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White Sky, Black Ice
Copyright 1999 By Stan Jones
Watch video of me reading Chapter One!
Ordinarily, Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active didn't get involved with deaths inside the Chukchi city limits. But the city cops were all out and he was flirting with Lucy the dispatcher when the call came in, so he took it.
"You better get over here, Nathan," said Hector Martinez. "Some kid shot himself across from the Dreamland and I want him moved."
"Who is it?"
"Don't matter who," Martinez said. "Just come get him. He's scaring away business." The bar owner hung up.
Active climbed the stairs to his office, took his fur hat and down parka from the hooks by the door, and went out to the eight-year-old trooper Suburban. The west wind that had set in yesterday scraped his face as he unlocked the driver's door and tossed in his briefcase.
A thin gray belt of cloud scrolled overhead, spitting snow at the narrow tongue of beach gravel and tundra that contained Chukchi's square, unpainted wooden houses and its straggling dirt streets. He had arrived at work only an hour before, but already the Suburban's windshield was covered. The temperature was maybe six above, he judged as he brushed off the snow. The warm spell of the past few days was definitely over.
There were many things he had come to detest about Chukchi since the Troopers had posted him there eighteen months before. But it was probably the west wind he detested most.
It was the west wind's toothache-like persistence. God help you if you had to go gloveless in it, changing spark plugs on the Suburban or working an evidence camera. It gnawed at your hands and sprayed grit in your eyes. Inside a house at night you could hear it scratching bushes and weeds against the wall. You could feel it suck warm air out the cracks around the windows and push cold air under the door and through the electric sockets.
Well, he could persist too. Another year or two and he figured he would be promoted out of Chukchi to Alaska State Trooper headquarters in Anchorage. Where his adoptive parents lived and where he had been raised. Where, thank God, the west wind never blew like it did here in Chukchi, the village where he was born.
He pulled out of the parking lot behind the Chukchi Public Safety Building, a three-story stack of fading brown plywood siding and blue aluminum roofing. He drove up Third Street, the only paved road in town, turned right at Lake Street, then drove east a block and stopped across from the Dreamland. The Chukchi police van was already there and two officers were walking toward something in a clump of willows maybe seventy-five yards out onto the tundra. The dispatcher must have reached the city cops by radio or caught one of them at home by phone.
Several Honda four-wheelers were pulled up beside Lake Street too. A gaggle of breakfast drinkers watched the proceedings from the steps of the Dreamland. They were probably the business "scared" away from Martinez' bar.
Active followed the city cops to where the dead man lay on his back near the edge of the Chukchi cemetery. He was young, his black hair was collar-length, and he wore a small mustache. His legs were drifted over with snow but his head and upper body, more sheltered by the willows, were only lightly frosted.
There was a snow-covered rifle across his snow-covered legs and a bullet-sized hole in his throat and a shadowy stain on the snow under his neck. Active was sure that, when they turned him over, they would find a much larger hole where the slug came out.
"Mind if I take a look?" he asked one of the city cops, a white man named Mason.
Mason nodded. "Just don't touch anything till the chief gets here."
Active squatted and studied the rifle through its coating of snow. It looked like an old 30-30 Winchester carbine, good for anything from seal to caribou, even moose. Most people nowadays had newer rifles that shot farther and hit harder, but 30-30s were still common in Chukchi, where nothing was thrown away if it still worked, or might do so again someday.
Active stood up. There were some liquor bottles lying around, mostly plastic "travelers" that could be hauled in a boat, plane or snowmachine without breaking. But Martinez ran a package store next to the Dreamland, so the tundra nearby was always littered with bottles. How many of them had the boy with the hole in his throat emptied in his last hours?
Active turned as footsteps crunched in the snow behind him. Jim Silver, the city police chief, stopped beside Active and studied the corpse.
Silver was a tall, paunchy man with an acne-cratered face. He had been around Chukchi since before Active was born. Active imagined that Silver would still be there, like the west wind, when he, himself, was long gone.
"Another one, huh?"
"Looks like it," Silver said. "Third suicide since the weather turned cold."
"You know him?"
"I think so, but let me check." Silver squatted and patted the boy's coat pockets, then reached into one and pulled out a photo i.d. badge by one corner.
"Yep," he said after a moment's study. "George Clinton, one of Daniel's boys. Looks like he got himself a job at the Gray Wolf mine."
He waved the badge at Active, then tucked it back into the same pocket it had come from. "We'll move him pretty soon, we just need to get some pictures for the coroner. Not that there's much doubt what happened."
"Well, you don't need me. I'm only here because Lucy couldn't find you guys at first." Active started toward the Suburban.
"Actually, there is one thing."
He turned, knowing what was coming. Silver was white, and so were the other city cops on the scene. He, Nathan Active, was Inupiat Eskimo. Like George Clinton.
