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Authors: Daniel Palmer

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Stolen

BOOK: Stolen
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Books by Daniel Palmer
 
DELIRIOUS
 
HELPLESS
 
STOLEN
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corp.
STOLEN
DANIEL PALMER
KENSINGTON BOOKS
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Dedicated with much love and gratitude to my mother,
Judy Palmer.
Prologue
Y
ou’ve reached twenty thousand feet above sea level. The sky is a color blue so deep, so rich, so damned infinite, it makes you want to weep. But your eyes are too frozen to form a single tear. You’ve got the best protective gear you can afford. Still, your body is chilled to the point where cold feels hot. Even though your hands are nested inside thick waterproof gloves—yes, the ones with QuickDry technology—your fingers feel like icicles. Your boots do their darndest to ward off the cold, but at this altitude you can ask for perfection and take whatever you get.
The sun taunts you. It’s so close, seemingly an arm’s reach away. You think it should melt the snow. Instead, its reflection is blinding. The wind kicks up as you inch higher, lashing your face with biting cold tendrils, just another reminder of your insignificance. You ignore the pain dulling your body, though it’s persistent and relentless. You warm yourself by celebrating each small victory—another foot forward, a good purchase on the ice. You focus all your energy on one goal: summiting. You’ve done your homework. The weather looks good. You’ve been making great time. It’s going to happen.
You think about all you’ve sacrificed to get here. The wife you left back home. You’ve been gone two months, with another week still to go. Tibet is a faraway place, but the Labuche Kang is like a planet unto itself.
People think you’re crazy. Selfish, some have said. You ignore their criticisms. Your wife understands, and that’s all that matters. You can stifle the itch to climb the same as you can will your heart to stop beating. You don’t have a death wish. No, you have a life wish. Up here, in the clouds, you feel your soul connected to God. You got a taste of that feeling when you were fifteen years old. Now, you’re twenty-five, and the passion to climb has only intensified with the years.
You see your companions below. David Clegg, a Boston police officer seven years your senior, husband and father of two. The guy hasn’t taken a vacation day in three years. That’s how long he’s been planning this trip. Behind David is Brooks Hall, a newly minted anesthesiologist from Acton, Massachusetts. Brooks is like you, a DINK, double income, no kids. You met Brooks through the New England Mountain Climbing School and went on several expeditions together. Brooks met Clegg after his wife’s appendectomy. They got to talking post-op and discovered a shared passion for the mountains. You don’t know the names of Clegg’s kids but think Hall’s wife is Amanda. Mostly what you’ve talked about is the mountain. Which route to take. How the snow is feeling. Gear. Weather patterns. Altitude adjustments. How amazing it feels to stand on top of the world.
You’re climbing up the West Ridge. To reach the summit, you’ve got to cross a cornice ridgeline. The mountain face is a mixture of bare rock, solid ice, and powder snow. The cornice is nothing but a mass of snow sent down from the ridgeline, deposited there by fierce howling winds that blow from right to left. The elegant cantilevered structures leave a drop-off where no snow can accumulate, reminding you of ocean waves sitting atop a mountain.
You test the stability of the cornice. You think it’ll hold. But just to be safe, you walk single file. You’re in the lead, with Clegg and Hall tied to you by two climbing ropes to safeguard a fall. You’ve got hundreds of feet of ridgeline to cross. Each step is more exhausting than the last. You try to focus on the moment, not the summit, but it takes effort to concentrate.
Your legs are burning now. You’re going too slowly. You know you could lose your one and only opportunity to summit. You decide to walk along the flattest part of the cornice to speed things up. If your muscles could talk, they’d thank you. The relief of a horizontal surface soon becomes addicting. Your mind tells you that it’ll hold, because that’s what you want to believe. You ignore the fact that the flattest part of the cornice is also the most dangerous.
One step . . . then another . . . and then . . .
The crack is loud, but partially concealed by rattling winds. Suddenly you remember being stranded in the middle of a frozen lake in March, the ice breaking all around you, and your father screaming, “Get back to shore!” Funny, your father’s been dead for fifteen years, but the sound evokes that memory and his voice stays trapped inside your head. You’re thinking about him when you hear an angry rumble like thunder just before the clap. You see Clegg and Hall standing still as statues. Sunglasses block their eyes, but you know they’re wide and filled with fear. The rumble grows louder by the second, followed by another crack, this one even more threatening. The cornice gives way. One second Clegg and Hall are there, and the next, both are gone.
An avalanche of cascading snow drowns out their screams. You see the breach in the ridgeline, feel a powerful tug as the ropes securing you to the other climbers start to pull. The force of the two men in free fall drops you to the ground. Instinct takes over. You go into a self-arrest position, feet aimed at the breach, to keep from sliding forward. You’re like a hooked fish being dragged toward the hole. Lying on your side, you’ve got the ice axe dug deep into the snow, but you still see the breach closing in fast. The climbing ropes skid along with an angry hiss, moving so quickly that the friction cuts a deep trench into the snow.
You’re ten feet from the massive breach in the ridgeline, still sliding. If you fall through, Clegg and Hall will drop as well. Three hundred feet down a nearly vertical cliff face. Maybe it’s willpower, but somehow you manage to stop your slide. Just your feet are dangling into the opening. You need to establish anchors before setting up a haul system. You flip onto your stomach, ready to get to work, but find the ropes are severely trenched. You hold your breath. There’s no way to establish anchors now, not with the weight of two men pulling on trenched ropes. Your head pokes out over the lip of the breach, with only a well-planted ice axe to keep you from falling.
You see Hall and Clegg.
Clegg dressed in blue, Hall in yellow, dangling like helpless marionettes above infinity. An image you’ll never forget. You try to shimmy backward, thinking you’ll use brute force to pull the men up. They’re screaming at you, begging for help. Their voices come at you as one, just like the wind. There’s too much weight. Forget about going backward. They’re pulling you down with them. Your breath catches, settling in your throat like frozen wind, because you realize at that very moment you’re all going to die. It’s a simple matter of physics: too much weight to pull against and seconds to decide what to do.
That’s when you remember the Spyderco knife, ten-inch blade, ultrasharp, clipped to your parka. You slide farther into the opening as you unfold the knife with your teeth. Clegg and Hall can see your shoulders now. They’re pleading with you not to do it. They can see the knife in your hand.
You’ve got to decide. Which rope to cut?
Whose life will you take to save your own?
Their desperate cries continue.
You begin to saw. It’s not oxygen depletion making you sick. You pretend that you can’t hear their pleas. You pretend it’s not your hand doing the cutting. You slide another several inches into the void. You have one hand on your ice axe, the other cutting with the knife.
You think about your wife and how much you love her. Your heart aches for his wife, but
It’s the only choice,
you say to yourself.
He has children. He’s got kids.
Your knife slices the rope in two.
Instantly, the pull against you is halved. You know you’re going to live. You hear the screams of a man falling. You watch as he goes from a person to a speck and vanishes into nothingness.
CHAPTER 1
L
et me tell you how it feels to learn that your wife is going to die. It’s like you’ve swallowed something bitter, something permanently stuck in your throat. In an instant, the future you’ve been planning together is gone. The sadness is all-consuming. Trust me, a heavy heart is more than an expression. You try to act strong, sound reassuring. You glom on to statistics, study the odds like a Vegas bookmaker. You say things like, “We can beat this thing. We’re going to be the twenty-five percent who makes it.”
At night, darker thoughts sneak past your mental defenses. You imagine your life after the inevitable. You think about all the holidays and birthdays that will come and go without your beloved. You cry and hate yourself because you’re not the one who is dying.
My name is John Bodine. I’m twenty-nine years old. I’m married to the love of my life. And no matter what it takes, or how far I have to go, I’m not going to let her die.
 
 
Eight weeks earlier . . .
 
I’m like a dog. Soon as I heard the sound of keys jangling in the front door lock, my heartbeat kicked into overdrive. I got all excited. Five years of marriage hadn’t dulled my pleasure. The sound of keys meant Ruby was home. I glanced at the electric stove, the only working clock within eyesight. Twenty minutes until midnight. Poor Ruby. Poor sweet, tired—no, make that utterly exhausted—Ruby. God, I was glad she was home.
I greeted Ruby in the cramped entranceway of our one-bedroom apartment with a mug of mint tea at the ready. Ruby’s strawberry blond hair, cut stylishly and kept shoulder length, glistened from a light nighttime rain. She shivered off the cold and inhaled the sweet mint smell emanating from the steaming mug.
“My hero to the rescue,” Ruby said.
Ruby cupped the mug in both hands and let the aroma warm her bones. She kissed me sweetly on the lips. Her eyes, the color of wan sapphires, flashed her desire for a more prolonged kiss with a lot less clothing. But her shoulders, sagging from the weight of her backpack stuffed with textbooks, told me otherwise. For an acupuncture and herbal medicine school that taught the healing arts, Ruby’s education took an extraordinary physical and mental toll.
“Hold this,” Ruby said. She handed me back the mug of tea, slung her backpack from off her shoulder, and then knelt down to unzip it on the floor. From within she pulled out a brown paper bag. The second I saw it, my eyes went wide.
“You went to Sinful Squares?” I asked, feeling my mouth already watering.
“That’s why I left so early this morning. I’m sure you forgot, but it’s your mom’s birthday on Thursday. I mailed her a dozen of her favorite brownies, and it just so happens that I knew they were your favorite, too. Don’t eat them all at once.”
She gave me a soft kiss on the lips.
“Ruby, Sinful Squares is way out of your way. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Well, I love you, and I love your mom. So, happy birthday to us all.”
We shared a brownie. Heaven.
“Want to watch TV?” Ruby asked.
“You know it.”
We didn’t have cable, way too expensive on our limited budget. We had cut back on most all expenses now that we had tuition to pay. But I like to please Ruby, so I rigged Hulu up to our thirty-inch television. Now she could watch her favorite shows anytime she wanted. Ruby didn’t have much time for TV, but after a late-night study session, it helped her clear the brain, decompress.
As I expected, Ruby wanted to watch her favorite HGTV show,
Designed to Sell.
She sank deeply into the soft sofa cushions, almost vanishing between them. I always watched with Ruby, even though I’m an ESPN sort of guy, and this episode, one we’d never seen, featured a three-million-dollar Beverly Hills mansion in desperate need of a makeover before going on the market. Ruby spread her long and beautifully toned legs across my lap.
“Wait,” I said, after watching a minute of the show. “The challenge is to redesign an enormous mansion with a few-thousand-dollar budget?”
“Yeah. Cool, isn’t it?” Ruby said. Her voice drifted off, as if she was already in a dream.
“Well, it seems a little bit odd,” I said. “I mean, they live in a mansion. You’d think they could spend a bit more, is all.”
“That’s not the point of the show. The point is to teach people how to do more with less.”
“So if our one-bedroom got featured, they’d redesign it for what? Fifty bucks?”
Ruby dug her toes between my ribs until I cried out in mock pain. Actually, it felt pretty darn good.
“The show doesn’t use a sliding scale, darling. And besides, our place doesn’t need to be redesigned. I like it just the way it is.”
“Small,” I said.
“I prefer to think of it as conducive to closeness.”
“Oh, in that case . . .”
I changed position and kissed Ruby, long and deep. Ruby responded in kind as best she could, but tonight her romantic mood had the life span of a mayfly.
“Baby, I want to,” Ruby said. Her voice sounded as sweet as the mint tea tasted on her lips.
“All right, then, let’s go,” I whispered between gentle kisses planted on her freckled cheeks.
“But I need you to quiz me.”
I sat up.
“Quiz you?” I said. “Ruby, it’s after midnight.”
Ruby surprised me by breaking into song. “And we’re gonna let it all hang out,” she sang.
The melody was to the tune of one of our favorite Eric Clapton covers. Ruby held up a finger for me to see. That was her way of marking the musical reference as being worth one point in our long-standing game. A point could be earned if either of us completed a song lyric, tune required, from something the other had said. We didn’t keep a running tally, because it was obvious Ruby possessed an insurmountable lead. Let’s just say if
Jeopardy
devoted an entire board to trivia about music and bands, she’d clear it without giving the other contestants a chance to buzz.
Ruby got off the sofa to grab her schoolbooks.
As I waited, I ran my hands through my hair, half expecting to feel the long locks I had chopped off after the Labuche Kang tragedy. A lot about my appearance had changed in the aftermath of that day. My face still looked young but had weathered, with newly formed creases and crevices, which Ruby thought made me ruggedly handsome. My eyes had grown deeper set, too, and like mountain river streams, changed color with the day or my mood. Sometimes they were clear like a well-marked path, but at other times they’d cloud over, and Ruby would ask, “What are you thinking?” Ruby was the only person who could see through my haze, burrow into me, to get beyond the surface layers I allowed others to see. After the shock, the therapy sessions, the black depression, it was Ruby who brought me back from the brink. She held the map to my soul.
Ruby returned with backpack in hand.
“You can’t really be serious about wanting me to quiz you,” I said. “How can your brain even function?”
“Remember when I said that I loved how small our place is?” Ruby asked.
“Yeah.”
“I lied.”
“Oh.”
“Well, not entirely. I do like being close to you.”
“We could be closer,” I said with a wink.
“Come on, baby. Just a quick quiz tonight.”
I pretended to have fallen asleep, and Ruby needled me again in the ribs, this time with her fingers.
“I’m up! I’m up!” I said, feigning alertness.
Ruby ruffled through her backpack, looking for her notes, but something else caught her eye. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she said. “I went to the computer lab and made you something today.”
“Moi?”
Ruby removed a single sheet of paper from a folder in her backpack. It was a logo for my online game,
One World.
I loved the overall design she made, but it was the
O
in the word
One
that literally took away my breath.
She had created three concentric circles. The outer circle she rendered to look like wood grain, the next circle was made to look like rock, another like water, and in the center was the earth. It was astoundingly beautiful. “Professional” didn’t do it justice.
“Ruby, I’m speechless. I love it.”
“I’m so glad. It took me a while, but I think it came out great. What’s today’s number?”
“One hundred twenty-three thousand registered players.”
Ruby broke into a smile. “Forget acupuncture. You’re taking us to Beverly Hills, baby!”
“Last I checked, mortgage companies aren’t accepting future potential as a down payment on a mansion. I really need closer to a million registered players before I can start touting my rags-to-riches story.”
“I believe in you, John. I know it’s going to happen.”
I made a “Who knows?” shrug.
With a hundred thousand registered players, I should be rolling in the dough. Only, I didn’t charge people to play. I’d basically built
FarmVille
meets
Minecraft.
It’s an eco-conscious game, which takes longer to build a loyal enough following to start charging a fee. Like a lot of game designers, I make my money selling virtual items that enhance the game play. After expenses, I cleared about fifty thousand dollars, most of which got reinvested back into the business. In addition to Ruby’s tuition, we have other expenses to pay as well. Rent. Food. Bills. Insurance. All the usual suspects. Hence, no cable.
“I’m glad you like the logo,” Ruby said.
“I don’t just like it. I love it. It goes live tomorrow.”
“Good. I’m going to get something to drink before we start. Want anything?”
“No,” I said.
I watched her go. Hard not to. I felt like yelling out that I was the luckiest man alive, only Ruby didn’t believe in luck.
A few years back, Ruby hung a vision board on our bedroom wall. The vision board was a three-foot-by-three-foot corkboard, covered with a purple silk cloth—for prosperity—and decorated with images and words that conveyed our shared desires. Ask and the universe will provide, at least that’s what Ruby believed. I believe in relying on yourself to solve your own problems. The mountain has a cold and angry way of reinforcing that kind of thinking.
Still, Ruby pleaded with me to ask the universe to make
One World
a smash success. I thought it was silly at first, but I relented—Ruby’s hard to refuse, especially when pleading—and so I tacked up the logo of a prominent gaming blog onto the vision board. A few weeks later, I got a five-star review. Did I think the universe had answered my wishes? No, not in the least. Coincidence? Sure. Now, that’s something I can believe in. I have a degree in computer science from Boston University, so logic is the ruler of my world. Trusting in the universe is a heartwarming idea, but I’m a bigger believer in hard work, determination, and a sprinkle of talent.
A game designer needs to understand computers the way a general contractor must know all facets of building a house, which is why it took a team of people to put my game together, but now I manage the code and servers on my own. Anyway, the bloggers seemed to like the idea behind the game. Players are tasked with building the coolest, biggest, most awesome virtual world possible without pillaging
One World
’s limited resources. Oh, and you’ve got to do all this while battling marauding hordes of zombies, who come out only at night.
There was a time, not that long ago, I couldn’t muster the energy to get out of bed. I just lay there, hearing Brooks’s screams as he fell to his death. Dark years. Ruby plastered the vision board with every image of health and happiness she could find. Three weeks later, Ruby found a flyer for a local acupuncturist in the mail and urged me to give it a try. The results were so astounding that Ruby decided to quit her job as the in-house graphic designer for a finance company to concentrate on becoming an acupuncturist herself. I encouraged her to do it. We could squeak by on one income for a while. It’s amazing how far a few judicious cuts can take you.
Ruby returned and got her study materials together, but I wasn’t done trying to woo her into bed. I started rubbing the soles of her feet.
“Hmmmm,” Ruby said. “That feels nice.”
I removed Ruby’s cotton socks and dug my thumbs gently against ten years of jogging calluses. Ruby cooed some more, and I kept on massaging. I thought about the number—one hundred twenty-three thousand registered players—and couldn’t help but imagine how a million would alter our lives. I wondered if Ruby and I would start a family sooner than our current post-school thinking.
Brooks Hall would never have children, and I might. “Where’s the fairness in that, dear universe?” I switched from the right foot to massage Ruby’s left. My thumb traveled from the toes and finished at the heel. But my fingers brushed against something strange. A sensation that felt surprising to touch. I ran my thumb over the offending area again, and still again.
“Hey, the rest of my foot is getting jealous,” Ruby said, shaking it.
I raised Ruby’s leg and shifted position to get a better look at the underside of her foot.
“What is it?” Ruby asked. A touch of alarm seeped into her voice.
I went to the kitchen and grabbed the penlight flashlight I used to build or repair my computers. When I returned, Ruby was sitting on the floor cross-legged, examining the bottom of her foot. I got down on my knees and took a closer look with the penlight. Ruby’s eyes were wide, dancing nervously. I knew she hated when I went silent on her.
“What’s going on?” Ruby asked again.
“Have you seen this dark patchy area before?” I asked her. “Do you have any idea how long it’s been there?”
“I’m not checking out the bottom of my foot every day, if that’s what you’re asking. John, you’re scaring me.”
“I don’t like how this looks,” I said.
BOOK: Stolen
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