Authors: Don Porter
Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General
By four o’clock I could see across the river and make out shapes of trees, rather than silhouettes. The overcast was still solid, but turning from black to charcoal gray. I let the fire go out, scattered the embers, and rolled our smoldering hearth log into the river. The canoe was dry, shotgun and one paddle leaned against the back seat. I shoved it halfway into the water and steadied it while Angie got settled in front, then shoved us out and vaulted aboard.
We’d wound around two bends, and we seemed to be racing. If I’d realized how fast we’d been moving in the dark, I’d have stopped sooner. We’d covered perhaps a quarter mile when we saw a flash of blond wood caught in a tangle of brush ahead. I backed water hard, steered next to the bank and grabbed a root. We slid to a tentative stop against the crumbling mud. Angie saw her paddle, scrambled up the slope, and risked her life to reach out and grab it.
She slid down the bank, resumed her seat, dug her paddle in like a trooper, and together we steered around the brush pile and followed the current. Hopper Creek came in from our right and the river channel broadened and straightened. In another twenty minutes we were spewed out into the main Chena River and headed for Fairbanks on what looked like a highway.
With the river thirty yards wide instead of thirty feet, we relaxed and drifted. The water seemed to have stopped and the banks were gliding by. It was almost silent, just the occasional murmur or hiss when something submerged ruffled the surface. Angie leaned her paddle against the seat, wrapped arms around her shoulders and hunkered against the cold.
If the sun had been out, it would have been a postcard moment. Birch and aspen were tinged with yellow, occasional patches of blueberry bushes dark red, all counter-pointed by green spruce. Fairbanks can be gorgeous in the fall, but it’s an abbreviated season. Some years it’s less than ten days from the first tinge of color to a stark white blanket. I took a couple of strokes to keep us straight with the current. The swish of paddle was replaced by an almost subliminal hum.
It got louder fast, rising and falling as the river turned, but unmistakably a boat was coming upstream. My scalp got that tingling, urgent feeling.
“Quick, Angie, right-hand bank.” We both dug in, raced for the shore. A four-foot-wide sandbar fronted a two-foot-high dark loam bank. We buried our nose in sand. Angie jumped out and steadied the canoe while I hunched forward. We each grabbed a side, boosted the canoe over the bank, and shoved it into the trees. We had just scrambled up after it when a boat came around the next bend, moving upriver fast.
It was small, but had a canvas canopy, like the boats you see towing water-skiers around Harding Lake. In the north, the usual riverboats are eighteen feet long and six feet wide with flat bottoms for sliding over sandbars. They’re capable of hauling a ton of salmon in the spring, or a couple of moose in the fall, workboats, not pleasure craft.
I hunkered down behind the canoe to keep the aluminum from showing, and we watched through leaves while the boat passed. Definitely two men, definitely with rifles, but we couldn’t be sure of much else. The boat raced on up the river. When it disappeared around the next bend, I climbed down onto the sandbar to listen.
The sound was steady for a couple of minutes, then slowed and seemed to come from the left, so they had turned up the Little Chena. I crouched down next to the water and smoothed the cut our bow had made, then brushed away the footprints and climbed back up the bank.
“Let’s drag the canoe farther back so it won’t show.”
“They’re looking for us, aren’t they, Alex?”
“Maybe…no, probably. I think they turned up the Little Chena. Thing is, we’re ripe for paranoia.” I picked up the front of the canoe, Angie the back, and we half carried, half slid it thirty feet into the brush. I grabbed the shotgun and we slipped back to the edge of the trees.
Angie’s denim jacket and jeans were reasonably inconspicuous. My dark green windbreaker was fortuitous, not intentional good management. We sat on the cold ground and listened for maybe ten minutes before we heard the motor again, this time slow and quiet.
“Alex, they couldn’t have gone all the way to the cabin.”
“They didn’t. They found our campfire. I scattered it enough to be sure it was out, but not enough to hide it. Sorry, put that on the long list of things I haven’t thought of lately.”
The boat came around the last bend, moving slowly down the middle of the river. We flopped on our bellies and I jacked another shell into the shotgun.
“Are you going to shoot them, Alex?”
“No, darn it, and I probably should. Angie, they could be moose hunters out scouting for a blind. We don’t know that they’re after us, don’t even know if the phony cops who came to the cabin are the same ones who bombed Stan’s truck, or if any of them were the guys Stan heard. If they beach the boat and come for the bank with weapons, I’ll cut them in half, but we don’t want to blow away a couple of innocent hunters.”
