MCKENZIE BRIDGE — Sunday 12:00
Duncan arrived back at his father's home at noon. Dolores's dilapidated vehicle sat alongside Ellie's Mercedes, and the porch had been emptied of what he had brought on his first trip. It had been easy to avoid going inside earlier, better to put things on the porch since he didn't know where Dolores would want them.
Only the screen door was closed. Duncan opened it noiselessly and entered the hallway that divided the lower floor. He looked to his right through the entryway to the large living room that occupied the entire east half of the ground floor. Dolores wasn't there, nor could he hear her in the kitchen. Straight ahead, a little to the left, were wide stairs leading to the second floor bedrooms. Duncan climbed the steps. Reaching the top, he heard sobs and followed them to his father's bedroom.
Dolores was on her hands and knees, crying softly, scrubbing the hardwood floor. She didn't notice Duncan until he knelt beside her. Still on all fours, she turned her head to him, raised a hand to wipe the tears that immediately ran, and with great effort regained enough composure to speak.
“Señor Harris, I can't get the blood out.”
Their eyes held each other's attention for moments that felt like minutes. Finally Duncan stood and brought her up.
“There's something I want you to help me with before anyone else gets here. Something that's just for us, for you and for me and no one else.”
The rock was large, solid with no cracks. It rose out of the bank before the river edge and jutted into the water, forcing the flow to go around. High water could overwhelm it for a time, but it was always there after the flood was gone. All who had ever come here, came eventually to this rock, some to fish, some to think, some to watch, some to love, and some to mourn. Everyone remembered the rock in front of Tom Harris's home.
Duncan and Dolores sat on the rock. Duncan had the plastic bag bearing his wife's name; Dolores had that bearing Tom's name. Duncan went first. He opened the tie around the neck of the sack. Cradling the bottom in his right hand, he leaned as far forward as he dared and tipped the bag, guiding the open end with his left hand. Ellie's ashes poured down the steep, rounded face of the rock, slipping into the clear, fast moving water. As the last of her ashes slid from the sack, Duncan extended his left hand into the flow and felt the last physical remnants of his wife pass between his fingers. So long as he lived, this moment would live, she would live.
Duncan folded the empty bag and turned to Dolores. She undid Tom's sack and gently poured the ashes into the current of water rushing from the rock toward his favorite fishing riffle. The water turned milky for a few feet and was clear again on reaching the riffle.
By prearrangement, Bill and Judy Batteman arrived one hour before the scheduled three o'clock start of the gathering. At Duncan's request, his attorney had brought Tom Harris' last will and testament. Duncan, knowing the contents of his father's will, wanted to end Dolores's uncertainty over her future as soon as possible. The two Batteman's, Duncan, and Dolores gathered in Tom's study for the reading of his will. The document was short and simple. Dolores received Tom's river home and its furnishings, except for his library, and a trust fund to allow her to maintain the house and live a middle class lifestyle. Duncan received everything else except for another small trust fund bequeathed to an unnamed recipient. That last detail surprised Duncan, but before he could question it, Bill handed him a sealed letter from his father.
“Tom directed that you be given this at the reading of his will.”
Duncan looked at the letter. It was addressed to him in his father's handwriting. He opened and read it while Dolores cried. The contents were a half a dozen sentences in a single paragraph. “Did Dad tell you what was in this?” he asked of Bill.
“He gave me no information other than that you would tell me to whom the second trust fund should go.”
Duncan folded and pocketed the letter.
The first guests arrived a few minutes after three. Larry came at three-thirty and informed Duncan there was a DEA surveillance team across the river with cameras and directional microphones. Richard was watching them.
Ellie Harris had been an only child, the daughter of parents long deceased; she had no relatives in attendance. The isolation imposed by her prolific production of children's books and her quiet nature had resulted in few close local friends, but all of them had come as well as her agent, her editor, and a number of her writer friends.
Those grieving Tom Harris were made up of two distinct groups: his McKenzie Bridge neighbors, who rarely ventured outside the mountain community, and a smaller, eclectic group whose one shared interest was international business. The two groups had little in common other than being older than those mourning Ellie and had little to talk about once the initial introductions had been made.
