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  • Writer's picturePete Mesling

The Wages of Crime: A Final Teaser

Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to meet a homicide investigator by the name of Lieutenant Caldera, not only in the crime collection I have coming out on July 1—The Wages of Crime—but also right here, in this very blog post.

I’ve already teased the collection with a couple of free stories, one posted to this blog (click here to read “InPerson”) and one read by yours truly on my YouTube channel (click here for that reading of “The Day-Brighteners”). So I thought I’d do something a little different this time around. Instead of giving away another complete story, why not share brief passages from each of the six stories Caldera appears in?

But before we get to that, here’s a brief book trailer to whet your appetite …

And now, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to the good Lieutenant Caldera, in six tantalizing (I hope!) vignettes.

From “Crisscross Purposes”:

Someone was approaching along the sidewalk, emerging from the crowd in front of Clifford’s house, which included a team from the medical examiner’s office. Geoffrey pushed Clifford aside and turned to face the stranger, who wore a brown bomber jacket, blue jeans, and hiking boots. His light brown hair hung to his shoulders and he puffed on a cigarette. Mid-thirties, Geoffrey figured.

“I guess I don’t need to ask how you two know each other.” The stranger’s voice was smooth and deep. “The resemblance is uncanny, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“What’s going on here?” Geoffrey asked. “Who are you?”

“Lieutenant Caldera.” He waved without offering his hand.

“He’s with Homicide,” Clifford said, eyes wide.

“What the hell happened here?” Geoffrey asked. “My brother tells me our friend was murdered last night. Is that true?”

“You don’t believe your brother?”

“Is it true?” he repeated.

“It’s true. Strangled in her sleep, it looks like. A horrible thing.”

“Something’s not right, lieutenant.”

“Why’s that?”

“She wasn’t sleeping here. She was spending the night at my house in Laurelhurst. I saw her to the guest room myself, after the three of us had spent the evening talking. Clifford went home and Loretta went to bed.”

“Well, there’ll be time to go over all that. I haven’t been inside yet. Do the two of you care to accompany me?”

Geoffrey and Clifford glanced at each other and followed Lieutenant Caldera to the house.

“Damn.” Caldera stopped at the threshold and snapped his fingers. “I need to check on something. I’ll be right back.”

“You care to fill me in?” Geoffrey asked his brother after Caldera had gone.

Clifford patted his pants pockets. He was looking for his phone. If Geoffrey was going to plant it, he might not get a better opportunity. Loose mail and other items cluttered a couple of shelves on a nearby bookcase. It would have to do. He slid the phone out of his coat pocket and waited for his brother to turn away. There were a couple of investigators moving through the house, but they were well occupied with their work. With a quick movement, Geoffrey divested himself of the phone. A second later Clifford’s head swung back around.

“Where was the body found?” Geoffrey pressed, his gaze narrow.

“Guest room.” It was Caldera who answered.

The twin brothers turned to face him.

“She was found in the guest room. Hell of a thing, her visiting from out of town and all. Just arrived last night, I understand?” He was addressing Geoffrey.

“Yes, she flew in from New York. I’m confused, lieutenant. How did this—”

Caldera put up a hand to silence him. “We got two calls early this morning. One was from a neighbor who saw someone dragging something heavy into your brother’s house in the wee hours. The other was from a Carlton Longstreth. Your father, I believe?”

Geoffrey nodded.

“Right, well he says Clifford here called him up in the middle of the night and had some upsetting things to say about the victim. So upsetting that your father decided to call Ms. Romanov some time later. He tried several times but couldn’t get through, so he called us and asked if an officer could pay a visit to your brother. He didn’t feel right about talking to either of you himself, he said.”

“I didn’t call Dad last night,” Clifford said.

Caldera scratched his cheek and said to Geoffrey, “Dr. Longstreth, I peeked in at the dash of your car a moment ago. That’s a hell of an automobile, by the way. A Jaguar, is it?”

“Yes, thanks. What were you looking for?”

“Oh, you know. Just keeping my eyes open for anything that might shed a little light on things. Do you mind if I ask when you last filled up with gas?”

“It’s been a week or more. Why?”

“You get pretty good mileage in that thing?”

“Average.” Geoffrey was getting irritated. “Do you have a point?”

“It’s just that it looked full to me. It’s an older model Jag, isn’t it? Switch doesn’t need to be on to read the gauge. The funny thing is, headquarters took another call, last night. Seems there was a bit of a disturbance at a nearby filling station. A man matching your description and driving a green eighties-model Jaguar filled up and had a somewhat terse exchange with the attendant. Wanted to pay with a check, which was against company policy, so he left in a huff and drove off without paying. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”

“Of course not. Jesus, you’ve got some nerve.”

