Read Seattle noir Online

Authors: Curt Colbert

Seattle noir

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This collection is comprised of works of fiction. All names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the authors’ imaginations. Any resemblance to real events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published by Akashic Books

© 2009 Akashic Books

Series concept by Tim McLoughlin and Johnny Temple

Seattle map by Sohrab Habibion

ePUB ISBN-13: 978-1-936-07045-9

ISBN-13: 978-1-933354-80-4

Library of Congress Control Number: 2008937353

All rights reserved

Akashic Books

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TABLE OFCONTENTS

Title Page

Copyright Page

Introduction

PART I: GONE SOUTH

THOMASP. HOPP                               Duwamish

Blood Tide

BHARTIKIRCHNER                            Wallingford

Promised Tulips

STEPHANMAGCOSTA                        Ballard

Golden Gardens

ROBERTLOPRESTI                             Fremont

The Center of the Universe

PART II: WHAT COMES AROUND

KATHLEENALCALÁ                            Central District

Blue Sunday

SIMONWOOD                                     Downtown

The Taskmasters

PATRICIAHARRINGTON                    Capitol Hill

What Price Retribution?

PART III: LOVE IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD

CURTCOLBERT                                    Belltown

Till Death Do Us …

PAULS. PIPER                                        Leschi

The Best View in Town

R. BARRIFLOWERS                               South Lake Union

The Wrong End of a Gun

PART IV: TO THE LIMITS

BRIANTHORNTON                               Chinatown

Paper Son

SKYEMOODY                                         Magnolia

The Magnolia Bluff

LOUKEMP                                              Waterfront

Sherlock’s Opera

G.M. FORD                                              Pioneer Square

Food for Thought

About the Contributors

INTRODUCTION

THEEMERALDCITY: UNPOLISHED ANDUNCUT

Early Seattle was a hardscrabble seaport filled with merchant sailors, longshoremen, lumberjacks, rowdy saloons, and a rough-and-tumble police force not immune to corruption and graft.

Among the more notorious crimes in the city’s early history was the case of Seattle Mayor Corliss P. Stone. A businessman and former member of the city council, Mayor Stone’s term was cut short in 1873 when he got caught embezzling $15,000 from his firm, Stone & Burnett. He promptly fled to San Francisco with another man’s wife.

In 1909, members of the Chamber of Commerce decided that a totem pole would be the perfect finishing touch to the downtown business core known as Pioneer Square. They saw nothing wrong with taking a steamer up the coast to Fort Ton-gass, Alaska, and stealing one from a Tlingit Indian village. Apparently, neither did the citizenry of Seattle, who gathered in great numbers for the totem pole’s unveiling, cheering and celebrating not only the grand new symbol, but also the initiative taken in securing it for the city.

Prostitution flourished in early Seattle, the first brothel opening in 1861. By the time of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, it was a thriving trade. The city leaders felt they should be getting a cut of the action. But how could this be done? Taxation and license fees came to mind, but what would they call this new source of revenue? They couldn’t very well call it a whore tax or prostitute levy. Then somebody came up with a brilliant plan: henceforth, the city would officially designate all prostitutes as “seamstresses” and license and tax them as such. (Outsiders would have been amazed to find that Seattle had more “seamstresses” per capita than any other city in the nation.)

Seattle was also one of the rum-running capitals of America during Prohibition. There were many bootleggers, but the most famous and prolific was a former Seattle police lieutenant named Roy Olmstead. Olmstead was fired from the police department after being busted while unloading a hundred cases of smuggled Canadian whiskey from a boat in Edmonds, Washington, just north of Seattle. After paying a fine, he devoted himself full time to building the largest bootlegging operation in the area and became known in Seattle newspapers as “The King of the Puget Sound Bootleggers.” He bought a mansion and lived high on the hog until he was finally taken down in 1924 through the use of federal wiretaps.

By the ’50s, Seattle had added Boeing to its claim to fame, but was still a mostly blue-collar burg that was once described as an “aesthetic dustbin” by Sir Thomas Beecham, a short-term conductor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. Present-day Seattle has become a pricey, cosmopolitan center, home to Microsoft and legions of Starbucks latte lovers. The city is now famous as the birthplace of grunge music, and possesses a flourishing art, theater, and club scene that many would have thought improbable just a few decades ago. Yet some things never change—crime being one of them.

