Murder Over Kodiak
Alaska Wilderness Mystery Author
Author Masterminds Charter Member
I awoke slowly from a deep sleep and fumbled to turn off the alarm on my watch. I unzipped the sleeping bag and shivered as I reached for my jacket and pulled it around me. I clicked on the flashlight and stood, hunched over in the small tent. I shuffled toward the tent flap and untied it. It was lighter out than I expected. The sky again was cloudless and the air still.
I wandered a few feet from the tent and relieved my bladder. The lack of a bathroom was one thing I hated about camping, although, I missed a shower more than a toilet, and on this trip, I hadn’t even brought a stove to heat water. That meant no shower and no coffee. I’d survive, but it wouldn’t be pleasant.
I glanced at my watch. It was 5:10. I had just enough time for a sandwich and a Diet Pepsi. I forced down the mushy bread and meat, shouldered my backpack, and hiked down to the edge of the cliff above the beach. If I ignored the small bugs buzzing around my face, the morning was perfect. The sweet fragrance of wild roses mingled with the salt air, and chirping birds and the far-off rumble of a boat engine were the only sounds I heard. A bald eagle swooped down and plucked his breakfast, a four-pound salmon, from the ocean. He landed on the beach and began tearing the fish apart. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I walked several feet along the cliff before descending to the beach.
Wildlife is abundant when you don’t have a camera or the time to photograph it. Two does and four fawns walked to within thirty feet of me before they detected possible danger and angled up the bank. I slowed my pace as they approached, expecting them to see me and bolt at any moment, and I finally stopped and watched them strut toward me. I cursed myself for not having my camera accessible. I had it with me, packed in the zippered pouch on my pack, but I knew I would spook the deer by the time I removed the pack and unzipped the pocket.
The fawns were tiny, with big white spots covering their golden bodies, and their large brown eyes trained on their mothers’ hooves. When the two does began climbing the bank, the fawns looked bewildered, heads turning in every direction to locate the source of their mothers’ concern. They didn’t seem to see me, but after only a moment’s hesitation, they followed the does at a leisurely pace.
I also saw six foxes on my walk, but they were all a long way off. The tide would be forty-five minutes later tomorrow, so I could afford a more leisurely pace and stop to snap a few photos.
I reached my destination and set up my crude rope grid. If I’d been about to perform a population-density study, my grid would not have been adequate. My only goal, though, was to gather a random sampling of clams, and with the grid, I wouldn’t have to depend on my memory and holes in the sand to know where I had dug. My memory was faulty, and holes disappeared when the tide rose. I’d drawn a replica of the grid in my notebook, numbering the squares, and planned to mark each square with an X when I gathered my samples from that plot. I would drop each bivalve I collected into a collection bag and write the home plot number on the bag. I got my gear ready, assembled the shovel, and went to work.
I began digging at 6:30, and by 8:30, my lower back muscles screeched at me to stop. I looked at my pile of sample bags and checked the grid in my notebook. I was well over half done. I could finish the rest the following morning. I carefully layered the samples in my pack and groaned when I lifted it onto my back. I slid my notebook and extra sample bags into the pack but carried the shovel so I wouldn’t smash the delicate bivalves.
I’d collected three species of clams, as well as cockles and mussels. Mr. Cycek reported that his wife had eaten steamers and butter clams, so those two species were my primary interest. However, I knew that certain species of bivalves concentrated the deadly saxitoxin much quicker and to a greater degree than other species, and I hoped someday to study this phenomenon. For now, I just collected the data.
I spurted breath in short, shallow gasps when I climbed the bank to my tent. I nearly dropped my pack to the ground, but then remembered the fragile contents. I eased it off my shoulders and lowered it like a case of eggs. Then, I plopped beside it and squeezed my back muscles. My shirt was soaked through with sweat. I unzipped my coat and tossed it into the tent. I remembered why I hired strong, young college students for this work.
I closed my eyes and nearly succumbed to the heavy swirl of fatigue. Sleep would have been so easy, but I had work to do first. I sat and shook my head. I pulled each collection bag from my pack, removed the clam from the bag, carefully sliced the adductor muscles holding the shells shut, removed the tissue from the shells, re-bagged and labeled the tissue, and placed the bag on top of the dry ice in the Styrofoam cooler. After all the clams had been shucked, I set the cooler inside the tent and stretched out on my sleeping bag. I awoke shivering a half-hour later and crawled into the bag.
