New morning on a waking city and a heaving dark sea. And on a boy, Matt Anthony, pedaling his bicycle up Pacific Coast Highway.
His fishing rod, strapped to the rack behind him, whips and wobbles in the air. A tackle box rattles and bounces beside it. He’s pedaling hard for Thalia Street, where the cop cars and a fire engine and an ambulance are clustered, lights flashing.
He skids to a stop on the sidewalk and props his bike against the wall of the corner surf shop. Hustles past the vehicles to the stairs leading down to the beach. Jams his hands into his poncho against the chill and joins the T-Street Surf Boys, who have gathered to watch the cops. Matt recognizes two of the surfers as just-graduated seniors from his high school—cool guys, friends of his sister—but they ignore him, wet suits slung over their shoulders and boards at their sides, all their attention on the dark beach below. The waves break almost invisibly, with overlapping echoes that end abruptly then repeat.
It’s hard for Matt to see what’s going on down there. But he’s a curious sixteen-year-old, so he clambers down the stairs to the beach, his rock-worn sneakers slapping on the concrete then thudding in the sand. He gets up close. Where he sees, through a knot of Laguna Beach cops standing in a loose circle, a pale girl lying faceup on a slab of rock. Her arms are spread and her hair is laced with seaweed. A black bomber-style jacket covers her middle.
Matt’s ears roar as they do when he sees something that causes strong emotion. It’s like rushing water.
A young officer jogs past him, his holster and duty belt clanking, and a blanket tucked under one arm. One of the other cops yanks the blanket from him and spreads it over the girl. Then he looks over at Matt. He’s Bill Furlong, the big LBPD sergeant who badgers and busts the hippies in town, cuffing and herding them, sometimes six or eight at a time, into a windowless white prisoner van the locals call Moby Cop.
The ambulance team trudges across the beach with a stretcher, pausing for Furlong, who advances on Matt with all his large authority. He’s got straight dark hair, heavy brows, and tan eyes. There is something bear-like about him.
“Matt,” says Furlong. “Is that who I think it is?”
“That’s Bonnie Stratmeyer,” says Matt. He feels as if the blood has drained from his face.
“How long have you been here?”
“Since just now.”
“How’d the fishing go?”
Furlong almost always asks about the fishing, and about Matt’s mother, brother, and sister. Less so about Matt’s father, Bruce, a former cop himself. Now Matt hears the waves slapping and watches the ambulance guys lift Bonnie Stratmeyer onto the stretcher. Facing each other they rise together, balancing their load.
Another wave pops sharply and the blanket slides off. Matt sees Bonnie’s yellow bikini and her hair spilling over the stretcher like a drowned animal. Two uniforms put the blanket back over her, then lay the black bomber jacket on top to keep it down. The roar in Matt’s head is back.
“She’s been missing almost two months,” says Furlong. “Did you know that?”
“Everybody knows that.”
Matt has seen her posters in the shop windows, read a story about her and other runaways in the News-Post. He’s never talked to her and now he realizes, with a strange recoil, that he never will. Bonnie was a brainy one, like his sister—honor roll students.
“Is Bonnie the type to go out swimming in the dark alone?” Furlong asks.
“I don’t know. She’s two years older than me.”
“Was she in-crowd, or more to herself?”
“Was she a head?”
“I don’t know.”
“But do you suspect she used drugs?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Matt, I want you to look behind you up at the landing where the surfers are standing. And tell me, do you think if you jumped from there it would kill you?”
Matt turns and considers. “If you hit a big rock I think it could.”
“Well, just yesterday a hippie chick tripping on LSD thought she could jump from the El Mar Hotel balcony, fly all the way across Coast Highway, and land on the sidewalk. She’s in the hospital now with more broken bones than you can count.”
Matt doesn’t know what to say. He purses his lips and nods.
“You still delivering the newspapers?”
“How’s your brother doing over in the jungle?”
“He’s still alive.”
“Say hello to your mom, Matt.”
