Under the Alaskan IceKaren Harper
New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper is a former high school and college English teacher. Winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award for her outstanding novel Dark Angel, Karen is the author of romantic suspense and historical novels, as well as a series of historical mysteries. Karen and her husband live in Columbus, Ohio, and love to travel both in the United States and abroad. Her books have been published in many foreign languages. For additional information about Karen and her novels, go to her website or visit her on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/karenharperauthor.
Praise for the novels of Karen Harper
“Will keep you on the edge of your seat.”
—Suspense Magazine on Silent Scream
“A thrilling novel of suspense! A must-read and a keeper.”
—Heather Graham, New York Times bestselling author, on Shallow Grave
“The thrilling finish takes a twist that most readers won’t see coming.”
—Publishers Weekly on Broken Bonds
“Haunting...Dark Angel is simply riveting!”
—Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author
“Compelling...intricate and fascinating.”
—Tami Hoag, #1 New York Times bestselling author, on Dark Road Home
“Harper, a master of suspense, keeps readers guessing.”
—Booklist on Fall from Pride (starred review)
“Guaranteed to bring shivers to the spine.”
—Booklist (starred review) on Down River
“Well-researched and rich in detail.”
—Publishers Weekly on Dark Angel, winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award
Also by Karen Harper
DEEP IN THE ALASKAN WOODS
Home Valley Amish
UPON A WINTER’S NIGHT
DARK CROSSINGS (featuring “The Covered Bridge”)
RETURN TO GRACE
FALL FROM PRIDE
THE HIDING PLACE
BELOW THE SURFACE
DARK ROAD HOME
Visit karenharperauthor.com for more titles.
Under the Alaskan Ice
For my brave, interesting and fun friend Mary Ann Manning.
Falls Lake, Alaska
“I’m getting really good walking in snowshoes, Mom!” Chip boasted as they plodded through the thick snow, heading toward the lake that gave the nearby town its name. His cheeks were already pink, and his freckles stood out. Their words made little white clouds. The crisp wind energized Meg, and their goggles and the massive Sitka spruce along the path muted the stark sun glare off the snow.
“You sure are walking great in those snowshoes, but you don’t have to take steps that big, honey.”
Since Chip was six, so many adventures were new to him. Meg had lost her husband, Chip’s father, Ryan, in a plane crash nearly three years ago, and she was still barely at the place she could cope. At least Chip was doing so much better accepting his father’s death. For months the boy had insisted his daddy was coming back as usual from a day of flying. At least now he didn’t insist each plane that went over was Daddy buzzing to them from heaven. In this cold, snowy season, fewer bush planes headed north, taking hunters or fishermen into the wilds, leaving them and picking them up later.
“I just didn’t want us to fall asleep after that big turkey dinner,” she explained as they trudged along, heading out from the lodge where they lived with Meg’s twin sister, Suzanne. They had greatly renovated the old place they’d inherited from their grandmother and brought it into the modern world with online advertising to attract more guests. “There’s something in turkey called tryptophan that makes people sleepy,” she explained.
“But the football games on TV wake them up, right?”
“They wake some people. Besides, even in this chilly weather, exercise is good for us. This walk will help us digest that big meal Aunt Suze and I fixed.”
Meg both loved and dreaded the holidays since they brought back memories of happier times—not that she wasn’t making a new life for herself and Chip at the Falls Lake Lodge, where she oversaw the kitchen and helped with their guests while Suze covered the business end of things. Meg had even begun to create homemade chocolate candies. She’d sold a lot of them this fall and winter to both guests at the lodge and townspeople in Falls Lake. The profits were going straight into the bank to provide for Chip’s future education—hopefully, not as a pilot. Anything but that.
“Listen, Mom! I hear something—like a plane,” the boy shouted, clomping along as fast as he could to the open-sky shore of the frozen lake. He pulled off his sun goggles and shaded his eyes, craning his neck to look up.
“It’s probably someone cutting firewood from trees,” she insisted, but she knew better. If their few and distant neighbors didn’t have their winter wood cut weeks ago, it was a bad time to do that with the burden of the snow.
From the direction of the distant, snow-capped Talkeetna Mountains, beyond the frozen pillar of the waterfall that fed the lake in warmer weather, the buzzing whine came louder. Meg knew it sounded bad—rough, as though an engine were sputtering.
Ripping off her goggles, which also snagged her knitted sock cap, she instinctively put a hand on Chip’s shoulder so he didn’t bolt, snowshoes or not. They squinted into the clear blue sky in the direction of the sporadic, choking sound.
