You Don’t Beat the River

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It was a good day for being on the river—warm, bright, a few clouds to make the sky interesting. It would have been better if the two river guides had been there for fun or even if they were doing a normal tour group, what the company called a float. It’s a great run—that section of the Colorado; just not when you’re looking for a dead man.

“Find him,” Ray, the rafting company manager, had instructed. “Take your time, stay in contact, and find that sucker.”

“Yeah, sure. Like the river is going to give him back.” Mike groused to his partner Jackie. “What was he thinking anyway? Get these high-end tourists, thinking they know better than us guides.”

raftingThe smartass remarks always burned the guides’ sensibilities. Full of I know it all:

“I don’t need a lifejacket.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve climbed mountains all over the world.”

“That’s why I go to the gym.”

“Hey, I’m paying you guys.”

Usually, they didn’t die, drown, or disappear. But this guy Floyd Murchison, Dr. Floyd Murchison, “You can call me Doc.” World-class neurosurgeon. Traveling with his wife Bernice—herself a college professor, political science it said on the forms.

One of the trip guides had asked him, maybe she’d even told him not to. He shucked the vest anyway and climbed up onto the rock.

“Just want a few minutes of peace and quiet. This is a break, isn’t it?”

“Okay.” She turned back. “Just, be careful, Doc.”

“Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”

He hadn’t. Ten, fifteen minutes later, Butch, the trip leader, yells, “Let’s saddle up. Another ten miles before lunch.”

Everybody’s grabbing paddles. Bernice is hollering, “Floyd!” “Floyd!” But there is no Floyd. He’s disappeared.

He must have slipped, gone into the water. Even if Floyd Murchison had been wearing his life vest, who knows if someone in the group would have spotted him? But they hadn’t. More than likely he drowned dashed against a rock, dragged under by the current, food for the fish.

Butch radioed in first chance he got a clear channel. Lot of good that did. Couple of runs with a copter. Again, maybe if Murchison was wearing that orange vest. Anyway, he wasn’t. Not a sign.

Ray, the office manager, said, “Mike, Jackie, you two run the river. Real slow. You look everywhere. Find him. Take your time, stay in contact, and find that sucker.”

Jackie’s sitting in the front of the two-seater. Mike in the back. Enough gear for four nights—extra for Murchison just in case—and of course a first aid kit. 

The two guides look up at the pocka-pocka sound of the search helicopters heading back to their base in Vegas.

“I guess they didn’t find him.”

“I guess. Now it’s up to us,” Mike said.

As they pushed off, Ray said, “Mike, you find him. Call in. We’ll get a chopper in first thing. Even if he says he’s okay, we get that chopper in. Got it?”

“Sure, Ray.” He couldn’t hold it back. “Hey, Ray, you don’t think—”

“Not a chance in hell. It may not be brain surgery, but you don’t beat the river.”

He laughed like his little joke was real smart. That was Ray, always thinking he was funny.

 “Glad I’m not working that float,” Jackie said.

“Yeah, pass me the water.” Mike took a swig, passed the bottle forward to his colleague, and they dug into the river. It would be miles before Thorny Bend; that was where Murchison had gone in; that was where the search would begin.

“You watch the south bank. I’ll take the north.” There were still a couple hours of daylight. No sense wasting it.

“Sure. Sure.” Jackie bites off her words even shorter than usual. Sounds more like she’s saying “Sh Sh”

“Hey, I’m not telling you what to do.”

“Maybe she’s thinking about last night.” He smiles to himself. Mike figures the search is useless but hopes the nights won’t be wasted.

Jackie nods and shifts her head to left and right, ignoring Mike’s plan. What the hell, he does the same. At least it makes the scenery more interesting. No matter how many times he paddles the canyon, he still loves it. The subtle variations of rock. The desperate vegetation rooting into every crevice. The river, alive, sometimes placid, at others roiling. The sky so far overhead. The occasional coyote, or elk, or bobcat. All kinds of life. In the sky, too. Especially the hawks and the eagles.

Mike still loves the river three days later when they pull out. The truck is there to meet them. Good thing about radios; they make it easier to plan.

“Nah,” Mike says before Ray can ask. “Not a sign.”

Jackie doesn’t say anything. There’s no reason.

The two guides allow their hands to touch for a moment.

***

For weeks the dead man weighs heavily on the guides. It is a silent weight marked only by the occasional blurted word.

“At least she’s rich.” Terri, one of the guides is reading a newspaper.

“Who?”

