Authors: Loren D. Estleman
“I dream about it sometimes. Dying like that.”
“I get you.”
Quincy made another try at leaving, then went back.
“You got a brother locked up for trashing a restaurant,” he said. “Calls himself Mahomet?”
“Never heard of him.”
“Well, what’s bail on a thing like that?”
“Up to the judge.” Canada filled his mouth with coffee and held it for a moment, then swallowed. “If nobody files for personal injury, say five hundred.”
“I’m short fifty. I’ll be back with the rest.”
“He a friend of yours?”
“I just like to hear him talk.”
“Lucky for him those three guys didn’t take your wallet.”
“Guess they was in a hurry after they blowed down Congo.”
“Speaking of Kress, who’s going to claim the body? Doesn’t look like he had any relatives.”
“I’ll send Lydell. He hired him.” Quincy was leaving now.
“While you’re at it, tell him the police in Toledo want to talk to him about some bad checks he passed down there a couple of years back.”
In Admissions they’d hung his silk shirt and sharkskin jacket on wire hangers in a cabinet with a lot of other clothes that had never been hung anywhere before. Quincy would’ve told the deputies to burn them and worn the jumpsuit home if it didn’t mean being seen in his neighborhood in county blue. He changed, caught a cab to Wilson, and went up to the apartment for a shower and fresh threads. Krystal was still asleep at 9:00 a.m., spreadeagled buck naked on her back on top of the covers with her hair in her face and snoring like an Evinrude. He could never look at her pointy little tits and visible ribs without feeling like a child molester. He thought he’d give her a couple of hundred when she woke up and send her packing.
Scoured and shaved, he put on an emerald shirt with gold cufflinks and a pair of brown pinstripe pants and used the telephone in the living room to call Lydell. He had to shout the name several times before the old woman who answered told him to hang on a minute. Lydell lived rent-free in a house on Palmer with the old woman, who was deaf as a brick; Quincy had once made the mistake of asking him what he did to earn his bed and board.
“Put it this way,” he’d answered. “I’d jerk off in my hand and throw it in there if it means clean sheets and plenty of hot water.”
After five minutes during which Quincy listened to distant house-sounds and a television recipe for creamed chicken, Lydell came on the line. The telephone was a wall unit in a narrow hallway. “Quincy, my man. You out?”
“I just found out you left Receiving,” Quincy said. “What you been doing to cut me loose?”
“I was working on it, man. I can’t go in no police station. I got troubles that direction.”
“Fuck that. Ain’t no Detroit cop going to wet his pants over what goes on in no Toledo.”
“Toledo? Shit, I done forgot about Toledo.” He spoke quickly. “So you go over the wall or what?”
“Tell you later. What’s happening at the place?”
“Ain’t nothing happening. Police stuck one of them yellow seals on the door. What’s left of it.”
“They padlock it?”
“Ain’t nothing to padlock. You seen what them three done to it. Ain’t you going to ask me about my hand?”
“I heard you got some splinters.”
“Splinters, that’s what they said? Shiiit. Damn near blowed it clean off. Man, I hates shotguns. They got no sense of fine judgment.”
“Think it was Sicilians?”
“I didn’t ask you for no questions,” Quincy spat. “We got to be sure.”
“We can always ask ’em.”
“We can start with this guinea he’s sending, whatsizname, Gallante. He called while you was in the can. Wants to meet us tomorrow at the Civic League.” A grin crept into Lydell’s voice. “Sounds like he knew when the cops was going to kick you before the cops did.”
OUR BARRELS MADE ALL
Bob Hertler’s GTO, hobbled by a carburetor designed for a family car, had been like a mountain cat stuck with iron shoes. Now, sailing east on Jefferson along the river, playing the pedal to catch all the lights green, Rick felt the Z-28 filling its lungs with clean damp air, Pure premium-leaded hammering in its veins. The pavement skinned underneath like Teflon.
It had taken thirty minutes for the paint crew at the Chevrolet assembly plant in Westland to spray silver over the original yellow, heat-dry and buff it; another ten to put the two thick black racing stripes on the long hood. The bucket seats were upholstered in black Naugahyde, and Rick himself had replaced the lambswool steering wheel cover with perforated leather. The leather smell joined the air off the river and made Rick think of new shoes and fresh-cut grass and the last day of school. For once he felt as young as he looked. He flipped the radio on and punched up WKNR. The Beach Boys were just finishing “Little Deuce Coupe.” He laughed. The announcer came on and identified the frequency: 1300. It reminded Rick of police headquarters and he sobered.
