An expert falconer is shot in the back in the wilds of West Virginia. The police believe he was the victim of a hunting accident but PI Frank Pavlicek, a falconer himself, isn't buying the story. Beatings, bombings, warnings from the FBI, and the arrest of his best friend on trumped-up charges only strengthen Pavlicek's resolve to follow a bloody trail of lies and corpses that leads to a chilling, terrorist conspiracy.
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A Cold Quarry
A Frank Pavlicek Mystery
By Andy Straka
Brash Books, LLCCopyright © 2010 Andy Straka
All rights reserved.
The ski-masked man balanced the business end of the twelve-gauge Mossberg Persuader against my temple with a shaky hand. Of equal concern, he appeared to lack the hard-won experience that might discourage him from pulling the trigger.
"You sure you want to do this?" I asked. "Seems like you're overreacting."
"Shut up, dick-wad," he said.
Did I also happen to mention his limited vocabulary? That and the dark green swath of cloth covering his head and face had almost convinced me of the futility of attempting to reason further with the guy. With his free hand, he was digging in my coat pocket for my truck keys, but that was the least of my worries.
"Let's just think about this now —"
"I said shut the fuck up!"
A few snowflakes twirled like bits of ash among the branches overhead. This peaceful winter mountain scene, I thought for one dark moment, must have made for a quiet place to die. But steam flaring from the nose and mouth holes in the assailant's mask snapped me back to reality. Though he juggled the keys once he had hold of them, the dark barrel didn't move from my face. I was as concerned he might shoot me by accident as I was about his shooting me on purpose.
Ironic, because it was a supposed accident that had brought me up here to this spot in the first place.
Chester Carew had been a friend and fellow falconer, a lifetime West Virginian from Nitro, an old factory town of about seven thousand souls just downriver from Charleston. Three days before, someone had put a round from a high-powered rifle straight between Chester's shoulder blades not far from where we were standing. The cops, I'd been told, were calling it a hunting accident, an errant shot from some yet-to-be-identified drunk or stoned poacher. I thought they were probably right — neither I nor my friend Jake Toronto, Chester's falconry sponsor, had ever been able to talk the hard-headed old cuss into wearing blaze orange in the woods during deer season when he should have known better.
But just to satisfy my own curiosity, and since Chester's funeral wasn't due to begin for another three hours, I'd gotten directions from Toronto, who'd otherwise been circumspect about the whole business so far, and had taken a ride up here to this patch of ridge and fallen scrub oak to have a look around.
"This isn't even your land," I said, hoping to distract the gunman. Funny how a piece of weaponry like his could alter the equation between two people.
"Never said it was."
The acreage was posted and technically now belonged to Carew's estate until it passed through all the vagaries of probate to the old man's widow. The police had left vehicle tracks the size of tractor treads and a shredded trail of crime scene tape to lead me toward where Carew's body had been found. Mr. Ski Mask had popped into view just as soon as I, unarmed and not expecting him, topped a small knoll near the actual scene. At first, I thought he might be one of a group of teens out playing paint ball or something. Until I laid eyes on the shotgun he leveled in my direction, that is. He was obviously not too keen about me being here.
"All right, mister. Turn around and start walking. And keep your hands in the air."
"Why? So you can shoot me in the back the way you did Chester Carew?"
"I said shut up! I didn't shoot nobody. But I'm about to shoot you if you don't get yourself moving." The accent was thickly Southern. The voice sounded young — I guessed early twenties — and scared. I wondered what of.
"Okay. Okay." I started to turn.
"Wait a minute."
"Let me see your wallet."
"You want to rob me too, is that it?"
"Let me see your friggin' wallet," he demanded.
I pulled it out and handed it to him.
He flipped it open and looked at my license. "From Virginia," he read. "Frank Pavlicek. ... Oh, Jesus. You're a goddamned private investigator."
I stared at him and shrugged.
"Shit," he said. He repeated it four times. "What am I going to do with you?"
"If you decide to shoot me, they'll find you. You'll leave a lot of traces of your presence."
"Shut up," he said. "You hear?" He swung the barrel of the gun away for an instant; then he brought it back hard against the side of my mouth.
The blow from the cold steel felt like being struck with a heavy chunk of ice. My tongue tasted blood and my lip seemed to have suddenly caught fire.
"Now turn around and get moving!"
"All right." I nodded vigorously. I guess I'd pushed him about as far as I could. "You didn't have to do that."
Turning, I felt the shotgun drop completely away from my face and heard the thump of my wallet and the jingle of my keys as he flung them off into the woods. It was the brief mistake I'd been waiting for.
I kept on turning to spin a complete three-sixty, squatting toward the ground as I did and driving forward into his lower body. I must've had thirty or forty pounds on the guy and I was lucky; he'd instinctively pointed the gun toward the sky as he'd tossed the keys. He gasped and let out a sound like a bull snorting when I hit him. The Mossberg went sailing from his grasp. It also discharged into the treetops with a thundering boom while we tumbled together in a heap to the muddy ground.
