CHAPTER 22

A sound woke me up. A bird chirping at me, then stopping, then chirping again. No, it was a phone. I picked my head up. I was still in my clothes, lying on the motel bed in Whitehall. I hadn’t even turned down the covers, just walked in at 4:30 in the morning and fell over. My right hand was still swollen, a little reminder just in case I thought it was all a bad dream.

What time was it now? I couldn’t see the clock, but there was daylight in the room, brighter than anything I’d ever seen.

The phone rang again. I pulled myself up. I picked up the phone. Dial tone.

I lay back down and stared at the ceiling. The phone rang again. It wasn’t the motel phone. It was my cell phone. Which was impossible, because it was out in the truck.

The phone rang again. Okay, it wasn’t my cell phone. My phone doesn’t sound like that. My phone isn’t nearly as annoying.

Whitley’s phone. It was still in my coat pocket, and apparently still on. I got up and grabbed my coat, took the phone out of the pocket. It rang one more time before I could answer it.

“Who is this?” I said.

“Is that you, McKnight?” I knew the voice.

“What is it, Harwood? Why are you calling me?”

“You stole Whitley’s phone,” he said. “Not to mention his car. He’s not happy.”

“And yet somehow I’m not overcome with guilt,” I said. “Is that all you wanted to say?”

“Sounds like you had quite a night,” he said. “I mean, unless she was exaggerating.”

“Good-bye,” I said.

“Why did you ask me about Randy Wilkins?”

“I thought you said you didn’t know him.”

“He was the pitcher, right? For the Tigers. The guy who got destroyed in his only game. I was at that game. Did you know that?”

“You don’t say.”

“His father was a real estate developer out in California. We were going to do some kinda deal, but it fell through. I guess that’s why I went to the game. His father couldn’t make it, so I said I’d go. Man, did he get shelled, though. What did he give up, like eight runs in the first inning?”

“Harwood, that’s the only contact you ever had with him? Just going to his game?” I didn’t know what to make of this. It was too much of a coincidence.

“I think I saw him a couple days later, at a restaurant somewhere. I stopped by to pay my respects, you know, offer my condolences… And then-wait a minute.”

“What is it?”

“It’s coming back to me,” he said. “It was the Lin-dell AC, in downtown Detroit. You know it?”

“Yes.”

“I had a quick drink with him, figured it was the least I could do. I was still trying to put together some kind of deal with his father. I was trying to maintain a good rapport with the whole family, you know? And here’s this poor kid who made a total fool of himself in front of a whole stadium. Out of the blue, he says I have to go down the street and get my fortune told by this old woman. He didn’t say anything about Maria, just Madame whatsherface, whatever they hell she was calling herself. The deal with Wilkins’s father fell through right after that. I don’t think I’ve even heard the name again until you asked me about it last night.”

“So that’s how you met Maria? Randy told you to go have your fortune told?”

“I guess it was, now that I think about it. Goddamn it, I never really put that together. Wilkins was the guy who told me I should go see the fortune-teller. Goddamn it all. Although I don’t remember even stopping by there until-what, the next year? That game was in ‘71. Yeah, I think it was the next season. I was at another game in ‘72. That was the year they lost to the A’s in the play-offs, right? I was walking back to my car from the stadium, saw her sign there on Leverette Street, remembered I was supposed to go see her. I was curious, you know? I never had my fortune told. I went just for the hell of it. Obviously, the biggest mistake I ever made. Boy, did they rope me in. Your little girlfriend has been running con games her whole life. I hope you know that, Mc-Knight. Her whole family. They got me into a pretty tight spot, set me up and then took some pictures. In a hotel room. They blackmailed me for years. Then she got her hooks into my partner, Arthur Zambelli. He never knew what hit him. They were married for what, ten years? I tried to warn the man. I told him what she had done to me. He didn’t believe me. Although you know what? When I look back on it now, I think maybe he did believe me, but he didn’t care. He must’ve thought she had changed or something. That’s the kind of guy he was.”

“What’s your blood type?” I said.

“Why do you want to know that?”

“Just tell me.”

“This is about her daughter, isn’t it?” he said.

“Zambelli wasn’t her father.”

“No shit,” he said. “Why do you think she killed him?”

That one stopped me. “What are you talking about?”

“He had some kind of physical problem. Like no sperm count at all. When she got pregnant, she had three choices. Tell him and risk getting dumped for good, and lose out on some serious money. Or get an abortion, which is what most women would have done. Or just kill him. Hell, she even gets a nice insurance payoff with that choice. There wasn’t much to think about.”

“Are you Delilah’s father?”

