Ralph Poteet is forty pounds overweight, out of gin, and he hasn’t seen his gun in weeks. As far as private detectives go, he’s not much to look at. But he’s the only one in the building, and that’s enough for Lyla Dane. A call girl who’s far better at her job than Ralph is at his, she calls him in the middle of the night because she has a dead monsignor in her bed.
After dealing with Lyla’s deceased client, Ralph tries his hand at blackmail, offering to keep mum about the priest’s embarrassing demise in exchange for a payoff from the diocese. But when somebody tries to kill Ralph and Lyla, Detroit’s most unsavory PI is swept into an unholy swarm of deadly secrets that resonates all the way to Washington, DC, and the Vatican.
Three-time Shamus Award–winning author Loren D. Estleman delivers a witty, ribald send-up of the hard-boiled detective genre in this action-packed crime novel.
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About the Author
Loren D. Estleman (b. 1952) has written over sixty-five novels. His most enduring character, Amos Walker, made his first appearance in 1980’s Motor City Blue, and the hardboiled Detroit private eye has been featured in twenty books since. Estleman has also won praise for his adventure novels set in the Old West, receiving awards for many of his standalone westerns. In 1993 Estleman married Deborah Morgan, a fellow mystery author. He lives and works in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
By Loren D. Estleman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Loren D. Estleman
All rights reserved.
Call him Ralph.
Better yet, don't call him. At least not before noon, because if you do he's liable to answer on about the eighth ring and say something like:
"Whoever you are, you'd better hang up right now, or I'll find out where you park your car and do something in the gas tank you won't like."
The caller on this occasion paused. "I don't own a car."
"Then I'll do it to you."
"Is this Ralph?"
The voice belonged to a woman. He could tell, because on mornings like this anything higher than a male tenor set his hangover on edge. "Who the hell is this?"
"This is Lyla."
"Who the hell is Lyla?"
"Lyla Dane. I live in the apartment above you, for chrissake. We see each other every day."
"You live over a dirty bookstore. What do you expect for a neighbor, a frigging rocket scientist?"
Ralph Poteet sat up in bed and rumpled his mouse-colored hair. His head felt like grout. He fumbled the alarm clock off the night table and held it very close to his good eye. He laid it face down and whined into the receiver, "It's two-thirty ayem!"
"Hey, thanks. My watch stopped and I knew if I called you you'd tell me what time it is. Listen, you're like a cop, right?"
"Not at two-thirty ayem."
"I'll give you a hundred bucks to come up here now."
He blew his nose on the sheet. "Ain't that supposed to work the other way around?"
"Jesus Christ. You coming up or not? You ain't the only dick in town. I just called you because you're handy."
"What's the squeal?"
"I got a dead priest in my bed."
When she had repeated the statement, he said he was on his way and hung up. He sat there for a minute moving his tongue around inside his mouth. It reminded him of an armpit. When he moved, a square gin bottle slid off the blanket. He caught it before it hit the floor, saw it was empty, and dropped it. He shambled into the bathroom, which had started out as a closet and seemed determined to stay that way, and emptied his swollen bladder into the toilet with his forehead resting against the slope of the ceiling. While thus engaged he went through his morning catechism, asking himself his name, his address, and where he had spent the evening. He got the first right, wasn't sure about the second, and drew a blank on the third. He was doing better than usual.
Back in the bedroom he put on his Tyrolean hat with an orange feather in the band and after a brief search found his suitpants on the floor half under the bed. These he pulled on over his pajamas. He stuck bare feet into his loafers and because it was October he tugged on his suitcoat, grunting with the effort. He was forty- three years old and forty pounds overweight. He looked for his gun just because it was 2:40 A.M. in Detroit, but it was a halfhearted attempt; he hadn't seen it in weeks. He gave up and went out. The hallway smelled of condoms and cooked cabbage.
Lyla Dane's buzzer was the only one in the building that worked, not counting the one on the ground floor that the landlord used during police raids in election years. The door snapped open. Lyla was just five feet and ninety pounds in a red kimono and pink satin slippers with white butterflies on the toes. She wore her black hair very short.
"You look like shit," she said.