Keeping ahold of him, however, proved to be like trying to wrestle a wriggling trout. I opted for going after the gun. Maybe that was my mistake. The young man recovered quickly and leapt to his feet. As he did, I noticed he'd torn the shoulder of his fatigues in the fall. A colorful tattoo, a firebird it looked like to me, winked out for a second before he shifted the ripped material back across his upper arm. Then he panicked. Simply gave up on the weapon and ran. He was already about twenty yards down the ridge by the time I was able to grab the gun. His dark boots flying over fallen logs made thumping noises like a deer pounding through the trees.
I let him go. Plenty of tracks to follow, as long as it didn't rain later. I'd also seen the mark on his shoulder and I hoped there might be some latent prints on the weapon. I fished a tissue from the now-muddy pocket of my town jacket and pressed it against my lip to stop the bleeding. The front of my cord pants were soaked and spotted with mud as well.
I reached into my coat pocket the way my attacker had and felt for my cell phone to dial 911 — maybe I could get somebody on this idiot's tail before he got too far. Only one problem. It wasn't there. Had I left it in the truck? No, I remembered stuffing it into my pocket as I entered the woods. I hadn't realized it, but the masked man must have taken it along with my keys. Wonderful.
I looked over the weapon. This was no recreational duck hunter's gun. A sleek black über-modified model, similar to the military version, it held at least five more three-inch shells in the magazine ready to pump into the chamber.
I spent the next fifteen minutes rummaging around in the brush before I finally came up with my wallet and my key ring snagged around an exposed rhododendron root. No such luck with the phone, however. Maybe the guy still had it with him. It would most likely end up in a trash can somewhere.
I followed the masked man's tracks until they ended at the highway about three-quarters of a mile from where I had parked my truck. So he must've had a vehicle too. Or maybe someone had been waiting for him. Either way, he had to have been in one heck of a hurry to get out of there because I found his second mistake lying in plain sight on the shoulder of the road.
It was a handheld global positioning receiver, a Magellan Sport Trak Pro, built especially for climbers and hikers. Scuffed with dirt but brand-new from the looks of it. Was the guy worried about getting lost?
A slick shotgun and now this shiny new piece of hardware in trade for my cell phone — seemed like a better than even exchange as far as I was concerned.
Something told me this was going to be one heck of a funeral.CHAPTER 2
"Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we now commend ..."
The pastor talked on, but his words soon faded into the background of a staccato whoosh of wings. Two red-tails and one broad-wing hawk selected for the release leapt from their respective falconer's gloves. They shot away above the headstones, maybe the oddest and most beautiful version of a twenty-one-gun salute I'd ever seen.
To his credit, the pastor got the message of the birds' sudden premature departure and hastily concluded his sermon. Chester Carew may have been one of the most fervent followers of Jesus I had ever known, but he'd never been one for long preaching.
His final resting place was a tidy affair, an orderly arrangement of a dozen or so tombstones on the heights overlooking the factory bottomland below. In Nitro, the pulse of the Kanawha River was never far away. In St. Albans, Institute, Dunbar, South Charleston, and Kanawha City — most of the industrial towns surrounding the state capital — the river flowed in wide snaking arcs past chemical plants, boat landings, and fine river houses. Here, at the metro area's farthest reaches, it did much the same; except that not being blessed with a modern chemical facility, the old factory buildings down along the shore were mostly either dead or dying. The main evidence of industrial activity came from the gargantuan trio of steam stacks of the John Amos power plant belching out their smoky product in the distance beyond the rising girders of the I-64 bridge. Much closer in, around the casket, fresh-cut flowers held out their blossoms bravely against the cold.
"That was really nice," Marcia D'Angelo whispered in my ear.
She meant the hawks. For a moment, I'd almost forgotten about her leaning against me with her arm wrapped in mine. Marsh was a class act. She'd met Chester Carew the year before and said she wanted to drive out for the funeral. She was also my former girlfriend. We were ultimately incompatible, she'd decided, which had started me wondering whether any two human beings were ever really compatible. My ex-wife had used the same logic on me for different reasons years before.
On my other side, my daughter, Nicole, also had an arm looped within mine. My best friend, Jake Toronto, stood several yards in front of us at the edge of the small crowd, a frail old man leaning heavily against his shoulder. All in all, a sad reunion for a sad occasion.
"You okay?" Marcia asked. She kept her tone low.
I nodded. "You?"
"Fine. I hate funerals."
Chester's wife, Betty, and his young son, Jason, moved into position beside the casket. The pastor began speaking to them about something no one else could hear.
"Are you going to get involved with this ... Chester's shooting, I mean?" Marcia asked.
"I guess I'm already involved."
