Authors: Christine Goff
Praise for the
series by Christine Goff
“Very entertaining. Birders and nature lovers alike will enjoy this new twist on the cozy mystery.”
The Mystery Reader
“You don’t have to be a bird lover to fall in love with Christine Goff’s charming Birdwatcher’s Mysteries.”
New York Times
bestselling author of the
“The birds of the Rocky Mountains will warm the binoculars of birders who have waited a lifetime to see real stories about birds in a popular novel.”
“Christine Goff’s Birdwatcher’s mysteries are engaging.”
A wonderfully clever, charming, and addictive series.”
New York Times
bestselling author of
Murder as a Fine Art.
EATH OF A
“A most absorbing mystery.”
—Virginia H. Kingsolver,
“Everything you expect from a good mystery—a smart detective and a plot that takes some surprising twists… a terrific debut!”
New York Times
best-selling author of the
Wind River Mystery
A Rant of Ravens
is a deft and marvelous debut mystery set in the complex and colorful world of birdwatching.”
—Earlene Fowler, national bestselling author of
A Rant of Ravens
stars a gutsy heroine in fast-paced action with a chill-a-minute finale… A fine-feathered debut.”
—Carolyn Hart, award-winning author of the
Death on Demand
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this novel
are either fictitious or are used fictitiously.
A NEST IN THE ASHES
Astor + Blue Editions
Copyright © 2014 by Christine Goff
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof, in any form under the International and Pan-American Copyright
Conventions. Published in the United States by:
Astor + Blue Editions
New York, NY 10003
Publisher’s Cataloging-In-Publication Data
GOFF, CHRISTINE. A NEST IN THE ASHES.—2
ISBN: 978-1-941286-26-5 (epdf)
ISBN: 978-1-941286-25-8 (epub)
1. Mystery—Thriller—Fiction. 2. Park mystery—Fiction 3. Cozy mystery—Fiction 4. Mid-life—Mystery—
Fiction 5. Birdwatchers—Fiction 6. Women & Family—Fiction 7. Colorado I. Title
Jacket Cover Design: Dider Meresse
2002 Berkeley Prime Crime
The Berkeley Publishing Group New York, NY
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
This digital document has been produced by
To Janet Grill, for always being there to give me the speech. You are truly the sister of my heart.
IN THE ASHES
in the Ashes
, was one of my biggest challenges. I knew exactly what I wanted to write about—fire on the Front Range. Growing up in Colorado, I am well aware that we Coloradoans have always had to deal with the possibility of wildfire. Drought and the U.S. fire suppression policy have increased the potential for massive fires along the Front Range, triggered mainly by lightning strikes, human carelessness, or arson. But opinions on how best to protect our communities greatly differ.
A Nest in the Ashes
, I had read a story in the local newspaper about the impact of wildfire on the land. In truth, despite the devastation, some trees, plants, and birds flourish in the aftermath of fires. With a dad who was a fireman, I had listened to many debates on how best to manage fire on our public lands. One of the most controversial methods involves “prescribed burns,” where a Forest Service employee or other professional intentionally lights a fire in order to burn off slash and vegetation to mitigate the potential for catastrophic wildfires.
NOTE: remember how after I wrote about the illegal trading of peregrine falcons in
A Rant of Ravens,
the peregrine was delisted as an endangered species? And how after I wrote about the effects of the coffee industry on migratory songbirds in
Death of a Songbird
, the coffee company owner who I based my story on was banned from Mexico for three years?
I’ll bet you can see where this is going.
In the summer of 2002, the same summer
A Nest in the Ashes
was published, a Forest Service employee in an act of arson started the Hayman fire, which burned 138,114 acres and 133 homes, forced 5,340 people out of their homes, and cost nearly $40 million to fight.
A Nest in the Ashes
, published the summer of 2002, a prescribed burn set by EPOCH member Eric Linenger rages out of control, killing his boss, and Eric must figure out who intended the fire to rage out of control. He discovers that many people had reasons for wanting the fire to go all to blazes—even some of his friends.
A flicker of orange
caught Eric’s attention, and he squinted toward a small stand of bitterbrush some fifty yards southeast of the turnaround. Under the cover of branches, a green-tailed towhee foraged in the grass.
