Authors: Warren C Easley
Matters of Doubt
A Cal Claxton Oregon Mystery
Warren C. Easley
Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright Â© 2013 by Warren C. Easley
First E-book Edition 2013
ISBN: 9781615954421 ebook
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.
The historical characters and events portrayed in this book are inventions of the author or used fictitiously.
Poisoned Pen Press
6962 E. First Ave., Ste. 103
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
To Marge, Greg, Sarah, and Kate
Writing is reputed to be a lonely profession, but for me, at least, it took a village to get this book off the ground. I benefitted immeasurably from my âin-house' editor, Marge Easley and her able assistant, Kate Easley. Their eye for detail, ear for authenticity and sense of plot kept me centered from the outset. Nor could I have written this book without my amazing critique group, Alison Jaekel, Debby Dodds, Janice Maxson, and LeeAnn McLennan. Here's to many more years of productive collaboration. Thanks to Richard Easley, Jerry Siebert, Rosann Jurestovsky, and Lanie Douthet, who slogged their way through early drafts and provided valuable feedback. Also, heartfelt thanks to the wonderful crew at Poisoned Pen Press, especially Annette Rogers, who gave me early encouragement, Barbara Peters, whose insightful edits improved the manuscript greatly, and Jessica Tribble who cheerfully tied up more loose ends that I can count.
Finally, to the tough, courageous homeless kids in Portland, I say, keep the faith. There will be a better day.
Sometimes, when I'm working in my office, the sound of traffic out on Pacific Highway reminds me of a river. I close my eyes and there I am, hip deep in the current, casting my fly rod as ravenous trout and steelhead rise around me. But there was no time for fly fishing fantasies on that particular day. I was booked solid from nine until four. Not that being busy meant I was making much money in my one-man law practice. Money's tight in the small town of Dundee, Oregon, particularly since the downturn, and I found myself bartering for my fee more often than I'd like. Just the week before, I'd agreed to handle a man's divorce in exchange for his repairing the fence on the south side of my property. Thank God I have my early retirement from the city of Los Angeles to fall back on, meager as it is.
I was a chief prosecutor down there. You probably know the typeâuptight, ambitious, nose to the grindstone. I called what I did for a living my
, like it was some precious thing one kept in a glass case to admire. That seems a lifetime ago, and now my needs are more modest up here in Oregon. Enough cash to cover the mortgage and underwrite my fishing habit does me fine.
It was noon, and I had just unwrapped a bagel with cream cheese, red onion, capers, and a thick slice of Chinook salmon I'd smoked the week before. I groaned when I heard a tentative knocking on my back door. The parking lot's behind my office, so most people come in at the rear, although I have a front door that opens directly onto the street.
“Crap. Can't a guy even eat lunch around here?” I asked my Australian shepherd, Archie, who, at the sound of the knocking, had let out a short, irritated bark from his favorite spot in the corner. Vowing to make short work of my visitor, I opened the door and said, “Can I help you?”
“Are you Calvin Claxton, the lawyer?” Maybe twenty, tall, pencil thin, he sported black, spiky hair and a silver ring thrust through his eyebrow that matched a smaller one through his lower lip. Tattoos decorated both forearms and one crawled out of his scruffy black t-shirt, disappeared around his neck, and reappeared on the other side. It was a strikingly realistic depiction of a coral snake.
“Yeah. That's me. What can I do for you?” My tone wasn't particularly friendly. I felt ambivalent about pierced, tattooed, dressed-in-black types. I'm all for rebellious youthâhow else are we going to change anything on this damn planet? But there was an odd uniformity to their look that put me off, and I had a sense they were passive and uninformed when it came to the real issues battering this world. On the other hand, I felt just as ambivalent about most politicos dressed in blue suits and red power ties.
“I want to, uh, talk to you about something.” Lightly pocked with acne scars, his pale cheeks joined his chin at a sharp angle. He had dark, liquid eyes that were clear and alert. I caught something in themâurgency, for sure, and something deeper with an edge to it I couldn't quite read.
“I'm taking a lunch break right now. You want to make an appointment?”
He shook his head and sighed. “I came all the way out here from Portland, man. I need to talk to you
I hesitated for a moment, then stepped back from the doorway. “What's your name?”
“Picasso. That's what everyone calls me. My real name's Danny Baxter.”
“Okay, Danny. Come on in. I hope you don't mind if I eat while we talk.”
He took a seat facing me across the desk. His high-top combat boots gleamed shiny black like the cheap plastic briefcase he was opening. He pulled out a file stuffed with papers, and while I munched a bite of my bagel, he said, “I want you to help me find the person who murdered my mother.”
