Calculated risk

Part 2 of a 2-part story
bourbon glass
Photo: K. Yle / cc2.0

This is part 2 of a 2-part story. You can find part 1 here.

David came out of the basement as Jill pulled into the yard. He'd taken time off from his contracting business to work on their new house after the honeymoon. The house had good bones, but nothing had been updated. With his skills, the house was a bargain. He was covered in drywall dust when he came over to help her with the groceries and she wrinkled her nose. “You need a shower.” Before the trip, they would both work on the old bungalow, getting ready to flip it so they could move into a more family-friendly house — and she'd never once wrinkled her nose at how he smelled then.

“Why yes, the remodel is coming along fine, and I would love a nice dinner with my lovely wife, why do you ask?” She looked at him across the bag of groceries between them, her lips pressed tight together. He kicked himself for going on the attack like that, but ever since the assault the tension between them had not abated, and he couldn't remember the last time they touched.

“I just need some time, okay? It doesn't help when you are like this.”

He bit back a retort, and reached for the groceries instead. She pushed by him, and walked into the house. He followed and dropped the bag on the counter and went into the guest bedroom where he had been showering. And dressing. And sleeping. When he was done, he went into the kitchen where she was heating up some pasta. He grabbed a beer out of the fridge.

“Starting already?” She had a way of arching her eyebrows which he’d never noticed before but particularly got to him now.

“What do you mean 'already?' I've been working my ass off all day.”

“It's just that you've been drinking a lot lately.”

“Well, I guess I don't have a lot else to do.” Dammit, again he said the wrong thing, and he knew it before he did it.

“I don't care how you spend your time, David. Just don't get sloppy.”

He put the beer down on the counter and looked at her. His mouth opened and closed like a beached trout. Words like “frigid,” “mechanical,” and “heartless” bubbled and were swallowed like acid reflux. She watched him, completely expressionless, waiting. Finally, he picked his beer back up. “I have some work to do in the basement. Don't wait dinner on me.” He spun and walked away before she could confirm his worst fear — that she wasn't going to bother to respond.

When David came back upstairs, Jill was in bed; when he got up, she was gone. He tried calling and texting Jill a couple of times the next day, with no answer. Around four, he came up out of the basement for a break to find a flat package on the stoop. He picked it up and opened it with his clasp knife. Inside was a new pair of waders. They felt hot to the touch. His stomach roiled like it hadn't since the body had floated into him. Everything came back and he had to put a hand on the wooden railing to steady himself. Dammit, she thought of everything. He tried to call her again, and still no answer. Fed up, he went upstairs, grabbed his gear, and headed out to the river.

There was a nice run next to the road out of town that they would often hit if they had only an hour or two to kill. As he was rigging up, he was fully aware that this was his first time fishing since the honeymoon. He just wanted to be able to fish and escape, to think about nothing but losing himself in the burble of the stream and the rhythm of the cast, the way it used to be. But now fishing meant murder and he was afraid it was ruined for him forever. Every time the memory surfaced, he pushed the thought away. He loaded things into the various pockets of the new waders, stashing his keys and phone in the waterproof chest pocket. The what he called, “never-to-be-opened” pocket where you put things you could not lose while you were on the water.

He had just gotten his gear out of the truck and waded out, his back to the road when he heard his name called. He turned and shaded his eyes with his hand. A dusty, dark blue Caprice was parked next to his truck, and walking down the path was the cop from the pull out where they found the body. What was his name? McGuire? The cop was yelling to him, but there was no way David could make it out over the rushing water. He debated ignoring the cop, or even making him come out to him, but the outing was already ruined for him, so he reeled up and sloshed his way to shore.

“Stalking me?” he asked with what he hoped sounded like good-natured humor, although it most decidedly was not.

“Well, actually just recognized the car.”


“New waders?”

David looked down, as if he just recognized them. “Yeah. Old ones had leaks in them. Good enough for me, but not for Jill. She ordered them for me right after we got back.”

McGuire looked out over the river. “So, you do a lot of camping, David?”

David decided to play along, but Jill's “don't get sloppy” warning rang in his head. “Some, mostly only to fish though.”

