I was standing in the living room of the “nearly done” Craftsman looking at cracks running diagonally up the plaster walls and across the ceiling.
“Every house from Madison Park to the lake has those. From the ’65 quake,” beamed Penny, the pert little realtor with the brand-new white-on-white Land Rover parked out front.
“Oh.” Like that explained everything and made me want the house even more.
“Of course, everything on the downhill side of Broadway is on a fault. All sliding slowly into the lake.”
“Oh?” Hoping not to sound like a deal sealer. Jesus, lady do you want to sell or not? Penny was my first Seattleite. Some would say they take getting used to. Turns out there is no getting used to them. “In glacial time, dear, glacial time,” she said. I wonder what would happen if I called you ‘dear’?
I didn’t love this house. You would think that after building a few million of them, Craftsman builders would’ve divined the need for a full second floor. I’m not a tall man and I still instinctively ducked on entering the master bedroom, whose second half sloped away towards the back yard. But I would probably never love a house where you can see your neighbors. It did have a basement, if rather dank and dark, so at least I could save $250/month on a rental unit for all of the junk I should throw out but never have.
I didn’t love the house, but it had been “nearly done” which meant a new kitchen, baths, floors, windows, and paint, although why the cracks abided, I could not say. And, I disliked it less than I disliked house hunting. My new job and salary increase meant I would spend the next 30 years paying off exactly half the house I had just paid off, on a thirtieth of the acreage I’d had in Vermont. But, it was a “step up.” To what, I’m not sure. In my heart, I think, it already felt temporary, so let’s skip the drudgery of too-bright realtors in brand new cars getting six percent to open closets and tell me what a “steal” I was getting. It was like a televangelical parade. Who was stealing here?
So that’s how I ended up in Madrona, sandwiched between two Victorians. One a half-timbered Tudor, and the other a painted lady, that were all done – maybe overdone – in their teals, pinks, and purples. Seriously, the Tudor was lavender stucco and violet timbers. There was an alley in the back with most of a one-car garage which was basically a walled deck on piers over my very steep backyard. The whole thing was listing seriously, and were it a house of cards, I’d’ve stopped adding cards long ago. It was most certainly not done. Now that I’ve met them, I’m actually surprised the neighbors didn’t fix it up when the house was empty to bolster their property values.
Paperwork and moving out and moving vans and moving in found me on Labor Day weekend standing in the middle of a cellar, which was suddenly not so big as it was when I bought the place. Resolutely, I stacked boxes and made trips to Home Depot for metal shelves. Ostentatiously, I was carving out room for a fly-tying bench that I’d long envisioned and never realized, previously tying on my kitchen table. As I was working towards the southeast corner, downhill on the street side, the bottom fell out of the box I’d just picked up. Apparently, the box had wicked up water from the cement floor. Quickly as I could, I stacked up boxes on the north and west of the floor and went upstairs to google “leaky basements.” This convinced me that, like building my own working two-stroke, diesel, internal combustion engine, this was an easy day job. So, after a few more trips to Home Depot,I had a pickaxe, gravel, concrete, rebar, and pipes with prefilled French drain material.
As I got out of the Subaru, I noticed my neighbor working in his yard and nodded to him in a friendly New England kind of way and he gave me that glassy stare of a bird at the window wondering if you are going to fill their feeder or not. Since then, I’ve learned this is friendliness in Seattle. Every trip through the back door and down the basement steps we would repeat my nod and wave and he would tilt his head ever more slightly.
I finally had the car empty and manned up to pull it out of the alley into the garage, then went down the stairs to work. There were old 2x12s down on the floor in the downhill corner that I had to pick up and stack to the side. Under them was a surprising amount of muck sitting on top of the floor that I had to scrape off before I could see the crack. I laid out my tools and marked the floor up with chalk. Then I picked up the pickaxe and practiced a few awkward swings in the low space. I was just about to drive one home for real when a deep voice behind me asked “Are you sure you want to tackle this?” If I’d been an inch taller, I would’ve cracked my head on the floor beams above. As it was, I got a serious groin pull, and not the good kind, as I truncated my swing and swung around to face the intruder.
There at the bottom of the stairs was my glassy-eyed neighbor. He was tall, maybe 6’4”, which meant that at 5’8” I disliked him immediately. By dint of height, he would’ve gotten all the varsity letters, popular girls, and management jobs without even trying. He had to stoop so as not to bang his head on the rafters, which warmed my withered heart just a little. He had short curly red hair, and a neatly trimmed beard to match. He was wearing a pristine plaid shirt and stonewashed jeans which were – I kid you not – creased. It was all bottomed off by a pair of brand-new, scuff free, suede Vasques. He looked like an REI mannikin, i.e., a Seattleite.
“I’m Hugh, we were waving outside.”
