Editor's Note: We thank John Lefevere for sharing the Chapter 1 of his just published third novel as part of a 1000 Islands Novels.
The last thing Walter was thinking about when the dark shape came lurching out of the thick, cold early-morning fog was murder.
The weather forecast promised bright sunshine that morning, but his iPhone weather information for Clearview, New York was geared to the whole region and did not allow for conditions as they actually existed immediately around the Saint Lawrence River.
And while he knew that the temperature would probably not break through the low fifties until noon that early spring morning, Walter had been undeterred when he got out of bed. He didn’t reconsider his decision, even when he saw the wispy grey shroud surrounding his house. Fishing was fishing, and he would not be denied the pleasure it brought him. So, after dressing warmly and not bothering to shave, he scarfed down a hot bowl of oatmeal while watching the latest political maelstrom on one of the morning talk shows. Walter rinsed out the bowl and exited from the kitchen into the garage, where he gathered up his rods and tackle box, and dug the plastic container of nightcrawlers out of the old refrigerator in the corner. He went out the small door at the side of the house, cursing under his breath that the fog had not lessened a bit while he was getting ready. Checking one last time to make sure he had all of his equipment, Walter Higgins headed off to his favorite - make that only - fishing spot.
The murkiness thickened with every step he took down the normally picturesque village streets. It was not yet six a.m. and there were only the sounds of a few households stirring to keep him company. A ferociously barking dog was quickly silenced by a shouted command from inside of an unseen house on his right; on his left and farther down the street, an elderly man in a bathrobe and slippers stepped gingerly across part of his damp lawn to retrieve the morning newspaper that had missed his porch. “Good morning, Lloyd,” Walter called out cheerfully. Caught midway in the act of stooping over to pick up the errant paper, Lloyd jerked upright and peered through the grey murk, then smiled and returned the greeting.
As Walter turned his head back in the direction he was walking, he noticed a dark shadowy form in his peripheral vision to the right. Someone walking silently past him in the other direction is how his brain interpreted it, but when he stopped and looked back in the direction where the person would be, he saw only grey cloudiness. Shrugging his shoulders almost imperceptibly, he dismissed the vision as his imagination and resumed his walk toward the river.
Back in the city where Walter was from originally, being startled by a dark figure in foggy or smoggy conditions would have immediately alarmed him, perhaps to the point of panic. A mugger, a rapist, a thug, out prowling, looking for a victim. All possible where he came from. But here in Clearview, the thought never crossed his mind. Maybe in Watertown, some twenty miles away, where there was some violent crime. A lot of times, according to what he read, shootings or beatings resulted from the criminal element coming up from New York City - Brooklyn or the Bronx - to deal drugs or run prostitutes, usually out of chain motels. Sometimes occasional violence was inflicted on civilians by soldiers stationed at Fort Drum, about the same distance away from Clearview; but for the most part members of the military were honorable. A few years back, there was a mysterious, and as yet unsolved, murder of a man whose battered body was discovered at his home just outside a small town elsewhere in Jefferson County. Locals largely attributed that homicide to a drug deal gone bad or a botched home invasion by downstate criminals.
Of course, the cold-blooded execution-style murder of two men, a tugboat captain and a crewman, had occurred on Tranquility Island two years ago. Tranquility was technically part of the village, but that heinous crime had been committed by a terrorist in the course of a failed terrorist attack on the Fourth of July, and a number of his fellow terrorists had died as well. So statistically, that incident would have counted in Walter’s mind as using deadly force to repel terrorists rather than as village homicides. Overall, in the six or seven years he’d been living in this New York village, there were not that many county or city murders that he would be able to recall, if he’d taken the time to think about it that morning. And none that he’d ever heard about right here in Clearview.
From somewhere ahead in the curtain of swirling fog that stood in his path as he entered the next block, heavy metal “classics” vibrated at full volume. Walter knew by virtue of his thrice-weekly trips down to the riverfront to fish that the music emanated from the bedroom of a teenage boy who was dressing himself for school to the sound of his bedroom stereo. He did not know the boy’s name, because he had never asked anyone. Also, he had assiduously avoided looking at the youth any time he was out on his porch or in the yard talking to one of his friends. Don’t create any problems was Walter’s motto.