I began to drift to sleep again when the low rumble of an airplane engine passed overhead. I knew the plane was headed for Larsen Bay, but the sound made me edgy, and I shed the cloak of fatigue, blinking rapidly to clear my head and sharpen my senses. I crawled out of the bag and tried to eat another sandwich, but one bite was all I could stand. I got my camera and walked to the edge of the bank.
The tide was coming in now, and by 1:00, the water would be nearly to the top of the bank. A beach walk was out of the question, and I decided instead to take a short hike through the woods. I could practice with the macro adjustment on my camera lens and shoot a few photos of wildflowers and bumblebees.
I dug work gloves out of a side pocket of my pack, not wishing accidentally to brush my bare skin against a pushki plant. I walked along the bank, where the vegetation was sparse. My goal was to avoid pushki and bears, especially the latter.
I knelt by a wild geranium, zooming in my camera lens on the pale violet flower. I snapped three photos of it and walked a few paces further. I photographed wild roses, forget-me-nots, lupine and a small, delicate white flower whose name I did not know. I spent several minutes photographing a large monkshood plant, examining its narrow stem and five, navy blue, helmet-shaped flowers. It was beautiful, but deadly. I’d learned from the Alutiiq Cultural Center in town that hundreds of years ago, the natives of Kodiak distilled the sap of monkshood plants and rubbed the poison on their spear tips before a whale hunt. The poison was so potent, it could bring down a large whale. The plant contains the alkaloid aconitine, and as few as three grains of the root can kill a large man.
I backed away from the plant and wondered why I found nature’s toxins so intriguing. Monkshood was not the only deadly plant on the island. Baneberry and water hemlock also grew here. Baneberry I could identify from the bright red or white berries on the plant, but water hemlock closely resembled wild celery, and I would not trust myself to differentiate between the two.
I climbed a steep hill, staying near the edge on a game trail. I walked out onto a grassy knoll at the top and emitted a squeak of pleasure as I devoured the view. I was a hundred feet above the ocean, and below me, the ground fell away in a sheer cliff with small, choppy waves lapping at its base. I faced the mouth of Uyak Bay and could see the end of the earth, beyond Shelikof Straight to the snow-capped mountains on the Alaska Peninsula. Not a cloud blotted my view, and the air was clear, free of the volcanic ash that often blows across from the mainland with a westerly wind.
I found a sunny spot and sat, trying to remember the last time I felt this good. The danger and grief of the past week diminished. The apprehension I’d felt upon awakening in my tent less than an hour earlier was gone. I was able to put everything except Craig’s death aside for a while.
I smiled, but tears trickled down my cheeks. No one would have appreciated this moment, this piece of paradise, more than Craig because nothing passed by him unnoticed. While I concentrated on work, he pointed out trees, flowers, and colorful starfish. He would have known the name of the small, white flower I’d photographed.
God, I missed him. Why did someone as special as Craig have to die? I braced my head between my knees and sobbed. Then, I lay back in the grass and slept for two hours.
My eyes opened, but I didn’t move. Panic coursed through me. Brush crashed inches away from my head. What had I been thinking? I hadn’t even brought my rifle with me. There were three woofing noises, a popping sound, and then more crashing brush. I willed myself to lie still, but I couldn’t do it. I sat and looked behind me. A big, brown, furry butt was disappearing into the woods. The fur jostled from side to side as the big animal ran from something that had smelled like danger. I thanked God he hadn’t figured out how helpless I was and hadn’t decided to see how well I bounced down a cliff.
I pulled my knees to my chest and allowed myself to breathe. Adrenaline surged through me, and every instinct screamed, flee! The bear, however, had galloped down the game trail I’d followed to the top of the cliff, and I knew it would be wise to give him some lead time. I hoped I’d smelled so repulsive that he’d run for several miles before he stopped.
I laughed, but when I released my knees, I saw that my hands were trembling. I closed my eyes, leaned my head back, and sucked in air, but then a terrible thought hit me: What if the bear stopped at my tent? He could tear everything to shreds with just a few swipes of his paw.
I stood, grabbed my camera, and rushed down the trail, listening for cracking brush, but focusing my eyes on the uneven ground and gnarled vegetation. Fear pulsed through me, but I gritted my teeth to hold it at bay. Sweat ran down my back and stomach. I tripped over a fallen branch once, but caught myself before I fell. I didn’t hear the bear, and I didn’t look for him. I was so convinced my campsite would be destroyed that when I burst through a clump of alders and stood a few feet in front of the small blue tent, I sagged to the ground, panting hard. The bear had not been here, or if he had, my things hadn’t interested him.