We stopped talking. The boat passed slowly, mid river, one passenger watching each bank, and continued around the next bend.
“Did they spot us?” Angie was concerned, not frightened. I realized I was seeing the culmination of generations of her ancestors who had faced possible death on a daily basis. If lives were at risk, and if I couldn’t have Stan, then she was the next best partner.
“They didn’t even bobble, so if they saw us, they’re the greatest poker players since Dan McGrew. Let’s get the boat in the water.”
We’d been on the water again for less than ten minutes before my internal radar was screaming at me.
“Angie, we’ve got to get off the river. We could come around any bend and run smack into them. If they dropped off one man on the bank with a rifle, we’d go by like wooden ducks in a shooting gallery.”
Both of us were feeling urgency and paddling fast. Angie answered over her shoulder, “How about the Chena Slough? Can’t be more than one or two bends ahead, and that runs right next to Badger Loop Road.”
“Great, let’s go for it.” We hugged the left-hand bank, rounded a deep bend to the south, and paddled like mad out of the river, through an eddy and into the slough. With almost no current in the backwater, we scooted upstream, plowing a swath of ripples through mirror-still water, riffling reflections of overhanging trees. Houses appeared through the trees on the bank, then a thick stand of uninterrupted birch.
“Let’s stash the canoe.”
Angie nodded and pulled toward the right bank. I steadied us with my paddle while she climbed out and held the canoe for me. We dragged it twenty feet up into blueberry bushes and high bush cranberries, the berries long gone, leaves turned to crimson. I wedged the shotgun under the rear seat and we turned the canoe over. If someone lifted one edge and looked, they’d see the paddles, but maybe not the shotgun. Still, I had the feeling I’d seen the last of the gun, and probably the canoe as well.
Angie looked at me and wrinkled her nose. “If you’re planning to hitchhike, you’d better wash your face. You look like the
Night of the Living Dead
I knelt on the bank and scooped handsful of cold water onto my face, but still had that sunburned feeling. I blotted rather than rubbed, and noticed it was about time for a shave. Angie reached for my handkerchief and cleaned around the cut on my forehead.
“Okay, you look sick, but not frightening. You do carry a pocket comb?” She accepted the comb and worked the twigs out of her hair. That was an amazing process with pulling that would have snatched me bald. Her hair hangs well past her shoulders and she was holding strands in front of her to untangle the ends. Finally she shrugged it all back in place, ran the comb through it one more time, then worked on me. I had a terrible case of split ends, or maybe frizzies, where I’d been singed. We brushed down clothes, pronounced each other acceptable, and climbed through the bushes. Badger Loop Road was just over the hill.
Angie surveyed the empty gravel road with a skeptical scowl. “Which way shall we walk?”
“Doesn’t matter much, either way leads to Richardson Highway so we can hitchhike in either direction, but let’s head toward town. When we snag a ride, I’d rather it was headed for Fairbanks than Eielson. Fact is, I’m ready for some breakfast, or the dinner we didn’t have last night.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I’d sell my soul for a cup of coffee.” We turned right and trudged down the center of the road.
“You’re selling your soul too cheap. How about a big stack of blueberry pancakes, plenty of melted butter, with a couple of poached eggs and link sausage on the side?” We were leaving trees behind with the slough, passing scrub alders and willows. Thirty feet on each side of the road were dust covered. Beyond the gray dusting, tufts of grass looked brown and dead, leaves scraggly and dying.
Angie seemed to be considering. “How about a big order of eggs Benedict, really good hollandaise with lots of lemon juice, black olives on top and no turkey slice?”
“Good, toss in a couple of glasses of orange juice and our own coffeepot.”
We’d walked in silence for ten minutes when the sound of a motor turned us around in unison. We nipped to the side of the road and stuck out our thumbs. If it was our pursuers we were dead anyway, no place to run or hide. It was a big blue crew-cab pickup with only the driver, and he looked young. He was wearing civvies, but he was clean-shaven and his haircut looked military. He slid to a stop, covering us with dust, but unintentionally. He rolled down a window.
“Hi, you guys are a long ways from nowhere.”
“Right,” I said, “car trouble. Can you give us a lift toward Fairbanks?”
“Sure, hop in. I’m headed for Fort Wainright.”
He unlocked the passenger door and pushed it open. Angie scrambled up with me right behind her. He’d stopped in the middle of the road, so no need to check mirrors. He dropped the big rig into drive and we were off with a surge of quiet power.
“You have a car accident?” he asked. He was looking at the cut on my forehead.
“Not really, had to take the ditch to miss a moose. Car’s fine, we just need to grab our truck to pull it out.”
