Disclaimer: The characters of Xena and Gabrielle are the property of Universal and Renaissance Pictures. The characters and events of the Forensic Series belong to the author.
Travelers: My thanks to my many readers. I enjoy very much traveling with you through places,
lives and events. My praises to my beta readers Lisa and Inga who do all the hard work and never complain and to Susan who makes sure we all stay on track.
This is a new murder mystery series which is a spin off of Seasons: Spring Rains. It is about the life and work of the forensic anthropologist, Doctor Alberta Pateas. Travelers, welcome to the bare bones of murder!
Note: The stories do interrelate and are best read in the order they are posted.
Warning: These stories are alternative fiction; please do not read on if you are under age or if these stories are illegal in your end of the swamp.
Visit Anne Azel's World at < http://www.jes.com.au/~azel/ > or write Anne at <firstname.lastname@example.org> The Anne Azel Murder Mysteries Book 1 can be ordered through Amazon.com or Openbookltd.
It was a moonless night. The van wound its way along a dark road through the boreal forests of the Swan Hills of Alberta. The driver cursed and slammed on the brakes as the van's high beams caught the frozen image of a racoon, ghost-like in the headlights, before it scurried out of the way and into the darkness. "Damn, stupid country," growled Doctor Alberta Pateas, slowing her Honda down even further as her heart raced from the sudden release of adrenalin. The Swan Hills were a haven to wild life including the dangerous Grizzly bear. It made driving through the pitch blackness of the countryside hair raising. Even the high-beams seemed to be forced back and dimmed by the looming darkness.
"Shit!" cursed Alberta again, realizing that she had over shot the driveway that lead to her father's homestead. Why the hell do my family insist on living out here in the back woods?! And why the hell am I here? It had seemed like a good idea when she had left Toronto five days ago. Her advances to the woman that she loved had been turned down flatly. Coming home then, after fourteen years away, just seemed very appealing. But now the memories of all the reasons she wanted to leave the back of beyond were starting to come home to her again.
She turned the van around carefully on the dark road, traveled a few kilometers back the way she had come and then turned down a narrow lane. Alberta winced as branches from the trees that crowded each side of the dirt lane scraped along the side of her new 2000 Odyssey. I should have rented a truck in Edmonton, she thought, as the wheels bounced through potholes and over roots. The back of the moon would be easier to get to!
Breaking out of the tunnel of trees the van slipped through a gateway in a split rail fence and swung up in front of the massive log home. Warm light beaconed from within. It was a beautiful home. Cut from huge red cedars at the turn of the century, it was a monument to the pioneer spirit and ingenuity of its builders. Alberta had forgotten just how impressive the Pateas home was. She stopped the van near the large, comfortable veranda, turned off the engine and got out. She hesitated for a split second and then decided to leave her bags where they were. Best see how they react to me coming home first and how I'm going to react to being here.
The door opened as she walked up the steps, bathing her in golden light and the escaping warmth from the huge field-stone fireplace that she knew dominated one wall of the living room. "Aliki, this is you?!" asked her father in wonder, stepping out into the night.
"Yes, Tecanes, baba," Alberta responded, surprised to find a lump in her throat.
The huge man stepped forward and wrapped her in a bear hug. "You left a lovely child and now you have returned a beautiful woman!"
"It's just a visit!" protested Alberta quickly, but she did not pull back from the comforting arms of her father.
The old man nodded. "Yes, a visit. Tecanes, Aliki. Come, where are your bags? Your visit is not so short that you did not bring a bag!" teased her father.
Alberta blushed. "No. I just left them in the van. Ahhh, thought I'd say hello first."
The knowing blue eyes of her father looked out from under bushy white eyebrows. One arched up. "So we have said hello. Do you think now you could bring your bags into your family home?" he teased again.
Alberta laughed and buried her face again in the soft flannel shirt of her father. Tears she was not aware that she had let escape dampened his shoulder. Her father smelt so good, a mixture of wood smoke, pine needles and spice. "I...I missed you, Baba," she confessed to her own surprise.
"Baba, who's there? Oh!"
Alberta looked over her father's shoulder to see a slight woman standing in the doorway wearing a house coat. Who the hell was this?! "Ahhh, Dawn, this is my prodigal daughter come home for a visit at last! Aliki, this is Dawn Freeman."
Alberta slipped out of her father's arms as the slender woman moved forward. She would be very beautiful if she was not so painfully skinny, Alberta concluded, after letting her eye trail up the form. What the hell was she doing here?! Freeman? Wonder if she is related to Crazy Trapper Freeman? Nah, couldn't be, he was as ugly as sin!
The small woman moved forward and offered Alberta her hand. "Hi, Aliki! Baba talks about you all the time! You are a legend around here. I am so excited to meet you at last," she babbled.
"Alberta," stated the scientist tersely and then seeing the blank look on Dawn's face she went on to clarify. "I go by the name Alberta."
Dawn's eyes widened in surprise and then looked past the dark, gruff woman to the warm, gentle father seeking clarification. "I give her a beautiful name and instead she choices to call herself after a province!" he shrugged. The deep green eyes remained bewildered as they returned to look at the strong, still features of Georgeos Pateas' daughter. They didn't seem a bit alike! Baba was an open, gregarious, caring person, quick to smile and tease. Alberta was so controlled and stiff! I wonder if she can smile?
"Dawn, you go put the kettle on, Sweety, and I will help Aliki with her visitor bags," suggested Georgeos, breaking the sudden tension with the gentle teasing that was his way.
Alberta followed her father back to the van, feeling the cool night wrap around her again as she moved away from the open doorway. Sweety?! Who the hell is Dawn Freeman?! She found to her surprise that it was jealousy more than worry that gnawed at her gut. She hadn't come back to share her father's attentions.
"Who is she?" asked Alberta, as she watched the van door slide open at her keyed command. Her voice was sharper and more suspicious than she had intended.
Georgeos bent in and pulled out Alberta's one soft sided bag, hefting it and frowning. Aliki traveled light or she was not staying very long. "She was Trapper's niece. She lives here now," answered her father vaguely. "You will like Mackenzie, I think," he added as an after thought.
