Thirty-one years ago in Anchorage, Alaska, Victoria Pilz Bannister Muravieff was convicted of murdering her seventeen-year-old son William. The jury returned a quick verdict of guilty, believing the prosecutor's claims that she had set fire to her own home with both her sons inside; William died and the other, Oliver, narrowly escaped. Victoria was sentenced to life in prison without parole, and though she pled not guilty at the trial, she never again denied her guilt.
Now her daughter, Charlotte Muravieff, has hired Kate Shugak to clear her mother's name. Her daughter has always believed in her innocence, and now that Victoria has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Charlotte wants her free. Kate is the only p.i. Charlotte can find who's willing to take such a long-shot case. Kate, on the other hand, is only willing because she's suddenly a single parent to a teenager, a teenager she hopes will decide to go to college. Besides, it can't be bad to do a favor for the Bannister family, one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in Alaska's short history.
As Kate begins an investigation, Victoria protests, refusing to cooperate. But soon it seems she isn't the only one who wants to leave the past in the past. In this spell-binding novel, Kate's confrontation with thirty years of secrets and regret-and murder-in one of Alaska's most powerful families shows award-winning crime writer Dana Stabenow at the top of her game.
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August 31, 2004
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Excerpt from A Taint in the Blood by Dana Stabenow
"I'll get it," Kate said, and fetched the Crisco forthwith.
Auntie Vi eyed her. "Your auntie not that old, Katya."
"I know, Auntie," Kate said. "But I was closer."
She had, in fact, been in the next room at the time, but Auntie Vi, exercising monumental, not to mention unnatural, restraint, forbore to comment.
"I can do that," Kate said, taking the scraper out of Old Sam's hand. The Freya was in dry dock, where her hull had been drying out above the high-tide line in preparation for a new coat of copper paint.
Old Sam took the scraper back. "I can do it myself."
"I know, but I can help," Kate said, reaching for the scraper again.
Old Sam warded her off. "Yeah, and the next thing I'll be listening to you whine about getting the goddamn copper paint outta your hair. Now you get outta mine, girl."
"Give her to me," Kate said, stretching out her arms.
Bobbie glared. "I can diaper my own damn daughter!" he bellowed. "What the hell's got into you, Shugak, the Red Cross? Jesus!"
Hurt, Kate said, "I just wanted to help."
"Well, stop it!" Bobby said. He rolled his chair over to Katya's changing table. Katya stared at Kate over his shoulder, blue eyes blinking at Kate from beneath a corkscrew assortment of black curls.
Kate went to stand next to Dinah. "I could dry those dishes for you," she said in a small voice.
"You can wash them, dry them, and put them away if you want," Dinah said amiably.
Brightening, Kate took the sponge and waded in.
"What in hell is going on with that broad?" Bobby demanded of his wife, soul mate, and chosen partner in life when the sound of Kate's truck had faded across the Squaw Candy Creek bridge. "I can't lift a hand in my own goddamn house! For crissake, Dinah, I'm not some cripple!"
"I know," Dinah said soothingly. In fact, he was missing both his legs below the knee, souvenir of a land mine in Vietnam, but it wasn't as if it slowed him down much. Or at all.
Bobby settled Katya into her crib for her afternoon nap. Katya, infuriatingly, stuck her thumb in her mouth and her butt up in the air, gave a deep, satisfied burp, and promptly fell asleep.
"She never does that for me," Dinah said enviously.
But Bobby was not to be distracted. "So what's wrong with her?"
Dinah deduced correctly that he wasn't speaking of their daughter. His face---taut black skin stretched over high cheekbones, a broad brow, and a very firm chin---bore an anxious expression, which didn't become him, mostly because she'd never seen it before. Her heart melted, and she subsided gracefully into the lap that there was enough left of his legs to make.
"I think it's her house."
He was honestly bewildered. "Her house?"
"The one the Park built for her. I think she feels like she owes us."
He still didn't get it, but he was calming down. He tucked a strand of white-blond hair behind her ear. "Why us?"
"Not just us us," Dinah said. "Everybody in the Park us. Everyone who had a hand in the construction and the furnishing thereof anyway. And the purchase of materials for."
"Oh, sure," Bobby said after a moment. "I get it. Her cabin burns down and the Park rats build her a new one, so she turns herself into a one-woman version of the Salvation Army, with a little Jimmy Carter thrown in?"
"All summer long," Dinah said, nodding her head. "Billy Mike told me he had to throw her out of an NNA meeting before things escalated into a shooting war."
Dinah was happy when Bobby grinned and then threw back his head and laughed out loud. "I'd like to have been a fly on the wall that day."
