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Downed in Chena

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Downed in Chena

By Mark Wilkinson

 

A Randy McCloughlin Mystery

Sequel to “Iced in Alaska”

 

Downed in Chena copyright © 2017 Mark Edward Wilkinson

Text and cover photo

All Rights Reserved

 

To my wife and sons

Table of Contents

 

 

Prologue: Gold in the Snow

 

With their engines screaming and headlights blazing through the night, the two powerful snowmobiles rounded a bend in the frozen, snow-covered Chena River just west of downtown Fairbanks, Alaska. It was a wide, sweeping curve that ended in a long straightaway. Bryan Dansworth squeezed his thumb throttle, doubling the speed of his machine in an instant. Grace did likewise, urging her sled on in pursuit of her husband’s machine. Their paths crisscrossed repeatedly, and their machines kicked up tall rooster tails of snow. The burst of speed consumed the straightaway in seconds, and soon they were entering another sweeping curve. Grace took it wide, diminishing her speed slightly, while Bryan, who was standing on the running boards of his sled, leaned far to the left to careen around the inside of the bend.

An abrupt change in the sound of her husband’s engine prompted Grace to look sideways just as Bryan flew over the handlebar of his machine. His snowmobile flipped over, rolling several times before stopping upside down just inches from its rider. Grace braked quickly and turned her sled around while telling herself repeatedly that the snow and Bryan’s thick clothing had cushioned her husband’s fall. It wasn’t the first time she had seen him crash, and she hoped it wasn’t the last. By the time she reached him, Bryan was on his feet, removing his helmet and ski mask.

“Did you see that?” he yelled over the noise of her engine. She nodded as she pushed her kill switch to turn off her machine. “I must have flown a dozen yards that time,” he continued in a lower voice.

With the engines off, so, too, were their headlights. Only stray light from The Wheelhouse bar and Henry’s, a boat and snowmobile shop, illuminated the river. It was barely enough light to make silhouettes of the young couple, the two sleds, and the trees along the river. While Grace removed her helmet, Bryan bent over to right his sled. Made of fiberglass and aluminum, the snowmobile was relatively light for its size, so rolling it back onto its skis was easy for Bryan. Having crashed the snowmobile before, Bryan wasn’t concerned about finding something broken. Only a jagged edge of Plexiglas was left where the windshield was lost in an accident a few days after he bought the machine two years before in 1988, and the engine cowling was cracked from hitting a tree the previous winter.

“I never have a camera when I need one,” Grace said as she watched her husband turn over his machine. She shook her head, but mostly out of relief. “What happened?”

Bryan frowned and shrugged exaggeratedly before answering.

“Don’t know. I was rounding the curve when, Wham! I’m flying through the air, looking for something soft to land on.” He noticed a dull ache in his right hip and began massaging it through his snowsuit. “Maybe my machine hit something in the ice. Start yours and follow me back.”

As her husband retraced the incision his sled had left in the snow, Grace started her machine and followed him. The snowmobile shook greatly at low speeds, shivering its beam of light over the river. Walking ahead of her, Bryan cast a long, slender shadow across the Chena. He moved to the left to let more light pass and spotted a glint of gold in the snow. He stepped over it, placing it between himself and Grace’s machine. As he crouched to look closer, he saw that the glint was coming from a ring on a finger that was attached to the hand of a very detached arm.

Chapter 1: Frozen until Spring

 

A crinkled one-dollar bill tumbled from the wad in Martin Cranson’s grubby hand and landed on three others already in a pile on the bar. Sharon Rostand, one of the three bartenders working that night at The Wheelhouse, scooped up the money before placing a beer bottle on a napkin in front of Martin.

“That’s the last one, Marty,” she said, staring as sternly as she could. Standing barely an inch over five feet and wearing an orange T-shirt that bore a picture of the bar’s mascot, a cartoon ptarmigan sporting a captain’s cap, Sharon didn’t pose a very intimidating sight. “You’ve had six, and there are laws in Alaska against serving drunks. When you’re through with that one, I’ll get you a cup of coffee.”

“And have an awake drunk,” Martin slurred slightly, as a thick black bang of long greasy hair fell across his right eye. “Good idea.”

Sharon frowned and shook her head. For years Martin had been coming to the bar, but never to get drunk every night as he had for the last two months. She had asked around about his binge, and been told that he had lost his job and was selling his sled dogs to cover a loan on his cabin. He had been coming in looking awful, but tonight he looked especially bad. His eyes were bloodshot, his beard was matted with dirt and grease, and his heavy parka was losing down feathers through a long tear in front. His hands were black with grime, and he had a strong odor of wood smoke and sweat. He looked as if he had spent the day sleeping in a ditch, and only Sharon’s affection for him was keeping her from having the bouncer throw him out.

“Get your act together, Marty,” she snapped in frustration before turning to help another customer.

Get my act together, Martin thought bitterly as he looked around the room, which was packed with a hump-of-the-week crowd. A rustic structure made of pealed logs that sweated sap, The Wheelhouse commanded a view of the Chena River from a location just on the outskirts of Fairbanks. It was popular among the locals, some of whom traveled to the bar by snowmobile in winter and by boat in summer. From its enclosed back porch, customers could gaze comfortably upon the river in any season. Tonight, however, most of them were watching a cable broadcast of a rugby game on a wide-screen television. As a mix of cheers and boos over a tackle filled the room, Martin started to take a long pull from his beer. Tilting his head back, he let the cold brew flow down his throat. He knew that beer wasn’t the answer to his problems, but it felt good going down.

Losing his job at the local university’s power plant had been a big blow for Martin, but not the biggest. He had wanted to quit for months, though the job was the only one he had been able to find after being laid off by an oil company operating in the Beaufort Sea. The wage had barely covered his expenses, and most of the work had involved solvents that had left severe burns on his arms.

Losing his girlfriend, Jill Fairmont, however, had been a bigger blow. He had met the earthy, brown-haired woman in the weight room at the university’s gym and gone with her for nearly three months when suddenly she broke off the relationship. This precipitated the loss of his job. After Jill dumped him, he fell into a deep depression and started drinking heavily. Eventually he came to the power plant stinking of beer, and the manager, rather than trying to help Martin, simply fired him as a drunkard. In true domino fashion, the rest of his life tumbled afterward. His savings evaporated, he lost his pickup truck to the bank, and now he had to sell his dog team to cover the loan on his cabin.

As he tilted his head back to empty his bottle, Martin spotted the person whom he held responsible for his lot. In a chair tipped back on its hind legs, Randy McCloughlin sat drinking a beer near the television. Like Martin, Randy was a big man in his thirties who also sported a beard and a head of thick, dark hair. Unlike Martin, however, he looked very clean tonight in a pressed wool shirt and heavy green trousers. When a rugby player on television made a goal for five points, a wide grin crossed Randy’s face.

“I’ll wipe that smile off your face,” Martin said under his breath to the man who had stolen his girl. He slid off his stool and stumbled away from the bar. He bumped into a waitress, upsetting her tray, and then bounced off two more people before reaching Randy.

“Bastard,” he growled as he kicked Randy’s chair out from under him.

Randy landed hard but quickly defended himself by throwing his beer bottle at his attacker. It caught Martin full in the face, dislocating his nose before landing unbroken on the sawdust-covered floor. Randy was on his feet in a second, smashing his left fist into the stunned drunk’s right temple. The punch dropped Martin like a lead brick, parking him next to the beer bottle. Knowing the fight was over, Randy scooped up his bottle before all of its contents spilled out.

“Cool,” said Ted Peterson, who was watching the game with Randy. “You dropped him like a pro. Are you going to run him in?”

As a detective with the Fairbanks Police Department, Randy knew that he should arrest the man at his feet, but he also knew that taking him in would ruin the rest of the evening. He could call in a patrolman, he thought as he sipped suds from his bottle, but that would also take a lot of time. And he had $50 riding on the rugby game, a live cable broadcast from New Zealand. No, he decided as he watched Sharon push her way through the people gathered around the unconscious man, it would be better just to prop him up in a corner somewhere and forget it happened.

