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 (3 page)

BOOK: Winter Study
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The
weekly arrival of food and people from the outside world was apparently
quite an event. A snowmobile, surrounded by four figures so muffled in
layers of clothing that they looked like bags of dirty laundry, was
parked on the ice east of the dock. As the airplane slid gracefully
from the sky, one of the bundles turned its back, dropped its insulated
trousers and mooned them; a pale butt exposed to the elements. Anna
laughed. The pilot ignored it.
As
the propeller came to a stop, bearded faces with fur-rimmed hoods
peered up at them, and Anna was put in mind of Cro-Magnons first
sighting a metal bird from the gods. The pilot shut down the engine,
unbuckled his harness and slid from the left seat. Robin Adair, light
as a snowflake in a Christmas globe, drifted from the rear seat to the
harbor ice. Anna pawed open her harness buckles and maneuvered her
oversized boots out one at a time, thrust her down-padded rear end
through the door and clambered awkwardly down the itsy-bitsy steps on
the wheel pant. Ninety minutes sitting in the cold had done nothing to
add to her natural grace and she clumped to the ground with all the
dignity of a garbage bag tossed into a Dumpster.
Wind,
razor-sharp and just as cruel, cut across her cheek as she turned to
the troglodyte welcoming committee. A wall of parka-puffed backs
greeted her.
Robin’s
voice cut through the whistling silence: “Holy smoke!” She spoke in the
hollow whisper of a celluloid citizen seeing the mother ship. Anna
toddled to the end of the wall of flesh and goose feathers. Through the
dense night of trees on the ragged shore, a huge dark shape moved
erratically.
“A windigo,” Robin breathed.
The
Algernon Blackwood story of the Ojibwa legend that rangers told around
the campfire to scare the pants off park visitors flooded Anna’s mind.
The windigo was a voracious and monstrous cannibal that feasted on
human flesh and souls on the shores of northern lakes, where no one
could hear the crying of its tortured victims.
Anna
was not given to superstition, but the summer she worked on the island
the story had given her the creeps for a few nights. Robin’s pale,
pinched face and hollow voice brought them back.
The
creature in the trees was immense, larger than a horse, and moved in
painful lurches. It appeared to shrink and expand in an unnatural way,
and it took Anna a tense moment to realize the animal was not drifting
in and out of supernatural realms but falling to its knees and fighting
its way up again. It stumbled clear of the masking trees and onto the
lake ice, hooves ringing loud against the rimed stones.
“Watch out,” one of the bearded men said. “Not all moose are Bullwinkle.”
Anna
shaded her eyes against the glare. Where the moose’s antlers should
have been were freakishly twisted horns with gobbets of
diseased-looking flesh, pustules the size of hens’ eggs, six or more
inches long, and dependent from a bony structure grown wild as coral,
cancerous and out of control.
Head
swaying in wide, low arcs, as if the deformed antlers tugged at its
sanity and drove spikes deep into its brain, the animal lurched toward
them. In the harsh light reflecting from the ice, the grotesque growths
looked pink and alive. Sixty yards from where they stood, the moose
went to its knees. Dark eyes, full of anguish; it raised its massive
head and cried, a tiny bleat like that of a newborn lamb. Then its chin
fell to the ice and it didn’t move again.
In
sci-fi movies, when a plague was loosed on mankind, it invariably
produced a growth unfettered by gravity or plan; warts and goiters to
cause a makeup artist to wriggle with delight. This windigo was as
cursed as any Hollywood extra, dying for eighty dollars a day.
“What’s wrong with it?” Anna was startled at the anger in her voice.
“It’s
rare, but it happens when an old or malnourished bull hasn’t enough
juice to grow a set of new antlers for breeding season,” replied the
youngest looking of the beards. “At least we think that’s part of it.
The Ojibwa thought these moose were taken by the windigo, possessed by
evil.”
“We should put it out of its misery.” This from the tallest and bulkiest of the Cro-Magnons.
There was a note of excitement in his voice that bothered Anna almost as much as the crumpled monster on the ice.
2
“I’m
Ridley Murray,” said the man who’d explained the twisted antlers. All
Anna could see of him were his eyes, deep hazel, with thick dark
lashes. His voice was alto rather than tenor, but he didn’t sound weak
or womanish; he sounded gentle. Anna liked him instantly; always a red
flag in her book. Judgment of character wasn’t one of her strong suits.
“I’m
the lead researcher,” he told her. “This,” and he waved a mittened hand
in the direction of the large man who’d evinced the desire to kill the
windigo moose, “is Bob Menechinn, Homeland Security.” Ridley’s voice
was bland almost to the point of insolence. Almost.
“Pleased
to meet you,” Bob said and offered Anna his hand. He resembled the
actor John Goodman. Even without down padding, he was a big man, well
over six feet, and had the fleshy, plastic face Goodman was so deft at
morphing from benevolent goodness to bloated evil, as a role required.
