Novels

Rex Royale

Chapter One

 

I was standing on the boat dock at my lake cabin, admiring the view of the morning sun shining on Mt. Shasta, when I was startled by a staccato burst that sounded like a firing squad. I looked back and saw a flock of noisy ravens explode from ponderosa pines after being spooked by a red-tailed hawk.

The cawing ravens rose above the treetops, circled, and flew toward the solitary hawk. The hawk had gray and white feathers on its chest, pinkish tail feathers spread in a fan, and yellow legs ending in sharp talons. It was probably an immature male hunting for chicks abandoned in nests or rodents scurrying across the forest floor.

I’d seen ravens and hawks duel in the skies above Lake Britton before, and I’d always been fascinated by the aerial drama. Ravens are menacing-looking with shiny black feathers like armor plates, bullet-shaped bodies, nose-cone heads, and sharp, obsidian beaks. Their powerful wings allow them to fly aggressively against foes. Other birds don’t mess with ravens; they’re the gritty street fighters of the skies.

Red-tailed hawks have battering-ram bodies and broad wingspans designed for soaring long distances. They don’t so much fly as soar, and they can’t make defensive midair maneuvers—a disadvantage against the faster, more aggressive ravens.

I stood enthralled on the dock as the cawing ravens, sunlight shining on their iridescent feathers, reached the hawk’s altitude and began diving at its wings and fanned tail. The first raven assault came from above and the second from below, as if they were vectored in by a ground control station.

The birds’ shrieking and cawing had disturbed the early morning serenity of Lake Britton. Two fishermen in a bass boat lowered their fishing rods and craned their necks to look up at the swirling birds.

A flock of seagulls bobbing on the lake rose in a chorus of shrieks and flew down the lake, keeping low to escape the aerial combat above them.

The hawk took defensive moves, dipping toward the lake, veering left and right to elude the mob. Two ravens flanked the hawk while a third dove from above and collided with it, sending both birds tumbling in the sky. It was like watching a World War II dogfight of nimble Spitfires attacking a slower Messerschmitt.

After several swoops, dips, and feigns, the hawk knew it was no match for the ravens. It found a thermal, rose, and turned west, pursued by the noisy ravens until they flew into a low cloud covering a pine-topped hill.

“Communing with Mother Nature this morning, Tyler?”

I was startled by the voice of my friend Sanjay, who had stepped onto the dock while I was absorbed in the aerial warfare.

“Hey, you scared me. Did you see that?” I said, pointing across the lake toward the birds. “A flock of ravens chased a young hawk away. I’ll bet he doesn’t fly this way again until he’s learned better hunting skills.”

“Those damned birds are noisy. I heard them up at the cabin,” Sanjay said, lowering the cooler into our fishing boat. “Wake the dead with all the cawing. It sounded like a war.”

I picked up our fishing gear, tackle box, and net from the dock and set them in the bottom of the bass boat we’d put in the water the previous afternoon. “Amazing to see how aggressive ravens are,” I said. “They spotted the hawk coming across the lake, and the whole flock took after him. I counted a dozen ravens; he didn’t have a chance against those numbers.”

“You sure love your birds. Pretty soon you’ll be cawing like one of them.”

“Ravens are smart,” I said, checking the throttle and choke to fire up my 40-horsepower motor. “They communicate with gestures, use tools to get food, and alert hunters to wild game. They get a meal if hunters bag the animal.”

Sanjay laughed. “I always thought you should have become a game warden instead of a reporter,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who knows more about birds and fish than you do.”

“I almost grew up on this lake. Dad and I fixed up our cabin when I was a teenager so we could fish in the summer and hunt deer in the fall.”

“A real nature boy. You were lucky.”

“Sure was, and I want my son to have the same experiences. Who wouldn’t want to spend the summer here?” I said, motioning at the pine forests along the shoreline. “I wait for this weekend all winter . . . the scent of pine resin in the morning air, a mist over the lake, and Mt. Shasta just a few miles away. It’s like heaven here.”