Sharon cursed as she knelt next to Martin

“Look at his nose,” she said. “Poor guy’s got enough problems without being beaten up.”

“He attacked Randy,” Ted pointed out, pushing his wire-framed glasses up on his nose. People around him nodded.

“Calm down,” the detective ordered, waving at Ted to be quiet. All it would take to ruin the rest of his evening was one phone call to his station. “Let’s get him off the floor before someone steps on him.”

Ted got up from his chair and helped Randy move Martin to an unoccupied table near the front door. Sharon followed them and sat next to Martin, holding a bar rag against his nose. Already Martin’s shirt was stained with blood that had flowed down over his lips and bearded chin.

“Why’d you hit him so hard?” the bartender demanded.

“Sharon, he attacked me. I was just watching the game when suddenly I was on the floor and he was standing over me.” Randy’s face betrayed his frustration. “I don’t even know him.”

“Big tough cop,” she grumbled, lifting the rag to check Martin’s nose. “You have to pick on a helpless drunk to feel macho. Well, not in my bar.” She suddenly spun around to face Randy and Ted. “Get out of here — both of you — right now.”

“But the game,” Ted said. “We’ve got money riding on it.”

Randy cringed. Bartenders never wanted to hear about gambling in their establishments. It was illegal, and could get them closed.

“Out!” she yelled. Larry, the bar’s bouncer, came to the table. Barrel-chested, and about six and a half feet tall, Larry went by the nickname “Bruiser” at work and at home. Ted recoiled from her voice and the bouncer’s presence as Randy took him by the shoulder and led him back to their table to get their jackets. As the detective pulled on his parka, his team scored again. The game was turning into a rout that he was going to miss.

“You’ll tell us how it ends,” he said to Chris, the guy with whom he had bet.

“Depends on who wins.”

Suddenly the bar’s front door flew open, and Grace Dansworth came running in carrying her helmet. She spotted Sharon at the table with Martin and blurted out her husband’s discovery.

“Sharon, there’s a body out in the river!” Randy heard Grace yell at the bartender, who was still trying to stop Martin’s nosebleed.

“Cool,” Ted exclaimed as the detective muttered an oath to himself. The body probably belonged to some homeless wino who had somehow fallen into the river and drowned or frozen to death, Randy thought. It was a common story in Fairbanks. Downtown was swarming with homeless people, and so far that winter 27 of them had succumbed to the extreme cold. With the current temperature outside down around minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit, tonight was a good night to freeze to death.

“It’s a conspiracy, Ted,” Randy said as they returned to the table where Sharon was sitting. “First, a drunk attacks me while I’m watching the game, and now another one up and dies out on the river. Bet my team loses, too.”

Ted wasn’t paying attention. For years he had listened to Randy talk about police investigations but had never watched his friend in action. Now he was actually on the verge of seeing a case unfold, and if he played his cards right, he might even participate in solving it.

“Grace, what did you find?” Ted asked before Randy could. She stared at the smaller man in city clothes for a second before shifting her attention to the detective. Her husband had talked about Ted, and she wasn’t impressed.

“We found a body out on the river.”

“Where?” Randy asked, cutting off Ted, who was about to ask another question.

“Just around the bend from here, back toward town.” Her attention shifted to Sharon. “Bryan was taking a curve when he hit something in the snow. It threw him over the bars and rolled his sled. When we went to see what he’d hit, we found an arm lying on the ground.”

“So, you didn’t find a body, just an arm?” Ted asked.

Randy cast an impatient look at his friend. He was the detective and had to establish his authority at the outset of the investigation.

“First an arm,” Grace said, looking at the two men in turn, “then the rest of it, leading down beneath the snow to a body. Bryan’s certain it’s frozen in the river.”

“Just around the bend, near Henry’s?” Randy asked, mentioning the shop next door.

“Yes,” Grace responded. “Bryan’s still out there, keeping an eye on the spot.”

Randy turned to Ted as he started to zip up his parka, a heavy, gray coat with large pockets and thick down insulation.

“Call my number at work and tell whoever answers to send some people out here. I’m going to drive around to Henry’s to see what they’ve found.”

“Cool” was all Ted could say before walking to the bar to ask for the phone. Already several people who had listened to Grace’s story had left The Wheelhouse to go look at the corpse. Like vultures, they would soon be picking through the snow, looking for souvenirs. Randy took Grace by the arm and led her outside. From the porch they could see the headlights of vehicles already gathering in Henry’s parking lot.

“Ride ahead on your machine and tell Bryan to keep people away from the body,” Randy said, his breath freezing into a visible vapor in the frigid air. “And also tell him to try to keep them from walking on any evidence.”

“OK,” Grace answered, and then pulled on her helmet and strode off to her snowmobile. As he crossed the parking lot, Randy heard her machine zoom onto the river, headed toward town. He reached his truck, a brand-new four-wheel-drive pickup that still had a paper license plate taped to the back window. He climbed in, and just as he was about to shut the door, Ted came running over from the bar.

“Hey, wait up! I want to check this out,” Ted said.

“Ted, look over there.” Randy pointed toward Henry’s parking lot. “I’ve already got a bunch of people to deal with.”

Ted looked downcast in the weak light coming from a nearby lamppost.

“Besides, I can’t let you go slogging around out there in those shoes,” Randy said, pointing at the tasseled loafers on Ted’s feet. A geologist for the Alaska Division of Minerals, Ted spent his summers collecting rock specimens in national parks, and his winters examining them in a warm lab at the local university’s research center. Unlike Randy, who was always dressed for the outdoors, Ted tended to prefer designer apparel that matched his indoor lifestyle. The loafers were at the cuffs of a pair of well-creased trousers, and under his parka a paisley silk tie hung around the collar of a pink, tailored shirt.

“I have boots in my car,” Ted said quickly, and then ran to his small Japanese import to get them. Randy stuck his key in the ignition and for a second considered leaving Ted behind. As he turned the key, though, he reminded himself that, in a sense, Ted was very much his partner in Alaska. They had met in college and together assembled a fairly good team of sled dogs. Through a decade of winters they had stood by each other, never faltering in their friendship. By the time the truck’s engine caught and settled into a greasy, showroom idle, Randy had decided Ted might be able to help by keeping curious bystanders away from the body.

“We’re going to have to do something about those people,” the detective said after Ted had climbed in on the passenger side. “When we get over there, we’ll concentrate on holding them back until a lab team gets here.”

He slipped the column shifter into reverse, backed around, and then shifted into drive to pull out of the parking lot. Long used to driving trucks with manual transmissions, the detective jolted the vehicle from gear to gear by not stopping completely before shifting. Randy had wanted a manual, but the car dealer had said it would take months to ship up a truck so equipped from the Lower 48. And the dealer had also told the detective that the cost of extra freighting would have to be tacked onto the price tag. Though he hated automatics, they were better on ice, so Randy went ahead and bought the truck that he was driving because he couldn’t wait for, or afford, the vehicle that he wanted.

The truck bounced onto Airport Way, the only freeway in town, and rolled a few yards before Randy guided it into Henry’s parking lot. Already five or six vehicles were parked along the riverbank, their headlights shining down on the river. As Randy added his truck to the other vehicles, his eyes fell on two men throwing punches at each other, and two women, one of them Grace, wrestling on the ground nearby. A few feet away a man was digging like a dog in the snow with his hands, while the rest of the people gathered below seemed content just to watch and taunt the fighters. Randy dug a revolver out of the glove compartment as Ted took off his glasses and placed them on the dashboard before jumping out of the truck. Randy opened his door but stopped as he was getting out when he saw the geologist scramble down the embankment and dive at the two fighting men just in time to catch a fist in the side of his head.

“Ted,” Randy said to himself as he watched his friend slump to the ground. By the time he reached the scene, the fighting had stopped and one of the men, Bryan Dansworth, was helping Ted up.

“Pretty bright, Ted,” Randy remarked. The geologist was too addled to respond. “And you two, why are you fighting?”

