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American Detective



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About The Author

Loren D. EstlemanLoren D. Estleman

Loren D. Estleman has written more than fifty novels, this being the nineteenth featuring Amos Walker. In his illustrious career in fiction he has thus far netted 4 Shamus Awards, 5 Spur Awards, and 3 Western Heritage Awards. He lives with his wife, author Deborah Morgan,... More

photo: Deborah Morgan

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EXCERPT

Chapter One
 
The driveway was white stone, like a spill of salt between polished granite posts. A square of teal-colored lawn lay on either side, with furniture arranged on it in suites no decorator would approve: sectional sofas next to six-burner ranges, gold-plated bathroom fixtures among patio chairs carefully lichened with blobs of verdigris, stereo components deployed on top of plate-glass aquariums with no fish inside. A life-size statue of the property’s owner cast in bronze stood on a carved mound with one foot raised, winding up to pitch a baseball. With a realtor’s red-white-and-blue sign stuck in front of the quasi-neoclassical-Greco-Roman-Gothic-Art-Moderne house sprawled in the center of the lot, it was the most expensive yard sale since they put Soviet Russia on the block.
 
Small platoons of people, dressed casually and expensively but always appropriate to the blue eye of Lake St. Clair across the street, drifted from one set of objects to another, swigging from their personal bottles of water and commenting on the owner’s taste or lack of it. I’d thought to take a drink from the tap before I left home, and so wandered empty-handed through spaces in between until I came to the statue. The baseball in the loose split-finger grip was real, common cowhide packed with horsehair and zipped up with thirty-three stitches, scuffed and dirty, with an illegible signature scrawled on it in indelible blue ink.
 
“Sculptor got it wrong,” said the person who had stepped up from behind me, quiet as dew. “I knuckleballed the last three pitches in that game. But it looked too good to complain.”
 
“That’s the actual ball?” I asked.
 
“The one and only.”
 
“Expensive setting.”
 
“Not so much as the ball. I turned down a quarter million for it five years ago. How many no-hitters you see pitched by a man past forty?”
 
I turned his way then. Darius Fuller at sixty looked fit enough to suit up and open for the Tigers that afternoon. He was tall and rangy, with gray eyes in a thoughtful brown face that seemed to look down at me from a mound he carried around with him. His hair was a silver haze mowed close to his skull, but aside from that he could pass for thirty, which was still old for a ballplayer, and ancient for a hurler. He’d hung up the glove after that no-hitter at age forty-two, at the end of his third best season since he’d graduated from reliever to starter. The sportswriters had called him “the Fuller Brush Man” for the way he swept aside the top of the order.
 
He changed hands on a tall glass of something pale green and frosty and shook my hand. His grip was strong, with a punishing torque courtesy of a misshapen wrist—a feature not uncommon among longtime screwballers. It took a twist that turned the palm out when he let it hang at his side.
 
“You’re Walker.” He made it sound like the end of an argument.
 
I tipped my head toward the house. “Why couldn’t I be an interested buyer?”
 
“You aren’t dressed for it.”
 
“It’s a new suit.”
 
“That’s what I mean. Rich folks dress like shit. They got nobody to impress.”
 
“You’re dressed okay.”
 
His navy polo shirt and putty-colored khakis fit him as snugly as the old uniform. He had on hundred-dollar sneakers and a clump of gold and diamonds glittered on his left hand. He twisted it with his right without spilling his drink. “I’m po’ folks now, ain’t you heard? Everything today brings in goes straight to Uncle Sam. I done got traded from the private sector for three ex-wives and a business manager to be apprehended later.”
 
“A lot of people would be bitter about it.”
 
His face, which had stiffened with controlled rage, cracked apart then to let out a grin. He’d had a lot of work done on his teeth since he’d stopped a line drive with his mouth in ’69. “Oh, hell,” he said. “So I do a couple seasons of fantasy camp and slap my name on a ballpoint pen that writes under six feet of goose grease and split down the middle with D.C. Broke and famous aren’t the same thing as being just plain broke.”
 
“You should’ve taken the quarter million.”
 
“It wouldn’t pay the interest.” He took a drink, watching me over the top of the glass. He appeared to be shaking off signals from the catcher, then nodded snappily and lowered the glass. “You’re like a priest or a lawyer, right? Whatever I say stays with you.”
 
“I look at it that way. The cops don’t. I’ve been traded from the private sector a couple of times myself.”
 
A short-haired blonde woman in shorts with a tennis bracelet came up on us holding a leather-bound book and a gold pen. He took them from her and twisted out the point. “This for you or a friend?”
 
