we dropped to forty-five it was either pass him again or yell my game plan out the window. I moved toward the outside lane. Abruptly he swung left. I yanked the wheel right to keep off his bumper, and drew abreast of his rear wheels.
Something big caught my eye in the rearview mirror; but before I could react, a soot-blackened tanker labeled EXPLOSIVE CHEMICALS rumbled alongside me in the far right lane. I looked up into the driver's shiny black face leering down at me through his open window. I was sandwiched but good. There was a third truck up ahead, and when I glanced up at Dooley on my left he was leaning as far out the cab window on the passenger's side as he could without surrendering his grip on the wheel. A long red cylinder spat and fizzled in his corded right hand. A live flare.
I finished cranking up my window just as he let fly. The flare struck the glass and bounced off, loosing orange sparks all over. I touched the brake pedal, but even as I dropped back a skull-rattling bellow drove my spine through my scalp. Behind me, a fourth truck with a grinning silver grille was closing fast, its air horn setting the pavement vibrating. Now I knew how a walnut felt.
I'd been stopped once behind a big Mercury at a red light when an eighteen- wheeler on its left made an illegal right turn, bumping one set of wheels up over the Merc's hood and damn near cutting it in two. The driver of the semi just kept going. He didn't know the car existed. I had four of them on me, and my car weighed barely half as much as that wrecked sedan. My nails dug holes in the steering wheel.
And then I was in the clear.
It was as if I'd realized suddenly that I was having a nightmare and consciously willed the situation to change. I was all alone in a stretch of open road. Up ahead, all four trucks were shrinking into distance as if a powerful spring that had been holding them back were suddenly released.
An automobile horn tooted behind me. My attention jerked to the mirror, where the driver of a blue Datsun was flashing his headlamps on and off and yanking his left index finger around in a short arc toward the apron. I couldn't make out his features.
I'd had enough of being scared for one day. I cruised across the right lane and rolled to a halt, sliding the Smith & Wesson from its holster even before the car stopped rocking. I left the driver's door open and was waiting on the other side with the revolver clasped in both hands, my arms stretched out across the vinyl roof, when he pulled up behind. A green Chevette slowed as it went past, then accelerated when the driver spotted the gun.
The man behind the wheel of the Japanese compact made no move to get out. I chugged a bullet into the pavement just ahead of the front axle. Pebbles and pieces of asphalt rattled against the underside of the fenders.
"Out, hands high!" I commanded. Some of my best stuff comes from B westerns.
He alighted, holding his hands at shoulder level. All six feet of him in a blue summerweight uniform with sergeant's stripes on the sleeves. Sunlight glared off his silver badge.
My stomach knotted. "Tell me you're going to a costume party."
"You're fresh out of luck, pal."
He might have been talking to a guy he'd stopped for busting a light. He was built heavy, not as flamboyantly muscular as Dooley Bass, but not as thick around the middle either. His rumpled black hair was shot with gray.
I said the sort of thing you'd expect me to say in that situation, laid the gun on top of the roof, and stepped back, raising my own hands.
He drew his side arm. "This side."
I came around the front and assumed the position, spread-eagled with my back to him and my hands braced against the roof. More cars slowed down to watch. I was this morning's gawkers' delight.
"Private heat, huh?" He divided his attention between the contents of my wallet and me. He had my .38 in his belt and his hands had been everyplace I might have been hiding another. "I'm on my way home. I hear these truckers yammering away over the CB about a hijacking and flag my ass across the service drive to here. I get on the horn and they're gone like butter on a hot sidewalk. Maybe you'd care to fill me in on the rest."
I cared. When I finished he made a disrespectful sound involving his lips and teeth.
"How long you been in practice?"
"Since about two years before I was born." I turned to face him. He'd holstered his revolver.
"Then you should know you don't tail one of these rigs unless you're in tandem. Once they make you you're meat for the grinder."
"I work solo."
"That's how they bury you."
"Are you holding me?"
We watched each other. An empty haulaway stormed past along the inside lane, sucking at our clothes and hair. He handed back my wallet and gun.
"Permit's in order, which means no rap sheet. Anyway, I don't get the department band on my box and I'm damned if I'll go back to the station. Your driver's license expires next month. Happy birthday."
"Aren't you going to ask me if I want to press charges?"
"For what, littering? You must be kidding."
"Yeah. Thanks for mixing, Sergeant. A lot of off-duty cops would have directed their attention elsewhere. I owe you."
His face was built to grimace—square, much-lined, with tired eyes and a broad, humorous mouth. "Best way you can pay it back is if I don't see you or this bucket again."
I fingered out one of my cards. "If you ever need one."
He glanced at it, then unbuttoned one of his shirt pockets and poked it inside. His parting nod used up about a sixteenth of an inch of perfectly good space.
"What's your name?" I called out, as he was climbing under the wheel of the Datsun.
He strapped himself in. "Van Sturtevant. Van's my first name, not part of the last." He pulled his door shut with a cheesy whang.
I lit a fresh cigarette and lifted a hand as he pulled out into traffic, his engine cooking like grease on a cheap griddle.
POLICE SERGEANT SURVIVES TRIPLE SLAYING, read the headline in the next morning's Free Press.CHAPTER 2
I missed my air conditioner that morning. The air swam inside the car and the seat burned my legs through my pants. The brittle brown husks of dead flies lined the dusty dash where it met the windshield. On my way to the office I made a mental note to give the interior a good cleaning, and forgot about it by the time I found a parking space.
My paper never showed up and I tuned in too late to catch the local news on my car radio. I picked up a copy at the stand down the street from my building. The banner caught my eye immediately. These days they only use that size type for notable murders and the odd nuclear holocaust.
One Detroit police officer was critically injured and two others killed in an apparent ambush on the city's northwest side early this morning, which also resulted in the death of one of the four suspects.
Sought in connection with the slayings are Alonzo Smith, 24, Luke David Turkel, 22, and Willie Lee Gross, 19. The three were wanted for questioning in an arson investigation at the time of the shooting. A fourth suspect, Roscoe LaRue, 19, was wounded by return fire and reported dead on arrival at Detroit Receiving Hospital at 3:16
Excerpted from The Midnight Man by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1982 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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