Murder Over Kodiak
Alaska Wilderness Mystery Author
Alaska Masterminds Charter Member
Seagulls cried overhead, and the diesel engines of fishing boats thrummed in the distance. I paced the dock and wondered why the plane was so late. A sharp explosion cracked like a shotgun blast, and I whirled around in search of the source of the noise. My gaze met the watery, black eyes of a twelve-hundred-pound Steller sea lion bobbing ten feet from the end of the dock. The blast had been his exhalation when he’d surfaced, and now, he seemed to be sizing me up as a food source.
I backed toward the center of the dock, holding his gaze. “Go away, big guy. There’s nothing for you here.” My nerves were already taut, and I was in no mood to be chased by a grouchy sea mammal.
He swam closer. “I don’t have fish in my pocket, and I don’t taste good.” I did not need this aggravation. “Go away. Go away!”
He stretched his neck, watched me a moment longer, and must have decided I wasn’t worth the effort. He arched his back and dove. I laughed at myself and my pounding heart. No place was safe; danger lurked everywhere. Even waiting for an airplane was perilous business. I glanced at my watch. I’d been sitting on this dock waiting for the floatplane for an hour, and while the warm afternoon sun felt good, I had work to do.
Only one plane had left the dock in the last hour, and none had arrived. The plane for which I was waiting was, according to my rough estimate, about an hour late. I knew the pilot had several stops to make, any or all of which could have taken longer than planned, but I hadn’t expected to wait over an hour.
I was meeting my young assistant, who was bringing clam and mussel samples that we needed to rush to the lab at the marine center and prepare for protein-separation analysis. We had to deal with the samples immediately, and if the plane didn’t arrive soon, we would have to work the entire night to achieve our task. I glanced at my watch again; thirty seconds had passed. It was now 4:32 and thirty seconds. Where was the plane?
I knew the gurgling in the pit of my stomach wasn’t caused by irritation or impatience. Overdue planes make me nervous. I’d been in a small plane accident two-and-a-half years earlier, and now I stuck to ground transportation whenever possible. The weather on this late June day provided perfect flying conditions, though. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and only a slight breeze ruffled the surface of the channel.
The dispatcher had told me there were sightseers on the plane, so maybe the pilot was showing them bears or goats or whales. Perhaps he’d misjudged the falling tide at one of his stops, and the plane now was stuck on the beach, where it would remain until the next flood tide. I hoped this last imagined scenario wasn’t the case. I wanted to get the samples to the lab as soon as possible. Any delay in handling the organisms could affect the results of the electrophoresis.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the smell of processed fish from the nearby canneries. I licked my lips and tasted salt mingled with seaweed, clams, and mussels. I never grew tired of the sea air. I managed to let my mind drift for a few minutes, but my thoughts soon returned to reality, and I kicked at the dock; something was wrong. From the tingling in my fingers to the dull beginnings of a tension headache, I had a bad feeling.
My unease, in part, was due to guilt. My assistant, Craig, was twenty years old and a college junior. This was the second summer he’d worked for me, and we’d become good friends. He was more mature and better organized than other college helpers I’d had, and I trusted him with important tasks. I should have supervised the collection of these bivalve samples directly, though, because it was important that the quality of the field work be above question.
A lady on the west side of Kodiak Island had died after eating steamed clams, and her reported symptoms were similar to those for paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). If our protein-separation analysis indicated a high level of PSP in the clams Craig collected, it would offer further proof that my analysis was accurate in determining the presence of PSP. This lady was the third person on the island to die this spring after eating bivalves, and we successfully had detected PSP in the source populations of mussels and clams that provided the final meals for the other two victims.
Craig and I had collected those bivalve samples together, and I was confident he knew the correct procedure, but I should have gone with him this time, too. I didn’t mind field work, and I enjoyed camping, but I dreaded the small plane flights that were a necessary part of any field work on this island. Besides, I was busy at the marine center, and Craig was willing, so I’d sent him alone on this mission. Now, as the muscles tightened in my stomach, I wished I had gone and left Craig safely recording data at the lab.
I waited another half-hour and then climbed the steep ramp to the parking lot above the floatplane dock. I took two steps across the gravel toward my Explorer, when the charter plane company’s grey van sped into the lot and skidded to a stop next to the ramp. I turned and jogged toward the van, the fear mounting in my chest.
The driver of the van jumped to the ground, slammed the door, and galloped down the ramp. I sprinted as fast as I could to catch him. He heard my footsteps on the metal ramp and turned to see who was following him. I stopped, bent over, and put my hands on my knees, panting to catch my breath.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
The man, a pilot named Steve Duncan, recognized me, and I saw his face change. The tight wrinkles around his hazel eyes relaxed. He ran his fingers through his short, dark hair. “Oh, nothing. Bill is just a couple minutes late, and I’m going to see if he got stuck. The tides are miserable on that side of the island, and there’s a particularly low one this evening.”
