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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Nameless Detective Novel

Nameless Detective Novels (Volume 33)

Bill Pronzini

Forge Books


I couldn't seem to get used to the location of the new offices. The first week after we moved in, I found myself twice on successive mornings heading toward O'Farrell Street instead of south of Market. Automatic pilot. I'd occupied the old space for a lot of years, dating back to my partnership with Eberhardt. A lot of years and a lot of memories, some bad—like the events of last Christmas that had been the catalyst for the move—but most of them fairly good. Funny, but I was having more difficulty letting go of the musty, crusty O'Farrell loft than I'd had giving up the Pacific Heights flat I'd leased for three decades. No regrets or backward looks there, after I handed over the key on January first.
There was nothing wrong with the new digs. They were at least a couple of steps upscale, in fact. Larger than the loft by half, three good-sized, newly renovated, partly furnished rooms plus private bathroom on the second floor of an old, three-storied, salmon-colored building on South Park. Above us we had an art studio, below us we had a firm of architects, and outside the front windows we had a view of the little tree-shaded park and the architectural mixed bag that housed private residences, cafes, and small businesses like ours. We also had a five-year lease at a surprisingly reasonable monthly nut. Ever since the dot-com industry collapse, prime office space in the city had gone begging and real estate firms and holding companies were only too glad to cut a deal in order to fill a vacancy long-term. An even better deal had been offered to us in Multimedia Gulch, the section between Potrero Hill and the Mission that had been a dot-com haven during the short-lived boom and was now something of a business ghost town, but neither Tamara nor I had much cared for the location. Too far from downtown, for one thing; and there was a small but persistent stigma attached to the area that extended to new firms moving in, as if a Gulch address were a brand of eventual failure.
South Park, on the other hand, was a well-regarded, ellipzoidal chunk of Bohemian-era San Francisco tucked between Second and Third, Brannan and Bryant. In the 1860s it had been the center of the Rincon Hill residential district, home of the city's wealthiest families. After the seat of wealth and fashion shifted to Nob Hill, South Park had had an up-and-down history—mostly down until the 1970s, when urban renewal created SoMa and South Beach and turned South Park back into a desirable high spot. From a business point of view it had a couple of downsides: It was near the Bay Bridge approach and inclined to be noisy, and street parking was at a premium and garage facilities neither in close proximity nor reasonably priced. But those were minor compared to the upsides of location, size, and cheap rent. The new offices were only half a dozen blocks from the financial district, another half dozen from the Ferry Building and the waterfront and the bridge.
Tamara was the one who had orchestrated the move. Haggled with the real estate agent, arranged the transfer of the few furnishings and other equipment worth salvaging from O'Farrell Street, set up the new offices. All Jake Runyon, the agency's new field operative, and I did was some donkey work and arranging of personal space. That was fine with me. Tamara was good at handling details, and she had a long-range vision as to what the agency could and should be if it was going to continue to grow. South Park had been her idea; so had an aggressive advertising campaign to go along with the usual change-of-address notification sent out to our client list.
I suppose that was the underlying reason why, after three months, I still couldn't quite adapt to the new digs. On O'Farrell Street and in the offices prior, the agency had been mine alone—I was the sole proprietor for most of the thirty-plus years I'd been in the detective business. Here on South Park, the agency was Tamara's. New surroundings, new direction. The passing of the baton, the old and settled giving way to the young and ambitious. Fundamentally I had no problem with that; hell, if I had I wouldn't have decided to semiretire and make her a full partner. I was still one of the bosses, nothing of importance was done without my input, and yet I couldn't help a certain feeling of displacement, of being left behind. Made me feel sad now and then. Maybe it was just a function of incipient old age and a lifelong resistance to change. Kerry thought so, and she's a lot smarter than I am.