He nodded. That’s such a classic Alaskan story that it almost goes without saying.
“You live out here?” Angie asked.
“Yep, wife and I bought five acres from the Markey homestead. Right now we just have a trailer house, but we have electricity and we have a company coming next week to bore a well. We’ll start building a real house next summer.”
“It’s a terrific area.” Angie said, apparently not referring to the brush and swamp we were passing.
“Yeah, we like it. Real quiet. We’re expecting our first baby early next spring, and this is the sort of place where we want to raise our family.”
A stop sign announced the Richardson Highway. Traffic was rushing in both directions. The two lanes on the far side were probably people who lived in Fairbanks but worked at Eielson AFB. Our side was gushing with people who lived out on the highway but worked in Fairbanks. Our host picked a gap in the line of traffic that was actually longer than the pickup, turned right, and burned rubber to join the queue.
He dropped us at the corner of Gaffney and Cushman and we hiked two blocks down the dusty sidewalk to the Fairbanks Inn. The stone front creates a medieval castle effect, but behind that is steel and glass. I stopped Angie outside the entrance.
“Do you mind if we share a room?”
“Are you kidding? You’re not leaving me alone.” She looked quizzical, wondering why I had asked. It was a sop to my culture, where single men and women who share rooms have ulterior motives. In her culture, whole families, both sexes, and sometimes three generations, share a one- or two-room cabin with no problems. The no-problems part was what I had in mind. We needed to keep an eye on each other and think together. Sharing a room solved a whole spectrum of potential problems.
The receptionist struck me as a Filipina, dark, wavy hair surrounding a pretty moon face. She was too young but striving to make up for that with an air of ultra sophistication. She’d noticed that we weren’t carrying luggage, and we probably did look as if we’d spent the night barhopping. I would have liked to register under a phony name, but was going to have to use a credit card, so the card and the register should match. I settled for Mr. and Mrs. Alex Price. The receptionist was doing fine until I suggested that we preferred twin beds. That destroyed her view of the world. She flipped a page in her ledger, found a room on the second floor, and handed me a key.
“We need two keys.”
She produced a second one. I handed one to Angie. “Food or shower?”
“Shower, thirty seconds, then that soul’s worth of breakfast you tortured me with.” Stairs led up from the lobby. Our room was halfway down a long, carpeted hall and had a sealed plate glass window overlooking Cushman Street. I don’t know why they call those twin beds. Each was the size of a queen, but with a four-foot aisle between them. We had two chairs, a dresser with a TV bolted on top, a nightstand between the beds with two reading lights and a telephone. A door led to a bathroom where Angie was already running the shower.
She was out in minutes, wearing towels and carrying her clothes. “Your turn.”
A hot shower and clean-smelling soap can be life’s greatest pleasures under some circumstances. However, the restaurant was calling. Angie had left me a towel. I dried, flapped my clothes to shake the dust out, and dressed. I took one more swipe at my strange new hairline, and tapped on the door before I opened it. She was dressed, fussing at her hair, and extended a now clean hand. I put my comb in it. She went back into the bathroom for one more minute, and we almost ran to the coffee shop.
Breakfast was still in progress. I was surprised to notice that it was only eight in the morning. It seemed like the end of a very long day. We must have looked desperate because in two minutes we were served coffee and orange juice, and in five more we were on refills and tucking into our dream breakfasts.
Angie demolished half an English muffin and seemed to approve of the hollandaise. She blotted her lips and sipped coffee. “What’s the plan, Alex?”
“My pistol’s in my flight bag at the airport. I’m going to feel a lot better when it’s in my belt. After that?” I shrugged. “Stan mentioned that you’re working at a TV station?”
“Yes, Channel Two, but not for a while. I just couldn’t. Alex, I can’t even think about normal things. If I let myself realize what’s happened, I want to start screaming. I’ll call in.”
“Yeah, I guess I’d better call Bethel. Vicki will be wondering what I’ve done with the airplane.”
“Alex, you won’t go back to Bethel and leave me?”
“Angie, Stan was my brother in every way that matters, and you’re my sister. No, I won’t leave you. I don’t believe in blood feuds, eye for an eye and all that, but we have to find his killers so he can rest easy, and neither of us will be safe until we do.”
“Won’t the police find them?”
“Maybe. Let’s hope so, but we’re a lot more motivated. Besides, the guys who came to the house were wearing police uniforms. I really think they were phony, but maybe we shouldn’t rush to find out.”