“He stole a ring from the hand we found,” Bryan answered, pointing at the man he had been fighting. It was then that Randy noticed that Grace was standing with the dismembered arm clutched against her chest. He took it from her and saw that its ring finger had been snapped off.

“The guy’s dead,” said Bryan’s attacker, a hairy behemoth with a huge beer belly. “He don’t need no jewelry.”

“Hand it over,” Randy said, pointing his gun at the bigger man. His patience was at an end, and he was in no mood to fool around. The man looked at the gun for a moment, and then reached into a pocket and produced the missing digit. The detective handed the arm back to Grace before taking the finger. He kept his gun out while examining the finger. Encircling the digit was a class ring from the local university, with ’84 showing through its transparent ruby gem. The appendage was soft from having been in a warm pocket, but Randy guessed it must have been snapped off while still frozen solid.

“Get out of here,” Randy yelled at the thief, and then at the other people. “All of you, get the hell out of here.” Then he stalked over to the man digging in the snow and booted him in the backside. “You too,” he yelled at the now prone figure. “Get!”

The bystanders stepped back, some as far as the top of the embankment, but none left. Death attracted people. It was never too repulsive for those curious about the end.

A siren and red flashing lights washed over the surrounding snow-covered trees, announcing the arrival of a patrol car. Randy took the arm from Grace and handed it and the finger to Ted, whose senses were starting to return.

“You wanted to help,” he said as he walked toward the riverbank. “Watch those until I get back.”

Randy climbed the slope into the glare of several headlights and walked around to the passenger side of his truck. There he got a flashlight, and as an afterthought, Ted’s glasses. As he closed the door, he heard someone call his name. When Randy turned around, he saw Alan Blakely, a reporter with the local paper, emerge from the blinding light of a car. Randy hated the man, and almost crushed Ted’s glasses in his fist as he watched the reporter approach. Paul Schwartz, one of the paper’s other reporters and a good friend of the detective’s, was on vacation in Spain, leaving Alan to handle the paper’s night shift. Blakely had a tabloid writing style that had completely alienated the police. Randy’s evening had just gotten worse.

“Up here instead of down there investigating,” Alan said to the detective. “It seems like nothing can get you guys to work.”

“Shut up,” Randy growled, walking back to the embankment. Alan ran to catch up with him. Wearing a green snowsuit and heavy winter boots, the reporter made a rustling sound that could be heard over the engines of the cars in the parking lot.

“Wait up,” he yelled. “I want a name. A guy’s dead and the Clarion’s readers demand to know who he is.”

“I’ve heard the speech,” Randy said as he slid down the slope to the river. “When we have a name, we’ll give it to you.”

Alan tried to follow the detective, but Randy grabbed him by the collar and dragged him over to where several onlookers had gathered. The reporter yelled something offensive at the detective, but Randy ignored it.

“That guy you booted was trying to dig out the body,” Ted said. As he put on his glasses, Ted noticed their frame was bent out of shape. “You can see the tattered material of a sleeve on the snow.”

Ted led Randy to the hole after placing the disembodied appendages on one of the Dansworths’ snowmobiles. The detective shone his flashlight onto the ground and saw a dark, ragged swath of fabric leading into the hole. The part of the left arm still attached to the body had been uncovered. Randy crouched next to the stump, which extended from the ice at an angle. The point of separation was red and jagged, and when Ted moved to touch it, Randy motioned him away.

“That’s not for us,” the detective explained. “That’s the coroner’s job.”

They heard someone approaching them from behind, and when they stood up and turned around, they saw that it was Greg Vernin, the patrolman whose territory encompassed this part of the river.

“Randy, how’d you get here so fast?”

“I was up at The Wheelhouse.” He nodded toward the bar’s well-lit porch. “Grace over there came running in to report the body.”

“Does Alice know you’re out here?” the patrolman asked, referring to the night police dispatcher. Randy looked at Ted, who shrugged.

“I spoke to a guy,” the geologist answered.

“I better let her know that you’re here,” Greg said, “or she’ll send another detective.”

Randy was tempted to stop him, but the detective was the first investigator on the scene and his captain would be angry if he didn’t take charge. As he watched the patrolman climb the embankment, the detective saw a larger figure slide down it. Soon Randy was able to see that it was Ben Caulton, the city coroner. In his sixties and uncomfortably overweight, Caulton was invariable disagreeable.

“Well, why I am here, Randy?” the coroner asked, a pair of half lenses on his nose giving him a severe look. The detective pointed his flashlight at the stump leading down into the ice, and the coroner crouched to examine it. “Not much here. Where’s the rest of the arm?”

“Over there,” Randy answered, directing the flashlight toward the snowmobiles. Both men walked to the machine that had the arm and the finger.

“Class of ’84,” Caulton said as he examined the finger. “I taught a course up there that year. This,” he said, wagging the digit at the detective, “could be from one of my former students. What a pleasant thought.” The arm he found less interesting.

“I’ll have to look at these under better light in the lab,” he said, motioning over an assistant from his office. The assistant placed the body parts into separate plastic bags before carrying them up the slope.

“What about the rest of him?” Randy asked.

“He’s frozen solid in the ice. I can’t do anything until someone gets him out.” A cold shiver shook the older man, prompting him to start walking toward the embankment. “I’ll call the fire department and have them cut him out,” he said over his shoulder. “Let me know when they have the rest of him.”

Ted stepped closer to Randy, and both men watched the coroner climb the slope. The geologist was shivering and alternately rubbing his arms and hands.

“I’m freezing, bro. Gotta go,” Ted said through chattering teeth. Randy nodded, and his friend quickly scrambled up the slope. As Ted was climbing, Randy saw that the boots the geologist had gotten from his car were cowboy boots, which were hardly suitable for the temperatures on the river. Swinging his flashlight around, he saw most of the bystanders, including the reporter, Alan Blakely, had left. When he looked at the Dansworths, he saw that they were holding each other to stay warm.

“You two can go,” he said to the couple. “I’ll get a hold of you tomorrow for a statement.”

Soon the couple had their machines started and were headed for The Wheelhouse. As Randy watched them ride away, Greg returned from his car, carrying a large flashlight and four orange cone-shaped pylons to mark off the area around the hole and the body.

“Getting lonely out here,” the patrolman observed as he dropped the pylons next to the hole before pulling a roll of yellow tape out of a pocket. “I got Alice. She hadn’t found anyone to send out, so you’re lucky.” He saw Randy’s expression change. “Or she’s lucky.”

Turning on his flashlight, the patrolman shined it into the hole that contained the stump. He stared down at it for a minute before bending to tap it with a finger.

“It’s frozen solid,” he said to Randy, who was placing the pylons around the hole. “It’s as hard as a rock.” He shined the light around the inside of the hole. “You can see part of the head.” He reached in and tested the surface around the head. “It’s solid ice. How are we going to get this guy out?”

“Caulton’s having the fire department come out and cut him free.”

“Through this stuff,” Greg observed dubiously, straightening to help Randy with the pylons. “More like blast him out.”

“They could use torches.”

“It’s too cold for that. The water would freeze back to ice as soon as it melted.”

It sounded impossible, Randy thought as he started winding the tape around the pylons, but there had to be a way to get the body out. After the last cone, he handed the roll of tape back to the patrolman, and then crouched next to the hole. With his flashlight, the detective again saw that the stump disappeared into the shredded sleeve, which in turn disappeared beneath the snow. Next to the arm was the cranial curve of a head covered with black hair. Randy reached in to feel how frozen the body was, and found the stump and scalp of the victim were rock hard, as was the ice holding them fast.

“You’re right,” he said, standing up. “He may be here until spring.”

Greg agreed as he fished a smoke from a pack of cigarettes. He stuck it between his lips and lit it with a disposable lighter.

“Well, we’ll give the fire guys a crack at it,” the patrolman said, exhaling gray smoke as he spoke. “They have a few tricks.”

A cold chill ran through the detective, and he suddenly remembered that he still had fifty bucks riding on a rugby game.

“I’ve been out here nearly an hour,” he said to the patrolman. “I’m going to The Wheelhouse for a cup of coffee. If someone asks for me, send them up there.”

