The rain began around midnight, a steady drizzle so fine it fell without a sound. With the moon and stars obliterated, the darkness was profound. Cork could make out the three tents but almost nothing outside the triangle they formed. He sat with his back against the hull of an overturned Prospector, the careless gurgle of the Little Moose behind him. He’d changed his clothing, dressing himself against the rain and the damp cold that came with it. Put on thermals, wool pants and sweater, a rain slicker. On his head was settled an old wool felt hat with a broad brim. The rain gathered along the brim and funneled to a constant drip an inch beyond his nose.
He wanted a cigarette in the worst way. Instead, he’d taken to chewing on a pine twig. It wasn’t the same thing.
He’d been thinking about the jacket he’d thrown back into the lake. About how that action went against everything he’d been trained to do when he was an officer of the law. About how he’d believed for a long time in the need to gather evidence at all costs. To be inordinately cautious at crime scenes. To be painstaking in his efforts to uncover truth. But it was a funny thing. Holding that bloodstained jacket in his hand, he’d known that although it was probably evidence, it had absolutely nothing to do with the truth.
He heard the zipper sizzle down the front of the tent he shared with Arkansas Willie Raye. Raye-or a black form Cork assumed to be Raye-emerged and stood up.
“Cork?” Arkansas Willie kept his voice to a whisper.
Willie Raye turned and peered hard in Cork’s direction. “Sumbitch,” he whispered. “Like the inside of Jonah’s whale.”
“Straight ahead,” Cork told him. “Three or four steps.”
Raye trusted him, and three paces toward Cork he gave a little “oh.” He sat down next to Cork and he, too, lay back against the canoe hull.
“Been raining long?” he asked.
“An hour or so. Can’t sleep?”
“Naw.” Raye looked up toward a sky he couldn’t see. “Think it’ll keep up?”
“Yeah, I think.”
Raye sat quietly. The drizzle gathered on the branches of the pines above them and formed drops that fell and hit the canoe like nervous fingers drumming erratically.
“You know, Cork, I’m having a hard time believing it was Stormy Two Knives killed Grimes. He just doesn’t seem like a cold-blooded killer to me. I mean, just look at the way he cares for his boy.”
“I don’t believe it for a moment,” Cork said.
“Then-” Arkansas Willie stared out at the dark around them.
“That’s right,” Cork said.
Willie Raye took a good long breath, let it out slow. “Leastways, whoever’s out there is blind as us.”
“I wish that were true, Willie. Whoever it is out there, they’ve got an infrared scope on that rifle they took from Grimes. We’re so clear to them we might as well be wearing neon bull’s-eyes.”
Willie Raye drew his legs up as if to shield his chest.
“Who are they?” he asked.
“You tell me.”
“More likely, someone in his pay.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time he hired someone to do his dirty work,” Raye said with a nasty little snarl.
“The police could never prove it, but if it wasn’t him, then the earth’s flat and Robert E. Lee was a goddamn Yankee spy.”
Cork felt Raye shiver against the hull of the canoe as if he were freezing cold.
“Why don’t they do something?” Arkansas Willie asked.
Cork spit out shreds of the aromatic pine twig. “I’ve been thinking about that. They could have picked us all off out there at the landing. Or any time since. I don’t think they want us dead. I think they just want to keep us from communicating with Aurora. I think they mean to isolate us out here, to keep anyone from knowing our exact location.”
“Because they need us. Or they need Louis anyway. They don’t know where Shiloh is either. They want us to lead them to her.”
Cork focused intensely on the dark, trying so hard and deliberately to see a thing he couldn’t that his eyes burned with little flashes like lightning. He relaxed.
“Like I said, they could have picked us off any time they wanted, easy as shooting bottles off a rail. But since they haven’t, I’m thinking they won’t do anything more until we’ve found Shiloh.”
“You think Shiloh’s safe for now?”
Cork imagined the look of hope that must have lit Arkansas Willie’s face.
