CHAPTER 15

I woke up the next morning in a strange bed, in a motel room in Whitehall, Michigan, twenty miles south of Orcus Beach. I had pulled in around eleven o’clock, my eyes burning from driving all day, my stomach empty. The motel was called the Whitehall Courtyard, and each room had a bright green light above the door that made you think you were in an aquarium. I asked the man at the front desk if there was a restaurant open at that hour. He just looked at me and laughed. “In Whitehall?” he said. “That’s the best one I’ve heard all day.”

So I settled for cheese and crackers and Oreo cookies from the vending machine, and then I closed the blinds against the green light and went to sleep. I had disjointed dreams about shotguns and woke up suddenly in the middle of the night, dead certain that I was about to feel the hot blast of buckshot in my chest. It took a few seconds to remember where I was, and what I was doing there. I went back to sleep for a few hours. When the morning came, I sat up in the bed and reached for the telephone. Leon picked up on the second ring.

“Alex!” he said. “Where are you?”

“I’m in a motel in a town called Whitehall,” I said. “I need you to run a couple plates for me.”

“Whitehall? Where’s that? What’s going on, Alex?”

I gave him the five-minute version. Seeing Randy in the hospital, going back to Leopold’s house, then my adventures in Orcus Beach.

“How can you be sure it’s Maria?” he said. “You didn’t even talk to her.”

“I know it’s her,” I said. “It has to be. Let me give you those plate numbers.”

“All you gotta do is call the secretary of state,” he said, “and give them your PI number.”

“That’s right,” I said. “I remember you telling me that now.”

“I’ll do it,” he said. “You’ve got another call to make.”

“What’s that?”

“A Dr. Havlin called here looking for you,” he said. “Early this morning. He had one of our cards, so he tried both numbers.”

“What did he say?”

“They’re going to operate.”

“Is it… I mean…”

“He didn’t say, Alex. He just said you should call him.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thanks. I’ll do that.”

“So give me those plate numbers.”

“Here’s Maria’s plate,” I said. I closed my eyes and called up the three letters and three numbers.

“This could get us her current address,” he said.

“It might,” I said. “And whatever name she’s using now.”

“Okay, give me the other one.”

I gave him the three letters and three numbers from the white Cadillac, then told him he’d have to run it two ways, with a Y and a V.

“This white Cadillac,” he said. “You really think it’s the same guy who was staking out her family’s house? There are lots of white Cadillacs in the world.”

“Maybe it’s the same guy,” I said. “Maybe it isn’t. If it is, then somehow he found Maria.”

“Maybe Randy went to Leopold’s house,” he said, “and then to Orcus Beach, and this guy followed him.”

“If that’s true,” I said, “then I helped make it happen.”

Leon didn’t say anything for a while. “I’ll run these plates,” he finally said. “And I’ll call you right back.”

“No, let me call you,” I said. “As soon as I call the doctor, I’m gonna get something to eat. Or I’ll need a doctor myself.”

I said good-bye, then punched in the doctor’s number. A woman at the hospital in Grand Rapids answered. She told me that Dr. Havlin was in surgery.

“Do you know the name of the person he’s operating on?” I said. “It may be the man I’m calling about.”

“You’re going to have to speak to the doctor directly,” she said. “I can’t discuss it over the phone.”

I told her I’d try later. Then I got dressed and went out to see if the town of Whitehall had a place where you could get a decent breakfast. I ended up finding a restaurant with a seven-dollar all-you-can-eat buffet, and I ate enough scrambled eggs and bacon and hash browns to make it the best seven dollars I ever spent. The man who showed me to my table, the woman who took my money, the boy who kept taking my empty plates away-they all looked genuinely happy that I had chosen to visit their little town. It restored my faith in the people who live in Michigan, and it made me wonder why Orcus Beach was so different. I had a few minutes to think about it as I drove back up that lonely two-lane road.

I pulled out my cell phone on the way and tried to call Leon. The call didn’t go through. I barely overcame the temptation to open my window and throw the phone into the lake.

I got to see Orcus Beach in the daylight this time. It was a sleepy little shoreline town that had seen better days. You wouldn’t have thought it was much different from a thousand other towns, until you happened to stop in and sample the local hospitality.