Seattle’s evolution to high finance and high tech has provided even greater opportunity and reward to those who might be ethically, morally, or economically challenged (crooks, in other words).Seattle Noirexplores the seamy underbelly of this gleaming, modern metropolis known as “The Emerald City.”

The stories in the first section of the book, “Gone South,” delve into the sinister direction that some people’s lives can take. Thomas P. Hopp’s “Blood Tide” follows a Native American shaman caught in a web of secrets and tribal allegiances. An East Indian woman’s assumptions about friendship and loss, death and rebirth, are reflected by how her garden grows in Bharti Kirchner’s “Promised Tulips.” Stephan Magcosta’s cautionary tale, “Golden Gardens,” focuses on the wages of prejudice and the cost of hate. Next, Robert Lopresti’s “The Center of the Universe” is set in the city’s Fremont neighborhood, the self-proclaimed “center of the universe,” where the resolution of the story’s violence and strange happenings is, itself, exceedingly strange.

The anthology’s second section, “What Comes Around,” might best be illuminated by a quote from the greatest pitcher in the old Negro Leagues, and maybe in the history of baseball, Satchel Paige: “And don’t look back—something might be gaining on you.” “Blue Sunday” by Kathleen Alcalá takes a Latino soldier on leave from the Iraq War and throws him to the mercies of a not-so-friendly cop—a cop who later finds out exactly what comes around. Simon Wood’s story, “The Taskmasters,” actually takes exception to the rule: that what comes around, in rare instances, can actually be redeeming. Patricia Harrington’s “What Price Retribution?” answers its own question with an example of doing what’s right, even when it’s wrong.

The book’s third section, “Love Is a Four-Letter Word,” explores some of the alternative four-letter words that love can conjure up. My own historical story, “Till Death Do Us . . .” features a husband and wife whose marriage has gone south, while they’ve gone east and west. Paul S. Piper’s “The Best View in Town” relates the problems faced by a guy who thinks his view is the best around . . . until another person’s views collide with his own. In R. Barri Flowers’s “The Wrong End of a Gun,” a divorced African American father meets a gorgeous woman who takes him on as many twists and turns as the Senegalese twists in her hair.

The authors in the final section of the book take their characters, and the reader, “To the Limits.” In Brian Thorn-ton’s historical tale, “Paper Son,” a newly minted Treasury agent working in Chinatown finds inscrutability to be an unavoidable fact of life. And in Skye Moody’s story, “The Magnolia Bluff,” a famous dwarf actor finds that his roles begin to shrink as he mysteriously starts growing taller. One of the Moriarity brothers lures Sherlock Holmes to Seattle in Lou Kemp’s historical “Sherlock’s Opera”—but the trap he’s laid with musical precision unexpectedly plays a few sour notes. Concluding the volume, G.M. Ford’s “Food for Thought” stars a private eye who finds the case of a delicatessen owner to be less than kosher.

This isSeattle Noir. Cozy up in your favorite easy chair and crack the book open. And be sure to turn up the lights—you’ll need them for when it gets dark.

Curt Colbert

Seattle, Washington

March 2009

PART I

GONESOUTH

BLOOD TIDE

BYTHOMASP. HOPP

Duwamish

When we arrived at Herring’s House Park, the police were clearing off the yellow warning tape and packing their forensics bags and boxes, closing their case of an odd death in a parking lot and moving on. Kay Erwin, epidemiologist at Seattle Public Health Hospital, had declared it shellfish poisoning, and the cops had quickly lost interest. But Peyton McKean was of a different mind. He was getting the lay of what had happened two days before by interrogating a young cop, rapid fire, as the officer rolled up the crime scene tape.

“The body lay here?” McKean asked, drawing an imaginary oblong line around a spot in the middle of the damp gravel.

“Uh huh,” answered the officer, stashing tape in a black garbage bag.

“And the victim’s pickup, parked here?” said McKean, sawing a transect line from the parking bumpers out into the lot with his long-fingered hands.

