row2k Features
Body of Water - Chapter Five: No Good Deed
January 27, 2020
Dan Boyne

ED MASTERSON MADE HIS WAY BACK TO HIS TRUCK, walking along the Cambridge side of the Charles River underneath a canopy of giant sycamores. When Masterson walked, it sometimes looked like he was carrying a seventy-five pound pack on his back, leaning forward with heavy footfalls set with great deliberation, as if he was climbing a mountain. Today, he looked particularly fatigued, overburdened with the events of the morning. On his left he could see Newell, the Harvard men's boathouse, and on his right was the grey stone monastery of St. John the Evangelist.

He laughed to himself as he remembered how his old boss, Bill Burkholt, used to tee up golf balls on the Newell dock and drive them across the river, aiming for the flock of Canadian Geese that rested there, on the grassy bank. Burkholt hated the geese with such a passion that out on the river, coaching his crews, he even directed the coxswains to aim straight for them, hoping that the varsity oarsmen might take out a few as they rowed hard and fast. He'd often wondered how much that sadistic streak allowed Burkholt and his crews to win so many races.

The Charles was almost perfectly calm now, devoid of boats, and Masterson looked at it the way some people studied a piece of art. To him, the river possessed a constant, mysterious beauty, with colors and shapes and textures that all kept shifting, like a giant, unsolvable puzzle, or an impressionist painting that changed depending on your position to it. After the passing snowfall, the sun had come out and spread across the surface of the water, turning it into a silvery, liquid mirror, and the cold gave the water a heavier quality, like mercury.

In the middle, there were patches of colored light that broke into a thousand tiny pieces where the wind brushed it, and each of them caught a different shade of the blues and grays of the November sky, and occasionally the dark outline of a passing cloud. Along the far bank, it was inky black and completely opaque, but closer in, under the shadow of the sycamores, he could gaze straight through it and see bottom. The brown water was only partly clear, and looked like it was flecked with old coffee grounds.

There were moments when he would be out on the Charles, just sitting in his boat at the end of a hard workout, enjoying the brief sensation of tranquility. It was a good feeling, even though it didn't last very long. Now, however, even that was gone, as he suddenly remembered the sight of Finley's body, stiffened and gruesome, floating face down in the water until the frogmen rolled it over. At that moment some part of him had seized up and been held captive, like a bad dream that now kept recurring, leaving him in a less certain state of mind. It was a familiar, unpleasant sensation that he'd felt before - almost a year ago to the day.


He'd been de-rigging a boat in the boathouse bays, getting ready to put it away for winter storage, when suddenly he heard the sound of screeching tires, followed by a thunk and then a loud splash. When he slid open the big bay doors out to the river, he saw a commercial van, sinking nose down in the river.

For a moment he just stood there, trying to figure out how something so large could have possibly propelled itself that far out into the river. The van looked completely out of place, floating in the water, like one of those Boston Harbor duck boats that hauled bucketloads of tourists around every summer. While he was debating what to do, two state police cars arrived, sirens blasting, and two officers with life vests and a towrope jumped into the water without hesitation. Dumb move, he thought, given the cold water.

Masterson grabbed his single and quickly launched from the Harvard dock, paddling steadily. By now the two policemen had managed to open the back doors of the van and pulled out the driver, who'd suffered a temporary seizure but was now fully conscious and very afraid. Remarkably, the guy was completely fine, but in a total state of panic. Cold water could do that to you, not to mention flying off the highway at 60 mph and catapulting into the Charles River. By now the two cops were getting hypothermia from being immersed for too long, and they obviously had no good rescue plan except the rope.

"Have him hold onto the front of my boat," Masterson suggested. The cops reluctantly went along with the plan, knowing that they would soon become useless.

Clinging to the bow, the panicked man immediately started screaming at Masterson to paddle harder. Luckily, the long bow of the shell kept some distance between him and the crazy van driver, who scrambled to shore as soon as his legs touched bottom, and ran away without uttering a word of thanks. Masterson hung out for awhile, idling in his boat, and then left when the police no longer seemed to need him. He too, was starting to get cold. As he rowed away, he could see the caravan of local news trucks and a helicopter arrive on the scene, eager to get a story for the evening news.

Two hours later, as he was shopping for Christmas presents at Best Buy in Watertown, he watched a newscaster on a TV set cover the event, referring to him as "the unidentified man in a rowboat" who risked his own safety in the rescue effort. That's when his whole body started shaking uncontrollably, a delayed reaction to the potential danger he'd put himself in, combined with the fact that no one had ever thanked him afterwards.