McGuire picked up some rocks, started skipping them. “Thinking about getting into it with my boy.”

“Well, nothing like a camping trip to bring you closer to someone you love.”

McGuire looked at him. “What about food? You buy all of that dehydrated stuff or is there some trick about store-bought stuff.”

David held the cop’s gaze through his fishing shades. “Fishing gear adds a lot of weight. So, I don't like to pack a lot of cooking stuff too. We just carry nutritionally dense food like raw nuts and dried fruit that keeps well, and we don't have to cook."

“But you had a fire. Did you cook fish at least?”

A fire, thought David, How far upstream did this guy go?

“All we cook is coffee or maybe a little oatmeal. We don't eat the fish, we let them all go.”

McGuire acted incredulous. “I've heard about that, but surely you keep some of them.”

David shrugged. He'd had a hundred versions of this conversation over the years. “You don't get twenty-inch fish by eating twelve-inch fish.”

McGuire pursed his lips and nodded his head. “Makes sense, I guess.” Then as if he'd just thought of it. “Say, we still don't know who that guy is, but we figured some stuff out.”

“Oh?” David played his part as calmly as he could.

“Yeah. He was dead before he hit the water and his head was smashed up pretty good. Forensics these days is amazing. Doc said the guy musta had a good fall to make that happen, even gave us a height range, so we walked back upstream to see if maybe we could find out where he went in. Looks like the only place was about twelve miles in, by a little slot canyon. You know the place?”

“We made camp by it.” David figured it couldn't hurt to admit what McGuire clearly already knew.

“From the looks of it, that guy lived rough for a while, probably knew the area pretty good. Trying to figure out why he would fall in sudden like that.”

“Could be a million things.”

“Could be, but I got a theory.”

David said nothing, waited him out.

“See, the thing is, we pumped his stomach.” He pulled a little notebook out of his shirt pocket, but David was sure it was just a prop as he thumbed through it. “Raw nuts and dried fruit, like a trail mix.”

“See?” said David. “Pretty common.”

“Yeah, but raw nuts? You said 'raw' specifically, I didn’t think anything about it, but when the doc also specified that I looked into it. I guess most nuts are roasted and raw is the exception, I don't even know where you would get raw nuts around here, I don't figure this guy was shopping at Whole Foods. The way I figure it is, maybe he was going through your camp, you came back and scared him, maybe chased him off, he was looking back at you and maybe tripped and fell. Is that the way it happened? Or maybe you hit him with something and he fell in?”

David was glad for his shades, because while he was sure McGuire saw his eyebrows go up, at least he couldn't watch his pupils. He scratched his chin while he thought. “You know, we munched on that stuff all day long, so it's not like we would've noticed any was missing. But I suppose something like that could happen. Except maybe he just heard us coming and ran off. It was near dark the last night we came back to that camp. Bugged out the next morning. Coulda happened just like that, but like we said, we didn't see or hear anything. Poor bastard. Stupid way to go. We would've shared with him, you know?” Maybe that last was a bit much, he thought, but he couldn't take it back now.

McGuire watched him for an uncomfortable length of time, although in reality it was probably just a few seconds. Then he put the notebook back and shrugged. “Yeah, well, I suppose you're right. Couldn't hurt to ask, though. Especially given your wife’s history?”

David did flinch then. “You don’t know?” said McGuire. There was a beat, while David was trying to figure out what to say. McGuire held up his hands, “Hey, I’m not going to be the guy to break it to you, but there are some things about your wife you don’t know.”

David looked at him. “There may be, but they’re not relevant here. Because.” he paused, “We. Never. Met. This. Guy.”

McGuire looked at him for a long moment shrugged, and turned to go away. David was running the conversation over in his head, and remembered they were driving Jill's Subaru when they first met McGuire, not his truck. Before David could stop himself he blurted out, “How old is he?”

McGuire stopped, one foot on the trail and looked over his shoulder. “How old is who?”

“Your boy?”

“My boy? Oh,” he hesitated just a moment, “twelve.”

David gave him a flat grin and nodded, “Yeah, that's what I thought.” Then he turned back to the river. He didn't want to fish, but he didn't want to walk out with the cop, and he had some thinking to do.