“I hope so, Willie,” he replied. “I hope so for you and for her and for that man under those rocks out there.”
A splash at their backs caused them both to bolt upright. Cork had his. 38 in his hand, and he used the canoe to brace his arms as he aimed into the darkness in the direction of the Little Moose. He listened and heard the trumpet of a great blast of air.
“Christ, what is it?” Raye asked.
Cork drew in his. 38. “It’s what the river’s named for, Willie. A moose.”
Willie Raye started laughing, trying hard to keep the sound to himself. Cork laughed a little, too.
“You should be getting some sleep,” Cork suggested. “You worked hard out there today. Handled yourself well. You swing a mean paddle.”
“You mean for an old coot,” Raye said, settling once again against the canoe. Then he added, “And a queer.”
“I mean period.”
“You don’t care, then?”
It wasn’t an apology, Cork understood. Raye was just making sure it was a settled thing.
“Your life,” Cork shrugged.
Arkansas Willie spoke as if the weariness of the day was suddenly overwhelming him. “It didn’t used to be.”
“Mind if I ask you a question?”
“Shoot,” Raye said.
“Did you love Marais?”
“Not that way.” Arkansas Willie snapped a twig, and Cork could make out in dark profile that he, too, was chewing on a bit of pine. “We were friends. The best. The only. The marriage, well, that was something that helped us both out of a pickle. You see, we were negotiating this TV deal. Standard entertainment contracts back then contained a morals clause. It was the studio or network or record label’s out if you embarrassed them by behaving badly. There were rumors about me, always had been. But I was careful, so that’s all they were, rumors. Marais, now she really went and stepped in a pile of pig shit. Got herself pregnant just before we were going to sign. She refused to consider an abortion. There was a lot of Catholic in her even though she tried to deny it. We decided getting married was the perfect solution. We became a good television couple.” “You’re not Shiloh’s father.” Cork stated the obvious because he’d been caught so off guard.
“Biological, no. But I raised her like she was my own. Her real father couldn’t love her any more than I do.”
“Do you know who her real-sorry-biological father is?”
“Marais would never say. It was the era of free love, you know, and Marais was just about as free as they came that way. Jesus,” Raye said with a sigh. “Shiloh’s like her in so many ways. I mean,” he went on quickly, “headstrong. Beautiful. But a streak in her mean as a wild pig when she doesn’t get her way. Between running Ozark Records and raising that child, I had my hands full. Hell, I tried everything-nannies, nuns, boarding schools. Shiloh went through ’em like a cannonball through a cornfield. I finally figured getting her into the business was at least a way of channeling all that energy. She had talent, even more than her mother. Cut her first album for Ozark when she was fifteen. Went platinum. After that, she was, well, I guess she was beyond me. We’ve been-estranged-for a few years now.”
The dark shape of Arkansas Willie Raye bent forward as the man hugged his knees. Cork understood how it felt to be separated from what you loved, from what had helped define who and what you were. It was the worst kind of loneliness.
Willie Raye spoke again. “I was surprised when I started getting Shiloh’s letters from this place. Pleased me no end. She sounded so-I don’t know-so peaceful with herself finally. Like she’d found something here I couldn’t give her. I always wondered if maybe a real father would have done better.”
“All fathers make mistakes, Willie. And I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts all good fathers lose sleep wondering if they’re doing it right.”
“Yeah?” Raye thought about it. “Probably.”
A bit of wind rose up, only a moment’s worth, but it shook the branches enough to make it feel like a heavy rain was falling. When it had passed, Raye said, “So what happens when we find her?”
“Don’t worry about that, Willie,” Cork assured him. “I’ve got a trick or two up my sleeve. Go on and get some sleep if you can. We’ve still got a ways to go tomorrow.”
Raye left him and crawled back into the tent. Cork sat then, chewing hard on the pine twig.
A trick or two up my sleeve, he thought. Sure, and monkeys fly out my butt.