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Poisonous Plants

Deadly Baneberries

I have always been fascinated by poisonous plants. I write murder mysteries, and what better murder weapon than a toxin from a naturally occurring plant? We have several poisonous plants here on Kodiak Island, and over the next few weeks, I will describe a few of them.

In the summer, most of Kodiak Island is covered by a dense jungle-like growth. We have beautiful wildflowers and plants bearing delicious berries, including salmonberries, blueberries, raspberries, cranberries, crowberries, watermelon berries, and others. Rhubarb and raspberries planted by early settlers remain abundant in some areas.

Cow Parsnip (Wild Celery)

There are a few plants here, though, that are not so innocent. The sap and outer hairs of cow parsnip, locally called pushki and one of the most prolific plants on the island, contains the chemical furanocoumarin which causes an extreme sensitivity to light. If a person comes into contact with the sap of a cow parsnip plant, within a few days, he will likely develop a red, itchy rash and blisters on the area the sap touched. These blistering sores last for days or weeks. I often use a weed eater to clear vegetation around the house, and I’ve learned the hard way not to cut cow parsnip with a weed eater because when the sap flies from the plant and splatters my hands and face, I know I will have painful, ugly, red welts in a few days. Some people are not allergic to cow parsnip, and others are so allergic they will react if they merely touch the stems or leaves of the plant.

Nettles

Nettles are another troublesome plant on Kodiak. Fine, stinging hairs cover the leaves of a nettle. Some researchers believe formic acid causes the hairs to sting, while others attribute the sting to a histamine compound. If you touch the leaves of a mature plant, you will feel a prick, much like a wasp’s sting. The pain may last for a few hours but will eventually subside. Nettles lose their sting when cooked and taste delicious, much like spinach. Nettles also have many medicinal applications and may be used to ease sore muscles and joint inflammation

While these plants can be irritating and painful and make walking through the dense vegetation on Kodiak a challenge, neither cow parsnip nor nettles will kill a human. Over the next few weeks, I will cover the deadly toxic plants we have in our area and give accounts of cases where they have been used both in literature and in the real world.

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

Sea Star Wasting Syndrome

I mentioned last week in my post about sea stars that beaches on Kodiak teem with an abundant variety of brightly colored sea stars. Sadly, though, sea stars are not as abundant here as they were a few years ago. I took a walk on the beach yesterday and was alarmed by how few sea stars I saw. Those I did see looked healthy, but the vast majority were wiped out by a deadly virus.

 In June 2013, sea stars along the Pacific coast of the United States began dying in large numbers. Die-offs of sea stars have occurred before in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s but never of this magnitude. Within just three years, millions of sea stars from California to Alaska died from a disease called sea star wasting syndrome (SSWS). Sea stars with SSWS develop white lesions in the ectoderm quickly followed by decay of tissue surrounding the lesions which leads to fragmentation of the body and death. Biologists estimated 95% of some sea star populations were decimated by SSWS. While most species of sea stars were affected by SSWS, ochre stars (Pisaster ochraceus) and sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) were especially hard hit.

 The syndrome was first noticed in ochre stars in June 2013 along the coast of Washington state. In August 2013, divers reported a massive die-off of sunflower stars just north of Vancouver, British Columbia. In October and November 2013, large numbers of dead sea stars were noted in Monterrey, California, and by mid-December, SSWS had reached southern California. In the summer of 2014, the disease had spread to Mexico and parts of Oregon. SSWS was first reported in Alaska in Kachemak Bay in 2014, but it wasn’t until 2015 and 2016 that sea stars began dying in large numbers in Alaska.

 Biologists are certain sea stars are dying from a virus, but when they isolated the virus, they realized this virus was present in preserved museum samples taken from as far back in the 1940s. They believe some other factor such as increased water temperature or a change in pH is stressing seas stars and allowing an otherwise dormant virus to rage through their populations. Researchers noted an increase in ocean water temperature preceded the outbreak of SSWS, and in areas where the water temperature rose the most, the disease was more widespread. To test the theory that increased water temperature played a big role in the breakout of the disease, scientists placed sea stars in aquarium tanks ranging in temperature from 54 degrees to 66 degrees Fahrenheit. The results were clear, the hotter the tank, the more quickly the sea stars succumbed to wasting.

The drastic reduction in sea star populations is evident on Kodiak Island, and biologists worry how the loss of sea stars will affect the intertidal community. Sea stars are considered a keystone species, important to maintaining diversity in the marine environment. Sea stars eat mussels and sea urchins whose numbers could now explode and decrease biodiversity in intertidal and subtidal communities.

 Scientists consider the recent outbreak of SSWS the single largest, most geographically widespread disease ever recorded, and as ocean temperatures keep rising, they fear the outbreak of the disease will continue.

