In a San Francisco apartment building, a young woman is found strangled beside a piano player with a broken neck. He’s a nobody—a dreamer with little talent and no future—but she is Roberta Grinnel, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the Bay Area. Stephen Drake, crime reporter for the Sentinel, feels nothing when he looks at their corpses, and this is a troubling fact. For Drake is a psychic, and when his sixth sense fails him, that means more trouble ahead.
As Drake tries to come to grips with his cosmic gift, the mystery of the heiress and the piano player becomes the hottest story in town. To keep his gig at the paper, Drake will call on every source he has—on this plane and the astral one—but knowing danger’s lurking doesn’t guarantee he can stay out of its way.
About the Author
Hastings, a football player turned San Francisco homicide detective, made his debut in The Lonely Hunter (1969), and Wilcox continued to follow him for the rest of his career, publishing nearly two dozen novels in the series, which concludes with Calculated Risk (1995). Wilcox’s other best-known series stars Alan Bernhardt, a theatrical director with a habit of getting involved in behind-the-scenes mysteries. Bernhardt appeared in four more books after his introduction in 1988’s Bernhardt’s Edge.
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The Black Door
A Stephen Drake Mystery
By Collin Wilcox
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1967 Collin Wilcox
All rights reserved.
I switched off the ignition, put the car in gear, and set the parking brake. Then, still sitting behind the wheel, I yawned, stretched, and wearily surveyed the familiar scene: squad cars and an unmarked cruiser parked with doors open and radios turned up ... the large white van from the police lab ... a reporter's car with its press card propped in the windshield ... and the coroner's green station wagon, waiting.
As I flipped down my sun visor, displaying my own press card, I glanced at my watch— barely eight-thirty. Normally I would now be entering downtown police headquarters, headed for the press room and the coffee urn. This morning, though, the city desk had caught me just leaving my apartment. The information had been typically cryptic and concise: a young mother had apparently killed her two children, then had taken her own life. The address was in the Sunset District, San Francisco's bastion of the middle class, where endless rows of stucco houses sloped gently down toward the ocean. As a boy, I had played not far from the scene of this crime. Pretending to be a cowboy, I had chased Indians among the endless sand dunes, dotted only occasionally with a wayward house and crisscrossed at improbable intervals by weedy streets that seemed to serve only the vacant, lonely dunes. Now, twenty years later, the dunes had disappeared.
As I walked up the sidewalk toward the front door, nodding to a familiar police sergeant, I automatically surveyed the house. It was a one-story tract home, probably about ten years old. Its pale pink paint was beginning to flake, and several of its imitation Spanish tiles were missing from an artificial roof cornice.
Not recognizing the uniformed policeman standing in bored solitude at the front door, I dug out my press card.
"Sentinel," I said. "Stephen Drake."
He nodded, indicating that I could open the front door and go inside.
As I turned the knob, I remembered that I'd only taken time for a cup of coffee on the way over. Two years ago, as a fledgling reporter, I'd made a similar mistake, becoming violently sick as I had gazed down with glazed eyes upon the partially dismembered victim of an ax murderer.
A detective lieutenant named Bancroft stood with one elbow resting at ease upon the low mantel over the fireplace. He was talking to Dan Kanter from the Afternoon Dispatch. As I entered, both men turned toward me.
Kanter, snorting and smiling, said, "The opposition has arrived," His voice, as always, had a gruff, gritty quality, a distillation of the police reporter's vintage boredom and habitual irony.
Returning Kanter's smile but not his greeting, I withdrew my notebook and ball-point pen, looking expectantly at Bancroft. If Kanter was a stereotype, so was Bancroft—thickset, stolid, suspicious and conscientious. In the six weeks I'd been working for the Sentinel, Bancroft had probably come to faintly dislike me, in common with many of his colleagues in the Detective Bureau. Yet his expression was polite and his voice even as he said, "Apparently it happened last night, between midnight and four A.M. At least, that's the medical examiner's preliminary finding."
"How were they killed?" I asked, sitting on a lumpy overstuffed chair and writing in the notebook.
