“You heard?” Deborah’s voice came down the line like thunder in a desert canyon. I fumbled for the lamp, thinking if I had any brains I would I just hang up. Now, before I got swept away. Instead, I pushed on. I rounded the next bend. Even if a flood was coming, I couldn’t turn back. Not yet.
“Of course I heard.” How could she think I hadn’t? The story had been out there all day. In the papers, on TV, the Internet. Even someone as out of the loop as I was couldn’t help but hear about it. But why was she calling me at 3:00 in the morning? We didn’t have bed time chats anymore. Not for the last twenty years.
“I’m sorry,” I offered. About the stupidest remark ever to come out of my mouth, but there it hung, somewhere between my lips and her ear. It was too late to call it back, and frankly, I wasn’t sure I should. It was a lie, but the right kind of lie. It was the kind of lie people wanted to hear at a time like that.
What was I supposed to say? That I’d been waiting twenty years for the bastard to die? That he had wormed his way into our lives, our love, and had taken the best part of me away? When he lost her to his brother just four months later it only meant the wound would never heal. Now he was dead and that felt good. If his death should make things tough for “Hizzoner,” that only made it better.
“He wasn’t there,” she said.
I greeted that with the respect it deserved.
“He wouldn’t have–it’s impossible,” she replied to my snort. I waited.
“We have to talk.”
“It has been awhile.”
“When and where?” The best way to defeat a nightmare is to confront it. Then you can get back to sleep.
“Tomorrow, noon, at The Grill.”
“Why not just take out an ad in the ‘Grosse Pointe News’?”
“I happen to like it.”
“No problem. It’s your dime.”
* * * * * *
The Grill ranked just below the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club as a social institution. Its tables were occupied by the same denizens, with a smattering of strangers thrown in for seasoning. These were best described as social tourists. Residents of Detroit’s less genteel suburbs, they had taken advantage of a sunny autumn Saturday and driven out to browse the galleries and shops, and maybe catch a glimpse of the rich and famous.
It was easy to spot the social tourists. They were dressed impeccably in just-right J. Crew sweaters and polo shirts hued properly pastel. Their khakis were pressed, their loafers shined. Their behavior was impeccable, too. Well-mannered, soft-spoken, they made sure their children toed the line. They were determined to pass. In short, they just didn’t fit in.
Noon was much too early, no matter what Deborah had said, so I bought a copy of “The Detroit News” on my way into the bar. I made a point of showing up on time, determined that a surly precision would dictate my relations with her this time around. There would be no dropping my guard, no revelations. I wouldn’t give anything she could use this time. I was here for a job, that was all. I’d let her have her say, and pocket three or four days’ worth of inflated fees. I’d get the money up front, too, because she might not want to write that check after I gave her my final report. Normally I wouldn’t charge to tell her what a shit her late brother-in-law had been, but what the hell, I could use the money.
I grabbed a stool at the end of the bar and endured Jerry’s elaborate double-take.
“Corky? Is it really you?” he cried. I groaned inside. Corky was a nickname I’d never sought and rarely answered to. It was a scar from my youth and Jerry seemed bound to impale me on it as he repeated again and bounded down the bar to pump my hand. “Good Lord, it’s been awhile.”
“Yeah, about ten years. Still going strong?”
“Better than ever.” Jerry brushed back his thinning yellow mop. “Well, hell, first one’s on me--for old times. Bourbon?”
I stared at him, wondering how much of this was an act. “It’s a little early, Jer. Make it a wine–a pinot noir.”
“Just got a good one in--Robert Sinskey. They drank the shit out of it last night.”
“Definitely the Sinskey then. I hate pinots when they still have the shit in them.”
Jerry laughed, a surprisingly rich bass for such a slight frame. “Same old Corky.” He set the glass in front of me, and relinquished the bottle for my perusal.
“So what brings you back?” he asked reluctantly, as if afraid of the answer. I toyed with telling him I’d bought the old house, was going to get back into the swing of things. Instead, I mumbled, “Work.”
“Some celebrity divorce, huh?”
I regretted my charity. “I’ll let you figure it out.”
He frowned. “I hated the way things worked out.”
“Forget it, Jer. That was a long time ago. It’s ancient history now.”
That little flash of a smile showed how much he believed that. “Hey, I read about you in the paper, that Jensen case. Man, I thought you were going to jail.”
“Lost my license for six months while they sorted it out.”
“Jesus, Sara Jensen. I mean, that made ‘Sixty Minutes.'”
