Alaska aviation entrepreneur Finn Grant died in the fiery crash of his Piper Super Cub. Someone sabotaged his engine, and virtually everyone in southwestern Alaska has a motive, including his betrayed wife, his bullied children, and Liam’s wife, bush pilot Wyanet Chouinard. With few places to turn, Liam asks his former mentor Niniltna post commander Sergeant Jim Chopin, for help, and Jim quickly brings Kate Shugak onto the case.
Working undercover as—of all things—a waitress at Bill’s Bar and Grill, Kate learns over beer and burgers that Grant’s business had expanded meteorically over the last two years. After buying the closed Air Force base south of town from the federal government at a bargain-basement price, he became a fixed-base operator running his fishing, hunting, and flight-seeing business, servicing planes flying through the area, and most interestingly and lucratively, getting into the air freight business. But what kind of freight was he moving, and where?
The answers involve Kate in her most challenging case to date, one that starts with murder and quickly sprawls into a much larger conspiracy ranging from the darkest family secrets to treason and beyond.
November: Sangin District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan
They kept it simple, They cut off his right hand, or he could use it to learn how to fire the weapon they gave him.
They had even picked the target. He knew before they told him it would be American. By now he could repeat the Imam’s Friday harangue to do jihad on the invaders word for word.
All he had wanted was to go home. Pakistan was a hungry place for a young Afghani man with no family or friends. His father had been killed when the Americans invaded in 2003, and his mother had taken the children and fled over the border, joining the hundreds of thousands of other refugees in the camps. When she died, he found his way back to his own country, where he had not been so much recruited by the Taliban as kidnapped.
At least they fed him.
The camp three hundred yards up the narrow valley was small, an outpost dug into a small saddle between two hills, consisting of forty American soldiers. The top of the hill in front had been leveled to provide a landing place for a helicopter. He had been waiting for it for three days, broiling by day and freezing by night beneath the camouflage netting that had been stolen, they told him, from the enemy in another firefight in another valley.
The weapon was beautiful and deadly, brand new, light of weight, black in color, made of heavy plastic married to a dense, dark metal with a dull shine. A zippered sheath kept it free of the dirt and sand that filtered through the netting to layer his clothing and coat the inside of his nostrils so that he could barely breathe.
In the distance, a few tumbledown buildings marked a primitive landholding. A boy herded goats toward a patch of earth that showed the barest hint of green and hosted a few wormword bushes twisted into nightmare shapes from lack of water. Those fields he could see lay fallow, the only cash crop this area had ever known rooted up by the invaders.
A faint sound of wings disturbed the air. He looked up. A steppe eagle had been hunting this valley every morning and evening, soaring overhead on brown wings spread six feet from wingtip to wingtip, black tail spread wide.
This sound wasn’t the eagle, though. It was the helicopter, coming at last.
It hurtled up the valley, barely time enough for him to get the rifle out of its protective sheath. He settled his eye to the scope, as he had been taught, and sighted in. The magnification of the scope threw the aircraft into startlingly immediate relief. The windshield was scratched and sandy and the sun rendered the Plexiglas nearly opaque, so that the figures at the controls on the other side were barely visible to him. He caught the merest glimpse of a smooth cheek, nearly hidden beneath helmet and sunglasses. Too young yet to shave. His age.
One shot was all it would take, they had told him, so long as he hit the target. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes as his finger pulled the trigger, slowly, firmly, even gently, again as they had taught him. The stock recoiled against his shoulder as the high explosive round left the barrel. The sound of the shot rendered him temporarily deaf.
Before he could raise his eye from the scope, the helicopter touched down on the pad and on landing seemed simply to shatter into a thousand pieces. The three-man crew died instantly, shredded by fragments from their own splintering aircraft, as did the one soldier on the ground standing fifteen feet from the landing pad, skewered by a flying piece of one of the rotors. All six of the soldiers waiting for their ride home fifty feet from the landing pad were injured as well, two of them mortally.
The watcher upslope granted him just enough time to be amazed at the destruction he had wrought before putting a bullet into the back of his head precisely where his skull ended and his spinal column began.
