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Midnight Come Again
by Dana Stabenow
St. Martin's Minotaur, May 2000

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A couple of birds were serenading each other in the trees when Jim came down the path, but he didn't know anything about birds and so could not identify them. There was a rustle of undergrowth here and there as some small mammal heard him and moved unhurriedly out of range. There were salmon still up the creeks and hunting season was two months off; there was no need to rush. Summertime in Alaska, and the living was easy. The trail ended in a clearing a hundred feet across, and Jim paused on the edge of it, trying like hell to look at the scene through the eyes of a trooper.

Instead, all he saw was history, the history of a woman whose life could stand as metaphor for the last thirty-five years of the history of the place in which she lived. She had been born Native and raised white, giving her a foot in both worlds. It had cursed her with perspective. Perspective was a quality essential in seeing things clearly for what they were, but not so good when it came time to take sides, to commit to family or, as in this case, tribal loyalty. As her grandmother would have been the first to tell her, and probably had on occasions too numerous to mention. Kate would never tell. Whatever problems Kate had had with Ekaterina would go with both of them to their graves.

Jim Chopin was a state trooper, by virtue of his profession trained and dedicated to the gathering and evaluation of information. He knew a good deal more about Kate Shugak than most people, far more than she would have been comfortable with had she known.

Her father had been an Aleut fisher, and a veteran of Castner's Cutthroats, a specially trained commando unit that had fought in the Aleutians during World War II. After the war there had been few villages left standing to go back to, and like many other Aleuts, including his mother, Ekaterina Shugak, he had moved north to the Park, although it wasn't a Park then, just a big chunk of land owned by the federal government that at that time wasn't being watched too closely. So people moved in, Aleuts, miners, trappers, hunters, fishers, even a few misguided folks who gave farming a try and almost invariably failed, they all staked out sections, built cabins, and refused to move when Alaska became a state in 1959. The fight over who owned what land was on. A lot of lawyers later, the homesteads were grandfathered in, and in 1980 the Park was created around them.

Stephan Shugak ignored the fuss, married Zoya Dementieff, and in 1961, when they'd given up on ever having children, their daughter Ekaterina Ivana was born. Ekaterina for Stephan's mother, Ivana for Zoya's. Billy Mike still told the tale about how Ivana had lost the toss to be first name. Jim figured Ekaterina snuck in a double-headed coin. That old broad hadn't been one to leave much to chance.

Stephan supported the three of them by fishing salmon in summer and trapping beaver in the winter, and if he and his wife had managed to stay off the sauce it would have been a good life. They hadn't. First Stephan was gone, then Zoya, and little Kate had been shipped off to Niniltna to live with her grandmother.

She had stuck it out for a week. The morning of the eighth day she got up early, tucked half a loaf of home-made bread down the front of her snowsuit, shouldered the little .22 rifle her father had given her and walked the twenty-five miles home. This had been the first week in December, with the highs below freezing and the lows below zero.

She made it all the way to the homestead and had a fire going in the wood stove before anyone in Niniltna knew she was gone. Abel had told that tale, of how he'd seen the smoke from the chimney and snowshoed over to see who was trespassing on the Shugak's cabin. Kate had welcomed him inside and made him a cup of Lipton tea, sweetened with honey just the way he liked it, and a slice of buttered bread. She didn't invite him to stay the night. "Here's your hat, what's your hurry," was how Abel described it. He'd snowshoed back to his own homestead and waited for Kate's grandmother to arrive, which she did, the next morning at first light on a snowmobile, bundled in beaver and spitting mad.

Ekaterina brought Kate back to Niniltna and locked the girl in the spare bedroom. Kate climbed up on the dresser, kicked out the window and got a mile down the road before Ekaterina caught up with her the second time.

Kate didn't fight her grandmother. She waited. Old Sam Dementieff had visited Ekaterina's house during that time, and described it as an armed camp -- "She don't know where it was coming from, but Ekaterina knew it was coming, and she was ready to repel boarders." Old Sam would pause, giving his punch line its due dramatic weight. "Kate was readier."

When she brought her back the second time, Ekaterina tried reasoning with Kate. She was only a little girl, barely in kindergarten, how could she take care of herself all alone way out there on the homestead? And what about school, she had to go to school, it was the law. And what about her old grandmother, all alone in her big house by the river in the Niniltna?

