“I appreciate your condolences, Mr. Larson,” Sophie said, “but I’m afraid I didn’t know William Harrington well.”
“Please, call me Paul,” he replied. His demeanor turned professional again. “What was your relationship to Mr. Harrington?”
“We didn’t actually have a relationship. I work for a small newspaper, and I was going to write a story about his running a 5K.” She wondered if her explanation sounded as lame to him as it did to her. “It was a human interest story,” she added, almost as an excuse. “I met with him for a couple of hours and interviewed him, but he only talked about running. He was very proud of his accomplishments and of his physical prowess. In fact, he mentioned that he’d been chosen for some hush-hush project because he was so superior to other men. Other than that, I’m afraid I can’t give you any personal information about him. He didn’t mention any family.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll contact the Chicago police and track down the next of kin. You’ve been very helpful. Thanks.”
“Paul, Joe said he was sure a polar bear killed Harrington because there were telltale signs. What were those signs?”
Larson hesitated a second before answering. “One of the pilots here saw the polar bear. There was…there was blood, a lot of blood, and the bear was cleaning himself. They do that, you know. They’re kind of obsessive about cleaning themselves. Sometimes they’ll stop in the middle of a meal just to clean up. It’s an instinctive thing. If a polar bear’s coat gets dirty and matted, it can’t do the job nature intended and protect him from the harsh elements.
“The bear in question was dragging the sleeve of a ski jacket, and the remains, the victim’s foot and leg, weren’t that far away from him, and there was a blood trail, so you can see why we’re assuming that’s the bear that killed the man.”
“What happens to the polar bear?”
“Nothing happens to him. This is his domain, not ours. Listen, how about I give you my private phone number? If you think of anything else that might help us, or if you have any questions, call me.”
After she had written down his number, she asked, “Will you please call me when they get positive identification?”
“Sure. Hey, have you ever been to Alaska? I’ll bet there are at least a hundred human interest stories here.”
“Are you inviting me?”
“I am,” he admitted. “It will be an adventure for you,” he said. “I’d love to take you to dinner. Can’t serve you wine. No alcohol allowed here, but I could dig up a couple of candles.”
“How do you know I’m not married with six children?”
“I’m looking at you right now.”
“I’m looking at your bio. We have computers up here,” he added. “I Googled you. Unless someone airbrushed the hell out of your photo, you’re very attractive.”
“Let’s think about your invitation, Paul. I’ve just been told a polar bear ate a man, and now you’re suggesting I come up there for a candlelight dinner?”
He laughed. “That was a rare occurrence. Besides, we’ve got a whole lot more grizzlies than polar bears around here this time of year.”
“No worries then.”
“I’ll leave the invitation open. Call me, Sophie.”
She hung up the phone but didn’t move from the bed for a long while. Her mind jumped from one thought to another. Polar bears often stop in the middle of a meal to clean themselves. That’s what Larson had said. Poor William Harrington was the meal. What a horrible way to die. A bear’s snack.
Her thoughts moved back to Paul Larson. He had actually been hitting on her. Not real appropriate, she thought, given the circumstances of his phone call.
Restless, she went into the kitchen and grabbed a bag of forbidden potato chips to nibble on while she thought. They weren’t good for her; she shouldn’t eat them, but she didn’t want to throw them out because that would be wasteful. It was a sin to waste food. The key to not eating potato chips was to stop buying them, but Sophie was honest enough to admit that wasn’t going to happen. Every time she went to the grocery story she ended up with a big, fat bag of chips. Kettle-fried were her favorites. She couldn’t make herself buy the baked ones.
She leaned against the counter and munched while she pondered more important things. Why had Harrington told the staff at his apartment building that he’d gone to Europe? And what was he doing in Prudhoe Bay?
Sophie didn’t know all that much about the area, and feeling somewhat like a dumb blonde in all those jokes about dumb blondes, she put the chips away and went to her computer to look up Prudhoe Bay.
