from the tenth Kate Shugak novel

ONE

Niniltna, June 25

“Lots of spirits all over, this year,”
They whisper.
    —A Quick Brush of Wings, Mary TallMountain

They would argue later about when it all began, perhaps with the death in July, or maybe the meeting in Washington, D.C. the month before, or even with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but as far as First Sergeant Jim Chopin was concerned it began that day in late June when he flew his Bell Jet Ranger from the regional post in Tok to the Bush village of Niniltna on the Kanuyaq River, and drove the twenty-five miles of rough gravel road through a green and fecund Park to Kate Shugak’s homestead.

“She’s not there,” Bobby had said when the trooper asked for the loan of Bobby’s pickup.

His wife Dinah, a worried look on her face and baby Katya on her hip, added, “We haven’t seen her since before Thanksgiving, Jim.  She’s just vanished.”

“Can I borrow the truck or not?” Jim said.

“Goddamn it,” Bobby roared, “I said she ain’t there!”  He rolled his chair forward so that he could glare straight up into the trooper’s face.  “We drove out three weeks ago.  The Ford’s parked in front of the garage, the snow machine’s parked in the garage, and the cabin’s empty except for some canned food and a lot of dust.  She ain’t there, and she ain’t been there.”

“Where is she, Jim?” Dinah said.  “Have you heard something?  Is that why you want to go out there?  Billy’s really worried.  He hasn’t seen her since the funeral.”

“She was at the funeral?” Jim said, startled.  “I didn’t see her.”

“I didn’t either,” Bobby said, making it sound like an accusation.

“She was standing in the back,” Dinah said.  “I only caught a glimpse of her.  She left right after, before everybody started telling Jack stories.”

“Goddamn it!”  This time the tops of the trees seemed to sway in response to Bobby’s roar.  His black face was made blacker with rage, made all the more furious by a dark fear no less tangible for remaining unspoken.  “I will kill her when we catch up with her, I swear I will kill the bitch!”

Katya, used to Daddy’s decibel level, was so upset she burped, loudly.  Dinah, looking at the trooper, said, “Why are you looking for her, Jim?  Is it something to do with the case?”

He shook his head.  “No.  The suits are fighting for extradition to Germany, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to fly.  Their own country doesn’t seem much interested in getting them back.  Big surprise.”  

He pulled the gimmee cap from his head and ran a hand through a thick pelt of hair.  He’d recently abandoned the more formal mountie-type hat for the baseball-style hat with the trooper insignia above the bill.  The mountie hat, especially the way Chopper Jim wore it, was a first class babe magnet, which had been its chief attraction to him when he opted for it at the beginning of his service.  He had suffered a great deal of joshing at the switch over the last six months.  All he would say in response was that wearing the smaller hat made it easier to get in and out of aircraft.  The uniform, his size and a look in his eye that dared comment kept people from remarking that in fourteen years of wear his mountie hat hadn’t kept him from flying before, at least to his face.

They were standing on the porch that ran the width of Bobby’s A-frame.  From there the ground gradually sloped down to Squaw Candy Creek, the southern border of the one hundred and sixty acres Bobby had homesteaded in the mid-seventies, when he had come back from Vietnam minus both legs from the knee down and decided to abandon his home state of Tennessee for the last frontier of the Alaskan Bush.  On the eastern horizon, the blue-white spurs of the Quilak Mountains scored the sky, Angak or Big Bump the biggest spur of all.

Half an acre of cleared land sprouted leaf lettuce and broccoli and arugula and radishes and cauliflower and carrots and sugar snap peas.  Tomatoes plants had grown to the roof of the greenhouse, so that it looked like a jungle in a box.  A garage stood open, revealing a small tractor parked inside, the snow-clearing blade it donned in winter leaning up against one wall.  A new green pickup was parked next to it, and the outline of a snow machine could be seen beyond them.  The shop was between garage and house, and it too stood open, displaying a U-shaped bench just the right height for someone in a wheelchair.  A circular saw, a sander and a router had been built into the bench; from pegboards on the walls hung every imaginable tool, each handle worn smooth from years of use.

Not for the first time, Jim wondered where Bobby Clark had acquired the money to finance his homestead.  Not for the first time, he decided to let it go.  “So can I borrow your truck or what?” he said.

Bobby let loose with a string of imaginative curses that Jim had to admire for their almost Elizabethan flavor, graphic detail and physical impossibility.  He waited, maintaining his placid facade with some effort.

  Looking for a fight and not getting one, Bobby growled out one last ripe and frustrated oath and wheeled into the A-frame, re-emerging almost immediately with the keys to the truck clutched in one fist.  He hurled them at Jim.  “Take the goddamn thing!”

Jim took a quick step back and stretched up a hand and the keys smacked into his palm like he was catching a fly ball.  He caught his balance just before he fell off the edge of the porch and said, “Thanks, Bobby.  I’d thought I’d drive out to the Roadhouse after, talk to Bernie.  That okay?”

“I don’t care if you drive it into the goddamn river!”

“I do,” Dinah said, “we’re almost out of diapers.”

“Again?  Jesus god, that kid produces more shit than a herd of moose!”

Katya gave Daddy a blinding smile and launched herself from her mother’s arms into her father’s.  Dinah gasped and Jim clutched, but Bobby caught the one-man Flying Clark Troupe solidly in both hands and arranged her on his lap, scolding all the while.  “Christ, kid, you trying to give your old man a heart attack?  Don’t try that trick again without a parachute.”

She reached up and punched him in the nose.  Bobby, his worry for Kate in temporary abeyance, was still laughing when Jim climbed into the truck and drove off.

Dinah’s last words, delivered in a low voice beneath the ring of her husband’s laughter, echoed in his ears.  “Find her, Jim.  Do whatever you have to do, but find her and bring her home.”


Fun fact: Almost all the shit I’ve ever gotten from fans has concerned the death of [spoiler] in the previous book, Hunter’s Moon. I reply merely that death is the Great Leveler for all of us and how we deal with it is the truest test of our character. So it is here with Kate.


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the 23rd Kate Shugak novel
coming April 11, 2023
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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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