He fished the fold of notepaper out of the pocket of his one good dress shirt and checked the number. He had a 10:30 a.m. appointment with a Miss Kohler at an address on Whittier, base of operations for the Porter Group, or Wendell’s Wonders, as a sardonic press had dubbed the organization of headline-rakers, Chicken Littles, and general pains in the butt of the American automotive industry. Rick knew the Miss Kohlers of this world, rodentlike creatures in University of Michigan sweatshirts with granny glasses and pencils in their hair. Unpaid volunteers were like professional virgins, standing sentry over treasures of questionable value.
The place wasn’t what he’d expected. Porter’s television image, tousled hair and unpressed Ivy League suits, bespoke an office and anteroom in a building with a wheezy elevator or a converted warehouse overlooking a broken streetlamp. Either the image or the address was wrong. Set back from the street with a sign on the lawn bearing only the letters PG, the house was a Colonial of turn-of-the-century vintage, painted rose and white, with gables and shutters and flower boxes under the windows. A huge eucalyptus, shipped in by some long-dead lumber baron or stove manufacturer, overhung the roof. The place had all the fussed-over detail of an infirm child’s dollhouse. Rick took the composition driveway to a little square lot behind the house and parked between a late-model Mercedes and a VW Beetle with mismatched fenders. He figured the VW belonged to Miss Kohler.
A three-by-five card wedged into a corner of the window in the front door urged him in ballpoint pen to please enter. When he closed the door behind him a little brass bell looped over the doorknob jangled.
“One minute,” said a woman’s voice from the back.
The entryway, ten feet by twelve with a staircase leading to the second story, was painted bright yellow, the shade he had just banished from the Camaro, and contained a potted fern, three-drawer file cabinet with a five-volume set of engineering manuals standing on top of it, and a small desk holding up a splash of nasturtiums in a ceramic vase, a low sleek Smith-Corona electric with a powder-blue shell, and a black telephone with a banana-shaped caddy attached to the receiver. The plastic nameplate on one corner read ENID KOHLER. Rick considered the first name and added ten years to his image of Miss Kohler.
The telephone rang and a tall brunette in a red knitted dress cinched with a wide black belt clicked in on high heels through an open door in back, laid a sheaf of blank forms on the desk, unscrewed a diamond from her left earlobe, and picked up the receiver. She was in her late twenties and had the long straight black hair and high coloring of a gypsy. “This is Miss Kohler,” she told the person on the other end.
The Mercedes. Not the VW.
“No, Mr. Porter is in Washington. We don’t expect him back until tomorrow afternoon.”
Rick studied her hands. No ring.
“May I help you?”
She’d hung up and was looking at him. She had brown eyes.
“Rick Amery,” he said. “I’m a little early.”
She took inventory. He’d dressed carefully for his role as a volunteer: blue suit and brown wingtips, freshly polished. His lapels and black knitted tie were a little narrow for the current fashion, but that was all right; dorky lobbyists didn’t go broke on Carnaby Street. He couldn’t tell if she approved.
“Fill out this application, please.” She handed him a form and a Bic pen and pointed to a kidney-shaped school desk in the corner.
He used his real name but put his age down as thirty. When he came to
Reason for applying for this position,
he hesitated, then wrote,
Hoping for a career in politics.
He’d decided he couldn’t sustain the altruist dodge he’d been tinkering with all morning. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Enid Kohler screw her earring back on, roll a sheet into the typewriter, turn it on, and begin tapping. She was competent, but no keyboard whiz. He was sure she’d never seen the inside of a secretarial school.
A man fifteen years Rick’s junior came down the stairs on the trot, walked past Rick without a glance in his direction, and stopped by the desk. He was willowy, dressed in a denim workshirt with the sleeves rolled above his elbows and faded jeans stuffed into the fringed tops of brown suede boots. His hair was black and curled over his collar.
Rick thought. Enid stopped typing and looked up.