“There,” Chip shouted, pointing his leather mitten. His voice came back as an echo across the blinding white ice. There...there...there...
She saw it too. At least the plane was clear of the mountains, unlike Ryan’s fatal flight.
“It’s going to try to
land on the lake,” she told Chip. “See, it’s a pontoon plane, and that will work. It might even have ski runners under there, given the lake is iced over.”
“But it’s all wobbly,” the boy cried, his high voice breaking. “It’s not coming in real good.”
He was right. She inhaled sharply, and the air stung clear down into her lungs. She bit her lower lip and blinked back tears so they wouldn’t fall and freeze on her cheeks. They stood together as she replayed what she knew about the day Ryan died.
In the lovely month of August, he’d picked up tourists from the Anchorage airport to drop them off for frontier salmon fishing. He’d headed back in the mist and rain when he shouldn’t have because it was Chip’s birthday, and he wanted to be with them. God forgive her, as much as she had loved Ryan, she was still angry with his decision to fly home in that weather. How she wished Chip had a father and she had a husband... These long nights were so lonely, even as busy as she kept and—
“Mom, it’s going to land too hard!”
The plane was tilting, listing—the pilot had lost control. She’d seen enough landings, been in enough Cessnas and Piper Cubs, floatplanes and even ones with ice runners, to know what was coming. She prayed that—
Even though the crash was at least thirty yards out on the ice, she grabbed Chip, threw him down and shielded him with her body as the plane slammed into the frozen lake, breaking the ice with a blast that sounded like dynamite. The loudest cracking she’d ever heard made her head hurt, a crunching nightmare.
“Mom, we got to save the pilot!” came muffled from beneath her puffy, down-filled parka.
Afraid to look, she did anyway. The unmarked small Piper Cherokee was tilted on its side, already being devoured by massive jaws of jagged ice into the belly of the lake. Its upward wing seemed to summon help as it sank. With the sun off the windows, she could not tell if more were onboard than a pilot.
“We’ve got to help!” Chip shouted as they scrambled up, trying to get to their feet with the awkward snowshoes still strapped to their boots. He was trying to take his snowshoes off, no doubt to run out on the ice.
She dove at him, pulled him back onto his knees and hugged him hard.
“We cannot go out on broken ice, Chip! It might crack more, and we’d go in. I’ll call for help, get first responders here from the town or even Anchorage.”
“They’re gonna die!”
“We cannot run out on that ice! Maybe the plane will float or snag.”
She kept one hand on her son’s wrist and dug her cell phone out of her deep pocket with the other. At least they were in range of the fairly new cell tower that had brought the outside world to Falls Lake.
With her teeth, she yanked off one thermal glove and was instantly bitten by the cold as she awkwardly punched in 9-1-1. The plane was sinking fast and, as Chip feared, going under. Terrible to be helpless like this. At least Ryan’s death had been fast, into a rocky cliff in foul weather, not this sucking, freezing death under the ice.
“What is your emergency?” The woman’s calm voice came so quietly that Meg could barely hear it over the crackling of the ice and the horrid gurgling noise.
“A small plane has just crashed through the ice on Falls Lake—the other end from the falls. Its engine sounded bad. It’s sinking, pilot still on board, don’t know about passengers. There is no direct access road but the one that goes past the lodge. This is Megan Metzler. My son and I are here but we can’t go out on the shattered ice. Send help, maybe another plane! First responders on the road will have a hard time...”
She stayed on the line with the emergency operator and then with a rep at the NTSB, the National Transportation Safety Board, in Washington, DC, so far away.
The plane sank so quickly she almost couldn’t believe it had been there. The two of them stared at the jagged hole in the ice, hugging each other, propping each other up.
“Ma’am—Mrs. Metzler.” A new voice came on the line, a man’s. “Anchorage first responders are on the way, but it could be over an hour, and we’d appreciate it if you can stay there to guide them in.”
“Yes, okay, but the hole in the ice—it stands out.”
“Good. Because we have been able to contact one of our NTSB pilots who was in the area, and he is going to land shortly on the lake.”
“Tell him to be careful!”
“Yes, yes, of course. He’s a veteran pilot and diver—”
“This time of year, a dry suit diver for cold water. He tells us his ETA is about fifteen minutes. He’s in his personal white Cessna 185 with red markings.”
“A Skywagon,” she blurted out, surprised she’d said that. “My—my husband was a pilot.”