"A twenty-two rifle," Bancroft answered. "A bolt-action Stevens repeater. Five-shot."
The detective shrugged, spreading his hands.
"What were their names?"
"Estelle Wayne was the mother. Age twenty-nine. Employed as a part-time waitress. Divorced."
"Is the husband around?"
"We don't know." His voice became faintly defensive as he added, "They were just discovered not more than two hours ago."
"What about the—" I hesitated, swallowing. "What about the other victims?"
Now Bancroft's voice became the policeman's making his routine report.
"The boy was named Robert, age seven. The girl was—she was four. Her name was Kathy."
I watched the detective's dark, opaque eyes shift aside, and saw his throat constrict. I wondered whether he'd had his breakfast. He pointed to the back of the house.
"They're—the bodies are back there, if you want to—" He let the sentence go unfinished.
I glanced at Kanter, who shook his head.
"You don't have any idea of the motive?" I asked, ignoring the invitation.
"Well—" Bancroft hesitated, thinking about it. "According to the neighbors, the mother lost her job a couple of weeks ago because she couldn't get along with the customers. She was a cocktail waitress, and apparently felt all the men were after her, which I gather they weren't. Anyhow, she had to go on welfare, and for the last week she didn't go out of the house. Didn't let the kids out, either. The next-door neighbor, a Mrs. Cohen, said she offered to help, but Mrs. Wayne wouldn't let her. She—Mrs. Wayne—said the kids both had colds, and she was keeping them home from school. She told the same thing to the school authorities, too. Then, just two days ago, Mrs. Cohen became worried and rang the doorbell again. For a long while Mrs. Wayne didn't answer. Finally, though, she opened the door, just a crack. Mrs. Cohen said she looked terrible—feverish and wild-eyed, and wearing a filthy dressing gown. She mumbled something about everyone being against her, so she had to keep the doors locked and the shades drawn. Mrs. Cohen called her husband, at work, and Mr. Cohen called the welfare department. That was two days ago, as I said, and apparently the welfare department didn't contact Mrs. Wayne. Then, early this morning, Mrs. Cohen thought she heard something—like shots. She tried to wake her husband, but couldn't get him up. He said it was someone's TV turned up too loud, or something. So Mrs. Cohen went back to sleep. But first thing this morning—about six— she got her husband out of bed and insisted he go over and knock on Mrs. Wayne's door. According to Mrs. Cohen, she had some kind of a—a premonition that something was wrong. Anyhow, her husband couldn't raise anyone, so he went around to the back yard. One of the window shades in the bedroom was torn, and he looked in.
"That was the bedroom," Bancroft said. "The children's bedroom." He pointed once more to the back of the house. "That's where they are—in the children's bedroom. All three of them. The two kids are in bed, like they're still sleeping. The mother is lying in the middle of the floor."
By now, I'd finished writing. I slipped my notebook and ballpoint pen into my pocket, rose from the lumpy chair and looked around the room. The house was filthy with a kind of desperate, frenzied disarray. Children's toys were mingled with dirty clothing, torn magazines and empty food cartons. I moved to the hallway. Only a pathway remained through the rubble. The hallway extended the length of the house to the kitchen, where food spilled from gaping drawers and the refrigerator door hung open. Something about the open refrigerator door seemed depressingly final, the seal of insanity.
Three doors opened off the hallway. One of the doors, half open, reflected the quick, pale light of flashbulbs. They were taking pictures back there and chalking the positions of the bodies. Soon, doubtless, the bodies would be removed. If this figured to be an important story, I was thinking, I would be compelled to view the bodies, for "color." But an insane mother murdering her two children in a fit of paranoia was not uncommon. And, further, it was a story that would depress the reader instead of titillating him. At the most, the story would rate the lower left-hand corner of page one, without pictures.
It was five minutes to nine. I could phone in the details of the story, have a leisurely breakfast and get down to the office about ten-thirty. There was nothing more here.
