“Thicker Than Blood”
by Doug Allyn
AHMM September 2011
Eventually, you end up shooting someone you know.
You roll up on a freeway wreck or a murder scene where the body’s impaled on the wheel or sprawled in an alley like a rag doll, bloody and broken. And as you flick on the mini-camera’s auto-focus to zero in for a close-up, you realize the stiff in the ditch is your paperboy, or the nice neighbor lady from down the block.
Or in this case, a pretty barmaid from my favorite pub.
I didn’t recognize her at first. It was dusk in early autumn, Hawk and I were in the WVLT van en route to a restaurant opening when she caught a squeal on our police scanner about a traffic accident with a possible fatality.
Flicking on our emergency flashers, I whipped the van around in a quick U-turn, racing back to the crash sight, only few miles behind us on I-75.
It was a single vehicle accident. An ugly one. A rust-bucket Ford sedan had skidded off the freeway and slammed into a concrete culvert. Headfirst. Hard.
Pulling in behind the crash to light up the scene with our headlights, I scrambled out of the van and sprinted to the wreck. Passing traffic was slowing as gawkers checked out the crash, but no one stopped. The 911 caller hadn’t stopped either and there were no prowl cars on the scene yet, which wasn’t unusual. In the Detroit metro area, cops are stretched thinner than Saran Wrap. Response time to freeway accidents can vary from two minutes to twenty. A lifetime, if you’re bleeding to death.
But response time wasn’t an issue at this accident. Steph and I were on the scene within minutes of catching the squeal, and it was already much too late.
The Ford must have been flying when it hit. The hood was crumpled back to the firewall, jamming the driver behind the wheel. If the car had air bags, they hadn’t gone off. The woman’s face had cratered the windshield, leaving it a bloody mask. Her neck was lolling out the shattered side window at an impossible angle.
As I trotted toward her, I could see that she was young and blonde. And dead as a stone.
I crouched over the body to peer inside. No passengers, thank God. But as I pressed two fingers against the dead girl’s carotid to check for a pulse, it struck me that she looked familiar . . .
It was Noreen Burke. One of the barmaids from Eddie’s Roadhouse in Warsaw Heights. I’d seen her a few nights ago. We were joking around about the lousy Detroit Lions.
I nearly puked. I’ve been in TV news fifteen years but nothing prepares you for a thing like this. Nothing. Staring down at the dead girl, stunned, I wanted to rage at the sky or break down and bawl—but there was no time.
Sirens wailing in the distance were coming on fast. We had to nail our standup before the cops taped off the scene and chased us out of camera range.
But as I backed away from the corpse, I saw the money. Noreen’s purse had spilled, scattering cash all over the seat. Not a little cash, a lot. Sheaves of hundred dollar bills, dozens of them. Plus a gun. A brutal little automatic, half buried by the cash on the carpet.
“What’s wrong?” Hawk asked, scanning my face as I trotted back to the truck to grab my mini-cam.
“Nothing. The driver’s dead, there are no passengers. Pat your hair into place, Steph, and let’s nail the damned shot before the law runs us off.”
Which is exactly what we did. Two stone-pro TV news hawks, reporting a traffic fatality, live, in living color, from the scene of the crash.
“This is Stephanie Hawkins, WVLT Action News, reporting from Warsaw Heights.” A prowl car came screaming up as we finished, adding a dash of drama to the sign-off. “And now, back to Tommy Sawasky at our news desk.”
“Perfect,” I shouted over the siren. “That’s a wrap.” We packed up and bailed out while the cops were still checking on the corpse in the car. I was already thumb-dialing my cell phone as we got back on the freeway.
“This is Novak,” I shouted over the roar of the van. “Is Eddie there? Or Danno?”
“Nah, not yet. Danno should be in soon—”
“Listen up! There’s been an accident. Noreen Burke is dead.”
“Noreen is dead,” I repeated. “Killed in a car crash. And there may be serious trouble over it. Police-type trouble. Understand? Get hold of Danno or Eddie, and let them know. Fast.”
I rang off without waiting for an answer. Hawk was staring at me, her dark eyes wide.
“You knew that woman back at the wreck,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Sort of,” I admitted.
“How well did you know her?”
“Not very well, and not that way, if that’s your next question.”
“Why didn’t you identify her for the police?”
“Her purse was on the seat, and I didn’t want to waste an hour by the side of the road answering questions. Besides, we have another assignment.”
“Right, a restaurant opening. Not exactly hot news and you’re blowing smoke at me, Novak. Who did you call?”
“The roadhouse where she worked, to let them know what happened.”
“You told that guy there might be trouble—”
“Let it go, Hawk, there’s no story here. She was a pretty lady, I knew her in passing, and now she’s dead. Change the subject, okay?”
Fat chance. In addition to looks and brains, Stephanie Hawkins is a rising star in the metro Detroit TV news biz because of her bottomless curiosity. Telling Hawk to back off was like telling a shark not to swim. We’d started as work friends, became lovers for a time, and now we were back to being friends again. So Hawk didn’t just change the subject. She put me in the deep freeze.
We did the restaurant shoot with professional efficiency. Hawk nailed her stand-up in a single take, then we spent a few minutes glad-handing the diners and the owner. And through it all, we didn’t exchange a single word that wasn’t directly related to the job at hand.
Afterward, we rode back to the WVLT studio in silence. I dropped Hawk at her car, then drove home to my one bedroom walk-up in Warsaw Heights. White Harlem. The hardcore Slavic enclave a few miles up I-75 from the dark heart of the inner city.
The Heights is my hometown, I suppose. I don’t know where I was born or who my parents were, but White Harlem is where I grew up.
At my pad, I checked the fridge but I wasn’t really hungry. I thought about going out to score some weed to take the edge off my nerves, but it was sprinkling now, a cold October rain, and the way my luck was running, I’d probably get busted.
I popped the cap on a Coors Light instead, then settled on the sofa in front of my high def TV and flipped on the WVLT late news.
Noreen’s fatal accident was the lead story in A-bag, the first segment of the broadcast. And suddenly, there she was, Stephanie Hawkins, the dark princess of my dreams, looking stunningly lovely in her WVLT blazer, posed on the shoulder of the freeway with the wreck in the background, calmly reciting the brutal facts of Noreen Burke’s demise like stats after a baseball game. I switched off the set in the middle of Hawk’s spiel.
I felt totally fried. Knew I should call it a night, but I sat staring at the blank screen instead, remembering the woman in the car. Noreen Burke was my . . . third? No. She was the fourth corpse I’d recognized at a scene.
The first was a high school buddy of mine, crushed to death under his car when a jack failed. The worst was finding my paperboy, mangled in the wreckage of his ten-speed bike after getting clipped by a drunk who hadn’t even stopped.
But no matter how horrible I felt, or how shaken I was, I still nailed the shot. Every damned time.
I’m a cameraman. A stone-cold pro.
It’s not just a job anymore. God help me, it’s what I am.
It was easier in the old days. On my first TV gig out of journalism school, the viewfinders were still black and white. Nowadays we shoot the dead in living color.
Crimson wounds, purpling bruises, the deep russet of drying blood. Charred flesh in raw ocher or sienna brown.
Floaters are the worst. Corpses come out of the water a bloodless blue-gray. If they’ve been deep awhile, sometimes they trail their guts behind them like tangled bedding.
