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Fiction

Justice

Nels Hanson

We left the purple and yellow fish in Paul’s big tank lit by a lavender light and walked to my place, where I washed up and changed from my boots and slicker pants into clean clothes and then the three of us went down the hill to The Mast.

I was hungry after my last day of work on the Blue Fin and the marijuana and beer we’d had at Paul’s and I had the large bowl of chowder and the combination plate of breaded lingcod and scallops with French fries and lots of lemon and ketchup.

I’d got laid off and found another job the same day I’d found the lost rare fish in the Blue Fin’s net and saved it from Roper. Roper hadn’t gaffed me or cut me with his cleaning knife at the warehouse, but the tiff with him had got me fired and I was ready when Tug offered me the job in Kootenay.

Tug had talked to his sister, Joyce, about how great I was, then to Ray, her husband, manager of Evergreen Products, who assured Tug I could have the other opening at the mill in Montana.

We’d start work Tuesday morning and could stay with them until we found a place.

Paul treated us to the long, generous drunken dinner. It was an Oregon going-away party for Tug and me and a celebration for the beautiful fish I’d brought home safely to Paul.

But I also learned some things that night I didn’t know before, that waited for me when I went home to bed and fell like a stone from the Blue Fin

Roper had swung the gaff like a baseball bat and I sank fast through green deep lake water with the yellow fish diving at my side, leading the way, to a hoop of air and a green river where white statues stood and I froze and turned to stone and then awful white dust as I put one foot on the grassy bank of Mother of Water Lands—

“Here’s to Montana, compadre.”

Tug lifted his mug of dark beer.

“To the Big Sky,” I said, clicking his glass.

“Where is this place?” Paul asked.

“Corner of Pier and Reef,” Tug said. “Should I call you a cab?”

“No,” Paul said. “Where you’re going in Montana—”

“Kootenay,” I said, as if I knew anything about the town or the state.

“South of Glacier Park,” Tug said.

Paul sat up. “That’s near Sleeping Child Lake!”

He sounded excited, like when he’d first seen the yellow fish with the broad saffron stripes.

“What about it?” Tug said. “Watch your pressure. I don’t give CPR.”

“It’s this green lake that’s deep as hell. Larkspur and copper traces make it green,” Paul said eagerly. “It’s supposed to have its own monster. Like Loch Ness.”

“Hey, bro— Nessie’s cousin? I thought you were a scientist.”

“I am a scientist.” Paul grinned. He reached for his wallet. “You want to check my I.D.?”

“Naw,” Tug said. “I wouldn’t card a friend.”

Paul was a scientist, but he liked other things too. He had stacks of paperback sci-fi novels and other books that weren’t science.

And tonight he was drunk and stoned, we all were.

“The thing is, they don’t know where the water comes from. They can’t find it.”

“What water?” I asked.

“The water in the lake,” Paul said.

“Put out an all-points,” Tug said. “It’ll turn up.”

“What do you mean?” I said, ignoring Tug.

“There’s too much water, not enough going in,” Paul explained. “They can’t find its source. Three guys from Scripps went down a thousand feet in a bell. They couldn’t find it.”

“We’ll need a source,” Tug said, “when we get to Kootenay.”

“They poured some red dye in a lake called Moose Lake, but it never showed up in Sleeping Child.” Paul nodded. “I read the report.”

“Oh,” I said. I lifted my beer.

“You can see how the story got started.”

“What story?” I said.

“The Happy Hunting Ground.”

“Where’s that?” Tug said.

“Through the lake. That’s how they get in.”

“How do we get in?” Tug said.

“You can’t, that’s the point. You’re white. You’d turn to stone, like a statue. You have to be an Indian to reach Mother of Water Lands.”

“How come they call it Sleeping Child?” I said.

“I don’t know. That’s part of the story.”

“So you want Bill and me to bring back the creature?”

Tug poured beer into his mug, then held the bottle up against the light.

“Absolutely,” Paul said.

He swayed a little, then he turned to me and spoke in a fake professor’s voice:

“Bill, would you please net the Sleeping Child monster and place it very carefully in the back of Tug’s new used pickup? A sack of party ice ought to do it.”

“Why do you think I’m going?”

Paul shook his head and grinned. “Wow. That fish tonight. I don’t get it.”

“Okay,” Tug said. “Enough’s enough. We have to confess.”

“What?” Paul stared at Tug.

“Dropped it in yesterday, didn’t I, Bill? Come on, Paul’s onto us.”

“Tug told me where to find it.”

“Ten miles nor’ nor’ east, one hundred fathoms.”

“There it was,” I said.

Paul raised his mug.

“To Pesca variosa. The fish of a different color.”

