Detectives Ted Kaza and Lydia Jackson of the Los Angeles Police Department stand in suits and sunglasses and gaze at a round knoll covered with dead yellow grass. They listen and watch as a jarring dismissal bell rings and a swarm of awkward, shouting adolescents eagerly vacate Hidden Valley High School, another day’s learning done. The campus is tucked away in a residential enclave in northwest Los Angeles, with faded beige buildings erected in an era of twentieth-century ease and post-war prosperity. It was a time when—as the detectives once learned in school—students strolled from class to class, lungs filled with the air of a planet not yet known to be dying, minds filled with daydreams of weekend adventures they longed for and would have.
Dad said those were the good old days, Kaza thinks as he assesses the school’s current state. Now, collapsed roofs from entire buildings litter the parched landscape, chunks of cement and metal debris cordoned off from staff and students, a legacy of the Coastal Earthquake—
Slam of skate wheels on cement, and Kaza and Jackson turn their heads to catch a mangy-haired youth barrel toward them on his board, slalom around a trash can, hop onto a bench, leap into the air, land on the walkway, and lose control. He flies backward, sputters, and crashes with a bone-cracking thud. The rogue board shoots past onlookers to Kaza, who stops it with his foot, kicks it into his hand, and dangles the board over the planted young man. “Next time, lean into your landing. It’s easier to control moving forward than pulling back … and losing your shit.”
The youth removes an earbud and says, “You say something, mister?”
Kaza hops onto the board, leaning forward, and onlookers watch as he cuts from side to side across the walkway, turns full circle, and stops where his demo started in front of the youth.
“See?” he says, kicking the board into his hand. “Pay a little more attention to what you’re doing, and you’ll get it down soon enough.”
“Sure, mister,” the youth says, standing upright.
He reinserts his ear bud, reaches for his board—
“What the fuck?” he shouts, yanking on the board until Kaza finally smiles and releases it—
The youth stumbles backward, rear planted back on the ground.
“It’s hard to pay attention if you’re not listening,” Kaza says, looming over the youth, who removes his earbud and says, “What did you say, mister?”
The onlookers laugh. Kaza shakes his head. The youth flushes red, scrambles to his feet, grabs his board and raises it to strike—
“You want to go or something, asshole?”
“Sure,” Kaza says, stepping back and pulling aside the flap of his blazer, revealing a badge and holstered Beretta. “I’ve got a few more tricks I’d love to teach you. You sure you’re up for more lessons?”
The youth glances back and forth between Kaza’s glare and his gun. Slowly, he lowers his board, and Jackson steps between them.
“Scram, young man, before you really get hurt,” she says.
“Sure, coppers—I’m all ears!” the youth says with a snort as he and the onlookers disperse.
“What the hell was that about?” Jackson says, turning to her partner. “Kids have enough problems these days without getting skating advice from you.”
“Too many punks in this town,” Kaza says.
Jackson rolls her eyes.
“Just reminding him about common decency,” he says.
“You mean the way people acted before they had devices that allowed them to ignore everything around them. The good old days, right?”
“Too bad there never was such a thing,” Jackson says. “People have always been assholes. Their devices just gave them an excuse to be.”
“I wasn’t an asshole,” Kaza says.
“Please,” Jackson says. “You and your punk music, I bet you were the biggest asshole of all!”
“Maybe … ” Kaza says, following a sign stuck to a collapsed doorway that reads ‘F-HALL’ with an arrow pointing away from the building. “… but the world’s falling apart, so they have more to prove.”
“Whatever, Ted,” Jackson says, following his lead. “Just trying to help. Remember, it’s your job on the line.”
“I know, Lydia,” Kaza says, marching toward a cluster of tents. “With you on my tail, how could I forget?”
Jackson and Kaza lift a canvas flap labeled ‘F-39’ and enter a makeshift classroom arranged with foldout tables and chairs. A shelf stacked with beat-up textbooks stands along one side of the tent, and along the other a wooden desk and a sign taped to a large trash bin that reads, ‘FILE COMPLAINTS HERE!’
“Seems cozy,” Jackson says.
“As long as it’s neither cold nor hot outside,” says a masculine voice.
