Riverwatcher: A Fly-Fishing Mysteryby Ronald Weber
Lottery winner and ex-journalist Donal Fitzgerald joins forces with his girlfriend, DNR conservation officer Mercy Virdon, to solve the mysterious death of a beloved angler, Charlie, who was murdered in his tent in a state campground and who was known by all—and who may have known too much. Set in the engaging small town of Ossning on the Borchard River in… See more details below
Lottery winner and ex-journalist Donal Fitzgerald joins forces with his girlfriend, DNR conservation officer Mercy Virdon, to solve the mysterious death of a beloved angler, Charlie, who was murdered in his tent in a state campground and who was known by all—and who may have known too much. Set in the engaging small town of Ossning on the Borchard River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—an angler’s dream, filled with eccentric, believable, sympathetic, and unforgettable characters—Riverwatcher is a classic whodunit. Fitzgerald and Mercy’s investigation to discover the deadly secret among the locals leads to dead ends until a surprisingly bookish theory surfaces. Weber expertly weaves this character-driven novel with a strong sense of place, creating a great yarn for anglers and mystery lovers and, as it turns out, a literally literary mystery.
- Skyhorse Publishing
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- 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)
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By Ronald Weber
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2013 Ronald Weber
All rights reserved.
The siren of an EMS ambulance sliced through the July morning just as Mercy Virdon turned into a parking space across from the Six-Grain Bakery. Ordinarily, she didn't stop at the bakery on a weekday, when the regulars hanging out would be eager to corner her. There was always something, meaning some complaint, and usually about things—"The Brown Drake hatch was a washout this year, Mercy"—the manager of Michigan's Department of Natural Resources office in Ossning could do nothing about. Ordinarily, stopping at the bakery wasn't worth the grief, even if the place had the best coffee in town.
She listened to the siren long enough to realize it was fading—the ambulance on its way out of Ossning—before switching her attention to the other cars and trucks parked along the street. She was going inside the bakery regardless, but knowing who the owners were would give her advance warning of what to expect. She had lived in Ossning too long, it occurred to her, if she knew who owned the vehicles you saw every day on the streets—too long, too, if you knew exactly what their owners would say when you ran into them. She was musing about that, experiencing a tinge of melancholy despite the perfection of the morning, when she saw a green Land Rover she recognized all too well.
It was in the process of pulling from the curb into the street, the driver peering straight ahead, unconcerned with the possibility of oncoming traffic. The vehicle was Verlyn Kelso's, the driver Verlyn himself. Not that it could be anyone else. Verlyn wouldn't let Jan near the vehicle, let alone Kit. One of the two must have been pressed into operating the cash register at the fly shop of the Kabin Kamp if Verlyn was in town on a July morning. There was always a fishing guide or two in the shop, tying flies or watching someone tying flies, but Verlyn drew the line when it came to guides at the cash register. Oddly, Verlyn had turned into a hard-nosed businessman, which anyone married to him, as Mercy had been, wouldn't have expected. Perpetual delinquent seemed more likely.
But she didn't want to think about that—or Verlyn's odd appearance in town on a weekday morning. It was the morning itself she wanted to hold fast. When Mercy left Fitzgerald at the A-frame at Walther Bridge he was loading his Grand Cherokee for a morning of fishing on the mainstream above Danish Landing. A report had come in about tricos up there—early in the season for their appearance, but the report had come from an occasionally reliable source—and Fitzgerald, propelled along on an adrenalin rush, meant to check it out.
She didn't mind leaving him at the A-frame and heading off to work dressed in her summer uniform. She didn't mind a bit until, halfway into Ossning on the North Downriver Road, she abruptly switched off a Patsy Cline CD and gave full attention to the quality of the air wafting through her open window. It was unusually sweet. She had an impulse to close her eyes, feel the air wash across her face, weave through the unruly mound of her hair—which wouldn't be wise even though the Suburban was the only vehicle on the road. Better, she should turn off on one of the gravel roads that led to the river, park at a landing, enjoy air and sun.
