Bill Pronzini: The Snatch

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Bill Pronzini The Snatch
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    The Snatch
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Bill Pronzini

The Snatch


Tamarack Drive was one of these oak-and elm-and eucalyptus-shaded affairs that are supposed to make you think of rustic country lanes. There were no sidewalks on either side; instead, there were narrow creeks with mica rock beds and a trickle of water and root-tangled red-earth banks.

It was just past four in the afternoon when I parked my car behind a green panel truck that had the words Burlingame Landscaping and Gardening Servicestenciled across its rear doors-and next to a post-supported mailbox crafted to represent a Lincolnesque log cabin, the numerals 416 in black iron extending like a billboard from its roof. Just beyond that, a narrow wooden footbridge spanned the creek to the front gate, and a larger wooden structure a little further on did the same to an interior drive; they were made out of redwood, with thick bark-covered railings and arched supports beneath to give the impression of tunneling. The gate was of redwood, too, set into a black wrought-iron frame, and so was the six-foot fence that stretched out on both sides. I could see the upper story of the house-a big modern Tudor with a gabled roof, set well back inside the grounds.

It was one of those warm, balmy autumn days, with just enough breeze to stir the fallen reddish-gold oak and elm leaves-the kind of day that makes you think of football games and long, leisurely strolls and pretty girls in short dresses with their hair blowing silken and free. I had the window rolled down, and the breeze was cool and soft against the side of my face; the aromatic scent of the eucalyptus was strong and pungent in the air.

I sat there for a time, watching the leaves flutter across asphalt patchworked with sunlight and shade. It was very quiet. This was Hillsborough, a sanctuary for the affluent and the snobbish on the Peninsula fifteen miles south of San Francisco, and when you entered its boundaries you stepped into a kind of Elysium where silence reigned supreme and noise of any kind constituted an unpardonable sin. I felt vaguely uncomfortable. 1 seemed always to feel that way in places like Hillsborough, the same feeling you might have if you found yourself at a formal party wearing slacks and a sport shirt.

I lit a cigarette, and that started the coughing again. 1 got out my handkerchief and covered my mouth with it. After a while the coughing stopped and I took-the linen away and looked at it. There was a grayishness to the phlegm that made me shudder a little. I put the handkerchief in my pocket again and stabbed the cigarette into the ashtray and got out of the car.

I crossed the footbridge, and there was a small plaque fastened to the center of the redwood gate that said simply: Martinetti. On my right as I entered the grounds was a thick, green, well-trimmed lawn stretching away to a landscaped rock garden with a stone pond and a lot of evergreen shrubs and myrtle and spidery California wood ferns. The redwood fence extended in a right angle to form the boundary line along that side of the property, ending at another creek wider and deeper than the one bordering the street in front. The creek formed a natural rear boundary, and tall, slender eucalyptus trees grew along it in thick profusion. A young guy in a striped T-shirt and dungarees was kneeling on a spread piece of canvas nearby, weeding the lawn with a small trowel. He didn’t look up as I entered.

There was more of the verdant lawn to the left, and beyond it a crushed gravel drive and a wide portico with room for three cars parked side by side. At the moment there were two: a new beige-colored Lincoln Continental and a ten-year-old immaculate MG roadster painted a gleaming silver. The lawn sloped into a raised terrace made of fieldstone, to the side of the house, and I could see the blue tile of an L-shaped swimming pool and a lot of heavy white wrought-iron patio furniture and an outdoor bar.

A white gravel path, inside very low stone retaining walls, curved up to the front door. I followed it, looking up at the house. I still had that vague feeling of discomfort I had known in the car.

A considerable amount of money had gone into the construction of the Martinetti home. It was huge and two-storied, fashioned of a mixture of brick and patterned stone and lavish half-timber work, with a big bay window along the one side overlooking terrace and pool. Rectangular mullioned windows were set on either side of the front door and on the facing second-story wall. Two high molded chimneys jutted upward on either side, advertising the presence of two sizable fireplaces within.

On the door was a heavy brass knocker in the shape of a lion’s head; to lift it, you had to put your fingers inside the widespread jaws. I decided it was more decorative than functional. I found a small pearl button inlaid in the wood on one side and pressed that and listened to chimes, muted and rolling, echoing inside. I stood waiting, holding my hat in my hands.

Five seconds passed, and then the door opened and a thin girl with bright green, thick-lashed eyes looked out. She was in her early twenties, pretty in a gaunt sort of way. Her hair was cut short in what we used to call an Italian bob, and there was a white maid’s cap perched precariously on the back of her head. A white peasant blouse and a dark skirt and flat-heeled shoes comprised her dress, and I supposed the silly little cap was to let you know that she was a servant and not a member of the household.

“Yes, sir?” she asked.

Before I could tell her who I was, and that I was expected, a tall dark-featured guy came up behind her and took the door gently out of her hands. He said, “It’s all right, Cassy, I’ll take care of it,” and she nodded and disappeared obediently around him.

The guy took a step forward and looked me over noncommittally. He was about thirty, slender, gray-eyed, wearing a Roos/Atkins suit and a white shirt and a tasteful silver-and-blue tie. Black and cut short, his hair was carefully brushed in a way that was designed to minimize the size of his somewhat large ears. He seemed nervous and harried, and there were deep hollows in his cheeks that might have gotten there from perpetual anxiety. He looked the ulcerous type.

He said, “Are you the detective Mr. Martinetti called?”

I said that I was.

“Well, please come in.” He stood aside. “My name is Dean Proxmire. I’m Mr. Martinetti’s secretary.”

We shook hands, briefly. “How do you do?” I said, and felt foolish saying it. I wished I knew just how to handle myself in this kind of surroundings.

We were in a good-sized entrance hall, and there were a couple of pieces of decorative furniture on a muted broadloom carpet; several paintings in silver frames and a silver-framed antique mirror adorned the walls. Directly across from the door was a set of stairs leading up to a wrought-iron-railed balcony at the second floor. A wide doorway opened into a darkened living room, drapes drawn over the bay window, to the left of the stairs; to the right, an extension of the hall ran toward the rear of the house.

Proxmire took my hat and laid it carefully on the table under the mirror. He gestured toward the hall. “Mr. Martinetti and Mr. Channing are waiting in the study,” he said.

I nodded, and we went down the hall and stopped before a set of carved double doors that looked as if they belonged in some baronial English manor. Proxmire tapped discreetly on the wood, and then opened one of the doors and stepped back so I could precede him inside.

The study was considerably longer than it was wide, redwood-paneled, with a beamed ceiling in a kind of diamond design. A large patterned-stone fireplace was set against the far wall, with staggered bookshelves flanking it and filling the near end wall; the mantelpiece and some of the shelves contained heavy hammered copper ewers and demijohns and the like. Next to the entrance doors on the left was a built-in stereo unit, and beyond that a recessed alcove that contained an impressive redwood-and-leather bar. The furnishings themselves were of the same style and materials: three thickly padded chairs, two long, low couches-one facing the fireplace; the other set before a massive oblong desk with a black leather executive’s chair behind it-some heavy tables and a couple of mohair-shaded reading lamps. The desk was placed diagonally before the far left-hand corner, and dark brown damask drapes were drawn over windows extending the same distance on either side, forming a background V for the desk. It was very dark in there, and in spite of the appointments, I had the impression of austerity rather than solid masculine comfort, as if no one ever used this study simply to relax.

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