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Author Sue Grafton’s alphabet series of mysteries featuring private eye Kinsey Millhone have been longtime fixtures on the best seller lists. She began with “A Is For Alibi” in 1982, and on Monday, she reaches the 22nd letter of the alphabet with the publication of “V Is For Vengeance.”
Grafton tells Here and Now’s Robin Young that Kinsey is her alter ego, only younger, thinner and braver.
With so many novels, Grafton has developed a complex writing process. She takes copious notes before she writes her books and uses both journals and charts to keep track of characters and plot points to make sure she doesn’t repeat (or contradict) herself in any of her novels.
Sue Grafton’s Favorite Authors/Books
by Sue Grafton
So this is how it went down, folks. I turned thirty-eight on May 5, 1988, and my big birthday surprise was a punch in the face that left me with two black eyes and a busted nose. Contributing to the overall effect were the wads of gauze in both nostrils and a fat upper lip. My medical insurance sported me to the services of a plastic surgeon who repaired the old schnozz while I was blissfully sedated.
On my release, I retreated to my studio apartment, where I lay on my sofa, keeping my head elevated to minimize the swelling. This allowed me time to brood about my ill treatment at the hands of a virtual stranger. Five or six times a day, I’d check my reflection in the bathroom mirror, watching handsome red-and-purple bruises migrate from my eye sockets to my cheeks, blood settling in circles as conspicuous as rouge on a clown’s face. I was grateful my teeth had been spared. Even so, I spent days explaining my sudden resemblance to a raccoon.
People kept saying, “Oh, wow! You finally got your nose done. It looks great!”
This was entirely uncalled for as no one had ever complained about my nose before, at least not to my face. My poor snout had been broken on two previous occasions and it never occurred to me that I’d suffer a repetition. Of course, the indignity was my own fault, since I was sticking said nose into someone else’s business when I was so rudely assaulted by a short-arm blow.
The incident that heralded my fate seemed insignificant at first. I was standing in the lingerie department at Nordstrom’s department store, sorting through ladies’ underpants on sale—three pair for ten bucks, a bonanza for someone of my cheap bent. What could be more banal? I don’t like to shop, but I’d seen a half-page ad in the morning paper and decided to take advantage of the bargain prices. It was Friday, April 22, a date I remember because I’d wrapped up a case the day before and I’d spent the morning typing my final report.
For those of you just making my acquaintance, my name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a licensed private detective in Santa Teresa, California, doing business as Millhone Investigations. In the main, I deal with bread-and-butter jobs—background checks, skip tracing, insurance fraud, process serving, and witness location, with the occasional rancorous divorce thrown in for laughs. Not coincidentally, I’m female, which is why I was shopping for ladies’ underwear instead of men’s. Given my occupation, I’m no stranger to crime and I’m seldom surprised by the dark side of human nature, my own included. Further personal data can wait in the interest of getting on with my sad tale of woe. In any event, I have additional groundwork to lay before I reach the stunning moment that did me in.
I left the office early that day and made my usual Friday bank deposit, taking back a portion in cash to carry me over the next two weeks. I drove from the bank to the parking garage under the Passages Shopping Plaza. I generally frequent the low-end chain stores, where aisles are jammed with racks of identical garments, suggesting cheap manufacture in a country unfettered by child labor laws. Nordstrom’s was a palace by comparison, the interior cool and elegant. The floors were gleaming marble tile and the air was scented with designer perfumes. The store directory indicated that women’s intimate apparel was located on 3, and I headed for the escalator.
What caught my eye as I entered the sales area was a display of silk pajamas in a dazzling array of jewel tones—emerald, amethyst, garnet, and sapphire—neatly folded and arranged by size. The original unit price was $199.95, marked down to $49.95. I couldn’t help flirting with the notion of two-hundred-dollar pj’s against my bare skin. Most nights, I sleep in a ratty oversize T-shirt. At $49.95, I could afford to indulge. Then again, I’m single and sleep alone so what would be the point?
I found a table piled with scanties and picked my way through, debating the merits of high-cut briefs versus boy-shorts versus hiphuggers, distinctions that meant absolutely nothing to me. I don’t often buy undies, so I’m usually forced to start from scratch. Styles have changed, lines have been discontinued, entire manufacturing plants have apparently burned to the ground. I vowed if I found something I liked, I’d buy a dozen at the very least.