“Listen, I’ve got a crime to solve. A murder, in fact. Now if that means making an offensive remark or two along the way, I can live with that. As long as I end up at the bottom of things.

“But I’ve taken enough of your time for now, gentlemen. You’ll both be hearing from me again, though. Don’t go skipping town or anything.”

Before either of them could protest or ask any more questions, Lieutenant Caldera was gone.

From “The Wages of Crime”:

Lieutenant Caldera’s first visit to the farm after I reported Granny missing came as a bit of a shock. I don’t know why. I guess you ought to expect a visit from the police when you call them up to say an old woman has disappeared into thin air, but I wanted to be free of the whole stinking mess. Being called upon by a homicide detective doesn’t exactly make you feel like the worst is behind you.

We sat in the kitchen and had a cup of coffee to start things off. Just small talk. Then I showed him the storage shed at the edge of the yard. Not in a suspicious way. He wanted to see the farm, so I took him around and pointed things out. When we approached the shed, he got kind of quiet without any cues from me. I could tell he thought maybe it would be worth his time to see inside, so I asked if he’d like me to open it up. That’s when I realized the padlock might have been what grabbed his attention.

“That’s a nice butte in the distance,” he said out of nowhere.

“Yeah, that’s Golden Butte. Highest formation in the county.”

“Funny, I didn’t see it from the kitchen.” He looked back and forth between the house and the butte. “I guess the shed blocks it from view. See, I’d want to be able to look at something like that while I’m having my morning coffee or doing the dishes.”

He smoked Winstons, and he lit one up and took a couple of puffs right then as I undid the lock. He never did answer my question about looking inside. I just assumed that’s what he’d want to do. Wasn’t nothing much in there, of course, except a riding lawn mower and a shovel that now had two dents in its fat side. I’m not stupid enough to toss a body in a shed and call it a day. It didn’t take long to satisfy his curiosity, the shed not being much more than six feet by eight, with most of that space taken up by the lawn mower. But when we got back outside and I was locking up the shed again, something caught Lieutenant Caldera’s eye.

“That ground there.” He nodded at the plot of land next to the shed and pointed with his cigarette hand. “Looks different than the rest of the yard.”

I took a moment to consider that he looked more like the leader of a suburban biker gang than a police detective, with his bomber jacket and shoulder-length hair, but I kept my opinions to myself.

“Don’t look no different to me,” I said.

“There’s no grass growing there.” He gave me a look.

“So there ain’t.” I pretended to look a little closer. “I don’t use any fertilizer here in the yard, so I don’t know why that patch would be any different.”

“You know what I think, Mr. Phelps?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “I think maybe that dirt next to the shed’s been dug up and put back. Can’t think of a good reason for anyone to do that, though. Can you?”

“Nope,” I said and shook my head, frowning.

“Well, I’ll tell you what. I’m going to have a little talk with the DA when I get back to Seattle, and if she’s in agreement with an idea that’s starting to form in my head, I’ll take the matter to the judge and see if I can’t get a court order to have that little plot dug up.”

Only, it turns out Caldera’s a pretty sly fox, the kind of guy you might think you’re playing checkers with but who’s actually playing chess on his end. I thought I had him. By God, I thought I’d committed the perfect crime. While he and his lackeys were busy tearing up the ground where that shed used to sit, I’d have my hands full making sure I didn’t bust out laughing, knowing that Granny was actually buried directly under the shed, because that’s where I planted her before moving it on top of her. Chained it up to my International Harvester and made five minutes’ work of it. Well, maybe ten.

From “How about that View?”:

Jesus, the view! He stepped closer to the open window. From the street it hadn’t been obvious just how much of Seattle’s southern end the view from these windows would encompass. It also hadn’t been obvious how many of them belonged to Vaughn’s office. Turned out it was quite a few.

Vaughn’s computer was on but asleep. Caldera gave the mouse a shake to bring the screen to life. The only things open were a complicated financial document and a web browser. No suicide note, not that every suicide left a note, but most did.

He peeked inside the wastebasket underneath the desk. Some wadded-up aluminum foil and bits of orange peel. Nothing out of the ordinary. That’s what the whole scene cried out, here and on the street below. Nothing out of the ordinary and nothing conclusive.

But as he turned away from the desk to have a look down at the street, something caught his eye in the corner of the room. Some kind of artistic metal urn, vase-like: rounded at the bottom with a short neck and curled opening. The rounded portion was about the size of a bowling ball. It rested on the square surface of a waist-high pedestal.

