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Drift_Child_Interior_0002_001

a novel

drift child

Rosella m. Leslie



NEWEST PRESS

Copyright © Rosella M. Leslie 2010

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recording or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior consent of the publisher is an infringement of the copyright law. In the case of photocopying or other reprographic copying of the material, a licence must be obtained from Access Copyright before proceeding.

 

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Leslie, Rosella M., 1948 –
                 Drift child / Rosella Leslie.

ISBN 978-1-897126-71-4

                 I. Title.

PS8623.E849D75 2010       C813’.6       C2010-903640-9

 

Editor: Elaine Morin
Cover and interior design: Natalie Olsen, Kisscut Design
Author photo: Betty C. Keller
Proofreading: Michael Hingston

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NeWest Press acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, and the Edmonton Arts Council for our publishing program. We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for our publishing activities.

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# 201, 8540 – 109 Street
Edmonton, Alberta T6G 1E6
780.432.9427
www.newestpress.com

No bison were harmed in the making of this book.

printed and bound in Canada 1  2  3  4  5  13  12  11  10

This book is dedicated to my husband, lover, friend, and constant supporter, John O. Alvarez.

My endless thanks to Betty Keller, Maureen Foss, Gwen Southin, and Dorothy Fraser of the Quintessential Writers Group for their critiques, insights, and encouragement.

Thanks also to the many people who so generously provided me with pictures, maps, and background information.

CONTENTS

PROLOGUE

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

EPILOGUE

 

PROLOGUE

The father sat on the boat’s only seat, his broad shoulders bent to the task of rowing. The girl fixed her eyes on the back of his red plaid shirt as he reached and pulled, reached and pulled.

My daddy.

She wore his denim jacket beneath her plastic poncho and life jacket, and she wriggled so that she could feel the fabric of the sleeves, as if his arms were holding her, keeping her safe. So long as he was there, she was not alone. Not a drift child.

Whenever the zodiac rocked wildly in the trough of the giant grey waves, she gripped the ropes fastened to the starboard pontoon and braced the heels of her runners against a plastic floorboard. The bow leapt high in the air and smashed back into the trough, pitching the girl against her two siblings. She pulled herself free, leaving them clinging to each other and the blanket they shared.

“Those two have each other,” her aunt had once told a neighbour, “but this one is alone. A drift child.”

A gust of wind blew rain into the girl’s face. I can’t see! I can’t see! She blinked and blinked, but every time she raised her head, her face was drowned anew. She couldn’t breathe. I can’t see! Bending forward, she swiped her face against the plastic covering her knee, then, looking up, squinted until she found the red plaid of his back again. Strong. Purposeful. Working the oars.

My daddy! The words screamed inside her head.

 

ONE

Sunshine streamed through the skylight and fell on the mushroom-shaped mound of spinning clay. Emma Phillips compressed the mound into a solid bell shape. On the floor beside the potting wheel a large calico cat rolled playfully onto its back, tummy exposed and paws clawing the air.

“Forget it, Purkins,” Emma said, pursing her lips in concentration. She was using more clay than she had ever worked with before and it was proving much harder to centre. Gently pressing downward, she formed a hollow in the top of the mound and began widening it into a bowl, oblivious to everything except the sound of the wheel and the rhythmic hum of the motor.

I’m getting it! Scarcely daring to breathe, she pulled up the sides, then took her hands away and studied the bowl. There was still a lot of clay at the bottom. One more pull. Smoothly applying pressure, she began working the clay upward.

Suddenly the telephone rang, and Emma’s hand jerked outward. Her right foot dropped to the flywheel, braking it slowly to a stop, but the damage was already done, and as she lifted her hands away from the clay, she stared in disgust at the misshapen bowl. She cursed herself for bringing the phone into the studio, then cursed the phone because it continued ringing. Finally, without bothering to wipe the clay from her hand, she answered the damned thing.

“What?”

Taking his cue from her greeting, Sam Gabriel said, “I’m sorry to trouble you on a Sunday, Emma….”

“Uh-huh….” Her lawyer-boss was famous for turning a simple acknowledgement into such an unequivocal yes that the Supreme Court of Canada would have a hard time dismissing it.

