Dead in the Water: A Kate Shugak Mystery #3

Dead in the Water: A Kate Shugak Mystery #3

There are some pretty tough men on an Alaskan fishing boat . . . and now one very tough woman is about to take them on. Kate’s casting her net ...

About The Author

Dana Stabenow

Dana Stabenow is the author of eleven previous Kate Shugak mysteries as well as three featuring Alaska State Trooper Liam ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Avilda rolled into a trench of opaque green seas. Normally, when she was vertical, those seas rose as high as her masthead. Now the crabber was listing so steeply that the portside railing was awash. Kate, legs braced against the slant of the deck, had her head and shoulders jammed up against the frame of an empty crab pot. The pot was threatening to slide over her and the port rail in that order. Her arms were widespread; her fingers, numbed with cold and wet with salt water, clutched desperately to the frame of the pot. The wire mesh pressed into the flesh of her face. Something warm and liquid slid down her cheek. She wondered, without interest, if it was tears or blood.

The pot was seven feet tall and seven feet wide and three feet deep, a steel frame covered in metal netting, 750 pounds of dead weight empty. Kate was five feet tall, weighed just over 120 pounds and was mere flesh and bone, but she had Newton on her side, and she waited. She could feel the rest of the crew watching, but she was fiercely determined to do this herself, without help and, more importantly, without asking for help.

A muscle in her back rebelled at the unaccustomed strain and spasmed. She cursed beneath her breath, though if she’d shouted her voice would not have been heard above the crash of Aleutian water on deck, the howl of Aleutian winds overhead and the rough, deep-throated roar of the engine beating up through the soles of her feet.

At last, at last, the crabber mounted the next swell and began its inevitable slide in the opposite direction. Groaning in every sheet of plate steel, her submerged hull began to roll and in one smooth, inexorable shift swung through the perpendicular. The killing pressure of the pot on Kate’s shoulders eased. “For every action,” she muttered as her feet pushed against the slippery deck, “there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every action, there is—”

The Avilda began her heel to starboard. With an involuntary sound, half grunt, half howl, in harmony with the shriek of the straining ship, Kate shoved with all her strength. The pot shuddered, moved a fraction of an inch, another, gave a sudden, stuttering lurch and began to slide. Kate, almost running to keep pace, shoved and slid and cursed her way behind it and across the deck, to fetch up against the opposite railing with a solid thump.

Behind her she heard Andy Pence give a whoop and a shout of approval mixed with amazement, and she thought she heard Seth Skinner swear in a tone distinctly admiring, but she was busy catching her breath. Besides, it was a point of honor not to acknowledge that she had done anything out of the ordinary. Panting, she clutched at the pot for support, fighting a wave  of dizziness that made her close her eyes and lean her forehead against the cold, wet mesh. She tried to remember the last time she’d eaten something, anything. When she couldn’t, she straightened painfully and looked around for the burly figure of the deck boss. “Hey! Ned!”

Ned Nordhoff looked as if he were wading through a nest of pale spiders, up to his knees in the long, knobbled legs of tanner crab scrabbling frantically for purchase whether they were on their way into the hold as keepers or over the side and back into the Bering Sea. At Kate’s shout, he looked up. She held up a hand, rubber-gloved fingers splayed, and jerked a thumb aft toward the cabin. He scowled, his hands barely checking. “You just went!”

Kate was soaked through to the skin and chilled through  to the bone. Hunger had been gnawing on her for so long that her stomach felt like it was about to crawl up her esophagus.

Her first, knee-jerk response to the deck boss’s terse comment was anatomically impossible, her second sociologically taboo, both eminently satisfactory. She opened her mouth and a sheet of spray slapped her in the face, no bigger or harder than any such over the last week, but enough to ring two faces up before her eyes, side by side, wearing identical accusatory expressions, a macabre jackpot in a hellish casino.

Christopher Alcala. And Stuart Brown.

