Chapter Excerpt from my novel: NATALIE STONE:
CHAPTER TWO EXCERPT
Natalie has a quick shower and dons jeans and his floppy sweatshirt. He is dressed in shorts with extra pockets, boots topped with heavy socks, and a long sleeved work-shirt un-tucked and covering his waist. Depending on the terrain she alternately follows and parallels him. As they track the stream she has viewed from the cabin’s picture window, she observes how his mood lightens noticeably, which doesn’t surprise her considering the natural beauty along the narrow trail. The stream’s edges, in places, are blanketed with heavy moss and pockets of ferns, and occasional gnarled roots exposed by the washing away of soil, all of it reminding her of children’s illustrations. “I half expect to see a troll,” she says. “Where is this leading?” “Going to my private fishing pool,” he explains.
“I am freaking starving, you better be good at this.” He carries a small fisherman’s basket and the bamboo rod that she had seen atop the breakfront. She had watched him scrape away leaves at the edge of their clearing and dig with his fingers into loamy soil and come up with three earthworms, which he dropped into an empty olive jar and screwed on the top, then slipped into the basket. “We have to approach the pool quietly.”
“Why?” “They hear us.” “The fish?” “Yes.” Playfully: “Fish have ears?” “I haven’t the foggiest. I just know that when I make noise or cast a shadow they disappear. When I’m quiet I can see them swim into light” “You remind me of my Uncle Jack.” “Not your Dad, I guess.” “God, no.”
A hundred yards downstream they startle a doe at the pool’s edge and watch her bound off in effortless leaps, disappearing like a vanishing hologram through what seems to Natalie a complex of trees and brush much too dense for such a delicate ballet. This is a magical place, she thinks. Mario’s place, she adds as she sees how happy he is to be here. Speaking just above a whisper he tells her: “The pool’s about three feet at it’s deepest.” “It’s beautiful,” she says equally soft, their voices barely registering above the sound of the small fall of water emptying into the lightly shimmering pool before meandering on. Mario removes a knife from his basket. He presses a button and the blade jumps out from its handle. He slices a worm in two, attaches one half to the hook.
“Wow, that’s a switchblade!” “Shhh. Yeah.” Voice lowered: “You know it’s a misdemeanor in California. Up to six months for carrying.” This tickles him “You know everything?” “I was thinking of protection, of getting one, and as I told you I gobble up stuff without thinking—the addiction.” “I understand the older you get the less you’ll be able to gobble.” “Okay, but what’s with the knife?”
“Was given to me. I don’t carry it…usually.” “Usually? By whom?” It is only a brief glance in her direction, but enough for her to see that his eyes become an inexpressive wall behind which secrets lay hidden. He says, “That’s a whole other story.” Mouth open, ready with the question: From the one who sent the email? She doesn’t ask it.
“Forgive my technique,” he says, “a fly fisherman, I’m not,” with Natalie concluding he thinks he’s pretty good. He unreels several yards of line by whipping it overhead. The hooked worm hits the water just short of a moss-covered log that lays across the surface at the pool’s edge. “They’re hiding under it.” The worm sinks slowly, Mario jogs the line a few times but nothing happens. To her doubtful expression he promises, “It’ll work.” And, yes, after several casts a fish darts out like an arrow and gulps the worm. Mario yanks the line upward and sinks the hook, then whips up the rod and a small brook trout, speckled silver with touches of gold, flies up out of the forest’s shadows into a flash of sunlight, its scales precious jewels. Natalie, recalling her Uncle’s expertise with a fly rod, whispers, “Hey, no kidding, that’s damned good technique with just a bamboo rig,” surprising herself, how much she enjoys playing his little cheerleader. Off the hook the trout’s about eight inches long. Twenty minutes later he catches a second, perhaps a half inch longer than the first. “Breakfast,” he says, extremely pleased with himself, she sees, happy she had praised him as she watches him place the catch in the basket with the other. He secures the hook and line, bends so retrieve the basket from the mossy edge when there is the crack of a branch from beyond the far side of the stream. This triggers in Mario a laser-like focus as he smoothly executes a change of stance to a crouch while drawing a pistol from a holster that is clipped to his belt beneath his shirt, at the same moment reaching his left hand to apply downward pressure on Natalie’s shoulder for her to get down to her knees as he, remaining stock-still and mute as a hunted animal, scrutinizes the dense thicket of undergrowth and saplings. Terrified, peeking, Natalie spies a moving image sliced and broken by vertical and diagonal growth, pieced together in her mind as something dark and bulky—until: “It’s nothing,” from Mario, abruptly rising, with Natalie looking up at him as he appears suddenly relaxed, holstering his Glock and telling her, “Just a black bear. Quite far. He’s not even aware of us. It’s okay.” She regains her feet monitoring a heart that is dancing up and down and sideways and looks at him, sees moisture on his brow, not so relaxed, more like fear under control. “A bear? You scared the shit outa me! You got a pistol under your shirt? The fucking Glock? And a switchblade for worms? You s.o.b., what’s going on?” She punches his chest with her fist.