"Dawn's daughter," clarified Georgeos, turning and walking towards the house. Alberta locked up her van out of habit rather than necessity and followed her father up the steps and into the home to which she had thought she would never return.
Georgeos put the bag down and turned to his daughter, dragging her into another embrace. "I missed you, Aliki".
Alberta hugged him back tightly. "I missed you too, Baba; it took me a long time to realize that."
Georgeos laughed and wrapping an arm around his beautiful daughter, he led her into the living room to sit in the over stuffed leather furniture that formed a conversation nook around the huge fire. "You! So bright and you know nothing!" her father chided her.
They talked of many things, letting the bonds that had been stretched and weakened over the years strengthen once again. Dawn sat quietly listening to the father and daughter talk and later, fetched a meal for them to share. Pita bread filled with chopped lamb marinated in a light, spicy oil came first, then baklava, oozing honey between layers of puffed pastry and crushed walnuts.
After the meal, Georgeos stood and walked over to the sideboard, returning with a bottle of ouzo. He poured three glasses and added water turning the clear, licorice-tasting alcohol milky. "To my daughter, who has come home for a visit and made her Baba very happy!" They tossed and Baba took his glass and threw it into the fireplace. The glass shattered against the stone and sent crystals of glass raining into the glowing embers below. Dawn laughed and threw her glass in too. Alberta started having forgotten the ancient tradition. After a second hesitation, she smashed her glass with the others into the fireplace. So a lesser toast may never be had from this glass, she toasted silently. A hell of a waste of good glasses!
"So where are Nick and Ari?" she asked, as she sat curled in the corner of the couch. The food, liquor and good company had weakened some of the defensive walls that she had built over the years.
"Eh! Have you been away so long that you have forgotten your family runs a cattle ranch?! They are on the lower ranges checking on the spring calving. We should have about a hundred head freshening this spring," bragged Georgeos, as he leaned back in the leather of his chair contentedly.
"How many head are you wintering over these days?" Alberta asked.
"About a thousand, but we are far more diversified now. Your brother, Ari, owns a small oil field over in the south-east sector and Nick has started a winter resort for those who wish to cross country ski, dog sled or snowmobile. We are doing very well! Not like the old days, Alberta!" he laughed.
Alberta smiled but the light did not reach her eyes. She was not comfortable with the past. "I'm glad my brothers are making a go of it with you," she responded guardedly, the defensive walls snapping back into place. She looked at her watch. "It's late. I'd better get to bed before I fall to sleep here! I'll head up to my room." she stated, standing and moving over to kiss her father good night.
Georgeos looked uncomfortable. "Actually, Alberta, Dawn and Mackenzie share your old room."
"Ahh, you can use the one next to it," he concluded hastily.
"Sure," smiled Alberta awkwardly, trying to hide her hurt and surprise. He gave Dawn my room!
Well, what do expect, Alberta, you haven't been home in fourteen years!
"I'll go and see about towels and things," muttered Dawn, making a quick retreat. Alberta watched her go and then turned thoughtful eyes on her father. He smiled but offered no explanation. Alberta picked up her bag and headed up the polished oak stairs to her bedroom.
She found Dawn making up her bed. If you make the bed you have to lie in it. The old saying came back and a sexy smile curled the corner of Alberta's mouth as she looked at a cute backside straightening an errant sheet. Alberta was startled at her reaction. What was she doing appreciating another woman when she had just been rejected by the woman that she thought she loved! I'm more tired than I thought!
"Thanks," Alberta said, walking up behind Dawn. The small woman gasped, spun around, slammed into Alberta's chest and then, weak-kneed from the contact and shock, sat down on the bed.
"Ahhh, you scared me!" Dawn gasped. A dark eyebrow rose. Her father did that too, Dawn noted.
"Sorry. I didn't think I needed to knock."
Dawn blushed and slipped off the bed and around Alberta. "No, no of course you don't. You just move very quietly, like a cougar." The eyebrow rose again. "I've put out towels. We share a bath but you know that. I'll warn Mackenzie, that's my daughter, that you are here and not to monopolize the bathroom." I'm rambling, Dawn realized and snapped her mouth shut.
Alberta said nothing. She just nodded her head slowly and let her amazingly blue eyes search deeply into the forest green eyes that looked back at her. The eyes looked away. "Well, good night," Dawn muttered, making a quick exit.
"Good night," muttered Alberta, to the retreating figure. Alberta washed, slipped into her silk pyjamas, and got into bed. The feel of Dawn's small body against her chest came back. Alberta smiled. Whoever Dawn Freeman is, she is a cute little thing!
It was a perfect dream and as Alberta felt herself raising towards consciousness, she fought to linger a few seconds longer. In her dream, Janet was naked beside her in bed. Her hand gently stroked Alberta's cheek. Soft, warm fingers... Alberta's eyes snapped open as realization hit, to make contact with a pair of eyes just as blue as her own and twice as startling because they stared out from a face the tawny red of an North American Indian.
The girl pulled her hand back, her eyes getting bigger with surprise as she silently looked back at the woman in bed. "Who are you?" asked Alberta, with a smile. No answer. Alberta frowned and rolled over and sat up. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, then focused them again on the girl. She looked like she might be around eleven or twelve. A bit old to be so shy that she was tongue tied. Alberta tried again. "So are you going to tell me who you are or has the cat got your tongue?"
"She is my daughter," came the response from the other side of the room. Alberta looked over to see Dawn standing by the bathroom door. "She doesn't talk. Mackenzie, this is Baba's daughter, Doctor Alberta Pateas." Alberta looked back at the girl in surprise. The girl smiled and reached out to touch Alberta's short, curly hair that hung over her forehead. Alberta reached her hand out slowly, and touched the end of Mackenzie's nose with her finger tip. The girl giggled and blushed.
"Come on, Mackenzie, you shouldn't be in here disturbing Alberta. Come away now and go and see if Baba is downstairs yet, waiting for his breakfast." The girl looked at her mom, then back at Alberta and then, smiling, she ran off to do as her mother had asked.
