The leaves rustled on the bushes ahead. Sam took a few steps backward, expecting that a bear might emerge. She had followed Raider’s tracks from the release site in the parking lot to this dense thicket of Himalayan blackberries. She was anxious to lay eyes on her problem bear, to make sure he was adapting after being relocated to the Marmot Lake area. She hoped he was prowling for berries and digging for grubs like any self-respecting black bear should. As opposed to hightailing it back to the Hoh Rain Forest campground to ransack his favorite garbage cans.
The leaves stilled. Silence reigned. No bear. The movement might have been a raccoon, a Douglas squirrel, or even a bird. Whatever it was, she wasn’t wading through those thorns to see it. Making a mental note to remove the nonnative berry bushes, she turned to look for another route, and then her breath caught in her throat.
A hunter stood in the clearing behind her. The intruder had silently materialized from the forest in full camouflage gear, including a fatigue cap and green and gray paint on his face. On his belt was a huge knife in a sheath. In his arms he cradled what looked to her like an automatic rifle. His gaze traveled rudely down her park service uniform.
Sam forced herself to inhale, and her heart started again, beating double time now. To her amazement, her voice sounded remarkably calm as she said, “This area is now part of Olympic National Park. It’s off-limits for hunting.”
The intruder glared and shifted the rifle as if he was contemplating shooting her, and then silently turned and melted into the woods like a malevolent specter.
She heaved a sigh of relief and dried her sweaty palms on the thighs of her uniform pants. Thank God the hunter had taken her word as truth. With this contract assignment in the park service, she finally had some authority to back up her instructions, even if the situation was only temporary. Jerks tended to pay more attention to a woman wearing a government uniform.
Only after she’d taken a few steps on her way did she realize that it wasn’t hunting season anywhere, for any creature. Which made the encounter even more sinister. In her experience, illegal hunters were like snakes: if you saw one, there were probably a dozen hidden nearby. Had she plunked Raider down among them? That would be bitter irony. She could envision the headline all too easily: wildlife biologist delivers easy prey to local sportsmen.
Good thing she wasn’t working in the sound-bite world of Internet news at the moment. It was so nice to be unplugged for a few months.
“. . . so then Rocky chose Deborah because her dad has a plane.”
Plane? Sam’s brain snapped back to the fire lookout and the scene that was actually before her eyes: endless acres of black spiky Douglas firs silhouetted against a star-spangled sky. To the east, a full moon peeked over the Olympic Mountains. Soon the black spot to the north that marked Marmot Lake would shimmer like molten silver.
Sam lowered her binoculars to the window ledge, scribbled OK—Westin in the 11 p.m. slot in the logbook, and then swiveled on the high wooden stool to gaze down at the rough-planked floor where thirteen-year-old Lili Choi sat cross-legged on top of a sleeping bag. Her caramel-colored eyes were raised in Sam’s direction. She clearly expected some sort of reaction.
“Hmmm . . .” Pressing her lips together, Sam dipped her chin in what she hoped was an interested but noncommittal expression. She had completely tuned out the girl. How did Joe and Laura and all the other parents in the world follow the stories of their offspring? Their tales went on and on and on.
“I don’t think that’s fair, do you?”
Picking up on the cue, Sam leaned away from the hiss of the Coleman lamp at her elbow and said, “Not really, but . . .” But what?
“We can’t all have planes, can we?” Lili pulled at the fountain of curly black hair that sprang from an elastic band on top of her head. “And it’s not even like it’s Deborah’s plane, or like she can fly it or anything.”
Sam had the gist of it now. “Well, no, it’s not fair for . . . Robbie—”
“. . . for Rocky to like Deborah better just because her family is rich, but unfortunately, a lot of people are like that—they pick their friends for what they own, not for who they are.”
Lili frowned. “That’s exactly what Martian says.”
“Martian?” People named their kids after aliens now?
The girl laughed. “That’s what we call Mr. Martinson. He teaches earth science. He’s my favorite teacher.” She reached for another brownie from the plastic container on the floor. “Rocky doesn’t like him much, but that’s probably because Martian’s the soccer coach and Rocky’s only the assistant.”
“Sounds like Rocky’s pretty shallow.”
“Got that right,” Lili said between bites. “But he’s the most interesting guy around here. He’s got ideas, unlike most boys. Well, there is one other who’s even more interesting.” Her eyes went dreamy as she added, “He’s fine.” Lili washed down the brownie with a gulp of iced tea from the plastic cup in her hand.
