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Alpha Female



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About The Author

April ChristoffersonApril Christofferson

April Christofferson is the highly acclaimed author of several novels set in the West. She is an attorney with a background in biology and veterinary medicine. She divides her time between Yellowstone and Missoula, Montana.

photo: Steve Gilbert

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EXCERPT

Chapter One

Restoring our most precious asset: Wilderness!

Annie Peacock’s grip on the steering wheel loosened reflexively as she passed the newly erected billboard that hovered over the entrance to the tiny town of Gardiner, Montana. Below the billboard’s motto (which Annie had heard no less than four times on the radio on her drive back from Livingston), a rotating globe featured bear and elk and moose, each safely perusing its own natural habitat. It radiated a warm and fuzzy feeling. The WERI— World Energy Resources, Inc.— logo proudly dominated the bottom right corner of the sign, which, by virtue of its size and grandeur, stuck out like a sore thumb next to the only other billboards in Gardiner: one for Holly’s Drive- Thru and the other for a white- water expedition company called The Flying Pig.

Annie glanced across the Yellowstone River and the town, mostly sleeping now, and in the moonlight, saw the outline of the Roosevelt Arch stretching skyward, dusting the North Star.

Almost home. Strange how after only one year, the sight of the stone structure that had been welcoming visitors to Yellowstone’s north entrance for over a hundred years— actually, the sight of the town in general— gave Annie a comfort that had eluded her after more than a decade in Seattle.

Tonight it damn near brought tears to her eyes.

She’d always hated driving the fifty- two miles between Livingston and Gardiner, especially after dark. Her headlights had caught too many deer, sometimes even elk or a moose, lying lifeless on the side of the road. Down the road, at the only body shop in town, she’d inevitably see the offending vehicle, its front grille smashed beyond recognition. But to night those fifty- two miles had felt like three times the distance. She’d had to pull over twice to let the dizziness pass. Each time, as she lay across the front seat of her Subaru, the doctor’s words came back to her, taunting her.

"It can’t be the drug."

To which she’d finally, eloquently, blurted out, "Bullshit."

It hadn’t been a particularly inspired, or articulate, response, but in her raw state, it had been the only one that came to Annie’s mind.

At first, Dr. Rosenbaum looked like he’d just been slapped across the face, then indignation overcame his patrician features and he waited for an apology or, at the very least, an explanation. But Annie felt too damn sick, too drained, to try to educate another "healer" brainwashed by the pharmaceutical industry. Besides, she’d developed a built- in radar for detecting arrogance and Rosenbaum had set her meter off the moment he breezed into the exam room, clearly out of sorts about having to stay late in order to accommodate Annie’s schedule—which he most likely would not have done had he not recently been designated a preferred MD for all of Yellowstone’s 3,500 employees, and had Annie not held the position within the park that she did.

Trying to tell this one something he didn’t want to hear would be a total waste of time, she’d surmised almost instantly. So she’d simply stood and walked out of the room.

Another doctor’s appointment that had begun with hope— albeit a rapidly fading hope— and ended up a waste of time.

But she was almost home now. Only five more miles stretched between the arch and her house in Mammoth. Five miles of narrow, shoulderless, and winding road, with precipitous drop- offs to the Gardner River.

Annie tightened her grasp on the wheel, proceeded under the arch and then, a quarter mile farther down, passed through the unmanned entry gates, ignoring the sign to stop before proceeding.

Fifteen minutes later, close to elation, Annie pulled up to the stone house.

She stepped out of the car, taking immediate comfort in the night’s warm embrace. Annie loved the night air in Yellowstone. It felt to her like worn velvet.

A coyote yipped twice, from over Bunsen Peak’s way.

She quickly scanned the area surrounding the house.

The other thing Annie loved about nightfall was the sense of privacy it afforded her. How ironic that she’d moved to the West’s wide open spaces only to find herself living in a fishbowl. The sign posted in her driveway: private residence/no trespassing might as well have said, freak show, take a peek. She sometimes arrived home from work to find tourists sitting on her front porch, or pressing their noses to the window— a sure sign her mother was either sleeping upstairs or engrossed in playing the piano in the back; for if Eleanor Malone became aware of intruders, she never failed to shoo them away, cane waving wildly in the air, Archie barking at her side.

In the year they’d all lived together in the stone house, Eleanor and Archie, Annie’s twelve- year- old Labrador retriever, had become quite a team. Both were hard of hearing (or, as Annie saw it, increasingly selective in their hearing), both getting a little crotchety with age, and both touchingly devoted to the great love of their life: Annie. If that devotion meant ensuring Annie’s privacy and the downtime she needed as she struggled with her health problems by chasing away trespassers, the two gamely— actually, Annie had observed, with some degree of glee—did so.

Thankfully at night, however, the tourists dispersed to places unknown, leaving Annie moments like this.

She took in the high- altitude air, breathed it deep into her lungs, and stood admiring the skyline, relishing more than ever the magical healing powers this new life—new world— had provided her.