“Forget it, Jer.”
“She was killed with your gun.”
“Yeah, and she died in my arms.” I let some heat spill out with the words. More than I cared to hear, but I didn’t like thinking about Sara Jensen.
Jerry brushed back his hair again and gazed out at the sun-spanked lake. “They said you were lovers.”
“So come on, what really happened?”
“I said forget it.” My tone ended the reunion. Jerry shrugged and drifted over to pour drinks for the Peters brothers. John and David were confirmed sailors They spent their summers racing on Lake St. Clair and the rest of the year raising a stake for a run at the America’s Cup. They were back home now, arms still tan, faces ruddy. They wore polo shirts and wrinkled jeans, their boat shoes worn and faded. They said they were going to start with scotch.
They’d end with Jaegermeisters at closing time, with a dozen hangers-on barely hanging on, lurching through the door to continue the party at their parents’ house. Back in college I used to party with them in that ugly old mansion. I used to go on late-night, booze-soaked, swimsuit-shedding, cabin-swapping cruises on the lake, and to pre-ski, apres-ski, finally no-ski parties at their parents’ condo out in Aspen. I don’t remember if I got older or just uninvited, but here they were, twenty years later, still going strong. Life remained for them one big frat party.
I didn’t think they’d remember me, or want to if they did, but I didn’t relish the prospects, however slim, of rehashing the good old days, so I hid behind the paper. It was okay. It was my job. Hiding behind newspapers is what private dicks do.
I glanced at the reports of the more sensational crimes. The triple murder on Gratiot, the Comerica Bank vice president who transferred $40 million to an offshore account and followed it out of the country, and the prostitute found in a dumpster behind the Amati Food Center. That last wouldn’t have merited mention except whoever killed her had dismembered her, then whimsically reattached her body parts.
Mike Wallis had told me about that yesterday. He was the one who found her, and it took a bottle of Jack Daniels to get him over it. Then again, it took about the same amount to get over a good day. Mike was a good drinking buddy. He never got loud or violent, just mellow, and it never hurt to have a contact on the force. Still, if he didn’t slow down, he wasn’t going to be able to do me much good, not taking stolen car reports on the Seventh Precinct midnight shift.
I scanned the article, curious to see how they could sanitize the tale for what was still called a family newspaper. Disappointed to find the best they could come up with was “shockingly mutilated corpse”--kind of trips off the tongue, don’t it?--I decided to flip through to the sports section to check out the latest call for the head (shockingly mutilated) of the Detroit Lions’ coach, but my progress was arrested by the photo of a grinning Justin Wade above the fold on the Metro Page.
It was the obligatory human interest follow up. Lots of quotes from anonymous Friends of the Family about just how broken up Justin was, Justin himself having declined to comment. That in itself was newsworthy. The idea that he would pass up any opportunity to speak to his friends in the media, even that of his brother’s murder, boggled the mind. No doubt his handlers had convinced him that silence would net him more positive publicity than anything he could say.
The article continued with boilerplate effusions about the long-established family (great-grandfather Jared Wade, the lumber baron who transformed the city from a trading post on the Detroit River into a budding industrial center; grandfather Joshua Wade, who turned a sleepy lakeside farm community into the city’s most exclusive suburb; the father, Jeremy Wade, who developed most of the land between north and west of the city--thereby hastening the city’s decline, though they failed to mention that--and Justin himself, the popular and innovative Grosse Pointe mayor and virtual shoo-in for the US Senate next year).
The meat of the story wallowed in the tragic tale of two brothers. Both scions of the most prominent family in a community of prominent families, one was earmarked for greatness. The other was destined from birth, according to those anonymous Friends of the Family, to end up shot to death outside a Detroit crack house. The reporter rehashed, of course, the drowning of Jessica Wade, their eight-year-old sister. The authorities had ruled it an accident, and the twelve-year-old Justin was even hailed as a hero for his efforts to rescue her, but suspicions lingered that Jon had been responsible, had even drowned her on purpose, and only the family’s clout had managed to hush that up.
I put down the paper, contemplating the unlikely prospect of actually pitying Jonathan Wade. They really did a number on him, those Friends of the Family. Never amounted to anything, never had a prayer of doing so. Two brothers estranged, Justin’s only contact the past ten years being to bail Jonathan out, to foot the bill for another stay in another clinic, to pay his gambling debts. Jonathan was the only blemish on an otherwise exemplary life.
