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Authors: R. P. Dahlke

Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Humour, #Adventure

Dead Red Cadillac, A

BOOK: Dead Red Cadillac, A
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A DEAD RED CADILLAC

BY RP DAHLKE

 

 

 

 

 

Vers. 11.25.14

Dedications:

Dedicated to my son, John Shanahan, whose cheerful advice and stories about the Aero Agricultural business in California made this series about a woman Ag Pilot possible.

 

Daniel John Shanahan II: 1964-2005

 

And to my husband, Lutz Dahlke, who has read every version and has always encouraged me in each and every way.

 

><><><><><><><><><><

 

Credits:

 

 

Cover art: Allen Chiu

 

Edits:

Ellis Vidler,

Janell Parque

Christine LePorte

 

 

Songs:

 

"She Works Hard for the Money" Copyright 1998 Mercury records, sung by Ms. Donna Summer.

 

"One of Us" Written by B. Andersson & B. Ulvaeus, sung by Abba/copyright 1981.

 

"The Sulphur Bag Song" as sung by Fitz, the pilot, was created by my son, John Shanahan.

 

Note:
A Dead Red Cadillac
was published in 2004 under the title
Flying Through Forty
. It has been updated and edited to its current format.

 

 

 

Twice-divorced NY model Lalla Bains now runs her dad’s crop-dusting business in Modesto, California, where she’s hoping to dodge the inevitable fortieth birthday party. But when her trophy red vintage Caddy is found tail fins up in a nearby lake, the police ask why a widowed piano teacher, who couldn’t possibly see beyond the hood ornament, was found strapped in the driver’s seat.

Reeling from an interrogation with local homicide, Lalla is determined to extricate herself as a suspect in this strange murder case. Unfortunately, drug-running pilots, a cross-dressing convict, a crazy Chihuahua, and the dead woman’s hunky nephew throw enough roadblocks to keep Lalla neck-deep in an investigation that links her family to a twenty-year-old murder only she can solve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A DEAD RED CADILLAC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One:

 

 

"Can you hear me, Miss Bains?"

"Yeah, I can hear you." I was lying on the ground, my shoulder hurt like hell, and when I tried to get up, my leg buckled under from the pain. I looked up at my Ag-Cat, its fat nose cone planted deep into a row of tomatoes, like some giant burrowing beast.

I groaned at the conflicting emotions—I didn't make it as far as that restricted airstrip I was hoping to land on; I'm alive, but when my dad sees this, he's going to kill me.

Then I passed out.

The voice intruded again. "Do you know where you are?"

"On your nice private airstrip? Took you long enough to make up your mind. So, shoot me or wait till Noah Bains sees this, and he'll do it for you."

The guy chuckled. "You're going to be okay. You're on your way to the hospital, Miss Bains, but we'll see that your dad is called the minute we get there."

I was in an ambulance. The speaker was an EMT, and we were bouncing along a road, sirens and all.

"Can you cut the siren?" I asked. "It's giving me a headache." Then I passed out from the pain in my shoulder and leg, oblivious to the sound of sirens and the memory of rude airstrip owners.

 

 

My dad came in to stand by my bed and quietly pulled the sheet down over the white cast on my foot.

"Hi, Dad. Did you get the Ag-Cat pulled out of those tomatoes yet?"

"This morning. How're you doing?" He took a peek at the card on the bouquet of daylilies, snorted, and then moved them over to set down my book,
West with the Night
by Beryl Markham. At sixteen I wanted to be just like her. Subtlety not being his best suit, Dad thought it would help me recover quickly.

I wiggled my toes in the cast. "Doctor says I have to take this home with me, but the shoulder won't need surgery. So, how bad is she?"

"Fixable. It was nothing you could've foreseen. Cylinder’s cracked. Must've opened up during your flight home."

It was as near as Noah Bains was ever going to get to saying it wasn't my fault. I breathed a sigh of relief. As a pilot, I always do my own pre-check on my plane, and I'd missed it.

"Caleb and Roxanne were here earlier, but you were still asleep."

I nodded, picking at the sheet. "That airfield I almost got to land on yesterday, you know that guy?"

"Machado? Why do you ask?"

"He wasn't very friendly, considering that I was coming in on a wing and a prayer."

"The hell you say!" His mouth tightened and his bushy gray eyebrows lowered. "What was he thinking?"

"I have no idea. It was marked private strip. But I was kind of running out of airspace while he considered whether he should let me land or not. Is he still in the industry?"

Dad quietly pulled on his lower lip, then said, "Kind of a spoiled kid, as I remember. I think he took over when his dad retired. I don't keep up with who's doing what, since that's your end of it now, but I'll have a word with him."

