U Is for Undertow Page 1

Author: Sue Grafton

Series: Kinsey Millhone #21

Genres: Mystery

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1


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?”


“Yes.”


“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 incon - venience.”


“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?”


“Climp.”


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.

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