I’ve got one rule in the morning—drink two double cappuccinos before I do anything else. I occasionally make exceptions, however, for fly fishing or a pre-breakfast run with my dog. On the morning this case began, one look out the window signaled a run was in order. I was in Portland and the early spring day broke clear and bright. As I put on my jogging shoes, Archie spun in circles and barked in high-pitched, crazed excitement. I leashed him up and we headed out, working our way over to Burnside from Couch, then down the steep steps at the bridge and across to Tom McCall Park.
Not that many spring days break clear in Portland, so half the city, it seemed, was out that morning. Walkers, runners, bikers, ’boarders, and even a couple of Segway riders vied for right-of-way on the broad promenade running along the west side of the rain-swollen Willamette River. I was hoping my favorite, the kilted, unicycling bagpiper, would be out, but I didn’t see him. The cherry trees edging the walkway were in full bloom, and out on the water, slanting sunlight silhouetted the low profiles of multi-oared sculls. It was spring in Portland, there was light, and like a living organism, the city surged with newfound energy.
Archie and I wove our way north and crossed the river at the Steel Bridge, then headed south on the Eastbank Esplanade, a series of floating sections, ramps, and concrete paths that hugged the Willamette and afforded an unobstructed view of Portland’s skyline across the river. That morning the U.S. Bancorp Tower— known to locals as the Big Pink—glowed rosily in the sunlight, and ten blocks south, the Art Deco KOIN Center looked like a Jules Verne rocket ship poised to blast off. Arch and I crossed back over on the Hawthorne Bridge, and by the time we got back to my Portland office I was breathing pretty hard. I stood at the front door fumbling for the keys in my sweats when I heard someone clear her throat behind me.
“Excuse me, but could you tell me where Caffeine Central is?”
I turned to face a twentysomething Hispanic woman. She was small in stature, a couple of inches more than five feet, and wore boots, scruffy jeans, and a tee-shirt that had Hands Off My Hood emblazoned across the front. “This is it,” I said, pointing upward. “The sign’s a little faded.”
“Oh,” she said, glancing up, “I didn’t see it. Are you Cal Claxton?”
I offered my hand and smiled. “In the flesh. Uh, this is my office. The place used to be a coffee shop called Caffeine Central before a Starbucks moved in up the street and squeezed it out of business. I’ve been meaning to replace that sign.” What I didn’t say was that that had been my intention for the decade I’d been running this part-time, pro-bono law practice in Portland.
She grasped my hand with surprising firmness. “I’m Angela Wingate.” She had a lovely, heart-shaped face dominated by brown eyes that mirrored the color of her short hair. “I’ve come to talk to you, Mr. Claxton.”
I glanced at my watch. “We don’t open for another thirty minutes. If you’d like to wait, I’ll be back down as soon as I shower and change.” Drops of sweat dripped from my eyebrows as if to emphasize the point. She nodded, and I added, “Archie, here, will keep you company. You want some coffee? I’m making some.”
She declined the coffee and followed me through the small waiting room into my office. Archie sidled up next to her with his stump of a tail twitching. “An Aussie,” she said. “Love his markings. He’s very handsome.”
“Careful,” I said over my shoulder as I climbed the stairs up to my studio apartment, “it’ll go straight to his head.”
Twenty-five minutes later I joined Angela, carrying a steaming mug of coffee. Archie left her side, took his favorite spot in the corner, and lay with his white paws extended and his ears up, as if he, too, were curious about our first visitor of the day.
Before I could say anything, she pointed to a small sign hanging behind my desk that read:
Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.
“I like that.” She showed a wisp of a smile.
I nodded. “Me, too. So, Angela, what can I do for you?”
She shifted in her seat, squeezed one hand with the other, and teared up. “Oh, shit. I promised myself I wouldn’t do this.”
I got up and handed her a tissue. “Hey, crying’s allowed in here. What’s the problem? Take your time.”
She dabbed her eyes, blew her nose, and sat up a little straighter. “It’s my mom. She was killed five weeks ago. Hit-and-run. Right up in the posh-ass hills of West Portland.” She shot me an angry look. “Someone’s Mercedes is probably in the shop right now, having the bumper fixed and the blood cleaned off.”
I winced, as much at her cynical response as at her loss. “I’m so sorry to hear that. I think I read about it. Was your mom Margaret Wingate?” The story had hit the front pages since Margaret Wingate was well-known in Portland’s charity circles.
