I could hear my grandmother say, “It’s as cold as Greenland’s mountain.” as I tapped the glass on the barometer I inherited from my grandfather. The wind was coming down from the pass, bringing freezing rain. The weathervane across the street had been steady East South East all day without even the occasional gust. I picked up my mug of tea from the stove and walked over to the counter where I unwrapped Findleys Art of the Two-Handed Cast, first edition. Took a year to find it, and not for the first time, I was glad I had no clients today.
I just got past the point of sitting down into my recliner where there is no stopping when the bells above the door jangled. I plopped ungracefully, sloshing my hot tea into my more sensitive parts. “Dammit!”
I checked the book for damage and took a second to control my anger before I looked up. Not my customer’s fault I was an oaf. A sallow faced man with a full mustache and beard stood by the counter. “I’m here about a half day trip.” He had the vestiges of an accent I couldn’t quite place. Somewhere back East, I thought.
“Bit late in the day for that. By the time we return from the pullout, it will be after noon.”
He turned his head in a peculiar way and I saw that his right eye was cloudy. “I rather insist. As you can see,” he made a sweeping motion with his hand, ”I’m already dressed for it.” He could see that I was going to protest. “I understand that it will inconvenience you, somebody will have to pick us up. How about I pay for the full day so that you can arrange it?”
That was rather handsome, as I already figured we could get a ride back with one of the other guides, if any were foolish enough to be out. “That’s not really the issue.” I looked out the window again. Even the icicles had a decided slant to them. “I’m afraid I’d be taking your money for naught. Fish won’t be biting with the barometer dropping and the river coming up like this.”
He followed my glance and chuckled. “Look, it’s nostalgic for me. Haven’t been on the river for 20 years, and I’m only in town through the weekend.” He looked back at me. “Humor me. Three hundred dollars to watch a dude freeze his nads off, how can you turn that down?” And he was right, how could I? I had him sign in, Charles Sweeney, as I stepped into my waders drying by the stove. Then I grabbed my gear, and flipping the sign on the door to “Gone Fishing” locked the door. For some reason, I actually had a big shit-eating grin on my face.
I had the boat hooked up, kind of forget to take it off sometimes. I only have to drive down Highway 2 over the Sultan to the drop in. We were in the river in 10 minutes. I began to rethink the ride home, as there were only a couple of cars in the lot. Still had that grin though. And of course you can never tell who is on the river for guides because they drop their boats here, take their trucks at the pullout and have the customers ferry them back. No worries. For three hundred dollars, I’ll spring for a cab.
Sweeney had his rod rigged in the car, he was raring to go. As he handed it to me, I passed a professional eye over it. It was a brand new Burkheimer seven weight, ten footer, rigged with a left handed reel. I noticed that the leader was broken and took a moment to fix it and tie on an artsy spey fly while he was settling in. I’m quite proud of those, each one is a work of art, and I keep them in a leather wallet. You could catch just as many fish on a piece of yarn or some homely maribou that looks like a drowning rabbit, but it’s part of the aesthetic experience I provide to my clients. Ever mindful of the river, I put the old leader in my pocket. Then I pushed off and headed downstream. We drifted a while. I was watching the river lost in my own thoughts. Sweeney broke in, which is half the reason I bring customers along. “What was wrong with that bar?”
“On a full day I’d stop there, but today, I want you to stand the best chance possible of catching fish. We’ll pull in around the bend. The bubbas never come down this far to scare all the fish.”
“I’m just itching to cast, I want to put in.” His tone was frigid. I stopped stoking and let us drift a bit. “I’m sorry, Charles, I missed it, no place to pull in now. Gravel bar’s almost gone in this water.” He looked at me real hard for a minute. If we were in a bar, I’d’ve set down my drink. Then he looked away. “Hawkeye.” I looked askance. “It’s what they call me. Hawkeye, not Charles. You’re the guide.”
He must’ve read my mind, or heard the question plenty of times before. “It’s from before this,” he gestured toward the eye. “Used to be a bit of an archer.” I bet he was, the way he said it; there was real pride in his voice. “It was my dominant eye, never could shoot worth a damn, after.”
