EYE ON THE BALL INVESTIGATIONS
Among those who knew him, John Cavanaugh was known as a straight shooter. His son, a shark of an attorney who dealt entirely in western Montana real estate transactions, had a different rep. Not “the Toad,” an epithet used by his father these past few years, mostly in private. Toad would have been an improvement.
In fact, Kermit was known as a mangy coyote, both predator and scavenger, willing and able to eat anything that didn’t eat him. The thin man was proud of it, too. Kermit “Coyote” Cavanaugh or, more simply, just plain Coyote Cavanaugh. The real estate buyer or seller who signed a contract written by the Coyote of the County was either a moron or a masochist. Cavanaugh himself was a bit of a sadist. Even more willing to turn the thumbscrews than Pepper Smith, the proprietor and chief investigator at Eye on the Ball Investigations.
Still, Pep did have his own skill set. His business logo, a creepy, long-lashed, wide open eye painted on an eight-ball, said it all. The PI looked up from his cluttered desk, waving a hand for Cavanaugh to grab a chair. Which Coyote did, hiding his disgust at the thick layer of dust. Pepper Smith could find a needle before it even got to the haystack but he wasn’t much for entertaining. Gray light filtered through cheap plastic Walmart blinds, striping the man’s work clothes. No suits for Smith unless the job required it. Few knew he owned three tuxedos for hoity toity work, understood valet parking, and had once brought down the CEO of a furniture manufacturing company who’d been filmed in flagrante delicto with a male security guard and his dog. The man was 48 years old, 48 pounds overweight, and 48 payments behind on child support, but he could find folks who didn’t want to get found.
Kermit explained the situation. Pepper put his gel ink pen down, scratched the side of his nose, and summed it up. “You want his money but he’s not cooperating by dying or getting put quietly away.”
“Spare me the baloney sandwich, Coyote. You want me to find him so you can take him down and find out where he hid the money, yes?”
“He’s my father and I’m worried about him,” Cavanaugh replied carefully. He saw the trap. Smith had to be taping this conversation. “All I want is to know he’s okay.”
“Sure, sport.” Well, hell, it’d been worth a try.
They haggled for another half hour, working out the details of the contract. Neither man was about to leave a penny on the table. When both of them were sufficiently dissatisfied with the terms, they signed on the bottom line. Coyote Cavanaugh left, feeling like he’d been through half a dozen rounds in the boxing ring, and Pepper Smith got to work.
By sunup, I was toast. Raging headache sending lightning bolts right through my skull, what some would call a migraine. I figured differently. Figured it was DCW, Doped Coffee Withdrawal. But it was getting hard to think, hard to focus enough to stay on the road. “Ain’t what I was fifty years ago,” I admitted to myself. That was the pain talking. Yeah, I was stronger in my forties than I was at ninety-eight, no arguing that point. But there were some mighty long-lived people in my family tree and I’d decided years ago that I’d drawn the best genes that pool had to offer. Great uncle Ralph had made it to 116. His mother, Eugenia…they weren’t quite sure when she’d been born, but best guess was she’d died at the age of 121. I had a chance of beating old aunt Eugenia’s record…if I could beat whatever was pounding my head.
My first wife, Mariah, had been barren. Loved her still, never mind she’d been gone seventy years this coming July. She was sixteen, hot to trot, ripe for the plucking, when my eighteen-year-old charm lured her away from her daddy’s farm in Washington state. Middle of the Great Depression that had been, me out there riding the rails, what they called a hobo back then, picking up jobs as we could. I’d been picking hops that day under the hot sun when she appeared, riding in her old man’s brand new 1934 Diamond T truck. Hair black as a raven’s wing, set off against that bright red cab paint. We wanted each other at first sight and her daddy knew it. He kept her locked up in her room after that, until two nights later when I did the ladder thing, she slipped out of her bedroom window, and we ran for our lives. I’d never told that story to Margaret or Kermie. Maybe if I had, they would have known better than to try using the system to catch me like they did. If you’ve run from the cops through eighteen states, packing an underage girl with you who can send you straight to prison if her old man don’t use his shotgun first, you know how to slip-slide-and-hide.
