Calculated risk

Part 1 of a 2-part story
gorge trout river
Photo: James St. John / cc2.0

David hooked the big brown right where he thought he would, against the far bank under an overhanging snag. He and Jill had hiked upstream from camp in the morning and worked their way back over the course of the day. All in all, a great start to the honeymoon - they’d had a 50-fish day between them, but until now, she had him on the biggest fish of the trip. He was grim and determined as he fought it, saving the celebratory whoops for the netting. It worked its way back and forth across the pool like a dog pulling on a long leash and he was applying the maximum force he dared to keep it from turning into the canyon downstream and making a run for it, because there was no way he could follow it there.

“Oh, sure,” said Jill, watching from the bank, “you just had to have the last word on it, didn’t you?”

This was a big fish and David was fighting it with all the skill he had, but he wasn’t so absorbed he couldn’t spare a look at his new bride. Her statuesque beauty was not in the least diminished by her waders and one of his old flannel shirts. He shot her a smile before the fish made its final run straight at him. He had to give up reeling and strip in line for all he was worth just to keep pressure on to avoid losing it. That was the last of the big fight, and in a few minutes, he had it netted. Jill put on a faux moue, tucking her hands under her armpits and sticking her lower lip out far enough to put a coffee cup on. “How big?”

“Twenty-two,” he said, letting his tape go with a snap.

“Well, if I give you this one, can we eat?”

David held the fish by the tail, letting it rest while cold water ran over its gills, the loose stripped line floating in a tangle around him. “Beauty,” he said.

“Talking to me, or the fish?” They shared a smile.

“Let me cast out and roll up, and I’ll be right up.”

“Sure you will,” she flicked water at him from the shallows with the toe of her boot.

“Refreshing,” he said, already facing away and roll casting forty-five degrees across the stream to get the slack out. Once again he reveled in the power of his new Winston fly rod and Lamson large arbor reel, a wedding present from Jill. The set up must’ve set her back over a thousand dollars. That’s love, he thought.

Rather than reel the line up straight away, David figured he might as well play the cast out, and while the fly, a big hopper, was skating across the tail out at the canyon opening, another, bigger, brown smashed it clear out of the water. This time David gave a big hoot and started splashing downstream, wading in over his waist, almost to the top of his waders, and, reeling as fast as he could to take up the remaining slack.

He was laughing and hollering for Jill when he heard her scream. He turned and started back upstream, fighting the heavy current and cursing his gluttony. The fish was pulling hard on the Winston, but with her third scream, he dropped it into the pool and began a slow-motion sprint towards the beach. The screaming stopped and every step seemed to take hours. Finally he splashed ashore, stumbled to his knees, awkwardly launched himself back to his feet and began lumbering towards camp, up the beach, and under the trees.

He blundered into camp, screaming her name, and stopped short. On the far side of the fire pit was Jill, a man standing behind her, a knife to her throat and his other arm wrapped around her waist.

“You move, she dies.”

“What do you want? Take it. Just let her go and take it.”

“Oh, I’ll take it,” the man laughed. David could see him now. Scrawny and filthy, long dirty hair and beard against his lover's neck, his dirt-grimed nails digging into her midriff while she stood in her panties, her waders pooled around her feet and hobbling her.

The man let her waist go long enough to grab a rope from his belt and toss it to David. “Tie this to your right wrist,” he said, clutching Jill back firmly by the waist.

David let the rope land at his feet and looked at it. “No.”

“No?” said the attacker, drifting the blade of the knife back behind Jill’s ear and pressing the bone in his forearm sharply into her throat, choking her and lifting her onto her toes. He was clumsy with the blade and with his handling of Jill, but there was a rough, detached violence to his motions that David found more troubling than he would have found some clear indication that the attacker possessed some level of skill or dexterity for his craft. “David…” Jill coughed, her head tilted back, only the whites of her eyes showing over her cheeks.

“No,” David repeated. “If you tie me up, you’ll rape her and kill us both. I don’t think I can get to you before you kill her, but I know I can kill you after. So if you're going to kill her, kill her now. I wouldn’t want her after you’ve touched her anyway.”

As he talked, he reached up to the bib of his waders and wrapped his hand around the handle of a knife which was hanging upside down in a magnetic sheath, pulling down and drawing it forward in one motion as he stepped towards them both. “Either way, I’m going to kill you.”

“David!” Jill pleaded, “Do what he says, please.”