“Ow! That hurts, Natalie,” meaning it but raising his palms in surrender, offering a manly smile supposedly playful, yet not convincing.” “Don’t bullshit me,” she warns him as she watches him slip his weapon into a black belt holster. “I never saw a man move so fast, so—so—what? Professional! Suddenly you’re this whole other person. This non-hacker armed to the fucking teeth who brought that gun to go catch breakfast? Was it the email? The guy at the bar, the Range Rover? What’s changed?”
He is nodding apologetically admitting guilt, saying, “You’re right. Sorry I scared you, Natalie,” his face pinking a little with embarrassment despite his tan. He forces a grin, says, “I guess I’m your classic mystery man,” a joke she doesn’t buy. He retrieves his gear, and then with him quickly on the move she is drawn along in his wake as she complains, “I can’t believe this, you’re now this totally mister cool like nothing happened,” to which he replies over his shoulder, “Everything’s okay, I promise. We’ll go back now. We’ll calm down while I make the best breakfast you’ve ever eaten.” He appears so totally collected she almost believes him, marveling at his ability to switch gears, talking about breakfast for Christ’s sake. The coffee, already smelling very good, is perking. He has told her he will explain later—really? That they must first relax by enjoying the delicious breakfast he is about to prepare for her, that not everyone can experience trout fresh from the stream for breakfast. This nonsensical explanation soothingly delivered by this lumberjack guy fussing in the kitchen does nothing for her mental health. She half expects him to don an old fashioned apron printed with roosters as she watches him cutting the heads and tails from the trout, cleaning, peeling, and rinsing them in water. Did last night under the stars really happen? Teaching now, he makes a slice at the edge of each and points to the bones inside, tells her: “See? They’re too fragile, too small to take out now.” He explains how she will later lift and flake the cooked fish to avoid the bones, which she already knows, having done this before with her uncle. But she finds herself nodding like an appreciative dumb bunny, an attitude never before assumed by her, apparently merely to boost his ego, a desire rarely experienced, realizing with surprise it pleasures her almost to the point of forgetting that what had happened at the stream has turned this paradisiacal fantasy on its head. How long has she known this man? About two years of encrypted back and forth from which she derived a great deal of gratification in absolute safety. And face to face for slightly less than two days exploring personal histories with an apparently healthy measure of deleted facts, despite revelations of Guatemalan death squads. With a wild motorcycle ride, dinner and a glass of wine under the stars, trout fishing and nearly shooting a bear and discovering that this man, her hacker ideal, moves for his pistol with the expertise of a pot smoking Dirty Harry. Enough unsteadying drama in two days to fill an ordinary year. Is it time to leave? Yet she merely watches this man who has not yet mentioned that he has met her father, as he mixes corn meal with flour in a bowl with hands that do not tremble, adds a squeeze of lemon, salt and pepper, and a dash of Cayenne pepper, “To give it zing,” and then rolls the fish in the mix. He sets out three skillets. One cast iron and two ceramic. He pours olive oil into the cast iron skillet and adds a large pat of butter. When it heats sufficiently he adds the fish. A friggin’ chef, every minute or so flipping them with a spatula, then putting four strips of bacon into one of the ceramics and frying them. When the fish are a rich golden brown and the bacon is crisp, he breaks four eggs into the second buttered ceramic and fries them perfectly sunny-side up. Huh. As slick with this amazing breakfast as he is with drawing his Glock. In her head she types: WTF The food is totally delicious and she wolfs it down. They are both smiling.