Book excerpt

Beneath the Book Tower

An Alex McKnight Short Story

Alex McKnight Novels

Steve Hamilton

St. Martin's Press

BENEATH THE BOOK TOWER (Begin Reading)

We were driving down Woodward, just past midnight. It was the third watch. The night shift. Franklin and me in the car. This is going back, you understand. I mean way back. I was still a cop, I was still married, Franklin’s second daughter hadn’t even been born yet. I was what, seven years into the job that summer, Franklin maybe five. So twelve years seniority between the two of us and yet we were still pulling nights. On account of the hiring freeze, the city running out of money like it did at least once a decade. No more new cops, no more new vehicles, no more new anything for anybody.

God, it was hot that night.

“Now, wait a minute,” Franklin said to me. “Are you telling me this place is in Michigan? And it’s called Paradise?”

“It’s a real place, yes.”

“How come I never heard of it before?”

“It’s way the hell up there,” I said. “On Lake Superior.”

“What, you mean in the UP?”

“That’s what I’m telling you. All the way up there.”

“What’s up there? Just little cabins by the water?”

“A few of those, yeah. A lot of trees.”

It was a hot, hot summer night, and cars were cruising up and down the street, all around us. Everybody noticed us. Everybody maintaining their cool but keeping one eye on us at all times, taking note of our location and direction of travel, the way you keep your eye on a bumblebee in the corner of the room.

“What do you do for fun up there?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I never had any fun up there myself. I just helped my old man build his first log house.”

“Is he still up there?”

“He’s working on number six now. His masterpiece, he calls it.”

“Sounds impressive,” Franklin said. “Maybe I’ll get to see it someday Never even been over that bridge, believe it or not.”

“You’ve lived in this state your whole life,” I said, “and you’ve never once been over the Mackinac Bridge?”

“I’m not sure they even let black people up there, am I right? Don’t they stop them and direct them back to Detroit?”

This is the kind of thing Franklin would say. Making a joke out of it but at the same time you could tell there was a grain of hard truth inside. He was born in this city, grew up here, played high school football at Cass Tech. If he hadn’t been given oversized physical gifts, there’s no telling where he would have ended up. Maybe on these same streets we were rolling down tonight. But the game was his ticket. He went to the University of Michigan on a full scholarship, played three years on the offensive line until he got hurt. Missed out on his red-shirt senior year but kept his promise to his mother and graduated. Then he went to the academy and became a Detroit cop. He was still hovering somewhere around his playing weight of 260 pounds, and he never looked comfortable wedged in behind that steering wheel. But tonight it was my turn to drive anyway, so he sat in the passenger’s seat and watched the night go by through his window.

Me, I was a baseball player. Which meant we had our own little running argument about which sport was the hardest to play. Every night another round in the ongoing debate. But not tonight. For whatever reason, Franklin had a whole different vibe going on. Maybe because his wife was getting close to delivering that second daughter. Or maybe because of the “mission” he was set on accomplishing that night. He hadn’t told me anything about it. Which wasn’t unusual. He just said he had a favor he wanted to get to when we had a chance and left it at that.

“So what’s with the name, anyway?” he said. “Paradise? What makes it Paradise?”

“There’s a shipwreck museum up the road,” I said. “And some nice waterfalls.”

He looked over at me. “That’s it?”

“It gets a lot of snow.”

“So far you’re not really describing a place I’d call Paradise.”

I gave him a shrug. “I didn’t name it.”

“Your old man seems to like it, though, huh? He lives up there all year long? Even in the winter?”

“Ever since he retired.”

“Some people don’t have the sense to go south when they retire? Is that what you’re telling me?”

“Some white people, you mean?”

“I didn’t say that.”

That’s the kind of line that would usually have got him going, but like I said, tonight was different. He just shook his head and we kept on rolling down Woodward.

There seemed to be more people than usual out on the streets that night. There was another bus strike going on. That might have had something to do with it. On top of it being way too hot and the air being heavy and wet even after midnight.

That was a bad summer. No other way to say it. I always hated hearing people complain about the place, especially if they were outsiders who didn’t really see anything past the raw numbers, but I knew what those numbers said. The unemployment rate. The murder rate. I knew where we stood on the national rankings that summer. Dead last behind every other city in the country.

This was our town. The Motor City. We all knew how far it had fallen from its glory days. Believe me, we knew it, every single one of us. Right down to the bone.

“There it is,” Franklin said. As if either of us needed one more reminder, we were passing the old Hudson’s department store there on Woodward Avenue, once the second largest in the country, behind only Macy’s in New York City.

“That’s where Santa Claus lived,” Franklin said, looking up at the darkened windows. Another odd thing for him to say, maybe, but I knew exactly what he was talking about. As a kid I’d go there with my father, and the woman operating the elevator would announce what you could buy on each floor. After Thanksgiving, the very top floor was reserved for Santa Claus. The real Santa Claus, not the fakes out ringing their bells on the street corners.

