To help heal a marriage on the rocks, river-rafting expert Gail, her husband Tom, and their son embark on a white water adventure in Montana. Along the way, they encounter two inexperienced rafters supposedly looking for their friends downriver. Little do they know that the men are escaped convicts whose bid for freedom has a body count. Things take a turn when the young family learns that they are now the captives of two armed killers, and it becomes clear that there is much more at stake than a marriage. Desperate to evade both the police and federal marshals, the men force the family down the river and into the mouth of a deadly class 5 white-water rapid. Careening towards mortal peril, Gail and Tom must bond together to save their family from the brutality of nature and the savageness of man.
This high-stakes thriller is both a testament to the power of mother nature and a classic adventure story that is perfect for fans of CJ Box and Craig Johnson. Denis O’Neill, the screenwriter for the movie The River Wild, brings the striking beauty of the film into his writing and ratchets up the danger that races forward to a breathtaking conclusion.
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Forty-eight-year-old Mary Walsh pulled her 2009 red Ford sedan up to Debbie's Gas & Wash, do-it-yourself car wash, in Deer Lodge, Montana. She had moved to Deer Lodge, population three thousand, from the big city of Bozeman after a bad divorce. She had long since accepted the presence of the state prison a couple miles west of town — happier for the employment it provided her neighbors than she was worried about the inmates it housed. That peace of mind allowed her to venture out at all times of day, unafraid to walk along the banks of the Clark Fork River that meandered through town. She embraced the community's diminished pulse, and her middle school science class embraced her. She had been disappointed in love, but she hadn't given up. Life rewarded her persistence with a sixty-year-old man who was as gentle and solicitous as her ex was intemperate.
This relationship is what brought her to the car wash on this early June evening in a slightly flustered state. Friday was date night. She had a dinner date with you-know-who, and she wanted her car to be as scrubbed as she was. She glanced nervously at her watch; not enough time. She backed up, started to drive off, and then stepped on the brake, torn by indecision. The car herky-jerked to a stop. Mary climbed out of the driver's seat and took a look at the mud-splattered chassis. She looked at the sign that advertised THE BEST SHINE INMONTANA. She consulted her watch again, climbed back into her car, and approached the security arm of the wash shed a second time.
Mary fed two dollars into the machine. Classical music seeped out of her open window. She waited until the security arm lifted in front of her, then rolled up her driver's window and eased her front tires onto the guide tracks. She turned the ignition off but left the battery on so she could hear the stirring end of the symphonic composition. She turned the volume up. As her car lurched forward, she reached for her purse and fished in its contents for lipstick. Distracted, she did not see the man ease out from behind one side of the wash shed, glance around shifty-eyed like a cartoon character up to no good, and slink up to her back door.
Because of the music and because he closed the door softly, she didn't hear him climb in either. He was wearing gray cotton drawstring pants and a gray cotton top with numbers stenciled on a lone pocket and the larger black letters MSCI splashed across the chest.
As the car moved deeper into the shed, water pissed down, and giant pompom cleaners descended on the roof and sides. Liquid soap engulfed the shell of the car in a cocoon of cleansing froth. Inside, Mary leaned forward as a new set of soapy pompoms attacked her windshield. She looked at her face in the mirror, turning it one way, then another, trying for a more favorable angle. Resigned to the homely appearance that had stared back from every mirror she had ever looked into, she started to apply lipstick, happy to accept the reality of life as a progression of small victories. She was a teacher of science, after all, not mythology.
Even if she had glanced out her side window, the mousse of soap suds would have prevented her from seeing a second escapee from the Montana State Prison in signature gray drawstring pants slink along the interior edge of the corrugated steel shed, keeping pace with the car until the pompom nearest him retracted upward. He was larger than the first man, with an oddly shaped torso that looked like Magritte's surreal sculpture. The wide lower body gave way to a size-smaller middle section, which gave way to a size-smaller head. He reached for the handle of the back door nearest him and climbed into the slow-moving vehicle. As the door clinked shut, the rinse cycle opened up with a mighty, multinozzle assault. Water ricocheted off metal and glass with a percussive din.
Minutes later, the front grill and hood of the car emerged to the softer acoustic of hundreds of cloth tendrils swabbing the car dry. Slowly, the windshield emerged free and clear. Mary Walsh was no longer driving. The first man to climb into her car was Deke, by name. His partner in crime, Terry, sat shotgun, his pasty white face also visible through the windshield. Both men were in their thirties.
Deke started the engine when the car's rear tires cleared the guide track. He aimed the Ford out of Debbie's Gas & Wash and into light traffic on Main Street. Mt. Powell loomed in the distance, its top still snow-covered in late June. Mary's face stared up from the backseat floor, her body grotesquely stuffed into the narrow space. A smear of lipstick angled up from the corner of her mouth, marking the moment her neck was broken. Her eyes were frozen in an expression somewhere between horror and surprise. The rousing conclusion of the symphony added acoustic punctuation to this latest subtraction from life in Deer Lodge, Montana.
Deke poked at the radio buttons.
