Undercurrent the nameles.., p.1

Undercurrent (The Nameless Detective), page 1


Undercurrent (The Nameless Detective)

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Undercurrent (The Nameless Detective)


  Books by Bill Pronzini

  “Nameless Detective” Novels:

  The Snatch

  The Vanished


  Blow Back

  Twospot (with Collin Wilcox)








  Double (with Marcia Muller)







  Bill Pronzini





  Copyright © 1973 by Bill Pronzini

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author.

  ISBN 978-1-61232-066-3

  This One Is for (and for the Memory of):

  Francis K. Allan

  W. T. Ballard

  Fredric Brown

  John K. Butler

  Frederick C. Davis

  Norbert Davis

  Robert C. Dennis

  Lester Dent

  William Campbell Gault

  G. T. Fleming-Roberts

  John D. MacDonald

  Robert Martin

  Talmage Powell

  Robert Turner

  Cornell Woolrich

  And All the Thousands of Other Writers

  Who Made the Pulps Such a Joy—Yesterday and Today

  Table of Contents





















  Twenty One


  It was one of those jobs you take on when things are very lean. You want to turn it down—it's an old story, and a sordid one, and a sad one—but you know you can't afford to. The rent falls due in a few days and the savings account is all but depleted; you haven't worked in almost three weeks, and the boredom and the emptiness are beginning to take their toll. So you look into tear-filmed gray eyes, and you sigh, and you say yes . . .


  Judith Paige was the kind of girl they used to call "sweet" and "wholesome" without sniggering about it. In her middle twenties, maybe, she had a shy, quiet way of moving and of talking that put you on her side the minute you saw her. She was innocence with character, sugar with a little spice; if you were my age, and a bachelor too, she made you think about and ache a little for the daughter you never had, the love you never had that could have conceived someone like her.

  She had a slender, supple body, outfitted in a lace-bodice white blouse and one of those fold-over suede skirts that button at the side and are supposed to be popular in Europe these days. Over narrow shoulders was a suede jacket, of the same beige color as the skirt; the two did not quite match, however, and so I knew that she was something less than monetarily well-set-up. But I also knew that she cared, that she was willing to make an effort in her own behalf. Too many of them have long since stopped caring, for too many reasons.

  You could not really call her beautiful, but she had that aura of youth and sweetness that was like a magnetic attraction. And pale-blond hair, cropped short on a small round head; those glistening gray eyes, like misty circles in a window through which you can see the glow and warmth of a soft inner fire; a small, expressive mouth and a nose that was hardly even there. When she smiled, even forcing it as she did, it was like being caressed by a little girl; and when she cried, it was like hearing that same little girl lamenting the death of a puppy. I felt uncomfortable with her from the moment she stepped into my office, because she stirred my emotions, and the last thing I needed just then was to have my emotions stirred.

  She sat nervously in the chair across from my desk, and looked at the desk and at the window and at the floor as she told her story in a soft voice filled with embarrassment. Until the previous year she had lived in a small town in Idaho; at that time she had decided to move to San Francisco to "search for some meaning in life"— which meant, of course, that she had come looking for a husband. The Idaho town, although she did not say it, had obviously and not surprisingly failed to yield any man worthy of her. The way it looked, so had San Francisco.

  But she had found one here, a guy named Walter Paige. They had been married three months now, and it was something far less than the idyllic union she had expected. It was not that Paige abused her in any way, or was a drinker or a gambler—like that; it was simply that in the past five weeks he had taken to leaving her alone on the weekends. He told her it was business—he worked for some industrial supply house—and when she pressed him for details, he grew reticent. He was working on a couple of large prospects, he said, that would set them both up nicely in the future.

  She figured he was working on another woman.

  Like I said, an old story, and a sordid one, and a sad one.

  She wanted me to follow him for a few days, to either confirm or deny her suspicions. That was all. You don't need to prove adultery, or much of anything else, to obtain a divorce in California these days, so I would not be required to testify in any civil proceedings. It was just that she had to know, one way or the other—the tears starting then—and if she was right she wanted to dissolve the marriage and maybe go back to Idaho, she just didn't know at this point. She had a little money saved and she could pay my standard rates, and she had heard that I was honest and capable and that I would not take advantage of her in any way . . .

  I sat there behind my desk, feeling old and tired and cynical. It was a nice day outside, as days in San Francisco go, and I had the window open a little. The breeze off the bay was cool and fresh on the back of my neck. Late April sunshine put a liquid gold veneer across one corner of the desk. Nice spring day, all right. A day for sailing languidly on the bay, or taking in a baseball game at Candlestick, or driving through fragrant woods and fields. A day for looking at somebody else's soiled linen, laid out to air in your office.