I drove past Rocky’s place. The parking lot was full again. Either they did a good breakfast or they did the only breakfast in town. I kept going north, through the traffic light and past the gas station. I could see Stu sitting at his counter, but I didn’t think he noticed me driving by.

I went past the town hall and the fire station. I didn’t drive around back to see if Chief Rudiger was there. I didn’t figure he’d be too happy to see me.

I kept going, past the old furniture plant. The road opened up again into a long stretch of nothing but pine trees and glimpses of the lake to the west. I drove another ten miles, just to confirm to myself that Orcus Beach really was in the middle of nowhere. I pulled over and tried the phone again. The signal teased me for a few seconds and then disappeared.

I went back to town. This time when I got to the traffic light, I took a left and went east, away from the lake. I crossed over some railroad tracks and drove through a neighborhood of small houses set closely together. Everything looked heavy and wet, like the snow had just melted. There was an empty ball field at the next corner, with wooden bleachers down the first-base line. I watched for white Cadillacs as I drove. I saw one parked in front of a little bait shop at the edge of town, but the license plate didn’t match the one I had seen the day before.

As I drove, I couldn’t help wondering exactly where Randy had been shot. It had been only two days since the shooting, and it was such a small town. I kept expecting to see yellow crime-scene tape, but I didn’t.

The road leading east went over a small bridge, then turned north. After another few houses, the pavement gave way to gravel. I stopped and turned around. When I got back to the middle of town, I kept going west, right through the traffic light, toward the shoreline. I figured I might as well see the whole town.

The road led directly to a public boat launch. The place was empty. I pulled in and looked out at the water for a minute. I could hear the sand ticking against the truck, driven by the wind off the lake. I tried the phone again. The planets must have been aligned just right this time, because I got a signal and it stayed strong enough for me to make two calls. The first was to Leon. It was busy. He’s probably calling about the license plates right now, I thought. The second call was to the hospital. I got through to Dr. Havlin this time. The signal wavered for a few seconds and his voice started to break up, but then the line cleared and I heard him telling me what he had just done to Randy.

“Mr. Wilkins had what we call a pellet embolism,” he said. “A piece of buckshot entered the bloodstream and then migrated away from the wound, all the way to the brain. Which is why we didn’t see it when we were working on his neck.”

“How serious is that?” I said. “It goes right into the brain?”

“Well, actually, it stopped where the cerebral artery enters the brain. The end result was a stroke, which explains why he didn’t regain consciousness. It must have knocked out both hemispheres.”

“So now what?” I said. “Is he conscious now? Is there going to be permanent damage?”

“He’s not conscious, no,” he said. “As far as permanent damage goes, we just don’t know right now. We’re doing a neuro check every hour. Meanwhile, we’ve still got a county deputy outside his door every minute, day and night. I don’t know what they think Mr. Wilkins is going to do. Anyway, I’ve got your number, Mr. McKnight. I’ll call you if anything changes.”

“I appreciate it,” I said.

I hung up and pulled back out onto the secondary road, taking it south until it came to a dead end, then headed north. The homes on the lake side of the road had mailboxes next to long driveways. Some of the houses were bigger than others, but they all looked a little beaten up by the long winters and the storms on the lake. I saw a lot of NO TRESPASSING signs. Like most of the lower Great Lakes, the shoreline here was strictly private property.

I didn’t see any white Cadillacs. I didn’t see Maria’s red Mustang. The road ended abruptly where a little inlet cut in from the shoreline. There was a guardrail there to keep you from driving right into it, and behind that a chain-link fence with four seasons’ worth of litter pasted to it. I turned the truck around and headed back to the center of town.

So now what, Alex? Either you go to the hospital and wait to see what happens to Randy. Or you stay here in town and do something stupid.

When I got back to Rocky’s place, I saw Maria’s car in the parking lot. I tried the phone and somehow it worked again. A day filled with miracles already. Leon picked up on the first ring.

“Alex, I’ve got some names for you,” he said. I could hear the enthusiasm in his voice. This kind of stuff was what he lived for. “Are you ready?”

I didn’t have my little pad of paper anymore, so I grabbed a deposit envelope out of the glove compart ment. “Go ahead,” I said.

“I’ll give you the white Caddy first,” he said. “If that was a V you saw on the plate, then it was a woman named Ethel Birmingham from Center Line, Michigan. And it wasn’t really a white Cadillac; it was a brown Buick.”

