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Traumatized by a recent life-or-death investigation, Sharon McCone flees to her ranch in California's high desert country to contemplate her future. Deep depression shadows her days and nights, and a chance encounter with a troubled, highly secretive Native American woman begins to haunt her dreams. Even though she is determined not to investigate anything during her stay — and perhaps not ever again — McCone is drawn into the plight of the young woman and her dysfunctional family. A murder and traces of violence at a deserted resort lead her across the desert and into Nevada, and finally to a remote and isolated ranch, where danger lies closer that she expects and where her future and life itself may hang in the balance.
I sat on the bluff's edge, facing southeast, where a newly risen full moon cast a shimmery path over the waters of Tufa Lake. To my right, the towering peaks of Yosemite had disappeared into purple darkness. Here in the high desert the evening cooled quickly this time of year, but I'd prepared for it, appropriating a shearling jacket several sizes too big for me from the closet at the ranch house. As I'd appropriated it every night since I'd come up here from the city ten days ago.
Behind me, my husband Hy's twenty-year-old horse, Lear Jet—an ironic name for the red dun gelding, which had never willingly picked up the pace in its life—whickered. I hadn't ridden a horse in more than a decade. Pretty much disliked the creatures, in fact. Lear Jet was big—about fifteen hands and twelve hundred pounds—with a white star on his forehead and a white snip on his nose. He didn't like me any more than I liked him. Every chance he got he'd lean hard on me, try to stomp my feet, bare his yellow teeth and snort.
I wasn't riding the creature for pleasure but in response to a challenge from Hy's ranch manager, Ramon Perez, who lived on the property and tended Lear Jet and the small herd of sheep Hy kept.
I sat watching the water as the moon rose higher. No longer visible by night or day were the brownish-white towers of calcified vegetation—tufa—that gave the lake its name. Years ago, the siphoning off of feeder streams for drought-stricken southern California had caused the lake's level gradually to sink and reveal the underwater towers; the brine shrimp that inhabited it and the waterfowl that fed on them had seemed doomed. But they were saved by the efforts of a coalition of conservationists, headed by Hy, and now the streams flowed freely, the lake teemed with life.
I wished I were so alive, but all I felt was burned out and hollow inside.
Last February I'd escaped death by mere seconds when a building where Hy and I had been temporarily living blew up—one of a series of bombings directed at the security company in which he was a partner. I'd solved the case of the Ever-Running Man, as the bomber had been called, but the fear and nightmares lingered; the grinding day-to-day effort of managing a growing investigative agency had sucked my spirit dry. Throughout spring and summer depression dragged me down. I'd tried coping with it myself, eventually resorted to antidepressants, and, when the pills hadn't worked, consulted a therapist. Therapy didn't work, either; I'm a private person, and I found myself lying to the doctor whenever she probed too close to the root causes of my condition.
Severe depression is like being at the bottom of a deep, dark pit: you want to put your feet and your hands against the walls and, squirming like an overturned spider, crawl up into the sunlight. Only when you try you find you can't move your limbs. I dreamed of being in that pit night after night. Finally, at Hy's urging, I'd come to the ranch for a change of pace—rather than the more familiar environs at Touchstone, our place on the Mendocino Coast. I'd planned to rest, regain my perspective, and rethink my future.
Well, everything but the rest part had so far eluded me. That I managed just fine, sometimes sleeping twelve to fourteen hours at a stretch. It wasn't good, and I knew it.
I also knew the choice of this spot on the bluff that I returned to night after night wasn't good, but here I sat again. It was the place Hy had come the night his first wife, Julie Spaulding, died of a long, debilitating illness. He'd told me how the sunset had flared above the Sierras, then died on the water. . . .
You're not coming here tomorrow, McCone. It just depresses you more. Get on with figuring out your life.
Behind me, Lear Jet snorted impatiently. He wanted his alfalfa.
"Okay, you smelly old thing," I called and got to my feet. "I'm coming."
The horse, of course, was obstinate. He turned his back on me and tried to pull the reins loose from where I'd tied them to a tree root. I took the reins myself, but when I tried to mount him he sidestepped. I hung on, got my left foot in the stirrup, and threw my right leg over his back. Before I could locate the other stirrup, he began walking; I clung to the pommel until my foot was secure. Then he stopped.
I clicked my heels authoritatively against his sides.
He snorted and put his head down.
"Look, you miserable bag of bones, I'm not in the mood for your antics!" I clicked my heels harder.
