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Authors: Clinton McKinzie

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Badwater (2 page)

BOOK: Badwater
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two

I
t was Mungo, of course, who first sensed its presence.

We were moving down the double-track at an easy pace, our noses, eyes, and ears taking in everything that our vastly unequal senses were capable of, when Mungo suddenly whipped her hatchet-shaped head to the left. Ears pricked in that same direction, she lifted her nose high and snuffed the air. I watched her eyes—in them I was pretty sure I could read whatever she was smelling, whether it be a moose, an elk, a bear, a stranger, or a booby-trapped clan lab.

The yellow eyes narrowed. Like she was frowning; no, confused. She confirmed this interpretation by glancing up at me, cocking her head, then going back to testing the air with quivering nostrils. Her big, pointed ears working, too, like some sophisticated radar system, her head moving this way and that. I waited for her to lock on.

“Qué pasa?”
I asked when she did.

Mungo kept staring into the trees, straining her neck forward a little. She let out a soft whine. What the hell? I still didn’t know what she’d locked on to. What was weird was that I didn’t think she knew, either. All I could hear was the touch of a breeze in the treetops and the faraway rumble of a lot of water moving fast over stone. All I could smell was pine needles. I finally got impatient.

“Okay, Mungo. Whatever it is, let’s check it out.
Vamonos
.”

I lifted my hand and flicked my fingers in the direction she’d focused on.

Mungo took a few hesitant steps off the double-track and into the trees—head still high, examining the air, not the ground—and then she shifted up into a higher gear. Within twenty feet she was moving at a fast trot.

Even just loping along, she traveled at a speed that I could only keep up with in an almost-sprint, something I wasn’t willing to do when chasing the unknown. Mungo was aware of her master’s shortcomings, however, and paused every hundred yards or so to wait for me. Her tail waved me on like a beacon. The forest’s undergrowth wasn’t particularly heavy, as the high canopy above only allowed light to enter in dusty beams. I was able to move pretty fast through it, not worrying too much about breaking an ankle but still imagining hanging fishhooks and punji pits.

I’d only been running for four or five minutes when I heard the first faint strains of what had undoubtedly been a cacophony in Mungo’s ears. It sounded like yelling. Coming from not one person, I guessed, but several.

I slowed, holding my breath so I could listen. The forest had gone silent but for the rush of blood in my ears. The usual birds were quiet, the squirrels not chattering at all. Only the river was still rumbling away as a bass background for the distant screams. Then I picked up the pace until I was actually sprinting. As I ran, vectoring in on the sounds myself now, I mentally unfolded a map in my head.

The way the sunbeams slashed across the forest told me that I was heading west. Toward the Badwater River, which couldn’t be more than a quarter mile away now. Just beyond the river—on the other side—ran a state highway. Maybe a car had plunged through a guardrail and gone into the river. Or maybe a raft had flipped on the rapids and the survivors were screaming for missing raft-mates. But, no, some of these screams, growing in volume as I neared, sounded angry. Others were pleading.

“I’m going to kill you!”

“You killed him! You killed him!”

“Do you see him?”

“Oh God, can you see him? Where did he go?”

“You’re dead, you fucking fag! You’re dead!”

What the hell?
I asked myself again. Then I could hear a siren. Good. Somebody else’s problem now, whatever it was. But I didn’t—couldn’t—slow.

Mungo was out of sight. When I’d begun sprinting, she’d blasted on ahead. Following the shouts, the siren, and the rumble of the river, I came to the edge of the forest. It ended so abruptly that I had to hook the trunk of a tree with one arm to avoid running right off a ten-foot bank and falling into the water. Mungo wolfishly grinned at me—
ha-ha
—from a few feet to one side, where she had stopped under the cover of some willows.

Despite the constant boom of white water both up- and downstream, the water below was slow and peaceful. Directly across the river, though, there was anything but peace.

Two highway patrol cars, lights still flashing but sirens now silent, were parked on top of a hill a little ways back from the river. That hill met the river with a rounded cliff that was twice the size of the opposite one I stood panting on. The cliff was actually an enormous boulder. To the south—left—side of the cliff was a beach composed of round stones, and on it raged two screaming boys. Both were being physically restrained by a beefy state patrolman. The other trooper—a tall, thin guy—was thigh-deep in the river, his head pivoting rapidly as he stared into the gold-and-green water in front of him. There was a pale young man in an orange life jacket in the river, too. He was charging around in the water like a maniac. Downstream floated a raft that was fighting the current—a man on board rowing hard, and a passenger, a woman with black hair, who was sobbing.

