Calculated Risk

Posted on March 25, 2018

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It may seem like I’m not writing much, but the opposite is true. It’s just that I’ve been submitting them to publications which only consider “unpublished” works, and that includes vanity blogs such as this. I have four stories out right now. Nevertheless, I’ve held this up for too long as I have been searching for a better image. I can see it in my head, but I cannot render it. Many of you will be pleased to hear that I am, finally, seeking professional help.

This story was first published in Hatch Magazine, where it was so controversially received (unlike The Snob, that he also published to good reviews) that at one point I lobbied both of my editors to pull it.  To his credit, Chad, the owner/publisher said “F’em.” Here are back-to-back comments on Calculated Risk:

“The author seems so desperate to trick the audience that he forgot to write a coherent story. I can’t believe any editor would let this story be published.”

“Killer story–pun only slightly intended. If James Cain had been a fly fisherman, this is the story he would have written. Intricately plotted, suspenseful as hell, with an ending that you don’t see coming and, when it does, knocks you right on your ass. The character of Jill is so breathtakingly cold you feel as if you need to scrape the ice off your computer screen. A tip of the fedora to the author and the publisher…..”

And with that into, I will let you make up your own mind.

Calculated Risk

David hooked the big brown right where he thought he would, against the far bank under an overhanging snag. He and Jill had hiked upstream from camp in the morning and worked their way back over the course of the day. All in all, a great start to the honeymoon – they’d had a 50-fish day between them, but until now, she had him on the biggest fish of the trip. He was grim and determined as he fought it, saving the celebratory whoops for the netting. It worked its way back and forth across the pool like a dog pulling on a long leash and he was applying the maximum force he dared to keep it from turning into the canyon downstream and making a run for it, because there was no way he could follow it there.

“Oh, sure,” said Jill, watching from the bank, “you just had to have the last word on it, didn’t you?”

This was a big fish and David was fighting it with all the skill he had, but he wasn’t so absorbed he couldn’t spare a look at his new bride. Her statuesque beauty was not in the least diminished by her waders and one of his old flannel shirts. He shot her a smile before the fish made its final run straight at him. He had to give up reeling and strip in line for all he was worth just to keep pressure on to avoid losing it. That was the last of the big fight, and in a few minutes, he had it netted. Jill put on a faux moue, tucking her hands under her armpits and sticking her lower lip out far enough to put a coffee cup on. “How big?”

“Twenty-two,” he said, letting his tape go with a snap.

“Well, if I give you this one, can we eat?”

David pulled the fish backwards in the water to increase the oxygen running through its gills, the loose stripped line floating in a tangle around him. “Beauty,” he said.

“Talking to me, or the fish?” They shared a smile.

“Let me cast out and roll up, and I’ll be right up.”

“Sure you will,” she flicked water at him from the shallows with the toe of her boot.

“Refreshing,” he said, already facing away and roll casting forty-five degrees across the stream to get the slack out. Once again he reveled in the power of his new Winston fly rod and Lamson large arbor reel, a wedding present from Jill. The set up must’ve set her back over a thousand dollars. That’s love, he thought.

While he was lost in his thoughts, the fly, a big hopper, was skating across the tail out at the canyon opening when another, bigger, brown smashed it clear out of the water. This time David gave a big hoot and started splashing downstream, wading in over his waist, almost to the top of his waders, and, reeling as fast as he could to take up the remaining slack.

He was laughing and hollering for Jill when he heard her scream. He turned and started back upstream, fighting the heavy current and cursing his gluttony. The fish was pulling hard on the Winston, but with the third scream, he dropped it into the pool and began a slow-motion sprint towards the beach. The screaming had stopped and every step seemed to take hours. Finally he splashed ashore, stumbled to his knees, awkwardly launched himself back to his feet and began lumbering towards camp, up the beach, and under the trees.

He blundered into camp, screaming her name, and stopped short. On the far side of the fire pit was Jill, a man standing behind her, a knife to her throat and his other arm wrapped around her waist.

“You move, she dies.”

“What do you want? Take it. Just let her go and take it.”

“Oh, I’ll take it,” the man laughed. David could see him now. Scrawny and filthy, long dirty hair and beard against his lover’s neck, his dirt-grimed nails digging into her midriff where she stood in her panties, her waders pooled around her feet and hobbling her.

The man let her waist go long enough to grab a rope from his belt and toss it to David. “Tie this to your right wrist,” he said, clutching Jill back firmly by the waist.

David let the rope land at his feet and looked at it. “No.”

“No?” said the attacker, using the knife under Jill’s neck to lift her onto her toes.

“David…” she pleaded, her head tilted back, only the whites of her eyes showing over her cheeks.

“No,” said David. “If you tie me up, you’ll rape her and kill us both. I don’t think I can get to you before you kill her, but I know I can kill you after. So if you’re going to kill her, kill her now. I wouldn’t want her after you’ve touched her anyway.”

As he talked, he reached up to the bib of his waders and wrapped his hand around the handle of a knife which was hanging upside down in a magnetic sheath, pulling down and drawing it forward in one motion as he stepped towards them both. “Either way, I’m going to kill you.”

“David!” Jill pleaded, “Do what he says, please.”

“I can’t do it, Jill. Just know that I love you. It’s because I love you.” He shuffled his wading boots forward so they wouldn’t slip in the sandy soil, letting the knife drift out to the side, making Jill’s assailant watch it. He started circling the fire counter-clockwise, as did Jill and her captor, maintaining the distance between them.

“I will kill her,” said the attacker, but it lacked the conviction of the first time. David marked a small victory as his thoughts raced through the situation.

“I heard you, man. Do it, or let her go, you’re beginning to bore me.”

“Look, I don’t want no trouble.” The bum’s knife hand began to waiver as they completed a quarter turn around the circle.

“You’re holding your trouble; just need to let her go.”

