Authors: Loren D. Estleman
“Write your congressman. Stop changing the subject.”
“That's fair. I can point a man to safety. Whether he goes there is up to him. What's first on the Yako case?”
“We'll get a warrant to access his computers at home and at work, if we don't get permission from those who can give it. Yako used to earn his keep fencing prescription drugs. We can wash these characters in the blood of the lamb, but we can't change their basic chemistry. They have an annoying habit of getting dirty all over again. If he's been dealing here, we'll know where to start looking for his killer.”
“You'll have a hard time hanging it on him without a corpse.”
“All we need is to show that mattress to a judge.”
“If Lieutenant Henty lets you take it.”
“After I intercepted that radio call I got my section chief out of a meeting. Henty's phone will be ringing any time. Yako was the property of the U.S. government. That takes his murder off local hands.”
“You'd think he'd be happy.”
“You would, wouldn't you?” She smiled. “It happened to me a couple of times when I was with the DPD. I'm still just so grateful I could spit.”
I looked at the picture in the frame on Henty's desk. It had changed: It was one of those electronic jobs that can't make up their mind. Now he was shooting hoops with a much younger version of himself wearing a Michigan State sweatshirt; proof even cops breed in captivity.
“Can I at least ask you to let me know if Yako's death turns out not to be connected with Gates's?” I asked.
“I think so. No details, mind.”
“In exchange for all the details I have.”
“I didn't think I had to say it.”
“You feds. It's like snagging a kite in a tree. The guy throws a tennis ball at it to knock it down and it keeps the tennis ball. Then he throws his racquet at it and it keeps that.”
“So buy a new kite.”
She laughed. Then she lifted her brows. “â
“I've been spending a lot of time in doctors' waiting rooms lately. The reading material's limited.”
Henty came in holding a sheaf of paper. “If you gals are through gabbing, I've got news.”
Thaler's eyes were better than mine. She'd worn glasses for years, but modern medical science had taken care of that. “Plate numbers? Looks like half the state.”
“Like I said, computer's got a hard-on for V-A-L. Begging your pardon, Deputy.”
“It's okay. I'm not sure I'd recognize one if I saw it. How many man hours are we looking at?”
He sat behind his desk and slid out a pair of readers. “We got a hundred sixty-three hits on V-A-L; but it isn't as bad as all that. The computer narrowed it down to ninety-two issued in counties in southeastern Michigan. We got some blanksâlimo outfits and law enforcement organizations reserve them in blocks, to speed up registrationâso we eliminated those. On a hunch I had the geek punch in local rental agencies. Forty-six hits there.”
“Decent hunch,” Thaler said. “If these were pro jobs, the driver wouldn't be likely to use his own wheels. I've got a way to pare it down further.”
“This is my job, not a hobby.”
“I'm sure.” He peeled aside a page and looked at the next. “Cars recently reported stolen bearing that partial: none.”
“Back to the rental agencies,” the deputy said.
“Don't sound so glum. They keep good records.”
I said, “What about stolen plates?”
“Nothing applicable so far,” Henty said. “Which means nothing. How often does a driver look at his plate? He could go on for weeks until he noticed it missing while he was washing his car or a cop pulled him over. It's snow-and-slush season, so even a sharp-eyed prowlie might not spot it. Then, more than likely, when asked the number, the owner doesn't have it memorized and has to dig out his registration and look it up. Pair that with the fact he's reporting to the Secretary of State's office and not the police, factor in the hang time before it's reported to usâ
it's reported; we're talking civil service hereâ”
“Stop. I can always look at my date book when I feel like being depressed.” Thaler finished entering data into her thingamajig. “Which leaves us just as out in the cold as when we started. We know the car that was used in the hit-and-run was either an Olds Alero, made the year GM dropped the Oldsmobile division, or maybe a Honda Civicââblue or gray in color,' the report says, as if it could be blue or gray in anything else. It'll have front-end damage and no doubt DNA on the undercarriage, but without a registration we can't start looking for it until we actually find it. If he's our man V-A-L, and he stole the plate, he could just as easily swipe another.”
