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Authors: Warren C Easley

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BOOK: Not Dead Enough
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Chapter Nineteen

I saw a bald eagle kill an osprey once. I was wading the Deschutes River on my first fishing trip with Philip. The eagle swooped down out of nowhere and hit the smaller bird in mid-flight with a single, vicious blow to the head. The osprey fell into the river like a puppet with its strings cut. That's one way to deal with the competition.

It was the next morning. I sat on the side porch musing over that memory while sipping a cup of coffee and watching finches, chickadees, and nuthatches take turns at the feeders. Each tiny bird snacked on niger seeds for a while, then gave way to another waiting patiently for its turn in a nearby maple tree. It seemed an avian version of musical chairs, an orderly plan of sharing agreed to by the birds.

Birds that committed homicide, birds that willingly shared their food—all part of a natural system that was at once beautiful and violent just like the world I inhabited.

My reverie was broken by the high-pitched whine of the alarm I'd jury-rigged out in the quarry. I jerked to attention, spilling hot coffee down the front of my sweatshirt. I ducked down, hustled back into the house, and took the backstairs two at a time, all the while feeling stupid for presenting such an easy target in the first place and wondering if the coffee was going to raise blisters on my chest.

My bedroom window offered the best view of the quarry, and I'd stashed an old pair of binoculars next to it for just such an occasion, although in truth I never thought the day would come. I edged up to the window, slowly raised the blinds a couple of inches and focused in on the thicket of cedars where I'd stashed the motion sensor.

Something moved just out of my field of vision. I tensed up, refocused, and then…laughed out loud. A big red-tailed hawk sat on a bare cedar branch, staring back at me. It fluttered its wings, and the alarm in the kitchen sounded on cue. Then the raptor launched and dove out of my vision, into the deep cut that housed the narrow, putrid lake. A few moments later it re-emerged carrying a squirming field mouse.

I held a cold, wet washcloth against my reddened chest for a few minutes and then changed into a dry shirt. The thought of having to sneak around in my own house for any length of time was unthinkable, and I began to wonder if I was overreacting. After all, I didn't have any evidence the shooter knew who I was, and if he did, would he really come after me? The alarm system I'd jury-rigged seemed to work for hawks all right, but it was still a flimsy line of defense. And there was another more critical question I hadn't had a chance to address yet—what the hell do I do if there's a human over there instead of a bird?

I mulled this over as I munched a bowl of cereal and then reluctantly made a phone call to the Yamhill County Sheriff's office and asked for Sheriff Don Talbot. I say reluctantly, because Don Talbot and I had some history, and it wasn't good history. The first case I'd landed in Dundee was representing a migrant worker in a police brutality case against a couple of his deputies. The preliminary hearing and the accompanying publicity had resulted in one of his deputies, a ten-year veteran, being placed on unpaid leave.

“Sheriff Talbot.” He answered curtly, as if he knew in advance this was going to be an annoying call.

“Hello, Sheriff. It's Cal Claxton.”

Long pause. “What can I do for you, Claxton?”

“Uh, I got a situation I might need some help with.” There was another pause, and I finally spoke into the silence, apprising him of the threat I thought I might be facing and the steps I'd taken to protect myself.

“So, let me see if I'm understanding this,” Talbot responded with an edge to his voice. “If you call after some half-assed driveway alarm goes off, you want me to drop everything and send a team of officers in to seal off the McCallister Quarry and apprehend a sniper who'll be hiding in there somewhere, waiting to take a shot at you. Is that right?”

“Uh, more or less.” My story sounded a little sketchy when he played it back to me.

Another long pause. “Claxton, you've got more nerve than a bad tooth, asking me something like this. Get back to me when you've got something concrete I can deal with. Thanks to you, I'm short a good deputy, anyway.” He hung up before I could get another word in. Just as well, because what I'd planned to say next wouldn't have fallen into the realm of civil discourse.

I sat there looking at the phone in my hand as a mix of anger and embarrassment washed over me. Okay, my request was a little unorthodox, but he can't just blow me off like that, I told myself. And there shouldn't be anything embarrassing about asking for help, for Christ's sake.

But of course, the good sheriff can blow me off, and that's exactly what he did. If the alarm sounds, I'd definitely be on my own.

Chapter Twenty

To my delight, two new clients walked into my office that morning in Dundee and actually wrote retainer checks to secure my services. But business slowed to a halt that afternoon, so I locked up, packed Arch in the car, and drove to the address I had for Fletcher Dunn in Lake Oswego. L.O.'s a tony suburb concentrated around a narrow finger of a lake that lies between the Willamette and Tualatin Rivers eight miles south of Portland. I'd called ahead and caught him at home in the midst of what appeared to be an early happy hour. But he said he remembered Nelson Queah and agreed to talk to me.

His house had been nice once, but now it was an ugly duckling in a row of swans. Paint sloughed from the wood trim, and splotches of moss dotted the roof like green islands in a black sea. The lawn was shin-deep in weeds. The front steps were wobbly, and a crude ramp provided access to the side of the porch from the driveway, where a van with handicap plates was parked. After I rang the bell, I heard what I thought was the whir of a motorized wheelchair.

The front door swung inward accompanied by more whirring. I couldn't see who was behind the screen due to the glare of the afternoon sun. “Calvin Claxton, attorney at law, I presume.” The voice was deep and resonant, the words slightly slurred and mildly mocking.

I squinted into the glare. “Yes. I'm Cal Claxton. Are you Fletcher Dunn?”

“What's left of me,” he answered. “Come in. The screen's unlocked.”

I stepped into the hallway, my pupils dilating in the dim light. Dunn sat in front of me in a wheelchair, sporting a quizzical expression. He was small of stature with a face dominated by a set of inquisitive eyes magnified by John Lennon wire rims. He had a neatly trimmed goatee and wore a black turtleneck, chinos and a pair of thoroughly worn jogging shoes. His legs barely filled his trousers and hung limply in the chair.

Before I could speak, he said, “Let's deal with the elephant in the room first. Four years ago my wife and I were driving up to ski at Mount Hood. Some idiot in an SUV without chains came across both lanes and nailed us head on. He walked away, but my wife died at the scene and I lost the use of my legs. Any questions?”

“I'm sorry to hear about that, Mr. Dunn. I, uh—”

“Cut the mister shit. It's Fletch. So you're interested in what happened to Nelson Queah, huh? Let's go to my study where we can talk.” He deftly spun his chair around and led me down the hall. Over his shoulder he said, “Want a drink? With the sun out today, I decided to have a gin and tonic, or a couple, I should say.” He chuckled again. “You know, to celebrate the coming solstice.”

“Uh, no thanks. I'm good.”

What I could see of the rest of the house looked sadly neglected, but his study was neat and orderly. One wall was covered with photographs of Dunn rubbing elbows with an array of important looking people, a testament to his journalistic prowess, no doubt. I was new to who's who in Oregon, but I did glimpse the sitting Governor as well as Clyde Drexler and Bill Walton, two former Blazer stars who stood on either side of a smiling Dorn, making him look comically small. The opposite wall held a large bookcase crammed with books. I glimpsed a couple of titles—Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Fischer's The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, plus The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

He motored over to his desk, which sat in front of a window looking out on a backyard choked with weeds and blackberry vines. A large photograph of a younger Fletcher Dunn with an attractive, dark haired woman looked back at us from the desk. Fletch picked up a half-filled glass with a lime wedge floating in it and took a long pull.

I sat down in a leather chair facing him and watched as he lowered the glass and dabbed a drop on the corner of his mouth with his thumb. I said, “I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me. As I mentioned on the phone, I'm working for Nelson Queah's granddaughter. We know from Queah's letters that you interviewed him before the falls were flooded. We're trying to find out what happened to him.”

