U is for Undertow
Looking solemn, Michael Sutton arrives in Kinsey Millhone’s office with a story to tell. When he was six, he says, he wandered into the woods and saw two men digging a hole. They claimed they were pirates, looking for buried treasure. Now, all these years later, the long-forgotten events have come back to him—and he has pieced them together with news reports from the time, becoming convinced that he witnessed the burial of a kidnapped child. Kinsey has nearly nothing to go on. Sutton doesn’t even know where he was that day—and, she soon discovers, he has a history of what might generously be called an active imagination. Despite her doubts, Kinsey sets out to track down the so-called burial site. And what’s found there pulls her into a hidden current of deceit stretching back more than twenty years…
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're 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."
I said, "You actually saw the child?"
He shook his head. "She was wrapped in a blanket, so I couldn't see her face or anything else."
I studied him with interest. "What makes you think it was Mary Claire? That's a big leap."
"Because I went back and checked the old newspaper accounts and the dates line up."
"Oh, sorry. I should have mentioned this before. She was kidnapped on July 19, which was a Wednesday. I saw the guys on Friday, July 21, 1967 … my birthday, the year I turned six. That's how I made the association. I think she was already dead by then and they were getting rid of the body."
"And this was where?"
"Horton Ravine. I don't know the exact location. My mother had errands to run that day so she dropped me off at some kid's house. I don't remember his name. I guess his mom had agreed to look after me while she was gone. Turns out the other kid woke up with a fever and sore throat. Chicken pox was going around and his mom didn't want me exposed in case that's what it was, so she made him stay in his room while I hung around downstairs. I got bored and asked if I could go outside. She said I could as long as I didn't leave the property. I remember finding this tree with branches that hung down to make a little room, so I played there for a while, pretending I was a bandit in a cool hideout. I heard voices and when I peeped through the leaves, I saw the two guys walk by with shovels and stuff and I followed them."
"What time of day?"
"Must have been late morning because after I came in again, the kid's mother fed me lunch—a plain lettuce and tomato sandwich, no bacon, and it was made with Miracle Whip. Our family didn't eat Miracle Whip. My mother wouldn't have it in the house. She said it was disgusting compared to real homemade mayonnaise."
"Your mother made mayonnaise?"
"The cook did."
"Anyway, Mom always said it was rude to complain, so I ate what I could and left the rest on my plate. The kid's mom hadn't even cut the crusts off the bread."
"There's a shock," I said. "I'm impressed your memory's so clear."
"Not clear enough or I wouldn't be here. I'm pretty sure the two guys I saw were the ones who abducted Mary Claire, but I have no idea where I was. I know I'd never been to the house before and I never went there again."
"Any chance one of your siblings would remember who the kid was?"
"I guess it's possible. Unfortunately, we don't get along. We haven't spoken in years."
"So you said."
"Sorry. I don't mean to repeat myself. The point is, I can't call them up out of a clear blue sky. Even if I did, I doubt they'd talk to me."
"But I could ask, couldn't I? That would be the obvious first move if you're serious about this."
He shook his head. "I don't want them involved, especially my sister, Dee. She's difficult. You don't want to mess with her."
"All right. We'll scratch that for now. Maybe the kid's mother was being paid to babysit."
"That wasn't my impression. More like she was doing Mom a favor."
"What about your classmates? Maybe she left you with one of the other moms, like a playdate."
Sutton blinked twice. "That's a possibility I hadn't thought of. I've kept in touch with the other two Michaels, Boorman and Trautwein, but that's the extent of it. I didn't like anybody else in my kindergarten class and they didn't like me."
"It doesn't matter if you liked them or not. We're trying to identify the boy."
"I don't remember anyone else."
"It should be easy enough to come up with a list. You must have had class photos. You could go back to the school library and check the '67 yearbook."
"I don't want to go back to Climp. I hate the idea."
"It's just a suggestion. So far, we're brainstorming," I said. "Tell me about the two guys. How old would you say?"
"I'm not sure. Older than my brothers, who were ten and twelve at the time, but not as old as my dad."
"Did they see you?"
"Not then. I decided to spy on them, but where they ended up was too far away and I couldn't see what they were doing. I sneaked up on them, crawling through the bushes and crouching behind a big oak. It was hot and they were sweating so they'd taken off their shirts. I guess I wasn't as quiet as I thought because one of them spotted me and they both jumped. They stopped what they were doing and asked what I wanted."
"You actually talked to them?"
"Oh, sure. Absolutely. We had this whole conversation. I thought they were pirates and I was all excited about meeting them."
"My mother was reading me Peter Pan at bedtime, and I loved the illustrations. The pirates wore bandanas tied around their heads, which is what the two guys had done."
"Beards? Earrings? Eye patches?"
That netted me a smile, but not much of one. He shook his head. "It was the bandanas that reminded me of pirates. I told them I knew that because of Peter Pan."
"What'd you talk about?"
