Authors: Marcia Muller
For Virginia and William Campbell Gault
Copyright Â© 1991 by Marcia Muller
First AUDIOGO EBOOK EDITION, April 2012
All rights reserved.
Cover illustration by Rick Hyman
Cover design by Violet Kirk
Digital Editions (epub and mobi formats) produced by
More of Marcia Muller's SHARON MCCONE series are available as ebooks and audiobooks from AudioGO!
1Â Â Â Edwin of the Iron Shoes
2Â Â Â Ask the Cards a Question
3Â Â Â The Cheshire Cat's Eye
4Â Â Â Games to Keep the Dark Away
5Â Â Â Leave a Message for Willie
6Â Â Â There's Nothing to Be Afraid Of
7Â Â Â Eye of the Storm
8Â Â Â There's Something in a Sunday
9Â Â Â The Shape of Dread
10Â Â Trophies and Dead Things
11Â Â Where Echoes Live
12Â Â Pennies on a Dead Woman's Eyes
Plus two short story collections: McCone and Friends, and The McCone Files.
While Tufa Lake and Promiseville are fictional locales, the author has drawn inspiration from Mono Lake and Bodie, California. She wishes to express her gratitude to all those individuals who unselfishly labor for the preservation of such natural and historical treasures.
Special thanks to Collin Wilcox and Citabria 11659 for their valuable assistance.
Tufa Lake lies in the high desert of northeastern California, only miles from the Nevada border. The land there is volcanically formed; dark basalt hills surround the lake basin on three sides, and on the fourth is a chain of pumice and ash-shrouded craters. Between them and the shoreline spreads an alkali plain covered by sagebrush and tundra, and the ghostly white tufa towers that stand as mute testimony to man's greedy abuse of his environment.
These knobby pinnacles of calcified vegetationâcreated by mineral-rich underground springs, and once completely submergedâhave gradually been revealed as the lake's feeder streams are siphoned off for the faucets and swimming pools of southern California. Hundreds of them dot the plain, and others form islands where the migrating gulls, grebes, and plovers come to nest, breed, and feast on the plentiful brine shrimp. More often than not the water from which they rise is eerily still, reflecting the colors of the changeable desert sky.
In spite of the nearby highway and the lakeshore town of Vernon, this is a place of great silence. Standing at the water's edge, as I did the first time I went there one October, it is easy to imagine how it was a hundred years ago, or how it will be a hundred years into the future. And when a gull cries and launches itself on a steep trajectory into the sun, the sounds reverberate like gunshots off the surrounding hills.
This is a place out of timeâa place where echoes live.
I turned away from the lake and walked up the rocky slope toward the cabins. There were six of them, plus a main lodgeâbuilt of dark brown wood with green composition roofs and shutters, nestled in a grove of cotton woods and willows. The highway ran between them and a sheer hillside; yellow-leafed aspens grew thick in the hill's deep declivities, like veins of gold that had burst open and spilled down. Although when I'd arrived an hour before it had been warmâmuch too warm for this altitude in late Octoberâthe sun had dipped behind the high peaks and there was now a pronounced chill in the air.
I went up the steps and crossed the porch of the cabin on the far left. The small living room had the look of rustic summer places everywhere: a rattan sofa and chairs whose flowered cushions were faded and flattened; a potbellied wood stove in one corner; a Formica-and-metal dinette set in front of the door leading to the kitchen. The smell was the same, too: musty with dry rot, stale cooking odors, dead fires, and age. I went to one of the windows that opened onto the porch, grasped it, and heaved it upward. It gave a weary groan, and then a slightly fishy but fresh breeze began to filter inside.
When I turned, I saw Anne-Marie's note flutter from the coffee table to the floor. I rescued it, read it again. “Gone down to Lee Vining to talk with some of the Mono Lake Committee,” it said. “Be back around 5:30. See you then at Zelda's.”
I smiled at the fact that my friend had omitted both an address and an explanation of what Zelda's was. Of course it would never have occurred to her that a private investigator wouldn't be able to figure it out in a town whose population fell short of the 200 mark and whose streets were not numerous. And it was just as well she hadn't wasted the effort: I'd spotted the restaurant earlier on my way through Vernon.
Although it was only a little after four, I decided to check the office Anne-Marie was working out of in case she'd returned early. If she hadn't, I'd do some exploring on my own. I went through the curtained archway to one of the cabin's two bedrooms, pulled my favorite green sweater from my weekend bag, and traded it for the light T-shirt I'd been wearing. After I brushed my hair and refastened it in its pony tail, I grabbed my bag and car keys and climbed the slope to where I'd left my MG in front of the lodge.
Mrs. Wittington, proprietor of Willow Grove Lodge, was cutting back some chrysanthemums that grew in a half barrel next to the door of the main building. She saw me and straightened, pushing a soiled baseball cap back from her forehead and propping the hand that held the clippers on one well-padded hip. As she smiled at me, her suntanned face crinkled pleasantly.
