EXCERPT FROM THE WHISPER OF LEGENDS

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Nahanni, July 4

 

The river was barely a whisper as it licked past Hannah’s toes. Its surface shone like burnished bronze in the late evening sun. She drew a deep, grateful breath and looked across to the opposite shore, where black spruce rose up in jagged silhouette against the distant peaks of the Mackenzie Mountains.

So peaceful now!

Hannah pressed her palms against the rock beneath her, not quite believing it wouldn’t move. In her mind’s eye, the river continued to pitch and roll, and rocks reared up out of the foamy mist in a never-ending rush. Her head throbbed. Every muscle in her body shook with fatigue.

For three solid days they’d been battling the whitewater of the upper South Nahanni River. Stunning wilderness and thrilling rapids, Scott had promised her when he’d sold her on the trip. Sixty kilometres of class II to IV rapids. He knew she loved a good adrenaline rush, the more remote and wild the better, but this was beyond wild. This was suicidal.

It had been three long days of scouting and arguing, of trying to read the river and plan a route through the rocks and holes. Scott was getting on her nerves. He seemed distracted and hurried, as if he had somewhere to go and no time to enjoy the trip. Surrounded by incredible glacial peaks and black spruce wilderness, this was a river to be savoured. Each bend should be analyzed to plan the safest paddling course, and each eddy should be a resting spot to admire the pink wildflowers along the shore and to search the mountain ridges for sheep. They were Dall’s Sheep, he’d told her, as if the rare, reclusive creatures sat on the right side of God. Not that she believed in God, but up here, cradled by soaring peaks and sky a blue you never saw in the city, even she could hear the faint, haunting whisper of something divine.

So what was Scott’s hurry? Ever since the Twin Otter had dropped them and their gear at the Nahanni headwaters, he’d been in a mad rush to get down the river. Instead of enjoying the thrill of each successful run and eddying out at the end to relax and celebrate, he’d herded them through the shallow, boulder-strewn current of the infamous Rock Gardens at breakneck speed. For three days she had sideslipped and backferried and fought each wave that rose up before them. The constant, churning surprises of the river had exhausted and hypnotized her.

At noon on the third day, their canoe had rebelled. Hit a rock in the middle of Hollywood Rapids, flipped over, and dumped Scott and her into the racing foam. She remembered plunging into the frigid darkness, struggling to position herself as she’d been taught, facing downstream on her back with her feet up, watching for trouble.

She’d surfed down the rapids, deafened by the roar of water. A smooth, shiny rock rose up ahead. Too late she’d scooped her arms to the right. Her head glanced off the rock, helmet cracking and body jolting. Pain shot through her. She floundered to regain her position but felt herself swirling, sucked under, lungs bursting, head exploding.

Until the rushing water spat her out into an eddy and she drifted to shore.

Scott had been waiting for her, their rescued canoe in tow. He had barely waited for her to regain her breath, let alone check out her scrapes and bruises. As soon as they’d bailed out the water and secured their spray skirts, he’d urged her back down the river toward the next set of rapids. She could barely paddle. Her head ached and the world heaved.

Finally they’d arrived at the end of the run and paddled ashore to wait for Daniel and Pete. Exhausted and shivering, she’d crawled up on a flat rock in the sun.

Now Scott was glancing uneasily at the sky. Overhead it was a deep, crisp blue, but grey clouds were massing behind the mountain range to the west. “That’s the last of the rapids,” he said. “Now it’s an easy drift down to the Little Nahanni, where there’s a great place to set up camp.”

“Easy drift,” she muttered. “What’s wrong with right here?”

“There’s still lots of daylight left. And we should take advantage of this good weather.” Squatting by the canoe, he fished the GPS out of his sodden life jacket. His dark hair fell in wet curls over his eyes, and when he looked up at her he tossed it back impatiently. There was no hint of concern in his eyes, even though she knew the cut on her forehead was bleeding. Anger flashed through her. What’s with the jerk?

He must have caught her glare because he flashed his killer smile. “This thing is on the fritz. Battery or circuitry got wet in that swim. No big deal, I’ve got all the maps. We’ll stay put tomorrow to dry out our stuff and try to repair this. Maybe take a hike.”

One minute you’re breaking speed records and the next you’re planning hikes, she thought but hadn’t the strength to argue. He had that faraway look in his eyes that she’d come to know too well. Once they were on the water again, he barely spoke to her. Instead he let her steer while he scanned the mountains ahead through his binoculars. Beneath the canoe, the river hissed as it swept them along in the fast, smooth current.

He removed a topographical map from its plastic casing and spread it out in front of him. This isn’t rocket science, she thought. The river’s only going in one direction and we’ll get there eventually. Her head throbbed and her hands were blistered. What the hell use was a boyfriend if he couldn’t show a little heart every now and then?

It was past ten in the evening when they rounded yet another bend and found a creek with wide gravel beaches at its mouth. She glanced at Scott questioningly, but his binoculars were trained on the huge ragged mountains in the distance. The golden light of evening polished them copper and black.

Not waiting for him to object, she steered the canoe toward the widest part of the gravel bar. It was a perfect spot for the tents and she was damned if she was going one foot further than she had to.

Scott lowered his binoculars in surprise when the canoe ground up on the beach, but he didn’t protest. Behind them, she heard Pete and Daniel cheer as they too rounded the bend and spotted the beach. Together they pulled the boats far up on the gravel and fanned out to patrol the beach, looking for danger signs. Recent grizzly scat or wolf tracks.

Hannah could barely walk. The ground seemed to tilt as waves of dizziness washed over her. She took off her helmet and probed her head gingerly. Her right temple felt swollen and tight, and the light stabbed her eyes. She doused herself in more bug spray and sat down on a large log, hoping to give her body a rest. Pete and Scott seemed oblivious, but Daniel was watching her through narrowed eyes. He drifted over to join her.

“You feeling nauseous?”

She nodded, wincing at the movement. She forced a small laugh. “All that up and down in the rapids made me seasick.”

He stared into her eyes. First-year med students make the worst friends. They’re always diagnosing you with fatal illnesses.

“I’ll be all right. The helmet took most of the hit.”

“Even so, you should rest. We’ll set up camp without you.” He smiled. He reminded her of a rabbit, small and jumpy, but he had a nice smile. Gentle and even a little wistful. Why had she never noticed that before? She knew why. Because next to wild, dangerous, incredibly sexy Scott, he was as fussy and boring as a little old lady. Right now she was grateful for boring.

“I’ll call you when dinner’s ready,” he said.

Scott had disappeared into the bush, probably scouting a place for the latrine. Daniel and Pete grumbled as they set about putting up the tent and collecting driftwood by themselves. Hannah watched from her log, feeling guilty but afraid she wouldn’t be able to stand up without falling on her face. They had the fire blazing and the preparations for dinner well underway before they began to wonder where Scott was. At first it was just a low mutter between the two of them, barely audible above the hiss of the river, but finally Daniel came over to her. Worry pinched his thin face.

“We have to go look for him,”

She felt irrationally irritated. “He’s probably just gone to scout out tomorrow’s hike. You know Scott, always planning the next adventure.”

“He knows better than to go alone.”

Hannah tried to think through the throbbing in her head. Their voices were like gunshots to her ears. “Did he take his bear spray? And the banger?”

Pete strolled over. He was Scott’s friend from university, and Hannah wasn’t sure she liked him. No sense of humour and a shell even pricklier than hers. From the beginning she’d sensed that he wasn’t happy to have her on the trip.

“If anyone knows the bush, it’s Scott,” Pete said. “He’ll be back. He’s hoping we can climb that mountain tomorrow.” He pointed to the nearest mountain thrusting its bare flank out of the forest. It looked impossibly steep and high. Hannah’s stomach lurched at the thought, and Daniel shot her a worried look.

A flicker of movement partway up the slope caught her eye, but by the time she got her mini-binoculars out of her day pack, it was gone. She focused her binoculars and drew them slowly over the slope. Nothing. Had she seen something, or were her eyes playing tricks? Mesmerized by hours of dancing water?

