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Authors: Dana Stabenow

Blood Will Tell

BLOOD WILL TELL

Kate Shugak 06

Dana Stabenow

BERKLEY PRIME CRIME, NEW YORK

If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as "unsold and destroyed" to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this "stripped book."

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

BLOOD WILL TELL

A Berkley Prime Crime Book I published by arrangement with the author

PRINTING HISTORY

G.P. Putnam's Sons hardcover edition I 1996 Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition I June 1997

All rights reserved.

Copyright 1996 by Dana Stabenow. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission. For information address:

The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is http://www.penguinputnam.com

ISBN: 0-425-15798-9

Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

The name BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the BERKLEY PRIME CRIME design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Putnam Inc.

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

10 9 8 7

DEDICATION

FOR KATHERINE QUIJANCE GROSDIDIER

WE ARE FAMILY

My love and thanks to Axenia Barnes, who told all those wonderful stories to that wide-eyed little girl so long ago, and my thanks to the Chugach Alaska Corporation who saw that they were written down, lest we forget, and my apologies to the Alaska Federation of Natives for my impertinence in borrowing their convention, where each year so much truth is spoken by so many good people.

Once upon a time, a couple of days ago . Look at that one, says Calm Water's Daughter.

Which one? says The Woman Who Keeps the Tides.

That One Who Stands Apart, says Calm Water's Daughter.

Ah. That one. She could be a problem, says The Woman Who Keeps the Tides. How long?

Not long now, says Calm Water's Daughter, and she sighs.

What's that you do with the windy mouth, says The Woman Who Keeps the Tides, you've been looking forward to that one coming. She is strong.

She is sly. We need her.

So do they, says Calm Water's Daughter.

Excuse me, says Mary, I was looking for the Madonna seminar?

Down the path on the left, says The Woman Who Keeps the Tides.

I'm sorry, says Mary, is that my left or your left?

Ayapu, says The Woman Who Keeps the Tides, go over the stream and turn right, walk ten steps and turn left.

I beg your pardon, says Mary, it's so easy to get lost up here. At least down there we had direction.

Like I said, says The Woman Who Keeps the Tides, we need her more than those ones do. You could be right, says Calm Water's Daughter.

Is this where the crop goddesses are meeting? says Demeter.

Alaqah, do I look like a road sign, says The Woman Who Keeps the Tides, the next field over.

Thanks, says Demeter, I'm late for the grain ceremony. I just hope I haven't missed the goat sacrifice.

Those Greeks are all alike, says The Woman Who Keeps the Tides, party, party, party.

They're young yet, says Calm Water's Daughter. They'll learn.

ONE.

THE BAD NEWS WAS THE BLOOD IN HER HAIR.

The good news was that it wasn't hers.

The day before, the bull moose had walked into the homestead clearing like he owned it, the same day hunting season opened on the first year in six Kate had drawn a permit, on the first year in ten the feds had declared a hunting season in her game management unit. On a potty break from digging potatoes, she was buttoning her jeans in front of the outhouse when the sound of a snapped branch drew her attention. She looked up to find him head and shoulders into a stand of alders whose dark green leaves had just started to turn. For a moment she stood where she was, transfixed, mouth and fly open, unable to believe her luck. One limb stripped of bark, the moose nosed over to a second, ignoring her presence with what could have been regal indifference but given the time of year was probably absolute disdain for any creature not a female of his own species.

He'll run when I move, she thought.

But I have to move; the rifle's in the cabin.

But if I move, he'll head out, and then I'll have to bush wack after him and pack him home in pieces.

But he can't outrun a bullet.

His rack was peeling velvet in long, bloody strips, and as he chewed he rubbed the surface of his antlers against the trunk of a neighboring birch. He looked irritated. Before long, he would be looking frenzied, and not long after that manic, especially when he caught a whiff of the moose cow that had been summering along the headwaters of the creek that ran in back of Kate's cabin. It was late in the year for either of them to be in rut, but then Kate had never known moose to keep to a strict timetable in matters of the heart.

If I don't move soon, she thought, Mutt will get back from breakfast and then he will run and this argument you're having with yourself will be academic.

