A taciturn Vietnam vet named Red just wants to be left alone in his Alaskan retreat, but when he starts to find dead bears in the forest with their paws hacked off, he is forced to wage war once more, and this time he intends to win. Tim Branson is a gregarious small-town reporter, looking for a news story that sizzles. Despite their differences, Red and Branson are forced to become allies when a methamphetamine addict and an unemployed lumberjack start selling bear gallbladders and paws on the Asian aphrodisiac market.
While trying to track down the poachers, Red and Branson discover toxic chemicals dumped on the pristine salmon fishing grounds. Accusations fly and the entire town takes sides. Tim’s job and Red’s sanity are at stake as they try to find the connection between the bear killings and the environmental disaster. As they follow the money trail, the unlikely duo must deal with an array of eccentric characters, including a lethal ornithologist who enjoys arson as much as he enjoys bird watching, an aphrodisiac-gobbling cruise ship captain with a woman in every port, and an egotistic state trooper who couldn’t pour warm piss out of a boot if the directions were written on the heel.
Targeted Age Group:: 18 and older
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Many of the incidents in my most recent book are based on real events that have happened over the years, such as the bear poaching incidents and the chemical dumping on pristine salmon fishing areas. Many of the characters are based on real people or composites of two or three people. I worked for the Alaska Dept. Of Fish and Game for thirty years and have encountered an array of colorful characters and incidents. I am constantly jotting down ideas and stories in my journal and I mine this resource for material for my novels.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
The two main characters, Red and Branson, are based on actual people, although I gave them foibles that they may not actually have. No one wants to read about flawless heroes anymore. Characters need faults to make them human and to make them interesting, especially if the narrative is going to be plot driven. Many of my characters are based on real people or composites of real people. That makes my job as I writer easier because I have a clear picture of their physical characteristics, as well as what motivates them, and I can bring them to life on the page.
Alkoot, Alaska, 1992
A week had passed since Red found the corpse behind his cabin and called the state trooper. He didn’t have a phone in his dilapidated shack. He had to drive five miles down a rutted dirt road to use the payphone that hung on the wall outside the ferry terminal.
Red knew what it was straight off; murder for profit, plain and simple. A large caliber bullet had pierced the brown bear’s skull just below her right ear, ricocheted off some bone, and exited from the left side of her neck. A precise incision, probably made with a razor-sharp hunting knife, slit the bear’s hide, and the gall bladder had been removed. All four paws had been hacked off with a bone saw, leaving the flesh ragged, the bone splintered. The coagulated blood was crusty, the color of burgundy wine, and crawling with black flies. Driving to the payphone, wedged behind the wheel of his tiny Datsun pickup truck, Red pulled on his curly red beard and wondered how much a bear gall bladder and a set of paws fetched on the aphrodisiac market in China.
Seven long days had passed and he was still having trouble getting the grizzly image of the carcass out of his head. Crouching in the shadows beneath a huge spruce tree, listening intently as the breeze whispered lightly through the branches close to his head, he gazed out at the gray beach. A tendril of mist swirled ghost-like over the water. He smelled the spruce buds and heard the water gently lapping at the shore. Red tried to see, hear and smell everything around him at the same time, hoping that by focusing his attention on every detail, he’d stop thinking about the mutilated bear.
He slung his rifle over his shoulder, leaned into a spruce branch until it snapped, then cranked it back and forth, wrestling it from the trunk of the tree. He used the bough like a broom as he walked backwards across the beach, lightly sweeping his footprints from the sand. When he reached the water’s edge, he hopped onto a log and swept away the last set of tracks. Anyone who hiked down this rugged stretch of the coast would not see where he had entered the forest. Better safe than sorry. It was bad enough that the state trooper had come to his cabin. Although he was smart enough to never leave anything incriminating at his cabin, he didn’t like cops in general and that cop in particular. He scampered along the log, surprisingly nimble for a large man in his forties. Living in the Alaska forest for the past twenty years had kept him strong and agile.
The back of Red’s neck began to tingle. He looked over his shoulder and scanned the beach once more, but it was just a breeze beginning to blow from the southeast, not the tingling sensation he had when he thought he was being watched. The bruised sky threatened rain and darkness was falling fast. He jumped from the log onto a large granite rock, still trying his best not to leave prints in the sand.
When Red’s parole officer, a sincere but annoying do-gooder, heard about the poaching incident, he was afraid Red would go renegade. Referring several times to Red’s anger management issues, he’d given Red a book on Zen Buddhism and suggested he take up meditation. Red promised he would give it a try and, surprisingly, he had found the book interesting. He’d just spent two days at his secret camp, sitting on the edge of a cliff, counting his breaths and contemplating his navel with his third eye.
