It was cold the night I went to pick up Clayton Bennett's Jeep, the tail end of the coldest day of the season so far. In Montana the calendar demarcation of winter from fall is nothing but a technicality. Up here, in the shadow of Canada, other people's idea of winter usually starts before Halloween, and this autumn had been no different: parka weather, thick frost on windshields, breath like gauze even in the afternoon sun. But not until the morning of December 20 did we feel the imminent promise of an animal frost and know that a deep heart of winter cold was screaming in from the north.
A cleansing wind had raked across the valley floor, and by morning the river was viscous with ice. Pushed down from Canada, the air reeked of the tundra, of glacier-churned dirt and stunted lichen. It was this smell that signaled that the first subzero snap of the season was on its way.
I had just gotten Bennett's file that afternoon, and from what little I'd read I'd figured on one of those rare easy-as-pie jobs. My boss, Flip, had given me a set of dealer's keys. All I had to do was get in the Cherokee and drive away. I'd planned on paying my visit sometime in the next couple of days, but when I heard on the radio about Bennett's death I thought I'd better head over to his office right away. There was no telling who else Bennett owed money to, and I wanted to be the first person there to collect.
Normally, it would have taken a while for news like this to hit the airwaves, but Bennett had been stabbed in a drunken brawl and the two Indians the cops suspected had disappeared. Local radio stations were broadcasting descriptions of the couple, urging everyone to be on the lookout. The place was crawling with cops when I pulled into the parking lot of the Super Six Motel, next to Bennett's office. I'd told myself to grab the Jeep and get out of there. I'm not too fond of anyone with a badge, and I had no intention of sticking around. But when I saw the scene unfolding in the river bottom, curiosity got the better of me.
I didn't know much about Bennett, only that he had run a charter business, a shifty little outfit called Big Sky Adventures that took tourists on backcountry flyovers and down to remote lakes for fishing. His office and makeshift apartment were in a shack on the northern bank of the Clark Fork, right across the river from the vacant tract of land where the old paper mill and tepee burners used to be.
It's a downtrodden section of town, a final vestige of the ugly industrial West that Missoula was still part of when I was a child. Before the yuppies from California arrived, cleaned up the waterfront, and passed laws that kept the mines upstream from dumping cyanide in the river. Before the quaint farmers' market and the latte bars and cafés selling veggie burgers and frozen yogurt moved in.
When I stepped out of my Ford truck onto the slick blacktop, the time/temperature sign at the casino across the street blinked, its lighted display changing from 16 to 18 degrees below zero. I took a breath and felt the tissue in my lungs freeze up. Behind the concrete hulk of the motel and Bennett's shack, the river bottom was lit like a movie set. A stand of leafless cottonwoods stood in stark relief, their trunks a pale and ghostly white. The river was close to frozen solid, and the milky crust of ice shone under the halogen glow of spotlights. In its center was a narrow rush of water, black and sinuous as an adder. This time of year the hours of darkness far outnumber those of daylight, and even when the sun is above the horizon it seems diminished. So there was something obscene about the brightness of the lights on the river and the naked trees.
They had pulled Clay Bennett's body from the weeds on the low-water island where he had been discovered and were carrying him toward us to shore. It took four men to hold the stretcher. They wore fishing waders under their ranch coats, and the rubber boots were plainly no good on the icy boulders of the riverbed. Even from up on the bank I could see their feet slipping, their shins ripping into the thin shell of the river ice.
When they reached the unfrozen channel, one of the men faltered, dipped his knee, and stuck his arm out to keep his balance. The crowd in the parking lot let out a collective gasp. The stretcher tilted and Bennett's hand sprang up in a lazy wave, his flannel-shirted arm freed from the death grip of whatever had held it to his side. The expressions on the faces of the men carrying him changed suddenly. Terror overcame them, revulsion at the jerking movements of the dead, and they lost their grips.
