Cyanide Wells


By Marcia Muller

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Suspicion colors a man’s search for his long-vanished wife in this suspense-filled tale from national bestselling author Marcia Muller.

Fourteen years after his wife's disappearance branded him a murderer and ruined his life. Matthew Lindstrom receives an anonymous phone call revealing that Gwen is alive…and well aware of the wreckage she left behind. Seeking answers and revenge, he comes to the isolated town of Cyanide Wells. Here, where the surrounding thick forest conceals twisted paths and old sins, Matt begins to learn the details of Gwen's new life. But before he can confront her, his ex vanishes once more. Now Matt must join forces with Carly McGuire, a local woman with secrets of her own, and begin a desperate hunt for the truth about past crimes and Gwen's fate. For hovering over him are suspicions that can destroy him once again.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2003 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust

All rights reserved.

Mysterious Press books are published by Warner Books, Inc., Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017.

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First eBook Edition: July 2003

ISBN: 978-0-446-55053-6

























For Robin and John Reese—members in good standing of the Top-of-the-Hill Gang

Thanks to:

Barbara Bibel, for aid in researching;

Victoria Brouillette, my Minnesota connection;

Joe Chernicoff, for information on antique firearms;

Charlie Lucke and John Pearson, for their photographic expertise;

And Bill Pronzini, who makes me work much too hard!

Saugatuck, Minnesota
Thursday, July 28, 1988

Matthew Lindstrom?"


"This is Sheriff Cliff Brandt of Sweetwater County, Wyoming. Are you married to a Gwen Lindstrom?"

"… Yes, I am."

"And she drives a white Toyota Tercel, this year's model, Minnesota license number four-four-three-B-C-Y?"

"That's correct. What's this about, Sheriff?"

"Her car was found in my jurisdiction, parked by the side of County Road Eleven, eight miles from Reliance. That's a farming community north of Interstate Eighty. Nothing wrong with the vehicle, but there were bloodstains on the dash and other signs consistent with a struggle. A purse containing her identification and credit cards was on the passenger's seat."

"And Gwen? What about Gwen?"

"No sign of her. Tell me, Mr. Lindstrom, does she know anyone in Reliance? Or Sweetwater County?"

"As far as I know, she's never been to Wyoming."

"When did you last see Mrs. Lindstrom?"

"Two weeks ago, on the fourteenth."

"Two weeks ago? And you've got no idea where she's been since then?"

"We're separated. Have filed for divorce. We met on the fourteenth to go over the property settlement."

"I see. Messy divorce?"

"Amicable. We have no children and very little in the way of assets."

"There was a student ID from Saugatuck College in your wife's purse."

"Yes, she's a senior in the journalism department."

"And what do you do, Mr. Lindstrom?"

"I teach photography there, operate a small studio on the side. Mostly wedding portraits, that sort of—Why are you asking me these questions? And what are you doing to find Gwen?"

"Just familiarizing myself with the situation. I take it you can account for your whereabouts during the past two weeks?"

"Of course I can! I was here in Saugatuck, teaching summer courses. Now, what are you doing to find—"

"Don't get all exercised, Mr. Lindstrom. My last question was strictly routine. As for finding your wife, we plan to circularize her photograph, but we're hoping you can provide a better likeness than the one on her driver's license."

"I'll overnight several to you. If you find her, will you please ask her to call me? Or if…"

"If Mr. Lindstrom?"

"Well, if something's happened to her…"

"Don't worry. We'll be in touch."

Thousand Springs, Nevada
Thursday, July 28, 1988

That's a bad place to hitchhike. Somebody could pick you off coming around the curve. Where're you headed?"

"West. Where're you going?"

"All the way to Soledad County, California."

"Good a place as any, I guess. If you'd like some company…"

"Hop in."

"Thanks, I really appreciate it. I was starting to get spooked, all alone here."

"Why were you alone, anyway?"

"My last ride dropped me off. I kind of…had trouble with him."

"That'll happen. Hitching's not the safest way for a woman to travel."

"I know, but it's the only way I've got."

"How long have you been on the road?"

"A couple of days."

"Coming from where?"

"East. What's this place—Soledad County—like?"

"Pretty. Coast, forest, foothills, small towns."

"Lots of people live there?"

"No. We're one of the most sparsely populated in the upper half of the state. Isolated, too; it's a four-hour drive to San Francisco, even longer to Sacramento because of bad roads."

"Sounds nice."

"Well, you've got to like the quiet life, and I do. I live in the country, near a little town called Cyanide Wells."

