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RUST BUCKET

Chapter 1

The phone call that shattered my tranquility came as Steph and I relaxed on the porch steps of Eagle’s Eye. But before that call, another gave me an excuse to avoid reality.

Our resident eagle, after which we’d named the log retreat, had settled onto its nest high on a lightning-blasted pine at the point. The surface of Rice Lake shimmered in the afternoon sun, reflecting shards of crimson and amber from the trees along the shore. A motor-boat with a couple of fishermen slowly rounded the point.

It was a warm day in late October. I took a sip of coffee. “Aren’t you glad we didn’t have to sell this place?”

As she turned toward me, Stephanie’s eyes sparkled. I reached over to intertwine my fingers in hers.

She smiled. “I have to admit, you have impeccable taste in real estate, Mr. Radley. But to be realistic, we’ve got to do something to reduce our debt.”

I squeezed her hand. “Forget about debt. What about my impeccable taste in women?”

She squinted at me. “Plural? As in more than one?”

“Well, just two or three.”

She punched me on the shoulder.

“A slip of the tongue. You know I’m a one-woman man, and you’re it.”

My cell phone rang, interrupting what could have become a very sensual afternoon.

“Hello.…Yes, this is Joshua Radley.”

My face fell as I listened. “Oh, I see. Eight-thirty on Wednesday. Okay.”

Shutting off the phone, I turned to Steph. “Test results are problematic. They want to see me at the hospital on Wednesday morning for further testing.” I wrote down the time and day on the palm of my hand.

Steph reached over to grip my shoulder. “Oh, Josh, I’m sorry. Did they say if it was malignant?”

“They think so, but want to be sure.”

This can’t be happening. Is this the end of sex? What if I have to wear a bag for the rest of my life? How will I pursue my career? How will Steph handle it? Why is this happening to me?

Steph leaned closer and gripped my hand. “Don’t worry, Josh. We’ll get through this together. Whatever happens, you know that I love you. Nothing can change that.”

I nestled against her as I tried to stifle the nausea threatening to turn my insides to water. I get jittery at the very thought of operating rooms and masked doctors with scalpels.

I stood up. “Steph, I’m going to go for a walk. Try and come to grips with this…this thing.”

“Okay, just don’t be too long. I’m cooking one of your favourite meals.”

I must have wandered for an hour down a country road fringed by flaming maples and bronze oaks. Cancer. Me with the big C after writing about the experience in others. My thoughts grew more morbid as the afternoon wore on. I wondered what they’d write for an obituary. Had I really done anything good in my life? Or had it all been in the interest of writing a story…becoming an internationally known journalist? What would they write as an obituary? Stop it Radley. Smarten up. Don’t be so melodramatic. The advances in surgical procedures have been phenomenal. You’ll be okay. You know that prostate cancer is most often cured. Hah, in my case, that’s unlikely. Stop. Think of something else.

 By the time I returned home, I’d been able to banish thoughts of cancer to the fringes of my mind by planning a new series of articles. I’d write a first person account of cancer.

Supper helped to push worries away. We had the last of the season’s corn-on-the-cob smothered in butter, a perfectly grilled steak with mushrooms and baby potatoes. I babbled on throughout the meal about writing an exposé on waste in local government, the outrageous cost of electricity, the inability of the Toronto council to settle on a transit plan. From time to time, Steph interjected with stories about her book club—designed, I was sure—to keep me from thinking about the big C.

Just as we were finishing dinner, the phone rang again.

Steph put her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t answer it,” she said with a come-hither look.

I grimaced. “Could be a new assignment.” I jumped up, ran into the kitchen and grabbed the phone off the counter. “Josh here.”

“Josh, glad I caught you.”

“Nadia! Are you calling from home?”

“No, I’m calling from Vancouver Island with a scoop.”

“What’s up?”

I heard the cry of a gull in the background. “I’m calling to give you the heads up on a big story. But you didn’t hear it from me. Are you okay with that?”

“My lips are sealed.”

Nadia, seconded to CSIS by the Pakistan ISI, worked undercover as a Toronto psychiatrist when she wasn’t travelling. With the high concentration of South Asians in Toronto, both the Pakistani Intelligence Service and our Canadian spooks found her an invaluable resource. She lived down the road from us in the Northumberland Hills, east of Toronto. We’d become friends during a rough patch in my marriage when I was writing about a terrorist cell targeting the US from Canadian soil. Then a year later when my daughter Janice was kidnapped in Pakistan, Nadia’s contacts had been instrumental in her rescue.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” she said. “An old rust bucket has run aground on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Looks like the ship has been abandoned by its crew. But get this: its cargo is a load of illegal immigrants. They’re in very bad shape. We’ve no idea yet what else it’s carrying.”