I’d been at it ten minutes and I was already tired of holding lacy scraps across my pelvis to judge the fit. I scanned the area, looking for assistance, but the nearest clerk was busy advising another customer, a hefty woman in her fifties, in spike-heel shoes and a tight black pantsuit that made her thighs and butt bulge unbecomingly. She would have done well to emulate the sales clerk, younger by a good ten years, in her conservative dark blue dress and sensible flats. The two stood in front of a rack of matching lacy bra-and-bikini sets on little plastic hangers. I couldn’t imagine the chunky woman in bikini underwear, but there’s no accounting for taste. It wasn’t until the two parted company that I saw the younger woman’s big leather purse and shopping bag and realized she was simply another customer, shopping for lingerie like everyone else. I returned to my task, decided a size small would do, and gathered an assortment of pastels, adding animal prints until I had forty dollars’ worth.
A girl-child of about three scurried past and concealed herself in the inner recesses of a rack of loungewear, knocking several hangers to the floor. I could hear the raised voice of an anxious mother.
“Portia, where are you?”
There was a movement in the loungewear; Portia wiggling deeper into her hiding place.
The mother appeared at the end of the aisle, a woman in her twenties, probably trying not to sound as anxious as she felt. I raised a hand and pointed at the rack, where I could still see a pair of black patent leather Mary Janes and two sturdy legs.
The mother pushed the clothes aside and dragged the child out by one arm. “Goddamn it! I told you not to move,” she said, and swatted her once on her backside before she retreated to the elevators with the little girl in tow. The child seemed totally unaffected by the reprimand.
A woman standing nearby turned with a disapproving look and said to me, “Disgusting. Someone should call the floor manager. That’s child abuse.”
I shrugged, remembering the many swats I’d endured at my Aunt Gin’s hands. She always assured me she’d really give me something to cry about if I wanted to protest.
My attention was drawn back to the woman in the black pantsuit, who was now peering wistfully at the silk pajamas, much as I had. I confess I took a certain proprietary interest, having lusted after them myself. I glanced at her and then I blinked with disbelief as she slid two pairs of pajamas (one emerald, one sapphire) into her shopping bag. I shifted my gaze, wondering if the strain of panty buying had caused me to hallucinate.
I paused, feigning interest in a rack of house robes while I kept an eye on her. She rearranged the display to disguise the gap where the stolen pajamas had been resting mere moments before. To the average observer, she appeared to be restoring order to an untidy tabletop. I’ve done the same thing myself after rooting through a pile of sweaters in search of my size.
She glanced at me, but by then I was scrutinizing the construction of a house robe I’d removed from the rack. She seemed to take no further notice of me. Her manner was matter-of-fact. If I hadn’t just witnessed the sleight of hand, I wouldn’t have given her another thought.
Except for this one tiny point:
Early in my career, after I’d graduated from the police academy and during my two-year stint with the Santa Teresa Police Department, I’d worked a six-month rotation in property crimes—the unit handling burglaries, embezzlement, auto theft, and retail theft, both petit and grand. Shoplifters are the bane of retail businesses, which lose billions annually in what’s euphemistically referred to as “inventory shrinkage.” My old training kicked in. I noted the time (5:26 P.M.) and studied the woman as though I were already leafing through mug shots, looking for a match. Briefly, I thought back to the younger woman in whose company I’d first seen her. There was no sign of the younger woman now, but it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out they were working in tandem.
With the older woman now in close range, I upgraded her age from midfifties to midsixties. She was shorter than I and probably forty pounds heavier, with short blond hair back-combed to a puff and sprayed to a fare-thee-well. In the clear overhead light, her makeup glowed pink while her neck was stark white. She crossed to a table display of lace teddies, touching the fabrics appreciatively. She checked the whereabouts of the sales staff and then, with her index and middle fingers, she gathered one of the teddies, compressing it into accordion folds until it disappeared like a handkerchief crumpled in her hand. She eased the garment into her shoulder bag and then removed her compact as though that had been her intent. She powdered her nose and made a minor correction to her eye makeup, the teddy now safely deposited in her purse. I glanced at the rack of bras and panties where I’d first seen the two women. The rack had been thinned considerably, and I was guessing she or the other woman had added any number of items to her cache of stolen goods. Not to criticize, but she should have quit while she was ahead.
I went straight to the register. The sales clerk smiled pleasantly as I placed my selection on the counter. Her name tag read CLAUDIA RINES, SALES ASSISTANT. We were nodding acquaintances, in that I saw her from time to time at Rosie’s Tavern, half a block from my apartment. I frequented the place because Rosie was a friend, but I couldn’t think why anyone else would go there, aside from certain undiscerning neighbors of the alcoholic sort. Tourists shunned the restaurant, which was not only shabby and outdated, but devoid of charm; in other words, innately appealing to the likes of me.
Under my breath, I said to Claudia, “Please don’t look now, but the woman over at that table in the black pantsuit just stole a lace teddy and two pairs of silk pajamas.”
Reprinted from V IS FOR VENGEANCE by Sue Grafton with permission of Marian Wood /G. P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2011 by Sue Grafton