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Henry McGee Is Not Dead
By Bill Granger
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $6.99 $8.99 CAD
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On the foggy and desolate Seattle waterfront, a gray-haired, gray-eyed man foils a mugging. His name is Devereaux–the November Man. His act of salvation is the first, unexpected step on a perilous odyssey to the remote wilderness of Alaska. His quest is for a mysterious individual named Henry McGee, the sometimes American, sometimes Russian master manipulator, teller of tales, and treacherous link between opposing superpowers, in a bizarre, far-reaching plot to destroy U.S. intelligence.
The November Man is the unwilling instrument of the plan’s success–or the determined key to its failure. And this time, simply staying alive won’t be enough.
Table of Contents
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Peewee waited, rocking back and forth on his sneakers, sometimes breaking into a little dance done to the sounds in his mind.
The fish stall was closed down. The boys had hosed down the counters and the floor and washed away the remains of the fish and the bits of shell. The only thing left was the faint and rotting smell of sea.
Peewee knew he was beautiful. Even the marks on his hands were beautiful. Girls look at those marks and look at the unmarked face with its deep, sad leopard eyes and they thought he was some kind of a man.
Peewee looked at his hands, at the new cut where the thin shucking knife had slipped along the seam of the oyster shell and tore into the thick protective glove on his left hand and bit the flesh underneath. Just a little cut, not like some of the other cuts.
How did you get cut?
He'd grin at them and shrug and make his eyes look sad. Wasn't going to say he got cut because that was his stupid fucking job, cleaning fish and cracking oyster shells for old man Hunzinger. Girls wanted mystery, all the time living in a dream world, talking about soap operas, for Christ's sake, like they were real.
Peewee stepped into the shadows of the shuttered stalls of the Pike Place Public Market and watched the prostitutes trotting out along First Street, like they were going somewhere.
Friday night was always like this in Seattle, always full of hustle and people moving into position and the feeling that something was going to happen, something worth waiting for.
Peewee had the blade in a sheath under his Seahawks jacket. The top of the handle was just inside his jeans. He took care of his knife. He watched a fat girl cross against the light up the street and the motorcycle cop was on her case just like that, went over to her with his long boots and his jodhpurs, swaggering because he caught her jaywalking.
Fucking town, Peewee thought. Get you a piece of ass any color you want any way you want it, get you dope, gambling, any fucking thing you want and the cops want to write you up for jaywalking. It was comical if you thought about it. Peewee had a con's sense of irony.
He heard a sound in his memory and tried a step on the hosed-down floors of the public market. Killing time, waiting. Traffic climbed up Pike Street to the top of Seventh, which was the top of the long hill that started way down at the Puget Sound waterfront, on the street called Alaska Way.
Damn, I'm beautiful, Peewee thought because he was thinking about girls, not himself, trying to figure out what it took to get girls seeing him the way he saw himself.
Some of the little girls came over from East Side, little Norwegian girls with their little round cans carved out in jeans, looking for the price—you'd be surprised how many amateur tricks were out there. Some of the nice-looking girls from East Side go right downtown, right down to the Westin Towers or someplace, pull their tricks out of Trader Vic's or someplace. Some of these girls dressed, Peewee thought. He thought about the kind of money it takes for a girl like that with silky underwear, the kind you want to feel under your hand.
Like Mai-Lin. Little Hong Kong girl, shops the market, kids around with Grecchi and Peewee but she's miles from them. Not snotty, you know, just business. Mai-Lin sits in the big lobby at the Olympic Hotel when it's cocktail time, just sits waiting for someone to buy her a drink. They play the piano in the big room and got little dainty things to eat and the girls who serve the drinks all got long legs and wear these high-collar satin dresses that make their boobs look big.
"Shit," Peewee said out loud, thinking about it, thinking about Mai-Lin.