“We’re not in heaven yet,” Sanjay said, untying the mooring line and tossing it into the boat. “We’ll be in heaven when we’re grilling bass filets and a mound of potatoes tonight and washing them down with cold beers. Let’s get this tub going and catch some fish.”

I laughed. “You’re a piece of work, Sanjay. I come here to be close to nature, and you’re more interested in your stomach.”

“What can I say? I’m a simple guy. I come here because we keep our cooler stocked with brews and have a whole week without alarm clocks or jobs to go to. Which is another definition of heaven.”

Sanjay cracked wise like he was from Brooklyn, even though he was raised in Mumbai, which he once confessed was like growing up in a colony of fire ants.

I knew from past experience that Sanjay would be just as enthralled after a week of fishing at the cabin. By the time our teenage sons arrived on Friday for Memorial weekend, he’d be musing about buying a cabin, planting a garden, and hunting and fishing for his food.

Sanjay was a software engineer who’d made it big in Silicon Valley. He was using the freedom it brought him to indulge in American leisure pastimes he hadn’t had growing up in India. We took our boys to Giants game, coached their soccer team, took them fishing in the summer, and went skiing with them at Tahoe in the winter.

Sanjay and I had driven north from San Francisco on Friday afternoon to get the cabin ready for summer: turn on the electricity, take bedding and towels from the closets, get the boat and motor out of the shed, and clean our fishing gear. After doing our chores, we had watched the sun set over the lake, drunk beers, and eaten burgers cooked on the grill before turning in early to get on the lake just after sunrise.

Sanjay pushed us away from the dock and stepped into the boat. I paddled out of the cove in front of our cabin and fired up the motor.

The 40-horsepower motor coughed after six months in winter storage and then settled into a steady rumbling. When I reached the main channel of the lake, I made a few turns, stopped, and put the boat into reverse. I killed the motor, waited a minute, and then pulled the lanyard. It fired up with no problem.

“Humming like a top,” Sanjay said. “We did good last fall, draining the motor, putting the boat on blocks, and throwing the tarp over it to keep the critters away.”

“Take care of your boat, and it will take care of you. Don’t want to be on the lake and have it conk out.”

“Spoken like an Eagle Scout. Now let’s see where the fish are hiding.”

“Let’s make a quick run to the marina first. It’s always fun to check it out,” I said, steering us a half mile south toward the marina, where fishing boats, sailboats, and party barges were moored. A few fishing boats were out on the lake, probably Burney locals who, like Sanjay and me, were getting some early fishing before the crowds arrived Memorial weekend.

After a spin by the Pacific Gas and Electric dam, which had flooded Pit River and created Lake Britton in the 1930s, I headed back north, past our cove and under the two-lane Highway 89 bridge and the rickety, abandoned railroad trestle where the movie Stand By Me had been filmed.

Past the trestle, we cruised down the eastern shore with the sun rising over the pines, the morning air still cool and damp. We cast near fallen trees where bass were leaping to snack on black bugs skimming the surface.

We caught a few bass and then pulled onto a sandy beach for an early lunch of curry chicken wraps and hummus, which Sanjay’s wife had prepared. We sipped cold beers and waded into shallows of the cold lake while the sun warmed our backs.

“Nice little beach,” Sanjay said. “Let’s bring the boys here next weekend. The water’s chilly, but they’ll want to swim.”

“They can swing off that rope and jump into the lake,” I said, pointing to a rope dangling from a black oak limb leaning over the bank. “I did that every summer when I was their age.”

After lunch, we cruised to the southern end of the lake, fishing along the western shoreline. In the early afternoon, I eased us into one of my favorite places to fish, a remote cove partially hidden by ponderosa pines arching along the bank.

I maneuvered through the narrow passage that opened into a shady cove a little larger than a basketball court. I cut the motor and reached for my rod while Sanjay made his first cast.

I was just about to cast when Sanjay gasped. “Whoa, look at that, Tyler.”

I looked toward the middle of the cove where Sanjay’s line had dropped near a partially submerged log. His juicy night crawler was dangling between what looked eerily like a thumb and first finger of a withered hand, curled like a basketball player’s after a jump shot.        

