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Authors: Andy Straka

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Flightfall

BOOK: Flightfall
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Flightfall
 

A Frank Pavlicek Mystery (novella)

Andy Straka

 

(WITH BONUS BOOK EXCERPT FROM THE BLUE HALLELUJAH)

 

SHAMUS AWARD-WINNING SERIES

In
Flightfall
private investigators Frank Pavlicek and his daughter Nicole receive an urgent message from their friend and fellow falconer Jake Toronto about “a death in the family.” For Toronto, his birds are his family. The death in question turns out to be the murder of his prize peregrine falcon Jazzman. Toronto worries that a vivacious female chef he helped ease out of a job is the culprit and that he may have done the wrong thing by both the woman and her employer. Was Jazzman murdered for love?

Praise for the Pavlicek series:

“A breath of fresh air in the field of private eye fiction.” —Jeffery Deaver

One of “Ten Rising Stars in Crime Fiction” feature —Publishers Weekly

“A great read.” —Library Journal

“Fast-paced, twisty, and complex.” —Booklist

“A book this good, and this original, helps remind me why started reading mysteries in the fist place.” —Steve Hamilton

“Storytelling as sharp and strong as talons.” —Rick Riordan

Copyright © Andy Straka. 2011

All rights reserved, including reproduction of any form or kind. The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

ISBN: 0-9841317-9-5

NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover design by Mayapriya Long, Bookwrights

Also by Andy Straka

Frank Pavlicek Novels:

A Witness Above
A Killing Sky
Cold Quarry
Kitty Hitter
A Witness Above - *AFT edition (coming September 2011)
*(“Adult Fiction for Teens” edition with bonus falconry primer for teens)

Thrillers:

Record Of Wrongs
The Blue Hallelujah (coming September 2011)

AUTHOR’S NOTE
 

This novella was adapted from a short story originally published under a different title as part of an anthology. For any previous readers, please forgive the literary license taken as to time, place, and additional characters.

“How do the birds make great sky circles . . . They fall and falling they are given wings.” —Jalal Rumi

1
 

The day Jake Toronto triggered the downfall of a cable TV network, I was in my office thinking about my upcoming vacation. My suitcase, already packed for the beach, sat in the corner. An image of my wife Marcia in her bikini floated in and out of my mind. Nicole worked on her computer in the office next to mine. I was busy tending to some last minute paperwork that included shuffling through a stack of soon-to-be-due bills at the moment to determine who, beside myself, was most in need of getting paid.

Toronto’s text pinged my mobile. I barely noticed and didn’t even bother giving it a look. The fax went off at the same time, the one down the hall we shared with the web startup and the two Russians, and I almost ignored it, too. The machine was probably spitting out another cryptic cipher bearing specs for Slavic network servers like those the two Russians occasionally received. Then again, it could be a missive from one of our lawyer clients informing us we’d been named in some multi-million dollar lawsuit.

“Did you hear the fax?” I asked loudly enough to be heard through my open door.

“What?” Typing away on her keyboard, Nicole had apparently ignored the sounds as well.

“Never mind. I’ll get it.”

The first Thursday in a Charlottesville August was a scorcher. Hot enough to spawn insta-sweat for anyone who ventured outside. Through my window, down on Water Street, two men from the phone company worked a bucket truck against a pole. The five o’clock sun threw long shadows from the buildings. Across town, the university slept its summer slumber. Traffic moved as if in a dream. Almost everybody we did business with—attorneys, insurers, and other ne’re-do-wells—was away somewhere on vacation. A persistent fly darted around my office, confident, apparently, that he owned the place.

He could have it, as far as I was concerned. Nicole would keep the creaky wheels of commerce—such as they were—running, while I, in a matter of hours, would be joining Marcia on the sand at the Outer Banks with one of her custom made Rum Daiquiris in my hand.

To celebrate, I had taken an extra long lunch on a bench beneath one of the poplars lining the downtown mall in order to finish the final chapters of Mark Helprin’s
Memoir from Antproof Case
. I had even splurged on a new Hawaiian shirt recommended by that impresario of tropical wear Dave Taylor, owner of my favorite Charlottesville bookshop,
Read It Again Sam
. Might as well try to get started on my vacation a little early.

I was just about to rise from the chair to check out the offending fax when a door opened across the hall. The wall vibrated as someone clomped over to the machine. The building’s part-time receptionist had already escaped for the day, but it didn’t make any difference: secrets never lasted around here. There was a delay before I heard the sheet being ripped from the platen. Then the clomping continued to my half-open door.