“You don't believe he got drunk and fell in the river?”

The comment caught me by surprise. I hadn't expected Dunn to remember that kind of detail about Queah's disappearance. “No,” I answered.

Dunn shook his head and smiled wistfully. “I never bought it either. Nelson Queah was a classy guy. That explanation the cops gave was total bullshit. They didn't give a damn if an Indian went missing and everybody knew it.” Then he met my eyes. “Do you have any theories on what happened to him?”

“We think he was murdered by a man named Cecil Ferguson, with the possible assistance of an Indian named Sherman Watlamet.”

Dunn's magnified eyes got even bigger. “Well, I'll be damned. I knew it was foul play. You have evidence to support that?”

Sensing I could trust this man, I went on to lay out what I'd uncovered and to describe the murders of both Ferguson and Watlamet. When I finished, I said, “Do you remember Nelson Queah telling you about some kind of theft going on at the dam?”

Dunn nodded. “I certainly do.” He picked up a thick file lying on his desk. “This is the file with all my notes on The Dalles Dam and Celilo Falls. First thing they teach you in journalism school, take detailed notes and keep them. I have all my files stored under the staircase. I dug this out after you called.” He opened the file up and thumbed through it. “Here's the entry right here.” He glanced down at the file. “He called me on March 4th. Said he wanted to talk to me about money being stolen from the government out at the dam. I agreed to meet with him and another gentleman on March 11th, the day after they closed the flood gates. I drove out to talk to them that day, but they weren't there and neither was anyone else.”

“The other person was named Wiiks, Timothy Wiiks.” I spelled the name for him. “He was working at the dam when he discovered the theft ring. He went to Queah for advice. Do you have any information on him?”

Dunn scanned through his notes. “No. I don't see any other names in connection with this. Apparently Queah didn't share the name with me.”

“What about Cecil Ferguson? I think he worked at the dam or somewhere in the area around The Dalles. I'd like to know who he worked for.”

“If he had a management job at the dam I should be able to find him. I collected all the organization charts for the contractors so I'd know who the players were.” He pulled a sheaf of papers from the back of the file and began thumbing through it.

I held my breath.

“Here he is.” He pointed to the center of the fourth page in. “C. Ferguson, project manager for Gage Cement. Gage was a major contractor. Rock and cement. Ferguson worked for Braxton Gage.”

I jotted the name down. “Good. Uh, what about Wiiks? Can you find him in there?”

Dunn went back through the charts but came up empty. “If he was down in one of the organizations somewhere, this wouldn't show him. I just have the major players here.”

“So what can you tell me about this Braxton Gage?”

Dunn drained his gin and tonic, set the glass down, and smiled. “Braxton Gage is a legend in the Gorge. If I'm not mistaken, he still lives in The Dalles. Hell, he owns half the town. I heard he's retired but still goes to the office every day. You know the type.”

I nodded. I did know the type.

“His daddy had a bunch of saw mills, but they went into rock and cement at just the right time to cash in on the dams being built in the Gorge. Braxton parlayed that into shipping on the Columbia, and now he's the biggest carrier on the river. Has been for a long time.”

“So he made a killing by supplying cement for the dams. Maybe more than he should have?”

Dunn laughed. “Wouldn't surprise me. You know, I told my boss I wanted to look into that after Queah disappeared. Fat chance. I remember exactly what he told me. ‘Listen, Fletcher,' he says, ‘you're a new broom. Stay in the corner until I tell you where to sweep.'” He smiled, stared at the space between us and shook his head slowly. “That was the drill at the Journal back then—don't rake any muck up unless it's politically safe. And going after a project like The Dalles Dam didn't fall in the safe category by a long shot. It was the darling of Portland and Washington, one of tricky Dick Nixon's favorites.”

“So, nobody ever tried to contact you about the alleged scam after that?”

“No. I didn't hear another thing after Queah vanished. I would've remembered that for sure.”

“What else can you tell me about Braxton Gage?”