Kaza and Jackson turn to find standing in the entryway a bald man with bifocals and a bulging belly snug around a pink polo shirt and slacks. “We’re still without power, which means no air conditioning or heaters. Fortunately, today was classic L.A. winter weather—clear skies with temps in the sixties—so we managed fine.”
The man approaches the detectives and offers his hand.
“Hi, I’m Walter Newman,” he says. “Sorry I’m late. I had to use the restroom. Luckily, we do have separate tents for that.”
“A teacher with a sense of humor, your students must like you,” Jackson says, shaking hands.
“I wish,” Mr. Newman says, shaking hands with her and then Kaza. “Unfortunately, sleeping and snacking in class seem to be their preferred pastimes. I’m just some grouchy old man who tells them stories about the way life used to be, a lot of which they don’t like to hear.”
“We were just talking about that,” Jackson says. “That myth about the good old days.”
“Ah, it was no myth!” Mr. Newman says, squatting behind his rickety desk. “Unlike you two babies—what are you, thirty-five or thirty-six, maybe? I am a wise geriatric of fifty who clearly remembers what life was like living in the San Fernando Valley before the turn of the millennium and the Greatest Depression. I assure you, we will never see days like that again—backyard barbecues, video arcades, drive-in theaters, and Ferrell’s ice cream parlor. Now, the Valley is just a bleak landscape of scorched hills, foreclosed homes, extreme weather, and people living in packed apartments who still struggle to afford them.”
“I can see why students might get tired of listening to you, after all,” Jackson says with a smirk.
“The truth can be hard to handle,” Mr. Newman says, waving the detectives to join him at his desk. “Come, have a seat.”
The detectives plant themselves across from the history teacher, who says to Kaza, “Do I know you?”
“Maybe,” he says. “I graduated from here. Class of ’08, played baseball—”
“Of course!” Mr. Newman says, snapping his fingers. “You were the star pitcher, who quit. What happened?”
“The economy tanked,” Kaza says with a shrug. “My father downsized his pool-cleaning business. We lost our home and moved into an apartment. It was the beginning of the hard times—for me and millions of Americans, but I suppose my response was more dramatic than most. I stopped playing sports. I started going to punk shows. I guess you could say that was my seventeen-year-old bullshit phase …”
Jackson grins. Kaza ignores her.
“I know the phase well,” Mr. Newman says. “It’s nice to run into students after they graduate, but by then their seventeen-year-old bullshit often has turned into lifelong bullshit. I wish I came across more like you, detective, who managed to turn things around.”
There is a moment of silence as Mr. Newman gazes back and forth at the detectives, reading them as they read him.
“The principal was a little vague when he mentioned you wanted to see me,” he says. “What can I do for you?”
“We’re trying to locate Alice Walker,” Jackson says. “We understand you were close to her. We thought you might know where she is.”
“No one is close to Alice, but I suppose I paid more attention to her than the rest of our staff did,” he says. “What did she do, now? Predict who America’s first gay president will be?”
“Nothing so glamorous,” Jackson says with a smile. “We just need some information. Promise not to take up too much of your time.”
“Get me started on Alice, however, and I might take up too much of yours,” Mr. Newman says with a snort. “You have to see her to believe her. The experience, really, is everything. Heart of gold, but troubled in ways I’ll never understand. Stopped coming to class before her Bestagram post made her famous. She’s just another one of L.A.’s countless youths, I’m afraid, who’s fallen through the cracks—”
“You have no idea where she might be?” Jackson says. “Relatives she mentioned, friends she used to hang out with?”
“Alice didn’t talk about family, and if she had any friends, I never met them.”
“She was a loner?” Kaza asks with a raised brow.
“Definitely,” Mr. Newman says. “Had a tendency to rub people the wrong way. You might say she couldn’t handle her seventeen-year-old bullshit.”
Jackson glances at her partner, and then she reaches into her suit and withdraws a voice-activated recorder. She places it on Mr. Newman’s desk. “In that case, maybe we should start with you telling us about the last time you saw her?”
“Certainly,” the history teacher says, and he stretches back and folds his hands behind his head. “I’ll never forget that day. It was one of the strangest of my career …”