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
There wasn’t much I could say to that. So I thanked the man and left him to his pile of papers and his morbid thoughts.
Before I could even get to my truck, it started to snow again.
* * *
I checked into a hotel on Shelden Avenue, down in the center of town, close to the water. From my window, I could see the lift bridge and the light stream of traffic crossing in either direction, headlights on as the snow came down harder and dimmed the late afternoon light.
I took out the list of names and numbers Raz had given me. There were only three names—Bradley, Wayne, and Charlie’s girlfriend Rebecca. That was it. I started with Rebecca’s number and got her voice mail. I left a message, told her who I was and that I just wanted to ask her a couple of quick questions about Charlie. I asked her to call me as soon as she got the chance.
I called Bradley, got his voice mail, and left a similar message. As I called Wayne, I wondered if I was about to get shut out completely. It’s quite possible that nobody will talk to you, I said to myself. If they don’t want to deal with this, they’ll just avoid you.
But Wayne answered the phone. I went down the same path with him, who I was, why I was here in Houghton. When I was done, the line was silent for a few seconds.
“I understand,” he finally said. “I don’t know what I can do to help you, but … I mean, I’ll do whatever I can.”
“I called his girlfriend, and this other friend of his. Bradley? Do you know him?”
“Yeah, Bradley. We’re two of Charlie’s apartment-mates. We were, I mean. Anyway, I’ll see him in a few minutes. But did you say his girlfriend? You mean Rebecca?”
“Yes, that’s the name I have here.”
“Your information’s a little out of date,” he said. “I guess his father didn’t know.”
“They weren’t together anymore?”
“No, not for a while.”
“Would it be possible to meet with you for a few minutes? Just to ask you some questions?”
I could hear him letting out a long breath. “Yeah, why not? We’re gonna be at the Downtowner tonight. It’s right on the end of the main drag, next to the bridge.”
“That sounds good. And hey, if you happen to think of anyone else who might have known him well…”
“I’ll see if I can round up some people,” he said. “Say about eight o’clock?”
“That would be fantastic, yes. You’ll see if Rebecca can come, too?”
“Yes. Of course. She’ll be there.”
I hadn’t even met the kid yet, but I could tell he was feeling funny about something. It was right there in his voice.
“You and Rebecca…” I said, taking a shot.
“Yeah, we’re kinda together now. But she and Charlie were broken up since last fall, I swear.”
“You don’t have to explain.” I thanked him and I told him I’d see the whole gang at the Downtowner at eight.
I hung up the phone and looked out at the snow. Okay, that’s one possible reason to kill yourself, I thought. As old as mankind.
* * *
I left the hotel around 6:30, figuring I’d get something to eat before talking to Charlie’s friends. It was still snowing. The sun was going down and it was getting even colder. I walked down Shelden, feeling my face go numb and the snow collecting in my hair. There were bars and restaurants on either side of the street, each one glowing with warm light and looking more inviting than the last. I saw the Downtowner at the very end of the street, just as Wayne had told me. I stepped inside and saw that it was doing good business that night. Mostly college kids, all hanging around the high tables, drinking beer and talking over the music. There were televisions over the bar, a basketball game on some, a hockey game on the others. The whole place was loud and smoky and basically everything that the Glasgow Inn would never be in a thousand years.
There was a back room with big windows overlooking the bridge. It was a little less noisy and there was room to sit down, so I grabbed a table. When the waitress came over—another college kid, of course—I ordered a hamburger and a beer. She didn’t have to card me.
I looked out the window as I ate. There were a million little lights sparkling on the bridge. Funny how it could be so ugly in the daytime and then a few hours later look like a giant piece of art glowing in the darkness. I thought about what I was going to ask Charlie’s friends when they got here. I wasn’t so sure about having them all come at once. Normally, when you’re interviewing several people, you want to keep them separate as much as possible. There’s a group mentality that takes hold when one person gets talking and the others are listening and they each start to chime in and tell the same story. You get each one alone and you usually get a different take on the story from each person telling the tale.
Of course that’s the way you play it when you’re taking statements. When a crime has been committed and you’re trying to sort out the bad guys from the innocent victims. This was nothing like that, so I knew I’d just have to try to ask the right questions, and listen as carefully as I could. Even though at that moment I still had no idea what anyone could say that would make a father feel any better.
At five before eight, a young man and a young woman came into the room. They were obviously looking for someone. And I was obviously the only man in the place more than thirty years old. They spotted me and walked over.
“You must be Mr. McKnight,” the young man said. He had long black hair tied in a ponytail. Not exactly what I’d expect at Michigan Tech, but what the hell did I know? “I’m Wayne. We spoke on the phone.”
“Please, call me Alex.”
“This is Rebecca,” he said, indicating the young woman standing next to him. She was pretty in a slightly plain Midwestern way, with blond hair and green eyes. She was already looking a little nervous, and we hadn’t even gotten down to business yet.
“It’s good to meet you,” I said.
She nodded and pursed her lips, but didn’t say a word.
“Have a seat,” I said. “Can I order you some drinks?”
“Um, I’m afraid I’m not legal yet,” Wayne said as they both sat down across from me. “I turn twenty-one next month.”
That’s when I looked him over and realized how truly young he looked. Rebecca even more so. Hell, I thought, I am sitting in a bar filled with children who have run away from home and are pretending to be college students. They shouldn’t be here alone on a cold winter night and I shouldn’t be here talking to these two about yet another child who hanged himself from a tree.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” I said. “I’m not quite sure how to begin here. So why don’t you just tell me about Charlie, okay?”
