Cash sat in a battered fishing boat on murky floodwater that was headed to the Red River. The spring flood covered the Valley as far to the east and west as she could see. Schools had closed. No one could get to church to pray. The prehistoric, glacial Lake Agassiz existed once again. What had been plowed fields of wheat and corn, soybeans and oats, potatoes and sugar beets were now an ice-cold, snow-melt lake. Sixty miles wide, from one side of the valley to the other.
Cash took a break from oaring, removed a mitten and dipped her hand in the frigid water. If you got caught in the floodwaters, the freezing temperatures would kill you as fast, or faster, than the rushing water. She quickly pulled her hand back out, cupped it near her mouth, and blew warm air over her fingers. Even bundled up in a winter jacket, scarf, mittens and a stocking cap pulled low over her ears, she still shivered in the cold.
Al, a friend of a friend of one of the regular drinkers at the Casbah bar, was sitting in the rear of the boat. Cash carefully turned around on the seat, so she was facing him. He wasn’t bad looking. His hair wasn’t as long as a hippie’s, but not a short farmer buzz either. His skin said Indian. Cash guessed he was a Vietnam vet.
As Al navigated the floodwaters, he would either drop the small motor into the water to move them along faster or bring the motor up when the water was too shallow. At that point, he would oar with her.
Just a week ago, the Red River Valley had been snow-covered. It had been a long winter with whiteout snowstorms that left four-foot road drifts and piles of snow taller than the haystacks in the fields. Then there was one day warm enough for snowmelt. That’s all it took—one day in the valley at forty degrees, followed by three more days with temperatures that didn’t drop below freezing.
The Wild Rice River, with its headwaters on the far eastern shore of the ancient Lake Agassiz, carried the snowmelt down into the Valley. And when the Wild Rice, along with a hundred other small tributaries, rapidly flooded their banks, all the water moved in a murky rush to spill across the fields of the Valley, the farms and towns, to join the muddy red snake that ran to the north.
Farmers had scrambled to sandbag their barns to keep their cows safe before moving to bag their own homes. Then they rode tractors into town to fill more bags to lay around the perimeters of the small towns; the huge tractor tires kept their bodies safe above the floodwaters.
Cash had spent eleven hours the day before throwing sandbags with a chain of humans—one end filled bags with sand, then ten to fifteen people passed the full bags to those at the end of the line, who laid the sandbags like bricks to create a dike in order to keep the river from flooding downtown Fargo. It was a rush against the forces of nature.
It happened almost every year with the snowmelt. The only questions ever asked were how high would the water rise and how long would it stay. This year was one for the records. Water rose and rose. It overflowed the riverbanks, filled the fields, crept into barns and homes, and the streets of the towns that didn’t sandbag fast enough. The floodwaters covered the land from the Red River Valley to Lake Winnipeg, way up north in Manitoba. Farmers prayed for the water to recede in days, not weeks.
When Cash had arrived home after helping fill sandbags, she was so bone-weary she flopped into bed without getting undressed and didn’t wake until the incessant ringing of her landline woke her. No one except Wheaton ever called. What few friends she had, had given up on her ever answering her phone. Most just dropped by and hollered up at her apartment. Or made the journey up the flight of stairs and knocked. But that early morning phone call rang and rang. It had stopped briefly, then started ringing again.
Cash finally pushed herself off the bed and stumbled to the kitchen, where the beige rotary phone sat on the counter. She picked up the handset. “Yeah?”
“Cash, it’s Wheaton. What are you doing?”
“Sleeping. There’s a flood out there.”
“We have a body here that floated into town.”
“Highway 75 is flooded. I don’t even know if I can get over to Moorhead. Last night, they were saying the river might crest over the bridges in downtown.”
“Maybe someone’s got a boat that could get you out here.”
“You’d have to follow the road up. Stay away from the river. River’s going too fast to try and get on. Maybe a boat with a motor could get you up Highway 75 or 9—9 might be safer. Water’s not as deep, and there really is no current. The water is just sitting on the fields, waiting for the river to empty up north.”
