Monday 24 June 2024

His Best Shot by Penny Rogers, strong black coffee

Brady looked at the cover of the magazine. He saw his photo, his amazing close-up of Moma Bob, his recognition as a first-rate photographer, then the words below the picture: ‘Intimate shots of a cougar and her cubs. A photo essay by an exciting new talent.’

 

Ten months earlier.

Pa was asleep. Nothing new there.  Ever since Ma had died Pa had started drinking earlier every day; now he rarely ceased until he fell into a drunken stupor. Brady had stopped even trying to get him to give up the booze, to eat properly, to look after himself. He didn’t suppose his old man had realised that his youngest son had dropped out of school, given up the job he got at the lumber mill and was now just about getting by on the bit of money Ma had left him. He thought about his brother; Joseph never came near them now. He was well on his way to being a hotshot lawyer in Seattle, far away from rural squalor in the Tetons.

            Brady knew there was someone living in the old trappers’ hut on the other side of Broken Bear Ridge. He’d seen smoke curling above the treeline for a week or so. At first he’d thought it was a wildfire, or a blaze started by careless hikers or hunters, but his experienced eyes told him that it was a contained fire, it was smoke rising from a chimney.

            The hut was only about a mile from Moma Bob’s den, and he hoped that whoever was in the hut wouldn’t disturb her, or worse kill her. He knew there were three cubs in the den; he’d been photographing their mother since she moved into the area almost two years ago. He planned to get a whole series of photos and send them to a magazine. He’d looked at wildlife magazines in the college library; he knew that he could get shots as good, even better, than the ones he saw published.

            ‘Ma, can I be a photographer when I finish college?’

            ‘Sure son, you can be whatever you want.’

            ‘What about Pa?’

            ‘He’ll come round, I’ll talk to him.’

But she never did, and then she died.

 

The old quad bike could only go so far down the hillside, along the creek and up the other side of the valley towards the ridge. And he didn’t have much fuel, so Brady decided to walk. He’d take a bit of food and find somewhere to shelter overnight. Then he’d have plenty of time to find out who was in the hut and if Moma Bob and her precious babies were OK. He carefully packed his camera; if there was a ticket out of this place, this would be it. He looked at Pa, snoring on the threadbare couch. He wrote a short note in the unlikely event of the old feller waking up sober enough to wonder where his boy was.

            By late afternoon Brady was restoring a shelter he’d built with Joe some years ago when they were good buddies. Ma was alive and Pa worked at the sawmill. Even back then Joe was keen on getting good grades and all Brady wanted to do was take photographs. When the shelter was good enough Brady took a couple of shots of the setting sun reflected on the far side of the valley where he lived. He wondered if Pa was awake and if he’d seen the note.

 

Dawn was Brady’s favourite time to take pictures. Soft light, traces of mist, animals not as wary as when the sun is high, and that marvellous silence, peace broken only by birdsong. It was that quietness that he tried to capture in his photographs; his ambition was to instil tranquillity into a medium without sound. Every muscle, every sinew in his body was alert as the sun rose over the ridge.

            The scent of frying bacon came to his nostrils. Unmistakeable, delicious; he hadn’t had a good breakfast for a long time. He thought of Ma’s waffles and bacon, eggs over easy and a big mug of coffee. But this wasn’t a dream, it was for real and whoever was in the old hut was cooking breakfast. He hastily cleared up his belongings, put his camera carefully away and made his way up the ridge. The odour of the bacon acted like a pulley rope, drawing him up the steep hillside, helping him over rocks and preventing his ankle from twisting in the tussocks and rabbit holes. He stopped on the edge of the clearing around the hut. He could see women’s underwear on a makeshift clothes line, a jug of meadow flowers on the table in the porch and a broom propped up by the front door. No sign of a male presence, no man’s voice broke the silence. Intrigued he walked purposefully towards the door.

 

That breakfast of bacon, eggs, flat bread and a bowl of wild strawberries, all washed down with fresh coffee was the best meal Brady had ever eaten. Replete, they stayed on the porch smoking and finding out about each other. Brady felt that at long last he was truly alive.

            He didn’t go home for three months. Once or twice he thought about Pa, but Mandy’s seduction was complete and persistent. In between long hours in her bed she conjured up delicious meals while he took his camera to the vicinity of Moma Bob’s den and managed to get shots of her and the two surviving cubs. He knew these images were world class; somehow his contentment enabled him to capture the maternal love and single-minded devotion of the cougar. He told Mandy of his plans, his aspirations and his frustration at having no money, and his camera being his only chance of making a life for himself away from the valley. 

