Authors: Loren D. Estleman
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To Elmore Leonard (1925â2013).
“Mister? I've got a confession to make.”
“Yeah? Try a priest.”
“I'm not a Catholic.”
“Then find a cop.”
I leaned along the bar and whispered in his ear: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
“You and Johnny Cash.” He leaned the other direction, closing his hands around his glass.
“Reno's in Nevada.”
“Last time I checked.”
“What I can't figure out is why they put me in a California penal institution.”
“You're drunk, pal.”
“A non sequitur. I asked a simple question and I want a complicated answer.”
He looked at me directly for the first time. He had a big face, red as a brick, a forehead stacked with wrinkles, and foreman written all over him. The saloon was a bare-bones affair across from the GM assembly plant in Highland Park; you didn't patronize it so much as wander inside because it stood between you and home. There was no pool table, no juke, and the toilet paper rolls in the men's room were padlocked. The bartender worked his way one direction with a pitcher of beer and the other with a bottle of Ten High. The job never ended. It was like painting the Big Mac bridge.
“Buddy, you don't stop breathing in my face, you'll get your answer.”
“Show me your face and I'll breathe in it. I'm sick of looking at your butt.”
He swung at me, but the joke was on him. I slid off the stool, but I never got as far as the floor. An angel dressed all in black folded her wings around me and bore me away from there.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
They were pretty rough on me in rehab, but then they had to be: I was as hard as a hangnail and tough as suet. When after three weeks I was well enough to get dressed, I found a cigarette burn on my pants. Probably it had been there some time.
The physician who wound up in charge of my case was a tough little blonde with freckles, who spent most of the consultation in her office looking at my file on an Etch A Sketch in her hand.
“You're lucky to be alive, you know.”
“I know. I should take this streak to Vegas.”
“You OD'd on alcohol and prescription drugs. We pumped enough Vicodin out of your stomach to put down King Kong. You've got the constitution of an ox, I'll say that. It says here you favor your left leg.”
“Actually, I'm disappointed in it.”
“Which explains the scar on that thigh. There are others. A nasty one on your side, too high for an appendectomy. I think your skull was fractured once.”
“Only once? I want a second opinion.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I'm a private eye.”
“Fine, don't tell me. How are you feeling?”
“I could use a smoke.”
“Is that supposed to be funny?”
“Am I laughing?”
“Mr. Walker, you were brought here instead of to jail, where you would've been booked for possession of a controlled substance without a valid prescription. The one you had expired years ago. You should have stopped taking Vicodin then, and you never should have drunk alcohol while you were taking it.”
“I quit the pills over a year ago. I took them up again after I got into a foot chase that turned into the New York Marathon. I guess you could say I went into a tailspin after that.”
“You were already in it. Look, I can approve your release, recommend you remain with us a while longer, or let the police do what the police do when someone breaks the law. It so happens we need your bed for someone who really wants to get better, and the jails are full of honest criminals, so I'll ask for assurance you'll seek professional help outside this institution to relieve you of your addiction. Yes?”
“On one condition.”
“What's that?” She flicked a varnished fingernail at the screen she was holding.
“You make eye contact with me just once.”
She looked up from her gizmo.
“Blue,” I said. “Just as I thought.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
There'd been more to it than simple pain, of course. I'd passed a milestone birthday I thought I'd never seeâI hadn't expected to die before it, just had never seen myself being that ageâand the only other one to acknowledge it was the place that services my Cutlass, along with a reminder that I was due for an oil change. Right on top of that I took a job looking for a lost child that had ended in the basement of a registered sex offender. The girl would have been about the age of my grandchild, if my marriage had stuck. I told the first cop on the scene the homeowner fell up a flight of stairs. The blue-collar bar they'd shoveled me out of a week later was just down the street from the kid who ordered my pills from Canada by way of the Internet.
I thought of celebrating my coming-out with a meal, but the smell of the restaurant when I stepped in the door stuck a lever under my stomach and turned it over. I went to Twelve Oaks Mall instead and got fitted for a new suit.
The tailor, a good-looking young black man in starched cuffs and collar, draped his tape measure back around his neck. “Forty-two long.”
