Read The 37th Hour Online

Authors: Jodi Compton

Tags: #Mystery, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Minneapolis (Minn.), #Police, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Mystery, #Mystery & Detective - General, #General, #Suspense, #Women Sleuths, #Thrillers, #Missing persons, #Fiction

The 37th Hour (2 page)

“A girl? Like, around fourteen?”

“Yeah, she is,” Moore said.

“Where can I park?”

The trip out onto the railroad bridge kept taking me through sun and shadow, sun and shadow, not just from the bridge’s overhead structure, but also from the sun dipping behind a cloud and then back again. It was a day of broken cloud.

“I thought we radioed for the water patrol,” Moore’s partner said in greeting, mildly perplexed, as I neared him.

I knew him by sight but couldn’t quite remember his name. Something with a
V.
He was a few years younger than me, 25 or so. Handsome and olive-complected.

“Nobody sent for me, Officer Vignale,” I said, my memory delivering the name to me before I had to read his tag. “I was just passing by. What’s going on?”

“She’s still down there, Detective . . .”

“Pribek,” I said. “Sarah Pribek. Have you tried to talk to her?”

“I’m afraid to distract her. I don’t want her to lose her balance.” I turned, leaned against the railing, and looked down. Sure enough, the kid was right there, standing with her feet braced and her hands up on a diagonal strut. The mild breeze ruffled hair exactly the color and texture of Ellie Bernhardt’s.

“She’s a runaway from Thief River Falls,” I said. “At least, I’m pretty sure she is. Her older sister was downtown reporting her yesterday.”

Vignale nodded. “Water patrol is sending out a boat. Just in case we have to fish her out.”

I looked down at Ellie and the water below that.

Ellie had picked a particularly low bridge to climb out on, and that in itself was interesting. I’d never learned a whole lot about psychology, but I’d heard that when people make survivable suicide attempts, it’s often a way of asking for help. Then again, Ellie could simply have been confused, angry, and impatient and rushed out to the first structure across the Mississippi that she could find.

Either way, it was a fortunate situation. Up to a point: The river she was over was still the Mississippi.

I had grown up in New Mexico, and in the high country where I’d lived, the terrain had been crosshatched with creeks, but we’d had nothing like the Mississippi. At the age of thirteen I’d come to live in Minnesota, but even then I hadn’t lived near the river. The Mississippi had been an abstraction to me, something to be seen from a distance or crossed on the occasional road trip. It wasn’t until years later that I’d gone down to the river to check it out at close hand.

Down at the bank, a kid had been pretending to fish with plain string tied to a long branch.

“Does anyone ever go in?” I’d asked him.

“I saw a man go in once with a rope around his waist,” the kid had said. “The current took him under so fast that both his friends, they were both grown-ups, had to pull just to get him out.”

Since then I’d heard dissenting opinions on the strength and the malice of the river that divided Minneapolis. The Twin Cities’ police and emergency blotters have recorded the stories of people who have survived jumps and falls from all of its bridges. But these survivals aren’t the rule. Even sober, healthy adults who can swim and aren’t suicidal get in trouble in the river, largely due to the current. It drags you in the wrong directions: downward, where people get caught up in submerged trees and roots, and toward the river’s center, where the current flows fastest over the deepest part of the bed.

The fall from this structure might well be survivable, and the water might not be the paralyzingly frigid temperatures of midwinter. But all the same I thought it was best if things didn’t get to that point.

Holding on to a railing, I put one experimental foot out onto the edge.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Vignale said.

“No kidding,” I said. “If she didn’t want someone to come talk her out of it, she would have jumped already.”
I hope.
“I’m worried about
you,
Officer Vignale,” I said. “If your partner didn’t radio ahead to keep train traffic off the bridge, I’d think about going back.”

The bridge’s framework wasn’t really any more difficult to climb down than a child’s jungle gym at the playground, but I negotiated it a lot more slowly.

“You got company, but don’t be scared,” I said when I got down to the kid’s level, keeping my voice low and modulated. Like Vignale said, I didn’t want to startle her. “I’m just coming down to talk.”