Thursday, January 14: Niniltna
Each of the 103 Pyrex baking dishes was scraped clean. The mountain of gifts was reduced to a floorcovering rubble of plastic clamshells, price tags, and instruction books. The last person with a story to tell about Old Sam had finally and reluctantly abandoned the microphone. The heavy wooden double doors slammed shut behind the last guest with a finality that echoed off the hard surfaces of the gym.
“A good potlatch,” Auntie Vi said.
“Lots of the people come to say good-bye,” Auntie Balasha said, nodding.
“Too many,” Auntie Edna said. “Look at this mess. Pigs.”
Auntie Joy said nothing.
“Vern Truax he come, too, see you?” Auntie Vi said. “And he don’t stay too long, just pay his respects. Good manners. Good business.”
“You see Peter Kasheverof’s daughter canoodle in the corner with Lizzie Collier’s son?” Auntie Balasha said. “A marriage there soon, I think.”
“There better be,” Auntie Edna said.
Auntie Joy said, “I get the bags and the dust pans.”
Auntie Balasha and Auntie Joy moved from one end of the room to the other with mathematical precision, a garbage bag in one hand and a dustpan in the other, scooping up debris. Auntie Edna and Auntie Vi followed with push brooms. When Auntie Balasha and Auntie Joy reached the far end, they exchanged the bags and pans for buckets and mops, followed in their turn by Aunties Edna and Vi with dry mops and polish. In both efficiency and productivity, it was an operation that would have made Henry Ford proud to be an American.
In the kitchen, in bright yellow rubber gloves, Annie Mike presided over a double aluminum sink almost as deep as she was tall, filled with steaming, soapy water. Kate ferried in the dirty dishes, and when she set down the last load she said, “That was a good story Demetri told, the one about Old Sam and the sheep hunt. I hadn’t heard it before.”
“Me, either,” Annie said. “For all that he lived right next door to us for the last thirty years, there’s a lot we don’t know about that old man.”
Kate turned to look at the other woman.
“Like the icon, I meant,” Annie said. She had seen Kate’s shoulders tense at her words, and wondered. “I’m ashamed to say I’d never even heard of it before now.”
“Me, either,” Kate said. She was silent for a moment, thinking of the Sainted Mary, an ancient Russian icon triptych depiciting Mary and Jesus as mother and baby, mother and corpse, and mother and ascending son of God, that had only recently returned to the tribe due to the one-person scavenger hunt—that one person being Kate—orchestrated by Old Sam from beyond the grave. A century before, tribal members had credited the icon with everything from healing the sick to granting wishes to finding loved ones lost at sea. After a sufficient amount of spiritual groveling first, Kate was sure. “You think Emaa knew about it?”
“She was of his generation. Be strange if she didn’t.”
Kate looked through the pass- through at the four aunties in the gym. “By that definition, most of them would have known about it, too. I wonder why they never said anything.”
Annie ran more hot water into the dish encrusted with the remains of the Olga Kvasnikof special, macaroni and cheese with Spam. “Put yourself there, in that time. A third of them were dead from the Spanish flu. They were fifty-plus years into American sovereignty. There were ongoing repercussions from the Klondike Gold Rush and the Kanuyaq Copper Mine. White encroachment on Native lands. What amounted to a foreign government taking over. The introduction of the notion of private property when before, the whole state and western Canada, too, had been their oyster, without border or boundary.” She rinsed out the Pyrex dish and set it on the drainboard. “Their parents’ generation was being pushed, hard, by Western civilization. Could be their pride couldn’t take the extra hit, that they just couldn’t face up to losing an artifact the tribe regarded as holy. Be easier just to pretend it never existed in the first place.”
“Yeah, okay,” Kate said, “but that icon had to have come into the Park relatively recently. We didn’t have a written language, but there were newspapers around in 1920.”
Annie raised an eyebrow. “How many of them wrote about Alaska Natives?”
Kate thought. “Yeah. So bottom line is, we don’t know when the first Kookesh brought in the icon. Assuming he did.”
“Ask a Tlingit,” Annie said. “They never forget anything.”
