She opened the front door. She didn’t follow me out onto the landing, just stood leaning against the door frame, her arms folded across her chest. The landing was made of flat bluestone, with tall plants on either side that were nothing more than tangled bare branches at this time of year. The air was cold. I’d left my coat behind, somewhere in the living room. But I didn’t care. I stood there looking down at the landing while she told me what had happened.
“I came home three days ago,” she said. “As soon as I walked in, I knew somebody had been here. Everything was where it was supposed to be, and yet not exactly. Something was just… wrong. I could feel it. I called Chief Rudiger, but he swore he hadn’t come here. Even though he has a key, he doesn’t do that. Not without asking me. Then when I started seeing the white Cadillac around town, it didn’t take me long to figure it out. Harwood had found me again. Somehow. And the man in the Cadillac, he broke in here. He had touched everything in the house, Alex. Everything that belonged to me, he had put his hands on it. I called the chief again. He told me he’d keep an eye out for him but that he could only do so much. He’s the only full-time officer in town.”
“So I’ve learned,” I said. “One professional and a lot of amateurs with guns. So what happened next? Did the car come back?”
“Yes,” she said. “I saw it the next day. There’s a room up on the second floor; you can see out onto the road, through the trees. The car was just sitting there. I called the chief, but by the time he got over here, the car was gone. It came back later, just after dark. I was upstairs, watching for it. He pulled up there in the same spot on the road, just through the trees there where the fence starts. I was just about to call the chief again, when I heard somebody coming up the walkway.”
She stopped. She stood there with her arms still folded in front of her, staring out at nothing.
“What happened?” I said.
“I had a gun,” she said. “One of Leopold’s shotguns. He keeps one at the house, and he made me take the other one. I was sure it was Harwood, or somebody Harwood had hired to kill me. I got the gun, and when I looked out the little window by the door here, I saw something in his hand. It was dark, but I could see he was holding something. It’s a gun, I thought. It has to be a gun. He was coming to kill me, Alex. It didn’t matter if the door was locked. He had already gotten into the place before. Nothing could stop him. There was nothing I could do, except… open the door and shoot. I shot him, Alex. I threw the door open and shot him. Then I ran past him, got in my car, and drove away. As I was driving, I started seeing the man’s face. Like I looked at him but I didn’t really see him until later, when I had time to think about what had happened, you know what I mean? I could still see his face, just before the gun went off. And I knew him. I knew that face. He has a beard and mustache now, doesn’t he? He looks different. Yet he’s still the same. All these years later, he’s still the same. And I shot him.”
“Did he have a gun?”
“What?” She looked up at me.
“In his hand. You said you thought he had a gun. Did he?”
“No,” she said. “It was a flower. A lilac. That’s what he was holding. It’s supposed to mean something, isn’t it? When you give somebody a lilac? Something about the innocence of youth. If it did mean something, he never got the chance to tell me.”
I looked down at the stones. There were no lilac petals there now. There was no blood, no trace of what had happened.
“He was the first man I ever loved,” she said. “And I shot him.”
She didn’t cry. I didn’t know if she wanted me to hold her or if she wanted me to go away and never come back. I just stood there.
“You have to tell them, don’t you,” she said.
“Tell them what?”
“That I shot him. You have to tell the chief, and I’ll go to jail.”
I thought about it for exactly two seconds. “Not necessarily,” I said. “It was an accident. You panicked. What did you do with the shotgun, anyway?”
“I threw it in the woods.”
“Down the highway,” she said. “A couple miles outside of town.”
“Probably not the best place,” I said. “But there’s no sense trying to move it now.”
“Will you help me, Alex?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Find out why he came here. If he found out I had money, or if Harwood was using him somehow. And then help me find Harwood. Somehow, I have to make him stop. Will you help me?”
“I don’t know if I can, Maria. How are we going to find him? What do we have to go on?”
“We have this man,” she said. “The man in the white Cadillac. I’m sure Harwood hired him.”
“We can’t prove he broke into your house,” I said. “Aside from that, he’s just following you around. The police can give him a warning, but I doubt they could charge him with anything. And they certainly can’t make him talk about who hired him. There are laws that protect that information.”
“Like a doctor and a patient,” she said. “Or a lawyer and a client.”
“Or a private investigator,” she said. “If I hire you, you don’t have to say anything, either. About any of this.”