All I wanted to do was climb in my sleeping bag and stay there until morning, but Mr. Cycek was counting on me for dinner. I thought about trying to raise him on the radio, but dismissed the idea. I really didn’t want to sit alone in my tent from now until dark, and I planned to walk on the beach to Cycek’s so as not to surprise any bears. I knew I’d frightened the bear as badly as he had frightened me, so I doubted he would return to this area soon. Get a grip, I told myself. There are thirty-five-hundred bears on this island. You’re bound to see one once in a while.
I checked my watch – 2:00 p.m. One hour until my schedule with Morgan. I went into the tent and sat on my sleeping bag, too wired to sleep or read, and I doubted I would sleep again until I returned to town. Then, I remembered the man’s voice on the telephone, and wondered if I ever would be able to sleep again. Maybe I should accept Peter’s offer and take a long vacation.
I replayed the bear encounter in my mind and told myself that the episode should make me feel more and not less secure in the wilderness. I’d been asleep and quiet, but when the bear sensed my presence, he fled. Bears weren’t going to bother me here. I was safe. So why were my fingers quaking, and why did my stomach feel queasy?
I knew I needed to hire another assistant; camping alone in the wilderness was not for me. I considered field work the least attractive side of my profession. Most fish and wildlife biologists choose this field of study because they love the outdoors; lab work and publications were the necessary evils. I was an anomaly, and I thought this gave me an advantage. I sought out lab jobs, while other fish biologists only wanted field positions.
I knew how to operate an outboard, shoot a shotgun, and set up a tent, but I never felt secure on the ocean or in the woods. If the outboard quit running, I could change the spark plugs, but there my expertise ended. If I had to shoot the shotgun to protect myself, would I, and would my shot be accurate? I didn’t know, and I hoped I never would find out. Craig had been good at all things outdoor. He knew outboards and guns and was confident with both. I hated the thought of searching for a new assistant.
My mind drifted from Craig to the explosion, and then to the device that caused the explosion. What had happened that day? Morgan believed the bomb had been nothing more than several sticks of dynamite hooked to a timer. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a stick of dynamite, but I had seen Westerns where the bad guys blew the bank vault with a bundle of the long red sticks. How many of those sticks would it take to explode an airplane? Surely several to inflict the carnage I saw at the crash site.
So, how could a bundle of dynamite have been slipped onto the plane without the pilot’s knowledge? It couldn’t. Bill must have believed the dynamite was something else, a legitimate parcel to load on his plane. Did that mean he knew the person who had planted the bomb? I reclined onto the sleeping bag while I pondered the question. Not necessarily. If a stranger walked down the dock, handed Bill a box, and told him the package was for someone at Uyak Cannery, Bill probably wouldn’t have doubted him or inspected the box. As long as he had room on the plane, he would have flown the box to the cannery.
I rubbed my forehead. This line of reasoning brought me back to the same two questions: How would a stranger know Bill was flying to Uyak Cannery, and how would a stranger know who Bill’s other passengers would be?
If Toni Hunt wanted to kill her boyfriend, though, the scenario played easier. All she would have had to do was wrap up the dynamite, put a bow on it, and tell Bill not to open the gift until later.
Maryann Myers had been at the dock that day and knew that in two or three hours her estranged husband would be a passenger on that plane. “Take this box to the cannery,” she could have said, and Bill would have stuffed it in the back of the plane.
The gap in my logic smacked me in the face. Any parcel sent to Uyak Cannery would have been offloaded at the cannery. The bomb hadn’t exploded until Bill and his passengers were flying back to town. Maybe Bill had forgotten to unload the offensive package and it was meant to explode somewhere else. I didn’t think this likely though, so that left two choices: Either the dynamite had been hidden from Bill’s view, or Toni Hunt was the bomber. The only freight going back to town should have been Bill’s personal gear and the luggage of the passengers.
“Oh my God!” I said aloud and sat up. What if the bomb was put on the plane somewhere other than Kodiak? Perhaps someone at Uyak Cannery sent a surprise package with Darren Myers. Had Morgan examined this possibility? The more I thought about it, I warmed to the idea. Darren Myers ran Uyak Cannery, and a boss is bound to foster some resentment in his employees.
I glanced at my watch. It was 2:50 p.m. I considered how I would word my thoughts when I talked to Morgan on the radio. Discretion was imperative.
I turned on the sideband to let it warm up. At 2:59, Morgan’s voice crackled through the speaker. “KVT04, this is WXT890.”
“WXT890, KVT04. You’re weak, but I can read you,” I said.
“Happy Fourth of July. How did your collecting go?”
“Fine,” I said. “How did you do?”
