CHAPTER 11

It was still dark when I left. It was dark and it was cold, and instead of being in my bed, I was awake somehow, unshaven and unshowered, my stomach burning as I drove south down 1-75 to the Mackinac Bridge. I kept catching myself driving too fast, pushing the truck until it went into its death rattle at eighty miles an hour. Then I’d let out my breath and tell myself to slow down and watch where the hell I was going, stop thinking about it, stop asking myself why he was lying half-dead in a Michigan hospital instead of being on a beach in California.

I stopped for gas just south of Mackinac. I stood there shivering as a wind came in hard off Lake Michigan. The sun was just coming up.

Before I left the station, I grabbed a coffee and unfolded my map across the steering wheel. Taking 1-75 down to Grayling, then a little jog over to U.S.-131, and I’d be in Grand Rapids by ten o’clock.

Orcus Beach, he’d said. I tried to find it on the map. It wasn’t there. I turned the map over and went through the index. No Orcus Beach.

I hit the road again as the sky started to lighten. When I got off 1-75, the little jog I thought I had to make turned into a slow parade through the woods behind a flatbed truck carrying a mobile home. A couple cars tried to pass it, but the truck was swinging all over the place whenever the wind picked up. By the time we got to U.S.-131, I had lost a good half hour.

It was ten o’clock when I hit the Grand Rapids city limits. It took another twenty minutes to get to the hospital on Michigan Street. Whoever this Chief Rudiger was, if he was like most other police chiefs I’d known, he didn’t like people being late. So I was already off to a great start with the man.

From a couple miles away, I saw the big sign in green neon letters, SPECTRUM HEALTH. When I finally got there, I followed the signs and drove up the ramp, parked on the top level, walked down the stairs and then through a long tunnel enclosed in tinted glass until I came to a lobby. There were a couple people sitting on the blue plastic chairs, watching a television mounted high on the wall. There was a little reception desk, with a guard sitting in front of a clipboard. He might have been twenty-one years old, maybe not. I would have carded him if he were buying liquor.

“I’m looking for Chief Rudiger,” I said to the kid.

“He went to get some coffee,” he said. “He told me to have you wait in room one nineteen. Just down the hall to the left.”

“Can you tell me what room Randy Wilkins is in?”

“The chief said you need to wait for him, sir. Room one nineteen, down the hall on the left.” He tried to put a hard edge in his voice, like he had on a real badge instead of a tin security guard’s shield.

“Look,” I said, “I’ve got a friend here. I need to see him. He’s gotta be in the Intensive Care Unit. Can you tell me where that is?”

“You need to wait in room one nineteen,” he said.

“Down the hall to the left. I got it.”

“Would you like me to escort you there, sir?”

“I’ll manage,” I said. “Don’t leave your post.”

I went down the hall and poked my head in room 119. A table, more blue plastic chairs. A little sink with a coffeemaker next to it. A basket with packets of sugar and artificial sweeteners, a box of that non-dairy creamer stuff. Everything you need to make coffee except the coffee itself. Which is why my man was out looking for it instead of sitting here, waiting for me. Brilliant detective work on my part.

I looked back down the hall at the security guy. He was watching me. I gave him a little wave and kept walking, right into an open elevator.

The elevator had a list on the wall. Surgical ICU, Fifth Floor. That sounded like the right place. I hit five. As the doors closed, I heard the security man yell, “Hey!” and then a couple other things I couldn’t make out.

When the door opened, I followed the arrows to Intensive Care and opened the double doors. A nurse looked up at me, a telephone pressed to her ear. She raised her hand at me and held it there while she kept listening to someone on the other end. I stood in front of her desk, looking around the place. There were two hallways forming an ell, with the nurse’s station at the intersection. Most of the doors were closed in either direction, with gurneys and IV stands littering the hallways.

Then I saw a man in a uniform sitting in a chair outside one of the rooms, halfway down the hall to my right. He was looking straight ahead at nothing, his hands folded in his lap.