Lear Jet took off at a sudden wild run across the mesa.
I lost both stirrups, yanking hard on the reins. "Slow down, dammit!"
And he did—jerking to a dead stop. I flew from the saddle over his lowered head and landed on my butt in an area of soft dried grass.
As the horse turned away and trotted toward the stables, I could have sworn I heard him snicker.
I wasn't hurt, although I'd probably be sore in the morning, but I stayed where I was for a while, lying on my back, my knees bent upward, cursing Lear Jet and watching the emerging stars.
What else could go wrong today? That morning I'd nicked myself with a kitchen knife; been snappish for no reason with my office manager, Ted Smalley, who was holding down the fort back in the city; been even more snappish when my sister Charlene, who lived in the LA area, called to see how I was doing.
That afternoon Citibank's fraud division called to tell me someone was using my MasterCard to make Internet purchases; they'd frozen the account and a new card would have to be issued. I should have been grateful to them for spotting the problem within hours, but instead I grumbled at the representative about the inconvenience of having to change the number on all my automatic payments. Then I called my nephew and agency computer expert, Mick Savage, and asked him to find out who'd made the charges; he could work faster than Citibank, who were bound to have more important cases on their hands than mine. When he said he was swamped, and why not let the bank handle it, I yelled at him and hung up. Then I slept the rest of the afternoon.
Now I'd been thrown by a horrible, hateful horse.
Well, at least you're not having a bad hair day, my inner voice said.
"Shut up," I said. "It's not funny."
Now I was losing my sense of humor! I'd always depended on it to get me through the rough patches, but it was fading along with everything else.
I got up, brushing dried grass from my pants and hair, and started toward the house. The moon and starlight showed me the way, and eventually I found a familiar well-traveled path.
A bobbing light was coming toward me, I saw then. "Sharon?" Ramon Perez's voice called.
"Lear came back to the stable without you. I thought I'd better mount a search."
"The son of a bitch threw me."
"Are you all right?" I'd come into the circle of Ramon's flashlight, and he frowned as he looked me up and down.
Ramon Perez was a Northern Paiute, a tribe closely associated and often confused with my own forebears, the Shoshone. A stocky, weathered man in his late forties who spoke little but always had gentle hands for animals and a kind smile for humans. He'd opened up some to me since I told him I'd discovered I was adopted and a full-blooded Indian; since then we'd spent a good bit of time discussing his and my tribes' commonalities and differences.
Which was what had started this horse thing.
We'd been sitting on bales of hay in the stable two nights ago when Ramon said, "You really should learn to ride."
"Why would I want to do that?"
"Your people are good with horses. They acquired them, I think from the Apaches, in the seventeen-hundreds. Earlier than my people."
"Well then, I'm a piss-poor Shoshone. I took riding lessons in my mid-twenties and did okay, but I quit because I discovered I hate the critters."
Ramon shook his head. "You just don't understand them, is all. What you need to do is show them that you're in control, and that you respect them. Then comes the love."
I eyed him skeptically.
"Take Lear out tomorrow morning."
"Oh, Ramon, come on. . . ."
Ah, the games of our childhood . . .
The next morning I'd shown up at nine for my ride. Lear raised his lip in a sneer while Ramon helped me adjust the saddle, bridle, and stirrups, but otherwise he'd walked peaceably enough around the nearby meadow. When I unsaddled him he twitched his tail impatiently.
"Ride him tonight," Ramon suggested. "Let him get used to you. I've seen you walking on the mesa; let him take you there."
I sighed, "Okay. But isn't it dangerous to ride at twilight?"
He laughed. "Horse knows every inch of this ranch. He'll get you there and back just fine. Bring him a piece of carrot as a reward."
Lear had given me a disdainful look and tried to nip my fingers when he took the carrot, but otherwise the ride had gone well. And then tonight . . .
I took Ramon's arm as we started walking back toward the cluster of ranch buildings. "Lear's not getting the carrot I brought for him."
"No, he shouldn't. He knows he acted out."
"And I'm not riding him again."
Ramon was silent for a moment, and then he said softly, "We'll see."
Ten minutes later I let myself into the house through the door to the mudroom, hung the jacket on a peg, and went into the kitchen. It felt like stepping back into the fifties: black-and-white linoleum floor, yellow Formica countertops, old fridge and stove, porcelain sink, enameled cabinets with scalloped bottoms. A chrome-and-Formica table—yellow, with chairs upholstered in red vinyl—stood in a breakfast nook. I liked the kitchen and the fact that neither Hy nor Julie had attempted to remodel it. It spoke to me of continuity and an acceptance of the past.