He knew the bird, even without his binoculars. A classic double-scratcher, it jumped forward, then back, searching the dirt for insects and seeds.
The towhee turned its rust-colored cap aflame in the sunlight. Then, as if sensing the danger, it darted back into the safety of the shrub.
Eric walked toward the back of his pickup and triggered the mike on his handheld radio. “Devlin, do you copy? Over.” He enunciated carefully, worried that his Norwegian accent might garble his words on the airwaves. It was important Wayne Devlin understood who was calling.
“Devlin, what’s your ETA? Over.”
Come on, Wayne. Where are you?
Silence. Not even a burst of static.
“Give it up, Linenger.” Nora Frank brushed past him and hoisted herself into the bed of a nearby National Park Service truck. Crawling forward, regulation-green pants stretched tight across her rear end, she hauled out a box of fusees. “Devlin’s AWOL again. And if experience is any indicator, he’ll most likely stay that way.”
“AWOL?” After seventeen years of living in the United States, it surprised Eric that there were still some American expressions he didn’t know.
“Absent without leave,” she explained, sitting and dangling her feet from the tailgate of the truck. “Which, I point out, as Wayne’s second-in-command, puts
There is a frightening thought
Eric stepped closer. “Does that mean the burn is still on?”
Surprise flickered across her face. “You bet. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a go.”
He had expected the answer, had even braced himself for it, so he managed not to curse out loud. Annoying her would only complicate matters.
Had she picked up on his struggle to keep his mouth shut?
Pulling two paper-wrapped fusees out of the box, she deftly linked them together and measured the length against the side of her leg. “Look long enough?”
Eric shook his head, not that he wanted her to continue construction. “You’re short.”
“Yeah,” she drawled. “And you’re tall.”
“That’s not what I meant.” He picked up a fusee, spun it in his hand, and then pressed circles into his open palm with the coupling end. “Is there any way I can convince you to call off the burn?”
Nora grinned, added another fusee to the chain she was working on, then pointed it toward the far end of the turnaround. “You don’t cancel a party once the guests have arrived.”
“Wayne would,” he mumbled.
Still, Eric realized she had a point. The staging area teemed with people. Butch Hanley, the holding boss, held court from a picnic bench, doling out assignments to Nomex-clad personnel—a mixture of Elk Park Fire Department volunteers and trained NPS employees—responsible for containment of the fire within the prescribed perimeters.
Beyond them, Ernie Beal, the burn’s ignition specialist, hunkered down in the grass with the two firefighters responsible for lighting the burn. Near the tanker, Howard Stevens, the fire observer, pored over burn maps with several people from Intermountain Regional NPS. And, from the meadow, a woman with a cameraman in tow shot footage of the operation.
“We’ve got the manpower and the equipment,” Nora said. “The hoses are laid. The hand lines are dug. Not to mention we’ve sunk six-thousand dollars into this burn, before even lighting the sucker.” Nora shrugged. “Besides, Pacey Trent’s here to watch the show.” Setting aside the joined fusees, she reached back into the box. “You can sweet-talk me all you want, Linenger, but I’m giving the order to go.”
Eric frowned. Was this the same woman who’d once shared his passion for the woods?
He’d met her four years ago at a National Park Service party held at Wayne Devlin’s house. She was fresh out of training—enthusiastic, energetic, and idealistic. He’d factored in her dark wavy hair, blue eyes, and the smattering of freckles splashed across her nose and cheeks, and decided she was perfect girlfriend material.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long to figure out that beneath the wholesome image lay a bobcat determined to rise to the top of the food chain. But, up until now, her ideals had held strong.
“Whatever happened to preserving habitat, Nora?”
“Oh, cut the melodrama already. Trust me, the bitterbrush and sage
grow back. The towhees and warblers
return. Hey, in three or four years, you’ll be hard-pressed to prove there ever was a burn.”
“Ja? Have you forgotten about the herbivory? New shoots may come up, but they’ll be ravaged by the elk.” Eric clamped his hands on the rail of the pickup. Why couldn’t she see what they were doing?
“At least tell me you read my report,” he said.
