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HE WAS EIGHTY-NINE,” KATE SAID, LOOKING up from a file box.
“Well, we all knew he was older than God,” Jim said.
They were at Old Sam’s cabin, where Kate was sorting through the old man’s belongings. Kate and the aunties had decided that the potlatch would be on the fifteenth of January, which gave them a little over three months to label Old Sam’s possessions for the gift giving, and to allow everyone from Alaska and Outside who wanted to attend to make travel arrangements and contact friends and relatives in the Park for a place to unroll their sleeping bags.
It was also the day of the annual shareholder meeting of the Niniltna Native Association. The price of gas being what it was, travel to and from Niniltna was not cheap, no matter if you did it by plane, boat, pickup, four-wheeler, or snowgo. Plus, it cost the same to rent the high school gym for an event that lasted four hours as it did for an event that lasted all day. Kate Shugak was a frugal and practical woman.
There was a file marked “Will” in the back of the box. Kate pulled it out and opened it.
Jim looked at her bent head, and at Mutt, who was leaning up against Kate’s side. Whenever Kate was hurting, Mutt was always as close to her as she could get without actually climbing into her lap. Since Mutt, the half gray wolf half husky who allowed Kate to live with her outweighed Kate by twenty pounds, leaning seemed the better option all around.
Old Sam’s cabin was built on a floor plan common to the Park anytime between twenty-five and a hundred years before, a ground floor twenty- five feet square with a sleeping loft reached by a ladder made from two-by-fours. The rungs on the ladder were worn smooth from decades of use. Jim hoped that when he was eighty-nine his knees would be in good enough shape to climb eight feet up a vertical ladder to get to bed.
He looked back at Kate.
If she were waiting for him in that bed, he’d find a way.
The one room downstairs had a counter with an old chipped porcelain farm sink set into it, with shelves built into the wall above and below. The sink came with an old-fashioned swan-necked spout and two spoked faucets. Old Sam had tapped into public water when it had come into Niniltna twenty years before, but the out house was still outside. When asked why no indoor toilet, a growled “You don’t shit in your own nest” was his invariable reply.
There was an oil stove for cooking and a woodstove for heat and an old Frigidaire refrigerator that must have been added when they ran the power line out from Ahtna back in the sixties. More built-in shelves covered every inch of the back wall from floor to ceiling beneath the floor of the loft, one section for weapons and ammunition and the rest for books ranging from Zane Grey to a leather-bound, three- volume edition of the log of Captain Cook that made Jim’s mouth water just to look at it. A brown vinyl recliner with a dent in the seat the size of Old Sam’s skinny ass occupied one corner, next to a pole lamp and a Blazo box standing on one end. The box was covered with mug rings and was filled with a stack of magazines, National Geographic, Alaska magazine, Playboy. There was a workbench next to the door where Old Sam cleaned his guns and did the fine woodworking on projects he’d allowed Park rats to talk him into, wall shelves and cupboards, mostly, with an occasional bed frame or dining table thrown in.
“He revised his will only last month.”
Kate was sitting at the chrome-legged dining table in the center of the room, on one of three mismatched chairs. The table had a lazy Susan in the middle of it, filled with salt and pepper shakers, a sugar bowl, a Darigold one-pound butter can with a plastic lid, a bottle of soy sauce. Old Sam liked his sticky rice, a legacy of his half-Filipino father.
Had liked. It was still difficult to accept the fact that the old man was dead. It was especially difficult to imagine life in the Park going on without his acid, perspicacious, and occasionally uncomfortably prophetic commentary. Old Sam had been an entire Greek chorus all by himself.
“He had a lot of stuff,” Jim said. “Do you want help?” It was Monday morning, and he was past due at work.
She looked up. “Less than two weeks ago.”
“He revised his will less than two weeks ago.”
“Maybe he had a premonition.”
She snorted. “There was never anything the least bit fey about Old Sam.”
Jim thought of the old man built of bone and sinew, quick, smart, smart-assed. Indomitable, indestructible, and until the day before yesterday, immortal. Kate was right. If anyone had ever lived in the real world, it had been Old Sam Dementieff. Jim was going to miss the hell out of him. “Do you need help here?” he asked again. “I can take a day.”
“Thanks, but I got this.” She tucked a strand of short dark hair behind an ear, exposing the high, flat cheekbone and the strong throat bisected by the long scar that had faded over the last eight years to a thin white line. With hazel eyes set in skin darkened to bronze by the summer just past and a full seductive mouth set over an obstinate chin, she was a five- foot, one- hundred- and- twenty- pound package of dynamite clad in black sweatshirt, blue jeans, and tennis shoes.
His dynamite. The pronoun came to him without warning, and under its influence he stepped forward to pull the file from her hands. “Come here.” He picked her up and sat down again on the chair, setting her on his lap.
