No Safe Ground by Julia Pomeroy is a thriller set in upstate New York about a female vet who's returned from Iraq with scars and a killer in pursuit (available March 18, 2013).
A mud-splattered black Town Car pulled up in front of the Hudson, New York, train station, and a man in a well-cut black suit scrambled out from the rear, unassisted. As soon as he slammed the door, the limo pulled away into a U-turn, tires squealing. The passenger stood on the sidewalk, briefcase in one hand, brushing himself off angrily with the other.
Unconcerned about the dust that had transferred itself from the back of his car to his passenger’s clothing, the driver took the limo up Columbia Street and out of town, northbound. Twenty minutes later, he drove slowly through the small village of Bantam, bypassing Main Street, and continued on. He slowed down again as he passed through the cluster of houses known as West Bantam and took a left on a narrow county road toward New Canaan. The trees formed a canopy over him at first, then dropped away as the road wound through fields and by farmhouses.
One last turn-off onto a dirt road. The farther he drove, the deeper into the woods he went and the lower the property values dropped.
The only car he passed was a dirty white wagon parked by the side of the road, a quarter of a mile from his house. Hikers, maybe, or prospective buyers looking at land.
Eventually he arrived at his short, rutted driveway. Home was a rundown seventies ranch, once dark red, now a grayish pink, sitting in a weed-ridden clearing. The garage was below ground level, the surface of the ramp cracked and pocked with holes, the overhead door frozen half-open with all the landlord’s unwanted possessions visible—crib parts, a playpen, bicycle wheels, and cardboard boxes piled haphazardly on top of each other.
Reynolds Packard climbed stiffly out of his limo. He was a man in his fifties, tall, built like an aging bull, with old, thick muscles in his neck and shoulders. He had the start of a paunch that pushed his belt low on his frame, making his legs look shorter than they actually were.
Like the man he had just dropped off, he wore a black suit, but his was cheap, the elbows and knees shiny and bagging. His pale blue eyes were hidden behind dark prescription glasses, and his white hair stood out from his head in a grown-out brush cut. Attached to his lower lip was a dirty-yellow soul patch. In his ears were small white earphone pods that, along with the glasses, made him look like a bodyguard for the president of a war-ravaged third-world country. The wires met and hung down on his chest, disappearing into his pocket.
Inside the house, the kitchen and living room shared the main space. A narrow hallway disappeared to the left toward the bedrooms. Pack pulled out the ear pieces and dropped his keys and mp3 player on the worn dining room table, took off his dark glasses, and stood still as his eyes adjusted to the change.
He was oblivious to it, but the place was dirty. The corners of the room were no longer angular, but rounded with years of compressed spider webs and hair. The stove was enameled yellow with food and liquids that had spilled and been baked to a hard finish. Across from the front door was a pair of sliding glass doors, filmed over and greasy. The place had the sour smell of unwashed clothes, mice. Used-up air.
He took a package of ground beef out of the fridge. He was standing at the kitchen counter, making himself a couple of loose patties of meat, when his phone rang. He listened as he prepared his food.
“Reynolds! Megan here,” a high, nasal voice began. “I’ve got an airport run for you tomorrow at 11:30 from the Hilton, please confirm. Also, we got a complaint from one of your rides this afternoon. Mel says to call as soon as you get this.”
Pack ignored her and went over to a tape deck that sat on a side table, two beef patties in his right hand. With his left, he maneuvered a cassette out of a library boxed set, and slid it into the machine. After the initial click and silence, a voice engaged and began to speak gently and firmly about personal potential. Pack stood still for a second, listening, then turned up the volume and walked toward the patio and slid open one of the glass doors. He had a small Hibachi on the patio. Tonight, like most nights, he would barbeque.
The deck was about twenty-five by thirty, ringed by a moat of weeds and shrubs, the encroaching woods only a short distance beyond. The land sloped gently down from the house, so the far edge of the deck was at least four feet off the ground. Once, there had been a short flight of rough-cut steps from the level wooden planking down to a lawn, but the grass hadn’t been cut in years, and the steps had long since rotted and broken through. The grill was on the patio, however, so he didn’t need the steps.
He was trying to decide if he would call Mel back, or just blow him off. Mel wouldn’t fire him; Pack was a good driver, had his own car, and showed up on time. The fare today was a jerk, shouting on his cell phone for the entire trip, only shutting up long enough to complain about the dusty seats. “Listen, bud,” Pack had finally said to him, “we’re in the goddamn country, okay?”
His mind on the passenger, he stepped onto the patio and slid the door closed, turning as he did so.
Straight into the barrel of a gun.
Pointed at him, close, not even six feet away. A big, ugly handgun.
He made a sound like a truncated bark. A chemical rush tore through him and all sounds around him ceased, as if he’d gone deaf. He threw his weight away from the gun, arms out to the side, and stumbled backwards.
No explosion came, and it took a few seconds for him to realize he was still alive. He saw the person behind the gun, hands together and arms extended forward, still aimed at him. Dressed in dark clothes, it was a small person or a child. A kid? “Jesus Christ!” Pack’s voice came out hoarse.
“Don’t move,” the gunman said in a voice tight with tension.