“No luck. I’ve made plans to fly back to town this evening. I’m needed there.”
My throat tightened. Whether Morgan was twenty or a hundred miles away made little difference in the wilderness, but I felt safer knowing he was nearby and I could contact him by radio. He must have read my mind.
“Have you talked to Kodiak? Is your radio signal strong enough?” he asked.
“I should be able to.”
“Are you still planning to go to Mr. Cycek’s for supper?”
“Roger. I’ll head that way in a few minutes.”
“Let’s set up a schedule for 10:00 tonight. Will you be back to your tent by then?”
“Roger.” I hoped to return to my campsite hours before then. Mr. Cycek was a nice old man, but a couple of hours of melancholy stories about his late wife were all I could handle.
“I’ll use Kodiak Flight Services’ radio. Stand by from 10:00 to 10:30 p.m.”
“Roger,” I said again. “If the reception is down, though, you may not be able to hear me.”
“Nick.” I squeezed the mike and spoke loudly into it. I didn’t want to repeat myself, and I hoped Morgan would understand what I was saying. “Have you considered that the package could have been put on the plane at one of the stops instead of in Kodiak?”
“Roger.” There was a pause. “Which stop do you think the most likely?”
“The cannery,” I said. I thought it was the only possibility, and I wondered what Morgan was thinking.
“We’re looking into it,” he said.
“That’s all I have then. I’ll stand by tonight and see you tomorrow.”
“Okay. Have a good evening. This is WXT890, clear.”
I switched off the radio and sat for a minute, still clutching the mike in my hand. I felt empty and alone. I wished more than anything that Morgan was here, that we could discuss the case, that I could feel safe in the presence of a strong man.
“Ugh,” I said, and dropped the mike by the radio. Since when was I such a wimp? Since when did I need a man to take care of me? Men were like drugs; they made you weak and dependent. Better to leave them alone and depend on yourself.
I changed into a clean shirt and wiped my face and hands with moist towelettes. I combed my hair and pulled it away from my face in a ponytail. I didn’t think Mr. Cycek would notice my lack of makeup. As long as my hands were clean, and I didn’t smell too bad, I should pass general muster.
I pulled on my boots and hoisted the twelve gauge on my shoulder. This time, I would be ready for any surprises. I knew I had three shells in the magazine, and I dropped three more into my pocket.
I walked to the cliff and looked down at the beach. The tide was at its midpoint, but there was plenty of walking room on the beach. I would have to wade around a few of the rock outcroppings, but I thought I could make it to Cycek’s without having to find a trail through the woods. As I stood staring at the beach, I heard a loud squawk above me. I swiveled my gaze upward to the large, sleek, black bird sitting in the cottonwood.
“You stay out of my tent,” I said. I hoped I had tied the flap tightly enough to keep this guy out.
“Auuk,” he replied, and we stared at each other for a moment. Was this the raven Craig had told me about in his last radio broadcast? Was this the guy who had been giving him trouble?
“Did you meet my friend Craig?”
The black feet tapped back and forth on the branch limb, and it occurred to me that this bird was possibly one of the last living creatures to see Craig alive. If only he could talk.
I tried to shed my gloom on the walk to Cycek’s. A slight breeze ruffled the water, not enough wind to chill me, but enough to keep the bugs out of my face. I inhaled a fruity, salty breath, a mix of ocean, wildflowers, alders, and cottonwoods, and marveled that my sinuses hadn’t objected to all the pollen.
The shotgun felt heavy on my shoulder, but I welcomed the weight and the secure feeling it offered. I didn’t like guns. I wasn’t good with them, and I didn’t feel comfortable around them. On my first field trip, two weeks after I started my job at the marine center, I told Peter I wasn’t taking a shotgun with me. He’d replied that only a fool camped on Kodiak Island without a firearm. He was right, and many hours of target practice later, here I was with a gun I knew how to load, shoot, and clean. The question was, would I shoot it if I had to? Craig had assured me when I confessed my doubts to him that I would shoot the gun without hesitation to protect my life.
“You won’t even think about it,” he’d said. “If you know your weapon, you will instinctively use it when you need to.”
I wanted to believe him, but I had doubts, not only about my marksmanship, but about my ability to judge when killing an animal or a man was the only option left to me.
I waded around a large pile of rocks and was surprised to see smoke curling in the air on the cliff above me. I’d been so engrossed in my thoughts that I hadn’t realized I was nearing Mr. Cycek’s cabin.
I walked up the steep path and knocked on the door. A few moments later, the door swung open and I was embraced by the warm fragrance of a busy kitchen. I picked out garlic, basil, and dill from the spicy mix, but that didn’t begin to describe the complex aromas wafting from the small kitchen.
Mr. Cycek, who bowed slightly when he opened the door, was a sight to behold. He wore Carhart pants, a red-and-blue flannel shirt and a narrow blue tie. His false teeth were in place, and his grey hair was slicked neatly back from his forehead. Apparently, I had underdressed.
I smiled. “Happy Fourth of July.”
“And to you, my dear.” He bowed again.
“It smells great in here,” I said. “What are you cooking?”
He shook his finger in front of his face. “A chef never gives away his secrets.” He gestured toward the couch. “Please, sit down. You can leave the gun by the door and hang your coat on the hook.”
I followed his instructions and perched on the edge of the couch. The room was as spotless as it had been on my last visit, and for our dinner, Mr. Cycek had draped the small table with a white sheet, placed a canning jar of wildflowers in the center, and laid two place settings. The only other decorative change I noted was that the photo of his wife that had adorned the alder coffee table had been moved to the bookshelf, and in its place stood the raven carving I had admired. I smiled. My praises must have inspired Mr. Cycek to display his artwork front and center.
“Would you like a glass of salmonberry wine?” Mr. Cycek walked from the kitchen clutching a juice glass of dark red liquid.
“Yes, thank you.” I reached for the glass and stared down into it. I braced myself, expecting a syrupy sweet concoction. Mr. Cycek was watching me carefully, and I didn’t want to grimace when I sipped his brew.
I rolled the liquid around in my mouth, acquainting it with my taste buds, and then carefully swallowed. The taste surprised me, and I glanced up at my host. “This is very good,” I said. “Did you make it yourself?”
He nodded, smiled, and returned to the kitchen.
I swallowed more of the crimson liquid. I had tasted homemade berry wines before, and they were usually sickeningly sweet. This wine was fruity but dry. It resembled a Merlot in both color and taste. Maybe Mr. Cycek would share his winemaking tips with me. I took one more sip and then set the glass on the table. I reminded myself that the alcohol content of this homemade wine could be quite high, and I didn’t want to end the evening staggering down the beach in search of my campsite.
Mr. Cycek glided from the kitchen, one hand holding a plate of crackers, the other a bowl of pink spread with a knife sticking out of it.
“Try some of my smoked salmon spread.” He placed the dishes in front of me. “Don’t eat too much, though. I want you to be hungry for supper.”
I dabbed some of the spread onto a cracker and took a small bite. A moan escaped my lips as the smooth salmon flavor slid down my throat.
“This is wonderful,” I called to Mr. Cycek, who had returned to the kitchen. He stuck his head around the corner of the door, smiled, and nodded.
I sipped more wine and then heaped a pile of the spread on the next cracker. I ate four laden crackers before I stopped myself. I could have made this my meal, but from the smells drifting from the kitchen, Mr. Cycek was preparing a feast, and he would expect me to eat healthy portions. I was glad I would have a long walk back to my tent to burn off some of the calories I was about to consume.
I leaned back on the couch and sipped more wine. The warm house, food aromas, and potent wine were making me sleepy. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
My eyes flew open, and I sat forward. I hadn’t heard him walk across the room, but now Mr. Cycek stood over me, wine bottle in hand. He bent and filled the glass I still held.
“I haven’t been sleeping well,” I said. “Today I fell asleep in the woods and was awakened by a bear.”
Mr. Cycek stepped back and smiled. “You must be careful.”
“At least I know my heart is strong.” I laughed.
“How did your clam digging go?”
“Fine. One more morning, and I’ll be done.” I paused. “I would like to ask you a few more questions about the onset and development of your wife’s symptoms. I know Craig asked you those questions,” I shrugged, “but I don’t have his notes.”
Mr. Cycek nodded his head but said nothing. He turned and disappeared into the kitchen. I sipped more wine and stared at the raven sculpture. Up close, I saw the work was crude, the features choppy. This only added to its charm, though, and as I ran my finger over the bird’s head and down its back, I wondered if Mr. Cycek would sell this to me. He must need money, and I could put the carving in my office to remind me of Craig.
A few minutes later, Mr. Cycek walked from the kitchen, his arms laden with serving bowls and platters.
I stood. “Can I help you?”
“No, no,” he said. “Please, sit at the table, and I will serve you.” He plopped a full salad bowl down in front of me. “I dished up our salads in the kitchen.”
I was charmed and amused. This was the best date I’d had in years. I wondered if Mr. Cycek was looking for another woman to fill the void left by Doris. I could do worse.
