Read Winter Study Online

Authors: Nevada Barr

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Mystery Fiction, #Women Sleuths, #Pigeon; Anna (Fictitious character), #Women park rangers, #Rocky Mountain National Park (Colo.), #Isle Royale National Park (Mich.), #Isle Royale National Park, #Michigan, #Isle Royale (Mich.), #Wilderness Areas, #Wilderness areas - Michigan, #Wolves

Winter Study (10 page)

The
pelt’s loveliness was somewhat dimmed by the bloodsuckers it harbored.
At least none were embedded. Wolves seemed to possess a natural
deterrent to ticks that the moose did not enjoy. Anna didn’t have any
particular fear of the world’s many-legged denizens, but there was
something about ticks that had always made her queasy. She was not
sorry to drop the little buggers into the certain death of the vials.
The
combs dredged moose ticks, lice and mange mites from the thick fur. The
combing wouldn’t come close to cleaning the parasites from the body.
They were sample takers, not exterminators, and Anna knew she wouldn’t
sleep well for the feeling of crawly things in her sleeping bag.
“That’s
enough,” Ridley said finally. Anna had just culled a fat moose tick
from a section of fur on the wolf’s belly and was trying to keep it
from creeping off the comb till she could drop it in the alcohol.
“Wolves are not at the top of the food chain on Isle Royale,” she said disgustedly. “Ticks are.”
The
alcohol vials were stowed in the kitchen cupboard next to a box of
granola bars. Ridley brought in another rack of vials, the glass
preservation tubes smaller than those used for ectoparasites. Using
tweezers, Katherine plucked guard hairs, careful to get the follicles.
“Ninety-five
percent ethanol,” she said to Anna as she dropped them in
fifteen-milliliter glass vials. “We use that instead of alcohol for the
DNA. It keeps the sample from degrading. Well, keeps it from degrading
longer. Eventually everything goes.”
“We’ll
have to wait on the teeth and throat,” Ridley said. His hands were
around the wolf’s muzzle, pulling with a degree of force. “Frozen
solid.”
There
was a wrongness in Ridley’s hands on the animal’s mouth that disturbed
Anna on a rudimentary level, the way watching people put a car in gear
without fastening their seat belts or wave an unloaded gun in the
direction of living things did.
“Rigor or
frozen
frozen?” she asked.
Ridley
rocked back on his heels. “When it’s this cold, it doesn’t make much
difference. It takes longer for specimens to thaw out than it would for
rigor to go off.”
“How long does rigor last in a wolf?” Anna asked.
“I
don’t know,” he said without curiosity. Ridley exhibited a disinterest
in anything regarding research animals that wasn’t study specific.
Maybe a narrow mind was a strength for a researcher; the ability to
focus on one tiny thing for a very long time.
“No gloves!” Anna blurted out suddenly. That was the wrongness; Ridley was handling the animal without wearing surgical gloves.
“We’ll put them on for the necropsy,” he said. “That gets messy.”
Anna
nodded. There was no need for gloves except to keep one’s nails clean.
No AIDS, no hepatitis B or other blood-borne diseases. The risk of
contamination was nil. A bit of human DNA sprinkled here and there amid
the wolf DNA wouldn’t interfere with the investigation.
The research,
Anna corrected herself.
The
wolf’s hide had softened in the relative heat of the bunkhouse, and
Ridley pulled up the wolf’s right eyebrow with his thumb. The dull eyes
were gold colored, closer together and more slanted than the eyes of
domestic dogs.
“Great eyes,” he said as he pulled up the lid of the left.
“Yes,” Anna said. “He looks Slavic, as if he hunted the great plains of Russia from the beginning of time.”
Ridley
stared at her blankly. “They’re not eaten,” he explained. “Ravens get
the eyes first thing, usually.” He looked back to the wolf. “No
cataracts. Even without seeing the teeth, my guess is this guy is two,
three at most. He must have tried to run the pack or gotten himself
crosswise with the alpha some other way, then lost the fight,” he said,
rocking back on his heels. “The rest is going to have to wait till he
thaws.”
Ridley
rose gracefully, his elegant hands held out in front of him like a
pianist about to perform. He would wash them immediately with hot water
dippered from the stovetop into a basin. The Winter Study team was
fastidious about hygiene. Gastrointestinal upsets took on a whole new
meaning when the bathroom was a one-holer and the temperature minus
twelve degrees.
Anna
squatted in the vacated place by the wolf’s head. She knew she was
making a pest of herself, getting in the way of the scientists and
asking what were, to them, foolish questions, but she didn’t much care.
A wolf.
She’d yet to get over the wonder of it.
“Wine time,” Bob said, glancing at his watch, and followed Ridley toward the common room.
“Generator
time,” Jonah said. “Since the good Adam, first man on Earth and not on
time even once in the ensuing millennia, has not yet returned, firing
it up falls to me.”
Anna’d
not noticed the light going. Her nose was scarcely four inches from the
slash in the wolf’s throat. She laughed. “I just figured I was going
blind.”
“Let there be light,” Jonah said and left.
Five
minutes later the lights came on. Since Katherine showed no indication
