Authors: Todd Borg
It was the softness of the metallic click that sounded dangerous.
Cynthia Rorvik was filling the bird feeder out on the deck when she heard a faint sound of metal on metal. Her heart thumped.
Maybe it was the latch on the deck fence gate, the whisper snick of spring-loaded bar as it was eased out of its cradle.
Cynthia inhaled a short, reflexive breath and held it, listening, her hearing one of the few things that still worked as well at 79 as when she’d been a teenager. She hadn’t heard the doorbell, although the deck slider was shut and she’d been making noise with the bird seed bag. Maybe someone tried the door, got no answer, and came around the house.
Cynthia set the seed bag down in the fresh snow on the bench, walked over to the edge of the deck, and looked along the stone walkway that led to a gate in the fence. The gate was in the dark shade of the big California Red Fir trees. In contrast to the bright snow on the ground and tree boughs, it was impossible to see anything in the relative darkness near the gate. It looked like the gate was still shut. Or maybe it was open an inch. She couldn’t tell. Cynthia stood silent, listening.
There were small cracks between the fence boards, but Cynthia could see no shape of a person through the cracks. She waited and watched. After several seconds of no other sound, she decided she must be mistaken.
She stepped back to the feeder and finished filling it. In the nearby Lodgepole Pines, several Mountain Chickadees fluttered in excitement, their quick-step, aerial dance moves too fast to see in detail. The birds came down to the feeder one at a time, then each flew off with a seed. They chirped and sang, a coffee-klatsch of busy birds trading gossip as they feasted.
Cynthia listened instead for the lonely chick-a-dee song from up in the tree off the corner of the deck. In a moment it came, the beautiful, three-note, minor-third music that was Molly.
Cynthia pulled several black oil sunflower seeds from the bag and walked over to the corner of the deck. She put the seeds on the palm of her gloved hand and held her hand out. The tiny, one-legged chickadee she’d named Molly swooped in and landed on her outstretched index finger. The bird never went to the feeder, perhaps unable to muscle in with the other birds. Balancing on her one leg, Molly hopped a step forward and picked up the seed. The bird cocked her head at Cynthia as if in thanks, then flew over to the closest tree. Molly landed on a short broken twig, and bent down to position the seed so that her single foot could hold the seed even as it held her perch.
As Cynthia watched, Molly used her beak to crack open the shell and eat the seed inside.
In a moment, the bird flew back to Cynthia’s palm, grabbed another seed, and flew off. Molly disappeared into the forest canopy. In a few moments, she came back for a third seed, then a fourth and a fifth. Cynthia knew that Molly was stashing the seeds, adding to her winter food cache.
Molly came back, landing this time on the deck railing, hopping in the snow, cocking her head.
Cynthia liked to think that Molly enjoyed her company.
Then, in a flash of light and puff of snow, Molly seemed to vanish. The movement was so fast it was as if she were the disappearing bird in a magic trick.
Cynthia knew what it meant. She looked up for a cruising raptor, but saw none. A lurking cat? She glanced over the deck railing.
She sensed a sudden movement off to her side.
Cynthia’s heart beat so hard that it hurt. She jerked her head to look and saw a person.
“Oh, thank God it’s you,” she said. “I saw movement and I...” She stopped talking to breathe. She put her hand to her throat. Fast breaths. In and out.
“I’m so sorry that I startled you!” the visitor said. “I thought I heard someone on the deck, so I came around the house.”
Cynthia nodded. “Not to worry. Just let me catch my breath. Have you seen that hawk we talked about?” she asked.
“Yes! That’s why I stopped by. It was flying down by Lake Tahoe Blvd. At least, I think it’s the same bird. Quite a bit bigger than a crow. Dark on its back, light on its breast and under its wings. It was doing a swooping motion just in front of me while I drove! Then it made a big turn and came up the mountain. I followed it up Tahoe Mountain Road. I know you can’t, you know, follow a bird. It’s not like they stay over the roads. So I lost it. But I kept looking. Then it came back, diving like before, staying right in front of me. Then flew into these trees. I could see from the street.” The person pointed and peered into the trees where the Mountain Chickadees had been, then walked over to the deck railing and looked down.
“There it is!”
“Really?” Cynthia hurried over to the edge of the deck. “Molly disappeared in a flash a moment ago. It must have been the hawk. Where is it?” Cynthia couldn’t see anything from where she stood. Her house perched on the edge of the mountainside, and the deck projected out over the steep slope. Mt. Tallac loomed across the valley of Fallen Leaf Lake. The sun reflected off its brilliant snowfields. In the distance to the north, the vast blue of Lake Tahoe shimmered. There was so much light that Cynthia’s eyes couldn’t adjust to make out anything in the dark shade below the deck.
