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Authors: Bill Pronzini

Tags: #Strangers, #City and town life

A wasteland of strangers

BOOK: A wasteland of strangers
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Author's Note

WHILE THE TOWN of Pomo, Lake Pomo, and Pomo County are loosely based on actual Northern California locales, they are nonetheless products of the author's imagination. Similarly, while the Pomo is a very real Native American tribe, and care has been taken to accurately describe its customs, legends, and historical and modern travails, the Pomo characters portrayed in these pages are fictitious. Also fictitious are all other characters, and the author's interpretations of social, economic, political, and racial issues concerning the general geographical region depicted herein; in no way are they intended to represent real people or actual, specific issues.

THANKS TO BETTE Golden Lamb and Melissa Ward for providing valuable research information and to Peter Crowther and Edward E. Kramer for including a much different, embryonic, novelette-length version of this novel, under the title "The Intruder," in their White Wolf anthology, Heartlands.

Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

—Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

Part I

Thursday

Harry Richmond

I DIDN'T LIKE him the minute I laid eyes on him.

He made me nervous as hell, and I don't mind saying so. Big, mean-looking. Cords in his neck thick as ax blades, eyes like steel balls, pockmarks under his cheekbones, and a T-shaped scar on his chin. The way he talked and acted, too. Cold. Hard. Snotty. Like you were dirt and he was a new broom.

He drove up in front of the resort office about four o'clock. Sports car, one of those old Porsches, all dusty and dented in places. California license plates. I was glad to see the car at first because hadn't anybody checked in since Sunday night. Used to be around here that in late November we'd get a fair trickle of trade, even though fishing season was over. Overnight and weekend regulars, tourists passing through, route salesmen in hardware and other goods. Not anymore. Whole county's been on a decline the past twenty years, and not just in the tourist business. Agriculture, too; you don't see near as many pear and walnut orchards as you once did. Pomo, the county seat on the northwest shore, is still pretty much the same, on account of the large number of county employees and retired geezers who live there. But up here on the north shore, and all along the east shore down to Southport, things are bad. Restaurants, antique and junk stores, other kinds of shops— gone. Long-operating resorts like Nucooee Point Lodge, once the fanciest on this part of the lake, closed down and boarded up. For Sale signs and empty cottages and commercial buildings everywhere you look. Little hamlet of Brush Creek is practically a ghost town.

Me, now, I've got simple needs, and summers I still do enough business to keep the wolf from the door. But I can't do as much as I once did—man turns fifty, his joints don't want to let him, and that includes the joint hanging between his legs—and I can't afford to hire things done except when I can get one of the less shiftless Indians to do it cheap. If business doesn't improve I'll be forced to put the Lakeside Resort up for sale, too, and move down to San Carlos and live with Ella and my delinquent grandkids and the succession of losers Ella keeps letting into her bed. And if the resort never sells, which it might not, I'll be stuck down there until the day I die.

Blame what's happened on a lot of things. But the main one is, Pomo County's backwater—too far north of San Francisco and the Bay Area where most of our regulars and nonregulars came from in the old days. Lake Pomo and Clear Lake over in Lake County were fine for the lives most people led thirty years ago, but it all changed after Interstate 80 to Tahoe was finished in '64; these days, with superhighways everywhere and jet planes that can take folks to all sorts of exotic places in a few hours, they expect more for their money than a week or two in a rustic lakefront cabin. That doesn't necessarily apply to the enclave around Mt. Kahbel on the southwestern shore; quite a few rich people's summer homes clustered in the little bays and inlets there, fancy boats and a country club and resort that features big-name entertainers in the summer. Closed-off pocket is what Kahbel Shores is. Up here and on most of the rest of the lake, there just aren't enough attractions to lure visitors and keep 'em happy. Nevada-style casinos on the Indian rancherias have helped some, but not enough: Pomo County's as far from the Bay Area as Reno and Tahoe. Besides, most of the money the day-trip and weekend gamblers bring in stays in the casinos and goes into Indian pockets. It's not right or fair that whites should suffer while those buggers get theirs, but that's the way it is, no thanks to the goddamn government. Anyhow, if something doesn't happen to turn us around, and soon, this county's liable to turn into a wasteland full of the homeless and welfare squatters (plenty of those already in Southport) and rich Indians driving fancy cars and old people sitting around waiting to croak.