“It’s my checkbook. I want to buy the dining room set.”
 
He stuck the items back at her. “You need to wait for the bidding, and then you don’t pay me.”
 
She left. He frowned. “What the hell was I saying?”
 
“Something about being broke but famous.”
 
He’d started to raise his glass again. He lowered it. “You suck up to all your customers this way?”
 
“Sorry. I see a hole and I drive on through. It cost me a business degree.”
 
“Don’t apologize, it ruins it. A man that’ll insult you to your face is a man that’ll tell you the truth. I can tell you now I lied about that being the ball I threw in the no-hitter. I’ve got a dozen of them rolling around. When the auditor left I came damn close to selling every one as the ball and taking off for some island.”
 
“What stopped you?”
 
“I can’t swim and I don’t tan.”
 
I grinned.
 
He didn’t. “Anyway, the real ball goes with me. Everything I ever bought may belong to the government, but the best moment in my career, that’s mine and nobody else’s. You can buy ten new suits with what they’ll pay you to pass that on to them.”
 
“My closet’s only big enough for two and my gun. Where can we talk? Sound travels on the lake.”
 
“The playhouse. It’s out back.”
 
I followed his long stride around an east wing held up by columns and walled with glass into a backyard with a crescent-shaped pool sunk in green tile. Keeping pace was a challenge; I was younger, but not by enough to make much difference, and I’d taken a bullet through my thigh last November that hadn’t done anything for my running game. He unlocked the door to a miniature version of the house’s center section, nine feet high and eleven wide, and let me into a room just big enough to stretch out in on the hardwood floor. The walls were hung with school pennants, pictures of a gangling teenage ballplayer in a succession of unfamiliar uniforms, and shelves of tall trophies with brass athletes writhing on top of them. The place smelled like old magazines and was built solider than my three-room refrigerator box in Hamtramck.
 
“This was my daughter’s,” Fuller said. “First wife. Gloria did it all up in pink and rag dolls; Raggedy Anns and Andys up the ass. I never liked ’em, their faces are like skulls. I liked ’em better after Dee-dee made a slingshot and took the head off every one. We swept up sawdust for a week. Had us a regular tomboy on our hands.” His chuckle died out like a motor stalling. “After Gloria left and took her with her I put up all my school stuff and made it my thinking room. I thought my way through two more marriages out here.”
 
“You must think on your feet.” There wasn’t any furniture.
 
“Everything’s out on the grass. The rest goes next. I guess the feds will put the trophies and shit up on eBay and clean up. You’d be surprised how much some yutz will drop in his own home on something he wouldn’t look twice at in a junk shop. You know, I had a chance to invest in Amazon at the start. They came to me. Know what I said? ‘Bookstores don’t make money.’”
 
“My old man told the same story about Xerox. He put his trust in carbon paper. His old man sold horse fodder across the street from the first Ford plant in Dearborn. I was born running out of the money.”
 
Fuller wasn’t listening. That part of the conversation had been over for a week. “I got your name from my ex-brother-in-law; third wife. He’s with security at the library.”
 
“Emory Freemantle. He lets me in the back door when they lock the front. A lot more detective work gets done at reading carrels than you see in the movies.” I’d sprung Freemantle’s nephew from a bum carjacking charge a couple of years ago.
 
“We still go to games. My track record with my in-laws is solid as hell.” He planed a palm over the stubble on his head. The clump of gold and brilliants on his hand struck sparks in the sunlight coming through a window. “Dee-dee is Deirdre, all the flesh I’ve got. She turns twenty-five this year. When that happens she’s got a trust fund coming to her in the amount of two million and change. The change being about what you’d need to live on for five years.”
 
“You don’t know that. Maybe I’ve got my own tax
 
troubles.”
 
“Such as what?”
 
“Such as I never make enough to owe any.”
 
“Emory said you smart off too much, but I don’t trust the big box agencies. My business manager had offices in America and Europe and wound up in Bimini. This is her.” He scooped a flat wallet out of a hip pocket, opened it, and handed me a snapshot. The girl had his gray eyes, but her coloring was lighter and her black hair was as straight as an Indian’s. I seemed to remember his first wife was white. It wasn’t as big a deal as it had been thirty years ago, but the outside pressure hadn’t contributed to the relationship.
 
“She looks like a model,” I said.
 
“I never could catch a break outside a stadium. Show me an ugly daughter and I’ll show you a father who’s at peace with the world.” But his brief smile was more proud than bitter. “I can’t touch the fund, thank God. I’d’ve sunk it in the restaurant chain and the car dealership and bribes to the Liquor Control Commission for the license I never got for the nightclub the city knocked down to put in another empty lot. That doesn’t mean I’ll stand around and watch her spend it on some puke who’s no better than her old man.”
 
