A rural highway led to a ridge high above the Pacific Ocean. I pulled over, climbed out of my car, and stretched. Nine a.m., the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and I was far up the northern California coast. Mossy forest ran downhill to the ribbon-like road that followed the shoreline. The ocean, coated with fog, seemed to hover beneath a sky the color of milk. I’d driven halfway across the state to do something I didn’t want to do.
For three years I’d been doing things I didn’t want to do. I’d finally quit, just the previous Wednesday. I had no plan. All I knew with certainty was that I needed to make a new start in life. But, looking down into the fog and clouds, I thought it only right for me to help my ex-boss with a last favor. Clint Sherman had faithfully watched me play basketball during my undergrad years at Sacramento State, his alma mater, and later hired me when I was without job prospects. More importantly, he’d lifted me from a downward spiral of physical pain and self-pity.
At three-thirty in the morning, Clint had called with news that his long-time poker buddy, state Senator Allan Watkins, had been charged with driving while intoxicated and vehicular manslaughter. Clint had asked me to go up to post bail. So here I was, stretching my limbs, looking at the crowns of redwood trees.
The road took me down through the trees, and I drove up the coast to Sunset, a village of brightly painted wood buildings and old cottages converted into ocean-view rentals. On the inland side of the highway, an office complex housed the various arms of the Sunset County government. Few cars were in the parking lot. Rubbing my hands together—well, rubbing my left hand and half a right hand together—against cold morning dampness, I walked to the glass doors of the Sheriff’s Office.
A confident-looking young woman about my age, twenty-five, sat behind the front counter. Most of her brown hair was tucked beneath a dark patrolman’s cap. A name plate identified her as Anne Simpson, Clerk. She said, “May I help you?”
“My name’s Jeff Taylor. I’m here to take care of the senator’s bail.” I took out my wallet, set it on the high counter, and opened it to show her my driver’s license.
“Of course,” Anne said, though she suddenly seemed unsure, even shaken. She gave my license a cursory glance. The dispatch radio crackled. Anne flinched.
My right hand is missing the two smallest fingers. The middle finger is a stump that can’t even rise to the occasion of flipping someone the bird. Its hideousness was the reason I didn’t go to medical school. Its weakened capacity was the reason I didn’t play pick-up ball anymore. The only thing useful to come from that chopped hand was that, by exposing it, I usually gained people’s sympathies.
Anne went to a drawer, took out two forms, and brought them to the counter. “You didn’t go through a bondsman, right? That’s what I was told. I hope you know we can’t take a personal check.”
From my left pocket I pulled a wad of bills, hundreds and five hundreds, totaling ten thousand dollars. The money came from the safe at Sherman Investigations, where I’d met Clint at four a.m. Anne frowned at all the cash. It did look dirty and somehow morally tainted. She unfolded, stacked, and then counted the ten thousand as I tried to cover my unreadable signature on the forms she’d presented.
Eventually, Anne locked the money in a drawer, then gave me copies of what I’d signed and the senator’s release form. “This is your receipt. Don’t lose it.”
“What kind of shape is he in? I’m supposed to drive him to wherever he’s staying.”
“You’ll have to decide that for yourself.”
Anne opened a half door at the end of the counter. The door locked with a click as she closed it behind her. We started down a dimly lighted hallway.
I said, “Did you know the guy who got hit? If you don’t mind me asking. It’s just that it’s a small town and all.”
“I knew him. Joe Garston. He was always getting in trouble. Still, he was all right, in his own way. At least before he became the town drunk.”
“How old was he?”
“Thirty-two going on sixteen.”
Anne stopped at a tall wood door with CONFERENCE printed on it in white letters. “Good luck.” She grabbed the doorknob. Then, instead of turning it, she let go and clasped my left arm above the elbow. In an anxious whisper she said, “I saw you play. Whatever happened, I’m really, really sorry.”
Her chin dipped, and she walked quickly back down the hallway. I watched until she disappeared around a corner, then shunted aside any feelings regarding what she had said—I’d had ample practice at shunting aside feelings—pushed open the door, and stepped into the room.
