Danger at the Border by Terri Reed
"Thank you, Randy." Biologist Dr. Tessa Cleary smiled at the young ranger sitting in the driver's seat of the Forest Service truck.
"Sure thing, Doc." He saluted her with a grin crinkling his tanned face.
Randy had picked her up from the airport in Bellingham, Washington, and driven her on the long, windy road to the ranger station at Glen Lake in the North Cascades National Forest. At least five years younger than her twenty-eight years, Randy had kept up a running dialogue on the lake and the human inhabitants who made the forest their home. He obviously knew the area well.
Tessa had been content to listen but was glad to reach her destination and escape the confines of the truck cab. The smell of tobacco coming off the young ranger had been overpowering, even with the window down. A little queasy, she climbed from the vehicle and stretched. However, the agitated churning of her tummy wasn't due to motion sickness, but from the recent reports of fish kills and the outburst of breathing problems swimmers in Glen Lake had been experiencing.
Shielding her eyes against the late-summer sun, she surveyed her surroundings and filled her lungs with the sweet scent of fresh mountain air. Tall conifers dominated the forest, but she detected many deciduous trees surrounding the sparkling shores of the reservoir lake, as well.
A hidden paradise. One to be enjoyed by those willing to venture to the middle of the Pacific Northwest.
The lake should be filled with boats and swimmers, laughing children, fishing poles and water skis.
But all was still.
The seemingly benign water was filled with something toxic harming both the wildlife and humans.
Her office had received a distressing call yesterday that dead trout had washed ashore on the lake, and recreational swimmers were presenting with respiratory distress after swimming in the lake.
As a field biologist for the USDA Forest Service's Fish and Aquatic Ecology Unit, her job was to determine what exactly that something was as quickly as possible and stop it.
She'd convinced her boss she couldn't wait for a team to be assembled. She needed to get to Glen Lake ASAP. The team would follow but not for another forty-eight hours. She'd hopped on the next available flight from Logan, Utah, to the state of Washington to assess the reports of contamination in the water.
A wet, hot tongue licked her hand. Startled, she jerked back. A large Rottweiler stared up at her.
"Ooh, aren't you a beauty?" she cooed and scratched the dog behind the ear.
"Here she is!" A booming voice full of anticipation rang out. The dog trotted away, apparently losing interest in her as she turned her attention to the ranger station.
The building, like many she'd visited around the country, had a peaked roofline to keep winter elements from accumulating, and natural wood and material painted in earthy tones to help the structure blend in with the environment.
A mixed group of civilians and uniformed personnel gathered on the wide wooden porch. She recognized the park ranger by his tan uniform. She figured the man in the dark brown uniform with the gold-star badge was the Okanagan County sheriff.
All eyes were trained on her. All except one man's.
Tall with dark hair, he stood in profile talking to the sheriff. Too many people blocked him from full view for her to see an agency logo on his forest-green uniform. Probably from EPA. She'd worked with agents from the Environmental Protection Agency on other cases, though she thought their uniforms were dark colored. Either way, she hoped this didn't turn into a power struggle.
The ranger, a lanky man in his sixties, and a woman of the same age dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt broke away from the crowd to hurry down the stairs toward her.
Tessa forced a composed smile, though inside she was anxious to get going. The longer they waited, the more damage to the lake and its inhabitants there would be, but she knew in situations like this it was best to appear confident and calm. Showing any sign of concern would create panic.
She didn't want anyone to freak out. At least, not until she knew what they were dealing with. There could be any number of reasons for the fish kills—the most common causes were oxygen depletion, algae, disease or pollution.
Only the last two could explain the swimmers' breathing issues.
The ranger approached with his hand out. "You must be Dr. Cleary. I'm Ranger George Harris, and this is my wife, Ellen. Thank you for coming so quickly."
"I got here as soon as I could," she said, shaking each of their outstretched hands.
"I did as you asked," George said. "All boating activity and swimming in the lake has ceased. The sheriff has officers stationed at the docks to make sure no one takes any watercrafts out."
"Good," she said. "It would be best for everyone to stay out of the lake until we know what's going on."
"You're going to find the cause?" An older man stalked forward, the Rottweiler at his heels. His bushy eyebrows lowered over dark eyes. "You're just a scrawny lady. What can you possibly do?" He threw his hands in the air. "We're doomed."
Not letting his words affect her took effort. This wasn't the first time she'd been dismissed before being given a chance. She'd hoped her career would be the one place where she'd be accepted for who she was. Unfortunately, that was a fight she constantly found herself battling.
But at least she had knowledge and expertise to back her up. "Sir, I assure you I know what I'm doing. I will get to the bottom of what's going on."
The old man harrumphed.
Ellen stepped forward and placed a hand on the old man's arm. "Henry, enough with the dramatics." She turned to Tessa. "As you can probably understand, folks around here are pretty upset. The resort at the southern tip of the lake has people bailing on their reservations right and left. The other small communities along the shoreline are suffering, as well."
"Without the tourist trade, my business will die. I'll have to sell." Henry's fists tightened at his sides. "Where am I going to go? Huh?"
Ellen patted his arm. "It won't come to that."
Tessa turned her attention to Ranger Harris. "Do you have any idea where the contamination is originating?"
He shook his head. "We haven't come across the source. At least not on our side of the lake. I'm not sure what's happening across the border." George ran a hand through his graying hair as his gaze strayed to the lake. "Whatever this is, it isn't coming from our side."
"Let's not go casting aspersions on our friends to the north until we know more. Okay, George?"