Somehow I got the feeling that his “worth a damn” was still a good site better than average, but I let it go. Sometimes guiding is like bartending. People get on the river and they want to get stuff off their chests. There’s a whole lot of quiet to fill sometimes.
“And you’re the customer. I’d best get you fishing.” I smiled at him, but it wasn’t the carefree grin I had in the parking lot. I dropped my thermometer overboard. Something I always do. Being a guide is about being observant, and correlating what you see to what catches fish. Every day I’m on the river, I take the temp, and keep it in a little log with other information. I pulled it out and whistled. Thirty-eight Fahrenheit. Fish sticks maybe. Steelhead, I’m not so sure.
I make it sound like longer than it was. The current swept us along and I spent most of my time worrying about debris in the water. We came around the bend and there was Plum Island. The narrow channel, on the right, sometimes wadeable in high summer, was a frothing whitewater, full sized logs were shooting through it faster than SUVs in the 405 express lane. I put us into the current so that we would just ground at the upstream end of the left side.
I pushed the pedal to drop the anchor, but my focus was down river. von Kartmann’s boat was sitting about half way down the seam. It was unmistakable, sky blue. It’s not customary to name drift boats, but in a moment of weakness last New Year’s, he told me he called it the Blue Bear. Told me he’d had a Blue Bear ever since he was lobstering in New Hampshire when he was eight, and he was damned if he wasn’t going to have one now. That was a mouthful for him. Funny how you can only get to know some men, most men, only when you drink together.
von Kartmann was always the first guy out on the river. He caught more fish before the next guy hit the water than most people caught all day. A bit demanding on the clients, but those that are up for it double their odds by going with him.
Just downstream, I saw Dean and Gryphon’s jet boat. Good news never followed those two. Joe was mean and dumb; his older brother Gryphon was mean and smart. Dean had a long record; Gryphon had a garage in town. Mostly it was a front for their meth business. Gryphon employed local youth working in trailers up in the hills. It was Dean’s job to keep them in line. Last year a kid from Gold Bar was beat to death outside a dance, and people had a good idea these two did it, but nothing stuck. Yet. I shipped the oars, but didn’t move. “Stay here.”
“What’s going on?” asked Sweeney.
“I don’t know, but something’s up. Stay here while I check it out.” At the time I didn’t even know what seemed out of place, except of course for two boats fishing the same hole. Only bubbas like Dean and Gryphon would do that, especially when the river was this vacant.
I got out and waded ashore. Bob and Joe were bent over. They stood up as I came along. “What’s going on?”
Dean jumped a mile, and tucked something behind his back.
Gryphon stayed on his haunches. It looks like von Kartmann had an accident. He’s dead.“
By then I was up to them. Sure enough, von Kartmann was laid out with his feet floating in the water, a namesake fly in his left eye, his clothes in total dissarray.
Joe looked up. “Looks like he took it in the eye, stumbled, slipped and hit his head.”
“Really? I’m not so sure. Did you call it in?” I asked, looking around the island.
I knew von Kartmann had history with these two. He told me that as a boy in New Hampshire, he once knew scum like them. Used their lobster boat to run drugs. The only lobsters they sold were shorts. One day he said, they emptied his traps and dropped them in a big pile, so he couldn’t even winch them in, then drove away laughing. “What’d you do?” He said “I started robbing their shipments every chance I got. And I bought a gun.” I looked long at him, he never struck me as a drug dealer. Von Kartmann just shrugged. “Those were different times. I’d grab a bale floating there with a Chlorox bottle for a bouy, haul it about and take it to Roxbury that night, sell it for bulk. You just drive into town, give some big buck a grand to get you in an back out alive and were home before the bars closed. Paid some bills I had,” he said and shrugged.
The Purdys used to buzz von Kartmann on the river.
“About an hour ago. They have to come up from the boat launch,” said Bob.
“Call them back and tell them to block the river, make sure nobody leaves. “
“What the hell are you getting at Jack?” Bob looked at me. Just then Sweeney showed up. I really couldn’t blame him for not waiting in the boat, and now there was no way I was going to collect my guide fee anyway today.