"You got a minute to go by and break the news to old Daniel?"
"Jim, I speak less Inupiaq than you do. You know that."
"Well, Daniel's English is pretty good."
"How about one of the other guys?" Active jerked a thumb toward the two city cops starting to work over George Clinton's body."
"I need them here for a while yet."
Active shook his head and shrugged. "Where's the house?"
Silver pointed across the tundra to the southeast. "That white one there, by the lagoon."
"You owe me, Jim."
"I owe you," Silver said.
Active walked back to the Suburban and pulled out his keys.
He turned. A scrawny civilian in a Mariners baseball cap and a long, dirty blue parka had detached himself from the gang around the Dreamland steps and was walking toward the Suburban, a can of Olympia in hand.
"Not uptown, Kinnuk. I'm going down toward the airport," Active said.
"Great, me too," Kinnuk Wilson said in his high voice. He climbed into the passenger seat of the Suburban, cradling the beer between his knees.
Kinnuk Wilson was a part-time marijuana dealer who did just enough business to keep himself in beer. The Troopers and the city cops tolerated him for two reasons. One, anybody who could get people to smoke pot rather than guzzle booze was doing everybody a favor, in the eyes of the Chukchi law enforcement establishment. And two, Kinnuk Wilson liked to talk to cops.
The weird thing was, everybody in town knew he talked. But, instead of dropping him through a hole in the sea ice some night, the bootleggers and the rest of Chukchi's riffraff kept talking to Kinnuk and Kinnuk kept passing it along.
Active could never figure it, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? He climbed into the driver's seat.
"You're going to see to old Daniel about George, ah?" Wilson said as Active turned the key.
"Yeah, but you're not."
"No, I'll wait in your truck."
Active headed east on Lake Street, toward the lagoon. They bounced along in silence for a good ten seconds.
"Too bad about George, ah?" Wilson said.
Active said nothing. When Kinnuk Wilson had something to say, silence was the best way to get him to say it.
"It was his turn, though."
"His turn?" Active was immediately irritated with himself for breaking his vow of silence.
"Yeah, from the Clinton curse."
"The Clinton curse?"
"You never hear about it? You mind if I turn up your heater? Alipaa today." Wilson flipped the fan onto high without waiting for an answer. "You didn't know two of Daniel's other boys kill theirself already? Oh, yeah, I forget you was down in Anchorage with your white parents." He tilted the Olympia and swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing in the scrawny neck.
Active reached over and thumped the can. "You know you can't be in here with that."
"It's empty anyway." Wilson rolled down the window and tossed the can onto the tundra.
"What about this curse?"
"Oh, yeah." Wilson rolled the window up again. "It start maybe fifteen years ago. There was this old man, Billy Karl, up on Beach Street. He used to make dogsleds."
Active nodded, turning the Suburban onto Fourth Street. Now they were headed south, parallel to the lagoon. It was freezing up as winter came on, the spot of open water in the middle closing like the pupil of an eye in bright light.
"Billy Karl have this kid named Frank," Wilson said in the stripped-down village English that was starting to sound as familiar to Active as the standard English spoken in Anchorage. Another reason to get out of Chukchi as soon as possible.
"Frank decide he want Daniel Clinton's wife, even though she's a lot older than him," Wilson went on. "She and Frank Karl were cousins or something, and you know them Karls always like to monkey around with their relatives. That's why they're so goofy."
"How do you know this?"
"George tell me about it when we're in fifth grade."
"Then I guess it must be true."
Wilson ignored the sarcasm. "Frank was no good, drinking and fighting all the time, and Annie -- that's Daniel's wife -- go to church a lot. So she won't have nothing to do with him. But Frank think it's because she want Daniel too much, and he start talking around town how Daniel better get out of the way.
"Finally one night, Frank get drunk and go over to Daniel's house with a rifle. He's out front, screaming and crying and shooting up in the air, threatening to come in and get Daniel and Annie and kill them both, or shoot himself. This is before Daniel have a telephone, so there's not much him and Annie can do. They and their kids are trapped in there."
They had reached Daniel Clinton's house now. Active stopped the Suburban in front. But he didn't get out.
Wilson pointed at the weathered plywood storm shed attached to the front of Clinton's house. "Frank go up to Daniel's kunnichuk there and start pounding on the door like hell. But Daniel put a board across it, so Frank can't get in. Then Frank start shooting through the door. Annie and all the kids get down behind some stuff in the back, so he never hit anybody."
Wilson looked from the kunnichuk to Active and back to the kunnichuk again. "But Daniel have all he can take. He put a slug in his shotgun, and he stick the muzzle right up against the kunnichuk door and pull the trigger.
