DEATH BENEATH THE BRIDGE
by Susan Pierce
They drove slowly over the single lane bridge. It was a beautiful morning in June, and Lewis and Sissy were taking Auntie Agatha Bliss out for a short drive and picnic. They were on the narrow dirt road that ran from Colfax, California, up to the old Sierra Mountain town of Foresthill.
The bridge took them across a tributary of the north fork of the American River. After clearing the bridge, Sissy pulled off the road as far as he could and shut down the engine.
“Come along, Ilean,” Agatha said as she pulled the cane onto the hydraulic lift with
her. “Fresh air and a brisk walk are just the thing to whet the appetite for a nice picnic.”
Sissy and Lewis glanced at each other while Auntie Ag was lowered to the ground. As she stepped off the lift, Lewis grunted with exasperation, “All right, Auntie, come clean. Who is this Ilene? There’s no one here but the three of us.”
“Oh, but there is. Whoever parked that little red car along the roadside is here.” She pointed to it with her cane. “And there is, of course, Ilean.” She tapped her cane on the ground. “A philosopher said, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ I say, ‘I walk, therefore I lean.’ ”
Lewis giggled. “You, my darling, are a head case.”
“And you, dear Lewis, are not particularly observant, are you?”
Lewis put an arm around her and the two walked to a spot where they could see the river below.
Sissy, once he’d locked the SUV, joined them. They watched the river and enjoyed the deafening sound of water crashing over rocks.
Sissy sighed. “I don’t know another place where the water is so clear. From here you can see everything on the bottom of the river. There’s a big granite mine on the other side of those hills.” He pointed. “And the riverbed here is solid green granite.”
“It is quite breathtaking,” Aunt Agatha whispered. “The green, green forest; the sienna red rocks; the clear, blue sky—and that emerald crystal river. Quite beautiful, really.”
“Alright, Skipper. Where to from here?” Lewis asked Sissy.
“I thought we’d hike a little way down the path. Don’t worry, Auntie Ag, Lewis and I have got you. When you’ve had enough, we’ll haul you back up to the truck for lunch.”
Sissy always called his SUV “the truck”. Calling it an SUV was a little too foo-foo for him. A little too urban. Men drove trucks. Girlie-boy queens drove SUVs and whined about their gas mileage.
But a mere “truck” it was not. Sissy had plowed a ton of money and effort into the four-wheel-drive which Lewis had dubbed the White Cloud. Many of the extra amenities were added for his beloved Auntie’s comfort.
Sissy had re-built the suspension, thus nearly eliminating the bone rattling caused by bumpy back roads. The interior was accented in mahogany and featured oversized side windows with polarized, tinted glass. They gave Auntie Ag a glare-free, panoramic view with minimal distortion of natural color.
Sissy had added beige leather captain’s seats in front, each equipped with a cup holder and a hidden mic on the windshield visor. Each seat swiveled so that, during a pause in their travels, Lewis and Sissy could turn to face Auntie Ag for a chat.
Agatha’s seat was a beige leather recliner with a pull-up tray beneath the right arm rest. It had a seat-warmer and hidden speakers on each side of her headrest so she could listen to music or, when the boys talked up front, she could hear them as clearly as if they had spoken directly into her ears.
To her left, beneath the window, Sissy had installed a compartmentalized boat shelf that held a box of Kleenex; several bottles of water; and small bags of nuts, fruit, and mints. Next to the shelf was a little waste basket.
Sissy’s vehicle was a brilliant demonstration of small-space engineering designed to put ultimate comfort at Agatha’s fingertips without looking ostentatious. A mere truck it definitely was not.
The river ran about fifty feet below the bridge. A twisting footpath down to the water started about ten yards from the end of bridge. The river roared, gushing violently with the snow-melt of late spring. The water was too cold and too fast for tubing in mid-June, and, except for the little red car parked further up the road, the area seemed to be deserted.
As they rounded the second turn of the path, a young woman raced toward them. She pushed past in a flash, her long arms grabbing at the steep hillside on the inside of the trail. Cascades of black, purple, and green hair covered her face. In that split second Agatha saw three scratches running down the side of the girl’s neck just above a dragonfly tattoo. Crawling down from the scratches were faint little streaks of blood.
“Hey!” Sissy shouted as he grabbed for the belt around Auntie Ag’s waist.
“What the . . . ” Lewis screamed as he spun around to see Sissy pinning his aunt’s back to the steep hillside.
Sissy was furious. “She could’ve knocked one of us right off the trail. And she never even looked back.” He turned his eyes in the direction the young woman had gone.
“You doing all right, Auntie?” Lewis’ voice was remarkable calm.
“Oh, I’m fine. Just let me catch my breath.” Agatha closed her eyes, took a few deep breaths, then said, “Quite unexpected, wasn’t it?”
Lewis’ nursing skills kicked into gear. He gently took one of her hands and began to check her pulse by pressing two fingers across her wrist.
“I’m fine,” Agatha insisted. “Do you mind if we stand here for a minute. I just need to catch my bre . . . Oh, dear.”