“This was no accident.”
“I don’t know how you can just walk up and say that.” Sweeney chimed in.
I don’t like explaining things more than once. I was about to say something rude when the sheriff’s boat showed up. I’ll give him credit, he was no river man, but he had the sense to come ashore downstream. I walked down to meet him. “Burl, call this in. Somebody did von Karmann in.” I’ve known Burl since he wasn’t high enough to hit a tee ball, so he gave me more credence than I might’ve gotten from the average cop.
“What’s your take, Jack?”
“For one, there’s no client. von Kartmann is not going to be out here today without a client.” The group was gathered around now.
“That’s a little thin to shut down the river, Jack.”
“Well, I don’t see his glasses anywhere, either, and you know he wouldn’t cast without them.”
“That’s true,” Joe said. “Never without them since he lost his eye.”
“Lost his eye?” asked Sweeny.
Bob took him aside, but I could hear him tell the story. “That von Kartmann was a tough old bird, a client put his eye out on a sloppy back cast. They say von Kartmann just said ‘an eye for an eye,’ bandaged himself up, told the client it was nothing, and finished the trip.”
“An eye for an eye, that sounds rather ominous, don’t you think?” said Sweeney. He looked a little green around the gills.
“Well, yeah, it’s a strange thing to say, but that’s the story straight from the client, and, I don’t think anybody ever got around to asking von Kartmann. Not that he’d answer,” said Bob. “Not now, anyway.”
“How about if I told you he was dead before the fly stuck him?” I asked Burl.
“What are you talking about Jack?” Joe asked.
I bent low over von Kartmann and pointed to a deep scratch below the right eye. Then I pulled back the lid to show a scratch on the glass eye. “First the killer crushed his skull with a rock, then he tried to stick a von Kartmann fly in von Karmann’s right eye. He obviously didn’t know that was a glass eye, it skipped right off. But he had to finish it, because otherwise his whole plan was shot, so he stuck in the other eye.”
Joe just whistled low. They were all grouped around me know. “Not only that, but he was spey casting. He’d be in knee deep water for that. Even if he had hooked himself and fallen over he couldn’t have smacked his head in water that deep, and if he was coming ashore, he would’ve fallen face down.”
I felt like a regular Kinky Friedman, but I had their full attention. “Finally, the wind has been whistling straight down this river all day, he’d be doing a double spey, and if he’d hooked himself, it would’ve been in the other eye, for sure. Nothing about this is right. I tell you, somebody crushed his skull. There’s a murderer loose downstream.”
Like I said, being a guide is about being observant. I’d seen all of this and a few more things, but for some reason I kept my mouth shut about the rest. Just like guiding, I don’t show you every hole on the river, gotta keep something in reserve. It was enough to convince Burl though; he was on his cell phone. He might not know much about the river, but he knows he job. He had them close the pull out, and the roads on both sides of the river.
“What I can’t figure,” said Bob “is where this other fellow go to. We put in early and been working up river, and we ain’t seen another boat until we got here.”
Burl was scratching his chin with his pen. “He could’ve swum out, I suppose.”
I’d been thinking the same thing. But the back channel was a vertical walled sluice, and it was two hundred yards of deep fast water to get to the far side. Even a strong swimmer would be at least half a mile down river before they could make shore on either side, if he ever could, and at that point the river was undercut banks both sides. With this flow and these temperatures, I didn’t see a man making it to shore before hypothermia set in, especially with waders on.
“I think it would be a real good idea to search the island.” I looked at Burl and I’ll give him credit, he didn’t seem upset at taking advice from a citizen. Another boat was coming up river now, with four men and a dog. “I was thinking the same thing,” said Burl. “You men stay here, don’t touch anything.” He hurried off to organize the new arrivals. Three of them disembarked and headed straight to the far end of the small island with the dog. Burl and the fourth returned.
“This is my captain, tell him what you told me.” I went through it all again, watching the activity taking place around the island. When the search was done they corralled Bob, Joe, and Sweeney off to the side. Two of them started into the water to get the boat, but when they found out how cold and deep it was, let the boys in their waders get it for them. Bob and Joe waded out up to their waists and really had to struggle to bring Blue Bear in. Sweeney practically threw himself after them but they waved him off. They had big grins on their faces still thinking about them cops thinking they could wade in and get it themselves. I could hear them telling this story at the Pastime tonight.