Cash had leaned her head against the counter. Her waist-length braid slid over one shoulder. Even though she worked out each week in the judo class at the university, the muscles in her arm holding the phone had been sore from moving sandbags all day. She pulled the headset away from her ear and stared at it.
“Yeah. Okay.” She hung up.
The phone rang again.
“You hung up. Are you coming?”
“I said okay.” And she hung up again.
It had taken some doing and a promise of a twelve-pack, but she finally found someone—Al—to ferry her the forty-five miles north. The sky was overcast. The last thing the Valley needed was snow or rain. The clouds didn’t look like they were ready to drop any more moisture, but they created a gray mass moving to the east above the muddy floodwater. A depressing, cold day no matter how you looked at it. Occasionally, the small boat had to fight the moving current but, mostly, it was an easy ride traveling north.
Al navigated through the flood-filled ditch along Highway 9. The murky water was about a foot over the pavement, but she could still see the white road lines. Al lifted the motor and he and Cash used the oars to bring the boat to land where the highway met the floodwaters. Al, who was wearing wading boots, jumped out and pulled the boat up and out of the water. He tied it to a highway sign, and they walked the few blocks into town. Al to the local bar, and Cash to the jail.
Wheaton, the county sheriff, was sitting at his desk, his dog, Gunner, lying at his feet. Gunner ignored Cash’s entrance. A few months back Wheaton had seen a gunny sack running down a gravel road, which ended up holding a small black mutt inside—probably a mix between a German shepherd and a Lab. Now, Wheaton and the dog were inseparable. Cash was certain the dog resented her presence in Wheaton’s life.
Wheaton was eating half a roast beef sandwich. He held the uneaten half up in her direction. They ate in silence—her on the oak bench she considered hers, and him at his desk. Back when she was three, Wheaton had pulled her family out of a ditch that her mother, who had had a few too many beers at the local bar, had rolled her car into. Cash had spent that night, and a few more, sleeping on the wooden bench she now sat on. Shortly after, she’d ended up in the foster care system. Wheaton had been the adult who stayed a constant in her life. Checking in on her, rescuing her again when things had gotten really rough in the last foster home. He was the one who had gotten her the apartment in Fargo. Got her to enroll in college. Insisted she “make something of herself.”
When he finished his sandwich, he handed her half his chocolate chip cookie. He called out to his secretary to bring them both a cup of coffee. Lots of sugar and cream.
As Cash sipped her coffee, Wheaton finally spoke. “There’s a body over at the hospital. In the basement. Looks to be about thirty, maybe thirty-five. Maybe Indian. Kinda hard to tell. She floated in with the floodwaters. Some high school students who drove to the edge of town to watch the water come in found her. Thought if you came and got a look at her you might be able to tell me something.”
Years ago, when Cash was in junior high, she had checked out a book from the bookmobile about meditation and yoga. Books were her escape from the world she lived in. There were days in the foster home where she was forced to sit in a chair with no food for the weekend. Bathroom breaks were scheduled three times a day. With nothing better to do, she practiced reading the minds of the people in the house. When she got bored with that, she practiced out-of-body travel and bending metal forks with her mind. She had discovered that mind-reading wasn’t that hard, and that the out-of-body experience involved slipping out of her physical body and traveling through the air.
There were nights she dreamt she was an eagle gliding through the sky, looking down through rooftops, seeing what people were up to. Through these dream experiences she often knew things would happen before they did in the physical world. Or she found out things she wasn’t supposed to know. Her knowledge of one foster father having an affair with a woman from the church had caused untold drama when Cash had casually let it slip one evening over dinner, saying, “I had this crazy dream
.” Everyone went berserk, with her taking the worst beating.
After that, the next time she saw Wheaton at a school basketball game, she went up into the bleachers and sat by him. When he’d asked how things were going, she told him the dream. She explained how everyone in the family had freaked out. She told him sometimes she knew things and then they would happen; they would come true. Wheaton just nodded and listened without comment. He was one person Cash could count on to not make her feel crazy.
