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It was summer, the busiest time of year for any midwestern, middle-aged motel owner – and the only reason I wasn’t underwater financially. That week I was especially frazzled, since Raphael, a friend from college days in Upstate New York, was staying with my wife and me at our house. Or rather just with me, since Tanya had conveniently needed to help her mother organise her attic – in the next county. Not a Raphael fan. Her only specific complaint was that he wore the same clothes several days in a row, but I was sure there was something else. I promised her he would be gone before she got back in a few days.
I was outside the motel on a windy day, waiting for Raphael to show up to have lunch at a new restaurant across the street. To pass the time, I scanned my to-do list. By the time I got to “REPLACE MATTRESS IN 14,” I was ready to chuck everything and place an ad: “Motel for sale, cheap. Softest mattresses in town.”
But then I thought of my employees, all hard workers – and there was my newest one now, leaning over a metal railing, her head and body shaking. I tossed my clipboard onto the grass and rushed to her. “Jackie, what’s the matter? Why are you crying?”
Jackie spun around, beaming as she wiped a tear from the side of her nose. “I’m not crying. I’m laughing. Come with me. You have to see this.”
Jackie led me into the nearest room, past the queen beds and into the bathroom, where she yanked open the daisy-print shower curtain. In the sparkling white tub half-filled with water flopped a fish. And I’m not talking minnow here – this thing had to be three feet long!
I closed my eyes. “Not again!”
“Not again? This happened before?”
“Yes. I gotta tell Walter never to give a room to Dennis Illbeck.”
She seemed impressed. “As in Illbeck Auto Body?”
Jackie leaned down and stroked the fish’s head. “Don’t worry, pal, we’ll have you back with your friends in no time.” Then she popped up and asked, “So, do you have a big net?”
“No, but could you get the large pail from the utility closet? Lost Lake is a short walk. Just take the trail behind the motel through the woods.”
Jackie and I were heading for the motel office when Raphael pulled up in his rental car, a subcompact. “Is that the guy Tanya was talking about?” Jackie whispered. I nodded.
Raphael towered over the car when he got out. His rangy body had thickened since college days, giving him an imposing look. And, sure enough, he was wearing the same bowling shirt and pleated pants as the day before. He looked up at the motel’s towering sign. “Comfort Pines,” he said, his French accent lending the name some cachet for the first time. “This is a most inviting name.”
“I hate it,” I said. “We didn’t change it when we bought the place because it’s so well known. Raphael, this is Jackie.”
Raphael smiled, stooped – Jackie was barely five feet tall – and shook her hand. “Is Jackie short for Jacqueline?”
“Hey, is that a short joke?” she said, feigning indignation.
“No, I am serious. This is also my mother’s name. She lives in Bordeaux.”
“Well, you say hello to her for me. Right now I have to join a bucket brigade.”
Raphael seemed curious, so I led him into the fishy bathroom.
“Hmmm. He is quite a large fellow,” said Raphael, peering into the tub. The fish slapped its tail against the side, sending an arc of water onto Raphael’s pant leg. “Did I ever tell you that I spent my youth trout fishing in the Dordogne Valley in France? I never saw a fish with this particular profile, however.”
“It’s a buffalo carp.”
Raphael folded his arms and stared admiringly at the fish. “Well, it is a privilege to have seen one before they are hunted to extinction,” he said with a wink. “Still, it is quite sad, isn’t it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Imagine, you spend your entire life waiting to be of sufficient size to spawn and have children of your own. But when the time arrives, where are you? Among others who share your hopes and dreams? No! You are alone, in a bathtub, without even a book to read.”
“Are you talking about the fish or yourself?”
“Yes, Andrew, you are the family man, and we shall highlight this contrast with me at every opportunity.”
Raphael smiled weakly. “And who has placed this prodigious creature here?”
“Dennis Illbeck. His family owns a chain of body shops. He travels around, checking up on them. I don’t even think he has a house, because he’s on the road all the time.”
“And what do you plan to tell this Dennis Illbeck?”
“Well, as much as I hate to lose a paying customer, I’m going to tell him he’s no longer welcome here.”
“Gangway!” yelled Jackie as she squeezed between us to get to the tub. She scooped up the fish on the first attempt.
“Such finesse!” exclaimed Raphael. “You have done this before, Jackie?”
“Never with a fish,” she said, flicking a few droplets of water at Raphael’s face as she passed.