"Yeah, Billy said Kate kept insisting on telling the truth, out loud and in front of God and everybody. Said it took him a month to calm the board down to where he could get a decent vote out of them."
Bobby shook his head. "How long do you think she's going to keep this up?"
"I don't know. Edna told me Kate got her and Bernie a counselor so they could work on their marriage. Annie Mike says Kate's been calling in favors all the way up to the state supreme court to help out with Vanessa's adoption." Dinah paused, and said with a straight face, "I hear tell she took Keith and Oscar fishing for reds down at the aunties' fish camp."
Bobby stared at her with an expression as close to awe as his face could humanly manage.
"You gotta be shittin' me, Cookman."
Dinah shook her head, grave as a judge. "I shit you not, Clark. She camped out with them, and then she took them into Cordova, where she treated them to breakfast at the Coho Caf?."
Bobby whooped so loudly this time that Katya grumbled and wiggled her butt. There were actual tears of mirth in Bobby's eyes. "Did they hit on any of the fishermen?"
"Not that I've heard."
He wiped his eyes. "She's gonna help the whole friggin' Park into an early grave is what she's gonna do."
Dinah grinned. "If someone doesn't help her there first." "I also hear tell that she was sitting in on one of the aunties' quilting bees at the Roadhouse the other night."
There was a moment of dumbstruck disbelief. Bobby's jaw might even have dropped.
"She sewed the quilt they were working on to her jeans."
This time, his whoop was so loud, Katya did wake up.
"Okay," Old Sam said. He took a deep, calming breath and removed the boat hook from Kate's hand.
"Go to the galley," he said. "Write fish tickets."
Old Sam didn't sound calm that often, and when he did, it always presaged a force 10 storm.
Johnny held on to his pew with both hands, watching with wide eyes as Kate obeyed orders, and spent the rest of the sunny August afternoon stuck at the galley table, writing fish tickets for fishermen who were always absolutely certain that they had delivered half a dozen more reds than Old Sam had counted when they were transferring them to the Freya's hold. Even Mutt deserted her, preferring the open air on the bow to the claustrophobic confines of the galley. Miserable, Kate didn't blame her.
When the period ended and the last fisherman cast off, Old Sam fired up the engine and they left Alaganik Bay for the cannery in Cordova. Johnny hid out in the chart room, nose stuck assiduously in an beat-up paperback copy of Zenna Henderson's Pilgrimage. They could have used a Presence on the Freya was what he was thinking.
Old Sam didn't say a word to Kate the whole way, even when she brought his lunch to the bridge. It was a corned beef sandwich, too, with lots of mayo and mustard and a layer of lettuce thick enough to choke a horse, served on homemade sourdough bread, his favorite sandwich in the whole entire world.
Still in silence, they delivered their fish, took on fuel, and found their slip in the boat harbor.
Shitting Seagull waved from the harbormaster's shack and disappeared, leaving Kate to wonder why he hadn't come down to say hi like he always did. She had a bit of walrus tusk that she'd scored from Ray in Bering, part of a gift package she'd received from the Chevak family. She should probably head on out to Bering sometime soon, come to think of it, see if Stephanie was the youngest astronaut in NASA yet, and if she wasn't, to sit down and help her figure out a career path to get her there.
In the meantime, the walrus tusk would go to Gull, who carved ivory whenever he got his hands on some, and sold the results through a gift shop in Anchorage. If they hadn't already been presold to Andromedans who'd stopped in town on a joyride from the Great Spiral Nebula. Kate pulled the last knot tight and climbed the ladder to the wheelhouse.
"Hold it," Old Sam said. He was still sitting in the captain's chair, tilted back against the wall.
She paused. "What's up, Uncle?"
af0 He cranked his head around the door into the chart room. "You?"
"Me?" Johnny said.
"You. Uptown. Go visit your girlfriend."
"I don't have a girlfriend," Johnny said.
Johnny delayed long enough to mark the page in his book, and vanished.
Old Sam pointed at a stool. "You," he said to Kate. "Sit."
She sat. "What?" she said. She craned her neck to see Johnny hotfooting it down the float toward the harbormaster's shack. Probably going to ask Gull what alien ships were moored in transient parking this week. Last time they were there, it had been Cetaceans. Or maybe a bureaucrat from the Council of Planets on a regular inspection, driving Gull nuts with demands for colder water to cool the drives. She kind of lost track of Gull's hallucinations after a couple of trips into town.
"You've got to get a grip, Katya," Old Sam said.
The lack of the usual bombast and profanity, plus the use of her family name, pulled her gaze back to the old man. Honestly bewildered, she said, "A grip on what, Uncle?"
"You're gonna mother us to death, whether we want you to or not," he said. "And mostly we don't."
