Murder Over Kodiak
Alaska Wilderness Mystery Author
Author Masterminds Charter Member
I reached a trembling right hand toward the page and then remembered fingerprints and pulled back. Instead, I leaned my face toward the note to read it.
Please place Mr. Justin’s briefcase on the backseat of your car and leave your car unlocked tomorrow morning when you go to work. We know everything about you. If you do as we say, you will not be harmed. Do not contact the police.
Too many cups of coffee burned in my stomach. Sweat streamed down my face as I ran toward the bathroom, and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I stumbled through the door, grabbed the edges of the porcelain bowl, bent forward, and retched. I sat on the floor for several minutes, forcing myself to breathe slowly. I then pushed the handle and watched as the remnants of an enjoyable evening twirled out of sight.
How had someone gotten into my apartment? I looked up. Could the intruder still be here? I sat for a moment, listening, and then pulled myself to my feet.
I felt shaky and unsteady, and I kept a hand on the wall as I wandered through the rooms of my living space, flipping on lights as I went. I checked closets, behind curtains, and under beds. When I finished my search, I latched the deadbolt on my door and sat stiffly on the couch.
My head pounded. Someone had invaded my home. I didn’t know whether to be angry or frightened. Tears poured down my cheeks, and I fought to gain control. I knew I should call Morgan, but I couldn’t until I calmed down. The author of the note warned me not to contact the police, but what else could I do? I didn’t have a briefcase to leave on the backseat of my car. My life was in danger no matter what I did.
I closed my eyes, leaned back, and concentrated on breathing evenly. Jack Justin apparently had offered up my name to the people who had threatened him. Did he really believe I had his father’s briefcase, or had he panicked and blurted out my name so they would leave him alone? When I saw him that morning, he was terrified of someone. He believed the people who wanted the briefcase were responsible for the bomb. I was beginning to think he was right.
Suddenly, I remembered what Morgan had said during dinner that had bothered me. At the time, it was an unformed idea that my mind didn’t want to accept, but now the full force of it smacked me in the face.
I sat forward and wiped my eyes with the toilet tissue I still gripped in my right hand. I stood, wobbled a couple times, and then marched toward the telephone.
I called Morgan’s cell. By now, I had the number memorized. He answered after three rings. His voice sounded groggy and muffled.
“Did I wake you?” I asked. I couldn’t believe he had gone to sleep so quickly. I looked at my watch and was surprised to see it was almost midnight.
“Jane, what’s wrong?” His voice suddenly sounded alert and clear.
“I’m sorry to bother you; I know you’re tired.”
“What is it?”
“A note,” I said. “Waiting on my kitchen counter when I got home.”
“Don’t touch it. I’ll be right there.” The phone clicked in my ear and then went dead.
I wondered how he would find my apartment. I hadn’t told him where I lived, and I wasn’t listed in the phone book. I expected him to call back and ask directions and then remembered he didn’t have a car.
I walked to the bathroom, brushed my teeth, washed my face, and combed my hair. My bangs were pasted to my forehead with sweat. I fluffed them until they dried, and then went to the bedroom and slipped into an oversized sweatshirt and jeans. I returned to the living room couch and sat hunched over, elbows on my knees. A few moments later, my door buzzer sounded.
I pulled open the door and fought for control when I looked into Nick Morgan’s worried eyes. He set down his briefcase and opened his arms. I accepted his comfort, and then he grasped my arms and gently held me in front of him, studying my face.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine.” I pulled away and hugged myself. “I didn’t touch the note.”
“Good. Where is it?”
I led him to the counter and pointed at the printed page. He read it and studied it for a few minutes. Then, he opened his briefcase, pulled a latex glove onto his right hand, slipped the note into an evidence bag, and then dropped it into his briefcase.
“Was there any other sign that an intruder had been in your apartment?”
He walked to the door and opened it, examining the lock and the doorframe. “You should get a better lock,” he said. “This would be easy to open.”
Fatigue poured over me. What was happening to my life? I lived in a small, safe community in Alaska, not New York City or Los Angeles. Would I have to chain myself in to stay safe at night?
“If the author of this note wants to harm me, locks won’t keep me safe,” I said. “I don’t have the briefcase, but I can’t seem to convince him of that.”
Morgan sat on a kitchen stool. Under his long black coat he wore a dark-blue-and-white FBI sweatshirt and blue jeans. “Why did you say he?”
I perched on the other stool and took a deep breath. “Tonight at supper, you said that the criminal often returns to the crime scene. That bothered me, but I didn’t know why. After I got home and saw the note, I remembered that Jack Justin braved terrible weather to fly out to the crash site.”
“Are you saying that you think Jack Justin planted the bomb that killed his parents?”
“Yes.” Morgan’s disbelieving tone irritated me. “It wouldn’t be the first time a child killed his parents, and anyone callous enough to kill his own parents wouldn’t blink an eye at taking out a few more people in the process.”
“It makes perfect sense,” I said. “There’s no conspiracy or terrorists running around threatening him. “There’s just one guy who wanted to bump off his parents and now needs to get ahold of the documents his father was carrying with him. Maybe the Justins disinherited their son, and Jack wants to get his hands on the latest copy of the will.”
Morgan rubbed his eyes.
“You don’t think that’s possible?” I asked.
“Oh yes. It’s possible.”
“But you don’t believe it,” I said.
“I didn’t say that.” He held his hands up. “You may be right, but I don’t think we can afford assumptions at this point. We need to be careful.”
“So what should I do?”
Morgan remained motionless for several minutes while he thought. “Drive to work tomorrow. Park the car in the lot, and go to your office.”
“And then what? Justin, or whoever wrote this note, isn’t going to be happy when he doesn’t see a briefcase on the backseat.”
“Place a note on the car seat saying you don’t have the briefcase.” Morgan’s voice was low and calm. “With the help of the local police force and a few other agents, I will stake out your vehicle and watch who approaches it.”
“What if he sees you?”
“We’ll be careful, Jane. We’ve done this before.”
The knot in my chest loosened. It couldn’t be this easy, could it?
“What time do you get to your office?” Morgan asked.
“I’m usually there by 8:30, sometimes earlier.”
“Go in at 9:00 tomorrow. It may take me awhile to get this organized.”
“Will you be alright here?” he asked as he stood.
I wanted to say no; I didn’t want him to leave. I could see he was exhausted, though, and I had too much pride to let him see my fear.
“I’ll be fine. You need to get some sleep.”
Morgan nodded and started toward the door.
“Did you drive here?” I asked.
He turned his head toward me and smiled. “No. I hitched a ride with one of Kodiak’s finest.”
“That explains how you found my apartment so easily.”
“Lock the door after me,” he said, as he stepped into the hallway.
It was unnecessary advice. I planned to lock it and then sleep on the living room couch, where I could keep an eye on the door.
I was dead tired, but I couldn’t sleep. The couch was not as comfortable as my bed, and every noise required examination. My usually quiet apartment seemed alive with unfamiliar sounds. I tried to read, but I couldn’t concentrate. I paced, but that only heightened my apprehension. Sometime after four, exhaustion finally won out, and I slept for three hours.
I awoke slowly to my buzzing alarm. My head throbbed and my neck felt stiff. I was confused. Why was I sleeping on the couch? Was it the middle of the day? It seemed so bright. I’d shut the curtains, but sunlight streamed through them. Slowly, I remembered the events of the preceding night, and my headache worsened. I swallowed two aspirin and stumbled into the shower.
As my senses returned, so did my unease. I had planned to take a long, hot shower, but I thought I heard noises through the pounding water. I scrubbed my head and body as quickly as I could and stepped out of the shower stall. The apartment was quiet; I had imagined the noises.
I dressed in black jeans and a grey sweater. I didn’t have a class today, and except for two appointments with students, I planned to spend the bulk of the day closed in my office, catching up with paperwork. I liked to wear comfortable clothes when I planned a day of sitting at my desk.
I made coffee and ate a bowl of cereal. The morning crawled by. I wanted to get going and get this over with. After eating, I went to the spare bedroom that I used for an office and rummaged until I found a marking pen. On a piece of computer paper, I wrote in block letters: I DO NOT HAVE MR. JUSTIN’S BRIEFCASE.
I looked at my watch. It was only 8:30, but I couldn’t sit still any longer. I took my purse, jacket, and the note, and walked downstairs to the parking lot. The temperature was only in the sixties, but the day felt warm and inviting. A few fluffy clouds dotted the brilliant blue sky. I inhaled crisp air. The sight of the sun after several stormy days was a relief, and my spirits rose despite all the threats and apprehension over what I was about to do.
I unlocked my Explorer and climbed in. I knelt on the front seat and carefully placed the note on the backseat. The Explorer’s windows were tinted lightly, so a person could see through the windows only by walking up to the vehicle and cupping his hands to the glass. If Morgan was watching, he couldn’t miss seeing someone do that. But why would Justin or whoever had left me the note be so foolish? The person must know he would be observed approaching my vehicle.
Maybe he or she believed I wouldn’t contact the police, or perhaps the person was so focused on getting his hands on the briefcase that he wasn’t thinking clearly. Justin had not been rational when he had approached me at the marine center the previous morning. I could believe he would plan something this careless, and I hoped he would follow through, and Morgan would catch him. I was ready for this to be over.
