Murder Over Kodiak – Chapter 8 – Readers and Writers Book Club

Murder Over Kodiak – Chapter 8

Murder Over Kodiak

Chapter Eight

 Robin Barefield

Alaska Wilderness Mystery Author

Author Masterminds Charter Member

Envelope nailed to an old wooden door with a large nail in a threatening gesture from an angry person

Dense fog smothered Kodiak Monday morning. I usually found fog mysterious and exciting, but as I drove to my office, I longed for sunshine. The fog only served to deepen a nightmare I felt never would end.

I parked in the lot at the marine center, entered the building, and walked down the hall toward my office. I slowed at the main office and looked warily through the door – no sign of Betty.

“Hello, dear,” Glenda said, looking up from a pile of paperwork on her desk. “Are you feeling any better today?”

“A little, Glenda, thanks. Do I have any messages?”

“Not a thing.” Her voice was high and pleasant, and a bright smile lit her face.

I turned to leave, but then swung around. “Glenda,” I paused. I thought for a moment about what I wanted to say. “Why doesn’t Betty like me?” The question tumbled from my mouth and seemed to surprise me more than Glenda.

“Oh, dear,” Glenda said. I expected Glenda to deny that Betty disliked me, but she didn’t. “Betty is my friend, but sometimes I don’t understand her. She is usually so generous and caring, but once in a while she takes a dislike to someone, and there’s no changing her mind. Don’t take this wrong.” Glenda leaned forward across her desk toward me, her small, round glasses perched on the end of her nose. “Betty has old-fashioned ideas. I don’t think she believes a woman should have your position, and she has trouble respecting a younger woman.” She waved her hand dismissively and sat back in her chair. “Now, please don’t tell Dr. Wayans I said that. I don’t want to get Betty in trouble. She is very good at her job, and maybe I’m wrong. She hasn’t confided in me about her feelings for you, but I see the way she treats you.”

“She was very rude to me Saturday,” I said.

“Oh my. Try to ignore her, dear. I’ll talk to her.”

I sighed. “I don’t want to get Betty in trouble, but I feel she thinks I’m responsible for Craig’s death, and that bothers me. I’m carrying around enough guilt already.”

Glenda stared at her desk, her mouth pursed. Finally, she looked up at me. “Betty was very fond of Craig, and she did tell me once that she felt you worked him too hard.”

I felt a sudden rush of temper. “That’s none of her business.”

Glenda looked at the floor. “You’re right,” she said, “and I’ve said too much. I’ll speak with her, Dr. Marcus.”

I turned and fled down the hall before I could say something to Glenda I would regret. By the time I reached my office door, the anger already was dissolving into guilt. Had I worked Craig too hard? Should I have given him a few days off and gone on the collection trip myself?

I inserted the key into the lock on my doorknob and was surprised when the knob turned freely in my hand. I stepped back from the door and then remembered my hasty retreat from my office the previous afternoon. I’d been so anxious to get out of the building, I had forgotten to lock my door.

I turned on my office light and looked around. Everything was how I had left it. I shook my head and shut the curtains, blocking out the dismal fog. I now felt certain I’d imagined the noises in the building the previous day. If the sounds were real, then I knew if I looked long enough, I would find the logical sources for them. I had to get a grip on myself; I was losing control.

I sat in my desk chair and forced myself to think about my day. I needed to prepare the exam that I was scheduled to give my class on Wednesday. I usually spent a week making up an exam, but I hadn’t even thought about this one. I opened the class folder on my desk and tried to concentrate. The class had performed badly on my last test, so I planned to make this one a little easier. I couldn’t understand why these brilliant chemistry students had difficulty with biology, a subject I considered infinitely more understandable than chemistry, but they seemed to struggle with my class. Maybe it was me. Somehow, I hadn’t captured their interest.

A sharp knock rattled my door. “Hey, Doc. It’s Geoff.”

The door opened a crack, and my spirits rose at the site of smiling blue eyes and long red hair. “Come in, Geoff.”

Geoff lumbered into my office and sprawled in the chair in front of my desk. He studied my face. “How you doing, Doc?  You look tired.”

“I’m better, Geoff. I talked to the FBI yesterday, and I think they’ll figure this out.”

“I almost called you the other night to find out how your meeting with that Justin guy went. I was a little worried about you.”

I smiled. “You have good people instincts, Geoff. I wish I could say that about myself.”

“What happened?” Geoff sat forward.

“I think the guy believes I stole his father’s briefcase from the plane wreckage.”

“Are you kidding me?”

I shrugged.

“Did he threaten you?” Geoff asked.

“Not really, but I don’t think he believed me. I probably haven’t seen the last of him.”

“Be careful, Doc. You don’t know what you’re into here.” Geoff stood and leaned over my desk. “I understand that you want to know why Craig died, but there’s at least one and maybe several very dangerous people involved in all of this. Keep your distance from it.”

I’m not sure if I said anything else to Geoff, and I was only vaguely aware of him leaving my office. His words chilled me. Was I in danger?

I couldn’t concentrate on preparing exam questions and turned instead to my lesson plan for the day. At 10:00 a.m., I headed downstairs to the classroom and unenthusiastically delivered a lecture. Whether they were picking up on my mood, or they were still thinking about Craig, the students seemed listless and asked few questions. At the end of the class, I watched them file out of the room and felt as if I had failed them.

I wandered slowly back to my office, staring at the floor, wondering when I would get back on track. As I turned the corner by the central office, I saw a man standing in the hall. I didn’t look up until a familiar voice said, “Hello, Jane. I need to talk to you.”

My heart began to race even before I placed the voice, and when I looked up and saw Jack Justin, I stepped back against the wall. He looked as if he hadn’t slept since the night we had dinner together. His hair was uncombed, and dark stubble covered his face. His blue eyes were rimmed with red, and the tan had faded to a mustard color. He wore blue jeans and a stained sweatshirt.

“What happened to you?” I asked. I thought maybe he had been in an accident.

He didn’t answer my question. Instead, he walked toward me, hands outstretched. “Jane, you’ve got to help me.” He lowered his voice to a whisper, and I noticed scratches on his right hand. “I need my father’s briefcase. I’ll give you whatever you want for it.”

I wrapped my arms around myself and backed two steps down the hall. “I told you, I don’t have it.”

