(To the real Mishael who created the ember that brought this story to life. I never want anyone to feel they are 'just' a reader to me.)
*Flakes fall, snow conceals, ice melts and what was lost is found*
Mishael drove her Jeep to the end of the old fire road and let it coast to a stop in the light snow.
"From here we walk Trooper," she grinned at her search partner. Alaskan State Trooper Philadelphia "Philly" Petrakis gave a rather business-like nod and slipped out the passenger side door. Mishael studied her as she left, trying to get a better understanding of the relative newcomer.
Mishael was in her own way new to the region; she was born and raised in Fairbanks Alaska so she was as native-born as anyone else in Tok. She had moved from the 'Big City' to Tok seven years ago when she was still eighteen. She had started out with a small cyber café then added a package delivery service and lastly, lovingly a combination book store and lending library.
In the high society of the population: 1900 Tok that made her a trailblazing entrepreneur. One customer had a few months back scared the crap out of her – they suggested to a third party that Mishael might be a good candidate for Mayor! Her blind freaking-scared reaction had been to dump her cappuccino machine on their head – she simply couldn't think of a good enough cover story to explain her tossing that monster twenty feet across the room.
Her only 'problem' was with her relationships. She had an airtight, two year relationship with her best friend Callie in High School. Callie had never doubted who she was and wasn't afraid to run right at any problem – it was patently un-Alaskan to her to do otherwise. After month of college in Tampa Bay, Florida and Callie told her she'd met someone else and she wasn't going to lie to Mishael about her feelings.
Mishael had been hurt; still she wished her best friend all the best and meant it. She had left Fairbanks though not run away from her old life, but opened up a new chapter in it. Inside a year she had met somebody, young and energetic, but things hadn't worked out and they'd both moved on. In fact, she had coasted in and out of affairs and not worried about where that would end up – until now.
Philadelphia Petrakis had felt different from the first time the new State Trooper had shown up at her business' door. The woman had felt like an 'old soul' and her eyes didn't look over the room, her gaze stalked it. More so; when Mishael greeted her, the woman had weighed her and found Mishael 'interesting' but also 'someone looking for the 'new'', not the 'life changing' next step'. That was a challenge Mishael couldn't ignore.
Over the past few weeks, Mishael found herself stumped. Philly was polite and kind but hardly enraptured with the best girl in town. Nor was Philly damaged goods; mangled by some prior relationship or limping along directionless. Philly simply was not ready and grudgingly Mishael had accepted that for the present.
Philly Petrakis hated this mission for multiple reasons that had nothing to do with her current guide. She was unhappy because this assignment was giving her heartburn – the kind that came from trusting your gut over what you were told. In mid-December a small twin-engine plane had tried to make it over the Alaskan Range, become iced-up and crashed somewhere on the eastern slopes.
Twenty-two years as a Federal Marshal told her there was something plain wrong. To Philly, Alaskans were clearly nuts, taking risks on a daily basis that saner people would balk at – but then if they didn't take those risks the jobs would never get done. This flight had gone way beyond Alaskan crazy – lives weren't at stake, so why take the chance when the weather would clear up for a spell in 24 hours?
"Ms. Childers," Philly got her guide's attention. "I suggest you take some sort of firearm."
"Is this still a rescue mission?" Mishael arched an eyebrow – an affectation lost beneath her toboggan. "Also, since the two of us are going to be sharing a theoretical 2-women tent you can call me Mishael."
"Call me Philly," the Trooper smiled somewhat grimly. "This is still a rescue mission but..."
"I trust you Philly," Mishael pulled out her compound bow and double checked it, "What has you worried?"
"Plane flying in a snowstorm BEFORE four days of clear weather is going to break; the transponder failing and we have six people registered on the flight but the May Day report says there seven. What's not to love?"
"Check that," Mishael agreed; "eighteen of my best arrows and my Grizzly Bear skinning knife."
"You've skinned a Brown Bear?" Philly made one last check of her pack and sleeping bag.
"No, but my main knife is a Swiss Army multi-tool and I don't want my other blade to feel inadequate," Mishael smiled to herself as she put a cover over her bow and arrow set.
