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Excerpt Reveal: City Walls by Loren D. Estleman

City WallsCity Walls, the next Amos Walker novel from a Grand Master. “Loren D. Estleman is my hero.”—Harlan Coben

The search for a fugitive embezzler leads Amos Walker to Cleveland, where he is hired by Emmett Yale, a leading figure in the electric car industry, to investigate the murder of his stepson. Yale believes that his stepson’s hitman is connected to Clare Strickling, a former employee, and his attempts to silence whispers that he has bought illegal insider-trading information.

Walker shadows Strickling to a private airfield as he attempts to flee the country–only to then witness his murder. The twisted web of lies and deceit surrounding both deaths forces Walker to question the motivations of everyone he encounters, from Major Jack Flagg, an elderly barnstormer, Palm Volker, the attractive aviatrix who runs the airfield, Candido, a surly maintenance worker employed by Palm, and Gabe Parrish, a retired boxer. Naturally, everyone has secrets to keep–but the truths lurking beneath the surface this time may make this Walker’s final case.

City Walls will be available on April 4th, 2023. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

I sewed up the Dowling case in less than a day, and committed only one misdemeanor. That was the record.

Fred Dowling had chiseled half a million from the credit union where he was treasurer, converted it to paper, and headed toward Central America, but he got only as far as Cleveland; which if you wanted to make a joke of it was punishment in itself. I didn’t. You can’t get better pizza anywhere.

All the credit union wanted was its money back. That was all. I said sure thing. When you need the work the truth just gets in the way.

I paid a call on his wife in Royal Oak, and got a strike on the first cast. She’d been taking online courses in Spanish and Portuguese, depending on which country the couple wound up in; only when it came time to go, he forgot her along with the AC/DC converter. She found a phone number belonging to a Carmen Castor when she jimmied open a drawer in his desk. It was on the Cleveland exchange, but when she tried calling the number several times, no one picked up. Anyway it was a place to start.

The address was in a duplex in Lakewood, a suburb on the Erie shore. It was a Siamese twin of a building with identical front doors and windows in reverse mirror-image. Carmen’s bell didn’t answer. The woman who lived next door, whose features all tapered to a point, told me her neighbor’s business wasn’t any of hers; but I might try Black-and-White Taxi. That was the sign on the cab Carmen had piled into yesterday with about six months’ worth of luggage. Seventeen was the number of the cab. It wasn’t any of her business, she said again.

Black-and-White operated out of a tin hut on top of an underground garage. Rows of keys hung on the back wall, attached to miniature soccer balls. The red-headed dispatcher poked my twenty into a breast pocket with Larry scripted across it, ran a finger down his clipboard, and said the driver I wanted was off duty; another twenty would get me the address to his house. I got it from a hack I found smoking near the garage ramp for five. That took me back east toward Edgewater Park, but the contact there was more generous still, and directed me to the St. Clair Hotel downtown in return for half a pack of cigarettes; he’d run out.

Cleveland’s a good town that doesn’t know it isn’t supposed to be ugly, so it’s quaint. But the granite Indians flanking the bridge over the Cuyahoga always make my skin crawl. In addition to being unpretentious and comfortably dowdy, the place is haunted.

The St. Clair was built to accommodate the visitors that would throng to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and for a while they had. Then the novelty had turned dirty yellow along with the synthetic alabaster façade; but the hotel still attracted enough convention interest to keep up appearances, at least in the lobby. Deep braided chairs stood about any old way on machine-made Navajo rugs and the fleshy leaves belonging to the plants had holes chewed in them; you can’t fool bugs with plastic. Everything was just a little bit shabby, but still genteel, if only for the time being, like country tweeds broken in by the butler so they won’t whistle while the master strolls the grounds.

I screwed my flanks into the hollow in a cushion and waited. I had a view of the concierge’s desk. The sun was sinking and the supper crowd had begun to line up there to find out the best places to eat. Embezzlers had expensive tastes; I was counting on that. If Dowling didn’t show up there that night, I’d have to try something else.