Bunsen Peak stood tall, backlit by a half moon, and to the west, waiting for its turn to be bathed in the delicate glow, Electric. It looked less daunting than it had half an hour earlier, as Annie approached Gardiner. She often wondered whether the peak’s name bore responsibility for the power it held over her every time she drove toward it, down Highway 89, returning from a trip to civilization— a force that pulled her back to a place, a life so unlike anything she’d ever expected.

A force that, she knew, would never allow her to leave.

Another coyote’s wail— this one sounded like it came from up near the Hoodoos— transitioned to short, sharp barks. It turned Annie’s thoughts to her devoted Lab.

She hurried to the front door, eager to see Archie. The silence indicated he hadn’t heard her pull in. She put the key in the lock, turned it, and whistled for him as she opened the door.

"Arch?"

Annie slid inside.

The house felt strangely still. Archie must have followed her mother up to bed. More and more, if Annie wasn’t home, he slept with Eleanor until she returned.

Something did not feel right.

If Annie was out late, Eleanor usually left a light on in the living room. Now the only illumination greeting Annie came from the kitchen.

"Mom?"

Hard of hearing or not, Archie should have bounded down the steps to greet Annie by now.

Several long- legged strides bore Annie across the narrow, spartanly furnished living room.

At the kitchen door, she stopped, dead in her tracks.

"Oh my god."

Shattered glass— jagged white pieces adorned with green shamrocks that looked cruelly, startlingly, out of place against the worn linoleum—crunched under Annie’s feet as she stepped inside. The antique hutch Eleanor had brought with her from Seattle, in which she stored the precious china she’d inherited from her Irish mother- in- law, lay on its back, its door open and ripped half off its hinges.

"Mother?" Annie screamed.

At first she did not notice the bottle of wine perched precariously on its side, the top hanging over the edge of the counter— her eyes had instead been drawn to the deep red puddles splattering the aging beige linoleum.

Blood.

Annie dropped to her knees. Dipping a finger in one dark splash, she lifted her hand— it shook violently— and brought it even with her face. As she did so, she spotted the bottle. Relief flooded her. It had apparently toppled over during what ever awful event had transpired earlier in the kitchen, leaving its contents to drip onto the floor.

For the first time, Annie noticed the smell. Something burning. She looked up, at the stove. The stainless- steel pot Eleanor Malone used for her bedtime tea radiated waves of heat from its perch over a burner that glowed neon red. Annie reached for the pot, scalding her fingers on its stainless-steel surface. The water inside had long since evaporated.

Turning to dash for the stairs to the second floor, which she’d passed upon entering the house, Annie froze mid-stride.

A single piece of paper lay face up on the table where her mother took her tea, beneath the window that looked out on Liberty Cap.

Even from half a room away, something about the manner in which the letters had been scrawled across its face told Annie her life would never be the same.

She walked in measured steps toward it.

Instinctively, she knew better than to touch it; knew not to risk smudging a fingerprint or other DNA; evidence left behind.

For Annie Peacock knew— she had from the moment she first stared, jaw dropped, into the kitchen— that she was dealing with a crime scene.

Still, she reached for the note, stopping just short of touching it.

And then God made man, to rule over the world and all its creatures.

One sentence.

She gazed at it, trying to put out of mind thoughts of the scene that had to have unfolded— how long ago? minutes? hours?— in order for that sheet of paper to find its way there, in order for her kitchen to look as it did. Annie again screamed her mother’s name.

She bolted for the phone on the wall, next to the back door, and punched a number on her speed dial.

"Yellowstone Law Enforcement."

A glint on the kitchen counter caught Annie’s eye.

"Hello? Law enforcement," the voice repeated several times, its volume rising and falling with the swinging of the phone, which now dangled from its cord.

It felt like she was moving in slow motion as Annie walked to the counter, one hand stretched forward, groping; the other covering her mouth. Her eyes were glued to the source of the reflection that had drawn them: her mother’s wedding ring. It had been pushed back, tucked between the cheesy set of canisters Annie teased Eleanor about buying at the gift shop, which featured the park’s most well- known features— Old Faithful, Artist’s Point, Minerva Terrace, and the Roosevelt Arch— and held either coffee, flour, bags of herbal tea, or dog biscuits.

A plain gold band on the outside, inscribed inside with the words "From this day forward . . ." along with the date "6/29/45."

Annie grabbed it, DNA evidence be damned; curled her fingers around it. Clutching it to her chest, she closed her eyes and began to pray. She’d had trouble praying lately, actually for a couple years now, but now the words came in a flood.

Please dear God, please, let her be okay.

In bizarre fashion, the tinny, distant voice on the other end of the phone— now spinning, as the twisted cord unwound itself— harmonized with the one in Annie’s head.

"Law Enforcement. Hello?"

Annie padded back to the phone, lifted it gingerly.

"This is Judge Peacock," she said, her voice assured, even measured. "Please send someone to my house."

The voice faltered upon hearing the identity of the caller.

