Read A deeper sleep Online

Authors: Dana Stabenow

Tags: #Mystery And Suspense Fiction, #General, #Mystery fiction, #Suspense, #Fiction, #Political, #Thriller, #Detective, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction - Mystery, #Crime & Thriller, #Adventure, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Women Sleuths, #Alaska, #Shugak; Kate (Fictitious character), #Women private investigators - Alaska, #19th century fiction, #Suspense & Thriller, #Indians of North America - Alaska

A deeper sleep (4 page)

BOOK: A deeper sleep
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"What the hell did you put in that soup?" he heard himself say as she led him up the narrow wooden stairs to the giant sleigh bed in the loft.

 

"Not cognac," she said.

 

TWO

 

JANUARY

 

Ahtna

 

They took off from the Niniltna airstrip before dawn. The sun was taking its own sweet time climbing up over the mountains, grudging every ray as it spilled over peak and crag to wake up the Park, all twenty million acres of it. It was home to six thousand people living in two towns, a dozen villages, and on hundreds of homesteads, traplines, and mining claims.

 

And that was only if you didn't count the squatters, Kate thought, more of whom seemed to arrive every day. Most of them had roseate expectations of a life at one with nature, and nature was reliably and enthusiastically prompt in disillusioning them. One guy pitched a tent on a bear track, and the bears, delighted by this change of diet, obligingly ate him and his girlfriend. Another guy hiked out to a broken-down bus and sat there until he starved to death, having neglected to study the part of the noble savage lifestyle about learning how to hunt. A team of Korean climbers went up Denali and got stuck in a storm without a radio. Rescued by a passing Italian climber, they were back the following year, this time with a radio with which they got stuck in another storm and used it to yell for help. Unfortunately, they hadn't bothered to learn English.

 

"Suicide by Alaska," Kate called it, and everyone within hearing at Bernie's snickered and repeated it to the first six people they met. As any Park rat could tell you, there was far more truth than hyperbole in her gibe.

 

Most of those who survived were on the first available plane south. A hardy few stuck it out to take up residence. Now and then George Perry, owner and operator of Chugach Air Taxi Service, would spot a roof he hadn't seen before tucked into a stand of trees. He never reported it. If he had, Dan O'Brien would have had to try to run them off, to which they might not have taken kindly, like with maybe a .30-06. Dan was a friend of George's. Not to mention, the Park Service was a good client whose checks always cleared the bank.

 

It wasn't like the Park couldn't absorb them all, Kate thought, riding shotgun in Jim's Cessna at a thousand feet. Four times the size of Denali National Park to the west, the Park's north and east boundaries were the Quilak Mountains, which included Angqak, or Big Bump, a sixteen-thousand-foot peak that straddled the Canadian border and provided a rite of passage for many a climber longing to see the view from the top. A hundred glaciers wrapped icy arms around the Quilaks. Some of those arms were three thousand feet thick and thirty miles long.

 

Others hung from the sheer sides of cliffs or inched their way to the coast and calved into the Gulf of Alaska, which formed the Park's southern border. Also known as the Mother of Storms, the gulf was half a hemisphere of water congenitally prone to every kind of meteorological mischief, to be approached with prudence and vigilance by any seaman of sense.

 

The Park's western edge boasted its only man-made boundary, but more than made up for it by boasting of three, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the Glenn Highway, and the Alaska Railroad.

 

As the Cessna droned westward, the mountains gave way to foothills, the foothills to a broad valley. The sun summited Big Bump and turned the frozen surface of the Kanuyaq River into the Yellow Brick Road. A 250-mile serpentine strip of water, the Kanuyaq rose in the Kanuyaq Glacier and wound its tortuous way around mountain and foothill, over fall and through canyon, gathering to itself the runoff from a thousand creeks and streams and rills and becks and depositing them into the gulf through a vast delta that spanned fifty miles of coastline and was home to a thousand species of shorebirds, including many that were of a size to fill a pot, and very tasty. The river was navigable in summer only as far as Niniltna, Kate's village. In winter, when it froze over, it became a Bush highway, an ice road for anyone with a snow machine.