He went down the corridor to the back of the public market, where the French restaurant was that looked over the hillside down at the waterfront. Behind the public market was a flight of stairs that dropped three stories to the level of the waterfront, to the railroad tracks that ran a hundred feet beneath the elevated freeway. There were one or two restaurants up here and a lot more down there on the dockside street called Alaska Way.
It was a working and playing waterfront, crammed with restaurants and souvenir sheds and long piers full of working ships and ferries. Down at Pier 48, the large blue Alaska Marine Highway ferry was getting ready to sail, its hold full of trucks and campers and the mix of old-timers and residents who found it the cheapest way north. The ferry would sail for most of a week up the string of islands that formed the Inside Passage. It was spring now and the volcanic islands were full of trees and shining white glaciers and the waters were deep and blue and still.
Peewee thought about Alaska sometimes, thought about making all that money up there that he had heard about all his life. Sometimes he dreamed about it.
Nobody on the steps, steps slick with remains of a light early evening rain.
Something has to happen, he thought. And then saw it.
The barman was leaning over the guy at the edge of the bar. The guy'd been sleeping. Guy woke up fast, shook his head, denied everything. Moving the guy out. Big man with a black mustache and a red whiskey face and that walk. That walk, the way they walk.
Peewee held his breath when he saw the roll.
The big guy with the black mustache pulled a twenty off the roll and the barman started to protest but said what the hell, not out loud but saying it with the way he shrugged. He took the twenty and the roll went right back into the wrong pocket, the right-hand jacket pocket, the pocket it was so easy to grab out of.
The barman led him to the door and held it open twenty dollars' worth and the big guy said something and then lurched out onto the wet floor of the empty market.
Peewee held his breath, waiting in the shadow between the bar and the street. Like no one else was in the world.
You can tell which ones are the longshoremen and which ones come from the ships. The sailors carry a roll off the ships and they roll when they walk, even if they've been on dry land for months. Even when they stumble down on the wet walks to the back of the public market. To the stairs. Down to Alaska Way, down to the darkness beneath the viaduct road, down to the fog and sounds of ferries steaming out in the night.
Peewee put his hand on his jacket, felt the handle of the knife, felt the sheath press against his flat belly. He looked toward First Street again, almost to the place where he had been waiting for Friday night to start and nobody was around.
The sea wind cut across the rumble of the elevated freeway. The fog crept through the silence of the covered market. The sailor was on the stairs, holding on to the rail, rolling down the steps. He stumbled once and then rested, gripping the banister, heaving like he was about to throw up.
Peewee stood on the top of the steps and decided about the thing.
He started down the steps, graceful, beautiful.
Went down the steps all the way, past the stumbling sailor, all the way down to the dark of the street below where the warehouses were in shadows. Stepped beneath the stairs, away from the single street lamp. Felt the knife in the sheath and pulled it out and waited.
There was a way to do it.
Don't just go stick people, go around sticking people every time you roll them, even the pigs get off their jaywalking patrol and start looking for you. No. Be cool. Let them know about the knife, know they're this close, let them shit in their pants if they want to, and then let them go. They get grateful, in fact, for you letting them go.
Away from the warehouses, across the tracks, the bars and restaurants along the waterfront were bright. Along the gutters across the way, Indians slumped dead drunk, propped against garbage baskets and lampposts, their bodies sprawled in abandoned positions as though they had been slaughtered. The ferryboat for Edmonds slipped away from the pier and sounded the horn across the water. Puget Sound did not sleep, even in fog, even in darkness.
Heard the sailor above on the steps. Heavy, uncertain footsteps.
Fucker is singing, Peewee thought. It made him smile.
He stepped into the light and drew the knife right across until it rested against the Adam's apple. Pushed his shoulder so the seaman felt the knife on the front of his throat. The sailor felt it all right. Sailor was dead still all of a sudden, without a song. Sailor stopped weaving, felt the knife's edge on the softness of his frightened flesh.
