Micah Dunn knows Calvin Autry to be an honest man. He’s also a fighter, persevering with his mechanic’s shop even after his wife left him and his business turned sour. But today, he is a broken man. A neighborhood child has accused him of child molestation, and Calvin begs Micah to clear his name. A private detective whose time in Vietnam taught him how to fight dirty, Micah knows that proving Calvin’s innocence will require him to fight dirtier than he ever has before.
Calvin’s enemies include dissatisfied customers, a scheming landlord, and a rival mechanic out to destroy what’s left of the Autry shop. But as Micah digs into Calvin’s past, he finds his friend is not as honest as he appears. He may not be a child molester, but Calvin Autry could be guilty of something just as evil.
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A Micah Dunn Mystery
By Malcolm K. Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Malcolm K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
"Molesting kids is the lowest thing anybody can do," the man in the chair said. "And that's why when that detective came—" His voice caught, and I dropped my eyes, because I don't like to see a man cry. Especially if the man's a friend.
I'd known Calvin Autry for almost all the years I'd been in New Orleans. The first time I met him was when my old Buick was stopping on me and four other mechanics had given up. So I took it to his garage just off Esplanade, and he listened and shook his head and said he was too busy to work on it that day. When I told him about the other mechanics, his faded blue eyes narrowed, and I could tell he was getting mad. He told me to leave it, and when I came around at five he told me it was a hairline crack in a resistor. He wasn't mad anymore, because he'd locked horns with the son of a bitch and had beaten it. Calvin Autry loved a good fight. But right now, slumped across the desk from me in my little walk-up office on Decatur, he didn't know who to confront.
"I know the kid they're talking about," he said. "Little black boy came in looking for work a couple of days ago. I gave him a dollar to sweep up." His lined face begged mine for understanding. "Hell, that ain't molesting, is it?"
"Not in my book," I told him.
He raised a pair of gnarled, grease-smudged hands. The tip of his left index finger was missing, and his nails were split.
"Look, Micah, I do honest work. I ain't no saint; I ain't saying I ain't never played around with women, especially since Marie run off. But I'm a normal man. I stick to grown women, not kids, and not boys."
"I believe you," I told him, shifting in my chair. Calvin Autry was more than my mechanic, he was my friend. But even friends can lie when the chips are down. If not, I wouldn't be in business. "But why would somebody make this up?"
"Shee-it." He fished in the pocket of his blue uniform shirt for a pack of Camels, took one out, and lit it. Calvin Autry had emphysema, but in the part of Oklahoma he hailed from you did what you wanted as long as you didn't complain about the consequences.
"Mechanic's got a shitload of enemies," he said, exhaling. "Every third customer thinks you screwed 'em. I got a Ford pickup sitting there now man won't come get, claims I'm charging too much. Bastard had a cracked engine block when he brought it in. Some people'd rather call up the Better Business Bureau than give you the time of day. I been took to small claims court. Damn crooked judges around here always side with the money. Man that owns my building, he'd like to run me out and rent it to some friend of his. I ain't sure he ain't behind this. And there's that lying bastard, Frazier, down the street; sent more cars to the junkyard than the wreckers has. He's been telling people not to go to me, I know that for a fact, and I'm about ready to go down there and shove a spanner up his ass."
"What about the boy?" I asked. "Does he have any reason you can think of?"
Autry shrugged. "Probably. He came back the next day, wanted to work some more, and I run him off." He flicked ash in his empty Coke bottle. "Hell, I ain't no public relations outfit. I asked him why the hell he wasn't in school. Pissed him off."
"Well, that might be the reason," I said.
"Christ," he spat. "To ruin a man's life?"
"I've seen people ruined for less," I said truthfully.
He licked his lips. A rawboned man of fifty-odd, it didn't come easy for Calvin Autry to show vulnerability, but here he was, and it was killing him almost as much as the accusation was.
"Look, Micah, whatever I have to do ..." He ran out of words, and I smelled the fear. It wasn't a smell I like.
"You're a friend, Calvin. But it'll cost money; I'd better tell you that straight out. It'll cost a lot of money."
He nodded, his expression bitter. "I figured that. How much?"
"Two or three thousand. And I can't guarantee anything. What I'll do, I'll do as cheaply as I can. Mainly I'll just charge for the expenses. But you'll need a lawyer. The lawyer will almost certainly want to do a background check on you, which will mean contacting an agency in Oklahoma to build a file on you. I can find somebody to do that." I looked him in the eye. "If there's ever been anything like this before, it'll come out."
"God as my witness," he said, raising a hand, "Micah—"
"I know. I just thought I'd mention it. It may never come to the law, of course, it may be I can talk to the kid, or develop something that shows somebody put him up to it. But if it does come to your being arrested, the lawyer will want to go in loaded."
"But I told you I never—"
"It's not just this; he'll need a picture of your character in general. No lawyer wants to know less than the other side."
