Angela Dimato, a tenacious U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agent, struggles to rebuild her life after the murder of her partner. During a routine tour of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Angela assesses the growing prairie dog town within the wildlife refuge when, to her horror, she discovers the body of a soccer mom sprawled out among the burrows. With her trademark instinct and her gun in tow, Angela investigates the murder, even as she battles the crippling flashbacks haunting her from her partner’s case. The investigation takes a sinister turn when the dead woman is identified as the leader of a group petitioning for the eradication of the prairie dog town. As Angela digs toward the truth, she finds her only hope is to tap into the wisdom of the case’s sole eye-witness a burrowing owl before more lives become at stake.
About the Author
Having grown up in a small mountain town in Colorado, she spent a lot of time outdoorscamping, fishing, hiking, playing tennis and skiing, with wildlife always around. Her father was a true outdoorsman and together they explored the wilderness of Colorado, sailed in Maine and walked extensively from the sandy California beaches to the windswept cliffs of Cornwall, England.
It was her mother, however, who was the major influence on Chris commencing a writing career. She encouraged her from an early age, and later her job as a Vice President of the Gannett Broadcasting Company led to Chris growing up surrounded by some of the best media talent in the country.
At college Chris studied journalism, determined to become an investigative reporter. Deciding this was not for her, however, she tried her hand at a variety of jobsPR, engineering, ice cream store manageruntil finally returning to writing.
She began by writing non-fiction for several local newspapers in Summit County, Colorado, as well as articles for regional and national publication. She later edited rock and ice-climbing guides for the ‘Chockstone Press’, worked in graphic production for ‘Living the Good News’, and taught writing workshops for the Colorado Free University, the University of Colorado, and at writer's conferences internationally.
A long-standing member of multiple writing organizations, she has served on several local, regional and national boards, including that of the ‘Mystery Writers of America’.
Read an Excerpt
A Parliament of Owls
By Chris Goff
The History PressCopyright © 2015 Chris Goff; House of Stratus
All rights reserved.
Angela Dimato saw the crowd waiting for her in front of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal's Visitor Center and briefly considered turning around. She counted several adults and at least a dozen grade-schoolers, ages eight to ten. Not exactly her idea of a fun morning of birding. It's not that she didn't like kids, she just hated being outnumbered.
Swinging the truck into a VIP parking spot, she cut the motor and reached for her duty belt. She might be playing tour guide this morning, but she was still a U. S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agent and she still planned to carry her gun. She cinched on the belt and checked to make sure her holster was secured.
Through the passenger window, she caught sight of her boss, Wayne Canon, walking toward her and waving. "Good, you're here," he called out. "I brought some gear over for the kids and their teachers. They're ready to go."
Angela climbed out of the truck and tucked a birding guide into her back pocket. "You owe me, Canon."
"Trust me, I know," Wayne said. As the Special Agent in Charge of Law Enforcement for USFW's Region 6, he'd also been acting Project Director for the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Complex for the past month. The complex was a group of three national wildlife refuges along the Front Range, and Wayne was in over his head. Over worked and under staffed, he had pulled Angela out of the field and assigned her to the National Eagle and Wildlife Property Repositories. Now he was having her babysit.
Initially, the move to the repository had rubbed her the wrong way. She'd taken it as an indictment of her abilities as an agent, like when she'd been reassigned to cover the fishing tournament in Elk Park immediately following Ian's murder. Blaming herself for his death seemed like punishment enough. She was supposed to have been his backup, and he might still be alive if she'd gotten out to the lake more quickly. The images of him swinging in the bird-banding nets still haunted her. But she was a good agent, and she wanted to be, deserved to be out in the field.
Then she found she liked working the repository. She liked working alone, performing forensic investigations on crimes involving wildlife. She felt like she was helping to make a dent in the $23 billion illegal wildlife product industry.
But leading a Monday-morning summer school class on a birding tour of the Refuge ... that fell way outside of her purview.
"You owe me big time," she said, reaching back behind the seat for her binoculars and spotting scope.
