His mother, Elizabeth, had grown up in the Episcopal Church, and, with her parents, she had worshipped at St Andrew’s over on the west side of town, the ‘money’ side of town, every Sunday. And though James was her ‘sweetheart’ even then, he wasn’t drawn to the church – had never been interested in any church – yet that didn’t seem to matter to her. She talked James into going with her a time or two but nothing stuck, yet she was true enough to him to let the matter rest – “in the Lord’s hands,” she liked to say. When the war in Europe started, actually during the Battle of Britain, James went down to the Post Office and signed up for pilot training; he ended up in California learning to fly the earliest models of the B-17, and it turned out he was a very good pilot.
They corresponded, by mail, after he left Vermont, and soon she understood that he had lost all interest in religion – and why; she, at home on the other side of the country, had started going to St Andrew’s several times a week – and her interest in religion only deepened. By the time December Seventh rolled around, he was training new pilots and she was teaching Sunday School; when James shipped off to Britain in ‘42 she went to study religion at Boston College.
And so it went. They were polar opposites set on a collision course from the very beginning, and at the end of James’ war, after he returned from Britain, he was a very different man. As different as Elizabeth had become over the intervening years.
Yet they picked up where they’d left off – in each other’s arms, still madly in love with one another. Weeks after his return they walked the aisle in St Andrews hand in hand, as husband and wife, yet, if anything, his understanding of God and His Church had only diminished in his eyes. James had, he told his wife, been on many of the so-called ‘thousand plane raids’ over Dresden and Munich, he had fire-bombed whole cities, killed thousands upon thousands of human beings; there was, he told her, “no room in God’s House for the likes of me.”
They had talked about salvation and confession and he told her those were mere words to him, and she could feel the flames of burning cities aglow in his eyes. She said she understood after one bitter night, and she never pressed him further. Not once. She was, she told him, content to let God come to him when He was ready.
They wanted to wait a few years to have kids, or so they said, so he could earn some money and build up his bank account, and she told him late in 1949 that she thought it was an opportune time. Why ‘opportune’ he did not know, but he agreed and soon she was with child.
Yet he was too good a pilot for the Army Air Corp to let go of him completely, and, because he’d signed on to participate in the newly formed U. S. Air Force Reserves, when asked he was soon flying B-29s over Canada and the Arctic. When war broke out in Korea off he went, and two months after he arrived in Japan his daughter Rebecca was born, though he very nearly never got to hold her in his arms.
On a mission over the North his formation was attacked by Mig15s and his aircraft was damaged badly in the brief skirmish. He nursed the -29 back to the sea and had almost made it back to South Korea when fire broke out inside the right wing; he got his men out and rode the aircraft down, belly landing in the Yellow Sea. He managed to crawl out of the sinking wreckage and into a life raft, but both his legs were badly mangled.
His war officially ended on a hospital ship in Japan; he was back in the States a few weeks later, though he spent months at a succession of military hospitals in Maryland and Pennsylvania. And, finally, in White River Junction, Vermont, and that’s where he finally met his daughter.
And though in many ways James was the same sweet man Elizabeth had always known, he had come back a changed man – for the second time. Whereas he had exuded an infinite invulnerability when he came home from Europe, he now cast a wary eye almost everywhere he looked…like he was suddenly unsure of the very ground beneath his feet. Still, he persevered, met his doubts head-on. He walked, then he ran back to his life in St Johnsbury, and Elizabeth knew then that God answered all prayers.
When Rebecca fell ill – some sort of meningitis, the physicians told them – she prayed and prayed, and yet Rebecca passed. In the aftermath Elizabeth fell away from the Church, and in the fullness of time she completely lost her faith in God.
She finished her graduate degree – in social work – and helped coordinate social services throughout northern Vermont…everything from helping the recently disabled to the newly homeless. She came to be regarded as something of a saint among the ‘down and out’ – and even to the pastors and bishops that worked the pews around the region, hers was a well-regarded soul.
And then something horribly unexpected happened. A girl, an eight year old Chinese girl, was raped one summer’s evening near the old highway that went from St Johnsbury south, and a trucker who had been passing through on his way from Montreal to New York City was apprehended. And this mysterious truck driver – who was, apparently, from Hong Kong – was being pursued through the forests south of town. It was only a matter of time, they heard on the radio, until the monster was caught.
The rain had let up a little, and he could see faint patches of blue through thinning clouds from time to time. Melissa was sitting with him in the enclosed cockpit, rain and wind-driven spray still spattering on the canvas overhead, while Ted and Tracy were standing at the mast pulpit, looking for timbers on the Sound’s roiled surface.
