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Prologue

June 1930

Elk Jaw Landing, Oregon

THE RIFLE SHOT cracked across the night-blackened waters of the Multnomah Channel. The muzzle flash danced on the ripples, and the report echoed from the opposite shore, a scant two hundred yards away. The sound bounced back and forth until the cottonwood trees and the blackberry vines, the pilings and the log booms swallowed it up like a kingsnake devouring a rat.

Rosalind Winston worked the cocking lever of her Winchester Model 94, chambering the next round. She had plenty. She’d dumped a whole box of shells into the pockets of her hunting jacket before she’d raced down to the docks from the house ashore.

The spent 30-30 casing rattled across the deck of her husband’s tugboat, Rainbow, the one he’d built with his “own two hands.” Or had he built it with his “own bare hands”? Two hands or bare hands? With his “own two bare hands”? She could never remember the exact way he said it.

The boat’s deck planking was smooth beneath her booted feet, the traction as perfect as linseed oil and turpentine could make it.

She resettled her aim on the demon in the water.

He was gliding back and forth a few yards from the boat’s port side, just below the surface. But she could see him well enough, thanks to the light of a full moon, to the light of a sky filled with stars. They twinkled on the water like swimming fireflies, like the floating sparks of a house fire.

The demon was rolling and turning, playing. He was having a grand old time at her expense. Not a care in the world, now ignoring her, now taunting her, now daring her, always threatening her. Always commanding her to leave.

“I warned you,” Rosalind said. “I gave you a chance.”

She aimed and fired again.

The slug kicked up an impotent spout of water. Not a trace of color, just a burst of slivery sparkles against the black. No spray of blood, no thrashing in the water, no agonized bellow. Only the sinuous movements of his enormous body, a body mottled in brown and gray and a dusty green.

She’d missed.

But how? She’d had a clean shot.

He must have jigged away at the last instant.

Or not.

He had a million tricks.

Damn him! Damn him all to hell!

He was playing with her mind.

She should have guessed he’d pull some sort of stunt like that. Make her see things that weren’t there. Throw off her aim. Cause her to shoot too soon or to shoot too late. He could do that sort of thing. It was easy for him, as easy as apple pie.

The air smelled of burned gunpowder, and her hunting outfit smelled of the cedar-lined closet where she kept it. Her boots were giving off the sharp, oily reek of the polish she’d used to give them a fresh shine before coming down to the dock. They were good boots. Expensive. Bought up in Portland.

She’d wanted to look the part when she killed him, to be at her best, even though she felt alone and frantic beneath her rage.

It wasn’t her fault.

He wouldn’t leave her alone. Why couldn’t he simply leave her alone? What had she ever done to him?

But who wouldn’t feel frantic and alone living in Elk Jaw Landing? It was a company town; more of a village, more of a wide spot in the road. Never mind that her husband, the great Gideon Abner Winston, owned it and the company it housed, Winston Tug and Barge. Which he’d founded and built with his “own bare hands.” For what it was worth these days.

No, what the whole kit and caboodle amounted to was the house ashore and six thrown-together shacks grouped around a two-story boarding house that doubled as a general store. Dirt streets and wooden sidewalks. The company boatyard and the company docks.

The place was miles and miles away from anywhere anyone could ever claim was worth going to. Not even the people who lived in those jerkwater holes thought they were worth going to . . . or staying in.

The demon swung around and swam toward her.

“I warned you. I told you to stay out of my head,” Rosalind shouted at him. She chambered the next round. “And I told you what was gonna happen to you if you didn’t. Well, didn’t I?”

A small whirlpool appeared in the water, the sort of whirlpool created by an oar or by a flipper. He had turned away.

Another whirlpool formed. He was swimming downstream, parallel to her husband’s tugboat.

“But you wouldn’t listen. Oh, no, not you. Not the high-and-mighty you. Whoever you are. Whatever you are. And not Gideon, either! Nobody listens to me! I’m just that hick girl from Medford. What can I know?”

She aimed at the whirlpool.

“I told you to leave me alone!”

She fired twice: first at the diminishing vortex and then at a spot a few feet ahead of it.

Nothing.

It was infuriating.

A few seconds later a mottled brown shape appeared, close to the boat, gliding upstream.

Hit me if you can.

She wanted to scream. Instead, she aimed right at him and snapped off two more shots.

The twin reports skipped up and down the channel. They danced together like ballerinas.

Rosalind wished she’d stayed in Medford. She wished with her whole heart that she’d never accepted Aunt Harriet and Uncle Fred’s invitation to move up to Portland and live with them. If she’d only stayed in Medford, she would have never met and married Gideon Abner Winston and she would never have ended up in Elk Jaw Landing, a demon-ridden mud hole on a branch of the Willamette River.

Besides, it was Gideon’s home, not hers. And it never could be. She’d been a fool to imagine it could.

Medford wasn’t much of a town, but at least in Medford, the snakes made sense.

Not here, not in Elk Jaw Landing.

She reloaded her rifle.

 

October 1994

Portland, Oregon

ALASTAIR JEDIDIAH MACNAUGHTON, Rosalind and Gideon Winston’s great-grandson, aged fourteen, followed his father up the bridge-like ramp that connected the Winston company docks to solid ground.

It was pushing ten o’clock at night, and the rattle of their work boots on the metal grating was strikingly loud against the yard’s comparative weekend calm.

From the top of the ramp, they crossed the more or less deserted parking lot to the family car, a superannuated Ford LTD station wagon. It was gray and had balding, bargain-basement tires. Nevertheless, it sparkled from a recent wash and wax, the shine exaggerated by the blue-white glare of the security lights. Alastair had washed, and his father, Leonard, had waxed. Luckily for them, the rain had held off until they’d finished. That had been the day before.

As for the day just ending, a Saturday, they’d spent the bulk of it slaving away on Enoch’s Folly. Mostly, they’d hung drywall in the living room, measuring and cutting and screwing it up. It hadn’t been until a little after nine that they had come to a stopping spot, and there’d been cleaning up after that.

Alastair’s mother invariably referred to Enoch’s Folly as “the houseboat,” and just as invariably, she loaded those two simple words with as much disdain as she could muster.

What Alastair had a hard time figuring out was whether her disdain was for the houseboat itself or for his father, her husband. There were no typical blended-family issues here, no simmering grievances to muddy the waters between them, no hidden affairs, no alcoholism, no secret homosexual yearnings. There was only the fact that she had grown up rich, or semi-well-to-do, and that he had grown up poor, and the fact that neither of them could quite forgive the other for having done so.

That in itself would have poisoned any marriage, but there was also her hardening suspicion that rather than marrying up in the long run, or at least laterally, she had in fact married down forever and always, world without end, Amen. The MacNaughton family as a whole was up; but her husband’s branch of it and her husband—God help her!—had been down.

She’d had her hopes.

She’d had her ambitions, once upon a time.

They weren’t dead.

She despised seeing him rot for no better reason than he couldn’t care less. He was like the rest of the Seattle MacNaughtons. When it came to being part of the city’s “business leadership” or belonging to the Seattle Yacht Club, or living in a mansion on Mercer Island or up on Queen Anne Hill, they didn’t give a crap.

A new Mercedes, any sort of a new Mercedes, would have helped to mollify her frustration. It would have provided a token in kind, a flash of color in his pan. But no such automobile was in the offing. The LTD would have to do. For now. For the foreseeable future.

Her father, Enoch Winston, had warned her, but she had ignored him.

Nevertheless, she told herself that on balance she was happy; nevertheless, none of them could escape the fact that on balance her disdain bled through.