“Kazinski called me this morning,” he continued carefully. “He’s probating a will and one of the beneficiaries lives in Bear Creek Landing, near Rivers Inlet. Apparently his secretary mailed the cheque to the woman before arranging to get the release signed.”

Emma put the phone between her ear and shoulder and reached for her clean-up rag. John Kazinski had recently been made a partner in the Toronto law firm where Sam had worked before semi-retiring to British Columbia five years earlier. “Why doesn’t he fax it to her?” she asked, wiping clay from between her fingers. “They do have fax machines in Toronto, you know.”

“Well,” Sam said, “for one, this Mary Dahl — she’s the beneficiary — could flat-out refuse to sign it, since she’s already cashed the cheque. For another, it seems she lives out on a ranch in the middle of no place. She doesn’t have a phone or access to a fax machine. And for a third, the estate’s executor is complaining because it’s taking so long to probate the will.”

Emma tossed the rag aside and took the receiver in her hand once more. “Rivers Inlet is a long way from Shinglewood, Sam. How do you plan on getting there?”

“Kazinski will pay for a charter there and back. The thing is, I’m delivering the keynote address at that conference in Vancouver this week. So it has to be you.” Resorting to his usual authoritarian manner, he added, “He’s emailing me the release, and the plane will be at the dock at eleven. That will get you to Bear Creek Landing by noon, and you’re booked on the regular flight back tomorrow morning.”

Emma glanced at the clock. “Sam! It’s already ten now. You can’t expect me to pack, stop at the office for the release, and be down at the dock by eleven!”

“It’s the only time I could get,” he said. When she didn’t respond, he added, “This could mean that Kazinski will give us more work in the future.”

“Right,” Emma said. “Never mind that you’re sending me out into the middle of God-knows-where, just so long as we maybe get some more work out of these Toronto guys — which you don’t have time to do anyway!” She looked at her collapsed bowl and her voice hardened.

“I can’t do it, Sam.”

The line between them was silent.

“I’ll pay you extra.”

Emma pictured moths flying from Sam’s wallet. “Five hundred bucks,” she said finally. “Over and above my salary. You can add it to Kazinski’s bill.”

She hit the off button, ending Sam’s sputtered protest, and turned back to her table as the outside door opened and a scruffy, wheat-coloured Norfolk Terrier bounded across the room. Purkins sprang onto Emma’s shoulder, knocking her off balance as he leaped for the safety of a nearby shelf. Emma grabbed the potting wheel to save herself and plowed her right hand through the bowl.

“Damn it, Twill Lafferty!” she yelled, shaking a clay-covered fist at the tall, bearded man who had followed the dog into the studio. “I told you to keep Rugrat out of here!”

“And how the bejaizus am I supposed to be doin’ that when he’s slippin’ through my legs faster than a cadfish with a seal bitin’ his arse?” her friend and neighbour said as he made a grab for the dog, who sensibly abandoned the cat and skittered back outside. “I’ll be bound now if you think you’re ridin’ back with me!” Twill shouted after the dog.

Emma waved at her ruined creation. “Like that’s going to help,” she scoffed, unimpressed by the Newfoundland dialect that Twill slipped into when his emotions ran high.

Skeptically eyeing the mess, he ran calloused fingers through his grey-streaked hair, taking care not to dislodge the transmitter coil of his speech processor. “Didn’t seem like you was havin’ much luck with that jar anyways,” he said. Noting Emma’s glare as she scraped what was left of the bowl into a slippery ball, he added, “Though it was clear as day you was workin’ hard to fix it.”

“Your damned dog ruined my bowl!” Emma got up from the wheel. “What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you were going to Campbell River.”

“Just getting’ back,” he said, visibly relieved by the change of topic. “I picked up an Oscar Peterson LP.” Twill was the only person Emma knew who still bought vinyl records. He played them on an old-fashioned cabinet-style stereo that he and his wife had received as a wedding gift. Listening to the music they had shared was the only thing that sustained him after her death.

“Which one?” she asked, certain that he already had every recording the pianist had ever made. She threw the ball of clay into a plastic bag and began cleaning up the tray attached to her potting wheel.

