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Authors: Todd Borg

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BOOK: 10 Tahoe Trap
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“I’ve always wondered something about organic tomatoes,” I said.

Paco didn’t respond.

“How do you keep the bugs off of them when you don’t use pesticides?”

“Beneficials,” Paco said.

“What’s that?”

“Cassie has books. When we find aphids and other bad stuff that eats the fruit, we look it up in her books. Once we know what it is, then we look up what beneficials eat them.”

“Like what?”

“Like Lady beetles. Praying mantises eat caterpillars. But they’re kind of scary. Sometimes they eat the Lady beetles, too.”

“That’s why you didn’t want to go in Street’s bug lab.”

Paco nodded. “Once, Cassie got Assassin bugs ’cause they eat everything, just like Praying mantises. But they bite bad. I told her I won’t do chores if she gets them again. At least, Praying mantises don’t bite me. I still don’t like them.”

“I’m not much of a bug person myself.”

“Cassie grinds up dried Viper peppers and sprinkles the powder in the hothouse. That keeps a lot of bugs away.”

“And all this saves the tomatoes without using any chemicals.”

“Yeah. It’s in Cassie’s book.”

“How do you look stuff up in her books, if you don’t read?”

Paco paused. “I can read those books. Lots of pictures,” he said.

“Sounds to me like you can read when you want to earn money but not so much when you need to for school.”

Paco didn’t answer.

“Do the other kids in school know this stuff?”

“No.”

“Doesn’t that make you smart?”

“Tomato stuff isn’t smart stuff. Other kids know smart stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Computers and stuff.”

When I got in the vicinity of St. Agatha’s Elementary school, Paco suddenly sat up straight in his seat.

“This next turn to the right is my school,” he said.

“Okay if we stop there?”

“I guess.”

I turned.

We drove several blocks through a residential area. The small houses were painted turquoise and green and pink and red and yellow like a neighborhood in a small Mexican town. Pointy Cypress trees stabbed the sky. Mature oaks shaded dirt yards. Old cars in good condition – mostly Chevrolets and Fords – were parked in the tree-shade circles. An occasional California fan palm stood tall above the oaks, showing off its grand circular explosion of clacking palm fronds. The air was thick with aromas of fall flowers mixing with the smells of harvest in the fields.

“Turn left,” Paco said.

I turned. One block down was a commercial district.

“That’s the McDonald’s,” Paco said, pointing. “Turn right.”

I followed his instructions.

Three blocks later, Paco pointed at a light-blue concrete block building, one-story, not much larger than the Chevron station across the street. Around it was a rough shape of green grass.

“That’s Aggie’s Green,” he said.

I pulled into the school parking lot and parked.

“Let’s go in,” I said.

“I don’t want to. My teachers will be mad that I missed school.”

“Not to worry,” I said, aware that I had no idea of what Paco was up against, missing school, believing that he was the dumb kid, maybe considered the dumb kid by the administration and teachers who held him back. “Come with me. I’ll explain to them.”

Paco held back. I had to open his door, take his scratchy little hand once again.

We left Spot in the Jeep and walked into the school.

ELEVEN

There was a small lobby area that led to a hallway with just one classroom on each side. On the left, through open, double doors, was a small group office crammed with several desks arranged back-to-back in pairs. Three people worked at the desks. A fourth was at a copy machine so old that the light gray plastic had discolored to a sickly greenish yellow. I left Paco in the lobby room and walked into the office.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for the principal’s office,” I said. “Is this the right place?”

A woman looked up from a desk. “Oh, hi. Yes, this is the principal’s office. And the administration office. And the teachers’ break room. And the PTA meeting room second Wednesdays of every month. Let’s see, have I forgot anything?”

I pointed toward the counter at one side of the room where the coffee maker and microwave sat next to a mid-sized fridge. “Kitchen,” I said.

“Yes! Of course. The most important activity that happens in this room.”

The woman swiveled her chair and called toward the corner opposite the kitchen. “Pam! You have visitor,” she said in a sing-song voice.

Through an open door into another office sat a woman at a desk, talking on the phone handset, which was wedged between her shoulder and head while she typed at a computer. Even at a distance I could see that she was better dressed than the others. She wore a navy pantsuit, and her black hair had been permed or otherwise treated so that not a single hair could be a renegade and get out of line. The woman looked ready to perform in a documentary about super-competent women.

The woman who called out turned back toward me.

“Pam is on the phone. She’ll be with you in a...” she stopped as she stared past me. I turned to see Paco looking into the doorway behind me. The woman put a formal, almost stern look on her face.

“Mrs. Sagan, our principal, will be with you shortly. I’ll tell her that you are here. Your name?”

“Owen McKenna. I’m here about Paco Ipar.”

She nodded. “Yes, I see that. If you will just wait in the entry a moment.”

I went back out to the lobby. Paco had moved over near a bulletin board that was plastered with pictures of smiling kids and adjacent printed pages that extolled their achievements. Some even had newspaper articles. I didn’t look closely, but I didn’t see any pictures of Paco in the display.

The woman in the navy pantsuit came out of the office, saw Paco and made a tight grin. “Hello, Mr. Ipar. We missed you yesterday. And you weren’t here for roll call this morning, either.” Despite smiling as she spoke, she had an edge in her voice.

Paco looked at the floor as she spoke. He didn’t answer.

I reached out my hand. “Hi, I’m Owen McKenna, a private detective from Tahoe.”

Her eyes widened. She glanced at Paco, then back to me.

She shook. “I’m Pam Sagan, detective. I hope that Paco hasn’t gotten into more trouble.” She looked again at Paco.