Alberta looked at Dawn. She wore worn blue jeans and a Edmonton Eskimos football team jersey. Her hair was the colour of white gold and it fluffed around her delicate features playfully.
She is a good looker that is for sure. "Has she never spoken?" Alberta asked.
Dawn shook her head. "Not since she was three."
The question caused the open face to close and the bright green eyes to turn weary. "I don't know."
You're lying, thought Alberta, but wisely said nothing.
Breakfast was a merry time, Baba entertaining Dawn and Mackenzie with tales of the riotous Pateas children while Alberta protested and blushed good naturedly. "You didn't really let a skunk loose in the church manse?!" exclaimed Dawn, through tears of laughter.
"We thought we were returning the Minister's pet! It was supposed to have had its musk glands removed. We had no idea we had the wrong skunk until we released it!" justified Alberta.
"A dozen large cans of tomato juice it costs me to wash the smell out of the two of them and the manse, the minister could not use for weeks!"
Mackenzie pulled at Alberta's arm and her fingers moved rapidly in American sign language. Alberta looked over at Dawn for help.
"She wants you to tell a story of the crimes you have solved. She has seen you on t.v."
The sparkle in Alberta's eyes dulled but she smiled at the pre-teen who sat close to her side. "Let the police handle the crime, Mackenzie. That's why we have them, so others don't have to worry about it."
The girl frowned and her hands moved quickly again. "She wants to know why you would say that when you are a Mounty."
Alberta sighed. "I haven't been in active service with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for four years now, Mackenzie. Yes, I'm still officially a police officer but my work is in the forensic labs. Most of the people I work with don't even know I'm with the force. For two years, I was on loan to Interpol and now I've been seconded to the Toronto Forensic Labs."
The hands moved again. They were pretty hands, Alberta noted, long fingered and graceful and yet they looked strong. "This is your last question, Mackenzie," stated Dawn, with a gentle smile. "Then I need you to go collect some fresh eggs for us." Dawn turned to meet Alberta's interested eyes. "Mackenzie wants to know if you can still ride a horse."
"Well, it's been a good many years but I think I remember how," Alberta responded, looking at Mackenzie. The teen smiled and got up and left.
"I'm sorry, Alberta. Thanks to Baba's tales, you are Mackenzie's hero. She has your picture when you graduated from the police academy by her bed; the one in your dress reds."
Alberta blushed. "Baba, you shouldn't go on!" she complained.
Baba looked offended. "My daughter, the doctor, puts herself through school on a police scholarship. Wins a medal for bravery in the Arctic and is on t.v. solving a big police case and I am not to go on! What is the use of having a beautiful, intelligent, famous daughter if it is not so I can brag!"
The laughter of the two at Alberta's expense was halted by the sound of a helicopter. "Ahhh, the boys! I phoned them early this morning and told them their sister had come home for a visit. A very small bag she has brought, I tell them, so you had better hurry before she leaves!"
Alberta rolled her eyes at her father and smiled at the mischief and merriment that sparkled in the old eyes that looked back at her with such pride. "Come, we go greet the boys!"
Together the three walked out to watch the small helicopter with the Pateas' brand on the fuselage circling as it dropped to the pasture. "You have your own helicopter?!" yelled Alberta, over the roar of the engines.
"It is Ari's," explained the proud father. "He is a very good businessman! I tell you, last night, he has an oil field."
Alberta shook her head in disbelief. Things had changed. The Pateas family had never gone wanting but they had to work hard to make ends meet in those early years. There was certainly no money to send Alberta to university. It was an R.C.M.P. scholarship that had finally made it possible for Alberta to reach her goals.
The twins jumped from the helicopter as soon as the blades had slowed, running bent over until they were a safe distance away. Nick broke into a sprint and vaulted the fence to grab Alberta in a big bear hug. The more conservative Ari climbed over and waited his turn to wrap his sister in his arms. "We have missed you so much, Alberta! Welcome home!"
Alberta laughed and poked her brothers affectionately. "Hey, the TransCananda runs both ways you know! You could have visited!"
"To the East!" exclaimed Nick in mock horror.
"To Toronto!" added his twin in shock.
Alberta stood arms crossed and foot tapping. One eyebrow raised as she looked sternly at her younger brothers. "Still Mutt and Jeff, I see," she growled.
The twins, five years Alberta's juniors, tried to look innocent and failed miserably. They were as different from Alberta as night was to day. Alberta was like her father, tall and dark with strong, classic features that made both father and daughter stunningly good looking. The twins had taken after their mother with stocky, comfortable builds and round, friendly faces. It was only their remarkable blues eyes that identified them all so clearly as Pateases. Yirgos, the oldest, had looked like Alberta but he was dead and was rarely mentioned.
Mackenzie came out of the barn beaming and ran over to be hugged by Nick and Ari. Alberta stiffened and watched closely but said nothing. Dawn watching with interested eyes wondered what was going on behind the facade that Alberta kept so carefully in place.
The morning coffee led directly into morning brunch, the family getting louder and more riotous by the minute. Finally, Baba insisted that the family do the dishes and tidy the kitchen for Dawn before they adjourned to the living room.
The boys sat with Alberta, and talked until the late afternoon. Then fortified with sandwiches and carrying a large basket of treats that Dawn had packed, they headed back to the lower ranges. Alberta had promised to visit them at the spring range cabins before she left. She stood quietly and watched the helicopter disappear over the trees, then turned to see Mackenzie and Dawn holding hands. They looked so sad.
Blue eyes darted back to the empty sky and then turned again to look at the mother and daughter. Which one of the Pateases had sired Mackenzie? she wondered. And why has he not married Dawn? Mackenzie must be about twelve. A dozen years ago, the twins would have been fifteen. Possible, but not likely, Alberta concluded. That leaves Baba. His wife had been dead some ten years by then. He must have needed... no, Dawn couldn't have been very old then. She is probably around the same age as the twins. Somehow she could not imagine Baba robbing the cradle. That leaves... A dread washed through Alberta, as she looked closely at Mackenzie as she stood listening to her mother talking softly to her. Dear God, not Yirgos! Please, let that bastard's seed be dead and gone!