So that was waving. I had apparently unrealistic Yankee expectations of an explanation for why he was in my basement. “I, uh, saw you were doing house stuff and thought I’d bring you a present.” He held up a 12-pack. “I saw the Vermont plates, so I went to the Madison Market and got you a mixed half-rack of Northwest IPAs.” He beamed like he’d just bought me a kilo of truffles.
I nodded to the nascent fly bench. “I’m Sean.”
He put them down and craned his neck to look over my shoulder. “One thing about these old houses is we all become home repair experts.”
I stood there caked in muddy overalls, my hair the envy of the dandelions sporing in the back garden, looking at his manicured fingers wrapped around two beers and sincerely doubted he’d ever done a day’s labor in his life. “Right.”
Emboldened by having engaged me in conversation, he held out a beer as an excuse to walk around me and see what I was doing. I banged the lid off of my beer on the edge of the tying bench with the flat of my hand, while he opened a leather pouch on his belt, extracted a multitool, opened the blade and pried his off, pocketing the cap and resheathing the tool. I took a swig of mine and looked at the label while looking for somewhere to spit it out. “IPA,” I said, “as in I Pissed this Already?”
If he heard me, he ignored me. He was looking at the bench and the plastic tubs stacked around it. “You fly fish?”
“Yeah, back East for brookies mostly. Thought I would spend the off season changing over to salmon and steelhead flies.”
He beamed and pointed an unnecessary thumb to his chest. “I fish too! I have a vlog.”
“Is it contagious?”
Must be my delivery, as again he missed it. “You know a video blog. I do podcasts on fly fishing around the Puget Sound. You haven’t seen it?”
“Um, uh, no? Been a bit busy.”
“Well, there’s all kinds of fishing around here. Like did you know you can catch carp in Green Lake without a license?”
“In Vermont, we also have a license free carp season. Carp shooting season. You bag them with .22s. You use a .22 fly?”
The Look. “Size 22 is way too small. Anyway, I did an episode on that. We started at SeaTac, took public transit to Green Lake, caught fish, and were back at the airport to make our,” airquotes, “connection.”
“So, like the Rick Steves of fly fishing.”
“Who? Anyway I get free gear and can write off all of my fishing expenses. Pretty cool.”
“If you have free gear, what expenses?”
“You know, like cameras and food and gas and stuff.”
“Smart.” Cut down on the need to pose for REI catalogs, I supposed, although turning fishing into paperwork sounded – as my Russian friend would say – like stealing vodka, selling it, and using the money to get drunk. But I never was much good at paperwork, so I’m sure I was missing something.
Hugh was squatting down, checking out my seepage. “What’s the plan here?”
Upon reflection, I think this was the moment that Hugh, with his catalog attire, perfect hair and nails, horrendous taste in beer, and supercilious attitude, inserted himself as project manager of my life.
I scratched my chin. Why am I talking to this guy? “ Water’s seeping up through the basement. Going to excavate the crack, lay in a French drain, put down a vapor barrier and seal it all up.” Spoken like a guy who has watched all of the right YouTube videos, I hoped.
“Yeah, that might work. These old houses, the original drains get clogged up. I hope you don’t have to excavate around the foundation and back fill it with clean gravel. Guy up the hill had to do that. Cost a mint.”
“It’s just a little crack. Probably happened during the ’65 quake.” Spoken like a native. Or at least long-transplanted. “Anyway, I was just about to um, you know ‘take a swing at it.’”
Hugh came to himself. “Oh, uh sure.” He stood back out of splatter range. “Did you get safety glasses?”
I looked at him, “What?”
“You know, eye protection. You should really have eye protection.”
I shrugged. I’d made it this far without a project manager and waved him back with a hand. Enough. It was time to hit something. I crouched, I gauged the head space, I swung. It was remarkably uneventful, although if I bent closely, I could see the mark where the pick had hit the floor. I kneeled down and gave it another whack. Again, somewhat anticlimactic.
“You are going to need a jackhammer.”
He was probably right. But I really didn’t want him to be right, so I raised up my left foot and placed it flat on the ground, laid the pickaxe out behind me on the floor, swept it high above my head, and gave it my all, groin pull be damned.
And then the floor gave way. So hard had I swung that I was completely over-balanced and nearly pitched into the hole in front of me. As it was, my thrice-swung pickaxe slipped from my hands and disappeared into the raging stream gushing below me. That saved me and I was able to windmill my arms to keep my balance and crawl away from the precipice.
Hugh was leaning over the edge. “Holy shit dude.”
Like he read my mind. I stood up and skirted the hole from three sides. The fourth ended at the streetside wall. The basement floor overhung it somewhat where the stream had eroded away the ground beneath.
“That’s going to cost a fortune. If this is under the street out front, this is a major deal. You are living on a sinkhole, man. I hope you had a house inspection; you are going to have to sue to get this back. The permits and alone will be more than your mortgage.” He looked at me with wisdom. “It’s probably a tear-down, bro.”
