Loren D. Estleman Excerpt: Black and White Ball

Loren D. Estleman's most popular characters, PI Amos Walker and hitman Peter Macklin, are together in one story for the first time in Black and White Ball (available March 27, 2018).

Detroit hit man Peter Macklin forces private eye Amos Walker to furnish protection for Laurie, Macklin's estranged wife, while Macklin tracks down the party who has threatened to kill her. The man Walker’s client suspects cannot be ignored; as his own grown son, Roger Macklin has inherited all the instincts, and acquired all the training, necessary to carry out his threat.

Told partly by Walker in first-person and partly by Macklin in third, Black and White Ball places the detective squarely between two remorseless killers, with death waiting whether he succeeds or fails.

ONE

Canadian Customs has a reputation for courtesy and gracious behavior, particularly toward visitors from the States. You can look it up somewhere, probably. I’ve never seen it in practice.

The one I got this time had the lean, lupine face, ginger-colored eyebrows, and pale blue eyes of the born bully. He stared holes through my ID and threw it back through the driver’s side window. I caught it between my knees.

“What’s your reason for visiting Canada?”

I said it was business. I knew if I said pleasure I’d be pulled over and my seats torn apart.

He let me go, possibly because the car behind me was flying a Red Wings pennant from its antenna. That was good for a cavity search.

Maybe things are different at other crossings. With an entire foreign country sprawled just three minutes from our city by bridge or tunnel, expatriation is just a matter of commuting to work. Detroiters are an invasive species.

Things improved two hours later when I pulled up in front of the Cabot Inn in Toronto. It was a bed-and-breakfast with its name in cursive on a sign swung from chains and a lot of spires and gimcrack; some moldering lumber baron’s idea of a castle on the Rhine. I’d just yanked the parking brake when a cream-and-blue LeBaron turned in front of me into the little parking lot and the driver got out, hitched up his relaxed-fit jeans, and came around to open the passenger’s door for a pneumatic blonde in a sundress printed with penguins for some reason. She carried a shopping bag.

His disguise was as convincing as Groucho glasses. Some men can get away with a NASCAR sweatshirt and Duck Dynastyballcap, but Guy Lennert looked like a man who wore pinstripes on his pajamas. Also the dumb cluck was driving a company vehicle.

The brass at Fiat-Chrysler didn’t care about that or the blonde, only the six hundred thousand dollars he’d managed to skim off investors’ dividends. He’d spent the last three years rounding down their checks and pocketing the odd change before sending them on. The thing was so simple there was no telling how long it might have continued, but then he’d failed to show up for work three days in a row, and when someone called his home his wife said he’d told her the company had sent him to the Paris Auto Show. That was when the CFO took a closer look at the books.

I had no more business working for any of the Big Three than Lennert had wearing a beret on the Champs-Élysées. They have their own security, whose payroll could support the CIA, FBI, NSA, and Campfire Girls. I’d taken on the job as a favor to the wife he’d left behind. The interview had gone this way:

*   *   *

“Amos. You’ve kept your hair.”

“Had to,” I said. “It goes with my gray suit. You haven’t changed.”

“God, I hope you’re just being kind. I earned every sag and wrinkle.”

“Is it Mrs. Lennert now, or are you a modern woman?”

“It is and I am; but it’ll be McBride again soon. Do you still drink?”

“Old friends keep asking me that. Everyone seems to think I had a reason to quit.”

Karen left me standing in a living room that opened onto the rest of the ground floor in every direction and went into the kitchen to clink, rattle, and pour. The house was in Farmington Hills. It wasn’t the biggest in the neighborhood, but the smallest would have swallowed my three rooms and garage like the last fish to the right in a food chain chart. Christmas was coming, and she’d livened up the neutral tones with red candles in green holders and a light glowing in a glass on the mantel with a cardinal painted on it, but the corner where a tree might have stood belonged instead to a torchiere lamp with an amber shade. I remembered she had a phobia about keeping flora indoors. I remembered a lot of things about her from long ago.

She came in carrying two tall glasses on a tray. Today almost any woman can be beautiful given the options, but a truly handsome one is a matter of genetics. She’d retained her slim athletic build under an off-white linen lounging outfit, and if anyone had colluded in her auburn highlights, she’d made the right hire. A frothy pale-green scarf hung loosely around her neck, which is usually the first thing to go, but her high cheekbones and golden-brown eyes drew attention away from it to her face. Even the tiny lines around the eyes were more interesting than distracting; you expected them, like the craquelure in a Renaissance painting, and would have been disappointed if anything had been done to fill them in.

“Scotch, as I recall.” She set the tray down on a slab of black volcanic rock. “Didn’t you always say people don’t change?”

“Could be. It sounds like me.” I let her sit down in a leather sling chair before taking a spot on a gray love seat. We clinked glasses and sat back. I asked if she was still a nurse.

“I retired when Guy got his last promotion. If he’s spent all he stole on that blonde, I may have to go back for a refresher course. Things change fast in medicine.”

She’d told me most of it over the phone. I said, “You’re sure it was him with the blonde. They set those surveillance cameras too high at the border. You see the top of a lot of heads—if they’re accommodating enough to lean out the car window.”

“The man I spoke to at Chrysler said the guard pulled them over and made them get out. Guy probably made a joke. He thinks he’s witty.”

“He must have wired the money somewhere if they let him go. They’d have found that much cash in bulk. They’re more thorough letting people in than out.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure. He can be clever when he makes the effort. It took a call from someone in the State Department to make them give up the tape. The search went that direction when I found recent travel brochures of Canada in Guy’s sock drawer.”

“Two governments are on the job, three if you count Fiat-Chrysler. You don’t need me, Karen. I work out of a shoebox with hand tools.”

“Somehow I doubt the Dominion will sweat bullets looking for a man who brought money into the country. The U.S. marshals are working on a tip they boarded a private plane in Newfoundland and are on their way to Europe by way of Greenland. The company’s put all its offices there on alert.”

“Tips pan out sometimes.”

“I don’t buy it. Guy and I flew in a puddle-jumper just once; he dragged me off at the first stop. He’s terrified of flying in anything smaller than a seven-forty-seven. But you know the system. Nothing Little Wifie has to say carries any ballast.”

“So divorce him for infidelity.”

“I don’t give two snaps about the other woman. She’ll find out soon enough the sables and silk aren’t worth the freight.”

“Desertion, then.”

“Not just yet. Before he left he cleaned out our joint account so it would look like he was traveling on his own dime. I want him found, prosecuted, and convicted so I can bring civil action against him. I deposited my life’s savings when I got out of scrubs.” She started to drink, then glared at me over the top of her glass. “What are you grinning at?”

“We just got into my wheelhouse. If it weren’t for people wanting to get even, I’d be retired myself.”

“Same old Amos. I remember now why we’re not together anymore.” She drank. “Any regrets?”

“Only the time I wasted on the ones I had.”

I got what I needed from her and we finished our drinks. At the door I said, “I’m sorry. About Guy.”

“I’m sorry about more than that.” When she smiled, the laugh lines radiated. “When you find him…”

“I’ll call you first. Last time the feds put me on hold, I spent twenty minutes listening to Dionne Warwick.”

*   *   *

So here I was, planning my assault on the Cabot Inn and listening to a CBC talk show host griping about government health care. I’d have thought I was back home except for the way he mispronounced words like “sorry” and “schedule.”

The coin fell on the side of Pickett’s Charge. I got out, followed a flagstone walk to a front porch with a rocking chair on one end and a wood-burning heater on the other, and went through a door with a card in it that said I was welcome. A shallow foyer contained the usual rag rug, potted plant, and open staircase leading to the second floor; also a smell of cinnamon strong enough to stop a runaway freight. This was coming from a little gift shop that had probably been a side parlor under British rule, stocked with soaps, candles, T-shirts, and glass paperweights that showered glitter-dust on miniature Torontos.

A fat ledger rested on an oak podium next to a bell. I slapped the bell. A woman came out the gift shop door and stopped with her hands folded at her waist. She looked to be the same vintage as the house, with hair as fine and white as refined sugar caught up with combs and a black woolen dress that cried out for white lace but hadn’t any. She had flesh-colored buttons in both ears and more lenses in her spectacles than they have on Mount Wilson.

“A man and a woman came in a few minutes ago,” I said. “What room are they in?”

“Do you want a room?” she yelled.

I had to repeat myself, exaggerating the consonants. She stared at my lips, moving hers in mirror-image.

“Are you with them?”

I cringed. She had only the one volume. “I told them I couldn’t make it. I’d like to surprise them.” I folded a ten-spot and held it between my first and second fingers. She toddled forward, adjusting her glasses, not slowing as she came close. I wondered if I should get out of her way. Finally she stopped with her nose almost touching Alexander Hamilton’s.

“You’re American?”

“Guilty.”

“I knew it already. Americans think they can buy anything.”

She was looking up at me now, with cloudy eyes and a face set like reinforced concrete. I put away the money and got out my ID folder with the honorary Wayne County sheriff’s star pinned to it, held it two inches in front of her face.

“You’re not a policeman.”

“Not guilty of that. I’m working for the man’s wife.”

“What’s she need a private enquiry agent for? She’s upstairs with him.”

“Not unless he’s a Mormon.” I slipped the photo Karen had given me from the pocket of the folder, the most recent she had of Guy Lennert. It was a full-length shot someone had taken of the couple in front of the Blue Heron restaurant in Bloomfield Hills. Both were in tailored suits, his black, hers hunter green, pressed close with arms entwined.

“This isn’t Mrs. Linden.”

“Right again. It’s Mrs. Guy Lennert. If he signed your register with any other name, some graphologist will work it out.”

Water rushed somewhere in the building. Someone was taking a shower.

“I can’t—”

She stopped. Even she’d heard it, coming from upstairs. It wasn’t the pipes banging.

 

Copyright © 2018 Loren D. Estleman.

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Loren D. Estleman is author of more than seventy novels, including The Sundown Speech, You Know Who Killed Me, and Don't Look for Me. Winner of four Shamus Awards, five Spur Awards, and three Western Heritage Awards, he lives in Michigan with his wife, author Deborah Morgan.

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