I heard the nurse making some kind of noise behind me as I went down the hall. I wasn’t listening. As I got closer to the man, I saw that he was a Kent County deputy.

He looked at me for a long moment. “Can I help you, sir?” he finally said.

“Who’s in that room?” I said.

“Who’s asking?”

“I’m a friend,” I said. I knew Randy was in there. In my gut, I knew he was in that room.

The deputy stood up. “Nobody is allowed in this room,” he said.

“Do you know Chief Rudiger? I’m supposed to meet him here.”

“He’s not going to be happy that you came up here.”

“Just let me see him,” I said. “One minute.”

“Nobody goes in this room,” the deputy said.

As if to prove him wrong, the door opened and a doctor stepped out. While the door was open, I got a quick look inside. One bed, a man with bandages all over his neck. A tube in his mouth. It was Randy.

“Doctor,” I said. “That’s my friend. What’s happening?”

“You know this man?” the doctor said. He was wearing green scrubs, a stethoscope hanging from his neck. “Can you tell me anything about him?”

“He can’t go in there,” the deputy said.

The doctor looked at him and back at me. “Do you know anything about his medical history? We can’t get anything from his family.”

“I don’t think anybody’s even supposed to know who’s in here,” the deputy said.

“Too late,” the doctor said. “If you’ll excuse us.” He took me by the arm and led me down the hall a few yards. The deputy looked unhappy for a moment and then just sat back down on the chair.

“Why is there a county man outside his door?” I said. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know anything about that,” he said. “I’m just trying to keep him alive. Do you know if he has any drug allergies?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not going to be of much help to you. Until a few days ago, I hadn’t even seen him for nearly thirty years. Wait a minute-what did you say about his family? Why can’t you get the information from them?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t get through to anybody.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

The doctor shook his head. “He came in yesterday afternoon with a gunshot wound to the neck. He lost about forty percent of his blood and was in hemorrhagic shock. It’s been”-he looked down at his watch-”almost twelve hours. His blood volume is almost back to normal, but he’s still not conscious. In fact, he’s showing signs of paralysis, even though none of the buckshot hit the spinal cord.”

“Buckshot? Somebody shot him with a shotgun?”

“They didn’t get a clean shot,” he said. “Most of it went right over his shoulder. A few inches to the right and he wouldn’t have a head on his body. He should be conscious right now, feeling lucky.”

I thought about it. He’d stayed in Michigan, or else he’d come back. And then he got shot. By a shotgun.

“When will you know?” I said. “When will you know if he’s going to live?”

“That’s hard to say right now. Do you have a card or something? I can give you a call if anything changes.”

I gave him one of my cards. “Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate this.”

We both heard the footsteps and looked up at the same time. A man was coming down the hallway toward us, moving fast enough to rattle the papers on the bulletin board.

“Have you met the pride of Orcus Beach yet?” the doctor asked.

“Is he a tough customer?”

“No, but he plays one on TV.”

Before I could ask him about that, Chief Howard Rudiger stopped in front of us, his hands hanging down at his sides like a gunslinger. He was breathing heavily, and there was enough mileage on his face to put him in his late fifties, maybe early sixties. But he still had movie-star looks and more hair on his head than any man his age had a right to have. It was black and oiled up into a wave, and it looked so impeccable it could have been a wig. But of course it wasn’t. Police chiefs don’t wear wigs.

He looked at the doctor and then at me. His eyes stayed on me. “You,” he said, pointing his finger at me and then curling it in a come-hither. “Follow me.”

Five minutes later, I was back down on the first floor, sitting in room 119 while Chief Rudiger made the coffee. He stood with his back to me the whole time while he loaded the coffeemaker and then watched it make two cups’ worth. For another five minutes, there was no sound in the room but the steady dripping. I sat there and looked at all the little flowers and seashells on the wallpaper. It was obviously trying to be a cheerful room, in a place where the news is not always good. When I got tired of doing that, I looked at his police hat sitting on the table, ORCUS BEACH, MICHIGAN, it said, with a picture of a cannon sitting on a mound of sand.