“Now Hugh,” I said, walking around the hole and placing the boards back in place over it. “Let’s not overreact. I’m sure this connects to the sewer and the city knows all about it.” I managed to drop the IPA in when my back was turned to him. I had him by the elbow and was gently steering him up the stairs. “Worst case, I have a water feature.”
“Sean, if you don’t call this in, I will, this is an emergency. What if the street opens up and somebody drives into it?”
“First thing Monday, Hugh, I promise.” By now I had him at the top of the stairs and ushered him out. I had a blinding headache and my groin hurt. Once he was safely off the property, I grabbed a steak out of the fridge and put it on the gas grill the previous owners had left out on the patio behind the house. I imagined their new house was all done with an outside kitchen. I looked at the gardens, terraced like a Peruvian corn field leading up to the alley way, which was actually above the eaves of my house. Damn, that stream had some serious head on it. As did I, tilting my head up to see the street refocused my headache directly behind my eyes, making me slightly nauseous. Maybe a beer would help. I teetered down the stairs and randomly grabbed another IPA. Hugh’s empty bottle, I noted, was tucked neatly back into the box.
I popped this one and tentatively took a sip. Industrial Periodontal Ablative. I went back into the house and got a couple of pie plates. The first terrace started at the edge of the patio, six railroad ties high,so I didn’t even have to bend over to put the plates in the garden. I put one third of the remaining beer into each plate to make slug traps. I flipped the steak then I went back into the house and rummaged around until I found a bottle of zinfandel. By then my steak was done, so I put it on a plate and ate it off my lap. My house, it seemed, was about to move out from under me. I had to start work next week and was dead broke after the move anyway. The sun had gone over the hill, cutting the day two hours short, and my house was huddled in the shadows behind me like some hamlet in a Grimm’s fairy tale. The early twilight was a selling point Penny had somehow missed.
The next morning, I had indeed not fallen into a pit in the earth. I made coffee and decided to check on my water feature, taking a flashlight for good measure. In the light of day, so to speak, it looked like the major evident damage was constrained to the hole and the rest of the floor, for the moment, was supported.
As a tonic, I decided to set up my bench and tie some flies. One of my trout friends from back east had given me a book on steelhead flies, monstrous purple leeches that when compared to my normal size 18 Parachute Adams made me a bit dubious about wading in the tributaries to the Sound. I got a second cup of coffee, set up my bench, propped the book in a cookbook holder, and started to tie. When I got inside of the tying, the water feature provided a soothing background.
While ostensibly still fly tying, these new sizes, techniques, and materials seemed more like kinder craft, but I fumbled through one. I held it up and turned it in the desk light. I dubbed it the “Frankenbaby.” I was curious to see how it would behave in the water and was heading up to fill the bathtub to watch it or perhaps drown it should it re-animate, when I realized I had my own test lab right in the basement. I spooled off about 8’ of 1x mono and tied the fly on, then I went over to the stream. I took the boards off and looked down at the torrent wondering briefly from whence it came and to whence it fro. I stood at the far upstream end and tossed in the fly like tossing bread to ducks, the mono looped around my hand.
The fly really did look alive, twisting and shimmering in the water, with the occasional jerk as if injured. I crouched down to lessen the angle on the line and was mesmerized by its shakes and shimmies. Just as I settled onto the balls of my feet, there was a flash of white and the line went taught. There was a terrific jerk on my arm and for the second time I was nearly swept into the hole. I was unable to pull the fly back against the force on it. I wheeled my left arm like a one-armed backstroker, landing hard on my ass, but still getting dragged towards the gaping maw that was my basement floor. The pain in my hand was immediate and I flashed on one of those wire cheese cutters neatly severing the tendons in the back of my hand, slicing cleanly through the bones, and coming out the palm leaving me with a fingerless cross-section of head cheese. I opened my hand and the line finally pulled free against the friction, leaving a nasty burn on the way.
I sucked on the wound which slowly started seeping blood in a perfect line all the way around my hand as I stared dumbfounded into the torrent. What the hell was that? Then I rushed over to my bench, spilling my coffee, and tied up another. I had a hell of a time in my excitement with the blood making everything slick and sticky in turns and kept muttering the snipers’ mantra: slow is smooth and smooth is fast. However, franticly fucking up three times over still got the job done. In only twice as long as the first fly, I had a new, albeit, somewhat derivative fly, Frankenbaby the Second.
Now, I had a new problem: how to keep connected to the fly once – whatever – took it. I pondered the problem as I went over to my gear stacked on the other side of the basement and took out my brand new Reddington 7wt with the large arbor reel. The rod still had the plastic on the handle. There was no way I was going to be able to line up a 9’ rod in this cramped space, but I put the first two sections together, and ran the line up through the stripper and shooting guides, put 1x mono tied direct to the line for tippet, and tied the Franken fly on. I mean, I wasn’t casting, I just needed a handle on this thing.
