Authors: Bill Pronzini
THE OTHER SIDE
Also by Bill Pronzini
A Wasteland of Strangers
Nothing But the Night
In an Evil Time
Step to the Graveyard Easy
The Alias Man
The Crimes of Jordan Wise
THE OTHER SIDE
A NOVEL OF SUSPENSE
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Pronzini
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First U.S. edition 2008
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Printed in the United States of America by Quebecor World Fairfield
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
Table of Contents
HEN GEENA FINALLY LEFT him and filed for divorce, Fallon put the Encino house up for sale and took his last two weeks of vacation from Unidyne. Then he loaded the Jeep Liberty and drove straight to Death Valley.
Will Rodriguez was the only person he told where he was going. There was nobody else to tell, really. He had no close friends except for Will, and theirs was mostly a work-related friendship; and Timmy was three years gone now and his folks both dead, too. Geena could have guessed, of course. She knew him that well, though not nearly well enough to understand his reasons. She’d think the same thing she always did when he went to the desert. And she’d be wrong.
October was one of the Valley’s best months. All months in the Monument were good, even July and August when the midday temperatures sometimes exceeded 120 degrees and Death Valley justified its Paiute Indian name,
—ground afire. If a sere desert climate held no terrors for you, if you respected it and accepted it on its terms, the attractions far outweighed the drawbacks.
Still, he’d always been partial to October, the early part of the month, so in that sense Geena’s timing couldn’t have been better. The beginning of the tourist season was still a month away, daytime temperatures seldom reached 100 degrees, and the constantly changing light show created by sun and wind and clouds was at its most spectacular. You could stay in one place all day, from dawn to dusk—Zabriskie Point, say, or the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells—and with each ten-degree rise and fall of the sun, the colors of rock and sand hills changed from dark rose to burnished gold, from chocolate brown to purple and indigo and gray-black, with a spectrum of subtler shades in between.
It had been almost a year since he’d last been to the Valley. Much too long, but it had been a difficult year—the still-painful memories and the dying marriage and a heavy workload at Unidyne. He’d been alone on that last visit, as he was alone now; alone on the last dozen or so desert trips. Even before Timmy’s death, Geena had refused to come with him anymore. She’d never much cared for desert country, actively disliked Death Valley, and she’d used Timmy as an excuse: he was too young, there were too many hazards, he was better off at home with her. After the accident, she hadn’t needed an excuse anymore.
Well, he preferred being alone. Had always had loner tendencies, even during his stint in the army and the good early years with Geena before and after Timmy was born. The Valley was a place made for loners. You could share it only with someone who viewed it in the same perspective—not as endless miles of coarse, dead landscape but as a starkly beautiful wilderness teeming with life. To him it seemed almost sentient, as if deep within its ancient rock was something that approximated a soul.
He’d taken his time deciding where to go first on this trip. The Monument had more than three thousand square miles, second only among national parks to Yellowstone, and all sorts of terrain: the great trough of the Valley floor, with its miles of salt pan two hundred feet and more below sea level, its dunes and alluvial fans, its borate deposits and ancient borax works, its barren fields of gravel and broken rock, its five enclosing mountain ranges packed with hidden canyons, petroglyphs, played-out gold and silver mines, ghost towns.
Most of an evening had been spent with his topos, the topographical maps put out by the U.S. Geological Survey, before he finally settled on the Funeral Mountains and the Chloride Cliffs area. The Funerals formed one of the eastern boundaries, and their foothills and crests were laden not only with a variety of canyons but with the ruins of the Keane Wonder Mill and Mine and the gold boomtown of Chloride City.
He left the Jeep north of Scotty’s Castle near Hells Gate, packed in, and stayed for three days and two nights. The first day was a little rough; even though regular gym workouts had kept him in good shape, it takes a while to refamiliarize yourself with desert mountain terrain after a year away. The second day was easier. He spent that one exploring Echo Canyon, then tramping among the thick-timbered tramways of the Keane and the decaying mill a mile below, where twenty stamps had processed eighteen hundred tons of ore a month in the 1890s. On the third day he climbed to the Funerals’ sheer heights and Chloride City—no strain at all by then.
