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Copyright 2008 by Stan Jones
One day, as our ship
rounded the top of the great circle, I
noticed a string of strange bare mountains
rising out of the sea along the northern
horizon. They resembled heaps of
smoking slag; the sun, striking their sides,
gave them a greenish cast like verdigris on
copper. I asked a fellow passenger
what they were. 'Illusions,' I thought
he said, but now I realize he said they were
“Beautiful, wasn’t she?”
Nathan Active studied the mural-sized photograph on the wall outside the principal’s office at Chukchi High School. A girl, half Eskimo and half white, stood on a bluff overlooking the lagoon behind Chukchi on a summer day. She held a bouquet of roses and wore an evening gown, a tiara, and a sash that said “Miss North World." A small brass plate underneath read "Grace Sikingik Palmer."
“She was beautiful from the day she was born.” Jason Palmer was in his early fifties, Active guessed. Tall, swept-back silver hair, jeans, hands pushed into the hip pockets. A good-looking face, with a slightly fox-like cast to the eyes and the bridge of the nose. “That’s why I named her Grace. But I doubt she looks like that now."
Active pulled a notebook from his pocket. “How long since you’ve heard from her?”
“It'll be ten years this Christmas," Palmer said. "She started at the university in Anchorage the fall after this picture was made, came home for Christmas and we never saw her again."
“She didn’t call? Or write? How about her mother? Did anybody else in the family hear from her?”
“No, but my son Roy crossed her trail when he was in Anchorage for a basketball tournament three years ago this past winter. She was hanging around that bar down there. The Junction.”
Active grimaced. “Whew."
“You know the Junction."
“Everybody in Anchorage knows the Junction, sir. It’s a behavior sink.”
“Behavior sink. It means . . . ah, never mind. It’s social worker talk for hell on earth.” He turned back to the picture. “Did Roy just hear about this or did he actually see it with his own eyes?"
Palmer nodded. “He saw it, all right. She . . .. She . . ..”
His voice broke and he turned away. He pulled a handkerchief from a hip pocket and blew his nose. He walked across the hall to a fountain, bent and drank, then crossed back again.
"She was coming out of the Junction and she was drunh-hunh-hunk - - " Palmer pulled out the handkerchief and turned away once more, his shoulders shaking.
The misery here was too deep to touch with words. Active waited silently, studying the girl in the black-and-white mural.
The principal of Chukchi High School was right. His daughter was, or had been, a looker. A fine straight nose, high cheekbones, dark almond eyes with a slight tilt and an odd silver gleam at the corners, full lips. Long dark hair and clear dark skin aglow in the summer sun of the photograph. She had inherited some of her father’s looks, especially around the eyes.
Finally the sobs stopped, and Palmer blew his nose again. His face took on an expression of stony resolve and he spoke in a monotone, like the robot voice on an answering machine.
"Roy saw her coming out of the Junction drunk. She was with two men, Roy thought they were soldiers from their haircuts. They were holding her up between them. A black one and a white one."
Palmer paused, pressed his lips together and swallowed twice, blinking rapidly. Active wanted to say something, but sensed that a word would bring on another collapse. He nodded encouragingly.
"Roy - - did I tell you Roy is my son?"
Active nodded again.
"Roy tried to get her to come with him. He said, 'Come home, Sikingik.' You know what that means, Nathan?"
" 'Sun,' I think?"
"That's right, 'Sun.' She was grace and sunlight. Like a gift from God." Palmer paused and pressed his lips together again for a moment. "Anyway, Roy says 'Come home, Sikingik.' And Grace just says . . . it's hard for me to use words like this, I'm an educator. And she's my daughter. You understand?"
"She says, 'Fuck you, Roy.' And the white soldier says, 'What did you call her, there, Nanook?' "
" 'Sikingik,' Roy says. 'That's her Eskimo name.' "
" 'She told us her name was Amazing Grace,' the black one says. 'And now she's gonna amaze us.' After that, they put her in a cab and drove off. Roy saw some Eskimos hanging around the bar, so he talked to them a little. They said she was just living on, what do they call it? Four Street?”
Active nodded. "Technically, I think it means the bars along Fourth Avenue. But really it just means you’re homeless in Anchorage."
Now Palmer nodded. "Well, they said she was living on Four Street and . . . doing whatever she had to for drinks."
Just then a buzzer sounded in the quiet, empty hall. Classroom doors banged open all around and a flood of students surged out, mostly Inupiat but with an occasional white or Korean face mixed in. They stared curiously at their principal standing in the hallway with a Trooper. Palmer took the opportunity to use his handkerchief again, and Active resumed his study of the picture of Grace Palmer.