“Chinese?”

“No, and here’s where you come in. The illegals appear to be Pakistanis.”

“Strange. I thought South Asians arrive through Turkey, Germany and then the Atlantic.”

“Exactly. If the ship is full of Pakistanis, or Indians for that matter, it will show us that a new route has been chosen for smuggling aliens from Asia. But this may be much bigger than smuggling immigrants. We’ve intercepted a lot of chatter lately on Al Qaeda sites.”

Stephanie had followed me into the kitchen where she stood with her hand raised in a query. I help up one finger, then turned away. My voice rose as adrenaline began to pump. “Nadia, could you smuggle me onto the site before any other reporters?”

Nadia lowered her voice to a whisper, allowing the throaty growl of diesels in the background to almost obscure her reply. “If it got out that I’d even called you, I’d be in deep trouble. I’m just giving you a break. As a friend. I know how much you depend on freelance gigs. But, if you’re not interested…?”

“Are you kidding? I’m ecstatic. But how can I get there before local press? I’d have to fly across the country.”

“The location is remote, there’s no cell phone reception in the area, and we’ve thrown a black-out over the whole region. There’s bound to be a hiker or a fishing boat with a radio-phone who’ll stumble onto the site soon. You have twenty-four hours, maybe thirty-six, before the leaks become too big to plug.”

I motioned to Steph to grab me a pad and pen. “Are you there now?”

“No, we’re steaming towards it on a RCMP patrol ship. We should get to the site just before nightfall.”

“How will I find it?”

“Use your GPS. Here are the co-ordinates.”

I jotted down the numbers and replied, “If the place is so remote, how do…”

“Use your imagination. The Pacific Coast trail follows the shoreline. Inland there is a network of logging roads. A little problem like access never stopped you before.”

“You said this might be bigger than smuggling aliens. What…?”

Before I could finish my question, she whispered. “Got to go.”

“Thanks Nadia. I owe you. How…”

All I heard in response was the dial tone.

Shutting off the phone, I turned to Steph. “That was Nadia calling from a patrol ship off Vancouver Island.”

“Not another assignment? On Vancouver Island? Call her right back and cancel. You’ve got an appointment at the hospital on Wednesday.”

“No problem. I’ll just be gone a couple of days. Fly there and back.”

“Where exactly, Victoria?”

“Further west. Across the island on the coast.”

“On the west coast. That’ll take you a day to get there! You can’t possibly go and come back in time.”

“There’s lots of time but even if I’m delayed, I can always get another appointment.”

“Josh, it’s not that easy.’

“Steph, you were just asking how we were going to make ends meet. Well, we can’t if I don’t take what comes my way. Besides, this is going to be a blockbuster story.’

Tears glistened in her eyes. “You’re so stubborn. You put off seeing a doctor. Then when they find something serious, you avoid facing it. Please, Josh, for my sake.”

I took her hands in mine. “I’ll fly there, stay three days and come back. That will get me in a day before the appointment. Okay?”

“You’ve got to promise.”

“I promise. Now will you help me grab my stuff?”

“This makes no sense. What if you’re too late to file an exclusive? And how can you get to such a remote location?”

“Even if I’m not the first to file, I’ll at least be on the ground with access through Nadia to the real info. This is going to be huge.”

I took her in my arms, nestled her head beneath my chin and kissed her hair. Perhaps she was right. But then again…. “Sweetheart, I’d rather stay here but we can hardly ignore our bills. Money is tight. We may not meet our next few mortgage payments. I really need an exclusive.”

Steph stood on her tiptoes and smothered my lips with her own before backing off. Her eyes probed my face. She looked away with a grimace. “After 23 years of marriage, I should know better. I just wish you could turn this one down.”

“I wish I could too.”

“After all these years together, I know I can’t stand between you and a good story.” She sighed. “Okay, what do you want me to do?”

“Thanks sweetheart. Can you get me a reservation on the next flight to Victoria?”

While Steph worked on a reservation, I packed my carry-on. Since I kept a travel bag ready it didn’t take me long to grab my GPS and throw in a couple of changes of clothes. I checked to make sure my passport, health-card, and extra cash were in their usual place. Just in case, I threw in an extra battery for my laptop and the charger for my Blackberry.

