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Authors: Bill Pronzini

Tags: #det_crime

Crazybone

BOOK: Crazybone
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Annotation
Beyond the wrought-iron gates and behind the stuccoed facades of the Spanish-style houses in the affluent California community of Greenwood, a murderous maze of deceit, adultery, fraud, and betrayal awaits the private eye hailed by the
Chicago Sun-Times
as “the thinking man’s detective” in this ingeniously contrived mystery novel by two-time Shamus award-winner Bill Pronzini.
Not that larceny among the rich comes as a surprise to “Nameless.” Indeed, even before he visits the handsomely appointed offices of the blond, tanned insurance agent Rich Twining and the estate where the recently widowed Sheila Hunter lives uneasily with her wary ten-year-old daughter, the private investigator’s darker suspicions have been aroused. For why would anyone, no matter how moneyed and beautiful and bereaved, refuse to claim fifty thousand dollars due to her in life insurance?
The question is simple enough. The answer, though, lies several murders, many miles, ten years, a deviously contrived name game, and one baffling word clue
— crazybone
— away.
Bill Pronzini
Crazybone
For the Poker Bunch—
Bette and J. J. Lamb
and
Peggy and Charlie Lucke
— Three Aces and a Wild Card
And special thanks to Bette Lamb for medical assistance
1
Greenwood was a little pocket of the good life sewn into the low eastern slopes of the Santa Morena Ridge, on the peninsula about halfway between San Francisco and the smoggy sprawl of Silicon Valley. During Gold Rush times, it had been the only trading post in the region and was a gathering place for the lumberjacks and bullwhackers who worked the nearby sawmills. No lumberjack or bullwhacker could afford to work or shop there these days, much less live in the area. Nor could anyone else whose annual income ran below six figures.
Some years back a national magazine had described Greenwood’s larger neighbor, Woodside, as a community “inhabited by gentlemen farmers, gentlemen ranchers, assorted exurbanites, and horses.” The description suited Greenwood equally well. Mecca for the horsey set. Riding academies, commercial stables, a paddock or two on every block. Horses, in fact, were so prevalent and held in such regard that local laws had been enacted permitting easements across private property for bridle paths, and backyard stabling if a homesite was an acre or more. There was even an equine licensing tax.
It was the sort of place, despite its gentility and scenic attractions, that made me vaguely uncomfortable. I could never have lived there no matter how much money I had. Too snooty and white bread for my blood, lacking in ethnic mix. Besides which, the only interest I have in horses is now and then watching them run at Tanforan or Golden Gate Fields.
Still, I didn’t mind a short visit on those rare occasions when a business matter took me down that way. Quiet there, unlike most other towns strung together along the Peninsula. Densely wooded slopes and hollows, pretty little creeks, gated and walled estates built with old money and maintained by new. The old-fashioned estates appeal to what Kerry and others have referred to as my dinosaur nature. Fortresslike stone houses and outbuildings, more than a few in the English Tudor style — anachronisms in the days of Y2K, relics of a time when nobody bothered to pretend that Americans live in a classless society. Not a better time; hell, no. But one I understood and identified with far more than the present day, when nearly everyone seems to have prostrated himself at the clay feet of the god Technology.
I turned off Highway 280 and rolled into Greenwood at two P.M. on a bright, crisp October afternoon. The town center was a country-village collection of the quaint and the modern: weathered wood and Spanish-style buildings even older than I am, cheek by jowl with tasteful little strip malls and a pseudo-rustic shopping center. The address I wanted turned out to be a two-story, tile-roofed, white stucco pile at least a century old, probably once a hotel and now a warren of professional offices. The one in which Richard Twining held sway was on the ground floor facing Greenwood Road, behind a chain-hung shingle that proclaimed
R. V. Twining — Insurance Services.
Twining was waiting for me with a smile, a strong handshake, and a friendly clap on the shoulder. Pure salesman, and a good one to get away with a somewhat flashy presence in such a staid environment. He was about forty, blond, tanned, good-looking, dressed in knife-creased beige slacks, an expensive navy-blue blazer, a silk shirt with the top two buttons undone, and a filigreed gold chain around his sunburned neck. An athlete once, I thought, still more or less in shape but with incipient jowls and the suggestion of a paunch. He had one of those deep, rumbly voices that some women consider an index to both masculinity and virility. The wedding ring on his left hand was three or four ounces of platinum gold and the private office he ushered me into was handsomely furnished. Doing all right for himself. R.V. was, in the insurance racket.
“Have a seat, make yourself comfortable,” he said. “Coffee? Tea? Soft drink? Or I’ve got some really good twelve-year-old Scotch—”
“Nothing, thanks.”
He sat down and leaned back in a padded leather armchair. “So. Frankly I don’t know why Intercoastal would send an investigator out on a matter like this. I mean, you’d think they’d be happy about it and just let it slide.”
“You’ve talked with Ken Fujita?”
“Oh, sure. But he wasn’t exactly forthcoming, if you know what I mean. He confide in you?”
“Pretty much. How well do you know Ken?”
“Not very.”
“Well, I’ve done some work for him in the past. Inconsistent behavior in policy holders bothers him.”
“Me, too, for that matter,” Twining said. “But this case is just the opposite. How could there be any intent to defraud on Mrs. Hunter’s part?”
“It’s not that, it’s the inconsistency itself. Why would anybody turn down fifty thousand dollars? That’s what bothers Fujita.”
“Pretty obvious, isn’t it? She doesn’t need the money. Jack Hunter left her well off.”