We have to shoot floaters from the waist up. Network standards are falling faster than our audience shares, but there are still a few limits on what we can air during the dinner hour. And in today’s markets, station managers hate paying for shots they can’t show.
“Drop me off at the gate,” Noreen said quietly, as I slowed at the entrance of the trailer park. “I’ll walk in from here.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “It’s no trouble to drive to your door.”
“Not for you, maybe,” she said with that wry smile. “It might be trouble for me.” As she slid out of my car, I noticed her blonde hair darkening as the blood seeped down from her torn scalp. Then she was climbing behind the wheel of her rattletrap Ford.
“Wait, don’t go!” I yelled. “You mustn’t—” But I was too late. Her head twisted around, lolling through the side window now, her face a bloody mask, her dead eyes staring up at me—
I snapped bolt upright! On my sofa. Gasping for breath.
I sat there awhile, shaking, trying to gather my wits, still in the grip of the dream, my heart hammering like a machine gun. Knuckling my eyes, I checked my watch. Four freaking a.m.
Gathering the remnants of my wits, I stumbled off to bed. But not to sleep. Instead, I lay awake till dawn, replaying a mental slideshow of Noreen’s death on the white tiles of my bedroom ceiling. Wondering about all that money on the car floor.
And the gun.
I rolled into work at WVLT at nine sharp, still groggy from my long night. I checked my slot on the Plexiglas assignment board but there were no shoots penciled in for me. Odd.
I headed for the manager’s glass-walled office to ask what was going on, but I didn’t make it. Kessler stuck his head out the door, raising a pudgy paw to stop me.
He didn’t look happy, but he never does. Hal Kessler’s a rotund beer barrel of a guy, a balding, overanxious nail-biter who wears suspenders and a belt. And probably holds his socks up with bungee cords. He waved me off, jerking a pudgy thumb toward Studio C-2.
Odder still. C-2 is the green room, a lounge for interviewees waiting to go on camera. But there were no interviews scheduled on the big board.
Curious now, I walked down the tiled hall to C-2, rapped once, and stepped in.
A tall man was at the coffee machine, fortyish, gunmetal gray hair worn in a boot camp buzz cut, an off-the-rack blue suit, knitted tie, thick-soled shoes . . .
Cop. He might as well have worn a sign.
His partner was Latina, Sergeant R. Morales, according to her name tag. Her thick raven hair was cropped short in a pageboy. She was dressed in Dracula black, a nylon police parka over a Nike turtleneck and denims. Her hand-tooled cowboy boots had sterling silver points. Some chicks wear stomper boots as a fashion statement. I guessed Morales’s were strictly business.
“Mr. Novak?” Buzz Cut asked. “I’m Lieutenant Landis. Have a seat. Want some coffee?”
“No, thanks,” I said, making no move to sit. “What’s up?”
“You are,” Morales said. “We’ve got some questions about the accident you filmed yesterday evening.”
“The freeway crash? Funny, I meet a lot of cops in my work but I’ve never seen you two before. And lieutenants never work traffic. Which division did you say you were with?”
“We didn’t say,” Landis said, sipping his coffee, eyeing me over the rim. “But for the record, Sergeant Morales works major crimes out of Detroit Metro and I’m with the U.S. Marshal’s office.”
“Major crimes and a U.S. Marshal,” I nodded, trying to get my brain in gear as my defensive shields clicked firmly into place.
“The patrol officer on the scene said you left before he could question you,” Morales said. “What was the big hurry?”
“We were on our way to another shoot when we caught the squeal on our scanner, the same way your guys did. We didn’t actually witness anything, the driver was dead when we got there.”
“You checked?” Morales asked.
“Sure, the same as any concerned citizen would.”
“It must have been quite a shock,” Morales noted. “How well did you know Miss Burke?”
I felt like I’d stepped into an elevator shaft and dropped forty floors. Morales’s brown eyes were baby-lamb innocent, but she’d just tossed me a live hand grenade and we both knew it. How did they know? Had Hawk ratted me out? Jesus, I hated to think so, but it didn’t matter now. I was definitely in a box. As a last resort, I decided to gamble on telling the unvarnished truth.
“Noreen was a barmaid at a local pub in the Heights,” I said. “I have lunch there sometimes.”
“Drink your lunch, do you?” Landis asked.
“In the Heights, they serve beer and kielbasy in middle school. Why do you care what I have for lunch?”
“We’re wondering what shape you were in while you were trampling all over our crime scene.”
“Crime scene? I thought it was an accident.”
“Did you?” Landis asked. Is that why you called your gangster pal, Eddie Mytko? To give him a heads up?”
“I didn’t call Eddie Mytko,” I said carefully. “I called the roadhouse where I eat lunch to tell them a woman who worked there had been killed in an accident. I went to Pulaski High with Eddie Mytko and a thousand other kids, but that was fifteen years ago. I moved out to L.A. after college, I’ve only been back in Detroit a few months. Eddie Mytko owns a bar and I hang out there sometimes. If he’s some kind of gangster, I wouldn’t know anything about that. What do you want from me?”
“A straight answer,” Landis snapped. “You’re waltzing us around, Novak. Noreen did a lot more than just pour your drinks. You’ve gone out with her.”
“No way. I gave the lady a ride home after work, once. It was raining and her car wouldn’t start. That was the only time.”
“Did you take her straight home?” Morales asked.
“What does that mean?”
“C’mon, Mr. Novak, we’re all grownups here. Did you stop by your place for a quickie? Did she invite you in for a thank you jump?”
“Neither one. I took her to the Shady Rest Trailer Court. She asked me to drop her at the entrance gate.”
“I . . . suppose she had somebody waiting for her and wanted to avoid explanations.”
“Why? Was her lipstick mussed?”
“Look, guys, I was not romantically involved with Noreen Burke, I just knew her casually from the roadhouse, the same way I know Eddie Mytko. That’s all I can tell you.”
“You’ll have to do better than that,” Landis warned. “We talked to your station manager. Your job here is hanging by a thread. One word from us—”
“Whoa, why are you jacking me around? I don’t know anything, damn it! If some drunk ran Noreen off the road, he’ll probably do it again, and next time maybe he’ll be the one you find dead at the scene.”
“And if it wasn’t a drunk?” Landis asked.
“What are you saying? You think her killing was deliberate?”
“We’re asking you, Mr. Novak.”
“Then you’re wasting time. You should be out looking for the crash car before it gets dumped or torched.”
“Know a bit about homicide, do you?” Landis asked.
“I worked the L.A. police beat a dozen years, sport. I’ve probably filmed four or five hundred crime scenes, from drug busts to gang bangs. And freeway crashes? I can’t count that high. I’m not a civilian.”
“Then give us something,” Morales pressed. “Anything at all.”
“All I can offer is an educated guess. Noreen wasn’t from Detroit, and she was vague about her past. I thought she was too pretty and too smart to be working as a barmaid. Which adds up to what, Morales? Witness protection? Is that why you guys are here?”
“Why would you think that?” Morales asked, shooting a warning glance at Landis.
“Because your pal Landis is a U.S. Marshal and they oversee the Witness Security Program. Noreen had a mysterious boyfriend, but never talked about him much and I never saw them together. So? Was she in witness protection? Or maybe he was?”
