Matchup, p.28
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       MatchUp, p.28
 

           Lee Child

  “Medium fish, but he’s always lookin’ to get bigger. Since he was in kindergarten even.” The kid cleared his throat. “I was in his class. He was hateful even then. Like, pull the wings off a butterfly hateful.”

  “Does he run girls?”

  “Just his sisters. And a wall-eyed cousin. And that neighbor girl with the funny name. And sometimes his mama, but that takes a certain type of guy wants an older gal. You know what I mean?”

  Jeffrey let that sink in. “There was a black guy with—”

  “A Cleveland baseball cap?” the kid asked. “Yeah, the chief asked me about him, but I ain’t seen him.”

  “Did Chief DuPree go through your guest register?”

  “Sure did, but he didn’t find nobody matching the description. Even knocked on the doors to double-check.”

  He had no doubt Corinna went off-book with cash-paying guests.

  The kid leaned over, suddenly chatty. “See, I don’t think there was a black guy in a hat. I think ol’ DuPree was testing me, ’cause there’s three black people in town, and Sergeant Ava, that’s the chief’s wife, is one of them, and her father and her mother are the other two, and if there was a fourth black person, she would know that fella, too, right?” He held up his hands. “I’m not being racist, all right? That’s how it is.”

  “I get it,” he said.

  And he did.

  He worked in the Titusville area of Birmingham, a poor African American area. Oftentimes, he was the only white guy on the streets. People knew him by color, not name.

  The kid said, “I told the chief to check next door at the Hof, but Mr. Tucker, he don’t rent to black people. Not that we get that many up here. Everybody knows they don’t like the cold.”

  So much for not being racist.

  “That’s all I got,” the kid said. “I promise.”

  He was still lying, but Jeffrey wasn’t sure about what, or if it even mattered. Everybody lied to the police, even the ones who were trying to help.

  Especially the ones who were trying to help.

  He left the hotel.

  The wind whipped at his clothes. In the twenty minutes he’d been inside, the ground had become thick with snow. He stuck his hands in his pockets, fighting the sensation of his skin being burned off by the wind. For once the weathermen had been right. This storm was going to knock the state on its ass. The sky looked worse than ominous, something stuck between a tornado and Armageddon.

  Despite the arctic blast, he stood roughly where he had stood in the parking lot earlier that morning. He was pretty sure that the guy in the Cleveland Indian hat had come out of the Linderhof with his cup of coffee. He’d dismissed the event as random at the time, but with a dead body, nothing was random.

  So maybe this is what happened.

  Last night, Cleveland Hat stays at the Schussel Mountain Lodge. He parks his car close to the building, probably so he can see it from his room, which is at the front of the hotel because that’s what he asks for. Cleveland’s got the coke and guns with him in the room, but he wants to make sure no one is snooping around his stolen car—a cop, say, or an idiot kid looking for a joyride.

  Cleveland stays the night.

  Then goes downstairs in the morning to check out of the hotel, finds himself enveloped by cheery blond-haired and blue-eyed Michiganers for Jesus, which is bad, then finds out there’s no coffee, which is worse, so he loads up his car, walks over to the Linderhof, grabs a cup of coffee, and comes out to find his Mustang gone and a half-naked man standing in the parking lot.

  Cleveland had played it cool with Jeffrey. The man’s casual tip of his hat said it all. This wasn’t his first rodeo. You didn’t get to be a black man traveling up the northeastern corridor with a carload of coke and guns without having a pair of brass ones. No wonder the DEA was on this guy’s trail. The murder charge would bring even more resources into what was probably shaping up to be an interstate trafficking investigation, possibly a RICO charge. Cleveland could be either the tip of the iceberg or, better yet, the tip of the spear.

  Jeffrey picked up the pace as he walked toward the alleyway. His sneakers became soaked with snow. His jeans wicked up the cold as he approached the Mustang that was not his Mustang. The police tape was floating in the wind, torn in two and flapping off the side mirrors like flags outside a used car dealership.

  He stopped by the driver’s-side door, took his keys out of his pocket, trying to think how Nora would’ve worked it. He imagined her running out of the Schussel, probably right when Cleveland was going into the Linderhof to score his coffee. She spots the Mustang parked out front, runs toward it, jams the car key into the door lock—

  That wasn’t right.

  The door would’ve been unlocked, because Cleveland had used a slim jim to open the door. He could see where the gasket had been sliced by the flat, hooked piece of metal that had been used to pull up the locking mechanism.

  So she opened the car door.

  He did the same.

  Then she’d climbed in.

  So did he, giving himself a second to enjoy the sensation of not being battered by hurricane-like winds. The car was bright white inside from the snow on all the windows. He found the ignition switch. Dash mounted, the same as his. Some engineer at Ford had had the bright idea to add a little sidebar hole in the face of the ignition switch. You slide the key in the ignition and turned it to Accessory, then bent open a paper clip and shoved it into the hole. Voilà. The cylinder inside the ignition switch popped out.

