Fiction: THE RACCOON by Al Onia

The rat closed on the raccoon kittens, intent on a tender meal. The mother raccoon struck before the rat had a chance to turn and use its formidable teeth on the mature raccoon. Into the water devoted parent and hunter-now-prey tumbled. Enduring the painful bites, the mother raccoon used her determination and superior size to gain position on the frantic rat. She raised her head clear of the water, holding the omnivore’s head below. The rat’s struggles rendered blood in a dozen places but the raccoon held on. The rat’s fight ended as its lungs filled with sea water. The raccoon climbed onto the wharf. She returned to her kittens, shaking the water free from her bleeding coat.

*

“You’re the law, McLean. You’ve got to stop it.”

Constable Darren McLean examined the vandalism to Art van Hoeven’s trawler. He said, “Art, I’m crazy busy. Until the Sergeant gets back, I’m also the only law within fifty miles of Port George. Your boat’s undamaged. You can still fish.”

Van Hoeven pointed at the graffiti. “Fish? The only men who can fish did this. The Feds allow the natives to clean out every living thing from the sea. We pay for our boats, then wait for a few measly days to scavenge what’s left. They write shit like this. ‘Thanks for the Bait’.”

Darren said, “Art, you don’t know who did it. I get called to the high school three or four times a month for the same thing. And those are the white kids.”

Van Hoeven didn’t back down. He hefted his pants up as far as belly would allow. Unshaven whiskers accentuated his speech, “Look, it’s time you got off the fence McLean. If you won’t deal with this, we will. If one or two of those fancy rigs from the reserve ended up on the bottom, things wouldn’t look quite as funny to Chief Eagle and his rich cohorts.”

Darren stood firm. “Take a deep breath, Art, and listen to me. I’m not taking sides. Not yours, not the Kwalish. Any retaliation by you or any other fishermen will not go unpunished. I could throw the lot of you in jail based on this conversation alone.” He held out the camera screen for Art to examine. “I’ve got a couple of good pictures and I’ll compare the style to the school vandalism shots. It’s likely kids. Think, what motive would the Kwalish have?”

Van Hoeven said, “Who needs a motive when you’ve got assholes like Joey Eagle fishing off-limit spawning streams?” He counted fingers. “Oh yeah, what else has Port George’s citizen-of-the-year done lately? Shot a mother cougar and left the remains on our docks. Drove a stolen truck into the bus station. If I thought he could spell, I’d say he did this as a joke to amuse his sick sense of humor. But I hear he’s otherwise occupied banging some redhead behind her man’s back.”

“His fellow Kwalish don’t like him any more than you, I’m sure.”

“Having a Chief for a cousin has blinded too many eyes over the years. You’ve been here what, six months? Joey’s track record goes back more than a decade.”

The shift whistle howled from shore. Darren said, “Cannery time for you, isn’t it Art?”

Van Hoeven picked up his duffle. “Fine thing. For twenty bucks an hour I clean the fish I should be catching. A full hold is worth ten grand or more. I used to keep my catch alive in salt water tanks. Vancouver’s best restaurants chartered planes to transport van Hoeven’s fresh fish to their customer’s tables. Now I’m canning cat food, for Christ’s sake.”

He walked up the pier.

“All things come around, Art. Be patient.”

Van Hoeven glanced over his shoulder. “I’m not alone in watching my fortune disappear, Constable. My buddies are losing their patience.”

Darren took a final look at Art’s boat. Bad time for Archibald to attend anti-terrorism training. I’ve got two groups of fishermen waiting for any excuse to start a war. I hope this isn’t it.

His phone beeped. “McLean.”

“Darren, it’s Willa. Some kids just found a body in the water in front of the cafe.”

Darren ran up the dock. “Don’t touch it. Call the ambulance. I’m there in five minutes. Any idea who it is?”

The woman’s voice shook, “Not sure. The jacket could be Joey Eagle’s.”

Great, Darren thought. I miss the prairies where trainwrecks like Joey can only kill themselves on land.

*

Darren stopped in back of Willa’s Deerhead Cafe. He shouldered a path through the crowd. “Give me room here folks.” He knelt next to a man in a white lab coat. “Glad you came, Tom. I would have called the M.E. in anyway.”