Mr. Cycek loaded the small table with food and then sat in the chair across the table from me.
“This all looks wonderful,” I said, “but I hope you don’t expect me to eat everything.”
He flashed a broad smile, showing off his even white dentures. “I won’t let you leave the table until everything is gone.” He snapped his fingers. “I forgot the wine.” He stood and scurried to the kitchen.
“Maybe I should slow down with that,” I said when he returned with the bottle.
“Nonsense. This is a holiday.” He refilled my glass and set the bottle on the table. His glass was already full, and I wondered how much of the ruby brew he’d already had to drink.
“Please help yourself. Taste the salad first.” Mr. Cycek gestured to the full bowl he had placed in front of me. “I will explain what you’re eating.”
It was a green salad, but unlike anything I ever had seen before. There was no lettuce in the mix, just shades of green leaves and lavender and pink petals.
“It’s okay,” Mr. Cycek said. “I like to eat natural food. Most humans, even people who have grown up in the wilderness, think they have to buy their food from the grocery store, while much more nutritious and better-tasting food grows in their yards.”
“What’s in the salad?” I asked.
Cycek shrugged. “Let’s see. Fiddleheads, young birch leaves, salmonberry flowers, watermelon berry shoots…” he stared at the bowl and made a face of concentration. “Rose petals, geranium flowers, fireweed leaves, and let’s see, I sprinkled in a few wild chives and some spring beauty. I don’t believe I have any sorrel or dock in this one, but the salty flavor comes from the sea lettuce seasoning and the beach greens. I also put dandelion greens and chickweed in it. Those, of course, grow in my garden, no matter how much I try to discourage them.” He shrugged again and then nodded his head. “Oh yes, wild mustard leaves and goose tongue.”
“Wow,” I said.
“It doesn’t need much of a dressing; it’s flavorful by itself. Just put a little of this oil and vinegar on it.” He handed me a bottle and I shook several drops over my wild salad.
“Try it,” he said. “Tell me truthfully what you think.”
He studied me while I lifted a forkful of salad to my mouth. I pushed the greens into my mouth and instantly regretted taking such a big bite. My cheeks involuntarily drew together in a pucker, and I had to fight the urge to spit the vile-tasting leaves onto the floor. I chewed slowly and forced myself to swallow. I felt tears run down my cheeks.
“Well?” Cycek asked.
“Good.” My mouth had not yet recovered its normal shape, and the word sounded strange. “It has quite a kick.”
“Oh yes.” This was the compliment Mr. Cycek apparently wanted. “So much better than the bland stuff you buy in the store.”
“It’s definitely not bland.” I swallowed wine and then looked around the table. “What else do we have?”
He handed me a bowl of dark green leaves that looked like spinach. “Try the nettles. I steamed them with morels.”
“Nettles?” You mean the leaves that sting you when you touch them?”
Mr. Cycek laughed. “Don’t worry. They lose their sting when they’re cooked. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.”
I spooned a small mound of the mushy plants onto my plate, and this time took only a small bite under Mr. Cycek’s watchful eye.
I glanced up. “This is good. It tastes like spinach, and these brown things are mushrooms?”
“Isn’t it difficult to know which mushrooms are safe to eat?”
Cycek shook his head. “I only pick the morels. Nothing else except false morels looks like them, and I know the difference, so I know they’re safe.”
He handed me the bread basket. “This is my work of art,” he said.
I lifted a piece of heavy, dark bread with green specks from the basket and waited for Mr. Cycek’s explanation before I bit into it.
He smiled. “I made that from a mixture of cattail and wheat flour. The green specks are dried nettles and chickweed.”
“You made flour from cattails?”
“Yes, from the rhizomes. It’s a lengthy process, but quite rewarding.”
I held the bread to my mouth and prepared myself for something bitter, but the bread tasted bland, and bland was good.
“Mmm,” I said. “You are some chef, Mr. Cycek. Tell me how you make flour out of cattail rhizomes.”
Mr. Cycek smiled. “I scrub and peel away the tough outer rind of the rhizome while it’s still wet. Then, I pound it into mush with a mallet, place it in a jar, and cover it with water. The flour settles to the bottom, and I pour off the water and stringy fibers. I then dry and store the flour until I need it. Of course, it takes a lot of cattails to make enough flour for bread, so I usually have to mix it with wheat flour. I like the flavor of the cattail flour, though.”
“It’s delicious,” I said, and bit off another small piece.
Mr. Cycek helped himself to the nettles and bread and then handed me a bowl of cooked, white grain that I thought was rice.
