We didn’t get up quite as early as we had planned the next morning. But then we hadn’t planned on staying so late at the Lindell AC. My head was throbbing when I got up, and it didn’t look like Randy was feeling any better. The one thing I had going for me was the fact that I had refused to try his stupid slinky. So at least I wouldn’t be tasting vodka and root beer all day.
And whatever had happened between us the previous night, that was done and gone. Like when you have a rough game one night and you forget all about it before the game on the very next day.
After a couple hot showers and some aspirin, we were new men. We headed out into another Michigan April day, with gray clouds and a cold wind whipping down Michigan Avenue. We went east to Woodward, then north toward the library. We stopped at a flower shop and Randy went in to pick out something nice for the lady at the library who had been so helpful to Leon. Randy came back out with enough flowers for a wedding reception.
“First-class all the way,” he said. I just shook my head and kept driving. A few blocks later, we parked in front of the Detroit Public Library. It was a massive building of stone, the same shade of gray as the sky. When we walked into the main lobby and asked about the Burton Historical Collection, we were sent to the opposite side of the building, where the doors opened onto Cass Avenue, on either side of a huge globe. We took a right and found the room. The collection itself, mostly reference material from an entire century, was stored in bookshelves both here on the ground floor and above, on a balcony that ran along three of the walls. The fourth wall was all windows. Across the street, we could see the Detroit Institute of the Arts. There were flags advertising a van Gogh exhibit. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered reading that van Gogh was left-handed. Another crazy southpaw.
We found the librarian who had worked with Leon over the phone. She was a trim black woman in her fifties, with the eyeglasses and the hair in the bun that all librarians are required to have. But there was a sparkle in her eye that said something a little different. Randy buried the poor woman in the flowers before I could even tell her who we were.
When she had jungle-chopped her way out of the flowers, I introduced ourselves and gave her Leon’s warmest regards.
“Such a nice gentleman he was,” she said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have been more helpful.”
“Nonsense,” I said. “You gave him a lot of information.”
“Yes, but I promised I’d keep thinking about it,” she said. “I took it as rather a personal challenge. Finding someone you haven’t seen in thirty years. And with such a rare last name like Valeska, I was sure I’d be able to find something. I’m afraid the only other option I have left is to go through the old newspapers to find a birth announcement. As Mr. Prudell and I were discussing, if we had the parents’ names we’d have a good chance of finding some immigration records.”
“We tried to find her birth certificate,” Randy said.
She laughed at that one. “Not in this state,” she said. “You wasted your time.”
A few minutes later, we were both sitting in the microfilm room, looking through all of the birth announcements from September 1951 to October 1952. If she was nineteen in September of 1971, we figured her birth would have to be in there somewhere. I took the Detroit News and Randy took the Detroit Free Press.
A couple hours later, we both emerged, blinking like mole rats, into the light of day. We had found nothing.
We went back to the desk to thank the woman. She had found half a dozen vases from somewhere and was busy subdividing Randy’s flowers.
“I’ll keep thinking about it, boys,” she said. “A good reference librarian doesn’t sleep until she finds what she’s looking for.”
On our way out to lunch, I gave Leon a call. I didn’t have much to tell him, but I was sure he was sitting there in the Upper Peninsula, wondering what we were doing.
“Mr. Shannon hasn’t lived in the house for long,” I told him. “And he didn’t have any leads going back more than a couple years. We’re going to go try the rest of the neighborhood after lunch.”
“You guys must be having a great time,” he said. “Working the leads, trying to pick up a trail that’s thirty years old. God, I wish I was down there with you.”
“It’s a thrill a minute,” I said. “We just got done looking at a year’s worth of old newspapers, and now we get to go knock on strangers’ doors and ask them if they remember a fortune-teller and her family from 1971.”
“That’s what a private investigator does, Alex. He digs in the dirt until he finds the bone.”
“That’s beautiful, Leon. I’m gonna write that down.”
“Go get it, partner,” he said. “Go find that bone.”
With those inspirational words ringing in my ears, I was ready to face the rest of the day. “Come on, Randy,” I said. “Let’s go get dirty.”
We grabbed a quick lunch at a little restaurant down the street, then headed back to Leverette Street, parking the truck against the curb, right in the middle of the block. “How do you wanna do this?” I said. “You wanna split up or stay together?”
“Let’s split up,” he said. “I want this side.” He pointed out at the side where Maria had lived. “For old time’ sake.”
“Good enough,” I said. “Don’t bother hitting that house next door.”
“That lady who thought you were trying to solve the case of the missing staircase? I thought she was great.”
“Fine,” I said. “You go have tea with her. I’m gonna go do this and try not to think about how stupid I sound. If somebody asked me if I remembered a fortune-teller who used to live across the street thirty years ago, I’d slam the door in his face.”
“Alex, you live in a cabin in the middle of the woods.”
