A few days later, a beaten and bloody Janice stumbled into the agency begging to go home. No one is surprised when, soon after her homecoming, she disappears again.
But gambling addiction has a way of twisting things, and the blood on Mitchell and Janice Krochek's kitchen floor was a card off the bottom of the deck.
Janice is missing again, Mitchell is the prime suspect, and as Nameless searches for the truth behind her disappearance, he uncovers a vicious racket that preys on gambling fever victims…
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A Nameless Detective Novel
By Bill Pronzini
Tom Doherty Associates BookCopyright © 2008 Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
All rights reserved.
It took us a week to find Janice Krochek. The little piece of irony in that was, the entire time she was living in an apartment hotel less than fifteen blocks from our South Park offices.
Not that we could have had any idea of her whereabouts at the start, aside from the fact that her husband believed she was somewhere in San Francisco. It was the fourth time in four years that she'd disappeared from their Oakland Hills home. The other times, the city was where she'd gone; the longest she'd stayed away was six days, and she'd always returned home voluntarily. This time, she'd been missing twelve days before Mitchell Krochek filed a missing person report, and three weeks before he decided to hire private investigators. It wasn't that he was unconcerned, he said; it was just that he'd been through it all so many times and his financial situation was shaky, thanks to his wife and her compulsion.
Jake Runyon was the one who finally located her. Bloodhound Jake. In the days when I ran a one-man agency I was a pretty good field man; tenacious, the way you have to be in order to pay the bills. Runyon was something else again. His instincts were sharper, his tenacity greater, than those of any investigator I'd ever known, public or private.
I was in the office when he called in. Early afternoon on a slow November Tuesday, Tamara and I and our new hire, Alex Chavez, all doing routine work. Janice Krochek was at the Hillman, on Leavenworth just off Jones, staying with a waitress named Ginger Benn who'd been picked up once on a prostitution rap — the call-girl variety. Working as a call girl herself, possibly, although Runyon couldn't verify it. She was in the apartment now, he said. Did I want him to brace her?
I thought about it. "No," I said, "Tamara and I will handle it. You've got other work to move on. Where are you now?"
"We'll be there in fifteen minutes."
Tamara had been listening through the open connecting door between our offices. When I hung up, she said, "You and Tamara will do what?"
"Go talk to Janice Krochek. Jake just found her."
I repeated what Runyon had told me.
"Call girl? Terrific. Her husband'll be real pleased."
"He doesn't necessarily have to know that part of it. Depends on what she says and what she decides to do."
Tamara sighed. "Both of us, huh?"
"Unless you want to talk to her alone."
"No way! I was thinking maybe you don't need me ..."
"Better if there's another woman present. Easier on everybody."
"Says the voice of experience."
The thing about a case like this one, where an adult subject has disappeared voluntarily, is that a private investigative agency is ethically obligated to consult with the subject before reporting his or her whereabouts to the client. Did Janice Krochek want her husband to know where she was, want him to come to her, want us to take her to him? The decision was entirely hers. If we reported to the husband first, without consulting with her, we'd be wide open to a harassment lawsuit. I'd informed Mitchell Krochek of this before we accepted the case. It hadn't changed his mind; his main interest right now, he said, was in knowing that she was safe. So we'd written a clause into the agency contract, and he'd signed it, and now here we were at crunch time. I was not looking forward to it any more than Tamara was.
The Hillman was on the edge of the Tenderloin, a few blocks from downtown — a tweener neighborhood inhabited by a polyglot of small businesses, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and other Asian families, transients, welfare recipients, drug dealers, hookers. Venerable stone pile, four stories, caramel-colored, with a banner strung above the narrow entrance that proclaimed UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT in faded red letters. Once, a long time ago, it had been a regular hotel catering to tourists on a budget; the transformation into apartment hotel had been gradual and was probably now complete. The kind of place you wouldn't want to live in if you had other options, even if you were only sharing space with somebody else.
The lobby was cut up into a pair of small rooms connected by an archway, one of them containing the desk and a few pieces of musty furniture haphazardly arranged, the other a common room dominated by a big TV set whose now-blind eye peered out at you as you walked in.
"Nice place," Tamara said, wrinkling her nose. "If you like the smell of Lysol."
"Big comedown for a woman like Janice Krochek." The home she shared with her husband in the Oakland Hills was a million bucks' worth of real estate.
"People and their screwed-up lives."
"That's the main reason we're in business, kiddo."
"Don't I know it."
Runyon had been sitting on one of the chairs opposite the desk. Not doing anything else, just sitting there with his legs together and his hands flat on his knees. Patience was one of his long suits. That, and the ability to shut himself down when he was waiting, like a piece of finely tuned machinery with an idle switch. Part of the reason was his training as a cop: he'd been on the Seattle PD for years before a leg injury pensioned him off and led him into private investigative work. The other part of the reason was the loss of his wife to ovarian cancer a couple of years ago, after twenty years of marriage. He was still grieving — from all indications, he might never stop.
He got slowly to his feet when he saw us, stood flat-footed with no expression on his big, slablike face. Habitual, that lack of expression. He seldom displayed emotion of any kind; the one I'd never seen was joy.
