The wild boar exploded out of the brush, straight toward me. I pulled my rifle trigger. Only a click answered. Time slowed. Heaving tusks filled my vision. Then the air tore apart with an explosion. The boar dropped.
“Irena Mann, you owe me a favor.”
I spun. Saw Alan Tallman and his rifle.
By force of will my shaking limbs stilled. I’d faced bear. Taken out rabid foxes. Beaten cancer at the age of 13. My life had been nothing but close escapes. No need to fall apart now.
My rescuer was tall, rangy, with stone grey hair, “I’m glad you showed up.”
He snorted, sounding like a boar, himself. “I’ll bet you are, young lady. But I came looking for you.”
“Something’s up with the river. It’s too low.”
“There’s been no complaints.”
That probably wasn’t true. The poor, who lived furthest from The Park, had no voice. The wealthiest, who lived in the closest neighborhoods got the most water. It was the middles that fussed. Always screaming the inner dams were holding back too much. Not that they cared their own dams were making life hell for those downriver from them. When I was a newbie Park ranger I’d taken my turn reading their complaints. Being promoted to Forest Ranger meant I no longer had to.
“The River’s always rising and dropping,”
“I feel it, Irena. I don’t see it.”
That stopped me. The Tallmans along with the Byron family held controlling interest in The Park. Most of them were as high society as the Byrons, but Alan was different. He identified strongly with his Native American heritage, spent most of his time in The Park. There was something almost feral about him.
He pressed on. “You have to go upriver. Find out what’s happening.”
“I can’t get permission for that,” I protested. “You know the rules. Three times a year we can invade the sanctity of The Forest. It’s not yet time.”
He frowned. “At least they let you Forest Rangers go up there.”
“Like that’s some cushy part of my job?”
“Government should let you clear a path up to The River head.”
I laughed. Government? The ongoing nationwide drought had all but destroyed central government. Power resided in local council. The wealthier the family, the more control they exerted over The Park, and The Park owned The Forest. All paths into it had long grown over. The Forest attracted rain. Rain gave us The River.
Alan had a good thirty years on me. He knew all this. Why were we arguing? “We’re lucky to live here, Alan. Not too many places have the water we do.”
I meant that. He was doubly fortunate. Only the Byrons and Tallmans roamed The Park at will. Everyone else came in by lottery. Being in The Park Service meant I lived there. I was lucky too.
“Please, Irena, I can’t go where you can. The River needs you.”
My boss, Keith, was not receptive. “It’s too soon. I was just up there last month. What are you even looking for, anyway?”
“Alan says the water is diminishing.”
He frowned making his eyebrows knit. “That would be obvious at the first dam.”
“He thinks it’s happening too slowly.”
He tapped his foot, stared out the window. “Alan’s no fool. I respect him, but he’s asking a lot. Nose around. See if anyone else seems concerned.”
I’d been in the Byron compound before. My fellow employees were impressed with their luxury. I resented the water they wasted; the private golf course, the pools. I noticed a new helicopter. Rice Byron, heir apparent to the lion’s share of family fortune liked his toys.
I hated contacting Rice, but if anyone in his family knew anything it would be him. His heavy hooded eyes were considered sexy about town. This surprised me. I found him handsome, mesmerizing, but gossip insinuated he was ruthless.
“What can I do for you Ms. Mann?” The silky way he said my name made my skin crawl.
Not wanting to bring up Alan’s name, I asked, “Are you satisfied with the water allotment coming into your family’s use?”
His eyes softened. “I’m touched. Really I am. Everybody cares about the poor, their little needs. No one has ever asked how my life is going.”
I couldn’t believe it. He thought I was concerned about his selfish world? I turned, hiding my disgust.
To my surprise, two mornings later found me headed upriver in my canoe. Keith had given in. The dense forest quickly walled me in. A mile in I hit the first rapids. A vicious whirlpool sent my canoe careening into a half-submerged rock. I went overboard. I kicked upward. Struggled not to breathe.
Strong hands pulled me to the surface. I came up sputtering, saw Alan’s face in front of my own. Then we were both in the canoe. I was cold, shaken, but rocked more by the implication of his presence. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Saving your ass again.” He smirked. “I’ve been tracking you all morning. I cleared it with your boss.”
“Keith gave you an official pass?”
“No, but he’ll vouch for me if necessary.”
It was unprecedented. If anyone found Alan had entered The Forest, Alan, Keith, and me could face charges. Still, I was almost glad to have him. With both of us paddling, we would reach the River’s head before sundown. Alan stopped from time to time, peered into The Forest. He looked like a grey wolf scenting prey. It made me shiver even after the sun dried me. No one intrudes lightly on The Forest. Yet here I was with a forbidden companion. Call it conditioning. Call it superstition. It felt real.
By some miracle my gear had not fallen out or even gotten wet. My bruised knee ached, but I’d felt worse pain.
When the first of a series of three waterfalls hove into sight, we had two miles to go. I pointed toward the bank. “We beach the canoe here. Go on foot. Stay close behind me, Alan. There’s no path, but I know the way.”