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Sea Stars of Alaska

Photo by Mary Schwarzhans

Visitors to our lodge are often surprised by the large number of brightly colored sea stars inhabiting the low-tide zone on Kodiak Island. Sea stars are prolific throughout the Pacific Northwest and are critical to the health of intertidal and subtidal communities. Scientists have identified more than 120 species of sea stars in Alaska, including the sunflower sea star, one of the largest sea stars in the world.

Sunflower Sea Star

Sea stars are often called starfish, but since they aren’t fish, biologists prefer the name sea star. Sea stars belong to the phylum Echinodermata. Other echinoderms include sea cucumbers, sea urchins, sand dollars, and brittle stars. Echinoderms usually have pentamerous radial symmetry, meaning the body can be divided into five parts around a central axis. This five-parted symmetry is easy to see in a sea star with five arms, but it is also apparent if you look at the bottom of a sand dollar or the pen of a sea urchin. Some sea stars have more than five arms. A sunflower sea star has twenty arms, but the animal is still divided into five equal parts around the central disk.

Sea Stars are flattened in appearance and may range in size from 1 inch (2.54 cm) to over a yard (1 meter) in width. A sea star has an internal skeleton which is somewhat flexible. The skeleton consists of small calcareous plates bound together with connective tissue. Sea stars may look rigid and sedentary, but the connective tissue between the plates allows them to bend to attack prey, flee predators, and right themselves when they are turned upside down.

Madreporite
Photo by Mary Schwarzhans

A sea star’s anus is in the center of the top side, or the aboral surface of the animal. A circular madreporite is located just off center on the aboral surface, and this madreporite is a critical part of the circulation system of the sea star. Instead of a circulatory system, a sea star has a water vascular system, and the madreporite acts as a trap door through which water can move in and out in a controlled manner. The mouth of a sea star is located in the center of its underneath or oral surface. Open furrows containing tube feet extend from the mouth along the length of each leg.

Sea stars do not have eyes, but they have eyespots that can detect light at the tip of each arm. Interestingly, scientific studies have shown some species of sea stars move toward light while others move away from the light. Neurosensory cells which are sensitive to both touch and chemical tastes cover the surface of a sea star and are particularly dense in the suckers of the tube feet. Many species of sea stars are covered by clusters of tiny, calcareous pincers. These tiny pincers deter predators and keep the surface of the sea star free of parasites and debris. Also on the surface, thin-walled gills protrude between the calcareous plates and serve to exchange respiratory gases and excrete liquid wastes.

Oral Surface

The internal anatomy of a sea star includes the water vascular system, digestive tract, reproductive organs, and nervous system. The water vascular system uses muscles and hydraulics to power a sea star’s tube feet. The tube feet not only allow a sea star to move but are used to grasp prey, and the combined force of numerous tube feet is strong enough to pry apart a clam shell. Most seas stars move very slowly, and their pace is measured in inches per hour, but giant sunflower sea stars can travel at a speed of two feet per minute.

The mouth of a sea star opens into two stomachs connected to paired, lobed organs called pyloric caeca. The pyloric caeca extend into each arm and aid in the digestion of food. Sea stars are either male or female, and their reproductive organs, or gonads, lie between the pyloric caeca in each arm. In the spring, sea stars broadcast either eggs or sperm through pores in their arms into the water where chance fertilization occurs. Sea stars have no brain or central nervous system, but they have a nerve ring in the central disk connected to radial nerves running the length of each arm. The radial nerves are connected to a diffuse network of nerve cells scattered throughout the skin. Sea stars have the ability to regenerate lost arms.

Sea stars utilize a range of habitats and may be found from the shoreline to depths greater than 13,450 ft. (4,100 m). Sea stars consume a wide variety of prey, including sponges, snails, clams, mussels, sea cucumbers, barnacles, anemones, scallops, fishes, and even other sea stars. Some species of sea stars feed on plankton, while other species prefer dead organisms. Sea stars have few predators and are believed to have a lifespan of only a few years.

Next week, I will post about sea star wasting syndrome, a devastating disease that has killed millions of sea stars in the last few years from California to Alaska.

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Four Orphaned Black Bear Cubs by Tony Ross

A year ago, I posted about my friend, Tony Ross, who is the Northcentral Regional Wildlife Management Supervisor with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Tony and his colleagues had rescued an orphaned black bear cub, and he and his wife, Karin cared, for the cub until Tony could reintroduce the cub into the wild under the care of a foster mother. I loved that story and thought it was amazing, but this year, Tony and other Game Commission biologists did something even more incredible; they rescued four orphaned cubs. I will let Tony tell the story in his own words, and I hope if any of my readers have friends or relatives in Pennsylvania, you will encourage them to read Tony’s story.

