The memory was as clear and sharp as if it had only happened yesterday.
He and Jeremy sat in the captain’s chairs at the stern of his father’s boat, The Lady L, each of them gripping their rods as if expecting a salmon to jerk them overboard at any second. Their dad sat behind the wheel of the boat, steering around the other fishermen on the Sound and keeping the engine at a good trolling speed. It was Labor Day weekend. Jason was twelve.
The late summer sun was warm on his face and flashed in a zillion tiny jewels among the waves. The sky was cloudless. A light westerly breeze cooled the air just enough to make a sweatshirt comfortable and bore the scent of cedar from the nearby islands to mix with the smells of sea salt and diesel exhaust. The Lady L‘s engine grumbled like a tiger purring.
It was heavenly.
“Hey Jason?” his dad called from his seat at the wheel.
Jason turned back toward his father. He thought the man would never look more relaxed, more at home, than sitting there in faded jeans and a flannel shirt, his feet shoved into rubber boots, one hand comfortably minding the boat’s wheel, while watching his sons work their rods. This was where his father was meant to be, not in a shirt and tie in some office above the cannery floor.
“Yeah?” he said.
His dad nodded toward something off the stern on the starboard quarter. “See that twenty-foot Bayliner a hundred-fifty yards out?”
Jason turned back to the stern and quickly spotted the boat his dad was talking about. It was a big, open cockpit number with only a windscreen as protection from the elements; what his dad called a “fair weather” boat. A figure straightened up with a fishing rod and cast his bait out over the stern. His red plaid shirt looked unnaturally bright against the white of the boat.
“I see it,” Jason said.
“What’s he doing wrong?”
It was a test.
Jason glanced to his brother for help, but Jeremy, four years older and a veteran of many such tests, had suddenly grown gravely concerned about the action of his reel. He didn’t even seem aware of the question. Jason was on his own.
What was the guy doing wrong? Jason bought a little time by reeling in some line to reposition his bait. Mentally, he scrambled for an answer. For the correct answer. He knew his dad was looking for one in particular. But what was it?
“It ain’t that hard a question, son,” his dad prodded. “What’s he doing wrong?”
Jason watched the man settle back in a captain’s chair and pour something from a bright silver thermos into a cup. Coffee probably, though something harder wasn’t out of the question. Many fisherman spent the afternoon getting wasted out here. His dad said it was fine as long as they weren’t piloting the boat. Piloting a boat drunk was just as stupid as driving a car drunk; both could get everybody killed. It was one of THE RULES.
Like someone had flipped a switch, he had the answer his dad was looking for.
“He doesn’t have a buddy with him.”
“Give the man a cigar!” his dad said. “Naw, you’re too young, but I believe I will.”
He fished a cigar out of a shirt pocket, then lit it with his lucky Zippo. Jeremy, who had been paying attention after all, playfully slugged Jason on the shoulder. Jason slugged him back.
“Now remind me, son. Why should he have a buddy with him?”
“Because there’s no one there to help him if he gets hurt or falls overboard.”
“Exactly. Rule number one is–?”
Both boys answered together. “Never take a boat out alone farther than you can swim back.”
“And how far can you swim?”
“Not far with a busted head,” Jeremy said.
His dad’s laughter echoed over the blue waters of the Sound.
The islands appeared on the horizon like a smudge of charcoal in the crease of a gray canvas. The whole world was gray. The rain had stopped earlier this morning, but it had left a high overcast hiding the sky behind a curtain of ink-washed cloud. Below it, running to meet the clouds at the horizon, the Sound glistened in the weak light like greasy pewter, its surface only slightly warped by a gentle swell. It was in the subtle crease where the Sound met the sky that the islands now grew.
Jason leaned against the railing just behind the ferry’s starboard bow, his hands shoved deep in his coat pockets against the damp chill, and watched the islands grow as the ferry plowed toward them. It was peaceful. The only sounds the splashing of water under the bow, the raucous scream of gulls, and the steady thrumming of the boat’s powerful engines as they pushed across the water.