A moody Alberta had retired early to her room that evening to read. Dawn, having kissed her daughter good night, and coming back down stairs, had found Baba sitting by the fire watching the hot, red embers crack and darken. "Hi," she said, giving Baba's shoulder a squeeze as she walked around his chair to curl up on the couch near him. "You want to talk about it?"
"Talk about what?" asked the old man, frowning.
Dawn gave him a soft smile. "Talk about why Alberta left."
The frowned deepened into perplexity. "I do not know. Aliki, she never wished to stay on the ranch. Always she said she wanted something better from life than grubbing in the dirt." His forehead creased into deep furrows. "They were hard days. I bought this place with every cent I had and there was nothing left but hard work for us to get by on. The children grew up knowing that they had to do their share of the chores. Then my wife died young and far too great a burden fell on Alberta's shoulders. To Nick and Ari, she is more of a mother than sister."
Baba sat quietly for a few minutes, recalling those days. Then went on. " Alberta, right from a small child, studied every chance she got. 'I am going to be a famous scientist some day, Baba,' she would tell me. The year she graduated from highschool, she won a big scholarship to study science in California. It was not a happy summer. Alberta and Yirgos, they never got along, and that summer they stopped speaking to each other. Then suddenly, she comes home and tells us that she is not going to university, that she has joined the R.C.M.P. and will be going to their police academy. She visited a few times after she graduated but always she is moody and argues with Yirgos. She was posted to Frobisher Bay on Baffin Island in the Arctic. Then a few years later, we get a letter that she is at McGill University in Montreal. I love Aliki very much, Dawn, but I do not understand her at all. So much pain and so many secrets she carries in her heart. I do not know how they got there," sighed the old man.
Dawn reached over and rubbed a large, calloused hand. "She has done very well. Don't you worry about her, Baba. She has come home for a visit and that is a start. Can I make you some tea? There is a slice of apple pie left."
Georgeos Pateas looked up into Dawn's caring green eyes. "You spoil me, little one," he smiled.
Dawn got up and gave him a quick hug. "You take me in out of the snow and give me a home and then say I spoil you! You are worth the effort of making a pot of tea!" she laughed, kissing his head before she disappeared into the kitchen.
Baba looked back at the fire. Aliki, why have you returned home after all this time?
After Baba went to bed, Dawn checked the doors, banked the fire and turned off the lights before heading up to bed. She was tired. It had been an exciting day and it seemed like she had prepared a mountain of food during the course of the celebrations. Not that the Pateases didn't help out but still the majority of the work had fallen to her.
Lost in her thoughts, she gasped as she ran into Alberta's form standing silently in the hall. Catching her breath, she whispered in annoyance, "Couldn't you wear a bell or something?"
"I want to talk to you," Alberta stated bluntly.
"Could it wait until tomorrow?" sighed Dawn. She had a pretty good idea what the topic was going to be and she just didn't want to get into all that mess with Alberta tonight.
"Now," came the response.
Dawn considered telling her to go to hell then changed her mind. This close, she could smell the scent of Aliki, spicy and tantalizing. The heat from her close body radiated a message of strength and confidence. She was so much more than she had fantasized in her dreams. Oh yes, she had fantasized about the mysterious Aliki Pateas. Like her daughter, she had heard all the stories of this amazing woman and had stared with longing at the picture of the beautiful stern face and the immaculate red uniform with its stiff black collar. "Okay."
Alberta nodded and led the way into her bedroom. Dawn sat on the edge of the one chair and Alberta turned on the light and flopped confidently down on the bed, placing her hands behind her head and crossing her ankles. Dawn's eyes followed the length of the magnificent body dressed in navy silk pajamas and came to rest on a pair of amused blue eyes. A deep blush flooded Dawn's face. She tried to recapture the initiative by going on the offensive. "So what do you want?"
"The truth." The response was shot back.
Dawn licked her lips. This woman was not easy to deal with. "About what?"
"You. Mackenzie isn't your child. That's pretty clear. So whose child is she? And why isn't she being raised by a Pateas?"
Green eyes blazed. "Mackenzie is most definitely MY child! Don't you even think about trying to take her away from me!"
Alberta was on her feet in one smooth movement that was so quick it was over before Dawn's mind had even registered it. The tall woman leaned over her, her large hands resting on the arms of the chair.
"That child had a Pateas father. You only have to see those eyes to know that! If it was one of the twins that did the deed, he would have been a teenager. If Mackenzie is yours, you must have been around fifteen when you had her. I don't think my father would have been so stupid as to get involved with jail bait. That leaves Yirgos. Now Yirgos would want you, that's for sure!
"You are being rude," Dawn protested, pushing Alberta back with her hand. The hand touched the hard muscles of Alberta's abdomen and they both reacted. Dawn pulled her hand back as if she had been burnt and Alberta swallowed and stood up to tower over Dawn.
"You know what I think? I don't think you are the mother. I don't see any Indian features in you and yet Mackenzie clearly has Salish blood. So whose child is she really, Freeman?"
Dawn looked at her hands clasped tightly in her lap. She could still feel the warmth of Alberta's body on the tips of her fingers. Could she trust this woman? She had given her word to tell no one and raise Mackenzie as her own. "Yirgos was the father," she muttered softly, and heard a growl of disgust. "Her mother was Dorothy Seka-Kinyan, a Salish woman and my friend. I gave Dot my word when she was dying of cancer that I would raise her as my own child. Mackenzie was three when she came to live with me."
"Did Yirgos marry Dorathy Selka-Kinyan?"
"So the child is legally a member of the First Nations. A European can't adopt an Indian child. You've got that child illegally!"
Dawn stood slowly and met stormy blue eyes with cold green. "I registered Mackenzie as my child and filled out the birth certificate. It will be just your word against mine in court and I'll lie to keep Mackenzie. No one is taking my child away from me!"
"Why does Mackenzie follow me around and keep my picture by her bed?" Alberta demanded.