“I take a forty-four.”
He measured again; an accommodating type. “Forty-two.”
“It's always been forty-four.”
“âAlways' isn't a word we use in my work. People gain weight and lose it. Have you been ill?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
He rang up the sale. “We'll have the alterations done by the end of the week.”
“By then it won't fit me. Where's the best place to eat around here?”
I was recovering, although not nearly as fast as I'd unrecovered.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I went to my office first. Rosecranz, the antediluvian super, was snapping new letters into the directory in the lobby. I read what he'd finished:
“I guess. The rest is âE BOOKS.'”
“What's an e-book?”
“My great-grandniece has one. It's like a cell phone, only you read books on it. My day, you didn't need batteries to read.”
“Those stone tablets are hard to lug around.”
My olfactory sense had corrected itself. The two flights of stairs were haunted by the ghosts of nickel cigars, Black Jack gum, and forty rounds in the ring at the Kronk Boxing Club. A puff of stale air came out of my waiting room when I opened the door. I'd left it unlocked for the inconvenience of clients. That had been a month ago.
The rock-hard bench and chipped coffee table were still there, also the magazines with Leon Spinks and Molly Ringwald on the covers. I unlocked the door to the sacristy, scooped up the pile of mail under the slot, dumped it on the desk, and opened the window on raw February. Detroit was far behind on snow that season. All the sins of summer and fall lay exposed on the dead grass and the streets had the cruel gray polished look of a printer's stone. The trees the county jail inmates had planted to dress up the place looked like twists of wire. A miniature foil top hat left over from New Year's Eve was stuck on a branch.
I'd missed the party, also a presidential inauguration and Groundhog Day, but there was still St. Valentine's to get through. I should have taken the doctor up on her offer and gone to the clink.
The ceiling fixture dimmed, then brightened. Karaoke Press had opened for business, overloading the building's Taft-era wiring. If the economy got any better, the corporation that owned the joint would have to remodel.
I dialed my voice-mail number and put it on speaker while I sorted mail. Someone wanted to sell me a long-term mortgage that would be paid off by my ghost; the owner of a gravel voice wanted me to kidnap his neighbor's barking dog; an online detective school invited me to serve on its faculty, my commission to be based on how many students I attracted; a woman who lengthened her vowels like a native Canadian wondered if I'd consider taking my fee in Dominion currency; General Motors had issued a recall on a car I hadn't owned in ten years; Gravel Voice said, look, if I didn't want to risk kidnapping the dog, I could just shoot it; my high school reunion was coming up again, just like quack grass; a man who whispered wanted me to search his geriatric nurse's apartment for his watch, wallet, and upper plate; a postcard signed by somebody I never heard of had an arrow pointing to his room in a hotel in Belize; Gravel Voice said to hell with it, he'd shoot the mutt himself. I lifted one foot off my desk and positioned the heel to break the connection.
“Walker, this is Ray Henty. I know how you feel about Iroquois Heights, but I wonder if you can come up and give me a hand.”
The robotic voice belonging to the telephone company told me the call had come in just that morning. I dumped the mail, cut off the rest of my messages, and called the number of the police department that had given me more trouble than all the others combined.
“Lieutenant,” I said, when I got Henty's extension. “Or is it captain now?”
“I'm lucky it isn't deputy, with a beat out in
country. You sound rough. Got a bug?”
“No. Just a monkey on my back. What's so important I have to go up there and get my head mailed back to me?”
“You know that's all changed since they gave the police department the boot. We're still chucking out the rotten eggs, but if anybody gives you grief, I'll have him up on charges so fast his pants will be down around his ankles.”
“I've heard that before. You know how you can tell an egg's rotten? It always comes floating back to the top.”
“Look, if you're afraidâ”
“I'm afraid. I've only got one more concussion coming and I'm saving it for a woman in Eastpointe who works under the professional name Madame Mayhem.”
“Okay. Jesus. As it so happens, this isn't something I want to talk about in the Heights. Will you come to my house? It's outside trigger-happy pistol range.”
“You know who killed me. That's what's up.”