“You do this on purpose, don’t you?” I said. “Just go.”
I went down to the end of the block and knocked on the first door. A black teenager answered. He had headphones on. I started talking. When I got to the first question, he just stood there looking at me. Then he took the headphones off. I started at the beginning again.
“I’m looking for someone who used to live on this block in 1971,” I said. “I know you weren’t even born yet, but is there anyone else living here who might have been around then?”
“We just moved here,” he said. “Last year.”
“Is one of your parents around? Can I ask them if they remember who lived here before you?”
“Nobody else here,” he said. “They all gone until Monday.”
“Okay,” I said. “Can I leave a card?”
“Sure,” he said. He took the card from me and looked at it. “You’re a private investigator, it says?”
“Sort of,” I said.
“Do you carry a gun?”
“You’ve got two guns here on the card.”
“That wasn’t my idea,” I said. “Look, I’ll let you get ready for the party. I appreciate your time.”
“Party?” he said. “What party?”
“You said your family’s gone until Monday. A teenager alone in the house, I figure the party’s gotta start at sundown, right?”
“Oh man,” he said. “Is that what this is about? My mom’s sending around a private investigator to see if I’m having a party when she’s gone?”
“No,” I said. “Please. I’m just looking for somebody. I swear.”
By the time I left there, he still wasn’t convinced. Which would probably ruin his party, because he’d be expecting me to spy on the place. So having spoiled one person’s day, I went on to the next house.
This time, I got an older black man, and felt better about my chances. He certainly looked old enough to have been around in 1971. But it turned out he had just moved there in 1994. And he didn’t remember who had lived there before him. I thanked him and moved on, and by the time I got done with the next house, I was beginning to see a trend. Everybody was new to the neighborhood. Within the last ten years at least. Nobody had any ties to the place before 1990.
When I got through my entire side of the block, I walked back to the truck and waited for Randy. He took a lot longer to do his side, because of course he’s gotta stand there and talk about the weather and the tattoo on his arm and the Detroit Tigers, and for all I knew, he’d tell every last person the story of his one inning in Tiger Stadium.
I looked up and down his side of the block, but I couldn’t see him. He’s probably inside one of the houses, I thought, having a cold beer with somebody. I could have gone and found him, and helped him finish up his houses. But my eyes were still hurting from looking at all the microfilm. I sat in the truck and waited for him. And eventually, I started to doze off. He scared the hell out of me when he came back and knocked on my window.
“What the hell took you so long?” I said when he got in. “You didn’t have to get everybody’s life stories.”
“We got talking,” he said. “There’s a lot of nice people in this neighborhood.”
“Did you find out anything?”
“About Maria, you mean?”
“Randy, don’t make me hurt you.”
“No, Alex. I didn’t find out anything. Nobody’s been around here for very long. How about you?”
“Same story,” I said. “Although I did prevent a teenager from having a party and trashing his house.”
“I didn’t stop at Maria’s old house. You know, Mr. Shannon’s place. And there was one house a couple doors down where nobody was home…”
“Mr. Shannon wanted us to stop and say hello,” I said. I looked at my watch. “He said he’d be home after three. You wanna go see him now?”
“Sure,” he said. “We’ll see if we can go upstairs. I’ll show you where it all happened.”
“Somehow, I don’t think it looks quite the same now,” I said.
“Yeah, but I bet you’ll feel it. You know, the raw power in the place. I bet Mr. Shannon feels it all the time. He’s walking around up there, you know, maybe putting all his laundry into his basket or something, and he stops in the middle of the room, and he says to himself, ‘Damn, I always get the strangest feeling in this room. Like something wonderful and amazing happened here once.’ ”
“I’ll let you ask him about that one,” I said. “Come on, let’s go.”
As we got out, a car passed us on the street and turned into a driveway.
“Hey, that’s the house where nobody was home,” Randy said.
The car stopped in the middle of the driveway. A man got out of the car and slammed the door.
“He doesn’t look like he’s in the mood to talk right now,” I said. But Randy was already jogging down the sidewalk toward him.
“Excuse me, sir!” he yelled to the man.
The man was on his front porch when he turned around to look at us. He didn’t say anything.
“Can I ask you something real quick?” Randy said.
The man folded his arms in front of him.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Randy said, stopping in the man’s driveway. I finally caught up to him.
“What do you guys want?” the man said. “I’m not buying anything, so don’t waste your time.”
“We just want to ask you something,” Randy said. “Did you live here in 1971?”
“What kind of question is that?” the man said. “How’s it your business to know where I lived and when?”
“We’re looking for somebody who used to live down the street,” Randy said. “We thought you might remember her. If you lived here then, I mean. If you didn’t, then just say so and we’ll be on our way.”
“Be on your way, then,” the man said. “I didn’t live here in 1971. I probably wouldn’t have been allowed to walk down this street in 1971.”
