Sometimes, when I’m working in my office, the sound of traffic out on Pacific Highway reminds me of a river. I close my eyes and there I am, hip deep in the current, casting my fly rod as ravenous trout and steelhead rise around me. But there was no time for fly fishing fantasies on that particular day. I was booked solid from nine until four. Not that being busy meant I was making much money in my one-man law practice. Money’s tight in the small town of Dundee, Oregon, particularly since the downturn, and I found myself bartering for my fee more often than I’d like. Just the week before, I’d agreed to handle a man’s divorce in exchange for his repairing the fence on the south side of my property. Thank God I have my early retirement from the city of Los Angeles to fall back on, meager as it is.
I was a chief prosecutor down there. You probably know the type—uptight, ambitious, nose to the grindstone. I called what I did for a living my career, like it was some precious thing one kept in a glass case to admire. That seems a lifetime ago, and now my needs are more modest up here in Oregon. Enough cash to cover the mortgage and underwrite my fishing habit does me fine.
It was noon, and I had just unwrapped a bagel with cream cheese, red onion, capers, and a thick slice of Chinook salmon I’d smoked the week before. I groaned when I heard a tentative knocking on my back door. The parking lot’s behind my office, so most people come in at the rear, although I have a front door that opens directly onto the street.
“Crap. Can’t a guy even eat lunch around here?” I asked my Australian shepherd, Archie, who, at the sound of the knocking, had let out a short, irritated bark from his favorite spot in the corner. Vowing to make short work of my visitor, I opened the door and said, “Can I help you?”
“Are you Calvin Claxton, the lawyer?” Maybe twenty, tall, pencil thin, he sported black, spiky hair and a silver ring thrust through his eyebrow that matched a smaller one through his lower lip. Tattoos decorated both forearms and one crawled out of his scruffy black t-shirt, disappeared around his neck, and reappeared on the other side. It was a strikingly realistic depiction of a coral snake.
“Yeah. That’s me. What can I do for you?” My tone wasn’t particularly friendly. I felt ambivalent about pierced, tattooed, dressed-in-black types. I’m all for rebellious youth—how else are we going to change anything on this damn planet? But there was an odd uniformity to their look that put me off, and I had a sense they were passive and uninformed when it came to the real issues battering this world. On the other hand, I felt just as ambivalent about most politicos dressed in blue suits and red power ties.
“I want to, uh, talk to you about something.” Lightly pocked with acne scars, his pale cheeks joined his chin at a sharp angle. He had dark, liquid eyes that were clear and alert. I caught something in them—urgency, for sure, and something deeper with an edge to it I couldn’t quite read.
“I’m taking a lunch break right now. You want to make an appointment?”
He shook his head and sighed. “I came all the way out here from Portland, man. I need to talk to you now.”
I hesitated for a moment, then stepped back from the doorway. “What’s your name?”
“Picasso. That’s what everyone calls me. My real name’s Danny Baxter.”
“Okay, Danny. Come on in. I hope you don’t mind if I eat while we talk.”
He took a seat facing me across the desk. His high-top combat boots gleamed shiny black like the cheap plastic briefcase he was opening. He pulled out a file stuffed with papers, and while I munched a bite of my bagel, he said, “I want you to help me find the person who murdered my mother.”
I set the bagel down and came forward in my chair. Not exactly what I expected to hear. My guess was he’d been busted for selling or possession or both. “I’m sorry for your loss, but I’m afraid that’s a job for the police.”
He sneered at the word. “They don’t give a shit. I’ve given up on them, man.”
“So, why me?”
“I met a kid in Portland from around here. He told me you helped his mom out. His old man was threatening to kill her. He said you’re smart, that you don’t give up. I want someone like you, someone who’s not a cop.”
I had to smile. I remembered the case. “I might’ve done that, but it sounds like what you need is a private investigator. I’m just an attorney. I don’t do investigative work for a living.”
His face remained impassive, but his eyes registered pain, like I’d just slapped him. “I can pay you. I’ve got money.”
I’m not good at saying no. In fact, I’m lousy at it. Just ask my accountant. Sure, there was something about the kid I liked, his pluck, I guess. But my getting involved in some cold case in Portland made absolutely no sense. And his idea of money probably wouldn’t cover my first day. You’ve got bills to pay, I reminded myself.
I stood up and said, “Sorry, but I’m not your man. I’d be glad to suggest someone who might be able to help you.”
I expected him to push back, but instead, he tossed the file in his briefcase and muttered, half to himself, “Should’ve known better.” The abruptness caught me off-guard. It was like he was used to being turned down, and considering his appearance, I supposed it was a regular occurrence. This tugged at me, but I resisted the temptation to ask him to stay.
I showed him out the back way. When I returned to my desk, I glanced out the side window just in time to see him pedaling north on a beat-up street bike with his briefcase bungeed to a rack over the back wheel. A dark band of clouds hung on the horizon in front of him. It was probably twenty-five miles back to Portland and I knew he’d get soaked, for sure. I shrugged and asked Archie, “Why the hell didn’t he just phone me?” Then I turned back to my desk and opened the file of my next client.
I had work to do, but the thought of that kid slogging all the way back to Portland in the rain made it hard to concentrate.