Authors: Loren D. Estleman
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective
I finished cranking up my window just as he let fly. The flare struck the glass and bounced off, loosing orange sparks all over. I touched the brake pedal, but even as I dropped back a skull-rattling bellow drove my spine through my scalp. Behind me, a fourth truck with a grinning silver grille was closing fast, its air horn setting the pavement vibrating. Now I knew how a walnut felt.
I’d been stopped once behind a big Mercury at a red light when an eighteen-wheeler on its left made an illegal right turn, bumping one set of wheels up over the Merc’s hood and damn near cutting it in two. The driver of the semi just kept going. He didn’t know the car existed. I had four of them on me, and my car weighed barely half as much as that wrecked sedan. My nails dug holes in the steering wheel.
And then I was in the clear.
It was as if I’d realized suddenly that I was having a nightmare and consciously willed the situation to change. I was all alone in a stretch of open road. Up ahead, all four trucks were shrinking into distance as if a powerful spring that had been holding them back were suddenly released.
An automobile horn tooted behind me. My attention jerked to the mirror, where the driver of a blue Datsun was flashing his headlamps on and off and yanking his left index finger around in a short arc toward the apron. I couldn’t make out his features.
I’d had enough of being scared for one day. I cruised across the right lane and rolled to a halt, sliding the Smith & Wesson from its holster even before the car stopped rocking. I left the driver’s door open and was waiting on the other side with the revolver clasped in both hands, my arms stretched out across the vinyl roof, when he pulled up behind. A green Chevette slowed as it went past, then accelerated when the driver spotted the gun.
The man behind the wheel of the Japanese compact made no move to get out. I chugged a bullet into the pavement just ahead of the front axle. Pebbles and pieces of asphalt rattled against the underside of the fenders.
“Out, hands high!” I commanded. Some of my best stuff comes from B westerns.
He alighted, holding his hands at shoulder level. All six feet of him in a blue summerweight uniform with sergeant’s stripes on the sleeves. Sunlight glared off his silver badge.
My stomach knotted. “Tell me you’re going to a costume party.”
“You’re fresh out of luck, pal.”
He might have been talking to a guy he’d stopped for busting a light. He was built heavy, not as flamboyantly muscular as Dooley Bass, but not as thick around the middle either. His rumpled black hair was shot with gray.
I said the sort of thing you’d expect me to say in that situation, laid the gun on top of the roof, and stepped back, raising my own hands.
He drew his side arm. “This side.”
I came around the front and assumed the position, spread-eagled with my back to him and my hands braced against the roof. More cars slowed down to watch. I was this morning’s gawkers’ delight.
“Private heat, huh?” He divided his attention between the contents of my wallet and me. He had my .38 in his belt and his hands had been everyplace I might have been hiding another. “I’m on my way home. I hear these truckers yammering away over the CB about a hijacking and flag my ass across the service drive to here. I get on the horn and they’re gone like butter on a hot sidewalk. Maybe you’d care to fill me in on the rest.”
I cared. When I finished he made a disrespectful sound involving his lips and teeth.
“How long you been in practice?”
“Since about two years before I was born.” I turned to face him. He’d holstered his revolver.
“Then you should know you don’t tail one of these rigs unless you’re in tandem. Once they make you you’re meat for the grinder.”
“I work solo.”
“That’s how they bury you.”
“Are you holding me?”
We watched each other. An empty haulaway stormed past along the inside lane, sucking at our clothes and hair. He handed back my wallet and gun.
“Permit’s in order, which means no rap sheet. Anyway, I don’t get the department band on my box and I’m damned if I’ll go back to the station. Your driver’s license expires next month. Happy birthday.”
“Aren’t you going to ask me if I want to press charges?”
“For what, littering? You must be kidding.”
“Yeah. Thanks for mixing, Sergeant. A lot of off-duty cops would have directed their attention elsewhere. I owe you.”
His face was built to grimace—square, much-lined, with tired eyes and a broad, humorous mouth. “Best way you can pay it back is if I don’t see you or this bucket again.”
I fingered out one of my cards. “If you ever need one.”
He glanced at it, then unbuttoned one of his shirt pockets and poked it inside. His parting nod used up about a sixteenth of an inch of perfectly good space.