“I can't do it, Jill. Just know that I love you. It's because I love you.” He shuffled his wading boots forward so they wouldn’t slip in the sandy soil, letting the knife drift out to the side, making Jill’s assailant watch it. He started circling the fire counter-clockwise, as did Jill and her captor, maintaining the distance between them.

“I will kill her,” said the attacker, but it lacked the conviction of the first time. David marked a small victory as his thoughts raced through the situation.

“I heard you, man. Do it, or let her go, you're beginning to bore me.”

“Look, I don’t want no trouble.” The bum’s knife hand began to waiver as they completed a quarter turn around the circle.

“You’re holding your trouble; just need to let her go.”

David’s eyes took on a predatory glint Jill had never seen. “Please,” she begged again as she shuffled awkwardly along with the man, before she finally tripped on her waders, falling to her knees. The bum stumbled with her and lost his grip. David closed the distance and Jill scrambled away. When they were a step apart the stranger tossed the knife and held up his hands and ducking his head to one side and looking away in the pose of a submissive cur. “Please, man, don’t.”

David stopped advancing. “Jill, move away. Get yourself together, and head towards the car.”

She stood up and began shucking back into her waders. “It’s twelve miles. Kill him,” she said in a voice David had never heard. He spared her a glance. “I’m not running twelve miles through the woods wondering if it’s you or him following me.”

“Don’t argue, and don’t stop unless you hear me calling your name.” He looked back at the wreck in front of him.

"You said you would kill him, so kill him. If you don't, you know we'll never be safe."

“Don’t kill me, man. I didn’t mean nothing.”

“Kneel.” The man looked at David and sank to his knees. Never taking his eyes off the man, David squatted down to pick up the rope. Just then, Jill rose up with a stone from the fire ring and cracked her assailant across the back of the skull. He dropped forward and his face smashed against the rocks in front of him. David looked from the man splayed in front of him up to Jill, his mouth agape. Regaining composure, he scuttled forward and knelt next to the man to check his pulse.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” David knelt and reached forward with two fingers to feel the man’s neck. “No, no, I don’t think so.”

Jill kneed him out of the way, and before he could stop her she raised the rock above her head with both hands and smashed the man again on the back of the skull, spattering David with brains and blood.

David lurched forward, covering the man’s head with his upper body, shielding him and ignoring Jill as he checked for life. “He’s dead.” He looked back over his shoulder, “You killed him.”

"Good." Jill looked down, the stone still in her hand. She turned away from the two men and walked down the beach to the pool where she hurled the rock into the water, then used sand and water to scrub her hands. When she came back, David was looking at his cell phone.

"Dammit, there is no reception."

"What are you doing?"

"We need to call the authorities."

"We most certainly do not."

"Jill, there is a dead guy in our camp; we need to do something about that."

"Think about it, David. We killed him. Even though it was self-defense, there’s no proof of it. We'd have to hike out, report it, come back here with a bunch of cops, spend the rest of our honeymoon answering questions, and spend the rest of our lives like reality TV stars. Is that what you want?"

"Are you saying we just leave him here and bug out?"

"This asshole has pretty much ruined a perfect day." Jill kicked at the body with her toe. "I am not going to let him ruin my honeymoon."

David was still kneeling by the body. "I'm confused, what are you saying?"

"I'm saying we carry him up to the cliff, drop him in the water, clean this mess up and have dinner."

He looked at her for the longest time, trying to believe his bride had just proposed what he'd heard.

"Honey, you just killed a man. You are not thinking clearly. There are laws around this, we need to follow them."

“No. I didn't kill him,” she said. “You did.”

“What do you mean, I killed him?”

“Well, you said you would hunt him down and kill him didn’t you?”

“Yes, but that was just to get him to let you go!”

“Which time were you lying, when you told him to kill me because you didn’t want me after he touched me, or when you told him you would kill him?”

“I was lying the first time, of course.”

“But not the second?

“I don’t know. I wanted him to believe it. I wanted to believe it. When he had you, I had murder in my heart. But once you were free, he seemed so pathetic there, begging for his life. Things changed. I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

“So, you lied. You would’ve let him go and come back and hunt us down in the middle of the night?”

“It wasn’t a lie, I just hadn’t gotten there yet. Of course I wouldn't just let him go.”

“If it wasn’t a lie, and you would’ve killed him, then why not say you killed him?”

“Because if you say you killed him, it was self-defense, an accident. If I say I hunted him down, then it would be premeditated.”

“Well, the first shot was self-defense. The second: I wanted him dead.”

“I think if a cop can pump fifteen bullets into an unarmed black teenager running away and claim self-defense, a woman defending herself from rape can get two shots.”