Peewee waited, pulled the knife a little until the flesh felt the sharp edge sink in just enough to make a thin line of blood. The sailor was positive about it. The only thing that ever worried Peewee was that the drunk would be so drunk he'd fall against the knife and cut his own goddamn throat through no fault of Peewee's.
This one knew.
Peewee felt the roll in the side pocket, pulled it out of the jacket pocket, held his breath, slipped the roll into the pocket of his Seahawks jacket.
"Don't cut me, man," the sailor rumbled.
Big fucker and he was shitting, Peewee thought. Felt good the way Friday was turning out, first day of spring, felt good about thinking about Mai-Lin sitting over there in the lobby of the Olympic. What it was all about was money. Just as soon open those pretty Hong Kong legs for Peewee as some fat-ass tourist with a Seattle duck on a T-shirt and an American Express card. Shit, yeah.
"You just put your hands out on the railing, hold them there five minutes, motherfucker, five fucking minutes and then you be alive for the rest of your life. You dig?"
The sailor gurgled something. It was hard to talk, feeling the blade across your throat.
Felt good making the sailor afraid.
Peewee drew the knife slowly away from the flesh and then put the point on the cloth of the jacket.
"Yes," the sailor said.
"You hold that rail. Just hold it. You don't know when I'm going, you just count five minutes."
The sailor held.
Peewee pulled the knife back.
The sailor turned with a wide swing and hit nothing but air. Smashed his body into the stair rail. Stumbled and rose, this time with something shiny in his big hand.
Peewee backed up, held his ground, looked at the strange knife. It was crescent shaped, with a bone handle on the back of the crescent. Peewee smiled at the knife, at the red-eyed sailor. Fucker was so drunk he could barely stand up. What was he going to do with a knife like that? Shave himself?
The sailor surprised Peewee.
He made a quick lunge and brought the funny-looking knife down and out and the blade flashed in the single street lamp. Peewee felt the blade bite at his left hand and felt the slice. He looked down and saw blood in a curved line smiling at him from the back of his left hand. He didn't think the sailor had got so close.
The move had been quick and sure and sober. But now the sailor was drunk again, overwhelming the adrenaline. The funny-looking knife was over his head and then he brought it down. He wasn't even close this time.
The sailor took a step, lurched, stumbled on a broken piece of concrete and went down hard on hands and knees.
Peewee stomped the back of his hand twice and heard the yell. Stomped again.
"Leggo the fuckin' blade," Peewee said. Stomped again and heard the shout of pain and the crescent knife was kicked free.
Peewee saw his own blood on his hand.
Peewee's eyes took on that funny look. Grecchi knew that look when they were working in the stalls and old man Hunzinger came down on Peewee about this or that. The look was cold in leopard eyes. Peewee learned to do that look doing two years in Angola on the way west from New Orleans. Learned the look to survive inside, survive the old cons looking at him like he was a girl.
Peewee knew he was going to cut this dude. That's what you had to do, inside or outside: Don't take no shit, don't give them two times at you.
Knelt over the prostrate sailor and brought the thin-bladed knife down in the easy, practiced arc, the way you slice open a big salmon from head to belly without damaging the precious fillet.
The arc never finished.
He felt the blow a moment after it came. He rose, felt dizzy, hit his head on the steps. He held the knife and turned.
Where the hell did he come from?
He wasn't there a minute ago. This one had gray hair and gray eyes and a face just as cold as Peewee's leopard eyes. Some dude come into the play. Some fucking tourist hero come into the play he wasn't part of.
There was nothing to say. Peewee moved in, the knife fading back and forth in front of him, tracing an intricate pattern of threats on the night air.
The other waited. Just stood and waited. Stood like a flatfoot tourist, messing with something wasn't his business.
Peewee felt the anger coming through his eyes, putting fear on Gray Eyes.
"You a fucking hero, tourist? You come down to Sea City to be a fucking hero?"
Because the gray man had nothing in his hands. He was looking at the knife and he didn't have a fucking thing in his hands.