She stared down at the river. Lewis and Sissy squinted down at the spot and saw, wedged between rocks beneath the bridge, a mop of black hair. Attached to that streaming hair, bobbing face down in the rushing water, was a girl in a pink tee-shirt, black shorts, and black sneakers.
They could clearly see that the body’s right arm and foot must be broken because of the way they bobbed at odd angles. It looked as if a petulant three-year-old had thrown her dolly off the bridge.
Sissy threw a steadying arm around Agatha and pulled out his cell phone while Lewis scrambled down the rocks to the body below. “Dead,” Lewis shouted up to Sissy.
“No service,” Sissy shouted back, holding up his cell phone.
Sissy began maneuvering Agatha and Ilean back up the path. Lewis, hurrying after them, rejoined them at the truck.
“We passed a house about a mile back,” Sissy said. He slipped out of his Birkenstocks, tossed them into the back of the truck, and pulled out a pair of sneakers. Seconds later as he tied the sneaker laces, he continued, “I’ll run down and call the Sheriff. You two might as well get comfortable in the truck. Nothing any of us can do for that girl now. Just keep an eye out, Lewis. Don’t let anyone go down there and mess up the crime scene.”
Lewis and Agatha sat together in the White Cloud. They left the sliding door open and listened to roar of the river and the wind through the forest. Beneath the din both heard the deafening silence of death.
After a minute or two, Agatha said, “Sissy was a member of the track squad at Annapolis, you know. It won’t take him long.” They sat quietly for a moment.
Agatha gazed out the window to her left. Then she said, “I’ve been thinking about Oxford.”
Lewis sipped from his water bottle. “Oxford, huh? How long were you there?”
“Oh, my. Off and on, I should think, over three decades. Maybe longer.”
“How old are you, Auntie Ag?”
“My dear Lewis” she feigned outrage. “Women always lie about age. Young women claim to be older, women over fifty claim to be younger, and ladies my age are content just knowing our own names.”
Lewis laughed. “Okay. We’ll leave the age thing alone. So why are you thinking about Oxford?” he asked.
“At Oxford, every now and then, I’d get a cup of tea at Blackwell’s and sit for a while watching people in the enormous courtyard of the Bodleian Library. A thousand people might pass through the courtyard as I watched. There was such wonderful variety in skin color, eye shape, and, of course, costume.”
“Costume? People in Oxford wear costumes to the library? What a great town.”
“No, no.” Agatha was a bit flummoxed. “Not fancy dress, like a fairy princess or a pirate. In England, ‘costume’ means clothing, fashion.”
“Oh. Wait a minute. You mean like that girl on the path with her dyed hair and that tattoo.” He leaned toward Auntie Ag. “Loved the tat. Hated the hair. But I bet she looks just like all her little friends.”
Auntie smiled. “People from all over the world—China, India, Africa—all kinds of people come to Oxford. They may look different, but beneath the surface appearance, people are very much the same. We all share similar emotions: Jealousy, love, anger, self-consciousness. The trick, you see, is to notice what lies beneath the surface.”
“The trouble is that so many people never look beneath the surface. I mean, the wonderful thing about the river here is that you can so clearly see the riverbed.”
They sat in companionable silence for a minute or two and then Agatha said, “Did the girl on the foot path look like the girl beneath the bridge, do you think?”
Lewis thought about it. “I didn’t turn her over, but it looked like they had the same hairdresser.”
Agatha Bliss looked out the window to her left again, “Young people wrestle with the question of who they are. That’s why it’s so important to them what others think about them. I’m sure he had no idea it would all turn out like this.”
“I don’t get it, Auntie. Who are we talking about?”
They heard the crunch of gravel as a car drew up behind them.
As the deputy shut down his vehicle, Sissy jumped out the passenger side door. “That house down there belongs to the deputy’s son. Dickey was there visiting him. The boy’s an EMT and he’ll be up here in a few minutes with a recovery team. Lucky us, eh?”
Deputy Dickey vanished down the narrow little trail. Sissy slid behind the steering wheel of his truck and swiveled around to face his family.
“So what were you girls talking about while I was gone?” He reached for Lewis’ water bottle and took a hearty slug.
“Three of us went for a nice picnic in Christ Church Meadow.”
Sissy pursed his lips. “Huh?”
Lewis said, “Oh. You mean at Oxford? Auntie Ag was just telling me about Oxford,” he explained to Sissy.
“Yes,” Agatha said. “At Oxford. It was a beautiful morning and just as we were setting the picnic hamper on our little rug, one of my chums pulled a fob from the pocket of her jumper. It was just a silly little fob of blue and white ribbon with a trinket at the end. A boy had given it to her at dinner the previous evening.”
Lewis and Sissy nodded.
“But when my other chum saw it, she gave a little squeak, grabbed it, ran down to the bank of the River Isis, and threw it in.”
Lewis was shocked. He moaned, “Oh, nooo,” and covered his mouth with both hands. Lewis frequently scored higher than Sissy on the Queen-o-Meter. “Why?”
Agatha continued, “Well, as it turned out, she became enraged at the sight of it. But her rage did not come from a broken heart.”
