Authors: Gloria Skurzynski
A MYSTERY IN DENALI NATIONAL PARK
From Lanie to my husband, Ron,
who has given me the adventure of a lifetime.
Text copyright Â© 2003
Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson
Cover illustration copyright Â© 2008 Jeffrey Mangiat
All rights reserved.
Reproduction of the whole or any part of the contents is prohibited without written permission from the National Geographic Society, 1145 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.
Map by Carl Mehler, Director of Maps
Map research and production by Matt Chwastyk, Joseph F. Ochlak, and Martin S. Walz
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to living persons or events other than descriptions of natural phenomena is purely coincidental.
The authors are grateful to so many people at Denali National Park who helped in the creation of this book: Joe Van Horn, Wilderness Coordinator; Diane Brown, Communication Center Manager; Stacey Chadwick, Staff Assistant to Superintendent; Theresa Philbrick, Staff Assistant to Interpretation; Martha Tomeo, Education Specialist; Clare Curtis, Supervisory Park Ranger; Annalie Wright, Park Ranger Protection; Stan Steck, Park Pilot; Doug Stockdale, Public Information Officer; Tom Habecker, Park Ranger; Pat Owen, Wildlife Biologist; Amanda Austin, Biological Science Technician; Chelsie Venechuk, Cultural Resource Technician; Carmen Adamyk, Kennels Assistant; Karen Fortier, Kennels Manager; Paul Anderson, Superintendent; Diane Chung, Deputy Superintendent. A very special thanks to Beth Van Couwenberghe for her generosity in hosting us at McKinley Village Lodge.
already told you, I'll take care of it!” the man barked. He took a final drag from his cigarette and crushed it in the ashtray so hard the tip splayed like a firecracker. “It's bad when the mark is a kid. Yeah, yeah, I know it's business, but I'm telling you, this is it, just one more time. You're costing me, man. I had my own game going, and now I'll have to end it. After this job, I'm throughâyou got that? Through. Do your own dirty work.”
Slamming the phone into its cradle, he stared out the window at the setting sun. It was low in the west, and it edged the clouds with a ring of brilliant gold. So they'd found him. He'd come all the way to Alaska to get away from his old life, but the hooks ran deep. Even in the vast wilderness, he couldn't disappear, not from them. Well, after this job, he'd take his money and leave. This time he'd go to Mexico. There was a chance he could really vanish in Mexico.
The man walked to a drawer and opened it. Carefully, he pulled out a nickel-plated revolver and rubbed it on his sleeve until the light played along the barrel like a liquid bead. Then he jammed it into his belt and shrugged on his jacket. They'd told him this would be it. They said they'd never call him again. So what if it was a kid? He had a job to do.
Just one more time.
he lights of the aurora borealis flashed across the Alaskan sky in sheets of color: bright, dancing curtains of pale green and crimson that took Jack's breath away. Every few seconds the aurora shimmered with new brilliance, its hues shifting from incandescent greens to soft pinks to blues to luminous white, as though a giant kaleidoscope had been set among the stars. He stood in awe in Denali's frigid stillness. There was no way he could capture this with his simple camera, no way to reduce this magic onto photo paper. It was as if he were watching the heavens being painted by the hand of God.
“Awhooo!” Thirteen-year-old Nicky Milano, the Landons' newest temporary foster child, threw back his head and howled at the northern lights. His breath made a steady stream of frost as he danced backward on his left leg, his right boot pumping the air furiously when he hopped along the pristine snow. “I'm seeing it, I'm feeling it, I'm loving it, I'm digging it,” he cried while somehow managing to shift his backside beneath his parka. “Oh yeah. Yip, yip, yip, awhoooo!”
Ashley, Jack's 11-year-old sister, doubled over with laughter, but Jack could only shake his head in disbelief. His parents stood less than 20 feet away, too engrossed in setting up a photograph to do more than give Nicky a quick nod. Steven Landon struggled with a tripod, while Olivia held her husband's expensive wide-angle camera close to her chest, careful not to drop it in the snow.
“Nicky, what the heck are you doing, anyway?” Jack demanded.
“Howling!” Nicky cried. He stopped dancing and turned to Jack, cinching his hood tight. With the hood pulled almost to the bridge of his nose and his stiff parka collar zipped up so far it skimmed the bottom of his ears, Nicky's face had been reduced to the size of a fist. Jack could no longer see Nicky's slicked-back copper hair and the real diamond stud that pierced his right ear, but he could still hear his wise-guy accent. Nicky sounded as though he should be prowling the streets of New York instead of the wilds of Denali National Park in Alaska.
“I heard that true Alaskans bay like wolves when they see the northern lights,” Nicky explained. “I'm trying to beâyou knowâauthentic. Yo, Ashley, why don't you give it a try?”
Ashley threw back her head and let loose a thin, high-pitched yowl. The jingle bells on her hat rang merrily as she tipped her head farther back, wailing at the flashing night sky. Jack had to laugh. She sounded more like a coyote.
“Do it, Jack,” Ashley begged.
Shaking his head again, Jack said, “No thanks. You guys are completely crazy.”