“I read it. Your concerns were duly noted, considered, and…” She placed her finger alongside her cheek and looked toward the sky before fixing him with a hard stare. “Denied.”
Eric banged his fist against the truck’s wheel well.
Nora ignored him. “So, where do you suppose Devlin is?” she asked.
Eric wished he knew. As Rocky Mountain National Park’s fire management officer, Wayne Devlin was the only one besides Nora Frank or Pacey Trent with the power to stop the burn. Wayne should have been on the job hours ago.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Eric replied. “I don’t know why he isn’t answering the radio, unless he’s somewhere out of range.”
“Did you try calling Jackie?”
He nodded. “I talked to her around eight o’clock. She said he left before six this morning, mumbling something about too much fuel on Eagle Cliff Mountain.” Eric shrugged. “Maybe he’s reconsidering.”
Nora chuckled. “I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.”
“Ja, well, as long as there’s hope.” It was the only straw left to grasp.
“Ja, well,” she sing-songed, mimicking his accent, “take my advice. Chill out, and go with the flow.”
Eric gritted his teeth. Too bad she wasn’t a man. He wouldn’t mind decking her.
“Nora Frank?” called out a booming voice.
Nora straightened and smiled at someone behind Eric. “Good morning, Mr. Trent.”
Eric turned around to find the Intermountain Regional NPS fire management officer storming toward them like a charging grizzly. At fifty-something, his brown hair shot with silver, the FMO walked hunched over as though still humping a firefighter’s pack. A gigantic man, he stood six foot eight, dwarfing Eric by half a foot.
“Where in the hell is Devlin?”
“We don’t know,” Nora replied, sliding onto her feet from the tailgate. “Sir,” she added. “We just tried raising him on the radio. He didn’t answer.”
Eric winced at her use of “we.” Being lumped into a category with Nora made him nervous.
Trent pointed at Eric. “Try him again.”
Eric keyed the mike on his handheld. “Come in, Devlin. Over.”
The radio crackled, and Eric strained to pick out words among the hisses and squawks. “Wayne, is that you? This is Linenger. Over.”
A responding burst of static fueled Eric’s hopes. “Did anyone else copy that?”
“No,” responded a voice from his radio.
“Has anyone seen him?” Eric asked.
Another volley of negative replies hammered home Eric’s burgeoning headache. “Look, Devlin, if you can hear me, you’re needed at the main staging area, immediately. Over.”
“He must still be out of range,” Eric said, afraid to voice his real concern—that something worse had happened. Wayne had disappeared with no explanations a few times in the past, and Nora was keeping score. Give her too many incidents to report, and Wayne would be out of a job.
“Yeah, or maybe he’s out to breakfast,” muttered Nora.
Trent’s eyes narrowed. “Ms. Frank, would you care to explain that comment?”
Nora skimmed her hands along her hips, brushing non-existent dirt from the seat of her fire pants. “Let’s just say, Wayne Devlin is getting more and more unpredictable. There are days, like today, when he doesn’t even bother to show up.”
She scooped up the pile of fusees, and Trent reached for the bundle. “Here, let me help you with those.”
Nora rewarded him with a smile.
“If what you say is true, it sounds like we’ve got a problem.” Trent lit out across the parking lot, and Eric and Nora fell in sync, one on either side of him.
“Mr. Trent, Wayne usually has a reason for not coming in,” Eric said. He knew he sounded defensive. And he’d stretched the truth. The bottom line was Wayne hadn’t been acting much like himself lately.
“Either way, we can’t afford to stand around here all day. Every second we do costs the Park Service money. Who’s in charge when Devlin’s gone?”
“I am, sir,” Nora said.
“Good. Then let’s get this show on the road.”
Thirty minutes later, with the sun beating down from a cloudless sky, Ernie Beal lit the first fusee, and Eric resigned himself to the burn. He’d done his best to stop it, done everything possible to convince Nora to change her mind. He’d even tried calling Wayne at home one more time. His wife, Jackie, still hadn’t heard from him. Now all Eric could do was try to minimize the damage.
So far, things looked good. The humidity had bottomed out at fifteen percent, and winds, drifting out of the west at one to five miles per hour, had nudged the temperatures into the forties. By all accounts, it was the perfect day for a fire. Just enough breeze to push four-inch flames through the bitterbrush.
