THERE IS A bullet in my chest, less than a centimeter from my heart. I don't think about it much anymore. It's just a part of me now. But every once in a while, on a certain kind of night, I remember that bullet. I can feel the weight of it inside me. I can feel its metallic hardness. And even though that bullet has been warming inside my body for fourteen years, on a night like this when it is dark enough and the wind is blowing, that bullet feels as cold as the night itself.
It was a Halloween night, which always makes me think about my days on the force. There's nothing like being a policeman in Detroit on Halloween night. The kids wear masks, but instead of trick-or-treating they burn down houses. The next day there might be forty or fifty houses reduced to black skeletons, still smoking. Every cop is out on the streets, looking for kids with gasoline cans and calling in the fires before they rage out of control. The only thing worse than being a Detroit policeman on Halloween night is being a Detroit fireman.
But that was a long time ago. Fourteen years since I took that bullet, fourteen years and a good three hundred miles away, due south. It might as well have been on another planet, in another lifetime.
Paradise, Michigan, is a little town in the Upper Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior, across Whitefish Bay from Sault Ste. Marie, or "the Soo," as the localscall it. On a Halloween night in Paradise, you might see a few paper ghosts in the trees, whipped by the wind off the lake. Or you might see a car filled with costumed children on their way to a party, witches and pirates looking out the back window at you as you wait at the one blinking red light in the center of town. Maybe Jackie will be standing behind the bar wearing his gorilla mask when you step into the place. The running joke is that you wait until he takes the mask off to scream.
Aside from that, a Halloween night doesn't look much different from any other October night in Paradise. It's mostly just pine trees, and clouds, and the first hint of snow in the air. And the largest, coldest, deepest lake in the world, waiting to turn into a November monster.
I pulled the truck into the Glasgow Inn parking lot. All the regulars would already be there. It was poker night. I was a good two hours late, so I was sure they had started without me. I had spent the entire evening in a trailer park over in Rosedale, knocking on doors. A local contractor had been setting a new mobile home when it tipped over and crushed the legs of one of the workers. He wasn't in the hospital more than an hour before Mr. Lane Uttley, Esquire, was at his side, offering the best legal services that a fifty-percent cut could buy. It would probably be a quick out of court settlement, he told me on the phone, but it was always nice to have a witness just in case they try to beat the suit. Somebody to testify that no, the guy wasn't stone drunk and he wasn't showing off by trying to balance five tons of mobile home on his nose.
I started at the scene of the accident. It was a strange sight, the mobile home still tipped over, one corner crumpled into the ground. I worked my way down the line as the sun set behind the trees. I wasn't having much luck, just a few doors slammed in my face and one dog who took a nice sample of fabric out of my pant leg. I'd beengiving the private investigator thing a try for about six months. It wasn't working out too well.
Finally, I found one woman who would admit to seeing what happened. After she described what she had seen, she asked me if there might be a few bucks in it for her. I told her she would have to take up that matter with Mr. Uttley. I left her his card. "Lane Uttley, Attorney at Law, specializing in personal injury, workers' compensation, automobile accidents, slip and fall, medical malpractice, defective products, alcohol-related accidents, criminal defense." With his address in the Soo and his phone number. She squinted at the tiny letters, all those words on one little business card. "I'll call him first thing in the morning," she said. I didn't feel like driving all the way back to Lane's office to drop off my report, so she'd probably call him before he even knew who she was. Which would confuse the hell out of him, but I was cold and tired, much in need of a drink, and already late for my poker game.
The Glasgow Inn is supposed to have a touch of Scotland to it. So instead of sitting on a stool and staring at your own face in the mirror behind the bar, you sit in an overstuffed chair in front of the fireplace. If that's the way it works in Scotland, I'd like to move there after I retire. For now, I'll take the Glasgow Inn. It was like a second home to me.
When I walked into the place, the guys were at the table and already into the game, like I figured. Jackie, the owner of the place, was in his usual chair with his feet by the fire. He nodded at me and then at the bar. There stood Leon Prudell, one hand on the bar, the other wrapped around a shotglass. From the looks of him, it was not his first.
"Well, well," he said. "If it isn't Mr. Alex McKnight." Prudell was a big man, two-fifty at least. But he carriedmost of it around his middle. His hair was bright red and was always sticking out in some direction. One look at the guy, with the plaid flannel shirt and the hundred-dollar hunting boots, you knew he had lived in the Upper Peninsula all his life.
The five men at the poker table stopped in midhand to watch us.
"Mr. McKnight, Private Eye," he said. "Mr. Bigshot, himself, ay?" With that distinctive "yooper" twang, that little rise in his voice that made him sound almost Canadian.
