Story Excerpt

The Spires

by Alec Nevala-Lee



Art by Vincent DiFate

In the English Mechanic, September 10, 1897, a correspondent to the Weekly Times and Echo is quoted. . . . Early in June 1897, he had seen a city pictured in the sky of Alaska. “Not one of us could form the remotest idea in what part of the world this settlement could be. Some guessed Toronto, others Montreal, and one of us even suggested Peking. . . . It is evident that it must be the reflection of some place built by the hand of man.” According to this correspondent, the “mirage” did not look like one of the cities named, but like “some immense city of the past.”

—Charles Fort, New Lands

*   *   *

Bill Lawson studied the silent city. The photograph in his hands was the size of a postcard, creased at the corners and brittle with age. It depicted a cascade of roofs and chimneys emerging from what appeared to be a fogbank, its upper half obscured by clouds, with something like the spire of a church faintly visible in the distance. After examining the picture for another moment, he returned it to the man on the other side of the desk. “What about it?”

The photo went back into the valise. “Have you ever heard of a prospector called Dick Willoughby?”

“Sure. An old sourdough. Before my time. Willoughby Island is named after him.”

“That’s right.” The visitor, who had introduced himself as Sam Russell, was in his late forties, with handsome features and eyes that looked as if they had been transplanted there from the sockets of a much older man. “He claimed that every year in Glacier Bay, between June and July, a city appeared in the sky to the northwest, above the Fairweather range. He went back three times to get a picture of it. Finally, he came up with this photo. He sold copies of it to tourists.”

Lawson checked to see if Russell was joking, but the older man kept a straight face. “It looks fake to me.”

“Oh, it is.” Russell grinned. “It’s a picture of Bristol in England. Either Willoughby was deliberately lying, or somebody sold him a plate of the city and convinced him that it was taken here in Alaska. I’m inclined to think that he was a victim of a hoax. But that’s interesting in itself. It means he thought that this picture resembled whatever he saw in the sky. You see?”

Lawson decided to ignore the question. “So why are you showing it to me?”

“I want you to fly me to Willoughby Island, so I can take a look for myself.”

Lawson paused before responding. He prided himself on being a decent judge of character, but Russell was hard to pin down. The coat that he had hung by the door was rumpled but expensive, like his traveling case, and the bundle by his feet included a surveyor’s tripod and a camera. He certainly didn’t resemble the hunters or prospectors who tended to come through Juneau these days, the flow of whom had slowed to a trickle in the depths of the Great Depression.

It occurred to Lawson that the other man might be toying with him. People from the outside often assumed that the locals were simple folk, when the opposite was more likely to be the case. Seeing himself through Russell’s eyes, he was aware that he didn’t cut an impressive figure, with his untucked shirttail, oily jacket, and busted nose, and he felt a twinge of resentment at being mistaken for a rube. “I wonder if you’re having a laugh at my expense.”

“Not at all. I just want to be clear about what I’m doing. It seemed better to tell you the most ridiculous version now, so there won’t be any confusion later. But I’m serious. I’ve spoken to other eyewitnesses, and I have good reason to believe that Willoughby did see something in the sky. Even if it’s only an optical phenomenon, it’s worth investigating.” Russell glanced at his watch. “But I should come to the point. I’m interested in doing research on Willoughby Island, and I’m willing to pay cash up front. I’ve been told that the flight shouldn’t take more than forty minutes, which means I’ll be back in time to buy you dinner.”

Lawson remembered that Russell had mentioned arriving from Seattle the night before. “You came a long way for a day trip.”

“There may be a second stop. Or even a third. I’ll tell you once I know more.”

Lawson paused again. Two dueling impulses were at war in his mind, and he finally yielded to caution. “Sorry. I can’t fly you into Glacier Bay. Nobody can. Maybe no one explained it to you, but it’s a national park. I could cut you a deal on a sightseeing trip. But we can’t land.”

Russell absorbed the news without any visible reaction. “It has to be on the ground.”

“Then you can take a boat up there. There are plenty of fisherman on the docks who might agree to it.”

“That won’t work. It took longer for me to get here than I hoped, and I’m at the end of my available window. I can’t waste any time. If you won’t take me, I’ll find someone who will.”

Lawson heard the unspoken implication. There were several other pilots in town who would welcome the charter, legal or not, and the plain fact, which was written on his face, was that he needed the money. He wondered if Russell could sense his desperation, and he found that he didn’t want to give the other man the satisfaction, even if they never met again. “You expect to see a city in the sky?”

“Not really,” Russell said. “But I want the chance. It would mean a great deal to me. And to my wife.”

