CAMERA SHY

By Ed Lynskey


Only seconds after Dr. Tom O’Rourke had set up the tripod, a gust of wind ripping down from the promontory knocked it over. The infrared camera struck the basaltic ledge with a thud.

“ Damn!” Tom examined the camera’s damage.

Alice Boyd, his wife and research partner, jerked up her head. “Broken?” Tom rotated the camera in his hands. He nodded. “Yep. Smashed lens. Good thing I brought a spare.” He tossed the damaged camera into the Scottish loch’s pool and removed the backup camera from inside his field pack. Disappointment coarsened his voice. “Today was a bust. We’ll eat a hot meal and turn in early. Tomorrow before daybreak, we’ll hustle straight down.”

“My travel guide books didn't mention these Arctic blasts.” Alice yanked up her parka’s hood to pull the drawstrings tight. Tom nudged gold-rimmed glasses back up his nose. “I figure April is a windy month. But I can handle it. Can't you?" he said. “Perhaps the broken camera is Nessie’s hint that we shouldn't do this. I've been having bad dreams about this place.” Tom scoffed. “You and your mystical dreams. This sea loch voids into the Atlantic. Well, you can start doing the Australian crawl for home.” After rummaging in her field pack, Alice set out his meteorological instruments. She recorded their measurements to input on his PDA: 4:30 p.m., 30.14 inches of mercury and falling, and thirty degrees Fahrenheit. “This camera isn’t working either. All right, bag my stuff and let’s book. Tomorrow we'll be back.” Tom retrieved the tripod to stash in his second field pack. As Alice clasped her two field packs to sling over a shoulder, Tom appraised the stone-choked wasteland around them. Loch Tram lay twenty-five miles northwest of Loch Ness. The runoff drainage of local peat dyed its waters opaque brown. Their lone footpath out was over a series of switchbacks down the cliff face.

One false step, Tom realized, would be their final. He didn’t share that insight with Alice. Besides, he was always sure-footed. He took pride in it. He hefted his two field packs.

They hiked up the ascent. Curious, Alice toed a few pebbles over the edge. She didn’t hear them strike the bottom. An idea popped into her head. If Tom should lose his balance and fall, might he die on impact? Might she bury him beneath a cairn erected from Loch Tram’s gray rocks? One little slip was all it took. The thought shamed and excited her. She tramped by a stone memorial built to honor a bomber crew who’d crashed here in 1945.

Tom followed Alice, Wolverine boots crunching over the rubble. Their field packs sagged heavy carrying his critical, heavy equipment. The nylon straps gnawing into Alice’s shoulders needed readjustment. At the next switchback, breathless, she shouted out. They halted for her to tighten the straps' buckles. She started to rub her raw spots but thought better of it.

“Can’t you hurry it up? I can’t be trapped down here all night,” said Tom. “Then we should’ve left earlier.” “My dear little Alice-in-Wonderland, I’m not jumping into another spat with you. We agreed it was reasonable to rig up an infrared camera to shoot overnight pictures. But then the wind kicked up. The tripod blew over and the camera broke. Bad luck but tomorrow we'll recover just fine.” "You're the man always with the plan,” said Alice. They resumed the climb. All Alice had to show for her first day in Scotland were sore muscles and a grouchy disposition. Something bothered her. Tom had kept everything secret to safeguard his research about Nessie. Nobody knew they were in Scotland. Tom would break his big news to the world know soon enough.

“ How long do you figure your disguise will succeed?” she asked him.

“Whatever do you mean? Aren't we newlyweds here sightseeing? Why, who’d suspect otherwise?”

Alice wasn’t amused. “How many other newlyweds prowl these lochs toting expensive video and sound equipment? Gossip spreads between the villages. Soon some smart cookie will be on to you. Once caught, what will you say?”

