The Ocean Street Motel in Floral Beach, California, is located, oddly enough, on Ocean Street, a stone's throw from the sea wall that slants ten feet down toward the Pacific. The beach is a wide band of beige trampled with footprints that are smoothed away by the high tide every day. Public access is afforded by a set of concrete stairs with a metal rail. A wooden fishing pier, built out into the water, is anchored at the near end by the office of the Port Harbor Authority, which is painted a virulent blue.
Seventeen years ago, Jean Timberlake's body had been found at the foot of the sea wall, but the spot wasn't visible from where I stood. At the time, Bailey Fowler, an ex-boyfriend of hers, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Now he'd changed his tune. Every violent death represents the climax of one story and an introduction to its sequel. My job was to figure out how to write the proper ending to the tale, not easy after so much time had elapsed.
Floral Beach has a population so modest the number isn't even posted on a sign anywhere. The town is six streets long and three streets deep, all bunched up against a steep hill largely covered with weeds. There may be as many as ten businesses along Ocean: three restaurants, a gift shop, a pool hall, a grocery store, a T-shirt shop that rents boogie boards, a Frostee-Freeze, and an art gallery. Around the corner on Palm, there's a pizza parlor and a Laundromat. Everything closes down after five o'clock except the restaurants. Most of the cottages are one-story board-and-batten, painted pale green or white, built in the thirties by the look of them. The lots are small and fenced, many with power boats moored in the side yards. Sometimes the boats are in better condition than the properties on which they sit. There are several boxy stucco apartment buildings with names like the Sea View, the Tides, and the Surf 'n' Sand. The whole town resembles the backside of some other town, but it has a vaguely familiar feel to it, like a shabby resort where you might have spent a summer as a kid.
The motel itself is three stories high, painted lime green, with a length of sidewalk in front that peters out into patchy grass. I'd been given a room on the second floor with a balcony that allowed me to look left as far as the oil refinery (surrounded by chain-link fence and posted with warning signs) and to my right as far as Port Harbor Road, a quarter of a mile away. A big resort hotel with a golf course is tucked up along the hill, but the kind of people who stay there would never come down here, despite the cheaper rates.
It was late afternoon and the February sun was setting so rapidly it appeared to be defying the laws of nature. The surf thundered dully, waves washing toward the sea wall like successive buckets of soapy water being sloshed up on the sand. The wind was picking up, but it made no sound, probably because Floral Beach has so few trees. The sea gulls had assembled for supper, settling on the curb to peck at foodstuffs spilling out of the trashcans. Since it was a Tuesday, there weren't many tourists, and the few hardy souls who had walked the beach earlier had fled when the temperature began to drop.
I left the sliding glass door ajar and went back to the table where I was typing up a preliminary report.
My name is Kinsey Millhone. I'm a private investigator, licensed by the state of California, operating ordinarily in the town of Santa Teresa, ninety-five miles north of Los Angeles. Floral Beach is another hour and a half farther up the coast. I'm thirty-two years old, twice married, no kids, currently unattached and likely to remain so given my disposition, which is cautious at best. At the moment, I didn't even have a legitimate address. I'd been living with my landlord, Henry Pitts, while my garage apartment was being rebuilt. My stay at the Ocean Street Motel was being underwritten by Bailey Fowler's father, who had hired me the day before.
I had just moved back into my office, newly refurbished by California Fidelity, the insurance company that accords me space in exchange for my services. The walls had been painted a fresh white. The carpeting was slate blue, a short-pile wool shag that cost twenty-five bucks a yard (exclusive of padding and installation, folks). I know this because I peeked at the invoice the day the carpet was laid. My file cabinet was in place, my desk arranged near the French doors as usual, a new Sparklett's water cooler plugged in and ready to provide both hot and cold trickling water, depending on which button I pushed. This was classy stuff and I was feeling pretty good, almost recovered from the injuries I'd sustained on the last case I worked. Since I'm self-employed, I pay my disability insurance before I even pay my rent.
My first impression of Royce Fowler was of a once-robust man whose aging processes had accelerated suddenly. I guessed him to be in his seventies, somewhat shrunken from an impressive six foot four. It was clear from the way his clothing hung that he'd recently dropped maybe thirty pounds. He looked like a farmer, a cowboy, or a roustabout, someone accustomed to grappling with the elements. His white hair was thinning, combed straight back, with ginger strands still visible along his ears. His eyes were ice blue, brows and lashes sparse, his pale skin mottled with broken capillaries. He used a cane, but the big hands he kept folded together on the crook of it were as steady as stone and speckled with liver spots. He'd been helped into the chair by a woman I thought might be a nurse or a paid companion. He didn't see well enough to drive himself around.