Unlike Burl, the capatin didn’t seem convinced. “What makes you think he wasn’t just waiting here? He could’ve have just hid a boat here and gotten away.”
I’m afraid I got pedantic, holding my hand up and ticking my fingers off one at a time. “One, how would he know von Kartmann would be right here on this island if he didn’t come with him? Two, Bob and Joe didn’t see anybody come downriver, and I would’ve remarked a motorboat coming up river, or moored somewhere in between. Three, von Kartmann is no way coming out alone today. Four, I bet you coffee that there are two lunches in that boat.”
Burl listened carefully, taking notes. “I guess that rules out an accomplice, too, if there are no boats on the river either way.” His captain scowled, unhappy that so much of the conversation was between me and his underling. At least Burl was thinking. I could tell that in their day-to-day jobs, they probably didn’t have a whole lot of actual mystery-solving experience. The captain was a by the book kind of guy and this just didn’t sit well on top of his biscuits and gravy.
Bob must’ve been listening, because he innocently pulled the cooler out of the stern sheets and remarked, “Oh, lookey here, two of Martha’s chili pie slices, and two slices of apple pie.”
I couldn’t help myself, windbags bugged me. ‘”Yup, what you got here captain is your perfect crime.” I thought about adding more to my observations, but finally got control of my tongue. The captain scowled at me, then turned and bellowed at the group. “You men, get some pictures. I want every pebble.” Since they’d already shot more film than Cecil B. deMille, this was obviously superfluous. “And you,” he pointed a meaty finger at us fisher folk, “I don’t want none of you leaving town.”
Sweeney had the edge of an out-of-towner. He didn’t have to worry about some mean-ass sheriff holding a grudge. “Just a damn minute, sheriff, I’m just here on business, I leave town on Monday. Hell, Cook and I are the only two men in the world who couldn’t possibly have had anything to do with this.” The two locked stares and the captain was about to get real explicit when Burl ambled in.
“Mr. Sweeney, you’re not suspects, you’re witnesses. I’m sure we can get your information and not inconvenience you.”
“Damn right,” said the captain and then ambled off to splash into the boat. He bellowed some more orders I didn’t hear, and then took off. Apparently feeling Burl’s boat was plenty big enough for a corpse, four grown men, a dog, and a towed drift boat. We figured it all out by putting Sweeney in with Bob and Joe, and me taking two of the sheriff’s men. I got them to say they commandeered the boat so that I could bill them for it and not have the whole day be a write off. It took a while, because there was quite a crowd at the pull out, but they even gave us a ride to the shop. Bob and Joe were left holding court with the local media. At least I didn’t have to worry about somebody taking off with my skiff.
When we got back to the shop I turned to Sweeney. “Mr. Sweeney. I’m real sorry about how today turned out, but I’ll gladly take you out again tomorrow.” He considered for a minute and then shook his head. “Naw, I think I had my fill of the river for a while.” He shook my hand. “Got quite a story to tell them back home though.” I helped him pack up and waved as he drove off. Then I realized I still needed to walk down to the launch and get my truck so I could go get the boat. What a day.
Everybody says I think too much. My buddy Rod, the chiropractor, says I’m “too cortical.” My profession does lend itself to certain periods of contemplation. I played the day’s events through my head over and over as I drove. von Kartmann had always been a little bit of a mystery. Came from back East, was always quiet. He spent some time in the shop, and always bought his gear from me, which a small guy like me really appreciates, especially with all of the competition on the Internet. So I considered him a friend of sorts.
In the first place, he didn’t seem like the kind of guy that you get homicidal over. No rough edges if you know what I mean. Nothing to get a hold of one way or another. Of course, I’m no murder expert, so I couldn’t really speculate on what it takes to get somebody that mad. I guess once you get expert in that domain, you might not necessarily survive long enough to apply it, any way. But the whole missing perpetrator angle really bothered me. For all of the obvious mistakes the murderer made, that was just too slick.
