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A Cold Day for Murder
A Kate Shugat Mystery
By Dana Stabenow
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2011 Dana Stabenow
All rights reserved.
They came out of the south late that morning on a black-and-silver Ski-doo LT. The driver had thick eyebrows and a thicker beard and a lush fur ruff around his hood, all rimmed with frost from the moisture of his breath. He was a big man, made larger by parka, down bib overalls, fur mukluks and thick fur gauntlets. His teeth were bared in a grin that was half-snarl. He looked like John Wayne ready to run the claim jumpers off his gold mine on that old White Mountain just a little southeast of Nome, if John Wayne had been outfitted by Eddie Bauer.
The man sitting behind him and clinging desperately to his seat was half his size and had no ruff around the edge of his hood. His face was a fragile layer of frost over skin drained a pasty white. He wore a down snowsuit at least three sizes too big for him, the bottoms of the legs coming down over his wingtip shoes. He wasn't smiling at all. He looked like Sam McGee from Tennessee before he was stuffed into the furnace of the Alice May.
The rending, tearing noise of the snow machine's engine echoed across the landscape and affronted the arctic peace of that December day. It startled a moose stripping the bark from a stand of spindly birches. It sent a beaver back into her den in a swift-running stream. It woke a bald eagle roosting in the top of a spruce, causing him to glare down on the two men with malevolent eyes. The sky was of that crystal clarity that comes only to lands of the far north in winter; light, translucent, wanting cloud and color. Only the first blush of sunrise outlined the jagged peaks of mountains to the east, though it was well past nine in the morning. The snow was layered in graceful white curves beneath the alder and spruce and cottonwood, all the trees except for the spruce spare and leafless, though even the green spines of the spruce seemed faded to black this morning.
"I gotta take a leak," the man in back yelled in the driver's ear.
"You don't want to step off into the snow anywhere near here," the driver roared over the noise of the machine.
"Why not?" the passenger yelled back. A thin shard of ice cracked and slid from his cheek.
"It's deeper than it looks, probably over your head. You could founder here and never come up for air. Just hang on. It's not far now."
The machine lurched and skidded around a clump of trees, and the passenger held on and muttered to himself through clenched teeth. The big man's grin broadened.
Without warning they burst into a clearing. The big man reduced speed so abruptly that his passenger was thrown forward. When he hauled himself upright again and looked around, his first impression of the winter scene laid out before him was that it was just too immaculate, too orderly, too perfect to exist in a world of flawed, disorderly and imperfect men.
The log cabin in the clearing sat on the edge of a bluff that fell a hundred feet to the half-frozen Kanuyaq River below. Beyond the far bank of the river the land rose swiftly into the sharp peaks of the Quilak Mountains. The cabin, looking more as if it had grown there naturally rather than been built by human hands, stood at the center of a small semicircle of buildings. At the left and slightly to the back there was an outhouse, tall, spare and functional. Several depressions in the snow around it indicated it had been moved more than once, which gave the man on the snow machine some idea of how long the homestead had been there. Next was a combined garage and shop, through the open door of which could be seen a snow machine, a small truck and assorted related gear. He found the sight of these indubitably twentieth-century products infinitely reassuring. Next to the cabin stood an elevated stand for a dozen fifty-five-gallon barrels of Chevron diesel fuel, stacked on their sides. Immediately to the right of the cabin was a greenhouse, its Visqueen panels opaque with frost. Next to it and completing the semicircle stood a cache elevated some ten feet in the air on peeled log stilts, with a narrow ladder leading to its single door.
Paths through the drifts of snow had been cut with almost surgical precision, linking every structure to its neighbor. The resulting half-circle was packed firm between tidy berms as level as a clipped hedge. One trail led directly to the wood pile, which the man judged held at least three cords, split as neatly as they were stacked. Another pile of unsplit rounds stood next to the chopping block.
There were no footprints outside the trails. It seemed that this was one homesteader who kept herself to herself.
The glow of the wood of each structure testified to a yearly application of log oil. There wasn't a shake missing from any of the roofs. The usual dump of tires too worn to use but too good to throw away, the pile of leftover lumber cut in odd lengths but still good for something, someday, the stack of Blazo boxes to be used for shelves, the shiny hill of Blazo tins someday to carry water, the haphazard mound of empty, rusting fifty-five-gallon drums to be cut into stoves when the old one wore out, all these staples were missing. It was most unbushlike and positively unAlaskan. He had a suspicion that when the snow melted the grass wouldn't dare to grow more than an inch tall, or the tomatoes in the greenhouse bear less than twelve to the vine. He was assailed by an unexpected and entirely unaccustomed feeling of inadequacy, and wished suddenly that he had taken the time to search out a parka and boots, the winter uniform of the Alaskan bush, before making this pilgrimage. At least then he would have been properly dressed to meet Jack London, who was undoubtedly inside the cabin in front of him, writing "To Build a Fire" and making countless future generations of Alaskan junior high English students miserable in the process. He would have been unsurprised to see Samuel Benton Steele mushing up the trail in his red Mountie coat and flat-brimmed Mountie hat. He would merely have turned to look for Soapy Smith moving fast in the other direction. He realized finally that his mouth was hanging half-open, closed it with something of a snap and wondered what kind of time warp they had wandered through on the way here, and if they would be able to find it again on the return to their own century.