And yet he and Melissa had said little to one another since she boarded. He didn’t know what to say to her, and she wasn’t sure she had anything left to say to a man like him.
Then, up on the bow, Ted pointed to the left and he looked that way too, saw a massive timber sjust awash and corrected his course to miss it – and as suddenly Ted was pointing frantically to the right – and he saw more timbers roped-up in a tight clump. He stood to get a better view of the way through the knotted seas, then he cut back on power, slowed to bare steerage-way and worked his way around and through the flotsam – and he found he was holding his breath more than once…until they were through, anyway.
“This is really bad…” Melissa said moments after he sat behind the wheel again. “I’ve dealt with crab-pots in Maine, but never anything like this.”
And he knew he was beginning to tremble a little – only for another reason. He’d had three cups of French roast and his bladder felt like it was about to rip apart, right down the middle, but he didn’t want to leave the wheel…
“You okay?” she said when she saw the expression on his face, the perspiration on his brow.
He shook his head. “Nope. Bladder’s about to…”
And she stood, took the wheel – and he looked at her like she was out of her mind – until the need to let loose from both ends grew like a three-alarm blaze. He nodded and ran down the companionway steps to the forward head – and didn’t return for ten minutes.
And when he did she was still behind the wheel, steering deftly between timbers, taking the hand signals Ted gave her without the slightest hesitation.
“You tired?” he asked.
“Not in the slightest…this is – exhilarating!”
“Well,” he mumbled, “that’s one way to look at it.”
And she laughed at that, then leaned over to look forward again. “I’m making for that buoy up there,” she said, pointing to a can about a mile ahead. “That marks the entrance to the inlet, right?”
“Damn, this is a fine handling little ship, Jim. World of difference between my 325 and this thing…”
“Nothing beats displacement in seas like this.”
“I’ll say. Man, if you ever want to trade, give me a call…”
He laughed at that. “Yeah, I’ll do that.” He watched her watching the sea, watched the way she shifted her weight with her knees to roll with the swells and he nodded his approval. “Yours have a pedestal, or that rig under the seat?”
“Pedestal. That other rig always felt dead to me.”
“So I’ve heard.” He turned and looked forward then, content to let her steer for a while longer, and he noticed more and bigger patches of blue sky. “You may get lucky. Looks like some sun is trying to break through.”
“Yup,” she groaned, working Altair down the backside of a large roller.
Yet she kept her course, he saw. She bore down on the rise, fell off the crest, never missed a lick. “You do much racing?” he asked.
“A little. Why?”
“Because you’re damn good on the helm, that’s why.”
He wasn’t looking at her just then so he didn’t see the look in her eyes.
“Can you come up a bit?” he said. “I want to head straight in the inlet, not come in at an upwind angle.”
“Got it,” she said, and he watched the bow swing to starboard a little…twenty minutes later they passed the buoy and he turned and looked at her.
“You wanna take it now?” she asked.
“No. You’re doing fine,” he said as he came to the pedestal and changed the displays on the plotter.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the display.
“Chart with a radar overlay here, and forward-looking sonar here, on the right.”
“Sonar? You mean…those are the walls of the inlet – underwater?”
“Holy moly, this is like cheating…”
He grinned. “Kinda, yup, but it sure beats driving your boat up onto the rocks.”
“Slow her down to 1600 RPM,” he said in his typical flight instructor’s voice, then: “Come to 3-3-0 and let’s see how much the current plays with us.”
“Okay…see how it’s pushing us to starboard? Let make 3-2-5 and bring the revs up to 1800.”
He watched as she adjusted the throttle and made the course change, then he looked at the sonar readout and the plotter for a moment. “You’re doing great…okay, fall off a little more…okay, you got it…”
And then, just like that, they were through.
“Moorings in here?” she asked.
“Anywhere, in particular, you want to drop the hook?”
“Depends. If there’s room there’s kind of a waterfall all the way in. Nice sound to sleep to.”
She nodded her head; smiled a little, too. “Did I see a store back there?”
“Yeah. If you run out of food it’s okay in a pinch.”
“How far back does this thing go?”
“Not quite three-quarters of a mile,” he said, signaling Ted to get the anchors ready. “Keep an eye out for anchor lines…so don’t cut too close to other boats…I’m gonna get the Zodiac ready.”
Once the anchors were set he came back to the swim platform and tied off the Zodiac, then he watched her as she looked around the boat, wondering why he’d been so taken by her earlier that morning.
