Point Deception


By Marcia Muller

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New York Times bestselling author, Marcia Muller, brings you another thrilling mystery with her famous private investigator, Sharon McCone.

The body of an woman washes up near Point Deception, California–a day after she was spotted near her broken-down car on the highway. Deputy Sheriff Rhoda Swift worries the woman's brutal rape and murder will resurrect fears from the unsolved massacre of two families 13 years before. When Rhoda investigates with journalist Guy Newberry, a shocking truth will test how far she is willing to go for justice.


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A Preview of Someone Always Knows


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A number of persons, knowingly or otherwise, have provided inspiration for or assistance with this novel. I'd like to thank:

Sharon DeLano, for not allowing my imagination get the best of me while we were stranded by the side of California Highway 1.

Bette and Jim Lamb and Peggy and Charlie Lucke, for setting the scary ideas to brewing on our first trip to "Cascada Canyon."

Robin Reese, for Chrystal.

Detective Lieutenant Bruce Rochester of the Sonoma County, California, Sheriff's Department, for technical assistance.

Melissa Ward, again, for her research talents.

Soledad County, California, is a fictional creation, sandwiched between Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. I apologize to my neighbors on the coast for so drastically altering its configuration. Sometimes we writers can't resist playing God.


Friday, October 6

4:00 P.M.

Things look different when you're scared. And I'm scared now. Little Chryssie's scareder than she's been her whole life. Jude told me I'd never get away with it, but I thought I had, and then somebody saw me up there in all those trees, and now this damn Mercedes is dead on the coast highway where my cell phone won't work. God, I'm in trouble. Making Jude right. Again. Always.

Yeah, things look different. On the drive up from where I stayed outside San Francisco last night—not a lot of miles, but over four hours on these twisty roads—the sea was pretty, sparkly, deep blue. Made me feel good. Still is pretty, but now I don't want to look at it. All I can think is that people drown in there. And the pines in the canyon—walking through them, I felt like a little girl in church. Then the memories came back, and I felt like a little girl, all right. But not in church. No way.

Jesus, this is an awful place to break down. Turnout, but it's on a blind curve, and I could just barely get the car off the road before it conked out for good. Middle of nowhere, nothing on the bluff but pampas grass and burned tress from when they must've had a forest fire. Nothing but more trees on the other side of the highway. Dead-looking truck over by the fence.

Lots of traffic, but nobody'll stop to help me. Hood's up, they can see I'm broke down, but does anybody give a shit? No. They just keep zooming by in their sports cars and campers and SUVs, having a good time. Acting like I don't exist.

4:35 P.M.

Sheriff's car. Woman driving. For sure she'll stop.

Nope. She's around the curve already. Gone. Our tax dollars at work, like Leo used to say. Well, not my tax bucks. Little Chryssie don't pay no taxes in California.

So what do I do now? I'm a great big target sitting here by the highway. Whoever saw me in the canyon knows what I look like, maybe what the car looks like, but I didn't see them. They could drive right up and I wouldn't know who they were or what hit me. I could be dead before—

Damn this car! Damn it!

Okay, come on, calm down, think now. You're not playing this smart.

Maybe they didn't see me clear up there. Or see what I was doing. And even if they did, it might not've meant anything to them. Just because somebody hollers at you…

Two choices. Stay by the car and take my chances. Walk away and maybe take a bigger chance. Two choices, but either way the first thing to do is lose the evidence. Lose it good like it was before.

4:49 P.M.

So what've we got here? Pampas grass, big clump of it. Stuff just takes over, specially along this part of the coast. What did Jude always say about that? Something to do with the plants being scouts for an alien life-form, staking out the edge of the continent for the arrival of the mother ship. God, she could be weird sometimes! She said she did it on purpose to drive us crazy, but I think it might've been the dope talking.

Well, aliens got no use for what I'm gonna hide here. This pampas grass is fine for what I got in mind.

4:55 P.M.

Somebody coming! Cover it fast. There, that's good, real good.

Where the hell are they? Oh, over there by the cliff. Oriental guy and a white girl, climbing up the slope with a big cooler between them. They're fighting. Wind's blowing this way, I can hear every word. She says he's paranoid about Fish and Game. He tells her to shut up. She says she used to think things weren't working out between them because of their cultural differences, but now she knows it's because he's an asshole. Jesus, they sound like Jude and Leo.