I remembered Martha’s pies in the boat and suddenly realized I hadn’t eaten all day. I swung into Monroe to stop by her shop.
“Jack! I heard about von Kartmann.” She was all over me before I even got my slicker off. “I can’t believe it, he was in this morning getting lunch for his trip. I just can’t believe it.” She was pouring me coffee without my even asking, shaking her head and carrying on a one-sided conversation. “Such a tragic accident.” So that’s how they were spinning it. Either that redneck sheriff was dumb as I thought and wasn’t convinced it was murder, or he was way smarter than I gave him credit for.
“You know, Martha, he’s been coming into the shop for years, and I don’t even know his first name. I know it’s kind of late, but suddenly I just want to know the guy a little.” I laughed. “Know what I mean?”
“Actually, it must be in the water.” She looked at me and put her hand over her mouth. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry I just said that!”
“Well, anybody can be guilty of a little gaff in trying times.” I winked at her and she started to laugh.
“I’m floundering.” She giggled.
“You always were a sucker for a pun with sole.” Then I put my cup down. “What did you mean? Somebody else was asking around?”
“Yeah. This guy came in yesterday. Just started chatting. Then asked if I knew a guide by the name of von Kartmann. It was late, but he seemed nice, tried to convince me to give him von Kartmann’s address so he could book him for the morning. I gave him his card. They must not’ve hooked up.”
“I gotta go.” I slapped a five down for the coffee, grabbed my coat and left. von Kartmann had been dead for hours. I was an idiot for not going directly to his house. Obviously, if there were any connection the killer would go there to eliminate it. I didn’t think the cops were going to come around to my way of thinking anytime soon. So I decided to go over myself.
Last New Year’s Martha had a little party. She’s open at five AM, so she’s kind of the default river crowd gathering spot. That’s the only reason I can think of that von Karmann was even there. The more festive it got, though, the more dour he was. By the end of it, he was in a corner, pretty much in his own little world, and the rest of us were just kind of partying around him and watching him like he was a two-headed calf. When it was wrapping up, he stood up, walked over to me and asked for a ride home.
Turns out he lives in the flats by the river in one of those little houses twenty-five feet to a side. He didn’t invite me in, but he reached up to the carved eagle above the door and snagged the key. Tonight, I drove up slowly and parked across the street. All of the lights were off. I sat a minute then got out and walked up to the door. I reached up to the eagle, one of those colonial things with the wings outstretched and a flag in its claws. I couldn’t read the flag, but the key was right there behind his neck. I guess it was a him. Hard to tell behind that shield.
I felt more than a little guilty and looked up and down the street. I’ve been a lot of things in my life, but I’ve never played detective. I couldn’t really say why I was here, what I expected to find, or why I was messing in this. For some reason, I just felt I owed him more than it looked like he was going to get. And besides, puzzles bother me.
The door slid right open. I stood there for just a second, shrugged to myself and flipped on the light. In for a penny, in for a pound, my grandmother used to say. The house was just what I expected. Straight back to the kitchen, a little bedroom to the left, the living room and the bath to the right. I walked into the living room and turned on another light. Also as I expected: neat, and sparsely furnished. White walls, gloss black clamshell trim, hardwood floors. Just those little touches for some reason reminded me of the old New England homes I’d been in. There was a chair, no sofa, a television, a fireplace, and a small book shelf. The mantle drew me, because there were pictures all over it. von Kartmann with a beautiful woman and child. Various pictures of the three of them, or just the woman or girl. Right away, you could see that these were family shots. It wouldn’t have struck me as unusual in a stranger’s house. But in von Kartmann’s they seemed out of place. All those years I knew him, and I had no idea there was a family. Usually, even if they are in the past, a man will make reference to his family, especially if they are this important to him.
