Marian Engström has found her true calling: working with rescue dogs to help protect endangered wildlife. Her first assignment takes her to northern Alberta, where she falls in love with her mentor, the daring and brilliant Tate. When they’re separated on another assignment, she’s shattered to learn of his tragic death. Before long, Marian discovers disturbing inconsistencies about Tate’s life, and begins to wonder if the man she loved could have been responsible for the unsolved murders of at least four women.
Hoping to clear Tate’s name, Marian reaches out to a retired forensic profiler who’s haunted by the open cases. But as Marian relives her relationship with Tate and circles ever closer to the truth, evil stalks her every move.…
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Diane Les Becquets
Natasha was the prettiest of all the girls, with long, reddish-brown hair, the color of brindle. She was a little over five foot six, and two inches taller in the boots that she wore. She wasn’t from Montana, though that was where she had lived for the past four and a half years. Natasha was from Massachusetts, where her father still lived in Franklin, one town over from where the Patriots played. Natasha didn’t care for Massachusetts, and she wasn’t a Patriots fan. Natasha was interested in cowboys and had her heart set on marrying one. She didn’t know anything about cattle or ranching, or cowboys for that matter, so she left Massachusetts five years after her mother passed away and drove to towns where cowboys lived. Lately she’d been thinking about moving back to Massachusetts, or somewhere close to Franklin, like New Hampshire, because she missed her father, who had never remarried, and the only cowboy Natasha had loved had left her for someone else.
She would save a little more money, finish her coursework. She would visit her father, find another job. Maybe schools would be hiring.
Natasha and the cowboy had been living on a gentrified ranch outside Montana City. The cowboy didn’t own the ranch, but he helped take care of the cattle, and he and Natasha had a sweet spot in an apartment above the barn. Natasha was working as a teacher’s aide in a second-grade classroom four miles from where they lived. She liked the children and hoped that soon she and the cowboy would marry and have their own family. Two evenings a week, Natasha made the two-hour drive to Missoula where she was enrolled at the University of Montana. The cowboy paid for her classes. He’d said she’d make a good teacher. But he’d gotten lonely on the nights she’d been away, and on the other nights when he’d wanted her to come to bed and she’d stayed up at the kitchen table studying and drinking so much coffee that she didn’t go to bed at all.
She might have forgiven him. He’d said a man had needs. She tried to tell him she was sorry, that she would cut back on her classes, that she would stop staying up so late. But the man wasn’t interested in reconciling. He was interested instead in a woman he’d met, a cute little thing at the feedlot, who had been buying dog food for her allergy-sensitive Irish setter.
That was when Natasha left the cattle and the sweet spot above the barn. She moved into an apartment in Helena that she could afford on her teacher’s aide salary. She continued to make the two-hour drive, two nights a week, to the University of Montana. She didn’t think about cowboys or big skies or the smell of cattle. She’d think of her father and the picture of her mother on the bureau beside his bed. Brian Freeman, who told his daughter she had her mother’s eyes, said he wasn’t lonely even though he missed his daughter. He had his job and his friends. He watched the Patriots and went to church and threw office parties. Natasha wasn’t like her father. She didn’t have any friends. When the cowboy walked out of her life, she’d lost the only friend she’d had.
Natasha liked the class she was taking the spring after the cowboy and the little woman and the Irish setter moved in together. Creative Drama and Dance was offered through the theater department and was required for education majors. The course focused on the use of drama and dance as types of educational tools. Natasha was especially fond of the dance portion of the class. She enjoyed the way the music entered her body and rooted her someplace else, her childhood perhaps, when her mother would sway behind the steering wheel, to the melody of a song on the radio, and her fingers would tap out the tempo as she drove. Her voice would sing off-key and Natasha would change the station. Then her mother would swat her daughter’s hand and laugh and change the station back.
Natasha wondered if her mother had been swaying to the music and singing off-key when she slid on the black ice and crashed into a guardrail. While paramedics rushed to the scene, Natasha waited to be picked up from her seventh-grade CCD confirmation class at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Natasha didn’t own a cell phone then and everyone else at the parish had already left. She thought her mother would be arriving soon and continued to sit on the curb beside the parking lot. She finally gave up waiting when her fingers began to turn numb, and decided to walk the seven miles home. After thirty minutes, she saw Papa Gino’s on her right. She went inside and asked to use a phone. A patron overheard her and said she could use his. She dialed her mother’s number, but the call went to voice mail. Then she called her father. He picked up on the first ring. “Oh, God, oh, God.” He was crying. He said he was sorry. He told her he’d be right there.
The Creative Drama and Dance class was supposed to end at nine. It often let out early, and Natasha would stop by one of the clubs where a local band would be playing. She’d order a margarita and find a seat somewhere toward the back of the room. She’d drink her margarita slowly to make it last and let the music loosen up something inside her, all that brokenness that she’d never paid much mind to. She’d find hope on those nights, a brief levity, like a rising tide that would carry her east along Interstate 90 to the exit for Highway 12. She’d head over the highlands, a fifty-mile stretch, to the small apartment she’d yet to call home. As she drove she’d hum tunes from whichever club she’d been at and imagine a life different from the one she had. Maybe she’d marry a teacher, or an electrician, or a dentist like her dad.
These were Natasha’s thoughts on that cold Wednesday evening in early December. She’d been listening to music at the Top Hat on West Front Street. She’d even ordered a second drink. She’d liked the band that was playing. After she’d listened to the band and had begun to make the drive to Helena, she’d felt her sadness lift more than it had on previous days.
By the time she took the exit for Highway 12 it was later than usual for her, just past eleven, and there was little traffic, only a solitary vehicle here and there. That was why she was startled when a truck came up behind her and flashed its lights. She was a couple of miles outside the little town of Elliston, with about a half hour more to go to her apartment. She thought the driver behind her might want to pass, so she slowed down and veered onto the shoulder. But she’d forgotten about the warmer temperatures that day. She hadn’t anticipated how soft the shoulder would be. Her right front tire sank a good several inches and then began to spin. Within seconds her back right tire was spinning as well. The truck that had been flashing its lights had already sped on. Natasha kept a shovel in the extra cab of her truck. She climbed out, opened the extra cab extension door, and retrieved the shovel. She wasn’t worried. She’d gotten stuck before, and despite the fact that the sky was dark and she didn’t have a lot of room on the shoulder to work, she was still in a good mood. She dug slush and mud out from around the right front tire, but no matter how much she dug, the ground remained soft.