The man read off the number that would be on the plane’s fuselage, as if she’d have to pick out the right aircraft landing on frozen Falls Lake today. A Skywagon was the plane Ryan would have loved to own, but it cost over a hundred thousand dollars, way beyond their means.
The man went on, “It is pontoon-and ski-equipped. The pilot is one of our most skilled search and recovery pilots, name of Bryce Saylor.” He spelled the name since that wasn’t quite how it sounded.
Trying to concentrate, she closed her eyes. They had put their sun goggles back on, but that did nothing to blur the horrid hole in the ice. Should she have tried to go out there, crawl on her stomach? It was not a lone swimmer going under the ice but an entire plane with no one visible, so the impact must have stunned, injured or even instantly killed the pilot and any passengers. It would have been a more merciful death if that were true.
“Bryce Saylor, I’ll remember that,” she promised, scanning the sunny, lovely and empty sky. “We’ll be here to meet him.”
But even as the man stayed on the phone, counting down the plane’s estimated time of arrival, one thing she’d been told snagged in her brain. The pilot they were awaiting was an expert not in search and rescue, but in search and recovery of equipment, of bodies. Recovery—yes, she understood that. She was still working on that in her own life.
* * *
Bryce knew the basic lay of the land and water around Falls Lake. He’d actually stayed briefly at the lodge there about eight years ago, planning on some downtime after his breakup with the woman he’d thought he’d marry. It had been run by an elderly lady and her staff; he remembered that much. He’d done some hiking and fishing. But he’d received an emergency call—much like this one—for a sightseeing bush plane that had gone down near Anchorage, and he’d checked out of the lodge about as fast as he’d checked in.
He flew now by sight, though the snow and ice below would have blinded him without his pilot’s sunglasses to reduce the glare. He saw the mountain peak with the waterfall. Right now it was a tower of ice, gleaming in the sun. The story was that the big waterfall had been dammed up by boulders for years, and a pioneer village had been built on the dry lakebed. Then, after a few decades, the boulders shifted in an earthquake, and the water burst forth over the cliff to bury the little settlement.
He couldn’t help thinking of the lives lost. Loss of life was exactly what both kept him going and haunted him. Diving to recover bodies in wreckage, especially when in icy water, was not a task for everyone—maybe even not for him at times. He’d done it in the navy and had wanted to leave it behind, so he turned instead to diving for abandoned fishing nets off the harbor at Anchorage, then helping a friend establish a kelp-and-micro-algae farm, which he’d invested in.
But he wanted to put his skills to use for good, such as when victims needed to be recovered for their loved ones, so he’d joined the NTSB. He had soon been promoted to oversee recovery efforts as an official incident commander living in the state capital of Juneau, though his official base was Anchorage. It had made his dad, a former navy pilot, proud and his grandfather, who had flown the big flying fortresses called B-17s in World War I
I, even prouder. If only they could see him now, handpicked for a covert special task force for a very powerful man above the NTSB. But his father and grandfather were both gone now, his mother too, and he missed them all. At least he still had a brother and his family, though he wanted one of his own.
He flew lower as he spotted both the hole in the lake—with no sign of a plane in it—and two people waving from the shore. He dipped a wing to let them know it was him and made a tight circle back to give himself a trajectory to land away from the place that was probably some poor pilot’s grave until he or she could be recovered. Strange to have assignments that made families both grieved and relieved to have their loved one’s body back.
He cut his speed and coasted in, keeping away from any evidence, hoping the woman and the boy his contact said awaited weren’t the ones who had lost this pilot, and especially that they had not gone out to meet the plane on Thanksgiving Day expecting a happy reunion. Whatever they had witnessed and whoever they were, he hoped he could help them and that they would be a help to him. It could be so damn lonely out here in the wilds, in the “Great Alone” of Alaska. But loneliness could occur anywhere and anytime, even on a big family holiday with people around like he’d had earlier at his brother’s house in Seattle before flying back.
As he coasted a little closer to the frozen shingle shore, he felt happy to have someone here to meet him, even strangers.
Wearing snowshoes, the woman and the boy came to meet him along the frozen shore where he nosed the plane in. He waved once, then started tossing his diving gear out onto the snow. Though time was precious, he shook their hands and told the mother and son, “Thanks for staying around. I can use some help suiting up to get out there fast.”
“Yes, anything we can do,” the woman said.
She had a melodic voice, even with those few words. Well, he always sized people up too fast. She had a pretty face too, was maybe in her midthirties like him.
“Good landing!” the boy, maybe five or six years old, said.