Saturday Sampler: Death at Gills Rock by Patricia Skalka
December 12, 2015
In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle has launched a new series featuring writing samples from some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Saturday’s Sampler is an excerpt from Death at Gills Rock, a hard-boiled mystery by Patricia Skalka.
As one reviewer said: Death at Gills Rock is an expertly crafted, impressively researched novel with a gripping, multilayered plot; colorful, well-drawn characters that leap right off the page; tight, punchy dialog; and a pace that grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go.
After tracking a clever killer in Death Stalks Door County, park ranger and former Chicago homicide detective Dave Cubiak is elected Door County sheriff. His newest challenge arrives as spring brings not new life but tragic death to the isolated fishing village of Gills Rock.
Three prominent World War II veterans who are about to be honored for their military heroics die from carbon monoxide poisoning during a weekly card game. Blame falls to a faulty heater but Cubiak puzzles over details. When one of the widows receives a message claiming the men “got what they deserved,” he realizes that there may be more to the deaths than a simple accident.
Investigating, Cubiak discovers that the men’s veneer of success and respectability hides a trail of lies and betrayal that stems from a single, desperate act of treachery and eventually spreads a web of deceit across the peninsula. In a dark, moody tale that spans more than half a century, Cubiak encounters a host of suspects with motives for murder.
Amid broken dreams, corruption, and loss, he sorts out the truth. Death at Gills Rock is the second book in Patricia Skalka’s Dave Cubiak Door County Mystery series.
Week One: 1
Three of a Kind: Joined in Life, War, and Honor.” Dave Cubiak skimmed the headline as he ran the water over the dirty dishes piled in the sink. The Door County sheriff was normally neat about his surroundings, but with one of his deputies out sick that week he’d been getting home barely in time to fix supper and rinse up afterward. Cubiak glanced at the mess in the basin. Cleanup duty called, but he knew that keeping up with local events was duty as well.
Cubiak brushed the crumbs from the table and sat down with the Herald. Braced for a piece of north woods fluff, he began reading. During his first year on the Wisconsin peninsula, he was often annoyed by the blur between hard and soft news, but gradually he’d come to understand that small-town reporting simply represented a different way of looking at the world. Where little happened, people were the news, and what happened to them mattered.
The story captivated Cubiak. The three boyhood friends were World War II veterans who’d fought together in the United States’ only battles against the Japanese on American soil. They’d enlisted after Pearl Harbor and shipped out with the Sturgeon Bay coast guard contingent assigned to help the army pry the enemy from its foothold in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, staving off an invasion of the mainland. In 1943, American troops had ousted Japanese forces from strongholds on Amchitka, Komandorski, and Attu Islands. The trio—Terrence “Big Guy” Huntsman, Eric Swenson, and Jasper Wilkins—were to be honored at the commissioning ceremonies for a new patrol cutter named for the Battle of Attu, an eighteen-day siege that ended with a Japanese banzai, or suicide, attack.
Cubiak sipped his coffee and continued reading. He recognized the men. Huntsman, Swenson, and Wilkins were Door County stalwarts from Gills Rock, a blip of a town at the tip of the peninsula. After the bloody ordeal on Attu, the three friends served together for the duration of the war. Once peace was restored, they returned home to the isolated waterfront village of their childhoods. Two photos beneath the fold showed them before and after: first as gangly eighteen-year-olds in white coast guard uniforms, standing on the forward deck of the USS Arthur Middleton, and now as gray-haired octogenarians, scarred by time but still rugged and Viking-tall, framed against the steely waters of northern Door.
On the page 2 jump, the veterans were pictured with their wives.Three more of a kind, thought Cubiak. A smaller photo in the right-hand corner showed an army private named Christian Nils, also of Gills Rock. Just nineteen and newly married when he joined up, Nils died when his troop transport capsized in stormy seas during an ill-fated landing attempt. Huntsman, Swenson, and Wilkins were among the coast guardsmen cited for their heroic efforts to try to save Nils and the other 170 men washed overboard or stranded on the ice-coated, rocky shore of Amchitka Island.
The worst horror of war, Cubiak thought. Worse even than taking a life was the inability to preserve one. You killed your enemies but tried to save your friends. Everything surreal. Bombs and blood. The heavy silence of the dead and anguished cries of the dying. For him, sandstorms and strangling heat. For Nils and the three friends, impenetrable fog and frigid water.
Cubiak flinched. He rarely thought about his two closest army buddies: Tobias, a football player who’d left Kuwait without a leg, and Kenny, a drummer who went home in a body bag with only half a brain. The others were lost in a blur of confusion. Eager to forget, they had drifted apart. These three men, the trio that came back to Door County after the war, had stayed tight. Regular camping trips were made to Rock Island and weekly poker games took place in the log cabin Huntsman had built for that purpose.
Not long after Cubiak was elected sheriff, Big Guy had called and invited him to a Friday evening card tournament. “It’ll give us a chance to meet and get to know each other,” he’d said. Cubiak had grown up with a skinny kid tagged Fatso and had played high school basketball with a tall center nicknamed Shorty. He imagined his host as the antithesis of his sobriquet, and when the cabin door swung open he was surprised to find himself standing eye-level with the line of red reindeer that pranced chest-high across Big Guy’s green sweater. Huntsman did more than tower in the doorway; he consumed the entire entryway, and for a moment Cubiak was reminded of the monstrous Kodiak bear frozen upright on its hind legs in the old Marshall Field’s Men’s Store in downtown Chicago.
“Hey, come on in, Dave,” Big Guy said as he clamped a paw-sized hand on the sheriff ’s shoulder and pulled him across the threshold into the overheated cabin.
The phone rang, bringing Cubiak back to the early morning chill of his spartan kitchen. He tipped the chair onto its rear legs, leaned back, and unhooked the receiver from the wall cradle.
“Chief ?” There was no need to ask who was calling. Cubiak recognized the baritone voice of his deputy Michael Rowe. The officer was the youngest member of the force and the first person the new sheriff had hired after he was sworn in to office eighteen months prior.
“Mike, easy on the ears,” he said.
“Sorry. I tried to raise you on the radio.”
“It’s Saturday. I’m in my kitchen. Just finishing breakfast.”
“Right. Sorry. You see the Herald yet?”
“Reading it right now.” As if to substantiate the claim, Cubiak dropped the chair back onto all fours.
“Yeah, something else, ain’t it? Anyways, they’re waiting for you to get up there and look around.”
“Huntsman’s place in Gills Rock. Doctor Bathard called. There’s been an accident.”
Cubiak reached over his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. Evelyn Bathard, the retired coroner and the sheriff ’s first real friend on the peninsula, was not a man to make an unnecessary fuss. “What kind of accident?”
“He didn’t say and by the time I’d asked he’d hung up. I tried calling back but the line was busy. Probably somebody calling the ambulance.”
“How bad is it?”
“About as bad as it gets. Those men? Huntsman, Swenson, and Wilkins—they’re all dead.”
Cubiak looked at the paper again. In the photos, the men appeared vibrant and carefree. How could they be dead? They’d survived war and the near misses that life brings as a matter of course. Maybe Rowe was mistaken. “You sure?” he said, finally.
“I’m just telling you what the doc told me.”
As he talked to Rowe, Cubiak moved to the window. The view opened to a patch of scrub lawn, a strip of rocky shore, and the lake. Four days of a northeast wind had churned up sand from the bottom and made the water dull and opaque. Whitecaps broke over the sandbar half a mile out and then flattened into soft, rolling waves. Approaching the table rocks along the shore, they reformed into curls of angry foam and hurled against the land. Lake Michigan had been ice-free for three weeks but the water remained frigid. Not as cold as the water in the Aleutians, he thought, but cold enough.