The sheriff of Hyalite County, so-named for the opal ore that studded the volcanic peaks south of Bridger, placed her hands on her hips and said, “Hmpff.”
“What we have here,” Martha Ettinger said, looking from her deputy to the logjam in the river where Rainbow Sam’s client had hooked the corpse, “is a case of simple drowning. Or not. Enlighten me, Walt. Humor me with some of that big city cop perspective.”
It was Thursday morning, the day after the body had been discovered. The previous evening there had been scant opportunity to search the area where the angler had received his prodigious strike. By the time Ettinger and Deputy Walter Hess had taken statements from Sam and his client, a banker from Atlanta named Horace Izard III, then waited for Doc Hanson to drive in from Bridger, pronounce the bloated, trout-belly white body dead and arrange for transportation to the county morgue, it had been growing dark. Ettinger had wanted to wade out to the logjam herself, but neither she nor Hess had packed waders with felt soles, which were necessary to keep one’s footing on the treacherous boulders. Sam had offered his services, and, when they were politely declined, his waders. Client Izard had seconded the offer, but as both men wore a twelve shoe, and as neither had been able to hit a toilet bowl with any consistency in more than a decade, owing to inaccuracy of aim with appendages their bulging stomachs concealed from view, their waders were comically large. It had been decided that Walt, who was only marginally taller than Martha at five-foot ten, would wade out in Izard’s waders, which looked more hygienic than Rainbow Sam’s, despite traces of vomit.
The deputy hadn’t taken a dozen steps before Sam had snorted, raised his eyes to Martha, and said, “Your deputy’s goin’ right in the drink.”
Walt made it a little more than halfway to the logjam, shuffling his feet carefully in the clown-foot wading boots, before slipping on a rock and taking a header. Rainbow Sam, who moved well for a big man, ambled casually downriver, waded out in his jeans, grabbed Hess by the collar, and, for the second time that day, dragged a waterlogged body to the bank.
Back on shore, Hess had thanked Sam sheepishly and grinned at Martha, who raised her eyes in exasperation.
“We’ll come back tomorrow,” she said.
Sam wondered if there would ever be a time when he didn’t have to deal with morons in water.
Put on the spot, Walt grimaced, spit a stream of tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth -- he’d been a Chicago cop, taking a dip of snuff was a Western adaptation -- and said, “I see it like this, Marth. Our John Doe here, he’s out of state, reads Fly Fisherman and Field&Stream like they was Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, buys hisself a fly rod . . .”
“Which we haven’t found.”
“Which we haven’t found. Anyways, he has this rod but never learns how to cast. He’s fishing, hooks hisself in the lip on his backcast, slaps his hand to his mouth and falls into the river. He gets washed into a logjam and poked in the eye by a stick, starts swallerin’ water, and next thing you know he’s fishing that great trout stream in the sky.”
“We don’t know for sure yet he drowned,” Martha pointed out.
“No, but them’s the odds.”
“Walt, did you like, forsake the English language when you came out here, or were you always this much of a hick?”
“I fancy myself sort of the American Crocodile Dundee,” Walt said deadpan. He slapped the foot-long Bowie knife strapped to his waist.
Martha blew out her breath.
“Yeah, you’re probably right. That’s the scenario I come up with, too. But I'll take exception with the non-resident assumption. He's casually dressed, his waders are patched up, it makes me think he could be local. Plus the guide says he saw him here a few weeks ago, so if he's on vacation it's a long one.”
“What bothers me,” Walt said, “is how come no fishing license. No wallet, for that matter. No car. Leastwise, none nearby.”
“And no rod and no fishing vest," Martha added. "Plus, the wader belt he's wearing is inflatable but he doesn't pull the cord to inflate it. If he falls in, you figure first thing he does is reach for the cord. It smells, doesn’t it. Let’s go have a look at that logjam. Maybe his wallet and his license washed out of his pockets and got caught in the jam.”
“Not likely. If you remember, Sheriff, he was wearing one of those shirts with zipper pockets and they were zipped. I checked.”
“Humor me, Walt. And do me a favor. This time, try not to fall in the river.”