Allan and Marci Watkins sat at a long wood table. He was slumped over, his head in his hands. I saw silvery hair and heavy, blocky shoulders. Marci Watkins, who looked to be in her late sixties, stood and offered her right hand.
She said, “You must be the young man Clint Sherman sent.” Her long gray hair hung to the middle of her back. She wore an oversized purple sweater, purple sweatpants that could have doubled as slacks, and pinkish running shoes. “Thanks for coming.”
I shook her hand. Marci blinked a few times at seeing mine.
Senator Watkins, drifting out of a shallow sleep, raised his head. His eyes were red, and they squinted. He appeared older than his seventy years. “Goddamn it.” His voice rose. It was scratchy, like sandpaper crossing wood. “Get me out of here.”
I said, “Bail’s been posted. You’re free to go. The prelim hearing is already set for Tuesday morning.”
Watkins rose slowly, finding his bearings. I had to be careful not to stare because, other than the white Arrow shirt and razor-cut hair, Allan Watkins looked like an old bum roused from the sidewalk by morning traffic. Deep lines scored his forehead in every direction. The eyebrows were white, wild, bare in spots like those of an old bird. His nose was boozer all the way, with red humps and veins splotching its tip.
Watkins raised both hands and flipped them outward. “Stupidest damn thing I ever heard. No O-R?” He was angry at not being released on his own recognizance. “I’ve been vacationing in the same house here for twenty years. I’m running a very public campaign in the ninth senatorial district.” He looked to the ceiling, shook his silvery head. “Where am I going to go, Mars?”
Marci took his elbow. She steered him. “C’mon, honey.”
Watkins swerved and shook my hand. If he noticed it was only half a hand, he didn’t let on. I don’t think he noticed. He smelled of sweat and stale liquor.
“I’m Jeff Taylor. Clint Sherman says to tell you he’ll get you anything you need.”
Watkins said, “It’s all a big mistake.” His red eyes blinked with fatigue and irritation. “Somebody’s got to figure this thing out.”
“Let’s get you home.”
I walked outside with one of the most powerful elected officials in the state. Among California political junkies, Allan Watkins enjoyed near mythic status as the last of the Heartland Liberals, a man who’d come to government when Ronald Reagan was still president, and never left. The senator drew in deep breaths of fresh air. Every movement of his body was slightly exaggerated, as if he were performing in front of an audience.
With his car impounded, the three of us got into my dark blue Volkswagen Jetta. Marci sat next to me; Watkins stretched out in back. We headed north. Thin bands of fog blew over the road and were melted by sunlight as the fog hit the inland hills.
Watkins cleared his throat. “I’ve got a rental coming over from Ukiah. It should be here by noon.” He shifted his weight around on the back seat. “This’ll get straightened out, honey. But we have to get on it quick, before the internet nuts get started. I don’t even want to think about what they’ll make up. Hell, those screwballs…” His voice broke off with a run of dry coughs.
I took the opportunity to say, “I’m supposed to find out if you’ve been in contact with Mr. Marquardt.”
Thomas Marquardt. The senator’s attorney.
Watkins swallowed, snuffed out a last cough. “He’s up in the Arctic on some goddamn nature thing. No reception. His assistant is going through the—get this, the eco-pod he paid to go get his ass frozen.” Watkins’ raspy voice sounded like a growl. “The son of a bitch better be able to do something.”
The highway turned away from the ocean. Marci Watkins seemed serene. I wondered: could she count the times she’d been in a car with her husband smelling like a bum?
We came out of a turn. The road opened up, then fell into sharp curves again.
Watkins said, “Hey.” I glanced back. Senator Watkins was pointing inland. He jabbed at the window with one hand while hitting the button to lower it with the other. His dissipated face flashed red and pink. He said, “Son, pull over. Goddamn it, pull over!”
I thought he was going to puke. He sure looked like it. I found room to stop safely off the pavement. Watkins flipped the door handle, lurched out, and headed back along the dirt shoulder of the road. Tight next to the Jetta was a steep grassy hillside. About forty yards up the hill stood a dense weaving of bushes.
