Authors: Loren D. Estleman
Ray Henty lived in a bedroom community as old as Iroquois Heights; at some point in the era of whistle-stop campaigns, it had taken itself out of the running for county seat, and dodged the stink of suburban politics. There was a hardware store downtown that sold nails by the pound and old-growth oaks flanked the residential streets. A brew pub had opened in the old neighborhood movie theater since the last time I drove through. That would have made the front page if the place still had a newspaper.
Yet another mayor of the Heights was under federal indictment, and a petition to dissolve the police department had put the issue up to the voters. This time, even the disappearance of three ballot boxes had failed to maintain the status quo. The county sheriff's department set up a substation in the old city hall, with Lieutenant Henty in command. The situation was desperate enough to waive the ordinance requiring residency inside the city limits.
He'd earned the appointment. I'd worked with him a couple of times when he headed the Missing Persons division at headquarters; for a cop he was friendly to a plastic badge, and he had a talent for getting various branches of law enforcement to cooperate. He'd never once fired his sidearm except to qualify, which working that close to Detroit said something about his ability to contain a situation.
Henty didn't waste time. Before he sat down at his new desk, he brought in an outside firm to recalibrate the parking meters so that they didn't shave five minutes off every hour and sent deputies to confiscate the gadgets that changed all the red lights to green for cars driven by wives of petty city officials. Of course he made enemies: Someone dug up a former suspect in a chain of burglaries who said Deputy Henty had ruptured his eardrum during an interrogation fifteen years ago, a female corrections officer in the county jail announced that he'd made unwelcome sexual advances to her when he was a sergeant. They later recanted, and a former member of the local police commission was charged with suborning to commit perjury.
Soon he had company. Henty personally swung a sledge against a wall in the old police evidence room and found the priest-hole containing all the cash and confiscated heroin that had vanished from inventory due to an error in accounting. That had led to more indictments, an extradition from Uruguay, and an invitation to the lieutenant to speak at a national criminologists' convention in Las Vegas.
Which he declined. “Too busy.” Translation: “I don't want to walk into my suite and find a hooker waiting for me with her press agent.”
The house was a small brick mansard with a fake widow's walk on the roof and a brick carriage house in back. He called to me from there after I slammed my door in the driveway. Dusk was drifting in; yellow light framed him where he stood holding open one of the double doors.
“Where's Mister Ed?” I sank my paw deep in his, sparing my fingers.
He gave me his iron grin. He was a U.S. Marine vet and looked the part, jarhead and all, in an old white dress shirt rolled up past his biceps, corduroys, and scuffed sneakers. He was fifty, but could pass for midthirties in the right light. “You look like shit. You ought to give up red meat.”
“Also booze, cigarettes, painkillers, and all other forms of entertainment. I hit into the rough. I'm all right now.”
“Keep telling yourself that. Maybe you'll buy it. Show you something.” He stepped aside to let me come in, closed the door behind me, and made sure of it with a hook-and-eye. Then he took three steps and snatched the blue tarp off a white 1966 Ford Fairlane with red vinyl seats, russet in patches where the primer had worn through.
“Is that what I think it is?”
“See for yourself.” He jerked his square chin toward the hood.
I rapped on it, got a dull thud.
“Yep. Fiberglass cold-air hood. Only fifty-seven ever built. Soon as I find a trans, I'll match it to that piece-of-crap Cutlass of yours mile for mile.”
“Don't underestimate that piece of crap. I keep all the dirt and rust on the outside for show. They're going to say you grafted to get this.”
“That's why I keep receipts, and have myself audited every year. If they want me off the job they'd better use a gun. Don't tell Vicky I said that. She's superstitious.”
“Then don't say it.” I looked around. He'd lined the place with pegboard and hung it with stainless steel tools: bling for the gearhead. An electric chain fall perched in a cross-timber above the car and he had a roll of industrial transparent plastic stored in the rafters, to seal off the vehicle when it came time to spray paint. A redhead gripped a welding torch in a picture on a calendar on the wall, wearing knee-high boots and a welder's helmet with the visor tipped up, nothing else.
“You could bottle the air in here and sell testosterone.”
He replaced the tarp, rolling it carefully from rear bumper to front: so much for small talk. I took out a pack of cigarettes, raising my eyebrows.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Burn yourself down from the inside. Just don't touch off the gas tank.”
“Thanks. I was afraid I'd get a lecture.” I lit up and blew a plume of smoke at Miss February. “What did you mean, âYou know who killed me'?”
“Where you been since the beginning of the year, under a rock?”
“Christ, I wish you had company.”
He led me outside and pointed his chin at a tall floodlit billboard a hundred yards away from where we were standing, faced away from us at a slight angle. It had a giant blow-up photograph of a smiling middle-aged man under a legend six feet tall:
“YOU KNOW WHO KILLED ME!”
At the bottom, in letters and numerals nearly as large, was the tip line for the sheriff's department.
The man was wearing a cable-knit sweater embroidered with reindeer.
We went back inside. The heat from the oil stove in the corner felt good after the dank cold.
“Taken over Christmas. They don't come much fresher. That sign faces the expressway. There are four more just like it, scattered around like Easter eggs, only a damn sight more visible. Paid for by the widow.”
“Who is he?”
“Donald Gates. Thirty-eight. We scraped him out of his basement New Year's Day, shot twice in the head.”
“If he was pushing, he was craftier than any dealer I ever heard of. No sign of drugs on the premises, nothing showed up at the autopsy. I had to bet? No. No out-of-the-ordinary deposits or withdrawals in his banking records, no history of gambling. The only one he owed money to was his mortgage lender, and he was on top of his payments. Anyway Fifth Third isn't employing strong-arms this year.”