Now, as Masterson walked along the Charles, he felt an echo of that unpleasant sense of panic, thinking about Finley and the events of the past morning. Convincing himself that it was merely the cold, he jumped into his truck at Cambridge Boat Club and got the engine and the heater going full blast. Then he headed down to Riverside to pick up his boat. He'd left it outside, without a cover, and there was no fence or gate around the public rowing facility to protect it from curious passersby. He assumed that the crowd and the law enforcement vehicles that had gathered this morning had dispersed by now, and he could sneak in and out without attracting any attention. It was an expensive boat, after all, and he didn't want anyone or anything messing with it.

When he pulled into the parking lot, however, he spotted two state police officers lifting his boat off of the outside storage rack, clumsily trying to transfer it onto a nearby cargo van. A woman in a white jumpsuit was hovering nearby, along with the state police detective he'd spoken with earlier this morning. The woman was holding a plastic baggie in her gloved hands, and the patrol officers were manhandling the delicate shell. They obviously had no idea of how to carry it properly. A makeshift tent had been created over the rack where he'd left the boat by using a sheet of heavy plastic.

"Hey!" he yelled, jumping out of his truck. "Be careful with that. It's my boat!"

"We know," Seamus Delaney said, intercepting him. "That's why we're impounding it." His voice was flat and his expression lacked the freshness and warmth that had been there that morning.

"Why? I mean, what the hell is going on?"

"Quite possibly a murder investigation," Delaney said. "We're definitely treating this as a suspicious death now." He looked directly at Masterson as he said this, waiting to see what his reaction would be. Masterson stopped in his tracks and looked like he'd just been gut punched, with his jaw dropped open.

"I thought you told me you didn't touch the body," Delaney pressed.

"I didn't," Masterson said.

"Well, your boat must have, because we found some traces of DNA from the deceased imbedded in that little black rudder on the bottom of it."

"You mean the fin?" Masterson asked, indignantly.

"Whatever you want to call it," Delaney said.

"Well, maybe my boat did bump into the body - so what? I mean, Finley must've already been dead," Masterson reasoned.

The inspector looked at him for a moment, enjoying the growing uncertainty in Masterson's voice. He had to admit, part of him liked playing the interrogation game.

"We don't know that," he lied.

"But it doesn't make any sense!" Masterson objected.

Delaney shrugged. "I'm afraid you'll need to come down to the state police barracks and give us another statement. And this time, tell us everything."

"But I'm the one who found the body," Masterson protested. "Now you are treating me like some sort of suspect?"

"Relax, I never said that," Delaney said, softening his tone. "We just need a few more details. It's a routine part of an investigation," he added.

They both looked over to see the two patrol officers, who had now laid the wooden shell upside down on the hard ground, resting on its riggers. They were encasing it in the plastic that had been used to create the examination tent. One of them looked vaguely familiar to Masterson, but he couldn't quite place him.

"Well, at least let me show your guys how to handle my boat, so they don't damage it," Masterson said. "It's worth a lot of money."

"That's fine, just don't touch it," Delaney said, and shouted over to the patrol officers that it was okay for Masterson to direct them in the loading process.

They had little idea about what they were doing with the twenty-five foot long racing shell, and even less concern about the boat's value. Masterson fetched some tie down straps from his truck and took control, barking orders about how to de-rig the boat and then lift it properly onto the van's primitive roof rack. After it was correctly positioned and secured, along with the oars, he even had to remind them to tie a red signal flag on the stern to indicate overhang. Then Masterson got in the van with them and headed off toward the State Police barracks, while Delaney followed in his squad car.

On the way, the two officers tried to make small talk with Masterson, reassuring him that his precious boat would be fine. The guy driving said he knew a little bit about men and their boats, since his dad owned an old rust bucket that they both went fishing in, going out into Boston Harbor. The outboard was worth less than the Charlestown mooring it sat on, he explained, but during the summer his father spent more time on it than he spent at home, sometimes just listening to Red Sox games on an old portable radio while he polished off a six pack of Piels.

Masterson just shook his head and didn't reply. The man was clearly ignorant about rowing, even though he was attempting to be nice. As they crossed over the Charles River and onto Soldier's Field Road, Masterson looked out the window and suddenly remembered where he'd seen him before, the guy who was driving; he'd been one of the two police officers who tried to rescue the van driver, only a year ago.

Masterson laughed to himself at the circularity of things. In both cases, he'd done something that he thought was right, but there was nothing and no one to confirm his good intentions, or to allay the voodoo of sheer panic that had been transferred to him from the drowning victim. And now, to add insult to injury, he was going to lose his prized King single for a while. The same boat that had once rescued a man out on the Charles River was now being treated as a possible murder weapon.

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Log in to comment
01/30/2020  10:09:02 AM
I've used the same golf shot approach to drive geese off the shoreline where we live. I hate all that goose crap underfoot, especially with grandchildren running and rolling around on the grass.

01/27/2020  10:18:26 AM
1 people like this
Good story. Wonderful description of the water's surface. Canada geese.

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