Read Blowback (The Nameless Detective) Online

Authors: Bill Pronzini

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Blowback (The Nameless Detective)

Blowback

 

Books by Bill Pronzini

“Nameless Detective” Novels:

The Snatch

The Vanished

Undercurrent

Blow Back

Twospot (with Collin Wilcox)

Labyrinth

Hoodwink

Scattershot

Dragonfire

Bindlestiff

Quicksilver

Nightshades

Double (with Marcia Muller)

Bones

Deadfall

Shackles

Jackpot

Breakdown

Blowback

 

Bill Pronzini

 

SPEAKING VOLUMES, LLC
NAPLES, FLORIDA
2011

Blowback

Copyright © 1977 by Bill Pronzini

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the author.

ISBN 978-1-61232-068-7

Contents

 

One

 

Two

 

Three

 

Four

 

Five

 

Six

 

Seven

 

Eight

 

Nine

 

Ten

 

Eleven

 

Twelve

 

Thirteen

 

Fourteen

 

Fifteen

 

Sixteen

 

Seventeen

 

Eighteen

 

Nineteen

 

Twenty

 

Twenty-one

 

One

 

Sunday Morning Coming Down

That's the title of a sad popular song by Kris Kristofferson, about a man with no wife and no children and nowhere to go and not much to look forward to on a quiet Sunday morning. On this quiet Sunday morning, I was that man. Nowhere to go and not much to look forward to.

I carried a cup of coffee into the living room of my flat in San Francisco's Pacific Heights. It was a pretty nice day out, cloudless, a little windy—no sign of the heavy fogs that usually blanket the city during the month of July. The part of the Bay I could see from my front windows was a rippled ultramarine and dotted with sailboats, like a bas-relief map with a lot of small white flags pinned to it.

I moved over to the tier of laminated wood bookshelves that filled the side wall beyond the windows, on which I kept most of my six thousand-odd detective and mystery pulp magazines by title, chronologically. I ran my fingers over some of the spines.
Black Mask, Dime Detective, Clues, Detective Fiction Weekly, Double Detective
. I had started collecting them in 1947, and that meant almost three decades of my life were on those shelves—nearly three-fifths of the time I had been on this earth. And next week, next Thursday, I would be fifty years old.

I took one of the
Black Masks
down and looked at the gaudy thirties illustration, the cover list of authors. Gardner, Nebel, Cain. Old friends that usually I could have passed a quiet Sunday with, that would have lifted me out of most any depressed mood I might happen to be in. But not this Sunday—

The telephone rang.

I keep the thing in the bedroom, and I went in there and lifted up the receiver. It was Eberhardt, a sobersided Lieutenant of Detectives on the San Francisco cops and probably my closest friend for about the same number of years as I had been collecting the pulps.

“Hello, hot stuff,” he said. “Get you out of bed?”

“No. I've been up for hours.”

“You're getting to be an early bird in your dotage.”

“Yeah.”

“Listen, Dana is off to Sausalito for the day and I'm getting up a game—Hastings and Friedman from the Squad, maybe Larry Ballard from the Kearny Agency. You interested in a little poker and a lot of beer this afternoon?”

“I don't think so, Eb.”

“You working on something?”

“Not since last Tuesday.”

“Other plans?”

“No. I'm just not in a poker mood today.”

“You sound like you're in a mood, period.”

“Maybe I am, a little.”

“Private-eye blues, huh?”

“Yeah—private-eye blues.”

“Wouldn't happen to have anything to do with your fiftieth next week, would it?”

“More or less,” I said.

“Hell, fifty's the prime of life. I ought to know, tiger; I been there two years now. I haven't had any problem getting it up and neither will you.”

“Getting what up?” I said.

He made chuckling sounds. “You change your mind about the game, come on over around one. Beer's on me.”

“Sure.
Ciao
, Eb.”

We rang off, and I went back to the living room and looked around at the clutter in there: old newspapers and magazines and pulps, dirty dishes, clothing draped over the furniture; there was even a dust ball under the mahogany secretary in one corner. I had been living in this same Pacific Heights flat for twenty years, with the same furnishings, and for all anyone might have known or cared, the same bachelor's mess. Some of the women I had had relationships with had cleaned it up from time to time, but I had not had a relationship in quite a while now. So there was nobody to clean it up, nobody to care except me, and I was content with it the way it was.

I sipped my coffee and tried not to think about anything. I might as well have tried not to breathe. I got up and paced around for a while, aimlessly.

