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They walked down to the riverbank and along it. The earthy smell of soil and river water surrounded her. In the distance, a dog barked, breaking the eerie silence of the countryside. Mel took her arm. “Watch your step, the ground’s uneven here. Do you remember anything before you got here?” She shook her head and couldn’t stop the tears. Without thinking, she turned to him, hiding her face against his broad chest. His heat and manly scent surrounded her, making her feel warm and safe. Mel put his arms around her and held her, dropping a kiss onto her hair. “It’s okay,” he murmured. “Go ahead and cry. You’ll feel better.” After a minute of crying with her forehead against his shirt, she straightened and looked up at him. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away her tears. Their eyes met and he bent his head. She knew he was going to kiss her. She wanted him to kiss her. His lips brushed hers, lightly at first and then they firmly settled on hers. He felt warm and delightful, yet unfamiliar and scary. Jane wrapped her arms around him, responding to him immediately. She opened her lips to his probing tongue and melted against him, enjoying the shivers of awareness that hummed between them. She snuggled closer, deepening the kiss, wanting him to never let her go. But somewhere in the back of her mind, she knew she shouldn’t be doing this. She might be involved with another man, or she might even be married–married to an abuser who’d tried to kill her. Oh, God, and what if he tried again? She realized he might try again if he learned he hadn’t succeeded. If only she could remember him so she’d know who to look out for. She had no right to be attracted to Mel now, however much her body wanted to be with him. She reluctantly dropped her arms and pulled away from him. She stepped back, the tears starting again. She drew a long, shuddering breath to regain control. Embarrassed now at the way she’d reacted, she said, “I’m sorry, I’m not usually such a crybaby. But I feel so helpless and frustrated, not being able to remember who I am or where I belong.” He sighed, handed her his handkerchief and eyed her thoughtfully, “You know you usually aren’t a crybaby?” “Yes,” she said, defiantly, blowing her nose. “I also know other stupid stuff, like what brand and color of makeup I wear. I even recognized some brands of clothes that aren’t cut the way I like when Marion and I went shopping today. And I know how to count money and approximately what the prices of various items should be. So why can’t I remember the important stuff like my own name? Even kindergartners can memorize their address and phone number, for goodness’ sake!” Lifting a shoulder, Mel said, “Who knows? Our bodies and minds are mysterious things. No one understands everything about them yet. Maybe they never will.”
Mel sat up straight at his accounting office desk. He stretched his arms high, turning his head from side to side to ease the stiffness in his neck. His shoulders ached from long hours bent over his keyboard.
Although it was June and the April 15 IRS income tax deadline had passed weeks ago, every flat surface in his office held piles of the paperwork of clients who had filed extensions.
He rose from his desk, went to the sideboard and poured himself another cup of coffee, then moved to the window to stare out over the St. Croix River. He squinted against the reflection of the bright sunlight shimmering off the moving water. He loved the view from his window. That view had been a major factor in his decision to buy this house so he could work downstairs and live in the apartment upstairs.
Something different happened on the river constantly--boaters moved up or down or wildlife appeared, doing their thing. He even enjoyed the dancing sunlight sparkling on the flowing water. He sipped the stale coffee. An eagle swooped low over the river and disappeared behind trees on the opposite bank.
His office occupied the lower floor of his two story frame house, built close to the riverbank. His window gave him a bird’s eye view of the shoreline and the dam only a short distance upriver.
The large power dam had been built right after the turn of the twentieth century, when lumbering still dominated the St. Croix River Valley. Along this side of the dam, a ‘bear trap,’ a device that allowed the lumbermen to move their logs through the dam in a controlled manner, still existed. A high gray rock cliff bordered the river overlooking the bear trap and the dam.
Mel glanced upriver as he sipped his coffee. Two people stood on the cliff overlooking the dam. A man and a woman? They seemed to be arguing, facing each other and gesturing, not admiring the dam as he would have expected.
Foolish city slickers. It’s not safe there. A constant spray of water rushing over the dam made the rocks slippery. He put down his coffee and picked up the binoculars he always kept handy for a closer look, looping the safety cord around his neck. Yes, long red hair on the woman. A flash of green, maybe her blouse?
