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Authors: Clinton McKinzie

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BOOK: Badwater
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So these were the twins I had been warned about. Both of them resembled their mother in height, their father in physique. Only they had enhanced their dad’s whipcord muscles with oversize balloons. It was an artificial enhancement, judging by the red bloom of acne on their shoulders and cheeks—a side effect of steroids. Both were dressed in jeans and tank tops that showed off their ill-gotten muscles as well as long, skinny necks and thighs. To me they looked ridiculous—all meaty delts, twin slabs of pecs, and bulging biceps. Nothing that would do them any good in any conceivable sport or occupation. Both had short brown hair. The only thing that distinguished the two was that one had a scraggly soul patch on his lower lip and the other had an upside-down horseshoe mustache.

I pushed between Hairlip and Horseshoe and looked through the two inches of open window. Mungo was crouched inside, her yellow eyes slitted. She was growling, but when she saw me she stopped and licked at her clenched and exposed white teeth. She didn’t appear to be hurt.

“I’m a cop. And you better not have hurt my dog.”

I walked around the truck so that I wouldn’t have to open the door with the two brothers at my back. On the other side, I unlocked and opened the door. Mungo stayed where she was, lips still raised and muzzle pointed like a gun at the men on the other side of the glass.

“We didn’t hurt her, man. Just trying to see what kind of dog it is.”

“And that ain’t no fucking dog.”

“You okay, Mungo?” I asked, reaching between the seats and patting her hip.

Mungo licked her fangs again but didn’t take her eyes off the opposite window. I took that for a yes. I slammed the door shut.

“She’s a shepherd-malamute mix. You want to know anything about her, just ask me. Don’t try to spear her.”

“That’s a wolf, man. I know a wolf when I see it. Shot two of them from my snow machine last year.”

I stared across the hood at the one who’d said this. Hairlip. He was grinning broadly.

“Oh yeah? Did you report it to the Feds?”

“Nope.”

“Too bad. I might. Shooting an endangered species is a felony.”

His grin widened.

“Too bad you don’t have any evidence, pig. I know the law, and a ’criminating statement don’t mean shit unless you got something to back it up with.”

Well, he did know the law. From much experience on the wrong side, no doubt. I could threaten to execute a warrant based on his admission and I’d bet I would find the hides hanging proudly somewhere. But I wasn’t going to stand there and dance with these muscle boys. I had other things I needed to do.

I walked back around the bumper toward them and had to reach between them to open the driver’s door. When I tried to pull it open, Horseshoe caught and held it with his hand. He kept me from opening it all the way.

“What’s your name? I’d like to know the name of a guy who thinks he can bust me for shooting vermin,” said Hairlip.

Still holding the handle, I said, “It’s Antonio Burns.”

“That doesn’t sound like a spic name. And you look like a spic.”

I didn’t say anything. I wanted to pull my gun. It was on my right side, in its plastic paddle holster, clipped to the inside of my belt, just underneath the silk-lined fold of my suit coat. I knew how smooth and quick it would come out. But I also knew the trouble that simple, enticing action would cause. An incident report. Complaints. A lack of cooperation from the grieving Mann family. I couldn’t afford any more trouble.

“You the wetback who was at the river where Cody got killed?” Hairlip asked.

“Yeah.”

I guess I expected some grudging appreciation then, even a curt thanks, for what I’d done to try to save their cousin. For risking my ass by swimming down into that sink. But I was mistaken. The one holding the door lowered his head so that his face was very close to mine.

“You make damn sure that fucker gets the chair. You understand? Else you’re going to have to answer to us, spic.”

Mungo chose that moment to launch herself at the rear seat’s window. Her teeth hit the glass with a crack that made my own teeth ache. I pulled on the handle hard, surprising Horseshoe, the one holding it, some more with the strength with which I yanked. He was already off-balance from Mungo’s sudden lunge and my jerk smacked the door into his hip. It made him stumble and fall. The other brother, Hairlip, leapt away from the truck, as if the big animal might somehow fit herself through the little two-inch-wide opening.