The lieutenant tossed the printout onto his desk. “License registration is like a lock. It only keeps honest people honest.”
I got up.
Thaler looked up at me. “Where are you going?”
“I just remembered two things. I'm not in the car-finding business, and I'm not under arrest.”
“That's no answer,” she said.
“I signed on to help find out who killed Donald Gates. Maybe it was Yako, maybe somebody wanted us to think it was Yako, and patched a pothole with Thompson to make it stick. I'm going to check out Gates's hunting buddies. If anyone knows anyone else, he learned it living under the same roof for at least a week.”
“And if they can't tell you anything?” Henty said.
“Then I'm going to find out how many of them are heeled enough to have put up the reward for his killer's conviction.”
He took off his glasses. “I've been a cop longer than I wasn't. I never saw a dipsy-doodle alibi like that stand up longer than a soap bubble.”
Thaler said, “Let him try to pop it. Maybe it'll keep him out of the way while us grown-ups work.”
“Giving orders, Deputy?” asked Henty.
“Call it assisting,” I cut in. “It's friendlier.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The rain had subtracted itself from the equation, and finally we were getting snow: those hard tiny urban kernels that all look alike no matter what you hear, cling to the wipers in pale strands like freshwater pearls, and whipsnake across the pavement driven by the wind. I saw parkas, hoodies, camo, and the occasional case of denial in T-shirt and flip-flops plunging across the street without looking either direction and walking backwards into the teeth of the mini-blizzard. Pigeons perched on ledges were puffed up like stuffed squab.
The official groundhog in Pennsylvania had seen his shadow, auguring six more weeks of winter. His competitor in rural Livingston County had missed his, predicting early spring. For a while it seemed a third expert in Wisconsin had broken the tie, but he turned out to be a muskrat and was disenfranchised.
The season would grind on regardless, broken up by the thaws that seem exclusive to Michigan, that have you cranking down the air conditioner and cranking up the furnace in the same twelve-hour period. The climate's been changing like that since before mastodons wandered down Woodward Avenue.
Meanwhile everyone in the frozen world was learning how to drive all over again. Five cars passed me on the right driving ten over the limit, and a minivan straddled the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't white line going slow enough to pass for reverse. A gull-wing yellow sports job whipped out of a side street, taking three lines in a sliding loop, and wound up facing west in the eastbound, two car lengths in front of me. I started moving again and pulled around it. I needed a wrecking bar to uncramp my fingers from the wheel.
My cell rang. I pulled over to take the call, my heart still throbbing in my throat. The number, which I didn't recognize, turned out to belong to the tough little blonde in the rehab center in Highland Park.
“Have you made an appointment yet with that therapist?”
“One moment, Doctor.” I laid the cell on the passenger's seat, plucked a cigarette out of the pack with my teeth, and spent a couple of matches getting it lit. I drew the smoke in deep, let it stagger out, and picked up the phone.
“I was just about to place the call,” I said.
“I recommend it. I meant what I said about turning you over to the authorities.”
“Are you calling me over a real phone or that runty laptop?”
“What difference does it make?”
“I'd hate to have you ruin those blue eyes staring at a screen. I'll make the call today.” I gave the cheap cell a shake, which always made it crackle, and ended the call. People almost never do anything when they think it was dropped. They wait for you to call back. In light of that I'm prepared to let technology go on a little longer.
Amelie Gates frowned at her cards. “What's a bower again? I'm sorry.”
“Don't be. I had to bone up on the game myself before coming here.” I explained it, dealing a couple of hands to imaginary players. Playing euchre was like opening the cedar chest where my mother packed the hunting clothes: The smell of mothballs and evergreen and the motion of slapping a card down faceup took me back to a three-room cabin in Grayling that was out in the woods then but the last time I drove past it was well inside the city limits. The oil pig was missing, also the outhouse in back. What sort of people lived there now I couldn't guess.