“I just got off the phone with the state police,” he said. “They’re dragging their feet on those accident projections.”
“They can’t refuse to give them to you. They’re public record.”
“You know the bureaucracy.”
“I also know how many people General Motors employs in this state and how many of them vote,” she said. “Keep trying. Tell them we’ll get a court order if we have to.”
“If we can find a judge who doesn’t like his job.”
They looked at Rick, who had approached the desk with his completed form.
“I’ll take that.” Enid plucked the sheet out of his hand and laid it on a shallow stack. “Thank you very much, Mr. Avery. We’ll call you.”
“Amery. I couldn’t help overhearing. State cops giving you grief?”
“Nothing we don’t experience every day in one form or another,” she said. “If you join the Porter Group, you’ll always know which way you’re going. Straight uphill.”
“May I?” He put a hand on her telephone pad.
She nodded, watching him. He picked it up, scribbled a telephone number on the top sheet, tore it off, and held it out toward the long-haired young man. “That’s the state police commander’s home number. It’s unlisted. It helps to talk to the boss.”
The young man looked at the number and grinned.
Enid Kohler sat back. The dress clung to the long firm line of her right thigh. He decided she played tennis. “I’m impressed, Mr. Amery. What’s your source?”
“You sound like a newspaperman.”
“I was with the
two years until it folded.” His subscription had been about to expire anyway. Under cover he told the truth whenever it was convenient.
She looked at his application. “It says here you’re a mechanic.”
“I got tired of journalism. With a wrench you can see what progress you’re making.”
The long-haired young man laughed shortly. “Brother, did you come to the wrong shop.”
“Give that number a try,” Enid told him.
He clicked his heels. “We still on for lunch?”
“Unless the commander invites you over to his place.”
He laughed again and thrust his hand at Rick. “Leon Schenck. Call me Lee.”
“Rick Amery.” Rick shook it. No calluses to go with the laborer’s attire.
“Hire this guy.” Lee went upstairs.
“Nice kid,” Rick said.
“He’s twenty. Around here that’s adult.” She took inventory again. “You don’t look like a politician, Mr. Amery.”
“Rick. I’m not.”
Her eyebrows went up. He was glad to see she didn’t pluck them. “On your application—”
“You don’t have to be a politician to be in politics. Behind the scenes is good enough for me. Public office doesn’t interest me so much as the process of putting someone there. Isn’t Lee a little young for you?”
“You’ve got a lot to learn about diplomacy if politics is what you want,” she said after a moment. “But let’s see if we can put your mechanical aptitude to work. How are you on pretext and subterfuge?”
He hesitated. “I’ve been dating since I was twelve.”
“It’s a start. This is a listing of towing services in the metropolitan area.” She opened a drawer and handed him a sheaf neatly razored from the Yellow Pages. “Find out how many GM cars have been towed in for safety-related repairs over the past twenty-four months. Get the nature of the repairs. Concentrate on models made after nineteen sixty-three. Use whatever story you want, only don’t represent yourself as a police officer. That’s illegal.”
“Shouldn’t I be calling the dealerships? Those are warranty jobs.”
“The dealerships are on to us. When the towing services catch on we’ll have to go someplace else, maybe newspaper files. Wendell was getting his information directly from the General Motors Building in the beginning, when he was writing
Hell on Wheels
and nobody knew him from Hubert Humphrey. Now they call security when he walks past on the other side of Grand.”
“Wendell, is it?”
She colored a little. He liked women who blushed. “We’re very informal here, Rick. In lieu of salaries we get to call the boss by his first name. You’ll find a telephone in the next room.” She tilted her head toward the door in back.
“Why GM?” he asked. “Ford and Chrysler use the same standards.”
“‘Cut off the head and the arms wither.’ Wendell says it so often he ought to have a sampler made for the wall of his office.”
“You do needlepoint?”
A muscle worked in her jaw. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “In there.”
He kicked himself all the way through the door. He was out of practice, letting his opinions show when he was supposed to be Silly Putty for the molding. He’d lost Enid Kohler for the time being.
The room had been a parlor, and Edwardian touches remained in the floral wallpaper and a bow-window looking out on a bird feeder in the yard. The card-table and kitchen-chair furnishings were strictly Johnsonian.