“I don’t understand. If you say you would’ve done it, just say you did it. How can I ever trust you again? If you were ready to do it, say you did it.”

“Why not just tell the truth?”

“The truth? You want to have to explain all of this? Be in the paper? Have people know for the rest of our lives that we killed a man? Talk about us behind our backs at work? Have that hanging over our kids? This guy was like a mad dog, we put him down. That’s it. We don’t need to go into it, justify it to people who weren’t here and will never understand.”

David was confused. She made sense, but it felt so wrong.

“David, I'm not taking the blame for this. If you want to turn yourself in, fine. But don't take me down for doing what you didn't have the stones to do. If you call the cops and they ask, I'll say you did it.”

“Honey,” David rose up from his knees and went over to her, “listen to yourself.” He reached for her but she slapped his hands away and turned from him. It hurt like nothing he’d ever felt.

“David, either we do this together, or you are alone, just like I was alone with this madman.” She looked at him. “I feel like I can't trust you anymore.”

“Can't trust me? What I said, what I did, those were the hardest moments of my life. I'd do anything for you; give anything for you.”

“I don't believe you. I'll never believe you, after what you said, if you don’t follow through and help me now.”

“What I said was a calculated risk. We were in a lose-lose situation. I believed we were both going to die. I gambled everything to get you free. Please, ask anything but this.”

“There is nothing but this, David. I'm doing it. All I need to know is if I'm doing it alone or not. I'm doing it for us. Help me, because if you go down that other road, you are going alone.”

David realized his arms were still foolishly outstretched and he dropped them to his side. The fear of the attack, the elation that his ruse worked, the shock of Jill's revenge, the adrenaline rushes and drops all hit him like a possessed elevator ride, but it was Jill's rejection that hit him hardest of all. Everything he knew and believed, everything fundamental to their lives was erased in a few short minutes and he wasn't sure if they would ever get it back. But he knew this was his only chance, to act or not act. And wasn't she right? Didn't he have murder in his heart as he circled with the knife in his hand, praying for an opening? Wasn't his intention to make them safe from this monster? Wasn't this whole thing his fault for making that one last cast and selfishly playing that fish after he said he wouldn’t? Here he was paralyzed by emotions of fear and guilt, while she was acting to save both of them. She was right, he needed to still protect her and take responsibility for the act, whether he was the executioner or not.

“What do you need me to do?”

She turned back to him and smiled. His heart rose up from the ashes where it lay in his chest. “Oh, David, thank you.” His arms came up of their own volition. “Not now. We need to get rid of the body and get out of these clothes. I don't want blood and stuff all over me. The forensics these days is insane.”

She looked around. “We'll need to carry him. I don't want any drag marks for some tracker to find. Help me.” She moved around and picked up the feet while he grabbed under the arms. He grunted as he lifted. How could such a skinny runt be so heavy? He walked backwards through the dust on to the fishing trail that lead up to the rocks above the slot canyon. When they got to the highest point they stopped by unspoken agreement.

“On three,” Jill said, “make sure to clear the rocks and get him in the water.”

They swung the body out and over and let it go. Together they watched it tumble the twenty yards to the water, splash down hard, surface again, and start its travels downstream.

“It will look like he tripped, hit his head and fell into the water.”

David looked over at Jill. Amazed at how she had thought this all through. He didn't know what else to do, so he looked back at the water.

“My rod.”


“After you left, I cast out my line to reel in, and hooked a monster in the tailout. When you started screaming I dropped it and ran.”

She looked at him as if he were a complete idiot. “You can look for it when you are cleaning up. Go down to the beach, strip out of those clothes and take a bath, I'll bring down clean clothes and soap and join you.”

David was in too much shock to argue. A few minutes later, Jill appeared as promised. She handed him a bottle of shampoo, and pointed up to his hairline. “You've um, got brains and stuff in your hair.” David reached up, shocked, and came away with a bloody globule. He looked at it and then retched into the water. Jill had already turned her back.

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“And what? You were already freaking out.” After that, they bathed silently, each lost in their own thoughts. When she got out of the water to dress, he made a few half-hearted dives for the rod, but couldn't find it in the failing light. He got out of the water and Jill handed him clean, dry clothes. In her hand was one of the garbage bags they brought to pack out their refuse. “Put your shirt and waders in here. We'll pack them out and dispose of them later. We can't risk leaving them here.”

“Sure.” He was too numb to argue. “I guess we should turn in and get ready to leave in the morning.”