“’At’s right,” said the officer, cinching the bag and pausing to gaze amusedly at McKean, who moved animatedly around the rain-drizzled lot quickly on long legs, marching off distances with his hands tucked behind his back like some intense, gangly schoolteacher. McKean was, I could tell, worried that he’d lack some detail of the circumstances surrounding Erik Torvald’s death, when the last cop who had actually seen Torvald lying facedown in the parking lot was gone and done with the case.

As the officer got in his squad car and prepared to close the door, McKean called somewhat desperately, “Anything else I should know?”

“Nuttin’,” said the cop, slamming his door and backing away, making a half-friendly wave at McKean as he left us alone in the lot.

“There’s more here than meets the eye, Fin Morton,” muttered McKean, lifting his olive-green canvas fedora and scratching in the dark hair of one temple.

“There’s nothing here that meets my eye,” I replied, zipping up my windbreaker against the drizzle that had begun as soon as we got out of my Mustang. I looked around the otherwise empty quadrangle of gravel, the alder woods that stretched down to the bank of the Duwamish River below the lot, and the mud-puddled gravel footpaths, without much hope of spotting a clue. The park was devoid of people on a wet Thursday afternoon. “Maybe the cops are right. Maybe he just had shellfish poisoning. Don’t you think that’s possible?”

“Answer: no,” said McKean in his pedagogical way. “The levels of red tide poison in him were without precedent, off the scale by any measure. To get the dose Kay Erwin found in his blood, he’d have to have eaten ten buckets of steamers, or a dozen geoducks”—he pronounced the word properly:gooey ducks. “And yet,” he continued, “my immunoassay tests for shellfish residues in his guts came up strictly negative. He hadn’t eaten a bit of shellfish. The police may be satisfied that he poisoned himself, but neither Kay nor I believe it. Foul play is at work here, Fin. Somebody killed him, and I’d like to know who.”

“Right now,” I said, moving to the door of my midnight-blue Ford Mustang, “I’d like to get out of this drizzle.”

McKean took one last look around the park as if wishing there were more to see than bare alder trees against a gloomy gray Seattle sky. Then he acquiesced, lapsing into thoughtful silence as I drove us out onto West Marginal Way and headed north past the Duwamish Tribal Office, an old gray house beside a construction site with a sign that read:Future Site of theDuwamish Longhouse.

“Muckleshoot Casino cash finally having an impact,” mumbled McKean absentmindedly as I headed for his labs on the downtown waterfront, where I had picked him up earlier. McKean suddenly cried, “Turn right, right here!”

I pulled the wheel hard and we bounded across some railroad tracks and onto a gravel drive that took us to another riverside parking lot, this one with a sign reading,Terminal105 Salmon Habitat Restoration Site and Public Access Park.

“What’s here?” I asked, pulling up at a dismal postage stamp of greenery wedged between a scrap yard downriver and a defunct container terminal pier upriver, irked at how easily McKean had yanked my chain.

“It’s notwhat’shere,” he said, opening his door with a cerebral glow in his eyes, “butwho’shere.”

At the end of a graveled path an observation platform overlooked the Duwamish River. McKean leaned his lanky frame on the rail and pointed a thin finger out across the expanse of muddy water to where several strings of Day-Glo–red plastic gillnet floats drifted on a slow upstream tide, overshadowed in the distance by the container cranes and skyscrapers of Seattle. A fisherman in a small dingy was at the nets, pulling a big sockeye salmon into his boat. He quickly disengaged the netting from its gills and returned the net to the water. A fine drizzle dappled the brown water and lent a sheen to the fisherman’s dark green raincoat and hood. It put a damp chill on the back of my neck.

“Unless I miss my guess,” said McKean, “that’s my old high school chum, Frank Squalco.”

“How can you be sure that’s him?”

“I recall Franky Squalco from art class at West Seattle High School,” said McKean. “Based on that fisherman’s humble stature and his rather square form, I guessed it might be Frank when I saw him as you drove. Furthermore, as you see, he’s gillnetting salmon, and only tribal people can use gillnets, so the odds improve. I’d like to get his take on this shellfish poisoning business.”

“Why would he know anything about it?”