"You look like Yirgos. She remembers her parents. You are the only link she has to them."
This brought a frown to Alberta's face. Her jaw worked with emotion as she tried to sort through this situation. "I am not a bit like Yirgos. Why are you living here?" she asked, changing the subject quickly. She didn't want to be compared to her older brother and she didn't want to talk about him.
"Almost two years ago, my brother and uncle flew with some Americans into the foothills to hunt. They never returned. Their plane was never found. After the search was called off, I went back to the cabin with the intention of closing it down and moving into Swan Hills to look for work, but early snows cut me off before I could get out. Mackenzie and I had to winter over at the cabin alone. We almost starved. I hiked out in the late winter and got as far as here and Baba took me in. We were in pretty bad shape. I think he realizes that Mackenzie must be Yirgos' but he has never asked.
"As soon as I've got enough money, I plan on renting an apartment in town. In the mean time, I try to earn our keep as best I can. Baba has been wonderful. For a long time, I..I wasn't very strong."
Alberta looked her up and down. "You are still a bag of bones," she observed.
The criticism cut deep into Dawn's soul. She wanted this woman to find her appealing. For some reason Alberta's approval was very important to her.
"Mackenzie isn't skinny," Alberta noted.
The blond head snapped up. "Do you think I'd let my child do without?!" she growled.
Their eyes met and locked while Alberta digested all that she had heard. Finally, she reached an arm out and scooped Dawn into an embrace. "You are some woman, Dawn Freeman. Welcome to my family. I want you to look on me as a sister. And please understand that there is nothing I won't do for you and Mackenzie."
Dawn held on tightly, shaking with emotion. She had taken a risk in telling Alberta the truth but she was glad she had. She knew in her heart that Alberta would make all the difference to Mackenzie's life. She just wished that the woman who now held her so gently didn't want her only as a sister.
The next day, they went into Swan Hills to shop. Dawn drove the pickup truck with Mackenzie and Alberta crammed in beside her. Alberta had a book on American Signing open on her lap and she was trying to talk to Mackenzie. Mackenzie would very patiently demonstrate how to move her hands in the right manner and laugh when Alberta would try to make simple sentences from the few words that she had at her disposal.
"Sure, kid, laugh. You just wait until I master this stuff. You will never win an argument again!" teased Alberta. And Mackenzie signaled that she was wrong.
"Okay, you two, stop trying to one up each other. Mac, you take this list into the Hardware store while Alberta and I go up town. I'll pick you up again at the library. Do you have your books? Bye then, Hon!" Mackenzie leaped out and waved good bye. Reluctantly, Alberta slid away from the petite body by her side.
Once Mackenzie was in the store, Dawn pulled out again onto main street. "Since we've been down here, Mackenzie has been able to go to school. She's quick, Alberta, and I think she'll do much better now that she doesn't have just me home schooling her. It was hard because I never went to school."
Alberta's head snapped around in surprise. "What!? You never went to school! This is Canada. There are laws against that!"
Dawn gave her a cheeky grin. "Why is it, Alberta, that you are always pointing out to me that I've broken the law. After our parents died in a car crash, my brother and I lived with my uncle kilometers away from a school. He home taught us."
"Crazy Old Trapper Joe? I'm surprised he could write his name!"
"Hey! Lay off!" growled Dawn, her eyes flashing. " Uncle Joey was an amazing man. For your information he had a master's degree in geology. He just didn't want that sort of life. He enjoyed living off the land."
"He was crazy."
"No. He was eccentric. I learned a lot from him, Alberta. So did Mac."
Alberta decided not to push the issue. To be fair, she knew Crazy Trapper Joe by reputation only. She had seen him in town a few times. He had a long white beard and looked like he didn't have two dimes to rub together, which was probably true. They said he was the best guide in the district though. She had no idea that the old buzzard had been raising two kids up at that cabin of his. She didn't suppose anyone did. Crazy Trapper Joe wouldn't bother stringing two words together if he could get away with one.
"It was hard at first," Dawn laughed. "I hadn't been to town very often. I didn't know how to shop or use a bank. Even now, I've never been to a movie, although I've seen them on Baba's VCR. It was like going to a different country!" She pulled into a spot in front of the local grocery store.
Alberta shook her head. She looked out the windscreen at the small town and wondered about how Dawn would cope in Toronto. She remembered her first years on the force and the loneliness and culture shock that she had experienced and she had not lived anywhere near the isolated life that Dawn had. It made her feel trapped even thinking about it! Thank God, she had been able to get out!
"Some day I'll take you to Edmonton and we'll go to a movie," Alberta responded absently, lost in her own thoughts of her childhood as she undid her safety belt and pushed the door handle down. Suddenly, she became aware of the silence and stillness beside her. Dawn was never still or quiet. She looked up to meet big, green eyes.
"Would I what?" asked Alberta in surprise.
"Would you take me to Edmonton to see a movie some day while you are here?" asked Dawn, barely hiding the excitement in her voice.
Alberta found herself smiling just because Dawn was. "Sure. How about tomorrow?"
"Yes!" squealed Dawn. "Thank you, Alberta!" she said, leaning over to kiss the older woman's cheek before she slid from the car.
Brother! thought Alberta, as she stepped out her own side, blushing red with embarrassment. Dawn was such a hard read. One minute she was a capable mother, the next a fiery opponent and the next an excited child. Alberta decided she liked being around Dawn. She was so damn unpredictable.
Alberta left Dawn to do the grocery shopping. She ambled down the street, reminiscing about her childhood. It had been exciting then to come into town. She was surprised at the growth in the area. Tourism and Oil had brought a lot of needed money into the town. She stopped at the pioneer cabin and also at the huge bronze sculpture of a Swan protecting her nest. Then she steeled herself and headed out to the grave yard. She had been coming here all along, she knew, but had belayed, pretending to sightsee rather than accept the fact that she was coming here to face the demons that she had run from fourteen years ago.
Dawn hefted the plastic bags into the back of the pick-up and refastened the tarp in place. She looked up and down the street but couldn't see Alberta. Then, she caught sight of a lone figure standing out in the church grave yard. She must have gone to visit Yirgos' grave. Slowly, she headed down in that direction, wanting to give Alberta some time alone before she got there to offer support. She knew that Alberta had not come to her brother's funeral. It had upset Baba very much. Maybe she had come home now to find closure to whatever bad blood existed between her and Yirgos.
To Dawn's surprise, she found that Alberta was nowhere near Yirgos's grave. Instead, she stood way in the back corner of the graveyard. Dawn walked over to her new friend. "Hi."
Alberta glanced up, eyes sad and dull. "Hi."
Dawn looked down at the grave. 'Betty Narnick, 18 years old,' was all the small headstone said. "Was she a friend?" Dawn asked softly, surprised at the sudden pain that she felt that Alberta might have loved this woman.
"No. I hardly knew her. She committed suicide," revealed Alberta, tears welling in her eyes with the effort of speaking the worst out loud. "Because of me," she went on before she could stop. She'd carried the secret all these years and maybe it was time to admit what she had done and deal with the consequences. Dawn had been open with her; it was only fair that Alberta be honest with her.
Her knees felt weak and she slowly dropped down beside the grave. A shaky hand reached out to pull some tall grass away from the stone. "She came to me. Told me she didn't know what to do. She said a few months before Yirgos had raped her and she'd just found out she was pregnant. I knew Yirgos was wild but I didn't think he'd do anything like that. He was my brother, damn it! I told her I didn't believe her and she should go to the minister or something if she'd got herself in trouble." Tears rolled down Alberta's face and she wiped them away with a hand cold and white with stress. Dawn knelt beside her and wrapped an arm over the big wide shoulders that heaved with the sobs.
"She threw herself in front of the north bound train instead. When I finally confronted Yirgos about it, he laughed and said that he hadn't raped her that he knew she'd wanted it. He said that she'd come to him and he'd told her to get lost. He thought he was really lucky that she'd chosen to kill herself rather than make any trouble for him because he thought if Baba found out he might make him marry her if he believed she was telling the truth. I should have done something!" Alberta sobbed.
"How old were you then?" Dawn asked softly, offering Alberta a tissue to wipe away her tears. She fought the urge to wrap Alberta close sensing that the older woman wouldn't want to be babied. She realized that Alberta had returned her trust with her deepest, most painful secret.
"Hardly old enough to be making such important decisions for someone else. Yirgos should have carried the blame for this girl's death, Alberta, not you. He died in a train accident too, didn't he?"
Alberta nodded, trying to get herself under control. She hadn't meant to cry in front of Dawn.
"Is that why you joined the R.C.M.P.?"
Another nod. "There was nothing I could do to help Betty. I thought I could make a difference for others by seeing justice was done. I changed my name to Alberta. I wanted always to remember that I had a life I had to make up for," muttered Alberta, through clenched teeth.
Dawn's guts tightened in reaction to the pain and guilt that Alberta had carried all this time. Forgetting her resolve, she leaned in and kissed a wet cheek, then rested her head on Alberta's shoulder. "You have made up for the small part you played in this tragedy, Alberta, many times over. Let's go get some flowers to put on Betty's grave so that she knows that you have found peace too. Okay?"
Big, watery blue eyes looked up into honest green ones. Dawn waited, hoping Alberta would trust her to help her make that first step towards forgiveness. Finally, Alberta nodded. Dawn offered the bigger woman a hand up with a shy smile and side by side they went back down to the florist and gift store to buy an arrangement of spring flowers to leave on the grave.
The two women found Mackenzie surrounded by books in the library. Dawn helped her decide which ones she wanted to take this week. Then Mackenzie pulled at Alberta's hand and led her over to where the art books were located. Dawn stood back and let Alberta try to read what Mackenzie wanted. "You want me to help you pick out a how to paint book?" asked Alberta, and was rewarded with a shy smile.
"Do you like to paint, Mac?" The small head nodded. Then she signed once more. Alberta frowned not understanding what Mackenzie meant. Mackenzie tried again. This time substituting some signs with actions. Alberta smiled. "Oh, yeah sure, I paint a little." Mackenzie looked at her in disbelief and made the sign for a lot. Alberta laughed. "No, just a little. This book here is one that helped me a lot," explained Alberta, handing Mackenzie a book on drawing. "First, you have to understand how to draw forms before you can arrange shapes within a composition." Mackenzie nodded seriously and took the book.
Once they had checked the books through the electronic scan and headed back out to the street, Alberta suggested that she buy them lunch at the local café. Mackenzie's eyes widened with delight but she waited patiently for her mom to decide. "I guess we could, it's a cool enough day that the groceries should be okay for a little while longer."
Mackenzie locked her books in the truck and then they walked up to the coffee shop at the top of the street. Alberta liked the feel of walking with Dawn and her daughter. She had to admit that she was starting to develop a real sense of protectiveness towards these two. It reminded her of having the Williams staying at her house. She always thought that she would hate to have any disturbance to her orderly, neat routine. But she found to her surprise that she loved the feel of family around her. Unfortunately, the family she wanted belonged to somebody else.
Dawn touched her arm. "What's the matter? Listen. If you don't want to do lunch don't feel you need to. I shouldn't be spending the money anyway..."
Alberta wrapped an arm around Dawn's shoulders and gave her a quick squeeze. "I invited you, remember. Yes, I want to have lunch with the two of you and it's my treat. No, don't argue! I...I was just thinking of something else that's all! Here we are," Alberta said, as she held the door open for the mother and daughter.
They ordered the special, which was buffalo burgers and fries. Alberta and Dawn had tea and Mackenzie a strawberry milkshake. They laughed a good deal and Alberta talked to Mackenzie about painting. When she told her that she would help her pick out some water colour paints tomorrow in Edmonton, her eyes got as big as saucers, much to Alberta's delight. Seeing these two so excited and happy filled her with a warmth that she had not felt in a very long time, not since before her own mother's death. While Dawn explained to Mackenzie about their upcoming trip to Edmonton, Alberta let her eyes wander idly around the room. She saw two women looking at Dawn and Mackenzie with disapproving looks and then turning away quickly when they saw ice blue eyes staring boldly back.
