Of the stories I’ve written about my misadventures following Dr. Peyton McKean on his biomedical crime-solving path, none is more satisfying than the desperate race for salvation from a murderer we encountered in “Blood Tide.” I suppose that satisfaction comes in some measure from the fact that it is the most recently-published of Dr. McKean’s exploits, but it is also true that it satisfies me greatly just to know I am alive after what seemed a very terminal bout with a cold and calculating killer.
There is a warm and positive thread to the story as well, and that involves members of the Duwamish Indian Tribe whom we met in the course of the investigation and who, with rare exception, were most generous with their sympathy and help when death seemed our only option.
On the chance that these remarks spark your interest, I’m including below a short passage from the beginning of the story. If your appetite for “Blood Tide” is wetted, then perhaps you’ll do us both a favor and pick up a copy of Seattle Noir at your local bookstore or online. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
When we arrived at Herring’s House Park, the police were clearing off the yellow warning tape and packing their forensics bags and boxes, closing their case of an odd death in a parking lot and moving on. Kay Erwin, Epidemiologist at Seattle Public Health Hospital, had declared it shellfish poisoning, and the cops had quickly lost interest. But Peyton McKean was of a different mind. He was getting the lay of what had happened two days before by interrogating a young cop, rapid fire, as the officer rolled up the crime scene tape.
“The body lay here?” McKean asked, drawing an imaginary oblong line around a spot in the middle of the damp gravel.
“Uh huh,” answered the officer, stashing tape in a black garbage bag.
“And the victim’s pickup, parked here?” said McKean, sawing a transect line from the parking bumpers out into the lot with his long-fingered hands.
“ ’At’s right,” said the officer, cinching the bag and pausing to gaze amusedly at McKean, who moved animatedly around the rain drizzled lot quickly on long legs, marching off distances with his hands tucked behind his back like some intense, gangly schoolteacher. McKean was, I could tell, worried that he’d lack some detail of the circumstances surrounding Erik Torvald’s death, when the last cop who had actually seen Torvald lying face down in the parking lot was gone and done with the case. As the officer got in his squad car and prepared to close the door, McKean called somewhat desperately, “Anything else I should know?”
“Nuttin’,” said the cop, slamming his door and backing away, making a half-friendly wave at McKean as he left us alone in the lot.
“There’s more here than meets the eye, Fin Morton,” muttered McKean, lifting his olive green canvas fedora and scratching in the dark hair of one temple.
“There’s nothing here that meets my eye,” I replied, zipping up my windbreaker against the drizzle that had begun as soon as we got out of my Mustang. I looked around the otherwise empty quadrangle of gravel, the alder woods that stretched down to the bank of the Duwamish River below the lot, and the mudpuddled gravel footpaths, without much hope of spotting a clue. The park was devoid of people on a wet Thursday afternoon. “Maybe the cops are right. Maybe he just had shellfish poisoning. Don’t you think that’s possible?”
“Answer: no,” said McKean in his pedagogical way. “The levels of red tide poison in him were without precedent, off scale by any measure. To get the dose Kay Erwin found in his blood, he’d have had to eat ten buckets of steamers, or a dozen geoducks” —he pronounced the word properly: gooey ducks. “And yet,” he continued, “my immunoassay tests for shellfish residues in his guts came up strictly negative. He hadn’t eaten a bit of shellfish. The police may be satisfied that he poisoned himself, but neither Kay nor I believe it. Foul play is at work here, Fin. Somebody killed him, and I’d like to know who.”
“Right now,” I said, moving to the driver’s door of my midnight-blue Ford Mustang, “I’d like to get out of this drizzle.” McKean took one last look around the park as if wishing there were more to see than bare alder trees against a gloomy gray Seattle sky. Then he acquiesced, lapsing into thoughtful silence as I drove us out onto West Marginal Way and headed north past the Duwamish Tribal Office in an old gray house beside a construction site with a sign that read: “Future Site of the Duwamish Longhouse.”
“Muckleshoot Casino cash finally having an impact,” mumbled McKean absentmindedly as I headed for McKean’s labs on the downtown waterfront, where I had picked him up earlier. McKean suddenly cried, “Turn right, right here!”
I yanked the wheel hard and we bounded across some railroad tracks and onto a gravel drive that took us to another riverside parking lot, this one with a sign reading, “Terminal 105 Salmon Habitat Restoration Site and Public Access Park.”
“What’s here?” I asked, pulling up at a dismal postage stamp of greenery wedged between a scrap yard downriver and a defunct container terminal pier upriver, irked at how easily McKean had yanked my chain.
“It’s not what’s here,” he said, opening his door with a cerebral glow in his eyes, “but who’s here.”