This last should have carried weight. Kate was always susceptible to guilt, and Ekaterina could lay it on with a shovel. But at the time it was delivered, to the accompaniment of sad brown eyes squeezing out a single, forlorn tear, Ekaterina's house was filled to the rafters with fourteen cousins making their traditional after school stop for fry bread and cocoa, one uncle there on tribal business and three aunties making a quilt. Kate looked at them, looked at her grandmother and curled her lip. Auntie Vi told that story -- "Ayah, that girl, she one inch high then, and she look twice as big as her emaa."

The next day Emaa walked up to the school to escort Kate home. Kate never did come out.

Kate always knew where the back door was.

Until that day, Ekaterina Moonin Shugak, village elder and tribal leader, had never been confronted with a will as strong as her own. To her credit, she did recognize it, finally, and cast about for an acceptable solution, one that would save everyone's face and provide for Kate's safety. Abel Int-Hout was a widower with four sons who had the homestead next to the Shugaks'. He knew Kate, and Kate knew him, and if not quite with Ekaterina's blessing then at least with her grudging consent Kate had moved in. There she stayed until she turned eighteen, commuting to school on first Abel's and then her own snowmobile, paid for out of summer jobs Abel got her. Bowing to matriarchal pressure, for a change, she went off to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where she completed a degree in social sciences with a major in justice. A year's additional training Outside and she went to work as an investigator for the Anchorage District Attorney's office. Her boss had been Jack Morgan. Shortly thereafter he was her lover.

She'd specialized in sex crimes, in particular sex crimes against children. It had taken her five years to burn out, five years and being attacked by a perpetrator caught in the act. He didn't survive. She did. Sort of. Bernie told that tale -- "That scar, man, that scar just scared the hell out of me the first time I saw it, right across her throat, all red and ropey and swollen. You gotta wonder what the other guy looked like."

She had come back to the homestead five years before, followed a year and a half later by Jack with a job offer. Find a ranger lost in the Park. Find the investigator sent in after him. She did, and from then on worked cases for the D.A.'s office on a contract basis.

Until last fall, Jim thought. Last fall, everything changed. He pulled off his cap and let the breeze ruffle his hair as he walked to the middle of the clearing.

Her father's homestead wasn't much different today than it had been when he and Zoya were alive. A one-room cabin with a sleeping loft, a shop, a garage, a greenhouse, an outhouse, a cache, a woodpile. The buildings, old but in good repair, grouped themselves in a neat half circle, their backs to a narrow creek that ran swiftly between high, rocky banks. The current of the creek had carved out enough of a backwater in the bank next to the cabin to form a small pool suitable for swimming when it warmed up. Not that Jim had ever been invited for skinny-dipping.

He thought of the four-bedroom, split-level home in San Jose in which he'd been raised, and the kindly but clueless couple who were his parents. James and Marie Chopin, in their mid-sixties now, both retired, he from his mail route, she from nursing. They travelled, taking yearly trips to cruise first the Volga and then the Nile, and where was it this year, the Panama Canal? He'd tried to get them on a cruise to Alaska, but they weren't quite ready for that. He didn't think they were ever going to be ready for that, and had long ago resigned himself to taking his yearly vacations in California. Family was family, and he was all they had.

They wouldn't have been ready for this homestead, either, he thought. His mother believed absolutely in the curative properties of hot water and disinfectant, his father in ESPN. Marie couldn't have baked her own bread if her life depended on it, and James routinely traded in the family sedan every three years, carefully timing it to just before the warranty ran out. Jim thought of his father's expression if he'd had to drive any new car down the old railroad bed that served as road access into the Park, and grinned involuntarily.

The red Ford pickup was parked in front of the garage. He walked over and looked in. The keys were in the ignition. He left them there.

He opened the garage door, and as Bobby had said, found the Arctic Cat pulled up to the far wall. No tools appeared to be missing from the shop. The greenhouse was empty but for a fireweed that had pushed its way through a seam in the corrugated plastic walls, purple blooms halfway up the stem. He went around to the back of the cabin and knocked against each of the six fuel oil barrels in turn. They were all near empty. So she'd been here through the winter, and had not yet reordered. But she wouldn't really need to until fall, when the last tanker truck rumbled down the road.

The door of the cabin was unlocked, ready to offer aid and comfort to whatever lost soul who might stumble through. He wasn't lost, and had no warrant. He opened the door and went in.

