We broke out of the overcast at three thousand feet over the Tanana Valley. The Tanana River below us looked like a silver ribbon winding along the edge of the Nenana Hills, then turned to a loose braid where boat-shaped islands divided it into multiple channels. Trees along the creeks were beginning to show streaks of yellow where early frost had tinged them. Fairbanks made a smudge against the hills on the horizon twenty miles ahead. I cancelled my IFR clearance and turned on the CB radio. My passengers, administrative types from the Kuskokwim Community College in Bethel, were to attend a conference at the University of Alaska. I had their schedule to thank for our afternoon departure and evening arrival. That made a welcome excuse to spend the night in Fairbanks, and the best way to do that was a visit with Stan and Angie.
I tuned the CB radio to channel nine and gave Stan a call. He lives out on the Chena Hot Springs Road beyond telephone service, so he keeps the CB on. I still had enough altitude for the line-of-sight transmission, and he came right back at me.
“Alex, hey, buddy, are you in town for a while?” “Overnight. Can I buy you and Angie some dinner?” “Alex, this is a godsend. We need to talk, bad. But don’t come here, this isn’t for Angie’s ears.”
“What’s the matter? What the devil have you been up to now?”
“Not on the radio. Can we meet somewhere?”
“Sure. I’ll be landing in ten minutes, just have to drop off some passengers. If the company pickup starts, I can be at the Rendezvous Club in an hour.”
“That’s really great, Alex. See you there.”
My passengers almost ran for the terminal, swinging attaché cases behind them, and turned left toward the restrooms. A vacant tie-down between a Cessna 172 and a Piper Pacer in the general aviation area was close to the nest where the company pickup was rusting beside the Sea Airmotive hangar. Bushmaster is based in Bethel, but the charter business is statewide, so we keep vehicles in Fairbanks and Anchorage. The door squeaked pitifully and popped open with a cloud of dust. Mold and a metallic odor of decay wafted out, but after some serious pumping on the gas pedal and a generous application of choke, the old International pickup came out of hibernation and sputtered to life.
The Rendezvous Club where we planned to meet was on the Steese Highway on the other side of town. That meant a tour of the city for me, but Stan would be coming in from the Hot Springs Road, so it was the closest place for him.
Airport Road had almost gone off duty for the night. Two Checker Cabs on their way to pick up my passengers were the only traffic, so the pickup rattled and smoked along at a good clip. Birch and aspen trees beside the road were starting to turn fall colors with yellow leaves tipping low branches. Those were interspersed with dark green spruce, and over all rested a mantle of quiet and calm. Houses and businesses were spread out with trees between, and none of the buildings were taller than the trees. Even the new strip mall was single-story, its multiplex theater barely taller, and none of it disturbed the peace.
I should have been settling into the ambiance that makes Fairbanks forever a small town, in spite of ambitions and aspirations. Perhaps it’s the feeling of a tiny cluster of people huddled together with hundreds of miles of primeval wilderness around them. Problem was, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was very wrong. I kept going over our conversation, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like real urgency in Stan’s voice. I had the feeling that he was relieved to hear from me, a release of tension, and that just wasn’t like him.
He’s always glad to hear from me. We go back years together with the special bond that comes from sharing failed hopes and unrealistic dreams. Mostly, I couldn’t imagine what he needed to talk about that Angie shouldn’t hear. In the old days, when he was prospecting on the Kuskokwim River, there would have been plenty of things to keep from Angie, but I thought all that ended when they hooked up in Fairbanks.
Grubstaking prospectors is the Alaskan version of a trip to Las Vegas. You pour in money, knowing there isn’t one chance in millions that it’ll come back, but you enjoy it anyway. I had a reasonably stable income and access to float planes and helicopters. Stan had the knowledge and drive to dig up mountains of dirt and gravel, and the optimism to expect gold in each new scoop. He was self sufficient in the wilderness, wherever a hunch took us and I dropped him off. I contributed groceries and transportation. His share was blood, sweat, and calluses.
I stayed on Airport Road past the edge of town and turned toward the Chena River on Noble Street. Hotels, service stations and grocery stores joined the single-family dwellings. The Fairbanks skyline, the aluminum-clad cubic block of the Northward building, and the twelve-story green cement monolith of the Polaris building loomed ahead. Those constituted Fairbanks’ bid to join the twentieth century.
Not that Fairbanks was asleep. The nightclubs and strip joints out on South Cushman would be jumping, and the native bars on Second Avenue would be a barely controlled riot, but I bypassed those and used the Wendell Street Bridge to cross the river. A new Piggly Wiggly grocery store, with attached bowling alley, served the Island Homes subdivision, so Fairbanks was expanding, albeit minimally. The town ended, trees and hills took over, the Steese Highway started its lonely trek to the Arctic Circle, and the last bastion of civilization was on my left. A dozen cars were scattered around the gravel parking lot outside the Rendezvous Club. Stan’s pickup wasn’t in the lot, so I wandered inside.
