This is just wrong, on so many levels, Jim thought.
For one thing, he was freezing his butt off. Even if the front of him was plenty warm.
For another, his boss might legitimately qualify his current activity as a colossal waste of Jim’s time, not to mention the taxpayer’s dollar. Crime had yet to be committed anywhere near or about his person.
If you didn’t count the one he was about to commit if Kate kept rubbing up against him like that.
Her head was a very nice fit beneath his chin, even if her hair did tickle. She shifted again, and when he spoke, his voice was a little hoarse. “Are you sure you didn’t get me out here under false pretenses, Shugak?”
He heard the smile in her voice when she replied, felt the warmth of her breath on his throat. “Well, since it seems crime is the only thing that makes my company tolerable to you, I figured I’d find some.”
He disregarded what she said for what she meant. “I’m not afraid of you.”
She tilted her head to meet his eyes. “I make you want to run away like a little girl.”
“You do not.” It sounded weak, even to him.
She leaned back against him, warm and firm from chest to knee, and dropped her voice to a whisper roughened by the scar that bisected her throat. “Say it again. And make me believe it.”
He could have told her to step away. He could have pushed her away. He did not do either of those things, and the sound of the truck coming down the trail was the only thing that saved him.
And, sadly, Jim wasn’t one bit happy when Kate’s focus shifted, too.
It was an elderly blue Ford pickup minus tailgate and rear bumper, its passenger-side window replaced with an interwoven layer of duct tape, the body rusting out from the tires up. The engine, however, maintained a steady, confident rumble that indicated more beneath the peeling hood than met the eye.
The homeowner had dutifully cleared the requisite thirty feet of defensible space around her house in case of forest fires, which in this era of dramatic climatic change were inclined to hit interior Alaska early and often each spring. This and the winter’s meager snowfall made it easy for the pickup to crunch through the thin layer of snow on the driveway and pull around to the back of the house, where half a dozen fifty-five-gallon drums rested in an upside-down pyramid on a solidly constructed two-by-four stand, connected to each other so that the fuel from the top drums ran down into the lower drums, with the bottom drum connected to the furnace in the house by an insulated length of copper tubing.
Kate and Jim had positioned themselves in a convenient stand of alders at the edge of the clearing, so they had a clear view of Willard Shugak as he got out of his truck, disconnected the copper tubing, connected a hose to the spigot, and began to siphon off the fuel in the drums on the stand to the black barrel tank in the back of his pickup.
Kate swore beneath her breath. Jim kept his arms around her so she’d shut up and stay put. When he judged that enough fuel had been transferred from the drums to the truck’s tank to merit, at the $3.41 per gallon for diesel fuel he had last seen on an Ahtna pump, the definition of theft as provided for in the Alaska statutes, specifically 11.46.100, he said, “Shall we?” and turned her loose.
Willard looked up when they emerged from the alders. When he saw Kate, he went white and then red and then white again. “Oh shit,” he said, his voice an insubstantial adolescent squeal that sounded odd coming out of the mouth of a forty-year-old man.
“At least,” Kate said, boiling forward.
Willard Shugak was all of six feet tall, but he dodged around Jim, keeping the trooper between him and Kate. His voice went high enough to wake up bats. “No, Kate, wait, I—”
“You moron,” Kate said, forgetting for the moment that Willard was almost exactly that, “what if Auntie Balasha came home to a cold house, her pipes all froze up?”
She reached for him and Willard backpedaled, stumbling and almost losing his balance, both hands up, palms out, in a placating gesture totally lost on its intended recipient. Jim watched, delaying official law enforcement action, mostly because he was enjoying the show.
“I wasn’t going to take it all, honest I wasn’t.”
“You’re not even out of oil,” Kate said, cutting back around Jim and catching the cuff of Willard’s jacket. “I went out to your place this morning and checked. You were going to sell it, weren’t you, Willard?”
Willard yanked his arm free and darted back around Jim. “I would have paid Auntie back, honest I would!”
“Sure you would, you little weasel. Howie put you up to this because you were behind on the rent?” Kate feinted a move, Willard dodged back out of the way, and the Darth Vader action figure peeping out of his shirt pocket fell out and vanished into the churned-up snow.
Willard let out a cry of dismay. “Anakin!” He lumbered forward, his hands pawing wildly at the snow. Kate took advantage of his distraction and grabbed a handful of Willard’s dirty blond hair to haul him upright.
“Ow! Kate! That hurts! Jim! Help!”