I set the bagel down and came forward in my chair. Not exactly what I expected to hear. My guess was he'd been busted for selling or possession or both. “I'm sorry for your loss, but I'm afraid that's a job for the police.”
He sneered at the word. “They don't give a shit. I've given up on them, man.”
“So, why me?”
“I met a kid in Portland from around here. He told me you helped his mom out. His old man was threatening to kill her. He said you're smart, that you don't give up. I want someone like you, someone who's
I had to smile. I remembered the case. “I might've done that, but it sounds like what you need is a private investigator. I'm just an attorney. I don't do investigative work for a living.”
His face remained impassive, but his eyes registered pain, like I'd just slapped him. “I can pay you. I've got money.”
I'm not good at saying no. In fact, I'm lousy at it. Just ask my accountant. Sure, there was something about the kid I liked, his pluck, I guess. But my getting involved in some cold case in Portland made absolutely no sense. And his idea of money probably wouldn't cover my first day.
You've got bills to pay
, I reminded myself.
I stood up and said, “Sorry, but I'm not your man. I'd be glad to suggest someone who might be able to help you.”
I expected him to push back, but instead, he tossed the file in his briefcase and muttered, half to himself, “Should've known better.” The abruptness caught me off-guard. It was like he was used to being turned down, and considering his appearance, I supposed it was a regular occurrence. This tugged at me, but I resisted the temptation to ask him to stay.
I showed him out the back way. When I returned to my desk, I glanced out the side window just in time to see him pedaling north on a beat-up street bike with his briefcase bungeed to a rack over the back wheel. A dark band of clouds hung on the horizon in front of him. It was probably twenty-five miles back to Portland and I knew he'd get soaked, for sure. I shrugged and asked Archie, “Why the hell didn't he just phone me?” Then I turned back to my desk and opened the file of my next client.
I had work to do, but the thought of that kid slogging all the way back to Portland in the rain made it hard to concentrate.
I didn't finish up at the office until late that day, and as I started climbing into the Dundee Hills toward my place, a hard rain let loose. It was early summer in Oregon, when sun and cloud vie for dominance with neither gaining the upper hand for very long.
A hand-carved sign outside the gate to my house says, Claxton's Aerie. Welcome. The sign was a gift from my daughter, Claire. The place is perched on a high ridge overlooking the north end of the Willamette Valley. I love it here, probably more than I should. Claire says it's not healthy to live alone in such an isolated place. But I have my dog, Archie. He's as fine a companion as any human could hope for. I have mornings when the fog burns off, and the colors in the valley come on like someone flipped a switch. I have nights when the stars glitter like big marbles, not the pinpricks you seeâif you're luckyâin the city. I can hear owls and coyotes, too, and even the occasional cougar, whose calls during mating season sound like the wail of a grieving woman.
Okay, my leaky old farmhouse is a sitting duck for the storms that roar up the valley in winter. But I've gotten pretty good with a caulk gun, and every once in a while a storm leaves a perfect rainbow in its wake.
At my mailbox I jammed a ball cap on my head and hopped out to check the mail before climbing the long driveway, opening the gate, and popping open the back car door. Archie whimpered, but didn't move. Over-sized for an Aussie at seventy-five pounds and decidedly opinionated, he didn't care for rain, or water in general.
After dinner the rain subsided, but I could see more on the way. It hung like a gray veil below a line of fast moving clouds out in the valley. I called Archie in, and five minutes later more rain drummed in from the south. My thoughts turned again to the young man who'd visited me that afternoon. Surely he was home by now, I told myself. I'd made the right call. After all, my accountant keeps harping that I've got to think more like a businessman.
The rain had brought a chill to the air. I poured myself a splash of RÃ©my Martin, padded into my study, and logged on to my computer. I pulled up
newspaper search engine and typed in the three wordsâ“Baxter,” “murder,” and “Portland.” This is what came up:
Deschutes River -------
Remains Traced to Woman
Missing 8 Years
Skeletal remains found in a reservoir bed on the Deschutes River five weeks ago have been identified as belonging to Nicole Baxter of Portland, according to the Jefferson County Medical Examiner's Office. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ernest Givens stated the identification was based on the dental records of the deceased woman. He also stated that the preliminary findings suggest the cause of death was due to a single gunshot wound to the head. Ballistic tests on a single bullet found in the skull indicated a twenty-two caliber weapon was used. Baxter, an investigative reporter for The Oregonian, disappeared on May 18, 2005. An extensive investigation by Portland detectives at the time failed to identify any substantive leads. The missing person case became inactive in early 2006. Baxter is survived by her son, Daniel Baxter of Portland, and her sister, Amy Baxter Isles of Gainesville, Florida. A spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department said the investigation of Baxter's death would be coordinated with the Portland Cold Case Unit.
