But did he kill all nine, or only eight? The ninth victim was killed with a different weapon.
It’s up to Kate and her husky-wolf sidekick Mutt to untangle the life of the dead blonde with the tarnished past and find her killer. It won’t be easy; every second Park rat had a motive. Was it one of her many spurned lovers? Was a wife looking for revenge? Or did a deal with an ivory smuggler go bad?
Even Chopper Jim Chopin, the Park’s resident state trooper, had a history with the victim. Kate will need every ounce of determination to find the truth before Alaska metes out its own justice....
About the Author
Dana Stabenow is the author of twenty-eight novels, including the Edgar Award-winning Kate Shugak series. She lives in Alaska.
Read an Excerpt
A Fatal Thaw
A Kate Shugak Mystery
By Dana Stabenow
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2011 Dana Stabenow
All rights reserved.
It was six a.m. on the first day of spring, and although sunrise was still half an hour away, when Kate opened her eyes the loft of the cabin was filled with the cool, silvery promise of dawn. She sat up, stretched and yawned, and flung back the covers.
Pulling sweats on over her long underwear, she shimmied down the ladder from the loft into the cabin's single, square room. "Hey, girl." Mutt stood pressed up against the door, ears cocked, iron-gray ruff standing straight up around her face, yellow eyes wide and fixed imploringly on Kate. "In a minute. Hang on."
Going to the stove, Kate opened the fire door and stoked the fire from the wood bin next to it. The coals from the night before were still hot and it only took a moment for the wood to catch. She went to the sink and pumped up some water to replace what had evaporated out of the gallon-sized kettle overnight. Straining a little, she set it back on top of the stove. "Okay, girl," she said. Mutt danced with impatience as Kate stamped her bare feet into boots, and then, as Kate got down the choke chain and leash, her tail went between her legs and she whined, a soft, piteous sound.
"Forget it," Kate said severely. The scar on her throat, a whitish, flattened rope of twisted tissue stretching from ear to ear, pulled at her vocal chords in protest at this early-morning use, and her voice rasped like a rusty file over her next words. "I saw that old he-wolf hanging around yesterday. I know you're looking to get that itch of yours scratched but the last thing we need underfoot is a litter of pups." Mutt flattened her ears and furiously wagged an ingratiating tail. "Don't try that sweet talk on me. I remember what happened last time even if you don't."
Mutt heard the inflexible note in Kate's voice. Her tail stilled, her muzzle drooped and she gave a deep sigh. Conveying the impression that she had been beaten into it, she submitted meekly to the leash, and slunk through the door and around the woodpile.
Kate let the leash run all the way out to give her some privacy and waited. She breathed in deeply of the cool morning air, smelling of pine resin and wood smoke. The big, round, flat-faced thermometer fixed to the wall of the cabin read twelve degrees, and it was only six-thirty. Yes, spring was finally here, at last.
She felt a single, experimental tug on the leash. One large yellow eye peered over the woodpile. "Not a chance," Kate told her, and took her turn in the outhouse without losing her grip on the leash.
* * *
The killer woke a few moments later, twenty-five miles to the east, and rose at once, whistling. He washed his face and brushed his teeth, slowly methodically, a deliberate ceremony to his movements. Shaving was almost a ritual, and he was very careful not to nick himself with the blade. The new clothes — Levis, a Pendleton shirt, socks, T-shirt, shorts, bought the day before in Niniltna — had been painstakingly laid out on his bed in the order that he would put them on.
The clerk at Niniltna General Store hadn't recognized him yesterday, in spite of his shopping there all winter long. He wiped the last of the shaving cream from his face and smiled at himself in the mirror.
* * *
Kate ate the last of last week's bread as toast dunked in her morning coffee. She mixed up a batch of dough and turned it into a buttered bowl. Covering it with a damp kitchen towel she sat it next to the wood stove to rise. Puttering around the cabin, she changed the sheets on the bed in the loft and the towels next to the sink, scoured out the sink, cleaned the top of the stove, took the rag rugs outside to shake, and swept the hardwood floor. Pumping up enough water to fill the washtub, she added soap and clothes and left it on the wood stove to heat through. She cleaned the chimneys and trimmed the wicks of all the propane lamps. It was her usual Monday morning routine and she performed it on automatic. It was good to have a routine. It got things done, and it kept her too busy to think too much on how isolated she was. In the middle of 20 million square acres of national park in Alaska, where her closest neighbors were the grizzly sow across the river just waking up after a long winter's nap and the he-wolf sniffing hopefully around her horny husky, if she let herself she could get to feeling pretty lonely. Kate never gave herself enough time to feel lonely.
Chores complete, she sat down at the table next to the oil cookstove and pulled the one-pound Darigold butter can toward her. Dumping it out, she began to separate bills and stack coins. When she was through she had the grand sum of $296.61.
"Well," she told Mutt, "better than at breakup last year. At least we're going into this spring solvent."
Mutt wagged her tail in halfhearted agreement.
