The Woman Who Rowed Away by Tom Swoffer

A former police officer finds a boatload of trouble while looking for a woman who goes missing after a row around the lake.

I was sitting on the deck of my family-inherited summer cottage, nursing my third seven-seven and watching the late afternoon sun setting like a dark purple bruise over the lake, when I first spotted her. Though nearly a hundred yards away, that lustrous yellow bikini instantly caught my attention. Even from this distance I could tell how spectacularly she filled it out.

I had come up here from the city to forget about signing my final divorce papers this morning. After twelve years of marriage Liz and I had lost all faith in each other’s fidelity. In response, she’d left me: my share of our joint account- fifteen grand in cash, which I intended to blow a fair share of drowning my anger and frustration, while still owing almost twelve on my car; an assortment of odds and ends- mostly junk except for the collection of rare coins my grandfather had bequeathed me, and now would most likely serve as my pension someday; and this run down old cottage she’d rarely visited. What I wanted was to get drunk and watch the sun drop off the horizon, just like the direction my life now seemed headed.

Why couldn’t my neighbor in sunny yellow be seventy years old, like the Uptons, who lived down the road? Why was she parading around on her deck, her light-brown hair glowing like warm honey, reminding me of the one thing I would miss with my wife- notwithstanding her willingness to share it with others: screwing each other silly on a sultry summer day.

The body certainly was mesmerizing, but what about her face? Against my better judgment, I got the binoculars that sat on the kitchen window sill. Focusing them on her was like watching a flower bloom. Her lips, soft and supple, held an enigmatic smile; one of those classically eloquent noses you wanted to kiss the tip of; and eyes clear and deep as a mid-summer’s day sky–a face that could easily inspire desirable dreams in both poets and fools. She sat down gracefully, extending her long, firm legs along the lounge chair, while her ample breasts gently rose and fell like a hypnotist’s watch rhythmically rising and falling before my longing gaze.

Reluctantly, I pulled the binoculars away before she noticed me ogling her like some horny teenager. Though her attention seemed drawn to something across the horizon of the lake. I wondered if she even noticed my presence, so obviously lost in personal thoughts of her own.

The next morning I was awoken by a quick series of sharp knocks. I looked over at the clock on the nightstand: nine-thirty. Pushing myself out of bed, the hangover hammering my defenseless brain like some sadistic pile-driving maniac, I stumbled out to the front door. Two men, wearing cleanly pressed off-the-rack suits stood there, badges in hand and routine questions in their eyes.

“Sorry if we woke you,” one of them said, watching me leaning precariously against the door jamb in my shorts, bare feet and bloodshot eyes. “Just asking everyone if they’d seen Rachel Hall out on the lake this morning.”

“Sorry, I don’t know who Rachel Hall is.”

My answer seemed to get the other police officer’s attention. “She lived next door to you?”

That perked my attention. “Something wrong?”

“That’s what we’re trying to find out. We found her kayak floating upside down on the lake this morning.”

I felt like he’d sucker-punched me in the gut. “I saw her out on her deck last evening. Guess I slept in this morning.”

“Sorry to have woken you,” the first officer said, and they both turned and headed for their car parked at the end of my driveway. Before the one officer got into the passenger side he looked back at me with a hint of suspicion in his eyes.

If they had detected any signs of guilt, however, it’d been because I didn’t want to mention what I’d been doing with my binoculars. Feeling even more disheartened than I‘d felt yesterday, I made some strong, dark coffee then sprawled on a deck chair and let the morning sun broil last night’s booze out of me. I looked over at Rachel Hall’s cottage and sensed an eerie emptiness there. I remembered her gazing out over the lake and it was then that I saw the police boat. Two men were leaning over the side, apparently looking for something in the water. I brought out my binoculars again to get a better look.

About the time I had them focused a diver popped out of the water. I could tell by the expression on all their faces that they were disappointed over something. I didn’t need to read lips to know they were searching for her body.

An image of a woman materialized: tangled in weeds at the bottom of the lake, fish swimming through her flowing honey-brown hair. What a waste. And for a moment I thought: Why couldn’t it have been the cheating bitch I‘d married?

I continued watching the police boat drag its net slowly back and forth, back and forth near where her kayak had been pulled ashore. Time stopped–it could have been an hour, it could have been an eternity of loss and regret, until I heard another knock on my front door.

I felt a sudden chill slide down my spine; then realized the police had no reason to notify me if they found her body.

The Uptons, the elderly couple who lived down the road, were standing at my door. The old man smiling patiently at his wife as she gazed forlornly at what survived of the shrubbery in front of the cottage.

