Chapter 4, Part 2

Ladd and the case of the missing Malamutes

By Alfred Goodale | May 15, 2011

Benjamin Cardozo Meyer’s first year at law school had gone well until May, when he did badly on the all-or-nothing final exam and ended in the bottom half of his class. Seen as brilliant, however, he was admitted to second year with the suggestion that he reapply for his lost scholarship or for other financial aid. When no scholarship or grant was forthcoming, he decided not to try again. Instead, he dropped out of law school and started attending the nearest mosque he could find.

He was won over to Islam by its zeal, a zeal he didn’t find in local Christian churches or in suburban synagogues. Unlike many converts, he chose to keep his own name, unwilling to abandon its authoritative eight-beat lilt or its honoring of the late Justice Cardozo, a hero of his Jewish parents. When he met Alexander Kahn in Montreal, Benjamin felt an immediate kinship and when Alex went to a barbershop to have his appearance changed, he witnessed the unbraiding and cutting of the hair and removed his shoes and became Alex’s disciple, the first American in his North American cause.

So now, sitting on a weathered porch above acres of fireweed, Benjamin rehearsed for his master his next week’s mission: “Dennis and I fly with you to Washington and report to your country’s embassy on Connecticut Avenue. I receive a passport and other documents as well as a letter of introduction. Also contact lenses and dark glasses. A middle-level officer escorts us to the White House. I produce the letter of introduction, which is genuine and not forged, by the way, and explain that I’m legally blind, an Iraq vet breaking in his new guide dog. Hopefully they’ll pull us out of line and give us a VIP tour of the West Room and the Rose Room and everything. The security guards pat Dennis and get to know him, invite him back. I shake hands with everybody, Dennis wags his tail, and we’re gone. Seeing the inside of the White House? Wow. Cool!”

Alex bit into an apple. “One more thing. It’s unlikely but possible that the President, being a politician, will want to get out of the Oval Office and shake hands. Don’t be surprised and don’t panic. Consider it a plus, a sign that she’s received no threats or warnings. And don’t take those security guards or granted. They’re part of a bureaucracy that may already have this camp under surveillance. You know the river gulls we see all the time, the colony downstream? Well, one of them just might carry a recording chip or a camera. If so, they now have a dossier on you and Hunter, as well as a long one on me, of course.”

He tossed his apple over the railing. “Some part of that bureaucracy has been watching me ever since I left Somalia. They know I’m not a businessman interested in palm candy or peanuts. They know I’m a terrorist but how much terror can I spread along the Allagash Waterway in Maine? What lies do I tell to the blue jays and the wild salmon and the nesting pair of eagles? So they’re watching and waiting, that’s all. Same with you in Washington. The FBI will be hanging back, giving you plenty of rope. Make a mistake and they’ll nab you at Reagan National. Do well and they won’t!”

The eagle’s nest occupied the top of a 50-foot riverside pone. With a falconer’s zeal Alex had already climbed to the nest and discovered a pair of chicks amid the decaying remains of several river gulls. Today he expected the chicks to be fledged and ready for the taking. On their way to the site he and Hunter stopped at a blueberry thicket to eat breakfast. “Hey, boss?” Hunter called after a minute or two, his mouth full. “I was just wondering about something. When the cat disappeared, did you know about it? Did you do anything about it?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. Try to find her? Bring her back? Drown her?”

“The cat was out of the country before I knew about it,” Alex admitted. “Now forget the cat. What are you doing with Greywolf this afternoon?”

“I don’t know, boss.”

“I don’t know, boss,” Alex mimicked. You’re always saying that. Why don’t you think for yourself, Hunter?  I’ll tell you why. You’re a Cree Indian and you’re too much like your brethren. You’re too easygoing. You don’t have a plan. You don’t see past noon tomorrow.”

“I do so. I ain’t easygoing!”

“All right, you ain’t easygoing. I was wrong about that. I’m talking about myself. And I do have plans, Hunter. Plans for getting the eaglets down from  the nest and out of the country eventually. Plans on how to double load the poison capsules. Remember that? OK? Wipe your mouth. Pick up the climbing irons. Let’s go!”

The tree stood alone beside the river. Alex looked it up and down before taking the climbers from Hunter. He fitted each metal spur to the instep of his boot, strapped on the steel leg pieces, and threw a length of clothesline around the vast trunk. He grabbed hold of the rope and started up the tree.

As if waiting for him, the climbing irons had been lying on a rag pile of worn-out clothing and boots. Preparing for last week’s climb, Alex had sharpened the steel spurs and replaced the broken straps with leather from another, still older pair of irons. The clothesline had been lying on the unswept bunkhouse floor, among comic books, crossword magazines, old newspapers, a still-readable Readers Digest, and any number of men’s magazines. After inspecting and coiling the rope, he sat down and picked up a nearby Little Lulu comic. It happened to be an issue he’d read during his first years in America. Horrified that he knew every page, every panel, every word of dialogue, he threw the comic across the room and went to his knees, promising to return the climbing irons in due course, to give the work clothes a decent burial, and to incinerate the trash.

Now at 30 feet, resting, he looked at the river and the white-and-silver flutter of the gull colony, a mile away. The western mountains in the distance. The heat of the sun on his cropped head, the absence of his heavy braid. The idle Hunter down below, cleaning his teeth with a sliver of wood.  At 40 feet, Alex stopped again to shake out the mesh onion bag in which he’d place the eaglets. He searched the empty, cloudless sky for any sign of the mother eagle, listened to the unbroken silence. At 50 feet, after testing a dead branch and letting the clothesline dangle, he looked over the edge of the nest.

At first he saw only the jumping, swarming fleas. Having destroyed the carcasses of the river gulls, they were finishing up on the wind-stirred pinions and feathers gathered at the edge of the nest. A foot below, still standing together, doubled in size since last week, were the mummified remains of the eaglets Alex had sought. Recoiling, he felt the branch snap beneath him. He reached too late for the clothesline, grabbed for the nest itself and felt it come apart in his hand.

Alex’s fall raised an alarm across the valley. A spattering loon dove into a wave and disappeared. The colony of river gulls rose as one bird. In the distance Greywolf and Dennis howled together as never before. Hearing them, Alex wondered who’d let them loose and what was wrong. Then he heard nothing and saw only the black-on-yellow lettering posted for the instruction of portagers: Ne fumez pas en marchant dans les bois.

Hitting the water, he was pulled under and dragged to the bottom. He would have drowned but for his clasp knife and his quickness in kicking away the heavy climbers. He surfaced and allowed himself to be pulled ashore. Standing with Hunter, at one with the malamutes and their raised voices, his pledge to replace the lost equipment, to bury the abandoned work clothes, and to burn the trash — all trash, everywhere.

Alfred Goodale lives and writes in Liberty.

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