Murder Over Kodiak – Chapter 13 – Readers and Writers Book Club

Murder Over Kodiak – Chapter 13

Murder Over Kodiak

Chapter Thirteen

 Robin Barefield

Alaska Wilderness Mystery Author

Author Masterminds Charter Member

I wrestled with the small tent for an hour before I got it secured the way I wanted it. I tied it to three trees and covered it with a waterproof tarp. The weather was beautiful now, but I knew how quickly a raging storm could appear.

I didn’t have much gear, and it didn’t take long to drag it inside the tent, but I fought with the radio antenna for twenty minutes before I could pick up the voice of the dispatcher at Kodiak Flight Services. Radio signals baffled me. Craig could figure out the proper direction to aim the antenna in a few minutes, but for me, it was trial and error to get it lined up right. I hoped if I could receive Kodiak, I would be able to hear Morgan, but he had a smaller antenna than the stations I was receiving from Kodiak, and radio waves do funny things. I’d have to wait until our schedule at six to know if I needed to make adjustments.

Some researchers carry satellite phones instead of sideband radios into the wilderness, and others take both. I preferred the sideband to the sat phone, because satellite signals are often tough if not impossible to pick up on the heavily wooded mountainous island where I live. Usually, you have to climb up to an open hill or rocky cliff to get a signal. Also, you only can make outgoing calls and not receive incoming messages. With the sideband radio, once the antenna is aligned properly, you have reliable two-way communication any time of the day or night with multiple sources in Kodiak and with other remote camps. I wished now, though, that I’d rented or borrowed a satellite phone as a backup, but things had been so hectic in town that I hadn’t thought about it.

I unrolled my rubber mattress and my bedroll on the tarp floor of the tent. The small tent was dome-shaped and was too small for me to stand up straight inside it, so I was left with the two options of kneeling or sitting on my sleeping bag. Neither choice was comfortable, but I didn’t plan to spend much time in my tent.

I looked at my watch – 3:00 p.m. The tide would be going out for another three hours. Mr. Cycek probably had seen the plane land and wondered why someone was camping here, and I didn’t know how much he had heard about the plane crash. It was difficult to believe that anyone on this island could miss that news, but Mr. Cycek kept to himself, and from what I’d heard, he didn’t welcome outsiders. I hoped my visit wouldn’t upset him, but I couldn’t very well call ahead. I knew he had a sideband radio, because he’d called for help the night his wife got sick, but he apparently rarely turned it on. Before Craig’s collection trip, we tried unsuccessfully several times to contact Cycek by radio. In the end, Craig had to walk down the beach and talk to him, just as I planned to do now.

I pulled on my hip boots and slipped the strap of my camera around my neck. A northerly breeze ruffled the water now, and four puffy, white clouds huddled on the horizon. The sun beat down, but the breeze was cool, and I wrapped my jacket around me.

I wondered if I should have carried my shotgun for bear protection, but lugging the heavy gun only would have put a damper on my stroll. I felt safer in the wilderness than I had the past week in town. I’d take my chances with the bears today.

I played like a child on my way to Cycek’s cabin, stopping to inspect tide pool residents and peeking under rocks to see what lived there. I watched a noisy oystercatcher strut along the beach, his long orange bill outstretched. He watched a geyser of water squirt from a buried clam and then stuck his beak into the sand, withdrawing it a moment later with the clam attached. He pried open the clamshell and ate the animal.

I snapped a photo, even though I knew I was too far away for a good shot. I wondered what the PSP level was in the clam the bird had just eaten. Many marine birds have evolved aversions to PSP, either avoiding toxic shellfish or regurgitating the offensive bivalves soon after consumption. I watched the oystercatcher strut and squawk. He seemed to be complaining about something, but I couldn’t tell if it was his recent meal. I watched him eat two more clams and then fly away. Perhaps oystercatchers were not susceptible to PSP. I made a mental note to check the literature on this point.

I waded out into the water to edge around a pile of large boulders and surprised a fox that was digging in the beach around the corner. I don’t know which one of us was the most frightened. The fox ran into the woods, but I might have too if my reflexes had been faster.

I leaned against one of the rocks and laughed, shaking off the adrenaline rush. I pondered the difference between good and bad fear: the excitement of a roller coaster ride, the thrill of being near wild animals, the terror of having a gun pointed at you, or the dread of being told you have a terminal disease.

