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"PUT THE GUN DOWN." The sound of a bullhorn rebounded off the walls. "Come out with your hands up."
Clutching at blankets Stella, struggled to sit up. A sliver of light between the curtains confirmed it. A SWAT team had the place surrounded.
Wait, a Swiffer commercial?
And ... snoring?
So Joe had fallen asleep in front of the TV again. And now she remembered the full moon, got up, and pulled back the curtains to reveal the source of the mysterious light. It was a monster, bigger than anything she'd seen when she lived in the city. Bright enough to cast an eerie glow inside a lakeside cabin normally pitch dark at two o'clock in the morning. Before startling awake she had been dreaming, blundering down dark corridors after a shadowy image she was never going to catch. But Stella Mosconi didn't dwell on dreams. With a husband, two kids, a job, and a mortgage, unsettling dreams were way down her list of things to worry about.
Stella turned off the television and spread a knitted afghan over her husband. She tiptoed in to check on their sons -- Matt on the top bunk, arms flung wide, at nine her big boy. On the bottom, seven-year-old Nicky curled around his greying, no-longer-plush sheep. She straightened Matt's tangled-up blanket, swept Nicky's soft brown hair from his eyes.
Before going back to bed she closed the curtains against the moonlight. Then, stretched out under the covers, staring up at a wood-beamed ceiling that had seen better days, she began to second-guess their decision to leave the Coast of British Columbia for a small town in the Interior. Joe had campaigned long and hard to make it happen. When the right teaching job came up at the high school in Nelson, he'd jumped at it – just as he jumped with both feet into the local mountain culture the moment they arrived. Having spent his childhood in an apartment on Vancouver's Commercial Drive, Joe had a city boy's fascination with rural life.
Stella's expectations were more prosaic. She had grown up in Nelson in a less than peaceful household, her mother living for her own personal happy hour, her dad shifting from one workplace to another. He left them when she was twelve. Her mom hung in until Stella graduated from high school, after which neither of them could get out of town fast enough.
And now Stella was back. Living in a cabin on the lake with Mr. Outdoors and their two young sons, working as a reporter at the local paper, and missing Vancouver like crazy. Granted there were compensations, not least the pleasure of cycling to work along a scenic lakeside road as opposed to dodging city traffic. Yet at times all she wanted was to get lost somewhere no one knew her name, her history, every little misstep. Fully awake now, she switched on a lamp and rummaged for a sewing kit on a shelf in the closet. With a scrap from Joe's worn-out Speedo swimsuit, she patched a pencil-eraser-size hole in the seat of her bike shorts, and finally called it a day.
* * *
Morning came too soon. Stella Mosconi got her husband and sons up and out the door with no more hassle than usual. She was running late when she pulled on the patched bike shorts and a reasonably clean red jersey and set out for the newspaper office.
Wild lupines wept dew all over her legs as she shoved her bicycle up a steep, rutted path to the road, mentally shifting into work mode. She needed a fresh story idea, a grabber with a local angle. That was key at the Nelson Times. The only way a small-town paper survived in today's plugged-in world was to mine the collective psyche, let folks read about people they knew, see their kids' pictures on the sports page.
At the top of the hill a deer turned tail and bounded into an old apple orchard. Overhead an osprey rode an air current out over Kootenay Lake where a rowboat drifted, light hull and dark gunnels reflected on the still water. Nothing unusual about a boat on the lake on a clear, late-spring morning, except this one looked empty, oars trailing in their locks. High above, the osprey hovered in place then swooped down and landed on the bow, lingered a moment before lifting off with a high-pitched cry.
Stella patted her pockets and rifled through her handlebar bag. No phone. She must have put it down when she stopped to cut a wad of chewing gum out of Nicky's hair. A day without her cell phone did not bode well.
The early-morning chill raised goose bumps as she pumped along the lakeshore road toward Nelson. A loaded logging truck whistled by – the draft nearly threw her off course – then a voice from behind yelled, "On your left," and a guy in spandex streaked past on a carbon-fibre racing bike.
On the roadside up ahead, Stella spotted a parked police car and an officer training serious-looking binoculars on the empty rowboat. And hey, it was Ben McKean, someone she hadn't seen since high school. Rumour had it Ben had gone north to get his start in policing and returned with a wife and child. Would he remember her? Doubtful. Especially not in all her cycling gear.
"So, what do you think?" she said, skidding to a stop. He handed over the binoculars, which might have seemed familiar had he actually looked at her. Did he even know she was back in town?
"First escapee of the season," he said. "Lake comes up fast with spring run-off. You'd think people would have the sense to secure their boats." Benjamin McKean, Sergeant McKean now. With a name like that he should have been fair-haired and clean-cut, forever boyish. But even as a teenager Ben's chiselled features had been distinctly unboyish, and now the blacker-than-black hair was grey at the temples, his complexion too weathered for a man not yet forty. He still had that fleeting smile that never quite reached his eyes, a smile that had once fed Stella's pathetic adolescent daydreams.
When she adjusted the focus on the binoculars, the boat's name appeared: MY LIFEBOAT, uppercase letters stencilled in black. "Oh, man," she said. "I know the owner. It's Lillian's. Lillian Fenniwick, a friend of mine from across the lake. It's not like her to be careless." Stella knew Lillian to be anything but careless. She was prudent and meticulous – retired lawyer, member of the hospital board, elder of her church. She was also the driving force behind a book club that had provided Stella with a readymade social group – no small matter in a town as cliquish as Nelson.
"I've called for a motor launch," Ben said. "Should be here in fifteen, twenty minutes. Do you know your friend's number?"
"Forgot my phone. The number's listed though – Fenniwick with two Ns." Stella lifted the binoculars again.
Ben made the call in his cruiser and wandered back. "Housekeeper answered." He glanced at his notebook. "Nina Huber. Says Ms. Fenniwick rowed to a neighbour's place last night. The housekeeper assumed it got too dark to row back so she stayed over. You sure that's her boat?" "Positive. She must have gone to Vanessa's. Vanessa Levitt. She lives on the other side of Give Out Creek." Stella handed back the binoculars and put her foot on a pedal, ready to push off. "Don't be too hard on her, will you? Lillian, I mean. As I said, it's not like her to be lax."
A non-committal grunt from Ben McKean.
"Well," Stella said, "guess I better get going."
"Guess you better." He looked at her now. "Somebody has to bring us the news of the day."
* * *
Downtown the air reeked of scorched coffee beans from the artisanal roaster two blocks up, a smell no one seemed to mind. Not when it meant the best fair-trade brew this side of the Rockies, a point of pride among the locals. That was Nelson: every little aspect of daily life bold and in your face. Stella locked her bicycle to a wrought iron stand in front of the old railway station that was now home to the Nelson Times.
Editor Patrick Taft was already at his desk when she entered the newsroom. "Nice of you to drop by," he said, eyes fixed on his computer screen.
"My pleasure." She was what, ten minutes late?
He glanced at her over steel-rimmed glasses. A tiny crumb had gotten trapped in his wispy blond goatee. "Do you think you could at least pretend to be intimidated when I do my gruff city desk thing?" he said.
"Sorry, boss." She dropped her helmet on her desk. "You look tired, Patrick."
"In case you've forgotten, Stella, pregnant women don't sleep. Ergo, their husbands don't sleep."
She almost said, good practice for when the baby comes, but thought better of it. "On my way in I saw an empty rowboat on the lake. That new cop was checking it out. I should do a piece on how fast the lake is rising this year, what with the sudden hot weather and more snow than usual in the mountains."
Before he could reply, Patrick's phone rang. He picked up. "Newsroom. Taft."
Stella sat down and checked for messages. Lillian Fenniwick had called at 5:30 p.m. the previous day. Stella's return call went to voicemail, as did an attempt to reach Vanessa Levitt. Presumably Lillian's housekeeper had tracked her down at Vanessa's place and now they were gabbing about the runaway boat.
Stella opened a list for the story meeting on her computer: new season openings for Art Walk, skate park expansion – nail down opposing sides. Oh, and City Council meeting tonight at five. She texted the babysitter to ask her to stay late and emailed Joe to remind him to be on deck for dinner. She printed her list and was scribbling notes on it when Patrick gave her the high sign and ended his call. "Leave that with me and take a run down to the City Wharf," he said. "The cops are bringing in a rowboat from up the lake. Could be the one you saw."
"That's weird. I told them it belongs to my friend Lillian. Why wouldn't they just tow it back to her place on the East Shore?"
"Something must have piqued their interest." He frowned at her chicken-scratch notes on the story list. "Guy on the phone said there was something in the boat but he couldn't see it. Cops wouldn't let him get that close in his kayak."
"That doesn't make sense."
Patrick looked up. "Well, you on it?"
"I'm on it." In her haste, she smacked her hip against the corner of her desk. Take it easy, she told herself, calm down. There was sure to be a rational explanation. Lillian and Vanessa had probably knocked back a couple of glasses of wine and lost track of the time. Roads were few and far between on that side of the lake and the ferry stopped at midnight. Maybe someone needed a boat pronto – a kid who missed the ferry, say. Lillian probably hadn't even noticed the rowboat was gone until people started calling.
Stella mounted her bike and pedalled hard past a blur of historic buildings lining Baker Street. When she ran a red light, a whitehaired woman waved a Nordic walking pole and yelled, "Where's the fire?" "Sorry," Stella called back.
She stopped at the approach to the big orange bridge that spanned the lower end of Kootenay Lake. Down below, two patrol cars blocked vehicle access to the City Wharf. Sergeant Ben McKean and a couple of other officers waited for the boat on the police float connected to the wharf.
Stella was torn. Go down to the float or cycle partway across the bridge for a bird's eye view when the boats passed under? She decided on the latter and chose a good spot on the bridge deck. In the distance, a rescue vessel approached. Without her phone, there was nothing to do but wait. Too bad she couldn't ring Lillian and give her a play-by-play of all the drama.
She considered her next move. The police boat would soon pass under the bridge and she'd have to beat it down to the float to see what the cops had found so interesting in the rowboat. On the opposite side of the bridge deck, a stairway led to the wharf-access road.
The rescue vessel was almost there, the boat behind it still not visible.
A gull flapped onto the railing and Stella reflexively edged away. During that split second, the larger craft disappeared under the bridge and the rowboat slid into view.
FROM HER PLACE ON the bridge over Kootenay Lake, Stella steadied herself against the railing, swallowing to tamp down the sour taste rising in her throat. Directly below, in a small wooden rowboat, a barely recognizable woman sprawled on her back as if dropped from a height. Head at an awkward angle. Long narrow feet splayed, a pale blue Birkenstock sandal dangling from one of them. The legs were unnaturally thin, as if they belonged to someone else, the whole thing a mistake. Except the dress, a cotton print in a delicate tone of apricot, now twisted indecently high above the knees. The dress was Lillian's.
Stella half-ran, half-stumbled across the bridge and down the stairway, sprinted to the wharf and clattered down the ramp to the float. Before she could get to Lillian, Ben McKean caught her arm. "I just need to straighten her clothes," she said. To her ears that sounded reasonable. "She'd hate for anyone to see her like that."
"You can't touch her, Stella."
His hand on her arm was firm and warm. She looked up and met his eyes, reined herself in. "No, of course not. I understand." Spoken as one professional to another.
"You okay?" he said. "Can I call someone to take you home?"
"No, no, I'm fine. But Lillian ..." Ben blocked her view of the rowboat now, but she'd already seen her friend's red, puffy face, the eyes empty and naked without the trademark wrap-around sunglasses. And flowers – lupines, irises, lilacs, others she couldn't name – scattered like pick-up sticks, only limp and wilted. "She has this amazing garden," Stella said, lamely. As if that explained anything.
* * *
Nina Huber stared out the window at Kootenay Lake, the phone still clutched in a willowy hand now rough and red from when she had scrubbed the bathroom like a mad woman. First there had been a call from the police, the dull heartless voice of a Sergeant Mc-Something to say a rowboat was adrift on the lake. Lillian's boat, a witness had said. A witness. They did that, the police. Made a simple observation seem suspicious.
Yesterday after an early dinner Lillian had insisted on rowing to Vanessa Levitt's cottage, a significant effort for a woman of sixty-four. Not that Nina would have called attention to Lillian's age, or to the twenty-odd year spread between them. Instead she said, "Night will fall before you know it. With your eyesight ..." But that had been a mistake – to allude to Lillian's eye condition. The rowboat was her only means of independence. She could no longer drive a car or manage the house without help. Macular degeneration: awful medical lingo that smacked of helplessness and despair. Lillian favoured the term "low vision." With a bright lamp and high-powered magnifying glass, she could still read a little. And she could still handle the small wooden boat.
After Nina's slip of the tongue, Lillian was more determined than ever to visit Vanessa. Lillian was stubborn. Then, insult to injury, she wasted more daylight stopping in the garden to pick a bouquet. For Nina, that had been the tipping point. That was when the argument started.
Later she scoured the bathroom tiles and fixtures with a bleach solution until thin layers of skin on the back of her hands peeled away and bled. By then a full moon had risen ominously over the mountains. Lillian always said a full moon amplified everything, good and bad alike. But Nina was never fooled. She knew the meaning of the word "lunatic."
Morning came and the policeman called. What else could she do? She rang Vanessa and asked to speak to Lillian. "Lillian?" Vanessa had sounded surprised. "Why would she be here?" When Nina explained, Vanessa began to screech and carry on. "If she was headed my way she certainly never made it. Why in the name of God did you let her take that boat out at night, Nina? You'd better call 9-11. We have to find her."
Now Vanessa was on her way over and Nina would have to repeat the policeman's words to more screeching and carrying on. She looked at the phone with distaste before pressing nine, then one. She hesitated over the button for the final digit. The dispatcher at 9-1-1 would ask her full name. Huber is a common surname in Austria and Germany, probably as popular as Smith or Jones in North America. But here they say, "How unusual – what nationality is that?"
The 9-1-1 operator, likely based at some distant regional centre, would have no time for such foolishness. Still, Nina always dreaded the possibility someone might recognize her name and connect her with Max. Even with her husband far away in prison, she never felt truly free of him.
* * *
The Chief of the Nelson Police Department stood in front of his office window, back to McKean, eyes on Kootenay Lake and the deep forest beyond. A calming technique no doubt suggested by his therapist. "Nasty business," the big man said. "Who identified the body?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Give Out Creek"
Copyright © 2018 Judy Toews.
Excerpted by permission of Mosaic Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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