Wayne glanced over his shoulder at the group and lowered his voice. "I wouldn't have asked you to cover if I had anyone else. I have two agents out and our usual go-to called in sick. I'll make it up to you, Dimato. I promise."
Famous last words, but it was a chit she intended to collect on.
Angela's gaze swept the sun-drenched prairie. In the distance, the Continental Divide cut a purple swatch across the clear blue sky, beckoning with the promise of cooler temperatures. At 7:30 a.m., it had already climbed to seventy-two degrees on the plains and promised to be one of the hottest July days on record.
"I'll bet you that your 'go-to' girl got up and went to the mountains," Angela said.
"Yeah, well, she's going to up and get hers before it's all said and done." Wayne took the scope from Angela's hand and gestured for her to follow. "Come on, I'll introduce you to Tammy Crawford. She's the group leader."
Angela dogged his heels, sizing Crawford up as they approached. Contrasting the schoolteacher's tank top, cotton shorts, and lace-up tennis shoes against her own short-sleeved rough-duty shirt, long pants, and sturdy boots, Angela determined they were exact opposites. Crawford was tall, buxom, and fair, with a smile that made fifty percent of her young charges swoon. Short, with the dark complexion and padding of her ancestry, Angela figured, for these kids, her biggest draw was her gun.
"I'm so pleased to meet you, Agent Dimato," Crawford said, thrusting out a hand. "Wayne was just telling us how lucky we are that you're the one who's going to be showing us around."
Angela's resolve to dislike Crawford thawed under the wattage of the teacher's smile, and she found herself smiling back. "Canon told me you're interested in having the kids see some birds."
"And to learn something about the Arsenal. I teach biology, but my colleague, Mr. Burton, teaches history." Crawford gestured toward an older gentleman, who was attempting to corral a trio of rambunctious boys. "We run the summer school program at Commerce City Academy."
Angela shot a glance at Wayne. That explained a lot. Maintaining positive relationships with Commerce City was high on the Refuge's to-do list. No wonder he wanted someone knowledgeable leading the tour.
Since 1992, when the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge Act was signed, USFW had struggled to maintain a good working relationship with Commerce City. The city wanted more land. The Refuge countered by offering more use. It fit with the primary stated objectives of the Refuge Act, to restore and manage the land, provide a quality wildlife habitat, and implement environmental education programs for urban school children. They'd had already annexed over 917 acres to Commerce City.
As much as she wanted to hate what they'd done with the land, Angela had to admit that the development of Dick's Sporting Goods Park was a feather in everyone's cap. The public-private partnership between Commerce City and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment had resulted in the development of brand new city offices for Commerce City, lots of retail outlets, offices for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a new Vistors Center for the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. It also included the world's largest and most state-of-the-art soccer complex in the world, and just a mere 9 miles from downtown Denver.
Kroenke had spared no expense. They had spent $131 million dollars in construction. Amenities included twenty loge-style luxury suites, a unique open concourse design allowing 360-degree views of the fields, and a FIFA regulation-size grass field with an innovative underground heating and draining system. People came, and they came to visit the Refuge, too.
Commerce City Academy was the newest addition the crown jewel in the city's new educational program. It mattered.
"I leave you in good hands," Canon said.
When he was done saying his goodbyes and had walked away, Angela turned to Crawford. There was no point in putting things off. "I suggest we get started. Why don't you gather the troops and we'll head inside."
While Crawford and Burton rounded up the children, Angela unlocked the Visitors Center and flipped on the lights. The Center didn't officially open for another hour, which left plenty of time for a private tour of the facilities interpretive display.
Waiting for the kids to line up at the door, Angela's thoughts flashed to her late-partner, Ian. This was definitely his bailiwick. Whenever they'd conducted tours, Ian had taken point. He'd been great with children. She remembered asking him once what he would have been if he couldn't be a USFW agent and he'd told her he thought he might like to teach. Maybe today she could channel his spirit.