But those kids come from my second wife. It hadn’t seemed right to insult their mother with stories about my first love. And truth be told, it was the Second World War, more than anything else, that messed up our family.
I was starting to see everything through a red haze by the time I pulled off at Geraldine and hunted up the rodeo arena. There was nobody around, but even if there had been, I likely could have sweet-talked my way into a rest for me and Belle. Geraldine, population two hundred and something, is mostly wheat country, but they haven’t forgotten livestock. There’s still a set of bucking chutes and pens, which was all I needed. Getting Belle out of her trailer and into the pen closest to the announcer’s stand was about all I could manage, but I managed. Drug a quarter bale of hay from the trailer for her. Used a travel bucket to tote water from the frost free hydrant to the water tub I always carried. You gotta take care of your horse first, I was always told, so your horse can take care of you.
Then I grabbed my bedroll from the back seat, locked up, wearily climbed the creaking, unpainted stairs to the announcer’s box so’s I’d have both fresh air and shade, and collapsed on top of the bag. Didn’t crawl inside. Gonna be hot today. Didn’t even take off my boots. Did check the little .22 Ruger snubby to make sure it was still firmly in its leather holster inside the bag near my head. Geraldine is good country folks but taking unnecessary chances is just plain stupid.
When my bleary eyes opened again, my watch said it was noon. My legs were cramping. Every part of my body let me know I’d been out hiking yesterday, then riding all day and half the night. But the headache was down a good bit. Stumbled a bit coming down the steps, not quite awake yet, but had a firm grip on the handrail. No harm no foul. Two aspirin and a swig of bottled water from the truck. By the time I had Belle loaded up and parked near Rusty’s Bar & Grill, my stomach was growling. Best burger for breakfast I’d had in a coon’s age. Rolled on out of town, firing on all eight. Nobody had asked any fool questions, nor had I expected them to do so. Mostly, country folks mind their own business except when gossiping among friends. They could gossip all they liked. Even if somebody did come snooping around the tiny town, what could they say? “Yeah, there was a pickup and horse trailer came through. South Dakota plates. Looked like he might be going to a team roping.”
I’d dyed my hair two days ago. The roots wouldn’t be showing yet. As for whiskers, that’s why I kept a Panasonic electric razor in the glove box.
It would be nice to think I’d cross out of Montana today, but no. Too late in the day, especially with the circuitous route I was taking. Back roads, ending up getting out of the state without once stopping at a chicken coop. There was no reason to doubt my new identity or the papers on Belle, but why take chances? Life is too short.
According to Piggy and Toad, my life was too long. Ungrateful wretches.
AT THE EVERYTHING ALL DAY BUFFET
Margaret Cavanaugh Jones returned from the buffet line with her third set of loaded plates. Her girlfriends nodded in appreciation. “Never saw that roast beef,” Barbara said. “They cut it for you on the spot?”
“You bet. Jimmy the Knife.”
“Oo.” Lacey chimed in. “That Jimmy does look fine. I’d like to munch on him for a while.”
All three women giggled, a trio of Social Security aged females whose emotions had never left high school. None of them had seen their feet since they were in their twenties, either. Bad hormones, they agreed, or The War. To them, World War II would always be The War. Five years old when their fathers had rushed off to join up the day after the Japs hit Pearl Harbor–and don’t be talking that political correctness stuff, they would always be Japs to Margaret, Barbara, and Lacey.