He traversed the next stretch of coast, a series of tidal pools dotted with small boulders, and tried to practice being present by repeating his mantra, Now, now, now, as he leaped from rock to rock to rock, but his mind kept flashing on the image of the dead bear. He felt the blood rush to his head. How do you not think? If I try not to think, then I’m thinking about not thinking. This is bullshit. Those Zen monks are a bunch of liars, claiming their minds are like polished mirrors. Those guys are thinking about women and rice wine, just like every other Tom, Dick and Hari Kari.
He kicked a mussel off a rock and sent it skittering across the water. If a monk ever asks me what’s the sound of one hand clapping, I’m going to smack him right in the face. That’ll get him thinking. I wasted two days sitting around. Maybe I should have tracked down those poachers. Purple veins pulsed on his neck and his pale skin flushed crimson as he thought once again about the dead bear. Balancing on one foot, he punted another mussel into the sea, lost his balance, and crumpled onto the rock he’d been perched on. Red rolled off the boulder into the tidal pool and gripped his scraped elbow, cursing. Frigid water soaked his jeans as he sat up in the shallow tidal pool. He gasped, stood up and peered into the trees, making sure nobody had seen him tumble off the rock. Then Red began to laugh wildly.
Now I know the sound of one hand clapping. Red heard his sopping wool socks squish inside his boots as he stepped out of the pool. He bent and picked a stalk of oyster leaf at the edge of the water. He chewed on it as he gazed out beyond the inlet at the snow-capped mountains, jagged like broken teeth. The oyster leaf, pungent and briny, tasted like the sea. He felt the first drops of rain falling on his face. The monks say all of life is an illusion but who could dream a dream this beautiful. Certainly not a soaking-wet nitwit like me.
He thought about gathering some mussels from the tide pool but he was already shivering and the last gray light of day was fading to black. He hurried down the beach, smiling at his own buffoonery. When he was almost to the road he saw tracks where a brown bear had meandered along the water’s edge. The tracks were different than black bear tracks, the toes closer together and in a straight line. The breeze still tickled the back of his neck. Red figured the bear had got wind of him and was long gone. Still, he pulled his rifle off his shoulder, chambered a round, and switched on the safety. He had a great respect for bears.
He followed the tracks until they veered off into the forest. Then he saw the boot prints and scarlet beads of blood in the sand. No, not again. He slung the rifle over his shoulder, pulled a flashlight from his jacket pocket and charged into the gloomy underbrush. A few minutes later he found the dead bear, blood still draining onto the forest floor where the paws had been sawed off.
Red dropped the flashlight, raised his arms and pulled at his hair. All the anger and anguish of a lifetime boiled up inside him. He howled into the darkness. Red had an anger management issue.
* * *
Tim Branson’s balls felt like a midget boxer had been using them for a twelve-round speed-bag workout. Leaning back in his office chair, he uncorked the whiskey bottle and put his feet up on the desk to ease the pain. He stared at the gritty coffee cup on his desk, a cigarette butt floating in an inch of cold coffee, and contemplated the long walk to the sink, ten feet away. He slid the cup back and drank straight from the bottle.
A vasectomy is a relatively painless operation. Obviously a woman had started that rumor. He picked up the phone, took another long swig from the bottle, and dialed. He knew the number by heart. It was the third time he’d tried to get through to her that evening. He let it ring for a while not expecting an answer. He was about to hang up when he heard Christine’s distant groggy voice.
“I got a vasectomy.”
“Who is this?”
“This is Tim. It’s official. Mr. Chuckles is now shooting blanks.”
“Congratulations, I guess.” Then he heard muffled conversation. “It’s Tim… No, Tim from Alaska.”
She spoke into the phone. “Tim, do you know what time it is?”
Tim glanced at his watch. “Eight fifteen.”
“In Alaska it’s eight fifteen. It’s midnight here in Florida.”
“That’s funny. I figured it’d be twelve fifteen down there.”
“Ha ha,” she said, not really laughing. “Always quick with the jokes. Why’d you get a vasectomy? Is there a new romance in your life?”
Tim took two huge gulps from the bottle. The filter between his brain and his mouth momentarily shut off and he blurted, “I got the operation because I know you don’t want to have kids. Please come back to me Christine.” Tim closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.
A long uncomfortable silence settled in. Finally she said, “Timmy, that is so sad. You know I have a boyfriend now.”
Tim pushed away from his desk and grimaced in pain as he dropped his feet to the floor. “Are you still going out with that jug-head skydiving instructor?”
“Have you been drinking?”
“Actually I just started drinking.” He took a mouth full of whiskey and gargled so she could hear it. “Medicinal purposes. My nuts are killing me.”
“Timmy, you have to get your act together. One day you’ll find the right person and your life will be like mine, full of laughter and sunshine.”
“Laughter and sunshine?” He kicked the desk and felt the shock rebound into his groin. “Why don’t you shove that phone where the sun don’t shine.”