The gathering was large, but not as large as Duncan had expected, though the number of those who had traveled long distances was a tribute to the high esteem in which both Ellie and Tom had been held. Since the meeting was neither funeral nor wake, all were uncertain as to what was expected of them. The specter of the DEA's allegations compounded the uncertainty.
At four o'clock, the crowd gathered on the lawn between the house and the river. Duncan ascended the steps to the deck to face them and spoke movingly of his father and his wife. There were no dry eyes when he finished. Judy Batteman followed Duncan and spoke of her best friend, Ellie Harris. Bill Batteman followed his wife, and talked of Tom Harris's absolute integrity in business, his refusal to take advantage of others even when it was common business practice to do so, and his insistence on sharing windfall profits with those from whom he had purchased property. Dolores recounted, between sobs, her twenty-year relationship with Tom Harris and the love that Ellie Harris had shown her father-in-law in his last days. Larry Tanner spoke of Tom giving him a place to stay and a kind, wise, and listening ear to talk to when he had returned from Southeast Asia. Ellie's writer friends talked of her commitment to children and to her craft and her selflessness in promoting their careers as well as hers.
Longstreet had not wanted the assignment. When Baxter told him that he and Buster Wislowski, fresh in from Washington, were to photograph everyone attending a memorial service for the slain druggies, Longstreet had tried to fashion a credible excuse that wouldn't betray the guilt he felt, but he failed.
Baxter put him in charge of the surveillance since he knew the site. That made Longstreet feel better; it would look good on his record, and he would be supervising an agent senior to himself.
The two agents had driven up river early and were in position across the river from the house by ten a.m. From Wislowski's conversation, it was clear that to him this was just another intelligence gathering operation: pictures of everyone using telephoto lenses, recordings of conversations using directional microphones. To Longstreet it was rubbing salt in an open wound.
He watched the man and the woman commit the ashes to the river's water, and he cried inside. I didn't mean to kill her. He listened to the eulogies, and his soul diminished to near extinction. It was all a mistake.
“Fucking hypocrites,” Wislowski said, startling Longstreet. “All those fine words. Shit. They were goddamn druggies. Books for kids, my ass. She probably sold dope to kids. You're the one who popped her, didn't you?”
Longstreet didn't answer. He turned his face to hide the trembling of his lips and the tears in his eyes. He tightened his rib cage to stifle a sob; the muscles were getting sore. I murdered her.
After the eulogies had ended, Duncan motioned Larry into the house, to a hallway not visible from the outside.
“The DEA people across the river, they've probably taken pictures of everyone,” Duncan said.
“I'm sure they have. Richard says they've been busy,” Larry replied, having communicated with Richard by radio before the eulogies started.
“I don't think a person should wind up in the DEA's files just because they came to a memorial service. I want to get rid of those pictures.”
“I'll talk to Richard. Give us a few minutes to come up with something.”
The mourners had started saying their goodbyes to Duncan by the time Larry reappeared on the lawn. With his back to the river, he appeared to be taking his leave, but he had drawn Duncan slightly apart from the others.
“They're putting the exposed film in an equipment bag behind them, and they're using two cameras in sequence,” Larry said. “We have to get them to finish the roll in the current camera and then make them leave their position to shoot someone whose picture we don't care about them having.”
“That would be me,” Duncan replied.
“Right, but before you get them to move, you're going to have to make them waste as much as an entire roll of film, and then you've got to give them time to reload the exhausted camera for use as the spare before you make them move.”
“How will I know when they've done that?”
“Richard will stand and give you a thumbs up. He's in back of them. They won't see him. All you have to do is look that way occasionally. The tricky part will be to make'em move, but not very far. They've got to think they're just going to have to shift a few feet, otherwise they'll pick up the equipment bag. They may anyway, in which case we're screwed, and we'll have to think of something else. But if they leave that bag, Richard will have it. He's got good cover. Even if they see him, they'll never catch him.”
“Alright, let's do it, but I don't want him to keep the bag. Have him close it up and throw it in the river, as far out from the bank as possible,” Duncan said and outlined his revision.
Larry smiled. Improvisation had always been one of Duncan's strong points. “Hey, buddy, just like the good old days, huh? We made a great team.”
“As I remember, the good old days were mostly a matter of you getting in trouble and me getting you out, and the only thing that makes them good is that we choose not to remember the bad.”
Except for Dolores, Bill and Judy Batteman were the last to leave. Duncan suggested to the new owner of the house that she return to her old home and start packing. She objected, preferring to stay and clean her new home, but Duncan insisted, saying he wanted to spend a last few hours alone in his father's house. It was seven p.m. Two hours of daylight remained.
Duncan got a shovel from the garage and took it to the lawn between the house and the river, making a point of looking around to see if anyone was watching. Leaving the shovel, he disappeared out of sight in the house, reappearing a few minutes later with a single sheet of paper. Apparently consulting the paper, he picked up the shovel and walked to a rhododendron bush at the downstream limit of the lawn. There, at the base of the bush on the side facing the river, he spaded several inches into the soil. With his body between the small hole and the river, he squatted and felt into it with one hand while looking first up and then down the river. Then, he smiled and thrust both hands into the pit, seemingly clearing out the bottom. Finally, with a last look around, he filled in the hole, stood, consulted the paper, and proceeded into a sparse patch of vine maple at the edge of the lawn but closer to the river. There he repeated the whole process with minor variations in movement.
Midway through the third cycle of the charade—this time at the base of a young Douglas fir with limbs that brushed the ground—he looked up and saw Richard standing across the river with both arms out, both thumbs up.
Duncan finished up at the fir, consulted the paper, and walked to the upstream limit of the lawn at the river's edge. He appeared to be stymied, but then removed his clothes down to his shorts and waded into the river. The current was fast, the water cold, and his body language said as much. He retreated from the water, left the shovel pinning the paper on the bank, and disappeared into the garage. A half minute later he reappeared dragging a canoe to the water's edge. Putting shovel and paper into the craft, he shoved it into the water and climbed in.
The river's flow propelled the craft downstream for the few moments it took Duncan to kneel and start paddling. His progress fighting the current was laborious, slowed further by his constantly looking between the paper in the bottom of the canoe and the riverbank he was slowly passing. When he had traveled fifty yards beyond the limits of the lawn, he turned the canoe toward the bank and ran it onto a small sandbar protecting a pool of still water. Leaving the canoe, he started sorting through a number of small, smooth sticks littering the bank, their bark stripped by beaver. He selected one, skewered the paper with it, kneeled, and planted the stick upright in the sand, being careful to remain between the sign he had just made and the opposite bank of the river. Still kneeling, he turned, faced the opposite bank, and folded his arms.
Longstreet had wanted to terminate the surveillance, to end his emotional misery, as soon as the last guest had departed, but the DEA's operating procedures called for a standard one half hour delay. When Duncan first appeared on the lawn between the house and the river with a shovel, Longstreet's morale plummeted further; they would have to stay and see what this was about. He wished he had Jameson with him; they could be gone by now. With the Washington agent present, he couldn't break with procedure.
But when Duncan started looking around, Longstreet's interest piqued. Every DEA field agent had seen paranoid dopers trying to make sure no one was watching. When Duncan came back with what appeared to be a map, Longstreet's heart leapt. Maybe the Harris's were dopers. Maybe the raid was justified. When Duncan started digging, Longstreet was joyful. He hadn't murdered an innocent writer of children's books, he had eliminated just another doper, a danger to society, a person who through her writings was probably influencing children to experiment, to try drugs. He would finish this case. He would arrest this man now checking caches. He would present the hard evidence to the world. He would again have a clear conscience. He snapped pictures of Duncan with abandon.
Richard had had plenty of time. He used the opportunity to remove all the heavy items from the equipment bag to ensure it would float. When he saw Duncan turn and cross his arms, Richard acknowledged the signal by standing and hoisting the bag above his head for Duncan to see. The youth then made a short, nine-step run through the brush to add momentum to his toss of the now light bag. At the riverbank he lofted the bag upward and outward with every bit of strength his young, conditioned body had.