"Well, he make a lucky shot. That slug punch a big hole right through Frank's guts and hit his spine. Frank fall dead right there."
"There." Wilson pointed again at the storm shed. "See them holes in the door of the kunnichuk? They say that's the holes Daniel and Frank make shooting at each other that night. The big one is from when Daniel finally kill Frank."
Active studied the door. The hole looked too big and smooth-edged even for a shotgun slug. But perhaps it would look like that after fifteen years of rain and wind and kids poking sticks through it. "So what happened?"
"The nalaugmiut cops decide it's self-defense, and they let it go," Wilson said. "But the Eskimos know it's not over. For one thing, Frank was the only boy that Billy had. The rest of his kids were all girls. Besides that . . . you know what an angatquq is?"
Active remembered the word from a book his adoptive parents had given him to help him understand his origins. At the time, he had been more interested in Hardy Boys mysteries. "A shaman?"
"Yeah, that's right," Wilson said. "Early days ago, before the missionaries come, the angatquqs run everything. The old-time Eskimos thought they could do magic, and they were scared of them."
"Anyway, Billy Karl was supposed to be from a family of angatquqs, and lotta people always think he's one himself. So everybody wait to see how he will kill Daniel Clinton. They think it will be a real old-time Eskimo blood feud."
Active shifted to look at the holes in the kunnichuk door again, then turned back to Wilson. "But Daniel is still alive."
"That's right, Billy never kill him. One night there's big blizzard, and somebody knock at Daniel's door. When he open it, there's Billy. He look in and he see Annie back in there, and George and the two other boys they have at that time. He stare at each boy in turn."
"`I won't take any revenge on you for what you did,' he tell Daniel. `But you took my sons from me and now your sons will take themselves away from you.' "
Wilson turned toward Active, then swung his gaze around the Suburban like Billy Karl studying Daniel Clinton's cursed sons. Then he looked at Active again.
About fifty percent of what Wilson said was true, usually. But it was braided with the untrue like the strands of a rope. Wilson's tale of curses and blood feuds didn't sound like anything in any of the books Active's adoptive parents had given him, or in the anthropology courses he had taken while studying criminology at the University of Alaska.
"Did you see this with your own eyes?"
"No, but everybody say it," Wilson said. "The oldest boy's about sixteen at the time and sort of friendly with Frank Karl, and he hang himself couple years later. Ever since then, them Clinton boys always kill themselves when they get to be about twenty. So far, the curse get them all. After George, Daniel only have one boy left."
"Billy Karl says a few words and Daniel's boys just start killing themselves?" Active asked. "Come on."
"It make sense if you don't think about it," Wilson said. "If you plant the idea in some dumb Eskimo's mind he's going to kill himself, he probably will."
"Don't say that, Kinnuk." Active said. "The Inupiat aren't dumb."
"Then how come we kill ourself so much?"
Active knew the argument was pointless. Kinnuk had absorbed the white man's contempt for the Inupiat, and it would take more than finger-shaking from a State Trooper to erase it. But he took one more swipe at it. "It's called culture shock."
"I just call it dumb Eskimos." Wilson shrugged. "That's why Daniel and his boys believe what Billy Karl say."
"Your sons will take themselves away from you," Active repeated. Despair blew through Chukchi's streets like the west wind. He wondered if he could endure it long enough to get his transfer to Anchorage.
"Maybe if the first one didn't do it, the others would have a chance," Wilson said. "But them younger boys, seeing their brothers kill theirself, they start to know it's going to happen to them. Them dumb Eskimos feel themselves get smaller and smaller, pretty soon they're gone."
"Sounds like you've been there yourself."
"Sometimes I . . ." Wilson stopped talking and looked at Daniel Clinton's kunnichuk again. "Ah, I just go to that Dreamland and I get feeling good again."
"Don't touch anything," Active said, and climbed down from the Suburban. When he glanced back, Wilson was pulling a fresh Oly from a pocket of his parka.
Active went through the kunnichuk and knocked on the inside door. He looked around while he waited, savoring the sharp, oily smells in the shed. Several parkas hung from nails on the walls, alongside some steel traps, a pair of caribou mukluks and the hides of a marten and two foxes. Two red plastic jugs for snowmachine and boat gas sat on the floor in a corner. In another corner stood three rifles and two shotguns.
Active walked over and inspected them. No 30-30 Winchester carbine.
There was a noise behind the door, and an Inupiaq woman opened it. She was in her early fifties, Active guessed. Her eyes were red and she clutched a soggy ball of Kleenex in one hand.
"Are you Mrs. Clinton?" he asked.
"We already hear about George," she said. "You don't need to come here."
"Well, I just need to ask a few questions for my report."
She let him into one end of a hallway that divided the house in half. At the opposite end was a partly drawn green curtain, and behind it a bathtub and a toilet.
