In the River

‘I didn’t know you’d gone nautical.’  I wanted to lung at the man but I was too outnumbered.

‘Why don’t you come down below, Jackson.’  I looked again from Craig to Paul Wilson.  Neither met my eyes.  I gauged the distance back to the dock but knew I wouldn’t make it with the Wilsons ready to pounce.  I saw no other choice.  I followed Peter down through the hatch to the cabin below.  The walls there were pea green, with a series of circular windows looking out either side.  The cabin was carpeted in brown shag and included a cot, a modest table, and two wooden chairs.  Another door at the front of the room lead to another room.  I wondered if my father might be on the other side.

‘Have a seat.’  I sat and faced Peter.  I tried to steel my eyes.  Peter watched with detachment.  Now that I could look at him I noticed a slight change.  He was leaner, more skeletal, thinning toward nothingness.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ I said.  His lips and jaw seemed in danger of crumbling back into his skull.

‘Nothing,’ he said with the same arrogance.

‘You look sick.’

‘I don’t think you came here to discuss my health.  You seem ill yourself.  Yellow and….almost frenzied.  Is something the matter?’

‘Other than my father up and vanishing, you mean?’

‘Vanished, eh?’ Peter said.  He looked down at his watch.  ‘That’s what I heard too.  I suppose that’s still the story.’  He shook his head as he stood and walked to the bed and picked up the pillow and threw back the pillow and I saw a silver pistol with a black grip.  Peter picked it up and tested the weight but didn’t slip his finger in the trigger-guard.

‘What’s that for?’  Peter smirked but didn’t reply.  I began calculating my chances of escape.  With the Wilsons upstairs and Peter at my back the hatch would be tricky   I looked to the available windows, none of which were larger than my head.  Peter saw my eyes wandering.

‘There’s no way out, Jackson.  I chose this boat for a reason.’

‘So, what, you’re a pirate now?’  I wouldn’t give Peter the satisfaction of seeing me scared, even as fear began to cloud my mind.

‘Stop being so lippy.’  Peter came around to sit again in his chair, facing me again, the silver barrel of the pistol still attached firmly to his right arm.

‘Where’s my father?’  I wanted to stay on the offensive.

Peter used the gun to point at my hands.  ‘Look—you’re trembling.’  I looked down and saw my hands shaking.  I folded my arms across my chest, hiding my hands in my armpits.

‘You deny you were there?’ I said again.  ‘What about the letter you gave to Kingston?’

Peter shook his head.  ‘You want to blame me for it, don’t you?  Anyone to blame will do, I’m sure.  It’s alright—I’m sure they won’t blame you.  You didn’t do anything.  Besides, isn’t it your cousin who’s sheriff?  He’ll see that you get off.  Things haven’t changed in Poscataw so much as you’d think.’

I tried to keep my eyes always on Peter’s, but the way he was waving the pistol around was distracting.

‘I just want you to see how invaluable you were to everything that happened,’ Peter said.  Peter laughed, raised the pistol, and looked down the site at me.  In slow motion he mocked at firing a bullet into my forehead.  I balled my hands into angry fists.  Anger was the only emotion left to me other than fear.

‘I know what I’ve done wrong, but you’re the one…’  I trailed off, uncertain what to accuse him of.  Kidnapping?  I hoped for kidnapping.

‘Give yourself some credit. By the time I got to him he was ready to die.’  Peter looked to his wrist for the time.

‘So…’  Nausea swept over me.  I remembered my father with his antique pistol, setting the thing gently in its felt box with two hands.  I shuddered as bile churned.  No, Johnson Calvert was not dead.  Peter wasn’t capable of it.  But even as I said this to myself I considered the gun in his hand and the hired thugs up on deck.  I knew I needed to get the hell off that boat.  I glanced around the room for some way to create an exit.  I saw nothing.  When I spoke it was my voice but I’m not sure who was dictating the words.

‘Where’s the body?’