Tracks, recorded in 1974. I thought maybe you’d like to have a listen tonight over dinner. Fresh hatchery trout and some of Leonard’s huckleberry hooch.” He ogled her. “No tellin’ where that might take us.”

Emma grimaced. Leonard Smythe was the assistant manager at the fish hatchery Twill managed. The last time she’d tried his homemade wine, she was ill for a week. “I’ll bring the wine, and we’ll see about the rest,” she said. “But it’ll have to wait a few days. I’ve got to fly up to some place called Bear Creek Landing in about forty minutes.”

Twill’s right brow rose.

As she sponged out the splash pan, Emma explained what Sam wanted her to do. “He figures I’ll be back tomorrow afternoon, but this woman lives out in the middle of nowhere, so it could take me an extra day or two. I’ll leave food out for Purkins, but if I’m not back tomorrow, I’d be grateful if you’d drop by and give him some more.”

Twill leaned against the door and watched as she carried her tools to the sink, washing them at the same time as her hands. “I’d a lot rather be fetchin’ that signature for you,” he said. “I could use a few days away from the hatchery.”

“And I’d be happy to let you,” Emma responded, as she whipped a worn towel from its hook on the wall and dried her hands, “but the bonus Sam’s going to pay me will help buy my new roof.”

“So you’re finally taking my advice about that….” Twill began, then wisely muttered something about finding his dog and made a hasty exit from the studio.

Emma had no patience with men, not even with Twill, whom she had known since she was fourteen and came to live with her grandparents in Windrush. He had been a big brother to her then, and it wasn’t until many years later, after his wife had died and Emma’s marriage to Tommy had ended, that they had drifted into a closer relationship: friends with benefits.

It took only a few minutes for her to change and throw an extra pair of slacks and a sweater into a wheeled suitcase, and less than that again to set out food and water for Purkins. He had disappeared through the cat flap in the boot room and didn’t return even when Emma went outside to call him. She looked anxiously over the tangled garden that skirted the rear of the two-storey grey clapboard house. Two robins were fighting noisily over a piece of string while a Stellar’s Jay screamed at them from the lowest branch of a nearby cedar. Far below them, the Stuart River ambled eastward through marshy second-growth forest. But there was no sign of her cat and finally, with a last regretful look at the river, she turned away.

“He’ll be fine,” she told herself. Gathering her gear, she headed for the truck.

On the way to the Shinglewood harbour, where she was to catch her flight, Emma stopped at the Rusty Anchor Coffee and Gift Shop to deliver a box of bowls to Sam’s wife Kate.

“I brought you all that’s left from my last firing,” Emma said, setting the box on the counter.

The redheaded proprietor opened the cover. “Same old, same old,” Kate said with disappointment. “I was hoping you might branch out into something more… creative. Like those pieces in your basement.”

A few years earlier, while searching for items to include in a rummage sale for the hatchery, Kate pulled out a box of hand-built stuff: horses with goddess heads and serpent manes flowing behind them, bearded muscle-men rising from grotesque tree stumps — the kind of fancy Emma had indulged in before her marriage. At the time she’d refused to include them in the sale, and now she deliberately misunderstood her friend’s request.

“I was trying to build a bigger bowl, but between your husband and Twill, I smashed the damned thing,” she said. “And now Sam’s sending me halfway up the coast on my day off.” She watched Kate set the box aside. “Anyway, the tourists buy them, and that’s what counts.”

“Tourists. What do they know about art?” Kate leaned her elbows on the counter. “I bet Sam that you wouldn’t go.”

“He didn’t give me a chance to refuse,” Emma said, “but he’s going to pay dearly for it.”

“Well, as far as I’m concerned, you could do with a little adventure. Anything to get you away from that mausoleum of yours.”

“I had my fill of adventures crewing on fish boats for nine years,” Emma said stiffly. “And Windrush may be old, but I’d hardly call it a mausoleum.”

Kate sniffed. “It looks like one. All those trees, and more moss on the roof than shingles.” She jabbed the air with her index finger. “You think it’s a safe place, Emma, but one day you’re gonna wake up dead and realize you’ve never lived.”

