The snow-covered sidewalk felt nothing like my pillow at home. Which is where we should’ve been. I was lying on my face on the frozen concrete dazed. The guy that hit me had a fist the size of a canned ham. He was a dopey bastard, probably too slow to make contact under normal conditions, but I had finished most of a bottle of Jameson back at the Wheel Bar, before my fiancé Jennifer finally convinced me to leave. The side of my face—slowly freezing—hurt more than the side that caught the roundhouse, but my pride hurt worst of all. And there was the small possibility that they had finally found me in Colorado. But probably not.
“Get out of here!” Jennifer said, shoving the big oaf, or at least trying to. She wasn’t especially tough. “It’s over.”
Another guy in work boots and a mustache closed in on her. “You’re a pretty thang,” he said.
I was having a hard time staying awake. I felt a sense of panic, I could just name it, but my vision wavered. We were a few blocks from the bar. No one else around.
“Give me some sugar, sugar,” one of them said.
I tried to turn my head more in their direction. Knives of ice roused me like I had been slapped by Jack Frost. I got a hand under me and pushed up.
“Look,” the big guy said, “he’s alive.” He moved to kick me, paused, then just shoved me with his boot.
I fell over into a pile of firewood for sale next to the sidewalk. Jennifer, the jerks, the logs came in and out of the picture, like there was a swaying light bulb overhead. I was getting sleepy again, sleepier. They would leave right? Leave Jennifer alone? I opened one eye just as the giant grabbed Jennifer’s wrist with his meaty hand.
I shouldn’t have had those last four drinks. Regrets are a bitch. I suppose I had been drinking my way through one of them. That other place.
I had it easy back in the day. I was single, no family to speak of, and a good job. The money was good, anyway. I worked as an editor for a magazine in Atlanta. Sounds cool. I was actually just a copy editor, more concerned with accuracy and style than substance. The job wasn’t that cool, but as I said, the money was. An English degree doesn’t prepare you for many careers. I spent my days on the couch or at a computer (home or cubicle), blue pen in hand or fingertips tapping out a code the masses could read. Even magazine reporters struggle with audience—too clever for their own good.
Malcolm, the copy chief, was a machine, primarily concerned with formatting our work to send up the line, but editing us when we needed it—never a pleasant experience. He was a good guy, but he had high expectations. Or rather, he had no patience for incompetence. Fortunately he was patient enough with me in the beginning while I worked through my incompetence—I was a quick study—but in hindsight, I wish he hadn’t come to trust me.
A reporter broke a story and ran it by Malcolm first. Malcolm ran it by me, hush hush. I did what needed to be done, though the content was a bit disconcerting, reminding me I preferred fiction.
When the Feds showed up at my apartment, they didn’t give me a chance to collect my thoughts, or anything else I would have taken. Malcolm had been murdered, along with the reporter—Brandenburg was his name, but I never got to know him. The story and copies of emails had been found on a flash drive attached to Malcolm’s key ring. Of course my notes were included, and many of the emails were from or to me.
Those days are a blur in the blink of an eye. I had edited/read incriminating information. My life was in danger. The bad guys had Malcolm’s computer—they took it when they took his life—and so I’d certainly be next, according to the government.
I ended up in Colorado, far from home—though maybe not much of a home in the traditional sense—no Thanksgiving gatherings. Just a bachelor pad in the city, a far cry from the mountain town where they moved me. I grew a beard and taught high school English—the other thing you could do with my degree. They somehow got me a job midyear, and created a story of my new past that any writer would be proud of.
“Just don’t talk too much,” they said.
I was used to that.
But things were different now. I had Jennifer. Sweet Jennifer. We lived together in a cabin on the side of a mountain at the edge of town. In the traditional sense, I guess it was becoming a home. Which is where, as I said, we should’ve been instead of the cold sidewalk. The big son-of-a-bitch had his hands on her, and it looked to me like the other fucker wanted the same thing. I had to save her. She had saved me.
I met Jennifer in the lunch room at the teacher’s table in the fall, my second year at the school. She was a new teacher, not quite fresh out of college, but new to teaching. Social Studies. I don’t think I had ever met a female Social Studies teacher. And definitely not one as hot as the girl asking me if the seat was taken across the table. I would’ve lied. Her long dark hair was tied back in a low ponytail. I always liked ponytails.
I was a History minor in college, and thought I’d make small talk about the Roman Empire or Ming Dynasty. But I got the rulers mixed up. I said something about Caesar being stabbed in The Forbidden City. I couldn’t think straight with her looking straight at me, as if interested in what I was saying. She even smiled a little, sympathetically maybe, as if she knew she made me nervous, like she was used to the reaction.
“Well, you know,” I said. “I mean. I know that’s in China. The city, I mean, not Rome. I mean. What is it they say?”
God bless the bell that saved me. I stood a little too quickly.
“Nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m Jennifer.”
“Me too,” I said. “I mean Ryan. And it’s nice to meet you, as well.” I didn’t run out of the cafeteria. Not quite.
As hard as it was for me to believe, she sat with me the following day. And the one after that. We became friends. She got my jokes. She liked happy hour almost as much as I did. One night drinks led to something more, and our friendship became something more. Fate or just dumb luck? They say fate is a combination of coincidence and observation. To be honest, when I looked at her it was hard to notice anything else, like she was the focal point of a photograph and everything else was blurry. I settled for lucky coincidence. I was head-over-heels, one of many clichés that came to mind when I thought of her. I proposed during Thanksgiving break. She said yes, though her reaction wasn’t what I expected. More like she acquiesced than celebrated the question. Maybe she was as surprised as I was to find herself in the middle of the mountains far from her small Mississippi hometown and uneventful life. Who knows. The important part is that she said yes. Yes! And we did celebrate.