I could hide here till they're gone, but maybe they'll call a tow truck for me. Leave a message for Jude that I got in and out okay, too. That way I wouldn't have to take my chances hitching on the highway.

If they ask, I'll tell them I came down here to take a pee.

5:43 P.M.

It's getting cold, even inside the car with the windows rolled up. Better dig that sweater outta the trunk. Jesus, I wish the tow truck would come.

Keep on wishin'. Pretty woman with the weird Oriental guy said it might take two hours. Don't they have Triple A garages up here in the boonies? Don't their cars ever break down? That old pickup of theirs looked like it was ready to.

Oriental guy sure acted spooky. Wonder if he saw what I was really doing in that clump of pampas grass. Nah, they were too far away, dragging that big cooler. Bet they had something illegal in there. Drugs off some boat outta Mexico? Nah, nobody'd make a drop while it's still light. Didn't the girl say something about Fish and Game? I read someplace there's a lot of abalone poaching going on up here. Bet that's what they were doing. Take more than the limit, sell it to some restaurant, make big bucks.

That's okay, though. None of my business. What matters is they said they'd make my calls. Meantime the evidence is gone till I can come back for it. And little Chryssie's just a dumb tourist with car trouble.

Dumb, anyway. Real dumb.

5:47 P.M.

A pickup, and it's slowing down. Old man driving. Slowing down some more… yeah, to stare at my ass while I'm leaning into the trunk. I don't believe it! See anything you like, buddy? Now he's speeding up. Old fool doesn't know I'd be happy to give him a piece if he'd help me.

Wish I'd packed warmer clothes, but how could I know it'd be so fuckin' cold on the coast? Was even warm in San Francisco. Lucky I dragged this old sweater of Leo's along.

There, that's better. I love this sweater. Hangs all the way down to my knees. I'll crawl in the car, lock the door, wait.

6:29 P.M.

Weird how the fog blows south, curls around the point, heads back north at me. Ugly, dirty-looking stuff. Makes me feel lonesome.

Well, what's new about that, Chryssie? When haven't you felt lonesome.

At least I'm warm now, even though I'm scareder than ever. It's the dark coming on that's spooking me. The dark and the fog and every set of headlights that flashes round the bend. There's no radio reception and I forgot to bring any tapes along and I sure as hell don't want to think about the stuff I remembered in the canyon.

An unexamined life is not worth living, Chrystal.

Jude's voice. It's like she came along inside my head. She was always nagging at me with lines like that, but I never noticed her doing any deep thinking of her own. And besides the canyon, what is there to think about? Leo, long dead and all I've got of him is this ratty sweater? Jude, sick and needing me like I never needed her? Dave, who's into bondage, or John, who talks about killing his parents, or Timothy, who always cries? Sean, who seriously likes to hurt women? The other pathetic middle-of-the-night voices?

No, thanks. I'd rather count cars on the highway.

Camper, going north. SUV tailgating it. Sports car hugging the southbound curve and disappearing in the fog. Big white pickup, jacked up on oversized tires, a bar of lights on top of the cab. Got a lotta those here in redneck country. I've seen at least ten just like it. Another camper. Another. Got a lotta them to.…

6:59 P.M.

Fifty cars later, and I can't keep from thinking. About that last night in the canyon. About Jude and Leo, too. Him I miss in a weird way, but her—God, she's been a pain in the ass. Some people die graceful, but not Jude, oh no. Bitch, whine, erase the few good memories I had of her.

And that canyon… What was it Jude said? Oh yeah: "We all have a place that our minds return to long after it's been altered by time and its inhabitants are gone. The canyon is mine."

I oughta remember, she said it three times Saturday night. Real proud of herself for thinking of it, even if she was in a bad way. Still claims she's a poet. Poet, my ass!

It's been almost two hours now, and no tow truck. He's gotta be coming soon. I can't stay in the car much longer. I'm so scared my skin feels tight, and it's hard to breathe. I'll stand outside for a while, duck down if anybody but the tow truck stops.

Funny, now I'm more scared of what's inside of me than what might be outside in the dark.

7:10 P.M.

Pickup, turn signal on, slowing down. Help, or—?