The bright rays of the eight o'clock sun filtered through the trees and the windowpanes to make gently moving patterns on the walls. It was neat enough to make your teeth ache, but Bobby had been right about the dust. Jim ran a finger across the counter and looked at the resulting smear. She hadn't been here in weeks, probably months.

The room was twenty-five feet square, with a counter, a sink with an old-fashioned water pump handle, two stoves, one oil for cooking, one wood for heat, an L-shaped built-in couch made of plywood and two-by-fours, foam cushions newly upholstered in blue denim, and shelves on every available inch of wall space filled with books. There weren't any noticeable holes on the shelves; she hadn't taken any reading material with her.

A ladder in the center of the room led to the loft. He climbed up, the first time he had ever done so, and saw a bed with a down comforter, a Blazo box dresser with four shelves and not so much as a sock on the floor. The shelves seemed pretty bare to his eyes, but then Kate never had been much of a clothes horse. Jeans with a t-shirt in summer, a sweatshirt in winter, tennis shoes year round. Still, the emptiness of the shelves could be an indication that she had packed a bag when she left. His heart lifted at the thought.

He put a hand on the mattress and pressed down. Well-padded but firm.

A sound came from outside the cabin and he snatched his hand back as if it had been burned.

He climbed back down and looked out the door. A moose was grazing on a mountain ash that would never be more than five feet high. Jim stepped back into the cabin to see the guitar hanging next to the door. He'd never heard her play it, but he'd heard tell that she used to sing sea chanteys before her throat was cut and her voice had been reduced to a raspy husk of sound.

He couldn't imagine the combative, unsentimental Kate Shugak he knew softened by song.

There was a box of photographs on the kitchen table. He leafed through them with the feeling that he'd seen them somewhere before. It took a minute before he remembered where: all over her grandmother's kitchen walls. Kate must have taken them as her legacy after Ekaterina died; she'd certainly given everything else away, including the house.

He pulled out a chair and sat down to leaf through them. They were a record of family and Park history, baby pictures, grade school and high school graduation pictures, wedding pictures, anniversary pictures, potlatch pictures. A few looked as if they had been cut from posters on post office walls, and given the size of Kate's extended family, probably were. He thought he recognized Kate in a beaming little girl with laughing hazel eyes, a mass of black tangled hair and chubby knees. He'd never seen her beam like that.

There was another of her high school graduation, thinner in the face and much more serious. She stared the lens straight in the eye, looking as if she were trying to project fearlessness and succeeding only in showing a bravado that failed to hide the apprehension beneath.

Her college graduation picture had attitude in spades; chin up, shoulders back, eyes confident, even arrogant. The picture of a woman who had found a calling, who was on her way up the ladder, and who knew it.

The last picture he found was of Kate and Jack Morgan. It was at Bobby and Dinah's wedding the previous August, where Kate had acted as best man and maid of honor and, he recalled with a shudder, at the last minute, midwife. When it was all over and she was making motions toward stepping in as caterer, too, Jack had picked her up, tossed her over his shoulder and disappeared into the woods, from which they had not emerged until morning. The picture was taken from the side, with their faces turned toward the camera. Kate's long black braid was falling over her face, from behind which she was pretending to be angry. Jack was laughing and about to give her an admonitory slap on the behind.

Jim stared at the picture for a long time before coming back to himself with a start. His watch said it was eight-thirty. Time to head for the Roadhouse. Maybe Bernie would know something. He dropped the picture in the box and walked to the open door.

It was a beautiful evening, warm and serene and still but for the sound of water rushing down the creek in back of the cabin. It soothed nerves rubbed raw by the rush and bustle of modern civilization, gave senses chafed by the noise of life in the city at least the illusion of calm. The Alaskan Bush, the Last Frontier, the last retreat for the weary of spirit and the troubled in mind.

It was, however, only an illusion, and no one would know that better than Kate Shugak, especially after the previous September, when all the rules changed, and peace and tranquility were overrun by malice, mayhem and brutal murder, and nothing would ever be the same again.

He walked back to the box and picked up the picture of Kate and Jack. Tucking it into a breast pocket, he stepped outside and closed the door behind him.

The same birds called all the way from Kate's cabin to Bobby's truck.

Copyright © 2000 by Dana Stabenow. All Rights Reserved.

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