There were more pictures on top of the bookcase. I’m a sucker for books. If I go into a person’s house, I always check out the bookcases right away. It’s like a little view into the people. And almost always we’ll own several books in common, so right away it’s an instant conversation starter. You might say I’m an expert at perusing a bookshelf and drawing inferences. von Kartmann had some typical tastes: Patterson, Clancy, and King. There was a book on entomology, dozens of books on fishing, a dictionary, field guides to the Cascades. Nothing more surprising than some philosophy texts, one of which I did in fact own. But there on the bottom shelf, was something unusual, a 1972 Portsmouth Clippers high school yearbook. For a man with no past, von Kartmann had some very interesting keepsakes up against his vest.
I picked up the book and it let it open itself. I scanned the rows of pictures on the page and halfway down the page there was a girl’s picture. It had a heart drawn around it with an arrow through it. Underneath was penned “It must have been Cupid’s arrow!” in florid teenage girl handwriting. I held the book up to the pictures on the mantle. Sure enough it was the same. Her name was Alicia. Pretty name I thought.
I continued thumbing absently through the book. In the back, was an envelope of newspaper clippings. I opened them up an thumbed through them. “Bingo,” I thought. I quickly folded them up and just slipped them into my jacket when the lights went out and I went crashing face first into the bookcase.
It’s been my long experience that some sort of pain almost invariably follows hubris. This was a little more expeditious than I was used to. After my first, foolish attempt to jump up, I just lay on the floor absorbing the pain in my head and waiting for the spots to clear. Those two things–the pain and the spots–made me realize that the lights hadn’t actually gone out in the room, just in my head.
My nose was broken, and a nasty gash across my forehead dumped a lot of blood in my eyes, but it seemed to be coagulating now. That meant I’d been out for a while, but not too long. I started to put it all together, the pictures, the yearbook, the clippings. It made sense. Suddenly, I thought of Martha, she’s the only one in town who could identify the killer, I had to get out of there.
Easier said than done. When I tried sitting up, it felt like my head had been nailed to the floor–not with one of those common nails, or even a beefy galvanized nail, but with a railroad spike. I slowly rolled over, groaning, and tried again from a prone position. This brought me back facing the bookcase. I scrambled around for the yearbook, but it was gone, of course. The only thing more damning than evidence, I thought, is going to great pains to remove it.
I dragged myself up over the wreckage of the bookcase and braced against the wall. Immediately I threw up. That worried me. If you’ve been lucky enough to never have a head injury, I can’t explain it. If you have, there’s no need. Brains don’t heal too good, and that’s about all I have, slow as it is.
Unlike some movie gumshoe, I didn’t run out of the house and drive to Martha’s. I went through the house looking for a phone. It was in the kitchen, and my assailant hadn’t bothered to decommission it. I thought that was a rather bad sign: perhaps there was nothing I could prevent. I dialed 911.
“Yes, this is 911 what would you like to report?”
“This is Jack Cook. I just got assaulted at (dammit, what was his first name?) von Kartmann’s house. I think his murderer is going after Martha, Martha Prouty, owner of Martha’s diner. She can identify him.”
“Sir, where are you? Do you need help?”
“Ma’am, you can’t understand this, but please just do as I say. Send a car to Martha’s Café. Send a car to Martha Prouty’s house on Cedar Avenue.” I was seeing spots again and hearing a roaring in my ears. I’ve never felt so sick in my life. “And if you have anybody left, send them to the von Kartmann residence 513 D street.” Then it was face time again.
I hate waking up in hospitals. The pain. The disorientation. The certain knowledge that the near future is going to suck as much, or more, than the near past. The pain was duller now, so they gave me something. People were talking to me, waking me up, so I knew I had a concussion. I kept my eyes closed for a minute while I got myself together.
I think I surprised everybody when I opened my eyes and started talking. Burl was standing by my bed. “Is Martha okay?”
“What the Hell is going on, Jack?” Burl was all business.
I’d had a crappier than average day, by all accounts. In fact, I still hadn’t got my dinner, not that I could keep it down. But right now, I was really down to single tasking. “What about Martha?”
“I’m right here Jack, you scared me to death. Burl was having dinner at the diner when you called. Nobody knows what’s going on. We’re so glad you are alright.” Didn’t that woman have to breathe while she talked? When I turned my head to look at her pain exploded in my eyes. I had to close my eyes to concentrate.
