Authors: Loren D. Estleman
“How are you, Dan?” Rick did his best to sound as if he were in a hurry. Caught in the middle of the aisle, he couldn’t back out without looking as if he were fleeing.
Sugar came down the aisle and shook Rick’s hand across the shopping cart. His palm was warm and as soft as fresh dough. “What’s it been, a couple of years? Hell, no, it’s been three since I left the C.I.D. Jesus, you don’t get any older. I bet you still got your cherry in a jar somewhere.”
“I heard you went into private security.”
“If you call working for GM private. Best deal I ever made. I got sixteen people under me. I heard you left too.”
“Yeah. Well, listen—”
But the other man had grasped his right upper arm. He was a grabber, was Dan Sugar; and that was one of the things Rick had liked best about him. “I never believed that shit they said. It was a bum deal.”
“Not so bum.” Rick drew back, but Sugar didn’t take the hint. His grip tightened.
“Why you think I got out when I did? Commendations, medals, seniority, they don’t mean shit when it comes down to you or the brass.” He let go. “So what are you up to these days? How’s Charlene?”
“Charlotte. We broke up. I’m working part-time at the Kwik-Pro Garage on Livernois.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry.”
Rick couldn’t tell if Sugar was sorry for the breakup or for what Rick was doing to live. “Well, I’m due back.” He started to push the cart.
“You don’t report till two.”
Sugar’s waffled face was without expression. Rick stopped pushing.
“What do you want, Dan?”
“There’s a spoon around the corner. We can walk.”
Rick made his purchases in the express lane, locked the bag in the GTO parked two spaces down from the glass doors, and accompanied Sugar across the lot and down a block to a flat-roofed building with windows all around. They slid into a red plastic booth and Rick ordered coffee from a waitress in a blue uniform with red hair stacked and sprayed into a granite arch. Sugar chewed a cheek over the spotted menu for a moment, then asked for link sausages and hash browns. The waitress left with their menus.
“I’m slipping,” Rick said. “How long have you been tailing me?”
“I put a couple of boys on you ten days ago. I had to be sure you were staying clean. I guess you know the Kwik-Pro’s all mobbed up. They can boost a Camaro and change the paint job up on that second floor quicker than you can yell call the auto club.”
“I work on the first.”
“I know.” Sugar looked embarrassed. “You drive a nice set of wheels for a grease monkey. I had to be sure.”
“The wheels belong to my landlady’s son. They go back next week.”
“I know that too.”
The waitress returned with Rick’s coffee and two orange tumblers full of water, which she set in front of them. She told Sugar his meal would be ready in a minute and went away again.
Sugar sipped from his tumbler and set it down. “I never bought that story I.A.D. cooked up. I mean, everybody’s got his price, but I don’t think you’d sell that cheap.”
“You’re not that stupid, Dan. Of course the story was true.”
“No, not a
” Rick mocked him. “A T-bird. A salesman at Schaeffer Ford was duping off Mustang keys and selling them at a thousand a crack. Every time they changed the padlock on the back gate he made a copy of that key too. I went undercover in the service department and popped him after a week. Burt Schaeffer was so grateful he offered me a year’s free lease on a white sixty-four Thunderbird. I took it.”
“Against department regs, but if you weren’t doing any special favors—”
“Sixty-five was an election year. Internal Affairs let me keep it six months, then canned me. I guess you could say I helped re-elect Cavanagh.”
“You should’ve gone to the union.”
“My first civilian act. I get a letter from the D.P.O.A. every couple of months, telling me they’re working on it.”
Sugar watched him drink coffee from the thick white cup. “What is it with you and cars?”
“I like them. You like ugly suits, I like fast cars. The job lost a little of its shine when I came out from behind the wheel of a blue-and-white and put on plainclothes. If that T-bird deal hadn’t come along, I might’ve quit in a few months.”
“In that case you ought to be happy things turned out the way they did.”
“Quitting and getting the boot aren’t even related,” Rick said.
The sausages and hash browns came. Sugar speared a link and chewed on it, face full of thought. “I can’t get over how young you look. What are you, thirty-five?”
“You could pass for nineteen, twenty.”
“I use Pond’s. What’s the skinny, Dan? Someone stealing cigar lighters from the Chevy plant? I don’t smoke.”
