|Narrows Gorge Underwater|
Last week, a boating companion left Leigh trapped upside down in an overturned canoe in surging waters, fighting to free his ankles. If Leigh didn’t smash face-first into boulders rising from the depths, a whirlpool lay ahead.
He had been targeted for murder.
We return to the story…— Editor
My life preserver popped me to the surface. To my right, a ledge extended. I climbed like a wet rat, reaching that shelf, momentarily safe.
At a distance below, Jeff clung to the capsized canoe, orbiting the whirlpool. He screamed up at me, violently swearing.
Only one way off the ledge presented itself. I needed to plunge back into the freezing waters. It seemed a twelve-foot drop, but was probably half that.
I jumped. I swam for the circling canoe.
One of my boots bobbed there. I never knew hiking shoes could float. The other came within reach. Jeff cursed me the entire time.
“Shut it,” I said. “We need to empty the canoe.”
“Give me the paddle,” I said.
“The paddle, else stay stuck in this spin cycle.”
“No, you’ll leave.”
“I’ll leave if you don’t.”
He didn’t know how to get out of the predicament. He swore and tossed me the paddle.
“Rock the boat like this,” I said. “Slosh the water out.”
He followed instructions until we emptied much of the water. I stretched across and pulled myself into the stern. Jeff followed suit, clinging to a thwart. I ruddered the canoe until it separated from the grip of the whirlpool. It bounded down the rapids battering the hell out of the hull.
We spotted the portage. Bill, Sandy, and Lauren huddled there, stamping their feet against the cold.
“Where were you?” they said. “What happened to you?”
“Leigh fucked up,” said Jeff before I could speak. “He tipped us over. Leigh lost one of the oars and he’s fucking paying for it.”
The women hovered over Jeff, cooing and cawing. “You poor thing."
“Let’s hike,” I said. “Hypothermia. We need to get warm and dry.”
Moments later, Scott appeared. As the others climbed the trail, he and I hefted the canoe over our shoulders to portage it. In relative privacy under the shell, he spoke quietly.
“Weirdest thing, Leigh. I inched along the cliff face and kept you in sight.”
“You picked your way across that bluff?” I was impressed.
“Yeah. As the canoe aimed at those rocks, I remembered the stern guy steers. When Jeff started rocking the boat. I’m convinced he deliberately capsized it.”
I said, “Pretty much what happened.”
“Why do that? You could have been killed.”
“I don’t know, Scott. I can’t explain it.”
|The Malfoy sneer|
Back at camp, the only warmth arose from the fire. Jeff held court, regarding me with his down-the-nose Malfoy gaze.
He might have been practicing the campfire tale of my misfortune for hours, days, even weeks. His dramatic recounting horrified a sympathetic audience. He held my incompetence forced the canoe into the rocks. I panicked, lost my paddle, and needed rescuing.
“The great canoeing expert man,” he said. “Good thing no one else trusted lives to him. Guy can’t hold onto a paddle.”
Bill glared at me accusingly. “You almost got Jeff killed.”
A childhood defect often renders me speechless against untrue accusations.
Scott remained silent. I imagined he’d filled Sandy in as they glided back to camp, but her eyes showed doubt as Jeff told and retold his story. Who would deliberately capsize a canoe in dangerous waters?
Lauren took my protests as churlish and unfair to Jeff. On the drive back to Minneapolis, she hovered under a blanket with him, not me, signaling the beginning of the end of a lengthy relationship.
Thereafter, she brooked no criticism of him. The more I sullenly avoided Jeff, the more Lauren cozied up to him. Except for curt, one-word replies, she stopped speaking with me.
The day came when Lauren called it quits over the phone.
Next morning, Sandy rang me. She couldn’t contain the breakup headline news update.
“We barely got her stuff moved into a condo and in waltzed Jeff with his backpack and ski poles. He sat in the easy chair and ordered the rest of us around, where to put this, where to arrange that. We can’t believe her. Can’t you stop this?”