That was so far from the truth as I knew it, as I had lived it. Don’t get me wrong, Jon was as bad as they said he was, and always had been, long before Deborah. The thing was, bad as Jon was, his brother was worse. Though he drew affection to himself like a magnet, I never could understand it. To me, he was a monster, a freak of nature, as if he had been born lacking an essential human component; sort of a moral birth defect. If I had to choose which brother to spend the rest of my life with on a desert island, I’d opt for suicide.
Jerry showed up to refill my glass. Nodding at the paper he said, “Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
“You mean all that bullshit about St. Justin?”
“No, I mean about Jonathan. It just doesn’t seem--” He frowned. “Can’t let it rest, can you.” I shrugged. “Why’d you come back, Jim?”
“I told you, work. Now, what about Jon?”
He shook his head. “Don’t do this. It won’t do any good to--” He broke off again, along with all the other locals in the place. I followed his gaze to where Deborah Wade stood silhouetted in the doorway. Details emerged as the door hissed shut behind her.
Her pale skin had aged only slightly in the twenty years since I lost her, and the ten years since I’d seen her last. It had softened, adding character to her high cheekbones and fragile jaw. She still wore her hair long, though there were streaks of gray now in the ebony. She wore a nubbly beige cotton cardigan, the kind with big side pockets, that had gone out of style about the same time I had. I was surprised, and unreasonably gratified, to see that she wasn’t a slave to fashion. I thought being a wholly owned subsidiary of Justin Wade Enterprises would have changed her. She hesitated in the doorway, hands plunged into those deep pockets, shoulders hunched slightly forward as though absorbing the waves of silence buffeting her. Then, her eyes adapting to the gloom, she spied me at the bar and made her way over.
She asked Jerry for a glass of Chardonnay. He said okay, then hesitated when she extended a cool, white hand to me. I don’t think I had ever received as large a share of Grosse Pointers’ esteem as I did at that moment when their silence grew to include me. I stared past her at all those faces which had meant so much to me so long ago.
“How about a table, Jerry?” I muttered. He nodded at the hostess, who transported us to the dim austerity of the Cloisters. The mock-gothic cavern was reserved for the dinner hour, and only the most serious lunches. The handful of people there at that hour graced us with their neglect.
“It’s good to be back.” I left it up to her to do with that what she would.
“Did I keep you waiting long?”
“About twenty years.”
She pulled at her fingers disdainfully. I used to think she should have lived in an era in which women wore gloves. “This isn’t about you.”
“What was that scene at the bar, then?”
“That wasn’t about you, either.”
“The way they stared.” I said it wistfully. I wasn’t trying to hurt her. I wasn’t even speaking to her, really, but it did the trick just the same.
“Look, Jim. I’m hurting here.” Sure enough, her eyes brimmed with tears.
“So it was about you?”
“No, dammit.” I couldn’t help but envision her gloves--pearl gray, had to be--slapping the table in emphasis. As it was, the way she hissed the words had the same effect. The Cloisters grew as sepulchral as a cathedral as the others lapsed in their neglect, but only for a moment before Deborah’s eyes sent them scurrying back to their own concerns.
“It’s about Jonathan,” she continued in a more level voice.
“As I suspected.” It was a mockery, a parody of my role as detective. It was as out of place as I was.
“This isn’t going to work.”
“Sounds vaguely familiar.”
She slid her chair back abruptly.
“Don’t go, Deb. You brought me out here, the least you can do is buy me lunch.”
She smiled at that. The first I’d seen in years. I’d honestly forgotten how a smile transformed her face from porcelain to rich, soft, humanity. It was genuine, heartfelt, and it went all the way from her lips to her eyes. It enveloped you. A smile like that was so honest, so pure, it was impossible to believe the person behind it was capable of betrayal. I remember once believing I could spend the rest of my life making that face smile that smile.
She picked up the menu. “Okay, you win.”
She ordered a Cobb Salad. I went for the salmon en croute for starters, and the breast of chicken rubbed with cumin and cilantro and served with a corn, tomato and black bean salsa, and a stuffed poblano pepper, and a bottle of Elodian Pinot.
“You still know how to order,” she said as Sondra our server today headed for the kitchen.
“Yeah, I just can’t afford it anymore.”
“Whatever happened to you?”
“Tell me about your kids.”
They were Justin, Jr., 12, and Jessica, 10. A matched pair, straight from the catalog. Money back guarantee. Actually, she told about them well, a line sketch rather than a portrait, enough to inform but not enough to bore. I tried to do the same when she asked me about my life.
