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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The Title

The working title for my next novel is The Fisherman’s Daughter. Like my other two novels, it is a murder mystery. A friend suggested that a more descriptive title would be Who Murdered the Fisherman’s Daughter? What do you think? The cover of the book will picture a teenage girl in an aluminum fishing boat looking terrified as huge wave crests over the bow of her skiff. I think the cover image by itself will suggest the young girl is in peril. Is the title “Who Murdered the Fisherman’s Daughter?” necessary to let potential readers know this book is a murder mystery, or would the cover be enough to signal this is a suspense/mystery novel? Please let me know your opinion. I haven’t had much luck getting folks to leave comments on my blog posts, so if you’d rather e-mail me, you can send an e-mail to robin@robinbarefield.com. I would be grateful to hear what you think!

This novel, like my previous novel, Murder Over Kodiak, is set on Kodiak Island, Alaska. It begins on the Fourth of July weekend, but most of the action happens during November and December when the crazy Kodiak weather bounces from rain and wind to ice to snow and back to rain again. I like to say there is no such thing as good weather in the winter on Kodiak. It is either clear and very cold, or it’s stormy and warm, and I’ve used our wild winter weather as a backdrop for this novel.

The story I tell in this book is about a serial killer preying on women and girls on the island. A serial killer on an island of only 14,000 people should be easy to apprehend, but this killer is smart and resourceful and doesn’t leave evidence at the scenes. One woman’s body is tossed in the ocean, washing away any trace evidence. A girl’s body is found in a heavy rain storm, any forensic evidence destroyed by the downpour. Another woman’s body is found in a park during a heavy snowstorm, the tracks leading to the body dump covered by the falling snow. Another body is tossed into a public garbage dumpster, contaminated with fingerprints and debris. What about the fisherman’s daughter? By the time she is found, she has been reduced to skeletal remains.

My first two novels were told by Jane, the protagonist in those stories. Jane will also be in this novel, but she is not the main character, and in this novel, I have several viewpoint characters. Sergeant Dan Patterson with the Alaska State Troopers and FBI Special Agent Nick Morgan are the two main characters in the book, but Kodiak Police Detective Maureen Horner also plays an important role. A few of the scenes are told from the viewpoint of a victim, and toward the end of the book, we get a look inside the killer’s head. I have read that writing a story from multiple viewpoints is not easy, but I’ve enjoyed many books told from the viewpoints of two or more characters, and it seemed to me as if it would be easier to tell a story through the eyes of multiple characters instead of through the eyes of just one character. I now know writing multiple viewpoints is not easy, or at least it was not easy tackling my first multiple-viewpoint story. I will be curious to hear how my editor thinks I handled the challenge, and I know there will be some rewrites.

Over the next few weeks, I will post some excerpts from my novel. Don’t hesitate to let me know what you think or to ask me questions. I would love your input!

A couple of weeks ago, I offered a free coupon for an e-book of Murder Over Kodiak, and not many people took me up on the offer. If you are interested in a coupon, drop me an e-mail. The offer will be ending soon. To take advantage of the offer, you will be asked to register for a website run by my publisher. There is no catch; sign up and get your free novel!

Speaking of free, if you haven’t already signed up for my free Mystery Newsletter, now is the time to do it. This month’s newsletter is about a bizarre missing person’s story and a tragic mix-up by the Alaska State Troopers.

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What Do Kodiak Bears Eat?

 

One of the main reasons Kodiak bears grow so much larger than inland grizzly bears is due to the abundance of food on Kodiak. Not only can bears feast on protein-rich salmon in the summer, but the archipelago is loaded with nutritious vegetation and sugar-packed berries. A brown bear’s jaws have powerful muscles and teeth that have evolved to adapt to an omnivorous diet of both plants and animals. Kodiak bears are opportunistic feeders. They eat roots, berries, grasses, sedges, wildflowers, wild celery, and other plants, as well as rodents, insects, large mammals (including deer and mountain goats), fish, carrion, and yes, unfortunately, garbage and pet food.

 Bears’ stomachs contract during hibernation, and when they first leave their dens, they aren’t hungry. They eat little at first, concentrating on emerging plants and their roots. As the spring progresses, Kodiak bears can be seen feeding in grassy meadows and look much like grazing cattle. Their diet switches to salmon in the summer months, when they chase and catch fish in shallow streams or on the tidal flats near the heads of the deep, narrow bays on Kodiak. Bears also consume dead salmon that have washed up on shore. When the salmonberries, elderberries, crowberries, blueberries and other berries begin to ripen on Kodiak in late July and August, most bears spend at least part of their day in berry thickets, pulling the berries from the bushes with their lips and mouths. Salmon provide bears with fat and protein, and berries are high in natural sugars, all of which are important for building up a fat reserve for hibernation. As fall progresses, bears increase their consumption of salmon and berries as they strive to build up their fat layer before entering the den for hibernation. A diet rich in berries has its downside, though. Bears are one of the few wild animals susceptible to tooth decay. Abscessed teeth are not uncommon, and rotten teeth may affect the bear’s ability to eat and may even lead to starvation.

 One of the most enjoyable aspects of bear viewing is watching a bear chase and catch a salmon. Sows teach their cubs how to fish and will often corral a salmon toward the cub in shallow water and then encourage the cub to chase the fish. A sow with newborn cubs that are still nursing will only allow her cubs to eat a small part of her catch after she has had her fill because she needs the extra protein to produce the milk to nurse her cubs, and the cubs are receiving most of their nutrition from her. As the cubs age, they nurse less, and the sow shares more of her catch with them. Finally, when they are old enough, she encourages them to fish on their own, and by the time the cubs are two years old, they can usually chase and catch a few salmon without the help of their mother.