"Is this going to be another quaint colloquialism I'm going to have get used to – you natives talking to your weapons and giving them nicknames?" Philly faux-scowled at Mishael.
"Talking to your weapon is a polite way of saying 'come, sit down and get acquainted'," Mishael bantered back, glad to see Philly beyond the usual monosyllabic response. "Now when we start speaking with ourselves and losing the argument then be on your guard."
"Duly noted," Philly snorted. "If you have finished being down-right loquacious, let's head up toward grid D-5 coordinate which is somewhere," she pointed, "up there."
"Got it Kemosabe," Mishael was happy that Philly was also finally relaxing her official exterior. They re-established their outdoorsmen calm for over thirty minutes when Mishael cracked ever so slightly.
"Loquacious? Did you get that from your 'Word of the Day' calendar or was that your Criminal Justice degree from USC?" Philly found herself being taunted.
"No; I used to take a thesaurus on stake-outs when I was with the US Marshal's Service," Philly replied after a moment. "We would pick a word and the other person had a minute to find a way to use it in a sentence."
"Wow that sounds - boring," Mishael muttered absently.
"Oh, it is," Philly chuckled. "Unfortunately it is harder to do crossword puzzles and keep watch on the location we were sitting on."
"I don't think I could do that," Mishael confessed. "I have to keep busy – all of this nervous energy."
"It isn't for everything but you could do it." Philly assessed her companion, "You learn to do it just like you learn to make a good cappuccino if you keep at it."
"Oh," Mishael grinned secretly (she was in the lead after all). "You like my cappuccino?"
"No, it's dreadful," Philly's eyes danced with mirth, "but it keeps getting better."
"Ah, I knew there was a reason I turned my complaint jar into a pretzel container," Mishael teased back. Philly was sure Mishael thought her to be barely capable of cracking a joke before today. Sadly their conversation was muted by the necessity to keep up a strong pace upslope. The Sun was slipping behind the crowns of the mountains when Mishael called a halt.
"We can make another hour," Philly insisted, eagerly taking to the hunt.
"Au contraire Mon Capataine," Mishael countered. "With that cloud cover it will be pitch black inside thirty minutes. You gather the kindling and a few logs and I'll clear the ground and set up a tent." Philly showed an utter lack of being ego-driven by snapping to and gathering the required wood.
They banked a fire pit and soon had their direst timber alight and their sleeping arrangements set up. Philly had several culinary assaults called MRE's but Mishael had come with a wider variety of dehydrated foods and the melted snow provided the missing ingredient: water. She traded half of her caribou and noodle soup plus a cup of coffee for some extra salt, pepper and really good coffee creamer.
"The non-dairy creamer was a clever idea," Mishael nodded, happy with the trade.
"I repeat, I find you cappuccino pretty horrid so I'm perpetually prepared," Philly made her deadpan delivery. They both shivered as the breeze changed from the westward forests to the northwestern mountains.
"In the morning, you make some of the MRE coffee you have stored and we'll see who has the lousiest Cup of Joe," Mishael rocked a shoulder into Philly.
"I've had government-issue coffee and been stuck in a tear gas room and I still don't know which one is worse," Philly smiled at her only inches away.
Mishael's eyes studied Philly's lined face. What had seemed once been taken for weather line were now revealed to be the results of a lifetime of laughing and smiling. Philly had been a terribly joyous woman at one time and she had to have thrived on friends and companions.
"You have a warm smile," Mishael took a small leap.
"Yours is impish but let's just say I last fell for an impish grin when I was in college and I married her; leave it at that," Philly confided. "You will have much greater success with internet dating people your own age than someone who would prefer some alone time."
"Okay, I'll take that under advisement," Mishael smirked, "but someone as desirable as me won't stay on the market forever." Philly rolled her eyes.
"I'm going to hate myself for saying this but let's go to bed," Philly gave a false groan. "We are going to wake up early if we are going to make the southeastern corner of our zone by noon." Mishael finished cleaning first and crawled into the tent first and then into the sleeping bag where she waited for Philly. For her part Philly came half way through the tent opening then paused.
"You wove our sleeping bags together?" Philly said in disbelief.
"No pressure," Mishael assured her, "but this way allows us to stay warmer by sharing body heat. If it makes you feel better we can sleep back to back."