She nodded, and her eyes filled again. “She and I, we’d just made peace, you know, as mother and daughter.” She managed a half-smile. “My teenage years, well, I was a selfish little bitch with a rotten attitude. Drove my parents crazy. Chuck, he was my dad, finally disowned me, but Mom always kept in touch, even when she was angry and freaked out by my behavior.” Her look turned wistful. “She never gave up on me.”
I knew Charles Wingate, a prominent developer, died of a stroke a year earlier. “I know about your dad’s passing, too. Again, I’m sorry.”
She forced a laugh, but her eyes were etched in pain. “An orphan twice over. My biological mother used to clean the Wingates’ house, and when she was killed in a car wreck on I-84, the Wingates adopted me.” The wisp of a smile again. “That’s why I’m brown and they’re white. The adoption was mainly Mom’s idea. I knew from an early age that Chuck never really considered me his daughter. I was just a prop to show they were, you know, good liberal Portlanders.”
“Was that why you acted out?”
She looked at me straight on. “No. No excuses. It’s all on me. After I lost my biological mom, I was pretty screwed up, didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere, and I made a lot of really shitty choices. You know, I had to do every reckless thing out there to prove how cool I was.” She shook her head. “God knows Mom and Chuck tried to help me. I did every program there is for messed-up kids—Outward Bound, behavioral therapy, counselors, and a half-dozen shrinks with all the latest antidepressant drugs, three stints in residential rehab…You name it, I’ve done it.”
It was an all-too-familiar story. Given the pits and snares our culture throws at kids, it was a wonder any of them made it through unscathed. I looked at her again and saw a quiet determination. It wasn’t hard to spot. “Looks like you have new priorities now.”
“I have. I’d like to say it was because of some miraculous event or strength in my character, but the truth is I think a couple of synapses in my brain finally connected.” She laughed self-consciously. “You know, the teenage brain’s not all there. And I finally quit putting shit in my body that messes with my head.”
I smiled, admiring her honesty. “What brought you and your mother back together?”
Her face brightened. “I’d been working on making amends, you know, as part of the Twelve Steps. Anyway, I wrote her a long letter of apology, she called me, and we met at a coffee shop.” She laughed. “We cried right there in public. It was ridiculous. At the end of that first meeting, I happened to mention my wanting to go to the march in DC, and Mom jumped on it.”
“The Women’s March?”
“Yeah. That’s what sealed the deal.” A smile creased her lips. “It was an epiphany for her. I mean life-changing. That sea of committed women from all over the country, the funny signs, the angry signs, the speakers—my God, she was blown away. All the way home on the plane we talked about ways she could become more engaged, you know, to start to make a real difference. She was like a new woman, and after years of battling, we were finally good again, too. It was like we’d found this common purpose.”
I nodded, aware of how ill-timed and wrenching her mother’s death must have been. “I’m glad you had that experience with your mother, Angela. How can I help you?”
She leaned forward in her seat. Angela was small, but her dark chocolate eyes, which were almost too big for her face, had an intensity that commanded attention. “I hear you’re good at solving crimes, stuff the cops might give up on. They’re too busy busting the homeless or hassling street kids. Finding some rich dude up in the West Hills who killed my mom? Who knows? Might cause a scandal.”
I knew where this was going. Was there a millennial in this town who trusted the cops? “The police in Portland have a tough job, Angela, and my guess is your mom’s case has a high priority. What are they telling you?”
“Nothing to me directly, but Melvin, that’s my mom’s attorney, says they’re doing everything they can. But he’s full of shit most of the time.”
“Do the police have any leads?”
“Nada. I guess nobody saw anything when it happened. Melvin said they’re checking all the body shops, but nothing’s turned up.” She met my eyes and held them, her eyes beseeching. “Could you just take a look? It’s been over a month. I know you work pro bono here, but I can pay you.”
I should have said no. After all, what could I bring to a garden variety hit-and-run case? But the thought that someone was walking around free out there, someone who had taken this young woman’s mother from her in such a brutal way, stuck in my craw. “Okay, I’ll make some inquiries, but I can’t promise a thing.” I pointed in the direction of the waiting room. “It’s probably filling up out there. Give me your contact information. I’ll want to talk to you again in more detail, but that can wait. I’ll be in touch.”
She jotted down her cell phone number and e-mail address and left, but not before shaking my hand and giving Archie a hug. With the door to the waiting room closed, I leaned back in my chair with my fingers laced behind my head for a few moments. Angela’s story was familiar, I realized, because a decade earlier a young man came to me with a similar request. The death of his mother was a cold case, but it heated up in a hurry. Would something similar happen here? I had no way of knowing, of course, but a feeling just short of a premonition stirred in my gut that it might.