The swaying light bulb started to dim, like someone turning the dial on my consciousness. The last thing I saw before the light went out scattered the pieces of the puzzle of my life I had put back together since arriving in Colorado. Jennifer twisted the big guy’s wrist, stepped behind him and pushed, while simultaneously tripping him into the other guy. They fell in a heap of arms, legs and grunts. The smaller guy got to his feet first. She spun. Spun, until her hiking boot made contact with his mustache and face underneath. He fell to the ground. The big guy was struggling to get up, and had made it to his knees. Jennifer bent out of my sight, then came back into view holding a piece of firewood. She swung with both arms and clobbered the poor slob. Blood spurted from his mouth or nose, and he dropped to his hands and knees. His head lolled back and forth, like a buffalo, but I didn’t think he was up for the charge. Jennifer swung again and again, beating the guy on the back of his head and neck until he lay face down on the concrete. Literally face down, nose down in his own blood.
When I woke up, we were already moving, or stumbling, through the dark. Jennifer had her arm around my waist, my arm over her shoulder. I took steps and missteps across a parking lot behind the main drag of shops. Time seemed as hard to grasp as what had happened. One second we entered the parking lot, the next we were at Jennifer’s Jeep. One second you’re engaged to a nice ordinary girl, the next she kicks two guys’ ass. I kept trying to make it right in my head, but kept coming up with wrong.
“Get in,” Jennifer said, holding the car door open, pulling and pushing me inside.
“What about those . . . guys?” I said, as I fell into the passenger seat.
“They’re not coming.”
We drove slowly through town, stopping at each traffic light. The colors blurred from red to green, and each time Jennifer shifted gears, my head rocked and my stomach rolled. The closer we got to our cabin the more certain I was I wouldn’t make it.
“Pull over!” I said, and opened the door before she came to a complete stop on the side of the road near a stand of pines with a blanket of white on the ground. I fell into the snow on my hands and knees and threw up. I caught my breath, remembered the sound the log made, thunking into the back of his head, and threw up again. I wiped my mouth with my coat sleeve.
“Let’s go,” Jennifer said, appearing next to me. She helped me stand. She helped me into the Jeep. She helped me buckle my seat belt.
We lurched forward. Our cabin wasn’t far. The turn-off and our mermaid mailbox appeared in the headlights. We bought the mailbox at a craft fair, a rare moment of spontaneity for me, but I was trying to impress Jennifer. We drove past the mailbox.
“You passed our house!” I said, looking back over my shoulder.
“They’ll go there next,” she said, downshifting as we entered Rocky Mountain National Park, passing the closed ranger station. The park surrounded our town, and we lived only a mile or so from the entrance. The elevation gain was substantial once you passed the gate.
“Who are they?”
She looked at me, then back at the curving road. “Who do you think?”
“They found me?” I asked, then realized she wouldn’t know who I was talking about—I hadn’t told her anything about the past that brought me here. What I had told her I mostly made up, or at least was far enough from the truth so that nothing could be traced back to the old me. That was the deal—I became a new person, they protected me and supplemented my income until I stood firmly on my own two feet. So I said, “What do you mean ‘I know who’?”
She slowed and stopped at a pullover, a trailhead. She pulled up the emergency break, switched off the headlights, and looked at me. The blue glow from the dashboard created shadows that made her almost unrecognizable.
“Atlanta,” she said. “I know who you are. I’ve always known, RJ.”
RJ. My whole life I had been called RJ. My first life, anyway. They let me keep my first name, Ryan, but gave me a different last name. I recognized Ryan. People who didn’t know me in the past called me Ryan—teachers the first day of school, police officers who pulled me over for speeding, my mother when she was really frustrated with me, when she was alive. And Jennifer called me Ryan. Until now.
“How do you know my name?” I asked. “What the fuck is going on, Jennifer?”
“I’ll explain, but we need to get moving. Life or death, RJ. Let’s go.” She shut off the engine, opened the door and stepped out.
I opened my door to the cold. “Stop calling me RJ,” I said.
Jennifer opened the back door, lifted the floor panel, and drug out a backpack, the kind I used for overnight hikes. I had never seen the backpack. She didn’t really like hiking. At least not for the sake of hiking, spending time in the woods. She liked the exercise more than the silence. She shouldered into the pack, crossed the road away from the trailhead and entered the woods.
“Come on!” she called.
To say I was in the middle of a surreal experience would’ve been an understatement. The moonglow that reflected off the snow was similar to the glow from the dashboard inside the warm Jeep. Wind blew through distant trees, and Jennifer’s footsteps were fading. I stuffed my hands into my coat pockets and jogged after her. I still felt like shit, but I needed some answers.
“Where are we going,” I asked when I caught up with her. “Why are we off trail?” I grabbed her by the arm and forced her to stop. “What is going on? Imagine how fucked up this seems to me. How do you know who I am? How do you know who they are? Why are we in the woods?”
“They’ll eventually find the Jeep,” she said, “and take the trail where I parked. We’ll be in Grand Lake by then. From there we can get a car and get out of Colorado.”
“Why didn’t we just drive out of town?”
“There are only two roads out of town. They’ll be watching both now that they know you’re here. Especially now that they know you know they know.”
As I said, surreal.