The swivel chair creaked as I leaned back, my stomach tightening as I thought about what I'd just read. Eight years on the bottom of that reservoir. A young mother in the prime of her life, thrown away like so much trash. I thought about Danny Baxter's frustration with how the case was being handled. Out in sparsely populated central Oregon, Jefferson County didn't have a cold case unit to begin with, and they probably figured this was more Portland's case than theirs, anyway. And recent budget cuts had probably hit them as hard as the Portland PD.
As for Portland's Cold Case Unit, theyâlike all the others that had sprung up in the wake of the advances in forensic technologyâwere looking for cases with latent DNA evidence, a quick and easy way to score. There would be no DNA evidence in this case. So, although killing a reporter was close to killing a cop, I could see how this case might slip through the cracks like Danny claimed.
I remembered the thick file Baxter had brandished in my office and found myself wondering what information he had. I pictured him riding into that rainstorm, frowned, and shook my head. Maybe that glint in his eyeâthe one I couldn't readâwas sheer determination. Tattoos and piercings aside, I liked that in a person.
I pulled up an earlier article describing the discovery of the remains of the then unidentified Nicole Baxter. I learned that a caretaker named Homer Burton had found human bones in the bed of a reservoir that had been emptied after a dam gave way. The reservoir was on the property of a private fishing cabin owned by Hugo Weiman, who, it was noted, was the head of Weiman and Associates, a lobbying firm in Salem. I wasn't that attuned to Oregon politics, but I knew Weiman was a big time power broker who'd amassed a small fortune by greasing the state's political skids.
As a regular on the Deschutes, I knew approximately where the cabin was located. I was also pretty sure the lodge was on the other side of a locked gate, meaning only owners and guests with keys could drive into the property. The article included the following quote from Hugo Weiman: “I was shocked to learn that human remains were found on my property. I have no knowledge of how or why this horrible crime was committed, and I am fully cooperating with the police to help find the person or persons responsible.”
My eyes began to droop. I drained the RÃ©my, logged off, and took the back stairs up to my bedroom with Archie in close pursuit. I opened the window and stood there in the wash of a cool breeze as a throng of frogs down by the pond belted out their mating songs. Then, making a decision, I slipped quickly into a deep, restful sleep.
Three days later the phone rang at my office. It was my friend and sometime Portland business associate, Hernando Mendoza. My online search for the address of Daniel Baxter had proven futile, so I'd asked Nando for help. A Cuban exile with an intense appreciation of the US capitalist system, he dabbled in real estate, had an office cleaning business, and was the least known, but in my opinion, the best private investigator in Portland.
“Calvin. I have something for you,” he said in his
. “This young man you're looking for, Daniel Baxter. He has no address because he lives on the street. Somewhere in Old Town, I am told.”
“You mean he's homeless?”
“Yes. Like many other young people in Portland. I do not approve of children living under bridges. It is shameful. In Cuba, people are poor, yes. But if their families cannot take care of them, the state will.”
“So why did you leave your island paradise?” I teased. Nando had rowed a boat of his own making to Florida eight years earlierâa five-day trip with very little food and water. He regarded his homeland with equal measures of love and disdain, and although he would never admit it, I knew he missed Cuba very much.
He laughed heartily. “It was a non-brainer, my friend. I wanted to come to America and get rich. You knowâ”
“I'm sure what you're going to tell me is fascinating,” I interrupted, “but I'm a little jammed here, Nando.” I really did love his stories about Cuba, but it was a topic he could expound on for hours. “How do I find the kid?”
“He is working at a community health center on Davis. Old Town Urgent Care. I am told he can be found there most days.”
“Good work, Nando.”
“I had no luck until I forgot about asking for Daniel Baxter and started asking for Picasso, the name he uses on the street. And the name seems to fit.”
“I am told this young man is an artist of exceptional skill.”
After talking to Nando, I made a few more phone calls and cleared my calendar for the following day. This was something I did on a regular basis, although usually for different reasons, such as a good steelhead run. I'd make a quick trip to Portland to see if I could start over with the young man known on the street as Picasso. I wasn't sure he'd talk to me, and I sure as hell didn't know how I could help him, but it seemed like the right thing to do.