Autry sighed. "I'll have to sell my little piece of land across the lake. I was saving that for my grandkids. I was going to build a pier and a boathouse on the river. Marie and me used to go up there."
"And that's another thing," I said. "There'll be a lot of digging about Marie."
Another shrug. "What can anybody dig up they didn't dig up five years ago? Anyway, I'm not the first man whose old lady left him—the bitch."
It was my turn to nod. Marie was a sore spot with him. One day he'd come in and found a good- bye note. She'd taken their '86 Olds and her clothes and the household cash. Neither woman nor car nor money had ever been seen again, but a few days later she'd sent him a postcard from the West Coast, no return address. I had a feeling that despite his claims, he hadn't tried too hard to find her: it isn't easy for a man like Calvin Autry to admit he's been weighed and found wanting.
I handed him a sheet of paper and a pen.
"I want you to write down the names and addresses, phone numbers, whatever you can come up with for the people you mentioned, anyone who might have a grudge against you. And the name of the cop that came to see you, if you can remember." I pulled out another form. "And you can sign this. It's a waiver of privacy, allowing me to check your accounts and your credit rating. And I want a list of your accounts, by bank. Include your mortgage."
"What the hell?"
"Forget your privacy," I told him. "From now on you don't have any. Just think what it'll be like if it ever gets to court."
He took out his wallet and consulted several bank cards, and while he wrote I picked up my phone and hit the autodialer for John O'Rourke's number.
"John," I said when O'Rourke answered, "I've got a friend in trouble. I'd like to send him over. But he doesn't trust lawyers, so don't skin him."
O'Rourke's muffled snort erupted from the earpiece, and I managed a smile. "His name is Calvin Autry. Yeah, like the cowboy. It's a criminal case."
I hung up as Calvin was finishing the list of names.
"I want you to go over to see this man," I told him, fishing one of O'Rourke's cards out of my desk drawer. "It's on Gravier; you could walk if you wanted. He's a good man and an honest lawyer." I held up my one good hand. "I know, but trust me: he's one."
"Are you coming?" His eyes sought mine, hopefully.
"No. You're a big boy. And the time I'd spend listening to you tell him about it all over again I could be spending here doing some good." I hesitated. "Like I said, Calvin, it'll cost you some money, but you won't find it cheaper anywhere else, unless you've got a lawyer in the family."
"No such luck," he mumbled. "My kid's a damn construction worker, when he's got any work at all. Hell of a lot of good that does me."
I rose and patted his shoulder. "I guess it could be worse."
"Think so?" He started for the door and then turned. "Micah, it ain't no secret. Whenever anybody gets accused of something like this, people believe it. Maybe I need to call my best customers and let 'em know, but some people are gonna believe it no matter what I say. I'll probably lose my business. But Micah, I don't want you to believe it."
"I don't," I assured him, and when we shook hands I had the feeling I was holding onto a drowning man. I watched him go down the steps and then went back to my desk.
There was a picture of the platoon on one wall, and the VC battle flag we'd taken on the other. It had been a dirty little war, where people you thought were friendly sniped at you and kids tossed you grenades. I'd come back with a useless left arm and a bitterness it had taken a few years, a divorce, and too many bottles to work through. Now Calvin Autry was facing a dirty little war. I wanted to help him. But we'd lost the dirty little war in Nam, and I wondered if I would be any more successful here.
Because another memory was intruding on my thoughts now. It was the memory of two men sitting inside a concrete building one New Year's Eve, passing a bottle of Black Label between them, while a space heater pumped warm air to combat the chill seeping in from outside. Two men, pouring each other drinks to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another, knowing the last car had been repaired and sent on its way two hours before, and that no further work would be done that day. Two men exchanging confidences, in the intimacy of male bonding, knowing nothing would be repeated beyond those doors. And one of the men, more drunk than the other, talking aloud to himself about the wife who had left him the year before, staring through the bottle as he made his admission.
"Maybe she had cause. Maybe there's things a woman shouldn't have to put up with. If a man's a little different, if he can't help it, you can't hold it against him, can you? But a woman doesn't have to put up with it, either."
Cal had never again referred to his difference and I'd forgotten until this moment. But now I remembered and wished I hadn't. Because sooner or later I would have to return to that New Year's Eve and dredge up what he'd spoken of in confidence. And I was afraid of what I would find.CHAPTER 2
Calvin Autry lived in Metairie, a suburb hugging the west side of the city. Two years ago they'd sent an ex-Klansman to the state legislature because the other candidate was too dull. They loved God, America, Saints football, and Dixie beer, not necessarily in that order. The houses were a mixture of white frame and red brick, nothing pretentious. The lawns were kept mowed, and you weren't afraid to walk the streets at night.
It was late morning, but I figured I might catch a housewife or two at home if I was lucky. Sal Mancuso hadn't been at the detective bureau when I'd called, and driving out to Calvin's neighborhood seemed like a good investment of time.