How much of this crap had Dawn had to endure? People in town must think that Dawn had an illegitimate child by a Salish brave, or if they were more observant that Dawn must be of mixed race and had a child by one of the Pateas boys. How much idle gossip was there? Mackenzie excused herself to use the washroom and Dawn's eyes followed Alberta's to the two women who were leaving the café.
"I don't let it bother me," she said, and Alberta blushed and looked back at her. "I've got Mac and that means so much more than the nasty words of a few old gossips. They think I'm really Trapper's child by a Salish woman and that Mac is my child by Baba. Your father, I think, takes some pride in that!" she smiled.
"I don't like it!" snarled Alberta.
"I...I'm sorry. Baba doesn't seem to mind. I'll correct people if..." stammered Dawn, taken aback at the intensity of Alberta's reaction.
"No! I don't like that they think they are in a position to judge you!" clarified Alberta indignantly.
Dawn smiled in relief and surprise and reached over to run her fingers over a tense hand. "Hey, it's okay, really. I just don't go to the dances unless your brothers are going to be there because guys think...well, that I'm easy.
Alberta swallowed, trying to control her anger. "Does Mackenzie, get picked on at school?" she asked.
A sadness passed over Dawn's eyes. "Sometimes," she admitted. Then the eyes sparkled. "But Mac doesn't let people put her down. What she lacks in words she can make up for with a really mean right hook! No one messes with ou...my daughter." Dear God, I almost said our daughter! Where did that come from?!
Whatever Alberta was going to say was terminated by the arrival of Mackenzie. They slipped into their spring coats and Alberta paid the bill, liking that Dawn did not fight her about it. Politely, they both thanked her for the treat. Alberta got into the truck feeling lighter and happier of spirit than she had in years.
The whole household was up at dawn the next day with excitement. Alberta didn't think the Freemans had slept a wink. Georgeos insisted on giving Mackenzie some spending money and warned Dawn a number of times to watch out for those city people. He made Alberta promise to watch over them every minute and to phone when she got to Edmonton safely. Alberta rolled her eyes but put up with Baba's fussing good naturedly.
They were going to over-night in Edmonton. Alberta had already phoned ahead for reservations. She had booked a suite with a living room and two bedrooms with private bath at the best hotel at the West Edmonton Mall. It had been very expensive, but she had justified it to herself by reasoning that she needed to be close to the Freemans. After all she had promised Baba. Dawn and Mackenzie had packed and repacked a dozen times, after borrowing one of Georgeos' old suitcases.
Finally, Alberta herded her tour to the van and waved good bye to Baba. It was a two and a half hour drive into Edmonton from the ranch and on the way Alberta attempted to explain about the West Edmonton Mall. They had heard of it of course, but it was difficult to put in words just how big and diverse a place it was. Under one roof was the largest shopping centre in the world, threatres, restaurants, an entire amusement park, water slides, golf course, gardens, hotels, and a lake equipped with mini submarines. The brothers who had conceived the idea of the massive complex liked to brag that the West Edmonton Mall had more submarines than the Canadian Navy, which was true!
They had a marvelous day, shopping, playing and simply walking around with their mouths open. Alberta had to admit that she was pretty impressed too, having only walked through the mall once before. Shopping was not really something she enjoyed unless it was looking for antique furniture that she could refinish. Her historical home back in Toronto was a showplace for her finds.
They stopped at a book store so that Mackenzie could buy some new science fiction novels. "She wants to study astrophysics and live on another planet," Dawn explained, and Alberta smiled in approval. She'd had a similar dream at one time.
Mackenzie pulled Alberta into the children's section and pointed out a series of books, then pointed to her mother. Curiously, Alberta pulled a colourful book off the shelf. The books were a series called In Mallory's Forest and featured the adventures of Jill Jack-Rabbit and Betty Bunny. Alberta looked down at the author. Dawn Freeman, it read. Blue eyes glanced up into a face red with embarrassment. "You wrote these?!" asked Alberta in surprise. Dawn nodded.
Alberta promptly pulled one of each of the four books off the shelf. "What are you doing?" asked Dawn.
"Buying them so if I ever run into the author I can get her to sign them!" explained Alberta, with a big grin.
Dawn loved that smile. It revealed the wonderful person that lived behind the controlled facade. "I have extra at home. I can give you copies!" protested Dawn.
"It wouldn't be the same. Besides, you write these things to make money, don't you?"demanded Alberta, one eyebrow arching up.
"Well, yes, but not off family!" protested Dawn, and then realized what she had said. "I mean...."
A gentle hand brushed her cheek. "Hey, you two are family," confirmed Alberta, with a soft smile. Eyes conveyed a wealth of meaning as the world disappeared and there was only the two of them. Then Mackenzie arrived with her selection of novels for Dawn to approve and the moment was broken.
They had dinner at a Chinese restaurant, much to Mackenzie's delight, and then they had gone to see the latest Science Fiction movie. Mackenzie had sat on one side of her and Dawn on the other. In the scary parts, the two Freemans would grab her arm and hold on tight. Alberta couldn't help wishing there had been more scary parts. She found that she enjoyed very much having little sisters instead of headstrong brothers around her. After the movie, they strolled around the huge complex once more while the Freemans asked a million questions and reviewed all they had seen and done. Alberta found that she could now understand some of the signing if Mackenzie went slowly and she could also sign a few simple phrases.
When it became clear that Mackenzie was going to drop with exhaustion, Alberta led them back to their hotel suite and let the pair get ready for bed. She sat in a chair by the window and smiled as she recalled the day. She'd shown the Freemans a pretty good time, she figured, and was feeling pretty smug about it.
"Hey, you got a minute? Mac wants to say good night," came a voice from behind her. Alberta turned to see Dawn dressed in a simple raw cotton nighty and looking...simply beautiful. Alberta felt her eyes roaming over the cute figure and realized with a shock that her thoughts were far from sisterly. Ease up here, Alberta! she warned herself.
