The wharf is unique; a sunken concrete ship, the Palo Alto, connected to the shore by an old wooden pier. The diamonds stolen from her remain missing. The pool of blood that encircled her cursed her to never sail again. When Cliff and Kathy Cuyler witnessed the blood drifting out of Ayre Creek toward the Palo Alto that fall day 75 years later, they knew they had to unlock the secrets of that mystery of so long ago. They found that only a few still even knew of the old events, but one that did would do anything to get the treasure for himself.
The late-afternoon fog sitting out over Monterey Bay had calmed the wind and flattened the surf. Now it seemed to blow the whispered voices of the young man and old man standing some twenty yards up the pier to where Kathy was fishing and I was working on my laptop.
“It’s in the slough, Grantham Slough. If it’s there, it’s a real danger to the whole ecosystem.”
“You should go to the police.”
“I can’t do that. I can’t guarantee that my friend isn’t involved somehow.”
The silence lasted for a minute, maybe longer. “I really can’t get involved in this sort of thing. I’m just a docent. Those people scare me. I don’t want any of them looking for me. ”
The young man turned and walked away. He passed us with a look of disappointment on his face. When I turned and looked back at the old docent he was slumped over the railing, his head buried in his hands.
Just then Kathy’s pole twitched and both of us turned our concentration to the water below us.
Kathy and I were set up about halfway out on the Ocean Cliff pier. The shore half of the pier is a standard California wood-piling type, but the bay half is unique. It is the broken and sunken hull of an old cement-ship. You can’t go out on the ship anymore, but the habitat it creates supports a variety of marine life, which makes the fishing from the rest of the pier some of the best anywhere. Someday the sea will finish breaking up the hulk. When that happens, the state park’s plan is to rebuild the rest of the pier around the habitat and give anglers even better access to its fish and shellfish.
The Ocean Cliff pier is rooted on the wide sandy beach that begins at Depot Hill and stretches all the way to Monterey. The view from the pier is of the local beaches, their cliffs, and the redwood-covered mountains behind them. The streams that flow down from the mountains often separate one beach from its neighbor. Ayre Creek, for example, separates the beach at Ocean Cliff State Park from Rio Del Pacifico, just east of the Ocean Cliff pier.
Unlike many California streams, Ayre Creek flows year-round. For three hundred days a year it is a gentle, babbling brook with barely enough force to keep its fresh water flowing through the beach at its mouth. But when the winter rains come, it changes character. After a major storm the rushing mountain run-off can rip two-hundred-foot redwoods from its banks and hurl them far out to sea. Today it was neither rushing nor babbling. It was just flowing.
A continuous paved promenade runs for over a mile along the Rio Del Pacifico and Ocean Cliff beaches. My wife Kathy and I live in one of the houses that line it. We often ride our bikes along the promenade; sometimes we do it for the exercise, sometimes to look at the people, and sometimes to haul our fishing gear to the pier.
We ride “beach cruisers,” those balloon-tired, three-speed, heavy-framed bicycles, designed for slow moving on flat roads. Kathy’s candy-apple-red “girl’s” model matches her Mustang convertible. My British racing-green one matches a Jaguar XKE convertible I once coveted in college, but never owned. Both bikes are outfitted with baskets and saddlebags that can carry an amazing amount of stuff, more than enough to support a full day of fishing.
This particular Friday afternoon in early November, Kathy reeled her line in over the pier railing just as the autumn fog bank began to move in from its offshore resting place. When we could no longer make out Contentment Point, we threw our equipment and her catch of perch on our bikes and started peddling in a race to try and beat the returning fog home.
I was moving much faster than I should have been when I hit the bump that separates the repaved promenade from the old bridge across the creek. The bike bounced, the load shifted, the tires slipped on the thin layer of sand on the pavement, and I fell against the solid concrete wall that serves as the bridge railing. Fortunately no one was around to get hit by the sliding bike. By the time Kathy noticed that I was no longer behind her, I had managed to crawl out from under the bike and its load, and was sitting with my back against the wall taking stock of my scrapes and bruises.
When Kathy had almost reached me, she screamed. I struggled to my feet when she screamed again, this time louder and longer than before. I grabbed her and held her as close as I could with the bike still between her legs.
“What! What is it?”
She pointed to the creek and screamed again.
What looked to be a huge pool of blood floated just up-stream from where we stood. Its ten-foot width covered almost half the creek. I buried Kathy’s head into my chest and stared as it moved toward us. The only other person in sight was a young woman standing up the creek next to the old roadhouse. She was staring at it too.
Kathy’s shaking had begun to slow when a pick-up truck with a surfboard in the bed slid to a stop beside the woman. The young driver rushed over to her. They exchanged high fives, embraced, kissed, jumped up and down, pointed at the pool of blood, and embraced again. They watched until the blood had started to drift under the bridge before they drove away.
“Look at it now,” I said, after it passed under the bridge. “When you look at it toward the setting sun and the fog it just looks a big oil slick. Look.”
We watched as the pool of blood moved through the channel the creek has cut through the sand and out through the surf and into the bay. Once past the surf line it held together as it drifted toward the gap between bow and stern of the cement-ship. Then it seemed to just disappear into the mist.
“What in the world was that?” I asked.
“I have no idea. I’ve never seen anything like it. I hope I don’t have nightmares.”
