The Straits of Juan de Fuca – Opening Paragraphs and an Excerpt

August 28, 2013

Sketches From The Straits of Juan de Fuca
A Crime Novel/Memoir set in Portland Oregon

They had dumped the body in broad daylight about 15 feet from the Boa constrictor. It was in the Southwest park blocks, not far from the university, across from the Art Museum and Masonic temple, parallel with the back of the Paramount theatre. Hamburger Mary’s was in this neighborhood. There were film houses, antique shops, galleries and book stores. It wasn’t what you would call a crime district although I used to hear reports of rapes and muggings.

The sun was high and strong, and sweat dripped from the faces of the onlookers who’d gathered to gawk at the boa and the body, eagerly shifting from one attraction to the other the way juxtaposed sideshows will compete for your attention.

The boa was the first thing I’d noticed upon arriving, the body seemed like an afterthought. Long, bronze, and thicker than suspension bridge cable, the snake twitched and writhed in the park grass and I thought of Moses when he threw down the staff and the staff turned into a serpent, cobra probably. Sunlight gleamed and shimmered on its scales. It was fluid and always elongating and swelling in girth, with a head shaped like the stone in a tomahawk, a cold and formidable weapon. I felt a kind of sick thrill watching that snake. Most tame animals when uncaged afforded you a kind of Edenesque interaction, maybe even a small telepathic exchange. I wondered if there was any connection between the boa serpent and the dead body sprawled face down nearby.

The police had already managed to tape off the area, and were now dealing with the boa constrictor and its owner.

“Would you be polite and respectful, sir, and take your little circus over on to the next block. We have a murder to deal with here.”

“But don’t go too far. We have some questions for you.

I stepped over the yellow tape and approached a knot of policemen.

“Afternoon Juan.” That would be Lieutenant Porto in Homicide.

By now they had turned the body over and I had a good look at him. Adrenalin surged through my stomach and I tasted the bile rising in my throat. But I wasn’t going to puke. Not in front of this group.

“What happened?” I said. “Snake get ‘him?”

A detective named Nichols examined the body, ignoring my sarcasm.

“Doesn’t appear that way. The victim wasn’t crushed. Probably just a coincidence.”

“Or maybe not a coincidence,” said Detective Porto. “A few witnesses confirmed the snake showed up around the same time as the stiff so the snake’s owner could have been an accessory used to distract and confuse people so they wouldn’t be able to identify the killer. Or killers.”

“Kind of like the Grassy Knoll in Dallas,” I said.

“Yeah, a little like that . . .” Porto stared at me. “You okay, Juan? Is it the heat? I know you’ve seen your share of dead bodies before.”

“I’m fine.”


I needed to look for a book on handmade papermaking and maybe one on boa constrictors, so I headed over to Powell’s Books on Burnside, running the gauntlet of winos, street walkers, panhandlers, and everyday grifters, and it was only 10:30 in the morning. The bookstore was a sanctuary. There were rows and rows of books and stacks well above your head so you could use a step ladder if you needed to. I figured if I couldn’t find what I was looking for at Powell’s then I wouldn’t find it anywhere.

I wandered the aisles a bit before narrowing my search and stumbled upon a truly sinister book cover. It was a book of poems, “Dinners and Nightmares” by the beat poet Diane DiPrima. A glossy white paperback. Front cover was a black and white photograph, possibly a movie still, of a man’s head, close shot, a trench coat collar turned up as the man lights a cigarette, his hands making a threatening parentheses around the match; greasy tousled hair, the face pallid, the eyes brightly evil and threatening, the entire image of his head and trench coat collar illuminated by the match in spectral whites and grays, a face right out of noir cinema. And yet I’d seen characters not unlike this guy in their lost migration paths through the streets and back alleys of the rainy city. I read a few poems and overheard a conversation about chakras and the third eye. Someone mentioned Gurdjieff. I thought it might turn out to be an interesting day, a day that could lead me to something big and important on the case. Storm clouds the color of steel wool, fast and roiling, had been gathering in the western hills beyond Burnside, behind Forest Park. Some early rain drops made a stencil pattern on the cracked sidewalk.

The female boa constrictor is on average larger than the male, in both length and weight. Boa constrictors possess sexual dimorphism in which the male is typically brighter or more colorful than the female. A female can grow to a length of 10 feet. Maybe that snake in the park blocks had been female, because she appeared to be about nine feet long, but I thought I heard the snake’s owner call it “Quentin.”

As I was checking out, two things happened in quick succession to ratchet up the day’s mystery. Taped to the register and pinned to a nearby corkboard was an array of business cards (astrologers, yogis, scientology, EST, herbal healing, astral projections, etc.) and also announcements for concerts, readings, food, live music, and lectures. My attention was riveted to a familiar flyer because of its ancient Celtic artwork and lettering, and especially the Old Norse image of a hero lifting the severed gored head of a slain monster.

In Performance 2 Nights Only
Poet, Thespian and Performer Uncial Runic
In a Dramatization of the Great Epic Poem “Beowulf”
In the Original Old English
Wednesday & Thursday August 1, 2 – 9:00PM
The Cthonic Tavern Northwest 21st Street

Something was uncanny about the photograph so I looked closer. That’s right, the photographed head of the hero had been cut and pasted on the body, and the head was presumably that of this guy Uncial Runic. But the severed head of Grendel (or was it Grendel’s mother?) was Uncial Runic too, a different shot—leering dead creature grimace. It was also uncanny that I’d been mailed the same flyer that morning with a note in cut-and-paste letters that Runic’s ambitious reading-performance may contain “a significant clue” to Lovejoy’s murder.

And the cashier who checked out my book said, “Do you own a boa constrictor?”

He had a brown beard and long hair tied in a pony tail. He was wearing jeans and a frayed black sweater. He’d been reading a book by Thomas Merton while working the register.

I told the cashier that I did not own a boa constrictor but I was interested in large snakes and thinking of buying one.

“Do you know Jacques?”

“I’m afraid I don’t.”

“He comes by the store with his pet boa constrictor.”

“I might be interested in meeting him. Do you know Jacque’s last name?”

“Sorry,” the cashier uttered in a kind of bored neo-Marxist monotone. “But if you to want to meet him, he usually stops here on his way to or from the park blocks. Lives somewhere in the Northwest. He calls his boa ‘Quentin’.”

The cashier handed me my book and I left immediately.

Jacques and his snake Quentin. I was making some progress. As soon as I reached home, I called Anna Cortes and invited her to see this Uncial Runic character performing Beowulf. Anna is a linguistic and literary genius, and I thought she’d be able to parse the text for any double meanings, symbolism, allusions, or references that may touch upon the Lovejoy murder. Anna has helped me on several cases. Her main thing these days is semiotics, and something called “deconstructionism.” Like Melanie, Anna and I are lovers occasionally.

“What are you doing tonight?” I asked her.

“Watching Uncial Runic perform Beowulf at the Cthonic.”

“Ah, a woman after my own heart.”

“Really? I didn’t think you were a fan of Old English poetry Juan-O.”

“Well, I’m not a big fan, but I need your help. I’ll tell you why later.”

“The Lovejoy murder?”

“Yes… So is it a date?”

“You need to ask? Of course it’s a date. Pick me up around 8:30.”

“Have you ever seen a boa constrictor around town, goes by the name of Quentin?”

Anna burst out laughing.

“That’s quite a non-sequiter. I guess we’ve exhausted the date plans,” she said, and laughed some more. “What’s he look like, this boa constrictor named Quentin?”

“Average, I guess. About nine feet long, grayish-brown, or brownish-gray. Handsome . . . for a snake. Owner’s name is Jacques.”

“Of course. Jacques and Quentin . . . hmm . . . can’t say that I know either of them.”

“Do you know Uncial Runic?”

“I know of him. Ex-Reedy, now runs a quasi-mystical and antiquarian poetry society.”

“Sooner or later you know everyone in Portland if you stay long enough.”

“Or everyone worth knowing.”


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