If only he could warn them to go back to safer ground. They were too far away for them to hear him if he tried yelling. Besides, the roar of the water going over the dam drowned out all other sounds.
Signs posted along that road warned of the danger, but he knew people were fascinated by the dam and ignored warning signs all the time, trying to get close to the waterfall. Nothing the authorities did stopped people from putting themselves in danger.
As he watched, the man’s arm swung out. He slapped the woman. She put a hand up to her cheek. A moment later, the man reached out and gave her a hard shove away from him.
Mel gasped as she fell over the edge of the cliff. He froze and held his breath as she dropped down, down, down until she disappeared far below. The curve of the rocks on the bank prevented him from seeing her. Had she fallen on the rocks or into the rushing water of the bear trap?
The man leaned forward to peer over the cliff where she’d disappeared, and then turned and moved out of Mel’s sight.
Mel swung around, his binoculars hanging from his neck. He plopped the coffee cup on his desk, spilling some in his hurry to grab the phone and call 9-1-1.
He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the sheriff himself answer, instead of the usual dispatcher. In the two years Mel had lived in Landers, he and Ben had gotten well acquainted and they’d developed a mutual trust.
“Ben, call the rescue squad out. A woman in the river needs help. A man just shoved her off the cliff by the bear trap…yes, by the dam on the Minnesota side of the river. She dropped over the edge and then she disappeared.”
His foot tapping impatiently, he waited while Ben switched to another line and made the call to get help coming. He glanced around the room, but realized he had no rope or anything in his office that might be of help in the rescue. Ben and his deputies would bring equipment, but the sheriff’s office was in the county seat, Canton, ten miles away. The local volunteer fire department’s rescue team would get there first.
Ben came back on the line. “Okay, they’re on their way. I alerted your local guys, too, they’re closer. Give me the details of what happened. You said he pushed her in?”
“Yeah,” Mel said, “It looked to me like he shoved her on purpose…no, I was here in my office, so of course I couldn’t hear what they said... If someone goes up that road they may be able to get the bastard…no, I couldn’t see much except that he was taller than her and had blond hair. Wearing dark slacks and a white shirt, I think. I’m going down to the river to see if I can find the woman. I’m too far away from the dam to see if she landed on the rocks below or not. If she didn’t, she’ll be swept downstream past me.”
Mel hung up his office phone, grabbed his cell phone and shoved it into his pocket. Pulling the door shut behind him, he rushed down the steps to his backyard, his heart pounding in time with his feet. Jumping over his back fence, he made his way along the riverbank, a few hundred yards downriver from where he’d last seen the woman.
He raised his binoculars and shaded his eyes against the sun, scanning the water for any sign of her. Damn it, nothing.
He was a good swimmer. If he spotted her, he might be able to swim out to her and pull her in. No point in going in the water until he knew where she was. The river was wide here; the water murky and the current swift. She could be anywhere.
Sunshine sparkled off the rippling water, creating a beautiful scene. Downriver, boiling rapids rolled over rocks under the long bridge. Traffic moved across the bridge. He wondered if any of the occupants were aware of the drama unfolding beneath it.
The water flowed along in the warm June sunshine, deceptively calm on the surface near the bank. Farther out in the river, treacherous currents moved fast. Some very good swimmers had failed to battle those currents and drowned.
Damn it! Where was she? Could she swim? Had she fallen on the rocks and now lay hurt or dying? Or had she been knocked out on impact with the water and drowned? If she was in the river, had the current already washed her past him or should he watch the water up river?
Mel paced the river bank, his eyes constantly moving, searching. His stomach churned with tension as it had so often on various assignments in his past life. Adrenalin surged through him, putting every nerve on full alert.
Sirens screamed as police and emergency vehicles arrived, red and blue lights flashing. Mel ran to the landing and directed them to where he’d seen her disappear. The boat crew launched their power boat and climbed aboard. Tom, a short stocky man and one of Ben’s best deputies, gave orders.
Tom turned to Mel as he strode up. “Lucky we were over this way already. You got a description of this woman we’re looking for?”
