Authors: Dani Amore
High Praise for Dani Amore’s
“As gritty as the Detroit streets where it’s set, DEAD WOOD grabs you early on and doesn’t let go. As fine a debut as you’ll come across this year, maybe any year.”
Tom Schreck, author of Out Cold, A Duffy Dombrowski Mystery
“From its opening lines, Dani Amore and her private eye novel DEAD WOOD recall early James Ellroy: a fresh attitude and voice and the heady rush of boundless yearning and ambition. Amore delivers a vivid evocation of time and place in a way that few debut authors achieve, nailing the essence of her chosen corner of high-tone Michigan. She also deftly dodges the pitfalls that make so much contemporary private detective fiction a mixed bag and nostalgia-freighted misfire. Amore’s detective has family; he’s steady. He’s not another burned-out, booze-hound hanging on teeth and toenails to the world and smugly wallowing in his own ennui. This is the first new private eye novel in a long time that just swept me along for the ride. Amore is definitely one to watch.”
Craig McDonald, Edgar-nominated author
“Dead Wood is a fast-paced, unpredictable mystery with an engaging narrator and a rich cast of original supporting characters.”
Thomas Perry, Edgar-winning author of The Butcher’s Boy.
We all need someone we can bleed on…
—The Rolling Stones
t was New Year’s Eve and I was living my dream. I was a cop. The youngest guy on the force, pulling the worst of the shifts but I couldn’t have been happier.
I’d wanted to be a cop all my life.
It was a brutally cold New Year’s Eve in Grosse Pointe, especially along the lake. A nasty Canadian wind was howling down and blasting Detroit with the kind of cold that ignores your clothes and tears directly into your skin.
I’d been a cop for six months. Just long enough to be taken off probation. Not long enough to be considered anything but a green rookie. I was in my squad car, driving down Lake Shore thinking about the New Years’ Eve party ahead, about how my girlfriend and I were going to celebrate.
Elizabeth Pierce was actually more than my girlfriend, she was my fiancé and a true Grosse Pointe blue blood. I was definitely marrying up.
I headed down Lake Shore Drive toward the Detroit border. I passed a house with three ten-foot angels on the roof. Thousands of Christmas lights lit up the house and yard turning the quarter acre lot into a Las Vegas outpost. Across the street, the surprisingly vast, dark waters of Lake St. Clair stood in stark contrast to the hundred thousand watts supplied by the Detroit Energy Company.
I turned right on Oxford, away from the lake, just as my radio broke the monotony of the wind’s fury. I glanced at the dashboard clock. It read 11:18
It was listed as a 10-107. Possible intoxicated person. I jotted down the address and pressed the accelerator.
It would be my last call for the night. By the time I got back to the office, turned in the car and did the paperwork, it would already be past midnight, probably closer to one a.m.
An image of Elizabeth floated through my mind. She would have her blonde hair tied back tonight, her diamond earrings sparkling, a glass of champagne ready for me. She might even be a little drunk. We’d hang out, go to a couple of parties, then retire back to my place and ring in the New Year the best way of all.
I cruised up Oxford Street and flashed the spotlight on the street numbers until I came to 1370. I called in to dispatch, got out of the cruiser and walked to the front door. The wind wasn’t letting up farther from the lake. The sweat from my hand momentarily froze on the brass knocker and stung when I broke my hand free. I banged the knocker against the oak a few times, noticing the small, worn indentations where the metal had been knocked raw. An elderly woman in a glittery blouse with a cigarette between her fingers opened the door.
“He was staggering down the street,” she said, gesturing with a shaking hand toward the other end of the street. The cigarette’s red, glowing end bobbed in the dark with each tremor of her hand.
I could smell her breath, a strong dose of stale smoke. She was ancient, probably between eighty or ninety with saggy skin and deep creases everywhere.
“How long ago?” I said.
“Just a few minutes. The poor boy was going to freeze to death. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, even. These kids.” She shook her head. “Sometimes they act like animals!” Her voice was raspy and thick. She ran her tongue over her lips.
“Can you describe him?”
“Thin. Pale. Young.” She squinted at me through the cigarette smoke. “Younger than you.”
“Which way did he go?”
She nodded with her head. “He’s probably still staggering around. Look under a shrub or two, you’ll find him.” Her little laugh sounded like a cat coughing up a hairball.
“Thanks for the advice, ma’am. Have a good New Year.”
I turned before I could hear her response. Back in the squad car, I called in again to dispatch again and put the car in gear, then prowled slowly up the block. The homes were alive with lights and colors, glimpses of holiday sweaters, hands clutching egg nog cups or champagne glasses. The twinkle of trees decorated with Christmas lights sparkled through the big picture windows.
On the second block down, I saw him.
A smear of white skin in the night. I pulled the squad car up next to the kid, radioed in to dispatch then parked and got out.