For a moment she thought of the cowboy and wished she could call him for help. But then she thought of the cowboy’s girlfriend. She would call for a tow truck before she would call her ex-boyfriend, even though she knew the tow truck would cost her more than what she had in her bank account.
After fifteen minutes, she heard a vehicle approaching from behind her and soon saw the headlights of a truck coming around the corner. She’d left her own vehicle running and the lights on so that other vehicles would see her. The truck pulled up beside her. The passenger window was rolled down. A man’s voice spoke to her through the rolled-down window, though Natasha couldn’t see the man’s face.
“I’ve got a chain in the back of my truck,” the man said. “How about I give you a hand?”
The man pulled up just ahead of her truck and got out. He lowered his tailgate and retrieved the heavy chain. He walked to the front of Natasha’s truck, and as he did, she heard another vehicle approaching, this time from the opposite direction. The vehicle was a midsize SUV carrying an older couple. The passenger, a woman who looked to be in her sixties, rolled down her window and asked Natasha and the man if they needed help.
“We’re good,” the man said.
“But thank you,” Natasha said. She almost asked if the couple would wait until her truck had been pulled back onto the road. She wasn’t sure how comfortable she was being alone with this man whom she didn’t know. But she looked at her watch, and it was already going on midnight. The couple was no doubt tired and ready to get home, so Natasha just stood there and waved at the couple as they drove away.
The man said he’d have her on the road in no time. He hooked the chain to her truck’s front axle. “Where are you coming from to be out so late?” he asked her.
She’d been hoping he wouldn’t try to make conversation, but she didn’t want to seem ungrateful or appear rude, so she told him about her class.
“I take night classes there, too,” he said. “I thought you looked familiar.”
Natasha felt herself breathe more easily then. This man was also a student, which she took as a good sign.
“What’s your name?” he asked her.
While they stood there and talked, Natasha’s truck was still running. Maybe it was because she was tired and it was late, or because of that second drink she’d had, but she’d forgotten how low on fuel her vehicle was. She climbed in her truck and shifted it into drive so that the man could pull her out of the soft shoulder. That was when she saw that the fuel gauge needle was just a hair above empty. She knew she might not have enough gas to drive the twenty miles or more over the mountains and back to her apartment.
She had enjoyed talking to the man. She’d already thanked him for pulling over to help her. She’d learned that he was taking classes in engineering, that he had an apartment in Missoula but was driving to Helena to visit his parents. She’d told him it was nice that he was close to his parents and that she missed her father, who was back home in Massachusetts. The man asked her about her mother, and she felt an awakened melancholy that the man seemed to register. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Something terrible must have happened.”
The man drove forward, pulling Natasha’s truck back onto the road. At that time another truck approached from the opposite direction. Natasha waved the vehicle on when it slowed down.
Then the man who had helped her climbed out of his vehicle and walked back toward Natasha. “How are you holding up on fuel?” he asked her.
He looked at her fuel gauge before she had a chance to answer and told her to follow him up the road a ways to a pull-off. Then he would give her a ride back to the Elliston Store, which had a fuel station. He said he had a five-gallon gas container in his truck. At first Natasha insisted that she had enough gas to make it back to the store on her own. The man seemed concerned. What if she didn’t make it, or the pump was out of order? He assured her he didn’t mind giving her a ride. Natasha thought the man was handsome and she didn’t want to offend him. She even thought they might be flirting with each other, which she told herself wasn’t a good idea.
He removed the chain and returned it to his truck. As he pulled forward Natasha followed him. The alcohol had worn off and the sky was black. She’d stayed up way too late studying the night before. She was tired and eager to get back to her apartment and turn in.
In a few hundred yards, the man pulled off at a gravel section where in daylight people could view the Continental Divide. Natasha pulled up beside him. She could turn around and head back to Elliston on her own, and yet she was being foolish. She hadn’t found a reason not to trust this man. She even entertained the thought of them meeting up after class one night and having a drink together. She shut off her ignition, climbed out, and locked her doors. With her keys in her hand, she walked around her truck and over to the man’s vehicle. She opened the passenger door and when she did the interior lights came on that allowed her to see into the extra cab, as well as the bed of the truck. She didn’t see a fuel container. The air tightened in her chest for as long as a second. But then she saw a heavy coat in the backseat and thought there might be a fuel container beneath the coat. With that in mind, she climbed into the truck and shut the door. The man was smiling at her. His eyes looked kind and helpful. She realized once more how handsome he was.
“All set?” the man said.
Natasha nodded. She wore purple knit gloves on her hands. After she fastened her seat belt, she tucked her hands beneath her legs and stared straight ahead.
The man pulled back onto the highway and drove west toward Elliston. He continued to talk to her in a friendly way. How did she like her classes? What made her want to be a teacher, and how honorable he thought that was that she wanted to work with kids.
But then as they approached a gentle curve, the man slowed down more than Natasha thought was necessary. He turned left onto Little Blackfoot River Road.
Natasha’s palms turned clammy inside her gloves and she asked the man what he was doing. He just wanted to check on something, he told her.
“This isn’t the way to Elliston,” Natasha said. She reached for the door with her right hand, but when she did so, she heard the locks click.
“I wouldn’t do that,” the man said.
She reached again for the door and tried to unlock it, but the man’s arm shot out across her chest and pinned her to the back of the seat, and in his right hand was a knife with a blade about four inches long that was angled precariously close to her neck.
“Don’t move,” he said in a voice that was tight and loud.
She tried to speak calmly. “What are you doing?”
“We’re going to help each other out,” he said. “You help me, and I will make sure you get on your way.”
