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 (9 page)

BOOK: Winter Study
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“He
was doing the same thing. Flying. That’s what I thought then. He was
taller than me and couldn’t have been more than ten feet away. We just
stared at each other for a long time. His ears twitched and he blinked.
I blinked and tried to make my ears twitch under my hood. Then he
turned and walked toward the woods. At the edge of the trees, he looked
back over his shoulder, and I started to cry.” She sounded wistful
enough to cry these many years later.
“I thought he was asking me to go with him and I couldn’t.”
“Why not?” Anna asked, caught up in the story.
Katherine smiled and went back to her scat gathering. “Momma told me not to leave the yard.”
Anna
shifted from foot to foot. Her toes were getting numb. “No wolves in
D.C. At least not the kind that will refrain from devouring children,”
she said. Bob was a professor at American University in Bethesda, where
Katherine worked on her doctorate.
Wistful
beauty burned away in a flash, and, for a second, Anna thought
Katherine was going to wrinkle back her upper lip and growl. Whatever
soured the young woman nearly to the point of spitting might have been
sufficiently interesting to take Anna’s mind off freezing to death for
another few minutes, but they were interrupted by the squeaky
munch-munch-munch
of boots on frozen snow announcing Bob’s return. Katherine’s face went blank, her eyes back to her collecting and packaging.
Menechinn
emerged from the trees. “Better get Ridley,” he said without preamble.
“Looks like Stephen King is doing a wilderness version of
Pet Sematary
up here.”
“What have you got?” Anna asked.
“Let’s
wait for Ridley,” Bob said and planted his feet as if the sheer force
of his will would draw the lead researcher across the ice. Menechinn
was either in shock or suffering an attack of melodrama.
“Would you like me to radio Ridley?” she asked politely.
When he answered the call, Ridley echoed Anna almost word for word: “What’s he got?”
Anna looked at Bob.
“It’s not far in,” Menechinn said.
“It’s
not far in,” Anna repeated into the mike. She could hear Ridley sigh
all the way from the well and wasn’t sure it was over the radio.
“I’ll be there when we’re finished.”
Anna
put the radio back in her parka; with mittens, it was more a process of
shoving and squashing than pocketing. For a half a minute, she stood
with Bob, cooling heels already numb from so long on the ice. Katherine
kept her head down, staying busy with her collecting.
Finally
Anna headed off toward the woods where Bob’s tracks tore up the bank.
Katherine pushed up from the scat-dotted ice to come with her.
“Hang
on, you two.” Bob sounded like a schoolmaster dealing with overeager
children. “I don’t want you tracking up the area before Ridley gets
there.”
Idiot,
Anna thought charitably as she pretended not to hear him.
Menechinn’s
find was no more than a hundred yards from shore, near where the
Feldtmann Trail joined the Nature Trail that led up to the
permanent-employee housing. In a three-foot radius around the body,
duff, dirt and snow were plowed up by Menechinn’s size thirteens. Mud
and blood churned the snow to the unsettling brownish pink Anna
associated with wallpaper in old ladies’ bathrooms.
“Idiot,” she reiterated as she studied the radically compromised scene.
A wolf.
There was no scene. Dead animals did not constitute murder.
Pet Sematary.
“Right,”
she said, and, careless of where she stepped, she walked up to the
animal and squatted on her haunches. It lay on its side, eyes open,
tongue — pink and silly looking like a goofball dog’s — lolling out of
its mouth. Anna pulled off a mitten and touched the tongue. Frozen
solid. Scavengers had been at it but not a lot. The animal had been
there long enough to freeze but not so long that the body had been torn
up. Five or six hours, maybe less. Ridley could make a more educated
guess. He knew the island food chain better than she did.
The
blood was from the throat. A wolf-on-wolf killing; on ISRO, nothing
else was big enough to take out a wolf. The wolves were isolated by
miles of open water for decades at a stretch, and no other large
predators had migrated to the island: no puma, no bears, no coyotes,
not even a badger. The other wolf — the one who’d left the fray alive —
was either very big or very lucky. This animal was a good-sized male,
yet he hadn’t had time to put up much of a fight. Fur, matted with
blood and frozen solid, masked the wound, but it had to have been
severe. The wolf looked as if he bled out fast. There was little sign
of movement after the neck was slashed.
Anna
laid her bare hand on the fur. In the Western world’s collective
unconscious, wolves symbolized hunger, danger, vicious cunning and
cold-blooded slaughter. The flip side was, they were the embodiment of
the wild; like the wind, they went where they would, did as they
pleased, then vanished into the woods. Touching a wolf — even a dead
wolf — Anna thrilled to the echo of primitive, amoral freedom.