David’s eyes took on a predatory glint Jill had never seen. “Please,” she begged again as she shuffled awkwardly along with the man, before she finally tripped on her waders, falling to her knees. The bum stumbled with her and lost his grip. David closed the distance and Jill scrambled away. When they were a step apart the stranger tossed the knife and held up his hands and ducking his head to one side and looking away in the pose of a submissive cur. “Please, man, don’t.”

David stopped advancing. “Jill, move away. Get yourself together, and head towards the car.”

She stood up and began shucking back into her waders. “It’s twelve miles. Kill him,” she said in a voice David had never heard. He spared her a glance. “I’m not running twelve miles through the woods wondering if it’s you or him following me.”

“Don’t argue, and don’t stop unless you hear me calling your name.” He looked back at the wreck in front of him.

“You said you would kill him, so kill him. If you don’t, you know we’ll never be safe.”

“Don’t kill me, man. I didn’t mean nothing.”

“Kneel.” The man looked at David and sank to his knees. Never taking his eyes off the man, David squatted down to pick up the rope. Just then, Jill rose up with a stone from the fire ring and cracked her assailant across the back of the skull. He dropped forward and his face smashed against the rocks in front of him. David looked from the man splayed in front of him up to Jill, his mouth agape. Regaining composure, he scuttled forward and knelt next to the man to check his pulse.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” David knelt and reached forward with two fingers to feel the man’s neck. “No, no, I don’t think so.”

Jill kneed him out of the way, and before he could stop her she raised the rock above her head with both hands and smashed the man again on the back of the skull, spattering David with brains and blood.

David lurched forward, covering the man’s head with his upper body, shielding him and ignoring Jill as he checked for life. “He’s dead.” He looked back over his shoulder, “You killed him.”

“Good.” Jill looked down, the stone still in her hand. She turned away from the two men and walked down the beach to the pool where she hurled the rock into the water, then used sand and water to scrub her hands. When she came back, David was looking at his cell phone.

“Dammit, there is no reception.”

“What are you doing?”

“We need to call the authorities.”

“We most certainly do not.”

“Jill, there is a dead guy in our camp; we need to do something about that.”

“Think about it, David. We killed him. Even though it was self-defense, there’s no proof of it. We’d have to hike out, report it, comeback here with a bunch of cops, spend the rest of our honeymoon answering questions, and spend the rest of our lives like reality TV stars. Is that what you want?”

“Are you saying we just leave him here and bug out?”

“This asshole has pretty much ruined a perfect day.” Jill kicked at the body with her toe. “I am not going to let him ruin my honeymoon.”

David was still kneeling by the body. “I’m confused, what are you saying?”

“I’m saying we carry him up to the cliff, drop him in the water, clean this mess up and have dinner.”

He looked at her for the longest time, trying to believe his bride had just proposed what he’d heard.

“Honey, you just killed a man. You are not thinking clearly. There are laws around this, we need to follow them.”

“No. I didn’t kill him,” she said. “You did.”

“What do you mean, I killed him?”

“Well, you said you would hunt him down and kill him didn’t you?”

“Yes, but that was just to get him to let you go!”

“Which time were you lying, when you told him to kill me because you didn’t want me after he touched me, or when you told him you would kill him?”

“I was lying the first time, of course.”

“But not the second?

“I don’t know. I wanted him to believe it. I wanted to believe it. When he had you, I had murder in my heart. But once you were free, he seemed so pathetic there, begging for his life. Things changed. I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

“So, you lied. You would’ve let him go and come back and hunt us down in the middle of the night?”

“It wasn’t a lie, I just hadn’t gotten there yet. Of course I wouldn’t just let him go.”

“If it wasn’t a lie, and you would’ve killed him, then why not say you killed him?”

“Because if you say you killed him, it was self-defense, an accident. If I say I hunted him down, then it would be premeditated.”

“Well, the first shot was self-defense. The second: I wanted him dead.”

“I think if a cop can pump fifteen bullets into an unarmed black teenager running away and claim self-defense, a woman defending herself from rape can get two shots.”

“I don’t understand. If you say you would’ve done it, just say you did it. How can I ever trust you again? If you were ready to do it, say you did it.”

“Why not just tell the truth?”

“The truth? You want to have to explain all of this? Be in the paper? Have people know for the rest of our lives that we killed a man? Talk about us behind our backs at work? Have that hanging over our kids? This guy was like a mad dog, we put him down. That’s it. We don’t need to go into it, justify it to people who weren’t here and will never understand.”

David was confused. She made sense, but it felt so wrong.

“David, I’m not taking the blame for this. If you want to turn yourself in, fine. But don’t take me down for doing what you didn’t have the stones to do. If you call the cops and they ask, I’ll say you did it.”

“Honey,” David rose up from his knees and went over to her, “listen to yourself.” He reached for her but she slapped his hands away and turned from him. It hurt like nothing he’d ever felt.

“David, either we do this together, or you are alone, just like I was alone with this madman.” She looked at him. “I feel like I can’t trust you anymore.”

“Can’t trust me? What I said, what I did, those were the hardest moments of my life. I’d do anything for you; give anything for you.”

“I don’t believe you. I’ll never believe you, after what you said, if you don’t follow through and help me now.”

“What I said was a calculated risk. We were in a lose-lose situation. I believed we were both going to die. I gambled everything to get you free. Please, ask anything but this.”

“There is nothing but this, David. I’m doing it. All I need to know is if I’m doing it alone or not. I’m doing it for us. Help me, because if you go down that other road, you are going alone.”

David realized his arms were still foolishly outstretched and he dropped them to his side. The fear of the attack, the elation that his ruse worked, the shock of Jill’s revenge, the adrenaline rushes and drops all hit him like a possessed elevator ride, but it was Jill’s rejection that hit him hardest of all. Everything he knew and believed, everything fundamental to their lives was erased in a few short minutes and he wasn’t sure if they would ever get it back. But he knew this was his only chance, to act or not act. And wasn’t she right? Didn’t he have murder in his heart as he circled with the knife in his hand, praying for an opening? Wasn’t his intention to make them safe from this monster? Wasn’t this whole thing his fault for making that one last cast and selfishly playing that fish after he said he wouldn’t? Here he was paralyzed by emotions of fear and guilt, while she was acting to save both of them. She was right, he needed to still protect her and take responsibility for the act, whether he was the executioner or not.

