Wednesday, March 10, 2010

ONE SMOOTH STONE: First Chapter Excerpt

One Smooth Stone

Chapter One

   Alex Donnelly was alone. That’s how he wanted it. He told himself that’s how he liked it. That was a lie.

   He twisted the throttle on the boat motor to the off position, leaned back, pulled his floppy-brimmed river hat off his head and turned his face toward the sun. The silted water hissed against the bottom and sides of the boat. A breeze tussled his thick black hair. He heard a hawk whistle from a high cliff and squinted to watch it plummet from its perch.

   Closing his eyes, he slumped low. He would let the current take him home. He had all day and there wasn’t anyone waiting for him, except his dogs. At least they would welcome him, if only in anticipation of being fed.

   The hawk whistled again and Alex opened his eyes, letting them fill with the sweeping green hills and wide brown Yukon River. As the boat caught and circled in a whirlpool he dipped his hand into the cold flow. Two minutes, he’d been told. If he fell in – or jumped – it would take two minutes for this river to kill him. He knew it was true because it had almost happened. He’d been looking for the cabin where he now lived, had beached at the mouth of the wrong creek and decided to wade to the other side to search for a trail. Half way across he realized he was in trouble. It was deeper than he’d thought and his legs were giving out. Then the bottom dropped off completely and he’d had to swim. He barely made it to the shore in time; he couldn’t stand when he got there. His legs were useless for several minutes, even though the sun was high and hot that day. He remembered he’d shivered for two days.

   His eyes caught the gray shifting of mist in the rift of a small valley far ahead as thick clouds spilled their burden of moisture down toward the river. He could smell it as the wind brought the fragrance of poplar toward him. The trees on the banks seemed to turn their leaves toward it. He pulled his hat back on and shrugged into an old slicker. As the rain came toward him he started the motor and steered the boat closer to shore. He knew a wind could come up strong enough to keep him at a stand-still. He snorted as he thought about that. It was the story of his life right now. Standing still. But at least he wasn’t running anymore. He wondered how long it would last.

   Just before the rain hit him a sudden shifting of light curved over the hills in a faint rainbow. God’s promise. Funny how he always thought that when he saw a rainbow. Someone somewhere must have said it to him. He pulled his hat down and cut the motor again, to listen, as the first softness of rain touched him. Everything around him seemed to whisper. He breathed deeply and almost smiled. Out here a person could almost want to believe in God and promises. Almost.

August 19, 2003, Vancouver, British Columbia
   Inspector Stan Sorensen slumped into the driver’s seat of his unmarked car. Another case closed. It was a good feeling, but as his eyes absently scanned the neighborhood he knew it would not last. There was always another case, always more people who’d been hurt, more creeps to chase down. He sighed. There was a time when he’d thrived on it, but retirement was going to feel so good. He flipped open his notebook and wrote one more detail down, then reached for the ignition. His hand froze as his eyes rested on a small house across the street. Much like all the others, it had seen better days. What was it that made him … Sorensen’s eyes narrowed as the memory surfaced. A young girl’s face - dark eyes that held such longing it hurt him to even remember. He sat up straight. That case had never been closed. He reached for his notebook again and made another note. He hated loose ends.
August 20th, 2003, twenty miles downstream from Dawson City, on the Yukon River.
   Alex heard the boat but couldn’t see it. He took his binoculars down from a nail on the wall and walked to the bank. Making sure he was screened by the low slung branches of a spruce tree, he scanned upriver. He caught the long outboard, skimming with the current about a mile down. Adjusting the focus, he peered at the two people crouched in the back. He knew the one with his hand on the motor - the son of the mechanic in town. Alex couldn’t remember his name. Probably hired himself out to the man in the suit.
   The suit was hunched into himself, a large leather briefcase clutched in his arms, his knees drawn up, head down. His tie escaped now and then, flapping into the wind with sudden urgency until he caught it and tucked it in again. The sight of a man in a suit on the river was so out of context, Alex kept watching until the boat veered and headed directly toward him.
   He lowered the binoculars and squinted as it beached just below his cabin. Within seconds the men were out of sight but he knew they were scrambling up the embankment. They’d missed the trail. He considered slipping into the bush and pretending not to be there, but his curiosity got the better of him. He went back into the cabin and waited.
   As the two men breached the top of the slope, Alex's dogs erupted into high-pitched howls. The suit hesitated, peered around and seeing the animals were chained, approached the cabin. Alex stepped back from the window and waited for the knock. When he opened the door, he took in several things at once: the man looked young, no older than Alex himself, but smaller in stature. He was wiping his face with a handkerchief, but wasn't breathing hard from the climb. His hair was the color of sand and short, spiked at the front, reminding Alex of a small porcupine he'd seen that week. The man's eyes weren't visible behind dark sunglasses but Alex had the feeling he was being sized up in return.
   "Mr. Donnelly? Alexander Donnelly?"
   Alex kept one hand on the door latch, shoved one hand into his jeans pocket and willed his heart to stop racing. "Who's asking?"
   The man yelled over the barking. "I'm George Bronsky, of Adams, Ferrington, Lithgow and Bolt, attorneys at law, Seattle."
   When Alex did not respond, the lawyer slipped his sunglasses off. "You're a hard man to track down, Mr. Donnelly."


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