I kicked a rock and began walking again. Maybe the last example didn’t fit, but I could think of nothing more terrifying than being told I had cancer or some other terminal disease. Once you’ve seen someone die from a terminal illness, other deaths pale in comparison. The outcome may be the same, and we’ll all die, but I’d just as soon avoid the suffering if I could.

The piercing cry of an eagle brought me back from gloom. I looked up. The bird was perched high in a cottonwood on a cliff above me. I knew his mate and nest must be nearby. They probably had one or two eaglets in the nest by now. I hurried past so I wouldn’t disturb him. I thought about snapping a photo, but I resisted the urge to add to my photo collection of small white dots backlit by a bright sky.

I knew I was nearing Mr. Cycek’s cabin when I saw the small, wooden dinghy tied to a running line. I walked a few more steps and inhaled a deep breath of fragrant alder smoke. Mr. Cycek must be smoking salmon. I climbed the steep bank and looked down at the white cabin. The small house sat several feet above sea level, but it was blocked from the ocean by a hill. It was not visible from the beach and didn’t offer the occupant a view of the ocean, but it was well protected from winter storms, and apparently warmth was more important to Mr. Cycek than an ocean view.

I walked down to a stone path that curved up around the other side of the hill from the beach. I followed the flat stones to the cabin and knocked on the weather-beaten door. There was no answer. I knocked again and waited a few minutes. Then, I followed the smell of the alder smoke around the side of the house to the back. I came to the small smoke shed fifty feet behind the house, but Mr. Cycek was not there. He was behind the smokehouse on his hands and knees, pulling weeds from a garden plot.

“Mr. Cycek?” I hoped I wouldn’t give the poor man a heart attack, but he turned slowly and didn’t seem surprised to see me standing there.

“Hello.” He stood and faced me. “May I help you?”

From my one meeting with Mr. Cycek, I remembered him as a small man with big ears. I realized now that he was not that short. If he could stand straight, he would be at least five-feet-eight-inches tall. Time and a hard life had bent him permanently a few inches shorter. He was thin but not gaunt, more of a wiry leanness that suggested strength. His ears were large, and their size was accentuated by the way he wore his tight blue baseball cap. He squinted at me in the bright sun, adding more and deeper furrows to the wrinkles around his eyes.

I stepped closer. “You probably don’t remember me,” I said. “My name is Jane Marcus. I met you at the hospital when your wife was sick.”

His face brightened into a toothless smile. “Dr. Marcus, I believe it is. I usually don’t forget a pretty face, but that wasn’t a good night.”

“No,” I said, “and I’m sorry to trouble you again.”

“No bother. I’m ready for a coffee break; won’t you join me?”

“Sure,” I pointed to the garden. “What are you growing?”

He pulled a handkerchief from the right front pocket of his overalls and wiped his face as he sauntered toward the house. “Lettuce, spinach, bush beans, snap peas, carrots, potatoes, onions, and radishes.” He waved his hand in front of his eyes as if swatting at bugs. “More than one old man like me can eat.” He shrugged. “But it’s a hobby. Keeps me out of trouble.”

“The fish smells good,” I said.

“Take some home with you. I’ll never eat all of it.”

He bypassed the back door and walked around the house to the front. He pulled off his muddy boots outside the door, and I followed his example. He opened the door and I trailed him into the house.

I don’t know what I expected, but I was surprised by Mr. Cycek’s domestic skills. The interior of the cabin was spotless. Everything appeared to be in its place. The floors were swept and scrubbed, the furniture dusted, and even the doilies looked freshly laundered.

My heart ached for this lonely man, trying to resist the change his wife’s death had brought. My father had been the same way after my mother died, wanting to freeze time and keep everything the same as if she were still there.

“It will just take me a minute to heat up the coffee. Have a seat.” He gestured to a lumpy couch draped with a crocheted slipcover and then turned and walked out of the room.

I took in my surroundings as I lowered myself to the cushion. Everything in the room was handmade, from the cover on the couch, to the needlepoint samplers on the wall, to the painted bookcase stuffed with reading material. I fingered the doily on the willow table in front of me. It was crocheted in beautiful shades of purple, yellow, and rose thread. On top of it sat a framed photograph of a young woman in her twenties. I picked up the photo to examine it. It was black and white and a little blurry. It had been taken a long time ago. The subject wore a light, flowered dress and a wide-brimmed hat. Her dark eyes shined, and her smile was wide. She had a long, graceful neck and shoulder-length black hair.

