Authors: Steve Hamilton
Tags: #Private Investigators, #Upper Peninsula (Mich.), #Mystery & Detective, #Michigan, #Private Investigators - Michigan - Upper Peninsula, #General, #Mystery Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #McKnight; Alex (Fictitious Character), #Fiction, #Upper Peninsula
“Wait a minute, are you talking about me going out there and doing that?”
“He can’t do it. There’s no way he can go out there again. Not yet. Even if he could, there’s not much chance they’d really be straight with him. There are some things you just can’t talk about with your dead friend’s father, you know?”
“But hold on. Time out.”
“I can’t do it. I’ve already talked to the sheriff out there. We didn’t exactly hit it off, but no matter what, I can’t go out there and start grilling people. I mean, I know how I can come across sometimes. I think any of these kids, they’d just feel like they were getting the third degree and there’s no way they’d open up to me. What Raz needs is an impartial third party, somebody who’s reasonably good at talking to people. And if he hires you on an official basis…”
“No. Chief, please. Even if I was going to do this, there’s no way I’d take money for it.”
“You’re not getting it.” He was starting to rock back and forth now, shivering from the cold and maybe something else. Some kind of raw energy he was trying to burn off. “Don’t you see? He
to hire you. He needs to pay you some money to go talk to these kids. Find out what you can about his son’s state of mind. Talk to the sheriff’s office, find out if there’s anything else they can tell you. About any kind of trouble he might have been in. If he does that, then he’s
See what I mean? Paying you makes it real to him. So even if you don’t find out anything, he can go home feeling like he did everything he could.”
“Well, you’ve got the license.”
“I don’t use it. You know that. Why don’t you hire Leon Prudell?”
He was the only other game in town. My former sometimes-partner, a man who grew up in the UP and who never wanted to be anything else other than a private investigator. Problem was, he was the fat goofy kid who sat in the back of the classroom and to most people around here, he’d never be anything else.
“Prudell’s a clown,” Maven said. “At least you
“Gee, thanks. But seriously, Prudell’s a lot better than anybody realizes. He’d do a fantastic job with this.”
“Look, McKnight, all you have to do is drive out there, talk to a few people, then drive back. Tell Raz what you heard. If that happened to be, ‘You know what, your son wasn’t depressed at all, there was absolutely no reason he should have killed himself, so it was just a tragic fluke thing, one bad night in his life and I’m awfully sorry.…’ Well, then, I mean if you said that, then everybody would be better off, I think.”
“So now you’re even telling me what to say? Why bother even going out there? I can just say I did.”
“Don’t be a wiseass. I’m just saying, if you don’t find out anything, that would be a good line to take. Is that too much to ask?”
“And you make your three hundred bucks. Or whatever. I don’t see what the problem is.”
“You’re something else,” I said. “You treat me like crap every time I see you, but now you think all you gotta do is wave some money in my face and I’ll help you.”
He threw his cigarette down onto the gravel and reached out for me. He grabbed me by the coat and drew himself to within a few inches of my face. Here we go, I thought. We’re gonna have that fight in the parking lot after all.
“I’m not asking for me,” he said, looking me dead in the eye. “I’m asking for my old friend, who’s spent the last three months living in hell. Okay? He’s going to be in my office tomorrow at ten o’clock. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like you to stop by and at least talk to him. Can you do that?”
“Just once, would it kill you to say please?”
I could feel him tightening his grip on my coat.
“Please, Alex. Okay? Please.”
Then he pushed me away from him and turned to go.
“Ten o’clock,” he said as he got into his car. “Don’t be late.”
* * *
A few hours later, I helped Jackie close up the place for the night. It was starting to snow again when I went out to the truck. The whole town looked even emptier than usual. It actually gets pretty busy up here during prime snowmobile season, but tonight there were no vehicles on the road. The one traffic light blinked yellow above the only main intersection. It was so quiet I could actually hear the yellow bulb clicking on and off.
I got in the truck and started it. I didn’t bother turning on the heat. It was only a quarter mile up the main road to my turnoff, then another quarter mile down the old logging road to the first of my cabins. I put the plow down as I rumbled along, past Vinnie’s house, then my first cabin. Instead of passing it, I decided to stop this time. I don’t know what made me do that, but I pulled up in front of the cabin and looked at it in the glow of my headlights. I could remember setting every single log with my father, back when he was alive and I was a kid who knew everything. I had lived in this cabin ever since coming back up here so many years later, my father long gone, my partner Franklin fresh in the ground with a wife and two little girls left behind, and me off the force by then, just looking to sell off the land and the cabins with it. Finding something up here that seemed to match the way I was feeling inside and deciding to stay. All the things that had happened since, both good and bad—until the day a killer from Toronto came looking for me and found someone else in the cabin instead. How many years later, and yet the feeling had been much the same. More blood, more blame. All on me, no matter what anyone else said. It was all on me.
I hadn’t set foot in the place since that day. I had barely looked at it. Vinnie was right, I was avoiding the issue. I was working on every last detail in rebuilding the last cabin at the end of the road, unwilling to face the idea of moving back to where I belonged.
After hearing Maven tell me about his friend living in hell after what had happened to him … that night as I looked at my cabin glowing in my headlights, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
I didn’t get out of the truck. I couldn’t bring myself to do that yet.
I drove to the end of the road and went to sleep. Just another cold night in Paradise.