No help. No nothing. It's speeding up and the signal's off. Man and a woman inside, heading south. They saw me, I didn't duck in time.

Jesus, do I look that scary? I mean, I'd never pass for no Girl Scout, but I don't look like an escaped con either. And this Mercedes sports car is about as respectable as cars get.

I'm starting to hate this place. Really hate it. What's wrong with the people here?

7:45 P.M.

God, it's dark, except when a car comes along. I hate the dark, always sleep with a light on—

Something coming. Get ready to duck. But wait a minute—

It's the tow truck! About time, dammit.

Lights shining in my eyes. Come to Chryssie. And don't make no excuses about how long it took. Just get me outta this miserable hole.

He's climbing down, walking over here. Big and slow and probably stupid. He's not saying anything and he's not looking under the hood. He's—

Oh no! No!

Oh my God not this!


Date: October 6,2000     Shift: 3     Beat: 2

Deputy: Swift, R.A.

Car: 460

Time out: 16:00     Time in: 24:17

Mi out: 54,021     Mi in: 54,179

Condition out: good     Condition in: slow leak, right front tire

Shotgun out: 4 rounds     Shotgun in: 4 rounds

Time: 16:03

Description/Location of Observation/Dispatch: Disp:911 disconnect, 1371 Ridge Rd., County

Activity: Misdial

Time: 16:36

Description/Location of Observation/Dispatch: Disp: shots fired, vicinity Mar Vista & Sheep Ranch Rd., County

Activity: Adolescents, transferred to parents' custody

Time: 17:55

Description/Location of Observation/Dispatch: Obs: traffic accident, Hwy 1, SP

Activity: Transferred to CHP

Time: 18:22

Description/Location of Observation/Dispatch: Disp: trespassing, 4221 Hwy 1, DH

Activity: Subject had left the area

Time: 19:49

Description/Location of Observation/Dispatch: Disp: unwanted individual, CL Pier

Activity: Subject believed he was Jesus. Transferred by ambulance to County Hospital.

Time: 20:59

Description/Location of Observation/Dispatch: Disp: disturbing the peace, 120 Lafferty Rd., DH

Activity: Partygoers warned

Time: 23:17

Description/Location of Observation/Dispatch: Disp: citizen report of DUI, Hwy 1, DH

Activity: BOLO issued

Time: 23:28

Description/Location of Observation/Dispatch: Obs: disturbing the peace, SP Hotel parking lot

Activity: Subjects warned to disperse

Time: 23:47

Description/Location of Observation/Dispatch: Obs: abandoned vehicle, Point Deception Turnout

Activity: Tagged

Saturday, October 7

"Well, aren't you a lovely sight."

Sheriff's Deputy Rhoda Swift leaned closer to her bathroom mirror, not liking what she saw. Puffy skin, reddened eyes, dark circles—the evidence was all there.

"Tied one on, didn't you, lady?"

Seven years ago after Zach finally moved out, she'd been shocked when she realized she'd started talking to herself. Now she accepted these conversations as routine, even enjoyed them. But not on mornings like this.

Granted, her bad mornings were seldom due to excessive drinking. Zach's leaving had forced her to take a good hard look at her use of both booze and pills, and for two years after that she'd touched neither. She still shunned the pills, and her alcohol intake was normally limited to the occasional glass of beer or wine, but certain events on last night's patrol had tipped her carefully balanced scales, and this morning she'd have to confront an empty bottle beside the kitchen sink.

Worse than the evidence of her self-indulgent behavior was the image that had filled her dreams: that of a slender young woman in cutoff jeans and a blue tube top standing beside a disabled sports car, her long blonde hair blowing in the breeze.

Rho had spotted the car at the Point Deception turnout at 4:35 P.M. yesterday while returning north along Highway 1 from a routine call. Old black Mercedes, two-seater, vintage early eighties, body in good condition, but problems under the raised hood. Driver, she thought, must be off getting a tow truck. She'd note it in her log so the morning shift officer would know to tag it if it hadn't been removed by then.

She'd driven past, looking for the mileage marker, when she saw the woman leaning against the Mercedes' rear bumper, arms folded against the chill on the air, dressed all wrong for this changeable climate. Probably had more money than good sense. Bought a nice classic car, then didn't maintain it. Even if she had a cell phone, it wouldn't work on this remote stretch, so now she was stranded, undoubtedly without food or water, and too lazy to hike to one of the houses scattered over this sparsely populated area. Rich people!