There might have been a dozen other men in the place, besides the players at the table. The room fell silent as they all turned one by one to look at us, like we were a couple of gunslingers ready to draw.
"What brings you all the way out to Paradise, Prudell?" I asked.
He looked at me for a long moment. A log on the fire gave a sudden pop like a gunshot. He drained the rest of his glass and then put it on the bar. "Why don't we discuss this outside?" he said.
"Prudell," I said. "It's cold outside. I've had a long day."
"I really think we need to discuss this matter outside, McKnight."
"Let me buy you a drink, okay?" I said. "Can I just buy you a drink and we can talk about it here?"
"Oh sure," he said. "You can buy me a drink. You can buy me two drinks. You can get behind the bar and mix 'em yourself."
"For God's sake." This I did not need. Not tonight.
"That's the least you can do for a man after you take his job away."
"Prudell, come on."
"Here," he said. He stuffed one of his big paws into hispockets and pulled out his car keys. "You forgot to take these, too."
I didn't expect the keys to come at me so quickly, and with such deadly aim. They caught me right above the left eye before I could even flinch.
All five men rose at once from their table. "No need, boys," I said. "Have a seat." I bent over to pick up the keys, feeling a trickle of blood in the corner of my eye. "Prudell, I didn't know you had such a good arm. We could have used you back when I was playing ball in Columbus." I tossed his keys back to him. "Of course, I got to wear a mask then." I wiped at the blood with the back of my hand.
"Outside," he said.
"After you," I said.
We went out into the parking lot and stood facing each other in the cheap light. We were alone. The pine trees swayed all around us as the wind picked up. The air was heavy with moisture off the lake. He took a couple swings at me without connecting.
"Prudell, aren't we a little too old for this?"
"Shut up and fight," he said. He swung at me with everything he had. The man didn't know how to fight, but he could still hurt me if I wasn't careful. And unfortunately, he probably wasn't quite as drunk as I hoped he was.
"Prudell, you aren't even coming close," I said. "Maybe you should stick to throwing your keys." Get him mad, I thought. Don't let him settle down and start finding his range.
"I've got a wife and two kids, you know." He kept throwing big roundhouse punches with his right hand. "My wife isn't going to get her new car now. And my kids won't be going to Disney World like I promised them."
I ducked a right, then another right, then another. Let's see a left, I thought. I want a nice lazy drunken left hand, Prudell.
"I had a guy working for me, helping me out when I was on a job," he said. "I swear to God, McKnight, that was the only thing keeping him together. If something happens to him now, it's all on your head."
He tried a couple more right-hand haymakers before the idea of a left-hand jab bubbled up through all the rage and whiskey in his brain. When it came, it was as long and slow as a mudslide. I stepped into him and threw a right hook to the point of his chin, turning the punch slightly downward at the end, just like my old third base coach had taught me. Prudell went down hard and stayed down.
I stood there watching him while I rubbed my right shoulder. "Get up, Prudell," I said. "I didn't hit you that hard."
I was just about to get worried when he finally pulled himself up from the gravel. "McKnight, I will get you," he said. "I promise you that right now."
"I'm here most Saturday nights," I said. "Hell, most nights period. You know where to find me."
"Count on it," he said. He stumbled around the parking lot for a full minute until he remembered what his car looked like. In the distance I could hear the waves dying on the rocks.
I went back into the bar. The men looked at me, then at the door. They reached their own conclusions and went on with the poker hand. It was the usual crew, the kind of guys you didn't even have to say hello to, even if you hadn't seen them in a week. You just sat down and looked at your cards. I held a napkin over my eye to stop the bleeding.
"That clown must have stood there for two hours waiting for you," Jackie said. "What was his beef?"
"Thinks I took his job," I said. "He used to do some work for Uttley."
"A private investigator? Him?"
"He likes to think so."
"I wouldn't pay him two cents to find his own dick."
"Why would you pay a man to find his own dick?" a man named Rudy asked.
"I wouldn't," Jackie said. "It's just an expression."
"It's not an expression," Rudy said. "If it was an expression, I would have heard it before."
"It's an expression," Jackie said. "Tell him it's an expression, Alex."
"Just deal the cards," I said.
I played some poker and had a few slow beers. Jackie went over the bridge every week to get good beer from Canada, just one more reason to love the place. I forgot all about trailer parks and pissed-off ex-private eyes for a while. I figured that was enough drama for one night. I figured I was allowed to relax a little bit and maybe even start to feel human again.