“To an age of men and monsters —” Tug imitated white-haired crazy Dr. Pretorius.

We all clicked mugs.

“Let’s go have a drink or three,” Paul said. “I’m going to miss you guys.”

He gripped each of us by the arm. “The Three Musketeers.”

“To Athos, Porthos, and—” I couldn’t remember the other one from the movie.

“Bill deserves a citation,” Paul said. “‘Finder of the Fish!’”

“How about a finder’s fee? Pay up, Paul.”

“He already did,” I said. “He bought us dinner.”

The waitress had brought the change and we left a tip and started the three blocks to the Gill Net. Paul tilted sideways a time or two and Tug caught him and straightened him up. I was high but I could walk all right.

Like the fish, Garcia’s smiling face on Tug’s Grateful Dead t-shirt—“We’re Jerry’s Kids”—glowed green in the dark.

“Hey, Mouseketeers—”

Tug stopped short at a swim shop where a shadowed mannequin in an orange bikini lit up, darkened, lit up, quickly blinking sudden colors as she started to come to life.

Tug stood straight, tucking in his shirt.

“Suck it in.”

Two squad cars were parked in front of the Gill Net, their roof lights flashing blue and red.

“I don’t dig the bears,” Tug whispered loudly. “Let’s detour.”

The leather door flew open and a cop came out backward, holding a billy club.

Ed Roper from the Blue Fin lurched forward, a bigger cop grabbing his collar and shoving him hard from behind.

Roper had a bloody cut on his brow and his hands were cuffed at his back. His lip was split and bled over his chin onto his white sport shirt. He looked burly and belligerent under the red neon. An angry bump swelled between his clumps of orange hair.

The cop opened the door to the squad car and the big cop shoved Roper in, head first, so he fell across the seat. The door shut and a bottle flew and smashed against the window.

Both cops ducked, spinning on the sidewalk as they reached and drew their guns. Tug grabbed Paul’s arm and we crouched below the mannequin.

“You tell that dirty pig to stay away! You hear me?”

In the doorway stood a tall topless blonde with a welt by her eye and a spot of bright blood under her nose. She wore a lime-green G-string and matching spike heels.

The cops glanced at one another, holstered their guns and started forward to take her by the wrists.

From three feet she kicked out with the toe of her green satin shoe in a long rising swing like a pro punter and caught the big cop perfectly between the legs. He started to rise, then doubled over with a loud grunt and went down to his knees on the sidewalk.

“Hey, give me a hand!” the other cop yelled, now he saw us standing against the window. “My partner’s down—”

We didn’t move and he turned back to the woman, hand on his gun.

“Shoot me, go ahead, you bastard!” She threw back her long hair and put out her breasts.

She looked like an Amazon warrior who’d leaped in full flesh straight from the battlefield. All she needed was a headdress and a spear. She was six feet at least, with wide shoulders and solid-looking arms and a strong angry handsome face with blood on her lip.

“You’re all alike. Like that pig—”

She wasn’t drunk, just furious, pointing a long arm toward the car.  

The cop’s hand left the gun for the billy. He gripped the handle, then dropped his empty palm to the side.

“What do you want to do?” he asked the man on the sidewalk.

His partner’s head was down, he didn’t answer. The girl bent forward so her buttocks showed and took off a high heel as the smaller cop stepped back.

“Watch it there—” He touched the billy in case she rushed him. She outweighed him by forty pounds.

“Pig!”

The cop dipped his head to the side and the shoe hit the door of the squad car.

“That’s enough. You’re getting in deeper.”

“Screw it!” she yelled. “I’m sick of him!” She started to move and he took a step back, then stood his ground, ready to meet her hand to hand if she went for Roper.

“Hey, Dixie!”

“You—”

She turned in mid stride, her glittered breasts flashing in the light from the patrol car.

“Who’s that?”

“It ain’t the man in the moon.”

Tug had stepped forward, his silver earring sparkling.

“It’s me. Tug.”

He spread his arms, palms toward her to make peace.

“Tug?” She frowned.

“That’s right, baby. Your biggest fan.”

“You see what he did?” She held up her face, as if Tug were a doctor. “You see that?”

“What the hell—?” Tug swiveled around.

The cop tensed, waiting for him.

“Don’t, honey,” Dixie said. “I already fixed him.”

“You got a couple of them,” Tug said, watching the downed cop. He was still on his knees, with his hand out in front of him on the sidewalk.

“Did you see what he did to me?” Dixie touched her cheek. “He cut me.”

“Naw,” said Tug, “it’s just a bruise.”   

He leaned forward, looking.

“It is?”

“Would I tell you a lie?” Tug stepped close to her, his arms open. “Let Daddy kiss it and make it well.”

