Behind the bar at the Coal Harbor Inn was a window through which Jack Hawkins could see Lake Superior. “Is it always like that?” he asked the bartender, Bill.
“Like what?” Bill said.
Bill smiled. “More often than you’d think. What can I get ya?”
“It’ll be a few minutes to brew the coffee.”
“Take your time. I’m on vacation.”
Bill nodded and readied the coffee machine while Jack fidgeted with the vacant napkin. The place was empty, save for a burly man at a scratched tabletop Pac-Man reading the paper. Jack saw the front page headline: “Would-Be Record Sturgeon Found Torn In Half.” There was a grisly picture underneath, the half that remained still easily the size of a man. The man felt Jack’s eyes on him and looked up. Jack nodded hello.
“First time to Coal Harbor?” asked Bill.
“First time to Lake Superior. I came up from Chicago. Buddy of mine’s got a thirty footer on Lake Michigan.”
Bill nodded and smiled politely. “Chicago, eh? What brings you up north?”
Jack shrugged and talked out of the side of his mouth. “I got twenty days of use-it-or-lose-it to burn so I figured I’d do some fishing.”
Bill raised his eyebrows. “Oh yah?”
“Well, I don’t have anything lined up, but I thought I’d see what I could find,” Jack said.
Coffee gurgled forth from the Bunn. Bill set a whisky-laced mug under the stream. “How’s the fishing been up here?” asked Jack hopefully.
Bill smirked grimly and indicated the empty bar. “What do you think?”
Jack realized he’d struck a nerve. “Sorry.”
“Why? Ain’t your fault, is it?”
The voice came from behind the Pac-Man table. The man stood and folded the paper under his arm as he approached the bar. Bill reflexively poured him a scotch.
“I don’t think so,” said Jack.
The man sighed heavily and sat on the stool next to Jack. He slid the paper in front of him. “Have a read.”
Jacked looked closely at the half-eaten fish. It made him feel sick. “Unreal.”
“I run charters,” the man said, offering his hand. “Butch Coulston.”
Jack nodded, very interested. “Jack Hawkins. So what are your rates?”
The man shrugged. “All depends—how many, what time a’ year, how lucky you are. I ain’t got a catalog, if that’s what you mean.”
Bill smirked and handed Jack his coffee. Jack smiled sheepishly and took a sip. “I guess I’m asking if you’re available.”
“Today?” Butch said.
Jack shrugged. “Why not?”
“The fishing ain’t good right now,” said Butch.
“I just want to be out on the water for a while. Will you take me or not?”
Butch sipped his scotch. For several moments, neither man said anything. Finally, Butch broke the silence. “Alright, Chicago, tell you what,” he said. “I was gonna head out in a little bit—why don’t you come lend a hand here and there and we’ll just call it even?”
“You’re serious?” Jack said incredulously.
“Why not?” said Butch. “I could use the help.”
The Calliope was an old but pristine 34 footer with a fresh coat of lacquer and carefully polished stanchions. Despite its age, she was outfitted with the latest navigational equipment and hardware, and immaculately clean. To Jack’s delight, Butch pointed out that one of the two large coolers on board was iced and filled to the brim with cold beer. He offered one to Jack, who checked his wristwatch.
“It’s noon somewhere,” said Butch with a wink. He instructed Jack to undo the lines from the pier and he obliged with boyish enthusiasm.
As Jack stepped back on board, the big engines ignited under his feet with a guttural, satisfying bass. Exhaust belched from submerged pipes in the stern and Butch backed out of the slip with familiar ease. Jack watched other boats roll by one after one and wondered why no one was on them on such a day. Soon, the boat’s prow edged past the breakwater and reached out to the open lake. Something about the calmness of the water made it seem as vast as any ocean, and it took Jack’s breath to behold it.
“Awesome,” Jack said, moving up alongside Butch. “I can’t believe no one’s out today—fish or no fish.”
“They’re scared,” said Butch. “Can’t say I blame ‘em.”
“Scared? Of what?”
Butch stared at an unseen point on the horizon. “I gotta come clean, Chicago,” he said. “You’re here because I need your help.”
Jack’s curiosity was piqued. “How’s that?”
