The Boy Who Stole from the Dead
Excerpt: Chapter 1
"Watch out," Robert Jr. said.
Robert Sr. slammed on the brakes. The jacked 4x4 skidded to a stop in the snow. Lauren Ross looked up from the front passenger seat. A reindeer stood in the middle of the deserted road, twenty feet away. It didn't have that deer in the headlights look. Instead it looked sweet, goofy, and regal, she thought, with a two-tiered crown of antlers.
"You thinking what I'm thinking, Papa?" Robert Jr. said.
"This is as good a place as any."
Lauren heard a rustle behind her. Robert Jr. lifted a rifle from the rack on the back wall. His side window was open. She turned toward the windshield. The reindeer hadn't moved.
"Oh, no," Lauren said. "Please don't."
"You folks from the lower forty-eight," Robert Jr. said. "How do you think that venison gets in your grocery store?"
"I'm from New York," Lauren said. "We don't have venison in our grocery stores. You can't do this."
"I understand what you're feeling," Robert Sr. said. "When I was a child I had the same emotions. But we rely on subsistence in this part of Alaska. In Kotzebue, a man's got to hunt to survive."
Robert Jr. slid the rifle's bolt handle forward and locked it down. He handled the rifle as though he'd been born firing it twenty-something years ago.
It was 15°F outside but Lauren was sweating. She understood what Robert Sr. was saying. They weren't idiots with permits hunting defenseless animals for sport, oxymoron if there ever was one. Still, she couldn't help herself. A single thought kept coming back to her, as it did whenever her colleagues at the sports network boasted after a hunting trip. It bothered her less when a random person was killed than when an innocent animal was slaughtered. Maybe it shouldn't have, but it did.
"Locked and loaded," Robert Jr. said.
Robert Sr. said, "All right, then."
"Shit," Lauren said. She averted her eyes. "I can't watch this."
"It's not what you think," Robert Sr. said.
"You mean you're not going to shoot the reindeer?" Lauren felt something hard press against the back of her head.
"No, dear. We're not going to kill the caribou."
She'd arrived via Anchorage yesterday. Kotzebue was a three-mile long gravel spit at the tip of the Baldwin Peninsula, twenty-six miles north of the Arctic Circle. The locals pronounced it "Cots-a-byoo," but called it "Cots." The population totaled 3,201. Neat rows of modular homes packed a narrow strip of land, some more ramshackle than others. Spare tires, rusty gasoline drums, and snowmobiles filled the yards. Kotzebue Malamutes wandered among them, tethered by long chains to their doghouses.
Lauren checked into the Bayside Inn, a no-frills bed and breakfast. She ducked into the Inn's restaurant for lunch, and was ecstatic when she saw the menu featured comfort food, albeit at exorbitant prices. She'd read up on the local cuisine. The last thing she needed was herring egg salad or peeling Ptarmigan eggs. She inhaled a burger, wiped the ketchup off her plate with a French-fry, and washed it down with a Diet Sprite.
Her first appointment had been at City Hall at 1:30 p.m. Her second one had been at the June Nelson Elementary School an hour later. She introduced herself as a reporter from the Sports Network doing a background piece on a seventeen year-old prep school hockey phenom named Bobby Kungenook. Neither one provided any new information. No one in City Hall or the school knew the Kungenooks or a son named Bobby.
When she was finished, she took a cab to the neighborhood where the Kungenooks lived prior to their deaths in 2000. Lauren went house-to-house knocking on doors asking about their deceased neighbors. The doors closed quickly, in most cases before Lauren was finished asking questions. No one knew anything. No one could help.
When she got back to the Inn at 4:00 p.m., two men were leaning against an old Ford pick-up truck at the curb by the entrance. They looked like father and son. They wore matching parkas and fur hats. The younger one looked in his mid-twenties. The older one closer to fifty. He introduced himself as Robert Seelick. His son shared the same name.
"I'm told you're looking for me," Robert Sr. said.
"Who told you that?"
"Funny. He didn't mention you."
"And Principal Coffey at the elementary school. You met with her after you left the Mayor's office."
"She didn't mention you either."
"I'm sure they didn't want to volunteer me."
"To do what?"
"Help a stranger from the lower forty-eight."
"I'm guessing that's me."
"You're the only one in town."
"How can you help me?"
"My wife and I were best friends with the Kungenooks."
"Holy crap. I mean, that's incredible. Do you have a minute to talk now?"
It was her first break. Their son had come to New York from nowhere, beaten the NHL's fastest skater in a race, and lit up the record books at Fordham Prep. The Jesuit priests at Fordham said he was from the Arctic Circle but he spoke Ukrainian and Russian better than English. His guardian in New York wouldn't let Lauren near him. Something was off about the whole story. Lauren was as sure of it now as when she'd seen the kid play for the first time.
She pointed toward the restaurant at the Inn. "Can I buy you both a beer? Or two?"
