Bill Pronzini: Fever

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Bill Pronzini Fever
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Bill Pronzini



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?”

“Hillman’s lobby.”

“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 you.”

“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.”

“A john?”

“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.”

“Apartment number?”

“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.

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