“Anna Pigeon, Rocky Mountain,” Anna said.
“It’s
dead,” Robin called. While they’d introduced themselves, she’d scooted
quickly and easily over the slippery surface to where the moose lay.
The fourth Cro-Magnon was with her.
“Adam,
would you get the camera and an ax?” Ridley asked a lanky individual
wrapped in the most disreputable winter gear Anna had ever laid eyes
on. His parka had at one time probably been a uniform khaki but had
been smudged, drizzled, splashed and spotted by so many substances the
original color showed only under the zipper flap. Ripstop nylon had
proved unable to stop the incursions of sharp objects. Sleeves and body
sported tears sprouting feathers, and his cuffs looked as if they had
been caught in a paper shredder.
“Will do,” Adam said and loped off toward the snowmobile, joints loose, back straight, a scarecrow in an arctic Oz.
Anna, Bob and Ridley shuffled over the ice to join Robin and the remains of the windigo.
Robin
was on hands and knees by the deceased animal. Ridley clapped a hand on
the shoulder of the man Anna’d not yet met. “This is—”
“The
only sane, and by far the handsomest, man on the island.” The man swept
back his hood as if to show Anna the extent of his beauty. His hair was
snow white. Awry from being smashed, it stuck out everywhere it wasn’t
glued to his skull. His beard was close cropped and white to the point
of iridescence. Reflections flashing off lenses in round wire-rimmed
glasses obscured his eyes.
“Robin
has been after me for two seasons,” the sane and handsome man went on,
his smile showing small straight teeth that would have suited the face
of a beatific child or a feral badger, “but the poor child has had to
settle for — what’s his name, Robin?”
“Gavin,”
Robin said. Anna couldn’t tell if she was flattered or simply bored by
the pseudosexual attention. At any rate, she seemed used to it.
“That’s right, Gavin, a callow boy, and tall enough to be my father. Jonah Schumann at your service,” Jonah said to Anna.
Ridley
Murray showed no irritation at Jonah’s interruption or at being
relegated to, at best, the second-handsomest man on Isle Royale but
watched with a slight affectionate smile on his face as one might watch
a favorite uncle.
“You want to tell her about antlers, Jonah?” Ridley asked.
Jonah ducked his head in graceful declination. “Let’s see if I’ve taught you anything,” he said.
“Antlers
are grown over the summer to impress females when mating season comes
in the fall,” Ridley told Anna. “They’re expensive. Enormous amounts of
food and minerals and energy go into growing them.”
“Size does matter,” Jonah interjected solemnly.
Ridley
laughed. “Older moose, or animals that are too worn down — maybe the
winter’s colder or there’s not much fodder — can spend the last of
their reserves growing antlers. If they pull it off, they get the girl,
but they usually die the next winter.”
Anna thought of old men and Corvettes but had the good sense to keep her mouth shut.
“The deformity is called a
peruke,
French
for ‘wig.’ This is one for the record books. I’ve never seen one this
extreme. Shoot, I’ve never seen one alive, just photographs.”
“Everything he knows is from my book on the crepuscular deviations of caddis flies in ungulates,” Jonah said gravely.
With
a stiff-backed arrogance that could have indicated a big ego or chronic
lower-back pain, Bob Menechinn squatted at the animal’s head.
Momentarily he lost his balance and grabbed a twisted antler to steady
himself. Ridley flinched.
“Careful of the antlers, Bob,” he said evenly.
“Whoa!
This is the mother lode. Lookie,” the biotech said as she deftly pulled
a small ziplock bag out of the army rucksack she’d offloaded from the
plane. “Ticks. This old guy was about drunk up. How many you figure?”
she asked Ridley.
He
surveyed the carcass. The moose’s ribs showed stark from starvation.
The flanks were caved in, the hide patchy with bald places where he’d
scraped against trees to free himself of the pestilence of winter
ticks. “Jeez. At least fifty thousand, maybe sixty,” Ridley estimated.
“This boy was a regular Red Cross blood bank.”
Robin
plucked a thick tuft of hair. Half a dozen fat ticks clung to the
roots. She put the little colony into the plastic bag, zipped it and
put it back in her rucksack. Anna hoped the baggie was one of the fancy
double-lock kind.
No
one spoke for a moment and silence settled like snow. A sound, both
distant and immediate, didn’t so much break the silence as join it, the
call of a gray whale beneath fathoms of seawater. Anna looked to Robin
to see if she’d heard it too. A reflex from the bad old days, when
windowpane acid had slammed into her brain so hard for years she’d been
careful not to remark on odd phenomena lest she be the only one
experiencing them. She’d thought she’d left that particular paranoia
behind. The retro twitch must have been triggered by the weird
black-and-white world, with its windigo and Cro-Magnon tribe.
And cold so vicious and unrelenting, it felt personal.
She tried to shove her hands in her pockets, but they were too fat to fit.
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