Midnight Come Again
By Dana Stabenow
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Dana Stabenow
All rights reserved.
Niniltna, June 25
"Lots of spirits all over, this year,"
— A Quick Brush of Wings
They would argue later about when it all began, perhaps with the death in July, or maybe the meeting in Washington, D.C., the month before, or even with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but as far as First Sergeant Jim Chopin was concerned it began that day in late June when he flew his Bell Jet Ranger from the regional post in Tok to the Bush village of Niniltna on the Kanuyaq River, and drove the twenty-five miles of rough gravel road through a green and fecund Park to Kate Shugak's homestead.
"She's not there," Bobby had said when the trooper asked for the loan of Bobby's pickup.
His wife, Dinah, a worried look on her face and baby Katya on her hip, added, "We haven't seen her since before Thanksgiving, Jim. She's just vanished."
"Can I borrow the truck or not?" Jim said.
"Goddamn it," Bobby roared, "I said she ain't there!" He rolled his chair forward so that he could glare straight up into the trooper's face. "We drove out three weeks ago. The Ford's parked in front of the garage, the snow machine's parked in the garage, and the cabin's empty except for some canned food and a lot of dust. She ain't there, and she ain't been there."
"Where is she, Jim?" Dinah said. "Have you heardsomething? Is that why you want to go out there? Billy's really worried. He hasn't seen her since the funeral."
"She was at the funeral?" Jim said, startled. "I didn't see her."
"I didn't either," Bobby said, making it sound like an accusation.
"She was standing in the back," Dinah said. "I only caught a glimpse of her. She left right after, before everybody started telling Jack stories."
"Goddamn it!" This time the tops of the trees seemed to sway in response to Bobby's roar. His black face was made blacker with rage, made all the more furious by a dark fear no less tangible for remaining unspoken. "I will kill her when we catch up with her, I swear I will kill the bitch!"
Katya, used to Daddy's decibel level, was so upset she burped, loudly. Dinah, looking at the trooper, said, "Why are you looking for her, Jim? Is it something to do with the case?"
He shook his head. "No. The suits are fighting for extradition to Germany, but it doesn't look like it's going to fly. Their own country doesn't seem much interested in getting them back. Big surprise."
He pulled the gimmee cap from his head and ran a hand through a thick pelt of hair. He'd recently abandoned the more formal Mountie-type hat for the baseball-style hat with the trooper insignia above the bill. The Mountie hat, especially the way Chopper Jim wore it, was a first-class babe magnet, which had been its chief attraction to him when he opted for it at the beginning of his service. He had suffered a great deal of joshing at the switch over the last six months. All he would say in response was that wearing the smaller hat made it easier to get in and out of aircraft. The uniform, his size and a look in his eye that dared comment kept people from remarking that in fourteen years of wear his Mountie hat hadn't kept him from flying before, at least to his face.
They were standing on the porch that ran the width of Bobby's A-frame. From there the ground gradually sloped down to Squaw Candy Creek, the southern border of the one hundred and sixty acres Bobby had home-steaded in the mid-seventies, when he had come back from Vietnam minus both legs from the knee down and decided to abandon his home state of Tennessee for the last frontier of the Alaskan Bush. On the eastern horizon, the blue-white spurs of the Quilak Mountains scored the sky, Angak or Big Bump the biggest spur of all.
Half an acre of cleared land sprouted leaf lettuce and broccoli and arugula and radishes and cauliflower and carrots and sugar snap peas. Tomato plants had grown to the roof of the greenhouse, so that it looked like a jungle in a box. A garage stood open, revealing a small tractor parked inside, the snow-clearing blade it donned in winter leaning up against one wall. A new green pickup was parked next to it, and the outline of a snow machine could be seen beyond them. The shop was between garage and house, and it too stood open, displaying a U-shaped bench just the right height for someone in a wheelchair. A circular saw, a sander and a router had been built into the bench; from pegboards on the walls hung every imaginable tool, each handle worn smooth from years of use.
Not for the first time, Jim wondered where Bobby Clark had acquired the money to finance his homestead. Not for the first time, he decided to let it go. "So can I borrow your truck or what?" he said.
Bobby let loose with a string of imaginative curses that Jim had to admire for their almost Elizabethan flavor, graphic detail and physical impossibility. He waited, maintaining his placid facade with some effort.
Looking for a fight and not getting one, Bobby growled out one last ripe and frustrated oath and wheeled into the A-frame, reemerging almost immediately with the keys to the truck clutched in one fist. He hurled them at Jim. "Take the goddamn thing!"
Jim took a quick step back and stretched up a hand, and the keys smacked into his palm like he was catching a fly ball. He caught his balance just before he fell off the edge of the porch and said, "Thanks, Bobby. I'd thought I'd drive out to the Roadhouse after, talk to Bernie. That okay?"
"I don't care if you drive it into the goddamn river!"