“Yeah, well, if I miss that plane, I won’t have to worry about living because Sam will kill me.” She headed for the door. “And who knows? Maybe I’ll see something on the trip that will inspire me beyond bowls.”

TWO

The aroma of drying mussels permeated the air as the morning sun warmed the pilings of the government wharf at Port Hardy. Overhead, seagulls flashed white wings and screamed for attention as they circled the fishing boats moored to the dock. From the water came the ragged putt-putta-putt-putt of an engine badly in need of service, and a moment later a large yellow zodiac rounded the end float. The lone occupant of the boat cut the motor as the boat glided alongside the only open berth. After securing the stern line to a metal cleat, he climbed onto the wharf and tied the bowline to a second cleat. Buttoning his denim jacket halfway to cover the oil stains on his plaid logger’s shirt, he rubbed a hand over his unshaven face, then got to his feet and stomped toward the ramp. He had just reached the top when a car turned onto the pier, its tires thump-thumping softly on the uneven surface. As it came to a stop in front of him, the doors opened and three young children bounded out. “Daddy!” They screamed in unison as they ran towards the man.

The eldest, a ten-year-old brunette whose limbs were much longer than the clothes covering them, reached him first and wrapped her arms around his waist. “I knew you’d come, Daddy!”

“Hey, Julie-girl!” he said, hugging her with one arm. With his free hand he grabbed the youngest child, a towheaded six-year-old boy who had the same wiry build as his father, and swung him up under his arm.

“Caden, come on up here!”

“Let me go!” The boy shrieked, kicking until the man let him down.

The third child, an eight-year-old girl with honey-blonde hair and fierce blue eyes, hung back. Still, there was an eagerness in her expression that she couldn’t completely hide. The man reached for her.

“Come on, Skylar,” he said. “You know you want a hug.” His grin was infectious and reluctantly the girl allowed him to hug her, then quickly pulled away and pointed to a woman emerging from the driver’s seat.

“Aunty Glenda says you gotta take us!”

The wraith-like woman wore a long batik dress in various shades of purple. Her hair was as blonde as Skylar’s and there was an aura of peacefulness about her as she walked languidly toward the group — a serenity not shared by the children’s father.

“What’s this all about, Glenda? I thought we had an arrangement.”

Glenda smiled. “I’m sorry, Dennis. This isn’t working. You’re going to have to take them.”

He glared at her. “And how the hell am I supposed to do that? The camp’s fifty clicks up the strait, remember?”

Her laugh tinkled, but it held no humour. “How could I forget, Dennis? It’s where you’ve been hiding ever since my sister died. Six months without a card or a phone call. Not even on Caden’s birthday.” The rebuke startled the children, who clustered closer to their father as if to protect him.

Dennis’ reaction was angry. “I’m a logger, for Christ’s sake! What do you expect?”

She waved her hand. “You have to take them,” she repeated. “They’re disturbing my energy field.”

“Yeah, right,” he said. “And how the hell are they doing that?”

Caden piped up, “Skylar scared the dead guy away!”

“I did not!” the blonde girl said, punching her brother’s arm. “And anyway, he wasn’t even real!”

Dennis grabbed Skylar’s hand, preventing a second punch. “Knock it off, you two.” He looked at Glenda. “A dead guy?”

“I was conducting a seance for a woman who recently lost her husband,” she said, “and I had barely contacted his spirit when this one began howling like a banshee!”

Stepping closer to her father, Skylar scowled at her aunt. “I was just makin’ it more spooky.”

“You frightened his spirit,” Glenda snapped. “Now it will take me weeks to coax him back!”

Dennis’s lips twitched. “She didn’t mean to upset you, Glenda. And she won’t do it again, will you, Skylar?”

“No way,” Skylar vowed. “That screaming old lady scared the shit out of me!”

As Dennis fought a sudden coughing spasm, Glenda closed her eyes and stretched her arms upward, lifting her hands towards the sky. Finally she lowered her arms and opened her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice edged with anger. “I simply can’t live with all that… that negative energy.” She began walking toward the rear of her car. “I have their things in the trunk.”

“What part of living in camp aren’t you getting, Glenda?” he shouted after her.

