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Sinister Heights
by Loren D. Estleman
Mysterious Press, 2002

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AND NOW HERE I AM, stopped around the corner from the second oldest automobile factory in the world, sitting in a stolen pickup truck and smoking a Winston down to the filter. Here in the poured shadow is the only spot in the city where the throbbing glow of the hot steel can't be seen. Everywhere else it's like looking into the yellow eye of a killer. Two people are dead and the chances are better than even there will be more by morning.

The Ram's motor idles smoothly. Even the crickets are louder. A jet that is only a turquoise blue and an orange winking light is rushing to catch up with the muted surflike roar of its engines as it heads somewhere that is a hell of a long way from here. My eyes burn from lack of sleep. My ankle is hurting again and my neck never stopped.

Now the bitter scorched-rubber stench of the filter igniting stings my nose. I snap the stub out the window, check the load in the .38 one more time, and put the indicator in Drive. The dream ends when the pickup rolls and then it's then again....

The driver's seat of the Viper gripped my thighs like a big hand in a soft glove. That didn't place on my list of priorities, but I liked the climate control, and the dials on the dash awakened something in me I thought had died with Buster Crabbe. I had no idea where they had put the cigarette lighter.

I cracked the window to expel the new-car odor, which made me woozy and came from an aerosol can anyway, and aced the tricky bracket-shaped turn from Larned onto West Congress going the other direction. I couldn't open up the monster V-10 downtown, thanks to pedestrians and the UPS truck that had been double- parked in front of the Penobscot Building since Disco. It was enough to feel its pulse in the soles of my feet. The car—Heineken green, low as an asp—turned heads at signals and got me the granite look from a tired-faced cop drumming his fingers on the wheel of his cruiser. An automobile designed to do 162 in sixth is going to break the law on general principles.

Connor Thorpe was standing on the corner of Washington and Congress waiting for the light. I spun into the curb and called his name. His long basset face took a moment to process the evidence. I popped the latch. He swung inside and we took off in third. They don't put that kind of torque on the street every day. You have to wait six weeks.

"Prowling in the bushes must pay," he said. "This model lists at sixty-six thousand."

"Seventy-five. It's got a CD player. We still meeting at the Caucus Club?"

"Just long enough to tell you they need me uptown. I wish to hell you'd get a cell phone."

"Maybe when I give up smoking." "Don't tell me you believe that airborne cancer shit." "I meant so I can afford the bills."

"This from a man driving my first divorce settlement. I lived on sardine sandwiches for a year."

"With me it was peanut butter and jelly."

"Not enough balance. This thing loaded?" He ran his blunt fingers over the pressure pads that operated the stereo system.

"It comes loaded from the factory. A.C. and color are the only options."

"You went with goose shit?" "It's called Guadalcanal."

"Same thing. I was stationed there eight weeks. Just take me to the New Center area. I'll snag a ride back."

"Won't compare with this one."

"I guess you bought the right to pull down your pants and wave it around. I like my old Chevy. They offer me a new one every year, but I got better things to worry about than scratching the finish. What happened to the Cutlass?"

"I'll take it out when it rains. What's in the New Center area? Not GM anymore."

"I think they need help taking the letters off the building."

It was like Thorpe not to be specific, even about his destination. After Saigon fell old Leland Stutch had hired him out from under Naval Intelligence to direct security in his plants worldwide. These days he worked as a security consultant for all three major U.S. automakers, and not a single board member had raised the question of conflict of interest. The joke went that his left and right socks never shared the same drawer. In his first six months he discharged sixty-eight employees for theft, including a vice president of engineering and design and an executive assistant to a board chairman. Before his record became too consistent to attract special notice, he'd turned down an FBI directorship and a Reagan cabinet post. In twenty-five years he'd had the same job and four wives.

He got his suits from the same tailor who'd made his uniforms, using the measurements he'd taken in 1970. They were loose in the shoulders, tight across the middle, and made of some gray-green material that wore like chainmail. He divided his time between an office in the former National Bank of Detroit building downtown and a basement bunker in Stutch's old plant in Iroquois Heights. Where he slept was anybody's guess.

We took Cass up toward Grand. He watched an old man in ragged army surplus dragging a duffel along the sidewalk. "Are you free tomorrow? I want to hear your report."

"I'll give it to you now. I've got a line on Tindle."

"So have I. Every time I crunch the numbers he's stolen another ten thousand. My odds are better yanking the handle on a slot machine." He hated casinos. He'd even changed his route to work in order to avoid passing the gambling hell that had opened in the old Wonder Bread bakery.

"Marks, yen, guilders, or dollars? Whose idea was it to put him in Overseas Acquisitions, anyway?"

"Someone who is no longer employed by the automobile industry." "That how you plan to handle Tindle?"

"Where he ends up working isn't my concern. It can be the rockpile or the prison library."

"The board decided to prosecute?" "They will."