"That's what two hours' sleep will do for you. Where's the hundred?"
"Don't you want to see the stiff first?"
"What do I look like, a pervert?"
"Yeah." Stepping away from the door she drew a key from the pocket of the kimono and unlocked a drawer in the lamp table. Inside was a metal box, from which she took a brick of paper currency and counted a hundred dollars in twenties and tens into Ralph's palm. She put the rest back in the box.
"I thought broads always kept their valuables in the bedroom." He counted the money again and pocketed it.
"That's why I keep mine here."
She locked the drawer and led him through a small living room decorated by K mart into a smaller bedroom containing a Queen Anne bed that had cost twice as much as all the other furniture combined and took up most of the space in the room. The rest of the space was taken up by Monsignor John Breame, pastor of St. Balthazar downtown, a cathedral Ralph sometimes used to exchange pictures for money in his favorite pew, although not so much lately because the divorce business was on the slide; no- fault was killing his livelihood. He recognized the monsignor's pontifical belly holding up the flesh-colored satin sheet. The monsignor's face was purple.
Ralph found a Blue Diamond matchstick in his suitcoat and stuck the end between his teeth. He was beginning to feel better already. "He a regular?"
"That's the kind of question I don't answer. Tonight I thought he was breathing a little hard after. Then he wasn't."
"Well, he's deader'n Pope John."
"Thanks again. I thought he was imitating a fucking Buick."
"At least he wasn't a fag." He rubbed his bad eye. "I guess you wouldn't know where I was last night."
She hesitated. "It sure wasn't here."
"It'll come back. So what do you want me to do?"
"Get rid of him, what else? Cops find him here the Christers'll run me out on a cross. I just got nicely established."
"Cost you another hundred."
"I just gave you a hundred."
"That was for coming up. You're lucky I don't charge by the pound. Look at that gut."
"You look at it. He liked the missionary position."
"That fits. What's a hundred? You don't even take 'em all the way off for that."
"Son of a bitch."
She left the room and came back with the second hundred. This time he didn't bother to count it. "Take a walk," he said. "Come back at dawn."
"Where'll I go?"
"There's beds all over town. You probably been in half of them. Or go find an all-night movie if you don't feel like working. What am I, a cruise director? Use your head for something besides head."
"Funny. That's new since Coolidge." She started to untie the kimono, stopped. "You going to watch?"
"What's the matter, you work with the lights off?"
"You didn't pay to find out. Move it or lose it."
He moved it. She slammed the bedroom door. In the living room, still chewing on the matchstick, he wandered over to the lamp table and tried the drawer. It was locked. He picked at the mechanism with the matchstick. Lyla, in white panties and a peach-colored bra, came out of the bedroom carrying the key, opened the drawer, and took the metal box with her into the bedroom. He admired the English in her tight backside.
Five minutes later she emerged wearing a canary jumpsuit, tan jacket and a red wig that needed an aircraft light. She had on working makeup; her lashes were longer and twice as thick, her face less round and not as puffy under the eyes. Something about the way she handled her brown shoulderbag told Ralph he would find the metal box empty.
"So it's work."
"I got to make back two hundred by sunup." She paused at the door to the hallway. "What are you going to do with him?"
"You really want to know?"
"I guess not. Hell, no."
"Go fuck yourself."
When she had gone, he helped himself to a can of Budweiser from the refrigerator in the kitchenette. He helped himself to another and then he went back into the bedroom and looked up a number in the metropolitan directory. He sat down on the edge of the bed and used the pink telephone on the night table. He was feeling better by the minute.
While he was waiting for someone to answer, he patted the monsignor's sheet-covered foot. "What do you say, Father? She worth it?"
He swallowed his matchstick. When he finished coughing it up, he realized someone was on the line. He cleared his throat. "Is this Bishop Steelcase?"
"It's three ayem," said Bishop Steelcase.
"Thank you. My name is Ralph Poteet. I'm a private detective. I'm sorry to have to inform you Monsignor Breame is dead."
"Mary mother of God!" The harshness went out of the bishop's voice like air. "What happened?"
"I'm no expert. It looks like a coronary."