“Yeah?” Nicky clapped his gloved hands together to warm them. They made cracking sounds that echoed across the tundra like gunshots. “You think so?” When he smiled, his teeth flashed white in the half light. “You're right, Jack, I am crazy. And what's scary is, you don't know how crazy I can be. You have no idea what you're dealing with.”
What did that mean, Jack wondered. Problem was, he'd probably never find out, because secrets swirled around Nicky Milano. And no one, not his mother or his father or Nicky himself, was talking.
The strangeness had begun three days ago in the Landon kitchen. Jack had just finished pouring a bowl of Cheerios and Ashley had taken a huge bite of an apple-cinnamon bagel when his parents slipped into the two remaining kitchen chairs, coffee cups in hand. Sunlight caught the blond stubble sprinkled across his father's chin like grains of sand. Watching him, Jack fingered the pale hairs that had sprouted beneath his own chin, but his were soft, thread-like. Still, those hairs might just grow into something. A goatee, maybe. He took a spoonful of cereal and waited for one of his parents to speak. He could tell they had something to say.
“Kids, we need to talk. There's a new foster child we've decided to accept,” his father began. “His name is Nicky Milano, and he'll be going with us on our trip to Denali.” Steven held up his hand to silence Jack's instant stream of objections. “I know it's last minute, but this is a very special case. Ms. Lopez asked us to take him as a favor, and we can't turn her down.”
“Dad, we can't change things now!” Jack had protested. “Momâ” He'd looked to his mother for help. She'd just gotten out of the shower, and her long, black hair was already curling into soft rings that bounced as she shook her head.
“I'm afraid it's already settled,” Olivia told him.
“But what about the wolverines? The park's counting on you to help find out why they're dying!”
“Don't worry about me. I can manage my job with an extra child in tow.”
“Sweetheart, I said I can manage.”
A wildlife veterinarian, Olivia had received an emergency call from Denali National Park. A month earlier, a wolverine had been discovered dead inside the park boundaries. A week later, a second wolverine body had been found, again with no visible signs of trauma, and days later, yet another. Then, less than a week ago, two more wolverine bodies had been discovered in the same general area in the middle of Denali Wilderness. Park officials were mystified and alarmed. Wolverines were mysterious animals, so elusive they haunted the wilderness like ghosts. Most of the rangers had never even seen a wolverine in the wild. Now five had been discovered dead in less than a month! When they'd found no bullet holes, no apparent diseaseânothing to explain why the animals had diedâthey'd turned to Olivia for help, as parks often did when they had a mystery involving animals.
In addition to the phone call from the park staff asking Olivia to investigate the deaths, she'd also heard from Chaz Green, the founder of the Wolverine Rescue Program. “You're an expert,” he'd told Olivia. “We need you to solve this mystery. Please come, Dr. Landon, and help save the wolverines.”
Now Jack took a breath and said, “I know you can do your job, Mom, but you told me this was the weirdest case you'd ever been called on. This Nicky kid will just get in the way.”
Answering softly, Olivia replied, “Of course I realize it's bad timing, but the child has nowhere else to go. He used to live with his father but now his dad isâ¦” There was a beat, and then the word, “â¦gone. His mom died in an accident when Nicky was six. He has no other relatives. He's alone, Jack.”
Jack placed his feet on the chair rungs and slouched down, his hand pushing the ball of his cheek almost into his eye. Ashley kept chewing on her bagel as if having Nicky join them didn't bother her in the slightest. That was like her. His sister never seemed to mind when new people burst into their lives and flipped everything upside down, but it drove Jack crazy. Foster kids were always a gamble. Since his dad had been a foster child himself when he was young, Steven welcomed any child in need, wanting to “put something back into the system,” as he put it. Olivia often said she would love to take in kids full-time, but because of her intense schedule she would have to settle for offering temporary care. Temporary was plenty for Jack.
“Don't worry about our Denali trip, Son, it'll be just as good,” Steven said, reaching over to touch Jack's shoulder. “We still get to stay in a ranger's house near park headquarters, and we'll still get to see all kinds of cool animals. Nothing will change.”
Jack sighed loudly. “OK, I'm sure it'll all be great.” Forcing a smile, he tried to look like he meant it. It was selfish not to want to help someone in need. He just required a little time to get used to the idea. He pushed the Cheerios around his bowl until milk splashed on the tabletop and his dad told him to stop before he made a mess.
Ashley, her mouth full of bagel, asked, “So what happened to the dad?”
That was when Jack first sensed that there was something odd about Nicky's situation. For a moment, neither one of his parents said a word. Olivia picked up a spoon and began stirring her coffee, but she hadn't put any cream or sugar in it. Clink, clink, clinkâthe spoon tapped against the sides of the mug. She and Steven exchanged glances.
“What's wrong?” Ashley asked again, wide eyed. “Is his dad dead, too?”
“Nicky's father is still alive. Iâ” Olivia cleared her throat. “Well, actually, we, can't go into detail. Ms. Lopez and the Department of Social Services said it was essential to keep everything about Nicky quiet. His background isâ¦confidential.”