“It must be unique to Ayre Creek.”
“Maybe it has something to do with that drug thing we overheard back on the pier,” she said.
“I don’t think so, that was about Grantham Slough, remember?”
“Yes, now that you mention it, I do. So what do you suppose this was?”
“It’s got to be something easily explainable. We’ll have to remember to ask some of the old-timers about it.”
“Will they believe us? We’re the only ones who saw it.”
“No, I saw a young couple stop and look. They didn’t stay long.”
“Were they scared too?’
“I don’t think so. They looked more happy than scared, but they pointed at it and left, so who knows.”
Herb said, “Hank’s done a lot for that creek. It was his science class that first raised the fry that were used to restore the steelhead. But man alive, his father sure was a piece of work. Joe Miklos was quite a character around here. He made himself a reputation during Prohibition as the man to see. Wound up married to a gold-digger who had her sights on the bastard Perring kid and his sugar money till he was shot. Funny thing, after the war they settled down and raised a nice family.” He stopped for a moment. “Maybe calling her a gold-digger is a bit harsh, given the way it all turned out.”
“I’ve noticed the Spreckles name around here a lot.” I said. I assume that’s somehow related to the sugar company, but I’ve never heard of Perring”
“One and the same,” he said, “well essentially one and the same. That entire bluff above Rio Del Pacifico beach used to be old man Spreckles’ private estate and exotic animal preserve, quite the thing in the latter years of the nineteenth century. The main house is gone now, but you can still find some of the outbuildings. Claus Spreckles, the great sugar king of San Francisco and Hawaii, bought it from the Castros, who had gotten it as a land grant from the Mexican government and somehow managed to get the title transferred to them during the early years of American control of California. Not many of the original grantees did that!
“Claus got himself run out of Hawaii, but not until he had gotten his hands on the patent for extracting sugar from sugar beets. He built what for years was the world’s largest sugar beet processing plant, right here in Edisonville. When Claus died in 1908 the whole estate was sold to the Perrings. They were friends of Claus’ children and also had strong ties to Hawaii and agriculture. The Perrings originally made their money in citrus in Southern California and cane sugar in Hawaii. Their children got into the Hollywood scene as soon as there was such a thing. Some say that it was through the Perrings that Hearst got introduced to the Central Coast and eventually became so deeply involved at San Simeon.
“Anyway, the elder Perrings settled in Hawaii but came over here from time to time. The only one who really stayed here was George Perring’s bastard son, Harry. He took up residence in the old Spreckles country house, ran bootleg liquor, and generally kept things together for the Perring family. Eventually Joe Miklos bought most of the land he later developed from the Perring estate.
“But old Joe didn’t think much about saving the environment; not that many people around here back then did. He built detached garages that fell into the creek and houses that had their septic tanks drain straight into the creek. You name anything bad for the creek and he did it. Killed everything that lived in it almost overnight. In fact, it was because of him that they started measuring and publishing the pollution levels of the beaches all over Santa Christina County. You can find them every day on the weather page of the Herald.
“His kids, though, seemed to feel guilty about it all and, like Hank, did things to improve and eventually restore the creek. The grandkids seem to care too. I had Hank’s son, John, in my class last spring, and he seems to really want to do more. We spent hours talking about it.”
“Herb,” Kathy said, “you obviously know all about the creek, so you must tell us what makes it turn red.”
“What makes you say that?”
“We saw it.”
“What? You saw it red? My God! When?”
“Last Friday.” Kathy described to him what we had seen.
Herb said. “I’m astonished. Let me tell you some background. In November of 1929 there was a gala party on the Palo Alto. Everyone who was anyone from Monterey to San Francisco, including everyone who just came here for the summer, was there. Johnson and Beauchamp, the two guys who had fixed the ship up and were about to run the business, had gathered every Mexican they could find who knew how to cater to the wealthy and signed them on as crew. The party was a great success.
“The next day was when all the trouble happened. Very few of that crew were educated. I doubt that any of them had ever been on an ocean-going ship before. Most of them probably never did go to sea, since the Palo Alto was closed, and then sank without ever sailing again. The crew was extremely superstitious, and they were all looking for a sign, some sort of omen, that would tell them if the future of their new jobs would be good or not. Some say that the headlines in the Monday papers about the robbery at the Perring mansion would have been all the sign they needed – “Robbery of the Century!” “A Fortune in Jewels Gone!” that sort of thing – but few of them could read, and by then they all had gone back to the fields in Edisonville or Castroville or wherever they came from. No. What did it for them was that sometime that Sunday morning a huge red spot, a few said it was bigger than the boat, floated alongside it and then drifted across the bow. Everyone who saw it said, just as you did, that it looked like an immense pool of dried blood. It couldn’t be dried blood of course. Not and float for a long time like that on the water.
“Anyway, once that crew saw it, general panic ensued. Everyone fled the ship. No one ever returned. That was it: the end. They couldn’t raise another crew for months, and by then the Depression was far enough along that they couldn’t find any clients. It was a double whammy that put an end to the enterprise.
“From that day on the red spot that flowed out of Ayre Creek has been called the Curse of the Palo Alto. Funny thing, though, until you two no one else has ever claimed to have seen it, at least no one that I ever heard about. For seventy-three years we’ve lived with the legendary curse, and then it was nearly forgotten, and now you two walk in here and bring it alive again. Amazing!”