“Please,” he said, continuing toward me. “It contains some very important documents. They won’t do you any good, but they could incriminate some powerful people. Don’t you understand?” His eyes pierced through me. “Those people want them back.”

“Listen to me, Jack.” I spoke slowly, hoping it would sink in. “I do not have your father’s briefcase. I did not see it at the crash site. I would give it to you if I had it.”

David Hihn, an associate professor of nutrition, opened his office door and stared at us. “Is everything all right, Jane?”

“Fine, David. Thanks.”

I turned to Jack. “Maybe we should go into my office.” I wasn’t anxious to have a conversation with this man in the confines of my office, but I didn’t want to make a scene in the hall. My colleagues didn’t need more cause to gossip about me.

“Please, sit down.” I pointed at the chair in front of my desk. I pulled the door part-way shut, leaving it open far enough so that I could call for help if necessary. Justin sat and then stood again. I leaned against the closed window blind.

Justin took a deep breath, and I could see him strain to talk in a level tone. “Jane, dangerous people want this briefcase. You have no idea what they will do to get it.”

“Then tell the FBI about them,” I said.

He kicked the chair, and it crashed to the floor. I edged toward the door.

“Don’t you get it? These are the people who planted the bomb on the plane. They will do anything to get what they want. They will kill me if I talk to the FBI. They’re dangerous, Jane.”

I sidestepped to my chair and sat down, hoping the move would calm Justin. “I believe you,” I said. “You have my full attention, but please listen to what I’m saying. I don’t have your briefcase. I think it’s in a million pieces, and you’re not going to find it. You say it is indestructible, and maybe it is, but I saw the wreckage of that plane, and everything was blown to bits.”

His eyes were glazed, and I didn’t believe he’d heard a word I’d said. “Either you or Steve Duncan have that briefcase. I know that.”

“Why? Why would we keep your briefcase and not tell you or the FBI we had it? Think about it, Jack, you’re not making any sense. We’d either give the briefcase to the authorities, or we’d blackmail you for it, and we’re not doing either.”

“You know as well as I do why,” Jack said.

I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t. I didn’t know what else to say. There was no reasoning with the man.

He leaned over my desk, lowering his head to mine. He didn’t smell like the same man I’d met a few days ago. The pungent aroma of sweat cloaked any lingering cologne.

“Listen to me,” he said, breathing stale breath in my face. “If you don’t give me what I want, I will tell these people that you have the briefcase and you can deal with them, instead of me. I’ll tell them that I believe you plan to blackmail them.”

Sweat trickled down my forehead. “Who are these people? Are they part of a drug cartel?” Jack pulled back, stood upright, and began to pace. “Jack,” I searched for reason in his face, but didn’t see any. “If you know who planted the bomb, tell Agent Morgan. He can help you. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

Jack turned toward me. “I’ve been to the crash site,” he said.

Now I understood why he and his clothes were such a mess. I wondered how long he had crawled through the thick brush looking for the briefcase.

“It wasn’t there, so you must have it.”

There was no getting through to this guy. “Maybe the FBI or the troopers have the briefcase, Jack.” My head was beginning to ache. “Speaking of the authorities, how were you able to wander around the crash site? Isn’t it secured?”

“It’s taped off, but no one is guarding it. I had a pilot drop me off and camped there overnight. I searched for ten hours but didn’t find any part of that briefcase.”

I shrugged. “I can’t help you, Jack.”

Jack slapped the doorframe and then rushed across the office toward me. I wheeled my chair toward the corner of the room. His face burned crimson and his eyes bulged. He stopped on the other side of my desk and leaned across it again.

“This is no game,” he said. “If you know where that briefcase is, tell me. You’re going to get us both killed.” His red eyes danced back and forth, focusing on nothing. He punched my desk with his balled-up fist and then turned and hurried from my office. I could hear my heartbeat in the silence that followed.

I believed Jack Justin. His thoughts were muddled to the point of derangement, but he had said that his life and now mine were in danger, and I didn’t doubt the veracity of this. Either he had been taking mind-altering drugs, or he truly was frightened. I believed it was the latter.

My hand was shaking as I lifted the telephone receiver. I dialed Agent Morgan’s number. I was sent straight to voicemail and left a message for him to call me as soon as possible.

Next, I tried Kodiak Flight Services and was informed that Steve was at the dock. I grabbed my purse and jacket, locked my office door, and hurried from the building. I felt too edgy to sit around. I needed to talk to someone.

The fog was thinner than it had been when I’d driven to work, but the visibility was still less than a mile, and the ceiling was no more than eight-hundred feet. What was Steve doing at the dock? Certainly, he wasn’t flying anywhere. I wondered who Jack Justin had found to fly him to the crash site. The weather had not been flyable for the last several days.

Steve was the only person at the floatplane dock, and he was fueling a blue-and-white Beaver. I parked my Explorer and trotted down the ramp toward him. He waved at me, and I stood back until he finished filling the fuel tanks. Then, he coiled the hose and walked toward me, wiping his hands on his black jeans.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “You’re not flying in this, are you?”

“No, I’m just getting restless. The forecast is good, and we’re backed up, so I want to be ready to go as soon as the weather breaks.”

“Have all the airlines been on hold the last few days?”

“Pretty much.” He slid his hands into his back pockets.

“I just talked with Jack Justin, and he said someone flew him out to the crash site, dropped him off, and then came back out the next day to get him. Is that possible?”

“Adventure Air,” Steve said, and shook his head. “Their motto should be, ‘Each flight with us is an adventure.'”

“They’ve been flying in this crap?” The thought made me shudder.

“I heard they took a few flights out. I also heard they got stranded on the other side of the island. Maybe that was Justin’s flight.”

“Has Justin talked to you?” I asked.

“He called me two days ago and asked about a briefcase. He thought maybe I’d seen it at the crash site.”

“He’s convinced that either you or I have his father’s briefcase.”

“That’s insane.”

“I couldn’t reason with the man. He says his and my lives are in danger unless I give him the briefcase.” I felt tears in the corners of my eyes. “He scared me, Steve”

Steve reached toward me with oily hands and embraced me. I fought to keep control over my emotions. “I thought I should warn you,” I said. “He’s distraught, and he’ll probably try to contact you next.”