A few months after that conversation, Cash dreamt about some boys from a neighboring town who stole a pickup and some gas from a farm way out in the country. She did not know Wheaton was looking for whoever was stealing gas and vehicles from farmsteads throughout the county. When she told Wheaton her dream, she was surprised by all the details of the dream he wanted to know. Cash had said, “All I dreamt was the ringleader’s first name, and that he’s from Felton.” Within a week, Wheaton had found the ringleader and his wannabe gang members. The main kid was sent to some state juvenile facility. After that, Wheaton asked her to share any other dreams or hunches with him she might have from then on.
After the foster father’s affair drama, Cash learned not to discuss what she knew with anyone except Wheaton.
“What do you think?” Wheaton’s question pulled her back into the current situation.
“Beats school. Or hauling sandbags.”
Wheaton stood and pulled on his winter coat. “Stay,” he said to Gunner. “Mind if we walk? We can get there faster than it will take for the heater to kick on in the car.”
Cash hadn’t bothered to take off her winter gear. “Let’s go then.” Her voice was muffled from behind the scarf she rewrapped around her neck and over her mouth.
They walked in silence the short couple blocks to the county hospital. Wheaton led the way into the basement, which served as the county morgue. Their footsteps down the stairs and across the marble floor echoed. Cash got chills as they stepped inside the heavy door that opened into the morgue.
A body, covered with a white sheet, lay on a metal table in the middle of the room. The air smelled of formaldehyde and alcohol. Doc Felix sat on a metal stool pulled close to another metal table that was bolted to the concrete wall. Cash fought the urge to gag, not sure which repelled her more, the sight of Doc Felix or the sight of Doc Felix eating a chicken sandwich in the same room as a dead body.
In an earlier situation, she’d met Doc Felix when a dead man was found in a field northwest of town. At that time, Doc Felix’s breath had smelled of alcohol, and his disrespect toward the dead man, who was from the Red Lake Reservation to the north, had angered her. She reckoned her feelings were justified by the way he had looked her up and down with distaste.
He turned to Wheaton. “S’pose you’re here to see the waterlogged girl.” He walked to the table and unceremoniously pulled the sheet down to the naked dead woman’s waist. He smirked at Cash as he did so.
She ignored him. She looked at the woman. Her long brown hair lay in ropey strands.
Doc Felix walked around the table, inspecting the woman, side-eyeing Cash. “Kinda looks like you. Maybe a relative, huh? Then again, you all kind of look alike—hard to tell apart sometimes.”
“Quiet, Doc,” said Wheaton. “What do you know about cause of death?”
“She didn’t drown. No water in her lungs. If I had to guess, she took a few hits to the head. And then she was most likely smothered.” He pointed to some lumps that were just visible under her hair.
“Someone beat her to death?”
“I think she probably got knocked out. Then smothered to finish the job.”
Cash kept silent while the men talked. She slowly walked around the table. Doc Felix was right; the woman could have passed for Cash’s relative, but she doubted it. The woman was lighter-skinned than Cash’s year-round tan. Although that might be because she had been in the water. She was too young to be Cash’s mother and too old to be her sister, neither of whom Cash had seen in sixteen years. Cash shook her head, more to her own thoughts than to anything either man in the room was saying.
She caught a glimpse of a thick, tall dark shadow standing in the corner of the morgue. When she turned to look squarely at it, she heard a guttural hmmph
and the shadow dissipated.
She looked back at Wheaton and Doc Felix, both of whom were standing and facing the direction the shadow had been in; neither showed any concern. Cash redid the scarf around her neck and tilted her head at Wheaton, signaling she was ready to leave.
As they started to walk away, Doc Felix asked, “Don’t you want to know what I found in one of her garments?”
They both turned back around.
Felix was smirking. “Sorry I didn’t say anything right away. Slipped my mind.” He turned around and opened a drawer in the steel table against the wall. “Found this in her bra. All folded up and wet. Been letting it dry out. Looks like a page torn from a hymnal. One line’s in English, the other in gibberish.” He handed the damp piece of paper to Wheaton, who looked at it carefully before handing it to Cash.
Cash scanned the page. An electric current ran from the paper to her hands, stinging her fingertips. She quickly handed it back to Wheaton and left the room. The swinging doors closed behind her with a swoosh. She was halfway up the stairs before Wheaton caught up with her.
Copyright © 2022 by Marcie R. Rendon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.