When Duncan saw Richard hoist the bag, he rose and stepped from in front of his makeshift sign. The two DEA agents had been focused on him: Longstreet with the camera, Wislowski with ten power binoculars. When Duncan stopped obscuring the sign, both read the block lettered message:
YOU'VE BEEN SUCKERED!
“Shit!” Wislowski shouted.
Longstreet stared in dumb silence. Were there to be no drugs? Was he back to having killed an innocent woman? Somebody help me... please.
The snap of a stick and the swish of brush from downstream interrupted his thought. Both men turned toward the noise, in time to see their equipment bag arc up from the shore and over the water, thrown by a camouflaged figure now disappearing into the brush.
Wislowski made the connection. “The film, the exposed film.”
“Get that bastard. I'll get the bag,” Longstreet shouted. Somebody on that film would tell him the woman he killed wasn't innocent. No matter the cost, he would get the film.
The prow of the canoe sliced through the water, closing on the floating bag, which itself was being swept downstream. Duncan felt the satisfaction that comes with seeing a plan work. He alternated between watching the bag and the struggling agent on the shore. The man was trying to run along the riverbank, a chaotic series of boulders, above ground tree roots, and fallen timber. He was spending as much time falling as running.
The plan was almost complete. The bag would sweep around the next turn and be carried farther from the agent's shore. Duncan would catch it there if it wasn't already beached. In addition to the current, a light but steady wind propelled the bag, blowing it toward a gravel bar coming up on the side of the river opposite the DEA agent. There Duncan would draw each roll of film out into the sunlight. The agent would watch from the opposite bank in helpless fury. There would be no hurry; the river was deep, the current swift; the glacier borne water numbing; the river was not swimmable.
The agent would have one other option—shoot Duncan. But Duncan was unarmed, obviously unarmed, his underwear his only covering. How would they explain shooting an unarmed, nearly naked man? He considered the risk acceptable. Besides, it was a win-win situation. If the agent fired, Duncan's death would end his misery and surely bring enough attention to expose the murder of his family. If the agent didn't fire, Duncan would succeed in protecting his friends and frustrating his enemy. The danger of his gamble sent adrenaline rushing through his body; he paddled faster, harder, and he smiled.
Wislowski drew his weapon and forged into the undergrowth at an angle calculated to intercept the figure that had disappeared from the riverbank. From experience in numerous footraces with street dealers in the nation's capital, he knew his best chance lay with an initial all-out sprint. But before traveling thirty feet, he tripped over a large root and crashed to his face. Picking himself up, he reflected on the fact that the forest floor was not a city street and jogged rather than sprinted. He could hear, but not see, his quarry.
The terrain began to climb, and the sounds guiding him changed. At first, they were continuous, those of a man crashing through brush, stepping on and breaking sticks. Now they were intermittent, farther away, and sounded like rock crashing on rock ... and he only heard them when he stopped to listen. They were deliberate noises. He was being led.
“No ambushes for this Pollack,” he said to himself and sat down with his back to a large tree. He wouldn't chase an enemy he couldn't see in a forest he didn't know. He would wait a while for appearance's sake, and then go back. “Fucking wilderness.”
Longstreet was in pain, but he didn't care; pain was irrelevant. Reaching the equipment bag was all that mattered. He was abeam it, but it was getting farther from shore, and the woman's husband would soon reach it. Longstreet couldn't let that happen; the contents of the bag represented his only possible salvation.
“Stay away from it,” he shouted and tripped and fell again. “I'm a Federal Officer,” he yelled from the ground. “I order you to stay away from that bag.” On his feet again, he continued running, pulling his gun, waving it toward the man in the canoe. The bastard was smiling, smiling at him.
The thought was a product of Longstreet's desperation; the bag would support his weight. All he had to do was swim like hell, reach the bag, and float with it to shore. He holstered his gun, unhooked his gun belt and let it drop. Ahead of the bag now, he wondered if he had time to remove his boots. He had never swum with shoes on. In training he had swum in clothes but barefoot. That had been difficult, and the instructor had said to always remove your shoes, but there wasn't time; the distance between the canoe and the bag was narrowing. He shed his camouflage jacket on the run, made an abrupt left turn, and propelled himself off a boulder into a flat dive.