He had the exterior deck all to himself this morning. It was well past tourist season. His fellow travelers this morning were all regulars, people whose jobs demanded they ride this ferry early on Tuesday morning. They’d seen the view countless times before and would countless times again; they chose to spend their time in the warmth of the cabin with a coffee and the morning paper.
Jason had seen the view before himself, but was too restless to sit inside and wait.
He had also read The News this morning. The story about Stevenson he’d briefed Debbie on yesterday ran on the lower part of the front page, under a byline crediting both himself and Debbie. The story was good. Debbie had kept to the outline he’d already sketched out, but added some nice quotes that really fleshed it out.
He sent Debbie a text now. Nice job on the story.
The reply came within a minute. Thanks. I had help. How are you?
Okay. On ferry now.
Let me know if I can do anything.
I will. Thanks.
The islands were now close enough that Jason could begin to make out individual features: the blunt point of Mt. Shaw, the highest spot on Ebey Island at a whole 450 feet, the whitewater marking the shoreline of Deception Island to the right, the occasional flash of color marking a house among the forest. They were still too far away to see any real detail.
Jason pulled the photo from his coat pocket and looked at it again. He’d probably looked at the mysterious man’s face two hundred times since opening the envelope yesterday afternoon. He still had no idea who the man was or why his dad thought him important.
The man’s identity would be the second question he intended to answer. The first was what had really happened to his dad. He simply could not believe that his father just fell overboard and drowned. He’d even looked up the weather conditions for Friday and Saturday. It had been mild on the Sound around Ebey Island, with temperatures in the low fifties, a steady rain, and winds barely breaking ten knots. His dad would have called it “bathtub” conditions, certainly nothing he couldn’t handle.
And, of course, there had been the rule his dad had drummed into both his boys: you never went out on the Sound alone. Had his father broken his own rule the day he died?
Jason sensed, rather than heard, the cabin door open and close behind him. He glanced over as a tall, powerfully built man in a black overcoat paused to light up a cigarette. He was absolutely bald, not even a shadow of stubble. The man got his cigarette going, nodded at Jason, and leaned back against the cabin wall.
There was no smoking in the cabin, of course.
Jason returned the nod, slipped the photo back into his pocket and turned back toward the islands.
His cell phone chirped that he’d received a text. He fished the phone out of his pocket and opened it. The text was from Lisa, who would be getting ready for school right now.
How’s it going? Her text read.
On ferry now. Be there in 10.
Good luck. Miss you already.
Me too. Call you tonight.
He closed the phone.
The timbre of the thrumming engines changed under his feet. The ferry’s bow began turning as if the captain intended to pass to the left of the island. But Jason knew it was merely the maneuver that would begin their approach to the landing at Port Salish. The captain was positioning the boat.
He had watched countless times as his dad had made the same maneuver heading back from a day of fishing.
Now he would never be able to see it again.
The islands were now close enough to make out details: the ornate Victorian roof and towers of the Lundgren house high above the bay; the baby blue rectangle of the water tower on the upper slopes of Mt. Shaw. Jason could even pick out the colored jewels that were cars moving along Shoreline Road.
He could not see the town itself yet because the body of Deception Island was in the way, which explained how Deception Island got its name. The early explorers had thought it was part of the main island. Only when Ebey Island was fully charted was it determined that a narrow channel actually separated the two bodies. Thus its name.
The ferry completed its maneuver, turned to starboard and headed into the channel between the islands.
The smoker coughed behind him. Jason glanced back in time to see him light a second cigarette and drop the first onto the deck. The man caught his eye and shrugged through the cigarette smoke.
Jason turned back to the islands. Now he could clearly see the Victorian castle Lars Lundgren had built on the heights of Lundgren Point where he could keep an eye on his domain. His descendants still lived there as far as Jason knew. The yellow paint certainly looked fresh. A long set of white wooden stairs led from the house to a dock where a launch was tied.
The ferry passed a shoulder of land on the left and began a left turn into Salish Bay. Ahead lay the little town of Port Salish, clustered on a shelf of land and the adjoining slopes at the head of the bay.
The Captain got on the PA system and announced their arrival at Port Salish.
Jason turned away from the rail and started back toward the cabin.
The smoker apparently had similar ideas. He was already gone.