When the truck stopped, she struggled to turn her shoulder away from the man. She reached for the door with both hands, but the man was quicker than she. He’d shut off the engine and whipped his right arm over her head and around her neck, the knife still in his hand, and pulled her away from the door. Now his left arm was free, and he wrapped that arm around her as well. He pulled her across the seat toward him. She screamed and kicked her feet against the glass.
“Shut up!” he yelled.
She tried to bite his arm, but he was still wearing the denim coat and leather gloves.
He dragged her out of the truck, kicked the door shut behind him, and pulled her around the vehicle, his left hand now held over her mouth. She smelled the rust from the chain he had held earlier and the cold air and her own fear. She tasted blood from her mouth from where she had bitten down on the inside of her cheek.
As he hauled her downhill into thick woods of Douglas fir, her cowboy boots carved deep gullies through the mud and snow. One of her boots caught on a rock and came off, sliding her wool sock down to the arch of her foot. Then the man stopped. All around them were dark evergreens and a few cottonwoods whose trunks and branches looked like bones. Natasha thought she could hear a river close by.
“If you try to run I will kill you,” the man said. His breathing was heavy.
Ever so slowly he released the tight clasp of his arms around her. He held the knife in front of her face.
“Take off your clothes,” he said.
Natasha listened for the sound of vehicles, but she knew it was after one o’clock by now, and this road was mostly used for forest access. Even if someone were to drive by, the person would not be able to see this far into the woods and over the sloping decline. Nor would the person be able to hear her screams through the driver’s rolled-up windows and heater and radio and the sounds of the nearby stream.
Natasha was cold and trembling. She unzipped her gold coat, a layer of thin down.
“Take it off,” the man said.
She removed her jacket and handed it to the man. She didn’t know when she had begun crying, but she became aware of the tears dripping off her cheeks and landing in the snow.
“Leave it,” he told her.
Natasha dropped her jacket. “Please,” she said. “Please don’t do this.”
“Take off your shirt.”
Natasha continued to remove her clothes one item at a time. She continued to plead, her voice and skin and throat raw.
The man still held the knife. He stepped behind her. Again he wrapped his arms around her body, this time his mouth close to her ear so that she could feel his breath. The denim of his coat sleeves pressed against her stomach and her neck, and the cold metal buttons of his jacket dug into her back. Her bare feet tingled and were becoming numb.
“Please. I’ll do anythin—”
His arm was quick, the pressure sharp. Her eyes widened. She could not breathe.
Bull River, Montana
It’s a terrible thing to have loved someone and not know the extent to which you’d been deceived, and a more terrible thing still to love someone and not know if you’d ever been loved in return. There is something shameful in that prospect, the kind of shame that can reduce a person to someone she no longer recognizes.
These were Marian’s thoughts as she waded into the outer edge of the Bull River in Montana on that hot afternoon in July, as she carried a coffee tin poised in the crook of her left arm, which Marian thought ironic, as Tate didn’t drink coffee.
It was a beautiful spot, the river wide enough to let in a nice expanse of sunlight. Tate had chosen this location, had sat on the rocky outcrop a few feet from where Marian stood now, had pressed the river rock against her palm and asked her to remember.
That was before the story Marian had believed in, the one she’d been certain had been written for her, had begun to change, like a kaleidoscope. Turn the cylinder one way, and the pieces shift, and a new image appears, as if each of her memories were a shard that could be rearranged to fit whichever story she chose to believe, and she wondered if truth existed at all. The only thing she could be certain of was that each day forward would carry the past.
“It will get easier,” people had told her, well-intentioned people like her mother and her father, who had each lost a parent and had lost friends. “You will always miss him, but in time the pain will become more remote.” But they didn’t know. How could they? Her grief was a complicated one. It was a mystery as addictive as her love affair had been. There were nights as she prepared to turn in, as she peeled a shirt from her body and lifted it over her head, that she imagined removing the memory of Tate from her skin. She’d step toward her bed and crawl beneath the covers. But no matter where she slept or whichever air she breathed, she felt his presence, this man who’d told her they were cut from the same block of wood, like a giant sequoia, and had she ever seen a sequoia tree, and Marian had told him she hadn’t. Only two weeks had passed since Tate had died, and now as she prepared to scatter what was left of his remains, she thought this was her crucible—all of it: her relationship with Tate, his death, the events that lay ahead.
Marian hadn’t worn waders. She didn’t own a pair. But she’d pulled on her Muck boots before she’d left the vehicle. Besides, the water wasn’t deep in these parts, eighteen inches or a little more, and yet she knew from what Tate had told her that if she waded out any farther, the river could be well over her head, forty feet in some parts.
The water pressed against her calves and splashed inside her boots. Marian stood still and watched her shadow dance on the surface. “I love you, Tate. I hope you know that.” Then she removed the lid from the tin and reached her hand inside the plastic bag. Slowly she sifted the fine ash and fragments into the water, watched the particles swirl downstream. Heat rose through her body despite the cool water, and her breathing became shallow because she felt everything. Then she shook out the bag and rinsed her hands in the river and returned the bag to the tin.
Her heavy boots sloshed through the water, and she almost fell but instead extended an arm out to the side to rebalance her footing. She stepped into the reed grass and hawthorn. With an awareness of her body, of its muscle and cartilage and bone, she wrapped a hand around the trunk of a young cottonwood and pulled herself up the embankment. And there might have been a breeze through the trees, cooling her damp skin, as she navigated her way back to the U.S. Forest Service road.
She’d parked the silver Xterra off to the side, along the ravine. The vehicle hadn’t always belonged to Marian. Tate’s name still appeared on the title. But ever since Tate’s sister had visited to collect his things, Marian had been driving the SUV, eight years old and scratched and dinged and without a working radio, to pick up sundries, to transport one or more of the dogs, to remember the places where she and Tate had been.
The windshield faced the upper two thirds of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, its boundaries less than two miles away. Marian set the canister on the passenger seat and opened the glove compartment. Her fingers sorted through expired insurance cards and service records until she found the man’s number that she’d written on a receipt.