As soon as he got back into his truck, he called Jill. Again, no answer, so he left a message saying he’d talked to McGuire. He sat staring out the windshield. Somehow, he felt that was probably the last time he would be fly fishing. The phone buzzing in his hand snapped him back to the moment. He knew it was Jill and had a hard time keeping the disgust out of his voice.

“So, you’ll answer for the cops but not for me.”

“This is not the time, David.”

“Will there ever be a time?”

She ignored him. “Tell me about the conversation. Tell me everything.”

David drummed his fingers on the steering wheel and ran it down. It was silent for a moment before she answered. “You told him a lot.”

“I’m sorry if I’m not great at this accomplice stuff. Murder is all new to me.” He knuckles were white on the wheel. He took a breath to control himself. “I figured the best lies are based on truths, and he was just here to confirm things he already knew.”

She ignored his tone. “Let’s not get into enumerating all of your shortfalls as a partner. At least you didn’t screw up royally. Thanks for the heads up in case he comes calling.”

“If he did come calling where would he find you?”

“Goodbye, David.” He was left with dead air and a view of the river which no longer gave him solace.

Only then did he realize he never even got to ask about the history comment.

When David got home he tried to work for a while but finally gave up and grabbed a bottle of Bourbon. He walked out onto the porch and opened it, unable to stay inside the empty house. He was still standing like that when Jill's friend, Melanie, pulled up in her gold Lexus. He tried to compose himself, and patted some of the dust off of his shirt. Melanie was Mutt to Jill's Jeff. Where Jill was tall and thin with a distance athlete's body, Melanie was shorter and more curvaceous; her short blonde Paige-cut an offset to Jill's long auburn hair.

She laughed when she saw his futile attempts to straighten up. “Oh, please. You are a carpenter, I've seen you more often in work clothes than out, although I wouldn't mind seeing you out of those clothes ...”

David blushed. Melanie was always flirting with him, and it made him uncomfortable. He recognized she was cute, but he was married. Capital M married, and never looked at any other women that way ever since he’d met Jill. Worse, she used to make comments like that right in front of Jill who either ignored them or laughed at his discomfort. “I don't know when Jill will be back.”

Melanie came up the steps and took in the scene. The discarded wader packaging, the open bottle on the railing. David's disheveled appearance under the work dirt.

“I know, I'm here to see you.”

David didn’t know what to say to that. His eye caught the Lexus. “New car?”

“You know us realtors, it’s a write off.” She nodded to the bottle in his hand. “Gonna offer a girl a drink?”

David shook himself out of reverie, tilted his head at her, and then picked up the bottle and offered it to her. She laughed again. “Unless you are going to chew up some ice cubes and spit them into that bottle, you think maybe I could have a glass?”

David looked down, feeling foolish. Get your act together, he thought. “What am I thinking? Come in.” He opened the screen door to the kitchen and she swatted him on the ass on the way by. He jumped a foot, but he got himself together, grabbed a couple of glasses and iced them, poured her a couple of fingers, and then poured himself a healthy quadruple shot. He motioned to the table with her glass and put it in front of a chair, then took his glass and the bottle and sat kitty-corner from her. She looked at him, looked at her glass, reached for the bottle and filled her glass as well. She raised her glass in a toast, “Here's to the newlyweds!”

David hesitated, then downed his glass and reached for the bottle to refill it. Melanie merely watched. “You okay?”

He shrugged. “Been a long day.”

“Been a long couple of weeks from what I hear.”

“Oh, and what do you hear?” He was thinking maybe Melanie could offer him some insight into his wife's callous behavior.

Melanie reached a hand out and put it on his arm. “I know what you did, David. All of it. Jill told me.” He jerked back, nearly knocking his glass over.

“What are you talking about?”

“On the river. With the rapist. I know all about it.”

He ran his hand through his hair. “No. I can't believe this. She wouldn't tell you.” Then he remembered: don't get sloppy, David. “What is it you think you know?”

“How you bluffed him. That was the bravest thing I ever heard. What you said.”

He looked at her, feeling hope for the first time since that night. “I don't think she sees it that way.”

