Welcome to Sitka, Alaska, a land of breathtaking vistas and beautiful fauna, where locals are trying their best to be good—and to survive—in what may be the last vestige of the Wild West.
When local woman Louise Root asks private detective Cecil Younger to investigate her rape at the Otter Creek gold mine, he agrees. After all, Louise is a close friend of his ex. Maybe helping her out could improve Hannah’s opinion of him. But before Cecil can make progress on the case, he witnesses Alaska state troopers fishing her body out of the ocean—not exactly the resolution he had in mind.
Despite the unfortunate end his last client met, Cecil finds himself inundated with requests from all sides: his old friend, Officer Doggy, wants help controlling the grieving Hannah; Cecil’s autistic roommate, Todd needs help finding his Labrador retriever; and the sleazy executives of Global Mining want dirt on a local environmental activist—a request even the bungling PI finds suspicious. But Cecil also feels a responsibility to discover the truth behind Louise’s death. If Louise knew a secret that got her killed, Cecil needs to discover and expose the truth before he, too, is permanently silenced.
About the Author
The former Writer Laureate of Alaska, John Straley is the author of ten novels. He lives in Sitka, Alaska, with his wife, Jan, a prominent whale biologist. John worked for thirty years as a criminal defense investigator. Now retired, he writes in his weather-tight office overlooking Old Sitka Rocks.
Read an Excerpt
I knew there was no escape from what was coming. A storm blowing up from the North Pacific, off Vancouver Island, would soon soak all of southeastern Alaska in a hard-driven rain. I wanted to think of a family somewhere far from here. They would be sitting down to a breakfast of scrambled eggs flecked with pepper and ripe berries served with cream. Sitting in a sunlit kitchen set back from the beach, they’d smell a warm ocean and the fresh coffee. A small girl would be itching to gulp her juice and run out to play, pestering her father by banging her knees under the table until he, in his kindness, released her into the sunshine. But that was a long way from this cement gray morning, waiting for a young woman’s body to rise from the water under Creek Street.
Creek Street is a row of wood frame houses built on pilings over an estuary. Late in the year the salmon run up the creek to spawn by the thousands. A hundred years ago the street was Ketchikan’s red-light district, where miners, sailors, and the curious were offered all manner of sport: booze from Canada, opium courtesy of the Chinese cannery workers, and whores who were mostly women from Scandinavian or Eastern European countries, occasionally a Negress. People say that every third week you could find a man’s body floating with the tide out to the bay. It was lucky for everyone that the police didn’t ask many questions. During the red-light era, it was said to be the only body of water where men and salmon went upstream to do the same thing.
The houses are old and weathered and the wooden siding seems damp even if it hasn’t rained in days. A young man was watching from a third story window. He probably had his wrestling letter jacket in his closet. He was naked to the waist standing by the window ledge, rubbing his eyes and waking up to go to the swing shift where he’d worked for fifteen years.
Hannah and I were watching the bubbles of the Alaska State Trooper Tactical Dive Team, next to the pilings of a boarding house where two weeks earlier they had found an empty pocketbook on the deck outside room 23. They were looking for my client, Louise Root.
The water was chocolate brown from the rain, and the salmon were flashing like slices of silver near the surface. Occasionally one would flop up, slap the surface, and then disappear into the murk. Louise Root would never finish paying me, but I guess I didn’t begrudge her that, since it appeared that within the first days after she hired me she had taken up residence underwater.
We had lost daylight-saving time and the days were short enough so everything seemed to happen in a twilight gloom. Or at least that was my mood of the season. I was waiting for the body to rise beneath the pier. The salmon were swimming upstream near the pilings and the woman who used to love me was standing nearby crying like a child lost in the woods. I had eaten breakfast but I was still hungry.
Hannah’s crying was snotty and hiccuping, but she bit down hard on her lip. Her eyes had a distant, wild look of anger.
“I sent her for help, Cecil. For Christ’s sake, I sent her to you for help.”
I couldn’t think of anything. My mind was a dirty sponge wrung out tight, the last of the smelly water dripping out.
They brought up her body tied by a loop around her shoulders. She was naked, and her skin was smooth and shiny white, like a marble statue being pulled from the mud. Her brown hair dangled in spiky wet curls around her brow like a young maiden’s garland. She had been weighted down with scrap iron laced into a piece of trawl net and tied to the wrists. Her throat had been cut deeply so that the trachea flopped out like a rubbery white radiator hose.
Hannah jerked away from me and away from the body being pulled from the water. She had her elbows cupped in her hands and she was looking angrily out at the harbor. The halyards on the sailboats were clicking against the hollow aluminum masts. One late-season cruise ship stood at the dock where in busier summer months the tourists come off to buy film or popcorn or fudge or totem poles made in Taiwan, or soapstone whales made in prison. The creek was sucking out to the inlet.
“What do you ever do, Cecil? She needed your help. Do you ever get anywhere in time?”
She was right. I’m a defense investigator. I’m hired by people in jail to help their lawyers beat back the prosecution. No one really hires me to find the truth. They hire me to imagine their innocence, then go out to the world and try to bring it to life. It happens often enough to make it worth doing but in the end I’m a storyteller with no authority, no badge, and no flashing blue lights.
