Chapter 12 -- Under the Bridges
Nick’s shot! Tommy pushed the throttle and guided the Marissa into the shadow of the State Street Bridge. His mind churned at high speed.
Nick had been moving normally, just seconds ago. He’d been shot just now! That meant the shooters were nearby, maybe with sniper scopes from the buildings overhead.
He slapped the autopilot on, and rushed to his father’s side. The woman was lifting him from the other side.
“Ruth, get me below -- out of sight.” Nick was in pain, but still alert.
She nodded. Her focus was on the bleeding wound in his right thigh.
“Hurry,” Tommy urged. “We’re hidden by the bridge, but just for a few seconds.”
Ruth put her arm under Nick, and lifting together, they got him to the main hatchway. “Bert! Get back,” she yelled. The dog moved out of the way. They headed down.
Tommy had to abandon Nick to the woman. He had to get back to the wheel.
Autopilot off. He eased back on the throttle, trying to avoid slamming a support pillar. He was too close to the edge. The entrance to the marina under the towering circular Marina City towers was just a few feet away.
And he’d let too big a gap open up between the powerboats and the Marissa.
The yellow slicker was lying on the deck, where the dog -- Bert? -- had dropped it. Tommy shed his jacket and put on the slicker. It had a hood, and if the Cleaners didn’t already know Nick was on the Marissa, he’d better keep his face obscured.
As he eased back into the convoy, he tried to make sense of the last minute.
Someone was chasing Nick, and wanted him bad enough to shoot him. That woman, Ruth. She’s the one on the voicemail at home. They were co-workers.
He remembered the voices at the pool hall. “He’s taken something that doesn’t belong to him.”
I don’t believe it. Tommy shook his head, and adjusted the hood so he could scan the people on shore. Would he recognize the Cleaners if he saw them?
They won’t be guys in black, carrying rifles. There’d been no sound of a gunshot. They were keeping a low profile. Whoever was after Nick was trying to keep it secret.
He felt the cell phones in his pocket and pulled the batteries from both of them. Just in case.
The bridges were coming like clockwork, once a city block. He looked for any sign of anyone trying to pace him. He was moving too fast for a pedestrian to walk, but too slow for the auto and truck traffic. The bridges worried him. Not only did it give him a moment of hiding, but it could also shield the actions of a sniper.
Stay in the convoy. Be normal. Don’t make any strange moves, and hope that this is too public for the Cleaners to try anything.
Of course, they shot Nick. Did they see what happened when he fell? The Marissa was out of sight if the snipers were on the north side of the river. He’d slipped up behind that big boat. Nick had come in from the north side.
Just stay in line and act innocent.
As he passed under the Franklin Street Bridge, he suddenly realized they’d reached the branch in the river.
Where are we going?
Just as he formed that thought, the lead boat took the north branch. The second one began its turn.
I could head south.
The Sanitary and Ship Canal kept on going, connecting to the Mississippi. With the mast down, I could go that way and completely leave the area.
But what does Nick want?
And besides, it was close quarters all the way. Once the Cleaners identified him, it would just be a matter of waiting out on a bridge or a lock, and picking him off. The only safety was out on the lake.
When it came his time, he turned north with the others. Almost immediately, he could smell chocolate in the air from a factory somewhere.
First funnel cakes, and now this. His stomach rumbled.
The dog appeared at his side. He held a folded note in his jaws. Tommy picked it up.
“Where are we going? We need to be out on the lake.”
It wasn’t Nick’s handwriting. It had to be from Ruth.
Who was she?
“Wait a minute, Bert. That’s your name, isn’t it?”
The dog nodded, it wasn’t a natural action for him, but he’d learned the human gesture.
“You are a smart dog. I’m going to write a reply. Hang on a moment so you can take it down below.”
There was a pen on a little writing ledge next to the radio and the GPS. He turned the paper over and wrote.
“I’m staying with a convoy of tourist boats, so we don’t attract attention. We’re currently on the North Branch.
“How is Nick doing?
“Where are we supposed to go?
“Why are people hunting us?”
He hesitated, wishing he could rewrite that, but this wasn’t a computer screen. What was written was written.
He folded the sheet and handed it to Bert.
The dog went below.
They were moving out of the downtown area. Instead of skyscrapers, there were warehouses and large parking areas for trucks.
What if they take the North Branch all the way to Wilmette? They’re powerboats. I’ve got a keel. What’s the depth here?