I'd never been to his house, because our friendship had started with business and gone from there, instead of the other way around. To date, our socializing had been restricted to an occasional six-pack at his garage at day's end, after my car was fixed, so I felt it was worthwhile to check out his home ground and talk to the people who knew him when he wasn't at work. Maybe somebody would let slip something that would change my image of him and show him for a liar. I hoped not. I preferred to believe somebody might hand me a lead about his enemies.
As I pulled to a halt in front of his house, I could glimpse cars whipping past on the interstate a block and a half away. Once it had been a quiet neighborhood; now there was a racetrack as backdrop to the sleepy oaks and camphor trees.
Cal's house was a bungalow type dating from the twenties, one story, with red brick pillars framing a front porch. There was a rose trellis, and the roses were blooming; somewhere I remembered his telling me he liked to play in the garden. The house had been freshly painted, in contrast to the homes on either side. I recalled Calvin saying he'd spent August sanding off the old paint and applying a new coat. The people you hired these days, he explained, did a crappy job.
I considered the houses on each side. There were cars in both driveways, so there was a good chance somebody was home whichever way I went. I went left, stopping on the porch to take out my card, which read GRAND GULF CREDIT and had a phony name and address. Sometimes it worked and people wanted to talk, and other times they'd just had a round with their own credit card company and slammed the door in my face.
A sign on the porch said THE BONCHAUDS: VIRGIL & MABEL, and I silently prayed Mabel would be a talker. It was early October, and dead leaves pirouetted across the walkway in front of me. In the next block somebody was burning brush, and my mind flashed to boyhood images of football on front lawns and Friday night games. I'd been fast, very fast. In high school I'd been a star receiver. But that was a few lifetimes ago.
I went up the steps onto the porch and had just raised my hand to knock when the door opened and a man appeared. He wore a jumpsuit, and a toolbelt dangled from one hand. A patch over his right pocket said BIG v PLUMBING.
"Lady of the house in?" I asked.
"Nope." The man had steel-colored hair and a roman nose. "What you want?" he asked, eyes wary. Then I saw the stitched name, Virgil, over the other pocket, and realized that he lived there. I showed him my card.
"I don't want any," he said.
"I'm not selling anything," I told him. "I'm running a credit check on your neighbor, Mr. Autry. He's applied for a gold label credit card from our company. Of course, we have his complete credit record, but we always like to talk with a person's neighbors, to see if there's anything we missed."
The man looked down at my card again and then back at me. "I never heard of you," he said.
I shrugged. "You'd be helping Mr. Autry if you could answer a couple of questions. I promise it won't take long."
He looked at me like he knew what my promise was worth. "I don't feel worth a shit," he said, sniffing to emphasize his point. "That's why I'm late. But I can't miss much more work. I got five calls to make. What you wanta know?"
I cleared my throat in my best official fashion. "Well, would you consider Mr. Autry a reliable, steady sort of person?"
My informant hawked and spat. "As reliable as anybody."
"Would you say he lived a quiet life, or does he entertain a lot?"
"Entertain? Oh, you mean parties. No. When Marie was around— that was his wife. They broke up a few years back. I guess you already know that."
"He mentioned he was divorced," I said.
"Divorced. Yeah. She lit out on him. Nice-looking woman, Marie."
"Do you have any idea why?"
He squinted at me. "You ever met Cal Autry? Got a personality like a hemorrhoid. I don't know how she lived with him as long as she did. But it ain't my business."
"Is he planning to remarry?"
"I never heard it if he is. But we ain't asshole buddies, okay? I mean, yeah, in the old days we came over for a barbecue once in a while, but you can't be around Calvin for very long without having to put up with his bullshit." He hawked again. "Hell, I said too much. Now don't go putting all that down. He ain't a bad sort. He keeps his grass mowed and he don't bother nobody."
"He have any other friends?"
"How would I know? Ask his kid, Melville. I don't see him here much, but Cal talks about him a lot."
I decided to change my tack. "Would you know if he had a problem with alcohol or drugs?" I asked.
The plumber chuckled. "I was waiting for that one. They all ask it nowadays. Didn't you all make him piss in a jar?" He seemed to think it was funny. "I can just see Calvin doing that." He shook his head. "Man has a few beers. I never seen him too fucked up, except once on New Year's Eve, but everybody gets fucked up then. Now I gotta go."
He started off the porch. "Look," he said, turning back, "what I said about his personality and all. Man, don't put all that down. He's rough as a rock, but he's good-hearted. Man would have to be, to like kids that much."
"Kids?" I asked, my mouth going dry.
"Sure. His clown act. He goes to hospitals and schools. I hear he's a scream. Calvin the Clown, he calls himself. And he's always hiring some kid off the street to mow his grass. There's been times he had a whole gang of little nigger boys in the yard. I never been too crazy about that. Too many houses robbed in this neighborhood. But Calvin, he's a soft touch."
Right," I said, and thanked him.
Excerpted from Deep Kill by Malcolm K. Shuman. Copyright © 1991 Malcolm K. Shuman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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