From the 405 interchange and out of the Sepulveda Pass the expanse of the San Fernando Valley palms out like a hand shadow in front of a projector. It's about 12 miles west on the 101 Freeway to Lost Hills Rd. The congestion fans out after Balboa Blvd and it's smooth sailing from there, a minute a mile no breaking if you hit it at the right time. The brief jagged skyline of Sherman Oaks dissolves into single-story homes, mid-century motels, barren stretches. Lengths of boulevard like crosshatch segment the sleepy neighborhoods, the bedroom communities and strip malls, office parks and depots.
There had been some articles on the Lost Hills Sheriff's Department recently, a podcast series, attempts at publicity on social media. A man had been murdered a couple years back while camping in a section of Malibu Creek State Park. He had been sleeping next to his daughters, tented in the quiet pre-dawn, the essence of innocence. Others had been ambushed while driving to work, 4 or 5 in the morning, targeted in those ungodly hours by a sniper in the still-dark hills firing single shots from up above the canyon road.
They couldn't make sense of it, didn't want to. The randomness of target, the pattern of place. The fact that the cars were struck not with military-grade armor-piercing rifle cartridges but measly birdshot. A constructed chaos.
The symbolism recalled the D.C. sniper attacks, the scattered shootings that tormented the news cycle for a month in October 2002. A Beltway for the Santa Monica Mountains. A retaliation to the mundanity of the commuter workforce, antipathy towards social norms, law enforcement, public safety. Terror injected into a peaceful ecosystem.
Fear reestablished in the purple dawn of steep ravine passageways, lingering like the sticky marine layer that blankets the coastal metropolis in the yawning birdsong of morning.
Dashboard cameras in electric cars captured fractions of ricochet like digital Zapruders, providing only confusion, proving nothing.
It had taken a while to connect the incidents, to get anyone to pay attention. To even see them as points on a single constellation of senseless violence.
That is, before the body.
At the front desk of the Lost Hills station where no officer sat, a sign in curlicued font read FOR ASSISTANCE DIAL 2200 with a digital image of a hand pointing to a phone next to the sign. Indicating that, like latecomers to a roadside motel, the best way to get assistance was to call another phone elsewhere within the building. Having just driven 20 miles from the inner sanctums of the depraved city for the explicit purpose of speaking to someone in person, I muttered something about farce to the dog and counted the one, two, three, four rings.
"Hi yes, I'd like to file a police report --"
"What type of incident are you reporting?"
"Ok, can you give me your name?"
"Sure, but may I speak to someone in person? I was told I couldn't file a police report over the phone."
"That's correct, you can't. But I'll need your name and the location of the incident first."
I recognized the voice; we had spoken earlier, which is how I knew police reports couldn't be filed over the phone, why I had driven the 20 miles here to do just that. But the voice sounded farther away now, garbled, harder to understand even though we were in the same building.
"It sounds like that would just be filing the report over the phone. Are you sure I can't just speak to someone all at once?"
"Sir, we need this information before someone can assist you."
The voice on the other end I gathered to be coming from several feet away on the other side of a wall of one-way glass, through which I could make out the outline of several computer monitors. The cursory information was given and recorded reluctantly in that order.
I was instructed to take a seat and await an officer. The aura of the building implied no one was interested in taking my statement, nor of indulging any human interaction at all. I was reminded of my generation's implicit dislike of the police.
I turned around, muttering again and giving a tug on the frayed leash. The dog had sprawled by my feet onto the cold tile floor, uninterested in the ongoing bureaucratic saga. A book I had never read came to mind.
We will not be calling you Kafka, I didn't tell her.
I scanned for security cameras. On the ceiling hung a mirrored globe in place of a chandelier, in the reflection of which I recognized the outline of my slumped, impatient shoulders. Having spent several dozen sleepovers in my youth watching and reenacting various scenes from the Jason Bourne movies, I quickly stiffened my posture with the realization. They were watching after all.
I shuffled to a metal chair upholstered with a rough and dull blue fabric and shrugged into a position I believed suggested to whoever was monitoring the cameras that I was willing to be accommodating, but not indefinitely. In reality, I crossed my legs and immediately started watching videos on my phone at a moderate volume. Some of the videos made me laugh audibly. Portrait photographs of different officers, sergeants, civil servants hung crooked and administrative on the cold dull walls, eyeing me like supervisory Mona Lisas.
I did not look up at the chandelier surveillance system.