"So you think Soledad County is really a good place to live?"

"If you want, I'll sing its praises all the way there. By the way, my name's Carly McGuire."

"Mine's Ardis Coleman."

Port Regis, British Columbia
Sunday, April 21, 2002

Matthew Lindstrom?"


"I'm calling about your wife."

"I have no wife."

"Oh, yes, you do. Gwen Lindstrom—"

"My wife disappeared fourteen years ago. Our divorce went through shortly after that."

"I know, Mr. Lindstrom. And I know about your legal and professional difficulties surrounding the situation. They must have been very painful. Put an end to your life as you'd known it, didn't they?"

"Who is this?"

"A friend. My identity's not important. What's important is that your wife is very much alive. And very cognizant of what she put you through when she disappeared."

"Listen, whoever you are—"

"Aren't you curious? I'm sure I would be if I were you."

"All right, I'll go along with your game. Where is Gwen?"

"Soledad County, California. Has lived there for the past fourteen years near a place called Cyanide Wells, under the name of Ardis Coleman."

"Ardis Coleman? My God, that was Gwen's mother's maiden name."

"Well, there you go. Let me ask you this, Mr. Lindstrom: Will revenge taste good served up cold, after the passage of all those years?"


"Surely you must feel some impulse in that direction, considering…"

"What the hell are you trying to do to me? Who are you?"

"As I said, a friend."

"I don't believe a word of this!"

"Then I suggest you check it out, Mr. Lindstrom. Check it out."

Cyanide Wells, California
Sunday, April 21, 2002

Hey, Ard, you're awfully quiet. Something wrong?"

"Nothing that I can pin down, but I feel…I didn't sleep well last night. Bad dreams, the kind you can't remember afterwards, but their aura lingers like a hangover."

"Maybe it's your book. It can't be easy reliving that time. And from what I've read, it's a much more personal account than what you wrote for the paper."

"It is, but that's how I want it, Carly. Besides, I don't think this is about the book—at least not completely."

"What, then?"

"Matt, maybe."

"After all these years?"

"I've been thinking of him a lot lately. Wondering…"

"And feeling guilty, I suppose."

"In a way. When I found out they suspected him of murdering me, I should've come forward."

"You found out way after the fact. And when you did try to contact him, he was gone, no forwarding."

"I know, but instead of trying to find out where he'd gone, I just felt relieved. I didn't want to hurt him any more than I already had."

"So he's better off."

"No, he'd've been better off if I'd been honest from the first. I could've—"

"As my aunt Nan used to say, 'Coulda's, woulda's, and shoulda's don't amount to a hill of beans.'"

"I guess. But I'm concerned for Natalie. My anxiety's obvious, and it upsets her."

"She hasn't said anything about it to me."

"You know her; she's a child who holds everything inside. Carly, d'you think I'm being irrational?"

"…You're stressed. You'll get over it once the book is done."

"Will I? Sometimes I think that given all the terrible things I've done, I don't deserve another good night's sleep in this lifetime."

Matthew Lindstrom

Port Regis, British Columbia
Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Matt Lindstrom watched the tourists struggle along the pier, laden with extra jackets, blankets, tote bags, and coolers. City people, up from California on holiday and unaccustomed to the chill temperatures and pervasive damp that characterized the northern tip of Vancouver Island at this time of year. Americans were also unaccustomed to going anywhere without a considerable collection of unnecessary possessions.

Smiling ruefully, he turned around, his gaze rising to the pine-covered slopes across the small harbor. When had he stopped identifying with the few U.S. citizens who ventured this far up-island? At first he hadn't been conscious of his waning allegiance; it had simply crept up on him until one day he was no longer one of them, yet not a Canadian either. Stuck somewhere in between, perhaps permanently, and in an odd way his otherness pleased him. No, not pleased so much as contented him, and he'd remained contented until the past Sunday evening. Since then he'd felt only discontent, and a sense of unfinished business.

"Matt?" His deckhand, Johnny Crowe, stood by the transom of the Queen Charlotte, Matt's thirty-six-foot excursion trawler. A full-blooded Kootenay, Johnny was a recent transplant from the Columbia River Valley. He asked, "You want me to button her up?"

"Yeah, thanks." Matt gave him a half-salute and started along the dock, past fishing boats in their slips. The tourists he'd taken out for the morning's charter were bunched around their giant Ford Expedition, trying to fit their gear among the suitcases piled in its rear compartment. They'd spent the night at Port Regis Hotel at the foot of the pier—an establishment whose accommodations one guidebook had described as "spartan but clean," and from the grumblings he'd overheard, he gathered that spartan was not their first, or even second, preference.