She held the phone in her left hand and dialed the number. And as she waited, she half whispered, “I’m sorry, Tate,” her throat an ache that burned down to her sternum.
Marian had not thought the man in Idaho would answer. She had thought she would leave a message. But he answered on the fourth ring, and when he did, Marian spoke too fast. She told the man who she was; she told him she was familiar with his work on the Stillwater cases. Eventually she told him about Tate and asked if her boyfriend had found one of the bodies of the Stillwater victims.
“Why now?” the man asked her.
Marian pushed her hair away from her face and off her sticky forehead. The phone felt too warm against her left ear, so she switched it to the other side. “Because I loved him,” she said. “Because I wanted to believe him.”
Nick Shepard wasn’t from the West. He’d been born and raised in Detroit, to an alcoholic father and a family that was often on welfare. But he’d escaped the chaos of his childhood by earning good grades and getting a scholarship to college. He’d escaped Vietnam as well, a war he had vehemently protested, by receiving an occupational deferment for his work as an aide at a mental hospital. He was retired and reclusive now; his face appeared weary in his photos, like soft thunder, and Marian didn’t have to know the man to see that he still felt the pain from dreams and childhood and the knowledge of too many disturbed minds. But there were good things in his life: a woman to whom he’d been married for forty-seven years, a grown son who was doing well. Nick enjoyed literature and music, studied the works of the great modernist poets Eliot and Cummings and Stevens. He even gardened some. Marian knew all of these things.
Marian looked out to the west as if she could see into Idaho where this man lived, as if the distance between them weren’t the two-hundred-and-something miles that it was. She thought of the images of the crime scenes, or rather the places where the remains had been found, and the pictures of the women’s faces, young women, like Marian. She knew that if Nick Shepard agreed to work with her, she would be reliving her life with Tate all over again. “I need to know what is real,” Marian said. “I don’t know what is real anymore.”
All the while Marian thought no one could know she had made this call. She would even go so far as to erase it from her phone. There were the others to think about—Lyle and Trainer and Jenness and Liz and Dudley. And now there was Tate’s sister to consider, as well. Yet more than Marian’s concern for the others was her fear that Tate could read her mind, as if somehow he were all-knowing now that he was gone, his presence like breath and oxygen. And there was that lingering hope that she was wrong, that her speculations and misgivings, tentative at best, were nothing more than an active imagination.
“You won’t tell anyone I talked to you,” she said. She could end this call. She could say she had made a mistake.
“All right,” Shepard said.
And so it had come to this. She did not know if she could trust this man, but there was no one else. “Will you help me?” she asked, because she could no longer do this on her own. Because there was no other way to find out the truth.
Yes, he would help her. He had too much time on his hands. He was interested. He said all of these things.
Then Shepard asked her, “When was the first time you felt something wasn’t right with Tate?”
Almost seven months earlier
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
When Marian met Tate, she didn’t know that the story of her life was about to change. She didn’t know of northern Rocky Mountain skies and moons that could cut her heart open to the bone or that his cool hands would burn rivers beneath her skin, and that when he’d tell her in so many ways that she’d been everything he’d been looking for, his voice would sound unmistakable and true and she would believe him. She had just flown into Edmonton two days after New Year’s and would be joining a group of field technicians for the next three months on a conservation study. The study would be conducted in the Athabasca tar sands in northeastern Alberta, between Lac La Biche and Fort McMurray.
Marian passed through customs and stood with one of her duffel bags strapped vertically to her back and the other slung over her neck and hanging crossways in front of her. A messy braid fell over her right shoulder, and wisps of brown hair trailed from beneath her knit cap. She’d told Lyle, the program coordinator, what she looked like and had sent him a picture. He’d told her not to worry; someone would be holding a sign. But she didn’t see anyone holding a sign, so she proceeded to follow the foot traffic that led outside the airport and onto the curb. She held her cell phone in her left hand and was about to check it for a text message or a missed call when she heard a male voice say her name.
That was the first time she saw him. He was standing against a white pickup truck with a black soft topper. And though he would later want her to recall the moment, to set it apart from all the other moments that had existed for her up until then, no matter how many times she revisited the memory, she would not be able to recall the same kind of specific details as he. It was morning in Edmonton. She had taken a red-eye flight and had slept on the plane. She had not had time to brush her teeth, and the coffee that she had been served before the plane landed was weak and had left her with a terrible headache, and she worried that she had packed too many clothes because the duffel bags felt heavier than she would have liked.
But she did remember how as soon as she raised her chin and smiled, relieved that she had arrived and that there was a person on the other end to get her where she was supposed to be, she’d heard the barking of a large dog from the back of the truck, and that the man had hurried toward her and had taken the duffel bags off her shoulders. Tate introduced himself and put her bags in the back of the truck with boxes of food and a crate that held an eager Labrador mix who barked and wagged her tail against the plastic housing of her kennel.
Marian lowered her face to the kennel. “Hi, there,” she said, her voice a fairly high note, as if she were talking to a very young child, as if she were talking to her dog, Deacon, who would be staying with Marian’s parents while she was away.
“Her name’s Arkansas,” Tate said. “She’s a rescue dog from the Ozarks.”
“How old is she?”
“We’re not sure. Maybe five or six.”
Marian had first learned about K9s for Conservation and that it was seeking applicants for an upcoming study in Alberta that past summer when, as a seasonal employee, she was living with Deacon and a group of other technicians in a small trailer on the north beach of South Padre Island, Texas. Her job had involved rescuing stranded sea turtles, rehabilitating them, and releasing them into safer areas. Marian had been reading through job listings for her next position, preferably one that would allow dogs, when she’d seen the posting for six detection dog handlers and six orienteers with no prior experience required. The job would involve hiking in Alberta in three feet of snow and taking helicopters into remote locations for the purpose of finding wolf, caribou, and moose scat during the winter’s oil explorations. The handlers would work solely with the detection dogs. The orienteers would navigate the course of travel, collect the scat, and record the waypoints.
