Thicker than Water – No. 227

Brine and the smell of decay washed through the night and around the line of boathouses.

“Janie would never be caught dead in a place like this,” whispered Rex.

I smacked my brother in his too-buff bicep. “Watch it.”

Rex kneaded his arm, the leather of his letterman jacket crinkling. “You’re the one who said we should be quiet.”

“And you should watch your tongue.”

From his hiding place behind the cluster of plastic mailboxes, Lester appeared. He bolted across the parking lot in the strip of darkness provided by a broken street light. In the mostly black we all wore, I barely made out his dash, but the luck of invisibility seemed a little too convenient. It helped hide us, true, but it also obscured the back end of a van we’d ducked behind.

It was the van I’d seen leaving our cul-de-sac. The van Professor McGregor used on his research expeditions.

Darting to the boathouses, Lester scooted along the rightmost, the one matching the address I’d found on the gas station’s bathroom mirror. My sister’s handwriting, far too close to my own, had been unmistakable despite her stubby lipstick and my tears of frustration at being called a liar, a frantic teen leaping to conclusions, one with poor reasoning skills and a jealous streak.

After our first, and incorrect, accusation of Professor McGregor, the police barely listened to my rant of a phone call explaining how it was fish-mogul Wrasse to blame for my sister’s disappearance.

“We have other trails to follow,” the detective had explained.

And so, here we were and I hoped we weren’t too late.

Rex crouched behind the front tire. “This is crazy, Molly.”

“Totally.” Taking a deep breath, I started after Lester.

Behind me, I heard Rex cursing but his footsteps followed, the older brother never far from a fight.

Yanking me close, Lester whispered in my ear. “Third one from the pier right?”

I nodded, my tongue too dry to speak. The address had been clear and once on the right wharf, the boathouse, with its swordfish emblem, unmistakable. I wondered how we could have been so blind. Wrasse made so much more sense than McGregor, answered so many questions, and stirred the remaining grilled cheese in my stomach.

I swallowed while Rex arrived and started dispensing our tools from his hockey bag.

Thinking of the crowbar, baseball bat, hockey stick, and tire iron as tools made them seemed less like weapons. I tried to feel the usual comfort I had hefting the bat, but without home plate, a pitcher to face, or a soft ball curving into the strike zone, the smooth wood just felt strange.

“On three,” whispered Lester.

“Wait!” I grabbed his arm before he and the crowbar could assault the boathouse’s door. “We were going to see if she was there remember?”

Janie’s would-be boyfriend scowled at me, the darkness making his usually genteel face stark. Releasing him, I pointed at the window nestled between the sheet roof and slatted wall. He followed my motion to the fogged glass and the faint light of a bulb warming the inside. His shoulders tensed but he led our scurrying crew beneath the panes.

I stared up at the grimy window while Rex slung his stick through his bag’s strap. He interlaced his fingers and offered me their bolstering stirrup. With Lester’s shoulder to balance upon, I popped up as if we were going after the last apple in the orchard, the one thinking itself safe in the uppermost branches.

The touch of the window’s metal frame swept away the pleasant thoughts of fall and memories of crisp leaves and forthcoming cinnamon. I pressed my tongue against the top of my mouth to keep myself silent when I peered inside and gained an even less familiar sight.

Through the streaks of dust and salty muck, I made out the refrigerators waiting to house the haul from one of Wrasse’s excursions. The lone door, the one Lester wanted to bust through, hid behind a tool chest as tall as my sister’s dresser. Scrapes through the damp grit on the planks revealed the movement from its corner. Empty buckets, nets, and various other bits my mind tried to categorize lay scattered on the dock. My focus though, became the track and the crane with its hook and single catch.

My sister hung limp, her mouth gagged, her wrists wrapped behind her with duct tape, ankles bound with more. A scratchy-looking rope twisted around her middle, hiding the cut-off jeans, tank top, and sweater ensemble she’d spent the afternoon deciding upon.

I could hear her debate between topaz, amber, or maybe aquamarine? She’d laughed with an annoying assurance whatever she wore would be more than enough to wow the secret admirer she’d finally finagled to meet. I heard her snapping back at me when I told her it wouldn’t matter, that she should think about who he was rather than what his favorite color might be.

Our bitter spat had been the last I’d heard of her, the last I’d seen of her, until now.

I knew her admirer had been Lester from the third letter, but Janie, as ever, had had her sights higher than the boy next door. I didn’t think the town’s fish dictator had been among them though. He’d be too old, too slimy for her tastes. I don’t think he’d been on Mom’s list either but then things never quite turn out how you expect.