I tentatively dappled the fly in the water and once again it disappeared in a white flash. Fortunately, the shortened rod minimized the fish’s leverage, but still the whole rig nearly got yanked out of my blood slippery hand. I braced the fighting butt against my hip as I fought to tighten the drag. This slowed it from screaming off the reel not at all. Frantic, I started levering and pumping, trying to get something back on the reel, but the current was with the fish, and I could not win. Soon I was into the backing, something I’d read about somewhat dubiously because nine-inch native brookies had not once in my experience ever done this.
As the drag meant nothing, I tried to grab the reel’s spinning handle, which was a finger-numbing mistake. Switching hands to palm the reel (something else I’d read about) almost cost me the rig, again, as the plastic over the cork was slick with blood. Finally, the backing ran out and everything came to a hard stop. It was so sudden it pitched me from the back foot to the front and I had to actually jump across the hole to the right side, as fighting the momentum was not an option. Now it was a real, or was that “reel,” fight. I cranked and pulled. Lost it and fought it back. My forearms cramped. My stomach flipped. I was weak from adrenaline and exertion. The sweat ran into my eyes and down the groove of my spine under my suddenly too warm flannel shirt. The basement that was cold and damp before was now hot and humid. The walls were closing in and my eyesight was dimming. I remembered a guy in high school who told me about handlining tuna off the Georges Bank – except my line wasn’t tied to an empty beer keg for drag.
Then, suddenly, slack. Had I lost the fish? I switched my hands and cranked madly. There! Just then, resistance. I risked wiping my bloody palm on my shirt, although my shirt was also soaked. Slowly, so slowly the moments ticked by, even though every action was panic and confusion. I’d never seen a fish this big, let alone hooked one. It felt like days, it was at least an hour, when I finally saw the tip of my line. For just a moment, I saw the white snout and then it was gone. Another brief fight, and then after all that slow motion time, I suddenly had a thirty-pound albino steelhead flopping on my floor. I looked around frantically for a phone, a net, an umbrella, anything to arrest this magnificent and unique specimen. A piscatorial unicorn. I dropped the rod to throw myself on the fish.
I was on my belly trapping the fish against the gritty floor, and slowly I fumbled my hand around the tail, rising to my knees and lifting the body with my other hand. Just then Hugh banged down the rickety stairs and we met eye-to-eye. I felt like he’d caught me with my pants around my ankles masturbating to monkey porn. And just like that, slack off the line, it spat the hook, rolled one derisive “that all you got?” pink eye at me, flipped over my head, and was gone.
“What the hell was that?”
I shrugged as if I was completely obvious, “An albino steelhead?”
“You caught an albino steelhead in your basement?”
I felt his ability to render this sentence without expletives somewhat diminished my accomplishment. That and the fact that his barging in costing me my moment made me hate Mr. I Punch Assholes even more. I gave him my best “doesn’t everybody” shrug, got up, dusted my knees off and asked the only reasonable question, “Don’t you ever knock?”
“Of course, but nobody answered.”
“Usually, a sign that nobody is home.”
“Good thing I checked, or nobody would ever believe your story. Wait until I vlog about this.”
What wasn’t clear to him became suddenly clear to me. I had the world’s most unique fishery in my basement. And you don’t give up a fishing hole like that. A secret that if Hugh had anything to do with would be permitted out of existence. I turned my back on him and very carefully replaced the boards over the hole.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“We gotta catch another for the vlog, nobody will believe it without a picture.”
“Perfect? This is history.”
“There are no fishing secrets, and every time somebody outs one, the fish suffer for the egos of fishermen. Now,” I walked up close enough to smell the hops on his breath and poked him in the chest with a finger. “Get. The. Fuck. Out. Of. My. House.”
He looked at me like he was the trespassed one, raised his hands, backed up two steps, turned and started up the stairs. He stopped halfway, looked at me, shook his head and said, “I just don’t get it.”
“Clearly.” I pointed towards the door. “Out.” Right after he left, I looked at the beer and had one of those I-wish-I’d-said moments, “And take your damn Incredibly Putrid Ale.”
This would be the time to say I called the city and filed the permits and did everything in my power to hide the world’s only underground albino steelhead run, just as I promised I would. And now, that time has passed. Because when I went upstairs to sip leftover wine and recover in my recliner, I relived my epic half-rod battle. Yeah, basically it was ice fishing with a fly, but it sure was fun. And unique. And until I Pounce unAnnounced showed up, all mine. I fell asleep there and when I woke up, I was surprisingly stiff for a middle-aged guy who had his most intense, okay only, workout in ten years. I stumbled up to bed and drifted off to dream of fighting fish in a maze of bureaucratic tape, never able to land them or let them go. There was some impending emergency I could not rise to, and the paper avalanched in on me, burying my stream.