"First, I asked 'em if they were pirates for real and they told me they were. The one guy talked more than the other and when I asked what they were doing, he said they were digging for buried treasure… "
As Sutton spoke, I could see him regressing to the little boy he'd been, earnest and easily impressed. He leaned forward in his chair. "I asked if the treasure was gold doubloons, but they said they didn't know because they hadn't found it yet. I asked to see the treasure map and they said they couldn't show me because they were sworn to secrecy. I'd seen the bundle on the ground, over by this tree, and when I asked about it, the first guy said it was a bedroll in case they got tired. I offered to help dig, but he told me the job was only for grownups and little kids weren't allowed. And then the other one spoke up and asked where I lived. I told them I lived in a white house, but not on this street, that I was visiting. The first guy asked what my name was. I told him and the other one spoke up again and said he thought he heard someone calling me so I better go, which is what I did. The whole exchange couldn't have taken more than three minutes."
"I don't suppose either of them mentioned their names?"
"No. I probably should have asked, but it didn't occur to me."
"Your recall impresses me. Much of my life at that age is a total blank."
"I hadn't thought about the incident for years, but once the memory was triggered, I was right there again. Just like, boom."
I reran the story in my mind, trying to digest the whole of it. "Tell me again why you think there's a connection to Mary Claire. That still seems like a stretch."
"I don't know what else to say. Intuition, I guess."
"What about the kidnapping. How did that go down? I remember the broad strokes, but not the particulars."
"The whole thing was horrible. Those poor people. The ransom note said not to contact the police or the FBI, but Mr. Fitzhugh did it anyway. He thought it was the only way to save her, but he was wrong."
"The first contact was the note?"
Sutton nodded. "Later they phoned and said he had one day to get the money together or else. Mr. Fitzhugh had already called the police and they were the ones who contacted the FBI. The special agent in charge convinced him they'd have a better chance of nabbing the guys if he and his wife appeared to cooperate, so they advised him to do as he was told… "
"Twenty-five thousand dollars, wasn't it? Somehow the number sticks in my head."
"Exactly. The kidnappers wanted it in small bills, packed in a gym bag. They called again and told him where he was supposed to leave the money. He stalled. They must have thought there was a trap on the line because they cut the call short."
"So he dropped off the ransom money and the kidnappers didn't show."
"Right. After a day passed, it was clear the FBI had bungled it. They still thought they had a chance, but Mr. Fitzhugh said to hell with them and took matters into his own hands. He notified the newspapers and the radio and TV stations. After the story broke, Mary Claire was all anybody talked about—my parents and everyone else."
"What day was it by then?"
"Sunday. Like I said before, she was kidnapped on Wednesday and I saw them on Friday. The paper didn't carry the story until Sunday."
"Why didn't you speak up?"
"I did. I'd already done that. When my mother came to get me, I told her about the pirates. I felt guilty. Like I'd done something wrong."
"I don't know how to pin it down. I believed what they said about digging for treasure. When you're six, things like that make perfect sense, but on some level I was anxious and I wanted reassurance. Instead, Mom got mad. She said I wasn't supposed to talk to strangers and she made me promise I'd never do it again. When we got home, she sent me straight to my room. On Sunday we heard the news about Mary Claire."
"And your mother didn't see the relevance?"
"I guess not. She never mentioned it and I was too scared to bring it up again. She'd already punished me once. I kept my mouth shut so she wouldn't punish me again."
"But it worried you."
"For a while, sure. After that, I put the incident out of my mind. Then I saw Mary Claire's name and it all came back."
"Did you ever see either guy again?"
"I don't think so. Maybe one of them. I'm not sure."
"And where would that have been?"
"I don't remember. I might have made a mistake."
I picked up a pencil and made a mark on the yellow pad lying on my desk. "When you explained this to Cheney, what was his response?"
His shoulder went up in a half-shrug. "He said he'd check the old case notes, but he couldn't do much more because the information I'd given him was too vague. That's when he mentioned you."
"Sounds like he was passing the buck."
"Actually, what he said was you were like a little terrier when it came to flushing out rats."
"Sucking up," I said. Mentally, I was rolling my eyes because Cheney wasn't far off the mark. I liked picking at problems and this was a doozy. "What about the house itself? Think you'd recognize it if you saw it again?"
"I doubt it. Right after I read the article, I drove around the old neighborhood, and even the areas I knew well had changed. Trees were gone, shrubs were overgrown, new houses had gone up. Of course, I didn't cover the whole of Horton Ravine, but I'm not sure it would have made any difference since I don't have a clear image. I think I'd recognize the place in the woods. The house is a blur."
"So twenty-one years later, you're clueless and hoping I can figure out where you were."
"You want me to find an unmarked grave, basically a hole."
"Can you do it?"
"I don't know. I've never tried before."
I studied him, chasing the idea around to see where it might go. "It's an interesting proposition. I'll give you that."
