The Chemung River dipped through south-central New York, cutting through large hills and small alike, but in Pennsylvania it took a strong dip through the middle of the Pennsylvania State Game Lands and came out near Forksville as a fifteen-mile stretch of Class III rapids: Monongahela Run.
Somewhere on the river, between Class A Chemung and Class III Forksville, Kraj needed to find the man who had needled his boss, Tricky Rick, into a loss of about 25 kilos of premium, supposedly uncut, well-packaged and worst of all, well-guarded cocaine.
Kraj, survivor of the Domovinski rat and numerous turf wars between gangs in Kosovo and New York City, needed to find the cocaine in order to convince his boss that he was still the kingpin of nothing. This area of New York and Pennsylvania seemed an odd placing for Kraj, and honestly, for Tricky Ricky as well, but it was better than competing for space and status in the larger cities. Kraj took his girlfriend Camilla with him in his Subaru, hoping they could make a little vacation of it. Camilla seemed clear that it was primarily a business trip, but grew more excited as they went further into the hinterlands of Pennsylvania where only deer and bobcat lived, and where the occasional retro-hipster enclave competed with poachers and Boy Scout camps for living and hunting space.
"Are we really going to go in a raft down the river? Like, no shit Kraj?" Camilla drained the last of a can of Diet Pepsi and burped softly into her fist.
"No shit, Kraj," he said, patting her knee. Kraj kept the Subaru at an almost comically-quick 55 MPH. He didn't see the difference between the middling hills of the area, the gray stone and the occasional copse of pine in the middle of a farmer's hayfield, and his home.
"I'm glad," Cami said. "We haven't spent any time out of the city in forever." She put her hand on his thigh and squeezed.
"Can you get Pepsi for me?" Kraj said. Cami threw him a look.
"Don't get used to it, buster." Cami leaned behind his seat to a cooler and pulled him his can of pop.
"Please," Kraj said.
"I don't think I've ever seen so many cows and sheep together," Cami said. "Have you?" Kraj glanced out the window, the cows leaning on the high side of the hill.
"Cow and sheeps should not be together," Kraj said. "They graze differently."
"Really?" Cami said, chewing on the side of her thumb. "I hope the cabins are nice."
Kraj wondered when she might be quiet. He needed time to think of how he might best find the drugs. The drug mule in Elmira ended up with broken femurs and could not identify the attacker other than to say he was skinny and his car wielded a roof rack and a blue kayak with the sign Running River Guides laminated on the side.
"I am looking forward to the river trip," Kraj said. "It will be a fast and fun ride, according to the brochures."
"That's so cute, you acting like you don't understand English as well as I do."
"I don't know what you mean," Kraj said, taking a wide loop around a hay bale in the middle of the road.
"I don't know how you get away with it, is all." Cami brightened. "I admire you, though, really."
"Thank you," said Kraj. "It is not easy being me."
"Wait, did you just pull a funny? Kermit? Oh my fucking God." Cami sputtered with laughter and Kraj winked at her.
The Running River outfitters office consisted of one room, complete with ancient fax machine and the latest in computer technology, monitor humming, a two-holer unisex bathroom, and outside, a stack of canoes, kayaks, and three eight-count rubber rafts. Two men and a tall woman stood around a charcoal fire near to the river, which burbled excitedly about fifteen feet away, and a short girl with badly-dyed purple hair sat at the desk on the phone. Kraj waved to the girl but Camilla's eyes were drawn to a six-foot glass cage which held two dark timber rattlers among the fake trees and a small pool of water.
"Holy shit, Kraj!" Cami knocked on the cage with her knuckles. Neither of the snakes stirred.
"They're probably used to noise," Kraj said.
"I've never seen one so close up," Cami said.
"Better hope we don't see them any closer," Kraj said. He didn't hate snakes, but he didn't want to deal with them either. He dangled two hundred-dollar bills in front of the girl at the desk, whose name badge said Suzie. She got the hint and hung up.
"Two for the river?" she said. Cami clutched Kraj at the forearm.
"Yes, and two for your cabins," Kraj said.
"You folks in town for the hunt?"
"Hunt?" Kraj said. "What is in season now?"
