Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Nameless Detective Novel

Nameless Detective Novels (Volume 34)

Bill Pronzini

Forge Books


Chapter One

It was a small, private funeral at the Glade Brothers Mortuary in Daly City. Different in all respects from the two funerals the day before. Both of those had been large affairs held in San Francisco, one in a funeral home in the Marina and the other at Mission Dolores.

The bereaved were still gathering when we got there. Half a dozen cars were parked in the adjacent lot, and there were little knots of ethnically mixed individuals outside the mortuary's entrance; the age and makes of the cars and the mourners' dark suits and dark dresses said they were a low-income group. Troxell went straight inside, as on the other occasions, without speaking or acknowledging anybody, but this time I didn't tag along to watch him view the remains and then sit like a rock in one of the pews throughout the service. I dislike funerals in principle; honoring the dead should be a personal and private act, not a ritualistic public spectacle. And I'd already exceeded my low tolerance level for dirge music, the sweet cloying scent of flowers, faces ravaged by pain and grief. I stayed in the car, wishing for maybe the twentieth time that Jake Runyon hadn't been too busy to pull this duty, and called Tamara at the agency to fill her in.

A few other cars arrived and finally everybody went inside and the thing got under way. This one was mercifully brief. Inside of half an hour the doors opened and the slow exodus began. Troxell was in the forefront, ahead of half a dozen young, beefy guys bearing a simple wooden coffin with brass handles. One of the mourners, a weeping middle-aged woman in black, appeared to be close to collapse. Troxell stood off to one side, watching the pallbearers load the coffin and the weeping woman being helped into the front seat of the hearse. Again, he didn't speak to anyone. A couple of the men gave him curious looks, as if wondering who he was, but no one went near him.

It didn't take long for the cortege to get under way. Eight cars followed the hearse along John Daly Boulevard to the 280 freeway. The first six contained family and friends of the deceased. The seventh was James Troxell, alone in his silver BMW. The eighth and last in line was me, alone in my twenty-year-old Detroit junker.

I was there because I was following Troxell. I still had no idea why he was there. Or why he'd attended the two funerals yesterday. All of the decedents seemed to be as much strangers to him as they were to me.

The procession continued down 280 toward Colma, the unincorporated area that abuts South San Francisco, where many of the West Bay's dead wind up in their little permanent pieces of California real estate. Halfway there, my cell phone buzzed. Another thing I dislike is talking on the phone while I'm driving, but I didn't have much choice in the matter right then. We weren't traveling fast enough—a sedate forty-five in the slow lane—for it to present any kind of highway hazard.

Tamara. "This funeral is for a woman named Helena Barline," she said. "Thirty-three, married, no children, resident of Daly City. Killed two days ago in an accident near Westlake Park."

"What kind of accident?"

"Hit-and-run. Red-light runner. One witness."

"Driver caught or IDed?"

"Not so far."

"Witness able to describe the car?"

"Sport job with racing stripes. He thought the driver was a woman."

"No help there. Was she financially secure?"

"You thinking Troxell was her financial consultant? No way. Family was nineteen K in debt—every credit card maxed out."

"Some kind of personal connection?"

"Doesn't look like it. They didn't move in the same circles."

"What'd you come up with on the two women yesterday?"

"Ellen Carswell, thirty-nine, beaten to death by estranged husband in her North Beach apartment. Antonia Ruiz, fifty-two, widowed, shot during a holdup at a convenience store in South S.F."

"Violent crimes. Three cases, three female victims."

"Right," Tamara said. "But that's it on the similarities. Different ages and ethnic backgrounds, income brackets about the same as Helena Barline."

"And I suppose Troxell had no apparent connection to them, either."

"Not that I could find."

"Well, hell," I said.

"Maybe he just gets off on funerals."

"A closet mourner? Better that than some of the alternatives."

"Like talking to aliens or waving his dick at schoolkids."

"Or worse. That death-by-unnatural-causes angle makes me a little edgy."

"Lot of people fascinated by violence and its effects on other folks."

"To the point of attending unknown victims' funerals?"

"Same principle as hanging around homicide scenes."

