Incident at Ape Canyon
Portland, Oregon 1950
It’s strange how at times the days can roll into another without incident. Day after day, with little to no break in the monotony, chafing at one’s sanity. For regular folk, this is merely annoying. For a journalist, whose livelihood depends on interesting events, this is intolerable. This fact is all the more punctuated in Portland by the pervasive gray skies and unrelenting drizzle that makes even distinguishing one uneventful day from another difficult.
What’s even stranger is that all of the above can change in a heartbeat—with one phone call. It was one such phone call, even an improbable one, that prompted Cooper “Coop the Scoop” Smith to make a call of his own. Cooper would take improbable over monotony any day, however slim.
He could see the recipients of his call fighting their way through traffic towards him where he stood on the corner of Broadway and Burnside. They hadn’t had to come far, but the traffic made Cooper’s wait for them in the rain longer than he liked. With one hand he clutched his jacket collar about his neck to keep out the cold. The other was stuffed in his pants’ pocket, fiddling with the Zippo lighter he wished he could whip out to light a cigarette. The amount of rain dripping off his Fedora hat and the spray in his face from passing traffic suggested he was better off waiting for his ride before lighting up.
Eventually, the ’41 Studebaker Champion pulled up to him at the sidewalk. Its inconspicuous tan color—even the ubiquitous dent in its front driver side fender—were meant to make the vehicle nondescript and blend into traffic. To Cooper, however, it just screamed “unmarked police car.”
“Hey buddy, need a lift?” said an expansive and ruddy face that popped out of the driver side window with a sarcastic grin. Detective Harry Reese was not known for his gentle sense of humor.
“It’s about time you clowns showed up,” Cooper grumbled as he moved towards the rear door behind the driver. He unslung his leather satchel from around his neck and threw it in the backseat ahead of him as he entered.
There were already honks of protests at the Champion that had suddenly stopped to pick up a passenger, so Harry wasted no time returning to the flow of traffic with a lurch.
“Well, it is rush hour,” Harry responded to Cooper’s indignation at having to wait.
“Yeah, you couldn’t have picked a better time?” said a smaller man in the passenger seat turning halfway towards Cooper. Unlike Harry, Detective Sal Raczynski was known more for his whining than his sense of humor. Regardless, both made for good police.
“I hope this doesn’t take long, I gotta take my Boy Scout Troop to the movies tonight,” Harry said, glancing at Cooper in the review mirror. He was a big guy. Big enough that his buzz cut brushed the ceiling of the car, explaining why his Fedora rested on the front seat between the occupants.
“Yeah, I got plans too,” Raczynski added, facing back towards the windshield. His straw Pork Pie hat had no trouble clearing the car ceiling.
Cooper shook out a cigarette from the pack, snatched it up with his mouth, and returned the pack to his coat pocket.
“I tried to arrange a better time,” he said, cigarette wagging on his lips, “but the guy is squirrelly. Wants to talk now. I was afraid he was going to bolt so I agreed to a place and called you as soon as possible. Besides Raczynski,” he addressed the smaller man, “you haven’t had plans since 1947.”
Raczynski turned again in his seat just long enough to squawk, “Wise guy, eh?”
Smiling, Cooper took off his hat and shook the moisture from it before laying it on top of his satchel. A couple stray bangs escaped from his normally slicked-back hair and hung in his face. With one hand he swept them back with annoyance, and with the other he took out his Zippo and lit up.
Cooper looked around and found the overflowing ashtray on the back of the front seat. He tapped his initial ashes into it and noted the stuffing coming out of the ripped lining of the upholstery. The seats were stained and smelled vaguely of vomit and urine. He shuddered. A cop car, alright.
“Criminy fellas, I think this is the same car Eisenhower toured Europe with during the war. Ain’t it about time you got a new squad car? Maybe put in for the new Champion, the Starlight Coupe?”
“Sorry, the taxpayers don’t pay Portland’s Finest that well. What you driving these days, Scoop?”
“The Oregonian don’t pay very well either. Besides, the ex got the car in the divorce. Hence the taxi service.”
“So you think you may have a break in a missing persons case from earlier this year?” Harry asked, again glancing at Cooper in the rear view mirror. “After your call, I pulled the files and looked up as much as possible about the case, which isn’t much—mostly interviews with Portland-based relatives of the victim. Sal here knows even less, seeing he was giving a deposition in court when you called. I haven’t had time to fill him in yet.”