“Fine,” Randy said. “We’re sorry to bother you. Have a good day.”
Randy turned to go. I looked at the man one more time, and then I followed Randy.
“Hold it, guys,” the man said. He came down the steps after us.
We both stopped on the sidewalk.
“Look, I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve had a bad day. I guess I don’t need to take it out on you.”
“It’s all right,” Randy said.
“Seriously, I’ve only lived here since 1993,” the man said. “I can’t help you with 1971. Although…”
“The couple I bought this place from. I remember them pretty well. They were pretty old, the last white couple on the block, I think. The wife, she didn’t want to move, but the husband, well, I think they had been fighting about it for a long time. All during the closing, in fact, I thought they’d go over the table at each other.”
“Do you have any idea where they might be now?” I said.
“They said they were moving to an apartment over in Westland. One of those assisted-living places. Kind of like half a nursing home, you know what I mean? God, Mrs. Meisner just hated the thought of going there; you could tell.”
“That was their name, Meisner?”
“Fred and Muriel Meisner,” he said. “Imagine having to get married and change your name to Muriel Meisner.”
“You don’t remember where this place was they moved to?”
“No, but I’m sure it was Westland. I remember saying to myself, ‘Look out, Westland. You don’t know what’s about to hit you.’ If you ever meet them, you’ll know what I mean.”
We thanked the man, then walked down to Mr. Shannon’s house and knocked on his door. When he opened it, we made our introductions and answered his questions. Yes, I was a real private investigator. No, I didn’t carry a gun. Randy? No, he wasn’t a private investigator, but he had pitched for the Tigers. While Mr. Shannon settled down to hear the story, I asked if I could use his phone book. And his phone.
I looked under “Assisted Living” in the Yellow Pages. It said “See Nursing Homes,” so I did. There were two listed in Westland; Azelia Park and Peach Tree Senior Community. I tried Azelia Park first, asking if I could speak to the Meisners. They didn’t live there. I tried asking if there had been any Meisners living there in the past few years, but the woman wouldn’t go for that one. I was starting to get tired of people who wouldn’t give me information just because they didn’t want to.
I called Peach Tree Senior Community and asked for the Meisners. Three seconds later, my call was transferred. Six rings later, a man’s voice answered.
“Mr. Meisner? Mr. Fred Meisner?”
“Speaking! Who is this?”
“My name is Alex McKnight. I’m a private investigator.”
“A private what? Muriel, for the love of God, will you turn that thing off!”
“A private investigator, sir. I wonder if you could help me. I’m looking for-”
“Muriel, did you hear me? Am I just talking to myself now?”
“Excuse me, what did you say you were?”
“A private investigator, sir.”
“Muriel, in the name of all that is holy, will you please turn that stupid thing off for one second! I have a man on the phone here! Can you see me standing here with the phone next to my head? Do you think I’m doing this just because I like the way it feels against my ear?”
“Sir, maybe we could just stop by. Would that be more convenient for you? I see you’re on Cherry Hill.”
“No, it’s Peach Tree! It’s the Peach Tree place! Not cherries!”
“I know, but it’s on Cherry Hill Road, isn’t it? I see it in the phone book here.”
“The Peach Tree Senior Community! It’s quite a place! Muriel, do you want me to drop dead right now? I swear to God, if you don’t turn that thing off, I’m going to have a massive stroke right in front of your eyes! Is that what you want?”
“Mr. Meisner! We’ll be there in twenty minutes!”
“You’re coming over here? Do you know how to get here? It’s on Cherry Hill Road!”
“We’ll see you in twenty minutes! Good-bye!”
I hung up the phone. When I went to look for Randy and Mr. Shannon, they were nowhere to be found. And then a voice floated down from upstairs. “We’re up here, Alex!”
I went up the stairs and found them standing in the guest bedroom.
“This is it, Alex. This is the room where I first met Maria. Tell me the truth, Mr. Shannon, do you ever get a strange feeling when you’re in this room?”
“How about right now?” he said.
“Randy, we gotta go,” I said. “I found the Meisners. They’re expecting us.”
“You found them?” he said. “The people who used to live right down the street?”
“Her old neighbors. They’ll remember her. How could they not remember her? And her whole family.”
“We’ll see,” I said.
Randy grabbed me and hugged me. He picked me up in a bear hug and spun me around Mr. Shannon’s guest room. He put me down and went for Mr. Shannon, but the look of sheer terror on the man’s face stopped him.
We thanked the man and left. What he must have thought of us by then, I couldn’t even imagine.
As soon as we were out of there and in the truck, he started singing the song again. “L’amour, l’amour… Oui, son ardeur…”
“Randy, either learn the rest of the words or stop singing that.”
“We’re getting closer, aren’t we.” he said. “I’ve got a good feeling about this.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but he was right about us getting closer. That good feeling, however, would be long gone before the day was over.