She responded with another benign smile. “Andrea and I grew up in logging camps, Dennis. The children will be fine. Besides, I’ve asked Spirit to help them.”

Spirit?”

“My spiritual guide,” she said as if that explained it. She extracted four large plastic garbage bags from the trunk of her car and put them on the pier. “I’ve included some blankets and their school things. You’ll have to contact the correspondence branch about courses for them.” She slammed the lid on the trunk, then pulled a bottle of pills from her pocket. “This is Skylar’s Ritalin. Make sure she takes it.”

As soon as he took the bottle from her hand, Glenda turned back to her car and climbed in behind the wheel. Dennis shoved the Ritalin into the pocket of his jeans. “Well, thanks for nothing!” he called out. Then he glared at the children. “Come on, grab yourselves a bag and follow me.”

He walked several steps before he realized his middle child wasn’t moving.

“Come on, Skylar. I haven’t got all day.”

Skylar tilted her chin. “We’re hungry.”

Her siblings nodded.

“Yeah! I’m starving,” the boy insisted.

Julie said quietly, “We only had porridge for breakfast, Daddy.”

Dennis stared at the three of them, then shook his head in defeat. It was almost a three-hour drive from Glenda’s home in Campbell River to Port Hardy. They probably were starving. “All right! We’ll stow your gear and then we’ll go for hamburgers, okay?”

Without a word, Skylar hoisted her bag over her shoulder and half-dragged, half-carried it toward the ramp.

Three burger-and-milkshake combos later, and with the children wearing ill-fitting life jackets, Dennis steered the zodiac out of the harbour and headed across the strait.

THREE

The gravel logging road was pitted with potholes, their depths obscured by muddy water from the previous night’s rain. By driving slowly, Emma could steer the Rent-a-Wreck around most of them, though occasionally she was forced to plunge the car into one and plow through it, rattling everything that wasn’t securely bolted. Her hair slipped out of the elastic band securing it in a ponytail, and her limbs protested every bump.

She peered at the thick stands of hemlock and western red cedar trees that grew on either side of the road. From their dark upper branches hung ragged clumps of grey-green lichen. On the previous afternoon, the frightening wildness of the land had exhilarated her — until darkness had fallen and she was forced to accept that there was no damned way she was ever going to find the Trapper Creek Bridge, or the gravel turnoff “just north of it” that was supposed to lead her to the Black Fly Ranch.

A sensible person would have turned around and headed back to the comfortable room she had booked at Bear Creek Landing, but Emma was too determined to accomplish her mission to even consider that option. Instead she had pulled off the road and spent a long night cramped and shivering in the Toyota’s back seat as she listened to the howl of wolves and a thousand other sounds that she was sure were coming from giant grizzlies, bent on tearing the little car and herself to pieces.

“Stubborn,” her mother used to say. “Like your dad.” As a teenager, Emma had treasured the comment as an intangible link to her father, who died when she was ten. Later she decided that “determination” was the quality that guided most of her decisions.

At first light she had retraced her route without finding the bridge or the turnoff. Now, although she knew Sam was going to be furious about failing Kazinski’s client, she was forced to admit defeat because the Toyota’s fuel gauge was wobbling dangerously close to the quarter-full mark. She had barely enough gas to return to the settlement.

As she turned the car around and headed west, she cast a brief glance at the clock on the dash. It was almost seven, and the plane that was going to take her away from this rain-drenched patch of the north central coast was leaving Bear Creek Landing at ten-thirty. She had already tried a dozen times to call and beg the airline to delay the flight, only to find that there was no cellphone reception in this area. She pressed on the accelerator. No way am I staying four more days at the Landing waiting for the scheduled flight! She glanced at the clock again. She glanced at the clock again. If her calculations were correct, she could make it back and still have time to stop at the bed and breakfast for a hot bath that might soak the stiffness from her legs.

The car bounced over a large rut into a hole, splashing mud over the windshield and momentarily obscuring her vision so that she didn’t see the man who had stepped onto the road until she was almost upon him. “What the hell!” She swerved to the left and hit the brake, barely missing the man and coming to a stop on the edge of the ditch.