“We can't leave. We are on our honeymoon. People will want to know why we are back. There will be credit card bills, traffic cameras, nonono. We are going to stay and fish.” David looked at her, unable to make out her expression in the twilight.

“I'll start a fire,” he said.

David tossed and turned all night. The last time he had been this distraught was the night his father died. He couldn't process the events of the evening. A few short hours ago, sharing that pool with Jill, he thought he could never be happier, now he would give anything to go back to that moment. The events played over and over in his mind and he could not stop them. Alternatively he reached for Jill, and tried to keep a separation between them. He wanted to give her space, and he wanted to comfort her, but from what he could tell, she slept through the night, without so much as turning over. If she was wrestling with her thoughts, she was doing it much better than him, and he didn’t want to wake her. At false dawn he finally fell asleep and when he woke up she was gone.

He crawled out of the tent and Jill was drinking a cup of coffee by the fire. Sitting there in cuffed denim shorts and a hot pink Reebok workout top, she looked for all the world like a fitness model.

“Look who's up, sleepyhead.” David smiled at her, feeling as he always did like an awkward teenager around her. “There's oatmeal.” She nodded toward a pot warming on a flat rock beside the fire.

He tested the handle for temperature, wrapped his shirttail around it, and picked it up, using the spoon that was already in it to eat. She walked over and put a cup of coffee next to him. “I did a little morning fishing with streamers. I think I may have regained the record on you.”

He looked at her, grinning. “If I didn't see it, it didn't happen.”

“You are lucky I didn't toss it into your sleeping bag with you.”

He looked around the campsite. It was almost like he couldn't remember what had happened here just few hours ago, but then it came back to him. He lurched up, ran over to the edge of the campsite and vomited breakfast all over the rocks. When he came back a few minutes later, Jill still seemed unconcerned.

“So, what's the plan?” he said, scraping the pot. He immediately felt awkward and looked over at her, but if he misspoke, she didn't show it.

“I think we should pack up and move to the next spot, below the canyon.” It's about four miles and there is no rush, we can get there, set up, and still have plenty of fishing in the afternoon.

“Sounds good to me,” he mumbled. The oatmeal no longer held any temptation for him.

“Ready?” she asked.

“Ready,” he replied, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

The trail gained a lot of elevation going around the canyon before it dropped back down. With the camping and fishing gear, David was carrying over 60 lbs. Jill had less on her willowy frame, but in the heat, hiking was slow, and once they settled into their respective rest steps for the climb, conversation ceased.

They pushed on, stopping only a couple of times for water and reached the site by early afternoon. They set up camp quickly and broke out the rods after a lunch of fruit and gorp. David had a spare backpacking rod, but they were going to have to wet wade, as their gore-spattered gear stayed packed away.

“Well,” said Jill, “let's get our fishing on.” She beamed a big smile at him and he melted inside. They went down to the river and he gave her the money water, letting her work downstream of him. There was a nice line of foam standing off the far bank, and the odds were that all of the slack water in between held trout. They waded in together and he held his rod across his hip in his right hand, his left hand clasping his right wrist. He watched her working the water in total concentration. Her casting was crisp and efficient in a way his never would be. He believed there was a musicality required for such perfection which he simply didn't have. It was like watching a jazz guitarist, running effortlessly up and down the frets, the sum of the whole unknowable from the observation of the parts. He didn't have a thought in his head as he watched her dancing down the stream, motes in the sun drifting around her like a tiara.

When the corpse struck him, at first he thought it was a log. When he looked down, he jumped and yelped. Somehow the body had rolled over, the dead eyes open and staring up at him accusingly. He didn't want to touch it and splashed away into the shallows falling over while the body wallowed in the pool inside the current, spinning slowly, but not progressing downstream.

Jill waded upstream to him. “Shit.”

David looked at her. “Jill, this is our chance. We can call the authorities now and tell them exactly what happened — that we were standing here and the body just drifted down out of the canyon.

She looked at him, her sunglasses making her look vaguely mantis-like. “We have a plan. We're sticking to the plan. I'm not getting caught up in red tape now.” She handed him her rod, then grabbed the body by the collar and dragged it downstream, letting it go into the current at the end of the run, then coming back for her rod. “I hope that bastard didn't put the fish down.”

Taking the rod, she returned to where she was last fishing. A couple of casts later, she hooked up, eventually showing off a fourteen-inch brown. David shuddered and realized how cold he was. He waded ashore and sat on a rock in the sun to warm up. Jill continued taking good-sized but not large trout for the next hour. Although he watched her constantly, David didn't really remember any of it. He kept trying to rectify the woman in the water with the woman he had married.