Melanie reached out again, palm up and he took her hand instinctively. “She will. I know how you feel about her. Everybody knows how you feel about her. That's why I tease you so much, because it makes you so uncomfortable. I cannot even imagine what it did to you to say those things. To say them like you meant them.” There was a glint in her eye David couldn't place. He started to cry. Everything came out of him in a river, him still looking at her. She stood up and came around the table and held him around the shoulders, holding his hand, stroking his head. He felt bad and weak and guilty, but he took it and she shushed him and soothed him and he realized how much he needed it, this simple touching and empathy.

Finally, the jag subsided, and she moved back to her chair, still holding his hand. “Thank you,” was all he could get out.

“You are a hero, David, to protect her like that. To save her life. And then, to hunt him down and take care of him like you did.” This time, he did understand the glint. It was raw, naked lust. “If she doesn't know, if she doesn't get it ...”

He looked at her, really looked at her, and realized for the first time that she was filling out a very low cut top and short-shorts. He could feel her animal hunger, and he could feel his own urges, suppressed like everything had been suppressed, coming up on waves of whiskey and guilt, relief and desire. Then suddenly he placed both hands flat on the table, rotating out of her grasp. “Is this a test?”

She looked at him, her eyes wide and her mouth slightly open. “No, David. No. You passed your test. I ...” She looked at him. She looked around the kitchen going dim in the evening light. It was almost like she was waking up. She put both hands up to her mouth. “I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I can't imagine what you are going through. I just wanted to come over and make you feel better. I didn't mean...”

He held up a hand to stop her. “It's okay. Don't worry. Not everything she told you is true. I don't know why she told you all of that. I never hurt anybody. I'm so confused.” He looked away from her. “I think you just better go.”

She sat there for a moment as if she would argue, then got up and left. After a while, David finished his glass and reached over for hers.

David was drunk when he called Jill, intending to leave an angry message, and he was surprised that she actually picked up.

“Melanie just left.”

Jill gave a deep, guttural laugh. “I’m surprised it took her this long.”

“Why would you tell her what you told her? Was this some kind of test?”

“David, you are slurring. Are you drunk? Were you drunk when you were talking to her?”

“I’m not the sloppy one here, you are. Why would you create a witness?” And then it came to him. He didn’t need an answer. “Oh, Jill. Has it come to that?”

“Let’s call it a ‘calculated risk.’ I need insurance, David. I told you I’m not going down for this — no matter what.

David stared at the phone long after it went dead, thoughts wheeling through his head, wondering where he’d gone wrong, what he could’ve done differently. He didn’t remember finishing the bottle, but he woke up next to it at the table.

The next time David heard from Jill, it was through a lawyer. Things moved fast after that. Jill moved out one day while he was out on a job. Over all of Melanie’s arguments, he put the house on the market without even finishing the remodel,

David was going through all of the stuff in the garage. Anything left of Jill's or anything that was both of theirs, he was tossing into the truck for a dump run, most of it uninvestigated. It was just too painful to contemplate. He felt like she’d died rather than moved out.

Behind some boxes of Christmas ornaments, David pulled out a plastic tote box. Jill was always one for putting things away in labeled storage bins. It had become a source of humor between them, but he didn’t recognize this one. He put it on the floor, pulled off the lid and found a black plastic garbage bag inside. He scowled as he opened it. This was nothing he recognized. He reached into the bag and stopped cold when he realized what he had. Waders. He quickly furled the bag down to see the contents. His waders, his shirt, his boots, some camp trash. Jill's waders, shirt, and boots were not in the bag. Son of a bitch, he thought. That was stone cold. High mountain-glacier-lake cold. Just to verify what he was seeing, he reached into the bag to rummage through it and a flash of color caught his eye. There in the bottom of the bag with a few baggies and bits of camp trash was a hot pink piece of plastic. Puzzled, he pulled it out to take a look. It was a pregnancy test. “Don't forget about the kids,” she'd said.

He was holding the bag in one hand and the test in the other when a car pulled into the driveway next to his truck. He was so lost in shock it took him a minute to recognize the Caprice. McGuire got out and David dropped the test back into the bag. “Washed your car, I see.”

McGuire looked at it as if he hadn't noticed, “Actually, not even sure if it's the same car. Motor pool is full of black and blue Caprices, I just take whichever.”