“Another satisfied customer, Younger?”
George Doggy stood on the other side of me at the rail, looking down into the water. He was wearing a warm-up jacket from the Seattle Mariners open to the waist, except oddly, the top button. He had his trooper’s shield stuck in his shirt pocket and this kept his coat cocked out at an odd rake.
“Satisfied,” I said, and let it dangle while I flicked a piece of cinnamon roll off my collar and down to the water. A salmon flopped languidly onto the surface and away. The salmon wouldn’t bite at bait anymore. They were single-minded on their way to the gravel beds upstream where they would take care of their reproductive mandate and die.
A small tourist lady in a plastic raincoat stood undaunted next to the barrier tape and took a picture. Then she looked up sadly at Doggy.
“I hope you get whoever it is, Officer. Imagine doing such a thing to an innocent girl.”
Doggy kept looking down at the water and grimaced like someone who was reaching for a particularly hard spot to scratch. He turned toward me and, resting his elbow on the rail, whispered, “Innocent,” and smiled. Then he started yelling at a cop who was having trouble with the casing on his underwater camera.
The young cops were wearing black jumpsuits and baseball caps and were running around communicating in snappy affirmative directives: “Isolate search area.” And “That’s a go.” Gear was everywhere: cameras, video players, radios, lab kits, diving tanks, and even a two-man sub. Everything, except the sub, had been in expensive cases that were stacked neatly like a kid’s blocks on the corner of the boardwalk. These were the best toys bought with Alaska law enforcement’s oil money. The whole scene was making Doggy a little sad, like a bad, small-town parade where there are more guns than band instruments.
Of course it was big oil that paid for almost everything in Alaska; nothing had changed that over the years. When the Exxon Valdez went aground on Bligh Reef in March of 1989 there were people who said something was broken in the north that could never be put back together. Of course, some said the oil would just sink into the ground where it came from but the others believed that if you dug a hole deep enough and waited . . . eventually the black stuff would begin to rise.
“Christ, Younger, I hate to think it, but maybe my wife is right.”
“About giving this up. It’s just not as much fun anymore. I even find myself telling war stories to these kids. She says I’m getting to be a grouch and a bore.”
“This is boring?”
“She thinks so. Garage sales—that’s what she’s into. Garage sales and banana giveaways at the market. She called me last night to say that she’d found a set of cast-iron owls for the fireplace. She was excited.”
He stopped talking as the hoist paused and Louise Root’s body swung in the air above the rubber sheet of the coroner’s area. Her head hung straight down over the incision across her throat and her arms dangled loosely at her sides. The motor of the hoist throbbed briefly to build power. They lowered Louise slowly, and the young men in jumpsuits reached their gloved hands up to ease her onto the dark green blanket. Gently, almost reverently, they laid her down, and her colorlessness glowed as pale as the sun on a foggy day. They stood silently for a moment like children with their heads down being told their parents were going to die someday, shifting from foot to foot, waiting for the inevitable joke that would bring them back to their work.
“I hope she paid in cash, Younger.”
“No. No, she paid by check,” I said, absently, not thinking of where I was or that I was involved in a joke.
Everyone laughed too loudly, and the youngest of the cops almost swaggered in place, knowing, once again, that they were on the inside of the joke, and safe.
I think George Doggy’s job description read “Special Assistant to the Commissioner” because he wasn’t a fully commissioned trooper anymore. He was supposed to be retired. He had given his service to the territory and then to the state. But they kept him on because they hadn’t found a way to input into a computer all of the dirt this guy had swept up over the years. There have only been six governors of the state and all of them had kept him close. When they wanted to be briefed without having to read all of the bureaucratic butt-covering, they still sent for Doggy. I had known him most of my life. My father had been the presiding judge in Juneau for many of the years Doggy had been stationed there. They had been hunting partners. After the judge’s death, Doggy made frequent trips to Juneau to help my mother with house chores. She preferred having him fly over and never thought for an instant that I could have managed.
He turned and looked at me, then led me away by the elbow. “Well, that’s about it for you, Cecil. I wouldn’t worry about it anymore.”
By now the cops were snapping photographs and the dive team had set up a grid on the bottom to search for other physical evidence. There wasn’t much hope because of the tidal action and the flow of the river, but still they followed the procedures if for nothing else than to be able to shut up some smart-assed defense attorney years in the future.
Doggy turned and looked back at the scene and it was clear he was involved in some way and wanted to talk and get rid of me at the same time. Hannah stood off to the side looking down blankly into the water, watching the salmon struggle against the current.
“The thing that bugs me most about these kids, Younger”—he stood close to me alongside the rail and spoke almost conspiratorially—”is that they’re so damn . . . professional.”
He let that hang. Doggy had been born well before Elvis Presley and before young men were under the injunction to invent themselves. He was part of the old Alaska and he accepted who he was as easily as he accepted the climate. Yet he had a hard time with me, whom he thought of as some exotic creation: the ne’er-do-well son of the famous judge, who lived with an autistic man and ran a private investigator’s service in a town with no business. Eye contact with someone like me was hard enough. Asking a favor was pushing him to the edge of some kind of seizure.
“You need to stay clear of this, Cecil,” he muttered.