That seemed to put him at ease a little bit. Rebecca still looked a little anxious, but as soon as Wayne started talking, she relaxed and even found a few words of her own. The picture they painted for me was of a young man who truly didn’t have an enemy in the world. One of those kids who light up a room the moment they walk in. It might have been a little bit of exaggeration-as-eulogy, but I got the impression that Charlie Razniewski Jr. would be missed by a lot of people.
He had switched to forestry at the beginning of his junior year, after getting together with Rebecca. Before that, he’d been a criminal justice major, as I already knew, hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps. But when Rebecca told him she was a forestry major, well, the whole idea sounded a lot more rewarding to him. More time outside, less time behind a desk. It was just the kind of thing he always secretly knew he wanted to do. At least that’s what he told Rebecca.
They were together for their junior year at Tech. But in the summer Rebecca had the chance to do an internship with the U.S. Forest Service, along with Charlie’s good friend Wayne. Charlie was still playing catch-up with his new major, so he said good-bye to Rebecca for the summer and they both promised to pick up where they left off come September.
As I was hearing the tale, I already knew what was coming next. By the time they saw each other again, Rebecca had spent the whole summer with Wayne, and Charlie had apparently sort of met somebody else, too. That part was a little fuzzy. Bottom line, there was a big fight and an official breakup and then an okay-let’s-be-good-friends a few weeks later. By the time winter break rolled around, everybody was reasonably happy. Or so it seemed.
“I don’t think Charlie’s father knew anything about the breakup,” I said.
“I just feel so bad,” she said. “I can’t help thinking I had something to do with what happened.”
“No, come on,” Wayne said. “That’s not true at all. You know better.”
Wayne sat there rubbing her back for a while as she fought off the tears. That’s when a few more of Charlie’s friends and classmates showed up. It became a jumble of names and young faces at that point, with lots more stories of how great a guy Charlie was and how nobody ever would have thought he’d be the kind of man to hang himself. There were apparently enough people over twenty-one now, so the beers started getting passed around and everything got a little louder. There was even a little bit of dark humor centered around the fact that Charlie was a forestry major and he decided to hang himself from a tree. That’s about when I decided it was time to leave.
Wayne had introduced me to Charlie’s two other apartment-mates—Bradley, whose name I already had on my list, and another kid named RJ. They invited me to come back to the apartment to see where Charlie had lived, so a few minutes later we were all outside. The wind had picked up, so we were all trying to shield our faces from the driving snow as we walked up the hill, away from the water. It was Bradley and RJ and me, with Wayne and Rebecca tagging along behind us.
It was a squat little apartment building on the very top of the hill, assaulted by the wind and the snow. I wasn’t even sure how it was still standing. They opened up the door and we all went inside and slammed the door behind us, flakes of snow still flying around us in the living room as we took off our coats.
It was everything I expected from a college apartment, with odds and ends and cast-off furniture. Posters for rock bands I’d never heard of on three walls, but on the fourth, in place of the crappy little television and the CD player with the cheap speakers, was a forty-eight-inch hi-def LCD television surrounded by a sleek black sound system. I guess that’s the minimum these days, even for four half-starving college kids.
Or rather, make that three. They showed me to the room Charlie shared with Wayne—his half of the room was pretty much empty now.
“The police asked us to box up all his stuff,” Bradley said. He was a big kid, maybe fifty or sixty pounds overweight. A late bloomer with bad skin. I didn’t imagine he had much of a social life. Not up here where the men outnumber the women by a good seven to one.
“It was just clothes and books and a few CDs,” RJ said. He was tall and thin and had dark hair and heavy eyebrows. There was something intense about him, and I’m sure most of the college girls would call him attractive. Unlike Bradley, I was sure he had no trouble finding someone to be with on a lonely Saturday night. “They said they were going to mail it all back to his father.”
That makes sense, I thought, and it also means he’s already seen it all and gone through it. If there was anything to learn from it, he’d already had that chance.
“It’s so weird not having him here,” Bradley said. “I mean, it’s not like we’d even want somebody else in here. Not that you’d find somebody in the middle of the school year. Heck, I don’t even know what I’m talking about.”
I sat down on the bare mattress. Then I stood up and on a whim I lifted up the mattress to see if there was anything hidden underneath. There was nothing. No secret journal into which he poured out his thoughts every night. No answers at all.
When we went back to the living room, the private stash of beer had been tapped into, everybody holding a bottle now and obviously not worrying about the legal drinking age anymore. It had been years since I’d been a cop, of course, and even if I was wearing the uniform that night I wouldn’t have said a word to them. They all sat around drinking in total silence and staring at the floor.
“I want to ask you something,” Rebecca finally said. “Do you think I can talk to Charlie’s father sometime? Just to say how sorry I am?”
“I don’t see why not. He’s in Sault Ste. Marie tonight, staying with a friend. I can give you his phone number.”
“Maybe I should just wait until he goes back home. I don’t want to disturb him right now.”
I nodded my head and let it go. She didn’t really want to talk to the man. At least not for a while. Maybe a year from now, she’ll actually call him.
“I really miss him,” Wayne said. “This is the kind of night he loved. The worse the weather was, the happier he got.”
Everybody smiled at that, and I was sure they were each bringing up their favorite Charlie memories again. Rebecca started to cry about then, and Wayne told her he’d walk her home. They both shook my hand and thanked me for coming all the way out there to talk to them.
“Tell his father I feel so bad,” Wayne said.
“Me, too,” Rebecca said, and that was about all she was able to say before they finally wished me a good night and headed out into the wind and the snow.
I put my beer bottle down on the kitchen table and was expecting to head out myself, but then Bradley started talking again.