As my thanks for your visit, please enjoy this except from my upcoming book, Watching, a detective novel set in and around Detroit, Michigan.
George pulled into a driveway and rang the doorbell of a comfy little Saline home. Earl, nearing retirement age now, but never more capable-looking, answered the door and smiled.
“Well, here he is: the man himself.”
“Hey, Uncle Earl.”
Earl embraced him with genuine warmth. “Come on in here.”
A woman’s touch sang from every drape, end table and cabinet in the living room and dining room, but a cared-for throwback stereo system in the basement rec room announced the territory Earl had staked out for himself. Decades-old, wood-encased tower speakers, each over four feet tall, hogged two of the room’s corners. Shelves full of vinyl-album covers and CD cases lined the walls. Though he had never picked up an instrument in his life, this shrine to jazz would have rivaled any assembled by a musician.
Earl put on a CD—the Tony Malaby Trio’s Tamarindo—and nodded George to an easy chair. They listened to a few bars of the threesome’s free jazz roll “Floating Head” before Earl threw him an impish glance.
“Too scary for you? I know you tend to get seasick over time you can’t count.”
“It’s fine. Countable time’s not the issue—but I do need to be able to feel it.”
“You can’t feel that pulse? Here I got two decades on you, but you are so Old School. Beer?”
“No, I'm good. What you been up to?”
Earl got a bottle from a small fridge in the corner and sat. “Same old same old: making a living, injuring nobody.”
“Uh-huh. They catch you at it you'll be fightin' to keep the cage-hounds from injuring that old ass.”
“You let me worry about my old ass. How about you? You ever think about playing music again? You were too good to just let it go.”
“Good enough to know my limitations. Besides, the sleuthing gig is growing up pretty nice lately.”
“Then you're the one should be watching his ass: a sneaky-lookin’ brother nosin’ around other folks’ business all day long. How's Karla doing?
“Good, good.... Justine around?”
“At work…. Why, what's up?”
“I just need some info about a colleague of yours.”
“ ‘Colleague,’ huh?” Earl laughed. “Who we talking about?”
“You still keep up with Donald Penn?”
What flashed across his uncle’s eyes before he answered fed George the first real doubt he’d had since Monica’s office. “Shit, keep the hell out of his way is more like it.”
“No dealings with him at all?”
“No safe way to deal with him. That cat's got no discernible sense of humor since he came up in the world. Fact is, he's a ten times bigger crook as a businessman than he ever was as a legitimate criminal.”
“For one thing, he’s a grabby son of a bitch. Reason he hasn't got a record is in the old days he never reached too big. Don stuck to the petty sins—no complications.”
“But he's scheming heavy nowadays.”
“Oh yeah. Believes himself ascendant. And the man likes his intimidation: blackmail if he’s got the material, but no qualms whatsoever about strong-arm. You can bet there are bodies below ground.”
“Just check out the company he keeps: two big-ass chest-thumpers full-time, with more rented as needed. His big trick, though, is keeping the general public ignorant about the part of him that's a straight-up desperado. He's got that corporate exterior and that smooth delivery; but under the skin, entirely different animal. Me, I'm all about keeping my distance.”
“But you still pick up stuff, right? I can't see you not talking to people.”
“I listen to people. I'm a scholar of social interaction. ”
It was George’s turn to laugh. “Naturally. So you know any reason why he might be interested in the student-housing business?”
“You talking about his thing with that smiling Negro, Devereaux?” George was pleased to see real admiration in his uncle’s eyes. Earl Gaines was not easy to impress. “How'd you hear about that? Ain't exactly advertised.”
“That's why I came to the horse's mouth. What's up between those two?”
“Details I don't have. But I know it's not about business.”
“Aren’t they partners?”
“One way to look at it.”
Earl watched him and drew from his beer bottle. George knew that he was weighing the wisdom of sharing certain information, and said nothing. A Detroit resident most of his life, Earl knew the city from skyscraper to sewer. He respected the outlaws and held cautious contempt for the politicians—black and white. Whatever he chose to share or not share with his sister’s son would hinge on a desire to protect him from anything Earl believed he didn’t understand well enough to protect himself. His uncle would open up or he wouldn’t; there would be no debate involved.
“Word is,” he said, making his decision, “that transaction was all about stroking the lion. Devereaux pissed Penn off, then he had to pay him off.”
“Pissed him off how?”
“How you piss off any thief? You steal from him.”