“We’ll ask the questions, Novak,” Landis snapped. “Where did you go after you left the scene?”
“After? We went to a restaurant opening in Eastpointe.”
“Directly?” Landis pressed. “Or did you stop by Noreen’s place on the way?”
“Why would I do that?”
“There was money in her car, maybe you thought there was more.”
“If I were a grave robber, which I’m not, I could have grabbed the cash on the seat. Did someone hit her place?”
“We sent an officer over as soon as we heard about the crash,” Morales said. “He said it looked like a tornado had torn through it.”
“Sorry to hear it, but I was shooting a stand-up in Eastpointe at the time, in front of a hundred witnesses. How much money was in the car?”
“That’s privileged—” Landis began.
“Twenty-five thousand, cash,” Morales said, waving him off. “Any idea how she got it?”
“How should I know?”
“She didn’t find twenty-five grand in a tip jar, so we’re wondering if she had a sideline business. Like dealing drugs? And you’ve got a record for drugs. Haven’t you, Mr. Novak?”
“Whoa up, guys,” I said, double-checking to be sure the door was closed. “I took a dumb-ass dime bag bust for coke a few years ago in L.A. I did ninety days on the county and rehab. I’m out of that life now.”
“Does your station manager know about that bust?” Landis asked.
“What do you think? Gimme a break, guys, jobs are thin on the ground out there. Are you going to burn me with Kessler?”
“Not today,” Morales said, passing me a business card, “but if you think of anything else, you’d better give me a call. And if there’s any part of your statement you’d like to correct, now would be the time.”
“Everything I told you is the flat-ass truth, lady.”
And it was.
But it wasn’t quite the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.
After the two cops left, I stormed down the hall to Hawk’s office, a cubicle slightly larger than a phone booth. She was at her desk, using her laptop to surf the Net for leads, wearing a creamy silk blouse that accented her café au lait complexion and braided hair. She looked smart, ambitious, and so lovely that she took my breath away. But Hawk’s career is on the upswing, while mine’s been skidding south since L.A. Welcome to TV news. Check your heart at the door.
“Hey, Cass,” she said without glancing up.
“Hey yourself. Did you rat me out, Hawk?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Two cops were waiting to grill me in the green room just now. They knew about the phone call I made from the wreck scene last night. I sure didn’t tell them, so that leaves you. Why the hell did you burn me?”
“I can’t believe you’re asking a thing like that!” The temperature in her cubicle had plunged from a warm welcome to absolute zero.
“The math’s pretty simple, Hawk. And I noticed you didn’t answer the question.”
“Screw your question! Whoa, hold on a minute, Cass. We need to talk about this.”
“Later. Tell Kessler I’m taking some personal time.”
“Where are you going?” she called after me.
“Home,” I said.
And I was. Sort of.
I scrambled into the WVLT van, got on I-75 and headed north to Warsaw Heights. I pulled in at a 7-Eleven with a parking lot pay phone and called Eddie’s Roadhouse again. And got a familiar voice this time.
“Eddie’s,” Danno Skiba said.
“It’s me, Danno,” I said. “Don’t say my name on the phone. Get hold of Eddie, tell him to meet me in church.”
“Why? What’s up?”
“A lot. Tell him.”
“Enough with the phone jokes, jag-off,” Danno said, slamming down the receiver.
Growing up in foster care I attended a hundred different churches. Some caregivers were religious, and the rest knew that getting a troubled kid to church earns points with the caseworkers.
Bouncing around the system like a pinball, from halfway houses to juvenile halls and back again, the churches blurred together, none of them memorable.
Until the last one. St. Stanislav’s Cathedral in Warsaw Heights.
Where my life changed forever.
St. Stan’s is still standing, a massive old Gothic cathedral looming over a four-story Tudor rectory. Both structures were built of hewn granite blocks in Henry Ford’s heyday. The rectory roof is flat, ringed by castellated revetments that make it look like a medieval prison.
Which it was, in a way.
In the sixties the diocese converted the rectory into a halfway house for wayward boys. Home sweet home for me and a hundred more. The dank stone walls and open barracks were better than the cages in juvie hall, but not by much.
The church and the halfway house stand silent and abandoned now, closed by the diocese back in the nineties.
Shuttered, barred, and locked up tight.
In reality, to any kid who served a stretch in the halfway house, the buildings are as open as a strip mall on sale day.
Parking the WVLT van in a Polish supermarket lot a few blocks away, I threaded my way down familiar alleys to a metal fire door at the rear of the rectory.
Retrieving a skeleton key from a cache beneath a window ledge, I let myself in.
Memories and the familiar reek of the place settled on me like a damp cloak. And the old fears as well.
The power was off and the corridors were as black as the inside of a bear, but I had no trouble finding my way. As a boy, I’d often prowled these halls in the dead of night, heading for the same place I was going now.
At the end of the corridor the twin doors were ajar. I edged between them into . . .
Or as close as I’m likely to get.
The ancient stone chapel was aglow with golden autumn light, refracted into a thousand luminous rays by the towering stained glass windows on the west wall. I stood there in silence, soaking up the beauty as a thousand memories flooded back.
“It’s almost pretty enough to make you believe in Jesus,” tall Paul Bruske said, stepping out of the shadows. “Jak sie mas, bracie Novak.”
“Screw yourself, bracie Paul,” I said, embracing him. “I barely remember enough Polish to order a beer. What are you doing here? I called Eddie.”
“And he called me. You look good, Cass.”
“No I don’t, but you do.” He did too. Tall Paul was a St. Stan’s survivor who caught a growth spurt in high school that took him to six-foot five, made him a basketball star at Pulaski High, Michigan State, and then the NBA. He was in politics now, a state senator and hungry for more. Paul was still tall, blonde, and handsome, and his glove leather trench coat probably cost more than my car.
“What’s this big emergency, Cass?”
“Actually, it doesn’t involve you—”
“It involves all of us,” Eddie Mytko said, shouldering through the door, with Danno Skiba right behind. We exchanged abrazos and backslaps all around, like a Mafia clan, which is what we were, once. The St. Stan’s Gang of Four. Polish Whiteboy Mafia.
Danno had changed the least, still slender with shoulder-length sandy hair, wide blue eyes, and an easy smile. A talented guitarist, Danno toured the world with REO Speedwagon, but tired of the road. He was back in the Heights now, managing Eddie Mytko’s roadhouse.
Eddie had thickened a bit, but he was still built like a cement block and just as hard. His buzz cut sideburns were showing a little silver, his gray eyes showed nothing at all.
Tearing open a six-pack, Eddie passed around Pabst longnecks. “Let’s get to it,” he growled. “It’s a tough thing about Noreen. She was a nice chick, but shit happens—”
“It didn’t just happen,” I interrupted. “The cops say it was murder. Somebody deliberately ran her off the road.”
“That’s hard,” Eddie frowned, processing the information. “They got anybody in mind?”
“Not yet. That’s the problem.”
“What problem? What’s it got to do with us?”
“The heat,” I said simply. “It could fry us all.” And I told them about the marshal’s visit, the money, and the gun.
“What do you make of it, Cass?” Eddie asked.
“I can’t swear to it, but with the marshals involved, there’s a strong chance Noreen was in the Witness Protection program. Which means the heat isn’t going to fade, Eddie. They’ll be all over this thing till somebody goes down for it.”
