Jackpot (Nameless Dectective)

BOOK: Jackpot (Nameless Dectective)
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Other Books by Bill Pronzini

The Hangings
Firewind
With an Extreme Burning
Snowbound
The Stal ker
Lighthouse (with Marcia Muller)
Games

“Nameless Detective ”Novels by Bill Pronzini

The Snatch
The Vanished
Undercurrent
Blowback
Twospot (with Collin Wilcox)
Labyrinth
Hoodwink

Jackpot
Bill Pronzini

SPEAKING VOLUMES, LLC

NAPLES, FLORIDA

2012

JACKPOT

Copyright © 1990 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.

9781612320922

For Brian DeFiore

MOST DAYS, I’M ALL RIGHT. Close to my old self again.

It has been almost two months since the end of the ordeal at Deer Run. The first few weeks were the hardest. People flocking around wherever I went, asking endless questions—the media, old friends and casual acquaintances, strangers who felt they were entitled to probe into my personal life and private hell by right of public domain. Voyeurs, many of them, and not all well-meaning. I craved human contact, but I did not crave the poking and prodding attention, as if I were some sort of curious specimen on display in a zoo cage. Anonymity was what I needed—that, and Kerry and the comfort and routine of my work.

If it were not for Kerry and Eberhardt, things might have been much worse. They shielded me whenever they could; they gave me stability and normalcy and understanding and love. For the ninety-seven days I was away, chained like an animal to the wall of an isolated mountain cabin, they kept the faith ... as if those ninety-seven days were nothing more than an extended vacation or business trip. As if they had known all along that I would come home again. My flat and everything in it just as it had always been, waiting. My car put away in storage. My business and personal affairs kept in order. So that when I did come home, it required little surface effort to step back into the mainstream of my life.

The old saw is true: Time heals. It blurs the past, too; today’s news becomes tomorrow’s recent history and next week’s half-forgotten memory. Days go by now without anyone reminding me of the thing I went through. There are the nightmares, of course, but there have always been nightmares and there will always be nightmares. They are part of the job, part of the lives of men like me.

But there are still days when I wake up on edge, with little patterns of dread lurking like goblins in the comers of my mind. Days or parts of days when I can’t work, can’t concentrate, can’t stand to be alone or to be cooped up in an enclosed space even if others are present. Sometimes, on those days, I call Kerry and she comes to be with me, to walk with me on crowded streets or in the park or on Ocean Beach where I can feel the soothing closeness of the Pacific. Other times I want no one to talk to, not even Kerry, so I go alone to walk or sit or just drive. And slowly, gradually, as time wears on, the goblin shapes vanish, and the edginess vanishes, and I am no longer afraid.

Most days, I’m all right. Close to my old self again.

Most days.

Chapter 1

WHEN I GOT HOME that Friday evening, there were two messages on my answering machine.

The first was from a Hollywood TV producer named Bruce Littlejohn, who had been pestering me off and on for weeks. “Yo, guy, Bruce here. It’s heating up, baby, and I mean burn-your-fingers hot. You wouldn’t believe who I been talking to. Just one of the biggies on the little screen, that’s all, and I do mean a
biggie.
He loved the concept. What I mean, it melted his chocolate bar. No shit, I think we got him in the bag. I’m winging up this aft to see some sugar daddies, talk numbers. How about you and me have breakie tomorrow ayem? Nine-ish, Stanford Court. Think I can get you a consultancy on the flick but we need to rap, get our signals straight. Extra maple syrup on your waffles, you know what I mean? Nine-ish tomorrow, don’t forget. Be good until.
Ciao,
kid.”

Hollywoodspeak. Mostly as indecipherable to us laymen as a coded CIA message. What it boils down to, I thought, is that they’re all as crazy as stoned monkeys down there.

The second message was from Kerry. “Hi, it’s me. Five-thirty now and I just tried calling your office but Eb said you’d already left. Can you come over a little early tonight, six-thirty instead of seven? There’s somebody I’d like you to talk to—business, not social. Okay? Love you.”

Love you too, I thought.

I reset the machine, went into the kitchen and took a bottle of lite beer out of the refrigerator. One beer a day—that was my limit now. I had lost more than forty pounds in that cabin at Deer Run and I was determined to keep it off. The reason had nothing to do with vanity or even health; losing the weight had allowed me to survive those three hellish months, and my mind had translated the weight loss into something both symbolic and visceral. I
had
to keep the pounds off; the slow mending process, as fragile as it still was, depended on it. So I consumed my one beer a day, I ate sparingly and limited my intake of fats and carbohydrates, and I followed a somewhat less rigorous daily exercise program than the one I had developed in the cabin. And I would keep doing these things as long as I was physically capable of it.