Yes, a Mercedes would have helped. It would have been a promise of better things to come.

Leonard unlocked the LTD’s front doors and he and Alastair got in. The car was cold and smelled like the drive-through coffee his father had bought that morning.

Alastair pulled on his seatbelt and settled in for the ride home. With a little luck, they’d be there in time to throw together a late snack and get to bed before midnight.

No, his mother would not have a hot meal waiting for them.

Alastair looked out the window, out at the drizzle.

As usual, the weather had come ashore from the Gulf of Alaska and had brought with it the heady salt smell of the open ocean and the sharp, penetrating cold that came along with it.

The rain wasn’t so much falling as it was wandering down in a thick, wet haze, a haze that had declined to stay aloft.

It drifted down onto the walkways and the docks, onto the clustered tugboats and barges and boathouses, onto the yard and the offices and the moorage that belonged to Winston Tug and Barge—onto the Linnton Yard as opposed to the old yard down at Elk Jaw Landing. Onto the rippled surface of the Willamette River.

Enoch’s Folly, “the houseboat,” which most realtors would have insisted on calling a floating home, belonged to Enoch Winston. Enoch, who was Leonard’s father-in-law and Alastair’s grandfather, had begun building it several years ago, one of a long-running series of hobby houseboats, but he had lost interest in it.

The family had a dozen reasons. He’d gotten bored. He’d hurt his back. His hands had gone arthritic. The best guess, the one favored by Alastair’s father, was that Enoch had bitten off more than he could chew. His new project was big, had a complex floor plan, and called for the use of building techniques the old man didn’t know and couldn’t be bothered to learn.

And so it had sat, rotting and taking up valuable space in the Linnton Yard.

Alastair’s father had stepped in and had offered to take it off Enoch’s hands via a sweat-equity deal.

Enoch had licked his chops and snapped up the offer.

Alastair’s mother had thrown a fit. She cited the usual levelheaded objections. They couldn’t afford it. She didn’t want to live on a houseboat. Everything would be cold and damp eleven months out of the year.

“Well, maybe eight,” Alastair’s father had said.

“Ten, if it’s a day.”

Mold and mildew would take over everything. They’d end up sick as dogs. And maintenance would be a constant pain in the patootie.

No matter.

Alastair’s father had seen an opening and he’d taken it.

End of story.

Prices and projects had been negotiated, the contract had been signed, and now it was up to Alastair’s father—and by right of familial conscription, Alastair—to deliver the blood, sweat, and tears.

Alastair didn’t mind. He enjoyed the work and he enjoyed being on the water. The rhythm of life afloat, albeit on a houseboat, which hardly counted, seemed natural to him. It felt right.

The rain beaded on the windshield. The droplets looked like the bubbles on the inside of a glass of water that has been left to sit on a kitchen counter.

From off in the distance came the sound of an outboard. No, it was twins. Big ones. Coming upriver. Not barreling along, not roaring, but not idling, either.

Alastair looked out toward the water but couldn’t pick out the boat’s running lights against the visual clutter.

The sound of the outboard died away.

Alastair switched on the reading light over his seat and pulled out his paperback, one of Alexander Kent’s novels about the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars.

His father started the engine. He switched on the windshield wipers and the defroster, and backed out of the parking space.

“Shit,” he said, and stopped. He brought the car around parallel to the top of the bank, putting the driver’s side where the front bumper had been. “Double shit.”

“What’s wrong?” Alastair asked.

“Did you remember to turn off the upstairs lights?” he asked. “Bathroom and bedroom?”

Alastair closed the book on his index finger. The windshield wipers swished back and forth like the arm of a metronome.

“I think I did,” Alastair said.

“Guess again, Buckwheat.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Alastair set his book on the dash and opened his door.

“Never mind,” his father said. “I’ll do it. You make sure the car gets warmed up.”

Alastair’s father hauled himself out of the car.

“Sorry,” Alastair said again. “I really am.”

His father smiled at him. “No big deal, but if I don’t shut them off, Enoch will have my head in the morning.”

“I guess,” Alastair said.

“Count on it,” his father said, and hurried down the ramp.

Alastair found his place and reenlisted in the royal navy.

Boney’s troops occupied most of Europe. His ships in Toulon had sent their topmasts aloft, preparatory to coming out to engage the English. And, to make matters worse, the former colonials in America were up to no bloody good.

Two dull booms echoed across the Winston yard.

At any time of the day or night, Linnton, an industrial district well to the north of downtown, was full of bangs, booms, and clangs. They bounced between and around the factories and warehouses. They reverberated through the tank farms and up into the densely wooded hills above the Columbia River Highway.

Far out on the Mediterranean, the breeze freshened, and the gallant frigate, her Union Jack streaming proudly, heeled another strake . . .

Several pages later, Alastair wondered why it was taking his father so long to turn off a couple of lousy lights.

Two pages after that, Alastair went to find out.

The lights aboard the houseboat were on, upstairs and down.

He entered through the makeshift plywood door his father had rigged. It covered the space where the living room slider would eventually go, once they were far enough along to justify installing it.

Inside, the houseboat smelled like a shooting range, caustic, bitter, but there were other smells, too, stronger smells. It smelled as though his father had used the toilet but hadn’t flushed it. Or as though one of the waste hoses had backed up and flooded the downstairs bathroom.

Alastair called, but he heard no answer.

He crossed the dining room and entered the living room, heading on impulse for the stairway to the second floor. The majority of the walls were nothing but studs, fire stops, nailers, and wiring, with strike plates in place to protect the unwary from driving a nail into the houseboat’s electrical wiring. The rest of the walls were sheathed in freshly hung drywall, with mudding and taping to follow.

Alastair called out a second time. He sprinted toward the stairs, but then he saw his father through the lattice of studs and fire stops.

He was lying in the outside corner of the living room, his eyes open but glazed. Two shotgun blasts had turned his chest into a gaping slurry of blood, muscle, and splintered bone.

Close range. Not birdshot. Not slugs.

His father’s blood drained down the side of his body, puddling on the subflooring, soaking into it. It ran between the boards and dripped down onto the concrete float beneath.

Alastair could hear the pat-pat-pat of the drops. They were closely spaced and loud against the river’s underlying silence.

Later, he told his mother it was his fault because he’d forgotten to turn the lights off. He hadn’t done his job and it had cost his father his life.

His mother did her best to persuade him that he was not responsible for his father’s murder. Lights or no lights, Alastair hadn’t shot Leonard, the prowlers had. The guilt was theirs, not his.

But Alastair knew better.

And so did she.

The Present Day

Portland, Oregon

 

CHAUNCEY GIDEON WINSTON, the president and chief executive officer of Winston Tug and Barge, celebrated his seventy-fourth birthday by marching into the offices of Willamette Valley Capital Resources and asking the bloodsucker-in-chief for a loan.

“How can I help?” asked the aforementioned bloodsucker. His name was Martin Nicholson.

Nicholson was in his early forties and rode his bicycle to and from work every day, rain or shine. He took mass transit when it snowed or when Portland was in the grip of a silver thaw. In the evenings, he lifted weights, practiced yoga, and studied karate at a Japanese-style dojo.

He had married the right girl and had graduated from the right schools. He held a BS in finance from UCLA and an MBA from Stanford. UCLA and Stanford were far enough up the food chain to impress people on the West Coast, but not exalted enough to intimidate much of anybody else. They were “just right” for the Oregon market. As far as the Bos-Wash establishment was concerned, they were a half step up from Hicksville U, not the stuff of which careers are made. Which was fine with Nicholson. He liked Oregon and had no intention of ever leaving. Home was where the warm mud oozes up between your toes in the summertime.