“Saved your life, probably. First me being there, then Burl.”
“What are you talking about, Jack?” Burl leaned in. “You’ve got some explaining to do, you made a mess of von Kartmann’s house, for sure.”
“I had help, Burl. I know who killed him. I know why. I just don’t know how he got off that damn island. He came into town, set him up, killed him, then was going back to cover his tracks when I showed up.” The pain was intense, and the nausea came in waves. I had to close my eyes again.
“Who, Jack, who?” I couldn’t tell who was talking. Maybe it was in chorus.
“Can somebody please turn off the lights, they’re killing me.”
I heard the switch click and opened them again there was plenty of light from the hall to suit me. “It was Sweeney, that smug bastard.”
“How could it be Sweeney? He was with you?”
“Hand me my coat, Burl.” Burl looked around, and finally found it in the closet. I took the envelope out the pocket and opened. Here it is, von Kartmann and Sweeney went to high school together. von Kartmann put Sweeney’s eye out with a bottle rocket at party, losing him a berth on the Olympic archery team. This last one is a clipping of an auto accident. von Kartmann lost his wife and daughter a few years ago, before he came here.”
“An eye for an eye.” That was Martha.
“An eye for an eye, that’s what he said when he lost it. Almost like it was a relief, like he was glad it finally happened. Didn’t even try to save it.” I needed water and gestured for it. It hurt to hold my head up, and I wasn’t sure I could keep it down. “But Sweeney didn’t know that, and tried to stick the fly in the wrong eye. That was the first clue that it was somebody from the past, or a stranger.”
“Is losing an eye enough reason to track a man down and kill him years later?” asked Burl.
“Christ I don’t know, Burl. Why don’t you go find him and ask him? You got plenty to hold him.” That was all I had. I couldn’t hold it anymore and I drifted off.
Funny thing about a concussion, all you want to do is sleep, and nobody will let you. They woke me up every forty-five minutes all night long. I think Martha sat there all night. Burl came back in the morning. By then I felt like sun-warmed road kill, instead of just road kill.
“We brought Sweeney in last night, Jack. He ought to have a lawyer with him by now. You know we can only keep him for three days without charging him, and the DA says we need something more than the circumstantial case we got. One interesting thing,” he had a big face-splitting grin. “He’s got a record.”
“Don’t drag it out, Burl, I’m in pain here.”
“Attempted murder. Took a shot at von Kartmann in high school. Stuck him pretty good with an arrow. Some hard ass Yankee judge gave him the max and put him away for twenty for attempted murder. So there’s definite history. Hope your brain heals, because everybody is convinced he did it, but nobody can put him on that island or figure out how he got off.”
I’d already been cogitating on this. In a way, knowing who did it before I knew how just made it worse. Even without the injury, it would make my brain hurt. Before I could answer, Bob and Joe ambled in.
“Man it’s so cold in here, I thought this was the morgue. I thought you were dead.”
“Brr. I haven’t warmed up since we waded out for that damn boat,” said Joe.
I started to laugh, but that hurt a lot. I started thinking about hurling again. I closed my eyes and saw those two hauling that boat back.
“What’s up Jack?” asked Bob.
“I figured it out. I know how the bastard did it. Somebody better help get me up.” That was Martha’s sign to bow out with Bob and Joe. Burl got me my things from the closet. I won’t lie. It was slow work, and I stopped wishing I wouldn’t throw up and started wishing I could. But I struggled into my clothes.”
“Is this such a good idea, Jack?”
“Well I sort of got it figured out, but I haven’t got it all square. Can’t seem to finish my thoughts. I think maybe talking with Sweeney will sort it all out.”
“Jack, this is highly irregular. I’m sure the captain won’t let you talk to the prisoner.”
“Figured it would be so. Better get over there before he finishes his biscuits.” Burl was looking at me. “Well, Burl just give me fifteen minutes.”
“If you last that long.”
It’s not far from the hospital to the jail. Under two miles but I was sick the whole way. Couldn’t wait to get out of that car and be sick. It was dry heaves now. Burl lifted me up and half dragged me into the station. Of the two of us I think von Kartmann was probably more presentable at this point. Burl fetched me some water, and while I was contemplating it he went for Sweeny. It seemed like the hardest thing to even lift that little Styrofoam cup up to my lips. I’d just managed it when they came back.
