Excerpts for Hellbox


1


Kerry was sitting at the table on the long front porch, drinking coffee and taking in the view, when I came out in my robe and slippers. It was only a little after nine Sunday morning, another cloudless, end-of-June day; the temperature was already in the seventies, though it would probably get up near ninety by midafternoon. Usually I don't deal well with heat, but somehow hot days in the mountains don't seem quite as bothersome.
"'Morning," she said as I sat down. "I wondered how long you were going to stay in bed. Sleep well?"
"Yup. Must be the mountain air." I snuffled up a deep breath of it, yawned, and sniffed in some more. The resinous pine smell was sharp and clean; you could smell the gathering heat, too, a pleasantly dusty summer odor. I grinned at her and added, "Among other things."
"Uh-huh."
"How long have you been up?"
"Oh, an hour or so. Nice out here."
"Nice," I agreed. I helped myself to coffee from the pot she'd brewed and brought out on a tray.
"You really do like this place?"
"Yup. So far, so good."
"Me, too. I wish Emily had been able to come with us. We don't want to take the plunge without her seeing the place first."
"If we take the plunge. I still think the owners are asking too much."
"Sam Budlong said they'd take less."
"But not a lot less. At least, that was the impression I got."
"If the Murrays want to sell badly enough, they'll be reasonable. It's been on the market a long time."
"So we don't need to rush."
"No, but if the rest of this little vacation goes well, and if Emily likes the property as much as we do and we can negotiate an affordable price, there's no reason to keep looking, is there? Frankly, I've grown a little tired of the hunt."
So had I, patience not being one of my long suits. Off and on over the past three months, we'd spent weekends in different areas within a few hours' driving distance from San Francisco--Lake County, the north coast along Highway 1, Big Basin and Santa Cruz, Penn Valley--and looked at maybe a score of properties, none of which had come close to our ideal second home. Emily had been with us before, but she was away all of this week: Her school glee club had been invited to take part in a state-sponsored summer music festival in Southern California. Singing was her first love and career goal.
It had been one of Kerry's ad agency clients who'd suggested we consider Green Valley, in the Sierra foothills northeast of Placerville: quiet, scenic, remote enough for solitude, but still reasonably close to Highway 50, and a relatively easy three-hour drive from the city. So we'd come up, looked around, and liked what we saw enough to contact a real estate agent in the valley town of Six Pines. I'd been skeptical when Sam Budlong said, "I think I have just the place you're looking for," but once he showed it to us, my skepticism went away pretty fast.
The house--cabin, really--wasn't such-a-much. Built thirty-some years back of redwood with fieldstone trim and fireplace--holding up, but in need of repairs here and there. Six smallish rooms, including a bathroom with chattery plumbing. No garage, the only outbuilding a combination storage and woodshed on the south side, but that was a minor drawback. The location was the real selling point. The place sat on a grassy knoll, pine woods on three sides, a couple of gnarled old apple trees at the rear; and in front, a mostly unobstructed view of the valley, sections of the Rubicon River that ran through it, and forested hills and snow-topped mountain peaks along the western horizon. You had a sense of rural isolation, yet it was only three miles to Six Pines. There were other homes scattered along Ridge Hill Road, a narrow secondary artery that wound along the hillside below, but none of them were visible from here. Live in a city all your life as I had, with neighbors piled up all around, some of them separated from you by nothing more than walls and areaways, and hundreds of yards of open space on all sides were pure luxury.
Another plus was that there was plenty to do in the region. Trout fishing in the Rubicon and dozens of mountain streams that threaded the valley and the hills and mountains surrounding it. Hiking. Hunting, if you were into blood sports, which we weren't. A variety of local activities that included a gala (the real estate agent's word) Fourth of July celebration. And Placerville, Auburn, the Amador County wine country were all day-trip close.
The only thing that gave me pause, aside from the selling price the owners were asking, was that Green Valley was less than fifty miles from the isolated section of the Gold Country where I'd been held captive, chained to a cabin wall by an ex-convict bent on revenge, for three hellish months several years back. For some time after the ordeal ended, I was unable to venture into the Sierra foothills; just thinking about it would bring on flashbacks and cold sweats. Gradually, the residual fear and loathing had worn off, but I still couldn't and wouldn't travel anywhere near the area north of Murphys. Fifty miles, though … a long way from Deer Run, too far for me to let it be a factor in the decision-making process.
Neither Kerry nor I was willing to commit to buying the property without spending some time there to get the feel of the area, make certain it was right for us. It had been up for sale long enough so that the Murrays, who lived in Sacramento, were willing to rent it to us for a few days, with the rental fee to be deducted from the purchase price if we made an acceptable offer. So instead of going back home after a two-night stay, as we'd originally planned, we'd decided to take advantage of the rental deal. The timing for an extended getaway couldn't have been better: neither of us had any pressing business this week. Brief vacation for us while Emily was away enjoying hers.
I finished my coffee, refilled my cup and Kerry's. She said, "What do you want to do today? Explore a little or just relax?"
"Both. Relax first, though. Maybe go back to bed for a while."
"Didn't you get enough sleep?"
"I wasn't thinking about sleeping."
She laughed. "You look like a demented old lecher when you do that."
"Do what?"
"Waggle your eyebrows that way."
"‘Lecher,' maybe, but not so old. And I refute ‘demented.'"
"Wasn't last night enough for you?"
"Hah," I said.
"People our age aren't supposed to have such active sex lives."
"Hah."
"What's got you so revved up this morning anyhow?"
"The mountain air, and the way your hair shines in the sunlight."
"My God," she said with mock awe, "where did that come from?"
"Part of my new seduction package." I did some more eyebrow waggling. "So what do you say, sweet thing? Want to go play our song again on that saggy old mattress in there?"