  You needed a key to do this, of course, but the thing about the ignition switch on a ’68 Mustang is that it’s twenty-five years old. He was twenty-six and wasn’t holding up so well himself. The pins inside the cylinder weakened over time, so all you had to do was jimmy in a flathead screwdriver, or a pocketknife, turn it gently to the left, push in the paper clip, and pop out the cylinder.

  A pro could do this in under ten seconds. A really smart pro, someone who wanted to be able to easily crank the engine again and again, possibly on a trip up from Florida, through Georgia, and onto farther points north with some coke and guns in the trunk, would shave down the tumblers inside the cylinder so that any key would turn on the engine.

  Which he was able to do with the key to his own Mustang.

  The engine coughed and sputtered against the freezing temperature. He pumped the gas to keep it going. While he was at it, he turned up the heater. Cold air blew in his face.

  Now what?

  He sat back in the seat, trying to consider his options. The kid at the hotel needed a second round, but not enough time had passed. Whatever he was lying about needed to fester like a rusted piece of metal inside his intestines.

  Corinna was at the funeral home, but he doubted he’d get much out of the grieving mother, and besides, he wasn’t exactly working with the blessing of the locals. There was a fine line between what Chief DuPree would see as helping and what might come across as hindering.

  Double up on the mountain was an obvious suspect to follow—drug dealer, connected to the victim—but he knew better than to go into some desolate holler without someone watching his back.

  Not to mention that the snow was accumulating, which to a person living in the South was the most bloodcurdling thing that snow could ever do. Cars would be abandoned. Children would be locked behind doors. Grocery stores would be purged of milk, bread, kerosene, toilet paper, and Cheetos—all the vital necessities.

  Anna Ruby Falls was half an hour drive and a quick hike into the Chattahoochee National Forest. The kid at the Shussel had said Double and his family lived on Millar Road. Second trailer on the right. American flag. Double’s neighbors would be watching out the windows. They might be involved in the family business, or making money off not being involved. Around these parts, crack was the new moonshine. The same people you saw in church on Sunday were the same people dealing on Monday.

  He tried to turn on the wipers. The motor sent back a pained groan over the weight of
the snow. He cut the engine and looked at his key, making sure the jimmied lock hadn’t damaged it. He could see white breaths in the air in front of his face.

  The radio clock read 4:01.

  The roads would be locked up by sundown, not because of the snow, but because even when it was cold, it always got warm enough in the afternoon to melt the snow, then it got cold enough to freeze it and come rush hour, people who thought they were driving home in the snow realized that they were sliding across sheets of ice.

  All this talk about snow made him think of something.

  He reached down and pulled the trunk release. He got out of the car, shivering like a beat-down dog as the wind cut open his skin. He had to squint his eyes almost closed as he walked to the back of the Mustang and pushed up the trunk.

  The guns were still there.

  The brick of coke was still there, but there had to be more than one brick of coke, otherwise, why bother?

  “Shit,” he mumbled.

  He didn’t have to think hard about how this had gone down. The chief, freaking out about the murder, the death notification, the hit to his budget, the risk to his department’s reputation, had run off to make phone calls, but not before telling Officer Paulson to secure the car. Paulson had put up the tape thinking that no one would violate the sacred words that beseeched all good citizens to DO NOT CROSS. Then he’d clapped his Jolly Green Giant hands together and ho-ho-ho’d off thinking job well done.

  “Shit,” he repeated.

  He would have to call A. Fuller and tell her to come get the coke and the guns. And then he would have to listen to her tell him that Alabama was going to be ranked number one or two this year, depending on where Florida State fell.

  “What have we got here?”

  He turned around.

  The question had been posed by a guy with a northern accent who stood like a cop, legs apart, shoulders relaxed. He had a sidekick, another cop, a little younger, with a Glock in hand.

  Police issued, it seemed.

  The sidekick said, “Looks like we’ve got a guy with a bunch of guns and some coke in his trunk.”

  The older guy said, “At least he’s put on some pants.”

  4:04 P.M.

  “HOLSTER THE SIDE ARM,” JOE told Lincoln Perry.

  Joe had heard decent things about Detective Jeffrey Tolliver of Birmingham, Alabama, already from the DEA, and the surveillance video had proven beyond question that he hadn’t killed anyone today. But more important, Tolliver hadn’t packed up his shit and headed home once they kicked him loose from the holding cell. Joe had an idea that he was going to like the reason why.

  “How long you been out of that cell?” he asked.

  “Less than an hour.”

  “And you’re here nosing around the car. Why?”

  There was a little spark in the other man’s eyes that Joe liked an awful lot when Tolliver said, “A woman was gut shot in an alley and left to die. They never charged me, never searched me or my room or my car, and never asked me why I was here or what I was doing. The fact that I was locked up until the second shift came on—which consists solely of the chief’s wife—leads me to believe that the locals aren’t all that good at the detecting business.”