“The widow. You know that guy got killed?”

“In June?” Another guide asks like there was more than one.

“Yeah, that guy, the doctor.”

“What about him?”

“Her. His wife. She got the insurance. He had a ten million dollar policy. I guess that’s not so surprising him being a famous doctor and all. Twice that if they decide it was an accident.”

“That’s good,” It is said with no enthusiasm.

Butch, who hasn’t said much since that fated day, slams the door on his way out of the break room.

“There’s more. Seems like his own brain was going.” Terri turns another page of the paper.

“What do you mean?”

“Parkinson’s. Early stages. Least that’s what the story says.” Terri points at a something in the newspaper. “Says he couldn’t practice anymore.”

“That must of sucked,” Mike comments.

“Fer sure,” Jackie adds. She’s holding Mike’s hand. Jackie’s been doing that a lot lately.

The guides are hanging, waiting for Ray. An organizational meeting he calls it. Usually, that means he’s going to yell: mostly about obvious stuff like those life jackets. Like the guides don’t know. Like the customers will listen.

“You don’t think he—” The question hangs in the air.

Who knows? A guy gets depressed—even a famous neurosurgeon.

“Sure, sure,” Jackie says, biting her words short.

“Mike! Mike!” Ray’s voice shakes the young man out of wherever his mind has wandered.

***

He was shaky: the expected results of fatigue, hypothermia, hunger, and thirst. The Indian should have packed in more water, food, and a better blanket. At least the camouflage worked; he hadn’t been spotted that first day, when the helicopters were overhead and he’d hunkered down and waited for them to head back to the northwest.

The Indian’s trail markings had been hard to follow, but here he was. Now if the damned Indian didn’t forget, didn’t get drunk, didn’t just decide to leave him in the wilderness. He hated having to rely on other people, especially someone untrained, somebody like Charley Chained Horse.

“Due north from river.” The Indian had pointed in a random direction. “Follow trail I leave sign.” He dropped four stones, the first three the vertices of a triangle and one more stone next to one of the three. “Follow fourth stone. Easy hike. No take more than day, but wait them stop search. I meet when safe.”

“Easy hike indeed? What did he think I am, an aborigine like him?” Floyd was frothing his anger as Charley Chained Horse trotted across the rough landscape towards him.

Charley held out his hand in greeting. Reluctantly, Floyd took it. He wanted to carp, complain, and shout. If it was back at Denver General, if they were in the operating room; but Floyd still needed the squat Indian with his pocked complexion and straggled hair. “Took you long enough,” was the best he could muster.

“Raft company send guides look. Not safe before. Now we go.”

“Did you bring something to drink? Eat?”

Charley was already gathering the remains of Floyd’s campsite. “No trace. Hikers come and see.”

All the while, the White man was changing into hiking clothes. He slipped his feet into well-broken-in boots, laced them tightly, and tied the knot with special relish. “I always loved tying knots,” he observed to no one. 

Floyd had planned it for months. “Not so hard,” he thought, “not like brain surgery.”

As he and the Indian walked south, back towards the river and their fording place, Floyd sucked two bottles of water dry and ate the candy bars Charley had brought. Much as it offended his fastidiousness, Floyd wiped the chocolate from his fingers onto his kakis and rubbed his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt. Soon enough he would be out of this damned place and on his way to a new life. 

“We hike down river few miles, cross there.” The Indian pointed downstream. “I leave horses, more food, water. Stay night. Catch helicopter out in morning.”

“I’ve been thinking about that, Charley. I’m not sure about that helicopter. Somebody might recognize me.”

“What you want do?”

“I figured we could ride out, up to the parking lot.”

“Cost more.”

“That’s fine. What, another fifty.”

“Two hundred.”

“Come on. Be reasonable.”

“Two hundred reasonable. Ride trail in dark. Dangerous. Ride down more danger. Two hundred.”

Floyd laughed to himself. He had worried the Indian might demand thousands. The gun in the old Dodge’s trunk would have been the solution if Charley got too greedy, too untrustworthy. Two hundred he could live with. Two hundred and he could let the Indian live, too.

Floyd had to admit it. Charley Chained Horse had followed his instructions, done his job, and kept his mouth shut. That was the most important thing—secrecy. “What the hell does he care?” Floyd asked himself. “He just wants money. Can’t blame him for that. How the hell can he earn a living down there anyway?”

“Let’s do it.” Floyd walked in the direction the Indian pointed. Without a word, Charley followed.