For a minute, Jack didn't know what to say. Were his parents refusing to tell them about a foster kid who would be sharing their lives for who knew how long? What was up with that? Jack finally let out a snort, saying, “You're kidding, right?”
“I'm afraid not.” Olivia took another sip of coffee and met his gaze head-on. Her eyes were dark and round, the same as Ashley's. Jack's were blue like his father's.
“Why can't you say anything? Is Nicky dangerous?”
“Of course not.”
“Is he a nut case?” This from Ashley.
Setting her mug down hard, Olivia said, “No! And I would appreciate it if you didn't talk like that.”
Ashley tried a different approach. “Soâ¦we're not supposed to bug him, but if he tells us about his life, then that's OK, right?”
“He can't,” Steven answered. “I mean, he won't. Look, it's a complicated situation. Nicky'll only be with us a short while, and during that time you are not to pry.” He rubbed the back of his neck while he talked, a sure sign that he was worrying about something. “Of course you can chat with him all you want, just don'tâ¦”
“â¦poke around in his past,” Olivia finished at a gallop. “Understand?”
“Yep.” Ashley nodded but added, “That's really strange, though.” Her hair hadn't been brushed yet, so it stood out from her head in dark, fuzzy corkscrews. A too-big blue terry cloth robe drooped crazily off of one shoulder, and her slippers made her feet seem even bigger than they were, like a puppy's oversize paws. She looked at Jack and wiggled her eyebrows. “Nicky Milano, man of mystery. I think our trip to Alaska is going to be very interesting.”
Jack thought about that conversation now as Nicky's eyes flashed in the spangle of the northern lights. Man of mystery was right. They'd been together for more than 24 hours, and Jack still didn't know a thing about Nicky, not really. Nicky talked, but he didn't say anything, as if his true thoughts were kept locked inside out of reach. The most he'd actually admitted about himself was that he was crazy. Well, maybe he was.
“Mom, Dad, everyoneâlook over there!” Ashley cried excitedly, pointing into the distance. “Something's moving. Way off, where it's flat. Look, Nicky, it's right there.” She leaned close to him, so that their heads touched. “See that stand of trees? Now, go to your left. It's in that open space.”
Nicky followed Ashley's finger and nodded. “Yeah, yeah, I see it. What is it?”
“I can't tell for sureâit's too dark.”
Glittering snow stretched out before them like a sheet, and in the distance Jack could see an ink-black shape that seemed the size of a half dollar. With fingers made clumsy by gloves, Jack pulled out his camera. It took him a moment to locate the figure in his viewfinder, but when he finally did and focused the zoom lens, he knew immediately what it was. The animal seemed to stagger in the snow, bending down on one knee before rising up on unsteady legs. A few steps later it stumbled again.
“It's a deer,” Jack announced.
“Caribou,” Olivia corrected.
“But it doesn't have any antlers.”
“That's because they dropped off last fall. If you were close enough, you'd see tiny little buds on the top of his head. Those buds are the beginnings of his new antlers. By June he'll have a big, branching rack. Just think of how much growth that is in three short months!”
Puzzled, Ashley asked, “But where's the rest of the herd? I thought caribou traveled together.”
“They usually do,” Olivia replied, “but it's not too uncommon for one to be traveling alone.” She placed Steven's camera to her eye, twisting the powerful zoom lens to enlarge the image. “Oh, no, I see what's wrong. He's injured. The others probably went on ahead of him. This guy couldn't keep up.”
Ashley wailed, “Can't you help him, Mom?”
“I can't, honey.” Olivia quickly explained that Denali National Park wouldn't allow her to interfere and that part of what makes national parks so special is that natural processes are allowed to happen. This means injured animals are never helped. “I'm sorry, Ashley. That's just the way nature works.”
Steven said, “Better give me back my camera, Olivia. It's time we started packing. We have to fly to Kantishna in the morning, and it's already been a long day.”
Ashley stood next to Nicky. From the way her eyebrows crunched together, Jack could tell she felt upset about the caribou. Of course Jack felt bad about it, too, but what really preoccupied him was what Nicky had said. “You don't know what you're dealing with.”
Was he joking, or giving a warning?
Jack was just placing his own camera in his case when he heard itâa thin, wailing cry that hung in the air like a single, haunting note. First low, then high, it rang across the frozen space until a second, then a third voice joined in an eerie choir. From his time in Yellowstone, Jack recognized the cry of a wolf.
“It sounds like wolves!” Olivia said, her voice filled with excitement. “That would be an amazing thing to witness on our first night in Denali.”
Jack pulled out his camera again to zoom in on the caribou. “I can't tell for sure, but I think the wolves are behind the trees. I see some movementâyeah! Here they come!”
Dark liquid shapes bolted out from the spruce trees, advancing quickly toward the injured animal. Jack counted six. They were moving in tandem, cutting in and out in a strange pattern, first three and three, then four and two. In a panic, the caribou tried to run but became encircled by the quicksilver shadows. It was both gruesome and awesome, this dance of death. The caribou made it only a few steps before a shadow cut it off. Switching directions, it stumbled and then, lightning quick, a wolf pounced, grabbing the caribou by the throat.