“What happened?” I yelled over the shouts of various people.

The tall trooper in the river jerked up his head.

“Who the heck are you?”

“Antonio Burns. DCI.” DCI is my employer, Wyoming’s statewide Division of Criminal Investigation.

The trooper, who’d immediately gone back to scanning the water after asking his question, popped his head up again. He looked at me with surprised eyes and an open mouth. Then the eyes narrowed suspiciously. I knew it was my name, not the name of the agency I worked for, that caused the reaction.

“They call you QuickDraw, right?”

I stared hard at him, not answering, as a bloom of heat spread outward from my chest. He quickly looked back down at the water, muttering, “Oh. Sorry.”

“What happened?” I yelled again in what I hoped was an even voice.

“Kids say that guy in the life jacket pushed their cousin—a ten-year-old boy—off that cliff over there.”

The maniac in the life jacket stopped splashing around. Now he looked up, and I saw the silver flash of a pierced eyebrow, gelled spikes of blond-tipped hair, and noticed the tattoos on the man’s neck and arms.

“It was an accident! I told you! He went in right there!” He pointed a thin arm at what looked like deep water beneath the stone cliff. “Yell if you can see anything from that angle, okay?” Then he went back to splashing and peering through the golden shallows that rimmed the darker water beneath the cliff.

I didn’t try to make sense of it. The most basic fact was obvious.

“How long’s he been under?” I yelled as I shrugged off my pack and kicked off my shoes.

“Don’t know,” the tall trooper said. “Ten minutes, maybe. Might be fifteen.”

“Oh my God!” the other man cried.

I turned around and began to lower myself down the bank, holding on to loose rocks and roots. I paused to hiss,
“Paranda que!”
to Mungo where she was still concealed by the willows. I didn’t want her jumping down after me, or getting shot by the cop, who might be surprised to notice a wolf on the bank. The water below looked fairly deep, but I knew better than to dive. Looks can be deceiving, and I was trying to be very careful about my neck these days. Both figuratively and literally.

“We got a 911 call maybe five minutes ago from the lady in the raft,” the cop was saying. “She saw the whole thing and has a cell. We were running a trap on the highway just a mile away—”

I didn’t hear the rest. Halfway down the bank, a stone I was gripping with one hand ripped out of the dirt at the same time a slippery root did in the other. I fell five or six feet, landing first on my bare feet and then my ass as I rolled all the way onto my back in ankle-deep water, banging both elbows hard on submerged stones. Embarrassing for a climber, but it was a good thing I hadn’t jumped. The depth certainly was deceptive. And the water was outrageously cold—pure glacial meltwater running out of the Absarokas, its temperature only a degree or two above freezing.

But that’s good,
I told myself as I struggled to reclaim my breath and scramble to my feet on the slippery rocks.
Ten minutes, maybe fifteen
. I thrashed forward into deeper water near the river’s center, thinking that the frigid water would slow oxygen-starved blood, and remembering a case where a young girl had been under the ice for forty-five minutes before being hauled out and resuscitated. Hypothermia when drowning can be a blessing. Lessens the amount of potential brain damage caused by prolonged submersion. There was a chance, anyway. Thigh-deep now and pushing a wake that splashed all the way up to my chest, I could see before me the dark green water in the pool beneath the big boulder.

I could also see a thin branch floating
upstream,
beginning to turn a slow arc back in the direction it should be floating.

Whirlpool!
I thought too late, just as I jumped up then porpoised headfirst into the deep water.

three

T
he water was so cold I had to fight to keep the air from being torn out of my lungs. The cold was so intense that it burned my eyeballs as I stroked downward. The big boulder shaded this part of the river, so it was dark and getting darker the deeper I dove. I could still see a little in the green-black murk, but I couldn’t see what I most wanted to see—the bottom. I could, however, feel the current now. It was gathering strength with each foot I clawed into the depths. It seemed to be moving sideways, trying to spin me.

It was a whirlpool all right, swirling down in a sideways funnel and drawing me under the cliff. It was getting tighter. Getting stronger. Getting so strong that I couldn’t keep it from beginning to turn me around. But I forced my way deeper, fighting to hold my course and find a solid bottom that I could push off of. My ears ached with pressure and I moved my jaw to clear them. In the gloom I could make out huge, long shapes below me. They looked like coffins all piled together haphazardly. And there were some white sticks scattered over them. I could hear strange sounds, too. Pops and clicks and cracks like gunshots. And, far louder, a roar like a train passing just underneath. It was the sound of thousands of gallons per second being sucked through wood and rock.