Greg nodded as Randy made his way back to his pickup. Already the headlights of the truck had dimmed perceptibly from being left on for too long. The truck’s battery was as new as the vehicle, but winter temperatures like these could quickly shorten the life of even a good battery. Randy got into his pickup and cranked the engine. With a weak charge, the engine churned slowly before starting. Randy waited a few seconds before shifting into reverse and backing around, and then selected drive and retraced his route from The Wheelhouse. He parked near the entrance to the bar, but he left the engine running this time, using a spare key to lock the truck. Inside the television was now tuned to a music video channel. Chris, the man he’d bet with, was still sitting at the same table.

“Who won?” he asked Chris, who was bobbing his head in synch with a heavy-metal band. A sly smile crossed Chris’ face.

“Why, South Africa, of course. Beat your team 18-12. Pay up, Randy.” Chris reached out a hand.

“He’s lying,” Randy heard someone say behind him. When Randy turned around, he saw the drunk who had attacked him. Martin was still sitting at the table near the front door, with the bar rag pressed against his nose. “I caught the end. New Zealand left South Africa in the dust.”

Randy shook his head as he turned back to Chris.

“Had to try,” Chris said, pulling money from his wallet and handing $50 to Randy. The detective counted the bills slowly, in mock distrust of the other man. “It’s all there. Next week, it’s Korea against Japan in table tennis. Let’s double the ante, so I can get my money back.”

“You’re on,” Randy shook on the bet, taking Japan. “Just don’t get any ideas about killing someone to distract me.”

“That’s a thought,” Chris said, turning his attention back to the video. On television a drummer in dread locks was head banging to his music.

Randy walked to Martin’s table and sat down.

“Thanks for telling me,” the detective said. “He almost got me.”

“Forget it. Think of it as an apology. I lost my temper earlier without thinking. I’m Martin Cranson, by the way — Marty to my friends.” He started to extend his right hand to shake but stopped when he saw it was covered with blood from his nose.

“Randy McCloughlin,” the detective said. “What got into you, anyway?”

“You stole Jill from me,” Martin said bluntly, turning away as anger briefly flared on his face.

“Jill? I didn’t know she was seeing someone.”

“Well, she was, and you’re looking at him.” Both men stared at each other for a moment, Martin in anger, and Randy in disbelief.

“Hey, Jill’s not the greatest bargain,” Randy finally said, waving over a waitress. When she arrived, he ordered two cups of coffee before continuing.

“Look at this,” he said, opening his parka. Martin studied the shirt underneath for a second. “Do you see anything strange?” It took Martin a minute to answer.

“There are no wrinkles.”

“No wrinkles, no stains — spotless,” Randy exclaimed. “And check this out.” He pushed back his chair and pointed at his trousers. “Creases. Every pair of pants I own, even my jeans, has creases now. And,” he said as he stood up, “I’m color coordinated. Jill picks out the clothes I wear and gets upset when I mismatch them.”

“You’re kidding,” Martin said as the detective sat back down.

“I kid you not.” Then more seriously: “Do you run dogs?” Martin nodded. “She’s got my lead dog wrapped around her little finger. Best dog I had in years. Now it’s worthless, and I’ve had to pull it from my team. She’s turned it into a house pet. Even lets it ride up in front in her car.”

“Feed for a .44,” Martin said, uttering a saying for any sled dog that was no longer good for pulling. It was better to shoot it than keep feeding it.

“Can’t; Jill would kill me.” Randy shook his head. “She’s messing with my life.”

“How’d you let her get so far?”

“I had a girlfriend, a complete alcoholic. I got sick of her and kicked her out, but she went berserk and trashed my cabin. I had met Jill before then, and when she heard about it, she offered to help clean the place. That was two months ago. Now I have floral curtains on my windows, lacy crap on my furniture, scented toilet paper in the outhouse, clean sheets.” He stopped to shake his head for a second. “It’s like living in someone else’s home.”

The waitress returned to their table with their order, and Randy paid her. Martin tested his coffee before venturing a question.

“So, she’s living with you now?”

“Hell, no. After the last one, the place is off limits to live-ins.”

“Then how’s she getting in to do all this stuff?”

“I gave her a key to the place when we were cleaning it up.” Randy took a sip from his cup, burning his tongue. He winced at the pain before continuing. “Now she comes and goes as she pleases.”

“A key and affection — sounds like a nasty combo.” Both men nodded at the thought. “What about just taking the key back?”

“I like her,” Randy answered. “And there’s no other woman in my life. I’d be worse off without her.”

“See that,” the detective said abruptly, pointing at a small spot of coffee he had just spilled on his pants. “She’ll have it out by this time next week.”

Both men sat in silence for a moment, drinking their coffee as they considered their lives. One was down and out but still free, while the other, though living well, was dying the slow death most single men in interior Alaska dreaded: consumption through domestication. Which man was better off was hard to say.

“Her boy’s OK,” Randy said eventually, referring to Jill’s son, Kevin.

“Yeah, he was when I knew him,” Martin said. Then after a pause, “I’m selling off my dog team. I’m hoping to keep my lead dog, but one of the others may interest you.” He pulled the rag away from his nose to check for fresh blood before continuing. “They’re all healthy and smart on the trail.”

Lost in his thoughts, Randy could only nod. Just then the front door opened, and three firemen came in dressed in heavy yellow apparel crisscrossed with white reflective tape.

“Can I get a hold of you through Sharon?” the detective asked as he got up to intercept the firemen.

“These days I’m here every night.” Then with a wink, he added, “She’s going to run me over to the hospital later.”

Randy smiled slightly before walking away. The bartender had a habit of picking up strays, and judging from Martin’s appearance, he was about as stray as they came. The detective pulled out his police I.D. card as he approached the firemen, flashing it long enough to catch their attention.

“You Randy?” one ventured. When the detective nodded, the fireman extended his hand. “Tim Corey, team coordinator.” The two men shook hands quickly. “We checked the body out there and, well, frankly, we don’t think we can help.”

“What’s the problem?” Randy asked as he led them to an empty table. His first thought was that there might be a jurisdictional conflict. Technically the firefighters were limited to calls inside the city limits. The corpse, though inside the municipality, was outside the city. The firemen would be well grounded if they refused to help. That, however, proved not to be the problem in this case.

“It’s stuck solid,” Tim said after sitting down. “We dug around what’s poking out, but we saw no way we could get it out easily. We have tools for cutting through ice, but we’re talking about eight feet of it with water flowing underneath.”

“Water would shoot out like a geyser,” one of the other firemen chimed in. “A shower of cold water could kill a man out there.”

“That aside, there’s the money,” Tim continued. “We’re on overtime now. Hacking away out there would make us rich, but we pretty much know we wouldn’t get that body out.”

“There until spring,” Randy delivered the final verdict.

“There until spring,” Tim echoed, his companions nodding.

It was mid-March, and spring in these parts usually came in May, which was months away. Then the ice would thaw, gradually freeing the river and the body. Until then, arrangements would have to be made to watch the area.

“You’ve marked off the scene,” Tim remarked, as if knowing what Randy was thinking.

“That’s not going to stop people from trying to steal things,” Randy said. “We’re going to have to leave someone out there to watch the body.”

To do so, Randy needed Capt. Rick Nelson’s permission. A transplant from Tucson, Arizona, the police captain hated Alaska and fought any plan that wasn’t his. The police department was operating in the red, Randy knew Nelson would say, and couldn’t afford to commit personnel to watching a hole in the Chena River. Even after describing the scuffle and how people had tried to steal the arm, Randy was certain Nelson would rail against posting a watch before finally approving it.

“Well, if you don’t need us for anything else,” Tim said as he and the other firemen stood up, “we’ll get going.”

“OK,” Randy answered, shaking Tim’s hand again. “Thanks for coming out.”

After the firemen left, the detective went to the bar and asked for the telephone. It took him a few seconds to remember Nelson’s home number, which he quickly tapped into the phone. Someone answered on the third ring.

“Hello?” It was Mary, Nelson’s wife.

