Authors: Bill Pronzini
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For all the friends who have become strangers
And how am I to face the odds
Of man's bedevilment and God's?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
âA. E. Housman
Mineral Springs, Nevada.
Small town off Highway 80 in the heart of the state's northern gold mining districtâsomething of a desert boomtown now with the current price of gold at $1,250 per troy ounce and a dozen nearby working mines large and small producing millions of ounces per year. County seat of sparsely settled Bedrock County, population 4,300 at the last census, its nearest neighbor of any size, Battle Mountain, more than thirty miles distant. Blue-collar place, most of its residents involved in the mining industry or in cattle ranching and agriculture. Two small casinos, one licensed brothel, and a clutch of motels on its six-block-long main drag, small businesses on sidestreets and in outskirt strip malls, and a big box-type mall under construction near the highway. Not much else to recommend it unless you were into prospecting, off-road vehicle runs, exploring the crumbling ruins of old ghost towns, or yearned to have a fling at backcountry gambling.
That was pretty much all I knew about Mineral Springs, courtesy of Tamara and the Internet, when I pulled in there at six-thirty on a cold, clear Tuesday night in late autumn. The four-hundred-and-fifty-mile drive from San Francisco had taken more than eight hours, with a couple of rest and refueling stops along the way, and I was gritty-eyed, all-over stiff, and pretty damn weary. Too old to be making long, straight-through drives like this. What my body craved now that it was over was something to eat and then eight or nine hours of uninterrupted sleep. But it would be a while before I crawled into bed for the night. Maybe a long while.
I drove down Main Street, past the neon glitter of the casino signs, looking for the Goldtown MotelâMineral Springs' best-rated hostelry, according to Tamara's searches. There were stop signs at the intersections, but no stoplights. No parking meters, either, that I could see. As early as it was, most of the side-street storefronts were dark. The casinos, the motels, three or four restaurants and taverns, the brothel, a service stationâthey were the only businesses that seemed open behind bright winks and shimmers of neon and sodium vapor lighting.
What would it be like to live in an isolated place like this? Not bad for some, but for a woman like CherylÂ â¦
I put the thought out of my head. Now that I was here I could feel a thin edge of tension building in me that had nothing to do with the long hours behind the wheel, and I didn't need to ramp it up with idle speculation.
The Goldtown was on the fourth block east, a Hail Mary pass's distance from the state-sanctioned whorehouse called Mama Liz's. Two stories built in an L shape around an asphalt parking area and shaded by a small oasis of trees; an oversized neon sign in front emblazoned its name on the night sky. Otherwise there was nothing to distinguish it from a small-town motel anywhere in the country.
The lobby was small and cramped, but they'd still found room for one of Nevada's ubiquitous one-armed bandits. A middle-aged woman with carrot-colored hair located the reservation Tamara had made for me and said effusively after I'd registered, “We have you in number nine, ground floor rear, one of our nicest rooms.” Right. The accolade was accurate only if you considered a blandly decorated unit marred by a couple of wall dents, a somewhat threadbare carpet, and an armchair with a taped tear in the seat to be a nice room.
It was clean, though, thanks to such liberal use of Lysol that the air seemed choked with its odor. In the bathroom I doused my face with cold water, scrubbed my eyes free of grit. The tub-and-shower looked inviting, but I didn't give into the lure just yet. The double bed turned out to be comfortable if you liked sleeping on a mattress as hard as a brick bench. Not even a slight give when I sank down on it.
I half expected not to get a signal when I flipped open my cell phone, but life is full of little surprises. I tapped my home number, and as if she'd been waiting close to the phone, Kerry answered on the second ring.
“Well, I'm in Mineral Springs,” I said.
“Good. I was starting to worry a little.” Another electronic surprise: her voice came clear and sharp. “How was the trip?”
“Long and tedious. But uneventful.”
“Uneventful is always the best kind.” Pause. “Have you seen her yet?”
“No. Just checked into the motel. I wanted to check in with you first. Everything okay there?”
“Fine.” Another pause. “I hopeâ¦”
“What do you hope?”
“That you can do something to help her. That you haven't traveled all that distance for nothing.”
“So do I. But now that I'm hereÂ â¦ I don't know, I'm not so sure it was the right decision.”
“Not because it means seeing Cheryl again, I don't mean that. The SOS itself, the situation, the nature of the crimes. A mining town in the middle of nowhere, a place full of strangersÂ â¦ I'm out of my element.”
“You've worked in rural environments before,” Kerry said. “You know people and you know your business.”
