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.
Travellers: My thanks to my many readers. I enjoy very much traveling with you through places, event and lives. 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: These stories do interrelate and are best read in the order they are posted.
Warning: This story is alternative fiction; please do not read on if you are under age or if such material is 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.
The helicopter's shadow glided across the undulating tree tops below. On the leeward sides of hills, patches of snow still lingered but up on the ridges, the leaves were budding and opening to the early summer sun. Summer came late here and died young.
Sargent Nicholson sat quietly across from Inspector Pateas. He would have liked to ask her about the Williams' Case but Pateas had been all business this morning. She had explained to them exactly how she wanted things to be run once they got on site and had insisted that they collect the equipment together that she felt they would need to do a proper investigation.
Nicholson was on two minds about this. On the one hand, Pateas had basically taken over the police investigation this morning and he wasn't sure he should have allowed that. Then there was the matter of the equipment that she had insisted they get at the hardware store before leaving. That had put a hole in the station's already strained budget. He had a feeling that it was going to be hard to justify to the district Inspector at the end of the month. The other side of the coin, was that Pateas was absolutely amazing to work with. She had carefully explained every step of the process and he and the corporal had already learned a lot from her.
The pilot circled and carefully lowered the 'copter into a small clearing about a half mile from the crash site. The Mounties jumped out once the blades had stopped and started unloading the knapsacks of gear. Twenty minutes later, they were following a deer run that would take them close to where the four seater craft had crashed.
The wind slid down off the hills and rustled the tall pines over head. The air smelt of pine, wet earth and a hint of aviation fuel. Nicholson watched Pateas at work. She was walking around carefully, looking at the site from all directions. Then she would look up at the trees. As far as Nicholson could see there wasn't much to investigate.
The crash site was oval in shape and the impact crater about a foot deep. There wasn't much that was recognizable. Just scraps of twisted pieces of metal, broken seat frames and bits of bone and clothing. Nothing like he had to deal with out on the highway. But then the bodies had lain here for well over a year and a half.
"Wherever I've left a file card, I want a photograph taken of the site. The arrow I made with the felt marker indicates the direction I want the shot taken. Be careful where you put your feet. Scavengers have spread the debris around a good deal and I don't want anything stepped on by mistake. Be quick about it. I want to get the crash stacked and a grid in place before we stop for lunch."
"Yes, ma'am," the Sargent responded, and indicated to the corporal that he should follow with the equipment. Pateas wanted each shot taken in black and white and colour.
"I'm going to follow the debris trail a bit and see if we missed anything," Pateas murmured, and headed off.
By lunch the photos were taken and they had helped the Inspector run string to form a grid of yard square areas over the crash zone. Each square had been labeled and as Pateas ate her sandwich absently, she was busy setting up the layout of the site on a sheet of grid paper. The Inspector sure is meticulous in everything she did, the Sargent thought.
"Ahhh, Inspector, I was wondering if you could tell us about the Williams' Case," he asked, when he noted she had almost completed the sketch.
The beautiful face hardened into expressionless lines. "Phillip Williams was hit once to the mandible lateral to the mental foramen by a right handed assailant. The victim received a green fracture to the mandible and was rendered unconscious. A second blow to the right tempororal shattered the articular eminence and fractured the squama. The resulting trauma was the cause of death. The assailant was left handed. This indicated the possibility of a second assailant. Subsequent evidence supported this theory and excluded Roberta Williams as a suspect," Alberta rattled off. " Let's get on with the job at hand, shall we gentlemen."
Nicholson looked over at Corporal Kirka, who grinned back broadly and waved his hand as if he had been burnt. The Sargent sneered back at him and got up to follow Inspector Pateas back to the crash site.
"Primary evidence would indicate three victims," Pateas murmured, into her field recorder. "The distribution of the bones would suggest skin sacks." Catching Nicolson's confused look she went on to explain. "The impact was so great that the majority of the bones were shattered, leaving what looks like a sack of skin." The Sargent grimaced and the corporal who had been given the job of drawing each find on the grid that Alberta had made, visibly paled.
The Sargent obviously wanted to learn and Alberta felt she needed to provide what instruction she could. "Look up. You'll note that very few branches are broken and I could find very little debris trail. This craft did not glide down, it fell like a rock. Planes don't do that. The forward motion over the wings will cause a degree of lift even if the engines stall. The craft glides forward as it loses altitude. We are looking then at one of two scenarios; either the plane fell apart in the air and dropped or the pilot flew it into the ground nose first."
Alberta ignored the surprised reaction. "We'll need to call in aviation inspectors but my bet is on the latter. This is very small crash zone. The craft would be buried a lot deeper if it hadn't hit bedrock."
"You mean the pilot committed suicide and took the others with him!?" asked the Sargent.
"Inconclusive data. I can't examine the remains until I can get them back to Swan Lake and we can render them down to the bone. We'll need the coroner and you'll have to find us some big soup pots, Sargent."
"You're going to boil them!" exclaimed the Constable in shock. The Sargent gave him a dirty look.
Alberta however, did not seem put out. "No, more of a slow stew," she observed dryly. "You can help stir." The Sargent snorted as he saw his young assistant's eyes widen in horror.
Alberta however, had gone back to her field examination. "A number of long bones have been dragged from the impact zone by scavenging carnivores, and the marrow removed..."
It was well after diner time when Alberta pulled her van into the Pateas yard. She picked up a large manila envelope and slipped out of the driver's seat . She had planned to raid the fridge for left-overs and then type up a report of her findings before heading to bed. Dawn and Baba were waiting for her in the living room, however, when she walked in. Dawn looked drawn and tense.