"Don't. Please. We don't need to make enemies with anyone in the business. When I get on my feet again, I'll go out there, thank him for offering to let me land on his airstrip."

My dad tipped a gray eyebrow at the irony. He knew I could handle John Machado. I'd handled worse characters since becoming a pilot for my dad's outfit; with only the occasional minor correction to my work orders, critiques, and reshuffling of customers to suit his own preferences, he pretty much allowed me to run the business all by myself.

I'd earned my seat the hard way, and if the pilots and farmers we worked with didn't like me, they at least respected me. I wasn't so sure my father actually respected me, but I was the next best thing he had to a son and heir.

Taciturn, irascible, and laconic by nature, he'd withdrawn like a hermit crab into his shell when my mother died. Not till Leslie, my brother, hotfooted it to San Francisco to live his dream as a set designer for the Civic Light Opera did Noah Bains believe his only son would refuse his rightful place with his dad. I, on the other hand, was just another cross the old man had to bear.

I was studying my unpainted toenails sticking out of the cast when I realized he was talking.

"Lalla?"

"Huh?"

"You asked about Machado? I said he bought Hollander Chemical Company a few years back."

"Oh, we use them, don't we?" I was only half listening because my childhood friend, Caleb Stone, was standing in the doorway, tension and relief skimming across his face. His sheriff's uniform was wrinkled and sweaty, his face flushed from the summer heat, but he was here, and the sight of him instantly lifted my spirits.

Noah was still talking. "I wouldn't know who you deal with these days, because as you well know, I'm a convalescing heart patient."

I ignored his complaint and motioned that he should move over and make room for Caleb. I forgot all about Machado and Hollander Chemicals as Caleb and I kidded with each other about who was the biggest klutz.

Later, much later, I would wish I hadn't let the question about John Machado slide.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two
:

 

 

I was leaning on my cane, listening to a balding traveling salesman blocking my path into Roxanne's Truck Café and my first cup of coffee. Standing on a casted leg, I've discovered, is harder than it looks. Seeing I was impatient to get about my business, he hurried to make me an offer I couldn't refuse.

"No thanks," I said. "Got her in a trade. You wouldn't want her anyway. Air conditioner's busted, and the radio only gets AM." Like admiring an unavailable girl, it helps to know her beauty is only skin-deep. I ticked off a few more flaws, eventually disconnecting another unhealthy fantasy. He got into a company car and took the on-ramp for the long stretch of Highway 99 that ended at our state capital.

I patted my belted jeans for the cell phone I naturally forgot to wear and the digital recorder I did manage to remember, then lugged my accordion folder of county papers through a parking lot full of step-side pickups toward the door.

A white Prius, the windows cranked halfway down, barely contained Patience McBride's psychotic, ankle-biting Chihuahua as he baptized innocent passersby with ear-piercing doggy-curses. Wise to his antics, I detoured two cars over and hobbled for the front door.

The café's air-conditioning is always blissfully on overdrive, which accounts for the trucks and cars four deep. Farmers, chemical salesmen, and ag pilots like me, are here for the coffee, breakfast, and gossip. It isn't gourmet, but on any given day, Roxanne Leonard holds court, dispensing wisdom and admonishments while her husband works the kitchen. Breakfast dialogue at my house consists of monosyllabic work-related instructions issued from behind the wall of the morning paper. Obviously, I'd rather eat wadded between the locals at Roxanne's than suffer the terminal silence in my own home.

My godson was Roxanne's oldest, and Terrill, head bobbing to the earbuds attached to his head as he mopped a sticky spill, presented his cheek for the requisite godmother kiss. I patted his muscled, coppery shoulder as it rippled in the sleeveless T-shirt.

"Keep your day job, college boy."

Terrill detached one of the buds, flashed me the famous Leonard dimples and said, "I'm still your favorite, right?"

I smiled. "You bet. Just don't tell your sister."

He laughed, knowing I regularly told each of them the same thing, and nudging the pail toward the kitchen, executed a few more sensuous dance steps with his stringy-haired partner before sliding the bucket through the door.

The girls at Berkeley had better watch out. Though Terrill's parents had effectively blocked the NFL scouts and extracted Terrill's promise to graduate before turning pro, I always figured nobody argued because both his parents are the size of linebackers.

I took a worn green vinyl stool at the counter and stuck my casted foot sideways, then wound the other around the stem in an ancient habit to keep my big feet out of the way. Roxanne deftly positioned a hot cup of coffee so I wouldn't miss the handle. Black, no cream, and wonderfully fresh.

