Bess gripped the varnished tiller, checked her footing and watched her father sitting quietly in the cockpit across from her.
She had done all the rigging after her father had made a show of telling her that she was ready to captain her first race. She smiled at him even as her heart sank, knowing that he was only giving her the boat because his condition was serious enough to scare even him. But he was doing it in a way that he thought would hide the truth from Bess. She wanted to fawn over him, touch him tenderly as a daughter should when her father is ailing, but she had a secret to keep. And she had promised. He still wasn’t ready for her to know. So she smiled demurely and he beamed proudly as they wove their common web of avoidance so he could feel like a man for at least a little while longer.
They were running with the wind almost directly behind them. The spinnaker billowed out from the front of the boat, filtering a bright Spring sun through the colored stripes running along its length.
Bess’s breath hitched when she saw the spinnakers puffing out in front of the boats ahead ripple and then collapse as their crews hauled them down. They were making the turn around the first buoy in the racecourse. Bess closed her eyes and let out a faint sigh. She hadn’t thought of that. She couldn’t push the tiller over and haul in the mainsail and hold weather helm as they rounded the buoy. She couldn’t do all that and haul down the spinnaker. Turning that first buoy was a two-man job, plain and simple.
Her father smiled at her and his hand moved up the railing as he peered at the boats bobbing ahead of them. He pressed his fingertips just in front of his ear. It was a gesture she had seen for almost a year now but it wasn’t something she had really noticed until now. Because now she knew what it meant. He was checking his pulse. He probably wasn’t even aware of it. It had become just some notion of habit. She felt a vague sense of relief knowing he was thinking about it, but the aching welled up and she gritted her teeth, forcing it back down into the pit of her stomach. She forced the corners of her mouth up into a smile, her cheek twitching with the unnatural feeling of forcing her expression to reflect a feeling so alien to her at that moment that she couldn’t remember what it meant to feel anything but the gnawing dread in her chest.
Her father eyed the buoy and then looked at her, cocking his brow. “Want me to drive?”
“Negative.” She had spoken quickly, with a commanding voice that neither of them was used to hearing. Her eyes darted towards the spinnaker and then she quickly followed up with an even more serious tone, mocking herself. “I’m the Captain of this boat, mister.” She grinned and flicked a brow, betraying the tightness in her chest that was already pushing up into her throat. He grinned back, but she couldn’t help wonder if she had cracked the surface of his awareness.
He stood up. Bess’s shoulder rattled with a faint shiver as she thought of him working along the deck when the time came for her to pull the boat around. It wasn’t the most arduous thing, but it took some work to keep yourself stable when the boat was pitching into weather helm. It was the sort of thing that got your blood pumping.
She eyed the storm clouds already boiling a mile offshore as lightning skittered along their darkening base. She studied the grey veils of rain falling out of them and sweeping across the surrounding desert. She couldn’t discern the gust front, but she knew it would roll across the lake soon. If it came after the spinnaker was hauled down, it would probably be alright. If it came before then… Her shoulders stiffened and she tried to push the thought away. It would come after. Right?
Her father stooped down in front of the cabin at the front of the cockpit and rummaged through a sail bag to fetch a neatly folded storm jib. He had seen the storm clouds too and she knew what he was thinking. He had taught her to understand this: Respect the wind. Too little sail will slow you down. Too much sail can bring you to a dead stop when the wind pitches the boat over and tosses you in the water.
He grabbed onto a handle bolted to the top of the cabin and looked over his shoulder, catching her eye. “Got this?” His eyes flicked to the storm clouds and back to her.
“Yes.” Her voice was flat and matter-of-fact. Playtime was over. They were sailing now. “Be careful,” she said.
He started to step up onto the deck and stopped short. Looking back over his shoulder, he said, “You worried about something?”
“No. Just… be careful.”
His mouth stretched over his face and the crow’s feet around his eyes crinkled as he showed her what she called his ‘cat smile.’ She didn’t know if he was aware of it, but whenever he showed it, he was saying one thing – that everything was just fine, even if it wasn’t.