"I do," Dinah said, "we're almost out of diapers."
"Again? Jesus god, that kid produces more shit than a herd of moose!"
Katya gave Daddy a blinding smile and launched herself from her mother's arms into her father's. Dinah gasped and Jim clutched, but Bobby caught the one-man Flying Clark Troupe solidly in both hands and arranged her on his lap, scolding all the while. "Christ, kid, you trying to give your old man a heart attack? Don't try that trick again without a parachute."
She reached up and punched him in the nose. Bobby, his worry for Kate in temporary abeyance, was still laughing when Jim climbed into the truck and drove off.
Dinah's last words, delivered in a low voice beneath the ring of her husband's laughter, echoed in his ears. "Find her, Jim. Do whatever you have to do, but find her and bring her home."
The rough gravel road was all that remained of the roadbed of the Kanuyaq River and Northwestern Railroad that had once run from Niniltna to Cordova, hauling copper from the Kanuyaq Copper Mine four miles north of Niniltna. It had been a dry summer so the road was in pretty good shape; Jim was bounced off the roof of Bobby's truck only three times, which had to be some kind of record. He swerved once to avoid a moose cow and two calves, and again to miss a two-year-old grizzly who was looking a little peaked, as if his momma had just kicked him out and he had yet to learn how to forage for himself. He'd learn or die, Jim thought, and stepped on the gas.
At mile twenty-three he pulled into Mandy and Chick's, the hunting lodge turned sled dog ranch and, since Abel Int-Hout had died, the nearest neighbor to the Shugak homestead. "I haven't seen her since before Christmas," Mandy said. "I went over to invite her for Christmas dinner. She wasn't there."
"Did it look like she'd been there recently?"
The musher spread her hands, worried down to the elegant bones of her Boston Brahmin face. "You know what a neatnik she is. It's hard to tell sometimes if anybody's ever lived there."
Chick put his hands on his roomie's shoulders and squeezed. His eyes met Jim's. He gave a tiny jerk of his head.
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Jim said, and drained his mug. "Thanks for the coffee, Mandy." He got to his feet and donned his cap. "I better get a move on."
He paused at the door, looking back over his shoulder.
Unconsciously repeating Dinah's admonition, Mandy said, "Find her."
"I will," he said, although they were talking Kate Shugak here. If Kate Shugak wanted to be lost nobody was ever going to find her, and they both knew it.
Still, Mandy added, "And Jim? When you do, kick her butt for me, good and hard."
He touched the brim of his hat and gave his first real smile of the day. "My pleasure."
The sound of the door closing behind him was lost in the howling that ensued when he stepped outside. There were tens and maybe hundreds of dogs chained to tree stumps across a couple of acres of yard, all of them yapping in a cacophony that would have drowned out even Bobby Clark. He threaded a careful path through the pack and walked back up the trail to where the truck was parked in the pulloff. He opened the door and sat sideways on the seat, arms folded across his chest, watching a squirrel stuff her face with spruce cone seeds, the individual petals of the cone raining down in a tiny shower of debris, her cheeks pouched out like an overstuffed purse. She was an efficient if messy eater.
There was a rustle in the branch above, and they both looked up to see a magpie fold his black-and-white wings, the branch bouncing lightly beneath his weight. The squirrel dropped the cone and scampered up the branch to the trunk, up the trunk to a higher branch and leaped to the next tree. The magpie gave a grating squawk, and swaggered down to take the squirrel's place. It was loaded with pinecones bursting with seed, the reason the squirrel had chosen it.
"Greedy guts," Jim said.
The magpie paid him no mind. He was an even messier eater than the squirrel.
A few minutes later Chick came trotting up. "Let's talk quick," he said. "She thinks I'm in the outhouse."
"You know something?"
"Just that I saw Kate after Mandy did," Chick said. His face was round as a melon and as brown as a walnut, with dark hair flopping into his narrow brown eyes.
Kate had hair like that, a thick, shining fall as black as an October night in the Arctic before the first snow. "When did you see her?"
"The second of January. You know Kate lets us run teams across her property?" Jim nodded. "So I was on a training run and I dropped in. What with everything that happened last year, we've been keeping a closer eye on her than usual. You know." Jim nodded again. "Well, she was there."
"Was she packing to go somewhere?"
"I don't think so." Chick paused.
"What? Tell me, Chick."
"She didn't invite me in," Chick said. He didn't like saying it, didn't like acknowledging the fact that Kate Shugak was in such bad shape she couldn't even keep to the rule of Bush hospitality, especially in January.
Jim took his hat off and studied the trooper insignia with care. "Chick, were you sober by the time she moved back from Anchorage? After she killed that baby raper and quit the D.A.'s office?"
Chick frowned, unoffended by the reference to his chronic alcoholism. What was, was. "Yeah."
"You remember what she was like then?"