And now if I can only learn to accept certain things in my past . . .
No philosophizing, I told myself. I was hungry.
I went to the fridge and peered inside. Bag of salad greens—wilted. Tomato—wrinkling. No eggs—I'd fried the last one for my lunchtime sandwich. Milk, but when I picked up the carton and sniffed it, it smelled bad. Ditto the sandwich meat. I'd used the last edible pieces of bread for lunch; the rest of it had turned hard as stone. And in the ice-clogged freezer—they didn't self-defrost when this one was made, and I hadn't bothered to do anything about it—I spotted a submerged package of lima beans that had perhaps been there since 2002.
This was what else could go wrong today.
Good God, what was wrong with me? Why hadn't I noticed this lack of food earlier? I hadn't come here to starve myself!
I investigated the pantry. Badly stocked, unless I wanted anchovies and garbanzo beans for dinner. No more wine, either.
That did it. In a minute I was back in the shearling jacket and out the door to Hy's Land Rover.
The town of Vernon, on the shore of Tufa Lake, had changed little over the years since I'd first come there. The red-and-gold neon sign atop Zelda's—a rustic tavern and restaurant where you could dance on the weekends to country-and-western bands—flashed far out at the end of the long point extending into the lake. The liquor store had a new name, and one of the off-brand gas stations was now a Union 76, but otherwise the small businesses in the strip malls along the main street remained: an insurance broker, real-estate agents, a pizza parlor, a bank, the post office, a haircutting salon, a florist, two bars, and various other establishments that provided the necessities of everyday life. The shabby motel on the lakeshore showed a NO VACANCY sign, which never would have been the case in the old days; but the marginally better and more scenic Willow Grove Lodge was closed and up for sale, following the death of its owner, Rose Whittington. I'd stayed there on my first visits to Vernon, and remembered Mrs. Whittington as a pleasant innkeeper with a passion for gardening and trucker movies.
As always, the Food Mart was doing a turn-away business.
I pulled into the lot, parked the Land Rover, and started for the supermarket. Its windows were brightly lighted, and through them I saw busy checkers, stacks of specials, and shoppers pushing carts along the aisles. The lot and the building's plain white facade were well lighted too, but there was a pocket of darkness beyond where a soft-drink machine and some newspaper vending racks stood. With a city dweller's conditioning, I glanced over there.
A young woman—a girl, really, she couldn't have been more than fourteen or fifteen—stood alone; from the way her gaze darted around the parking lot, I assumed she was waiting for a ride. She wore a thin cotton blouse and jeans and hugged herself against the cold. Her hunched posture reminded me of the victims of sexual and domestic violence to whom I'd taught a self-defense course at San Francisco City College last year. When she swung her head around, her long black hair flared out in the chill breeze; her features, I saw, were Indian. Probably Paiute.
The girl projected such an air of loneliness that I paused. The lights of a car pulling into the lot and waiting for a space focused on her, and she blinked at the glare, then looked away in my direction. Her eyes locked on mine, and I was close enough, the lights bright enough that I saw something besides loneliness: fear.
I wondered if I should go over to her, ask if she was all right. But then she began scanning the other side of the lot. I watched her for a few more seconds before I went inside. As I passed along the aisles, buying enough food to last a week, the Indian girl's image stayed with me. When I left the store I looked for her, but she was gone.
For the greater part of the week after my outing to the Food Mart, I stayed on the ranch—reading, watching old movies on TV, sleeping, and steadfastly avoiding any thought of the future. And every evening, in spite of my vow, I returned to the same place on the bluff to watch the moon rise.
I didn't ride Lear Jet again, but after a day I did go to the stables at the time that Ramon returned from exercising him. I'd watch while he groomed and fed the horse, sitting on a bale of hay in amicable silence.
Ramon, I knew, had made overtures to Hy about buying the ranch, but out of sentiment Hy didn't want to sell. He'd grown up there, and it had been willed to him by his mother and stepfather. He'd returned there after a tumultuous stint as a charter pilot in southeast Asia. He'd lived there with Julie and eventually watched her waste away. He'd grieved there, and recovered there. And we'd first slept together there. While we didn't visit often now, the moments we shared in the high desert were precious. Ramon had understood: sentiment ran thick in his veins too.