“For you,” a voice said.

It belonged to one of the Russians, a curious combination of foreign and acquired Dixie undertones. He stood in the doorway, the curled paper lodged between his meaty fingers. An amiable fellow, big and broad-shouldered. His nose had long ago been surrendered to a roseacea that seemed to ripen further every time I saw him.

“Thank you.” I stood and took the sheet from him.

He didn’t move.

“Business okay?” I tried not to sound too encouraging of discourse.

“Some days okay ... Some days, not so okay.”

I nodded. He still didn’t move.

“Today?” I asked.

“Not so okay.” He finally turned and left, his feet falling less loudly down the hall than before.

Returning to my chair, I uncurled the fax. The Russian was right. It was for me and I didn’t like what I was reading.

I glanced at my suitcase in the corner, already packed for the beach, and sighed.

“Hey, Nicky,” I called through the doorway into the next office. “Any idea why Toronto would be sending us a fax?”

“A fax?”

“Yeah. It sure looks like it’s from him.”

Her curiosity aroused, the chair squeaked as she pushed away from her screen. “Unless it’s a formal document requiring a legal signature, the only reason he might send a fax,” she said, “is if he’s somewhere out in the woods. Remember he’s got that old beat up cell phone and fax gizmo set up in his Jeep.”

Most of the time, Toronto stormed around the planet with a healthy amount of the latest high tech gadgetry, communications gear, and weaponry available to man. But not when he was out hunting or flying hawks or falcons. He thought it went against the purity and ancient roots of the art to be armed with anything more.

“He wouldn’t be out hunting this time of year,” I said. Toronto’s falconry birds, like ours, had been put up for the season a couple of months before and, except for training and exercise flights, were eating like kings and molting their feathers in their mews .

“True.” Nicole padded around the corner in her sandals and cutoff shorts. Call me biased, but my daughter had developed into quite an attractive young woman. She wore her dark hair shoulder-length. Her eyes curved into delightful ovals and her cheekbones were high as any models. Her skin was nicely tanned and the only flaw in her face, if it could even be called that, was the Pavlicek nose, which was a little wide but otherwise nicely proportioned. “You think he’s in some kind of trouble?”

I finally glanced at the text message on my phone. They were the same words as the ones on the fax. “See for yourself.” I let out a long breath.

“Looks like he really wants to get in touch with us.” She came around the side of my desk as I turned the document toward her.

“COULD REALLY USE YOUR HELP,” both the paper and the text message read. “DEATH IN THE FAMILY. …JAKE.”

2
 

The buck snorted at our approach, then disappeared, hooves crashing into the pitch-black woods.

Probably curious, and who could blame him? For a moment his great head of antlers had been caught in the glare from the floodlights burning on stanchions out here in the middle of nowhere. The lamps cast an arc of light against the trees overspreading the edge of the clearing and were surrounded by a perimeter of power cords and mark tape, making the location looked like something out of
The Blair Witch Project
.

From somewhere in his bag of tricks, Toronto had obviously brought in the heavy crime scene artillery. We should have expected as much. My former NYPD partner was nothing if not anal-retentive.

“Sorry again about the timing,” he said, as he scrambled off to check on one of his bank of lights that was flickering.

He knew I was headed away on vacation. But he’d also known I would answer his call for help. After he explained to me in more detail on the phone what had happened, I didn’t hesitate. Loyalty is loyalty, after all, and Jake Toronto would swim through a river full of anacondas for me or Nicole.

He had specified where and when we should wait for him, leaving my truck to plink and pop to silence behind his battered Jeep on the fire road down the mountain. It had been an eighty mile drive over the Blue Ridge, down 1-81, and across 1-64 into the Allegheny highlands. Not exactly next door. I called Marcia from the truck to explain the situation. She seemed to understand, or at least acted as if she did—that is if anyone could understand the obsession Toronto, Nicole, and I shared.

On the drive over, Nicole and I had talked.

“You think Jake’s crazy, Dad?”

“Who, Toronto?” I paused. “Never . . .Crazy like a fox, maybe, always on the edge.”

“That’s what you like about him, isn’t it?”

“Maybe.”

“You ever miss the danger?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know—working the streets on the force.”

“I don’t miss the blood.”

“But you and Jake always seem to be falling into these kind of situations.”

“What kind of situations?”

“You know what I mean…you two must be made for battle or something. No matter where you go, you seem to find yourselves in one.”