"I guess not," Suzie said. "It's the county's annual rattlesnake hunt. Prize for the most, the longest, the heaviest, total weight. It's quite a thing around here."
Cami elbowed Kraj. "That would be fun. Snake hunt!"
"None for us," Kraj said. "It takes special tools and training which we do not have."
"My dad goes out with a burlap sack and a garden rake," Suzie said. "And he's never been bit."
"Thank you, no," Kraj said firmly. "Can we have our cabin keys?"
"Spoilsport," Cami said, pouting.
"The first boat goes downriver at 8 AM, and the cost includes a steak dinner at the end of the line."
"Thanks," Cami said. As they left, Kraj swore he heard the tiny tick of a snake fang against the glass. He shuddered, inside. Truly, he hated snakes.
Kraj woke up at 7:30 AM with a sharp thirst. Cami lay naked between his thighs, her head on his stomach. She had been so hot last night. He could feel her fingernails against the skin of his thighs and stomach still. The sun beat through the window. He patted her on the head to try to get her off him, but she simply groaned and switched her position. Finally, he picked her head up and gently tossed it off him. Once standing, he drained a warm diet Pepsi in two swallows. Then he pissed. By the time he'd washed his hands Cami was up in the middle of the floor on a pillow, doing her morning sun salute.
"You should try this," Cami said, her hands and arms flush on the floor, her full breasts tipping the rough wood.
"I am not limber," Kraj said.
"You were last night," Cami said.
"That's not the same."
"If you say so," Cami said. She wiggled her butt at him, and they showed up at the boat with only ten minutes left before launch. There were only enough occupants for one of the eight-count rafts, a guide in the front and a guide in the back, with three couples organized man-woman per side. The guide in charge explained that they would stop at a ranger station five miles in, have a midmorning snack, then tackle the rest of the challenging route, the steak dinner looming at the end like a reward.
"Jesus, can we get on with it already?" Cami said, twisting her hair in her hand.
"Calm down," Kraj said. He thought about the cocaine. No place to store it at the offices, although it could have been stored in one of the cabins. A ranger station five miles down a rushing rapid sounded right, though. No access except via the river. A good spot.
Skip, the guide in charge, sized up his companions. "You're a big boy," he said to Kraj. “You stay opposite me." Kraj nodded and took his place by the rear. Cami had been stationed directly ahead of him. She turned and blew a kiss. Kraj smiled and picked up the handle on the side of the raft. He and Skip held the raft steady so people could embark and settle themselves with their flotation devices and helmets.
Chip, the female guide with the purple hair, started singing some sort of sea shanty that Kraj guessed was intended to build rapport among the occupants. He smiled when he felt he should, tipped a paddleful of water at Cami and played the part of the good rafter. All the time, though, he spent looking at the sides of the river, gauging where one could hide something of this magnitude, looking to see if the tops of the granite sides of the pass would hold a rope, eyeballing every hunting cabin and high spot on the route. Cami noticed before anyone else.
"What are you looking for?" she hissed.
"Oh nothing, just for the wildlife. I would like to see a bear in the wild."
"Stay sharp now, folks," Skip yelled over the building roar of the river. "This is the start of the good stuff." Kraj felt the skin of the raft glide over submerged rocks and felt the rubber, to see if it would hold. Not that it would help him as the rushing current wouldn't have allowed him to get off via any reasonable effort: he'd have to fall in to stop it. Water slopped over the side every other stroke. "Go real hard now," Skip yelled. The raft bellied up on the current and for an exciting moment they were airborne, the men screaming along with the women. A blonde woman with forearms like a truck driver lost her paddle in the driving water, but Skip reached in with his bare hand and jogged it back into the boat, where the blonde woman took it back and without a word of apology went back to paddling. Kraj and Skip exchanged looks of pain. Kraj just shrugged. What could you expect?
"Congratulations," Chip and Skip yelled, "you've made it through the first run." Kraj's raft mates, including Cami, yelled with glee. Chip and the blonde woman pulled the raft roughly over the rocks to the shallow shore. Within minutes the rafters talked amongst themselves and laughed loudly while Skip and Chip pumped up an ancient Coleman stove that had been stored under a rough lean-to made of stray logs and pallet material.
