Billy Pearce was still alive, though neither he nor his killer knew it. The sudden plunge into the icy darkness of Coldwater Lake brought Billy back to consciousness, but not awareness. His body filled the narrow sleeping bag. A pair of cement blocks at his feet ensured that it found bottom and stayed there. Where his face filled the opening at the top of the bag, strobes of moonlight made sparkling prisms of the bubbles that might be his last mortal breath. But Billy didn’t think about that. His mind was somewhere else.
This had happened to him before, a long time ago, and his mind went back there now.
When Billy was thirteen, he’d decided to break into a golf-course clubhouse on the far side of Wilson Cove to steal liquor that he’d heard had been left in the basement storeroom over the winter. It had been unseasonably warm for most of the month, but he’d decided to chance the walk across the late winter ice, so as not to risk being spotted along the lake road at an hour when boys his age were presumed to be in school.
The frozen surface crackled and popped beneath his feet like an oversized bowl of breakfast cereal. He imagined the party he could have with all the liquor he was going to steal. And while he busied himself with a short mental list of the people he could invite who wouldn’t rat him out, the snap, crackle, pop went WHOOSH! and he plunged like a clown through a trap door into the freezing lake. Instantly, his heavy winter jacket sponged its weight in brain-numbing ice water, his boots filled like pails, and the whole soggy weight of it dragged him rapidly toward bottom.
But he didn’t panic. Billy’s egghead family might have thought him deficient because of his constant troubles in school and his indifference to books. But he was brighter than they knew, and a childhood of disapproval had made him stoic and unflappable.
As his body drifted toward bottom, he methodically removed everything that was weighing him down: jacket, boots, shirt, trousers—everything but his underwear. That done, he looked for the halo of light that would mark the spot where his fall had punched a temporary hole in the rotting ice. When he found it, and before his breath could give out or his mind succumb to the numbing cold, he kicked and clawed his slim, nearly naked body through the hole and onto the ice.
Now, on a starless October night a dozen years later, his mind went back to that time where his body had known what to do and his brain had been confident that everything would be all right if he didn’t panic. Inside the sleeping bag, his hands methodically removed a coat that wasn’t really there, kicked off a pair of heavy boots that weren’t there either, and then, lastly, slipped off trousers that were. But as his face turned upward to find the wall of white where memory told him a patch of brighter white would guide him to a hole he must find and climb through if he was to survive, he abruptly ceased to remember, or to think at all. Because this time, Billy Pearce was dead.
“Sir, you’ll have to turn that off until we land.”
“Sorry,” said Tom, dropping the BlackBerry into his jacket pocket, “force of habit.” From habit as well, he shut his eyes as the turbo prop made its descent to the Coldwater County Airport, and kept them shut until wheel touched tarmac and held straight. Ten years of first-class business travel hadn’t diluted the formative memories of white-knuckle landings on this pocked strip of macadam, laid crossways to the wind that swept east from the lake and surrounded by acres of succulent field corn. The seasonal challenges of fog and ice were minor compared to the obstacle course of white-tailed deer that guarded the sweet grass along the cracked tarmac as though it were a field of Bambi heroin.
He retrieved the vibrating BlackBerry as soon as the plane came to a stop. “Tom Morgan,” he answered.
“Stu Leonard,” said the voice on the other end. “Do you know your phone’s been off for the last hour?”
“I’m on vacation,” said Tom. “What can I do for you?”
“I need to follow up on your response to the conflicts check you filled out before you left.”
What could be ambiguous about a one-word answer? “Too verbose?” he asked.
The voice on the other end forced a chuckle. “That depends, Tom. Are you sure you haven’t handled anything for Halliburton in the last ten years?”
“Or any of its subs or affiliates?”
Tom cradled the phone, opened the overhead compartment, and retrieved a laptop and garment bag while the plane taxied toward the single-room terminal. “A company the size of Halliburton can have hundreds of subs,” he grumbled into the receiver. “Not all of them use the parent name. If you’ve got a list, email it to me. But like I said, I’m on vacation. And I’m about to get off a plane and start it.”
“Okay,” the phone squawked. “But call me when you get it. This is a priority.”
Tom held the phone away from his ear and made a face; then he slung the laptop strap over his shoulder and dragged the wheeled suitcase up the aisle. Outside, a red-winged blackbird rose through the fog beside the runway and headed for the glistening thicket of mountain laurel at the end of the field.
“One more thing, Tom. Have you done any political fundraising?”
“Campaign fundraising, that sort of thing.”
“I know what fundraising is. What’s that got to do with a conflicts check?”