I could see where she was going. I guess I didn’t blame her for wanting to protect herself, now that she had made her confession to me. And I didn’t blame her for wanting to find Harwood so she could put an end to it. I didn’t blame her for anything, not even for the shooting itself.
I was the man who’d helped Randy find her. If I was going to blame anybody, I would start with myself.
“Maria, I’ll talk to my partner. Maybe he’ll have some ideas. He’s good at this stuff.”
“And what are you good at?” she said.
“Well, the police can’t make that PI tell them who his client is, or where he is. But maybe I can. That’s the advantage of not being a police officer anymore. I don’t always have to follow the rules.”
“Do you think you can catch him?”
“I may not have to,” I said. “I’ll try calling him, see if he’ll meet me. One private eye to another.”
“Does that mean you’re on the case?”
“If I can help you, I will,” I said. “But you should know that I’m not really a private eye. It just sort of happened. I was a cop once, but-”
“Does that mean you’re on the case, Alex?”
I looked at her. I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no.
We went back inside the house, our faces red from the cold air. She told me more about Harwood, about the ways he had tried to find her in the past. After her husband’s death, she had moved to Florida, had her baby there. She’d spent four years in Tampa, without the slightest contact from him. She let herself believe that he had given up, until the day she went home and stopped to talk to her neighbor before going inside. The neighbor told her that two men had come that day to repair her refrigerator. The landlord had given them the key, or so they said. Maria knew better. She called her brother, Leopold, who was living in Seattle with their mother, and then drove right to the airport. She left everything behind.
She spent three years in Seattle with Leopold and their mother. Leopold was married. His son, Anthony, was a couple years older than Delilah. Harwood found them. They moved to Cincinnati. Leopold’s wife left him, moved back to Seattle. She couldn’t take it anymore. Harwood found them in Cincinnati, so they all went back to Seattle. Leopold tried to reunite with his ex-wife. It didn’t work. Harwood found them again. They finally moved back here to Michigan, where it had all started. As Leopold put it, they were making their stand, once and for all.
It was late afternoon by the time I left. I told her I needed to make some calls. She offered me her phone, but I told her I wanted to check for messages back at the motel in Whitehall, and that I had left my list of numbers there anyway. The truth was, I wanted to be by myself for a while, to think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. I gave her the number for my cell phone and made her promise to call me if she saw the white Cadillac.
“You’re on the case,” I said out loud, just to hear how it sounded. “You are on the case.” I shook my head and kept driving.
As soon as I made my right turn onto the main road, I saw the flashers in my rearview mirror. I pulled over to the side of the road, closed my eyes, and waited for Chief Rudiger to stick his face in my window.
The door opened. “Out of the truck,” he said.
I looked at him.
“I said out of the truck, McKnight.”
As soon as my feet hit the ground, he spun me around and pushed me against the side of the truck.
“Chief, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Hands on the top of the vehicle,” he said.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Hands on top, McKnight.”
I put my hands up. He kicked my legs apart and patted me down. Then he pulled my arms behind me and put the handcuffs on.
“Rudiger, are you going to tell me what the hell is going on here?”
He pushed me toward his patrol car. When he opened the back door, he tried to push my head down. It was an old cop trick. You push the perp’s head down like you’re trying to help him clear the top edge of the door. Accidents will happen, though, and if you happen to misjudge the clearance, you end up bashing his face right against the door frame. Which is a damned shame, especially if the man whose nose you just broke happens to be a rapist or child molester.
I thought about kicking him right in the cojones, then thought better of it. No sense making the situation any worse. I just sat there in the back of the patrol car and counted to ten. I had been doing a lot of counting to ten in the last few days, not to mention all the time I had spent in handcuffs. Along with the number of shotgun barrels I had looked into, it had been quite a week.
“You need to tell me what’s going on, Chief,” I said as he got in and closed the door. “You can’t cuff me without telling me why.”
He swung the car around, did a U-turn, and headed north.
“We’re going to the station,” I said. “Am I under arrest?”
He didn’t say anything.
I sat back, getting as comfortable as I could on the hard plastic seat. There was nothing I could do except play out the hand.
Two minutes later, he pulled in behind the town hall. He got out, his boots crunching on the gravel in the parking lot, and opened my door. “Out,” he said.
I got out. He pushed me toward the building. I walked. He opened the door and held it for me, then followed me into the office. “Sit,” he said.
“I’m not sitting down until you take off these cuffs,” I said.