The program, a part of the University of Washington, was operated out of a camp facility just west of Whitefish, Montana, and relied on high-energy rescue dogs who would work for the sole pleasure and reward of playing with a ball. The candidates who were accepted for the positions would be expected to arrive in Whitefish in October for two months of training.
Marian filled out the online application. She mentioned her studies in biology at the University of Michigan, where she had graduated four years before. She listed all of the seasonal jobs she’d held since then, including tagging and tracking brown-headed cowbirds in Illinois, spraying for noxious weeds in Oklahoma, and banding ducks and mourning doves in eastern Wyoming. She wrote about her bulldog, Genius, whom she’d grown up with. And she wrote about Deacon, a forty-pound cattle dog with too much energy whom she’d adopted from a shelter shortly after arriving in Texas.
But seasonal jobs for field technicians were competitive. Marian was not selected for an interview for the study in Alberta. When her summer employment with Turtle, Inc. ended, she’d been allowed to stay in the trailer through December in exchange for working in the nonprofit’s gift shop. The other technicians moved on to other jobs or went back to school. Marian strung Christmas lights outside the trailer and drank spiked cider on the beach with the local employees. She’d found a job with a fish hatchery program in Clinton, Missouri, that would begin in the spring, and had decided to move home to Michigan in the meantime, to spend time with her parents and her brother’s family.
Then she received the call from Lyle. She’d just come in from a run with Deacon and was standing in the doorway of her trailer, the sweat of Texas moving down her body, the lights on her trailer blinking red and green. Did Marian have a DUI, Lyle wanted to know. How soon could she get to Edmonton?
Tate told Marian that he was one of the team leaders and that he had worked as a handler for the past ten years. Jenness, the other team leader, who managed the program’s communications, had been with the program six years. “Jenness and I will be running the operations,” Tate said. Marian already knew that Lyle would be staying in Montana at the program’s base camp, or The Den, as it was called, to coordinate and prepare for other studies.
The crew had arrived in Edmonton three days prior, with ten dogs, four snowmobiles and two trailers, six trucks, and supplies and gear. They’d used the first day to inventory supplies, restock food, and give the dogs some exercise, and had spent all of the next day in a snowmobile operations class taught by a Polaris dealer. They’d checked out of the hotel that morning and were on their way to an oil company compound in the tar sands. The compound, a five-hour drive from the airport, was owned and operated by Pétron Oil, a co-funder and supporter of the upcoming wildlife study. Tate estimated that he and Marian were only a couple of hours behind the others.
After Tate stopped to get Marian a coffee and the two of them were back on the road, Marian asked Tate about the two months of training that she’d missed. He told her about the fitness exercises, which included Indian trail runs up mountain roads, sometimes twice a day. The runs involved a single-file line, where the last person sprinted to the front, and so on. Tate told her the group would cover three to six miles at a time. Other days the runs were off-trail through dense forests, so that each member was bushwhacking. He told her not to worry. “You look like you’re in pretty good shape,” he said.
Then Tate asked Marian how much Lyle had told her, and she admitted that he had told her very little. “He just wanted to know if I’d ever had a DUI,” she said.
Tate talked about the orienteer who had been turned away at the border because of a prior DUI. “There aren’t always clean lines to human behaviors,” Tate said. “But, hey, if it hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t be here, and that’s a good thing, right?”
“I’m so happy to be here,” Marian said.
Marian also learned that the teams had participated in a ten-day emergency responder course during those two previous months. Her résumé had included her first responder training, a certificate she had kept current, which had no doubt given her an edge in Lyle’s last-minute decision to offer her a position.
As Marian finished her coffee and stared out at the polished white landscape and the endless highway around them, Tate talked about the multiple projects going on at any one time. One job was wrapping up in New Mexico, where a border collie mix was looking for Jemez Mountains salamanders, a candidate for the endangered species list. Tate talked about the incredible ball drive of the dogs. “It’s an obsession,” he said. “Given the choice between playing with a ball or eating a rib eye steak, they’ll choose the ball.”
Marian couldn’t help but think of Deacon and his poor attempts at searching for Rodney, the stuffed sea turtle. After she’d submitted her application for the job, she’d been determined to turn Deacon into a detection dog so that should she be called for an interview, he would give Marian an advantage. After work each day, Marian would hide the stuffed turtle from the gift shop and praise Deacon enthusiastically and feed him treats when he found the turtle. During her lunch breaks she would throw a tennis ball for Deacon on the beach and reward him with beef jerky when he ran after the ball and brought it back to her, which he seldom did without her chasing him into the water. She’d envisioned the snow-covered trails she and Deacon would hike, the solitude.
In her caffeine state and excitement and lack of sleep, as she listened to Tate talk, everything looked beautiful to her: the cold, stark landscape; the long highway; the images of Tate’s words; his light brown eyes that shot quick, animated glances toward her as he spoke; the color of his pupils in the sun’s reflection like tree sap, amber and transparent.
Marian asked Tate if he had a favorite project, and he told her about the Yellowhead ecosystem along the eastern Canadian Rockies. “Fifty-two hundred square kilometers of pure God’s country,” he said. The study examined the impacts that recreation, forestry, and oil and gas exploration were having on the grizzly and black bear populations by analyzing scat samples for hormone levels, diet, and DNA.
Before the use of detection dogs, researchers had relied heavily on hair snares, typically consisting of barbed wire around an attractant for the purpose of snagging a tuft of the bear’s fur, and radio collars, Tate said. Because the hair snares relied on the use of an attractant, the data could be considered biased. And though radio telemetry data was helpful, it came with risks, as demonstrated by the death of a park employee that previous spring when a bear was released from a culvert. The bear had attacked a young intern before a high-caliber rifle could put the bear down.
Two hours into the drive, Tate pulled off at a truck stop in Boyle to refuel and to get lunch. He and Marian sat across from each other at a booth, and as they ate cheeseburgers and shared a plate of French fries, she told Tate about Deacon and how much she missed him.
After Lyle had offered Marian the job, she’d called her parents to see if they would take Deacon while she was away. “It would just be temporary,” Marian told them. And he was very well trained.