"Can't drive to this shit." He hit the buttons four or five times until an up-tempo country song shitkicked out the speaker. Deke started to laugh. "I think we just redefined clean getaway!"
Terry took a moment to absorb the joke. Information reached his brain Brontosaurus-style — slow boat from the tail up to the tiny head. He smiled in time. ... Got it!, he thought, while bobbing his noggin to the beat. Behind him, Mary's head jiggled slightly as the car gathered speed.CHAPTER 2
Rhododendrons the size of dumpsters formed a welcoming wreath around Tom and Gail MacDonald's black-shuttered gray Victorian in Brookline Village. A lovers' swing hung from the rafters of a beckoning front porch. In warm weather it was a perfect place to sit and sip summer drinks and watch fireflies and passersby and contemplate man's place in the greater scheme of things. Tom, an architect, had never developed his theory into a full-blown article, but he had told Gail on many occasions that he was pretty sure you could trace the decline of civility in society to the demise of front porches in modern architecture ... specifically the social interaction with neighbors and foot traffic they provided. A wind chime tied to a wisteria vine tinkled in a sudden breeze. It was joined by the sound of a knife on glass through an open window.
In the dining room, Jim Ladage — a forty-something Wellesley banker sliding into corporate softness — rapped his butter knife against his wine glass once more, and set it down, having secured the desired silence. Jim was a family friend and occasional squash partner of Tom. He lifted his glass to Gail at her end of the table. Gail wore blue jeans and an embroidered, Western-style white shirt, sleeves rolled up to reveal strong, tan forearms. Her sandy-colored, shoulder-length hair poked out of a hastily gathered bun secured by a blue rubber band.
"First a toast to the chef," Jim said. "No, actually ... first a toast to the chef's father, who taught her how to fly fish in the great state of Montana when she was a young girl and also put oars in her hands at a very early age. We are thankful for all the grateful and ungrateful sports you guided down all those Big Sky rivers ... for all the fishy and fishless days ... for all the time applied to learning your craft so that when the bar beckoned and the bright lights of Boston led you away from home, the fishing fires were only banked and never extinguished ... and the fishing clients you always dreamed of would some day miraculously appear in your very dining room." He flung out his arms, like a gymnast after sticking a landing. "Thanks to you, next time we meet we'll be gathered around a campfire two thousand miles from Boston, looking at Montana stars, listening to the River Wild, eating pan-blackened trout."
"Oh Christ, the kiss of death." Gail sighed. "Haven't I taught you anything? You never pull out the camera before the fish is in the boat, and you never eat the fish before you catch it. We're sunk."
Jim wagged a defiant finger. "That's where you're wrong, because for the first time ever we'll be packing our own secret weapon ..." He swung his glass toward Tom, who was slumped in his chair at his end of the table, visibly bored. Tom wore a blue work shirt and khakis. His long, salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back behind his ears. He was many years removed from his boarding school days, but taking the boy out of the prep school did not take the prep school out of the boy. Not even four years at Dartmouth could do that.
"Tom — the city boy, bon vivant, and long-standing member of Red Sox Nation, who once upon a time had the good sense to ask out the country girl his firm hired to do their legal shenanigans ... had the better sense to make her his partner ... and ended up forging the unlikely East/West, indoor/outdoor, always ... um, entertaining ... pairing seated at this table, this evening."
Jim was a little drunk. He paused to wet his whistle and ponder the wisdom of describing further a marriage well known to be fragile, sometimes volatile — a blend of passion and peril that, like many marriages, worked slightly better than it didn't.
His wife glared at him from her seat. In case her subtle recommendation was in doubt, she swiped her fingers across her neck in the universal signal to abort. Jim didn't have to step out of the batter's box to read the sign. "To Tom — a first-time fisherman and a very brave man. The trout won't stand a chance."
Peter Thoma, seated across from Jim, lifted his glass to Tom.
"No, no," Jim said, "There, there! ... To the River Wild. And even though we get a day's head start, Peter and I promise we'll leave a few trout."
Gail covered her eyes in mock despair — trout gods being tangible deities in her experience. The muzzle of her golden retriever, Maggie, angled up between her knees. Gail discretely transferred a discarded chew of rib eye fat from her plate to Maggie's mouth. Mission accomplished, muzzle slipped from sight. Peter and Jim sipped their wine in sync. Their nonfishing wives, seated beside them, smiled at each other, familiar with the bluster of husbands whose rigorous training at an Orvis weekend fly fishing school had instilled in them confidence disproportionate to competence. No matter. They were happy for their husbands to share a piece of male bonding that gave them — the women — leverage for trips and purchases of their own. Time apart was gift enough, but leverage being leverage, it was a sentiment ever unspoken.
Peter and Jim finished their Malbec with gusto, practically chafing to get on the river. Gail took a sip of wine and eyed Tom over the top of her wine glass. Tom returned her semi-critical look with a polite sip and a sarcastic smile. He raised his glass to his wife.
* * *
Gail stood at the sink, washing dishes — glass of wine within reach — sleeves now pushed above her elbows. Gail was all about efficiency — a seed first planted on family camping trips, reinforced on hundreds of guided floats. There was a right way of doing things, and every other way. The goal was to know, or find the right way, or at least one right way. Life was murky enough; clarity in logistics made living it a little less murky.
