Authors: Ross Macdonald
FIRST VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD EDITION, DECEMBER
Copyright © 1973 by Ross Macdonald
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1973.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
PZ3.M59943S1 [PS3525.I486] 813′.5′
To Eudora Welty
I flew home from Mazatlán on a Wednesday afternoon. As we approached Los Angeles, the Mexicana plane dropped low over the sea and I caught my first glimpse of the oil spill.
It lay on the blue water off Pacific Point in a free-form slick that seemed miles wide and many miles long. An offshore oil platform stood up out of its windward end like the metal handle of a dagger that had stabbed the world and made it spill black blood.
The flight steward came along the aisle, making sure that we were ready to land. I asked him what had happened to the ocean. His hands and shoulders made a south-of-the-border gesture which alluded to the carelessness of Anglos.
“She blew out Monday.” He leaned across me and looked down past the wing. “She’s worse today than she was yesterday. Fasten your seat belt,
We’ll be landing in five minutes.”
I bought a paper at International Airport. The oil spill was front-page news. A vice-president of the oil company that owned the offshore platform, a man named Jack Lennox, predicted that the spill would be controlled within twenty-four hours. Jack Lennox was a good-looking man, if you could judge by his picture, but there was no way to know whether he was telling the truth.
Pacific Point was one of my favorite places on the coast. As I made my way out to the airport parking lot, the oil spill
threatening the city’s beaches floated like a depression just over the horizon of my mind.
Instead of driving home to West Los Angeles, I turned south along the coast to Pacific Point. The sun was low when I got there. From the hill above the harbor, I could see the enormous slick spreading like premature night across the sea.
At its nearest it was perhaps a thousand yards out, well beyond the dark brown kelp beds which formed a natural barrier offshore. Workboats were moving back and forth, spraying the edges of the spill with chemicals. They were the only boats I could see on the water. A white plastic boom was strung across the harbor entrance, and gulls that looked like white plastic whirled above it.
I made my way down to the public beach and along it to the sandy point which partly enclosed the harbor. A few people, mostly women and girls, were standing at the edge of the water, facing out to sea. They looked as if they were waiting for the end of the world, or as if the end had come and they would never move again.
The surf was rising sluggishly. A black bird with a sharp beak was struggling in it. The bird had orange-red eyes, which seemed to be burning with anger, but it was so fouled with oil that at first I didn’t recognize it as a western grebe.
A woman in a white shirt and slacks waded in thigh-deep and picked it up, holding its head so that it wouldn’t peck her. I could see as she came back toward me that she was a handsome young woman with dark eyes as angry as the bird’s. Her narrow feet left beautifully shaped prints in the wet sand.
I asked her what she was going to do with the grebe.
“Take it home and clean it.”
“It probably won’t survive, I’m afraid.”
“No, but maybe I will.”
She walked away, holding the black struggling thing against her white shirt. I walked along behind in her elegant footprints. She became aware of this, and turned to face me.
“What do you want?”
“I should apologize. I didn’t mean to be discouraging.”
“Forget it,” she said. “It’s true not many live once they’ve been oiled. But I saved some in the Santa Barbara spill.”
“You must be quite a bird expert.”
“I’m getting to be one in self-defense. My family is in the oil business.”
She gestured with her head toward the offshore platform. Then she turned and left me abruptly. I stood and watched her hurrying southward along the beach, holding the damaged grebe as if it were her child.
I followed her as far as the wharf which formed the southern boundary of the harbor. One of the workboats had opened the boom and let the other boats in. They were coming alongside the wharf and tying up.
The wind had changed, and I began to smell the floating oil. It smelled like something that had died but would never go away.
There was a restaurant on the wharf, displaying on its roof a neon sign which spelled out “Blanche’s Seafood.” I was hungry, and went that way. On the far side of the sprawling restaurant building, the wharf was covered with chemical drums, machinery, stacks of oil-well casings. Men were debarking from the workboats at a landing stage.
I went up to an aging roustabout with a sun-cracked face under a red hard hat. I asked him what the situation was.