“Take it easy. I invited
to lunch, not your chip.” He put down his fork. “You remember when Vice borrowed you for those marijuana busts at the U of D? You were moled in there three weeks.”
“It seemed a hell of a lot longer. I was on Homicide then and I was glad to get back to good domestic murders. Sending a bunch of kids up to Jackson for smoking reefers wasn’t my idea of police work.”
“Forget them. They’re out by now, probably smashing some poor dean’s office. What I’m talking about is, none of them ever suspected you for a narc. I saw their faces when you testified. Just now I need a good undercover who can pass for a dumb kid.” He grinned baggily. “You weren’t hard to track down. I just sent the boys to every bar in town where the clientele have grease under their nails and talk cams and hemis.”
“What’s a nightwatchman need with an undercover?”
But no irritation crossed the pockmarked face. “That’s another department. I’m a security vice president. I never see a plant except when I take the tour. Hey, you think I don’t know your situation? This time next week you won’t even have a place to live.”
“I can always get a bunk at the Y.”
“You can get the same thing at Mother Waddles’, with soup and a sermon to boot. But she won’t give you a car.”
Rick laughed. It was the first time he had felt like laughing since Mrs. Hertler had told him her son was coming back from the army. “You’re a joke, Dan. You got someone to pull my file downtown and now you think I’d walk bareass down Woodward for a spin in a VW.”
When Rick didn’t respond, Sugar reached into his right pants pocket and held up a pair of brass keys attached to a leather holder. “Z-28,” he said. “Experimental. This one won’t even hit the pavement till next year. It’s parked in front of the A & P. Canary yellow, with black racing stripes; you can’t miss it. Go ahead, take it out. I’ll have pie while I wait.”
“Just because I look like a kid doesn’t mean I think like one.” But the keys fascinated him. They caught the light like brushed gold. “What’s the job?”
The other man shrugged and put them back in his pocket. “Ever hear of Wendell Porter?”
“He wrote a book.
Hell on Wheels.
I read it.”
“What’d you think?”
“He didn’t say anything that anybody who knows about cars hasn’t been talking about for years. They’re rolling coffins if you don’t treat them with respect. Which almost nobody does.”
“He came down hardest on General Motors. As if Ford and Chrysler were making them any safer. The boys in the bean department figure that book cost us three million in sales last year.”
“That comes to what, half an hour on the assembly line?”
“Fuck the three million,” Sugar said. “The feds are starting to listen to him, especially since he got up that consumer group. All kids, of course; seems protesting the goddamn war isn’t enough for some of them. They make a lot of noise. Washington’s talking about getting up a Congressional committee to investigate safety in the auto industry. If they come out on Porter’s side it means retooling for things like seat belts and padded dashes and airbags, and that means halting production, layoffs, a recession. We could wait and fight it on the floor of Congress, but that’s a lot of juice. It’s way cheaper to take Porter out now.”
“Take him out how?”
Sugar picked up his fork. “Lower that chin, son. When GM starts killing off its enemies, a twerp like him won’t make the top one hundred on the list. You don’t ice the Porters of this world. You find out where they’re dirty and smear it all over them.”
“You got the cover experience. More than that, you got the looks. No one’s going to suspect Beaver Cleaver of being a plant.” He ate some of his potato.
“What would I do, just walk up to Porter and ask if he’s hiring?”
“Basically, yeah. Most of his people are volunteers, they don’t get squat. He doesn’t have so many he’d bounce you for eating peas off a knife. It’s too much like work for the hippies and the squares want cash. Impress him with your youthful fervor. Squirts like Porter are suckers for that earnest dodge.”
“What am I looking for?”
“Whatever’s there. Gambling, a little tapping from his own discretionary fund, late hours with his secretary—he’s married to a lady lawyer—who knows, maybe he keeps himself some dark meat down on Twelfth. Use your imagination. I’ve got people researching his history looking for the same thing, but I need someone inside.”
“I’m supposed to do all this for the slip on a Camaro? What do I put in the tank, imagination?”
“The job pays three hundred a week to start. If you turn something sweet it’s permanent. There’s always work in this business for a reliable mole.”
“I thought GM’s business was making cars.”