“Easter 1967,” a low voice said.

I looked up. Mr. Cycek was leaning against the doorframe between the living room and the kitchen. He had removed his cap and slicked his thin grey hair into place, but he still wore his coveralls.

“She was beautiful,” I said, carefully lowering the photo to its place.

“Yes, she was.” His voice cracked and he turned abruptly, retreating into the kitchen.

A small wooden table sat near the kitchen door, and when I saw the kerosene lantern on it, I realized that Mr. Cycek must not have a generator. This time of year, that wouldn’t be so bad, but I couldn’t imagine spending the long winter nights alone here in the dark. No wonder the books in the bookcase looked so worn. Over the years, the Cyceks must have reread each one several times.

I stood and walked over to the case. It was six feet long from floor to ceiling and had six shelves. The top three shelves held hardback and large paperback books, neatly arranged side-by-side. On the second shelf down, in front of the books, stood a crude, eight-inch-tall, painted carving of a raven. Warped and stained paperbacks and magazines filled the bottom three shelves, and these had been stacked horizontally and vertically, any way they would fit on the shelf. Great care had been taken to stack the books on the shelves in the neatest way possible.

I now knew who would appreciate my old paperbacks. I hated to part with them, but I was running out of shelf space, too, and my stacking job didn’t look as good as Mr. Cycek’s. I scanned the titles to see if my taste would interest him. Except for a spy novel, an anthology of Robert Service poems, and two romance books, the hardback books were all nature guides: Wildflowers of Alaska, Discovering Wild Plants, Edible and Poisonous Plants of Alaska, Gardening in Alaska, Guide to the Birds of Alaska, Eagles, Under Alaskan Seas, The Emerald Sea, Whales of Alaska, The Great Bear Almanac, and many more. The paperbacks included everything from romance to gothic horror, mysteries, and humor.

“Do you need something to read?”

Mr. Cycek’s soft voice startled me. I hoped he didn’t think I was snooping.

“You have a better selection of Alaskan wildlife books than the bookstore in town.”

He handed me a mug of coffee, and when he smiled, I saw he’d put in his dentures.

“I try to buy a new book every time I go to town, which isn’t often.” He sipped his coffee and then shook his head. “Books have gotten so expensive. I think they try to discourage people from reading, and everything is digital now.”

“Wildlife books filled with glossy photos are especially expensive,” I said. I put the cup to my lips, but when I felt the searing steam, I decided to let it cool awhile longer. I settled back on the couch and set the cup on the willow table. “I have several paperbacks at home that I’ve read. Could I send them out to you?”

“Box 283, Larsen Bay,” he said. “I never say no to books.”

“You have quite a variety on your shelves. Is there anything you don’t read?”

“I don’t want any damn romances. Those were Doris’. I can’t stomach those.”

I laughed. “No romances, I promise. By the way, I like your raven sculpture. Do you know the artist?”

Mr. Cycek beamed. “That would be me. I dabble in a little carving from time to time.”

“It’s very nice,” I said. “You should do more of it.”

Mr. Cycek’s cheeks flushed, and he looked down at his coffee cup. I wasn’t sure how to approach the subject of the reason for my visit, but Mr. Cycek took care of the problem for me.

He pulled an old wooden armchair from the head of the dining room table across the room and set it on the other side of the willow table from me. He lowered himself into the chair and set his coffee cup on the arm. “Terribly sorry to hear about your associate,” he said, looking down at his lap, shaking his head. “Such a nice young man.”

So he did know. Good. I wouldn’t have to tell that story. “I was afraid you hadn’t heard,” I said, and then a sickening thought occurred to me. “You didn’t see or hear it from here, did you?”

“What? The crash? Oh no,” he said. “I didn’t hear about it until several days later when a fisherman friend of mine stopped by with the salmon I’m smoking.” His eyes met mine. “He said the plane blew up. That someone planted a bomb. Is that right?”

I nodded. “I’m afraid so, Mr. Cycek.”

“Who would do something like that?”

I sighed. “Everyone from the troopers to the FBI is trying to figure that one out. There were five passengers plus the pilot on the plane. One of the passengers was a U.S. senator. The police think she may have been the target.”

He shook his head in long, slow swings. “I know the world is crazy, but I didn’t think the insanity would ever reach here; things have gone too far. I never thought I’d live to see something like this.” He balanced his coffee cup on the arm of the chair with his left hand while he reached into the front pocket of his coveralls with his right hand, extracting the dirty, white handkerchief. He wiped his eyes and nose and then dropped the handkerchief into his lap.

I blinked back my own tears and gulped a mouthful of blistering coffee. My first instinct was to spit it out, but I tilted my head back and swallowed. At least the physical pain took my mind off Craig for a moment.

We sat in silence for several minutes. I watched Mr. Cycek’s far-off gaze and wondered what he was thinking about. He looked old and fragile as he sat slumped against the wooden frame. How sad it must be to live alone all the time. I thought I lived alone, but living by myself in the midst of a community was completely different than Mr. Cycek’s existence in the wilderness. If he was sick or having chest pains, there was no one nearby to call for help. There was no one to share in his happiness, and no one to comfort his grief.

“Why are you out here?” His question penetrated my thoughts.

“To take more samples. I don’t want you to think we’ve forgotten about your wife.”

He leaned forward. “It’s not too late?”

“No. The PSP levels may not be as high as they were when your wife ate the clams, but we will still get very high readings and should be able to confirm the cause of her death.”

He sat back. “It doesn’t matter, you know. It won’t bring her back.”

I sipped coffee. It had cooled, but it was still hot enough to sting my blistered mouth. “I know this won’t help you,” I said. “But maybe some good can come from her death. I’m sure her death has stopped most people on this side of the island from digging and eating clams, at least for a while, and by testing the clams, I hope to develop an easier, quicker method to monitor PSP in the clams and mussels on the beaches around the island.”

Mr. Cycek nodded. “I know. I just wish Doris hadn’t had to die for all of this.”

I sighed and stared at the woven willow table. God, this was depressing.

“I still don’t understand why no one checked her stomach contents. They should have measured the PSP from the clams she’d eaten. Maybe she died from natural causes. There might not have been anything wrong with the clams.”

Why her stomach contents had not been tested was a subject I didn’t want to talk about. It involved negligence and incompetence in two separate laboratories, and I didn’t understand how it had happened, either. I needed to be diplomatic, though, so I thought about my answer.

“I believe Doris died from PSP, and the lab should have tested your wife’s stomach contents,” I said. “There was a mix-up, but I’d still be here taking samples even if we had tested the digested clams from Doris’ stomach. The level of saxitoxin in digested clams is not the same as it was before they were eaten, and I need to test the level in live tissue. Does that make sense?”

I was not certain Mr. Cycek understood or believed much of what I said. In truth, a contaminated sample of Doris Cycek’s stomach contents had been tested, and the PSP levels were as high as any ever recorded. The problem was that even though an autopsy had been performed on Mrs. Cycek’s body, her stomach contents had not been sealed properly in a sterile container. While this was an unfortunate oversight, I didn’t consider it significant. The unsterile sample could affect the quantitative but not the qualitative results. In other words, if the lab in Palmer tested a high level of saxitoxin in her stomach contents, we could be certain Mrs. Cycek died from PSP.

Unfortunately, the comedy of errors continued when the sample reached the Palmer lab, where a new technician working on the weekend did something wrong. What he did, I never would know, but it must have been a serious error, because the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation admitted the problem and fired the technician. I was told the toxicity of the sample tested extremely high, but that the sample had been contaminated, and the lab did not consider the result official. This meant the mouse died from something, but the lab would not say it was PSP. No one would sign off on the official cause of Mrs. Cycek’s death, but if I found toxic levels of PSP in the clams on the beach from where Mrs. Cycek’s last meal came, then everyone concerned would agree that was how she died.

I thought it was easier to let Mr. Cycek think Doris’ stomach contents never had been tested. He did not know that I had good reason to believe she had died from a concentration of saxitoxin two hundred times the lethal limit. She was dead, and that was all that mattered to him.

“I see,” Mr. Cycek said. “You’re welcome to stay with me while you dig your samples.” A grin spread across his face. “I don’t suppose though that a pretty young woman like you would want to stay in a cabin with an ugly old man.”

I laughed. “Thank you, Mr. Cycek. I haven’t been called pretty or young in a very long time, and while I appreciate your offer, I’ve already set up my camp about a mile down the beach.”

“Tomorrow’s the Fourth of July,” Mr. Cycek said, and from the tone of his voice, I couldn’t tell whether it was a statement or a question.

“Independence Day,” I nodded my head.

“You shouldn’t spend it alone. Would you be my guest for dinner?”

“I’d be honored,” and I was. I doubted Mr. Cycek invited many people to dinner, and I knew by the following evening I would be bored with my own company and sick of lunch meat sandwiches.

Mr. Cycek beamed when I accepted his invitation. “How does 5:00 sound?”

“Perfect.” I made a mental note to tell Morgan I would not make radio schedule the following evening.

I swallowed the rest of my coffee and stood. Mr. Cycek also stood and took the cup from my hand. “Do you need help digging for the clams in the morning?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “but I would like you to confirm, as near as you can remember, where Mrs. Cycek dug for the clams.”

Mr. Cycek’s gaze dropped to the floor. “I dug the clams for her,” he said. “She had arthritis in her back and couldn’t do things like that anymore, so she asked me to do it.”

I patted Mr. Cycek’s arm. The poor man must feel as if he murdered his wife.

“Let me put the cups in the kitchen,” he said, “and then I’ll walk outside with you.”

Mr. Cycek pulled his cap on his head, and I followed him out the front door and down the path to the beach. We discussed the recent storm and the perfect weather of the last few days. A cold breeze blew off the ocean, and I pulled my jacket tightly around me.

“Do you ever get tired of living out here?” I asked.

“Never!” Mr. Cycek shouted his reply. “I’ve lived in this cabin thirty-three years, and I’ll stay here until I die.”

“It’s beautiful out here, but I think I’d get lonely.”

“Young folks these days aren’t used to solitude,” Mr. Cycek said. “You don’t know how to be alone with your own thoughts.”

I considered arguing this point with him, but perhaps he was right, or maybe I just liked being called a young person.

We walked around the rocky point north of the Cycek cabin. The tide was a foot lower than it had been when I’d walked to the cabin. Earlier I’d had to wade around this point, but now there was a stretch of beach between the rocks and the water.

As soon as we rounded the point, Mr. Cycek pointed to a flat, muddy, intertidal area in front of us. “We always get our clams right here,” he said.

“Okay,” I said. “Do you remember how low the tide was when you dug the clams?”

“Let’s see.” He rubbed his forehead. “It was a minus four something, and I started digging about a half-hour before low tide.”

“Did you dig near the water’s edge?”

“Mostly, yes.” He shrugged. “As well as I can remember.”

I smiled. “Thanks Mr. Cycek, and thanks for the coffee.”

Mr. Cycek smiled. “Don’t forget, 5:00 tomorrow.”

“I won’t.” I waved and watched him walk around the point, and then I squatted on the beach and studied the area where I’d be digging my samples.

The next morning’s low tide would be a minus five point one at 7:10. I would need to get down here by 6:00 a.m., set up a quick transect, and collect samples from the low tide mark up the beach to the top of the clam population. Since tomorrow’s tide was lower than the next morning’s tide, I would concentrate my efforts on the lower portion of the beach tomorrow and work on the upper beach the next day.

I wondered if this was how Craig had done it. I had trusted his scientific approach so completely that I had left the methodology up to him, telling him only to keep exact records. During our last radio conversation, the night before his death, he had assured me that his notes were a thing of beauty. Unfortunately, the notes, like the samples and Craig, were blown to bits. I could collect new samples and write a lifetime of notes, but I never could replace Craig. He was bright, self-motivated, charismatic, and honest. He had been too good for this world, where people murder each other for greed, jealousy, and revenge.

I walked slowly back to my campsite, my head bent against the chilly wind. I pushed depressing and frightening thoughts from my mind and concentrated on work. I planned my morning, reviewing each piece of equipment I would need to haul down the beach with me. Since my collection time was limited by the tide, I would collect, bag, and label the clams, and then, when the tide was too high to dig, I’d shuck each clam and pack the samples on dry ice.

I decided to shuck the clams at my campsite, even though that would mean lugging the clamshells a mile down the beach. The clams still would be alive until I shucked them, and I wanted to put the live tissue on ice as quickly as possible.