"Your Honor . . . May I ask... what . . . what’s the nature of the emergency?"

The sound clearly originated from behind Annie. There was no mistaking it. Archie’s whimper. It was coming from the cell.

"Judge Peacock...?"

All caution left Annie’s voice as she shouted: "I need an ambulance, local police, all available resources," then slammed the phone into its cradle.

She reeled in the direction of the whimper, calling out to him.

"Archie?"

Throwing open the door at the far end of the kitchen, she crossed a short, unlit hallway, at the end of which another door— a heavier door, one made of sturdy, aged oak— stood closed.

The whimper again. Annie threw it open.

At first all she saw was the same eerily barren room that she’d tried to avoid ever since moving into the stone house.

Black wrought- iron bars adorned the only window. A piano sat dead center on the cement floor— it had been left there by Annie’s predecessor, Judge Sherburne, whose wife, Rosemarie, was an accomplished pianist. Rosemarie had died suddenly, two months after Judge Sherburne had a stroke. When Annie moved in, Rosemarie had offered to leave behind the black Wurlitzer. There would not be room for it in the apartment she’d rented in Livingston to be close to her husband. Annie had grown up listening to her mother play and knew that Eleanor would be delighted not to have to give up one of her greatest passions in order to come live with Annie. She’d vowed to move the piano to the living room for Eleanor, but hadn’t yet followed through. Therefore, each evening, Eleanor retreated to what had once served as Yellowstone National Park’s first jail cell, Archie at her side.

Soon the house would fill with Chopin, Beethoven, or, more recently, Eleanor’s own compositions, inspired, as she described it, by "the wonders of her new life." She’d entitled her latest composition "Absaroka Symphony," in honor of the majestic mountains lining the east side of the Paradise Valley.

Annie had often been struck by the absurdity of the sight— this fragile elderly woman sitting rigidly at the piano playing with a grace that frequently moved her daughter to tears, loyal dog lying at her feet— all framed by an iron- barred door.

Now that door stood shut and locked.

On the other side, in a pool of blood, lay Archie.

"Wake up, Will. Will!"

Will McCarroll lifted his head no more than half an inch off the bedsheet, then dropped it right back, pulling the pillow over it. He turned his face away from the two- way radio that vibrated noisily, practically walking itself across the surface of the rickety nightstand that had the words Government Issue, 1951 engraved on the side facing the equally rickety bed where Will had just been sleeping like a baby. Until the two- way sounded.

"Will. We know you’re in Mammoth for tomorrow’s arraignment. Janet saw you fishing up at Sheepeaters to night. This is an emergency. Pick up!"

Wrestling his way into a sitting position, which meant fighting the flannel blanket that had managed to encase him, Will groped in the dark for the radio.

"Goddammit, Mickey. This better be important. It’s my first night in a goddamn bed in a month."

"It’s important all right," the voice replied. "We just got a call from Annie Peacock. You’ve gotta head right over there."

"Annie Peacock? You mean..."

"Yes, Judge Peacock. Peter and Sheriff Holmberg will meet you there. And Livingston emergency teams."

Getting awakened in the middle of the good night’s sleep Will had been looking forward to for days now was bad enough. It having anything at all to do with Annie Peacock made it pretty much intolerable.

"Where the hell’s Luke?" he growled into the radio. "Mammoth’s his territory."

"He’s on his way to Bozeman with a suspected blood clot."

"Bozeman? Livingston’s half an hour closer."

"Livingston’s CT scan is down. Luke didn’t know that though ’til he got the poor guy he was transporting from Roosevelt Lodge there. They’re on their way to Bozeman General now. Hope he holds out. Luke said he’s not looking good. Luke’ll be tied up another couple hours, at least."

"Well, shit. Wouldn’t you know?" Will dropped back onto one elbow as he ran his free hand through a head of hair as thick— and unruly— at fifty as it had been at thirty. "If you’ve already sent for the sheriff and Livingston EMTs, why do you need me? What’d the judge do—choke on some of that self- righteousness she dishes out all the time?"

"This isn’t a medical emergency, Will. It’s a crime scene. That calls for Park Service law enforcement. Right now that means you."

"Crime?"

Will was nothing if not an inveterate professional when it came to his real job— which, as law enforcement for Yellowstone National Park, meant dealing with any crimes committed within its borders. That one word sent him flying to his feet. He held the two- way with one hand while he used the other to wrestle his way back into the green wool pants he’d tossed on the floor only an hour and a half earlier. They still reeked of horse sweat.

"Just get over there, Will. They don’t want me talking about it over the two- way. This is serious."

Only one light in the four- hundred- square- foot metal trailer that housed backcountry rangers in their visits to Mammoth— the single forty- watt bulb above the front door—chased away the night’s chill as well as its blackness. Will stumbled toward it. As he passed the bed poster, he reached for the Glock hanging on it.

Slinging the holster over his shoulder, he replied, "On my way."

Excerpted from Alpha Female by April Christofferson.
Copyright © 2009 by April Christofferson.
Published in July 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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