“Suit yourself,” he said. “You can keep standing. I’m gonna sit down.” He pulled out the chair behind his desk.
“Chief Rudiger, you are way over the line here. Do you want me to start naming all the rights violations?”
“Ms. Zambelli filed a complaint,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “I just brought you in for questioning. You are handcuffed because we are alone in this office and because in the brief time I have known you, you have proven yourself to be hostile and uncooperative.”
“What complaint? What are you talking about?”
“For the past few days, Ms. Zambelli has been aware that she is being followed by an unknown party. Today, one of my part-time officers observed you waiting for her in the parking lot, then following her to her residence.”
“The man who has been following her drives a white Cadillac,” I said. “I’ve already given you that license number. If you bother to run it, you’ll see that it belongs to a private investigator out of Detroit. His name is Whitley.”
“Ah, so she’s got two investigators following her? I don’t suppose the two of you are working together.”
“I’ve never met him,” I said. “I presume he’s working for Charles Harwood, the man who’s been trying to find Maria for the last eighteen years.”
“You seem to know a lot about the situation,” he said. “I mean, for a man who supposedly has no involvement.”
“You know my story, Chief. I came here to see Maria because my friend was looking for her.”
“Your friend the con man.”
“So it turns out.”
“And today, you were following her because…”
“You waited in the parking lot for twenty minutes,” he said. “After she told you in the company of my officer that she had no recollection of this friend of yours, the friend who was supposedly looking for her.”
“She did say that, yes. I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to ask her some more questions.”
“So you waited in the parking lot. For twenty minutes.”
“And then you followed her home.”
I felt stuck. I couldn’t tell him that she wanted to know about Randy. More than anything, I couldn’t tell him about what she had confessed to me.
It was time to play my trump card.
“I can’t tell you anything more,” I said. “It’s between me and my client.”
He looked at me for a long moment. “Well now,” he finally said. “Your client.”
“Isn’t that convenient.”
“It was her idea,” I said. “She asked me to help her.”
“You don’t say.”
“You can call her and ask her.”
“I might just do that,” he said. “Maybe later. For now, I’d better get those handcuffs off you. I mean, seeing as how I’ve made such a terrible mistake.”
He stood up and took the key out of his pocket. I turned around. He unlocked the cuffs and took them off, dropping them on his desk. I stood there rubbing my wrists as he went back to his chair. He didn’t sit down this time. He put his hands on the back of the chair and leaned over his desk.
“What’s your game, McKnight?”
I shook my head. “No game, Chief.”
“I think you’re as dirty as your friend. I think you’re trying to take advantage of a very frightened woman who happens to have a little money. Which makes you what? I don’t think the scale goes that low.”
“I’ll have to muddle through despite your opinion of me,” I said. “Is there anything else you want to say to me? Or am I free to go?”
“That’s all you’re gonna do? Just walk out of here? After I dragged you down here like this?”
“I’ve had worse, Chief. Believe me.”
“Nobody’s here, McKnight. Maybe you want to take a swing at me.”
“If you’re going to shoot me,” I said, “you’re gonna have to do it in cold blood. I’m not gonna give you an excuse.”
“Shoot you? My, you do have an active imagination.”
“Sure,” I said. “And that’s why you’re making a point of standing across the room from me, with your hands free.”
I didn’t really think he’d shoot me. I was just trying to rattle him. The day before, I’d been wishing he’d get off his ass and find out what had happened with Randy. Today, I was hoping he’d spend all of his time thinking about me instead. I was on the case, and this was just part of the service.
Perhaps the man would have shot me if he’d thought he could have gotten away with it. Or if I had given him a good excuse. Or if he’d simply had enough guts to do it.
Hell, maybe he would have worked up the courage to do it, if he had a few more minutes alone with me. He would have shot me and then watched me die on the floor, and my last thought would have been how familiar the feeling was, to be looking up at a ceiling and feeling all of my blood flow out of my body. But one of his part-time men showed up at the door just then, breaking the spell. It was Rocky.
The chief offered me a ride back to my car. I declined.
“It’s two miles,” he said.
“It’s a nice day for a walk,” I said. “It’ll give me the chance to get to know the place a little better. Now that I’m going to be working here.”
A half mile down the road, I heard him behind me. I turned and watched his patrol car. He sped past me without the slightest glance in my direction.
Damn it all, I said to myself. I forgot to compliment the man on his house.