The corpse's head and right shoulder lolled downward, as if he were contemplating a quick dip. One finger dangled in the current, then a whole arm, the side of his torso, a booted foot, until his entire body was immersed. It was incredibly graceful, the way he went in, his palm slightly upturned to the sky, the fingers loosely curled. And the movement of his body toward the water: like a leisurely dive on a hot day. It took them a few frantic minutes to fish him out, then another few to plod on through the river and up the crumbling bank.
Of all the things that happened, it's Bennett's body I will always remember. How he lay there sparkling and shimmering in the lights of the parking lot, a layer of ice encasing him. In the time it took to carry him from the river he had solidified. His arms were frozen to his sides, pinned where they belonged. The brittle skin around him looked like a thin cocoon. He was perfectly preserved, the violence of his death completely intact. His flannel shirt was torn, his chest mottled with pink rosettes, tiny bursts of blood, a dozen cuts around his heart. He was a large man, and suddenly his size struck me, his power, the thickness of his arms.
They hoisted him up into the ambulance and closed the double doors and then, because Flip has told me over and over how important time can be in cases like this, I walked across the parking lot of the Super Six toward the Big Sky Adventures office.
Bennett's brown Jeep Cherokee was parked just outside the front door. The dark windows of the office reflected the commotion at the motel, the rhythmic revolutions of a police cruiser's lights, the ambulance flashing red as it pulled onto Broadway. Out on the river, figures rushed in and out of the spotlights' glare. I heard a shout, then another, a cry of "Rabbit!" from the brushy island. A shape burst onto the open ice, a man lumbering forward. Evidently it was one of the Indians they'd been looking for. He was making good time till he slipped and fell. In an instant a sea of uniforms was upon him.
Fishing in my pocket for the dealer's keys, I slid into the Cherokee like I belonged there. In the rearview mirror I could see them bringing the man up the bank, his arms twisted around his back, his wrists cuffed. He stumbled along, the weight of his chest slung forward. I shoved the key into the ignition, felt the engine cough to life, and touched my own wrist, thinking of the cold cuffs, the familiar sensation of the steel bracelets grating against my flesh. And I thought of the other Indian, the girl still out there, fugitive.
© 2000 Jenny Siler
On a cold December day in Missoula, the police pull Clay Bennett's corpse from the weeds. For the cops, Bennett's death is an open-shut-case, the result of a drunken brawl gone out of control. For repo woman Meg Gardner, who'd been looking to snag Bennett's Jeep, his death is an opportunity: Without him around to make life difficult, the job should be a breeze.
Only one year out of prison, romantically involved, and working the first legitimate job she's ever had, all Meg wants is to keep things clean and simple. Her name still carries the reek of small-town scandal, touched off twenty years ago by the violent implosion of her family. Understandably, she'd like to keep a low profile. A rented house, cigarettes, coffee, beer, burgers, and, in a pinch, her landlady's gun -- that's all she needs to get by, for now.
So when Bennett's Jeep is broken into outside her house by a bunch of Russian thugs, instinct and experience demand that she walk away. But then she learns about the missing military plane Bennett had been hunting obsessively before he was killed -- the same plane he crashed in the wilderness forty years earlier. And when a tattooed woman with an astonishing facility with knives shows up in town, Meg has no choice but to seek the real cause of Bennett's death.
Desperate to protect what little she has, and driven by ghosts from her own past, Meg plunges ahead -- finds herself involved in a dangerous web of infidelity, greed, and murder.
"Jenny Siler writes like a hard-boiled angel -- prose as dazzling as cut stones, characters as polished and complex as diamond facets, and a plot as compelling as unbridled greed" --James Crumley, Author of Bordersnakes and The Last Good Kiss
"With a voice of authority as crisp and cutting as the Montana winter she so vividly evokes, Siler gives us Meg Gardner, a hard woman faced with hard choices, a heroine who has failed, but who never disappoints. Gardner -- and Siler -- is the real thing." --Laurie R. King, author of Night Work
Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews
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Jenny Siler, who was educated at Andover and Columbia, lives in Missoula, Montana. Besides writing she has tended bar, driven a forklift, and graded salmon. Her first novel, Easy Money, was a New York Times Notable book.