Well, none of that's got to do with this stranger drove up in his Porsche. He came into the office, and as soon as I had a good look at him I wasn't glad any longer that he'd picked my place to stop at. But what can you do? I had to rent him a cabin; I can't afford to turn down anybody's business. One thing I could do, though. I told him the rate was sixty-five a night instead of forty-five. Didn't faze him. He picked up the pen and filled out the card and then laid three twenties and a five down on top.

I turned the card around without touching the money so he wouldn't get the idea I was hungry for it. He wrote as hard as he looked, but I could read his scrawl plain enough. John C. Faith, Los Angeles. No street address, and you're supposed to list one, but I wasn't about to make an issue of it. Not with him.

I said, "How many nights, Mr. Faith?"

"Maybe one, maybe more. Depends."

"On what?"

He just looked at me with his cold eyes.

My mouth tasted dry; I licked some spit through it. "Business in the area? Or here on pleasure?"

"Could be."

"Could be ... what?"

"Business or pleasure. Or neither one."

"Guess I don't quite get that."

"All right," he said.

See what I mean? Snotty.

"Going to do some gambling?" I asked.

"Gambling?"

"Brush Creek casino's a couple of miles down the east shore. You know about the Indian casinos here?"

"No."

"Oh, sure. Four of 'em in the county. Video slots, poker, keno. Cards, too. Blackjack. Or if you like high-stakes games, they've got tournaments—Texas Hold 'Em and Omaha Hi-Lo."

"That kind of gambling is for suckers."

"Well, some folks enjoy it—"

"They can have it, then."

I should've kept my mouth shut after that, but it's just not in my nature. Twenty-plus years in the resort business makes a man talkative. "Wouldn't be a fisherman, by any chance?"

"No, I wouldn't."

"Great sport, fishing. Just as well you're not, though."

"You think so? Why?"

"Fishing season ended last week. November fifteenth."

"That's a shame."

"Sure is. Lake's still full of bass. Bigmouths."

"Just the lake?"

".. . Say again?"

"Full of bigmouths."

That made me sore, but I didn't let on. I'm no fool. I said, "I was only making conversation. Trying to be friendly."

"All right."

"If you took it the wrong way—"

"What's a good place to eat around here?"

"You mean for dinner?"

"A good place to eat."

"Well, there's the Northlake Cafe. Or you might want to try Gun-derson's, if you like lake bass or seafood. Gunderson's has a real nice cocktail lounge."

"Which one do you prefer?"

"Well... Gunderson's, I guess. Middle of town, block up from the county courthouse."

"How do I get to the other one?"

"Northlake's on the north end, just off the highway. Can't miss it. There's a big sign—"

"My key," he said.

"Key? Oh, sure. I'll put you in number six. That's one of the lake-front cabins. That okay?"

"Fine."

I handed him the key and he went out without saying anything else, and I don't mind admitting I was relieved to be rid of him. I don't like his kind, not one little bit. I wished I'd charged him seventy-five a night instead of sixty-five. Bet he'd have paid it, too. Must've had a thousand dollars or more stuffed into that pigskin wallet of his. Roll of bills fat enough to gag a sixty-pound Doberman.

I said out loud, "What's he want here, man like that?"

John C. Faith, Los Angeles. Phony name if I ever heard one.

What in hell could he want in a half-dead backwater like Pomo?

Zenna Wilson

HE SCARED ME half to death. And not just because he startled me, sneaking up as quiet as an Indian or a thief. My flesh went cold when I saw him looming there. He was a sight to give any decent soul the shudders even in broad daylight.

I was in the hardware store talking to Ken Treynor. I'd just bought a package of coffee filters, about the only thing I ever buy in the hardware store, really, because Howard gave me a Braun two Christmases ago and Braun coffeemakers take a special filter and Safeway doesn't stock them even though I've asked the manager half a dozen times to put them in so I can pick up a package when I do my regular shopping. It's frustrating and annoying, is what it is, when stores refuse to do simple things to accommodate good customers. Anyhow, I was telling Ken about Stephanie and her school project, the cute little animal faces she was making out of papier-mache and how lifelike they were. My Stephanie is very talented that way, very artistic. I was describing the giraffe with its one eye closed, as if it were winking, when all of a sudden Ken's head jerked and his eyes opened wide and he wasn't looking at me any longer but at something behind me. So I turned around and there he was, the sneaky stranger.