In the bedroom again I put on a clean shirt. Through the window I could see a cold wind swirling leaves and a scrap of paper into the misty overcast sky. Late May in San Francisco and it was already topcoat weather. Tourists come here this time of year with nothing but spring and summer clothing in their suitcases and then register loud complaints, as if they were victims of a conspiracy instead of their own shoddy planning. If San Francisco had weather like L.A., the city would be inundated not only with tourists but with sun-worshiping transplants from east of the Rockies—and then where would natives like me be? The city was changing too rapidly and too negatively as it was. Drugs and drug dealers had the poorer sections in a stranglehold. The politicians had mismanaged all aspects of local government until there was a huge debt that had brought on a cutback in public services. Yuppies and Asians and money-grubbing developers were changing the faces of the old neighborhoods, a few for the better, too many for the worse, and all irreparably. Sometimes I felt I no longer knew the city, that it was no longer mine even though I had lived in it for more than half a century. That it was metamorphosing into an alien entity, and that maybe its new existence would be as vulnerable to destruction as a butterfly’s after it emerges from its cocoon. But at least the weather was the same; there was nothing the drug dealers or the pols or the tourists or the developers could do to change that. Fog and chill winds invaded San Francisco from late May until September and always would, and I for one was glad of it.

I finished my beer, got my topcoat, went out and picked up my car and drove to Diamond Heights. When I turned down Kerry’s street I felt my hands turn slick around the wheel, the stirrings of apprehension. It was here, on this street, that I had been kidnapped at gunpoint; shoved into the back of a car, handcuffed, chloroformed, and driven away for ninety-seven days. Since I had been back the sweaty apprehension gripped me nearly every time I came here, as if my subconscious harbored fears that it would happen again, or that I might somehow be thrust back in time and forced to relive it. On one of the bad days, I could not come here at all. The one time I had tried it I had had an anxiety attack so severe, it was almost crippling.

My watch said that it was just six-thirty when I let myself into Kerry’s building. I thought that if she had company, I had better ring the bell instead of using my key, and I did that when I got up to her apartment. She came and opened the door.

I kissed her. Said against her ear, “Who have you got here?”

“One of the secretaries from the agency.” By agency, she meant Bates and Carpenter, the ad firm where she worked as a senior copywriter. “Her name’s Allyn Burnett.”

“What’s her trouble?”

“I’ll let her tell you,” Kerry said. “I don’t know if there’s anything you can do for her, but she does have reason for concern. I think so, anyway.”

I nodded, and went on into the living room. The woman sitting on the couch near the fireplace looked to be in her mid-twenties. Blond, thin, and hipless in a tan wool dress, plain-featured; but for all of her plainness, there was that little-girl quality about her that stirs protective instincts in some men. She wore a solemn expression now, but you sensed that when she smiled, it would be like a light going on to reveal a warm, pleasant room. She would not lack for male attention, I thought.

We exchanged names and small smiles, the way strangers do, and I sat down in one of the chairs opposite. Kerry was a businesswoman and she knew that it was always easier for two people to establish a business relationship one-on-one; she said to me, “I’ll get some coffee,” and disappeared into the kitchen.

Allyn Burnett cleared her throat. “I read about you in the papers,” she said. “About ... well, you know. And Ms. Wade says you’re the best private detective in the city.”

“She’s biased. And you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers.”

Small, wan smile. There was a little silence; then she said, with emotion thickening her voice, “It’s about my brother. David. He ... a week ago he ... took his own life. With pills ... an overdose of pills.”

Old story, sad story. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Yes. But it doesn’t make any sense, you see. No sense at all.”

“What doesn’t?”

“That he would commit suicide.”

“Well, people on drugs—”

“No, he
wasn’t
on drugs.”

That was an old, sad story too: the faith and denial of a loved one. “You said he took an overdose of pills ...”

“Sleeping pills. He never took those things before, never.”

“So he bought them with the intention of taking his own life?”

“That’s how it seems, yes.”

“Do you doubt it?”

“Doubt what?”

“That your brother actually did commit suicide. Do you suspect foul play?”

“No, it isn’t that. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to harm David. And the police ... they say it couldn’t have been anything but suicide. The circumstances ...” She shook her head and looked into the cold fireplace.

I said gently, “Then just what is it that’s bothering you, Ms. Burnett? Why would you want a detective?”

She sat without answering for a time. It was not really the fireplace she was staring at; it was at something long ago and far away. I waited, listening to Kerry in the kitchen making homey sounds with crockery. Outside the picture window, wisps of fog chased each other across the balcony and the wind rattled glass and made cold purling sounds in the gray dusk.