“The Medical Examiner’s office is always open for you, Constable.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll sign your requisition and you can buy yourself more land.”

“Thank you. It’s not for me, it’s for my family.”

“You bring anymore of your family over from Hong Kong and we’ll have to change the name of the town. So, what have we got?”

Darren looked at the swollen face. “Bloated pretty bad. How many days?”

Tom said, “Near a week to ten days. Body likely sank soon after drowning. Last night’s squall brought it up and into shore.”

Darren closed one eye to look again. “Joey Eagle all right.”

Tom nodded, “Guess he ran out of liquor and tried to drink the Pacific Ocean. Can we take him out of the water?”

“Let me take pictures first.” He hoisted his camera to his eye.

“Not everyone in Port George will be saddened by this, I’m sorry to say.”

“Sad but true. Van Hoeven and his mates won’t be wearing black.” Darren snapped off a dozen images. “He’s all yours, Tom. I’d better visit Chief Eagle before he finds out from someone else.”

“I’ll start the autopsy right away. Only two fights last night and I’ve sewn the lads up already. Not even a broken limb; this town is getting quiet.”

Darren said, “Let’s hope it stays that way.”

*

The Kwalish Reserve entrance lay fifteen minutes south of town. Darren followed the gravel road to a two-story log home. A girl’s pale face appeared in an upstairs window. He waved but she did not respond, other than to continue staring.

Two husky natives sat on the porch and eyed Darren as he walked up the stone path.

“Constable.” One tilted his head.

“‘Afternoon Aaron. Not out fishing today?”

“Tomorrow we run with the tide. Chief’s expecting you. Before you upset him, I’m telling you this is tribal business, not yours.”

Darren felt a ‘thunk’ in the porch. He looked down and saw the still-quivering hunting knife six inches from his foot. The other man, whom he didn’t know, left his chair and walked over.

“Sorry,” he said.

He reached down but Darren beat him to it and pulled the knife free. He passed it, handle first to the man. “Be careful, that kind of slip when you’re whittling can be dangerous.”

Aaron opened the door. “As I said, Chief’s expecting you.”

The plank floor and log walls were inviting. Inside, Darren took a deep breath. The cedar and fir smell from the stone fireplace added to the calm. A small child ran around the open room brandishing a toy truck. He slipped on a rug and laughed. Darren righted the boy and retrieved the truck.

“My grandson.” Chief Milton Hardisty Eagle wore a UBC sweatshirt and dress pants.

Darren took a deep breath. “This is never easy, no matter what the circumstances. Chief Eagle, I’m sorry I have some bad news.”

“My cousin Joey, I know. Willa phoned me.”

“She shouldn’t have until I talked with you.” How many more had she told? The speed of sound was nothing compared to the speed of small-town gossip.

“She thought it better if I heard from an old friend.”

“Perhaps, but it doesn’t help my investigation. It’s tough balancing profession and connecting with the community. Especially the reserve here, or the Finnish settlement in Green Cove.”

Darren removed his hat and traced a finger around the brim. “In my first six months, I came to know Joey better than I know you.” Darren looked around the room. A railing ran along the next level and the ceiling timbers high above gave solidity to the house. “This is a beautiful place.”

“Thank you. I built it many years ago with my father.” He pointed to the boy, now running up the stairs. “I hope it will be his one day.”

“So how did Joey miss out on this?”

The Chief ran his hands down his lap, head bowed as he spoke. “My cousin made his choices when he was young. He ran with the town boys. Too many of them drink and use drugs to battle the boredom until they’re old enough to kill themselves in cars. It is the only escape they can imagine. For Joey, it meant no one to judge. I tried to counsel him but I couldn’t help.”

Darren heard a girl’s voice upstairs. He glimpsed a flash of red, a pale arm on the little boy’s head then they disappeared from sight. He looked at the Chief, “Still, he was family.”

“He was. Once.”

Darren said, “Tom has to perform an autopsy to determine the official cause of death.”

The Chief barked, “He drowned. What more do you need to know?”

Darren looked at the floor. “This is hard for me to be objective. But I have to observe certain regulations. It would be easier for me with your agreement.”

“Regulations that trample our traditions? Constable McLean, if you truly wish to find balance then take the time to educate yourself in our ways.”

The grandson tore down the stairs growling. He had an animal skin over his head. He ran up to Darren. “I’m a bear. Grrr.”

Darren said, “You are the scariest bear I have ever seen.”

Chief Eagle laughed, “He is a raccoon.”

Darren said, “I couldn’t spoil his fun. He is a scary raccoon. What a beautiful hide.”

The child ran to another room through a blanket hanging from a door jam.

Chief Eagle said, “This trouble between the fishermen and my band is not good. I ask you to concentrate on cooling the antagonism. I think they are vandalizing their own boats to make trouble. My cousin’s death should not dominate your time. If you need assistance from the band police, let me know.”

Darren visualized the two men outside ‘helping’ him. “Thanks. At this point, I can manage. Guarding the Kwalish fleet would be the best use of their time. I don’t know who the vandals are but a few guards should discourage any reciprocal attacks.”

“I will see to it.” The Chief stood and shook Darren’s hand. He pointed to the walls of the lodge-like home. “I have many pelts here. Do you have any young relatives who want to play bear? Or lynx?”

“That’s very generous. My cousins don’t see too many bears on the farm in Saskatchewan. I’ll consider it.”

They walked out to the porch and looked down at the seashore. “Beautiful up here when it isn’t foggy or raining,” Darren said. “I still miss the big blue prairie sky some days.”

“Appreciate the beauty you have, not what you miss. We must protect that beauty always. Thank you for coming out Constable. You are welcome any time.”

“I appreciate that. I will have to order the autopsy.”

Chief Eagle turned his gaze from the sea to Darren. The grey eyes were steel. “If you must.” He turned away and went back inside. The great wooden door closed with a solid ‘thud’.

Darren nodded to the two men still on the porch. They ignored him, Aaron intent on his smoldering cigarette tip, the other carving his piece of driftwood.

Darren said, “Funny thing about that knife.”

The man glared at him. “Yeah?”

“The handle.”

The man loosened his grip and let the knife balance in his open hand.

Darren said, “The initials ‘JE’ carved into it. Could be Joey Eagle.”

The man resumed his cutting. “What a coincidence.”

Aaron butted his cigarette. “You should be getting back to town, Constable.”

Darren took another look at the ocean before getting into the cruiser. It could be so calm here on the surface.

*

Darren wanted to see Art van Hoeven’s reaction to the news of Joey Eagle’s death. He pulled into the cannery lot amidst a scrum. Whites and Kwalish shouting at each other.

Darren blipped the siren and lights once, then got out.

“What’s going on?”

Van Hoeven answered, “These bozos thought it would be fun to interrupt our break with their idea of a joke.” He pointed at a six inch fingerling in a bucket on the pavement.

The natives all laughed. One said, “It’s a favor. Saves them risking lives in their rust buckets next time the Feds let them fish.” Encouraged by more laughter from his mates, he continued, “The harvest is right here in this pail.”

Van Hoeven yelled, “Only because your trawlers miss the littlest ones. You’d be happy to strip the ocean bare, leaving nothing for your own children. We’ll go broke and move on. Your kids will be stuck here forever, eating bark and dirt. If you don’t use them up as well.”

That did it. Punches started flying and Darren retreated. He jumped in his car, started it and turned on the siren. He edged into the crowd pushing them closer and closer to the edge of the unloading dock. Two went into the water and he reversed for another run. A band of men piled from the cannery. Fair-haired Finns and burly Chinese forced themselves between combatants.

Darren got out with his bullhorn. “That’s enough.” He pointed to the natives. “Off this dock now.” He glared at Art and his men. “Pull those in the water out and get back inside.” He stalked behind the natives, herding them out. “Put the shoe on the other foot, guys. How the hell would you feel in their position? Never poke the bear with a stick. Got it? You want to spend a few days in jail? Guess what? I’ve decided it’s now smoke-free.”

When the last truck had left, Darren returned to the rest. “Art, what did I tell you?”

“Stay out of this, cop.” One of the men from the water said.