I planned to organize my gear and put it in my pack as soon as I reached the tent, but when I climbed over the berm at the top of the beach and out of the wind, the warm sun anesthetized me. I spread out my coat and lay down on the rocks, turning my face toward the sun’s rays. I stayed like that for twenty minutes, drifting in and out of sleep, feeling peace for the first time in several days.

A fly landed on my nose, and when I brushed it away, I felt the heat rising from my skin. I didn’t want to move because the sun felt so good. I tried putting my hands over my face, but that position was uncomfortable and suffocating. I pushed myself into a sitting position and then remembered the cap Steve had given me. I got stiffly to my feet and walked to the tent. The cap was just inside, propped on my pack.

I picked it up and turned it around. I didn’t often wear this type of hat, but this was a good-looking cap. As I held it in the sunlight, I saw that it was more teal than green, and the embroidery thread was cream-colored. I shivered and popped the cap on my head so I wouldn’t have to look at it. I wished Steve hadn’t told me that these caps had arrived on the day of the crash and that Bill had worn one on his final flight. I felt as Steve did. This cap would end up in the back of my closet, because I wouldn’t be able to bear the memories it evoked each time I looked at it.

I edged past a large cow parsnip plant, or pushki as it was called locally; the sap of that plant could make my life miserable for weeks. I learned my first summer on the island that I was extremely allergic to it, and simply grabbing the stalk would burn my hands and leave my fingers covered with pus-filled blisters that would take weeks to heal. I’d seen Dana once with a blistered cheek, and she’d told me she had sliced a pushki plant while using her weed eater, and the sap had squirted her in the face. The plant had my respect.

I sat on my jacket and looked around me at the plants and wildflowers. I knew so little about the plants of this island. Pushki had caught my attention, and I knew wild geraniums, chocolate lilies, bluebells, and the beautiful, poisonous monkshood. I could also point out a rose bush as long as there were roses on it. Without the flowers, though, I could not distinguish a rose bush from a salmonberry bush. I should have borrowed one of Mr. Cycek’s wild-plant books. Instead of sleeping, I could have spent the afternoon learning about my environment.

I stretched out and pulled the bill of the cap over my face. The lapping ocean lulled me to sleep, and forty minutes later, the harsh call of a raven woke me like an alarm clock.

I sat up, startled, and then remembered where I was. My head and shoulders were in the shade now, and I felt chilled. I slid into my jacket and leaned my head onto my bent knees. I felt drugged by too much sunlight and fresh air. I pulled the cap from my head and ran my fingers through my hair. When I finally sat up and opened my eyes, I was staring at the cap.

I jumped to my feet and dropped the hat as if it were on fire. What was wrong with me? Why had it taken me so long to realize the significance of the cap?  Had Morgan pieced it together?

I looked at my watch – 5:30 p.m. I had radio schedule with Morgan in half an hour.

The tranquility of the afternoon shattered. My stomach vibrated, and my mind and feet paced. I’d wanted to get away from everything, but now I felt helpless. I pulled a sandwich from my pack and tried to eat it, but it tasted like rubber and warm mayonnaise. After two bites, I wrapped it up and stuffed it back into the pack.

At 5:45, I turned on the sideband radio to let it warm up. I faintly heard someone on a boat trying to call one of the charter plane services in town. They must have answered him, because I picked out bits and pieces of his end of the conversation, but I couldn’t hear Kodiak. I remembered that hot, sunny days did not provide ideal radio conditions.

I left the tent and walked down to the beach. What would I do if I couldn’t talk to Morgan? I would never make it through the night if I couldn’t share my thoughts with him. I ordered myself to calm down and then climbed back up the beach into the tent and sat on my sleeping bag next to the radio. I heard nothing but static for the next several minutes and was about to try Morgan when I heard his voice, a bit muffled but loud.

“KVT04 this is WXT890. How do you read?”

“WXT890. I’ve got you fine. How ‘bout me?”

“Loud and clear. How’s it going?” Morgan asked.

“I have my tent up, and I’m ready to start my collections in the morning.”

“Sounds good. I didn’t find much today, but I’ll try again tomorrow.

“Are you planning to spend tomorrow night there, too?”  For some reason, I felt safer knowing that Morgan was camped a few miles away, even if he only could reach me by airplane.

“I have a tentative schedule to be picked up at 4:00 tomorrow afternoon. Unless I find some reason to stay here longer, I’ll fly back then.”