“Ah, to find so much pleasure in one’s work,” said Raphael. “It is a gift.”
I opened the tub drain and listened for gurgling. “That’s our cue to go get lunch.”
At the restaurant Raphael was his usual effusive self, taking delight in everything from the freshness of the salad to the waiter angling for a good tip with his merci after every interaction.
“Do you know what pleases me most about staying in your home, Andrew?” asked Raphael. “It is normally so full of sound and life. There is always something happening. If only Tanya and the children were here this week.”
“Well, I can’t say I mind the kids being at summer camp,” I confessed.
“Yes, Andrew, you deserve a respite. And here I am taking up your precious time. I hope I am not as unwelcome as our finned friend in the tub.”
“Just stay dry and we’ll be good.”
When Raphael was finished raving about his salmon, he started peppering me with questions about Dennis Illbeck. I couldn’t understand why he was so interested and didn’t believe his claim of idle curiosity. After paying the check, he insisted we go see him, so I drove us to Illbeck Auto Body on the other side of town.
Illbeck was in the parking lot, talking to a woman next to a car with a deeply dented front fender. He was a wiry, animated guy, constantly pointing at things – the fender, the body shop, the sky – and swatting away strands of his wayward ponytail as they blew into his face.
“Andrew,” whispered Raphael, “you are feeling annoyance toward Mr. Illbeck, so I suggest you let me – a neutral third party – talk to him. I assure you the result will be satisfactory.”
With Raphael jonesing to talk to him, I relented and then watched from a distance. I’d never seen two strangers seem to get on so well in so short a time, with Raphael mirroring Illbeck’s body language and laughter and then wrapping up their encounter with a double handshake.
Raphael, looking pleased, marched back to me. “He’s an interesting fellow. A bit eccentric, but he has a good heart. And just as I suspected, his little practical jokes have been a form of flirtation. It seems he is fond of one of your housekeepers: Naomi.”
“Really? That’s beyond eccentric. Anyway, she left to start medical school two weeks ago. So, did you tell him not to come back to the motel?”
“No, but he and I have reached an understanding. In the future, any fish he leaves in the bath shall be no longer than twelve inches.”
“I am only teasing, Andrew. He has promised there will be no more practical jokes.”
“That’s good, but I still don’t want him at the motel. I’m going to talk him.”
“Andrew, please don’t. There is something I need to tell you.”
“I should have told you before. I have a new job. It is part of the reason I have come to visit you.” His posture quickly straightened. “Before you stands a bounty hunter.”
“You? A bounty hunter?” I barely suppressed a snort.
“I understand your surprise. Perhaps you judge my neglected physique unsuited to apprehending fugitives. It does not matter, because I am the kind of bounty hunter who only locates and reports.”
“So go ahead and report me. I didn’t do anything.”
Raphael laughed. “No, no, Andrew, it is not you I have been looking for, other than to enjoy a visit with my dear friend. The fugitive is Mr. Illbeck.”
“Well, that explains a lot. What did he do?”
“It seems he has stolen from the company, and that is not to mention his troubles with the IRS. When you mentioned his name, I recognised it but needed to be sure. Now, I merely need to phone my contact with law enforcement. So, as a favour to me, Andrew, please allow him to return to the motel.”
“Why can’t they get him here?”
“They tell me that the place of residence is preferred. Apparently, the fugitive is more likely to be caught with his pants down, so to speak. Once he is in custody, I will receive my payment and leave to start my next pursuit.”
I liked that last part, so I agreed.
Raphael must have made his phone call, because the next morning a squad car pulled up in front of Illbeck’s room while Raphael and I were outside the office. Two officers got out and starting rapping on his door.
Jackie stepped out of a guest room and walked over to us. “What are the cops doing here?”
“They’re here to take Illbeck away,” I said.
“Just because he put a carp in the tub? Isn’t that a bit harsh?”
“It’s for something else. Embezzlement, I guess.”
“Really! Well, I was hoping to meet fish boy before he checked out, and now, with the added excitement of a perp walk – ”
“It’s no big deal,” I said.
“Are you kidding! I’m going over there.”
As we watched Jackie walk away, my doubts about this whole plan deepened. It must have shown on my face. “Do not worry, Andrew,” said Raphael. “Mr. Illbeck is not known to be armed or dangerous. Your other guests will – ”
“Wait, did you hear that?”
“The sound of breaking glass, perhaps.”
“He must have broken a window. We better tell them to go around back before he gets away.”
