Beneath the Book Tower: An Alex McKnight Short Story

Before the tragic event that made him seek refuge in a remote corner of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Alex McKnight was a Detroit police officer.  It’s a warm summer night, and Alex is out riding the night shift with his partner Franklin.  There’s no shortage of trouble to be found on the dark streets of Motown.  But on this particular night, Franklin has his own agenda.

From Edgar Award-Winning Author Steve Hamilton, Beneath the Book Tower is the first ever short story featuring Alex McKnight, showing a different side of the man readers have come to love.

An exclusive short story Beneath the Book Tower by Steve Hamilton featuring Alex McKnight.

Beneath the Book Tower

An Alex McKnight Short Story

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 some day.  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 usually the kind of line that would 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 out of 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 top of the building, some forty stories off the ground where nobody 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 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.

*******

About an hour later, we were over on the east side, in a forgotten part of town where the buildings thinned out almost completely and there were actual fields of scrubby grass and weeds, and here in the middle of the nothingness rose St. Cyril’s, this great Catholic church, grand and ornate in its day but now just a boarded-up shell with faded paint and broken stained-glass windows.  Just one more of the many ruins of Detroit.

“Looks like somebody’s having some fun over there,” Franklin said.  As I took the right on Van Dyke I saw who he was talking about.  A white man in a dress shirt, standing behind his BMW, struggling with something in the trunk.  The left rear end was hoisted up on a jack and the tire was off.

I pulled up behind him.  As we got out of the car, he spun around with a look of sheer terror on his face.  Like this is it, I’m about to be mugged, raped, then killed, in that order.  He dialed it back about halfway when he saw our uniforms, but his hands were still shaking and he gave the spare tire a great yank until it just about bowled him over.

Franklin went up to the tire he had taken off and gave it a kick.  “Need some help, sir?”

“Hell of a place to get a flat, huh?  But thanks, I think I’m good.”

Franklin flashed me a quick look.  If a man with a flat tire refuses your help, there’s usually a good reason.

“How’d you end up here, anyway?” Franklin said.  “Were you on your way somewhere?”

“Just on my way home,” the man said, not looking up.  He had the spare tire mounted now, and he was fumbling with the lug nuts.  “I guess I kinda got lost.”

“What, were you on the expressway?”

“On ninety-four, yeah.  Just going home.”

“How’d you end up all the way up here if you were on the expressway?”

The man was turning the first lug nut and I could tell he was wishing he had one of those super fast power tools they have at the racetracks.  Ten second pit stop and then you’re on your way, no time to answer any questions, thank you, officer, have a nice night.

“No,” the man said, “I mean yes.  I had to get off because I had to find a bathroom.  Real bad.  You know how it is.  Then I guess I just took a wrong turn getting back.”

“Reason I ask is, we’ve got people who come in from the suburbs and they cruise up and down some of our streets, looking to buy drugs.  It’s a bad situation for everyone involved, I’m sure you’d agree.”

The man turned one shade whiter.  “That’s not what I’m doing, officer.  I swear to God.”

“You mind if I take a quick look in your car to make sure?”

“What?  I mean-”

“If you haven’t done anything, then we’re cool, right?”

This is where any man with an ounce of sense or any understanding of the law would refuse the search, but it never failed to amaze me.  Ten minutes later, he was sitting on the curb while Franklin pulled a small plastic bag of powder cocaine out of the center console.  I went ahead and finished changing his tire, even if it was just to make it easier for somebody to tow the car to the impound lot.

Franklin called another car to come pick up the man and take him downtown.  I knew Franklin didn’t want to be tied up for the next hour processing him.  Not on this night.  Even as the man was being taken away, I could see him looking up the street at two more kids crossing at the stoplight.  It was almost 2:00 AM now.

We got in the car and as we rolled up to the two kids he opened his window and flagged them down.  Two more black kids, fourteen, maybe fifteen.  No older than that.  They both had jeans shorts on, oversized white shirts with gold crowns.  Brand new Nikes.