“If that briefcase was on the plane, there wouldn’t be anything left of it,” Steve said.

“That’s what I thought, but Agent Morgan thinks this particular briefcase could possibly have survived the crash.”

Steve released me. “I didn’t see a briefcase.”

“You and I know that,” I said, “but I can’t seem to convince Justin that we didn’t walk off with it.”

“I wonder what was in the case that is so important.”

“Justin believes the people who planted the bomb are after the briefcase. He says they will do anything to get it back.”

“My God.” Steve stepped back. “We’ve got to tell the FBI this.”

“I called Morgan, but he was out, so I left a message.”

“Why hasn’t Justin told the FBI?”

“He claims he’ll be killed if he says anything, but I think there’s more to it than that.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t trust Jack Justin, and I don’t think he’s an innocent bystander.”

“You think he blew up his parents?” Steve whispered the question.

I thought about my answer for a moment. “I think he knows more than he’s saying. Just be careful, Steve.” I turned and retraced my steps up the ramp.

“You too!” Steve yelled after me.

My stomach growled with hunger, but I had no appetite. I considered stopping someplace for coffee, but I didn’t want to deal with people, so I drove slowly back to the marine center.

I passed Peter Wayans as I walked through the lobby of the marine center. He wore his biggest smile and was acting as tour guide for an elderly couple. He undoubtedly smelled money and was going for the kill. I felt sorry for the couple; they didn’t stand a chance. I could almost see Peter’s fangs. Peter gave me a curt nod and then looked away. He usually introduced me to future, possible grant-givers as one of the center’s assets, but today, he must not have thought I would help his cause. Avoid infection by scandal, Peter. I liked Peter, but I knew he would not be my closest ally if my troubles involved the marine center. I was not even certain he would stick by his own wife if she did something to hurt his precious center.

I was thinking about Peter as I walked down the hall and didn’t notice the note taped to my door until I was in front of my office. Then, it assaulted my senses like a neon sign.

“YOU WILL BE NEXT BITCH” was written in red, felt-tip pen on white, lined notebook paper.

I snatched the note from the door and looked around. My first thought was one of embarrassment. I wondered who else had seen the note. What must my colleagues think of me? Then, I began to shake. I dropped my keys and fell to my knees to retrieve them. Had Jack Justin returned and left this note? The childish threat seemed out of character for the man, but he had been unreasonable and desperate. Maybe he thought fear would motivate me if his promise of a reward did not.

I stood, stuffed the keys in my pocket, and hurried toward the main office. A dull pressure pounded behind my eyes. I trotted through the door of the office and screeched to a halt in front of Glenda’s desk. She wasn’t there.

“Can I help you?” The crisp enunciation of each word caused my spine to stiffen. I wasn’t prepared to confide my problems in Betty; she was the last person I wanted to smell fear on me.

“Did you see any strangers walk past the office in the last hour?” I asked.

She hissed, and I knew I was wasting my time. “I’m too busy to sit here and stare at the hall,” she said.

“As always, Betty, thanks for your help.”

I stomped out of the office. We weren’t likely ever to become friends, but at least her sarcasm had served a purpose. Anger mediated my fear, and as I walked toward my office, reason began to prevail. I looked at the note I still gripped in my hand. The neat, block letters looked like something a teenage girl would write. This was probably just a childish prank. Was it the work of Toni Hunt’s disturbed mind? If I could believe Jack Justin, the people who wanted his father’s briefcase had planted the bomb on the plane. Toni might be innocent, but she was distraught and confused. If Steve and I had upset her as much as her mother said we had, then this might be her way of striking back.

I convinced myself I was right and wondered if I should call Mrs. Hunt and tell her what her daughter had done. My purse buzzed twice, and I fumbled my phone from it. “Marcus,” I said after the fourth ring.

“Jane, this is Nick Morgan. I got your message.”

I felt my muscles unlock and realized how tense I had been.

“Agent Morgan, I need to talk to you again.”

“Are you okay?” Morgan asked. “You sound out of breath.”

“I’m fine,” the words rushed out, “but I’ve been threatened twice this morning.”

“By whom?”

I heard talking in the background, and then Morgan’s muffled voice, as if he’d put his hand over the mouthpiece. “I’m on the run,” he said. “Can I stop by your office around 5:00 this evening?”

“That will work.” I hoped my disappointment didn’t transmit over the phone. I wanted him to drop everything and come now. I wanted a knight in shining armor, but I reminded myself that they only exist in fairy tales.

I sat at my desk and began sorting through the pile of papers, but I couldn’t focus. Was my life in danger? What had I done to become a threat to someone? Had I asked too many questions, or was it just the briefcase? What could I do to convince Jack Justin that I did not have, nor had I ever seen his father’s briefcase?

I pushed the papers aside and stood. My collection trip was Thursday, and I could begin getting my gear ready. I went down to the lab and flipped on the light switch. Fluorescent lights lit up the space, and I stood staring at Craig’s computer and personal gear. An unexpected flood of grief washed over me, and I sat on one of the lab stools. After a few minutes of tears, I wiped my face and stood. I had to move on. I searched through the basement labs until I found two large boxes. Then, I began packing Craig’s gear into the boxes.

I turned on the computer and checked the hard drive for files relating to our research, and when I saw the file labeled, “Cycek Collection,” I struggled against more tears. I brought up the file and smiled at Craig’s careful work. He had mapped the beach and plotted where he would dig his bivalve samples. In practice, this was good scientific technique, but I knew from years of experience that a large rock sitting in the middle of a plotted collection grid could screw up the whole plan. Nevertheless, I printed a copy of Craig’s grid and decided that in memory of him, I would do my best to follow his collection plan.

I finished boxing up Craig’s gear and wrote his parents’ address on the outside of the boxes. Now at least I could look around the lab, without being bombarded by reminders of him.

I made a list of the gear I would need for Thursday. Since my equipment all had been lost in the crash, I would have to scrounge replacement gear from the other researchers in the building. I decided I would keep the trip simple. I needed a tent, radio, and a battery, but I could do without cooking gear, and even decided to forgo the kerosene stove. As long as I dressed warmly and took a good sleeping bag, I would be warm enough without heat.

I considered borrowing a satellite phone but dismissed the idea. On Kodiak, with its mountainous terrain and thick vegetation, it often was impossible to get a satellite signal when camped at sea level. A sideband radio was more reliable, and on it, I could receive as well as make calls. I had plenty of collection containers and a spare shovel. I would need little else. Digging for bivalves was not a complicated scientific procedure, and I planned to collect what I needed and get back to town as quickly as possible. I would fly out to Uyak Bay on Thursday, make one collection on the low tide Friday morning, and a second collection on the low tide Saturday morning. I’d set up the charter to return to town for noon on Saturday.

I left the lab and walked upstairs to the main office. I was relieved to see Glenda sitting at her desk, and turning my back to Betty, I asked Glenda to check around for a spare battery, radio, and tent for me. She made a note and assured me that she would have the gear by the following morning. I told her I had boxed up Craig’s personal effects.

“Don’t worry,” honey,” she said. “I’ll get one of the graduate students to mail those for you.” She nodded her head. “I’ll get them out of here this afternoon.”

I smiled at Glenda, resisting the urge to look at Betty. I returned to my office and began making a list of the personal gear I would need for the collection trip. I was in my office for less than fifteen minutes when my cell phone buzzed. Dana Baynes’ contrite voice greeted me.

“Are we still friends?” she asked as soon as I answered the phone.

“Of course.”

“I was terrible when you called the other night. I want to apologize.”

“It’s okay, Dana. I understand.”

“You were being a Good Samaritan, and all I wanted to do was stick my head in the sand.”

“I became involved in this disaster the minute my assistant was killed,” I said. “You don’t have that responsibility.”

“Maybe not, but I owe it to you to help. You’re my friend.”

I thought about the threats I had received that day and wasn’t sure I wanted a friend’s help. I didn’t need anyone else’s blood on my conscience.

“There’s not much we can do now, Dana. It’s in the FBI’s hands,” I said.

Dana paused, and I listened to her shallow breathing. “I hope you’re letting the FBI handle this investigation, Jane. The person who planted that bomb is a cold-blooded murderer. If you aggravate the killer, one more life isn’t going to bother his conscience.”

“I’m being careful.”

“I did find out something,” Dana said. “But please, pass this on to your FBI agent. Don’t look into it by yourself.”

“What?” I stood and paced behind my desk.

“I’ve been feeling guilty about the way I treated you the other night, so I asked a few questions about George Wall.”

“And?”

“I was surprised to learn that he’s here in town, working as a freight hauler for Afognak Air.”

“The airline that services the logging camps on Afognak Island?”

“Right,” Dana said. “I thought he was in jail, but he must be out on bail?”

“And he’s still here?”

“Since the explosion, you mean? I don’t know. I didn’t call Afognak Air, and I don’t think you should either, Jane. Call the police.”

“I understand,” I said. “I’ll be careful.”

“Don’t get involved,” Dana said.

I didn’t tell her that I already was involved in this mess, and I was in over my head. “Thanks, Dana.”

“Let’s go out for dinner soon.”

We didn’t make plans, but I promised I would call her soon. I sat and stared at my desk for a few seconds and then grabbed the phone book and looked up the number for Afognak Air.

Dana’s warning as well as the two previous threats of the day hung in my head. I didn’t give the Afognak Air dispatcher my name when I asked if George Wall worked for the air charter company.

The lady paused. “Yes,” she said. “He isn’t here right now, but if you give me your name and number, I’ll tell him you called.”

“Where is he?” I asked, and then quickly added, “When do you expect him back?”

“He’s loading a plane. He should get back to the office in an hour if everything goes well.”

So, George Wall – a man who hated and had promised revenge against Dick Simms, a man who had done time for blowing up a pickup truck – worked on the floatplane dock, where he had access to any of the planes tied there. Was I missing something? Agent Morgan hadn’t seemed that interested in George Wall, but I believed the man wore a big red banner that said, “Number One Suspect.”

“Ma’am?” The dispatcher’s voice startled me. “Would you like me to have George call you?”

“No thanks. I’ll call back later.”

If Wall had planted the bomb, why hadn’t he left the island? Then again, why should he? It didn’t seem the authorities were that interested in him. I didn’t know George Wall, but from what Dana had told me, I believed the man was dishonest and possibly quite dangerous. When Morgan arrived, I would talk to him again about Wall.

As if in response to my thoughts, a sharp knocked cracked on my door. “Yes?” I called.

The door pushed open and Nick Morgan looked into my office. “I’m a little early. Are you busy?”

I was reclining in my desk chair, feet propped on the corner of the desk. I swung my feet to the floor and sat straight. “Not very,” I said. “Come in.”

He shut the door behind him, placed his briefcase on the floor, and sat in the chair by my desk. Today, Agent Morgan was dressed in a black trench coat, a charcoal suit, a white shirt, and a maroon and grey pinstriped tie. His eyes appeared dull, and the creases at their corners were more pronounced. This case was beginning to wear on the FBI agent, but his fatigue made him no less attractive. I forced myself to look at his left ring finger. The gold band helped me to focus. I wondered again how old Morgan was. Before, I would have guessed mid-forties, but today he looked fifty.

He regarded me with a weary smile. “I was concerned about you after we spoke earlier. What happened?”

I told him about Jack Justin’s visit. Morgan sagged in the chair and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“Justin thinks he knows who the bombers are,” I said. “Do you have any idea who he’s talking about?”

“I think he believes his father was the target of the bombing.” He spread his hands and placed them on the desk. “And, right now, I would have to agree with him. Unfortunately, Mr. Justin has not provided us with any details. We’ve been looking all day for Jack but haven’t been able to find him. I don’t suppose he told you where he was going.”

I shrugged. “No, and he was frantic. I know he believes his life is in danger unless he finds that briefcase. He even flew out to the crash site to look for it.”

Morgan sighed and stared over my head, his gaze unfocused. “I wonder how Jack knows his father had the briefcase with him.” He paused. “And if George Justin did have the briefcase, I wonder what happened to it.”

“I still don’t believe it survived the explosion,” I said.

“Our experts assure me it would have.”

Blood began to pulse in my temples. “I hope you aren’t suggesting that Steve or I took the case from the crash site.” I folded my arms across my chest and watched Morgan’s face.

“No, no.” He shook his head. “I don’t think anyone took the briefcase from the crash, but an object the size of the briefcase might be hard to find in the thick vegetation near the wreckage. The debris from the explosion was scattered over a large area. If we could find that briefcase, we might be able to answer a few questions.”

“There is something else,” I said. I opened my desk drawer and retrieved the note that had been taped to my office door. I handed it to Morgan. “I’m sorry. I was so upset when I saw it that I handled it before I thought about fingerprints.”

He grasped the note by the corner and held it up. “When did you get this?”

“Just before I called you today. A little after noon.”       “Do you think Jack Justin left it?”

“Maybe,” I said, “but it doesn’t seem like his style. I think an anonymous note is too subtle for him. And,” I added, “there’s the writing.”

“Mmm.” Morgan squinted his eyes, considering the penmanship. “I’m no expert, but it doesn’t look like a man’s handwriting.”

“No. It looks like something a teenage girl might do.”

“Of course, if this note was from Justin,” Morgan said, “he could have gotten someone to write it for him by convincing them it was a practical joke.”

That possibility hadn’t occurred to me, but I still didn’t believe the note was Justin’s handiwork.

“He was too upset to do something like this,” I said. “I don’t think he would have bothered with it.” A thought suddenly occurred to me. “Do you think the people he’s frightened of could have left the note? If he told them about me as he threatened he would, maybe they left the note on the door.”

Morgan’s eyes dropped to my desk, and he was silent for a moment. “Did anyone here see a stranger in the hall?”

“I asked at the office, but the secretaries said they hadn’t seen anything unusual.”

Morgan put his hand over his mouth and yawned. “This is probably nothing more than a sick prank. I’ll send it to the lab, and maybe they can pull some prints off of it. We’ll need to get a set of your prints so we can eliminate them.”

“Okay.” I offered a sheepish smile. “I’m sorry I touched it.”

Morgan shrugged. “There’s no reason you should think like a cop.”

I cleared my throat. “My first intuition when I saw the note was that it looked like something Toni Hunt might do.”

Morgan nodded. “I spoke with Miss Hunt today, and she is unstable. I don’t know that she’s capable of planting a bomb, but this note would be within her realm. Even though I didn’t mention your name, she probably suspects you told me about her, and this may be her way of revenge.”

I remembered the story about Bill’s smashed pickup. “I’ll watch my back if she’s mad at me. I don’t trust that little girl. There’s something else I just found out,” I said. “George Wall, the guide with the grudge against Simms, is here on the island. He’s working as a freight handler for Afognak Air.”

“Yes,” Morgan said. “We haven’t had a chance to question him.”

I sat forward and leaned across my desk. I locked eyes with Morgan. “This guy has a violent past and a job that gives him access to all the commercial floatplanes.”

Morgan matched my look of intensity as he bent his head toward mine. “I understand, Dr. Marcus, and we will question him. At this point, he is not our primary suspect, but we won’t ignore him.”

I sat back. Morgan had made his point by using my title. I was not an FBI agent and not Morgan’s boss. I had no right to second guess him.

“Sorry,” I said. “I guess I’m a little tense. My friend tells me that I shouldn’t be so involved in this.”

“Your friend is right.” His face broke into a broad smile, and my apprehension dissolved. “Of course, I have appreciated your help.” He stood. “Tell you what. If you aren’t busy now, why don’t we go by the police station, get you fingerprinted, and drop off this note. Then, I’ll take you to dinner.”

“Dinner?”

“No shop talk. We’ll just relax for a couple of hours.”

I thought about the gold band on his hand and knew I should say no, but his smile weakened my thin resolve. After all, it was only dinner. I grabbed my jacket and purse, locked my office door, and followed him out of the marine center.

Morgan explained that a city policeman had dropped him at the center, and he was supposed to call when he wanted to be picked up. Had he planned to catch a ride with me, I wondered, and if so, what else did he plan? Did I look like an easy mark, someone he could seduceWas I this assignment’s R & R? The muscles in my neck tightened. This man was attractive, and I was lonely. However, I wasn’t desperate, and I had no desire to get burned again. I would go no further than dinner and conversation.

I expected an ink pad and a fingerprint card, but I should have known that my fingerprints would be recorded electronically. Nevertheless, the process unsettled me and left me feeling like a suspect.

I looked up at Morgan as we walked out of the police station. “You took my prints so you could eliminate them from the note, right?”

Morgan stopped walking. “Yes, of course. Why?”

“I don’t know. I guess I feel like a criminal.”

Morgan smiled, and this time I could see a gleam in his eyes. “You’ve been watching too much CSI.”

“SVU,” I said.

“Whatever.”

“I want to know if I become a suspect.”

Morgan’s eyes widened, but the smile stayed on his lips. “Should you be?”

“I feel guilty about sending Craig on that collection trip instead of going myself, but that is the extent of my guilt.”

“Good. I make it a practice never to take a suspect to dinner.”

Was he joking or flirting with me, and why couldn’t I judge the difference? Other people seemed to understand the nuances of human relationships, but I never had been good at that – the price I paid for being a science nerd.

Morgan wanted to return to his hotel to check his messages, so we decided to dine at the hotel restaurant. I didn’t complain. The restaurant at the Baranov Inn was one of the best in town.

I waited in the bar while Morgan went to his room. I downed a glass of Merlot too quickly and decided to wait until Morgan arrived before I ordered a second glass. The muscles in my neck and back relaxed as the wine worked its magic. It had been a bad day, and the end to this nightmare was not in sight. Why couldn’t I simply take Dana’s advice and stay away from the investigation? It didn’t matter now; it was too late. I already was involved.

I watched Morgan walk through the door of the bar, and his attire surprised me. He had changed from his suit and wore a dark blue sweater, jeans, and hiking boots. Even though I had seen him wear jeans before, he struck me as the kind of man who was more comfortable in a suit.

He gestured at his clothes as he approached the table. “I hope this is okay for this restaurant.”

I laughed. “You’re fine. Kodiak doesn’t have many dress codes, and since this restaurant is near the harbor, it’s a favorite of fishermen. I once saw a guy eating here whose hands and clothes were black from diesel fuel.” I shrugged. “No one cared.”

“Maybe I’m overdressed.” Morgan pulled out the chair opposite me and began to sit. He stopped halfway down. “Are you starving, or do I have time for a drink?”

“I think I’ll survive a few more minutes.”

Morgan ordered scotch and water and I got another Merlot. We watched the bartender pour our drinks and then sipped in silence for a few minutes.

“God, I needed that,” Morgan said.

“You look tired.”

Morgan nodded. “It’s important to solve a case like this quickly because the trail cools down fast. We have several leads, but nothing feels right.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

Morgan gripped his drink with both hands. “Oh, nothing. I shouldn’t have said that much. We need to talk to Jack Justin. I hope we’ll find him tonight.”

“Okay,” I said. “You said no shop talk, so why don’t you tell me a little about yourself.”

Morgan’s gaze drifted from his glass to my face. I couldn’t read his eyes. The lighting was dim in the bar, and a shadow fell across his face.

“My job is my life,” he said slowly.

“That sounds like something they teach you to say at the academy.”

Morgan chuckled. It was a low, musical sound that caused me to feel warm inside. “That’s right,” he said. “The J. Edgar Hoover Oath.”

“You’re married,” I said, my voice low. If he was trying to hide this detail from me, he should have taken off his ring.

His eyes dropped to the table. “Yes,” he said.

“Any children?”

“No children. Angela says I was never home long enough for that.”

I nodded. “Your work keeps you away from home.”

Morgan gripped his glass in both hands and swirled the ice cubes. “I like my job; it’s challenging.” His eyes lifted to my face. “But it’s difficult to have a family when you’re away from home more than you’re there.”

His face flushed, and I felt I was prying. “So tell me about work,” I said.

I saw the tension melt from his shoulders as he sat straight and smiled. “Thousands of hours of frustration hopefully followed by ten minutes of triumph,” he said.

“Why did you choose the FBI?” I asked.

“Good question. One I ask myself at least once a day.” He leaned back and took a long sip of his drink. “Believe it or not, I started out as a scientist. I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, a master’s degree in psychology, and a PhD in forensic science from George Washington University. An FBI recruiter approached me when I was working on my doctorate.” He shrugged. “I had nothing planned, and I was tired of being broke. The money and job security sounded good to me.”

“And you work with the Behavioral Science Unit?”

Morgan nodded. “It’s called CASKU now. That’s Child Abduction Serial Killer Unit. Most of the time I’m there, but I specialize in terrorist behavior, so I spend a lot of time with the Counterterrorism Unit.” He drained his glass. “Or on location at a crime scene.”

“Are you ready to eat?” I asked.

Morgan pushed back his chair and stood. He waited for me to stand and collect my purse and wine glass and then followed me into the dining room. The hostess seated us by one of the three large windows that offered a view of the bay and the boat harbor. The evening was grey, but the fog had lifted.

I pointed out the window. “Maybe we’ll get a weather break.”

“That would be nice,” Morgan said, as he eased himself into the chair across from me. “I’d like to get back out to that crash site.”

“I don’t know how Jack Justin managed to get out there,” I said. “Steve Duncan told me that a few pilots made trips during this storm, but it’s nothing I’d fly in.”

Morgan shook his head. “It’s been below minimums since I’ve been here.”

The waitress brought us menus, and Morgan ordered another drink. When she returned, I ordered grilled salmon, and Morgan chose beer-battered halibut.

When the waitress left, he smiled at me. “Fish is healthy, right?”

“Yes,” I said, “when it’s prepared any way except the way you ordered it.”

He shook his head and smiled. “I can’t get the hang of eating right.”

Did he have a dimple, or was that just a shadow in the low light? I decided I would not have more wine.

“I’m impressed,” I said. “You have a much stronger chemistry background than I do, and I work in a chemistry lab.”

“I don’t do much forensic work anymore,” Morgan said. “When I first started out, I did that, but now I investigate and profile suspects. I know just enough about explosives to know when I should call the experts, and when I should send something to the lab.” He rubbed his chin. “I’m usually the only profiler on a case, and I like that.  I don’t like being second-guessed by other profilers. This job is hard enough, but when you begin doubting yourself, it’s impossible.”

“Where do you live?” I asked.

Morgan took a sip of his drink, put it on the table, and played with his glass. A minute passed.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Did I say something wrong? Am I getting too nosy?”

“No, no. I’m sorry.” He didn’t look up. “Right now, that’s not an easy question to answer. My wife and I have recently separated, so I don’t have a home. We lived in Virginia, about forty-five minutes from Washington D.C. I work at Quantico.”

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

“My wife would tell you it’s my fault, not hers.” Morgan looked up at me and tried to smile but failed. “We’re trying to work it out. Maybe after this case.”

He looked at the table, and I could see he was thousands of miles away. The waitress arrived, as if on cue, and set our salads in front of us. We ate in silence, and I noticed how much better my appetite was tonight than it had been when I’d eaten with Jack Justin.

As soon as we finished the salads, our dinners arrived, and except for intermittent comments about the food, we didn’t talk during dinner. The quiet was relaxing, and the only thing that bothered me was how comfortable I felt with Nick Morgan. Keep your distance, I warned myself. You’re too old to make this mistake again.

We both ordered coffee after the meal, and the restaurant’s strong brew helped clear my head. “I’ve read a little about you FBI profilers,” I said. “You’ve done some amazing things.”

Morgan set his coffee cup in the saucer. “When the profiles work, they’re impressive.” He shrugged. “Lately, though, I’ve been investigating more than profiling. I like to be out in the field, and profiling is depressing work. Day after day, you are bombarded with cases of depraved crimes, and you only have time to help a fraction of the law enforcement agencies who need your help.”

“It must feel good when something you’ve told the police helps them catch a serial murderer or a terrorist, though.”

Morgan nodded. “Sure, there are some good, ego-building moments, but those are interspersed between hours of looking at mutilated bodies and listening to tapes of young girls being tortured. It warps your everyday life. The world becomes one big crime scene, and everyone is either a victim or a predator. I was no picnic to live with.”

“And this is easier?” I asked.

A smile lifted the corners of his mouth. “A little. At least I’m involved in one case at a time and will hopefully see it through from beginning to end.”

“Profiling,” I said, not wishing to drop the subject quite yet. “How do you learn it? I’ve heard some amazing predictions about a criminal, based on only a few facts.”

Morgan took another long sip of coffee. “All we do is offer educated guesses based on common sense. You’d probably have trouble doing it, because our guesses don’t require the scientific proof you’re used to dealing with. We base our assumptions upon past trends and what little physical evidence we have.”

“Like Sherlock Holmes.”

“Exactly, although I’m not as smart as he was.” Morgan shifted in his chair and then gestured with his right hand. “There are certain clichés that are true, such as a criminal often returns to the scene of his crime. You’d be surprised how often that happens, and how often that’s what traps the criminal.”

I felt chilled and pulled my jacket around my shoulders. “Knowing how to profile must be a great help to you when you’re investigating.”

“It is, if I can keep it in the back of my mind. The facts must come first, and when they are lacking or aren’t getting me anywhere, then I begin using my profiling skills.”

“And what do your profiling skills tell you about this case?” I asked as I lifted the coffee cup to my lips.

The waitress arrived with the coffeepot, and both Morgan and I accepted refills.

“I thought this conversation was off-limits.” He smiled, and then the smile faded. “This isn’t an easy case. As you have pointed out, most of the people on that plane could have been the target. Our experts in the Explosives Unit believe the bomb was crude, with a simple timer. An unsophisticated device doesn’t rule out a terrorist group, but it does make personal revenge a more viable motive.”

I rubbed my finger across the surface of the table. “Wouldn’t it be smart for a terrorist group to use a simple bomb to mislead you?”

Morgan shrugged. “That’s possible. As I said, this isn’t an easy case. The media thinks that because the blast occurred in a remote corner of the world, we should be able to solve the case quickly. But, by the time we got here, the trail was already cold, and now all this weather has kept us from thoroughly investigating the crime scene.”

The waitress brought the check, and Morgan tossed the credit card on the cash tray. I objected to him paying for my meal, but he waved away my protest. “This has been the most relaxing evening I’ve had in months,” he said.

I felt the same, but I didn’t tell him that.

“I’ve been talking about myself all evening,” Morgan said. “How about an after-dinner drink in the bar?  I have a few questions for you.”

Don’t do it, I told myself, and then said, “Sure.”

Morgan signed the credit-card receipt and then we moved back to the same table we had occupied earlier. He ordered a brandy, but I only allowed myself another cup of coffee.

I watched his face as he sipped his drink. The muscles looked looser now, the lines around his eyes and mouth relaxed and faint. The alcohol and conversation had served to lessen his reserve.

“Tell me about your job; it sounds interesting.”

I smiled. “Now you’re just being nice. Most people’s eyes glaze over when I begin talking about toxic dinoflagellates.”

He laughed. “You’re solving a mystery, much like I am.”

I nodded. “That’s the way I look at it, and I feel good about my work most of the time.”

“Why only most of the time?” Morgan asked.

“I usually feel as though I’m trying to save lives,” I said, “but then reality slaps me in the face, and I know I will probably never develop a simple field-test kit for measuring paralytic shellfish poisoning toxins. I think the best thing to come out of this study is that we are slowly educating the public and convincing people not to eat bivalves from untested beaches.”

“Explain the problem to me.” Morgan settled back in his chair with his brandy.

“It’s complicated. PSP toxins are called saxitoxins. There’s not just one toxin to worry about, but at least twenty-one different molecular forms.”

“Twenty-one related molecular forms?”

I nodded. “You’re beginning to see the problem. These twenty-one forms undergo transformations that change one toxin into another. The forms vary in toxicity.”

“Doctor Marcus,” a low, deep voice said.

I looked up into the square face and thick-lensed glasses of Doctor Barry Gant, one of my associates at the marine center.

“Doctor Gant.” I smiled at him and hoped etiquette would not force me to introduce Special Agent Nick Morgan to my coworker. I had never thought of Gant as a gossip, but the marine center was a small place, and rumors spread like the plague. I did not want my colleagues to think that the FBI was investigating me.

Gant paused for a moment, looking uncertainly from Morgan to me. “I’ve been wanting to tell you that I’m sorry about your assistant. I know how I would feel if something like that happened to one of my assistants.”

I was touched. I could tell that Gant was not comfortable sharing his feelings, which made his offer of condolence all the more special. Only a couple of my other colleagues had said anything about Craig’s death, and now it struck me that maybe they hadn’t said anything because they didn’t know what to say or how to say it.

I reached up and grasped Gant’s left hand. He started to step back but stopped himself. His palm was sweaty. “Thank you,” I said. “I appreciate you saying that.”

I dropped his hand and he stepped away. His wife, a small woman whom I had met at the marine center Christmas party, smiled at me and then grasped her husband’s arm and pulled him toward the restaurant. I watched them walk away and then returned my gaze to Morgan. His head was tilted, and he was watching me curiously.

I wiped my eyes, embarrassed when I realized they were wet. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Where was I?”

“Twenty-one different toxins,” Morgan said. He sat forward, reached across the table, and squeezed my hand. I lingered under his touch for a few seconds and then slowly withdrew my hand and gripped the handle of the coffee cup.

I cleared my throat. “Twenty-one toxins that can change forms, much like a chameleon changes color as it moves from one background to the next.” I sipped the coffee. “For example, a person’s stomach acid can change the original saxitoxin to another form that is six times more toxic.”

Morgan’s eyebrows lifted. “Wow,” he said.

“That’s the main problem, but not the only problem that’s keeping us from developing a field test kit.” I folded my hands on the table, feeling as if I were giving a lecture. “Some species of bivalves are able to hold higher levels of toxin than other species are, and some species, such as butter clams, have the ability of binding the most highly toxic forms of saxitoxin. Butter clams can also hold the toxins for up to two years after initial ingestion.” I took another sip of coffee. “That’s why I think it’s so important to get out to the small villages and communities in Alaska and educate people. If someone insists on digging and eating clams, at least the person should know which species of bivalves are the least likely to be toxic.”

“And do you know what species those are?” Morgan asked.

“Well,” I smiled, “a steamer clam would be a better choice than a butter clam, and mussels should be avoided at all costs.”

“I’m not sure I understand. Why is a steamer clam less toxic?”

“For some reason, a steamer is able to transform saxitoxin into one of its less toxic forms.”

Morgan drained his brandy. “This is beyond me,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s beyond me, too. It’s a complicated puzzle, and I love puzzles. But I’m not a chemist, and understanding the intricacies of a complex organic molecule requires all my brainpower.”

