Twenty-eight-hundred feet below the red single-engine de Havilland Beaver's wings, the broad swath of the frozen KoyukukRiver glistened under the morning moonlight like a ribbon of crushed diamonds. Alexandra Maguire followed the long stretch of ice-jammed, crystalline water north out of the small town of Harmony, the back of her plane loaded with supplies for the day's delivery run to a handful of settlements nestled deep in the interior.
Beside her in the passenger seat of the cockpit was Luna, the best copilot she'd ever had, aside from her dad, who had taught Alex everything she knew about flying. The gray-and-white wolf dog had been standing in for Hank Maguire for a couple of years now, when the Alzheimer's had really started taking hold of him. Hard to believe he'd been gone for six months now, although Alex often felt she had been slowly losing him for a lot longer than that. At least the disease that ate away his mind and memories had also ended his pain, a small mercy to be sure.
Now it was just Luna and her living in the old house in Harmony and making the supply runs to Hank's small roster of clients in the bush. Luna sat erect next to Alex, her pointed ears perked forward, sharp blue eyes keeping a steady watch on the mountainous terrain of the Brooks Range, its dark, crouching bulk filling the northwest horizon. As they crossed the Arctic Circle, the dog fidgeted in the seat and let out a small, eager-sounding whine.
"Don't tell me you can smell Pop Toms's moose jerky from here," Alex said, reaching out to ruffle the big furry head as they continued north along the Koyukuk's Middle Fork, past the small villages of Bettles and Evansville. "Breakfast is still twenty minutes away, girlfriend. Make that thirty minutes, if that black storm cloud over the AnaktuvukPass decides to blow our way."
Alex eyed the dark thunderhead that loomed a few miles up from their flight path. More snow was in the forecast; certainly nothing unusual for November in Alaska, but not exactly prime conditions for her delivery route today. She exhaled a curse as the wind coming off the mountains picked up speed and scuttled across the river valley to give the already bumpy ride a bit more gusto. The worst of it passed just as Alex's cell phone began to chirp in the pocket of her parka. She dug the phone out and answered the call without needing to know who was on the other end of the line.
In the background of her best friend's house, Alex could hear a Forest Service radio chattering about sketchy weather conditions and plummeting windchill factors. "Storm's gonna be coming your way in a couple of hours, Alex. You on the ground yet?"
"Not quite." She rode through another round of bumps as she neared the town of Wiseman and turned the plane onto the route that would take her to the first stop on her day's delivery schedule. "I'm turned the plane onto the route that would take her to the first stop on her day's delivery schedule. "I'm maybe ten minutes from the Toms place now. Three more stops after that, shouldn't take more than an hour apiece even with the headwind I'm fighting right now. I think the storm is going to pass right by this time." It was hope more than qualified estimation, sympathy for her friend's concern more than caution for her own safety. Alex was a good flier, and too well trained by Hank Maguire to do anything completely reckless, but the simple fact was the supplies she carried in her cargo hold were already a week overdue because of bad weather. She'd be damned if she was going to let a few snowflakes or gusty breezes keep her from delivering goods to the folks in the far-flung reaches of the interior who were counting on her for food and fuel.
"Everything's fine on this end, Jenna. You know I'm careful."
"Yeah," she said. "But accidents happen, don't they?" Alex might have told Jenna not to worry, but saying it wouldn't have done any good. Her friend knew as well as anyone--perhaps better than most--that the bush pilot's unofficial creed was roughly the same as that of a police officer: You have to go out; you don't have to come back. Jenna Tucker-Darrow, a former Statie from a long line of Staties--and the widow of one to boot--got quiet for a long moment. Alex knew her friend's mind was likely traveling down a dark path, so she worked to fill the silence with chitchat.
"Hey, when I spoke to Pop Toms yesterday, he told me he'd just smoked a big batch of moose meat. You want me to see if I can sweet-talk him into sending me back with some extra jerky for you?" Jenna laughed, but she sounded as though her thoughts were a million miles away. "Sure. If you think Luna will let you get away with it, then yeah, I'd like that."