“Hello,” the old man said, “it’s been a long time since we’ve seen you up here, Tony.”

“It’s nice to see you again, Mr. Upton. Mrs. Upton.”

The old lady took one more look at the shrubbery before her dim eyes turned towards me. “It’s such a shame no one’s been able to care for your place in such a long time.”

My mother had stopped coming up here after my father died, and my sister and both brothers had their own family weekend getaways. “Well, I think I may be coming up here more often now,” I told her. Yard work had never really been my thing, but I suppose it could take my mind off all the negative crap I’d been forced to swim in lately.

“Liz didn’t come with you?” Mrs. Upton asked, though I sensed she already knew the answer.

“She’s kind of moved on,” I mumbled.

The old man placed an arm tenderly across his wife’s shoulders and asked, “Can we talk to you for a few minutes, son?”

“Of course,” I automatically replied. I’d known these people since I was nine years old, and had always respected their kindness and wisdom towards me and my family. I offered them the couch and asked if I could make another pot of coffee.

“Oh no,” Mrs. Upton quickly answered. “We had our breakfast long ago.”

I sat down opposite them. It was plain in their anxious faces they wanted to ask me something so I tried to make myself as open as possible.

“I suppose you heard about Rachel?” the old man finally asked after silently consulting with his wife as to who would start. “She was our niece.”

“My sister and her husband died just before Rachel graduated from high school,” Mrs. Upton added. “She’s been very independent since then.”

“The police were here earlier. I’m afraid I didn’t get a chance to meet her,” I said.

Fighting back tears, Mrs. Upton stated, “Deep down, she’s a good person, Tony. Maybe she could be a little too wild at times, but she’s still young. It’s that husband she married…” she concluded, no longer able to fight off her tears.

“The police asked us if Rachel seemed depressed,” Mr. Upton confided, watching me to be sure I understood the implications of that.

“Why would they ask you a question like that?” I snapped, ready to jump up and go punch the idiot who’d asked them such a question.

“Because the lake was so calm this morning. And I’d told them how she was an excellent swimmer…”

“Rachel was on the crew team that year she went to college,” Mrs. Upton interjected.

“She rowed around the lake every morning since she’d come up here,” Mr. Upton explained. “All the way around.”

“She was in excellent shape,” Mrs. Upton smiled proudly through her teary eyes.

I hoped she didn’t notice me blush as her remark reminded me of what I’d been doing with my binoculars yesterday. “What can I do to help?”

“You were a policeman for a while, weren’t you?” Mr. Upton asked; and both of them looked towards me pleadingly. “We don’t usually like to pry, but…”

“Go talk to that husband of hers,” Mrs. Upton demanded, her eyes dry and angry now. “Rachel told me all about his fooling around. She admitted she only married him for his money.”

“Suppose she was getting ready to divorce him. That’s what she told me she was up here for,” Mr. Upton finished.

I recalled that look Rachel had as she gazed towards the setting sun: serene and reflective, yet also a look of finality, similar to Liz’s the day I walked out of the house for the last time. “I’ll do what I can,” I promised them.

After they left I thought about making myself a drink, noticed the clock hadn’t reached noon yet, so poured some juice into a tall, ice filled glass and went back out to the deck. With a name, she now seemed more real; not just some anonymous stranger in a yellow bikini; not to mention that face, as it had suddenly focused in my binoculars.

I scanned the lake, hoping against cruel common sense I’d see her swimming gracefully towards me, like Gene Tierney in that old movie, Leave Her To Heaven.

But I couldn’t ignore the police boat still drifting on the other side of the lake. I’d been a cop for three years, close to promotion to detective bureau, when I’d married Liz. Six months into our marriage she insisted I quit the force and go work for her father’s company, supervising routine security, before he’d closed his manufacturing plant. Except for an incident with one disgruntled maintenance man, the job had been as boring and duplicitous as our marriage eventually became.

I really didn’t expect to learn anything talking to Rachel’s husband, I just wanted to see how he was taking his wife’s disappearance. Hall owned a construction company, and when I called his office his secretary directed me out to Black Diamond, an old mining town about an hour out of Seattle, about to surrender whatever dignity it may once have had to the rapaciousness of suburbanization and his sprawling housing development.

A number of cookie-cutter housing shells dotted a freshly logged hillside with a shabby single-wide trailer at the entrance, marked with a cheap, generic Office sign out front. I parked between one of those behemoth extended-cab pickups and a tiny red convertible sports car.