Well, Seattle, maybe. If the right job came along.

What no one outside of his family knew was that he had also earned a BA in Japanese while completing his BS, and an MA while completing his MBA.

Busy boy. Not much partying for him.

At present, he belonged to the University Club and the Multnomah Athletic Club, not that he spent much time in either of them. He also belonged to the City Club, but he rarely attended the meetings and never, absolutely never, served on any of the committees.

He dressed in expensive suits, wore comfortable shoes, but invariably padded around his office in his stocking feet.

What his adoring wife and his two absolutely darling children did not know was that over the years, Nicholson had had two Japanese mistresses; “Japanese” as in “from Japan.”

Nicholson had a third child, one who was not-so-absolutely darling: his first-born son. The three of them had arrived boy, girl, boy. He pitied the girl, born in between two boys, and he pitied the youngest, the perfect target for the other two.

They were smart kids, and Nicholson suspected that the first-born might have tumbled to the fact that dear old dad liked to unzip his pants from time to time. The kid’s comments about “Asian nookie” might or might not have been a clue. As were his slurs about “slanty-eyed pussy” being “the hottest on the planet.” Or it could have been that the kid had a crush on an Asian girl at school. Time would tell.

Currently Nicholson the Bloodsucker was unattached. However, he did have his round eye on a Japanese woman named Kumiko. She was in her early thirties and, as it turned out, was quietly buying up strategic bits and pieces of Portland’s waterfront. Whether for her own portfolio or for someone else’s remained a riddle wrapped in a length of seaweed. What were not mysteries were her mind-numbing beauty and her ruthlessness on a karate mat.

When it came to Nicholson himself, however, the feature that raised the most eyebrows was his ponytail. It was long and thick and mostly brown, but it had of late picked up a few traces of gray.

“How much do you need this time?” Nicholson asked, gently but firmly tapping home the question.

“You’ve never lost a dime,” Chauncey shot back.

“Yes, and I appreciate that,” Nicholson said. “How much?”

Chauncey Winston gave him the figure.

“That’s a lot of money,” Nicholson said. “What’s it for?”

“Three new tugs. Latest technology. Very green, very politically correct.” He handed Nicholson a neatly stapled sheaf of papers. “It’s all in there.”

“You don’t give a shit about politically correct.”

“You’re right, I don’t,” Chauncey said. “But if green gives somebody a case of the warm and fuzzies and if that means we end up towing more barges, then so much the better for us, right? Besides, they pencil out.”

“It’s still a lot of money.”

“Since when are you running a hockshop?”

“Since never,” Nicholson said. A calm, closed smile settled across his face.

Chauncey had seen that smile before. Hell, he’d plastered one just like it across his own face more times than he could remember. During rate negotiations. When he’d faced down a slew of union bosses. When he’d argued a gang of federal jackasses to a standstill. How many times? When telling the grafters in city hall to take a hike. More than once, there, too.

It was a wonder he’d lasted as long as he had.

He’d never expected to, not in the cold light of day.

No, he’d fully expected to end up in a bridge pillar, or under a basement floor, or getting blown up in a freak explosion aboard his boat. Diesel didn’t go up all that easily, but propane did. There was always the gas he kept aboard for the dinghy kicker. That could make a nice bomb. Small, but nice. Efficient. Green in its own sick way.

But through it all, he’d never been worried before. This time was different. This time he’d run out of rabbits. This time all he was pulling out of his hat was lint.

Not so much as a dust bunny.

He might have been able to do something with dust bunnies, but not with lint.

The world had changed right out from under the company. It had changed right out from under him.

“Winston Tug and Barge is a lot of company,” Chauncey said. “Those new boats will keep us a force for years to come.”

Locally,” Nicholson said. “It’s a global world these days.” His closed smile turned into an understanding smile with such ease and with such sincerity that somewhere along the line he must have taken acting lessons. “I’m afraid being a local force—being the big fish in a small pond—doesn’t amount to much.”

No shit, pal. Welcome to the party.

Chapter 1

Enter the White Rabbit

 

ALASTAIR JEDIDIAH MACNAUGHTON, known as Mack to friend and foe alike, pulled up in front of his uncle Chauncey Winston’s house at 4:13 p.m. It was Saturday, the day of the annual shareholders meeting of Winston Tug and Barge, and Mack was unfashionably late.

Chauncey’s house was anchored to the hillside between St. Helens Road and Forest Park. It wasn’t exactly stately Wayne Manor, but neither was it a T1-11 starter home on a flag lot out in Gresham, just steps away from the MAX line. Oh, joy and rapture! What a find!

A real estate agent would have described Chauncey’s house as a 4,500-square-foot daylight ranch, overlooking the picturesque and historic Linnton neighborhood, the center of a thriving arts-and-crafts community.

The guys at the Multnomah Athletic Club would have said that Chauncey’s house was rather modest for a guy worth several million dollars. Sad but true, they would have added, Chauncey had built in one of the dumpier parts of Portland. Other than the thriving arts and crafts, Linnton possessed few amenities, and the house sat right above a tank farm. The tanks were huge, stubby, white cylinders that contained, for the most part, gasoline, diesel, fuel oil, and home-heating oil. There were also acres and acres of, well, docks. Actual piers.

—Hold on. There is an antique store, isn’t there?

—Yes, well, maybe. It’s closer to a secondhand store that carries antiques from time to time. Some Hollywood memorabilia, but nothing out of the ordinary. You can find the same stuff online at better prices.

—With or without the shipping?

—Speaking of shipping, did I mention the railroad tracks?

—You have now.

—Think of the noise, the stench, and the vagrants.

—And the chemical spills.

—What chemical spills?

—The chemical spills.

—Bound to be chemical spills. Stands to reason, doesn’t it?

—That’s true.

—What on earth possessed him to build in a place like that?

—Family trait, from what I hear.

Granted, Linnton was on the west side of the Willamette, and granted, it was within the city limits of Portland, but no one could possibly think of it as being on the “west side.” The very idea left one queasy.

Skip, Lance, and Chatsworth agreed. Absolutely queasy.

—What had the membership committee been thinking of when they let him in? What had they been smoking?

—What indeed?

—Where can we get some?

—I’ll ask around.

—Do it quietly. I’m on the Down With Drugs steering committee.

—I’d like to down a few drugs. Get it? Huh? Get it?

—Not me. I’d rather smoke them. It’s easier on the stomach.

But Chauncey liked his house, and if the boys at the athletic club didn’t, “Fuck ’em.” He hadn’t joined to meet people or to impress the self-important yuppies who hung around in the bar getting sloshed enough to work up the courage to go home to their wives and kiddies. Scout night, wasn’t it? Ballet recital? Violin recital? Oh, that’s right. It was the opening night of the big school play.

Well, then, why had Chauncey joined?

As far as Mack could tell, Chauncey had joined because scattered among the members were a dozen or so people Chauncey needed to have as friends, upper-management types that he needed to be on a first-name basis with, that he, a man in his seventies, needed to impress with his stamina, with his vigor, with his ability to run countless laps, to do endless numbers of crunches, and to bench press startling amounts of weight.

Chauncey was old, but he wasn’t dead, wasn’t feeble, wasn’t past it, and he needed to drive that point home, over and over and over, every day, all day.

Mack climbed out of his car and knocked on Chauncey’s front door—teak and layer upon layer of marine varnish.

Graham Winston, the youngest of Mack’s three maternal uncles, answered.