"Come on, hero," Peewee said. "You wanna fuck around so fuckin' bad, dad."
Slash across and down and it caught the hero's raincoat sleeve and Peewee stepped in, ready for the counterslash. But the crazy man was stepping in, too, with nothing in his hands. Peewee realized he was too close. Too fucking close. He tried to pull his knife hand back and the other reached for his shoulder and pressed it.
All the feeling went out of his arm, from shoulder to hand.
He dropped the knife because he didn't even feel it.
And then, a moment later, felt the screaming pain up and down his dead arm. The hero stood there and made pain like that without hardly moving.
And then Peewee was moving except he wasn't doing any of it, swinging around like the end kid on crack-the-whip, the gray man pulling him fast and then Peewee saw the brick wall a moment before it crushed his nose. He felt broken teeth behind his lips and heard a terrible sound and then realized he had made it.
Was the guy going to kill him?
He had never thought about that possibility.
Swung out on the whip again, coming around fast and this time he closed his eyes so he wouldn't feel anything.
He thought of Mai-Lin, she said he was a pretty boy. Said it just so he knew wasn't nothing he could do about it with Mai-Lin.
Felt no pain again, except the thought that he wasn't pretty anymore.
Devereaux took the roll out of the Seahawks jacket. He gave the sailor a hand and pulled him to his feet. The sailor blinked, looked down at the slumped skinny form of the mugger.
Devereaux gave him the roll and the sailor stared at it dumbly and then looked at Peewee on the ground. "Fucker was gonna kill me. Fucker practically broke my hand."
He looked at the other man then. "You kill him?"
"Probably not." The man said it as though it didn't matter. The sailor stared at him a moment, trying to figure this out. The man stood there very still, flat-footed, the large hands held easy at his sides. He had big shoulders when you studied him, but he didn't come off as a big man. The shoulders and arms and hands were all of a piece, coming down like the slouch of mountainside.
The sailor blinked again. His adrenaline-induced sobriety hurt. He kicked Peewee. "Ought to kill him."
"You tried once," Devereaux said. He said it flat but the sailor heard the contempt in his voice. The sailor stared at him.
"Captain Holmes. At least, it used to be 'Captain.' " The sailor held out his hand. Why had he said that about being a captain? Why explain? But something in the gray eyes demanded the truth, knew the truth before he even said it.
Devereaux did not take his hand.
The sailor blinked again. It was all he could think to do. He dropped his hand and felt bad about extending it. He held the roll in his hand like a beggar's cup. His right hand was swelling fast.
"Who the hell are you?"
"The man who saved your life."
"So what do you want? You want money?"
Devereaux said nothing.
The air was full of city sounds but they were apart from it. No one had even seen the attack down here under the freeway, in the shadow of old brick warehouses. Holmes said, "What are you to me?"
"I saved your life. That makes you my responsibility," Devereaux said.
"That's Indian shit. You listen to Indian shit, you turn your brains inside out after a while."
"You lived with them," Devereaux said. "When you were in Alaska, working the Inside Passage."
"Fuck it, fuck you, too," Holmes said. "Where's my fucking knife?" He found it, picked it up, held it in his left hand with the roll, the only hand he could use. He felt drunkenness coming back on a wave of nausea. It would overwhelm him in a moment.
"Jesus Christ, I feel terrible, I was gonna die," Holmes said.
Devereaux did not move, did not speak.
"What the hell do you want? I give you a hundred dollars you get me to my room all right. Pacific Plaza Hotel right up—"
"I know," Devereaux said.
"What the hell do you want, man?" And Holmes felt the same edge of fear he had felt when the knife was at his throat. He looked at the knife in his hand and looked at the gray man across from him. "Answer me, you sonofabitch." He was afraid and it made him shout.
"Henry McGee," Devereaux said at last. "I want to talk to you about Henry McGee."