After our tip, the officers did walk behind the motel but didn’t bother taking the trail into the woods. Maybe they didn’t like mosquitos.
Raphael looked dejected. “You still get paid, right?” I asked him.
“No, that obligation does not begin until the person is taken into custody. But there are always other scofflaws out there for me.” He gazed across the street. “Do you see this hardware store? I guarantee that among the patrons picking out paint and light bulbs is a wanted criminal. Perhaps a bank robber! Do you know how much the authorities will pay for a bank robber?”
The next morning, I was determined to do my usual Thursday fishing and assumed Raphael would want to spend the day tracking down Illbeck. That’s what I told Tanya he’d be doing when she called the night before. But no, he wanted to go with me. Even though this risked delaying his departure, I didn’t feel it was my place to tell him how to do his job. Off we went to Comfort Pines, where I grabbed my pole from the office closet. Raphael, having no license, would have to be content to just enjoy the scenery. We took the path out back through the woods, all the way to my rowboat, which I kept tied to a dilapidated pier. We were soon floating beyond the cattails.
The panfish must have been hungry that day. I pulled in at least a dozen within 20 minutes. I tossed them onto the bottom of the boat, having forgotten to bring a stringer.
“So, Raphael,” I said, “have you given up on finding Illbeck? Are you just going to head home?”
“Andrew, are you trying to be rid of me?”
“Absolutely not.” At least for that day this was true. Tanya was coming home on Friday.
“I am glad to hear that. The outcome yesterday was disappointing, but I believe I may have another crack at Mr. Illbeck. This morning, though, I wanted to talk to you about something else.”
“What is it, Raphael?”
“About a year ago I met a woman – a very special woman. We became inseparable, and then she moved into my home. I felt sanguine about everything until a few weeks ago, when suddenly she rejected me. Do you know what she did not like? After observing me in many social situations, she concluded that I am a bully. Yes, a bully.”
“I don’t believe it. She really said that?”
“Because I was upset, my memory of this time is somewhat smudged, but I know that is the word she used. It was a painful moment for me, because I had formed deep feelings for her and planned to propose marriage.” His eyes glistened.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Raphael. Do you still love her?”
“This is a confusing subject for me, Andrew, because of my need to move forward. But since you have asked me – ” He paused and looked toward the shore. “I do,” he said, his face flushing. “None of it matters now. I am alone, and I am still a bully.”
“I don’t know, Raphael. I’m still trying to process you being a bounty hunter, and now you’re a bully?”
“I understand your confusion, Andrew. I am not the kind of bully whose muscles bulge and whose face scowls. No, my ruthlessly persuasive methods have their genesis in the brain. Did you want me to stay at your home? No! And yet where are my belongings at this very moment? Piled within your guest room. Did you want me to speak to Mr. Illbeck for you? Of course not! But now I have, all because I used carefully selected words to control you.”
“I never thought of it like that, but I guess it makes sense.”
“There, I did it again!” Raphael sighed. “I feel I am swimming through life as though through the muck at the bottom of this lake. The real question is: Why?”
The more Raphael talked, the more confused I became. “Why what?”
“Why did I turn out this way? I believe the answer is in the Dordogne Valley, and years ago the answer washed away in the current of a trout stream. You know, I always fished alone there. Just the elusive trout and I. And when I would catch one, I would release it. In one way or another, I have been doing this very thing ever since.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Raphael.”
“Tell me nothing. Instead, I wish you to hand me my comeuppance.” He stood up and steadied himself. “Please join me, Andrew.” He motioned upward with his hands while giving me an expectant look, but I wasn’t about to help capsize us. “This is the only way, Andrew. I must have the cathartic experience of being violently expelled by my victim. Go ahead.” He nodded encouragingly. “Remember, I am the scoundrel who stole your college girlfriend. I am the roommate who repeatedly consumed your beer and wine. Oh, you didn’t know that? Well, doesn’t it fill you with rage to hear it now?”
“I’m really not angry with you, Raphael, other than for stupidly standing up in the boat.”
“Then let us work with that. Imagine the inconvenience for you if we were to capsize. You would spend the entire day dealing with the calamity. Your expensive fishing pole? Lost forever! But do I care about those things? Apparently not. You see? Not only am I a bully, but I am selfish as well. Go ahead. Push me. Don’t worry – there is surely a buffalo carp below who will break my fall.”
I wasn’t having any of it. “Just sit down, Raphael.”