Her father pulled himself up onto the deck, took a few steps and stopped. He looked up at the spinnaker and bent his knees as the boat rocked from another swell rolling up behind them. Bess could feel the deck pitching higher this time. The lake was getting choppy. He took a few breaths and shuffled towards the bow, his hand sliding along the top of the cabin as he groped for the next handle.
The boat slid up next to the buoy. Bess eyed the red orb of rusted metal bobbing haplessly in the swells. She bit her lip as she looked up at the spinnaker. It drifted a few degrees to the side as the wind shifted. She squinted at her father sliding his feet along the deck. She wasn’t sure, but his knees seemed to start shaking just the tiniest bit.
“Coming about,” she hollered.
“That’s my girl,” he shouted back. “I’m at the downhaul.”
Bess pushed the tiller over, cranking the boat in a port turn around the buoy. She winced as a pulse of pain ran through her bruised shoulder when she loosed the mainline from its cleat and hauled it in as the boat swung closer to the wind. She jostled the tiller, threading the thin corridor of wind between a close haul and the angle where the sail would luff and start to swing back at her, forcing a tack. The other boats were still about three lengths ahead of them and she concentrated on squeezing the angle to try and pick up another half-knot of speed to close the distance. She was racing the boat now. It took all of her concentration and she had looked away from her father during the turn.
When she looked back, he was still standing, still holding onto the cabin handle, still holding the storm jib tucked in his other hand. His knees were definitely shaking now. And the spinnaker was still flying from the front of the boat, now tugging off to the side so she had to fight the tiller to stay on course.
Glancing to her left, Bess saw a fresh swell rolling towards them. A whitecap rippled along the top like ragged teeth. She didn’t look away. She didn’t flinch. She squinted, in the way a sailor does, waiting for it.
Her father crouched down, bracing for the swell. Bess pushed herself out of the cockpit and leaned out over the port side deck to shift her weight against the swell as it tucked up under the hull. The boat lurched up, crested the swell and then tilted the other way as it skidded down the back side and slammed into the trough on the other side. Wires and turnbuckles rang out along the aluminum mast like an alarm bell. Water broke over the deck edge, splashed over the top of her head and dripped off her chin.
She knew what was going to happen next. The gust front from the storm ripped into the boat, snapping the mainsail tight and billowing the spinnaker in a ragged arc. The wind rippled her windbreaker and tossed her long black hair around to the front of her face. The hull groaned from the strain of the spinnaker dragging the boat into a wall of water. Bess wrestled with the tiller and ignored another flash of pain in her shoulder as she let out the mainsail to open the angle to the wind as the boat started to flounder.
Her father slammed to his knees and his arm stretched out as he slid across the deck, clutching at the cabin handle with whitening knuckles. His other arm unfolded. The storm jib fell out of his hand, slid along the deck and hopped into the lake.
Bess glared at the spinnaker and decided she was tired of looking at it. She whipped the hook knife from a leather sheath hanging on her belt and cut the spinnaker guyline in one clean sweep. The corner of the spinnaker rippled out from the boat and tugged the downhaul pole back and forth as it flapped like a broken wing.
Bess glanced at her father. He was still holding onto the cabin handle and sliding along the deck on his knees. She imagined him slipping over the side of the boat and thrashing in the cold water while she threw him the life ring. All the while, his heart would be pounding.
She had promised.
Bess set her mouth in a thin line and pulled back on the tiller, turning the boat away from the racecourse until she had the wind behind her. She spooled out the mainline and let the boom swing out until the mainsail was almost perpendicular to the boat’s course. Now, running with the wind, the boat eased gently over the swells as Bess angled the rudder to keep the water rolling up behind them. She looked over her shoulder at the gaggle of boats bobbing away, taking with them the last race her father would ever have. Her lip quivered and she sucked in a sharp breath. It wasn’t fair. So much had been taken from him already.
“You alright up there?” she called out.
His back was to her and all she could see was his head bobbing up and down. But he didn’t stand up. Bess looped a line around the tiller to hold it in place and pulled it tight. She scrambled out of the cockpit and ran along the deck to her father. Crouching down next to him, she looked into his eyes. “You alright?”
The cat smile stretched across his face. “Don’t ever get old,” he said.