"Mary mother of God. In bed?"
"Was he — do you know if he was in a state of grace?"
Ralph produced another matchstick. "See, that's what I called to talk to you about," he said.CHAPTER 2
He had time to kill. When he was through talking with the bishop, he worked the plunger and dialed the number of the adult bookstore downstairs. It rang a long time before a voice like ground glass answered.
"Jesus Christ. Hello."
"Vinnie, this is Ralph."
"It's three-thirty ayem!"
"Thanks. Listen, I'm up here at Lyla's."
"Oh yeah?" There was a leer in his voice; but then there was generally.
"I need my camera."
Pause. "Who you going to get to take the pictures?"
"Cut the crap. Can you bring it up?"
"You going to pay me the rent you owe?"
"I just want to borrow it."
"Last time you borrowed something from me I had to buy it back from a fence."
"It got stolen from my car. We been through that."
"What was you doing with a five-year run of Screw magazine in your car?"
"You going to let me have the camera or not?"
"You got six hundred bucks?"
"Hell, Vinnie, it ain't worth fifty. The shutter sticks and the flash don't work."
"When you left it here you said you paid two hundred for it."
"Listen, if I give you fifty can I have it for an hour?"
"No, I thought I'd put it on the Gold Card. Jesus."
"'Cause that last check you wrote bounced from here to Lansing."
"I'll bring it up. You better have fifty in your hand."
Ralph broke the connection. Talking to Vinnie was like playing handball in a fish tank. Absently he pocketed a sterling silver ashtray he found on the night table.
Vinnie sounded like a professional wrestler and looked like the house eunuch. He had a round, perfectly bald head, round eyes, a round nose, mouth, and body, and when he walked he always stuck the sole of his foot out at an angle like a character in a comic strip. A childhood illness had claimed all his hair; Ralph had a bet with the bookie on his floor that Vinnie's crotch was hairless as well, but so far neither had had the opportunity to collect, nor wanted to. He stood in the hallway wearing a fuzzy yellow robe and dangling the camera, an old black Canon, from its strap at his side. "Where's the fifty?"
Ralph separated two twenties and a ten from his roll and laid them in the landlord's fat palm.
"That's some choke," Vinnie said. "If you went and hit the lottery, remember you're into me for six yards."
"Just give me the camera."
He gave it to him. "Where's Lyla?"
"Thought she worked at home."
"Not this morning." Ralph tested the focus. "You didn't see me go out last night, did you?"
"Seen you go out, heard you come in. About one o'clock, it was. That hat don't go with your pajamas."
"Anybody come back with me?"
"Sure, Cybill Shepherd and that Winger dame. The one in An Officer and a Gentleman. I guess you, forgot."
"Go to bed, Vinnie. I'll get this back to you later."
"Maybe I better come in and look around. It ain't like Lyla to be out this time of the morning. She could get raped."
Ralph blocked the door. "That'd come under theft of services." He held up another ten. "Night-night, Vinnie."
"Happy photography." Vinnie took it and left.
"Don't forget to credit me," Ralph called after him.
He opened the back of the camera. Half the roll of film was exposed. After some thought he remembered it contained shots of Mrs. Wayne County Supervisor Horace Powell and a supermarket stock clerk named Hashmi. He had had plans for the pictures, but then Powell had been forced to resign over a kickback scheme involving sanitation-removal contracts and Ralph had not bothered to develop the roll. He deplored the escalating corruption in local government.
In the bedroom he turned on both lamps and adjusted the shades so that their light shone full upon Monsignor Breame's congested countenance. The fat priest looked as if he were scowling in the confessional. Opening the closet, Ralph flipped through the negligees hanging there until he came to one he especially liked, a see-through tangerine number with lace on the bodice, and arranged it at the foot of the bed along with a matching pair of panties he found in Lyla's dresser with WELCOME ABOARD U.S.S. JOYTRAIL embroidered in red above the crotch. Then he stepped back to survey the scene. It looked too contrived. He picked up the panties and hung them on the bedpost. "Perfect."