We finished and signaled for the bill. I added a twenty-percent tip, signed the tab, and we strolled back up to the room considerably more comfortable. We sat on the beds on either side of the nightstand. Angie motioned for me to go first. I picked up the phone and dialed Bethel but left the handset in the cradle so it was a speakerphone.
“Bushmaster Air Alaska.”
“Hi, Vickie, little problem here.”
“Alex, you didn’t wreck the 310?”
“No, no, airplane’s fine. This is a personal problem, but I might be here a while.”
“Alex, if you weren’t a partner, you know I’d fire your sorry ass. You just met the most beautiful girl in the world, right?”
“As a matter of fact she’s here right now, but it’s Angie, Stan’s wife. Vickie, Stan was killed last night.”
“Oh no, oh damn. Alex, do what you have to do, and tell Angie I’m terribly sorry.”
“Thanks Vic, I’ll keep you posted.” I punched the
button, shoved the phone over to Angie, and lay back on the bed. It did feel very good.
Angie punched buttons and the phone said, “KTUU.”
“Hi, Lydia, it’s Angie.”
“Oh, my God, Angie, how
you? We got the police report about the accident, and we knew it was Stan’s truck, but they said only one person in it. Are you all right?”
“Not yet, but maybe I will be. Lydia, I need a few days off.”
“Of course, we’ve got you covered. Oh, honey, I’m just so glad you’re okay.”
had me sitting up in shock. I mouthed, “Accident?”
“Lydia, exactly what did the police say about Stan’s truck?”
“I don’t remember the exact words. Do you want me to read you the report? It’s in the newsroom.”
“No, just tell me what you heard.”
“Well, it was a freak accident, one chance in billions. It was something to do with a gas line breaking and the spark igniting fumes. Angie, the whole station is broken up over this. Everyone sends their love.”
“Thanks, Lydia, I’ll stay in touch.” Angie hung up slowly.
“Accident?” I think we said it together and sat staring at each other. I got up to pace, but there wasn’t enough room, so I punched the wall with my fist. That hurt enough to get my brain back in gear.
“Alex, could it have been an accident?”
I paused to add two and two and two before I answered her. “No, it could not have been an accident. Things like that happen in boats sometimes, fumes in closed spaces. Cars can catch on fire, but no, they do not explode. Stan was scared, and it wasn’t paranoia. The guys who came to your house were real, and they came to kill us. I did not imagine the .45 slugs through your front door. Those were not hunters on the river this morning, or rather, they were, and they were hunting for us. So, no, it was no accident. Now, are we dealing with a police cover-up or just the usual incompetence?”
“What do we do, Alex?”
“First, we rent a car and I get my pistol in my belt. Don’t you need things from the house?”
“Desperately. My purse, a hair dryer, some clothes. Do we dare go back?”
“Let’s find out.”
Avis brought a green Dodge Dart to the hotel. We dropped the driver back at their office in the Polaris building and did the paperwork before we headed to the airport.
I walked around the airplane three times, looked up under the cowlings, climbed up on the wing and looked into the cabin, no apparent tampering. Still, I took a deep breath and turned my head away when I used the key to unlock the baggage compartment behind the wing.
The flight bag is a heavy canvas duffel, loaded with survival gear in case you put an airplane down in the tundra. It holds sleeping bags, space blankets, buddy burner, mess kit, chocolate, water purification tablets, beef jerky, and necessary tools. The implements on the bottom of the bag are hatchet and spade; the one on top is my .357 magnum revolver and a box of Speer copper clads.
There are lots of sexier James Bond-type pistols around, like Glocks and Walthers, but those are for making movies, not survival in the bush. In the unlikely event that Speer ever makes a dud, a revolver doesn’t jam. You pull the trigger again and fire the next round. It’s not meant to spray an area with lead. It just puts a whopping hundred-and-sixty-grain missile precisely where it’s pointed with enough velocity to penetrate the first two or three things it hits.
Mine is the Smith and Wesson patrolman model with a six-inch barrel. It’s not quite a rifle, but as far as I know, it’s still the most powerful and accurate handgun ever made, and it felt very good jammed into my belt with the windbreaker covering it.
If you know Alaska’s gun laws, you’re wincing, and rightly so. You can carry any weapon you wish, so long as it’s showing, but it requires a license to carry it concealed, and I do have that. It’s almost a joke, but in Bethel my most faithful charter customers are Alaska State Troopers, and theoretically they travel alone in the legal sense, but with a charter pilot. If the trooper is a good friend, situations just naturally come up that are illegal. My getting a private detective license doesn’t make the events legal, just a little less illegal. Anyhow, the troopers conned me into it. I sent eight hundred bucks to the Professional Career Development Institute, read two good books in the Private Investigator Course, took twenty open-book tests, and got a handsome diploma. The diploma and a twenty-dollar bill got me the license that made it legal to pull my windbreaker over the pistol.
