Copyright 2020 by James Sarafin
Chapter 1 – Christmas Lights
August 26, 12:03-12:07 am
Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Riley Kendrick held hard to the young lady’s wrist. He wasn’t letting go, not after what he’d seen.
The smell of blood hung over-ripe and heavy in the still night air. Blood all over the place, like someone had thrown a quart jar of it
against the wall, where it ran down and settled into the gravel of Joey’s parking lot.
He’d got the call when he was almost to Willow, after a day of testifying in a courtroom in Palmer. He’d arrived on the scene within
five minutes of the shooting.
“Please! I want to see him! Brandon!” The young lady struggled, but she was small and not very strong. Little red-headed gal, now
a widow. She shouldn’t see it, remember him like that. Must have been a shotgun at close range. Good thing the bar crowd had kept
her away from the body. From where he stood, he could see the dead man’s legs sticking out from behind the edge of the building door.
She’d probably seen that much. Kendrick had already seen the worst: blood glistened blackly on what remained of the dead man’s head.
Kendrick looked beyond the body and down the road. The rotating lights on the roof of his SUV lit up a hundred yards of highway
every time the white light blipped around. Late-summer grass and weeds along the berm lit up in a straight edge on and off as the light
turned. He wouldn’t mind taking a walk down the highway. Headed down the road would be good. Maybe all the way back to east Texas.
Just about any place but here and now would do.
“Ma’am, would you please step into our vehicle.” He pulled her along, and she quit resisting. A female trooper from the Palmer
station got in the back of the SUV beside the woman, put an arm around her, and nodded at Kendrick.
The only thing that distinguished Joey’s from any other aging Alaska bar was a string of little multi-colored lights surrounding the
doorway and two front windows, kept on all year. Like all year was Christmas. A group of six men and three women huddled at the front
of the building like a flock of disturbed ptarmigan. The customers had divided themselves by sexes the way school-children do, men
standing on one side of the bar door and women on the other. Most of them were smoking; the ground was littered with butts. If there
were any witnesses, there they would be. A big man in motorcycle leathers, red-faced, tears squirting from his eyes, spoke up before
Kendrick could ask.
“I know who done it! Shot my brother! We all know.” He broke down and buried his face behind his hands.
Kendrick watched him, then asked if anyone had seen the shooting, and everyone shook their head or looked away. Another
biker, judging from his leather jacket and pants, stepped up.
“I didn’t see the shooting, but a couple hours ago there was a fight at the Grizzly Bar in Talkeetna…”
Chapter 2 – The Long Way Home
August 26, 7:15-9:45 pm
Kyle leaned into a heavy crosswind as he rode his motorcycle out of Anchorage, the big city, and across the Palmer Hay Flats
toward home. The Flats, on both sides of the highway, were mostly a big marsh early settlers must have thought resembled a hay field.
The air smelled like hay, the late-summer scent of mature vegetation. Gusts of wind pummeled him like giant hands, making the bike
sway, but the gyroscopic effect of the spinning wheels kept him upright.
He felt tense and strung out from fighting Anchorage traffic. He’d waited in a bar on Muldoon Road until the rush hour died down,
but traffic was still heavier than he was used to. At least his mood was good. Flat. Not down anyway.
He stopped to eat in Wasilla, the little city, then hit the road north again. Traffic was light, and Kyle opened the throttle and passed
vehicles as he came up to them. In the near-ghost-town of Willow, a trooper’s sedan sat on the gravel berm in front of Joey’s bar, one
of the few businesses that survived from the boom of the early ‘80s, when Willow had been considered for the site of a new state capitol.
Kyle checked his speedometer. Whoops. He let up on the throttle. His radar detector didn’t light up, so they couldn’t have a reading
on his speed.
He figured Joey’s must be closed because the Christmas lights were off. Strange for them to be closed this early. Two trooper SUVs
were parked next to the bar building, and part of the lot was marked off with yellow tape. Had the place been robbed? Kyle knew of a
knife-fight in Joey’s parking lot several years back but couldn’t recall how it had turned out. And there were the occasional fistfights
scarcely worth a mention. The guys on the jobsite would be talking about what happened this time. He’d find out from them.
In his mirrors he saw the trooper sedan pull out behind him. They all knew his candy-apple-red Kawasaki—they stalked him often
enough. The car accelerated to the speed limit but its roof lights didn’t come on. It paced him, staying near the edge of sight. Why were
they following him? His detector still wasn’t lighting up, so they couldn’t be using radar. If they wrote him a ticket, this time he’d fight it.
Another ticket would only raise his insurance rates. Sure, he’d been doing sixty in a forty-five-speed zone when they first came into sight,
but there was no way they could have eyeballed how fast he was going, not with him on a motorcycle with headlights on.
