As a boy, I admired Humphrey Bogart in a big way. I coveted the homburg and trench coat. I wanted to pack heat and smoke unfiltered cigarettes and give them long-legged dames in mink stoles the squinty-eyed once-over. I longed to chase villains, right wrongs, and restore the peace.
Upon surviving into manhood, I discovered the black and comedic irony that is every gumshoe’s existential plight, the secret that dime novels and black-and-white movies always elide: each clue our intrepid detective deciphers, each mystery he unravels, each crime he solves, makes the world an unhappier place. I got smart and became a gangster instead. More money, more women, and better clothes. Much less in the way of mystery. As for the misery quotient? Basically a wash.
Became a gangster. There’s a mouthful. How I wound up hitting for the far north division of the Outfit is a woeful saga. The story of how I escaped that life is no less grim, but it’s a hell of a lot shorter.
The outfit flew me first class from Anchorage to Nome on a working vacation.
Boss had wrapped his arm around my shoulder.
“Isaiah,” he said. “Do me a favor, son? Take in the frozen vistas, photograph the northern lights, maybe crack a few heads. See ya in a couple months.”
Perhaps not those exact words, but close. What he really meant was snoop around and make sure everything was copacetic behind the scenes.Two types get sent to the deep freeze—guys with specialist talent and ne’er-do-wells.
The gig didn’t appeal to my sensibilities. Nome isn’t a premier post by any means. In fact, the suits in Anchorage and Chicago treat the town like a Mafia penal colony. Two types get sent to the deep freeze—guys with specialist talent and ne’er-do-wells. We’re talking malcontents, sadists, and screwups. No, I didn’t relish the assignment, short-term or not. However, I understood my place. A polite request from the headman was no request at all.
Upon landing, I reported to Vitale Night, a local mob potentate in charge of tundra as far as the eye could see. A medium-built guy; angular, from his hawkish nose and bony hands to his sharp knees. Shiny, graying hair and tailored duds—a Sinatra wannabe.
Night had risen through the ranks in Chicago as the premier button man of the generation prior to my own. Quick on the draw as a Wild West gunfighter with a pile of bodies to his credit. I witnessed him in action at the shooting range. Fast wasn’t really an adequate description. The pistol seemed to teleport from its holster to his hand as he emptied a magazine through a bull’s-eye the diameter of a nickel.
A man without compunction was the book on Vitale Night. It’s difficult to come by a higher compliment in the mob. Why the powers that be shipped him to Alaska presented a mystery. Rumors abounded—he’d whacked somebody without permission; he’d stolen the wrong captain’s mistress; he’d looked funny at a boss. Could have been any of those trespasses, or none.
Lately, Night handled various rackets between Nome and Prudhoe Bay. Drugs, guns, gambling, prostitution; anything to improve the morale of lonely commercial fishermen and oil field roughnecks as they toiled in the Land of the Midnight Sun. The Outfit loved Alaska—wide-open shipping lanes, among the finest weed in North America, and a never-ending glut of petroleum money that eventually flowed into their pockets. Maintaining a successful Alaska operation was a matter of identifying men who could handle extremes of light and dark and perpetually savage weather.
My task? Intimidate a few of Night’s underperforming subordinates so he didn’t need to lower himself or muck around with hurt feelings. Family relationships are petty and complicated—doesn’t matter what family you’re talking about.
When you needed a whip hand, you sent Isaiah Coleridge. I’d set the gold standard. Those movies by Albert Broccoli about the world-famous spy? In every flick there’s a sinister, powerfully built dude in a nice suit lurking at the margins. He kills people who annoy his boss, the archvillian. I was that dude.In every flick there’s a sinister, powerfully built dude in a nice suit lurking at the margins. He kills people who annoy his boss, the archvillian. I was that dude.
The first few weeks in Nome were smooth. The bozos I’d come to frighten took a gander at my game face and straightened their acts out in a hurry. Easy money. Mostly, we played cards and spent a sizable chunk of our evenings boozing at one of a dozen taverns. I got close to the crew, especially Night’s second fiddle, Tony Becchi (aka Tony Flowers), a potbellied old-school gangster. Old-school as in Dark Ages.
Like myself, Tony Flowers guest-starred in this particular drama. Chicago had decided Night required the talents of an older, stable gangster; not permanently, just for a year or two. Originally from Florida, Tony F hated Illinois weather. Well, he hated Alaska winter a damned sight worse. I allowed him to believe the two of us shared this sentiment. He made the assumption due to me being half Maori.
We established a running gag:
What the fuck is a Maori doing in Alaska? he’d say.
Freezing my ass off, I’d reply. What’s the forecast?
Partly shitty this morning, intermittently shitty this afternoon, and mostly shitty tonight.
Funny thing, I’d come to ask myself the same question with increasing frequency: what was I doing here? Instead of heeding that instinct, which I came to acknowledge as the angel on my right shoulder, I downed another shot and waited for it to leave me in peace.
Kept right on that way until it was too late.