“Well, Andrew, I see you are resolved not to push me, so I will just imagine it. The fire in your eyes is enough.” With that he launched himself backwards over the hull of the boat and plunged into the dark water of Lost Lake.
I hung over the edge, trying to spot him through the bubbles and churning debris rising from the eelgrass below. Finally he bobbed up, grabbed the gunwale, and used one hand to pull away the mass of tangled weeds adorning his head.
“Well, was it worth it?” I asked.
“Yes, Andrew. You have done me a great service by standing up to me. I shall not bully you again. Today you have chosen water, but imagine where you might push me the next time!”
“Whatever works for you.”
“I think I should get back in the boat,” said Raphael, his voice sounding tighter. “I am feeling rather chilled.”
I straddled the centre seat and grasped his right hand. “Okay, together now.” He was just too heavy. All we achieved was a severe tilt of the boat. After several more attempts, I collapsed, exhausted, onto the seat. “It’s no use. I’ll have to swim to shore and get help.” Raphael looked too drained to speak.
“Hey! Do you guys need help?” A man was waving on the shore about 50 yards away.
“Yes!” I yelled back.
He pulled off his shoes and dove into the lake. He wisely swam wide of the morass of thick weeds hugging the shore before turning toward us. That’s when I recognised him: Dennis Illbeck!
A fast swimmer, he reached us within seconds and then, grabbing the gunwale with both hands, vaulted into the boat. “I thought that was you guys,” he said, smiling broadly. “What the hell are you doing in the water, Raphael?”
“Would you believe that Andrew pushed me in? No? Then let it remain a mystery.”
With Illbeck and me pulling together, Raphael was soon dragged onboard. He raised himself enough to flop onto the stern seat. I joined him while Dennis sat on the centre seat, facing us. He looked pretty good for someone who had spent the night in the woods, without a single visible insect bite. Maybe he was distasteful even to those ravenous, razor-mouthed devils of northern forests, deer flies.
“Now that you guys are staring at the elephant in the boat,” he said, “I may as well explain.”
“Please do, Dennis,” said Raphael. “We have been concerned about you following your disappearance.”
“Well, it’s all because I get freaked out by cops – ever since I was a kid and got busted for a little shoplifting. I’m sorry about the window. I’ll pay for it. You have my credit card number, Andy, so – “
Dennis pointed to a tattered plastic bag at my feet. “Hey, do you have any food in that bag? I’ve been out here all night and day with nothing to eat.”
“No,” I said. “It’s just some fishing tackle. Let’s head shoreward and get you something to eat.”
Dennis grabbed the oars and started rowing. “I want you guys to know something. I’m innocent, and I’ve got the company’s records to prove it. I had to fire some guy, and he made up a story to get back at me. That’s all this is about.”
Maybe I’d watched too many courtroom dramas, but I felt compelled to offer advice. “Dennis, if you have the records, just show them to the DA. Or have your lawyer file for a summary judgment to dismiss.”
“I don’t trust them,” said Dennis. “Any of them. They’ll find a way to convict me.”
Now it was Raphael’s turn to weigh in. “I urge you to reconsider, Dennis. I have looked into your eyes, and I believe you. In fact, I will donate the entire bounty to your legal defence.”
Dennis froze in mid-stroke, his mouth falling open. “Bounty?” He pointed threateningly at Raphael. “You ratted me out!”
As Dennis lunged at Raphael, his right foot stepped on the panfish pile, squirting bluegills against the hull of the boat, and then slid backwards. Down he went.
“Are you okay, Dennis?” I asked.
I was relieved when he started laughing. He sat up and wiped the fish slime off his face with his sleeve. “Raphael, were you serious about giving me the reward money?”
“Completely and most sincerely.”
“Can we do it on Saturday? I want my lawyer to be with me.”
“I’m afraid I must take leave before then. Andrew’s wife is returning tomorrow, and – ”
“How about this?” I asked. “Raphael, let’s move your stuff into a room at the motel. You can stay there no charge. You can have a free room too, Dennis. Just don’t mention that part to Tanya.”
“That’s very kind of you, Andrew,” said Raphael.
“Let’s do it,” said Dennis.
I took the centre seat and began rowing back to the pier.
“Andrew,” said Raphael, “would you and Tanya care to dine with me on Sunday? My treat. You must try the salmon across the street. Magnifique!”
“Don’t press your luck, Raphael.”