She could swear it had been a flash of brown. A grizzly, a moose? Or a human? But before she could voice her thoughts or ask the men to take a second look, Scott burst out of the trees and crossed the gravel bar toward them at a half-run. Gone was his look of irritation and impatience. His eyes danced. He paused to give her a big hug.

“That’s going to be an awesome hike! I found a game trail through the woods and once we get on that slope, it’s an easy day’s climb to the top.” He pointed high up toward a barren peak. “We’ll be able to see all the way to the Yukon!”

She thought of her throbbing head and wobbly legs, of the mysterious brown shape halfway up the mountainside. “Did you see anything, Scott? Or hear anything?”

He swung around to stare at her. “What are you talking about?”

“While you were scouting. Other hikers?”

He hesitated. Concern flashed across his face but before he could answer, Pete broke in.

“Of course not! No one hikes that mountain. It’s not in the guidebooks. But look at it! Scott’s right. What a challenge!”

 

Ottawa, July 5

For the tenth time in ten minutes, Ottawa Police Inspector Michael Green abandoned the dreary operations report and sneaked a peek at his BlackBerry. The time was inching toward noon. What time was that in the Yukon? Nine a.m.? The start of their business day? Of course, he had no idea what time the owner of Nahanni River Adventures actually came to the office, nor even whether he had an office in the normal sense of the word. But Green figured nine a.m. was a respectable time to phone. It would sound like a reasonable request for an update, which it was, rather than a panicked call for reassurance.

Which it also was.

Hannah had told him very firmly that there were no cellphone towers or Internet signals in the Nahanni National Park Reserve. It was thirty thousand square kilometres of mountains, glaciers, canyons, and waterfalls along a wilderness river so spectacular that it had been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There was no communication, period. Cut off from the outside world. That’s the point, Dad.

The police officer in him was horrified. What if you get hurt or lost, or crash your canoe?

Once a Jewish parent, always a Jewish parent, he’d thought wryly, but he couldn’t help himself. He’d grown up on the inner-city streets of Ottawa, more at home with shadowy back alleys and roving gangs than with trees and rock. At first Hannah hadn’t even dignified that with an answer, but she finally admitted that the tour guide would have a battery-powered satellite phone strictly for emergencies.

It was almost a week now since she’d begun her odyssey. A week of silence. He toyed briefly with the idea of phoning his ex-wife. Knowing Hannah’s hysteria-prone mother, if anyone could manage to track down news on their daughter, it would be Ashley. But that would mean admitting to Ashley that he was worried, after he, anxious to stay on Hannah’s good side, had unwisely supported her claim that hurtling down a river in the middle of bear country was a perfect summer vacation.

He’d never hear the end of it.

No, the sensible thing would be to call the tour company and speak to the man in charge of things. Man to man. According to his website, the man had thirty years’ experience piloting groups down northern rivers, and he would know exactly how Hannah’s group was faring.

Ian Elliott sounded confident and reassuring over the phone, as if he fielded such calls all the time. “What’s your daughter’s name?”

“Hannah Green. Or possibly Hannah Pollock. She uses both names.” Depending on which parent she’s more mad at, he thought gloomily.

There was a long pause, and when Elliott spoke again, his voice was less confident. “Nahanni, you said?”

When Green agreed, there was another long pause. He could hear the man muttering to himself. “I’ve checked all our lists. She’s not with us. I didn’t think I recognized the name.”

“She must be. She’s been up there almost a week. Last we heard, she was catching a float plane with your outfit out of Fort Simpson.” Even that thought had been scary, but Green had resisted the urge to phone South Nahanni Airways to make sure the plane had landed safely.

“Maybe she went with another tour company. There are a couple of others who guide on the Nahanni.” He supplied names and phone numbers. “They are both excellent companies with experienced guides. I’m sure your daughter is fine,” he added in a patient tone that suggested he said those words often.

But neither company had any record of Hannah. Pollock or Green. After he made the second call, Green stared at the phone in disbelief. There had to be another explanation. Another company. Maybe a private tour out of Vancouver, where Ashley lived.