"I'm feeling safer already," Philly responded without conviction. It didn't stop her from entering, shedding her jacket, insulated pants, and boots before crawling in.
(The first morning)
It was a good, earthy smell that welcomed Mishael to wakefulness. It was a woman's aroma built up with body wash, a simple, non-cloying deodorant, shampoo, sweat and the campfire smoke. With her eyes still shut she nuzzled forward to discover her nose was touching the front base of Philly's neck.
A little body shift indicated that her left leg was between Philly's legs and that her left arm rested on Phillies left side, hand beneath Philly's arm pit. Mishael compressed her body as tight against Philly as she dared.
"There, there Mishael," Philly chided her but at the same time ran her fingertips from Mishael's widow's peak down to the back of her neck and then around to the coax the earlobe. "Calm down."
Mishael slowly uncoiled her body until she was looking into the slightly taller Philly's eyes.
"This was an accident – right?" Mishael hinted that if there had been a purpose behind how they had awoken, she was okay with it.
"I recall you saying something about you sleeping with your back to me," Philly teased her as well as kept playfully tickling the rim of her ear and earlobe.
"Yes," Mishael sighed though she clearly wanted their contact to go a little farther. She rolled over and molded her back to Philadelphia's front. Philly wasn't playing nice – or fair. She now ran the back of her hand from the ear to the jawline and dragged her fingernails down the slope of her neck to her shoulder then retraced the journey.
Mishael rewarded Philly with a delightful tremor of pleasure.
"I've always admired your energy Mishael but," Philly breathed from less than an inch onto her eardrum. She finished that up by sucking in the earlobe and suckling on it with tender passion and a hint of teeth. Philly's hand skated sensuously from just below the belly button to the base of her breasts.
"But?" Mishael exhaled. She ran her own hand behind her and let it come down on the lower hip of Philly's right flank and let it slowly slide down between them.
"But we are out here today to save lives and that has to be our priority," Philly added reluctantly.
Mishael rolled onto her stomach and punched the ground frustration because Philadelphia was right.
They ate a cold breakfast before packing up and continuing the hike up the mountain spur that would be the starting point of their search. The snow had abated and the weather looked good but they were well past eight before heading out – they were rapidly heading toward the shortest day of the year which meant total darkness for most places in central and northern Alaska.
Right at noon Mishael brought them to the highest point for miles around. To the west the spur dropped down a hundred feet or so before crawling back up to the true mountain range. To the north, east and south the timber seemed to stretch on forever. Mishael took out her binoculars and tracked the wide swath of land that the plane 'may' have crossed over on its way to a supposed crash landing.
"Fuck," Mishael heard Philadelphia curse softly on her radio. "Hold on, I need to talk with Childers. I'll call right back. Mishael was crouched down on one knee and pivoted to look at Philly as the trooper closed her phone. "You recall that huge storm that was going to swing west around the mountain and hit Fairbanks; well it is coming right at us instead and we have less than 48 hours."
"Well...that's damn fucked up all to hell," Childers knew because Philly wasn't passing the buck, she was making the smart decision of whether to push on or not on the member who was much more experienced. It was unfair but just.
"If we go pretty much northwest, we can make an old resort hunting lodge by nightfall tomorrow," Mishael explained; Philly looked a bit skeptical.
"Once we get down to the tree line, we will fly on our skis, trust me," Mishael promised. Philly gave Mishael a nod but it held a grimace too – a character trait that Mishael was beginning to associate with some kind of danger sense in her partner. True to her word, within two hours they left the boulder strewn slopes behind them and were skiing down slope.
Darkness was creeping up on them when Mishael caught an ominous sight – the tracks of six tundra wolves intersecting their path, going north. Had there been caribou or moose about, she would have felt fine but something out there had drawn a pack this big and that had to be fresh bloody meat. She relayed this to Philly who thought about it and made the command decision.
"We'll be outside when that storm comes but I feel I need to know what drew them that way," Philly decided.
"GPS will show you were you are but not what stands between where you are and where you need to be – I'm going with you," Mishael announced.
