Authors: Loren D. Estleman
“That explains her name. Did they get along?”
She picked up the pen she'd been writing with and put it back down, squared with the edge of the yellow pad. “Once again, you're skating close to my oath. I will say they didn't have any serious problems. Certainly not enough for Amelie to commit murder.”
“I wouldn't say certainly. Everyone else's problems look simple compared to ours. Wives have been known to kill their husbands over a toilet lid. But I wasn't suggesting that. I'm just trying to get a picture.”
“Good people, both of them. Normal child, full of boy-juice. Maybe a little too much, but that's between him and his pediatrician. Amelie was three months pregnant when it happened. She miscarried.”
“I think you are,” she said after a moment. “They say God never gives you more than you can handle. I sometimes wonder. But she's determined to bring the one responsible to justice. The billboard was her idea.” She frowned. “That's the phrase, isn't it? âBring to justice'?”
“The Old Testament was plenty clear on the definition of the term.”
“So was the New. I'm often called on to referee.”
“When's the last time you saw Gates?”
“Christmas morning, when the family attended services. I spoke to them briefly afterward.”
“How'd he seem?”
“How does anyone seem on that occasion? They're generally on their best behavior.”
“Not that I noticed, but it was only a couple of minutes. It was standing room only; some people think He keeps a list, like Santa. I had a lot of hands to shake at the door on the way out.” She rolled the pen up to the edge of the pad. “What's your experience with this kind of investigation?”
“More than I liked at the time. My Yellow Pages ad says I specialize in missing persons. Some are more missing than others.”
“I suppose you have references.”
“Isn't it a little late for that, after answering all these questions?”
“Not if it turns out you're worth hiring to find Don Gates's killer.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“I've got a job,” I said after a moment. “It's the same case. There'd be a conflict.”
“It's the same case, but a different job. Henty's got you running errands. I'm considering asking you to solve it.”
“That's a thin line.”
“How old are you, Mr. Walker?”
“I'm no longer middle-aged.”
“Offhand I'd say you put on a few extra years recently. Your collar's loose, and you don't strike me as a man who's careless in his dress. You've been sick.”
“This isn't confession, Reverend.”
“Sorry. I digressed. My point was you're old enough to have been doing what you do for a long time. I'd say you're no stranger to a thin line.”
Just for fun I gave her some names and numbers; not the same as I'd given Alvinus Adams of Daniel Boone Drive. You can lose valuable contacts snagging up their time with phone calls.
I excused myself while she was dialing and went outside for a smoke. A few yards above my head a gash had opened in the overcast, spilling watery sunlight and no heat. Out on the river, the tug that delivered the mail to passing ore carriers slid up one side of a steely wave, balanced for a moment on the point, then slid down the other side. The service wasn't necessary; the post office went along with it for the sake of local color. The way things were going it would be discontinued quicker than Saturday delivery.
It was snowing on the Windsor side, flakes as big as Canadian quarters. It made our side look even bleaker than always. One of those drenching springs was coming, the ones that raise the levels of the Great Lakes and the hopes of governors who want to sell water to Arizona.
The Reverend Florence Melville was cradling the receiver when I let myself back into the rectory. I sat down in the Charlemagne chair and crossed my legs.
“You're not running for Man of the Year, are you?” She looked like she'd been having a good time.
“You asked for references. The people who like me aren't in a position to impress you.”
“The consensus seems to be you make more trouble for yourself than you have to, and it's contagious.”
“Not to clients.”
“They're agreed on that too. What annoys them most is what I found most impressive. You don't carry tales, even when it would free you up to do your job.”
“Not carrying tales
the job. You said the same thing about yours.”
“While you were out polluting the atmosphere, did you reach any conclusions about whether my offer represents a conflict of interest?”
“It's a thin line, like I said. I'd be bending it, but I've done that before. It hasn't broken yet.”
“What do you charge?”
“Five hundred a day; three days up front, for expenses.”
“As much as that?”
“I never know when I might have to catch a plane in a hurry. You get back what I don't spend if the job runs shorter, minus my labor. I wouldn't count on it this time. Even when there's an army of cops, the average murder investigation runs several weeks when the culprit isn't actually caught red-handed; that's a conservative estimate since Detroit closed its police lab. They just found some rape kits they overlooked for twenty years.”
“Are you at all tempted by the reward?”
“Not without knowing who put it up. I can't remember the last time one was paid. It always gets spent somehow, and the bookkeeping always checks. Then there's the chance the money man's the one responsible for the crime, in which case I'd never see a cent due to my own damn brilliance. The interests don't get more conflicted than that.” I brushed the telltale ash off my suitcoat. “What's your end, apart from having lost a valuable parishioner?”
“Donald Gates was also my friend. So is Amelie. In my work they don't come by the bushel. Friendship means letting your hair down, and no one wants to fart in the presence of a priest. Call it pride, but I can't let a personal injury like this pass. Don't remind me what the Lord said about vengeance; I'm the referee, remember?”
“Will the Church go along with it?”
“It won't have to. I'm paying you out of my own pocket.”
I watched her open a drawer and take out a checkbook bound in red vinyl. She picked up her pen.
“I'd have to insist you put all other cases aside,” she said, writing; “with the exception, of course, of your obligation to the sheriff's department. Running down anonymous tips would be part of the deal anyway.”
I grinned. “Just don't tell Henty. I'd like to get used to coming and going in the Heights without getting rabbit-punched or thrown in the hoosegow.”
