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 (36 page)

BOOK: Winter Study
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She
wasn’t sure what she was looking for. A smoking gun maybe, though the
murder weapon was clearly tooth and claw. Could be she was bored or
paranoid or suffering from the madness of the Far North, but she
couldn’t shake the feeling that Katherine’s death was not accidental,
not entirely. Nor could she shake the feeling that Bob had something to
do with it. But, then, she seemed pretty anxious to pin something on
the Homeland Security guy and couldn’t be trusted to be objective.
She
swabbed and preserved and noted. What struck her most forcibly was how
little trauma there was. Researchers hypothesized the size of a wolf
pack was determined by how many animals could fit around a kill. When
wolves brought down an animal, they surrounded it and ate it warm,
often alive — for a while.
Canis lupus
were designed to eat
en famile
and
efficiently; an adult wolf’s jaws exerted fifteen hundred pounds per
square inch, about twice that of a German shepherd and five times that
of a human being. A mature wolf could gnaw through a femur in six or
seven bites. Speed was also in their nature. They might be the most
ferocious of predators, but they weren’t nearly as focused as ravens
when it came to scavenging. A single raven could carry away as much as
four pounds in a day, meat cached in the branches of a nearby tree for
later consumption.
Soft,
small-boned, Katherine would have been torn to pieces in minutes. Yet
the corpse was relatively undamaged: a foot torn off, throat slashed,
arm severed and hands eaten. The rest was superficial damage. In a
starvation winter, when moose were scarce, the wolves would not have
left fresh meat of their own volition. They had to have been frightened
off the kill.
Something
had scared the wolves away, then didn’t eat the body itself. The
noneating, scary thing vanished before the snow stopped falling. Either
that or it traveled in such a manner it left no tracks.
Anna
rose to her feet and stomped to get the circulation moving. The
stiff-soled Sorels were not made for kneeling. Or walking. Or fashion.
They were simply designed to keep feet dry and toes from turning black.
Dead wolf parts to one side, dead woman to the other, clapping and
stomping in true zombie-jamboree fashion, Anna cast back to the night
Katherine had been killed.
She
couldn’t even be sure Katherine left the shop intending to confront
Bob. Nature might have called; Anna did come upon her near the
outhouse. Bob might have waylaid her for some reason and they’d gotten
into a fight. She might have run into Bob accidentally and taken the
rare moment of privacy to unload on him about something that had been
on her mind for a while.
Again
Anna knelt and began searching Katherine’s clothing. In the right front
trouser pocket was a tube of Chap Stick. In the pocket of her parka was
a handkerchief; not the great square of cotton of the present day but a
smaller square of linen edged with crocheted silk. Anna had carried one
very like it down the aisle when she’d married Paul, the “something
borrowed.” Her sister, Molly, inherited a box of them when her
husband’s mother died. They weren’t the sort of thing one carried into
the wilds to mop the frozen mucus from one’s nose and eyes.
Hoping
the delicate handkerchief had given Katherine comfort, Anna tucked it
into a paper evidence bag. If there was organic matter on it, paper
would preserve it better than plastic. That done, she did a thorough
frisk of the body. A lump in the lining of the parka brought on the
familiar rush any cop — green or blue — got when they were onto
something.
Excitement
dwindled as she discovered it hadn’t been covertly sewn into the lining
like smuggled jewels but fallen through a rip in the pocket. She worked
it up the fabric to the light of day. Blood; one vial of wolf’s blood
had not been smashed.
Had
Bob been looking for the cell phone like he’d said or was this what he
was after? That made little sense when there was enough wolf meat in
bags on the tool bench to glean any number of samples. Anna slipped the
tube into an envelope, dated and sealed and initialed it. In every
case, the chain of evidence had to be preserved: who collected it and
anyone else who accessed it had to be recorded. One link in the chain
broken, one unauthorized moment out of the chain, and an attorney would
say the evidence could have been tampered with and was inadmissible.
Anna
wasn’t sure there’d been a crime. She wasn’t even acting under color of
law. Her jurisdiction was in Rocky Mountains in Colorado. It did not
extend to a park in Michigan. Still, she worked with precision and
strict adherence to the rules.
When
she’d finished, she wondered what the hell she was going to do with her
neatly labeled packets. There was no place to lock up the stuff. In the
Visitors Center–cum–ranger station there would be an evidence locker,
but the NPS wouldn’t have given Ridley a key. Besides, Anna wasn’t sure
she trusted Ridley. At this point, she hardly trusted herself.
There
was the storeroom off the common room between her bedroom and Bob and
Adam’s, a narrow, windowless room full of cobwebs and outdated
backcountry gear. She dismissed it. Little used as it was, it was
accessible to anyone who was interested. Besides, under normal
circumstances, freezing organic matter would render it worthless. Since
this had already been frozen, it would do more damage to thaw it and
subject it to the possibility of refreezing.