She turned to look at me and I saw that she was indeed Ellie. More than that, I saw the beauty that had so worried her older sister. Ellie had in fact changed since the taking of last year’s class picture.

She was one of those people who seriousness, even unhappiness, makes far more lovely than a smile. Her green-gray eyes were heavy-lidded, her skin clear, her lower lip very full. The freckles from the photo, fading already, were the last vestige of her child’s face. She wore a gray T-shirt and black jeans. No pastels, no ribbons, no girl stuff for Ellie. If I’d seen her from a distance, I might have taken her for a petite 21-year-old.

“Give me a minute here, Ellie,” I said. On her level now, I was cautiously switching my handholds around so that instead of facing inward in my climbing stance, I could stand sideways, toward her, to talk.

“That’s better.” My feet were braced and I could lean back against the webwork. “That’s not an easy climb for a grown-up,” I told her. There were times when I liked being five-foot-eleven, but this wasn’t one of them.

“How did you know my name?” she asked.

“Your sister came to see me yesterday,” I said. “She’s very worried about you.”

“Ainsley is here?” Ellie glanced up and toward the road, from where Vignale and I had both come. I couldn’t tell if she was hopeful or unhappy at the prospect.

“Uh, no. But she’s in town,” I said.

Ellie looked down again, toward the water. “She wants me to go back to Thief River Falls.”

“We both just want to know what’s bothering you,” I said. When she didn’t speak, I tried again. “Why’d you leave home, Ellie?”

She said nothing.

“Was it the kids at school?” I said, floating the broadest, gentlest question possible, so she could pick up on it or not, as she wanted.

“I can’t go back there,” she said quietly. “They’re all talking about me and Justin Teague. He told everyone, the shithead.”

Somehow I liked Ellie just a little more because she’d used that word. Besides, it sounded like it might be warranted.

“Was he telling lies about you?” I asked her.

She shook her head. “No, it was all true. I did sleep with him. I had to.”

“Because you liked him and were afraid of losing him?”

“No,” she said flatly.

I’d thought this was what you were supposed to do with jumpers, talk to them about their problems until they felt better and agreed to come in. That didn’t seem to be happening here. Ellie Bernhardt didn’t appear to be feeling any better.

When I was her age, I was still new to Minnesota, separated from what remained of my family, feeling I would never belong anywhere. It wouldn’t help to tell Ellie any of that. When-I-was-your-age stories invariably fail to pierce the walls and barriers and defense systems of troubled kids who think all adults are, if not the enemy, at least useless civilians.

“Look,” I said, “there seem to be things in your life that need straightening out, but I don’t think the underside of a bridge is the place to do it. So why don’t you come with me, okay?”

She sniffed loudly. “I slept with him because I
didn’t
like him. And I wanted to change things.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“Ainsley doesn’t, either,” she said quietly. “I . . . I like girls.”

“Oh,” I said.
This just in from left field.
“That’s all right.”

Angry tears stood in Ellie’s eyes as she stared me down. “All right for
who
?” she demanded. “For
you
? Some cop in Minneapolis?”

As if her rage had freed her, Ellie jumped.

And I did, too.

If it had been January, the river at its most frigid, my decision might have been different. Or maybe I would’ve stayed where I was if I’d done everything right, instead of making Ellie talk about her problems and getting her upset enough to jump.

Or maybe I was lying to myself when I called it a decision. I don’t really remember thinking anything. When I let go, that is. In between the time when I realized I had really let go of the framework and the time I hit the water, I thought of several things in very quick succession. The kid on the bank with his ridiculous pretend fishing pole. My brother, holding my head under the water in a trough when I was five.

Last of all, I thought of Shiloh.

I learned something that day that I’d only thought I’d known: the river you stick your feet in on a summer’s day, with a little shiver at its coldness even in June, is not the same river God throws at your body when you fall from even a moderate height. I felt almost as if I’d hit a sidewalk; the impact was so jarring I bit my tongue, drawing blood.

Most of the first moments after I jumped passed too quickly for me to remember much of them. My lungs were burning when I finally broke the surface again, and almost immediately I was breathing like a racehorse. The environment was so different from the tame, cool, chlorinated waters of the lap pool in which I’d been taught to swim that I was reduced to struggling in the current like someone who’d never learned at all. It was pure coincidence, I think, that I bumped Ellie and got hold of her.