Was it just because he was lonely? Whatever, it was his choice and he was in it now. Duty-honor-country wasn’t at work here, not like with Babs? His father had taught him about those things, but then again his parents had lived kind of an idyllic life – at least compared to what he and Barbara had endured…
“Endured…?” he said, unaware he was speaking aloud.
“What’s that?” Melissa asked, now standing on the aft deck – looking down at him still sitting in the inflatable.
“Oh, sorry, I was just thinking.”
“What did you endure? My turn behind the wheel?”
He chuckled at that. “No, not at all. I was impressed, really. You’re quite the helmsman.”
“Well, okay. Now what?”
“Excuse me?” he replied.
“You gonna run me over to the beach, or you want me to swim for it?”
“Water’s kind of cool for that, I think.” He looked at her for the longest time, then he sighed.
“You look…perplexed,” she said – perplexed.
“I’m not sure I know how to say this, but the odds of you finding a place to stay around here are somewhere between slim and none, and I don’t suppose you’re carrying a tent and sleeping bag in that duffel. So, what are your plans?”
“Get ashore, find a road and start walking. Something always comes along.”
He shook his head. “Not here. The only roads are back by the village, and there aren’t many places to sleep on this part of the island…unless you’ve got a home lined up.”
“Okay…so what do you suggest?”
“Stay here,” he said, his voice lost somewhere on the quiet side of hope.
“Here?” she replied. “With you?”
“Okay,” she said, looking at him again.
And he felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and that puzzled him.
She came down to the swim platform then. “Can I give you a hand?” she asked.
He turned and looked around the cove…it had emptied out earlier that morning after they’d departed for Nancy’s. He assumed people had seen the break in the weather and pulled anchor – and now Altair’s crew had almost the entire cove to themselves.
When he turned to her he saw she’d taken off her shoes and was sitting on the platform, and she was just now dangling her feet in the water.
“Yikes…this IS cold,” she said, surprised. “Like Maine kind of cold.”
“This is not the Gulf of Mexico…that’s for sure.”
“What happened to your mom and dad?”
“Hmm? Oh, they passed about, oh, Mom went first. I think six years ago. Dad passed a few months later. Broken heart, I guess. Couldn’t live without her, so I think he chose not to.”
“He wasn’t sick?”
“Nope. He just went to sleep and didn’t wake up. That’s the way to go, I reckon.”
“They were that close?”
“Closer than forever.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know how else to put it.”
“You think about them a lot?”
He nodded. “Yeah, I do. I miss them. I – miss – what they stood for.”
“You mean, like…politics?”
“Good Lord, no…just the opposite. They were diametrically opposed politically, from the very beginning, I think, but that didn’t seem to matter. Not to them, anyway.”
“Dad?” Ted said, coming back to the aft rail. “You through with the Zodiac?”
“For now. You two want to go exploring?”
“Yeah. Is there enough gas?”
“Yup. Two gallons, at least. That ought to be good for a couple of hours at low speed. Grab a hand unit and some water, maybe some sunscreen too.”
Ted nodded and left to get stuff from below, and Melissa pulled her feet out of the water and shivered a little. He found himself staring at them, at how white they’d become.
“You better get some socks on,” he said.
“Oh, they’ll warm up.”
“You say so, but don’t be surprised if you catch a chill. It’s cold and damp, not what your body is used to…”
He changed places with Ted a few minutes later, then they watched as Ted and Tracy took off across the cove, headed for the little waterfall, and as he watched them go he felt kind of odd. Like happy and sad, at the same time.
“How long have those two known each other,” she asked.
“I think this is the fourth day.”
“We had dinner at a restaurant in Vancouver, near the marina we were tied up at. She was our waitress, and Ted kind of fell for her.”
“What does that mean…‘kind of’?”
“Ted’s kind of confused right now. He’s been like a heat-seeking missile, dead-set on becoming a priest for as long as he’s been able to recite the Lord’s prayer…”
“Yeah. ‘Oh.’ I’ve been picking up little signals that something happened this past year, but I’m not prying. Not yet, anyway. That said, he’s of a mind right now to meet a girl and do the deed.”
“Indeed he is. By design, not chance, but, like I said, something changed this past year. Something changed inside him.”
“And she’s the first girl he’s…”
“Yup,” he sighed. “I think you’ve got the picture.”
“I don’t like it. There’s something really off about her.”
“How about heroin and a pathological liar. Is that a good combination?”
She stared at him, then shook her head. “Why?”
“He’s going to be 21 in August. He’ll do the right thing.”