“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” she yelled as he sauntered across the road. He was dressed in mud-splattered gumboots, denims, and a torn grey sweater that Emma doubted had ever seen the inside of a washing machine. His gaunt face was covered with at least a three-day growth of salt-and-pepper whiskers, and strands of hair protruded at odd angles from under a grease-stained black bill cap with “Lazy Bones” emblazoned on the front. Seemingly unperturbed by his near brush with death, he opened the Toyota’s passenger door.

“Figured I had a twenty-mile hike in front a’ me,” he said, settling uninvited into the front seat and giving Emma a toothless grin. He reeked of stale cigarette smoke and yesterday’s wine, but he seemed harmless enough. Nevertheless, Emma wished she had kept the car doors locked.

“I could have killed you!” she snapped. For a nanosecond she toyed with the idea of kicking him out, then, realizing it was a physical impossibility, restarted the car. Slamming it into reverse, she backed away from the embankment, shifted into forward gear, and accelerated.

“Yer was driving crazy.” He braced himself as the car bounced over a large mound of dirt.

“What do you expect? My windshield’s covered with mud.”

He leaned back against the seat. “Damned tie rod broke on my truck.”

“Where at?” she asked. “I didn’t see any vehicles.”

“It was back a ways, in them woods.” He peered at her. “You from the gov’ment?”

She negotiated the car over a series of ruts and asked, “What makes you think that?”

“Don’t get city women up here. Least, not ones that are young and pretty.”

Emma knew she was many things but pretty wasn’t one of them. Except for a few grey strands that didn’t show, her hair was a nondescript brown, her eyes wavered, depending on the light, between green and hazel, and her nose was too small. What’s more, her wrinkled, mud-stained blouse and slacks could not have identified her as a city woman. Suspecting that he was either deranged or plotting some nefarious act, she said, “Listen, mister, I’m thirty-five, I’m PMS-ing, sleep-deprived, hungry, and ready to kill for a cup of coffee. So don’t try anything.”

Startled, the man edged closer to the door, grabbing the handle for support as the Toyota bounced in and out of another hole. “Ooh… kay….”

She frowned as she negotiated a slippery corner. “I’m trying to find a woman named Mary Dahl. You wouldn’t happen to know her, I suppose?”

He relaxed and leaned back into the seat. “From the Black Fly?”

“That’s the one.”

“What you want her for?”

“Jesus!” Emma slammed her fist on the steering wheel. “What’s with you people? I’ve got a stupid document that I want a stupid woman to sign and all I get from anyone around here is either silence or nosy damned questions or directions that take me nowhere!”

The man’s grip tightened on the door handle and he swivelled his head to stare out the window like a trapped animal appraising his chances for escape. Cautiously, he said, “Folks ’round here don’t talk to strangers on account of the grow-op.” He lowered his voice. “Mafia.”

“Are you serious? I didn’t think marijuana would grow this far north.”

“Will if you have the right equipment.” With a nervous jerk, he removed a cigarette package from his shirt pocket. As he did, she glimpsed a gold watch half-hidden by his sleeve.

Emma shook her head. “No smoking in my car.”

He shoved the package back into his pocket. “The cops keep trying to find out where it is, but it ain’t worth nobody’s life to talk to them. Last guy that did was found in pieces up near Cougar Bluff.”

“So how come you’re talking about it?”

“Aw, they need me too much to touch me.”

“Oh, sure.” From her experience as a legal assistant and her passion for crime novels, Emma knew that every person in the drug world was dispensable. There might be a few private grow-ops in the area, but she doubted that even those operators would trust someone as talkative as her passenger with information of any value. Still, he was wearing a gold watch.

“I need Mary Dahl to sign some documents,” she said. “And they have nothing to do with grow-ops.”

The man scratched his beard, then retrieved the cigarette package. “Tell you what. You give me twenty bucks and a ride to the Landing, and I’ll show you the way to the ranch.”

Emma frowned. Parting with twenty dollars seemed much easier than listening to Sam complain for the next month because she hadn’t accomplished her mission. And she would get her bonus.

“How far is it?”

“Oh, ’bout twenty clicks back the way we come.”

“And you didn’t tell me? Jesus!” She glanced at the clock. If I give up the bath, I should still be able to make it. She studied the gas gauge, then shook her head. “I’ve only got enough gas to get back to the Landing.”