“No?” Lewis looked doubtful.
“She had given that very same fob to a young man a week earlier. She had only stepped out with him once, so she wasn’t in love with him. She was humiliated, not jealous. How little that young man must have thought of her, giving away her gift to another girl only a week later. And what would the other girl think of her when she realized how the young man had got the fob in the first place? Young people are always so very sensitive, aren’t they?”
Lewis agreed. “The boy was an idiot. Everybody knows re-gifting is dangerous.”
Suddenly Deputy Dickey appeared at the open sliding door. Lewis handed him a fresh bottle of water. “Find anything, Hiram?”
The Deputy smiled. “Please. Call me Hi. Everybody does. Well, she’s dead alright. Looks like she fell off the path onto the rocks at the bottom. Looks like one of her legs might’ve caught a stump on the way down. That would have flipped her around so she landed on those river rocks head first.” He shook his head sadly. “She’s just a kid. It’s always worse when it’s a kid.”
Sissy nodded. “Find anything else down there?
Deputy Dickey pulled two evidence bags from his pants pocket. In one was a set of car keys and, in the other, a gold neck chain.
Aunt Agatha leaned forward. “Now, Constable. You will see to it that the recovery team bags that poor girls hands before they move her, won’t you?”
Deputy Dickey gave her a careful look. Sissy said, “What? Bags? What are you talking about, Auntie Ag?”
Deputy Dickey said, “Your aunt has a good head on her shoulders.”
Aunt Agatha smiled. “You will remind them, won’t you?”
Lewis said, “I don’t understand . . . ”
“Well, it’s quite simple, dear. The evidence under the fingernails must be preserved so that, when some laboratory person in a white frock coat tests them, and then tests that chain for blood and tissue samples, the two sets of evidence can be compared.”
Deputy Dickey nodded. “That’s how we do it, ma’am.”
Realization dawned on Sissy. “You think the girl didn’t just fall? You think someone pushed her?”
Lewis clapped his hands. “You go, girl. It was that rude girl on the path, right? The girl with the hot tat and the bad hair? Am I in the ball park, Auntie?”
“Yes, dear, you’re on the cricket pitch indeed. Not a bit thick at all this morning, are you?”
Lewis said, “So the chick that nearly knocked us off the path had just thrown that other girl overboard.”
“Well, dear, not exactly. You’re on the pitch, but you’re not yet at bats.”
Deputy Dickey interrupted. “You say there was another girl? Can you give me a description? Can you describe her vehicle?
“I can do better than that, Constable,” Auntie Ag said. “Both the girl and her vehicle are right up the road there. It’s that little red car, and the girl’s inside it. I’ve been watching her since Sissy ran off to find you.”
“I thought Sissy told us to keep an eye on the footpath. That’s what I was doing.”
“I understood him to be speaking about the young woman in the little red car. She’s the one I watched.”
All three men were squinting up the hill at the little red car. “I see the car,” Sissy said, “but I don’t see anyone in it.”
Auntie Ag smiled indulgently. “Well, dear, that’s because she’s scrunched down in her seat. She doesn’t want us to see her, don’t you think? But every once in a while she reaches up to scratch her head and when she does, one can see her hand quite clearly.”
Deputy Dickey said, “Alright, Ms. Bliss. If that other girl had something to do with this sorry business, why is she still sitting in the car?”
“She dropped her car keys. Once she got behind the steering wheel, she realized that, don’t you think? Then she had no choice but to wait for us to leave so she could go searching for them.”
Deputy Dickey hitched up his gun belt. “I better take her into custody. You folks may as well drive on up to Foresthill for your picnic. I’ll catch up with you there.”
As they watched the deputy walk up the hill, Lewis tsked. “What a shame. I wonder why she murdered her friend.”
Aunt Agatha sighed. “Oh, Lewis. I think you’ve got it all wrong. I don’t think it was murder at all. I think it was just a terrible accident.”
Sissy, baffled, shook his head. “How on earth did you reach that conclusion?”
Agatha said, “Young women today have feelings similar to those of girls when I was young, only some young women today seem to be more violent and less likely to consider the consequences of their actions. My old chum grabbed a fob from another girl’s hand, ran a short distance, and threw into the Isis. The girl beneath the bridge tore the little gold chain from her friend’s neck with such force that she lost her balance and fell to her death, carrying the gold chain with her.”
Sissy grimaced, unwilling to concede the point. “Or maybe, after the dead girl tore off the necklace, the girl in the red car fought back and shoved her over the edge.”
“Perhaps.” Agatha Bliss thought for a moment. “But we don’t want to think the worst of people, do we? The girl on the path didn’t look to me like a murderess fleeing the scene. She looked to me like a terrified child in shock.”
Sissy battened the hatches, cranked up the engine, and steered his “truck” up the mountain toward Foresthill.
But Lewis was still facing Auntie Ag. He whispered, “All right, Auntie Ag. What do you think happened. Murder? Accident? Suicide? Which was it?”
“Dear Lewis.” She brushed a crumb from her lap. “It well may be that the only person who knows for certain lies dead beneath the bridge.”