The next day at work, I couldn’t concentrate. I had the King County site up, but just couldn’t pull the trigger. Like any addict I had a really good rationalization to cover my true motives. I convinced myself that I just needed to go home and follow Plan A: fill the hole and forget about it. I told people I needed to go get my Washington driver’s license and cut out early.
On the way home, my true motives bubbled up. Of course, I was going to catch “just one more fish.” I mean, who wouldn’t? I parked in the garage, closing the door gently less I trigger a collapse, trotted down the garden stairs, opened the kitchen door, and went directly into the basement. The place was lit up like Lascaux. As my head cleared the ceiling, I could see tripods with lights and Hugh back to me bent over the hole, which had been denuded of its lumber facade. He stood up and turned towards me, holding one of my fish. That’s right, somehow along the way they had become exclusive.
“What the fuck?!” I exploded.
Hugh heard me, jerked upright, smacked his head on the floor beam, crumpled like a destrung marionette and collapsed backwards into the water, fish and all. I ran over, but he’d already disappeared from sight. I looked wildly around. Tripods with lights, written off, I’m sure, and a camera recording away. Shitshitshit. Before I’d completely thought it through, I swept all of the gear into the corner, cameras, lights, tripods the works; and covered the hole back up.
I went upstairs, grabbing a fifth of Four Roses off the counter on my way by, and sat in my Adirondack chair in the backyard. My emotions were flipping around like the loose end of a movie reel. I just killed a guy. No, I just killed a trespasser. No, a trespasser killed himself on my property. Could I prove self-defense? What was I defending myself against? A smarmy asshat? This was Seattle, there would be no sympathy on that. The jury would be full of them. Could somebody prove murder? I looked quickly over at Hugh’s house. Did he have a wife? Kids? Was somebody going to miss him? Did he have an REI shoot coming up? What about his vlog? Was that live? Cached somewhere? I held the bottle out in front of me with both hands, elbows on my knees, head down on the cap and rocked back and forth. He was an asshole! But he meant well. He meant well for an entitled prick, i.e., for himself. I took a swig and moaned. Fuckmefuckmefuckme. I was going to jail. And my fish! What was going to happen to my fish? Why did I ever leave Vermont? Why did I ever break into that floor? Another swig.
And so it went in various versions, around and around. I was okay. I was screwed. It didn’t matter. I was going to jail.
I woke up to the “Woof, woof, woof” of a debarked Newfoundland on quaaludes, and a massive headache from the treacle-sweet Bourbon. It was one of those sounds that your dream brain is fine with, but just loud enough for my conscious brain to go “Whatthefuck?” I sat up and looked over towards Hugh’s house. All the neighbors’ lights were out, but it was a full moon with scudding clouds. My befuddled brain saw a shadow puppet show being enacted on his half-timbered Tudor, profiles swinging back and forth in the on-again, off-again moonlight. Suddenly, my gut contracted in night terror, my skin somehow cold as sweat trickled down my spine. I had to force myself to breathe as the panic set in. Black ops agents were descending from helicopters to Mr. Intentionally Putrescent Alcohol’s house. Shitfuckdamn. This could not be a coincidence.
I scrambled over to the edge of the patio for a better view. They breached doors and windows like pools of black ink seeping under the cracks. My pulse was tripping like Ken Kesey on the Bus. Okay, calm down. You don’t know anything about this guy. Except he died in your basement. There was a mass huddle between our houses, sheltered from the road by the rhododendron hedge. Time ticked by like a tar stalactite. Then the clouds parted faintly, and six shadowy heads looked directly at my bedroom window.
I bolted for the stairs, imagining each of them liquidating like T-1000s to slide under my sills. I raced down to the basement, threw the planks off the hole and tossed the camera gear in. I was covering it up when I heard a woman’s voice. “It won’t help, slick.”
I turned around and there was a pointy, thin woman in full-on black, jack-booted regalia, with night vision goggles perched on her head. She nodded to the mixed case of IPA. “That threw us for a minute. When my data-miners sourced who had bought that exact mixture of beer, the only hit was Hugh Abrams, next door.” She swiveled to look back at her team who shuffled nervously. “Those people just had their jobs outsourced to India. But before that happened, one of them tracked the barcode on that Redington box,” she pointed to a stack behind the IPA, “to you.”
I was, in common parlance, befuddled. “Why do you care about the IPA? You can have it. I’ve been filling slug traps with it.”
She cocked her head and looked at me like the idiot I was. I would’ve given anything to be outsourced to India right then. A dive team was clamoring down the stairs and setting up tanks and lights and a weird pyramid thing they anchored to the floor with a gun that shot bolts.
