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This is a work of ction.

All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the authors imagination or are used
Copyright 2012 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust
All rights reserved.
A Forge Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Forge is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Pronzini, Bill.
Hellbox / Bill Pronzini.1st ed.
p. cm.
A Tom Doherty Associates book.
ISBN 978-0-7653-2565-5 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4299-4723-7 (e-book)
1. Nameless Detective (Fictitious character)Fiction. 2. Private
investigatorsFiction. I. Title.
PS3566.R67H45 2012
First Edition: July 2012
Printed in the United States of America
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7 6


erry was sitting at the table on the long front porch,

drinking coffee and taking in the view, when I came out
in my robe and slippers. It was only a little after nine
Sunday morning, another cloudless, end-of-June day; the
temperature was already in the seventies, though it would
probably get up near ninety by midafternoon. Usually I
dont deal well with heat, but somehow hot days in the
mountains dont seem quite as bothersome.
Morning, she said as I sat down. I wondered how
long you were going to stay in bed. Sleep well?
Yup. Must be the mountain air. I snufed up a deep
breath of it, yawned, and sniffed in some more. The resinous pine smell was sharp and clean; you could smell the
gathering heat, too, a pleasantly dusty summer odor. I
grinned at her and added, Among other things.
How long have you been up?
Oh, an hour or so. Nice out here.
Nice, I agreed. I helped myself to coffee from the pot
shed brewed and brought out on a tray.

22 Bill Pron zini

You really do like this place?

Yup. So far, so good.
Me, too. I wish Emily had been able to come with us.
We dont want to take the plunge without her seeing the
place rst.
If we take the plunge. I still think the owners are asking too much.
Sam Budlong said theyd take less.
But not a lot less. At least, that was the impression I
If the Murrays want to sell badly enough, theyll be
reasonable. Its been on the market a long time.
So we dont need to rush.
No, but if the rest of this little vacation goes well, and if
Emily likes the property as much as we do and we can negotiate an affordable price, theres no reason to keep looking, is there? Frankly, Ive grown a little tired of the hunt.
So had I, patience not being one of my long suits. Off
and on over the past three months, wed spent weekends
in different areas within a few hours driving distance from
San FranciscoLake County, the north coast along Highway 1, Big Basin and Santa Cruz, Penn Valleyand looked
at maybe a score of properties, none of which had come
close to our ideal second home. Emily had been with us
before, but she was away all of this week: Her school glee
club had been invited to take part in a state-sponsored
summer music festival in Southern California. Singing
was her rst love and career goal.
It had been one of Kerrys ad agency clients whod
suggested we consider Green Valley, in the Sierra foothills northeast of Placerville: quiet, scenic, remote enough


for solitude, but still reasonably close to Highway 50, and

a relatively easy three-hour drive from the city. So wed
come up, looked around, and liked what we saw enough
to contact a real estate agent in the valley town of Six
Pines. Id been skeptical when Sam Budlong said, I think
I have just the place youre looking for, but once he showed
it to us, my skepticism went away pretty fast.
The house cabin, reallywasnt such-a-much. Built
thirty-some years back of redwood with eldstone trim
and replaceholding up, but in need of repairs here and
there. Six smallish rooms, including a bathroom with
chattery plumbing. No garage, the only outbuilding a
combination storage and woodshed on the south side,
but that was a minor drawback. The location was the real
selling point. The place sat on a grassy knoll, pine woods
on three sides, a couple of gnarled old apple trees at the
rear; and in front, a mostly unobstructed view of the valley, sections of the Rubicon River that ran through it,
and forested hills and snow-topped mountain peaks
along the western horizon. You had a sense of rural isolation, yet it was only three miles to Six Pines. There were
other homes scattered along Ridge Hill Road, a narrow
secondary artery that wound along the hillside below,
but none of them were visible from here. Live in a city all
your life as I had, with neighbors piled up all around,
some of them separated from you by nothing more than
walls and areaways, and hundreds of yards of open space
on all sides were pure luxury.
Another plus was that there was plenty to do in the region. Trout shing in the Rubicon and dozens of mountain streams that threaded the valley and the hills and