Left behind, left in the lurch, unable to survive on the pittance their Navy husbands’ pay provided, three young hot moms went out desperately (forget that brave PR, BS stuff) into the work force. Became Rosie the Riveter types. Were seldom home because they were hanging out after hours with 4F, four-eyed, four flusher types, settling for second rate sex and a few cash favors. Their little daughters were not having a good time. Turned out some of those cash favors favored little girls. When two real daddies came home four years later, one staying away ’cause he had the nerve to get fried alive during a naval battle with the Japs away out there somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, three little girls were scarred for life.
But if you’re born in 1936, you don’t go to Officer Friendly about this. It just isn’t done. You don’t tell your let-it-happen mom, either, and maybe you don’t even tell your siblings. But you do tell your two best friends ’cause they’ve had their turns playing catch, too, and you know it ’cause that’s just how it is. You’re bonded. You and them and Krispy Kreme and all-you-can-eat buffets.
Margaret outweighed her friends by a little. A hundred pounds or so. That was only right. She’d had the worst dad. Not only had he left her alone with Rosie the Riveter Slut, but he’d come back from the war with stripes on his sleeves, strutting around like he’d done something good. Hadn’t even apologized once. And now he still refused to die. Still refused to admit he was mentally incompetent. Still refused to give her access to one single penny of the millions he’d made with his stupid little inventions.
Nobody else had a father that inconsiderate. Did they?
Finally, three days after slipping the noose, Belle and I drove across the state line into North Dakota, using the two lane road east of Baker, Montana. At 11:39 p.m., I turned the Dodge away from pavement, easing my way down dirt roads servicing nothing but an occasional farm or oil producing location. Ducking the lone coop at Bowman, ND, wasn’t imperative in any tactical sense but my ego demanded it. No speeding here; the road surfaces weren’t exactly smooth as glass and the mare in the trailer wouldn’t appreciate getting jounced around.
To stay awake, or possibly because my subconscious was trying to tell me something, I began thinking about patricide, the murder of a father by his own child. I’d first become intrigued by a 1994 article in the Deer Lodge weekly newspaper, the Silver State Post, in 1994, announcing that 19 year old John Smith had received a 22 year sentence for killing his father, Dan Smith. Being alone in the truck cab where my lack of sensitivity wouldn’t offend anybody, I could and did laugh my ass off about it, even today. Seems ol’ Dan had suffered from nasty headaches since childhood and frequently said somebody should shoot him and put him out of his misery. So his kid did, popped a cap, .22 caliber from a rifle, right in the back of the head while daddy Dan slept.
Be careful what you wish for.
Reported Dad-killings weren’t all that many, a piddling few hundred between 1980 and 2010, or thereabout. Most of the killers were young, peaking in their teens and swooping downhill fast after that. By the time they reached their sixties, children hardly ever killed Daddy dearest.
According to Wikipedia. I had a different theory: By the time they reached their sixties, children were hardly ever stupid enough to get caught killing the old man. By default, all crimes are under-reported because the smarter criminals don’t get caught.
Maybe that Wikipedia chart should have their chart retitled as listing Patricides by Stupid Killers.
Why was my mind fastening on this? Paranoia, maybe. But like they say, if they’re really after you, it ain’t paranoia. Kerm had always worried me; the boy had a vicious streak a mile wide. Not saying I feared him. After what I’d seen in the War, there wasn’t much fear left in me. But I’d always wondered about his first wife. Had Blossom really died of natural causes? All I knew for sure was that her husband grieved all the way to the bank where he cashed in a $250,000 life insurance policy.
Margaret’s weight was a symptom, too. In my eighties, I’d studied enough psychology texts to know that much. Excess weight is retained emotion.
Kermit the Toad could keep no fat
Miss Piggy was never lean
And so between the two of them
Imbalance became their scene
Tom Slider, poet laureate. Best keep my day job. Heh.
Back to the blacktop a few miles south of Bowman. No coop at the South Dakota state line on this road. I sang to the horse, though she couldn’t hear me. “Just about home free, Belle. Just about home free.”