            ‘I could help you if you want me to.’ Mandy was interested in his ideas. She told him that she was a writer specialising in young adult books and the latest had just been made into a network series by the BBC and CBC. As a result she had been able to fund a summer in the Tetons with the commission. Her purpose in coming here had been to write, but finding a handsome lover some twenty-five years younger had somewhat distracted her from writing more blockbusters.

            ‘I’ve got contacts in publishing. What’s that magazine you were talking about?

            Nature Alive.’

            ‘What a coincidence! I know the editor; we had an affair once, we’re still good friends.’

 

Brady could not believe his luck. This incredible woman who had had so much experience and led such a fascinating life actually wanted to sleep with him and help him escape from the valley.

            ‘I haven’t always lived in Canada’ she told him while they were chopping some herbs she’d collected, ‘I used to be married to an American and lived right near here in Jackson.’

Brady had been to Jackson to see his grandparents on one occasion when he was about ten. Although it was only about sixty miles away it might just as well have been on the moon.

            ‘And I lived in London for five years. Worked for the BBC, I’ve got lots of contacts there.’

 

Summer began to show signs of old age. Leaves that had been bright green started yellowing; grasses desiccated by the sun had shed all their seeds and lay flattened in the upland meadows. Moma Bob’s twins had grown well during the summer and she spent increasingly long periods hunting away from the den. When she wasn’t there the cubs would play outside; they became accustomed to Brady’s presence. He never got too close; he didn’t want them to trust him, but inevitably his scent and noise alerted them to his proximity. The photographs he took were superb.

            The shortening days reminded Brady that he didn’t know how Pa was doing. It came to him one morning that the old man might be dead; he knew he had to go home. Mandy too seemed keen to move on, talking of winter back in Quebec, wondering if he could spend Christmas with her there.

            ‘What are you going to do with those photos?’

            ‘Send them to the editor of Nature Alive.

            ‘Would you like me to do that? As I know the editor so well…’

            ‘That would be great! I don’t know what to say…’

            ‘Let me have the files, I’ll do the rest,’

 

When he got home the house was locked.  Brady walked up the valley to Jase Steven’s place. Jase wasn’t home, but Ali was.

            ‘You should be ashamed. Leaving him like that. They took him to the County District Hospital but it was too late. Just me and Jase at his funeral. Don’t come round here looking for sympathy.’

            He called Joe. His brother was too busy to take his call, but a woman who said she was his PA took a message and said he’d call back when he had time.

            He called Mandy to ask if she’d pay for him to go to Quebec. There was no reply; he left a voicemail but his message was unanswered.

 

A window at the back of the house had been broken since he and Joe had whacked it with a baseball bat. Pa had covered it with hardboard at the time and never got round to fixing it properly, so Brady was able to prise it open and break into his own home. It was a stinking mess; he sat down on what had been Ma’s chair and wept.

 

He got through the autumn and winter doing odd jobs at the sawmill. He cleaned up the house and made it watertight, even mended the broken window. The neighbours pretty well ostracised him; they blamed him for neglecting Pa, but that didn’t worry him; he missed Mandy too much. He didn’t understand why she hadn’t contacted him, didn’t return his calls or respond to his messages. He’d been looking forward to spending Christmas with her, but nothing came of her promises on that score. He had never felt so alone.

            On a rare visit to town on the first warm day of spring he saw a copy of Nature Alive in the grocery store. He picked it up in disbelief. There on the cover and in a double spread inside were his picture of Moma Bob and her cubs. His photographs, but attributed to ‘Mandy Legasquet: a remarkable new talent.’

            He drove home in a trance, unable to comprehend her betrayal. In Ma’s chair he tried to think what he could do; he had nothing and no one. The only option he could see was to take his rifle, walk up to Broken Bear Ridge and not come back.

            The sound of his phone made him jump; he so seldom received any calls that he’d forgotten what an incoming call sounded like. ‘Have you been drinking?’ Brady didn’t recognise the voice.

            ‘No I have not. Who are you anyway?’

            There was a laugh on the other end of the phone that Brady recognised. ‘Joe?’

 

Three days later Joe’s SUV pulled up outside his old home.