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Four Orphaned Black Bear Cubs

By

Tony Ross

(all photos by Tony Ross)

It’s that time of year again. Young animals are beginning to show up all over the place and sooner or later, something will happen to the mother and the chase begins. And as I’m writing this, two baby squirrels are sitting in a pen in our kitchen. On April 12, our office (Pennsylvania Game Commission) received a call about four black bear cubs on the loose. The mother got hit by a vehicle and was found dead in a stream. Often, the cubs will be hanging on or around mom but the stream was much deeper and faster than normal so that didn’t happen.

Wildlife Conservation Officer Steve Brussese and I arrived on scene at the same moment. The caller pointed out the dead sow in the creek and mentioned he saw four small cubs on the other side of the creek going upstream. Steve and I split up as I walked up stream and he drove along the road and checked for any access to the other side of the stream. Neither of us saw anything. As I made it back to the scene, Steve had the sow out of the stream and loaded on his vehicle. We talked with the caller and asked him to call our office if he observes the cubs again.

Steve and I drove downstream to find an area to cross the fast-flowing creek. We found an area about 1/2 mile downstream. However, before we got together to start the trek, the office called us on the radio telling us the caller just observed the cubs going up a tree. We quickly got back in our vehicles and rushed back to the same spot. This time we saw three cubs up a tree on the other side of the creek. The caller was over there also. We had no choice but to wade across the creek.

Once we made it across the slippery rocks, the caller informed us the four cubs must have been hiding in a crawl space under the overhanging stream bank. We asked about the fourth cub and he stated it was still in that crawl space. As we all looked in the dark area, I noticed hair and immediately reached in and grabbed the cub with my gloved right hand. The cub was too large to fit through any openings in front of me so Steve came over and pulled out a rock that made the opening large enough to pull it through. I didn’t want the cub to pull away so I used my ungloved left hand. Small black bear cubs often are very naïve and don’t show any aggression towards humans until they reach about 10 lbs. Then, look out! This cub was about 8-10 lbs and was aggressive enough that he bit my hand. It didn’t break the skin but it sure produced a nice blood blister.

One down, three to go. We tried several things to get the three cubs down out of the tree but the cubs didn’t move on their own. Our attempts to get them down actually made them go up as high as they could. Our last option was to cut the tree. It worked but Steve and I and the three cubs got very wet in the process.

When we rescue orphaned cubs, we often have to keep them overnight at our homes before releasing them to one of our radio collared sows that are known to have cubs of their own. They become foster mothers. Fortunately, my wife is also an animal enthusiast so bringing home four black bear cubs was a delight for her. We kept each cub in its own pet carrier to make feeding easier. Together, we had to care for those cubs for 1 day and 2 nights. Feeding was a treat. Each bear had its own personality. From very naïve to very aggressive. The naïve one was the smallest of the group so it may have had to submit to its siblings causing it to be very submissive. The aggressive one was the one I pulled from out under the bank. He would bite, scratch and woof at you if you got near to him but once he tasted food, he calmed down for a short time. We finally just put his food in a container in his carrier and he lapped it up. Easier for him and both of us.

On Friday, I met Wildlife Conservation Officers Jason Wagner and Wayne Hunt who had collared sows in their districts, Wildlife Conservation Deputy Steve, and Information and Education Supervisor Doty McDowell. It was our intent to give two cubs to each of those collared sows. I split the four into two groups. The firs consisted of the two most timid cubs and the other were the two most aggressive.

The first group were let go with a sow that was still using her den as a retreat. Jason carried the two cubs in a backpack and dumped them at the opening of the den and both ran inside. Trail camera photos indicated she, her natural cubs and her foster cubs left the den area the next day.

The second group’s introduction was a bit different. This radio collared sow was on the move with her cubs so we had to get close enough to her to get her to put her cubs up a tree. Once Wayne located the sow in his district, it was time for all of us to get moving. It was only a couple hundred yards before we got close enough to get her to tree her cubs. Next step was to release the two more aggressive cubs up the same tree. As I held the bag open, Jason pulled out the most aggressive cub (I gave him my gloves before he put his hand in the backpack) and put him on the tree and he started to go up. We watched as he began to climb up but at about 10 feet he lost grip and fell back to the ground at my feet. I immediately grabbed him and as I was putting him on the tree he looked at me and in his usual attitude started woofing at me. In the meantime, Jason had gotten the other cub out of the bag and we left both of them go at the same time and up the tree they went. We got our stuff together quickly as their mother was watching us from not too far away and we wanted to get out of there quickly so she could be reunited with “all” of her cubs.

Terror in the Wilderness

I write wilderness mystery novels set in the remote, untamed wilderness of Alaska, and I also write a newsletter about true crime in Alaska. Recently, as I thought about a plot for my next novel, I decided I would draw pieces of my plot from the bizarre true crimes I write about in my newsletter. I then recalled a character from my past who was far more frightening than any fictional madman I could conjure in my imagination.

