Thirteen years ago, NYPD Detective, Frank Pavlicek quit the force after a controversial shoot-out that left an unarmed African-American teenager dead. The divorced father of a teenage daughter, Pavlicek now works as a private investigator and hunts with a trained falcon. While hunting, he discovers the corpse of a black, teenage drug dealer with ties to his daughter. Unable to ignore the connections to his family or the shooting that cost his career, he goes after the killer to find the truth, save his daughter ...and free himself from the shackles of his past.
The first novel in the blockbuster Frank Pavlicek series. An Anthony, Shamus, and Agatha Award nominee.
Related collections and offers
Read an Excerpt
A Witness Above
A Frank Pavlicek Mystery
By Andy Straka
Brash Books, LLCCopyright © 2015 Andy Straka
All rights reserved.
Thirteen Years Later
That September Friday I took the morning off to enter my hawk; even though the foliage was still too thick for decent hunting, the weather not ideal and the red-tail barely out of moult. Armistead's bells, bewit-attached to her pounces, trailed jingles over my head as she shadowed me through the muddy glare. I had squandered the night before keeping tabs on a Charlottesville architect whose wife wanted to know why her husband had started to come home so late, the idea being the good woman would continue to pay me, particularly if I uncovered genuine philandering for once. With Armistead the idea was simpler: build fitness for tackling game, maybe flush a tidbit or two across the stubble of an unused field so her instinct might draw her to a stoop.
It would be the big raptor's second season out. She was a survivor — no doubt about that. When I had trapped her as a passage bird the year before, she had borne deep gash marks across her breast and flanks, probably from a life-or-death tussle with an owl. Most of her wild cousins had already succumbed by now to disease, man-made blight or been taken as prey themselves. After a few years with me, Armistead would have a better chance.
We reached a tangle of downed trees. Virginia pine — over the top of their bonsai branches. Old Rag Mountain towered before the line of the Blue Ridge like a displaced canine tooth. Armistead followed on, easing ahead to settle in the limbs of a nearby oak. When her bells went quiet I realized what was happening: her hunter's eyes sweeping the terrain, absorbing every detail in a millisecond. The anticipatory quality of her movements suggested a knowing preamble to flight.
The wiregrass cracked with sound. A cottontail burst into view running. Armistead did not disappoint. I caught sight of her against the sun, already rearing at the pitch of her climb.
It was over fast. The hawk dropped with such speed her talons struck like hammers. In one smooth motion she snared her prey and drove it to the ground, spreading her wings wide to hide the catch. Good girl. But suddenly she wheeled skyward again, no rabbit limp in her grasp.
Keeee-rr-rrr ... Keeee-rr-rrr ... The red-tail's plaintive cries split the air.
I could hardly believe what I had seen. She must have somehow missed what should have been an easy meal. Or worse, she had actually knocked the creature into the overgrowth in a flutter of dust and squeal, wounded. The last thing I needed right now was an incomplete kill: the cottontail suffering a prolonged death since the force of the strike would have damaged vital internal organs. I fingered the sharp awl I carried to dispatch quarry if it became necessary. There was no alternative. I would have to go in to finish the job myself.
I jogged along the edge of the field to the spot where Armistead, still screeching, swooped back and forth. No sign of Mr. Bunny. The place reminded me of an instance, a few weeks before, when I had brought my daughter along for Armistead's first outing of the fall. Nicole, loquacious and impulsive; just turned eighteen and with the same spectacular looks as her mother, minus the duplicity. She was a senior in high school, preparing for college, and she loved to go hunting with me since I had taken up falconry. It was one of the few things we shared since her mother and I had divorced years before and I had left her to be fathered, for all intents and purposes and despite my regular support payments, by a now-deceased stepparent, a man who had provided a much wealthier backdrop than I would've ever been able to afford.
Unfortunately, our most recent trip had turned out quite differently than expected. Armistead had acted skittish all day and kept flying off for long stretches, forcing us to chase her over the rolling terrain. The land we were on belonged to an uncle of Cat Cahill, none other than the same Cahill I had first met on that fated night so many years before. The farm had been passed down from his great-great-grandfather, an officer in the Army of Northern Virginia. It was Nicole, not myself, who had finally coaxed Armistead out of the tree where the hawk had perched for over an hour that day. I was only an apprentice falconer, after all, and though my daughter was no practitioner herself, she and the red-tail seemed to enjoy a certain understanding. A girl/girl thing, Nicky explained.
"Ho hawk!" I blew my whistle now and held up my arm with a piece of meat to call Armistead to the glove.
No response. If anything, she made even more of a racket. Like most birds of prey, she could take to the ground after a wounded catch, hopping and flitting about, and she would come to my call when hungry. But not this time. Maybe it was the girl thing again. Maybe she was embarrassed. Maybe I ought to give up anthropomorphic psychology.
I stepped over a pile of rocks into the weeds where the rabbit had disappeared. Armistead suddenly decided to follow, scolding, as if I were the one to blame for her miss.