"Anywhere to pee?" Kraj said, on the lookout for buildings.
"Pick a spot," Skip said as he cracked eggs into a wooden bowl.
"I mean for number two," Kraj said, smiling. Skip grimaced and pointed to a trail going up the side of a mostly granite and talus wall. "Thanks," Kraj said, beginning the trudge up the way. Halfway there he saw the red building of the ranger station. He opened the outhouse door. Other than a nest of wasps, he found nothing, even sticking his head down into the hole to peer around.
The door of the cabin was unlocked. He poked his head inside. "Hello?" he said. "Hell-O?" No one seemed to be there, so he went inside. The walls were piled high with extra paddles and flotation devices, plus a couple of deflated rafts on the floor and another raft in the midst of repairs, spread out on a picnic table. No sign of drugs. Kraj continued into the other smallish room, which held nothing but a first aid kit on the wall, a long table and a hodgepodge of unmatched chairs. Kraj felt the air in the place stutter, so he turned around.
"Sir?" Skip said. "You're not really allowed in here."
"Oh," Kraj said. "Sorry."
"You just looking for the bathroom, right?" Skip said, grinning. He looked back out the door and spoke in a whisper. "You want to burn one?" Skip said. "I got half a joint here." Kraj had satisfied himself that the cocaine was not there, so getting closer to the guide made sense.
"Sure, let's do it," Kraj said. Skip handed him the joint and a lighter. Kraj lit it and took a toke. Ditchweed.
"There's not much there, sorry." Skip said as he inhaled.
"No worries," Kraj said. "It's good to get high in the country."
"That's the God's honest truth," Skip said. They exchanged tokes a few more times. "I better get back down there. Chip gets pissy if I leave her to do all the cooking," Skip said, blowing out a long redolent breath.
"This was nice," Kraj said. "Thank you for adding to my experience." Skip gave him a sidewise glance and nodded. In that moment, Kraj knew he had the key to the cocaine in front of him. The kid was just too proud of himself. If Kraj hung out with him, within the time allotted for the trip, Skip would tell him where the cocaine had been stored.
"Are there many snakes here?" Kraj said.
"Oh yeah," said Skip. "We have to clean them out from under the cabins all the time."
"Is that right?" Kraj said.
"I shouldn't have told you that," Skip muttered.
"Is OK," Kraj said calmly. "Secret is safe with me." He made a zipping motion with his fingers near his mouth. Skip laughed, and they continued down the hill. This is the beginning of the end, Kraj thought.
Cami took a quick sniff of the air around him. "You could have invited me to the party."
"Not much of the party," Kraj said. He adjusted the Colt Python .357 at the small of his back then bent down to tie his shoe and adjust the knife inside his right boot. He didn't see a reason to worry, but Skip had his own reasons too, and a skinny-man strength that Kraj did not want to underestimate.
He took the plate of eggs and bacon and sat down next to Cami, who'd already polished off her plate of runny eggs. "Can I steal your bacon?" she said.
"Be my guest," Kraj said.
"All right, five more minutes and we're back into stage II, the toughest section of the rapids," Skip said.
Cami stretched her arms toward the sky, popping the piercing in her navel out into the air. "I love this country shit," she said. "I thought it was weird when you suggested it, but I'm having a good time. Are you having a good time?"
"Yes, I am," Kraj said. The cocaine had to be in one of the guest cabins. It didn't make any sense otherwise. Most of the places to hide it had been inaccessible except by the water route. What he needed to do was shadow Skip. The skinny guide knew all about it, Kraj was sure. But now he had another ten miles of river and a steak dinner to get through.
The paddling grew more difficult as they transitioned back into the rapids proper. In seconds Kraj could do nothing put backpaddle to try and keep the raft facing front. At one point Skip just let the entire thing go and they spun around in two tight circles before the front paddlers got their shit together and realigned the raft.
Kraj began enjoying himself, finally. He no longer had the cocaine in his mind, and every paddle simply led to the next, with the water slapping him in the face like a bracing aftershave. Chip had become overwhelmed at the front of the raft, so she switched places with Cami, who tore into her newer more responsible job of pushing the raft away from the rocks that came with more and more frequency now. Skip and Kraj held the rear end together well considering Kraj had never been rafting before. Just before the trip ended suddenly, Skip had warned them, there would be a tough ten minutes or so of fiercer rapids before the current spat them out into the placid end waters.