Sometimes when he was done with the horse, he'd join me and talk about our heritages. "You know, our tribes generally had good relationships," he said one afternoon. "Maybe that's why we get along so well, huh?"
"Maybe it's got more to do with the fact we're both quiet."
"Well, that is a virtue." He took out a cigarette, lit it, and doused the match thoroughly. With Ramon, I never worried about accidental fires; he was too mindful a man.
"Sara, God love her, she chatters," he added. Sara was his wife of thirty-some years. "Of course, when I married a Mexican, I knew she would. And chattering's not such a bad thing; how else would I know what's going on in the world? Now, that man of yours doesn't talk much."
"He's getting better at conversation."
"Since he met you. When I first came to work here for him, about a year after his first wife died, he barely spoke at all. A more depressed man I'd never met."
We sat in silence for a while, Ramon smoking his cigarette, then grinding it out on the floor and putting the butt in his shirt pocket.
"You're damn depressed yourself," he said.
"You want to talk about it?"
". . . I don't think so. Not now, anyway."
"You change your mind, I'm here."
The next day I brought Ramon a book on Shoshone tribal customs that my birth father, Elwood Farmer, had given me. Lear Jet glowered at me from his stall. Did he think I should've brought him something? No way, not after he'd thrown me.
Throughout the week I had contact with the outside world, of course. Daily calls came from my operative Patrick Neilan, to whom I'd turned over administrative matters at the agency, as well as my office manager, Ted Smalley. Just general reports: everything's okay here, we wrapped up the so-and-so case, three new jobs came in today. It was all I cared to know about a business I'd nurtured lovingly for years. And that unnerved me.
Mick had relented and located the person who'd been using my credit card: a deliveryman employed by a Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood who frequently delivered takeout to us. Citibank and the police were dealing with him.
There was also a daily call from Hy, who was restructuring the corporate security firm—formerly RKI, now Ripinsky International—of which he'd become sole owner after the death of one partner and the decampment of another. He'd moved their world headquarters to San Francisco, turned over marginal accounts to other firms, and closed unnecessary branch offices, and was busy creating a corporate culture that—unlike the old RKI's—was free of corruption. His calls further depressed me, although I did my best to hide it. I'd never heard Hy so vibrant and optimistic, but could only briefly get caught up in his enthusiasm. His feelings about his work were so opposite to how I felt about mine that once the calls were over, I wanted to crawl into bed and bury my head under the pillows.
Which I did most nights, falling into a restless sleep that was repeatedly visited by the dream of the pit, as well as an odd new one: an Indian girl standing in the cold shadows outside a large white building. She looked at me in the glare of passing headlights, eyes afraid, and then the earth at her feet cracked open and swallowed her up.
I awoke with the dreams heavy upon me, like a hangover. My hands shook as I fixed coffee and my head throbbed dully, even though I'd had nothing alcoholic to drink the night before.
I took my coffee to the living room and curled up under a woven throw in one of the deeply cushioned chairs by the stone fireplace. Unlike the kitchen, this room was pure Hy: Indian rugs on the pegged-pine floor, antique rifles over the fireplace, and in the bookcases flanking it to either side, his collection of Western novels from the thirties and forties and nonfiction accounts of the Old West. Over the time I'd been staying here, I'd read some of the novels, paged through a few of the nonfiction volumes. But this morning my mind was not on history—at least not anything going back more than five months.
This stay in the high desert wasn't working out as I'd thought it would. I'd managed to fill up empty hours with useless activity, while avoiding the larger issues: Did I really want to go on sitting behind a desk hour after hour, reviewing client reports, okaying invoices and expense logs, interviewing new clients, assigning jobs, and mediating employee disputes? Did I really want to continue taking on the larger, more complex cases that required me to be on the move a lot and that—too often in the past year—had ended in danger and near death?
Over the course of my career I'd been stabbed, nearly drowned, beaten up, falsely imprisoned, held at gunpoint, and once, ignominiously, shot in the ass. I'd killed two people and nearly succumbed to violent urges against others. Last winter I'd come close to being killed in the explosion. Enough, already.
But taking on a strictly administrative role wasn't an option for me; I'd go crazy confined to my desk. How could I continue activities that had lost their appeal, where I was just going through the motions?
The agency was profitable and well respected. I could sell it for big bucks to another firm looking to grow, negotiate a deal where my present employees would remain on staff. Take the money and . . . then what?