Rho noted the marker's number and pulled over on the shoulder to let a logging truck pass before making a U-turn toward the disabled vehicle, but the radio interrupted her.

"Unit four-five-zero."

She keyed the mike. "Four-five-zero."

"What's your location?"

"One-half mile north of Point Deception turnout."

"Proceed to intersection of Mar Vista and Sheep Ranch Road. Ten-five-seven, Code Two."

Ten-five-seven: firearms discharged. Code Two: urgent.

The twisting in her stomach was no longer knife sharp, as it had been for years after she responded to her first call of that type. But the tingle in her throat and quick choking sensation—she shouldn't have that reaction.

After all, a tragedy like that couldn't happen again.

And of course it couldn't, she thought now in morning's sensible light. Last night's 10-57 had borne no resemblance to the one which triggered the six-year binge of drinking and pill taking that culminated in her losing her husband. Just a couple of teenagers taking out mailboxes with their father's Model 12. She'd lectured them and hauled them home for another lecture that began before she was out the door. Still, she'd allowed her preoccupation with that call and the others that followed to prevent her from checking on the woman at Point Deception until her shift was nearly over, and when she'd arrived there the Mercedes was still in the turnout, its hood raised, but its driver was gone.

A routine stop, nothing irregular about the situation, so why had she yielded to the compulsion to drink when she got home? And why had the woman's image been superimposed upon the landscape of her already troubled dreams?

Of course Rho knew the answer: It was the time of year when, for her, everything took on a disturbing and distorted shape. Five days from now—October 12—marked the thirteenth anniversary of that first 10-57, and the mass murder in Cascada Canyon.

Guy Newberry leaned toward the motel room mirror to inspect the nick he'd just made on his chin and realized his hands were shaking. He hadn't slept well the night before, owing to the strange bed, the unaccustomed sound of the sea, and too much fried food and beer for dinner. And each time he'd awakened, it was with the nagging sense of something left undone, with potential serious consequences.

He gave up on a smooth shave, pressed a wad of toilet paper to his chin, and went to stand on the room's small balcony. Nine thirty in the morning, and the fog was lifting. It looked as though it would be another beautiful day. So why the unsettled feeling—?

That was it: the girl with the broken-down car he'd spotted by the roadside some fifteen miles south of town.

It had been around four forty-five when he saw her leaning against her black Mercedes. He eased up on the accelerator of his rental car and assessed the situation as he cruised past—a game he had often played on long driving trips, and one that kept his journalistic skills honed to their customary fine edge.

The subject: Young, probably in her early twenties; pretty in a hard, streetwise way. Argumentative set of jaw, defiant tilt of head, posture sullen yet potentially seductive. In short, trouble.

The setting: A turnout on the ocean side of the highway; asphalt pitted and broken, littered with cans, bottles, and other debris. Tumbledown split-rail fence barely blocking access to a long sloping plain dotted with burned-out trees and strange plants whose fluffy beige fronds swayed in the offshore wind. Sun-browned grass crisscrossed by deer tracks and footpaths. Old Chevy truck with a salt-caked windshield and pitted paint pulled close to the fence.

The problem: The Mercedes had broken down suddenly, so the girl barely had time to nurse it beyond the stripe dividing the turnout from the highway. She'd probably been there a while, and nobody'd stopped to help her. Nobody would stop, given her appearance, and certainly not Guy Newberry. He didn't need that kind of trouble. Besides, he had a reservation at the Sea Stacks Motel in Signal Port and was anxious to get registered, settled, and explore this new and potentially fertile territory.

As his view of the girl disappeared from the car's mirror Guy congratulated himself on his still-keen powers of observation. Even a three-year hiatus from the writing business hadn't appreciably impaired them. Perhaps the scene he'd just witnessed would play a small part in his upcoming saga of a town in trouble. A metaphor for—

You know, Guy, you really can be an asshole.

Diana's voice, spoken with humor. Her gentle reminder that he was about to fall victim to his own high opinion of himself.

"Okay," he said, "I'm an asshole. I suppose I should've stopped to help that girl, but she looks like she's got a major attitude problem."