"Did you find them?" she asked.
"We think so," responded Alberta.
"Were they...I mean...was everything okay...?" Dawn asked hesitantly.
Alberta opened her mouth to describe the site and then was stopped by a warning look from Baba. "They were still inside the wreck, Dawn. Ahhh, you understand that after all this time, there was pretty well just bone. We've brought them out and their remains will be examined before they are released for burial."
Dawn nodded, pale and stiff with emotion. "Will you do it?"
"Probably, that will be up to the coroner. I haven't had much experience in police work. He might want to bring in a forensic team from Edmonton."
"But you've been a Mounty for years and you've worked on big cases!" protested Dawn, as she sat down on the edge of the couch.
"I was in active serve as a police officer for ten years but I took a series of sabbaticals to study during that time. My field research was actually on prehistoric Inuit sites because I was stationed in the Arctic. It is only in the last few years that I've been working in police forensic labs," Alberta explained.
"But I want you! I don't want some strangers..." Dawn trailed off, looking down at her own white hands that were clutched tightly together.
"This is not my jurisdiction. I can only work on the case if I am invited to do so. I have told them I want to but it is in the coroner's hands," Alberta explained. "Look, I brought a few personal articles from the site. Do you think you are up to looking at them and identifying whether or not they belonged to members of your family?"
Baba scowled but Dawn nodded and stood up. Alberta took the package, carried it over to Baba's desk and poured the contents out on the table. There were two watches, a ring and a copper wrist band. Dawn stood looking down at the tarnished, weathered objects while Alberta bent over the desk and filled out the date on the affidavit that the Sargent had typed up.
"That's my brother David's watch and the copper bracelet was Uncle Joe's," Dawn said, her voice heavy with sadness. "I don't recognize the other watch or the ring."
Alberta wrote the information down on the sheet and signed her name as the witnessing officer. It felt strange to once again be using her rank. "I need you to sign here, Dawn," Alberta instructed, and the smaller woman moved around the desk and took the pen from Alberta's hand. She signed the form with a shaky hand.
"Where are their wallets?" Dawn asked, looking up at Alberta with innocent round eyes.
Alberta frowned. "Gone. That often happens. Someone stumbles on the site and steals any valuables. They can't report what they found without drawing attention to themselves," the forensic scientist explained, as she put the form and articles back in the envelope and sealed it.
"That's awful! Who could be so callous!?" moaned Dawn, moving to lean against Alberta's warm, strong body.
Alberta instinctively wrapped her arms around the small woman and held her close. Looking up she caught a momentary sparkle in Baba's sad eyes. You old devil, she thought, you're trying to match me up with Dawn!
"Alberta, why don't you take Dawn upstairs. I will bring hot chocolate," Baba requested innocently.
What Alberta really wanted to do was get some food in her and spend some time reviewing the case, but Baba had effectively designated her as Dawn's emotional support. That old weasel, she thought, but out loud she said, "Come on, Dawn, time for bed. You are going to need your strength for the next few days. There will be a lot to see to."
A short while later, Alberta was back downstairs and raiding the fridge. At her bedroom door, Dawn had thanked Alberta for her help and had encouraged Alberta to go and get herself some dinner. Dawn is pretty tough when it comes to dealing with life's ugly twists, Alberta had to admit to herself. She has a cry and then just gets on with things. Not one to brood, that's for sure. Not like you, Alberta, an uninvited thought chided her. She dug out the remains of a roast and put the thought behind her.
"So, you couldn't see that our Sweety was alright," grumbled Baba, from the doorway, having returned from dropping off Dawn's hot chocolate.
Alberta looked up from carving some thin slices of beef to put on home-made oat bread with a dab of English mustard. "She's fine, Baba."
"You couldn't have stayed, anyway?" argued the old man.
Alberta's knife hit the table with more force than she had intended. "Don't meddle in my personal life, Baba!" she warned, ice blue eyes snapping up and targeting her father.
"You don't have a personal life, Aliki," sighed the Greek, not the least bit intimidated. "Dawn, she is a very nice woman."
Alberta sat down and poked at the sandwich on her plate. "How long have you known I was gay?" she asked quietly.
Her father sat down opposite her and reached over to cover her hand with his own massive paw. "Slowly, I think over the years I realized. You are very beautiful, Aliki. The boys were lined up at our door but you were never interested. I realized."
"Does that bother you?" she asked nervously.
"Yes, of all my children, I would have loved to have your child on my lap. But, I have two fine sons and they will give me many grandchildren. It is more important that my Aliki is happy."
Alberta's hand curled around her father's. "Thank you, Baba."
"Hmmm," the old man smiled back, squeezing the hand grasped in his own. "So then, what is the matter with my Dawn!?"
Alberta pulled her hand away and looked intently at her plate. "There is someone else, Baba."
"Ahh, so when do I meet her?" he asked, trying not to show the disappointment he was feeling. Dawn, he would have liked as a daughter-in-law. His two sons, he knew, were already seriously involved with other women. He knew Ari planned to be married before the year was out. Nick was still keeping his options open, however.
"You won't. She is happily married and not interested in me," Alberta got out from around the lump in her throat.
For a minute there was only silence as Baba gently rubbed his daughter's hand that he had captured again. "Is this why you came home, Aliki, because you hurt?"
The dark head nodded. "I am glad you came but I am sorry you hurt. Once, Aliki, I thought I was very much in love. In the end, she left me for another man. I thought my heart had dried up and that there would never be another. Then, I met your mother. She was so different. I liked her, Aliki, as a friend. She was a good friend. Gradually, my heart opened again and I realized one day that I was very much in love with your mother. It was a different love but it was just as strong and just as passionate. Do I not have three wonderful children to prove that?!"