Fishing is a skill bears learn with much practice over time, so young bears are often clumsy fishermen. A sub-adult bear may gallop back and forth in a stream for thirty minutes without successfully landing a salmon, while an older bear walks slowly downstream and pounces on a passing salmon with little effort. A bear may also develop his own unique fishing technique. One bear may sit on a fallen log hanging low over a stream and attempt to grab fish as they swim past. A second bear may “submarine” by dunking his head under water to watch for fish, and a third may obtain his fish by chasing another bear and stealing that bear’s catch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home Again

ike and I just returned home after six weeks on the road. We had a great vacation, but as always, I am happy to be home, despite the cold weather and frozen waterline.

Spring is still two months away in this area of the world, and we’ve had a tough winter here. After several mild winters, the black-tailed deer population on the island had exploded, but many deer did not survive the freezing temperatures this winter. I haven’t had a chance to go hiking yet to see with my own eyes how bad the winter kill was, but I’ve heard it was bad. The cycling of deer populations is normal, of course, and the deer population here will recover, but I find it difficult to watch animals starve to death and die from exposure.

I was thrilled to get a dose of sunshine and heat on our vacation. We went sailing with friends in the British Virgin Islands, and then Mike and I traveled further south to Bonaire where we snorkeled and dived and enjoyed wearing fewer layers of clothes than normal. Besides spending time with friends, the best part of the vacation for me was that I could snorkel nearly every day. I studied marine and fisheries biology in college, and I have always been fascinated by the underwater world. I could float above a coral reef all day long, watching the interactions between the fish and marine invertebrates in that busy community. The area surrounding Bonaire is a protected marine park, so the coral is healthy, and the tropical fish thrive. I would grab my mask and fins, jump off the dock at our hotel, and instantly be immersed in a gorgeous, underwater world. Getting to Bonaire was not easy, but it was well worth the hassle to enjoy that little piece of paradise.

During the many, long plane rides and mornings on the sailboat on our trip, I had time to edit the manuscript of my latest novel. With each pass, I am polishing it into the story I want it to be. I think most authors would tell you editing is the least fun part of the writing process, but editing is necessary and can’t be avoided. In addition to questioning every comma and semicolon and trying to remember whether a character’s eyes are blue or brown, I worry that the plot moves forward in a logical progression. Will the reader be surprised or disappointed? Are the characters believable? Have I provided enough description or too much description? My working manuscript is long, so I’m concerned I need to cut some scenes. Luckily, I will get help answering these questions. Once I have the manuscript as perfect as I can make it, I will send it to a professional editor who will look at it line by line and then step back and consider the manuscript as a whole. A few friends have also volunteered to read the manuscript, and my publisher will read through it and give me his thoughts.

I also want to ask for your help with my manuscript. In a few weeks, I will post a few excerpts from the book, and I encourage you to let me know what you think, good or bad. I would much rather have the feedback now than read it in a review on Amazon once the book has been published!

Finally, I have a gift for my blog readers. Click on the cover of my book below and receive a free coupon for an e-book of my novel, Murder Over Kodiak. When you click on the link you will be taken to a site provided by my publisher, and you will need to register to download the book, but there is no catch. The book is yours free!

As many of you know, I write a monthly newsletter about crime and mysteries in Alaska. I think of spring as the start of the new season for my newsletter, and I have several interesting topics I plan to cover over the next months. My newsletters are free, and you can always unsubscribe if they aren’t for you. If you think you would be interested in my newsletters, you can sign up here.

A Kodiak Bear’s Fur and Claws

  FUR

A Kodiak bear’s coat may range from dark brown to nearly blonde.  Bears are typically darker in the fall when they begin growing their winter coat, and older bears are often darker than younger bears, but these are just generalizations.  One cub from a litter may be light, while his brother is dark brown.

 Cubs often have a natal collar, a white band around the neck and shoulder.  Some cubs have no natal collar, and others have a collar that is bright and distinct.  This band gradually fades over time, and it has usually disappeared by the age of three, but occasionally, you will see a four-or-five-year-old bear that still has remnants of a collar.

 A bear’s fur is an excellent insulator.  It is dense and oily, keeping the bear warm and preventing water from penetrating.  The fur consists of two types of hair, the “guard hair” and the “under-fur.”  Bears shed both the guard hair and underfur annually.  In the summer, Kodiak bears often appear shaggy and matted.  The bear in the photo below looks as if she is sporting dreadlocks.  To help remove their fur, bears rub against trees and rocks, often standing on their hind legs, backing up to a tree and rubbing up and down.  It is humorous to watch a bear “scratch his back” in this manner.  While the old coat is shedding, a new coat is growing, and by September on Kodiak, most bears appear darker in color and well-groomed.  The old, loose fur is gone, and only the new fur remains.

 

CLAWS

Brown bears have non-retractable claws up to four-inches long.  The claws of young bears are typically dark brown and then lighten with age.  Although some young bears have light-colored claws, beautiful, pearly-white claws are usually seen on an old sow or boar.  Look at the photos and notice the difference in claw coloration between the sub-adult bear and the old sow.

Brown bears use their claws to defend themselves and fight with other bears, but Kodiak bears primarily use their claws to dig for roots and other food and gripping food.  Even though their claws look large and clumsy to us, they are quite dexterous and capable of manipulating small objects. Kodiak cubs use their claws to climb trees, but adult brown bears are poor climbers due to their body weight and the structure of their claws.  It is not uncommon to see a sow send her small cubs up a tree if she senses danger, and they stay in the tree until she vocalizes the signal that it is safe for them to come down.