“He might. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with her in the picture. Did you get her junk off the boat?”
“You say she’s from Australia?”
“That’s what’s her passport says, yes.”
She nodded. “Think her passport is here, on board?”
“I don’t know. I guess so.”
“Mind if I take a look?”
He shook his head. “I’d rather not break those boundaries, if you don’t mind. What are you? A cop?”
She shook her head. “Nope. I work in the prosecutors’ office, with the DAs office, in Atlanta; for the most part, I work sex crimes.”
“What…like rape…stuff like that?”
“Yeah, stuff like that,” she said, looking him in the eye.
“Interesting? Why do say that?”
“My mom was very religious when she was younger. She became interested in social work, worked with victims of sexual assault.”
“When was that?”
“Back in the 50s, I think. At least, that’s when she started. She kept at it ‘til Dad retired and they moved to Florida.”
“She was a little ahead of her time, don’t you think? Weren’t too many women back in the 50s working with those kinds of people. Do you know why she developed an interest in that work?”
He shook his head. “No, not really. It was was of those things she never talked about.”
Melissa nodded understanding. “It’s usually for personal reasons.”
“Oh? You too?”
She kept nodding. “Yeah, you could say that.”
He looked at her, then turned away for a minute – his eyes closed.
And she looked at him closely just then, not sure what she was seeing, then she leaned over, put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you some sort of an empath?” she asked.
“I don’t know…I’m not even sure I believe such a thing is possible…”
“Oh, it’s possible, alright.”
“I can see it all over your face. You read people, don’t you? I mean, read ‘em like a book.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Sometimes things are clear to me.”
“What about Tracy? What could you see about her?”
“Trouble. All kinds of trouble.”
“The things she told us about her life seem out of place, but it’s her…”
“Exactly. Something in her eyes.”
“Dishonest?” she said wonderingly. “How about…dangerous?” she added.
“I thought so when I first listened to her talk about her family, her parents. Now I’m not so sure.”
“First impressions are usually the right impressions, you know?”
He nodded, looked at her anew. “You brought cameras, lenses?”
“Got a good telephoto.”
“I do. But I don’t think we have a way to get to shore right now.”
He scrunched-up his lips, then shrugged.
“Maybe you just wanted to be alone with me out here on your boat?” she asked – quietly.
“You know…? I think I’m too tired to do much of anything this afternoon, not without taking a nap first. I hate to leave you, but I really am tired.”
“Can you show me where to put my bag? I’ll need to unpack a few things.”
He hesitated, then shook his head a little. “Follow me,” he said, and just aft of his stateroom was a little office – that also had a small bunk against the hull, “Be it ever so humble,” he mumbled. “Sorry.”
“Kind of small,” she sighed. “Where do you bunk out?”
“Forward,” he said, feeling very sleepy now.
“You look beat. What time did you get up?”
“Two, two thirty. That’s my usual, though,” he said as he stumbled to his berth. “You mind if I take a rest for a while?”
“Be my guest.”
He lay down – and was asleep before his head hit the pillow…yet he was aware something was wrong.
His dreams were fevered, and the pain started then.
The police called Elizabeth, asked her to come to the hospital. They told her to hurry and James drove her.
A detective from the state police met her when she arrived, told her the victim, a young Chinese girl, had been found – dead – south of town, her throat cut, evidence of anal penetration – semen, the policeman said, unsure of himself around this lady – and that the girl had never talked.
“Why do you need me?” Elizabeth wanted to know. “I’m not connected with the police.”
“Well, the problem is a little unusual, Ma’am. We found a truck nearby, a box truck, nineteen-footer…and it was full of Chinese gals. None of ‘em speakin’ much, but one of ‘em said they were going to New York. They got jobs there. And they just come from China, on a boat.”
“How many girls, officer?”
“As best I can tell, something like ninety.”
“Ninety? In a nineteen foot truck?”
“A-yup. Packed like oysters in a tin can. Smell about the same, too.”
“Isn’t this a problem for the immigration people?”
“Probably so, a-yup, but you see…I think there’s something else goin’ on, and I heard you was good at talkin’ to folks. So, I was wonderin’ if, maybe, you could talk to these gals some, help us get a handle on where these folks is headed. Think you could?”
The detective helped her find the conference room where the girls were being held, and when he opened the door the sight she beheld was like nothing she had ever seen. Two hours later she was as angry as she’d ever been in her life – and she knew, too, that her life would never be the same.
This chapter (c) 2017 | adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkuhnwrites.com | just a little bit of story-tellin’