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Shaman Pass
Copyright 2003 by Stan Jones

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In the olden days, the Inuit slew those who killed their kinsmen.  One vengeance followed another like links in a chain.
-- Nuligak, in "I, Nuligak"

Beware the fury of the patient man. -- John Dryden

Chapter One

"Should I take it out?"

The paramedic from the Chukchi Public Safety Department dropped to her knees beside the mortal remains of Victor Solomon, then looked up at Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active and repeated the question with her eyes.

Active snapped the cap into place over the lens of his Nikon, tucked the camera inside his parka, closed the zipper, put his mittens on, and considered the paramedic's question as he gazed around Victor Solomon's sheefish camp on the ice of Chukchi Bay. Active hated moments like this even more than most moments at a death scene. Instinct told him the proceedings ought to be as solemn as the event itself, the questions as profound as the fact of a human soul moving on to the hereafter, if there was one.

Instead, it always came down to this kind of niggling decision: Should the shaft protruding approximately four feet from Victor Solomon's chest be left in place? That way, the pathologist who would do the autopsy could remove it himself, noting whatever needed to be noted about its relationship to the wound and Victor's death.

Or should it be removed to facilitate the body's transportation by snowmachine and akhio from Victor's sheefishing camp across eight miles of sea ice to the village of Chukchi? Active turned and looked. The town was just discernible through the milky air as a line of dark rectangles on the horizon.

Vera Jackson, the paramedic, pointed at the fiberglass akhio hitched to the back of her snowmachine, a blue and black Arctic Cat. "He'll get a lot of bouncing around on that. It might make the wound bigger. Or the harpoon might fall out and get lost." The wind whipped her hair, raven-black with streaks of ice gray, into her bright, dark eyes. She blinked and tucked the hair into her parka hood.

Active turned back to the corpse on the ice and studied the harpoon shaft. The upper section was of dark, weathered wood, very old from the look of it. The wind had dusted it with snow since Victor's killing an undetermined number of hours earlier, but it was still obvious the wood had been worked to make the shaft round and smooth.

The lower section was ivory, lashed to the wood above it with some kind of tough-looking handmade thong - rawhide or sinew, probably. The ivory section disappeared into Victor's chest just below the breastbone.

Active stamped his Sorels on the snow-covered ice, pounded his mittened hands together and turned his back to the bone-saw wind rolling in from the west. Why would anyone kill an old man like Victor Solomon, and why with an old harpoon, if that's what it was? Why not something quick and sure, like a gun?

And why not on a warmer day?

"Maybe we could take it apart right above the ivory piece there," Active suggested. "Saw through those thongs holding it together?" That, he thought, would preserve the evidence and solve the transportation problem, too. "You bring a saw, Vera?"

The paramedic rose from her kneeling position by Victor and wrinkled her nose in the Inupiat No. "When they said he was just lying by his sheefish hole, I didn't bring anything like that. We only bring the saw if we have to cut them out of a car or airplane or something."

Active looked at the two civilians within earshot and lifted his eyebrows in question. "You guys got a saw?"

One was a Inupiat teenager named Darvin Reed, the sheefisherman who had found Victor dead on the ice and reported it by cellular telephone to the dispatcher at the Chukchi Public Safety Building. Active couldn't help considering the cellphone aspect of the case mildly remarkable. Sure, there was no reason the Arctic or the Inupiat should be any less accessible to the reach of modern technology than anyone else. Or any less susceptible. But still.

The other civilian was Darvin's sheefishing partner, a White kid. His name was Willie Samuels. Active had asked the two to wait and they were watching the proceedings from the seats of their snowmachines. Both shook their heads, No, in answer to Active's question about the saw.

A half-dozen other civilians watched from about 50 yards away. Some had been on the scene when Active and Vera Jackson arrived. The rest had shown up since. Active had taken their names and phone numbers, or house numbers if they didn't have phones, and chased them back once it was established that Darvin and Willie were the actual discoverers of the body.

Active was considering whether to canvas the hangers-on for a saw when Willie pulled out a clasp knife and opened it. "I guess you could try this if you want."

Active looked at the knife. The blade was at least four inches long, much bigger than the Leatherman on his own belt. He looked at Vera.

"I think cutting it with that knife might jostle it around as much as taking him to town like he is. Those thongs look like ugruk hide to me. Real tough." She looked at Victor. "But I could try pulling it out. Real careful and slow. Maybe I could work it loose without messing up the wound too much."

"It's not frozen in?" Active asked.

Vera shook her head. "I don't think so, except a little bit around the hole maybe. He didn't freeze much yet, from having his warm clothes on. This must have happened last night, I guess."

Active considered the pros and cons for a few moments. "Try not to touch the shaft any more than you have to," he said finally. "We still have to go over it for fingerprints."

He wasn't too worried. Considering the temperature was barely above zero now and had been a few degrees lower during the night, it seemed highly unlikely the killer had wielded the harpoon bare-handed. Fingerprints were a long shot.

Vera nodded and knelt again by the corpse. She opened a case she had brought to Victor's side earlier, slipped off her gloves and took out a pair of scissors. Victor's heavy parka had evidently been unzipped when he was impaled by the thrust up into his chest cavity, but Vera had to cut through a down vest, a plaid wool shirt and an undershirt, all soaked with frozen blood, to expose the entry wound.

She laid the scissors aside, put her gloves on, and gripped the shaft with both hands, rocking it gently. "Feels like the head is stuck," she said. "Must have gone through him and got in his rib cage in the back. Or his spine."

She rocked the shaft again, then applied a little twisting motion and that was enough. The shaft popped out of Victor's chest with a wet slurp. Vera rocked back and caught herself, and suddenly they were looking at ten or twelve inches of bloody ivory.

Vera pointed with a surprised expression at the tip, which was not a head at all, but a nicely tapered cylinder, squared off at the end as if to fit in a socket. "I guess the head came off inside him."

Active heard the buzz of an approaching snowmachine and turned, prepared to shoo away another curious civilian. But, no. He recognized the red parka and wide middle-aged shape of Jim Silver, the city police chief of Chukchi.

The chief pulled up, shut off his snowmachine and stepped over to Victor Solomon's corpse. He motioned at the harpoon in Vera's hands. "OK if I take a look?"

Active studied the chief's pockmarked face for a moment. "Sure. But we are outside the city limits."

Silver grinned. "Easy, Nathan, I know it's Trooper jurisdiction, but I got a feeling when I heard about the harpoon."

"Harpoon? How - -"

"There was one taken in the museum burglary," Silver said. "You knew that, right?"

Active stared at the police chief, then at the shaft. "No, I didn't know. I thought all they got was Uncle Frosty."

"Nah, there were some other odds and ends, too, according to the paperwork from the Smithsonian," Silver said. "A mammoth ivory amulet with an owl's face on it, and a harpoon."

"This harpoon?"

Silver shrugged. "It sure looks like the picture the Smithsonian sent. There aren't a lot of harpoons around nowadays, especially with ivory at the business end. Like I said, I got a feeling."

Active nodded Vera, and she handed Silver the shaft. He brushed away the snow and frost at the joint where the ivory and wooden sections were lashed together, and squinted at a little collection of scratch-marks thus exposed. He grunted, and shook his head. "Shit, I was afraid of this. It's Uncle Frosty's harpoon, all right. Fucking Calvin."

Copyright 2003 by Stan Jones

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