He had no choice but to phone her now. She didn’t answer until the fifth ring and her voice sounded foggy. It was eight-thirty in the morning in Vancouver. He pictured her hovering slit-eyed over her first cup of coffee, trying to summon a welcome for the new day. Wisely, Fred would have left for work before she was even up. Ashley was still a beautiful woman, but at forty, that beauty took more and more coaxing. Right now she would be a tangle of over-bleached hair and smudged mascara.

“You did what?” she asked.

He explained again about his calls to Whitehorse. This time there was a pause.

“Oh.”

“What do you mean, oh?”

“I guess she didn’t tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“Don’t get mad at me, Mike.”

“Tell me what?”

“She didn’t go with a tour.”

Green stiffened. “Who did she go with?”

“Scott and a few other friends.”

“A few friends? A few friends just packed up, flew two thousand kilometres into the north, and figured they’d go camping?”

“I thought she told you.”

“No, she didn’t tell me! She told me she was going with Nahanni River Adventures. How could you just let her go on her own?”

Her voice gathered force. “Since when could I stop her? Since when could you?”

“You could have refused to pay —”

“She’s nineteen years old, Mike. She’s been doing what she wanted since she was two!”

He took a deep breath. Shouting at Ashley would accomplish nothing; this wasn’t her fault. But he hated feeling so powerless. Hannah had been back in Vancouver with her mother for over six months now. She had intended to stay only for the Christmas holidays, but a wild New Year’s Eve party had changed all that. That’s where she had met a University of British Columbia geology graduate student with a devilish charm and a craving for adventure. For Hannah, that was a magnetic combination in a man. Ashley said that until the attraction had run its course, nothing was going to budge Hannah from Vancouver. Before Green knew it, Hannah had applied to and been accepted into UBC for the fall. It was Green’s worst fear.

Until now. He knew very little about Scott. Hannah had emailed a single photo of the two of them. Scott had the kind of rangy, effortless athleticism Green had always envied. Hannah barely reached his chest as she tilted her adoring pixie face up at him. Green had disliked him instantly.

He reined himself in. Petty jealousy had no place here. “What do you know about Scott and his friends? Do they know what they’re doing?”

“Scott spent his college summers up in northern B.C. and he’s done river trips a few times. He’s gone wilderness camping since he was a kid. His friends too.”

“That’s a far cry from —”

“I think they wanted the challenge, Mike. They didn’t want to be part of a group being led by the nose.”

“But Hannah is a city girl. Summer camp doesn’t count.”

“She’s in good hands. Scott is a good kid, and she’s no pushover herself.”

He glanced at the calendar on the desk beside him, where he had blocked off the dates of her trip. He forced himself to be calm. “Okay. She’s due back in Fort Simpson on Monday anyway. Let’s hope she calls when she gets there. The minute you hear, call me.”

“Oh,” Ashley said. Another ominous oh.

“Now what?”

“She’s not due out for more than two weeks.”

“She said the tour was ten days. I know she’s not on a tour, but that’s how long the river trip takes.”

“She …” Ashley’s voice faded. “She went up to the headwaters, Mike. They started at the top of the river.”

“But that’s —” He broke off, his fear rising again. When he’d read up on Hannah’s expedition, he’d paid scant attention to the upper parts of the river, concentrating instead on Virginia Falls and the canyons he thought she’d be travelling through. But he had a vague recollection of extreme whitewater that only expert paddlers should attempt.

“She told me …” He sank back in his chair. “Damn it, she didn’t tell me.”

Ashley grunted something dismissive, but when she spoke, her voice had mellowed. “They have a satellite phone and if they run into trouble, they’ll call for help. That’s what I keep telling myself, Mike.”

After he hung up, he pulled up the trip descriptions on the tour website and read about the upper river. He’d been born and raised in the inner city, and the wilderness was an alien world full of threat and ambush. He felt a prick of shame that Ashley was being the more sensible one. She seemed to have sensed what was beneath his anger and his outrage. Not only fear for his daughter’s safety, but also hurt. That she had lied to him.

As if he, a homicide cop of nearly fifteen years, needed to be shielded from the dangers she had chosen.