She took a deep breath, and sighed. She put her hands on my shoulders, looking up at me. Her eyes softened. “I know you’re going nuts. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling. I’ll answer all your questions once we stop for the night. As hard as it may be to believe, I’m here to protect you, and I know what to do. For now, we need to get you to safety. Let’s hump it out of here, cover some ground, then have a nice long talk when we make camp. Deal?”
I didn’t know who I was looking at. Did she say “hump it out of here?” She didn’t talk like that. I looked back in the direction of the Jeep. I thought about Malcolm and Brandenburg and how they’d been murdered. That reality sobered me more than the cold. I nodded. Jennifer headed off through the trees. I followed.
For how long, I couldn’t say. The bottoms of my jeans were caked with snow and wet. My socks were soaked. My feet were cold. I was cold. No gloves, no hat. I had a sour stomach and a headache. I put one foot in front of the other, again and again. I stumbled, but kept moving.
“I’m an agent,” Jennifer said, glancing back.
“I figured that,” I said. “But you said you’d marry me.”
She kept walking. We came to a clearing at about the time I accepted that our relationship wasn’t a relationship, that the government would stoop to anything to protect me in case they ever needed me. That was another part of the deal—I agreed to testify at any time, but they had never called. I assumed they never would, since so much time had passed. The bad guys were calling now.
“If we keep moving,” Jennifer said, “we’ll make Grand Lake by tomorrow night.” She paused in the middle of the clearing, opened a side pocket on her backpack and pulled out a wrist compass. She looked off at a distant peak, back at the compass, the peak again, then strapped the compass to her arm. “There’s a pass to the left of that peak,” she said, pointing west. “We’ll make the pass, then make camp. A couple of hours, I’d say.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“I’ve walked it off already. Not in the snow, though. Or at night. Before we met.” She put on the backpack and started moving again.
“You don’t like hiking,” I said, catching up with her.
“I didn’t do it for fun,” she said. “It’s not so bad, though. Good exercise. I trained in the mountains.”
We entered the woods again and began following a game trail that made the walking a little easier, although tree limbs were still a threat. I walked with my hands in front of me. It was a clear night and the moon was almost full, so I could almost see where I was going. More rocks littered the trail, and my thighs burned as the elevation increased. We were moving along the base of a mountain, up the mountain. After an hour or so I spotted our peak through a break in the trees. It was closer, but not close enough.
I loved the woods, but not particularly at that moment. I loved the cold, but not when it got into your bones. My feet were warming up or frozen numb. I couldn’t really feel them. I needed to dry my socks.
“Is there a laundromat nearby?” I asked. “I need a dryer. You got any quarters?”
She didn’t respond. She was used to my sarcasm. How about that? She knew me well enough to recognize my sarcasm, get my jokes. She slept with me.
“What do you mean,” I said, “you trained in the mountains?” Back to reality.
“Army,” she said, and kept walking.
I began to resent the back of her head, and shook mine. I couldn’t fit it together—the Army and Jennifer. Like a puzzle piece that won’t fit because it’s from a completely different puzzle. Army, Jennifer. Jennifer, Army. Nope.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She was silent. I recognized her silence.
“Bullshit,” I said. “What is it?”
She didn’t answer.
“What is it?” I asked. “You know my name. You probably know more about me than I know about you.” I knew what kind of toothpaste she liked, songs she knew the words to, that she liked Thai food Thai spicy, what she smelled like, what got her going in bed. Goddamnit.
“Elaine,” she said. Ella, actually.”
“Ella, actually,” I said.
“Ella,” she said, and stopped. She looked at the compass and nodded. She opened her backpack, pulled out a bottle of water, and handed it to me. “Drink,” she said.
I drank half the bottle, then handed it back. She capped it and returned it to the pack.
“Aren’t you going to drink any?” I asked.
“I didn’t throw up,” she said. “You need it more than I do.”
“Thanks,” I said. She wouldn’t make eye contact. I could hear a stream flowing nearby. “Are we following the stream? Does it cut through the pass?”
“Yes. An hour, tops.”
“Let’s go then,” I said.
She raised an eyebrow. “Okay.”
One foot in front of the other. It felt like more than an hour. Like I’d been walking through the snow since the agents had knocked on my door in Atlanta. I was tired. Tired down to my frozen bones. Tired of being someone else. Tired of Jennifer’s lie. Elaine’s lie. Ella, actually.
We stopped at what looked like a cave. Jennifer dropped her backpack on the ground, knelt and rummaged through it. She tossed me a flashlight.
“Have a look,” she said.
I switched it on and found that the cave only went back about five feet, the ceiling not much higher. Another light painted the wall next to my beam. Jennifer stood next to me with another flashlight.
“I’ll get some wood for a fire,” she said, and walked off.
I dropped on the ground next to her pack. I was thirsty. I found the water, among other things. Some energy bars, a couple of sleeping bags packed tight, a nine millimeter handgun. Typical hiking gear. I heard her walking back through the snow.
“Don’t shoot yourself,” Jennifer said. Her arms were filled with dead tree limbs.
“I’d shoot you first,” I said, then reconsidered. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t. I’m tired.” I placed the gun on the ground and pulled out a sleeping bag. Jennifer dropped the wood, picked up the gun and put it in her coat pocket.
“How about building us a fire?” she said.
“You do it.” I climbed into the sleeping bag and closed my eyes. I heard Jennifer—strike that—I heard Ella fussing with the tree limbs and matches. But I went to sleep before I felt any warmth.