‘The body?  Let’s just say if I wanted to get rid of a body I could do it easily.  Out there.’  Peter pointed with the pistol out one of the windows at the river.  ‘Say I have something for you.’ He reached under the bed.  I froze at the motion, my eyes crazed and fixed on his hand as it groped for something out of sight.  When his hand came free he held a small shiny object.  It needed polishing but there was no mistaking my great grandfather’s sheriff badge.

‘Give that to me.’  It had been so easy that day in my father’s front room to give it away.  Now I wanted it back.

‘You know your grandfather never quite forgave your father,’ Peter said, turning the badge over in his hands.  ‘He had such hopes for the boy.  All that time we were at Southern—it was supposed to groom Johnson for the job.’

I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take.  He would taunt me and then he would kill me; it was only a matter of time now.  Another body weighted down and left in the delta for the alligators to gnaw on.  My vision began to blur and I couldn’t think beyond the snide sound of his voice.

‘Johnson was no sheriff,’ Peter said to the badge.  ‘Too thin-skinned.  But you, my boy.’  Peter tossed the badge to me and I caught it and felt the cool clasp on my palm.  ‘Jefferson Calvert would have liked you.  You have Jefferson’s…how shall we say it…moral flexibility.  You would have been a grand sheriff, once you got the hang of it.’  I gauged the distance between us and figured I might make it before a shot went off.  Peter glanced again at his watch.

‘Tell me what happened.’

‘Oh you mean like in the movies?’  Peter laughed.  ‘You want me to explaint he whole thing, unravel the secrets of the Sovereignty Commission.  I’m afraid you’ll never know, my boy.  Suffice it to say we have a large network—much larger than you know.  You’ve had run-ins with several of my agents.’

I saw now I would have to attack him.  He had left me no other choice.  I eased forward on my chair.  I needed to distract him.

‘Tell me what happened.’

Peter shook his head.

‘Your father was ready to share with the world the presence of certain facts and assets.  He latched on that point as the only possible redemption—that was the only way to show to his son that he was actually a good man.’

I wanted this to be a lie, an elaborate mindfuck by Peter Bingham, master manipulator, but the man he painted was my father in all his baboonish moral glory.  I gripped the arms of the chair until my hands hurt.

‘I’ll vanish again,’ Peter explained, ‘but this time you won’t be finding me, Calvert.  You wouldn’t have found me here if I hadn’t wanted you to.’

‘So you’re just going to float off?’ I said.  ‘Off to the Caribbean with your hired thugs.’

‘I have family with me too.’  His eyes fixed on something above me.  I turned and saw Gabe Calvert dangling down into the cabin.

‘Hello cousin.’  I wasn’t sure how long Gabe had been watching but it was clear he had blocked my only exit.  Faced with a hopeless situation, I figured I should go down swinging.  I turned back to Peter and saw him look down at his watch and that’s when I pounced.  I slapped at the gun in his hand and it fell to the floor.  Even as my momentum brought me down onto Peter he snatched me by the shirtfront and tossed me aside.  I landed on my back and Peter brought his forearm down against my neck, pinning me against the floor.  His knees rested on my chest.

‘You fool!’  I could hear the Wilsons up on deck yelling over something.  ‘I would kill you now but I’m waiting for someone.’  Peter put more weight behind his arm and I began to labor for breath.  I saw his eyes rise to the hatch above me.  ‘And here he is.’

I heard someone coming down the stairs.  I craned my eyes upward and the inverted image came into focus.  He stood bow-legged and I could smell his greased handlebar mustache.  His grin told me he’d been looking forward to this very moment.  The midget’s green eyes shimmered with a bovine simplicity.  Gabe had also come down into the cabin.  Peter looked from JD to Gabe before climbing off of me.  I lay still on my back, drawing in heavy breaths.

‘Remember me?’ JD said.  He leaned over me and peered down.  His lips puckered and he spit in my eyes.  I wiped the spittle from eyes in revulsion and sat up and saw the Wilsons had also come down into the cabin.