The largest oil field in North America, it was located on the coast of the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic Ocean? She shivered just thinking about how bitterly cold it could get, and though she had no plans to ever go there, she was curious to know all she could about Prudhoe Bay and any nearby towns. There had to be towns around there, right? And would those towns have accommodations for travelers? Surely they would. Not everyone who ventured that far north worked on oil rigs, did they?
Once she started reading, time quickly passed. A lot of what she already knew but had filed away in the recesses of her mind came flooding back. She now recalled the argument for and against the expansion of the pipeline. Both sides were passionate about the subject.
Reading about Prudhoe Bay led to reading about tundra and permafrost. She read well into the night, until her eyes blurred from staring at the computer screen. It was three in the morning by the time she collapsed into bed. She didn’t think she would be able to sleep, what with all the facts and figures about the number of barrels of oil pumped from the icy water and sent down the pipeline swimming around in her brain, but as soon as her head hit the pillow, she was out.
She dreamed of polar bears. She was in a blizzard surrounded by the huge white animals, and then the scene changed to the street outside her apartment and the polar bears were coming after her with cameras. Finally, one of the bears morphed into Jack MacAlister, and the FBI agent moved toward her, more ferocious than any of the bears.
A bell saved her. The phone rang at 6:45. Her boss was on the line.
“Did I wake you?”
“No, of course not.” She doubted he believed her lie since her voice sounded like a croaking frog.
“Have you gotten any more threats?”
“No, not one.”
“They’ve stopped here, too,” he said. “I still want you to stay home, though.”
“You should already be at the computer then,” he said. His tone became all business. “Have you done any work on the cell phone piece I gave you?”
“I’m going to need it as soon as you can e-mail it to me. The piece on bone density testing didn’t get done. I assigned it to Bernie, and he couldn’t get the interview with the specialist, so I’ve moved it to next week. How soon can you get your article to me?”
“How soon do you need it?”
“No later than noon tomorrow.”
She relaxed. “No problem. Noon tomorrow.”
“That’s good. Now today I need the piece on the Southside Soup Kitchen you wanted to feature. They need donations, and I need the article. Get that to me by four and I’ll put it on the front page. Have a good day, Sophie, and stay inside.”
“But Mr. Bitterman…”
He had already hung up.
Sophie threw off the covers and staggered to the bathroom. She was going to be drinking gallons of tea with caffeine in order to concentrate on work. She needed a solid eight hours of sleep to function at her maximum capacity, but she could get by on six. Functioning on four hours was a definite stretch of brain power. Anything less than that and she’d turn into a blithering idiot.
She worked all day, got a solid eight hours of rest, then plunged into the next day of work, managing to get both articles with interviews completed by Bitterman’s deadlines. By early afternoon, she was ready for a break. She should have wanted to get away from the computer screen, but not all of her questions about Prudhoe Bay had been answered. She wanted to learn all she could about the place. Maybe some piece of information might help explain why Harrington had gone there.
She pulled out her notebook and the digital recorder she’d used during her initial interview with Harrington at Cosmo’s. Listening to him talk about his twenty-four races and his endless, disgustingly graphic descriptions of each and every blister wasn’t something she was looking forward to, but it had to be done, and probably more than once. No other way to try to solve this mystery, she thought.
After she put the recorder and notebook on her bed, she sat down at her computer again. There was a town close to Prudhoe Bay called Deadhorse. Cool name, she thought. Depending on what website she went to, the population varied. The optimistic number was twenty; the pessimistic number was seven.
A couple of personal accounts repeated a popular joke about the place. Men who were being recruited to come and work there were told they’d find a na*ed woman behind every tree. No wonder Larson had flirted with her. He probably hadn’t seen a woman in ages in the treeless Arctic.
She stood and twisted her torso to stretch her muscles. She hadn’t been to the gym for almost an entire week now. Her apartment was spacious, but she felt as though it were closing in on her. She walked past the digital recorder and groaned. She didn’t want to listen to Harrington alone. Misery really did like company, she decided, and in this instance she wanted Regan and Cordie to listen along with her. She was dying to tell them about this latest development with Harrington anyway, and perhaps one of them would pick up on something she’d missed when she played back the interview.