“I’m guessing it wasn’t really a V,” I said.

“Good man,” he said. “If it was a Y, then you’ve got a Mr. Miles Whitley, who just so happens to own a white 1983 Cadillac, and just so happens to be a private investigator out of Detroit.”

“A private investigator?”

“Are you surprised?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess not. Not if he’s been following her. Maybe this Harwood guy hired him.”

“My thought exactly,” he said. “I’ve got his number here if you want it. I don’t know if we should just call the guy or not. What do you think?”

“Good question,” I said. “Let’s think about that one.”

“Okay, so you want the other plate now? It gets better.”

“How can it get better?” I said. “We know it’s Maria, right?”

“The plate is registered to Maria Zambelli,” he said. “The address given is on Romney Street in Farmington.”

“Leopold’s house,” I said.

“Right.”

“So now we know the last name she’s using these days. Where’s the ‘better’ part?”

“That name, Alex. Zambelli. It sounded familiar to me. I was sitting here for a half hour trying to remember where I’ve heard it before.”

“And?”

“You remember when you came back up here after you were done running around with Randy? What did you tell me?”

“Hell, I don’t know. I told you what happened. About how we ended up at Leopold’s house.”

“And about how you were kidnapped and held hostage in the basement.”

“All right, Leon, I don’t have to relive the whole thing now. What’s your point?”

“You told me that they thought you were working for this guy named Harwood, right? That’s why they did that to you?”

“Yeah?”

“And when you told me that, what did I say?”

“I don’t honestly remember. I’m sorry.”

“I told you we should try to find out about Harwood, so we could help them, right?”

“Okay, I remember now. And I said forget about it.”

“Exactly. And do you think I just forgot about it?”

“Knowing you, no,” I said. “Now that you mention it.”

“I just poked around a little bit, Alex. On the Internet, looking up the name Harwood.”

“Okay, what did you find, Leon?”

“Nothing,” he said. “At least it seemed like nothing at the time. I was searching through a database of old newspaper articles, looking for any hits on Harwood. You know, like if I found an article about a man named Harwood being arrested for stalking somebody. Something like that. But I came up empty. So I let it go. But then I remembered, somewhere when I was looking, I saw those two names together. Harwood and Zambelli.”

“Where did you see them together, Leon? Were you able to go back and find it?”

“Sure, all I had to do was go back and look for any articles that had both of those names,” he said. “I’ve got it right here. Harwood-Zambelli, Incorporated. A real estate development company, formed in 1969. They were mentioned in a state investigation in 1977 after purchasing an acreage lot from the state. There was some suspicion of bid tampering, but no charges were ever filed.”

“Harwood-Zambelli,” I said. “Any first names in the article?”

“No, but I’m gonna keep looking.”

“Real estate, huh? Just out of curiosity, where’s the land they bought?”

“It’s up near Traverse City,” he said.

“A couple hours north of here,” I said. “Do you have anything else on that?”

“That’s all I have right now,” he said. “I just thought you’d like to know. Assuming there’s a connection.”

“Be a hell of a coincidence if it isn’t,” I said. “Damn it, Leon, you do good work, even when you’re sitting on your ass all day.”

“So what are you going to do now?” he said.

I looked out at Maria’s car, less than thirty feet away. “I’m feeling a little dry,” I said. “I’m gonna go have a drink.” I hung up, got out of the truck, and walked right through the front door.

Nothing happened. It wasn’t at all like the scene in the saloon, when the gunslinger pushes open the swinging doors and the piano stops playing and everybody looks up. Nobody even noticed me. They all went on eating their breakfasts or brunches or drinking their early beers.

Maria was in the same spot as the night before. She sat reading a newspaper, with an empty plate on the bar in front of her. I went right over and sat down next to her.

“Ms. Zambelli,” I said. “Good morning.”

She put her paper down and looked at me. It was my first chance to see her up close, and for the love of God, she had eyes that could make a man write poetry.

Or hell, even sing Romeo’s song. In French.

The last woman I had known with eyes like that was Sylvia Fulton, and those eyes had owned me for a year and a half before she finally went away. Maria’s eyes were darker, but they had that same way of making you feel like you were losing your balance when you looked into them.

“Do I know you?” she said.