The big man switched off the engine. The waiting silence fell like a vengeful blow and his passenger was temporarily stunned by it. He rallied. "All this scene needs is the Northern Lights," he said, "and we could paint it on a gold pan and get twenty bucks for it off the little old lady from Duluth."
The big man grinned a little.
The smaller man took a deep breath and the frozen air burned into his lungs. Unused to it, he coughed. "So this is her place?"
"This is it," the big man confirmed, his deep voice rumbling over the clearing. As if to confirm his words, they heard the door to the cabin slam shut. The other man raised his eyebrows, cracking more ice off his face.
"Well, at least now we know she's home," the big man said placidly, and dismounted.
"Son of a bitch, what is that?" his passenger said, his face if possible becoming even more colorless.
The big man looked up to see an enormous gray animal with a stiff ruff and a plumed tail trotting across the yard in their direction, silent and purposeful. "Dog," he said laconically.
"Dog, huh?" the other man said, trying and failing to look away from the animal's unflinching yellow eyes. He groped in his pocket until his gloved fingers wrapped around the comforting butt of his .38 Police Special. He looked up to find those yellow eyes fixed on him with a thoughtful, considering expression, and he froze. "Looks like a goddam wolf to me," he said finally, trying hard to match the other man's nonchalance.
"Nah," the big man said, holding out one hand, fingers curled, palm down. "Only half. Hey, Mutt, how are you, girl?" She extended a cautious nose, sniffed twice and sneezed. Her tail gave a perfunctory wag. She looked from the first man to the second and seemed to raise one eyebrow. "Hold out your hand," the big man said.
"Make a fist, palm down, hold it out."
The other man swallowed, mentally bid his hand goodbye and obeyed. Mutt sniffed it, looked him over a third time in a way that made him hope he wasn't breathing in an aggressive manner, and then stood to one side, clearly waiting to escort them to the door of the cabin.
"There's the outhouse," the big man said, pointing.
"You said you wanted to take a leak."
He looked from dog to outhouse and back to the dog. "Not that bad."
"That's some fucking doorman you've got out there," he said, once he was safely inside the cabin and the door securely latched behind him.
"Can I offer you a drink?" Her voice was odd, too loud for a whisper, not low enough for a growl, and painfully rough, like a dull saw ripping through old cement.
"I'll take whatever you got, whiskey, vodka, the first bottle you grab." The passenger had stripped off his outsize snowsuit to reveal a pin-striped three-piece suit complete with knotted tie and gold watch attached to a chain that stretched over a small, round potbelly the suit had been fighting ever since his teens.
She paused momentarily, taking in this sartorial splendor with a long, speculative survey that reminded him uncomfortably of the dog outside. "Coffee?" she said. "Or I could mix up some lemonade."
"Coffee's fine, Kate," the big man said. The suit felt like crying.
"It's on the stove." She jerked her chin. "Mugs and spoons and sugar on the shelf to the left."
The big man smiled down at her. "I know where the mugs are."
She didn't smile back.
The mugs were utilitarian white porcelain and the coffee was nectar and ambrosia. By his second cup the suit had defrosted enough to revert to type, to examine and inventory the scene.
The interior of the cabin was as neat as its exterior, maybe neater, neat enough to make his teeth ache. It reminded him of the cabin of a sailboat with one of those persnickety old bachelor skippers; there was by God a place for everything and everything had by God better be in its place. Kerosene lamps hissed gently from every corner of the room, making the cabin, unlike so many of its shadowy, smoky little contemporaries in the Alaskan bush, well lit. The plank walls, too, were sanded and finished. The first floor, some twenty-five feet square, was a living room, dining room and kitchen combined; a ladder led to a loft that presumably served as a bedroom, tucked away beneath the rear half of the roof 's steep pitch. He estimated eleven hundred square feet of living space altogether, and was disposed to approve of the way it was arranged.