I hopped in, barely waited for the engine to catch, and tapped down on the accelerator. The Pig rolled forward fast enough to be out of their reach, but not so fast as to look like I was fleeing in terror. One brother took a couple of quick steps and attempted to kick the rear gate. Watching him in the rearview mirror, I goosed the accelerator harder this time. Twin rooster tails of gravel shot into the air, sending both brothers reeling and adding pocks to their already pockmarked skin.

I was rewarded with a total of four upraised middle fingers through the lingering cloud of dust. Some shouted epithets, too.

“Nice move, Mungo.”

I grinned at her in the rearview mirror and she seemed to be grinning back.

Nice move, Ant.
It had been fun, but I knew I would have more trouble from the elder Mann brothers.

fourteen

I
nstead of escaping the rising heat and running for my high canyon camp for another bout with Moriah, I drove slowly back toward town. There were a couple more interviews I needed to do, a little more investigating. Then, I hoped, I could put everything behind me—Badwater, politics, my slippery grasp on my job, the good man I’d jailed, and the taste of snowmelt on a dead boy’s lips.

Badwater Adventures was located, appropriately, on a bank of the river just outside of town. I pulled into a parking space and paused with the air conditioner blowing to write down the statements of the younger Mann brothers, including a brief and self-serving account of my run-in with the twins.
Elder Mann bros approached as RO
(reporting officer)
exited the property. Bros appeared angry and aggressive. RO entered vehicle and left premises to avoid a confrontation.
I wanted to document everything, but I wasn’t going to mention that the brothers suspected that I was in possession of an illegal “predatory” animal. Nor was I going to mention intentionally pelting them with rooster tails of gravel. I was still trying like hell to avoid any of this from coming back to haunt me.

Given my luck, of course, this was an absurd fantasy.

The store looked like a ramshackle log cabin from the outside. Inside, it was big and brightly lit, jam-packed with everything you might need for nonmotorized play in the Wyoming outdoors. There were racks of clothes and kayaks and skis, hooks from the ceiling that suspended ropes and assorted climbing gear, and shelves of guidebooks and instructional texts. Covering the walls were posters of mountains and rivers and the hardy, attractive people who conquered them.

Pete the Guide was the only one manning the floor. He was everything you’d expect a river guide to be—big and tan, with blond hair that was pushed back except for where one curly lock lay across his forehead. Three middle-aged tourist women were chatting with him, flirtatiously debating whether they should sign up for a river trip.

Pete looked my way and gave me a nod that said,
Be with you in a sec, dude.
I idled by a glass counter that displayed Big Bros and Number 5 Camalots, wondering whether I had enough gear for Moriah. The $75 price of the big cams convinced me that indeed I did. That money would be better spent on the real Moriah’s educational trust, where I was putting every spare penny.

Behind the counter of climbing protection, there was a faded poster that caught my eye. It showed a shirtless man with longish black hair sitting precariously on a ledge no more than a foot wide. A thousand or more sheer-to-overhanging feet below him was a gray smear of broken stone—I recognized it by the color of the rock as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was not an unusual big wall photo except for two things: There were no ropes in view, not even a harness, and the smile on the man’s face and the bright blue light of his eyes gave the distinct sensation of rapture. The caption in the corner read: “The notorious Roberto Burns letting it all hang out, free solo on the Stoned Oven, V 5.11d.”

I’d never seen this one before. I quickly turned away. The photographer had captured too perfectly how I always pictured my brother in my head—and nothing like the way he’d looked since his accident.

The three ladies walked out, tittering over Pete and casting little waves back at him. I was the only one left in the shop.

He bounded over and stuck out his hand like he meant it.

“You’re the guy who went in the river.”

I nodded and told him my name and occupation.

“That was ballsy, dude. Very ballsy. I’ve seen that river real low, and knew there was a big-ass sink there. We call it Satan’s Suck. You have to avoid it like herpes in low water. But yesterday, it was totally invisible. I saw you heading that way and tried to shout a warning. Next time I looked, you were just gone, dude.”

“Thanks anyway, for trying to warn me.”

“Poor kid.” He shook his noble head, an awkward but probably well-meant attempt at concealing his natural enthusiasm. “Never even came up for a breath. The Suck just grabbed him. Took him down.”

“I need to ask you some questions about what happened.”

After getting his full name, address, and birth date, I started with how he’d first met Jonah and Mattie.