‘Jackson, Buddy!’ Craig said sarcastically.  I looked he and his brother up and down, wondering where they were hiding their weapons.

‘So you’re going to kill me.’  I did my best to seem tough in the face of long odds but the act was thin like too little mayonnaise over too much bread.

‘Just recompense,’ Peter said with an air of hilarity.  ‘JD has been involved for as long as I have.  I believe he mentioned his former occupation when you two met in Natchez?’

I knew I was over.  ‘Fucking inbred Mississippi rednecks.’

Even as I said it the midget cannonball into my chest, his short fingers going straight for my neck.  His eyes bulged toward me.

‘Think you can rob me!’  His slight hands closed on my throat and we toppled backward.  I flopped onto my back as all of JD’s ninety-something pounds came down on my chest, knocking the air from my lungs.  ‘I know a thing or two about beating a captive!’  He began to wail on my face with tiny fists.  I flailed with ineffectual hands, straining for a grip on JD’s flannel shirt so I could throw him off me.

‘You Disneyland Whore!’  JD’s diminutive face was huge and bizarre, eclipsing my vision.  My view of the angry midget began to fade.

‘Get in there,’ said a voice, Peter I think, and the Wilsons’ heavy boots found my ribs and soft middle.  There was no white light but I figured this moment marked the end of my questionably-significant existence.  I wondered if they would find my body or if Helen would just figure I ran off for good.

Even as I awaited the final blow I sensed a stillness, and the weight of JD came off my chest and I could breath again.

‘Pick him up,’ said the voice, and it was Peter, directing his band of misfits and thugs.  ‘Lift him.’  Several sets of hands found my limbs and hefted me up.  I had the sensation of being draped over a large shoulder and then I could smell the salt in the air and could hear the churning of an engine close at hand.  Someone laid me out on my back.  I felt a thin sheet of plastic between me and the hardwood floor.

‘What do we do with him?’  This voice was different, one of the Wilsons or even JD, and it came from close at hand, just above me.

‘Why else did we put down the plastic?’  This from Peter.  ‘Finish him off.’

‘Please let me.’  The blurry appiration of Gabe Calvert appeared above me.  His craning face grew nearer.  His hand closed on my neck.

‘Goodbye, cousin.’

I felt something cold dig against my head.

‘Wait!’

‘What am I waiting for?’ sneered Gabe.

‘There’s a police car just off the dock,’ said Peter Bingham.  ‘Start the engine.’  A shadow passed across me and by its girth I knew it to be Paul Wilson, the consummate driver.  The engines roared and I felt the boat sway from port to starboard.

‘There’s a cop!’ shouted someone.  ‘He’s coming down the dock.’

‘It’s my brother!’ Gabe Calvert said from on top of me.  His hand came loose from my neck and the pistol’s cold head eased off my temple.

‘Get rid of him,’ said Peter Bingham in a panic.  I felt an icy hand on my bare arm.

‘Come, cousin.’  Gabe Calvert gripped my bicep and lifted me so I was standing.  I could vaguely see him.  I jerked free of his cold hands.

‘I don’t need an escort.’

Peter’s voice came from behind me.  ‘Throw him off my boat.’  Gabe resumed his grip and I was too weak to resist as another hand took my other arm.  They hauled me forward until I felt the railing against my pelvis.  My vision sharpened and I saw the boat motoring away from the dock.  The shore, twenty yards away, had begun to grow indistinct.

‘See you wore your swim trunks,’ Craig Wilson said from beside me.  I turned and his chiseled face seemed softer then than I had ever seen it.  ‘Hey, kid, it’s nothing personal with me.’

‘He’ll screw you guys over too,’ I said.  I felt Gabe beside me and turned to him.  ‘He doesn’t care about any of you—not even you.’

‘You and I have already talked, cousin,’ Gabe said, ‘and I’ve told you what I do to my fathers.’  With that Gabe Calvert and Craig Wilson pitched me off the stern and into the river.

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