“Because Erik Torvald was a geoduck fisherman, and Natives hold half the rights to geoduck licenses in this state, by law.”

As the fisherman drew in another salmon, our view of him was cut off when an outbound tug came down the shipping channel pulling an immense black barge piled with rusty cargo containers, so stupendously huge and near that it seemed for a dizzy moment that our viewing platform was moving past its black metallic hulk, rather than the other way around. When the barge passed downriver under the gray concrete rainbow of the West Seattle Freeway Bridge, the fisherman was already steering his dingy toward our shore. McKean waited, unaffected by the clammy air or the cold droplets that beaded his olive-green canvas field coat and were getting down the neck of my jogging shell. I knit my arms around myself for warmth and wondered why I never dressed sufficiently for the weather I inevitably encountered when I tagged along on these adventures.

The fisherman throttled the boat down and glided into a small inlet on our right, helloed up at us absentmindedly, and then paused to take a long second look as his dingy bumped the beach.

“Peyton McKean!” A grin of recognition spread across his broad, brown, forty-ish Northwest Native American face. “I haven’t seen you in a while. What you doin’ down here where us poor Indians fish?”

“We’re investigating a murder.”

Squalco’s face clouded as he stepped out of his boat and pulled it onto the muddy shore with a bowline, his black rubber rain boots slurping in the muck.

“Torvald?” he said. “Yeah. Too bad. Good geoduck man. But why they got you on the case? You’re not a cop. You’re a DNA man, so I heard. Pretty famous around here. When the Jihad Virus came, your vaccine saved a lot of lives, they say.”

McKean brushed the compliment aside. “Not DNA and not vaccines this time. I’m looking into a case of deliberate red tide poisoning.”

Squalco was transferring three big salmon from the bottom of his boat into a large plastic bucket on the shore. At McKean’s remark, he paused, the third salmon cradled in his arms, one boot in the boat and one in the mud, stooped over. The pause was just momentary, and then he put the salmon in the bucket and turned and faced us where we stood above him on the observation deck. He swallowed hard but said nothing.

“You know something?” McKean asked encouragingly.

Squalco’s eyes shot sideways. “Red tide? Sure,” he said. “Puts poison in the clams. State of Washington orders us not to dig ’em then. We usually do anyway. I never got more’n a little buzz or two from it. Maybe threw up once or twice—but that coulda been the booze, y’know.” He laughed thinly.

“I meant,” McKean persisted, “do you know something about red tide in the murder of Erik Torvald?” At 6'6", McKean had a way of looking imperiously down his long nose at people, and our height above Squalco on the deck amplified this effect until the man flinched. He cast his eyes aside again, and then bent and picked up the bucket with both gloved hands, grunting at its weight. He walked up the mud bank to a dented old blue pickup truck, where he huffed the bucket onto the waiting lowered tailgate, and then said to us, “Gotta go. Got plenty-a hungry mouths to feed.” He closed the tailgate, came back in a hurry, tied the boat’s bowline to the trunk of a small Douglas fir tree, and turned to go. As he reached his truck door, McKean called to him.

“Interesting case.”

Squalco paused before getting in. “Yeah?”

“Massive dose of red tide poison. Died quick. No trace of shellfish in his stomach contents. Any idea why?”

“No,” Squalco replied without conviction, his eyebrows high and mouth round.

“Red tide poison,” said McKean, “is one of the most toxic substances known; a paralytic toxin. First the tongue and lips tingle, then general paralysis sets in.”

“I gotta go,” said Squalco.

He got in and slammed his door and drove off spraying gravel. Watching him speed down the driveway and turn south on West Marginal Way, McKean shook his head.

“Oh, Frank,” he said with a note of regret. “What has my old pal got himself mixed up in?”

Earlier that morning, I had sat at my computer keyboard in my funky old Pioneer Square writing office, working on a boring piece of medical reporting about a new gene therapy for baldness, when I got the phone call from McKean that put me on this case.

He was at the Seattle Public Health Hospital on Pill Hill. “Kay Erwin’s got an interesting case for us,” he’d said. “A dead man with all the signs of red tide poisoning, but there are reasons to suspect foul play. Wanna follow this one?”

