Murder on the Iditarod Trail

Murder on the Iditarod Trail

by Sue Henry


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“Adrenaline-pumping . . . [A] polished action mystery . . . [with] dazzling Arctic sights and historical trail markers laid down by the author in smooth, uncluttered prose.”—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review

Now in Grove Press paperback for the first time, Murder on the Iditarod Trail is a gripping mystery set during Alaska’s world-famous Iditarod: a grueling eleven-hundred-mile dogsled race across hazardous Arctic terrain. It is an arduous sport, but not a deadly one. But suddenly the top Iditarod contestants are dying in bizarre ways: first a veteran musher smashes into a tree, then competitors begin turning up dead, with each murder more brutal than the last. State trooper Alex Jensen begins a homicide investigation, determined to track down the killer before more blood stains the pristine Alaskan snow. Meanwhile, Jessie Arnold, Alaska’s premier female musher, has a shot at winning for the first time. But as her position in the race improves, so do her chances of being the killer’s next target. As the mushers thread their way through the treacherous trails, Jessie and Jensen are drawn deep into the frozen heart of the perilous wild: where nature can kill as easily as a bullet and only the Arctic night can hear your final screams.

“Engrossing . . . The howling winds, the snow, the ice, the dancing away from wolves, the crazing fatigue, the welcome heat and food, are almost palpable.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Excellent . . . well-paced, well-conceived, engrossing . . . moves along like a healthy, well-trained dog team.”—Anchorage Times

“A book that will give you a feel for how the Iditarod is . . . Sue Henry has a genius for characterization, plot, and setting.”—Mystery News

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802123398
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 06/09/2015
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 246
Sales rank: 243,810
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Sue Henry’s award-winning Alaska mysteries have received the highest praise from readers and critics alike. She has lived in Alaska for almost thirty years, and brings history, Alaskan lore, and the majestic beauty of the vast landscape to her mysteries. Based in Anchorage, she is currently at work on the next book in this series.

Read an Excerpt


Date: Sunday, March 3

Race Day: Two

Place: Between Skwentna and Finger Lake checkpoints (forty-five miles)

Weather: Clear skies, light to no wind

Temperature: High 8°F, low 4°F

Time: Late afternoon

The Iditarod Trail out of Skwentna, Alaska, ran easy and level, bending its way northwest for miles through snow-covered muskeg. Without strong winds to erase them, the tracks of sled runners were still visible in the late afternoon light. The musher watched them flow beneath his sled. A day and a half into the thousand-mile sled-dog race to Nome, he was among the leaders in a field of sixty-eight participants. His sixteen dogs were eager to run, well rested from a four-hour stop in Skwentna. But, riding the runners behind his sled, George Koptak fought fatigue. An hour of poor sleep at the last checkpoint had not been enough. His body demanded more. He'd spent thirty-one hours on the trail, most of it standing up, pushing the sled or pumping behind it.

Checkpoints in a long-distance race offer little rest for competitors. Once fed, tired dogs almost immediately curl into tight tail-to-nose balls in the snow and sleep. The musher must haul water, cook another batch of dog food for a trail feeding, repack equipment, find something to eat (though his hunger often seems inconsequential compared to his need for rest), and, finally, lie down for a ragged hour's sleep.

Excitement, anticipation, and nerves left over from yesterday's start had continued to feed a certain amount of adrenaline into Koptak's system, as had the knowledge that some of the most difficult challenges in the race must soon be met and overcome.

Now the tired musher leaned forward over the handlebars of his sled, trying to find a semicomfortable way to rest on top of his sled bag. Although the trail was level, it was not smooth, and the bow caught him under the ribs, gouging with every bump. He straightened, stretched his shoulders to relieve the ache between them, pumped for a while with one foot, then the other, and talked to his dogs to keep awake.

At the site of the old, abandoned Skwentna Roadhouse, the trail plunged down onto ice and followed the frozen river for a while before climbing the opposite bank to enter the spruce and alder forest surrounding Shell Lake. Though the sun had set, light lingered on the snow. Knowing it would soon be dark, he stopped his team on the riverbank before going onto the ice.

