Cecil Younger never thought it would come to this: running surveillance on a chicken coop that’s being raided by a fowl thief. But things have not exactly been breaking right lately for the Alaskan PI. The logical thing to do? Take a vacation, of course.
Well, it’s not exactly a vacation. Cecil has been paid to investigate a doctor aboard a cruise ship up the Alaskan coast following some complaints from his patients . . . that is, the patients who are still alive to complain. Worst of all, someone is leaving evidence pointing an accusing finger at Cecil. By the time the S.S. Westward makes landfall, Cecil will be wishing he was back guarding chickens.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was coming down to the last months of the twentieth century and I couldn’t wait for the parties to end, particularly since it didn’t seem I had been invited to any of them.
It had been two months since the shooting and I still hadn’t shaken off my bad mood. Whether I was to blame or not had never really been decided but when I saw my friends downtown in the bookstore or in the coffee shop they would pat the outside of their pockets, then look at their watches and mumble excuses as quickly as they could.
This is only partially to explain why I was crouched in a wet salmonberry bush watching a chicken coop through my foggy binoculars. My feet were wet and my legs were cramping. The rain dribbled down on me like warm beer. I had thought of giving private investigations up before but never with as much seriousness as this.
It was the middle of August and we had had now only three sunny days all summer long. Those days had been emeralds of sparkling green water and blue sky. Gray rock, white snow and the lush blanket of trees running down the steep sided mountains to the tidelands. Those sunny days were actually cruel, because the rest of the summer had been so wet: warm and mild, no dramatic storms, only low clouds closing off the mountains and pebbling the surface of the shallow puddles with rain.
It had been on one of the only clear emerald days that Grant McGowan had taken a gun and held it to his fiancée’s head out on the back deck of his derelict boat moored in Thomsen Harbor. He told the first policeman on scene that he wanted to talk to me.
Grant had been a mill worker before the pulp mill closed down. He had made a decent living working as a shill for the company’s public relations crew after the shutdown. They would trot him out at hearings or in set-up articles about the impact of the mill’s closeout on the community. Grant made a good unemployed blue-collar victim for the congressional committees that were convened to bail out the timber business. Grant was smart and hardworking and he was living in appalling conditions on a forty-foot wooden boat that was sinking, very slowly.
But the truth was Grant never lived any better when he was working. He had always been a drinker and a fuck-up. That was how we had become close.
Grant had a florid imagination that embellished every story with a kind of heartfelt drama. He wanted his tales to be more than barroom talk, more than the drama that fills every heavy-metal rant and cowboy ballad. Grant wanted to be bigger than life, in real life, and as a result he lied about almost everything. It was the world, he claimed, that had kept him from realizing his true potential, the demands of making a shitty living that kept him from following his true nature. And this true nature changed with almost every sitting at the bar.
Once he had grabbed me by the elbow at the bar and blared into my ear: “Canada, Younger! They’ve got working-class poets in Canada!”
“No shit?” I said and kept looking at my wobbly reflection in the bar mirror. “Hell of a health care plan too,” I added.
“Younger . . .” He wheeled around, stepping on the foot of a bald-headed cannery worker with five earrings in one ear. I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. “Younger. God dammit, there’s no reason I can’t be a poet of the working class too.” The person with the earrings limped toward the bathrooms. I strained my neck around to check out which room this creature was headed for.
“Other than the fact that you’re no longer a worker,” I offered.
We laughed and Grant bought a round and we toasted to working poets of Canada.
The police had given me a radio hidden in a flack vest that I wore over an extra-large black raincoat. So as I walked down the dock to where Grant was holding his fiancée at gunpoint I looked like a badly dressed umpire who was hearing voices.
Grant had his arm around Vicky loosely. I would have mistaken it for a casual embrace, until I saw the Ruger Blackhawk .44 with rust blotching the blueing. Grant had to cock his elbow out at an odd angle to get the long barrel to rest on her ear. Vicky’s head was shaking. Her mouse-brown hair hung limply to her shoulders. She had a cigarette in her right hand but I never saw her take a draw on it. The ash fell on the painted deck.
The police had briefed me. They would listen on the radio. They just wanted me to talk. Keep him busy. Don’t argue. Don’t make deals or negotiate. Try and emotionally free up the situation; avoid hard choices. They were getting their people in place. Standing in front of Grant and Vicky I felt stupid in the clothes and the vest. I started to take the flack jacket off and Grant became tense.
“What is this shit?” I asked him. “You want to be in Newsweek or something? This is crazy.”