“I thought of something that might be important,” I said. I didn’t have a powerful antenna, and the radio reception was poor right now, but I had to assume that anyone on the island with a sideband radio could hear me. I’d been thinking for the last several minutes about how to word my explanation.

“Maryann thought Bill looked good in his teal cap.” I paused, giving Morgan a moment to pick up on my meaning. “Bill didn’t have the cap until right before the flight.”

My radio hissed static but nothing else. I thought I’d lost Morgan. “WXT890, are you there?” I shouted into the microphone.

“Sorry, Jane. I was thinking,” Morgan said. “You’re right. Good catch. I’ll check into that when I get back to town tomorrow.”

I wanted him to question Maryann Myers immediately, but Morgan was right, he could do nothing until he got to town.

“Do you want to set up a radio schedule for tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yes. How about 3:00 p.m?  By then I’ll know whether or not I plan to spend another night.”

“I have a dinner date with Mr. Cycek, but I’ll be here at 3:00.”

“I’m glad you can work it into your schedule.” I could picture Morgan’s smile. “You’re the only person I know who needs a social calendar when you go camping.”

“Don’t invite any bears into your tent,” I said. “KVT04 clear.”


I listened to the hiss of the radio for a few minutes and then turned it off, suddenly feeling very alone. The peaceful serenity I’d enjoyed a few hours earlier now felt like isolation. I’d become a prisoner instead of an escapee.

I forced myself to go to work and get my gear ready for the following day. I first took everything out of my pack, and then stuffed the folded army shovel, collection bags, garbage bags, a pocketknife, stakes, rope, my notebook, a pencil, a sandwich, and a can of pop into the pack. My project was as simple as field work ever got, but I didn’t want to hike a mile down the beach just to find I’d forgotten something essential. The tide wouldn’t wait for me to run back to my tent to grab the missing piece of equipment.

Once my pack was ready, I set my watch alarm for 5:30. It would be light enough to see by then, and I could begin hiking to my collection spot.

I walked down to the beach and strolled in the opposite direction from Mr. Cycek’s cabin. The tide was low now and soon would be coming in. I had to be careful not to walk too far, or I would get stranded by the rising tide and be forced to climb the bank and hike back through the thick jungle-like growth of the woods. I had no desire to hike by myself through head-high weeds in bear country.

I wasn’t looking forward to the night. Darkness only lasted a few hours this time of year, but I knew I’d have trouble sleeping during those hours. It took a few nights to get used to wilderness sounds, to realize that every thump was not a bear five feet from your tent, and that you probably would survive the night.

I crouched on the beach and watched a seiner on the horizon. The wind had calmed to a light breeze, and mosquitos buzzed around my face.

“Mosquito repellent,” I said. “That’s what I forgot.” I stood and walked back to my tent.

The night was as bad as I expected. I tried to read, but I soon felt groggy. I put down the book and fell asleep for two hours. When I woke, the light had faded, and the dusk was muffled further by the fabric of the tent. I fumbled beside my sleeping bag until my hand closed around the cool plastic grip of my flashlight. I clicked on the beam and directed it at my watch. It was 10:30 p.m.

I’d placed the shotgun near the tent flap. I got it now and put it under the edge of the sleeping bag. I crawled back into the bag, closed my eyes, and hoped for slumber, but the noises outside the tent increased in proportion to the dimming light.

I knew not to let my imagination roam, but my logic couldn’t rein it in. Usually when I camped, I imagined bears ripping apart my tent and then me, but tonight, marauding terrorists, not wild animals, topped my creature list.

What if someone had followed me from town, hired a plane, and had the pilot drop him a few miles from my campsite? “And why would anyone do that?” I asked myself out loud, but I couldn’t guess what had precipitated any of the violent acts that recently had touched my life. I knew I was safer sleeping here than in my apartment.

I thought about Jack Justin. He had been so terrified the last time I’d seen him, and rightfully so, as it turned out. Had he been involved in the death of his own parents? Why not?  He wouldn’t be the first offspring to do away with his mother and father, and the guy was cold and manipulative. He didn’t seem to mourn the loss of his parents. He’d only been concerned about the briefcase. No, concerned was too light a word. He’d been obsessed with the briefcase; crazed to the point of believing that I had taken it. Then, when his life was in danger, he apparently had given my name to his killers. I chuckled to myself. My evening out with Jack Justin had not been one of my better dates

I heard a twig crack and pushed the sleeping bag away from my face. How could I joke about Jack Justin? The guy had been brutally murdered. Too little sleep. I was beginning to feel giddy.