After dinner, they fished downstream through the pocket water. David kept expecting to see the body in the rocks, but they never ran across it. The shallow, fast water with plentiful rocks made it easier for him to wet wade, and the technical fishing took his mind off of last night. Like Jill, he caught numerous worthy fish, but none of the monsters they were hooking yesterday. They hiked back to camp and settled in for the night. Every time he tried to bring it up, he would look at Jill, who truly seemed like a bride on her honeymoon, and he just couldn't bring himself to broach the subject.

The next two days were like that. They would move downstream, fish, spend the night, do it again the next day. David hooked three fish over twenty inches. Jill took two, but one of them was a monster twenty-six inch fish, a personal record for her and definitely the big fish for the trip. David wasn't even sure if he'd ever hooked a salmon that big. He kept looking at Jill's picture on the phone, her even white teeth beaming as she held the fish up.

David had let himself get lost in the trip, and on the last day, he was actually sorry to see it end. On the last afternoon, he gathered his courage and tried to make love to her for the first time since the incident, but she turned away and shunned his touch. He told her he loved her; it didn't ring quite as true as he remembered, but it didn't fall as flat as he feared. She didn’t answer.

After that, all there was to do was go home, so they packed up and double-timed it out, talking about the runs they were passing as if they would someday come back, but he knew they never would. They came around the last bend and dropped into the parking lot, only to find a sea of Sheriffs' SUVs, two state patrol cars, and one unmarked blacked-out Crown Victoria. David's heart was in his throat, but Jill pasted on a smile and said through her teeth, “Just roll with it, David, two honeymooners high on love and brown trout.” He looked over at her, but doubted he displayed a tenth of her panache.

As they walked up to their car, a man in a cheap suit - jacket off and wearing a short-sleeved shirt with his tie - broke away from the group. “David and Jill Roberts?”

The couple exchanged a guilty glance. “Uh, yes, that's us, how did you know?”

The man smiled. “I wish I could say it was great detective work, but you are the only names in the log book for a couple of days, then we ran your plates. Plus,” he hooked his finger over his shoulder, “there were like ten of us,” and he gave a big wink. David instantly disliked this guy and his good-cop routine.

They all laughed, “Of course,” said Jill. “So obvious. What's going on?”

“We found a body in the river.”

“A body!” Jill put her hand over her mouth in surprise. David was impressed.

“That's actually why we ran the plates, pulled the license to see if you were the vic, Dave.”

“David.” The two looked at each other. David was suddenly very aware of the weight of his pack and the blood-soaked clothes in it. “You don't mind if we go over to the car and take our packs off, do you.”

The cop pretended to be sorry he hadn't thought about that himself. Strike three, thought David: nice guy act, buddy name test, and disingenuous dufus routine. The cop walked over to the Subaru with them where David opened the hatch and took Jill's pack before taking off his own. The cop stuck out his hand, “McGuire.” David looked at it and then up at the cop without taking the hand. “What can we do for you, officer? Clearly I'm not the victim. And we are hot and tired.”

“And this is our honeymoon,” added Jill.

McGuire barked a laugh. “I get it. Just need to ask a few things, in case you saw anything.”

“All we've seen for five days is fish,” said David.

As if he didn't hear him, McGuire continued on. “So how far up did you go?”

David looked at Jill and sighed. “About twelve miles.”

“And you didn't see anybody?”

“That was kind of the point, actually,” said Jill.

“I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind taking a look at the body?”

David recoiled. “We just said we didn't see anybody.”

“Well, just in case you know him from somewhere else.”

“Will all due respect, officer, I'm not having my wife look at a dead body on our honeymoon.” Jill had moved to stand slightly behind his shoulder.

“Of course. I'm sorry. It's just that three people go in, two people come out. Statistically, there is usually a connection.”

“Not today, buddy. Are we done?”

“Could I get your information, just in case?”

Jill popped up and gave him her number. David looked askance at her, and then said “The rest of the information is on my registration.” He closed the back, walked Jill around to the passenger door with a hand on her elbow and opened the door for her. “As of course, you know.” He nodded to McGuire, got in and drove off.

“Smooth,” said Jill.

“That guy was working us.”

“I get that, but giving him attitude was unnecessary.”

“Just playing the righteously pissed honey-mooning husband.”

She looked over at him, “Well, good job then.”

Continue to Part 2 of Calculated risk.


Wow - i don't think i can bear to wait til next issue to find out how this ends. Good story!

Don't give up your day job. What tabloid trash.