The shadow of a hawk passed over. Automatically, both men looked up and watched the bird float easily against the blue of the sky.

“Long way,” Charley grunted.

It wasn’t an easy hike. Riding raw-boned and uneven gaited nag had been harder. By the time they arrived at the parking lot the sun was setting.

“You make it down alright?” Floyd asked as he pocketed the keys to the battered Dodge.

“Horses know way, Mr. Jones.”

Floyd gave a quick wave in response as the Indian headed over the cliff’s edge and down into the Canyon.

Floyd wondered if all Indians were this laconic. Certainly it had seemed so when he’d made that first visit. “Herb Jones,” he’d introduced himself—an easy alias to remember. “I need a guide, somebody with a couple of horses and willing to do some hard riding for some good money.”

That had been in the little tribal store. “As good a place as any,” he thought. And he had been right; the plump storeowner’s cousin was just the man. Now Floyd figured everyone in Supai were cousins. Not that it mattered, just as long as this one kept his mouth shut.

It took three more trips to work out the details. “A consultation,” he explained to his colleagues at the hospital on two of the occasions—not elaborating, not needing to. “Just getting away with Bernice” was the reason he used the other times. Each time, he had shown just a bit more tremor, a bit more hesitancy of gait, a bit more involuntary movement of thumb and forefinger. As careful planning as ever went into an operation. After all, this was his life, and Floyd was determined that the patient should survive.

***

Ironic, much as he hated the hospital administrators, Floyd wanted to thank Earl, the chief operations officer.

“Great pictures,” he’d commented two years earlier when Earl and his wife had returned from their trip. Just an automated response; he didn’t mean it. Dr. Floyd Murchison had no interest in nature, camping, or especially white water rafting.

But it had been Earl’s pictures, stuck in the back of his mind that gave Floyd the idea.

“Remember that trip you and Francine took? To the Canyon wasn’t it?”

“Yeah. What about it?”

“You still got the pictures?”

“Of course. Why?”

“Bernice and I were thinking. You know, I’m thinking of retiring. Well, we figured we’d do some traveling. She remembered my mentioning your photos and suggested. … If you don’t mind.”

“No, of course. I’ll make you a copy.”

“No, no. Why don’t you guys come for dinner, bring them with you, and you can tell us all the details.”

Details: good planning required details. A doctor didn’t cut into somebody’s head until he had planned every move. He wasn’t going to have a phony death until he had just the right method. Not until the new life policy was fully vested—eighteen months before the double indemnity for accidental death clause took effect. Two years before suicide would be covered.

So many details to be arranged: Fake passports and papers, booking the tour, finding the right Indian—knowledgeable of the terrain, willing to do what was needed for a reasonable price, able to provide the horses—buying the old car and putting it in Charley Chained Horse’s name, having the Indian drive it.

“Look like Indian car,” Charley said when they bought the green junk heap in Flagstaff.

That was true enough. Nobody would notice the junk-heap sitting in the middle of the tribal lot high above the Canyon. It would be waiting for its owner to come up from the rez. For what—a monthly trip to the supermarkets or maybe a visit to a family member who had moved out of the Canyon.

“You want me get tickets?” Charley asked, incredulous at the next instruction.

“Don’t worry. I’ll pay the fines. Nothing big. Speeding. Couple of parking violations in Flagstaff or Prescott, enough to show it’s your car.

The trip had to be booked. Then calling Charley with the dates. That was one of the most difficult tasks.

“Not much service on rez,” Charley explained.

“Charley.”

“Yes, Mr. Jones.”

“Do me a favor. Go up and check the car. Make sure it’s ready to go. I have a long trip.”

“Where go?”

“Don’t worry about that. Just make sure the tires are good, the battery, that there’s gas.”

“Sure. You pay; you boss. Fifty dollars.”

“Fine. Another fifty—it didn’t matter?

Floyd made one last quick trip to drop a suitcase and carryall in the car’s trunk. His cover this time, an appointment with a neurologist in Phoenix. Bernice, following instructions, let that tidbit slip at her bridge club.

The plan was ready to go operational.

***

“Suicide? Absolutely not!” Bernice Murchison said. “Parkinson’s or no, Floyd and I had a good life ahead of us.”

Even if the insurance company rejected the accidental death claim, there would be ten million to add to the millions already safely in her name. And, with double indemnity, make that twenty million.

Floyd had a plan. He always had a plan, seldom one that involved what she wanted. Rio? What about her life, her career, her thinking about running for office? No matter to Floyd.