He plucked several tissues from a box on the desk and used them to pick up the urn without disrupting any fingerprints. It was heavy but not unwieldy. Turning it in his hands he quickly discovered a small indentation on what had been the back side. He set the urn back on its pedestal, discarded the tissues, and returned to the open window.

“Sergeant Ringler!” he called out.

It took her a while to pinpoint the source of the cry. Her head rotated and bobbed as if clicking through a set of gears.

He called again. “Sarge! Up here!”

Finally she looked in the right direction and spotted him. “Caldera?” she yelled. “What do you need?”

“The head! Any signs of blunt-force trauma?”

“Not on the front or the sides!”

“What about the back?”

“Can’t tell!”

“Why not?”

“I’d rather not holler the answer to that, sir!”

“That’s all right!” He pulled himself back inside.

He’d guessed the answer to his question. Ringler couldn’t tell if Ted Vaughn had suffered a blow to the back of the head because the back of his head was spread across Acorn Street in about half a dozen pieces. Caldera hadn’t realized it at the time, but those must have been the unidentifiable bits of goo he’d carefully avoided when he approached the body.

He looked over at the metal urn. Nothing out of the ordinary and nothing conclusive.

From “A Certain Type of Violence”:

“Homicide,” I said into the phone, “Lieutenant Caldera.”

Nothing but heavy breathing on the other end, but I didn’t suspect a crank call. At home, maybe, but not at the cop shop. I gave the caller all the time she needed.

“Lieutenant, my name is Belinda Grimes.”

That was as much as she could get out before bursting into a sobbing fit.

“Take your time, ma’am. There’s no rush.”

There is!” she practically screamed. “My brother, Rory—”

Out came a fresh blast from the faucet. They sounded like real tears, too. You get to know the difference after a while.

“It’s okay,” I said, which I try to avoid. Chances are, if you’re calling me, not everything is okay. What can I say? Sometimes it slips out.

“Rory’s dead. Dear god, so much blood.”

That brought my feet down off the desk and straightened my posture.

“Wait a second, have you called 911?”

“No, I have your number on my fridge, from a friend.”

I struggled to find a pen and paper, thanks to the state of my desk. Resting the phone in the crook of my neck, I put both hands to the task of moving files out of the way. At last I found an empty envelope and half a pencil I’d snapped in two out of frustration over something I can’t remember now. Fortunately it was the writing half.

“Ms. Grimes, I need you to hang up and call 911, but first, give me the address where you’re calling from. I’ll get on this, but I want to know that an emergency team is en route. You can make that happen faster than I can. Do you understand?”

“Yes, I understand.”

She was still a wreck, but she promised to do as I instructed. Soon I was barreling down the road in my pickup truck, strobe light stuck to the roof and siren wailing. In ten minutes I was parked in front of 311 East Robeson Avenue. The thing is, there wasn’t a light on in the place, and at 8:45 p.m. in March in Seattle you need light, especially right before daylight savings time. There wasn’t much illumination along the street either, just a few unevenly spaced streetlights, which stood like sentries called away from Christmas dinner to stand watch at a special event.

I didn’t hear any sirens as I stepped down from my black Ford pickup and straightened my jacket so that it would conceal my standard-issue clock-stopper, the compact Ruger LC9 handgun I carry in a shoulder holster. I can access the firearm easily by reaching across my torso with my right hand. Packing doesn’t sit well with me, which is why I went for years without carrying a gun of any kind. A weapon that can be wielded in an instant is a hell of a lot more likely to cause unnecessary harm than one left in a trunk or a gun safe. Of course, times have changed. Guns are common among the criminal classes. A lawman of any stripe would have to be hopelessly naive not to think that going out in the field unarmed was tantamount to suicide. You might as well take up smoking if you believe in those kinds of odds.

I popped a Winston into my mouth and lit it as I walked along a curved cement path to the front porch. Didn’t climb the steps to the door, though. Knocking didn’t seem like the right approach, so I sidled around to one side of the large house, which had no doubt been stately at one time, with its pillared awning and dormer windows.

Still no sirens. Why was that? Didn’t feel right.

From “Inside Out”:

“Fucking janitor followed you, didn’t he?” Dinky said, almost like he was proud to be so dumb.

“No, him I could have dealt with handily.” Here Metzger gritted his teeth and ground them from side to side before continuing. “Standing on the other side of Heinz’s former desk was a man I’d like to kill about as badly as anyone I’ve ever come across. Homicide detective by the name of Caldera. There he stood with his long hair and stupid jacket. I already had a grudge on this lieutenant. Had made a nice little hobby out of toying with him over the years, though he’d only seen me once before. Took him a second to recognize me, but not more than that.”