“And Batman,” Franklin said, “he lived up over there.” He pointed up toward the far corner of the windshield.

“Where are you talking about?”

“The Book Tower. That’s where Batman lived when I was eight years old.”

I didn’t have to look out the window to see it. Again, I knew exactly what he was talking about. A few blocks down from us, the Book Building and its infamous tower. My father had told me the story behind it on one of our trips downtown, and he had even brought a pair of binoculars so I could really see it. Way up there on the tower, some forty stories off the ground where you could hardly even see it, the crazy architect hired by the Book brothers had put a dozen sculptures of women and a green copper roof on top, and because the guy had forgotten to put in a second set of stairs he had to rig up an external fire escape as an afterthought. Like anybody would actually go out on that thing, that far up. The building was a national laughingstock, my father had told me, but it was kind of beautiful in its own ridiculous way.

So yeah, I had to admit it. Young eight-year-old Franklin had a good point. If Batman lived in Detroit, the Book Tower is exactly where he would have ended up. Sitting outside on one of those intricately carved ledges, watching the whole city below.

“Okay, so we’ve got Santa Claus and Batman covered,” I said. “Is there anybody else? Does Godzilla live around here somewhere?”

“Looks like he’s already been here. Stomped the shit out of this place and moved on.”

We were going west now, leaving downtown behind us, the whole city laid out with the streets that emanated from the center like spokes on a wheel. As we swung close to the river I could see the wide monolith of the train station up ahead. Michigan Central Station, another great old building my father took me to see. Twenty stories high, at one time the tallest train station in the world, with the three soaring archways in the front and the big main room with the columns to make it resemble an ancient Roman bathhouse. What a miracle this place was, here on the shores of the Detroit River with a thousand lights from Windsor, Ontario, blinking behind it.

“They’ll close this place down, too,” Franklin said. “You watch.”

“No way,” I said. “It’s a national historic place, or whatever the hell you call it. It’s protected, I mean.”

“That won’t mean nothing when the time comes.”

I looked over at him. “Are you gonna tell me where I’m going yet?”

“Just drive,” he said. “West side. I’ll let you know when we’re close.”

I drove. As I cut back to Michigan Avenue, we could both see the Book Tower looming ahead of us.

“There’s Batman’s lair again,” he said. “Looks like there’s one light on up there.”

“He’s planning his next move,” I said. “I’m glad he’s on our side.”

“I wish he’d hurry his ass up. We could use the help.”

We passed by Tiger Stadium. It was dark tonight with the team out of town. When we were out of Corktown, Franklin had me pull off the main road and drive down a residential street. We passed by a burnt-out house. Then another. Then another house that was empty. Maybe this one would burn one day, too. On Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween, that’s when it would happen.

“In case you hadn’t noticed,” I said, “we’re not even in our precinct anymore. I don’t think it’s too much to ask to know where the hell we’re going.”

“We’re here.” I pulled up in front of the first house that actually looked intact and lived in. There were lights on inside, and there were plastic lawn chairs sitting out front in the tiny yard. Franklin grunted as he climbed out of the car and stood in the street. I waited a couple of beats, then I joined him.

“You said something about a favor,” I said to him. “I assume this is the lucky recipient.”

“Show some respect,” he said. “This is the street I grew up on.”

I looked both ways and counted maybe three houses that seemed occupied, out of a dozen on the block. “Which house?”

“Down that way,” he said. “One of those empty lots. House is gone now.”

He knocked on the door.

“This is Mrs. Treille we’re gonna see,” he said, pronouncing the name like “trial.” “I just want to say hello, and tell her we’ll be keeping an eye out for Antoine.”

“Antoine would be, what, her son?”

“Grandson.”

The door opened then. A woman looked out at us. She was wearing a batik dress, and her hair was wrapped up in a scarf. She didn’t look much older than fifty.

“Franklin, it’s been so long,” she said, giving him a hug. I could hear a slight Caribbean lilt in her voice. “Just look at you in that uniform.”

“Yeah, I’m a sight and a half, I’m sure.”

“And who’s your friend here?”

“That’s no friend, that’s my partner,” he said, smiling for the first time that night. “His name’s Alex.”

“Pleased to meet you,” she said, taking my hand. “Why don’t you boys come in?”

We did that. We sat down in her little living room, and I could see in just those first few moments that she was fighting her own battle against all of the chaos, right here in this little house. She had rugs over the bare floors and a small television in one corner. A single fan stood in an open window, drawing in the night air and making it just cool enough to be tolerable.

“When’s the last time you saw your grandson?” Franklin said, getting right down to business.

“Two days ago. Yes, Tuesday. Tuesday morning.”

“Did he give you any indication he wasn’t going to be home for a couple days?”

“No,” she said. “Can I get you gentlemen something to drink?”

