A Dave Brandstetter Mystery
Publication Year: 2004
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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Title Page, Copyright
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When the late Joan Kahn, magisterial mystery editor at Harper and Row, accepted this novel for publication, she wrote my agent, “Where has this writer been hiding?” I had to laugh to keep from crying. Hiding was the last thing I’d wanted to do. The year was 1969. I was forty-six years old, and I’d been writing all my life.
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Fog shrouded the canyon, a box canyon above a California ranch town called Pima. It rained. Not hard but steady and gray and dismal. Shaggy pines loomed through the mist like threats. Sycamores made white, twisted gestures above the arroyo. Down the arroyo water pounded, ugly, angry and deep. The road shouldered the arroyo. It was a bad road. The rains had chewed its edges. There were holes. Mud and rock half buried it in places. It was steep and winding and there were no guard rails.
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In the Daffodil Cafe in Pima, where he'd stopped for coffee this morning after the long wet drive from L.A., that voice had come from a nine-dollar radio on top of a refrigerator. The pudgy, white-haired woman in starched yellow gingham, tending the counter, had stood in front of him with the glass coffeepot forgotten in her hand, while she listened, her faded blue eyes staring far away.
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"To make it a success story?" she asked. "We came to Pima. . . . But look, really I haven't told you about him. I've left out too much. For instance, how funny he was. I've only told you about the despair. But he had a marvelous sense of humor." She touched the scripts on the desk. "You'll see when you read these. Antic and zany and never cruel. Just warm and wildly funny."
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She was rolling a wheel along the road. When the tire wobbled against her it smeared mud on the white raincoat. She had tied a triangle of clear plastic over her hair. It lay like drenched tissue paper. When she heard the car come up behind her and turned to look at him, strands of wet hair lay plastered down her face. She raked at them with the fingers of one muddy hand and gave him a little frantic wave with the other. The wheel got away from her then. It lurched into the roadside scrub and lay down like a sick animal.
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Phil Mundy looked at Dave through a bright aluminum screen door that was the only new thing about the shack. Shack was the word. Part bat and board, part tar paper and chicken wire, it squatted in the middle of five weedy acres of dying fruit trees and abandoned chicken coops on the outskirts of Pima. Near the tracks.
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The Pima Motor Inn imitated a mission. Cloisters. Thick whitewashed walls. Strings of painted gourds beside the doors. Black iron latches and hinges. Black iron grillwork on the deep-set windows. Worn Indian rugs on the cracked tile floors. Now, after ten days of rain, the place was so damp the walls felt soft. Moss grew in the shower.
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He even slept. Knocking woke him. He still sat propped against thin pillows and a hard headboard. His neck and shoulders ached. Th'e scripts had slid off his knees. Now, when he straightened his stiff legs under the thin, machine-made Indian- style blankets, the scripts slithered to the floor. The lamp glowed sickly in the daylight. Wincing, he switched it off. In the glass that wasn't glass the dregs of whiskey lurked like a neglected friendship. He made a sound, cleared his throat, tried again.
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The sun was hot. On a flat, smooth stretch of lawn a gaunt old man threw his cane. Hard and a long way. Two dogs chased it, big lean dogs, hounds of some kind. Rough blue-gray coats. They moved clumsily, like rusty machines. But fast. One of them got the cane and came back with it to the old man. It was a heavy cane but in the dog's jaws it looked fragile. The other dog stood where the cane had been and made a hoarse, rumbling sound that was supposed to be barking. The old man took the cane from the first dog and grabbed its collar. He heaved the cane to the other dog. Holding the collar hampered his throw so the cane didn't go as far this time. The free dog shambled to it, picked it up, came back with it.
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She had on a clean cotton housedress today. Starchy. The faded pink cardigan over it had been washed so often it had no more shape left than she had. Her hair was combed and her face scrubbed. No makeup. Instead of a wine bottle there was a Bible in her hand. The big eyes that had been bleary with booze last night were clear now. More than clear. Bright. Too bright. Her smile clicked on. So did her voice, also too bright.
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Three hours later, at San Fernando, he caught up with the rain again. It hissed under the tires as he curved along the freeway into Hollywood. He hadn't eaten and he needed to. He had lost too much weight. Traffic on Sunset was heavy and slow. When he reached Romano's it was late. There were only a couple of cars left in the parking lot. Reflecting neon signs, the puddles he stepped through were like paintings drowning in ink. The familiar stained-glass windows smiled welcome. He pushed into steamy warmth, good smells of cheese and garlic. Fat Max was there to take his coat. Big smile full of gold fillings.
