High Country (Anna Pigeon Series #12)by Nevada Barr
It's fall in the Sierra Mountains, and Anna Pigeon is slinging hash in Yosemite National Park's historic Ahwahnee Hotel. Four young people, all seasonal park employees, have disappeared, and two weeks of work by crack search-and-rescue teams have failed to turn up a single clue; investigators are unsure as to whether the four went AWOL for reasons of their own - or… See more details below
It's fall in the Sierra Mountains, and Anna Pigeon is slinging hash in Yosemite National Park's historic Ahwahnee Hotel. Four young people, all seasonal park employees, have disappeared, and two weeks of work by crack search-and-rescue teams have failed to turn up a single clue; investigators are unsure as to whether the four went AWOL for reasons of their own - or died in the park. Needing an out-of-park ranger to work undercover, Anna is detailed to dining room duty; but after a week of waiting tables, she knows the missing employees are only the first indication of a sickness threatening the park. Her twenty-something roommates give up their party-girl ways and panic; her new restaurant colleagues regard her with suspicion and fear. Yet when Anna's life if threatened and her temporary supervisor turns a deaf ear, she follows the scent of evil, taking a solo hike up a snowy trial to the high country, seeking answers. What awaits her is a nightmare of death and greed - and perhaps her final adventure.
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Would you like baked potato or pommes frites with that?" Anna asked politely.
"Can't I get French fries?"
"You bet." Anna wrote: "NY strip w/PF-well done," on the pad.
As the mom and dad at table twenty-nine coaxed suitable orders from a five- and a nine-year-old with hearts set on pizza, Anna let her eyes drift up to the two-story windows enclosing the end of the dining room. Beyond their comforting reflections of safety and warmth stood granite boulders the size of houses. They in turn were dwarfed by ponderosa pines with trunks eight, ten, twelve feet in diameter and these made toylike by the sheer and towering cliff that served as a backdrop. The bones of Sierra Nevada, glistening with half-melted ice, held Yosemite Valley in the rockbound embrace of a ruined Shangri-la, a place where only the youth of the mountains was immortal and people grew old at an alarming rate. On a misty December afternoon the evergreens showed black against the streaked gray of rock: forbidding, dangerous, and, to Anna, utterly seductive. It was as if, should she leave the warm gold and russet of the grand Ahwahnee Hotel and cross the parking lot into the rocks and trees, she, too, would be leached of color, would walk in the world as a ghost, a mountain breeze, the whistle of a hawk's wing.
"Do you have hot dogs?" The reality of Mom's voice cut through Anna's ghost dance with the sharp laser light of a red microfleece-clad arm.
"No hot dogs."
"You oughta have a children's menu with hot dogs," the mother complained.
"I'll suggest it to the chef," Anna lied easily. The chef, a veteran of many four-star establishments, was fanatical in his hatred of hot dogs and only slightly more sanguine on the subject of children.
A turkey quesadilla was settled on, and Anna left the table to walk down the long gallery from the alcove. She'd always wanted to work in Yosemite National Park, but even in her dreams it never crossed her mind she would be there as a waitress.
A waitress coming up on fifty might be an oddity in another establishment, but at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley, built of the very granite and pine it sheltered beneath, carved beams and great stone fireplaces warming the bones of park visitors for over seventy-five years, much of the waitstaff was wrinkled and sere. It was a plum job. Tips were fabulous, openings were rare. As with some of the more venerable clubs, one practically had to be grandfathered in.
Anna had washed in on a tsunami of lies and half-truths: her cover story. The phrase amused her; it was so deliciously cloak- and-dagger. A spy, Anna was a spy. According to Lorraine Knight, Yosemite's chief ranger, it was a necessary bit of drama.
Parks, even the big ones like Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, were, at least socially, very small towns. Yosemite concessions workers in both the hotel and her less picturesque and pricey sister, Yosemite Lodge, along with the people minding the stores, delis and shops, numbered around twelve hundred. Nearly six hundred NPS people overwintered. In a society of less than two thousand souls, everybody knew everybody at least by sight, if not by name. On the rare occasions when an undercover law enforcement person was called for, a ranger from another park, an unknown face and name, had to be brought in.
Anna was unsure whether it was her law enforcement status or the fact that she'd worked her way through college waiting tables at Pepe Delgado's in San Luis Obispo that inspired her own chief ranger, John Brown, to offer her the assignment when the call went out.
She was pleasantly surprised at how fast her skills came back. She had been wearing a dead-maybe dead, probably dead-woman's clothes both literally and figuratively for less than a week, and already her short-term memory had risen to the challenge. Crawling into trousers of the deceased hadn't been Anna's heart's desire, but a new uniform order would have taken a week or more to arrive. So far the hardest part of the job had been turning her tips over to the Mountain Safety Fund. As long as she was pulling in her pay as a GS-11 District Ranger, she wasn't allowed to keep them. A shame: they dwarfed her salary.