She didn’t protest. Her head found a place on his shoulder instead, and a moment later he felt the warmth of her tears soak through his shirt.
“Hey,” he said, tipping her head up.
She took a shaky breath and tried to smile. “He’d make fun of me if he could see me now.”
“Bullshit,” Jim said. “He’d be proud you cared enough. Listen, Kate. He went out the way we all wish we could go. He hunted his own moose, packed it home, butchered it out, and threw a feed for everyone he loved. Damn fine feed, too.”
Her smile was wobbly. “Yeah, it was.”
“And then he turned off the engine and left the shop.” Jim’s shoulders rose and fell in a slight shrug. “What do you Injuns say? It was a good day to die.”
She sniffed and gulped back a laugh that was half sob.
He leaned in, his lips moving across her skin, sipping at the salt tears. Her breath caught, warm on his cheek, and her head turned so her mouth was close to his. He accepted the invitation and their lips met in a long and gentle caress, his hands warm and strong at the back of her neck and on her hip.
It was becoming less frightening to him, this need he found to comfort, to console, to demonstrate an affection that had nothing to do with sex. Although if the nearest bed hadn’t belonged to a man not dead forty-eight hours . . . He raised his head and hazel eyes met blue in a long look. “Better?”
She was a little flushed, and the full lips quirked at the corners. “An effective laying on of healing hands.”
He grinned and kissed her again, quick and hard. “I’ll lay more than that later.”
Old Sam would have, too.
The loss of Old Sam Dementieff notwithstanding, Jim drove to the trooper post with a lighter heart. Probably part of that was due to Kate’s being as willing to accept his comfort as he was unafraid to give it. They’d been circling each other for so long, wary, suspicious, and let’s face it, just plain scared of all the baggage loaded on that slow-moving barge called relationship. You couldn’t move a barge on its own, you had to hire a tug. Up until Kate, the women with whom he’d kept company had lasted the length of a ride in a cigarette boat between Miami and Havana. Sometimes it felt like he’d served more time for Kate than Jacob had for Rachel.
He knew she was still working out the trust issues. Jack Morgan, a government-certified Grade A one-woman man, was a hard act to follow in that respect. It didn’t help that despite a visible lack of offspring, Chopper Jim Chopin’s nom d’amour had once been Father of the Park. Come to think of it, Old Sam had been the one to hang that on him. Right after Misty Lambert had burned the clothes he’d left behind, during the monthly meeting of her book club with all eight members in attendance and more invited over to celebrate the event. At least half of whom he’d slept with at one time or another.
They’d all got a big laugh out of it at the time, both the ritual immolation and Old Sam’s nicknaming, but the truth was, Jim Chopin was probably quicker with a condom than he was with his sidearm. Living with Johnny Morgan was as close as he ever wanted to come to being a father. As the only Alaska state trooper in twenty million acres of national Park, he already had eight thousand children requiring primary care.
He pulled up in front of the post, making a mental note to stop in at the high school to suggest to Johnny, man-to-man, that he spend the night in town. Johnny was old enough to recognize the justice of the appeal, and besides, given the way things appeared to be heating up between Johnny and Van, the kid would expect some reciprocity in the not too distant future. Jim had a vivid memory of what sixteen was like. If he couldn’t keep his hands off Kate now, at sixteen he would have kept her horizontal for days at a time.
He laughed at himself and got out of the truck. His dispatcher met him at the door, a pink message slip in hand and an expression on her face that wiped his mind free of blithe spirit. “What?” he said, mind racing, sorting through the usual suspects. Howie Katelnikof, Martin Shugak, Wade Roche and what might or might not be going on out at his place, Dulcey Kineen’s latest escapade, which he hoped this time did not involve the road grader. “Cindy threatening to shoot Willard again?”
“No, Jim,” she said, and right away he knew from the gentleness of her reply that it was going to be bad. “I just got off the satellite phone with Nick.”
Nick Luther was head of the Alaska state trooper detachment in Tok, which had been Jim’s old post until two years before, when volume of business caused Juneau to open a new trooper post in the Park. He wondered now why he had never wondered before if someone in the state capital had known about the discovery of the world’s second largest gold mine in Suulutaq before making that decision.
His mind tended to head off on tangents whenever he wanted to avoid what was coming at him like a steamroller. He took a deep breath. “Go ahead,” he said. “Serve it up.” When she still hesitated, he said, “What ever it is, letting it sit won’t make it smell any better.”
“There’s no easy way to say this, Jim,” she said. “Your mother called.”
His spine stiffened. “Yeah?”
“I’m so sorry. Your father died.”