Or maybe they weren’t following him, were just headed north for other reasons. Maybe they were going to the Talkeetna Spur trooper
Weather moved in on him as he rode. Ten miles out of Willow he hit a sheet of rain falling in big drops that drummed on his helmet
and shattered like glass beads on his windshield. Rainwater spray from the bike’s tires sizzled on the hot exhaust pipe. A rare downpour
for southcentral Alaska, where light rain was the norm. From the clouds over the Talkeetna Mountains came the equally-rare sound of
thunder above the engine and wind noise. He caught a flash of lightning from the corner of his eye and heard another growl of thunder.
The sedan behind him had crept closer, until Kyle could see the silhouettes of two troopers sitting inside.
Screw them. They couldn’t dampen his mood even if they did write him a ticket. He enjoyed the high theatre in the sky, the flashes of
light and bass crescendo of sound. In another ten miles he left the storm behind. The pavement was dry, but the wind still blew. Fifty yards
ahead a cross fox darted over the road, its fur rippling in the wind. Kyle’s headlights reflected in the canine’s eyes.
The sky grew darker as the sun went down to the northwest. The trooper car closed the distance until it was only a few hundred yards
behind. Its headlights were on, but no whirling roof-lights. If they were going to pull him over, why didn’t they get on with it?
He rode down a hill and felt himself pass through a wall of cold. He went up the next hill into warmer temperatures, but when the road
dipped he hit the cold again. Rain reappeared and turned into snow, big flakes that helicoptered down and melted as soon as they hit his
windshield. Snow in late August was unusual, but he’d seen it happen before. He kept to the speed limit. He was getting cold but stayed
dry in his waterproof coveralls.
The occupants of the trooper car behind him wouldn’t be cold. They must be warm and dry inside the vehicle with the heater and
By the time Kyle turned onto the Talkeetna Spur Highway, the wet snow had become a normal light rain. In his mirrors he saw the
trooper car slow down and make the turn behind him. He went seven miles north, then turned east on a gravel road that climbed gradually
into the Talkeetna foothills. Kyle had to drive slowly because the big Kawasaki skittered and jiggled, crabbing to the side at every dip,
pothole, or over-sized rock. The low-rpm engine noise was drowned by the scattering of gravel on the steel frame and exhaust pipe. He
lost track of the trooper car. Couldn’t see its headlights behind him anymore.
He had to go a bit over a mile before he came to the driveway for the house he’d built nine years before. The walls were made of
commercial logs milled in Washington state, but the pillars, beams, ridgepole, and purlins were made of spruce he’d harvested from his
own five acres. The house was a unique creation of Kyle’s own design, two bedrooms, 1400 square feet.
The house was dark. No one waited for him. No one ever waited for him. He lived alone and beyond the reach of paved roads and
public utilities. Instead of utility power he had solar panels on his roof connected to a bank of twelve marine deep-cycle batteries. They
didn’t generate enough electricity to power appliances or a TV. Mostly he relied on oil lamps for light.
He pulled under the shop overhang and switched off the bike—and whirling lights came on, red, blue, and white, sliding on and off the
front of his house and workshop. For a moment he thought someone had set up one of those spinning-light extravaganzas to play on his
house. He heard a car door open behind him, and another. He turned.
The roof lights were flashing on the trooper sedan in his driveway. Two troopers were walking toward him in crouching motions,
starting from opposite sides of the car and separating further as they approached. In the flash of the lights he could see the troopers had
drawn their handguns and were pointing them at him.
For a speeding ticket? A trooper SUV skidded to a stop on the gravel road, turned on its roof lights, and pulled in behind the sedan. Two
more officers with guns got out of the SUV while the first two waited. One of the second two wore a cowboy hat. They spread out to the
side, keeping clear the lines of fire and flanking Kyle, apparently in case he decided to run into the surrounding forest.
For a moment his feet wanted to run. Run to where? In all this wild landscape there was nowhere to hide. If he built a fire to keep warm
they’d spot him by air. Running away was not an option on the edge of the wilderness. Alaska killed the unprepared. What did he have to
run from, anyway?
Without being told, Kyle put his hands up. What else to do when people are pointing guns at you? He said, “How can I help you,
Next thing he knew they had his face on the wet gravel of his own driveway. They patted him down and took everything from his
pockets. From the ground he could see the front doorway of his house was open.
“Kyle Spruce,” the trooper wearing the cowboy hat said in a Southern drawl, “we have a warrant to search your premises. And we’re
detaining you pending investigation into the murder of Brandon Sullivan.” Kyle recognized the speaker’s voice, but not the victim’s name.
They got him on his feet and led him to the SUV. The interior looked warm, but he didn’t feel it once inside the back-seat cage.
Instead he felt the bright edge of his mood crinkle up and curl inward like a burning sheet of paper.
Last edited by James; 12/12/20 03:27 AM.