“Not any more, Sandy. Not any more.”
During those moments of the river ‘accident,’ I didn't have time for fear. The real impact came later, shock and internal pain… Once upon a time Lauren caused my world to revolve. Then the planet tilted, stopping dead in its tracks.
No way. I’m a tough guy, big, resilient, not gutted, not hurt, no bruised soft tissue, no seared scars, no brutalization of betrayal, nothing to see folks. No jagged spear tore out a wretched pulsing, pumping organ that couldn’t be mine. No salty water blinded my eyes, no unending oceans of agony, no treacherous waves hammered soft shoals, no dark tunnels flooded with torture and torment, no anguish, no fiery cauldron of pain, no. No problem, nothing, nothing at all, just a… just a fourteen-digit number on the Richter scale of heartbreak.
|Custer, Jeff look-alike|
In the time I’d known him, Jeff had become an expensive acquaintance. The never-ending lending for lunch or dinner was the least of it. Around him, things broke, things disappeared, things died.
The year before, he’d mysteriously blown up the new engine in our little Triumph Spitfire. I never let him drive another car, but he persuaded Lauren to let him try out our newly purchased Dodge– an hour after midnight– while I was at work, when good little children should have been sound asleep. Claiming he hit a patch of ice, he’d slammed it into a guardrail on Interstate 494… at one in the morning.
Jeff manifested a couple of peculiarities, especially compulsive lying. Our expanded circle of friends merely wrote that off as Jeff being Jeff. But the cash bag from Lauren’s shop vanished in Jeff’s presence. And animals… critters left in his care curiously died.
The women in our larger circle noticed something else. They remarked how Jeff exhibited a penchant for dating young widows.
Lauren had nearly become one– a young widow.
Constant nightmares haunted me. With difficulty, I caught my breath and began to recover. I threw myself into my work.
That should have marked the end of the saga. It didn’t.
A freezing January day found me consulting out of state. An emergency phone call rang in from Lauren, she was visiting the house. My peaceful home in the woods– a state forest– had been burglarized and badly vandalized.
Sherburne County’s Sheriff might have presided over a frozen rural fiefdom, but he was no slouch. While his fingerprint maven dusted enough powder to mount a community theatre production of Chim-Chim Cher-ee, the sheriff explained the situation over the phone.
Wood chips from the supposed point of entry were scattered inside, not outside the back door. The sheriff found no footprints in the snow, none, nor footprints anywhere around the house. The only trail was tire tracks straight into the garage. A large screwdriver left at the scene suggested a burglary tool used to break into the house, except… it had come from my toolchest… already inside the house.
“Kinda strange, doncha think?” the sheriff said.
“Anyone besides Lauren have access to your garage opener?”
I unloaded suspicions that had built from the moment she phoned. She’d mentioned Jeff acted particularly odd when she announced her intention of checking the house. Normally Lauren defended him tooth and nail. Now she hesitated.
The sheriff promised to call me back. He did, sooner than I expected. Deputies had picked up Jeff skulking along country roads… in January… in subzero Minnesota.
The sheriff said, “Thirty minutes after question one, our boy painted himself in a corner so tight, he confessed to crimes we never asked about. FYI, this guy hates your guts.”
I said, “Why? I gave him work, I lent him money for lunch and dinner.”
“That’s the problem. You need to pick better pals. He pretended to be a friend while he hung around your companions and targeted you. He invited himself into your group, into your shop, and into your home. He gave the women little gifts stolen from others, robbing from Petra to pay Paula.”
The sheriff continued. “This boy profiled you. He asked innocent questions, gathering personal ammunition. On your previous canoe trips, he said it was goddamn hard to get you talking about yourself, getting you to reveal the private you, but he managed.”
“Why so much effort to come after me? I never did anything against him.”
