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Authors: Brad Smith

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BOOK: Crow's Landing
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The next morning he was up before the sun. He'd over-watered the stock the night before, and he threw the horses some feed and had a quick look at the cattle in the back pasture before heading out. He reached the marina at dawn. It was warm already; the temperature had been routinely hitting the midnineties every day and today would be no exception. There was a cash box by the launch for anyone docking a boat before the tackle shop itself opened. It operated on the honor system and Virgil used it whenever the shop was closed, and even when the shop was open. It was quicker to slip a fin in the box, and it saved him from feigning small talk with Brownie, or Mudcat, who sometimes ran the shop when Brownie was gone for the day or was too hungover to open.

Virgil launched the cedar strip and tied it off to the dock while he parked the truck and trailer in the large paved lot between the marina and Scallywags. By the time he fired the old Johnson up and chugged away from the dock, heading for the channel, there were three other boats in the lot, lined up and waiting to launch.

Virgil idled out past the pier, watching an elderly Vietnamese man casting off the rocks with a silver spinner, reeling in slowly. When the man nodded to Virgil, he nodded back and then, past the pier, pulled down the peak of his Mud Hens cap, opened up the outboard and aimed the bow of the boat into the current, the front of the cedar strip rearing up in the water for a hundred yards or so before planing out. The wind was slight, but it was out of the east and Virgil angled straight into it, thinking that the fishing was likely to be poor. Anybody who fished knew that the fish didn't bite much when the wind was from the east. It was one of those things that people knew to be true, even if nobody seemed to know why.

To Virgil, it didn't matter all that much if the fish were biting or not. He'd be more than happy to take home a couple of stripers for his supper, but if he didn't there was good beef in the freezer and potatoes in the root cellar. He'd eat well that night either way. He liked being on the river, alone in the sixty-year-old boat. As a rule he drifted with the current, rather than trolling, because he enjoyed the quiet of that, the only sound the soft slap of the waves against the cedar hull of the boat.

The last time he'd had the boat out on the river, Claire Marchand had been with him. The stripers were finished with their spring run, and they were really just out for a cruise, although they did stop and cast for pike in a weed bed for half an hour. But mostly they'd just idled down the river toward Rondout Creek, where they had docked for a couple of hours and had lunch in Kingston before heading back north. It was a warm May afternoon. Virgil had finished planting just a couple of days earlier, and they talked about that. After a while the conversation shifted to a case Claire
had been working on, a kidnapping of a ten-year-old girl from a schoolyard in Troy, which had, untypically, turned out well when the girl's stepfather was arrested and the girl recovered unharmed. After the talk of the farm, and of Claire's job, was finished, Claire broached the subject of Virgil himself. Specifically she wanted to know why Virgil couldn't give more of himself up, why he was so unavailable on certain emotional levels. Virgil thought about it for a while and then replied that he couldn't answer that question, and if he could, then probably Claire wouldn't have needed to ask it.

The rest of the trip had been pretty quiet. Virgil felt as if he'd disappointed her somehow but wasn't at all sure what to do about it. They didn't see each other much over the next couple of weeks and then Claire flew to London for some security conference, and then on to France to visit some long-lost relatives. She was still there. She had called a couple of nights earlier to say that she was having a fine time, learning about her roots. Virgil had a feeling that her newly discovered kinfolk were not emotionally unavailable.

Virgil was alone again, and he didn't mind it, as much as he genuinely enjoyed time spent with Claire. Still, he was more comfortable than most people with solitude, he suspected. For one thing, a man was less likely to find trouble when he was on his own. Since he was a kid, he had possessed a propensity for getting into trouble, some of it of his own accord and some of it purely by accident. Just last year, for instance, he'd been arrested for murder, escaped jail, fell under suspicion for a second murder, and was finally shot in the earlobe by the woman responsible for both. If that couldn't be categorized as a propensity for getting into trouble, Virgil didn't know what could.

But a man couldn't find trouble out on the Hudson River,
all alone with his thoughts and his fishing pole and a half dozen cold beers in an ancient Pepsi cooler. After all, what could possibly happen this far from everything?