Darren glared at him. “Carmine Festa, I am in this until the stupidity stops.” He addressed all, “If you haven’t heard, Joey Eagle’s drowned body was found this morning. So if the Kwalish seem a little upset, appreciate they have lost one of theirs.” He kept an eye on Art. His shock appeared genuine.

“Big loss,” someone shouted. A few chuckles followed. Art’s face remained grim.

Darren said, “We all know Joey had failings. At one time he was a young boy who made bad choices because he didn’t have enough guidance. Think what example you are setting for your own kids with this behavior. Show them you can make better choices.”

He called to the men walking back into the cannery. “Thanks for your help.” He turned to Art once again, “They made a good choice.”

“Bloody immigrants,” Carmine said.

“They made better citizens than you today,” Darren said. “I suggest you get back to work.”

The crowd dispersed except for Art. He came over to Darren. “Eagle’s dead?”

Darren nodded, “Been in the water for a week, maybe longer. When’s the last time you saw him?”

“Jeez, I don’t know. He’s one of those come and go fixtures. Seems to be around for a while, then he disappears. Holed up with new drinking buddies as long as their cash lasts or some woman until she tires of his abuse and throws him out. Then he’s back in the bars. I saw him in the pool hall two weeks ago. He beat up a scrawny logger.”

“What? I didn’t hear about that.”

“Some mouthy kid traveling up island. Joey was a drunk and a bully but tough as a wild animal. Didn’t mind taking a few hits to get a good one in.” He paused and scratched the stubble on his chin. “Drowned? No wonder, the way he used to race his skiff back and forth across the harbor. Used to chase whales, bumping into them and throwing bottles. Hate to speak ill of the dead, but the world’s a better place today.”

Darren said, “Hold that thought the next time you want to start a fight.”

Van Hoeven grunted and walked away.

Darren watched the man’s body language for any clue. Was the shock response to the death or surprise the body had been found?

*

Doctor Louis slid his clipboard across the metal desk.

Darren mumbled as he read, “Water in lungs. Parasitic worms indicate eight or nine days in water. Near-toxic alcohol levels.” He flipped the page over to look at the photos. “You enjoy this?”

“Seldom. I go into clinical mode. Look at his upper back.”

Darren turned the picture ninety degrees. “Bruise?”

“Abrasion. Right between the shoulder blades.”

“He fell and hit something on his way into the water.”

“Could be. I had to cut his clothes off but this was on the jacket. Here’s another photo of his jacket.”

The plaid coat had a vertical tear below the collar. “Quite a cut. Lines up with the marks on the skin?” Darren raised his head, not wanting to hear the answer.

“Yes.”

“You don’t think he hit something.”

Tom shook his head, “I do not. He got caught under the water and couldn’t get air. He got raccooned.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

Tom raised an elbow and dropped his hand flat to demonstrate. “A raccoon will hold its prey’s head under the water until it drowns. Something held Joey under the water.”

“Damn. A man universally hated finally pisses the wrong person off.”

Tom said, “Your conclusion, not mine. I’m saying he went under the water and he couldn’t get back to the surface.”

Darren asked, “Did you find any foreign matter on the clothes?”

“He’d been in the water for a week. What do you expect, cruise stickers?”

“Very funny. I’m thinking hair, skin, fingernail clippings. Someone’s watch?”

“There was a wallet with full of i.d. and thousand dollar bills but I dismissed it as unimportant.”

“I’m sure Mike Archibald loves your sense of humor.”

“Mike was like you when he first got posted up here, intense all the time. Looking for a way to the big city. Now you’re the one with anti-terrorism envy.”

“Maybe you’re right. Let’s look at the jacket.” Darren strained to his feet. “Archibald’s gonna love coming back to this.”

*

Darren huddled in the dark. The heavy fog and the iron hull of van Hoeven’s boat made it feel ten degrees cooler than the thermometer. It was midnight. He’d been here two hours and nary a sound above the groans and strains of atrophying ships rubbing against the pier. What was he doing here? A stake-out for graffiti vandals. Less of an outsider might know who the vandals were. If he were tighter to the community, how would he react if they turned out to be friends? Commitment led to ethical uncertainty, didn’t it? Unless he focussed on doing the right thing. Making the right decisions. Sounding straightforward but what was right? The question he’d asked himself since arriving in Port George.