A young peroxide-blonde, wearing a halter-top and jeans that looked sprayed on her curvaceous body, sat cross-legged on a couch, lazily skimming through a fashion magazine. She barely glanced at me as I entered.. A thick man sat at a desk back in a dark corner. He wore a short sleeve shirt with the name Bruno sewn over the pocket, which showed off not only his assortment of tattoos but also his muscle-bound bulk. He had a shaved head, gold earrings that glittered dully in the shaded light, and black wrap-around sunglasses on his forehead which emphasized his tough demeanor. “Can I help you?” he barked at me, without any hint of actually following through with that idea.

I tried making my strained smile friendly despite not feeling any friendly vibes around me. “I’d like to talk to Mr. Hall for just a moment. I promise I won’t take up too much of his time.”

“What about?”

“I’m staying up on Lake Walker, next door to Mrs. Hall’s cottage.”

The blonde lowered her magazine and stared at me.

“Yeah?” he snapped, giving the blonde a warning glance before leaning back and crossing his thick arms.

“I’m gonna go,” the blonde said, jumping off the couch.

“You mind your own business,” Bruno snarled, sliding his sunglasses down.

“Why don’t you just mind your own damn business, Bruno,” the blonde spat, strutting out of the trailer with a challenging look on her nervous face. Bruno watched her leave; even through the sunglasses I could feel the venom in his eyes.

I realized if I had any chance at seeing Hall, I’d need to break through Bruno’s hostility. “Really I’m here for the Uptons, Mrs. Hall’s aunt and uncle. They’re quite upset about what’s happened. I guess they just wanted me to find out if Mr. Hall could help them. Maybe any information about why Mrs. Hall could have had an accident.”

“What do you think Hall could tell them? He wasn’t there,” Bruno said, as we both listened to the sports car start up and roar off, blowing a spray of gravel against the trailer.

“Maybe if I could just have a few minutes of his time. I realize he must be very busy…”

“Yeah, he is. Like I told you, he wasn’t anywhere near there. Why would he know anything.”

“Certainly he’s concerned about her disappearance, though?”

Bruno sat up, grabbing the edge of the desk with his meaty hands. “You ain’t no cop, so why don‘t you mind your own business.”

I could tell by the way he was ready to spring at me our conversation was finished. “Well, thanks for your time,” I said, turning and walking out the door. Half expecting Bruno wrapped around my neck before I reached the safety of my car.

I stopped at the liquor store to pick up another jug of whiskey; all I wanted to do was get good and drunk. Before getting out of my car, though, I thought about Rachel Hall. She seemed like a goddess on a pedestal to me now, and she’d died before I’d ever gotten the chance to actually meet her. I knew she was going to haunt my dreams for awhile.

I pounded the steering wheel. “No,” I said firmly to myself. I wasn’t going to give up this easily. Tomorrow I’d go to Hall’s house and talk to him face to face. I owed it to the Uptons and Rachel, and maybe even to myself.

Next morning I expected them to answer the door with wary expectation, but instead was greeted by Mr. Upton’s stunned face. “You hear the news?” he asked as he drew me into their neat little cottage.

Mrs. Upton was sitting at the kitchen table, looking equally stunned and lost. I figured the police must have found Rachel’s body.

“I slept late,” I told them. I hadn’t followed the news reports since I’d come to Lake Walker. The world seemed to be spinning down the toilet; and now it’d become too personal.

Before I could tell them about my plans to confront Hall, the old man said: “They found Darrell Hall dead this morning.”

I felt as stunned as they looked. “Accident?” I asked, though I sensed the answer already.

Mrs. Upton continued staring across the table, reminding me of Rachel’s eyes– though hers had been decisive; the old lady’s looked like she’d just been told life had officially been called off because of irrevocable darkness. “No, somebody slit his throat while he was sleeping,” she said, a painful resignation in her voice as she forced out the uncomfortably accurate word slit.

“Was he alone?”

“Some girl was there; claims she was passed out drunk and didn’t see anything. Police are holding her and some man who was living in their guest house though,” Mr. Upton offered.

I thought about Bruno. Would he be jealous over a bimbo like that?

They both looked at me with confused eyes. “They think it was a burglary. The police are investigating.”

Which one of them said that I’d forgotten by the time I made my way back home. I don’t think they even cared what I’d learned, or not learned yesterday. They just sat at the table, numb. Without Darrell Hall to blame, they were faced with the bitter fact that there may never be any explanation why their beloved niece had disappeared.