But the night had other plans for me. Because that's when Edwin Fulton had to come into the place. Excuse me, Edwin J. Fulton the third. And his wife, Sylvia. They just had to pick this night to drop by.
They had obviously just been to some sort of soiree. God knows where you'd even find a soiree in the whole Upper Peninsula, but leave it to Edwin. He was decked out in his best gray suit, a charcoal overcoat, and a red scarf wrapped around his collar just right. The suit was obviously tailored to make him look taller, but it could only do so much. He was still a good six inches shorter than his wife.
Sylvia was wearing a full-length fur coat. Fox, I would have guessed. It must have taken about twenty of them to make that coat. She had her dark hair pinned up, and whenshe took off her coat, we all got to see a little black number that showed off her legs and her perfect shoulders. Goddamn it, that woman had shoulders. And even on a cold night she had to go and wear something like that. She knew that every man in the place was looking at her, but I had a sick feeling that she wouldn't have taken her coat off at all if I hadn't been there. She slipped me a quick look that hurt me more than Prudell's keys.
Edwin gave me a little wave while he ordered up a couple quick drinks. He had that look on his face, that deadpan look he always wore when he was out in public with his wife.
"Tell me something," Jackie said to nobody in particular. "How does a woman like that end up with a horse's ass like Edwin Fulton?"
"I think it has something to do with having a lot of money," Rudy said.
"You mean if I had a million dollars she'd be sitting over here on my lap instead?"
"I don't know about that," Rudy said. "Guy as ugly as you, you'd probably need five million."
They didn't stay long. One drink and they were gone, just a quick stop to dazzle the locals and then be on their way. She gave me one more glance as Edwin helped her into her coat. Whatever point she had hoped to make had apparently been made.
I kept thinking about her while I played poker. It didn't help me concentrate on the cards and it didn't help my mood any, either. Outside the wind really started to pick up. We could hear it rattling the windows.
"November winds are here early," Jackie said.
"It's after midnight," Rudy said. "It's November first. They're right on time."
"I stand corrected."
About an hour later, Edwin came back into the place.He was alone this time. He stood at the bar for a while, wearing his hangdog expression this time, hoping I'd notice him. I was glad he didn't try to come over to our table. He had actually played with us once before, and had lost his money as fast as a man can lose money playing lowstakes poker. But it's just no fun taking money from a guy when you know it doesn't mean anything to him. That and the way he kept yammering on like he was suddenly one of the boys. He never got asked to play again.
On most nights, I would have at least gone over to him for a minute to see how he was doing. I don't know if I just felt sorry for the guy, or if I felt guilty because of the business with Sylvia. Or maybe I really liked the guy. Maybe I considered him my friend despite all the obvious reasons not to. But for some reason I just didn't feel up to it on this night. I let him stand there by the bar until he finally gave up and left.
I felt bad as soon as the door shut behind him. "I'm gonna call it a night, guys," I said. I was hoping I could catch him in the parking lot, but when I got outside he was already gone.
On the ride home, there's a stretch on the main road where the trees open up and you get a great look at the lake. There wasn't much moonlight coming through the clouds, but there was enough to see that the waves were getting bigger, maybe four or five feet. I could feel the truck rocking in the wind as I drove. Somewhere out there, a good thousand feet under the waves, there were twenty-nine men still sleeping, twenty years after the Edmund Fitzgerald went down. I bet that night felt just like this one.
The wind followed me all the way home, and even when I was inside the cabin I could feel it coming through the cracks. I turned off every light and crawled under my thickest comforter. In the total darkness I could hear the night whispering to me.
I slept. I don't know how long. Then a noise. The phone.
It rang a few times before I got to it. When I picked it up, a voice said, "Alex."
"Alex, it's me, Edwin."
"Edwin? God, what time is it?"
"I don't know," he said. "I think it's about two in the morning."
"Two in the ... for God's sake, Edwin, what is it?"
"Um, I've got a little problem here, Alex."
"What kind of problem?"
"Alex, I know it's real late, but is there any chance of you coming out here?"
"Where? Your house?"
"No. I'm in the Soo."
"What? I just saw you a couple hours ago at the bar."
"Yeah, I know. I was on my way out here."
"Edwin, what the hell's going on?"
I stood there shivering for a long moment, listening to the wind outside and to a distant hum on the phone line. "Alex, please," he finally said. His voice started to break. "Please come out here. I think he's dead."
"Who's dead? What are you talking about?"
"I really think he's dead, Alex. I mean, the blood ..."
"Edwin, where are you?"
"The blood, Alex." I could barely hear him. "I've never seen so much blood."
Copyright © 1998 by Steve Hamilton.