“I know you’ve got a gun in there, man.” Grant tightened his grip on his own pistol and stood up straighter.
Vicky grimaced, her breath escaped in short whining bursts. She dropped her cigarette.
“Oh for Christ’s sakes, Grant!” I said and slipped back into the vest. “Like I’m going to come down here to kill you? What do I need a fucking gun for?”
“She says she’s leaving me, Younger.”
Vicky shook her head and shoulders but did not speak.
“Well, I can’t see why. I mean, you’re such great company, Grant.” I smiled and tried to step over the gunwale of the boat. Behind me more police cars were rolling up into the parking lot of the Forest Service building. It was about a seventy-five-yard shot. Doable, I thought, but not preferable.
“Let’s get out of here, man,” I said, and my voice cracked. “This is more trouble than either of us need.
Especially on such a beautiful day. I’ll tell them it was a gag. Vicky, I’m sure, will back me up on this. Come on, man—we can work this out and I bet we can watch baseball on TV. What do ya say?”
The radio in the vest squawked. I fished for it and Grant pulled the hammer back on the Blackhawk. Behind me I heard police car doors slam. I heard footsteps on the gravel.
“I’m a fuck-up, Cecil,” Grant said and he was crying.
“I’m not fooling anyone. Vicky’s all that matters.”
“Oh you’re not a fuck-up,” I said. “If you are, what does that make me? I’ve been right there with you and I’m not about to kill anybody.”
“Oh, you got everything, man. You got a rich family. You got a sister and a girlfriend with a good business. I ain’t got shit. All I got is Vicky.” Grant was crying hard now. Snot rolled down his lip into the stubble of his three-day beard.
“Then kill yourself, asshole, and let Vicky go!”
He took a deep breath and the muscles on his arm relaxed. He smiled at me sweetly and, as I think back on it now, with some pity, then lifted the gun to his temple and fired.
Vicky’s hair was covered with bone and brain matter. She held her sparkling red hands out in front of her and started screaming at me: unformed words, curses, hysterical animal sounds. Then I heard the pounding of police boots running from both ends of the dock.
The radio on the vest crackled and I heard the sarcastic voice of a police lieutenant cut through the din.
“Thank you, Sigmund Freud.”
But now I was crouched in the wet salmonberry bushes with a small flashlight in my mouth and fogged-up binoculars in my pocket. The salmonberries sparkled in the rain and lights from the cars on the roadway made thin lines of light breaking across the dark brush like straight pins snapping to a magnet’s attention. A fat drop of water landed on the back of my collar and I hunched my shoulders as it slid down my back.
A lawyer in town had taken pity on me and offered me a job to find out who had been killing her chickens. This was the third night of the surveillance and I was having no success in solving the problem. This was causing me to rethink my career.
The chickens were safe and quiet behind the wire. I turned off the flashlight and squatted on the stump I’d covered with an old boat cushion. On my left, waves broke softly on the black granite beach and on my right, a van with a broken muffler drove past dolloping out the thumping chords of amplified dance music. I thought I recognized a song by Weapons of Choice. I emptied out my sealed jug of tea and stretched. I’d give it another hour.
I walked down the path to the beach and looked out over the bay. Sitka sits on the outer coast of the southern Alaska panhandle. From where I stood I could see three islands in the dark. Their forms were like the profiles of fallen animals. It was late but the horizon still held daylight: broad streaks of silver drawn from black clouds. There was no red, only the even grays of water, stone and unobstructed air over the ocean. I took a deep breath. The wind carried the faint smell of salt water and a hint of the cedar trees on one of those distant islands. Rain and gray light off gray water. In the distance a passenger ship powered off out to the northwest. She was lit up like a birthday cake, moving easily on to her next port. I thought of the passengers curled down in their bunks digesting the last of their surf-and-turf. I thought of having one last champagne and orange juice before falling asleep reading an overlong spy novel I had probably already read before.
I cannot see ghosts. I envy those people who can and I wish I could talk to the dead or at least hear their thoughts. Maybe then I could shake this mood. I don’t know.
I’ve done a little time in jail and an old guy I met there told me the Indians could see more than was in the world but white people cannot see the things that are right in front of their face. That’s the way I had been feeling all summer long. As if there must be something around me. Something important that I just couldn’t see. But of course I’m a white man and that must account for my irritability. An Indian friend of mine said nothing pisses off white men like not being invited to the party. And I guess that was how I felt. All over the world—all over the island, in fact—there were parties going on and I couldn’t get into any of them.