Dunn picked up the now empty glass and drank some melted ice with a noisy slurp. “Well, they used to call him the young Turk. I mean he was in his late twenties, probably, and calling all the shots in his dad's company. Actually, there were two young Turks that made fortunes in the Gorge back then. The other was a guy named Royce Townsend. His brother ran the construction company and put Royce in charge of the dam construction.”

A slight tremor went down my back. Townsend? I recognized that name. “Does he have a relative named Jason Townsend?”

“Yep, his son. Jason's contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate. Nothing would make the father happier than to have a son who's a U.S. senator.”

I nodded. “So, Gage was a subcontractor for Townsend during the construction phase?”

“Right. They were both young, brash, and smart as whips, so naturally they became rivals. Still are, I suppose, but mainly in the political arena now.” He chuckled for a moment before continuing. “Townsend became a leftie with a fat checkbook.

“What about Gage?”

“He's a cantankerous old fart. Way to the right of Attila the Hun.”

“Any other players at that time that come to mind?”

Dunn drained his glass, paused, and then smiled almost lasciviously. “I do remember one thing about Townsend. He was quite the lady's man. Had an affair with a singer who worked at one of the hotels in Portland. Kind of an open secret at the paper, but in those days we protected people's secrets. All the guys in the newsroom were green with envy. She was one sexy broad.”

“You remember her name?”

“Nah, not off hand.” He looked down at his glass. “I'm empty. Sure you don't want to join me?”

“Okay, talked me into it. Can I—?”

“Stay there,” Dunn interrupted, making it clear he didn't want any help. “I can handle the drinks.”

Grateful for a few moments alone to think, I sifted hurriedly through what I'd just learned. Cecil Ferguson worked for Braxton Gage at the dam. Was Gage in on the swindle? And who the hell did Wiiks work for? Royce Townsend managed the whole construction project, so Gage, in effect, worked for him. Then there was the link between Winona and Townsend through his son, Jason, and the exquisite irony that the son now wants to tear down what the father built.

Like that girl in Wonderland once said, curiouser and curiouser.

When Dunn returned with the drinks, I said, “Do you have any other sources or records you could check or direct me to that might help me get a line on Timothy Wiiks?”

Dunn pulled down a third of his fresh drink, lowered it and looked at me with wet, magnified eyes. “Yeah, I have some other places I can look. Hell, I can access all the archives at The Oregonian on my computer. Give me some time and I'll see what I can come up with.”

Our talk drifted away from the Queah disappearance. Toward the end of my drink—it was at least a double—I nodded at the photograph of him and his wife and said, “You must miss her greatly.”

He took a drink. “Every day.”

“I can tell she was a good woman.” I meant it. It was the way she looked directly into the camera, a level, no-nonsense look, but softened by a smile that conveyed both warmth and confidence.

Dunn flinched slightly, then appraised me for sincerity. It was like being painted with radar before a missile's launched. Apparently satisfied, he said, “She was a good woman. The best. And I sure as hell didn't deserve her.”

I nodded. “Survivor's guilt's a bitch.” The comment just sort of slipped out of me.

“Survivor's guilt? What the hell do you know about survivor's guilt?”

“I've been there.” It was more of an admission than I intended to make. Not really one to share, I was habitually tight-lipped about the situation surrounding my wife's death.

But I needn't have worried that I opened the door to questions from Dunn. He said, “Well, somehow, I don't think that qualifies you to judge me. Spare me the pop psychology, okay?” With that, he spun his chair around and began furiously tapping on his keyboard.

Talking to his back, I apologized for my remarks, thanked him for the information, and slunk out of there like a kid who'd been expelled from school.

Nice work, Claxton, I told myself as I pulled away. Fletcher Dunn's a walking history book, and you manage to insult him. You can kiss off getting any more help from this guy.

But Dunn was wrong to think I didn't know anything about survivor's guilt. I was drowning in it.

BOOK: Not Dead Enough
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