Bill, whose last name I didn’t know, was the pilot of Craig’s flight. I knew this, because when I’d called the dispatcher to inquire about the ETA of Craig’s flight, she had informed me that she only could make a rough guess at the arrival time, because Bill had several pickups to make.
“Couldn’t they just be looking at animals? Your dispatcher told me two of the passengers were flight-seers.”
Steve paused, and I watched the gold flecks in his eyes reflect the sun. “Yeah, that’s probably it, but we can’t get him on the radio, so I think I’ll make sure he didn’t get stuck when he stopped to pick up your guy.”
Although Steve tried to hide it, I heard an urgency in his voice, and I knew he wasn’t telling me everything.
“How far overdue is the flight?”
“Not too long.”
“Come on, tell me the truth. I have a right to know.”
Steve stared at me, debating with himself about how much he should tell me. Finally, he sighed and slapped the steel handrail. “He’s nearly two hours late. We didn’t expect him to be right on schedule, but he doesn’t have enough fuel to fly around this long. Of course, he had to make several stops, but we talked to someone at Uyak Cannery, so we know he picked up Darren Myers there three hours ago. He already had Dick Simms and the two wildlife viewers on board then, so he only had to pick up your guy and fly to town.” Steve shrugged. “That shouldn’t have taken him this long.”
“I’m going with you.”
“I’m going with you to look for the plane.”
“No.” Steve shook his head and held his hands. “That isn’t necessary.”
“Please, I’ll be a nervous wreck waiting here.”
Steve turned. “Fine then, come along.”
I hurried after him, and when I saw he wasn’t going to offer me a helping hand, I jumped onto the float of the teal and blue plane, opened the passenger door, and climbed into the small seat. Steve untied the plane and taxied away from the dock. The Cessna 206 could seat three passengers comfortably, or four small passengers with no gear. I looked behind me. Except for an orange emergency bag and a sleeping bag, the rear of the plane was empty.
Steve was too preoccupied to give me the standard emergency speech. I glanced at him and saw him speaking into the microphone on his headset. I looked up and saw my headset dangling on a hook overhead. I put it on and listened to Steve talk to the tower. He then radioed his office to tell the dispatcher he was departing and to ask if she had heard from Bill.
“No luck. No radio contact,” she replied. Her voice sounded heavy with fear. I glanced at Steve, but he stared straight ahead as he increased the throttle.
The plane glided smoothly across the surface of the calm ocean, and soon we were airborne. I looked below us at the town of Kodiak nestled at the ocean’s edge. Most of the downtown had been wiped out during the tsunami generated by the 1964 earthquake, and the hastily-rebuilt metal structures looked out of place in one of the most beautiful harbors in the world.
Kodiak had been my home for a year and three months, and the more I got to know the island and the people, the more I liked the place. A secretary at the marine center recently told me that she and the other office workers had made a bet that I wouldn’t last six months on what the locals lovingly called “The Rock.”
It was true, this environment was at the opposite end of the spectrum from my last home in Tucson. The climate here was cool and wet, and the nightlife consisted of half a dozen bars and one small movie theater. Kodiak, though, had spirit and spunk. It was an isolated community with soul, and after only a year, I knew I wanted to stay here. The grey, rainy days, the North Pacific storms, and the early summer fog all got me down from time to time, but one sunny day on this emerald island made up for weeks of bad weather.
Here, weather talk was more than idle chitchat. For the inhabitants of a city that boasted one of the world’s most profitable fishing ports, weather was all-important. Winter storms killed, and too many boats disappeared each year in thirty-foot seas. A good weather forecast heralded good fishing, and a bad forecast meant the skipper should seek the safety of a harbor or bay. People who had lived here their entire lives cursed the weather, but I never failed to notice the gleam in an old-timer’s eyes as he spoke about the forecasted one-hundred-knot winds of an approaching storm. I’d known I wasn’t brave before I moved here, but on Kodiak, I was reminded daily of my inferior nerves as I watched courageous fishermen and women leave port in their small vessels to make a living on the high seas.
An eagle flew in front of the plane, and seeing something edible in the ocean beneath him, he angled into a sharp dive.
My self-esteem was at rock bottom now. I never would forgive myself if something bad had happened to Craig. I should have been the one on that plane. I tried to calm my mind. There was no reason to think the worst. Even if the plane had suffered engine failure, it was a floatplane, and would be over or near water the entire trip. The pilot could glide to a safe landing and then row the plane to shore. Only a slight breeze ruffled the ocean beneath us; a landing would be possible on any one of the many bays around the island today.