It was a good three days. He saw no other people except at a distance. Much of the tension and restless dissatisfaction slowly bled out of him. He could feel his spirits lifting again.
Geena was on his mind only once in those three days. Eleven years of marriage, all they’d shared and suffered through, and now she seemed almost a stranger. He didn’t blame her for the long-running affair she’d finally admitted to, or leaving him to be with the other man; he hadn’t been there for her, any more than she’d been there for him, in three long years. Maybe things would have been different if they’d had another child, but she wouldn’t consider it, kept insisting she couldn’t bear another loss after Timmy and the earlier miscarriage. There was a time when he’d thought so, but that was long past. The simple truth was, their life together had died when Timmy died. Now that they’d finally admitted it to each other, the only emotions he felt, and was sure she felt, were sadness and relief.
It was the morning of the third day, as he stood atop one of the crags looking out toward the Needle’s Eye, when he thought of her. There was no wind and the stillness, the utter absence of sound, was so acute it created an almost painful pressure against the eardrums. Of all the things Geena hated about Death Valley, its silence—“void of silence,” an early explorer had termed it—topped the list. It terrified her. On their last trip together, when she’d caught him listening, she’d said, “What are you listening
? There’s nothing to hear in this godforsaken place. It’s as if everything has shut down. Not just here—everywhere. As if all the engines have quit working.”
Right. Exactly right. As if all the engines have quit working.
That, more than anything else, summed up the differences between them. To her, the good things in life, the essence of life itself, were people, cities, constant scurrying activity. She worshipped sensation and speed, needed to hear the steady, throbbing engines of civilization in order to feel safe, secure, alive.
He needed none of those things, needed
to hear the engines. Silence was what he craved. This kind of silence, nurturing, spiritual, that let him feel as he felt nowhere else, at ease with himself and his surroundings. It was the other kinds he hated, the cold, hurtful, destructive kind—the long, loud silences of a shattered marriage, the empty silence of a child’s grave. They were worse than the thunder of engines.
He remembered something else Geena had said to him once, not so long ago. “When we were first together you were a fighter, Rick, a soldier in and out of uniform. You welcomed challenges, you faced problems and responsibilities head-on. But after Timmy died you just seemed to give up. Now all you want to do is run away and hide from the world.”
Well, there was some truth in that. He’d been a fighter once, yes—the army had honed that tendency in him—but it had been more of necessity than choice. Like his drift into corporate security, the only well-paying job his four years of MP duty qualified him for, but work that didn’t really satisfy him. He’d never felt comfortable in mainstream society. Cities and suburbs made him feel hemmed in, even though he’d lived in one or another most of his life. Too many complications, pressures, distractions. Traffic-clogged freeways, urban blight, random violence, gang-infested neighborhoods like the one he’d grown up in in East L.A. Those, and all the other by-products of what was laughingly called modern civilization: global warming, Nine-Eleven and the looming threat of terrorism, the stupid Iraq War.
Timmy’s death had eroded the bonds that not only held him to Geena but to the hostile urban environment and a lifestyle that was mostly of her choosing and direction. Disenchanted, disaffected—he was both of those things. An escapist, too? Not the way Geena had meant it. He didn’t want to hide from the world; he wanted to narrow it down to a better fit for Rick Fallon. And that meant open spaces, places without people, places without engines.
The desert country had a way of simplifying things, reducing life to an elemental and much more tolerable level. It cleansed your mind, allowed you to think clearly. Allowed you to breathe. It was in his blood; it kept calling him back. The one place he truly belonged.
This wasn’t a new thought by any means. It was the main reason he’d taken the time off. Spend a couple of weeks in and around the Valley, reassure himself that the pull was strong enough to hold him permanently. And then quit Unidyne, quit Encino, start a whole new life. He wouldn’t be able to live in the Monument—permanent residence was limited to a small band of Paiutes and Park Service employees—but he could find a place in one of the little towns in the Nevada desert, Beatty or Goldfield or Tonopah. Hire out as a guide, do odd jobs—whatever it took to support himself. Money wouldn’t be a problem anyway; once the house and the rest of their joint possessions sold, he’d have several thousand dollars to fall back on.