Just as I was thinking kind things about her, she leaned her elbows on the counter and said, "Sure you don't want to reconsider that birthday party? It's not too late to change your mind, you know."

"Thanks, but no. If I get to change my mind about anything, it'd be about my last plane ride. Or about the last two husbands—that would help a lot."

"As for that plane wreck, at least it's only a cast on your leg. And as for your two failed marriages, you didn't bother to ask my opinion, but…"

Roxanne kept a framed degree for her PhD in Psychology nailed to the wall in the kitchen, but I wasn't in the mood for analysis. "Yeah, yeah, I know, lyin', cheatin' written all over those two. Did I ever tell you I've sworn off men? Never getting married again?"

"They don't all leave, you know," she said, looking over her shoulder at her husband, happily up to his elbows in sudsy dishes.

I saw what was coming and held up a hand to stall the lecture. "We've been over this before, Roxy. I know the difference between dying and leaving. Can't we just leave it that I like bad boys and move onto something else?"

"Sure, sweet pea, but someday we're gonna talk about that chip on your shoulder you got ridin' for free."

I looked out of the window at the same view I'd seen for the last ten years and counting. I was bored with Modesto, bored with being Noah Bains's loser daughter, two loser marriages, loser modeling career, and anything else I might try my hand at—but what else could a loser like me do? I was about to turn forty, right foot in a walking cast, cane on the left, a nonexistent love life, living with a monosyllabic father who had enough of his own hangups to put mine to shame.

To get my attention, Roxanne waved her dishtowel at me. "You missing New York City? I hear the older models are cleaning up these days."

"I'm too young for that gig and too old for anything else."

"You still got that fancy penthouse from your first divorce, don't you? If there's nothing keeping you here, you could find something to do in New York."

"Jeez, what do I have to do to get in a whine around here that doesn't come with a lecture?" I didn't miss modeling, and I sure didn't miss New York City. I didn't know what I wanted, I just knew I didn't want to be forty, and if I couldn't get some sympathy from my best friend, then what was the world coming to?

Her dark hand crept over mine. "Don't mind me, I'm just premenstrual. Or maybe this summer is simply outlasting my patience. I can't believe I used to counsel restraint to parents threatening to murder their teenagers. One more month of these two and I'm going to be in the loony bin."

"Better than being an over-the-hill model, forty and getting fat."

She withdrew her hand and wiped both hands down her own ample hips. "You don't got a spare ounce on that bony hide and you know it."

Uh-oh. Roxanne had a lot of very good qualities, but I could see that my whiny mood was wearing thin on her nerves.

"I'm sorry, Roxy, you know I don't mean it. I'm just feeling blue."

She bared her teeth at me. "Forty ain't so bad. Been there and then some. I'm forty-eight and look at me—I'm still hot," she said, fanning her face with her dishtowel. She
was
looking a bit pink.

Her husband, Leon, leaned over the pass-through and laughed. "Yeah, that girl hot awright. We up all night wid dat."

Roxanne threw the dishtowel at Leon, then turned back to me. "You planning on reading that paper or shall I pass it down the counter?"

Not waiting for an answer, she ducked behind the counter to get a clean dishtowel.

Something was up, I could smell it, and it wasn't just the plates piled high with eggs, sausage, and bacon, or the fact that my friend wasn't so much premenstrual as she was menopausal. Leon was still hanging onto the counter, watching us both.

"What?" I asked, narrowing my eyes at them.

Roxanne lifted her big shoulders and shrugged.

"You're a lousy liar, Roxy," I said, sipping my coffee and watching her face. Sure enough, she couldn't take her eyes off the paper I was holding. I looked down at it—lower right-hand corner, second page. A black-and-white photo someone had purloined from my third grade class album. It was me all right, pigtails and that big space that used to be between my front teeth.

I groaned. The caption read, "Lordy, Lordy, look who's forty!"

The entire café, which until then had been holding its collective breath, erupted into laughter.

"Whose bright idea was this?" I yelled, holding up the paper and giving it a good shake in hopes the print would slide off the page.

"This your idea?" I waved the paper under Roxanne's nose, as if cornering a puppy that had piddled on my morning news. That is, if you could imagine Roxanne as a very large Rottweiler. She laughed, the dimple in her right cheek flashing humorously. My friend was having fun with her gullible buddy again, to everyone's amusement but mine.

"Why so touchy? I canceled the party, didn't I?"

"And this was way better, how? I don't see Caleb's mug anywhere on this page." I felt a hand clamp onto my shoulder and jerked around, ready for battle.

"Sure am," he said, smiling broadly, and reached over my shoulder to flip the page.