I had woken up the day before, Saturday, in a warm bed with Jennifer next to me. When I began to stir, she got out of bed—she was a light sleeper—and turned on the coffee pot. The aroma of an Italian roast practically carried me from the bedroom to the kitchen and the coffee pot. I joined Jennifer in the rockers we placed by the wood-burning stove next to the window that looked out at a stand of aspens. She sat with her feet drawn up under her in a soft flannel robe with both hands cupping her mug, taking small sips. If bedhead was a hairstyle she’d be the model.
“Let’s go back to bed,” I said.
She blew on her coffee, smiled with her eyes, and took another sip.
The sleeping bag wasn’t as warm as our bed. My face probably would have been sore where the guy punched me, but I couldn’t tell because my whole face was numb with the cold of a winter morning in a mountain cave at high elevation. I had to take a leak, but didn’t want to climb out of my sleeping bag into the reality of my situation. Ella was already up, cursing under her breath as she tried to get a fire going.
“We can’t build a big fire,” she said. “Not during the day.”
I sat up, unzipped the bag, stood and stretched. My body was stiff from sleeping on the ground and from the forced march the night before. I walked off into the trees to relieve myself.
“Don’t get lost,” she said.
Lost, I thought.
My feet hadn’t exactly warmed during the night. I’d say they thawed, that the snow in my boots melted. What I should’ve done was help Ella get a fire going and dry my socks before heading out, but I didn’t want to help her.
“How about some breakfast,” she said when I returned, and tossed me an energy bar. I had an awful taste in my mouth, and I was hungry. We usually ate bacon and eggs on Sunday mornings. Energy bars sucked in comparison.
“How far to Grand Lake?” I asked.
“Late this afternoon,” she said.
“Forget the fire,” I said, and began rolling up my sleeping bag.
We didn’t really talk for most of the day. Just walked. My feet went from wet to cold to numb, but I did begin hitting my stride. Since arriving in Colorado I had spent a good bit of my time in the woods, hiking up mountains. “Going to church,” Malcolm had called it when he was alive. He had a cabin in the north Georgia mountains he visited on weekends.
“Don’t drink too much this weekend,” he’d say on Friday afternoon at the end of the day. “I’m going to church.”
When I first started working for the magazine I thought he was some kind of teetotaling bible beater. I later found out he drank at least as much as I did, at least during the week, and that his “church” was on top of a mountain, not some overly decorated, incense burning, kneeling standing, Amen shouting, fear of God preaching, Baptist bullshit. Or whatever fuckin’ religion! At least that’s how he put it.
The first day I arrived in Colorado, after the agents left me, keys in hand to my cabin and used Toyota truck, I drove to the liquor store. A couple of hours later I was happy to be in a rustic cabin. Quaint, even. Like I was on vacation, one that I could get used to. The next morning the charm had worn off, the bottle of whiskey was empty on the hardwood floor by the couch where I’d slept. The cap was off the bottle so it was possible I hadn’t drank it all, the wood stained with time and Jack Daniels.
That day I walked out the back door and up the mountain, for lack of any better way to alleviate my frustration. I wasn’t used to the altitude. I was hungover and not in particularly good shape, but that just added to my frustration, so I pushed harder. I realized I didn’t know anyone. Anyone. I didn’t know anyone in Colorado and wasn’t allowed to know anyone from my past. I grunted and growled through each step, climbing higher. And then it became nothing more than the climb. The pain in my legs and lungs overcame the pain in my heart. The nausea clouded my memories. One foot in front of the other. I dropped to my knees at the summit. My breathing and heart rate didn’t slow down for some time. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, held it, then let it out slow. I took another deep breath and counted the heart beats I felt in my head, eventually slowing with my breathing. I opened my eyes and looked across a valley below with a river flowing over rocks through evergreens and aspens. Rocky mountain peaks in the distance were capped with snow. A cool breeze blew through me making me feel alive in a way I had never felt before. And I realized what Malcolm meant when he said he was going to church.
It was harder to recognize the beauty of the mountains plodding through the snow behind Ella, trying to make Grand Lake by nightfall. We made the pass, the high point, and were finally descending. Not that the walking was any easier. The strain of climbing had been replaced by a more difficult terrain of rocks and limbs scattered about and hidden beneath the snow. We had tripped or slipped to the ground a few times each, but you just had to go with it, keep the momentum, back to your feet and keep going. One fall ripped a small hole in my jeans and probably my knee, but I didn’t stop to check.
To say my life had been boring in Atlanta would be untrue. Maybe more mundane than a frozen mountain, but a routine isn’t such a bad thing. Predictable. There were always variables, though. They interrupted my routine but added spice to my life. Not Thai spicy, but added flavor nonetheless. You couldn’t predict what those variables would be, only that there would be variables, mostly manageable and a refreshing change. With the exception of my colleagues being killed, of course.
I stumbled again, tripping over a buried tree root, kept going and stepped into snow up to my thigh, and fell over on my side. I rolled to my back and looked up at the trees and blue sky. Snow-white clouds drifted. And then Ella’s face appeared. She held out her hand.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said, sighed, and let her help me up.
She watched me brush off the snow.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, and started walking again, and then she fell.
I ran to her. She tried to push up, grimaced and sat down. “Son of a bitch,” she said.
“Are you alright?” I asked, and held out my hand.
“Just give me a sec,” she said, rubbing her right ankle.
I stepped back, torn between wanting to comfort Jennifer and letting Ella suck it up.
“Okay,” she eventually said. “Give me a hand.”
