Excerpt From Hands Like Clouds

Chapter One

Dawn came warily, reluctant to brighten the day. The furtive light remained gray and colourless, subdued by the threatening blackness. Rain spiraled down, while a biting wind plucked at the foam-specked waters of Tofino’s sheltered inlets. By mid-morning a heavy veil of fog had crept in from the sea to further the day’s gloominess. The rain and fog enshrouded the ancient forests of Clayoquot Sound’s surrounding slopes, as morning gave way to afternoon. Even the old growth on Meares Island, directly across the water from my cabin, became veiled in the fog’s eerie cloak. Thumb-sized raindrops, turgid and lazy as mercury, splatted flaccidly upon the cedar roof shakes. Water languished in the shrink lines of the plank deck jutting from the cabin’s westerly side out over the dank inlet waters.

For the next twenty-five days the rain seldom relented. Throughout those dreary days I was haunted by a causeless sense of foreboding.

On the twenty-fifth day, when Nicki the dispatcher at the police station called, I felt oddly relieved — freed from some prescient insight that could do nothing but bode ill for someone dear.

Naked, shivering and fresh from the bathroom, with the hair on one side of my head trimmed and half my beard clipped, I scrawled down her directions, inappropriately thanked her for the call and hung up. Realizing it might be wise to finish the job at hand I returned to the bathtub. Picking up the magnified shaving mirror and the barber’s scissors, I resumed my awkward barbering. My blondish-brown hair loves to grow into hanks and stray rooster-tails that leap out from above my forehead and the crown of my scalp. The anarchy of my hair growth has resulted in my abandoning barbers and hairdressers in favour of my own innate understanding of the rebellious nature of my hairstyle.

Trimming finished, I pulled on faded jeans and a denim shirt. As always, when Nicki called, there was no need for haste. So I took my time dragging rubber bib overalls over my jeans, yanking on heavy gumboots, buttoning the snaps of my weather-and-dirt-seasoned brown Filson hunting jacket.

When Fergus, the last of the pups from my father’s long-dead breeding pair of purebred Brittany spaniels, saw the Filson he sat on his haunches before me, rust and white ears twitching alertly. His disappointment was palpable when he learned I was to go alone. A quick compensatory effort of hard fingers scratching behind floppy ears failed to chase the disappointment from his eyes. At twelve, Fergus has entered his twilight years and I wondered passingly how many more we would have together, wandering rain-forest trails to flush grouse from the briar. My father always said the Brittany was a fine hunting dog, but high-strung and consequently short-lived.

Shaking such morbid thoughts aside, I covered my head with an old bush hat, also a Filson, and dashed across the gravel drive from the house to the Land Rover. Inside, I paused to shake the rain from the hat to the floor.

It had been days since I had bothered going anywhere but the engine agreeably turned over. Built in 1967, the Rover is a paint-chipped green antique with a temperament Vhanna alleges is as independent and irascible as my own. She should talk. It was Vhanna after all who had hung up the phone on me the previous week. We hadn’t spoken since. Compounding matters was the fact I had genuinely called with the sole purpose of apologizing for my latest wrong against her.

Today, perhaps sensing my impatience could turn cranky, the Rover cooperated, running like a finely tuned machine twenty years younger. All except the wipers, which gamely, but more or less in vain, tried to sweep the perpetual rain from the windscreen. One wiper slapped downward while the other struck upward, as each, powered by its own motor, sought its own rhythm.

I drove Highway 4 south into Pacific Rim National Park. At Florencia Bay, I veered left up a gravel road awash with sloppy runoff from the deluge. Winding inland, away from the wide spit upon whose northernmost tip Tofino sits, I drove up into the mountains, climbing in gentle S-curves through dense forests of western hemlock, amabilis fir, and monstrous cedars whose upper branches were cloistered in an impenetrable fog. Below me, the fog blocked all view of the waters of Tofino inlet. I drove through a world rendered surreal and lonely by the dour weather.

After several kilometres of this ghostly passage I saw a track, little more than a tunnel cut through trees, running on an angle to the approaching ridgeline. Swearing at my own lack of foresight I stopped and clambered out into the rain to throw the hubs in on the front wheels. Hat, jacket, rubber pants and short-clipped beard were all running with water by the time I got back inside. I engaged the four-wheel drive on the transmission and probed slowly down the track, the Rover bucking and kicking like a recalcitrant mule over the rocks and muddy water-sluiced ruts.