she was finished, and Anna had nothing better to do, she stayed and
watched.
“I’ve
got a new toy,” Katherine said, more at ease with the men gone. She
lovingly removed a box about the size of two toasters from a duffel bag
stacked with other bags and boxes on the unused cot in the corner of
the kitchen. “They’ve been around for a while, but this is of a new
generation.” With obvious pride, she removed the top half of the
Styrofoam packing to reveal a machine that looked like a cross between
a computer and an adding machine.
When no explanation was forthcoming, Anna asked: “What does it do?”
“It’s
a PCR,” Katherine said. “A polymerase chain reaction machine. It’s
brand-new technology.” Katherine stroked its plastic face. “American
University bought it for this trip. The wolf/moose study is a kind of
rock star in animal research studies.”
Anna’d
known that. In a world where the denizens hyperventilated over the
discovery of a new kind of fruit fly larva, wolves would be glamour on
paws. It was also the longest-running project of its kind in America
and, despite how it seemed at the dinner table, one of the touted
examples of how scientists and the Park Service worked and played well
together.
“The
lab at Michigan Tech does the original fingerprinting,” Katherine went
on as she set the PCR on the counter. “ISRO’s samples are sent there.
They extract DNA using a Qiagen extraction kit. Then the sample is
visualized, using a Beckman-Coul fragment analyzer. They do it at a
bunch of different microsatellite loci in the genome.”
It
would have fallen to Katherine, as Menechinn’s graduate student, to
teach the basic classes. Anna felt a twinge of pity for her students.
Katherine’s mind moved in higher stratospheres of science, and it
sounded as if her trips back to Earth had been infrequent.
“You lost me at ‘Qiagen,’” Anna said.
Katherine
looked sheepish, oddly juxtapositional to the technically precise
language she’d been spouting. “Sorry.” She bobbed her head in the
birdlike way Anna’d noticed her first night on the island, the
ducking-under-the-wing gesture when Bob had praised her graduate work.
Katherine
took a deep breath and looked into the corner behind Anna’s head.
“Okay. The Qiagen… Okay. No. Okay, let’s go to the gel. No. Not yet…”
Anna waited patiently as she struggled her way back to total ignorance so she might begin to help Anna understand.
“Tiny
fragments of the DNA are taken,” Katherine finally said, and her gaze
came back to eye level. “From a lot of different places — not on the
sample; from different places on the genome from the sample. All these
tiny pieces have different weights. The fragments are… uh… squirted…
into tubes of gel… like Jell-O, you know?”
“I know Jell-O,” Anna said gravely.
“Good.
Good. So each little piece of DNA is in its own tube, and the tubes are
all in a line like…” She groped mentally, probably through a bag of
metaphors that wouldn’t mean anything to anybody without at least a
master’s degree.
“Like a bowling alley?”
“Yes!” she said gratefully. “Like a bowling alley, but tiny. Very, very small. Small. Smaller than small—”
“Tiny,” Anna helped her out.
“Tiny.
So each tiny bit is in its own tiny tube of gel in the tiny bowling
alley. All in a line like the lanes.” She was warming up to the bowling
alley and waited till Anna nodded her understanding before she went on.
“Then the little bits are pushed down the tube full of gel — the lane —
with the same amount of pressure. I mean it’s not pressure, it’s
electricity. It’s called gel electrophoresis…”
“I get the idea,” Anna said. “All the DNA bowling balls are rolled down their individual lanes with the same amount of force.”
“Okay.
That will work. The lighter ones go farther along the gel tubes than
the heavier ones. When they all stop, you look at a readout; it looks
sort of like a shadowy version of the old computer punch cards. A
series of marks. Like on television when they lay one DNA readout over
the other and all the marks are exactly the same and — Bingo! — you’ve
got the criminal.
“The
lab at Michigan Tech has the DNA fingerprints for all of the wolves on
Isle Royale. Whenever there’s a kill, a biotech or one of the Winter
Study guys collects samples from the scat. Over time, they’ve built up
a database on each of the wolves. Those ‘fingerprints’ are now in this
smaller computer. When I put in the sample from the blood or the
follicles that we took today,” she nodded toward the wolf melting into
the newspapers at their feet, “I’ll be able to tell where he’s been —
at what kills — which pack he belonged to, if he’d ever been at another
pack’s kill, things like that.”
In
law enforcement, Anna often had to wait weeks for DNA tests to come
back, and the kind of detail Katherine was talking about was
exorbitantly expensive. Often, up to fifty separate tests had to be run.
“Interesting,” she said noncommittally.
Katherine
heard the skepticism and cast back over her words to see where she’d
gone wrong. When she wasn’t guarding, which she did whenever a member
of the opposite sex was in the room, she was easy to read. Emotions
passed just under the skin the way they do on the faces of very young
children, leaving ripples in the eyes and mouth.

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