He looked at me the same way he did on the river when I wouldn’t pull over. Now I could place it. It was a big house stare. This man was used to violent emotions, and covering them up. This cat was cold.
“That uniform looks good on you. Tailored?”
“Something’s different about you, Jack. Have a zipper installed on your forehead?”
“Yeah, and a hatch on the back. Recognize the workmanship?” I really wasn’t up for sparring. Thank god he just pursed his lips and stared at me.
“I know you killed my friend, Sweeney. Hawkeye.” I corrected myself.
“What tipped you off, Jack?” He played smug good.
“The fly tipped me off. As soon as I saw it, I knew it was a grudge murder.”
“But is was a von Kartmann. From what I understand, that’s all he used.”
“That’s all he used twenty years ago when some writer gave him a piece in Flyfishing America. You probably read it in the prison barbershop. But for a decade, all he’s used is the modified von Kartmann. You dated yourself. But it also proves that the whole thing was premeditated. ”
He waved his hand. “Trivial.”
“As was the fact that the fly was tied left-handed, and he was right handed. Not even worth mentioning. Who cares, right?” He raised an eyebrow. “No, the interesting thing was the boat.”
“The boat? Do tell.”
“Bothered me right from the start, but took a while to figure it out. It was way too far downstream and out too deep. von Kartmann would have put that boat right at the top of the island, at the start of the seam.”
“So true. Turns out, though, that it was the detail that gave it away. This is how I figure it. You talked to Martha and called von Kartmann. Then you scheduled a trip with him. In typical von Kartmann fashion, you met early in the morning. Weather’s miserable, you’re the only two on the river. What could be better? Probably too early to see his glass eye, or even realize you were on an island. The beard, the dark, the years, he hadn’t recognized you yet. How am I doing?”
“It’s your story, Jack.”
“So then you bash him over the head and stick him in the eye, but it’s the wrong eye. Of course your whole plan depends on it so you put the fly in the other eye. But then, big problem. Sun is up by now, and you’re on an island. The whole big plan is about to go completely sideways. You’re screwed. If you stick around, chances are real good that even some back water investigator is going to check your record and hook you two together. You take the boat, but even a strong man would have a hard time in that current, so you beat across and finally make shore. You have to hike upstream a ways to get out. So far so good?”
Big house stare.
“Here’s the good part. You got some inspiration, and dragged that damn boat upstream with you. When you got there, you put the anchor on the gunwale, tied your fly line to the line and pushed it into the current. You couldn’t get far enough upstream to nail the top of the seam, but you did pretty good. When it got in the seam you let the downstream swing take it in, just like a big spey fly, then pulled the anchor off the gunwale. When the boat was anchored, you snapped the line, reeled it in and walked into town. That’s how you blew it. You said you hadn’t fished and twenty years, and show up with a brand new rod. But the leader was busted. I thought that was weird, so I fixed it for you while you were stowing gear. We’re going to match the line on the anchor line to the line I took off your rod. It’s happening now. Really bugged me the way that boat was sitting. So how does it feel to no longer be one of the only two men who couldn’t do it?”
He sat back and drummed his fingers. “I really thought that hiring you was the icing on the cake. When I got to town and saw your sign, I figured it was my lucky day. The perfect alibi. I should’ve just gotten in my car.”
I thought about expounding on my recent revelations on hubris and pain, but declined. “Why come back after twenty years? Did the eye mean so much?”
“They eye was nothing. It was Alicia, my girlfriend, and Laura my daughter.” I sat forward, the nausea almost gone. Alicia was the girl in the yearbook. “She was pregnant when I went up. Bastard got all remorseful and promised me he’d take care of her. Started hanging around her, next thing I know they’re married and living in Montana or some damn place. Before I can get out and see my own daughter, they’re both dead in a car accident on New Year’s Eve. She would be almost thirty now. Bastard took my life.”
“An eye for an eye,” I said.
“An eye for an eye.”