Victoria Houston writes mystery novels that focus on fly fishing and felonies in Wisconsin's Northern Woods. Read the first chapter from her book Dead Creek.
To fish in troubled waters.
Matthew Henry: Commentaties, Psalm LX
Dr. Osborne's brand-new Mercury 9.9 outboard propelled his trusty Alumacraft so smoothly over the gentle waves glittering in the late-afternoon sun that he almost missed the hidden entrance to the brook. Loon Lake had many such fingers reaching deep into the tamarack forest, but this one was special. And at last the ice was gone and the winds had calmed and he could begin his search again.
Nearly seven months had passed since he'd been able to fish for its sinister treasure: the old, long, dangerous muskie that had rocked his boat when Osborne tantalized him last summer with his favorite lure: the surface mud puppy. He'd spent the winter calling the fish "my shark of the north: and vowing to his buddies that "that son of a bitch" would grace the mantel above his fireplace someday -- across from the big picture window where Osborne watched the sun set over the lake every night. He might be more tentative about rough water in his old age, but a big fish could still stir him.
It was a perfect day for fishing. The tamarack outlined the shore, still spindly but glistening neon green with budding needles. The air was sharp and cold like a knife against his skin. He inhaled deeply. It was the kind of day, thought Osborne, when it's a gift just to breathe.
Osborne throttled the new motor way back. The engine responded like silk under his hand, slowing the boat to a silent glide. He leaned against the handle, nudging the boat into the center of the stream, carefully steering clear of submerged rocks. He knew the location of each small boulder intimately, and they looked like old friends as he drifted over. The dog curled up in the front of the boat raised a questioning eye.
"I have a plan, Mike." The sixty-three-year-old retired dentist spoke in a level tone to his black Lab as though the dog had inquired about a two-year treatment of gum disease. "We may miss today, and we may miss tomorrow -- but sometime this year – you, me and our friend, we're gonna have that come-to-Jesus meeting, oh, yes we are."
Osborne checked quickly to be sure the heavy gaff and his net were correctly positioned near his feet in case he was lucky sooner rather than later. He undid the latch to the livewell so he could swing it up and open with ease. Fishing alone made him doubly careful he wouldn't end up with a nasty, thrashing fish loose in the boat with just himself and the dog.
Osborne let the motor hum, selected the brown rod with the old Ambassador Garcia reel and, flipping his right wrist expertly, twice lofted the wooden lure. Seconds passed as the lure soared, then plunked softly, first to his right, then to his left. He was reeling before it landed, tipping his head back slightly so a sliver of the late spring sun could warm his face and forehead.
"Life is perfect, Mike," he said with quiet authority. "Life is perfect." Mike leaped to his feet then, wagging his tail and staring mournfully at his master, indicating nature's call.
"Life was perfect, Mike." Osborne shook his head. The dog had a real knock for needing to piss at all the wrong times. "Okay, boy, cool it while I find us a spot to pull in. Sit… wait… good dog." Carefully he hooked the lure on the rod and laid the rod down across the seats.
Osborne scanned the edges of the brook for a firm hillock. Much of the area was swamp and wetland, and the shadows from the towering firs made it hard to see. He spotted a good, wide, firm clump and revved the motor toward it.
Suddenly a sickening, grinding noise from under the boat caught him off guard. He switched off the motor, unhappy to hear the grinding continue until the propeller blades had stopped.
"Oh boy," he said, dreading the sight of a broken blade on his brand-new motor. Gently, Osborne moved his fishing rod so he could lean forward onto his knees to peer over the left edge of the boat.
He froze, so stunned he couldn't breathe, then he lurched back, almost tipping himself out of the boat. Desperate, he grabbed for both gunwales, terrified he was going to fall out and right into the horror beneath him.
The boat steadied, and Osborne looked up at the crystal blue sky. Not a sound did he hear except his own harsh breathing. Even the dog sat silent, watching him, his head cocked inquiringly. Osborne got himself up straight on the boat seat and reached for both oars. Arms shaking, he finally got them into the oar locks and, barely dipping the oars below the surface of the water so as not to touch anything under him, turned the boat around and gunned his motor out of the hidden brook.
Mike, looking back, started to bark loudly.
"Goddamn it, piss in the boat," said Osborne. He had to get to a phone. He had to get the sight out of his head. Never in his lifetime of cleaning fish, gutting deer, drilling root canals had he ever seen anything like it.
The sparkling clear water had magnified what he saw: a black wire cage about ten feet long and four feet wide with bodies floating in it. The photographic imprint in his mind was so sharp he could still see the blue denim jeans, the sodden dark woolen shirts. But what he really couldn't forget was the one face staring up at him, its mouth a black hole with a tongue protruding and cloudy eyes bulging directly at him. Instinct told him it was dead, but his pounding heart made him feel like it was rising up out of the water, lumbering after him.