“I lived,” I said.
“At least one of us did.”
The food finally came, and we consumed it with ample helpings of regret on the side. After I poured the last of the bottle and bade Sondra to serve us another, I brought us back to the dear departed.
“I just can’t believe it,” she replied. “It wasn’t like him.”
“It was exactly like him,” I countered. “Look, you’ve got to give me one reason not to believe the police report. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your money.” I raised my glass. “And believe me, it will cost you.”
“Money’s no object.”
I raised my glass again. “My three favorite words.”
After Sondra returned with the second bottle, I resumed the discussion. “Now then, Deborah, suppose you explain to me why the man who turned me on to pot at the age of 13, to cocaine at 16, and to acid at 18, wouldn’t have been anywhere near a crack house on Thursday night.”
“He just wouldn’t have been.”
“Give me a break, Deb.” Either there was something there, or there wasn’t. Blind faith wasn’t getting us anywhere. I had to say something to shake out some facts. “Look, I’ll take the case. A thousand a day, plus expenses.”
“Isn’t that a bit steep?”
“Whatever the market will bear, as the man used to say.”
“Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle’?”
“Frank Norris. ‘The Octopus’.”
“At least I didn’t say Sinclair Lewis.”
I laughed. “A few years ago Putnam Publishing brought out a book about the beef industry. Their catalog called it the most searing exposé of the beef industry since Sinclair Lewis’ ‘The Jungle’. If a publisher can’t get it right, why should a 23-year-old?”
“Thanks for that, anyway.” She smiled again. Things started shaking loose inside me. Things like resolve. “You never would let me forget it.” A little more regret for dessert, then, “When did you start reading publishers’ catalogs?”
“Oh, that was a little job I did for Steve Goodson. He owns Batchelor Books.”
“Isn’t that an adult bookstore?”
“There’s a ‘T’ in Batchelor, as in David Batchelor. Steve bought it from David’s widow after he got killed in a hold up.”
“Nice.” She worked the nonexistent gloves again.
“Life in the big city.”
“So you were what, security?” I was glad to see she didn’t want to believe I’d sunk that far.
I shook my head. “Steve was being shaken down by a cop. So I worked at the store until I got enough evidence to take to the DA.”
“You charged him $1,000 a day?”
“More like seven bucks an hour.” I grinned. “Retail sucks.”
“So you just did the guy a favor?” Her skepticism put paid to any fantasies I might have been entertaining about there ever being a future to our past.
“He’s a friend. It’s a great bookstore. Besides,” I checked the bottle, and emptied it into our glasses. “I needed a job.” Hell, I wanted it out in the open. “They’d pulled my license.”
“Did she ever talk about--”
“No.” Too abruptly.
“I wonder what she said.”
Deborah’s frown was the polar opposite of her smile. I remembered that, too. She ordered a couple of coffees when Sondra drifted past. I sought a supplemental brandy. It seemed appropriate to the moment. She declined to join me. That seemed about right, too. She refused to meet my eyes, staring instead at the wine swirling in the glass she twirled between her fingers. I let the silence flow. It’s a good technique. They offer a whole course on it in detective correspondence school.
“Jonathan didn’t even drink anymore,” she began falteringly. I almost fell off my chair. I’d gotten my $25 worth. “He hadn’t for three years.”
“He wasn’t just telling you that because that’s what you wanted to hear?”
“I knew Jonathan.” She still wouldn’t look at me. “He’d changed. He--he was motivated. It was like he was trying to make up for lost time, like he didn’t want to waste any more of his life.” Her smile was a real one, this time, showing me how little she’d put into the others. And this one wasn’t for me. I envied the bastard all over again. “He was really starting to open up. I mean, you have to know, don’t you, that Jonathan was a brilliant man?”
I nodded. Slowly.
“One day, about two years ago, we were out on his boat.” She laughed. She seemed so happy. “He told me, ‘I feel like I’ve been in a body cast for a year. It hurts to walk, but I have to try.’” Then there were tears in her eyes again, and this time they were real. Hell, I don’t know. Maybe they were the first time, too. I wasn’t prepared for this.
“You were seeing him?”
“Not like that, I wasn’t. I--”
Sondra returned with the coffees, and the brandy. “I’ll have another,” I said.
