Dead Float: A Cal Claxton Oregon Mystery #2

Dead Float: A Cal Claxton Oregon Mystery #2

Cal Claxton–a former LA prosecutor now practicing law in Oregon’s wine country and who works to fish–has to pinch himself when his best friend Philip Lone Deer asks him to ...

About The Author

Warren C. Easley

Formerly a research scientist and international business executive, award-winning author Warren C. Easley lives in Oregon where he writes fiction ...

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Chapter One

If I’ve learned one thing in this life, it’s that trouble has a way of finding you, no matter where you go or what you do to avoid it. I moved up here from Los Angeles to get away from the big city and all that came with it. A one-man law practice in a small rural town—that was my plan. Start fresh, mind my own business, keep my head down. Oh, and my daughter, Claire, told me to get a dog and find a hobby. Well, I’ve done all that, but I can’t say I’ve gotten the results I expected.

A case in point—the series of events that began early one morning last June.

I remember that morning distinctly because of the weird dream that woke me just before dawn. I was walking on a deserted beach. A gust of wind parted the fog hanging over the water just long enough for me to see Claire standing out in the surf on jagged rocks. As a huge wave gathered silently behind her, the mist closed again like a curtain. I ran up and down the beach waving my arms and shouting warnings. She reappeared. The wave was now nearly upon her. I cupped my hands around my mouth and screamed, but the wind blew the sound back into my lungs.

I awoke with the cry still rattling in my throat. I sobbed and my pulse hammered. Archie, my Australian shepherd, had left his corner of the bedroom to offer support. He stood with his head cocked to one side, his stump of a tail wagging tentatively. It had been a while since I’d had a dream like that. I used to dream about my wife, Nancy. But that’s another story. This dream was about Claire, my daughter, my only child. She had taken a year off from her graduate studies at Berkeley to help dig wells in remote villages in the Darfur region of the Sudan. She was supposed to call me by satellite phone at least once a week. That was the deal.

She was now three days overdue.

Claire’s presence in one of the most dangerous places on the planet had started innocently enough. She heard this guy speak at Berkeley—some high tech billionaire-turned-humanitarian— who’d founded a non-profit called Well Spring. Their mission was to help the poorest region on the planet. They would use simple, low-cost technology. They would not only dig wells, they would teach the Sudanese to dig their own. In so doing, they would transform a region where access to water is everything.

I’d seen enough of life to know that do-gooder schemes often have a way of going awry. But I wasn’t about to let my cynicism get in her way, so I gave her my blessing. I knew deep down that what I thought wasn’t going to influence her anyway. Claire was going to do what her conscience dictated. After all, that’s how her mother and I had raised her. And, in truth, I was proud of what she was doing. So, apart from my usual separation anxiety, I wasn’t particularly worried about her, at least not until she was late calling in. I sat on the edge of the bed, stroking Archie’s head. I’ll give it another day before I call Well Spring, I decided.

Archie and I jumped when the phone rang. I glanced at the clock as I picked up the receiver. It was a little before five.

“Cal?” a familiar voice said cheerily. “How are you, buddy?” “Is that you, Lone Deer?” There was more edge to my voice

than intended. I’m really not at my best before the sun rises. “Yeah, it’s me. You okay? You sound like I woke you up or something.”

“Ah, actually you didn’t wake me up, but you meant to. I was just hoping you were Claire is all.” I instantly regretted having said that, because I didn’t feel like discussing the situation, even with my good friend, Philip Lone Deer.

“Expecting her to call, huh? She doing okay over there?” “Fine,” I replied. “She’s doing fine.” I was relieved that Philip was apparently unaware of the ongoing situation in Darfur. At best it was being called a civil war, at worst genocide. This was a busy time of year for him, so I suspected reading the newspapers was not a high priority. “So, what’s so important you have to call me before the damn birds are up?

Lone Deer chuckled. “Cal, you know I’m an early riser, man. I’ve been up since four. I need you on the Deschutes tomorrow, not Thursday. My clients moved their date up a day. Can you make it?”

“Hang on a sec. Let me check my calendar.”

I slipped into my moccasins and padded down to the study on the first floor. Archie followed me with breakfast on his mind. The stillness of the morning was broken by the creaks and groans of the stairs and the sound of his nails on the worn treads.

Philip Lone Deer was a professional fishing guide. I had met him on a float trip Claire had given me as a birthday present. I was a fledgling fly fisherman and Philip a patient teacher. We hit it off, and soon, when our schedules allowed, we were fishing together as friends rather than as guide and client.

Last year one of Philip’s guides hurt his back right at the beginning of the salmon fly hatch on the Deschutes River, as wild and unspoiled a river as there is in Oregon, and North America, for that matter. It was his busiest time on the river, so out of desperation, he asked me to fill in the three days it would take for him to get a replacement. I had such a great time that I offered to guide for Philip every year at this time, and since he was always short of personnel, he readily accepted. Tomorrow would be the first day of this commitment. For the next two weeks I was to shed my identity as small-town lawyer, and become Cal Claxton, fly-fishing guide.

I sat down at my desk, opened my calendar, and picked up the phone. “Yeah. Looks doable. My morning’s full, but I can duck out this afternoon in time to be in Madras for dinner.”

“Great, Cal.” Then we’re good to go. Look, Blake and I won’t get in to Madras until late, so just meet us at the Trout Creek put-in at seven in the morning.”

I was wide awake now and craving a cup of coffee. I went into the kitchen, fed Archie, and drew a double espresso shot using my stainless steel DeLonhi—one of my prized possessions—to which I added hot, frothy milk. The birds had begun to sing, and the Doug firs to the east formed sharply etched silhouettes against a deep orange sky.