The deep baritone voice came from Tessa's right. She turned to find herself confronted by a set of midnight-blue eyes filled with curiosity.
She blinked at the attractive man towering over her. Answering curiosity rose within her. Who was he? And why was he here? She couldn't drag her gaze away from his face to check his uniform.
His gaze slid the length of her, burning a trail over her plaid shirt, jeans and work boots, and back to her eyes. She drew herself up to her full height, though she only managed to reach his shoulders, refusing to squirm beneath his perusal.
However, she was glad she'd corralled her wild curls with a clip and had applied some lip gloss when her plane landed.
She mentally scoffed. Not that she cared a whit what this man thought of her. Doing her job wasn't dependent on meeting his approval.
His well-formed lips curved upward slightly, sending a shiver gallivanting across her flesh. But she held his gaze, unwilling to let him think he could intimidate or embarrass her, despite the heat creeping up her neck.
George cleared his throat. "Dr. Cleary, this is Agent Steele with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection service."
Ah. That explained his presence. Finally able to tear her gaze from his, she noted his gold badge with the unmistakable bald eagle perched at the top with its wings spread as if in flight. Considering the lake crossed the international border separating the U.S. and Canada, she wasn't surprised that a Border Patrol agent had been called.
Since 9/11, the U.S. and Canadian governments had upped the amount of personnel and security measures along its shared boundary. The forestland on both sides of the line, though rugged terrain, had seen its share of attempted illegal crossings.
"Jeff," Agent Steele said, holding out his hand.
She hesitated a fraction before slipping her hand into his. "Tessa."
His big, warm palm pressed against hers like a shock pad, sending waves of sensation up her arm.
She extracted her hand quickly and curled her fingers to disperse the disturbing reaction. Basic biology at work here. Nothing more. Just because the guy looked as if he belonged on a billboard ad rather than out in the middle of a forest didn't mean she had to get all goofy about him. She wasn't in the market for a romance. The last time she'd allowed the rush of attraction to rule, she'd ended up busted to pieces when the relationship took a nosedive like the pH level in an aquarium when exposed to too much CO2.
The gleam in his eyes made her think he'd noticed her reaction to him. She resisted the urge to put her hand to her warm cheeks. No sense in confirming her initial attraction.
"I look forward to working with you."
His smooth-as-silk voice wrapped around her. It took a moment for his words to process. "Working with me?"
She couldn't imagine what he could do to help her or the work she did. He'd only be a nuisance. A distraction she didn't want.
Instead of answering, he gestured to the man beside him. "This is Sheriff Larkin."
Tessa jerked her gaze from the too-handsome Agent Steele to acknowledge the sheriff with a handshake. "Sheriff."
"We're counting on you to deal with this," the sheriff said.
"Have there been any fires in the area recently? The contamination could be chemicals used in fire-fighting that seeped into the soil or into the water."
Sheriff Larkin shook his head. "No. Not for a couple of years."
So much for that theory. "I'll need to test samples of the water and the soil along the lakeshore on both sides."
"I'll have a boat ready to take you wherever you need to go," Ranger Harris promised.
"You have the fish samples?" She'd asked that they collect as many different samples as possible from various points along the lakeshore. That way she would have a better chance of figuring out if the contamination was widespread or localized to a specific section.
"Yes. I have at least two dozen waiting for you."
Anxiety spurted through her. She was careful to keep her voice even. "Two dozen dead fish?"
"Yes, ma'am," George stated. "From up and down both sides of the lake all the way to the borderline. Each is labeled where on the lake it came from, like you'd asked."
Her stomach sank. So much for hoping the contaminant was limited and hadn't had a chance to cover too large a portion of the lake or to settle in the sediment. With that many dead trout turning up, the toxin had spread.
She looked at Agent Steele—Jeff. "You'll need to alert the Canadian authorities that the lake is contaminated."
Agent Steele exchanged a glance with the sheriff. "We've communicated to the Canadians that there is an issue with the lake water. They are taking appropriate precautions."
"Could an oil or gasoline spill cause the fish to die?" Ellen asked.
"And swimmers to get sick?" George added.
Tessa shifted her gaze to the older couple. "Has anyone reported a spill?"
George shook his head.
"I doubt a tourist would report an accident like that. Too eager to save their own bacon than protect the water," Henry shot out.
"What happens if it is a spill?" Ellen asked.
"We'd skim the spill from the surface by using a boom or skimmer device that sucks up the contaminant." Cleaning up even a small portion of the lake wouldn't be an easy task, but it would be doable.
Jeff's intense gaze held hers. "And if it's not oil or gas? How do we clean it up?"
"If the pollutant has settled into the sediment, then dredging will be necessary."
"How long will that take?" George asked.
Looking at the lake, she said, "I don't have a definitive answer."
"Your best guess?" the sheriff interjected.
"I don't make guesses," she said.
"Try," Jeff prodded.
The weight of his stare pried the words from her. "Considering the size and depth of the lake, maybe a week or two. Maybe more."
"Summer's not over yet. We still have several weeks of good weather. We can't afford to lose the tourism," Ellen said, distress ringing in her tone.
"See, I told you, we're doomed!" Henry interjected in a loud roar.
Tessa held up a hand. "I won't know what to do or what we're dealing with until I locate the toxin and assess the damage."
"What do we do first?" Jeff asked, his intense gaze drilling into her.
"We don't do anything." Tessa hoped he understood where the boundary line lay. She didn't need him getting in her way. She turned to Ranger Harris. "I need to examine the fish."