We climbed steadily to the top of the first waterfall. The River narrowed. Our path rose steeply, high above the tumbling water. Alan huffed behind me reminding me of the 40-odd years difference in our ages. I felt, rather than heard, him slip. I turned to give him a hand, but he wasn’t there. My heart stopped.
I peered over the cliff’s edge. He hung on with both hands to a small scrub sapling embedded in rock. Below him the waterfall raged.
Dropping to my stomach, I extended a hand. He seized it, dug his feet into the rock grabbing toe holds for purchase.
At last he was lying next to me. “Blast it.” He snarled.
“Funny way to say thanks.” I fantasized slugging him.
“It’s my ankle.” He pulled off his boot and sock. We both stared at the bruising beginning to stain his skin.
“You can’t climb anymore.”
“The hell I can’t.” He rummaged in his backpack, produced an elastic bandage.”
We started out again. He had to be in pain, but other than occasional oaths, I heard only small stones we dislodged.
Just before sundown The River head cliffs rose up before us. Alan gasped. “I never expected to see this.”
Fire was forbidden in The Forest. We ate cold sandwiches, drank water. Alan watched me do my evening tai chi. “How long you been doing that?” he asked.
“Since I was a kid,” I replied. “It helped me endure chemo.”
Birds woke me at sunrise. Alan was up, pacing the water’s edge. “The River’s voice is stronger here. Our problem is nearby.” He strode toward a loose pile of boulders at the base of the cliff. That’s manmade.”
I put my hands on my hips. “They’ve been there ever since I started coming up.”
“Probably started out natural, but someone’s added to the pile. “Help me” he ordered, dropping to his knees, pulling rocks away.
I did, wiping sweat from my eyes within a few minutes. Alan didn’t stop until we’d uncovered a cave mouth. “Let’s go in,” he said.
I shook my head no. A huge unease had stolen over me.
“Anything in that oath you took forbid you from going into caves?”
I had to admit there wasn’t, but I’d been tasked with checking for water level changes. Nothing about going underground. He went in though so I followed him. The passage was narrow and quickly dimmed. A bend led us into what should have been total darkness, but there was a faint light coming from somewhere. Also, the unmistakable sound of a generator.
We rounded another bend and found ourselves in a large cavern. The River here was inky black in the faint light. I also saw a row of what appeared to be large metal tanks.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Alan grabbed my shoulder. “Looks to me like someone’s hoarding water.”
“Well, aren’t you smart?” Rice Byron stepped around the edge of the closest tank. He pointed a semi-automatic in our direction. “But what are you doing here?”
My breath caught hard in my chest. I slid my eyes slowly toward the opening we’d just come through. “Just checking on The River.” I didn’t like the look of Rice’s Glock. Why hadn’t Alan or I thought to grab our weapons? Really, really dumb, I thought, going unarmed into a dark cave.
“What is all this?” Alan asked.
“It’s my hedge against the future.”
I felt sick. “Against what future?”
Rice sneered. “You fools think the drought’s going to end? Sooner or later The River will dry up, but I’ll be ready.”
Alan craned his neck. I wondered if he was counting tanks. “How’d you get this stuff up here?”
“Stop trying to divert me with stupid questions, Alan. This entire area’s rich with caves. Lots of ways in and out. Bought some cable cars, set myself up a system. No one much cares what a rich playboy does.”
All those toys, I thought bitterly. Large crates arriving at the Byron compound would be nothing new.
“Let us go.” I tried but failed to sound menacing.
“You two should have minded your own business.” He tossed a rope in Alan’s direction. Tie her up. Both her hands attached to the ring on that closest tank.”
“But why?” I asked. “We’ll be missed.”
“Not if you both go over the falls. It’ll look like an accident.”
Alan apologized as he tied, especially when Rice told him to make my bonds tighter. “She won’t be tied up long enough to lose feeling.” His laugh held no humor.
“Now you.” Rice motioned to Alan to get moving. Slightly limping, Alan did as told. Feeling impotent and enraged, I watched them head outside. I listened for a scream. Thought I heard one but I knew all I really heard was The River.
Too soon Rice was back. Alone. “I’d like some fun with you, Ranger Girl, but no time for that.” He approached. I could have kicked him, but he had the Glock. I really believed he would use it, figure out some way to mask how I’d died.
Seconds later I marched ahead of him, headed toward the same fate as Alan. At the waterfall’s edge, I balked.
“I’ll just bash your head in. They’ll think it was the rocks.” He rushed me, swung his gun toward my head. Without thinking, I blocked, dropped, and rolled. Rice’s momentum carried him forward over the edge. This time I heard a scream.
I found Alan below the second waterfall. He’d gotten caught up in an eddy. He looked battered, but he was alive. There were no cliff walls here. It wasn’t easy, but I hauled him out. He opened his eyes. “Hot damn, I guess we’re even now.”I don’t remember the climb down much. We were both exhausted. Rice’s body washed up against the first dam the following day.