More muffled conversation ensued and then a masculine voice came on the line. “Hey, pal, don’t call here anymore. Christine’s with me now.”
“Is that you, Biff? Still jumping out of perfectly good airplanes?”
“If you were here I’d kick your ass. My name is Todd, not Biff.”
“Same difference. There are only two things that fall out of the sky, Biff. Bird shit and assholes.” Tim slammed down the phone and held his head in his hands.
That went well. Women dig guys who are desperate, rude, and hysterical. She’s sure to come back now.
Tim took a sip of whiskey and wondered why he had gotten the operation. He knew all along that getting Christine back was a long shot. Was it because he harbored vague apprehensions about bringing a child into this depressing chaotic world? Hell, he could barely take care of himself.
Tim eased his feet back up onto the desk and watched rivulets of rain worm down the windowpane. The drizzle had started half an hour ago. No telling when it would cease. Sometimes the rain fell on Southeast Alaska for the proverbial forty days and forty nights but a flood did not engulf the earth. The temperate rainforest lapped it up like a thirsty dog until the land was bloated with flora. Berry bushes, skunk cabbage, devil’s club, ferns and fungi choked every inch of shallow soil until it seemed that the forest would engulf the tiny town of Alkoot.
He pulled a dog-eared copy of Jimmy Breslin”s The Short Sweet Dream Of Eduardo Gutierrez from the whiskey drawer, opened it to a random page, and began to read. The language was sublime. Jimmy Breslin and Tim Branson were both journalists but the comparison ended there. Breslin worked in the Big Apple, center of the universe. Branson worked in a small fishing village, so close to the edge of the world that he sometimes wondered what kept it from slipping off. Breslin wrote about the big life-and-death issues and championed the common man. Branson wrote about town-hall meetings and high school basketball games. Breslin stood up to the mafia and city hall. Branson bent to the will of Sylvia, his domineering boss.
Tim tossed the book back into the desk and dug out a stack of crinkled yellow sheets of paper, his unfinished novel. He hadn’t worked on it since Christine left two years ago. Speed-reading sections of the manuscript, he realized it needed more than just an ending. The novel was unfocused and, like his life, not much happened in it. He dropped it into the desk drawer and drank more whiskey.
How has my life come to this?
He leaned back in his office chair. The whiskey was working. The agonizing ache of his testicles had throttled down to an unpleasant throb. He’d barely slept since he had the operation, two days before. His chin fell onto his chest and he began to snore.
An apparition hovered in the doorway, then solidified into a stocky man with salt-and-pepper sideburns wearing a gray pinstripe suit.
Breslin sidled into the office. “You can call me Jimmy.”
“Okay, but please don’t call me Timmy. Christine is the only one who ever calls me that and I hate it.”
Jimmy Breslin nodded. “Branson, you’re pitiful. You got to grow some balls.”
“Actually my balls feel pretty big right now, Jimmy.”
Breslin chuckled. “You know what I mean. Quit sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. If you want to be a hardboiled writer, you have to toughen up.”
Tim pulled a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, shook one from the pack, and clenched it between his teeth. “Easy for you to say. You live in the Big Apple, city of a million stories. I know I’m in a slump but nothing ever happens in this one-horse-town worth writing about.”
Breslin reached in his pocket, pulled out a gold lighter, leaned forward and lit Tim’s cigarette. “Everybody has a story, Branson. They’re like gems. You got to dig ‘em up, brush ‘em off, and hold them up to the light. What about that gruff fisheries biologist or that crazy gal with the two llamas that pulls around the tourist taxi? I bet they have tons of great stories.”
“I don’t want to write about fish and llamas, ferchristsake. I want to write about government corruption and union disputes, like you do, Jimmy.”
“Maybe those boys down at the cannery have some labor grievances. You got to dig for those stories, kid. Just follow your instincts and you’ll be alright.” Jimmy Breslin started for the door.
“I just wish something big would happen in this sleepy town. Something catastrophic.”
Breslin started to fade into a gray ghost. “Be careful what you wish for, kid. You just might get it.”
The chair tipped back and hit the wall. Tim awoke with a stiff neck and a tongue like dusty velour. What a weird dream. He stood, stretched and watched the rain pelt the asphalt below his window. He could tell it was morning because the sky had turned a lighter shade of gray. Down on the bay, Tim saw a single shaft of light streaming though the clouds and reflecting off the water, what the locals called a sucker hole.
About the Author:
Dale Brandenburger moved to Alaska in 1982, hoping to have some adventures he could write about. He started working for the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game in 1984 and, 30 years later, now has enough material to fill ten volumes. A fisheries biologist by day and novelist by night, Brandenburger draws on actual incidents and people he has experienced over the years and composes fast-paced stories with well–developed characters, brimming with humor, as well as pathos.
He resides in Juneau, Alaska, with his wife, Lu, and his two dogs, Sparky and Pepper.
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