 * * *

By noon, Virgil had given up on the stripers and was anchored in the main channel straight out from Kimball's Point, using a walleye rig baited with minnows. He had no luck with the walleye but he did catch a half dozen good-size perch, as well as a sheepshead that had to weigh fifteen pounds or more. He kept the perch for his supper and released the sheepshead. It was shortly after one o'clock when he reeled in his line and stepped to the bow to pull up the anchor.

But the anchor didn't come. It was stuck fast to something on the bottom, trapped in some rocks, he assumed. He jerked the rope quickly back and forth, hoping the action might dislodge the anchor, and pulled on it again. When it didn't yield, he started the boat and maneuvered it around for a better angle. Still it wouldn't budge.

Virgil sat down on the bench seat, the rope in his hands. The anchor was new, a galvanized triple hook that had cost him twenty-eight bucks. He bought it from Brownie his first time at the marina, before he realized he wanted nothing to do with the ex-cop. He didn't feel like cutting the line and leaving the anchor on the bottom.

So he took the rope in hand again and pulled, this time propping his heels against the transom and putting his back into it. And the anchor moved. Not much more than an inch or so, but it moved. Which probably meant that whatever it was caught on would be coming up with the anchor. It took Virgil ten minutes, alternately pulling and resting, then pulling again, the rope burning the spar varnish from the top edge of the transom, to bring it to the surface, and when he
did he was finally able to see what he had hooked. But seeing it and knowing what it was were two different things.

It took an effort to pull the thing over the gunwale and into the boat, where he carefully rolled it onto the slats of the floor. It was a cylinder, seaweed covered and green, about four feet long and maybe sixteen inches in diameter. It had steel loops welded to it, one on each side, like handles, and was completely sealed; there was no cap, no valve, nothing that would allow access to the contents. Virgil scrubbed away some of the grime with his hand and saw that the metal was gray underneath and, as it wasn't rusted, he assumed it was made of either aluminum or, more likely—given the weight of the thing—stainless steel. The cylinder weighed probably a hundred and fifty pounds.

When Virgil got back to the launch at the marina, he had no intention of telling anyone about what he'd found attached to his anchor. Those intentions didn't matter one way or the other, though, with Mudcat McClusky standing on the pier, waiting for him to dock. Mudcat spent most days hanging around the tackle shop, playing gofer to Brownie, and every time a fisherman came in off the river, he hurried down to the launch to see what they'd caught. By the time Virgil had the cedar strip winched onto the trailer behind his pickup truck, Mudcat had spread the word and there were half a dozen people standing around, looking at the cylinder. Nobody had a ready opinion as to what exactly the thing was, except for Mudcat, who was an expert on nearly everything, although this expertise was somewhat tempered by the fact that he was basically an imbecile.

“Gas cylinder,” he said, his foot up on the tongue of the trailer, his tone somewhat proprietary, due to the fact he'd been the first to spot the thing in Virgil's boat. “Nitrogen is my guess.”

Wally Dunlop, who was standing nearby, shook his head at the pronouncement, looking at Mudcat as he always looked at him, with a mixture of pity and contempt. Virgil got out of the truck and walked back to the trailer; he really didn't care to be the center of attention, or to get involved with Mudcat's speculations, but he needed to tie the boat down.

“There's no valve,” he said. “It's not a gas cylinder.”

“It's got no valve, you fucking dummy,” echoed Wally to Mudcat. “How you gonna get the gas out?'

“Who you calling a dummy?” Mudcat demanded.

The discussion continued on the dock as Virgil secured the cedar strip and drove the truck and trailer to the back of the lot and parked it. Walking past the boat, he glanced first at the cylinder and then toward the gang of curious onlookers by the launch. He went back and removed the padlock and safety chain from the trailer hitch and used it to secure the cylinder to a steel cleat on the boat.

He headed into Scallywags for some lunch, and most of the bunch that had assembled on the dock followed. Mudcat walked back to the tackle shop; as Virgil crossed the lot toward the roadhouse, he could see him inside, talking animatedly to Brownie, presumably spilling all he knew about the mysterious cylinder. Which was nothing, but that wouldn't stop Mudcat from telling it.