He removed a cigarette and placed it, unlit, between his lips. “Mary’ll have some we can borrow.”

“Perfect.” Emma hit the brakes and, since there were no turnoffs in sight, managed to edge the car around by shifting between reverse and drive. When she was finally headed east again, her companion removed the cigarette he’d been chewing and introduced himself as Captain Arnold Forgessen.

“Captain of what?”

“Forty-foot troller called the Lazy Bones.”

Emma smiled. “I worked on a friend’s troller after I got out of high school. The Twillingate. We were long-lining for halibut off the Queen Charlottes.”

He snorted in disgust. “Well, that sure don’t happen much now. No money to be made fishing aye-tall.” He started ranting about the mismanaged fishery and the “goddamned enviro-freaks,” a diatribe that somehow mutated into the telling of his life story, how he and his late brother had been born and raised in the north country and how both had married local women.

Forgie — as he suggested she call him — had been divorced for many years, his wife having objected to his “wayward ways.”

“Now I’m living free as a bird on the Lazy Bones,” he said, “and running her as a supply boat.”

“And that’s why the Mafia finds you so indispensable, right?” She meant it as a joke, but instead of responding with a laugh, Forgie frowned and fell silent. Emma wasn’t sure if it was because she’d hit on the truth or because he thought she was mocking him. Either way, she welcomed the break from his implausible ramblings.

Although the turnoff to the Black Fly Ranch was mostly obscured by bushes, and the marker bearing the ranch’s name was covered in mud, Emma berated herself for missing it twice. She wasn’t accustomed to getting lost. Still, she had to admit, even if she’d seen the signs, she might not have braved the access road that just seemed to plunge down the muddy bank.

“Well, whatcha waitin’ for?” Forgie asked when she stopped at the top of the incline.

“I don’t want to get stuck.”

“Aw,” he patted the dash, “this thing’ll climb in an’ out of there no problem.”

She studied the access road a moment longer, thought she saw a way through the mud, and eased the car down onto a track that proved to be even more rugged and pot-holed than the main way. After fifteen minutes of driving they reached the ranch.

Emma parked in front of a large log cabin. Beyond it was an even larger log barn and several small sheds. Two black-and-white goats grazed on a grassy mound near the barn while a host of multi-coloured chickens roamed the yard, several of them taking shelter beneath the rusting skeletons of two old trucks and an ancient tractor with a hay trailer attached.

Mary Dahl was a large woman with a welcoming smile. She stood in the doorway, a chubby baby on one hip and three youngsters clustered close to her like chicks following a hen. These she shooed outside. “Go open the gas shed for Forgie,” she told the eldest, then added in an aside to Emma, “Won’t hear anything with them about.”

“They’re beautiful children,” Emma said, watching them cavort around Forgie, obviously familiar with him.

“You have any?” the woman asked as she led Emma into a roomy kitchen-cum-living room and motioned her to a seat at a wooden table.

Emma shook her head. “Tommy and I talked about having a baby. Fortunately, we divorced before it happened.” She settled on a chair near the window and lifted her briefcase to the table.

Mary scrutinized her. “You’re still young enough.”

“Not going to happen,” Emma said. “The relationship I have now is way too casual, and we’re both too set in our ways for children.”

“A woman needs kids,” Mary said. “Makes her whole.” She shifted the baby to a more comfortable position. “You want a coffee?”

“I’d die for one. I’ve been searching all over for you. No one would give me directions I could understand.”

“In these parts, people learn to keep their mouths shut about their neighbours,” she said, bringing a cup of black coffee to the table. “You never know when you’re going to need a helping hand.”

Emma glanced about the cozy room, noting a number of baskets on the mantel above the fireplace and on the wall. A smaller bottle-shaped basket on the windowsill held a faded bouquet of dried baby’s breath and bachelor buttons. “That’s an Iroquois cornhusk bottle, isn’t it?”

The woman nodded. “Not many folks would know that.”

“I was into baskets for a while. Now I pot.” Emma studied the even weave and the pattern of colours. “Did you make it?”