I saw the job then. “This a specific puke, or a possible puke from the puke pool?”
 
“His name’s Hilary Bairn.” He spelled it, both names. “He says his family owns land in Scotland, but if they do it’s on the bottom of Loch Ness. He and Dee-dee met at a college reunion in Ann Arbor. Only the closest he ever got to attending Michigan was one semester at a community college in Ypsilanti. Business course. He’s good about money, especially at knowing who’s got it.”
 
“It doesn’t sound like I’m the first man on this detail.”
 
“You can get almost anything off the Net. I don’t know how a guy like you stays in business.”
 
“You called me.”
 
He set down his glass on a shelf, stood twisting his ring for ten seconds, then reached up to lift a trophy off a shelf higher up. I saw the year engraved in brass and a figure sprinting on top. Before the time of the designated hitter he’d come close to leading the American League in stolen bases. He used a pocketknife to unscrew a plate from the bottom and shook a thick roll of bills out into his palm. He replaced the trophy and held up the roll. The outside bill was a hundred.
 
“Fifty thousand,” he said. “I squirreled it away where the bloodsuckers couldn’t find it. You said on the phone you’re bonded for up to a million?”
 
“The more I screw up, the more I’m worth. Only I’ve never screwed up that way. What makes you think Bairn will take it?”
 
He squinted at me as if I’d corked my bat. “You’re pretty quick.”
 
I passed on that. “When does Deirdre turn twenty-five?”
 
“Two months.”
 
“You don’t have to be as good with money as you say Bairn is to know two months isn’t too long to wait for two million. I’ve had my face laughed in before. You might not like it so much.”
 
“I know some guys I can call if he does. You might let that slip when you’re negotiating. I’d’ve called them first, only I’d rather be in debt to the government.”
 
“He could pocket the cash and elope anyway. Then you’ll have to call your guys and be into them and out fifty grand besides.”
 
He took out his wallet again and handed me a folded square of paper. “You’ll have him sign this agreement to stay away from Dee-dee before you give him the money. Then I’ll show it to her. She won’t believe me if it’s just my word, but she’s studying to pass the bar. A signature on a piece of paper means a lot more to her than her old dad’s word. She’ll do the rest.”
 
I slid the snapshot inside the fold without opening it. “Is this about your daughter or the two million?”
 
“Yeah, you can ask that.” But his face was tight. “There’s two times in your life when money doesn’t mean anything: When you’ve got plenty and when you haven’t got a cent. If I had it, I’d give it to him to get out of her life. I don’t want her to make the same mistake her mother and the others did. Dee-dee’s the only thing I ever did that counted. The rest is just a dusty column in The Baseball Encyclopedia and a cigar box full of trading cards.”
 
A bawling, wordless voice drifted in from across the backyard and the other side of the big house, rising and falling like a wood chipper chewing up brush: The auctioneer had taken up his post and started his spiel. I asked Fuller what was stopping him from negotiating with Bairn himself.
 
“My face has been in the paper a lot more than yours. If it gets into the scandal sheets I’ve lost her forever. She’ll take Bairn’s side.” He tossed the roll from one hand to the other and back. “You trying to talk yourself out of this job?”
 
“I just want to know what the job is. If you said rough him around and I said okay, he’d think he wandered into Baghdad, but I don’t do that sort of work. I’ll be your bag man, but I never split a knuckle on a jaw I didn’t have personal issues with. I’m not one of those guys you can call.”
 
“You don’t have to worry about that. I don’t send for a southpaw when a left-hander’s at bat.”
 
“I never really understood that.”
 
“Me neither. If Sparky’d left me in in eighty-four the series would’ve been over in four. But you get what I mean.”
 
I nodded. I’d heard all the sports metaphors I cared to for one day. “I charge a grand and a half up front. Got that much squirreled away besides the fifty?”
 
He slid the big ring off his finger and held it out. I took it. It was heavier than a .45 slug, solid gold or the next thing to it, with a diamond at each of the four points of a diamond shape on the dome. The engraving was worn, but still legible;
 
WORLD SERIES
 
1968
 
“Have it appraised,” he said. “Take what the jeweler says and times it by ten. Don’t hock it. I expect to buy it back when I scrape up the cash.”
 
“Is it yours to give?”
 
The gray eyes turned to granite. “I didn’t see any of them government suits in the outfield when I struck out Lou Brock.”
 
Copyright © 2007 by Loren D. Estleman. All rights reserved.
 

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