  I got a cigarette out of the pack on the frayed blotter and lighted it and blew smoke at the beam of sunlight. It drifted and curled in the soft glow, like half-remembered dreams in the light of dawn. I looked away from there and put my eyes on Judith Paige and thought that she was too young and too nice to have the kind of problem that would bring her to a man in my profession. She should have been happy and carefree, her laughter should have rung loud and clear in the sunshine. But then, pragmatically, there were things I could not know about. She might have been frigid, or a poor cook and a lousy housekeeper, or unable to adapt to living with a man. She might have picked a guy who was a chaser by nature, a bastard by nature. Or she might only be jumping at shadows. It would be nice if that was the way it turned out—only it seldom does, not nearly often enough to make you optimistic about it.

  I took one of the contract forms out of the bottom drawer and slid it over for her to examine. When she had, I drew it back and filled it out accordingly; her answers to my questions were simple and direct. I gave the contract over to her again for her signature, and then I said, "All right, Mrs. Paige. What can you tell me about these weekend trips of your husband's?"

"Not . . . very much, I'm afraid," looking at the single metal file cabinet with the hot plate and the coffee pot resting on its top.

  "Have you any idea at all where he goes?"

  "Only that it doesn't seem to be in this immediate area."

  "What makes you say that?"

  "Well, I checked the . . . mileage thing on the car last week," she said. "Before Walter left and after he came back. There was more than two hundred miles' difference in the two figures."

  "I see. Is there anything else?"

  "No. No, nothing."

  "He hasn't given you any hint?"

  "No. Whenever I ask, he smiles and tells me it's a very private sort of business deal and he's not supposed to talk to anyone about it, even his wife."

  I worked on my cigarette and pretended to examine the contract form. "I don't mean to be blunt, Mrs. Paige, but do you have any tangible reason for your suspicions?"

  Her eyes touched me briefly, and then flicked away again. "Tangible reason?"

  I knew the words would sound harsh and cruel before I said them, but I said them anyway. "Letter, lipstick marks, unexplained items or photographs of any kind?"

  She seemed to shudder slightly and a faint pink suffused the silken whiteness of her cheeks. "No," she said in a small, soft voice. "Nothing like that. It's just that Walter . . . isn't . . . well, he isn't very . . . attentive to me after he . . . For the first day or two after he returns, he . . ." She could not get the rest of it out. Her eyes were on her hands now, watching the long and slender fingers pluck nervously at the buttons on her suede jacket.

  I felt like a kind of mental voyeur, and I got off that tack for both our sakes. I said, "Your husband's gone away each of the past four Saturdays, is that right?"

  "Yes, that's right."

  "Do you know for certain he'll go again tomorrow?"

  "Oh yes," she said. "He told me last night. He said he would be staying until late Monday this time, but not . . . not why."

  "Was that when you decided to come to me?"

  Her throat worked. "Yes."

  "What time does he usually leave?"

  "Around nine or so."

  "And when has he been coming back?"

  "Late Sunday afternoon."

  "Any particular time?"

  "No. Between five and eight, about"

  "Does he drive?"


  "What kind of car?"

  "A dark-blue Cutlass."

  "Do you know the license number?"

  "Well, I wrote that down. I thought you'd need to have it." She opened a suede purse and looked at a piece of paper from inside. "It's TTD-six-seven-nine."

  I wrote the number on the contract margin. I could not think of anything more to ask her. What was there to ask in a case like this? They give you the barest details, because that's all they know themselves; you get an idea of what time he leaves her, and then you go out to where they live and camp on the street and follow him until you're sure one way or the other. Usually you don't have to drive more than ten miles; maybe I would have to drive two hundred, and maybe I would not have to. If Paige had another woman, she could live right here in San Francisco, and they could have gone to the beach last weekend to play their games—or to the mountains or any damned place at all. It had always seemed rather pointless to me that they would go anywhere, even though they sometimes do; the beds in San Francisco motels or apartments are no different from those at the beach or in the mountains.

  I said, "Well, I guess that's about all I'll need, Mrs. Paige. I'll be on the job early in the morning. Try to act natural tonight and tomorrow—and don't check out the door or window for me before he leaves."

  She nodded once, convulsively, and her hands were restless on the suede bag. "You won't let him know you're following him, will you? I mean, if I'm wrong and Walter is just . . . working, I wouldn't want him to know what I've done.

  "I’ll be as careful as I can."