I looked over at Archie, who stood looking at me with his head cocked. “What?” I asked him. “Things are slow right now, so no big deal.” He blinked a couple of times, and shot me a look, the one that says, Yeah, heard that one before.
I kept a small studio apartment above my office at Caffeine Central, but that Friday night I opted to return home—an old farmhouse up in the Red Hills above Dundee, a small burg south of Portland in the heart of Oregon’s wine country. My daughter, Claire, had christened the secluded five acres “the Aerie,” and it was, at least to me, a fortress on a hill, a place where I could escape and recharge after doing battle down in the world. I fed Arch, scraped together leftovers—a bowl of vegetarian chili, a couple of homemade biscuits, and the last of a bottle of pinot noir—and hit the sack early.
As soon as sunlight torched the Douglas firs out in my yard the next morning, birdsong erupted. It’s great that birds happily greet the new day, but do they have to start so early? I heard Arch stir, but I rolled over and tried to squeeze in a little more sleep. It didn’t work—it never does—so I got up, got dressed, and followed my dog down the back staircase to the kitchen.
I’d just finished my double cappuccino when I heard a dull thump and felt a shock wave pass under my feet that rattled the glassware on the counter. I’m from L.A., so I knew an earthquake when I felt one. I looked down at Archie, who was making little whimpering sounds. “Easy, Big Boy. Just a tremor.” I glanced out the kitchen window and saw a cloud of dust rising from the abandoned gravel quarry that lay on the other side of my south fenceline. “What the hell? That was no earthquake.”
I loaded Arch in the car and drove around to the entrance of McCallister Quarry, a narrow, one-hundred-and-fifty-acre swath of rocky terrain running east-west below my property line. The broad gate was wide open, the first time I’d ever seen it without a padlock. I parked next to the gate and just as we got out of the car another thump shook the ground, followed by an even larger plume of dust. Arch pushed his trembling body against my leg. I knelt down and comforted him until the trembling abated. “You stay in the car, Big Boy. I’m going to find out what’s going on.”
The dust came from the east end of the quarry, where the terrain sloped off sharply. I worked my way through the rusty detritus of the previous mining operation and a scattering of scrawny cedar trees until a couple of pickup trucks and a half-dozen workers in fluorescent orange vests and yellow hard hats came into view. One of the workers saw me, elbowed another, a big man wearing a full beard and an annoyed look. He put up a hand and said, “Whoa, buddy. You need to turn around and leave. We’re blasting here.”
I kept walking, and when I reached him said, “I’m Cal Claxton.” I swung my arm around and pointed in the direction of the Aerie, which was barely visible from that low spot in the quarry. “I live right over there. What the hell’s going on? I thought it was an earthquake.”
Beard nodded in the direction of the rocky embankment that formed the north boundary of the quarry. Two men were picking through a pile of rocks below a crater that was still belching dust. Another worker was hoisting what looked like a hydraulic drill next to the carved-out section. “Like I said, we’re blasting,” Beard answered.
“I can see that,” I said with anger rising. “Why?”
He nodded in the direction of the workers again. “We’re trying to confirm there’s a viable seam of blue basalt running through there, that’s why.”
Viable? A rocky escarpment surrounded by fertile soil on all sides, the quarry always seemed like a geological anomaly to me, and I’d assumed that whatever was mined there had been fully extracted long ago. “Who authorized you to blast in here?”
“My company. We own this property. Look, mister, we’re getting ready to pop off another charge. You need to leave right now. You don’t have a hard hat, and I can’t guarantee your safety.”
I fished my wallet out of my back pocket, extracted a business card, and handed it to him. “Give this to your boss. I’m a lawyer. Tell him I’ll be in touch.” With that, I spun around, and as I retraced my path questions swirled around in my head. Blue basalt? They weren’t thinking about resuming mining here, were they? They couldn’t do that, could they? When I got back to the car, I figured the next blast was imminent, so I got in the backseat and wrapped my arms around Archie. When it came, he whimpered and began shaking hard again. I did my best to calm him. My big Aussie had the heart of a lion, but he obviously couldn’t cope when the earth trembled.
By the time we got back to the Aerie, Arch was still panting rapidly but had stopped shaking, and thankfully that third blast was the last of the day. I looked up the company whose name I’d seen on the door of one of the trucks—McMinnville Sand and Gravel—and called them. I got a recording and left an angry message for the president of the company.
What a way to start the day.
