Someone was paying a lot of money to ruin the campaign. Divine Fury. Chapter 29
February 14, 2013
THE SECURITY GUARD at the Salinas Municipal Airport had directed Enzo Lee to Pedro’s Cantina in town as the place where crop-dusting pilot Michael “Buzz” Shelton was likely serving most of his month-long grounding courtesy of the FAA.
Pedro’s was almost completely walled off from the busy four-lane street outside by peeling wood paneling painted rust-brown and white, frosted glass. The only clear panes of glass that would have provided a look into the interior were blocked by a red and white Budweiser sign and flickering orange neon that read “Tecate.”
At 4 pm on a Thursday, there were only four patrons in the establishment. Lee had Shelton pegged immediately. Thin and late-40s, his elbows were on the sticky bar. His black short-cut hair was sprinkled with gray. He had aviator sunglasses despite the darkened interior and wore a white windbreaker over a black T-shirt and jeans. He was communing with the bottle of Budweiser sitting in front of him next to a clump of keys.
The other customers were scattered among the beat-up café tables.
Lee took the stool two away from him. He nodded as he sat down, got no response and ordered a Budweiser himself when the bartender walked over to him. After he’d taken his first sip, he turned to Shelton.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m a reporter…from the San Francisco News.”
Shelton stirred from his reverie and focused on Lee.
“Oh, great,” he said, sarcasm heavy in his voice.
“Yeah,” said Lee. “I was out there. When was it? Early last week? When you dumped that stuff on us.”
“Sorry about that,” he said. “It actually was just smoke though, if that makes it any better. I put the skywriting rig on. It was just vaporized paraffin. Didn’t smell great but it’s not like it was a pesticide or something.”
Lee said a silent prayer of thanks. It was great to know he hadn’t been doused with DDT. But he was particularly relieved at Shelton’s reaction upon realizing he was a reporter. Among the possible options Lee had considered were Shelton walking out, maintaining stony silence, becoming belligerent and even throwing a punch – particularly under the influence of a few beers. Instead, Shelton was apologetic and, now that Lee had his attention, he even seemed politely conversational.
Over the next hour, Lee asked about the differences between crop-dusting and skywriting, got a lesson on pre-World War II era planes and found out more than he really wanted to know about running a one-man crop-dusting operation. He also treated Shelton and himself to two more beers and two double shots of Jack Daniels apiece. When he got around to what he really wanted to know from Shelton, the pilot was slurring his words and Lee was feeling the effects, too.
“So, Buzz,” said Lee. “What was that all about anyway? I mean, excuse, the pun, but why did Buzz buzz us out there?”
Shelton was quiet and took two deep breaths while Lee waited.
“Okay. Jus’ ‘tween me an’ you, okay?” he said. “If I’m asked ‘bout it, I’m denyin’ it!” He banged his fist on the bar.
“It was Bud Walters. Sonofabitch! Was gonna take my bizness if I didn’ do it,” Shelton continued. “I said ‘No.’ I said, ‘No goddamn way! I’m not dumpin’ tha shit on people!’ But the guy has clout ‘round here. He says the word an’ my bizness dries up. Overnight! So, I jus’ took his money and did it. I’m sorry, man.”
“Well…okay, Buzz,” said Lee. “Sounds like he didn’t give you a choice. Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. So, uh…how much did he pay you anyway?”
Shelton drained the last beer before answering.
“It was a lot,” he said. “Twenty thou, man. Twenty fuckin’ thou.”
* * *
Even after a plate of chicken enchiladas, black beans and rice, Lee figured he should stay the night in Salinas. It wasn’t just the beer and Jack Daniels he’d consumed at Pedro’s Bar working through his system. Shelton had given him the next link in the chain – Bud Walters – the man who had paid the pilot to ruin Harper’s immigration policy announcement. He called Lorraine Carr, got her voice mail, and updated her on his talk with Shelton.
Fortunately, one of the librarians at the News was working late so Lee got him to run a quick web search on Bud Walters. The results showed Walters owned Earth’s Own Produce, one of the largest independent growers in the Salinas Valley and was the past chairman of the 200-member Central California Growers Association. They also figured out that the headquarters of Walters’ farm operation was 12 miles north of Salinas, and just a few miles off the route Lee would be taking back to San Francisco.
It was a long shot, but Lee figured he’d just stop in at Bud Walters’ headquarters unannounced the next morning in the hope he’d find the farmer there. If he had to wait awhile to see him, that was fine. With any luck, he wouldn’t have to explain beforehand the nature of his inquiry and could surprise him with questions about the crop-dusting debacle.
Lee got a room at the Salinas Courtyard Marriott and grabbed a Diet Coke from the vending machine. He took a hot shower, climbed into bed and leaned against the headboard while clicking through the remote until he found the Giants game. They were playing the Dodgers, their archrivals, although sometimes it seemed as if it were Barry Bonds playing the opposing teams by himself. Lee kept the sound off and followed the pitcher’s deliberate rhythm. Pitch – get the slow return throw – kick the mound a little – get the catcher’s sign – work through the personal tics – get set – pitch again. He’d always found baseball pleasantly hypnotic.
It gave him a chance to slow down and think about what he was doing. Lee realized he was violating his self-imposed rule about staying with the fluffier side of news. But he had to admit that he was intrigued by what Shelton had told him. If the pilot had been paid to disrupt that campaign event, it probably wasn’t an isolated episode. Blount might be right that the run-in with the freighter on the sea otter expedition was more than an accident. Perhaps there really was an ongoing, concerted effort to undermine Harper’s campaign.
Lee had been a target of Shelton’s dive bombing and he had seen the journalists tossed into the water by the near miss with the freighter. He might not be bosom buddies with every television reporter or cameraman, but they were his tribe. Whoever was responsible for this had no qualms about endangering them.
He had a picture in his head of someone in the shadows pulling the strings. A manipulator. A Wizard of Oz type. Then he had another image. It was of his hand reaching through the curtain, grabbing whomever it was and throwing them onto the front page of the News. That would feel good.
Lee was distracted from his thoughts by one quick swing of the bat. Bonds again. A splash hit over the right field arcade and into the bay. Three-run homer. Game over.
Chapters of the serial are published Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
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