Another hour and he’d pack it in for the night, he decided. He’d need some rest before he paid a visit to Rikka Archibald in the morning. The auburn-haired Mrs. Archibald.

He heard a foot scuff on the dock. Then low voices. Below him, on the pier, next to Art’s boat. Darren peered over the rail. Two perps. Baseball caps and cloth jackets. Didn’t narrow it down much. Staying low, he crept to the rear of the boat.

The pair rattled their spray paint cans as he reached the dock. Darren picked up an oar. Surprise was on his side and he wanted to even the odds further. Intent on their nocturnal mission, they didn’t notice him. He pushed one into the water and yelled to the other, “On your stomach. Right now.”

The man turned. “McLean,” he shouted and threw a spraycan.

Darren took it in the head and dropped the oar. The man came at him. Darren freed his baton and chopped it across the man’s arm. “I said down. Do it.”

The injured man dropped. The other struggled onto the dock. Darren grabbed one hand and pulled him up. With a knee planted in the man’s back, he locked the tiecuffs firm. “Well, well, the Festa twins. Little late for you isn’t it boys? How’s your arm, Carmine? Your brother got to take the swim tonight. I will read you your rights, then we’re going to the station. I’m glad I didn’t arrest you this afternoon when you started the fight at the cannery. Otherwise, Art would still believe the Kwalish vandalized his boat.”

He marched the sorry pair to the cruiser hidden behind the boat launch.

“You can’t hold us. We didn’t paint nothing.”

“Carmine, just knowing what Art will do to you on the street should be enough for you to embrace my hospitality for a day or two.”

When he finished processing the brothers it was three o’clock in the morning. He bunked down in the office.

Art van Hoeven showed up at a quarter past nine.

“You couldn’t tell me over the phone?”

Darren said, “I thought it would be more effective for you to see your vandals in person.”

“Eagle’s people? Those at the cannery yesterday, right?”

“You’re partly right.” Darren opened the door to the cells and escorted the fisherman through. The two snored in their bunks.

“Wake up, lads, you have a visitor.”

Art stared at the faces as they rose. “Carmine? Jerry? What the hell? Why did you arrest these idiots? They didn’t paint my boat.”

Darren lifted the clear bag of paint cans. “Their artistic tools of choice. I will fingerprint them to confirm what I already know and witnessed. No, they are not Chief Eagle’s people. They are your people.”

Art’s shoulders slumped. “Still doesn’t give them the right to fish and we can’t.”

“No, it doesn’t. The government gives them the right and I am here to enforce the government’s law. Now, what do you want to do with this pair?”

“Charge them. Nobody messes with my boat.”

Back in the office, Darren had Art execute the papers he’d prepared in the early hours. “Art, I hope this calms the rancor. I’ll speak to the Chief about the guys on the pier yesterday. We need to tone this down before someone gets hurt bad.”

“Aside from Joey, you mean?”

“Joey’s death was outside this, wasn’t it?” Darren looked for any sign of Art’s involvement.

“I don’t know. I told you I hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks. He bragged about a woman. A redhead. Sounds like a Green Cove Finn. Ask them.”

“They are quite close-knit. I doubt Joey could sneak in undetected. How many Finns outside Green Cove?”

“Few break out. A couple have married into the Kwalish. Spreads the gene pool. Sergeant Mike’s wife is another. She even went to school here. Archibald had quite a battle on his hands when he started dating her.” He stood up to leave. “Wait, you don’t think Joey was pounding the Sergeant’s wife?”

Darren said, “Do you? You mentioned a redhead.”

“Joey was dumb but not that stupid. She wouldn’t let him near.”

“Keep this to yourself, would you Art? And tell your friends who painted their boats.”

Art extended a hand. “I will. Thanks for catching those two. I don’t like admitting I’m wrong but I was this time.”

“If my livelihood was in peril, I’m not sure I’d be any different, Art.”

Art shook his head, “I think you would be, McLean. You understand the greys of justice. I can only see black and white.”

*

Mike and Rikka Archibald lived on the ocean just outside of town. Their deck joined an elevated dock where a small outboard was moored.

His Sergeant’s auburn-haired wife stood in her waterside garden, leaning into a hoe.

