A REPORTER IN THE CROSSHAIRS
Chapter Two – Mr. Crocodile Boots
By MEG McCONAHEY
Even if the man hadn’t been frantically fishing for something in the duck pond, he would not have passed through the Sonoma Plaza unnoticed.
It was the custom-made crocodile skin boots that caught the eye of Skip Wingo, who had just left Plaza Liquors and was hurriedly crossing the square with a bottle of scotch in a brown paper bag clutched under his windbreaker. Skip was hoping to muscle into La Casa for some cheap tacos at the tail end of Happy Hour, but he slowed down to regard the stranger. A fancy silver buckle on the man’s hand-tolled belt glinted in the angled sunlight. He wore a white beaver felt hat and Wranglers way too crisp to have ever rubbed up against a horse.
“Definitely not Sonoma,” Skip scoffed. Locals might wear cowboy boots but they’d be scuffed with a little vineyard dust. Skip was used to the overdressed wine snobs and twittering twenty-somethings who took over the town on weekends. This guy, though, looked like he’d ridden in on a Cadillac with Texas plates. As he passed the pond Skip noticed that the man had pulled his hand from the water and was now standing, a muscular six foot five at least, even without the hat. He had pulled a cell phone from the pocket of his long leather jacket. His head was bowed as he barked in low tones in what appeared to be an older flip phone. Not the kind of device you’d expect from a man wearing $2,000 boots, Skip thought, shaking his head as he hurried on.
After the neon marquee of the Sebastiani Theater goes dim, the Sonoma Plaza is a dark place. But in that gray hour before sunrise, the Italian fountains and the Bear Flag monument take on an eerie definition. Tripping over an unseen obstacle and turning an ankle was the only potential calamity that threatened Audrey Hastings’ complete feeling of safety running in Sonoma when the streets were empty.
Having spent 20 years in The City, where bus stop beatings, park muggings and stabbings were commonplace, she felt completely at ease in a bubble her fellow urban ex-pats were given to calling “Sonomalot.” In fact, one of Audrey’s guilty pleasures since retiring six months ago to this snug town a remote 20 miles from the interstate was reading the police blotter, a daily hoot of bumbling petty thieves and errant motorists breaking the speed barrier at 45 mph on Broadway.
Heading up Napa Road from her Second Street East cottage, she cut over to the plaza in front of City Hall and decided to cross through the west side of the square to catch the bike path down from the police station two blocks away. If it weren’t for a noisy flapping of wings and a cacophony of quacking, she might have passed by the duck pond without noticing the pointy tip of a boot poking out of the surface. Figuring she’d be a good citizen and remove the litter, she jogged over and reached down to pull at the old shoe. What came up was an entire leg. Audrey froze, unable to scream as she looked down into the blank face of a man staring up at her through open eyes.
* * *
Zach Brown reached over groggily when the cell phone beside his bed sounded off with that “Dragnet” ringtone that signaled a call from the station. “Sh–,” he sputtered as his hand knocked the gadget to the ground. “Yeah. Brown here,” he said in that cottony voice of the not quite awake.
“Get your boots on buddy.” The Sheriff’s sergeant’s voice was almost cheerful, a tone he took on when things were starting to get really interesting.
“Possible 187 in the Sonoma Plaza. Fifty-eight-year-old white male, about six-five, 220. Face up in the duck pond.”
“A few too many tastes?” Brown sneered, irritated that he’d been roused from his best sleeping hour for a clueless tourist who failed to take into account there was alcohol in wine. He raked a hand over his blonde buzz, as if rubbing his scalp would help engage a groggy mind.
“Look Brown. We found his hat, still damp, perched on top of the slide. Female jogger found the body. She’s still hyperventilating,” the sergeant said evenly. Then paused.
“And?” Brown interjected to break the long silence.
“Remember the body in Healdsburg? This victim also has something written on his arm. Care to guess? Try ‘Sebastopol.’ We better find this perp before he kills somebody over there.”
Meg McConahey is a staff writer at The Press Democrat. Read more of her stories here.
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Edited by ROBERT DIGITALE
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