“What's the status?”
“We're following up on some promising leads.”
“I'm not a reporter, Lieutenant.”
“Okay. We're tapped out. Average Joe, by all accounts: not rich, not important, stay-at-home wife, one-point-five kids, a few friends, fewer enemies, and they're all accounted for. Robbery's out; wife found nothing missing.”
“Where'd he work?”
“City of Iroquois Heights. Maintained the computer that operates the traffic lights.”
“Maybe somebody got stuck at a red and took it out on him.”
“I've heard stupider reasons. The last person to see him was the guard in the building where they keep the mainframe. He told his fellow workers he was going home to change, then join his wife at some friends' New Year's Eve party. When he didn't show and didn't answer his cell or the phone at home, she went there and found him in the rec room in the basement. Two nine-millimeter slugs behind the right ear.” He pointed a finger at the spot behind his and waggled his thumb twice.
“And I come into this how?”
He leaned back against his workbench, crossing his arms. “Legwork. His wife thinks we're dragging our feet, hoping the case will go away; that's why the billboards. She's thinking of the wrong cops, but I guess I can't blame her for that based on past history. Gates's life insurance is footing the bill probably. The local press picked it up and put it out on the wire. It's national now.”
“No surprise. It's a catchy line.”
“Yeah. So now we're getting calls from all over the country on top of the tips we always get locally, on
of all the routine meshuga that goes with a homicide investigation. They all have to be run down, and I've only got fifteen deputies to do the running.”
I crushed out my cigarette on the concrete floor. “I don't like where this is going.”
“Maybe you've got something better to do.”
“Maybe you know more about what rock I've been under than you made out.”
“My old partner is deputy chief in Highland Park. He made the call to stick you in rehab instead of the county lockup. We go out for a beer now and then. Listen, if you're not up to itâ”
“Leave that reverse-psyche stuff to the shrinks. What can I do that fifteen men good and true can't?”
“It isn't that they can't. I need people to answer the phones and sift through the evidence and stay on top of the state cops to report on DNA before another New Year's rolls around, and refill the coffeemaker.” He straightened up, opened a drawer in a rolling toolbox, and took out a green file folder stamped
; the new management hadn't had time to change the name on all the stationery.
I took the folder, flipped it open, and looked at three pages of telephone numbers.
“You want me to run down
“The U.S. Army couldn't run them all down by summer. Those are just the ones that came without names.”
“Anonymous tips come with phone numbers?”
“Thanks to caller ID. Don't let it get around. If people find out it's all Kris Kringle and Peter Cottontail, they'll stop calling. Once in a couple of hundred times it pays off.”
“This is where I ask what's in it for me.”
“A deputy's salary. And something you've never had before: the good will of the authorities in Iroquois Heights.”
I riffled the rest of the papers in the folder. There were at least thirty pages, including a copy of the original complaint, information based on notes taken by the responding deputies, and progress reports.
I snapped it shut. “Nosy neighbors, gossip addicts, cranks, pranksters, axe-grinders, attention hounds, and fruitcakes. Thanks for the job, Lieutenant.”
“Throw fortune hunters into the mix. The church the Gateses attended is offering ten thousand dollars for information leading to a conviction.”
“I knew something was missing.”
“Now raise your right hand.”
I looked, but there was no sign of humor on the chiseled face. “I hope we're getting ready to say the pledge of allegiance.”
“No such luck. I can't justify paying department wages to a private op. It's against regulations to give those reports to a civilian. It's still dicey this way, but swearing you in gives me something to say in my defense at the hearing. I'm not issuing you a shield, and that honorary star you break the law with every time you flash it belongs to the wrong county. Leave it home.”
I wondered how he knew about that.
“Do I get a whistle?”
“Just raise your right hand.”
When that was done, he opened another drawer and gave me a portable tape player. “It's a two-hour tape. The calls were recorded in the order the numbers are listed. There's a sheet with names and addresses in the folder, taken from a reverse directory. Which ones you follow up on is up to you. The comedians and nutcases generally give themselves away, but not always; which is why I decided to put a trained detective on this detail. The ones I have are too busy pulling Gates's life apart and putting it back together.
“I'm only giving you the details of the case so you can separate the wheat from the chaff. Don't interview any other witnesses, stay away from the wife, and don't tell anyone you're a deputy. My neck's stuck out far enough as it is.”
“What do I tell the callers when they ask where I got their number?”
He smiled. “That's why I gave the job to an outsider. You're going to take the flack for crooking the system. When it gets out a private snooper found his way into our files, I'll call a press conference to express official outrage.”
“They can use you in Washington.”
“One more thing. If you put this job on your rÃ©sumÃ© and anyone checks, you lied.”
“This just keeps getting better and better.”
He stopped smiling. “I can't turn it down, but you can. Nobody'd blame you.”
I stuck the folder under my arm. “It's either this or a gig at the Eureka Cyber School of Criminal Science.”
Both my arms were occupied, so I got away from there without any more pulverized bones in my fingers.
Outside, I turned my collar up against the cold. Donald Gates smiled at me. It was one of those pictures that follow you around.
I smoked half a pack in my easy chair, listening to the voices on the tape player, checking off numbers to follow up on and drawing lines through the rejects. There weren't nearly enough of the last. At midnight I switched off the machine, went to bed, and dreamed I lived in a cubicle, trying to sell storm doors to whoever answered the telephone.
Sheriff's tip line. What's your information?
Yeah. I know who killed Donald Gates.
Not over the phone. How do I know you won't just nab the guy and stiff me on the reward?
Sir, that reward is being offered by Christ Church, not by this department.