I pulled her up. She hopped a little on her left foot, then eased her other foot down. She hissed, began hopping again, and clutched a tree.
“Mother fucker,” she said.
I had never heard her say mother fucker. I went to her again, grabbed her arm and eased her down onto a deadfall. The crumbling tree shifted with her weight, but held.
“I can’t fucking believe this,” she said.
“I can’t believe you cuss so much,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “I need a stick,” she said. “Something to walk with. We’re not stopping.” She looked on the ground near her, and behind her.
“I’ll see what I can find,” I said. I walked off into the woods thinking of variables, scanning the ground for something she could use. I found one I thought would work and leaned on it to test its strength. I didn’t realize how tired I was until I felt the branch’s support. I sat on a rock.
“Ryan!” she called. “Have you found anything?”
“Still looking!” I called back. I closed my eyes and listened to the silence. My knee hurt where I’d scraped it. I tried to identify a part of my body that didn’t hurt but only came up with an elbow. Like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was on that boat with that girl. She was trying to kiss him but it hurt when she kissed his injuries. She asked him where it didn’t hurt and he pointed to his elbow. She kissed his elbow. He pointed to his eyebrow. She kissed his eyebrow. Then he pointed to his lips.
“Any luck?” Ella again.
I blinked away the exhaustion and grabbed the stick I’d propped against a tree.
Ella was standing when I got back. I handed her the limb.
“Give me the backpack,” I said.
She hesitated for a beat, then took it off with my help. She tested the walking stick and nodded, “Let’s make up some time.”
We didn’t make up any time. In fact, our pace became painfully slow. Literally and figuratively. Mostly literally. She fell only once, but the look on her face, her eyes clinched shut, suggested she wouldn’t be able to take much more. But she did.
At dusk a storm blew in. The temperature dropped. A whiteout is when visibility is severely reduced—according to my snowshoeing guide on the bookshelf in our cabin—and extremely dangerous when hiking in the mountains. How about if someone has a severely twisted ankle and someone else wants you dead?
The snow blocked out any sense of direction. Fortunately we had Ella’s compass. I didn’t know how long it had been since the sun set. I didn’t remember wrapping my arm around Ella’s waist, when she relented and let me help support her, practically carry her through the worst adventure of my life. I wasn’t injured but thought I might collapse at any moment. Each time I thought my legs were failing, that I couldn’t bear Ella’s weight any longer, in my delirium I thought again back to that morning over coffee with Jennifer. We had gone back to bed. Love or regret—whatever it took—kept me moving through the misery. Ella seemed to suffer more, moaning each time her bad leg held any weight, or bumped against something in the night.
The snow eventually slowed, then stopped. I would’ve stopped, but was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go on if I did. We came to a clearing, a frozen pond actually, covered with snow. The clouds were moving off to the south and I could see stars. The moon wasn’t very high so it couldn’t have been that late. And below the moon I saw a town and a grand lake.
“Look,” I said, and pointed. Ella lifted her head.
“Grand Lake,” she said.
She scanned the landscape and town. “The Almaty Inn,” she said, still scanning. “There! Those lights.” She pointed. “Just this side of town. Do you see?”
It wasn’t as late as I thought as we stumbled out of the woods into the parking lot of the bed-and-breakfast. People moving about looked . . . fresh. Tourists unloaded bags from a minivan, others smoked and chatted outside the restaurant that was attached to the inn by a covered walkway. We were something of a spectacle, but not as much as I would’ve expected. People noticed, but returned to their conversations.
Ella straightened a bit as we entered the inn, locked her jaw with resolve, but held fast to my waist. The warmth in the lobby was narcotic. The crackling fire against the far wall under a mantle under a mounted elk head in front of a large leather couch draped with quilts was almost too much to take. Miles to go before I sleep, I thought, knowing we still had to get a room and walk there.
We were greeted by an older woman behind the registration desk. She was graying, but not quite all gray, and had blue eyes set deep within a tan weathered face. Her smile was warmer than the lobby.
“Goodness, dear,” she said, peeping over the counter. “Are you okay?”
Ella’s smile was convincing. “Just a sprain,” she said. “I’ll be fine, thanks. Do you have any rooms available? On the ground floor?”
They did have a room, and while it wasn’t much of a hike, we struggled nonetheless down another cold sidewalk. The card key to our room, however, didn’t work. The gods were against me. Goddamnit.
“Wait here,” I said. Ella gave me a look.
The nice lady at the desk gave me another key, apologizing, and reminded me breakfast would be served from seven to nine in the morning, and that the biscuits and gravy were the best in town. My mouth watered and my stomach growled as I walked back to our room. Ella was on her cell phone, but flipped it closed as I approached.
“You have your phone?” I asked, surprised. “Who did you call?”
“No answer,” she said. “I left a message. I didn’t call the emergency number. We’re safe for now. We’ll get some sleep and then some help tomorrow. Did you get a key?”
The room was as cozy as the lobby, cozier if there’d been a fire. Heavy pinewood furniture gave the place a rustic feel, with the exception of the flat screen TV inside a wooden armoire. Pictures of wildlife decorated the walls. A bedside lamp cast a warm glow.
“Help me take off my boots,” Ella said, “and my pants.”
“I have a headache,” I said, turning the heat up on the wall thermostat.
“Ryan, please,” she said. She eased into a chair next to a small table next to the bed.
“Not RJ?” I asked, took off my coat, and knelt down in front her, similar to the way I had when I asked her to marry me. She lifted her good foot. I untied the laces and slipped off her boot. I gently untied the laces of her other boot. “Ready?” I asked.