I didn’t have to drive far. A few hundred metres in I found Gary Danchuk’s RCMP Blazer parked in a small clearing. The blue and red emergency lights wigwagged back and forth. An ambulance stood alongside the Blazer. No lights flashed on its roof. Not surprising. I don’t get called to such godforsaken places if there is any urgency. Indeed, the only reason the dispatcher issued her summons was my own obstinate insistence that, being the coroner, I should be involved at the very beginning of these investigations. Normally I would have been pleased that Danchuk had finally cooperated, but, given the conditions of the day and the location, it was all too apparent he operated more out of spite than professional courtesy.

Driving into the space between the two vehicles, I noticed for the first time a blue Chevy four-wheel-drive pickup with monster tires and a garish rack of halogen spotlights crowning the roof. CB-radio whip antennas were mounted on either side of the cab. The truck was nearly hidden amid a clump of wild ferns. One heavy cleated tire crushed casually down on the new growth rooted in the rotting husk of a fallen cedar that had been a young sapling about the time Sir Francis Drake sailed past these mist-shrouded coastlines in 1579. The truck’s rusted back bumper sported a sticker reading Real Men Hug Women Not Trees. On the opposite side of the bumper was a Dauphin Logging Company Ltd. sticker. I didn’t recognize the vehicle, so doubted it hailed from Tofino.

A movement at the ambulance caught my eye. Scrambling out of the driver’s seat, Joseph Samuels, hunched against the rain, trotted through the mud toward me. Jerking the Rover’s passenger side door open he climbed aboard. In the small space, his arms and legs coiled awkwardly about his torso. Rain dribbled off his ambulance crewman’s slicker, which began to steam from the little bit of warmth fitfully thrown out by the heater. Samuels is a full-blooded Clayoquot, now called Tla-o-qui-aht; he is a large, hulking man who wears his hair in a razor-close crewcut and has a soft voice that eternally surprises even those of us who know him fairly well. “Up the road about a kilometre, Elias,” he near-whispered.

Despite the apologetic-sounding voice, his eyes were bright with a mocking challenge. “Danchuk didn’t try?” I asked.

“Couple creeks with a wallow between.”

I pushed down hard on the gear levers, shoved the drive into bull low. Samuels grinned like he might have when he was a kid breaking out of residential school — a kid who cared less about the punishment that would inevitably come when he was captured. Thinking this, I returned Samuels’ look with one as wickedly delinquent.

Before my father’s parents had comprehended his true nature and exiled him to Canada, he witnessed — with the natural respect of a person who admires fine machining in such things as vehicles and guns — how British farmers used the Rover’s bull-low gear to drag their plows through the soft, rain-sodden English loam. For these farmers the Rover performed a multi-purpose role — that of tractor and general-purpose family runabout. Over the years he often recounted this testimony to the little four-wheel drive’s prowess. This was probably one of the few times he didn’t lie. His other undeniable areas of truthfulness revolved around matters concerning sporting guns, outdoor clothes, and the breeding and nature of hunting dogs. Fitting that these are all subjects of little real consequence to the human condition. Still, his truths exerted an immense influence upon me, for I too have come to place inordinate value on excellence in these matters. And in the case of the Rover his anecdote about Old Country farming practices led to my owning a battered relic from the days when British engineering remained something to be admired. Now, keeping a light foot on the accelerator, I drove this squat box on tires up the track. The Rover lurched forward, wheels barely turning.

There are two ways of driving through mud — a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way, favoured by everyone who watches American television truck ads, is to hurl the vehicle at each obstruction with the abandon of someone driving an M-1 Abrams Main Battle Tank in the sands of Kuwait. The tactic works fine if the obstacles are few, quickly crossed, and you’re driving a tracked vehicle. But on the back country roads of Vancouver Island’s west coast, the mud runs slick as grease, runnels of icy water slice away the road surface and spread to form bogs, rocks as hard-headed as Gibraltar rise up out of the road bed, and the slopes on the high side like to slough down to erect blockades you have to claw a pathway over. On these roads the Rover is king, turtling with slow, churning determination past one hurdle after another, its narrow wheelspan providing a vehicle virtually impervious to imbalance.

In this way we made our way up the track to where a small knot of people stood near a cedar tree, the trunk of which was as widely girthed as the Rover. It wasn’t until I was outside and walking with Samuels toward the others that I saw the figure hanging from one of the cedar’s log-sized lower branches. “Damn,” I muttered.

“Yeah,” Samuels said.

Danchuk broke away from the group and approached us. Rain dribbled relentlessly off the bill of his police cap and down his full-length brilliantly orange slicker. The garish slicker gave him a sort of Halloween festiveness at odds with the setting. “Good to see you, McCann,” Danchuk said in a voice that said the opposite. He gestured toward the still shadowed figure hanging from the branch. “Body’s over this way.”