“These are steamed chocolate lily bulbs,” he said, as I dumped a large spoonful on my plate.
I looked from the grain to Cycek’s face. “The flowers that smell like a baby’s diaper?”
Cycek smiled. “That’s right. Try it, though. I think you’ll be surprised.”
My adventurous spirit was flagging. I longed for Minute Rice, iceberg lettuce, and Wonder Bread. I nibbled a bite of white grain.
“It tastes like garlic.”
“I seasoned it with garlic butter. The lily roots are bland by themselves, so they need to be livened up.”
I was surprised but thankful Mr. Cycek had chosen a conventional spice to season the lily roots. “It’s very good,” I said, and this time, I was telling the truth.
“And this I’m sure you’ve had before.” Mr. Cycek handed me a platter loaded with chunks of white fish.
“Oh yes. I love halibut. How did you cook it?”
“I basted it with lemon butter and baked it.”
Thank God. Something I could identify and liked. I took two pieces, but that didn’t make a dent in the large platter of fish.
“We’ll never eat all of this,” I said.
Mr. Cycek shrugged. “I guess I got carried away. It has been a long time since I’ve had company.”
“And you outdid yourself.” I gestured to the food. “This is all wonderful. Thank you for inviting me.”
We ate in silence for a few minutes. I alternated bites of delicious, flaky halibut with the bland and bitter side dishes. After each bite of salad, I gulped wine, and before I knew it, Mr. Cycek again had refilled my glass. I felt flushed and lightheaded and knew I should ask for water, but instead, I sipped more wine.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” I said. My mouth tingled and the words sounded strange. I shook my head, trying to clear it. “Why didn’t you eat clams with Doris the night she got sick?”
Mr. Cycek chewed slowly while I waited for his answer. “I don’t like clams,” he said. “I only ate a salad that night, but clams were Doris’ favorite meal.” He ate another bite of fish. “I did all the cooking, you see. Oh, Doris cooked when we were first married, but she was never any good at it, and I like to cook. Doris usually dug the clams and I cooked them, but when her arthritis got worse, she wasn’t able to dig.”
“How did you cook them that night?”
“Steamed them. That was her favorite.”
“And did she drink wine with her meal?” This was an important question, since liquor magnifies the effects of PSP, and I could testify that the liquor content of this wine was high.
“Yes. Doris always had a couple of glasses of wine with supper.”
“Do you remember how long it was from the time Doris began eating clams until she began feeling ill?”
Mr. Cycek lathered butter on a slice of bread and took a bite, chewing slowly. He picked up his wine glass and stared into it a moment before sipping.
“A few minutes after we began eating, I noticed Doris kept scratching her mouth, and then she slurred her words. I thought it was the wine.” Mr. Cycek’s eyes gleamed and a smile spread across his face. He chuckled and took another bite of salad.
I felt as if I were a guest at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The interior of the Cycek cabin lost its sharpness, and I seemed only able to focus on one object at a time. Everything else was fuzzy, and when I moved my head too quickly, the room blurred into a swirl of colors. Sound also was distorted, and Cycek’s laugh sounded louder than it should have. And why was he laughing? His reaction was out of place; it didn’t seem to make sense. Had I missed the joke? He was telling me about his wife’s death. Laughter had no part in that story.
I closed my eyes, shook my head, and then scratched my tingling mouth. I was beginning to imagine I had Doris’ symptoms. “I’ve had too much of your wine,” I said.
“After supper I’ll brew coffee. Don’t worry, I won’t send you back to your camp drunk.”
I tried another bite of salad, hoping the bitter taste might clear my head. Instead, my eyes began to water, and I pushed the bowl away from me. I ate two large bites of halibut and reached for my wine glass. I brought the glass to my lips, inhaled the potent brew, and set it down.
“Then what happened to Doris?” I asked.
Mr. Cycek slid his fork into his pile of chocolate lily grain. He tilted his head to one side, recalling the last night of his wife’s life.
“She dropped her fork three times and said she was dizzy.” He lifted his fork to his mouth, and I watched him chew.
“How do you like your food? You’re not eating very fast.” He nodded to my plate.
“It’s delicious,” I said and stuffed a forkful of nettles into my mouth. “Excellent,” I said after I swallowed, slurring the word so that instead of sounding like an “s,” the “c” sounded like “sh.” I licked my lips, which felt thick and numb, and I wondered if I was having a reaction to the nettles.
“What was Doris’ next symptom?” I asked.
Mr. Cycek waved his hand in front of his face and frowned. “I don’t know. Is this important?”