Regarded as an “okay guy” by the village people he’d met over the years, Walter had kept a low profile ever since his move to Clearview. This was his “retirement home” he’d explained to neighbors. That meant he helped out with community problems when he could, anonymously donating money and food to the food bank when it was needed, quietly visiting the elderly at the small nursing home just outside of town and generally performing deeds that he felt would reflect well on him if anyone ever found out about them. What Walter had failed to realize, having moved here from a large metropolitan area, was that there was no such thing as “anonymous” actions or deeds in a small town. So, although he had no way of knowing it, other than the award the village council had almost given him once, the general consensus of the village population in fact was that Walter Higgins was perceived as a valuable asset to the community and an upstanding citizen. Very much liked and appreciated, even if he largely kept to himself otherwise.
He passed the teen’s house, wondering how the boy’s parents and neighbors could put up with such a racket every morning. Higgins tried to peer through the thickening fog for a landmark and was rewarded by spying the fire hydrant opposite the end of the road where he turned. Making a right at the next corner, he walked another block, past Harbor Drive, and started out the narrow connector road that led to a short bridge over the river and ended up on exclusive Barnard Island. Walter didn’t know anyone on the island and didn’t care to. He never went that far in his travels, content to cast his line from his very own prime spot at the rounded end of Clearview Harbor. Three times a week, he could be found standing or sitting there on the large jumble of granite rock pieces, fishing in the very early morning before heading home to fillet his catch. Perch usually, some decent size large-mouth bass in season, nothing much besides that. Cars would pass by periodically, going to and from Barnard Island, frequently tooting their horns hello when it was someone who knew him. Other times, he’d receive waves and grins from passing cars, some locals, some tourists in the summer, just being friendly. Walter would usually return the wave, although if it were someone he knew, he’d call out a greeting to them. Most times he’d just ignore passing vehicles or people walking by, concentrating instead on his fishing,
Higgins rapidly reached the small area of shore that he considered his home base and headed down a loose dirt slope that brought him to river level. He put down the tackle box and worm container on a table-flat rock surface and tried to peer out over the water. On a normal day at this time, the sun would have been a little above the horizon behind him on the right. If the sunshine was bright enough early in the morning, the water in the harbor would be taking on a blue tint, mimicking the sky above. Ahead and a little to the right floated a patch of cattails, inhabited by noisy crowds of territorially-minded red-wing blackbirds. Ahead and to his left, along the western shoreline of Clearview Harbor, sat the facilities and docks of the North Star Boat Resurrection & Marina, Ltd., one of the premier wood boat restorers in the St. Lawrence valley (motto: “We Don’t Just Restore Boats, We Bring Them Back To Life”). However, at the moment Walter could see no more than six or seven feet out over the water; beyond that sat a wall of fog, looking like a permanent fixture. And it was absolutely quiet, not even a foghorn. He figured that everything was shut down by the fog, so no rumbling of the propeller screws of vessels passing the village in the American Channel. These ships were either ocean-going freighters or “lakers” on the river, headed to the sea or Lake Ontario. He heard no early morning fishermen headed out on chugging charter boats, and no cars coming or going down the road. Total peace and quiet.
Higgins pulled off his ballcap, smoothed his curly grey hair and adjusted the cap back onto his head, sighing. The sun would burn off the fog - it always did - and an hour from now, he would no doubt have the full, normal panorama of picturesque marina, harbor and islands in view, as well as the squat one and two-story buildings that made up “downtown” Clearview off to his left. But because this fogbank was unusually thick, it might take until late morning or even early afternoon to dissipate. Should he wait here or go home?
Kneeling down, Walter opened his tackle box and began to straighten up its contents, something he’d forgotten to do at the end of his last trip out here two days ago. That took all of two minutes; he stood up again, deciding to head home after all and come back later. As he leaned down to scoop up his rods, tackle box and bait container, there was a scraping noise from the roadway that clearly cut through the silence. It sounded like loose pebbles or maybe a chunk of asphalt being kicked by someone and skidding across the ground; not an unusual sound along this road which was deteriorating because of the harsh winter they’d just gone through.
Higgins turned to face the sound, wondering who else might be out here with him in the morning soup. A few more seconds passed and then he heard a…rustling sound? Like a…what was that sound? He was about to call out when the silhouette of a person materialized and gradually took more shape, as it seemed to lurch forward. Staring more intently, Walter was still trying to identify who it was when he became conscious that its arm was being raised and there was something in its hand. Had the sun been out, the object would have flashed as it reflected the sunlight, but as it was he did not recognize the shape as a knife until the person was right in front of him.
Just as it dawned on Walter Higgins that he was about to be killed, the arm slashed down and the knife pierced his chest.
By John Lefevere
Available on Kindle through Amazon. ($4.99)
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