Alberta gave a weak smile but belief did not reach her eyes. Baba patted the hand. "Now you eat that sandwich. It will give you nightmares and you deserve a nightmare for not running away with my Dawn!" the old man grumbled playfully.
Alberta laughed and picked up her sandwich. "I do like her...as a friend, Baba," she reassured him.
The old man sighed. "Well, it is a start."
The coroner was going to be difficult. He had already given the Sargent and her a dressing down for having gone to the site without notifying him first. He was now on the phone to Edmonton. Several times, Alberta had heard her name mentioned above the muttering. She winked at Nicholson, who looked far more worried than he need to be.
The coroner came out from the Sargent's office that he had commandeered. "Edmonton seems to feel you can handle this matter, Pateas," he admitted grudgingly. "They tell me you are a bone expert."
"Yes. Actually, that's Doctor Pateas," responded Alberta, wanting to make it clear to Doctor Gordan Davis that she was not going to be intimidated.
The eyes widened in surprise but the pathologist said nothing. Alberta led them into the small kitchen at the back of the station where three cardboard boxes sat on the wood table. "So where are the bodies? Over at the funeral parlor?" Doctor Davis asked.
"In those boxes," Alberta indicated, with a jerk of her thumb.
Davis scowled and went over and flipped the lid on the first container. A rubble of bones and weathered material filled the box. On top, sat a skull, the remains of some dried skin and long white hair still clinging to the bone here and there. The odor of wet earth, fuel and decay seeped up. "What the fuck do they expect me to do with this mess?!" snarled Davis, closing the lid. "I'm a pathologist not a bloody witch-doctor. We'll put the cause of death as injuries received in a plane crash, causes unknown, until the aviation fellows can get up here."
"I don't think we can do that," stated Alberta, trying to be patient with Davis' lousy attitude.
"There are things about this site that just don't fit the pattern. That plane took a nose dive, I'm pretty sure of that. That doesn't happen naturally. Also one of the passengers was not strapped in. It was supposed to be a hunting trip and yet the only weapon I could find on the plane was a hand gun, a snub-nosed forty-five, one round missing. Something happened on that flight. With your permission I'd like to examine the bones."
Davis sneered. "You said yourself that their wallets were missing. The same person probably took the rifles too! You are not going to find anything in that mess! But go ahead, be my guest! I'll be over at the hotel if you discover anything," commented Davis, as he walked out.
It was a slow process, that took over four days. First, each set of bones had to be stewed in a solution of papain. Alberta explained that it was the main ingredient in meat tenderizer and that it would soften and break down the remaining tissue. As each patch was drained off, Alberta would carefully scrape away the loosened meat, dropping the pieces in a plastic bag for burial later. The next step was a solution of sodium hydroxide and sodium hypochloride. They lifted the windows and propped open the door but still the acidic smell was strong. The mixture sounded very scientific but the truth of the matter was that it was basically the same ingredients found in drain cleaner. It was used to break down hair and fibrous tissue, just like it did in the drains.
Again the warm chemical soup was poured off and again, Alberta worked on the bones, using a soft brush this time to clean away any lingering debris and cutting away any remaining fibrous material at the joints . The next step was a soak in a hot tub of detergent. The enzymes would start to eat away at the fatty cells. A grey scum formed on the top of the simmering brew. Alberta smiled, noting that the Corporal was trying hard not to look. Alberta did one last scrubbing to remove any remains of the tough ligaments. Finally, the bones were soaked in bleach for twelve hours to disinfect and chemically dry the fat from them.
It was, Alberta had to admit, a ghoulish process. The bones came out nice and clean to work with and any residue in the pots was bagged for burial later with the bones. Corporal Kirka stood up well to the ordeal, although she noted that neither the Corporal or the Sargent chose to eat lunch in the kitchen.
Alberta had no such qualms. She ripped off her plastic gloves, washed her hands, and sat down in a chair in front of the unknown passenger's remains and chewed thoughtfully on the sandwich Dawn had made for her. She had made some very interesting discoveries over her three days of painstaking work. Explosive discoveries. She would have to be very careful how she handled this investigation in order to protect Dawn's rights.
The first indication that something had indeed happened on that plane had come late on the first day. She had been examining each of the vertebra in Trappers' remains. Bent over the table, she used a magnifying glass to look for unusual markings on the bone. There had been nothing of note, just the usual rodent gnawings that one would expect from bones left exposed for such a long time.
Then, on the twelfth thoracic, the lateral view revealed a ragged groove. Closer examination under the magnifying glass showed a spiral patterning consistent with the sort of scarring one could expect from a bullet. It had been Trapper's body that had not been fastened in by a seat belt. His remains had been wedged between the two front seats. Had he struggled with the passenger in the front, who had shot him? A shoulder holster was associated with the unidentified passenger's remains. It seemed logical that the gun that had been found in the wreckage was his.
Examination on the second day revealed an entry wound to Mike Freeman's temporal bone between the superior and inferior temporal lines. For an entry wound it had been a fairly large, ragged hole. The exit wound was barely recognizable near the frontal eminence in the pieces of shattered frontal bone that Alberta painstakingly fitted together. Such damage, Alberta knew, suggested a slow moving, flattened slug.