He snacked his dogs, tossing them frozen whitefish. After munching a few handfuls of trail mix, heavy with nuts and chocolate, he drank half the hot coffee in his metal thermos, filled at the checkpoint. Locating his headlamp, he checked the batteries and fastened it in place. Twenty minutes later he was heading upriver.

For half an hour, the coffee kept him awake. Then, as he came up off the ice and into the trees, fatigue caught him again. He drifted in and out, catching a few seconds of sleep at a time, as the team snaked its way along the trail between the trees with a steady, almost hypnotic rhythm.

When he jerked awake to the dangerous reality of the narrow, winding trail, he was afraid. Dark had fallen quickly among the trees. He switched on his headlamp, losing his perspective and night vision in the process. The trail became a tunnel, closing in around him.

The dogs, stretched out for almost forty feet in front of the sled, were rarely all visible at the same time along the twists and turns of the trail. Like fireflies, strips of reflector tape on their harness winked back at him when hit by his light. Low-hanging tree limbs flashed by overhead, making him duck, though most were beyond reach. He knew the agony of having wood lash cold flesh and had seen mushers come into checkpoints with swollen, battered faces — the result of a moment's inattention.

The trail curved perilously close to trees as it swung back and forth through the forest. The sled, responding to the centrifugal pull, slid toward these as if attracted by a magnet. If he didn't quickly throw his weight to control the slide, he risked slamming into the trunks, which bristled with small limbs and sharp broken branches that could scratch and tear at face, clothing, and sled.

One brush against a tree trunk ripped a hole in the sled bag. In the next small clearing, he stopped, knowing he must repair that hole or risk having essential gear fall through and be lost. He searched through his supplies for a needle and dental floss, standard temporary repair material, and squatted beside the sled to attempt the chore.

Trees closed off most of the sky. Only the circle of light from his headlamp, focused on the needle and the tear, was real. Everything else disappeared, even the dogs, the trail. He nodded drowsily, then jerked awake, forcing himself to attention, opening his eyes wide.

After a few minutes of working without mittens his fingers grew numb with cold and he could no longer feel the large needle. He stopped and put his hands under his parka, wool shirt, and long underwear, directly on the warm flesh of his belly. Waiting for feeling to return, he leaned his head against the side of the sled bag and closed his eyes.

He threw his head back with a start, the headlamp casting a narrow arc of light over the sled and trees beyond it. His hands were warm, but more than anything he wanted to lay his face against the sled. Refusing to give in, he stood up. His back and legs had cramped slightly, and he stomped around the sled to stretch them. The dogs raised their heads waiting for his word, but he still had to complete the repair. Slowly he finished the stitching and repacked the needle with care so as not to lose it in the snow.

He did not understand why he was so exhausted and wondered vaguely if he was ill. Dulled reflexes and reactions were more common at the end of the long trail. He had always been able to adjust to the early pace, shake off sleepiness. Coffee usually helped, but this time it was not working.

Coffee. Pulling out the thermos, he drank all but a few swallows of the still warm brew, determined to wake up. Whistling up the dogs, he continued down the trail.

Within minutes his eyes were closing again. His head lolled against one shoulder, then the other. The world turned to fog. He could hardly hold on to the sled. Summoning a gigantic effort, he took the thermos from the bag on the back of the sled, uncapped it, stuffed the cap into the bag, and finished the coffee. Before he could put it away, it slipped from his hand and bounced behind him to lie forgotten in the trail.

The dogs followed an abrupt turn to the right. A large tree loomed ahead, so close to the trail that the swing dog on the left brushed her flank against it as she passed. Koptak fell forward across the drive bow, aware of nothing. As the sled, out of control, whipped into the turn, it slid solidly into the tree, mashing a stanchion and cracking the left runner. The musher, body limp, mercifully unconscious, was thrown directly against the trunk, face first.

His headlamp shattered as it hit. So did his nose and cheek. A wicked, foot- long limb projected from the side of the trunk. Cold and sharp, it entered his closed right eye and pushed through his brain until it hit the back of his skull. There it stopped. His body hung against the trunk of the spruce until his weight broke the limb and he fell slowly onto the trail.

A half-hour later, the corpse was starting to stiffen. The next driver, curious about a thermos picked up three turns back, swung into the curve. Horrified but unable to stop, he felt the lurch as his runners passed over the heap he recognized as his friend.