Holmes took a step back. "I dunno nothing—"
"We'll talk about Henry McGee until you remember everything," Devereaux said.
And Holmes shivered then as if the knife was being drawn across his throat.
Nels Nelsen met Henry McGee the year before in Anchorage. It was exactly a year ago, first day of spring, and everyone waiting for breakup.
Nels had cleaned and repaired his trapline and he didn't have the dogs anymore for company so he had taken a ride into Nome, sixty miles west of his cabin, and flown down to Anchorage. He had a few good days of drinking behind him when he met Henry McGee in the Polar Bar down on Fourth Avenue. One thing led to another and they talked about trapping. Trapping wasn't what it was; hell, Nels even took some welfare aid from time to time, just like a goddamn Indian. It wasn't like it was all right, Nels Nelsen complained, but he had enough to drink and enough to fly down to Anchorage when the winter made him crazy and waiting for breakup was never going to end.
Henry McGee was a good listener and never said a word when it wasn't needed. He was also a gifted talker. He could hold the whole bar in his hand so that the fat woman on the boards behind the bar turned down the television set to better listen to him. She had heard everything twice but Henry surprised her with his stories.
It was spring and bright and cold and everyone edgy waiting for breakup. That's the way March and April are, empty bright months of waiting. But Henry McGee took the edge off.
The days were long now, starting around three in the morning and lasting until after nine at night. The mountains were white and some of the glacier passes would stay white and frozen all during the bright summer. But in some of the streams, the water was moving beneath the ice and the fish were flowing with the water and the whole thing was breaking up, cracking winter and sliding down to the sea.
Henry McGee said he went out with an Eskimo flotilla one year to hunt the seals off Little Diomede and damned near ended up riding the floes across to Siberia and what the hell would he have done then?
As it was, Henry McGee said, they got a couple of Siberian dogs that got trapped out on the ice. He spun the story along, talking about the differences between Siberian dogs and the bigger and stronger Alaskan dogs and the whole bar became quiet and they could actually see it after a while, see the butchering of the seals on the floes and the Russian boat that came out from Big Diomede in the straits, coming right after them.…
Good stories and good company and Nels Nelsen felt better than he had all winter. The dogs were gone, all sold off or killed a long time, and you can't talk to a snow-go machine. He had the radio but it made you sick after a while, talking about things you didn't have and didn't need and telling you how much you really needed them so that you got to the point where you thought you really did need them. He was an old trapper, doing things mostly in the old ways, and in the dark months when the sun barely lifted to a dull line of red glow in the southern sky, he talked to himself and heard the wolves speak in tongues. He read the Bible for company and also John D. MacDonald.
Henry McGee was mysterious in a good-natured way. He talked about his past in terms of stories but the stories all had ends. The spaces between the stories were kept black. It was all right with Nels Nelsen.
Nels thought it was Henry who had brought it up but it had been on Nels' mind as well. The trapping was thin but it was a lot of work and maybe they could make more of a go of it by doubling the labor and doing more hunting. Maybe Henry suggested it and maybe not. They talked about it and they thought they both could get along with each other.
" 'Sides," Henry said. "I'd just as soon go into the bush for a while, maybe a year or two, hunker down a little, get away from places." It was the closest he had come to talking about the blank spaces between his careful stories. Nels did not press him; everyone in Alaska had a past and a lot of them never wanted to talk about it.
Breakup came in little separate explosions.
First it was the Yukon River, here and there along its ice-choked spine; and then the Kobuk and the other rivers and the thousand little unnamed lakes; and then the sea itself in early May, the wide and shallow Bering shuddering and cracking and opening itself all the way to the straits between the tip of Alaska and the tip of Siberia. The ice began to retreat a little on the North Slope and the race was on, up from the Pacific toward the Beaufort Sea.