The bull was a fine, healthy specimen, three, maybe four years old by the spread of his rack, his coat thick and shiny, his flanks full and firm-fleshed. She figured four hundred pounds minimum, dressed out. Her mouth watered. She took a cautious, single step. The ground was hard from the October frost, and her footstep made no sound. Encouraged, she took another, then another.

The .30-06 was racked below the twelve-gauge over the door. She checked to see if there was a round in the chamber. There always was, but she checked anyway. Reassured, she raised the rifle, pulled the stock into her shoulder and sighted down the barrel, her feet planted wide in the open doorway, the left a little in advance of the right, knees slightly bent. She blew out a breath and held it. Blood thudded steadily against her eardrums. The tiny bead at the end of the barrel came to rest on the back of the bull's head, directly between his ears. Lot of bone between her bullet and his brain. Moose have notoriously hard heads. She thought about that for a moment. Well, what was luck for if it was never to be chanced? "Hey," she said.

He took no notice, calmly stripping the bark from another tree limb.

"You must lower the average moose IQ by ten points," she said in a louder voice. "I'm doing your entire species a favor by taking you out of the gene pool." He turned his head at that, a strip of bark hanging from one side of his mouth. She exhaled again and the bead at the end of the rifle barrel centered directly on one big brown eye. Gently, firmly, she squeezed the trigger. The butt kicked solidly into her shoulder and the report of the single shot rang in her ear.

He stopped chewing and appeared to think the matter over. Kate waited.

He started to lean. He leaned over to his left and he kept on leaning, picked up speed, leaned some more and crashed into the alder, bringing most of it down with him. The carcass settled with a sort of slow dignity, branches popping, twigs snapping, leaves crackling.

As silence returned to the clearing, Kate, not quite ready yet to believe her eyes, walked to the moose and knelt to put a hand on his neck. His hair was rough against her skin, his flesh warm and firm in the palm of her hand, his mighty heart still. She closed her eyes, letting his warmth and strength flow out of him and into her.

A raven croaked nearby, mischievous, mocking, and she opened her eyes and a wide grin split her face. "Yes!" The raven croaked again and she laughed, the scar on her throat making her laughter an echo of his voice. "Hah! Trickster! I see you by the beak you cannot hide!"

He croaked again, annoyed that she had penetrated his disguise so easily, and launched himself with an irritated flap of wings to disappear over the trees into the west.

"All right!" She charged into the center of the clearing and broke into an impromptu dance, chanting the few words she remembered of an old hunting song, holding the rifle over her head in both hands, stamping her sneakered feet on the hard ground, not missing the drums or the singers or the other dancers, beating out the rhythm of a celebration all her own. She tossed her head back and saw Mutt standing at the edge of the clearing, a quizzical look in her yellow eyes. Kate dropped the rifle, let out a yell and took the gray half-wolf, half-Husky in a long, diving tackle. Mutt gave a startled yip and went down beneath the assault. They roughhoused all over the clearing in a free-for-all of mock growls from Kate and joyous barks from Mutt that ended only when they rolled up against the side of the garage with a solid thump that robbed them both of breath.

Kate rolled to her back. The sky was a clear and guileless blue, the air crisp on an indrawn breath. A fine sheen of sweat dried rapidly on her skin. It was her favorite time of the year, October, in her favorite place in the world, the homestead she'd inherited from her parents, in the middle of twenty million acres of national park in Alaska, and with one bullet fired from her front doorstep she had just harvested enough meat to last her the winter, with enough left over to share with Mandy and Chick and Bobby and Dinah and maybe even Jack, if he behaved. She laughed up at the sky. Mutt lay panting next to her, jaw grinning wide, long pink tongue lolling out, and seemed to laugh with her, loud whoops of jubilant laughter that rollicked across the clearing to where the old woman stood.

The sound of a low cough cut the laughter like a knife. Mutt lunged to her feet, hackles raised. Kate jerked upright and stared across the clearing.