“How you doin’ tonight?” I said, and pointed the flashlight in the kid’s face. Young. Maybe around eighteen, I figured. Big brown eyes, his hair wild, his shirt gone, in jeans and barefoot. I didn’t see any signs of frostbite, but he couldn’t be out in this cold much longer. His skin was nearly purple.
The kid looked at me, but recognition was dim. He mumbled something but it was incoherent. Not a single identifiable word escaped his lips. I could smell the booze, though. Strong. Almost fruity. Like peach schnapps or something.
“Sending the year out in style, are we?” I asked. “There must be a helluva party somewhere.”
The kid mumbled something and tried to walk away. I grabbed his arm and he sagged. I knew what I had to do. Put him in the back of the squad car, book him for public drunkenness, and let him dry out in jail. Shitty way to kick off the New Year.
I helped him to his feet, planned to take him to the car and on into the station when the man appeared from around the corner.
“Ah, Officer!” he called. I turned. The man was bundled up in a thick winter jacket and he had a wool fedora, the kind with the built-in ear flaps, pulled down. At first, I thought he was a woman from the way he ran. His hips moved with a swishing motion. His thick black glasses were nearly steamed up with the melted snow glistening on the lenses. He was a little older than the kid, probably in his mid to late twenties. But it was hard to tell.
“Oh my God Benjamin,” the man said, and produced a leather coat which he helped onto the boy. His voice was high and wavering with a thick lisp. “This is my responsibility, Officer, not Ben’s. This should never have happened.” He shook his head like a disappointed mother. “He had an office Christmas party today and then he was hitting the cocktails when I left to get thyme for the chicken and when I came back, he was gone. I’ve been going crazy trying to find him.”
“Could I see some identification, sir?” I said.
The man, wearing gloves, gently withdrew a wallet from his back pocket. I looked at the address on the license as the man put the coat on the boy. The address was just a few blocks over. I glanced at the picture and the name on the license. The picture matched.
I handed the license back to the man and studied the kid once more. “Benjamin, what’s your last name?” I shone the flashlight in the kid’s eyes. He didn’t wince or look away.
“Collins, Officer,” the man said. “His name is Benjamin Collins. I’m so sorry about this, sir,” the man continued, his voice high and nervous. I stepped back to the cruiser, called dispatch, and had them run Benjamin Collins through the system. The name came back clean. I had dispatch run the man through, too. He came back without any hits.
I thought about it. The kid was in bad shape. By the time he was booked, printed and in an actual jail cell, he’d be even worse. I thought about one time in high school when a cop pulled me over. I had a beer between my legs and a twelve-pack in the trunk. He made me dump everything out and go home, rather than taking me in, calling my parents and basically ruining my life. That act of kindness was a better lesson than being thrown into a holding cell with a bunch of lowlifes.
Well, I thought, now’s my chance to return the favor. Besides, it was New Year’s Eve. Who wanted to start the year off in jail?
I walked back to find the man slipping winter boots onto the kid’s feet. “Okay,” I said. “Get him home. I’ll give him a warning this time, but if I ever see his name come up again…”
“Perfectly understood, Officer,” the man said. He shook my hand heartily. “Again, I’m so sorry. He’s a beautiful, beautiful person, but when he drinks, sometimes….”
The man put his arm around the boy and began walking away, practically carrying the younger man. The wind had picked up and was now packing a ferocious wallop.
“Want a lift?” I asked.
“That’s quite all right, Officer.” The man’s voice was nearly lost in the wind. “We’re right around the corner.”
I watched them turn the corner, then got back in the car and wiped the snow from my face and called in my position.
In my mind, I had done my final good deed of the year. I had finished out the New Year the best way possible, doing something nice for someone, and now it was time to see a beautiful girl about a glass of champagne.
• • •
The call came at five twenty-one in the morning. About an hour past mine and Elizabeth’s final lovemaking session of the night.
I untangled my body from Elizabeth’s and listened to the voice of Chief Michalski telling me to get down to the Yacht Club immediately.
Fifteen minutes later, I watched as Benjamin Collins’ body was loaded into the coroner’s van. They’d found his i.d. on the frozen pier just twenty feet or so from where his nude, mutilated body had been seen bobbing in the small patch of water heated by the Yacht Club’s boiler runoff.
I stood there in the cold, as numb and unfeeling as I’d ever been in my entire life. They let me look at the body. It was a sight I would never forget.
By the end of the day, I’d given my version of the events of the night before well over a dozen times. To the Chief. To internal investigators. I desperately wanted to join in the search for the man to whom I’d turned over Benjamin Collins, but I was kept away from the investigation. Left to sit in a room and think about what I’d done.
No one had chewed me out. No one blamed me for fucking up, but it was there just the same.
Finally, the Chief called me in and asked for my gun and badge. It was administrative leave. Until things were sorted out and the killer was caught. Until then, I was gone. The department might be liable should Collins’ relatives seek litigation. I left his office, taking one last look at my gun and badge before he swept them off his desk and into his drawer.
I never got them back.