She took a deep breath. “Ready,” she said.
With one hand on her calf I raised her leg, and with the other I pulled off her boot. She exhaled.
“Not so bad,” she said, and leaned forward. “How’s the swelling?”
I held her foot in my hand, still warm from the exertion, a little damp. Her ankle was swollen, and her foot, but not too bad.
“Not broken,” she said. “I’ve seen worse. My pants?”
I carefully pulled off her pants. She shrugged off her coat, and unzipped her fleece.
“Let’s go to bed,” she said, pushing out of the chair, hobbling to the bed, pulling back the heavy comforter.
“You have to buy me dinner first,” I said.
“Tomorrow,” she yawned, and switched off the lamp, leaving me in the dark.
I sat where she had at the table, and took off my boots. I peeled off my socks. They were soaked. My feet ached from the cold trek, but didn’t seem frostbitten. I pushed my jeans down over my knees and kicked them onto the floor, then pulled off my sweatshirt. I groaned as I bent over and picked up my wet clothes, lumbered into the bathroom and hung them over the shower curtain to dry. I scratched my head on the way back to bed, pulled back the covers and climbed in, facing Ella though she faced away. She was asleep. I could tell by the rise and fall of the comforter, the rise and fall I had watched so many times. Rise and fall, rise and fall . . .
I woke to darkness, though a dawn light framed the curtains. My body was tired, but my mind had the clarity only fasting brings. Ella still slept. I eased out of bed and shuffled into the bathroom. My jeans and sweatshirt were dry, but my socks were still damp. I looked like hell in the mirror, but didn’t feel as bad as I looked. I thought of drawing a bath to soak in, but decided on a shower. The hot water washed away a film of dirt and regret. Or at least instilled a better resolve to survive. I turned up the heat and scrubbed down my body. My knee was scraped up, but not deep, clean and pink from the scrubbing. By the time I stepped out onto the cool tile floor, steam had filled the room. The innkeeper had given us a bathroom kit with toothbrushes, toothpaste, a disposable razor and shaving cream. I brushed my teeth twice, then drank deeply from the faucet. I wiped off the mirror and looked at a different man. I slid on my jeans. Barefoot and shirtless, I eased the door open. Ella had turned on the lamp and was sitting up, looking at me.
“My turn,” she said.
She brushed passed me, her eyes half closed. I sat on the bed and picked up the phone. I knew the emergency number to call, but I wasn’t quite ready for that. I dialed the front desk instead. I recognized the voice from the night before.
“Good morning,” she said. “How’s that little girl?”
“She’s okay,” I said. “Her ankle’s pretty sore, though. Any chance we could get some of those biscuits and gravy sent to the room?”
“Of course, dear. I’ll send extra. Folks always want seconds.”
“Have you got an Ace Bandage by any chance?”
“I’ll see what I can scare up?”
I hung up. Then picked up the phone again. Then hung up again. I opened the curtains and looked out at the mountains we had survived. They were beautiful. I’d lived in the mountains for more than a year, but still was surprised by my feelings each time I looked at them. I felt strong. I was strong, stronger than I’d ever been. When I first moved to Colorado, I was soft. But after that first day up the mountain behind our cabin, I took every opportunity I could to get outside. I hiked the trails the tourists hiked at first, and then later climbed higher and higher, the more remote the better. I sought silence more than summits and found it. In the process I’d lost a lot of weight, and built muscles I’d never known. I had become someone different in many ways. I didn’t want to go back to being that other person.
Someone knocked on the door, startling me out of my reverie. Room service. I looked through the peephole to make sure, then opened the door to a tray with a covered plate, an Ace Bandage, and a pot of coffee held by a boy that couldn’t have been more than twelve. The cold wind chilled my chest as I dug into my jeans pocket for a tip, but came up empty. “Sorry, man,” I said, and shouldered the door closed.
Ella opened the door to the bathroom, wrapped in a towel. I placed the tray on the table and lifted the cover revealing a platter of biscuits and gravy that could feed four.
“Holy Jesus,” she said as she rushed over, and dug in.
I closed the curtains, and joined her. We ate quietly, or at least we didn’t speak for several minutes, chewing through moans and mouthfuls, and sips of black coffee. Our progress eventually slowed but we made it through the mountain of biscuits leaving hardly a trace behind.
I leaned back with pleasure. I could have died at that moment, content with satiation. Ella’s eyes were closed. She was beautiful.
She opened her eyes as if she sensed my distraction.
“Can I borrow your towel?” I said. “My car just hit a water buffalo.”
She laughed, either at the Fletch quote—we had watched it several times—or at the brief respite we found ourselves in amidst the actual circumstances.
“Let’s see about that ankle,” I said, and grabbed the bandage. I lifted her foot, clean and warm, but still a little swollen. I wrapped her ankle, taking my time, gently but snug enough for healing and support. I placed her foot on the floor and looked up.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“A bit,” she said. Her chest beneath the towel rose and fell. She held out her hand. “Help me stand.”
We stood slowly. She favored her good leg, then shifted her weight.
“Shit!” she said, grabbed for the chair and missed, let go of my hand and stumbled back as I reached out to stop her fall. I grabbed the towel, but she fell out of it onto the bed. I stood there, towel in hand, while she laughed, clutching her ankle.
She had always been comfortable without clothes. She seemed only amused at what had happened. I had seen her nude too many times to count, but was still surprised by my feelings each time I looked at her. She stopped laughing, probably noticing the expression on my face. I thought of turning away, but couldn’t.
