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THE INCIDENT AT THE LAKESHORE
“The Strange Hitchhiker”
SERGEANT GUSTAV GUSTAVSON – Canoe Cop
I tell you, Sven, she was a very weird girl.
“Weird in what way, Gustav? Weird like one of those UFO contactees? Weird like someone who’s spotted the Phantom Lake Monster? Or weird like a girl who likes chocolate sauce on her Friday fish fry? Please quantify this girl’s strangeness for me.”
Well, old friend, I’m not sure that nailing it down is quite so easy to do. There were a number of things that just didn’t seem right. But, you know, we are Canoe Cops, and we are supposed to render services to those in need, are we not?
“Of course we are, Gustav. You didn’t get to be a sergeant in the service by ignoring the needs of the public.”
I certainly did not. Though, frankly, between this incident and the trouble Officer Kelton had a while back… Some days, I’m not so certain. Perhaps we should have had this conversation in a bar, rather than a malt shop.
“What, are you kidding? The Attic makes the best malts in all of Phantom Lake County! Look, Gustav, why don’t you just give me the facts, and then I can form a theory.”
And by “theory” I suppose you mean some wild conspiracy—as is your wont. Sigh. Very well, Sven. Here is my story…
It’s getting late in the afternoon, near the end of my shift, and I’m paddling around the eastern edge of Lower Phantom Lake, heading back toward town and a well-deserved rest.
Perhaps I’ll find someone back at the office to share a bite of dinner, I think.
I must admit, that you are not the person I intended to sup with, Sven. I’d hoped for a companion of the fairer sex—one of the Paddle Girls, perhaps—Margo, Paula… or even Shannon.
“Ha! Shannon… You like to set your sights high, don’t you, Gustav?”
Hmm… Yes. But never mind that now.
As I said, I’m paddling my canoe around the edge of the lake, not too far from Gordon’s Causeway—you know, near the old dirt road that runs down by the shoreline, that deserted track that campers often use. I’m finishing up my patrol, thinking about the end of the day and dinner, and what else I might do this evening, when what do I spot?
“The weird girl?”
Well, yes… Exactly. Not a great leap of deduction, considering I gave away the answer at the start of our conversation.
I see this young woman, wearing a thin white frock—I might even call it a nightgown—walking barefoot down the dirt road, away from town.
“What does she look like?”
She’s not too tall, and she has long black hair that drapes down over her shoulders. Even from a good distance away, I can tell that she’s sporting quite a bit of jewelry—the gold of it glitters in the late-afternoon sun. And, as I said, she’s wearing this white, almost-nothing of a dress. I would guess her age as somewhere between nineteen and twenty-three. Her complexion is smooth, flawless, and she has a dark tan that would be envied even in one of those beach party movies that are popular with the teens nowadays.
Also, and most saliently, she’s drenched to the skin from head to foot. So, despite the alluring distraction of her curves, as revealed by her wet, flimsy outfit, I can’t help but think that this girl must be in some kind of trouble.
Perhaps she was out parking with her boyfriend, and something went wrong, I muse, knowing that this section of road is very popular for Submarine Races and other similar activities with the teenage set. This poor thing wouldn’t be the first girl to walk home after slapping a date who got fresh. Nor would she be the first to get thrown into the lake during a juvenile frolic.
So, there she is, bejeweled from crown to bare feet and soaked to the skin, just wandering down the road.
But, I notice she’s heading away from town, not toward it, and I find myself very concerned that she might catch her death of cold before she discovers her way back to civilization.
Knowing my duty, I paddle over next to the shore and call to her:
“Excuse me, Miss… Are you in need of assistance? Are you lost?”
She turns toward me, Sven, and I swear, she has the most stunning green eyes I have ever seen—almost like gleaming emeralds set into her dusky face. Her long black hair glistens, as if oiled, in the afternoon sunlight. She tilts her head for a moment, curious, and then smiles at me and says:
“Why, yes. I suppose I am lost.”
Her voice is as warm as a summer breeze. She has a lilting accent—which I’m not quite able to place; North African, perhaps?—and her smile… Well, that smile is almost enough to make me forget about her enchanting eyes.
“Pretty near sounds like you’re in love there, eh, ol’ pal?”
Love, Sven? Nonsense. I’m just trying to convey the power of the initial impression that this girl made upon me. I was so impressed, in fact, that I did not—at first—even notice the strangeness of her habiliments. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
“Hop into the canoe,” I say, “and I’ll give you a lift to back to town.”
She nods politely, never taking her stunning eyes off of me, and steps nimbly into my conveyance, taking the seat near the bow. I push away from shore and begin paddling toward town and Canoe Cop Headquarters.