Tearing my gaze from Janie, I searched for some sign of the man, the creep who was going two for three. After that who knew? I might be a tomboy but I was still a girl and cute once I cleaned up.

Shaking off the weird mix of insult and fear, I eyed the gate facing the water, noting it closed. No sound from inside came through the boathouse’s thin walls except the rumble of refrigeration generators and the slap of water against pylons.

My sigh blurred the whole picture and I peered down.

Rex’s face had reddened with the effort of holding me up. In normal circumstances, he might have pitched me into the water or I’d have stepped on his face before jumping down. Tonight, he lowered me carefully, quietly, and massaged his hands without complaint.

“She’s inside,” I whispered. “Alone.”

Lester turned for the door and I grabbed him again, the motion becoming irritatingly familiar.

“The door’s been barricaded by a tool chest, Lester. It’s probably locked too.”

His knuckles went white around the crowbar. “The water side?”

“Closed.”

He and Rex peered up and I sensed them calculating what might fit through the window. My petite frame suddenly felt huge. “No way. We were going to call the police.”

Lester looked at me, clenched the bar, and then looked to my brother. “The door?”

Blocking his route, I put my hands on my hips. “We were going to call the police.”

Lester frowned. “They won’t believe you.”

“If we say she’s here? We can see her?”

From out in the marina a speedboat smacking water broke our glaring contest. We turned with one head to where the sound radiated from the black.

I covered a worried gasp with my hand when Rex reclaimed his hockey stick and asked between my fingers, “You think that’s him?”

My brother twirled his stick. “It’s not the police.”

Lester and Rex met eyes over my head.

“The door,” they said in unison, and together, they abandoned me.

“You won’t move it.”

“We’ll see about that.” Rex grinned at me over his shoulder, as if I had made some nonchalant challenge to his manhood that a little breaking and entering would resolve.

Snatching the bat from where I’d left it leaning against the tin slats, I scurried after them.

Lester strained against the doorframe while Rex upgraded to the tire iron and began beating at the lock. “Keep an eye on the boat.”

I scowled at them, at the stubborn door, at my inability to do anything useful. “He’s going to hear you.”

“Not if we hurry.”

The wake of the approaching boat grew swifter.

“Go on, Molly,” said Lester through bared teeth, “let us know when he’s in sight.”

Huffing my displeasure at the orders and Rex’s dismissive wave, I crept to the end of the boathouse, where wood met water. I squatted and clutched the bat, hoping to be the small, unnoticeable fly on the wall I usually was between my brother, The Jock and my sister, The Sorority Queen.

Slaps and surges rippled, waves crashed against the posts, and out of the dark, a pinprick of light appeared. It neared, but I couldn’t make out a face or shape until the boat slowed in its approach.

I cupped my hand around my mouth, my whisper hoarse and raspy. “He’s coming!”

The grunt and scrapes of iron on tin redoubled. I shuffled behind a tower of dank plastic tubs and peered through the crack they made.

Upon the dark water, the speedboat sloshed closer. The motor’s engine grumbled in first gear overriding the curling efforts of the boathouse’s retractable door.

The crowbars and grunts died and the boat, with its Trident emblazoned bow, passed by my hiding spot.

The driver, Wrasse, had a baseball hat on backwards, I guessed to keep the wind from catching the bill. Tufts of dark hair peeked through and lines marred his face as he squinted along his boat’s beam. A yellow slicker replaced his usual suit coat or the plaid he wore in commercials. His smirk though remained the same, marring his clean shave and making me shiver.

The stern puttered out of view with a last flap of an American flag.

I stared at the boathouse he entered, the one holding my sister, and ground the handle of the bat in my palms. Tipping around the dank containers, I spied Wrasse beyond the boat’s cabin, the smooth top glimmering in the faint bulb.

A knock of iron against the planks drew my gaze.

Rex beckoned me with the tire iron, then cringed at muffled curse from Lester and hurried back to the door.

Watching him go, I rotated the bat. Before logic tempered my legs, I shifted against the tin wall. The metal vibrated with the boat’s idling motor and peeking around the corner, I spied the stern bobbing inside, its flag drooping. The rest of the deck swayed a few feet away, the shadow from the cabin blanketing the polished wood in darkness.

A glimmer along the rail reminded me of the chain dangling from the ceiling, the ropes holding my gagged sister, helpless to the man mooring his shiny boat near.