When he reached the end of the pier, he gave the tourists a wide berth and a curt nod and headed for the hotel. It was of weathered clapboard, once white but now gone to gray, and not at all imposing, with three entrances off its covered front porch: restaurant, lobby, and bar. Matt pushed through the latter into an amber-lighted room with beer signs and animal heads on the walls and rickety, unmatched tables and chairs arranged haphazardly across the warped wooden floor. The room was empty now, but a few hours before, it would have been filled with fishermen returning at what was the end of their working day.

"Hey, Millie," Matt called to the woman behind the bar.

"Hey, yourself." Millie Bertram was a frizzy-haired blonde on the far side of fifty, dressed in denim coveralls over a tie-dyed shirt. The shirt and her long beaded earrings revealed her as one who had never quite made a clean break with the sixties. When Matt moved to Port Regis ten years ago, Millie and her husband, Jed, had co-owned and operated the hotel. Two years later Jed, who fancied himself a bass player of immense if unrecognized talent, ran off with a singer from Vancouver, never to be seen again. Millie became sole proprietor of the hotel, and if the prices had gone up, so had the quality of food and service.

Now she placed a mug of coffee in front of Matt. "Early charter?"

"Only charter. Those guests of yours from San Jose."

"Ah, yes, they mentioned something about a 'boat ride.' " The set of Millie's mouth indicated she was glad to have seen the last of them. "Fishing?"

"Not their thing. Bloody Marys, except for one woman who drank mimosas. Point-and-shoot cameras and a desire to see whales."

"On a day when there's not a whale in sight."

"I pointed out two." Matt sipped coffee, burned his tongue, and grimaced.

"Let me guess," Millie said. "Bull and Bear Rocks."

"You got it."

"You're a con man, Lindstrom."

"So they're leaving happy and will tell all their friends to look me up."

Millie went to the coffee urn, poured herself some, and leaned against the backbar, looking pensive. Probably contemplating the summer months that would bring more tourists with a desire for whales, who would become drunk in her bar, look askance at her chef's plain cooking, and leave her spartan guestrooms in a shambles.

Matt toyed with the ceramic container that held packets of sugar and artificial sweetener. "Mil, you're from California, right?"


"You know where Soledad County is?"

She closed her eyes, apparently conjuring a map. "Between Mendocino and Humboldt Counties, on the coast. Extends east beyond the edge of the Eel River National Forest."

"You ever hear of a place called Cyanide Wells?"

"Sure. Back when Jed-the-asshole and I were into our environmental phase, we protested at Talbot's Mills. Lumber town. Company town. Identical little houses, except for the mansions the thieving barons built on the labor of the loggers and mill-workers they exploited."

Matt made motions as if he were playing a violin.

"Okay," Millie said, "so I'm still talking the talk even though I'm not walking the walk. Anyway, Cyanide Wells is maybe thirty miles southeast of there. Former gold-mining camp. Wide spot in the road back in the seventies, but I guess it's grown some by now. I do know it's got one hell of a newspaper, the Soledad Spectrum. Owned and edited by a woman, Carly McGuire. About three years ago they won the Pulitzer Prize for a series on the murders of a gay couple near there. How come you asked?"

"I just found out that somebody I used to know is living near Cyanide Wells."

"Somebody?" Now Millie's tone turned sly. She was, Matt knew, frustrated and puzzled by his lack of interest in a long-term relationship with any of the women she repeatedly shoved into his path.

"Somebody," he said in a tone that precluded further discussion.

Somebody who, fourteen years ago, had put an end to his life as he'd known it.

Matt sat on the deck of his cabin, looking out at the humped mass of Bear Rock, which was backlit by the setting sun. It did look like a whale, and he was glad he'd given the tourists their photo op this morning. Clouds were now gathering on the horizon, bleaching the sun's brilliant colors, and a cold breeze swayed the three tall pines that over the past ten years he'd watched grow from saplings. Feeling the chill, he got up and took his bottle of beer inside.

The cabin was snug: one room with a sleeping alcove on the far wall, and a stone fireplace and galley kitchen facing each other on the side walls. A picture window and glass door overlooked the sea. The small shingled building had been in bad shape when he'd first seen it, so he'd gotten it cheap, leaving enough of the money from the sale of the Saugatuck house for the down payment on the Queen Charlotte. During two years of drifting about, his life in ruins, he'd taken what odd jobs he found and scarcely touched the money.