Chick did, and he didn't like it. The frown deepened. "Yeah."
"Was she better or worse than that this January?"
Chick thought. "Worse," he said finally. Their eyes met. "A lot worse. That's why I didn't tell Mandy I'd stopped by." His shoulders gave an uneasy shrug, as if trying to wriggle out from under something, and failing. "You know how it is when Kate walks into a room, Jim. Snap, crackle, pop, sometimes you've got to duck, the sparks are so big and so fast. She's alive, you know?"
"And she's not, now?"
The shoulders hunched, against the blow of Chick's own words. "No snap, no crackle, no pop, no sparks at all. She's pulled the plug, Jim." He rubbed his hands down his thighs, as if the friction might warm them, and shoved them into his jeans. "She's not even angry, you know? Kate's always pissed off about something. Not now." He paused, thinking over his words. "She doesn't care enough to be angry."
They stood in silence for a moment. Jim moved first, pulling his hat back on and squaring it away. "Thanks, Chick."
He paused, door open, and looked over his shoulder. "Yeah?"
Chick Nayokpuk, more popularly know by his worldclass dog-team driver sobriquet, the Billiken Bullet, was a rotund little man with a rotund little personality to match, but today his round smiling face had hardened into something approaching severity. "We gonna get 'em?"
"We already got 'em, Chick. They aren't going anywhere."
"Trial still on for September?"
"Good," Chick said. "First time I been sorry we don't have the death penalty."
"You're not the first person to have said that."
Chick nodded, face still set in severe lines. "Good to know." He met Jim's eyes. "Too bad you can't just turn 'em loose in the Park."
Jim smiled, this time a thinning of his lips with no humor to it. "Really too bad." He raised his hand in a semi-salute. "Take care, Chick."
"Find her, Jim," Chick replied. "Find her, okay?"
Jim nodded and drove off, Chick staring after him in the rearview mirror until hidden by the curve of the road.
the voices, singing.
— The Light on the Tent Wall
A couple of birds were serenading each other in the trees when Jim came down the path, but he didn't know anything about birds and so could not identify them. There was a rustle of undergrowth here and there as some small mammal heard him and moved unhurriedly out of range. There were salmon still up the creeks and hunting season was two months off; there was no need to rush. Summertime in Alaska and the living was easy. The trail ended in a clearing a hundred feet across, and Jim paused on the edge of it, trying like hell to look at the scene through the eyes of a trooper.
Instead, all he saw was history, the history of a woman whose life could stand as metaphor for the last thirty-five years of the history of the place in which she lived. She had been born Native and raised white, giving her a foot in both worlds. It had cursed her with perspective. Perspective was a quality essential in seeing things clearly for what they were, but not so good when it came time to take sides, to commit to family or, as in this case, tribal loyalty. As her grandmother would have been the first to tell her, and probably had on occasions too numerous to mention. Kate would never tell. Whatever problems Kate had had with Ekaterina would go with both of them to their graves.
Jim Chopin was a state trooper, by virtue of his profession trained and dedicated to the gathering and evaluation of information. He knew a good deal more about Kate Shugak than most people, far more than she would have been comfortable with had she known.
Her father had been an Aleut fisher, and a veteran of Castner's Cutthroats, a specially trained commando unit that had fought in the Aleutians during World War II. After the war there had been few villages left standing to go back to, and like many other Aleuts, including his mother, Ekaterina Shugak, he had moved north to the Park, although it wasn't a Park then, just a big chunk of land, owned by the federal government, that at that time wasn't being watched too closely. So people moved in, Aleuts, miners, trappers, hunters, fishers, even a few misguided folks who gave farming a try and almost invariably failed; they all staked out sections, built cabins, and refused to move when Alaska became a state in 1959. The fight over who owned what land was on. A lot of lawyers later, the homesteads were grandfathered in, and in 1980 the Park was created around them.
Stephan Shugak ignored the fuss, married Zoya Dementieff, and in 1961, when they'd given up on ever having children, their daughter, Ekaterina Ivana, was born. Ekaterina for Stephan's mother, Ivana for Zoya's. Billy Mike still told the tale of how Ivana had lost the toss to be the first name. Jim figured Ekaterina snuck in a double-headed coin. That old broad hadn't been one to leave much to chance.
Stephan supported the three of them by fishing salmon in summer and trapping beaver in the winter, and if he and his wife had managed to stay off the sauce it would have been a good life. They hadn't. First Stephan was gone, then Zoya, and little Kate had been shipped off to Niniltna to live with her grandmother.
She had stuck it out for a week. The morning of the eighth day she got up early, tucked half a loaf of homemade bread down the front of her snowsuit, shouldered the little .22 rifle her father had given her and walked the twenty-five miles home. This had been the first week in December, with the highs below freezing and the lows below zero. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Midnight Come Again by Dana Stabenow. Copyright © 2000 Dana Stabenow. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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