“Got it,” Eddie nodded, glancing quickly at the other two. “We appreciate the heads up, Cass, we’ll take it from here.”
“Screw that,” I said. “Warning you put me in a serious jam with the law. My job’s hanging by a thread. I’m involved, like it or not. I need to know what’s going on.”
“No offense, Cass, but I’m not interested in airing any dirty laundry on the six o’clock news,” Paul said.
“You think I’d sell you out for a story, Paul?”
“You’ve been away a long time, Cass,” Danno Skiba said cautiously. “People change.”
“Not all of them,” I said. “I’m screwed because I warned you, Eddie. Don’t leave me twisting in the wind.”
Again, that quick look.
“What the hell,” Paul said. “Tell him. He can’t burn us without burning himself worse.”
“Tell me what?” I demanded.
“Paul and Noreen had a thing going,” Eddie sighed.
“An affair,” Paul admitted. “We’ve been seeing each other for a few months.”
“So you’re the mysterious boyfriend? I should have guessed. You always were a tail chaser. You’re still married, right?”
“To the mother of my children, who unfortunately, gained fifty pounds with each kid. Kate’s crowding two seventy and Noreen was a fine looking woman.”
“What’s the rest of it?” I asked.
“The money the police found in her car?” Eddie said. “That was Paul’s.”
“You paid her off?”
“Call it a go away present,” Paul said. “Leaving my wife would be political suicide. Noreen accepted that and we . . . came to a financial agreement.”
“The cops said they found twenty-five grand,” I said. “That’s a lot of bread for a fling.”
“I’ve paid more,” Paul shrugged. “My staff keeps a fund for situations like Noreen.”
“She wasn’t a damn situation,” Danno flared.
“She is now,” Eddie countered. “The cops will want to know where the money came from, especially if she’s a protected witness.”
“I don’t know that she was,” I said. “It’s just a guess.”
“It fits, though,” Paul said. “My people checked her background before we got involved. They said it was awfully sparse.”
“You scout out your girlfriends? That’s cold.”
“My life’s been a crash course in cold, Novak. When I blew out my knee my second year in the NBA, my manager dumped me and the team tried to renege on my contract. Growing up wild in White Harlem, we had it tough, but I always thought straight citizens were better than us, you know? More honorable, more honest. They’re not.”
“Welcome to my world, bracie,” Eddie sighed. “So, what the hell happened? Did anyone see you give her the money, Paul?”
“I don’t see how. I made the payoff in your office, and she left the pub right after. I’m guessing she didn’t need the job anymore.”
“Did you see anybody follow her out, Danno?”
“No,” Danno said, frowning, “but . . .”
“She was talking to Leon Cruz before she left. I think they had something going.”
“You mean she was seeing Cruz at the same time she was holding me up?” Paul demanded. “That two-timing—!”
“Who’s Leon Cruz?” I interrupted.
“Low-level mob guy,” Eddie said. “He’s with a crew from the Canadian side of the river. We do business, sometimes.”
“What kind of business?”
“My kind,” Eddie said flatly. “Why do you think Noreen and Cruz had a thing going, Danno?”
“She was all over him when he came in the joint, sitting on his lap, nibbling his ear, and like that. He ate it up.”
“That wouldn’t keep him from doing her for the money,” Eddie said. “Cruz is hard-core muscle. He’d clip ya for a stick of gum.”
“Nice people, your friends,” Paul said bitterly.
“I run a saloon. All kinds of people come there, Senator. Even politicians sometimes, when they get horny. How about it, Danno, do you think Cruz was serious about Noreen? Jealous, maybe?”
“Nah, it was strictly third-rate romance,” Danno said. “She was a good looking chick, guys hit on her all the time. She always left ’em laughing. Everybody liked her.”
“Not quite everybody,” I said. “What about you, Paul? How did you feel about her being with Cruz?”
“This is the first I’ve heard of it. And for the record, I never left the pub that night. I was chatting up a divorcée from Ecorse. Ask Danno.”
Eddie glanced the question at Danno, who nodded.
“What about the payoff money, Paul?” Eddie asked. “Can they trace it back to you?”
“No. It’s black cash from a slush fund. I’ll be okay.”
“None of us are okay yet,” I said.
“You’re telling me?” Paul countered. “I’ve got an election coming up. I can’t afford this crap now. You’ve got to keep my name out of it, Cass.”
“It’s a murder case, Paul, maybe federal. I don’t have that kind of juice, nobody does.”
“Then maybe my lawyers should call your boss to remind him my campaign bills a quarter of a million a year to your station.”
“Why not just hold up a sign that says ‘come get me’? The cops leaned on me pretty hard but your name never came up. I don’t think they know about you. Your best bet is to keep your head down, wait this out.”
“He’s right,” Eddie said. “Cass and me are on the hook because Noreen was working at my roadhouse and he warned me. But if they got nothing else, we should be okay. Lay low and keep your mouth shut, Paul. You too, Danno. Now clear the hell out, I need to talk to Cass.”
“Whoa, here it comes, Novak,” Danno said, shaking his head. “Got any next of kin I should notify?”
“Just your mama.”
“She’d be pretty cold. Overdosed when I was ten. See ya, Cass.”
After they’d gone, I turned to face Eddie Mytko. It wasn’t a comfortable experience. Eddie’s mug is square as a bulldog’s, scarred from a hundred fights. As a kid, he’d always been scary to be around. He still was.
“What?” I said.
“What did the cops say about me?”
“That you’re a badass gangster. Which wasn’t exactly news.”
“They’re only half right. Gangsters are ganged up. Me, I’m an independent. I operate strictly on my own.”
“Transport. I bring in cargo across the Detroit from Canada. Illegals, mostly, Mexicans and Asians. Sometimes contraband, Ecstasy, high-grade weed. Nothing heavy. No crystal, no coke.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“So you’ll understand the stakes. Paul could lose a few votes if this thing comes out. I could end up dead in a ditch. I’m small time, but Cruz’s people aren’t. If they hear I had a government witness working in my place, I could be as stiff as Noreen.”
“Don’t panic, it comes with the territory,” he shrugged. “What else did the police ask you?”
“Where I went after I called the pub. Apparently, somebody tossed Noreen’s place.”
“That was me. I hit her crib as soon as Danno called me, looking for anything that could tie her to Paul. Snapshots, e-mails, whatever.”
“What did you find?”
“Nothing about Paul. Even less about Noreen. No pictures on the wall, no letters, no bills, not even extra bedding. Everything in the place was new and there wasn’t much of it. It was just a crash pad, Cass. I don’t think she lived there.”
“That would fit. The police all but admitted she was in witness protection.”
“Then maybe one of Cruz’s people recognized her. Took her out.”
“That would be one theory,” I said.
“Is there something you want to ask me, Cass? Straight out?”
“All right, straight out. Did you solve Paul’s problem for him, Eddie? Did you whack Noreen? Or have it done?”
“Damn it, Cass, do you really think I’d kill a woman just because tall Paul can’t keep it in his pants? What do you think I am?”
“I know what you are, Eddie. What we all are.”
“All right then,” he said, meeting my eyes dead-on. “No, Cass. I did not kill that girl. I had nothing to do with it, swear on my mama’s grave. Whoever she was. Satisfied?”
