Peter Fontaine did not spend the majority of his free time in alleys. However, readers of the Hamster
, Bellingham, Washington’s most independent weekly newspaper, could be forgiven for thinking that lurking near Dumpsters was his primary hobby. His most famous piece of investigative reporting -- coverage of the murder of Shelley Vine three years prior -- had been an exercise in extensive alley dwelling.
And not nice alleys, either. Wet, unevenly paved downtown alleys filled with urine, drunken college students, and angry, misguided skunks.
By comparison the alleys five miles east, near scenic Whatcom Falls Park, were like country lanes. Oak and maple branches, leafed in autumn gold and red, hung over the gravel lane. Well-maintained garbage cans dotted the wayside. Here and there a rusty old engine or push lawn mower lay subsumed by rose brambles and convolvulus and dewy spider webs. The only smell of decay was the faint scent of fermentation from a dozen or so fallen apples.
And there were skunks here as well, but they seemed an altogether nicer variety of Mephitis
happy to give Peter a brief nod and go on their way, leaving him to stalk the alley in peace.
It was six o’clock in the morning, and the sun had yet to fully illuminate the gray October fog. Faint drizzle fell, covering the foliage with a sheen of moisture. There was just enough light for Peter to see into the backyards of the houses he passed. He glanced to the left, then to the right, walking his bike crookedly, trying his best to impersonate a student returning from an epic night of drinking -- all the while searching for a small granite statue.
He saw trampolines, beehives, chicken coops, tents, and swing sets -- both decrepit and new -- gardens and the unmistakable purple light from grow lamps seeping from one basement window. But he did not see anything that resembled the sculpture that had been stolen from the Western Washington University sculpture garden three months before.
Vexed, he headed toward Whatcom Falls Park proper. There he sat down on a curb in the parking lot to text Nick that he’d hit another dead end.
He typed. Whatcom Falls a bust. R U home or at studio?
Prominent local artist Nick Olson was the boyfriend that Peter’d acquired during his investigation into the Vine case. He was a big brunet ex-army intelligence officer who, after having discovered his more artistic side in the arms of an internationally renowned painter -- the now six-years-deceased silver fox Walter De Kamp -- had embarked on a painting career of his own.
Peter and Nick presently lived together in De Kamp’s hulking modernist house that hugged a sheer cliff face above a body of water on the west coast of Washington State recently renamed the Salish Sea. On the one hand, Peter loved the house. Not only was it a better domicile than he could ever hope to afford on any salary he might earn in his lifetime; it also had a great, romantic name: the Castle on Wildcat Cove.
The only downside of the house was that it was the house Nick had lived in with another man. It was De Kamp’s massive abstract paintings that decorated the walls and De Kamp’s color sense that had led to what Peter felt was a strong overuse of dreadnaught gray, particularly in the master-bathroom tiling. Peter had no idea why a person would choose battleship when Payne’s gray, the signature gray-blue of the Pacific Northwest sky, was so much more beautiful.
Occasionally, as he gazed at the house, a feeling very much like inadequacy would assault Peter. Look what De Kamp had given his lover, while the most Peter could hope to give Nick was a headache from his constant talking. He wished he could bring something as remarkable and original to Nick’s life, but Peter wasn’t an artist. He wasn’t even a poet. He would look at the Castle and have no idea why Nick stayed with him, but he did. Nick was nothing if not loyal.
Now, on account of Nick’s loyalty to De Kamp, Peter was shivering in the drizzle, searching backyards for a five-foot statue of... Well, Peter didn’t know what it was of, exactly, since the name of the piece was Untitled Five
. But from photographs he had decided that it looked something like a phallus.
Maybe even Nick’s phallus.
There was a familiar and somewhat jaunty angle to the thing.
From deep within the pocket of his hoodie, Peter’s phone vibrated.
Nick had replied. Studio. Where R U? Want ride?
To which Peter responded Yes. W. Falls. By trout tank.
, came Nick’s reply.
A chill, wet breeze moved around Peter and he pulled his hood up to keep the damp out of his ears. Skinny and wiry, Peter had always gotten cold easily. Nonetheless, when standing before the closet, he could never quite bring himself to dress in the unflattering, loose style typical of the Pacific Northwest dude. This always led to the realization that he should have worn a heavier coat. But then he’d realize he didn’t own a heavier coat that wasn’t a parka, and his manly pride kept him from borrowing Nick’s clothes. Peter had never considered himself a slave to fashion, but occasionally he had to admit to being fashion’s bitch.
As was his habit, when he was bored or uncomfortable, Peter be began to compose text in his head.
When the phone rang, early on the morning of July fifth, Nick Olson picked up on the first ring. The ability to rise quickly to alertness from a dead sleep was a holdover from Olson’s army days, and his crisp-sounding voice belied the fact that he’d been snoring one second before.
Olson sat up. July sun streaming in the wide, curtainless windows dappled the dark, curly hair on his muscular chest and glinted off his small gold hoop earrings. As he spoke to the mysterious caller, this reporter felt both his curiosity and lust rising. He began to eavesdrop in earnest.
As he listened, Olson’s expression darkened.
It transpired that a De Kamp sculpture,
Untitled Five, had been stolen from the Western Washington University campus.
Somewhere close by, a cat let out a screeching wail, which triggered a chorus of early-morning barking from the resident dogs. Peter sniffed and wiped a drop of rain from his nose and glanced up the drive for Nick’s Audi.
Nothing. He went back to his mental composition.
Olson, who had considered De Kamp to be his husband despite the fact that De Kamp had died before legal marriage had become a possibility, took news of the theft badly. Campus police supposed that the crime had to have been the result of Fourth of July high jinks and theorized that it would turn up eventually. It never did.
Again came the meowing of a cat, only much closer now. Peter peered through the fog toward circular gray trout hatchery tanks. A tiny black form wandered there, giving high-pitched and plaintive calls. The kitten walked with a strange stiffness. Not quite a limp, but not quite normal either.
“Here, kitty.” Peter stretched his arm toward the kitten, wiggling his fingers slightly -- the way he had always attracted his friend Evangeline’s three-legged cat, Tripod.
The kitten picked up the pace, crossing the lawn toward him, still crying.
If it had a collar, Peter reasoned, he could take it back home. The thing was clearly lost. If not, he could take it to the shelter, where at least it could be fed.
The kitten reached him, meowing piteously and butting its head into his fingers, purring much more loudly than he would have thought such a small creature capable. He was about to scratch the kitten’s back when he saw it. A circular patch of the kitten’s skin had been removed from its back.
Peter pulled his hand back in horror.
Seconds later, he saw headlights approaching along the park’s narrow wooded drive. The sleek silver body of Nick’s Audi blended with the morning fog.
Peter scooped up the crying kitten, stood, and flagged him down. Nick smiled at him as he opened the car door. “Hey, gorgeous, need a ride?”
“We need to go to the vet right away.” Peter set the injured kitten on the passenger seat before loading his bike into the back of Nick’s car. Returning, he gathered the strangely docile creature in his hands and flopped down into the car. The kitten barely filled his cupped palms. In the close confines of the car, he could smell the blood from its wound.
“Where did you find that thing?” Nick leaned closer; then, catching sight of the round patch of bare flesh, he sucked in his breath sharply. “I see what you mean about a vet.”
“Somebody will be at the Cat Clinic by now. We can go there.”
“I don’t know how to get to the Cat Clinic.”
“Just head downtown. I’ll give you directions.” With one finger, Peter petted the kitten’s nubby, rounded ear.
Nick glanced over. “What do you think happened to it?”
“I think the Halloween cat skinner came back to town.”