“Hold up, guys,” Franklin said.  I stopped the car and he got out.  “Either you guys seen Antoine Treille?”

“Don’t know who you mean,” the one kid said.

“T-Bird, they call him, right?”

“You mean T-Bill.”

“So you do know him.”

“I might,” the kid said.  “Depends on what you want him for.”

“Just looking for him,” Franklin said.  “His grandmother is worried about him.”

The second kid smirked at that one, but the first kid kept a straight face.  “I understand he was meeting somebody tonight, to administer a certain amount of ass-whupping.  That’s what I heard, anyway.”

“Do you happen to know where this amount of ass-whupping was going to happen?”

“Nuh-uh,” the kid said.  “Sorry I can’t be more helpful to you.”

“How ’bout you?” Franklin said to the second kid.  “You know anything more?”

“I knew about your Mama earlier tonight, that’s about it.”

Franklin probably outweighed both of these kids put together, these fourteen or fifteen-year-old children out on the streets in the middle of the night when they should have been home in bed, getting some sleep so they could get up early for school.  Instead they were out there hustling and I knew there wasn’t much we could do about it.  I knew it and they knew it, because that was the whole point of having kids do the legwork.  We could bring them in, but because of their age they’d be back out on the streets within a few hours.  Meanwhile, the handful of men running the drug trade in this town would be safe at home, completely untouchable.  We’d hear rumors of federal cases being put together, built slowly from the ground up, brick by brick.  But meanwhile the whole operation kept grinding away, one long useless night after another.

Now if Batman was really in that Book Tower, he’d have a different approach to the problem, right?  He wouldn’t have to play by the same rules.  He’d find the real criminals behind everything and he’d exact his own vengeance, Batman-style.  On a night like this, I had to admit, the whole idea was appealing.

“We just ran some guy in a BMW,” Franklin said to that second kid, instead of folding him up and stuffing him down a sewer grate.  “Any chance you were the hotshots who sold him the powder?”

“You got nothing,” the kid said.  He was right.  “Go find T-Bill and take him home to his grand-mama.”

The kids turned their back on him and started walking away.  For a moment I thought Franklin might do something rash, but sanity prevailed and he came back to the car.

“Punk ass little bitches,” he said under his breath.  “Talking to me that way.”

“It sounds like Antoine’s out looking for trouble tonight,” I said.  “Do you have any idea where he might be?”

“Lord knows.  If you really want trouble, you can find it pretty much anywhere.”

“Well, you’re right about that.”

“Except maybe that town you were talking about,” he said.  “Paradise?  That’s really in the same state as Detroit?”

“It is.  But I bet you can still find trouble up there if you really want to.”

He shook his head as I put the car in gear and pulled away.  We weren’t more than five minutes down the road when the call came in.  Shots fired.  Grand Boulevard, in the old Packard plant.  We were already on the east side of town, not more than a mile or two away, so I flipped on the lights and siren and we tore through the night.

Franklin picked up the radio and told them we were responding.  When we got down there, I parked the car in the middle of the plant, where the old walkway passes over the street.  Out of all the ruins in Detroit, this was the king.  Thirty-five sprawling acres of it, this plant where they once made the most beautiful automobiles the world has ever seen.  Now it’s just empty buildings with graffiti on the outside and collapsing floors on the inside.  Sumac trees growing up through the holes in the roof.  Garbage, rats, broken glass.  I chased my share of young vandals and thrill-seekers out of that old wreck, believe me.  We all did.  But tonight there were shots fired and that meant a whole different level of police work.  Hell, maybe it was just a couple of kids taking target practice, but the way this night was going, I didn’t think we’d get that lucky.

“What are we supposed to do now?” Franklin said.  “This place is a city in itself.”

“More cars are on the way.”

“Why can’t they do this shit in the daylight, anyway?”