“Is that why you like hanging around working with your Old Man?”

She smiled. “Maybe.”

“I know it can’t be the pay.”

“You’re right. It must be your overwhelming charm.”

“Hey, hold on a minute. Marcia knows all about my overwhelming charm.”

“Which is why she is still waiting for you at the beach.”

We rode on in silence for a moment or two.

“I guess we do get into some dicey situations from time to time, though, don’t we?” I said finally.

She nodded. “To put it mildly.”

“Let’s just hope this isn’t one of them.”

Toronto, with his Roman nose and close-cropped black hair, finally reappeared from working on the lights. He seemed to materialize like an apparition out of the darkness, and his eyes carried a cold glaze that told you something boiled just beneath the surface with which you would not wish to contend. It had taken twenty minutes of hard hiking to follow him back up the ridge. Another five to reach the spot where we’d surprised the deer.

“So let me get this straight,” I said to him. “You were doing balloon training up here with the bird before he took off, and you found the body here in the clearing and had it sent down to a lab in Blacksburg for an autopsy?”

The three-sixteenth’s Iroquois nodded. “Good people there at the vet school.”

Nicole gazed around the glow of the clearing. “And you wanted Dad and me here because…?”

“You’re here ‘cause you’re the big-picture guy,” he said.

Right. My big picture now was that we’d reached a small clearing near the edge of what looked like a narrow plateau. A steamy veil supercharged the air. More tape and cords snaked everywhere, and small wire flags dotted the ground as if they were random daisies. Down the hill at the back of the site, the portable generators made enough racket to drown out the tree frogs.

Toronto had transformed this lonely stretch of mountainside into a formal crime scene. At least we were clear about that. Even though I had no idea where the Commonwealth of Virginia statute stood when it came to private investigators looking into an incident such as this.

“Generators need more gas,” Toronto said.

He moved to take care of them, hoisting a couple of five gallon containers with his thick arms like they were featherweights. He wasn’t as lean as he’d been in his detective days, but he was stronger, more efficient.

“You said we’re pushing fourteen hours since the kill?”

“Exactly . . . Plus a front’s moving down from Ohio. Be a monsoon out here before dawn and there won’t be much evidence left to see.”

“You got a line on where the shooter stood?”

“Not for sure yet . . . Was hoping you could walk it with me.” He finished with the gas.

“What else do you know?”

“Jazzman could have been perched in this maple when they shot him.” Without looking, he pointed his thumb up and out toward the barely visible forest canopy overhead. “Then again, from the depth of the impression his body left in the dirt, he hit the ground like a rock. My money says he was in flight, maybe even in a stoop.”

“That would’ve been some shot.” I turned and looked at Nicole, who’d remained quiet up until this point. “What do you think?”

She nodded. “I think it’s going to be tough piecing it together.”

A little more explanation might be in order at this point.

The victim in question was a peregrine falcon. A male called a tiercel, affectionately named Jazzman. He had belonged to Toronto, who trapped him under special permit, raised and trained him from a passage bird to the four-year-old hunting falcon he was. Peregrines were no longer an endangered species. But, like all birds of prey, they still enjoyed special government protection. Whoever shot Jazzman had committed a federal crime.

Since we both left the force years before under less than honorable circumstances, ex-detective Jake Toronto and I had each gone through a metamorphosis. Toronto’s was from street-wise Bronx native to naturalist and homesteader in Texas, then to Idaho, then Nebraska, then here, in western Virginia. Along the way, he had taken up the ancient sport of falconry. It had become his passion. Along the way, he’d infected Nicole and me with the same passion. We all flew birds for hunting, kept and trained them, helped each other out. Losing a bird was almost like losing a child to Toronto, to us as well.

Some people said we were nuts. Just nuts enough to be out here with a full court press of an investigation into the murder of a bird. No doubt Toronto had contacted one of his military or government contacts as well, calling in some chits to obtain cell phone, radar, and even any satellite data or images that might be beneficial.

“Your crime scene analysis is incredible,” Nicole said, admiring, as she often did, Toronto’s technical savvy. “Did you contact the game warden?”

Toronto nodded. “He’s out of town, but we’ve got a meeting with the Sheriff first thing in the morning.”

Lightning flashed against distant clouds. “What kind of weapon you think was used?” I asked.

“The vets’ll be able to tell us for sure, but from the wound, I’m pretty sure it was a .22—most likely a rifle. Be pretty hard to hit a bird in flight with a handgun. ”

“Might’ve just been a kid out shooting cans. Saw the big bird and he couldn’t resist.”