One of the advantages of three companies sharing one top cop was his salary didn't make a ding in the third-quarter profits. One of the disadvantages was he knew where all the bodies were buried; and the grave was only half full. They'd hired a hawk to end the sparrow problem and wound up stuck with the hawk.

"Shareholders will scream."

"They scream when the NASDAQ slips half a point. It's why I don't accept stock options. Clouds the judgment."

"What happened to preserving customer trust at any cost?" "With luck, the same thing that happened to peace at any price. I'm a vindictive old bastard, Walker. Steal from my boss, steal from me. But you better kill me first."

"Company man."

"A maligned race." He produced a worn leather case from an inside pocket and a thick black cigar from the case and lifted his sad brows at me, daring me to ask him not to smoke in the car. I told him go ahead and good luck finding the lighter.

"Never use 'em. They're always busted and when they aren't they smell like scorched feathers." He lit the stogie with a wooden match and flipped the burnt stump out the window. "Before I put Tindle's nuts in the cracker, I need to know what he's been doing with the money he embezzled. If he put it in Krugerrands, I want to run my fingers through the coins like Scrooge. If it's in Switzerland, I want the number of the account. If he bought porno, I want every sticky page on the table in the executive lounge. That's why I retained you. I know where he is. I know he buys colored condoms and rolls his toilet paper underhand. I had his place tossed before you came on board."

"Find anything?" We were passing Wayne State University on the old Corridor. The city was considering changing the name of that stretch of Cass to encourage business other than drugs and prostitution. Anyway, it was a plan.

"Oh, I didn't expect to see it piled up in sacks with dollar signs, but I thought we'd turn a passbook, brochures on Tahiti, a closing date on a beach house in Carmel—something to indicate he isn't counting on his forty grand a year and 401K. Which if I hadn't been suspicious to begin with would have made me. Who the hell lives within his means under the present tax system?"

"Judging by that cigar I'd say you." "Cubans are for commies."

We drove for a while listening to nothing but ten cylinders firing. It was warm for April. Students were strolling about with their jackets tied around their waists and sunning themselves stretched out on last year's grass. No one in the Rust Belt complained about global warming.

"How clutched up are you right now?" Thorpe asked. "It's my slow season. May through April."

"A friend's been after me for months to investigate something. I keep putting her off. If it doesn't have anything to do with the industry I'm boned, but I don't want her to know that. She's got it in her head I'm by Dick Tracy out of Miss Marple."

"You should set her straight before the wedding."

"It's Rayellen Stutch." He got interested in the one window in an apartment building on Antoinette whose shade was drawn. The nearly naked blonde co-ed reading The Collector on the front step might as well have been an inflatable doll. "Related to old Leland?" I asked.


I ran the numbers. Leland Stutch had shot air rifles with the first Henry Ford and offered Teddy Roosevelt a spin in a car he'd built when he was twenty. A photograph of him shaking hands with the old Rough Rider had run with Stutch's obituary eighty-six years later. I'd met him once, when he was past the century mark and thinking about retirement. His life had bracketed the journey of the automobile from an Edwardian joke to a computer on wheels with a Garfield doll stuck to the rear window. He'd endowed two hospitals, the second on the site of the first after it fell down from age. As far as I knew, they were the only two times he'd ever been inside one. They'd found him sitting at his desk with the dictaphone running.

"She pass a hundred yet?" I asked. "If you're interested in the job, you can ask her."

"What's the job?" "You can ask her that too. I may be violating a confidence just by bringing it up."

"If it's that dicey, tell her to let it lie. You never know what's on the bottom side of a rock."

"Just the bottom side of the rock. I hope." "Now I'm curious." "I'll set it up."

"I said I was curious. I didn't say I was interested." "Just drop me off on the corner. I'll walk the rest of the way."

I pulled into a slot in front of the Fisher Building. Across the street, atop the sprawling General Motors office complex, a crew was at work with cutting torches on the two-story-high neon letters, with a Tinker Toy arrangement of pulleys and winches waiting to lay them flat on the roof. Thorpe sat glowering at the operation.

"I don't know how they figure to gain by moving their headquarters to the RenCen from the biggest office building in the world," he said.

"I think the Pentagon's bigger." "It lacks charm." "Times change."

"People don't. I wish just once it was the other way." "Not me. It's the business I'm in."

"Get me something on Tindle I can use. Find out what he did with the money." He got out.
I climbed out my side. "Mr. Thorpe."

He'd started down the sidewalk. He swung around like an old gunfighter, nothing on his face but the stubble he'd missed that morning. I flipped the Viper's keys across the roof. He caught them one-handed.

I said, "Title and registration's in the glove compartment. He put them in his mother's name."

He looked up from the keys. "You stole it from his driveway?" "Garage on Howard. I broke in. The trouble with most thieves is they think they cornered the market."

His smile made him look even sadder.

Excerpted from Sinister Heights by Loren D. Estleman. Copyright © 2002 by Loren D. Estleman. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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