“Don’t get too low on gas. The motors will start to sputter. Do you believe a place can have a soul, Mr. McTighe?”
From outboard motors to philosophy all in one breath. Syd cleared his throat before answering. “I suppose it’s not outside the realm of possibility.” The question was just sinister enough that Syd wondered if having his back turned to Mr. C was a good idea. He couldn’t exactly defend himself while he was leaning over the back of the houseboat, peering at the twin fifty-horsepower engines. One little shove was all it would take.
“Watch you don’t foul the propellers while you’re beaching the boat. What about ghosts? Do you believe in ghosts?” Mr. C planted one rubber boot on the railing next to Syd’s hand. The morning’s soft rain dripped from the brim of his hat and pattered onto his yellow slicker.
“Um… no,” Syd said, straightening. He backed away from the railing.
“Careful now.” Mr. C grinned around the stem of his pipe. “The deck gets slippery when it’s wet. Wouldn’t want you to bruise that handsome face.”
A shiver ran down Syd’s spine. He slicked back his dark, unruly hair. “Not to sound like an idiot, but it’s a boat. I imagine the deck gets wet pretty often.”
Mr. C flashed a set of perfect, white teeth. “That was a joke, son. You know, you’re right. You’re a little uptight. Could be a vacation on the lake is just what you need.”
“Tense. I said I was tense.”
“Right.” Mr. C climbed the stairs to the wheelhouse and turned a key on the panel. The engines died. “So those are the motors. Now, you won’t break any speed records, mind you, but they’ll take you anywhere on the lake. That’s a thirty-eight mile stretch of water with nothing but unspoiled wilderness around it. No houses. No roads. Maybe another houseboat occasionally but not many. It isn’t the season. Bit too cold yet.”
Syd had known that, which was why he’d chosen April. Less people on the lake meant a smaller chance of someone seeing him sneak down the Western Finger. “Anywhere on the lake,” he said. “Sounds great.”
“Except the Western Finger. That’s off-limits.”
Syd schooled his features into one of his favorite expressions: curious innocence. His job often called for it. “Oh? What’s the Western Finger?”
They ducked beneath the overhang, out of the rain. Through the door at their backs was the cabin where Syd would sleep, cook his meals, and pretend to enjoy the view. Since the actual reason for his trip was on a need-to-know basis, and the last person who needed to know was Mr. C, Syd pasted a polite, interested smile on his face. “Is that the name of your secret fishing hole?”
Mr. C touched a match to the end of his pipe and began to puff. “You’re not from around here, are you, son?”
Syd slapped his knee. “Aw, what gave it away?”
“Well, your ignorance for one.”
“I was making a joke,” Syd said.
“Yep, I figured so. I wasn’t trying to be rude.” Pipe smoke ringed Mr. C’s head like a listing halo. With his weathered skin and graying beard, he looked every day his sixty-odd years. “Lake Redemption is plenty big enough for you, Mr. McTighe. She’s a long, skinny thing, that’s true, but there are more coves and inlets that you can shake a stick at. No need to go snooping around the Western Finger. It’s dangerous. You keep to the main lake, and you’ll be fine.”
Mr. C was pretty sharp for an old guy. Syd toned down his ignorant city-slicker act. “Well, I’ve heard rumors, but I’m not looking for any trouble. The only thing I’m after this week is time to myself. Some peace and quiet. I was told I could find that here.”
“You can.” Mr. C puffed on his pipe. “That and more, if you know where to look.”
Syd answered with a crisp salute, two fingers to the bill of his cap. And may the old man be a prophet, because Syd was there for more than a few fun-filled days on a pale pink floating RV.
“You all loaded up?” Mr. C fit his rain hat back over his graying black hair.
“Just about.” The cameras, high-powered telephoto lenses, and listening devices were in a duffel in his trunk. He didn’t want Mr. C anywhere near it. “I can get the last bit myself.”
His phone came to life, blaring Jethro Tull. Cursing, Syd snapped it open. “Hello?”
“Find that secret government installation yet?”
“No… honey,” Syd replied, winking at Mr. C. “Not yet. I haven’t even left the dock.”
“Well get cracking, McTighe!” Sam bellowed.