The shock of the frigid water surprised Longstreet. It was so cold, much colder than the winter surf of his Florida childhood. When his head broke the surface, he had trouble getting his first breath, but it came, and he stroked to intercept the bag. But when he put his head down to expel the lung full of air, the water's cold slap made him involuntarily arch his neck and raise his head. He coughed, stuck his head back down and lunged forward to regain the momentum he had lost. By the second breath, the water had completely penetrated his tee shirt and he had to force his rib cage to expand against the cold. This damn water was taking his breath away. The bag was closer, but not as close as he thought it should be, and the water that soaked his pants and filled his boots didn't feel wet; it only felt cold. It would take a few more seconds to reach the bag than he had thought, but he would make it. He was young and strong.
Duncan stopped smiling when he saw the agent remove his jacket on the run. “My god.&rdquo ;The utterance broke from his lips, forced by sight of the man's dive into water that came off glaciers only a few miles upstream. Duncan slowed his paddling to match the speed of the wind propelling the bobbing equipment bag away from the swimmer and to watch what he knew would be a life or death drama.
Swimmer and bag were swept into the river's turn, but the wind had taken the bag close to Duncan's shore, into water less swift than the swimmer was in, and he was swept downstream from the bag. He would now have to fight the current to reach it.
Duncan admired the swimmer's stamina. Fully clothed, including shoes, the man slowly closed on the floating bag, obviously using all his might to advance against the current, but it was a contest between the limited strength of the man and the limitless cold of the water ... and the man was slowing. Duncan found himself siding with the man, wanting him to survive.
Duncan stroked into the main stream, allowing the current to carry him past the bag ... past the swimmer. The seconds were ticking, and Duncan knew the river would win ... the gap between bag and swimmer was increasing.
“Head for the shore. Swim ninety degrees to the current,” shouted Duncan, but the swimmer paid no heed. “Shit!” Duncan pulled alongside the swimmer. “Grab the canoe,” but the swimmer was beyond thinking. Duncan thrust a paddle between the man's arms, but he only flailed against it ... and then stopped moving. The current turned him as he slipped below the surface. For a moment Duncan looked into the man's glazed eyes ... and then he was gone.
Duncan gave one giant back-paddle on the right side to turn ninety degrees to the current. Dropping the paddle to the bottom of the canoe, he stood, turned, and dove, pushing the canoe towards shore while propelling himself over its stern.
The same cold that had defeated the DEA agent enveloped Duncan, and he knew he had at most thirty seconds of maximum effort available to him. The water was clear, and he could see a blurred form being carried along the bottom at his ten o'clock position. He used the remaining momentum from his dive to turn left, and reached the limp form in three strokes. Grabbing a handful of tee shirt, he kicked to the surface and brought his burden's face above water, but found he could not keep both of them afloat much less make any progress. Duncan let the man slip back beneath the surface. As the body sank, Duncan wrapped his legs around the torso. Then, with shoulders that had pumped iron for thirty-five years, he attacked the water, moving at a right angle to the current.
When he felt the body between his legs hitting the bottom, he took a deep breath, doubled down and under the drowning man, and pushed the agent's head above water. With feet on the bottom, Duncan pushed toward the shore. Reaching the bank, he stretched the man along his side and made sure his tongue flopped forward. Water poured from the agent's mouth, but he didn't start breathing, and Duncan couldn't detect a pulse.
He rolled the man onto his back and started CPR, fifteen short pumps on the chest, two mouth-to-mouth forced breaths while checking for a pulse... the seconds rolled into minutes, and the minutes seemed interminable. Then, finally, Duncan felt the beginnings of a pulse... or was it his imagination? Another cycle of pumping and mouth-to-mouth and he knew it was not his imagination. They were winning. Duncan concentrated on the mouth-to-mouth; a few minutes later the agent coughed ... and then vomited.