The phone remained silent.
“It’s not a conflicts check, Tom. The Compliance Committee needs to know if you’ve done any political fundraising.”
“What? Hold on.”
He lifted the suitcase and descended the half-dozen steps to the tarmac. Fifty yards away, a Paul-Bunyan-sized figure leaned against the door of a police car idling in the No Parking zone in front of the terminal.
“Of course I have,” he said, dragging his suitcase toward the car. “And charitable fundraising and Greenpeace fundraising and practically every other kind. The firm knows that. They encourage it.”
“And that would be for what party, Tom?”
“Exclusively? I understand you spent two years on the staff of a Democratic congressman before you went to law school.”
“That’s what turned me into a Republican.”
If he expected a laugh, he didn’t get it.
“Do you have any idea how much you’ve raised over the years?”
“That’s why they keep asking me to do it. Now what’s this about, Stu? Because you’re starting to put a damper on a hard-earned vacation.”
“Sorry, Tom. That’s enough for now, I guess. I’ll get back to you if we need more.”
The outsized man beneath the Smokey the Bear hat detached himself from the Crown Victoria, revealing the words Coldwater County Sheriff painted in red across the door panels. “That better be a girl you’re talking to,” he said, “or I’m supposed to take that thing away from you.”
Tom slipped the phone into his pocket and hugged his younger brother, trying not to wince at the bone-crushing return. “Good to see you, Joe,” he managed to croak.
“Don’t stay away so long, you won’t miss me so much.”
He felt his heels return to earth.
“Throw the stuff in the back,” Joe ordered. “Bonnie and the girls are at school. Luke’s at daycare. Mom’s home, and everybody’s excited to see you.”
“How is she?”
“A pistol, as usual. Broken leg hasn’t slowed her much. The cast comes off next week. Some geezer from the Senior Center’s been calling every day. But don’t mention that unless you want your head chopped off.”
Tom threw his bags in the back of the patrol car while his brother took a call on the hands-free mounted on the dashboard. “No radio?” he asked when the call ended.
“Lost it when Grogan left and they canned Helen.”
“The mayor’s kid?”
“Little Paul. His dad put him in as my number two when he got out of SUNY Albany. I guess two years was too long a wait for the big job. He quit last month to take something with the State BCI. Took both deputies with him too, just to be a prick. Can’t figure what he promised them. Then his dad, the mayor, declares that a one-man police department doesn’t need a dispatcher, so he cans Helen and replaces her with this phone so I can take calls directly.”
“You’re shitting me. You went from four cops and a dispatcher down to just you?”
“I patch over to DuBois at night and pick up again in the morning. I figure it’s temporary. But Bonnie’s pissed. She want me to quit, and she’s going to be after you to join the choir. So be warned. In the meantime, we’ve got to make a stop before going to see Mom. That call was about a boat stuck on the rocks in Wilson Cove. I should get to them, before they have to swim.”
“Let’s go. It’s like making rounds with Dad again.”
Tom had been about to start a long-overdue, lie-on-a-beach-brushing-sand-off-your-stomach-and-deciding-what-to-do-next-with-your-life vacation when his brother called with the news that their mother had fallen and broken her leg. Changing plans was a simple matter of adjusting flights, discarding his Italian phrase book, and postponing any life-altering decisions. It was so simple that it should have come with a warning label.
Joe turned the cruiser onto the highway and headed downhill toward the lake. “Could be kids. But there was a boat out there last night running without lights. It went dark when I started after it in the patrol boat. Nearly peeled off the bottom on a rock. If I find out it’s the same boat, there’s going to be hell to pay.”
Tom gestured at the fresh cuts on his brother’s muscled forearms and across the top of his dirty blond buzz-cut. “You fall out and land on the propeller?”
Joe smirked. “Different bunch of assholes. Dopers planting on Watermelon Hill. I go up sometimes to have a look around and yank some crop. But they’ve taken to planting thorn bushes too, to keep the deer away. And spray. This stuff itches like hell.”
“You get a kick out of Dad’s old job, don’t you?”
“More than you get out of yours, I imagine.”
Bull’s eye. Tom’s flagging interest in a legal practice that had brought him white-collar wealth in his thirties might come as a surprise to his partners. But it had never been possible to keep a secret in the Morgan house. There were just too many natural detectives. Joe’s comment was a gentle probe. Their mother would bring out the backhoe and start digging deep before Tom put down his suitcase.
Even so, it felt good to be home. He’d missed the hills above town that clung now to the last of their fall plumage, and the salmon-filled lake that gave its name to the community and shared its shoreline with Quebec. The only things he didn’t miss were the Call of the Wild winters—the next one would be coming any time now—and the lack of meaningful work for anyone with more than a high-school education.