It was Caleb all right. Though Caleb's blond buzz cut was the same as third grade, it now showed some tanned scalp through the blond. People tended to accept us as kin, Caleb and me, though we are not related by anything other than the tragedy of losing one parent each at age eleven. We're both tall, with the light eyes and flyaway blond hair of the Nordic tribes. On Caleb, the light blue eyes look like chips off an iceberg, and the flyaway blond hair has been subdued by the tight crew cut. My eyes are sea green and the blond hair used to be infinitely photogenic, or so I was told. It worked out okay, I guess: I got to work under some of the best fashion photographers, while Caleb stayed in Modesto and became sheriff, using his icy stare to scare the bejesus out of questionable suspects.

"Come on, Lalla. Take it like a man. It's only a birthday." Caleb grinned, the corners around his blue eyes crinkling.

"Easy for you to say. Forty is prime for you guys." He was all buffed from daily workouts, while I had the excuse of a cast on my leg to keep me out of the gym.

I gave them all my best phony, perfect-for-the-camera smile and hoped they'd go back to their own business of comparing crop prices. "Don't you have bad guys to pick on, Sheriff Stone?"

"Sure I do," he said, reaching over me to collect a breakfast sandwich from Roxanne. "Good guys gotta eat too, you know."

"No offense to Roxy's cooking, but since when did scrambled eggs between two slices of bread take precedence over sausage and eggs at home?" Roxanne, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, was giving me sour looks. "What? Did I offend Leon's cooking?"

Roxy gave me another dirty look, smiled kindly at Caleb, and then turned away to rinse dishes. The quiet coming out of Roxanne might as well have been the roar of a diesel in a tunnel.

I stuck my head in the paper and thought about it. Caleb had a wife to cook his meals, though now that I thought of it, between his daily breakfasts at Roxanne's and weekly dinners at our house, maybe things weren't so good at home. I gave myself the excuse that I'd been preoccupied lately, rebuilding the broken Ag-Cat, doctor's visits, and I was behind with billing and such, but still…

Roxanne hadn't mentioned anything, but then, why would she start now? She wasn't one to gossip, and she wasn't likely to talk about Caleb unless I asked the right question.

"Roxy, is everything all right between Caleb and Marcy?"

"Not my place to speak about that, but feel free to ask Caleb, if you're so interested."

What she meant was, interested all of a sudden. Okay, I would get to Caleb when I could. And since there was nothing I could do about it now, unless I wanted to pick a fight with Roxanne, I changed the subject, reading aloud while Roxanne dumped coffee grounds. "It says here the Stanislaus County Fair is coming up at the end of the month. 'Exhibit and rodeo entries will be accepted in one week for the—' Think they’d allow an Ag-Cat to run barrel races? Maybe not. Okay, how about floral arrangements—nah, brown thumb. Oh, here's one: 'Ribbons will be given in the jam and jelly category.' I'll bet I could resurrect one of my mother's recipes. Maybe experiment on my own. How about rhubarb jam?"

"Jam?" Coffee pot in midair, her heavy bosom rumbled with laughter at the thought of her friend mixing it up in a competition for which she had no experience, no talent, and certainly no previous inclination. "Oh, girl, that I will have to see."

"You mock me now, but it could happen. Maybe the judges are bored with the same old apricot and pineapple jam. Maybe I'll experiment with a recipe and come up with something that will win. Maybe I'll come back here with a blue ribbon." This was just what I needed. Something to do, rev up the old competitive juices, and take my mind off the inevitable birthday.

Boyd Lincoln, from his usual place two seats down, stopped slurping his coffee and hooted. "Yeah, right. My cow got one of them at the fair. Been meaning to bring it in and show it around. I guess if a cow can get a blue ribbon, so can you, Lalla."

Snickers broke out amongst the regulars. The row of plaid shirts quivered in a wave of amusement, though this time they had the sense to keep their heads down. I made a one-armed swipe at Boyd, but missed. Boyd Lincoln had been causing me grief since kindergarten.

The laughter only yanked up my competitive spirit that much more. "Come on, who wants to go up against me in the jam-making contest?"

I felt pretty safe in this mostly male crowd, and then I noticed Patience McBride at the end of the counter, her recently permed bottle-blond locks bouncing with amusement.

"You want to do this, Patience?" I asked sweetly.

She primped at the curls and adjusted her heavy glasses up a notch. "Who, me? Oh, I don't know, I have my piano lessons and all." Patience was in her late sixties, widowed, her only son dead of a drug overdose, or so the story went at Roxanne's. And, except for her piano teaching and the sophomoric entertainment at Roxanne's Café, she was alone.

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