“Uh, sure, okay, have at it.” I am not so clever, but I am not so unclever that I don’t know when I’m outgunned. And definitely outsobered.
“Aren’t you curious?” Said the villain to the victim, I thought. Almost definitely I was not going to get to go to bed and let them at it. “Um ... very?”
Divers went into the water, and she held out her hand to the man behind her. Her valet? He set a black military case on the floor, opened it and pulled out a wine glass that looked like a fishbowl on a stick. Next, he took out a, as best I could tell from where I stood, Premier Cru white Burgundy, and poured the glass full to the tangent of the curve. Last, he opened a case that released the obvious sublimation vapors of dry ice and dropped in a perfectly round ice cube about the size of a cue ball, stood up, and placed it into her outstretched hand. She never once looked at him or spoke. Frankly, I’d’ve been much more impressed and less surprised if it had been an IPA.
“We have time. You have questions?”
“And you are?”
She gave her head a quick shake like she had to dismiss the idea I might not recognize her. “Call me Mrs. G.”
“I do have questions. First, what’s the vintage?”
She looked vaguely at the glass. “Vintage? Who has time for such things? I simply say: get me the best.” She waved at the pit in the floor. “I rather meant questions about the operation.”
But the ice cube? I refocused. “Oh, yeah vaguely curious what you want with the hole in my basement.”
Again, the I’m-talking-to-morons look, but maybe that was her only look. “It’s not the hole, it’s the fish.”
Well so much for playing to my strengths of playing dumb. “Okay, what about the fish?”
“The Foundation needs them for chip experimentation.”
“You mean like vaccines are really chip implants chips, or actual lets-save-the-fish-chips?”
She pursed her lips and knitted her brows. “Save the fish? From what?”
At this point, I needed a drink so badly; I reached for an IPA, Ball-Breaker or some shit. I almost felt like I needed to ask permission, but my fear was slowly subsiding behind my pissed-offness. Who were these entitled fucks in my house? Once again, I popped the top with the flat of my hand but this one foamed out. It smelled like the matted grass clippings that accumulate under your lawnmower, alternately molding and baking until they fall off in the garage and you gag while you sweep them up. I took a sip and was not disappointed in my analysis. If you were ever curious what aquarium mulm, that snotty algae in the filter, tasted like, here you go. Yup, most definitely an 8/10 on the IPA scale.
“Okay, I have always wondered this, why do you need to chip people when you already have them wired into cell phones like patients on Soma?”
“Brave New World?”
“Well, it most certainly is, but we lost that whole cell phone thing. Did you ever have a Windows phone? Hell, even I had an iPhone. I love my husband but left to his design sensibility, we’d have concrete furniture. No. Vaccines that’s where it’s at. From the richest to the poorest. Stick ‘em once, own them.” She sniggered, “I mean their data, forever.”
“What does this have to do with fish?”
“Well, it’s a power source thing, really. How do you get the body to power the chip? It’s a nanotechnology problem.” She said it like na-NO-technology, like I really was slow and might be taking notes.
“Why my fish?”
“We tried regular old salmon, but they have been so interbred with hatchery fish, there really are no wild salmon anymore. It’s like working with a stock of clones. Nowhere near the diversity in the data we need. But these fish. These are pristine. Nobody knows about them. Nobody has ever touched them. Plus, with them hiding away like this, it's a great opportunity to verify our remote tracking capabilities.”
I’d heard enough. If she planned to treat my fish the way she treated that Burgundy, she might as well go into the hole as well. “Quaint as I find your boorish presence in my basement to be, I feel you’ve overstayed your home invasion and I really must ask you to leave.”
She looked at me and then did this little “Hhk,” cough-laugh thing. She reached out her other hand and snapped her fingers and valet-boy produced a stack of paper from a valise over his shoulder. “I’m sorry mister,” she looked at the papers, “Cavanaugh. But we bought your mortgage. This house now belongs to the Foundation.”
I started sputtering like an outboard motor which had just drained the tank. Bought my house. At 3AM. I mean when I said “temporary,” I had expected to make it through the long weekend. Just then, the team of divers surfaced, a spear gun with a perfect albino steelhead coming up first and then being tossed onto the floor like a burger wrapper tossed out the window on the freeway as the two divers pulled Hugh’s body out through the hole. Shit. Mrs. G arched an eyebrow at me.
They flopped him onto the floor about as delicately as the steelhead. “Found this perched in a cavern above the water. Hypothermic, non-responsive, evidence of a head wound, but alive.”
Mrs. G barely glanced at him. “Get somebody to dump him at the ER on Madison.” Scurrying ensued. She walked over and looked down at the dead fish. I’m not sure who had the glassier stare. Without any self-consciousness she leaned over and said, “Hello, my precious.” She took a sip of her wine. “Get this to Andre, tell him I want sushi for lunch.” She waved her hands, “Map out the water system. Never know, an aquifer under Seattle might come in handy.” Again with the choke-laugh, which was a bit too short on the choke and too long on the laugh for me. “Set up the lab station in here and have the traps ready.” She looked over at me, “What are you still doing here?”
