|Publisher:||Speaking Volumes, LLC|
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About the Author
He's also ghosted several Brett Halliday short stories as Michael Shayne for Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, and has managed to collaborate with such fellow writers as John Lutz, Barry Wahlberg, Collin Wilcox and Marcia Muller.
Still, if he never ventured into fiction writing, his non-fiction work, as both writer and editor, would still earn him a place in the P.I. genre's Hall of Fame. Besides his two tributes to some of the very worst in crime fiction (what he calls "alternative classics"), Gun in Cheek and Son of Gun in Cheek, and one on western fiction (entitled Six Gun in Cheek, naturally), he's the co-author (with Marcia Muller) of 1001 Midnights.
The Mystery Writers of America have nominated him for Edgar Awards several times and his work has been translated into numerous languages and he's published in almost thirty countries. He was the very first president of the Private Eye Writers of America, and he's received three Shamus Awards from them, as well as its Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987. His passion for the old crime pulps is largely responsible for keeping them in the public's eye. He's amassed a huge collection of books and magazines and has always been an omnivorous reader; all of which made him a natural when it came to editing various anthologies. He admits "it was a pleasure tracking down good stories to fit a particular anthology theme." But after editing 80 or so of them over a period of twenty-some years, he decided it was "more than enough."
Read an Excerpt
I laid a red queen on a black king, glanced up at Jay Cohalan through the door to his private cubicle. He was pacing again, side wall to side window across the front of his desk, his hands in constant restless motion at his sides. The cubicle was carpeted; his footfalls made no sound. There was no discernible sound anywhere except for the faint snap and slap when I turned over a card and put it down. An office building at night is one of the quietest places there is. Eerily so, if you spend enough time listening to the silence.
Trey. Nine of diamonds. Deuce. Jack of spades. I was marrying the jack to a red queen when Cohalan quit pacing and came over to stand in the doorway. He watched me for a time, his hands still doing scoop-shovel maneuvers. Big man in his late thirties, handsome except for a weak chin, his dusty brown hair and tan suit disheveled. A sheen of sweat coated his cheeks and upper lip, even though it was not warm in there.
"How can you just sit there playing cards?" he said.
There were several answers to that. Years of stakeouts and dull routine had taught me a certain grudging patience. We'd only been waiting about an hour. The money, seventy-five thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills, didn't belong to me. I was neither worried nor upset, nor afraid that something might go wrong. But I passed on all of that and settled instead for a neutral response.
"Solitaire's good for waiting," I said. "Keeps your mind off the clock."
"It's after seven. Why the hell doesn't he call?"
"You know the answer to that."
"Yeah. He wants me to sweat."
"And you're obliging him."
"For Christ's sake, I can't help it. I'm scared, man."
"I know it."
He didn't mean me, so I said, "Blackmail's that kind of game. Torture the victim, bend his will to yours."
"Game. My God." Cohalan came out into the anteroom and began to pace around there, in front of his secretary's desk where I was sitting. "It's driving me crazy, trying to figure out who he is, how he found out about my past."
"No. He didn't give me a hint, any of the times I talked to him. But he knows everything, every damn detail."
"You'll have the answers before long."
Cohalan stopped abruptly, leaned toward me. "Listen, this has to be the end of it. You've got to stay with him tonight, make sure he's arrested. I can't take any more."
"I'll do my job, don't worry."
"Seventy-five thousand dollars," he said. "I almost had a heart attack when he told me that was how much he wanted this time. The last payment ... balloon payment, he called it. What a crock. He'll come back for more some day. I know it, Carolyn knows it, you know it." Pacing again. "Poor Carolyn. She's so high-strung, emotional ... it's been even harder on her."
I turned a card. Spade nine. I laid it on a ten of diamonds and squared the edges.
Cohalan said, "She wanted me to go the police in the beginning, did I tell you that? Practically begged me."
"You told me."
"I should have, I guess. Now I've got to pay a middleman for what I could've had done for nothing. No offense."
"I just couldn't bring myself to do it, walk into the Hall of Justice and confess my sins to a cop. It was hard enough letting Carolyn talk me into hiring a private detective."
Black four. No help.