But that wouldn't do, either. It wouldn't look right if anyone came along and saw an on-duty DNR officer idly basking in morning light. She could claim to be working—some people thought that was what her job amounted to anyway, looking at the river, thinking about it—but would know she wasn't. She wasn't earning her pay as a public servant, which meant getting to the office on time and meeting her appointments and attending meetings and shuffling through the stream of paper. She had joined the DNR, long ago, because she liked outdoor work, and had risen to the point where she had little reason to be outdoors. Some serious irony there.
She could, though, ease into her workday and the demands of her conscience by stopping at the Six-Grain Bakery for a mug of coffee and a chat with Bonnie Pym. She and Bonnie could commiserate together about being cooped up inside on a July day, prisoners of work. Together they could glimpse through the windows of the bakery the sunlight in the maples along the street, sigh, describe all the places they would rather be, bemoan the fate of indoor workers everywhere. Bonnie was your woman if it was sympathy you were after, even though getting to her meant negotiating the minefield of the bakery complainers.
* * *
"Thought you'd be busier."
Mercy had taken one of the tables for two, hoping to limit access to the DNR, before she realized there were only a few customers in the bakery, all as solitary as she, hunched over coffee and morning newspapers. Bonnie had left the counter to one of the younger girls and sat on the edge of the chair across from Mercy.
"Earlier we were."
"I'll have to remember that."
"Weather's the thing," Bonnie said. "Real nice out, people come early, don't lounge around so much."
Something in Mercy's tone alerted Bonnie. She leaned forward across the table, eyes narrowed. "Feeling poorly?"
"On a day like this?"
"Work blues, maybe. You ever think," Mercy asked, "of doing something else?"
"You kidding? When don't I. You, too?"
"Now and then."
"You've got the best job of any girl around."
"There's a new woman doctor in town."
"Yeah, well, that's a whole other planet."
"I'd like to marry a rich, great-looking guy," Bonnie said, "then not do a thing."
"You shouldn't have given up so quickly on Fitzgerald."
Bonnie lifted two mauve-nailed fingers to her lips, then held them in the air as if a cigarette still dangled between them. "It was the other way around."
Mercy smiled. "He's not so great looking, anyway."
"Easy for you to say," Bonnie said, and smiled back.
"What I'd like to do today is what he's doing, fishing the mainstream. All day, just fishing it."
"Maybe he won't catch anything."
"Fishing it and then hanging out at Verlyn's fly shop and swapping lies with the guides. What a life."
"Yeah, well, that's what he gets for winning the lottery."
"Fitzgerald's one of the idle rich, Bonnie. I've always known that but, day like this, I really do. You know what I mean?"
"You're feeling poorly because he's rich and you're going to work."
"You've got a way," Mercy said, "of getting to the heart of things. But he's not exactly rich. Just comfortably off."
"There's a difference?"
* * *
Bonnie refilled the coffee of the other customers in the bakery, finally worked her way back to Mercy's table. Mercy put a hand over her mug.
"Had enough before I came in."
"You just wanted to see little ol' me?"
"As a matter of fact," Mercy said, "I've got a question. How come Verlyn was in here?"
Bonnie replaced the coffee pot behind the counter, then came back to the table, settled again on the edge of the chair across from Mercy. "Same deal," she said. "See little ol' me."
"Now why'd you think?"
"Verlyn in town this time of year, big spenders staying at the lodge? Doesn't that seem serious?"
Mercy said, "I wondered when I saw the Rover."
"Actually, there probably aren't so many at the lodge just now. Sort of quiet, end of July, before the August rush. So that's part of the reason Verlyn was in."
"And you're the other."
Bonnie grinned, leaned across the table. "Between you and me, I think there must be trouble with Jan. He's been coming in nearly every day, chatting me up. All it's amounted to so far."
"No quiet evening over in Traverse City?"
"Or down and dirty at the Keg O'Nails?"
"Hey, don't get me wrong." Bonnie leaned back in her chair and with a swishing sound crossed her legs beneath her nylon uniform. "It's a way of killing time, is all. I wouldn't go across the street with Verlyn."
"Does he know that?"
Bonnie shrugged. "With him it's hard to tell. There's sort of a look in his eyes."
"Nothing new about that."
