Thursday, August 22, 2013

Thick Fog In Pacheco Pass (Charlie Caldwell Crime Series) by R.P. McCabe

Chapter 1

AT SIX-THIRTY on a cool Wednesday morning in April 1972, I was awake and dressed and shifting along the sidewalk past sleepy storefronts up the wide, mostly deserted, main street of Divina, California. The aura of contentment was in blatant contrast to the fires of dissent burning high across America over the Vietnam War, the Feminist Movement and Civil Rights. The town was slowly waking itself like a puppy stretching and yawning from a long nap. I’d grown up here; graduated high school ten years earlier. The heavy, humid air of the spring morning still held the scent of freshly cut, damp alfalfa, which is always at some stage of maturation on the outskirts of town. Experience told me it would be a hot day.

Several months earlier, the US Army cut me loose after what was euphemistically referred to as a rough second combat tour in Vietnam. I’d made promises to three men who were my brothers. They didn’t come home. That’s a nice way of saying they’d been zapped. What happened was a lot worse than that, actually, but who needs to hear that shit, right? I’d occupied my time since being back stateside keeping my word to them. War had taught me some things. Two stood out: We are woefully fragile creatures, we humans. And death is profoundly final. Tough, but useful lessons to learn early in life.

We’d promised each other if one of us didn’t make it back, whoever among us did would do the deed; sit before mothers and fathers and sisters and aunts and close friends—tell them all the things we’d never be able to say to them ourselves. The way we spoke about, even contemplated, death, as if it were inevitable, a foregone conclusion to what was happening to us was weirdly serene. It would’ve been bad enough to have to keep that promise to one of them. But when you come up the sole survivor of a squad, the Brass pins a bronze star on your chest, designating you some kind of hero, calls it a rough tour and cuts you loose. Then you’re free to figure out how to become a fucking human being again. My first step was keeping the promise I’d made to the guys I fought next to, the ones who died helping me stay alive. I constantly have to live with that; why I made it back and they didn’t.

I’d decided it was a mistake to allow pride to stand in the way of telling the few people I cared anything about in this world how I felt about them. There was only one person I needed to see and talk to. Then I figured to be gone again—for good I imagined.

While I stared into the huge front window of Viera’s Five & Dime, I could still hear the cruel voice of the uppity cashier buzzing in my ears across nearly twenty years. If your father took his paycheck home instead of to the bar, you’d be able to buy that yo-yo, Charlie Caldwell.  Divina was that kind of nasty little town where everybody knew everybody else’s business or made it their business to pass judgment. Kids were easy targets for pettiness toward a parent somebody had it in for or simply felt superior to. My old man seemed to relish making it easy for them to hold him in contempt.

In the reflection of the glass window, I stalked a police car as it crept by, its occupant eyeing me suspiciously. I recognized Jorge Olivera. He was a pimple-faced punk the last I knew. Here he was wearing a police uniform and driving a shiny 1970 black and white Plymouth Fury with a chromed swivel spotlight hanging on the driver’s side door above the emblem of a gold badge. The car slowed to a crawl and he ogled me through his side view mirror.

Once the cop car was a block up the street I moved on to the next storefront, which was a place called The Sweet Shop. It was closed, too. A fat orange and white tuxedo cat pondered me with large yellow, curious eyes, lying on its belly in the front window between ruffled pink percale curtains and the glass. I traced a circle on the window with my finger and the cat followed with its nose.

“Name’s Simon.” The woman’s gravelly voice startled me and I spun. She withdrew a key from a worn leather purse and slid it into the locked door. The cat jumped down to greet her.

“You want some breakfast?”

Whether she was talking to the cat or me was hard to tell.

“Won’t be open for another hour, but I’ll put some coffee on if you’d like.”

The morning air was crisp and damp with an edge to it. Why not, I figured? The cat rubbed between my legs, then bounded off after its owner. The dark-haired, middle-aged woman moved purposefully behind the counter.

The inside of The Sweet Shop seemed preserved in a time-warp just the way I remembered it; lipstick-red vinyl covered booths against a worn white linoleum floor. Everything was bright, clean looking, uncluttered, with sharp distinct lines. The counter seats matched and were set atop shiny chrome pedestals like large, juicy, flaming-red lollypops. Each booth table was perched on a matching chrome pedestal. Even the edging around the white Formica tabletops was shiny chrome. Though it was accidental, the d├ęcor was 50s retro, including the miniature jukeboxes sitting on each table at the wall end of all four booths. The jukeboxes were strategically located at convenient intervals along the long white countertop as well. The place was as authentic as it gets.