It was the last week of September. The open air of the lobby was a little chilly; here in what the Coastals call the Heartland, we shut down the air conditioners on Labor Day and don’t turn on the heat before Halloween. A little pneumonia is a small price to pay for life on the Great Lakes. Most of those in line had on light topcoats.

The queue petered out just as it got dark outside. I was getting up to go out for a smoke when the elevator doors opened and Dowling came out with a blonde on his arm. She wasn’t tall, she had heavy features, and nothing she wore matched. That made her just the sort of woman a man who spent most of his time balancing numbers on his nose would choose to run off with. Round-faced and scowling, with a hairline that started practically at his eyebrows, he had on a knee-length gray coat with a fake fur collar. It looked a little well-insulated and way too bulky for the first frost of autumn, but maybe he was more delicate than he appeared. They crossed to the concierge’s desk.

“Mr. and Mrs. Donner,” he said to the woman sitting there. “We’re in four-twenty-seven.”

Just then a party of six came down the stairs, making enough noise to drown out the conversation. They were evenly divided as to sex, and whatever they’d been drinking was so thick it came with its own humidity. I didn’t try to get close enough to overhear what was being said at the desk. Instead I took a page from the detective’s manual and rode the elevator to the fourth floor.

Four-twenty-seven was designed to open with a magnetic card, but a latch is a latch. I pulled out the spring-steel strip that helped my wallet keep its shape, poked the end between the door and the frame, twisted the knob, and applied pressure until the latch snapped back into its socket.

The room was upholstered in ultra-suede, with a queen bed that had been romped on and then smeared all over with skirts and blouses and control-top pantyhose, the way some women unpack when they’re going out for the evening. There were more women’s clothes in the closet, a couple of men’s suits, luggage, and a small steel safe that opened with a tin key that would go out with the guest when he did. The suitcases gave me nothing and the bureau drawers could wait. The safe locked with a dead bolt, so I went to work with a set of dental picks I carry around for fun. It took ten minutes, and all I got was a flowered jewelry wrap that Carmen Castor filled with junk from a shopping channel.

I tossed the rest of the room, put everything back the way I’d found it, and let myself back out. I wasn’t disappointed; I might have been, if a man smart enough to bilk a financial institution with branches in six states was dope enough to leave the swag in a hotel room. Likewise, too many employees had access to the safe in the lobby for comfort. Dowling’s car was out, too. That was even easier to break into than a toy safe.

There was only one place left; but I’d known that right along. The rest was just routine.

I had to shake my head. Embezzlers are a slap in the face of honest crime. Their cleverness never extends beyond the act itself.

The concierge was a tiny woman of thirty or so, either Polynesian or part Japanese, in a smart suit with clear polish on her nails. She belonged on a key chain.

“I’m meeting Mr. and Mrs. Donner for dinner,” I said. “My secretary misplaced the name of the restaurant. Did they happen to stop by and ask you for directions?”

She looked at the card I’d given her. I didn’t remember who Adam Windsor was or how his card had found its way into my collection, but investment counselor has the solid ring of probity.

“Are you a guest at the hotel?”

“I haven’t checked in yet. I got here late. A tanker rolled over in Dundee.”

She gave back the card. “Curious thing. Mr. Donner asked me to recommend a restaurant. He didn’t know what it was until I suggested it.”

I thought about the cash I’d brought. It’s as much a tool of the trade as a set of lock picks, but so’s instinct: She wasn’t for sale. I put on an embarrassed grin. “Busted. I’ve got just till the end of the month to make quota or I’m out. My daughter wants a big wedding.”

“And I’ll bet your mother needs an operation. Do I need to bother security?”

I said that wouldn’t be necessary.

A yellow SUV with St. Clair Hotel pulled up under the canopy while I was standing in front of the door weighing my options. The driver, middle-aged, in a brown uniform and baseball cap, got out. His face was a topographical map of broken blood vessels and his nose was running.

