She sat reading a thick paperback, the smoke of her cigarette rising languidly from an ashtray at her elbow. The man sat across the room engrossed in his cell phone. He sat outside the circle of light cast by her reading lamp, so only the small screen illuminated his face. She laid the book down, looked over at him, and sighed. He looked calm, his face almost tranquil, she thought. She liked that about him, the hidden power of a coiled spring. He looked up at her and gave what passed for a smile. “You’re right. It’s time to go,” he said.
She took a deep drag on her cigarette, ground the butt into the ashtray, and exhaled a plume of gray smoke as she got up.
He stood and studied her for a moment. “You look nervous.”
“I’m fine.” She smiled. She could always produce an unforced smile, even in the most stressful situations. “I’m anxious to get on with this.”
“Get the keys. You’re driving.”
They didn’t talk much on the drive to the overlook. She was focused on getting them there without incident while he just sat there with that placid look, a duffel bag resting between his feet. The man knew the way since he drove the last time they visited the spot. “Slow down, the turn’s coming up on the right,” and as she wheeled off the highway, he added, “Watch the potholes.”
The headlights bored a shaft into the darkness, illuminating an ascending dirt road cut into the hillside. They hadn’t gone far when the man said, “Okay, cut the lights. The farmhouse is coming up on the right.” A smear of yellow light through the trees marked the structure at the end of a long drive. They drifted by the driveway, rounded a curve, then pulled off the road and parked at a break in the trees. She shut off the car, and they sat for a while with only the ticking of the cooling engine to break the silence. A lopsided, pale yellow moon had just cleared the horizon, and lights glittered on the valley floor like a reflection of the stars. She felt a stab of guilt when memories threatened to avalanche, but she held herself in check. Stick to the plan, she told herself.
He unzipped the duffel bag and handed her a prepaid cell phone. “Call him. Make it good, and remind him that this is your little secret.”
Her eyes had adjusted, and even in the low light she caught something different in his face, a kind of blankness, like he was wearing a mask with nothing behind it. She pushed the unsettling feeling down. What do you expect? He’s got a job to do.
When she finished the call, she handed him the phone. He smiled. “That was good. Very convincing.”
She nodded, lit up a cigarette, and blew a stream of smoke out a gap in the window. “He bought it, and no way he’s telling anybody. He’s on his way.”
The man glanced at his watch. “It’ll take him around fifteen minutes to get here.” They stared out at the valley lights without speaking. A thin band of clouds now shrouded the moon like a dirty rag. Eight minutes later the man retrieved a pair of thin leather gloves and put them on slowly and deliberately. When he reached back into the bag, a twinge of excitement stirred in her. She expected him to pull out the handgun he’d shown her, but instead he withdrew a sixteen-inch steel shaft.
“What’s that fo—?”
The first blow hit her on the bridge of nose, stunning her.
The second blow killed her.
I didn’t throw a dart at a map, but it was something damn close that had led me to this spot in Oregon. I came up from L.A. for a weekend just to look around, knowing only that I needed to move somewhere but not having a clue where. Back in happier times, my wife, daughter, and I had passed through the Northwest on vacation and were taken by the natural beauty of the place and the friendly, laid-back attitude of the Oregonians we met along the way. So, I thought, why not Oregon? I found a real estate agent online and flew into Portland without any idea of what I was looking for. The agent looked crestfallen when I announced I could only spare a Saturday for house-hunting. Sunday, I told her, was reserved for a trip to the wine country. I’d heard Oregon was producing some pretty good wines, and I wanted to taste some.
Between my not knowing what I wanted and the real estate agent’s insistence on showing me suburban bungalows with manicured lawns, the Saturday hunt was a bust. That Sunday I found myself lost somewhere in the hills above the little town of Dundee, a small burg in the heart of the Oregon wine country. I was searching for the turnoff to one of the wineries on my target list when I spotted a for-sale sign at the top of a narrow, unpaved lane named Eagle Nest. Instinctively, I followed the rutted lane and found the advertised property—five acres that sloped gently southward to a fence line below. The acreage was dotted with old growth Douglas firs and featured a vacant farmhouse that stood like a fortress near the southern boundary. I parked at the gate and walked the drive leading down to the house, a turn-of-the-last-century four-over-four with a gabled roof and a high brick chimney. It was roofed in old growth cedar shingles and clad in what looked like the original shiplap siding, painted white with dark green trim, the paint job chipped and faded. Through the windows I spied scuffed oak floors, high, crown-molded ceilings, and a rough-hewn stone fireplace.