Sugar and caffeine at 11 p.m. If the girl’s father was here, he’d have Sam’s head on a platter. Joe Choi, one of Olympic National Park’s law enforcement rangers, was a new friend. Still, she shouldn’t have let him coerce her into letting Lili sleep over in the fire tower. Joe feared Lili was having trouble adjusting to life in rural Washington. He begged Sam to talk to Lili “girl-to-girl,” discourage her from wearing “slutty tops and skirts shorter than shorts,” and “set her on the right track,” whatever that meant.
“Why me?” Sam asked. She’d never imagined herself as a role model to anyone, let alone an impressionable child. Lili had a perfectly good mother.
“Lili doesn’t talk to Laura or me anymore,” Joe said. “She’s taken to you. Maybe you can find out what’s in her head these days.”
Sam suspected Joe really wanted to know if his thirteen-year-old was contemplating—or God forbid, had already indulged in—sex. So far, Sam had unearthed no real hanky-panky. Midriff-baring T-shirts and microskirts were simply what Lili thought would impress the local boys, just like the henna tattoo on her left ankle—a circular leafy stamp that reminded Sam of a Tree of Life quilt.
Of course, even the idea that Lili wanted to impress the boys might be enough to send Joe up in flames. He didn’t think thirteen-year-olds should have thoughts about the opposite sex at all. But he needed to take a good hard look at his oldest child. Lili, as Sam’s grandmother would have said, had “blossomed early,” with swelling breasts, pouty lips, and almond-shaped eyes designed by nature to drive even prepubescent boys wild. Although Lili was as American as Kentucky Fried Chicken, her one-quarter Korean heritage gave her an exotic attraction that girls would envy and boys would lust after.
“What? Is there a big zit on my nose or something?” Lili scrubbed her hands across her face.
“I was just zoning out,” Sam admitted. “It’s been a long day. Let’s brush our teeth and hit the sack.”
She showed Lili how to pump water from the collapsible plastic container. They went outside onto the balcony with cups and toothbrushes in hand. The night air was cool and soft with humidity. A chorus of Pacific tree frogs hummed in the thick Douglas firs beneath them.
Lili spat a mouthful of toothpaste over the wooden railing. She watched the frothy white droplets fall to the ground a hundred feet below. “Sweet,” she said. Then she glanced at Sam from beneath her long lashes. “Can I call you Aunt Summer? Aunt Sam sounds like a transvestite.”
Sam laughed. Thirteen-year-olds knew about transvestites? “How about just calling me Sam? Or Summer? We’re both independent women.”
Lili grinned. “But only in private. Dad would have a cow.”
“Then Aunt Summer’s fine with me.”
People rarely used her given name. As a teenager, she’d started calling herself Sam to stop the high school boys from crooning “Cruel Summer” and “Summer breeze, makes me feel fine.” The oldie-moldy “Hot time, Summer in the city” kept cropping up, along with a lot of imaginative tales about “hot Summer nights.” Lili was no doubt due for a lot of innuendoes involving sniffing and plucking and pollinating.
“So, Summer,” Lili said, trying the name out with a shy smile, “for this school project, I have to write a report on two careers.” She took a deep breath and plunged on. “And I figured, since you’re a wildlife biologist and a writer, you could help me with two at once.” She hesitated uncertainly. “I mean, if you want to.”
Sam blinked at her, not knowing whether to be flattered or appalled. “Is it okay to interview the same person for two different careers?”
Lili shrugged. “Ms. Patterson didn’t say we couldn’t.”
“Wouldn’t it be good to get more than one person’s point of view?”
The girl’s face clouded. She looked down at her toes and mumbled, “You don’t have to help. It’s all right. I’ll try to find someone else.”
Oh, for heaven’s sake. “Okay. I’ll help you, Lili.”
“Yes!” Lili pumped her fisted toothbrush toward the star-spangled sky.
It was nice to be the source of someone’s excitement, even a thirteen-year-old’s. “When is this paper due?”
“August seventh?” Lili shot a quick glance at Sam as if expecting an objection. “Dad told me I had to get started in plenty of time for once.”
“It’s due in two weeks?” Sam only had three weeks to finish her environmental survey and write up her recommended management plan. Now she’d agreed to help Lili, too? Deep breath, she told herself. It was a junior high project—how hard could it be? “What’s the first step?”
“I’m s’posed to come up with questions about each career,” Lili said. “I’ll do those tomorrow.” She sighed. “I thought I’d hate summer school. But it’s sort of okay.”
There was a possible segue back to Lili’s social life. Sam jumped at it. “Are there any cool boys?”