"Possible, I suppose."

"Anyhow," she said, "the man has no history of violence or mental illness."

"Encouraging, but not conclusive."

"Might be something else in his background. I'm still digging."

"Make it deep," I said, and we rang off.

The procession was entering Colma now. I sighed.

Cemetery—next stop.

There are a dozen or so boneyards in Colma—ethnic, denominational, nondenominational. All attractively landscaped and well maintained, with restful and respectful atmospheres. But not if you've been down there three times in two days. And not if you find the practice of burying the dead personally distasteful. I like cemeteries even less than I like funerals. Cremation and a respectful scattering of the ashes in a quiet place is my choice. Kerry's, too, fortunately.

The day before the destinations had been Hills of Eternity and Holy Cross. Today it was Olivet, and that put me in an even bleaker mood. Olivet Memorial Cemetery was where Eberhardt, my former friend and former partner, was interred—the day of his planting being the last damn time I'd been out to Colma until yesterday. The surroundings brought it all back, not only the burial ceremony but the way he'd died and the painful circumstances that had led to his death.

I stopped behind Troxell's BMW and the other vehicles parked along the edge of the road, got out of the car, and walked around at a distance beyond where the remains of Helena Barline, hit-and-run victim, were being laid down. I thought maybe a little exercise, the cold slap of the early June wind, would help me reinter Eberhardt in his memory grave. Wrong. Now that his bones were out, they kept right on rattling. I continued to pace, watching Troxell and the huddled gathering around the gravesite. The wind made enough noise in the trees so that I couldn't hear any of the minister's words or any of the sounds the weeping woman made. But I could see their faces and the movements of their mouths and that was bad enough.

Troxell hadn't joined the group at the grave. As on the previous two burials he stood off at a distance, stock-still the whole time with his hands deep in his coat pockets, his narrow face void of expression. He didn't know or suspect I was there any more than he had the day before. Eyes only for the casket, the mourners, the ritual lowering. It wasn't until the coffin was snug in its grassy plot that he turned away, and then he looked nowhere except at his BMW.

He stayed put until the mourners began filing back, which gave me plenty of time to take position. I turned on the car radio for noise; it helped keep Eberhardt at bay. When Troxell finally pulled away, I gave him plenty of room. He was easy to follow—a slow, careful driver not given to lane changes or sudden bursts of speed. He even flicked his signal on when he made a turn, an act of courtesy that would've gotten him sneered at on most California freeways these days.

So now what? I thought.

Another damn funeral?

No. Not again today, thank God.

Troxell drove back to Daly City, around Lake Merced, and up onto the Great Highway. Opposite the Beach Chalet at the northern end of Ocean Beach, he swung across into one of the diagonal parking spaces that faces the sea. I followed suit a short distance away. For a time he sat in the car, doing nothing that I could see; then he got out and walked down onto the beach. Not me, not on a blustery day like this. The wind was strong enough to blow up swirls and funnels of sand, and the waves were high and you could hear the pound of surf even with the windows shut. From inside the car I could see a long ways in both directions. The beach was deserted except for Troxell and one other person, jogging with a dog far up toward Cliff House.

He went down close to the waterline, where the sand was wet and the surf creamed up in long fans, and walked back and forth for close to an hour—a couple of hundred yards in one direction and then a couple of hundred yards back in the other. The wind billowed the tails of his overcoat up around his head, so that from where I was he looked like a giant seabird about to take flight. When he finally decided to quit he stood for another five minutes or so, watching the waves lift and slam down or just staring out to sea—I couldn't tell which.

He must've been half frozen when he came back up to the parking area. But he didn't get into his BMW to warm up; instead he waited for a traffic break and then crossed the highway and went into the Beach Chalet. Crap. That meant I had to brave the ocean wind after all. For all I knew he was meeting someone over there. Someone alive, for a change.