"Tell me about it," Mercy said.
* * *
It was nearly ten o'clock when she reached the office. Surprisingly, her mood had improved. She was still missing out on the day, boxed in by bureaucratic walls and fluorescent lighting, but Bonnie had gotten her mind off herself and onto Verlyn. More specifically, onto Jan. Were there problems with wife number two?
Tiny, soft-voiced, sweet Jan was thought to be just what Verlyn needed after his riotous mismatch with Mercy. Everyone said so, including Jan herself. Jan's style as a wife was simply to be everything Mercy hadn't been. Dressed in a prim, pressed safari outfit—her idiotic idea of what one wore in the north country—she ran the lodge of Kelso's Kabin Kamp with smooth efficiency, leaving Verlyn free to manage the fly shop and organize the guides. Free as well to carry on as boorishly as ever, with never a glowering look, let alone a harsh word, from his loving spouse.
Mercy wasn't fooled, though everyone else might be. Jan was younger than Verlyn—a good ten years, Mercy thought, a difference she had meant to establish from birth records but hadn't gotten around to—and stood in line to inherit the Kabin Kamp when Verlyn met his maker. That might be a long way off, but, financial opportunities in the north country being what they were, Jan could wait. When the time came, Mercy knew what would emerge from the dainty butterfly: merry widow, rich bitch.
Which you couldn't wholly begrudge her, not after putting up with Verlyn now nearly as long as Mercy had. But Mercy meant to be around, when the time came, to be certain Kit, her son with Verlyn, got his fair share of the Kabin Kamp. If the lodge went to Jan, the fly shop could go to him—which Verlyn might be thinking as well, now that he allowed Kit to work around the place. The possibility caught Mercy by surprise: she and Verlyn for once on the same page about something.
But that wasn't what was on her mind. It was Jan—and possible trouble in the marriage. It wasn't surprising, the trouble, if that was what it really was. In the long run, Verlyn wouldn't be able to tolerate perpetual peace any more than perpetual discord. He wasn't made for any kind of long run—which, it occurred to Mercy, maybe she wasn't, either. But if there was trouble in the marriage, it could mean a third was in the offing, Verlyn requiring a wife to help with the Kabin Kamp now that slavery was abolished, and that meant Mercy would have to recalculate everything in regard to Kit's place in the line of inheritance. Thinking about it that way, she would just as soon see Jan remain in the picture.
Mercy smiled to herself, which caused the secretary standing before her in the outer office, Fern Lax, to tilt her head with a quizzical look.
"You ever find yourself thinking some crazy thing," Mercy tried to explain, "you thought you'd never think in a million years?"
You wanted secretaries for order, not empathy. Fern Lax fit the bill exactly. Mercy smiled again, asked if there were any messages.
"I was trying to tell you. You're supposed to call the sheriff 's office."
"Any indication what for?"
"Elsie didn't say."
When Mercy phoned from her office, Elsie, Willard Stroud's wife and secretary, said the sheriff wanted a DNR representative out at Rainbow Run campground first thing. "Said to tell you personally," Elsie added, "but you weren't in."
"I was a little late this morning. What's up out there to involve the sheriff?"
"Kids raising hell again?"
"No," Elsie said, but didn't elaborate.
"All right," Mercy said. "Tell him I'm on my way."CHAPTER 2
Calvin McCann paused, an ear angled to the side, concentrating on the sound.
The siren was coming from just upriver, from the road across the Borchard at Walther Bridge, but he couldn't tell if it was a sheriff's patrol car or an emergency vehicle. Verlyn claimed he could tell from the sound alone, but Calvin didn't believe him. Verlyn blew a lot of hot air. On the other hand, close as he was, the road running right past the Kabin Kamp, maybe he could.
Calvin turned back to the woman standing in thigh-high current beside him and at the moment casting an olive Woolly Bugger to attractive water along a downed cedar. It didn't seem entirely right thinking of her as a woman since, Verlyn had told him, she had just turned seventeen and was still in high school in Dublin, Ohio. On the other hand, looking at her, noting the way she filled out her waders, Calvin had no trouble thinking of her as a woman. Verlyn might have sharp ears, but he himself had the eyes of a hawk.