I thanked Bancroft and turned toward the door. Kanter preceded me, his vast two hundred and fifty pounds filling the narrow doorway.
"You had breakfast?" Kanter asked as we walked toward our cars.
"No. Just coffee."
"I know a place on Clement and Thirty-fourth Avenue. We can phone in from there. They have good food, too."
"Fine." I got into my car and followed him.CHAPTER 2
I watched Kanter Ease himself into his chair across the table. He sighed, puffed, and reached for the menu. His pleasure in the process was obvious. By all odds, Dan Kanter was the most knowledgeable, most perceptive, most literate crime reporter in northern California, perhaps because his detached cynicism was perfectly consistent and almost cheerfully impartial. At forty-five, a reporter for more than twenty years, Kanter had seen human depravity in all its countless guises. Nothing surprised him; nothing really moved him, at least during working hours. He observed everything and commented gratuitously on very little. His interest in the passing human scene was clinically indifferent. His only passion was food.
We ordered coffee first, then breakfast. Sipping his coffee, Kanter said, "You see your paper this morning?"
I shook my head, lighting the day's second cigarette.
"You're in it," he said shortly. "Page two."
To myself I mumbled a small obscenity. I knew what he meant. I'd been expecting it.
"They made you look like the south end of a northbound horse," Kanter said, "if you don't mind my saying so."
I didn't mind. During the six weeks since I'd returned to San Francisco, I'd come to like Kanter precisely because, up to now, he hadn't commented on my problem. Yet, now, I suddenly felt like talking about it, a willingness he perhaps divined. The problem was assuming absurd, perplexing proportions, and I was increasingly uncertain how to handle it. I needed advice—calm, competent advice, dispassionately given.
I looked around for a newspaper rack, but didn't see one.
"What'd they say?" I asked.
"The same things they said when you first started to work, except more so."
"Oh." I didn't know what else to say.
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
"Are you getting paid anything extra for all this crap?" His small dark eyes regarded me with a professionally detached interest. His broad, olive-hued face, always glazed with a faint sheen of perspiration, was implacably self-contained. His fat fingers toyed with his coffee cup as he waited for my answer.
"Yes, I'm getting extra pay. Columnist's pay. Pretty good."
"You have a contract?"
I nodded. "One year."
He grunted, thinking about it. Finally he said, "Well, I suppose it's worth it." Obviously he didn't think so.
"I never thought they'd do this, though," I answered. "All this publicity, I mean. It wasn't part of the deal. At least, not as far as I was concerned." Helplessly, I realized the disclaimer sounded defensive.
In silence, we sipped our coffee. I avoided his eyes, although I could feel his gaze upon me. I sensed that he was about to let the subject drop. His first comments had been out of character, and now his habitual taciturnity was returning, as heavy and unyielding as his own gross bulk sunk Buddha-like in the chair across the table.
"That goddam publicity department," I said suddenly. "I should've known it would come out like this. I don't know what the hell I was thinking about."
"That's the first time I've ever heard you swear," Kanter observed quietly. "You're not really the type, somehow." A pale humor briefly stirred the heavy flesh of his face. "I always think of you as Hamlet, moping around Elsinore. Grinding your teeth, maybe, and maybe looking pale and distraught. But not cussing."
I ground out the cigarette, not replying. Again a silence settled down, and again I felt its oppression. Finally, looking at him squarely, I said, "What would you do in my place, Dan?"
"Well," he answered, "there's only two things you can do. First, you can smile on your way to the bank. Then—" He paused, phrasing the thought. "Then, next, you'll just have to make the whole thing stick. That's what they want, and that's what you want, too, essentially. Otherwise you wouldn't've got yourself into this in the first place."
"How d'you mean, 'make it stick'?"
"You'll have to find them a few murderers. Give them a show. They've called you up from the minors. You're a bonus baby, and there's lots of pressure on bonus babies. Which is to say, there's money involved. You've got a contract, so you're a permanent item on the balance sheet."