Small plane accidents, like boats lost at sea, were not uncommon in this area of the world. Kodiak is a mountainous island with steep peaks rising from sea level, punctuated by deep fjord-like bays that carved the shoreline. No place on the thirty-five-hundred square mile island is further than fifteen miles from the ocean. In addition to this unique geography, the Alaska Current, an offshoot of the warm Japanese Kuroshio Current, flows northward near Kodiak, bringing warm water to the frigid Gulf of Alaska and spawning weather conditions that are often violent, change rapidly, and may vary considerably from one area of the island to another. Blue skies can predominate in the city of Kodiak while low-hanging fog fills a bay fifteen miles away, and high winds blow across the south end of the island.
One of the few pieces of advice that my boss at the marine center had given me when I’d accepted the position here was to fly with pilots who had flown around the island for a while and had gained experience with the unique conditions here. I had no idea whether Craig’s pilot, Bill, had been flying here long. Since I hadn’t been flying with him, I hadn’t bothered to check. Of course, the weather was perfect today, so I hadn’t worried about the pilot or the flight. In this weather, there was no way the pilot could lose sight of a mountaintop in the fog or get blown into the side of a mountain because he misjudged a wind current. This was one of those rare bluebird days when weather wasn’t a factor.
I positioned the microphone of the headset near my mouth and spoke into it. “How long has Bill been flying here?”
Steve looked at me. “Seven or eight years. He’s a local boy; he grew up here. He got his pilot’s license as soon as he graduated from high school. He’s young, but he’s a good pilot, and he knows the island.” Steve paused for a moment. “I really think he’s stuck on the beach somewhere. Bill’s one weakness is that he’s too nice and lets people push him around. I’ve flown with Simms a lot, and he’s an asshole. I can imagine him insisting that Bill detour and land somewhere, so he could impress his important bear viewers. Bill would probably do it, even if it was against his better judgment, and now they’re all stuck on the beach.”
I could imagine the same situation. I didn’t know Bill, but I knew Dick Simms, the Kodiak Fish and Wildlife Refuge manager. The man considered the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge that covered two-thirds of the island his own personal playground. The strict refuge rules applied to everyone except him, and I would bet he had been somewhere he shouldn’t have been today. I swore to myself that I would murder the man if he was the cause for our concern.
“Didn’t Bill have a satellite phone? Wouldn’t he call your office if he was stuck?”
“He has a phone with him, but he forgot to bring it into the office to charge it last night, so it’s probably dead.”
“How will you know where to look? If Bill made an unscheduled landing, the plane could be anywhere.”
“True,” Steve said. “First, I’ll fly over the area where your guy was camped. If the plane isn’t there, I’ll fly around until we see something, or until we’re low on fuel.”
“Have you notified the Coast Guard yet?” I asked.
“No. It’s a little premature for that. I’m sure Bill is stuck on the beach, and I don’t want to waste the Coast Guard’s time and resources just to embarrass him. Besides,” Steve looked at me, “if the plane crashed, the ELT would have activated, and the Coast Guard would know there was an emergency. They would have immediately called our office and then would have initiated a search and rescue.”
I was quiet for a few moments, and then I asked the question I couldn’t get out of my mind: “If the plane went into the ocean, would the ELT activate?”
“Maybe not,” Steve said, “and if we don’t hear from Bill and can’t find any trace of the plane in a couple of hours, we’ll notify the Coast Guard then. There’s really no reason to think the worst, Jane. Planes are overdue all the time, and ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time the plane, pilot, and passengers are fine. I’m sure that’s the case here. If the weather was bad, I’d be a little more concerned, but these are perfect flying conditions.”
Why does he look so grim then, and why is my stomach boiling with dread? I stared out the passenger window. Lush green vegetation swept down a pointed mountain, stopping abruptly at the grey shale beach. A wide path of orange rockweed littered the low edge of the beach, indicating an extreme low tide. Beyond the rockweed, the bay reflected a murky, dark grey. The ocean water was alive with phytoplankton, the food base for one of the richest fisheries in the world. I saw two salmon seiners deploying their nets at the mouth of the bay. The salmon season had been open for two weeks, and the fishermen worked every minute of the long, June days to catch the valuable red salmon on their way to their spawning grounds on the south end of the island. I reminded myself that there were fishermen all around the island. If the plane had gone down, someone would have seen it. That thought made me feel better, and I sat back and tried to relax.
Steve and I remained silent for the next several minutes. I glanced out my window occasionally, but I didn’t allow myself to scan the mountainsides for mangled metal or burning debris.
“Your guy was camped south of Larsen Bay, right?”
The sound of Steve’s voice in my headphones startled me, and I sat forward to study the scenery below us. “Yes, he was camped about a mile south of Cycek’s cabin.”