He’s making me wait, I thought. I’m supposed to be sitting here wondering what he’s going to ask me, and when he’s going to ask me. An old cop game, but with a twist.

“How do you take it?” he finally said.

“Black,” I said.

He poured out two cups and put them on the table. Then he sat down facing me and took a long sip, looking at me over the rim of his mug. I returned the favor.

“Thank you,” I said. “I needed this.”

He nodded.

“So are you gonna tell me what’s going on?” I said. “Why is there a county man outside his door?”

“We’ll talk about that,” he said. “After I ask you a few questions. We’d be done by now if you hadn’t gone up there on your own.”

“Chief, please,” I said. “Don’t run the hard-ass cop game on me, okay? I was an officer in Detroit for eight years, and I’ve seen it done by the best. Hell, there’s a chief up in the Soo who could show you a few tricks, believe me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.

“You can’t do it in a room like this, first of all,” I said. “You need a dingy little interview room. In your station. You know, on your home turf. And you should be smoking, so you can blow it in my face. And for God’s sake, you shouldn’t be making me coffee.”

“We don’t have a police station,” he said. “We have one room in back of the town hall. I’m the only full-time officer, with four part-timers. I don’t smoke, and even if I did, I wouldn’t do it in a hospital. And I made you coffee because I was already making some for myself. I’m not playing a ‘hard-ass cop game,’ as you call it, Mr. McKnight. If I decide it’s time to be a hard-ass, believe me, you’ll know it. Now if you’re done with your critique, may I ask you some questions?”

“Yes, Chief. Ask your questions.”

He took another sip of coffee and then pulled a card out of his shirt pocket. His uniform was perfectly pressed, his tie perfectly knotted. “Is this your card?” he asked, putting it down on the table.

“Yes.”

“Prudell-McKnight Investigations,” he said.

“Yes.”

“It was found in Mr. Wilkins’s coat pocket. I take it he hired you?”

“Not really,” I said. “He was a friend of mine, a long time ago. I was helping him find somebody.”

“Go back to that ‘not really’ part,” he said. “Because it’s important. If he hired you, you know you don’t have to tell me anything about what you were doing for him.”

“He gave my partner some money,” I said. “But not me.” I thought about it for a moment. “I mean, he did give me some money, but just for gas. For driving him around.”

He frowned. “If he gave your partner money, he hired both of you. If you’re both in business together.”

“Look, it doesn’t matter,” I said. “I have nothing to hide from you. I was helping him find a girl he met a long time ago. In Detroit. We didn’t find her, so he went back home. Or so I thought.”

“A girl,” he said.

“She was a girl in 1971,” I said. “Now she’s in her forties.”

“He was looking for a girl he knew in Detroit, in 1971,” he said. He took out a pad of paper and wrote down ‘Detroit, 1971.’ “What’s her name?”

“Maria something.”

He looked up at me.

“We don’t know her real last name,” I said. “It could be Valeska or Valenescu or Muller.”

He made me spell all three of the names. He shook his head slowly as he wrote them down.

“When did you last see Mr. Wilkins?” he said.

“Three days ago. I took him to the airport.”

“Where was he going?”

“Back to Los Angeles.”

“Did you actually see him get on the plane?”

“No,” I said. “I dropped him off at the terminal.”

“Okay,” he said. “Did he ever mention anything about Orcus Beach?”

“No.”

“You have no idea why he might have come up here?”

I hesitated, deciding how to play this one. “I have an idea,” I said.

“Care to share it with me?”

“He may have had some reason to believe that Maria was in Orcus Beach.”

“The two of you were looking for her in Detroit,” he said. “Then you gave up and took him to the airport. Why would he suddenly think she was way up here in my tiny little town?”

I took a long breath and dived into it. “We talked to her family,” I said. “They told us that Maria was hiding from somebody. They wouldn’t tell us where. Randy may have gone back to their house and found out somehow. In fact, that’s where you should start looking, Chief. If Randy was hit with a shotgun.”

“Who said anything about a shotgun?”