She smiled back at him. “Right.” She wanted to tell him that forty-one wasn’t old. She wanted to tell him she was sorry. She wanted to tell him she loved him. But she knew none of those things were what he needed to hear. He was embarrassed, like a man forced to wear one of those hospital gowns that never closed up all the way. They both ignored the obvious as he clung to the handle, ashamed that he couldn’t even stand up.
She wrapped her arms around his chest and grunted as she pulled him to his feet. He was nearly dead weight and she stifled a gasp at how weak his legs were. He reset his grip on the cabin handle and took several deep breaths.
“Good to go,” he said, his voice weak from exertion. Bess unwrapped her arms and let him stand on his own. His knees started shaking again and she wrapped one arm around his waist to guide him back to the cockpit.
“Come on,” she said.
She helped him onto the starboard bench of the cockpit and stood over him as he let out a long breath and stretched his arms along the deck behind him. He lifted one foot up and rested it on his knee, trying to look casual as he smiled up at her. Bess smiled wanly, watching him carefully as she settled back into the cockpit across from him.
“Gust front got us,” she said.
He narrowed his eyes and frowned. “Yep. I didn’t get the spinnaker in time for the turn.”
“Sorry about the race,” she said.
He leaned forward and put his hand on her knee. “You did the right thing, Bess. You saved the boat from a broach.” He gave her a single nod – a salute of sorts from a teacher to his prize pupil. “We’ll get it next year.”
Bess felt her face go slack. Next year. The words echoed in her mind, empty and meaningless. “Right,” she said. “Next year.” He patted her knee and leaned back against the side of the cockpit.
Bess took his hand and laid it gently on the tiller as she unlooped the line holding it in place. “Got it?” she asked.
“I have the helm, Captain,” he said. The cat smile.
As the boat slid gently over the swells rolling up behind them, she watched his face as he made small movements with the tiller. This was the kind of sailing that brought peace to a man and draped his heart with a soothing glow.
She turned to look back at the other boats when something on the road lining the lake caught her eye. She held her hand up to shade her eyes and felt her heart skip a beat when she saw the Trans Am. It was out of place with the other cars pulling trailers in and out of the water at the landing. But it was a state park and anyone was allowed to come in. Even Tony Halk.
She tried to see who was driving, but the sun glinted off the windshield as a glistening yellow spark, blocking her view. Then the car rolled back, turned onto the road and rolled gently towards the landing. She watched it roll past the small forest of boats latched to their trailers and through the main gate until it disappeared behind the trees lining the road outside the park.
Bess flinched when she heard her father ask, “Who’s that?”
She turned around and smiled at him, trying to look puzzled. “Who’s who?” she asked.
Unconvinced, he said, “The Trans Am.”
Bess looked back at the road, swallowing against the lump in her throat and then said, “I don’t know. It just caught my eye.” She turned back to him. “Not the kind of car you usually see around here. You know?”
He arched his brow. “Uh-huh.” He kept his eyes on her for a moment longer as she strained to keep a casual smile pasted on her face. He let his gaze drift back to the lake and Bess let out a slow sigh as quietly as she could.
The bruise pulsated just beneath the sleeve of her windbreaker and Bess wondered what it was going to take to get Tony Halk to just leave her – and her family – the hell alone.
Bess stepped through the door from the garage and into the hallway leading to the living room. She stopped and looked down the side hallway leading to her bedroom. Her father stepped in behind her and put his hand on her shoulder.
Bess winced as a twinge of pain shot down her arm. Reflexively, she shrugged away from his hand.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I guess I pulled a muscle. It’ll be alright.”
After seeing Tony Halk at the lake, he probably wasn’t buying it. Bess had that intuitive grasp of things where the universe seemed to randomly hand her answers to questions by relating obscure points of information to each other. Her father, on the other hand, was a man who could sift through the minutia most people didn’t even notice, discard trivial inconsistencies and reveal the truth for everyone to behold like a gleaming jewel. It was god-awful inconvenient sometimes, especially now.
