March 18, Sunday morning
That was his first thought. The way the shape was lying, like limbs entangled in long strands of seaweed fanned out like hair. A cold morning, early spring, he studied the pale disk of waning moon floating above the horizon. A murder of crows perched on overhanging limbs, blue-black against the shimmering dawn. Taking a deep breath, he looked again. Not a body. Just a log. Realizing how tense he had been, he exhaled, laughed at himself. The barking of harbor seals covering the small, rocky haul-out off shore about 500 yards, mixed with the rhythm of waves, pulled his thoughts back towards the ocean and anticipation of his plunge into the water. Timing was everything here.
The surfer stood looking over the rail from the parking area. A light, offshore wind carried the scent of guano from the nesting cliffs, where the murre came to breed and raise their chicks. He shifted his surf board as he surveyed the incoming sets before making his way down to the beach.
Other debris from last night’s low tide, driftwood, sections of crab traps, and bright colored floats littered the beach. Climbing down the bluff, surfboard tucked under his arm, he felt every one of his 41 years. As he edged closer, he caught the glint of something bright and shiny, emanating from the center of the log.
Once his feet found a flat rock, he laid his surfboard down, heart hammering in his chest. He could see clearly now. A body, female, arms wrapped around the log, as in a final embrace. Long, dark hair, encrusted with shells, covered her face. Long, tangled lengths of something silky encircled her neck. A round, silver medallion, like the moon, dangled from her neck. Stepping onto the beach, cold, wet sand beneath his neoprene feet, he walked slowly towards the body. Small white birds took flight at his approach. One of the crows, its eye on the shiny disc, boldly swooped down, landing on the log. Wildly waving his arms, shooing it away, a cry escaped him. Falling to his knees, he wrapped his arms tightly around his middle, frozen in a state of shock and uncertainty.
Bowing his head, he made the sign of the cross before standing. It was up to him, he realized. Everything that happened now. He wanted to stay with her, to bring comfort, and at the same time, knew he had to go for help. His cell phone was up at the top of the bluff, in his truck. Not wanting to leave her exposed, he laid his surfboard against the log, covering her as best he could. Promising that he would bring help, he climbed back up the steep, rocky incline, to the top of the bluff. Hands shaking, he dug in his duffel, pulled out his phone, dialed 911. Standing at the railing, looking down onto the cove, he watched her, still and silent, waiting for someone to take her home.
I walked out of the ocean, the waves pushing me forward. The undertow pulling me back. If only I could go back. To before. Erase this oppressive feeling of guilt that was forever with me now. Cold, tired, and hungry, my muscles ached after my long ocean swim. A sort of penance? Not enough.
The riptide had drawn me out past the jetty. I imagined going on with it, out to sea. It would be so easy to let go, of everything. My cold-water wetsuit would only keep me warm for so long, then hypothermia would set in. Not a bad way to die I’ve read. I would be with Gwyn, and mom and dad. This pain would end. All I had to do was reach up and take the hand I saw reaching for me out of the cloud formation that looked just like an angel. I could hear Gwyn’s voice, calling me. Sister, come. Then, realized it was a male voice I heard.
“Hey, are you ok? Do you need help?”
“I’m ok,” I lied to the surfer, riding the rip out past the break. “Thanks.”
It had been a long week. A long year. These punishing swims in the cold Pacific Ocean couldn’t touch my remorse. What was I hoping for? Absolution through near death? My lungs were tight. I needed my inhaler. A memory, sudden and unforgiving, washed over me. Gwyn’s last breath, before I walked out, leaving her alone.
Maybe I should just leave. Get as far away from these memories as I could. Take the Silkie and sail north, into the islands. Find a small harbor, live off my savings for a few years. Nothing was keeping me here now. Work had become automatic. I was no longer able to empathize or connect with my therapy clients. No love life to speak of. Just random hook-ups to salve my need for what? Validation that I was still desirable? Kali wouldn’t miss me. She didn’t know me. She was too young when I first came back. Then, after Gwyn died and all the ugliness with Will. I hadn’t the heart to visit her. Stay or go? The question churned in my mind like a waterspout.
The March sun was just climbing over the eastern edge of the coastal range, coloring the sand dunes a golden glow. A dark figure was standing on the beach, by my dry bag. I pushed my goggles up on my head, rubbed at my burning eyes. Smoothing long strands of sticky wet hair back from my face, I saw it was Detective James Santiago. How odd he looked, standing there in his dark pants, white shirt, black tie. I hadn’t seen him in several months, since our last case. That poor woman and her husband who had lost their son. Then she tried to kill her husband, blaming him for the boy’s death. I had pushed hard for her release, due to mental defect. He wasn’t so sure.
He looked thinner, like an exclamation point standing there against the pale sand dunes. What was he doing here so early on a Sunday morning? A deep cold coursed through my blood. Had I blurted out something last night in my drunken state? Kristina was there. She’d have to report me. Or lose her license.
As I approached, he handed me a towel that had been lying on top of my dry bag. We both looked up at the whump, whump of a helicopter flying along the jetty. I registered Santiago’s grim expression. Worry and dread knotted my insides.
“Isn’t this the time of year Great Whites come through?” Santiago asked, pushing his hands deep in his pants pockets.
“Yes,” I said, looking at him with a question in my eyes, fear gripping my insides. “What’s happened? Why are you here?”
“Should we go up” he asked, nodding his head in the direction of the parking lot. “Aren’t you freezing?”
I sighed, possibilities crashing around in my brain like marbles. Had I confessed? For him to be here, now, meant something bad had happened. This one must be special. Please, dear God, don’t let it be for me.
After a couple of puffs on my inhaler, I looked into the sand dunes. ‘Maggie, come.’ I whistled and a large, yellow dog came bounding towards us, bright green ball in her mouth. Dropping the ball, she sniffed at Santiago’s trousers. He reached down, rubbed her sandy head.
“I guess I am cold.”
I gathered my things, turned and began walking towards the parking area. The sand was packed hard from last night’s rain. Only one other car in the lot this morning. Santiago’s large, black SUV. Next to my small, white hybrid, it looked like an omen.
“You can talk while I get dressed.”
I half smiled at Santiago’s alarmed expression.
“It’s ok, I have a swimsuit on. Just tell me, please, what’s going on?”
I unzipped the wetsuit, keeping my eyes on Santiago as I peeled it down, waiting for him to speak. He took a deep breath, sighed it out, his dark eyes unreadable.
“A body was found on the beach, at the bluff this morning.”
A wave of relief washed over me. He wasn’t here because of what I did. And then shame that I could feel comfort at another’s death.
I kept a gallon of fresh hot water in the hatchback. Wrapped in a wool blanket, it was still warm. I relished the feel of it on my face, and the time it gave me to pull myself together. I dried off quickly, then put on a pair of black knit pants and blue fleece sweater. They both felt warm and soft, even over the wet swimsuit. I slipped my feet into a pair of fleece lined boots.
“Ok, but why the urgency?” I asked, finger combing my wet, still salty hair. “What’s different about this death that you came out here, now?”
I was starting to feel irritated. All I wanted was to go home, shower, eat, and then? I didn’t have any plans for the rest of the day. Sundays were especially hard now.
“It’s one of your dancers Jet.”
“What do you mean, one of my dancers?”
Santiago looked at me, his gaze steady.
“Sawyer Ryan,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“How?” My throat was tight and I was finding it hard get the words out.
“We don’t know yet. Other than scratches and bruising from hitting the rocks on the way down to the cove, there are no obvious external injuries. My guess, suicide.”
“No, she wouldn’t kill herself,” I said, feeling my face hot, then cold spread through my body. My legs felt weak. I sat down on the bumper of my car. Sawyer, dead? It couldn’t be.
“How can you be so sure?” Santiago asked, looking out to sea. A curtain of rain cloud was moving in from the west. A faint rainbow shined through the darkness.
“I was her therapist for several months after her mother left.”
“Her therapist and her dance teacher?”
“ Yes, she asked for me. What else could I have done?”
Santiago nodded, looked down at the ground.
“I heard there was a suicide attempt a while back.?”
He walked over, leaned against the side of the car, close enough for me to feel the heat radiating off him. A part of me wanted to fold into him, lose myself in a few moments of comfort.
“Not a real attempt. It was more a gesture.”
“A cry for help. We had worked through it. I’m sure she wouldn’t try to kill herself now … not now. She has,” I paused, reality settling on me like a heavy cloak. “Had, so much to live for.” I felt nauseous. I dropped my face into my hands.
Sawyer’s death, on the eve of Gwyneth’s the year before, felt like a portent. I had been trying to drown my grief, and yes, guilt, in Scotch whiskey last night. I had only managed to create a hangover, even an ocean swim couldn’t palliate.
“How well did you still know her?” Santiago’s voice brought me back to the present.
My eyes scanned the horizon, searching for answers. A curtain of grey clouds, rain fringing their edges, drifted towards shore. Gwyn said the Navajo called this female rain, light and misty. Behind it, moving in from the artic, was the male rain, full of wind, churning up the sea and sky. It would be with us in a day or two. For now, we were caught in this transition between winter and spring, storm and calm, a girl alive, now dead. I felt exhausted, like I could just lay my body down right here on this sand.
“I see … saw her twice a week in class. And a few times for private coaching.”
I noticed a look of concern on his face.
“We didn’t talk about her therapy sessions in dance or yoga classes. Boundaries, you know. And anyway, that was behind her. She was doing great, at least, I thought so.”
I remembered that in the past few weeks, she had begun acting a little different, more detached. I just thought it was the stress of performance jitters. But mainly, she was just her usual hardworking, dedicated self. Wasn’t she? So wrapped up in my own personal drama, could I have gotten it all wrong?
Santiago kicked at a long loop of dried kelp, sending a pack of tiny sand crabs scurrying away.
“At this point, anything is possible. Until after the post mortem, it’s all conjecture,” Santiago said, turning up the collar of his jacket.
The wind was picking up. His dark hair, threaded with silver at the temples, blew back from his face. Old acne scars covered his chiseled cheeks. I wanted to touch them, smooth out their rough edges.
“How did you know I was here?”
I wanted to shift the topic, search for an escape from the thoughts and images flooding my mind. Suicide? God, no.
“Kristina told me,” Santiago said, his dark eyes holding mine. “She suggested I come find you, take you with me to the tell the father. She said Sawyer Ramsey was your dance student and that she was special to you. It might make it easier for him to hear the news if you’re with me.
I imagined the scene. Dr. Kristina Olson, the county medical examiner, was one of my closest friends. We had been out together last night, with a group of hospital staff, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day at Rogues Pub and Grill. I had been going through the motions of someone having fun.
“Who found her?” I asked, visions of an early morning hiker coming across a dead body lying on the beach.
“A surfer, Troy Meadows, at 7:20 this morning. The tide was on its way in. She would have been caught in the tumult, bashed against the rocks, and eventually, taken out to sea if the man hadn’t found her when he did. King tides this weekend.”
I looked at my watch. It was 8:45 now. I had been swimming while Sawyer was lying on the beach just a few miles south, dead, cold, and alone.
“How do you know for sure it’s her? If Rhys Ryan hasn’t been informed, and identified her?” I asked, a last vestige of hope coursing through my mind and heart.
“One of the rope rescuers recognized her. His daughter dances at the school. And we found her ID in a tote bag, discovered in a rock crevice leading down to the cove. But we need her father to make the formal identification. Yesterday was her 18th birthday. Will you come?”
“God,” I sighed deeply. “How horrible for Rhys. Yes, of course I’ll come.”
This was not how I wanted my long Sunday to unfold. Damn, what was I doing feeling sorry for myself when this beautiful young dancer has lost her life. I felt a sense of purpose. To find out what really happened to Sawyer Ramsey.
“I’ll meet you in front of the marina post office,” I said, standing. “Rhys Ryan’s been living in the bottle since his wife left him and Sawyer 18 months ago. He probably doesn’t even know his daughter’s not home, safe in her bunk.”
Without another word, Maggie and I climbed in the car. Hot tears blinded my vision as I backed out of the parking lot. I waited at the stop sign, separating the beach road from the two-lane highway which circled the cape, until I saw Santiago’s car in my rearview mirror. Indicating left, I turned, driving east into the still rising sun. I would stay, for now.