She’d either knocked herself out hitting the water wrong or had gone motionless from shock. Either way, she wasn’t struggling, which was a blessing. I got an arm around her and rolled onto my back, breathing raggedly.

Anxiety stabbed me when I noticed how rapidly the railroad bridge was disappearing, and how quickly we’d been carried to the center of the river. The current kept pulling at my scissoring legs, particularly my flooded boots, which felt as heavy as cinder blocks.

I kicked for the shore, and paddled weakly with my free arm. I did that for a minute or two. And then I realized something: I wasn’t going to be able to save Ellie. I wasn’t a strong-enough swimmer.

I could keep us both above the surface, if I kicked hard enough. But that was all. And how long could I do that? After a certain point, Ellie might be dead, because I wasn’t at all sure I was keeping her face above the surface enough to keep her from inhaling water, filling her lungs.

And if I remembered my geography right, before too much time we’d be at the spillway, the lock and dam near the Stone Arch Bridge. That was, by far, the greatest hazard in the area. I’d heard that someone had gone through it once and survived. The word I’d heard in connection with that incident was
fluke.

I could let go of Ellie and swim for the bank in my serviceable crawl stroke, and live. Or I could stay with her and drown.

I don’t think I really weighed that choice much. Rather, my cold arms wouldn’t let go of Ellie’s frame. We went under, briefly. I swallowed water, came up coughing, and saw in the sky above me that the sun had gone behind another cloud. The cloud was dark gray and wet-looking, but its torn edges were turned a fiery gold from the sun behind it.

God, that’s beautiful.

And then something on the periphery of my vision distracted me. It was a boat. A towboat, actually, but one without a barge before it.

It was all luck for Ellie and me that day: luck that the towboat was stalled in the water where its crew had time to notice us, that its powerful engine wasn’t going, kicking up a current that would have made a rescue impossible.

The crew had seen us. They were yelling at us, but my ears were too full of water to hear anything, turning them into the cast of a silent movie, animated, gesturing. One of them was throwing something.

It was a line, with an empty, sealed two-liter soda bottle tied to it to keep the far end from sinking. I kicked up great splashes on the surface as I headed for it, and with great relief got my free hand on the floating bottle.

Something strange had happened to my flesh in the water. Usually, when the weather is frigid and even warm winter clothes aren’t enough, the fingertips and toes go numb first, followed by the whole of the hands and feet. But when they pulled me out, I could still feel my fingers, but the skin of my upper arms and chest had lost sensation, so that I barely felt the edge of the deck as many hands pulled me ungracefully onto it. It was then I realized I’d shrugged off my jacket; at least, I wasn’t wearing it anymore.

Ellie was already lying on her back next to me, eyes closed. The skin of her face was so white from the cold water that the freckles I had seen as fading now stood out in stark relief. I sat up.

“Is she—”

“She’s breathing,” the oldest of the crew told me. As if to prove it, the semiconscious Ellie turned to her side and vomited up some river water.

“Jesus,” a young Hispanic deckhand said, watching.

“Are you all right, miss?” the old one asked me. His doubtful eyes were a piercing blue, although the rest of him was grizzled and faded. He looked Scandinavian, like a Minnesotan of old, but I heard Texas in his voice.

“I can’t feel the surface of my skin,” I said, pressing my shaking fingers into my triceps. It was a very disconcerting sensation. I got shakily to my feet, thinking that walking might help.

“I have rye,” he said.

In my first-aid training, our instructor had advised against offering or accepting “field medicaments” in time of trauma: alcohol, cigarettes.

But at that moment I wasn’t thinking about my training, the fact that I’d mostly quit drinking a few years back, or that the water patrol’s boat was on the horizon now, its prow bouncing on the water as it approached. A little rye whiskey sounded eminently reasonable at that moment.

But it was my own weak flesh that saved me from myself. When the riverman put the bottle in my hands, it slipped right through my shaking fingers and shattered on the deck.

 

chapter 2

Fallout from Ellie Bernhardt’s
attempted suicide ate up most of my afternoon.

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