A scenario was developing in Alberta's head. The unknown passenger had sat beside the pilot, Mike Freeman, with a gun trained on him. Crazy Trapper, sitting in the back, had unfastened his safety belt and waited his opportunity, then had dived forward and wrestled for the gun. The gun had gone off. The bullet entered below Trapper's rip cage slicing through the soft organs and just clipping the twelfth thoracic as it existed. The bullet, now moving slower and distorted by the impact with Trapper's body, entered the pilot's brain. Mike slumped over the yoke and the small plane nose-dived from the sky.
The third day revealed the most interesting fact. The unknown passenger had a variation in the number of his vertebrae. He had thirteen thoracics instead of the normal twelve and only four lumbars instead of five. It was unusual but not rare, Alberta knew; about seventeen per cent of the population sported variations of one sort or another in their backbone structure. What was unusual was that Trapper had exactly the same variation; thirteen thoracics and four lumbars. From Alberta's point of view, it would be hard not to argue that Trapper and the unknown passenger were closely related.
Carefully, she unfolded a piece of paper she had found in the unknown passenger's pocket. It was a list of co-ordinates for parcels of land. She placed the page on a piece of window pane that the Sargent had got for her from the hardware store and carefully placed another piece on top. Then she used masking tape to edge around the two pieces of glass.
Taking out her own note book, she carefully wrote down the co-ordinates. Then, she packed everything away and headed over to the Office of the Registrar. At the computer, she entered each number. In each case, the land was registered to Joseph Lyon Freeman. In total, there were several thousand acres of land. Thoughtfully, Alberta logged off and headed out to her van. What the hell is going on here? And how much does Dawn know that she has not bothered to share with us?
Dawn glanced over at Alberta teaching Mackenzie how to use water colours. Mackenzie hung on every word that the scientist said. Alberta was playing chess with her father at the kitchen table with Mackenzie at her side painting the various exercises that Alberta was suggesting. Dawn herself was busy baking cookies for a school bake sale. There was a sense of family in the room that made everyone feel relaxed and contented.
Baba was a good chess player and there were few in town that could offer him a challenge. Alberta though was making him sweat, despite the fact her attention was divided between the game and Mackenzie's painting. In the end, Baba won but it had been a hard fought victory that left the old man feeling quite pleased with himself.
"Time for bed, Mackenzie. You have school in the morning." The pre-teen smiled and kissed each of the adults good night before heading up to bed. Dawn noticed Alberta's eyes soften as she watched Mackenzie taking the stairs in the hall two at a time. Alberta would make a good mother, Dawn decided. She'd make a wonderful partner too. She wondered how experienced Alberta was and whether she had someone special in her life.
"I too need to go to bed early. I have a very good book that I wish to finish before I go to sleep," said Baba, and kissing each of the women in turn he went up stairs. Alberta's eyebrow arched as she watched her father leave. Sneaky old devil never gives up!
"I've just taken the last of the cookies out. Would you like a few with a glass of milk, Alberta?" asked Dawn, trying to delay Alberta from leaving too. She wasn't sure why, but being near the quiet doctor just made her feel good. Over the last few days, she had hardly seen the scientist. Alberta had left early and arrived back very late.
"Mmmm, that would be nice. I'll pour the milk while you see to the cookies. Ahhhh, we need to talk," stated Alberta, as she got up and went to the cupboard for glasses. Dawn looked over at her with worried eyes. Alberta had been very closed-mouthed about her investigation, saying only that she hadn't yet finished her examinations. Maybe tonight she would have something to tell her.
Dawn sat down opposite Alberta and for a minute they chewed contentedly on the warm, chocolate chip cookies that Dawn had baked. "Great cookies, Dawn! You'll have to give me the recipe."
Dawn smiled, her face lighting up with pleasure. "Thanks and I will."
For a second, Alberta played with the crumbs on her plate; then she looked up. "What was Trapper's real name, Dawn?" Alberta asked.
Oh oh, I'm going to get the third degree! "Joseph Lyon Freeman," she answered, taking a sip of milk.
Alberta suppressed the surprising urge to kiss Dawn as she watched the smaller woman across from her. Get a grip here, Alberta! You are currently a police officer conducting an investigation!
"Did you know Trapper well before you went to live with him? "
"I didn't, but my father and brother, Mike, used to visit him occasionally. I was too young. Mike was twelve years older than I was," explained Dawn.
"How old are you now, Dawn?" asked Alberta, although she would be hard pressed to explain how the question fit into her investigation.
Four years younger than I am. Hell, she's almost the same age as my kid brothers! "Did your dad have any other brothers, cousins..."
"He had a brother that he didn't like, Uncle John. He lived in Vancouver too, I think, but we never saw him. I don't remember why because I was pretty young when my parents died and we came to live with Uncle Joe."
"Did this Uncle John ever visit Trapper?" asked Alberta, after she finished the last of her milk.
"Not that I know of. He talked about him occasionally to Mike but when I asked about him I was always told that it was not my concern. It was one of the reasons that I always wanted to leave. I wanted to be treated as an adult not a dependent."
Blue eyes looked at Dawn in a new light. So she too wanted to spread her wings farther than the borders of Swan Hills County. Interesting. " Do you have any idea about Trapper's finances?"
"Uncle Joe's finances!?" Dawn laughed. "We barely got by on his trap lines and guiding jobs until Mike learned to be a bush pilot. Then things were a little better. But we never had much money. Not that we needed that much, except to buy some basic supplies. Mike's plane had pontoons so he could land it up on the lake near the cabin."
"So they'd leave you alone up there while they went off guiding?" asked Alberta, her voice indicating more disapproval than she intended.
"Not usually, maybe once or twice a year. Most of the time, one would be gone and the other would stay back. But whenever the American came then they would both go. It was only for a week. But the fall before last, they just didn't return. I...It was hard," Dawn finished softly.
