The arrival of big, ugly John C. Faith in a battered Porsche sends up warning flags throughout the small Northern California resort community of Pomo. No one trusts the stranger who refuses to talk about why he is there. And when a local beauty with questionable morals is found murdered, suspicion immediately falls on him. Condemned without a trial, Faith hides among Pomo’s outcasts and conducts his own investigation. But his hunt for the killer and the town’s hunt for him threaten to dredge up secrets best left uncovered in this powder keg of a town, exposing crimes and dark compulsions that can only lead to more violence and death.
A riveting thriller told from various points of view, A Wasteland of Strangers is an extraordinary feat of literary invention from one of noir fiction’s most acclaimed practitioners.
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A Wasteland of Strangers
By Bill Pronzini
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Bill Pronzini
All rights reserved.
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. Closedoff 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."
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 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.
"Brush Creek casino's a couple of miles down the east shore. You know about the Indian casinos here?"
"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 HiLo."
"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."
"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 Gunderson'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 lakefront cabins. That okay?"
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?CHAPTER 2
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-mâché 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.CHAPTER 3
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 chief's 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."
"No? Why is that?"
"No-parking zone. Trucks have to swing too wide to get around the corner with another vehicle at the curb."
"Curb's not marked. No sign, either."
"The curb is marked, you just have to look closely to spot it this time of day. White paint and lettering are mostly worn off—long overdue for remarking. There was a sign, too, up until a couple of weeks ago when a drunk driver knocked it down; we're still waiting for a replacement. You can see what's left of the pole there."
"Things don't get done as fast as they should sometimes." Rule of thumb in Pomo County nowadays, it seemed, no matter what needed doing or what had been requisitioned or how much prodding and cajoling public servants like myself were forced to indulge in.
"You know how it is."
"Oh yeah, I know how it is. Do I get a ticket?"
"Not if you move your car to a legal space."
One corner of his mouth lifted. If it was a smile, it had little humor and a bitter edge. He could tell from my uniform and badge what my rank was, and he thought he was being hassled. A man used to hassles, I thought. The official kind and probably the personal kind, too.
"You don't have a problem with that, do you?" I asked him.
"No problem at all."
"Good. We appreciate cooperation."
He went around the Porsche and opened the driver's door. "You have a nice evening now, Officer," he said, not quite snottily, and folded himself inside before I could answer. I stayed put until he'd pulled out onto Main, driving neither fast nor slow. He was maneuvering into a legal space halfway into the next block when I returned to the cruiser.
Ordinarily I'd have forgotten the incident then and there, as trivial and easily resolved as it'd been. But the stranger stayed on my mind all the way home. Something about him, an indefinable quality, made me uneasy. I couldn't put my finger on it and so it kept bothering me, a nagging little irritation like a splinter under a fingernail.CHAPTER 4
He came into the bank fifteen minutes before closing. There aren't many individuals who can take my attention away from Storm Carey for more than a few seconds, but he was one. At first it was his size and ugliness that held my gaze; then it was his actions. Instead of going directly to one of the tellers' windows, he walked around looking at things—walls, ceiling, floor, the arrangement of desks and tellers' cages, the location of the vault. And at Fred and Arlene in the cages, and me behind my desk, and Storm seated across from me with her long beautiful legs crossed and part of one stockinged thigh showing. But no more than a brief glance at each of us; his eyes didn't even linger on Storm. First Northern is an old bank as well as a small one, built in the twenties: rococo styling, black-veined marble columns and floors, dark, polished wood. That may have been what interested him. But the one thing he seemed to focus on longest was the open vault.
My God, what if he's planning to rob us?
Excerpted from A Wasteland of Strangers by Bill Pronzini. Copyright © 1997 Bill Pronzini. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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I've always been interested in how one person can affect an entire community. In my new novel, the arrival of a hulking stranger in a small California town triggers a series of bizarre events that include attempted rape and brutal murder. Who is John Faith? Why has he come here? And is he responsible for the escalating violence that threatens the town? You're never sure until the very end. My aim was to get readers engrossed in the mystery of John Faith by telling the story through a series of alternating viewpoints of more than a score of the town's residents. Above all else, I wanted this to be a 'good read,' a novel that keeps you turning the pages. And in the process, I also wanted to make some cogent comments on the realities of northern California today.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is another of Bill Pronzini’s intensive, commanding, explorations of current social ideas and concerns which move a national colloquy in many forums. But this is not a social treatise full of statistics. This is a moving, intense, crime novel, that will captivate and enthrall the reader. Take one large, dangerous looking, individual, John Faith, by name. He’s a traveler, a seeker, a man on the move. Insert this stranger into a small resort community during the off season. This community happens to be in northern California, but such are the author’s skills, it could be anywhere. It could be your hometown. John Faith is the immediate object of suspicion, because he’s a stranger and he doesn’t look like he belongs. His presence gradually reveals and widens long-standing cracks in the comfortable, biased attitudes and ideas of almost everyone in town. Why has this man come to town? What are his motives? His answers are enigmatic, and even at the end we are left with questions. John Faith’s encounters with the police chief, the bigoted lake-side resort owner, some local Native Americans, and a bartender or two, are like pebbles dropped in a placid pool. The ripples expand and expand until they reach the edge of the pool and die. Except in this case, the ripples grow larger, intersect and become irresistible waves that begin to tear at the base fabric of the town. This psychological thriller is tightly plotted, and intricately presented. It’s pace is irresistible. “A Wasteland of Strangers” is a thoughtful, satisfying crime novel. Artist Doug Henry has presented a handsome, evocative cover illustration. Highly recommended.