Long past midnight I found myself staring out at the moon-dappled lake, wondering how I was going to put my own life back together. Trying out easily dismissed options born of desperation and grasping-at-straws hopelessness when something caught my eye. For a moment I thought it was just a mirage, and then I saw it again–a dim light sweeping around inside Rachel’s cottage. Then I noticed the canoe tied to the dock below her deck. I hadn’t seen it earlier.

My immediate thought: dumb kids, taking advantage of a tragedy to burglarize the place.

Damn it, maybe I couldn’t help the Uptons find closure, but at least I could help protect the property.

I grabbed my flashlight and before slipping out the front door I debated whether to take the old shotgun hung across the fireplace. Then I realized I didn’t know where the shells were, or even if it still worked after so many years. There was a baseball bat leaning next to the door so I grabbed that.

Cautiously, I crept down the lane towards the cottage, loose gravel scrunching under my sneakers sounding loud in the still night air. When I made it to the front door I could see the light was now steady at the rear of the cottage.

I could try the front door, but was uncertain whether it would be unlocked, or worse, creak when I opened it. I had to make my way around to the back, and confront whoever was in there directly.

Luckily for me, the path next to the cottage had been paved, so the only sounds were crickets and the lapping of the lake against the dock. I didn’t hear any voices or footsteps inside. Creeping up the steps on to the deck I tip-toed lightly over to the door. By then I’d figured there was only one person inside.

Gambling I was right, and hoping some luck was due to come my way, I slowly twisted the knob. I should’ve been in Vegas, because the door swung open without a squeak.

On the kitchen table a gym bag sat wide open between two flickering candles. Someone’s dim silhouette stood at the table, hands and wrists clearly lit by the light, methodically pushing bundles of cash and jewelry into the bag.

The hands suddenly stopped as I came through the door. I snapped on my flashlight with my right hand, my left firmly gripping the bat.

Her startled eyes looked wild in the harsh light, but that only seemed to make her even more alluring. I felt frozen, stunned, as if a dream had miraculously come to life. “You’re her.”

She could easily have picked up a gun and blown me dead. “Who the hell are you?”

“My name’s Tony Denton. I’m your next door neighbor. Saw a light in here and came to investigate. Everyone thinks you’re dead.” The words rolled out as if from an automaton.

She saw me staring at the gym bag. “Yeah,“ she snapped, “it’s money. And none of this is any of your concern. You’ve accomplished your mission, superhero, now please go back home and forget you ever saw me.”

“What should I tell the Uptons? They’ve been worried sick about you. Even asked me to try and talk to your husband.” I stopped. A shadow of panic slashed across her face when I mentioned her husband. “You know he’s dead?”

“So I heard. Whatever made you think Darrell would talk to you? He has trouble with communication issues, in case you didn’t notice,” she said, clutching the gym bag protectively.

“Tell you the truth, I never got past Bruno.”

“What did he say?” She seemed eager to hear my response.

“He definitely doesn’t have communication issues. He told me to get lost, loud and clear,” I confessed. “Nobody seemed too worried about you, except for the Uptons.”

She momentarily relaxed her defenses. “I’m sorry about Aunt Marilyn and Uncle John. But I think they’d rather believe their own explanation than face the truth.”

I knew it was time for me to leave, but that image of her parading around in that yellow bikini wouldn’t let me go. “I realize this truth of yours isn’t any of my business…”

“A superhero; and a wise man,” she broke in. “As complex as you seem to be, I still don’t see any need for you to hang around. I’ll contact my aunt and uncle later.”

I took one more glance at the gym bag and when I looked up her eyes glared at me with an icy intensity. Since she now considered me a wise man I figured I’d offer up what I knew; or at least assumed I knew. “Why did you kill him?”

She continued staring at me, and I felt like a deer being watched by a cougar. Then she relaxed her grip on the gym bag and gave me a quick, faint smile; like a blowtorch melting the icy atmosphere in the room. “Sure, why not. I guess I’m going to have to trust you. Or else kill you, too.”

She closed the gym bag, appraising me for a moment. “Darrell’s company was going broke. In case you haven’t noticed, not many people can afford to buy a new house right now. Drowning in debt can twist you into a lot of knots. Darrell was already a spoiled little punk, had inherited the company from his daddy. Only time he ever touched a hammer was one night when he was drunk and waved one at me.”

“I never touched my wife,” I interjected.

“Oh,” she laughed, “you’re a goddamn eunuch, too?”