            ‘Why didn’t you call me? I left messages, lots of ‘em. You ignored me Joe’.

Joe had been shocked to see how gaunt and ill his brother looked.

            ‘I tried a coupla times, got no answer.’

            ‘You coulda left a message! Even when I told you about Pa. You shoulda done something. Come home for a start, but no you left me all alone in this sad dump.’

            ‘I’m sorry bro. Dunno what to say. I let you down.’

            ‘So what made you change your mind?’

            Joe smiled cautiously. ‘I got a new PA, she’s kinda nice. Her name’s Angie.’ Brady guessed that this lady was more than a PA. He let his brother continue. ‘She went through all my old messages and appointments. Made sure I was up to date, she’s very thorough. And she found a message from you. She said that she didn’t know I had a brother and asked me what you were like. So I called you. Simple as that.’

            ‘If you hadn’t called when you did you wouldn’t have had a brother.’ The whole story took a long time to tell; at the end Joe said ‘Do you know what I do?’

            ‘Yeah, you’re a hotshot lawyer.’

             Joe smiled. ‘But do you know what kinda lawyer?’

            ‘Nah. A rich one maybe.’

           

Into the night Joe explained intellectual property to his bemused brother. It had never occurred to Brady that Mandy had stolen something from him. He had never stopped loving her. When he told this to Joe his brother had said

            ‘Bro, love’s a two-way thing.  This is gonna sound tough, but sounds to me like you were infatuated with this woman. That’s not love.’

            This made Brady angry ‘Don’t patronise me, hotshot lawyer. I loved her. Still do.’ But even he was beginning to see that his trust had been abused and it was time to move on.

 

Over the next few days Joe made many calls to Seattle, and spent hours having Zoom meetings. The idea of working away from an office was a new one on Brady. He’s heard about it; how companies were re-shaping ways of doing business following the Covid pandemic and subsequently pushed along by rising costs and environmental concerns. But he’d no idea of the reality of how it worked; he became fascinated with the possibilities of technology.

            Encouraged by Joe, Brady took his camera into the hills every day. Joe told him to build up a portfolio of his work that would be evidence, if needed, to prove that the shots of Moma Bob and her cubs were his. ‘The only camera Mandy had was on her phone’ he told Joe one day. ‘She had no idea about lighting, lenses, filters, angles – anything beyond point and click.’

 

For the first time in a long while Brady felt hopeful. Having Joe around and having a purpose for his photography gave him a sense of newly discovered self-worth. He started eating properly, sleeping better and looking after himself, even when Joe went back to Seattle and left him to the silence of the mountains. Then he got the call from his brother telling him to rent a car and drive to Seattle, there were papers to sign.

 

Afterwards Brady looked back on the next few weeks as like a rebirth. Never in his life had he been treated like this; with respect and almost deference by smart folk in suits and impossibly gorgeous women in the highest heels he’d ever seen. It transpired that Mandy Legasquet was just one name that this accomplished con-woman had used. It seemed that Mandi King-Lowe, Amanda Macpharlane, even Deirdre Oppenheimer were all the same person who had been responsible for frauds of one sort or another on both sides of the Atlantic. It turned out that she’d gone to Broken Bear Ridge to hide from debt collectors for the summer. She must have thought Lady Luck was on her side when Brady walked into her life and gave her the photos. She had been arrested in Canada and there were warrants for her extradition to the UK and Ireland.

            ‘But I don’t think you’ll have to go to court.’ Joe and Angie had taken Brady to a swanky old-school steakhouse on the waterfront. ‘The editor of Nature Alive is keen to settle out of court. I’ve spoken to him today. He’s offered to print an apology in the next issue about the attribution of the Moma Bob shots and we’re negotiating a substantial sum in compensation. I need to talk to you about that tomorrow. More importantly, I think you’ll like this, a contract for at least six series of photographs. All those shots you’ve been taking over the last few weeks are gonna come in VERY useful.’

Brady leaned back in his chair, took a sip of coffee and looked out across Puget Sound. ‘Ma would be pleased. And I guess Pa would too. Thanks bro.’

About the author 

Penny Rogers lives in Dorset in the south of England. She writes mostly short stories, flash fiction and poems and facilitates an informal writing group. She is a regular contributor to CaféLit. When she’s not writing Penny makes jams, pickles and preserves from home grown or foraged produce. 

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