I rocked in my swivel chair, listening to the squeak, while I sifted through the story, wondering what I'd missed. There was something more going on, but I couldn't imagine what. Finally, I said, "What's your stake in the situation? I know it bothers you, but why to this extent?"
"I don't know. I mean, the article talked about how the kidnapping ruined Mrs. Fitzhugh's life. She and her husband divorced and he ended up leaving town. She still has no idea what happened to her little girl. She doesn't even know for sure she's dead. If I can help, it seems like the right thing to do."
"It's going to cost you," I said.
"I figured as much."
"What sort of work do you do?"
"Nothing right now. I lost my job so I'm on unemployment."
"What was the job?"
"I sold advertising for KSPL."
KSPL was the local AM station I sometimes tuned in on my car radio when I was tooling around town. "How long were you there?"
"About a year, maybe a little less."
"What's it mean when you say you 'lost' your job? Were you laid off, downsized, fired, what?"
He hesitated. "The last one."
I waited and when it was clear he had no intention of continuing, I gave him a nudge. "Uh, Sutton, I'd consider it a courtesy if you'd be a bit more forthcoming. Would you care to fill me in?"
He rubbed his palms on his pants. "I said I had a BA from Stanford, but it wasn't really true. I was enrolled and attended classes for a couple of years, but I didn't graduate."
"So you lied on the application?"
"Look, I know I made a mistake… "
"That would cover it," I said.
"But I can't do anything about it now. What's done is done and I just have to move on."
I'd heard a host of criminals make the same remark, like boosting cars, robbing banks, and killing folks could be brushed aside, a minor stumble on the path of life. "Have you given any thought to how you're going to pay me out of your unemployment benefits? We're talking about five hundred bucks a day, plus expenses. Assuming I agree to help, which I haven't."
"I have some money set aside. I thought I'd write a check for one day's work and we'd see how it goes from there."
A flush tinted his cheeks. "I guess that's not such a hot idea."
"You got that right. What's plan B?"
"If you're going to be here for a while, I could make a quick run to the bank and bring you cash."
I considered the notion. The prime item on my Thursday To Do list was to make a bank deposit and pay bills. I had two reports to write and a few calls to make, but I could shift those to Friday. The job itself might end in folly, but at least when he mentioned "the right thing to do," he didn't turn around and ask me to work for free. I wasn't convinced he was right about what he'd seen, but Cheney must have considered the story credible or he wouldn't have sent him over to me.
"Okay. One day, but that's it. And only if you pay me cash in advance. I'll be here until five o'clock. That should give you plenty of time."
"Great. That's great."
"I don't know how great it is, but it's the best I can do. When you get back, if I happen to be out, you can stick the money through the mail slot. In the meantime, give me a contact number so I'll know how to reach you."
I handed him my yellow pad and watched while he scribbled down his address and telephone number. In return I handed him my business card with my office number and address.
He said, "I really appreciate this. I don't know what I'd have done if you hadn't agreed."
"I'll probably regret it, but what the hell? It's only one day," I said. If I'd been listening closely, I'd have caught the sound of the gods having a great big old tee-hee at my expense.
I said, "You're sure you don't want to make the trip up to Climp? It would save you a few bucks."
"I don't want to. They probably wouldn't talk to me in any event."
"I see." I studied him. "You want to tell me what's going on here? You can't talk to your siblings and now you can't talk to your prep school pals?"
"I already told you I didn't have pals. It has more to do with the administration."
"There were some difficulties. I had a problem."
"Like what, you were expelled?" I love stories about flunking and expulsions. With my history of screwups, those are like fairy tales.
"It's not something I want to get into. It has nothing to do with this." A stubborn note had crept into his voice. "You go up there. They'll let you see yearbooks as easily as me."
"I doubt it. Educational institutions hate handing over information about their students. Especially with the words ‘private investigator' thrown into the mix."
"Don't tell 'em you're a PI. Think of something else."
"I didn't even attend Climping Academy so why would I want to see a yearbook? It makes no sense."
He shook his head. "I won't do it. I have my reasons."
"Which you're not about to share."
"Okay, fine. It's no skin off my nose. If that's how you want to spend your five hundred bucks, I can live with it. I love driving through Horton Ravine."
I got up, and as we shook hands again, I realized what was bothering me. "One more question."
"The article came out two weeks ago. Why'd you wait so long before you went to the police?"
He hesitated. "I was nervous. All I have is a hunch. I didn't want the police to write me off as a crank."
"Nuh-uh. That's not all of it. What else?"
He was silent for a moment, color rising in his cheeks again. "What if the guys find out I remembered them? I might have been the only witness and I told them my name. If they're the ones who killed Mary Claire, why wouldn't they kill me?""As this master of suspense continues to demonstrate in superb mystery after mystery, there are more ugly twists in the human heart than there are letters in the alphabet."
"It's as if Grafton purposely begins with a standard situation-and then gleefully sets about breaking every cardinal rule of the mystery novel."
-Los Angeles Times Book Review
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