I opened my mouth, but she pointed where Hugh had recently been. “Really, Mr. Cavanaugh, it’s on tape. Attempted murder and all. I would quit before you get any further behind.”
“I didn’t …”
“Well, maybe you didn’t, but by dawn that footage will say different.”
Differently, bitch. But before I could get that out, two rubber-clad burly men grabbed me by the biceps and hustled me up the stairs. I’m sure for a certain crowd this could be heaven, but it didn’t work for me. “Get out. We’ll pack your stuff and get it to you.”
“And how will you find me?” The guy on my right held up a syringe and jabbed me in the arm. Then they pushed me out the back door.
I stumbled through the yard up the garden stairs. The alley was full of murdered-out black SUVs. They had me parked-in but eventually we worked it out. Not knowing where to go, I drove up to Denny Way and took a room in a hotel. It was almost dawn. I slept fitfully until the maid walked in on my naked ass as I’d slept through check out. Fumbling, I picked up my clothes and changed in the bath then took off. I felt empty. My house was gone. My one probable contribution to science was gone. Even my ability to claim innocence about poor Hugh’s disappearance was gone. I looked at my watch. Wednesday. Guess I wasn’t going to work, I’d figure some excuse out. I kind of needed to figure out the house thing. I scratched my stubble and headed off to the credit union.
I sat down with the nice young lady wearing a gargantuan diamond cluster. I could see her whole life laid out in front of her. Perfectly competent at her job. Nice young man working his way up in the world. Church on Sunday, married in the spring, five more years here, then her first kid, leaves the workforce to be a perfectly competent mom. All of the things in the American dream I would never have. I sighed. I gave her my mother’s maiden name and birthday and she pulled up my accounts. She made a moue as if I’d just farted, which given my overall demeanor wouldn’t have reduced my acceptability much.
“Most unusual. Just need to make a quick call.” I realized I was starving. I got up, poured mediocre coffee out of a carafe, and sorted through the candies to get the watermelon ones. Sometimes even in something as gross as bank candy, there is a holdout goodie. I’d just made the rounds when she hung up.
“Most unusual. A third party bought your mortgage.”
“They can do that?”
She shrugged and her sculpted eyebrows floated briefly about her large glasses’ frames. “Theoretically. But a lot of stuff happened very quickly that would normally take weeks.”
“So, what about my equity?”
“Oh,” as if the thought should’ve occurred to her. She swiveled over and tapitty-tapped away. Another pursing of the lips. Then a glance askance, then more tapping. Then, more swiveling.
“It appears you got five million for the house. It’s here in your account.”
“Million.” She turned her screen so that I could see it.
“People can just put money into your account like that?”
Again, with the shrug and eyebrows. I guess I’m never going back to work.
We did our pleasantries and I left. I walked over to a little joint that was still serving breakfast and had a Denver omelet with toast and jam and good strong coffee. I thought about Mrs. G. and the Foundation and ground my teeth. I hope if you’ve made it this far that I’ve disabused you of any notion of me being a hero. I’m a middle-aged, prematurely bitter (I blame the beer), mediocre software developer whose job will probably get outsourced. Honestly, my first inclination was to take my five million dollars and go home and buy half the state of Vermont and catch tiny wild fish to the end of my days. But I’m also a stubborn Yankee who doesn’t want to be forced into anything, even if that’s taking five million unearned dollars and running with my tail tucked. On top of everything else, I felt responsible for those fish. Like if I hadn’t caught them, they’d spend another millennium in peaceful anonymity. I kept flashing on that fish on the floor and that ridiculous ice cube in that glass. Somehow, they were forever intertwined in my head.
I thought about it for a minute more and decided I should go up the hill and find Hugh in the hospital. That was still a loose end. I didn’t have anything else to do so I parked in a parking garage on Broadway and started hitting the hospitals on foot. I found him on the second try. They let me right up to see him. His head was bandaged but he was sitting up poking at a plate of food. He smiled. “Hi, I’m Hugh. I have amnesia, so I’m sorry if I don’t know you.”
“Oh, I’m your neighbor, Sean. We fished together once.”
“That’s nice, Sean. How did you find me?”
“I saw the commotion at the house and phoned around.” I lied with ease, it was, after all the least of my sins. “What do you remember?”
“Well, that’s what’s weird. Everything, except it’s like the last two weeks never happened.” I didn’t know what to say. “They said it will probably come back, and I’m lucky to be alive. The hypothermia preserved me somehow, like an ice man, but nobody knows how I got it in September.”