“Hell if I know.”

“So it’s possible?”

“I suppose so. Does it even matter? If she’s my daughter, she grew up hating me. She probably went to bed every night hearing about how evil I am.”

“So it’s possible,” I said. “The two of you were together, even then. Just out of curiosity, how does that work? This was the same woman who set you up and blackmailed you, right?”

“She still was,” he said. “The whole time. For ten years. I figured I was already paying for it, so why not?”

“And why would Maria have anything to do with you at that point?”

“Don’t you get it, McKnight? I’m the best she ever had. It still drives her crazy.”

“All right, all right,” I said. “Spare me. I’m sorry I asked.”

“You want to know what she did after she killed Zambelli?”

“She had her brother throw you down the stairs,” I said. “I know the story.”

“No, after that,” he said. “When she moved down to Florida, she sent my wife a little good-bye present. Those pictures they took of us back in 1972. It wasn’t enough that I was fucking crippled, McKnight. She had to ruin my marriage, too.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

“I thought you should know the truth,” he said.

“Why didn’t you tell me any of this last night?” I said. “Oh yeah, I guess you were too busy trying to shoot me.”

I heard something in the background. It sounded like the hum of traffic, and somebody yelling.

“You’ll have to excuse Mr. Whitley,” Harwood said. “I just drove over some railroad tracks. He’s lying down, trying to get his back to loosen up. You really did a number on him.”

“You’re driving?” I said.

“Yes, I’m driving. I can do anything I want in this thing. Drive with just my hands, even talk on the phone at the same time.”

“Well, good for you,” I said. “Is that all you wanted to tell me?”

“I just hope you’ve got some brains left,” he said. “Get out now, while you still can.”

“Your concern for me is overwhelming,” I said. “But I got news for you. I’m already out. I don’t care what the hell happens now. The two of you deserve each other. The only thing that bothers me now is Delilah being in the middle of all this. She doesn’t deserve either one of you.”

“I’ve got a feeling everything will be changing soon,” he said. “I’m glad you won’t have to be around to see it. It’s not your problem, after all.”

There was a long pause. I heard more traffic noise in the background, and then static.

“Stay away,” he said. The words were breaking up. “Stay away.” Then the connection was broken.

I turned the phone off for good. It would go into the first public trash can I saw that day.

The sun was shining when I left the motel. It was one of those April days in Michigan where the temperature gets up to seventy and you start to think summer is around the corner. The next day, it’ll be thirty degrees again. But you still fall for it, every time.

After breakfast, I hit the road, with serious thoughts about going home. But then I thought, Hell, if Randy is going to open his eyes again, this is probably the day he’ll do it. That’s what the doctor had said anyway. So instead of driving straight north to a Canadian beer at Jackie’s place, I drove southeast to the hospital in Grand Rapids. One more day, I told myself. One more day.

I found the doctor standing at the nurses’ station. “He’s showing some good signs,” he said. “He’s responding to light, and to physical stimulation. But he’s not conscious yet, so we have to be concerned about some possible neurological damage. Remember, essentially he had a stroke. Which is always a guessing game.”

I thanked the man and went down to Randy’s room. The same county deputy was sitting outside the door.

“Don’t tell me you’ve been sitting here this whole time,” I said.

He laughed at that. “I just got here,” he said. “I have the day shift.”

“That’s what I miss the most about being a cop,” I said. “The excitement.”

“You’re the only guy who’s come around to see him. Doesn’t he have any family?”

“Not really,” I said. “Not anymore. Mind if I poke my head in?”

“Why not? What are they gonna do, fire me and get somebody else to sit in this chair all day? I hear it’s seventy-two degrees outside.”

I went into the room and just stood there for a while, looking down at him. He didn’t look any different from the last time I had seen him. His neck and his shoulders were still covered in bandages. The same machines monitored his heart rate and breathing. His eyes were still very much closed.

“What’s it gonna be?” I said to him. “Are you gonna wake up today or not?”

The machines beeped.

There was a chair in the corner. I sat down and closed my eyes for a while. I got up and looked out the window at the beautiful day going on outside, then sat down again.

I thought about Harwood’s phone call. I still didn’t understand the connection, this business of Randy telling him to go have his fortune told, back in 1971. It didn’t make any sense. There had to be more.

Something else was bothering me, something more immediate. The way he sounded when he said everything would be changing soon.

Forget it, Alex. It has nothing to do with you. Not anymore.

I went out of the room and walked around the rest of the hospital for a while. That got old fast, so I went outside to let the sun shine on me. I killed an hour walking around outside, bought a newspaper, then went back up to the room. The doctor was shining a light into Randy’s eyes. “Nothing yet,” he said. “I’ll be back.”