Cami raised her arms in triumph and screamed at the front of the raft the instant it hit a rock. She pitched over the side like a rocket. Kraj managed to get one hand on her arm before he too was catapulted overboard by her momentum. He went under briefly before his PFD brought him to the surface. He tucked his legs up and let the current take. Cami tried to fight it and went down twice, once nearly hitting her head on a protruding rock. Kraj finally managed to grab and tuck her into his body before the current let them down and thrust them forward into calmer waters where they could use the current to their advantage. Krak kept hold of Cami until Skip and Chip waded into the shallows to grab them.
"Holy shit," Cami said when they made it to more sure footing. Her legs and arms had taken a beating. She'd have bruises in the morning but was too adrenaline-high to feel them. Kraj could feel his back straining, though. He got to his feet in the rocky shallows and noticed everyone staring.
"What is it?" he said. Skip pointed at him. Kraj's shirt had come untucked in the water and the .357 had shifted around to the front of his pants.
"What's that for?" Skip said.
"Snakes," Kraj said after a moment. Skip noticed the delay, he knew.
"Glad you guys waited to swim till the end," Chip said cheerily. "That could have gone so much worse." She turned to Kraj. "You are strong, dude."
"He is," said Cami. "He's my hero now." Everyone laughed and walked back toward a fly someone had set up. A few feet away sat a couple coolers with condiments and paper plates and red cups. A coal fire lay gray. Skip took a rack and laid it over the coals carefully.
"You handled that well," Skip said.
"I didn't do much," Kraj said. "She fell, I tried to catch her. If I was better I wouldn't be wet."
"Yeah, sure," Skip said. "I'm going to put the steaks on. If you want a beer or wine it's in the first cooler." Cami got there before Kraj could move and brought two cold Yuenglings with her.
"It was a choice between Rolling Rock and this," Cami said.
"Thanks," Kraj said.
"Why do you have your gun?" Cami whispered. "You didn't even know about the snakes till you got here."
"Protection," Kraj said after a while.
"My ass," Cami said. "You're lying. You have some fuckin’ thing to do down here. Goddamn it."
"Keep quiet," Kraj said.
"I'm drinking," Cami said, tipping back her beer. "Quietly fuck off."
Cami refused to sit next to him or bring him more beer during the dinner. Kraj told Skip he wanted a bloody steak and Skip brought him back a filet mignon the size and hardness of a hockey puck, but Kraj smiled with every nasty bite. He didn't want to let Skip know he had gotten to him, or worse, figured out the real reason Kraj had made the trip downriver.
After Skip and Chip had cleaned up and they had all washed in the river they headed up a narrow trail to the last ranger station, where a Running River guide would escort them all by the vanload back to the head of the river and the cabins. They would spend one more night, Kraj decided, so he could check out the five other cabins while Cami and the others slept. Cami had been overwhelmed, it seemed. Despite her pissiness, and maybe because of the five beers she drank, she fell asleep, all beer breath and burgeoning bruises, on his shoulder. Skip rode shotgun in the van, and every once in awhile, Kraj would catch him looking back either at Cami or him. It wouldn't be long now. Kraj tried to settle his cramping calves, pointing his toes in any direction they would go to try to get rid of the cramp. It wouldn't be great to seize up as he crept someone's cabin.
Kraj woke Cami up as the van turned into the campground. "Cami. Cami." He shook her harder.
"I'm awake, Christ." she said, immediately disengaging from him.
"Wake up sweetie, we're home," Kraj said.
"Screw you," Cami said.
"I love you too," Kraj said.
"What did you say?"
"Nothing," he said.
At 12:55 AM, Kraj sat drinking a watery mess of bourbon and Diet Pepsi. Cami lay stretched out on the bed naked. It had taken her awhile to forgive him for acting nasty to her on the ride back, but the makeup sex had rocked like few other times Kraj could remember. The last time he had rolled off Cami he noted the time. 9:45 PM. She'd fallen asleep in her spot and had not stirred since about 10:30. It was too early then, so Kraj had fixed himself the drink, and waited for a sign. In his boxer shorts, he walked out on the short deck extending from the back of the cabin. The lights in two of the cabins remained on. The woods were a quiet sussurruss, peepers singing in the background, water rushing in the distance. One light clicked out. One to go. The overnight guide slept in the office, and tonight it was Skip, so he needed to be extra careful.