Her laugh made me blush, but at least I’d gotten her to laugh. Certainly a positive step in the right direction. “My problem was she was more than willing to touch any guy who pleased her.”

“Who cares about that crap, anymore? I didn’t kill Darrell just because he could be a cheating, sadistic bastard sometimes. Show me someone broke and frustrated who isn’t. But when some money comes along–a lot of money,” she glanced affectionately towards the gym bag, “ it can motivate you to do some desperate things.”

“You said he was broke?”

“Until a few weeks ago he was. Then he found some people willing to loan him money. And it was cash, not another bank loan. Not that any bank would loan him money right now anyway.

“Bruno came with the money; I guess you could call him a guard dog. A mongrel dog, at that,” she spat bitterly. “When he started acting like I was just collateral that was the final straw. I knew where Darrell kept the money- two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, all untraceable cash,” she finished, resting her hand on the gym bag while smiling like a cat who’d just stolen the cream.

“They’re probably gonna have to let Bruno out in seventy-two hours. Don’t you think he’ll put two and two together and come looking for you?”

That wiped the smile off her face. “That’s why I need to leave. Now.”

“The reason the Uptons asked me to talk to your husband is because I was once a cop,” I told her. Her eyes went wide, and for a second I caught myself wondering what the hell I was getting myself into. After all, she’d just slit her husband’s throat; could I have ever gone that far with Liz? But that yellow bikini’s radiance still wouldn’t let go of me. “Sounds like you need a guard dog, too?”

For the first time she studied me seriously and not just as some annoying intruder. “I still don’t really know who you are,” she said, then smiled coyly, “except you like to watch people with your binoculars.”

Now she really got me blushing.

“Like what you saw?”

I returned her smile with my own oh-shucks version that made her laugh some more.

She examined me for a long moment. I knew if I tried to say one word it might easily enough be the wrong one. Finally she exhaled, looking at the full gym bag then back towards me. “You think you can handle Bruno more successfully next time; if he ever does manage to find me?“

Her use of the word “me” didn’t fly over my head. She was willing to use me, but how much would she need me? I realized my future depended on my ability to remain important in her life–I couldn’t afford to screw it up like I’d done with my marriage. This felt like “till death do us part,” for real. “I want to start over, too. Maybe we’ve just met–but I feel we’re at the same crossroad in our lives.”

She petted the gym bag like an old friend. “I guess we’ll find that out soon enough. Only other people I can trust is my aunt and uncle.”

“Think Bruno might bother them?” I asked.

She sighed, looked at me. “I already texted the relatives. Aunt Marilyn will be hosting my memorial the day Bruno gets out of jail.” I could tell from the tone in her voice she was trying to convince herself this was enough to protect them.

“Maybe I can leave a threatening message on his phone. Don’t try to find us. Might make him by-pass the Uptons altogether.”

I managed to make her smile more relaxed. “Good old Aunt Marilyn and Uncle John. They’re so attached to their own secure little life on this lake. Money don’t mean much to them at their age.” She looked around her cottage. “Speaking of which. We both stand to lose some abandoning these properties.”

“Well, sometimes property can be nothing but an anchor strapped to your ass when you feel it’s time to fly,” I offered. “Afraid I can’t match your quarter mil, but I do have a few things I can add to the pot.”

“You’re gonna be my guard dog, remember?” she grinned deviously, though she didn’t put much emphasis into it.

“Of course,” I answered, not even trying to sound convincing.

She reached behind the gym bag, pulled out a small automatic handgun and slipped it inside the bag. “Be careful,” she said, “you’ve convinced me that doing this solo’s too risky. But for right now you’re only a probationary guard dog.”

Then she looked at the baseball bat I’d been holding. “What did you expect to do with that. Challenge any intruder you found to a baseball game?”

I tapped the bat lightly on my other hand a few times and said: “I’m a superhero, remember?”

She scrutinized me up and down one last time before zipping up the gym bag. “I wonder what the hell I’m getting myself into,” she said, before looking out the window with that same assured expression she’d had while studying the horizon. “All right,” she finally said, “get what you need and meet me at the boat. We have to be across the lake before dawn.”

“You’re gonna wait for me, aren’t you?” The last time I’d committed myself to a woman hadn’t gone so well and I just couldn’t hold back from asking.

She turned towards me with that enigmatic smile: “I guess you’ll just have to trust me.”

Tom Swoffer’s stories have appeared in print in The Storyteller and Detective Mystery Stories, online at Mysterical-e and Pine Tree Mysteries), podcast on Nil Desperandum and in the anthology Pulp 2011/Twit Pub.

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