All at once, the cough started up. I sat down again, handkerchief to my mouth to catch the discharges of bitter gray phlegm from my lungs, and listened to the dry sounds echo through the empty room. I had had that cough for some while now, like an old enemy that came around to bother you now and again. Bronchial trouble, caused by too many cigarettes and air pollution and the cold San Francisco fog. Sure. But lately it had worsened, and the color of the phlegm had changed, and you can only lie to yourself for just so long. Then visceral fear takes over, and even if you have a paranoid reaction to doctors because of the things you saw in field hospitals in the South Pacific during World War II, you know there is no way you can continue to avoid medical attention.

I had come to that decision the past week, and I had gotten the name of a doctor from the retired fire captain who lived downstairs, and I had made an appointment for last Friday—Dr. White, whose appearance and whose offices on Geary downtown were as sterile as his name. There had been a long talk about symptoms and a lot of stern admonitions about the evils of cigarette smoking that did nothing except deepen my fear and bring out a cold sweat under my arms. There had been, finally, a chest x-ray. And then—

“You have a lesion on your left lung,” he said.

What do you say? There is nothing you can say. You sit there and look at him, and you try not to let him see how much your hands are trembling.

“It may not be malignant,” this white Dr. White said. “It could be an adenoma—a benign tumor. We'll have to do a sputum cytology.”

So I coughed up phlegm for him into a sterile container, and he said he would get it over to the pathology lab at San Francisco General right away, but that we could not reasonably expect a report until Tuesday sometime. Meanwhile, I was not supposed to worry and I was not, for God's sake, supposed to smoke any more cigarettes.

Close the barn door, I had thought, the horse is gone. But I had not had a cigarette since then.

And now it was Sunday, Sunday morning coming down, and tomorrow it would be Monday and then it would be Tuesday. And when it was Thursday and I already knew the results of the sputum test, I would be fifty years old. Happy birthday, happy half-century, you have lung cancer.

Jesus, Jesus.

I had wanted to tell Eberhardt on the phone just now; I had wanted to tell someone since Friday. But just as there had been nothing to say to White, there was nothing to say to Eb, not yet. He would only work himself up into a lather—he was a good friend—and there was no sense in that. There was no sense in worrying myself, just as the doctor advised. It would not help matters, it would not change matters. The lesion on my lung was malignant or it was not malignant. I had cancer or I did not have cancer. Simple.

From the beginning it had
all
been simple, I thought. You start smoking because all the other kids on the block have taken it up and you don't want to be considered a sissy. Then you start to enjoy it, it's a harmless little vice; you like the way a cigarette tastes after a hard day or with a beer or after making love. Later, you listen to all the warnings put out by the Surgeon General's Office, and you shrug, and with stupid blind faith you think that it's not as bad as they make it seem. That it can't do any damage to
you
. But what you don't think about until maybe it's too late is that you have been burning up an average of two packs a day for thirty-five of your fifty years, which works out to more than half a million butts, to more than ten million lungfuls of tobacco smoke—and maybe the human body is just not equipped to handle that kind of overload.

Simple. Simple to give the things up when you find out about the lesion growing on your lung. Simple to sit here with your morning coffee, coughing, spitting up phlegm, and tell yourself there's no point in worrying, you either have cancer or you don't, and if you're lucky the lesion won't be malignant and everything will work out after all.

What isn't simple is fighting off the craving for a cigarette, just one, just one more cigarette because it always tasted so damned good with that morning coffee.

I got to my feet again: all I seemed to be doing this morning was standing and sitting down. Well, I had to get out of there, that was all, before I became claustrophobic; I had to get my mind off cigarettes and off Tuesday. Go somewhere, do something. Bowling, maybe, some sort of physical activity—

The phone bell went off a second time.

Now who the hell? I thought. The hell with it, there was nobody I wanted to talk to. But I was not one of those people who could let the telephone ring without responding. Too many years of conditioning. The telephone was an integral part of my job and always had been. Reluctantly I went in and answered it.

A voice, vaguely familiar, said my first name. I frowned, and there was one of those awkward pauses where you try to place someone by his voice and can't quite manage it. I said finally, “Yes?”

“This is Harry Burroughs, buddy.”

“Well, Christ,” I said.

Harry Burroughs was a guy I had met in the Pacific theater during the early years of the war, when I was in Military Intelligence and he was attached to a combat supply unit. We had gotten to be friends, had done a good deal of drinking and carousing together, and had come back stateside on the same ship in 1946. Since we were both from California, we had stayed in touch over the years; he owned and operated a small fishing camp up in the Sierra Nevada, on Eden Lake in the southern Mother Lode.

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