The Beach Chalet has been a San Francisco landmark of one kind or another since the midtwenties. It started out as a fancy seaside bar and restaurant, made even more elegant during the Depression by a WPA artist who decorated its tiled ground floor with cityscape murals. During and after World War II it had fallen on hard times. The local VFW managed it for a while, using it as their meeting place, and when they bowed out the place deteriorated into a hard-core bikers' hangout, then into an abandoned and vandalized eyesore. In the early nineties the city finally decided it was worth saving; the Parks and Recreation Department gave it a facelift and restored the murals and established a visitors' center in the lobby, and the upstairs was rented to an outfit that opened a new-style bar and restaurant attractive to both locals and tourists. Full circle in three-quarters of a century.

By the time I got upstairs, Troxell was on a stool at the far end of the bar with a drink and a twenty-dollar bill in front of him. Straight bourbon or Scotch, a double, no ice. It was nearly two thirty now, and most of the lunch crowd was gone; only a handful of the window tables were occupied, and Troxell had the bar to himself. He sat bowed forward, with his chin down and his eyes on the whiskey. But he didn't drink any of it, just stared into the glass while the bartender brought him his change and served me an Amstel Light draft. At the end of ten minutes he still hadn't touched the liquor, or moved any part of his head or body more than an inch or two.

The bartender noticed; bartenders notice everything when they're not busy. He tried to catch my eye, but I pretended to be interested in my beer and in the decorations over the back bar. He shrugged and washed beer steins.

Troxell sat there like a piece of sculpture for another couple of minutes. Then, all at once, as if he were coming out of some kind of self-induced trance, his shoulders jerked and his head snapped up. He focused on the glass, picked it up, threw the whiskey down his throat in one convulsive swallow, and climbed off the stool and started past me with his eyes straight front.

The bartender called, "Hey, mister, you forgot your change."

It didn't slow him or turn his head. "Keep it."

"There's seventeen bucks there—"

"Keep it," Troxell said again and kept right on going.

The bartender blinked his surprise. He wasn't the only one.

Three more stops for Troxell.

The first was a video store on Taraval. He was in there for close to twenty minutes, and when he came out he was carrying a plastic sack. Judging from its evident weight and bulges, he'd either bought or rented half a dozen VHS tapes. Rather than put the bag on one of the seats, he locked it in the trunk.

The second stop was a combination liquor store and newsstand a little farther up Taraval. His only purchases there appeared to be an armload of newspapers; these went into the trunk with the videotapes. There must've been at least half a dozen. All from the Bay Area? To hunt for more victims of violent crimes, more funeral announcements?

Stop number three, the longest, was a florist shop on West Portal. He spent nearly thirty minutes inside, and when he came out he was empty-handed. Deliberating over a purchase, I thought; found what he wanted and ordered it. Flowers for another funeral? For all I knew at this point, he'd sent wreaths or bouquets to the services yesterday and today—one more facet of his mourner pattern.

From West Portal he drove straight up into St. Francis Wood. The Wood, on the lower western slope of Mount Davidson, is one of the city's best neighborhoods; large old homes on large lots that you couldn't buy for less than a million each—maybe a million-five in the current overinflated real estate market—and at that price you'd have to settle for one of the less desirable properties. Troxell's house was probably in the two-million-dollar bracket. His annual salary at Hessen & Collier, one of the city's more prominent financial management firms, ran upward of three hundred thousand a year and he'd owned his prime chunk of San Francisco for more than two decades—a Spanish Mission–style place, all stucco and dark wood and terra-cotta tile, shaded by pine and yucca trees, flanked by tall hedges. The Good Life, with all its attendent perks. Unless possibly, for some private reason, you were starting to come apart at the seams.

Another silver BMW was parked in the wide driveway; he slid his in alongside. The twin belonged to his wife, Lynn Scott Troxell. I pulled up across the street and down a ways, just long enough to watch him get out and lock his car and enter the house. He didn't take the videotapes or the newspapers with him.

I wondered if that meant he was going out again tonight. And where he would go if he did. Twice a week was his current average for noctural absences from home. And very few funerals are held at night.

I also wondered what my client, or rather the agency's client, once removed, would make of her husband's bizarre behavior of the past two days. One thing for sure: it wasn't going to make Lynn Troxell any happier than if he'd spent them in the company of another woman.

Copyright © 2006 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust