Authors: Norman Bogner
Tags: #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
In a daze she accompanied Monte to the airport.
The snow came down in blinding, torrential sheets.
The chains on the tires of the jeep made a ratcheting sound, carving through the high drifts which had accumulated on the road since that afternoon. She lighted a cigarette for Monte and passed it to him. Sudden wind gusts forced the jeep into dangerous slews. Cathy was strapped in by the seat belt, but she held on to the roll bar.
The temperature had dropped sharply to fifteen below zero, and the heater droned, fighting a losing battle with the condensation that fogged the windshield. Cathy wiped it with a sodden chamois cloth.
"Christ, it's horrible to think of her on the mountain. But where else could she be?" Cathy said.
They parked in front of the air traffic control building and made a dash from the jeep. The building shuddered from the impact of the wind through the open door. Monte's pilot was huddled in a corner of the room, sipping black coffee out of a plastic cup. He had a disgruntled look on his face.
"Is there a chance that the airport'll open up?" Monte asked.
Stan, the traffic controller, a pudgy middle-aged man who looked as though he was merely in attendance until the fishing season began, yawned and said:
"What kind of a fuckhead are you, Monte? Didn't you hear that the Japs disbanded the kamikazes? You hate Chuck or something? We'll be lucky to open the airport by tomorrow morning. There's a sixty-mile-an-hour wind from the southeast and visibility is zero. If you could take off, where would you land, in Acapulco?"
"I wanted Chuck to take the chopper up."
"Mr. Dale," Chuck protested, "we'd be blown apart. There's an ice storm at five thousand feet with slabs the size of barn walls."
"Ice sheets, Monte. Just as a matter of curiosity, where were you planning on going at twelve o'clock in a copter?"
"To the advanced slope."
"Cathy, who's been spiking his drinks?" Stan asked.
"The advanced slope of Sierra!" Chuck repeated, as though to confirm that he was in the employ of a sadistic lunatic.
"Monte, what is it with you? You been pissing and moaning that you haven't got enough snow and that the resort's going to die stillborn. Now that you've got more snow than the whole state of Colorado, you become suicidal," Stan said.
"Why up there?" Chuck asked.
"There might be a girl up there," Cathy said.
"Did you do a bed check?" Stan asked skeptically.
Chuck nodded. "Mr. Dale, even if we could get a copter up there, how'd we cover the mountain? The lights we've got aren't high-intensity. It'd be like using a flashlight."
"Monte, there's been eighteen inches of snow down here since this afternoon. Multiply that by five and you got seven and a half feet of snow at the summit. If she's up there, it doesn't matter now. She'll be buried."
The ugly reality of that possibility gnawed Cathy all night long. She sat in her living room with a bottle of brandy at her feet, staring into the log fire. She hadn't liked Janice, and the guilt she felt was oppressive. She and Janice were two opposing forces, but once there had been little difference between them. This partially explained Cathy's well-concealed animosity. Elements of the girl she had been six years ago, when she was nineteen, were reflected in Janice, and Cathy despised the vision of herself that Janice represented.
Cathy had messed around when she was younger in a series of painful affairs. Now she had little respect for men, since most of them were in search of an easy piece, mothering, or both simultaneously. Her job demanded the front of glibness, friendliness, and she fell into the role rather than expose her vulnerability. She had mastered the shades of public relations, which she understood as civilization's method of counterfeiting reality.
When at last she dragged herself to bed, she resorted to the lapsed Catholic's final appeal. She dutifully kneeled on the floor and prayed for Janice. Hypocrisy had the slender virtue of shielding a troubled conscience.
The morning had a biting frost along with a clear sunny sky. Plaques of ice hung outside Cathy's bedroom window, then dropped onto the sill. She was startled from her sleep by the voices of men outside. She got out of bed, shuddering from the drafts that came through the sloppily caulked wails.
A party of ski instructors led by Barry and Erich were carrying their equipment to the gondola shed. Monte was maneuvering a snowmobile up the slope, which had hardened overnight and now shone like glass. The rainbows flashing off the belly of the slope were hauntingly beautiful.
Cathy dresseed quickly, swallowed a cup of instant coffee, and pulled her skis out of the rack by the front door.
When she reached the gondola, Pat Garson, the town sheriff, looked quizzically at her. His connection with crime was limited to examining hunting and fishing licenses and giving offenders citations; he wrote out the occasional traffic ticket and rescued lost hunters. He somehow managed to keep in the public eye.
"You going up, Cathy?"
"I thought I would."
"Think she was lost in the storm?"
"It looks that way, doesn't it?"
He put an OUT OF ORDER sign outside the gondola and joined her inside. The car moved slowly on the cable. The wind had subsided. At the ten-thousand-foot level towering Lodgepole Pines by the side of the runs made a frieze; they seemed placed there for decoration. The rock needle above the advanced slopes with its overlay of ice and its darker sedimentary border was stark white and suggested a massive ivory horn jutting out from the mountain.
They got off at the upper slopes. Monte had set up a communications post outside the control booth at the gondola get-off point. Static cracked over the radio as he listened to Chuck reporting from the helicopter. Above them the chopper was being buffeted in the winds.
"This is Northern One. Anything, Chuck?"
"Not a thing."
"Can you drop your ceiling?'
"I'm catching crosswinds. Any lower and I'll lose stability."
"Over and out," Monte said.
Cathy spotted Ashby talking to the instructors. Wherever Garson went, reporter-publisher Ashby was sure to be around. He had endorsed the sheriffs last four election campaigns, writing editorials for him and functioning as his campaign manager. He felt there was nothing tangibly dishonest about his spirited partisan attitude, since it encompassed the boundary of friendship. Besides, he knew the townspeople seldom believed what they read about the sheriff. So Ashby would make Garson sound like Wyatt Earp when he discovered a stolen car, Sherlock Holmes if he uncovered stolen property, and on the few occasions when prostitutes wandered into the town from neighboring lumber camps he would proclaim, SHERIFF GARSON CRACKS VICE RING, thus enabling Sierra to doze peacefully under its blanket of morality and purity.
Garson opened a large metal box and handed out flare guns to the instructors grouped around Barry. Barry pointed down the icy run.
"I left her just before the intermediate slopes. She could have taken Mambo, Stump Alley, or even Rickshaw down to the lodge. Now fan out and try to keep at the same speed when you go down. If there's any sign of her, fire your flares."
The instructors began the downhill run, spread out in a wing formation.
"What do you think happened?" Ashby asked Cathy.
"I don't even want to guess."
"With all the new snow, it might be summer before we find her," Garson said.
"If she's up here," Monte interjected optimistically.
Ashby picked up Monte's binoculars admiringly: an expensive pair of Zeiss, 50 x 50 power with a 200mm zoom lens. He scanned the mountainside, then held on the summit.
"Crazy," he muttered "Must be light refraction." He handed the glasses to Cathy. "Look up to the summit."
Cathy adjusted the focus. She was startled by the series of large rainbow-colored triangular shapes which appeared to be embedded in the ice. She searched above the cliff line for a triangle which could be forming the design. Monte took the glasses from her and followed her direction, then went to the radio and instructed Chuck to drop down over the northwest base of the summit. They watched the copter circle and disappear from view over the blind side. A moment later Chuck's voice came over the radio.
"Golden shit bricks . . . tracks, dozens of them. I'm going in for a closer look."
"Can you photograph them?" Monte asked.
They waited for more details but were unprepared for the panic-stricken report.
"The tracks are smoking—they're on fire. My instruments are going bananas. Caught in turbulence. Leaving the—" His voice trailed off, breaking contact.
The helicopter came back into view, listing wildly in the crosscurrent. It hovered overhead now, its rotors churning.
"Chuck, what happened?" Monte asked over the radio.
"I don't know. My instruments went crazy and my compass stopped working. There was some kind of magnetic interference. I'm going to do a sweep over the lower slopes."
"Did you get any pictures of the tracks?"
"I sure hope so, because I'm not going back up there."
The instructors were skiing slowly, wedelning in large rhythmic turns just below the expert slope. They were growing tired, and Barry signaled to them to descend lower. He stopped at the edge of the tree-lined cross-country trail. The incline provided a better perspective on the mountain below.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a broken ski pole at the foot of a red fir. He skied over to it. There was a churning in his stomach. Beside the pole was a glove, stained a maroon-black. It had frozen. He nervously scanned the underbrush but made no move to investigate further. He felt warm and uncomfortable as his pulse rate increased. He peered up the tree in a posture reminiscent of a shy girl.
On a branch he saw something, yellow.
Bile gathered in his throat, and he moaned an indistinct "Shit." His muscles rebelled, refusing to obey him, and he struggled with the flare gun, eventually firing it. Then he sat down on a tree stump and closed his eyes.
There was a frightened silence when the men gathered in the area Barry had signailed from. They looked up at the tree, unable to comprehend the bizarre sight that confronted them. A few of them grunted and coughed nervously.
Garson unloaded a long aluminum pole from the top of the snowmobile that had been sent down to bring up the coroner. He brought the pole to the tree and shook the branches. Lodged in a nest of branches some fifteen feet above them was the yellow object, which he was able to shake loose. It thudded to the ground, and the group of men turned away. The parka sleeve was spattered with frozen flakes of blood. It was an arm.
Cathy forced herself to look.
The coroner circled the tree, then stepped out of the men's view. For a moment he couldn't bring himself to speak.
"Pat, Pat, over here." He directed the sheriff to a high clump of branches. The two men stood staring above them at the grotesque vision.
Garson struck the branches again with the pole. The tree seemed reluctant to give up its secrets. Cathy watched from behind them and felt a wild panic which transcended fear. Somehow, she was in the country of the unknown. She wanted to scream. As her eyes roved the deserted slopes, the intense loneliness of the frozen mountain enveloped her.
What they were all observing hardly seemed possible. But the horror was there, and they were held, mesmerized, by the sight.
Janice's head dropped from the tree and bounced on a shoal of ice.
The coroner stood some distance from it as though contact would infect him. Janice's face was barely recognizable. Her right eye had been torn out, livid black six-pointed stars seemed to have been branded into each cheek. The top of her skull was a dark cavern of mutilated tissue. The head had been ripped from the girl's body. Shreds of darkened nerve endings protruded from the neck cavity.
Barry moved away and leaned against a tree. His body rocked involuntarily, and tears formed in the corners of his eyes. If only he'd waited for her to get off the lift.
When the coroner could speak, he told Garson and the instructors to dig for further remains.
Cathy followed Monte and Ashby into a clearing. Ahead of them triangular tracks led through the woods, then disappeared.
Up close the tracks were enormous, almost four feet long from the base to the apex. Within the base there were immmerable deep indentations.
"Could this have been some kind of bear?" Monte asked.
Ashby looked doubtful. "When a bear walks, it steps down on the entire sole of its foot like a man. It's called plantigrade . . ."
"But we've got silvertips and grizzlies up here," Cathy said.
"What kind of a bear burns black stars into human flesh or makes tracks like this?"
"What if the tracks aren't connected to this?" Monte asked. "Couldn't this be some kind of chemical reaction from the soil erosion or the blizzard?" Ashby shook his head. "Let's assume," Monte persisted, "Janice is sitting on the outside of the lift. A sudden wind swirl hits her. She stands up or tries to get off, and she falls at great speed into the branches, which decapitate her and rip her arm off. Maybe there is a bear in the area and then he attacks her . . ."
"Anything's possible. I've seen lots of dead people when I've covered stories . . . but this is just beyond me."
Unless he had the support of other specialists and/or elaborate laboratory tests, the coroner was reluctant to offer even the simplest ideas with which to explain a cause of death. Dr. Sam Powell, after endless consultations at the Sierra General Hospital, which specialized in the instant repair of skiers broken arms and legs and overflowed with orthopedic surgeons, finally revealed the results of the post mortem he had performed on Janice Pace.
With the interested parties assembled at his hospital office, he was still afraid to commit himself in front of Ashby, the sheriff, and Monte. Monte was in attendance to gather a firsthand account for the board of directors, who would demand an explanation.
Dr. Powell began with a cautious disclaimer.