The northern passage was smaller, he knew that. But he hadn’t checked these channels. His charts were all below, and the GPS wasn’t really set up for that kind of research. It could tell you the chart depth where you were located, but he couldn’t steer and play with the gadget at the same time.
He was a sailboat out of its native element. Channels were temporary things, not routes you take for miles and miles.
Bert arrived with another sheet of paper.
It started out in Nick’s handwriting.
“Good work, Tommy. But we need to meet up with people in Racine as soon as we can manage. I’m sorry I got you into this. It was just supposed to be a company policy dispute. I didn’t know they’d...”
His handwriting grew sloppy. Ruth had finished it.
“Your father has a broken leg. The bullet may have done it -- maybe the fall. I don’t know. But he’s in a lot of pain. Please hurry.”
He folded the paper and slipped it into his pocket.
“I can’t hurry. It’d make us stand out.”
Racine? The only way to get there, other than risking the small channel, was to go back the way they came.
Maybe I made a mistake... No. It’s important to stay hidden. Nick’s hurting, but a broken leg isn’t immediately life threatening, is it?
He closed his eyes for a few second. What a mess!
The GPS showed distance traveled. Only a couple of miles back to the lock. Why had it seemed so much farther?
The channel opened up. It was the Turning Basin, a place where larger ships could turn around.
I don’t go any farther. The small channel led north.
The convoy began slowing, and the lead boat headed toward the dock. They were stopping here.
Not me. I can’t afford to.
He turned away from the group and then shut down the engine. The GPS gave him some details. The north branch of the Chicago River had two channels, and there was a straighter one than they’d taken. He turned to starboard.
The sides were tree lined, and he didn’t like the implication. He kept checking the depth soundings. If the place had been lined in docks, he’d have felt better. A business route would be constantly dredged. He had a keel to worry about.
Still, he made better time. There was no boat to follow and he left a wake that would get him in trouble if he didn’t watch it. As he reached the junction where the branches joined, there was a tug going almost as fast as he was. Tommy dropped in behind it -- close enough that the noise of its engine might mask the fact that his was silent.
They both turned toward the lake when the South Branch appeared.
Maybe someday, I’ll take that trip to the Mississippi. I wonder if I could get to Kentucky Lake that way.
As the State Street Bridge approached, Tommy steered the Marissa slightly to starboard and adjusted the hood of the slicker again. It was getting warm, but just a few more bridges, and he’d be out on the lake.
There was a little speedboat moored next to the tour boat where Nick had been shot. He tried not to turn his head. He shifted into a crouch, where the mast would hide his face.
As they approached, he could see three people on deck, watching the water. Divers. They have divers looking for Nick’s body.
He stared straight ahead at the tug’s stern. His ears perked up, listening for a shout. He didn’t breathe until he passed under the next bridge.
Hesitantly, he turned to look, but there was no chase.
On the shore was a dull red van. He imagined the face of the driver. He was the one who could identify him in an instant.
Don’t blow it. You’re just a white sailboat like a million others.
But another voice nagged. How many sailboats have their mast down? How many are missing the boat name? They can identify you. If Bert comes up on deck, the Cleaners know him.
One bridge after another passed overhead. And then there was the queue of boats waiting by the red light for the lock to open.
As they passed through the gap in the breakwater, Tommy pulled off the slicker.
Racine is north of here. But he didn’t know how far. He glanced at the fuel gauge. It looked good. Maybe the Sterling really was as efficient as the hype. He’d been under power for hours now.
I’ll need to make some calculations. Temporarily, he set a course north-northeast into the open lake to the east, then turned on the autopilot.
No one appeared on the horizon. No one was following.
It was time to talk to Nick. He’s got to explain this.
One more look around the deck. Nothing unsecured. He picked up the slicker and his jacket and started down the hatchway.
It was dark. His eyes had to adjust.
And then he saw the blood. Just a drop or two topside; the lower steps were smeared with dark stains.
“Dad?” He hadn’t called him that in years.
Nick was stretched out on the settee berth, against the side of the cabin. The woman sat across from him, holding a towel that was soaked in red. Bert was stretched out on the floor, waiting.
His father was motionless.
Ruth put her finger to her lips. She whispered, “He’s asleep.” She folded the towel and rubbed at the floor. “He lost a lot of blood, but I’ve got it bandaged for now.”
Tommy ignored her, moving to his side and taking his hand. Until he felt his warmth and the pulse, he couldn’t breathe.
Not wanting to look at her, he asked, “Who are you? What’s going on? Who shot Nick?”