Date: Sunday, March 3

Race Day: Two

Place: Between Skwentna and Finger Lake checkpoints (forty-five miles)

Weather: Clear skies, light to no wind

Temperature: High 8°F, low 4°F

Time: Midevening

Forty-five-year-old Dale Schuller had not set out from Skwentna with any premonition of impending tragedy. If anything, his expectations for the rest of the Iditarod ran high. He had every reason to suppose he had as good a chance of winning as anyone in the race.

The start in Anchorage the day before had been clean for everyone, though soft snow had slowed the pace somewhat. Warm temperatures had brought enough snow so the city had not had to truck it in to Fourth Avenue. Schuller had drawn number nine in the starting lineup, and the trail to Eagle River, fifteen miles away, had still been in good shape when he hit it, not yet churned up by the feet of over a thousand sled dogs from the sixty-eight teams. He sympathized with the last forty mushers. The year before he had been number thirty-two. Now, though he had passed and been passed by mushers as they jockeyed for position, he was moving consistently and well.

In Eagle River the teams had been loaded onto trucks and transported twenty-five miles to Settler's Bay for restart. This avoided crossing the Knik and Matanuska rivers, which sometimes weren't frozen on the first Saturday in March.

After restart, the run across the Knik Flats to Rabbit Lake and Skwentna had been uneventful. It had felt good to step off the sled for a couple of hours' rest, but the ground had seemed to go on moving slightly as Schuller fed and watered his dogs and completed the necessary chores.

This was his seventh year of mushing, his third attempt at this greatest of all dog-racing challenges. His team was well seasoned, just at their peak, with over fifteen hundred training miles behind them. He had won the Knik 200 and come in third in the Kuskokwim 300, both good mid-distance races. The prize money was security. But with two local sponsors solidly behind him, money was not the problem it had been in earlier years. The huge cost of running a kennel, obtaining the best equipment, and paying entry fees would not put him in debt this year.

All of his dogs were running well and eagerly. Comet, his veteran lead dog, was behaving like the lady she was, keeping to the trail and ignoring distractions with dignity. She had a good head, was here to do a job, and knew it. Pepper, her three-year-old son, was running for the first time this year and, so far, had managed to hold his own. The sixteen other dogs were healthy and strong, the pick of his kennel.

When they pulled up off the river ice, Schuller had tensed slightly as the trees closed in around them, but he soon relaxed into the rhythm of the curves, enjoying his driving skill and the response of his team. It caught him off guard when Comet made a seemingly senseless error.

For no apparent reason she missed a sharp right turn and led the first half of his dogs off the trail to tangle themselves in the trees. Schuller thought he saw a light on the trail ahead but dismissed it in his surprise and frustration. Swearing, he stepped hard on the brake and dug in the snow hook before leaping forward to assess the situation, concerned with the danger of strangulation for a dog snarled in its harness.

The dogs yelped and struggled, trying to free themselves from branches and brush. "Whoa. Easy there. Down, Comet. Easy girl." From what he could see, they were tangled but safe and not going anywhere without help. Reaching the turn they had missed, he stopped. The light from a headlamp flashed across his face.

Bill Turner, who had left Skwentna only a few minutes ahead of him, sat in the trail. Another musher lay across his knees. There was little left of the musher's face. Blood covered the front of his parka, and a great splash of it stained the snow under the bloodstained tree trunk.

"What the hell happened?" Schuller asked, striding forward quickly and dropping to his knees in the snow beside them. Removing his headlamp, he directed its beam more closely as he stripped off his mitten and laid his fingers along the soft hollow beneath the musher's jaw. There was no pulse.

"It's George," Turner said stiffly. His pale face reflected the light, his eyes huge with shock. "He m-must have lost it on the corner and hit the tree. God, Dale. I r-ran over him."

Schuller could hear Turner's teeth click together as he tried to talk. "I can't find his team. Wh-where's his dogs?"

"You looked?"

"Yeah. But I c-couldn't let him just ... lay here in the snow. I knew you'd be along pretty close behind me, so I waited."