Bess warily eyed the door to her bedroom at the end of the side hall. Out of habit, she had put on a short-sleeved shirt to wear under her windbreaker so she would be ready for any type of weather. She was going to have to pay attention to things like that more closely from now on because now she needed to change into something with long sleeves. But with his mental radar now running at full power, that would probably make her father even more suspicious. She always headed straight for the kitchen to bake cookies as part of their ritual when they came home from sailing. It would be one of those inconsistencies that showed up in his mind like a big glowing blip that would demand his attention.
She would just have to hide it somehow.
Bess traipsed down to the hall closet and opened the door, shielding herself from view as he walked past her and rounded the corner to the kitchen. She hung up her windbreaker and gingerly pulled back the short sleeve of her shirt to inspect the bruise. It seemed to have grown even larger, its fringes extending down into her upper arm.
Hanging her head as she clutched her windbreaker in a tight fist, Bess muttered to herself, “Stupid, stupid stupid.” She quietly closed the door and ambled into the kitchen, self-conscious of the hem of her sleeve rustling just below the fringes of her bruise. Her father leaned against the counter with a cup of coffee in his hand while she pulled a cookie sheet of unbaked cookies from the refrigerator and set them on the countertop next to the oven. Keeping her bruised arm at her side, she opened a cabinet to fetch a bottle of vanilla extract that she had marked with a single stroke of a red permanent marker to indicate the bottle actually contained rum. She dabbed a drop on each cookie and slid them into the oven.
Bess leaned against the counter and watched her father blow steam from his cup of decaf coffee. Bess eyed the full carafe her mother had prepared before leaving to go shopping. It was another part of the intricate conspiracy to hide the truth from Bess. The coffee was still kept in a container marked as regular coffee, so she wouldn’t know he had switched to decaf. She knew he hated decaf. As he put it, decaf was like alcohol-free beer. What’s the point? Bess felt a light tug in her chest as she stared at the inert contents of the carafe. He had loved coffee. Now, it was just a prop to hide something that was already in plain view.
“How’s school?” It was one of those questions parents were supposed to ask. It was safe.
“Fine. Boring. You know how it is these days.” She didn’t really want to have a conversation as long as his radar was running. It was like being cross-examined by a lawyer. She could sense him pulling the pins on his arsenal of logic grenades already.
“Looking at any colleges yet?”
Bess stepped up to him and took his hand. “I’m still going to UNM, Dad. Quit asking.”
He shook his head and let out a sigh. “You can do better.”
“I know.” She smiled up at him. “But I like it here.” He still didn’t know about the letter from Columbia. It was easier if he didn’t know – another strand in the web of avoidance they wove together. Here was now the most important thing in her life because it was slipping away. Everything else could wait. Everything else would wait. And she didn’t want to argue about it.
She stepped back to the oven and opened the door just enough to peek in. He pointed at the vanilla extract and his expression darkened as he took another drink of coffee. “Make sure your mother doesn’t find that.”
“I know. I hide it in the back, behind the rest of the evil baking potions you know she’s never going to touch.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, well, we don’t want to take our chances.”
“I’m careful. I promise.”
“So, what about a boyfriend?”
Bess felt her face go flush and her heart race. She turned away to whisk the vanilla extract back into its hiding place in the back of the cupboard.
“Um, nothing to tell there. As usual.” She grimaced as a nervous giggle escaped her lips. Dangerous waters suddenly lapped at her feet. It wasn’t the question so much as its tactical placement. He was trying to catch her off balance.
“Are you still seeing that Tony kid?”
With her back still turned to him, she stared blankly at the cabinet door and stopped breathing. Does he know? Or is he just guessing? It didn’t matter. Hiding the truth from him was like hiding it from a bulldozer tearing down the building where you thought it was safe. He would knock it all down until he found the truth simpering in a corner and force it to step out into the light.
Bess clenched her jaw. She wanted to clench her fists, too, but he would see that. She turned around, draping her face with a mask of sincerity. It wasn’t a lie when she said, “No. That’s over.” She rubbed her thumb against the side of her index finger, then brushed her long black hair behind her shoulder and tilted her head. She gazed into his eyes as casually as she could, even as her breathing sharpened and her chest tightened. It was the best she could do. She couldn’t deny the truth. She could only hope to diminish its impact. Now, it was about making things appear meaningless.