The dog ambled over to me. Curled under the desk with ease. Maybe she had been a police dog before becoming a stray. She had been found in Koreatown, wandering late night and skittish between the barbecue joints and liquor stores. Taken in by a man with a broken heart who had to fly to New York on short notice, leaving her in the care of my two out of work roommates and me. Temporary names had been given, temporary eating schedules, temporary life. We took turns watching her, calling her different names, feeding her different foods, showing her different parts of life. Mostly she folded her front legs and nestled her small wet nose into an envelope of her own making.
We tried learning phrases in other languages, Korean, Spanish, Filipino, Yiddish. Anything to goad her into acknowledgement.
She behaved like a cat so I started calling her Cat, but she didn't answer to that either.
We thought she may have been on sedatives.
I sat facing the glass door entrance, my back to the occupant-less front desk and assistance phone. Outside a man who before had been pacing on the street asking for a cigarette now reclined himself on the station steps, facing the parking lot. This seemed odd for a Thursday evening just after 9PM. Maybe he was an undercover preparing for his next assignment, like a day player rehearsing an upcoming scene, trying to get the mannerisms down. The man looked out onto the empty parking spaces and the hills beyond. I looked at the man's thinning hair. The dog looked at me, nodding along as if we were onto something.
Her look told me there was no point in waiting. Her look said, Why have you brought me to this empty police station in Agoura Hills? Her one icy blue eye that seemed to move and think on its own bore into my soul and said, This is all for naught.
She was right after all. What was there to say? That some over-aggressive white male with a thick British accent had accosted me in the parking lot of a Whole Foods while I was balancing shopping bags on my bicycle? Yes officer, I'd like to report a bitch slapping.
He had lunged from the front seat of his clunky Ford F350 and sputtered insults laced with spittle and venom and disdain for younger generations and self-hatred and helplessness and all the boiling parts of life spewing into the hot air like vomit and then he had reached out and slapped me. Slapped me like the bitch that I was.
It was broad daylight and there were people around, maybe even some security cameras or cellphones capturing the altercation. But I knew it wouldn't matter. There were no legal protections against bitch slapping. Kafka's eyes were telling me all this.
Cat's eyes were speaking in different languages, all saying the same thing.
Our telepathic conversation ended. There were pamphlets spread out on the table for waiting parents reporting petty theft to learn about the dangers their children face on the Internet. Warning signs to take warning of. How to detect if a vulnerable child has been exposed to far-right conspiracies or predators or credit card scammers or zealous family members. How to limit inundation, over-exposure, detachment from the physical world. The primary addiction for the new millennium. I looked back at the dog one more time and she was already looking up at me and I knew she had been right. What a load of crap.
There are more luxury cars on the road this part of the evening, their waxed and shiny frames reflecting the neon letters of law firms and bank buildings whirring by. It's a dick swinging contest at dusk, silver Porsche Carrera, red GT convertible, modified street racers grunting and swishing on the blacktop, beetles beneath the black sky. When rush hour thins out, this is the only sound in the stretches of freeway between car dealerships and industrial zones and mountains passed Hidden Hills and Agoura Hills and down the steep canyons into the unincorporated mountains of Malibu: HSSSSSS.
Tucked behind tall hedges and bougainvillea and mile-long dirt driveways, the old ranches are home to reality TV stars now. I'm out of place for any number of reasons.
The man who was eventually arrested for the Malibu shootings had been living in these hills in makeshift camps under low canopies of oak tree shade, near little streams and overgrown dried out brush. In hollowed husks of rusted out old cars left from the days when M*A*S*H filmed here. He had made a home in these unconquered mountains wedged between beach homes off Pacific Coast Highway and the urban sprawl of the Valley north of the 101. He had made a home here where he hadn't been able to make one before - not with his father on the east side of LA, not with his mother in Tampa, not with his countrymen during a brief stint in the Army. He had lived as an outcast, slinking in the darkness of society from outskirt to outskirt, slinking unnoticed and shadowed to the outer reaches of the untamed West, the splendid edge of the American spectacle where the cliffs crumble year by year into the welcoming slap of the Pacific.
His father's name was Oswald. The coincidences were stacking up. Frames pulled into focus. Colors bleeding into seafoam. The marine layer settling over another blue morning.
Before the fatal shooting, he upgraded his arsenal from birdshot to 9mm.
Nick Plett lives and writes in Los Angeles.