“Don’t see many new faces `round these parts.” The woman mumbled the words while turning on the water over a long sink.

“Passing through,” I lied, intending to avoid any probing invasion.

I minded the fifty-something-year-old woman while she worked with her back to me. Should’ve recognized her, but I didn’t.

The cat meowed to be fed and rubbed against her legs while she sprinkled coffee grounds into the filter and turned on the tall polished commercial coffeemaker glinting from the far end of the counter. Shiny would’ve been the one word to describe the place.

“Health Department cited me for having him in here last year.”

I glanced around the quaint parlor, recalling times I’d spent here in my youth. “Not worried they’ll catch him in here again?” I asked, spinning in her direction.

She turned slowly from the coffeepot and locked her dark, puffy eyes onto me. “Not unless some do-gooder turns me in.” The way she cocked her head, the grave demeanor of her body language; it was a threat.

Rocking backward from the counter, I held my hands against my chest. “Nothing to worry about from me.” My assurance was truth.

“Never know,” she went on, dropping her hands from her hips. “Local busy-body turned me in last time.”  The woman went back to what she was doing, but carried on about being reported. “Before that it’d been a couple years since the inspector even bothered to come out—and then she called first,” she said, sliding behind the pass-through window to the grill. “Long drive over here from Merced. That’s the county seat.”

“People are funny,” I agreed. “Some’ll let a puppy lick `em in the face. Others…”

The strong smell of fresh coffee filled the space. A spatula slapped against hard metal at the stove and I heard the sound of gas whooshing into flame.

“Gal `at turned me in got more’n even she deserved for her troubles, though.” The woman’s head and shoulders momentarily disappeared from view like a jack-in-the-box.

“How so?” I wondered aloud.

“Found her murdered,” she told me as if it were a quotidian announcement. “`Bout a month back now. Bad—real bad.” Potatoes rumbled into a metal sink echoing inside the inner kitchen and I heard water splash. She paused as if to consider what she was saying. “Found her necked as an `ole J-bird. Layin’ dead along the edge of a field. Say she was raped and strangled. “Whole town took it real hard.”

The profound heaviness of the words murder and rape caught my full attention. The details hit me in my guts. “Hard to imagine a thing like that in such a quiet little town.”

The red light flashed on the coffee machine and a buzzer sounded. “Coffee,” the woman announced, tossing a hand towel across her shoulder. “Lemme grab ya a cup.” She swung out from the back kitchen, her apron now showing wet handprints.

“Both of `em,” she said, “from right here in town. They was in here same night it all happened. Him sittin’ `bout where you are now. She was over yonder.” She pointed to a corner table. “Got into a big fight—everybody heard him threaten her.” She held a second mug under the spigot of the coffeemaker. “`Course, like I say, she was as bad with her language as any o’ the men she chased around with.” She flipped the spigot closed and dabbed at a spill before taking a sip from one of the cups. Sliding the other cup in front of me, she continued her tale. “Still, nobody deserves to die like she did…so young. Pretty girl, too.”

The topic of young people dying before their time was a sore subject with me, but this woman couldn’t know that. I let it pass. Clearly, we were coming at the death of young people from two different places.

“Daddy’s a big shot here in town. Owns the mercantile,” she said.

That last revelation made me go queasy and I cut her off mid-thought. “You talking about Sal DeCosta?”

“His oldest daughter Miranda that was killed,” she affirmed, looking up at me. The woman must have seen into me because she stopped speaking and touched my hand gently before she asked, “You know the DeCosta family?”

“Yeah,” I said, more to myself than in answer to her. “I know them—knew them—all of them…the DeCostas.” But I had no interest in revealing any more to her about what was gripping me inside. “Jesus. Miranda dead. How can that be?” I whispered.

“Sounds like you knew ‘em pretty well.” She was niggling after details by that point.

I ignored her. Memories drifted like grey clouds across an ominous November sky. “I went to school with her,” I heard myself droning. Maybe I was just thinking it, I’m not sure. It felt as if I’d slipped down a long constricted tunnel; a VC warren. I was back in the jungle. Steven lay dead beside me. What was left of Randy’s life was oozing out of him thirty yards away. No way I could get to him. Ray’s remains were unrecognizable the way the grenade blew his face and chest wide open. One moment we were there, giving each other a raft of shit. I could hear them, feel them, smell them. In the next instant, nothingness. And it could never be undone. Whatever was left unsaid between us, between everyone they ever knew, would remain unsaid forever. Life became appallingly finite in an instant.