After returning to my truck, I'd driven down to Dutch Hollow Park to find a pay phone and called the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department. By the time I'd finished talking to the two deputies who'd shown and turned the shotgun over to them (I decided to hang on to the GPS unit), it was nearly time for the funeral to begin. I'd brushed off my coat as best I could, found a change of pants in my overnight bag, and rushed to the church. Marcia had shaken her head. "You look awful," Nicole had said. Jake had waited patiently to hear what happened. After I explained about the man in the woods, they'd helped me get cleaned up further so as to be at least halfway presentable for the service.
"Do you have to be involved?" she asked.
Marcia nodded. I could sense her disapproval but she said nothing. We'd all driven in separately the night before and were staying at a motel at the Cross Lanes exit off the interstate, a Sleep Inn just over the hill from an industry that was thriving: a thousand-slot "racino," as its promoters liked to call it, complete with a greyhound racing track and video poker. Apparently, suckers spring eternal, even here in the shoulder of the Appalachian Bible belt.
A particular numbness settled into the pit of my stomach. It was the same as I'd felt at my own father's funeral a decade before. All the conversations I'd had with Chester over the past three or four years, mostly about falconry, but about other things as well, came flooding back to me.
If you've lived in West Virginia your whole life and have any brains about you, Carew once said, you learn to endure the hillbilly comments and inbreeding jokes about Appalachia with a certain amount of defiance and pride. I'd heard the jokes ever since I'd lived in Virginia. What's the state flower of West Virginia? A satellite dish. You get the idea. In New York, we used to assume the same sort of superiority over New Jersey or Upstate. I've been told they say the same thing in St. Louis about Arkansas. Why do you suppose we do that, Carew had asked, run down somebody else's home turf in order to elevate our own?
I stared across the blue tarp surrounding the casket at Betty Carew. Her face was stoic as she listened to the pastor's words, the wind catching wisps of her white hair and winding them about like tendrils, though her eyes betrayed a hurt the likes of which I could only imagine. She and Chester had been together for what, thirty years? Beside her, the boy shifted his weight awkwardly from one foot to the other as he continued holding on to her hand. He was seven or eight years old and was adopted, but besides that I knew little about him.
The wind rose again and several of the three or four dozen other mourners in attendance shivered against the damp air. More than half were falconer friends from Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, but the rest were people from Chester and Betty's church or people he'd known from his work at the chemical plant in Institute. Chester had lived in the Kanawha Valley his entire life. This was home ground for him and he had loved it. At least the local earth had seen fit to return the favor and had not been too frozen to delay the interment.
When the ceremony ended, the assembled mourners began to file from the cemetery, navigating the narrow walkway along the edge of the bluff back toward their cars. Marcia, Nicole, and I went over to Toronto and the old man at his side.
"Marcia, Nicky, I don't think either of you have ever met Jake's father."
Felipe Baldovino — he and Toronto's mother had never married — listed hard to port into the wind, using his son's ample arm as support. He was shorter than Toronto and much thinner, except for a bloated belly. Across his wizened face he bore a perpetually surprised expression, the result of thick gray eyebrows curving upward. Today he wore a threadbare black overcoat with a tall gray fedora atop his head that must have been a holdover from the sixties.
"A pleasure to meet you young ladies," Felipe said. His voice was firm despite his frailty and the cold.
"It's a pleasure to meet you," Marcia said.
"Me too," said my daughter.
"I'm only sorry it had to be on such a sad occasion. Chester was a good man. A very good man. And my son here ... well, I suppose you all know how he felt about him."
He looked at my mouth. "Frank, what happened to your face?"
Marcia and Nicole had managed to help me stop the bleeding from the corner of my Up, but when I'd looked in the mirror in the church bathroom, I also saw a nice little bruise blossoming there. I exchanged glances with Toronto. He'd been the one who'd called to tell me about Chester's death a few days before, but his expression, or lack thereof, gave nothing away.
"Let's just say I had a bad encounter with a pine tree," I said.
"Did you come all the way down from New York, Mr. Baldovino?" Marcia asked. She was the only one of us, besides Felipe, dressed appropriately for mourning: a long black wool overcoat, black pants and fashionable low-heel black shoes. From me she knew how Felipe had lived in Queens while his son had grown up mostly without a father on the streets of the Bronx and Yonkers. Felipe had worked for years as a longshoreman. He had also, according to Toronto, nearly drank himself to death, chased just about anything in a skirt and, although he'd never physically struck Toronto's mother, had inflicted unimaginable mental anguish on the woman he refused to make his wife. Seems Felipe, at the time, had had this little problem of a wife and five children over in Queens.
Excerpted from A Cold Quarry by Andy Straka. Copyright © 2010 Andy Straka. Excerpted by permission of Brash Books, LLC.
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Frank Pavlicek is a breath of fresh air in the field of private eye fiction-witty, sharp, and flesh-and-blood real.