Inside the roadhouse, Virgil had a draft beer and ordered a burger with fries, which he ate at the bar. The talk centered around the cylinder. Mudcat soon wandered in, not wanting to miss out on the discussion.

“What're you going to do with it?” Wally asked.

“Cut it open, I guess,” Virgil said. “Must be something in there. Thing weighs a ton.”

“What if it's radioactive?”

Virgil smiled. “Maybe it's kryptonite. I could sell it to Lex Luthor.”

“He's not a real person,” Mudcat scoffed. He shook his head. “Thing's probably empty anyway.”

“Like your head?” Wally suggested.

“Fuck you,” Mudcat said, his standard reply whenever he found himself out of his depth, which was quite frequently.

After a while, the conversation regarding what was in the cylinder faded, mainly due to the fact that nobody had the slightest notion what it might be. After Virgil finished his lunch, Wally challenged him to a game of eight ball and he accepted. They shot three games for a buck apiece, splitting the first two with Wally winning the rubber. Virgil tossed the dollar on the felt and went to the bar to pay his bill.

“Who the hell is that?” he heard Wally say.

Virgil turned to see Wally staring out the plate glass window to the parking lot, where a man in a brown suit was in the process of hooking Virgil's trailer and boat to the back of a dark blue SUV.

By the time Virgil went down the steps and crossed the parking lot, the hitch was already in place. The man doing the hitching was maybe fifty, overweight, and the combination of the oppressive heat and the act of lifting the trailer tongue from Virgil's truck and transferring it to the SUV had left him panting for breath. He had dark hair, plastered to his forehead, and pale, pockmarked skin. He wore a shirt and tie with his brown suit, the tie loosened, the white shirt stained with something, possibly coffee. Virgil would wager his best breed cow that the man was a cop.

“What are you doing?” Virgil asked.

The man reached into his jacket pocket and produced a gold detective's shield. “Albany police. I'm confiscating this boat.”

“For what?”

“Involvement in illegal activities.”

“That's a load of shit,” Virgil said. “You got a warrant?”

“You think you're on TV?” the man demanded. He pulled a black handgun from inside his jacket and held the barrel a foot from Virgil's nose. “Here's your fucking warrant, big mouth.”

Virgil stepped back. “Take it easy. You don't have to take my boat.”

“You don't tell me what to do,” the man said. “You're lucky I don't lock you up. This is racketeering, trafficking, conspiracy. Smart thing for you to do right now is shut your fucking mouth. We'll be in touch.”

He walked around and opened the door to the SUV, the gun still in his hand.

“What about my boat?” Virgil asked.

“I said we'll be in touch.” The man got into the car and drove off. Wally, who had tagged along when Virgil left the roadhouse, stepped forward as Virgil watched his boat disappear down the highway.

“He didn't ask nothin'. He didn't even ask your name.” He paused a moment. “Something not right here.”

“No shit,” Virgil said.

THREE

Dusty didn't even bother with an alarm anymore. By six o'clock the neighborhood of Arbor Hill was so noisy—with garbage trucks in the street, the city buses running, impatient carpoolers honking their horns, and neighbors arguing about who came home late last night or who didn't come home at all—that it was impossible to sleep late.

Usually she remained in bed until six thirty or so, taking that time to plan her day—do a mental shopping list, decide which bills needed paying now and which could be put off until payday, think about what Travis needed for clothes, shoes, or anything else.

Getting up, she would knock on his door as she made her way to the bathroom and give it another rap as she went down the narrow hallway to the kitchen, where she would start the coffee and make lunches for both herself and Travis while she waited for it to brew.

This morning she was distracted by the presence outside of a camera crew from the CITY NOW news channel. Looking down from her third-story window, Dusty could see a blond reporter standing in front of the walk-up down the block, her back to the building, as she faced a man with a heavy camera propped on his shoulder. After a moment, it occurred to Dusty that it would be a live broadcast and she turned on her TV to hear what the woman was saying. Apparently there had been a drug bust somewhere in the building during
the night; two men had been arrested and taken away hours ago and CITY NOW was showing its viewers where the bust
went down,
as the woman phrased it. Dusty flicked the set off as the pretty blonde was attempting in vain to pronounce the word
methamphetamine.

BOOK: Crow's Landing
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