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U Is for Undertow

Wednesday afternoon, April 6,

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

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

“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

“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

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 ---

“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

Excerpted from U IS FOR UNDERTOW © Copyright 2011 by Sue
Grafton. Reprinted with permission by Berkley. All rights

U Is for Undertow
by by Sue Grafton

  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0425238113
  • ISBN-13: 9780425238110