From Day Zero, the Winstons had called him Krackers, and this afternoon, true to his nickname, he sported the flushed, bug-eyed look of a manic depressive who’s gone off his meds without his doctor’s permission. The tag end of a cigarette rode in the corner of his mouth.

By way of a friendly greeting, Krackers said, “You’re in deep shit.”

“I was born in deep shit.”

Krackers took the cigarette from his mouth. “Don’t complain to me, you stinking plutocrat.”

“Would it do any good?”

Krackers grinned. “Hell, no.”

Krackers had thrown out the same old joke, and Mack had dodged it in the same old way.

Krackers asked, “Aren’t you gonna ask me what’s done it this time?”

“No need. Like the White Rabbit, ‘I’m late, I’m late, I’m late.’”

“Bang on, nephew.”

Krackers flicked the cigarette butt out toward the street. The butt travelled through a high arc before bouncing on the pavement and hissing out in a shallow puddle.

“Come on,” he said, and turned back into the house. “The tea party’s this way.”

Mack followed.

~ * ~

LIKE CATTLE IN a feedlot, about two dozen Winstons filled Chauncey’s living room. They were Mack’s aunts, uncles, and cousins. They milled around in groups of three and four. They fogged the air with their cigarettes and chit-chat. To a man or woman—the obligatory “or woman” could not be assumed in this family of tugboat men—they had arrived in corporate battle dress. They sported wool blend suits with monogrammed shirts and power ties, or they had made their entrances in conservative dresses or in dark-colored tailored skirts and jackets. They displayed pearl necklaces, diamond tennis bracelets, and gold ankle chains. Man or woman, diamonds weighed down their ears. On their feet they wore wing tips, or stiletto heels, or stiletto heels with wing-tipped toes. Work boots need not attend.

As best as Mack’s relatives could imagine them, they had nined themselves out in the “striking statements of personal independence and authority” available at the best shops in Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco.

And why had his relatives gone to so much trouble? The dictates of fashion imposed certain obligations, naturally; but more so, they had done it because they’d heard multiple disturbing rumors about Chauncey’s current round of ambitions for the company, their salaries, and their dividend checks, and they had sworn themselves to protect their interests at all costs.

Sound management was one thing, but paranoid delusions about Alaska or Seattle or San Francisco or grain elevators in Lewiston or Pasco were something else. Chauncey was a fine executive, but he did need to be brought to heel every now and then.

Ever the optimist, Mack had chosen not to wear his army surplus flak jacket; but otherwise, he, too, had dressed in battle kit, albeit the academic version approved for classified staff. This consisted of a blue blazer, gray slacks, white shirt, burgundy tie, black socks, and black loafers—no gold chains, no diamonds, no pearls, and no visible tattoos. As a result, he felt dangerously underdressed, especially without his pistol, helmet, and grenades. He felt as though he might as well have shown up dressed in short pants and a beanie.

Leaning in close, Krackers said to him, “And a jolly time was had by one and all.”

“You know us trust-fund brats—party, party, party.”

And where, Mack asked himself, lurked the wiser, cooler heads?

Nowhere, that’s where.

With one exception. She was Emma Lauren Winston Donnelly, now in her eighties—lovable, eccentric Grandma Donnelly.

Sadly, the family’s wiser heads had not fared so well. One by one, their parents had either used them for shark bait or had fed them to their more ravenous Winston cousins. Or, if they’d had the temerity and endurance to survive into adulthood, they’d climbed right off the top of the generational ladder. They had taken that last great leap and had joined the crew of that great eternal tugboat in the sky, that doughty, celestial vessel not made with hands. Well done, thou good and faithful cog in the machine of Winston fortune and destiny.

Mack’s Aunt Isabel, Chauncey’s wife, burst into the living room. “Did I hear Mack’s car?”

“I’m right here,” Mack said.

“Thank God! Finally we can get started.”

She disappeared back into the nether regions, only to reemerge carrying fresh pots of coffee and tea. She deposited them on a makeshift sideboard and sat down.

Several people refilled their cups, and then, as if on cue, those standing took their places on one or another of the folding chairs Chauncey had provided.

Mack followed suit.

Alone, behind an oak table at the far end of the room, precisely squared beneath a huge oil portrait of Gideon Abner Winston, sat Chauncey Gideon Winston, president and chief executive officer of Winston Tug and Barge. He looked, or was doing his best to look, every inch Gideon’s grandson, which of course he was.

Chauncey surveyed the gathering. With his angular features and prominent nose, he looked like a hawk-faced navy captain inspecting his ship before a battle. He was hunting for the out of place, for the incomplete, for the incompetent, for the cowardly, for the slightest sign of dereliction or incipient hysteria.

“Anybody missing? No? Good,” Chauncey said. “The meeting will come to order.”

And so it began.

A scant thirty-two minutes earlier, Mack had left I-5 northbound and had crossed the Willamette via the Fremont Bridge. The Fremont was a high, vaulting structure of light-gray-painted steel and concrete. It claimed to be something of an engineering marvel in its own right, or so he understood. The patches of peeling paint, the rust, and the spider cracking in the bridge piers didn’t help. He had stayed in the right-hand lane as he came off the bridge and then headed for outer northwest Portland via St. Helens Road.

An hour and a quarter after its inception, and despite the looked-for blood-letting, as annual meetings went, this one was, so far, turning out to be duller than most.

Report, motion, discussion, and unanimous vote.

Report, motion, discussion, and unanimous vote.

Round after round.

Topic after topic.

No objections.

No howls of indignation.

No cannon balls rolling across the decks at night.

No overt threats of mutiny, or covert ones.

By rights, Mack shouldn’t have been at the meeting at all, shouldn’t have been a company shareholder. Not yet, anyway. However, four years and some months before, as a wedding present, his mother had given him half of her shares in the company and her proxies for the other half.

And why had his mother made such a generous arrangement? Because she was alive and well and living on her second husband’s cattle ranch in sunniest Argentina. She was content on “the spread,” as she called it. The spread was the size of a southern Oregon county, and she was wildly content with her second husband, Guenter Jose von Schmidt Ramos. He was a good man, a solid man, at least as much German in his habits and outlook as he was Argentinean. They were happy with each other, and over the years of her self-imposed exile, Mack’s mother had shown no inclination to return to the United States, let alone to Portland, Oregon.

The second time around she had definitely married up. Way, way up.

As the motions came and went, Mack voted with management, meaning he voted the way Chauncey wanted him to. Mack wasn’t the only one. Doubts or no doubts, vote after vote, the family saluted smartly and charged up the hill.

The peasants didn’t grab for their pitchforks until Chauncey handed out copies of his latest proposal.

Emma Lauren Winston Donnelly glanced at the title page. “I see we’re off to Seattle again. Old news.”

A chorus of groans followed. There had been a chance—well, hadn’t there been?—that they’d allow the Seattleites to build away on their golden Tower of Emerald Green Babel without any interference from the likes of Winston Tug and Barge.

“Who pulled the stake out?” someone muttered.

The answer was obvious. Chauncey himself had. He was an old hand at such maneuvers.

“Didn’t we dispose of Seattle last year?” Emma asked.

“I’ve redrawn the proposal,” Chauncey said. “The situation has changed.”

“You’ve pitched this idea before,” Mack’s uncle Nathaniel Winston observed.

Mack saw the pinched, angry expression on Nathaniel’s face and felt a surge of unexpected compassion for Chauncey.

Nathaniel was the company’s chief financial officer.

Chauncey ought to have cut him loose years ago and hired an accountant, a financial guru, from the outside. The family would have raised holy hell about an “outsider” controlling the purse strings, but so what?