At the end of a graveled path an observation platform overlooked the Duwamish River. McKean leaned his lanky frame on the rail and pointed a thin finger out across the expanse of muddy water to where several strings of dayglow red plastic gillnet floats drifted on a slow upstream tide, overshadowed in the distance by the container cranes and skyscrapers of Seattle. A fisherman in a small dingy was at the nets, pulling a big sockeye salmon into his boat. He quickly disengaged the netting from its gills and returned the net to the water. A fine drizzle dappled the brown water and lent a sheen to the fisherman’s dark green raincoat and hood. It put a damp chill on the back of my neck. “Unless I miss my guess,” said McKean, “that’s my old high school chum, Frank Squalco.”
“How can you be sure that’s him?”
“I recall Franky Squalco from Art Class at West Seattle High School,” said McKean. “Based on that fisherman’s humble stature and his rather square form, I guessed it might be Frank when I saw him as you drove. Furthermore, as you see, he’s gillnetting salmon, and only tribal people can use gillnets, so the odds improve. I’d like to get his take on this shellfish poisoning business.”
“Why would he know anything about it?”
“Because Erik Torvald was a geoduck fisherman, and Natives hold half the rights to geoduck licenses in this state, by law.”
As the fisherman drew in another salmon, our view of him was cut off when an outbound tug came down the shipping channel pulling an immense black barge piled with rusty cargo containers, so stupendously huge and near that it seemed for a dizzy moment that our viewing platform was moving past its black metallic hulk, rather than the other way around. When the barge passed downriver under the gray concrete rainbow of the West Seattle Freeway Bridge, the fisherman was already steering his dingy toward our shore. McKean waited, unaffected by the clammy air or the cold droplets that beaded his olive green canvas field coat and were getting down the neck of my jogging shell. I knit my arms around myself for warmth and wondered why I never dressed sufficiently for the weather I inevitably encountered when I tagged along on these adventures.
The fisherman throttled the boat down and glided into a small inlet on our right, helloed up at us absentmindedly, and then paused to take a long second look as his dingy bumped the beach.
“Peyton McKean!” A grin of recognition spread across his broad, brown, forty-ish Northwest Native American face. “I haven’t seen you in a while. What you doin’ down here where us poor Indians fish?”
“We’re investigating a murder.”
Squalco’s face clouded as he stepped out of his boat and pulled it onto the muddy shore with a bowline, his black rubber rain boots splutching and slurping in the muck. “Torvald?” he said. “Yeah. Too bad. Good geoduck man. But why they got you on the case? You’re not a cop. You’re a DNA man, so I heard. Pretty famous around here. When the Jihad Virus came, your vaccine saved a lot of lives, they say.”
McKean brushed the compliment aside. “Not DNA and not vaccines this time. I’m looking into a case of deliberate red tide poisoning.”
Squalco had been transferring three big salmon from the bottom of his boat into a large plastic bucket on the shore. At McKean’s remark, he paused, the third salmon cradled in his arms, one boot in the boat and one in the mud, stooped over. The pause was just momentary, and then he put the salmon in the bucket and turned and faced us where we stood above him on the observation deck. He swallowed hard but said nothing.
“You know something?” McKean asked encouragingly.
Squalco’s eyes shot sideways. “Red tide? Sure,” he said. “Puts poison in the clams. State of Washington orders us not to dig ’em then. We usually do anyway. I never got more’n a little buzz or two from it. Maybe threw up once or twice—but that coulda been the booze, y’know.” He laughed thinly.
“I meant,” McKean persisted, “do you know something about red tide in the murder of Erik Torvald?” At six-foot three, McKean has a way of looking imperiously down his long nose at people, and our height above Squalco on the deck amplified this effect until the man flinched. He cast his eyes aside again, and then bent and picked up the bucket with both gloved hands, grunting at its weight. He walked up the mud bank to a dented old blue pickup truck, where he huffed the bucket onto the waiting lowered tailgate, and then said to us, “Gotta go. Got plenty-a hungry mouths to feed.” He closed the tailgate, came back in a hurry, tied the boat’s bowline to the trunk of a small Douglas fir tree and turned to go. As he reached his truck door, McKean called to him.
Squalco paused before getting in. “Yeah?”
“Massive dose of red tide poison. Died quick. No trace of shellfish in his stomach contents. Any idea why?”
“No,” Squalco lied with eyebrows high and mouth round.
“Red tide poison,” said McKean, “is one of the most toxic substances known; a paralytic toxin. First the tongue and lips tingle, then general paralysis sets in.”
“I gotta go,” said Squalco.
He got in and slammed his door and drove off spraying gravel. Watching him speed down the driveway and turn south on West Marginal Way, McKean shook his head.
“Oh, Frank,” he said with a note of regret. “What has my old pal got himself mixed up in?”