"You got it. The only thing better than Pop's moose jerky is his biscuits and gravy. Lucky me, I get some of both."
Breakfast at Pop Toms's place in exchange for semimonthly supply drops had been a tradition started by Alex's father. It was one she enjoyed maintaining, even if the price of aviation gas well outweighed the price of Pop's simple meals. But Alex liked the old guy and his family. They were good, basic folks living authentically off the same rugged land that had sustained generations of their stalwart kin. The idea of sitting down for a hot, homemade breakfast and catching up on the week's events with Pop Toms made every bump and dip in the flight out to the remote settlement worthwhile. As she crested the final ridge and began her descent toward the makeshift landing strip behind Pop's store, Alex imagined the salty-sweet smell of smoked meat and buttermilk biscuits that would already be warming on the woodstove when she arrived.
"Listen, I'd better go," she told Jenna. "I'm going to need both hands to land this thing, and I--" The words caught in her throat. On the ground below, something odd caught Alex's eye. In the dark of the winter morning, she couldn't quite make out the bulky, snow-covered form lying in the center of the settlement, but whatever it was made the hair at the back of her neck prickle to attention.
She couldn't answer at first, all of her focus rooted on the strange object below. Dread crawled up her spine, as cold as the wind battering the windscreen.
"Alex, are you still there?"
"I'm, uh ... yeah, I'm here."
"What's going on?"
"I'm not sure. I'm looking at Pop's place just ahead, but something's not right down there."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't say exactly." Alex peered out the window of the cockpit as she brought the plane closer, preparing to land. "There's something in the snow. It's not moving. Oh, my God ... I think it's a person."
"Are you sure?"
"I don't know," Alex murmured into the cell phone, but the way her pulse was hammering, she had no doubt that she was looking at a human being lying underneath a fresh cover of snow. A dead human being, if whoever it was had been lying there unnoticed for anything longer than a few hours in this punishing cold.
But how could that be? It was almost nine in the morning. Even though daybreak wouldn't come until close to noon this far north, Pop would have been awake for hours by now. The other folks in the settlement--his sister and her family--would have had to be blind to miss the fact that one of them was not only unaccounted for but sprawled in a frozen heap right outside their doors.
"Talk to me, Alex," Jenna was saying now, using her cop voice, the one that demanded to be obeyed.
"Tell me what's going on."
As she descended to begin her landing, Alex noticed another worrisome form on the ground below-this one lying between Pop Toms's house and the tree line of the surrounding woods. The snow around the body was blood-soaked, dark stains seeping up through the blanket of fresh white in horrific intensity.
"Oh, Jesus," she hissed under her breath. "This is bad, Jenna. Something awful has happened here. There's more than one person out there. They've been ... hurt somehow."
"Hurt as in wounded?"
"Dead," Alex murmured, her mouth gone suddenly dry with the certainty of what she was seeing.
"Oh, God, Jenna ... there's blood. A lot of blood."
"Shit," Jenna whispered. "Okay, listen to me, Alex, I want you to stay on the phone with me now. Turn around and come back into town. I'm going to call Zach on the radio while I have you on the phone with me, all right? Whatever's happened, I think we should let Zach handle it. Don't you go near--"
"I can't leave them alone," Alex blurted. "People have been hurt down there. They might need help. I can't just turn away and leave them now. Oh, God. I have to go down and see if I can do something."
"Alex, dammit, don't you--"
"I have to go," she said. "I'm about to land." Ignoring Jenna's continued orders to leave the situation to Zach Tucker, Jenna's brother and the sole police officer in a hundred-mile radius, Alex cut off the call and eased the plane down onto its skis on the short landing strip. She brought the Beaver to an abrupt stop in the fresh powder, not the most graceful landing but good enough, considering that every nerve ending in her body was screaming in rising panic. She killed the engine and no sooner had she opened the cockpit door did Luna leap over her lap to bolt from the plane and run toward the center of the cluster of homes.
