Beyond the Western
The Matter of the Oosik Ulu
Steve Levi


Beyond the Western

Captain Heinz Noonan, the "Bearded Holmes" of the Sandersonville Police Department, was savoring the first Alaska king salmon fillet of his vacation at JENS' in Anchorage when he was tapped on the shoulder by none other than Jens himself, a Danish chief with a flair for European cuisine with an Alaskan twist.

"You aaare the eminent criminologist Captain Heinz Noonan?"

Noonan nodded that he was.

"You have no idea how I hate to break into a repast such as this but, alas, when the police call," he spread his arms in helplessness, "what can I do but comply?"

"The police called for me here? I'm on vacation."

"Perhaps. But it was the Anchorage Police and, you know, many of them stop right here and dine." He spread his arms, again, to indicate helplessness and to indicate that he had no choice but to comply as the Anchorage Police were not only the representatives of law and order but some of his most sacred clients as well.

"I see. And exactly what do the Anchorage Police want?" Noonan quickly reached for his glass of wine knowing full well that he had better finish it immediately because once he was lured to the phone, it could be eons before he returned to his dinner.

But Jens, the master of propriety that he was, was not to deny the Anchorage Police Department their man or a patron his dinner. With elegance and flare he quickly lifted the plate of sautéed salmon from beneath Noonan's nose and, with the other, secured the Detective's glass of wine. "The phone is in this direction," he said as he stepped toward the door leading past the wine counter. "And I will set the table for you in front of the phone so that you will not miss a moment of your meal."

"But my family," sputtered Noonan as he rose, helpless but to follow.

"Not a problem," replied Jens. "I have ordered a special dessert for the family and, of course," he said looking at Lorlei Noonan who was softening as he spoke, "I have ordered a flaming plum pudding, a specialty of the house."

Otto and Fritz, the twins were busy devouring their duck sotto nete and clearly could have cared less what kind of a phone call dad had to receive. This was actually a victory because they usually only ate hamburgers or pizza – and often together. Lorlei nodded her assent, as if she had any power to keep her husband from answering an inquiry from the police – from any city – and went back to her porcino con fungi.

"This way," Jens indicated with the captain's wine glass.

Out of the main room of the restaurant and down the hall past the kitchen and the restrooms, Jens led the way to his office. A table cloth had already been spread on his desk but there were suspicious lumps which indicated that the desk had not been fully cleared before the table cloth draped. Jens had thoughtfully placed a yellow dog and pencil beside the phone, just in case the captain needed to take notes. Noonan swiveled the desk chair so he could sit as Jens placed his plate on the cloth. Then, in a whirl of efficiency, the man was gone. Noonan sighed, took a swallow of Pinot Noir and picked up the receiver.

"Let me guess," he said. "You have a problem that just can't wait until morning."

"Well, actually it can," came the woman's voice. "But I was told you were planning on going salmon fishing tomorrow and wouldn't be available for a couple of days at the very least."

"That's as correct as I could have made it before I got this call."

"Yes, sir. I can understand that. Except that, well, my Commissioner . . ."

"I know. I know," replied Noonan as he rolled his eyes. "Your Commissioner called my Commissioner and in the name of inter-state law enforcement harmony, yadda, yadda, yadda."

"Yes, sir. You've said it so much better than I."

"Well, let's get to the nubbins. Whacha got?"

"Basically we've got a body of an Eskimo woman found near Barrow frozen solid with an oosik-handled ulu jammed into her ribs. She's dressed in a winter parka and traditional dress, everything except her shoes. She's wearing bunny boots. Uh, do you know what bunny boots are?" The woman's voice paused for a moment. "Or what an ulu is?"

"Hey, I'm no cheechako," snapped Noonan. "Bunny boots are those inflated, rubberized winter items that look like Mickey Mouse shoes and an ulu is a curved knife made to be held in one hand for lateral cutting motion as well as the more traditional cutting and hacking."

"You do know Alaska."

"No. I married an Alaskan."

"I see."

"Well, what's the problem?"

"The coroner says the body's at least 800 years old."

* * *

Noonan scratched his head as he looked over the body. It had been a long flight to Barrow, three hours north of Anchorage on the shore of the Arctic Ocean and then an hour helicopter ride to an ancient barabara where an archeological team was standing about waiting for the Coast Guard to bring in John Law. It was a pleasant day, even for a cheechako, a tenderfoot Alaskan, and he actually enjoyed the opportunity to be as far north on the North American continent as one could get without stepping onto shorefast ice – of which there was none this time of year.

Noonan crawled through the collapsed whale rib bone arches of the barabara [a sod igloo] following VPSO [Village Public Safety Officer] Geraldine Ferguson. The structure itself had collapsed centuries earlier and only through the efforts of modern day archaeologists and structural engineers was it able to be raised. The frozen sod from the room had been removed to allow access to the central chamber of the barabara. The glint of the sun's rays sparkled off the ice crystals which clung to the walls of the pit. When Noonan and Ferguson finally stood erect in the center of the pit, their feet splashed in ice-cold water, proof that the permafrost crust had been disturbed.

The body was lying on its side, face away from the two law enforcement personnel, half frozen in the bottom of the barabara. One arm was up over the cadaver's face as if it was shielding itself from a falling beam. The knees were drawn up until the body was in a fetal position with its feet slightly elevated. There were bunny boots on her feet, their carefully laced knots frozen solid with ice.

"There's the ulu," Ferguson said as she pointed to the embedded object in the fold of the woman's parka. "It has an oosik handle and you can see the rivets holding the steel plate in place."