I drove slowly through the streets of Kodiak. The sidewalks hummed with activity. Kids played, skated, and bicycled, and two young mothers walked together, each pushing a baby stroller. I drove past a baseball field, where a girls’ softball team practiced on the sodden diamond. After the long, stormy stretch, islanders embraced the sun, determined to enjoy every minute of it. As I sat at a stop sign, I saw one ambitious man stirring paint, a ladder propped against the side of his house. It was no wonder paint jobs deteriorated so quickly here. The wood never had a chance to dry out.
If only I could shed my fear and enjoy the beautiful weather. I took a deep breath and looked around me. The colors were vibrant, as if a veil had been whisked away to reveal a sparkling gem. On a day like this, it was no mystery why Kodiak was nicknamed the Emerald Isle. Verdant mountainsides gleamed beneath the lapis sky, and the ocean glinted, reflecting sunlight like a diamond. Beautiful flowers, both wild and cultivated, struggled to recover after being battered by the wind. I saw a few broken tree limbs, but Sitka spruce are hardy trees and accustomed to storms much worse than the one we just experienced.
My heart thudded when I pulled into the parking lot of the marine center. I parked at the edge of the lot, hoping my vehicle would be easier to watch there. I checked the note again, making sure it was still propped in the rear seat. I gathered my briefcase and purse and climbed out of the Explorer. I fought the urge to lock the doors, and after one quick look back, I hurried away from the vehicle and into the building.
I stopped at the office, and Betty, in an awkward attempt to be cordial, informed me I had no messages, and my box to Craig’s parents had been mailed. I walked to my office, unlocked the door, turned on the light, and closed the door behind me. I stood with my hand on the doorknob and felt as if the room was closing in on me. I pushed the door open; I didn’t want to be alone today.
I looked at my appointment book. Except for a 10:00 a.m. and a 2:00 p.m. meeting with graduate students, the day was my own. I wished for a change that I had a crowded schedule, anything to get my mind off Jack Justin and his briefcase. I wondered if Morgan and his assistants were in place, watching my Explorer. I hadn’t seen any sign of the police when I entered the building, but I wasn’t supposed to see them; their goal was to remain hidden.
I grabbed my coffee cup and returned to the central office, relieved to see that neither Glenda nor Betty were at their desks. I filled my cup with the thick black brew and retreated down the hall. I set the cup on my desk and began sorting through papers. I read, sorted, and made notes for the next forty-five minutes. I was beginning to settle into a routine when my 10:00 a.m. appointment knocked on my door.
“Hi Cassie. Come in.” Casandra, a petite, shy, first-year graduate student entered my office and edged onto the chair in front of my desk. She held her head down, her long black hair nearly covering her eyes.
“Sorry about Craig,” she mumbled, her voice so low that it took me a moment to decipher what she had said.
“Thanks, Cassie. It was quite a shock. I’m going to miss him.” My voice cracked, and I shook my head. “Let’s see, we need to go over your class schedule for next fall.”
The meeting lasted for thirty minutes, and after Cassie left, I summoned the energy to work on the exam I had scheduled for my class the following week. I had trouble mustering enthusiasm for summer classes. The students were tired and less focused. For the most part, they weren’t interested in learning what I had to teach and only wanted to get the class over with before the fall semester. The temptation to give them a test from a previous semester was strong, but I knew I couldn’t do that. Copies of all my earlier exams were out there floating around. I had to devise something new and original.
A gurgle from my stomach caused me to look at my watch. It was 11:55. I had forgotten to bring something with me for lunch, and I couldn’t go anywhere. I was certain Morgan would tell me as soon as they apprehended someone peering through the windows of my Explorer. Until then or the end of the day, I had to stay put.
I stood and stretched. I wandered out of my office, shutting but not locking the door. I took several steps down the hall and stopped. I returned to my office, grabbed my purse, and locked the door. This was no time to be careless.
I looked for Geoff in his lab, but he must have been at lunch. I flipped on the light in my lab and began reviewing the procedure and making certain the equipment and chemicals were ready for the high-performance liquid chromatography I would perform on the bivalve samples I collected from Uyak Bay. Lab preparation had been one of Craig’s jobs, and he had been so good at it that I hadn’t supervised him closely. I took inventory of my supplies, making certain I knew where he kept everything.
At 12:40, I was making notes in a spiral notebook, when a muffled blast shook the building. Bottles of chemicals rattled in the cabinets and a stack of books slammed to the floor. An earthquake. I’d felt tremors before, but nothing like this.
Two Korean graduate students peered into my lab, their eyes wide.
“I think it was an earthquake,” I said. “Are you okay?”
A second loud thud sounded from the floor above, and this time I knew we weren’t dealing with a force of nature. “Get out of here!” My voice shook.
The two young men stared at me. “Go!” I yelled. “Something is wrong. Get out of the building!”
They paused only a moment and then they both ran. I was on their heels.