As they headed westbound on Burnside in the stop-and-go traffic, rain steadily beat down on the windshield, just to be beat back by the rhythmic swipe of the car’s wipers.
“Missing persons?” Raczynski’s feathers ruffled some as he addressed his partner. “I hate to tell you this Harry, but we’re not Missing Persons. We’re Vice…and I really do have plans tonight.”
Harry waved his partner off and replied, “So? Everybody is considered Vice these days since our illustrious mayor declared war on the gambling joints in Portland. She’s pulled manpower from every department to make good on her campaign promise to ‘clean up this town.’”
“That’s true,” Raczynksi conceded and turned in his seat towards Cooper. “The crazy broad even has us busting pinball arcades. Pinball machines! Says they’re a corrupting influence. A ‘gateway device’ to slot machines. Can you believe it?”
Cooper blew a cloud of cigarette smoke. “That’s precisely why I called you guys,” he started. “How would you like to do some real police work? Especially if the missing person’s family has the ear of said crazy mayor. Solve the case and you can come out looking like heroes and get a real assignment.”
Raczynski’s mug screwed up into an exaggeration of thoughtfulness. “Okay, I’m sold. What case is this again?” he asked pointedly.
The smell of Cooper’s smoke invited Harry to light up his own. He spoke around the cigarette in his mouth as he held the car’s dash lighter to the tip.
“About six months ago, a world champion skier named Jim Carter went missing in Ape Canyon on Mount Saint Helens,” Harry began the tale, catching his partner up to speed. “Carter separated from his buddies to go take a picture.”
“Sounds familiar now—from the news,” Raczynski said, but his feathers became ruffled again as realization dawned on him. “Mount Saint Helens? That’s Washington, not even our jurisdiction.”
“Like I said, the missing guy has family in Portland who is close with Ms. Dorothy McCullogh ‘No-Sin’ Lee, our mayor, which makes it your jurisdiction,” Cooper rationalized.
Harry grunted in agreement. “So long as we come up with answers, nobody is going to care where they came from.”
Raczynski still didn’t sound all that convinced. “Disappeared while skiing? How is that a crime? Sounds like a job for Smokey the Bear to drag his body out from the bottom of a cliff.”
Cooper took out a flip notebook from his satchel, turned to a page and brushed away cigarette ashes that fell on the paper.
“Circumstances were suspicious. The initial search showed that his ski tracks in the snow were erratic, zig-zagging in and out of rocks, and traveling at high speed away from his friends.”
Racznski shrugged. “World champion skier skiing fast? Big deal.”
“Hauling ass away from his friends?” Harry pointed out, raising his eyebrows.
Cooper offered more. “And they found his camera case. No camera. No Jim Carter.”
Raczynski’s cop-mind didn’t waste anytime asking, “Do his buddies look good for it? An argument or a grudge gone bad?”
Harry pulled long on his cigarette, the tip momentarily flaring in an orange glow as he said, “They were looked into thoroughly, nothing came of it.”
“Doesn’t mean they don’t know something. Does your mystery caller have some sort of connection to them?” Raczynski asked.
“That, gentlemen, is what I hope to find out,” Cooper responded, gazing out the passenger window at the pedestrians on the sidewalk. Cooper, a transplant from the Midwest, never quite understood why few people in Portland—one of the rainiest towns on Earth—owned umbrellas. Hats and raincoats galore, but few umbrellas.
“He’s not one of the friends who was there when Carter went missing,” Cooper continued. “Either he heard something second hand, or he was a witness.”
“Witness?” Harry raised his eyebrows again.
Cooper turned away from his cultural observation of Portlanders and flipped through his notebook.
“Yeah,” he started, “I pulled reports from the Post-Intelligencer on the investigation and found that the Seattle Search and Rescue Unit who did the original search said, ‘They felt watched’…their words, not mine. Maybe this guy spends a lot of time in the area. Not only saw the search teams, but saw Carter and what happened to him from the start.”
“Maybe he tucked Carter into a dirt-nap himself and wants to confess?” Raczynski’s suspicious cop-mind mused out loud.
Cooper blew cigarette smoke. “Maybe.”