"There wasn't a lot of steel around here 800 years ago – if your coroner is accurate in his estimate of eon of death."

"The earliest there could have been steel around here was the mid-1700s, two and a half centuries ago." Ferguson splashed to another angle and pulled out a camera with a flash attachment. "I've got to take photographs for the crime lab," she smiled. "You know, crime scene stuff."

Noonan nodded and moved sideways as she snapped the photograph. Being careful to stay out of her photographs, he looked down at the face of the corpse. It had a desiccated look, the skin pulled back tight against the cheek and chin bones. The neck was short and disappeared into the fur seal collar of the parka. The body was wrapped in the parka almost as if it were a blanket which covered the entire body except for the short expanse of legs to which the bunny boots were attached.

He splashed over to the body and snapped on a flash light. In its halo he examined the ulu carefully, from its handle to the blade which had been driven deep into the woman's ribs. If there was any blood, it had either been washed away as the ice crystals had melted or it had long ago soaked into the fine black fur of the parka.

"Yes, this certainly is an interesting find," Noonan commented as he stood up and stepped back from the corpse.

"Well, what do you think?" Ferguson rolled her film forward as she joined Noonan beside the corpse.

"Well, I'll say it's an interesting case. Where's the nearest modern day village from here?"

"Kaktovik? Oh, I'd say about six miles away. To the west. It's a small village of about 200."

"How do they make their living?"

"Subsistence mostly, why?"

"Anything unusual been happening there lately?"

"Well, the oil industry used to hire quite a few of the Natives but since the downturn of Prudhoe Bay there hasn't been any real work. It's typical of a lot of Native communities. They do some trapping, some fishing, some hunting."

"Tourism?"

"Everyone once in a while someone stops by, yeah, but other than that, no."

Noonan began working his way back toward the front of the barabara. "I imagine that will change when news of this gets out."

"Maybe. This is a long way from any place."

"You don't know the American press."

Clearly Ferguson didn't. By the time they crawled out of the barabara, there were two film crews getting off a helicopter, CNN and NBC. One of the crews had zeroed in on the coroner, clearly visible in his white uniform with the words CORONER, CITY OF KAKTOVIK on his back. The other crew was getting establishing shots of the crumbling barabara.

Noonan didn't give the camera crews more than a glance as he walked directly toward the Coast Guard helicopter. When one of the newswomen from NBC tried to catch his attention, Noonan just waved politely. Then he and the VPSO boarded the helicopter. "OK!" Noonan shouted above the roar of the blades. "Let's rock and roll." Five seconds later they were aloft.

* * *

"Well look who returns from the frozen north," Jens said gleefully as Captain Noonan wandered into JENS'. "I see you are back from the shore of the Arctic Ocean. But I didn't see you on the evening news. Did the camera crews miss you?"

"Ah, Jens. It's so nice to be back. I did enjoy the trip, by the way, and I certainly appreciate your thoughtfulness."

"Eh?" said Jens in surprise.

"The corpse. An elegant touch, I might add. Quite elegant indeed. A classic case of Alaskan absurding."

"So you saw through our little charade did you? My, but you are a clever man, you are, Captain Heinz Noonan."

"You Alaskans think you're so clever. Really. An oosik-handled ulu. That was so poor, Jens. Really, from a man with as fine-tuned a mind as you have."

"It was the thought that counted," replied Jens as he smiled.

"But I must admit that it would probably have fooled a cheechako," replied Noonan. "Someone who didn't know there are no seal and walrus in the Arctic Ocean. I knew from the start that it was a fake. But I was intrigued. Bunny boots? Really?"

"I guess that might have been a bit much."

"A bit much? Jens, everything was a bit much. Unless you're not an Alaskan. I've been married to an Alaskan for a decade, remember? And that was a very dry corpse. You probably picked it out of some pawn shop or some sort of curio establishment – if it's real at all. And the fur seal parka? Really! No Eskimo would be wearing a parka inside a barabara. More important, fur seal is from the Bering Sea, what, a thousand miles away!"

Jens smiled mischievously and bowed.

"But what I liked best, of course, was the Kaktovik Coroner. Give me a break, Jens. That's a village of 200. I know towns of 250,000 that don't have a coroner. The white lab coat was a piece of work, however, a true work of genius."

Jens smiled. "So you liked that?" Jens smiled as Noonan smiled. "Good! Then the press corps will love it too."

"Indeed I did. I imagine it was all to generate some tourism into Kaktovik. Perhaps a little bit of excitement for an otherwise dull summer?"

"Ah, you see through me like glass, Captain. The summer has been a bit dull and some of the executives from one of the Native corporations wanted to liven things up with some good old Alaskan absurding. You know, pass off something absolutely absurd as the truth and see how long it takes Outsiders to catch on."

"I'm not your typical Outsider. I may live in the Lower 48 but I'm not cheechako."

"That you're not. I actually expected you to be on the evening news. What tipped you?"

"Jens!" Noonan stepped back and spread his arms as he turned in a tight circle in the center of the restaurant. "Just how did VPSO Ferguson know to call me here?"


[Author's note: If you knew the body was a hoax when the oosik was first mentioned, you are a sourdough. If you didn't catch the hoax until the fur seal parka was mentioned, you're a cheechako but there's hope for you. If you were convinced that the coroner for Kaktovik was real, the author has some beach front property in Talkeetna for sale at a very modest price. But if it took you until the end of the story, you should contact the Alaska Division of Tourism.]