Before he became a private investigator, before he served in the Detroit police, and long before he retreated to the wintry reaches of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Alex McKnight played ball in the minor leagues. He doesn't spend much time thinking about those days, at least not until a former teammate comes looking for him. . . .
The man's here to ask a favor. He wants Alex to help him find the woman with whom he had a brief, passionate affair three decades ago. Who is Alex to deny his friend a chance to ward off a classic midlife chill by rekindling an old flame? But as the search deepens, McKnight begins to suspect that he hasn't been told the full story. And there might just be a reason why this mysterious woman is so hard to find.
The Hunting Wind continues Steve Hamilton's award-winning and New York Times-bestselling Alex McKnight series.
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The Hunting Wind
An Alex McKnight Mystery
By Steve Hamilton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Steve Hamilton
All rights reserved.
When the left-hander found me, I was sitting in my usual chair in front of the fire, trying to stay warm. The calendar said April, but April in Paradise is still cold enough to hurt you, and I could feel the sting of it in my hands and on my face. I sat there by the fire, watching the baseball game on the television over the bar, nursing a cold Canadian beer as the left-hander made his way in the darkness. He knew where he was going, because he had a hand-drawn map in his back pocket, with a little star on the right side of the road as you come north into Paradise. The Glasgow Inn, that was his destination. He knew I'd be there. On a cold Tuesday night in April, where else would I be?
His trip had begun early that morning in Los Angeles. He boarded a 747 and flew to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. He had to wait two hours there, and he had already lost three hours in the time change. So the sun was going down when he finally got on the little two-propeller plane with twelve passengers, a pilot, and a copilot who doubled as the flight attendant. That plane took him first to Alpena, where he sat on the runway for a half hour while half the passengers got off. The copilot got out and sprayed the ice off the wings, and then they were in the air again. The plane was noisy and cold, and it bounced around in the wind like a paper kite. It was after eleven o'clock at night when they finally touched down at Chippewa County Airport. There are only two flights per day that land there, two little airplanes like the one the left-hander was on that night. The funny thing is that those little airplanes land on a runway that's over two and a half miles long. It's one of the longest runways in the country, long enough to be on the space shuttle's emergency backup list. The left-hander asked one of the other passengers why the runway was so long, because that's the kind of thing the lefthander does. He asks strangers questions, as if he'd known them his whole life. And they always answer him, because he has this way of making them feel at ease.
"This used to be an air force base, aye," the stranger said. He was a local man from the Upper Peninsula, so he had that yooper rise in his voice. "Kincheloe Air Force Base, back in World War Two. Did ya know the Soo locks were the most heavily defended position in America back then? I guess they figured if the Japs or Germans were gonna bomb us, they'd start at the locks and cut off our ore supply."
"That's interesting," the left-hander said. I'm sure he said it in a way that made the stranger feel that it really was interesting, and that therefore the stranger must be an interesting man himself. That's the kind of thing the left-hander can do, with just two words.
The airport terminal itself is a one-room hut sitting next to that long runway. The left-hander went into the terminal and picked up his luggage. It didn't take long, because the copilot just grabbed the suitcases two at a time and carried them in himself. If the lefthander was worried about getting his rental car at such a tiny airport at eleven o'clock at night, he had no reason to be. A woman named Eileen was there waiting for him, keys in hand. That was her job, after all. When somebody reserves a car, she stays up late that night and waits for the plane to come in. The lefthander signed a form, took the keys from her, and thanked her. He thanked Eileen with a smile that she'd remember for months afterward, I'm sure. Then she went home to bed.
He found his rental car in the parking lot. Across the street from the airport, there is a factory where they recondition auto parts, twenty-four hours a day. The factory sends up a constant stream of smoke, and the light from the airport makes the smoke look silver against the night sky. He must have stood there and looked at the smoke for a moment, breathing in the cold air. The coat he had just taken out of his suitcase was not warm enough. He had started his day in California, where it was seventy-one degrees. Here in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, on an April night a good three weeks after the official start of spring, it was twelve degrees.
He left the airport and drove down a lonely road with no streetlights. It must have seemed then like he'd come to the end of the earth. There were still piles of gray snow on either side of the road, what remained of the mountains made each year by the snowplows. When he found 1-75, he took that north toward Sault Ste. Marie. The Soo, as the locals call it. But he didn't get to see the Soo itself that night, because the map he had laid on the seat next to him told him to take M-28 west, right into the heart of the Hiawatha National Forest. He passed through a couple of small towns named Raco and Strongs, and then he hit M-123. He took that road north. After a few miles, he could see Lake Superior in the moonlight. There was ice on the shore.
When he saw the sign, he knew he had finally reached Paradise, WELCOME TO PARADISE! WE'RE GLAD YOU MADE IT! He paused at the single blinking red light in the middle of town, and then he found the Glasgow Inn a hundred yards up on the right. He pulled his rental car into the lot and parked it right next to my twelve-year-old Ford truck with the wood-stove in the back, covered in plastic.