The farmhouse had good bones, but it was the view that sold me. In the foreground, I saw a panorama of rolling hills dressed with orderly rows of grapevines interspersed with stands of conifer and deciduous trees. The valley beyond the Pacific Highway was bounded by the Cascade Mountains and the Coast Range and seemed to stretch all the way to California. It was a study in muted colors, like a Paul Klee painting, and in the distance, lit by the morning sun, the Willamette River wove through the tapestry like a silver thread.
As I stood there, something welled up in me, a sense of belonging that had no basis in rationality. It came up from the cedar planks I stood on, into the soles of my feet, through my gut, and into my heart. I had found my new home. My daughter suggested I call the place The Aerie, and the name stuck.
That was nearly a decade ago.
On the early-October night this story began, I was sitting out on the side porch with my dog, Archie, who lay next to my chair gnawing a bone cradled in his big, white paws. Arch is an Australian shepherd tricolor, large for his breed, but gentle and smarter than any whip. The moon hung low to the east that night, screened by come-and-go cloud cover, and the lights in the valley twinkled in the crystalline air. As a lawyer in a one-man practice, I’d spent the day in court in McMinnville, which bled my energy but not my appetite. I settled for a quick stir-fry made from leftover chicken to which I added some sliced carrots, fresh ginger, garlic, and green onions. I was finishing a bottle of Mirror Pond Pale Ale, and wishing dogs could be trained to do dishes, when my cell phone chirped. I’d had enough of people for one day, but when I saw it was Jim Kavanaugh, a neighbor and good friend, I decided to answer. “Jim, what’s up?”
“Cal, oh, God, it’s Lori. She’s dead.”
“What? What happened?” Lori was Jim’s estranged wife.
“I don’t know. It looks like, oh, Jesus, like someone hit her with something. She’s covered in blood.”
“Jim, Are you sure she’s dead?”
“She’s unresponsive, and I can’t feel a pulse. I called 911, and the cops and an ambulance just arrived.”
“Good. Where are you?”
“I’m up on Parrett Mountain, at an overlook. Uh, do you think you could come? I, uh—”
“Do you need a lawyer?”
He paused. “I don’t know. Just come, okay?”
“Sure. I’ll be there as fast as I can.”
He gave me directions and I left immediately, leaving a disappointed Archie on the front porch. As I worked my way down to the Pacific Highway, my heart ached for Lori Kavanaugh, an ex-neighbor and friend. She and Jim had been married, what, three years? It was Jim’s first marriage and her third. I can’t say that I’d gotten to know her all that well. She was an attractive woman, tall and lithe with flowing dark hair and a face that turned heads. The owner of an up-and-coming winery, Jim worshipped her, but Lori seemed to struggle with being the wife of a vintner. Jim was serious about the wine business, and she seemed unable to cope with his absolute commitment to his craft. In any case, she walked out of the marriage about a year ago and moved to Portland.
As I turned onto Newberg-Wilsonville Road, my thoughts turned to Jim, who was devastated by the breakup and held on doggedly to the hope of reconciliation, as the spurned often do. A fourth-generation Oregonian, Jim had converted the entire family farm—some one hundred and fifty acres of southwest-facing land in the Dundee Hills—into a vineyard with the express purpose of growing grapes and making wine. After suffering insect infestations, frost, mildew attacks, and ill-timed rain, the gamble was starting to pay off. His wines, especially his pinot noirs, were gaining a devoted following, and the entire region was attracting international attention. On the other hand, Jim always seemed to be stressed about money for reasons he never shared with me, another reason Lori may have seen fit to jump ship.
As instructed, I climbed into the hills loosely referred to as Parrett Mountain. What the hell was going on? What brought them together at this sparsely populated area? Had Jim asked me to come as a friend for support, or did he need a lawyer and was just unwilling to admit it?
I hoped it was the former, but my gut told me otherwise.