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The snapshot was dog-eared and faded and had lost its gloss. In bright sunlight a blond boy in ragged swim trunks, and a smaller, dark boy in Levi's, shirt open and flapping in the wind, grinned at the camera, side by side. They stood easy, hipshot, arms thrown over each other's shoulders, on a pier. A gull swung above them. Beyond them, through strong scaffolding, the ocean glinted. He had seen scaffolding like that lately. Where?
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In his office on the tenth floor of the new glass-and-steel Medallion building on Wilshire Boulevard, Dave hung up the phone. Wearily. He'd been using it all afternoon. His hand was cramped. His ear felt bruised. He shook his head at the man standing in the doorway, lean, erect and ruddy. Only his white hair hinted at his age. Late sixties. He was Dave Brandstetter's father and the man Dave Brandstetter worked for. He dropped into a hairy white goat's-hide chair. His voice was as handsome as the rest of him.
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He hung up the wet coat on the dark service porch, mopped up the rain puddle with a big pink cellulose sponge, then made himself a drink, lit a cigarette and stood telling himself he had to eat. He didn't feel like driving to Romano's. Too far in the drizzle. He opened the big copper-toned refrigerator. The white emptiness inside was dazzling. He looked into cupboards. A dusty can of artichoke hearts. He'd shut himself up here too long with his grief. Nothing left to eat. He closed the cupboard.
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He went to bed stoned. But not stoned enough. He had bad dreams. A giant wasp was trapped in the kitchen. It buzzed, buzzed, hurled itself against the fragile shutter doors. He leaned on them, held them, sweating, horrified. A barbed javelin-size stinger thrust between the slats. He opened his mouth to scream for help but no sound came. Then he was awake and knowing what he heard-the buzz of the doorbell. Insistent. Under a stubborn thumb.
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Bell Beach was lost miles from the freeway. Sand lay in the empty, sun-baked streets. Wiry brown grass thrust through the sand. In the grass, gulls and pelicans stood like moth-eaten museum pieces. The buildings were cheap stucco with mad carnival turrets. Gaudy paint had faded and scabbed off. Shingleshad curled and turned black. Windows were broken. Where not broken they were boarded up, had been for years: the rust from nailheads had written long, sad farewells down the salt-silvered planks.
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The Kincaid house was frame, a big shingle place with cupolas and with fretwork porches all around. It tried to be yellow and managed a sick pale brown. Its unwashed windows stared at the muddy surf across a broken boardwalk and a belt of dirty brown beach. The front door gaped like a senile mouth.
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She was right. The room was untidy. There was a bay window at the front. A chair had been thrown through it, a yellow kitchen chair. It lay broken on the porch roof outside among shattered glass that glittered in the hard sun. There was glass inside too, on the scarred floor, on the yamy supermarket throw rugs. A bottle had been smashed against the yellow daisy wallpaper and left a runny stain.
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He stood bewildered in the middle of the room. The jacket was not American made. Nor the bulky sweater under it. Nor the slacks. They'd all been slept in. On pine needles. He turned, and Dave felt shock in the pit of his stomach. The eyes were shiny opaque, like stones in a stream bed. Rod's eyes. He was the same size and build as Rod, same dark color, same long head. Another man, but like, very like. Even to the voice.
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In the glass-and-steel box of the Signal station they looked like school pageant chrysanthemums. Their hair. Hers yellow white, his yellow orange. Shag heads. They sat in the I50-watt glare at ten-thirty at night and stared at each other, with nothing flowerlike in their child faces. Grief in hers, sullenness in his. And fear when they turned to see Dave in the doorway. The boy stood up. Fast.
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When she opened the door her face looked young and flushed. Loved. Her eyes were brandied. He didn't give her time to say anything. He walked past her into the long, raftered room. The only light came from a fire dying in the grate. It was enough to show him that the painting of the Chute was gone. The coffee table had been pushed aside. Two snifters glinted on the hearth with the bottle.
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The shack slept under its ragged walnut trees. He put the car where he had put it last time. He climbed the broken stoop again and rapped the new aluminum screen door. But no light went on. Nobody came. In the weeds ten acres of crickets sang. The sky was the scoured black of an iron frying pan, with stars like spilled salt. He knocked again. Waited. Nothing. Frowning, he opened the screen and tried the warped door. Locked.
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He reached home at seven, dropped his clothes, fell into bed. He expected nightmares. None' came. Maybe because they couldn't hope to compete with actual persons living and dead. He woke with afternoon sun in his face. He wasn't alone. Anselmo lay next to him, small, naked, warm. He had wanted twenty-four hours of uninterrupted sleep. He ought to have repossessed that key. Anselmo kissed him with a hungry child's mouth. He still smelled of incense.
Publication Year: 2004