Kate laughed, and sighed. “God, I’m going to miss that cranky old bastard so much.”
Annie looked through the pass- through, at the four aunties who were now getting out the folding chairs and setting them in neat rows for the next day’s annual January shareholder meeting. Auntie Joy was wearing an unusually solemn expression. “You’re not alone.”
“Where is it?” Kate said. “The icon?”
“We’ve got it locked down in the NNA headquarters for now, but people are going to want to see it. It’s theirs, they ought to be able to, but I’m not prepared to spend shareholder money hiring a single employee dedicated to locking and unlocking the room it’s in every time someone walks in the door.” She paused. “We’ve also had some inquiries from scholars wanting to study it.”
“And?” Kate said. Annie Mike was never this long-winded except when she wanted something.
“We should give some thought to building something to house it and display it.”
“A museum, you mean?”
Kate remembered the oil lamp made of stone that Emaa had donated to a museum in Anchorage. No reason that kind of thing couldn’t have remained in the Park, had there been a place for it. “In his will, Old Sam told me that if and when Phyllis Lestinkof and her baby moved out of his cabin to turn it over to the tribe and make it into a museum.”
Annie smiled. “The Samuel Leviticus Dementieff Memorial Museum.”
Kate smiled, too. “He’d have loved to make fun of that. You want to bring it up at tomorrow’s meeting?”
“God no,” Annie said, rinsing the last dish and pulling the plug on the sink. The water gurgled out as she stripped the gloves from her hands and anointed herself liberally with the lotion in the push-button dispenser on the drainboard. Her hands were square and brown and strong, the nails short and neatly trimmed. “The next board meeting is soon enough. For one thing, we don’t know that Phyllis and the baby will be out of Old Sam’s house anytime soon. Better to have a whole plan, with a site selected and a budget before we ask them to vote on it. It’s never a good idea to allow the shareholders to think too much for themselves.”
Kate gave her an appraising glance.
“What?” Annie said. She was a matronly woman in her mid-fifties with a fondness for polyester in primary colors. Today she was resplendent in a lipstick red double-breasted suit with black shiny buttons the size of dessert plates and shiny patent leather loafers to match the buttons. Be easy for someone to be fooled into thinking the bright plumage was the most interesting thing about this plump-breasted, bright-eyed woman.
But when the blinding effect wore off, there remained a dignified, self-assured tribal elder with a direct, steady gaze and an air of quiet authority. It gave pause to anyone who might imagine they could bully or intimidate her in matters concerning the shareholders of the Niniltna Native Association, starting with board member and fellow shareholder Harvey Meganack and extending all the way up to Vern Truax out at the Suulutaq Mine.
A good thing, since she was Kate’s handpicked successor as chair of the NNA board. “I used to think you were an auntie in training,” Kate said.
There was the barest hint of a smile behind Annie’s solemn expression. “And now?”
“And now I’m wondering if you aren’t the next Emaa.” Emaa being Kate’s grandmother, dead these six years. Sagacious, prescient, patient, iron of heart and of backbone, Emaa had been more a Machiavellian force of nature than a human being, and had steered the Association’s ship of state from its creation by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act until her death. She had been succeeded by Billy Mike, who upon his own death was in turn succeeded, with extreme reluctance, by Kate. It had been the two longest years of her life.
Annie’s face relaxed into a smile. “Be careful what you wish for, little girl.”
Kate laughed again. It was getting easier.
On the other side of the room, Auntie Joy looked up at the sound. Kate met her wounded eyes for a brief moment before Auntie Joy turned away again. Kate’s laughter faded.
“Were they especially close?”
“Sorry?” Kate said.
Annie nodded at Auntie Joy. “Old Sam and Auntie Joy. She seems a lot more torn up than the rest of them.”
After an infinitesimable pause, Kate said, “They went back a long way.”
She was sure her expression hadn’t changed, but Annie gave her a sharp look before she turned to reach for a dishcloth.
Friday, January 15: Niniltna
Jim’s cell phone vibrated against his belt. He jumped and swore.