“That’s good to know.” He took another drink of coffee. “Nerds.”
Bess pursed her lips in mock confusion. “What?”
“When I was your age, guys like me couldn’t get a date. But we’re all the rage now. You should go out with a nerd.”
“What, you mean like some guy with an ASM encoded Arduino Pokemon detection kit? I don’t think so.”
Her father’s eyes sparkled as he smiled, took another sip of coffee and asked, “A what?”
“Dad. Nerds are boring. I’m boring enough on my own. I don’t want to hang out with boring guys.”
“So what’s not boring?”
Relieved that the conversation was going in a different direction, Bess opened the oven door and peeked in. She held up a finger and said, “Hold that thought.” She slid the cookie sheet out and set it on the stovetop. Grabbing a spatula from the canister on the countertop, she slid it under one of the cookies and put it on a paper napkin. Handing it to him, she said, “Here, try this.”
He took a thin bite and sucked in his breath. “Ow, hot.” He sucked in more air, swallowed and took another nibble. “But good.”
Bess leaned back on the stove and watched him work his way through the cookie, taking each bite slowly, as if it might be his last. When he had finished, he threw the napkin in the trash, took another drink of coffee and said, “So… Things that aren’t boring.”
“Sailing. Nice cars. Money.”
“You sound like a guy.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Shoes, puppies and world peace.” She watched his eyes dance as he chuckled, savoring the moment and burning as much of it into her memory as she could. Her breathing eased as their conversation continued to veer away from her misguided dalliance with Tony Halk.
Then, her father held his cup against his lips and peered at her over the rim. His eyes narrowed and she knew she was trapped. He had circled around, like a hunter tracking its prey.
He set his cup on the countertop and said, “Tony has a fast car.” Bess forced herself to keep breathing through her nose as her mind raced, looking for any way out of the conversation.
She rolled her eyes, as if Tony Halk wasn’t worth talking about. “Tony was a mistake. He had facial hair. I misread that.” She peered back at him, trying to look wounded in a way that let him know she was safe now. He didn’t have to bother with Tony Halk. Let it go. Please.
“What was the nicest thing he ever said about you?”
Bess scrunched her face and shook her head. “That’s a Mom question.” This conversation really did have to end.
“Well, pretend I’m Mom for a minute.”
“God no.” She pulled her head back and nervously brushed her hair over her shoulder. “Seriously.”
“It’s OK, Dad. Really. I’m not going to wave a scarf at drag races and drink beer. I get it. Tony. And guys like him.” She drew her face into a mock scowl. “Bad.”
“Uh huh.” He took another sip and released her from his gaze. Bess turned around and let out a whisper of a sigh. Please, let that be the end of it.
Preoccupied with trying to fend off her father’s inquisition, she reached up to pull down the cookie jar from the top of the cupboard. She knew it was a mistake the moment she felt the sleeve covering her bruise slide back barely an inch. She tugged it back down, but it was too late. She heard his mug slam down on the counter hard enough to splash coffee across its surface. She closed her eyes and held her breath as his heavy footsteps stomped across the kitchen. She turned around to see his face stretched tight as he stared at her shoulder.
“What the hell is that?” he asked, pointing at the bruise.
“It’s nothing. I bumped into -“
“Don’t,” he said, glaring at her. Game over. He lifted up the sleeve with his fingertips, as gently as if it was a flower petal. His eyes widened as he uncovered the purple blotch that consumed her shoulder and wrapped half way around her upper arm.
His voice was an icy cold rumble. “Did he do this?”
She couldn’t lie to him. She could pretend things. She could cut spinnaker sheets. She was a good man in a storm. But she couldn’t lie to him. She wanted to because she didn’t know any other way to stop him from protecting her now. But she couldn’t. Instead, she looked at her shoes.
“Sonofabitch,” he said under his breath. He whirled around and stomped out of the kitchen. She chased after him and grabbed his arm.
“Dad, no-” He jerked his arm away and she trailed him like a puppy as he stomped down the hall. When he reached the door to the garage, she clutched his arm, digging in her nails. Not knowing what else to do, she clawed at him, trying to pull him away from the door. He whirled around, jerking his arm back from the pain. He glared at her as he pawed at the red marks from her nails. She grabbed his hand and placed it between hers. She had one option left.