The room was quiet. She held a smile in her eyes, her lips parted. She lay on her back propped up on her elbows. She looked at me the way she always had, from that first day at the teacher’s table a thousand years ago. She held out her hand to me. I took it, to help her up, but she pulled me down.
We fell into something recognizable, cooperating for each other’s pleasure, pulling off my jeans, gentle and strong, wrapped in each other’s arms and mouths. With a sense of desperation we made love immediately, the rhythm hurried. I inhaled all that she was beneath me and slowed down. Then I remembered what had been and what was, and all but stopped. Ella recognized the change. She reached up with both hands and held my face looking into me, wanting. So I forgot, and fell into Jennifer’s eyes and fell back into the rhythm I loved, and that love built until we both cried out. I collapsed and rolled to her side. She laid her head on my chest. I worked my arm underneath her and pulled her closer, and decided to embrace what had happened for the moment, as our breathing slowed.
Jimmy Kim had dinner reservations for three at eight o’clock. The five clocks above the mahogany bar were set to different world time zones, but showed he was precisely on time. Within a few seconds, anyway. The Capital Grille in Atlanta resembled in many ways those in the other larger cities around the country. The one in New York felt a bit busy, the one in Chicago stodgy, the one in Atlanta . . . just right.
He checked his watch, checked the time in Hong Kong above the bar, and approached the hostess who looked younger and prettier than his seventeen-year-old daughter. Pretty by Western standards, anyway. Blonde hair, green eyes, big tits. A Korean man’s dream. Most Koreans, anyway. Not his.
“Good evening, Mr. Kim,” she said. “I have your table ready.” They walked through the restaurant to a four-top by the window that looked out onto Peachtree Street. He was the first to arrive.
“Glenfiddich?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “And a bottle of good champagne with three glasses. You choose.”
He watched her walk away. He didn’t like champagne, but the business deal he signed earlier warranted it. Not a hip-hip-hurray celebration, but a simple toast to the money they’d make as a result. A good birthday present, too, although his colleagues didn’t know he was turning fifty-three, any more than they knew he colored the gray in his hair. Those were personal matters, not business, contrary to the lovey-dovey trend growing in American companies. He’d attended a meeting once with a representative from Goldman Sachs, a deal involving property next to the Dunwoody Ritz Carlton. The man showed up in chinos and an untucked plaid shirt. Absolutely no respect for money. Jimmy thought of walking out on the man, but respected money enough to take advantage instead.
He spotted Mr. Xu at the hostess stand, a good bit older than Jimmy. And Chinese. The hostess led him to the table at the same time a waiter delivered the champagne and Jimmy’s Scotch.
“One more coming?” the waiter asked.
“Yes,” Jimmy said, standing and bowing to Mr. Xu. “I thought we’d celebrate.” He nodded to the waiter to open the champagne.
“Certainly,” Mr. Xu said. “And where is your partner?”
Jinwoo wasn’t Jimmy’s partner in any organizational sense. They were distantly related and shared some assets, a large sum of assets in fact, though most they didn’t currently have access to. He wondered why Jinwoo was late.
“Soon,” Jimmy said. “We’ll start without him.” He lifted his glass.
They drank a toast to money and to friendship, though Jimmy knew that without the first, the latter would be nonexistent. He didn’t trust the old man. Or Chinese people in general. They’d lie to your face to save their own. But they had access to a country that had unlimited potential, particularly in the near future. Jimmy wanted in.
His phone vibrated in his pocket. Jinwoo, probably. He didn’t answer. Disrespectful.
“Would you excuse me?” he said.
He walked through the restaurant and bar and stepped outside into the cold night air. He confirmed that it was Jinwoo who called—no message—and called him back.
He answered right away. “Sorry I’m late. We might need to make a decision, move things up a bit. He’s moving.”
“Who do you think?”
When Jimmy thought of money—lots of money—he didn’t see dollar signs, he saw dollar bills, hundred dollar bills, fifties, twenties, all of them covering the floor, floating down on him in a rain of decadence. But blood comingled with his current thoughts and a furnace fire frustration for how things had turned out since that fucking reporter got involved.
“I’ll call back,” he said. “I need to get back to Mr. Xu.”
Jimmy apologized to the old bastard in English when he returned to the table. He spoke Chinese fluently, but English kept them on common ground.
“Jinwoo won’t be able to make it,” Jimmy said. “He sends his apologies, and demanded to pick up the tab.”
“That shouldn’t be too difficult,” Mr. Xu said, “with the money he made today, he’ll be able to buy anyone dinner.”
“Indeed,” Jimmy said.
“Is everything okay?”
“He caught a bug, I think.”
They finished the champagne with an appetizer of oysters on the half shell. They ordered steaks and Cabernet. Mr. Xu ordered filet mignon. Jimmy had the ribeye medium rare. He liked the fat and bone, the blood comingled with the wine. They passed on dessert, but closed the evening with a glass of tawny port. Another toast, this time to Jinwoo and the meal they ate. They stood, Jimmy bowed, they shook hands and walked toward the front of the restaurant.
“Have a nice evening,” Mr. Xu said, waving off Jimmy’s invitation to the bar. “I have an early flight to Hong Kong.”
Jimmy watched him leave the restaurant.
“Chinese men can’t hold their alcohol,” he said to the bartender. He pointed to the large glass container on the bar filled with pineapple and Stolichnaya vodka. “One of those.”