Dixie’s face froze, then she was in tears and Tug took her in his arms.      

“It’s all right, baby, it’s okay.”

“He’s a pig, a pig, a pig—” she stammered against Tug’s shoulder.

“I know, honey, I know.” Tug patted her bare back and put his mouth to her ear, whispering something.

Dixie nodded.

“Promise?” Tug said.

“Okay—” Dixie nodded again. She wiped at her eye. The brave policeman was helping the big cop up.

“You want to take her in?” he said.

His partner glared at him and he turned back to Tug and Dixie.

“I could arrest you,” he said to Dixie. “Assaulting an officer. It’s sixty days, minimum.”

“No—” “He’s the one—” “Roper did it—” “Bust him—”

A crowd clustered at the Gill Net’s open door, like wary animals peering from their den. The cop’s suggestion had brought them to sudden life, to Dixie’s defense.

“She knows that.” Tug gripped Dixie’s bicep. “And she’s real sorry. Aren’t you, Dixie, honey?”

“Yes.” Her wet cheeks were streaked with mascara.

“Here, Dix.”

A red-haired woman held a flannel shirt and dropped it over Dixie’s shoulders. Dixie put her arms in the sleeves and Tug buttoned it up. A hand lifted a Kleenex and Tug took it and dabbed under Dixie’s nose.

“There. Now, tell the man you’re sorry,” Tug said. “That’s the fair thing to do.”

The wounded policeman leaned down, trying to open the driver’s door.

“Let me help you, Frank,” his partner said.

“I got it—”

“I’m sorry I kicked you,” Dixie said.

“It’s all right—” Frank raised a hand without looking back and eased himself onto the seat as if he sat down in a hot bath. He slumped forward over the wheel.

“She apologized,” Tug said to the first cop.

“He started it,” someone said from the Gill Net’s door.

“Roper.”

“He tried to yank her off the stage.”

Frank rolled his window down.

“Let’s go, Pete—” His face was white. “We got the one we came for.”

“You don’t want to question her?” Pete asked.

“No,” Frank said. “Let’s take him in.” He reached for the ignition, looked ahead and put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.

Pete turned to Tug and Dixie.

“You’re lucky Officer Pratt isn’t going to file charges.”

“Frank’s cool,” Tug said.

“Roper broke up the act,” Dixie said. “He had me once and thinks he owns me. He’s pissed because he’s a shitty lay—”

She started to cry again.

“He scratched me—he grabbed my arm and punched me—” She turned her cheek.

“It doesn’t look bad?” she asked Tug.

“No, honey, it’s already going down.”

Dixie smiled and leaned her head against Tug’s shoulder.

“Why don’t you two sit in my vehicle,” Pete said. “I’ll take her statement.”

In his hand he held the green shoe Dixie had thrown at Roper.

Tug leaned forward and Dixie lifted her foot and he took off her other shoe and slipped it into his back pocket. As he led her toward the car he turned and winked at Paul and me.

“Fucking Tug,” Paul said.

“He’s something,” I said.

I thought of Roper lying in the back of the squad car facedown on the seat.

On the boat, after I’d stopped him from spearing the fish, he’d bragged about his new girlfriend, how he’d thought he’d died and gone to heaven. It was Dixie he was talking about when we were cleaning fish and he described peeling back her black stockings.

I took it as a sign that justice in the world was possible after all. Roper would benefit from some time in jail, his ex-wife and his kids wouldn’t mind. He was already shirking on his child-support payments and now he’d be safely out of the picture.

Like me, Roper would be absent from the Blue Fin.

They were all good omens—the fish and meeting Tug and the sawmill in Montana, the invitation to stay with Joyce and Ray. Now Roper had taken a well-earned beating and was on his way to a cell, while Tug escorted Dixie to wherever the evening continued.

It had turned into a good day, I thought, forgetting that justice is an odd-shaped sword—or that good and bad are sides of the same coin.

The blade looks straight but really it’s curved, like a scimitar that glints and shimmers back your distorted image.

If someone had stepped forward and told me that soon I’d be wearing cuffs in the back of a sheriff’s cruiser, watching a green lake go by where my love had gone when I dove too late and her silver bracelet flickered out, I wouldn’t have believed it.

But then I would never have met Charles Two Hats, never learned about the Sleeping Child or held out any hope for the world or myself or Emma Little Bear.

Never sung her hopeful death song with painted face, antler helmet and horn rattle as Charles beat the drum and we danced in the snow around the big fire, above the lake that in the moonlight looked lit from below with green flares, Charles said they were the night fires of the lost nations waiting for the Sleeping Child to stop crying and open his eyes.

Never learned that everyone, even Roper, is a lost dreaming Indian trying to wake up —

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