His dispatcher laughed. Shamefaced, he joined in. “Can’t get used to it,” he said.
Maggie looked out the post window on the uphill side, through which could be seen Niniltna’s brand-spanking-new tower, a three-hundred-foot- tall behemoth (taller than Bobby Clark’s, and didn’t that just torque the hell out of the owner and proprietor of pirate radio station Park Air) that loured up from behind the school gymnasium, a massive presence in the brief light of a January afternoon. Through the openwork steel frame, she could see the alpenglow painting the snow-covered breasts of the Quilak Mountains a pale magenta. Less than a month after construction, the tower already bristled with a dozen antennas and dishes, some directed upriver toward Ahtna and the Glenn Highway, an equal number down, in the direction of half a dozen villages and, more to the purpose, the Suulutaq gold mine.
The tower and the gymnasium were both surrounded by parked vehicles of every kind, make, and age—pickups, SUVs, snow machines, four-wheelers—and Maggie could even hear the howling of dogs, signifying the presence of teams tethered to dogsleds. Evidently some shareholders had mushed in to the annual Niniltna Native Association shareholders meeting.
“This is probably how the old folks felt when the Kanuyaq Copper Mine ran the first telephone wire the whole four miles between Kanuyaq and Niniltna,” she said, and went back to writing the crime report for the Ahtna Adit, which could now, courtesy of one of the antennas on said tower, be emailed directly to the local weekly from her very own computer. Previously, she’d had to save the document, download it to a thumb drive, and trudge up the hill to the school, where until last month had resided the only Internet access to be found in Niniltna.
Not that it was all joy, because with this all new and improved access to communications, the Park rats had taken to cell phones with a vengeance, and all of them seemed to have the trooper post on speed dial. January 10, she typed. A caller reported the theft of a four-wheeler from a residence on Riverside Drive, the third one this week. Jim had found it, like the other two, abandoned near the Suulutaq Mine, the product of yet another McMiner stealing a quick ride back to work.
“Everything old is new again,” Jim said, still fighting to get his cell phone, still buzzing, out of his belt pouch.
January 11. A caller from the Riverside Cafe reported a pickup being driven erratically down the Step Road.
That had been the Park’s Chief Ranger Dan O’Brian, bringing his truck down from Park headquarters on the Step to Herbie Topkok’s shop in the village, without benefit of brakes. And erratically was Maggie’s euphemism for what Harvey Meganack had really said, which was distinctly inappropriate for a family newspaper, not to mention an official state record.
January 11. An anonymous caller reported three individuals spray-painting slogans on the side of the Last Chance Creek bridge.
Salvador Totemoff and two of his junior high peeps exercising their right to free speech. Maggie and Jim were less bothered about the graffiti than they had been about the fact that said bridge was three hundred feet above creek level. Not that, in the event of the very worst happening, it wouldn’t have been a case of self-correction on the part of the gene pool.
The snap finally gave and Jim looked at the display. UNKNOWN it said. He bowed to the inevitable and answered anyway. “Jim Chopin.”
January 12. An anonymous caller objected to cross-country skiers wearing parasails as they came down the bunny hill.
Well he might, as a launch from the ski hill had a trajectory that could put a parasailing skier on course with the windows of several homes of Niniltna’s most illustrious citizens, among them Demetri Totemoff and Edna Shugak. The aforesaid Harvey Meganack, in pursuit of his eternal quest to make his fortune, had cleared a path through a stand of spruce on a slope off the foot of the town’s airstrip, installed a rope tow, and built a shed from which Harvey’s cousin, that unrecovering alcoholic and heretofore unemployable Elias Halversen rented out sleds, skis, and snowboards. Harvey’s plan had been to entice some of those Suulutaq McMiners into paying for a little harmless fun during their off time, totally ignoring the fact that said miners were mostly young men in their twenties and that when they got off their twelve-hour shifts all they wanted to do was score transportation to the Road house, the only purveyor of alcohol within a hundred miles.
Well. The only legal purveyor.
January 13. An anonymous caller reported two individuals were selling pints of Windsor Canadian in front of Bingley’s.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who the two individuals were, but as usual Howie and Willard had been long gone by the time Jim got there.