“What do you need me to do?”

She turned back to him and smiled. His heart rose up from the ashes where it lay in his chest. “Oh, David, thank you.” His arms came up of their own volition. “Not now. We need to get rid of the body and get out of these clothes. I don’t want blood and stuff all over me. The forensics these days is insane.”

She looked around. “We’ll need to carry him. I don’t want any drag marks for some tracker to find. Help me.” She moved around and picked up the feet while he grabbed under the arms. He grunted as he lifted. How could such a skinny runt be so heavy? He walked backwards through the dust on to the fishing trail that lead up to the rocks above the slot canyon. When they got to the highest point they stopped by unspoken agreement.

“On three,” Jill said, “make sure to clear the rocks and get him in the water.”

They swung the body out and over and let it go. Together they watched it tumble the twenty yards to the water, splash down hard, surface again, and start its travels downstream.

“It will look like he tripped, hit his head and fell into the water.”

David looked over at Jill. Amazed at how she had thought this all through. He didn’t know what else to do, so he looked back at the water.

“My rod.”

“What?”

“After you left, I cast out my line to reel in, and hooked a monster in the tailout. When you started screaming I dropped it and ran.”

She looked at him as if he were a complete idiot. “You can look for it when you are cleaning up. Go down to the beach, strip out of those clothes and take a bath, I’ll bring down clean clothes and soap and join you.”

David was in too much shock to argue. A few minutes later, Jill appeared as promised. She handed him a bottle of shampoo, and pointed up to his hairline. “You’ve um, got brains and stuff in your hair.” David reached up, shocked, and came away with a bloody globule. He looked at it and then retched into the water. Jill had already turned her back.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“And what? You were already freaking out.” After that, they bathed silently, each lost in their own thoughts. When she got out of the water to dress, he made a few half-hearted dives for the rod, but couldn’t find it in the failing light. He got out of the water and Jill handed him clean, dry clothes. In her hand was one of the garbage bags they brought to pack out their refuse. “Put your shirt and waders in here. We’ll pack them out and dispose of them later. We can’t risk leaving them here.”

“Sure.” He was too numb to argue. “I guess we should turn in and get ready to leave in the morning.”

“We can’t leave. We are on our honeymoon. People will want to know why we are back. There will be credit card bills, traffic cameras, nonono. We are going to stay and fish.” David looked at her, unable to make out her expression in the twilight.

“I’ll start a fire,” he said.

David tossed and turned all night. The last time he had been this distraught was the night his father died. He couldn’t process the events of the evening. A few short hours ago, sharing that pool with Jill, he thought he could never be happier, now he would give anything to go back to that moment. The events played over and over in his mind and he could not stop them. Alternatively he reached for Jill, and tried to keep a separation between them. He wanted to give her space, and he wanted to comfort her, but from what he could tell, she slept through the night, without so much as turning over. If she was wrestling with her thoughts, she was doing it much better than him, and he didn’t want to wake her. At false dawn he finally fell asleep and when he woke up she was gone.

 

He crawled out of the tent and Jill was drinking a cup of coffee by the fire. Sitting there in cuffed denim shorts and a hot pink Reebok workout top, she looked for all the world like a fitness model.

“Look who’s up, sleepyhead.” David smiled at her, feeling as he always did like an awkward teenager around her. “There’s oatmeal.” She nodded toward a pot warming on a flat rock beside the fire.

He tested the handle for temperature, wrapped his shirttail around it, and picked it up, using the spoon that was already in it to eat. She walked over and put a cup of coffee next to him. “I did a little morning fishing with streamers. I think I may have regained the record on you.”

He looked at her, grinning. “If I didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.”

“You are lucky I didn’t toss it into your sleeping bag with you.”

He looked around the campsite. It was almost like he couldn’t remember what had happened here just few hours ago, but then it came back to him. He lurched up, ran over to the edge of the campsite and vomited breakfast all over the rocks. When he came back a few minutes later, Jill still seemed unconcerned.

“So, what’s the plan?” he said, scraping the pot. He immediately felt awkward and looked over at her, but if he misspoke, she didn’t show it.

“I think we should pack up and move to the next spot, below the canyon.” It’s about four miles and there is no rush, we can get there, set up, and still have plenty of fishing in the afternoon.

“Sounds good to me,” he mumbled. The oatmeal no longer held any temptation for him.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Ready,” he replied, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

The trail gained a lot of elevation going around the canyon before it dropped back down. With the camping and fishing gear, David was carrying over 60 lbs. Jill had less on her willowy frame, but in the heat, hiking was slow, and once they settled into their respective rest steps for the climb, conversation ceased.

They pushed on, stopping only a couple of times for water and reached the site by early afternoon. They set up camp quickly and broke out the rods after a lunch of fruit and gorp. David had a spare backpacking rod, but they were going to have to wet wade, as their gore-spattered gear stayed packed away.

“Well,” said Jill, “let’s get our fishing on.” She beamed a big smile at him and he melted inside. They went down to the river and he gave her the money water, letting her work downstream of him. There was a nice line of foam standing off the far bank, and the odds were that all of the slack water in between held trout. They waded in together and he held his rod across his hip in his right hand, his left hand clasping his right wrist. He watched her working the water in total concentration. Her casting was crisp and efficient in a way his never would be. He believed there was a musicality required for such perfection which he simply didn’t have. It was like watching a jazz guitarist, running effortlessly up and down the frets, the sum of the whole unknowable from the observation of the parts. He didn’t have a thought in his head as he watched her dancing down the stream, motes in the sun drifting around her like a tiara.