Matt nods. Years ago, divorced Furlong tried to date his mom, but Julie Anthony would have none of him. Matt thought it was uncool to treat his mom like a potential girlfriend. Any mom. Furlong wears a wedding ring now. Matt has never liked nor trusted the man, and senses the sergeant knows this.
“I saw Julie out in Dodge City yesterday,” says Furlong.
Dodge City being a nickname for a few narrow streets out in Laguna Canyon where the rents are low and the hippies and artists and surfers and young freaks have taken root. The houses are mostly small and rickety, clustered amid the eucalyptus trees. At school, Matt hears tales of drugs being smuggled in and out, and of cops and the FBI staging stings and raids, making arrests, shooting at smugglers running into the canyon brush. He’s heard there’s a monkey chained to a tree. Dogs running wild and children running naked. The newspapers he delivers have Dodge City stories all the time.
LAGUNA POLICE RAID DODGE CITY
Pot, Hashish Recovered
So, naturally Matt wonders what his mom was doing out there.
At home, his mother sits at the dinette in a green silk kimono, working on her morning coffee. The smell of weed has wafted in from under the closed door of her bedroom because Julie Anthony will not be seen smoking grass by her own children. Matt wishes she didn’t get high so often.
Home is a clapboard bungalow that huddles in the shade of the phone company building at the bottom of the Third Street hill. Three tiny bedrooms. It was built just after World War II as a summer home for a Pasadena banker. Or so says the landlord, Nelson Pedley, who sometimes tries to shame Julie into paying her rent on time by complaining to Matt about people meeting their obligations first and their pleasures second. Pedley claims to be the banker’s son-in-law. But, a banker’s second home or not, this is a drafty and uninsulated one-bath box held together by loud plumbing and temperamental electricity, dwarfed by two-story apartments on three sides, and the looming General Telephone & Electronics building across Third. The rent is remarkably cheap, for Laguna. Julie gets the tiny “master,” while Matt’s sister Jasmine gets one of the bedrooms, and Matt—beginning with high school two years ago—has moved from his and brother Kyle’s room to the garage.
“How’d you do?”
“Two good bass. Bonnie Stratmeyer washed up on the beach early this morning, Mom. She’s dead.”
“Oh my goodness,” she almost whispers. “Why? How? Was she swimming?”
“It only just happened. Nobody knows anything yet.”
“What a terrible thing. Jasmine is going to be seriously blown out!”
Matt says nothing. He dislikes his mother’s sometimes antic behavior while high.
Matt puts the bass fillets in a baking dish and pours in enough milk to cover them. It isn’t a lot to eat but it’s fresh and free. He sets the fishy newsprint in the trash can outside and washes his hands in the groaning kitchen faucet.
“I’m freaked out,” says his mother. “Bonnie’s been missing two months, now this? Her mother will be so totally bummed.”
“Probably her dad, too.”
His own dad being a sore spot around here, Matt dries his hands on his shorts and goes to wake up his sister, maybe break the bad news about Bonnie, and see if she’s up for the beach later.
No Jasmine, which is a bit of a surprise. First time she hasn’t come home after a night out, Matt thinks. She left last night in Julie’s old hippie van. Which wasn’t in the driveway when Matt left to fish early this morning, and isn’t in the driveway now.
In her room he looks at her senior portrait, crookedly thumbtacked to the wall above a big psychedelic pink-yellow-and-orange Dr. Timothy Leary lecture-in-Laguna poster. Flanked by her Buffalo Springfield and Sandpiper nightclub flyers. On the bedstand is her diary and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. No cans or bottles in the wicker trash can.
Jazz. They’re close in the friendly-enemies way that brothers and sisters are close. If Matt had to answer Furlong’s nosey questions about Bonnie Stratmeyer on behalf of Jazz, he’d have to say his sister is more in-crowd than a head, though he has seen empty beer cans in her trash. She’s also an effortless straight-A student, a former cheerleader, wiseass, and an all-around bitchen teenager. Plays a ukulele and writes her own songs. She makes ugly faces that crack him up.
Back in the dining room, little more than a windowed alcove off the kitchen, he asks his mother where Jasmine went last night.
Copyright © 2021 by T. Jefferson Parker