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The Fish Ivory Man

Ken McBeath's "The Fish Ivory Man" took first place in the Mystery/Crime category of the 2008 Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Awards. To read the grand-prize winning entry and other first-place finishers, click here.

I was watching Johnnie perform his usual magic with a filleting knife when I first saw the old priest. He was standing on the pier with a handful of tourists, looking down on the floating fish cleaning station where I stood with my two customers watching Johnnie work. Johnnie sliced expertly past the backbone and lifted the last fillet clear and laid it to the side. He scooped up the guts and threw them gently underhand towards the seals waiting patiently for their reward. The guts hardly touched the water before a sleek grey head and impressive teeth demolished them.

Johnnie was always fair to the seals. They were part of the show, part of what he earned, and he made sure that each animal received its share. He grinned and turned back for the next fish, flicking a glance up at the tourists as he did so, hoping some pretty girl would be fascinated by his performance with his knives.

I saw him stagger slightly, and the smile froze on his face. I looked up at the pier. A half-dozen tourists, including the white-bearded priest in his old-fashioned long black soutane, leaned on the rail, watching and photographing. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Johnnie hesitated, then gathered his knives and water stone and the small pile of fish ivory he had extracted and turned to me. “Sorry, Mac. I have to go now. You do the last couple.”

“Come on, Johnnie. It'll take me ages. What's wrong?”

“Sorry. Got to go.” He suddenly looked older, and grey somehow. He turned abruptly and hurried along the floating platform towards the boat berths, threading his way between nets and gear, head down, almost furtive. He hadn’t even waited for me to pay him.

I sighed and started on the two halibut. Luckily Johnnie had left the halibut, with their “cut here” lines, until last. Even I couldn't make too much of a hash of a halibut. The tourists knew the difference, though, and soon realised they weren't watching a master at work. They drifted away, leaving only the priest gazing now toward the old part of the harbor where Johnnie lived on his ancient boat. I threw the last pile of guts to a seal and heaved the bones into the bin and packed the last fillets into crushed sea ice in the big cooler. My customers grabbed a handle each and carried it toward their truck with an offhand goodbye. Surly devils, interested only in pounds of fish caught, getting their money's worth in fillets. They would go to near the bottom of my preferred customer list for next year.

As I washed down the cleaning station I felt I was being watched, and turned to find the old priest standing a few feet away. Members of the public weren't allowed on the floating docks, but one look at the old man's face told me I wouldn't argue the point. He looked like Moses on a bad day.

“That was Johnnie Prothero, wasn't it?” Straight to the point, no attempt at politeness.

“Yes. What did you do to him?” I could be direct too, and I had no cause to love the priesthood.

“Nothing. He did it all to himself.” He took a deep breath. “I'm sorry. I'm being rude. My name is Father Luke.” He stuck a hand out.

I shook it. My hand was wet and very cold from the seawater. “MacKenzie. People call me Mac.”

He tried not to flinch. “Does Johnnie work for you?”

“No. Johnnie's freelance.”

“You mean he’s a dock rat.” It was a statement rather than a question, and anger stirred in me.

“No. He’s no leech on society.” It was a challenge, an underhand crack at the priesthood, but he didn’t respond. I elaborated. “He gets a dollar a fish filleting, and he works as a dockhand occasionally, cooks on the lumber crews sometimes. He collects fish ivory, makes it into tourist keepsakes and sells them in the gift shop.” It was still much more than I had wanted to say to this rude old man. “D’you know what fish ivory is?”

He nodded. “Otoliths. Ear bones of certain species of fish.” He fingered the elaborate cross hanging round his neck and I realised it was made of fish ivory set on a backing of some kind, and protected with a film of clear resin, now showing its age with a slight yellow tinge.

“Mr. MacKenzie, we've started off on the wrong foot. I'm sorry. It's my fault entirely.” He looked me in the eye. “I'd like to talk to you. Would you allow me to buy you a drink?”

I hesitated, then curiosity got the better of me. I nodded. “I have to clean up, and move the Glengarry to her moorings for the night. Say, a half hour, in the Sardine?” He moved off toward the stairs and I wondered if he would ever find the pub. Only the locals called it the Sardine.


He was in The Orca all right, with a whisky in front of him and a pint of Bass opposite. He had obviously done his homework, and I began to get intrigued. I sat, and took a long pull from the Bass. “How long have you been in Consort?”

He smiled, and he looked more like a favourite uncle than Moses. “I used to live here, until almost twenty years ago. I was resident priest, ran the little orphanage we had then, and traveled to the smaller settlements by boat for services. I used to know this area well.” He sipped his whisky. “This trip, I’ve been here about a week so far. I don’t know how long I’ll stay.”