“Yeah,” I said, releasing a deep breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “We’re good.”
But we weren’t. As I drove back to WVLT, I could still see Eddie’s face, battered and scarred, and almost as familiar as my own. His eyes were harder now than when we were boys, but I could still read him. Or thought I could.
One thing I knew for sure, the three guys in that abandoned chapel were the closest thing to a family I’ve ever had. My bracies, my brothers.
Back in the day, I would have known instantly whether Eddie Mytko was telling the truth. Even now, I didn’t believe Eddie would look me in the eye and lie.
But Danno was right, Pulaski High was a long time ago and people change. Maybe I could still trust Eddie, maybe not. Either way, I needed to figure out the name of this game before a dead woman I scarcely knew dragged me down with her.
Back at WVLT, there were still no assignments for me on the big board. And when Kessler waved me toward his office, I knew the reason why.
“Shut the door, Cass,” Kessler said, easing his bulk down into the executive chair behind his desk. “There’s no easy way to say this, the station’s trimming staff, and as one old newsman to another, you’d better start looking for a new job. Soon.”
“Why me, Hal? I’m the best cameraman you’ve got.”
“I know that, and lower your voice, please. I’m trying to give you a break here.”
“Really? How do you treat people you want to screw over?”
“I ask them whether they lied about drug convictions on their job applications,” Kessler snapped. “Is that clear enough?”
“It’s clear,” I said slowly. “That lousy—”
“Save it, Novak. You’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Look, I don’t want to fire you, Cass, and you don’t want my reasons for termination in your résumé. So you’re going to resign. I’ll give you two weeks to find another job. I’ll even give you a letter of recommendation. Count your blessings, Novak. And close the door on your way out.”
“Right,” I said. Taking a deep breath, I walked out, and closed the door carefully behind me. I didn’t slam it off its hinges, but it was a very near thing.
The address on Morales’s business card was 1300 Beaubien, Detroit P.D. headquarters, a ten-story concrete tenement in the dark heart of Motown. It dates from the Great Depression and looks every grim day of it.
I showed Morales’s card to a bored patrolman at the counter. He said she was on her lunch break. Try the Jury’s Inn, down the block.
No problem. I know the Inn well, it’s a tavern hangout for cops, lawyers, and newsmen. You can scarf a burger, sell out a client, or score a news scoop without leaving your barstool.
The place was jammed, the jukebox thumping oldies over the din of cops swapping lies and lawyers swapping sentences like matchstick poker. Our criminal justice system at work. I spotted Morales in a corner booth, eating alone.
Minus her jacket, she looked even more striking than before. Not conventionally pretty, but not a woman you’d forget either. She glanced up sharply as I slid in across from her.
“I’m off duty, Novak.”
“So am I, thanks to you. I just came to return the favor.”
“Getting me fired. I was tired of this town anyway.”
“Crap.” She frowned, glancing away. “Look, I didn’t get you fired, Mr. Novak. If Marshal Landis did, it was on his own hook. Sorry about that.”
“Not as sorry as you’re going to be. While I still had a job, I had a reason to cooperate. WVLT’s a low-rent station, but all I need is one career-maker shot to get back in the big time. And there’s more than one way to get national exposure. Like breaking a hot story. About a protected witness getting murdered while the police cover it up.”
“You can’t do that!”
“Why not? What will you do? Get me fired?”
“No. I’ll bust your dumb ass! Revealing the identity of a protected witness is a federal offense.”
“Noreen Burke isn’t a protected witness anymore, lady, she’s a corpse. The only thing in danger is your career,” I said, rising. “Tell Landis I said hello.”
“Sit your butt down, sport! We’re not done!” Morales’s voice cut through the background chatter like the crack of a whip. Faces turned toward us curiously. Hard cop faces, giving me the eye. I sat back down.
“Listen up, Novak,” Morales said intensely, her voice barely louder than a whisper. “I didn’t get you fired and I’m sorry it happened. But if you go public with this story, you’re going to get people killed.”
“My people. Cops.”
“Why should giving up a protected witness put cops at risk—” I broke off, reading her dark eyes. Getting it. “Sweet Jesus,” I breathed. “Noreen wasn’t a witness at all, was she? She was on the job. Was she a nark? Or a snitch?”
“Keep your voice down,” Morales hissed. “Noreen Burke was an undercover officer we borrowed from the narcotics squad in Flint. She was one of their best.”
“It doesn’t change a thing. A dead nark with a department cover-up is still a career-maker of a story.”
“How much is your career worth? Enough to get somebody killed?”
“Why should it?”
“Because Noreen wasn’t working alone! Look, we don’t give a rip about Eddie Mytko, he’s a small-time thug in a town full of ’em. Noreen was trying to nail one of Mytko’s connections in the Canadian mob—”
“Leon Cruz,” I finished.
“How do you know Cruz?” she asked suspiciously.
“I know he was seeing Noreen. Did he kill her?”
She hesitated. “No, definitely not. But if Cruz’s people know we’re looking at them, they’ll go on a witch hunt. They’ll root out our undercovers and grease them. Is that what you want?”
“All I want is my damn job back, Morales. You clowns got me fired, and if you expect me to keep quiet, you’d better get me unfired. Somebody’s going to see Kessler and tell him you made a terrible mistake. I’m a prince of a guy who deserves a break. And while you’re at it, get me a raise.”
She leaned back, scanning my face with those dark eyes. “Deal,” she said. “I’ll see to it.”
“There’s more. Is Eddie’s Roadhouse bugged? Is that how you knew I called? And why are you so sure Cruz didn’t do Noreen?”
“No comment,” Morales said flatly. “We aren’t pals, Novak. You’ll get your job back, but that’s all you get. After that, you back away from this thing and keep your mouth shut or I’ll bust you for obstruction and bury you so deep in the system you’ll have a ZZ Top beard at your bail hearing. That’s our deal. Am I clear?”
“Good. Then I’d like to finish my crappy dinner before it gets cold. If you don’t mind?”
I didn’t mind a bit. Going to jail had no appeal for me. Been there, done that. I’d never revive my career in the joint. The TV cameras are bolted to the walls.
So I drove back to the Heights, to my rented walkup. But I slowed as I approached my door. I heard a familiar voice inside. Hawk, doing her standup at Noreen’s crash scene. And I knew I’d left the TV turned off.
I eased my door slowly open and reached for the Louisville Slugger I keep beside it . . . but there was no need. Stephanie Hawkins was stretched out on my sofa, sipping a martini, watching herself on TV. And seeing two of her in the same room was almost more than I could handle.
“My hair was a mess in that shot,” she complained, without taking her eyes off the screen. “You should have told me.”
“A woman as beautiful as you are needs a little muss, it makes you look human.”
“Stow the Polish charm, Novak. I’ve watched this bit six times in a row. It’s strictly from hunger, wouldn’t have made A-bag if they’d had anything else to run. So what’s the big mystery, Cass? Why are the cops leaning on you? And why on earth would you think I ratted you out?”
“I know better now, love. And I apologize from the bottom of my heart.”
“Screw your heart. This is me, remember? What’s going on? Tell mama.”
“It’s complicated, Steph,” I said, fetching myself a beer out of the fridge. “I can’t tell you much, I gave my word.”