Tom backed through the swinging door with a handful of dishes and placed them on the counter to Gail's left. She sighed and shifted the pile to her right.
"Tom, I've told you a hundred times —" She turned to add a visual to her complaint, but Tom had retreated to the dining room. The kitchen door was swinging back and forth.
In the dining room, Tom considered an architectural model on the sideboard. He nudged it closer to a vase of cut lilacs then angled it differently, as if siting the vacation house in its landscape. He reflected on the rearrangement for a moment, then shifted the smaller, stand-alone cardboard studio from one corner of the house to another, moving it closer to the lilacs. Satisfied, he collected the remaining wine glasses from the dining room table, blew out the candles, and took a deep breath, anticipating confrontation.
Gail was waiting for him, butt to the sink, arms folded. "You're going to hate this trip, aren't you?"
"I'm going, aren't I?" He made a point of placing the wine glasses to the left of the sink.
"The question is, are you going to make it miserable for everyone else? Because if you are, I'd rather not go."
"Dishes to the left, dishes to the right ... stand up, sit down, fight, fight, fight!" He shook his head, "Good old Gail," he pumped a fist: "Not always right, but never in doubt."
"That's right, Tom! Thank God someone around here can make a decision ... take charge."
"Ah yes ... the wearing of the pants." Tom glared at Gail. "Is that what its come to after fourteen years of marriage?! Who wears the pants? Let me count the ways: real men ride rafts down rivers. Real men climb cliffs and swim rapids. Real men —"
"Take real vacations with their families!" Gail stepped closer, aggressively. "Think about someone other than themselves and their precious models."
Tom simmered for as long as he could. "I pull my oar around here, and you goddamn know it!"
Gail smiled sarcastically. "At least the metaphor's a start. How about the real thing? Your son wants to go fishing. Is it too much to ask? You take him to Fenway. Why not Montana?"
Roarke appeared in the doorway behind his father, unseen by either parent. An only child, he was slight of build, with unkempt, sandy hair. He was thirteen, looked eleven, and sometimes spoke like an older teen — a condition brought on by his parents' early decision to forsake babysitters for the most part and include him in many of their adult gatherings. The upshot was a boy who still loved his dog even as he navigated grownup behavior and age-appropriate social media. Tonight had been an exception — a hall pass from a dinner party plump with trip logistics. At the moment, he had one hand rested on Maggie's head, the other held an iPhone connected to a headset slung around his neck. The sadness in his eyes revealed a child who had seen and heard too many fights.
"So where are we going?!" Tom hissed. "Fishing! With our son, and your friends to your old river to do something you love to do." He slow-clapped. "Another win for the prosecution."
"Poor Tom. Forced to spend a week in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Don't you want your son to see one surface without graffiti?"
"I guess I better go split a cord of wood before bed."
He turned. The sight of Roarke stopped him in his tracks. The boy's face shimmered with hurt and sadness. He blinked away tears. He wished he were older — older people seemed better able to deal with anger and disagreement and arrive at another place: compromise or resignation. Except when the older people were your own parents — then it just sucked, because they fought like kids on the playground, flailing away, missing as often as they connected, determined to stay on their feet no matter what. He slid his headphones over his ears. Hear no evil was the immediate goal, but Roarke knew his gesture also signaled disapproval. Point made, he turned and walked away.
* * *
Gail sat on Roarke's bed in his dark bedroom. Roarke lay face to face with Maggie, with his back to his mother, his headset in place. Gail rubbed his back and shoulders for a while, rehearsing in her head what she wanted to say. She tapped him on his shoulder. He mustered a half look. She held up a finger — to request one minute to talk — then gestured for him to remove the headset. He shook his head: No. She repeated the one minute promise, mouthed Come on! He shook his head to indicate he was not interested. Gail considered her options. She wiggled a hand into her jeans pocket and fished out a dollar bill. She tapped him on the shoulder again and offered him the buck.
"Usually, I pay you to be quiet," she said.
Roarke snatched the buck and slid the headphones off his ears. He turned onto his back and locked his hands under his head to reflect the difference between compliance and compliance with indifference.
"Okay," Gail said. "Do you know what subtext means?"
"It means sometimes when people say things, what they're saying isn't really what they're talking about. Does that make any sense?"
"Here's an example. When you came into the kitchen tonight and you heard Dad and me arguing about whether we wanted to go to Montana or not ... specifically whether we, or he, wanted to take you ... that wasn't what we were arguing about. We both love you and of course we can't wait to go to Montana with you."
"Tell that to Dad."
"Let me finish. Going to Montana with you wasn't what we were talking about. What we were talking about were things that have been going on for a long time, between us. Things that we say or do to each other that bugs one of us or the other, until we have this big bucket of bugs, and then your father puts the dishes down where he knows I don't like him to put the dishes down and it's one bug too many ... and boom, all the bugs come out at once, but they aren't about going to Montana with you. Does that make any sense?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The River Wild"
Copyright © 2017 Denis O'Neill.
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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