The three of us formed a circle. The desk clerk, a youngish guy with thinning, rust-colored hair, was watching us, and I wondered briefly what he was thinking. One sixty-plus craggy Italian male, one forty-something stoic WASP male, one twenty-six-year-old black woman — three generations, three individuals completely different from one another.
"Still in her room, Jake?" I asked.
"Unless she went down the fire escape. She had a visitor, just after I called."
"Not unless he's a rabbit. He was out in less than ten minutes."
"How do you know he saw her?"
"Heard him ask the clerk for Ginger Benn's room. She's out — it was Krochek he wanted. Thirties, heavyset, expensive clothes."
"I don't think so," Runyon said. "I followed him outside when he left. He had a car waiting."
"You get the license plate?"
"I got it. Car's a white Caddy, looked brand new."
Tamara said, "I'll check it out when we get back," and he gave her the page from his notebook with the number written on it.
I asked, "Krochek using her own name?"
"Maiden name. Janice Stanley."
"Three-oh-nine. Third floor."
"Okay. We'll take it from here, Jake."
He nodded and moved off to the front door. On the way to the elevators, I called over to the desk man, "We're going up to see the woman in three-oh-nine. Don't bother to announce us."
That bought me a faint sneer and a mock salute. "Yes sir, officer, whatever you say."
I didn't tell him we weren't cops; let him think what he wanted. We got into one of a pair of elevators and it clanked and jolted us up to three. The car smelled of disinfectant, same as the lobby; so did the upstairs hallway. 309 was off an ell toward the rear. I rattled my knuckles on the panel.
Pretty soon a woman's voice said warily, "Who is it?"
"Mrs. Krochek, Janice Krocheck?"
There was a silence. Then, "That you again, Mr. Lassiter?"
"No. Open up, please."
More silence. Then a chain rattled and a deadbolt clicked and the door edged open about three inches. The eye that peered out was brown and faintly bloodshot. It roamed narrowly over me, over Tamara. "Who are you? I don't know you."
"We're here on behalf of your husband."
"Oh, shit." More annoyed than anything else. "Police?"
We flashed our licenses.
"Mitch must be desperate," she said. "Is he out there with you?"
"No. Mind if we talk inside?"
She said, "Of course I mind," but the protest had no teeth in it; the chain rattled again, and I heard it drop down against the inside panel. When I pushed on the door, it opened inward and she was walking away across the room in quick, jerky strides. Tamara and I went in and I shut the door.
Two-room apartment, bedroom and sitting room. Not large, not tidy, the furniture old and scratched up, the carpet threadbare. The dominant smell in there was tobacco smoke, thick and acrid; my chest tightened almost at once. Janice Krochek sat down on an open, unmade sofa bed and reached for a package of Newports on an end table.
I said, "I'd appreciate it if you didn't smoke."
She said, "I live here, you don't," and put one of the cancer sticks in her mouth and fired it with a cheap lighter. "How'd you find me?"
"It wasn't too hard," Tamara said.
"You don't look like detectives. Either of you."
"You don't look like what you are, either."
I gave Tamara a warning look. She's young and she can be less than tactful; she needs to work on her people skills. We'd decided that she should do most of the talking, woman to woman, but if necessary I'd have to take over. There was nothing to be gained in allowing the situation to turn adversarial.
Janice Krochek laughed — an empty, sardonic sound. She was not at ease sitting there. High-strung type, but it was more than that — a sense of nervous expectancy, not for what we had to say to her but for something else. As late as it was, she might have just gotten out of bed. She wore a loose man's shirt over a pair of jeans, her feet were bare, and her short brown hair was uncombed. She was thirty-three, but in the dim light, and without makeup, she looked older; you could see the stress lines around her mouth and eyes. Addiction will do that to you, no matter what type of addiction it happens to be.
She said, "Why did Mitch hire you? He couldn't possibly want me back after all this time."
Tamara said, "He could and he does."
"Well, then, he's a damn fool."
"Lots of damn fools running around these days."
That didn't bother her, either. "I suppose he told you all about me."
"He told us enough."
"All about my 'sickness.' That's what he calls it."
"What do you call it?"
"The sweetest high there is," she said. It was not a natural or spontaneous response, but the kind of phrase a person hears somewhere and likes enough to appropriate and repeat as their own. "He wants it cured. I don't."
"Even though you keep losing, getting in deeper and deeper."
"I don't care about that. The money isn't important, winning or losing. Either of you ever gamble for high stakes? Poker, craps, whatever?"
"Then you can't understand any more than Mitch does. The action, the excitement ... there's nothing else like it. I'd rather gamble than fuck."
That last was intended to shock, but neither of us reacted. Tamara said, "One supports the other now, right?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"We know what you've been doing for money since you left home."
