Authors: Scott Young
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural, #Native American & Aboriginal, #General
Although I'm not a Northerner, I've been drawn strongly to the North and its people since I was first there in the spring of 1955 researching a piece for
. The topic was what seemed then to be a significant, even dangerous, decline in the great caribou herds. In Yellowknife I met a Canadian Wildlife Service biologist and a Wardair singIe-engined Beaver flew us to Fort Reliance on the eastern tip of Great Slave Lake. There each night after a lot of strong tea and fascinating talk I'd sleep on the floor of the Mountie detachment's combination home and office (three rooms in all). By day our pilot flew a grid pattern over the Barrens toward Artillery Lake and the Thelon River and beyond while the biologist counted animals below and I just sat there, I guess with all my senses open, because I remember the sights and sounds and smells to this day.
I kept that memory warm for years and in the mid-1960s returned. That time I chugged down the Mackenzie river by tugboat and barge from Hay River to Inuvik, stopped for a day at Norman Wells and for a cup of coffee at Tuktoyaktuk, and in Inuvik played in a baseball game, The Drunks versus The Bartenders, at 2 a.m. in the 24-hour daylight of June in the schoolyard across the street from the Mackenzie Hotel. This was research for a CBC-TV documentary about the Mackenzie (the river, not the hotel).
In 1969 as a Globe and Mail reporter I travelled with Governor General Roland Michener on a tour of the Eastern and High Arctic as far north as Alert, about 500 miles from the North Pole, and in 1987, researching this book, spent a few days along the Mackenzie again. Betweentimes I visited the Arctic Institute museum in Leningrad, one of the most interesting and little-publicized sites in that city. So though I'm not a Northerner, when I'm there I wish I were; which I guess is why the Inuk Mountie detective introduced in this book has been growing in my mind for years.
In that regard, I am deeply grateful for the help given me. Among those based in Inuvik I thank Cece McCauley, the woman who is Chief of the Inuvik Native Band and long ago was my first friend in the Arctic; Inspector Kelly Folk, officer commanding the Inuvik subdivision of the RCMP; Arctic consultant Dick Hill of the multi-faceted Hill Enterprises limited; and Mike and Jackie McVeigh as well as Mike's Inuit, Dene and Metis students in the communications class at Arctic College.
I also thank RCMP Corporal Jim Herman and Wayne Irwin of Esso Resources, both at Norman Wells; Miles Shaw of Esso in Calgary; Don Wishart of Interprovincial Pipelines in Edmonton; oldtime trapper Gus D'aoust for his matter-of-fact writing about the North; Dr. Jules Sobrian for his encyclopedic knowledge of firearms; Sheldon Fischer for his conscientious editing; and most particularly Barbara Heidenreich of Trent University and the Canadian Environmental Law Association, who worked for years among Native people from Labrador to the western Arctic and whose knowledge and cultural insights helpedâplenty.
By all of which I mean: if there are errors, they are my own.
I have used actual place names in this book, but only refer (and that briefly) to one actual person, the redoubtable Chief Cece McCauley. All others in the story, including the Mounties and their wives, are fictional, and all events and characters are solely products of my imagination, not resembling to my knowledge anyone living or dead.
The air terminal at Inuvik has comfortable chairs and some nice Arctic art on the walls and usually a lot more empty space than passengers, so it is not exactly O'Hare, but it's not Tuktoyaktuk either. Which was about as profound an idea as I could manage on this particular morning, due to a kind of numbness that I sometimes get when I spend a couple of nights in Inuvik. It's not really a bad feeling: part Polish vodka for me and Hennessy (higher octane) for Maxine, part leaving her again, part talking most of the night when we might have been sleeping, part making love at a higher frequency than my norm (which still doesn't mean I set any world records).
But it was good, all of it. And when I'd stood at the window of Maxine's living room this morning and looked out into the pitch dark of 8:30 a.m., as black then as it had been at two or three when we were still awake, I had one brief pang of wishing that life was simpler again and that the Arctic was still my home. Then I came to my senses. What the hell, this was civilized Arctic: townhouses, pickups, roads, hot and cold running water. Not the Arctic I'd grown up in, with the shore in winter a jumbled line of great ice blocks and komatiks and chained dogs howling and frozen seal bodies stuck upright here and there like popsicles for the dogs to feed on. And out on the ice a seal hole watched by a hunter with his rifle ready and his body warm in the two layers of caribou skin that were his clothes.
While those thoughts were going through my mind Maxine had been running the shower. Over the splashing I could hear her humming “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Outside, kids with their heads tucked into their parkas headed for school. Across the dark street, the only Native thing about it being the name, Kugmallit Road, streetlights showed two ravens playing a can game on a dog. The dog was trying to eat a scrap of something. As one raven dove at him so close that the dog charged after it, snapping and snarling, the other member of the raven team sloped in, bounced once, grabbed the food and flapped away. A pick play. Maybe ravens invented the pick play.
I turned. Maxine, wrapped from knees to collarbone in a white towel, was holding two cups of the fresh coffee I'd just made. When I went to take mine I unhitched her towel and she giggled and we fooled around a bit the way people do when it's the fun and affection side of love and somebody has to be off to work right away. Hardly spilled any coffee at all. Then I wrapped the towel back around her, patting here and there. I held her for a few seconds, nose to nose with her black straight hair and almost black eyes. I occasionally thought that the Scottish blood of her father must have got lost somewhere in the Slavey blood of her mother. In the twenty years we'd known one another she'd become a little dumpy in the figure, as I had. Falling asleep in each other's arms as we sometimes do, and did last night, a guy doesn't notice the changes the years have brought.
CBC Radio, where she works in news, isn't far from her townhouse. She was due at nine. Anybody who saw us clumping along a few minutes later in our kneeboots and baggy pants, parkas trimmed with wolverine fur around the hoods, reflective tape across the backs for safety in the dark, would just be seeing two short, stocky natives heading God knows where; not knowing we went back all those years to when I was a special constable here for the Mounties and Maxine was emptying bedpans and changing beds at the hospital, both jobs the kind of no-hopers that were all a Native could get when she and I were younger. We'd gone on a long time and had a lot of partings like this one. We never knew when we'd see one another again, but it always happened. Or always had so far.
As we walked our breath made little frosty clouds that blew between us as we walked. There wasn't much to say.
“Minus thirty-five, according to the radio,” I said.
“Yeah, but not a bad morning. No wind.”
“Hope things go all right with Gloria this time.”
“Me, too. It doesn't look too good to me.”
Gloria, Maxine's sister, was twenty-three, strikingly pretty, strikingly dizzy when it came to men. Twice, at nineteen and again at twenty-two, she'd been to Edmonton expecting to get married. “That's how dumb she is,” Maxine had told me once, laughing. When anything involving white people goes wrong, from a mechanical device to a love affair, laughter is a fairly common Native reaction. A white guy always expects an outboard to work, a snowmobile to work, a love affair to work, and is puzzled, even angry, when they don't. It's like a betrayal. But Natives know deep down that when they're involved with whites hardly anything works, for them anyway, so that side of life is really more or less a running gag. With Gloria, both times it turned out the guy already had a wife and what he really had in mind was a shack-up job in a cheap hotel.
A couple of nights ago I'd seen Gloria for a while. She dropped in to Maxine's place with a guy from Fort Norman, William Cavendish. He was the son of Morton Cavendish, a big-deal Slavey involved in just about every major committee or Council in the North. I'd never met William before but Morton meant a lot to me. Twenty years ago his support had helped convert me from a Mountie “special,” lowest of the low, into the Force's mainstream. Every promotion I'd had sinceâto corporal, sergeant, staff sergeant, inspectorâwas followed by a note from Morton saying in one way or another, “Way to go, Matteesie!” So I wanted to like William. It wasn't easy. He was burly, with black hair in a ponytail, droopy moustache, scraggly beard, and was rather drunk at the time, but he also struck me as being uptight, even scared. He couldn't sit still. In a few minutes he got up and jerked his head at Gloria with a brusque, “Let's go.”
Later that night he'd been in his father's room at the Mackenzie Hotel when Morton suffered a severe stroke that had left him in critical condition. “A matter of pure luck that William was there to call the ambulance,” the CBC news reader had said the next morning, when we'd first heard about it. Gloria lived with Maxine but her room door had been open and the bed unused that morning. I guess at the time we were assuming that Gloria had something going with William Cavendish, although we both were aware that for a while she'd had something going in fairly complete privacy with William's father, as well. Maxine had told me that William seemed to be not a bad guy; at least his decent upbringing usually showed, despite the way he'd acted the night I'd met him.
It was black dark yet, as we walked hunched against the cold past the municipal offices and the firehall and got to the main street by the library. At this time of year, the end of January, the sun wouldn't be up until nearly 11:30, meaning that early lunchers could watch a sometimes glorious sunrise along with their musk-ox
. Still, that was better than the real dark days, a full month ending January 6 when the sun didn't make it above the horizon at all.
We stood inside the CBC building's door for a few seconds. Maxine said, “I might get to the airport at the last minute to see you off, if I can get a ride.” She had the northern Indian's lilting way of talking.
“If you can, we could have a beer.”
We pressed our cheeks together in parting. What we had didn't require the reinforcement of big showy farewells.
A little way along the street I bought a couple of yesterday's Edmonton newspapers at Ted's News, a convenience store crammed into what looked like an old mobile home. Then I went back to Maxine's and made breakfast and drank more coffee. The papers had been published too early to have more than a brief item about Morton Cavendish's stroke late Sunday night. I phoned the airport about eleven when the first hint of dawn was appearing on the southern horizon. I was told that the daily Canadian Airlines plane from the south, due in at one to leave at two, was nearly three hours late. I called Maxine and told her about the delay, if that would make any difference about her getting to the airport.
“Don't think so,” she said. “I'm busy as hell with the Morton story and that missing aircraft.” The missing aircraft story, short on details, had been on the morning radio news, along with an update on Morton Cavendish's condition.
After the stroke Sunday night Morton had been conscious once or twice but not able to talk. Maxine was concerned more than usual because she knew Morton wellâthey were both from Fort Norman originally.
“Now it's fairly sure he's going to be flown out to the stroke unit in Edmonton,” she said. Then, suddenly, “I have to go.”
“I'll call you from somewhere and hear how it all comes out,” I said. Little did I know.
I read and slept a little. About three I called Inuvik Taxi and paid the standard twenty dollars to get to the airport. The plane had just left Norman Wells and would get to Inuvik about four, and leave on the return trip south before five. That meant waiting around, but I didn't have anything better to do.
At the airport I had a beer in Cece McCauley's Cloud Nine cafÃ©, which occupied one corner of the building. Cece was a friend of Maxine's and mine, chief of the Inuvik Native Band and one of those northern women who could do anything from debating Native rights to skinning a wolverine. I asked one of the two perky old waitresses if Cece was around and was told (with a hint of pride in the old girl's voice) that she was in Ottawa at a conference.
One beer by myself was enough.
Back in the main part of the terminal I slouched in an armchair thinking about Maxine's sister and her unerring faculty for hooking up with guys that made trouble for her one way or another. Like, even on such short acquaintance, William Cavendish. But I was also developing an uneasy feeling that had nothing to do with Gloria. There was nothing I had heard or seen to account for it, really, except maybe seeing Morton Cavendish's son William playing a jittery, drunken prince.
This was usually a time when I felt pretty good, relaxed. I'd spent a few days with my mother, a Kanghiryuakmiut from Victoria Island, near Holman. I took that trip every year no matter what, on the grounds that she was eighty-eight and couldn't live forever.
But now I could feel something unpleasant in the air. Maybe I don't bat better than .300 on premonitions but a couple of times winding up still healthy instead of maybe even dead has something to be said for it. I mulled over the last few days, looking for cluesâO'Hare last week after a Chicago conference on aboriginal rights, airplanes to Winnipeg, Edmonton, Yellowknife, Inuvik; across the Amundsen Gulf to Holman, the nearest landing strip to where my mother lived; a brief stop at Tuk on the way out; now heading back to Ottawa for a few days before going to Leningrad. An orderly life. Hard to hit a moving target.
When I looked around the pleasantly modern terminal, built in the early '80s but tiny by southern standards, I could see the usual. Government types stood in clumps that sometimes overlapped clumps of oilmen or of the ever-present environmental partisani. The other red eyeballs, besides mine, mostly belonged to construction or oil-rig workers from farther north, up on the islands or out in the Beaufort Sea. Most of them had work contracts that provided a free trip out every few months. They tended to use Inuvik as a warm-up for the real industrial-strength fleshpots farther south.
A young Indian woman walked silently past my outstretched toes. She was carrying a solemn baby in a sling on her back. Two burly Americans sitting on one side of me were talking in low voices about an oil rig they'd just left on some ice island in the Beaufort Sea. One of them had the leather worn off the toes of both workboots, leaving bare the burnished steel of the safety toecaps. What could cause that? Did he have a snowmobile with bad brakes? Did he go around kicking blocks of ice?
I got up and strolled to the big windows facing the tarmac to watch a passenger Twin Otter taxiing to a stop, in from the milk run down to Arctic Red and Fort McPherson and over to Old Crow near the Yukon border with Alaska. The two Americans had come to the windows to have a look at the Otter as well. Burnished Toecaps murmured to his buddy, “My Daddy's got a motor home bigger than that.”
I wandered back to the terminal entrance and looked outside where all the cars and trucks had their engines running, a habit in the north. The vapor from all the exhausts rose almost straight into the air. Six or eight snowmobiles were ticking over as well. When I was a kid it was all dog-teams in winter. I sat down and chatted with an old white trapper who only had one eye. He told me he was going to Calgary for his son's funeral.
“You use a snowmobile on your trapline?” I asked.
He pursed his lips over his few remaining teeth and shook his head slowly from side to side.
“Why not?” I asked.
“If I run out of grub I can't skin and eat a snowmobile.”
We carried on a spotty conversation. There didn't seem to be a hell of a lot going on in that airport right then. It was only later I found I'd missed a few things.
However, I did notice one particular bunch near enough to me that I could hear what they were talking about: the missing plane. Apparently the noon CBC news, which I hadn't heard, had some details. It was from here, a Cessna 180 chartered from Komatik Air with (it was thought) two or three passengers, names unknown, and a pilot named Harold Johns. Nobody seemed to know where the charter was headed except, obviously, somewhere south. It had been heard near Fort Norman last night in a heavy snowstorm. I could imagine it, a few minutes of aircraft engines throbbing away in the howling wind and snowâprobably pretty low or they wouldn't have been audible. Then fade. Then nothing. These guys were debating the chances of the plane being down safe somewhere.
Watching them and listening, I had the feeling I'd seen one of the group before. But when? Or even where? Not recently, anyway. The only time I'd been out yesterday was to the liquor store because Maxine likes Hennessy better than Inuvik's available fruit (three dollars per orange) or flowers (unobtainable), and I'd seen a few people I knew, but not this one.