When the corpse struck him, at first he thought it was a log. When he looked down, he jumped and yelped. Somehow the body had rolled over, the dead eyes open and staring up at him accusingly. He didn’t want to touch it and splashed away into the shallows falling over while the body wallowed in the pool inside the current, spinning slowly, but not progressing downstream.

Jill waded upstream to him. “Shit.”

David looked at her. “Jill, this is our chance. We can call the authorities now and tell them exactly what happened — that we were standing here and the body just drifted down out of the canyon.

She looked at him, her sunglasses making her look vaguely mantis-like. “We have a plan. We’re sticking to the plan. I’m not getting caught up in red tape now.” She handed him her rod, then grabbed the body by the collar and dragged it downstream, letting it go into the current at the end of the run, then coming back for her rod. “I hope that bastard didn’t put the fish down.”

Taking the rod, she returned to where she was last fishing. A couple of casts later, she hooked up, eventually showing off a fourteen-inch brown. David shuddered and realized how cold he was. He waded ashore and sat on a rock in the sun to warm up. Jill continued taking good-sized but not large trout for the next hour. Although he watched her constantly, David didn’t really remember any of it. He kept trying to rectify the woman in the water with the woman he had married.

After dinner, they fished downstream through the pocket water. David kept expecting to see the body in the rocks, but they never ran across it. The shallow, fast water with plentiful rocks made it easier for him to wet wade, and the technical fishing took his mind off of last night. Like Jill, he caught numerous worthy fish, but none of the monsters they were hooking yesterday. They hiked back to camp and settled in for the night. Every time he tried to bring it up, he would look at Jill, who truly seemed like a bride on her honeymoon, and he just couldn’t bring himself to broach the subject.

 

The next two days were like that. They would move downstream, fish, spend the night, do it again the next day. David hooked three fish over twenty inches. Jill took two, but one of them was a monster twenty-six inch fish, a personal record for her and definitely the big fish for the trip. David wasn’t even sure if he’d ever hooked a salmon that big. He kept looking at Jill’s picture on the phone, her even white teeth beaming as she held the fish up.

David had let himself get lost in the trip, and on the last day, he was actually sorry to see it end. On the last afternoon, he gathered his courage and tried to make love to her for the first time since the incident, but she turned away and shunned his touch. He told her he loved her; it didn’t ring quite as true as he remembered, but it didn’t fall as flat as he feared. She didn’t answer.

After that, all there was to do was go home, so they packed up and double-timed it out, talking about the runs they were passing as if they would someday come back, but he knew they never would. They came around the last bend and dropped into the parking lot, only to find a sea of Sheriffs’ SUVs, two state patrol cars, and one unmarked blacked-out Crown Victoria. David’s heart was in his throat, but Jill pasted on a smile and said through her teeth, “Just roll with it, David, two honeymooners high on love and brown trout.” He looked over at her, but doubted he displayed a tenth of her panache.

As they walked up to their car, a man in a cheap suit – jacket off and wearing a short-sleeved shirt with his tie – broke away from the group. “David and Jill Roberts?”

The couple exchanged a guilty glance. “Uh, yes, that’s us, how did you know?”

The man smiled. “I wish I could say it was great detective work, but you are the only names in the log book for a couple of days, then we ran your plates. Plus,” he hooked his finger over his shoulder, “there were like ten of us,” and he gave a big wink. David instantly disliked this guy and his good-cop routine.

They all laughed, “Of course,” said Jill. “So obvious. What’s going on?”

“We found a body in the river.”

“A body!” Jill put her hand over her mouth in surprise. David was impressed.

“That’s actually why we ran the plates, pulled the license to see if you were the vic, Dave.”

“David.” The two looked at each other. David was suddenly very aware of the weight of his pack and the blood-soaked clothes in it. “You don’t mind if we go over to the car and take our packs off, do you.”

The cop pretended to be sorry he hadn’t thought about that himself. Strike three, thought David: nice guy act, buddy name test, and disingenuous dufus routine. The cop walked over to the Subaru with them where David opened the hatch and took Jill’s pack before taking off his own. The cop stuck out his hand, “McGuire.” David looked at it and then up at the cop without taking the hand. “What can we do for you, officer? Clearly I’m not the victim. And we are hot and tired.”

“And this is our honeymoon,” added Jill.

McGuire barked a laugh. “I get it. Just need to ask a few things, in case you saw anything.”

“All we’ve seen for five days is fish,” said David.

As if he didn’t hear him, McGuire continued on. “So how far up did you go?”

David looked at Jill and sighed. “About twelve miles.”

“And you didn’t see anybody?”

“That was kind of the point, actually,” said Jill.

“I’m wondering if you wouldn’t mind taking a look at the body?”

David recoiled. “We just said we didn’t see anybody.”

“Well, just in case you know him from somewhere else.”

“Will all due respect, officer, I’m not having my wife look at a dead body on our honeymoon.” Jill had moved to stand slightly behind his shoulder.

“Of course. I’m sorry. It’s just that three people go in, two people come out. Statistically, there is usually a connection.”

“Not today, buddy. Are we done?”

“Could I get your information, just in case?”

Jill popped up and gave him her number. David looked askance at her, and then said “The rest of the information is on my registration.” He closed the back, walked Jill around to the passenger door with a hand on her elbow and opened the door for her. “As of course, you know.” He nodded to McGuire, got in and drove off.

“Smooth,” said Jill.

“That guy was working us.”

“I get that, but giving him attitude was unnecessary.”

“Just playing the righteously pissed honey-mooning husband.”

She looked over at him, “Well, good job then.”

 

David came out of the basement as Jill pulled into the yard. He’d taken time off from his contracting business to work on their new house after the honeymoon. The house had good bones, but nothing had been updated. With his skills, the house was a bargain. He was covered in drywall dust when he came over to help her with the groceries and she wrinkled her nose. “You need a shower.” Before the trip, they would both work on the old bungalow, getting ready to flip it so they could move into a more family-friendly house — and she’d never once wrinkled her nose at how he smelled then.