PEPPER SMITH’S OFFICE
Margie had come with him this time. She settled her ponderous bulk on the dust-laden leather couch without worrying about the filth. They had more important things to consider. Her brother opened the ball.
“Please have some good news for us, Pepper.” Kermit Cavanaugh didn’t look like a man who said ‘please’ much. It came out sounding more like ‘or else.’
The detective held up a sheaf of papers. Half an inch thick, every page covered with either printing or notes, sometimes both. “Yes, no, and maybe.”
“Don’t rush me. Let me tell this in order. First, your father hasn’t popped up anywhere. Hasn’t used a credit card or hit an ATM, at least not in Montana. The thickest part of this file went to checking out every John Cavanaugh who so much as waved a piece of plastic at a waitress. Lot of transactions, not one of them the right Cavanaugh.
“None of the databases have his DNA showing up anywhere, either. Not that that matters unless he starts committing crimes, but–”
Margaret Cavanaugh Jones interrupted. “Isn’t it a crime to use a false name? That’s what he’s got to be doing.”
“Hey, sweet cheeks, you study enough stupid laws in force, you’ll likely find out it’s illegal to fart in public.” He could safely address her with familiarity. He and widow Jones went way back. “Government spies and such like are prone to using false identities all the time and getting away with it, but yes. In a lot of states, it’s even a felony to have your mobile home parked someplace other than where you told the county. Once we find him–and we will, nobody can hide forever–he’ll likely be packing a fake driver’s license, fake social security card, whatever. Unless he skipped the country altogether. You don’t think he’d have decided to go live in Belize, do you?”
Kermit rubbed one palm with the fingertips of his other hand, thinking. “Can’t picture it. But then, we couldn’t picture him leaving his dream house like that, either. And selling it. Turns out the new owners are arriving tomorrow, but Margie and I managed to go through the place first. It’s pretty well stripped. Moldy cabbage in the fridge.”
“We can’t rule anything out, then. Okay. Here’s the good news. I had to call in a lot of favors, search a lot of public records, but maybe–just maybe–I hit pay dirt.”
The siblings leaned forward, eager, vultures spotting prime road kill. “What?”
“Central Washington state, a few miles outside of Omak. Pretty remote and desolate from what Google Earth could tell me. Your father has owned a piece of property there for more than twenty years. Forty acres and a cabin. Not much of a cabin. Not even listed in the records. A bootleg job for sure. But you can tell it’s a cabin.” He turned his computer monitor so they could see the screen.
Kermit got his nose right up to the screen. Margaret wasn’t about to lever herself up off the couch. “What do you think, Kerm?”
“Um…yeah. Square roof. Driveway visible, right up to the door. Looks like a car, maybe a pickup, parked out front. Image taken three years ago. What do you think, sis? You up for a run out to Omak?”
She let out a snort of disgust. “Guess so. Much as we’re paying Pepper here, and with that reward money needing to be held in escrow, it isn’t like we can afford to send somebody out there to take a look. Besides, some clumsy, minimum wage dee-tective goes stomping out there, he’s like to spook Dad. You and I can be sneaky when we have to be.” Too bad they had to go now. If it was later in the summer, the 2nd weekend in August, they could take in the Omak Stampede and Suicide race. Root for the wrecks, hope to see a fatal one.
Oh, well. It was agreed. They would go now. Private Investigator Pepper Smith watched without comment as Kermit helped his sister up from the couch. Privately, he suspected the greedy pair had bitten off more than they could chew. He’d secretly root for old John Cavanaugh, who’d sent a bit of business his way over the years and who, quite frankly, was a heck of a lot more likable than his obnoxious offspring.
Professionally? That was another matter. He was a mercenary through and through. The check Kermit left behind would get Pepper Smith current on every bill he had. If it didn’t bounce. Once his customers were gone, he rose from his chair, put on his hat, and headed out, locking the office door behind him. He intended to convert the check to cash before it could get too rubbery.