That’s all. Just two faces staring out at her from Jack Morgan’s bulging file folder. Christopher Alcala, a thin, pale ascetic’s face with big brown bedroom eyes, dark hair falling into them. He reminded Kate of her cousin Martin, when Martin was sober. And Stuart Brown, all fair curls and laughing eyes and wide grin. He looked cuddly, like an overstuffed teddy bear, and almost that mature.

Both Alcala and Brown had disappeared off the deck of the very ship upon which she was currently standing, more or less, not six months before, during the last fishing season. She was working Brown’s spot.

Both of them very probably dead.

Both of them just twenty-one years old.

Kate looked at the mocking expression of the deck boss, who had been on board when Alcala and Brown disappeared and who may or may not have assisted in said disappearance, and let the furious words back up in her throat until she thought she might strangle on them. But it wasn’t her job to tell the deck boss where he could get off, preferably into five hundred fathoms of North Pacific Ocean five hundred miles from Dutch Harbor, although, if God was good, that would come with time.

No, she was casual labor for the Anchorage District Attorney, for a price, and it was her job to find out what had happened to those two very young men. And Jack Morgan, one-time boss, part-time lover and full-time chief investigator for the Anchorage District Attorney, was paying her five hundred dollars a day, a hundred over his usual fee, to let the deck boss of this happy ship dump on her, if such was his pleasure. A hundred dollars extra was what it took to get her back on the deck of a boat again, and she knew a moment of bitter regret that it hadn’t taken more. A lot more.

She took a deep breath, inhaling a little spindrift along the way, and sneezed. It knocked her off balance and she slipped on a deck that rejoiced in maintaining a surface halfway between ice and slime. “Shit!” she yelled, and caught at the railing on her way down. Her hip hit hard, the rubberized plastic of her rain gear caught and almost tore. She was back on her feet in an instant. An unfriendly grin split the bearded face of the deck  boss.

Kate flipped him off, and he gave a short bark of laughter. “I’m going to grab something to eat!” she yelled over the sound of the waves.

He shrugged and gave a grudging nod. She groped hand over hand across the tilting deck to the galley’s starboard door and fought her way inside. The boat heeled over into the down side of a swell and Kate waited, bracing herself against the bulkhead, until the Avilda righted herself and began a swing in the opposite direction. Using the listing motion as impetus she staggered across the galley floor, barely catching the handle of a cupboard with one wildly flailing hand. Drawing herself upright, she reached in and pulled out a box of Cheerios. Great. Oat bran. Just what she needed, food the manufacturer swore wouldn’t give her cancer, might even in fact cure it. At the moment developing a nice little inoffensive cancer somewhere on dry land seemed infinitely preferable to what she was grimly convinced was soon to be her death by drowning way too far out at sea.

But they were the first edible thing that came to hand, they were calories, so far as she knew there were no moose steaks on board, and in the prevailing seas she wouldn’t have been able to keep a frying pan on the stove long enough to cook them anyway. Bracing herself against the continuing pitch and roll of the deck beneath her, she raised the box, tilted her head back and caught a stream of cereal in her mouth. She chewed and swallowed and repeated the process. Tossing the box back into the cupboard and latching the door, she waited for the roll of the ship to be with her and staggered two steps to the refrigerator, from which she pulled a gallon of milk and drank a quart from the spout without drawing breath. Another step to the sink and four mugs of water followed the milk down.

As she was lowering the mug for the last time, she caught sight of the calendar swinging merrily back and forth on the opposite wall. It was October 21. Or was it October 22? She couldn’t remember. They’d left Dutch Harbor the Tuesday before, she thought maybe October 15, but it was hard thinking that far back. Visions of the bunk just down the companionway danced like sugarplums in her head, her sleeping bag open and its red plaid flannel lining rough-smooth on her cheek. The illusion was so real that she took an involuntary step in its direction. Angrily, she gave herself a rough shake, all over, like a dog shaking water from its fur. Without sleep for so long, now she was hallucinating about it.