At that moment, our breakfast arrived. I buttered my toast, sugared my refilled coffee, and glumly began to eat. I was thinking of the publicity blurb in the Sentinel. On page two. I wondered whether they'd used my picture. I decided not to ask. I could still vividly remember the photographer arranging a few loose strands of hair over my forehead, then asking me to look hollow-eyed, 'like I was listening for voices or something.' I could also remember the photographer's finished product—the long, thin face, harassed-looking and prematurely lined, dominated by two large dark eyes beneath lowered brows, morose and unsmiling. Surreptitiously, I'd taken one of the pictures home, a poster, actually. Telling myself it was a lark, I'd tacked the poster up in the garage. But, often, I'd find myself staring at the picture, wondering whether I was seeing myself as others might.
"... did it all start, anyhow?" Kanter was saying between mouthfuls.
"How'd what all start?"
Impatiently he waved his fork. "The whole thing, the clairvoyant thing. Was that business down in San Jose just a fluke? Is that's what's worrying you? Afraid it'll never happen again?"
"It's not that, exactly. At least, I don't think it's that. It's just that all this pressure is—is—" I shook my head. "I hadn't figured on it, I guess. The publicity, I mean. It's changed everything. It's hard to describe, but it has."
"You got the publicity in San Jose, though."
"I know. But that was a fluke. The publicity, I mean. I found the guy, and the girl's body. Naturally, I turned the whole thing over to the police. Then everything started to hit the fan, and all at once. Everything."
Nodding and meditatively chewing, he was watching me thoughtfully.
"So it wasn't a plant."
A little indignantly, I looked at him. "Is that what they're saying? That it was all rigged?"
Kanter shrugged, drained his third cup of coffee, and signaled for the waitress.
"I'm afraid I'm an agnostic where ESP is concerned, Steve. No offense; that's just the way I feel about it."
"No offense taken," I answered. "From my point of view, it's not a question of either believing or not believing. It's just something that either happens or doesn't. Belief doesn't have anything to do with it."
"How did it actually happen, that business down in San Jose? From the start, I mean."
I thought about it for a long moment, recalling the sequence of events as they'd actually taken place.
"I'd been working on the police beat about a year, handling routine stuff, mostly one farm worker knifing another on Saturday night. Then, just about three months ago, a little girl named Natalie Gruenwald disappeared. She was the daughter of a wealthy San Jose real estate developer, so it was a big story right from the start, at least locally. The girl was about ten years old, and she left school one Wednesday afternoon about three-thirty, headed for her weekly piano lesson. She never arrived, and at seven-thirty that night the police got the call. Gruenwald had lots of political power, as well as lots of money; inside two hours every policeman in San Jose was working on the case, plus the state police and, later, the F.B.I. But by noon the following day, there still wasn't a trace of the girl. Well, San Jose is a morning paper, so I had all of that day to get a story together. I had a good thing going with the chief of detectives, and he gave me a rundown on the progress of the investigation. Actually, it was pretty simple. They knew the route the little girl took on her way to the piano lesson, so they started a canvass, covering about seven city blocks. After a lot of leg work, they were able to account for her presence along all but three of those blocks, the last three preceding the house where her piano teacher lived. So, the afternoon following her disappearance, I decided to retrace the girl's route on my own. I didn't have any clear idea of what I was after; I was just fishing. Well—" I paused, getting my breath. "Well, when I got to the last block, the one immediately preceding the teacher's house, I suddenly had an eerie feeling that someone, or something, was watching me. It was a—a strange sensation that I've never been able to really define, even to myself. It was a sense of oppression, as if some evil presence suddenly seemed to be suffocating me. I remember standing perfectly still on the sidewalk, as if I were numbed or suffering some sudden shock. I—"
"You didn't see anything?" Kanter interrupted, watching me closely. "It was just a feeling?"
I nodded. "That's right. Just a feeling. But I'd had it before, several times, so I had some experience with it, you might say. Anyhow, I remember turning around slowly, trying to locate the presence, whatever it was."
"Did you locate it?"
Excerpted from The Black Door by Collin Wilcox. Copyright © 1967 Collin Wilcox. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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