"Thanks, but we have an errand to run. We thought you might want to come along."
"What kind of errand?"
"We need to pick up dinner," Robert Jr. said.
"You're going to the grocery store?" Lauren said.
"Something like that," Robert Sr. said. He told her their destination. "Coming?"
Robert Sr. drove them out of the residential area toward the southern end of the peninsula.
"What do you do for a living?" Lauren said.
"I'm a civil servant," Robert Sr. said. "Junior works for Rotmans."
"Rotmans?" Lauren said.
"The general store," Robert Jr. said. "Serving Kotzebue, since 1932."
Robert Sr. said, "On his off days, he writes music. Boy's got a natural talent for rhyming. As you can see."
"Serving Kotze-boo, since 1932." Robert Jr. swayed to his own beat in the back seat.
"We hunt, too," Robert Sr. said. "Not much luck today."
"You work for the sports network?" Robert Jr. said.
"I do," Lauren said.
"They let you come out here on your own?" Robert Sr. said.
"Usually there's a cameraman, too, but this was a special project. It took a lot of convincing to get my boss to let me go, and he wasn't willing to spend the extra money."
"Why did it take a lot of convincing?" Robert Sr. said.
"It's a bit of a fishing expedition," Lauren said.
"It sure is."
Robert Sr. took a right turn onto a snow-covered access road. Two minutes later he was parked in front of the Kotzebue Sound. Robert Sr. pulled a fishing rod the shape of a gas grill lighter out of the trunk. Robert Jr. grabbed an axe. They attached rubber webs with spikes to the soles of Lauren's boots. Then they marched onto the Chukchi Sea.
The ice shimmered beneath an orange sunset. A gust of wind brought tears to Lauren's eyes. After a hundred yards they stopped walking. Lauren looked around. They were so far south the fishermen along the northern shore looked like ants circling their holes. She was alone. Alone with the Seelicks, the Arctic Ocean, and the secrets beneath the surface.
Robert Jr. drove the axe into the ice. It barely cracked.
"Why are you here, dear?" Robert Sr. said.
"I'm doing a piece on Bobby Kungenook. He's a hockey player at Fordham Prep in New York City. A once in a lifetime, can't miss prospect. Thing is, he just appeared out of nowhere. Supposedly he was home-schooled by someone in Alaska but no one knows by whom. How old was he when his parents died?"
"Couldn't say. Best of my recollection, the Kungenooks sent Bobby away to be raised by another family when he was two. That would have been 1994. They told my wife and me what they were doing and we never spoke about it again."
"Don't know," Robert Sr. said.
"Why did they send him away?"
"Bobby's father, John, lost his job. And his mother—Jackie—was ill. She suffered from a spinal condition her whole life. They both struggled with depression. This isn't an easy place to raise a child during the best of times, let alone the worst. They decided to give Bobby a better life. They decided to send him to a better place."
"Don't know," Robert Sr. said. "Like I said, it wasn't something anyone wanted to talk about."
Ice cracked. Water sloshed to the surface. Robert Jr. stepped aside. Robert Sr. dropped the line into the hole and handed Lauren the rod.
"You take it," he said.
"I don't want to mess up your dinner," Lauren said.
"Don't worry. We won't let you."
Lauren squatted down and held the rod above the hole.
"When Bobby arrived at Fordham, he didn't speak English," Lauren said. "Were either of the Kungenooks of Ukrainian descent?"
"No," Robert Sr. said. "They were both Inupiat."
"And their relatives?"
"Inupiat, too. Cousins, mostly. You knocked on their doors today."
"I'm sure I did. And none of them speak Russian either."
"Not that I know of."
"Then it doesn't make sense."
"But I'll tell you who did speak Russian," Robert Sr. said.
Lauren looked up.
"Otto von Kotzebue."
"Otto von Kotzebue. He was an Estonian navigator working for the Russians. He discovered Kotzebue in 1818. You know who else spoke Russian?"
Something pulled on the line. Lauren looked down into the hole.
"His father, August von Kotzebue. He was a famous author. He was murdered by a theology student who didn't like his politics. You know what they did to that theology student?"
Lauren looked up.
Robert Jr. stood beside his father, axe on his shoulder.
"They decapitated him," Robert Sr. said.
The line tightened more.
"Something's biting," Lauren said.
"Why do you care about this kid's story so much?" Robert Jr. said. "Don't you have more interesting things to write about?"
"Once I start digging, I never stop until I'm first with the story and the job is done."
"Why?" Robert Sr. said.
A vision of Lauren's mother, carefree and smiling, flashed before her eyes. She took a deep breath and willed the image away. "That's the way I'm wired."
The Seelicks pulled a fish out of the hole. It was sixteen inches long.
"Alaskan whitefish," Robert Sr. said. "See. Your fishing expedition was a success after all."
