1990s Laguna, once an art colony, summer home to California plein air painters, in the midst of change still holds fiercely to its character and its roots.
DEATH IN A CALIFORNIA LANDSCAPE
Old Millicent, sunburned, wrinkled, nut brown, plants her easel boldly in the field overlooking the sea and the little town of Laguna. Brush clamped firmly between ancient fingers stumps across the canvas, darts and jabs. Paints the sun as it moves down the sky. Does not hear the bullet, hardly feels it as she falls.
The calls started coming in . about ten minutes after the Laguna News hit the street. The Laguna family, that great motley collection of eccentrics and artistic sensibilities, beach lovers, wildlife activists, gay straight, old young, every political philosophy on the map, con-artist, best selling novelists in view houses, unsold poets living out their Waldens in the canyon, physicist and Feng Shui counselor shacked up together, the larger than life egos, this whole sprawling, prickery, generous, opinionated, cantankerous Laguna family coming together to stand by one of its own. their voices came down the phone, passionate and sincere. And then retreated to leave me to my grief.
Jake Martin, long time neighbor and friend, steeped in guilt, follows the killer’s trail south across the border to Ensenada, north to Big Sur. The search takes him into Millicent’s vanished world of the 1920s when the plein air artists, Rose, Mannheim, Wendt, Kleitsch, Crowe, came down to build summer shacks, roam the hills behind Laguna, paint field and cove, swim, fall in love. Plant the seeds for a series of murders seventy years later.
The killer and Jake stalk each other up the coast to Big Sur:
The fog turned to rain at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. Water poured across the road and threatened to wash the car off the cliffs. I turned the windshield wipers to high and slowed to a crawl. The first few houses, a shack bonded onto a rock, another tucked away in the canyon, hunkered down against the rain, closed and hostile.
I drove another five miles up the highway to Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn. The dining room was closed. The woman at the desk took pity on me and brought me a bowl of soup from the kitchen. A small loaf of bread came with it and a glass of dry white wine. I sat at a window by the fire and watched the rain sweep up Castro Canyon, blow across the road and over the already sodden snapdragons in the window box. A Mozart piano sonata was piped in from somewhere out of the walls.
No one came in or out of the hotel. The woman at the desk folded napkins as she eyed the rain and waited for a customer to straggle in. A car crept south on the highway. The windshield wipers struggled against the downpour. The driver’s face was pressed to the window. The car pulled into the parking lot and stopped. Rain beat down on the hood. The blurred face behind the wheel gazed out at the historic collection of ramshackle hotel cottages that straggled up the canyon. The woman opened the door to the Inn and looked out. A gust of wind blew inside. The driver put the car in reverse and crept south again.”
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