“Not this kind of business.”
“Are you trying to talk yourself out of going ahead with thisânow, after driving four hundred and fifty miles?”
“No. It's too late for that.”
“Well, you seem to be having second thoughts.”
“Not really,” I said, which wasn't quite true. “I'm just tired, that's all.”
Kerry knew when to let a subject drop. She said, “Call me again when you can. And don't forget your promise.”
The promise, a solemn one made to her after I'd had yet another close brush with lethal violence in September, was that I'd do everything in my power to stay out of harm's way in the future. I said, “Don't worry, I won't forget.”
That was all except for an exchange of good-byes. I wanted to tell her I loved her, but it wouldn't have sounded right under the circumstances; we rarely exchanged endearments over the phone. She knew I loved her, she didn't need constant reassurance any more than I did of her love for me. And she knew, too, that she had nothing to worry about, now or ever, where my fidelity was concerned.
I unpacked my suitcase, stripped, took a hot shower to get rid of the driving fatigue, put on a clean shirt and slacks. And then went out and sat once more on the brick-hard bed.
“I know I have no right to ask for your help after what happened twenty years ago, but there's no one here I can turn to and I don't know anyone else. You're my only hope.”
Cheryl's voice on the agency phone. An anxiety-ridden voice that I hadn't recognized until she identified herself. What had I felt then? Surprise, a few moments of unbelief and confusion until she explained why she was calling after two decades of silence. But that was all. No pangs of nostalgia, no pulse quickening, no emotional reaction of any kind. Too much time had passed. What had been and almost been between us belonged to a part of my life that seemed so remote now it was as if someone else had lived it.
“It's not me I'm asking for, it's my son Cody. He's only nineteen, he's all I have in the world. He didn't do what they say he did, but no one believes him except me. I know that sounds like a mother's blind faith but I swear to you he's innocent.”
Only nineteen and all she had. She must have borne the boy a year or two after the tragedy that ended our relationship. Cheryl Rosmond, she'd said on the phoneâher maiden name. Married and divorced? Single mother all along? She hadn't volunteered any explanations and I hadn't asked.
“I'm at my wit's end. Desperate. It took all the courage I have to make this call. I've never begged for anything in my life, but I'm begging now. Please, please help my son.”
It was the kind of distraught plea I'd heard in one form or another a dozen times before, and invariably my response had been the same: yes. Wise or foolish, right or wrong, always the same. I'd be lying if I said the personal angle had nothing to do with it in this case, but it was not the deciding factor. My profession, bottom line, is helping people in trouble. It's not just a job to me; even now, semiretired and tilting toward geezerhood, it's what I live for. But even that was not the deciding factor.
I hadn't given my yes to Cheryl immediately. Put her off, saying I'd have to see about clearing my schedule and that I would call her back and let her know ASAP. I checked with Tamara to make sure the agency could do without me for a whileâno problem there, I was only working part-time anywayâand then I called Kerry at Bates and Carpenter. I caught her at a not overly busy time, drove over there, and told her in the privacy of her office about Cheryl's call, dilemma, request.
It was not that I was looking for her permission to help out an old lover; we don't have that kind of relationship. And she already knew about my brief affair with Cheryl because I'd told her; we do have that kind of relationship. No, the reason for the discussion was that I wanted to be sure leaving her for an extended period of time on an iffy, personal-angled investigation in another state was the right thing for her.
It had been four months since her monstrous near-death experience in the Sierra foothills, an even more terrifying ordeal than her breast cancer; but her recovery had been difficult and her emotional state was still tender, if no longer fragile. Only recently had she been able to leave our condo on her own, resume her vice-president's duties at the ad agency rather than conducting them by computer and telephone. She said she was all right, her actions and reactions indicated it. Both Emily and I thought so, too, but Emily is only an ingenuous fourteen and I didn't completely trust my feelings on the matter because I'd suffered through Kerry's ordeal myself.
We talked things over, all the pros and cons of my leaving for an unknown length of time, revisiting a part of my past, taking on what promised to be a difficult and, in all likelihood, futile job. The trouble Cheryl's son was in was the nasty kind that arouses volatile emotions in a community, there seemed to be some pretty solid, if circumstantial, evidence against him, and my California investigator's license was not valid in Nevada. Was it worth the time and effort? Kerry knew before I said so that I felt I had to try, and that the only reason I was hesitating was my concern for her. Knew me so well. At the end of twenty minutes, convincingly supported and reassured, I went back to the office and called Cheryl and told her what she'd been hoping to hear.