A quick check of the order and she put it up for the chef. Waitstaff desiring to keep the peace double-checked orders. James Wither, a man so lean his large hazel eyes bulged from nearly fleshless sockets and whose jet black hair hung over a forehead lined by at least fifty years of slaving over hot stoves, saw waiters and waitresses as either flawed delivery systems or malicious art vandals bent on destroying his creative visions. Anna had never seen him actually throw knives at busboys or fling trays at salad chefs, but she'd heard the stories and chose to tread lightly.
Several of the longtime servers could talk intelligently about food. These educated few Wither could see and hear. Anna, who shied away from meat but otherwise ate what was easy, cheap or put in front of her, was beneath his notice. This was good. Despite what they said in the movies, a spy needed to be unremarkable. Anna was finding this and the rest of the spying business harder than she'd anticipated. Chatting, drawing people out-being downright likable-was work for her at the best of times. Doing so with ulterior motives was an absolute grind.
When tempted to give it up as a nonstarter-the unapologetic opinion of Leo Johnson, the deputy superintendent-and go home to her dog, her cat and her fiancé, Anna viewed in her mind's eye the photographs Lorraine Knight had shown her.
Before donning her apron and sensible shoes, Anna had met with the chief ranger and the deputy superintendent. Lorraine had shown her pictures of Dixon Crofter, Patrick Waters, Trish Spencer and Caitlin Bates. These four were typical of the marvelously atypical young people who worked in parks.
Dixon Crofter, what parkies referred to as a "climber dude," lived in Camp 4, a mecca for rock climbers from all over the world. He'd been in Yosemite three seasons. He climbed for fun. If he could get on a funded expedition to Greenland or Austria or Patagonia, he climbed for fun and money. When the park Search and Rescue team needed a climber, they hired Dixon or several other of the "SAR-siters" living in the camp. Then Dixon climbed for fun, money and the good of his fellow man. Dixon was twenty-four years old, six foot three, one hundred thirty-five pounds. From the picture Anna guessed his body was a powerful construction of cable and bone. He had long curling black hair, a smile that could melt ice and a nose a Bedouin chief would be proud of.
Pat Waters worked trail crew. He was two years younger than Dixon. Where the climber was narrow Pat was broad: shoulders, jaw, chest. He looked strong-not with gym-honed, bench-press muscles, but the kind that can move rocks and stumps all day and still have the energy to tell jokes over dinner. He sported a bleached-blond Mohawk and a grin that, despite the dusty rigors of his chosen occupation, spoke of expensive orthodonture. On his right biceps was a tattoo of Bill the Cat in one of his more schizophrenic poses.
Trish Spencer and Caitlin Bates were photographed together, their arms around each other's waists, their heads close, long hair twining together. Trish's was sleek and brown, Caitlin's bleached and permed with black roots. Trish had buck teeth a shade whiter than nature intended and dark eyes that nearly disappeared with the onslaught of her smile. Caitlin wore a bandanna pirate- or-to Anna's memory-hippie-style around her head and looked all of twelve years old. Neither girl would ever make a living modeling or win a swimsuit contest, but they were beautiful nonetheless. Even in the flat, dead medium of a photograph they exuded youth and high spirits and, in Caitlin at least, an innocent wickedness that Anna found irresistible.
Trish was in her third season as a waitress at the Ahwahnee. Caitlin was one of the NPS's own. She was a summer intern finishing her first season working in Little Yosemite Valley campground, a heavy-use area a four-mile hike, most of it straight up, behind Half Dome.
Thirteen days before Anna arrived, a vicious thunderstorm dropped eight inches of snow on the park amid high winds, followed by a cold snap that had yet to let up. Ten days later the high country was blanketed in another foot of snow. In between these two meteorological events these four kids had gone missing.
They'd hadn't been seen leaving the park together. None of them filed backcountry permits. They told no one of their plans. It was only assumed they were together because they'd all disappeared on the same day.
Patrick Waters left trail camp on the Illilouette Trail to come to the valley for his weekend. Dixon Crofter was spotted by a maintenance worker about five a.m. that same day, hitchhiking west out of the valley with a backpack and climbing ropes. Caitlin Bates had left Little Yosemite Valley camp the afternoon before, also on her weekend, headed for the apartment she shared with three other park interns near the old graveyard in the valley. Her supervisor said she'd carried nothing but an empty pack and water. He had assumed she'd hiked out the Mist Trail past Nevada and Vernal Falls. It was steep-the upper half little more than a shattered granite staircase-but only a little over four miles long. Fit and agile with knees not yet forced to bend too often to the vicissitudes of life, the young intern could reach the valley floor in an hour. Trish, pleading headache, had stayed home while her two roommates left for work that morning. When they'd returned she was gone, as were her pack and boots. Later it was discovered that the fire ax had been taken from its niche in the hall.