"That trouble when I was a kid ... it's a criminal offense; I could still be prosecuted for it. And it's liable to cost me my job if it comes out. I went through hell telling Carolyn when the blackmail started, couldn't force myself to go into the more sordid details. Not with you, either. The police ... no, never. I know that bastard will probably spill the whole story when he's in custody, try to drag me down with him, but I keep hoping it won't happen. A miracle's all I've got left to cling to, like a drowning man clinging to a stick. You know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean," I said.
"I shouldn't've paid him when he crawled out of the woodwork eight months ago. I know that now. But back then it seemed like the only way to keep my life from being mined. Carolyn thought so, too. If I hadn't started paying him, half of her inheritance wouldn't already be gone."
Ace of clubs. I put that card down, added the deuce off the pile. I wasn't winning, just holding my ownabout all you can expect in most games of solitaire. And what most of us learn to settle for in living our lives.
Cohalan paced in silence for a time, stopped to stare out through the window at the fog-misted lights of the city, then started up againpacing and talking both. "I hated taking money from her. Hated it, no matter how much she kept insisting it belongs to both of us. And I hate myself for doing it, almost as much as I hate him. All my fault, start to finish. But goddamn it, blackmail's the worst crime there is, short of murder."
"Not the worst," I said, "but bad enough."
"This has to be the end of it. That seventy-five thousand in there ... it's the last of her money, our money. All our savings sitting right there in that briefcase. If that son of a bitch gets away with it, we'll be wiped out. You can't let that happen."
I didn't say anything. We'd been through all this before, too many times.
He said, "I've got to take a leakmy bladder feels like it's ready to pop. John's just down the hall, I won't be two minutes. If the phone rings ..."
"I'll handle it, don't worry."
"Two minutes," he said and went out at a half run.
He was gone three. I was dealing myself a new hand when he came back. "Not yet," I said.
He stood over me, breathing heavily through his nose. Abruptly he said, "This job of mine, you'd think it pays pretty well, wouldn't you? My own office, secretary, executive title, expense account ... looks good and sounds good, but it's a frigging dead end. Junior account executive stuck in corporate middle managementthat's all I am or ever will be. There're already rumors the company's going to downsize. If that happens, I'll be one of the first to go."
"No other prospects?"
"Not any that'll pay what I'm making now. Sixty thousand gross. And Carolyn makes twenty-five teaching those music courses of hers. Eighty-five thousand for two people, no kids, that seems like plenty, but it's notnot these days and sure as hell not in San Francisco. Dot-com paradise, that's what the city's become, cost of living's through the roof. Add taxes, mortgage payments, all the rest of it, you have to scrimp like hell to put anything away. And then some stupid mistake you made when you were a kid comes back to haunt you, starts draining what little you've got to keep you solvent ... you understand, right? But I didn't see where I had a choice at first. I was afraid of going to prison, afraid of losing this dead-end job before they throw me out. Caught between a rock and a hard place. I still feel that way, but now I don't care, I just want that scumbag to get what's coming to him...."
Repetitious babbling. His mouth had a wet look, and his gaze kept jumping from me to other points in the anteroom. His irises were as bright as blue-veined marbles.
I said, "Why don't you sit down?"
"I can't sit. My nerves are shot."
"You're making me nervous."
"I can't sit, I tell you. Why doesn't he call? It's already seven ... seven o'clock...."
"Take a few shallow breaths before you start to hyperventilate."
"Listen, don't tell me what"
The telephone on his desk went off.
The sudden clamor jerked him half around, as if with an electric shock. In the quiet that followed, the first thing I could hear was the irregular rasp of his breathing. He looked back at me as the bell sounded again. I was on my feet, too, by then.
"Go ahead, answer it," I told him. "Keep your head."
He went into his office, picked up just after the third ring. I timed the lifting of the secretary's phone to coincide, so there would not be a second click on the open line.
"Yes," he said, "Cohalan."
"You know who this is." The voice was harsh, muffled, indistinctively male. "You got the money?"
"I told you I'd have it. This is the last, you promised me...."
"Seventy-five thousand, and you never hear from me again."
"Where this time?"