“Mrs. Nelson, this is Randy McCloughlin. Can I talk with your husband?”

“He’s out bowling, Randy. He won’t be back for another hour. Is it something I can help you with?”

“No, I’ll have to call back,” he said. “Sorry I bothered you.”

“That’s OK, Randy. I’ll let him know you called.”

They hung up, and Randy thanked the bartender when he handed back the phone. Randy’s only option now was to stick around until he could talk with Nelson about guarding the corpse. He left The Wheelhouse and climbed into his truck. The engine was idling roughly with carbon phlegm, which he cleared from the cylinders by stomping on the gas pedal. He put the engine in gear and drove back to Henry’s. The only vehicle still in the parking lot was Greg’s patrol car, which was parked overlooking the embankment, with its headlights shining down on the river. As Randy parked next to the car, he saw that Greg was inside it. Leaving his pickup running, the detective got out of his vehicle and climbed into the patrol car on the passenger side.

“He could’ve picked a warmer place to die,” Greg said, a cigarette clamped between his lips adding smoke to a thick cloud already in the car. “The firemen told you their problem?” Randy nodded. “Now we have to watch the body until spring.”

“Did the lab team ever show up?”

“Yeah. They took one look at the hole, spoke with the firemen, and then drove off to the coroner’s. They said there wasn’t anything to work on here, so they would start by fingerprinting the hand.”

“That’s all we have to work with,” Randy said, his throat feeling raw from inhaling Greg’s smoke.

“He’s probably just some drunk who fell in and drowned.” The patrolman cracked his window and tossed out the rest of the cigarette. “But we’re stuck baby-sitting him anyway.”

“Do you know what happened to Alan?” Randy asked, surprised the reporter hadn’t stuck around to pester him.

“He must have left with the rest of the crowd.” They sat in silence for a moment. “Where’s Paul, by the way?”

“He’s in Spain,” Randy answered. Then as an afterthought, he added, “I wish he were here, instead of Blakely.”

“I wish I were in Spain, instead of here,” the patrolman commented, staring out at the orange pylons.

 

***

 

Paul Schwartz and his girlfriend, Shelly Krodinsky, had landed late on a Saturday night at Madrid’s international airport, and spent two hours going through customs. By the time they were through, it was after midnight and the last shuttle bus to their hotel had left. They had limited themselves to a backpack each, so they considered hitchhiking into town. When they inquired about directions, however, they were warned not to walk outside at night because tourists were a favorite target of muggers and kidnappers in Europe. This left taking a taxi as the only option.

As they stepped outside, they were immediately assailed by noise and pollution. Despite the hour, cars buzzed by on a freeway, and their exhaust quickly gave Shelly a sore throat that would take her days to get rid of. The couple joined a long line of people at a taxi stand and waited an hour before getting a cab. An old Mercedes with slashed upholstery, the taxi was driven by an elderly man who smelt strongly of cigarettes. The couple got in, and Shelly pointed at their hotel on a tourist map. With breakneck speed, the car shot into traffic and headed downtown. Paul and Shelly’s driver was obviously a pro. Caroming through corners, edging out other motorists, and manually working the automatic transmission to eke out every bit of the engine’s power, he coursed through traffic at speeds that left his passengers on the verge of panic.

Abruptly the taxi stopped in front of an old building. After paying the driver the amount on his meter plus a hefty tip he insisted was required by law, the couple got out with their packs and tried to get their bearings. Paul was completely disoriented, but Shelly immediately realized they were at the wrong hotel. When she turned to tell the driver, he ran into the building. The couple followed him in and spotted him at the front desk. As they approached him, he grabbed several pesetas from the desk clerk and ran back outside. Paul ran after him, but the driver and his taxi had already pulled away from the curb and were deep in a swarm of cars passing the building before the Alaskan stepped out the front door.

Shelly asked the clerk about getting to their hotel but was told in broken English that it was on the opposite side of town. This hotel, the clerk slipped in with sudden fluency, was a much better place, and they were lucky because, despite a busy off season, there was still one room available. The couple knew they were being robbed, but it was almost two in the morning and they had been traveling for the last 24 hours. Grudgingly, they accepted the room. The clerk had them fill out a form printed in Spanish, and before he would give them a key, he pleasantly insisted that they pay in advance. They had converted only enough money for pocket change, so Paul had to pay with a $100 traveler’s check. The posted conversion rate at the desk was 200 pesetas less than what Shelly had seen at the airport, and the hotel charged an exchange fee of twelve percent. From the check, Paul got back less than $20 in the local currency.

The ride in the elevator was as scary as the ride through Madrid. The cable slipped repeatedly on the way up, dropping the elevator a foot or so each time. When the doors opened at the fifth floor, the couple had to climb out because the elevator had stopped short of the floor by at least a yard. In getting out, Shelly rubbed against the elevator shaft, which left streaks of black grease on the front of her outfit. She had purchased the clothes for the trip, and the sight of the stains almost made her cry.

There wasn’t a sign indicating the direction to their room, so they followed the numbers on the doors to the left but soon came to a chained-shut fire-exit door at the end of the hall. They doubled back and tried the other direction. As they walked down the other corridor, they noticed a rattling, grinding noise that increased with the room numbers. Eventually they reached a dimly lit alcove in which the noise was coming from an ancient icemaker. Their room was directly across the hall.

It took jiggling the key in the doorknob to unlock the door, which squeaked open on rusty hinges. Paul flipped up a wall switch just inside but no light came on. When he stepped in to find a light, he heard something skitter away on the wooden floor. He found a lamp and tried its switch, but again nothing happened. He felt around some more and found another lamp, one that worked, but he immediately wished it hadn’t because next to it was a twin-size bed whose covers were pulled back into a rumpled heap. Several long, black hairs were on the pillows, and in the center of the mattress was a large wet stain.

Shelly was first to notice there wasn’t a bathroom. Instead, a sink with only one faucet and a smelly toilet without a lid or seat occupied a corner. Both were long overdue for a scrubbing, and were unaccompanied by towels or toilet paper.

There was no phone with which to call the reception desk, so they left the room and rode the elevator to the ground floor to complain. However, when the elevator doors opened, they were greeted by a dark lobby. All the lights had been turned off, and no one was at the reception desk. They debated leaving the hotel, but because they had paid more than $80 for the room, they decided to stay. Back on the fifth floor, they stripped the bed and covered it with their beach towels, and then took turns washing at the sink and drying themselves with Paul’s T-shirts. Shelly used her makeup remover on the grease and got out most of the stains, and as a final touch just before going to bed, Paul stepped across the hall and unplugged the icemaker.

Now as he stood about to open the curtains in a room at a hotel in Marbella, a town on the Costa del Sol, Paul remembered their first morning in Spain. At about six a.m., a cacophony of car horns had swept through their Madrid room, jarring them awake. Paul ached all over from having slept coiled up on the bed, which was too short for his tall frame. Shelly got out of bed first and immediately opened the curtains. He could still remember her wincing at the blanket of gray air covering the city and blocking the sunlight. In less than an hour, they were dressed and out of the room, and by noon that first day, they were in a rented car several miles away from Madrid.

Paul drew back the curtains in Marbella, letting sunlight spill into their room. Just after seven a.m., the light came in at an angle that crossed the queen-size bed where Shelly lay still asleep. Through a narrow gap between two other tall hotels, he could see the blue Mediterranean Sea lapping at an empty beach. The couple was on the twelfth floor of El Lima Residencia, one of the hundreds of brick and concrete hotels lining the coast. Their escape from Madrid had taken them south through Andalusia, an arid, mountainous region sparsely covered with olive groves. The couple had spent their days aimlessly wandering from one town to another, and their nights in small, clean hotels. Eventually, though, their roving had taken them to the Costa del Sol, the coast of the sun. An area of rampant development since the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, the coast had been developed into a tourist hotspot where budget travelers wandered aimlessly about looking for things to do.