For Anna's edification Lorraine Knight had drawn the containment area of the search, the area in which, based on time, distance, physical ability, terrain and weather, the missing persons had a ninety-five percent chance of being found. Outside this perimeter, Anna was amused to discover, was referred to as the ROW, the Rest of the World. To indicate even the zillionth percentile of possibility beyond that, Lorraine sketched a tiny flying saucer.
After eight days the search had been suspended-not abandoned, since in spirit, at least, the NPS never gave up looking. Wet snow, ice, three weeks: if the four were lost or injured in the backcountry, they were most likely dead. Unless-and this was the deputy superintendent's pet theory-the four of them had hitched out of the park to find warmer adventures in Mexico or South America.
Anna had not been brought in as an addendum to the search- and-rescue effort. Yosemite had one of the finest SAR operations in the country, if not the world. The park was harsh enough to provide endless challenges, and the visitors were foolish enough to provide the rangers with endless practice.
Lorraine Knight had brought Anna in because she was convinced the incident was far from over. She had stated her view succinctly: "I suspect foul play," she'd said, and smiled at the drama of the words.
With that smile, Lorraine won Anna over. They were of an age, more or less, and seemed to have like interests. Knight was a big woman, five-ten or -eleven, and powerful-looking without being masculine in the least. Anna put her age at around fifty, though it was hard to tell. Sun and wind had done more to her skin than the mere passage of years. Her hair was undimmed by either time or the elements. A braid as thick as Anna's wrist and of a rich red-gold hung down past her waist. The tail of it rested on the butt of her gun like a squirrel on a branch. Out of doors, when Lorraine was armed, the braid went up with a flick of practiced fingers to be secured in place by pins that appeared to come from nowhere.
This instantaneous affection put Anna on her guard. There were those who swore by first impressions. Anna was not one of them. First impressions could be manipulated. Anybody could suck it up and play hale-fellow-well-met long enough to impress. Few could sustain a convincing façade over time. Sooner or later cracks began to show. Anna was a big proponent of last impressions.
"Something besides the disappearances is upping the collective blood pressure of the park," Lorraine finished. Anna had felt it. A poison dripped into the small, isolated community, an unspecified drift of unease that seemed to animate or enervate, warp that indefinable buzz of the human hive till it whined and grated in the mind.
Leo Johnson, the deputy superintendent, grunted at these feminine intuitions of disease. Johnson was in his thirties and as steely-eyed and lantern-jawed as a comic book character. The heroic effect was spoiled by receding brown hair with a tendency to curl over the ears, and a small mouth that, on a young and comely lass, might be compared to a rosebud. On Leo's broad face the comparison was more apt to be to one of the body's other natural apertures.
Before this interruption he'd had little to do today, so little Anna suspected he'd been pressured from above into going along with Lorraine's undercover investigation.
"It's a holdover from the Sunsocy killings," the deputy superintendent said dismissively.
Like the rest of the country, Anna had followed those grim events on the news.
People managed all sorts of ways to damage or extinguish themselves in Yosemite. They fell off the magnificent cliffs, got lost, suffered from exposure, broken ankles and bee stings. The brave or crazy died in base jumps from El Capitan. They crashed hang gliders and fell out of trees, committed suicide off Half Dome, overdosed, brawled. Search, rescue and even the occasional death were daily fare in a park as wild and yet as heavily visited as Yosemite. Even the odd happenstance of four park people going AWOL would not have shaken the social foundations as recently as two years ago.
That was before a psychopath working in the nearby town of El Portal had sexually assaulted and murdered four women, one of whom lived in an inholding surrounded by NPS lands.
Though the man had been caught, his evil had not stopped. The sense of safety many had enjoyed in the glorious stone heart of the Sierras died along with the women. The monster had graphically illustrated the fact that there is no place beyond evil's reach. Because of this, the disappearance of the park people raised fear levels in the valley till there were times when the small hairs on the back of Anna's neck fairly prickled with it.
Talk would have it that the Sunsocy murders were happening again, that a copycat had taken up residence in Yosemite Valley.
Chief Ranger Knight had brought Anna to Yosemite because she, too, feared the killings had just begun.
from High Country by Nevada Barr, Copyright © 2004 Nevada Barr, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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