“What’s your name?” I called out, as he was climbing under the wheel of the Datsun.
He strapped himself in. “Van Sturtevant. Van’s my first name, not part of the last.” He pulled his door shut with a cheesy
I lit a fresh cigarette and lifted a hand as he pulled out into traffic, his engine cooking like grease on a cheap griddle.
POLICE SERGEANT SURVIVES TRIPLE SLAYING
, read the headline in the next morning’s
MISSED MY AIR
conditioner that morning. The air swam inside the car and the seat burned my legs through my pants. The brittle brown husks of dead flies lined the dusty dash where it met the windshield. On my way to the office I made a mental note to give the interior a good cleaning, and forgot about it by the time I found a parking space.
My paper never showed up and I tuned in too late to catch the local news on my car radio. I picked up a copy at the stand down the street from my building. The banner caught my eye immediately. These days they only use that size type for notable murders and the odd nuclear holocaust.
One Detroit police officer was critically injured and two others killed in an apparent ambush on the city’s northwest side early this morning, which also resulted in the death of one of the four suspects.
Sought in connection with the slayings are Alonzo Smith, 24, Luke David Turkel, 22, and Willie Lee Gross, 19. The three were wanted for questioning in an arson investigation at the time of the shooting. A fourth suspect, Roscoe LaRue, 19, was wounded by return fire and reported dead on arrival at Detroit Receiving Hospital at 3:16
Police said Sgt. Edward E Maxson, 38, and Patrolman William Flynn, 22, were emerging from their squad car in front of a house belonging to Gross’s father on Clarita near Mt. Hazel Cemetery when Maxson was killed instantly by fire from an upstairs window. A second shot missed Flynn, who returned fire and radioed for assistance, police said.
The call was answered by Sgt. Van Sturtevant, 43, who was patrolling without a partner. Police said Sturtevant saw LaRue running from an alley behind the building and called for him to halt, shooting him when he failed to comply. Sturtevant was then wounded in the back and Flynn was slain as two guns opened fire from the cemetery. The sergeant, an 18-year veteran of the department, was reported in critical condition at Detroit Receiving Hospital later this morning.
One of the most intensive manhunts in the city’s history ...
And so it went, lousy with attributing phrases in a careful ballet around the libel laws, broken into fragments of columns and scattered throughout the first section so that I had to take it up to the office to finish it without being fined for littering. When I was done the place looked like Que Noc after Charlie’s propaganda plane and then ours had passed over, jettisoning leaflets like bird droppings. I was tidying up when the telephone rang. It was the brisk voice from the secretarial pool, asking me to hold for Owen Mullett. I hung up almost gently.
It rang again half a minute later. I finished putting the mess back together poured myself a slug from the office bottle, put it down in a lump, and lifted the instrument.
“Do you realize how much work I could get done in the time it takes to get you back on the line, for chrissake?”
“No,” I said. “How much, Mr. Mullett?”
“How much what?”
“How much work could you get done in the time it takes to get me back on the line, for chrissake?”
“I don’t know,” he said confusedly. “A lot.”
“Figure it out and call me back.” I cut the connection.
I got one out and lit it, shaking the match the way a terrier destroys a rat in its jaws, and flipping it in the general direction of the glass souvenir ashtray on the desk. This time I answered on the third ring.
“What kind of shit are you trying to pull, Walker?”
“Your language is offensive, Mr. Mullett. Good-bye, Mr. Mullett.”
“No! Wait! Don’t hang—”
I nailed it on the first ring the next time. “I don’t like your taste in music, either.”
“Don’t hang up!” he pleaded. “Walker?”
“Listen, I can’t figure out what I did that put the bee on you, but don’t you think I’m entitled to the report I paid for?”
I breathed some air. “You’re right, Mr. Mullett. Hang on.” I laid the handset down on the calendar pad and hiked around the desk three times, going faster each turn. I did sixty pushups. I boxed with my shadow and won on a technicality. I walked over to the original
poster in its imitation wood frame and sneered at Bogart. Flattened out in a forty-year-old, badly painted portrait, he still sneered better than I did. The bitterness out of my system, I went back to the desk and sat down and picked up the receiver and recounted yesterday’s adventure, leaving out Van Sturtevant’s name. He hadn’t paid for that.