"Daniel is in there." She pointed to a doorway off to the right. Active went in.
Daniel Clinton sat at a Formica-topped dining table with a cup of coffee in front of him. He had a round, mahogany face above a squat, solid-looking body. A small black-and-white television on the table was tuned to the state Bush channel, which was showing a Wheel of Fortune rerun. Clinton paid no attention to the coffee or the television. He was looking out across the lagoon to the white folds of tundra beyond. Unlike his wife, he was dry-eyed.
There was one other person in the room. A thin boy with long black hair, maybe fifteen, lay on a couch reading an Archie comic. If Kinnuk Wilson's story was right, this was Daniel Clinton's last son.
The boy looked up and said, "Don't look at me," as if reading Active's mind.
Daniel Clinton turned and saw Active. "You could go in the other room, Julius," he said. The teenager moved, but not to another room. Active heard the door out of the house slam, then the door of the kunnichuk. Clinton turned off the television.
"Thank you for coming to see us, Mr. Active," Clinton said. "I'm sorry if we bother you."
"I'm sorry for your trouble, Mr. Clinton."
"It's my fault, from something that happen long time ago," Clinton said. "You was gone in Anchorage with your nalaugmiut parents then."
Active wasn't surprised to find out how much Daniel Clinton knew about him. Since his arrival the year before, word had spread rapidly that the Chukchi baby adopted by white schoolteachers had grown up and come back as an Alaska State Trooper. Those who hadn't known his history had quickly dipped it from the river of gossip that coursed constantly through the streets of the village.
"I think I might have heard something about that," Active said, to let Clinton know he didn't need to talk about the curse if he didn't want to.
"Would you like some coffee, Mr. Active?" Clinton said. Obviously Clinton didn't want to talk about it.
Active nodded and, when Clinton had poured him a cup, asked if George had acted different lately.
"No, he seem fine to me. He get a job at that Gray Wolf and he have some money, buy a new snowgo, he seem happy. He say he move out and get his own place pretty soon," Clinton said. "I start to think maybe George will be the one to make it. But I guess not."
The Gray Wolf was a huge copper mine that had opened a few months earlier a hundred miles north of Chukchi on Gray Wolf Creek. A Norwegian mining company named GeoNord ran it, but it was on land owned by Chukchi Region Inc., the Native corporation that all the Inupiat in the area belonged to.
So the Norwegians hired a lot of Inupiat, and the work schedule was tailored to people who liked to hunt and fish: two weeks on, two weeks off, with the company paying for the plane rides back and forth to the Gray Wolf, or giving the equivalent in cash to those who preferred to ride their snowmachines.
"He just came back from the Gray Wolf?"
"Monday, I think. He hang out with his buddies, go down to that GeoNord office for something about his job, go rabbit hunting behind the lagoon, stay over at Emily Hoffman's, just run around. You know how it is with them young guys. I think he was going caribou hunting if that ice on Chukchi Bay ever get good again from this warm spell we had."
"Emily Hoffman?" Active wrote the name in his notebook.
"His girlfriend," Clinton said. "She's pregnant, I guess. I was thinking maybe she'll be his wife pretty soon."
"Do you know who he went to see at GeoNord?"
"He never tell me," Clinton said. "He just say he have to straighten something out about the Gray Wolf. When he come back, he won't talk about it, but he say everything is fine."
"They found a 30-30 rifle with him. Did he have one?"
"I keep one in my kunnichuk," Clinton said. "I could check if it's there."
"No, I looked on the way in," Active said. "It's not."
"He take that old 30-30?" Clinton said desolately in his husky, sibilant voice. "I teach him to shoot with that gun.
He looked out over the lagoon again. "I remember the first time I take him out on the ice for seal. It's spring day, sunny, blue sky, not much wind. We go out maybe fifteen, twenty miles on snowgo, where there's lots of airholes.
"I find pressure ridge by airhole that look like it get used a lot, and I put George up there to wait. He's just little guy, maybe eight or nine, but he lay there in his white parky real quiet for long time, watching that air hole.
"Finally that seal put his head through and I think maybe George will shoot too soon and that seal will fall back through the hole, maybe we lose it. But George don't shoot, he wait. Pretty soon that seal haul out on the ice and take one more look around before he go to sleep and that's when George shoot him. George hit him right in the eye and he don't even flop around, he just drop his head down like he's going to sleep.
"George, he look at me and he say, `I'm a real Eskimo, now, huh, Pop?'"
Clinton stopped talking and picked at the edges of a triangular chip in the Formica. Someone had outlined the hole with a red crayon. "I never think he use that old Winchester for . . . for this."
stopped talking again and Active saw that now
there were tears on his cheeks. Active closed
his notebook and left.
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!