The guides were hospitable, though the guests carried guns. [Writer's Cramp Winner 5-7-19]
McClatchy glanced over, then went back to pouring a runny syrup into the plastic hummingbird feeders.
"Not p'tic'erly," he shouted back. "A few fly in, once a blue moon. I like to put out a nice spread while they here." His mouth tightened as he screwed the cap back onto the feeder. "I don't miss 'em after they gone."
Quentin nodded and turned to his friend Paul. He and Rusty, the third of their company, were surveying the rafting camp with an amused eye. A charitable narrator—which Quentin and his friends were not—would call it a cabin in the woods. An unsentimental eye would only see a warped gray shanty with holes for windows and a door fashioned from the side of a crate. Three dogs panted on the sagging porch.
"Rustic," Quentin murmured.
"Dueling banjos," Paul retorted.
"Quiet." But Quentin grinned.
He stiffened, though, as McClatchy's partner stepped out of the cabin. Unlike McClatchy, who wrapped his barrel gut in faded overalls and blanketed the overalls with a brown beard like a bird's nest, Shaw was tall, thin, clean-shaven, and possessed of piercing gray eyes. He dressed smartly, too, in heavy twill trousers and a rugged work shirt. To Quentin, who prided himself as a quick and accurate judge of character, Philip Shaw looked less like a river guide and more like a businessman. Someone who earned his bonuses at a steel company, maybe, by ferreting out and firing redundant employees.
His diction further cut him off from the Blue Ridge Mountains that rose about them: "If you gentlemen are ready," he announced in a resonant baritone, and gestured toward the river's edge, where two inflatable rafts were waiting for the commencement of the white water river rafting trip.
A green haze hung over the forest as the five men paddled into the stream; the drone of insects drilled the air. The sun blazed onto their shoulders—Quentin and his good friends were quick to slop sunscreen over their noses—but shadows hung from the forest canopy like black moss.
It was after noon when they started, and they stopped early in a park-like glade by the river, where they ate a surprisingly robust supper of cold pheasant and roasted potatoes at a half-rotted picnic table. Afterward, Quentin and Rusty paced the dusk with cigarettes. They moved with a lithe, cat-like grace—hips forward and shoulders back—as though stalking the length of a fashion runway.
"You think you'll need that, Mr. Smith?" Shaw called out to them.
"It's for tomorrow," Quentin fired back. He quickly re-buttoned his jacket, which had flared out, exposing the shoulder holster. "For when we shoot the rapids," he added with a tight smirk.
"At least we won't starve to death," Paul observed the next morning at breakfast.
The coffee was piping, and McClatchy sprinkled the eggs with dill and pepper.
"I take care of my guests," McClatchy muttered.
"Like your hummingbirds," Quentin put in.
"Like my hummingbirds," McClatchy agreed.
Shaw stopped Quentin at the raft's edge. "I'm going to ask you to pack your piece away," he said. "You don't want to lose it in the rapids."
"I don't want it off me."
Shaw laid a firm hand on his shoulder. "Are you anticipating some kind of trouble, Mr. Smith?"
Quentin only grimaced in reply, and with bad grace buttoned the pistol into his pack.
"How long have you been in the rafting business?" Quentin shouted back at Shaw when they were an hour farther downstream. Perhaps it was his nerves that made him talkative; the water was hissing now as it shot over a riverbed that was turning shallow and stony.
"I'm not!" Shaw glared past Quentin and deftly tucked the paddle into and out of the water. "That's McClatchy's line!"
"I thought you were his partner!"
"In another business!"
"What business is that?"
Shaw's mouth only tightened into a hard frown, and he bent forward with concentration.
But twenty minutes later, as they jounced through the twisting water: By God, he's singing! Quentin stared back in wonder at Shaw, who was bellowing over the rapids' roar. In Italian, even! Opera! The words were indistinct, but Quentin knew his Verdi.
"I understudied at the Met," Shaw explained when they were on the other side. They had broken from the river for the day and were taking an early supper—Shaw was eating out the soft part of a sandwich. "A previous life," he said. "It sometimes comes out in moments of stress."
"What do you do now?" Quentin asked. "You said back there that rafting isn't your game."
"I do a little work for Tony Golpe."
"Golpe?" Rusty came to his feet with a look of alarm.
Quentin laid a steadying hand on his arm.
"Is that so?" he asked Shaw. His voice was cool. "We know Mr. Golpe. We do a little business with him. He's in the garment business. We're on the fashion end."
"I'm in collections." Shaw tossed the sandwich crust away. "Liquidations."
"A man named Mike Gilroy knows we're here," Quentin said. He held Shaw's eye. "He's our travel agent."
"Best not to make travel plans through a man that works for Golpe," Shaw said. "Better still not to have a man like that suggest your travel plans."
He nodded over Quentin's shoulder; the others wheeled as McClatchy lifted a shotgun from a rusty oil barrel that was serving nearby as a garbage can.
"At least they didn't starve to death," Shaw observed after they had dragged the three bodies into the woods and stripped them of their clothes and identification.
"They even said they liked the spread, which was nice of them," McClatchy replied. He glanced over as a hummingbird sped by, then turned away with an indifferent sniff.