“And that’s how you ended up in the slammer,” I said.

He nodded, but my guess is that this Lieutenant Caldera hadn’t recognized him from a jaywalking ticket. I was suddenly deeply curious about Metzger’s past, but not careless enough to ask about it. Maybe after I’d known him a thousand years or so.

It wasn’t in the cards for me to get that chance, though. Three days later, Metzger was gone like a rumor.

They try to keep specifics away from curious ears when one of us springs—which happens more than you might think, this being Monroe, Washington, not Rikers Island—but tidbits always trickle down. Popular opinion is that Metzger snaked his way into a vent right there in his cell that no one would have suspected he could fit into, which is why it hadn’t been sealed up. He must have been working it loose for some time. Of course, patience is easy to come by in here. And you know what? I thought he was losing some weight near the end. He hid it as well as you could hope to, but when he rolled up a sleeve or looked at you just so, there was nothing but skin on bones. I guess I thought maybe he was dying. That happens in here, too. But it turns out he was a step ahead of us all, making himself thin enough to squeeze into that vent.

I wish him luck on the outside. I don’t wish any particular harm on this Lieutenant Caldera fellow, but I simply can’t make myself hope for a successful prison break to end with a man getting snatched up and thrown back into a filthy pit like this. It isn’t human what happens to you on the inside, even if you avoid the worst forms of brutality that sometimes occur. Hell, maybe I’m not fully human anymore as it is, but I can still spare a little goodwill for a man, whether he deserves it or not. When I can no longer do that much, they might as well ready the hypodermic. From “It’s the Thought that Counts”:

He was as good as his word, too. Not two days had passed before Caldera took a call from Phelps. The man had the names of three jewelry outlets within driving distance of Rowan Myers’ home, as well as the nearest pawn shops. The pawn shops seemed like a potentially hopeless last resort to Caldera, so he started with the outlet stores. Representatives at the first two didn’t recognize the ring or sell anything similar. Now he was on his way to the third—Diamond Facets.

The place occupied one end of a glorified strip mall and Caldera liked his chances right away. Pulling his pickup into the parking stall directly in front of the door, he stepped out of the vehicle and entered the store.

“Help you?” a gum-chewing gal in her twenties said from behind a display counter.

She had on a nice enough work outfit, but it seemed in such forced contrast to her black lipstick and spiky hair that Caldera thought she might as well have been wearing a Rammstein T-shirt and cutoffs. Maybe even a dog collar.

“Suppose I’m interested in a ring.”

“Rings we got.”

“I see that.” He approached the glass display case she leaned on. “Say I’m not looking to spend a year’s salary, you know? But I want it to pass muster in low light. Is that an unusual request?”

“Not really. We get your type in here.”

“What type is that?”

She smiled but didn’t stand tall. “Let’s call it sensible.”

That earned a smile from him in return as he reached inside his jacket pocket for the ring Linda Faulkner had been wearing when she fell to her death.

“Would you be able to tell me if you sold a ring like this?” He set the plastic bag on the glass countertop.

The young woman held up the bag to a row of track lighting behind her so she could examine the contents.

“Why do you ask?” she said, smacking her gum, still looking at the ring inside the bag instead of at Caldera.

He slapped his badge down on the counter.

“Mm-hmm. Thought so.” She handed him back the plastic baggie.

“It’s not always the best way to introduce myself, you understand.”

“None taken. You want to know something? I do recognize that ring. Sold it to a guy about three weeks ago.”

Adrenaline shot through Caldera’s veins. “Can you describe him?”

“Sure. He made an impression, you know? Tall and broad, but not fat. A large man. Kind of a crew cut, light brown hair. Eyes like marbles cut from the sky. Didn’t care for him. He was the kind of guy I just answer their questions and do as I’m asked. No extra chit-chat. I wanted him out of here as soon as he stepped in, to be honest.”

Something about the description rang a bell, but it wasn’t Rowan Myers. Plus the hair threw him off, didn’t harmonize with the bell that was ringing.

Then the young woman added, “Metzger, his name was.”

Lieutenant Caldera felt like James Stewart at the end of Vertigo, when he looks down the mission staircase and loses all sense of depth.

“Metzger, did you say?”

“Yeah, that’s right. Why, you know him?”

She got no answer. Caldera went for the door and was gone.

Thanks for stopping by and getting to know a little bit about Lieutenant Caldera. There’s more where that came from, and plenty of other surprises in The Wages of Crime, but I guess I’ve bent your ear enough for one sitting. I’ll leave you with my Linktree. From there you can take matters into your own hands.

Until next time ...

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