“Be funny if it were the Dooley twins out there,” he said, dragging out old names and shared memories. “Remember when Dad caught them red-handed, took their boat, and left them stranded on Sunken Island up to their nuts in forty-five-degree water?”
Joe’s carrot-sized fingers clenched the steering wheel. “Not everyone appreciated the old man’s idea of on-the-spot justice, Tommy. That’s part of what got him killed, don’t you think?”
The cruiser accelerated.
Let’s not go there.
They turned onto the lake road, past gabled houses with wrap-around porches and vistas of endless blue water that stuttered by like subliminal advertising for turn-of-the-century splendor. The Dutch Elms that had lined the road when Tom and Joe were boys had long since succumbed to disease, their crippled skeletons lending the lakeshore road an air of permanent Halloween until the town got around to turning them into woodchips.
Where the road turned east to follow the knuckle of Wilson Cove, Joe pulled the car to the shoulder. A hundred yards offshore, through patchy but rapidly lifting fog, a twenty-four-foot Grady White churned circles in the cove’s muddy shallows. Joe took a pair of binoculars and a battery-operated bullhorn from the trunk, slapped on his Smokey the Bear hat, tossed the binoculars to Tom through the open car window, and swaggered toward the shoreline.
Tom turned the glasses on a short, wiry figure that had just leapt from the stern of the Grady White into knee-deep water. A graying ponytail swung from the back of the man’s sun-faded tractor cap. Oblivious to Joe’s approach, the man waded beside a stretched down-rigger cable, pulled a long-handled filleting knife from a sheath on his hip, and started to saw away.
Joe’s amplified voice boomed across the water. “You guys need help?”
Tom swung the glasses toward the man who’d remained in the boat. He was pony-tailed too, slightly built, and as oblivious as his companion to the arrival of local law enforcement. Tom steadied the glasses against the dashboard and moved them to the man in the water, then back to the man in the boat. The Dooleys?
Some things never change: the poacher twins padding the winter larder with fat fillets weeks after the season ended; rods springing from downriggers, trolling reels screaming like toy tops, Kevin whooping like a kid, and Mickey angrily shushing him. As soon as they realized it was a snag, not a fish, the bickering would start—because other than fishing and hunting out of season, that’s what the Dooley twins were known for: world-class bickering.
Turning the glasses to the back of the boat, Tom watched the second man lift the lid on the fish box and dump its contents into the lake off the side of the boat opposite the shore. His partner in the water continued to do whatever he was doing with the knife. As a light wind began to ripple the cove, pushing the fog away from the shoreline, a line of floating fish carcasses spread across the water in a slow, incriminating drift from boat to shore.
Joe bellowed through the bullhorn, “Gotcha, Mickey!”
The man in the water turned toward the amplified boast. As he did, a large cloth-covered something floated to the surface and began to drift behind the fish carcasses. Tom focused the binoculars to get a closer view of the thing bobbing in the water. Several disbelieving seconds ticked by before he recognized what and then who it was.
What was a lean, pock-marked face peering out of a water-logged sleeping bag. Who was Billy Pearce.
Bad things happen when a biochemical research company on the verge of bankruptcy agrees to act as a conduit for anonymous shipments of vials, powders, and Petri dishes in exchange for needed cash. Trouble begins when a poxed corpse floats to the top of a nearby lake and an autopsy reveals it to be riddled with deadly toxins.
Coldwater Revenge is an 85,000-word mystery that takes place during a ten-day period in the fall of 2002. The setting is a small town in upstate New York with a centuries-long tradition of live-and-let-live smuggling across the lake it shares with French Quebec. Murder suspects in a place turned inward by history and geography are of necessity friends, lovers, and even family. The brother detectives of Coldwater Revenge face difficult moral choices when it appears that the killer may be someone close to them—especially when one begins to suspect the other and the catalyst is an ex-girlfriend they have in common.
I grew up in a town much like Coldwater. The principal characters are fictionalized versions of the people I grew up with. The idea for the story came from my sons’ mother, who once asked me, “What will happen if they ever fall hard for the same girl?”
Bad things will happen, that’s what.
Jim Ross lives in Jackson, Wyoming. His fiction has appeared in various literary magazines, including The Santa Clara Review, The South Dakota Review, Timber Creek Review, Phantasmagoria, The Distillery, and The Underwood Review. His current agent is working hard to place Coldwater Revenge with a good home.
Embark, Issue 2, October 2017