The nightmare was happening again. I’d come here to speak to one person—Miranda DeCosta. Not for the first time, I found the cruelty of life overwhelming.

“You don’t look familiar,” the woman on the other side of the counter said.

“I gotta go.” As I stepped away from the counter and opened the door, the big orange cat slipped by. I lunged for him, but just touched his tail as he broke free.

“It’s okay,” the woman assured me. “He usually goes out about now anyway.”

“You said they were both from here. Was there more than one person killed?”

“Meant Miranda and the guy who killed her. Both from right here in town.”

I stood in the doorway, holding it half open. “They caught who did it?”

“Had to know him too you went to school here.” The woman had pulled the bottom edge of her apron up, wrung her hands nervously. She studied my six-foot frame thoroughly. I’d filled out a lot since high school; wore my hair longer now, down over my ears and to my collar in the back. I didn’t want people to recognize me as a Vet. None of what she saw answered the question in her mind; who was it she was talking to?

The phone rang before she could dig further. I let the door swing closed in front of me while she went to answer the call. “No, Jorge,” she said. “Everything’s fine. Just didn’t know what time I opened.” She shook her head a few times and thanked the caller. She walked back toward me. “Local deputy checking up on me.” She jabbed her thumb over her shoulder in the direction of the phone. “Not normally open this hour.”

I grabbed the handle to the door once more and began to push.

“Fella name o’ Caputo—Vinny Caputo—guy who murdered Miranda.”

The revelation stunned me and I stood with my head buried down the front of my chest. “Knew him, too,” I confessed.

“And you say you went to school right here in town.” The woman went on probing the depths of her memory. The unanswered question of my identity was grinding on her. “Been around these parts thirty-five years. Oughtta know who you are.”

Suddenly I just didn’t give a shit about anonymity any longer. “Charlie Caldwell.”

“Oh, my goodness,” she bellowed, drawing both hands up to her mouth. “I woulda never recognized you.” She stepped back to survey me closely. “Why, you seem—taller?” She hesitated. “You remember me, Charlie? You went to school with both o’ my boys, too. Jeffery and Dennis Ponder. I’m Dorothy—Dorothy Ponder.” She smiled up at me, reaching over to run her hands down the full length of my arm as though she were caressing something venerable or expensive.

The instant she told me her name, I knew who she was. “Sure, Mrs. Ponder. Now that you remind me, I do remember you.”

“How long has it been?” Dorothy Ponder dithered, trying to recall things from the past. “You left town right after high school graduation back in…’62. People talked about that. You just up and left.”

Too much information coming in, going out. “Another time, Mrs. Ponder,” I said, pushing out the door.

“Dorothy,” she called after me. “Call me Dorothy.”

I turned to face her. “Okay…Dorothy. Another time.” This time I gave her no opportunity to corral me and moved up the street, headed back to the Trail’s End Motel.

Why I didn’t immediately check out of my room and return to Mexico, I can’t tell you. But I didn’t.

I wasn’t surprised to learn Dorothy Ponder had gone straight to her telephone and dialed her closest friend. By the end of the day, nearly all of Divina, California, population two-thousand-plus, knew Charlie Caldwell was back in town.

Thick Fog in Pacheco Pass

Miranda DeCosta has been murdered. Death, as Charlie Caldwell has so cruelly learned, cheats one out of any opportunity to set life on the correct path.

Charlie has come to Divina, the tiny central California town where he grew up, bent on confronting Miranda over the event that defined and destroyed every romantic relationship he has ever entertained.

Questions about Miranda’s unraveling life and violent murder gradually invade Charlie’s consciousness. Bits and pieces of seemingly insignificant information begin to nag at him causing him to question whether the man locked behind bars and charged with her murder is, in fact, the real killer.

Become enthralled while Charlie takes his first baby-steps toward reinventing himself, solves the question of who really murdered Miranda DeCosta and discovers another unforgettable woman who will reshape his life.

Following up from his exciting debut novel, Betrayed, author R.P. McCabe delivers again in this edge-of-the-seat “whodunit”. Thick Fog In Pacheco Pass will keep you guessing to the last page.

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Genre – Mystery-Thriller Crime Series 

Rating – R

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