Sheriff's tip line. What's your information?
You need to check out Donald Gates's fellow workers at city.
Which ones, ma'am?
Not until I see the money.
If you leave your name, I'll have an officer get in touch with you.
The billboard said I don't have to give my name.
Without a name, the church can't make out the check.
What's wrong with “cash”?
Would you like to speak to an officer?
Let me think about it.
The caller's voice was female, no accent except maybe Midwestern. Her name was Carol Thompson. She was a neighbor of Ray Henty's, ten blocks removed, on the other side of the boulevard that separated the little town from Iroquois Heights. Another possibility.
This time I didn't call. I had the cassette tape playing in the dashboard and only one bar showing on my Fisher-Price cell phone; a dropped call is the worst way to make a good first impression. I took the Chrysler Expressway from Jefferson and drove again through the quiet streets until I came to a ranch-style house with garage attached. Christmas lights were still attached to the roof, but they weren't burning by daylight, and maybe not at all until next December. Some people leave them up all year.
“Ms. Thompson?” I asked the woman who answered the door. She wore red-and-black buffalo plaid over a pink T-shirt with
lettered across it in blue letters. Black tights encased legs ending in red knuckles and thick yellow nails sticking out of open-toed mules. She was shaped like a witch's cauldron inverted on top of a sawhorse. Her age was whatever you like.
“Mrs.,” she snapped. “Please go away. I keep telling you people I'm a Christian. I don't witness.”
“I'm not peddling
Mrs. Thompson.” I showed her the ID. “I'm a Michigan State Policeâlicensed private investigator, looking into the Donald Gates homicide.”
A dim glimmer of brainpower showed in a pair of mud-colored eyes; disregarding everything I'd said between “State Police” and “Donald Gates.” It was all in the order of how you identified yourself. As the taxidermist said, I can give you an eagle or a duck using the same materials.
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“You indicated a coworker of Gates's is responsible for his death. I have to run all these reports down, Mrs. Thompson.”
“People gossip. May I come in? They're recalling the company car because of a faulty heater. I'm frozen through and through.” A Big Wheel tricycle stood on the winter-killed grass of the lawn. I was counting on maternal instinct.
“Let me see that card again. Roy don't like me inviting in strangers.”
I let her see it again. She lip-read it from top to bottom.
“Okay, I guess. But just the front room.”
The doorway led straight into a living room with a pea-green shag rug, a console TV and stereo with a converter box plopped on top, a Christmas-tree lamp next to a brown plush recliner, and a jumble of splashy paperback novels and
s on a coffee table made of faux-medieval dark wood and antiqued brass rivets. If the TV were on, Sonny and Cher could sass each other and nobody would think it odd. The house smelled of Twinkies deep-fried in hog fat.
“I don't have much time,” she said. “I design Web sites, and people who want Web sites aren't patient people.”
A door stood open on what should have been a spare bedroom, where a flat-screen monitor displayed a bunch of information that meant as much to me as sushi in Switzerland.
At her invitation I sat in the plush chair. It offered no resistance all the way down to the frame; I was already worrying about getting back up out of it. “I'll try not to take up too much of your time. What do you know about where Donald Gates worked?”
She lowered herself into an upholstered rocker printed all over with deer made from Legos; they made me think of the reindeer on Gates's Christmas sweater. Probably no connection. Michigan has more deer than it has lakes.
“What about the reward?” she asked.
“It's still there, accumulating interest. Waiting for someone to collect it.”
“I want that in writing.”
“You've already got it. Seen a billboard lately?” But just to be friendly I took out my wallet, dealt out a hundred in twenties, and stuck them under
on the coffee table. On the cover a pasty-faced teenage boy with fangs was noshing on the neck of a pubescent girl in the backseat of a Dodge Viper. “Consider it a down payment.”
She didn't move; which is quite a feat when you're sitting in a rocking chair. “From here that don't look like one-tenth of ten percent of ten grand.”
“Actually, that's just what it is. It's a gesture of good faith. If I like what I hear based on this conversation, it stays.”
She rocked then, forward, back. “Just 'cause I was born in Idaho don't mean I tried to outstare a potato. I know what I know and it'll cost you to know the same.”
I looked at a Thomas Kinkade print on the wall above the rocking chair: a mill wheel turning next to a gingerbread house. There are never any people in them.
“That's almost poetry, Mrs. Thompson. Withholding information in a felony is a felony. The law sees it as accessory after the fact. From the looks of this room, I'm pretty sure you're familiar with
I'm offering you cash money as a surety against what's coming if we nail this bird. The other side of the coin is you go to jail.”
The rocker stopped. It had never rocked at all; that had been an illusion.
“I get the hundred either way,” she said. “You like, you don't like, you leave it behind.”
I stretched out my leg and planted my heel on the book.
“I don't like, it goes with me. I like, you stay out of jail.”
Her voice climbed to a whine. “How'd I get in this kind of trouble? I just made a phone call!”
I yawned, genuinely. I'd had one of those nights.
Pudgy fingers drummed an upholstered arm. “My husband's a maintenance man in the building where Gates worked. He heard another employee complaining about how cushy Gates's job was; sit around all day pushing buttons and looking at monitors.”
“I'm not finished. He said, âProblem with being a civil servant is you can't get fired. Killing a guy's the only way to move up.'”
“What's the name?”
“It's foreign. It'll come to me.”
I switched heels on the vampire's face and watched her concentrate. It was like waiting for the mill wheel in the painting to move.