He lighted the fire he'd earlier laid on the hearth, sat down, and watched the flames build. Dusk fell, then darkness, and he nursed his warmish beer without turning on a lamp.

Fourteen years. A way of life lost. A home gone. A career destroyed.

Then, finally, he'd found Port Regis and this cabin and the Queen Charlotte, and he'd created a new way of life, built another home and career. True, he was not the man he'd intended to be at thirty-nine, and this was not the life he'd expected to lead. But it was a life he'd handcrafted out of ruin and chaos. If it was as spartan as one of Millie's guestrooms, at least it was also clean. If his friends were little more than good acquaintances, so much the better; he'd learned the small worth of friendship those last two years in Minnesota. He was content here—or had been, until a late-night anonymous phone call destroyed all possibility of contentment…

He wasn't aware of making a conscious decision, much less a plan. He simply turned on the table lamp and went to the closet off the sleeping alcove, where he began going through the cartons stacked in its recesses. When he located the one marked P EQUIP., he carried it to the braided rug in front of the hearth, sat down cross-legged, and opened it.

Memories rose with the dust from the carton's lid. He pushed them aside, burrowed into the bubble-wrapped contents. On top were the lenses: F2.8 wide angle, F1.8 and F2.8 telephotos, the F2.8 with 1.4x teleconverter, and even a fish-eye, which he'd bought in a fit of longing but had seldom needed. Next the camera bag, tan canvas and well used. And inside it, the camera.

It was an old Nikon F, the first camera he'd ever bought and the only one he'd kept when he sold his once-profitable photography business. Heavy and old-fashioned next to the new single-lens reflexes or digital models, the markings were worn on the f-stop band, and the surfaces where he'd so often held it were polished smooth. He stared at it, afraid to take it into his hands because if he did, it would work its old magic, and then what he now realized he'd been subconsciously considering would become a reality…

Don't be ridiculous. Picking it up isn't a commitment.

And just like that, he did.

His fingers curled around the Nikon, moving to long-accustomed positions. They caressed it as he removed the lens cap, adjusted speed, f-stop, and focus. He sighted on the flames in the fireplace, saw them clearly through the F3.5 micro lens with a skylight filter. Even though the camera contained no film, he thumbed the advance lever, depressed the shutter.

The mind may forget, but not the body.

She'd said that to him the last time they made love, in a sentimental moment after being separated for two months, but he sensed that her body had already forgotten, was ready for new memories, a new man. She'd told him she needed to be free—not to wound him, but with deep regret that proved the words hurt her as well. But now, after allowing him to think her dead for fourteen years, it seemed she was alive in California, near a place called Cyanide Wells. He had no reason to doubt his anonymous caller, who had taken the trouble to track him down for some unexplained reason.

"…your wife is very much alive. And very cognizant of what she put you through when she disappeared…"

Matt's fingers tightened on the Nikon.

Picking it up had been a commitment after all.

Soledad County, California
Tuesday, May 7, 2002

Rain clouds hovered over the heavily forested ridge-line that separated central Soledad County from the coastal region, reminding Matt of home. As the exit sign for Talbot's Mills appeared, he took his right hand off the wheel of the rented Jeep Cherokee and rubbed his neck. It had been a long drive north from the San Francisco Airport, and he was stiff and tired but keyed up in an unpleasant manner that twice had made him oversteer on Highway 101's sharp curves.

It had taken him two weeks to put the charter business in order so that it would run properly under Johnny Crowe's supervision, as well as to prepare his cabin should his absence be a long one. All the time he was going about his tasks, he felt as if he were saying good-bye: to Millie, to Johnny, to the woman at the bank where he arranged for payment of what few bills would come in, to the clerks at the marine supply he patronized, to the mechanic at the gas station where he had his truck serviced for the drive to Vancouver. Once there, he left the truck in the garage of a woman with whom he'd had an onand-off affair for years, and she drove him to the airport. As his plane took off and his adopted country receded below him, he wondered what kind of man he'd be when he returned there.

Now he rounded a bend in the highway and sighted the lumber company town nestled at the base of the ridge. Clustered around the interchange were the ubiquitous motels and gas stations and fast-food outlets, and beyond them a bridge spanned a wide, slow-moving river. Two huge beige-and-green mills sprawled for acres along its banks, and small houses rose on the terraced slope above them. Higher on the hill were larger homes, including one whose gables cleared the tallest of the trees.