In any event, there was no question that Tamara knew what she was doing. At the ripe old age of twenty-six she's also smarter than I am. The move and the advertising had paid off much more quickly than I'd expected. Now, in early April, business was booming to the point where we were probably going to have to hire yet another operative to help handle the caseload. As it was, I was working four days and sometimes a full week—nearly twice the number of hours I'd promised Kerry, Emily, and myself when I semiretired. Runyon was putting in sixty-hour weeks, but he was a recent widower, estranged from his son by his also-deceased first wife, and a workaholic. Tamara logged in even more time than that. Now that her cellist boyfriend, Horace, had moved to Philadelphia, and she was living alone, she'd taken to compensating in the same workaholic fashion as Runyon. She'd even begun to do a little of the fieldwork, after hours, ostensibly because she wanted to learn more about that end of the business, but mainly, I suspected, because it helped keep loneliness at bay.
So here I was at South Park bright and early on Monday morning, ready to tackle another full day's workload. The desk in the big anteroom was empty; that was the one Runyon used when he was in, which wasn't often. Right now he was in L.A., on a skip trace connected to a homicide trial for a prominent local defense attorney. The room was big, sunny on sunny days like this one, the walls dove-gray with what Kerry called "black accents," the new furniture stylish black leather-and-chrome. One of these days, if Tamara had her way, there'd be another desk and a secretary/receptionist behind it. I had no doubt that it would happen in the foreseeable future. Nor any doubt that under her guidance the agency would one day be as large or larger than McCone Investigations, down on the Embarcadero—maybe spawn a couple of satellites in other cities. She was not only a smart businesswoman, she had ambition and an entrepreneurial turn of mind.
The two private offices at the rear were side by side, the one on the west a little larger—the bathroom had been added on to the east-side office—and with the better view. She'd insisted I take the larger one; I insisted she have it. We'd wrangled a little, but as the senior partner I had the final say. When I walked into the east office this morning, I could see her at her desk through the connecting door, which we kept open unless one of us was with a client. She was in her usual pose, hunched over her computer keyboard, a study today in dark brown and spring yellow. There'd been a time when she dressed like a character in a bad street movie, but that was long past. Now she wore suits and blouses and shoes with designer labels and had her hair done by professionals instead of self-styling it with an eggbeater or whatever she'd used.
She'd changed, Ms. Corbin had, in the five years since she'd first come to work for me. And considerably in the four months since the holiday ordeal in our old offices on O'Farrell Street—a hostage situation in which she and Runyon and I had come close to dying at the hands of a madman armed with an arsenal of weapons. That experience seemed to have had a profound effect on her. She was less prickly now, less inclined to grumble and to sudden mood swings, more coolly professional in her dealings with clients. More self-assured, as if she understood herself better and was more comfortable in her own skin. Even her speech was less peppered with the Ebonic and slang phrases she'd sometimes wielded like tools of self-defense. She still had her sense of humor, but it didn't have the edge it once had and she didn't put me on quite as often as she once did. In a way I missed the old Tamara, but I had even greater admiration and affection for the new one.
She was wrapped up in what she was doing and didn't notice me at first. I shed my coat, thumped my briefcase down on the desk, and then entered her office.
"Morning, kiddo."
"Morning," she said without looking up. "I heard you come in."
"Sure you did. Ever vigilant."
"How's that for an agency motto? ‘Ever Vigilant.' "
"Retro. Like ‘We Never Sleep.' "
"Don't let anybody who works for Pinkerton hear you say that. How was your weekend?"
She said, "Quiet," and then amended it to "Busy. Worked most of Saturday."
"Now you're picking up my bad habits. What happened to your social life?"
"Club scene? Guys with booze on their breath hitting on me? Who needs it?"
"There are other things to do with your friends."
"Not when they've all got love lives."
"Maybe you should take a few days off, fly to Philadelphia."
"Too much work to do here."
"Can't Horace get away?"
"Symphony season's already started back there. He's got no time for anything except that cello of his."
That sounded a little ominous. I wanted to ask her if everything was okay with her and Horace, but I didn't do it. She'd been reticent about their relationship lately, and prodding her would not have gotten me anywhere. Three and a half months apart is a long time; biweekly phone conversations just aren't enough to keep a long-distance romance burning hot. It had to be a strain on both of them. In fact . . .
"Can I ask you a personal question, Tamara?"
"Long as it's not about Horace."
"It's not. I'm just curious . . . have you been on a diet?"
"How come you asking that?"
"Well, you're looking pretty svelte these days."
"Didn't think you'd noticed."
"Trained professionals notice everything. Ever vigilant."