This was the last item, and she saved and sent with a flourish.
Jim was still standing in front of her desk, and something in the quality of his silence brought Maggie’s head up. His eyes had narrowed and his mouth was a hard line. After a moment he said, “Where are you?”
He glanced through the window. “Cross the strip and follow the road down the hill. The post is the third building on the left after the school.”
He hung up and went into his office, and she went back to work wondering what all that was about.
Ten minutes later, the door to the post opened, and Maggie looked up. In purely instinctive feminine reaction, she sat bolt upright in her chair, sucked in her gut, raised her chin to smooth out an incipient wattle, and resisted the temptation to raise a hand to check her hair. “May I help you?” she said, and was proud her voice didn’t squeak.
“I’m here to see Sergeant Chopin,” the Alaska state trooper, also a sergeant, said in a pleasant baritone, pulling the ball cap from his head. His name tag read L. CAMPBELL. “He’s expecting me.”
“Certainly,” Maggie said. Jim’s door was closed, which was unusual. The only time Jim’s door was closed was when both he and Kate Shugak were on the other side of it. It took Maggie a moment to find the intercom button on her phone. “Sergeant Chopin? A Sergeant Campbell to see you.”
“Send him in.”
She released the button and nodded at Jim’s door.
“Thanks.” He looked at her name tag. “Maggie.” Sergeant Campbell’s smile made her heart skip a beat. Tall but not too tall, thick dark red hair that just begged to be rumpled by a caressing hand, eyes the color of the sea at sunset, strong, square shoulders, narrow hips, and long, muscular legs. There just wasn’t anything not to like. When he turned to knock on Jim’s door, she couldn’t help noticing that the view going away was equally entrancing. His uniform was neither off the rack nor made of a material even remotely synthetic. It fit like it, too.
A laconic “Yeah” sounded from behind the door.
Campbell opened the door. “Jim,” he said.
“Liam,” Jim said, and the door closed behind them.
“Wow,” Maggie said softly. She had worked every day of the last three years with a man who was, to put it mildly, easy on the eyes. She would have thought she’d become inured to it.
She’d always wondered if recruiters for the Alaska State Troopers selected for height. Now she wondered if they selected for looks, too.
On the other side of the door, the two men in the almost identical uniforms exchanged a long, expressionless stare. Finally Jim said in a voice entirely without inflection, “Liam,” and nodded at a chair. “Have a seat.”
“Thanks, Jim.” Campbell unzipped the heavy blue jacket and sat down. There was silence. “How long you been here?” Campbell finally said.
“Going on three years,” Jim said.
“Little different from Wasilla.”
“That it is,” Jim said. “Not busting near as many meth labs and marijuana grows in the Park. Thank god.”
Campbell nodded. “You looking to retire out of here?”
He was referring to the Alaska State Troopers’ seven-step duty posts. The more rural the post, the higher the pay. The higher the pay when a trooper retired, the bigger the pension. “Not planning on retiring anytime soon,” Jim said, and wondered if that were true.
“You just like the village life, then.”
A faint shrug. “This village, yeah.”
Campbell raised an eyebrow. “Hear tell there might be another reason.”
“There might.” Jim did not elaborate.
“Never took you for a one-woman man.”
Jim shrugged and returned no answer.
Another silence. Campbell started to fidget in his chair, and thought better of it. “You’re not going to make this easy, are you.”
“Any reason I should?”
Campbell looked past Jim, at the impenetrable cluster of spruce trees crowding in at the window. “It’s not like I don’t know I screwed up.”
“Five people dying because you were asleep at the switch constitutes a little more than screwing up in my book,” Jim said.
“That was six, almost seven years ago now,” Campbell said, his voice level. “Maybe time to let that go.”
“Like you have?”
Campbell met Jim’s eyes squarely. “Not an option for me.”
A third silence. Jim took a long breath, held it for a few moments, and then let it out slowly. “What the hell happened?”