They’d been hot, “on the crab” for the last three days. The pots they’d set during their last run were coming up plugged with keepers and almost no garbage. They’d been humping it for thirty hours without so much as a sit-down dinner or a nap during that time. Or was it forty hours? She couldn’t remember. Kate gave it up and pulled her way to and through the galley’s portside door and around the cabin and back to the pot launcher. Greeted by a slap of wind-driven salt spray, she wondered, with a spurt of irritation that surprised her because she didn’t think she had the energy for anything except filling the next bait jar that came to hand, why the skipper persisted in powering through the troughs sideways, instead of bringing the ship around and catching them bow on. A flash of yellow caught her eye and she looked up to see Seth Skinner leaning over the rail to catch the next triad of buoys with a boat hook, a long pole with a sharp, curved hook on one end. He hauled in the sopping line hand over hand and when he had enough caught a length of it in the block. Line whipped through the winch, piling up on deck. Minutes later the pot’s bridle broke the surface, followed immediately afterward by the pot. It was full of crab, loaded with crab, brimming with crab, overflowing with crab, and Kate didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Seth Skinner, lean, lanky and imperturbable and who looked like Jimmy Stewart without the horse, pulled the ties that opened the pot door and the crab cascaded down to the deck. For a moment Kate stood still, looking at him speculatively. Seth Skinner, too, had been on board the Avilda the night Alcala and Brown had disappeared.

He raised his head suddenly and caught her looking at him. She met his gaze and held it, more curious than embarrassed. Seth’s eyes were a clear gray and vacant of an identifiable expression, oddly peaceful. He smiled at her, a small smile that didn’t touch his eyes and barely dented the corners of his mouth, and pulled on the pot, swinging it to one side.

“Shugak!” The shout was snatched out of the mouth of the deck boss and blew past her. She looked around. “You’re on sorting!” She nodded to show she understood. Waiting for the next swell, she caught the roll of the deck and slid to a position between pot launcher and hold, up to her knees in every kind of crab known to populate the bottom of the Bering Sea. Bending over, she began to sort through them mechanically. There were a few Dungeness, a couple of blue kings and one small and indignant squid, but mostly the pot was filled with tanners, Chionoecetes bairdi and Chionoecetes opilio. They were both thin, pale crab, with a light brown carapace and a yellowish under-shell, their legs long, slender and slightly flattened. The differences between them were slight. The bairdi weighed about a pound more. The opilio had smoother shells, slightly longer than they were wide, but otherwise to the untrained eye looked much the same as the bairdi. Kate decided it was like telling the difference between red and silver salmon; you had to get up close and personal to tell them apart. But not too close; she jerked back out of the reach of one snapping pincer just in time. The season on opilio didn’t open for another two months so they went back in the water. The bairdi were sorted for sex and size. A week’s practice had made the six inchers easier to spot; the ones closer to the legal limit she checked with a curved piece of wood carved to fit over the crab’s upper shell, measuring five and a half inches end to end. Males under five and a half inches and females were thrown back into the sea, the remainder into the hold, the trip into Dutch and a steam cooker all that remained of their immediate future.

Kate remembered reading somewhere that tanner crab could live up to fourteen years. It took six years for the female to mature and bear eggs. When she did, she could carry as many as 300,000 eggs. As tired as Kate was, she marveled every time she saw a bulging abdominal flap, and there was a certain reverence in the way she handled them. The males she tossed carelessly into the hold with the thousands of tanners already sloshing back and forth in the sea water that would keep them alive until they reached shore and the processor. Plenty more where they came from, or she wouldn’t be standing up to her ass in them right now.

Bending once again to her task, she was somewhat shielded from the gusts of wind by the pot launcher and the railing, but the constant rocking back and forth made her head swim and her stomach churn. She knew better than to complain, though, and kept sorting.