For that matter, Nathaniel hated the company and he hated the family. He ought to have resigned years ago, but he hadn’t. Then, on the morning of his forty-third birthday, he looked at his forty-three-year-old-face in the mirror and had realized that it was too late. He’d waited too long, had dodged the issue too long, had told himself all the usual lies about family loyalty too long, had indulged his fears too long.

“Hell’s bells,” Nathaniel said. “This is the same damn proposal you handed us last year.”

“I was right last year, and I’m right this year,” Chauncey said. “Read it. I’ve made a few important changes.”

Nathaniel ostentatiously closed his copy. “Any signed contracts?”

Chauncey’s face reddened. “No, but we can’t—”

“What about letters of intent?”

“None yet, but—”

“Active negotiations? Burning up the phone lines, are you? Your e-mail in-box overflowing, is it?”

“There wouldn’t be much point in doing anything unless—”

“Then what you’ve brought us is nothing but more wishful thinking,” Nathaniel said.

“I can’t negotiate solid contracts until we have a solid presence,” Chauncey said. “For Christ’s sake, Seattle is ripe for the picking.”

“For Christ’s sake, check a map,” Nathaniel said, imitating Chauncey. “You won’t find El Dorado anywhere near Puget Sound.”

Mack had to grin. Nathaniel was thoroughly pissed off, and to judge by the expressions on their faces, the significance of their treasurer’s anger was not lost on the assembled masses. For one thing, Chauncey had sprung his new-old proposal on them without a moment’s notice—never a good idea with that collection of gilded leeches.

Gesturing with his copy of the proposal, Chauncey said, “I’d like a motion to consider this proposal at a special meeting to be held next month.”

“I so move,” Krackers said.

The tagalong of the three brothers, he was twenty years younger than Chauncey.

“Thank you, Krackers,” Chauncey said.

A second came from one of Mack’s shirttail cousins. She added, “Talking about it can’t hurt.”

Mack stifled a guffaw. What turnip truck had she fallen off of? More to the point, when had she fallen off of it? Earlier that morning?

“Moved and seconded,” Chauncey said. “Discussion?”

“Another meeting would be a waste of time,” Nathaniel said. “We don’t have the cash. End of story. No cash, no expansion.”

“I think Seattle’s a great idea,” Krackers said. “Seattle’s a fun town, and we can borrow the money.”

“We’re overextended as it is,” Nathaniel said. “More debt won’t help.”

Someone in the back of the room said, “Old proposals never die, they just smell that way.”

A chorus of assent rippled around the room.

“To put it in plain terms,” Chauncey said, raising his voice to knife into the babble, “we won’t need a whole hell of a lot of our own cash. We can take on partners. We can form a publicly traded company to handle the Seattle end. There’re a million different things we can do.”

Mack caught a decided note of desperation in Chauncey’s voice. It was both unexpected and disquieting, like the tremors that presage a massive earthquake.

Chauncey said, “Four points: First, our fleet is obsolete. Second, it’s nearing the end of its economic life. Third, we can’t make enough in the local market to finance an up-to-date fleet. Fourth, therefore, regardless of the specifics, if we don’t act soon, we’re going to end up out of the tugboat business.” With a sarcastic, inviting gesture, he added, “The beach awaits, boys and girls. All we have to do is sit on our fucking thumbs.”

That bit of truth, if truth it was, took the wind out of a good many sails. Faces went slack, jaws lost their defiant jut, and fists unclenched. It was as though a favorite relative had died. As far as Mack could tell, no one in that room was too thrilled with the prospect of being sans the family business, of being beached. Beached translated into no more quarterly dividend checks, no more complaining to friends about the burdens of ownership, no more invitations to “important” functions, no more gala receptions for the mayor, the governor, and other “community leaders.”

“I call the question,” Krackers said too eagerly, too much the anxious puppy desperate to please.

And thus the voting began.

To his horror, Mack ended up holding the deciding votes—one per share, one per proxy. However, horror or no horror, he voted no.

Surprised at his own vote, he sat in his chair, his face locked in a nonexpression, and did his best to explain it to himself. The best he could come up with was that he had killed Chauncey’s proposal—for the time being—for no better reason than a hunch that Chauncey wanted to go wildcatting, that he wanted a free hand to do with the company as he saw fit, to expand it far beyond the family’s ability either to manage or to comprehend it. And that, Mack wasn’t about to hand him.

“Seattle’s a pipe dream,” Mack said.

~ * ~

WHEN IT CAME to Mack’s vote, when it came to his comment about pipe dreams, like Queen Victoria, Chauncey was not amused, and when Chauncey was not amused, things happened.

Chapter 2

Gideon’s Birthday Party and Related Acts of Torture

 

BUT THOSE THINGS hadn’t happened right away.

They’d taken until the following March and Chauncey’s decision to host Gideon’s birthday dinner aboard Tulgey Wood, Chauncey’s Grand Banks 46, one of the old woodies. Old or not, she looked as though she’d arrived from the builder’s the week before.

Commemorations of Gideon’s birthday were a hard-and-fast family tradition, even though Gideon himself was, of course, long dead and the parties were, of course, only sporadically attended these days, owing largely to the absence of the guest of honor.

Still, the occasion would give Chauncey an excuse to get his boat out of her boathouse, as if he needed any.

Chauncey called Mack at work. Work consisted of grinding away as a programmer-analyst in the information technology department at Vanport State University.

“What up?” Mack asked.

Chauncey gave him the lowdown about his plans for the upcoming observance of Gideon’s birthday.

Compared to what had happened in the past, this year’s to-do wasn’t going to be anywhere near as big a deal. Absolutely low-key. Hell, Tulgey Wood wasn’t big enough for anything else. There’d be three forks, though. Good old Isabel. Count on her to produce another one of her three-fork masterpieces. Not many people. Damn few, in fact. Thank God!

Chauncey finished with, “Would you and that lovely wife of yours care to come?”

“Love to, but the dog’s been sick. I’m not sure we ought to leave him.”

“You must be joking,” Chauncey said.

“He’s sick.”

“Take him to a vet.”

“Does this have anything to do with Seattle?”

“What doesn’t?” Chauncey said.

“Answer the question.”

“Here and there,” Chauncey admitted.

“Here and there,” Mack said, repeating the phase skeptically. “Then I’d love to come. Dinner aboard sounds like fun.” And so did another round or two about Seattle. In the long run, it might be just as well to have it out once and for all. “It depends on the dog. I’ll call.”

“Fine. Show up at the Linnton docks on Saturday morning. Eleven o’clock sharp. This year, we’ve got a day as close to the nineteenth of March as makes no difference, Gideon’s birthday being on the nineteenth.”

“I remember when his birthday is.”

“Good. I’m likely to be administering a pop quiz on his life and times, after dessert.”

“Oh, goodie. A pop quiz.”

Chauncey hung up, and Mack was left staring at the half walls of his cubicle.

What had he done?

He’d accepted a dinner invitation.

He could only hope that Freddi, that “lovely wife” of his, wouldn’t throw a fit when she found out he’d committed them without consulting her. As a working novelist, she guarded her time and her schedule ferociously, and if one thing pissed her off more than any another, it was for Mack to accept or extend an invitation without asking her about it ahead of time.

Whenever he did, which happened less often than a blue moon, she invariably said no, and pleaded her God-holy deadlines. Never mind that they were damn few and damn far between.

However, in the present case, with Chauncey on the warpath, Mack couldn’t very well take no for an answer. One way or another, he’d have to convince her. It was either that or spend the entire time explaining away her absence, which would never do. It would put him one down from the get-go.