“Wha—what are you snagged on?”

“I’m not sure . . . it looks like . . . a skeleton?”

I squinted for a better look. The pine’s trunk was sprawled across the cove, top branches submerged. It’s root ball lay on the bank; gnarled roots were laced with mud and leaves. Protruding out of the water was a slimy green and black knob that looked like a decomposed hand.

A shadow passed overhead. A red-tailed hawk was circling, eyeing a bass carcass rotting on the muddy bank near box turtles sunning on exposed rocks. Bullfrogs croaked in the reeds, looking for love.

“Let’s get closer,” I said, laying my fishing rod on the bottom the boat. “Could it be a branch?”

Sanjay grunted. “Nah . . . that ‘branch’ has fingernails. Long, like claws. Think a hunter fell in and drowned?”

“Nah, one or two get lost every season, but they wander out, or search teams find them. Maybe a lost hiker. The Pacific Crest Trail’s a couple miles away. There’s an old fire road near that ridge. The Forest Service posts signs warning about the cliff.”

“I wouldn’t hike on that ridge,” Sanjay said. “Lose your footing and you’d fall in before you knew what happened. Too dangerous.”

“If it was a lone hiker, search teams would have had a hard time finding him. This place is remote. It doesn’t get much sunlight except around noon.”

“Yeah, it’s like a primeval forest. It’s spooky, all dark and misty.”

“I want to get closer and see if it’s a hand.” I picked up a paddle and stroked toward the snag.

A largemouth bass exploded out of the water and snatched Sanjay’s night crawler, flipped in midair, gray-green scales glistening, spiny dorsal fin outstretched, and splashed below.

“Wow!” Sanjay yipped, his carbon fishing rod bowing with a hooked bass. “Look! It ripped something off the thumb!”

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A shred of what appeared to be discolored flesh drooping from the bone had plopped into the water.

“Gross! That looks like flesh!” Sanjay’s taut line raked dried pine needles off the branches, churning the murky water. His line crossed over the strip of flesh and snagged it.

The flesh was stuck on his line like a slice of pork on a barbecue grill.

“You snagged flesh off the thumb—”

“How the hell!” he muttered, staring at the greenish schmutz twitching on his line.        

“Don’t let your fish get away!”

The bass dove into the submerged branches.

“He’s going deep to cut your line!”

“Come on, boy. Hang in there. I’m not going to lose you!” Sanjay said, his voice trembling. He rose, gripping his bowed rod. “Easy . . . easy . . . out of that snag . . .”

“Take your time,” I said, my eyes darting from his line to the skeleton and back to Sanjay struggling with the bass, each trying to outsmart the other. When bass take a hook, they dive, twisting and turning to snag on a branch and break the line.

“Come out of there . . .” Sanjay coaxed.

“Steady . . . steady . . . work him. Get him out of the branches!”

Sanjay tugged his line away from the snag. It cleared the branches, slicing left and right across the surface, the flesh still dangling.

“Bring him closer. I’ll get the net. Give him a tug if he breaks the surface.”

Ten feet free of the snag, the bass rose to the surface. “Getting him . . . getting him . . .” Sanjay said, inching his line closer to our boat. “He’s tiring. Going to bring him in.”

“Take your time. We’ve got all afternoon.”

A motion on the muddy bank caught my eye. A black snake slithered into the water, coiling and twisting, its olive-shaped head skimming across the cove like a serpent in an Egyptian tomb carving.

“Easy, easy . . . this way,” Sanjay said, his voice breaking. “He’s tiring. Get ready.” The surface bulged, exposing the green scaly back of the bass, its spiny dorsal fin flared. “He’s rising!”

Ten feet from the boat, the bass exploded to the surface, thrashing in midair, open mouth revealing the wormed hook in its cheek. It flipped, exposing a white belly and slashing tail, and splashed back into the water.

“Wow! He’s huge!” I yelled.