“Why yes, the remodel is coming along fine, and I would love a nice dinner with my lovely wife, why do you ask?” She looked at him across the bag of groceries between them, her lips pressed tight together. He kicked himself for going on the attack like that, but ever since the assault the tension between them had not abated, and he couldn’t remember the last time they touched.

“I just need some time, okay? It doesn’t help when you are like this.”

He bit back a retort, and reached for the groceries instead. She pushed by him, and walked into the house. He followed and dropped the bag on the counter and went into the guest bedroom where he had been showering. And dressing. And sleeping. When he was done, he went into the kitchen where she was heating up some pasta. He grabbed a beer out of the fridge.

“Starting already?” She had a way of arching her eyebrows which he’d never noticed before but particularly got to him now.

“What do you mean ‘already?’ I’ve been working my ass off all day.”

“It’s just that you’ve been drinking a lot lately.”

“Well, I guess I don’t have a lot else to do.” Dammit, again he said the wrong thing, and he knew it before he did it.

“I don’t care how you spend your time, David. Just don’t get sloppy.”

He put the beer down on the counter and looked at her. His mouth opened and closed like a beached trout. Words like “frigid,” “mechanical,” and “heartless” bubbled and were swallowed like acid reflux. She watched him, completely expressionless, waiting. Finally, he picked his beer back up. “I have some work to do in the basement. Don’t wait dinner on me.” He spun and walked away before she could confirm his worst fear — that she wasn’t going to bother to respond.

 

When David came back upstairs, Jill was in bed; when he got up, she was gone. He tried calling and texting Jill a couple of times the next day, with no answer. Around four, he came up out of the basement for a break to find a flat package on the stoop. He picked it up and opened it with his clasp knife. Inside was a new pair of waders. They felt hot to the touch. His stomach roiled like it hadn’t since the body had floated into him. Everything came back and he had to put a hand on the wooden railing to steady himself. Dammit, she thought of everything. He tried to call her again, and still no answer. Fed up, he went upstairs, grabbed his gear, and headed out to the river.

There was a nice run next to the road out of town that they would often hit if they had only an hour or two to kill. As he was rigging up, he was fully aware that this was his first time fishing since the honeymoon. He just wanted to be able to fish and escape, to think about nothing but losing himself in the burble of the stream and the rhythm of the cast, the way it used to be. But now fishing meant murder and he was afraid it was ruined for him forever. Every time the memory surfaced, he pushed the thought away. He loaded things into the various pockets of the new waders, stashing his keys and phone in the waterproof chest pocket. The what he called, “never-to-be-opened” pocket where you put things you could not lose while you were on the water.

He had just gotten his gear out of the truck and waded out, his back to the road when he heard his name called. He turned and shaded his eyes with his hand. A dusty, dark blue Caprice was parked next to his truck, and walking down the path was the cop from the pull out where they found the body. What was his name? McGuire? The cop was yelling to him, but there was no way David could make it out over the rushing water. He debated ignoring the cop, or even making him come out to him, but the outing was already ruined for him, so he reeled up and sloshed his way to shore.

“Stalking me?” he asked with what he hoped sounded like good-natured humor, although it most decidedly was not.

“Well, actually just recognized the car.”

“Uh-huh.”

“New waders?”

David looked down, as if he just recognized them. “Yeah. Old ones had leaks in them. Good enough for me, but not for Jill. She ordered them for me right after we got back.”

McGuire looked out over the river. “So, you do a lot of camping, David?”

David decided to play along, but Jill’s “don’t get sloppy” warning rang in his head. “Some, mostly only to fish though.”

McGuire picked up some rocks, started skipping them. “Thinking about getting into it with my boy.”

“Well, nothing like a camping trip to bring you closer to someone you love.”

McGuire looked at him. “What about food? You buy all of that dehydrated stuff or is there some trick about store-bought stuff.”

David held the cop’s gaze through his fishing shades. “Fishing gear adds a lot of weight. So, I don’t like to pack a lot of cooking stuff too. We just carry nutritionally dense food like raw nuts and dried fruit that keeps well, and we don’t have to cook”

“But you had a fire. Did you cook fish at least?”

A fire, thought David, How far upstream did this guy go?

“All we cook is coffee or maybe a little oatmeal. We don’t eat the fish, we let them all go.”

McGuire acted incredulous. “I’ve heard about that, but surely you keep some of them.”

David shrugged. He’d had a hundred versions of this conversation over the years. “You don’t get twenty-inch fish by eating twelve-inch fish.”

McGuire pursed his lips and nodded his head. “Makes sense, I guess.” Then as if he’d just thought of it. “Say, we still don’t know who that guy is, but we figured some stuff out.”

“Oh?” David played his part as calmly as he could.

“Yeah. He was dead before he hit the water and his head was smashed up pretty good. Forensics these days is amazing. Doc said the guy musta had a good fall to make that happen, even gave us a height range, so we walked back upstream to see if maybe we could find out where he went in. Looks like the only place was about twelve miles in, by a little slot canyon. You know the place?”

“We made camp by it.” David figured it couldn’t hurt to admit what McGuire clearly already knew.

“From the looks of it, that guy lived rough for a while, probably knew the area pretty good. Trying to figure out why he would fall in sudden like that.”

“Could be a million things.”

“Could be, but I got a theory.”

David said nothing, waited him out.

“See, the thing is, we pumped his stomach.” He pulled a little notebook out of his shirt pocket, but David was sure it was just a prop as he thumbed through it. “Raw nuts and dried fruit, like a trail mix.”

“See?” said David. “Pretty common.”