“Impatience was one of Don's few faults. Every card game he tried to teach me wound up in a fight.”
“A good game of euchre sounds like one. My father was a Teamster. When I was five, I heard Jimmy Hoffa swearing in the kitchen. I thought he was killing my dad, but it turned out they were just playing cards. You can't really play it properly without a little blasphemy.”
“Wasn't Jimmy Hoffa some kind of gangster?”
We were sitting in a combined kitchen and dining room in her house in Iroquois Heights, at a round oak table in a bay window. The place was spotless, as widows' houses often are. It had stopped snowing. A car swept down the street, churning slush, and stopped for a light with a long slurring noise of warm rubber on slick asphalt. A cube pushed itself out of the ice maker in the refrigerator and landed with a clunk. It was one of those days peculiar to a Michigan winter, when you could hear a spider pat back a yawn in its web and watch a drowsy fly drift past. Now and then a hole opened in the overcast, drenching us both in warm sunlight, swirling with motes that glittered like gold dust as they turned. We were like two housecats napping with a bellyful of tuna.
She watched me arrange the two cards at my elbow. “Why don't you keep score on a piece of paper, like in cribbage?”
“No reason. It's just the way I was taught.” I moved the card I'd placed facedown on top of the nine of clubs, exposing two of the pips. “That's two for me and one for you. I'm being hustled.”
“You're sweet.” She drew a card from her hand slowly, biting her lower lip and looking to me for guidance. I nodded. She played it. In about twenty minutes she was beating the pants off me. It's that kind of game.
“Oh, I have those names for you. Don's old hunting buddies. I'm not sure if the addresses and telephone numbers are still good. It's been years.”
“The names will help. I know someone who knows how to use a computer. He should be able to track them down if they're still breathing.” I played a six of hearts.
“You don't use one?”
“I try not to have appliances in my house that are smarter than me.”
“The world's passing you by.”
“It keeps turning. I'll catch it on the next pass, or the one after that.”
“I like this game. It's reassuring, somehow.”
“Sure. You can't play it without going by the rules.”
“Is that some kind of philosophy?”
“It's just a game. Don't make it out to be anything more than it is.”
She rearranged the cards in her hand. “Should we be doing this?”
“We haven't even made a bet. Anyway I'm tight with the sheriff.”
“Not that. What would Don think? Gone just six weeks, and here I amâ”
She broke down then.
“Your play,” I said.
She swept the back of her hand across her eyes, sniffed, nodded, and laid down a six of hearts.
“It's not just that,” she said. “I'm keeping you from your investigation.”
“Yeah. I'm that lazy.” I drew a three of clubs; no help there. “I'm here because I promised, but I could've done that anytime. There's someone I want to talk to.”
Fate's a good stage manager. Just then a door banged and noise shot through the house like thudding thunder or a helicopter flying low over the roof: seventy pounds of boy in blue jeans, clodhopper sneakers, and a lumpy Michelin Man parka, dumping a backpack on a table, a pair of mittens on the floor six feet apart, and a brown knitted watch cap that hovered in midair like a chimney cinder before it fell in a crumple to the rug, the rest of it streaking past us in a red-blue blur. All that was missing was the “beep-beep.”
“Michel! Slow down! We have company.”
The boy skidded to a halt, staring at me with his mother's black-olive eyes in his father's generic face. “Sorry.”
“Don't be,” I said. “Just leave some of that for me.”
“Some of what?”
“Don't be rude. This is Mr. Walker. He's the man I told you about.”
He looked at me more steadily, a thin boyâa growth spurt caught in stop-motionâevery follicle of his black hair fighting training. His energy had flattened into a quiet idle. “The man who's going to find out who killed my father?”
“Do you want me to?”
“I guess.” He went into another room and shut the door.