About a year later the deck boss signaled the third deckhand to spell her, and she pulled her weary way over to the hold with arms that trembled in protest. She sat a moment on the edge, her numb hands beating some kind of response into the legs dangling into the hold, uncaring of the spray scouring the deck with a frozen hand.

“Get a move on those bait jars, Shugak!” Nordhoff barked.

A sudden rage, welcome because it warmed her, drove her to her feet and to the bait table butted up against the fo’c’sle. At that same moment a malicious gust of wind swirled around the boat and momentarily enveloped the foredeck in a miasma of diesel exhaust. The rage was as instantly replaced by nausea. She barely made it to the rail in time. Cereal, milk and  water, all of it came up and then some, in retching, wrenching bursts that left her exhausted and trembling. Someone laughed, and it wasn’t a nice laugh. It had to be Nordhoff. She hung, head down, wanting nothing so much as for the next wave to sweep her over the side and into the oblivion of a cold, wet and final embrace, anything to stop the heaving motion of her entire world.

All too soon, a voice boomed out. “Goddammit, get busy, Shugak!”

This time it was the captain’s voice, bellowing down at her from an open window on the bridge, and this time when she struggled to repress her initial reply she saw Jack’s face. Jack’s entire body in a cast. Jack’s tombstone, sans the Rest in Peace. She didn’t want Jack to rest in peace. She wanted Jack to burn in hell. Unable to summon up even enough energy to swear aloud, she called on every shaking muscle and pulled her way back to the bait table. The block of frozen herring was sliding back and forth with the heaving action of the Avilda, and she grabbed for it with one hand and for the big knife with the plastic handle with her other. On the first blow she brought the knife down too close to the fingers of the hand that held the herring.

She caught herself. The deck boss might be an asshole, the captain marginally competent and the rest of the crew either untrustworthy or unknown, but that didn’t mean she had to behave recklessly herself. In fact, considering her reasons for being on board, it was imperative that she did not. She got a better grip on her temper and the knife and began to chop again, this time with more care.

The chunks of herring went into perforated plastic jars. Andy Pence, hired on the day after she was and who had learned everything he ever knew about crab fishing during the last six days, seven hours and thirty-six minutes of his life, staggered across the deck and gathered up an armful of the jars and went staggering back toward the empty pots lined up against the railing. One at a time, he plunged head and shoulders into the pots, hanging the bait jars inside and tying the doors shut on each afterward with lengths of yellow plastic twine.

Kate filled the last bait jar, tightened the lid down and waited for the deck beneath her feet to heave in the right direction. It did, but this time the swell was too big and she slid right past the stacked pots and into the pot launcher. It caught her just beneath her breasts, square across the diaphragm, knocking the breath out of her. Kate caught her breath just in time to hold it beneath the wave of spray that swept over the rail and poured ice-cold water inside her collar and down her spine. Gasping, she shook her head. When her eyes cleared she saw Seth Skinner grinning at her, his teeth a white slash in his bearded face. “Nice day!” he shouted. It was the longest sentence she’d ever heard him speak.

“Couldn’t ask for nicer!” she shouted back, and fought her way over to where Andy was baiting. Together they baited the last pot, and Kate began coiling the twenty-five-fathom shots of five-eighth-inch polypropylene line while Andy checked the buoys. Each pot had three, one Styrofoam buoy and two air- filled plastic buoys, all painted a painfully fluorescent orange and each with the boat’s name and registration number lettered on it in sloppy but legible black paint. Finishing with the buoys, he set his shoulder to the pot at the end of the row and reached around for the line fastening the pot down.

“No,” Kate shouted, “wait for the next swell.”

“What?” His usually fresh face was exhausted and uncomprehending.

He bent to shove and she grabbed his arm. “No,” she shouted again, “wait. Wait.”

The word penetrated, and dumbly, he waited.