A
few minutes of rummaging about and in the rear of the shop, at floor
level beneath a workbench, Anna found a partially rotted board; she
could see the shallow crawl space beneath the shop. An old toolbox,
rusted but still mouseproof, was pressed into duty as an evidence
locker. She placed the box in the hole, then covered the opening with
paint cans.
There
was a bit of Nancy Drew about the entire episode that appealed to her.
How serious could a situation be if the lead investigator was hiding
metal boxes under the floorboards in old sheds?
Lunch
was being consumed when she returned to the bunkhouse. Dinner was the
only planned meal. Lunch was peanut butter and jelly on toast — or on
biscuits, if there were any left from the night before. Adam wasn’t in
attendance. Ridley was but wasn’t particularly chatty. The weather — or
the threat of losing his vocation and avocation at the whim and will of
Bob Menechinn — had left bruise-colored smudges under his eyes.
Anna
pulled out a chair and sat down. Ridley nodded politely and passed the
bread and peanut butter. She was hungry, but not with the insatiable,
almost desperate hunger of the first days.
Katherine is butchered and you are sated.
The thought jarred her. The ravenous nature of the island jarred her.
Bob sat in his usual place, looking larger than he had the day before.
A tick filling up.
Given
to black humor and a certain dark turn of mind, Anna was accustomed to
thoughts better not expressed in groups, but, what with eating and
being eaten — the whole food chain thing spelled out in gobs of flesh
and strawberry jam — the words, rising unbidden, had a sinister cast,
as if she were going mad. Or the world was.
Not
superstitious by nature, she considered taking it up, as she chewed,
staring at the table. There was no harm in protecting oneself against
things that didn’t exist. What could it hurt to carry a rabbit’s foot?
Other than the rabbit.
“I’m going to practice my cross-country skiing,” she announced as she dusted the crumbs from the table.
“Take a radio,” Ridley said.
Bob smiled, a half smile that said:
I saw you naked.
I Know What You Did Last Summer
fluttered
out of a box in Anna’s brain and she smiled back, not at Bob, at the
silliness of the teen-scream B movie. A touch of the gory knife and the
dripping hatchet must have shown. Bob stopped smiling and concentrated
on eating.
TEN
YEARS OR MORE had passed since Anna’d been on skis and she hadn’t been
much good then. Over rough patches where Robin would fly and Ridley
power through, she would have to take her skis off and carry them;
still, it would still be quicker than hiking. The only boots she had
with her were the Sorels. There was no way the fat toes would fit into
the bindings. Having learned from Robin’s ingenuity at Malone, she
grabbed a butter knife and popped off the bindings and affixed the toe
of each boot firmly around the ski with duct tape, leaving her heels
free. Not ideal, but it would suffice. The remainder of the roll of
tape she shoved in her pack.
The
gentle, curving slope where the road led down to the water gave her
time to establish a relationship between feet and skis, hands and
poles. By the time she passed the pier, she was moving with a modicum
of confidence.
Following
the Feldtmann Trail to where she’d cut cross-country was easy.
Snowmobile tracks cut deep. The trail from the Feldtmann to where
Katherine had fallen was harder, but the drag of the Sked and the holes
left by Anna’s boots had yet to be completely eroded by wind or filled
by new snow. Ski tracks were mostly gone. Occasionally she’d see the
stripe in the snow or a pock where a pole was driven in, but she would
have been hard-pressed to stay on course if they’d been her only map.
Adam
had said it wasn’t too far to where she’d abandoned the Sked. It
wasn’t. Unburdened, rested, on skis and in the light of day, the trip
took less than an hour. The cheekiness of time irked, then disoriented,
her. Déjà vu telescoped, collapsed into two dimensions, as if she’d
walked out of the living room in her house in Rocky and into the bath,
the connecting hall suddenly not there.
The nose hill, the nose-hair tree, the refrigerator rock: Anna shed her skis and waded into the cedar swamp.
The
neon orange patches where animals had unearthed tasty bites of
researcher were erased by snowfall, but the trees were still startling
in their neon spatter. Anna pulled her balaclava off and stood quietly,
sending her senses out to taste the forest. Wind blustered through the
tops of the trees but without malice; a teasing shake of bare branches,
a rattle of dead leaves that had refused to fall in autumn. The air
smelled clean and new; there was no lingering odor of the windigo, to
speak of unspeakable things. She felt only the amiable curiosity of red
squirrels.
Following the trail blazed so conveniently in blood, she worked her way out from the clearing.
She’d
learned to track in the desert. A land of snow was very like a desert,
and she found she could read sign tolerably well. Working slowly, she
followed the spatters and the now-almost-obliterated mark where
Katherine had crawled — or been dragged — from the swamp. She found the
hole she and Robin dug, excavating the backpack. The bottom had filled
in till it was just a large dimple in the snow. Anna pulled a pasta
server she’d lifted from a kitchen drawer out of her backpack and used
it to rake around the area. Gloved hands packed snow rather than
lifting it, and it was too cold to use bare fingers.
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