Matt exited on a ramp whose potholed surface threatened to jar the Jeep's wheel from his hands. Logging rigs lined the frontage road's shoulder on both sides, in front of a truck stop advertising HOT SHOWERS AND GOOD EATS. He'd pulled off for a burger hours ago in a place north of the Golden Gate Bridge called Los Alegres, but the keyed-up feeling had prevented him from eating most of it. He knew he should have a solid meal, but his stomach was still nervous, so he drove past the truck stop, looking for a motel.

There was a Quality Inn sandwiched between a Denny's and a Chevron station about fifty yards ahead. Grease and exhaust fumes were a potential hazard, but its sign advertised vacancies, and if he didn't like it, he could move. He pulled in, rented a surprisingly spacious room, and then set to work with the county phone book.

No listing for an Ardis Coleman. Listing for the Soledad Spectrum on Main Street in Cyanide Wells. No public library there, but Talbot's Mills had one, located in the Talbot Mansion on Alta Street. Best to make that his first stop, gather information, and map out strategy before visiting the smaller town.

He wasn't concerned that he'd run into Gwen and she'd recognize him. Immediately after making his decision to come to Soledad County, he had begun growing a mustache and beard, neither of which he'd ever worn before. The heavy growth rate of his facial hair, which he'd cursed his whole life, produced both quickly and respectably. The dark-brown dye he had applied to his naturally blond hair the night before he left Port Regis had further changed him, and as proof of the tepid quality of his relationship with the woman friend in Vancouver, her only comment on his new look was, "I don't like beards."

Even without these changes it was possible Gwen wouldn't know him should they come face-to-face. For one thing, she wouldn't expect to find him here. And he was older, his weathered skin a deep saltwater tan. His once-stocky body had been honed lean by his active life on the sea. He walked differently, with the catlike precision necessary to maintain balance on an often heaving deck. He spoke differently, with the slowness and economy of one who spends a great deal of time alone.

No, he was not the man Gwen used to know.

While he was crossing the bridge, the pretty picture of the old-fashioned company town that he'd formed from a distance deteriorated. One of the long mills was still in operation, a thick, steady stream of smoke rising from its tall stacks, but the other was in poor repair, surrounded by broken, weed-choked asphalt and twisted heaps of rubble. As he climbed higher on the slope, he found that the small, identical frame cottages on the terraced streets had peeling paint, sagging rooflines, and many boarded windows; their patches of yard were full of disabled vehicles, trash, cast-off furnishings. Still higher, a small business district contained mostly dead store-fronts and empty sidewalks. Even the equipment in a playground had been vandalized.

Matt drove slowly through the business district, looking for Alta Street, found it at the very end, and turned uphill again. The homes there were of Victorian vintage—mostly modest, but larger and in better repair than the cottages below. At its end tall, black iron gates shielded a parklike area, and beyond rose the mansion he'd glimpsed from the freeway: three stories of forbidding gray, with iron railings, verdigrised copper gables, huge stained-glass windows, and balconies with trim as delicate as the icing on a wedding cake. Although it must have been built in the Victorian decades, it bore little resemblance to the recognizable styles of that era; if anything, it was a hodgepodge of architectural features that only a serious eccentric would incorporate into the same edifice. A sign on the gate identified it as the Talbot Mansion, now the Central Soledad County Public Library and Museum.

Matt studied it for a moment, wondering what kind of lunatics the Talbots had been to create such a place, then drove through the gate, parked in the small paved lot, and went inside. After an hour and a half he'd amassed a surprising amount of information about Gwen and her new life as Ardis Coleman.

He went to bed early that night but found he couldn't sleep, not even after the double shot of Wild Turkey he'd poured from the bottle he'd bought at a nearby liquor store. Finally he got up and dressed and drove back to Talbot's Mills. There he prowled the deserted streets, looking for…


He didn't know, so he kept walking until he found an open tavern in the half-dead business district—a small place with a single pool table and a jukebox playing country songs. Only three old men hunched over their drinks at the bar, and the bartender stood at its end, staring up at a small, blurry television screen. Matt ordered a beer and took it to a corner table, where dim light shone down from a Canadian Club sign.



On Sale
Jul 1, 2004
Page Count
368 pages

Marcia Muller

About the Author

Marcia Muller has written many novels and short stories. She has won six Anthony Awards, a Shamus Award, and is also the recipient of the Private Eye Writers of America's Lifetime Achievement Award as well as the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award (their highest accolade). She lives in northern California with her husband, mystery writer Bill Pronzini.

Learn more about this author