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Authors: Dana Stabenow


BOOK: Breakup
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Kate Shugak 7

Dana Stabenow

( reserved. This book, or parts thereof, be reproduced in any form without permission, simultaneously in Canad a of Congress Catabging-in-Publication Dat a Stabenow. Dana.

Breakup/Dana Stabenow. that . cm.- (A Kate Shugak mystery) BN 0-399-14250-9

Shugak, Kate (Fictitious character)-Fiction. 2. Women detectives- ka-Fiction. 3. Alaska-Fiction. I. Title. II. Series: Stabenow, Dana. Shugak mystery.

S69.T1249B74 199796-38195 CIP


I in the United States of Americ a 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 took is printed on acid-free paper. design by Kate N i viĀ 

my thanks to Tope Equipment for the ride on the D-6

and to Mary Ann for the great line and to Dad and Hank for the bear storiesĀ 

for my girls Angelique, Tanya, Marie and Monic a sunshine on a cloudy day

Kate surveyed the yard in front of her cabin and uttered one word. "Breakup."

Affection for the season was lacking in the tone of her voice.

Ah yes, breakup, that halcyon season including but not necessarily limited to March and April, when all of Alaska melts into a 586,412-square-mile pile of slush. The temperature reaches the double digits and for a miracle stays there, daylight increases by five minutes and forty-four seconds every twenty-four hours, and after a winter's worth of five-hour days all you want to do is go outside and stay there for the rest of your natural life. But it's too late for the snow machine and too early for the truck, and meltoff is swelling the rivers until flooding threatens banks, bars and all downstream communities-muskrat, beaver and man. The meat cache is almost empty and the salmon aren't up the creek yet. Al l you can do is sit and watch your yard reappear, along with a winter's worth of debris until now hidden by an artistic layer of snow, all of which used to be frozen so it didn't smell.

"The best thing about breakup," Kate said, "is that it's after winter and before summer."

Mutt wasn't paying attention. There was a flash of tail fur on the other side of the yard and the 140-pound half-husky, half-wolf was off with a crunch of brush to chase down the careless hare who had made it. Breakup for Mutt meant bigger breakfasts. Breakup for Mutt meant outside instead of inside. Breakup for Mutt meant a possible close encounter with the gray timber wolf with the roving eye who had beguiled her two springs before, then left her flat with a litter of pups. All five had been turned over to Mandy a nanosecond after weaning. One had been on the second-place team into Nome the month before.

Kate tried not to feel resentful at being abandoned. It was just that it seemed someone ought to have been present, looking on with sympathy as she plodded through the million and one tasks produced by the season's first chinook, which had blown in from the Gulf of Alaska the night before at sixty-two miles per hour and toppled the woodpile into the meat cache, so that the miniature cabin on stilts looked knock-kneed.

The chinook had also awakened the female grizzly wintering in a den on a knoll across the creek. Kate had heard her grousing at five that morning. She was hungry, no doubt, and a knock-kneed cache was probably just the ticket to fill her belly until the first salmon hit fresh water.

And speaking of water, before Kate started work on the truck she had to check on the creek out back. With the coming of the chinook the ice had broken, and the subsequent roar of runoff was clearly audible from her doorstep. The previous fall had brought record rain, and the boulders that shored up her side of the creek had been loosened to the point of destabilizing the creek bank, but before she could do anything about it she'd had to go to Anchorage, and by the time she got back the creek had been frozen over.

Before her lumbar vertebrae could start to protest at the mere prospect of such abuse, she went to take a look, shoving her way through the underbrush that closed in around the back of the cabin to the top of the short cliff overlooking the course of the stream.

From the top of the bank at least, the situation did not look that bad. The tumble of boulders, some of them as tall as she was, broke the current, supported the bank and excavated and maintained a small backwater just downstream within the arm of the outcropping, good for salmon tickling and skinny-dipping.

The thought of skinny-dipping called up a memory from the previous summer, one that included Jack Morgan, whose behind had suffered from sunburn that evening. He hadn't complained.

She flapped the collar of her shirt. It had to be forty degrees. A veritable heat wave. No wonder she was feeling flushed. There was a length of three-quarter-inch polypro fastened to evenly spaced posts leading down the side of the bank, and she went down backwards, breathless not just from the exertion, light of foot and heart.