The club was a rambling jigsaw of log buildings and frame afterthoughts spliced together, and like all Fairbanks bars, it had no windows. In summer, twenty-four-hour daylight would detract from the atmosphere, and in winter you’re probably in the bar trying to forget what’s outside. In early fall, at eight o’clock, the sun was near the western horizon, but going sideways rather than down.
It was deep twilight inside, the stage not yet lighted. Jack Tiemeyer was warming up the piano at the back, but using a gooseneck reading light. That would change in an hour when the hostesses, or B-girls in the Fairbanks vernacular, started taking turns with their dance routines. The term for the dancing, by the way, is exotic, not lewd and lascivious.
The air was heavy with disinfectant, tobacco smoke, and alcohol. Tables on the right sported a few couples, deep in conversations, or otherwise absorbed with each other. The forty-foot bar was populated in fits and starts. The first two stools supported a couple of gray-whiskered old-timers in plaid shirts and overalls hunched over shot glasses. Farther along, working stiffs or bandits in twos and threes waved beer bottles and bantered. I passed those to plunk down in a vacant stretch, and Satch leaned over to swipe the area with a bar towel.
Satch was a Fairbanks institution: head of a hawk, body of a bear, and no hair apparent. He knew his customers and what they drank, but I’m an out-of-towner so he was waiting for me to name my poison.
“Captain Morgan and Coke.” He nodded and bent to the shelves below the mirror for the rum. He dumped a generous shot into a barrel glass, added ice, and ran Coke from a nozzle. He had just set it in front of me on a little paper coaster and I was reaching for it when a bejeweled hand came from behind me and covered the glass.
“Don’t drink that. It’ll kill your kidneys. Let’s you and me get a thirty-dollar bottle of champagne and take it to a table.”
She rubbed her breasts across my back when she came around, a cloud of dime-store perfume enveloping a drugstore counter of Revlon and Maybeline. An attractive brunette lurked under the paint and bangles, but no one is ever going to penetrate that far. You can flirt with her, and pretty much anything else you want, if you have enough money, but you’ll never be invited beyond the facade. She rubbed herself past my shoulder and settled on the stool beside me with soft warm thigh contact.
“Hi, Jody. Maybe later? I’m meeting a friend.” I keep cash rolled in my left front pocket and the bill on the outside was a ten. I would have preferred a five, but it was too late; she’d seen the ten. It was a bribe to make her go away without causing a fuss or burning bridges. “Here, this is just to keep your motor running, but really, not now. You go powder your nose or something.”
“Okeydokey, but you don’t know what you’re missing.” She stuffed the bill into her garter and managed to rub me with most of her anatomy while she climbed off her stool. She wandered back to a ringside table to wait for her next victim.
Jody is one of the more attractive, and aggressive, hostesses. She claims to have a degree in mineralogy, but that may be her way of saying she’s a gold digger. Anyway, she never wants to talk about minerals or mining. Her favorite subject is what a big, strong, handsome man you are, and if that isn’t enough, she segues to how tough it is for a single woman to survive in Fairbanks.
The door opened bringing a flash of light and whiff of fresh air, and it was Stan, hair a little too long, not recently shaved, but still a striking figure. His six-foot, hundred eighty-pound frame, and his damn-the-torpedoes stride were unmistakable, but the rugged profile you’d expect on an actor or an insurance salesman was marred by an uncharacteristic frown. He spotted me and made a beeline. Satch followed him down the bar and set an open Budweiser for him.
Stan clapped me on the shoulder while he sat, a gesture half- way between a hug and a handshake. “Damn, I’m glad you’re here, Alex. I can’t get my head straight. I don’t know whether to be terrified or just have a good laugh, but either way I feel better with you in my corner. Maybe you can talk some sense into me, but if things get rough, I want you beside me with your pistol in your hand.”
He was referring to an unfortunate incident a few years back. Bushmaster had kept a helicopter in Aniak that summer so it was an easy run upriver to drop Stan at a likely looking creek above Chuathbaluk. He was doing great, keeping the gold dust in a pint jar instead of the usual film canister. I’d just dropped off the week’s groceries when two scruffy types from Chuathbaluk came stomping out of the brush, packing rifles and carrying a sign. In capital letters, the sign proclaimed, PRIVATE PROPERTY NO TRESSPASSING. That was a crock. We were legally on government land. They were planning to plant their sign, back it up with rifles, and scare us off. I jerked my revolver out of my belt; Stan already had his in his hand. Loud enough for the claim jumpers to hear, I said, “You take PROPERTY, I’ll take NO.” We both shot, the sign flew out of the guy’s hand and flopped on the ground behind them. It lay there with a bullet hole in the center of each O; the men and the rifles disappeared into the brush. They weren’t looking for a gunfight. They were hoping we’d run away scared, and when we didn’t, they did.
I picked a different incident to kid Stan about. “You, terrified? Aren’t you the same Stan who faced down a grizzly bear with nothing but a .38 revolver?”