  “So you came back here to work,” Joe said, which was exactly what he’d have done in Tolliver’s shoes.

  Or shoe, as it were.

  Tolliver nodded. “It’s been made clear that my help isn’t wanted, but it seems like they could use it.”

  Joe said, “Okay. Here’s what I’d like to suggest. You close that trunk before we compromise the scene any more than already has been done, which would take some real effort.”

  Tolliver closed the trunk with his elbow.

  “We’ve got a surveillance video that will clear you completely, if they’re still talking about charges,” Joe said. “But we’ve also got a few questions. We came down here from Ohio to serve a warrant on the guy who did shoot the girl. What we’ve been told is that you think she stole your car. But this isn’t your car.”

  Tolliver told him about the shaved tumblers, his theory about Antonio going to get a cup of coffee at the wrong place at the wrong time. He ended with, “Nora probably saw the Mustang on my key, thought she had the right ride, and ended up making the last mistake of her life.”

  “The first cop who was on scene. What did you think of him?”

  “Paulson?” He didn’t look impressed. “Young. Built like a radio antennae. Real jittery.”

  “Jittery because he’s young, or jittery because he was scared?”

  “Both, I guess.” Tolliver cocked his head and studied Joe through the falling snow. “Why’re you asking?”

  Joe blew on his hands to warm them and then said, “Why don’t we talk in the car. Our car. We’ll drive, you ride, we’ll talk.”

  “Where are we going?”

  “I’ve got three possible addresses in the mountains for a guy named Double Simpson, who may have been waiting to inherit a stolen Mustang from his sister this morning.”

  “I can pin that down for you. Millar Road near the falls. Second trailer on the right. I heard he’s a small-time pimp, wannabe big-time pusher. Runs his own sister. And mother.”

  Joe winced. “Terrific. I was cautioned that the mother was the type who’d come out shooting if she saw a strange car pulling into the drive. You good to ride along with us? I’d like you to, and we can’t stand here in the snow chatting. Got to move.”

  “You’re acting like a guy who knows more than he’s saying.”

  “I am,” Joe said. “One reason is up there.” He pointed at the gunmetal sky that was spitting snow. “And the other reason is that to my understanding the same police who managed to confuse a white cop from Alabama for a black gangbanger from Cleveland and neglected to review security cameras that were sitting right on top of the damned crime scene are due back in town any minute. At which point, I suspect my chance to get out of here without their escort diminishes dramatically. And based on the surveillance videos I saw, I do not want to be escorted into the hills by those boys. But we need to hear what you’ve got to say, Detective. Now, you want to ride along, or you want to stick here, or go on home and take a shower and get some sleep? I won’t fault you that, with the day you’ve had.”

  “I’ll go with you,” Tolliver said, and Joe smiled.

  He liked this guy just fine.

  The debate about who was going to drive began before they even reached the rented Malibu. Tolliver said he should, because he knew the area. Joe wanted to drive because he held rank in the situation, out of state or not. He was the man with the warrant and the instructions from the DEA. Lincoln Perry, on the other hand, wanted the wheel because of the weather and his supposed skill in such conditions.

  “It’s coming down hard and only going to get worse,” Perry said. “My father was an ambulance driver in Cleveland. I learned how to handle snow and ice. I’m not letting some southerner who probably gets gun-shy at the first flurry drive me off a mountain, and based on the way you rode the brake on the way up here, Joe, we’ll take six hours to get six miles.”

  “Wouldn’t have gotten here at all, if I’d been reckless.”

  “Christ,” Tolliver said. “Give him the keys, if it’ll shut him up.”

  Joe didn’t love that. He hated to ride; the passenger seat always gave him an uneasy feeling. But he did want to talk to Tolliver while they traveled, and he couldn’t take notes and drive at the same time.

  He tossed Perry the keys. “Just don’t pull a Barney Oldfield on us, now.”

  “Who’s that?” Perry and Tolliver asked in unison.

  Joe sighed.

  Kids.

  By the time they were ten miles out of town, two things were clear. Jeffrey Tolliver was a good cop plagued by a god-awful taste in women, and this storm was serious business.

  The flakes fell from the sky the way only a hard rain should, more thundershower than snowstorm, and the accumulation rate was
staggering. They passed only one home-brew utility truck, which consisted of an old guy sitting on the open tailgate, spreading sand and salt from five-gallon buckets. The roads were mostly empty, all the locals hunkering down to wait it out. That was about the only good thing that could be said of their conditions. The weather was bad, the road worse. They just kept climbing, winding up, up, up into the snow-covered mountains that suddenly looked as if they belonged to the Rockies, not north Georgia. Perry had turned the radio on and the announcer seemed in disbelief as he read the latest report.

  “The National Weather Service is predicting an expected twenty inches in the Cleveland and Rome area, with heavier accumulations locally. Now, the same paper in my hand says that the all-time record is twelve inches, so that should speak for itself. Stay off
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