“I haven't seen you around.”

“I've been busy, seeing old friends, catching up on twenty years of local news.”

“That shouldn't have taken a week.”

He laughed, then abruptly changed tack, “You don't like priests much, do you?”

“I've known priests I liked, and others I didn't. Just like other people. It's the institution I dislike.”

“Yes. Your wife had her first marriage annulled, didn't she? Two young children and suddenly a single mother. I really don't blame you.”

I froze. He knew far too much for someone just revisiting old haunts. “What else do you know about me?”

He looked at me over the rim of his glass. “You used to be a policeman. You have a strong sense of right and wrong, and a fuse that's too short for today's political correctness.”

He was dead right about the short fuse. “You have been a busy little priest, haven't you.” I drained the last of the beer and stood. “Thank you for the drink. Enjoy your stay in Consort.”

He didn't move. “Have you heard of Sister Sourire?”

I stopped short. She was a legend in the area. “Everybody has heard about Sister Sourire. Did you know her?”

“Oh, yes, I knew her. Not her real name, of course. A French visitor called her that, as she was such a delight, and it stuck. She worked with me, mostly at the orphanage, but at the church too. And she would come with me sometimes to visit the outer villages.” His eyes seemed to grow misty.

I sat down again. This was getting interesting. “You loved her, didn't you?” A priest in love. This was rich. I wanted to hear more.

“Everybody did, in their own way.” He drained his whisky and set the glass down gently. “She was one of those absolutely good people you very occasionally find, and she took her vows very seriously.” Atrophied they might be, but my cop's instincts told me he would have left the priesthood in a flash if she had given him any encouragement. Maybe he was almost human after all.

“You're honest, at least.”

He smiled. “You mean, for a priest?” I laughed in acknowledgment, and collected our glasses. “What are you drinking?”

“Highland Park, with just a drop of water.”

I collected refills for both of us, paying an exorbitant price for the whisky. He was an expensive drinking companion.

We talked for another half hour, mostly local news and stories from his early days in Consort. As we parted, I found myself inviting him out for a fishing trip the following week. I wondered later how I'd been maneouvred into that. Paying customers were my bread and butter and just a little jam. There wasn't much room for joyriding or personal fishing trips. He was persuasive without seeming to be, a great attribute for a priest.


Father Luke knew his way around small boats. I insisted he wear a survival suit, and he humored me although he obviously felt he didn't need one. The early morning seas beyond the string of coastal islands were moderate, about five foot waves, and the aluminum hull banged happily from one crest to the next until the seventh, which always managed to catch me by surprise even after all these years and made the old man cringe as the hull hammered into it.

Off Sandvik Island I slowed and stopped, hooked the 9.9 troller to the 225 horse main so I could steer with the wheel, and set up two downriggers and rods for salmon.

“What depth are you setting them at?” He asked as I wound down a heavy cannonball on its strong wire line. The salmon bait and fishing line clipped to the wire followed it down.

“Thirty-five and fifty feet.” He nodded in apparent approval. I reminded myself not to underestimate him. He’d probably lived by the sea longer than I had.

We cruised slowly past Sandvik toward the mainland in companionable silence for a while. He handed me a small dark cigar and unwrapped one for himself. I hadn't smoked in years, but the aroma was compelling and I lit up. I stayed in the skipper’s chair in the tiny open-backed cabin where I could handle the controls, and he perched on the transom within easy reach of the salmon rods in their holders. The Glengarry moved gently as the waves, moderating now near the islands, overtook us on our quarter and swept eastwards.

At last he broke the silence and started to talk about Sourire, as I knew he would. “You must have heard that Sister Sourire disappeared just over twenty years ago?” I nodded. “And that no trace was ever found of her, and nobody was implicated in her disappearance?” I nodded again. This was old news.

He leaned forward. “But did you know that Johnnie Prothero was brought up in the orphanage? That he was sixteen when she vanished? That he was infatuated with her?”

“No. I hadn't heard all that.” So this was why he was so interested in Johnnie. “You want to reopen a cold case, don't you? You think Johnnie killed her?”

His eyes were blue and as cold as deep sea. “I'm sure of it.” He looked like Moses again, with cigar smoke and the rising sun wreathing him in fire and brimstone.

“Why, after all these years?”

“Because I've lived twenty years in purgatory. Because my health isn't good and I don't have much time left. Because Johnnie is alive and she is dead.”

“You don't go in for forgiveness very much, do you?”

“I've always preferred the Old Testament approach to evildoers.”

“Go to the cops. Tell them what you’ve told me.”

“I have. I did. They said I had no new evidence.”

“Is that why you've been hounding Johnnie the last couple of weeks?”

He shrugged. “I suppose I have. They call it stalking these days, don't they? I'm hoping his conscience will do the rest.”

“And just what do you think you can do after all these years?”

He fingered the peculiar cross for a few seconds. “I don't really know. You were a policeman. Maybe you can suggest something.”

“Why should I? I've known Johnnie for the last eight years or so, and he's been a fairly productive member of society in that time. You'll need a lot more than your suspicions to convince me.” I looked at his cross. “Did Johnnie make that?”

The old priest glanced down and tucked the cross away in his shirt front, embarrassed. “Yes. He's quite an artist, is Johnnie. He made this for me many years ago. It's fish ivory, on a bone backing.”

It was obviously early work of Johnnie's. The stuff he made and sold now through the local gift shop was much more sophisticated, if somewhat tacky.

A salmon hit then, the rod tip jerking downwards and then snapping back as the clip released the fishing line. For an older man he had very fast reflexes. Before I had the trolling motor stopped he was on the rod, setting the hook firmly and starting to wind. He brought the salmon to the boat steady and slow, and positioned it so I had no trouble scooping it into the net. Twelve pounds or so, good for so late in the season. I rapped it on the head with my fish club, and glanced up at him.

He smiled. “Yes. I do know.” He pointed at the club. “It's called a priest. In Britain, anyway. I haven't discovered why.” He laughed. “Something to do with the Old Testament, perhaps?”

He could be likeable, such as now, but I still couldn't really take to him. Maybe it was the thought of a priest unable or unwilling to forgive, or possibly my dislike of the institution ran too deep.

We caught a couple more salmon before calling it quits and heading back to Consort. The wind had freshened and it was a bumpy and damp ride. He seemed to enjoy it. At the dock there was no sign of Johnnie, although a knot of tourists was just drifting away, as though we had missed him by minutes.

I cleaned the fish, gave him two fillets for his supper and kept the others to offset the cost of fuel, and refused his offer of a drink at the rectory. I dropped off the fillets at The Orca, accepted cash for them and bought a six-pack of beer, then headed for Johnnie's boat.

Johnnie saw me coming and was wary. The sight of the six-pack decided him, though, and he invited me on board. The boat was old, a wooden-hulled ex-fishing boat, but Johnnie did his best with his limited resources. Moorings were cheap, so far from the center of the dock area. The boat was clean and didn't smell too badly of ancient fish oil. We cracked a beer each while I admired his latest fish ivory creations. He was working on a panel with fish ivory scales glued in a pattern that tugged at my memory. Some of the scales had been painted, and suddenly I had it.

“That's one of the Group of Seven paintings. Casson?”

“No.” He was pleased, as much because I was wrong as because I had almost recognised his work in progress. “Harris. 'Above Lake Superior'. I've got a picture of it here.” He pulled a library book from a shelf and showed it to me. Johnnie's fish ivory version was in its early stages, but I could see the picture emerging.

“What do you paint the ivory with?”

“Acrylics. They are more intense than watercolours.”

On the second beer I asked him about the old priest. That was a big mistake. Johnnie immediately turned defensive, then offensive, and then downright vitriolic. He chugged his beer and opened a third, and I grabbed the last one and held onto it to try and limit his intake. He called Father Luke every disgusting thing he could think of, and some I had trouble imagining, from a thief to a flasher to a pedophile. Eventually I gave up trying to talk to him or to listen to him, and made my escape.

On my way home, I called Father Luke on my cell phone and warned him to keep the rectory door locked tonight, because if Johnnie found more booze he could be unpredictable. Years ago he had got drunk and used one of his knives on a tourist who questioned his parentage. Johnnie could be quite touchy about some things.


The telephone didn't wake me, but Jean did as she stretched to reach it. The hospital sometimes called her at night, so the phone was on her side of the bed. I cuddled in at her back and reached round to the neckline of her nightdress as she murmured. I didn't get there. She sat up, nudged me forcefully with her fist, and handed me the phone.

It was Father Luke. He sounded panicked. “Mac. Something's happened. Come to the church. Please. Now.”

I woke up fast. “What's wrong?”

“I can't describe it over the phone. Please come quickly.”

I dressed and got there in record time to find him waiting for me. “Come and see this. It was brought in sometime during the night.”

He rushed me through the small ornate church to the altar and I saw immediately what he meant. It was on the floor, propped against the altar and positioned in a pool of light - a picture of a beautiful girl, done in tiny mosaic pieces which I knew immediately were fish ivory. The hair stood up on the back of my head as the realisation flooded in. I didn't need to see the tears streaming down Father Luke's face.

This was Sister Sourire. Instead of being modestly covered by a nun's wimple, her dark hair shone with highlights, and was surrounded by the glow of a rising sun, almost like a halo. There was a background of sorts, but I could see nothing but the face of a beautiful young woman long dead and now brought back to life in a stunning piece of art.

“Johnnie.” I said. “Johnnie did this. It's like a homage to the woman he loved.” Father Luke nodded. I moved closer to examine the piece. The backing was slate, possibly from an old pool table, and must have been quite heavy. The fish ivory pieces had been chosen and fitted with exquisite care and painted delicately. Close up, you could see each detail, but like a master's painting it was meant to be viewed from a respectful distance.

“I'm going to Johnnie's boat.” I said. “You stay here.” I didn't want him anywhere near Johnnie and his knives. The old priest didn't argue. He was beyond thinking in his grief.

But Johnnie wasn't there. His boat felt eerily empty, as though its spirit had left. I had a bad feeling, something I hadn't felt since my years as a cop. On my way back to the church I checked the boats in harbour, a fisherman's habit. Three of the smaller boats were missing, but Art Robinson's was one of them, and he had just got out of hospital.

I called him on my cell phone. He was unhappy about being woken up early and snapped at me. Yes, he had given Johnnie permission to take his boat out while he was in hospital. So what? I apologised for disturbing him and he called me an interfering ex-cop and banged his phone down.

Father Luke was still there, exactly where I had left him. I told him Johnnie was gone, and had probably taken Art's boat out. Luke wasn't interested, and that made me angry. Johnnie might be a loner and a bit odd, but he was a human being.

“Don't you realise?” I put anger in my voice without raising it, an old trick from my previous life. “He might be considering suicide. You've hounded him the last few weeks, maybe enough to put him over the edge.”

He didn't answer, just stared at the picture of the woman he had loved, they had both loved. “He even had the gall to make the background Calvary, with the three crosses. Look.”

Despite myself, I did look. It didn't resemble Calvary to me. Something about the background wasn't right. The crosses were poorly executed, the hill lopsided. And then I had it. I had seen this background before, some years ago. And the sun wasn’t rising. It was setting. The skin on my face tightened as a frisson of foreboding hit me.

“Come with me.” I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him from the church and down the hill to the harbour. “I think I know where Johnnie might be.”


We made a fast run up the coast, the hull banging from one wave crest to the next and hammering over the chop in the lee of the coastal islands as I pushed the Glengarry and myself to our limits. The last few hundred yards were anticlimactic as I threaded the boat carefully through the Denley Rocks toward Gill Island. It was slow nerve-wracking work through the rocks and reefs with the last remnants of the ocean waves pushing us around. At length we rounded a point and the small calm bay opened up. Art Robinson's boat was moored in the middle of it with bow and stern anchors out. The sun was just clearing the distant mountains and a slight haze made the world glow a sunrise pink.

“Why are we here?” His voice was almost plaintive. I hadn't told him anything on the way. With the engine noise and aluminum hull booming he couldn't have heard me anyway.

“Johnnie borrowed that boat sometime this morning.” I flipped the fenders over the side and slid the Glengarry next to the other boat. “Take the boathook and hold us close. I'm going over.”

I called out in case Johnnie was in the boat, then hopped over the gunwale onto the deck. The boat felt empty, but I checked the cabin just in case. No Johnnie, no sign of where he might be. The rubber dinghy was still lashed upside down on the cabin roof, so he must have swum to the island, despite the sea temperature. That's when I got that bad feeling again. I opened the tackle locker and checked. Only one cannonball.

There should have been five or six. Water depth here was about twenty feet. I looked over the side and a wavering face looked back at me from the black water. That gave me a very nasty moment until I realised it was just my reflection. There were no bubbles. He'd been down there too long, and I couldn't have swum to the bottom anyway. A police diver would have to get him up.

I tied the two boats together, ignoring the priest's questions, and hauled the rubber tender from the cabin roof and dumped it into the water. “Get in.”

“Why? What did you find?” But he obediently clambered into the tiny boat. As I rowed toward the stony beach I said, “Look at the center of the island. See the three scruffy trees on their own? Anything familiar about them?”

He shook his head. “I don't see . . . Oh sweet Jesus. I thought it was Calvary.”

We grounded and climbed out, and I hauled the tender hard onto the shingle. He stood gazing up at the three trees on the low rise above the beach, until I grabbed his arm and pulled him along.

It didn't take us very long to find it, lying flat and well hidden in the thin grasses and dead pine needles. By the center tree was a small piece of slate with a pattern in fish ivory protected by a thick layer of clear resin. A stylised cross, beautifully rendered. The old man sank to his knees, with the tears starting to run down his cheeks. He took out the crucifix that Johnnie had made all those years ago, held it tightly in both hands, and began to pray.

We had found Sister Sourire.

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