~ * ~

CONTRARY TO MACK’S expectations, Freddi had not thrown a fit, nor had she pleaded immovable deadlines. She had instead declared her need to “stuff it for a while.” She’d sounded as if Mack had offered her a two-week vacation at a posh resort on Maui.

Freddi’s enthusiasm lasted until they were halfway across town, halfway between their condo in the Hollywood district and the company docks in Linnton.

They were merging from the Banfield onto I5 northbound, when Freddi said, “I hate Winston family dinners and so do you.”

She was putting words in his mouth, but she was right. He did hate them.

“Too late now,” Mack said.

He exited I5 and took the up-and-over ramp onto the Fremont Bridge.

“You could turn around. Tell ’em you came down with food poisoning.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because this is gonna turn out to be the dog-and-pony show from hell.”

“Maybe not.”

Freddi’s hair was neither blond nor brown but a color in between—mousey blond or dishwater brown. She’d pulled it back into a ponytail and was twisting and untwisting a strand of it. The strand looked like the frayed end of a length of manila rope, only not as coarse.

“Trust me. Chauncey’s a snake.”

Mack negotiated the ramps as they came off the bridge, the turns and the lights that dumped them down onto Yeon Avenue, which would soon merge into St. Helens Road, which itself would turn into the Columbia River Highway—all different names for Highway 20.

Mack knew better than to tease his wife, but he couldn’t resist. “What kind?”

“What kind of what?”

“What kind of snake?”

“The poisonous kind,” she said. Her voice would have etched steel. “His fangs have fangs.”

She drew her right leg up and wedged it against the window. It was a well-established nervous habit, a tell that she was ill at ease, possibly fearful.

“Shall I turn around?” he asked.

“No, you’d better not,” she said. “You need to blow your horn and have fun.”

At five-foot-eight, Freddi possessed a natural flexibility that Mack could only envy, especially on days when nine or ten hours at a desk had left him with aching muscles and thirty-five-year-old joints that moved as though they were ninety-nine-and-a-half.

If she worked out more, ran more, did anything more than sit at her computer, she’d soon develop the sort of athletic body that made Mack think about swimsuit layouts, volleyball, and deserted sandy beaches.

He amended that last thought. They’d have to be deserted sandy beaches overhung by palm trees and caressed by warm, summery breezes. They would not be deserted sandy beaches like the deserted sandy beaches in Oregon, which were deserted because of the cold, the rain, the wind, and the fog.

Oh well.

Anyway, as it was, Freddi had the thin, hungry figure and the instant reflexes of someone whose metabolism regularly outpaced her desire to eat, her awareness that food existed.

Beaches or not, Mack wasn’t complaining. Not hardly.

“Isabel’s nice,” he said.

“She’s an enabler.” Freddi’s eyes were a cold light brown, and they flashed like winter lightning seen through an orange-brown lens. “Promise me you won’t up and disappear on me.”

The twang had edged back into her voice, which proved she was genuinely upset. It also proved that you could take the girl out of the South, but you couldn’t take the South out of the girl. God knew Freddi had tried to coax it out, tease it out, pry it out, and blast it out . . . and had failed every time.

“We’ll be on a boat,” Mack said. “Where am I gonna go?”

“You know darn good and well what I mean. Every time you go anywhere near that bunch of high-and-mighty rattlesnakes, you turn into a different you.”

“I do not.”

“You listen to me,” she said. Her accent had thickened up another notch. “You do so turn into a different you! And don’t you dare give me what a nice person Isabel is. She smiles like an angel, but the whole time she’s sharpenin’ Chauncey’s knives for him.”

“I thought he had fangs.”

“Those too, in case the knives don’t work. She cleans his venom ducts. It’s how they spend their long, lonely evenings together. On his boat.”

Their boat. Don’t let either one of them fool you.”

“Glad you can see it.”

If Mack hadn’t known better, he’d have suspected his wife of trying to pick a fight with him. If she was, and if he fell for it, she could stage a tantrum, bolt from the car, and take a cab home.

Out of nowhere, Freddi said, “Honest to God, Mack, what I don’t understand is the ongoing hatred between the Winstons and the MacNaughtons.”

“Neither do we.”

~ * ~

AT 11:28 A.M., Mack pulled into the Winston Tug and Barge yard in Linnton.

At one time, Linnton, an industrial district in the outer northwest section of Portland, had sported oil-storage tanks, a gasworks, sawmills, a plywood mill, beer joints, piers, and tugboat docks. The oil tanks, a few of the tugboat docks, and the beer joints were still in use, but the rest of it had fallen into ruin.

He parked in the lot above the Winston docks, not quite in the same space where he’d waited for his father to come back from Enoch’s Folly.

Dodging the puddles on the asphalt, they walked over to the top of the ramp.

Chauncey had moved Tulgey Wood out of her boathouse and had tied her up at the company’s transient dock. With her heavy displacement hull and trawler styling, the boat was forty-six feet of gleaming paint, varnished wood, tinted glass, and blue canvas. A dinghy sat on chocks on her coach roof, abaft the salon, while her short mast with its radar antenna and hoisting boom were raised into place.

Tulgey Wood’s diesels, the largest Chauncey could fit into the engine spaces, idled lazily, rumbling in the cold, midday air. They sent puffs of white steam and darker-colored exhaust billowing over the water. The puffs curled and thinned like tendrils of fog. The exhaust pipes spat out constant streams of the river water that had finished circulating through the raw-water sides of the heat exchangers.

Coffee cup in hand, Chauncey paced back and forth on the dock beside his boat. With his toe, he nudged a fender into what he had apparently decided was a better position between the hull and the dock. His movements were quick and practiced—no time lost to speculation or reconsideration—and yet, to Mack, he gave the impression of moving with unhurried leisure.

“He doesn’t seem ticked off to me,” Freddi said.

The twang had gone back undercover.

“Trust me,” Mack said. “He’s pissed.”

“Isabel’s coming, too, isn’t she?” Freddi asked.

Mack caught a note of concern in her voice. “As far as I know. What’s eating you?”

“I don’t want to be the only girl on this trip.”

“Afraid we’ll ravish you like a couple of pirates?”

“No. I’m afraid you’ll bore me to tears.”

“Never fear. Boring is the one thing this trip won’t be.”

Going down the ramp, Mack caught himself watching the river, the weather, trying to judge what the afternoon held in store, as though they were departing on a voyage to the far side of the world.

A gull wheeled above them, crying, and in that same instant, Mack took in the wet, rain-soaked smell of the river, the docks, the pilings, and the intoxicating odor of the exhaust from Tulgey Wood’s two big diesels.

Mack’s throat closed, his nose stung, and he clenched his teeth against the flood of grief and memory.

At the bottom of the ramp, Freddi stared down at the water next to the dock, her face intent. “Ever wonder what’s lurking beneath the surface?”

Odd question. Mack said as much.

“Well, it’s an odd sensation,” Freddi said.

“Lurking? You mean like wrecks? Sunken boats? That sort of thing?”

“Wrecks don’t lurk. They loom. I mean lurk, like a large fish, a really big fish, with teeth. Like a humongous something that’s watching us from below. Maybe waiting.”

“For what?”

She paused, then said, “For us.” She shivered.

“You’ve been reading your own stories again,” Mack said, and guided her forward toward the Grand Banks.

The float felt natural under his feet, solid, reliable, not one whit like the ground ashore.

Chauncey set his coffee cup on the gunwale.

“I told you eleven o’clock,” Chauncey said. His voice could have scorched the inside of a blast furnace. “It’s eleven-forty.”