Despite their growing boredom, Paul and Shelly had decided to persevere with their plan to spend their last week in Spain burning off the lingering effects of their cabin fever. Back home in Fairbanks, where daytime drops to less than three hours in December, cabin fever left people lethargic and depressed. Many of them fought it with booze and drugs, while others attacked it by vacationing in places warm and sunny. Hawaii was the destination of choice for most Alaskans; but for a change this year, Paul and Shelly had decided to go to Spain.

Now there were only two days left in their vacation. Paul had burned himself badly their first time on the beach and had spent the days since sedated with beer and wine. Already his back was peeling and new patches of freckles had formed on his shoulders. Of Mediterranean descent, he had black hair and skin that normally held an olive tone. He had thought he wouldn’t burn, and had even turned down an offer from Shelly to coat him with sun block. He deeply regretted it now, as another itch slowly spread across his back.

“Is it morning?” Shelly asked sleepily, rolling onto her back with her eyelids squeezed shut against the bright sunlight. She raised an arm to block the sun, and then squinted through the light at Paul, who was already dressed in shorts and a souvenir T-shirt from Alaska that showed a cartoon moose dressed as a fisherman.

“Sorry, just couldn’t sleep anymore,” he said. For a second he considered scratching his back against a sharp corner of a dresser. “What do you want to do today?”

Sleep was her first thought, but she knew he wouldn’t do anything until she was out of bed and ready to go. She shoved the covers aside, and for a second made odd mumbling noises before sitting up with a deep sigh. Her short-cropped hair was disheveled and her nightgown was bunched up around her waist.

“We could try windsurfing today,” he ventured. “I think my back could handle it.”

“Let me,” she started to say, hesitating to draw saliva to moisten her dry mouth. “Let me get dressed, and then we’ll see.”

A big yawn took control of her for a moment, leaving her slightly dizzy. She eased her legs out of the bed and tested them before slowly standing up. With her eyes full of sleep, she was almost blind without her glasses. Squinting and feeling ahead for furniture, she shuffled cautiously into the bathroom and closed the door.

Chapter 2: North to Circle

 

Scowling, Capt. Rick Nelson waited just inside the personnel entrance of the Fairbanks Police Station. Despite the freezing air that burst in with each arriving person, he stood in only shirt sleeves and trousers, a cup of coffee in his dark hands imparting only a meager amount of warmth. In his rage, he ignored the cold and thought of only his prey: Randy McCloughlin. Alan Blakely’s story on the corpse frozen in the Chena River had been picked up by a news service and run in the state’s morning papers, even though the piece had yet to appear locally in the Clarion, which was an evening paper. The captain received dailies from throughout Alaska, and on the cover of Anchorage’s was a four-column, sixty-point headline proclaiming the body’s discovery:

“Body Found Frozen

in Fairbanks River”

Below it in smaller type, a one-line subhead read:

“Police Detective Brutalizes Helpful Bystanders”

After describing the scene on the river and quoting a fireman as saying, “Stumpy there is stuck until spring,” the story went on to describe Randy flailing a revolver around and kicking a person “trying to help recover the body.”

“I was protecting evidence,” one person said in the story, “when that crazy cop yanked out his gun and threatened to shoot me.”

Knowing Blakely, most of the story was probably untrue; but if any of it was true, Nelson wanted some hide. He was already getting heat for one of Randy’s misadventures, a wild-goose chase up the Dalton Highway that cost three lives.

“In my office,” Nelson growled at the detective when he arrived. Randy followed the captain, casting a quizzical look toward the desk sergeant, Willy Manalik, who could only shrug in answer. After the door of the captain’s office was closed, Nelson pointed at a chair until the detective sat in it. Then the captain stepped behind his desk and paced a few times, allowing the passage of that silent moment all bosses think makes employees nervous. The curtains of the windows in the office were open, but it was still dark outside even though it was just after nine o’clock.

“What is this?” Nelson finally asked, jabbing a finger at the Anchorage newspaper, which was lying on his desk. Randy leaned forward and read the headline and subhead over Blakely’s story.

“No one brutalized anyone out there,” Randy answered. He picked up the newspaper and scanned the story quickly. “That guy wasn’t protecting evidence; he was trying to steal a ring from the body. He even had the finger the ring was on.”

“So you did pull your gun on him?” Nelson interrupted.

“Yeah, but I had a whole crowd of scavengers tromping around the scene, looking for souvenirs. I had my gun out to scare everyone back.”

“That’s not what it’s for!” Nelson erupted. “It’s to protect, not intimidate. Your last stunt cost the lives of three innocent men, the families of whom are suing this department.”

“One of those men was a drug smuggler,” Randy countered.

“You weren’t certain of that at the time, making him an innocent man when he was killed.” The captain was almost screaming now, and his face had become darker with rage. “I can’t have this in my department! I can’t have you risking citizens’ lives. . . .” The rest of the sentence disappeared when he suddenly lost his voice. Pointing at the door and speaking in a hoarse whisper, Nelson ordered Randy to leave.

Out in the squad room, the detective went to the sergeant’s desk. Having overheard Nelson’s tirade, Willy smiled broadly as Randy approached. Sporting a new set of dentures, the Alaska Native’s smile radiated an unnatural whiteness from two perfectly even rows of teeth. From Tolovanna, a remote village along the Yukon River, he had lost most of his real teeth to hard candy white missionaries fed him when he was a child.

“He stood there, maybe, twenty minutes waiting for you,” Willy said, gesturing toward the personnel entrance, “scowling at everyone who came in. I knew it had to be good.”

“Blakely accused me of brutality in a story,” Randy said, trying not to sound concerned. “He said I’d terrorized the city with a handgun.”

Shaking his head, Willy handed the detective a small piece of paper with a message to call the crime lab. As Randy was about to step away from the desk, the front door slammed open and in strode a woman in heavy makeup and a big hair. She had on a fake fur jacket of the type the detective was accustomed to seeing on local hookers. The coat ended just below her derriere, leaving exposed the hem of a tight black skirt and nylons that ended in a pointy pair of knee-high boots. Behind her were two grubby looking men in their late thirties. One of them was carrying a television camera and had bleached his hair white, while the other was carrying microphones and a videotape deck, and looked as if he took fashion tips from biker magazines.

“I want to see your captain,” the woman demanded when she reached Willy. “I’m Penny Dolson, correspondent for WCB news.”

“World Cable Broadcasting,” Randy said to Willy, who obviously didn’t know he was supposed to be impressed. The sergeant made a dismissive frown as he picked up the phone.

“Got a reporter out here,” Willy said into the receiver. “No, not Alan. It’s someone from WBB news.” Penny corrected him, but he said it wrong again. “WCC news.”

Penny rolled her eyes at the sergeant, who hung up the phone and pointed at a bench already occupied by a wino who looked as if he hadn’t bathed in a while.

“Captain’ll be with you in a minute,” the sergeant said. “You can wait over there.”

She looked at the bench and opted to stand, but her crew sat down as if used to the company. Oliver, the would-be biker, offered the wino a cigarette, but Willy stopped him by pointing at a no-smoking sign.

Randy lost interest in the spectacle and walked to his desk. He removed his parka and hung it on the back of his chair before sitting down. The bulky .357 magnum revolver he was carrying gouged into his side, so he slipped it out of its shoulder holster and placed it in a drawer. Already there were memos in his inbox. He pulled them out, shuffled through them quickly, and then placed them in his outbox. Just as he was finishing, his phone rang.

“Randy McCloughlin, Fairbanks Police Department,” he said into the receiver.

“Oh, good, I caught you.” It was Jill Fairmont, his girlfriend. “Deacon’s Hardware is having a sale on bathroom fixtures. I was wondering if you would like to meet there tonight to see if we can find something for your place.” He had promised last week, after her posterior had frozen to the toilet seat in his outhouse, to sink a well next summer and build a bathroom onto the side of his cabin.

“You know my hours,” he said, instinctively trying to get out of shopping. But then he caught himself. “Would seven be too late?”

“No, that’s perfect,” she answered. “But call me if you can leave earlier.”