If the Mounties were to select one of their own for a recruitment poster they would never point a Nikon lens toward Danchuk’s apparition of officialdom. Small, squat-bodied, Danchuk has a heavy gut and sluggish jowls that seem to pull down the skin beneath his watery blue eyes so the pupils appear in constant danger of toppling out. It’s an illusion rendered all the more realistic by the way his forehead recedes away from his eyes to meet the level playing field of a perfectly bald skull. The man made it to sergeant in Tofino through sheer longevity and is, I fear, doomed to remain until retirement. Danchuk, having this same apprehension, is consequently a bitter and spiteful man.

“You could have cut him down.”

Danchuk wheezed a grim laugh. “Didn’t want you to miss anything.”

Resisting a scathing reply, I walked up to the rest of the men. Samuels’ ambulance driver, Lou Santucci, whose dad owns the local lumber store, stood with apparent deliberateness apart from the other two men. He raised a weary hand in acknowledgment. The duo bumping shoulders beneath the branches of the tree near the body’s feet, which swayed back and forth gently as the wind caused the slightest of vibrations in the tree, offered no greeting. Both wore muddy rubber ponchos with hoods that hung down to obscure their faces. I gave them an unreturned nod and turned my attention to the body.

There was a time when death affected me greatly and I feared to look upon its face. This was when I was young; doing the things of a young man, like serving in the army in defiance of my father’s insistence that I was failing my class by entering into a military career as anything less than an officer. But I, wanting no burden of responsibility, became a private. In that role I spent a tour as part of the Canadian forces United Nations peacekeeping detachment in Cyprus. It was easy duty in a land where women’s eyes were dark and dancing, their hair thick and wiry, and their laughter low and husky as they shared bottles of acrid retsina with us soldiers. I could have lingered there forever. Then one sun-drenched morning a terrorist bomb tore open the chest of a four-year-old Greek girl. Her gorgeous large black eyes foretold how she would have some day rivalled beauties, like the one whose bed I had left in the first dawning moments of that new day. Left via a window as her husband, returning early and unexpected from his job at the shipyard, made a more conventional entrance through the front door.

From the dirt of a street broiling with flame, smoke and screams I scooped the ragged doll-like body of the little girl into my arms and raced toward the platoon armored car. Her blood soaked my fatigues as I bundled her into the vehicle’s iron-sided safety. Through narrow, snaking streets we rocked and tilted in a desperate race against death. No sooner did I apply a pressure bandage to the bloody wound in her chest than it soaked through, forcing me to exchange one dressing for another. As I begged her to keep living in a language she couldn’t understand, the light slowly faded from those dark eyes. Years later I still wake in the night from dreams in which those eyes again gaze up at me — confused, terrified, questioning. But I still know no words of comfort and can offer no explanation.

Since finding my wife Merriam’s body and witnessing my father’s death I have no more squeamish fear. Death no longer shocks or sickens me. It merely is. Something as immutable and beyond understanding as life’s own peculiar incomprehensibility.

Which doesn’t mean I experienced no feelings as I looked up at Ira Connaught’s body hanging from the branch by a corded nylon rope tied around his neck. He wore a green plaid jacket, heavy gray wool pants and work boots. His mottled red and gray beard was thick and as unkempt as the shoulder-length hair streaming out from under a blue toque that somehow still clung wildly to the right side of his skull. Ira’s face and neck were dark red and swollen. This indicated he had died slowly and terribly as the rope choked him to death. With his bloated protruding tongue, bulging eyes and the rakishly angled toque there was something almost playfully obscene about Ira in death, as if he were taunting those who still lived and who now gazed up at the soles of his well-worn boots.

The heavy rains offered a blessing of sorts in that the odour of death failed to blanket the scene. Indeed, it was held somewhat at bay by the richly spicy bouquet emanating from the sodden cedar boughs. Perhaps this had served to keep the scavengers from finding Ira’s corpse, for he was remarkably free of the mutilation that normally attends a body exposed to nature’s recycling. Black flies swirled about and crawled upon his face and clothes, but beyond that he had not yet been subjected to the indignities of carrion.

Ira had obviously fought for his life. The leather of his workboots was torn clear through to each steel-capped toe. The cedar tree’s bark was scoured and ripped away in strips where the boots had clawed desperately in search of a purchase. Both hands were shredded to bloody fly-matted pulp. With a shudder I imagined how he must have clung and scrabbled at the rope around his neck in a futile effort to climb up to the heavy knot on the branch about six feet beyond his reach. It was easy to imagine Ira’s struggle; the vain efforts to go up the rope hand over hand, trying to overcome the inevitable pull of gravity, the impossibility of dragging a body larger than my own six-foot 195 pounds up by arms that could never reach the right muscular angle to start upward, feet clawing at the rain-slicked bark.

“I took pictures,” Danchuk declared proudly.

“Fine. Let’s get him down.”

Which proved a problem and it was then I realized Danchuk hadn’t just left Ira hanging there for my benefit. Truth to tell, he was stumped over how to get up and undo that rope. We all stood for awhile looking up and wondering. During this time I found out the two men in the ponchos had happened on Ira while hunting deer. Their names were Rick and Chuck Greer, brothers who had driven up from Ucluelet (pronounced YOO-CLOO-LET, emphasis on the CLOO) to hunt deer. God knew why they’d come out hunting on a day like this, but the days had been this way for twenty-five, and I suspected their licences must have been close to expiring and the freezers still barren of venison. Some people will do anything to avoid supermarket meat prices.

Maybe it was the damp and cold creeping into my body that made figuring out what to do so difficult. Or maybe it was the bluff blabbing of Rick and Chuck with their tale of stumbling on Ira’s corpse and bustling back to the truck to use their radio to call the authorities. Whatever the reason, I found myself unable to sort options. Finally I turned from their hearty depiction that had now backtracked to when they first sought shelter from the rain under the cedar’s outstretched canopy of branches and stumbled into Ira’s boots. Letting the rain splash my face, and no longer having to see Ira’s swaying corpse, I was able to realize the obvious answer.

I walked to the Rover. After turning it around, I backed through the heavy undergrowth of ferns, vines and chuckholes until the Rover’s boxy back end was next to Ira’s body. Samuels, realizing my intent, used the little ladder next to the back door to climb onto the vehicle’s roof. Easing one arm about Ira and lifting his body upward to relieve the rope’s tension, he carefully untied the knot with his free hand. Then, with reverent gentleness, he lowered Ira by the rope into Rick and Chuck’s waiting arms.

One of them told the other with a short hard laugh to watch out for maggots as they abruptly bundled Ira into the back of the Rover. By the time I got back to them they had already roughly folded his body to make it fit, so there was no point in telling them or Samuels I had intended to strap the body to the rack on the Rover’s roof. When I got home I would just have to deal with the smell that was going to be all through the vehicle. Luckily, there is a cure. I often bum bottles of the odour eliminator the provincial ambulance service uses to remove death’s stench from the body bags and interiors of their ambulances. A wonderful chemical, it also works more effectively than commercially available products to eliminate the unpleasant scent of soot, dirty canines, and anything else that tends to linger in the household. It’s even bio-degradable.

Ira was well past the stage of rigor mortis that makes the body stiff and unbending, so I guessed it hadn’t been difficult for Rick and Chuck to cram him inside so quickly. This told me Ira had been hanging there for at least twenty-four hours and possibly as long as forty-eight, for this is how long it takes for rigor mortis to pass out of the body and return it to suppleness. The limbs seemed looser than the torso. This, too, made sense. Ira had struggled hard with his arms and legs. Muscles engaged in demanding physical activity before death enter rigor mortis more quickly than those that are less active. Consequently, the first muscles to loosen are those that first enter rigor.

Ignoring the strong fetid odour that made the bile rise in my throat, I clambered into the back of the Rover. Then I gently moved Ira so the slate gray daylight dusted his face. The lips were laced with clots of blood that had ruptured in razor-thin lines. I opened his mouth and saw the same purple traces of dry blood there. The lids of his eyes were similarly veined and here and there small pricks of blood had surfaced and dried to form black crusty specks. These bleeding sites are called petechiae and are caused by strangulation. In this case, as the rope compressed Ira’s veins, the arterial flow continued to pour blood into the head causing an immense iron pressure to build that could not escape toward the heart via the closed veins. Seeking an outlet, the blood burst out of the thinnest veins available, those of the mouth, lips, eyes, and probably the inner veins of the nostrils.

Circling Ira’s neck was a vivid, bloody laceration surrounded by dark bruising. Typical of a hanging death, this circle pulled up in a symmetrical V-shape on the right side where the noose had come together at the knot. According to the medical books on such subjects, this is indicative of a suicide rather than murder. In the case of violent strangulation by another person the wound is level all the way round the neck as the killer cinches the rope in tight at the back of the victim’s throat.

Even as I made these observations about hanging wounds, burst blood vessels and limbs freed from rigor, I was surprised by how much I had learned after less than a year as Tofino’s coroner. But the surprise was unaccompanied by pleasure, for I knew now that I faced the job of determining the why of Ira Connaught’s ghastly demise.

About the Author

Mark Zuehlke is an award-winning author generally considered to be Canada’s foremost popular military historian. His Canadian Battle Series is the most exhaustive recounting of the battles and campaigns fought by any nation during World War II to have been written by a single author.

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