"Golden Gate Park. Kennedy Drive, by the buffalo pen. Put it in the trash barrel beside the bench there."
Cohalan was watching me through the open doorway. I shook my head at him. He said into the phone, "Can't we make it someplace else? What if there're people around?"
"Just do what you're told. Nine P.M. sharp."
"Nine? That's two hours ..."
"Be there. With the cash."
The line went dead.
I cradled the secretary's phone. Cohalan was still standing alongside his desk, hanging onto his receiver, when I moved into the cubicle.
"Put it down, Mr. Cohalan."
"What? Oh ... yes." The receiver slid from his fingers, made a clattering noise in the cradle. "Christ," he said then.
"You all right?"
His head bobbed up and down a couple of times. He ran a hand over his face, yanked hard on his lower lip, and then swung away to where the big cowhide briefcase lay. The cash was packed in there; he'd shown it to me when I first arrived. He picked up the case, set it down again. Rubbed and yanked at his face another time.
"Maybe I shouldn't risk the money," he said.
He wasn't talking to me so I made no answer.
"I could leave it right here where it'll be safe. Stick a phone book or something in the case for weight." He sank into his chair; popped up again like a jack-in-the-box. "No, what's the matter with me; that won't work. I'm not thinking straight. He might open the case in the park. No telling what he'd do if the money's not there. And he's got to have it when the police come. Right? In his possession?"
"All right. But for God's sake don't let him get away with it."
"He won't get away with it."
Another jerky nod. "When're you leaving?"
"Right now," I said. "You stay put until at least eight-thirty. It won't take you more than twenty minutes to get out to the park."
"I don't know if I can get through another hour of waiting around here."
"Keep telling yourself it'll be over soon. Get yourself calmed down. The state you're in now, you shouldn't be behind the wheel."
"I'll be okay."
"Come straight back here after you make the drop. You'll hear from me as soon as I have anything to report."
"Just don't make me wait too long," Cohalan said. And then, again and to himself, "I'll be okay."
Cohalan's office building was on Kearney, not far from where Kerry works at the Bates and Carpenter ad agency on lower Geary. She was on my mind, as she often is, as I drove down to Geary and turned west toward the park. Emily, toosweet, troubled little Emily. My thoughts prompted me to lift the car phone and call the condo. The sitter answered; Kerry wasn't home yet. Like me, she puts in a lot of overtime night work. A wonder we manage to spend as much time together as we do ... as much time with Emily as we do, jointly and separately. Which was part of the problem, of course. A bigger part than we'd anticipated and one that was not easily solved.
I tried her private number at B and C and got her voice mail. In transit, probably, the same as I was: Two among the many sets of headlights crossing the dark city just now. Urban night riders, that was us. Except that she was going home, and I was on my way to nail a shakedown artist for a paying client.
That started me thinking about the kind of work I do. One of the downsides of urban night riding is that it gives vent to introspection and, sometimes, dark self-analysis. Skip traces, insurance claims investigations, employee background checksthey're the meat of my business. There used to be some challenge to jobs like that, some creative maneuvering required, but nowadays it's little more than routine legwork (mine) and a lot of computer time (Tamara Corbin, my techno-whiz assistant). I don't get to use my head as much as I once did. My problem, in Tamara's Generation X opinion, was that I was a "retro private eye," pining away for the old days and old ways. True enough; I never have adapted well to change. The detective racket just isn't as stimulating or satisfying after thirty-plus years and with a new set of roles.
Every now and then, though, a case comes along that stirs the juicesone with some spark and sizzle and a much higher satisfaction level than the run-of-the-mill stuff. I live for cases like that; they're what keep me from packing it in, taking an early retirement at age sixty. They usually involve a felony of some sort and sometimes a whisper if not a shout of danger, and they allow me to use my full complement of functioning brain cells. This Cohalan case, for instance. This one I liked, because bleedersthe blackmailers and extortionists and small-time grifters and other sociopathic opportunists who prey on the weak and gullibleare near the top of my list of worthless parasites, and I enjoy hell out of taking one down.
Yeah, this case I liked a whole lot.
Excerpted from BLEEDERS by Bill Pronzini. Copyright © 2002 by Bill Pronzini. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.