Liam told him. He spoke simply, in words devoid of emotion, but the obvious determination to remain matter-of-fact told its own tale. “There’s no excuse, Jim,” he said. “I just wasn’t paying attention. I fucked up, and five people died.”
“You’re right, you did,” Jim said. A pause. He sighed. “But so did they. They drove down an unmaintained road in February, out of cell range, with no arctic gear, and didn’t tell anyone where they were going.” His mouth twisted. “A friend of mine calls it suicide by Alaska. Usually it’s Outsiders with no clue. But sometimes . . .”
Campbell was silent.
“I should have asked before,” Jim said. “I’m sorry.”
“You tried,” Campbell said. “I wasn’t real . . . receptive.”
They were men. That was as sentimental as it was going to get.
Jim leaned back in his chair and crossed his feet on his desk. “Newenham. Lot of big cases, all closed pretty decisively, and all of them on film at ten, too. Been an interesting post for you.”
Campbell’s expression lightened at the relaxation of tension in the room. “You could say that.”
“And I see you’re already back up to sergeant.”
“Fast tracker.” Jim smiled for the first time. “Good work on Gheen.”
Campbell shrugged. “He finally kidnapped the wrong woman. She escaped and led him right to us.” A shadow passed across his face. “And getting him didn’t come for free.”
“Heard that, too. Still.”
Liam nodded. “Still.”
“Heard you didn’t even have to go to trial.”
Liam shook his head. “Oh, he wanted to tell us all about it. Whether we wanted to hear it or not.”
Jim smiled. “A full confession, plus enough probative evidence to slam-dunk a jury full of card-carrying ACLU members, might make some practicing law enforcement professionals think they’d died and gone to heaven.”
“When the perp, tail wagging, led them to the grave of his tenth vic, where was found not only her skeleton but also the skeleton of her unborn child, some practicing law enforcement professionals might think otherwise. I’m just glad it didn’t come to that.”
Their eyes met in perfect understanding. By profession, their noses rubbed in the worst of human behavior every day of their working lives, they were de facto unshockable. People behaved badly. It’s why there were cops. But Jim and Liam wouldn’t have been human if the criminal, conscienceless inventiveness of certain deeply bent individuals had not, in fact, deeply shocked them on occasion.
Campbell settled back into his chair. “I’ve got a problem.”
“Figured. A big one, too.” He saw Campbell’s look and shrugged. “Had to be something big to get you on a plane all the way out here.” Jim laced his fingers behind his head. “I grant you full and free access to the wisdom of your elder and better.”
Campbell didn’t smile. “I caught a murder.” He paused. “I think.”
“Interesting,” Jim said.
Campbell’s laugh was explosive. “That’s one word for it. I could use some help on it.”
“I thought you had help. Didn’t Barton send Prince down there?”
Campbell’s brows came together. “He did.”
“And she can’t help you?”
“No,” Campbell said.
Campbell’s lips tightened. “Because she ran off with my father.”
When Jim stopped laughing, he saw that Campbell was regarding him with a marginally lighter countenance. “Yeah, very funny.”
“Clearly, it is,” Jim said, wiping an eye. “USAF Colonel Charles Campbell, trooper thief. Who’d a thunk it.”
“Anybody who knew him for more than five minutes,” Campbell said.
“Wouldn’t have thought it of Prince, though.”
“No,” Campbell said glumly, “but all bets are off when it comes to my father and women. But about this case.”
Jim frowned. There was something else, other than perfidious fathers absconding with faithless sidekicks. “What about it?”
“If I were investigating this officially,” Campbell said, his voice bleak, “my prime suspect would be my wife.”
Copyright © 2012 Dana Stabenow
Dana Stabenow was born in Anchorage and raised on 75-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska. She knew there was a warmer, drier job out there somewhere and found it in writing. Her first science fiction novel, Second Star, sank without a trace (but has since been resurrected as an e-book), her first crime fiction novel, A Cold Day for Murder, won an Edgar award, her first thriller, Blindfold Game, hit the New York Times bestseller list, and her twenty-eighth novel and nineteenth Kate Shugak novel, Restless in the Grave, comes out February 14, 2012.