If Jack had told me any part of the truth, he only wanted the briefcase to give to the terrorists who had bombed the airplane. I hadn’t believed him, but now I didn’t know. Someone very bad had killed him, and someone with a great deal of knowledge about bombs had blown up the marine center. Had this same person or group of people planted the bomb on the Beaver? I couldn’t work out another answer, and I wished I had been able to talk to Morgan more about his two-separate-bomber hypothesis.

When I cleared my mind, I could hear the faint lapping of waves against the shore. I concentrated on the ocean and tried to sleep, but before I knew it, my brain was flashing facts about the Beaver bombing.

If I discounted everything that happened after the plane exploded, I still found the terrorist theory weak. The bomb was a simple, homemade job, probably several sticks of dynamite wired to an alarm clock trigger. Such a device would be the more likely weapon of an individual with limited knowledge and access to explosives. A group of terrorists would use a more finely-honed instrument that was both reliable and could avoid detection. Wouldn’t they? Maybe I’d seen too many James Bond movies.

The second obstacle I had, even though it didn’t seem to bother Morgan, was that terrorist from somewhere other than Kodiak would not be familiar with the way Kodiak Flight Services operated. Granted, the small charter company was not a top-secret organization, but certainly a stranger would have to ask at least one question to know which plane would be used for a particular flight. None of the employees of Kodiak Flight Services remembered a stranger asking any questions about which plane would be used for the Justins’ flight. Even if the terrorists were invisible and could avoid detection, how would they know where to plant their explosive bundle?

Problem three I had with the terrorist theory was that if the briefcase was so important, why in the hell would they blow it up? Did they not know the Justins had it with them on the plane? Did they hope to kill the Justins and then steal the briefcase from their hotel room? I propped my hands under my head and wondered if I ever would know the answers to all my questions.

I didn’t believe that the man with the accent who had called me was still in Kodiak, because if he was still on the island and wanted to find me, he would have succeeded. I hoped I finally had convinced him I did not have what he was after. I wanted the man and his associates caught and punished for their crimes, but I wanted even more never to meet him face-to-face. I’d choose a keen sense of survival over bravery any day.

I stretched and turned over on my stomach. My thoughts began to wander, and I was fading into sleep, when I heard small, scampering feet. I twisted around in my bag and groped for the flashlight. The rapid ticking continued as I fumbled for the button and switched on the beam. I spotlighted the tiny noise-maker, and once I steadied my breathing, I laughed as the small vole fought for traction on the slippery, plastic tarp floor of the tent. Caught in the spotlight, the bucktoothed little creature looked like a cartoon tap dancer. His poor little heart must have been fluttering as he tried to figure out what he’d stumbled into. I clicked off the flashlight and let him continue to safety. I sank back into my bag, but the more I thought about the vole, the harder I laughed. The release of tension felt great.

I wiped the tears of laughter from my eyes and once again turned my attention to sleep. I could make a case for Toni Hunt, George Wall, or Maryann Myers as the mad plane bomber. Maryann Myers seemed the most stable and least prone to violence of the three, but she had lied to us about knowing which plane would be used for her husband’s flight. If she was innocent, why lie? Toni Hunt was psychotic, but would she kill her boyfriend? I didn’t know her well enough to answer that question.

I’d only met Mr. Wall once, but that one meeting had impressed me. I believed he was capable of killing five people, and he knew how to make a crude bomb. He admittedly hated Dick Simms and had access to the dock. How did he know Simms would be on that plane? The problem always came back to that question. Toni Hunt knew her boyfriend would be flying that plane, and Maryann Myers knew her husband would be a passenger on that plane. Either of them could have handed Bill the fatal package, and he wouldn’t have been suspicious. Toni Hunt’s black room was the last image in my mind when I finally fell asleep.

Robin Barefield lives in the wilderness on Kodiak Island where she and her husband own a remote lodge. She has a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology and is a wildlife viewing and fishing guide. Robin has published three novels, Big Game, Murder Over Kodiak, and The Fisherman’s Daughter. She draws on her love and appreciation of the Alaska wilderness as well as her scientific background when writing.