"Pipe down. If you hadn't dropped your lunch, we wouldn't be in this predicament."
But as if to spite me the great bird extended her wings and glided several yards ahead. She stopped at the edge of the woods to hover above the base of a large tulip poplar, staring down and calling toward the ground. Maybe she had rediscovered her prey.
I hurried to catch up. Only to stumble then take a step back. The carcass of a turkey vulture, hideous to look at up close, blocked the path. This particular specimen, a putrid odor from its bones, had ended up as carrion itself. Maybe that was what had upset Armistead.
I turned and hurried after her again, but no sooner had I stepped around the dead vulture than I began to notice an even more powerful stench, an all-too-familiar odor that stopped me in my tracks once more. Inching toward the shade beneath the poplar, straining to make out what lay there, I prayed that my first impression was a mistake.
But there was no mistake. You could tell it was a body now, or at least what was left of one. Not this, I thought. Not here. Not now — the memories of working homicide were dark apparitions I had worked to expunge.
I pulled out a handkerchief to cover my nose and mouth and rocked back on my heels. Sweat dripped from my temples. Blood, the color of oil and coated with flies, saturated the clay. Armistead, having shown me what she wanted me to see, retreated to the sky to ring effortlessly over the field.
I looked over the remains. They appeared to be those of a young black male: dark blue Filas; a green hooded sweatshirt; baggy, filth-stained jeans. An attempt had been made to conceal the body beneath a pile of brush, which had failed, obviously. The corpse lay facedown, arms akimbo. The right posterior of the midsection bore a gunshot injury, a wide starburst splitting of the skin, evidence of a contact entry wound. There didn't appear to be any defense wounds on the hands, which had blown up like swollen gloves, but something glinted in one of them — a thin silver chain affixed to a rosewood cross.
I swung at the air. The flies that had scattered at my approach now returned with aggravated ferocity. I was about to walk away — this wasn't my problem, after all; I just had to notify the proper authorities — when I noticed a flap of brown leather protruding from a clump of leaves. It appeared to be the side of a wallet, flecked with mud.
I picked up a stick and prodded it open to peer inside. Some damp, folded money became visible, lots of it. However the young man had died, he hadn't been robbed. Probing at the seams of a fold-out section, I flipped through photos of a middle-aged woman, a family with brothers, no sisters or father in evidence. And there, in the centerfold, the dead teen's driver's license.
The picture gave new form to the half buried body at my feet. He had been a grinning youth with a look of worldliness beyond his years. Puffy face with waxen skin, brown almond eyes, tinged by a trace of sadness. I bent down as close as I dared and read the name and address: Dewayne Turner, 1215 Lockbridge Court, Leonardston, VA.
My eyes stung. I squinted and read it again, just to be sure. It was, after all, the town in the Allegheny highlands near where I had settled with my ex-wife and child after moving south. Camille and Nicole still lived there, not to mention Cat Cahill, who had grown up in the region, and even my ex-partner turned master falconer, Jake Toronto. Coincidence? Maybe this was my problem after all.
I was about to turn away again, when something even more curious caught my eye. If I hadn't pushed against the wallet in a certain way, I might not have noticed it at all. One of the bills was stuffed inside at an odd angle. Along the end of the single was a string of numerals and dashes in blue ink. The moisture had caused them to bleed, but it was still possible to decipher them. A phone number. Not just anyone's. She had a private number, separate from her mom's.
Here is where — and I'm ashamed to recount how easy it was — I decided to break the law. Holding the wallet upright with the stick in one hand, I reached into the leaves and picked out a sturdy twig. Now I possessed a crude pair of chopsticks, with which, after a considerable number of tries, I was able to extract the bill by its edge just far enough that I could grab it with my falconer's glove. I folded the piece of evidence and stuffed it in the pocket of my jeans. Almost as an afterthought, I did the same with the cross and chain.
The flies kept up their assault. I spat at them, but it did little good. My shirt was soaked by now. A wave of nausea seized me. Bent over double, I moved the wallet back into its original position and covered it with dry leaves, broke the twigs into several pieces, and tossed them into the woods. The smell still clung to everything, miasmic over my hands, in my clothes. My legs almost buckled and I fell to my knees.
The kid was too young, but weren't they all? More memories. A current under sea/ Picked his bones in whispers/ As he rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool, Eliot wrote. Something like that. I would have to find the passage when I got home, on my shelves where I kept literature between the National Geographics and hunting magazines.
I stood and backed into the field where I could make out the rocky summit of Old Rag again through the haze. Its climb had grown so popular of late that on summer weekends it was almost impossible to find a parking space at the trailhead; the park service collected a fee and you were as likely to be climbing through gum wrappers left by some scout troop as through pristine woods.
I wondered if any hikers, standing in the right place now with a good pair of binoculars, could focus on my figure at the edge of the field three thousand feet below. Or if any would have suspected that nearby, among the woods and cropland stretched out like a hard-spun quilt, the remnants of Dewayne Turner festered in the heat.
Feeling better, I took a few steps into the grass.