Her visitor pointed again. “Look! It has something in its claws. Or whatever they’re called. Maybe you know what kind of hawk it is.”
Cynthia shaded her eyes from the light off Mt. Tallac and studied the snowy rocks thirty feet below the deck. She saw nothing except movement to her side as the person pushed her against the railing. Cynthia grabbed at the deck rail, her teeth clenched in terror as her visitor reached down, lifted up on her ankles, and flipped Cynthia over the railing.
I’d just fired up the coffeepot in my office on Kingsbury Grade when Spot, my Harlequin Great Dane, lifted his head off the floor. His nose pointed toward the window and its view of Lake Tahoe in the distance and the snow-covered mountains beyond. But his gaze was vague. He was seeing something else. One ear swiveled left, then right, then both turned rearward. It was a sight I’d seen many times, my dog looking inward, focusing on a sound I couldn’t hear.
Spot’s nose twitched, big wet nostrils flexing. Then he cranked his head around and looked at the closed door. I still heard nothing, and I certainly didn’t smell anything over the aroma coming from the gurgling coffee maker.
There was a soft two-rap knock, and the door opened.
An old man stood in the doorway. He was large of frame but bent a bit forward at the waist and showing favor to stiff joints. He was handsome despite the wear of years, his eyes as blue as those of a Husky sled dog. He wore a black watch cap, which he took off as he nodded at me. The top of his head was as bald as a cue ball, but the sides and back had a ring of white hair. Matching his hair were white eyebrows, thick and long but brushed and trimmed into submission. Above his upper lip was a small white mustache, cut very short.
The man made a little foot-stomp on the mat, shaking off the bits of snow left on his shoes after his walk up the stairs and down the hall.
As he walked through my office door, he seemed strong and well-balanced, yet he held his arms out just a bit, the watch cap wavering in his right hand. It made me think of how people walk when they are in an earthquake and know that the floor might shift at any moment. Probably, the ground beneath him had shifted recently.
Now that Spot saw our visitor, he got up to satisfy his olfactory curiosity. I grabbed his collar to hold him back. I gave a little tug, patted him on his rear, and he sat down next to my chair, his head over the top of my desk. He panted as he stared at the man.
The man looked at Spot, then turned around and glanced at the rest of my small office as if to make sure that we were alone. He took a step back to shut the door, then came toward my desk.
“My name’s Joe Rorvik. I’ve asked around a little. You come recommended. Although it was hard to find you with that scaffolding on the building. It blocks the address number.”
I nodded. “Sorry. They’re making repairs.” I reached out my hand. “Owen McKenna,” I said. Rorvik switched his cap to his left hand, leaned forward, and we shook. I was careful not to squeeze hard on the man’s swollen knuckles.
I’d heard the man’s name before, but I couldn’t place it.
I put my palm to the front of Spot’s nose, a sign that means ‘stay,’ and I moved around the side of the desk, gesturing at the chairs behind the man.
“Get you a chair?” I said.
“Thanks, I’ll get it,” Rorvik said. He turned just enough to reach out and pull up one of the two chairs. He sat, grunting a bit with discomfort. He hooked the cap onto the arm of the chair.
The coffee maker did the spit and gurgle that meant it was through dripping. I reached for a mug. “Coffee?”
“Please. With cream if you’ve got it.”
“I’ve only got these,” I said, holding up one of the little plastic containers of pretend cream. “They might be out of date by a few years.”
Rorvik frowned. “Black then.”
I filled the mug, handed it to him, then poured my own and returned to my chair. I waited.
The man hesitated. He looked left, then right, the motion noticeable because of the intense blue color of his eyes. He radiated melancholy.
“I’m hoping you can help me,” Rorvik said. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his lips, then sipped coffee, the actions in reverse order from those of most people. He moved his mouth and tongue like he was at a wine tasting, then swallowed. Maybe he was a coffee connoisseur. Then again, maybe his motions were those of distaste. I was pretty sure my coffee wouldn’t rate higher than about seven on a hundred-point scale.
“What’s your problem?” I asked.
“My wife is lying in intensive care in Reno. A coma. She’s unresponsive and likely to die.”
“I’m so sorry. What happened?”
The man swallowed. “She fell from our deck. The cops think it was an accident. I think someone tried to murder her.”
When he said it, I recalled the story that had been in the news a week or so before.
“I remember,” I said. “I was very sorry to read about your wife’s injury.”