As bosses went, Syd knew he could do worse. At least Sam indulged Syd’s crazy ideas, even if he didn’t always keep the faith. He often referred to Syd as his ‘crazy crusader’. Syd let it slide. Putting up with the man’s off-color humor was a small price to pay for writing for one of the best magazines in the country.
He caught Mr. C’s eye. My wife, he mouthed, pointing to the phone. Mr. C nodded, dropped onto a bench, crossed one ugly rubber boot in front of the other, and settled in to listen. Syd rolled his eyes as he turned away. When he got around to writing this piece for the mag, he’d have to remember to include old Mr. C: Lake Redemption’s own Captain Ahab.
He put the phone back to his ear. “I hear what you’re saying, babe, but I’m just not ready to forgive you. Have you seen the counselor yet about that internet porn addiction thing?”
“I can quit anytime,” Sam said. “So I take it you’ve got company? Can’t talk right now?”
“Something like that.”
“All this covert crap is going to make me gray before my time.” From the other end of the line, Syd heard the scratch of pencil on paper. “Call me when you find something.”
“Sure, sweetheart. Was there anything else you wanted me to know?”
“Last night I dreamed I owned a castle on the moon, complete with my own harem of green, three-breasted women.” The distinctive click of Sam’s Zippo preceded his phlegm-filled inhalation. “Does that count?”
“Bye, baby.” Syd snapped the phone shut. “Sorry about that, Mr. C.”
“Sounds like your woman’s giving you trouble.” Mr. C hoisted himself up, and Syd followed him back out into the drizzle. It was a short jump from the boat to the floating dock. Mr. C alighted with a ballerina’s grace. Syd almost landed on his ass. The steady smack of water on fiberglass followed them down the walkway, past three other boats, and onto the gravel parking lot.
“Yeah, we’re having a few problems,” Syd said, sticking to his story. “You know, normal couple stuff.”
Mr. C scratched at his beard. “Women are complicated.”
Were they? Syd rarely gave them more than a passing thought. “I suppose,” he hedged.
They stopped beside Syd’s car. But for the occasional fat drip that bounced off Syd’s windbreaker, the rain had stopped. “Could’ve sworn you were gay,” Mr. C said, his tone so even that Syd replayed the scene in his head twice, positive he’d misheard, before answering the question with one of his own.
“What made you think that?” he asked, tacking on an amused laugh.
Mr. C puffed on his pipe like a locomotive. Then he pointed to the rainbow bumper sticker on the back of Syd’s Taurus. Did We Vote No On YOUR Marriage?
Oops. “It’s my wife’s car.”
“Ahhh.” Mr. C nodded. “Now I see your problem.”
It was a tossup which was worse: playing the pathetic straight man who’d married a lesbian or blowing his cover to save his dignity. Sam was going to have a field day with this. “It’s a long story. I’d rather not talk about it.”
Syd retrieved the last bag from the car and hoisted it over his shoulder with a grunt. The seams were stretching between the handle and the bag, but then it hadn’t been designed to hold $2,000 worth of camera and spy equipment.
Mr. C eyed the bag. “What you got in there? Rocks?”
“Books.” Syd hoped that would satisfy the old man. “Take care of my car,” he said with a wink.
“She’ll be safe here. Not a soul around for miles. Just me.”
They backtracked to the boat together. Mr. C watched Syd stash the duffel in the main cabin, then pointed at the wheel house. Syd took a deep breath as he climbed the steps. He’d never driven a floating camper, but how hard could it be?
Mr. C hopped back onto the dock and loosened the forward line. “All right. Just like I showed you. Start her up. Keep it in idle speed.”
Syd obeyed. The twin motors roared to life.
“That’s good, Mr. McTighe. You’re a natural,” Mr. C called.
Natural what? Syd prepared to shout back, then he saw it. The placid surface of the lake hiccupped, and a line of water, maybe two feet high, rushed toward them. Shock stole Syd’s chance to shout a warning. The wave hit, lifting the floating dock clear out of the water, exposing the pontoons beneath. The houseboat rocked like an amusement park ride, and Mr. C went flying.
Had he not been vaulting through the air right toward the houseboat, Syd would’ve missed the expression on his face. Not fear. Resignation.
He landed in an ungraceful sprawl on the platform above the motors, and the tossing boat tipped him helpfully toward the churning water between them.