"Uh-huh. Well, I've lost twelve pounds so far."
"By choice?"
"What, you think I quit eating ‘cause I'm pining away for Horace?"
"No, no . . ."
"Well, don't worry. I'm losing weight for me, nobody else. Just got tired of looking at myself naked in the mirror. Love handles are okay, but I had bulges big enough for a couple of 49ers' linemen to hold on to."
I let that pass. "What kind of diet are you on?"
"Slim•Fast and rabbit food. Yummy. But I'm used to it, now."
"How much more are you planning to lose?"
"Eight or ten pounds. Until I can wear a size eight without looking like a sack of cookie dough."
"Hot stuff."
"Yeah, well, there's still my big booty and my face. Can't do much about either of those."
"What's wrong with your face?"
"Hah. No competition for Halle Berry, that's for sure."
"Who's Halle Berry?"
"You're kidding, right?"
"I'm not kidding. Who's Halle Berry?"
"Where you been lately? First African-American woman to win a best actress Oscar. Real hot stuff."
I said, "Oh," because I see maybe one new film a year that Kerry recommends, avoid newspapers and the TV news, and pay no attention to actors or the Oscars.
"Lot of modern film critics think Louise Beavers should've won one way back in the 1930s," Tamara said, "but you know how blacks were treated in those days. In and out of Hollywood."
"Who's Louise Beavers?"
"Come on now. Don't tell me you never saw Imitation of Life. As many old movies as you scope on TV?"
"That tearjerker with Claudette Colbert?"
"And Louise Beavers. Delilah. Everydamnbody overlooks her and she stole the picture."
"I've seen it, but not in a long time. Since when do you watch old movies?"
"Since I was about ten, if they have black folks in ‘em. Don't know me as well as you think you do, huh?"
"Evidently not. Sorry."
"For what?" She gave me one of her looks. "Beavers," she said.
"Right, Louise Beavers."
"I'm thinking other beavers now. You know who Beaver Cleaver was?"
"No. Who?"
"Leave It to Beaver. ‘Oh, Ward, we just have to do something about the Beaver.' "
"Take that two ways," she said.
"Take what two ways?"
"I don't get what you mean."
"Don't you know what a beaver is?"
"Of course I know."
"Fur-bearing mammal. Buck teeth, flat tail, and dam-building skills."
"I mean the other kind."
"There isn't any other kind."
"That's what you think."
"What're you talking about?"
"Beaver. Slang term."
"Slang term for what?"
"You really don't know, huh?"
"I really don't know."
"I'll bet Kerry knows." Mischievous old-Tamara grin. "Why don't you ask her tonight when you get home?"
"I'll do that," I lied. If I did, judging from that grin, I would regret it. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. "So what's on the agenda for today? Any new business?"
"Nothing so far," Tamara said. "But I turned up a possible lead on the deadbeat dad case."
"Which case is that? Oh, the split-fee from the Ballard Agency?"
"Yup. Turns out George DeBrissac has a cousin who lives in Antioch and owns a second house in San Leandro. Rental property. Five months since the last tenants left, but it was taken off the market three months ago and there's no record of it being rented at that time or since."
"How long since DeBrissac skipped Portland?"
"Just about three months."
"Could be coincidence."
"Hah," she said.
Right. In our business, the old "if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck" axiom usually applies. This was particularly true in deadbeat dad cases. They tend to be the easiest skips we're called on to find, since the individuals are generally middle-class types with little or no criminal history and some traceable source of steady income. George DeBrissac was a well-paid freelance accountant with Bay Area ties; it stood to reason that when he ran out on his ex-wife and two kids in Portland, he would head straight for northern California. The Ballard Detective Agency up there, hired by the ex-wife, had figured the same thing; so they'd called us and farmed out the hard part of the job for half the fee, one of those cooperative deals that become necessary when the client isn't wealthy enough and the fee isn't large enough for the primary agency to send one of its own operatives out of state. The case was Tamara's, for the most part. She hadn't had any luck yet in finding out where DeBrissac was working, if he was working, but now maybe it didn't matter. The relative's house in San Leandro looked like a strong lead—just the sort of place a not-too-imaginative skip would pick to hole up.