“Maybe.” But his eyes said he didn’t think so.

“We could be talking poachers ... but they left the body. Doesn’t fit.” A mosquito dive-bombed my ear. I slapped at it.

Toronto nodded and sniffed the wind. He too had seen the lightning.

“Who owns this land? I remember coming up through here with you last year.”

“A client,” he said.

“Client, huh?”

How Toronto made his living these days was far from clear. He helped Nicole and me when needed, but that was nowhere near every week. He made some money in the market. He did some overseas work on occasion, sometimes disappearing for days even weeks at a time, leaving another falconer, often one of us, to help babysit his hawks. I knew he kept a stack of business cards in his desktop drawer that said he was a “security and special ops consultant,” whatever that meant. He could have afforded a stylish mountain chalet closer to town. But he kept to himself, living like a monk in a house trailer on fifty acres of remote land instead.

“Have you talked to this client about the bird yet?”

“Not yet, but I intend to. Want to get everything I can from the scene here first.”

I looked around. “Soil and leaf samples gone to the lab too?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Any footprints or tracks?”

“A couple. I made a moulage.” He led me to the spot where a circle of flags marked the first print. It still glistened from the fixture he’d used. There was a can of hair spray next to a cardboard box that must have contained the moulage, which was basically a mold of the print.

“Looks like a hiking boot,” I said.

He nodded again. “Frye. Not big. Size seven. Not deep either. Our trigger was not a heavyweight.”

“That narrows it down to only a couple million or so ... Was the bird’s body intact? I mean, any pieces or parts missing?”

Toronto scratched at the stubble on his face. “If you’re thinking rhino tusks here, forget it. There was that scandal back in the eighties. Operation Falcon. Feds caught a couple guys illegally exporting birds and tried to turn it into a sting op. But those were live birds ...”

My watch read almost eleven p.m. A lot of sane people were fast asleep in their beds right now. A part of me wished I was there too. For his part, Toronto looked as though he was ready to go at it all night.

“So what now?” I bent down to retie the laces of one of my own boots. Not Frye, army-navy generic. My prints would be larger than the shooter’s, deeper too.

“I found another partial track about fifty feet into the woods.” He pointed along the ridge.

“Okay,” I said. “Why don’t we see if we can reverse it? If the shooter used an automatic, maybe we’ll get lucky and stumble upon some brass.”

Toronto, Nicole, and I made our way out of the light through the brush to the second footprint, also marked with a circle of flags. We began a sweep, walking in parallel about three paces apart. I swept my Coleman lantern back and forth in front of me to offer the broadest light.

We had gone about twenty paces when Toronto said, “Got something.”

I crossed the beam of his light. He was examining another partial print, this one a heel, and a broken sapling.

I caught a glint of something metallic in the corner of my eye. “Hold it. I’ve got something, too. Shine your light with mine over here.” I bent down to examine the shiny object as Toronto and Nicole stepped up beside me.

“It’s a battery,” Nicole said.

“The girl’s a natural-born sleuth,” Toronto said.

She punched him playfully in the arm.

“Double A. Looks pretty fresh.” I said. “So our perp or perps must have dropped their GPS or whatever. Maybe in too much of a hurry to split.”

“Maybe left us some nice fingerprints, too.” Toronto pulled something from his jacket pocket, reached down, and deftly picked up the object with a pair of tweezers, depositing it in a clean paper bag. But before closing the bag, he shone his flashlight on the battery and peered in at it more closely.

“Something about the battery bothering you?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” He closed and sealed the bag before turning to look at us . “You know, usually if a falconry bird ever gets killed, they’re attacked by an eagle or an owl or some other bigger raptor.”

“Right.”

“Or even stupid, like flying into a transformer, or some farmer or kid takes a pot shot and brings the bird down.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying losing Jazzy . . . this feels different somehow.”

“Why’s that?”

“J-man was wearing a tail transmitter. I was tracking him, but the bullet damaged the unit he was wearing, and I lost the signal. I heard the shot. I was about a half a mile away. Then it took me quite a while to find the body . . .”

“So what does that have to do with the battery?”

“The battery in this bag is the same kind I use in my receiver—even the same brand.”

“But there must be millions of that brand of battery sold.” Nicole said.

“You think someone else was tracking your bird?” I asked.

“I’m thinking batteries don’t grow in the forest,” he said. “That’s all.”

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