I opened my eyes. White ceilings tiles. Bright fluorescent lights. I thought about the hospital, waking up and seeing the doctor looking down at me. “He’s lost a lot of blood,” I heard them say. “We had to leave one of the bullets inside him.”
No. I wasn’t in the hospital. My eyes focused on machines. Stacks of metal plates, gleaming bars. A mirror on the opposite wall.
The basement. I was in the basement. It was filled with every kind of barbell and dumbbell and weight machine. All the fluorescent lights were on above us, so bright it hurt. My back against a wall. My left arm, hanging above my head. I looked up. A handcuff on my left wrist, looped through a D ring bolted to the wall. A hand in the other cuff. Someone else’s hand.
Randy was sitting right next to me. “Hey buddy,” he said. “Welcome back.”
“Randy,” I said. There was blood on my lower lip. I felt with my tongue where the lip has been split open.
“How ya doin’?” he said.
“You don’t look so good.”
“Randy, what the fuck happened?”
“I’m not quite sure,” he said.
I took a deep breath. Okay, I could breathe. I moved my legs. My left knee ached, but I could bend it. I moved my arms, as much as possible with the cuff on. The metal bit into the skin. I had forgotten how much handcuffs hurt when you put them on too tightly. I moved my neck. “God,” I said. “That hurts.”
“You gonna be okay?”
“I think so,” I said. “How about you?” I looked at him. He didn’t have a scratch on him.
“I’m fine,” he said. “They didn’t touch me.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “The big guy, behind the door…”
“He jumped on you,” Randy said. “Leopold just picked up this shotgun and pointed it at my head. I tried to stop the big guy from pounding on you, but Leopold told me he’d shoot both of us.”
“That’s beautiful,” I said. “He picks me to beat up on and throw down the stairs.”
“You were closest to him,” Randy said. “Luck of the draw.”
“Have you figured out why they’re so mad at us?” I rubbed my neck with my free hand.
“No idea,” he said. “He still can’t be that mad at me thirty years later, can he?”
“Well, whatever it is,” I said, “they obviously want us to stick around awhile. Where are they, anyway?”
“They went upstairs. They put these cuffs on us and said something about making ourselves at home.”
“Did you say anything to them? Did you ask them why there were doing this?”
“I did,” he said. “They said I shouldn’t even have to ask.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Does this make any sense to you?”
“There’s gotta be some way out of these, right?” He shook the cuffs.
“Stop doing that,” I said. “It hurts like hell.”
“There’s gotta be some way to pick the lock or something,” he said. “There’s always a way out.”
“These are real handcuffs, Randy. We’re not gonna pick them with the paper clip you happen to have in your pocket. This isn’t a TV show.”
“You used these things when you were a cop, right? You gotta know a way out of them.”
“There is no way,” I said. “Unless… Can we stand up?”
I put my weight against the wall, tried to get my feet underneath me. My knee hurt, the muscles under my right arm, my neck, my head. God, my head. I had to stop halfway up and wait for the pounding to go away.
“This thing is bolted in here pretty good,” he said, giving the D ring a tug. “We need a wrench to get it out. Do you see a wrench anywhere?”
“I’m about to pass out here, Randy.”
“If we see a wrench, maybe if one of us stretches real far…”
I lifted my head. Big mistake. “Oh God,” I said. “This is not good.”
“I don’t see a toolbox, do you?”
“All I see are weights,” I said. “And machines.”
“That must be how that guy got so big,” he said. “Look at all this. He’s got a whole gym down here.”
“Yeah, believe me,” I said. “He hasn’t missed many workouts.”
“That’s what this ring in the wall is for, I bet. Look, there’re a few of them here. It must be some sort of exercise thing.”
“I’m gonna sit back here,” I said. “I really have to sit down.” I rubbed some of the feeling back into my left arm, and then I slid down the wall.
He sat down next to me. We heard voices above us, but we couldn’t make out what they were saying.
“It’s a nice basement,” Randy said.
I let that one go.