“May I speak to you alone?” I asked.

“Well, I suppose Paco can wait in the lobby while I talk to you. Paco, will you be good if we leave you alone for a few minutes?”

He made the smallest of nods.

I followed the woman through the group office into her small office at the rear corner. As she stepped behind her desk, I shut the door behind us.

She jerked her head at the sound of the door clicking closed, then sat down slowly, her hands tense on the arms of her chair. Her eyes flicked from me to the door as if she worried about the safety of being alone in a room with me and was judging her possible escape path. Of the two green metal chairs in front of the desk, I took the one that was farthest from the door and farthest from her, hoping it would help her relax.

Sagan was a trim woman who radiated grooming perfection. Her lipstick and mascara weren’t directly observable but detectable through inference from her distinctive eyes and mouth. She had a gold brooch shaped like a miniature fountain pen on her lapel. It was angled exactly parallel to the cut of her jacket collar. She took a deep breath through her nose and shut her eyes for a second as she let her air out in a long exhalation.

I knew that whatever relaxation she’d achieved, I was about to destroy it.

“Mrs. Sagan, Paco’s foster mother Cassie brought him to Tahoe early yesterday morning. He witnessed a shooting and was later trapped in the back of the shooter’s pickup.”

“Oh, my God! Where is Cassie?”

“We don’t know. Paco believes that Cassie was the shooting victim.”

“Cassie was shot?” she continued. “Oh, my God! The boy must be devastated!”

“He’s holding up, but it can’t be easy.”

“You say that Paco believes the victim was Cassie. Haven’t you found her body?”

“No.” I tried to be brief as I explained what had happened, and how Paco had crawled into the covered bed of the pickup to hide, only to have them drive away. “We’re looking for her van. Until we find it or her body, we won’t know for certain.”

“Was this some kind of random lunacy?” she asked. “Or do you think someone wanted to shoot Cassie?”

“I don’t know. From Paco’s description, it sounded like she was meeting someone in the mountains very early in the morning. Not the likeliest time for something random.”

“But why would anyone shoot Cassie? She can’t possibly have been involved in anything that would lead to violence.”

“Paco told me that she raised tomatoes and peppers. Maybe she also raised some marijuana in with her regular produce. The money involved is so great that it has enticed many people and gotten them into trouble.”

Pam Sagan shook her head vigorously. “No. Absolutely not. I don’t know Cassie well, but I’m a good judge of people. Marijuana is not her style. Besides, I’ve been to her farm. I’ve even walked through her hothouse. Her entire focus is tomatoes and peppers. It’s her identity. She’s even named some of them after herself. A little weird, if you ask me, but more evidence that she’s not growing pot.”

Sagan looked out her window toward the Chevron station across the street. “That poor boy. He must have been scared to death. How did you rescue him?”

“He had Cassie’s cell phone, found my number in its menu, and called me from the back of the pickup while the men were driving it away from the scene of the shooting.”

“Paco did that?” She sounded incredulous.

“Yes. His resourcefulness was impressive. Later, when they stopped, he opened the topper lift gate and ran. He called me again as two men chased after him. I was able to get to his location before the men caught him.”

“Why were the men chasing Paco if they didn’t know he was hiding in the back of their pickup?”

“Presumably, they saw him run and realized that he may have witnessed the shooting.”

“And if they had caught him...?” She raised her hand up to her face, her fingertips pressed against her lips, her nails manicured.

“They’d probably want to silence any witnesses.”

“My lord, that’s the most frightening thing for a child!” She looked again toward the door as if she were visualizing Paco in the school entry.

The woman’s expression gradually shifted. I wasn’t sure what it meant.

“You don’t believe it,” I said.

She gestured toward the closed office door. “If I hadn’t seen Paco out there, I’d say you must be mistaken about which boy you saved. Paco has never... well, let’s just say I’m surprised and impressed that he had that much initiative and leave it at that.”

“Paco told me that Cassie doesn’t have friends,” I said.

“Well, I don’t know about that. But I can say that Cassie is not real sociable. I’ve only seen her at the occasional meeting and once at her farm. She came to some school functions. She doesn’t engage much with other people, but she’s always tried to do right by Paco. She’s a hard worker. I believe that her work is her first focus.”

“I understand that she’s an organic gardener,” I said.

“Yes, although calling her a gardener makes it seem like a hobby. This woman must farm two acres with no big equipment and only the help of a little boy. Lots of varieties of tomatoes and peppers, I gather. She used to sell at farmers’ markets all over. Now, she’s been doing some kind of delivery service. I’ve heard that she’s quite successful. Although, she also told me that she only gets to keep a portion of the produce. The rest goes to the landlord.”

“Like a modern-day sharecropper?”

“Well, I don’t know what term they use these days. But I suppose that’s what it amounts to.”

“Without even knowing the dollars involved, it seems like a steep price,” I said.

“Yes. But she told me that the landlord set her up in the business, taught her how to do it all. She made a comment about how she was able to start the business with no money. The landlord provides the land she uses. She told me that without him staking her, so to speak, she would still be cleaning hotel rooms. So maybe it’s reasonable. Who am I to judge? But when I gave Paco a ride home one day and saw the size of her operation, I thought she must be a juggernaut of farming and marketing to do it all.”

“Do you know the name of the landlord?” I asked.

“No. Do you think he might know something about what happened up in Tahoe?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “But I need to let him know about his tenants. I suppose that there isn’t much tomato growing this late in the fall, but he may want to know that the crops are not currently being tended. Perhaps you would have an idea of where Paco can live until we find out what happened to Cassie?”

BOOK: 10 Tahoe Trap
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