“Yeah, but raw nuts? You said ‘raw’ specifically, I didn’t think anything about it, but when the doc also specified that I looked into it. I guess most nuts are roasted and raw is the exception, I don’t even know where you would get raw nuts around here, I don’t figure this guy was shopping at Whole Foods. The way I figure it is, maybe he was going through your camp, you came back and scared him, maybe chased him off, he was looking back at you and maybe tripped and fell. Is that the way it happened? Or maybe you hit him with something and he fell in?”

David was glad for his shades, because while he was sure McGuire saw his eyebrows go up, at least he couldn’t watch his pupils. He scratched his chin while he thought. “You know, we munched on that stuff all day long, so it’s not like we would’ve noticed any was missing. But I suppose something like that could happen. Except maybe he just heard us coming and ran off. It was near dark the last night we came back to that camp. Bugged out the next morning. Coulda happened just like that, but like we said, we didn’t see or hear anything. Poor bastard. Stupid way to go. We would’ve shared with him, you know?” Maybe that last was a bit much, he thought, but he couldn’t take it back now.

McGuire watched him for an uncomfortable length of time, although in reality it was probably just a few seconds. Then he put the notebook back and shrugged. “Yeah, well, I suppose you’re right. Couldn’t hurt to ask, though. Especially given your wife’s history?”

David did flinch then. “You don’t know?” said McGuire. There was a beat, while David was trying to figure out what to say. McGuire held up his hands, “Hey, I’m not going to be the guy to break it to you, but there are some things about your wife you don’t know.”

David looked at him. “There may be, but they’re not relevant here. Because.” he paused, “We. Never. Met. This. Guy.”

McGuire looked at him for a long moment shrugged, and turned to go away. David was running the conversation over in his head, and remembered they were driving Jill’s Subaru when they first met McGuire, not his truck. Before David could stop himself he blurted out, “How old is he?”

McGuire stopped, one foot on the trail and looked over his shoulder. “How old is who?”

“Your boy?”

“My boy? Oh,” he hesitated just a moment, “twelve.”

David gave him a flat grin and nodded, “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Then he turned back to the river. He didn’t want to fish, but he didn’t want to walk out with the cop, and he had some thinking to do.

 

As soon as he got back into his truck, he called Jill. Again, no answer, so he left a message saying he’d talked to McGuire. He sat staring out the windshield. Somehow, he felt that was probably the last time he would be fly fishing. The phone buzzing in his hand snapped him back to the moment. He knew it was Jill and had a hard time keeping the disgust out of his voice.

“So, you’ll answer for the cops but not for me.”

“This is not the time, David.”

“Will there ever be a time?”

She ignored him. “Tell me about the conversation. Tell me everything.”

David drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and ran it down. It was silent for a moment before she answered. “You told him a lot.”

“I’m sorry if I’m not great at this accomplice stuff. Murder is all new to me.” He knuckles were white on the wheel. He took a breath to control himself. “I figured the best lies are based on truths, and he was just here to confirm things he already knew.”

She ignored his tone. “Let’s not get into enumerating all of your shortfalls as a partner. At least you didn’t screw up royally. Thanks for the heads up in case he comes calling.”

“If he did come calling where would he find you?”

“Goodbye, David.” He was left with dead air and a view of the river which no longer gave him solace.

Only then did he realize he never even got to ask about the history comment.

 

When David got home he tried to work for a while but finally gave up and grabbed a bottle of Bourbon. He walked out onto the porch and opened it, unable to stay inside the empty house. He was still standing like that when Jill’s friend, Melanie, pulled up in her gold Lexus. He tried to compose himself, and patted some of the dust off of his shirt. Melanie was Mutt to Jill’s Jeff. Where Jill was tall and thin with a distance athlete’s body, Melanie was shorter and more curvaceous; her short blonde Paige-cut an offset to Jill’s long auburn hair.

She laughed when she saw his futile attempts to straighten up. “Oh, please. You are a carpenter, I’ve seen you more often in work clothes than out, although I wouldn’t mind seeing you out of those clothes…”

David blushed. Melanie was always flirting with him, and it made him uncomfortable. He recognized she was cute, but he was married. Capital M married, and never looked at any other women that way ever since he’d met Jill. Worse, she used to make comments like that right in front of Jill who either ignored them or laughed at his discomfort. “I don’t know when Jill will be back.”

Melanie came up the steps and took in the scene. The discarded wader packaging, the open bottle on the railing. David’s disheveled appearance under the work dirt.

“I know, I’m here to see you.”

David didn’t know what to say to that. His eye caught the Lexus. “New car?”

“You know us realtors, it’s a write off.” She nodded to the bottle in his hand. “Gonna offer a girl a drink?”

David shook himself out of reverie, tilted his head at her, and then picked up the bottle and offered it to her. She laughed again. “Unless you are going to chew up some ice cubes and spit them into that bottle, you think maybe I could have a glass?”

David looked down, feeling foolish. Get your act together, he thought. “What am I thinking? Come in.” He opened the screen door to the kitchen and she swatted him on the ass on the way by. He jumped a foot, but he got himself together, grabbed a couple of glasses and iced them, poured her a couple of fingers, and then poured himself a healthy quadruple shot. He motioned to the table with her glass and put it in front of a chair, then took his glass and the bottle and sat kitty-corner from her. She looked at him, looked at her glass, reached for the bottle and filled her glass as well. She raised her glass in a toast, “Here’s to the newlyweds!”

David hesitated, then downed his glass and reached for the bottle to refill it. Melanie merely watched. “You okay?”

He shrugged. “Been a long day.”

“Been a long couple of weeks from what I hear.”

“Oh, and what do you hear?” He was thinking maybe Melanie could offer him some insight into his wife’s callous behavior.

Melanie reached a hand out and put it on his arm. “I know what you did, David. All of it. Jill told me.” He jerked back, nearly knocking his glass over.

“What are you talking about?”

“On the river. With the rapist. I know all about it.”

He ran his hand through his hair. “No. I can’t believe this. She wouldn’t tell you.” Then he remembered: don’t get sloppy, David. “What is it you think you know?”