Steve brought the plane in low and buzzed the small wooden cabin belonging to the man who’d lost his wife to PSP. We flew along the coastline, and I studied the shore for any sign of life. If Craig was still here waiting to be picked up, he most likely would be sitting by a pile of gear stacked on the beach. We flew along the beach for five miles until we came to Uyak Cannery, but there was no sign of Craig or his gear.
“Do you plan to stop at the cannery?”
“No,” Steve said. “They won’t know any more than they told us over the phone, and I don’t want to worry anyone.”
“They’re probably already worried. They can guess we aren’t sightseeing.”
“It would be a waste of time, anyway.” We circled and climbed.
“Now where?” I asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine. I think I’ll try to follow the route Steve would fly from his last pickup point to town.”
“I thought you said he planned to fly around for a while before heading to town.”
“I said that I believed Simms wanted him to take his guests flight-seeing, but Bill had a hot date tonight, and I know he wanted to get back to town as soon as possible. If no one complained, I’m sure he’d fly straight to town.”
I stared at Steve. He hadn’t bothered to tell me this earlier. “That’s why you’re so concerned, isn’t it? You knew Bill planned to immediately return to town.”
“Well, yes.” Steve said the words slowly. “I think Bill has had a problem, and that’s why I’m looking for him. I just don’t think the problem is serious. He may have to spend the night on the beach with his airplane, but I can shuttle his passengers to town, and if he has a mechanical problem, I can bring him the tools and parts to fix it.”
I didn’t reply. I hoped to God the problem was as simple as that. I focused my attention on the ocean and beach below us. I looked for a stranded plane, I looked for parts of a plane, and I looked for debris. Steve flew low across Uyak Bay. An afternoon breeze rippled the ocean, and reflected sunlight sparkled off the small waves. I saw two aluminum skiffs and three fishing boats. We were only a few miles from the village of Larsen Bay. If the plane had experienced trouble here, someone would have spotted it.
We crested the north end of Amook Island, then Carlsen Point, followed by Zachar Bay. I saw several cabins that belonged to gill-net fishermen, and two fishermen picking salmon from their net looked up at us as we flew low overhead. We crossed the mouth of Spiridon Bay, and I began to relax. People were everywhere. Any serious plane accident would have been reported by now.
We flew inland between two mountains, and I noticed that Steve was leaning forward, scrutinizing the ground below us. There was no sign of human habitation here, and an accident could go unseen. I knew that the lush green vegetation that looked like a mat covering the mountain was actually four or five feet high. A shiny metal plane could lay hidden in the jungle-like growth. I’d heard a story about a plane that had crashed on the island in the forties, and despite the fact that it lay nearly intact below a major flight path, the wreckage only had been discovered a few years ago.
“They might have landed at Spiridon Lake,” Steve said. “I’ll fly around it a couple of times.”
I stared down at the small lake, studying the shoreline for a stranded plane, but all I saw were three Sitka black-tailed deer, two does, and a fawn. The deer ran into the brush when they heard the airplane’s engine. I looked at Steve and he shrugged, angling the plane toward the next mountain pass.
As soon as I looked down again, I saw what I thought was litter, a piece of something teal blue sticking out of the fireweed. Then, I saw a glint of silver, and my mouth felt dry.
“Oh, no!” Steve said. “What could have happened?”
Sweat rolled down my forehead as I fought back nausea. I saw larger pieces of blue metal, one with a black “N” and a “9” painted on it. I didn’t have to ask; I knew what I was looking at. I also knew there were no survivors. The plane had splintered into small pieces, and the pieces were scattered over a hundred-square-foot area. I saw a large section that looked like part of the fuselage and tail. I also could make out a piece of one wing and a chunk of metal that appeared to be the front of a float. The rest of it, though, looked like scraps of royal-blue and teal foil, and if I hadn’t known, I would not have guessed I was looking at the remains of an airplane.
Steve circled the wreckage. “The plane blew apart,” he said.
“Bill must have hit the mountain.” My voice cracked.
“No way,” Steve said. “That plane is in a million pieces.”
“Couldn’t it have exploded on impact?”
“Maybe, but I’ve seen my share of plane wrecks, and I’ve never seen anything like that. I want to land and take a closer look.”
“Shouldn’t we get back to town and notify the Coast Guard?”
“Dr. Marcus,” Steve’s eyes locked on mine, “there’s no hurry. No one lived through that.”
“Yeah, I know.” A vision of good-looking, curly-haired Craig flashed in my head. I doubted there was enough left of him to identify. His parents lived in Olympia, Washington. How will I tell them this news? How can I explain that I’d sent their son on an assignment, and now there was not even enough left of him to ship home to them? I sat back hard in the airplane seat. A hole opened in my stomach. I’d sent Craig to his death.