Shit!

I belatedly realized what the current meant, what a whirlpool in this place indicated. There was a sink under the boulder, an underwater cavern gulping down a large portion of the river. Like the Sinks and Rise near Lander, where you can watch an entire river disappear then rise up a quarter mile later. The dark coffin shapes were shattered tree trunks that had been pulled under then wedged over the cavern’s entrance. The white sticks were the arms and legs of a child.

What if he gets sucked through? What if I do?

Panic was suddenly an even stronger force than the cold or the current. I’m someone who has always reveled in the rush of adrenaline, but that’s in high, airy places, a thousand or more feet off the deck, where the pull of gravity is familiar, where you can pant and curse all you want, and where a rope is always there to back you up. Here, under the river, there was no air. No light. No rope.

The panic was just too strong.

I arched my back and thrust for the surface with everything I had, shaking with cold and exertion and fear. Ashamed of turning around, giving in, but succumbing to the necessity. The whirlpool pulled me back and fought to hold me in its grasp. I had to angle for its center in order to weaken the hold. My lungs were starting to scream. Then I finally broke out into the light.

The tall trooper was still standing in the river just thirty feet away, staring at me with an expression of fear that I think was probably magnified a hundred times on my own features.

“Jesus! You okay? You okay?” he shouted.

I bobbed my head once, then forced the cop from my mind and instead concentrated on just filling my lungs.

I gasped three times. The first two were shaky, but the third inhalation was deep, all the way to the bottom of my gut. I scissored my body and dove again into the whirlpool.

This time I allowed the current to spin me as I swam, corkscrewing me down toward those dark shapes. This time I didn’t let the panic blare any louder in my head than a warning chime, like the stall indicator on an airplane that’s being pushed too hard. And I didn’t let the cold get to me, or the pressure in my ears, or the burning in my chest. All I focused on was those white limbs stretched over what I still thought of as jumbled coffins.

I was being pulled downward so hard that I slammed into the logs. I slammed into the boy, too. A single big bubble rose out from behind a swirl of hair. His skin was cold and slimy to the touch, as were the tree trunks beneath him. The sensation was a little sickening, but it was nothing compared to the noise and friction of the horrendous volume of water sucking down past me. Praying I wouldn’t get pulled through the gaps in the logs, I placed my feet on each side of the boy and wrapped my arms around him.

I pulled. There was only a tiny bit of give, then the body was yanked back as if the boy didn’t want to come with me, as if he were determined to cling to the logs. No, it was the whirlpool—it was unwilling to release its prey. I pulled again. More give, and a harder tug back. My lungs were on fire. And my body was frozen numb except for where burning needles were spreading over my skin. And not only would the fucking whirlpool not let go, it kept spinning me off balance, trying to rip me into the abyss beyond the screen of logs. My vision was starting to go black around the edges, blacker even than where the current wanted to take me.

I let the current pull me down again until I was lying on top of the boy. He was so small. And as cold as a block of ice. I wrapped my arms around him as tight as I could. Then I planted my feet again on the slimy logs. I shoved for the light with all the strength I possessed.

This time the river decided to let the boy come with me.

There was a brief moment of elation—
Fuck you, whirlpool
—then the current rearranged its grip and began to pull again. As if it had just been screwing around with me, making me think I’d won. I battled for the surface, kicking weakly, feeling myself losing momentum. The current was again spinning me, drawing me back down.

I released the child’s body from the bear hug I’d enveloped it with but didn’t let go all the way—instead I put my open lips on his shoulder, taking in a mouthful of shirt and hair and flesh.
It’s like a street fight,
I told myself as I bit down as hard as I could,
you do what you have to do
. Even if it’s biting a kid on the neck.

Shooting out my arms, I stroked once, twice, three times, before feeling the body start to tear out of my mouth. I wrapped my arms around him again, thinking maybe those three strokes had freed me and my burden from the worst of the whirlpool’s grasp. But when I looked up, the light above was growing smaller instead of larger as the blackness swelled over my vision.