"Okay ... okay," I said, and blew the whistle again loudly enough for Armistead to hear. But she still kept her distance, as if to measure my response.
I groped for a piece of meat from my falconer's bag, placed it between my thumb and forefinger, and held it up where she could see it. I must have stood like that for a long time. Eventually, the hawk's weight trembled my arm.
No fury was left in her eyes, no remorse either. She ate slowly, not greedily but with precision while I secured her jesses. When she finished, I hooded her to begin the walk out. Thunder rumbled, angry clouds appeared, and rain began.
We both forgot the cottontail.CHAPTER 2
We were drenched by the time we reached my truck. I settled Armistead inside her cage. Next I used the cell phone to call the state police. I also called Cahill's uncle, who worked a day job and leased out most of his acreage for others to farm.
The first to arrive was a fresh-faced state trooper, careening to a stop behind my truck, beacons spinning on his navy-and-gray Crown Victoria. The rain had stopped. I hoisted myself from the pickup.
"You the man who called about the body? Mr ... Pavlicek, is it?"
He was tall, maybe six-foot-three, with a square jaw that angled over a wide neck. His crew cut made his ears look oversized. He donned his campaign hat as he approached.
I was still wet and disheveled, clad in blue jeans and a dirty T-shirt. The shirt had been given to me by a woman named Marcia D'Angelo and it bore a drawing of a crocodile that read: Life in the slow lane Boca Grande.
He surveyed my rig, two-tone green F250 with flared fenders and a little mileage on it. Didn't swagger or act suspicious. Just examined it all with the clinical thoroughness you would expect. He paused to look in at Armistead on her ring perch.
"You out here hunting?"
"Like to see some ID, sir, if you don't mind."
I pulled out my wallet and slid my driver's license from its sleeve for him to scan.
"Thank you," he said and handed it back. "What do you do for a living, Mr. Pavlicek?"
"I'm a private investigator."
"S'that so?" There was no change in his expression. "How'd you come across the body then?"
"I didn't." I nodded toward the cage. "The hawk did." It wasn't worth giving him the whole story about the rabbit.
"You a bird hunter or something?"
"My apprentice license is in the truck if you'd like to see it." "Won't be necessary," he said. "How far from here is the body?"
"Half mile or so, but it's rough going."
"Any way to get a vehicle in there?"
"Not right now. If you cut some of this scrub out, maybe." Another car appeared around the curve. A Madison County sheriff's unit, brown with mustard star. Unlike the trooper's vehicle, its windows were wide open and I could hear radio chatter in the background. It came to a stop and two deputies jumped out.
The trooper excused himself and approached the new arrivals. The three held a low, official-sounding conference, before opening the trunk of the sheriff's vehicle and lifting out a set of orange plastic saw horses to turn away traffic. Then they turned their attention back to me.
The trooper still did the talking. "Mr. Pavlicek, could you lead us to the body so we can cordon off the area?"
"Did you see anything else unusual near the body?"
"Not much." I shaded the truth, figuring they could find the wallet just as easily as I had. "There was one funny thing though ..."
"What was that?"
"A dead turkey vulture."
"Okay," he said. "One of us will stay here to manage traffic.... Your own bird going to be all right?"
"My truck's in the shade. She'll be pretty quiet as long as her hood is on."
"Good," he said. "Let's go."
I led them to the spot. It took about fifteen minutes of hot, silent walking. The foliage was mostly bear oak and a few scattered cedar. A thin vapor coated everything — the sun had already begun boiling the moisture out of the ground. The trooper carried a handheld radio and a roll of fluorescent orange surveyor's tape. About every thirty yards he stopped to tie a piece to a branch or a rock.
When we got close enough to notice the smell, the deputy produced a set of surgical masks. We all slipped them on.
"Which way exactly?" the trooper asked.
I pointed to the base of the poplar. He and the deputy continued on while I hung back. I watched as they almost stumbled over the vulture, just as I had. They approached the body and made a big circle around it, rolling out the marker tape as they went. They pulled latex gloves from their pockets and snapped them over their hands, examining the area. Eventually, the trooper reached down and prodded at what looked to be the wallet in the same way that I had.
He said something to the deputy, and picked it up. He produced a white paper bag from somewhere, and dropped it inside. A few feet away the deputy bent over and picked up a few other objects.
They spoke quietly for a minute. The trooper said something into his radio and they waited while he listened for a reply. Before too long, he held the device close to his ear. He pulled out a small notebook and began writing. When he finished, he and the deputy took one more look around, then turned and walked back to where I stood.
"Well Mr. Pavlicek, looks like you found yourself a body all right," the trooper said. He didn't elaborate. The three of us retraced our steps along the trail of tape.
By the time we made it back to the vehicles, four or five more state police and sheriff's cruisers had arrived. A small band of troopers and deputies stood around, and a van was parked alongside my pickup, with two men unpacking equipment.
Excerpted from A Witness Above by Andy Straka. Copyright © 2015 Andy Straka. Excerpted by permission of Brash Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.