After he promised to call before leaving work, they exchanged goodbyes and hung up. A bathroom would be nice, he told himself again. A shower every morning, or every other morning . . . or once a week, like now, but at home, would be nice. And a toilet inside would be warm and convenient. His place had an outhouse, but it was unheated and a very cold ten feet from his front porch. No, he tried to convince himself as he watched the reporter go into Nelson’s office, a bathroom would be very nice.

Penny was in the office for only a few minutes when the door opened and Randy saw the captain step out and point directly at him. In an instant, the reporter was striding across the room toward the detective. Reflexively, Randy tried to look busy by pulling out his memos and shuffling through them again.

“Detective Randy McCloughlin?” the reporter asked briskly. When he looked at her, she offered to shake hands. “I’m Penny Dolson, WCB News.” Her hand was cold and thin. “I’ve been told I can interview you concerning the body that was found in the China River.”

“The Chena River,” Randy corrected.

“Whatever,” she remarked, waving over her crew. “We can set up here or in the conference room over there,” Penny told them. Oliver looked for a wall outlet. When he found one, he yanked out all the plugs in it. Jack Brodden, a vice cop who was sitting at an electric typewriter on the next desk, cursed immediately.

“Who unplugged my typewriter?” Brodden yelled. Oliver plugged it back in without apologizing.

“Let’s do the conference room,” said Wendell, the cameraman. Without another word to Randy, Penny and her crew went to a room next to Nelson’s office. After the door was shut behind them, the detective holstered his weapon while standing up, grabbed his parka and disappeared down a hall into the back of the building. Near the end of the corridor, he went through a door marked “Material Examination Department.” Inside he hung his jacket on a coat rack before looking for George Umbright, the head of the lab. A skinny man with a growing bald spot, George was hovering over a Videoguy electronic game at his desk in the back of the room. Fairbanks was a small city of less than thirty thousand people when everyone within a radius of a hundred miles was counted. It didn’t generate enough work for the lab. Consequently, Umbright spent much of his time playing video games, and had the highest score in the building on one called “Nuke World.”

“Winning?” Randy asked.

“Uh huh,” Umbright mumbled.

“Got a report for me on the arm?”

“Uh huh.”

After a few more beeps and crashes from the toy, Umbright put the game on pause. He reached into a drawer, pulled out a file, and handed it to Randy. Almost as soon as the folder was in the detective’s hands, Umbright was back to zapping intergalactic creatures. Not once did the lab technician look at the officer.

The first thing Randy saw when he opened the folder was a diagram of a body with concentric circles radiating out from its chest.

“What’s this?” he asked, removing the diagram from the folder and holding it up for Umbright to see. The technician glanced up quickly from the game.

“Blast pattern.”

“Of what?”

“Shotgun blast,” Umbright said without looking up. “Coroner didn’t tell you?”

“I haven’t spoken with him yet.”

“Oh,” Umbright put the game on pause again, and then looked up, “you don’t know then. Caulton found lead pellets in the arm. Your guy was murdered with a 12-gauge shotgun.”

Murdered, Randy thought. It took a second for the significance of that word to register, but when it did, the detective felt slightly dazed. Since last night, he had convinced himself that the body had belonged to a homeless person who had fallen into the river and drowned. The case would have been simple then, just a matter of finding relatives to claim the body. Now he was faced with the tedious task of investigating a case, finding the murderer, and forming a solid case against the suspect. It was an arduous process that Randy never enjoyed. He preferred simple killings with plenty of witnesses, ones quickly solved and soon forgotten.

“See here,” Umbright said, pointing at dots on the left arm of the body in the diagram. “We plotted the distribution of the pellets found in the arm, and based on their positions, determined the pattern of the blast. If we’re right, most of the pellets hit your guy about here,” Umbright pointed at his sternum, “just above his heart. The blast probably killed him instantly.”

“Damn,” the detective cursed. “I was hoping he was just another drunk.”

“Sorry, Randy,” the technician said, returning to his game, “not this time.”

“Did the fingerprints turn up anything?”

“No, there’s nothing in our files. We’ve sent sets off to the State Troopers and the FBI. If they have something, we’ll know by noon.” Then Umbright reached into a drawer and pulled out a zip-lock bag and handed it to Randy. “That’s the ring that was on the finger. The university sells them through its bookstore. I was going to call and have them check the serial number stamped inside it.”

Randy pressed the transparent plastic against the ring until he could make out the number.

“I’ll take care of it,” the detective said. As he spoke, the telephone on the technician’s desk twittered. “I’m not here,” Randy mouthed as Umbright picked up the receiver.

“Lab,” the technician answered, operating the keys on the Videoguy with one hand. “Uh huh.” A pause passed as he listened to the caller. “OK, I’ll tell him.”

Umbright hung up without saying goodbye.

“That was Willy. He said another television crew had just arrived, and that you should leave before Nelson sends people to look for you.”

Randy carried the ring to the coat rack and stuffed it into a pocket on his parka before putting on the jacket. While zipping up, he walked back to the Umbright’s desk.

“I wasn’t here.”

“Didn’t see you,” Umbright said, staring at the Videoguy.

The detective left the lab and continued down the hall to the building’s rear exit. He pushed open a door and stepped outside to a sun just starting to rise and turn pink the ice fog enveloping the surrounding buildings. His breath froze in the air, dusting his beard and eyebrows with frost as he went to the right along an outside wall. There was no paved path, but the snow along the building had been trodden flat by people using the exit. Before stepping from behind the building, he peered around the corner and saw a van topped with a satellite dish pull into the parking lot in front of the police station. The van came to a halt next to two other vans, and disgorged a television news team. After they disappeared into the building, Randy stepped from behind the building and walked to his pickup. In a matter of seconds, he had the truck started and moving out of the parking lot.

He turned right onto Barnett Street and joined the morning traffic in downtown Fairbanks. The exhaust of the vehicles condensed in the cold, adding to the already thick ice fog. The deeper he drove into the city, the worse the fog became, until only the lights of the cars ahead were visible. Eventually he came to a frost-laden bridge spanning the Chena. He could see none of the river, which wandered into the interior and served as a highway to trappers and gold miners east of Fairbanks. On the other side of the bridge, Randy tried to escape the other cars by taking a road through the rail yards of the Alaska Railroad, but found other motorists had had the same idea. In bumper-to-bumper traffic, he slowly made his way to College Road and turned left. Here the traffic was also bad. Since the Pentagon doubled the size of the army’s presence at the local base, the roads of the small city had been congested every morning until well after ten o’clock. Slowly the detective made his way toward the university, sliding to a halt on the ice at every stop light and often honking his horn at someone suddenly emerging from the fog. After turning onto another road, he came to a sign directing him onto a street that led to the campus of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Parking was bad at the school. The edges of the campus roads were lined with cars, though every ten or so feet was a sign saying “No Parking.” With the state economy in recession, more locals were opting to attend the university, instead of schools in the Lower 48. In less than five years the school’s attendance had tripled. Randy drove for nearly half an hour before giving up and taking a reserved spot at the administration building. A decal on his windshield marked the pickup as a police vehicle, but he placed his red strobe light on the dash to further ensure that no one would tow him. After he got out, he saw “Dean of Students” on a plaque at the head of the parking space.

The bookstore, which was actually a convenience store that sold textbooks through a basement office, was on the other side of the campus. To get to it, Randy had to walk through Constitutional Park, an asphalt square covered with snow and ice. He had arrived between classes, and students were wandering among the buildings. In the early 1980s, he had earned a degree in justice from the university. Back then the student body was smaller, and the students were less conservative. Beards, long hair and army-surplus jackets were cool in his day. Today everyone who walked past him was wearing a ski jacket, and not a man in sight had a beard. As he entered the store, he remembered his age and rubbed the beard on his chin.

At the checkout counter, Randy stood in line behind a young woman who was a head shorter than he. The cashier, a tall man in his late thirties with bushy black hair that was going gray at the sides, smiled at the woman as he rang up her items: a diet soda and three chocolate bars.

“That’ll be five fifty,” the cashier said. She rooted around in a small clear plastic purse for a minute before producing five one-dollar bills and a handful of coins. She laid the bills on the counter, and then slowly counted out fifty cents, starting with a dime and ending with seventeen pennies. The cashier gave two pennies back as he separated the coins into the till.