“Then tell me what you can.”
“I’m not sure I should. It’s personal. Family business.”
“You don’t have a family, Novak.”
“I had one once, in a way, and that’s the problem. Can we talk off the record? All the way off?”
“If you need to, sure.”
“All right, then,” I said, easing down beside her on the arm of the sofa. “You know I grew up in foster care, bouncing from one hole to another. My last stop was the halfway house at St. Stan’s, my freshman year in high school. It was a warehouse for troubled boys, all kinds, all ages. Ten-year olds tossed in with thugs as old as twenty-one. Some were misfits like me, others were mental cases or gang bangers on parole. And some were pedophiles who thought they’d died and gone to heaven.
“The first night I’m there, an older kid woke up Danno after lights out. Claimed he had an emergency phone call, but we all knew the game. I only knew Danno from the bus ride to St. Stan’s, but when Eddie Mytko got up and followed them out, I did too. So did Paul Bruske.”
“Senator Paul Bruske?” she asked.
“Tall Paul,” I nodded. “He wasn’t tall then, though, just another skinny kid with zits, like the rest of us. The older boy led Danno up to the roof. Another guy was waiting up there, and . . . everything went crazy.
“The older boy punched Danno out, then the two of them bent him over a rail and pulled down his pants, and . . . I freakin’ lost it. I’d seen this crap before. Always stayed out of it, kept my mouth shut. But there were three of us that night. And we came screaming out of the dark, piling into the bigger boys, everybody swinging at once . . .” I broke off, breathing hard, reliving the darkness and the fear and rage all over again, my mouth suddenly dry.
“What happened?” Hawk asked quietly.
“I’m honestly not sure, but one of the older boys took a header off the roof. In the scrum, it’s hard to say who pushed him. Maybe I did, or maybe somebody else. But he fell four stories, wailing all the way. Landed in an alley, all smashed to hell. His buddy scrammed down the fire escape and the rest of us were back in our bunks when the cops came. The older boy died the next day. They questioned everybody, but nobody gave us up. In the end they wrote him off as a probable suicide. He was on parole: Nobody really gave a damn. We were all throwaways in that place.”
“My God,” Hawk said softly, staring at me. But her newswoman’s mask was firmly in place. I had no idea what she was really thinking.
“What happened afterward?” she asked.
“A few nights later, the four of us met in the chapel. Swore to keep the secret and stick together. Like brothers.”
“Something like that,” I admitted. “The weird thing was, it worked for us. At Pulaski High, kids from the halfway house were easy marks for local bullies. Cowed by the system, afraid to fight back. But the four of us hung together. Mess with one, you get all four coming for payback. And Eddie was really crazy in those days.
“First day of school, he tracks down the toughest kid in Pulaski High. Football player, a senior. Kid had him by five years and fifty pounds. Eddie tore into him like a wolverine. Got his ass thoroughly kicked. The ballplayer left Eddie on his hands and knees, spitting blood. But the next day, Eddie went at him again, same thing happened. And the day after that. The fourth day, the ballplayer said whoa, enough already. He didn’t want to fight anymore. After that, guys stepped aside when they saw us coming. Nobody wanted to get crossways of Crazy Eddie. And the rest of us were nearly as bad.”
“But all that was just high school, Cass. Kid stuff.”
“You’re right,” I admitted. “And after graduation, we lost touch, the way people do. I made a few phone calls over the years, usually when I was drunk.”
“Gee, you must have run up quite a bill.”
“Touché,” I admitted. “I’ve heard some stories, though. Tall Paul got a basketball scholarship to Michigan State, then jumped to the NBA. When the Detroit Pistons drafted him, his weasel agent stalled the deal, wanting a bigger cut. That night, Eddie was waiting for the guy in the parking garage. The next day the agent signed off. For half of his usual fee.”
“So your friend Eddie’s a gangster?”
“He’s what the system made him.”
“Bull! I grew up in gangland, Novak. I swear most bangers come out of the womb tattooed and packing iron, programmed for combat like pit bulls or wolves. You came through the same system. You’re no thug.”
“I didn’t have to be,” I said simply. “Eddie was tough enough for both of us. He stood up for me. So did Paul and Danno. Like brothers.”
“But they’re not really your brothers, Cass, they were just high school buddies. It’s not the same thing.”
“Not to you. You have a family. All we had was each other. Blood may be thicker than water, Steph, but some bonds are thicker than blood.”
“Maybe you’re right,” she conceded, considering the idea. “For soldiers in a war, I suppose. Or boys like you. Okay, what do you need from me, Cass? How can I help?”
“You already have,” I said, kissing the top of her head, breathing her scent. “I needed to lay this out, so I could see the problem.”
“The bonds that tied us are only real if we still share them. I think one of my buds may be using those ties to play the others.”
“That’s the worst of it. I’m not sure.”
“What are you going to do?”
I kissed her on the lips this time. Which was an answer of sorts.
“You bastard,” she said. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
“Someday, maybe. When I’m sure it won’t make A-bag on the six o’clock news.”
“That’s cold, Cass.”
“It’s a cold world, my lady love. Ask Noreen Burke.”
We talked awhile longer, then Hawk put on her shoes and her WVLT blazer, checked her makeup in my hall mirror and went home. And broke my heart all over again.
Leaving me with two beers and some serious thinking to do.
In the movies, the dogged reporter stays on the trail of the story like Sherlock freakin’ Holmes. But I’m no Sherlock. I’m just a TV cameraman looking for a ticket back to the big time. Morales would fix things at the station if I would butt out. And I knew I should do exactly that.
Unfortunately, my deal with Morales left me with a slew of unanswered questions and one major problem.
To buy my silence, Morales had entrusted me with a secret. Noreen Burke was an undercover cop.
To save my job, I’d agreed to keep that secret. The problem was, I’d known Eddie Mytko a lot longer than I’d known Morales. And if the police had him in their sights, I owed him a heads up.
I only knew Noreen in passing, a friendly neighborhood bartender, quick with a smile and my favorite drink. But learning Noreen was a cop was like finding a Hell’s Angels tattoo very high on your mom’s thigh. You have to revisit all previous impressions.
One. Noreen had been working at Eddie’s roadhouse for awhile. Morales said Eddie wasn’t their primary target, that they were after his shady Canadian connection. Cruz. Was that the truth?
Possibly. If the cops had Eddie under surveillance, they wouldn’t be asking who hit Noreen’s place. They’d already know.
But they didn’t. Morales also said they knew Cruz didn’t kill Noreen, which meant they probably did have a tail on Cruz. But not on Eddie. Which raised a separate problem.
Up till now, I’d assumed my St. Stan’s brothers had told me the truth at the chapel. But as I rethought things, I began to wonder. Morales said they sent an officer to Noreen’s place right after the wreck, but someone had already tossed it.
Eddie said he’d gone there after Danno gave him the word about Noreen.
But I didn’t call the roadhouse until after Hawk and I finished filming at the scene. Figure twenty minutes for our shoot, then however long it took the bartender to pass the message.
It didn’t compute. The only way Eddie could have gotten to her place so soon was to go there directly from the wreck. After running Noreen Burke off the road into that damned culvert. Killing her.
No matter how I chewed over the idea, it kept coming out the same way.