“Not so well off, according to your report, that fifty thousand wouldn’t be welcome. For her daughter’s education, if nothing else. And why wouldn’t she give you a specific reason? Why act the way she did?”
Twining scratched thoughtfully at his underlip. “I’ll admit that makes me wonder, too. But I still don’t see the need for an investigation. I could’ve worked on her myself to get the answers. No offense.”
“None taken. There’s another reason I was called in, the main one. Did Fujita discuss the publicity angle with you?”
“No. What publicity angle?”
“Intercoastal wants Mrs. Hunter to take the money,” I said, “as a, quote, gesture of good will, unquote. Widow refuses payoff, compassionate insurance company convinces her to change her mind for the benefit of her family. It’ll look good in the media and the head office, and brokers like you can milk it for new customers.”
Twining wagged his head. Then he said, “You know, it’s not a bad idea at that. Worth a lot more in the long run than the fifty K.”
I said, “Uh-huh. But they don’t want to push it until they’re certain the Hunters are the all-American family they appear to be. No skeletons, nothing that can backfire on Intercoastal.”
“And that’s where you come in.”
“Skeleton hunter, right. No pun intended.”
“Okay, then. So how can I help?”
“Well, your report was pretty detailed, but I’d like to go over the specifics if you don’t mind. Ask a few questions.”
“No problem. Fire away.”
“Let’s start with the deceased. How well did you know Jackson Hunter?”
“Casually. We both played golf at Emerald Hills. That’s where I signed him, in the bar at the country club.” Twining grinned. “Nothing breaks down resistance like three or four martinis.”
“Policy on his life only.”
“Right. Term life, twenty-five thousand double indemnity. I tried to talk him into a joint spousal policy, but he wouldn’t go for it. He didn’t even want Sheila — Mrs. Hunter — to know he’d taken out one on himself.”
“Why, did he say?”
“Something about her hating the whole idea of insurance.”
“You respected his wishes?”
“Sure. Customer is always right.”
“This was, what, eighteen months ago?”
“About that.”
“You see him much after you signed him?”
“Now and then. Casually, like I said.”
“How did he seem to you? Stable, happy? Or a man with problems?”
“I’d say reasonably happy and rock-solid. Drank a little too much, but then, don’t we all sometimes.”
I let that pass. “Secure in his job?”
“Seemed to be. The computer racket can be iffy, but he wasn’t a Silicon road runner. He—”
“Road runner?”
“Commuter, wage slave. Didn’t work down in the Valley, at least not regularly. Private consultant, did most of his work at home. He’d been at it several years and he had a couple of medium-size companies on his client list.”
“Estimated annual income?”
“Six figures, easy.”
“A twenty-five-thousand-dollar double indemnity policy is pretty skimpy for a man making that kind of money.”
“Exactly what I tried to tell him,” Twining said. “He wouldn’t listen. I had a hell of a time as it was, signing him on the small term life.”
“Why do you think he bothered, then?”
“The truth?” Twining’s grin this time was of the preening, self-congratulatory variety. “To get me off his back. Persistence is my middle name. I never met a sales resistance I couldn’t break down sooner or later.”
“I don’t doubt that,” I said. “No employment listing for Mrs. Hunter, I noticed.”
“Nope. She didn’t need to work, so she didn’t.”
“Was she trained for anything?”
Another grin, the smutty kind. He had quite a repertoire. “Women like Sheila don’t need to he trained. She was born with all of her best skills.”
“Meaning?”
“She’s a fox,” he said. “Genuine, grade-A stone fox. One of the most drop-dead gorgeous women I’ve ever set eyes on. Jack Hunter was one lucky bastard.”
“Until two weeks ago, maybe. How does Mrs. Hunter... what’s her maiden name, by the way? I didn’t see it in the report.”
“Underwood, I think.”
I wrote that down. “How does she spend her time? Other than being a homemaker and mother, I mean.”
“Potting, mostly. That’s her thing.”
“What kind of pottery?”
“Odd-shaped bowls and urns, bright glazes with black designs. Pretty good, if you like that kind of art. She has a studio behind their house.”
“She sell or display any of her work?”
“Local gallery has a sampling for sale. Anita Purcell Fine Arts. Couple of blocks west of here on the main drag.”
I made another note. “About the Hunters’ marriage,” I said then. “Would you say it was solid?”
“Who knows about things like that?” Twining said, and shrugged. “Looked good on the surface, especially where Jack was concerned. He talked about her all the time, all but drooled on her in public. So would I if I was married to a stone fox like that. Not that my wife’s a dog, you understand.”
Some compliment. I let that pass, too. “So as far as you know, they were faithful to each other.”
“Depends on your definition of faithful. Me, I subscribe to the Clinton version.” He laughed. “I can tell you this — she wouldn’t play the one time I tested the waters. And if I couldn’t score, chances are nobody else could, either. Jack was the only one getting a piece of that pie.”
Twining had succeeded in making me actively dislike him. He was one of the breed that looks at every woman the way a glutton looks at a plate of food; that measures and rates every woman in terms of her physical attributes, potential sexual prowess, and availability to him and his line of seductive bullshit. The type that thinks with his little head instead of his big one. A hard-on disguised as a man, in one of Kerry’s more colorful phrases. Men like Richard Twining are a central reason why Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and the leaders of NOW became hardcore feminists. Difficult enough to take in their twenties and thirties, past forty their outlook and their shtick become pathetic as well as tiresome and annoying. As far as I was concerned, any woman who had the misfortune to be married to this horse’s ass would be completely justified in having him gelded and stabled with the rest of Greenwood’s aging stallions.
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