Alberta nodded and frowned not knowing what to say. "I think I need to go search this cabin of yours," she said.
Dawn looked up in surprise. "Why?"
"Trapper has bought a lot of land over the years, over two thousand acres. We need to find out where he got the money to do that and how he paid the taxes on it. Are you sure you are telling me everything, Dawn? This case is going to be a criminal investigation. I advise you to be co-operative and honest with us."
"Us?! Am I the enemy now?!" Dawn asked sadly.
"I hope not," Alberta sighed, "It would make things very painful if you are. This was your idea for me to handle this investigation, Dawn. Please don't make it difficult for me, as a police officer I have to consider everybody."
"I've told you everything I know, Alberta. Honest!" declared Dawn, completely taken back by this turn of events. She had thought it would be a simple identification job but Alberta was indicating it was far more sinister than that!
"Hey, wait, hang on here! What do you mean a criminal investigation? And where would Uncle Joe get money to buy land? What's going on, Alberta?!" demanded Dawn, putting down her empty glass with a thump and looking at the scientist with fire in her eyes.
Alberta slowly and methodically reconstructed the possible events in the plane and the finding of the co-ordinates. After she had finished, Dawn just sat and stared at her for a few minutes. Her eyes filled with tears and her chin quivered. Alberta braced herself for a scene.
Instead the small woman, wiped her eyes and swallowed hard. "Okay, so where do we go from here?"
"We? This is a police investigation, Dawn."
"This is an investigation of my family and I want to be involved," Dawn responded with determination.
Alberta hesitated. Dawn could be involved in this mess. It was inappropriate to involve a civilian directly in an on going investigation. This material was classified and shouldn't be revealed. Nor was it a good idea to spend too much time with Dawn. There was an attraction there and she wasn't interested in getting involved.
"Okay," Alberta heard herself saying much to her own surprise, "I think our next step should be to check out the motels. The American must have stayed somewhere prior to flying out with Trapper and Mike. We need to find out who he is and what connection he has with your family."
"He must be Uncle John, don't you think, if his bone structure is the same?" questioned Dawn, leaning forward earnestly.
Alberta could smell the warm scent of butter and chocolate and a sweetness that was uniquely Dawn. She gave herself a mental shake and focused on the question. That would be crossing the line to get involved with this woman! "It is extremely likely that it is but not conclusive. We need to collect more data."
"Can I come with you tomorrow to the motels?" asked Dawn.
"Sure. I need to get some paper work done. We'll head off after Mackenzie gets on the school bus,"
replied Alberta, getting up and stretching. Her long, lean body rippled with the movement of stretched muscle.
My God, she is beautiful, Dawn thought, Beautiful, intelligent, and worldly, so forget it Dawn, she is not going to be interested in you!"
They walked side by side across the street and into the motel that was on the out skirts of Swan Lake. It seemed the most logical place for a traveler to stay and so a good place to start. "Hi, Marianne! Do you remember Georgeos' girl, Aliki?" introduced Dawn.
"Why of course! I heard you were back in town. Nice to see you again, Aliki. I will never forget you going down the floor and sinking that final basket in the big game against Fox Creek! Wow, it was great! It's been a long time since then, I'm afraid. Tim and I got married after we graduated and would you believe we have three kids of our own! The oldest will be heading off to highschool next year. What about you? What have you been doing with yourself?" the pleasantly rounded woman behind the counter babbled.
Alberta tried to place her. Marianne Bondy; she and Tim Evans had been an item all through school. How could she explain her own life? She couldn't, not in terms that Marianne could relate to. "Not much. I go by the name Alberta now. Inspector Alberta Pateas. We need to talk to you about a man that might have stayed here around the time of the Freeman crash."
Dawn looked up at the stiff, formal woman beside her. Alberta, stop fighting. You got what you wanted, a life of your own. These people can't hurt you!
Marianne, however, didn't seem the least put out. "Sure, I got his case in the back. It's about time you guys came and got it! Of course, back then R.C.M.P. office in town was busy with the strike out at the oil fields. There was a lot of trouble. So Tim phoned Edmonton to tell them that some guy had left his stuff here and maybe it might be the American on the Freeman plane, they told us just to hold on to the stuff and someone would come and get it if it was needed."
Alberta closed her eyes and shook her head in frustration. Some desk jockey in Edmonton had taken the message, no doubt, and filed it. These sorts of mistakes happened all the time when budget cuts reduced personnel down to the bare minimum. Office employees then became little more than maintainers with no time to extend their ideas and talents. She was sure that the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire could be explained by the simple phrase "Down Sizing."
"Could we see that bag, please?" Alberta requested quietly, the edge of her frustration barely showing.
Marianne, talking a mile a minute led them into the back of the hotel and rooted around in a storage room. She emerged triumphantly with a large gym bag. "You can open it here on the table," suggested Marianne. "Tim said we couldn't take the lock off to look inside because that would be illegal. But you're a police officer so we can have a look now!"
Alberta's face was passive as she pulled a book from her coat pocket and took out a pen. "This is a receipt for the bag," she explained. "If it is not retained as evidence it will be kept at police headquarters until such time as the rightful owner can be identified and notified. If an owner can not be found the bag and contents will be auctioned off after six months."
Marianne looked stunned by the response. Aliki always was a strange one. Too smart for her own good was the problem! Dawn lessened the tension. "Thanks, Marianne. This was really great of you to keep this bag all this time. I sure hope it helps us piece together what happened to my family. I'll be sure to let you know as soon as the police investigation is over."