The logjam had formed itself into long commas of debris around an exposed boulder in the middle of the river. The body had wedged underneath the mass of roots from a tree that had washed down during high water. Ettinger and Hess searched this area first.
It wasn’t easy. The current swirled around the boulder, scouring out a pocket of deep water that pressed against the roots and threatened to upend the sheriff and her deputy with each mincing step. Bending down to look under the tangle, Hess took in a few cups of the Madison over his wader tops and whistled.
“Hooey, Marth, that’s cold as my ex-wife’s udders!”
Ettinger harrumphed. She had spotted something blue back under the root ball and was reaching as far back as she could, her arm immersed in the icy water and her wader top within an inch of the surface. The tips of her outstretched fingers grazed across what felt like fabric. She scissored her fingertips together, but the cloth pushed away.
She plunged her arm farther under, the water seeping in her waders. “Mother” . . . she felt her nipples stiffen and sucked in a involuntary breath as the water sloshed against her chest . . . “of” . . . she grabbed the cloth . . . “mercy!” she exclaimed, shuddering as icy water seeped underneath the wading belt and tingled against her belly.
“Aha!” She withdrew her arm triumphantly.
"Looks like Mr. John Doe lost his hat," Hess said. He waded over to examine the ball cap, which Ettinger pincered between her fingers.
“Moccasin Hollow Semen Sales. Julep, Mississippi,” Walt murmured. "Foreigner, just like I said." Above the brim was a stitched emblem of a Jersey bull, walking on his hind feet, approaching a cow who looked coyly over her shoulder at him. We stand behind our product, read the back.
“Amusing,” Martha said. “Very amusing.”
She turned the hat over. Inside the crown, a small square of sheep’s wool, attached by two safety pins, held four trout flies.
Ettinger said, “You ever know a fisherman to wear one of these patches inside the hat? I thought the whole purpose was to dry the flies, so you pinned it to the outside.”
“Don’t reckon I do,” Hess said.
Ettinger withdrew a submersible point-and-shoot from the breast pocket of her khaki shirt. She snapped a photo of Walt holding the hat and another of the logjam. Then she withdrew a Zip-Loc from her wader pocket and sealed the hat inside it.
Hess shook his head. “This ain’t no crime scene, Marth,” he said.
She ignored the comment and stuffed the Zip-Loc inside her wet shirt. "We’ll have a closer look-see later."
For the next twenty minutes they searched the tangle of branches that formed the logjam, Hess on one side, Ettinger the other. They found nothing else.
“What do you say we go back,” Hess said.
“Let’s give it another few minutes.”
“Marth,” Hess said, “just what is it we’re looking for? ‘Sides the rod?”
Walt went back to searching.
“I’m waiting,” Ettinger said.
“I’m thinking,” Hess said.
A minute later Hess straightened up. “Is this what we’re looking for?”
Ettinger waded around the downstream side of the jam and bucked the current to come up alongside the deputy. A willow tree had been swept against the logjam, its branches partially submerged. Walt was pointing to the end of a half inch-diameter branch that had broken off short near the trunk. The stub was splintered and clinging to it was a filament of fleshy tissue, pale as a blanched earthworm.
“That looks like eye matter to me," Ettinger said. "But this is downstream from where What's-his-face, Izard the Third, hooked the body. If our theory about him drowning holds up, how could he poke his eye out with this branch and end up 20 feet upriver?”
“Maybe that Southern gentleman and the guide were wrong about the position of the body.”
“What about the hat then, why was it upstream?”
“It came off his head and he swept on past it and ended up here.”
“That fishing guide was pretty positive about the body’s location, Walt.”
Hess rubbed his forehead with a sunburnt hand.
“Then how in God’s name . . .” He stopped. “Aw, Marth, are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?”
“Now you’re thinking,” Ettinger said. She took a snapshot of the limb, then fished around for another plastic bag in her wader pocket. Clasping the bag between her teeth, she opened the saw blade of her Swiss Army knife, grasped the stick a foot below the break and started to make sawdust.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from THE ROYAL WULFF MURDERS by Keith McCafferty, to be published on February 16, 2012.
Copyright © 2012 by Keith McCafferty