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Pack raised his hands in a gesture of compliance. He was still holding the raw meat, but it was now squeezed through his fingers.
He realized with shock that his intruder was a girl, or woman. She was holding the stainless steel pistol in a two-handed grip, legs apart, knees slightly bent. Businesslike. Her head was low behind the gun, as if she were taking aim at him. Her expression was hidden behind the gun barrel and her hands.
“Who are you?” she said, her voice harsh.
His heart was hammering heavily in his chest. He stammered, trying to get the words out. “I live here. Packard, Reynolds Packard.”
Slowly, she lowered her gun, so that it was now pointing at his groin instead of his head. She looked at him, expressionless, and said: “You’re Pack?”
“What the hell is this?” The raw meat fell on the deck. “Shit, look at that.”
“Don’t pick it up, don’t touch it.” She raised the gun again.
“Who the fuck are you, anyway?” he said, the wasted meat causing an unexpected surge of anger.
“You alone?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m alone! What’s it look like?”
“Are you armed?”
“Jesus Christ! No, no, I’m not armed.”
She slowly loosened the white-knuckle grip her left hand had around her right hand. He didn’t breathe until he saw her finger come out of the trigger guard.
She bent her elbows and pointed the gun skyward, as if she might change her mind and take a shot at him at any moment. “I’m Vida.” Her smile was stiff and arrogant.
“Who? You’re kidding, right?”
He stared at her, trying to understand what she was saying. “I’ve got to sit,” he said, more to himself than her. He grabbed the one and only deck chair, a frayed red and white folding number, and pulled it toward him. He sat down heavily, legs wide, head back, eyes closed.
Vida watched him. She cleared her throat. “I scared you, huh? I thought you were someone else.”
“Oh yeah? Like who?” He spoke without moving, his eyes still closed. “I should have you arrested. What are you, a junkie? In case you can’t tell, I’m broke. There’s nothing here worth taking. So you can get the hell out.”
The girl didn’t say anything. In the silence, they could both hear the drone of the self-help guru, coming from inside the house.
Finally, he sat up slowly and turned to look at her. He sounded tired. “Shit. You’re still here. So tell me, you come here to kill me?”
“No,” she said, looking affronted.
He took a deep breath. “Okay, then. I need a drink. Ah, god, I think my heart stopped there.” He stood up slowly, one eye on her gun hand. “I’m going inside to get a beer. Okay?”
She pointed her gun at him, more as emphasis than a threat. “No, stay. Sit. Don’t move. I’ll get the beer.”
He sat back down and she went inside, leaving the sliding door open, and watching him as she went. He leaned back and closed his eyes again, his breathing still erratic. “And turn off that fucking tape,” he called out, without moving. He could hear her moving around inside, then silence from the machine.
She came out a moment later and put the frosted can on the ground a few feet away from him.
He groaned and lifted out of his chair just enough to reach down for it. Then he sat back, cracked it open, and took a long pull. He sighed. Neither of them said a word for a full minute.
He was the first one to speak. “You say you’re Vida?” He asked the question as if the name itself was strange to him.
She gave a quick nod.
He looked at her carefully and took another swig of his beer. She was about five-foot-two, with dark brows that stood out against pale skin. Her eyes were a dark brown, sunken with something like fatigue. Her brown hair was pulled back at her neck, exposing a fresh scar on the left side of her face: starting at her hairline, it skirted her eye and disappeared at her jaw. Though the wound had been well repaired, it was recent, and still looked as though someone with a magic marker and poor motor skills had been let loose on her face.
“That was your white Subaru, right? Back a ways?” he said.
He shook his head, as if he were a fool not to have known. “Okay, let’s hear it. What do you want?”
“I need your help.”
He felt an urge to stand up and smack her, but he didn’t have the energy and she was still holding the gun. He made a sound that was distantly related to laughter. “You sure know how to ask nicely.”
“I didn’t hear you coming in, you surprised me.”
“That’s funny, too.”
“Hey, I said I was sorry.”
“Yeah? I must’ve missed it. Okay. Truce. You put that gun down, right now, on the floor. And move away from it.”
The girl hesitated. “What if you call the police?”
“Are you really Vida?”
“What, you want to see my ID?”
“If you are, I’m not going to turn in my own kid. Not yet, anyway.”
The girl still hesitated.
The man sighed, long and heavy. He picked up the raw meat, moving slowly so as not to startle her. “I was about to eat. You hungry?”
She glanced down at the red mess and her nostrils flared in disgust. “That’s gross.”
He pulled back his arm and threw the meat hard into the wooded area behind the house. “I meant the diner. One condition, though. The gun stays here.”
Copyright © 2013 Julia Pomeroy
Julia Pomeroy was born in Okinawa and spent her childhood in Africa. At eleven, her family moved to Rome, after which, she ended up in Manhattan, earning a Lit/Writing degree from Columbia and working as an actor and Italian interpreter. Fifteen years ago, she moved with her family to upstate New York and opened a restaurant, inspiring two crime novels, Dark End of Town and Cold Moon Home, about artsy waitress Abby Silvernale. No Safe Ground introduces Pack and Millie and is her debut thriller.