We both got out and stood by the car for a moment.  Our lights were still flashing and we could see the blues and reds reflected in what was left of the glass.  We weren’t hearing any shots now, but just then a lone figure crossed the street in front of us, maybe two blocks away.

I started after him, with Franklin close behind.  After all our arguments about which sport had the superior athletes, this was my chance to show that a former catcher can outrun a former offensive lineman.  The prize being getting to the end of the street first and having a much better chance of being shot in the head.

As I got closer, I saw the kid jump the fence and head into the plant.  Another squad car was coming up the street now, but it was still a few blocks away.  With Franklin fading behind me, I was still very much the lead man.  I jumped the fence in the same spot and felt the top edge catch on my pants for one terrible moment.  I could feel myself falling straight down on my face, but then the fabric tore and I was free.  I landed on my feet.

“Police!” I yelled.  “Stop right there!”

But the kid had already pushed through the door and was inside the building.  As I shouldered open the same door, I saw the broken padlock.  Now I was in darkness, a completely stupid move on my part.  I felt a wall on my left and I put my back up against it, catching my breath and waiting for my eyes to adjust.  When they did I could see that part of the ceiling had caved in and it made a sort of courtyard, with the light from the moon coming down and making everything glow.  There was an old refrigerator and a baby carriage and a million other pieces of trash from God knows where.

“I know you’re in here,” I said.  “Just come out now so nobody gets hurt, okay?”

There was no answer, but then soon after that I heard the clang of metal on metal and I knew he was close.

“If you have a gun, put it down,” I said.  “Step out and keep your hands where I can see them.”

I waited to see movement.  From somewhere behind me, I could hear Franklin laboring to get over the fence.  I was thinking I should wait for him to show up so we could have this kid outnumbered, but then I saw the gun barrel.  He was hiding behind a concrete column, maybe twenty feet away, and he was about to turn the corner and fire on me.

“Drop the gun now!”

I went into a crouch and held the gun with both hands, taking dead aim at the exact spot where his chest would be in another half second.  But then I saw the gun falling to the ground.  The kid stepped out with both hands up.  He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt despite the heat.  A suitable place to hide a gun, no doubt.  He was wearing a Tiger baseball cap.  He couldn’t have been older than fourteen, I swear to God.

“Okay, turn around and keep your hands in the air,” I said.  “Then walk backwards to the sound of my voice.”

He tried to comply, but there was too much garbage on the floor to walk backwards without killing yourself.  I told him to stop.  That’s when Franklin came into the room.

“Is this your man?” I said to him.

“Turn around,” Franklin said.

The kid turned around.

“That’s not him.  That’s not Antoine.”

I saw the kid’s eyes narrow.  Something was going through his head.

“Have you seen Antoine tonight?” I said, thinking maybe this was the kid who had the appointment to get the ass-whupping.  “Have you seen T-Bill?”

The kid didn’t answer.  He didn’t move a muscle.

Another car pulled up just outside the building.  We could hear the squawk of the radio.  Something else was happening, on the other side of the plant.  I had a bad feeling about it.  I knew Franklin did, too.

By the time we got over there, they had already put a sheet over Antoine’s body.  There wouldn’t be any kind of high-tech CSI forensics going on here.  No footprints or fibers or angle of entry.  It was just one more kid shot dead by another kid on another summer night.  Nothing that would even make the back page of the newspaper.

As Franklin walked up to the body, he asked one of the other cops to pull back the sheet.  I stood next to him as he looked down at Antoine’s face.  These kids pretend to be such grown-up bad-asses, but the spell breaks and it all drains away when they’re lying on the ground like that and you can see them as children again.

“I never got to meet him,” Franklin said.  His voice was so soft only I could hear it.  “I never saw him after she left.”

I looked over at him.  He was staring at the kid’s face and I could see this was something more than anything I’d been imagining that night, going straight back to that odd silence he held on the subject of Antoine’s mother.