Jim had less than a second to revel in the sight of a man the size of Willard terrified by a woman the size of Kate before Mutt burst out of the undergrowth, mistook the attempted homicide for a game and romped around the three of them, barking madly while trying to catch the first available hem in her teeth.
At this point Jim, tired of feeling like base in a game of kick-the-can, grabbed Kate and Willard by the scruffs of their necks and held them apart as far as his arms would stretch. If he’d been an inch shorter, he wouldn’t have been able to pull it off with near as much aplomb. “All right, you two, knock it off.”
Kate kicked out with her right foot in reply, which would have connected in a meaningful way with Jim’s left knee had he not moved it smartly out of range just in time. It threw him off balance, though, and Kate wriggled free and was on Willard before Jim could recover. She had Willard flat on the ground, her hands at Willard’s throat and a knee in Willard’s balls. Mutt divined that this was not a game after all and added her two cents’ worth with snaps and snarls that came entirely too close to Willard’s left ear for anyone’s comfort. Willard was bawling, eyes squeezed shut, mouth wide open, face wet with a river of tears, shoulders shaking with big sloppy sobs. “I confess, I confess! Jesus, Jim, couldja please just arrest me? Please?”
“Oh, for God’s sake.” Kate let him go in disgust and rose to her feet, brushing snow from her pants. “Get up, you big baby. I didn’t hurt you.”
His eyes rolled toward Mutt, whose head was sunk beneath her shoulder blades, her impressive canines bared in a manner that could only be described as distinctly unfriendly. It was a sight made even scarier by the bloodstains and the ptarmigan feathers adhering to her muzzle, remnants of the lunch she had just finished in the next spruce copse over.
Kate made an impatient sound. “Mutt,” she said.
“Graar,” Mutt said to Willard, conveying a wealth of meaning in one syllable, and trotted more or less obediently to Kate’s side, where she received a compensatory scratch behind her ears in lieu of bloodshed, always Mutt’s preference.
Jim stretched out a hand to haul Willard to his feet for what they both sincerely hoped was the last time. Willard gulped down a sob, smeared tears and snot across his face with his shirtsleeve, and said in a plaintive voice, “Couldja guys help me find Anakin before we go to jail? Please?”
The state trooper building in Niniltna was so new, it squeaked. In a rare decision of foresight and wisdom, the state had built it on a five-acre lot next to the Niniltna Native Association building, whose authority rolled downhill to embrace the post and whose chairman, Billy Mike, was known to Park rats as a law-and-order kind of guy. The post was a solid structure, an unthreateningly bland beige square divided into fourths, a front office, Jim’s office, an interview room, and the jail, two cells big enough for a bunk and a toilet each.
Willard, Anakin tucked safely back in his shirt pocket, scooted inside and turned to watch closely as Jim locked the cell door behind him. He wrapped his meaty hands around the bars and gave them a shake. The door trembled but held. He appeared reassured, and looked at Jim, his dark brown eyes still wide. They were set far apart, giving him a fey, elfin look. It was a look seen all too often in Bush Alaska. “Kate’s crazy, Jim,” he said.
“Tell me about it,” Jim said.
“Yeah, I heard you got a thing going with her.” Willard’s expression approached something like awe. “Man. You must have some kinda death wish.”
“Ain’t got no thing,” Jim said, and he might have closed the door to the cells a little more firmly than absolutely necessary.
Kate was pacing his office, fuming. Mutt had wedged herself into a corner, her tail tucked safely behind her and her front paws as far back as she could get them.
Kate rounded on Jim as he came in. “You’re going to throw the book at him this time, Chopin.”
Jim sat behind his desk, shoulders very square and correct. He turned on his computer and clicked on the icon that brought up the right form. “I’m going to charge him with theft in the third degree—”
He waited out the expected eruption and continued unhurriedly. “Theft in the third degree if the value of property is between fifty and five hundred dollars. Even at third degree I’m pushing the envelope here. I know Mac Devlin’s charging three seventy-five a gallon for fuel oil, but I doubt if Willard was able to pump fifty gallons before you mugged him.”
Kate called Willard’s legitimacy into serious question and then started in on his friends.
Again, Jim waited her out. He was prepared to be patient, for two reasons. One, there was no Alaska statute for Crimes Against Auntie, which was what Kate really wanted Willard charged with. Two, it had never done anyone a bit of good to try to match Kate Shugak in either volume or vituperation. The wisest course—he winced when she kicked one of the visitors’ chairs across the room—was to wait her out.