Watkins stumbled. His wrinkled slacks hung low on his hips; the white shirt was untucked and darkly soiled. Ripping both hands through his silvery hair, he yelled over the wind, “I’m telling you, he came out of nowhere!” Hunched over, Watkins swiveled around and faced Marci and me; we’d hurried out of the car and were following him. He took a swing at the sky and shouted something unintelligible.
I spoke quietly to Marci Watkins: “I don’t think you want him out in public like this.”
Senator Watkins got down on his knees. He ran his right hand through the roadside grass. A car passed. Watkins looked up. The people in the car stared at him. Another passing car honked and swerved. Watkins kept crawling, his face a foot above the ground.
Marci Watkins’ eyes showed no strain. “It’s not going to be easy to make him go, because he’s not lying. At least not consciously. I’d be able to tell.”
I was fascinated by the sight of the legendary senator groveling on his hands and knees. It froze me. Then I realized Marci’s calm demeanor must be the result of extreme fatigue, and likely shock. Impassively she watched her husband crawl toward a blind curve.
“Senator!” I ran after him. “Senator! Why don’t we have a look around?”
If there had been any evidence other than blackish blood stains on pavement, the police surely would have removed it. Still, I went through the motions of helping Watkins search the area. Then I guided him away from the accident site. We sat on the hillside, on yellow, late-summer grass. Cars swooshed by. Watkins trembled. I asked him to recount what had happened the night before. I kept my stumpy hand hidden so as not to distract him.
Watkins said that Marci had picked him up in the capitol’s underground parking lot. He’d been negotiating compromises round the clock, and the only thing he wanted was to get the hell out of Sacramento without being cornered by a reporter. Marci drove. It had taken a couple of hours for him to unwind, but he finally fell asleep.
“Marci woke me when we got to the cabin. She was wiped out from the drive. She went straight to bed. But I’d slept two-three hours. Now I’m wide awake.” Watkins rocked and trembled. “I couldn’t quit thinking about some of the things we’d passed. In these grind-it-out sessions, they can sneak a dirty turkey past you.”
Watkins said he’d decided to read some of the bills he’d voted on—more than four hundred in two days. “Thinking about a few of them got me worked up. I needed to get out, have a drink and unwind. I drove to town, to this place I go called The Cove.” He blew out harshly and cleared his throat. “I sipped a—wait, it was two gin-and-tonics. I sat there reading till they were about to close. Then I went out to my car and headed back.”
“That would be at about two, right?”
Watkins nodded. The left side of his face spasmed, from just under his left ear to the edge of his mouth, tugging at puffy skin. Below us a car accelerated out of the turn. Its tires sprayed brown dust across Joe Garston’s blood stains.
Watkins said, “I was finally enjoying myself. You’ve got to remember, I don’t get much time alone, so driving up the coast is a treat. I’m taking peeks at the moon showing on the water. I go into the turn. I look at the ocean. I come out of the turn, and this guy’s in my lane. I mean, he’s just—he’s just there.” The senator made waving motions that I took to indicate the young man, hitting him, the whole catastrophe. It was a melodramatic conducting of the orchestra that was himself as a public figure. Strands of whitish hair fell across his eyes. “I stopped and ran over to check on him. I…”
He fell forward onto the yellow grass and vomited. I reached for him instinctively, then pulled back. I wasn’t sympathetic. The man was known to be a major-league boozer. Accounts of his nocturnal escapades abounded in Sacramento. They’d seemed comical when retold in a bar or at a party, but now he had killed someone.
Watkins wiped away spittle with the sleeve of his dirty white shirt, coughed and spit a couple of times. His red eyes met mine, and for a few, slow-ticking seconds he looked as if he might break into tears. The self-dramatist was in genuine pain.
I said, “Senator, I’m sorry you had to go through that.” I was just doing my job, or more accurately my ex-job. The person I really felt sorry for was Joe Garston, the victim.