I sat there in the room reading the newspaper for another hour. The Tigers were already pitching themselves out of the season. The Red Wings were getting ready for another run at the Stanley Cup. The Pistons would make the play-offs, but nobody believed for a second that they’d make it past the first round.

I told the deputy I’d bring him up some lunch, went down to the street, and walked to the same bar I had been in the first time around. The bartender recognized me immediately. But then, the place wasn’t exactly filled to capacity. The woman who’d been watching the soap opera the first time I was there had been replaced by a man watching SportsCenter.

“Hey, did you ever make it up to Orcus Beach?” the bartender said.

“I stopped in,” I said.

“What did I tell you?” he said. “Pretty boring place, huh?”

I didn’t remember him saying that, but I wasn’t about to correct him. I let him set me up with a Strohs and the sandwich of the day, some kind of pastrami with cheese. I ordered a second one to go for the deputy. While I was sitting there eating, I kept thinking about Harwood’s call, and wondering why it was still bothering me. I kept picturing Maria in my mind, whether I really wanted to or not, the way she looked when she took me up to her bedroom.

Forget about it, Alex. Just forget about it.

I took the sandwich back to the deputy. I sat in Randy’s room and waited. I took another walk. The sun kept shining all afternoon.

Before the deputy left for the day, he told his replacement to keep letting me through the extra-tight security. He gave me a wink on his way out, and thanked me again for the sandwich. I figured I’d get off to a good start with the new deputy by offering to bring him back dinner. He liked that idea, so I went back down to the same bar. The same bartender was still there, the same man sitting on his stool watching television. It was the kind of bar that never changed, for better or worse, and when I sat down again, the same thought invaded my mind. Maria. Her face. Her body. Her lies.

Then I thought about the rest of her family. Her mother, her brother. Her daughter. Maybe Harwood’s daughter, too. It didn’t sound like it mattered to him.

Delilah, standing in the doorway, in the softball uniform.

Everything will be changing soon, Harwood said. I’m glad you won’t have to be around to see it.

He was driving his RV. There was traffic in the background.

Lots of traffic.

It hit me. He was going to their house, in Farmington. I knew it.

That’s why he’d called me. To see where I was. To make sure I wouldn’t be there. Stay away, he said. Stay away.

Goddamn it, I thought. He wouldn’t do that.

The hell he wouldn’t.

I got up and went to the pay phone. The same wooden chair sat in the narrow hallway. I had used this same phone to call Randy’s wife, and his three kids. Now I was going to call somebody I never thought I’d ever call again.

She answered on the third ring.

“Maria,” I said. “Listen very carefully.”

“Alex! I’m glad you called.”

“What?” I looked at the phone in my hand. “Maria, Harwood called me this morning. He said some things that got me thinking. That’s the only reason I’m calling.”

“Leopold is here,” she said. “He says hello. Everybody says hello, Alex.”

“Everybody? Everybody is there?”

“I called them last night,” she said. “After you left. Even when everybody else lets you down, your family’s going to be there for you.”

I let that one go. “Okay, then,” I said. “That’s good.”

“Chief Rudiger came over first,” she said. “I called him and asked him to come over. He stayed with me until they got here.”

“You called the chief?”

“I know it was late,” she said. “But he came right over. That’s the kind of man he is.”

I let that one go, too. “How did he look?”

“He was just fine. A little tired, I suppose. Why do you ask?”

“Never mind,” I said. More lies, just what I needed. “It doesn’t matter. Look, I’m sorry I called.”

“Don’t be,” she said. “I’m sorry things happened the way they did. I shouldn’t have asked you to help me in the first place. But it’s okay, because I have my whole family here now. We had breakfast on the beach, Alex. It was such a beautiful morning. Leopold made pancakes. And the chief said he’s going to go take care of things. So I’m fine.”

Leopold made pancakes. What the hell was I supposed to do with that? “Okay,” I said. “I’m hanging up now.”

“Good-bye, Alex. I hope you’ll think about me sometime.”

“I imagine I will, Maria. Good-bye.”

I went back to the bar. What a wonderful idea that was, giving her a call. I am so full of wonderful ideas.

“Leopold made pancakes,” I told the bartender. “Give me another beer.”

He slid one over.

“And the chief is going to go take care of everything,” I said. The chief who supposedly came over to sit with her until her family got there. The same chief I left lying on the floor with a bottle of Wild Turkey on his chest.

I froze, the beer bottle lifted halfway to my mouth. “Oh no,” I said.

I put the beer down.

“Oh my God.”

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