Kate sat on the bed and watched him pack, putting clothes she had never seen him wear into an actual suitcase she’d never seen him use. Out of uniform he wore T-shirts and jeans. Traveling within Alaska he used a pack. The charcoal gray suit looked like something the new and improved Kurt Pletnikof would wear to meet his better- heeled clients in Anchorage. The silver, hard- sided suitcase looked like it had been bought out of the SkyMall catalogue, with which Kate was familiar only because it was in every seat pocket on every Alaska Airlines 737, offering everything from basketballs autographed by Magic Johnson to $900 wine fridges, none of which was much use to anyone about to make a connecting flight to Igiugig. “Gee,” she said, “looks just like downtown.”
He shot her a quick look, and she wondered if that had come out more intimidated that she had meant it to. “California, here I come,” he said.
Try as she might she could not detect any joy in his tone.
They were in his room at Auntie Vi’s B and B, or what had been Auntie Vi’s B and B before she sold it to the owners of the Suulutaq Mine to be a bunkhouse for mine employees in transit. Auntie Vi was now running it for them. A condition of sale had been that Jim got to keep his room there, which he had had since first moving to the Park to open the post. Mine manager Vern Truax had been more than happy to accommodate a law enforcement presence fifty miles from his mine.
“Right back where you started from,” Kate said.
This time he stood up and looked her straight in the eye. “I won’t be staying long.”
“You don’t have any brothers or sisters,” she said.
“And your mother is how old?”
“Ten years younger than Old Sam.”
She thought of how healthy Old Sam had been, right up until he sat down on his dock and died. “Your mom in good shape?”
“Depends on what you mean by ‘in good shape.’ I’d bet a whole paycheck she looks pretty damn good. She’d sure as hell spend it getting that way.” He zipped the suit into a garment bag, something else Kate recognized only from cata logues, and snapped it into the lid of the aluminum suitcase.
“You’re, what, forty-two now?”
“She was thirty- seven when you were born.”
He added a couple of white, button-down shirts, neatly folded, to the suitcase. T-shirts, shorts, and socks followed. “I showed up late, when they’d pretty much given up on having kids. Dad was forty-five.”
“You never talk about them.”
He shrugged. “Not much to say. They were hard of hearing before I was in high school. It was like growing up with grandparents.”
Wow, she thought. Didn’t that sound affectionate.
When she thought about it later, she wondered if that lack of affection might have been part of what had driven Jim north in the first place.
He pulled a shoebox from beneath the bed and added it to the suitcase. The ditty bag full of toiletries went into a daypack with Craig Johnson’s latest Walt Longmire novel and Naomi Novik’s Victory of Eagles. The books had been waiting for him in the post office when he had cleaned out his mailbox that morning. He hoped two books were enough to get him from Anchorage to San Jose, because the rest of his to-read pile was back at Kate’s house. He was six four, and there was nothing worse than being shoehorned into last class with nothing to take his mind off the discomfort of having his knees jammed up against the seat in front of him. He’d once been stuck on a flight from Phoenix to Seattle with a Steve Martini book whose perp he’d guessed before they reached cruising altitude. Never again. “Where the hell’s my— Oh, here it is,” he said, producing a clip-on reading light and tossing it into the daypack with the books. “They’ve got the seats so close together on the new jets that I can never get the overhead light to shine on anything but the top of the head of the guy sitting in front of me. Especially when he leans his chair back into my lap.”
“Why did you come to Alaska?”
He zipped up the daypack. “I read Coming into the Country when I was too young to resist.”
Always with the smart remark. Fine. “Is anyone coming in to the country to cover for you while you’re gone?”
He snapped the suitcase closed and set it on the floor. “Nick will check in with Maggie every morning. Otherwise, I’m relying on you, babe. Oh.” He paused to look at her. “Kenny says there’s been a rash of break-ins and burglaries in Ahtna over the last month. He says he thinks it’s partly due to the economy, people looking for anything they can sell to raise cash. Just FYI, in case it spreads down the river.”
“Got it,” she said. He felt distant from her somehow, as if he were already in Los Angeles. Land of surf and sand and sun. When he looked at her again she realized she’d said the words out loud.
“I’m not staying there, Kate,” he said again. “I work in Alaska. I live in Alaska.”
You’re in Alaska, he could have said, but didn’t.
Instead, he put the daypack on the floor next to the suitcase and took her down to the bed with a soft tackle. Caught off guard, she looked up at him with a startled expression. “Let me just mark my spot,” he said, and reached for the buttons on her jeans.
He made George’s last flight into Anchorage with sixty seconds to spare. She stood flushed and rumpled at the end of the forty-eight hundred-foot dirt airstrip, watching the de Havilland single Otter turbo rise into the air, bank right, and head west, its signature whine receding over the horizon.
Mutt gave a soft, plaintive whimper. Kate looked down and said in a stern voice, “We are strong and beautiful women. We can do anything.”
And Mutt proved it on the walk back to the red Chevy super cab by catching the hem of Kate’s jeans in her teeth and dumping Kate on her ass.
THOUGH NOT DEAD Copyright © 2011 by Dana Stabenow