Mystery and Crime Fiction posted August 28, 2011 Chapters:  ...36 37 -38- 39... 

This work has reached the exceptional level
Noah gets a hunch after Dinner, Calls Frenchie

A chapter in the book Death In the Winter Solstice

At The Twin Dragons

by Jay Squires

Book of the Month Contest Winner 
WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED LAST CHAPTER:  An enraged Mr. Kymes comes into office to attack Noah but is overwhelmed by his size when Noah stands.  After he calms down he gives Noah a lot of information about how Sims manipulated Bobby (Kymes' son) into robbing homes of guns and cash; then after a staged confrontation with the owner of a home he was burgling, Sims threatenes disclosure to the police when Bobby wants out.

The storm had finished for a time. The wind continued though, and carried in it the iciness down from the Tehachapi mountains. Above the trees outside the Twin Dragons the sky was the uneven silver-gray that a troubled child's brush would lay across wet paper. The traffic moved relentlessly north and south on Chester Avenue. Where the street dipped down to the rain-filled gutters the tires of the passing cars opened and closed silvery fans of water, slanting them toward the sidewalk in front of the Twin Dragons window they sat behind.
Noah had chosen the Twin Dragons after considerable thought. It had been a long day, and it wasn't over yet. Tomorrow promised to be as long, maybe longer. He ruled out Mexican food, though he always loved it, and the usual American food fare. At either the tendency would be to overeat, and especially Mexican food had a way of sitting like a cannon ball in his stomach. He knew already that he would end up speaking at tonight's seminar, and he didn't need physical discomfort to add to what he was already feeling.
There was another reason he chose the Twin Dragons, or rather eliminated other possibilities. Mexican food cried out for beer, American food beer or wine. And most anywhere they went a waitress would ask them before they ordered if they wanted cocktails. Most Chinese restaurants offered nothing stronger than a cup of tea. After tomorrow night Clayton's life would be his own. Noah would buy him a plane ticket back to LA with cab fare in his pocket to take him right up to the front door of Pinky's Tavern—if that was what he really wanted. He'd even give him enough extra cash to launch him into his first night of oblivion. But that would be tomorrow night. Until then his life belonged to Robbie and to him.
Their table was at the window, though they had their choice of any table in the small room. They were the only patrons. It was a little after four; the evening traffic was over an hour away. They had already ordered, and while they waited Noah filled him in on the content of his phone calls and Mr. Kymes storming of the castle. Clayton heaped three teaspoons of sugar into each tiny cup of bland tea and stared out the window a lot, grimacing at each swallow from his cup, nodding at what Noah was saying, without commenting.
As the steaming platter of chow mein was put on the table between them, Noah said: "After we finish, we'll need to go back to the room so I can shower and change. Okay? Then it's off to the Convention Center."
Clayton acquiesced with a small nod and a sip from his cup.
Noah lifted a clump of chow mein from the platter and put it on his plate, thinking about what lay ahead.
He dreaded the seminar tonight. He wasn't ready for it. The audience at these seminars had no idea of the amount of preparation that went into making them seem so spontaneous, so effortless. Initially he had spent days, weeks, choosing the cleverest phrases, with just the right words to make them glitter and come to life. Then he would rehearse his speech for hours on end, to achieve precisely the desired effect. Of course, it got easier as he got looser, more relaxed. But there was no substitute for preparation, even if that meant sitting alone in a darkened room and shucking off any thoughts that were extraneous to his seminar. He had no time for that, even. He was abysmally unprepared. He hadn't even brought the right clothing for it.
After leaving Sims' office, Noah had searched out a Big and Tall men's clothing store and asked the manager if he could purchase an evening suit and pay a reasonable extra fee to have it tailored that day. The manager discussed it privately with the tailor, returned to ask what he would consider a reasonable extra fee for the tailor to leave late. Noah made a generous offer, the manager left, then returned in five minutes, smiling. Noah chose a black Armani, was complimented by the salesman for his taste, then complimented a second time by the stout, balding tailor who measured him and chalked him and pinned him, then sent him away with a promise the suit would be ready by three.
At worst, the grinning fool, on stage before thousands tonight, would be grinning in a five hundred dollar Armani.
He looked across at Clayton. The food on his plate was barely touched. A small bite had been notched out of a prawn. His index finger curled around the handle of his teacup. His other palm wrapped around the cup. He was staring out the window.
Just get through today and tomorrow, pal, Noah thought. We’ll get you back to your bottle. Two days.