I didn't know about any of this at the time, of course. About the plane to Detroit and then the plane to Chippewa County, about the words to the stranger or the smile for Eileen, the rental car lady. I didn't know he was coming all this way out to see me on that night. The Detroit Tigers were playing a late game out on the West Coast, the same coast Randy had spent all day flying away from. I was just sitting by the fireplace at the Glasgow Inn, watching the game on the television that hung over the bar. The place is supposed to resemble a Scottish pub, with the big overstuffed chairs and footrests. It's a lot more inviting than most bars I've seen. And Jackie, the owner of the place, cannot be trusted to do anything right on his own, so it is my duty to stop in every night and share my wisdom with him. He never listens to me, but I keep going back anyway.
I own some land up the road, with six cabins my father had built back in the sixties and seventies. I live in the first cabin, the one I helped him build myself in 1968. The other five I rent out to tourists in the summer, hunters in the fall, and snowmobilers in the winter. Spring is the off-season in Paradise, a time to clean out the cabins and wait for the snow to melt.
There was a time when spring meant something else, the four years I was catching in the minor leagues. A lifetime ago. I didn't think about those days much anymore. A lot of time had passed since then, and a lot of things had happened. Eight years as a police officer in Detroit. A dead partner and a bullet still inside my chest. And then fifteen years up here in Paradise, spending nights like this one watching baseball on television and not even thinking about the days when I played the game myself. I certainly wasn't thinking about Randy Wilkins, a left-hander I had caught back in triple-A ball in 1971. When he opened the door and stepped into the place and shouted my name, I couldn't believe it was really him. If the Pope himself had come through the door wearing his big hat, I wouldn't have been more surprised.
Almost thirty years later, the left-hander had found me.CHAPTER 2
"Wilkins," I said. "Randy Wilkins. I don't believe it." He looked about twenty pounds heavier, and the curly black hair he'd once had was mostly gone. What was left was cut close to his scalp. As if to compensate for the loss, he had grown a mustache and goatee.
The eyes, they hadn't changed. He still had that look in his eyes. Some days, you'd call it a twinkle; other days, you'd call it insanity. Which was totally appropriate, considering the side of the mound he threw from. There are some simple truths in baseball, after all. One of them, whether it would be considered politically correct these days or not, is that left-handed pitchers are not normal. They can't throw the ball in a straight line, for one thing. Everything a left-hander throws has a little movement on it, no matter how hard he trys to throw the straight fastball. A lefthander, being a total freak of nature, is fragile and more likely to hurt himself. One bad throw and the arm is done forever. I've seen it happen.
And left-handers think differently, too. They might be a little absentminded maybe. Or eccentric. Or downright crazy.
"Alex McKnight," he said. He grabbed my shoulders and didn't let go. "How long has it been?"
"It's what, almost thirty years?" I said. "How in the world ... What are you doing here?"
"I was in the neighborhood," he said. "I thought I'd drop by."
"In the neighborhood, huh? You wanna try that again?"
"Do I get a drink first?" he said. "It's been a hell of a long day."
"A drink," I said. "Of course."
I introduced him to Jackie. "This man right here," I said, "played ball with me in Toledo, believe it or not. He was a pitcher."
"Pleased to meet ya," Jackie said, shaking his hand. "What are you drinking?"
"Whatever Alex is having," Randy said.
"Alex is having a beer," Jackie said. "A beer from Canada. Alex doesn't drink beer if it's bottled in America. He makes me go all the way over the bridge just to pick him up a case of beer every week."
"He doesn't need the sob story," I said. "Just get him the beer."
"You look good," Randy said to me. "You've been working out?"
"Working out, ha!" Jackie said from behind the bar. "Alex McKnight working out. That's a good one."
"I'll tell you something," Randy said. "This man right here was one hell of a catcher. I don't think I ever saw him give up a passed ball."
"Too bad he couldn't hit his weight," Jackie said as he brought the beer around.
"Just give the man his beer," I said. I sat him down in front of the fire and watched him take a pull right out of the bottle.
"So this is Canadian beer," he said.
"Can you taste the difference?"
"Um, sure," he said.
"You're lying," I said. "No matter how long it's been, I can still tell when you're lying."
He laughed. "I can't lie to my catcher."
"Damned right," I said. "But seriously. It's great to see you. Except for that mustache and that goatee thing."
"Makes me look pretty smooth, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, in a satanic, serial killer sort of way. What's that on your arm, a tattoo?"
He looked at the back of his left wrist. There were three parallel lines. The line farthest from his hand had a gap in the middle. "That's a trigram," he said. "You know, from the I Ching, It's called 'the joyous lake.' A Tibetan monk used a needle dipped in spider blood."
"You're lying again," I said. "I told you, don't even try it. I can see right through you. Even thirty years later."