The waitress appeared to refill my coffee and asked Morgan if he would like another brandy. He shook his head and asked instead for coffee.

“If people know the bivalves are dangerous, why do they eat them?”

I looked into my steaming cup of coffee. “For some reason, the incidences of PSP have increased in recent years. Native Alaskans who grew up eating clams and mussels are suddenly getting sick. Everyone knows there’s a risk, but until recently, the risk was small. Until someone dies in their own village or town, people don’t believe there’s a problem.”

“Is that what happened in the most recent case?” Morgan stirred a heaping teaspoon of sugar into his coffee.

“Doris Cycek,” I said, nodding my head. “She and her husband, Jim, lived in a remote cabin in Uyak Bay. Doris was sixty-four.” I sipped my coffee while I thought about the case.

“I think the Cyceks used to fish, but for the last few years, they’ve lived like hermits, rarely coming to town.” I shrugged. “It’s a simple story, really. Doris loved clams and Jim didn’t. He dug up clams for supper, Doris ate them, and about twenty minutes after supper, her lips began to feel numb and her fingers and toes started to tingle. Soon, she was dizzy and sick to her stomach, her breath coming in short gasps. Jim called the Coast Guard, and forty-five minutes later when they arrived, Doris couldn’t walk or talk and was barely breathing. She stopped breathing on the way to town and was pronounced dead at the local hospital. I was called to the hospital, where I met Mr. Cycek.” I shook my head. “The poor guy was in shock; it all happened so fast.”

“Was there anything he could have done to save her?” Morgan asked.

I shook my head. “Other than talking her out of eating clams, no. Maybe if they’d lived closer to town or Mrs. Cycek had been younger and stronger….” I shrugged. “It’s hard to say. Most people survive paralytic shellfish poisoning, but Mrs. Cycek was the third person to die this year, and extremely high levels of toxins were found in the bivalves that provided the final meals for the other victims. The first death was a young man near Kodiak, and the level of saxitoxins in the mussels he ate was the highest ever recorded. The second case happened only a few miles from the Cyceks’, but that’s the interesting part of all of this.”

“What?” Morgan asked.

“The second victim, a forty-five-year-old fisherman, dug his clams in an enclosed lagoon that had four freshwater streams emptying into it. The small organism that carries saxitoxin blooms under those conditions, and we’ve known for a long time that stagnant lagoons are hot spots for PSP. We warn people that if they must eat bivalves, dig on beaches that face the open ocean.”

I leaned toward Morgan and lowered my voice, as if imparting a secret. “Jim Cycek’s beach faces the open ocean. It should be one of the safest beaches on the island. If the bivalves are toxic on his beach, they could be toxic everywhere on the island, or everywhere in this part of the state. Now, we have to figure out why, what’s causing this bloom.”

“Is the water red?” Morgan asked. “I haven’t noticed it.”

“There’s a slight red tint in places, but we’ve found that red tides are not the best indications of high PSP levels.”

“I see why you’re anxious to get out and collect more samples.”

“Yes,” I said, “and then I need to gather bivalves from as many locations on the island as I can. We could learn a great deal about paralytic shellfish poisoning this summer. My boss at the marine center wants me to hire another assistant to help me, but I don’t think I will. I don’t have the heart for it.”

“You can’t blame yourself for this, Jane.” Morgan’s voice was low and soothing. Why couldn’t I find somebody like him to lean on? I wanted to be taken care of, and I wanted to be held. I gulped hot coffee.

“You’re flying out to Uyak on Thursday?”

“Yes,” I said. “On the third.”

“Will you stay at Cycek’s?”

I laughed. “No, although Mr. Cycek did offer to let us stay with him when we collected samples.”

“You’ll take a tent, then?” Morgan frowned.

“Sure,” I shrugged.

“And stay by yourself?”

I smiled at him. “I’m used to that.”

“Aren’t you afraid of bears?”

“I’m more afraid of strange people. I think I’m safer in a tent on Kodiak Island than I would be in an apartment in New York.”

Morgan’s frown dissolved into a smile. “Point made,” he said.

The waitress returned with her coffeepot, but I put my hand over my cup and Morgan shook his head. I looked at my watch and was stunned to see it was ten fifteen. I couldn’t remember an evening passing so quickly or pleasantly.

Morgan insisted on paying the bar tab, and then he walked me downstairs and through the lobby of the hotel. I thanked him for a nice evening, and he held out his hand. I hesitated and then gripped his warm, firm flesh.

“Thank you.” His voice was low and husky. “Be careful, Jane. I’m not certain what’s going on here yet, but I think you should take any threat seriously.”

I nodded, concentrating more on the heat of his hand than on his words.

“Call me any time, day or night, if you need me.”

He let go of my hand, and I smiled as I backed toward the door. I didn’t trust my voice to speak, so I waved at him, turned and trotted toward the parking lot. I barely noticed that the rain had stopped.

I felt lighter as I drove home. Hours had vanished while Morgan and I had talked. It had been better than a therapy session. I had unburdened myself by sharing work and personal problems with a man who truly seemed to listen. Okay, I was physically attracted to the guy, but I could handle that. He was a married man, and I would not have an affair with a married man, no matter how tenuous his relationship with his wife. I thought we could become friends, though, and right now I needed a friend more than a lover.

Beneath the bubbling in my head, something nagged at me. Something Morgan said had alerted all my senses, but we’d talked about so much, I couldn’t pinpoint the comment that tugged at my mind. I shook my head. I would remember when the time was right.

I parked in my allotted space and walked up the stairs to my apartment. I unlocked the door, thinking about the way Morgan folded his arms across his chest and tilted his head as he listened to me.

I flicked on the light. Why, why, why couldn’t I find an unattached guy like Nick Morgan?

I walked toward the kitchen and dropped my purse on the counter and then pulled it toward me and removed my phone from the front pocket, I turned it on and called voicemail. Maybe things wouldn’t work out between Morgan and his wife. Yeah, right, and then he’d quit his job and move to Kodiak. I laughed out loud and started to take a step away from the counter, but then I froze and slowly turned around. A computer-printed note sat on the end of the counter. The note hadn’t been there earlier.

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. 

Login/out