“Hm,” he said. “Hm. Do you think Dooley Bass would recognize you again?”
“Only my car.”
“What about the other drivers?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think it really matters. The way I see it, they were just helping out a fellow driver. He reported me as a hijacker. If they were in with him, their all being in the area just when they were needed stacks up to a pretty healthy coincidence. Unless the operation is a lot bigger than you think, in which case I’d call ICC. Not bloody likely, as Benny Hill says.”
He cleared his throat. More shoe polish. “Are you still working for us, Walker?”
“That’s up to you, Mr. Mullett. I was smarting off fairly heavily there. I guess I’m myself today.”
“Don’t give it another thought,” he said expansively. I let him expand. People hear what they want to, and if he’d heard an apology on my end it wasn’t my place to set him straight. “I’ve done business with all the car rental agencies in this area,” he went on. “Give them my name and pick out something appropriate. Meaning inconspicuous.”
That ruled out the red Jaguar with leopard-skin seats I’d had my eye on. “Dooley Bass again?”
“Yes. He’s got a load of machine tools to Monroe Saturday. I’ll call later with the particulars. The newspapers got to Ann Arbor, by the way. We’re going to keep following him until he tries stealing from us again.”
I wondered where Mullett was planning to ride. “He’ll be wary now. Let’s give him some slack.”
“I’m not paying for slack. Trust me. This guy’s got suicidal guts like the guy that killed Kitty Genovese. He’ll tumble.” He hung up on me this time.
I turned on the radio. There was nothing new on the shooting, except that now the 22-year-old cop was the one who nailed LaRue on the fly. They were still milking the wire report they’d received hours ago. A rookie isn’t likely to hit much of anything with all that lead screaming around his ears. It’s hard enough when no one’s shooting back. I turned it off and winched the city directory out of its drawer.
“Detroit Receiving.” A woman’s voice.
“This is Alex Wainwright at the
,” I announced. “I’m checking on Sergeant Sturtevant’s condition.”
“One moment, sir.”
A new voice came on. “Hello? Who is this?”
That was no nurse or doctor. That was Lieutenant John Alderdyce, childhood friend, adult nemesis, and Homicide detective in good standing. I shifted into my Sessue Hayakawa impression.
“Herro? Herro? This Fujiyama’s Fine Libs?”
A pause. “No, it isn’t. Who’s speaking?”
“Ah. So solly. Call lestaurant. Long numbah. Goo-bye.”
“Wait a minute. Who—”
I scowled at the receiver in its cradle. Department procedure would call for a man on duty at the hospital desk. The fact that he was from Homicide didn’t necessarily mean the worst. But I was sorry I’d called.
My shirt was already clinging to my back when I reached the car, and as I pulled into the hospital parking lot the main building shimmered like the lost palace of Atlantis behind rising waves of heat. The pavement was tacky under my feet and the air was thick with the sweet smell of melting tar. I was gasping by the time I stepped from oven heat into the cool, muted atmosphere of the central lobby.
This was my first visit to the facility at its new location. I’d been wheeled into the old structure, nursing a bullet-splintered rib, shortly before the move. At the desk a fortyish nurse with a scrubbed look and the preoccupied air of a company commander in the midst of a bombardment directed me to the emergency room and promptly wiped out all memory of my existence. At least I think she was a nurse. She was wearing a pink pantsuit and nothing on her head. These days the whole world is in mufti.
Hieronymus Bosch might have taken inspiration from that emergency room. An old man in a crushed fedora and a fuzzy coat sweater—despite the heat—was sitting on an upholstered bench rocking back and forth, moaning loudly and cradling an obviously broken wrist in his other arm, while a dumpy, middle-aged woman seated next to him tried to comfort him with her arm around his skinny shoulders. At the other end, what looked like a ten-year-old kid sat sniffling with a bloody handkerchief to his eye, beside a woman whose overly made-up face was pale and contorted as she scolded him. To one side of the wide entrance, a teenaged nurse or something in a yellow shirt and designer jeans had a clipboard in one hand and was asking a young woman shivering on a gurney under a thin blanket if she was with Blue Cross. Men in white coats and women in pants hurried in and out through swinging doors, looking grim and efficient. Restaurants should do such business.