And a major car problem.

"Stop nagging me. It's a sign of poor mental health for a man to drive along the highway holding a defensive conversation with a dead woman."

Well, what about that live woman back there?

He sighed, pulled onto the shoulder, and made a U-turn. It was hell, he thought, when the most lasting thing a man's wife had bequeathed him was a conscience.

Now, as the morning sun began to dapple the sea, Diana's voice nudged him again.

Apparently not that much of a conscience.

"I went back, didn't I? Wasn't my fault she was nowhere near the car."

You could've called out, looked for her.

"I could've, but I didn't. Good Samaritanism only goes so far."

Yes, you can be an asshole.

Rhoda Swift put on a pair of sweats, went out on the porch, and whistled for Cody. In good weather she made it a point to walk her property on the ridge above Signal Port—for exercise, but also to bask in the pride of ownership. She'd lived in the brown-shingled cottage on ten acres for two years and still couldn't believe it was hers. The house needed a new roof and cosmetic work, and the cost of a replacement septic tank loomed large in the near future, but there was a big chinaberry tree in the front yard, an apple orchard, woods, a stream, and what local real estate people—laughably, to Rho's way of thinking—called a filtered ocean view. On a clear day like this one, she could probably see the Pacific if she stood on tiptoe on the porch railing.

Cody came loping from a stand of pyracantha bushes, twigs caught in his ears, and fell in at Rho's side. The four-year-old blond Lab loved these walks and made numerous detours to check out sounds in the underbrush, interesting smells, and burrows that he hoped moles might be enticed from. Rho headed for the woods where the old boarded-up outhouse stood, crossed the stream, and wandered through the gnarled apple trees, where the air was pungent with last summer's windfalls. But what was usually a keen pleasure in her surroundings was spoiled by the intrusive image of the young woman at Point Deception. Guilt was what she was feeling, guilt over not helping her.

And guilt, her father—once also a deputy with the department—had often told her, was humanity's most wasteful emotion. "You're feeling guilty about something," he'd say, "take action. If you can't right one wrong, address another." She didn't always agree with Jack Antolini, but in this case he was a hundred percent correct.

"Come on," she said to Cody, "we're going to town."

The shabby red pickup truck almost didn't stop for Guy Newberry. He stepped back to the safety of the motel driveway, and the vehicle came to a screeching halt inches from where he would have been had he proceeded.

"Asshole," he muttered, and was about to give the driver a one-fingered salute when he saw she was very pretty: close-cropped black hair; small, fine-boned face; big momentarily horrified hazel eyes. A yellow Labrador retriever sat on the passenger's side, wearing its seat belt.

"Sorry!" the woman called.

He went over to the window, which was half rolled down, and patted the Lab's protruding snout. "That's okay. I wasn't paying attention either."

"Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm sure."

She gave him a faint smile and a wave of the hand before she shifted gears and drove on. Guy watched the truck until it turned into the parking lot of a small strip mall, noting the bumper sticker that said SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF'S DEPARTMENT. Then he angled across the highway to the Signal Port Hotel.

The two-story weathered frame building with a sagging front porch and balcony was easily the largest and most prosperous-looking in the half-mile-long business district. It no longer offered lodging, but its kitchen had been serving up hearty meals since 1877. That much he'd learned the previous evening when he'd stopped in for a few beers, fish-and-chips, and some local color.

He crossed the lobby to the dining room, a high-ceilinged space with a small gas-log fireplace and chrome-and-Formica tables and chairs reminiscent of the 1950s. No other customers were there, nor were there signs any had been. He sat at the table by one of the front windows, and after several minutes a surly-looking blonde waitress appeared, looking annoyed at his presence, and took his order. Across the lobby the bar was open, an optimistic sign advertising Saturday brunch, Bloody Marys and mimosas included, but from where he sat he saw no takers.

The scene in there had been pretty much the same the night before. When he'd expressed surprise to the bartender that business should be so slow on a Friday, the man said it was status quo after Labor Day. Signal Port had four bars, fewer than four hundred and fifty residents, and on weekends what tourists came through blew their money at Tai Haruru on Calvert's Landing Pier up north or down at Restless Waters in Westhaven. He, the barkeep, preferred it that way.


On Sale
Sep 6, 2016
Page Count
320 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