“How you bluffed him. That was the bravest thing I ever heard. What you said.”

He looked at her, feeling hope for the first time since that night. “I don’t think she sees it that way.”

Melanie reached out again, palm up and he took her hand instinctively. “She will. I know how you feel about her. Everybody knows how you feel about her. That’s why I tease you so much, because it makes you so uncomfortable. I cannot even imagine what it did to you to say those things. To say them like you meant them.” There was a glint in her eye David couldn’t place. He started to cry. Everything came out of him in a river, him still looking at her. She stood up and came around the table and held him around the shoulders, holding his hand, stroking his head. He felt bad and weak and guilty, but he took it and she shushed him and soothed him and he realized how much he needed it, this simple touching and empathy.

Finally, the jag subsided, and she moved back to her chair, still holding his hand. “Thank you,” was all he could get out.

“You are a hero, David, to protect her like that. To save her life. And then, to hunt him down and take care of him like you did.” This time, he did understand the glint. It was raw, naked lust. “If she doesn’t know, if she doesn’t get it…”

He looked at her, really looked at her, and realized for the first time that she was filling out a very low cut top and short-shorts. He could feel her animal hunger, and he could feel his own urges, suppressed like everything had been suppressed, coming up on waves of whiskey and guilt, relief and desire. Then suddenly he placed both hands flat on the table, rotating out of her grasp. “Is this a test?”

She looked at him, her eyes wide and her mouth slightly open. “No, David. No. You passed your test. I…” She looked at him. She looked around the kitchen going dim in the evening light. It was almost like she was waking up. She put both hands up to her mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I can’t imagine what you are going through. I just wanted to come over and make you feel better. I didn’t mean…”

He held up a hand to stop her. “It’s okay. Don’t worry. Not everything she told you is true. I don’t know why she told you all of that. I never hurt anybody. I’m so confused.” He looked away from her. “I think you just better go.”

She sat there for a moment as if she would argue, then got up and left. After a while, David finished his glass and reached over for hers.

 

David was drunk when he called Jill, intending to leave an angry message, and he was surprised that she actually picked up.

“Melanie just left.”

Jill gave a deep, guttural laugh. “I’m surprised it took her this long.”

“Why would you tell her what you told her? Was this some kind of test?”

“David, you are slurring. Are you drunk? Were you drunk when you were talking to her?”

“I’m not the sloppy one here, you are. Why would you create a witness?” And then it came to him. He didn’t need an answer. “Oh, Jill. Has it come to that?”

“Let’s call it a ‘calculated risk.’ I need insurance, David. I told you I’m not going down for this — no matter what.

David stared at the phone long after it went dead, thoughts wheeling through his head, wondering where he’d gone wrong, what he could’ve done differently. He didn’t remember finishing the bottle, but he woke up next to it at the table.

 

The next time David heard from Jill, it was through a lawyer. Things moved fast after that. Jill moved out one day while he was out on a job. Over all of Melanie’s arguments, he put the house on the market without even finishing the remodel,

 

David was going through all of the stuff in the garage. Anything left of Jill’s or anything that was both of theirs, he was tossing into the truck for a dump run, most of it uninvestigated. It was just too painful to contemplate. He felt like she’d died rather than moved out.

Behind some boxes of Christmas ornaments, David pulled out a plastic tote box. Jill was always one for putting things away in labeled storage bins. It had become a source of humor between them, but he didn’t recognize this one. He put it on the floor, pulled off the lid and found a black plastic garbage bag inside. He scowled as he opened it. This was nothing he recognized. He reached into the bag and stopped cold when he realized what he had. Waders. He quickly furled the bag down to see the contents. His waders, his shirt, his boots, some camp trash. Jill’s waders, shirt, and boots were not in the bag. Son of a bitch, he thought. That was stone cold. High mountain-glacier-lake cold. Just to verify what he was seeing, he reached into the bag to rummage through it and a flash of color caught his eye. There in the bottom of the bag with a few baggies and bits of camp trash was a hot pink piece of plastic. Puzzled, he pulled it out to take a look. It was a pregnancy test. “Don’t forget about the kids,” she’d said.

He was holding the bag in one hand and the test in the other when a car pulled into the driveway next to his truck. He was so lost in shock it took him a minute to recognize the Caprice. McGuire got out and David dropped the test back into the bag. “Washed your car, I see.”

McGuire looked at it as if he hadn’t noticed, “Actually, not even sure if it’s the same car. Motor pool is full of black and blue Caprices, I just take whichever.”

“Ah.”

“Got some news for you. Thought I would come by and tell you in person.” He looked around. “Moving? So soon?”

“We bought it as a flip. Plan was always to sell it and get something more family-friendly.”

“Well, then I guess I should say ‘congratulations.’” David jumped a little, but then repeated his little mantra. Don’t get sloppy. Don’t deviate from the plan. Don’t forget about the kids. That last bit, especially. Don’t forget about the kids.

“News?”

“Oh, yeah. We IDed that guy finally. Did you know with a body that’s been in the water for a while, they have to skin the hand, then get somebody to wear it like to a glove to print them? Usually only fits a woman’s hand. Can you imagine? I couldn’t do it. Have to be a woman with some stones to do something like that, don’t you think?”

David jerked back to the conversation. His head was spinning. “Stones?” What was McGuire talking about? Had he figured it out? Don’t get sloppy. Don’t deviate from the plan. Don’t forget about the kids.

McGuire gave him a quizzical look. “Anyway, you’ll be reading about it in the paper soon, so I thought I would give you a heads up. This guy, he wasn’t in our databases, he was from out of state. It still takes a while to go through all of that stuff and figure that out. Real bad guy. Had some sexual assaults. When those guys get out, they have to report to the nearest police station and they live a life of scrutiny. All of the neighbors get a notice. Everybody knows who they are.”

“Doesn’t really sound like they are out of prison at all.”

