John Straley has been a writer and a criminal defense investigator in Alaska for thirty years. In a 49 Writers workshop on Feb. 6 from 1 - 4 pm, he will talk about the practical talents it takes to do both kinds of work and how he has disciplined his life to be able to complete long projects under deadline. You'll also learn about the talents he's observed in great detectives and private investigators, the minimum amounts of forensic science a street investigator needs to know to gather evidence, the voices he's heard and how to use these voices in a story.
Here, an excerpt from the opening of Straley's latest novel, Cold Storage, Alaska, available at booksellers everywhere beginning Feb. 4.
Annabelle had put the tea kettle on just moments ago. Now it was whistling, yet she didn’t get up to attend to it. Recently the past had become a hallucination that seemed to be intruding into the present moment, so she wasn’t certain what really needed doing.
She had been thinking about Franklin Roosevelt: the grinning man with the cigarette holder, who was never photographed in his frailty. But now it was early spring in the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and all the news was about the President’s failings. Flawed men kept ruling the world and the radio in the corner with the long antennae squealed on and on about it. Not that the news mattered much to Annabelle now. It was raining hard and all of the events of her life—past, present, and possibly the future—were taking on the quality of a slightly malevolent screwball comedy.
She sat in her chair looking out the window. She had been distracted by so many things lately, presidents, family members, and lost animals all swirling around her. The glass on the door rattled, and she looked up expecting to see her uncle, Slippery Wilson, walk in slapping his wet leather gloves against his pants, even though Slippery Wilson had been dead for more than three decades. She found herself listening for crying from the crib, even though both her boys were grown men. The older one, Miles, was down at the Senior Center cooking dinner, and Clive was getting out of prison.
“Never matter,” Annabelle said aloud to herself. She got up and turned off the radio in the corner.
Periodically during the afternoon she had been trying to remember the joke she had heard the day before, and she tried again now. It was good, she remembered, and she thought that it would have been good to tell Miles. But the joke, like most of the details of the New Deal, eluded her in its detail.
Out her window the hillside fell away to the inlet. Alder trees grew quickly on the disturbed ground where the boys had built her house. A gust of wind came, and she thought she saw some darting color. A flash of yellow—she couldn’t be sure, but it seemed like a match head exploding. Yellow with red sparks flaring in the trees. She slid her glasses up her nose and was almost certain that she saw the bird fluttering up and away.
“Buddy?” she said aloud, as the kettle boiled over and doused the flame.
On the day he was released from prison, Clive Cahon was thinking about his plan to get home. He had called ahead to order a cab. He didn’t know why he gave the cab company a false name; it was simply the first name that popped into his head and had nothing at all to do with the plan.
He had hated living in Alaska as a kid. His father had assumed he would become a fisherman. His mother had assumed that no matter how he made his living, it would be made right there in Cold Storage. Only his grandma Ellie had told him not to listen and to dream his own dreams. Having grown up on an island on the north Pacific Clive had longed for the great American Highway. He dreamed of cars and deserts, and long straight roads. Ellie had always given him books about cars, for every birthday and Christmas; cars and guitars, bands he heard on the radio and beautiful girls who didn’t know everything about him. Ellie had understood his itch to move on. Only she seemed to understand that living in Cold Storage, Alaska, was like being born into a small maze, where everyone constantly bumped into one another. As soon as his father died in the Thanksgiving Day storm, Clive had left. He had flown north to Hanes, bought a car, without ever owning a license, without ever learning to drive, and he took off. He was fifteen. Ellie’s ashes had been scattered at sea and his father’s body had never been found, so he didn’t consider that he had anything holding him to his cloistered island town.
Clive was thirty-five now. It was early April, and the clouds were clearing away after a morning rain. The air was so clean it almost burned his lungs. Clive had served seven out of his ten-year sentence in McNeill Island Penitentiary, and he was wearing his old court clothes: a dark blue suit his mother had bought him, now far too tight in his shoulders and upper arms. Feeling the sun cut through the trees, he set his cardboard box on the ground, slipped off the coat, folded it neatly, and set it on top of the box.
There were only a few people getting off the prison boat, mostly staff members carrying lunch boxes and rain gear. There was one other inmate, a skinny white kid with red hair who walked down the dock to meet an old man waiting beside a sputtering Ford LTD. The convict approached, the man opened the passenger side door and a woman in a blue house dress got out and threw her arms around the boy before he could set his gear down on the ground. She cried and snuffled into his neck, while the old man rubbed the back of his shoulders.
Clive shifted from one foot to another, waiting for his ride. A yellow minivan finally rolled up.
“You Stilton Cheesewright?”