The bass burst out of the water again, flipping to extract the hook, bluish green scales shimmering. Sanjay held fast. The bass was tiring, inches from the surface, plump body rolling in a slow dance. The duel was almost over.

I reached for the net as Sanjay reeled him closer. The green scaly head broke the surface, mouth open to spit out the hook.

I scooped the net into the water. “Got him!” I lifted the net into the boat, the bass splashing us with cool lake water.

Sanjay held his line over the net, the rod quivering. The slimy flesh wiggled on his line and dropped onto my ankle.

“Ah!” I screamed. “It’s on my foot!”

It was cold and slimy, like a leech. I kicked off my sandal, but the piece of flesh was still stuck to my skin. I kicked again and it flopped off, sticking to the bottom of the boat.

“It touched my foot! Yuck!”

I flipped the net so the bass couldn’t jump back in the lake. The fish thrashed against the aluminum like a jackhammer, glassy eyes bulging, scales glowing like jewels, open mouth revealing blood-red gills lining the throat.

“Get rid of that—thing!” Sanjay said. “It’s gross.”

I couldn’t toss it overboard. I certainly didn’t want to touch it again. It freaked me out, but I wasn’t going to toss it away. I’d been a reporter long enough to know you don’t throw out incidental material at a possible crime scene.

“Have it your way. You’re strange,” Sanjay said, reaching into the net and grabbing the bass’s lower jaw to stop the thrashing. He lifted the fish, its gaping mouth lined with sharp teeth. He pulled out the hook with pliers and placed the bass back in the net.

“A beauty!” he said. We high-fived like schoolboys after a home run.

Simultaneously we turned to look at the decomposed hand while the bass flopped against the boat.

“I’m going to piss in my pants if I caught a fish off a corpse. Let’s get out of here; this place gives me the creeps.”

“Wait. Let’s get closer,” I said, reaching for the paddle. I heard splashing across the cove. The snake was coiled in the shallows, head raised, the front legs and head of a frog twitching in its mouth. The snake swayed to ease the frog down into its belly.

“Oh, man, look at that,” I said, pointing at the reptile. “You’re not the only one who just caught lunch.”

The snake’s mouth widened, and the spasming frog slid down the snake’s engorged neck.

“I hate snakes. Let’s get out of here,” said Sanjay.

I reached into the tackle box for my digital camera, zoomed in, and pressed the button. A flash lit up the shadowy cove.

“Why the hell you taking a picture?” Sanjay yelled. “You’re like a Boy Scout. Are you working for a junior detective badge?”

I snapped again and lit up the cove once more. A brown wasp buzzed around my head, which was damp with sweat.

“Bugs all over here,” Sanjay yelled, swatting the black flies swarming around his head. “Let’s get out of here; too many snakes and bugs.”

“There’s something on the wrist,” I said.

Sanjay squinted at the snag. “A watchband?”

“Looks like a Rolex.” I said. “See the markings around the edges?”

Sanjay grimaced. “Who cares? This place is weird. Bugs, snakes, rotting fish, and a damn body. And that—THING—stuck on the boat!”

“Let’s go to the marina and call the police,” I said. “If that’s a body down there, we’ve got to report it.” I pulled the lanyard to start the motor. It exploded with a gaseous burst, shattering the stillness. I shifted into reverse and steered backwards toward the main channel.

Sanjay said. “This place is spooky. We’re supposed to be fishing, not finding bodies. Cover that THING! It’s gross!”

When I cleared the bend, the afternoon sun was shining on Shasta’s snowy glaciers to the north. The blue sky was painted with wisps of cirrus clouds floating over the Cascades. I breathed deeply, sucking in the clean mountain air, aromatic of ponderosa and yellow pines.

“How do you think the body got there?” I asked. “An accident or . . .”

Sanjay put on his sunglasses and looked back at the cove as we roared toward the marina. “Hell if I know,” he shouted over the motor, holding his hat. “Maybe someone thumped him and dropped him in the lake.”

“Yeah, I was thinking the same.”

“Keep this tub moving, damn it,” Sanjay said. “Somebody might be watching us.”

 

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