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 (6 page)

BOOK: Winter Study
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It
was the first time she’d seen her housemates divested of layers and
hoods, gloves and down pants. Ridley was as she had envisioned him: a
smallish man with wiry muscles and surprisingly broad shoulders. His
hands and feet were small and would have suited a dancer, had he gone
in a different direction. At thirty, he was a full professor at
Michigan Tech, married and now the lead researcher on one of the
country’s most prestigious studies. His hair was fine as a baby’s and
curled down between his shoulder blades in a loose ponytail held by a
rubber band. Ridley would have been beautiful but was saved by crooked
teeth and a mouth too wide for his face. Had he gotten early
orthodonture, he would have been a pedophile’s dream as a kid and a
students’ heartthrob when he grew up.
Except
for Robin, Ridley was the youngest member of the team, but his
authority wasn’t questioned — at least not by the Winter Study people.
On the ice, he and Bob had swayed what passed in Homo sapiens for
antlers at each other. Neither seemed intimidated. Bob might have
Homeland Security’s ax, but Ridley was at home on the island as Bob
Menechinn was not. Like Anna, he seemed to suffer from the cold, and
she got the feeling he was more comfortable with women than men.
Adam
struck Anna as the natural alpha of the group, but he apparently didn’t
mind taking orders from Ridley. He was younger than she’d first
thought, in his late thirties. Like Ridley, he wore his hair long,
keeping it in a braid. Silver was beginning to weave through the dark
brown plait. Anna loved men with long hair, a hangover from her college
days. It suggested a wildness that appealed to her. Adam’s suited him.
His scarecrow body was ridged with muscle and his hands scarred from
work. The nineteenth-century mustache gave his gaunt face a dramatic
appeal, the hero of a western saga or a soldier making a last charge
into the valley of death.
Adam
maintained the machinery and the physical plants. From the talk, Anna
guessed he was a perennial seasonal; one of the men and women who
worked a northern park in summer and a southern park in winter. They
had little in the way of material things, living with long-distance and
commonly broken relationships, no children, no savings, no house. The
lifestyle seemed glamorous till one hit forty; then, by the alchemy of
age, it was touched with failure and sadness.
During
the course of the meal, Anna began to be initiated into the rules and
regulations of Winter Study. Rules written nowhere except in stone. She
learned the red rag was for dishes, the gray for wiping countertops.
One did not wash with the wiping cloth nor wipe with the washing cloth.
It had “just evolved” that way, Jonah told her, and she understood that
it had calcified into law and would remain thus until one or the other
of the rags — or the team — disintegrated with age.
No
one but the pilot could remove the cozy from the bowl containing brown
sugar and then only with much discussion of “Mrs. Brown’s” disrobing
and how that might or might not affect those attempting it.
She
learned that the researchers had two modes of dinner conversation:
mocking the Park Service, most particularly the law enforcement end of
it, and talking nonsense, the ringleader of the nonsense being Jonah,
the audience Ridley and Adam.
By
the end of the meal, which was excellent — that or the calories one had
to burn just to stay warm leant savor to it — Anna realized that this
style of communication, or, more to the point, noncommunication,
allowed them to live together in greater harmony than meaningful
exchanges would have; an American backwoods version of the privacy once
maintained in the Orient by elaborate ritual courtesy.
In
another setting, Anna might have taken offense at the scorn heaped on
the rangers and management of Isle Royale. Being law enforcement and,
with her new position at Rocky Mountain, at least nominally management,
the mean-spirited gossip should have offended her. In principle, it did
and, like the ongoing sexual teasing of Robin, grew tiresome, but it
didn’t hurt her feelings. There was a habitualness about it that
transcended insensitivity or insult. Like the other rituals, it had
evolved over the years, and they carped with much the same lack of
devotion as illiterate Catholics mouthing a Latin mass.
Anna
was happy to sit without speaking and let it wash around her. She
couldn’t remember being so hungry. The helpings she was given — and the
seconds she took — were double what she was accustomed to, yet she was
as excited about the dessert as any of the men and had to restrain
herself from asking for more ice cream.
When
the meal was finished, Ridley and Adam thanked Jonah for a fine dinner.
Anna hadn’t seen the old pilot do anything, but, not wanting to be
rude, she thanked him as well. Jonah hauled one of the two large metal
containers of hot water that lived on the woodstove and poured the
double sinks full. He and Ridley began pulling on yellow rubber gloves
as Jonah joked about his favorite subject; this time it was Ridley he
pretended was madly in love with him and was lecturing him about
unwelcome visits to his room in the night. Neither was gay — Anna would
have bet on it — it was simply another game that had taken root so long
ago no one was sure why they still played it.
She
offered to do the dishes, which she thought was mighty big of her, but
was met with uncomprehending and none-too-friendly stares. Precisely
what custom dictated who a chief bottle washer was, she didn’t know,
but, wanting to help, to thank them for the meal, to ingratiate herself
— or whatever it was she felt a need to do — she insisted.