"Thanks, Dawn. Tim and I are always willing to help out," Marianne responded, a bit stiffly, as she took the receipt from Alberta and watched the serious woman heft the bag on to her shoulder.
"You could have been more friendly," grumbled Dawn as she watched Alberta stow the bag in the back of her van.
"It wasn't a social call," muttered Alberta, feeling hurt and defensive at Dawn's criticism.
"Aliki, stop fighting. You've achieved so much. You don't have to be intimidated by these people," observed Dawn softly.
"I am NOT intimidated!," emphasized Alberta, slamming the tailgate. "And DON'T call me Aliki!"
Cold blue fire burned in Alberta's eyes. Dawn shrugged. "You've acted like a spooked horse since you got here. All you can think about is getting away again. You are terrified of getting close to anyone in case you develop a tie that will hold you to this place. Why did you bother coming home at all, Alberta?"
"That is none of your business! Now get in the car and stop trying to play police detective. You are lousy at it," snapped Alberta, storming off to get in the driver's seat. Dawn made a face at Alberta's retreating back, shrugged and went to get in beside the prickly scientist. This was not the time to pick a fight. The trip over to the station was made in hostile silence.
They found the three men's wallets inside the bag. The unknown passenger was John Lyons of Seattle, Washington. " It doesn't make sense!" observed Dawn, "Why would Uncle Joe and Mike leave their wallets here?"
Alberta was making a list of the contents of the bag which, other than the wallets, was just the usual travel clothes of a middle aged man. "Probably because they were looking down a gun barrel and it was requested of them," observed Alberta drily. "I imagine Lyons left his behind too so that it would be harder to identify him if the plan went wrong."
Dawn shot her a look. There was times when Alberta could be so warm and compassionate but when that wall went up there was no dealing with her. "Why?" she asked doggedly.
"Because he meant for it to be a one way trip. I don't think he planned to bring Trapper and Mike back," clarified the scientist.
"That's murder! Why would anyone want to murder Uncle Joe and Mike?!"
Alberta sighed and leaned back in her chair. "Why would Trapper buy all that land secretly and where did he get the money?" countered Alberta.
"Uncle Joe would not have done anything illegally," Dawn responded stiffly. Alberta didn't answer other than to raise one long, dark eyebrow slightly. She was feeling short tempered she knew but Dawn's remark's earlier had really touched some nerve ends.
For awhile there was quiet in the room, then Dawn looked up from absently playing with her late Uncle's wallet. "Where do we go from here?" she asked quietly.
"I'll have Nicholson follow up on inquiries about John Lyons. That will take some time because we'll be dealing with an American police agency. I suspect we are going to find that John Lyons and John Freeman are one and the same people. I'll also have a police check run here to see if we can find if and why John Freeman changed his name and moved to the States."
"So we just wait?!" asked Dawn impatiently, placing the wallet back on the table with the other contents.
The legs of the chair Alberta had been leaning back in hit the ground decisively. "No, we are going to look around that cabin of yours. We need to know what Trapper was up to. There is always evidence, a bankbook, ledger, letters, strong box: there has got to be something!"
"In the tree," stated Dawn matter of factly.
"In the tree outside our cabin. Uncle Joe kept a plastic box in the hollow of the tree," explained Dawn.
Alberta closed her eyes and counted to ten. "Why didn't you bring it out with you?" she asked impatiently.
"It wasn't mine! When we first came out for the investigation, I didn't know that Uncle Joe and Mike were dead. When we went back, we got caught there by early snows and couldn't get out until spring. It is a fifty kilometer walk from Baba's to the cabin. We took only what we needed to survive."
Alberta looked at the woman across from her. She was such an intriguing mixture of innocence and strength. Alberta alternated between a strong desire to protect Dawn and the sudden surprise of realizing just how strong and capable Dawn really was. I hope she does get out of here. She and Mackenzie need more opportunities than Swan Hills can provide. Yet she seems far happier and more contented with life here than I ever was. Is Dawn right? Am I feeling trapped for no reason at all?
"I need to type up a report for the files and code and label all this stuff. Would you mind taking the van and gathering the stuff we'll need to ride into your cabin? Once we checked things out, I thought we could cut over and visit my brothers on the way back. Baba and Mackenzie could meet us there. If that's all right?"
Dawn beamed. A week with Alberta in the high country would be wonderful no matter what the occasion. "I'll see to everything," she said, pleased that Alberta realized that Dawn would know a lot more about their camping needs than she would and had left the job of getting organized to her.
They rode out the next morning, each with their own quarter horse and a pack horse that Dawn led, carrying their supplies. They cut through the boreal forests fresh with their spring budding and followed the Freeman river north for nearly ten kilometers before stopping for a break. Dawn leapt from her mount and led the animal over to graze on the fresh grass by the river bank. Alberta followed, easing down off her mount and walking stiffly over to join the smaller woman.
"Stiff?" asked Dawn with a smile.
"Nope, well past stiff all the way to lame," Alberta admitted, with a grimace.
Dawn laughed. "Isn't that the Mounted Police you belong to?" she teased.
Alberta groaned as she straightened out her legs. "We don't train on horses anymore, just squad cars," muttered the police officer. "Still it is nice to be out here," she conceded. "I'd forgotten just how beautiful it can be."
They were in a long , narrow flood plain through which a clear mountain river flowed over and around colourful river rocks. The flats were a mass of spring flowers, clumps of yellows, purples and reds peeking out from the new grass. Beyond, aspen trees competed with pine for light forming a belt of green at the base of the blue hills that rose against the clear northern sky. A kingfisher dived down and scooped up a fish from a quiet pool and on a branch a magpie with its distinctive long black and white tail pecked at pine buds as it sat on a low branch. There was no sound except the rustle of the wind in the pine tops and the soft gurgle of the stream as it passed.