The bartender stepped in before I could say anything. He leaned over the bar until his face was about twelve inches from mine, and he said, “What the hell are you doing here?”

When I had first hit this town the night before, it seemed a little strange that I’d found Maria so quickly. Just walked into the only bar, and there she was. But then it hadn’t taken long to see why she could hide in plain sight like this. There were certainly enough well-armed men around to come to her rescue.

“Your name’s Harry, if I recall,” I said. “Where’s Rocky? I wanted to say hello to him when I came in.”

“You’ve got ten seconds to get out of here,” he said.

“Yeah, count to ten,” I said. “That always works for me.” I threw a couple bills on the bar. “And then get me a beer.”

He didn’t look down at the bills. He didn’t get me a beer. Instead, he took exactly one step backward and then, without taking his eyes off me for a second, grabbed the phone off the wall.

“Hold on, Harry,” she said. “Before you arrest him, let’s hear what the man has to say. It might be good for a laugh.”

“Now why on earth would you arrest me?” I said to him. “I’m just sitting here trying to buy a beer.”

He didn’t say anything. I could see his knuckles whiten as he gripped the phone.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’m sure you guys would think of something.”

“We’re waiting to hear your story,” she said. She picked up her pack of cigarettes and pulled one out. “Do you have a light?”

“I don’t smoke,” I said.

Harry put the phone down and produced a lighter. As he held it to the tip of her cigarette, once again he never took his eyes off me for a second. The man was talented.

“You like having big men around to look after you, don’t you,” I said.

“You’re not exactly a lightweight yourself,” she said. “I have to admit, you’re put together better than any of those other men Charles has sent after me.”

“By Charles, I assume you mean Mr. Harwood?”

“Aren’t you the guy who’s been following me around in the white Cadillac the last couple days?”

“No, ma’am,” I said. “I drive a truck.”

“Well, who the hell are you, then?” she said. “No, wait. Let me guess.” She took a long drag on her cigarette and then blew the smoke straight upward. “I bet you I know. My brother told me a couple men came by his house last week looking for me. Mother convinced him that Charles didn’t send them, but Leo’s still not convinced.”

“I thought your brother hates being called Leo,” I said.

“Aha, so you were one of those men,” she said. “I thought he sent you on your way without telling you where I was.”

“Ms. Zambelli,” I said. “Maria.” Harry bristled when I said her name, like I had taken an indecent liberty. “Didn’t your brother tell you who we were?”

“I think he mentioned a couple names,” she said, taking a drag on her cigarette. “I don’t remember them.”

“My name is Alex McKnight,” I said. “Which shouldn’t mean anything to you. But the man I was with was Randy Wilkins.”

She looked at me without saying anything. After a long moment, she looked away.

“Do you remember him?” I said.

“He’s the man who was shot here a couple days ago,” she said. “That’s where I’ve heard that name. The chief told me.” She looked up at Harry, but he didn’t notice. He was too busy watching me.

“Yes,” I said. “Randy was looking for you. Do you remember him? From thirty years ago?”

“No,” she said. “That was a long time ago.”

I hesitated. “You don’t remember him? Your mother did. As soon as she saw him.”

“My mother has a good memory,” she said. “It’s one of her many gifts. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit most of them.”

“My God,” I said. “I don’t believe this. You’re telling me you don’t remember him. And he didn’t find you here? I mean, before he got shot? He didn’t talk to you at all?”

“Harry,” she said. “You’ve got some customers waiting on you.” She nodded her head toward two men on the other side of the bar. They were standing over two empty glasses and looking like their patience was about used up.

Harry didn’t move. He kept watching me.

“Go ahead,” she said. “I think he’s harmless. You can go ahead and frisk him if it’ll make you feel better.”

He backed away slowly and went over to the two men. He kept watching me as he poured out a couple drafts.

Maria put her hands together in front of her face. Without looking at me, she whispered something.

“I can’t hear you,” I said.

“Shhhhh,” she said in a low voice. She kept her hands in front of her face. “Just act natural. Tell me you made a mistake and then leave. In twenty minutes, I’ll go out to my car. Just follow me.”

She brought her hands down and put out her cigarette. She jabbed it in the ashtray like she was punishing it. “I’m sorry,” she said out loud as Harry came back to us. “I don’t remember a Randy Wilkins. The name means nothing to me.”

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