"That's good," Calvin said to her, "but try casting up tighter. Hit close against the log, toss in a little slack so the fly drifts down, then retrieve quick across the current."
She smiled back at him as she began her backcast.
Her name was Gwendolyn Underwood, which struck him as odd, the Gwendolyn part. It sounded like the name of a middle-aged woman. But maybe her father, Graham Underwood, wanted another G name and couldn't think of anything better. Gina would have been a possibility. Or Gray, short for grayling. Calvin could have suggested that as a name, telling Graham Underwood how grayling had jammed the Borchard before the white pine was cut and sunlight raised the water temperature, and that was the beginning of the end for the grayling. But Verlyn said Graham Underwood, a big-time executive of some sort down in Ohio, wasn't the type you suggested things to, let alone a name for his only child. You only took his money and did what he wanted.
What he wanted at the moment was expert fly-fishing instruction for Gwendolyn, which was where Calvin came in. Verlyn had taken him aside and said that was all she was supposed to get. "What do you take me for?" Calvin said. "You know what," Verlyn said. He recounted what Calvin already knew, that Graham Underwood spent two weeks at the Kabin Kamp every June with a group of cronies from Ohio, fishing during the day and at night tossing back single-malt Scotch and swapping lies around the stone fireplace in the lodge. In itself that wasn't unusual. Most of the fishermen who came back to the Kabin Kamp year after year were cut from the same mold. What set Graham Underwood apart was that he spent money like a Greek shipping magnate. He bought flies by the fistful in the fly shop and loaded up with more gear than a dozen men could use in a lifetime, including a new Sage rod every other season, just to try something different.
Verlyn treated fishermen like that with kid gloves, which in Graham Underwood's case meant guiding him himself on afternoon float trips on the South Branch of the Borchard. Ordinarily, Verlyn didn't guide anymore, knowing it was better for someone other than the owner of the Kabin Kamp to be the target of abuse when the client's day on the water was a bust. But Graham Underwood wanted the headman for his guide, and it wasn't easy saying no to someone who had recently bought a Sage from you. So Verlyn floated him through some runs on the South Branch that he and Calvin maintained as semisecret, keeping Graham Underwood happy with fat brookies and an occasional trophy brown. Deep-secret runs were another matter, Verlyn holding to some standards.
This season Graham Underwood made a second trip to the Kabin Kamp with his daughter in tow. She was of an age to learn the basics of fly fishing, but he was smart enough to know she wouldn't learn as quickly or as well if her father were the teacher. He picked out equipment for her in the fly shop—waders, vest, rod, all the trimmings—but Gwendolyn chose her teacher, Calvin. "She's got good taste," Calvin said when he learned. "She hasn't met you yet," Verlyn said, "only heard about you." "What I meant," Calvin said, "is she didn't choose you."
Each morning after she had breakfast in the lodge, Calvin got together with Gwendolyn in the fly shop. They did some practice casting together in the mowed area across from the shop, where customers tried out new rods, then Gwendolyn pulled on her waders, and they got in the river and fished downstream together to a canoe landing. It wasn't a favorite stretch of the mainstream as far as Calvin was concerned—too many cabins visible among the spruce and pine, too many canoes bearing down on you from the liveries in Ossning—but the level streambed made for easy wading, and there were no overhanging trees to cause problems with backcasts.
Excerpted from Riverwatcher by Ronald Weber. Copyright © 2013 Ronald Weber. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Ronald Weber is Emeritus Professor of American Studies, University of Notre Dame. He is the award-winning author of The Lisbon Route: Entry and Escape in Nazi Europe, News of Paris: American Journalists in the City of Lights Between the Wars, Hired Pens: Professional Writers in American’s Golden Age of Print, and Hemingway’s Art of Nonfiction, as well as the novels Troubleshooter and Company Spook, among many others. His short fiction and articles have been broadly published in literary magazines and reviews. Riverwatcher is the third novel in the series.
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A good read. For anyone who's fly fished the Ausable it is quite fun. Helps to get us fly fishermen and women through the winter months!