Staying silent also gave him a means with which to watch the couple in the next cabin screwing wildly on their back deck. The woman bored him. She just bent over and let her partner do his business, seemingly not even reacting. Soon even they went inside, and Kraj pulled on his jeans and a t-shirt, tucking the .357 in his waist along with the boot knife, thrust into the pancake holster behind the gun. He didn't want to use the gun, but he felt naked without it.
Kraj paused at the door of the first cabin, making sure no one could observe him. He slipped his knife in between the door and the jamb, popping the lock easily. Inside, he thought he'd hit it big. Piles of equipment, oars in one corner, two or three Coleman coolers stacked on end, bunched firewood piled on top of the bedsprings, folded t-shirts in plastic bags, this was the place they used for storage. Maybe not a good place for the cocaine, but he looked in the bathroom, in the toilet tank, under the beds and in both oversized closets. He found a small store of pornography in one closet, but nothing like contraband of any kind, let alone cocaine. He took the coolers down and looked inside, then there was nothing more to look at.
The second cabin would be the most dangerous, as pole lights stood on every second cabin, so everything he did would be illumined in blue light. He popped the door just as easily as he had the on the first and stepped inside. This one seemed dead empty. Kraj tried the bathroom door in the dark, and it opened easily, followed by a slow rattle that quickly went to a buzz, and he felt the bite on his foot. He swore to himself again, and stepped backward onto a fat section of snake, and was nailed again. Just then he heard the front door open, and Skip stepped forward holding a pump shotgun.
"How do you like that, fucker?" Skip said. "I told them the best weapon we'd have was those fuckin snakes, and you just proved it."
Kraj had never been snakebit before. The skin on his foot felt tight, and he could feel a tension in his toes and in his thighs that hadn't been there before. His heart felt like it was running overtime.
"He's a big fat one, too. You a hurting pup."
"Fuck off," Kraj said. He needed a way out now. He figured he had little time left, so he took two quick steps and launched himself at Skip. He caught the barrel of the shotgun and pushed it aside as he hit Skip with his knife hand, and he went down. Kraj tried to catch him as he fell, but he couldn't quite do it. He dragged Skip by the arm and dumped him by the bathroom, where he heard the snakes rattle again. He smiled, knowing as soon as Skip stirred he'd have fangs in him. Before he left, he remembered: the cocaine. He stepped over Skip's body, immediately hit by another set of fangs. What's one more bite, he thought. He kicked the snake out of the way. In the bathroom closet, thirty kilograms of cocaine. Not enough, in other words. But that wouldn't stop him from taking it.
Kraj took the shotgun, unloaded it, putting the shells in his pocket. He tried not to use his right foot. The pain spread evenly up both sides of his leg now and the site of the bites had gone purple. He dumped the cocaine in the trunk and never closed it. He opened the door to the cabin. Cami sat there in the near dark, fully dressed, diddling her foot up and down.
"Jesus Christ," Cami said.
"Can't talk now. Got to run," Kraj said, collapsing on the sofa. Cami went outside and dumped their luggage in the car, slamming the trunk. When she came back in he had nearly passed out. She slapped him semi-awake. He used the shotgun to prop himself up as he staggered to the passenger side of the car. Tossing Cami the keys, he closed the door. "Drive slow," he said.
"We've got to go to the hospital," Cami said.
"No," he said.
"Christ, your foot. It makes me sick to look at it."
"Look at the road," Kraj said through gritted teeth.
"Oh, God," Cami said, driving 65 miles per on the slow road.
"Not God, just Kraj." He smiled, thinking about how Skip would explain this to his bosses. If he made it that far. Kraj imagined him waking to snakebites everywhere, and no cocaine. Kraj knew he himself was in danger, but he also had to trust that Tricky Ricky would take care of him. Two hours to Elmira, he thought. His foot buzzed like a snake.