 

What wasn't Park was wilderness, and what wasn't wilderness was wildlife refuge. Less than 1 percent of it was privately owned, that tiny portion shoehorned in by sourdoughs and stampeders who came north during the gold rush in 1898, who saw to it that their property rights were grandfathered in when the Park was created around them. Another, larger fraction belonged to the resident Alaska Natives, some Eyak, some Athabascan, a few Tlingit, and a lot of Aleuts transplanted there by World War II. They'd come into the land in 1971 with the enactment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, when they traded the federal government an oil pipeline right of way over aboriginal grounds in exchange for money and land.

 

They called themselves Park rats. Some of them did a little farming for barter, many of them trapped, and all of them hunted and fished. Salmon ran up every stream, mountain goats and Dall sheep made a good living off the mountain kinnikinnick, and two different caribou herds disregarded the Alaska-Canada border on their migratory routes. Moose were plentiful. So were the wolves, the black bears, the grizzly bears, the wolverines, and all the other smaller fur-bearing mammals.

 

Kate had watched a lot of people come into the Park. She had watched even more of them go, traveling the only road in, the surprisingly solid remains of a gravel roadbed laid down nearly a hundred years before for a railroad from Cordova on the coast to what had then been the richest copper mine in North America in the interior. After forty years, the ore got harder to get at, and war came, and the copper company turned off the lights in Kanuyaq and pulled up the tracks behind them as they left. The ties were immediately scavenged by those who stayed behind. Once every spring or so, the state road grader would scrape off a layer of frozen dirt to reveal a rusted spike and the grader operator would carry it into Niniltna and hand it over to the school, where the teachers would pass it around their classes, a useful aide-memoire in underlining the boom-and-bust nature of Alaskan history.

 

There was only the downriver road from Niniltna to Bernie's Roadhouse, the up-the-mountain road from Niniltna to the Step and Park headquarters, and the fifty miles of road from Niniltna to Ahtna, which connected the Park to the Glenn Highway, or it did when it was navigable, which it wasn't most of the time. Which helped explain why flying was the number one means of transportation. One in seven Park rats had a pilot's license, and every family owned to at least one pilot, most of them private but some commercial. There were dozens of airstrips. Two were paved, Ahtna and Cordova, and the rest were gravel, including Niniltna's 4,800-foot strip, courtesy of a USGS survey forty-odd years before. Most were narrow strips carved out of the forest or riverbanks or lakeshores or the one mostly level spot on the side of a hill, access for fishing lodges and gold mines and hunting parties, plus the occasional airstrip for companies exploring for oil or minerals. Those were always the best airstrips, because they'd had the most money spent on them, but almost every homestead had a mowed strip of grass out back long enough to get a Piper Super Cub into the air with a haunch of moose loaded in the back.

 

Which reminded Kate. "Who did you say got a moose?"

 

"Eknaty Kvasnikof." Jim leveled off at a thousand feet and adjusted the prop pitch. The engine smoothed out. "He was coming home from Betty Moonin's late. He said he didn't see the moose until he hit it. His bumper caught the ass end of the moose, which then slid over the top of his hood and busted out his window. The moose then took a dump in Eknaty's lap."

 

He grinned when Kate laughed. "Both the moose's back legs were broken, so Eknaty shot it and butchered it out before it froze solid. He loaded it in the back of his pickup, which actually still runs even though the front end is totally trashed, and brought it to me." He added parenthetically, "We really could use a brown shirt in the Park. I don't have time to be screwing around with critter problems."

 

Brown shirts were Alaska State Troopers who enforced those wildlife regulations with regard to animals. Blue shirts were Alaska State Troopers who enforced those wildlife regulations with regard to humans. "Tell your boss, not me," Kate said. "What'd you do with the meat?"