Next I booted my laptop and inputted co-ordinates for the site. It came up as a lonely stretch of coastline on the west side of Vancouver Island, southeast of Bamfield. The only way to approach the beach would be along logging roads taking off somewhere between Port Alberni and Bamfield on Barkley Sound. I’d have to plot that carefully during my flight—if I got a flight.

“Josh,” Steph shouted from below.

I took the steps two at time and raced into the office where she was using the desktop. “Get a flight?”

She pointed at the screen. “AC1193 leaving at 8:40. If you book it you have to leave right now…even so, it will be touch and go.”

“Book it. Oh and see if you can rent me a four-wheel drive truck and a UTV at the airport in Victoria. You know, a good rugged, four-wheel off-road vehicle.”

I dashed back upstairs, grabbed my bag and laptop and returned to Steph’s side. “Anything?”

“Taking too long. Why don’t you book the truck while you’re waiting to board the plane?”

“Good idea.”

She handed me the printed ticket and boarding pass and shut down the desktop. “Back out the car. I’ll take you to the airport. I’ll need to use the car while you’re away.”

Steph dropped me off at Pearson International. Thankfully I made it through security with minutes to spare. 

 

 

Chapter 2

While I waited to board my flight to Victoria I booted my laptop and arranged for the rental of a 4×4 truck. I settled on a Chevy Silverado. To that I added an UTV to be delivered to the rental agency and loaded on the back of the Chevy. I grimaced at the cost, but what else could I do? The chance of an exclusive trumped all. I’d worry about the bill later.

Transport accounted for, I searched online for detailed topographic maps showing elevations, logging roads and hiking trails. What had I done before Google? Saving the maps to a new folder entitled—what should I call it? —rust bucket, I shut down the computer just as our flight was called.

As soon as the plane was airborne, I eased my seat back and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, my seatmate and his wife wanted to talk about their first visit to Victoria. After three or four “uh-huh’s” and a couple of “yeah’s” they finally got the message that I wanted to be left alone; though hard as I tried, I couldn’t stifle the flutter of butterflies in my stomach enough to sleep soundly.

The plane touched down in Victoria at eleven. By midnight I was stoked up on coffee and barreling out of Victoria on Highway One towards Nanaimo. Part way there I turned west on the Cowichan Valley highway. Before long I left the pavement behind as I skirted the shore of Cowichan Lake. MapQuest was amazingly helpful, even plotting roads with no names through the rain forest. But could I trust it? The darkness, the gravel road, and the twists and turns were tricky. Many of the roads had no names. I had to stop at each fork and check the topographic map on my computer along with the GPS.

The land got wilder and the roads worse. I drove through huge swaths of nothing but stumps. Further on my headlights picked up stands of giant trees, signs for old mines, and the occasional tarpaper shack. About three in the morning I drove slowly through an Indian reservation, hoping to avoid waking anyone. I was successful, except for some barking dogs.

Again and again the truck lurched as it plunged into potholes, throwing me against the door with bone-jarring force or bruising my chest with the seat belt. I had to engage the four-wheel drive where the road was gutted by rivulets of run-off. The track seemed to disappear completely at an abandoned logging camp. Time to park the truck. I hid it behind a cluster of dilapidated shacks. Using the ramps the agency had provided, I offloaded the UTV. Before I took off, I hunched down and used my flashlight to plot the rest of my route to the coast along trails that would avoid First Nations reservations and fishing camps. According to Nadia, the freighter had run aground on a wild section of the coast within the bounds of an isolated provincial forest reserve.

Since I didn’t have a permit either to enter the park or hike the West Coast Trail, I wanted to arrive, get my story, and leave without getting mired in red tape. I trusted my press credentials to smooth over any ruffled feathers.

My tailbone and kidneys kept telegraphing to my brain that I should abandon this bone-jarring ride or at least stop and rest. I gritted my teeth and kept on. Several places I had to take a wide detour around First Nations settlements. Sometimes the trail petered out and I had to backtrack. The roar of the UTV’s engine soon gave me a pounding headache to add to the pain in my back. I’d forgotten to ensure that the rental company include a noise-suppressing helmet. Finally, a mile or two from the ocean, I parked under a giant cedar, swallowed a couple of Tylenol, and collapsed in my sleeping bag. Fatigue and the faint sound of surf in the distance lulled me into a deep sleep.

I awoke with a start, wondering where I was. A cathedral of trees. A UTV. The faint sound of surf. Weak sunlight highlighting a trail along a small stream. With a rush it all came back. I glanced at my watch. Seven-thirty! I’d slept too long.