I guess I uttered a sound and recoiled a bit, because he threw me a look of pure loathing. It made my scalp crawl. When I was a little girl about Stephanie's age, my older brother, Tom, used to terrify me with stories about a bogeyman who hid in dark places waiting for unsuspecting children to come along, and then he'd jump out and grab them and carry them off to his dark lair and bite their heads off. This man looked like he was capable of doing just that, biting someone's head off. Big and fearsome, with huge hands and a mouth full of sharp teeth. Bogey was the right word for the likes of him, all right.

Ken was also staring at him. He said, "Can I. . . was there something?"

"I can wait until you're finished with the lady." Voice to match his size, deep and rumbly, like thunder before a storm. And the way he said "lady" made it sound like a dirty word.

"Already finished," Ken told him.

"Battery for an Eveready utility lantern. Six-volt."

"Aisle three, halfway back."

I watched him walk into the aisle; I couldn't seem to take my eyes off him. Treynor's Hardware is in an old building, and he walked hard enough to make the wood floor shake. Above the items stacked on the top shelves I could see the crown of his head moving—that's how tall he was. His hair was long and dirty brown, and in the lights it looked greasy, like matted animal fur.

It didn't take him long to find what he wanted. He came back to the counter and paid Ken in cash—a fifty-dollar bill. Then, "There a bank in town that stays open this late?"

"First Northern, three blocks down Main."

"Thanks." He picked up his purchase and walked out, one side of his mouth bent upward in a ghastly sort of smile that wasn't a smile at all.

I blew out my breath and said to Ken, "My God! Did you ever see such a wicked-looking man?"

"No, and I hope I never see him again."

"Amen to that. You don't suppose he'll be here long?"

"Probably just passing through."

"Lord, I hope so."

I stayed there with Ken for another five minutes or so. I wanted to be certain the bogey was gone before I went out to the car. In my mind's eye I could still see him, that scarred face and those awful eyes and enormous hands. Animal paws that could crush the life out of a person, that may well have blood on them already for all I know.

Up to the devil's work, I thought, whoever he is and wherever he goes. If he stays in Pomo long enough, something terrible will happen.

I wished Howard wasn't away traveling for his job until tomorrow night. With a man like that one in town, a woman and her little girl weren't safe alone in their own home.

Richard Novak

I MIGHT NOT'VE even noticed the old red Porsche being illegally parked on the southeast corner of Main and Fifth if it hadn't been for the fact that Storm's silver-gray BMW was curbed in the legal space just behind. The BMW, like Storm herself, would have stood out in a crowd of a thousand and, like her, it had a magnetic attraction for my eye. Still carrying the torch after all these months. Not as large and hot a torch as the one for Eva, but still a long ways from burning itself out.

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I would've let the violation go unchallenged. For one thing, it was minor, and the way things were, the Porsche's driver wasn't really at fault. For another, the car was unfamiliar and the city council has a general go-easy policy where visitors are concerned. And for a third, this sort of routine parking matter wasn't part of the police chiefs duties, particularly when he happened to be tired and on his way home for the day. But I didn't let it slide, and I'm not sure why. To get Storm off my mind, maybe. Or maybe because this hadn't been much of a day and on off days I'm more inclined to enforce the strict letter of the law.

In any case, I swung the cruiser around onto Fifth and got out. The Porsche's driver was coming up onto the sidewalk when he saw me approaching; he stopped and stood waiting. I'm not small at six feet and two hundred pounds, but I felt dwarfed in this one's massive shadow. Rough-looking, too, with a hammered-down face and hard, bunched features. But there was nothing furtive or suspicious about him, nothing to put me on my guard.

He said in a flat, neutral voice, "Something wrong, Officer?"

"You can't park there."

BOOK: A wasteland of strangers
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