“I know,” she said. She looked into his eyes, imploring him to stop.
His eyes receded and his face grew slack. Wounded, he asked, “Know what?”
She placed her hand on his heart and felt her eyes blurring with tears. “I know.”
He clenched his jaw and looked around the room, then at the ground. He pressed his fingertips in front of his ear and took slow breaths as he counted his pulse.
“Look…” He cleared his throat and looked at the wall. “I’m just going to talk to him.” His eyes drifted back to hers. “Okay?”
On the verge of crying, she said, “It’s over. I promise.” She gently stroked the back of his hand, trying to calm him, trying to hold him back and keep him from running into the night where she couldn’t watch over him. If he left now, like this, there would be no life ring for her to throw to him.
He took her by the shoulders, softening his expression. “And I’m going to make sure he understands exactly what that means.”
She knew he was lying. Even if he meant it now, he would feel differently when the time came. She remembered the night a man had made a snide remark about her mother just outside the theater. Her father had slammed the man against the wall and there was a moment when Bess had wondered if he was going to kill him. It had cost him a night in jail and they added the incident to the list of things they simply didn’t talk about.
“Promise,” she said, rubbing his chest.
The cat smile washed over his face and her heart sank. “I promise.”
He turned around and opened the door to the garage. Before he stepped into the glistening late model sedan parked inside, he paused for a moment and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be right back.” He eased into the driver’s seat, punched the button on the garage door opener and started the engine.
Bess watched him back out of the garage and turn onto the street. As the car receded, she thought of a ship lingering on the horizon. Wandering along the edge of darkness, it was too far away to see the turning beam of a lighthouse reaching out for it.
Mason Kincaid glanced at the speedometer glowing in the dashboard as the needle passed 80. The car’s headlights swept over the weeds along the side of the road and flashed against a sign that seemed to glare back at him with its black lettering: 45.
A flash of heat swept across his face as a sheen of sweat seeped out of his skin while images flashed through his mind – images of the man-boy Tony Halk reaching out for Bess and her eyes flinching as she wrenched away from him. He bared his teeth as he imagined Tony’s fingers tightening around her arm. The bruise didn’t bother him so much. Bess was a tough girl and you didn’t escape the occasional minor injury when you sailed boats and rode motorcycles. But that bruise had been wide and deep. He heard the squeak of Bess’s voice and saw her eyes suddenly wide with fear as she rubbed her arm, dumbfounded by the sudden pain.
He pounded the steering wheel, then wrapped his hands around it and squeezed tight enough to turn his knuckles white. He stomped on the accelerator. The needle swept across the backlight of the speedometer and he eased off just before it reached 100.
The smooth asphalt of the shoulder crumbled away, dashed by specks of worn white paint. Then it disappeared entirely, consumed by weeds and tire tracks through the sand. The road was barely two lanes wide and encrusted with patches that rattled the wheels as he sped over its surface. The only lights were the dim yellow specks marking ramshackle houses scattered along dirt roads etched out in the darkness. A crooked pole next to one of them marked the side road he was looking for.
Mason stomped on the brake, relishing the squeal of tires and the acrid scent of burning rubber as his car fishtailed to a stop. As the smoke swept forward and over the hood, he realized his heart was pounding. He closed his eyes, let out a slow breath and pressed his fingers just in front of his ear. The artery throbbed against his fingertips with a firm cadence that he knew was too fast. He let out another breath and closed his eyes, fighting back the images of what the thug that lived in the trailer park down the road had done to his daughter. The images floated past him, taunting him. The impact of Tony’s fist and him snarling with the idiot grin of a man who feels powerful when a girl cries out in pain. Mason exhaled until his lungs were empty and aching for air. He opened his eyes and stared at the bent signpost.
The artery wasn’t bulging as stiffly against his fingertips and the pace of its pulse had waned. He put his hand back on the wheel, let out another slow breath and stared straight ahead, fighting off the images that his mind’s eye would not let fade. He stared at the yellow pall of the car’s headlights flooding the dirt road and spilling into the weed-infested driveways of houses nestled along its side. He eased his car onto the road and drove slowly towards the rusted chain-link gate held open by a wedge of sand and weeds.