It was a hunch. Hotels that offer a shuttle service usually direct guests to theaters and restaurants who pay to be on their route. The driver was jumpy enough to need a toot, but alert enough to recognize the couple’s description. I had a fresh fifty twined around my forefinger. He slid it off without waiting for me to unwrap it. “Blue Giraffe.” He gave me the address.

“What sort of place is it?”

“They make you wear a tie.”

That was perfect.

I stopped at two men’s stores on the way. The first couldn’t help me. The next sold me a thigh-length gray coat with a fake fur collar. It was snug, but fit okay as long as I didn’t button it. I wore it to the restaurant.

It was a rambling building of many styles, set smack in the middle of a six-lane boulevard so that the traffic was forced to flow around it in both directions. The parking lot would have served a drive-in movie. It screamed roadhouse, but a valet parking stand and only the sky-blue silhouette of a giraffe on the canopy to identify it said the gentry had come along since Prohibition to rescue it from bad company.

I left the car where the rest of the skinflints parked to avoid tipping and thanked a character in a safari outfit for sparing me the ordeal of opening the front door. Inside was a buzz of pleasant conversation, a tasteful mural of animals that don’t usually get along gathered around a watering hole, and a podium for the hostess, an aristocratic six-one in a red sheath with a diamond clip on one shoulder strap. She wore some kind of glitter that drew attention to her collarbone; I wondered how she knew that was my weakness. I told her I didn’t have a reservation.

“We should have something in twenty minutes,” she said. “You can wait at the bar.” She tilted her highlighted head toward the coat check station.

“Thanks, I’ll keep it with me.”

“It’s required, I’m afraid. The fire code.”

I smiled and said thanks. Some days just keep getting better and better.

The coat check station was a square opening in a wall you had to walk around to get to the dining room. The clerk had on a bush jacket just like the doorman, without the leopard-band hat. It all seemed a long way to go to make a connection.

He stopped playing with his phone as I approached, a pallid type dressed for big game with not much hair on his head. He gave me a square of cardboard with a letter and a number on it and turned to slip my coat onto a hanger. An identical coat hung near it. While his back was to me I leaned in and spotted an open twenty-ounce bottle of Mountain Dew on the shelf below the sill: another break.

I left him and took a seat on a bench by the front door. From there I could see the clerk when I turned my head. When you apply for an investigator’s license, sitting is part of the road test.

He went on monkeying with his phone, using just one thumb every time he helped himself to Dew. He had a bladder made of crocodile hide; but I was more patient. Against the smells from the kitchen, the drive-in at Wendy’s was a distant memory.

Finally he came out the narrow door next to the opening and turned down the hall to the restrooms without ever looking up from his gizmo. I stood, stretched, and strolled over to his station.

The door was unlocked. I stepped past where my coat was hanging and took its twin off its hanger. It was nearly twice as heavy as mine, but just to make sure I gave the nylon lining a slap. It might have been stuffed with supermarket coupons, but I doubted it. I shrugged into the coat, holding onto the scrap of cardboard as I stepped outside. If the clerk came back and caught me I could always claim I was in a hurry and mistook the coat for mine. A twenty folded around the check wouldn’t hurt.

The coast was clear, thanks to kidneys and caffeine.

I kept the coat on as I drove, sweating a little from the extra insulation. I didn’t take it off until I checked into a Holiday Inn Express near the ramp to I-80 and locked the door behind me. I used my pocket knife to pop a few threads, enough to pull out a pack of American Express traveler’s checks and riffle through them. There must have been several dozen packs like it, with stitches all the way around to keep each from shifting; an inexpert job, but thorough. I returned the pack to its niche and ordered pizza. The deliveryman frowned at my fifty.

“Got anything smaller?’

I grinned. “Sorry.”

Afterward I bunched up the coat to make a pillow while I slept. That was as far as it would get from my hands until I turned it over to the client.

I was a rich man for a night; but I should have driven straight home. Good-luck days never come back-to-back. The next is always as bad as they get.


Click below to pre-order your copy of City Walls, coming April 4th, 2023!

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