“The doctor,” I said. “When we were at her family’s house in Farmington Hills, her brother threatened us with a shotgun.”

“What does a shotgun in Farmington Hills have to do with a shooting in my town?”

“A shotgun gets pointed at his head, and then a few days later he gets blasted by one.”

“Even if it’s not just a coincidence, you can’t trace buckshot, Mr. McKnight. There’s no rifling to match up like on a bullet. You know that.”

“So just ask him about it,” I said. “I’ll give you his address.”

“Write it down.”

“She’s in your town, isn’t she?” I said as I wrote. “She’s in Orcus Beach.”

“Who, Maria? The woman with three last names?”

“If it’s such a small place, you’ve got to know about her. Hell, if she’s got an order of protection on this guy she’s hiding from, you’d have to know about it.”

“Do you know anything else about your friend?” he said. “Do you know what he does for a living these days?”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“What does Randy Wilkins do to make money, Mr. McKnight? Do you know?”

“He said something about commercial real estate.”

“Is that what he told you?”

“Yes,” I said. “Why are you asking me that?”

“I’m trying to figure out what he was doing in Orcus Beach,” he said.

“I would think,” I said, “that your top priority should be finding out who shot him once he got to Orcus Beach.”

“Again with the critiques,” he said. “I should be grateful for all the free advice.”

“What’s going on?” I said. “Don’t you care who shot him?”

“That would be nice to know,” he said. “But there are a lot of private residences on the street where he was found. It could have been anyone, just trying to protect himself from the criminal element. You could almost say Mr. Wilkins got what he deserved.”

I looked him dead in the eyes. I said the words slowly. “What are you talking about?”

He looked at his pad, then flipped the page over and began reading, squinting like a man who needs glasses but won’t wear them. “Randall Wilkins, born 1951, convicted on multiple federal counts of embezzlement, check forgery, and mail fraud in 1979, did six years at Lompoc. Got out in 1985, then in 1990 was convicted again, this time on state embezzlement charges. Did two years at Avenal, was released, convicted again in 1994, did four years at Folsom. Currently wanted by the state of California on new charges, not to mention violation of parole and flight from prosecution.”

“Are you telling me-” I said.

“Your friend’s a con artist,” he said. “He preys on wealthy women. Gets them to invest in bogus real estate deals, then takes off with the money. That’s the commercial real estate he was talking about, I guess.”

“No way,” I said.

“You had no idea,” he said. “You’re totally shocked.”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course I am.”

“If you were helping him in any way to set up a scam here in Michigan, you’d be an accessory.”

“No,” I said. “He was just… No. It can’t be.” I thought about it for a few seconds. “The family, they do live in a nice house, I suppose. Her brother paints houses, so he can’t have that much money. But Maria… Oh goddamn it, who knows? I can’t believe this.”

He snapped his pad shut. “Believe it,” he said.

“Why?” I said. “Why would he come all the way out here?”

“Doesn’t sound like California’s too cozy a place right now,” he said. “Maybe you’re the last friend left who didn’t know what he’s been up to.” He paused a beat. “Now that we’ve established you had no idea, I mean.”

I looked at him. “Why is that county man standing guard?” I said. “Randy’s not going anywhere.”

“That’s what I tried to tell them,” he said. “But the state of California insisted on it. I told them I didn’t have a man from my force to do it, so they told me to get a county deputy. Now I’ve just got to make sure they’re paying for it.”

“And if Randy lives?”

“He goes back to stand trial. And he’s out of my hair.”

“Never mind who shot him.”

“I’m on the case,” he said, picking up his cup. “Don’t worry about it.”

I pushed my chair back and stood up. I took one step out of the room and then went back. “What about his family?”

“What about them?”

“I want to talk to them.”

“They don’t want to hear anything about it,” he said.

“He could be dead by tomorrow,” I said.

“The way his ex-wife said it, they all gave up on him a long time ago. To them, he’s been dead for years.”

“I want to talk to them anyway,” I said. “I have to.”

The chief just looked at me.