Tom pivoted to size her up. “Just stick to the original plan, Alice. Don't even think a word that might blow my secret until I’m ready to tell it.” Lacking the will to argue, Alice plodded upward. Tom’s charm and confidence had hardened into arrogance. He’d been so much smarter than all their professors at the university had. He was a young, rising Ph.D. destined for stellar feats. Nothing or nobody had better, by God, stand in his way. Alice wondered if she was a partner in her husband Tom’s scientific expedition or a pack mule. “Brrr,” said Tom perched on a crag shivering for her benefit. “Now I can understand how your favorite authors Emily and Charlotte Brontë must've felt.” “The Brontë sisters had better sense than to photograph imaginary kelpies.” Stooping, Tom reached a hand out to grab for the straps on her smaller field pack. “I’ll get that for you. But I get dirty sex later. Everything is a tradeoff, Alice.” Alice snatched the field pack back. “I can carry my own load.” "Suit yourself." Tom assumed the lead on the footpath. A blister on his heel burst. With each stride, pain burned his foot. He didn’t leave Alice too far behind, though. He preferred a warm bed to a cold couch. Alice satisfied two basic needs: money and sex. But then Dr. Tom O’Rourke deserved all that and plenty more. He was on to something big. Pulitzer Prize big. He stood on the brink of proving the existence of Nessie, the sea serpent heretofore championed only by crackpots and con artists. Things hadn’t gone well at first. But marrying Alice had been a last minute addition when his grant had evaporated. Her rich father had funded this expedition. He’d solved the popular conundrum by first theorizing Loch Ness had been Nessie's original habitat. After poring over satellite images, eyewitness reports, and lakeside seismic recordings, he concluded Nessie was neither reptile nor fish. She was, in fact, an amphibian, capable of locomotion on the land or in the water. By nature a camera shy creature, Nessie wanted to flee from the attention lavished on Loch Ness. One starless, foggy night, Nessie had slithered undetected to Loch Tram, the next nearest body of water -- Tom grew fanatical in his conviction believing his theory. Tom had reserved an upstairs room at the Draper's Inn. Alice called it “quaint” and “romantic.” Tom relished its remoteness. At the door, Alice unhitched her field packs. While she sashayed into the lobby to create a diversion, Tom hustled all his cameras and video equipment up the fire escape stairs away from any prying eyes. It took Tom three trips down the fire escape stairs to cart up and stash his gear inside a walk-in closet. Alice changed her clothes and went downstairs. Stretched out on the brass bed, Tom lit a cigarette and relaxed. Smoke curled in devil horns up from his head. He went over the dark plan he had in mind. From a conversation with Alice, he knew she swam like a hammer. He’d also noted that the rocks high above Loch Tram were slimy -- and slick. The room key rattled in the antique iron lock. Tom coughed on his surprise. Alice poked her head inside the doorway. “Can you mosey on downstairs? Mr. Campbell has invited us to dine.” Warmed by the glow of his murderous intent, Tom hopped up from the brass bed. “Lead on.” He butted the cigarette.

“I’m so keen to hear all about Loch Tram,” she said. Whap! Tom’s hand tagged Alice high on the cheek. Legs buckled under her. “Shit! What was that for?” A welt materialized. Tears scraped down her chin. Mascara smudged her white Peter Pan blouse. Feet anchored wide, Tom stood over Alice. “Remember our rules. Thou shalt not mention Loch Tram. That was my gentlest reminder. Now, our host awaits us.” Croaking out, Alice rubbed a wrist across her forehead. With a visible effort, she leveraged in the knees and stood up on her feet. Tom didn’t offer her a hand for assistance. Braced against the wall, she took a moment.

“ You’re a son of a bitch,” she said.