“What killed it?” Ridley had come. Everybody had come. Anna stood and moved back.
“Neck wound,” Anna said.
“Interpack rivalry,” Bob said.
“Could be,” Ridley replied noncommittally.
“What else?” Bob demanded.
Anna
leaned against the bole of a birch. She loved a good pissing contest
when she wasn’t on the wrong end of it. Ridley said nothing but
crouched over the wolf much as she had. Menechinn gave Anna a
conspiratorial grin as if they shared a joke on Ridley. He winked at
Anna, then said to Ridley: “You wanted a dead wolf. Now you’ve got it.”
“Now
I’ve got it,” Ridley echoed absently. He took off his left glove. With
long, sensitive fingers, he pulled back the eyelids, then the lips.
Ridley Murray was unmoved by the wolf’s death per se. Wolves were not
wolves to him, Anna realized. They were subjects of study.
Katherine
was not quite so clinical, but she was detached and professional. After
the story of her first wolf and love torn asunder by parental decree,
Anna thought she’d show more emotion.
“Let’s get it to the bunkhouse,” Ridley said, rising effortlessly to his feet. “It’ll need to thaw before we can do much.”
“I’ll
take the pelt and head,” Bob said. “I’ll have it shipped to American
University. You know, for research, a research tool. Our students don’t
get much of a chance for the hands-on like you folks do.” He smiled,
turning it on each of them in turn.
Katherine’s
head twitched up, in a gesture oddly reminiscent of the alpha female’s,
on hearing the approaching snowmobile. A shadow passed behind her eyes,
and she turned away as if from something obscene. Maybe she wasn’t as
unmoved as Anna had thought.
Ridley
pulled his glove on, his eyes blank under the glare of Menechinn’s
grin. He looked the way Robin did when she came in at the end of the
day; her face frozen — not figuratively, literally — cold paralyzing
surface muscles and skin, as unable to show any expression as a Botox
junkie.
“The head and pelt,” Ridley said evenly.
In
the minds of the members of the wolf/moose study team, the island had
been their personal domain for years, intruded on occasionally by the
National Park Service and other ignorant bureaucrats but never
conquered. Anna waited for Ridley to light into Menechinn.
Ridley
didn’t take his eyes off Bob for a good ten seconds, then he said to
Robin: “Get a tarp from the snowmobile. I want to get it to the
bunkhouse before the ravens find it.”
ON
THE FLOOR in the unused kitchen down the hall from Anna and Robin’s
room, garbage bags were put down, then newspapers to soak up the
fluids. The wolf was laid on this unglamorous bier to thaw.
“It’ll
be a few days before we can do the necropsy,” Ridley said as he handed
a fine-tooth comb to Anna and another to Katherine, then set a box of
small ziplock baggies, the size cheap jewelry is sold in, on the
newspapers by the wolf’s spine.
“I’ll be here to supervise,” Jonah said. “Keep an eye on young Ridley.”
“You taught me everything I know,” Ridley said good-naturedly.
“Any
mistakes I make will be your fault.” It had taken Anna a while, but
she’d eventually caught on; one of the many amusements they’d developed
was the fiction that Jonah was all things: chef, scientist, philosopher
and learned professor. Though he was a smart man, Anna doubted he’d
gone any further than high school.
“We’ll do the external exam now,” Ridley said for Anna’s benefit.
“No smell, for one thing. Once the specimen starts thawing, it’ll stink pretty bad.”
“At least we’ve got that to look forward to,” Jonah interjected.
“We want to get the ectoparasites off. They are opportunistic and will jump to other hosts if they can. We’re the other hosts.”
“Like
this,” Katherine said, and Anna watched as she combed the fur from the
roots of the hairs out, much like a mom looking for lice on a child’s
head. Ridley moved to the kitchen counter and set out a rack of small
vials he’d brought from the storeroom off the shared living area. The
tubes were held upright by the rack, half filled with clear liquid and
tightly stoppered.
“Alcohol,” he said. “For preservation.”
Anna
began combing. She’d thought the fur would be like dog fur, but it
wasn’t. Where a dog’s coat was relatively smooth, hairs all the same
length, the wolf’s pelt was made of many lengths, and lengths of many
textures and colors. From the distance of the dock, the animals had
appeared to be rather plain. Up close, the rich color and lush texture
of the coat was stunning. Midwinter, times were tough, the wolf hadn’t
been shampooed or visited a doggie salon in his life, yet the
descriptive that came to Anna’s mind was “regal,” a robe of royalty
right down to the extra-long guard hairs around the throat that created
a silvery ruff.
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