By then it was nearly eight, but there was no rush. Eddie seldom showed at the bar before ten. But before I left my place, I took my .38 from my desk, checked the loads, then stuck it in my jacket pocket. The days of Auld Lang Syne were over.
I drove slowly through Warsaw Heights, scanning it with a cameraman’s eye, wondering if I’d see it again. In the years I’d been gone, a lot of changes had taken place, mostly due to the influx of Arab immigrants who were supplanting the Serbs and Poles of the previous migration. The Heights is half Lebanese now, shop signs have Arabic subtitles, and the clangor of cathedral bells is being drowned by the tinny loudspeaker wail of muezzins calling the faithful to prayer.
The old roadhouse hadn’t changed, though. It had been Woytaszek’s Roadhouse Inn for generations, a local watering hole. The only thing Eddie had changed was the name on the sign.
Inside, the old log building was surprisingly homey: massive dark-pine tables and chairs, checkered tablecloths, and a magnificent old Wurlitzer jukebox from the fifties, thumping out polkas and barrelhouse blues from the same era. There weren’t many customers tonight, mostly flannel shirted shop rats lining the massive oaken bar, bracing themselves to work a midnight shift.
I edged down the corridor to Eddie’s office without being spotted, then stepped inside. I didn’t bother to knock.
He was at his desk, flipping through some paperwork.
“Hey, Cass,” he nodded, still focused on the figures. But he must have sensed something, because when he looked up, he was frowning as he carefully read my face. An unsettling experience.
“What?” he demanded, tossing his pencil aside.
“That’s what I want to know. I’m jammed up with the law because I tried to warn you, Eddie, and you lied to me like a punk. I want the truth now.” I eased the pistol out of my pocket, holding it at my side.
“So you came strapped?” he asked, more annoyed than worried. “You think packing iron makes you a tough guy?”
“I can’t take you in a fair fight and we both know it, Eddie. But I never was much on fighting fair.”
“Jesus, Cass, what the hell is this? How many times did I bail you out in high school?”
“More times than I can count. I owe you, I know that. But I won’t cover up a killing for you, Eddie.”
“You’ve already covered a killing for me, same as I did for you.”
“That was then, Noreen is now. I did the math, Eddie. It doesn’t compute. The cops sent a man to her place as soon as they identified Noreen. You said you went there after Danno called you. But I didn’t tip him off until after we finished our shoot. Not enough time, Eddie. Either the cops are lying, and they had no reason to. Or you are.”
“Why would I?”
“Because Noreen was an undercover cop! And maybe you knew that. So you took her off, then tossed her place. Not to help Paul; you were covering your own ass!”
“Noreen was a cop?” Eddie echoed quietly. “And you know this how?”
“A detective named Morales.”
“I met her once,” Eddie nodded. “Tough broad.”
“Damn it, Eddie, what about Noreen? Did you do her?”
“If I did, why would I tell you? For the good old days? Grow up, Cass. People lie to us every day, from politicians to phone salesmen. Truth’s a rare thing in this life. It doesn’t come free.”
“What are you saying?”
“This thing isn’t just about you and me, it affects all of us. If you want the truth, I’ll give it to you. But not here, and not lookin’ down a gun. Call a meet at St. Stan’s. Tell Paul and Danno to meet us on the roof in an hour.”
“Why the roof?”
“That’s where it started for us. We’ll settle up there.”
“But what if they—”
“They’ll come. You think you’re the only one who remembers what it was like, the four of us? I’ll see you there, midnight. Now get the hell out, I’ve got work to do. And Cass?”
“Yeah?” I paused in the doorway.
“Would you really use that thing on me?”
I didn’t bother to answer.
Eddie was right. They came. Danno was no surprise, he pretty much did whatever Eddie told him, and always had. But I expected Paul to beg off with some excuse. He didn’t though.
All three of them were waiting on the windswept roof when I scrambled off the fire escape. It was wet up there, and slippery, autumn leaves were whipping past on the night wind and the only light was from the streetlamps, four stories below.
And we weren’t standing together anymore. We were squared off, facing each other like fighters. We’d been closer than brothers once, but we were undone now, divided by life and time. And two killings. Twenty years apart.
“Nice you could drop by, Cass,” Paul said acidly. “All right, we’re all here, what is this nonsense?” Paul looked annoyed and disheveled, his blond hair awry, a pajama top showing under his glove leather overcoat.
“Actually, Cass didn’t call this meet,” Eddie said. “I did. We’ve got a serious problem.”
“If you mean Noreen, I thought we settled—”
“Noreen wasn’t a protected witness, Paul; she was a cop. An undercover cop.”
“What?” Paul’s sunlamp tan faded to gray. “Are you sure?”
“Dead certain, Senator, but don’t panic. She wasn’t after you. Leon Cruz was her mark. You were just a fling, a pastime for her, the same as she was for you. The twenty-five grand payoff should have settled things between you. So why didn’t it?”
“What are you talking about? Leon Cruz—”
“Had nothing to do with her death,” Eddie finished. “If he knew Noreen was a cop, I’d be dead too. And if he killed her for the money, why would he leave it behind? Whoever did this didn’t give a damn about the money. Were you that angry about getting blown off?”
“It wasn’t like that,” Danno began—
“Shut your mouth,” Paul snapped. “He can’t prove a thing.”
“Hell, I don’t have to prove anything, Paul,” Eddie said. “We’re just four old buds talking on a roof. Cass here thinks I killed her because I hit her place before I got his message. And he’s half right. Danno did call me before he got Cass’s message. And I can only figure one way he could have known about it that quick.”
Danno swallowed, avoiding Eddie’s eyes.
“Look, I know our little crew was just kid stuff,” Eddie went on, “but we all stood up for each other and nobody ever did that for me before. So. Last chance, Paul. Either you tell me the truth right now, or you’re gonna learn to fly. What the hell happened?”
“Noreen flipped out,” Paul said heavily. “I paid her the twenty-five thou, exactly as I promised. I thought that was the end of it. But she said it was just a down payment. She showed me a DVD, said she had us on video, making love. Said she was going to auction it off to the tabloids.”
“Wow,” Eddie marveled, shaking his head. “What’s that line about pissed-off women, Novak?”
“Hell hath no fury.”
“I guess you skipped that class, Paul. So what did you do?”
“I tried to grab the disk and she pulled a damn gun on me! Then Danno walked in on us and she backed us both up against the wall.”
“I saw them go in the office,” Danno put in. “I figured something was up so I followed, and landed right in the middle of it. Noreen was screaming at Paul, said she was gonna burn Paul, burn us all. Then she bailed out. Paul said we gotta stop her, get that DVD back. So I got my car and went after her.”
“We gotta to stop her,” I echoed. “But you didn’t go with him, did you, Paul?”
Paul hesitated, then shrugged. “No. Get real, Novak, I couldn’t afford to get mixed up in a mess like this.”
“So you sent Danno after her,” Eddie said. “Then mingled with the crowd, did some glad-handing to give yourself an airtight alibi.”
“You son of a bitch,” I said, lunging at him.
“No,” Eddie said, pushing me back. “It was a smart move and Paul always was smart. And Danno was always . . . just Danno. So what the hell went wrong?”