I wasn't cut out for everyday leisure. I didn't play golf or tennis or bridge, take classes, have hobbies, or enjoy most of the activities retired people do.
My God, I was in my early forties! Given the life expectancy of my birth family—relatives on both sides had lived into their nineties—that was a lot of time to fill up. And that's all I'd be doing—just filling it up.
Okay, begin a second career. Lots of people did that. But what? My college degree was in sociology, and that hadn't gotten me anywhere even when my diploma was freshly minted. Consult? That would only put me back in the thick of things. Write a book on investigative techniques, as I'd recently been asked to? No. I'd rather become a neurosurgeon, train as a master chef, or apply to NASA and fly to Mars. None of which was going to happen either.
Investigation was what I knew how to do—and do well—but I didn't want to work at it any more. At least not now. Maybe not ever.
Hy had suggested I come in as a partner with him, but that wouldn't work. We'd take our business home with us, and ultimately it would consume our marriage. Besides, an executive position in corporate security wasn't to my liking; it didn't provide much involvement with the clients, one aspect that I used to enjoy.
I went to get some more coffee. My headache had faded, and my hands were steady. Back in my chair by the fireplace, I told myself that at least I'd seriously considered the issues I was facing, even if it hadn't solved anything.
Didn't have to be done quickly anyway. The business was in good hands, and I had all the time in the world. A solution would come to me eventually. In the meantime, why not fill up the rest of today with pleasurable activity?
I would have liked to go flying, but Hy had needed our Cessna 270B, so he'd dropped me off at Tufa Tower Airport and flown back to the Bay Area. The airport had a couple of clunker planes I could rent for a nominal fee, but Hy had told me they were untrustworthy, and from a cursory inspection I'd concluded he was correct.
Maybe a picnic. Pack a good book, pick up a sandwich from the Food Mart deli, and go—where? Well, the old Willow Grove Lodge had nice grounds and a dock overlooking the lake. It was closed and isolated. The only people likely to show up there would be real-estate agents with prospective buyers, and I doubted that would happen. If it did, I'd concoct some story to explain my presence and leave.
The main lodge and six cabins that were scattered over several cottonwood- and willow-shaded acres looked shabby. True, the cabins had never been in great condition, but their nineteen-fifties-vintage furnishings, smoke-stained woodstoves, primitive kitchens, and underlying odor of dry rot reminded me of the resorts where my financially strapped family had stayed on summer vacations during my childhood. And even after the death of her husband, Rose Whittington had worked hard to keep the place up. Now the cabins' green trim was blistered and faded, dark brown wood splintered and cracked, composition roofs sagging. Graffiti decorated their walls. Rose's garden had long gone to the weeds. A developer's dream: bulldoze it and put up condos or a luxury hotel. The hell with the love and care that the Whittingtons had put into this place over their fifty-year marriage, let alone the happy memories of all the people who'd stayed here.
Of course, it was hard to argue with a would-be buyer's logic; these buildings were not salvageable. I only hoped that whoever bought the acreage would leave the trees.
I parked behind the lodge where the Land Rover couldn't be seen from the highway, carried my deli lunch down the rocky slope to the rickety dock, and spread an old blanket on its planks. Sat down, feeling the pale autumn sunshine on my face. The lake rippled on the stones below, and in the distance I could see plovers doing touch-and-goes on the massive central island. The lake is a major stop on the Pacific Flyway, along which approximately a hundred thousand migratory birds travel, and over the years I've seen most every kind there. If the lake had not been saved through the efforts of dedicated environmentalists like Hy, the birds would have had a long journey to their next stop.
A natural wonder restored, a man-made resort dying.
Suddenly I didn't feel as sad about the Willow Grove Lodge's demise. Long after whatever replaced it was gone, the lake would endure.
The book I'd brought along wasn't very engaging—a long-winded narrative about a former alcoholic holed up in the woods to contemplate what he claimed wasn't a midlife crisis, but that damned well sounded like one, as I should know. After I finished my lunch, I dozed off while reading and woke to a chill wind gusting off the lake. The shadows of the trees had moved over me.
Praise for Marcia Muller and BURN OUT:
"Muller undoubtedly remains one of today's best mystery writers."—Associated Press
- "Muller's series launched the modern hard-boiled female detective, and it has been setting a gold standard...for more than 30 years."—Booklist (starred review)
- On Sale
- Oct 27, 2008
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing