Authors: William Dietrich
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense
Other books by William Dietrich
The Final Forest
This book is a work of historical fiction. In order to give a sense of the times, some names of real people or places have been included in the book. However, the events depicted in this book are imaginary, and the names of nonhistorical persons or events are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance of such nonhistorical persons or events to actual ones is purely coincidental.
ICE REICH. Copyright © 1998 by William Dietrich. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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A hardcover edition of this book was published in 1998 by Warner Books.
First eBook edition: May 2001
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To my mother
He who may have failed back there has his chance to make good here...
Admiral Richard Byrd
Great God! This is an awful place...
Robert Falcon Scott
The flying was bad. The corpse made it worse.
The whore named Ramona was wrapped in a red Hudson's Bay Company blanket and slung beneath Owen Hart's bush plane like one of those newfangled aerial torpedoes. Hart could hear her down there as the plane bucked in the rough air, the frayed ends of the hemp rope that snugged her in place beating an incessant tattoo against the bottom of his cabin door. He'd reluctantly agreed to transport the macabre cargo, but when it had become apparent at Fairbanks Field that the body wouldn't fit inside the already-stuffed cargo area, her cousin Elmer had persuaded him to tie Ramona to the undercarriage struts. "That way you won't have to smell her," the Eskimo pointed out.
Hart understood what the old man was trying to do in sending Ramona back to her birthplace at Anaktuvuk Pass, but all in all it seemed a bad business. In the pilot's experience women were generally bad luck, and he assumed dead women were doubly so.
It wasn't just the extra drag that made things difficult, but the weight. The single-engine Stinson was so badly overloaded he'd had to delay takeoff until late afternoon for the August air to cool sufficiently to give him the necessary lift. It was an old bush trick, waiting for thicker air. But now the light was slowly fading, Barrow had radioed of deteriorating weather in the north, and the plane rattled tiredly as its propeller clutched at the broad Alaskan sky.
He flew over an earth seemingly untouched by human hand or imagination. The boreal forest of pine and birch and boggy muskeg rolled north from Fairbanks for two hundred miles before ending at a tall wall of mountains. The trees stopped and beyond the Brooks Range was the vast Arctic plain, the North Slope, its tundra a great shaggy carpet already turning orange and scarlet at summer's end. And beyond
was the frozen Northern Ocean, the ice at this time of year holding offshore and the waves lapping lonely beaches of gray sand. There wasn't a damn thing in that awful emptiness that any man could really want— except perhaps freedom, or the room to hide from past disappointments.
He figured the woman strapped beneath his fuselage had had a few.
Weary, used-up Ramona— the whores were called "slot machines" in the bush— had worked the miners, trappers, and fishermen in Nome and Fairbanks and Ketchikan and Juneau. Old Elmer had said her spirit could be free of bad memories if she could come home. That seemed reason enough for Hart, who had no home.
"Christ, she was ugly," he'd said to Elmer as the Eskimo heaved her up against the bottom of the fuselage while Hart tied his slipknots. "How in hell did she ever make a living?"
"You shouldn't speak so of the dead," grunted Elmer, who only did this kind of lifting in moose season. "You should have seen her smile in the old days, before her husband took her to the camps and died drunk at cards."
"Hard to imagine her young," Hart said flatly. He pulled on the rope. "There, she's tight."
"You're a good man, Owen, for taking her."
"Well, she's got about as much money as any other passenger I've met in this godforsaken icebox. At least I'll have company while I fly myself broke."
Elmer misunderstood. "Yes, you'll have Ivan." That was the name of his half-blind, half-crippled, ear-chewed husky. The dog was as pug-ugly as Ramona and smelled about as bad, yet Hart was taking the mutt to Anaktuvuk anyway: probably to die as well. The animal was no good on a team anymore.
"Shortwave says the weather's getting bad up north," Hart noted.
"You'll have an angel on your shoulder," the Eskimo assured. Hart knew that Elmer believed in angels as solemnly as he did the return of the salmon or the cycle of winter.
Now, in mid-flight, Hart found himself wanting to believe in Elmer's angel as the Stinson began to buck and the weather worsened. He was usually a safe flier, which meant a cautious one, and of course that was what cost him his shot at the big time in 1934 and sent him like a whipped dog to the North.
"I didn't hire you, Owen, to advise me what I shouldn't do, I hired you to find a way I
the millionaire Elliott Farnsworth had told him as Hart had slewed their plane around to race away from the storms of Antarctica. In retreating, the pilot had ruined the explorer's first great chance to fly across the southern continent. Farnsworth had lived to come back three years later and try it again, finally making what should have been a fourteen-hour crossing in twenty-two days after putting down for periodic storms. And Hart had been dismissed long before that as the pilot without grit, the man who hesitated, the exacting, overcautious cold-weather flier whose heart had chilled at the critical moment. Farnsworth, having spent so much, had not hesitated to complain bitterly in the press.
Now here was bad weather again, clouds rolling down the barren slopes of the Brooks Range like a mirror reflection of surf hissing up a steep beach, and once again Hart had a woman to think about. "Hang on, lady," he whispered to Ramona. The Stinson hit a pocket and bounced and there was a bark and a yelp at the back. "Shut up, Ivan!" he called. "You're the only damn thing in God's Creation uglier than that whore!"
The earlier woman had been named Audrey. He'd found her in California when preparing with Farnsworth. Actually, she'd found
approaching him on a Long Beach float, both the tethered seaplane and her halo of hair afire from a golden dusk. She was a kind of woman he'd never known, exhibiting the poise that comes with effortless beauty and drawn to the dock not so much by the money as by the sense of limitless adventure that millionaires like Farnsworth exuded. She glowed from the electric atmosphere of pre-expedition camaraderie and fed on its energy, funny and fascinated.
And in the ensuing weeks he'd lost his heart and maybe something else. Because when the critical moment came at the bottom of the world, he'd finally been afraid. Not at the risk of losing himself so much as of losing her, of never coming back to all she represented: the perfume of her, the soft caress of her hair, her implicit promise that life was not just grim struggle but sweetness as well. And in
risking he'd lost her ever more completely, of course, lost her in a rush of shame and hurt pride and devastating regret. Since then, he'd come to regard all women with a tight wariness.
The Alaskan light was wan, the sun down somewhere behind the mountains, and only lingering chinks of silver glimmered through. Unconsciously adopting a half grin— his trademark reaction to worry— Hart leaned forward and calculated his chances. He had the lean build of the rangy Montanan he was, not so much muscled as wiry— a cowboy body, she'd called it. He was handsome in a rugged way, dark hair falling toward smoke-gray eyes and a nose bent just slightly from being cracked on the cockpit rim of a flipped over barnstormer. His cheekbones and chin were as hard as the country he was flying through, but his grin conveyed reassurance. If he wished it a woman would return his look, before glancing uncertainly away.
He didn't want to turn back, not with a corpse on board that needed to freeze into the permafrost. If he found the mouth of the pass in time he might be able to fly under the weather to Ramona's home. He'd hit the range a bit east of the opening and now skirted the foothills to search, storm clouds stacking above him like dark towers. The plane lurched in the rising wind and Elmer's husky let out a low howl.
It had been this way in 1934 when Farnsworth tried to become the first man to fly 3,400 miles across Antarctica. The expedition was dogged by ill fortune. First the Northrop monoplane
had wrecked its undercarriage when the ice shelf being used as a makeshift runway prematurely broke up: only the wings, caught by ice floes as the aircraft dropped toward the water, prevented the plane from disappearing into the sea completely. The millionaire steamed back to the United States to make repairs— Hart seeing Audrey again, sinking helplessly into the pool of her green eyes— and then returned dangerously late in the season, toward the end of the Antarctic summer.
This time weather was the enemy, week after week of storm and overcast. The millionaire's mood turned as foul as the climate and he finally ordered his men to pack for home. Of course it was then that a bowl of blue sky opened up like the doorway to heaven. "We're going!" Farnsworth roared excitedly. The crew heaved supplies on board the plane as Hart and his employer crouched over the maps a final time. In little more than an hour they'd lifted off, sprinting south. Then, three hours into the flight, a wall of cloud loomed over the polar plateau and Hart swung away.
"Dammit, man, what are you doing?" Farnsworth cried, looking up from his chart.
"That's suicide weather, Elliott." The featureless white of the Antarctic plateau had dissolved into the rushing fog of an approaching storm. "You didn't pay me to let you go down in that. We're going back."
Farnsworth protested that the front looked weak. Or that they might fly through it, or over it, or around it. That they were turning their back on history. He'd sputtered and raged and finally just seethed on the long painful retreat home, as the weather first chased them and then hung back over the white horizon, a taunting ghost. Back on Snow Hill Island the financier muttered "damned yellow" within hearing of the crew. Owen had stalked away in his own bottled anger, neither man really knowing if a path could have been found or if a break in the clouds would have proved a sucker hole leading them to whiteout and death. And in making his call Hart
committed a kind of suicide, giving up a sliver of Lindbergh-like fame for doubt, for whispers, for airfield second-guessing. No one would talk about it directly, of course. Especially not the woman. Audrey was incapable of knowing what to say because Hart didn't know himself. And ultimately, as if each was marooned on a fissuring shelf of ice, they drifted apart.
So Hart finally came to Alaska where he didn't have to face anyone not talking about it. Where the country was as fierce and empty as his heart. Where the almosts and what-ifs and do-overs wouldn't haunt him quite as badly. Maybe. Where he could wonder all by himself if the arrogant millionaire was secretly right— that he'd looked out over a frozen wasteland and allowed it to swallow his senses, squeeze his heart. And then turned away.
* * *
"Snow." He grimaced, watching the flakes whip past his windshield. Alaska was wrapped in gauze, the view losing definition, and Hart knew his chance of finding Anaktuvuk Pass was blurring with it. Still, as he drifted down closer to the forest, the wilderness offered a shred of familiarity: the dark black-green of the trees, the dull pewter of taiga lakes, a familiar scale of height and distance. In Antarctica, by contrast, there had been a glorious clarity of atmosphere that destroyed depth perception: a seemingly airless infinity above sterile whiteness without a hint of life. The continent, bigger than the United States, boasted an emptiness as intimidating as a cell, its clouds boiling down from the high polar plateau. Alien, primeval, Creation before the fire.
As the Stinson skipped from pocket to pocket of air, wings flapping as they picked up a rime of ice, the engine roared and then groaned. Only the toes of the Brooks Range were visible now and they'd turned white. He skittered west, looking for the John River, which rose near Anaktuvuk, and hoping he wouldn't overshoot and pick up the Alana, a river that dead-ended in the mountains. He cursed himself for being so anxious to lift away from Fairbanks and cursed Elmer for saddling him with a decomposing corpse. The cockpit windows were frosting, so he cursed the Stinson's balky heater as well. It was hard to believe the warmth of Fairbanks had given way to this, but that was Alaska. Where was Elmer's angel?