“I swear I never meant to hurt Noreen,” Danno said. “I caught up with her, but she wouldn’t pull over. Instead, she put the hammer down. I just wanted her to stop.” He took a deep breath. “So I bumped her car, tried to force her off the road. But she was going too fast. She lost control and piled up. I stopped to help but . . . she was already gone. So I grabbed the disk and bailed out. I called you to search her place in case there were any more pictures there.”
“Where’s your car now?” Eddie asked.
“In my garage. It’s banged up some. I’ll get it fixed up after things cool out.”
“You stupid bastard!” Paul exploded. “I told you to get rid of it!”
“Cars cost money and Danno’s a working stiff, Senator,” Eddie said. “He doesn’t have a rich wife to buy him a new one.”
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s the tough part,” Eddie nodded. “If Noreen was just another one of Paul’s bimbos, we could wait it out. But with her bein’ a cop?” He shook his head. “The heat will never go away. They’ll keep on this till they burn us all. Hell, maybe we’ve got it comin’. But not for this. There’s only one way. One of us has to go off the roof. Take the fall.”
“It’s Paul’s mess,” I said.
“Damn straight it is,” Eddie agreed.
“Sweet Jesus, guys,” Paul said, shaken, “you can’t be serious.”
“Nothing’s more serious than prison, Senator,” Eddie said, “except maybe dying. But relax, Paul, it can’t be you. We need your juice on the outside, to make things easier for the one who goes in.”
“That’ll be me,” Danno said slowly.
“I’m afraid so, bro,” Eddie said, “You’ll need a cover story to keep the rest of us clear. You were dealin’ dope, Noreen found out, you ran her down to keep from getting busted. With your car banged up, it’ll be open and shut.”
“That story will make it first-degree murder,” I said. “You can’t let him do it—”
“It’s all right, Cass,” Danno smiled wanly. “It’s payback.”
“What are you talking about?”
“All those years ago, you guys came up here to save my young ass. Now it’s my turn to save yours.”
“No, this isn’t right,” I said stubbornly. “It’s not fair.”
“It’s the only way,” Paul said.
“Damn you, Bruske,” I said, turning on him furiously. “This is all your fault—”
“We’re way past whose fault it is,” Eddie said. “Do the math, Cass. One of us goes down, or we all do. There’s nothing to be gained by that. Get out of here, Novak. You too, Paul. Me and Danno will take it from here. We’ll cover your ass, Senator. But once Danno’s inside, you’d better remember who your friends are.”
“Anything you need,” Bruske said, shaking Danno’s hand. “I’ll come through.”
“Damn right you will,” Eddie said, with a wolf’s smile. “If you don’t, you and me will have another meet up here. And after tonight, the old days are over.”
But he was wrong about that.
Two days later, when the story broke about Noreen Burke’s killer giving himself up, it wasn’t Danno’s mug shot staring out from the front page.
It was Eddie.
The media had a field day. Gangster kills undercover cop to avoid drug bust! Crazy Eddie Confesses! Freeway Death Race Ends in Tragedy!
Details at eleven.
Morales and Landis hauled me in for questioning twice, sweated me for hours both times. They wanted damning details that would nail Eddie’s cell door shut forever. I stuck to my story, gave them nothing. Swore I didn’t know a thing.
Which wasn’t far wrong. I had no idea what was going on. But I knew where to look.
I stopped by the roadhouse to see Danno.
“He’s out of town,” the bartender said. “Went to visit his mother. I guess she’s in a bad way.”
Worse than he knew. She died of an overdose when Danno was ten.
Which left only one guy to ask.
The police were surprised that Eddie agreed to see me. He hadn’t spoken to the press since turning himself in.
We met in a drab interrogation room, a steel table in the center, a video cam in the corners, and a two-way observation mirror set in the wall. Eddie was wearing a Day-Glo orange jailhouse jumpsuit and handcuffs. And he was none to happy to see me.
“What are you doing here, Novak?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“More truth?” Eddie smiled thinly. “You’re like a junkie for it, aren’t you? Okay, the truth is, after we met on the roof, I did some hard thinkin’, which is something I don’t do a whole lot. And what I figured was, that Danno put himself in this jam for Paul. But he would have done the same for you, or for me. For any of us. Right?”
“Probably true,” I admitted.
“Know what else is true? Danno wouldn’t last a week in here.”
“That’s it? You’re taking the fall because you can do the time and he can’t?”
“Keep your voice down!” Eddie snapped. “There’s more to it. Danno can run my place while I’m inside and make a lot more money than I would. He’s good with people, I’m not. They like him. They’re afraid of me. And they should be.”
I stared at him, at a very familiar face I’d known for most of my life. And realized I didn’t know him at all.
“What?” he asked, annoyed.
“The D.A. would cut Danno some slack as a first-time offender. You won’t get that kind of a break.”
“Then why, Eddie? What the hell are you doing?”
“I don’t know if this will make sense to you, Novak, but we were tight once. Back at St. Stan’s, when we stood up together . . . That was important to me. It still is. If I let Danno take the fall, well . . . I can’t, that’s all. Paul probably makes twenty friends a day. It’s not so easy for guys like you and me. We got no families, so we have to save our friends. Like blood kin. Know what I’m saying?”
“Blood’s thicker than water,” I said. “But some ties are thicker than blood.”
“What do you need from me, Eddie?”
“Nothing. Stay away from me, Cass. Talking to a reporter could get me killed in here. You want to help, hang with Danno, keep his head screwed on straight. That’s it.”
“Okay then,” he nodded. “Yo! On the gate!” And he rose and stalked out.
He didn’t say good-bye.
Didn’t even look back.
I saw him one last time, on the day of his sentencing. His lawyer cut a pretty good deal, considering he’d given a full confession. The judge gave him fifteen to life in max security. Eddie can shorten his sentence with good behavior. There’s not much chance of that.
I was in the mob of reporters when the marshals marched Eddie out of the courthouse, his overcoat draped over his wrists to conceal the cuffs.
He didn’t see me and I didn’t call out, I was too busy centering his face in my viewfinder. A familiar face, one I knew almost as well as my own.
But centered in the lens, Eddie looked different, somehow. Larger than life. I could see scar tissue around his eyes, a savage gash in his lip. How many of those scars should have been mine? From blows he’d taken for me. For all of us.
Maybe Hawk was right and he was born that way, programmed for combat like a pit bull.
But there are worse ways to be.
His timelines seemed deeper now, and there were shadows of despair and exhaustion in his eyes. Funny, I’d never noticed them before. I’ve got a cameraman’s eye for details.
And an even better memory.
And for a split second, I saw Eddie’s crazy grin at fifteen, the four of us laughing at one of Danno’s dumb wisecracks, and suddenly my eyes were stinging and the lens was fogging up, and Eddie’s battered face vanished into the mist.
I struggled to keep the blurred image centered in the frame as the guards hustled him down the courthouse steps to a waiting sedan.
But at the last instant, Eddie glanced up, meeting my eyes. Grinning, he flipped me the finger, struggling to hold it as the guards muscled him into the car, giving me just enough time to nail the shot.
It’s a brilliant piece of video, Crazy Eddie flipping off the straight world. A perfect match for the headlines: convicted gangster defiant to the end.
You still see it on TV whenever they do stories on organized crime in Detroit.
It was a career-maker of a shot.
I didn’t take it.