He told me they’d come in yesterday morning, apparently just looking around like those ladies. They’d seen the river posters on the walls, and Mattie asked how much to do a float trip. It was a nice day, and Pete didn’t want to be indoors, so he’d offered to take them right then for half price. The girl had agreed, but the boyfriend, Jonah, seemed pretty reluctant. Still, he’d signed the releases, and Pete had called for another girl to come in and take over the shop for the day. They’d headed out. His roommate had dropped them off at a put-in twelve miles upstream.

“How was the water?”

“High and fast. I was a little worried. Wasn’t sure we’d make it without someone taking a swim. Mattie was having a blast, totally stoked, but that dude Jonah seemed freaked by the rapids. Kept saying he’d never done anything like this before. She kind of teased him about it, but I don’t think he was real happy.”

“What happened when you got to the sink?”

“Well, we’d just come out of Rinse Cycle, the biggest waves on the river. Full of head drops and standing waves. It’s a really tricky stretch, especially when the water’s this fast. Mattie was screaming her head off. Jonah was just hanging on, I think. Hell, I was, too.”

“What happened next?”

“Well, when we came out of the rapids, Mattie was whooping and talking a mile a minute. Jonah was real quiet. I just let us drift in that slow water, letting the waves drain from the boat. Then there was a plunking sound and I got splashed. Thought it was a trout at first. Then I looked around and saw those three kids up on the cliff. I waved at them, maybe smiled or called out something, then I saw one of the little bastards throw a rock. I yelled at them to knock it off, but they just kept throwing. The closer we got to the cliff, right underneath them, the closer they were getting with the rocks. They were practically just dropping them on us. Big rocks, too, like Frisbees. I picked up the oars and began to row downstream. To get out of the way. Then one of the rocks hit the gunwale right next to Mattie. That’s when the guy, Jonah, hopped out of the boat.”

“The boys claim they weren’t throwing rocks at you.”

“Then they’re lying, dude. I can’t swear they were trying to brain us or anything, but they were definitely winging them in our direction.”

“So what happened when Jonah got out?”

“I told him to get his ass back in the boat. Mattie did, too. And he tried, but it looked like he slipped on the bottom. We were moving by then, picking up speed a little, and then he lost his grip on the gunwale and fell down. I started backing about then, but we were already twenty or thirty feet away and losing ground. Another rock splashed down right next to him. The kids were laughing and yelling stuff. Jonah turned and began to slosh for the beach.”

“Would you have done that? Gone for the beach?”

It was speculation, and wouldn’t be admissible in court, but I was curious.

Pete barely paused to think about it. “Sure. Dude couldn’t just stand there and wait for me. Heck, I didn’t even know if I’d be able to get the boat back to him. And I surely would have kicked those kids’ little butts for what they were doing.”

“But you wouldn’t have pushed them off the edge?”

He looked shocked.

“Hell no.”

“Because you knew about that sink.”

“Yeah.”

“What if it was just deep water under there?”

He rubbed the blond stubble on his chin and thought about it.

“I might have been tempted, but I didn’t know if those kids could swim or not. They weren’t wearing vests, you know. And I’ve got a license to protect. But they deserved a dunking.”

What would I have done? I wondered. What if it had been Rebecca or Moriah they’d almost hit with a rock? I was pretty sure the little bastards would have more to worry about than just getting wet.

“Okay, so what happened after Jonah got to the beach?”

“I couldn’t hear much of anything, because we’d gotten down to where the river was rumbling again, and I couldn’t see because my back was turned so I could haul on the paddles. I just kind of looked over my shoulder every now and then. I saw Jonah on the beach, and saw the kids above him, maybe shouting down at him. Next time I looked Jonah was just standing there looking sad, like a drowned rat. When I looked a minute later he was starting to climb the cliff. Real slow, like he didn’t want to be doing it.”

“Were the kids still throwing rocks at him?”

“Not that I could see. But they could have been. Anyway, I expected them to run. They were just kids, right? That dude Jonah’s not that big, but he looks kind of tough with all those tattoos and studs. But the kids didn’t run. Jonah got to the top and it looked like he was talking to them. When I looked again, one of them—the one that ended up in the river—had a stick and was swinging it at Jonah.”

“Could you see if he hit him?”

“Looked like he nailed him, dude. I saw Jonah reach up and grab the side of his head.”