How to get to The Hamilton without everyone going ballistic was Sophie’s real dilemma. She considered various possibilities while she showered.
Getting around Bitterman was going to be the trick. She’d given him her word she wouldn’t leave her apartment; he’d pitch a fit if he found out after the fact. But she wasn’t a child. She didn’t need his permission to go outside, even if a promise was a promise, and her boss had her best interests at heart. Sad as it was to admit, she was used to hearing threats, but Bitterman had been shaken.
She had also given her word to Alec. Maybe if she called him, he could pick her up and take her to the hotel. No, that wouldn’t work. Asking Alec to shuttle her back and forth would be an inconvenience for him. Besides, it seemed that wherever Alec went these days, his arrogant, judgmental partner tagged along.
Sophie had to think of another way.
No one could complain if a former policeman drove her. Now there was a plan! Gil could drive her to the hotel. He was most likely downstairs in the lobby right now. She knew that each time her father was in the news or threats were made, Alec asked Gil and his team to watch over her, but since neither Alec nor Gil ever mentioned it, she assumed they didn’t want her to know what they were doing, and so she had always kept silent. Yes, Gil was the solution to her problem.
She decided to set her plan in motion by starting with Bitterman.
Bitterman wasn’t in his office. Lucy, the receptionist, told Sophie he was taking a late lunch with his wife at the Pavillion, one of his favorite restaurants. It was within walking distance of the newspaper.
Sophie called him on his cell phone.
“You ordered the grilled salmon, right? You always order the salmon at the Pavillion.”
“How do you know where I am?”
“I’m a reporter…and Lucy was happy to tell me.”
“I haven’t even looked at the menu yet, but you’re right, I’ll probably order the salmon. I’m still waiting for my wife to get here. Why are you calling me? What do you want?”
“No more threats.”
“I kept my promise to stay in, but now that the threats have stopped, I’m going over to The Hamilton.”
“Now listen here. You gave me your word, and I—”
“Two FBI agents will be with me.” She was going to burn in purgatory for that lie.
“Alec and Jack?”
Don’t make me say it. “Yes, sir.”
“Okay then. I’ll let you off the hook. I expect you in the office tomorrow.”
He disconnected the call before she could say anything more. It was odd. She felt a pang of guilt over the lie she’d just told Bitterman, but she didn’t feel any guilt at all about breaking her promise to Alec. She adored him, but he was an agent of the FBI…and he didn’t sign her paycheck.
She called down to the doorman and found out Gil was in the lobby, taking his shift. When she got off the elevator, he’d have to go with her to the hotel.
Blindside him. The perfect strategy.
She grabbed her purse, dropped her notebook and keys inside, then reached for the recorder. It wouldn’t turn on or off. Needed new batteries, she decided. Triple A, which she didn’t have. The hotel would have some in the gift shop, or Regan would definitely have a supply on hand. She threw the recorder in her purse with the rest of her things and went to her closet. She reached for her favorite Dolce & Gabbana blouse and skirt. Whenever she wore them, she felt better. Clothing shouldn’t affect her mood, but come on, it was Dolce & Gabbana, and she didn’t know anyone who wouldn’t feel happier wearing the designers’ exquisite clothes.
She slipped on the skirt and then the blouse. She hadn’t yet buttoned it when the phone rang.
“Hello,” she answered hurriedly.
“Why are you home?” Regan asked. “Are you sick?”
“No,” she answered. “I’m working. Doing some research.”
“Why at home?”
“I felt like it.”
Before Sophie could tell her she was on her way over to the hotel, her friend blurted, “Have you seen it yet? I was sure you’d call once you had, but when you didn’t—”
“That answers my question. Just watch it and call me back.”
“Regan, watch what?”
“The YouTube video. Just type in Jack MacAlister’s name, and it will take you right to it.”
“I don’t like Agent MacAlister, so why would I want to watch his video?”
“Because you love my husband, and he’s also in the video. Just watch it, okay? And why don’t you like Jack? Yes, I know, he’s FBI, and I know all about your aversion but—”