“We ain’t supposed to talk about it. The company does the talking.”
“I guess that’s their name.”
A burly straw boss intervened. He had black oil on his clothes, and his high-heeled Western boots were soaked with it.
“You from a media?”
“No. I’m just a citizen.”
He looked me over suspiciously. “Local?”
“You’re not supposed to be out here.”
He nudged me with his belly. The men around him became suddenly still. They looked rough and tired and disappointed, ready to take their revenge on anything that moved.
I went back toward the restaurant. A man who looked like a fisherman was waiting just around the corner of the building. Under his ribbed wool cap, his face was young-eyed and hairy.
“Don’t mess with them,” he said.
“I wasn’t planning to.”
“Half of them came from Texas, inland Texas. They think water is a nuisance because they can’t sell it for two or three dollars a barrel. All they care about is the oil they’re losing. They don’t give a damn about the things that live in the sea or the people that live in the town.”
“Is the oil still running?”
“Sure it is. They thought they had it closed down Monday, the day she blew. Before that she was roaring wild, with drilling mud and hydrocarbon mist shooting a hundred feet in the air. They dropped the string in the hole and closed the blind rams over her, and they thought she was shut down. The main hole was. But then she started to boil up through the water, gas and oil emulsion all around the platform.”
“You sound like an eyewitness.”
The young man blinked and nodded. “That I was. I took a reporter out there in my boat—man from the local paper named Wilbur Cox. They were evacuating the platform when we got there, the fire hazard was so bad.”
“Any lives lost?”
“No, sir. That’s the one good thing about it.” He squinted at me through his hair. “Would you be a reporter?”
“No. I’m just interested. What caused the blowout, do you know?”
He pointed with his thumb at the sky, then down at the sea.
“There’s quite a few different stories floating around. Inadequate casing is one of them. But there’s something the matter with the structures down there. They’re all broken up. It’s like trying to make a clean hole in a piece of cake and hold water in it. They should never have tried to drill out there.”
The oil men from the workboats went by, straggling like the remnants of a defeated army. The fisherman gave them an ironic salute, his teeth gleaming in his beard. They returned pitying looks, as if he was a madman who didn’t understand what was important.
I went into the restaurant. There were voices in the bar, at the same time boisterous and lugubrious, but the dining room was almost deserted. It was done in a kind of landbound nautical style, with portholes instead of windows. Two men were waiting to pay at the cashier’s desk.
I noticed them because they made a strange pair. One of them was young, the other was old and shaky. But they didn’t give the impression of being father and son. They didn’t even look as if they had come from the same world.
The old man was almost hairless, with livid head scars which ran down the side of his face and puckered it. He had on an old gray tweed suit which looked tailor-made. But his slight body was almost lost in it. I guessed that the suit had been made for another man, or perhaps for himself when he was younger and larger. He moved like a man lost in the world, lost in time.
The younger man wore Levis and a black turtleneck sweater which emphasized the breadth of his shoulders. They were so wide that they made his head seem small. He noticed that I was looking at him, and returned the look. His eyes reminded me of certain losers I had known. They peered out at the world through reinforced windows which kept them in and other people out.
A heavy blonde woman in an orange dress took their money and rang it up on the cash register. The young man paid, and
picked up the change. The man in the tweed suit took hold of his arm, in the manner of a blind man or an invalid with his nurse.
The blonde woman opened the door for them and, as if in answer to a question, pointed south along the beach.
When she brought me a menu, I asked her who they were.
“Never saw them before in my life. They must be tourists—they don’t know their way around the Point at all. We’re getting a lot of sightseers the last couple of days.” She gave me a sharp look. “You’re new here yourself. You wouldn’t be one of these troubleshooters they’re bringing in for the oil?”
“No. I’m just another tourist.”
“Well, you came to the right place.” She looked around the room possessively. “I’m Blanche, in case you were wondering. Something to drink? I always serve doubles; that’s the secret of my success.”
I ordered bourbon on the rocks. Then I made the mistake of ordering fish. It seemed to taste of oil. I left my dinner half eaten and went outside.