“Let the boys on the line do that. My job’s to see they’re left alone to make them. Yours too, if you take it.”
Rick looked at the midget jukebox mounted on the wall of the booth, flipped idly through the selections. Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, Petula Clark, Nancy Sinatra, the Righteous Brothers. “Sounds of Silence.” “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’.” No inspiration there. The waitress cleared away the dishes, placed the bill facedown on the table, and withdrew.
“What if there’s nothing to turn?” Rick asked. “I’m no good at building frames.”
“Frames are for guys with no patience. There’s always the chance they’ll fall apart, and then you’re worse off than you were before.”
“But what if there’s nothing?”
Sugar thumped the table with a square-nailed finger. “Everything in this world that walks or flies or swims has got to shit somewhere; it’s only a matter of time before they pick the wrong place. Everybody fucks up. A creep like Wendell Porter’s got fuck-up written all over him. There’s something.”
“Have you got the title with you?”
The other man drew a long fold of stiff paper from his inside breast pocket and produced a ballpoint pen. “Do I sign it over?”
“I don’t know about canary yellow.”
“I’ll give you a note to the foreman in the paint shop. It won’t cost you a cent.”
Sugar wrote his name on the back of the document and gave it to him. “You’ll have to work fast. Congress is going to want a rabbit to pull out of its hat before the November elections. Let’s make sure this safety thing isn’t it.”
“Anything else?” Rick put the title in his shirt pocket. Most of it stuck out.
“Just a lift to the bus stop.”
ATURDAY NIGHT ON TWELFTH
Dorsaled Caddies and orange Cougars and dinged-up Olds 98s with acres of chromed engine grumbling under their bare metal hoods, trailing Smokey Robinson and the Supremes and Otis Redding like bright streamers of pure sound. Coming up on midnight the street was lit like a parade route and smelled of pigs’ feet and mustard greens from 24-hour restaurants where griddles hissed and spat hot grease and a hundred lean brothers in dashikis and box-back suits heaped baked yams in front of their dates in tight low-cut minidresses and Afro wigs with the diameters of hula hoops. Working girls herded on the corners displaying their bracelets and legware. Going to a Go-Go.
A block east on Woodrow Wilson, the music of the Miracles drifted through the open window into Quincy Springfield’s bedroom, where he unfolded a salmon silk shirt with extra-long collar tabs from a laundry box and inspected it for wrinkles. He was all slabbed muscle from the waist up, with a shotgun pattern of hair on his bluish chest and an old knife scar, healed over white, embroidering a lazy S on the left side of his ribcage. In the mirror over the dresser it reminded him of the musical clef on Sweets’s tie in Patsy Orr’s office. He slid the shirt on quickly and fastened the bone buttons. Cover up that cocksucker. Forget Patsy for one night anyway.
As he tucked in the tails he could hear Krystal in the living room, humming along with the music as she painted her nails. They would be salmon tonight, to match his shirt; she had asked what color he was planning to wear. It pissed him off. Lately everything about her pissed him off, from her stack of bleached and straightened hair to her Day-Glo lipstick and white plastic go-go boots and ten-inch miniskirts and pink knitted halter tops, open-weave so her nipples showed, brown sugar against teak skin. Although she claimed otherwise, he had known for some time that she was still tricking. He had never been jealous of a woman a day in his life, but he resented the fact that those who knew they were together would assume he was pimping for her.
Krystal was on her way out.
Using a pic to pump up his Afro, he considered going back to Emma. As far as he knew he was still married to her. Emma and her mahogany African carvings and watercolors of tortured slaves and record albums full of pounding drums and chanting natives. He remembered clearly his last day in the house on Hastings. It had been a particularly trying one when an old customer, insisting he had picked a winning number despite the evidence in his own scrawl, had pulled a piece on Quincy and Lydell Lafayette had laid the man out with a pool cue. Afterward, Quincy had walked into that black history lesson of a living room, stopped, turned around, and walked back out. That was a year ago and he hadn’t seen the place since.
Emma and her skinned-back hair and no makeup and sack dresses set off by gobs of African jewelry. She worshipped the primitive everywhere but the bedroom, where if he closed his eyes he might have been fucking Amy Vanderbilt.