"How about I got drunk one night in San Francisco?" he said. "When I woke up, I had no wallet, no shoes, and a brand-new tattoo?"
"That's sounds more like it," I said.
He laughed again. It was the same laugh. For one year of my life, I'd heard that laugh at least twenty times a day.
"So tell me already," I said.
"What's going on? How far did you have come to get here, anyway?"
"Well, I've been living in L.A. for the last few years," he said. "I was watching a Cactus League game a couple weeks ago, and the guy on TV was talking about how a good catcher is a pitcher's best friend. I said to myself, 'Ain't that the truth,' and I started thinking about the old days in Toledo. I was wondering whatever happened to you, so I started poking around on the Internet to see if I could find you. I saw your Web site, man, and I figured, Hey, I'm gonna go see him!"
"Whoa," I said. "Back up. My Web site?"
"Yeah, I did a search on Alex McKnight and it came up."
"Randy, I don't have a Web site. I don't even have a computer."
"I'm talking about your business Web site, Alex. Prudell-McKnight Investigations."
I just looked at him for a long moment. And then it came to me. "Oh my God," I said. "What did he do now?"
"Your partner, Leon?"
I closed my eyes. "Yeah, my partner, Leon."
"Well, it looks like he's put a nice little Web site out there advertising your services. There's this drawing with two pistols on it, pointing at each other. It kinda looks like they're shooting at each other."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," I said. "He used the same thing on our business cards."
"I gave Leon a call," he said. "Real nice guy. He told me you'd be here. I made him promise not to tell you I was coming. I wanted it to be a surprise."
"Well, you certainly did surprise me. But why —"
"There's something on there about you having a bullet in your chest, too. Is that true?"
"I'm going to kill him," I said. "He is absolutely dead."
"So you do have a bullet in there?" He sneaked a look down at my torso, the same way everybody does when they first hear about it.
"Yes," I said. "It's a long story."
"All right, save that one, then. Are you married? You got any kids?"
"No and no," I said. "Married once, divorced. No kids. How about you?"
He looked at the ceiling for a moment. "I'm divorced, too. Three kids. Jonathan just passed the bar. He's a lawyer in San Francisco. His wife's expecting a baby soon. Can you believe that? I'm gonna be a grandfather! Annie's a chef, just got a new job at a really nice restaurant down in San Diego. And Terry just went off to school at UC-Santa Barbara. Hey, guess what." He reached over and punched me in the leg.
"Terry's a ballplayer. He's on the freshman team. Guess what position he plays."
"Oh great," I said. "Another pitcher. I bet he's a crazy left-hander."
"He's a catcher," he said. "Can you beat that?"
"That's even worse," I said. "He has to catch crazy left-handers."
"He's a switch-hitter," he said. "God, he can drive the ball, Alex. Just like you used to."
"I see your memory went along with your hair."
"Oh man, you haven't changed, Alex." He took another pull from the bottle. "Canadian beer. I can't believe I'm in Michigan drinking Canadian beer. And why is it so cold here, anyway? Haven't you guys heard of spring?"
"Sure," I said. "Just wait until June."
"Hey, Jackie!" he yelled. "Get your butt over here so I can tell you some stories about your boy Alex here. Stuff I bet you never heard before. And bring some more beer while you're at it."
Anybody else who came into the place for the first time and talked to Jackie that way, he'd be back out in parking lot in ten seconds, wiping the gravel off his ass. But Randy had always had this knack for making you feel like you'd known him your whole life, even if you'd just met him. I saw it all the time when we were playing together, and even more when we became roommates. Randy had already gone through a couple of roommates by the time he got to me. Something about the way he'd keep talking all night, even if you had to get up early the next morning and ride on a bus all day to the next game.
But you couldn't hate the guy for it. As much as you wanted to kill him sometimes, he'd always say something funny and disarming, or, even worse, he'd put his arm around you and sing in your ear. "You know you love me, Alex," he used to say. "You've got the hots for me. You dream about me all night long. That's why I drive you crazy."
A whole busload of guys in their twenties, most of them from farms or little towns around the Midwest, all of them dirt-tough or at least trying to act like it. And I got Randy Wilkins for a roommate.
So now almost thirty years have passed, and out of nowhere he's sitting in the Glasgow Inn on a late Tuesday night in April. It's taken him exactly twenty minutes to feel comfortable. Hell, in twenty minutes, he owns the place. Even a crusty old goat like Jackie is treating him like royalty. I kept waiting for him to tell me why he had come so far to see me, after all these years, but he kept talking about baseball, the games we had played in, old teammates I had all but forgotten.
"So tell me, Randy," Jackie said at one point. "Did you ever make it up to the big leagues?"
There it was. I knew it would come up eventually. I certainly wasn't going to mention it myself.
Excerpted from The Hunting Wind by Steve Hamilton. Copyright © 2001 Steve Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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