“No, we’re good. We should get back out there. Is there anybody in particular he’s running with these days? Somebody we could ask?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m sorry. There’s a whole bunch of kids come by, but they don’t say much to me. They’re not real respectful.”

“Yeah, no, I don’t imagine they are.”

“They never use his real name. They call him T-Bird or T-Ball or something. They act like I’m not even here.”

“How old is he now?” Franklin said. “Fifteen?”

“He’ll be fifteen in September. Used to be that still made you a child.”

“Used to be, yes. I hear that.”

“I’ve been raising him myself,” she said, looking over at me. I was sitting on an old kitchen chair that was serving as living room furniture. I had my hat in my hands.

“I can’t imagine that’s very easy,” I said. I wasn’t sure what else I could even try to say.

“No, it surely isn’t. But you do what you can do. Every single day.”

She was right, of course. You do what you can do. That’s all anybody could ever ask. We didn’t stay much longer, but out of this whole night I want to make sure I remember this one part correctly. The two of us in our uniforms, sitting there in the room with this woman. The way she was looking after her grandson, like so many other women in this city. All by themselves.

She’s the one bright spot I think of when I think back to that night. She was the reason I became a cop and the reason I became a cop in Detroit. In the end, she was the kind of person who made this whole wreck of a city feel like it was worth saving.

“We’ll keep an eye out,” Franklin said. “We promise.”

“Yes,” I said. “We will.”

She looked us up and down, and I could see the worry turning into pure shivering dread. She knew what was out there waiting for her grandson or for any other fifteen-year-old.

“You let me know, okay? Any time of the night, you call me. Or better yet, just bring him on home if you find him.”

“We’ll do that, Mrs. Treille. You try not to worry.”

“I don’t know if that’s possible,” she said. “But I appreciate you stopping by. It’s so good to see you again.”

“Yes, ma’am. You, too.”

We said our good-byes and went back outside. A low-slung car came rumbling down the street, rap music blaring and the bass notes threatening to crack the pavement. Franklin gave the occupants a hard stare, but they gave it right back to him and kept on rolling. He stood watching the car until it disappeared. Then he got in the patrol car.

“I take it you and Mrs. Treille go way back,” I said.

“I went to school with her daughter. We went out a couple of times.”

I did the math in my head. Franklin wasn’t even thirty years old yet. If Mrs. Treille’s daughter had a fifteen-year-old son now, that meant she was not even that old when she had him.

“Where is she now?” I asked.

He shook his head and made a quick dismissing wave with his hand. Meaning he didn’t know, or it didn’t matter anymore, or that she was long gone and there was no use even talking about it. Surprising from a man who could find at least a few hundred words to say about any topic at all.

We got a call on the radio then. There was real police work for us to do that night, apart from doing favors and keeping promises. That’s how the night shift worked. Two, three hours of nothing and then all of a sudden you would find yourself in the middle of a calamity.

There was a fight going on outside a bar, back on Woodward. I flipped on the lights and we ran silent. Back east on Michigan Avenue, past the stadium again, all the way to the center of downtown. There was another car already parked in front of the bar when we pulled up. Two other Detroit cops were already talking to two different participants in whatever kind of altercation had taken place. One of the men had a thin trail of blood coming down one side of his face. The other was in handcuffs. Both men were clearly still agitated and talking a few thousand words a minute.

Franklin and I helped calm everybody down, and we made sure nobody else got any ideas about starting their own little secondary skirmishes. Too often these things end up like a hockey game, with one fight quickly turning into five fights.

When everything was settled and one man was sent on his way to find bandages and the other packed into the back of a squad car, Franklin spotted two kids standing nearby. He went over to ask them if either of them had seen Antoine Treille lately, but they put their hands up and walked away.

“Everybody knows everybody in this town,” he said to me when we were back in our car. “We just need to find the right kid to talk to us.”

“Good luck on that one.”

As he drove, Franklin kept scanning the streets, asking me to slow down every time he saw another group of kids standing around on a corner. He’d roll down his window and shout at the kids, and more often than not they’d just turn their backs on him.

It was going to be one hell of a long night.

BENEATH THE BOOK TOWER. Copyright 2011 by Steve Hamilton.

STEVE HAMILTON’s first novel, A Cold Day in Paradise, won the Private Eye Writers of America/St. Martin’s Press Best First Private Eye Novel Contest before becoming a USA Today Bestseller and winning both an Edgar and a Shamus Award for Best First Novel.  His standalone novel The Lock Artist was named a New York Times Notable Book, was given an Alex Award by the American Library Association, and then went on to win the Edgar Award for Best Novel, making Steve Hamilton only the second author (after Ross Thomas) to win Edgars for both Best First Novel and Best Novel.  He attended the University of Michigan, where he won the prestigious Hopwood Award for writing, and now he lives in Cottekill, New York with his wife and their two children.