The universe went sideways on a skiff in the Chukchi Sea. My increasingly changeable nature had given plenty of signs. I should’ve seen it coming, should’ve been wise to the demands of my soul.
The whole charade began to fall apart the day Vitale Night decreed a handful of his crew would accompany him on a short flight to a private lodge near Kotzebue. He refused to explain the occasion and merely smirked when I inquired. You don’t ask a captain twice; you keep mum and wait to see what happens next.
What happened next is we got into a twin-prop passenger plane and zipped north to a rustic hunting lodge on an isolated shore. I found it spartan, albeit classy enough. Log construction as one would expect, and decorated with polar bear heads and photographs of various Popes and the Rat Pack.
Vitale Night threw a righteous bash. He’d brought a case of champagne and plenty of blow. Several snow bunnies entertained the company of hard cases. I brooded in a corner and drank far too much. In the morning I staggered downstairs to witness Night and Tony F unpacking rifles and an array of skinning knives. The men grinned at me and nudged each other as they laid their implements on a bunting cloth spread across the dining room table. They wore wool shirts, wool pants, and heavy-duty snow boots. Their sneers foretold impending awfulness. It remained to be seen what form that awfulness would assume.
Vitale Night checked the scope on a rifle.
“Coleridge. I hear you’re a hunter.” He centered the bore on my head and dry-fired. “Christ, don’t scowl like that. You’re scarin’ the womenfolk. I’m just yankin’ your chain.” He and Tony F shared a belly laugh.
I walked over to the bar, grabbed a bottle of Knob Creek, and poured myself a tall glass for breakfast. The bottle got dangerously low before the all-terrain vehicle arrived.
A half dozen of us bundled into the cramped compartment and were driven out onto the fast ice. The ATV clanged along on metal treads that chewed through blue-white pressure ridges. Clouds gathered, low and heavy, and merged with lighter fog. Eventually, pack ice began to separate in open water. A long wooden skiff piloted by a local awaited our arrival. Everybody pulled anoraks over their winter coats and piled aboard the skiff. Twin Evinrude motors barked and the pilot sailed us into the briny mist.
“What’s waiting for us?” I said to Tony Flowers.
“Herd a walrus,” he yelled over the motors’ roar. “They winter on icebergs near the coast. Gonna bag us a shitpot of ivory!”
The sun ate through the clouds.
Images from that afternoon will score my memory until death sweeps the slate bare: the iceberg, stepped like an abstract sculpture of a ziggurat and dotted with drowsy walruses who had no fear of approaching humans; Night, Tony F, and two other shooters blazing away as the skiff rocked and rolled; another hunter gathering a brace of machetes in anticipation of the mass beheadings; the squalls of dying animals; and streams of hot red blood hissing over the edge of the berg and into black seawater. The stench of terror and shit and smoke as if that piece of the wilderness had become a portable abattoir.I did what I did out of instinct, a sympathetic response from the animal in my hindbrain.
One of the men filmed the slaughter with a Handycam. He whooped narratively.
I did not consciously decide to act. Had that been the case, I might have hesitated—Vitale Night was too fast and too mad. To defy him was to risk a hideous death. I did what I did out of instinct, a sympathetic response from the animal in my hindbrain.
Vitale Night and I stood side by side near the bow. He gestured to me for a fresh magazine. In retrospect, I believe he meant to demonstrate dominance by reducing my status to that of his personal spear-carrier. He reloaded slowly and deliberately, feet braced against the rocking of the boat. Completely vulnerable. He raised his head to survey the action and I chopped his throat with the edge of my hand. Night’s tinted glasses flew. He made a sound like steam whistling in the flue of a kettle and dropped to his knees. Take a man’s air, you take all the fight right out of him and I don’t care if he jumps into both pant legs at the same time in the morning.
I picked up his rifle and pointed it in the general direction of Tony Flowers.
“Hey, Tony. Better call it a day and head home. Vitale needs a doctor.”
None of the crew knew which way to jump. Night’s men were as confused as the bawling walruses flopping around the iceberg. The Mafia Handbook doesn’t cover the situation.
Tony Flowers carefully set his weapon aside and defused what might’ve escalated into a shoot-out in the middle of the Chukchi Sea.
“Yeah, yeah. He don’t look so hot.” He smiled a sickly, hateful smile.
After we reached shore, I rode in the plane back to Nome with him and Vitale Night. Night slumped in a rear seat, eyes squeezed shut, face gone gray. He gurgled the way a baby does. Tony F clasped his hand and whispered what I assume were promises of vengeance.
As we taxied into the Nome airport, a bitter wind howled off Norton Sound. Snow fell thick and fast. Right before he climbed into the ambulance with his boss, Tony F finally made eye contact.
“Isaiah . . . You just fucked yourself royal. Why?”
I had no answer for him. How could I explain in words he’d remotely understand? Despite everything, despite the evil in my heart, I never was a hunter of dumb beasts.
From Blood Standard. Used with the permission of the publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons. Copyright © 2018 by Laird Barron.