“You’ll come back now, won’t you?” he asked as he handed her the receipt. She gave a little giggle, and then left. That was when Randy remembered the name of the cashier. The hair, the voice, he had to be the same person.

“Elliot Houston?” Randy asked tentatively. The man looked blankly at the detective for a moment before recognizing him. When he did, a mischievous grin crossed his face.

“Randy,” Elliot responded, offering to shake hands. “It’s been a long time.”

It had been a long time, Randy thought as they shook hands. This was the man who was most envied and hated at the university when Randy went to the school. Back then, whenever he wasn’t trying to sleep with someone, Elliot was trying to cause trouble. When streaking was the craze, Elliot dashed naked across the stage of the university’s auditorium during a concert, and when the dean took a one-year sabbatical with his wife, leaving their daughter to watch their home, Elliot moved in with her and wrecked the house with nightly parties.

“I would have thought you’d been driven out of town by now,” Randy said slowly, drawing back his hand. The cashier shook his head.

“Nah, I’m loved too much,” he said, watching Randy remove a baggie from his pocket after showing his police I.D. card. “What can I do for you?”

“I need someone to match a name to this,” the detective said, handing the plastic bag to Elliot. “It’s a class ring from the university, and should be listed in the store’s records. Is there someone here who can look?”

“Me,” Elliot said. “I bought the place when the state privatized the university.” He motioned over a 30-something woman who was stocking shelves, and left her at the counter while he led Randy to a back room. “This should be easy to look up. The store has kept a record of every class ring sold here since 1958, when Alaska became a state.”

In the back room, Elliot took a notebook from among several on a shelf. On its cover was written “1980-85.” He flipped it open to the 1984 section and ran a finger down a column of serial numbers until he reached one that matched the number on the ring. When he did, he turned the book around so that Randy could read the entry.

“Arthur Reed,” Randy read aloud while copying the entry into a small notebook. “Geology department; graduated without honors. He lived in Lathrop Hall his last year. You were in that dorm, weren’t you?”

“I was in every dorm on campus at one time or another,” Elliot laughed as he put the notebook away. “It took me seven years to graduate.”

As they stepped back into the store, Randy wondered why he hadn’t noticed Elliot around town in the last few years. They weren’t close friends in college, but they had shared a few pitchers of beer at The Pub, the university’s on-campus bar. Staring at him more closely, Randy realized how much older Elliot looked. His face had become a latticework of wrinkles, and his eyes sunken and yellowish.

“What’s been keeping you busy?” the detective asked, immediately feeling foolish for asking, considering they were standing in Elliot’s store. The man before him just shrugged, though, skipping an opportunity to ridicule Randy that he wouldn’t have 10 years before.

“Life,” Elliot answered. “I’m married now,” he nodded toward the woman at the cash register, someone Randy didn’t know, “and I have a son. The years just keep passing by.”

The detective nodded as if he understood, but actually he was uncomfortable and wanted to leave. He had the information he needed and was eager to see where the name would take him. Elliot seemed to sense Randy’s impatience.

“When you have time,” Elliot said as he stepped behind the counter, “come back and visit for a while.”

“I’ll do that.” Randy waved as he left the store, catching a glimpse of Elliot hugging his wife. People change, he thought as he crossed the campus back to his pickup. He couldn’t imagine himself hugging any woman, not even Jill, with such affection.

When he reached the parking lot, Randy saw a tow truck parked near his truck and a small man in a suit arguing with a tall man in dirty coveralls. As the detective unlocked his driver-side door and climbed into his truck, the small man stalked over to Randy.

“You’re in my spot!” the man screamed, his face beet red and hands balled tightly into tiny fists. “I want you out of my spot!”

The dean went the front of Randy’s truck and started pushing against it, as if he could physically remove it from the parking spot. The detective had the truck running and in reverse, and after a quick glance backward, stomped on the gas pedal. With all his weight forward, the dean fell face first into the snow when the pickup suddenly rolled backward. By the time Randy had pulled out and shifted into drive, the dean was standing with snow clinging to the front of his suit. As the detective passed the tow truck, its driver gave him a thumbs-up.

Randy started driving back to the police station, but then he remembered the television crews he had ditched there. Still on campus, he decided instead to drive up to West Ridge, the university’s research center, and ask his friend Ted to check the name with his head office, the Juneau headquarters of the Alaska Department of Minerals. If Arthur Reed had ever practiced geology in Alaska, his name would be registered with the agency.

 

 

“Igneous,” Ted said, describing the rock being examined by Christy, the young woman in his office. Through its center swirled a yellow vein of sulfur. “I picked it up in Katmai National Park two summers ago. It’s a very active region, one every geology student should explore.”

Ted stepped away from her and watched her awkwardly handle the rock. Summer was only two months away, and he needed an assistant to help him with his field work. As an unattached bachelor, Ted was hoping to have a female assistant this year.

“If you’re interested in seeing the area, I’m going there this summer and need an assistant,” he said, giving her an inviting look. “You’d see the most active region in Alaska.”

“I’d like to, but I’m going to Europe this summer with my boyfriend,” Christy said. “There’s a jazz festival in Norway that Bobby wants to see, and I want to see the Parthenon in Paris and that big tower thingy in Berlin.”

“Jazz in Norway.”

“Sounds cool, huh,” Christy said, thumping the rock down on his desk. A large chunk broke off the specimen. “Personally, I hate jazz, but Bobby makes it sound so cool, with all those old guys screaming and stuff.”

“Sounds it,” Ted said, thoroughly disillusioned. He had been watching her work in the geology lab for months, sharing a hello or goodbye every now and then, and had finally gotten up enough courage to approach her with the assistantship. Now as he put the rock away, he regretted his decision and wished someone would come in and save him.

“Ted,” he heard someone say behind him. When he turned around, he saw Randy standing at his door. “Got a minute?”

“Yes,” the geologist exclaimed. Then turning to Christy, he said seriously, “You’ll have to excuse us. We have an important meeting that is, well, very important. You’ll have to leave now.”

“Oh, OK,” she said, following him to the door through which Randy had entered. “Thanks for asking, by the way.”

“You’re welcome,” Ted said as he closed the door behind her.

He spun around and leaned against the door while affecting a silent sigh.

“University’s finest, I take it,” Randy said in reference to Christy.

“Yep,” Ted answered. “What brings you here?”

“The guy found in the Chena last night. Apparently he was murdered, blasted with a shotgun. I’ve got his name, but I can’t go back to the station to run it right now. There’s a swarm of journalists waiting for me there. The victim was a geologist, and I thought you could call Juneau and check his name with your department.”

“Sure,” Ted said, picking up the receiver of the telephone on his desk. “What is it?”

“Arthur Reed.” Ted looked slightly stunned, and then hung up the receiver. “You knew him, I take it.”

“Yes, in school. He graduated the year after I did and became a private assayer in Circle.” Ted sat down as he thought about the dead man. “I saw him last year, in fact, at a convention in Anchorage.”

“Can you recall anyone not liking him?” Randy asked, leaning against a filing cabinet topped with dull, crumbling rock samples.

“No, not really, but I wasn’t part of his private life.” Ted tapped his desk with an index finger. “I liked him. I thought he was OK.”

“Are you sure he worked in Circle?”

***

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Downed in Chena

An evening out turns into a mystery as police detective Randy McCloughlin launches an investigation into a death in Fairbanks, Alaska. Randy's search for answers takes him into the goldfields of Central Alaska, where he encounters mistrust and illegal practices of the past that still live on among the miners. This is the second book in the Randy McCloughlin series of mysteries set in Alaska. These books introduce readers to the Alaska that the author grew up with in the 1970s and '80s, when the state changed from a frontier state to leading oil producer. Crime follows prosperity, and the boom and bust economy of Alaska has made the state a veteran of both fare and foul winds.

  • ISBN: 9781370896851
  • Author: Mark Wilkinson
  • Published: 2017-04-13 20:50:10
  • Words: 67570
Downed in Chena Downed in Chena