Detective Frank Mueller of the Anchorage Crime Unit kicked his duffel bag in front of him as the line of oil workers moved slowly towards the airport check-in counter. Frank had been called at 6:30 a.m. and told to be on the 8:00 a.m. flight to Prudhoe Bay to investigate a murder-suicide at an oil camp. The flight would not be with a regular commercial airline. This flight was with Shared Services, and the aircraft was owned by the major oil companies in the Alaskan Arctic. To get on the aircraft, you had to be cleared by the oil companies. Detective Mueller had been cleared quickly.
Frank was a tall, sixty-two-year-old veteran of three failed marriages and two attempts at rehab. He was just coming back from his third. He thought maybe three was his lucky number. The last marriage had ended well; he had nothing left to offer for alimony, so the last wife had wished him well and left for California. He hoped his third time in rehab would prove just as lucky.
Frank was lean and muscular, and you could see he had once been a very handsome man. The hair had gone. What was once a long mane of dashing brown waves had started to leave far too early and had been combed over, then trimmed, and then finally “taken down to the deck.” Now, his head was smooth-shaven and, he thought, attractive.
“You have a firearm?” the gate agent asked when Frank reached the gate. She was a pretty forty-something brunette, and Frank could easily see her as his fourth wife.
“Why, yes I do.” Frank beamed his best smile. He had great teeth that had never seen an orthodontist—just naturally smooth, purely aligned beacons of come-hither-my-darlings that, he thought, worked the very moment he turned them on.
“Then please put it in your checked luggage.” She smiled back, but it was a quick, enough-of-you-mister smile. No warmth, just down to business.
“Why, yes, yes of course,” Frank answered, a little flustered. He was not usually turned down this quickly and this early in the morning, especially after flashing his badge. He put his Glock .40 firearm with holster into his duffel bag and handed it to the unsmiling gate agent.
The agent put an official tag on the bag, allowing it to go through screening with a firearm, and handed Frank a small piece of paper with a gate number, time, and seat number. No boarding pass.
“Thank you,” the agent said, and with a crisp “next please,” Frank was dismissed.
He wandered off to look for his gate, a newspaper, a coffee, and perhaps a mirror to see if he had lost his charm entirely. Perhaps he was in fact getting too old to attract the ladies, or his charm was waning, or, most obviously, the gate agent was a lesbian. He smiled as that last thought crossed his mind.
Frank headed through security, picked up his paper, and scanned the Anchorage Daily Mirror. There was no news on the incident in Prudhoe Bay—it was still too fresh for the paper’s numerous newshounds. Several other investigations into murders in Anchorage and Fairbanks had taken place in the past few days. There was always one month every year when
Alaskans shot the asses off each other. This year it was January. Last year they had waited until March.
There seemed to be a time when the darkness and cold, combined with hard liquor and access to firearms and ammunition, provided the right mix for killing a fellow human being. The police and detectives in both Anchorage and Fairbanks were stretched thin. Frank’s captain had said the reason he was on his own for the investigation was that they were tight for personnel, and the Arctic Oil Company had a good squad of security personnel in place to assist him. He never mentioned the real reason he had put him on the case, which Frank knew. It was the elephant in the room: the Arctic Oil Camp was dry. No liquor, no drugs. Frank was on rehab and probation, and a dry destination could not hurt.
The flight was called, and Frank headed for the gate to board. He moved slowly amongst the sea of workers in navy blue parkas adorned with yellow and silver reflective stripping. It was a small herd of men and women heading for the cold depths of the Arctic.
Frank had a window seat, on the left side just ahead of the wing. The plane filled quickly—these were not tourists. The passengers stowed their carry-on items, sat down, and buckled in. They were heading to work.
As the plane lifted off, Frank watched the lights of Anchorage below, lights that made shadows on the snow. The plane banked and turned north over Cook Inlet. The black, icy water mixed with the ice flows, and the ice flows shone back in the moonlight.
Sunrise would be at 9:34 a.m. this morning in Anchorage, but in Prudhoe Bay, light would not come until 11:19 a.m. The sun would set around 3:00 p.m. He was traveling from darkness to darkness.
He settled back in his seat as the plane leveled off. An eerie quiet surrounded the passengers. Some slept, some talked quietly. They were headed for two to three weeks of twelve-hour days, seven days a week. In between, they would fit in eight hours of sleep and four hours of meals and personal time. They had left behind family, friends, and recreation rooms with big-screen TVs for the desolate Arctic.
The acrid stench of oil filled the air. Frank turned on the air above his head. The smell came from the clothes of the oil workers. It was ground into their clothes—they breathed it and they lived in it. It was their cologne, the smell of money. Frank drifted off to sleep and woke up when they landed in Fairbanks fifty-five minutes later.
The aisle seat beside Frank was empty. He watched more passengers enter and immediately recognized the crime scene investigator that was to join him on his trip. She was small and square—she had a square face that sat on square shoulders that framed a square body and hips. She could have been turned out by a high school woodworking class. She was thirtyish, brunette, and wore dark glasses that hid blue-green eyes. What gave her away as a CSI was her shoulder bag, which read: FAIRBANKS CSI. Frank wondered where low-key had gotten to. Obviously it had not reached this lady. She threw her bag in the overhead, dropped into her seat, and buckled up while glancing at her watch. She was an efficient and concise package of energy.
Frank quietly said, “I believe you’re Joanne Franklin, my CSI.”
She snapped her head in Frank’s direction, a bit of surprise registering on her broad face. “Yes, I am, and you must be my detective.” She had slightly emphasized “my” to show Frank that he had already pissed her off.
Frank decided to be less asshole, more polite. “Well, I am delighted to be working with you, Joanne.” He smiled.
“Likewise.” She smiled the same I-do-not-mean-it smile and picked up a magazine.
“So, have you been to Prudhoe before?” he asked. He was not going to let his charm record be tarnished by this square peg of a woman.
“Yep, Prudhoe, Barrow, Nome, and every other place in between— when they die, I fly.” With that, she put in her iPod headphones, threw him one last smile, and buried her head in her magazine.
Frank was left with a frozen smile on his face. He had been categorically shut down, and he had to let his smile shine for just a few seconds more to alleviate the humiliation he felt. Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six.. .yes, that’s good enough. He moved his gaze back to the window. They had lifted off from Fairbanks and turned straight north.
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