My husband and his family operated a remote hunting camp on the Alaska Peninsula, and when my husband was just a boy, he and his family were terrorized by a crazy man who stalked the wilderness of the Alaska Peninsula and claimed he owned the area around Becharof Lake. Killer Bill, as he was called, once hiked into the hunting camp, threatened my father-in-law and then punched him, knocking him unconscious. Killer Bill served time in prison for this crime, and he also spent time in jail when he was convicted of manslaughter for killing a man in a bar. When released on probation, the judge warned Bill that as a condition of his parole, he could not carry a firearm. Killer Bill ignored the warning and carried a rifle everywhere he went.

Bill burned down the hunting camp my husband’s family owned, and when they rebuilt, they constructed tent frames, instead of cabins, hoping Killer Bill would find the tent frames less offensive. Bill responded by burning the tent frames.

One winter, the Alaska State Troopers found Killer Bill’s snow machine submerged in a river, and they assumed he’d fallen through the ice during the winter and had drowned, but they never found Bill’s body. Everyone wondered was he dead or still alive, terrorizing anyone who dared camp on the vast area of the Alaska Peninsula he considered his. On my first trip to Becharof in the late 1980s, my husband warned me to keep watch for an old man who might suddenly walk out of the woods.

“What,” I asked, “was I to do if I saw him hiking up to our camp?”

“I’m sure he won’t bother you,” my husband said, “but grab a rifle as soon as you see him, just to be safe.”

I never saw Killer Bill, and he was surely long dead by then, but every time we camped at Becharof, I worried less about the bears and wolves prowling the Peninsula outside my tent than I did about a strange, old man who might appear at any moment out of the mist.

Numerous rumors circulated about Killer Bill. A fish and game biologist told us that on several different occasions, Killer Bill had gone trapping during the winter with a partner, but when Bill returned in the spring, his trapping partners were never with him. Once, according to this biologist, troopers entered Bill’s cabin when he wasn’t there and found human remains in the cabin. They suspected Bill had eaten his trapping companions, but they were never able to find Bill and charge him with the crimes.

I can’t imagine anything more terrifying in the wilderness than a crazy man determined to do anything and kill anyone to protect what he believes is his. I plan to base a character in my next novel on Killer Bill, and I hope my readers will find my character as frightening as I found the specter of the real man.

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FBI Special Agent Nick Morgan

FBI Special Agent Nick Morgan first appeared in my novel, Murder Over Kodiak, when he traveled to Kodiak, Alaska to investigate an explosion on a floatplane that killed, among others, a U.S. Senator. Nick, and my protagonist, Jane Marcus, spent time together solving the mystery, and just when it looked as if sparks might ignite, Nick made the decision to try to reunite with his estranged wife. Now, a year and a half later, Agent Morgan returns to Kodiak to aid the local police in their investigation of a string of murders. This next excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, describes Nick’s arrival in Kodiak on a typical, stormy, winter day.

Morgan barely could see the runway as the Dash 8 descended through the thick clouds and heavy snow toward Kodiak. Wind buffeted the plane from side to side, and he wondered how the pilot would manage to control the plane and hit the runway with this poor visibility and turbulence. It seemed like only seconds between the time they popped out under the clouds and the plane touched down on the runway, bounced once, and then screeched to a stop in front of the small terminal.
Morgan grabbed his bag and briefcase and headed down the stairs of the plane. With all the traveling he did, he had learned to pack light. Snow and wind pummeled him as soon as he stepped out of the plane; he pulled the hood of his parka over his head and rushed toward the door of the airport. When he stepped inside the terminal, an Alaska State Trooper walked toward him and held out his hand.
“Agent Morgan, I’m Dan Patterson. It’s nice to meet you.”
Morgan shook Patterson’s hand. “Please, call me Nick.”
Patterson nodded. Do you have luggage?”
“No, this is it,” Morgan said. “I probably should get a rental car, though.”
“Why don’t you wait on that. You won’t want to drive a rental car on these roads. We can chauffeur you around until the weather improves.”
The men left the airport and hurried to the trooper SUV. As they pulled out onto the highway, Morgan said, “I’m sure this weather isn’t making your investigation any easier.”
“Forget forensic evidence,” Patterson said. If you want to murder someone, winter in Kodiak is the time and place to do it. “We’ve got zip for footprints or tire tracks.”
“What about for the Ayers girl. It wasn’t snowing then, was it?”
“For that one, we had heavy rain to wash away any evidence.”
“The M.E. thinks the last victim was sexually assaulted, but he has no semen?” Morgan asked.
“Right. He found residue from a condom in the last victim, but no residue in the Ayers girl. He suspects the first victim was also sexually assaulted, but he couldn’t be certain, and of course, there is no way to know what happened to Deanna Kerr.”
“Her family still doesn’t know she was murdered?” Morgan asked.
“No, we thought you would want to be there when we break the news.”
“Do you think anyone in her family is capable of committing these crimes?” Morgan asked.
“Not really, but you said we should concentrate on individuals who spent the summer in Uyak Bay, or at least were on a boat in Uyak Bay around the Fourth of July and spent the remainder of the year in or around town. No one fits that picture any better than the Kerr family.”
Morgan liked the way Patterson thought. He was already forming an opinion of the trooper as a sharp investigator. He was impressed Patterson had called the FBI so early in the investigation. Too many cops hated to ask for help, especially from the FBI; they wanted the glory of solving the case by themselves. Patterson, though, seemed more interested in catching the perpetrator before more women were killed. He wasn’t thinking about his career or his pride; he wanted only to utilize the best resources he could find to catch the killer.
“I already have you registered at the Baranof Inn. Do you want to drop off anything there or go straight to our headquarters? I have a task force meeting planned to begin in half an hour. I wasn’t sure your plane would be able to land in this weather, so I should call the other task force members and let them know you’re here and the meeting is a go.”
“I don’t need to stop at the hotel,” Morgan said. “Let’s go to your headquarters, and I’ll get organized.”
Agent Morgan joins Patterson and the Alaska State Troopers and the Kodiak Police Department in investigating the murders of four women. Will more women die before they find the killer, or will the murderer leave the island before they apprehend him? I’ll release more excerpts from my novel when my publication date nears; I promise!

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Park Ranger Liz Kelley

Park Ranger Liz Kelley discovers the body of a young woman while making her rounds in Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park on a snowy, November night. This excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, is told from Liz’s viewpoint.

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Park Ranger Liz Kelley was alone on patrol at Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park, but since she was the only ranger who worked at the 182-acre park, this was business as usual for her. Fort Abercrombie is a beautiful park, rich in history and nestled in a Sitka spruce forest. The park is bordered on its front edge by steep cliffs that plunge into the heavy surf of the ocean. The park has a small lake containing trout, and in the summer, meadows teem with wildflowers of every hue. There are numerous campsites designed primarily for tent campers, and in the summer, the park is full of tourists.

It was not summer, though. It was a snowy, blustery November evening. Liz sometimes patrolled the main area of the park on foot when the weather was nice, but when it wasn’t, she made her rounds in the beat-up pickup with the state park insignia on the door. In the summer, she spent most of the day out on the park grounds, answering visitor’s questions and making sure they obeyed the park’s rules. This time of the year, she spent most of her time huddled in the ranger’s station with her computer, a small t. v., and most importantly, a coffee maker. Liz had last driven the main roads of the park at 5:00 pm, and she hadn’t seen a living soul.   She had seen several deer huddled under the protection of the spruce trees, but she saw no trucks, cars, nor tents. When she got back to the ranger’s station, however, she noticed headlights pulling into the park. It was too dark to determine the make or model of the vehicle, let alone see who the driver was, but it had to be teenagers. Who else would be out in the park on a snowy, November night? She hadn’t seen the vehicle leave the park, but she assumed it had driven past while she was deep in concentration, working on her computer.

At 7:00 pm, Liz locked the ranger’s station and climbed into the truck to make her final rounds for the evening. She was anxious to get home to her husband and dog, so this would be a quick trip down the main road. She wanted to make sure that the vehicle she’d seen entering the park earlier hadn’t slid off the slick roads. She hoped the driver had enough sense not to drive down one of the side roads in this weather, and she wasn’t willing to drive down every small road looking for a phantom vehicle.

Liz drove slowly in the blizzard conditions. Four inches of snow covered the ground, and the large, heavy, wet flakes were quickly adding to the amount. She estimated the wind was blowing 35 knots or more, causing the snow to whiz horizontally past her windshield. For a moment, she considered abandoning her last rounds and heading home, but she continued at a snail’s pace, stopping every few feet to look left and right into the forest. Only an idiot or an overzealous park ranger would be out here on a night like this, she thought.

She reached the end and the concrete barrier where people could stand and look out over Spruce Cape and was happy to see there were no vehicles parked there. She did a U-turn and was starting back toward the park entrance when her headlights illuminated something bright pink a few feet off the road. At first, she thought it was a plastic bag, but it was too big. Should she stop and check it or pretend she didn’t see it and keep driving? She exhaled a deep sigh, shifted into park, grabbed a flashlight from the glove compartment, and crawled out of the truck. She cinched her hood tight and slogged through the snow toward the pink object. After only a few steps, she realized she was looking at a pink, down coat. After several more steps, she saw there was someone in the coat. She hurried toward the fallen form, all thoughts of her husband and dog and their cozy family room vanished from her mind, and she began running through first aid protocols in her head. Would she have to perform CPR? Did she have her rescue-breathing mask in her pocket? Should she put on her rubber gloves before she even touched the victim?