 

"I told him to have Billy Mike distribute it to elders."

 

"You didn't keep the liver?"

 

"Was I supposed to?"

 

"You were supposed to keep it and give it to me."

 

"Oh. I didn't know that. Next time."

 

Kate subsided, mollified. "I love a moose liver."

 

"Tasty?"

 

"And huge. You can get half a dozen meals out of one moose liver. Remind me to make you my moose liver pate one day."

 

"I like mine fried with bacon and onions."

 

She gave him an approving smile and he felt his heart turn over, before he remembered his heart had no business doing any such thing.

 

Kenny Hazen, Ahtna's chief of police, was waiting for them at the airport. Mutt, who woke up from her comfortable snooze on the backseat as they landed, greeted him with her usual excessive enthusiasm for the male of the species. "You are such a slut," Kate told her.

 

Kenny jerked his head. "Come on. Robbie hates people coming in late to her courtroom."

 

"Any word?" Kate said as she climbed in.

 

Kenny put his truck in gear and the wheels spun a little on the ice of the apron before taking hold. "They were out for four days."

 

Kate looked over her shoulder at Jim, with Mutt in the backseat. "Doesn't mean anything," he said.

 

They all knew different.

 

Ahtna, a bustling community of around five thousand, was the market town and transportation hub for the region. Safeway, Costco, and Home Depot had all opened stores there in the past ten years, and Fred Meyer was rumored to be scouting for a location. The University of Alaska Ahtna held down one end of Mountain View, Ahtna's main street, and Ahtna's brand-new courthouse the other. Ahtna was also the seat of Alaska's fifth judicial district.

 

The Sadie Neakok Courthouse in Ahtna had been open for business for less than a month when the
State of Alaska v. Louis Deem
landed on its one bench with a thud heard round the Park. Funded by a federal grant, it was part of a pilot program to conduct the state's judicial business in the smaller communities in the more inaccessible parts of the state. Climbing the front stairs, Kate suffered the same shock of surprise she had the first time she'd seen the building, as it was remarkably handsome, an infrequent occurrence with public buildings in the Bush, or anywhere in Alaska for that matter.

 

The curve of the sides reflected the curve of the river it was built on. Surrounded by a small park, the courthouse was two stories high. Inside were two courtrooms: a small one for arraignments and a big one for trials. There were administrative offices and judge's chambers on the second floor. The lobby and the courtrooms were paneled with spruce harvested from the spruce bark beetle kill from the Chugach National Forest and wainscoted with river rock from the Kanuyaq River. The windows were many and large, and they actually opened.

 

The massive wooden doors at the entrance bore a cedar carving of Raven, great black wings outstretched across both of them, memorialized in the act of bringing the sun, the moon, and the stars to the People. The sun, moon, and stars were inlaid with hematite and steel and dazzled in any light. There had been some discussion among the architects, the citizen's advisory committee, and the Alaska Department of Law as to whether the first thing Park rats saw as they entered the halls of justice should be the very first grand theft. In the end, since it was such a cross-cultural legend and as such immediately recognizable, and since, all appearances to the contrary, their collective sense of the ridiculous was strong, they went with it.

 

The courtroom was packed. Kate, Kenny, and Jim leaned against the back wall. Mutt touched noses with a handsome husky, whose ears flattened ingratiatingly and whose tail began a rapid whappety-whap against his master's leg, after which his knees gave out and he slid to the floor, rolled to his back, and waved his paws in the air. Jim knew just how he felt. Mutt trotted back to Kate's side, looking insufferably smug.

 

The prosecuting attorney and his assistant, neither of whom Kate knew, sat side by side, staring straight ahead with their hands folded on the table in front of them. The rigidity with which they were holding their heads erect told its own tale. "Oh yeah," she said under her breath, "this'll end well."

 

"What?" Jim said, and she shook her head.

BOOK: A deeper sleep
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