An oil stove for cooking took up the center of the left wall, facing a wood stove on the right wall, both of them going. A tall blue enamel coffeepot stood on the oil stove. A steaming, gallon-size teakettle sat on the wood stove's large surface, and a large round tin tub hung on the wall behind it. A counter, interrupted by a large, shallow sink with a pump handle, ran from the door to the oil stove, shelves above and below filled with orderly stacks of dishes, pots and pans and foodstuffs. A small square dining table covered with a faded red-and-white checked oilskin stood in the rear left-hand corner next to the oil stove. There were two upright wooden chairs, old but sturdy. On a shelf above were half a dozen decks of cards, poker chips and a Scrabble game. A wide, built-in bench ran along the back wall and around the rear right-hand corner, padded with foam rubber and upholstered in a deep blue canvas fabric. Over the bench built-in shelves bore a battery-operated cassette player and tidy stacks of cassette tapes. He read some of the artists' names out loud. "Peter, Paul and Mary, John Fogerty, Jimmy Buffet," he said, and turned with a friendly smile. "All your major American philosophers. We'll get along, Ms. Shugak."
She looked perfectly calm, her lips unsmiling, but there was a feeling of something barely leashed in her brown eyes when she paused in her bread making to look him over, head to toe, in a glance that once again took in his polished loafers, his immaculate suit and his crisply knotted tie. He checked an impulse to see if his fly was zipped. "I wasn't aware we had to," she said without inflection, and turned back to the counter.
The suit turned to the big man, whose expression, if possible, was even harder to read than the woman's. The suit shrugged and continued his inspection. Between the wood stove and the door were bookshelves, reaching around the corner of the house and from floor to ceiling, every one of them crammed with books. Curious, he ran his finger down their spines, and found New Hampshire wedged in between Pale Gray for Guilt and Citizen of the Galaxy. He cast a glance at the woman's unresponsive back, and opened the slim volume. Many of the pages were dog-eared, with notes penciled in the margins in a small, neat, entirely illegible hand. He closed the book and then allowed it to fall open where it would, and read part of a poem about a man who burned down his house for the fire insurance so he could buy a telescope. There were no notes on that page, only the smooth feeling on his fingertips of words on paper worn thin with reading. He replaced the book and strummed the strings of the dusty guitar hanging next to the shelving. It was out of tune. It had been out of tune for a long time.
"Hey." The woman was looking over at him, her eyes hard. "Do you mind?"
He dropped his hand. The silence in the little cabin bothered him. He had never been greeted with anything less than outright rejoicing in the Alaskan bush during the winter, or during the summer, either, any summer you could find anyone home. Especially at isolated homesteads like this one.
He swung around and took his first real look at the woman who wasn't even curious enough to ask his name. The woman who, until fourteen months ago, had been the acknowledged star of the Anchorage District Attorney's investigative staff. Who had the highest conviction rate in the state's history for that position. Whose very presence on the prosecution's witness list had induced defense lawyers to throw in their briefs and plea-bargain. Who had successfully resisted three determined efforts on the part of the FBI to recruit her.
Twenty-nine or thirty, he judged, which if she had had a year of training after college before going to work for Morgan would be about right. Five feet tall, no more, maybe a hundred and ten pounds. She had the burnished bronze skin and high, flat cheekbones of her race, with curiously light brown eyes tilted up at her temples, all of it framed by a shining fall of utterly black, utterly straight hair. The fabric of her red plaid shirt strained across her square shoulders and the swell of her breasts, and her Levis were worn white at butt and knees. She moved like a cat, all controlled muscle and natural grace, wary but assured. He wondered idly if she would be like a cat in bed, and then he remembered his wife and the last narrowly averted action for divorce and reined in his imagination. From the vibrations he was picking up between her and the big man he would never have a chance to test his luck, anyway.
Then she bent down to bring another scoop of flour up from the sack on the floor, and he sucked in his breath. For a moment her collar had fallen away and he had seen the scar, twisted and ugly and still angry in color. It crossed her throat almost from ear to ear. That explains the voice, he thought, shaken. Why hadn't she gone to a plastic surgeon and had that fixed, or at least had the scar tissue trimmed and reduced in size? He looked up to see the big man watching him out of blue eyes that held a clear warning. His own gaze faltered and fell.
But she had noticed his reaction. Her eyes narrowed. She lifted one hand as if to button her shirt up to the collar, hesitated, and let it fall. "What do you want, Jack?" she said abruptly.
The big man lowered his six-foot-two, two-hundred-and-twenty-pound frame down on the homemade couch, which groaned in protest, sipped at his coffee and wiped the moisture from his thick black mustache. He had hung his parka without looking for the hook, found the sugar on the right shelf the first time and settled himself on the softest spot on the couch without missing a beat. He looked relaxed, even at home, the suit thought. The woman evidently thought so, too, and her generous mouth tightened into a thin line.
Excerpted from A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow. Copyright © 2011 Dana Stabenow. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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