It was a time of frantic activity when the supply ships and fishing boats from Seattle raced north and fanned out from Haines to Anchorage, from Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians through the straits to Deadhorse and Barrow. The top-heavy ships raced along the shallow, freezing northern waters with washing machine parts and snowmobiles and tanks of gasoline and kerosene and hydraulic drilling machinery and the thousands of things the North wanted to survive the next winter. The ships came low in the water because of all the things people wanted to make next winter more civilized.
After breakup was the time for fishing salmon and the other creatures of the northern seas. The salmon season was very short because there were fewer and fewer salmon but the flotilla of fishing boats struggled up from Seattle and Vancouver and from Japan and the Soviet port at Vladivostok.
The ancient Bering Sea was alive with fishermen and supply boats and factory trawlers from the Soviet Union that sucked up all the fish from the smaller boats and processed them in bloody machines right on board. Everything must be done fast, against the clock, against the brief window of bright summer between the breakup and the freeze-up.
Henry McGee and Nels Nelsen went back to the traplines and the cabin and lost themselves in the wide wilderness.
The Alaskan bush stretched around them for hundreds of miles in all directions. The bush was full of silence so that they sometimes could hear nothing but the loud knocking sounds of their own hearts. They fished the Yukon and salted the cache and sold some of it and ate their fill. The summer stretched twenty-four hours a day and the dusty brown tundra began to turn a light, hesitant green. At the end of the brief, bright summer, they would go out and kill the caribou, which went up to the mountains again. They would kill the caribou easily because the caribou were stupid and ran in a brown river, thousands and thousands and thousands. Caribou was the meat for the winter and when they had skinned the beasts and divided the meat, they would put it in the meat cache on the roof of the cabin.
They worked hand in glove. Henry and Nels had silences between them and that was company as well. They listened to the same good music on the radio. Nels talked about his father coming from Norway. Henry just told stories and never filled in the black spots between the end of one story and the beginning of another.
It seemed Henry could turn his hand to any task. He sewed and cooked—cooked better than Nels had ever tasted—and he played a mandolin sometimes and sang old songs they both knew. Henry was a rangy man with wide shoulders and modest eyes. He knew how to laugh. They went into Nome now and then to get their supplies off the lighters from the big boats waiting out in the shallow harbor. They got drunk at the Board of Trade bar and they picked up a couple of Indian girls there and had a good night with them. They walked along the stony breakwater that was over the old beach where the gold rush had started a long time ago. Henry told him a little about gold and he seemed to know what he was talking about.
"Gold is not real to me," Nels said. "I never had enough of it to make it real to me."
"It isn't even real when you find it," Henry agreed. "It's like the oil business but only more useless."
"You worked the pipeline—"
"One hell of a year. And there's gonna be another pipeline, too, in our time, coming out of the east of Alaska. And gold. There's still a lot of gold in the country, but it doesn't mean nothing because the getting of it makes it not real. The old-timers hit the Klondike and then went on to Nome and they were shoveling the gold dust into their pokes and for what? Go to town and pay ten dollars for a caribou steak and a hundred for a woman when the Eskimo would share his wife with you for friendship? Everything you read about it, you wonder where the hell the gold went. And then you realize, the gold was never real."
"You spend your life looking for gold, you end up not finding any, then what the hell did you do in your life?"
"Looking for something that wasn't there," Henry said. "Everybody does that. Not just about gold."
"I'm satisfied," Nels said.
"Yes. I saw that the minute I laid eyes on you in that bar down to Anchorage," Henry McGee said. It was like a compliment.
"You looking for gold still?" Nels said.
They had been very drunk, sitting in the midnight sun on the breakwater of the Bering Sea that runs behind the main street in Nome. They drank out of the whiskey bottle and felt the wind. The wind never let up, even when it was warm.
"Stopped looking," Henry said in a soft voice. Nels could hardly hear him. "What is worse than looking for something you can't find? Finding something you didn't want to find. You look for gold long enough, you never really want to find it."
"That's crazy," Nels said.
- On Sale
- Oct 28, 2014
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing