Jeff T. Jefferson Parker

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Summer of Fear

On a bad night here in the canyon, the wind can hit so hard it feels like my house is coming down.

The place is built on stilts, perched high on the steep east slope of Laguna Canyon. From the road below, the stilts look frail as mosquito legs, wholly insufficient for holding up a home. When the wind is strong, it can change course a hundred times a minute, trapped as it is by the canyon walls. With too much gale in too little space, the air doubles back, howls in fierce frustration, then whips around for another bellowing pass. Order breaks down. My home sways, leaning with each crazy reversal. Windowpanes ripple and timbers groan. Within the fury of these moments, I await a nudge from the master's hand. Infinity yawns back.

Some nights, when the wind is at its worst, I sit outside on the deck, feel the deep sway of the structure in which I live, look down through thirty feet of darkness to the sandstone below, and admire the way that nature can go so quickly from order to chaos. The popular notion is that nature's world is ultimately ordered and systematic, that only man's woeful intrusions can ruin that balance and harmony. This is not true. When I sit on my deck in the blackness of a high-wind night—the higher the better—I realize that the natural world isn't neatly ordered, isn't flawless, isn't perfect. Sometimes it is just like our human one: angry and yearning for mayhem. People want to "get back to nature." But she wants to get back to man sometimes, too, to regress to the liberating, transcendent state of violence. On a dark night with a high wind in the canyon, it's obvious.

My wife and I are leaving for Mexico next month. That leaves me thirty days to finish this, then pack our bags and drive to the airport.

My name is Russ Monroe, and I am a crime writer. I was once a cop. I retired from duty ten years ago to write—first newspaper pieces, then books. My first book, JOURNEY UP RIVER: THE STORY OF A SERIAL KILLER, was a mild success, well received, and into a second printing before publication. My last two books you've probably never heard of. I find them sometimes at Friends of the Library used-book sales, often inscribed to the original purchaser, who started the book on its journey to the fifty-cent bin. I harbor resentment at this, one of my thousand faults. I still write newspaper stuff because I need the money.

This is the story of the Summer of Fear. THE SUMMER OF FEAR. I coined that phrase myself. Not terribly imaginative, I know, but how much imagination can you get into a headline?

There are a few things you should know about me. I offer them both as background and for the simple reason that for the first time in my life as a crime writer—and I pray the last—I myself play a major part in the story. This is a terrible burden for an author. But it is nothing compared to the burden of that summer, and I was there, centered in the middle of it like 2.6 million other Orange Countians. It changed us all.

I am forty years old, tall and dark-haired, of English-Irish extraction. My family has been here in the county since 1952, when the orange groves outnumbered the housing tracts and it was a beautiful place to live. My great-grandfather married a Yukon Territory dance-hall girl during the Alaskan gold rush. His son was an explosives expert who invented a triggering device for dynamite that was patented and is still in use today. He secretly wrote science-fiction stories, which I found in a trunk of his belongings passed down to me by his son—my father. The stories are frightening things, obviously written more as an exorcism of my grandfather's many demons than as entertainments for serious publication. I used one of his titles for my book, UNDER SCORPIO, which, if you read the critics, should have been locked away in a massive old tool chest, as was Grandfather's original text.

My Father was ranch manager—Director of Field Operations, Citrus Division—for the SunBlesst Company here in Orange County. SunBlesst, during my father's tenure, made the transition from farming to leasing out land for development. Later, in the sixties, they began selling off the groves outright. My father grew bitter as he watched his kingdom dwindle. At the end of his working days, I remember him as a tall, wiry man who still rode his groves on horseback. He was always tall in the saddle, paramilitary and fierce, to no particular effect. He stated his refusal to let the shrinking of his empire shrink him.

But on the inside, it did. He grew harder and more knotted each season. He moved way out to one of the remote canyons when he finally retired, five years back. The canyon is called Trabuco, which is Spanish for a crude firearm the settlers brought to the county in the 1700s. My father now lives in a cold little cabin, deep in Trabuco, a place constantly in the shadow of the haunted native oaks.

My mother's side of the family accounts for a certain self-absorption I am prone to, along with an appetite for chaos, and a distrust of authority that runs, I will confess, not very far beneath my generally peaceful surface. (This made my first career in law enforcement difficult.) She was a farm girl who grew up an only child, spent hours alone with her imagination and a pet goat named Archie. To say that she mastered self-reliance is an understatement. To my mother, most things in life were intrusions on her inner world, her secret world, the world she inhabited with Archie for those long years of childhood. She graduated from high school early. One day shortly after, she closed her eyes, put her finger to a map of the United States, and found herself pointing at Denver. At age seventeen she was living in the YWCA there, working as a secretary and taking an occasional job as a model for Daniels & Fisher department store. My father fell in love while looking at her through a store window one afternoon. Two months later, they married and moving to California for my father's work. A year after that, Russell Paul Monroe was in the offing.

She lived out in a remote canyon, too—one very much like my father's—until her death three years ago, exactly one year to the day since divorcing my father. She was fifty-five. I thought it was telling that they divorced, left the SunBlesst ranch house where I'd grown up, then each proceeded to his and her own distant canyons, ending up just a few miles apart. They each proclaimed happiness then, a contentment at being apart that they had never admitted when they were together. I want to think they were lonely, but this may be a son's way of believing that his parents still loved each other. She died in her sleep; likely of an aneurysm, though I would not allow—because of my father's insistence—an autopsy. The idea of scientists sawing into the head of this intensely private woman seemed to us an atrocity beyond bearing. She had a long history of hypertension.

It is winter now, but nothing is the same—not here in my house with my wife, not two miles south of here in the city of Laguna Beach, where so much of it all happened, not anywhere in a county that once prided itself on Disneyland, an airport named John Wayne, a thriving weapons industry (they call it aerospace), and real estate prices among the highest in the nation.

It has all changed because the Summer of Fear taught us that there is something about ourselves—something in us, of us—that breeds a terrible, terrible thing.

The Midnight Eye—I first brought his name into print—was not our first. We have a track record of serial killers here in Orange County. But before, we always let ourselves view them as predators who inflicted themselves on us. You've heard of these monsters. You've read about the break-ins, the strangulations, the knifings, the close-range hollow-points, the knockout drugs hidden in beer offered to hitchhikers, the pentagram on the palm of the drifter, the poisoned, sodomized remains of servicemen quartered like beef, then bagged and dumped beside freeways or far out in the National Forest that makes up the border of our county (near where my father now lives).

You have heard of them—the Freeway Strangler (ten alleged victims); the Nightstalker (fourteen); Randy Kraft (seventeen). Incidentally, they play bridge against one another now, in the maximum-security wing of Vacaville State Correctional Facility. This has been documented in, of all places, Vanity Fair magazine. (Kraft generally wins. He is impatient with the Freeway Strangler and treats him like a crude child. The Nightstalker is vindictive and makes foolish opening moves. Kraft admires his aggressiveness.)

These men we regarded as outsiders. Even Kraft, a mild-mannered computer programmer who grew up in the county, seemed alien. Maybe this is because his victims were all young men, many of whom he had either seduced or raped in one way or another. Kraft's homosexuality seemed to confine him to a subtle, mysterious world. He inhabited a place where few of the county's straight population could imagine themselves. The unspoken rationale went something like this: I'm not gay, so I'm not going to worry. During Kraft's trial I had a number of talks with him, and I was struck by his intelligence, his humility, his apparent forthrightness. I might add that he was found to have in his possession at the time of his arrest (1) a dead Marine Corp private in the front seat of his car and (2) an address book with the names and descriptions of several men who had been drugged, buggered, chopped to pieces, and dumped. A great many of the other entries were of men listed by police as "missing." In spite of all that, Kraft never worked his way into the county's subconscious the way that the Midnight Eye did during our Summer of Fear.

The Midnight Eye came from among us. He was created by us, fostered by us. In the end, I think, people believed he was us, and in a smaller degree, of course, that we were him.

Now it is winter, and the county can begin to forget.

One thing I will not forget is this: The truth will not always make you free.

© T. Jefferson Parker