  "Thank you," she said, and her lower lip trembled slightly. There were more tears building in her eyes, but she would not let them get out until she was alone; they were the kind of tears a woman cries only when she is alone. "Will you call me as soon as you find out anything?"

  "Right away."

  "Shall I give you a check now?"

  "I can bill you."

  "Well, I'd like to give you something."

  "All right."

  "Twenty-five dollars?"

  "That would be fine, Mrs. Paige."

  I looked away while she made out the check. Through the window I could see the rising spans of the Bay Bridge in the distance. Somewhere out there, on the bay itself, a ship's whistle sounded. I thought: Freighter going out, down to Panama, maybe, or off to the Far East. God, how nice it must be out there on the sea! Wind and spray washing over you, washing you clean. You can't get clean in the city; there's too much dirt, tangible and intangible, literal and figurative . . .

  She put the check on my blotter, and I got it into the center drawer without looking at it. Then I stood up and she stood up, and there was nothing for either of us to say in the way of parting. I went with her to the door, and held it for her, and she gave me her shy, wistful little smile and went out hugging the suede jacket tightly around her, as if she were very cold.

  When she was gone, I closed the door and went back to my desk and opened the center drawer and looked at her check lying within. Twenty-five dollars advance. Seventy-five total, plus expenses, if the job lasted just the one day. Seventy-five bucks to become a part of the private life and private emotions of a nice young girl. How does it make you feel, guy? Like a gigolo, maybe? Like a goddamned heel?

  I closed the drawer again and got my hat and my lightweight overcoat from the office alcove and locked the door behind me and went out into the sunshine. It seemed faintly gray somehow, even though the sky was cloudless, and there was no warmth in it. The young girls in their spring fashions reminded me of Judith Paige, and there was no warmth in that either.


  I left my flat in Pacific Heights at seven-fifteen the following morning, and drove out to the address Judith Paige had given me—on Sussex Street, in Glen Park. It was one of those borderline neighborhoods that never seem to be able to make up their minds which way to go. The streets ran in twisting confusion—climbing sharply, dropping sharply, dead-ending with no warning at all—and on each of them you saw fairly nice, if old, middle-class homes, and shabby unpainted tenements, and new low-rent apartment buildings, and old low-rent duplexes. The business district, off Monterey Boulevard, was comprised of grim-visaged shops and buildings that gave you the odd feeling of having regressed thirty or forty years into the dim, Depression past.

  The Paige’s lived in one of the apartment dwellings on upper Sussex—a two-story, four-unit thing with an ocher-colored plaster facade and tiny balconies railed in black iron. On the street in front, parked facing downhill, was a dark-blue Cutlass with the license number TTD-679. I drove up to the top of Sussex, turned around in somebody’s driveway, and came down to park on the upper edge of a convex hook in the street, sixty yards or so above the Cutlass. I could see the entrance to the apartment building from there as well. My watch said that it was seven-fifty.

  I got my cigarettes out and looked at them and put them away again. My chest felt tight and hot, and I had coughed up a wad of gray-flecked phlegm over my breakfast coffee. Bronchial trouble, created and nurtured by the consumption of too many cigarettes—or maybe it was the other thing, the dark thing you don't like to think about. No. Bronchial trouble, that's all it was. What was the point in wasting money on a doctor to confirm it? Bronchial trouble. Sure.

  The simple truth is, you don't want to know.

  The simple truth is, you're afraid to find out.

  So the hell with it.

  A guy and his family came out of a stucco-fronted house on my side of the street, carrying picnic baskets, and got into a vintage Ford and drove off down the hill. The front door banged in the
house next door to that one, and a woman with ankles like a heron's legs and a body as thin as a wafer began hunting for her morning paper; she found it after a while, used it to scratch herself in an intimate place, and shuffled back inside again. An elderly lady with too much rouge on her cheeks struggled up the hill with a lean poodle on a red leash; the poodle made a pass for my right front tire, and the elderly lady jerked him away, smiling at me in a self-consciously apologetic way. When I glanced up into my rear-view mirror a moment later, the poodle was washing off the right front tire on the car parked behind mine, while she looked on; that car was empty. Three kids came flying down the opposite sidewalk on roller skates, laughing and shouting. One of them took a header down by the Cutlass—a fat kid in baggy pants—and rolled over in the gutter and began to cry; the other two sailed on down the hill, taunting over their shoulders, and the fat one sat there in the gutter and watched them forlornly with the tears running down his cheeks. Then he got up and took off his skates and began to trudge slowly up the hill. I was sorry for him, because I knew, a little, how he felt.

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