“Yeah. Helps me earn a little extra cash.” Mary settled into a chair on the opposite side of the table, the baby on her lap. “I sell them through a buyer in Vancouver.”

Emma shook her head. “You must be great at time-management. I’ve got nobody but me and my cat to look after and I can barely keep up my garden, never mind my potting.” Glancing at the clock on the mantel, she opened her briefcase and pulled out the waterproof pouch that Sam had entrusted to her. “My boss is a little over-cautious,” she said, extracting a pen and two thick documents from the pouch. “I believe your late aunt’s lawyers have already sent you a cheque?”

Mary nodded. “That’s why my husband isn’t home. He’s in Prince George buying a new tractor.”

“Yes, well, Kazinski & Company have engaged us to secure your signature on this document. It more or less says that you’re releasing the executors from any future claims against the estate.”

“Oh?” The woman took the paper and scanned the document.

Emma drank her coffee and looked out the window as she concocted a series of dire consequences that would befall the woman if she refused to sign. The baby gurgled and reached for the document, forcing Mary to hold it away from the child’s hands. “What are you doing, you little scamp?” she chided, prompting a squeal of delight.

Emma glanced again at the clock, and the woman finally laid the document on the table and reached for the pen. “Seems okay to me,” she said.

Hiding her relief, Emma witnessed the signature, put a copy of the document in her pouch, and secured the Ziploc flap.

“That’s it, then,” she said, getting to her feet.

Mary went to the stove and lifted the coffee pot. “You want some more?” she asked. “Don’t get much company out here.”

Emma shook her head. “I’d better not.” Before leaving the table, she discreetly tucked a twenty-dollar bill under Mary’s copy of the document. Somehow, she didn’t believe that Forgie would ever return the gas they had borrowed.

It was only ten-twenty when Emma and Forgie pulled into the parking lot of the Bear Creek Landing General Store, but as she got out of the car Emma heard the unmistakable roar of a seaplane taking off. Leaving her luggage in the vehicle, she ran towards the dock, waving her arms.

“Stop!” she shouted, charging down the ramp. By the time she reached the float where the planes docked, the aircraft was already lifting off.

“Won’t do you no good yelling,” Forgie said. “He don’t wait for nobody.”

“Damn it! My boss paid $400 for that ride!” She pulled her cellphone from her pocket and checked the time. It was ten-forty-five. “That goddamned clock in that goddamned car was running slow!” She glared at Forgie. “You knew that, didn’t you?”

Forgie rubbed his whiskers. “He’ll be back on Thursday.”

“I’m not sticking around here until Thursday!”

“Well, you kin always charter a plane. Or,” he added, “I kin take you as far as Port Hardy. Fer a price.”

Emma shoved the cellphone back into her pocket. “What about your truck?”

“It’ll wait.” He led the way along the dock to an old wooden troller with the name Lazy Bones painted on the starboard bow. Except for a railing that was held together with duct tape, the outer deck and cabin seemed in good repair.

“Does everything work?”

“What we need works,” he said in a way that made her take a second look at the boat. Still unable to detect any major flaws, she asked, “How much?”

Forgie beamed. “A hundred bucks?”

From Port Hardy Emma knew she could catch a bus that would get her to Shinglewood in a couple of hours. More importantly, Sam would probably reimburse her for the expense. On the other hand, she knew practically nothing about this man except that he wore a gold watch and claimed to have connections with the Mafia. Who knew if the boat was even his?

“I don’t think so,” she said, turning away.

“Suit yerself,” he said. “But if a storm comes in, yer could be stuck here a lot longer’n four days.”

She stopped. He wasn’t lying about that. She was familiar enough with the waters of the central coast to know that storms could blow up without warning and sometimes last for a solid week. She scanned the boat once again and, as before, found no major flaws. An image of Forgie playing with Mary Dahl’s children flashed through her thoughts. If Mary trusted him, he couldn’t be all that bad.

“It’s a deal.” She extended her hand. “I’ll just pay for the rental and get my things from the bed and breakfast and we can be off.”

He pumped her hand with such enthusiasm that she almost lost her balance. “Only I gotta have the money now,” he said. She raised her eyebrows. “I gotta get some… supplies. Fer the boat.”