"We'll start in here," Angela said, leading the kids inside and gesturing for them to sit in a semi-circle on the floor of the lobby. Then she pointed to the circle of exhibits behind her. The dioramas and displays detailed the early times on the plains, the history of the Refuge, and provided animal visuals and hands-on exhibits. One of the boys she'd seen Burton struggle with earlier made a face.
"Do we have to look at a lame museum?"
"Leroy, be quiet," Burton said.
Crawford smiled. "Continue, Agent Dimato."
Leroy wasn't that easy to dissuade. "But you said we were going to spend the day outside."
Crawford looked at the boy. "Didn't Mr. Burton ask you to be quiet?"
"Then be quiet." Crawford beamed at Angela. "Go ahead, Agent."
Speaking in front of a group had never been easy for her, and a group of nine year-olds was no exception. Situations like this made her insides tremble. That's why Ian had always taken the lead. Angela tried to think of where he would start.
"There are some cool things to learn about the Rocky Mountain Arsenal," she finally said. "It wasn't always a wildlife refuge."
"What was it?" asked a girl with strawberry blond braids.
"It started out as short-grass prairie, when large herds of bison roamed the plains." Angela pointed at a stuffed bison marking the exhibit entrance. "American Indians followed the herds, hunting and living off the land. Later, settlers moved west and homesteaded the land, growing crops and grazing cattle. Then, during World War II, the U.S. Army moved in, kicked off the homesteaders and built a chemical weapons manufacturing facility called the Rocky Mountain Arsenal."
"What do you mean by chemical weapons?" Leroy asked.
Angela forced a smile. At least she had his attention. "The government made bombs here. They filled them with mustard gas, nerve agents and napalm."
"What's mustard gas?" asked the girl with the braids.
"What's napalm? Leroy asked.
Angela found herself at a loss. How graphic of a description she was allowed to give? Fortunately, before she could answer, Burton stepped in.
"They're weapons that have killed a lot of people," he said.
The answer seemed to satisfy the kids, so Angela continued. "Eventually the war ended and the plant was demilitarized."
"What's that mean?" asked another girl.
"The army shut down the operations," Burton interjected.
The kids all nodded.
Angela stared out at the faces and chose her next words carefully. "Because the chemicals they used to make the bombs were harmful, the Arsenal was named a Superfund site in the 1980s."
"What's a Superfund site?"
Crawford jumped in. "That's enough, Leroy! Let Agent Dimato finish."
Angela tried smiling again. Good thing she wasn't being graded. "It's a site with abandoned hazardous materials that's been marked for cleanup. Designating it a Superfund site gives the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, the right to come in and monitor the process."
"Hazardous, like the mustard gas?" Leroy asked.
Angela nodded. "The EPA makes sure that immediate action is taken. They get the community involved, enforce the laws against the responsible parties, and ensure long-term protection against hazards. The Arsenal was named a Superfund site in 1987."
"When did it become a National Wildlife Refuge?" Burton asked.
"1992. It's comprised of 17,000 acres, making it one of the largest urban wildlife refuges in the country."
Crawford looked out at the kids. "Does anyone have any questions for Agent Dimato?"
A volley of hands shot up.
"Is that a real gun?" Leroy asked.
"Yes," Angela said. She knew it was her most interesting feature.
"Any questions about the Refuge," Crawford clarified.
"Did they get everything cleaned up?" Leroy asked.
"You've already asked a question," Burton said. "Anybody else?"
It was a good question, so Angela answered it. "They completed the cleanup in 2010."
"What did it cost?" asked a boy beside Leroy.
Odd question from a fourth grader.
As if she could read Angela's thought, Crawford chimed in. "His father's an accountant."
"$2.1 billion," Angela said.
The kid started to open his mouth again, but Crawford showed him her palm and nodded at a girl with large dark eyes. "Amanda?"
"What kinds of animals live here?"
"Great question," Angela said, relieved to be back in more familiar territory. She had always been more about science and less about math. More hands-on and less reporting. "Bison, mule deer, white-tailed deer, coyotes, prairie dogs and rabbits. Plus we have over 300 species of birds."
"What's a species?" Leroy blurted out.