Still, Bernice had to admit it: Floyd’s plan was excellent. Planning was one of his great strengths. Once he decided it was time to get out of medicine, he had created a game plan worthy of a five star general.

“It used to be fun,” he complained. “I loved the O.R., but now? Now, it’s all paperwork and dealing with administrators. Who do they think saves people—somebody with a clipboard or me with my knife.”

She wasn’t sure if she believed him. It didn’t matter. Bernice always made believe she bought Floyd’s lies. Why not? Their marriage had been built on lies for years. The great man: she knew better. Bernice knew it all, from the cheating in medical school to the tax evasion, to the nurses he balled in the recovery room.

Would his colleagues believe it? Maybe. But the insurance company? Too obvious; there would be questions. No, better to develop symptoms. Easy enough for a doctor. Getting his friend in Phoenix to write the prescriptions. Just dump the pills and order more.

“Where will you get a passport?” Bernice asked.

Floyd laughed. “Didn’t I save Stankovitch’s kid? Why save the goddamned kid of a Russian Mafia don if you don’t get something in return.

Two weeks later, Floyd waved the documents in front of her. “Meet Morris James Finklestein.

“You’ll retire right off, soon as the semester ends. The grieving widow,” Floyd reviewed the plan. “Of course you’ll take a couple of trips…you know, to forget. Places on our list. Then you meet a man in Rio. A whirlwind romance, and you’ll be Mrs. Morris Finklestein.”

“Sure,” Bernice said, her tone flat.

Floyd kissed Bernice quickly on the lips. That was all she ever got, a quick kiss. At least Sammy gave her more than that.

Sammy only met Floyd once; that had been enough. He, too, could not imagine the great doctor sitting around on the Copacabana Beach, each morning walking the promenade, sipping coffee and watching the endless waves of the Atlantic. “Well, you’d know better than me, Love, but I think you’re right. He isn’t a man for retirement.”

“No, but he is a man for getting what he wants. Whatever the hell that might be.”

They both chuckled.

Sammy put down his beer and rested his left hand on her right knee. “It’ll work out.”

Sammy was the great consolation in Bernice’s life. First her graduate assistant, then her colleague. At some point their liking had become friendship and then slipped into an affair—not love but a liaison that had lasted twenty-seven years.

“Why don’t you find somebody?” she asked more than once.

“I’m waiting for the right woman.”

“How are you going to find her if you don’t look?”

And Sammy’s inevitable reply. “I already found her. Now, I’m waiting for her to dump her husband and come away with me.”

“Away, where?” Bernice would ask as she kissed his ears and neck.

“To the South of France.”

Bernice would laugh and ask if he liked topless beaches.

“Only with the right bottom,” he would answer.

It was their routine. Nothing would come of it. Just one of those little dances couples do.

“Copacabana? Brazil? What the hell am I supposed to do?” Sammy seldom showed irritation. He was willing to wait and wait some more. Twenty-seven years and more to come. But for Bernice to leave—to go off with Floyd: that he could not accept.

“I wish I could ask Floyd; he’d figure it out.” Bernice was sorry as soon as the words left her mouth. Making light of it. What was she thinking? Giving up Sammy would be one of the hardest things.

***

Floyd sold the old car—no questions asked—in Juarez, took a bus to airport; and traveling under the name Brian Louis York was soon in Mexico City. “What the hell, another twenty grand for a set of throwaway documents,” he had thought when Stankovitch suggested it. 

“Always a good idea, Doc, just in case somebody spots you. Then that guy disappears. Easy.”

Brian York, Saint Louis businessman, took a cab to a decent hotel, where he spent the night—but not really.

Later that evening, all according to plan, Morris James Finklestein boarded his flight for Rio. Everything executed with operating room precision.

Even though he knew it would take months for the insurance to come through. Floyd, unable to restrict his lifestyle, had almost run out of his available money by the time Bernice was due to join him in Rio. Only twenty thousand American left in the carryall he had brought with him. It bothered him that he hadn’t left himself more cash.

That was the first inkling Floyd had that things might go wrong. The second was the phone call he made to Bernice’s office at the university.

“What do you mean she no longer works there?” The term was not yet over. Why would she draw attention by leaving early? Had something gone terribly wrong?

Bernice had no problems at all. Now officially a widow, the newlywed and her Sammy were on their honeymoon. The Mediterranean was beautiful that time of year.

“There is nothing like a good plan,” she said as Sammy ogled the topless women on the beach in Cannes.

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