Up close she was happy to see that the situation looked even less dire. The two boulders that formed the point of the mini-peninsula had shifted, but it looked now as if they had merely to settle in even more firmly than before. No collapsed banks, no rocks sucked into midstream. She scaled the natural breakwater and to her delight found that the alteration had caused the backwater to increase in size and depth, just a little, just enough to increase her crawl from four overhand strokes to five, and Jack's from two to three.

Or just enough to catch her.

"Get a grip," she said, shifting inside clothes that had fit perfectly well when she put them on that morning. It was her own fault for reading Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell late into the previous night. Those damn Cavalier poets were always headfirst in love with somebody, and none of them had the least sense of moderation. Charles II had a lot to answer for.

It was Jack's fault, too, for not being here, right here where she could get her hands on him.

A rueful grin spread across her face. If Jack had the least idea of her mood he'd be on the next plane.

The water at her feet was so clear it was almost invisible, crisped at the edges with a layer of frosty ice, and she bent over to scoop up a handful. It was tart and oh so cold all the way down. Smiling, she splashed a second handful over her face.

Over the rush of water came a kind of snuffling grunt. Her hand stilled in the act of scooping up more water, and very, very slowly she looked up.

Fifty feet away, standing in midstream, thick, silvered hide spiked with water, a female grizzly stared back.

Ten feet downstream of mama came the bawl of a cub.

Five more feet downstream came the answering bawl of its twin. Neither of them looked more than a day out of the den.

Involuntarily, Kate stood straight up and reached for her shotgun.

It wasn't there.

The grizzly allowed Kate just enough time to remember exactly where it was-in the gun rack above the door of the cabin-before she dropped down to all fours in the water and charged.

There was a bark and a scrambling sound from the top of the bank. "NO, Mutt!" Kate roared, a shaft of pure terror spearing through her. "STAY!"

The bear stopped abruptly in midstream and reared up on her hind legs, so immediately on the heels of Kate's command to Mutt that a bubble of hysterical laughter caught at the back of her throat. The bear's lips peeled back to reveal a gleaming set of very sharp teeth that snapped in her direction. When they came together it sounded like the bite of an axe blade sinking into wood.

All thought of laughter gone, Kate backed up a step, casting a quick glance at the bank behind her. It wasn't as tall or as steep as the bank down to the outcropping, but it was still taller than sh e was and lined along its edge with a tangled section of alder and diamond willow, with no line to aid her ascent. Mutt barked again, and again Kate yelled, "NO! STAY!" without turning around, because she purely hated turning her back on a bear. She took another step back and began to speak in what she hoped was a soothing monotone. "It's okay, girl, it's all right, you're between me and your cubs, I can't get to them, it's all right, I mean you no harm, settle down now and I'll get out of your face, just calm down and-"

There was another roar from the grizzly and she dropped down on all four feet with a tremendous splash and charged again, water fountaining up on either side.

"Oh shit," Kate said, and on the spot invented a technique for climbing a steep creek bank backwards that might not have been recognized by any international mountaineering organization but got her up and over the lip of the bank a split second before the bear, moving too fast now to stop, crashed headfirst into the wall of dirt with such force that a large section of it caved in on her.

It didn't improve her disposition any, but Kate wasn't hanging around to watch. On hands and knees she wriggled through the undergrowth, branches scraping at her face and tugging at her hair, nails broken, knuckles split and bleeding, all the while listening to the outraged roaring of the grizzly behind her. The sound provided unlimited fuel for forward motion. Kate broke through the other side of the brush and collapsed, only to be pounced upon by an anxious Mutt, who thrust a nose beneath Kate's side and flipped her like a landed halibut, sniffing her from head to toe in between bellowing threats to the grizzly. Between the growling of the infuriated grizzly, the bawling of the terrified cubs and Mutt's challenging howls, Kate's eardrums would never be the same.

"It's okay, girl," Kate said, as Mutt nosed her over for the second time. "It's all right. Calm down, now. Come on, calm down. Mutt, dammit, knock it off!"

Mutt ceased triage with a hurt look. Unhindered, Kate managed to get to her feet and stagger to the cabin to retrieve th e shotgun. She got back in time to listen as the grizzly proceeded to tear up an additional six feet of creek bank, which from the sound of it included the felling of a great deal of timber, before taking her frightened offspring in charge and marching them off in the opposite direction. They heard her baying defiance for a good fifteen minutes, and then it faded only as she put distance between her family and Kate's homestead.

It took every second of that fifteen minutes for Kate to swallow her heart, control her respiration and amass sufficient authority over her muscles to still her knees. Her jeans were soaked through with snowmelt, her shirt with perspiration. Her blood thudded against her eardrums and the walls of her veins. With every in drawn breath oxygen fizzed along her pulmonary arteries. She felt ten feet tall and covered with hair. She felt as naked and defenseless as a newborn babe. She was terrified, she was exhilarated, she was most definitely alive.

Returning to the yard, she stood the shotgun butt down next to the cabin door, ready for action. Inside, she noticed with a sense of detachment that her hands were filthy from clawing up the creek bank. She looked up and caught sight of her image in the mirror hanging over the sink. Her waist-length, straight black hair, which had started out the day confined in its usual neat French braid, had been yanked into an untidy bush. The pupils of her almond-shaped eyes took up most of the hazel iris, and her skin, usually a warm golden brown, had paled to the point that the roped scar bisecting her throat was almost invisible.

She noticed further, with that same sense of detachment, that everything within range of her vision seemed to be outlined with a rim of light that shimmered in the crisp morning air, giving it an air of unfamiliarity. It was almost as if she were seeing everything for the first time.

The cabin was a single room twenty-five feet square, with a sleeping loft beneath a high-peaked roof. To the left of the door was the kitchen, containing a sink with an old-fashioned, long- handled water pump, an oil stove for cooking, a woodstove fo r heat, a table and three old and mismatched but serviceable chairs. A built-in, L-shaped couch upholstered in deep blue canvas filled up the corner to the right of the door, and the rest of the wall space was taken up by bookshelves crammed with books, tape deck and cassette tapes. A dusty guitar hung on one side of the door, a set of caribou antlers on the other side with a down jacket and a fur parka hanging from it. The ladder to the sleeping loft rose up from the center of the room. On nails driven into the sides of the ladder hung two beaver traps, a sliming knife with a white plastic handle in a hard plastic sheath, a couple of rings of keys, a wool muffler and a philodendron she was in the process of killing.

Kate's heartbeat began to settle and the room once again to look like home. It seemed so amazingly unchanged from when she had left it, was it really only twenty minutes before? Strange, when she felt so, so ... well, she didn't know quite what she felt, except that her knees were still experiencing technical difficulties and as she moved to the stove to pour herself a cup of coffee she kept tripping over objects that weren't there.

The coffee, the last in the pot and strong enough to smelt iron, booted the kick start with a satisfyingly solid jolt. Kate rinsed out the mug, scrubbed her hands, clipped her broken nails and changed into dry clothes, which gave her at least the outward semblance of normality, in spite of the little electric shocks that kept darting beneath her skin. Back outside, she narrowed her eyes against the sun. Never had it seemed more golden in color, never the sky so blue or the trees such a dark, deep, rich green. The air sizzled with life and death and everything in between. She gulped it in, greedy for more.

Jack Morgan's face flashed in front of her, and she knew an immediate, visceral need for his presence, his mouth, his hands, his body. Her skin radiated a sudden and unexpected heat, and she pulled at the front of her plaid shirt, popping one of the buttons in her haste, rolling up her sleeves to bare her skin to the cool, clean air. When she realized what was happening she gave a snort of laughter. Mutt, on self-appointed sentry duty, looked around , ears cocked inquiringly. "It's all right, girl," Kate said, still laughing, albeit somewhat shakily. "Breakup's making your roomie a little needy, is all."

The ears remained cocked, as if to say, So what else is new? or maybe, Get in line. Kate laughed again, and then pulled herself together. There was work to do. Priority one was a truck tune-up. She'd left the supply run to Ahtna until too late to take the snow machine.

BOOK: Breakup
11.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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