A bank of fast-moving clouds to the south threatened rain, so after breakfast I hurried outside to squeeze in some gardening chores I’d been putting off. I re-anchored the windblown plastic sheeting I used to control the winter weeds in my vegetable garden and had just finished fertilizing my raspberries and blueberries when the rain arrived, drumming across the quarry and then clattering in the Doug firs that began swaying in the stiffening breeze. No fan of the rain, Archie led our dash back into the house. My cell phone rang with Steve Job’s digital version of the blues while I was eating lunch. It was my friend, private investigator Hernando Mendoza—Nando to almost everyone in Portland—returning my call. We spent several minutes catching each other up before he said, “What can I do for you, Calvin?”
“I’m wondering if you know how to contact Semyon Lebedev? I tried the last number I had for him, but it’s no longer in service.” A naturalized U.S. citizen from Russia, Semyon and I had a violent history, but he saved my life several years back in an incident that had forged an unlikely but strong friendship.
Nando chuckled. “Ah, the mad Russian. I believe he retired from the cage fighting and has become a bouncer at one of the strip clubs in town. I’m not sure which one. There are so many.”
“What about the automotive business? I heard a rumor a while back he might be involved with one of the Russian theft rings.”
“Yes, I have heard this, too.” Nando chuckled again. “Perhaps the profession of bouncing does not pay so well. Why do you desire to speak to him?”
“I just want to pick his brain a little about a hit-and-run case I’m looking into.”
“Oh. Hit-and-run cases are very difficult to solve.”
“I know,” I said, and as a former prosecutor I did know. “Just a preliminary look.”
“Very well. I will see what I can do.”
After the call, Archie followed me into the study and stood there with his head cocked, looking at me with his big coppery eyes. I snapped my fingers. “You’re right, Big Boy. It’s Saturday, and I owe you.” I went back into the kitchen and gave him a nice bone—his once-a-week treat—that had been defrosting on the windowsill. My dog had me well trained.
Back in the study, I started some online research on Margaret Wingate to get a better sense of her and how the hit-and-run had gone down. I read her obituary first. A native of Seattle, where she graduated from the University of Washington, Wingate had moved to Portland twenty-five years earlier with husband Charles. It was a familiar upper middle class American story. While he built a successful real estate development company, Margaret dove into charity work, serving on a number of committees and boards, including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and later the Portland Cancer Society. A lifelong sports enthusiast, she also belonged to the Multnomah Athletic Club and Oregon Golf Club. She was survived by a brother in Seattle, a sister in Los Angeles, and Angela, whose full name, I noted, was Angela Morales Wingate.
An article in The Oregonian business section caught my eye. The headline read, “Wingate Properties Names New Head,” and went on to say that the CFO of the company, a man named Brice Avery, took the reins following the death of Charles Wingate. Margaret Wingate was quoted in the article: “I’m delighted that Brice Avery has accepted my offer to become CEO of Wingate Properties. I have great confidence that Brice will pick up where Charles left off and guide our company to even greater heights.”
I wondered what would become of Wingate Properties now that Margaret was gone as well.
I read through the coverage of the hit-and-run. Margaret Wingate was struck while jogging in the Kings Heights neighborhood, a prime piece of acreage with commanding views of the city from the hills that form its western boundary. She was a mile from her home, jogging east on NW Monte Vista Terrace, and had just entered the intersection with Vista Court when she was hit. The impact threw her forty feet, and she apparently died instantly. Tire marks at the scene suggested the car that struck her then proceeded eastbound on Monte Vista. According to the reports, she wasn’t using earbuds that might have distracted her. The make and model of the vehicle was unknown, although I knew the investigative team might be holding back sensitive information like that. It was also reported that a canvass of the Kings Heights neighborhood turned up no one who saw anything suspicious relating to the incident. All the reports ended with a plea for anyone having information regarding the case to contact the Major Crash Team at the Portland Police Bureau.
I wasn’t encouraged by what I read, but what did I expect? From my experience as a prosecutor in L.A. I knew hit-and-run cases were tough. Hell, seventy to eighty percent of them went unsolved, if memory served, and I was sure it wasn’t much different in Portland. In the absence of someone coming forward because of a guilty conscience—which was unlikely in a fatality case—the only hope was to find a witness or the car. But witnesses were hard to come by, mainly because John Q. feared getting involved, and only the most naïve perpetrator would take a damaged car to a legitimate body shop.
I pushed back from my computer screen, rubbed my eyes, and slowly exhaled a breath. I knew all this going in, and attempting to enlist the help of Semyon Lebedev was a Hail Mary pass at best.
“Damn,” I said out loud, “what was I thinking?