“He admits that. You gave him lifts when he didn’t have a ride. You often paid for his meals. What you considered generosity and sharing, he took as deliberately showing off and humiliating him. Jeff envied you, he hated you. You had material things he wanted: lovely woman, house, and a couple of cars. Your occupation allowed you to travel. What did you do with your advantages? Nothing, by his reckoning. You didn’t buy fancy stuff, you just kept working. It wasn’t fair, he thought. You didn’t deserve it, he did. So he set out to destroy you and take what he could.”
“Sheriff, did you ask about the canoeing accident?”
“Clearly no accident. He didn’t give us a thing to charge him, but he enjoyed mocking us. It was like he challenged us to prove anything. He fed us cocky TV dialogue and cute tidbits like, ‘An accident couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.’”
“Sheriff, I never intended him ill.”
“Son, you do not understand evil.† No one believes you wronged him. He’s a total narcissist. His world has a population of one. He gets what he wants manipulating innocents. For him, screwing others is more rewarding than working. In the future, try not to be so damn trusting.”
Jeff’s game wasn’t over.
The sheriff’s office filed burglary, theft, and property damage charges. However, the state attorney wouldn’t prosecute until my insurance company weighed in, and Farmers Insurance hadn’t obliged. For months, they refused to pay for the damage and destruction.
My insurance agent resembled a red-bearded Hagrid. Two metres tall, 6½+ feet of Midwestern muscle, my rep sumo wrestled professionally in the US and Japan. He could have shaded Jesse Ventura, but he proved no match for Jeff. When he sat down with me, he looked morose.
He said, “Farmers won’t pay, they won’t subrogate, they won’t prosecute. This guy’s going to walk.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Jeff persuaded the company investigator you masterminded the burglary of your own house and snared innocent him in your scheme.”
“I’m the guy who wants to see this case go to trial. The sheriff wants to try him and so do I.”
The agent shook his massive Hagrid head.
“The adjuster’s convinced the sheriff got it wrong and you’re the bad guy.”
“How? On what evidence?”
He drummed fingers the size of hammers on his desk.
“The company investigator turned in dinner expenses for two. She said she needed to get Jeff to open up.”
“Why does she…? Oh, no, no. She wined and dined Jeff? He played her?”
“In-depth investigation, according to my secretary.”
“That’s a pun? They’re dating?”
“Who’s to say? Who investigates investigators?”
Farmers’ confidence in their private detective cost them. After I hired counsel, the underwriter realized their statutory window of time to sue Jeff had run out and they could no longer collect. The company begrudgingly paid my attorney and sent a check for replacement and repairs.
The investigator’s position caused further fallout. Because Farmers Insurance contradicted the findings of the sheriff, the prosecutor didn’t indict. His office explained the defense would simply call Jeff’s tame insurance investigator and undermine their slam-dunk case.
After mere days in jail, Jeff skated. A homicidal grifter now walked free.
For a year, nightmares haunted me. They didn’t stem from fear of Jeff, but fear of my inner rage. In my violent dreams, he died a hundred imaginative deaths. That wasn’t me, not the person I wanted to be. During waking hours, I clamped down my anger, but when freed to roam dreamscapes, my nightmares would have terrified him; they certainly horrified me.
For my own well-being, I needed to escape. I stravaiged around Europe, working, consulting, trouble-shooting. A couple of times, word drifted over from the States.
Lauren entered the hospital for a couple of weeks. Her parents confided that absent a meal ticket, Jeff promptly moved in with a younger girl, and then another, always another.
Last I heard, he married a wealthy widow. No word if Jeff was involved in her premature widowhood.
It’s taken years to write this, mostly because of my difficulty talking about myself. My words sound all wrong, I can’t properly document my emotions. Please, my apologies.
Ultimately to a writer, everything is fuel or fodder. I experimented, crafting nightmares into a story, which I might yet finish. In my version, the bad guy finally gets his comeuppance. Perhaps that dark chapter inside me could yet open to the light of day.
† Years later, another man– this one a pillar of his church and the Orlando community– would tell me those same words, “You don’t understand evil.” Thirty days later, he and his wife would die violently.