"If you want to see to the horses, I'll get lunch," suggested Dawn. Alberta nodded, her eyes and mind still on a distant horizon.
They ate on a flat rock protrusion warmed by the sun. "If you leave here, where do you want to go?" asked Alberta, feeling lazy and contented as she chewed on a piece of grass.
"Hmmm, don't know. My publisher is in Toronto but I could never afford to live there, I don't think. Maybe, Edmonton or at least a nearby town. I need to get help for Mackenzie that I can't get here. If I can, I'd like to keep Uncle Joe's place. It would be a wonderful summer place. As much as I realize that I need to go where there are more opportunities, I am not like you, Alberta, I love it here and I would leave with a lot of regrets."
"Who said I didn't like it here!" protested Alberta, sitting up.
Dawn laughed. "You do with just about everything you say and do. You act like a caged animal!"
Alberta frowned. "I just don't want anyone getting the idea that I plan to stay, because I don't," muttered the scientist, and then had to laugh herself when she saw the sparkle in Dawn's eyes.
"Okay, well, maybe I'm a bit defensive," she smiled, and Dawn snorted with laughter.
They repacked their gear and headed out once again, Dawn guiding the way now with Alberta bringing up the rear leading the pack horse. Dawn was a pretty sight sitting on the swaying saddle, her hair catching the sun and shining silver. Alberta let her eyes drift over the figure. Mmmm, nice, she had to admit.
They traveled until the sun was starting to set and Alberta had gone from discomfort to out and out pain. Finally, they came into a clearing and Dawn pulled her mount to a stop. "We've made good time. I figure we've covered about twenty-five kilometers today. With luck, we'll be at the cabin by late afternoon tomorrow," observed Dawn. When there was no answer, she looked back to see Alberta slumped over the neck of her horse looking exhausted.
Some Mounty, she thought with a smile, swinging off her horse to go help Alberta down.
"This is NOT a two person tent! It's a napkin with a flap," complained Alberta, crawling out from inside the small nylon hiking tent and staggering to her feet to limp over to the fire.
"You're just grumpy because your tush is sore. Here, have some stew. It will make you feel better," laughed Dawn, spooning the thick stew over a bed of rice and passing it to Alberta.
Gingerly, the scientist sat down and spooned a mouthful into her mouth. A smile appeared. "Hey, this is good! What is it?"
"Some left over lamb roast I brought with us, cut into chunks and fried with onion. Then I added carrots and a blackberry preserve. It makes a quick, tasty meal, I think," replied Dawn, watching the fire as she leaned on her saddle while she ate.
"Yeah, it's great. Is there anymore?"
Dawn smiled and got Alberta a second helping. "Well, it seems to have put you in a better frame of mind."
"I hurt!" protested Alberta, "And I'm going to have to sleep with my feet hanging out that damn tent! This is a God-forsaken country! Why my father ever thought he could make a go of it out here is beyond me! There is nothing here but trees, Grizzly bears and muskeg. Have you any idea how many cows I've pulled out of muskeg swamps in my life? Or how many winters my gloves have frozen to the saddle horn while riding fence. I slugged my guts out to escape this place!"
"You thought it was all very beautiful this morning," Dawn noted.
"That was before I spent eight hours on a smelly horse," grumbled Alberta, between mouthfuls of stew.
"I see it differently. I know those early days were rough and this environment does not lend itself to agriculture but your family is quite well off now. Pateas Oil Fields are very successful and Northern Wilderness Adventures, that's Nick's Company, can't keep up with the business. And the original ranch is well established now. The town has prospered since the discovery of oil back in the fifties. Swan Hills is an excellent community; hospital, curling, tennis, swimming pool a good highschool...the list goes on and on. There are nearly two hundred businesses in the area now, Alberta. It's not like it used to be. We are less than a three hour drive from Edmonton, you know!"
"I know you had never been there," snorted Alberta, putting her plate down and pouring tea for the two of them.
"Well, I lived a pretty unusual life. Uncle Joe deliberately avoided contact with the outside world. He wanted to live a simple life. I look around and see a really amazing landscape. Sure it is harsh but its extremes make the beauty harder to see and therefore more tantalizing. My Uncle's cabin backs on to the Goose Mountain Ecological Reserve. This area is a unique sub-alpine environment because of its high elevation. Did you know there are over sixteen rare plants in this area? There is a spot I know where the wild orchids cling to the fallen trees by a waterfall. It is so beautiful, Alberta! I once saw a black bear there trying to teach its cubs to catch fish. It was so funny!"
Alberta smiled as Dawn rambled on, her face animated with the love that she felt for this wild and beautiful land.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I kind of went on didn't I?"
"I enjoyed listening to you. Yeah, there were happy days. Sometimes I forget that. It's still early, tell me some more," suggested Alberta, as she stretched out and put her head on the saddle.
Dawn smiled. "No, I'll tell you a story from Mallory Forest," she said. "Once a long time ago, the first of The People came by canoe down the Assiniboine River to this great land. They set up their longhouses and lived on the bounty that Manitou had given them. But the people became arrogant. 'We are the greatest of all Manitou's creatures,' they would brag.
"One day, Manitou heard their boastful ways. That night, he filled the sky with light and let the clouds weep torrents down on The People. Then The People heard the most terrifying of sounds. The sky roared with the thunder of huge wings taking off in flight. 'What creature is so great that it can make the skies shake?' they asked Manitou.