Darren honked as he drove into the yard. He parked and got out.

“Hi, Rikka. Your flowers are magnificent.” He shaded his eyes from the sun’s glare. Her bare limbs glistened with sweat.

She stood and pushed a lock away from her face, leaving a dirty smudge. “I try. I can never get Mike to rototill the yard in the spring. He keeps saying he doesn’t want to go to all the trouble, then be transferred. He’s excused himself for five years. But I like the work and the exercise keeps me fit.”

Darren noticed her slight accent, the hard ‘th’ the most noticeable clue. He said, “You could make the force easily with those muscles. I’m envious.”

She flexed a bicep. “Not bad. I couldn’t do what you and Mike do, though. I’m too hot-headed. The red-hair cliche, you know?”

He picked up a handful of soil and let it sift through his fingers. Black and moist, quite unlike the prairie silt he knew. “I’ve always been here at night or before dawn. I didn’t notice your garden. How does the growing here compare to Green Cove?”

She surveyed the beds. “It’s drier here, believe it or not. We grew vegetables; fenced to keep out the goats and deer. I like flowers.” She leaned close to him and whispered, “The vegetables are in the back.”

Darren laughed, “Can’t break your heritage completely, I guess. Not many leave Green Cove.”

“Oh boy, that’s the truth. Few go over the wall. My folks were more open-minded and let me come here to school. Broadened my horizons. Met lots of outsiders.”

“Did you mix with the Kwalish?”

“A few came to our school. I’ve met tons since.” She bent down to pull a weed.

“Did you ever meet Joey Eagle?”

“Joey, jeez.” She rocked back. She shook her head. “I heard he drowned. I knew him in junior high. His family made him attend school as long as they could. He was pretty wild even then. He’d start pounding his desk in class with his fists. Booze or drugs. God, twelve years old and already screwed up. I’d see him around town and say hi but I don’t know if he recognized me.”

“He never talked to you or approached you?”

She studied him, “What’s with the interrogation, Darren?”

“Joey Eagle drowned more than a week ago. He may or may not have had help.” He held up his hand. “Let me get this out before I feel too stupid and don’t follow this thread through.”

“Okay. At least sit down.” She pulled two lawn chairs out onto the grass.

“He made it known he was seeing a redhead. A rarity in Port George, though less so in Green Cove. The timing would work just before Mike left.”

“Jesus, Darren,” Rikka stood up. “Do you think I was having an affair with the most disgusting man in town and Mike found out and killed him?”

Darren shook his head. “When you say it, it sounds dumb.”

“It sounds impossible. I wouldn’t cheat on Mike with anyone. And he wouldn’t murder someone. Not even for me.”

She paced away from him. She grabbed her hoe and swung it, pounding the sharp end again and again into the hard earth.

He said, “I’m sorry Rikka. I’m trying to go by the book. As Mike would. I have no idea what he’ll say if I put this in my report but he’ll ask if I’ve talked to all the redheads.”

She walked back. “Listen, when Mike started dating me, he got regular beatings at the hands of my fellow Finns. He never retaliated. He is not a violent man, Darren.”

“You’re right. If you say you were not the mystery woman of Joey’s affections, I believe you. I had to ask.”

She gripped his hands. “You’ll come for dinner when Mike gets back. I have a lovely blond cousin you should meet.”

Mike had found himself a great woman and a pretty nice life in the boonies, Darren reflected as he drove back. Another thought struck him hard. Rikka said Mike wouldn’t nor couldn’t commit murder. In his trained mind, the question arose. Could she? She didn’t deny knowing Joey. She admitted a temper. She was certainly physically capable of holding a man under water. Instead of Joey’s demise occurring before Mike left, it could have happened right after. She wielded that garden hoe with vigor.

*

The first sign of life at the Chief’s lodge was the grandson, playing on the veranda steps. Darren stopped the car and got out. “Hi. Are you still the big bear?”

Movement from the porch caught his eye. A girl, maybe fifteen stood up. She had fair-skin reddish-blonde hair.

He said, “Are you his sister?”

The little boy tried to pull himself up on the cruiser’s spotlight. Darren lifted the boy in one arm and carried him away from the car. He smiled at the girl. “I’m looking for your grandfather. Is he here?” Darren wondered where yesterday’s porch men were.