In a second I was totally blind. Even the pinprick of light had disappeared. Some instinct urged me to inhale, to breathe the oxygen in the water—
H
2
O, after all, is one-third oxygen, right? You can do it.
The urge was almost overwhelming. I fought it, believing it would be the final gasp of a dead man. The acceptance of water into my lungs would be the acceptance of an irreversible fate.

But I wasn’t deaf. I could hear voices, not just the hollow snapping and popping and cracking sounds of the river. Only these weren’t the voices I expected to hear when this moment finally came. I’d always thought that if death was anything but a ground fall on a slack rope, that the voices calling to me would be those of fallen climbing partners. But they wouldn’t be greeting me with yells and screams. They’d been my friends, after all.

But what I heard were yells and screams.
Uh-oh
, I thought almost giddily.
Maybe there is another place.
A place where the inhabitants believe the lies that had given birth to the mocking nickname QuickDraw.

I opened my mouth and took the breath. I had no choice. There was no more resisting. The fight was over.

But suddenly it wasn’t. Light bloomed before my eyes. And strength—a very little strength—returned to my cold-numbed and oxygen-starved muscles. I realized I was staring through a film of running water at the river and the canyon walls and the state trooper just ten feet away, waist-deep in the water.

I kicked and coughed and pulled desperately toward the cop, all the while clawing and clinging and even again biting the boy. Like he was some enormous goose a Labrador retriever had recovered. For a moment my perspective on death changed yet again. Maybe I’d been reincarnated as a big, wet Lab.

The trooper was yelling at me. He charged forward, into the deeper water, the river rising over his gun belt and then stomach. I was kicking rocks with my toes. Breaking toes, the way it felt. But the pain caused an agony that was strangely reassuring. It actually felt kind of good.

The trooper grabbed hold of my burden and together we wrestled it toward the beach. I was stumbling and thrashing and shaking, but I managed to keep my grip on an arm. A small, ridiculously thin arm. Looking down, I saw that I’d been biting the collar of a T-shirt as well as the muscle that runs from neck to shoulder.

There was no blood flowing from the wound.

With the added help of the punk rocker in the life jacket, we dragged the body onto the beach. The boy was so white he looked blue. Right away the punk rocker, who I now saw was not much more than a boy himself, dropped to his knees on the smooth stones next to the body.

While I vomited up a stomachful of water, he arced the boy’s neck and put his mouth against the blue lips. He blew two quick breaths; the boy’s chest rose and sank. I didn’t bother checking for vitals, either. I just straddled the body and clasped my hands together over the boy’s breastbone. I began pumping with numb arms that felt like wet noodles. Counting, “One, two, three,” all the way to fifteen, then choking out, “Breathe!”

The punk rocker knew what he was doing. Instantly he locked lips with the boy again and held his fingers over the boy’s nose. The fragile chest rose twice more beneath my hands.

We did this for two or three minutes, me still gasping and shaking as I pushed. Feeling a rib snap beneath my locked palms but not hesitating. I’d already bitten the kid like some kind of vampire, so why not break a few bones? You do what you have to do and you do it full bore—my dad’s first rule. For some reason the trooper kept looking out across the river with a strange expression on his face, as if he might be seeing things. I stole a quick glance in that direction, wondering where Mungo had gotten to.

“Breathe,” I again ordered the punk in the life jacket.

He bent again over the lifeless shape, but was torn away before his lips could make a seal. It was the two boys. I had forgotten about them, although I’d been dimly aware of them screaming and crying in the background. Now they had attacked the man in the life jacket, tackling him, then trying to drag him away from the body, still crying and yelling and flailing with their fists.

“Get them off him!” I shouted to the tall trooper.

I lunged forward to pinch the small, cold nose and press my own mouth against blue lips.

“They’re the vic’s cousins,” the other trooper said, wading into the dogpile. As if that explained why they were attacking the punk rocker, and why he—a 250-pound cop—was having such a hard time pulling them off him.

I heaved backward and again began pumping away on the boy’s chest. “Get-them-out-of-here!”

The tall trooper finally came out of his across-the-river stupor. The two patrolmen together subdued the boys by lying on top of them. The boys were still yelling and fighting, but the punk rocker was back in position, kneeling over the boy’s head.
One, two, three, four, five,
I counted.

“I’m sorry,” he was muttering between commands to
breathe!
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered to the boy’s face.

“What do we do with them?” one of the troopers asked.

“Cuff-’em-shoot-’em-I-don’t-care,” I said as I counted out my compressions. “
Breathe!
Just get them the fuck out of here!”

BOOK: Badwater
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