Vixen

Bill Pronzini

Vixen

Book 40 in the Nameless Detective series, 2015

In memory of my grandfather

William Guder (1888-1958), whose taste in reading matter helped shape my own

PROLOGUE

Femme fatale. French for “deadly woman.”

You hear the term a lot these days, usually in connection with noir fiction and film noir. Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. Cora in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity. Matty Walker in Body Heat. Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. Scheming, sexually demanding vixens who trap their lovers in bonds of murderous desire and use them to further their own ends. Lethal women. Jezebel, Salome, Cleopatra.

But they’re not just products of literature, film, the folklore of nearly every culture. They exist in modern society, too. The genuine femmes fatale you hear about now and then are every bit as evil as the fictional variety. Yet what sets them apart is that they’re the failures, the ones who for one reason or another got caught. For every one of those, there must be several times as many who get away with their destructive crimes.

In the dozen years I spent in law enforcement and the thirty-some years I’ve been a private investigator, I never once had the misfortune to cross paths with this type of seductress. Never expected to. Never thought much about the breed except when confronted with one in a movie or the pages of a book or the pulp magazines I collect. Female monsters of a different variety, yes, like the middle-aged pair I’d encountered not long ago who made a living murdering elderly people for their money and possessions.

But a femme fatale in the classic mode? Not even close. If you’d told me that one day I would, and that her brand of evil would be like nothing I could ever have imagined, I would probably have laughed and said no way.

I’m not laughing now.

Neither is Jake Runyon. He was mixed up with her, too, in the same professional way I was, not quite from the beginning but even more deeply and all the way to the end. He’d never come across anyone like this particular vixen, either, and it left him as shaken as it did me.

Her name was Cory Beckett. Real name, not an alias. A deadly woman who brought a couple of new twists to the species.

New-and terrible.

1

If it hadn’t been for a bail bondsman named Abe Melikian, my involvement with Cory Beckett would have been peripheral instead of direct.

I was spending an average of only one day a week at the agency now. For one thing, I was not really needed. Business was steady, if not exactly booming-insurance and corporate investigations, mostly-and Tamara had the operation running smoothly in all phases. As far as the fieldwork went, Jake Runyon and Alex Chavez were able to handle most of it, and what excess there was went to part-time operatives. Runyon’s relationship with graphic artist Bryn Darby and her young son seemed to be winding down; I inferred that from the facts that he was even more closemouthed than usual about his personal life and was again putting in long hours on the job, as he had before he’d met Bryn.

Another reason I spent less time at the agency was the promise I’d made to Kerry after once again almost getting my head shot off some months back: no more active participation in assignments that might put me in harm’s way. The very personal investigation that had taken me to northern Nevada a short while ago-a plea from an old lover, Cheryl Rosmond Hatcher, whose son had been arrested for serial rape-hadn’t seemed likely to involve any personal menace, though some had developed unexpectedly and unavoidably. If I’d known in advance that it would, I would not have gone. For that matter, once the trouble had been resolved, I was sorry that I had.

My promise to Kerry was one I had every intention of keeping. Her emotional state was still somewhat fragile after her kidnap ordeal in the Sierra foothills the previous July. Her recovery had been long and slow; it was weeks before she was able to shed the residual fear that prevented her from resuming normal activities, and there was no telling how long it would be before enough psychological scar tissue formed to seal off the wounds entirely.

During those first few weeks, she’d done all the work she was capable of for Bates and Carpenter by telephone and computer from the condo. She’d finally returned to her vice-president’s office at the ad agency on a daily basis a little more than a month ago, and there’d been a noticeable easing of the strain that Kerry-and Emily, who had just turned fourteen, and I-had been under. Our home life was more or less stable again. Whatever else I did, I had to make sure it stayed that way by not burdening her with concern for my welfare. For that reason I had been careful to gloss over the hazardous incidents in Mineral Springs, Nevada.

With Kerry back at Bates and Carpenter and Emily in school, I had plenty of free time on my hands. But I was no longer chafing at semiretirement, as I had before those crazy few days in July. In this hyper-electronic age, most people seem unable to remain disconnected for more than a few minutes, as if they’re afraid of being alone with their thoughts. Not me. I’ve always felt comfortable inside my own head. So mostly I filled up my days with househusband chores and shopping errands, reading and cataloging my collection of pulp magazines, doing other things I’d had little or no time for in the past-walks on the beach and in Golden Gate Park, museum visits, an occasional lunch and bull session with a few old friends and acquaintances. Come baseball season, I planned to attend as many Giants’ afternoon home games at AT &T Park as I could. Work was no longer the be-all and end-all of my life, as it had been for so many years. Even an old dog like me could retrain himself if he had enough incentive-and if he could keep his paw in the game now and then, if only on routine cases.

A routine case was what I thought the Cory Beckett business would be when Abe Melikian laid it in my lap. I wasn’t at the agency that day; I had been out to lunch with Ken Fujita, Intercoastal Insurance’s claims adjustor, for whom I’d done some independent investigating in my lone wolf days, and I was on my way home when Tamara called my cell to tell me she’d just heard from Melikian. The case he had for us had something to do with a potential bail forfeiture, and he’d insisted that I be the one to discuss it with him and his-and our prospective-client. Would I be willing to meet with them at his office at three that afternoon?

Well, why not? I had nothing planned for the rest of the day, and Abe and I went way back. So I said yes.

Big mistake.

The client was Cory Beckett.

***

I had no real inkling of her true nature at that first meeting. My initial impression, in fact, was that she was not the sort of woman who was likely to need the services of a private investigator. In her late twenties-twenty-eight, I found out later. Strikingly attractive, her sex appeal the low-key, smoldering variety. Sitting demurely in Melikian’s private office, dressed in an obviously expensive caramel-colored suit and a high-necked, green silk blouse. The outfit, and the filigreed gold and ruby ring on her little finger, indicated she was well fixed financially-always a plus in a prospective client.

She had long, thick, wavy black hair and a model’s willowy, long-legged figure, and wore a worried smile that even tuned down had a good deal of candlepower. But what you noticed first, and remembered most vividly, was her luminous gray-green eyes. They had a powerful magnetic quality; I could feel the pull of them, like being drawn into dark, calm water. It was only when you got to know who and what she was that you realized the calm surface was a lie, that underneath there weren’t only smoldering sexual fires but riptides and whirlpools and hungry darting things with razor-sharp teeth.

Melikian did most of the talking at first. He was one of the more successful bondsmen in the city, with half a dozen employees and offices across Bryant Street from the Hall of Justice-a big, gruff second-generation Armenian noted for being a chronic complainer and poor-mouth, as well as for his shrewd business acumen. I’d done a fair amount of work for him over the years, to our mutual satisfaction and trust, which I supposed was the reason he’d insisted on dealing with me personally. He hated bail jumpers, as he called them, even more than other bondsmen did; to hear him tell it, they were all part of a vast conspiracy to ruin his business and drive him into bankruptcy. As a result he was careful to avoid posting bond for anyone who struck him as a potential flight risk, but now and then he got burned anyway. Usually when that happened, he ranted and raved and threatened dire consequences. Not this time. When I sat down with him and Cory Beckett, he was meek as a mouse.

She was the reason. Those eyes and that sleek body of hers had worked their spell on him; he hung on her every word, and the gleam in his eyes when he looked at her was ...

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