“Sorry,” Mack said.

“You could have called.”

“Sorry. By the time we got away from the house, the only thing I could think about was getting here.”

“What happened this time?” Chauncey demanded.

“The dog,” Freddi said. “You don’t want the gory details.”

“She’s right,” Mack said. “She cleaned it up.”

“You’re a gallant bastard,” Chauncey said.

Isabel slid open a window. “Ah, you’ve made it.”

“Sorry to be late,” Freddi said.

“Don’t be,” Isabel said. “I’ll put on a fresh pot.”

She disappeared back inside.

“We could do with a fresh pot,” Chauncey said.

He was shorter than Mack, but taller than Freddi. He wasn’t a typically short man; nevertheless, there were those in the family, plenty of them, who said he suffered from short-man’s disease.

Mack had his own ideas on that score.

Over the years, Chauncey had done so much with so little and against such insurmountable odds that he’d lost all sufferance, glad or otherwise, for fools, slackers, and “Goddamn, rabbit-eared dilettantes.”

“Pull in your claws,” Mack said. “It’s going to be a long day.”

“Touchy, touchy.” With a wink in Freddi’s direction, Chauncey said, “You know, Mack, you ought to treat her right.”

Mack said, “Shane chucked his cookies, and we flipped to see who’d clean it up. Freddi lost. End of story.”

“You said he’d improved,” Chauncey said, his tone changed, his concern real.

“He had,” Mack said. “Until the minute we were headed out the door.”

“He’ll be all right,” Freddi said. “We loaded him up with antacids.”

“You need a new vet,” Chauncey said.

A few minutes later, at 12:05, they cast off and headed down the Willamette River at a sedate six knots. Freddi and Isabel staked out the salon, while Mack watched the water and kept his uncle company as he conned his boat from the flybridge. The old man had the bimini top furled and stowed in its cover. The radar and chartplotter were off, but the depth sounder, an ancient flasher, was on. He had a thermos of coffee and two ceramic cups close at hand.

“Only the four of us?” Mack asked, pouring himself a cup. An explanation might come in handy. “I know you said small—”

“Yep, only the four of us.”

Mack decided not to challenge this lack of response. His uncle reminded him of a hawk circling above a field mouse. The old man had an agenda going. Seattle? Another issue? It was hard to say. But sooner or later, he—and his ambitious little gray cells—would gather everyone into the salon and “reveal all.”

In a lot of ways, Chauncey behaved less like a hawk than he behaved like a cat—and, like most cats, not only did he enjoy the hunt, but he also enjoyed playing with his food afterwards.

Chauncey said, “I invited Grandma Donnelly, but she begged off at the last minute.”

Grandma Donnelly was, strictly speaking, Chauncey’s aunt, Mack’s great-aunt, and no one’s grandmother. As the Winstons went, she was the least Winstonlike Winston of the bunch. Chauncey’s respect for her—the deference he habitually showed her—would have kept him in line and made the afternoon less of an endurance contest, less of a tournament.

“Too bad,” Mack said, and focused on the river.

The sky and the water sparkled and brooded in their most colorful shades of slate-gray here, battleship-gray there, weathered-teak in another place. He couldn’t find a wink of blue anywhere.

West of the Cascade Mountains, March was an on-again, off-again month, neither winter nor spring. It could be fresh and warm or bitterly wet and cold. At the moment, it was the latter.

A quarter of a nautical mile astern, the Golden Gate-style towers, cables, and decking of the St. Johns Bridge spanned the river. Just as the Golden Gate marked the entrance to San Francisco, California, the St. Johns marked the entrance to Portland, Oregon: Stumptown, Portlandia, Puddle City, Beijing on the Willamette, Greenvana.

Ahead of them lay a sizeable portion of the docks, warehouses, tank farms, and factories that made up the remaining industrial heart of the city. Higher up, on the slopes above the river, clung houses, churches, grocery stores, and gasoline stations—the inevitable impedimenta of habitation.

Off to the west was the new Elliot Bay construction site. Elliot Bay was a Seattle-based tug-and-barge company. They billed themselves as a provider of eco-friendly, sustainable, integrated transportation solutions. They were very politically correct. What they did for a living was haul barges just like everybody else in the business did. They, however, could tell you exactly where every penny in every dime had come from, dating back to Methuselah.

Founded in the 1860s, their twin claims to fame these days were their deep pockets and their deeper political connections. If Elliot Bay needed a permit, they got it; if they needed a waiver, the bureaucrats lined up to grant it; if they needed a contract to pad their margins, agencies lined up outside their doors with bid requests. And, of even greater importance, they had no—absolutely, stinking, guaranteed no—problems with the labor unions, or the pols, or the activists, or regulators, or the local press. Their smiling faces graced the right billboards, the right front pages, and the right screens. They were golden.

Chauncey, on the other hand, was not notably photogenic. He was not golden. Pewter, maybe, but not golden. More like tin.

Tulgey Wood sliced through the waves—not ripples, but not chop. Her V-shaped wake touched both banks. It lapped at the pilings and caressed the sand.

The Elliot Bay site was a mass of activity. Saturday or not, a crew was busily working to put up a steel building. As far as Mack could tell, it would turn out to be part storage, part machine shop, and part office.

Two massive fuel tanks sat on flatbeds a few yards away from the partially completed building. Next to the tanks sat a couple of pieces of excavation equipment.

By the end of the week, the tanks would be in the ground and the hoses run.

A similar project had taken Chauncey five years to complete, thanks to various bureaucratic and political holdups.

Down on the water, a pile driver was hammering pilings into the river bottom. The bang-chuff-bang-chuff-bang-chuff rhythm of the work pulsed through the air. Irrationally, Mack imagined that he could feel it in the bottoms of his feet.

The docks wouldn’t be far behind, and then the boats would arrive, and the competition for the basin’s anemic pool of contracts would begin.

It had already.

The political contributions had begun to flow in months ago.

Chauncey offered Mack a pair of 7X50 binoculars. “Have a look.”

“No, thanks. I can see what’s going on.”

“You sure?”

“Pretty plain, isn’t it?” Mack said.

“That it is, that it is.”

Chauncey stepped away from the wheel. “Here, you take her for a while.”

“What do you mean take her for a while? I’ve always taken her for a boat.”

Chauncey groaned. “God help us,” he said. “I need to unload my last cup of coffee.”

Mack took the wheel. He didn’t grab onto it, but neither was there anything diffident or reluctant in his touch. The stainless steel tubing was cold and hard, and he could feel the vibration of the engines as they propelled the vessel forward.

“Where are we headed?”

“Multnomah Channel. You remember the way, don’t you?”

Mack gave his uncle a look. “In my sleep.”

“Fine, but can you find it while you’re awake?”

It was Mack’s turn to groan. “I follow the bouncing waves and take the first left. Where to on the channel?”

Chauncey treated him to a sly grin. “Elk Jaw. Where else?”

Mack nearly gagged on his coffee. The old man might as well have told him they were headed for Area 7 or right on into the dreaded Bungo Straits.

Elk Jaw Landing. Once it had been a thriving Winston-owned township, the location of Winston Tug and Barge and the Winston family home, the family’s “place,” the house they had nicknamed “the house ashore.”

Currently, Elk Jaw Landing sat much reduced, used only as a dumping ground for the family’s odds and ends and for the company’s overflow from the yard in Linnton.

Elk Jaw was also the final resting place of Enoch’s Folly, the houseboat, still unfinished, that had cost both Mack’s father and Enoch Winston their lives.

“Peachy,” Mack said.