I stood up, stretched, and ran down to the stream where I washed the sleep from my eyes. Back at the UTV, I rummaged in my pack for an energy bar, and leaving the UTV behind hurried down the path to reconnoiter. Before long I crossed the West Coast Trail and broke out of the trees onto a sandy beach littered with driftwood. Huge breakers driven by an offshore wind pounded the shoreline. I stood near the north end of a sweeping bay.

Looking south, I spied a large tent several miles away near the dark shape of a beached cargo ship. Munching the energy bar, I pondered strategy. I didn’t want to alert anyone to my presence until I was close enough to get pictures and some idea of what was going on. Although the sound of the surf might mask the sound of the UTV until I was close to the ship, at some point it would alert the authorities to my presence. To my mind, the whine of that particular four-wheeler sounded like a gang of banshees. Best to hike down the beach using the West Coast Trail that snaked through the trees to screen me from view.

No time to waste. I ran back to the UTV and drove it to a point just east of where the inland trail I’d been following intersected the West Coast Trail. I hid the machine in a tangle of windfalls. When I was sure it was concealed, I hefted my backpack and set off at a trot until I neared the freighter.

The West Coast Trail follows the shoreline for 77 kilometres from Bamfield to Port Renfrew. Research had told me that some 70 ships had been shipwrecked along this perilous stretch of coast. In 1970 lobbyists secured park protection for the region and by 1980 the trail was upgraded to allow for hikers. Still, the route is so rugged and dangerous it takes 5 to 7 days to complete. The trail winds through temperate coastal rain forest where some of the tallest and largest old-growth spruce, hemlock and cedar in Canada are found. Since the trail is closed from October first to April thirtieth due to rough weather, I didn’t need to worry about running into hikers. Fortunately, there had been no rain for a couple of days.

Hidden by a screen of cedar boughs, I peered out at the beached freighter through the telephoto lens of my camera. It was a small freighter with only two cranes to handle freight. The deck was clear of containers. Streaks of rust obscured the original white paint and its name. The pounding waves had pushed its stern toward the beach and canted it to one side. Offshore, what looked like a navy patrol vessel bobbed in the heavy surf. Two rubber inflatable zodiacs were pulled up onto the shore, one on either side of the ship. A large tent surrounded by concertina wire had been erected well above the reach of the waves. Probably to hold detainees. Except for two men dressed in tactical gear, no one stirred. Both faced the ocean and the freighter.

I took a series of pictures, then extracted the memory card and put it deep into an inside pocket of my jacket. Better to be paranoid than lose my pictures. Taking out a fresh card, I readied the camera for some close-ups, stepped from my cover, and plodded through the sand toward the nearest guard. Every few feet I took pictures, not sure what I’d be allowed to do once the guard spotted me.

When I was about a hundred feet away, the officer spun around lifted his Heckler and Koch submachine gun, and shouted at me. “Hey you! Stop. Don’t come any further. This is a restricted zone.”

“Restricted? I didn’t see any signs.” I’d encountered military and police personnel too often in my career as a journalist to be intimidated by their bravado.

He swore. “We don’t need signs. Leave…Now. Return to wherever you came from.”

I held up my hands, palm toward him. “This is a public beach on the West Coast Trail. I have every right to be here.”

He gestured with the gun. “Are you deaf? Or don’t you understand plain English? You’re trespassing on a crime scene. Now leave, or I’ll take you into custody.”

I backed up a step. “Whoa, you don’t want to do that. Arrest a member of the fifth estate? Think of all the bad publicity.”

He frowned. “Fifth Estate? From that TV show?”

I fumbled in my pocket. “No, the press.” I retrieved my press card and holding it up approached him. “Here have a look.”

His scowl changed to a look of puzzlement.

“I’m surprised there aren’t other reporters here by now. Soon there’ll be news copters circling above. Whatever is going on here, you can’t throw a press blackout over it. The public has enormous interest in events like this. Remember the foul-ups over the Tamil smuggling case?”

He reached out, took my press card, and squinted at it. “A piece of plastic. Do you think this is a get-out-of-jail-free card? It certainly doesn’t trump national security.” He motioned with his submachine gun. “Stay put. Let me check out what we’re going to do with you.”

He hollered at the other guard. “Hey, Frank, keep an eye on this bozzo.”

The tent flap opened and three figures appeared. One looked like someone in customs or the RCMP. Another was in army fatigues. But the third was a woman. A woman with black hair. Nadia.