“I’m afraid so,” I said. “But if you’d rather wait and talk about it later, I understand.”
“No, no. We might as well get it over with.” He ate a bite of fish and then wiped his mouth with his napkin. He looked at me, and I focused on his small, black eyes. The rest of his face was blurred.
“Her words were so slurred I couldn’t understand what she was saying, and I told her that, but she wouldn’t shut up. She just kept babbling. The woman couldn’t stop talking.” His voice was low, his eyes hard.
I felt as if I were floating in space. Had I heard him correctly, or was I hallucinating? My stomach churned, and suddenly, the room seemed unbearably hot. I tugged at the neck of my sweatshirt.
“Bitch, bitch, bitch. That’s all the woman did. I never fixed the leaky roof. I didn’t help enough in the garden. She was tired of living like a hermit.” He paused and then chuckled. I heard his laugh, but my eyes were still locked on his, and they remained cold and hard. “She was particularly upset that day, because I forgot to bring her groceries from Larsen Bay. She didn’t stop to think that maybe I didn’t go to Larsen Bay.”
Without thinking, I pulled my salad bowl toward me and took another bite. I choked on the acrid leaves and swallowed the rest of the wine in my glass. Mr. Cycek didn’t refill it. He was lost in thought now, his eyes gazing past me as he remembered. I felt something wet run down my chin and wiped away a drop of saliva. Was I drooling?
“I helped Doris to the couch,” Cycek continued. “She could barely walk at that point, but she was still yammering. Finally, about ten minutes later, she began gasping for air. She clutched her throat and rolled off the couch onto the floor. Then, except for the wheezing and choking, she was quiet, and I called the Coast Guard.”
I watched Mr. Cycek quietly resume eating his meal. I knew I could not eat another bite. My head spun, my stomach churned, and sweat poured down my face. My heart thumped so rapidly that I imagined Mr. Cycek could hear it beating. I swallowed and looked around the room, trying to force myself to sober up, willing my vision to clear. My gaze fell on the bookcase, and I blinked, trying to read the blurred, jumbled letters on the spines of the books. Birds of Alaska, I deciphered after much effort. Edible and Poisonous Plants of the Pacific Northwest. The Alaska Cookbook. If only the Cyceks had heeded the PSP warnings in that book, Doris would be alive today. The Poor Man’s James Bond, I read. The words went in and out of focus, but this exercise seemed to be sharpening my acuity. Under Alaskan Seas, I read on the next book spine, the letters were slightly blurred but easy to make out.
I stopped, the sweat turning cold on my face as my eyes slowly returned to the James Bond book. The author of the book was not Ian Fleming, but Kurt Saxon. This was the homemade-bomb-making book Morgan had told me about.
I swiveled my gaze back to the table. Mr. Cycek’s head was bent, his attention focused on his food. My heart beat wildly, and for the first time, I examined the bouquet of flowers in the vase in the center of the table. Pink, white, yellow, and violet flowers filled the vase, but all I saw were the two stems of purple monkshood.
The bouquet blurred, splintering into fragments of color. I tucked my hands between my knees to control their shaking. My sweatshirt clung to my sweaty back, and I felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. I lifted my head toward the ceiling and took a deep breath.
Cycek looked up from his plate. “Are you okay? Your face is flushed.”
I’m not sure I answered him. My brain was scrambling to recall symptoms of aconite poisoning, a poison so toxic that the original inhabitants of this island spread it on their spears to kill bears and whales. Only a grain of monkshood root would kill a human being. I looked at the grains of chocolate lily in my plate, but no, Cycek also had eaten the lily root. What had I eaten that he hadn’t? He hadn’t eaten any of the salmon dip, or he could have dropped something into my wine, because he’d brought the first glass to me from the kitchen.
I took another deep breath and looked around the table. Cycek’s attention again was focused on his plate as he continued to shovel food in his mouth. The salad. He’d dished up the salad in the kitchen, and the bitter greens would camouflage any disagreeable taste the toxin might have. Also, monkshood leaves look similar to wild geranium leaves, and I would have to be an expert to spot them in the shredded salad.
I tried to calm down. I hadn’t eaten much of my salad, and if the old man had chopped up monkshood leaves in the salad, at least the leaves were less toxic than the roots.
What were the symptoms of monkshood poisoning? I’d consumed a great deal of wine. Was I feeling intoxicated or the symptoms of aconite?
I wiped drool away from the corners of my mouth. Yes, that was one of the symptoms of aconite poisoning. Salivation, weakness, chest pain, and in a few hours, death from cardiac arrest.