"Sweet thing. Oh, brother."
"Best offer you'll get all day. Better take advantage."
"Are you sure you'll be up to it again so soon?"
"Double hah," I said. "I'm Italian, remember?"
"How could I forget?"
I stood, stretched, waggled my eyebrows again, and held out my hand.
"If this is the effect Green Valley is having on you," Kerry said, "maybe we ought to rethink buying this place." But she got right up and twined her fingers in mine and let me lead her off to the bedroom.
* * *
While Kerry took her turn showering and dressing, I headed out to the deck again. On the way, my cell phone cut loose with its burbling summons, barely audible inside my jacket where I'd hung it on the peg inside the door. I'd almost forgotten I had the thing with me; had definitely forgotten it was still turned on. Cell phones don't always work in mountainous country, but this was not one of those satellite dead zones. I almost wished it was until I got the cell out and checked the caller's name on the screen. Tamara. Oh, Lord, I thought, not some sort of emergency. But it wasn't.
"I didn't think you'd pick up," she said. "Just wanted to leave a callback message for you. Didn't interrupt anything, did I?"
"You might have if you'd called half an hour ago," I said. "What's up?"
"Question on the Western Maritime fraud case you handled. I'm trying to get caught up on our billing."
"Haven't you heard? Sunday's supposed to be a day of rest."
"Yeah, sure. Like Saturday night's supposed to be boogie time."
"Meaning yours wasn't?"
"Not hardly. Two glasses of wine, a bad rental flick, and in bed by eleven. All by my lonesome."
Not good, I thought. She was drifting back into the semi-reclusive, workaholic shell that she'd closed herself into after her longtime cellist boyfriend, Horace, moved back east and then dumped her for a second violinist in the Philadelphia Philharmonic. A brief hookup with a man who called himself Lucas Zeller had brought her out of it for a while, until he turned out to be a con man and worse; the none-too-pleasant events that followed had taught her some hard lessons. She still hadn't quite recovered from the damage to her self-confidence and self-esteem. Still wasn't ready to put her trust in anybody she didn't already know and know well, particularly a member of the male sex. Caution and skepticism were healthy attitudes up to a point, but not if she let them make her a social outcast. She had a great deal to offer any man with the sense and sensitivity to treat her right. What she needed to do was put herself in a position to find him, and be willing to let him into her life when she did.
She hadn't asked for my advice, though, and I hadn't volunteered it. Nor would I. We had a kind of de facto father-daughter relationship, in addition to our professional bond, but I had to be careful not to come on too strong with her. Her relationship with her own father was prickly, and now and then she carried it over to me. Best for both of us if I kept my mouth shut, let her work out her personal problems on her own.
Fortunately, she changed the subject by asking, "So how's your weekend been?"
"Good. Very good. Looks like we've found our second home."
"All right! Where?"
I gave her the relevant details. "We're staying a few more days to make sure. Nothing urgent to drag me back sooner, I take it?"
"Nope. Everything under control."
"What's the problem with the insurance case?"
It had to do with a foul-up on the expense account charges--my fault. When we got it straightened out, I asked, "Any new clients?" because I hadn't spoken to her since Thursday.
"Couple," she said. "One routine; Alex is handling it. The other … well, Jake's plate's pretty full, and the new client's black. So I rang up Deron Stewart and gave it to him."
"I thought you didn't like Stewart."
"Don't much, but he did a good professional job on that Delman mess, and he didn't try to hit on me. So I figured I'd throw him another bone."
Stewart was a qualified operative, an ex-cop who'd worked eight years for the San Francisco office of a large national agency. Tamara and I had come close to hiring him over Jake Runyon when we expanded operations a few years ago. She was the one who'd vetoed him; too slick, too much ego, too much a womanizer for her liking. Stewart hadn't had any luck finding a permanent spot with another agency in the interim, owing to the lousy economy and with some outfits, maybe, a veiled racial bias. He freelanced now, much as Alex Chavez had before we'd put him on full time a couple of months ago.
"What kind of case?" I asked.
"Nasty one. Excelsior woman being stalked by an ex-husband."
"Pro bono?"
"Not quite. Reduced fee. She's got a good job, but she's also a single mom--two kids. Her ex is one of those early-release, violent crimes' offenders the goddamn state keeps turning loose. ‘No menace to public safety,' my ass. Police haven't been much help because the guy hasn't done anything yet, except hang around and make veiled threats. Woman swears it's only a matter of time. She's scared half out of her head."
"You think Stewart can handle the situation without escalating it?"
"Says he can. He'd better, if he wants any more bones tossed his way. Not a lot of freelance detective work out there these days."
"That's for sure."
We talked a little more, then let each other get on with our respective Sundays. I put the phone back into my jacket pocket, went out and leaned on the porch railing and thought about the cases Runyon and Chavez, and now Deron Stewart, were dealing with. As much as I liked this property, as much as I was glad to be away from the city and the daily grind, I still had a left-out, pastured feeling now and then. Officially semi-retired now, with a maximum two days a week at the office and mostly routine stuff when I was there. Okay, good. It was what I wanted, what Kerry and Emily wanted; I'd made my decision and I didn't regret it. But when you've been in the same business for two-thirds of your life, and found it rewarding and satisfying, despite a number of unpleasant situations and brushes with violence, it's hard to let go.
Maybe I wouldn't feel that tug, that vague sense of past-my-prime-and-no-longer-needed in six months, a year, two years. I hoped so. But if it lingered, I was not going to backslide again. There's nothing more pathetic than an old plowhorse hobbling around trying to function at the same level of competence as he had in his younger days, and accomplishing little except getting in everybody's way.



Copyright © 2012 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust



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