Allyn said abruptly, as if my questions had just registered, “He had no reason to want to die. No real reason. He was so young, so happy—he had a good job, he and Karen Salter were planning to get married in September ... it just doesn’t make any sense that he would kill himself.”

“Did he leave a note?”

“Yes. But all it said was that it was best for everyone if he ... that Karen and I should forgive him ...”

Her voice broke on the last few words and I thought she was going to go weepy on me. If she had, I would have sat there like a lump, feeling awkward and helpless; crying women have that effect on me. But she didn’t break down. A couple of hiccoughing sobs escaped her and then she caught her breath and leaned forward with her mouth and throat working, as if she were trying to snatch the sobs out of the air and swallow them again. She put one hand up to her face, fingers splayed, and sat there like that: little girl lost.

I wanted to tell her that she was grasping at straws, wasting her time and mine. I wanted to say that in very few cases of suicide was anything sinister or even particularly unusual involved. I wanted to remind her that the suicide rate among young people today was at an all-time high; that kids who seemed to have every reason for living, who seemed carefree and happy on the surface, could in fact be seething bundles of neuroses underneath. Dissatisfaction with their lives, disillusionment with modern society, pressures, fears, private demons—all those and more could and did drive a young person to suicide even more easily than an older person.

But I didn’t say any of that. All I said was, “Do you know of anything unusual that happened to him recently? Any trouble he might have gotten himself into?” I have never particularly wanted to be either a father or a father figure, but there are times when my latent paternal instincts get the best of me.

She said, “No trouble, no. But the money ... it must be the money. Only that doesn’t make any sense either.”

“Money?”

“Two hundred thousand dollars. David won it two weeks before he ... died.”

The amount surprised me. “How did he win that much? One of the lottery games?”

“No. In Reno. He and a friend went up for the weekend and David ... it was one of those super-jackpots you read about.”

“Progressive slot machine?”

“Yes. Something called Megabucks.”

“What did he do with the money?”

“Paid some bills. Bought a new car for himself, a Corvette. Bought expensive presents for Karen and me. And then ... this is the crazy part ... then he
lost
the rest of it. And more—enough so that he had to sell back the Corvette and return the presents and go around trying to borrow money. I gave him a thousand dollars, all I had in my savings, but it wasn’t even close to being enough.”

“Lost the money how? Gambling?”

“That’s what he said. He bet it on sports events with those places in Reno and Las Vegas ... what do you call them?”

“Sports books.”

“Yes, sports books.”

“So he was a heavy gambler?”

“No. No, he wasn’t. That’s what’s so crazy about it. He never gambled much—never. He went to Reno and Lake Tahoe several times a year, but it was mostly to see the shows. He never won or lost more than a hundred dollars on any trip.”

“Are you sure of that? Sometimes compulsive gamblers cover up the extent of their losses.”

“Then he would’ve had a lot of debts, wouldn’t he? He didn’t. Karen or I would have known if he had.”

“Well, it could be that the big jackpot changed him—gave him the gambling fever. It wouldn’t be the first time a major windfall has done that to somebody.”

“That’s what everyone says. But David was my brother, I knew him better than anyone. He just wasn’t like that.”

“Then why would he make large bets on sports events?”

“... What if he didn’t?”

“You mean he might have lost the money some other way?”

“It’s possible, isn’t it?”

“Anything’s possible,” I said. “But gambling is the only way I can think of for somebody to lose a large sum of money in a few days.” Which wasn’t true. There were other ways, illegal and highly unpleasant ways. But I did not want to go into that with her.

“It just doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “Money never mattered that much to David. What he cared about was sports. And going places, doing things, having fun.”

“The more money you have, the more places you can go and the more fun you can have. Theoretically, anyhow.”

She shook her head and said, “He wasn’t materialistic.”

“All right. When did you last see him?”

“Two days before he died.”

“How did he seem then?”

“Fine.” But then she shook her head again. “No, that’s not so. He always put on a happy face, no matter how he was feeling inside. But I could tell when something was bothering him. He was upset about something, I sensed that, but he wasn’t depressed. He didn’t act like someone thinking about suicide.”

She thought she knew him so well. Only he was the type who always put on a happy face to hide his true feelings. And if a person is thinking about suicide, and wants to hide his intention from his loved ones, naturally he’ll act as normal as possible. But grieving relatives aren’t always capable of sorting out contradictions and looking reasonably at facts. Grief itself is an irrational emotion.

I said, “Was it just that one time he struck you as upset about something? Or did you notice it before then?”

“He was like that a couple of days earlier, too, when he asked me to return the necklace he’d bought and to borrow my savings. That was when he said he’d lost all his jackpot winnings and more with the sports books.”

BOOK: Jackpot (Nameless Dectective)
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