The arm of the chair thudded into the wall. Kate glared at the resulting chip in the brand-new Sheetrock as if it were to blame. Into the gift of silence Jim said, “You know she won’t press charges.”
“She can decide that for herself when she gets back,” Kate said with a snap.
Mutt decided that a mediating influence was called for and, albeit with some trepidation, positioned herself between the two combatants. She followed the conversation with her head, her tail wagging vigorously, as if this display of goodwill would put out the fire blazing up between her personal human and Mutt’s favorite man.
“You know she won’t, Kate,” Jim said. “She’ll shake her head and look like her heart is broken, and I’ll feel like six different kinds of slime for delivering the bad news. Then she’ll make me a cup of tea, and she won’t forget I like honey in it, and then she’ll sit down across from me and reminisce about how she babysat Willard’s dad when he was little, and got a great set of pink-and-purple towels at Willard’s paternal grandmother’s potlatch, pink and purple, her favorite colors, and she’s still using them, they’re such good-quality towels, and what a lousy boat Willard crewed on last summer and how Alvin Kvasnikof never does pay off his crews at anything like what they’re worth, and then she’ll remember that bad girl Priscilla Ollestad, who broke Willard’s heart when she married Cliff Moonin, and then—”
He could hear the rising exasperation in his voice and broke off. “She won’t press charges.”
Kate fetched the chair she had kicked across the room and sat down in it. She folded her arms and scowled. “And it’s only a class A misdemeanor.”
“That’s all it is,” he said. “And if all of that doesn’t work, she’ll say it was all her fault anyway because she couldn’t get her daughter to stop drinking while she was carrying Willard.”
Gloom settled in heavily over the room. Mutt’s tail slowed. Comfort was needed. Jim was the love of her life, in spite of that human male thing he had going on, but Kate had time served. She laid her chin on Kate’s knee and blinked up at her with a sympathetic expression, or as much sympathy as predatory yellow eyes could exude.
The phone rang, and it was a toss-up as to which of the three was more relieved. “Yeah?” Jim said into the receiver. His face hardened. “Thanks.”
He put the phone down. “Jury’s come back, but it’s so late, Singh is delaying hearing the verdict until the morning.” He hesitated, but she’d been helpful to the investigation, with an eidetic memory of Deem’s past offenses. Plus she was related to the victim somehow. She usually was. “I’ll fly to Ahtna tomorrow morning. Wanna come?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Hey?” Willard’s mournful howl was muffled by the intervening walls but perfectly understandable. “Um, I hate to bother you guys, but Anakin and me, we’re kinda hungry?” A pause. “Maybe we could have a coupla those cookies I saw next to the coffeepot on the way in? And maybe we could have some coffee with them? Maybe with cream? And a couple three sugars? Anakin really likes his coffee sweet.”
Jim closed his eyes and shook his head. “Willard Shugak could smell the filling on an Oreo cookie at a hundred yards.” He got up, and Kate followed him to the outer office.
“Maggie, I’m outta here, and I won’t be in tomorrow until late. Get Laurel to bring Willard some dinner, would you, please? He’ll be staying with us for a few days.”
Kate growled, mostly for show, and because she knew Willard was listening.
“Protective custody,” Jim said.
Maggie gave Kate a wary look. “Got it, boss.”
As Jim turned the Blazer around to head back to Kate’s homestead, she said, “What’s your prediction? On the verdict?”
The road was mostly bare, frozen gravel. “I hate global warming,” Jim said, and eased up the Blazer to a steady forty miles an hour. “I stopped guessing jury verdicts after my first case, Kate.”
“What happened on your first case?”
“First case that came to trial, I should have said.” A bull moose sauntered out from the undergrowth and paused in the middle of the road, looking around with a distracted air, as if he were trying to remember where he had mislaid his rack. Jim tapped the brakes and flicked the headlights on bright and back again. The moose blinked at them bemusedly and then galumphed back into the undergrowth, embarrassed by his naked head.
Jim stepped cautiously on the gas, goosing her back up to speed. The Blazer rattled over the gravel base, and he had to raise his voice to be heard. “Perp and his best buddy pick up the victim on the road, try to get him to perform oral sex on them. When he won’t, they shoot him nine times with a twenty-two. And then cut his throat just to be sure. Tossed the body in the city dump and hot-wired the dozer to run it over him a few times to mash him into the garbage.