“Got some news for you. Thought I would come by and tell you in person.” He looked around. “Moving? So soon?”

“We bought it as a flip. Plan was always to sell it and get something more family-friendly.”

“Well, then I guess I should say 'congratulations.'” David jumped a little, but then repeated his little mantra. Don't get sloppy. Don't deviate from the plan. Don't forget about the kids. That last bit, especially. Don't forget about the kids.


“Oh, yeah. We IDed that guy finally. Did you know with a body that's been in the water for a while, they have to skin the hand, then get somebody to wear it like to a glove to print them? Usually only fits a woman's hand. Can you imagine? I couldn't do it. Have to be a woman with some stones to do something like that, don't you think?”

David jerked back to the conversation. His head was spinning. “Stones?” What was McGuire talking about? Had he figured it out? Don't get sloppy. Don't deviate from the plan. Don't forget about the kids.

McGuire gave him a quizzical look. “Anyway, you'll be reading about it in the paper soon, so I thought I would give you a heads up. This guy, he wasn’t in our databases, he was from out of state. It still takes a while to go through all of that stuff and figure that out. Real bad guy. Had some sexual assaults. When those guys get out, they have to report to the nearest police station and they live a life of scrutiny. All of the neighbors get a notice. Everybody knows who they are.”

“Doesn't really sound like they are out of prison at all.”

“Yeah, it's a real scarlet letter, and it makes it a bitch to get work. Lot of these guys go and live with family, which makes it hell on everybody. But a lot of them, they go live up in the pass where there is no police station to report to.”

“Like this guy.”

“Yeah, like this guy. Anyway, we kept poking around up there, and we finally found his camp with dogs.”

David furrowed his brow. McGuire's account was keeping him from other, much more important things he had to think about. “And?”

McGuire put a hand over his mouth, closed it to a fist as it slid off of his chin. “You know, David, if you had come back to camp, and this guy was attacking your wife, and you killed him — it would be self-defense. Some people, they might even see you as a hero. I wouldn't hold it against you, you not telling us. The obstruction. Just between you and me, did you do it?”

David wiped his mouth on his shirtsleeve.

“I just like to close these things out, you know? Won't even put it on the books. I just need to know. It's the only thing that makes sense.”

“You've been trying to pin this thing on me ever since you met me,” said David, tossing the bag into the truck and resting both hands against the side of the bed, head hanging down. He looked up at McGuire. “You tell yourself whatever you need to. My story hasn't changed. Never saw him. Never killed him. It's just a story in the paper to me and Jill.”

McGuire held up both hands, palms out. “Okay, have it your way.” He turned and opened the door to his car. “Oh, one last thing. Is this yours?” He pulled out the Winston, broken down into four parts for travel and held together irreligiously with rubber bands. David looked at it for a moment before reaching his hand out for it.

“Yeah. Where did you get that?”

“Your last campsite — perfect fire ring except for one rock missing. Seemed odd to us. At first we let it go, but eventually we put divers in the river once things started to get interesting. They found it down in the canyon.”

“They found the rock?” David gulped.

“No, we would’ve had to drain the river for that,” McGuire looked down at the Winston, “but we found your rod. Funny you didn't mention losing it.”

“Why would I mention it? I had all kinds of fishing stories I didn't share with you. Do you want to hear about the twenty-five inch brown that was on it when I lost it?”

“No. No, I suppose not. It's just new rod, new waders. Lots of stuff happened on that trip.” He got into the car, backed out, waved, and drove off. David watched him go, then turned and tossed the rod into the cab to dispose of with the rest of the garbage.

He texted Jill that McGuire was back. She called in less than a minute.

“You were right,” he answered. When she didn’t say anything, he gave her the high points of McGuire’s run down. When he was done, she didn’t say anything. “Oh, and I found the waders. The old waders.”

“I'm sorry,” she said, finally.


“David, I'm not going to make excuses. That night — it changed me.”

“Because of the rape, the murder, or the pregnancy?”

He heard her gasp. “Oh. The test. I forgot about that ...”

“Would you have ever told me?” The silence dragged on, despite him willing her to answer.

“I was going to tell you, the moment you came back to camp. It was the happiest moment of my life. I had just taken it, I still had it in my hand when that ... monster ... grabbed me.”

“You know, I didn't do anything wrong. I couldn't've done anything different.”

“You gave me to a man and told him to rape and kill me — me and your child. It was like my heart was so open, and happy, and free, and then you shot a great black arrow into it. Everything slammed shut in that one second, and it won’t open back up.”

“I told you, it was a ruse, a calculated risk, I did what I had to do to keep you alive. There was no other way. My gamble worked.”

“No. My way worked. I don’t even know what your way really was.”

“Maybe there was more than one right way. Maybe my right way enabled your right way.”

“We will never know, David.”

“I didn’t know, about — before.” The line went totally silent and he thought she had hung up. And then, unbidden, words were coming out of his mouth. “Come back. Let's be a family. Let's start over.”

She chortled. “Could you ever forgive me?”

“For better or worse, honey. You did what you needed to do to keep our baby safe.”

“It's not about that any more. I can’t trust you, I will never be able to trust you. I can’t forgive you. I can’t even try.”

A thought struck him. “Where are you?”

She hesitated and he could almost hear her thinking. “In B.C., at my mom’s.”

“So, you never were going to tell me.”


“Will I ever see my child?”

“No, David. This is it. This is the last time we will ever talk. I’m sorry you found that test. But I’m not reliving this ever again. He’s not going to be part of it. If we were together, I would never be able to forget. I am in the clear now, and I’m keeping it that way.”

“You can’t keep my son from me. I’ll sue.”

“They don’t let felons into Canada, David.”

“What’s that supposed to mean? Am I in the clear, or are there any more surprises lying around?”

“You took a calculated risk, you have to live with that. Goodbye, David,” and she hung up.

When Melanie showed up, he was still in his truck in the driveway, wrists dangling over the steering wheel, staring straight ahead. She walked up and looked at him through the window, then waved a bottle of Champagne at him. “We sold it, David! I’m here to celebrate.”

He didn’t answer, so she came around to the passenger side and got in. “I thought you would be more excited.”

David finally looked over at her. “You know what the difference between a depressed hunter and a depressed fly fisherman is?”

“No, do tell.”

He nodded to the fly rod leaning against the seat between them. “You can’t blow your brains out with a fly rod.”

She stared at him for a long time. “Maybe I’ll never know what really happened out there David, but you still seem like a hero to me.”

“It’s hard to be a hero when you are living a lie. I’d be more of a hero if I admitted to a murder I didn’t commit.”

“Maybe someday you can explain that in a way that all makes sense.” She grunted as she worked the cork out of the Champagne. It came out with a soft pop. “Look, I even got the real stuff, from France. Cheers!” She took a swig out of the bottle and handed it over to him.

He took the bottle and looked at the label as if that meant anything to him, then held it up and took a long pull. As he tilted the bottle down there was the sound of sirens and the blue-and-red whirl of lights coming from down the block. Melanie turned to look out the back window, but David stared straight ahead.

“What’s this all about, David?”

“Just the payout to a calculated risk,” he said, and took another long pull. There are no perfect crimes, he thought, but there are some pretty perfect suspects. “Better make that check out to Jill.”


The author seems so desperate to trick the audience that he forgot to write a coherent story. I can't believe any editor would let this story be published.

Life's full of surprises, Steve. At least you know what today's is, for you.

Killer story--pun only slightly intended. If James Cain had been a fly fisherman, this is the story he would have written. Intricately plotted, suspenseful as hell, with an ending that you don't see coming and, when it does, knocks you right on your ass. The character of Jill is so breathtakingly cold you feel as if you need to scrape the ice off your computer screen. A tip of the fedora to the author and the publisher.....

I had to look James Cain up, of course I immediately recognized his movies. Thank you for that. And as a huge noir fan, I'll take that fedora and put a hornberg in the brim.

I hesitate to call this a "good" story, because the ending left me feeling uncomfortable and unsettled...but that is exactly what it was supposed to do.

So while it may not be is well written, well plotted, and well excellent job all around.

Thanks for taking the tie to write it, and get it published.