“I’m the last man he talked to,” I said. “He told me all about them. If it’s the last thing he ever says about them, they need to hear it. No matter what he’s done.”

He let out a tired sigh and reopened his pad. He flipped through the pages and then copied down the names and phone numbers. “You call them once,” he said. “You tell them who you are, you tell them what he said. That’s it.”

I took the paper from him and looked at it. Four names, four numbers. His ex-wife and three children. “One more thing,” I said. “Where is Orcus Beach, anyway?”

“Why do you want to know that?”

“It’s not on my map,” I said. “I’m wondering where it is.”

“You’ve got no reason to know that,” he said.

“It’s not a secret, is it? All I have to do is go buy a better map.”

“McKnight, let me be clear on this.” He stood up and looked me in the eye. “You have no reason to go to Orcus Beach. Go home and make your phone calls. If I need you again, I know where to find you.”

I don’t know how long I stood leaning over the railing. Thirty minutes at least. Maybe an hour. I looked down from the top floor of the parking garage at the outpatient entrance. I watched patients come and go. A woman came rolling out in a wheelchair, a bundle in her arms. A man took the bundle from her and strapped it into the special car seat, moving in slow motion. Some orderlies came out and smoked with their backs to the wall, then went back inside. There were no emergencies. No ambulances racing to the doors. No accident victims holding bloody towels to their foreheads. It was a quiet day at the hospital.

My stomach made a noise. I looked at my watch. It was just past noon. I had been awake for eight hours, going on nothing more than coffee. I took the stairs down to the street level, walked east down Michigan Street, found a fast-food place, and ate a hamburger without tasting it. Then I found a bar with nobody in it but a bartender washing glasses and a woman watching a soap opera on the television. The bartender set me up and then went back to his glasses. The woman never even looked at me.

I watched the soap opera for a while, because there was nothing else to draw my attention. A woman in an expensive dress kept pacing back and forth in an expensive office, going at some guy in an expensive suit. I gave up on the soap opera and went into the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face. I dried myself off without looking at my face in the mirror. Then I threw some bills on the bar on my way out.

I walked back to the hospital. The security guard jutted his chin at me as I passed him. I pushed the elevator button, waited for the car, got in and pressed five. The Intensive Care nurse wasn’t at her station when I walked by it.

The county man was still sitting on his chair outside Randy’s door. He folded his arms when he saw me.

“You again,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “About before. You’re just doing your job here.”

“And having so much fun,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.”

“I was a police officer,” I said. “For eight years.”

“That so.”

“I had to do this kind of stuff,” I said. “I know how it is.”

He just nodded at that.

“What do you make of this Rudiger guy, anyway?”

“The chief with the big hair?” he said. “What a horse’s ass. You ever been to Orcus Beach?”

“Never have,” I said.

“One stoplight,” he said. “They used to have a furniture factory there, but that closed. So it’s a ghost town now. Chief Rudiger’s the only full-time officer left.”

“So he said.”

“Anywhere else, they’d disband the force and contract with the county sheriff. But not Orcus Beach. Rudiger must have everybody hypnotized or something.”

“Gotta be the hair,” I said.

The man laughed at that. “He’s got enough oil on his head, they better not let him go in the lake. What was that ship? In Alaska?”

“The Exxon Valdez?”

“Yeah, that one. That’s what you’d get in Lake Michigan.”

“That’s good,” I said. “Hey, any chance of me seeing my friend for a minute?”

He stuck his tongue in his cheek and looked down the hall. “Make it quick.”

“I appreciate it.”

I stepped into the room. The heart monitor was beeping. The ventilator was contracting, blowing air, releasing, again and again. I moved closer to him. His eyes were closed. There were bruises on his face. The breathing tube was taped into his mouth.

And then the bandages, all over his neck, his shoulders. He was wrapped up like a mummy, and looked just as still. Like he’d never move again.

“Don’t die yet,” I said out loud. “I want some answers first.”

The monitor kept beeping. The machine filled his lungs with air and then released.

“Besides,” I said, “I want to kill you myself.”

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