Rorvik made a small nod.
The familiarity of his name came back to me.
“You’re the ski racer Joe Rorvik,” I said. “The Olympic medalist famous for the Rorvik Roar.”
In Tahoe we get as used to seeing sports superstars as we do movie and TV celebrities. But Rorvik’s racing career was long before I was even born, and his image was not common around the Tahoe Basin, so I hadn’t recognized him.
Rorvik nodded. “My last race was sixty-one years ago this winter.” He sipped more coffee, made more of the mouth movements.
“I think the paper said your wife’s name is Cynthia?” I asked.
Rorvik nodded. “Rell to me.”
“Goes way back to when I met her. After I retired from ski racing, I was working a job near UC Berkeley. I was bored, so I took a theater workshop. Thought I’d try my hand at acting.” He sipped more coffee, his eyes looking off at the memory.
“I quickly learned that ski racing skills don’t translate to the stage. But I met Rell in that class. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Not that she was a beauty queen or anything. She was actually somewhat plain-looking at first, tiny as a hummingbird and wearing frumpy, second-hand clothes. But I noticed her because she had a fire inside. So I asked her out to a dance and picked her up at her parents’ house where they lived in Fremont. Her parents were grim, small-minded people who treated her as if they resented that a ski racer was paying her attention, as if I was going to take her away from them, out into the big world. Which of course is exactly what I did.”
I understood that Rorvik’s story was a way to avoid talking about the current situation. I didn’t interrupt.
“After I got Cynthia out of that house and to the dance, she lit up. You know how an optical illusion does that thing where you see something one way and then it flips the opposite way and you can never see it the first way again? Well, that was Cynthia when we went on that first date. She was vivacious and charming, and she had a wicked-fun sense of humor. She suddenly went from plain to more beautiful than any other girl at the dance. She became my Cinderella. Pretty quick, Cinderella got shortened to Rell. Rell Rorvik after we married.”
“Any word on her condition?” I said.
“Worse and worse,” Rorvik said. “They take these new pictures. Brain scans. Different areas light up. On the kind they showed me, red shows the most intense activity. Yellow for medium, and blue for the least intense. Rell’s picture had little bits of blue here and there, areas that make the heart beat and such. But no color at all in most places. They say this is common with severe brain damage. According to the doctors, she’s gone forever in every way that matters.”
Joe Rorvik looked down at his lap, swallowed, then raised his head back up to me, his jaw muscles bulging.
“Rell and me had a deal,” he said. His eyes held mine. No mist that I could see. Just pure blue in the irises and, in the whites, a red that had no doubt been building up for days.
He continued, “From the beginning, we always made agreements about most of the important things in life. One of them was that neither of us would let the other be hooked up to a machine if it was just prolonging an inevitable death. Of course, when we spoke of it, we were really talking about me, because I’m thirteen years older than her. Yet now it’s time for me to pull the plug, as they say.” He looked out my window, then looked at my dog who was still sitting obediently behind my desk.
“C’mere, boy,” Rorvik said, and he patted his thigh.
Spot turned to look at me, looking for approval.
“It’s okay,” I said. I gave Spot a touch to let him know that he could move.
“His name is Spot,” I said to Joe.
Spot stood, walked around the desk, and approached Rorvik slowly but with his tail held slightly up. Dogs sense more through tone and scent than non-dog people would believe, and Spot seemed to know that he should not be boisterous with the old man.
Rorvik reached out and put his hands on either side of Spot’s snout, then rubbed up and over Spot’s eyes and ears, and down his neck.
Spot was immediately smitten. He closed his eyes, lowered his tail a bit, then lowered his head to rest his jaw on the arm of Rorvik’s chair.
Rorvik rubbed him several more times. Rorvik’s frown was deep.
“The problem with disconnecting the life-support,” he said, gritting his teeth, “is that I find that I can’t let her go like this. I have to be able to tell her what happened. They say she can’t hear, can’t understand a thing. The hearing part of the brain is one of the areas with no color on the scan. But I still have to have a final talk. I suppose it’s just for me. At any rate, once I can explain it to her, then I will have settled up my personal business between Rell and me. Then I can let her go and I can try to move on.”
“What would you like me to do?” I asked.
“I want you to find out what happened.”
“Mr. Rorvik, I take your concerns seriously. But the cops must not have found anything to raise concerns if they think that her fall was an accident. What would I go on?”
“Call me Joe. Yeah, that’s what they think,” he said. “And maybe they’re right. But I don’t think so. Rell is careful. She’s not excessively cautious, but she’s prudent. She wouldn’t lean over the deck railing or do anything else risky. She must have been pushed.”