Lawson was about to respond when he saw a figure outlined against the window that faced the street. A moment later, the door opened, and a woman entered the office. As the two men rose, Russell introduced her. “This is my wife, Cora. She’ll be coming, too. If we can reach an agreement.”

The woman did not sit down. She wasn’t pretty, exactly, but she had red hair, green eyes, and a face that would be hard to forget. Lawson saw that she was much younger than her husband, probably no more than thirty, and as he looked at her, he found that he had come to a decision.

Taking a seat again, Lawson began to play with the cord of the window shade behind his desk. “If we’re doing this, it has to be done right. There can’t be any record. I won’t put it down on the flight plan.”

A satisfied look began to spread across Russell’s face. “What do you have in mind?”

Lawson let go of the cord. Opening a drawer, he fished out a stained topographical map, which he unrolled across the desk. Willoughby Island was an oval the size of the palm of his hand, nestled like a turtle in the blue ribbon of Glacier Bay. “Where were you hoping to land?”

Russell pointed. “The southern tip. It’s where the most credible sighting took place.”

“We can’t. The shore is too bold. There’s nowhere to tie up the plane.” Lawson indicated an area to the northeast. “There’s a cove here. Maybe even a floating dock. A fox farm used to be there. It might even be worth my while to check it out.” He glanced down at Russell’s shoes, which turned out to be a pair of good boots. “You’ll have to hike four miles along the beach. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. We can still get you home by dinnertime.”

Russell glanced at his wife, who gave him a short nod. “When can we leave?”

“Ten minutes after I get paid.” Lawson rolled up the map. “Normally, the charter would come to seventy dollars apiece. Let’s call it eighty, given the risk of trouble on my end.”

Before he had even finished speaking, Russell pulled out his wallet, counting eight twenties onto the desktop. Lawson pocketed the money. “You know where the lower city float is?”

“I can find it. Let’s call it half an hour. I need to make a phone call from the hotel.”

“Fine with me. You’re each allowed twenty pounds of baggage.” Lawson stuck out a hand. “Glad to do business with you.”

“Same here.” Russell’s grip was firm. He retrieved his coat from the peg and left with his wife, whose eyes lit briefly on Lawson’s on the way out. She had not spoken a word since her arrival.

Half an hour later, they were in the plane, heading out into the channel for takeoff. On his way to the docks, Lawson had made a stop at the grocer. It had been a lean couple of months, and he had been tempted to stock up on treats, restricting himself to a bag of sandwiches, a Horlick’s rum fudge bar, and a few squares of mintcake, one of which he devoured in front of the store.

His plane, a yellow and blue Stinson on Fairchild floats, occupied a rented hangar at the southern end of town, past the docks on high pilings where boats and fishing vessels were tied up at the pier. As he descended the wooden steps to the shoreline, he had been pleasantly conscious of the bills in his pocket, as well as the expectation that there might be more to come.

Somewhat to his surprise, Sam Russell and his wife had turned out to be familiar with the rituals of departure. Without being instructed, they kept their bags on their laps, placing the weight toward the front of the plane, and as he opened up the engine and rocked the stick back and forth, his passengers swayed along with it, helping him to jockey the floats up onto their steps for takeoff.

They broke loose from the surface, the water rising in a fine spray around them, and then they were airborne. As the plane climbed, Lawson looked back at the others. “We’ll fly over Douglas Island to the channel, then head across the Chilkat Range. Should be on our way down in half an hour.”

Russell nodded and returned his gaze to the window. Cora kept her eyes fixed on the landscape below.

Lawson turned to the windshield again. He decided to take a scenic route, bending up and around the Beartrack Mountains before heading down into the bay. He suspected that the Russells would be gone before long, but there was still the outside chance that they might decide to stay. A pilot could survive on just one regular charter, and if he failed to land this one, it might be his last chance for a while.

The flight passed without any conversation. Below them spread a spectacular vista, with the forests on the mountainsides giving way to the snowfields of the ridge top, which was white even in the middle of July. The glaciers descending to the sea, with their compressed layers of thousands of years of ice and snow, were a deep emerald. It was a sight that could reduce even the most jaded travelers to awed silence, but if the Russells were impressed, they kept it to themselves.

Before long, they neared their destination. Lawson zeroed in, checking the approach as he circled around toward the cove. The island was four miles from north to south, the thick spruce woods on its eastern edge ascending to low mountains, bounded on all sides by the waters of Glacier Bay. To the northeast were two smaller outlying islets, one of which was joined to the larger island by the gravel bar where he planned to bring them down.

As they descended, Lawson saw that the floating dock was still there. He made the landing upwind to reduce his forward speed. Once the floats were on the water, he cut the propeller as low as it would go and steered the plane like a boat to the pier, where he cut the engine and climbed out.