I didn’t know what to make about that, either, but somehow, I doubted he’d get his memory back. I was pretty sure Mrs. G. had it stored in the cloud somewhere. So, I helped him find a game on TV, offered platitudes that had been offered to me in similar circumstances, and duty done, left. The day was clouding up but warmish, so I walked down the hill to the library. I pulled old maps, new maps, and topo maps. I even found some old sewer maps, from before they covered over the Underground City. By the time I left, I had a bit of a plan.
The next day I walked down Madronna. I poked around Howell and 38th and checked out “The Valley of the Gnomes.” I noted houses for sale and houses I wanted to buy. Then, I called a realtor listed on a bus bench because he didn’t look like a televangelist. Five million dollars will not get you a house at 3AM without the owner’s consent. But for a third of that it will get you a nice little fixer-upper in Madronna if you can wait a few weeks for the paperwork to clear.
I didn’t even have to buy furniture before my old stuff showed up magically, of course, including the beer. This time I skipped the pickaxe and went directly to jack hammer, which I bought for cash because the thought of using a credit card ever again left a bad taste in my mouth. The gradient on that hill is pretty clear and the river was exactly where I predicted. In no time, I had a nice little run going in the basement, and I was back in business catching my albino steelhead. Sometimes I’d go by the old house and notice lots of constructiony equipment and green glows at night. I noticed Hugh was home and sent him a mixed case of Von Trappe lager, from the Sound of Music people in Stowe. That’s me: always trying to make the world a better place.
The rumor is when they stick you with the vaccine you have this chip floating around in your bloodstream to track you, but that’s not true at all. They don’t put the shot into a vein, they put it into your fat cells in the upper arm, so it doesn’t roam around one bit. As Mrs. G. pointed out, there is a power issue and they soon run out of juice, but I didn’t want to wait. Turns out, a good vet with a chip reader can pull one out in a few minutes, if you drop a wad of cash and adopt a stray pit bull while you’re at it. She was pointy-thin, and I named her Mel.
As far as the fish, they don’t even inject them. They just put the chip through the adipose fin for ease of swapping them out, I suppose, like those tags they put on clothes so you can’t steal them. Therefore, it’s pretty easy to catch the fish, clip the chip and drop them back into the run. I know, I really should cover the stream up and go back to Vermont, but as I said, I like to leave things a little better than I found them. Or at least the same as I found them. That means no chipped fish. But I also realized I needed to remove the growing chip on my shoulder.
That’s why, one tempestuous Sunday night around 2 AM, I put a shovel, a generator, and the jackhammer in the back of my Subaru, parked in front of the old house, and dug down next to the basement in the front yard. It was pretty easy digging in the garden soil until I hit the silted up French drain about four feet down. Then, I broke out the hammer and drilled until I broke through, which took mere seconds. The water shot up and drenched me like a wildcatter, and in moments the yard was flooded. Lights were going on up and down the street, so I left the hammer in the hole and hightailed it. When I got home, I called the city’s emergency hotline and said I thought there was some unpermitted construction going on at my old house and, given the precarious nature of the hillside and the street, I was quite worried. I gave them Hugh’s line about sinkholes and such. I bet they got a few of those calls that night.
The next day dawned sunny, and I sat in the park across the way scratching Mel between the ears and drinking leftover IPAs for breakfast. I was, after all, retired. Pretty soon, the white City of Seattle vehicles arrived. Over the morning, more and more city vehicles showed up until you couldn’t park for a block. Even fire trucks and ambulances rolled in. Water was pouring down the street, so they blocked the road. Eventually, the cops showed up and breached the front door. In a few minutes, bleary eyed men in white lab coats were being marched into cruisers. Five million might buy you a house in the middle of the night, but it’s nothing in the face of mindless bureaucracy.
They should never have speared that fish. I popped another beer and did a double take; it had an ebony covid on the label and was called The Rook. It wasn’t bad at all. I was Probably Assimilated. I raised the beer to the Tudor with the lavender stucco. Cheers, Hugh, good on ya mate. I dropped the beer in a trash can and turned to the dog. “Time to go home, Mel. Wait until you see Vermont in the fall.”
Jeff Brooks replied on Permalink
I hope 5 million people read this hilarious tale. One for each dollar deposited in his account. I roared with laughter and had to wipe tears from my eyes. Many thanks to the writer! It made my Sunday!!! Now to heal my back and get the fly rods out of the closet. Wonderful!
Gary replied on Permalink
Who thinks like this?
A crazy wonderful tale! I love it.
Jon Tobey replied on Permalink
Doesn't everybody dream about about Melinda Gates taking over the world through albino steelhead?
Jon Tobey replied on Permalink
You know I would take fifty cent on the dollar.
Thank you for your kind words.
Elizabeth replied on Permalink
This so reminds me of my house on Bow St.. A river really ran through the basement there.
Pretty funny story. Lots of unexpected layers.