"Sure," she responded cheerfully and got to her feet. Dawn led her back into the bedroom to find Mackenzie sitting up in bed waiting. Alberta sat down on the edge of the bed. "So did you have a good time, Mac?" The dark head nodded happily. Then the child took Alberta's hand. She moved her mouth awkwardly. A strange growling sound came out and Mackenzie's happy face crumbled into lines of frustration.
She must be trying to say Thank you, Alberta realized and said, "You're welcome." The girl's face beamed, thinking that Alberta had really understood her, and she wrapped her arms around the scientist's neck and hugged her tight. Alberta dropped a kiss on the thick, dark hair and then tucked Mackenzie into bed. Turning, she was surprised to see that Dawn had already left. She said good night again to Mackenzie, turned off the light and closed the bedroom door.
Alberta found Dawn standing by the window shaking with emotion as tears poured down her face. "Hey, what's the matter?!" Alberta asked in alarm.
"S...she tried to speak! S...she's never tried before. Did you hear her, Alberta? She said Thanks!" sobbed Dawn, into Alberta's shoulder.
"Yeah, I heard her," Alberta agreed.
They stood that way for a long time. Dawn needing Alberta's strength and Alberta enjoying the sensation of being needed. After a while, Alberta offered to make tea and they sat on opposite ends of the couch and sipped the warm beverage gratefully
Alberta flipped through her new children's books. The illustrations were cute and colourful and the stories funny. "Hey, are Jill Jack-Rabbit and Betty Bunny living an alternative life style?" teased Alberta.
"Yes," stated Dawn bluntly.
Alberta looked up in surprise. "You can write that sort of thing for kids?"
"Well, most of my woodland characters are straight except for Jill and Betty and Billy Bear. I don't actually say they are gay but I've had a number of women write me and say that my books have helped their children accept their new relationships. Baba told me you were a lesbian."
Dawn laughed as Alberta's mouth dropped open. "I...I..didn't think he knew! I mean...I never told him...I...well...what! Am I wearing a sign or something!?" spluttered Alberta.
Dawn laughed even more. "No! Baba just knows and accepts you for what you are, Alberta. Just like he does me."
"You're gay?" asked Alberta, her eyes now thoughtful and alert.
"I think so," frowned Dawn. "I really haven't had an opportunity to find out. All I know for sure is that I've never been turned on by a guy and when I fantasize it is about women," answered Dawn honestly. This whole conversation is moving way too quickly, Dawn decided. "I have another book coming out soon. It's an autobiography based on my years growing up in the wilderness."
"Does it include your fantasize?" asked Alberta cheekily.
Is she flirting with me? Dawn, you are out of your depth here! "No! I...It's mostly about the land and the plants and animals...I'd better be off to bed now. Thanks for everything, Alberta. Today was magical!"
Alberta watched Dawn slip across the room and disappear into her bed room as she sat, loose jawed and left totally in shock by what Dawn had revealed.
The next day, they breakfasted at the hotel and then piled into the van to head back to the ranch. All the way there the two Freemans kept up a steady dialogue about what they had seen and done the day before. Alberta sat quietly driving along the kilometers of open road feeling remarkably contented and pleased with herself.
They arrived back at the Pateas ranch to see a squad car sitting in the yard. A worried looking Baba came to the kitchen door as they carried in bags. "Dawn, I need to see you in the living room." Dawn nodded, her good mood replaced instantly with apprehension. She stole a quick look at Alberta. You didn't report our conversation about Mac, did you, Alberta? she wondered. The look of concern on Alberta's face buried that thought immediately. No, Alberta said she would be there for me and I know she will.
She followed Baba into the living room where Sargent Brad Nicholson waited. The Mounty lumbered to his feet at the sight of Dawn. "Good afternoon, Ms. Freeman. I think we have found the wreckage of the plane your family was on."
Dawn felt big, strong hands holding her shoulders. For a second she thought it was Baba, then realized with gratitude that it was Alberta behind her. "Where?" she managed to get out.
"Some hikers came across the wreckage in the north-west sector, in the copse of pines that grow along Miner's Ridge just below Trout Falls. They radioed down this morning. The serial numbers that could be made out on the wing correspond with the plane's call signs. It looks like it's them. We'll be taking a 'copter up there tomorrow to have a look. They are sending one up from Edmonton."
Dawn nodded and felt the warm hands give her a gentle squeeze. "Sargent, I'm Inspector Alberta Pateas, R.C.M.P. I'm also a doctor of Forensic Science. If it is alright with your department, I'd like to go with you tomorrow."
Yes, ma'am! We'd be obliged to have your expertise," stammered the Sargent, coming to attention. Georgeos' girl was a bit of a legend in town. He felt like an idiot that he had not recognized her. You only had to look at her to know she was her old man's daughter. My God, she is a good looker!
The Mortland Case was standard reading at the academy and Nicholson was well aware that it had been Pateas who had solved the mystery and brought Jed Mortland, in despite the bullet wound in her side. He had heard that she was no longer in active service and that seemed a shame. With her record, over the few years that she had been a police officer, she could have made commissioner.
"Good, where and when should I meet you?" asked Alberta, slipping easily back into the role of an R.C.M.P. officer.
"The 'copter is supposed to be at the station by nine. We have a landing pad out back in the parking lot," explained Nicholson, trying to be equally as professional although he was in fact over joyed with the opportunity to work with the famous Doctor Alberta Pateas. Hell, they had all learned their knowledge of forensic science from her textbook! If everything went well, this was going to look very good on his record.
Thank you, Sargent Nicholson. That is all," Alberta informed him. The Sargent came to attention again and then followed a surprised Georgeos Pateas to the door. It was a side of his daughter that he had never seen before, cold, efficient, and commanding.
"You okay?" Alberta asked, coming around to look down at Dawn. The petite woman nodded and placed her head against Alberta's shoulder. Alberta held her close, unaware of her father hesitating at the doorway and then disappearing down the hall to the kitchen to help Mackenzie make tea and hear all about the trip to Edmonton.
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