Late that third afternoon he hiked back to where he’d left the Jeep. It had a sophisticated alarm system and he used the Club to lock the steering wheel, but they were habitual, city-bred precautions. He’d never had any trouble with thieves or vandals out here.
Before he crawled into his sleeping bag he sifted through the topos again to pick his next spot. He wasn’t sure why he chose Manly Peak. Maybe because he hadn’t been in the southern Panamints, through Warm Springs Canyon, in better than three years. Still, the region was not one of his favorites. A large portion of the area was under private claim, and the owners of the talc mines along the canyon took a dim view of trespassers. You had to be extra careful to keep to public lands when you packed in there.
Just before dawn he ate a couple of nutrition bars for breakfast, then pointed the Jeep down Highway 178. The sun was out by the time he reached the Warm Springs Canyon turnoff. The main road in was unpaved, rutted, and talc-covered—primarily the domain of eighteen-wheelers passing to and from the mines. You needed at least a four-wheel-drive vehicle to negotiate it and the even rougher trail that branched off of it. He wouldn’t have taken a passenger car over one inch of that terrain. Neither would anyone else who knew the area or paid attention to the Park Service brochures, guidebooks, and posted signs.
That was why he was so surprised when he came on the Toyota Camry.
He’d turned off the main canyon road ten miles in, onto the trail into Butte Valley, and when he rounded a turn on the washboard surface there it was, pulled off into the shadow of a limestone shelf. No one visible inside or anywhere in the immediate vicinity.
He brought the Jeep up behind and went to have a look. All four of the Toyota’s tires were intact, a wonder given the road condition, but the car was no longer drivable. A stain that had spread out from underneath told him that the oil pan had been ruptured. The Camry had been there a while, at least two days; the look and feel of the oil stain proved that. He had to be the first person to come by since it was abandoned, or it wouldn’t still be sitting here like this. Not many hikers or off-roaders ventured out this way in the off-season, the big ore trucks used the main canyon road, and there weren’t enough park rangers for daily backcountry patrols.
The Toyota’s side windows were so dust- and talc-caked that he could barely see through them. He tried the driver’s door, found it unlocked. The interior was empty except for two things on the front seat. One was a woman’s purse, open, the edge of a wallet poking out. The other was a piece of lined notepaper with writing on it in felt-tip pen, held down by the weight of the purse.
Fallon slid the paper free. On top was a date—Wednesday, two days ago—and the word “Dear” scratched out, as if the writer had decided there was no one to address the note to. Below that were several lines of shaky backhand printing. He sensed what it was even before he finished reading it.
I can’t go on anymore. There’s no hope left. Court Spicer and his man Banning have seen to that. I’m sorry for everything and sick of all the hurt and trouble and it’s too painful knowing I might never see Kevin again.
He couldn’t quite decipher the scrawled signature. Casey or Cassy something. He opened the wallet and fanned through the card section until he found her driver’s license. The Camry had California plates and the license had also been issued in the state. Casey Dunbar. Age 32. San Diego address. The face in the ID photo was attractive, light-haired, unsmiling.
The wallet contained half a dozen snapshots, all of a boy eight or nine years old. Fallon felt a wrenching sensation when he looked at them. The boy might have been Timmy if he’d lived to that age—different features but the same lean, smiling face, the same mop of fair hair falling over his forehead.
Nothing else in the wallet told him anything. One credit card was all Casey Dunbar owned. And twelve dollars in fives and singles.
Fallon returned the wallet to the purse, folded the note in there with it, and slid the purse out of sight under the seat. A set of keys dangled from the ignition; he removed them, locked the car before he pocketed them. In his mouth was a dryness that had nothing to do with the day’s gathering heat.
If she’d brought along a gun or pills or some other lethal device, she was long dead by now. If she’d wanted the Valley to do the job for her, plenty enough time had elapsed for that, too, given the perilous terrain and the proliferation of sidewinders and daytime temperatures in the midnineties and no water and the wrong kind of clothing.
Yet there was a chance she was still alive. No carrion feeders in sight—a favorable sign, but not conclusive. It all depended on where she was.
All right. Alive or dead or dying, she had to be found, and quickly. He hurried back to the Jeep for his Zeiss binoculars.