“Yeah, it’s a real scarlet letter, and it makes it a bitch to get work. Lot of these guys go and live with family, which makes it hell on everybody. But a lot of them, they go live up in the pass where there is no police station to report to.”

“Like this guy.”

“Yeah, like this guy. Anyway, we kept poking around up there, and we finally found his camp with dogs.”

David furrowed his brow. McGuire’s account was keeping him from other, much more important things he had to think about. “And?”

McGuire put a hand over his mouth, closed it to a fist as it slid off of his chin. “You know, David, if you had come back to camp, and this guy was attacking your wife, and you killed him — it would be self-defense. Some people, they might even see you as a hero. I wouldn’t hold it against you, you not telling us. The obstruction. Just between you and me, did you do it?”

David wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve.

“I just like to close these things out, you know? Won’t even put it on the books. I just need to know. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“You’ve been trying to pin this thing on me ever since you met me,” said David, tossing the bag into the truck and resting both hands against the side of the bed, head hanging down. He looked up at McGuire. “You tell yourself whatever you need to. My story hasn’t changed. Never saw him. Never killed him. It’s just a story in the paper to me and Jill.”

McGuire held up both hands, palms out. “Okay, have it your way.” He turned and opened the door to his car. “Oh, one last thing. Is this yours?” He pulled out the Winston, broken down into four parts for travel and held together irreligiously with rubber bands. David looked at it for a moment before reaching his hand out for it.

“Yeah. Where did you get that?”

“Your last campsite – perfect fire ring except for one rock missing. Seemed odd to us. At first we let it go, but eventually we put divers in the river once things started to get interesting. They found it down in the canyon.”

“They found the rock?” David gulped.

“No, we would’ve had to drain the river for that,” McGuire looked down at the Winston, “but we found your rod. Funny you didn’t mention losing it.”

“Why would I mention it? I had all kinds of fishing stories I didn’t share with you. Do you want to hear about the twenty-five inch brown that was on it when I lost it?”

“No. No, I suppose not. It’s just new rod, new waders. Lots of stuff happened on that trip.” He got into the car, backed out, waved, and drove off. David watched him go, then turned and tossed the rod into the cab to dispose of with the rest of the garbage.

 

He texted Jill that McGuire was back. She called in less than a minute.

“You were right,” he answered. When she didn’t say anything, he gave her the high points of McGuire’s run down. When he was done, she didn’t say anything. “Oh, and I found the waders. The old waders.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, finally.

“Insurance?”

“David, I’m not going to make excuses. That night — it changed me.”

“Because of the rape, the murder, or the pregnancy?”

He heard her gasp. “Oh. The test. I forgot about that…”

“Would you have ever told me?” The silence dragged on, despite him willing her to answer.

“I was going to tell you, the moment you came back to camp. It was the happiest moment of my life. I had just taken it, I still had it in my hand when that…monster…grabbed me.”

“You know, I didn’t do anything wrong. I couldn’t’ve done anything different.”

“You gave me to a man and told him to rape and kill me — me and your child. It was like my heart was so open, and happy, and free, and then you shot a great black arrow into it. Everything slammed shut in that one second, and it won’t open back up.”

“I told you, it was a ruse, a calculated risk, I did what I had to do to keep you alive. There was no other way. My gamble worked.”

“No. My way worked. I don’t even know what your way really was.”

“Maybe there was more than one right way. Maybe my right way enabled your right way.”

“We will never know, David.”

“I didn’t know, about – before.” The line went totally silent and he thought she had hung up. And then, unbidden, words were coming out of his mouth. “Come back. Let’s be a family. Let’s start over.”

She chortled. “Could you ever forgive me?”

“For better or worse, honey. You did what you needed to do to keep our baby safe.”

“It’s not about that any more. I can’t trust you, I will never be able to trust you. I can’t forgive you. I can’t even try.”

A thought struck him. “Where are you?”

She hesitated and he could almost hear her thinking. “In B.C., at my mom’s.”

“So, you never were going to tell me.”

“No.”

“Will I ever see my child?”

“No, David. This is it. This is the last time we will ever talk. I’m sorry you found that test. But I’m not reliving this ever again. He’s not going to be part of it. If we were together, I would never be able to forget. I am in the clear now, and I’m keeping it that way.”

“You can’t keep my son from me. I’ll sue.”

“They don’t let felons into Canada, David.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Am I in the clear, or are there any more surprises lying around?”

“You took a calculated risk, you have to live with that. Good bye, David,” and she hung up.

 

When Melanie showed up, he was still in his truck in the driveway, wrists dangling over the steering wheel, staring straight ahead. She walked up and looked at him through the window, then waved a bottle of Champagne at him. “We sold it, David! I’m here to celebrate.”

He didn’t answer, so she came around to the passenger side and got in. “I thought you would be more excited.”

David finally looked over at her. “You know what the difference between a depressed hunter and a depressed fly fisherman is?”

“No, do tell.”

He nodded to the fly rod leaning against the seat between them. “You can’t blow your brains out with a fly rod.”

She stared at him for a long time. “Maybe I’ll never know what really happened out there David, but you still seem like a hero to me.”

“It’s hard to be a hero when you are living a lie. I’d be more of a hero if I admitted to a murder I didn’t commit.”

“Maybe someday you can explain that in a way that all makes sense.” She grunted as she worked the cork out of the Champagne. It came out with a soft pop. “Look, I even got the real stuff, from France. Cheers!” She took a swig out of the bottle and handed it over to him.

He took the bottle and looked at the label as if that meant anything to him, then held it up and took a long pull. As he tilted the bottle down there was the sound of sirens and the blue-and-red whirl of lights coming from down the block. Melanie turned to look out the back window, but David stared straight ahead.

“What’s this all about, David?”

“Just the payout to a calculated risk,” he said, and took another long pull. There are no perfect crimes, he thought, but there are some pretty perfect suspects. “Better make that check out to Jill.”

Posted in: Fly Fishing, Writing