“That was different. Bears are predictable. These are guys I don’t know, and if you can believe this, I’m scared just because of the look one gave me. I know, looks can’t really kill, but he wanted to—might be planning to.” He sampled the beer, set it down, and shook his head like he was trying to wake up.
“Well, are you going to tell me what’s going on, or are we playing twenty questions?” I took a sip of my drink, cold, rich, plenty of fizz with an undertone of alcohol. It was ambrosia, and long overdue, kidney killer or no.
Stan took another sip and half turned toward me. “I’ve been working as an expediter for a couple of pipeline subcontractors.
I needed to send a small engine into Anchorage for repairs, but I got to Interior Air Cargo a little late. The outside door wasn’t locked, so I carried the engine back to the freight desk, filled out the paperwork and left it there so the engine would go out on the morning flight.”
“Sounds like security’s a little lax.”
“Hey, this is Fairbanks. We don’t even lock our cars. Anyhow, when I walked back past the office, the door was open and two guys were just inside talking. They obviously thought they were alone. I only saw one of them, and when he saw me you’d have thought he’d been struck by lightning.”
“So, you overheard something you shouldn’t have?” We both sipped again, but it was ritual, busy work. I don’t think Stan realized he was drinking, or where we were. He was too distracted by the image in his head.
“That’s the weird part. I wasn’t paying attention to them. Angie has been working at Channel Two, so I was late picking her up, already thinking about dinner. I’ve been trying to remember what they were talking about, but all I can recall is the flash of eye contact. You know, if you meet a bear in the woods, he’s weighing his options, will run away if he can. Those eyes were like a wolverine, the instinct to attack and kill with no thought involved.”
“So you just kept walking?” Satch checked on us, saw we weren’t keeping up the usual pace, and wandered back to his strategic spot near the center of action.
“Yeah, I walked straight out to my pickup and went to meet Angie, but I can’t shake that look. Alex, I don’t mind admitting, I’m scared.”
“You must have heard something?” “I heard….”
The front door burst open and three guys dressed as carpenters stomped in. They were talking loud, laughing, obviously on their second or third bar of the evening, and they headed straight for us. That’s a problem with Alaska, and Fairbanks in particular, you recognize everyone you meet and most want to be friendly. Two of the newcomers sat on Stan’s left, the other came around and sat on my right. Satch was already there, doling out two Budweisers on the left, a Michelob on the right. I couldn’t put names to these guys, but it didn’t matter. They’d absorbed enough alcohol to make everyone bosom buddies. The one beside Stan raised his bottle in salute, chugged almost half of it, but couldn’t wait to pass the news.
“Hey, did you guys hear about Molly getting busted?”
I shrugged. “You mean this week, or last? What did she do this time, solicit the police chief in his office?”
“No, no, this is really good. See, Oley was trying to sober up in the Coffee Cup Café. She latched onto him and dragged him up the back stairs at the Nordale and into her room.” That was as long as he could go without a drink; he had to stop and chug. I glanced at Stan and he was getting agitated, hands almost fidgeting, toying with his beer bottle. He’d worked himself up to confide, maybe embarrassed himself a little, and wasn’t taking the interruption well.
The two straight men were swilling and grinning, urging the spokesman on. “Well, see, Oley had just got his pants off when two detectives busted in the door.” He sipped fast, but couldn’t wait for the punch line. “So, Oley is standing there, naked and all, but the cops didn’t go for him. They went straight to the closet and pulled out these two teenyboppers.”
That wasn’t specific enough for the guy on his left. He chimed in, “Real youngies, man, like high school. San Quentin quail for sure.” He lifted his bottle and drained it. Our narrator took over. “See, it turns out Molly was teaching them the trade. She had them stashed in the closet to watch.”
The one on my right stopped sucking his bottle long enough to insert, “She should have asked me, man. I’d have taught them the trade for free.” He went back to nursing and the narrator took over.
“See, the thing is, if Oley can’t convince the DA he didn’t know the girls were in the closet, we won’t see him no more for prob’ly twenty years.”
Stan gave me the elbow and extricated himself from the confab. “Hey, Alex, we’re late. We’d better hit the road.”
“Right.” I stood and Satch materialized in front of us. I did the math, dropped a twenty on the bar. “Round for our buddies here. Sorry fellas, gotta split.”
Stan strode toward the door. I was right behind him but Jody caught me in the doorway with a bear hug and stood on tiptoes for a kiss. “My motor’s in overdrive, big boy. I get off at three.”
Stan was crunching across the gravel toward his pickup, but Jody was glued to my arm. “You won’t forget?” She strained up for one more kiss, booze, tobacco, chalk-flavored lipstick, and tongue like an agitated snake.
“Sure, I’ll tattoo three o’clock on my forehead.” I shook her off and started after Stan. I had ten feet to go and was already reaching toward the door when Stan started his engine. The door shot toward me, knocked me halfway back across the lot, and a belch of flame felt like it seared off my face.