“Nessie is my all. Remember that. Nothing else matters. Not even you. Downstairs, you'll mention to Mr. Campbell what a klutz you are. Late this afternoon in the fossil grove, you tripped and whacked your head on a petrified tree stump.” “If you ever lay a finger on me, I’ll take my checkbook and be on the next flight home. In fact, I might go any damn way.” Tom flipped aside the flap to his corduroy jacket. The Luger’s black bore pointed at Alice’s midsection. “Recognize this? Excellent. I carry all your money in travelers checks. I can kill you at any time I please. Move.” He shoved her shoulder. Three of them gathered at the oblong oak table. Mr. Campbell, a robust Scot with sandy hair and a furnace face, was a retired barrister who ran the bed and breakfast.

“Mrs. Jones, you’d better let our doctor look at that bad bruise,” said Mr. Campbell. Before Alice could respond, Tom cut in. “Thanks but we carry first aid supplies in our bags,” he said. They chewed on the roast beef until Mr. Campbell cleared his throat. “Tomorrow you should go see the Antonine Wall. The Romans erected it in 142 A.D. to repel the Northern barbarians. No tourist should miss it.” Tom scraped back is wood chair. He got up and crossed the plank floor to stand on the stone hearth. “We’ll add that to our itinerary,” he said. Mr. Campbell’s eyes steadied on Alice. “You’d better be more vigilant and watch your step, young miss.” “Yes, young miss. You’d better watch your step,” said Tom. "Watch your own step." Mr. Campbell took a sip from his ale. “You won’t forgive yourselves if you don’t at least take a side trip down to Loch Ness. Who can know? You might spot our fabled Nessie.” “What a marvelous idea!” said Alice. Shifting in his cowboy crouch, Tom grunted. “This area is soaked in lore,” said Mr. Campbell, warming to his subject. “Legend has it an angry bride prowls the shores of our own Loch Tram.” “Why is the bride angry?” asked Alice. “Because her bridegroom ran off with a tart.” Mr. Campbell lowered his voice to exaggerate his sinister whisper. “The bride stalks the night world brandishing a bloody axe in search of her unfaithful bridegroom’s neck. Better beware of her in your hill walking.” “Sounds like advice to take to heart,” said Alice. “We’ve no plans to see Loch Tram,” said Tom. “Oh my yes, don’t go tramping around Loch Tram. Several locals have drowned in its heavy waters.” He was no longer smiling. “Heavy waters?” puzzled Alice. “Aye. Dark as lead, nothing can survive in treacherous Loch Tram.” With a derisive snort, Tom rose to his feet. The Jones nodded Mr. Campbell and left the room. "Good night," he called as they ascended the stairs. At the door, he stepped away to allow Alice to enter their honeymoon suite unmolested. She detoured around the brass bed and collapsed in the overstuffed armchair. “Won’t you be warming my sheets tonight?” said Tom. “The gates of Hell will freeze shut first. By the way, Mr. Campbell sleeps directly below us. So, don't try anything stupid," said Alice. Tom savored the memory of striking Alice on the stairway. He removed his glasses and switched off the nightstand lamp. He fell asleep sure that she'd forget and forgive by the morning when he found Nessie. Alice in the armchair debated where Tom had hidden his Luger and her traveler’s checks. She guessed they were underneath his pillow. She padded over the plank floor toward Tom. A hound bayed in the alleyway. Tom rolled over and his thrown pillow hit the window.

Dread pulled Alice back to the armchair. Cold, she curled up into a ball. She visualized their dawn trek to Loch Tram. Two fools scanned the horizon, but Nessie only existed in Tom’s head. Gingerly feeling the head bruise, she felt a seething hated of Dr. Tom O’Rourke.

