Bill Pronzini: Mourners

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Bill Pronzini Mourners
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Bill Pronzini



It was a small, private funeral at the Glade Brothers Mortuary in Daly City. Different in all respects from the two funerals the day before. Both of those had been large affairs held in San Francisco, one in a funeral home in the Marina and the other at Mission Dolores.

The bereaved were still gathering when we got there. Half a dozen cars were parked in the adjacent lot, and there were little knots of ethnically mixed individuals outside the mortuary’s entrance; the age and makes of the cars and the mourners’ dark suits and dark dresses said they were a low-income group. Troxell went straight inside, as on the other occasions, without speaking or acknowledging anybody, but this time I didn’t tag along to watch him view the remains and then sit like a rock in one of the pews throughout the service. I dislike funerals in principle; honoring the dead should be a personal and private act, not a ritualistic public spectacle. And I’d already exceeded my low tolerance level for dirge music, the sweet cloying scent of flowers, faces ravaged by pain and grief. I stayed in the car, wishing for maybe the twentieth time that Jake Runyon hadn’t been too busy to pull this duty, and called Tamara at the agency to fill her in.

A few other cars arrived and finally everybody went inside and the thing got under way. This one was mercifully brief. Inside of half an hour the doors opened and the slow exodus began. Troxell was in the forefront, ahead of half a dozen young, beefy guys bearing a simple wooden coffin with brass handles. One of the mourners, a weeping middle-aged woman in black, appeared to be close to collapse. Troxell stood off to one side, watching the pallbearers load the coffin and the weeping woman being helped into the front seat of the hearse. Again, he didn’t speak to anyone. A couple of the men gave him curious looks, as if wondering who he was, but no one went near him.

It didn’t take long for the cortege to get under way. Eight cars followed the hearse along John Daly Boulevard to the 280 freeway. The first six contained family and friends of the deceased. The seventh was James Troxell, alone in his silver BMW. The eighth and last in line was me, alone in my twenty-year-old Detroit junker.

I was there because I was following Troxell. I still had no idea why he was there. Or why he’d attended the two funerals yesterday. All of the decedents seemed to be as much strangers to him as they were to me.

The procession continued down 280 toward Colma, the unincorporated area that abuts South San Francisco, where many of the West Bay’s dead wind up in their little permanent pieces of California real estate. Halfway there, my cell phone buzzed. Another thing I dislike is talking on the phone while I’m driving, but I didn’t have much choice in the matter right then. We weren’t traveling fast enough-a sedate forty-five in the slow lane-for it to present any kind of highway hazard.

Tamara. “This funeral is for a woman named Helena Barline,” she said. “Thirty-three, married, no children, resident of Daly City. Killed two days ago in an accident near Westlake Park.”

“What kind of accident?”

“Hit-and-run. Red-light runner. One witness.”

“Driver caught or IDed?”

“Not so far.”

“Witness able to describe the car?”

“Sport job with racing stripes. He thought the driver was a woman.”

“No help there. Was she financially secure?”

“You thinking Troxell was her financial consultant? No way. Family was nineteen K in debt-every credit card maxed out.”

“Some kind of personal connection?”

“Doesn’t look like it. They didn’t move in the same circles.”

“What’d you come up with on the two women yesterday?”

“Ellen Carswell, thirty-nine, beaten to death by estranged husband in her North Beach apartment. Antonia Ruiz, fifty-two, widowed, shot during a holdup at a convenience store in South S.F.”

“Violent crimes. Three cases, three female victims.”

“Right,” Tamara said. “But that’s it on the similarities. Different ages and ethnic backgrounds, income brackets about the same as Helena Barline.”

“And I suppose Troxell had no apparent connection to them, either.”

“Not that I could find.”

“Well, hell,” I said.

“Maybe he just gets off on funerals.”

“A closet mourner? Better that than some of the alternatives.”

“Like talking to aliens or waving his dick at schoolkids.”

“Or worse. That death-by-unnatural-causes angle makes me a little edgy.”

“Lot of people fascinated by violence and its effects on other folks.”

“To the point of attending unknown victims’ funerals?”

“Same principle as hanging around homicide scenes.”

“Possible, I suppose.”

“Anyhow,” she said, “the man has no history of violence or mental illness.”

“Encouraging, but not conclusive.”

“Might be something else in his background. I’m still digging.”

“Make it deep,” I said, and we rang off.

The procession was entering Colma now. I sighed.

Cemetery-next stop.

There are a dozen or so boneyards in Colma-ethnic, denominational, nondenominational. All attractively landscaped and well maintained, with restful and respectful atmospheres. But not if you’ve been down there three times in two days. And not if you find the practice of burying the dead personally distasteful. I like cemeteries even less than I like funerals. Cremation and a respectful scattering of the ashes in a quiet place is my choice. Kerry’s, too, fortunately.

The day before the destinations had been Hills of Eternity and Holy Cross. Today it was Olivet, and that put me in an even bleaker mood. Olivet Memorial Cemetery was where Eberhardt, my former friend and former partner, was interred-the day of his planting being the last damn time I’d been out to Colma until yesterday. The surroundings brought it all back, not only the burial ceremony but the way he’d died and the painful circumstances that had led to his death.

I stopped behind Troxell’s BMW and the other vehicles parked along the edge of the road, got out of the car, and walked around at a distance beyond where the remains of Helena Barline, hit-and-run victim, were being laid down. I thought maybe a little exercise, the cold slap of the early June wind, would help me reinter Eberhardt in his memory grave. Wrong. Now that his bones were out, they kept right on rattling. I continued to pace, watching Troxell and the huddled gathering around the gravesite. The wind made enough noise in the trees so that I couldn’t hear any of the minister’s words or any of the sounds the weeping woman made. But I could see their faces and the movements of their mouths and that was bad enough.

Troxell hadn’t joined the group at the grave. As on the previous two burials he stood off at a distance, stock-still the whole time with his hands deep in his coat pockets, his narrow face void of expression. He didn’t know or suspect I was there any more than he had the day before. Eyes only for the casket, the mourners, the ritual lowering. It wasn’t until the coffin was snug in its grassy plot that he turned away, and then he looked nowhere except at his BMW.

He stayed put until the mourners began filing back, which gave me plenty of time to take position. I turned on the car radio for noise; it helped keep Eberhardt at bay. When Troxell finally pulled away, I gave him plenty of room. He was easy to follow-a slow, careful driver not given to lane changes or sudden bursts of speed. He even flicked his signal on when he made a turn, an act of courtesy that would’ve gotten him sneered at on most California freeways these days.

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