I rejoined Angie in the Dart. “Up for a drive through the woods on this glorious fall morning?”
“If you say so. Stan said he’d trust you with his life, so I should do the same.”
That stopped conversation. We were both thinking that Stan had trusted me one too many times, and I had let him down.
We approached the driveway slowly, scanning the woods on both sides for snipers, hidden vehicles, anything out of place. I parked the car at the entrance to the drive and walked down the lane, pistol in hand, looking for traps. I’d let Stan down; I was not going to do the same for Angie. The driveway was clean, with only my pickup parked in front. I went back for the Dart, feeling a little foolish or paranoid.
I parked ten feet behind the pickup. When Angie stepped out of the car, a streak burst from the woods with a banshee howl and a clatter of dragged chain. Turk jumped onto her, paws on her shoulders, and knocked her flat. I grabbed the chain and dug in my heels to pull him off. He was licking Angie’s face with the apparent intention of drowning or smothering her.
She sat up and wrapped arms around the big animal’s neck. He was still licking her, and she crooned and rocked him. He had a nasty gash across his head, the thick hair matted with dried blood, and Angie was carefully petting his forehead below the wound.
“Stay put,” I said, but apparently they intended to. I walked around the pickup once, gun in hand again, and didn’t see anything amiss, but I didn’t touch it. I gave the house the same once-around. If a curtain had moved, or something stirred in the woods, I would have shot it.
The window I’d used to shoot Turk’s tether was still up, the back door still open. I looked them over for wires, but common sense said they were safe. The phony cops had come to shoot whoever was in the house, not to plant bombs. I walked in through the back door, and through the house, checking the bedrooms and the bath. All were empty and still. The front door had two nickel-sized holes, so I had not imagined those. I opened the perforated door. Angie struggled up and unclipped the chain from Turk’s collar. They came in together, Turk rubbing himself against her legs at every step. They headed to the kitchen and dishes rattled. I stationed myself in the front door and watched the drive.
With only one way in or out we were in a trap, but it was also, in a way, a fortress. No one was going to come up the river without the sound of an engine announcing it. Trees blocked the view of the road, but I figured I could hear any approaching traffic and I was straining ears. This far out, the only normal traffic would be headed for the hot springs, and that’s maybe a couple of cars per week. I kept the pistol in my hand, and continued telling myself that the silence and isolation were good things.
A pair of camp robbers fluttered down from a big cottonwood tree and stalked around the Dodge, heads up, chests out, marching like Hitler’s Gestapo, the picture of pompous dignity. They decided the Dodge wasn’t edible and flew up into the trees. Angie was back in ten minutes, wearing slacks and sweater, a suit jacket and a tiny purse over her arm. She carried an overnight case in her hand. Turk was still trying to trip her at every step. I took the case and stashed it in the front seat while Angie and Turk climbed into the back.
With the key in the ignition, I paused to turn around. Turk was nestled down with his head in Angie’s lap. I had to reach over the seat and stroke his forehead. “Looks like you could use a vet, big boy. Thanks for saving our lives, by the way.”
“He really did, didn’t he? There’s a vet at Creamer’s Dairy.”
I set the pistol on the seat beside me for the trip into town, but the lonely road with no driveways seemed like protection. No one was going to walk that far out, so as long as no cars were parked beside the road, an ambush seemed unlikely. Still, I breathed easier when we hit the Steese, and then College Road, where traffic was normal.
At Creamer’s Dairy, the barn, or maybe it’s the milking shed, is a concrete block edifice, and clean, clean, clean. Apparently the cows are housebroken, and the vet’s walled-off corner looked to me like any normal operating room.
The vet was Ichabod Crane incarnate, hands, feet, and head too large for connection to his stickman frame, but he seemed to be communicating with Turk on a personal level.
“That’s one nasty cut, Turk, but we’ll fix you right up. Gonna have to shave some of your beautiful coat. You’ll look like an inverse Mohawk for a while.” He was running delicate fingers over Turk’s skull, and Turk didn’t seem to mind.
“Probably a mild concussion, but your eyes are alert, and your motor reflexes seem okay. Just hold steady while I relax you a bit.” The vet was scratching behind Turk’s ear with his right hand, but gave him a shot in the shoulder with a hypodermic that looked the size of a grease gun to me. I winced. Turk didn’t.