“I always wondered,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” I said, although I think I already knew the answer.

“I never got to ask her,” he said.  “But I always wanted to know.”

“Franklin…”

He looked at me finally.  “Guess it doesn’t even matter now, huh?”

I didn’t know what to say to him.  So I just kept standing there next to him while they covered up the kid again, and then loaded his body into the back of the ambulance and drove away.

*******

There was nothing else to be done that night.  Nothing else but a long drive back to the other side of town, to give Antoine’s grandmother the news.  Franklin tried to tell me he could do it on his own, but there was no way I was going to let him do that.  We went over there together.

It was our last full summer on the job, now that I look back on it.  Within another year, Franklin would be gone.  His two daughters would grow up without a father.  I’d be off the force with three holes in my chest and a bullet still sitting a centimeter away from my heart.  A divorce.  My father would die.  Then I’d go up to Paradise intending to sell off his cabins.  Instead, I’d feel something about the place, something that matched the way I was feeling inside, and I’d stay.

I don’t get down to Detroit much anymore.  But I know they finally tore down the Hudson’s on Woodward.  They imploded it from within and days later they were still cleaning up the dust for blocks all around it.

They tore down St. Cyril’s, too.  Hell, they even tore down Tiger Stadium.  But the Packard plant is still there.  It’s thirty-five acres, after all.  Maybe it’s just too big to tear down.  Maybe it’ll be there forever.

Oh, and Franklin was right about the train station.  He didn’t live to see it, but they did close the place down a few years later.  Now it’s like some kind of ghostly black monolith on the edge of the river, all of those windows broken now, every last goddamned one of them.  The stone accents torn off, the wiring and the copper pipes stripped from the interior.  The whole place gutted and vandalized and turned into a broken wreck.  They keep talking about what a treasure it is and how they need to restore it, but for now it’s just sitting there in some kind of limbo between death and life.

Like the city itself?  Yeah, I know.  I get it.  But like I said at the very beginning, I hate to hear people complain about Detroit.  I saw the place at its worst, God knows.  But I saw the good things, too.  Believe it or not, I still love that city.  It keeps getting knocked down, but the city gets back up every time.  The city keeps on fighting.  No matter what.

But yeah, that was one night in my life as a cop in Detroit.  A long time ago.

I almost forgot, but the Book Tower?  I hear it’s closed up now, too.  It hasn’t fallen apart yet and apparently they might reopen it again soon.  But for now, it’s dark.  It must be a strange sight, especially those Gothic upper floors with the carvings and everything else, so high above the ground but with absolutely no signs of life.

Batman’s not in the Book Tower now, that much is obvious.  He never was.  He never will be.  He’ll never swoop down in the middle of the night to help the city.

Detroit, as always, you are on your own.

Copyright © 2011 by Steve Hamilton


Steve Hamilton grew up in Michigan and attended the University of Michigan, where he was awarded the prestigious Avery Hopwood Prize. He lives in Cottekill, New York, with his wife, Julia, and their two children.

Comments

  1. Clare 2e

    I remember, when I lived in Chicago, watching the violence rates rise with the mercury. This is a great story about those hot, city nights with a factory-full of too-common sadness.

  2. Terrie Farley Moran

    This story is very touching. Everything is sad, even the city.

  3. Ann

    Thanks for the great story. Knowing more about Alex McKnight is a real treat.

  4. robin waldrop

    From a writer’s perspective, I found it to be a realistic look into the cacophony of voices swirling in the cesspool of great pose. All the while waiting to be plucked out and put into words. Two thumbs up for this one.

  5. Pat Hitchcock

    I understand I can download BENEATH THE BOOK TOWER now, but can’t see where to do that…Can you advise?

  6. Clare 2e

    Sorry, joepathitch. That functionality is coming, but it’s not live yet. For now, you can read online, and that will always be free, whereas the downloads will likely have a nominal charge when they’re added.

  7. types of doors

    Thnaks for Shaering it

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