I thought Deb was going to keep stirring her coffee until it evaporated. She wouldn’t look at me so I looked at her. Her cheeks were pink-tinged from emotion. Her eyes were cast down at her coffee, her long black lashes blinking back tears. I gazed at her lips, her fine white teeth, at the white silk blouse she wore. The top two buttons were undone and her skin glowed white down to the hint of the swell of her breasts. I remembered gazing at her like this on other Saturday afternoons, knowing then that soon more buttons would be undone, more of her white body revealed to me. The first time it happened had been a gift. A gift of life, from life, it had promised to be repeated endlessly. I remembered that time. I swear, I remembered every time. I remember vowing to forget. The love eventually stopped but the memories never did.
“All right, like that,” she confessed abruptly. “It was, I don’t know, special.” She touched my hand and I didn’t even flinch. “He changed, Jim. You have to understand.”
“It doesn’t matter. That was a long time ago.”
She squeezed my hand. She bought it. She believed me. I don’t know why it was so important, but I was happy that she did. She smiled at me, a sad one this time, but a real one. “Thank you for saying that.”
Okay, so she didn’t believe me.
“So you and Jon were what--lovers obviously, but what else? Were you planning to jeopardize Justin’s political career with a nasty in-house scandal?”
“No, no.” She shook her head vigorously. “No, in fact, it didn’t last. It was just, I don’t
“For old times’ sake?”
“‘Cause I’m right here.”
She didn’t react, beyond a momentary flaring of her nostrils and the fastidious removal of her hand from mine. “Jonathan was almost all the way back,” she recited tonelessly. “It wasn’t easy. You don’t recover overnight. And Justin, Justin didn’t make it any easier. Jonathan tried to make amends, to mend the bridges, but Justin--he didn’t even laugh. He just sneered. He offered him a drink! My God! It was like he didn’t want him to recover, like he wanted him dead.”
The horror on her face dispelled the lifeless facade. Whatever else, this woman cared. I didn’t doubt her faith was unwarranted, but it was certainly sincere. From where she sat it was easy to believe, but Jon wasn’t the first guy to climb out of the pit only to stumble and go all the way back down, and further. Going to that crack house made perfect sense to me. A bullet in the face was an apt coda to Jon’s final binge. It’s an old story.
She read my skepticism. “It isn’t true. He told me he was going to make it all right again. He said he had the answer.”
“What did that mean?”
“I don’t know. He was so secretive. But he was excited, more so than he had been in years. It was like--”
“Nothing.” Her lip trembled. She knew.
“Like the old days?” She shook her head.
“Like he was high.”
“No. No!” She hissed the words. “All right, yes. But not, too. He was manic. I mean, he was so happy, so, what, relieved? Yes, that’s it. Relieved. Liberated.” She grabbed my hand again. No tenderness this time, her nails dug into my flesh. “He wasn’t on anything, Jim. Except maybe a crusade."
"A crusade. . ."
"Yes. He told me he had a purpose, at last, and was going to see it through. He said he was going to make good on all those I.O.U.'s."
"Well, he had a lot of them. I carried around a $300 chit in my wallet for about five years."
She frowned. "I don't think he meant money."
"I--I'm not sure. He wouldn't give me any details. Except once, when he--" Her face grew even more pale.
"What? What did he say?" Was there something there? Was it possible I really did have a case?
"He said he hoped when it all came out, that I wouldn't be hurt."
"How did he mean that? Physically?"
She shrugged. "I have no idea." She grabbed my hand again. "But you can see why I'm suspicious."
I agreed, more to save my hand than out of any conviction. “Okay, I’m intrigued by this new Jon. But I need to know more. Who should I talk to?”
“He met Karin three years ago, in a program. The program, actually. The one that got him straight.”
“And this Karin, is she still clean and sober?”
“She worked there, you ass. She was his counselor.”
“Meanwhile, you and he--” I was getting lost again.
“No, that was before, or after.”
“It’s got to be one or the other.”
“It wasn’t like that--not with her, not with me. Karin’s just--well, you’ll know when you meet her. She’s something special. She was, for Jonathan I mean. It was like he was her project, something to work on at home. I don’t know if it was very professional, and I don’t know if they were sleeping together, but if they were, it didn’t mean anything.” She sighed. “Oh, forget it. Let her explain.”
Deb told me how to get in touch with Karin, and with Bill Jeffries, Jon’s partner in some mysterious venture having to do with the stock market, or credit default swaps, or some such thing, she wasn’t sure. Finally, she gave me a $4,000 check as a retainer, for which I was sure my landlord would be grateful.
I told her I’d call her in a couple of days with an update, resisted the urge to grace her lips with a social kiss, and went outside to my car.