Angela sighed, already feeling exhausted.
"Types," Burton said.
"Are there any dangerous animals?" Amanda asked.
"All wild animals can be dangerous," Crawford said, looking expectantly at Angela.
Angela grinned. This was the best part of her spiel. "The most dangerous creature on the Refuge isn't an animal. It's a reptile — the Western diamondback rattlesnake." Angela was pleased to see one or two of the kids' mouths drop open. Deciding to wrap things up there, Angela gestured toward the exhibits. "I'll be happy to answer more questions later, but right now I'm going to give you about twenty minutes to look around."
Before the words cleared her mouth, the kids were up and streaming past her with Burton close on their heels.
"Thank you, Agent Dimato," Crawford said, standing and dusting off the front of her shorts.
"No problem," Angela said. "Look, I need to make sure we have everything we need on the bus. Can you just make sure that the kids don't touch anything they're not supposed to? We especially don't want them climbing on the stuffed bison." She inclined her head toward the entrance to the exhibits, where one of Leroy's buddies was boosting him onto the back of the large, stuffed mammal.
Crawford moved quickly. "Leroy Henderson, you come down from there."
Thirty minutes later, after everyone had taken a cursory look at the exhibits and used the bathrooms, Angela locked up the Visitors Center. The kids and teachers were once more gathered beside the bus. The temperature had spiked to eighty degrees.
"Okay, listen up. It's getting hot and we need to hurry if we want to see any animals." Angela said, walking over to a large wastebasket near the front of the vehicle. "Since birders need the right tools, I'm going to loan each of you a set of binoculars."
"All right!" hollered Leroy. He tried grabbing at the pair in her hands but Angela lifted them out of his reach.
"Just chill," she said, then immediately felt bad when all of his friends laughed. "Come here, you can help me demonstrate how to use them."
With Leroy as a guinea pig, she showed the others how to set the focus.
"That's so cool," Leroy said, sweeping the binoculars toward the prairie.
Angela grinned. The kid was smart.
"Okay, everyone take a pair of the binoculars and get on the bus," Crawford said. "You can finish adjusting them while we're moving."
Five minutes later, the kids were outfitted and in their seats. Angela climbed aboard and stood in the front near the driver.
"Before we head out, we need to cover some ground rules," she said. "We're going to drive into the Refuge and stop in the bison pasture. We are not getting out. Bison are big, dangerous animals. Got it?"
The kids all answered in the affirmative. Burton and Crawford nodded.
"Rule number two."
"What was rule number one?" Leroy whispered to his friend.
Angela gave him a dirty look. Just when she was starting to like the kid, he had to come up with a smart ass question.
"Stay on the bus," she said. "You're allowed to get off, only when I tell you."
"Got it," Leroy said.
"Rule number two, keep your eyes open for wildlife. Never shout at them or try to feed them anything. Remember, we are visitors on their land. But feel free to point them out to each other."
"Got it," the kids said in unison. The chatter rose to ear shattering levels until Crawford raised her hand.
Angela nodded her thanks. "After we're through the bison pasture, we'll head out to one of the best viewing sites of our premier prairie dog town. We'll get out there and see if we can spot any burrowing owls."
Leroy frowned. "Why do owls live —?"
"Bison first," Angela interrupted. "Then I'll tell you about the owls."
It bothered her that she'd lost his attention, but there were fourteen other kids and two adults on this tour to consider. "When we're done looking at the burrowing owls, we'll head to the eagle watch." The platform for watching the roosting eagles in the winter and the nesting pair in the spring was only opened to visitors on special days or for private tours. This year, the kids were in for a treat. "We have two fledglings — baby eagles. And since it's nearing the middle of July, the eaglets are about to leave the nest and fly for the first time. With any luck, maybe we'll see it happen."
Again the kids broke into an excited chatter. Crawford banged on a seat back rail to quiet them down. "Let's listen to Agent Dimato."
Excerpted from A Parliament of Owls by Chris Goff. Copyright © 2015 Chris Goff; House of Stratus. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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