At least, with Clayton festering away quietly inside himself, it gave Noah time to sift through today's happenings. Back when he was on the force Frenchie knew when to talk and when to keep his mouth shut. They'd be finished questioning the suspects, the friends, relatives, the witnesses, and they'd be just cruising the city, up and down Broadway, out Donovan Road to the freeway and back, and Frenchie always told him he could tell from the look on his face during these times that it would not be a time to talk, that Noah was following the trail of a remembered response, fitting it in place with what someone else had said, sliding in the position that a chair had been facing at the scene, while all the time waiting, waiting, waiting for the whole picture— or even a completed part of it—to lift up whole and bright and focused, the way you watch a photograph slowly take form out of the cloudy muck, so you can lift it out of the developer with tongs, and it is complete.
Over time he had lost the knack. Rarely did he feel the emergence from dimness to clarity any more. If it was a gift, he had lost it. He thought it would come back to help him in his search for Robbie, then Clayton. But, instead of having hints and suggestions to winnow through, he had road signs, clearly printed that said: "For Robbie go five miles, turn right to Solano, detour back to Clayton..."
The only "aha" that seemed to come from inside him was that the signs clearly had been planted by someone. As Ariel would probably say to him, "Well, Duh-uh." And, that the sign planter wanted, perhaps needed, him to find Clayton so that Clayton could lead him to Robbie, was also pretty clear. Duh-uh.
But the thing with Sims, the white supremacy connection, the seminar, and why Collins was involved—this was different. And, it all seemed to boil down to the question: What does Collins think he has on him? Something he thinks is solid and unassailable, that's for certain. Something so solid he would foot the bill for the Convention Center and pay for such a gigantic advertising blitz that it would guarantee the center would be busting at the seams. Something solid. He had to be too bright and savvy to shoot guilt by association bullets at him on stage, to accuse him of being a racist before a capacity crowd—or have a heckler do it—just because he hired a racist who just happened to run an H.l.S office in Collins' district. With nothing more than that to go on he would be flat butting his head against a slander suit. He'd have to know that!
Noah finished his chow mein, fried prawns, sweet and sour pork, and fried rice, then downed the last of his tea. passing on the fortune cookies and almond cakes. Clayton stood looking out the window, his hands clasped behind him, while Noah paid the tab.
Without turning from the window, Clayton asked: "We going back to the room now?"
"Probably not right away, why?"
"Guess I'll use the rest room here."
Noah nodded. "I'll wait in the car."
To the right of the door was a rack containing the Bakersfield Weekly Real Estate Digest. He took one out and looked at the cover. There were four rows of squares, five to a row, all featuring homes in the one hundred to two hundred and sixty thousand- dollar range. Below them was a fifth row, consisting of a wide-angle picture of a parcel of vacant land. A half-dozen live oak trees were clumped in the right foreground. A stream peeked out from their midst and bubbled and gurgled its way out of the left side of the photo. Hills swelled up behind trees and stream, and above everything, blue sky framed the top of the picture. He read:
I,000 Acres of Prime Grazing Land in the
Gorgeous New Cuyama Mountains. Perfect Spot
for Building Your Dream House. Commune with
Nature in Your Own Paradise.
He replaced the magazine. Was this the kind of vacant land Hazeltree was gobbling up for the corporation? He'd have to get with Hazeltree when everything was over with and get a thumbnail education on taxes. There was no reason he could conceive of, other than the mystery of taxes, why a person or a corporation would buy vacant land. Stranger, still, was Hazeltree's refusal to let Riley bargain with the seller to get the price down. Was it a timing thing? The corporate fiscal year began February fifteenth. Unless they could get Escrow to close in thirty days, or on the outside, forty-five days, they wouldn't seal it until after the close of the fiscal year.
This wasn't the first time Riley had questioned Hazeltree's judgment. Price wasn't his concern the last time. It was the more basic one, the one he, himself, was having trouble grappling with. There was something inherently obscene about owning land that was not doing anyone any good. That time it was Hazeltree who was complaining about Riley. He brought his complaint to Alice. If we questioned his abilities and judgment, perhaps we should investigate the services of another accountant. If we trust his judgment we shouldn't allow a salesman, lacking in financial planning experience, to second-guess his decisions. He had a point.
His attention was drawn back to the magazine on the rack. That property was in the Cuyamas, also. Hazeltree had made five or six vacant land purchases in the Cuyamas. As a matter of fact, all but one had been in the Cuyamas. The other was somewhere near San Diego. Also vacant. Also in the foothills. Riley probably wasn't in on that deal.