By the time they returned to the truck it was dark. As Robert Sr. drove them back, Lauren contemplated her next move. It was as though the Kungenooks had sent their son to be raised by a family in Ukraine, which was preposterous. But why else would he speak Ukrainian and Russian fluently but not English?
"You ever cover the Iditarod?" Robert Jr. said.
"No," Lauren said. "One of the other reporters does."
"But you know what it is," Robert Jr. said, sounding impressed.
"Sure. Four hundred-mile dog sledding race that starts in Nome. One of the world's last great races."
"Cool," Robert Jr. said. "You know, for someone who asks a lot of dumb questions, you're pretty smart."
Then the reindeer crossed their path.
Breathe, Lauren told herself. Focus on your breath. Take yourself inside. Breathe.
No one had ever pointed a gun at her let alone pressed one against her head. She sensed that this was going to be a binary event. Either they were going to kill her or she was going to win a Pulitzer. If two local yahoos were protecting the Kungenooks by intimidating a reporter with a hunting rifle, this had to be more than a sports story. The only question was whether she'd survive the night to pursue it further. If she did, the first order of business would be to make the Seelicks pay.
"The way you said that makes it sound as though you're going to shoot me instead," Lauren said.
She glanced over her shoulder. Robert Jr. had shifted away from her in the back seat to accommodate the length of the rifle's barrel. It rested on the seatback behind her.
"In the old days," Robert Sr. said, "when an Inupiaq family decided it couldn't take care of another child, it would put the baby on a sled with a sign around its neck and leave it on the open. The sign would have the name of a nearby village written on it, and people who found the sled would push it along in the right direction. Eventually the sled would arrive at its destination, and if it survived, some new family would adopt the baby."
"What are you saying," Lauren said. "The Kungenooks put Bobby in a sled and he ended up in Ukraine?"
"No. Bobby was a boy. Inupiats would never give up a boy. They would only give up a girl. That's why Bobby's such a mystery. It was sacrilege in our culture to give up a boy. That's why everyone pretends he never existed. That's why no one will talk about him. Do you understand now?"
"Yes," Lauren said. The story kept getting better and better, she thought. That's what she understood.
"Good," Robert Sr. said. "Because if you keep disrespecting the dead by digging into their past, if you keep disrupting this community, it's going to end badly for you. When are you leaving town?"
"Good. Let me ask you this. Who's taking care of the boy in New York?"
"He has a guardian."
"She must know his story, right? Why don't you talk to her?"
"I tried. She won't return my calls."
"Did you try saying 'please?'" Robert Jr. said.
"Please take me back to my hotel," Lauren said.
"We understand each other, right?" Robert Sr. said.
The rifle pushed harder into her neck.
"Yes. We understand each other."
"All right then," Robert Sr. said.
He drove them back to the Bayside Inn. Lauren's feet kissed the pavement before Robert Sr. could apply the brakes. She held the door and glared inside.
"You point a gun at me? You threaten me? And you think you're going to get away with it? I'm going to have a camera crew down to this little shithole tomorrow. I'm going to make you national news. But first I'm going to go inside, make one phone call, and have you both arrested."
"For what?" Robert Sr. said. "You came looking for us. You told the Mayor you were looking for someone who could tell you about the Kungenooks. We took you ice fishing as a friendly gesture. Then we drove you home. You think something else happened?"
"Do you have any idea who you're fucking with?"
"It's your word against ours."
Robert Sr. shrugged. "All right then. Make sure you spell my name right." He unzipped his parka to reveal an olive shirt. It boasted a pair of gold stripes on each collar and a gold Kotzebue police badge with a turquoise centerpiece. "That's Captain Seelick," he said. "With a 'C.'"
When Lauren got back to the room it was 6:35 p.m. She poured herself a scotch from the flask in her suitcase and knocked it back with a trembling hand. She decided to keep the day's events and her discoveries to herself. She didn't want to get scooped by anyone at the sports station, or heaven forbid, one of the news networks. Besides, she had a lead now. Seelick had referred to Bobby's guardian as "she." Lauren had never told him the guardian was a woman. Seelick knew Nadia Tesla.
It was 10:35 p.m. in New York. Too late to call. Lauren pulled up the contacts on her cell phone and dialed Nadia Tesla's number on the landline anyways. Nadia had agreed to give Lauren an exclusive if she waited until June. It was only April. Waiting, however, was not one of Lauren's virtues. Perhaps if she saw the 907 area code she'd answer, Lauren thought.
The call rolled to voice mail. Lauren hung up and called her assistant. Laughter echoed and glasses clinked in the background. Her assistant sounded excited.
"Have you heard the news?" she said.
"What news?" Lauren said.
"Bobby Kungenook was arrested two hours ago."
"You're kidding me."
"No. Isn't it awesome?"
"What's the charge?"
The word rolled off her assistant's lips in a husky whisper. "Murder."
© Orest Stelmach