I nudged Tamara this time, from where Janice Krochek couldn't see me doing it. Krochek started to say something — and there was a sudden melodic jangling from across the room, the kind of programmed tune fragment that substitutes for ringing in modern cell phones. She came off the sofa and went after it blur-fast, like a cat uncoiling to chase a mouse. The brown eyes were avid — the first real animation she'd shown. Before the phone rang again she had it out of her handbag and flipped open. She said, "Yes?" and then listened with her body turned away from us.
The conversation didn't last long. I heard her say, "That's too bad, I was hoping ... okay, if that's the way it has to be. Later, then? Right." She dropped the phone back into the bag, and when she turned, the avidity and animation were gone. She recrossed the room in the same jerky strides as when she'd let us in.
She didn't sit down again. Bent for another Newport, blew a thick stream of smoke, and said through it, "Well? What happens now?"
"That's up to you, Mrs. Krochek," Tamara said.
"Stanley, Ms. Janice Stanley. I like that name better."
"You're still married to the man."
"You can't force me to go back to him."
"That's right, we can't."
"Already tell him where to find me?"
"No. You want us to?"
"Christ, no. It's all over between us. I made that clear to him before I left."
"Man's willing to pay all your outstanding debts if you give the marriage one more try."
"Sure he is, so I won't divorce him. That's the real reason he hired you. Lot cheaper for him to pay off my debts than give me half of everything he's got."
"Everything he's got left," Tamara said pointedly.
"It was mine as much as his, then and now. You think he's some kind of saint?" Bitter and angry now. "Well, he's not. Far from it. He's looking out for number one, same as I am."
"You don't believe he wants what's best for you?"
"I don't care if he does or doesn't. I like to gamble. And I like my freedom."
"How about selling your body? You like that, too?"
If there was any shame left in the woman, she had it well hidden behind the wall of her compulsion. She said flatly, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Real hard way to support yourself and that habit of yours."
"What I do for money until the divorce is my business."
"Not when it's against the law."
"So what're you saying? You're going to report me to the police? You can't prove I've been hooking and neither can they." "Not unless they catch you at it."
Time for me to step in, try a different tack. I said, "Have you seen a lawyer, Mrs. Krochek?"
"Lawyer? About the divorce? No, not yet."
"Why not, if you're so dead set on it?"
"That's my business."
"It doesn't cost that much to hire one."
"Never mind about that. If Mitch doesn't file, I will — soon. You tell him that."
"How much do you owe Lassiter?"
She didn't like that question; it made her even more edgy. She took a quick drag on her cigarette before she said, "Who?"
"The man who came to see you a little while ago."
"How do you know about that? Spying on me?"
"It's a reasonable question."
"I don't owe him anything."
"Whoever he works for then. Loan shark?"
"That's none of your damn business."
"The same shark you borrowed from before? The one who threatened you?"
A muscle jumped in her cheek. "Mitch's fantasy. He listened in on a phone call and misinterpreted what he heard, that's all."
"That's not what he says."
"Well, I'm telling you the way it was."
"So no threats then and none now. No pressure."
"That's right. No heat at all."
"Okay. Your business, your life."
"Now you're getting it. You going to tell Mitch where I'm living or not?"
"Not without your consent."
"I figured as much. Suppose he tries to pry it out of you? Offers to pay you extra?"
"We don't operate that way."
"So what are you going to tell him?"
"We found you, you seem to be in reasonably good health, you say you're not in any danger, you don't want to reconcile, and you're going to file for divorce any day."
"And to leave me the hell alone from now on."
"If that's what you want."
"Exactly what I want. So go tell him."
I laid a business card, the one with both my name and Tamara's on it, on the stained top of a cabinet. "In case you have second thoughts or want to talk some more."
"I won't. Now get out."
Gladly, I thought. The damn smoke in there was bothering my lungs, making my throat feel scratchy. As soon as Tamara and I were out the door, Krochek came over and put the deadbolt and the chain back on. Locking herself away in her carcinogenic cocoon, to nurse her fever and wait for the phone to ring again.
In the elevator Tamara said, "Well, that was fun."
"Yeah. Pretty much what I expected."
"You know what I wanted to do in there? Bitch-slap that woman upside the head."
"Wouldn't have done any good. Hitting somebody with her kind of sickness never does."
"Guess not. I didn't do such a good job on the woman-to-woman thing, did I."
"No, but I didn't do much better."
"You think she really believes all that stuff she said? About the sweetest high and not wanting to be cured?" "Convinced herself it's what she wants. She's a textbook case."
"She was lying about nobody threatening her."
"Lying or pretending. She didn't seem scared."
"Riding for a big fall, you ask me. Straight down the toilet."
"It's her life," I said. "She's the only one who can save it."
Excerpted from Fever by Bill Pronzini. Copyright © 2008 Pronzini-Muller Family Trust. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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“His novels are cerebral, not bloody. There is violence, but of a muted sort, and none of it is gratuitous… The ‘Nameless Detective’ novels are a thinking reader’s detective series.”The Chicago Sun-Times
“There is no living writer whose work more faithfully embodies the spirit of classic private-eye fiction than Bill Pronzini’s. [It is] classy, classy noir storytelling.”Les Roberts, Cleveland Plain-Dealer
“One of the greatest-ever detective series.”Booklist