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Copyright 2016 by Stan Jones
Tuesday, April 15
“You see, Chief?” Alan Long pointed at the corpse on the snow. “What I said on the radio? He was lying right there when he got hit. He must have been passed out, all right.”
Nathan Active continued his study of the dead man without comment. The wind blasted snow past them and a Cessna 207 labored past on climb-out from the Chukchi airport a half-mile west.
The victim sprawled face-down on the snow a couple of yards off the trail that ran east from Chukchi to the villages up the Isignaq River. He was bundled in well used but serviceable winter gear, right down to the stained legs of his black snowgo suit—probably from kneeling in blood and guts to cut up game—and a patch of duct tape on the right shoulder of his parka. From a rip in the collar, a tuft of goose down was working its way out. He was tall for an Inupiaq—taller than Long, about the same height as Active. What little of his hair could be seen was jet black, no trace of gray.
Active crouched beside the victim’s head, which had rolled to one side. Judging from his injuries, a snowmobile had hit him from behind and to the left. The cleated drive track had evidently run up his legs and back, then torn through the neoprene face mask he had worn against the wind. The cleats had peeled the skin off the left side of his head from crown to jaw, leaving exposed flesh like raw hamburger. Bone glinted white in spots. A patch of scalp was gone above the left ear. Through the gap bulged a fold of reddish-gray pulp that Active took to be brain matter. The rest of his head was still covered by the mask.
Active stood and looked down the trail toward the village in the morning light. “I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think he was passed out when he got hit.”
“Ah?” Long came closer.
“Smell any booze on him? See any bottles around?” Active pointed at the snow nearby. "Or snowgo tracks leading up to him? I think he was on the trail when he was hit and the impact knocked him over here. That means he was on his feet."
Long sniffed the air, put his head closer to the victim and sniffed again, then squinted the Inupiaq no. “What difference is it? He’s walking along the trail sober and a snowgo knocks him over here. Maybe the guy on the snowgo was drunk, then.”
Active nodded. “Probably. What do you make of those?" He pointed at a set of snowgo tracks that passed within a few feet of the victim.
Long took a look. "Maybe there was two of them?"
"Yeah, or only one and he came back to check."
"And didn't even help him. Arii, some people." Long squinted again, this time in dismay.
Active studied the tundra around them. This close to town, snowgo tracks laced and crisscrossed the main trail in a tangle of loops and whorls and side trails. "Just get pictures of the body and those tracks and everything around here, OK?”
Long lifted his eyebrows in the Eskimo ‘yes,’ pulled a Nikon from the folds of his parka and went to work.
“You recognize him?” Active asked.
Long squinted the no. “His face is too chewed up, the part you can see, anyway.”
The near-total absence of blood said the victim hadn’t lived long after he was hit, but Active had checked for a pulse anyway. As Long had reported by radio, there was no sign of life.
From the airport came a muted roar as a Boeing 737 taxied out from the Alaska Airlines terminal. Active wondered if the crew or passengers would spot the two cops and the corpse on the tundra.
“He’s cooled off some and there’s a little snow blown over him,” Active said. “But not much snow and he’s not frozen yet, so—"
“So he probably wasn’t here all night?”
“Probably not,” Active said. “You check for ID?”
“You said not to touch him if he was already dead.”
Active grunted approval. He thought of going through the corpse’s pockets but decided against it. Best to disturb nothing until Long finished shooting. He stepped back a few paces to think.
The dead man had been discovered by a family from the village of Ebrulik on their way to Chukchi on snowgos, dog sleds hitched behind for passengers and cargo. Trimble Sundown, the patriarch of the clan, had pulled off the trail to relieve himself on the tundra, only to stumble upon the corpse.
Trimble had checked for signs of life, found none, and then, having neither cell phone nor radio in his gear, had cranked up his Arctic Cat, resumed the journey with his family, and reported the find via a call from his mother’s house in Chukchi.
Exactly what had happened next was a puzzle to be sorted out later. The report that had reached Active was of a drunk passed out on the Isignaq trail east of the airport. He had dispatched Long by snowgo with an EMT kit and a couple of sleeping bags in a tub-like ahkio cargo sled to retrieve the sleeper. Active conjectured that the dispatcher at public safety—white, like most of the force—had misunderstood Trimble’s village English. In any event, Long had reached the scene, radioed back to say they in fact had what looked like a fatal hit-and-run, and Active had mounted his own department Yamaha and headed out.
Long finished shooting, came to Active’s side, and handed him the Nikon. Active surfed through the pictures on the display, nodded, and passed the camera back. The roar from the airport built as the Alaska 737 started its takeoff roll at the west end of Chukchi’s main runway.
“What was he doing out here?” Active said. “No snowgo, nobody with him. Who walks this far by himself that early in the morning? Especially sober.”
“Good question, Chief.”
“You don’t have to call me ‘Chief.’ It’s understood.”
“‘Nathan’ would be better.”
Long squinted another ‘no.’ “Arii, I dunno.”
“All right, call me ‘boss.’ Unless we’re arresting somebody or questioning them. Then you can call me ‘Chief.’ How’s that?”
Long raised his eyebrows.
“You talk to Trimble yet?”
Long nodded. “I called him at his mom’s house.”
“And he didn’t see any snowgos around when he made his relief stop? Didn't meet any back up the trail?”
Long squinted no.
The Alaska jet was close now, almost overhead. At first they couldn’t see it, because of the blowing snow picked up from the surface. But the layer was shallow and the sky above was a blue bowl with a white rim. Thunder rumbled in Active’s chest. Long looked up as the 737 became visible above them. The rumble started to fade as the jet passed over the crosses of the village’s ridge-top cemetery and vanished into the haze.
“That’s her plane, ah?”
Active looked up, too. “Yes, and thank God for it. Imagine having that woman in our hair while we try to sort this out.”
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!