“She was tall, slim and had long red hair,” Mel said. “White slacks and something green on top like a blouse or a tee shirt maybe. Too far away for me to tell for sure.”
“Okay, a couple of you men take the boat upriver to the dam. Check the rocks along the shore below the cliff. The rest of you keep a sharp eye on the river in case she pops up and is able to wave for help,” Tom said. “Any sign of her, yell to alert the rest of us. Let’s go.”
Several officers with binoculars joined Mel to patrol the riverbank, while others climbed the bank and started upriver toward the base of the dam. The river was wide and the water constantly moving. From this distance Mel couldn’t tell whether a shadow on the river was a log, a person or only a wave of foam -- or a flash of sunlight on the moving water.
Hours passed as they searched. Hope faded with each passing minute.
~ * ~
As the blackness receded, she felt herself tossed about in the strong river current like a cork, her lungs burning for air. A cold numbness engulfed her body as she paddled furiously upward. She broke through, gasped for air and went under again. She was so cold her insides ached.
Desperately, she forced her screaming arm and leg muscles to work harder than ever before. The current slammed her against rocks in the river. She gulped in a mouthful of air and saw a cement pillar. A bridge. Rapids. Where the hell am I? What am I doing here?
Pain surged through her but she fought on. She felt a fingernail break as she grasped at the rocks, frantically trying to stop her rush downstream; she couldn’t hold onto the wet and slippery stone. Her legs felt too heavy to pump, but she had to keep them moving, forcing them on and on. Breaking through the surface again, she squinted against the bright sun, trying to get her bearings, to see which way to try to swim to get to shore. The splashing water blinded her. Please, God, help me!
Again she went under. She was past the rocks now and sank into deeper water. Very deep. The current was stronger here and more turbulent and swept her along. She moved her arms and legs as fast as she could in the icy water and managed to pop above water. Only trees along the banks here.
She gasped, grabbing a breath of precious air before going under again. The strong, tumbling current swept her along, tossing her about like a ragdoll in the fast-moving water. She went under, popped up, and went under again, praying silently for strength to endure.
After she’d repeated that scenario for what seemed like dozens of times, her feet slammed into sand on the bottom, scraped on the harsh, rough earth. Oh, God, yes! Sand instead of water. Solid land.
The current had carried her to a spot where the river had flattened out. Or maybe she’d been swept out of the main channel. She struggled to get her rubbery legs under her and stood at last, her head free of the water. Rubbing the water out of her eyes so she could see, she focused on green trees and grass and turned toward the nearest ones.
Step after painful step, she forced her weary muscles to move her through the chest-deep water, into shallower water as she struggled toward the grassy bank.
Finally she pulled herself up on dry land, and dropped, panting and gasping like a fish, onto the soft grass. For what seemed ages, she coughed up water and vomited until her stomach ached.
As her breath slowed to a normal rate, she revived enough to sit up and check out her surroundings. Trees lined both banks of the river. No sign of life. She was in the countryside. The earthy scents of grass, mud and river surrounded her. The sun felt blessedly warm on her wet, shivering skin. Ugh. She smelled like fishy river water and mud. She pushed her long, wet hair back from her face with an impatient hand.
Where was she? What was she doing here? How had she gotten into the river? She wasn’t even in a swimsuit, so she couldn’t have gone swimming on purpose. God, she was a mess! She’d ruined her clothes. Her blouse was torn, her arm bleeding. Her feet were bare, holding shreds of her pantyhose. She had to find help, no matter how she looked.
Spotting a new-looking log cabin through the trees, she struggled to her feet to make her way toward it. Surely the cabin held someone to help her, or at least a telephone.
She stumbled and fell, crawled a ways, sobbing out her frustration at her weakness. Succeeding in getting up, she moved toward that sign of life, hoping it wasn’t a figment of her imagination.
When she reached the cabin, she pounded on the door, yelling for help. No one answered. She tried the knob. Locked, of course. She glanced around. A graveled parking area and a well-traveled driveway suggested people and cars came here, though she saw none now.
She stepped back then over to a window. Just a levered lock between the top and bottom halves. She found a rock, broke the top window above the lock, then reached inside and turned the lever. The window lifted easily and she eased herself inside.
She glanced around, shivering in her wet clothes. A kitchen table and chairs, a TV set, magazines and shelves full of books -- a neat, modern cabin, but no sign of a telephone.
“It’s just not my day,” she muttered.
A blue sofa with a matching knitted afghan thrown across the back invited her to rest. Without strength to go on, she collapsed on the sofa and wrapped her shivering body in the afghan.
She’d rest here awhile and get warm, before moving on to find help. She’d need her strength, because she hadn’t seen any other houses nearby. Where was she? How far was she from another house or a town? Even a farmhouse? Which direction should she go? She closed her eyes and dropped off to sleep.
~ * ~
Back in Landers, a crowd of onlookers had gathered on both sides of the river. Mel knew the sheriff didn’t like crowds watching his men work. They got in the way instead of helping, despite their well-meaning offers of assistance. In this case, though, he welcomed more pairs of eyes to hunt for any signs of the woman. The temperature soared along with tempers. Sweat trickled down Mel’s back as he scanned the moving water.
His arms ached from holding the binoculars up to his eyes, but he refused to give up.
He shouldn’t get involved. He’d done his duty by calling for help. He should go back to his office and tend to his own business.
No, he wouldn’t be able to concentrate if he did. He had to help. If only someone had gotten involved when his sister needed help, she wouldn’t be lying in a cold grave now. So Mel stayed and searched for the woman, as though that could atone for his not being there for Mary.
As the hours ticked by, hope faded. Frustration ate at Mel and left a sour taste in his mouth and a knot in his stomach. She couldn’t have survived this long without help.
Still, they combed the river and its banks, hour after hour.
Finally, daylight faded away into total darkness. The sheriff called off the search until daybreak.
“I’ll need your statement,” Ben told Mel, his voice hoarse and weary. “But first, let’s get some food.”
Mel nodded and followed Ben to the Flame Restaurant for supper, although he didn’t feel like eating. When he’d served in the military, his stomach had always rebelled when a mission went wrong. That hadn’t changed with retirement from active duty, no matter how often he told himself not to get personally involved in a case.
This is Ben’s case, not mine, he reminded himself, even though he’d witnessed her fall into the river and thus felt a special need to find her. He hated failure.
Curious local people looking for the latest news, as well as the usual crowd of tourists, filled the restaurant. The scenic St. Croix Valley brought many people to town on a regular basis. In fact, tourism was the life blood of the whole valley. Waterslides and two state parks kept people occupied in the summer and two ski resorts did the same in the winter.
Mel and Ben settled into a back booth in the coffee shop end of the building. A young waitress appeared with a pot of coffee, took their orders and hurried off to the kitchen.
Mel sipped the hot coffee, feeling the fresh brew revive him. “Did anyone find the guy who pushed her into the river?”
Ben shook his head. “No one was on the road to the dam when my men got there.”
“He probably went north up the highway.”
Ben nodded. “Otherwise, they’d have passed him coming south. Are you sure it was a man?”
Mel stared at him for a long moment. “That’s my impression, Ben. Now that I think about it, no, I can’t be sure. Even with binoculars, I was too far away.”
“So, all you’re sure of is that the person stood taller than the woman and had blond hair?”
With a sigh, Mel admitted, “Yes. He was wearing dark pants and a white shirt.”
Ben eyed him over his cup. “Which could also have been dark slacks and a white blouse?”
Mel shifted in the booth. “I suppose. But my gut feeling is that it was a man, Ben.”
“Do you think the person knew you saw him?”
Mel shook his head. “I doubt he could see me standing inside my window. But most buildings along that street have a view of the river, so if he paid attention, he knew he could have been seen.”
“Maybe -- or maybe not. Guess we won’t know unless we catch him.”
“Or until we find her and can identify her body.”
“Yeah. But if the current got her and carried her downstream, that may not be for days,” Ben said glumly.
“I suppose not,” Mel agreed. She had little chance of living through the rapids. If she hadn’t drowned as soon as she fell into the turbulent water below the bear trap, the fast current probably would have smashed her against the rocks as it carried her down river. The strong current could have kept her under the surface in the deep water. The river had taken many lives, even those of very good swimmers. Had this woman known how to swim?
The waitress brought their food. They ate in silence for a few minutes until Ben growled under his breath, “God, I hate cases like this.”
“Yeah -- me too.” Morosely, Mel watched Ben stare into his coffee cup, add another spoonful of sugar and stir it. Ben always used extra sugar in his coffee when he was planning on staying up late, as he was sure to do tonight.
Mel had been around Ben’s office enough to know that Ben would be on the computer and phones, updating other officers in surrounding counties and trying to figure out who the victim and her companion were.
Ben’s deputies would be reporting in after questioning people around town who might have seen the couple or a vehicle near the dam at that time. All of it took time and legwork in tourist season, their busiest time of the year. This little town didn’t have its own police force. The city contracted with the county sheriff’s office for protection.
Mel finished off his hamburger and bit into another French fry. “She never had much of a chance, did she?”
Ben tossed him a wry look. “I don’t know of anyone who has gone through that bear trap and lived to tell about it,” he admitted. “I’m quite sure we’re searching for a body, now.”
“Yeah, I’m afraid you’re right.” Mel drank his coffee. Frustration and disappointment knotted his stomach.
“And a murderer, if he did it on purpose.”
“I’m sure he did.” Mel’s voice was definite.
“You finished eating? Then let’s get at your statement.”
They drove over to Canton to Ben’s office where Ben sat down at his computer and began asking questions. Mel described in detail what he’d seen and done earlier as the sheriff made up his report.
At last Ben ran a tired hand through his brown hair and rubbed the back of his neck. “Thanks, Mel. I guess that’ll do it for now. I’ll call you if I think of anything else.”
Mel rose. “Okay, Ben. See you at the Flame in the morning.”
“Yeah, if I have time for breakfast. We’ll resume the search at daylight.” Ben rubbed a long finger along the side of his crooked nose and went back to typing.
~ * ~
After leaving the sheriff’s office, Mel drove back to his log cabin down river. He’d bought this small place on the riverbank when he’d moved here a few years before and fixed it up. He had an apartment above his office in town, but often needed to get away from dealing with the public and the crush of tourists.
At his cabin he enjoyed time alone, fishing for walleye at night or listening to the quiet sounds of nature along the river. After years of dangerous missions in the service, he relished the peace and quiet and his privacy.
He enjoyed partying with friends as much as the next guy, but tonight he needed solitude. Knowing he’d watched someone die today made him long for peace and quiet. He tried not to think about the horror.
He followed the graveled road, his headlights pointing a yellow path through the evergreens surrounded by darkness. He loved the way his cabin was set back in pine and fir trees so thick that you couldn’t see the neighboring cabins along the riverbank, even in the daytime, although they were only a few hundred yards away.
The night was pitch-black here along the river. Mel glanced toward the river where the poor woman’s body rested deep under the cold dark water.
He knew the reality of it. A body often sank and, usually several days later, rose again when decomposition set in. He shuddered at the thought of what she might look like when she finally surfaced. He hated dealing with the horrid details of death. That had been a major factor in his decision to leave his job with Special Forces. He’d seen enough of death to last him a lifetime.
Parking his blue Chevrolet, he got out, his headlights lighting his way to the porch. He was glad his car was new enough that the lights would automatically shut off after a minute or so. His approach turned on the motion lights he’d installed.
He unlocked the door, stepped inside and froze. He wrinkled his nose. Something was different.
A burglar? He tensed, ready to fight whoever was waiting for him in the dark. He stepped to one side, groping for the light switch. He flipped it on and gazed around his cabin.
Muddy footprints streaked across his polished hardwood floor. Broken glass littered the floor in front of the window off the porch. Someone had broken in.
He moved farther into the room and saw a form lying on the sofa wrapped in his blue afghan. Matted, bright red hair peeked out of one end of the afghan. Dear God! Was it possible? His heart pounding, he moved closer.
Yes! It had to be the woman he’d seen fall into the river by the dam.
And a slight rise and fall of the afghan told him she was alive!
Book Publisher: Class Act Books
No. of Pages: 213
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