“How big was the stick?”

“I don’t know. I couldn’t really see it all that well. But like this, maybe?” He spread his arms all the way, then bent his elbows a little, shortening the span. “That’s the way it looked, anyway.”

“Then what happened?”

“Next time I looked, there was a tug-of-war going on. Then the kid went off the edge.” After a somber pause, he went on: “The other two, they sort of rushed Jonah. I could hear them then. Screaming and all that. Couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could tell they were pissed. Jonah ran—no, he slid or fell—back down to the beach and went into the water. Like he was trying to find the kid. But the little dude was just gone.”

“Did he come up for air, or call for help, or anything like that?”

Pete shook his head.

“The girlfriend, she started screaming. Then she got out her cell phone and called 911. Said a kid was in the river and hadn’t come up, and that they needed help. Had me stop rowing to tell them where we were. It was just a couple of minutes later when the cop cars showed up on top of the hill, then a minute later you came out of the trees.” He gave me a grin. “Just jumped right in. Like it was a swimming pool. That was something else, dude.”

“I didn’t know there was a sink.”

I wasn’t happy. Pete had confirmed everything Jonah had told me. He’d verified that my hunch was correct that the Mann boys were lying about the rock-throwing and stick-swinging, which would make the case messy if it ever went to trial. Worse, he’d convinced me that Jonah didn’t deserve what was happening to him. And I, the good cop, was the one doing it to him.

That fact made what I had to do next even more unpleasant.

 

The motel where Mattie Freda and Jonah Strasburg had been staying was called the Wagon Wheel. It offered the usual amenities—cinder-block construction, vending machines prominently displayed, a parking lot full of minivans, a swimming pool jam-packed with bladderless kids, and exorbitant summertime prices. As much as I tried to dislike the “tourons” and their crowd-loving, littering, give-the-bear-a-Twinkie-and-smile-for-the-camera habits, I had to bless them, too. Their loose dollars were the biggest barrier to the state’s desire for drilling or chopping down everything in sight and implementing its shoot-on-sight policy toward the recently recovered wolf packs.

No shade in sight, so I locked Mungo in the truck and left the engine running and the air conditioner blasting. I headed for the front desk but diverted when I spotted Mattie by the pool. She was sitting stonily amid splashing, running, screaming children and the mothers who were trying to restrain them.

With her pale skin and fanglike bangs, she looked even more out of place here than she had on the river. She was dressed entirely in black, sitting rigidly on a deck chair beneath an umbrella. A book was open on her lap, but she wasn’t looking down at it. Instead she was just staring into space like a gargoyle from behind a pair of dark lenses. There seemed to be an invisible barrier around her. Not one of the children crossed its line, nor did any thrown balls or flung water seem to penetrate.

Seeing all the small, wet bodies made a lump rise in my throat. The dads were probably all off fishing. I swore I would never leave Moriah behind like that. An irritating voice in my head laughed at that.
Look at yourself, Ant. What the hell do you think you’re doing?

“Mattie?”

She jumped. Her expression hardened even further when she realized who it was who had spoken her name.

“What do you want?”

I sat down on the empty chair next to her.

“I need to get your statement. And I need to apologize for what the county attorney said after the hearing this morning. Sometimes all lawyers think about is winning the case, not the people involved.”

She stared for a moment, then looked off into the distance again.

“I need to apologize, too. I got in to see Jonah. After court. I’m sorry for what I said to you. For part of it, anyway. I thought you were the one who beat him up. Now I know you weren’t. He said he heard the guards bitching that you insisted he be put into protective custody.”

She said it formally, without real sincerity or appreciation for what I had done. I was the enemy. Just because I had done something decent, it didn’t mean my enemy status had changed.

“Has he talked to a lawyer yet?”

She laughed, but not very cheerfully.

“The public defender won’t represent him.”

“I know. You should probably hire someone good.”

“Yeah, right. I went through the town’s yellow pages, which is about the size of a take-out menu. Do you realize there’s more than twenty frigging lawyers in this shitty little town and that only two of them were willing to take his case? Both of them said it would require a large retainer. I was quoted a minimum of ten thousand dollars.”

“Do you have it?”

She looked my way again through her black lenses.

BOOK: Badwater
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