"Fine," Philly nodded, "let's go find those wolves." Mishael took point once again and she set a pretty hard pace because dealing with six hungry wolves was bad enough by daylight – doing so by night could well be fatal. They didn't find the body before the sun vanished behind the mountains but the three-quarters Moon was rising in a clear sky. Less than an hour later she heard the first wolf growling at her.
"Let's see if we can scare them off," she recommended to Philly. Philly sent a warning shot off into the air when they could see the body and three more wolves. A further shot by Philly sprayed gravel in the face of the Alpha couple and they scattered for the moment. They closed in with the torn parka and pants – the wolves had already eaten nearly half the corpse.
"He was murdered," was Philly's first observation, "there is GSR (gunshot residue) on the back of his jacket indicating the gun was within a foot of him when it went off – the hole makes me believe it was a .45 and it's a through and through. He was then thrown from the aircraft."
"You can tell that with your eyes alone?" Mishael mused.
"I've seen far too many dead bodies, Mishael. This is not something I would ever boast about," Philadelphia sighed.
"Okay – wait, I know this guy," Mishael gasped, "Steve something. He's been at Tok airfield a time or two when I was taking lessons."
"Damn," Philly muttered. "I didn't know you were a pilot and who in the hell would shoot their pilot in mid-flight." She started searching the tattered clothes but found no ID to confirm Mishael's identification.
"Twenty-two hours isn't enough for a license yet, but I do fly once a week," Mishael. Somehow knowing the person who was not just chewed on remains and half a face was causing her stomach to lurch. By the business-like manner Trooper Petrakis went about a quick search of the body and the near area, Mishael felt a pang of sadness to the woman who had experienced so many horrible things that this experience was now only another day keeping people like her safe.
"Mishael, I'll enter the GPS coordinates of this site but I think we need to put some distance between this body and the wolves – do you agree?" Philly questioned.
"Yes," Mishael snapped back to the here and now. "Let's move a few hundred yards away and figure out our next plan." Philly nodded, took a few crime shots with her phone.
"Mishael, the pilot made the 'May Day' call right before the plane dropped out of sight," Philly began as they coasted on their skis through the moonlight.
"So the plane was in distress," she searched her mind for the facts, "then someone shot him? Okay, the pilot is shot, the plane dives; someone disables the transponder but how do they plan to land anywhere that way."
"They would have to land somewhere soon..." Philly was clearly confused.
"Oh God!" Mishael gasped, "If they weren't a pilot who knew the area they might make for Hannigan's Rock – from a distance it looks like a rough runway. It's a glacier scraped belt of rock a few miles away that can look smooth but trust me, it isn't."
"If he dumped the fuel, how much distance they could have covered?" Philly asked her scholastic companion.
"If he dumped his tanks, his reserve could make Tok Airfield – barely," Mishael nodded. She couldn't help but feel a sense of accomplishment she'd never experienced.
Mishael was now hunting down a murderer – some asshole had killed someone she knew – barely knew perhaps but she had talked him and he had seemed nice enough and now someone had murdered him for no sane reason.
"It is about 18 kilometers west-northwest of here," she showed Philly the location on her phone.
Mishael studied Philly while the older woman typed up a report of some kind.
"I'm not taking some report and skiing off to safety Philadelphia," Mishael pledged. "You can't make me go and if you handcuff me to a tree you might as well shoot me. I'm coming with you so get used to it."
"Gave this a lot of thought, have you?" Philly smiled at her.
"Well...no, not really," Mishael admitted, "but I've hunted for my dinner and I've walked much of this ground and you won't find anyone more qualified to back you up if trouble comes up within 30 kilometers."
"I'd like to make two things clear," Philly stepped into Mishael personal space; "this is a bad, bad idea. Since I can't stop you, you must promise me you will do what I say, when I say it, even if that means you flee for your life. If you can't agree to that then we go back to our jeep at first light."
"If that is what it takes, I'll agree," Mishael nodded. Philly shook her head but the reality of the situation was what it was and she was going to have to adapt. They remained quiet for another hour when they found a steep overhang on a cliff side. Fifteen minutes later they had rigged a slightly larger shelter than last nights and opted to use a portable burner to give them both light and heat.
Without much forethought they settled in side by side in the cramped corner.
"Have you done things like this before – I mean dealing with dangerous people?" Mishael turned and asked her.