Bill Pronzini: Deadfall

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Bill Pronzini Deadfall
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Bill Pronzini


Chapter One

Stakeouts are a pain in the ass.

On rolling night stakeouts this is true literally as well as figuratively. During the day you can people-watch, read a little, get out of the car and walk around for short periods. After dark you’re pretty much confined, particularly when the weather is bad and even more particularly when you’re staked out in a residential neighborhood. Citizens might not notice a strange car, or somebody hunkered down in the shadows inside, but once you start prowling around on foot they notice you damned quick-and the next thing you know, you’re exchanging amenities with a couple of prowl-car cops. About all you can do on a rolling night stakeout is sit and think and try not to fall asleep while you wait for something to happen.

That was what I was doing for the second night in a row, on Cerritos Street in San Francisco’s Ingleside District, at eleven???o’clock of a cold, overcast, but no longer rainy November Thursday: bored to tears, developing calluses on my backside, and reflecting on the metaphysical nature of stakeouts. I had been in the neighborhood since 8:15, at three different locations within two blocks, from all of which I could watch a particular gray-stucco house that belonged to a woman named Eileen Kyner. She hadn’t shown up yet; neither had the guy I was waiting for, one Alfred Henry Umblinger, Jr. For all I knew they had run off to the North Woods or the North Pole, never to be seen or heard from again. Another long, dull, empty night. And for what? Was I suffering like this in order to apprehend a dangerous felon? I was not. Nothing half so glamorous or noble as that.

I was sitting here waiting to swipe a car.

Admittedly, Alfred Henry Umblinger, Jr., was what they used to call a blot on society’s escutcheon. Not that he was a crook, not precisely. Alfred Henry was, in fact, a deadbeat of the first magnitude. He had a charming habit of buying things on credit and then forgetting to pay for them. He also moved around a lot, so that when people like me got hired by finance companies and/or various merchants to either collect what was owed them or repossess the goods, Alfred Henry was nowhere to be found. Why merchants kept selling things to him was beyond me, but they did; and of course he kept disappearing. He was very good at disappearing, Alfred Henry was. It had taken me almost a week to get a line on him, the line being Eileen Kyner. La Kyner, a recent divorcee, was reputed to be his current lady friend; she was also reputed to be harboring his silver 1985 Mercedes XL in her garage. Said Mercedes having been purchased by Alfred Henry from a dealer in Burlingame, and said dealer now wanting it back because Alfred Henry had neglected to pay him a dime on it in four months. The Mercedes had not been in Eileen Kyner’s garage yesterday morning, when I’d first come out here, and it hadn’t been there last night or today at any time. Neither had Eileen Kyner or Alfred Henry or anybody else, so far as I knew. I was beginning to view the past two days as a wild-goose squat. Still and all, I was getting paid to sit here, and so here I would sit for at least one more day and night, if necessary, gathering additional proof (as if I needed any) that stakeouts are a pain in the ass and that the life of the private eye is generally overrated as far as excitement is concerned.

I shifted position on the seat for the two-hundredth time, to ease the pressure on my tailbone, and stared out at the street. After two nights here I knew it as well as I ever wanted to know any street in the city. It was a very ordinary street, lined with medium-sized houses of several different architectural styles, the dominant one being Spanish. The houses on the north side, where I was parked in the heavy shadow of a Monterey pine, were built on higher ground ten feet or so above street level; the ones on the south side were at street level, set back behind short lawns or gardens. Among the latter group was Eileen Kyner’s gray-stucco. Nothing much happened on Cerritos after dark, it seemed, which meant that there was hardly anything to occupy my attention while I waited. Once, an hour ago, a guy had come out of a house down the block, hauling a fat schnauzer on a leash, and I had been so grateful for something to look at that I had watched with rapt attention while the schnauzer lifted his leg against a tree and then left his calling card on a neighbor’s nice green lawn. The dog’s owner made no attempt to scoop up the calling card, so I had got another couple of minutes out of cursing inconsiderate dog owners who made no attempt to curb their mutts.

More time passed-at least an hour, I thought. I glanced at my watch to confirm that, and saw that seven minutes had elapsed since the last time I’d looked at it. I shifted position for the two-hundred-and-first time. It was stuffy in the car, probably because I was wrapped up in my heavy tweed overcoat-I was just getting over a touch of bronchitis-and so I opened the window a little to let in some of the cold night air. From somewhere nearby I could hear the faint sound of a television turned to a late-evening rerun of a sitcom: the rise and fall of canned laughter. That was how quiet it was in this neighborhood.

I glanced over at the GTE mobile telephone unit mounted under the dash. It was brand new, that unit. I had always felt that mobile telephones were an unnecessary affectation, and I had put up something of a squawk before yielding to Eberhardt’s insistence that we each outfit our cars with one. Now, after two nights on Cerritos, with the most interesting thing I’d witnessed being a schnauzer having a bowel movement, I had begun to change my mind. I had used the mobile phone twice already tonight, once to check in with Eberhardt and once to let Kerry know that she was probably going to have to sleep alone again-a fact that depressed me, if not her. Too late to call either of them again, much as I would have liked to. Besides which, the mobile phone was for business and emergency use, not for idle chitchat to alleviate the boredom of a rolling stakeout. I had gotten through thirty-odd years of stakeouts without a telephone as a steady companion; I could likewise get through the next couple of hours of this one.

Come on, Alfred Henry, I thought. Come on, you deadbeat son of a bitch.

I sighed. I shifted position again. I poured a little more coffee from the thermos I’d brought along and tried to drink it too fast and spilled half of it down my chin onto the front of my coat. I said some rude words. I sighed again. I poured more coffee and managed this time to find my mouth with the cup. I yawned. I stared out at the street. I switched on my Sony portable radio and listened to five minutes of news, local and national, none of which was worth listening to. I switched off the radio and looked at my watch again.


Headlights appeared in the rearview mirror. I pulled my head down lower on the seat and sat still, watching and listening to the sound of the car as it approached and then glided past. It might have been a Mercedes XL; it had the shape of one. But if so it wasn’t Alfred Henry’s Mercedes XL. It drifted on past Eileen Kyner’s house and turned right on Moncada and disappeared.


I had hung around until after two last night. Not tonight, Alfred Henry. If he and his Mercedes didn’t show by 1:00 A.M. I was going home to sleep. Alone, damn it.

I thought about Kerry again. She was nice to think about-the love of your life always is. Almost always, anyway. I wondered what she was doing right now. Probably getting ready for bed in her Diamond Heights apartment. That coppery hair of hers brushed out smooth and shiny, her face scrubbed free of makeup. Wearing that flimsy peach-colored thing, maybe, the one that ended halfway down her thighs and was sheer all around except for little wisps of lace here and there, here and there…

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