There was a wall phone to the left of the men's restroom door. He went to it. Something was niggling at his brain and he didn't know precisely what. He got out his wallet and rifled through the business cards until he found Riley's. He pushed in the numbers, waited, and entered his calling card number. He smiled at the old Chinese man who was watching him from the cash register.
Riley answered: "Sunrise Realty, Hinton Riley speaking."
"This is Hinton Riley." Quickly, emphasizing Hinton, with just a touch of irritation.
"Sorry, Hinton, this is Noah Winter. You have a minute?"
"Mr. Winter! Sure, I have. You can call me Riley, Mr. Winter. I didn't know..." and his voice trailed off into silence. "Is everything okay?"
"I don't know. Do you still have the maps on the properties we bought in the Cuyamas? I think there were five or six of them."
"Seven. I have them or I can get them, Mr. Winter."
"How long are we looking at?"
"Fifteen, twenty minutes, half-hour."
"Get on it, then. You know Frenchie?"
"No, sir."
"That's Lieutenant French, of the police department."
"Here? No, sir."
"No problem, you'll recognize him. Big man, tall, well built. If he comes by..."
The door opened and Clayton came through it and turned to the front door, without seeing him. Noah snapped his fingers. "Hold on, Hinton." Clayton turned. Noah held up one finger. Clayton nodded, took a seat at a table and stared out the window.
"If he comes in," Noah continued, "I want you to give him the maps. You know how to get to these properties?"
"Most of them. They were all owned by the same man, Mr. Winter. A crazy old guy—a rancher who wanted to retire. He sold the properties to Mr. Hazeltree— through me, of course—one or two a year. Anyway, three of the properties are bunched together on one side of the access road, four on the other side of it. A total of over two thousand acres. A lot of it's pretty remote, Mr. Winter, I didn't actually see some of it."
Noah closed his eyes. He felt a tightness in his stomach. "I thought they were isolated properties. I had no idea they were all together."
"Yes... Well, Mr. Hazeltree loves to keep telling me to butt out. He says you're too busy to be bothered with real estate details. It's my job to find a seller and his job to buy the property for the corporation, and so forth. You know, I—I tried once."
"I know you did. Hinton.
"Yes, sir."
"Since they're all together like that, how difficult would it be to lay out the properties on a county map—you know what I mean?"
"Sure, that'd be easy enough."
"Great. Do that, then. Give all the maps to Lieutenant French."
"You got it."
Noah thanked him, and they hung up. He turned to Clayton, who was still staring out the window, his elbows on the table, his chin resting in his palms. "I have one more short call, Clayton; I might be on to something, I don't know." And, he added: "Are you okay?"
Clayton nodded without turning.
"I'll make it short," he said to the back of Clayton's head. He turned back to the phone, entered the number for the Santa Maria P.D., then his calling card number, and a moment, and two people later, he was talking to Frenchie.
"Are you into anything important for the next hour?" he asked him.
"An energy bar—oh, hell, a donut, okay—what's up?"
"I need your services... unofficially. For about an hour. You may need the chopper. I'll pay for fuel and the pilot's time."
"I can arrange it."
"You up for a little surveillance and detective work?"
"What kind?"
"Just flying over some Cuyama property, but a lot of it, and telling me what you find out."
"What are we looking for?"
"That's just it, Frenchie, I don't know. It's just a hunch I'm working on."
"You've had some good ones... but, you gotta give me something. You know how it is when you're trying to sock away some points with the chief. I mean, if we knock on the door of a deal goin' down, or we see a mighty sweet crop being cultivated..."
"I got the picture. You gotta do what you gotta do. Just one request though..."
"Lay it on me."
"Whatever you find out you wouldn't have found out without this call..."
"So, report to you first."
"That's all I ask." Noah smiled again at the old man at the cash register, then turned away from him with his face to the wall. "You have good enough equipment to see and take pictures at enough of a height that you won't be suspicious?"
"I'm hurt."
Noah smiled at the wall. "You're hurt?"
"I'm hurt. Snoopin's improved a hundredfold just in the last five years. And, I've kept up with it all right up here." He paused. "I'm tapping my temple now. Two, three months ago I started writing it all down. Three notebooksful I've got now. All I need's a silent partner."
"That might be arranged."
"Don't shit me man. You shittin' me?"
"We'll work out the details after Christmas, first of the year. Okay?"
"Okay? Be still my—I'm tapping my left pectoral—heart. Jesus, is it okay he asks!"
Noah laughed. "In the meantime, put all that technology and know-how to work for me, will you? It's probably gonna be a wild goose chase, but do what you can." He told him about the maps and Riley at Sunset Realty, arranged for the phone call, or a message for a return call, back at the room, wished him a merry Christmas and hung up the phone.
He turned from the wall to Clayton. "Ready?" he asked.
Clayton got up.
"When I snapped my fingers, a while ago, I didn’t mean anything by it.  I was in the middle of a sentence and I was afraid if I didn't get your attention you'd go out in the rain to a locked car."
Clayton nodded and went out the door ahead of him and into the rain.

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