Butch sighed. “I’ve been fishin’ these waters for nigh forty years. Never seen fish avoid this area like I’ve seen lately.”
“Really?” said Jack, concerned. “I haven’t heard anything about it.”
“You’re the only one ‘sides me that’s been on this boat in over a month.”
Jack was shocked. “You’re kidding.”
Butch peered through the front window of the Calliope at a point perhaps a mile ahead, where the dark blue water was interrupted by a semicircle of turbidity. “Up ahead’s the mouth of the Peshawauk River. That’s where I think he is.”
Butch settled back in the captain’s chair and kept one eye on the horizon as he spoke.
“The Great Lakes form one big waterway, from here to the Atlantic. Superior’s the deepest and coldest of ‘em, thirteen hundred feet in places, which means there’s a lot about it we don’t know.”
He produced a can of Copehnagen from his jacket and tucked a thick wad of it in his mouth. Jack began to wonder if that was the end of the story, but Butch continued.
“A few freshwater species originally came from the sea, like the alewife. Fish like that in a brand new environment doesn’t have any natural enemies, ‘least not at first.”
Butch paused again. Jack jumped in. “I don’t think I follow you,” he said.
Butch glared at him. “One ocean fish takes a swim up the St. Lawrence one day. Hits Ontario. Erie. Huron. Michigan. Ends up here at the end of the line and sets up camp. No predators. Cold, like the North Atlantic, and deep.” Butch’s ire rose. “It finds food. It grows. Grows some more. Pretty soon, it’s big enough to eat smaller fish. Grows some more. Eats bigger fish. Grows some more. Eats a goddamn sturgeon the size of a canoe.”
No one, not even the captains of industry under whose gaze Jack had faltered in the early days, had ever made him feel so foolish. “That’s what you think is scaring the fish.”
Butch’s face softened as he nodded slowly. “I want to show you something,” he said.
He walked to the rear of the boat, leaving the boat on autopilot. He pulled a large tackle box from a compartment in the deck that was bound with a brass padlock and opened it carefully.
Inside was an enormous silver-plated treble hook, each side as big as a gaff. It was hand-crafted, and with breathtaking skill. Butch hefted it reverently, and caressed it with his finger. The barbed tip was hone to needle sharpness.
“It’s beautiful,” said Jack.
“A friend of mine custom-made this for me. You don’t catch a fish this size with a number four. Know what I mean?”
Something in Butch’s tone caught Jack off guard. He burst into laughter, all the while indicating with his hand that he was doing his best not to. Butch rose, indignant. “I’m sorry,” Jack said. “You sounded like Ahab just now and it struck me funny.”
Butch stepped forward, inches from the quickly waning smile on Jack’s face. “Laugh it up, Chicago, but that half-eaten lake sturgeon you read about washed up on shore right over there.”
He indicated an area perpendicular to them on the distant shoreline. “And right there, a few weeks ago, some kids I knew disappeared from their boat without a trace. Maybe it was an accident and maybe it wasn’t, but either way I don’t think it’s too funny. All I know is that there’s somethin’ down there that don’t belong, and I intend to get it.”
Jack felt violently guilty and stupid once again and backpedaled as best he could. “Butch, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
Butch stared angrily at him for a moment, then managed a smile. “Guess it is a little crazy, huh?”
Relief washed over Jack like bath water. He rolled up his sleeves and smacked his hands together. “Well, you’ve got me. What do you want me to do?”
Butch smiled and explained that a fish, regardless of its size, was still a fish and that the simplest method was probably the best. He had purchased the largest-gauge cable he could find and reinforced the outrigger arm with extra steel. The plan was simple: Bait the hook, let it out a ways behind the boat and secure it to the outrigger. Troll back and forth until you find what you’re looking for and deal with it accordingly. Jack found no reason to disagree with his logic.
Inside the second, larger cooler were a half dozen freshly caught lake trout. “These are from this morning,” Butch said. “You know how to clean ‘em?”
Jack nodded. “I think I remember.” Butch handed him a fillet knife and he went to work. For his part, Butch cracked open another beer and fastened the custom hook to the cable. About half an hour later, Jack was finished.