A loud boom rocked the fire tower. Sam grabbed the railing, knocking the tube of toothpaste from the rough two-by-four.
“Aunt Summer?” Even in the dim light, Sam could see that Lili’s eyes were wide.
“It’s okay.” At least she hoped it was. She dashed inside, grabbed the binoculars, and focused them on Marmot Lake.
Like an anxious cocker spaniel, Lili followed close on her heels. “What was that?”
“I don’t have a clue.” Sam lowered the binoculars to look at Lili. Then lights flashed through the forest near the lake, and she raised the binoculars again. A set of headlights. No, two. Two vehicles. The road to the lake was now closed to the public, barricaded with a steel gate and lock. Nobody should be in there.
Should she call in the violation? The trespassers were leaving; the odds against catching them were high. The explosion was most likely local teens setting off fireworks. M-80s could sound like cannons, especially on a quiet night like this. The Quileute and Quinault reservations were still hawking firecrackers, although the Fourth of July had passed weeks ago.
A yellow light bloomed from the darkness near the lake. Then another. The brightness splashed and spread. She grabbed the radio on the desk and raised it to her lips. “Three-one-one, this is three-two-five. Come in, three-one-one.” She raised her finger from the Talk button. Nothing. She looked longingly at her cell phone on the shelf, but knew that it didn’t work in some areas of the park. She tried the radio again. “Three-one-one, this is three-two-five.”
“Three-one-one.” The voice of the night dispatcher was hoarse. “Did you say three-two-five? Cat Mountain Fire Lookout? Where’s Jeff?”
“Jeff went home. His mother’s sick. This is Sam Westin.”
“Oh, yeah. What’s up, Sam?”
“I’ve got fire at Marmot Lake.” In the distance, a dead tree caught with a sudden rush, a knife blade of orange light in the darkness. The headlights strobed through thick evergreens as they raced west toward the highway.
The dispatcher’s reply was clipped, all business now. “Copy that, three-two-five. Fire at Marmot Lake.”
“I see at least three sources. Roll everyone you can get. Send them in on”—she checked the map beneath her fingertips—“Road 5214. Over.”
“Roger that—5214. I’ll wake everyone up. Over.”
“I’m heading for the blaze now. Over.”
“You’re a temp. Stay at the lookout. Over.”
“I’m fifteen minutes away. I’m a trained firefighter; I have equipment.”
“You are? You do? But—”
Sam cut her off with a press of the Talk button. “It’ll be at least an hour before you can get anyone to the lake. Over.”
The dispatcher chose not to debate that point. “It’s against the regs. Don’t do anything stupid. Three-one-one, out.”
Sam dumped the radio on the countertop and pulled on her boots. She heard the radio call to Paul Schuler, the law enforcement ranger who patrolled the west side campgrounds at night. The rest of the calls would be made via telephone; other staff members would be asleep at home. If all went smoothly, the west side crew might reach the lake in forty-five minutes. Most of them lived in the small town of Forks, less than fifteen miles away. But in that time, a fire could consume acres of forest. With luck, she might be able to extinguish a couple of small blazes before wildfire dug its ugly claws too deeply into the forest.
Lili jammed her feet into her own hiking boots.
“No,” Sam said. “You’re staying here.”
The fountain of dark hair bounced as Lili’s chin jerked up. “You can’t leave me here! What if the fire comes this way?”
Good point. If the fire turned in this direction, she might not make it back to get Lili. Damn! “Then I’ll have to drop you—”
“Where?” Lili’s voice was shrill. “There isn’t anywhere.”
Sam stared at her, trying to think of a safe place to deposit the child. Her mind was filled with visions of flames licking through the forest, a small fire growing larger by the second. Panic growing as birds and deer and bear circled within the smoke, tree frogs frantically searching for twigs that wouldn’t scorch their skin.
“The trees are burning right now,” Lili said, as if reading her thoughts.
Sam didn’t need to be reminded: her imagination was loud with screams of terrified animals.
“I’ll do exactly what you say.” Lili made the sign of the cross over her chest.
“You bet you will.” Sam blew out the Coleman, stuffed her flashlight and first-aid kit into her daypack. Her fire-retardant suit, along with shovels and Pulaskis, were locked into a metal toolbox in the park’s oldest pickup at the bottom of the tower.
Lili worked in silence, throwing gear and water bottles into her own pack as Sam picked up the radio again. When the dispatcher finally answered, Sam informed her that Lili Choi would be riding with her to Marmot Lake. She heard a sharp intake of breath on the other end.
“No choice,” Sam said into the radio void. “Three-two-five, out.”
~ END OF SAMPLE~
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