"So we built you a house," he told her. "Ain't nothing we wouldn't have done for any of us in the same situation, specially if there was a kid involved. I know, I know," he said, holding up a hand to ward off her protestations, "you always pay your debts. It's one of the qualities that make you a marginally acceptable human being."
Overwhelmed by this unaccustomed amount of praise heaped all at once upon her head, Kate remained silent.
"The thing you don't get," he said, fixing her with a stern and piercing eye, "is that you don't owe us squat. Shut up."
Kate closed her mouth.
"One of our own lost her home. We, her family, friends, and neighbors, replaced it with a couple days' labor and, when it comes down to it very little cost to ourselves."
"The house kit---the materials had to cost a lot," she said immediately.
"Most of it was donated," he said. He paused, the wrinkles on his face creasing and uncreasing as he fought an internal struggle. "The fact is, for whatever misguided reasons of their own, a lotta people in the state think they owe you, and most of 'em were willing to kick in to get you under a roof again. Not to mention that it's good politics for people who do business in the Bush to be nice to a Shugak from the Park."
There was a long, weighty silence. Everything he'd said was true, and, what was worse, Kate knew it. Still.
"What?" he said.
She couldn't help herself, she actually squirmed. "I hate owing anyone, Uncle," she blurted out. "I hate it. Especially those people who helped out because I'm Emaa's granddaughter."
"Yeah, well, suck it up," he said, unimpressed. "Stop trying to run everyone's life and start taking care of your own, including that boy of yours."
She looked up quickly. "Is Johnny in trouble?"
He said unblushingly, "What fourteen going on fifteen-year old isn't in trouble? I'm telling you to start minding your own business instead of everyone else's. Starting right now, with mine. I ain't yet so goddamn decrepit I can't pew my own goddamn fish."
Kate turned as red as Harvey Meganack. "I'm sorry, Uncle," she said in a small voice.
"You sure are," he said, and cackled when her eyes narrowed. "Now I'm writing up my tender summary like I always do, and so far as I know, I ain't yet lost the ability to perform long division. You got it?"
"I got it, Uncle," she said, and slunk aft to her stateroom, changed into clean clothes, and slipped down to the float to hotfoot it up to the harbormaster's shack, where Gull was regaling Johnny with an account of the eating habits of the Magelleni. They liked their food still trying to get away, it appeared. Neither of them seemed exactly overjoyed to see her, and after a few moments, she went uptown, where the streets seemed to be markedly empty in every direction she turned.
She looked down at Mutt, who looked back, ears up, tail waving slightly. Mutt didn't look that chintimidating. Well, as unintimidating as a 140-pound half husky, half wolf could look.
Couldn't be her clearing the streets.
Kate was forced to admit, if only to herself, that Old Sam might have a point.
. . . .
The red run petered out the third week of August and George Perry flew into Mudhole Smith Airport to fly Kate and Johnny back to the Park. He was very businesslike, cutting short Kate's attempts at conversation on the ground and becoming totally absorbed in the controls of the Cessna once they were in the air. He'd even been perfunctory with Mutt, who never met a man she didn't like. Finally, Kate said, "It's okay, George. You can relax."
She was riding shotgun, and she could feel him stiffen next to her. "I don't know what you mean."
"Sure you do," she said. "I'm done trying to reorganize Chugach Air Taxi. Although I do think you should call Jake Baird over to Bethel. He's got some ideas he could pass along. But"---this as he began to stiffen again---"I'm done trying to do it for you. I promise. It's your business, hands off."
"Seriously." She took a deep breath. It was never easy for Kate Shugak to admit she'd been in the wrong, especially when she wasn't absolutely sure she had been. "I got a little off there for a while. It freaked me out, you guys building that house for me and all. I felt like I had to pay you back."
"All of us, all at once," he said. He glanced at her. "Is it true you went to one of Marge Moonin's Tupperware parties?"
"Oh hell," she said, and had to laugh. "I hosted one in my new house."
When he stopped laughing he said, "I would have paid good money to have seen that."
"Well, hell, if I'd known, I would have charged admission," she said, and the rest of the flight went much more smoothly, both in the air and inside the cabin.
On the ground in Niniltna, she endorsed her paycheck from Old Sam and handed it to George, who would take it to the bank in Ahtna. "Half in savings, half in cash," she said.
He stuffed the check into a random pocket. "Okay. You going to be back in town anytime soon?"
She shook her head. "Just to get the rug rat registered for school and that's not until next week. If you see Auntie Vi, give her the cash. If not, just hang on to it."
"Okay." He took a chance. "Good to have you back in your body, Shugak."
She laughed. "Good to be back in it, Perry. Later."
The red Chevy pickup was parked next to George's hangar. She and Johnny tossed their duffels into the back. Mutt jumped in next to them with a joyous bark, tail wagging furiously. The engine started on the first try.
