'U' Is For Undertow
By Sue Grafton
Hardcover, 416 pages
List price: $27.95
Wednesday afternoon, April 6, 1988
What fascinates me about life is that now and then the past rises up and declares itself. Afterward, the sequence of events seems inevitable, but only because cause and effect have been aligned in advance. It's like a pattern of dominoes arranged upright on a tabletop. With the flick of your finger, the first tile topples into the second, which in turn tips into the third, setting in motion a tumbling that goes on and on, each tile knocking over its neighbor until all of them fall down. Sometimes the impetus is pure chance, though I discount the notion of accidents. Fate stitches together elements that seem unrelated on the surface. It's only when the truth emerges you see how the bones are joined and everything connects.
Here's the odd part. In my ten years as a private eye, this was the first case I ever managed to resolve without crossing paths with the bad guys. Except at the end, of course.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private detective, female, age thirty-seven, with my thirty-eighth birthday coming up in a month. Having been married and divorced twice, I'm now happily single and expect to remain so for life. I have no children thus far and I don't anticipate bearing any. Not only are my eggs getting old, but my biological clock wound down a long time ago. I suppose there's always room for one of life's little surprises, but that's not the way to bet.
I work solo out of a rented bungalow in Santa Teresa, California, a town of roughly 85,000 souls who generate sufficient crime to occupy the Santa Teresa Police Department, the County Sheriff's Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the twenty-five or so local private investigators like me. Movies and television shows would have you believe a PI's job is dangerous, but nothing could be farther from the truth . . . except, of course, on the rare occasions when someone tries to kill me. Then I'm ever so happy my health insurance premiums are paid up. Threat of death aside, the job is largely research, requiring intuition, tenacity, and ingenuity. Most of my clients reach me by referral and their business ranges from background checks to process serving, with countless other matters in between. My office is off the beaten path and I seldom have a client appear unannounced, so when I heard a tapping at the door to my outer office, I got up and peered around the corner to see who it was.
Through the glass I saw a young man pointing at the knob. I'd apparently turned the dead bolt to the locked position when I'd come back from lunch. I let him in, saying, "Sorry about that. I must have locked up after myself without being aware of it."
"You're Ms. Millhone?"
"Michael Sutton," he said, extending his hand. "Do you have time to talk?"
We shook hands. "Sure. Can I offer you a cup of coffee?"
"No, thanks. I'm fine."
I ushered him into my office while I registered his appearance in a series of quick takes. Slim. Lank brown hair with a sheen to it, worn long on top and cut short over his ears. Solemn brown eyes, complexion as clear as a baby's. There was a prep school air about him: deck shoes without socks, sharply creased chinos, and a short-sleeve white dress shirt he wore with a tie. He had the body of a boy: narrow shoulders, narrow hips, and long, smooth arms. He looked young enough to be carded if he tried to buy booze. I couldn't imagine what sort of problem he'd have that would require my services.
I returned to my swivel chair and he settled in the chair on the other side of the desk. I glanced at my calendar, wondering if I'd set up an appointment and promptly forgotten it.
He noticed the visual reference and said, "Detective Phillips at the police department gave me your name and address. I should have called first, but your office was close by. I hope this isn't an inconvenience."
"Not at all," I said. "My first name's Kinsey, which you're welcome to use. You prefer Michael or Mike?"
"Most people call me Sutton. In my kindergarten class, there were two other Michaels so the teacher used our last names to distinguish us. Boorman, Sutton, and Trautwein — like a law firm. We're still friends."
"Where was this?"
I said, "Ah." I should have guessed as much. Climping Academy is the private school in Horton Ravine, K through 12. Tuition starts at twelve grand for the little tykes and rises incrementally through the upper grades. I don't know where it tops out, but you could probably pick up a respectable college education for the same price. All the students enrolled there referred to it as "Climp," as though the proper appellation was just, like, sooo beside the point. Watching him, I wondered if my blue-collar roots were as obvious to him as his upper-class status was to me.
We exchanged pleasantries while I waited for him to unload. The advantage of a prearranged appointment is that I begin the first meeting with at least some idea what a prospective client has in mind. People skittish about revealing their personal problems to a stranger often find it easier to do by phone. With this kid, I figured we'd have to dance around some before he got down to his business, whatever it was.
He asked how long I'd been a private investigator. This is a question I'm sometimes asked at cocktail parties (on the rare occasion when I'm invited to one). It's the sort of blah-blah-blah conversational gambit I don't much care for. I gave him a rundown of my employment history. I skipped over the two lackluster semesters at the local junior college and started with my graduation from the police academy. I then covered the two years I'd worked for the Santa Teresa PD before I realized how ill suited I was to a life in uniform. I proceeded with a brief account of my subsequent apprenticeship with a local agency, run by Ben Byrd and Morley Shine, two private investigators, who'd trained me in preparation for licensing. I'd had my ups and downs over the years, but I spared him the details since he'd only inquired as a stalling technique. "What about you? Are you a California native?"
"Yes, ma'am. I grew up in Horton Ravine. My family lived on Via Ynez until I went off to college. I lived a couple of other places, but now I'm back."
"You still have family here?"
His hesitation was one of those nearly imperceptible blips that indicates internal editing. "My parents are gone. I have two older brothers, both married with two kids each, and an older sister who's divorced. We're not on good terms. We haven't been for years."
I let that pass without comment, being better acquainted with family estrangement than I cared to admit. "How do you know Cheney Phillips?"
"I don't. I went into the police department, asking to speak to a detective, and he happened to be free. When I told him my situation, he said you might be able to help."
"Well, let's hope so," I said. "Cheney's a good guy. I've known him for years." I shut my mouth then and let a silence descend, a stratagem with remarkable powers to make the other guy talk.
Sutton touched the knot in his tie. "I know you''e busy, so I'll get to the point. I hope you'll bear with me. The story might sound weird."
"Weird stories are the best kind, so fire away," I said.
He looked at the floor as he spoke, making eye contact now and then to see if I was following. "I don't know if you saw this, but a couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the newspaper about famous kidnappings: Marion Parker, the twelve-year-old girl who was abducted in 1927; the Lindbergh baby in 'thirty-two; another kid, named Etan Patz. Ordinarily, I don't read things like that, but what caught my attention was the case here in town . . ."
"You're talking about Mary Claire Fitzhugh — 1967."
"You remember her?"
"Sure. I'd just graduated from high school. Little four-year-old girl taken from her parents' home in Horton Ravine. The Fitzhughs agreed to pay the ransom, but the money was never picked up and the child was never seen again."
"Exactly. The thing is, when I saw the name Mary Claire Fitzhugh, I had this flash — something I hadn't thought about for years." He clasped his hands together and squeezed them between his knees. "When I was a little kid, I was playing in the woods and I came across these two guys digging a hole. I remember seeing a bundle on the ground a few feet away. At the time, I didn't understand what I was looking at, but now I believe it was Mary Claire's body and they were burying her."
Reprinted from U Is For Undertow by Sue Grafton by arrangement with G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2009 by Sue Grafton.