He took a dozen pictures from different angles, finishing the roll with an artsy shot from the foot of the bed that made the monsignor look like a corpulent Frankensiein, then put the roll in his pocket and went back downstairs to stash the camera in his apartment. Vinnie could sue him for it. Ralph had been ducking process servers since he was twenty.
Back at Lyla's he put away the negligee and panties and straightened the lampshades. Just then the door buzzer sounded.
The man was tall and gaunt, with a complexion like damp pulp and hair of no identifiable color, cropped down almost to stubble. His feet were large in black oxfords and he had big hands with scrubbed nails like a mortician's. He had on a black coat buttoned to the neck. His eyes had no whites and Ralph thought he looked like an early martyr.
"Yeah. You're from Steelcase?"
That was the name the bishop had given him. He stepped aside and the man went straight into the bedroom without looking around. Once there he took in the scene.
"Lots of light."
"You ever been in a dark room with a stiff?" Ralph asked.
"A time or two. Is there a back stairs?"
"Just a fire escape. It ain't been used in thirty years. I wouldn't try to carry a grudge down it."
Carpenter studied the corpse. "He's bigger than I thought."
"You bring a hand truck?"
"No." He lifted the monsignor's bare arm from the bedspread and let it drop. "Help me dress him while he still bends."
"Who said we have to dress him?"
"Trust me. You don't want to carry a naked body down two flights of stairs."
"You talk like you done it before. What was it you said you do for the bishop?"
"I didn't say. The figure was a hundred dollars." Carpenter produced two fifties from a flat wallet. Cold fingers touched Ralph's as the bills changed hands.
"Well, what the hell."
The monsignor's clothes consisted of an ordinary gray suit cut for an extraordinary figure, a white dress shirt, and striped boxer shorts draped over a chair. He wore only a rosary around his huge neck. Carpenter got the corpse's right arm into a shirt sleeve and, grunting, lifted the upper body by the shoulders for Ralph to manage the other. The monsignor groaned.
Ralph leaped back, colliding with a wall. "He ain't dead!"
"Air trapped in the lungs. They always do that. Put his shirt on."
"You put it on. We'll split the hundred."
"You want to hold him up?"
Ralph edged forward and picked up the other sleeve.
The job took half an hour, long enough for Ralph to trade his loathing for exhaustion. The trousers were the hardest: Ralph, the only one of the pair with the necessary bulk, had to push the massive body onto its side and brace his shoulder against it while Carpenter finished tugging them on. They tied the monsignor's shoelaces and helped him into his suitcoat.
Ralph plopped into the chair and got out his handkerchief. "I wish Ma was here. She wanted me to get closer to the Church."
"Head or feet?"
He looked at Carpenter, who still had his coat on, buttoned all the way up. "Don't you stop to sweat?"
"I'm not paid to. It'll be getting light in an hour."
Ralph took the feet. They knocked over a lamp and a cheap portable color TV, got the body into the hallway, and dragged its heels across the runner onto the staircase landing, where they stood it against the wall. Just then an old woman in a white babushka and black leather jacket came up the stairs carrying a purse the size of a valise.
Ralph, propping up the monsignor with a hand under his arm, smiled. "Good morning, Mrs. Gelatto. How was work?"
She stopped two steps down from the landing, reached into her purse, and put on a pair of tilted glasses with rhinestones on the frames. She peered through the thick lenses.
"Oh, it's you. Who's that with you?"
"Just a couple of friends. They're on their way home."
"You shouldn't let the fat one drive. He can't hardly stand up."
"We won't, Mrs. Gelatto."
Excerpted from Peeper by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 1989 Loren D. Estleman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This one is a lot of fun. All the characters think they are comedians and the one-liners never stop. Ralph Poteet is an alleged private eye, reduced to working as a file clerk at a detective agency. There's a lot of potentially interesting back story here that Estleman leaves out. It might have made for an even better book. As it is, this one starts to flag a little after the midpoint. The nadir is an unbelievable computer hacking incident that lacks even the trappings of believability. But the plot really isn't the point here; it's meant to be a roller coaster through the seamy side of Detroit, and in that ambition it succeeds very well.A book like this makes me think that perhaps writing is a little TOO easy for the prolific Estleman.