Pulling a ragged breath, Eric gazed out over Beaver Meadows. Composed mostly of big sagebrush, antelope bitterbrush, and grasses, the meadow spread to the east and south, blanketing the valley floor in pale green shrubs. Along its southern edge, the meadow thinned, becoming understory for the ponderosa pines, before giving way to the dense stands of Douglas fir and spruce that climbed Eagle Cliff Mountain’s north face.
In two days, it would all be char.
What a waste!
Eric flinched watching the fire bite in the grass. Brush shriveled against the advancing heat. Smoke spiraled into the air, hazing the view of Longs Peak.
The flames grew in intensity, searing the air and lapping forward through the grass and sage in speeds up to seventeen chains. At this rate, the fire would consume nearly two acres an hour.
Helpless to prevent the holocaust, he focused on the task at hand. As RMNP’s fire monitor, it fell in his lap to track the fire’s progress. If the fire ran ahead too quickly, it was his job to notify Butch Hanley and slow things down. If the fire slopped over its boundaries, Eric would scream for more manpower. If it threw spots, he would report the location, then report to the scene.
Bottom line? It was his job to avert disaster.
It took six minutes for the flames to flush the green-tailed towhee. Other birds and animals followed. Drab-colored Virginia’s warblers darted here and there. Rabbits hopped. Mice scurried. Two dove-gray loggerhead shrikes with black wings flashed white wing patches in retreat, and brownish-gray house finches in bright red plumage escorted their mates to safety. It was like a scene out of
“Lookin’good,” said the woman he’d seen earlier in the meadow. She signaled to her cameraman, who stepped around her, then she moved in beside Eric.
“Excuse me, ma’am. This is a restricted area.”
“Press.” She flashed a picture credential showing bleached hair and a toothy smile. “Linda Verbiscar, KEPC-TV.” She stuck out her hand.
Eric hesitated, then shook. “Eric Linenger, National Park Service.”
“Mind if I ask you a few questions?” On her signal, the cameraman tipped back his cap and trained the camera on Eric’s face.
Eric held up an arm and turned sideways. “I’m a little busy right now.”
“What about freedom of the press?” she asked, producing a microphone. “We’re live in five, four, three, two, one.” She turned to face the camera. “Hello, Dan. We’re live on the scene of the first prescribed burn of the season here in Rocky Mountain National Park, and we’re talking with Eric Linenger of the National Park Service. Tell us, Mr. Linenger, what is the reason for today’s fire?”
Eric glanced nervously at the camera. Nothing like being put on the spot. “The intent is to burn off a thousand acres of dense vegetation.”
“Why? To what
“Strictly preventative. By removing the fuel, we hope there will be less risk of catastrophic wildfire.”
Linda turned to face the camera, and Eric tried edging away. Verbiscar placed her hand on his arm. “A quick explanation for our viewers, Dan. Since 1910, when a fire known as ‘The Big Blowup’consumed three million acres of forest and killed eighty-five people in Idaho and Montana, fire suppression has been the policy of the federal government. In fact, by the 1970s, vigorous firefighting efforts had knocked the number of consumed acres from fifty million to five million a year.”
So far she had the facts right.
“But now, natural fuels have accumulated in our forests, creating tinderbox conditions, and specialists recommend thinning them through the reintroduction of fire. The hope is, that by returning the forests to a more natural, fire-resistant state, the forests will burn more or less as nature intended them to.”
She turned back to Eric. “What I’d like to know is, in the wake of the Cerro Grande prescribed burn near Los Alamos—a fire which jumped its prescribed boundaries, burned over 45,000 acres, destroyed 235 homes, and caused 18,000 people to be evacuated—how do you justify taking the risk?” She shoved the microphone in Eric’s face.
He swallowed. “We’ve had successful fires since the Cerro Grande.”
Linda Verbiscar smiled. “Yes, but how do you
feel about prescribed burning?” She held up a copy of his report recommending against the Beaver Meadows prescribed burn. “Didn’t you state in an advisory report that this particular fire was a mistake?”
Eric glanced at the line of fire advancing across the meadow. “Yes, but not because I don’t believe in burning.”