"Sit still. I'll be right back." Schuller rose and returned to his sled. Unzipping the sled bag, he removed his sleeping bag and a pint of brandy he carried with his personal gear.

Critical accidents were not common. No musher had ever died on the trail in a race. Bones were broken, skin lacerated, joints dislocated occasionally, and a few dogs died as a result of accident or illness, but traumatic human death was not a serious concern for racers. Their largest fear was of injury or damage to equipment that would make it impossible to continue and isolate them in the emptiness of the Alaskan winter. Food for the team and musher could run short before they could be located and a rescue accomplished. That sort of close call was possible in this sport, where blizzards could blow up in hours, last for days, and force the Iditarod's flying support into idleness.

Schuller drew a deep breath, marshaling his strength, knowing he would have to make the decisions. Turner was, justifiably, in shock. George Koptak had been a friend and mentor to the younger man; they'd both been obsessed with sleds and distance. For over two years they had raised and trained dogs together in Teller, an Eskimo village outside Nome. George had run the Iditarod many times, but this was Bill's first try and, Schuller hoped, not his last. It was like losing family for the twenty-six-year-old rookie to lose George. To be the one to find him dead in the trail had to be devastating.

Taking his sleeping bag and brandy, Schuller walked back to the bloody tree.

"Here, take a hit of this." He forced Turner's cold fingers around the bottle and raised it to his lips. The younger man choked down a swallow or two, coughed before he took a third, and handed the brandy back.

"What are we gonna do?"

Schuller looked down again at George's body. "We're gonna get him to Finger Lake, Bill. We can't leave him here." He thought of the wolves that periodically stole dog food during the race. "We'll put him on my sled in my bag, since we don't have his. But you'll have to help me get him on. Maybe we'll find his team on the way in."

He took a long pull of the brandy and shoved it into his parka pocket. Hell, I'm in shock myself, he thought.

They worked the body into Schuller's sleeping bag and lashed it to his sled. It took over twenty minutes to untangle the traces and straighten out both teams.

Before they left, Schuller tied his red bandana to the trunk of the tree as a marker. After the race, he promised himself, I'm coming back to cut down this damn tree.


Date: Monday, March 4

Race Day: Three

Place: Finger Lake checkpoint

Weather: Clear, light to no wind, snow predicted

Temperature: High 5°F, low — 3°F

Time: Early morning

State Trooper Sergeant Alex Jensen wasn't interested in hunting. The first autumn or two after he had moved to Alaska he had gone out after moose and caribou, but the allure of big game soon palled. Carrying a rifle was part of the attraction of the hunt for those who kept their guns in the rack most of the year. He wore a .357 Magnum as a part of his uniform. His off-duty choice was a Colt .45, the semi-automatic side arm he had learned to prefer as squad leader of a Marine airborne team. He qualified as an expert with both. Shooting moose held no excitement; working homicide was blood sport enough. He felt no hesitation in using firepower when appropriate, but it was identifying a killer that challenged him, patiently putting details together until an unmistakable profile emerged.

Alex walked out of Palmer, center of the Matanuska Valley farms and dairies. It was surrounded by the majestic peaks of the Chugach and Talkeetna mountains, forty miles from Anchorage, a morning's drive from Mount McKinley, and three hours from the fine fishing of the Peninsula.

He had moved there eight years before from Idaho, soon after the death of his fiancée. A month before the wedding, a shadow had appeared on an X ray. Seven months later Sally was gone, leaving him more thoughtful and less inclined to laughter.

Jensen was tall, rawboned, clean-shaven except for a reddish-blond mustache as full as regulations would allow. There was a gleam of ironical humor in his clear blue eyes. He was pleased to be out of uniform for the assignment he was beginning in the predawn glow of this Monday morning. Under his jeans and wool shirt he wore a layer of thermal underwear, over them, a heavy sweater and bibbed snow-machine pants. Insulated boots covered two pairs of wool socks, and behind him in the rear seat of the helicopter were a down parka, double mittens, and a fur hat with flaps to protect his ears. A ski mask and thick wool scarf lay in the parka pocket, in case a snow machine trip was necessary.


Excerpted from "Murder on the Iditarod Trail"
by .
Copyright © 1991 Sue Henry.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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