Cold rage crystallized her thoughts. Her father's money, never her, had attracted Tom. That realization, always there in plain view, had never registered as it did at this instant. Her bruised face ached. Tom wanted exclusive credit tomorrow as Nessie's discoverer. She couldn't share even as a silent partner in that glory. He planned to kill her, didn’t he? That’s what Tom had snarled on the stairway. New waves of anger steeled her. She’d show him by striking first. She’d have her revenge for his sadistic behavior. But how? An accidental stumble off Loch Tram’s perilous summit? No -- too obvious and suspicious. How else might she do it? She was too tired to think straight, closed her eyes, and shivered until she fell into a restive sleep. A prod jarred Alice awake in the armchair. She cracked her eyelids. Sunlight seeped in. So did a man's scowl. “We've missed the first deadline to be at Loch Tram at dawn. I want to wind up things this morning.” “But first, a bite of breakfast. And a hot shower.” “No. Mount up.” Tom swung open the walk-in closet door and reached in for their field packs. He kicked them sliding to her. But she put on a stubborn look and refused to budge. He stalked over and jabbed the Luger into her ribs. She winced.

“ I said there’s no time. Now, mount up.” Tom moved the Luger’s barrel along her breast’s contour to scrape over her nipple. “We’ll celebrate my victory later.” Alice lashed out. He snagged her hand in mid-air. “I said, mount up.”

They trooped down the fire escape stairs. Chimney smoke lay thick on the air. Forced to take the lead, Alice felt her legs ache while the field packs chewed new sores over the old ones on her shoulders. Hard on her heels, Tom breathed in gulps. She could smell his sweat sour as kerosene. Alice knew this was Tom’s big day no matter how high the cost. Nessie was his all. Wasn't that how he'd put it to her?

But she smiled.

After a thirty-minute march, they halted at the cliff overlooking the dark mirror of Loch Tram. The Luger’s muzzle goaded Alice above the kidneys. She bit into her upper lip but didn’t whimper. She started to spit out the blood but changed her mind. It tasted good -- like revenge. “You first.” Tom wagged the Luger. “I’ll be right behind you. Drop anything, I’ll slug out your teeth. Questions?” “No questions.” "Good. Get going."

Alice proceeding at a deliberate pace passed by the stone memorial for the downed bombers. Its irony left her smiling. She dreaded slipping off the footpath more than losing a field pack. Tom loomed too near. She could smell he’d been drinking to celebrate his coup early. They descended to the cliff bottom.

Dawn winds stirring Loch Tram’s shoreline felt less cold than the previous evening. Alice flopped down the field packs. She stretched her leg muscles while kneading her shoulders. Her mind's eye focused with the clarity and precision of a camera lens. She now understood how the next scene was supposed to unfold. An osprey dipped to the brackish loch, encouragement for her to carry out the next step. Alice groped inside the field pack’s pocket and found a pair of binoculars. She uncapped its lenses, raised them to her eyes, and scanned the skyline. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked. “Wait . . . Yes, I believe I've spotted something. Off the north crag, a large, humped shadow,” said Alice. Alice darted out on the basaltic ledge. She crouched down and peered through the binoculars. “It’s Nessie!” Tom scuttled over and knelt down beside Alice. “My Nessie? Where?” “Here, take these,” said Alice, rising. "You'll see her so much clearer." Tom, eyes glued to the lenses, gawked at the vista. His white-knuckled hands on the binoculars began to tremble. “Where is my Nessie?” “Why, she's right down there,” said Alice. Lunging, she shoved Tom. He grappled to catch but only slid further down. Hurling out an oath, he created a splash. Sputtering, he tried to tread water. “Y-y-you bitch,” he said. Alice scrambled over, picked up the Luger, and squinted down its notched iron sights. Two fingers tripped the steel trigger. Pop! Pop! Pop! Her third bullet penetrated Tom's skull. One raptor hand pierced the opaque brown water's surface, his parting wave. "Bye, Tom. Everything is a tradeoff."

Spitting blood, Alice tossed the Luger into the water. She watched his matte of hair sink disappear from view. Head falling forward, she wept.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ed Lynskey's three novels are The Dirt-Brown Derby (Mundania Press, 2006), The Blue Cheer (Point Blank/Wildside Press), and Pelham Fell Here (Mundania Press, 2007).


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