“Done?” asked Butch.
“Think so,” said Jack. He relished the sight of filth on his hands, the stink of the fish, the work. For several months, nothing worse than laser toner had dirtied his manicured hands.
“You want to bait it?” Butch said with a wink. “Your hands are already dirty.”
Jack shrugged and picked up the largest of the lake trout. “This one?”
“Perfect,” said Butch.
Jack joined Butch at the stern. Butch held the hook in his hand and unspooled some of the cable, then looped it carefully through the outrigger and handed it to Jack. “There you go. Just need some more slack.”
He let out more of the line and stepped back. Jack held the fish and the hook, unsure exactly how to proceed. “Through the belly and out the back.”
Jack nodded and started working the hook into the semi-frozen flesh of the trout. His hands were so cold were that he didn’t even feel the big hook yanked suddenly up and back and rip through the back of his left hand. He stared at it for a moment, wondering if he simply hadn’t been careful and pushed too hard. He turned to turn to inform Butch that an accident had happened, and that he required medical attention post-haste.
The first thing he felt after that was not pain of the hook, but a puff of air, pushed before a size 10 Wolverine boot traveling at high speed. The kick caught him squarely in the chest, careening him backward and over the stern into the churning water. The slack in the line caught violently, and Jack flung about helplessly in the water. Butch scrambled to reduce his speed.
Behind the Calliope, Jack screamed. It was remarkable how tiny his voice actually sounded compared to the rumble of the engine and the frothing water. Butch moved to the reel, freed the ratchet, and unspooled more line. “Help!” Jack cried.
“Come again?” said Butch. “I’m having trouble hearing you.”
Jack struggled to free his hand, but he couldn’t reduce the weight on it. He started to say something else, but his mouth filled with water.
“If you had given this any thought, Chicago,” said Butch, “you’d’ve realized that any fish smart enough to get that big probably wouldn’t go for a dead trout on a fourteen-inch silver hook. His tastes run more exotic. I appreciate you cleaning those fish, though. If I catch this one I’ll have my work cut out for me.”
“Please!” Jack shrieked. “Help me! Somebody!”
Butch shook his head sadly. “Listen to me, Chicago—I need you to focus. You’re bait, but you might as well be the best bait you can be. A master bait.” Butch laughed heartily.
The Calliope trolled for hours. Jack was weak from the bleeding of his hand, but the boat was going so slowly that he could generally remain on his back and not swallow much water. Over the engines, he heard a sudden crackle from behind him, the splintering of wood and the groan of bending metal all at once. The rumble of the engines cut off. He was able to tread water with his good arm, his mouth barely above the water, and turned see what happened. Most of the Calliope was lying on its side, torn nearly in half. Fragments bobbed up and down in the frothing water, but absent from the flotsam, Jack noted, was its captain.
His addled mind found respite in this. Apparently the boat had struck a submerged hazard; Butch had fallen asleep and the autopilot had steered the boat straight into it. Soon, though, it became apparent that despite his betrayal, Butch and the Calliope had represented his only hope. Without them, Jack had no choice but to accept the awful gravity of his situation. Shore appeared to be miles away, and with his whole body submerged the awful grip of the cold crept ever inward, making his efforts to keep his mouth above water increasingly feeble.
He had once read an article somewhere on what were supposedly the best and worst ways to die. Among the best, he recalled, were freezing and drowning. Either seemed likely at this point. As for the worst, it had been a long time but he was fairly certain it was burning to death, which offered a strange sort of comfort. Just under that, or maybe above it, was being eaten alive. How anyone could know these things, or postulate them at all, was no less confounding now. Still, he felt weaker by the second but somehow ready. Accepting. He knew oblivion lay ahead, and would meet it with his eyes open. So this is what it’s like, he thought.
Several minutes later , Jack “Chicago” Hawkins slipped beneath the deep, icy water of Lake Superior and sank face down through shafts of dwindling sunlight. People would ask what happened to Butch and the Calliope. They might ask what happened to the guy from Chicago who hired a charter. But while they would never know, he would. The answer waited below and he would greet it with his eyes open. It was dark, old, and rising fast.