The girl faces forward, tracking our progress as we go, occasionally dipping her fingers into the cool, clear waters of Lower Phantom Lake.
As I noted earlier, when I stopped to talk to her, I was under the impression that she was merely a jilted teenager. As we travel, though, I begin to doubt my initial assessment.
For one thing, she does not carry herself like a normal adolescent. Though she appears young, there is a regality in her demeanor not found in your average Wisconsin farm girl.
Also, there is the dress, which I now perceive is not your ordinary white summer frock. Rather, it seems to be fine cotton, perhaps handspun, and so thin as to be almost transparent—even if it were not wet.
“Ha ha. I bet you enjoyed that, even though you’ll deny it.”
Sigh! Why should I bother?
And then there’s that jewelry I mentioned. At first, I thought it mere costume frippery, but now I can see that it—like the dress—is of much better quality than I first observed. It appears to be hand-beaten gold, highly polished, and set with a variety of cut glass and semi-precious stones. Cunningly worked anklets circle above her bare feet, and she has bracelets of similar craftsmanship at her biceps and slender wrists.
A sparkling tiara, fronted by a rearing golden cobra, rests at her forehead. Most impressive of all, though, is the bejeweled necklace that hangs at her throat. It features twin winged goddesses—in the Egyptian style—flanking a scarab whose back is a single red carnelian the size of a half dollar. All in all, this strange waif looks as though she might have just stepped out of a somewhat risqué production of Aida.
Sensing my gaze, the woman—for I realize now that this is no mere jilted farm girl, but a fully grown, if youthful, adult—turns those hypnotic green eyes upon me.
“You like my necklace?” she asks in her charmingly accented voice.
“I-I’m sorry,” I say. “I did not mean to stare. But it is a lovely pendant.”
“Lovely,” she agrees. “Perhaps one day, I shall find it again.”
“Pardon?” I reply, because what she just said makes no sense to me. The necklace hangs around her throat. Why would she need to find it?
She merely smiles at me and then…
“And then, what?”
And then, the next thing I remember, I’m waking up flat on my back, staring up at the gunwales of the canoe and the late afternoon sky above.
I sit up and discover that my canoe is drifting in toward the docks in front of Canoe Cop HQ—but the woman, this strange, enchanting naiad, is gone. I see no sign of her either in the canoe, on shore, or in the water—though I spend several frantic moments searching to make sure she has not fallen overboard.
And that’s the end of the story. That’s all there is.
One moment I was bringing this lovely creature to headquarters, and the next, she was gone—as if she’d never existed.
“Ha ha! I hate to tell you, Gustav old buddy, but it sounds to me like you were just dreamin’. You know… Long day out paddling the lake in the hot summer sun. Thinkin’ about home, and a cold beer, and maybe a woman to share it with… Those kinds of things can make a guy doze off. I know; I been there myself.”
I did not fall asleep.
At least, I don’t think I did.
I mean, the seat where the woman had been sitting was still a little damp when I woke up.
So she has to be real… Doesn’t she?
“Or maybe you’re just seein’ ghosts, like our own Officer Ed Kelton.”
I’m sure there has to be a logical explanation. I was an idiot, though, to believe that you, Sven, would be the one to help me find it. Your head is far too cluttered with alien abductions and…
I say! Who’s that girl who just came in with Lieutenant Agar?
“You mean the tall brunette with the killer baby blues?”
Did the Lieutenant just enter this establishment with more than one woman? Yes, of course that’s who I mean!
“Oh, that’s Ben Browning’s little girl, Julie. She was divin’ with Rich earlier today, tryin’ to recover something from that truck that went off the causeway. Looks like Rich got lucky, didn’t he—made a catch of his own, you might say. Quite a dish, isn’t she?”
Yes… Quite a dish, as you say. There’s something odd here, though…
“In what way?”
You see that necklace she’s wearing?
Well, if I didn’t know better, I would swear that’s the very necklace that adorned the neck of the weird woman in my canoe.
“Maybe Egyptian chic is the fashion nowadays.”
Yes, I suppose it could be … But why don’t we go over and ask?
“I don’t know, Gustav. I’m not sure the two of them want any company, if you know what I mean.”
Yes, I realize that but…
I’m afraid my inquiries will have to wait.
Here come those dreadful excuses for Canoe Cops, Lars and Uli. Let’s duck out of the shop, if we can, before they spot us.
After what I’ve been through today, I’ve no desire to spark a confrontation with those Danish dunderheads.
I’m going to use the men’s room; then I’ll meet you out front.
Leave something to cover the check, would you?
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