“I understand,” Chauncey said, “but where better to celebrate Gideon’s birthday?”

Where, indeed? One of the hotter circles of Hell sprang to mind, but Mack let it go. After twenty years, he ought to be able to look at that damn houseboat without coming apart or wishing he could.

Time healed all wounds, didn’t it? And twenty years provided nothing if not a lot of time, didn’t they?

Of course they did.

You bet.

And Mack was the queen of Sweden, too. Welcome aboard, your majesty.

A gull swooped hopefully over the boat. Disappointed, it glided off toward the nearer bank.

Chauncey nudged the throttles forward. “Let’s take ’er up to eight knots. I’m cold and I’m hungry and she’s my boat.”

Mack opened the channel entrance a few minutes later. It lay off to port as the main stem of the river swung from a northwesterly course to a northeasterly one. He checked the water for traffic, found no sign of Bungo Pete or the Cruncher Maru No. 69, and eased the wheel over.

In a matter of two hundred yards, they left behind an international harbor and entered a seemingly different world; a rural expanse, classic bottom country. To their right lay Sauvie’s Island, a low, soggy expanse of marshes, lakes, and farms; while to their left, on the mainland side of the channel there were towns, farms, and the encroachments of suburbia and the detritus of businesses that had never quite made it. It was a portrait of dilapidation and disuse, studded with flashes of genuine wealth.

They passed houseboat moorages and boat moorages, houses up on the solid ground. They passed weathered pilings and dolphins, now long, long abandoned. They were leftovers of a time when the channel had been used to assemble, moor, and move countless log rafts.

~ * ~

FREDDI SIPPED HER coffee.

The boat’s salon was warm without being muggy and cozy without feeling closed in. The enormous windows helped.

The salon’s decor was masculine: clean lines and lots of wood. The space had its feminine side, too: curtains, blond wood rather than dark, light-colored carpeting on the deck. An ornate brass lamp hung over the dinette table. It swung slightly in response to the boat’s movements.

She took another sip of her coffee.

To her surprise, it had grown cold and bitter. She thought about pouring herself another cup, but decided against it. Instead, she held the cup in her lap as though she intended to finish it.

“We’re almost there,” Isabel said.

Isabel was a short, wiry woman. Her thick, short-cropped hair was a mixture of brown and gray with streaks of white.

“Oh, good,” Freddi said. “I’m starved. How can I help?”

Isabel laughed. “No rush, dear,” she said. “We have a long way to go before Chauncey drops the hook.”

Beyond the windows, the scenery swung clockwise around the boat. They were making a turn.

It stopped swinging, and the banks of the Multnomah Channel reached out to Tulgey Wood like the arms of a dancing partner. They didn’t hold on to the boat, but glided around, moving in from front to back, encircling, content either to lead or to follow.

An erector-set bridge passed overheard, and when she looked behind them, Freddi couldn’t see the entrance to the channel.

“We’re here,” Isabel said brightly. “We’ve entered the magic wood.” Putting on a Scottish burr, she said, “Here, in this weirding place, be there witches, my lass, and dragons, too, and the very Loom of the World itself.”

Freddi couldn’t imagine what to think, and inside her head the lilt and the twang she hated so much broke out of her locked-away past and descended upon her to work their devilments. Would the Southern Captivity, both hers and that of American literature, never end?

Doing her best to keep her voice as flat and as colorless as the lowering overcast, she said, “You make me feel as though I ought to be leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.”

“It wouldn’t do you any good,” Isabel said. “The locals would only gobble them up.”

Freddi settled for, “I suppose so.”

Isabel smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry. I was just playing. Chauncey’s been reading trashy fantasy novels lately, and now he’s hooked me on them. Every other time I open my mouth, out comes—” she pitched her voice very low, very sententious “—the language of the quest.” Relaxing her throat, she added, “I caught myself wanting to learn Elvish the other day. Elvish!”

“I do the same thing. God help me if I’ve been reading Faulkner or watching too many British films.”

“Shakespeare’s especially difficult to keep out of your head, isn’t he?” Isabel said. “On second thought, maybe I ought to get started with dinner. You finish your coffee, dear. I’ll put you to work after you’re done.”

“Please.”

Isabel went to the galley, which was forward of the salon and a couple of steps lower, a “galley down.” It was a separate work area but not an isolated one. Which meant that whomever got stuck working in it, didn’t—usually—feel quite so much like a forgotten drudge. Sad but true, aboard most boats the joke about “galley slaves” wasn’t that far from the truth.

Beyond the salon windows, the banks of the channel slipped by. On one side, there was a houseboat moorage, with a march of trees behind it, a green wall to protect it from the outside world. On the other side, the island side, a road ran along the top of a grass-covered levee. Dikes, they called them in this part of the northern world. At intervals, weathered pilings reached up like pickets through the surface of the water. Some had been cabled into clumps, like three or four pencils splayed at the bottom and held together at the top by a rubber band.

The magic wood. Freddi knew what a magic wood was, but what had Isabel meant by calling the channel a magic wood?

Interesting question, but Freddi couldn’t answer it. She decided, though, that if they encountered three witches hunched around a cauldron and muttering and chanting about a guy named Macbeth, she wasn’t going to wait around to see how the brew turned out. Nope. Not her. Not a chance. She’d call a cab and go home to the townhouse and her novels, where her break-through accent wouldn’t curse her every waking moment and magic happened on the page and not around a caldron.

With a determined shrug, she forced down the last of her coffee and went to help Isabel.

~ * ~

DESPITE THE GLOVES he had slipped on, Mack’s hands had grown cold on the wheel.

Too bad.

For the next hour and a half, he guided Tulgey Wood through the channel’s twists and turns until they reached the earthly remains of Elk Jaw Landing.

The place sat on the mainland side of the channel.

There wasn’t much left compared to the ambling village it had once been. The company had razed the last remnants in the late 1970s, but had chosen to leave the boatyard semi-intact. Clustered together were a dilapidated dock; Enoch’s Folly, still unfinished; an expansive two-story bungalow, set a few yards back from the bank, the “house ashore”; a mooring basin; a three-bay boathouse; various foundations; and a scattering of outbuildings.

“Bring her around and drop the hook,” Chauncey said.

Mack stood away from the wheel. “You’d better do it.”

“Why?”

“I’m out of practice.”

“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t offer.”

Chauncey took the wheel. He throttled back to an idle, brought Tulgey Wood around, head-to-current, and glided to a stop over the ground. Because they had backtracked through their wake, Mack caught the scents of diesel exhaust, warm engines, and disturbed river water.

Chauncey dropped the engines into reverse and flipped a switch on the console. Controlled by the anchor windless, the anchor rattled down. He laid out a hundred and twenty feet of chain, then flipped the switch off.

The windless stopped, and the chain tightened.

Chauncey opened the throttles enough to take a credible strain and watched the shoreline. The boat dug her anchor deep into the bottom, but she didn’t drag.

“We have arrived,” Chauncey announced, and cut the engines.

The silence pounced and devoured them. Not the simple absence of sound; it was the unmasked presence of the wind rustling through the cottonwoods lining the banks of the channel, the cry of a gull perched on a dolphin, the gurgle of water sloshing in and out of the boat’s exhaust pipes.

Mack took in the cold, damp odors riding the salt-rich marine air: cow dung, river mud, cooking from below in the galley, the damp of a recent rain, rot, and the lingering aroma of diesel engines.

Home.

“Dinner awaits,” Chauncey said. “Three forks as promised.”

Three forks and what besides? Mack wondered, and followed his uncle below.

==END SAMPLE==

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