There was a kind of angry remoteness about the eyes and the lips. Enough steel there, he would have thought, to save her from whatever it was about Four Street that sucked down so many village girls.
He shook his head and wondered how she would look today. Like Palmer had said, probably not much like the picture taken on the bluff ten years ago. He imagined the flawless skin coarsened by drink and weather. Perhaps it would be pebbled with the acne that seemed to come with life in the bars and shelters and Visqueen camps where the street people of Anchorage made their homes. He pictured a couple of teeth missing and a brush-stroke of dried blood below one nostril.
As suddenly as it had come, the tide of students ebbed and the hallway was quiet again. Active turned back to the principal. "Why did you wait so long?"
"It's hard to admit your child has rejected you." Palmer looked at the mural. "You keep hoping she'll turn up, call, something. If you talk to the authorities, it seems like you're giving up, making it official that she's gone."
Palmer cleared his throat and put the handkerchief back in his pocket. "I did try once before, though. My wife asked me to go look after Roy saw her at the Junction. You know the Bible, Nathan?"
Active shook his head. "Not much."
"Me either. But my wife does. 'My daughter, shall I not seek rest for thee, that it may be well with thee?' That's what Ida said. She told me it came from the Book of Ruth." He paused, a distant look in his eyes. "But in the end I couldn't go. I couldn't face . . . I couldn't face it."
"And now? Have you heard something?"
"No, it's my wife again. She's got liver cancer from what they call Silent Hepatitis. She had to have a lot of blood when Roy was born and I guess she got it from the transfusion. " He turned from the mural and faced Active. "Anyway, she wants to say good-bye to her daughter. I don’t see much hope of finding Grace after all this time, but you know how a woman is, a mother. She wanted me to ask you to go look.”
Active frowned. “Your wife knows me? I don’t think we’ve ever met.”
“All the Eskimos know you, Nathan. The Chukchi boy that got adopted out as a baby and came back as a Trooper? You bet. Ida said, ‘You ask that Eskimo Trooper, he’ll do it.’ ”
Active spoke as gently as he knew how. "I'm sorry to have to ask this in your time of trouble, but are you sure she's still alive? Ten years is a long time, especially on Four Street, and nobody’s seen her in three years."
Palmer flinched and gazed at the mural. "I tried to talk to Ida about that but, well, she's a mother."
"I can file a missing person report with the city police in Anchorage." Active wondered if Palmer knew how little effort the report would generate. Homeless Natives drifted on and off the city's streets like the shadows of passing clouds. They went back to their villages for a while, they got temporary jobs out of town, they moved in with boyfriends or girlfriends. Generally, the overworked city cops took an interest only when one of them turned up beaten to death in an alley, drowned in Ship Creek, or frozen solid under a bridge. "Maybe the cops down there can visit some of the shelters, hit some of the bars, that kind of thing."
"How hard will they work it? Ida needs some kind of hope to cling to." Palmer looked more in control of himself now. Perhaps it was because they were easing away from the womanish stuff of emotion, getting back into the man's world of practical action, talking about what to do.
Active sighed. "They won't work it very hard, I'm afraid. Unless they have reason to think something's happened to her."
"Unless something's happened to her! My Lord, she was sleeping with soldiers and - - " Palmer stopped and shook his head. "But you can't go, Nathan? Ida made me promise to ask.”
“Tell your wife I’m sorry, but the Troopers won't pay for travel on a missing person report like this."
Palmer turned back to the mural and studied it silently. Then he sighed. “I told her it would probably be that way. At least we tried.”
"Does Ida have any other family with her?”
“We're trying to find the money to have Cowboy Decker bring her sister Aggie down from Isignaq in a few days. That’ll help some, I guess.”
“I can't go, but I'll see what I can do. I have a buddy on the city force down there." Active motioned at the mural behind him. "Do you have a normal-size picture of her? I'll send it down with the report."
Palmer reached into his windbreaker and pulled out a tattered photo-finisher's envelope with a blue rubber band around it.
"Ida found this around the house somewhere.” Palmer handed him the envelope. "I don't know what's in there, I just couldn't look. I probably should have this mural taken off our wall here, but . . .”
Active looked at it once more. "But you can't quite give up on her."
Palmer shook his head.
Do I have to read the series in publication order?
At this point, that question may be on your mind. Well, I'm happy to report that, no, you do not have to read the series in publication order to make sense of each individual book. You can start wherever you like!
Each Nathan Active novel is a fascinating self-contained mystery with enough background on the colorful characters of Chukchi and the exotic Arctic setting to be read without reference to its predecessors. So pick a title and enjoy!