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mountains surrounding it. Hiking. Hunting, if you were

into blood sports, which we werent. A variety of local
activities that included a gala (the real estate agents word)
Fourth of July celebration. And Placerville, Auburn, the
Amador County wine country were all day-trip close.
The only thing that gave me pause, aside from the selling price the owners were asking, was that Green Valley
was less than fty miles from the isolated section of the
Gold Country where Id been held captive, chained to a
cabin wall by an ex-convict bent on revenge, for three
hellish months several years back. For some time after the
ordeal ended, I was unable to venture into the Sierra foothills; just thinking about it would bring on ashbacks and
cold sweats. Gradually, the residual fear and loathing had
worn off, but I still couldnt and wouldnt travel anywhere
near the area north of Murphys. Fifty miles, though . . .
a long way from Deer Run, too far for me to let it be a
factor in the decision-making process.
Neither Kerry nor I was willing to commit to buying
the property without spending some time there to get the
feel of the area, make certain it was right for us. It had
been up for sale long enough so that the Murrays, who
lived in Sacramento, were willing to rent it to us for a few
days, with the rental fee to be deducted from the purchase price if we made an acceptable offer. So instead of
going back home after a two-night stay, as wed originally planned, wed decided to take advantage of the
rental deal. The timing for an extended getaway couldnt
have been better: neither of us had any pressing business
this week. Brief vacation for us while Emily was away enjoying hers.


I nished my coffee, re lled my cup and Kerrys. She

said, What do you want to do today? Explore a little or
just relax?
Both. Relax rst, though. Maybe go back to bed for
a while.
Didnt you get enough sleep?
I wasnt thinking about sleeping.
She laughed. You look like a demented old lecher when
you do that.
Do what?
Waggle your eyebrows that way.
Lecher, maybe, but not so old. And I refute demented.
Wasnt last night enough for you?
Hah, I said.
People our age arent supposed to have such active sex
Whats got you so revved up this morning anyhow?
The mountain air, and the way your hair shines in the
My God, she said with mock awe, where did that
come from?
Part of my new seduction package. I did some more
eyebrow waggling. So what do you say, sweet thing? Want
to go play our song again on that saggy old mattress in
Sweet thing. Oh, brother.
Best offer youll get all day. Better take advantage.
Are you sure youll be up to it again so soon?
Double hah, I said. Im Italian, remember?

26 Bill Pron zini

How could I forget?

I stood, stretched, waggled my eyebrows again, and held
out my hand.
If this is the effect Green Valley is having on you,
Kerry said, maybe we ought to rethink buying this
place. But she got right up and twined her ngers in
mine and let me lead her off to the bedroom.
hile Kerry took her turn showering and dressing, I
headed out to the deck again. On the way, my cell
phone cut loose with its burbling summons, barely audible
inside my jacket where Id hung it on the peg inside the
door. Id almost forgotten I had the thing with me; had
de nitely forgotten it was still turned on. Cell phones
dont always work in mountainous country, but this was
not one of those satellite dead zones. I almost wished it was
until I got the cell out and checked the callers name on
the screen. Tamara. Oh, Lord, I thought, not some sort of
emergency. But it wasnt.
I didnt think youd pick up, she said. Just wanted
to leave a callback message for you. Didnt interrupt anything, did I?
You might have if youd called half an hour ago, I said.
Whats up?
Question on the Western Maritime fraud case you
handled. Im trying to get caught up on our billing.
Havent you heard? Sundays supposed to be a day of
Yeah, sure. Like Saturday nights supposed to be boogie
Meaning yours wasnt?