The next swell was a big one, the biggest one yet. When she’d rolled as far as she was going to, the Avilda’s portside gunnel was again awash, the water boiling over the railing. She hesitated there for a long, long moment. Kate knew enough of the old girl’s construction to know that they’d loaded enough crab so that the Avilda was carrying sufficient ballast. Kate hoped. Just the same, she strained against the list of the deck, as if by pulling hard enough against the pot she could right the boat by her efforts alone. It was entirely involuntary, a human rebellion against this unnatural tilting of the world, and if she’d been able to look around she would have seen the rest of the crew, their faces screwed into similar fearful grimaces, straining just as hard against the nearest available surface.

The Avilda hesitated a moment longer, and then the swell passed beneath her keel and she heeled over with a rush. “Now!” Kate shouted. “Shove! Hard!”

Together, she and Andy shoved, hard, and the pot screeched across the deck, to be caught by Seth, who in a few deft movements had it attached to the hoist. He raised it to the pot launcher, Kate fastened off the shots of line and Andy lined up the buoys. Ned craned his neck and caught the nod from the bridge, and shifted the lever that tilted the pot launcher so that the pot slid over the side to crash into the heaving sea and begin its rapid journey to the muddy ocean floor some three hundred feet below. Kate heaved the coil of line after it, Andy the buoys. The process was repeated with the remaining five pots. After thirty—or was it forty?—straight hours of practice, the crew was moving well together, more of a team now, working about eight pots per hour. In good weather the really good boat crews worked between fourteen and eighteen pots per hour, but she didn’t think this was one of them, and it sure as hell wasn’t good weather, so they had done pretty well. She was almost proud of their performance. Just not enough to make a vocation out of it. She stretched, barely repressing a groan. Her body felt like a hockey puck after a sudden death play-off.

The skipper, a short, broad man with a short, broad face drawn into a perpetual scowl, appeared on the catwalk outside the bridge. He shouted and the deck boss looked up. The skipper made a circling motion with one forefinger.

The deck boss stuck up his thumb in reply and went aft, where he tossed out a short line with nothing on the end of it, letting it dangle down the side of the boat and trail in their wake. It was the signal they had all been waiting for. On the bridge the skipper took a couple of turns on the wheel, and plunging and rolling as she came crossways of the heavy swell, the Avilda began to come about. Kate began gathering and coiling lines as the others stored the rest of the bait, secured the pots that needed mending, and replaced the hatch cover.

Dinner that night was whatever came to hand first. Kate, choking a little on the last bite of her peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich, stumbled through the door of her stateroom, feeling her way, eyes already closed in anticipation of hitting her bunk. Her foot tangled in something and she tripped and nearly fell. “What the hell?” Her bloodshot gaze peered around malevolently and encountered something that looked like a tent made out of a bedsheet, draped over three lengths of welding rod tied together in a kind of teepee frame.

Andy’s sun-streaked mop of blond hair poked out of a fold of cloth. “It’s okay, Kate, it’s only me.”

She stood where she was, swaying. “What the hell are you doing pitching a tent in the middle of the goddam floor? What’s wrong with your bunk?”

He crawled out on all fours and rose to his feet. “It’s not a tent, it’s a pyramid.”

“It’s a what?” she said stupidly.

“A pyramid,” he repeated. “I was reinforcing my prana.” “Reinforcing your what?”

“Reinforcing my prana.” Andy picked up the top of the tent and it collapsed into a limp cylinder of linen and rods. “It’s got the same ratio of structure as the pyramid at Giza.”

Kate was very, very tired, or she never would have asked. “What’s prana?”

He set the pyramid in a corner and looked at her, very solemn, very earnest. “Prana is the universal life force. All energy derives from it. It brings together East and West, the spiritual and physical. The pyramid concentrates that energy, and I meditate beneath it, thus enhancing my own personal prana.” He stretched and yawned. “Long shift. Think I’ll turn in.” He climbed into the top bunk and burrowed beneath the covers. “Get the light, would you?”

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