“From what I read,” I said, “it sounded like there was nothing missing, so she probably didn’t interrupt a burglar.”
“That’s true,” Rorvik said. “I checked the house. Nothing missing that I could see. I even had a spare money clip with five hundred dollars in it sitting in my desk drawer. It was still there.”
“Yet you still think that someone pushed her. If there wasn’t a burglar, then it would suggest that someone went to your house just to murder your wife. Why would someone want to murder your wife?”
“I can’t imagine it. She’s a sweetheart. Everyone loves Rell. No one would want to hurt her.”
“You’ve stated two opposing views. She wouldn’t fall accidentally. But no one would push her, either.”
Rorvik looked at me for bit. “I know. It doesn’t make sense. That’s why I need you to figure it out.”
“If someone did push her,” I said, “that would mean that person had an enormous problem with your wife. Either the would-be murderer hated your wife, or he saw your wife as an obstacle to something he really wanted.”
Joe narrowed his eyes. “Well, no one could hate my wife, I can tell you that. No one would even dislike her.”
“Then she must have been in the way of what the murderer wanted.”
Rorvik paused. “Give me an example of that.”
“Let’s say that Rell witnessed a crime. The perpetrator wants his freedom, but the only way to ensure that he gets away with the crime is to kill the witness before she can tell the cops.”
Rorvik flinched when I said the word kill.
“Rell would have told me if she’d witnessed a crime,” Joe said.
“Maybe it happened right before she was pushed.”
“As best as the cops and the doctors can establish the time of her fall, I talked to her on the phone shortly before it happened. She didn’t mention anything.”
“Maybe she couldn’t tell you because the killer was with her, preventing her from saying anything.”
Rorvik didn’t like that thought. His frown took over his entire face.
“Are you certain you made a thorough check of everything a burglar might take?” I said.
“Well, I don’t know how one would tell. But I looked around. Everything seemed okay.”
“Another possibility,” I said, “is that a burglar came to your house to burglarize it. He thought no one was home but discovered that your wife was out on the deck. If she got a good look at him, he probably worried that she could identify him, so he pushed her off. Maybe the experience spooked him enough that he decided to leave without taking anything.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Joe said. “I think that any man bold enough to push a woman off the deck would take a quick look around and pocket the easy valuables. We have some valuables.”
“Maybe the burglar wasn’t spooked by pushing your wife off the deck,” I said. “Maybe he simply heard a noise and thought that somebody else was coming. So he left without looking through the house.”
Joe made a slow nod.
I saw in him the pain that so often accompanies the end of life. Even if you live a happily-ever-after life, it still has to end. Even the best endings are extremely painful for at least one of every pair. In Joe’s case, the ending he was coping with was as bad as it gets.
We want to comfort people in these situations. But Rorvik didn’t come to me for comfort. He came to me to learn what had happened, which would be an indirect comfort at best.
Spot tired of standing. He sat his rear down, moving awkwardly so that he could lower his head onto Joe’s lap.
“Let’s reconsider the possibility that her fall was an accident,” I said. “Maybe no one came to your house at all.”
“I can’t see it.” Rorvik looked out my office window toward the lake, but I don’t think he was seeing the water.
“Maybe she had a little stroke,” I said. “Got dizzy and lost her balance.”
“I doubt it. She was a hiker. In great shape. She had no history of high blood pressure or any other health issues. She took no medications. So that is unlikely. And the doctors saw no evidence of a stroke in the X-rays. And even if she’d had a stroke, she’s only five-two. That’s not tall enough to accidentally fall over the railing.”
Rorvik’s arthritic hands gripped each other on top of Spot’s head as if in a wrestling match. “Will you help me?” he asked, his voice plaintive, almost desperate.
“Joe, sometimes people get an idea that I can figure out exactly how something happened, and then they are disappointed when I can’t deliver. Will you be disappointed if I find nothing?”
“Yes, of course. I want to know what happened. I owe it to Rell. But if you find nothing, I’ll accept that I did everything I could.”
“Then what?” I asked, wanting this sad man to face the possibility that I might not be able to tie up the loose ends of Rell’s fall from the deck.
“Then I have my sit-down with Rell,” he said. “I explain that the cops think it was an accident and that you were unable to find out anything more. Once she knows that I did what I could, then she’ll accept it.”
“Rell will accept it,” I said. “But will you accept it? Will you find some peace after this?”
Joe’s eyes filled with tears. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll still go ahead and let the doctors turn off the machines. Rell and me, we had a deal.”