Confused rather than appreciative, they abandoned her to it. The only one who remained to help or keep her company was Dr. Huff.
“Do you want to wash or rinse, Kathy?”

Katherine.
Rinse.”
That speech brought the sum total of words the woman had uttered since
the toilet seat introduction to about twelve. She made Robin seem like
a motormouth.
As
the steam rose and the pile of dirty dishes diminished, to make
conversation Anna asked Katherine what her doctorate was in. Again,
there was the odd ducking flinch and the furious blush. Katherine
wasn’t much older than Robin, not yet thirty, yet her skin had the
opacity associated with women considerably past menopause. The blush
didn’t prettily pink her cheeks but dyed them the color of new brick.
“I
haven’t got it quite yet,” Katherine admitted. Moisture blanked her
glasses, and Anna couldn’t read her eyes. “I’m all-but-dissertation.
Bob — Dr. Menechinn — has my thesis. Then it goes to committee. It’s on
the wolves in Wyoming. The alphas have started mating with more than
one female in the pack.”
“They must be becoming habituated to humans,” Anna said.
They
had progressed to the flatware, washed last, and dumped into a
long-handled deep-fat fryer set in the rinse water for that purpose —
another rule, and one Anna would have bent had not Jonah appeared
behind her and Katherine with the implement and the instructions at the
proper moment — when Katherine whispered:
“God’s nightgown.”
The
archaic oath made Anna laugh. The look on Katherine’s face made her
stop. Religious awe or deep-seated horror drew the skin around her eyes
tight. Her jaw had gone slack.
“What is it?” Anna demanded.
Katherine
pointed at the small window over the sink. Her hand was shaking so bad
tiny bubbles from the dish soap floated free and rose on the warm air.
When Anna tossed the flatware into the rinse, steam had blanked the
window. Undoubtedly shattering half a dozen traditions, she wiped it
clear with the red dishrag.
Silver
light from a three-quarter moon caught ice crystals on the snow and
rime on pine needles and tree branches. In the superdried air, the
light was so pure the world beyond the glass glowed with it, and Anna
could see with surreal clarity. Whatever Katherine had seen was gone.
Or had been imaginary.
Hands dripping, Katherine turned and ran to the common room.
Anna
ran after her, drying her hands on her trousers. Katherine squeezed
behind the television set, cupped her hands against the glass of the
picture window and pressed her face to the glass. Anna did the same.
Delineated
by moonlight and snow, seven wolves trotted across the compound. Heads
low, they came single file, long legs and big paws carrying them
effortlessly over the patchy snow. Anna’d seen wolves in captivity,
seen wolf pups, but to see seven adult wolves in the moonlight, wolves
that moved through the night the way they were meant to, the moon
catching their fur until they were frosted with silver, their shadows
black on the ground, was pure magic.
Then they were gone, the last tail swallowed up by the shaggy line of birch trunks at the edge of the clearing.
“Wow!” Anna whispered inadequately.
“They’ve never done this. Never. Not even close,” Ridley said.
“Something’s
got them stirred up.” He’d crowded so close behind Anna, she felt his
breath on her hair. He must have noticed the moment she did. He backed
away awkwardly.
The
others began to move and talk. Katherine remained immobile. Her face
had the same rapt look that had scared Anna over the dirty dishes. In a
child, she would have termed it awe. In a woman grown, it was the
aspect of true love beholding the object of adoration.
“I didn’t think they came around people,” Bob said.
“They
don’t,” Ridley replied. “Three times in the last fifty years, we’ve
found wolf tracks in the housing area. Not a pack, tracks of a single
wolf. Every time, there was a dead wolf in the carpentry shop, either
dissected or about to be. They stay away from us and we stay away from
them. We try and keep it that way. In wolf/tourist run-ins, wolves
always come out the losers. The island is too small to destroy or
transport a wolf without damaging the population and screwing up the
study. Something stirred them up,” he repeated.
“The
windigo,” Robin said. It sounded as if she wanted to believe in a
windigo more than moose meat. People loved their ghosts, demons,
fairies and angels. Anna didn’t. For her, stark reality was magical,
mysterious and sufficiently deadly. She didn’t need to put monstrous
faces on starvation and cruelty, or wings and feathers on hope.
“I thought windigos were strict humanitarians,” she said. “Don’t they just eat people?”
“Everybody loves junk food,” Jonah said.
“They smell the blood of the moose,” Bob said. “Their sense of smell is acute.”
“Exactly.”
Ridley’s word was agreeable but the tone was not. The lead researcher
evidently didn’t like an axman from Homeland Security educating him on
wolf traits. “They can smell over a thousand times more efficiently
than humans. And they can smell humans. We must reek like a paper mill
to them. There is any number of ways the pack could get to the moose.
Why come so near us?”
“Do you think the other packs will come?” Robin asked.
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