“They did a nice job down here. I wonder if they did it themselves.”
“Randy, what the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m just saying it’s a nice place they’ve got here. If you have to get beaten up and thrown into a basement, this is the basement you want to be in.”
“Randy, do you think this is some kind of joke?”
“I’m just trying to keep us psyched up, Alex. We can’t give in to these guys.”
“ ‘We can’t give in to these guys’? Are you really saying that? Are you out of your mind? We’re beyond giving in to these guys, Randy. They’ve got us chained up in their fucking basement and God knows what they’re gonna do to us when they come back down here. We’ve got one chance of getting out of this. We have to convince them that they made a mistake. They did make a mistake, right? They obviously think we’re somebody else. Am I right?”
“We’re just trying to find his sister,” he said. “What else would they think?”
“You tell me,” I said. But before he could answer, we heard footsteps on the stairs.
We saw the legs first, the white of Leopold’s painting overalls, and then the bigger man coming down behind him. It was my first good look at him. He was at least six foot three, and I would have guessed 240 pounds. It was hard to tell. Muscle weighs a lot more than fat, and this guy had plenty. He was wearing baggy gray sweatpants and a white shirt with the collar torn open. The standard bodybuilder’s outfit.
“Gentlemen,” Leopold said. “I trust you’re comfortable.”
“We’d like our check now,” Randy said. I would have jabbed him in the ribs, but it would have hurt me more than him.
“That’s good,” Leopold said. “That’s real good.” He had a dark eyes and a certain Mediterranean intensity about him. But his words came out in a level midwestern accent. The shotgun was tucked under his right arm.
The bigger man sat down on a weight bench. He had the same eyes, the same black hair. This had to be Leopold’s son. He was massaging his wrists. I must have hurt him when I tried that arm lock. Somehow, I didn’t feel too bad for him.
“There’s been a mistake,” I said. “I don’t know who you think we are, but-”
“I know exactly who you are,” Leopold said. He put the shotgun down on another weight bench, then rummaged through the big pockets in his overalls and came out with two wallets. “Let’s see,” he said, opening the first wallet. He held it away from his face and squinted. “Alex McKnight. Says here you’re a private investigator. Prudell-McKnight Investigations. It’s got a nice ring to it, but this business card is kind of second-rate, don’t you think? What’s this, two guns on here? They look like they’re shooting at each other.”
“I’ll tell my partner,” I said.
“Yeah, your partner,” he said. “Where is he, anyway? I assumed this man was your partner.” He looked at Randy as he opened up the other wallet. “But it turns out this is a Mr. Randall Wilkins. From Los Angeles. You came a long way, Mr. Wilkins.”
“I told you,” Randy said. “I just wanted to find your sister.”
“Yeah, about that,” Leopold said. “Tell me a little bit more about why you’d like to find my sister.”
Randy hesitated. “I met her in Detroit,” he said. “A long time ago. In 1971, when I was called up to the Tigers.”
“You were a ballplayer?” Leopold said. “For the Tigers?”
“Yes. I met her when she… When you were all living over on Leverette Street. You don’t remember seeing me with her? We ran into you one day on the street down by the waterfront.”
“In 1971? That’s a long time ago.”
“I just wanted to find her again,” Randy said. “I came back here to Michigan to do that. My friend Alex was helping me.”
“Your friend, the private investigator.”
“He’s a private investigator, yes,” Randy said. “But mostly, he’s just a good guy helping out an old teammate. We used to play ball together.”
Leopold looked at me. “You were a Detroit Tiger, too, I suppose?”
“No,” I said. “I never got called up.”
“That’s a shame,” he said. “Isn’t that a shame, Anthony?”
“A real shame,” Anthony said. These were the first words he had spoken.
“Anthony,” Randy said. “You’re Leopold’s son?”
“I am,” he said.
“And Delilah? Is she your sister, or is she-”
Leopold took a step toward us. His eyes darkened. “Do not speak her name again,” he said. “Isn’t it enough that you come here and terrorize her? That you grill her with questions about-”
“About her mother,” Randy said. “She’s Maria’s daughter, isn’t she.”