Alex's voice echoed in the eerie quiet of the place. The wolf dog was out of sight now. Alex climbed out of the plane and called for Luna once more, but only silence answered. No one came out of the nearby houses to greet her. No sign of Pop Toms at the log-cabin store just a hundred feet away. No sign of Teddy, who, despite his teenage front of indifference, adored Luna as much as the dog loved him. There was no sign of Pop's sister, Ruthanne, either, nor her husband and grown sons, who were usually up well before the late daybreak of November and taking care of things around the settlement. The entire place was still and soundless, utterly lifeless.
"Shit," Alex whispered, her heart jackhammering in her breast. What the hell had happened here? What kind of dangerous situation might she be walking into when she got out of her plane?
As she reached back into the cargo hold to grab her loaded rifle, Alex's mind latched onto the grimmest possibility. Middle of winter in the interior, it wasn't unheard of for someone to go stir-crazy and attack his neighbor or do serious harm to himself, maybe both in short order. She didn't want to think it-couldn't picture anyone in this close-knit group of people snapping like that, not even sullen Teddy, whom Pop was worried had recently fallen in with a bad crowd.
Rifle at the ready, Alex climbed out of the plane and headed in the direction Luna had run. Last night's fresh snow cover was powdery soft under her boots, muffling the sound of her footsteps as she cautiously approached Pop's store. The back door was unlatched, wedged open half a foot by snow that had blown over the threshold and begun to accumulate. No one had been out here to check on the place for a minimum of several hours.
Alex swallowed the lump of dread that was steadily growing in her throat. She didn't dare call out to anyone now. She hardly dared to breathe as she continued past the store to the cluster of cabins beyond. Luna's bark made her jump. The wolf dog was sitting several yards out. At her feet was one of the lifeless forms Alex had spotted from the air. Luna barked once more, then nosed the body as if she were trying to make it move.
"Oh, Jesus ... how can this be?" Alex whispered, taking another look around the silent settlement as she managed a firmer grip on her weapon. Her feet felt like lead weights as she walked toward Luna and that motionless, snow-covered bulk on the ground. "Good girl. I'm here now. Let me have a look." God help her, she didn't need to get very close to see that it was Teddy lying there. The teen's favorite black-and-red flannel shirt was sticking out of the shredded, bloodied mess of his heavy down parka. His dark brown hair was iced over where it rested against his cheek and brow, his olive-colored skin frozen and waxy, tinged blue where it wasn't coated brick red with coagulated blood from the torn, gaping wound where his larynx used to be.
Alex rocked back on her heels, sucking in a great gasp of air as the reality of what she was seeing slammed into her. Teddy was dead. Just a kid, for crissake, and someone had killed him and left him there like an animal.
And he wasn't the only one to suffer that fate at this remote family settlement. Shock and fear clawing at her, Alex stepped back from Teddy's body and swung her head around to look at the surrounding area and houses. A door was smashed off its hinges across the way. Another motionless bulk lay outside one of the cabins. Still another, just below the open door of a pickup truck that was parked alongside an old wooden storage shed.
"Oh, God ... no."
And then there was the body she'd seen on her descent into the settlement, the one that looked so like Pop Toms, dead and bloodied at the edge of the woods behind his house.
Taking a firmer hold on her rifle even though she doubted that the killer--or killers, based on the depth of carnage here--had bothered to hang around, Alex found herself drifting toward that scarletdrenched patch of snow near the tree line, Luna following at her heels. Alex's heart and stomach twisted together with each dreadful step. She didn't want to see Pop like this, didn't want to see anyone she cared about brutalized and broken and bloody ... not ever again. Yet she could no more stop her feet from moving than she could keep from kneeling beside the grisly, facedown corpse of the man who'd always greeted her with a smile and a big, warm bear hug. Alex set her gun down in the red snow next to her. A wordless cry strangling in her throat, she reached out and carefully rolled the big man's shoulder. The ruined, sightless face that gaped up at her made Alex's blood chill in her veins. His expression was one of pure terror, frozen across his once-jovial features. Alex could not even begin to imagine the horror of what he must have seen in the instant before he died. Then again...
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