Kate grinned at Johnny. "It's good to be home."
He grinned back. "Yeah. I like Cordova, but..."
She nodded. "It's a city."
He nodded. "Too many people."
"Two thousand and more," she said, shaking her head.
They both shuddered. Mutt barked encouragement from the back, and Kate put the truck in gear and they started the last leg home.
The gravel road from Niniltna was rough, the remnants of an old railroad bed graded every spring by the state and then left to fend for itself until the following year. Every now and then a remnant of its former life surfaced as a railroad spike in someone's tire. The tracks the spikes had held together had been pulled up by the owners of the Kanuyag Copper Mine, the rapidly decaying ruins of which lay four miles beyond Niniltna. The ties had long since been scavenged by Park rats and used to surface access roads, fence gardens, and serve as the foundation for more than one house.
It was going on sunset when they turned onto the game trail that led to Kate's homestead. It was a little wider and less rough than it had once been, due to all the traffic down it the previous May, but the indefatigable alders were coming back fast and now whispered at the windows of the truck as it went by. Kate saw the steep, neatly shingled roof of the new house first, and the late-evening sunshine made the river of windows down the front gleam a bright gold, repeating the warm blond surface of the shaped cedar logs and glinting off the railing surrounding the deck that ran all the way around the house. The sight of it seemed to soften the jagged peaks of the Quilak Mountains rearing up behind it.
Kate was so mesmerized by the sight that she nearly rear-ended the royal purple Cadillac Escalade parked square in the middle of the clearing, equidistant from the half dozen buildings that formed a semicircle around the edge. She slammed on the brakes and she, Mutt, and Johnny all pitched forward.
The view was not further improved by the sight of the woman sitting on the deck.
Johnny swore beneath his breath.
Kate swore out loud.
"Who is she?" Johnny said, sounding as surly as Kate felt.
"I don't know," she said, and slammed out of the truck.
"Kate Shugak?" the woman said, rising to her feet as Kate all but stamped up the stairs.
"Who's asking?" Kate said, not caring how unfriendly she sounded.
"Charlotte Muravieff," the woman said without a blink. "It's nice to meet you, finally. I've heard a lot about you."
She was a woman in her mid-forties and her face had that carefully tended look that only the rich can achieve. Her hair was as bright a gold as the sun setting on the windows behind her, and her eyebrows had been dyed to match. She was elegantly, almost painfully thin, and she wore what Nordstrom probably considered proper for one of the few outings that wouldn't include a trip to the spa---khakis tailored to fit well, but not so tight as to be called vulgar, a hand-knit sweater of 100 percent cotton over a button-down shirt of the softest linen, the shirt one exquisite shade of blue darker than the sweater, and perfectly knotted brown leather half boots, polished until they reflected the setting sun as well as the house's windows. The bootlaces might even have been ironed. Kate didn't recognize the couturier, but the whole ensemble reeked of a platinum card with no credit limit and no expiration date.
Kate took the hand automatically. The nails were well-shaped ovals, gleaming beneath a coating of pearlized polish. Kate was made aware of the rough calluses and ragged hangnails on her own hands, which accounted for at least some of the pugnacity displayed in the jut of her chin. "Charlotte Bannister Muravieff?"
The woman nodded, and looked at Johnny over Kate's shoulder and gave him a dazzling smile. "You must be Johnny Morgan."
Both Kate and Johnny bristled at this unearned assumption of familiarity. Muravieff saw it and, in an obvious attempt to forestall an immediate eviction, said to Kate, "Could I speak to you privately?"
Kate had had a very long summer, most of which, yes, had been of her own making, but still. She wanted a long, hot shower in her brand-new bathroom. She wanted to make moose stew in her brand-new kitchen. She wanted to curl up with a good book in her brand-new armchair, and she wanted to turn in early for a long, uninterrupted night's sleep on her brand-new bed in her brand-new loft. She had determined to have all these things, while at the same time quelling the uneasy conscience that told her she hadn't earned them, didn't deserve them, and didn't really own them, and that was, in fact, the root of most of her actions over the past three months.
In consequence, her voice might have been a trifle brusque. "For what purpose?"
Muravieff looked at Johnny. He folded his arms and met her gaze with a hard stare. Muravieff looked back at Kate and found no softening there.
She took a deep breath, and let it out with a long, defeated sigh. The "to the manor born" pose vanished, leaving behind a middle-aged woman whose expensive clothes, authentic jewelry, and makeup by Clinique could not disguise an exhaustion that seemed as if it had been accumulating not just over the day but over decades. Though the wounds were not visible, she looked beaten, emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
"I want you to get my mother out of jail," she said.