The bartender filled a martini glass and placed it in front of Jimmy on a bar napkin. His phone vibrated again. Jinwoo.
“I’m at the Magnolia,” Jinwoo said. What do you think?”
“Any new information?” Jimmy asked
“I’ll be there in twenty. Get me a room, with a girl in it. I’ll see you at the bar downstairs.”
Jimmy arrived at the Magnolia eighteen minutes after hanging up. The hotel looked like an Atlanta landmark, with that traditional Southern charm—oak trees and magnolias, a parking lot laid with bricks, off-white siding, and columns that supported the façade and entrance. But Jimmy knew better. He’d bought and sold the lot where it stood only a few years earlier. It was still charming. The bar had an old-fashioned feel to it and the British bartender prided himself on old-fashioned drinks. Jimmy had gone to university in England and liked the nostalgia.
Jinwoo was sipping a rum and Coke—always rum and Coke—when Jimmy sat in the chair next to him at the copper-plated bar. The bartender spotted Jimmy and poured him a double Glenfiddich neat.
“Cheers, Mr. Kim,” the bartender said.
“Thanks, George,” Jimmy said, and drank half.
Jinwoo stirred his drink. “So close, yet so far,” he said. “I don’t want to blow it, but I want our money. I don’t know how Brandenburg got the information or why that dumb son-of-a-bitch Barton killed him before he broke.”
“He wouldn’t budge,” Jimmy said.
“They always budge. You just have to be patient.” He stirred his drink again, then threw the straw into a garbage can behind the bar. “Malcolm didn’t know shit. I made sure Barton took his time. Your mountain man is our last hope.”
“How soon can we get him to talk?” Jimmy asked.
“A day or two,” Jinwoo said.
“I thought you said be patient.”
Jinwoo drained his drink, and motioned for another. “He’ll talk.”
“You better be sure,” Jimmy said. “That money will sit in Hong Kong forever if he doesn’t.”
“You think I don’t know that?”
“I know,” Jimmy said. He downed the rest of his Scotch. “Do it. Then clean it up.”
“What’s my room number?” Jimmy asked.
“Same as last time. Same girl too. That okay?”
“Indeed,” Jimmy said.
* * *
My arm wasn’t only asleep, tingling, but nearly dead. I pulled it from under Ella and waited for the tiny pin pricks and feeling to return. Ella stirred. We had fallen asleep, but I didn’t think for long.
I had escaped, briefly. In reality, I wasn’t sure. When I was a kid, hell, even as an adult, I read to escape. I liked the excitement. I suppose that’s a little ironic. Other than the sex, I didn’t much like what had happened in the last few days, or look forward to any future adventure. In the past, I think I longed for it. But what had happened changed that.
Early on, the witness protection program was far less interesting than what I expected. My new identity was fabricated behind the scenes. The first couple of days I spent in a Denver hotel with an armed agent in the adjoining room and lots of room service. Then a couple of unarmed agents showed up with my new identity and a lot of paperwork explaining the conditions. That’s it, other than the hour and a half drive to the cabin. They said my case was the easiest they had ever processed. I had no known living relatives, other than my father who I hadn’t spoken to in nine years. Convenient, they said. I didn’t really take it as a compliment. They checked in on me after that. Frequently at first, then less so. They gave me a cell phone. It was on my dresser at home.
Which reminded me, “You were supposed to leave your phone at home,” I said to Ella. “Wasn’t that our date rule?”
“Yeah,” she said.
I knew she felt something for me. She was a different person, sure, but I didn’t think she could do what she did without something there. I regretted and relished what had happened, relieved my sanity could have been rescued.
“Will we call today?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “They’ll want you to testify once you’re safe.”
“Testify? Against who?”
“Who would I testify against in Brandenburg’s story? Have you read it?
“Yeah,” she said, “but something’s missing.”
“You tell me,” she said, hesitated, shook her head.
“What’s to tell? Brandenburg proved Young Lee was hiding money overseas somewhere. They don’t need me.”
“I bet he did,” I said. “He’s probably sipping piña coladas on a beach.”
“Don’t you want them to find him? Brandenburg had to know where Lee was hiding the money. There’s got to be something in the story, the emails, in the notes, somewhere. They wouldn’t have tortured him otherwise.”
I sat up. “Tortured? What do you mean tortured?”
Ella sat up too. “They didn’t tell you?”
“They didn’t tell me that. Fuck! Tortured? How?” I needed some water. Malcolm.
She must have seen my expression change. “Malcolm too,” she said, and placed her hand on my leg.
I pushed it away, and the covers, and stumbled to the bathroom, feeling sick. I pulled the door shut behind me and leaned on the sink, rocking with my eyes shut tight. I had assumed they simply killed Brandenburg and Malcolm. I never let myself dwell on how. Shot, maybe.
Ella tapped on the door. “They knew something, Ryan. And whoever tortured them thinks you know something, or else they wouldn’t be after you.”
“I don’t know shit!”
“There’s something in the story we’re missing,” she said, “something you’re missing.” She tapped again. “What about the emails, the notes? You looked closer at the words than anyone else.”
I shook my head. I hadn’t thought of the story in months. I hadn’t thought of murder in months. The phone rang. I almost puked.
“Hello,” I heard Ella’s muffled voice. “Hello,” she said again.
I opened the bathroom door and stepped into the room. Ella hung up the phone, then picked it back up and dialed “0” and held the phone to her ear.
“Did someone just call our room?” she asked, and looked at me. She shook her head, and hung up. “Get dressed. Get dressed now.”