He walked closer. The girl looked as though she might bolt, her eyes darted from side to side. Darren stopped and squatted. The boy wriggled loose, growling.

Darren laughed and said, “I hope you don’t want to eat me.”

The girl smiled for a second. “Grandpa’s at his boat.” She moved toward the door. “There are men here, you better go.”

Darren backed to the car. “Go with your sister,” he told the boy.

He waved to the girl. “Thank you. I’m leaving.”

She slipped through the door, watching him.

He saw the door close in his mirror as he drove away “Don’t worry, girl. You’re safe now.”

*

Chief Eagle’s boat, OSPREY II, was as well-kept as his house. Fresh copper-plating below high water level, shiny paint above and on deck. Darren walked along the side to the bridge. Aaron stood in the wheelhouse.

“The Chief?” Darren asked.

“Aft.”

Part way back, Darren stopped to examine a group of wooden shafts with steel hooks on the end.

“Gaffs.” A voice came from behind him.

“Chief Eagle. Nice boat.” He returned his attention to the spear-like objects. “Gaffes? Mistakes?”

The Chief hefted one with both hands. “No ‘e’ on the end.” He swung it down in an arc. “Gets the big
fish in the boat quicker without breaking your line. A quick stab like so and you throw the beast into the hold.”

“Are any missing?”

The Chief eyed him, “Why?”

Darren said, “I’ve learned more about raccoons since your grandson showed me his disguise the other day. They hold their prey under the water until the victim drowns.”

“Raccoons just try to survive. They’re animals.”

“True. Some humans act like animals. Your cousin Joey was not a civilized man much of the time. I know it was beyond his control but that does not excuse him.”

“No, it never did.”

Darren continued, “Joey was raccooned until he drowned. One of these,” Darren removed a second gaff from its holder, “would be just the thing to hold a man under the water. Done right, to an inebriated victim, wouldn’t leave any evidence.” He put it back in its place. “I’m sure all these are cleaned scrupulously after each run. The metal end would just sink if it fell overboard and the shaft would burn real well in a handsome brick fireplace.”

“These are strong allegations, Constable. I picked you for a man who wouldn’t move until he had more evidence than the life habits of a raccoon.”

Darren looked at the man and this time the Chief did not avoid eye contact. Darren said, “There’s more to raccoons than just how they hunt.” He stared down at the water lapping against the hull.

“Chief Eagle, I met your granddaughter today. She’s a frightened girl. Skittish. She doesn’t know the bad man won’t bother her anymore.”

“She will, in time,” the Chief said.

“Get her some professional help. Make it worthwhile. Give back the life Joey lost.” Darren moved past him to the gangplank.

“Do you want to examine the rest of the gaffs?”

“What for? Your cousin had too much to drink. He fell from his skiff and became trapped against the skeg of his outboard motor.

“Incidentally, I caught the men who had been vandalizing your competitor’s boats. They were not Kwalish. Van Hoeven has agreed to petition the Department of Fisheries on behalf of all the non-native fishermen, if the band will scale back operations. And please don’t rub their noses in their plight. Hire some middlemen to take your catch to the cannery.”

Chief Eagle nodded. “Done.”

*

“What the hell is that for?” Sergeant Mike Archibald asked.

“It’s a raccoon pelt,” Darren answered.

“I know. Why is it on your desk?”

“I swapped it for a jar of pickled prairie oysters with Chief Eagle. I’m sending it home to my cousin’s kids.”

“Rikka tells me you’re coming for supper Saturday night to meet Yvonne. Careful, you might end up finding a reason to stay here.”

Archibald flipped through Darren’s reports. “You were busy while I broadened my field of knowledge on international malcontents. You managed?”

Darren shrugged. “Putting issues in perspective helped. I even had time to study the local wildlife. Do you know raccoons will fight to the death against their own kin?”

“I don’t see the relevance.”

Darren folded the pelt. “I found it interesting, that’s all.”

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Sandra Ruttan

Sandra Ruttan is the bestselling author of SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES, HARVEST OF RUINS and The Nolan, Hart & Tain series. For more information, visit her website: http://sruttan.wordpress.com/

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