* * *
The Winchester Model 70 30.06 was new, purchased just the day before, from the same general store in Niniltna that had sold him his new clothes, from the same incurious clerk. The bullets were new as well, a dozen cardboard boxes of shiny new cartridges, 180-grain hunting ammunition, Winchester (he was loyal to the brand) Super X Silvertips, twenty rounds to the box. He succumbed to temptation and opened one of the boxes, pulling out a round. Even in that early light the brass gleamed, the copper glowed and the silver shone. He'd never seen anything so beautiful.
He set up a row of empty cans and bottles on a sawhorse placed across the road leading to the lane outside his cabin. From the crossbar he hung a paper target, a series of concentric circles.
He paced off 150 yards down the old, straight railroad bed that served as the Park's main, and only, road. The hard-packed snow of winter was beginning to melt and break up beneath his feet. He squatted and set the boxes of ammunition to one side. Taking the rifle in both hands, he held it to his face for a moment, inhaling the fragrance of the oiled walnut stock, running an adoring fingertip down the gleaming black barrel. The bolt worked smoothly, the craftsmanship of the piece evident in each planed and polished surface, all the machined parts working together to form a perfect whole.
He pulled the stock firmly into his shoulder and sighted down the barrel. The tiny metal bead at the end of the barrel seemed at once so close and so far away. The metal was so new it glistened in the early morning light. He frowned, and felt around in his pockets for a match. Striking it, he held it so the smoke rising from it blackened the bead.
He looked at the factory sights and shook his head with an indulgent smile. From another pocket he produced a Williams Foolproof peephole sight and mounted it next to the receiver. He loaded the rifle, five in the magazine, one in the chamber, and stood. He pulled the stock in tight and sighted through the aperture, noting that in spite of the overwhelming whiteness of the surrounding snow pack the dulled black bead at the end of the barrel stood out clearly, with no distracting reflection of light. He squeezed off six shots, enjoying the cracking sound of the reports, the solid thump of the butt into his shoulder, the smooth action of the bolt between rounds. When the chamber was empty, he walked back up the road and inspected the target. Most of his shots were grouped above and to the left of the bull's-eye. He adjusted the peephole sight with a small screwdriver, reloaded, and repeated the process. The third time he shot at the bottles and cans.
It took him less than an hour. When he was done, he had a killing machine that would reduce the three hundred yards between target and shooter to point-blank range. "A dead shot," he said, and smiled. And his wife had accused him of having no sense of humor.
He reloaded, and was careful to switch on the safety afterward. He didn't want to hurt himself.
* * *
"No, I said, and no, I meant," Kate told the door. Mutt whined mournfully behind it. "Besides, take it from me, men are nothing but trouble."
She pulled hard on the knob to see that the door had, in fact, truly latched, and turned to walk to the garage. Its double doors swung open easily, now that a winter's worth of ice and snow packed around the sill had melted down.
The building was an unheated shell made of three-by-six sheets of plywood on a frame of two-by-fours. A row of windows, encrusted with a year's worth of grime and mosquitoes, shed little light on the interior. The inside was lined with long strips of fuzzy pink fiberglass insulation between the studs, and shelves bolted to the studs, floor to ceiling and wall to wall. The floor was made of rough, unplaned planks. There was a red metal tool chest as tall as Kate mounted on wheels standing in one corner, a table saw in another and a counter with a line of power tools hanging from a pegboard nailed up above it. Unfinished and utilitarian, the garage was neat, reasonably clean and arranged so that everything in it was immediately ready to hand. Kate swept the tools with a stern eye and was satisfied that none of them had rehung themselves carelessly in her absence.
She went around the snow machine parked in front to the pickup truck behind it. It was a small diesel, an Isuzu Trooper, with a homemade toolbox mounted in the bed behind the cab. She popped the hood. She'd disconnected but not removed the battery when the first big snow fell the previous autumn. Now she took it out and set it on the counter. She left the garage and went to the generator shed. The Onan 3.5KW had been new last fall, but it was also diesel and balked at an easy start as a matter of principal. She bled off some air from the compression-release valve and, grunting, gave the hand crank a few more turns. The engine caught, and she winced away from the resulting roar. She shut the door on it and returned to the garage. A single, 150-watt light bulb she had forgotten to turn off in February lit up the dim interior. She hooked the truck battery up to the trickle charger and left it.
As an afterthought she went around to the back of the cabin and climbed the wooden ladder to the rack that held the diesel fuel tanks, a dozen fifty-five gallon Chevron drums mounted on their sides, connected with lengths of insulated copper tubing to each other, the cabin and the generator shack. Pulling the dipstick from its rack next to the ladder, she tested each barrel. The diesel was used only to run the truck, the cabin's oil stove and the generator to run the power tools in the garage, so the barrels were all about a quarter to a third full. It was enough to see her through to late May or early June, when the road opened up and the tanker from Ahtna could get through. "Close enough for government work," she said out loud, and wiped the dipstick and capped the last barrel.
She went back into the house and reappeared with a bucket of soapy water, a sponge and a squeegee and began to wash the windows on the garage. After a while the sun grew warm enough to remove her sweatshirt and work in shirtsleeves. "Bet we hit thirty-five today," she said. She stopped and looked guiltily at the cabin. Huge yellow eyes stared reproachfully out at her from the window over the sink. "Get your paws off the counter, dammit," Kate called, but her heart wasn't in it. Something halfway between a whine and a howl was the reply, and she sighed and put down the squeegee.
Mutt greeted her at the door with ecstatic yips and tried to weasel her way outside. Kate wound one hand in her ruff and with the other reached for the choke chain and leash. She led Mutt outside, slipped the choke chain around Mutt's cringing neck and fastened the leash to a length of wire stretched between two trees at the edge of the clearing. The leash was just long enough to let Mutt run up and down the length of the wire without tangling itself. Mutt immediately dropped to her belly and, without a trace of shame, groveled for freedom.
"Don't look like that," Kate told her. "You know it's for your own good."
* * *
The killer donned hat and jacket and gloves and shouldered the rifle. He took the little mirror from its nail on the wall and held it at arm's length to survey his appearance. He frowned and made a minute adjustment to the collar of his shirt. His brows puckered a little over the wrinkling effect of the rifle's strap on his new mackinaw. He smoothed the jacket down with one hand, readjusted the strap just a hair to the left, and was satisfied.
He looked around the cabin. It was spotless, the chipped white porcelain of the sink scrubbed clean, the stove top scoured and gleaming blackly, the floor swept, the bunk made up neatly beneath its olive-drab army blanket. He nodded his head, pleased. No one was ever going to be able to say he wasn't a good housekeeper.
His first stop was a mile down the road. He enjoyed the walk, the cool, calm air, the chittering of the squirrels. Once he paused and cocked his head, certain that he'd heard a golden-crowned sparrow trill out its trademark three descending notes, Spring Is Here. It didn't repeat itself, and he moved on.
When he came into the clearing of the next cabin down the road, he met his neighbor coming in from the outhouse. He was greeted, if not with enthusiasm, then at least with civility. "Hey, hi there. Great first day of spring, isn't it? Want some coffee?"
He turned toward the cabin and the first bullet caught him in the back, severing his spinal cord and exploding out of his chest in a hole six inches across. The second bullet went in the back of his neck and ripped out the front of his throat, changing his last terrified scream into a bubbling gurgle of bewilderment.
* * *
The sun was high and warm in a clear, pastel sky, and the thermometer on the cabin wall read twenty-eight above. "Told you so," she said to Mutt. Setting the chisel with a few taps of the blunt side of the axe, she stood back, raised the axe over her head, and brought the blunt side down on the chisel. The round of pine had seasoned through the winter and split cleanly at the first blow, with a satisfying crack, into two almost even halves. "I'm giving a loose to my soul," she told Mutt. Mutt yawned and settled her chin on crossed forepaws. Her choke chain was pulled tight, her leash stretched as far as it would go between choke chain and wire, and the leash run as far as it could get from where Kate was chopping wood. She was not speaking to Kate, but she still had plenty to say, all of it eloquent. Properly chastened, Kate reversed the axe and used the blade to split each half into two chunks.
A jangle of chain and a flurry of hysterical barks interrupted the splitting of the second round. She looked up to see Mutt prancing frantically, in a manner wholly unsuited to her age and dignity, at the extreme end of the wire closest to the edge of the clearing. Every hair on her body strained against the leash. Kate followed her gaze and drew in a breath.
He was a timber wolf, ash gray in color, standing three and a half feet tall at the shoulder and weighing, Kate estimated, a hundred and sixty pounds. His eyes were large, brown and probably usually filled with intelligence. Today they were bright with something else, and they were fastened on the half-wolf, half-husky tethered to the wire next to Kate's cabin. He shook his coat into amorous order, adjusted the curl of his tail and stalked forward.
He was, all in all, a very handsome fellow indeed. Well, Mutt was no hag herself, and Kate understood the impetus behind and almost wavered beneath the onslaught of imploring yips and entreating howls from both lovers. She managed to pull herself together, though, and spoke in a stern voice. "Dammit, Mutt, I told you. We don't need any more puppies around here. The last bunch like to drove both of us into running away from home. We're lucky they turned out to be halfway trainable so Mandy could put them to work."
Mutt ignored the voice of reason, quivering, her ruff standing straight up, her tail curled coquettishly, her wide yellow eyes fixed on the wolf. He paused in his approach, glancing for the first time in Kate's direction, taking her in at a single glance and dismissing her as negligible. Kate wasn't quite sure she even registered on his peripheral vision as human and therefore a potential threat; his attention was clearly fixed elsewhere.
Excerpted from A Fatal Thaw by Dana Stabenow. Copyright © 2011 Dana Stabenow. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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