“Everything okay with the cabin?” she asked.
“Yes, just fine.”
She nodded in satisfaction. “You won't find betterâand certainly not cleanerâcabins than mine around here. And off season they're a steal. Your friend was real pleased with the arrangement we worked out. Of course, I was pleased to have her. They bring their lawyer in, it means those people are serious about keeping this place from going to hell.”
“Those people” were the California Coalition for Environmental Preservation; my friend and former colleague, Anne-Marie Altman, had taken an indefinite leave of absence from All Souls Legal Cooperative in San Francisco to act as their chief counsel.
I said, “I thought the problem of the water diversions to the L.A. Basin had almost been solved, just as at Mono Lake.”
“The diversions? Oh, sure. The state's probably going to pay L.A. for the water they planned to steal from us.” She snorted derisively. “No, that's not the big problem anymore. It's the gold mining.”
“Out Stone Valley way.” She waved the clippers to the east, toward Nevada. “Was a boom town there in the late eighteen hundredsâPromiseville. Petered out in the twenties. Since then there've always been a few prospectors in the valley, mainly folks who just want to be left the hell alone. But now some foreign company's got hold of the mineral rights, wants to put in a full-scale operation.”
“And the people here don't want that?”
“Hell, no. Do you realize what it would do to this place? The noise. The processes they useâthey'd poison the air. Destroy what God has made. Pretty soon it wouldn't matter if we won the fight to preserve the lake for the birds, the people who love it. We'd have nothing, and a bunch of damned foreigners would have the gold.” She looked around, her face pulling into mournful lines. “Every night I pray that won't happen, but I'm not sure the Lord hears me. Wouldn't that be a bitch, if we saved the water only to lose everything anyway?”
“It certainly would,” I agreed, appreciating both the irony of the situation and her strange conversational mix of religious references and profanity.
Perhaps the incursion of the foreign gold-mining interests was the reason Anne-Marie had asked me to come here this weekend. In her somewhat hurried phone call on Thursdayâ yesterdayâshe'd said only that some things were going on that bothered her and she'd feel better if I checked them out. When I told her that I couldn't give her longer than the weekend because I'd used up all my vacation days, she laughed and said, “I'm sure your boss will bend the rules for me if I need you beyond Sunday.”
I was sure of that, too: Hank Zahn, who is my nominal boss at All Souls, happens to be Anne-Marie Altman's husband.
Mrs. Wittington was watching me anxiously, as if hoping for some reassurance. I said, “I'm sure the Coalition won't allow Tufa Lake to be destroyed after all the efforts to save it.”
“Good intentions â¦” She shrugged and turned back to her chrysanthemums. “Well, if you need anything down at the cabin, just let me know.”
I said I would and went on toward my MG.
I'd owned the red MG for years, since I first went to work at All Souls. Its appearance stopped just short of being scabrous, but in September I'd had the engine overhauled as a birthday present to myself. The trip to Tufa Lake was the first long one I'd made since then; all the wayâfrom the Bay Area to Stockton, across the fiat Central Valley, into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and across YosemiteâI'd carefully monitored the little car's performance. The rebuild had been worth it, I'd decided, just as a new body-and-paint job would not be. In my line of work, a spiffy attention-getting sports car is a definite liability.
As I pulled onto the highway I turned left toward Vernon, a mile and a half away where the ridge of hills curved to the east, creating more flatland between them and the lakeshore. On the outskirts I passed a trailer park and a scattering of small houses, mostly of the prefab variety. Then businesses began to appear on either side of the road: a couple of gas stations, a convenience store, a Laundromat, a take-out pizza parlor, a motel that was closed for the season. Unpaved lanes lined with more small homes meandered toward the hills; a white-steepled church was tucked back at the end of one of them. Beyond a boat-rental yard on the water's edge, a point of land jutted out; on it was Zelda'sâcocktails, steaks, seafood. And beyond that was a sort of industrial-business complexâinsurance brokerage, bookkeeping service, well drilling, real estateâconsisting of wide-bodied trailers parked in a haphazard fashion on a large paved area. I left the MG on the shoulder of the road and went looking for the one that served as temporary headquarters for the Coalition for Environmental Preservation.
It was easy enough to locate, because a banner bearing the Coalition's emblemâa brilliant orange California poppyâ hung from one side. An old mint-condition Morgan was pulled up at the opposite end from the steps. Anne-Marie's Subaru was nowhere in sight, but I decided to go inside and ask for her anyway. As I approached, however, loud voices came from within, the words indistinguishable but the tones clearly angry. The door burst open, and a woman came through it so fast that she lost her balance and stumbled down the steps.
She was a little woman in her mid- to late thirties, dressed in rugged denims, work boots, and a heavy wool shirt. Her brown hair was cropped short, and her round face was tanned and coarsened from exposure to the elements. In spite of her lack of stature, the way she gripped the railing and righted herself demonstrated wiry strength. She whirled toward the still-open door, raised a clenched fist, and shouted, “You