As Lawson secured the lines, Russell and his wife picked their way toward the shore. Gulls were pecking on the pebble beach, and a flock of murrelets circled overhead. The temperature was in the high forties, with just a few tufted clouds to the south, although he knew that the weather could change without warning.

Lawson tied up the plane and went to join the couple, up by the fox farm that stood against the thin black trunks of the spruce. It consisted of a log cabin, a warehouse, and a line of trap houses stretching along the edge of the water. Islands throughout the state had been leased to raise blue foxes in the twenties, with the animals left to roam freely before being trapped. The depression had destroyed the fur market overnight, and now most of these farms were abandoned.

Going closer, Lawson saw that Russell and his wife seemed tense, but he knew better than to comment on it. “Everything good?”

Russell turned south. “I’ll hike down there on my own. Cora will stay behind to get some work done. The log cabin looks sound enough. I assume that you’ll stick with the plane?”

Lawson nodded. “I’ll pick through these shacks to see if there’s anything worth saving. But I can get you set up here first.”

This last remark was addressed to Cora, who looked back coolly. “I’ll be fine.”

It was the first time she had spoken to him directly. He looked back without lowering his eyes. “You know where to find me. I’d like to be in the air by eight, so we can get back before dark.”

“Then I’d better be on my way.” Russell appeared to hesitate, as if hoping that Cora would decide to come along after all, but she only picked up her bag and walked toward the cabin. He hefted his own pack onto his back, balancing the tripod on one shoulder, and began to hike down the beach. After a minute, he rounded the bend in the shore and was gone.

Lawson saw that Cora had already entered the cabin and closed the door behind her. He headed off, whistling tunelessly, and made his way to the warehouse that stood nearby.

For the next few hours, he explored the farm at his leisure, pausing in the late afternoon for a sandwich and another bite of mintcake. He had hoped to find some tools or equipment to use or resell, but it had all been picked clean. The warehouse was bare except for two chairs, a chopping block, and a vat that had once been used to cook salmon heads into feed for the foxes.

He stuck his head into the nearest trap house. It was nailed together out of unfinished lumber, four feet to a side, with a ramp leading up to an entrance on the second level. Food had been set out twice a week. When it was time to harvest the pelts, a cleat holding up the floor was removed, allowing it to tilt down under the fox’s weight, depositing it into the trap on the lowest level. Then a counterweight would return the floor to its original position, ready for its next victim.

As he was picturing this, Lawson felt the walls of the shack vibrate around him. Stepping outside, he saw that the wind had picked up, and the birds on the beach had vanished. He turned to the south. At some point over the last hour, the clouds on the horizon had grown darker and more threatening.

Lawson sized them up. Then he went up to the cabin and rapped on the door. After a pause, Cora spoke from inside. “Come in.”

He entered the cabin, which was a cramped, dim space with bare beams crossing the ceiling. Cora had hung her coat from one of the pole racks, and as she rose from the table by the window, where she had been writing something in longhand, he saw that she was wearing a white collared shirt under a wool sweater and a tight pair of trousers. “What is it?”

Lawson stuck his thumb toward the sound of the wind. “You’d better go up the beach to look for your husband. If you see him, tell him to hustle. Don’t go too far. If he doesn’t show up soon, we’ll be here overnight.”

Without waiting for a reply, he left the cabin and headed toward the dock. The wind was sending up a noticeable chop, and the plane was beginning to bob up and down on its lines.

Lawson set to work at once, winding a cable around the float struts and the forward spreader bar and securing it to the pilings. He tied additional ropes to both wings, and then he used the bilge pump to fill the pontoons with water. Finally, he got out his overnight gear. In the back of the Stinson, there was a bundle of egg crate slats that he kept for makeshift repairs. He stuck them under his arm, sealed up the plane, and headed back to the fox farm.

A light rain was falling. Checking the log cabin and the warehouse, he saw that both seemed reasonably sturdy. After a moment’s thought, he went into the cabin and set down his equipment. Using a mintcake wrapper for kindling and a few of the wood slats, he started a fire in the barrel stove. Then he pulled up a chair, lit a cigarette, and settled in to wait.

Cora returned fifteen minutes later, her hair plastered against her head from the rain. “He’s not back?”

Lawson motioned toward the second chair. “You should rest. No point in taking off in weather like this. We’re spending the night, no matter what happens.” He anticipated her next question. “I’ll sleep in the warehouse. There are two more bags. If we’re lucky, your husband will make it back before dark.”

He offered her a smoke, which she took. Sitting close to the fire, she looked toward the shuttered window. Outside, the rain was lashing down in sheets. Lawson ground out his cigarette. “If he’s smart, he’ll find somewhere to wait out the storm. He should do fine under the trees, as long as he’s got wool socks and underwear. It shouldn’t get much below forty. Once this blows over, he can follow the shoreline back. Not much of a chance he’ll get lost.”

Cora didn’t respond. After a minute, he handed her one of the sandwiches, which she took, and offered her a swig from his flask, which she declined. As the wind howled against the cabin like a living creature, Lawson tried to get her mind off of it. “How long have you been married?”

For a second, Cora looked as if she hadn’t understood the question. “Six months.”

He wanted to ask how she had ended up with this man, but he bit it back. “I guess this wasn’t the honeymoon you wanted.”

For the first time, she smiled at him. “Actually, it’s exactly what I had in mind.”

Lawson wasn’t sure what to say in response. On the table, Cora had spread out a few pages of handwritten notes, along with the photo of the silent city. He indicated it. “You really believe in all this?”

Cora followed his eyes, then looked back. “Are you married, Mr. Lawson?”

Lawson grinned. “Not exactly. Not a lot of eligible girls where I’m from.”

“If you were married, you’d know that it doesn’t matter what I believe.” She paused. “Sam and I have more in common than you might think. We’re both stubborn. It’s hard to get an idea out of his head, even if he has to go halfway across the world to prove it. I’m the same way.”

“What does he do for a living?” Lawson asked. “He wasn’t too clear on the subject.”

“He’s a writer,” Cora said. “You might say that he’s a kind of journalist. For a while, he was working for Scripps Howard. I think you have a mutual friend there. A columnist named Ernie Pyle?”

Lawson recognized the name. In better times, reporters had come up to Juneau once every couple of months to get fresh copy, and he had taken a few of them on glory hops into the interior. “Are you a writer, too?”

“You might say that. Sam and I are working on a book. This will be one of the chapters. Assuming—”

She broke off. For the first time, he saw the strain in her face. “Are you worried?”

“No.” Cora glanced at the shutters, which were shaking against the frame. “Sam can handle himself. He doesn’t take anything for granted. And maybe this will even teach him a lesson.”

She stood abruptly. “I’m very tired. If we’re staying here, I’d like to go to bed.”

“Of course.” Lawson picked up his bag. “There’s firewood in the corner. You can come get me if you need anything.”

Cora held his gaze. “Thank you. I’m sure I’ll be fine. Good night, Mr. Lawson.”

“Good night.” Lawson left the cabin, shutting the door, and heard her slide the bolt home. Then he crossed the short distance to the warehouse, his shoulders hunched against the rain.

Once he was inside, he hung his coat from the rafters to dry. There was a stove in the corner, but instead of lighting a fire, he rolled out his sleeping bag and climbed in, listening to the wind whistling overhead.

Lawson closed his eyes. He had not expected to fall asleep at once, but he did.

A few hours later, he sat up in the darkness. It took him a moment to remember what had pulled him out of sleep. He had been dreaming of the foxes. They had stood in a ring around the warehouse, their golden eyes shining in the darkness, and when he had gone out to meet them, he had seen a woman in their midst, her body white, her red hair tumbling down her back.

She had beckoned him. He had followed, his desire stirring, and his steps had carried him to a trap house on the shore. A voice in his head had screamed at him to stop, but he had continued on, walking up the ramp toward the black hole of the door. He had entered, the smell of blood strong in his nose, and it was only when the floor fell out from under his feet that he knew—

Lawson shook his head, coming fully conscious, and only then did he realize what had awakened him. He had heard a noise from outside. A second later, it came again, faintly audible over the wind rattling the building. It was the sound of wood splintering and breaking.

He climbed out of his bag, stuffed his feet into his boots, and yanked his coat from the rack. Stumbling out of the warehouse, he ran down the slope of the beach to the water. The wind had risen to a full gale, and the rain was pouring down hard, but when his eyes adjusted to the dark, he saw that two of his lines had come loose, and the plane was standing on its nose in the water.

Lawson sprinted forward. Before he had covered ten paces, there was a crack, and the plane was borne up by the wind. It did a loop and a snap roll, as if controlled by unseen hands, and then it plummeted and crashed with a shudder into the gravel bar at the end of the island.

*   *   *


Every year, between June 21 and July 10, a “phantom city” appears in the sky, over a glacier in Alaska. . . . Features of it had been recognized as buildings in the city of Bristol, England, so that the “mirage” was supposed to be a mirage of Bristol. . . . It is said that, except for slight changes, from year to year, the scene was always the same.

—Charles Fort, New Lands

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Copyright © 2018. The Spires by Alec Nevala-Lee

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