Leopold turned away from us. He went through a pile of weights and gloves and belts and finally pulled out a dumbbell. It was about eighteen inches long. As he held it up, the polished metal gleamed.
He stopped himself. He closed his eyes for a moment. And then he stood and came back to us-slowly-the bar hanging in his right hand.
“He sent you,” he said. “Didn’t he.”
“Who?” I said.
“You know who.”
“We don’t,” I said. “Randy is looking for Maria. Like he told you. He hasn’t seen her in thirty years.”
“It’s true,” Randy said. “I just wanted to-”
“Is that the best you can do?” Leopold said. “Baseball players from thirty years ago? Let me guess. You both wanted to say you played in the major leagues, but you figured that would sound too far-fetched. So you drew straws, right?” The bar began to sway in his hand. He was slowly twirling it like a baton.
“You’re making a mistake,” I said.
“Where is he?” Leopold said. “Where is he right now?”
“We don’t know who you’re talking about,” I said.
“In Los Angeles?” Leopold said. “Is that where he is right now? He sent you out here to find her. And you hired this guy to help you.”
“No,” Randy said. “It’s like we told you.”
“How long have you been watching our house?” Leopold said. “How long have you been sitting out there on the street watching us?”
“No,” I said. “We haven’t.”
“Leopold,” Randy said. “We’re telling you the truth.”
“First, it was a white Cadillac,” Leopold said. He twirled the bar a little faster. “A big white Cadillac sitting out there on the street. How stupid do you think we are, anyway? You think we’re not going to notice a big white Cadillac?”
“That wasn’t us,” I said. “We just found you today.”
“This thing weighs five pounds,” Leopold said. He dropped the bar into his other hand. “It’ll break right through the bone if I hit you with it. Whatever he’s paying you, you know it’s not worth having every bone in your body broken. You guys gotta realize that. I’ll do it if I have to. I don’t want to, but I’m a desperate man. We’ve been playing this game with Har-wood for too long. It’s time to make a stand.”
“For the love of God,” I said. “He didn’t send us. Whoever he is. Harwood, you said? Is that his name?”
He shook his head. “Don’t make me do this,” he said. “I am not a violent man.”
He raised the bar over his head. It looked like I would be first. I tensed my body, ready to move. But he was looking at my left arm. With the handcuffs, there was no way I could avoid it. I picked a spot on his leg, just below the knee. One more step and he’d be close enough for me to kick him there.
He dropped the bar. It hit the carpet with a soft thud.
“I got a better idea,” he said.
I shook my head. “You’re making a mistake.”
He went back and picked up the shotgun. “Who gets it first?”
Neither of us said a word. It was a classic breach-action shotgun, with the two big barrels. It was the kind of gun that makes you nervous just being in the same room with it.
“How about you?” he said, pointing the gun at Randy. “Where do you want it?”
“Don’t shoot him,” I said.
He pointed the gun at me instead. “I thought you were just the hired muscle here. How much is this guy paying you?”
“He’s not paying me anything,” I said. “He’s telling you the truth.”
“Have you ever seen what this kind of gun can do to a person?”
“Yes,” I said. “I was a police officer.”
“If I put this gun against your left knee and pulled the trigger, how much knee would you have left?”
I didn’t say anything. I kept looking at those two barrels. Very slowly, he lowered them to my knee.
“I think we could safely say that your left knee would be more or less completely eliminated. Don’t you agree?”
I closed my eyes. I waited for the blast.
The voice came from upstairs. I opened my eyes.
“Leopold! What are you doing down there?”
“My God,” he said. “Anthony, go see what your grandmother’s doing.”
Anthony sprang off the weight bench and started up the stairs. He got about halfway up, it sounded like, before he stopped. “Grandma, what are you doing?”
“Get out of our way,” she said. “We’re coming down.”
“You can’t come down here,” he said.
“Like hell I can’t! Now move out of the way! And put some real clothes on!”
Anthony came down the stairs backward, his hands raised in helplessness. Leopold just stood there for a moment, listening as one stair creaked above us, then another. Whoever was coming down was doing it slowly. When he finally pulled the gun away and started up the stairs himself, he didn’t get further than the first three steps.
“Leopold! Who do you have down there?”
“Mama, go back upstairs! Delilah, take your grandmother back upstairs!”
“She’ll do no such thing! What are you doing with that gun? What’s going on down here?”
“Mama, please! I’m begging you! You shouldn’t be up!”
“You’re destroying the house! Did you see the living room? What in the name of Mary and Joseph is wrong with you? You’re making enough noise to wake the dead.”
“Mama, I order you to go back upstairs right now!”
He stood there frozen. We heard the creak of two more steps, then the woman’s voice, softer now. “Leopold, dear, get out of our way.”
He stepped back. The woman took the final two steps, holding on to Delilah. She had to be ninety years old. Her white hair was tied back, a single strand hanging over her face. She kept holding on to her granddaughter, even after they had cleared the stairway. She had brought the sharp smell of menthol down into the basement with her.
“Who are these men?” she said.
“Harwood sent them,” Leopold said. “They’re looking for Maria.”
“Is that true?” she said to us.
“It’s true we’re looking for Maria,” Randy said. “You’re Madame Valeska. I remember you.”
“But we don’t know this man Harwood,” I said.
“They’re lying,” Leopold said.
“Let me look at them,” she said.
“Don’t go near them,” he said.
Delilah kept in step with her grandmother as they came toward us. Delilah looked scared of us, but the old woman’s face was calm. Leopold stood behind them, biting his lower lip. Anthony had picked up the dumbbell, and now he stood holding it as if he would throw it at us if we so much as blinked.
The woman stopped in front of Randy and looked down at him. “I know your face,” she said.
“My name is Randy Wilkins.”
“Names, I don’t remember. Your face, I remember.”
“I came to you in 1971,” he said. “To have my fortune told.”
“You…” she said. She looked at him for a long time. “You were one of the baseball players. You’re the one who came back.”
“A few times, yes.”
She moved over a couple steps and looked at me. “You I don’t know.”
“No,” I said. “We haven’t met.”
“He’s my friend,” Randy said.
She came a step closer, close enough to touch my face. “Who did this to you? Did my son do this to you?”
“I did,” Anthony said. “But not the eye. His eye was already swollen when he got here.”
“Not the eye, he says. Everything but the eye. My grandson would make a good lawyer if he didn’t dress in his pajamas all the time.” She gave me a little wink.
“Mama, you don’t understand,” Leopold said.
“Let these men go,” she said.
“Mama, we can’t let them find Maria.”
“Who says we’re going to? Maria is safe. You know that. Now bring them upstairs so we can give them some tea.”
Five minutes later, I was sitting at the dining room table, across from the same men who had thrown me down the stairs and had threatened to blow away a piece of my body. I couldn’t stop the adrenaline. My hands were still shaking. Randy sat next to me, and for once, all of the charm and the jokes and the genius for making people like him were turned off. Madame Valeska sat at the head of the table, watching us with her dark, careful eyes. There was a thin tube running under Madame Valeska’s nose and down to a tank of oxygen on the floor. The soft hissing of the tank filled the silence.
Randy finally spoke up, giving Madame Valeska the quick version of why he was there, minus the details about how intimate he had become with her daughter. He said it like a teenager explaining himself to his parents, while Madame Valeska watched his face, without so much as nodding her head. Delilah stood behind her, gently rubbing her grandmother’s shoulders. When Randy was done talking, he sat back in his chair, his hands in his lap.
“That is quite a story,” she said. “That you would think of my daughter after all these years and try to find her. It would be romantic if it wasn’t so foolish. So much has happened since that time. Surely you don’t expect to find the same person.”
“No, of course not,” he said. “I know that.”
“So you say, and yet the image you have in your mind is of Maria as a young girl, with her whole life in front of her. This business with Harwood, it has changed Maria a great deal. He is evil, that man. He is a demon. He killed her husband, you know.”
She reached up and touched one of Delilah’s hands. “Delilah was born six months after Arthur’s death,” she said. “She never even got to meet her own father.”
Delilah stared at us. She didn’t say a word.
“Maria has endured so much sadness,” Madame Valeska said. “Beauty is a great burden, you must understand. The gods punish you for it. And those around you. Even you, Mr. Wilkins. Thirty years later, you come all this way just to see her again. And you, Mr. McKnight, you helped him do this?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You are a true friend,” she said. “And this is the reward you get. Are you badly hurt?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said.
“I think you are in more pain than you will allow us to see,” she said. “If you were to call the police right now, I wouldn’t blame you.”
“I’m not calling the police,” I said.
“My son and grandson owe you more than an apology,” she said. “But under the circumstances, I hope an apology will be enough. My daughter’s experience with this man has touched all of us. Perhaps it has made us a little deranged. Especially the men. You know how men are.” She looked at Leopold and Anthony. They didn’t look back at her. “My husband, Gregor. I believe it killed him, too. Another man Maria has lost. He could not sleep at night, thinking about Harwood.”
She stopped talking for a moment. The room was silent.
“In any case,” she said. “Maria is far away from here. It is hard for her to be away from her daughter.” She stroked Delilah’s hand again. “But this is the best way for now. Delilah will finish school here, and then perhaps in time things will be different.”
“Is that why you changed your name?” I said. “Valeska. Valenescu. Today, Delilah told us her last name was Muller.”
“It is easy to change your name in America,” she said. “A name on a mailbox doesn’t mean much anyway. Your real name stays in your heart. We know who we are.”
“Who is this man Harwood?” I said. “Maybe we can help.”
“That you would even say that after what has happened to you in this house,” she said. “You are very kind. But he is our demon. He is not yours.”
“You’re not going to tell us where Maria is,” Randy said.
“I cannot,” she said.
“I understand,” he said. “Can you at least tell her that I was here?”
“I will tell her.”
“I don’t know what else to say,” Randy said.
“I believe that’s all there is,” she said.
And she was right. We left the place soon afterward. There was an uneasy peace between the men, Randy and I trying to forgive Leopold and Anthony for what they had done to us, or at least to understand their state of mind. And Leopold and Anthony trying to believe that we really weren’t connected to this demon named Harwood, that our motives were innocent, if not sensible. I got the feeling that neither of them was completely convinced. The light rain had started again, the same light rain from the morning, which now seemed like a year ago.
I drove us to the first bar I could find. We both had a couple quick shots, without saying a word to each other.
“That was interesting,” he finally said. “Wouldn’t you say?”
“Interesting is one word for it.”
“What now?” I said.
“You feel like taking me to the airport?”
It was another hour’s drive to Detroit Metro, avoiding the freeway. Randy looked out the window the whole time. I kept turning the wipers on and off as the rain stopped and then began again.
When we were at the terminal, I pulled into the loading zone and stopped the truck. “Do you know the schedule?” I said. “When’s the next flight?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I’ll go see.”
“You want me to go in there with you?”
“No, that’s okay,” he said.
“It might be a long wait.”
“You should get home,” he said.
“I’m in no rush.”
“Alex, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I got you involved in this.”
“Don’t be sorry.”
“How bad did they hurt you? Are you gonna be okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ve been beat up worse before, believe me.”
“I’m gonna pay you,” he said. He pulled out his roll. “I’m gonna give you… let’s see…”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “You’re not giving me anything.”
“Come on, for everything you did.”
“If you want to send Leon more money, send it to him. Me, I was just helping out my old pitcher.”
“Gas money,” he said. “Let me give you gas money. And meal money.”
“One hundred bucks,” I said. “That’s it.”
He flipped off five twenties. ‘Terry’s got a ball game today,” he said, the spark finally coming back to him. “They’re playing UCLA. Did I mention he’s a catcher?”
“You mentioned it.”
“He’s gonna be a good one.”
“Tell him hello for me,” I said. “Tell him to watch out for left-handers.”
“You think Maria’s family will really tell her I was there?”
“I think so,” I said.
“Nothing’s gonna come of it, I don’t think.”
“Probably not,” I said. “It sounds like she’s got a lot of other things to worry about. You never know. Maybe someday. Hell, you know where her family lives now. Maybe you’ll come back.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I think this was my one shot at it. Just like my one shot at the big leagues. Another spectacular failure.”
I left him on that note. I said good-bye and watched him walk into the terminal. And then I started for home.
I settled in for the six-hour drive. I knew it would be well after dark by the time I got there, but I wanted to be in my own bed when I woke up the next morning. That would be the worst day, I knew. My knee would be swollen, my wrist would burn where the handcuff had been, every muscle in my neck would feel as tight as piano wire, and my head would hurt more than the rest of my body put together. But at least I’d be home with my aspirin and my hot-water bottle and my Canadian beer.
I stopped outside of Saginaw for dinner, my body already stiff after two hours of driving. It got colder and colder as I drove north, as if I were driving backward in time, from spring back to winter. When I hit the Mackinac Bridge, the temperature was below freezing. Another hour of driving in the Upper Peninsula, the snow still on the ground, and then finally I was home. I went inside my cabin, lighted the wood-stove, and fell into my bed.
After one bad day, just as bad as I thought it would be, although nothing I hadn’t lived through before, and then another night, I started to feel like myself again. I went to see Leon, still confined to his bed. I told him everything that had happened, the situation we had stumbled into. He wanted to jump right onto that one, call up Maria’s family and find out more about this man named Harwood. “Private eyes solve problems, Alex! Let’s help these people!”
I told him I wished we could. But I knew they wouldn’t accept our help.
Then I dropped in at the Glasgow, answered all Jackie’s questions. No, we didn’t find her. Yes, I did get beat up. Yes, you were right. You told me something like this would happen again. And so on into the afternoon and evening. Another April day in Paradise, sitting in front of the fire. And yet it felt different somehow, without Randy’s running commentary in my ears. A couple days with him and then everything was suddenly too quiet.
Then the phone call. In the middle of the night. A cold, raw night, with me stumbling for the phone and standing on the rough wooden floor, listening to a voice from far away.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“I called your partner first. He told me to call you.”
“Who is this?”
“You know a Randall Wilkins?”
“Yes, I do. Who is this?”
“My name is Howard Rudiger. I’m the chief of police in Orcus Beach.”
“I don’t know where that is.”
“Well, right now, I’m at the Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. You know where Grand Rapids is?”
“Yes. Wait. You’re at a hospital?”
“Butterworth Hospital,” he said. “Or that’s the old name, I guess. It’s called Spectrum Health or some damned thing now. It’s right on Michigan Street downtown. Your friend Mr. Wilkins is here.”
“In Michigan? Randy’s in Michigan? I don’t understand.”
“I’ll explain it when you get here, sir. It’ll take you what-about four, five hours to get here? I’ll see you here at ten.”
“Just tell me what happened,” I said. “How bad is it?”
“It’s bad,” he said. “Mr. Wilkins was found about six hours ago. He was shot, and he’s lost a lot of blood. We brought him here because it’s the main trauma center for western Michigan. The doctor says he’s in some kind of hemorrhage shock right now.”
“He was shot,” I said. “Randy was… Who did this? What happened?”
“We don’t know at this point,” he said. “We have no witnesses, and of course Mr. Wilkins can’t tell us anything. I should probably tell you there’s a good chance he’s not going to live.”
“My God. I can’t believe it.”
“I’ll see you at ten, Mr. McKnight. I’ll have some questions.”
“What are you talking about? What kind of questions?”
“Just be here,” he said. And then he hung up.