In my eight years as a Detroit police officer, I saw maybe half a dozen suicides. I say “maybe” because sometimes you just don’t know. Maven was right about them usually not leaving a note. I think the statistic I heard was fifteen percent, so maybe one out of seven will leave a note and the rest will just leave you wondering why. Or even if it was suicide at all. Somebody falls off a building, say—how do you know if it was intentional? Somebody takes too many hard drugs or a few extra sleeping pills. Or the all-time favorite way to kill yourself and leave everybody guessing—the single-car accident. Find yourself a big tree and get up some speed. If the road is dry and you don’t leave skid marks, you might be leaving behind that one single clue. But otherwise it’ll be a mystery forever.
Hanging yourself from a tree, on the other hand … well, there was a hotshot assistant district attorney in Detroit and he had this Latin phrase I’d hear him use at least once a week.
Res ipsa loquitur
. The thing speaks for itself.
* * *
I hit the Soo around 9:45 that next morning. Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, second-largest city in the Upper Peninsula. Sister city to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and site of the Soo locks, where the big freighters line up to go from Lake Huron to Lake Superior, or vice-versa. I usually take Lakeshore Drive instead of the highway, because I like the way it winds around the shoreline, and I usually drive way too fast for my own good, because there isn’t a police officer, deputy, or state trooper in the entire Upper Peninsula who’ll give me a speeding ticket. It’s the one benefit of being an ex-cop who took three bullets on the job. That plus the three-quarter salary for the rest of my life.
The City-County Building sits behind the courthouse on Portage Avenue, as charmless a rectangle as you’ll find anywhere in the state. If you were to take a shoebox and cover it with gray paper, then draw a couple doors and some windows, you’d have an exact scale replica. The county sheriff and his deputies all have offices there, and downstairs you’ll find the county jail. The Sault Ste. Marie police department has to share space in the same building, even borrow use of the jail, which makes you start to understand why Chief Maven is always so damned unhappy about everything. Add to that the state police barracks on Ashmun Street, the Coast Guard station next to the locks, and the U.S. Customs office at the border, and you see the rest of the picture. The man is as low on the totem pole as you can get, in his very own town.
I parked and went inside. The receptionist told me to go right back to Chief Maven’s office. It was a trip I’d made on five or six occasions, and every single time I’d end up sitting in a hard plastic chair just outside his door for what felt like half a day. Today I was obviously on a different program. Chief Maven was there waiting for me as I came down the hallway.
“McKnight,” he said. “You’re not late for once.”
Maven showed me into the office, a place as welcoming and stylish as always with its four bare cement walls and lack of windows. Another man was already sitting in one of the guest chairs. He stood up when I entered. He was about my age, maybe two or three inches taller. Blond hair cut close, blue eyes. He looked sharp and he looked fit, maybe a little tired now, a little used up. Which wasn’t a surprise. Still, I had no trouble believing he was a topnotch U.S. marshal.
“This is Raz,” Maven said. “Raz, this is Alex.”
“Pleasure to meet you.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said.
Raz just gave me a tight smile and a nod. Then Maven waved us into our chairs. Nobody said anything for a few seconds, so I figured I should dive in.
“I understand you once rode with the chief,” I said. “Way back when.”
“We were both at the Lansing post for about two years. Then I left the state police.”
“Yeah, that would do it for me.” It was out of my mouth before I could even think about what I was saying. I mean, maybe this wasn’t the time for making jokes, but Raz gave me half a smile and even half a laugh. For a man who had just lost his son three months before, he seemed to be holding up amazingly well.
“I couldn’t stand all the time on the road,” Raz said. “Most of it just doing speed patrol.”
“Yeah, so he quit to go babysit federal judges,” Maven said, falling right back into the pattern. This is what you do to your fellow cop, no matter how many years it’s been. “And to drive around handcuffed to gangsters.”
“He’ll never get it,” Raz said to me. “But I understand you were a police officer in Detroit.”
“Yes. Third precinct.”
“Hell, yeah. Right around the corner.”
“I didn’t run into many U.S. marshals.”
“It’s a small office. There aren’t that many of us.”
“He’s a private investigator now,” Maven said. “The best in town.”
Raz stopped smiling and looked down at his hands. So much for the small talk. It was time to get to it.
“Actually, I’m not,” I said. That was Maven’s cue to turn the first of many shades of red, but I wanted to level with this man as soon as I could.
“I have a license,” I went on, “but I sort of fell into it by accident. It’s a long story, but suffice to say, I haven’t actually done much PI work, and I don’t want to misrepresent myself. God knows you’ve been through enough already. You deserve the truth.”
“We’re not talking about standard PI work,” Raz said. “Didn’t Maven tell you what I was asking you to do?”
“He did, but I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m honestly not sure if I can be of much help to you. There does happen to be another private investigator in town, a man named Leon Prudell.”
“McKnight, God damn it…” Maven was moving through shades two, three, and four.
“Just take it easy,” Raz said to him. “You’ve gotta stop being so upset all the time, Roy. Can you just try that for me, please?”
But Maven was already halfway out of his chair, looking like he was about to come around his desk and strangle me.
“Alex, can we go take a walk so Roy can calm down?”
“It’s twenty degrees outside,” Maven said. “If you want me to leave, just—”
“Come on,” Raz said to me as he stood up. “Come show me the famous locks.”
* * *
When we were safely outside, I led him down through the locks park to the edge of the St. Marys River. Someone had plowed the walkway, but the whole park was empty. I turned my collar up as a cold wind blew across the snowdrifts, but Raz seemed unfazed by it.
When we got to the observation deck, we climbed up and sat on the bleachers. The metal was cold but at least we were out of the wind now. Through the Plexiglas we could look down on the MacArthur Lock and the Poe Lock just beyond it. It was the first day of April, so everything was still closed down for the season.
“No offense, but this is pretty anticlimactic,” he said. It was cold enough for us to see our breath as we spoke.
“Come back in the summer. When a seven-hundred-footer goes through, it’s impressive.”