“Ma’am,” she called, “can you hear me?”

Liz slowed her pace as she neared the victim. “Ma’am?” The woman was on her side facing away from Liz. Liz touched her arm and called to her again, and when the woman didn’t reply, Liz rolled her onto her back. She took one look at her and stepped away from the body. She switched the flashlight to her left hand, and her right hand instinctually unsnapped her holster. She put her right hand on the butt of her gun while she swung the flashlight in a wide arc. She had seen a vehicle enter the park around 5:00, but she had not seen it leave. Was the murderer still in the park? Was he watching her? She felt the sweat run down her back, and she fought to control her emotions. It was no time to panic. She had to think clearly and act professionally.

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Next week, I will re-introduce you to FBI Special Agent Nick Morgan when he is asked to fly to Kodiak to help investigate the string of murders.

My May Mystery Newsletter is a shocking, true story of murder from Craig, Alaska. If you would like to read it, you can sign up below.

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Sergeant Patterson

This excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter is told from the viewpoint of Sergeant Dan Patterson with the Alaska State Troopers.

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Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Patterson knew his night was about to take a turn for the worse. He had just finished his shift and walked into his house when his phone chirped. His wife was dishing up a plate of spaghetti for him, but when the phone rang, she stopped, knowing she would be reheating his meal in several hours.

“I’m on my way.” He said into the phone. He looked at his wife. “Sorry hon, this sounds like a bad one. Don’t wait up for me; I have to drive to Chiniak.”

He hurried to his car in the driving rain, fastened his seat belt and began the 42-mile drive down the Chiniak Highway. On a sunny day in July, this drive rivaled any in the world for its scenic beauty, but this was not a sunny day in July; it was a rainy night in October. The road was dark and curvy, and Patterson gripped the steering wheel as he concentrated on the pavement in front of him. Staying on the road was not his only concern. He had to watch for deer and possibly even bears running across the highway. The trooper who had called him said to park at the post office in Chiniak, and they would cover the final mile of their trek on four wheelers. All Patterson had been told was that a body had been discovered in the woods. He didn’t know whether the victim was male or female or whether it had been there a day or a year. If he’d understood Trooper Ben Johnstone correctly, the trooper himself had found the body while deer hunting on his day off. The usually calm and organized Johnstone, however, had sounded rattled, so Patterson may have misunderstood him. He’d get the details soon enough.

Patterson had only been stationed on Kodiak for six months, and he had only been to Chiniak once before, but it was a town with a population of 50 people, so finding the post office was not difficult. By the time he parked the car, sheets of blinding rain pelted the windshield. Patterson pulled on his raincoat, stepped out of his vehicle, and shook hands with Trooper Ben Johnstone.

“I see the weather isn’t going to be our friend tonight,” Patterson said.

“No, sir. If there were tracks near the body, they won’t be there now.”

“So the body is fresh?”

“Yes, sir. No more than a day or two old. She was murdered.”

Patterson felt a headache coming on. This would be a very long night. “You’re sure it wasn’t a hunting accident.”

“This was no hunting accident, sir. I’m certain of that. It’s pretty hard to cut someone’s throat by accident.”

The headache spread into Patterson’s neck. “You are the one who found the body?”

“Yes sir, I was walking through the woods. I’d been hunting about two hours and was heading back to my cabin because it was starting to rain hard. I caught a glimpse of something strange on the ground, and after a few more steps, I realized it was a body. I took some photos and checked around the area for footprints or four-wheeler tracks, but I didn’t see anything. She must have been murdered before the rain started.”

“How are you doing?” Patterson asked. “This must have been quite a shock.”

“Yes sir, it was. I’m fine, though. It’s just that you don’t expect to find a dead girl in the woods when you’re deer hunting.”

“A girl?” Now his stomach was beginning to hurt.

“A teenager, sir.”

“Okay, let’s go take a closer look.”

Patterson followed Johnstone through the woods, each man riding a four wheeler that Johnstone had somehow managed to procure. They had to travel slowly through the Sitka spruce rainforest to avoid smashing into a tree, but at least the large trees shielded them from some of the rain.

Fifteen minutes later, Patterson spotted the red beam of the light Johnstone had left to mark the location of the body. They parked their four wheelers several yards away and approached the body on foot.

The naked body sprawled on the ground, arms out to the side and legs spread wide. It had been posed for maximum effect. Her throat had been slashed so deeply she nearly had been decapitated. Her brown eyes stared sightlessly up at the trees. Patterson noted what looked like bite marks on her breasts, but otherwise, her slim, pale body appeared unmarred.

“We need to get a tarp over the scene right away,” Patterson said.

“Yes, sir. I brought one with me. I’ll get on that. Are the crime scene people on their way?”