Marci arrived. She had climbed the hillside, and now she reached out for him. “Allan, honey, you’ve got to get some rest.”
He grabbed her hand as if it were a lifeline. “I can get up. Give me a minute.”
Marci’s eyes moved about, unable to focus on any one thing. Finally they settled on me. “Could you find a place to stay? Clint said you were available. We’re going to need some help.”
Earlier that morning, on the long drive, I had kept thinking about how much I’d detested being Clint Sherman’s gofer, and how I would be through with all that by noon. But what was another day, when I now had endless days to map out for myself? The senator’s vulnerability made me see him in a different light. There was no reason I couldn’t stay and help until his own people took over.
Pulling on the senator’s elbow, I got him to his feet, keeping my grip tight. Marci took the other arm. The three of us descended to the side of the highway. We walked to my car with my good hand clamped to the senator’s arm, guiding him along. The whole trip was only about eighty feet, but it seemed farther because the senator’s steps grew heavier as we proceeded. I nearly lifted him into the back seat. Watkins looked about a hundred years old. The effort of returning to the car had brought sweat onto his tired face.
I started the engine and continued up the coastal highway.
Marci said, “Drop us by the cabin, and then please go. I’ve got to get him to bed.”
Checking the rear-view mirror, I saw Watkins slumped against the door. His eyes were closed. We drove north till Marci directed me onto a long uphill lane that was more like a private road than a driveway.
Eyes still closed, Watkins said, “Jesus Christ. It just hit me: I knew that boy’s father. Not well, but I knew him a long time ago.”
He didn’t elaborate. We reached our destination. Marci took him inside without assistance.
In the past, it was common to refer to California by its motto, “The Golden State.” This phrase reflected not so much the famous gold rush of 1849 as the aura of limitless possibilities one felt here, the extraordinary beauty of a place with twelve hundred miles of coastline and more national parks than any other state—and so on.
I’ve watched the Golden State gradually, inexorably, decline. More people are leaving than arriving. Other than the narrator, the two main characters in The Lost Coast are symbolic of California’s fall from grace. Our narrator, Jeff Taylor, twenty-five, is a former college basketball star whose path in life has been altered by an accident: he lost half of his right hand to a threshing machine. He’d been spending his days prepping for the MCAT, but the slicing of his hand brought on a loss of confidence in his medical ambitions, and he ended up working for Sherman Investigations, a player in the underbelly of California politics.
Jeff’s boss calls in the middle of the night. He asks Jeff to drive to the cold northern California coast to bail out an old friend, state senator Allan Watkins, who has been arrested for drunk driving and vehicular manslaughter. While Jeff transports the senator and his wife, Marci, to their vacation rental, Watkins forces Jeff to pull over at the accident site. Watkins makes a case for his innocence in the death of the man he hit. Jeff rejects the idea and drops off Watkins at the rented house. But now he’s curious. He goes to see the victim’s older sister, Kate Garston. A few things don’t add up. Jeff asks questions around town. That night, he gets stomped. Thus begins The Lost Coast, the story of Jeff Taylor’s dogged quest to find the truth behind Joe Garston’s death.
As for Senator Allan Watkins, he’s seventy years old, a legend in the California state legislature, and in the midst of a re-election campaign. The Garston family was formerly among the most powerful along the northern California coast. Both the Garstons and Allan Watkins cling to the last vestiges of once-golden lives squandered in self-indulgences.
The Lost Coast is the first in a series of mysteries I plan to write featuring narrator Jeff Taylor. I’ll move him around California, with Jeff five years older and wiser in each book.
Scott Lipanovich lives in Santa Rosa, California. Stories of his have appeared in Ireland’s Fish Story Prize, The Seattle Review, Crosscurrents, Defiant Scribe, Abiko (in Japan), Wild Duck Review, Ridge Review, Gold and Treasure Hunter Magazine, Summerfield Journal, and three anthologies. In film, Scott has worked with two Academy Award winners and two Emmy-winning producers. The Lost Coast is slated for release in July 2021 by Encircle Publications.
Embark, Issue 14, April 2021