"You are silly little creatures in my great domain. I have given you weapons not to make you superior to the others but to make you equal because I forgot to give you the strength and claws of Grizzly Bear or the warm fur and big legs of Rabbit or the sharp eyes of Hawk. So that you remember your place, I will make the rains come in the spring and summer and light up the sky. Then the Giant Swans that live in the Hills will take flight and the thunder of their mighty wings will remind you that you are only one of many that live under my sky,'said Manitou.
"And since that time, so long ago, this land has been known as the Swan Hills."
Alberta smiled. "And have you heard the giant swans taking flight, Dawn?" teased the scientist.
"Oh yes, many times," smiled Dawn. "If you are lucky you might too! Come on, we'll better get to bed. It will be a long day tomorrow."
The darkness was absolute. The cold sent icy fingers into the tent. "I am so cold, I think my teeth are going to shake out!" complained Alberta.
"Mmmm, a cold front has moved down from the Arctic. The temperature has dropped about twenty degrees in the last few hours. With the warm mountain air, we are likely to get a dusting of snow tonight," came a sleepy voice from under a sleeping bag.
"Snow! It's the beginning of summer!"
"This is three hundred kilometers north of Edmonton and we are over 1,200 meters above sea level here," came the contented mutter.
"Are you warm?" demanded Alberta.
"No, but there is nothing I can do about it, so I'm just going to sleep if you'll let me!" grumbled Dawn. "Hey! What are you doing?!"
"I'm putting our sleeping bags together so we can share a little body heat," came the voice above all the fumbling about in the dark.
Dawn smiled. "Good idea!" she agreed, although fear of freezing was not the main reason for her agreeing.
Alberta slipped her cold body into the sleeping bag and wrapped herself gratefully around Dawn's small body. Her long legs made a chair for the smaller woman to nestle into and Alberta's arms instinctively wrapped around Dawn and cupped her small cold hands inside her own.
"I like this Alberta," Dawn whispered honestly.
There was a moment of silence then, "So do I."
"I guess, you've had lots of experience with women," Dawn said hesitantly.
"A little," Alberta answered openly.
"Is there someone special in your life?" Dawn asked.
"There is someone special. Unfortunately, she is not part of my life. I fell for someone who was already happily married," Alberta stated.
"Oh." For a minute all was silent. "Alberta?"
"Does that mean you wouldn't get involved with someone else?"
"Yes, that's what it means," responded Alberta honestly.
Alberta woke feeling warm and more at peace than she had felt in many years. A soft mass of blond hair was nestled under her chin and a warm body was curled up tightly next to her. She brushed her face into Dawn's hair. There was a delicate scent of warm herbs and fresh rain. The golden head lifted and soft green eyes looked into hers. "Morning," came a voice husky with sleep.
"Morning," smiled Alberta, pushing the golden head back down onto her shoulder. Dawn willingly curled even closer.
"We should get up," she murmured into Alberta's warm shoulder.
"In a little while," responded Alberta, gently stroking Dawn's back.
It was some time before necessity forced them out into the cool morning air. Just as Dawn had predicted there was a dusting of snow on the grass. Alberta got a fire going and made coffee and flat-jacks for breakfast while Dawn broke camp and got the horses ready to move on.
"If we keep a steady pace we still should make it to the cabin by night fall," reported Dawn, as she came over to accept a steaming plate of pancakes covered in maple syrup.
They stood close to the fire and ate their breakfast, belatedly feeling a bit awkward about their sleeping arrangement the night before. "I've never slept with anyone before," Dawn announced into the silence.
Alberta dropped her fork and it rattled against her tin plate. "We did NOT sleep together! We just shared the same bed," clarified Alberta quickly.
Dawn frowned. "I've shared a bed with Mackenzie - that was different. We didn't just share a bed, we hugged," insisted the petite woman.
"Well...yeah, we hugged but we didn't sleep together," insisted Alberta doggedly.
"Okay," Dawn agreed.
"I wouldn't want you getting the wrong idea because, well, you know there is someone else," explained Alberta uncomfortably.
"No, I won't," Dawn promised.
They finished off their pancakes in silence. "Did you sleep with her?"
"No!" Alberta snapped with more feeling than she had planned to reveal. "Let's get these dishes washed and be on our way."
"Okay," agreed Dawn pleasantly.
They moved on. The day warmed quickly and the snow melted into memory. A warm, dry wind now blew in and the day was perfect for a ride through the hills. At one, they stopped and had a quick meal of apples, cheese and crackers. Then they moved off again. Near dusk, they broke through a thicket of trees and galloped across the pasture towards the Freeman homestead.
Alberta dismounted with difficulty and looked around her with curious eyes. Dawn's home was a small log cabin with a shed for the horses and a split rail corral. In the distance, craggy hills rose up, around them the forest formed an embrace of green and ahead of them the meadow sloped down hill to a spectacular view of the Freeman river winding towards the horizon in the valley below.
"This place is beautiful," whispered Alberta, as she watched the setting sun staining the valley below in pinks and golds.
"Yes, it was a magical world to grow up in," acknowledged Dawn. "If you see to the horses, I'll go and open the place up again and get it respectable."
"Okay," agreed Alberta, taking one more long look at the panoramic view in front of her before she led the horses to the shed to feed and water them and brush them down.
It was dark by the time she had thrown a blanket over each horse and closed the shed against predators before heading over to the inviting looking cabin. Smoke rose from the chimney and light shone out from the windows. Alberta carefully wiped her feet before opening the door and stepping into Dawn's world.
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