Squeezing the bat tight, I’d jumped across the spit of water. I landed like a droplet on the speedboat’s deck and stayed low, hoping the churn of the propellers a handsbreadth from my face might cover my arrival. Biting my tongue, I listened for Wrasse noticing me.

Instead, he hummed some chanty, his hands slapping the steering wheel and pulling a few levers to the rhythm.

Hugging the bat close, I peered over the roof’s cabin.

Wrasse stood with his back to me but, by the tilt of his head, I sensed his gaze on my sister. “There’s my girl.”

His haughty tone and arrogant laugh, brought sweat to my palms. I loosened my grip on the bat and laid my hand on the cabin, keeping myself in place despite the adrenaline gushing into my legs.

A turn of the key silenced the engine. Leaving the wheel, Wrasse sauntered to the bow. He threw a rope, looping its end around a nearby cleat and pulled the boat against the rubberized lining. We thumped and the deck tilted when he stepped off and onto the dock. With a cocky stride, he made his way to the controller mounted on the wall, the yellow sides of the rectangle dingy, the surface of the three buttons chipped and faded.

“One last trip and we’re on our way, my girl.”

He glanced up at my sister, and then down at the controller he’d plucked off the wall. Humming his little tune, Wrasse flipped a switch, starting the gears whirring.

The hook descended toward the bow bobbing beneath my sister’s tied feet. Her head lifted like a stuffed backpack, the movement apparently enough to stir her awake despite the bump bruising one side of her face. She scanned the dock, the speedboat, and her eyes bugged when she locked onto Wrasse.

He didn’t move when she first squirmed, when she tried to cry out around the gag, or when she gasped as she noticed me moving.

I’d started the moment Wrasse had flipped the controller’s switch, but instead of dropping down, I’d crept up. Stepping off the deck, I padded up the dock.

My sister’s admonition to stop, a muted “Nu hun” sent a chill across my skin, icing the sweat popping out of every pore. She entered my peripheral vision and I knew I couldn’t look at her, the fright in her eyes would be too close to my own. Stopping now, though, would lose me the element of surprise, expose me to Wrasse, and put me, like Janie in his hands.

I tightened mine around the bat and focused on the logo on Wrasse’ hat, the grin of the swordfish mocking my approach. Sneering at the happy emblem, I brought the bat to my shoulder.

Janie’s feet thumped onto the deck in time with a shadow moving at the grimy window.

Heedless, Wrasse followed my sister’s thud, his fishy smirk spreading. “Comfy?”

Janie cursed something unintelligible, but her effort to keep his attention failed when the planks creaked under my sneakers. He turned and the smirk on his face froze as he met my eyes.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

A bash at the door whipped him the other way.

Without his surprised glare, my breath returned along with my heartbeat, and I swung for the fences. The impact with the swordfish raced up my arms, the smack into Wrasse’ head reverberating against the tin siding.

He howled, dropped the controller, and fell to his knees, one hand at his head. My second blow had his face planted on the ground. His hat toppled, revealing a growing bald spot.

Through the blood pounding in my ears came the crack of the door. A snarl of effort and scrape of metal moved the tool chest aside. I sensed Rex and Lester worming through the gap they’d created, but my attention stayed on Wrasse.

He didn’t move except with the rise and fall of steady breathing.

“What’d you do, Molly?”

I looked at Rex and hefted the bat. Blood stained the end and I covered my mouth to keep the grilled cheese down.

“Lester?”

Rex and I turned to where Lester had leapt upon the bow and worked the gag from Janie’s mouth.

“Are you hurt, Janie?”

“No,” said Janie, her eyelashes aflutter, “not really.”

Rex offered his Swiss army knife as Lester tugged at the duct tape. He took my brother’s knife without looking away from my sister.

“The police are on their way,” said Lester, ”they’ll call an ambulance to make sure you’re alright.”

Janie shook her head, and then held her freed hand against the bump. “This is all crazy.”

Rex snorted. “Totally.”

“But you came.” She met Rex’s eyes, and then caught Lester’s for a lingering moment.

I wanted to smash their faces together, to finish the kiss hovering between them. Janie shifted to me though before Lester could find wherever his courage has skittered off to hide.

“All of you came.”

The argument we’d last had filled the quiet. I heard my whiny voice admonishing her for her trivial love of style, for her need to be the prettiest, the center of attention, the favorite in the crowd. How her admirer wouldn’t care if she wore a paper bag. How Mom would notice me more and how my life would be better with her gone.

The bat felt like cement and I lowered the dampened head. I shrugged and hoped she’d read the apology in my weak grin, if not the blood dribbling along Rex’s slugger.

“What are sister’s for?”