“I’ll send them tomorrow when it’s light, but I don’t think they’ll find much. If there ever was any evidence here, it has been washed away by now. I don’t see much blood, so I think this is only where the body was dumped, not where she was killed. Once you get the tarp set up, go back to town and see if you can borrow a trailer or a sled or something we can use to transport the body back to my vehicle. After I take photos, I think we should get her packaged and transported back to Kodiak. The only hope we have of preserving any evidence on her body will be to get her out of this weather.”

It was 3:00 am by the time Patterson finally returned home and ate his spaghetti dinner. He and Johnstone had packaged the body, and it was ready to ship to Anchorage to the state medical examiner’s office on the morning Ravn flight. This was the second female on the island in the past six months who had been found with her throat slashed. Patterson had a bad feeling about these crimes. On an island where few murders occurred, two women killed in the same manner in the span of six months suggested to him they were killed by the same perpetrator or perpetrators. Was a serial killer hunting women on the island?

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I will have another excerpt for you next week. If you haven’t already signed up for my free mystery newsletter, you will want to do it before my May newsletter about a shocking murder in Craig, Alaska.

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Jane

For those of you who read one or both of my previous novels, Big Game and Murder Over Kodiak, you probably remember my protagonist, Dr. Jane Marcus. Jane is only a supporting character in my latest novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, which I hope to publish in a few months. She makes her appearance early in the novel, though. The following excerpt is taken from chapter one, where we find Jane elbow-deep in a rotting whale carcass.

I struggled to maintain my grip on the ten-inch-thick slab of blubber while my colleague stripped it from the fin whale carcass. I cursed myself for the umpteenth time for not thinking quickly enough to get out of this project, but here I was, elbow deep in decaying whale blubber, and yes, the smell was worse than anything you can imagine. I had been offered my position on this necropsy team by marine mammal biologist Leslie Sinclair, and I’m sure she thought I should feel honored to be included on her team, but my scientific enthusiasm tended to wane when I was fighting the urge to vomit. As soon as I got home, I vowed to write a list of excuses for the next time Leslie tried to invite me on a necropsy.

It could have been worse. This whale had been dead for around two weeks, but it was only moderately decomposed. The tongue extended from the mouth of the bloated carcass, but the skin had not started to slough, and it was only slightly sunburned. Unfortunately, the external condition is not a good indicator of the internal condition of a dead whale because whales decompose from the inside out. Due to the large volume of tissue wrapped in insulating blubber, the inside cooks before the outside decays. I learned the necropsy team must be very careful when making the first cut on the fifty-ton carcass because it can explode if all those built-up gasses are expelled at once, and yes, when the gasses do escape, the horrific smell just keeps getting worse. I wore a rubber rain suit, the legs duct taped to my boots and the arms duct taped to my gloves. This covering allowed me to wade into the project without getting biological fluid on my skin. A face shield protected my eyes, nose, and mouth, and I’d pulled back my hair and stuffed it under a rubber cap. A persistent drizzle rounded out the perfect day, but at least I was wearing rain gear.

It made sense for me to be part of this necropsy team since I was one of several biologists trying to discover why more than fifty whales had died near Kodiak Island during the past two years. The affected whales included fin whales, sei whales, humpbacks, and gray whales, all species that had baleen instead of teeth and fed on small fish and zooplankton. These huge animals feed at the bottom of the food chain, making them susceptible to pollutants, toxic algae, and changes in their food concentrations due to a variety of reasons, including warming ocean temperatures. Any one or a combination of these factors could be responsible for the whale deaths, or the cause could be something we hadn’t suspected yet. The team was also considering underwater noise pollution from military sonar and other sources. Since I had been studying toxic algae at the Kodiak Braxton Marine Biology and Fisheries Research Center, Dr. Sinclair asked me to come at the problem from the toxic algae angle. Even though the algae I suspected might be the culprit in the deaths of the whales was a different species from what I had been studying, I was happy to do what I could to shed light on this disturbing problem. It seemed as if dead whales were being sighted nearly every week, but most were floating several miles from shore. This carcass was one of the few that had conveniently washed up on shore where a necropsy could be performed. I wanted to do what I could to help, but I’d try to do my work from my lab in the future.

“Jane, can you hear me?”

“Sorry, Leslie. I was lost in thought.”

“The smell is amazing, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes.”

“Since you’re looking at toxic algae, why don’t you be in charge of taking the stomach and intestinal samples as well as collecting feces, if you can find some.”

Oh boy! My day just kept getting better.

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While Jane’s role in this novel is not big, it is important, and we all want to find out what happens when she and FBI Agent Nick Morgan reconnect. Next week, I’ll introduce you to some more characters from my novel.

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The Daughter

Last week, I wrote about my next novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, and I promised some excerpts from the book over the next few weeks. This excerpt is a portion of the Prologue. A 17-year-old girl is running an aluminum fishing boat from a Fourth of July party at a cannery on Kodiak Island back to her family’s commercial fishing site. It is getting windy; she is plowing through large waves and begins to have engine problems.