He killed the lights as he rolled past the gate and counted the trailers squatting along the side of the road. He stopped in front of a green and white single wide with a rusted corrugated awning drooping over the side door. He placed his hands in his lap and took several deep breaths before checking his pulse one last time. Then he opened the door and stepped out.
Just as he stepped around the front of his car, he stopped mid-step. A man stood half way between him and the trailer door, feet set at shoulder’s width and his hands hanging at his side. At first, Mason wondered if the man had a gun strapped to his leg and was getting ready to draw. He couldn’t have been more than five eight, against Mason’s six even. He was lean, but didn’t have Mason’s bulk. Mason knew he was probably stronger, even though he could no longer work out the way he used to. Mason clenched his jaw, choking back the resentment at having to trade in benching plates for morning walks.
He couldn’t make out the man’s face in the darkness, but he looked about right. “Tony Halk?”
The man didn’t respond. Mason took a step forward. The man matched his move and stopped. Mason still couldn’t make out his face and he could feel his pulse kick up with a light thump in his chest. He let out another slow breath.
“I’m Bess Kincaid’s father. I just need to talk to you for a minute.” The man didn’t move and his face was hidden in the shadows, so Mason couldn’t read his expression. But he didn’t seem all that impressed. Mason scanned his surroundings, assessing his options in case he had to move somewhere fast. A faint surge of adrenalin coursed painfully through his chest. “I’ll keep this simple. You get a pass on assaulting my daughter this one time. You come within eyesight of her again and I’ll pull your nuts off with a pair of chopsticks.” The man still didn’t move and Mason couldn’t keep his heart from thumping with the rising cadence of his anger. “Then I’ll have you thrown in county where you can tell the story to your buddies.”
The man remained silent. Unable to sense any reaction, Mason took another step forward. Again, the man matched his move.
Mason let out a sigh, wishing he’d brought the .38 snub nose sitting in his nightstand drawer. “Look, son, you need to give me some indication that I’m getting through here or this is going to have to go a different way.”
The man stood motionless, his hands still hanging at his side as if he were bracing himself for something. Mason still couldn’t see his eyes. He squinted and vaguely shook his head as he strained to detect any sign the man was listening. When it was clear the man had no intention of responding, Mason let out a soft sigh. “Fine.”
Surprised by the swiftness of his own body, Mason lunged forward, picked the man up by his shoulders and tossed him into the weeds growing around the trailer. The man grunted as his back hit the ground, then propped himself up on his elbows and stared back at Mason with a face still hidden in darkness. “You hearing any of this?” Mason yelled. His heart surged with the ache of adrenaline and he grimaced as a ripple of pain shot through his chest. His breath came in short burning gasps and he shook his head, reeling from the pain. Wheezing, he took a step back as the world started to rock from side to side.
The man stood back up. His body twisted as he swung something Mason couldn’t see. The side of Mason’s head burned and then he felt a clawing ache seep into his skull. The world tilted hard and he fell to his knees. His throat rattled with a ragged wheezing as he gulped for air. Unable to pull any breath into his lungs, he fell forward at the man’s feet.
With his cheek lying against shards of rock scattered in the dirt, he could see the tip of a black square-toed boot draped with denim just in front of his nose. His heart pounded and he felt another stab of pain rip through his chest, as if somebody were cutting him from the inside. His body seemed to melt away as he coughed and his breath faded to thin raspy shards of air.
His mind reached out to the face looking back at him in his mind’s eye. She blinked at him, stretching out a hand he couldn’t touch. She had tried to protect him. She had swung out and cut the guyline to keep him from falling off the boat. She had hidden secrets to try and keep him from falling to the ground, here, now. She had tried. He thought he heard the sound of his own voice, a ragged croak that barely made a sound. “Bess.”
The man backed away and Mason heard the sound of a cell phone dialing. “It’s done,” the man said. “What now?”
The last thing Mason heard was the tinny voice on the other end. “Now, call 911.”