And so her parents had agreed. Marian had found a flight on Alaska Airlines that allowed larger dogs to fly as cargo if the dog and kennel didn’t weigh more than one hundred and fifty pounds. She slipped a note with instructions for her parents into a plastic sleeve and taped it to the top of Deacon’s crate. And after she checked Deacon in, she checked his small bag of toys, as well. Two hours later, she’d boarded the flight on Air Canada.
Maybe it was because of her lack of sleep, but her eyes became teary as she told Tate about Deacon, and she wiped away the wetness and apologized.
And did Tate’s eyes become teary also? He didn’t want her to apologize. He said he felt terrible for her. He told her about a dog he’d had when he was a boy growing up in Glendive, Montana. Said he’d found the dog after baseball practice one day and the dog had followed him home. “I’d read to him. Honest to God, don’t laugh. He’d sit up in bed with me and I’d read him these books I’d get from the library. At first I just called him Dog, but then I named him Arthur because we were reading a story about King Arthur and Guinevere, and I thought my dog was like a king.”
“That’s so sweet,” Marian said.
“Yeah.” Tate was smiling and looking away. “He drowned,” Tate said.
“What? Oh my, God. I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“We had a river behind our house. We got a lot of rain that year. There were these kids who lived down the street. And Arthur, he had Labrador in him. He liked to fetch things, kind of like these dogs we’ve got with us up here. So these kids came over and threw a stick in the river, and Arthur went in after it. He got the stick, but the river was too powerful for him to turn back.”
“Were you there? What did you do?”
“I was running alongside the river and crying and trying to get to him. I’d get close, and he’d try to scramble onto the bank. He’d be looking at me with these big brown eyes, all pleading and frightened, wanting me to save him. But then he’d get washed away again.”
“Tate, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry.”
Tate leaned back in the booth and placed both hands flat on the table. “Well, what are you going to do.” He ate another French fry, then took a swallow from his glass of root beer. “I wrote an epitaph for him,” he said. “I still have it. Except I wrote it in pencil. It’s kind of hard to make out now.” Tate finished his drink. “I got this,” he said. He picked up the bill from the table and walked up to the cash register.
He was taller than Marian had realized, close to six feet. About an inch of wavy brown hair showed beneath his knit cap and fell over his ears. Marian tried to guess his age. Probably midthirties.
After Tate paid and left a tip on the table, he told Marian he had something for her, and so she followed him out to the truck, where he opened up the back, and Arkansas was again wagging her tail and whining with delight.
“Hey there, girl,” Tate said. He let Arkansas out of her crate. She leapt down and pranced beside him, her eyes bright and fixed on his every move. Marian knelt beside the dog and stroked her coat.
“She’s beautiful,” Marian said.
“I thought maybe you could use some dog medicine,” Tate said. “I know how hard that must have been putting Deacon on that plane.”
Marian wrapped her arms around the dog and cooed in her ears. Then the dog swiveled around quickly, and Marian noticed that Tate had something in his hand. Next to the parking lot was an open field with windblown eddies of snow. Tate pulled his arm back and threw a blue rubber ball, and Arkansas tore off across the empty parking spaces and into the eighteen inches or more of snow before the ball landed maybe sixty yards from where they stood. The dog’s back legs kicked up flakes of the white powder, creating a wraithlike image in her wake.
“She’s fast,” Marian said. And no sooner had Marian said those words than Arkansas came tearing back to Tate, the ball already covered in frothy saliva. She dropped the ball at Tate’s feet, her body tense with anticipation, as if Marian could hear the dog saying, Again! This time Tate handed the ball to Marian, who drew her arm back and threw the ball as far as she could, maybe forty yards. And even after Arkansas had sprung after the ball, Marian could feel Tate watching her, and her cheeks burned red from the wind and the cold and her awareness of Tate, who now was saying very little.
She and Tate continued to throw the ball for Arkansas, and Marian continued to love on the dog each time the big, sloppy, beautiful Lab brought the ball back, until Tate said they should get going.
They didn’t talk as much on the rest of the drive. Marian felt herself dozing a little and feeling grateful to be where she was. She had loved playing with Arkansas. She couldn’t wait to meet the other dogs in the program. And three months would fly by, and she and Deacon would be running on the beaches in Michigan and then driving across the Midwest to Missouri for her next seasonal job. And maybe she smiled as she dozed because she didn’t know then that it would be weeks before she would be able to throw her arms around a dog once more, or that in less than a month, she would never see Deacon again.
Oil sands, Alberta, Canada
When Marian climbed out of Tate’s truck at the Pétron Oil compound, she immediately heard the humming of electricity, like a dull ringing in her ears, from all the buildings and lights and generators and diesel trucks whose engines were plugged into outlets when not in use.
“Welcome home,” Tate said.
Marian squinted against the snow and the bright afternoon sun. And when a woman with long brown hair approached them amid the sunlight and the glare from the snow, she almost appeared like an apparition. Tate introduced the woman as Jenness, the other team leader, who then extended her hand toward Marian. The cuff of the woman’s down coat pulled up the slightest bit so that when Marian shook Jenness’s gloved hand, she noticed the tattoo, a small hawk feather, etched in black, on the underside of the woman’s exposed wrist. The woman was no taller than Marian, around five feet four inches, and appeared lean despite her thick snow layers. She said she had Marian’s key and room assignment and would show her to the orienteer housing.
“We only beat you here by a few hours,” Jenness told Tate. Then she pointed out two trailers at the other end of the parking lot where she and Tate and the six handlers would be staying with the dogs.
Tate and Jenness exchanged banter about logistics and business and the names of people Marian didn’t know, and because of Jenness and Tate’s easy way with each other, Marian wondered if they might be a couple.
Marian and Jenness each picked up one of the duffel bags. They carried the bags to one of three large modular buildings. There were a couple hundred rooms in the building, Jenness said, and several communal bathrooms. “You’ll have your own space, but I have to warn you, it’s really small.”
The room was about the size of a walk-in closet, with barely enough space for a twin-size bed, a small desk, and a bureau. Marian tried to turn around and bumped the duffel bag into the desk chair and stumbled a bit, and when she did, she grabbed onto Jenness’s shoulder. Then Jenness laughed. “Like I warned you. The rooms are small.”
“I don’t mind,” Marian said.
“Trust me. We’ve stayed in a lot worse.”
Because the two women with the large duffel bags were still standing in the small space, the room suddenly felt like the kind of tight quarters where one can hardly breathe, and perhaps Jenness sensed the same thing because she set the bag down and said she’d let Marian get settled in. There was a folder on the desk with maps and instructions and helpful tips about the compound, and another folder with a schedule and information to bring Marian up to speed. “It’s a lot to take in,” Jenness said. She was now standing in the doorway with one hand on the doorjamb. “Don’t worry. I’ll walk you through everything. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
Beyond the three long modular barracks that housed seven-hundred-plus oil workers and the conservation group’s six orienteers was a building with a TV commons area and an exercise room. Beyond that building was the cafeteria. After Marian organized her small space, she joined the others in the cafeteria for a group meeting with Jenness and Tate.
Six dog handlers had been hired as seasonal employees for the oil sands study. This was their first project. Their employment would end once the study was over. The six orienteers were here as volunteers. Each team would consist of a handler, a dog, and an orienteer. Marian had taken on other jobs as a volunteer, as long as housing was provided, for the experience alone, and this was one of those.
The purpose of the study was to assess the impacts the oil exploration was having on the caribou, moose, and wolf populations living in the oil sands. This would be done by using the dogs to locate scat from these different species. The scat would then be packed in dry ice and shipped back to the lab at the University of Washington, where it would be analyzed for DNA, hormone levels, and diet. Of special concern on this study were the caribou, which would be each team’s priority. Wildlife investigators had predicted that the caribou would become extinct in the oil sands within the next two decades.
The handlers were responsible at all times for the dogs. The orienteers were to navigate each team’s course of travel, collect the scat, and record the waypoints. This meant that the dogs were off-limits to the orienteers. Jenness and Tate said that now that the dogs were on site, it was important to limit their distractions, and interaction with too many people wasn’t a good thing.
Jenness and Tate went on to explain that orienteers were rarely assigned to a study. “When there are two people, usually one of them will be talking, which interrupts the focus of both the handler and the dog,” Tate said. But this particular contract had required that each team consist of two people for safety measures, primarily because of the cold.
For the first ten days, the handlers would be running training exercises for the dogs to get them acclimated to the area and to further enhance the scat-ball concept. The orienteers would be working in pairs to assess the roads. The oil company’s ice road network varied from year to year. The orienteers would be exploring that network, while making a tracklog with their GPS devices. They would also be determining which roads could handle the weight of the trucks. At the end of each day the orienteers would be downloading their tracklogs onto the program’s geological information system, where the data would become road layers that could be added to maps.
Determining which roads were stable proved to be challenging, as the roads were built on top of peat bogs, called muskeg, which was why the terrain was only accessible when the ground was frozen. The general rule was that if there were young trees or shrubs in the nearby landscape, the road most likely was one to be avoided, as the road would be too soft. But the absence of low-growing vegetation wasn’t always an indicator, and there would be a loud thunk and the truck’s tires would fall through the muskeg, which was what happened to Marian on her third day. Jeb, an orienteer from Oregon, was riding with Marian, who was behind the wheel. They’d just turned onto a road that led through dense woods of Canadian spruce and canoe birch, when the truck thunked and came to an abrupt halt.
They had brought a shovel for just this reason, and while Jeb dug around the truck’s wheels, Marian took a handsaw into the woods to cut branches. They layered the branches around the wheels. Marian again climbed into the driver’s seat, started the engine, and slightly accelerated, while Jeb pushed from behind, but the wheels only spun, and so she and Jeb continued their efforts again and again, but to no avail, until finally the two of them decided they’d better call over the radio for help.
While they waited for assistance, Marian learned that Jeb was twenty-five, just a year younger than she, and after college had held a number of different jobs including working as a deckhand on a fishing boat in the Bering Strait and driving a bulldozer for an excavation crew at construction sites. He said he wanted to go back to school one day and study writing. Marian liked his long blond hair that he wore in a ponytail. She told him he reminded her of her younger brother who was working as a youth minister at a church in Grand Rapids, where the two of them had grown up in Michigan.
At some point the conversation turned toward the dogs, and Jeb said that most of the program’s dogs had been one step away from being euthanized. “Just look at them now.”
Marian and Jeb were sitting on the tailgate and were eating from a bag of trail mix when they heard a truck approaching. They retraced their path along the road to the turnoff, where the ground was more solid. Tate pulled up beside them and rolled down his window.
“I got a couple of chains in the back. Each of you grab one. I’m going to back in and get a little closer.”
And so Marian and Jeb did as Tate instructed, and Tate parked and got out. He connected the two chains and hooked the ends on the closest axle. Within minutes Marian and Jeb’s truck was out of the bog and they were loading the chains back into the bed of Tate’s vehicle.
Then Tate asked Marian to ride with him. “You can brief me on the road conditions.” And so Marian climbed into the passenger seat next to Tate, and Jeb walked around to the driver’s side of the other truck and hoisted himself behind the wheel.
After they got going, Marian told Tate about the grid units to the northwest having the best network, and that there were only a few working roads to the northeast. She gave Tate specifics about the muskeg and the terrain.
Marian had removed her gloves and while she was talking, Tate reached for her hand. “You’re cold,” he said. “You were out there a long time.” Marian said she was fine. Other than that, there was now nothing obvious to say, and her hand remained beneath his until he asked her what she hoped to get out of her time there, and his right hand grabbed hold of the steering wheel again.
Marian hesitated before answering because she did not want to sound presumptuous, and Tate said, “It isn’t a difficult question,” and Marian told him what she really wanted was to be working with the dogs.
“You want to be a handler,” Tate said.
“I wish I’d had the chance to try out.”