Not hardly. Two glasses of wine, a bad rental ick, and

in bed by eleven. All by my lonesome.
Not good, I thought. She was drifting back into the
semi-reclusive, workaholic shell that shed closed herself
into after her longtime cellist boyfriend, Horace, moved
back east and then dumped her for a second violinist in
the Philadelphia Philharmonic. A brief hookup with a
man who called himself Lucas Zeller had brought her
out of it for a while, until he turned out to be a con man
and worse; the none-too-pleasant events that followed
had taught her some hard lessons. She still hadnt quite
recovered from the damage to her self-condence and selfesteem. Still wasnt ready to put her trust in anybody she
didnt already know and know well, particularly a member of the male sex. Caution and skepticism were healthy
attitudes up to a point, but not if she let them make her
a social outcast. She had a great deal to offer any man
with the sense and sensitivity to treat her right. What
she needed to do was put herself in a position to nd
him, and be willing to let him into her life when she
She hadnt asked for my advice, though, and I hadnt
volunteered it. Nor would I. We had a kind of de facto
father-daughter relationship, in addition to our professional bond, but I had to be careful not to come on too
strong with her. Her relationship with her own father was
prickly, and now and then she carried it over to me. Best
for both of us if I kept my mouth shut, let her work out
her personal problems on her own.
Fortunately, she changed the subject by asking, So
hows your weekend been?

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Good. Very good. Looks like weve found our second

All right! Where?
I gave her the relevant details. Were staying a few
more days to make sure. Nothing urgent to drag me back
sooner, I take it?
Nope. Everything under control.
Whats the problem with the insurance case?
It had to do with a foul-up on the expense account
chargesmy fault. When we got it straightened out, I
asked, Any new clients? because I hadnt spoken to her
since Thursday.
Couple, she said. One routine; Alex is handling it.
The other . . . well, Jakes plates pretty full, and the new
clients black. So I rang up Deron Stewart and gave it to
I thought you didnt like Stewart.
Dont much, but he did a good professional job on that
Delman mess, and he didnt try to hit on me. So I gured
Id throw him another bone.
Stewart was a qualied operative, an ex-cop whod
worked eight years for the San Francisco ofce of a large
national agency. Tamara and I had come close to hiring
him over Jake Runyon when we expanded operations a few
years ago. She was the one whod vetoed him; too slick, too
much ego, too much a womanizer for her liking. Stewart
hadnt had any luck nding a permanent spot with another
agency in the interim, owing to the lousy economy and
with some outts, maybe, a veiled racial bias. He freelanced now, much as Alex Chavez had before wed put him
on full time a couple of months ago.


What kind of case? I asked.

Nasty one. Excelsior woman being stalked by an exhusband.
Pro bono?
Not quite. Reduced fee. Shes got a good job, but shes
also a single momtwo kids. Her ex is one of those earlyrelease, violent crimes offenders the goddamn state keeps
turning loose. No menace to public safety, my ass. Police
havent been much help because the guy hasnt done
anything yet, except hang around and make veiled threats.
Woman swears its only a matter of time. Shes scared half
out of her head.
You think Stewart can handle the situation without
escalating it?
Says he can. Hed better, if he wants any more bones
tossed his way. Not a lot of freelance detective work out
there these days.
Thats for sure.
We talked a little more, then let each other get on with
our respective Sundays. I put the phone back into my
jacket pocket, went out and leaned on the porch railing
and thought about the cases Runyon and Chavez, and now
Deron Stewart, were dealing with. As much as I liked this
property, as much as I was glad to be away from the city
and the daily grind, I still had a left-out, pastured feeling
now and then. Ofcially semi-retired now, with a maximum two days a week at the ofce and mostly routine
stuff when I was there. Okay, good. It was what I wanted,
what Kerry and Emily wanted; Id made my decision and
I didnt regret it. But when youve been in the same business for two-thirds of your life, and found it rewarding

30 Bill Pron zini

and satisfying, despite a number of unpleasant situations

and brushes with violence, its hard to let go.
Maybe I wouldnt feel that tug, that vague sense of pastmy-prime-and-no-longer-needed in six months, a year,
two years. I hoped so. But if it lingered, I was not going to
backslide again. Theres nothing more pathetic than an
old plowhorse hobbling around trying to function at the
same level of competence as he had in his younger days,
and accomplishing little except getting in everybodys way.

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