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Deanna pushed the throttle forward too fast and plowed into a wave, taking a shower of spray over the bow. The cold salt water smacked her in the face, and she gasped for air. The engine quit again.

“No!” She slammed the clutch into neutral and twisted the key – nothing. She tried again, but no luck. She turned the key several more times in rapid succession. The boat turned sideways in the heavy seas, waves rocking it violently from side to side. Deanna’s heart hammered in her chest.

“Calm down, calm down, calm down! You’ve got this, Deanna Kerr. You are seventeen years old, not a little kid. Think!” She unhinged the hood from the outboard, her hands shaking so badly she could barely hang onto it. She set the hood on the deck and stared at the shiny metal cowling. Panic started to overtake her. She had no idea how to fix this type of engine.

“Think!” She commanded herself. The engine isn’t getting fuel. It must be a fuel filter problem. A wave poured over the side of the boat, filling it with several inches of water. She fumbled for the bailer and started scooping water out of the boat, but then another wave hit and more water poured over the side. She had to get the engine started and get out of the trough of the waves; the boat would fill with water if she sat here very long. She realized for the first time that her father had forgotten to give her a handheld VHF radio to carry in the skiff. She should have remembered to ask for one. If she had a radio, she could call for help.

Another wave crashed over the side of the skiff, and Deanna reached for the bulb on the gas line and pumped furiously. She turned the key. The engine coughed and died. “Please God, make it work!” She tried again but no luck. A wave struck her broadside and nearly knocked her out of the boat. She fell on her knees in the water in the bottom of the skiff. She looked for water in the fuel filter, but she didn’t see any. Maybe the filter was plugged by something. She opened the tool box secured to the inside of the hull. Her hands shook as she grabbed the filter wrench and fought to loosen the filter from the fuel line. Maybe she could bypass the filter. She tried to think. What would her dad do? She wasn’t sure how to bypass the filter. She pulled out the old filter and looked at it, but it looked fine. She had no time to think; she grabbed another filter and secured the housing. As she stood, another wave hit her and knocked her back into the bottom of the skiff. She chanced a glance at the angry ocean. Conditions were worsening at an alarming rate. Around her, whitecaps piled one on top another, but even more ominous was the black ocean toward the north, toward her home.

Deanna pumped the bulb on the fuel line again. She said a quick prayer and turned the key. Nothing. She heard herself sob before she even realized she was crying. She didn’t know what else to do. There were oars in the skiff, but she would never be able to row against these waves. She would just have to hope the storm blew her back to shore before the skiff filled with water or capsized. She took several deep breaths and thought about home. When she got back to the fish site, her mother would make her change out of her wet clothes while she made Deanna a cup of hot chocolate. Then, mom would wrap her in a quilt and stroke her head until she fell asleep. Of course, Dad would never let her take the skiff out alone again, but right now, Deanna didn’t care about that. She would be happy never to get on another boat in her life.

Over the roaring wind and pounding waves, Deanna thought she heard an engine. She stood, but her legs were trembling so badly she sat again, and then she saw it, approaching from the north. She rubbed her eyes, hoping she wasn’t hallucinating, but no, it was real, and it was coming straight for her. She was sure the driver of the other boat could see her, even with the swell and high waves, but just to be certain, she stood, waved her arms, and yelled at the top of her voice. She wiped her eyes and nose. Now that it looked as if she was going to be rescued, she didn’t want anyone to know she had been frightened and crying.

The other boat pulled alongside. “Are you okay?” The captain called.

“Thank God! What are you doing here?”

“I’ll toss you a line. Tie a bridle at the bow.”

“Okay. I can do that.” Deanna stood, but her legs were shaking so much she had to brace herself against the gunnel and pull herself to the bow of the boat. The skipper of the other boat tossed her a line, but with her trembling fingers, she couldn’t hang onto it. His next toss was harder than the first, and the heavy line slapped her in the face. She grabbed the line and pulled it into the boat. She knew how to tie a bridle because her father had taught her. Her hands shook as she threaded the line through a hole on the port side of the skiff, across the bow, and through a hole on the starboard side of the skiff. She nearly dropped the line as she brought it back to the center of the boat, but she paused, took a deep breath, and focused on the line and what she was doing. The rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree, and back in the hole. She pulled the line tight. She had it, a perfect bowline.

The skipper nodded and pushed the throttle forward. Deanna’s boat swung into line behind the other boat. She slumped onto the forward seat, shut her eyes, and allowed herself to dream about a cup of hot chocolate and her mother’s embrace.

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Deanna only thought she was being rescued, and the situation was about to get much worse for her. Next week, I will reintroduce you to Jane Marcus, the protagonist in my first two novels. Please share any comments good or bad you have on my excerpts.

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