My old farmhouse is perched like a lone sentinel on a high ridge in the Dundee Hills at the northern edge of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The view out the back of my place looks south, straight down the gun barrel of the valley, bounded by the Coastal Range to the west and the Cascades to the east. Pinot noir grapes thrive in the ferrous-rich soils up here, so the view below me is mainly undulating vineyards, although I can see fields of hazelnuts, hops, and even Christmas trees. Further out, the valley floor becomes a soft patchwork of cultivated fields narrowing to the horizon, a study in greens, yellows, and ocher. Dundee, the nearest town, sits at the base of the hills a few miles away. Dubbed by some, mainly locals, the unofficial wine capitol of Oregon, the little town of eight thousand is experiencing growing pains brought on by the expansion of the wine industry and the split that inevitably develops between those who welcome growth and those who don’t. As an L.A. native I know only too well what unbridled growth can do. But I felt safe in my refuge and figured it’d take a long time for the developers to find me.

After another jolt of espresso, I started packing so I could leave for the Deschutes directly from my office in Dundee. I loaded my traveling fly case with an assortment of caddis flies and bead-head nymphs and left room for the salmon flies that Philip had promised. He tied his own, and they were the best on the river. I screwed a fresh CO2 cartridge into my fishing vest. The small bottle held enough pressurized gas to inflate the vest in case of an emergency. Activated by a ripcord, it would float me in case I came loose in the rapids.

As I loaded the car, I had this nagging feeling I’d forgotten something. I turned to Archie and said, “Okay, big boy, what is it?” His ears came forward and he whined softly a couple of times. Then it came to me. I’d lost the belt to my waders on my last trip. This wasn’t just a matter of looking good on the river. I’d heard too many stories of good fishermen who’d drowned when their waders filled with water and dragged them under because they weren’t wearing a tightly cinched belt. I went back in the house, grabbed a thick leather belt, and tossed it on top of my waders.

His chin resting on his paws, Archie lay on the porch watch- ing me intently for clues—was he going with me or would he have to stay? When I packed his feeding dish, watering bowl, and a bag of kibble, he sprang up, wagging his tail. “Don’t get your hopes up, Arch” I told him, “I can’t take you with me.” I would have left him at home, to be cared for by our neighbor, Gertrude Johnson, but Gertie was under the weather, so plan B was to drop him at the local vet.

When I finished loading the car I opened the back door and gave a slight nod. Arch vaulted into the seat in an instant, sitting erect with a doggie grin on his face. That dog of mine never listens to me.

As we rolled down my long driveway, a mass of dark clouds blotted out the sun. My enthusiasm faded with the sunlight. The vivid dream I had that morning came back to me, and I thought of Claire again. But something else nagged, too. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I won’t say it was a premonition, because I don’t believe in premonitions. But it was something pretty damn close.

Reviews of

Dead Float: A Cal Claxton Oregon Mystery #2

“As Dead Float begins, Claxton and Philip are hosting the managers of a high-tech firm. The execs have hired a consultant, who gathers the team into an encounter group: worker bees get to tell the boss what they really think of him. Any surprise somebody gets murdered? Of interest is that, along with the usual motivations for murder—money, sex, revenge—the author suggests others. Humiliation? Hurt feelings? Dim cops try to nail Cal for the crime, so he must catch the killer himself, and, in true old-school style, identities unspool as the plot twists abound. Good writing and a fine, wild ending.”

Booklist

“A former lawyer finds that leading a fishing expedition isn’t quite the respite he was expecting when a customer is murdered on the trip.

Ever since he left his high-pressure job as an LA prosecutor, Cal Claxton has been looking for a little peace and quiet. Walks with his loyal dog, Archie, and trout fishing on Oregon’s Deschutes River now fill his time. Cal expects an equally relaxed few days when he agrees to lead a fishing trip for his friend Philip Lone Deer. Almost immediately, however, the drama begins when Cal realizes the trip is for Hal Bruckner, head of up-and-coming NanoTech. Not only do Hal’s companions have poorly hidden disagreements about the Diamond Wire Project the company is planning, but Hal’s wife, Alexis, has a personal (very personal) history with Cal. Luckily, Hal had the foresight to hire Daina Zakaris, a consultant with Accelerated Management Development, to help with the professional transition. Daina gets some of the animosity out in the open and begins to develop communication between the four members of NanoTech’s management team. But she doesn’t seem to have been so successful at having the team confront conflict: They awaken to find Hal’s been murdered. While it’s obvious to Cal that someone must have been hired to kill Hal, local cops believe Cal may be to blame. Clearly, the best way to prove his innocence is to find out who’s behind Hal’s death.

Easley’s second continues to flesh out Cal’s character but sets him against some two-dimensional bad guys. It’s an improvement over Matters of Doubt (2013), but the nitty-gritty details still don’t sing out.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Settle down for an evening’s company with Cal Claxton. But first, take a glass of pinot noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he has his law office, and a seat on a bench overlooking the Deschutes River, where he waves a fly rod for rainbow trout between cases. Failing that, any wine, any chair, anywhere. Dead Float starts with a man’s throat cut ear to ear and Claxton’s fishing knife found nearby, and gathers momentum like the midnight freight trains nearby. As a Deschutes aficionado myself, I’ll never listen to those lonesome whistles again without thinking of this story, and thanking the stars it was only fiction.”

Keith McCafferty, author of The Royal Wulff Murders, The Gray Ghost Murders, and Dead Man's Fancy

“A fast-paced, tightly woven who-dunnit that kept me guessing to the end.
Easley’s vivid landscapes and well-drawn characters evoke comparisons to James Lee Burke, and Cal Claxton is as determined and resourceful as Burke’s Dave Robicheaux.”

Robert Dugoni, NY Times best selling author of Murder One

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