I thought of Jane Marie. She had been living in my house for three years now. In the past she had thrown wonderful parties that were fun and calamitous even if no one got drunk. But after the shooting, understandably, she stopped inviting people over as much. Now she was going out to picnics and potlucks on her own. She always asked me to come along and I think she meant it but I didn’t go.
This summer we did our own chores and read our own books. I was reading books about the early arctic expeditions and Jane Marie was only looking at travel brochures. We had bought an extra reading light for the bed just so we didn’t have to discuss when to turn off the light.
All islanders, no matter what their ethnicity, live with a certain kind of longing. It’s a type of travel lust that is kept in check by fear of the unknown world. Tlingits have it. White people just make an aesthetic out of it. Living on an island is its own excuse to stay home and dream. I have lived here nearly fifteen years. I was born in Juneau, which is a landlocked town on the mainland, and even if it is prone to a kind of small-town megalomania that being the capital city creates, Juneau didn’t really prepare me for life in Sitka. The smaller the city in Alaska, the more tolerance is required. Gossip stings, friends get on your nerves, simple things cost more and everything you hear on the news seems distant and slightly strange, as if the news was being badly translated from another language. Sitka has eight thousand people, hardly a village, and it requires about as much tolerance as I can muster.
If you want to live on an island, you need either a government job or at least a couple of crummy jobs. I was a private investigator, which seemed to me to account for several crummy jobs at once. I had been working three cases lately and none of them was paying much. A woman from the east coast called and wanted me to find her old boyfriend and the father of her ten-year-old daughter. Apparently the boyfriend was exactly ten years behind in his child support payments. I told her I could find him and this was true, because, in fact, I had just had a cup of coffee with him two days before at the airport. He was off to work up on the slope for an outfit that worked with some sort of geological mapping system. I told the old girlfriend this and she thanked me but never sent me the fifty dollars I had suggested as my fee.
I was reviewing the file on a child abuser who was begging his lawyer for post-conviction relief. I made a couple of thousand dollars reading the file and re-interviewing some of the witnesses and the investigating officers. But that was the end of it. The only new trial this guy was ever going to get was in fourteen years after he was released and re-offended.
And then there was this dead chicken case. A handout, I knew, but still a job. In fact my client thought one of her former clients was harassing her by breaking into the chicken coop, taking the chickens, and depositing them around the neighborhood. One morning there had been a dead chicken on her doorstep. The lawyer had brought it in to me to see what sense I could make of it. She flopped it on my desk, a white Cornish Cross with a broken neck. A bird as dead as a chunk of coal, feathers swirled in a confused rumpled pattern. Dead eyes like sequins. I’m not big on the physical evidence of death. Death all looks the same to me but that’s probably because I don’t like looking at it.
Jane Marie has a higher tolerance concerning the subject of death. She lost a brother and a father in her childhood. She knew about spilled blood and mourning. Her mother and her sister both had gone off on the twisted path that grief sometimes presents. The mother down sadness and the sister toward anger. Jane Marie was very brave, which was both lucky and unlucky for me, I guess.
I have reviewed the files of hundreds of murder cases. I’ve been in rooms with blood smeared down the wall and vomit in the corner. I’ve talked to survivors shocked and made stupid with grief, and I never really made any sense of them. In the center of each murder was a dark and sometimes casual craziness. Each death investigation was about extending the curve and getting that last glimpse of the sensible life: imagining the final moments, the last uttered words, the concussion and the salty taste in the mouth.
So I know the details of death but not even the slightest truth of it. I did see my father die of a heart attack on the floor of a casino, but it happened so far away from home that his death is only a weird memory, like a movie I saw once and don’t care to think of again.
Grant’s death was different. It happened in my own hometown, on the sunny dock where I had cleaned fish and drunk a beer at the end of a day out on the water. As I stood on the beach behind the chicken coop I was thinking of Grant but for some reason I thought of something I wanted to tell my father. I wanted to tell him that this wasn’t my life here tangled up like half a mile of snarled fishing line in the trees. That this was just the story of my life. The story I was telling myself, and the story my friends told about me. But my life, my actual life, had to be somewhere else. Surely, my life had to be somewhere else. Maybe with him. I don’t know.
I felt some warm pressure against my knees. I looked down and there was a big goofy-looking dog. He was white and had a slobbery kind of face that seemed to be smiling up at me. He curled into me and then I could see what he was trying to give me. It was a dead chicken in his mouth, as limp as phlegm but still warm. The dog looked proud and kept trying to hand the bird to me.
I let out a long sigh and patted his big blocky head.
“Professor Moriarty, I assume,” I said to no one in particular.