“We’ve had a lot of folks over the years who started out as orienteers, Jenness included. What you want isn’t out of reach.”
The living area of one of the two handler trailers had been converted into the group’s workstation. It was late when Marian had finished downloading her GPS tracklog and entering her notes regarding the roads, sometime close to midnight. A dusting of snow blew over her boots as she walked back to the orienteer housing, and snowflakes collected on her lips and lashes, though the sky was clear. She thought of Deacon and loneliness and other matters that collected in her mind at a day’s end when sleep was close. Only three weeks before, Marian had been running down a sand-packed trail with Deacon bounding alongside her. Her life had felt snagged in a trailer and a place too hot to call home. She was fair-skinned with sun-enhanced freckles and too much Irish and Scandinavian blood to be living in Texas.
For the past four years, Marian had gone from job to job. Her family worried that she was chasing happiness and might be better off with a man, even though they typically weren’t conventional thinkers. After Marian had started college and still did not have a boyfriend, her father asked her if she was gay. But Marian did not think she was gay. She met a boy her junior year. He had brown hair, and when the sun shone on it, the ends looked like copper. He was friends with Marian’s roommate, a tall, strong woman with Chippewa blood. The boy’s name was Hawkon, and he told Marian he had Chippewa blood, too, like her roommate. He was an English major who enjoyed writing poetry. Marian liked his name and the poems he wrote, though she did not understand them, and she liked the copper tips of his hair. They talked and read poetry for a month before he kissed her one night underneath a street lamp in downtown Ann Arbor. They had just left a bar and three empty beer bottles each. And when he kissed her, he slid his right hand beneath the fall of her hair, lifting it slightly from the nape of her neck, and her spine chilled from the warmth of it all. After he walked her back to her dorm, she tried to write a poem for him, but her words felt futile.
Hawkon did not stop by the next day or the next, and a month later when she had not heard from him, she cried. She thought her roommate was asleep, until the covers on her roommate’s bed stirred, the mattress springs creaked, and bare feet padded across the vinyl floor. Linda lifted the polyfill comforter and crawled in beside Marian. She smoothed Marian’s hair and breathed warmth against her skin. The next night, Linda slipped beneath the covers with Marian again, and the night after that. Her fingers stroked Marian’s arms. She tugged at the neckline of Marian’s T-shirt and kissed her freckled shoulders. They became lovers, but Marian never wondered if this was love, and only once after their lovemaking did Linda speak those words, shortly before falling asleep.
Marian had actually only been with one man, when she was twenty-three, a kind man with fleece sheets who would bring her coffee in the morning. But he’d eventually moved on, as had Marian, when their seasonal job together ended.
Marian visited the women’s communal bathroom. She was thinking about emailing one of her co-workers from Turtle, Inc. But when she walked out of the bathroom, she was startled by Tate, who was standing just outside the doorway.
“I understand you want to take the sleds out tomorrow,” he said.
Marian told Tate about seeing only one road on the grid unit that she and Jeb had been assigned to check and that she wasn’t sure what kind of shape the road was in. “After today, I’d feel better taking the snowmobiles.”
“Do you know how to handle these machines?” he asked.
And Marian told him she did, that she’d grown up riding snowmobiles in Michigan.
“Do you want me to give you some pointers?”
“I’ll be okay,” she told him.
Marian moved down the hall and was surprised to find she’d left her room unlocked. She didn’t think much of it until she opened the door and removed her boots and began to peel off the layers of her clothes. In that moment she felt certain that a man had been inside her room. There were footprints on the floor that were too large to be hers. She thought of the oil workers. She checked her belongings. Everything was in its place. But when she turned in she knew someone had lain on her bed, because her pillow had the unfamiliar scent of a man that she would later come to recognize, of spruce and sweat and diesel oil and outdoor air.
And when she eventually came to know Tate’s body and the comfort of his breathing and the way his skin and clothes smelled, she asked him about the night when she had turned her pillow over and had lain awake for too many hours and had promised herself never to leave her door unlocked again.
“You were in my room,” she said.
“Why were you on my bed?”
He told her that her door wasn’t locked, that he’d come looking for her to ask her about the sleds. He knew the orienteers had been complaining about their rooms. He’d wanted to get a sense of just how small the rooms were. He was being a responsible team leader.
It all made sense to Marian. It always did.
Reading Group Guide
The Last Woman in the Forest
Diane Les Becquets Readers Guide
1. Why do you think the author chose to include the victim portraits? Do you think they are effective? Why or why not?
2. Discuss the characters of each of the victims. What do they have in common besides their deaths? What is different? Do you think these similarities and differences are meaningful?
3. Expanding on the previous question, how do the victims compare to Marian?
4. The setting of this novel spans an enormous geographical and environmental range, including the Rocky Mountains, the deserts of Utah, and the Alberta oil sands. What impact does the environment have on the novel? Do you think it would have been as effective with a more confined or different setting? Why or why not?
5. Discuss the character of Nick. Why do you think it is so important for him, personally, to help Marian? Why do you think the Stillwater killings stuck with him?
6. As Nick notes, although the killer likely had relationships, it was impossible for him to truly reciprocate the feelings women may have had for him. Do you see this in Tate and Marian’s interactions? How does Tate and Marian’s relationship compare to what we see of Nick and Cate?
7. Despite the sense of isolation offered by the wilderness setting, interpersonal connections and relationships are crucial for Marian’s development and for her exploration into Tate’s life. Discuss Marian’s relationships with characters other than Tate and Nick, such as Jenness, Jeb, Emily, and Trainer. How do you think her relationships with these characters influence Marian throughout the course of the novel?
8. There are various dog characters with distinct personalities. What do you think their presence adds to the novel? How do the dogs affect Marian and the other characters?
9. A major theme in this novel is the idea of moving forward after discovering you’ve been lied to. How does Marian reconcile the feelings she had, and the things she experienced, with everything she learns?
10. Discuss the confrontation toward the end of the novel. Was it satisfying? What do you think this scene means for Marian?
11. Do you think this novel explores, to some degree, what it means to be a woman in modern society? Why or why not?