Her grandmother stood at the edge of the clearing, rooted in place with the trees, a short, solid trunk of a woman dressed in worn Levis and a dark blue down jacket over a plaid flannel shirt, hair only now beginning to go gray pulled back in a severe bun, her brown face seamed with lines in which could be read the last eighty years of Alaskan history. She looked solemn and dignified as always.

"I didn't hear you come," Kate said, looking past the old woman to the trail that led from the road.

"Mandy was in town," her grandmother said. "She gave me a ride."

"Isn't she stopping in to visit?"

Ekaterina shook her head. "She had to get back and feed the dogs.

Chick's hunting caribou in Mulchatna."

"Oh." Kate was suddenly aware of the dirt under her fingernails and the birch leaves in her hair. "How nice to see you, emaa," she said insincerely, and stood up, only to rediscover her half-fastened fly when her jeans started to slide down her hips. Ekaterina waited impassively while Kate did up her buttons and tried ineffectually to beat off the dirt caked on the knees and seat of her jeans. Mutt gave herself a vigorous shake, spraying Kate with leaves and twigs and dirt, and sat, panting, her jaw open in a faint grin. Kate gave her a look that promised retribution and looked back at her grandmother.

It might have been her imagination but she thought she saw the corners of Ekaterina's lips quiver once before that seamed face was brought back under stern control. The old woman nodded at the moose. "There is work to do."

That had been late yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon they had gutted, skinned and quartered the bull and hung the quarters; that night they'd had fresh liver and onions for dinner. This morning Kate had set up a makeshift trestle table with sawhorses and one-by-twelves and grandmother and granddaughter butchered. There was moose blood up to Kate's eyebrows, her arms ached, her hands felt swollen on the knife as she carved another roast out of the left haunch. Billy Joel romped out of the boom box perched on the tree stump normally used for splitting wood. The cache, a small, cabin like structure perched on stilts well out of a marauding grizzly's reach, was already half full of meat, and the weather was holding clear and calm and cold.

Kate set the knife aside and wrapped the dozen small, neatly trimmed roasts in two layers of Saran wrap and a single layer of butcher paper.

A judicious application of masking tape, quick work with a Marks-A-Lot and the roasts were stowed in the cache. The snow was late this year, but the temperature had dropped to twenty-five degrees the night before.

The meat store would be frozen solid before the month was out and it would stay frozen, depending on how early breakup came next year, but at least until April and maybe even May, by which time the first king salmon would be up the river and she could turn back into a fish eater.

She went into the garage and started the generator. The meat grinder was moribund beneath a year's layer of dust. She carried it into the yard, cleaned it off and plugged it into an extension cord. Across the table stood Ekaterina, butcher knife in hand, trimming a slab of ribs. She only had blood up to her chin. Deeply envious, Kate picked up a knife and waded back in.

What couldn't be carved into roast or sliced into steak or cut into stew meat was ground into moose burger packaged in one-and five-pound portions and used to fill in the empty corners of the cache. The hide was trimmed and salted and rolled for Ekaterina to take home to tan.

They worked steadily, and by late afternoon of the third day the job was done. Kate plugged in the water pump, put one end of the hose in the creek behind the cabin and washed herself and the table down, and just for meanness, Mutt as well.

That night they had heart for dinner, breaded and fried and served with a heaping portion of mashed potatoes. The laws of physics forced Kate to stop before thirds. "I hate it that my stomach is so small."

Ekaterina smacked her lips and smiled. "He is a tasty one," she admitted. "Strong and fat. Agudar is good to you this year."

Kate glanced out the window, where the slim crescent of a new moon was tangled in the leafless branches of a tall birch tree, the same birch the bull had been rubbing his rack on. "Agudar is good," she agreed. She pushed herself back from the table and indulged in a luxurious stretch, barely stifling a moan of appreciation. Chair legs scraped across the floor and her eyes opened to see her grandmother gathering up the dirty dishes. "Emaa, no," she said, rising to her feet. "You cook, I clean, that's the rule. Go sit on the couch and put your feet up." Kate stacked plates and silverware into the plastic basin in the sink, pumped in cold water and added hot water from the kettle on the stove. She zip locked the rest of the heart and put it in the boxy wooden cooler mounted on the wall outside the cabin door.

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