The Studebaker approached Twelfth Avenue where the brick monolith of Henry Weinhard’s Brewery took up the entire block. Its giant steam stack billowed vapor whose whiteness contrasted sharply against the gray of the rainy day. The entire neighborhood was saturated with the heavy, malty aroma of the beer-making process. Many residents complained incessantly about the smell. Cooper loved it.
“‘Ape Canyon?’” Racynski complained, continuing to agitate in his seat. “What kind of name is that for a landmark? Everything about this case sounds fishy.”
Harry chuckled and shook his head. “Has something to do with one of them Sasquatch sightings back in the Twenties’s. My Scout Troop has always been bugging me to take them exploring out there in hopes of seeing one for themselves.”
“There’s no ski resort on Saint Helens right? Just wilderness?” Raczynski asked.
Cooper replied, “Right. Carter and his buddies were roughing it off the beaten path.”
“How do we fit in? How can we help?” Harry asked.
“I’m going to talk with this guy and see what he offers up on his own. The ‘carrot’ so to speak,” Cooper said. “If it sounds like he might actually know something, but is holding back, I’d like you guys to step in and use the ‘stick,’ see?”
Raczynksi grinned. “We’re good for that. We can take him down to Second and Oak and convince him to be more…forthcoming.”
Cooper smiled. He knew he called the right cops for the job. The would-be informant wouldn’t be the first unlucky sap who got slapped around at Police Headquarters on the corner of ‘Second and Hardwood.’
“Well, we’ll book him overnight for jaywalking, then dialogue stringently with him the following morning,” Harry suggested. “Like I said, I gotta get my Scout Troop to the movies.”
“What movie you seeing?” Raczynski asked.
“Rocketship X-M,” Harry replied, using a movie announcer’s dramatic voice.
Raczynski made a face, and said skeptically, “A science fiction cheese-fest for Boy Scouts?”
Harry shrugged, replying, “It’s what kids like these days.”
“You need to take them to a real movie. A man’s movie. Like the latest John Wayne flick, Rio Bravo.”
Harry shrugged again. “I’m telling you, kids are into different things these days: martians and Sasquatch.”
Cooper agreed. “Ever since those flying saucers were seen over Mount Rainier a couple of years ago, it’s been ‘flying saucer this’ and ‘martian that’ on TV and the movies.”
“I just don’t understand all that nonsense, based on unreal stuff,” Raczynski said, shaking his head.
Harry laughed, “What, you don’t believe in flying saucers?”
Raczynksi scoffed, “I don’t believe in anything I can’t see, shoot or smack around.”
Traffic cleared up long enough for the car to finally make some progress, traveling without obstruction for a good stretch. The brewery filled their rear view mirror and the office buildings and hotels started to give way to smaller, but more prolific shops, restaurants and bars. The West Hills loomed ahead into which Burnside Boulevard disappeared.
“The Silver Moon, right?” Harry asked.
Cooper winched on the window handle and threw his cigarette butt out the crack. “Yep, Nob Hill District.”
Harry hit the blinker and turned right on Twenty-first Avenue. Shops crowded together even more and the neighborhood suddenly was a trip back in time. The pavement gave way to cobblestone, where there was paving at all. Public Transit Rail tracks crisscrossed the intersections as they traveled north. Phone and power lines were situated lower on their wood poles, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that ice and milk could still be delivered by horse and wagon in this area.
As they approached Glisan Street, Harry veered right, made a lumbering U-turn at the intersection and then pulled to the west curb of Twenty-first Avenue.
The trio peered out the windows to an establishment across the street.
A plywood sign hanging above the door, shaped like a moon painted blueish silver, had the words “Silver Moon Tavern” stenciled in its center. The location was a two-story building, but it appeared the upper story was purely residential. Blue paint peeled from the paneled sides. White-trimmed windows advertised the establishment’s libations, which included a brightly lit neon Olympia Beer sign.
“How you want to play this, Scoop?” Harry asked.
Cooper started to gather his things. “Give me about five minutes to ID the guy, then I’ll sit with him. You mugs come in after me and sit as close as possible and listen in without tipping him off. If he turns out be a crackpot I’ll make a slashing signal across my throat like this,” Cooper demonstrated.
“If that happens, we pick up and leave,” he continued. “If, after listening to him, I think he has more to offer and needs to give it up with some help, I’ll lift my hat like this,” again he demonstrated, “then you move in and arrest him for jaywalking.”
The copes snickered grunts of agreement.
The rain finally relented as they simultaneously exited the car. Cooper donned his Fedora and slung his satchel across his neck and shoulder. Harry flicked his cigarette away just as Raczynski was lighting one up.
“Five minutes,” Cooper reiterated as he moved towards the Silver Moon. “Oh, and I know this is hard, but try not to look too much like cops.”
The pair looked themselves up and down. Their mid-priced trench coats and rumpled suits and ties may as well have been uniforms.
“What’s wrong with the way we look?” Harry protested.
Cooper grinned. “All this talk of Sasquatch reminds me of something: what do you call a monkey in a suit?”
Against his better judgement, Harry took the bait. “What?”
“Wise guy, eh?” Raczynski called after him.
Cooper laughed briefly before putting on his game face and entering the tavern though a creaky door.
The room was dimly lit inside. A pastel day glow from the windows gave a pearly opaqueness to the cigarette cloud filling the air. One corner of the large room was lit up by a multi-colored jukebox from which Red Foley warbled “Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy.” Bright lights glowed through bubbling oil from bulbs embedded deep behind chromatic arches and columns of the nickelodeon, competing with the neon Olympia sign to add color to the otherwise dark room.
The place reeked of cigarettes, stale beer and sweat, but this quickly diminished as the senses adapted.
Burly bearded men, wearing mostly canvas pants, wool shirts, suspenders and stocking caps gathered in groups at tables and at the long bar that took up much of the back of the establishment. Their conversations, though not loud, still regulated Red Foley to mere background noise.
Black and white photographs that adorned the wall behind the bar and the columns holding up the ceiling depicted scenes mostly from the fishing industry and dock work. Between the clientele and the photographs, Cooper realized the rumors were true that the current owner of the Silver Moon was a former sailor. Probably the very man behind the bar who was cleaning a beer mug with forearms the size of hams.
Cooper made brief eye contact with the bartender, gave a manly nod and then perused the room for his contact.
It didn’t take long.
The only person sitting alone in the place was a middle-aged man sitting with elbows on the table, chin resting on his hands. He had been staring straight ahead until he noticed Cooper looking around. He lifted a hand.
Cooper raised his chin in acknowledgement and came over to the simple diner-style table with a red Formica top held up by curvy aluminum legs.
“You Cooper Smith, from The Oregonian?” the man asked.
“The one and only,” Cooper responded, touching the tip of his Fedora. “May I have a seat?”
The man nodded.
He was an unremarkable looking fella with no memorable attributes. His plain brown hair was receding and slicked back. His eyes just as brown. Crows feet about his eyes and smile lines around his mouth indicated he probably spent a lot of time outdoors. The hand he extended to shake with Cooper was rough, and calloused and his checkered flannel shirt fit right in with the clientele of the Silver Moon. He was probably, or had been, a sailor or longshoreman himself—which explained his choice of meeting place.
Cooper pulled out a chair with foam poking out the green vinyl cushion. He set his satchel on a spare chair as he sat and pulled out his notebook.
“So,” Cooper started, making eye contact, “can I ask your name?”
The door to the Silver Moon creaked opened at the man’s back, temporarily flooding the place with light as Harry and Racynski shuffled in, still looking like cops. Between Harry’s height and Raczynski’s shortness and round baby face, it wasn’t hard to see why their colleagues often referred to them as “Abbot and Costello.”
Cooper looked away quickly, avoiding tipping the man off that there was any connection between him and the new arrivals. Still, Cooper was aware that the detectives sat at a table right behind the man. Perfect.
“Exley,” the man said, “Hollis Exley.”
Movement at the corner of Cooper’s eye announced the arrival of someone standing at his side.
“Whatcha gunna have hun?”
A waitress stood above them holding an order pad. Her impatient stance and ruby red lips, frenetically chewing gum, indicated he should order quickly. Her full figure and straight dark bangs over sparkly blue eyes made him flash his pearly whites instead.
“What do you recommend, doll?”
She gave a career waitress’s smirk. “People have been coming down with a case of corn dogs and fries lately, Romeo.”
Cooper waved the suggestion off. “I’ll just have a pint of Henry’s. You having anything Exley? It’s on The Oregonian.”
“Your buddy is strictly a water man,” the waitress said over her shoulder as she pulled away, probably annoyed at the prospect of not getting a tip from Exley. “On his third glass waiting for you.”
There indeed was only a glass of water in front of Exley. The ashtray keeping company with the condiments at the center of the table was empty as well. Both were actually good signs. A man who drank or smoked excessively just before divulging important information was a nervous man. Strictly speaking, nervous men weren’t reliable sources.
“So,” Cooper cut to the chase, “you say you have information about the Jim Carter disappearance?”
Exley took a deep breath, looked aside, and uttered softly, “Yes.”
Cooper begun his ritual of lighting up a cigarette while he patiently waited for Exley to elaborate.
“He’s dead,” Exley said simply, making eye contact.
Cooper froze in the process of lighting his cigarette. Just over Exley’s shoulder he could see the detectives freeze as well.
A loud “thud” shattered the silence as the waitress returned with a tray, depositing a foamy pint of dark beer on the Formica in front of them before moving on to the table with the detectives.
The journalist shut the Zippo with it’s characteristic aluminum “snap.” He puffed out a cloud of smoke. “You know this how?”
Exley fidgeted in his seat. “Because I know the area. I know what’s in there. I’m certain he’s dead. It’s just better that the family accept this and move on.”
Cooper took a gulp of the Henry’s. Harry and Raczynski sipped at pints of something piss yellow, probably Oly or Budweiser, while they kept their gaze on the back of the man’s head.
“I’m going to need a little more to go on than that,” Cooper said.
Exley bobbed his head in acknowledgement. “This is going to sound hard to believe, but it’s very important that you do. For the sake of the family, they must stop looking. I know what it’s like to cling to the past. They need to move on and not send more people into that place and stir up trouble.”
Cooper tapped his pen impatiently on his notepad with one hand, flicking ash off his cigarette with his other into the ashtray—still waiting for the revelation of revelations to come forward.
Exley took another long breath and said, “The Apemen got him.”
Cooper stopped the rhythmic flicking of his cigarette.
His stomach fell out of his gut. In the span of a heartbeat, any notion of getting a Pulitzer—or even having the start of a good weekend—flew out the window. Disappointment creeped into his soul like the stench coming from a backed up toilette.
Without words, without looking Exley in the eye, Cooper started to rise and move his hand to his throat to make the signal. Abbot and Costello watched him intently.
Almost as if Exley knew there was such a signal, hiss hand shot out and grabbed Cooper’s forearm. Cooper froze, fear superseding disappointment.
“They found something, didn’t they?” Exley almost shouted. “A personal belonging, hanging or wrapped around a tree?”
The man suddenly had Cooper’s full attention.
The journalist gave a quick shake of his head to the detectives who were halfway out of their seats, leaning towards the seemingly crazy man. Raczynski actually had his hand inside his coat, no doubt gripping his .45.
Cooper slowly sat down, as did the detectives. Exley gradually relinquished his hold.
Cooper figured the man was crazy, but he also thought that maybe this was Exley’s way of confessing to murder. Or, maybe he was a crazy hermit who lived on the slopes of Mount Saint Helens and had witnessed what happened to Carter, and again this was his way of telling authorities in the outside world. Either way, Cooper was going to give him the benefit of a doubt and listen. Give him the carrot, and see where it went.
“Okay Mr. Exley,” Cooper said. “I’m listening, but you have to understand how ‘The Apemen got him’ sounds.”
Exley bobbed his head again. “I know how it sounds, believe me. I’ve spent most of my life in denial. Denial of what I’ve personally experienced. It damn near drove me crazy. It wasn’t until I heard the news stories about that poor man that I knew I had to come out with the truth.”
“And what, exactly, is that?”
Again Exley fidgeted and took his time responding. “They call it Ape Canyon for a reason.”
Cooper struggled to keep from rolling his eyes, reminding himself, the carrot, the carrot, then said, “I know, because of those miners in the Twenties’s who said…”
Then it clicked. Cooper looked the man over, judged his age and put two and two together.
“You’re one of them, aren’t you?” he said. “One of those miners who said their cabin was attacked at night by Sasquatches.”
Exley shook his head. “No. My group came along a year later. We heard about the original incident in the papers just like everyone else. Except we didn’t believe there were any ‘Mountain Apes’ involved. We thought they had struck it rich in their mine, and the apemen story they came up with was only to scare people off. Or, we figured an argument broke out among the miners, someone got killed, and they tried to cover it up with a far-fetched story. Well, whatever the case, it backfired because next thing you know the woods were crawling with reporters, investigators and hunters trying to bag their very own ‘Mountain Ape.’”
“But they found no gold, no crime, no body…human or otherwise,” Cooper pointed out.
“Right, but someone I worked with at Longview Fibre knew one of the miners and was absolutely convinced the guy had struck it rich and disappeared. Said he had proof. I told him the guy probably coincidentally inherited lots of money from a dead relative, and did the smart thing and got out of town before he could be embarrassed anymore about the Ape Canyon incident. My co-worker, however, could be…convincing.”
Exley took a long drink of water, licked his lips and continued.
“McHale, my co-worker, rounded up a group of associates—a shady bunch—to go to the mountain in search of gold. I was much younger than the rest, but because I had a truck that could haul all our equipment, I was recruited as well. I didn’t know what we’d find. I certainly didn’t believe in Apemen,” Exley explaind, sneering at that last part.
“But I did believe McHale would beat the tar out of me if I didn’t let him use my truck,” he continued. “In any case, anything sounded better than working Fifth-Hand on Number Four Machine at the paper mill.”
By now Cooper had stamped out his first cigarette and lit up another. Harry and Raczynski were smoking their own, alternating between frowning and showing interest in the story.
“What does any of this have to do with a missing guy’s personal effect lying out in the open?” Cooper asked impatiently, trying to steer the conversation back to something pertinent to the missing man.
“Not lying out in the open,” Exley insisted. “Hanging or wrapped around a tree.”
Cooper tried not to blink, or smile for that matter. That had been a minor detail he had extracted from a contact in the Seattle Police Department. Yes, it was common knowledge in the papers that Jim Carter’s camera case had been found, but not how. Cooper had deliberately phrased his question to bait Exley into saying exactly what he did for confirmation. The carrot was paying off.
“You see, that’s what they do,” Exley became a little more animated now that he saw that Cooper was taking a genuine interest. “They take something of yours and put it on display to scare others off. It’s a warning. This skier did or saw something he wasn’t supposed to, and they killed him for it. Then they put something of his on display to warn the others off. Except to us, it’s evidence and actually draws us in more…has the opposite effect. That’s why I’m here telling you this. You need to tell them to let it go, leave that place alone so no one else gets hurt.”
“Um, well, it’s going to be a little difficult to convince the family of that,” Cooper said, blowing smoke out his nose, his mind racing as to how he could get this guy back on track.
“That’s why I called you. You’re a journalist. You can take the most complicated information and distill it down to the important aspects, and create a convincing story that can sway public opinion.”
Cooper let out a boisterous laugh, almost blowing beer out his nose. “Well, Mr. Exley, you certainly have much more confidence in my abilities than I do. How can I convince others, when I’m not convinced.”
Exley smiled as if he saw this coming. “Let me start from the beginning, then I think you will feel differently.”
There was a long pause. Exley was calm now, like someone resigned to telling the truth and feeling liberated because of it. He was sober as a vicar—no twitching, eyes unwavering. He looked like an Average Joe off the street, not a crazy person. It was obvious he felt he was being honest.
Cooper returned his steely gaze. Going against his better judgement he thought, Maybe, maybe there’s something to this.
“Alright, start from the beginning,” Cooper said as he hovered over his notebook with pen. “What is the beginning?”
Mount Saint Helens, Northeastern slope 1925
Hollis Exley was twenty-five years old and did not believe in the boogeyman. He did not believe in monsters. He wasn’t even sure if there were wolves left in this part of the country. Indians were the first thing to be eliminated as a threat in the region close to a hundred years ago. In short, there shouldn’t have been anything to be afraid of in the woods…..
This is the beginning excerpt from “Incident at Ape Canyon” which is a short story featured in “Fiction in Your Face,” the 2012 anthology of speculative fiction offered by Northwest Independent Writers Association. It can be found at http://www.amazon.com/Fiction-Your-Face-Independent-Association/dp/1480069590