Authors: Loren D. Estleman
On the way back to the office I called the sheriff's substation in Iroquois Heights, but the dispatcher or whoever I got said Ray Henty was out on a call. I left my name and the partial license plate number I'd gotten from Alvinus C. Jones. The car it belonged to had been hanging around Gates's house a day early, but there might have been something in it. Anyway the lieutenant had eight times as many legs as I had to run such things down.
I didn't have to turn away any desperate heiresses waiting for me in the arid little reception room. Nobody sapped me when I unlocked and opened the door to the think tank. I'd had enough experience with the latter to welcome the silence, but not nearly enough of the former.
It was a little chilly. I twisted the thermostat. The elf who lived inside the radiator tapped the pipes with his little hammer and the furnace in the basement came back from its break with a shudder that shook the building. The out-of-state conglomination that owned the place had given Rosecranz a manual override, along with strict instructions to keep track of when the tenants were out.
I set the swivel chair to squeaking, dialed city hall in the Heights, and asked for the head of traffic control. I listened to three minutes of non-Christian Christmas carols, then a woman's voice with a rusty wire running through it came on the line.
I said I was an independent investigator working with the sheriff's department on the Donald Gates case, and asked if it was possible for someone monitoring the traffic lights to work from home. That would be one explanation why Yuri Yako hadn't shown up on security cameras leaving the building.
“Not possible,” said the woman. “The firewalls would prevent access except through the mainframe itself, and the passwords change by the week.”
“Thanks. It was just a hunch.” If Yako had crooked the system to give himself an alibi, he would have had to be photographed coming into the building for his shift; Henty would have checked that. I started to hang up.
“By the way, our monitor didn't come to work today. Is he being detained?”
I tightened my grip on the handset. “Did you try Yako at home?”
“We don't need an independent investigator to suggest that, Mr. Walker. We rang him several times, at home and on his cell. He never picked up, and our messages haven't been returned. Since he was Gates's replacement, we didn't have time to train anyone to take his place, so we had to transfer a programmer from headquarters. Traffic lights aren't his specialty, so we've had yellow flashers going all day. It's a mess. If you take my advice, you'll stay away from downtown.”
“I'm thinking you don't want that to get back to the chamber of commerce.”
“I really don't care. I've given notice. Last year, my husband was murdered for his wallet. The year before that, my son lost an eye trying to keep his running shoes. Those were bad neighborhoods. When that element infiltrates the place where I work, I'm out of here.”
While she was talking I flipped open the sheriff's department reports, made sure I had Yako's personal contact numbers, and thanked her. She hung up in the middle of it.
The Ukrainian-Russian didn't answer his landline or cell. I disconnected from the answering devices and got back into my winter gear. I was going to have to brave those flashers after all.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
He had an apartment just off the zigzag main drag in a building intended for student housing, eight stories of what looked like graphite, with vacancy signs in most of the windows. Some financial affairs manager at the county community college had tried to fix a sluggish economy with a steep hike in tuition, and now he was wearing a paper hat in a chain restaurant in Port Huron. The apartments were new, as was most of the construction in the neighborhood, thanks to an impromptu demolition by a fleet of trucks a few years back. I couldn't claim noninvolvement in that. I cranked a fistful of quarters into a meter that still bore the name of a neighboring city embossed on the steel: The old administration had snapped them up after every other place in the area ripped them out to encourage business downtown. No one keeps track of loose change when the FBI is patting down half the elected officials for tens of thousands.
I buzzed the manager's apartment, showed my ID, and gave him my spiel. He scratched his scalp under a lifelike hairpiece and got his passkey. We rode up in an elevator that smelled of fresh paint and made as much noise as a kitten playing with a piece of string.
Yako's name occupied a black rectangular insert next to a door with 4A on it in brushed brass. The manager knocked, waited, knocked again. “Mr. Yako?”
No sound came from inside. He knocked a third time, said “Mr. Yako?” again. When he raised his fist for another cycle, I closed a hand on it. When I gave it back he used the passkey. He started to go in. I shouldered him aside, drawing the Chief's Special from the holster under my coattail. I went in.
I didn't do the two-handed thing you see on TV; my old partner had said if that made sense, guns would come with two handles, like a weed-whacker. I circled a living room that wasn't any messier or tidier than it had to be, with a flat-screen TV mounted on a wall, a smattering of magazines, some sleek furniture the manufacturer couldn't be bothered to assemble itself, and half an inch of pale green carpet pasted to a subfloor that sprang underfoot like the plywood it was. The manager stood in the doorway, watching me and going to town on that dry patch under his toupee. It hardly seemed worth the trouble; he didn't look even a bit like Brad Pitt. I didn't stumble over any bodies and there were no curtains on the windows for a pair of shoe tips to poke out of. I wondered just when all the romance had worn off the profession.
“Don't look like he's here,” said the manager.
I gave that all the attention it needed and checked the bathroom. Yako squeezed his toothpaste from the middle of the tube and unrolled his toilet paper up from under. I liked him less and less.
I didn't like the bedroom even more. He'd flung his clothes into a pile on a chintz-covered slipper chair and turned down the page corners in a slipshod stack of racy paperbacks on the nightstand. In the stir of air when the door opened, a dust bunny rolled out like a tumbleweed from under the bed. It was big enough to let loose in a dog park.
But it wasn't his shoddy housekeeping I didn't care for. The bed was made, hospital corners and all, under a green foam spread turned down at the top as neatly as a show handkerchief.
“Hey!” The manager had followed me as far as the doorway, but that was the only objection he made as I put away my revolver and tore loose the bedding, mattress pad and all. The mattress looked clean except for a few shed hairs.
I slid both hands under the bottom and heaved it over. A corner clipped the paper shade on the lamp on the nightstand, knocking it crooked and tilting it off its base, but the lamp settled back down without overturning.
I didn't pay it any attention, and neither did the manager. We were looking at a bloodstain the size of a throw rug on that side of the mattress.
The drawer in the nightstand was empty except for a pair of drugstore reading glasses and a squat semiautomatic pistol. Wrapping my hand in my handkerchief, I picked it up, sniffed vanilla-scented oil, and turned it to tip light inside the muzzle.
“If I knew he had that, I'd've told him to get rid of it or find another place to live. I don't like guns or the people that use them.” The manager frowned at my revolver.
“It didn't do him any good. Dust in the barrel.”
It was an unfamiliar piece. I looked for the name of the manufacturer. The characters were Cyrillic.
I asked the manager if he knew Russian.
“Just my way around a bottle of vodka. Think it was communists?”
“If it was, they didn't use this gun.” I put it back in the position I'd found it.
“We better call the cops.” He made for the telephone on the nightstand.
I blocked his path. “You don't want those print boys mad at you.” I got out my cell and went to the window. I had to change positions three times before I found a signal.
The manager waited until I finished talking to the sheriff's sergeant. “I was out of work three months before I got this job. Guess I'll be looking again.”
“Did you kill him?”
“Brother, I didn't even know him.”
“Not much of an alibi in this town.”
A set of tires squished to a stop in front of a fire hydrant four stories down. A star was stenciled on the hood of the car. Ray Henty got out.
“I think we can safely call this a homicide,” Henty said.
“That, or somebody's in deep shit for slaughtering a hog inside the city limits.”
The comedian was a sheriff's detective named Benteen, one of the younger breed, who wore his shirttail out under a gray suitcoat, no hat or overcoat. He shaved his temples so that his head looked like a mushroom growing straight up from his collar.
The lieutenant turned his back on the stained sheet and bent over the windowsill.
“Offhand I'd say the body didn't go out this way. No rope marks. I'd like to think our local criminal element's too smart to dump one out freestyle.”
“Make a hell of a smack,” said the detective. “Not to mention the mess.”
“No wonder they promoted you to plainclothes. What'd you say to Yako?” Henty was looking at me now.
“Where was he, and yada-yada,” I said. “First pass stuff. He didn't rattle.”
“Someone did. Let's ring Detroit in on this. They've got more experience.”
“They've got their hands full with another FBI investigation,” Benteen said. “I'd like a crack at this solo.”
“I thought the feebs closed that down sometime back,” the lieutenant said.
“This one's new. I've got a girl with Dispatch there. Couple of beat cops are under hack for moonlighting. Not ripe enough yet for public consumption.”
“That's pissant stuff. Internal business.”
“Did I mention they were heavy-lifting for the mob?”
“No, Benteen, you didn't. Which mob?”
“Search me, L.T. They're keeping it wrapped tight.”
This voice belonged to a fresh card in the deal. A trim young woman stood in the bedroom doorway, wearing a tan suede coat with fake fur trim and a red knitted hat that flopped over on one side like an artist's in a cartoon, ankle boots on her small feet. Her presence on a crime scene did wonders for it, like a spray of fresh flowers on a city bus.
Benteen stepped toward her. “This is a closed set, lady. No civilians allowed.”
She stopped him with a practiced wrist flip, showing off a gold star pinned to a leather folder.
“Mary Ann Thaler, Deputy U.S. Marshal. Hello, Amos. I heard you retired.”
“I tried. Math didn't work out. I thought you'd be moled in deep with Al-Qaeda by now.”
“They don't take women unless they're combustible. There wasn't much room for advancement. I'm with WitSec now.”
“I thought that was WitPro: Witness Protection.”
“That was two name-changes ago. Try and keep up.”
Henty said, “Start again. I want to get this clever bullshit on my smart phone. What's the Marshals' Service want with a dead computer programmer in the Heights?”
She glanced toward the manager, lurking outside in the living room.
“Not here. You boys done playing detective?”
Car doors slammed, a volley. Henty looked out the window. “Forensics outran the uniforms. I'm scheduling drills.”
“Good thinking. If there's anything we don't need in a hurry, it's the ghouls.” Benteen scowled at Thaler. “Washington taking over?”
She smiled. “Assisting; now isn't that a friendlier way of putting it?”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
It wasn't my first time in that office. The last time, a chief had been sitting behind the plain desk, playing with a set of brass knuckles that hadn't always been used as a paperweight. Last I'd heard he was wearing an electric anklet in the prison town of Milan.
The bulletin board with its album of plug-uglies and their aliases was gone, also the large-scale city map and confiscated weapons in a glass display case. The original decorator had worked from pictures taken in J. Edgar Hoover's office in Washington; the one he used for work, not the plush barn where he'd greeted the press. The government green hid under several fresh coats of beige paint, waiting to claw its way through, the way it always did, but for now the place might have belonged to a branch bank manager or some other midlevel executive who didn't plan to occupy it long enough to stamp it with his personality. Henty's wife smiled from a frame standing on the desk and his autographed poster of Gordie Howe hung on the wall above one of the athlete's old wooden hockey sticks.
“Stop fidgeting,” the lieutenant said.
“Sorry.” I sat down. “I was trying not to trip over my old dead brain cells.”
Thaler said, “I'd consider it a favor if your detective sat this one out.”
Benteen stiffened. “What about this character?”
She brushed me lightly with her cool brown stare.
“I know him. He doesn't have a girlfriend with the Detroit Police Department.”
“Got your number.” Henty's grin was wolfish. “Go play Clue.”
He almost slammed the door going out. At the last second he thought better of it and eased it into the frame.
The lieutenant sat back in his quilted chair. “I inherited him. The sheriff wanted a liaison man who knew the old department, and his record's clean. When you never do anything, you never do anything wrong. Soon as I'm settled I'll palm him off on headquarters.”
“I studied your record,” Thaler said. “You've done plenty, and most of it right.”