Like always, I’d said, “Sure,” and went to meet him. Writing about the exploits of the brilliant Dr. McKean is how I make my best money these days. I caught up with him at the hospital in epidemiologist Kay Erwin’s office.

Kay is another person of interest to me. She’s a small, cute, pageboy brunette, about forty-five, a bit too old for me to ask on a date, but she always has some piece of news for the medical journalist side of me. White lab–coated, she sat behind her office desk and motioned me into a guest chair with McKean in the other, then launched into a quick update.

“Torvald,” she explained, “was found lying comatose beside his pickup, scarcely breathing. The passerby who found him called for help and Torvald was rushed to our ER, where it became clear he had shellfish poisoning symptoms. They pumped his stomach, worked up a blood sample for toxins, and called me in on the case.”

“That’s when things got interesting,” said McKean.

“Yes,” agreed Erwin. “His stomach contents didn’t contain shellfish. In fact, they matched what was found in his car: the remnants of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, fries, and a Coke. But the symptoms and the lab analysis are consistent: a massive dose of saxitoxin.”

“Saxitoxin is about a thousand times more toxic than nerve gas,” said McKean.

“But the most anomalous thing,” said Kay, “is that this case doesn’t coincide with an actual red tide. The only red tide on Puget Sound this year was in August, and it’s now late October. Something fishy’s going on.”

“Or rather,” said McKean, “something clammy.”

After Frank Squalco left, I drove us back to McKean’s labs at Immune Corporation, feeling that a long-enough day had already transpired, but McKean was indefatigable. On the way, noting that it was only 4:15 p.m., he called his head technician, Janet Emerson, and barraged her with concepts for a new project. As I chauffeured him back across the West Seattle Bridge, he bubbled to her about red tide microbes and toxins, and ways and means to create a new treatment for paralytic shellfish poisoning.

“Get some saxitoxin and crosslink it to diphtheria toxoid and inject it into some mice and we’ll make a therapeutic monoclonal antitoxin. What say?” I couldn’t hear Janet’s reply, but knowing the two of them as I do, I had no doubt she was bravely shouldering the new burden of lab work. And I had little doubt that a creation of McKean’s brilliant scientific mind, even one conceived on a drizzly day while riding in my Mustang, would lead to a medicine of great potential. That’s just the way things tend to work out with Peyton McKean.

“I should have started this project long ago,” he explained after getting off the phone. “But shellfish poisoning is so rare, and so rarely fatal, that no big pharmaceutical company has an interest in developing the antitoxin. But I’ll bet Kay Erwin would gladly test my antibodies someday on a desperate patient.”

“Anti what?” I asked, my mind more on a road-raging tailgater than McKean’s conceptualizing.

“Antibodies,” said McKean. “The body’s own natural antitoxin molecules. I’ve just asked Janet to begin preparing some, by immunizing mice against saxitoxin. It’s all pretty straightforward.”

As I drove downtown, he did his best to explain how antibodies could bind saxitoxin molecules and remove them from a victim’s circulation. Eventually, I dropped him off at Immune Corporation’s waterfront headquarters and headed home to my apartment in Belltown with a head full of wonder at how quickly McKean could get involved in a new science project, and doubts as to how all this could solve the case at hand.

Nothing happened for a week or two, but then on a morning that dawned gray and cold, Peyton McKean summoned me to pick him up at his labs and drive to West Seattle to follow a new lead he was exploring. Back on West Marginal Way, McKean pointed me onto Puget Way, which branched off and snaked up the Puget Creek canyon, a damp, fern-bottomed, tree-choked gorge. Up canyon, McKean directed me onto a small moss-covered alleyway that led to a tree-shrouded homesite. The large old house had brick red–painted cedar shingles on its sides, a few of which had dropped loose, a mossy roof with a blue plastic tarp covering a patch where rain had breached the decaying shingles, and a chimney spewing a lazy stream of wood smoke. The hillside yard was home to a jumble of trash, including black plastic garbage bags tossed in the underbrush and overgrown with blackberry brambles. There was a car behind the house without wheels, held up on wooden blocks, and a chaotic pile of alder cordwood next to the porch.

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